"It has been quite a while since we have seen you," Louisa said with a small smile.
"Not since November," Jane replied, taking her tea.
"Well, it was all so...unexpected," I said. "One morning, we all just decided to return to London. After all, there is nothing quite like London during the Season...is there?"
"I would not...I suppose that is so." Jane apparently was not going to admit that she had had no Season in London.
"I hope you and...your family are doing well."
"They are quite well, I thank you." Jane seemed to relax with that question. Well, much as I hated to think it, I knew that it would not do. This would have to be her only visit to us, for we could not risk Charles finding out about her presence.
"And the militia? Are they still in Meryton to delight your little sisters?"
Jane blushed, feeling the full meaning of my statement. "I believe they are still there."
"And your cousin...Mr. Collier?"
"Right. There was a rumour circulating in Meryton that he was to be engaged to your sister, Elizabeth. Did that ever come about?" Louisa asked.
Personally, much as I disliked the girl, I gave Elizabeth Bennet more credit than to become engaged to such a simpleton. But I still hoped that she had been persuaded to marry her cousin.
"No, it did not. Mr. Collins married Charlotte Lucas."
"Really? How interesting." I made it sound like the most uninteresting thing in the world, but it was a peculiar thing. Even if it did make sense for a twenty-seven-year-old old maid.
"How is your family?" Jane asked quietly.
"Oh! Everyone is simply wonderful," I said. "As you can see, Louisa and myself are doing fine, having a wonderful time here in London. We all are...well, Mr. Hurst is put out due to the fact that he did not hunt as much as he would have liked, but he loves London as we do. We were going to be out with Georgiana Darcy later this morning, taking her shopping and showing her the best places to go in London. We are so happy with what might be happening soon."
"What would that be?"
"Well...you must keep this between us, Jane," Louisa said in a hushed tone. "After all, it would not do for all to know before it actually happens. But I believe that Charles is going to ask Georgiana to marry him tonight." Actually, no such thing was about to happen. Charles was still moping about Jane. But Jane did not have to know that.
I could tell how the news affected Jane. Even though I had written in my letter that he had interest in Georgiana, she had clearly not felt the full meaning until then. Her face went deathly pale, her eyes bleak. I felt terribly sorry for her, but as I knew, it could not be helped. Charles could not marry her. But at that moment, I knew that Jane had loved Charles...very much.
"I see. My...my congratulations to your family on their good fortune."
The visit steadily went into decline from there. Louisa and I babbled on for a while about nonsense, and Jane remained silent. Finally, she said that she had to get on, but she did leave an invitation to visit her at Gracechurch Street, which I intended to ignore. If I went, I would have to tell her that Charles had not proposed...yet. And I might get tricked into confessing the truth.
The morning of Jane's visit also marked the day of our grand ball. Although we had attended many parties over the course of our stay in London, we felt that everyone would be speaking of this one as the party of the Season, and that it would soon follow that I would be engaged to Mr. Darcy. For this purpose, I wore the beautiful orange dress that Mrs. Heathgow had made for me, wishing with regret that I could not dampen the dress in order to make it cling to my figure, as I have heard that some young ladies do in other countries and places. That would have been scandalous, and not worthy of Mr. Darcy. After all, he would not marry a fast young woman of dubious reputation. He had not asked the lovely Miss Eliza Bennet to marry him, after all. And he had persuaded my brother not to marry her sister.
The ballroom was turned into a beautiful sea of orange and red, from the specially-ordered curtains to the tablecloths to the outfits of the servants. Mr. Darcy had not minded us redecorating, and Charles had insisted that no expense be spared. And I believed myself to be a fairy princess...well, I was too tall for that. But a princess at least, as I made sure that everything was in readiness for this ball. I was dressed in the perfect gown, my beautiful dark brown hair in one of the most fashionable and elegant styles worn in London. I looked absolutely stunning, the mirror told me. It should be the perfect evening.
As servants scurried to and fro I noticed a tall figure carrying a glass of port. For a moment, from a distance, I thought it was Mr. Darcy and went to speak to him. As I got closer, however, it turned out to be Sir James.
"Hello, Miss Bingley," he said cheerfully. "Lovely thing you have created here. I almost thought I was in the inside of a pumpkin."
"That is not very polite," I snapped. "Orange is a lovely colour."
"That it is, when you wear it," he said, glancing at my gown. "I am just not as certain the rest of us can take it."
I could not help but bask in his compliment. "If you cannot take it, perhaps you should..."
"Ah, do not finish the thought, dear. It is not ladylike. Besides, I have a surprise for you."
"You do?" If it was something sickening, I was going to be very upset.
And I was right. "Yes. I have invited a friend of mine to join us this evening, and he shall be bringing his niece along. I did not think you would mind it too much to have an added guest or two, and I could not help but ask."
"Oh? Whom have you invited?"
"My friend Mr. Edward Gardiner, and his wife, and their niece...Miss Jane Bennet."
I went cold. Dear Lord, what has he done? Invited Jane to this party! How could he do such a thing?
"Yes. You said they were friends of yours. I happened to run into Mr. Gardiner in town the other day, and he mentioned that his niece was here. I could not resist inviting them to the ball."
I gripped his arm--most unladylike, but I was beyond caring--and pulled him away from the servants' hearing.
"How could you do that?" I hissed. "This is my ball, and as such I should be the only one inviting guests!"
"But it is being held in my honour, and as such I should be able to invite anyone I please."
I sputtered, "But...but...Jane Bennet broke my brother's heart!"
"She did?" Sir James was frowning.
"Yes, she did. He was in love with her, and she did not love him."
"I knew he was in love with her. He told me himself, but he said nothing about her not loving him."
"That is why we left Netherfield."
"Tell me about it, Miss Bingley."
I proceeded to tell a long, partially-true story about what had happened. I left out the fact that Jane had called just that morning and that I now knew she had loved Charles. When I finished, Sir James sighed.
"Caroline, one of these days, you are simply going to have to stop lying. You are no good at it. Now how about telling me the truth about why Charles left?"
"I just did."
"No, you did not. You may be able to look Louisa, your brother, even your precious 'Mr. Darcy' in the eye when you lie to them, but you have not looked at me once. You never have been able to when you tell me such nonsense."
"I feel that I should not have to dignify that with an answer."
"That is your option, of course. I shall never force a lady to reveal all her secrets. I just thought I should give you enough notice that Miss Bennet shall be here. I hope that your brother falls in love with her again. Lord knows he deserves to after everything you have probably done to keep him from her."
"If I had done so, I should feel as though I have done nothing wrong."
"And you undoubtedly do not since you have. I am certain I know of your objections to the lady...she is not nearly rich enough for your tastes."
"I do not consider wealth--"
"You are not looking at me again, Caroline."
"Stop calling me Caroline! I have not given you permission to do so, and it is quite rude of you to do so without it."
"I do apologize, my dear Miss Bingley."
"As I was saying before," I said, just managing to meet his gaze, "I do not consider wealth to--" There I went again! I looked away, drat the man.
Sir James was smiling when I looked at him again. "If I were as distant as my cousin is, you would probably have been after me rather than him. After all, I have had many a young lady drool over my estate in Somerset and the seven or eight thousand a year I have for a fortune. And let us not forget, any woman who married me would become Lady Hampton."
"For some women, there is that inducement, I suppose. But not for ladies who actually know you. And anyway, I would be willing to marry your cousin if he had nothing a year and no estate. He is just that sort of man."
"I am certain you should," he said, clearly disbelieving that. Sir James merely chuckled, then started to walk away. "Do what you please, Caro--Miss Bingley. But as I said, Miss Bennet is almost certain to arrive, and that should make this evening very interesting indeed."
I shivered with unreleased fury. Oh, the nerve of that man! Calling me Caroline and inviting people without my consent and calling me a liar! Oh! I could just strangle him!
It took several minutes for me to calm down, and by the time I did, the ballroom did not look nearly as nice as it had before. Nothing was going to go right this evening.
The guests arrived at the ball in a somewhat orderly fashion, and none of them were on time. Those who arrived first were positively mortified to discover how early they had appeared, while those who made their entrances later were pleased to be the center of attention...for a brief moment.
