The Red Queen
Although Elizabeth's visit to Hunsford was mostly pleasant, her enjoyment of Charlotte's company was often interrupted by Mr. Collins' clumsy attempts to convince Elizabeth of how foolish she had been to reject her share of his extremely fortunate situation. On the day after Easter he did not wait long to press his perceived advantage. He carried on eloquently about the variety and quality of comestibles present on the breakfast table; but he saved his most extravagant praises for the fresh honey, produced in hives provided by none other than Lady Catherine de Bourgh. "Fancy that", thought Elizabeth, "hives from her ladyship, and each one fitted with its own special little closet, no doubt!"
"How few families in the entire region can boast of such luxurious and generous bounty!" exclaimed Mr. Collins. He brandished an aggressive, clenched teeth grin, and nodded his head slightly toward Elizabeth, forcing her to return a weak smile of acknowledgment. "He is as gracious as a horse's behind", she muttered to herself, "although perhaps not quite so handsome or intelligent." She bit her tongue and maintained her composure throughout the remainder of the meal. Needing desperate relief from his suffocating society, she collected her writing tablet, took her leave, and set out to find solitude in the nearby woods.
The various fragrances of the forest, intensified by the previous night's storm, soon lifted her mood. Shafts of sunlight flooded through gaps in the canopy of branches and washed the forest with saturated colors. Elizabeth followed the path for about a mile, then turned toward a magnificent willow whose thick branches formed a secluded hollow beside a stream. Many seasons ago some anonymous traveler had fashioned a stool from a weathered log and placed it against the tree. Elizabeth impulsively flung her bonnet toward the stool, choosing instead to sit down on a large flat rock at the water's edge. She removed her shoes and stockings, hitched up her frock, and let her legs dangle freely in the slow current. Her eyes tracked fallen leaves and twigs as they navigated around rocks in mid stream. In the eddy below the largest rock, fish were feeding near the surface. Along the opposite bank a pair of mallards were paddling nonchalantly upstream. The pleasant scene soon instilled a cool and tranquil sensation. She reached back for her tablet and, after a few moments reflection, began writing a letter to her sister.
Monday, March 30
My Dear Jane,
I hope you are well in London and that the elusive Mr. Bingley has finally taken notice of your presence. Charlotte and Maria send their love. As our esteemed cousin has issued standing orders to include his best wishes in all correspondence to my family, I will "condescend to perform the greatest of honors" for him and greet you in his name as well.
It has been three weeks already since I arrived at Hunsford, and I must allow that the place does possess its rightful share of diversions and amusements. Chief among these must be ranked the many unintentionally hilarious contributions by Mr. Collins. Although we had intimations of his lack of sense, I never could have ventured to predict the quality and quantity of fresh proofs. I know how it must vex you to hear of such accusations against another living being, but had you been with me to hear his sermon yesterday, I am sure we should have found it impossible to suppress our giggles. Most reasonable persons might suppose that, as it was Easter Sunday, a resurrection theme would form the centerpiece of the sermon. But what an unanticipated delight: Mr. Collins devoted the entire homily to the exposition of the evils of strong drink! He performed such wonderful leaps and lapses of logic that he had me on tenterhooks, wondering when the next howler would appear. It required an effort of supreme sainthood to maintain a semblance of composure.
Later in the afternoon we assembled at Rosings for dinner. We spent the better part of the first hour in the drawing room, where Lady Catherine held court. Her ladyship took the opportunity to point out some theological difficulties presented by the morning's sermon. Chief among them was Mr. Collins' discussion of the Last Supper; specifically, our Lord's command to the disciples to partake of the wine ("drink ye all of it"). Lady Catherine maintained that the clear intent of this passage was that ALL of the disciples were to partake of the wine; NOT, as Mr. Collins had expounded, that the disciples were to drain the casket. His sudden ashen complexion betrayed his mortification, but his spirits rallied admirably when her ladyship expressed approval of his attempts to prevent strong drink from pickling the lower classes. As for herself, Lady Catherine, while reaching for a glass of sherry, spoke of her great reliance on St. Paul's admonition to Timothy: that one should drink not only water, but also wine to aid the digestion. She was of the firm opinion that it behooved Mr. Collins never to base a sermon on this topic. This directive was clearly meant to apply only to members of the upper class, who, because of their rich diet, would naturally be subject to the greatest need of digestive palliative. The lower classes, on the other hand, would undoubtedly misconstrue St. Paul's missive and use it as justification for licentious behavior. Overindulgence, it seems, is their natural inclination, so further encouragement from the clergy would be neither necessary nor desirable. Mr. Collins profoundly agreed with these wise sentiments, and thanked her profusely in his inimitable, humble manner.