As the orchestra tuned their instruments, and I looked around at the ballroom, I smiled with a deep contentment as I searched for Mr. Darcy. I found him with Charles, the colonel, and Sir James. Colonel Fitzwilliam seemed to be telling an amusing story, for Charles and Sir James laughed often, and even Mr. Darcy was wont to smile at a few points in the tale. Yet I was not about to intrude, for not only was it not polite, but Sir James was sure to tease me about it later if I did. So I merely took a glass of punch from the table, took a ladylike sip, and looked around at the scene as the orchestra prepared to play a selection.
It does not look in the least like a pumpkin, I thought. Orange is a perfectly elegant colour if you find the right shade of it.
I was tempted to hide in some dark corner, for it was Sir James, apparently finished speaking with Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mr. Darcy.
"Yes, Sir James?"
"If you are not presently engaged, would you do me the honour of dancing the first with me? After all you have done to insure that this evening should be a success for my benefit, I feel it only proper to ask."
Lord! The last thing I want to do is dance with you! Surely you know that! I had been hoping that Mr. Darcy would ask me to dance the first with him, but he was still talking to the colonel.
"I--well, it is a great honour you bestow on me, Sir James, and I thank you, yes. I only hope you find that you have not disappointed yourself in your choice of a partner."
He laughed. "False modesty does not become you any more than lying, Caroline. I have seen you dance on a number of occasions, enough to know that you can at least dance without bumping into people or making too many mistakes."
"I beg your pardon. I happen to be a fine dancer, indeed. Why, Miss Haskell always said that I--" I saw the gleam in his dark eyes. It made me want to stamp my foot, but ladies did not do that. Especially not in front of the guest of honour.
There were times...not many, mind you...that I wished I was not a lady. Oh, for five seconds to tell Sir James what I really thought of him!
"There. Now you are determined to prove to me that you are a wonderful partner, of which I have no doubt, and we shall make quite a pair." He led me towards the dance floor, where several other couples waited for the orchestra to begin playing. I was pleased to see that Charles had chosen a pretty partner, not that she came close to comparing to Jane.
And so the dance began.
"Are we going to speak to each other, Miss Bingley?" Sir James asked.
Oh, do we have to? "I'm concentrating," I said under my breath, hoping the couple nearby could not hear me say that.
"Surely you know these steps well enough to be able to carry on a conversation at the same time. Or is that not something you do well? Well, then, pray forgive me--"
"I can speak and dance at the same time," I snapped, then wished I had never spoken.
"I am glad to hear of it. Tell me, Miss Bingley, about my cousin's time in Hertfordshire. He speaks of it very little. In fact, except what I had from you about his interest in the second Bennet sister--" and here he had to grin, the beast-- "I know nothing of much importance."
"If Mr. Darcy had thought anything in Hertfordshire important, I am certain he would have told you," I said. "And I believe, sir, that that would include Miss Bennet."
"Not necessarily. Where Darcy's feelings are concerned, I often know very little except what I can see. Since I have not seen him with this Miss Bennet, then I cannot tell you what I think of his feelings for her."
"What do you think yourself now?" I could not help but ask. "A gypsy who can predict the future? You can see what a person thinks and feels by looking upon them?"
"You would be surprised, Miss Bingley, at how much one can tell from a person from their face. It is all in the knowing what to look for. For instance, if one were to look at...you, for instance--"
"Of course we are back to me, and how from looking at me you can tell that I am in...terested in your cousin."
"You are fairly obvious. Your eyes follow him from one part of the room to another, and you always have this half-smile that reminds me of a painting I once saw...except you are lovelier than the subject of the portrait. And the look in your eyes is that of a hunter, a look I have seen often in male company when we are...out hunting game. Only you are hunting--"
"Must you say such a vulgar thing?"
"You are right. I was trying to make a point, and perhaps I have gone a little far. Yet I cannot help the look in your eyes." He sighed. "When you are upset, your eyes darken and your cheeks sometimes flush, as they are right now."
"My cheeks are not--" Yet I could tell that blood had rushed to them and I knew he was right.
"I can tell when you are lying to other people because you have a tendency to blink your eyes quite a bit...and of course, you never look at me when you lie." He smiled. "When you are content, you take on a very healthy glow. It makes you almost..." Sir James did not finish. "But when you are displeased, your mouth twists in a most unpleasing manner."
"Are you quite finished talking about me?"
"I believe I have covered the gamut of emotions you experience, Caroline. And I thought you enjoyed hearing about yourself."
"Not from you, I assure you. And I have told you before not to call me Caroline."
"Oh...right. Sorry, but that must have slipped my mind."
With a mind as slippery as yours, I do not find that hard to believe. "How would you feel if I just called you James?"
"I would think that I meant something more to you than merely being Mr. Darcy's cousin."
Before I could reply to that, the dance ended. I made my curtsey and allowed Sir James to escort me back to the side of the room.
"Thank you, Miss Bingley," he said quietly. "You made a splendid partner indeed."
I watched him walk away, thinking, good riddance. And do not bother me again.
As I went to get another glass of punch, dearly wishing that it had more alcohol in it than it did, I saw someone that I did not recognize. But a moment later, I saw two young women that I did.
If the thought of Jane Bennet arriving at this ball were not awful enough, standing beside her was her sister, the bane of my existence, the one thing standing between me and the shades of Pemberley...
A moment later, I saw Sir James walking toward them, a pleased smile on his face. I knew I had no time to spare as I rushed over to Mr. Darcy.
"Mr. Darcy," I said in a hushed voice, "Jane Bennet is here."
His eyes, which had been disinterested for a brief while, immediately began searching for her. But I did not want him doing that, either, for he might see Eliza Bennet with her.
"You must get Charles into the safety of a game room," I said. "He must stay there until she is gone." And her sister gone with her.
"Mr. Darcy...I know that you may think me horrid for saying this, but if he sees Jane Bennet again, he may fall in love with her. He has come so far in the time we have had him in London, and seeing her..."
"She was here today, was she not?"
I was startled. "How did you--"
"I saw her leaving. You did not invite her?"
"Of course I did not. Your cousin, Sir James, invited her uncle. He knows of the affair in Hertfordshire, and was hoping..." I nearly finished by saying that he wanted to ruin a plan of mine, not knowing that it was his cousin's doing as well. But I did not.
"Very well, then. We shall adjourn to the game room."
Mr. Darcy found Charles in a group of friends. Normally, to pull Charles away from the joys of dancing would have been impossible. Yet Mr. Darcy found it remarkably easy to convince Charles to leave, for he followed him after a brief moment.
Sir James came up to me. "Is this not a fine thing, Miss Bingley? Where the devil has my cousin gone? I have just been introduced to the eldest two Miss Bennets, and I must say that they are remarkably lovely. You are wrong in your estimation of the second sister. She may not have her sister's beauty, but she has an independence of mind that would make her a favourite of anyone's--including my cousin. Speaking of Darcy, have you seen him? Mr. Gardiner said they could only stay for a little while, for a friend of his wife's is having a ball in honour of a birthday."
"I have no idea where they have gone," I said.
"Sir James, how many times do I--"
"Now, now. Do not ruffle your feathers. I merely meant to call attention to your lying."
"I shall have to work on that."
Sir James chuckled, then turned serious again. "Where did they go?"
"If you think I am going to tell you, you are mistaken."
"Does your brother's happiness mean so little to you? He would surely love to see a friend from Hertfordshire again."
"I measure his happiness against the future, and I believe that his future would bring him much unhappiness if he were to marry her. I like her, and she is a sweet girl--"
"Yes, of course you do. All young ladies are sweet girls, and it is most unfortunate that they do not have more breeding, otherwise they would be perfectly amiable young women. I shall search for my cousin myself."
I knew it would not take him long to find Mr. Darcy and Charles, but I was hoping that the crush of people would make it impossible for him to find the Gardiners and the Bennet sisters again. I was certainly trying to avoid speaking to them, although I did notice that Eliza Bennet caught a glimpse of me. I hurried out of her line of vision and joined a group of friends from Somerset, where I remained hidden until I saw her and her party leave an half an hour later.
Sir James came up to me then, not physically dragging me away but compelling me to or else be publicly exposed. "I found them, then lost the others," he said. "Why did you invite so many people?"
"Because you have a great number of friends," I replied. "I seem to recall that you had a great number of people on your guest list when I asked you about it."
"I had a number of people who could have been told I was back. I did not mean for you to invite them all to the ball."
"If that is your idea of a joke, I do not find it funny."
"I did not mean for it to be. Most of these people do not like me, anyway, merely my position and wealth."
I cannot imagine why they do not like you, I thought, but did not say it.
"You can say it, Miss Bingley. I shall not take offense."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You wanted to say that you knew exactly why people did not like me. I am too honest for polite society, and I do not care. So you can say it. I do not mind."
"It is not polite, Sir James. And it is not for me to speculate."
"Of course it is. You speculate about everything else, do you not?"
"I most certainly do--oh, what is the use? You shall contradict me no matter what I say."
"That is quite likely." He smiled. "If you would excuse me, Miss Bingley."
As he walked away, I could not help thinking, At least he remembered to call me by my proper name.
The rest of the evening was quite pleasing. Mr. Darcy danced with me not once, but twice, and at one point, I do believe he was on the verge of saying something momentous, but then he lost his nerve. I would have to remedy that, if he were ever to propose to me.
Sir James claimed another dance for himself, although the conversation during our second dance tended more toward more mundane topics, and not personal ones. Charles danced only a few more dances, causing several young women to nearly weep in agony. One friend asked me if he had taken ill, to which I replied, "I am not certain that he has not."
As the evening ended, and I bid guests good evening, I could not help overhearing the comment of one young lady to her mother.
"This place reminds me of being trapped inside of a pumpkin," she said. "All of this orange!"
"Well, dear, Caroline Bingley was allowed to decorate. Just because the colour becomes her, she believes everyone should have to love it as well."
I frowned, not recognizing the voice but certain that I would one day come upon this young lady, and her mother. And she would be certain to be hearing from me.
Just as I thought things were going exactly as I wanted them, something occurred that twisted everything. Mr. Darcy had seemed to be paying me more attention than usual, and in spite of the arguments I had been having with Sir James, it had been the happiest time of my life.
But then Colonel Fitzwilliam spirited Mr. Darcy away...to Rosings, and his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. The morning that they left, I spent a good part of the time in my room, venting frustration and disappointment by throwing things. Yet to the people below, I appeared to be calm and collected.
Except, of course, to Sir James.
"Should I have my cousin charge you for the cost of the mirror I heard breaking?" he asked softly, catching me breaking my fast alone.
"Your ears must have been deceiving you, sir, for I heard nothing of the sort," I replied.
"Come, come, you can tell me the truth. What did you hurl at it? One of Darcy's expensive vases? A flask of perfume? Or a pillow?"
"If I had thrown a pillow--and I am not saying I threw anything--it would not have broken the mirror."
"And I suppose you are saying that the mirror is not broken."
"Then why did I see your maid discreetly take a dustpan full of broken shards down the stairs not ten minutes ago?"
I refused to show him my vexation, but I did say, "Why are you not preparing to join them, Sir James?"
"Because I have no reason to do so. After all, Lady Catherine is not my aunt. She is Darcy and Fitzwilliam's, and thus she would have no interest in me."
"I would think that she would have a great interest in a man of your...stature."
"On the contrary. The last time I saw Lady Catherine, she was seriously displeased with me."
"I dare not ask why."
"You can probably guess."
"You insulted her," I said.
"I did not consider it an insult, but I suppose she did. I merely suggested that perhaps Darcy would be better off with a young wife of spirit, and she flew into a fury. She insisted that her Anne had great spirit, and was a wonderful young lady. Plus, I did not show enough respect toward her position."
"Well, be honest. You do not like the old virago, either. I know you do not. After all, she is the one who told you that Darcy was to marry--"
"Not that he ever shall, as we both agree."
"Yes. But you think that because you believe he shall marry you. I know that because I know him."
"Please, Sir James. At the risk of not showing proper deference to your position, you are beginning to sound like a parrot who can only repeat the same thing over and over again."
"At the risk of insulting yet another lady--"
"You have never hesitated before."
"You are the same way."
"Since you are not going to Rosings, may I ask where you intend to go?"
"I had not thought much on the matter. I suppose I shall return home to Somerset. Mother has been looking forward to seeing me for some time now, and I believe I have a great deal to tell her."
Good. I may not have Mr. Darcy in the same vicinity, but at least I shall not have you.
"And you, Miss Bingley? What shall you and your family do once Darcy leaves?"
"I believe Charles has found a new place for us to stay. He has promised that I shall be his hostess, as I was in Hertfordshire."
"I sense another opportunity for you to besiege a house in oranges and reds."
"It is Charles' house, and he shall do as he pleases. It shall not be for me to decide."
"Your brother shall not care a jot, for he is missing Miss Bennet too much. You really should feel a little guilt about your role in keeping him apart from the woman he loves."
"There you go again, sounding like that parrot."
"Caroline...I leave later this afternoon. I know that you do not like me, but I was hoping that we could part amicably."
"I do not recall ever saying that I have feelings for you one way or another."
"So you have no opinion of me at all."
"I did not say that."
"Could we at least part on good terms with each other? You never know when you might need a friend, Caroline. And if you need me, I would be..."
"If I did not know you better, Sir James, I would think you cared about me."
"I do...as a friend. I feel sorry for you most of the time. You are so oblivious to the truth, yet so determined to get what you want."
"I have no use for or want of your pity," I said, becoming upset.
"You have it regardless. One day, and I am hoping it is soon, you shall realize that you are wrong for my cousin. He is a man of deep passions and feelings, even if he refuses to admit them to himself on occasion. He needs a wife who would be a companion to him in every way, and I do not believe you can be that."
"You do not think me capable of deep passions and feelings?" I was outraged. "What would you know of my feelings or passions?"
"I think you capable of a great deal, but not with Darcy. You are too dissimilar."
What would you know? "If you were the sort who concerned himself with matrimony in general, I would take your advice seriously. As it is, I believe you are simply jealous of Mr. Darcy."
"Jealous? Of Darcy?" Sir James laughed for a long minute before he was finally able to stop. "No, no. I have not been jealous of him for a long time, if I ever really was. Well, he was smarter than I was at the university, but that was the only time I can recall that I was envious of him. That is merely something you can delude yourself with, Miss Bingley, if you so choose. I am speaking as someone who knows him well, and knows your motives even more."
"When it comes to me, sir, I believe you would do better to keep your opinions to yourself."
"I suppose this means we are not to part amicably, and that is a shame. Until we see each other again, Caroline, you have my deep wishes for your future happiness and good health. And of course, my deepest wish is that you realize that you--"
"Good bye, Sir James," I said, before he finished that thought.
He walked out of the room, and I sighed. So they were all to be gone, while we remained behind.
It was going to be quite lonely.
And lonely it was. Charles was still moping over Jane. Georgiana had been spirited away to Pemberley, but not before she made us promise that we would come and visit her. Mr. Darcy had said that we could visit during the summer. Louisa and Mr. Hurst and I were essentially alone, if such a thing is possible in London. Oh, Louisa and I still went shopping, and we enjoyed ourselves, but it was not the same. There was no real purpose for the shopping. Of course, I still bought a good many things, but Mr. Darcy was not around to appreciate them, and thus there was not as much joy in it.
One day, Louisa stunned me by saying, "Caroline, do you suppose that we have been foolish in trying to gain Mr. Darcy's interest?"
"Foolish? Louisa, how can you say such a thing?"
"Well...he has not proposed in all the months we have been together. He showed little unhappiness at the thought of leaving you as he went to Rosings. He had a deep interest in another young woman--"
"None of that matters! He has shown interest in me, and that is important."
"Sir James showed more interest in you than Mr. Darcy ever did."
"What does Sir James have to do with any of this?" I asked.
"Nothing. I just wondered, since I saw you two talking together often, that perhaps he..."
"Oh, Lord, no! He was being his usual nuisance. There was nothing in his manner to indicate that he might have an interest in me. Besides, he took every opportunity to..." My voice faded as I thought of some of our conversations.
"When you are content, your face takes on a very healthy glow...you look almost..."
I thought on that for a moment. Were you going to say beautiful, Sir James?
I recalled saying, "How would you feel if I just called you James?"
"I would think I meant something more to you than just as Mr. Darcy's cousin."
And then the morning he had left..."If I did not know you better...I would think you cared about me."
"I do...as a friend."
As a friend? Was that all I was to you, Sir James? Or were you trying to tell me something more? Did I want you to tell me? Do I want you to now?
"You are thinking about him, are you not?"
"I was merely trying to recall which insult I hated the most," I said.
"I had sort of hoped...that perhaps you and Sir James..."
"Louisa Hurst, I should never speak to you again. How can you think that I could ever prefer Sir James to Mr. Darcy? Why, it would be like...like Mr. Darcy preferring Eliza Bennet to myself! Utterly ridiculous!"
"Yes, it is."
"Think of it, Caroline. You would have almost as much money, as beautiful an estate as Pemberley, and something even better--a title. You would be Lady Hampton!"
"I would also have Sir James as a husband. That would be enough to drive away even the most desperate, and I do not consider myself anywhere near desperate." I jabbed my needle through the silk. "I cannot begin to think where you might have gotten such an idea."
"Then we shall discuss it no more, sister."
"Thank you." I sighed. "What do you suppose they are doing at Rosings now?"
"Probably having tea and being utterly bored by Lady Catherine. Be grateful that we did not have to go."
"I am grateful for that...I am also grateful for one other thing."
"And what is that?" Louisa asked absently.
"The ball was a bit frightening for me, having Jane and Eliza Bennet in the same place with Charles and Mr. Darcy. I am grateful that Elizabeth Bennet is far away from Mr. Darcy, and thus he probably does not think much about her at all."
Louisa smiled. "Oh, Caroline. You worry over the silliest things sometimes."
Mr. Darcy did not return for several weeks, and when he did, he was without Colonel Fitzwilliam, who had to rejoin his regiment. I suppose, to some people, he might have seemed about the same as he had always been.
But something had changed within him, and I knew not what it was. Unlike before, he did not spend much time with the rest of us, excepting Charles. He rarely joined us for any activities, excepting the theatre, which he so enjoyed. And there was something, I sensed, that bothered him greatly. Something that had happened at Rosings.
It must be Lady Catherine. She must have told him that she is making plans for his wedding to Anne, and he must have finally told her that he is not marrying her daughter. Perhaps he feels guilty about ending his aunt and cousin's hopes! Perhaps he is debating whether or not he should propose to me...
We stayed in London but a few short weeks after he returned. Georgiana's birthday was coming up, and Mr. Darcy so dearly wished to celebrate her birthday at Pemberley. I had heard from a maid who was close to his valet that he had finally found a pianoforte which suited his tastes for his sister, and was to have it sent to Pemberley as soon as possible.
Finding myself alone in the breakfast room with him one morning, I asked in an ever-so-innocent fashion, "Mr. Darcy, how was your trip to Rosings?"
He was drinking coffee and looking out the window at the street--at what, I knew not. It took him a moment before he turned to answer my question. "It went rather well, thank you."
"How was your aunt, Lady Catherine? Was she as...helpful as always?" My smile did not dim at all. I was determined to put my best face on this situation, if what I suspect happened had indeed occurred.
"She was in good humour when I left...if disappointed that I had to leave."
"Yet she must understand that Pemberley is as important as Rosings to maintain."
"Yes, and so she does."
"And...how was her daughter?"
Mr. Darcy sipped at the hot brew before answering. "About as she always is. May I ask what your interest is in my relations?"
Can you not guess? "Just a healthy interest, I suppose, in people whom I know you have not seen in a good long while."
He did not say anything, but turned to look out the window again.
"I had heard that Mr. Collins had married."
"Yes, he married Charlotte Lucas."
"How were they?"
"As I do not know them well, I do not feel qualified to answer the question."
There were times when Mr. Darcy completely frustrated me. He was a silent fellow, with little to say a good deal of the time. Unlike that cousin of his, who talked so much and of such untimely and sometimes humiliating things!
"Was...was anyone else there?" I asked, desperate to keep the conversation from dying off completely.
"Sir William, with his daughter Maria..."
He was hesitating for some reason. I could not make it out at all, this sudden silence. He set his cup on the table, made his quick excuses, and left.
How utterly confusing. Why did he leave like that?
I had just finished breakfast when Louisa came in, her eyes flushed and oddly sympathetic.
"Caroline...you shall never believe what happened while Mr. Darcy was away!" she gasped.
"What was so important that you had to rush to tell me?" I asked.
"I did not rush...I merely hurried. And do not fear, it was not seen by anyone." Taking a deep breath, she dealt the blow. "Elizabeth Bennet was at Hunsford while Mr. Darcy was at Rosings."
"Hunsford? Where is..." I felt the blood drain away from my face, for I remembered that Mr. Collins lived there, and so did Charlotte... "Oh, God. He saw her there."
"Yes. And that is not the worst of it. Caroline, a servant who returned with him from there said that he wrote her a letter--he saw the name on the paper himself. Mr. Darcy gave it to her."
Tears welled up in my eyes, but I refused to let them fall. "No. This cannot have happened. If he is giving her letters then they must be--"
"But he said there was only one letter, and Mr. Darcy did not seem especially pleased when he left with it or when he returned without it. Perhaps it was an offer of marriage, which she refused." Louisa sighed. "Foolish girl! Why would she do such a thing? Still, if Eliza Bennet is refusing him--"
"He should not even be considering her at all, much less proposing marriage! How could this have happened? When he left, I had thought perhaps he would compare me to his cousin...now I hear that the whole time, he had Eliza Bennet and her fine eyes to see. And it is all over! Hope is all over!"
"Caroline! Control yourself. The servants might hear."
"You are right..." I stood up and walked calmly, but shakily, out of the room. Right to my bedroom, with Louisa fast on my heels.
She shut the door and spoke before I could. "Now you listen to me, Caroline. No matter how bad things seem right now, it is not over. Mr. Darcy has almost certainly been rejected by Elizabeth, and now he must find someone else."
But I did not want to be someone's second choice. It was appalling, degrading, and...desperate. And Mr. Darcy, by apparently proposing to someone else, was going to end up making me his second choice.
"And we do not know if it was actually a proposal or not."
"Of course it was! Why else would he have given her a letter? And delivered it to her personally? He has never written me a letter."
Louisa had nothing to say to refute that, and we fell silent.
"Desperate times call for desperate measures, Caroline," she said quietly. "We must seize upon this opportunity we have, by going to Pemberley. We must show Mr. Darcy that you are the perfect complement to his home in every way. Not for a moment can he forget that to marry someone like Eliza Bennet would be to...well, to darken the shades of Pemberley forever! Think of the ruin Pemberley would become with her as the mistress...her mother, and sisters, and even that father--thank heavens our father was never such a man to humiliate his own children in public."
"But every time we have emphasized how right I am for him, he seems to draw away. And now...I have...I am ready to give up."
"Listen to what you are saying, you silly girl. You cannot give up just as you are on the edge of gaining everything you want. It only takes the right setting, the right time...who knows? Anything can happen. And if we absolutely must, we can resort to the lowest ways of..." Louisa deliberately did not finish.
I had to repeat her own words to her. "Listen to what you are saying. Are you actually suggesting that I compromise myself?"
"No! I would never have you go that far, my dear. It is only the situation which would have to be a little...compromising. That is all that would be required, and Mr. Darcy is such a man that he would marry you to satisfy his own honour, and yours."
"It seems such a hideous way to go about getting a man to marry you. One that I do not think I could even consider doing, Louisa. What would people say? How could a marriage based on such an empty premise be happy?"
"Do you want to be happy in marriage?"
"Of course I do!"
"And you truly believe that having Mr. Darcy as your husband can make you happy?"
"Yes. And I can make him happy as well."
"Then you may just have to use that final plan to get him. It is underhanded, yes. But the ends justify the means."
I sighed. "I just do not think I could do it."
"Think about it. You may find, if the time must come, that you are more willing to do it than you think."
"But we have criticized so many women for doing such things..."
"And secretly admired their cunning when they have been smart enough to trap a truly rich, handsome man--like Mr. Darcy."
"I shall only consider it...as an absolute last resort. And mind you, I shall only consider it."
In the back of my mind, however, I could not help but think about it a great deal, and wonder at the merit of it. And I could not also help but hear a voice echoing in my ear...the voice of Sir James...
You could never be happy with him, Caroline...
And that voice made me so mad that I was determined to prove him--and it--wrong.
We had been touring the countryside for several days when Mr. Darcy was called away on urgent business he had to attend to at Pemberley. Making his humblest apologies, he left ahead of us to take care of things.
"I think he may have made that up," Louisa said with a smile when he was gone. "I believe he is making sure everything is going smoothly for your sake, Caroline."
"If anyone's sake, then Georgiana's," I replied. "It is her birthday, after all."
"Think positively, dear. Perhaps it is for the both of you."
Despite all of Louisa's encouragement, I still felt as though my hopes were all for naught, except that Mr. Darcy had made no announcement of any kind regarding Eliza Bennet. Outwardly, I still maintained a cool sort of confidence and charm that I believed could finally win Mr. Darcy, but as each day passed and he became more and more distant to me, my hopes continued to fade. And there were days when I questioned if he was truly worth it, if maybe I should be concentrating on finding someone else to marry. But who else was there? I had been in love with Mr. Darcy for so long that marrying anyone else would be a letdown. There was no settling for anyone. Still, I wondered.
I had not counted on Pemberley's restoring my strength, however. My enthusiasm for marrying Mr. Darcy regained a good deal of its former strength as we made the first turn onto Pemberley land, barely able to see the housetop. As we made our way steadily closer, we could see the gigantic park and, in the distance, I knew, was the pond. (Oh, some of the dreams I had had about Mr. Darcy and that pond! But those dreams were quite unladylike, and even thinking about them makes me blush with shame.)
The estate was kept with such care and attention to detail that I could not help but think of the master, and how he had carefully cultivated such a wonderful home. How he maintained it, and nurtured...
"It makes me breathless every time I see it," I said quietly to Louisa. I was not concerned about being overheard, for Charles had rode ahead and Mr. Hurst was sleeping in the carriage, half-drunk even at midday. It was quite appalling, for he would occasionally let out a snore which would cause me to groan.
"I am glad to hear you say that." She smiled. "You were never one for touring fine houses or mountains, lakes, and the like. I cannot blame you, for they are such dull things most of the time. But Pemberley..."
"Pemberley is a special place. I would be very happy to spend the rest of my life here."
Louisa laughed. "Oh, you would not. You would eventually drive yourself mad. You would simply have to come to London for the Season."
"I meant that figuratively, not literally, Louisa. Honestly! Derbyshire may be the best county to have an estate in, but that does not mean I would want to spend all my time here and here alone."
The carriage pulled to a stop, and servants immediately bounded up to greet us. Charles and Mr. Darcy were standing at the top of the steps, Charles with a decidedly pleased look on his face. That puzzled me. After all, he had not been truly happy since we had left Netherfield, and here he was, cheerful. Also somewhat confusing was Mr. Darcy's expression. Although he did not seem to be any more pleased than usual to see us, there was a gleam in his eyes that made me suspect something was going on.
"I hope your journey was not too unpleasant," Mr. Darcy said.
"It was fine, thank you," I said. "And may I say, Mr. Darcy, that every time I visit Pemberley, it grows even more beautiful than it was on my previous visit."
He seemed slightly uncomfortable. "Thank you."
Louisa and I entered the house, exclaiming over everything until there was nothing more to discuss. Although to be perfectly honest, there was quite a bit to look over. Pemberley had several rooms that I knew would simply have to be changed if...when I married Mr. Darcy. I was thinking that the ballroom was in need of a little updating when Charles caught my attention.
"You shall never guess who is here, Caroline!" His smile widened.
Probably not. "Do not keep me in suspense, Charles, please. You know how I hate it."
"Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and her aunt and uncle."
The world seemed to spin for a long minute. What is she doing here? "They are here?" I asked, dismayed to hear my voice finish the question with a high-pitched squeak.
"They are staying in Lambton. Darcy and Georgiana extended an invitation to them to come for tea this afternoon."
Good Lord! How is any of this to be borne? How can I compete now? I looked at Louisa...my only support, my only confidante, the only person who could get me through this situation.
"Well!" she said. "We are quite exhausted from the trip, and since you have invited guests for this afternoon, perhaps it would be wise of Caroline and I to have some rest before they join us."
"Of course," Mr. Darcy replied. "We would not wish to make you uncomfortable." He motioned for two maids to show us to our rooms, and we walked away from the group. I barely managed to make it up the stairs before tears fell down my cheeks. Louisa dragged me into her room before the maid could show me to mine and slammed the door.
"I hate her," I whispered. I wanted to scream, but even in my darkest hour, I knew that someone would hear me, and then what would happen? "Why is God doing this to me, Louisa? What have I done? All I have tried to do is to get one man to marry me, and I think he would like to. But every time I turn around, there she is, stealing him away from me, making him think of marrying her, and I shall have no one...no one will ever want me."
"We have to do it tonight," she said. "Tonight, Caroline. If we put it off any longer, he might be proposing to her in person."
"I...I cannot do it tonight," I said. "I need more time to think about it. This is such a major step, Louisa, one that I cannot go back and change once it is done. I must...I..."
"Think about it. If tonight is not good enough for you, then tomorrow at the latest."
I sighed. I could not believe I was seriously considering my sister's outrageous plan to seduce Mr. Darcy into marriage...well, not seducing, exactly. Compromising was more the term. I did not like the idea of seducing anyone. Seducing was what...ladies of the evening did, or at least, I thought that's what they did. And ladies never seduced gentleman, anyway. Not if they wished to remain ladies. But there was really beginning to be no other way.
"Jane is not with Elizabeth, is she?" I asked softly.
"No, she is not. Otherwise, Charles would have mentioned her even faster than he did Elizabeth. Sad as it might seem, it appears that Charles is eventually going to go back to Netherfield and marry Jane."
"I could accept that...if I can marry Mr. Darcy."
"And I keep telling you that my plan is the only one that is guaranteed to work."
"But it is so cold, Louisa."
"Well," she sniffed, "think it over again. Tomorrow, as I said, is really the latest that we should do it. Any more time and he may put the whole thing out of our reach forever."
"Now...you do need some rest, Caroline. After all, Elizabeth Bennet is coming to visit, and you should look your best for Mr. Darcy. She is undoubtedly sure to look her best."
But rest eluded me, and I thought of everything that could go wrong with Louisa's plan to make me Mr. Darcy's wife...and what could finally go right for me.
This visit could very well determine my fate.
They were very prompt, Miss Eliza and her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner. They arrived at the time they had agreed upon, and were greeted very warmly by Georgiana and Charles. Mr. Darcy did not say much on their arrival, but there was something in his eyes when he saw Georgiana and Elizabeth together that made me panic. It was something that I refused to think about as I tried to take charge of the situation. Yet even then, Mr. Darcy calmly announced that we would take a look at Georgiana's new pianoforte, and so led the party where he wanted them to go.
The admiration of the pianoforte led to Georgiana entreating Elizabeth to play a selection. Louisa, Charles, Mr. Darcy and I sat down to hear her play. No one spoke as she began to play, and sing. She had a nice voice, I must admit, but it was thin and reedy at times, and she did not handle the high notes well. Her playing, too, was nice--and nothing more. Nothing that could be considered talented or accomplished. I was certain that Mr. Darcy was noticing how she managed to mangle the piece in places. But when I occasionally looked at him--not often enough to make it appear like I was observing him, but still able to notice his reaction--he seemed...pleased. As though she were playing perfectly.
No. Can you not see, Mr. Darcy? She is doing horribly! And this is one of your favourite pieces of music! Or do you not recall that you said that to me once, when you requested that I play it. Perhaps you are recalling my performance...but no. That look in your eyes is not of remembrance.
The song ended, and I was forced to applaud the young woman. She spoke with Georgiana for a few moments, admitting to her own mistakes. Foolish girl! Did she not know that drawing attention to your lack of ability did not tend to make gentlemen think better of you? I did not listen to any more of the conversation.
"And now, you. Yes, you must!" Elizabeth smiled as she encouraged Georgiana to play.
"In front of all these people?" Georgiana was clearly hesitant, and yet Elizabeth insisted that she play.
What lack of manners, forcing someone to do something that would cause them pain.
Yet Georgiana played, showing clearly that she had inherited her mother's talent at the instrument. Elizabeth wandered away from the pianoforte for some reason, and I could not help but once again try to discredit her in Mr. Darcy's eyes. It had been quite a while since I had had the opportunity to do so.
"Pray, Miss Eliza, is the militia still camped in Meryton?"
"They have moved on to Brighton," she replied, her cheeks flushing slightly.
Good. You should be embarrassed, being in the home of a man who despises your favourite. "They must be a great loss to your family. Especially to your little sisters."
"I cannot imagine your meaning," Elizabeth said, being evasive.
So that is the way you intend to play this, eh? Pretend that you never liked Wickham? Or anyone in your family? You are not about to get away with it, Miss Eliza. "I was under the impression that certain young ladies found the society of Mr. Wickham quite pleasurable."
What happened next seemed to come from nowhere. At the pianoforte, for some reason, Georgiana seemed to hit the wrong chord, and the piece suddenly fell flat. I turned to look at her, and there was a startled, pained expression on her face. Elizabeth immediately said, "I'm so sorry. I'm neglecting you. How can you play with no one to turn the pages?" She hurried back to the pianoforte and flipped a page for Georgiana.
But it was when I looked at Mr. Darcy that I received the greatest shock. He was half out of his seat, as though he had been about to rise and do something...but what? What had I said that had made him startle so? And why was he glaring at me as though I had the plague now?
I realised that somehow, I had made a gross error, and that it was something that I would not be able to take back...and it concerned Georgiana and Wickham, apparently. But what? How could they be connected? Georgiana had probably not seen Wickham since she was thirteen or fourteen.
As I settled into my chair, I saw Mr. Darcy and Eliza Bennet exchange a look that stunned me even more than the reaction to my comment about Wickham. There was a look on his face that I had never seen before in all the years I had known him...content. Happy...in love.
He loved her.
I had never considered myself to be a truly insightful person, but I knew with absolute certainty that he was in love with her. Oddly enough, I was not as resigned as I probably should have been. After all, a great many men loved women...but not all of them married the women they loved.
Eventually, they left. It was the happiest moment of my life, I must confess. As soon as they were gone, I had to speak my mind about Eliza Bennet when Mr. Darcy reentered the room with Georgiana.
"How very ill Eliza Bennet looks, Mr. Darcy," I exclaimed. "I never in my life saw any one so much altered as she is since the winter. She is grown so brown and coarse! Louisa and I were agreeing that we should not have known her again."
"I think--" Charles began, but I refused to let him say anything. He would detract from my thoughts.
"For my own part, I must confess that I never could see any beauty in her. Her face is too thin, her complexion has not brilliancy; and her features are not at all handsome. Her nose wants character--there is nothing marked in its lines. Her teeth are tolerable, but not out of the common way; and as for her eyes," I added, for I could not bear to pass up an opportunity to mention those plain features which seemed to fascinate him, "which I have heard called fine, I could never perceive anything extraordinary about them."
Again, Charles tried to say something, but I could not stop. I had to say what I wanted to say in front of Mr. Darcy or I would never get another chance.
"And in her air altogether there is a self-sufficiency without fashion, which is intolerable." And then I recalled a comment Mr. Darcy had made after that ball when we had met her. "I remember, when we first knew her in Hertfordshire, how amazed we all were to find that she was a reputed beauty." I looked directly at him, to get his attention. "I particularly recollect your saying one night, 'She a beauty? I should as soon call her mother a wit!" Louisa chuckled along with me. I turned serious. "But afterwards she seemed to improve on you, and I believe you thought her rather pretty at one time."
"Yes, I did," Mr. Darcy said finally.
Did? Good. That might mean you no longer feel that way.
"But that was only when I first knew her, for it has been many months since I have considered her as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance!"
With that, he left the room and shattered my heart forever.
I did not join the others in the evening activities. Louisa wanted to speak to me, but I did not want to talk to her. She kept insisting that I had to do it tonight, but she did not understand. What was the use? Why had I tried for so long to win the love of a man who did not love me?
But think, Caroline. It will not matter if you are seen alone with him in his bedroom. He might love Eliza Bennet, but he will marry you. You know he would. All you have to do is tell Louisa that you are willing to go through with it, and he will be yours forever...
But the sensible side of me, the one that rarely presented itself, thought twice about that. He would never love you. You would spend your entire life trapped in marriage with a man who does not love you, who would resent you. Have you not once thought about that? What about his happiness?
His happiness. Would he truly be happy with Elizabeth? Would they settle into Pemberley and be happy together? Or would they be miserable because they were too different?
And what about Lady Catherine? What would she think when she heard that an upstart, a nothing of a girl from Hertfordshire with no family or fortune to speak of, was to marry her nephew and not her daughter? She would never forgive him...she--
Lady Catherine! Why did I not think of it before? Of course there is another way to prevent this whole thing--to tell Lady Catherine of her nephew's intended marriage! She would never allow it to go forward! Surely she must have a good deal of influence over Mr. Darcy, for he is forever visiting her, no matter what Sir James says. Perhaps I should mention to her that...
But Elizabeth had been at Rosings. Perhaps she and Lady Catherine had gotten along famously? She would be thrilled to hear...but of course not. Lady Catherine might like Eliza a great deal, as she had me, but she would never allow either of us to marry Mr. Darcy.
I was in a quandary. I had no certain course to follow. Louisa's course would insure that I married Mr. Darcy, but it would ruin any chance I would have of being happy with him. But marrying him was the only thing I wanted to do...was it not?
Then there was the other road, where I quietly gave up and tried to find someone else to marry. But whom? There was no one else that I had ever loved, no one I had ever thought about. And I was twenty-two, nearly twenty-three. I was reaching the age where I was going to be competing with beautiful young women, younger than myself. Who was I kidding? I was already there. And soon, not even my fortune was going to enable me to marry a suitable gentleman...good Lord, I would be stuck with someone like Mr. Hurst!
Yet how could I...I was a decent woman. I could no more go through with Louisa's plan than I could give away my dowry.
So I did nothing, that evening.
The next day was to bring Eliza back to visit, at Georgiana's request, but more ostensibly at Mr. Darcy's. I had seen him from my window, leaving in the direction of the town, going to see her, and my heart, already broken, shattered again. I decided to skip going downstairs to breakfast, and instead asked that a tray of toast and juice be brought to my room. Even then, I did not eat but a bite or two and took a few sips of juice.
Most of the morning I spent looking out that window, waiting for him to return, knowing that when he did, he would be triumphant at last. For what else could he be going to Lambton for, but to propose marriage to Elizabeth?
Which was why I was surprised to find that he returned much sooner than expected, and that he was rather cross. Louisa brought me that news, which confused us both. She once again said, "Caroline, tonight must be your night."
"I cannot and I shall not trick Mr. Darcy into matrimony."
"You are being completely insensible!" she exclaimed angrily. "You want to be his wife, do you not?"
"Of course I do! More than anything else in the world, I wish for everyone to be calling me Mrs. Darcy! I want to have all of London--all of England--at my feet. But how could I do such a thing, when it would only make me miserable!"
"How? How could you be miserable?"
"Because he would not love me! And I would never be happy because of it!"
"Who cares about happiness?"
"I do. I care about happiness--mine, and...and his."
"Oh, I give up. You are never going to see the right of it."
Louisa flounced out of the room, and I was certain she would not be speaking to me for quite a while. Which made her sudden reentrance into my room two hours later a shock.
"You shall never guess what has happened," she said, trying to regain her breath. Clearly, she had been running.
"The Gardiners--and Eliza Bennet--have left Lambton in something of a hurry."
For the first time that day, I felt something stir to life inside of me. "Does anyone know why?"
"No. No one my maid, Betsy, could talk to knew the reason; however, she said that a servant at the inn said the mail had been brought to Miss Bennet at about the same time Mr. Darcy arrived--and soon after, the Gardiners were sent for, and the party left. All of it very mysterious."
"What does the mail have to do with it?"
"The servant Betsy spoke to swore that there were two letters from home for Elizabeth. I am thinking that something may be terribly wrong for the Bennet family."
"Such as their father may have died, making the girls not only penniless but homeless. Remember, Mr. Collins inherits the estate, not the daughters."
I sighed. "Then there is nothing more to it than that. Mr. Bennet may be ill, or he may not be. Either way, Mr. Darcy shall marry Elizabeth."
"If he is dead, Caroline, then it shall be a full year before they could marry. A year! Think of it! You would have all that time to convince him not to marry her, and marry you instead."
But I had had enough. "Louisa! Think of what you are saying! You are wishing a man dead--a man no more harmless than a fly--so that I might marry! It's over! I've lost him!"
Louisa sighed. "I did not mean that I wished for the man's death. All I have wanted, I wanted for you. I want you to be happy. Are you going to be happy when he stands in church and vows to love, honour, and cherish Elizabeth Bennet for the rest of his life?"
"Then why are you giving up?"
"Because there is no point to trying anymore. Sir James was right. We are too dissimilar."
"Since when did you start listening to Sir James and stop listening to me?"
"When you started giving me advice that was scandalous, sacrilegious, and wrong!"
"Sacrilegious? Well, if that's the way you feel about it, see if you ever get any advice from me."
I sat on the bed again, shaking from unshed anger and pain. This is what has happened to me. I am not marrying the man I love, my sister has turned against me, and I have nothing...nothing at all...
Still, Louisa had said that Elizabeth and the relatives were gone. Mr. Darcy was here. Maybe he had proposed, and she had refused, and rather than stay around and embarrass everyone, she left...
But that evening, Mr. Darcy would be gone as well, and very unexpectedly. No one knew where he had gone, or when he would return. He had insisted that we stay and enjoy Pemberley until his return.
And we had had no news of why he had left, and whether or not it pertained to Eliza. But I knew, in my heart, that it had.
Everything that happened went by so swiftly that it would take an historian to keep up with the whole thing. First thing, Louisa and I did not speak to each other for over two weeks, the longest we had ever not spoken to each other, unless we were separated, since we were children. But that was not as important as everything else.
About a week passed before we heard the rumour...and what a rumour it was! One of the Bennet sisters, we heard, had run away with an officer from the ----shire Militia. Although her note had said she intended to elope, or so the story said, she had not, and was believed to be in London.
Of course, although Louisa and I were still not speaking to one another, we both knew right away that the sister had to be that youngest one...oh, what was her name! I'd remember it someday. But the name of the officer eluded us until a second rumour circulated that it was a certain gentleman who had been known to Derbyshire...Mr. Wickham.
Mr. Wickham. The sister had run away with that degenerate! There was no way that Mr. Darcy could marry Elizabeth now!
It was news that, although startling, brought renewed hope to me. Louisa was pleased, at least, to see that I was thinking about marrying Mr. Darcy again, but still upset that I had screamed at her. I suppose one could not blame her, but she could have at least understood what I was going through at that time and not continued to insist that I do something so...well, indecent. Not that I could ever really picture doing anything of that nature with Mr. Darcy, anyway. He did not seem like the type who would enjoy...the marital relations at all.
Then, just as we were rejoicing over the news that Lydia--that was it!--anyway, that she had ruined herself and thus ruined her family...well, rejoiced might be too strong a word. But we were happy at the news that Elizabeth would no longer be a suitable wife, for Lady Catherine was sure to hear of the misfortune from that simpering cousin of theirs and thus never allow Mr. Darcy to marry her. That's all beside the point. But the news soon came that Lydia Bennet had married Mr. Wickham. All too hastily in London, yes. But married. And thus the ruin of her family had been stopped before it happened, even if the taint would always remain.
Mr. Darcy returned soon after the news arrived of Wickham's marriage. We all made certain not to mention the man's name, having seen the reaction it received from Georgiana. However, just as I thought we would settle in for a nice winter at Pemberley, Charles announced that we would be returning to Netherfield. Once again, Mr. Darcy was invited to stay with us if he wished.
Once again he accepted. This time, his motives were clear, though. He was going to Elizabeth Bennet. And Charles was going to Jane. I could accept the latter much easier than I could the former.
"Well, here we are again, sister. Back in the primitive world of Hertfordshire," Louisa said. "Back where all of this mess started."
Those were the first sympathetic words she had said to me since the incident.
"But this time, I know how it shall all end," I said softly. "He is going to marry Elizabeth. He is going to ask her soon."
"And which crystal ball are you gazing into, little gypsy?" she asked. "I do not see anything of the kind."
"Then why was he so eager to take Charles up on his offer to come back to Netherfield? Last year when we were here, he had nothing but disdain for Hertfordshire."
"He is merely here because Charles had the desire to hunt. After all, they are friends."
"Yes, but Mr. Darcy has spent the better part of a year with us. He does have other friends, you know. He could go off with one of them. He is here for Elizabeth."
"Go on. Be the gloomy person you have been for the past month or so, I do not care. I wash my hands of you, Caroline Bingley. You let the best thing that could ever have happened to you get away and you did not even put up the best fight you could have."
"Because it would have been wrong," I said. "Now please, Louisa, could you go? I have a terrible headache from the journey, and I need my rest."
I could not sleep. I had tried and tried, but sleep would not come. Finally, frustrated, I put on a robe and walked down the stairs. It was one in the morning, and I was certain not to be seen. I walked into the library, which was still in deplorable shape, only to find someone already in there. He had his back turned to me, looking out into the darkness, but I had become so accustomed to his gazing out of windows that I knew who it was.
I did not speak. I merely looked at him, for what I knew would be the last time. He was so handsome, so wonderful...and he was in love with someone else. As I saw his moonlit silhouette at the window, I thought about that side of him that I had not reached, and Elizabeth apparently had. Tears filled my eyes, and they fell when I blinked. I let out a ragged breath--and Mr. Darcy turned.
"Miss Bingley," he said quietly. "I--what are you doing here at this hour?"
"I could not sleep," I replied.
"You should not be here."
I could not help but think of how it would look if Louisa were to see us now--if anyone were to find us here. I had inadvertently put myself in a compromising position with the man. And it no longer mattered to me.
"I am sorry--I'll go." Before I could leave, I had to ask. "Why could you not love me?" My voice broke at the end, and wavered throughout. "Why did you not see how much I cared about you? I could have made you a wonderful wife."
"No! No. Please, let me finish. I shall not have the chance again, I am sure."
"You should not expose yourself."
"Why did you not see how much I loved you?"
"I did see. But I knew, from the moment we met, that I was never going to love you, Caroline. We are too dissimilar."
His words, the echoes of what Sir James had said.
"And if you would admit it to yourself, you do not really love me. You do not know me at all, much less well enough to love me for more than what I represent."
"I do know you--"
"You know my cousin better than you know me."
I slumped into a chair.
"I am sorry if I have caused you pain, Miss Bingley. And I can see that I have. But I have never loved you. I never could."
"You love Elizabeth, do you not?"
"Do not say anything. I know you do. Why?"
He did not answer for a minute. "Because she is the one woman who understands me completely," he said softly. "She does not look at me and think of carriages and jewels and money. She sees me...as a man. Or at least, I believe she does. She is not petty, or spiteful. She does not deliberately set out to hurt other people, as you...and I...have done. What we did to Charles was wrong."
"I know that now," I said.
"I am sorry, Caroline," he said again. "I can only hope that...that you are able to find happiness. And I believe that you may...very soon."
With that, he walked out of the room. I sat for so long in that chair, not moving, that when I finally arose to return to my room, I felt my whole body ache. But nothing ached quite as much as my heart...
...And I guess that is about where that story ends. Now they are gone, happily ever after in their carriage on their way to Pemberley, where not so long ago I thought I would be living. The reception for the happy couples would continue for a while longer--Mrs. Bennet had insisted upon it, even if her husband looked less than thrilled at the idea of having to stand around when he could be off with a good book.
I knew the feeling--well, not for a good book. But the feeling of being alone...lately, it had been wonderful. Yet I returned as well.
There were a great number of guests, relatives that I had not seen in quite a while, relatives of Mr. Darcy's (Lady Catherine and her daughter noticeably absent--Sir James conspicuously present) and of the Bennet family. Friends from London and Derbyshire, people who knew the couples. It was almost as like a London society crush as it could be, and everyone--excepting myself--was having a wonderful time.
I was at the punch bowl, getting drink, when I heard a voice behind me, one that sounded suspiciously like one that I had heard in London at the party for Sir James and Colonel Fitzwilliam.
"There she goes," the voice said. "Poor little Caroline."
The other young voice giggled. "Amelia, that is impolite. After all, it is not her fault that Mr. Darcy did not love her."
"Then why are you laughing? It may not be her fault that he did not love her, but she certainly made a fool of herself drooling all over him in London."
"I heard that she made a complete nuisance of herself at Pemberley."
"Where did you hear that?"
"Oh...one hears things."
"Rosalind, if you do not tell me all I shall be greatly vexed with you!"
"Well, you must promise not to tell al soul, but I heard that while they were at Pemberley..."
The voices trailed off as the girls wandered away. My cheeks flushed with shame. They seemed to know everything, and were hinting at a great many things I had not done. I set down the glass I had just picked up and, without a hint that I knew I was the object or ridicule, scorn, and worst of all, pity, walked out of the room.
I went outside. It was a cold, cold day, but I did not feel anything besides the emptiness in my heart. I did not hear anything except the blankness of the outdoors...and thus, I did not hear the voice that had been calling for me for a minute until the person tapped me on the shoulder.
"Caroline, are you insane? What are doing, walking outside with no wrap?" It was Sir James.
"Who would care if I caught pneumonia? No one, that is who. Leave me alone. Go inside and gloat with the others."
"Gloat? Who is gloating?"
"They all are? This entire farce is mocking me! I should have--I--" I wanted to die, but instead I started crying.
"You have to let go of him."
"I know, I know. But it hurts so much!" My sobs became harder, and I could barely talk around the lump in my throat. I felt him put his arms around me.
"It's all right, Caroline. It's all going to be all right."
"It shall not be 'all right,' 'just fine,' or any other such phrase! When he married her, he left me with no hope!"
"No hope? What on earth could you mean by that?"
"I am twenty-three. There are some in there who consider me on the shelf already. I have a fortune, and that is what I shall now be married for. Not for love or anything else of that nature. Plus, everyone knows what a monumental fool I have made of myself for Mr. Darcy! Who would marry me for love?"
"And who would want a woman who loved someone else? That is what I kept telling Louisa, that he did not--" I stopped, finally registering what he had just said. "What did you say?"
I had never seen him like he was in that moment. In his dark eyes, I saw...fear. Nerves. He was scared.
"I said that I would marry you. Not for your money and not out of obligation or anything of that sort." He gave me a sheepish smile. "I love you, Caroline. Did you not guess? All that time?"
"I...no. Quite honestly, I had no idea."
"You must have known. For some time, you were the only woman I had thought about. To be sure, you were the most infuriating person, with your airs and your false sense of pride. And of course, your great love for my cousin. But love does not make sense, least of all to me. I have been waiting for so long for you to give him up."
"Why are you telling me this now? I have...I..."
"In part out of the hope that you would realize that you...love me as well."
Love? How could I love him? I have despised him for so long! But...no.
"You have not liked me, I know, in spite of my money and my estate and the prospect of being Lady Hampton. Perhaps it was because you were so attracted to my cousin, I cannot know that. But you were the only young lady I knew who was not impressed with it, as you have been to other people in the past with the same credentials. Not even before the incident...well, where I discovered your love for William." He sighed. "You confused me completely, Caroline. You frustrated me, you infuriated me...but I have always loved you. In spite of everything I know about you."
"You know more about my cousin..." Mr. Darcy had said that. And he had been right.
What were you in love with all that time, Caroline? What had you and Louisa thought about during those long months at Netherfield, then London, then Pemberley? His fortune, estate...not the man.
And whose voice was mocking you the entire time, telling you that you were doing the wrong thing?
"What...makes you think that I would not turn to you now for the same reasons that I fell in love with him? You are a good deal alike, you know. You even look a little alike."
"But there you are wrong. We are vastly different. You have admitted it yourself."
"But in essentials, you are the same. Same fortunes, same estates...same background. Are you not thinking that I might--"
"I might think such a thing."
"Or that I might be marrying you to silence the people gossiping about me?"
"Then can you honestly say that you are willing to marry me? That you do not care what my motives are?"
"Oh, I care, all right. But I think you might find it particularly easy to realize the truth."
"And that is?"
"That you have loved me almost as long."
"Do not be ridiculous."
"I do not! You are rude, and arrogant, and smug--"
I had been about to continue when he kissed me. It was a shock, I told myself, that made my knees weaken and my heart beat faster.
"Did you ever once feel like that around him?" he asked.
"Do not be foolish. Mr. Darcy is a gentleman. He never once--"
"Did you ever want him to?"
I thought back on it...and realized that he was right. Not once had I ever thought about kissing him...or anything else. While I was thinking, Sir James kissed me again. And again I found myself kissing him in return.
"This...this has got to stop!" I gasped, pulling away. "You are no gentleman."
"We agreed on that long ago. Gentlemen are no fun, and you need some fun, Caroline. You have not had any in a good long while."
"I have so."
"Exactly." He kissed me again. "I love you, Caroline. I love you so much that it scares me. I love you in spite of, or maybe because of, your imperfections. If you do not agree to marry me, you shall make me the unhappiest man in England. You would not do that, would you?"
"I--" I could not think when he held me in his arms, except how much I loved the feeling.
"I love you to the depths of my soul and even beyond."
I had never had a man say that to me in my life. And I remembered what I had said to Louisa...that I did not want to be any man's second choice, but his first.
Sir James wanted me, and only me.
But why? I wondered. Why did he love me? Was I worth loving? And did I love him in return?
Maybe not as much as he did...but in my heart, I knew that it had been building. He was not the conventional society man, he was not always a gentleman...
But I loved him.
"My darling Caroline, please say you'll marry me. Please."
I did not say anything, but I think he knew. He could see into my soul...he had always been able to.
"Of course I'll marry you," I said. "If I do not, you shall inflict yourself on some other helpless female..."
"Oh, all right! I love you, too!"
He laughed, and picked me up and swung me around, holding me tight to him. I could not help but relish the feel of him next to me...
Heaven forbid! I am thinking of what it might be like...but ladies do not think of such things! Or do they?
"We cannot spoil this day for the Bennet family, you know. We shall have to put off announcing the engagement for a few weeks, but when we do...would you marry me in the spring?"
"Yes...yes. Of course."
"And may I now call you Caroline without reprimand?"
I laughed. "Only if I may call you James."
"You realize what this means, do you not?"
"That I am thinking of you as more than just Mr. Darcy's cousin. And I do." I was looking into his dark eyes as I said that. I did not do it consciously, but when his eyes brightened, I realized that he knew I was being honest.
After all, I had never been able to look right at him and lie.
I married Sir James Fitzwilliam Hampton on a beautiful April morning. The sun was high in the sky, trees had just started to regain their leaves, flowers were blooming.
And I was blooming as well. I could honestly feel content for the first time in my life. I was happy. He made me happy. And if I was never going to completely change my ways, then at least I was not as bad as I once was. And he was not as bad as he used to be, either. We were both ready to settle down for a while, which was the best thing for both of us.
I had sincerely hoped that Jane and I could be friends, real friends, but unfortunately, I found that Jane was not as trusting as she had once been. My abominable behaviour to her in London, which she would probably always remember, caused her to be wary at first, and still a bit distant.
As for Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, well, I had little hopes of our ever being friends. I believe that that would be a little too much for any of us. But we could be civil, and polite, and often very pleasant to each other.
I secretly told Louisa of my engagement soon after the double wedding at Longbourn. She was thrilled for me, as I knew she would be. She saw my marriage in terms of marrying for money and estate. And while, in a way, I knew I would not be marrying James if he did not have these things, I had long stopped thinking of this marriage in financial terms.
This was a love match...and it always would be.
I knew that for certain, but never more so as Charles and I walked toward him, standing at the front of the church with Mr. Darcy. He had joked that I should have married him in my customary orange or red, but I told him that I would do no such thing. White may not be my best colour, but it was the one I would be wearing. He held out for decorating the church with sprays of red and orange flowers. After the ceremony, I reminded him of his comment about feeling like he was in a pumpkin.
"As long as you do not try to change things too much at home, I do not care. Besides, I happen to like the colour orange. It suits you perfectly," he said.
I was hoping he was right, for that evening, I fully intended to appear to him in our bedchamber wearing a skimpy orange nightdress, made for the occasion. When Louisa had given it to me, hidden in with some of my things packed for the trip to Somerset, I had blushed at the fact that it was practically transparent. But at the same time, as unladylike as I knew it was, I had thought of the impact it would have on my husband...
And I knew that even if it looked horrid on me, he would love it. He always would.
© 1997 Copyright held by the author.