Do you blame me, Jane, for secretly laughing at this incongruous exchange? I must admit a certain perverse anticipation of each new Sunday morning's theological adventure. I should not be the least bit surprised if, for next Sunday's sermon, Mr. Collins were to take the familiar phrase from the Psalms, "Hide me under the shadow of thy wings", and develop it into a proof that our Lord has feathers! Perhaps he could then top himself the following week by preaching about the sad consequences of Noah's ill-advised marriage to Joan of Arc!
Dinner was a lavish affair, consisting of exquisitely prepared turtle soup, steamed trout, roasted pheasant, braised cutlet, and lamb with rosemary; followed by plums, scrumptious torts, and coffee for dessert. Matters began on a disquieting note, however. Maria was not feeling at all well, but she did not dare risk Lady Catherine's displeasure by absenting herself. Shortly after the turtle soup had been served, poor Maria fainted dead away, her arm landing on her spoon and catapulting a full load in the direction of the unsuspecting Lady Catherine. Such a shriek I have never heard in all my life. Lady Catherine's look of sudden fury made it appear that she was about to demand, on a platter, the severed head of the servant responsible. When she saw Maria slumped against the table, she quickly regained her piquant sort of Christian charity. Servants immediately rushed to Maria's aid and carried her off to the guest chamber. I am happy to report that Maria was soon restored to full sensibility, suffering mainly from fever and a severe headache. It is not as serious as it had first appeared, and she is recovering nicely as I write this.
Naturally the dinner was interrupted by Lady Catherine's quick recess to her room. Within the half-hour, the table linens had been replaced, and her ladyship reappeared in a fresh dress and hat. I very much regretted the change of hat, as the appearance of the dead bird on the original one had been livened considerably with the addition of turtle meat on its wing! The rest of the dinner proceeded without incident or notable conversation. I must confess I ate so much that I felt almost as fat as our youngest sister did at Netherfield! Oh, well, I suppose I can emulate our dear Mary and seek comfort in philosophy: "je mange, donc je suis".
I regret that you shall have to content yourself with only these few images of Easter at Rosings. But do relieve my suffering and write soon. I miss you so and eagerly wish to learn how you spent Easter with the Gardiners. Please give my greetings to them all.
Your naughty little sister, &c
As Elizabeth put the letter away, she noticed a poem she had written several months ago but not yet finished. She smiled as she recalled the events that inspired the effort: Mr. Darcy's impolitic comments at the assembly hall and Mr. Collins' clumsy proposal. The poem was in desperate need of polishing. Uncertain meter violated one's sense of balance, and unhappy rhymes grated the ear. Elizabeth began the rewrite immediately and completed the task after an hour of diligent concentration. The many crosses and arrows made such a random mess of the page that transcription was necessary. Elizabeth took a fresh page and wrote the title in bold hand across the top: My Constant Heart. Only after copying the text did she feel the fatigue caused by her writing efforts. She moved toward the weathered stool, relaxed against the willow's trunk and closed her eyes. The stream was soon murmuring in her sleep.
A screeching rook jolted Elizabeth awake several hours later. A light breeze had come up and scattered some of the papers from her tablet left on the rock. As she gathered the pages she noticed that the transcribed poem was nowhere to found. Not too great a loss, she reckoned, as she had recovered the original and could just as easily copy it again that evening.
Elizabeth started on the path back to Hunsford. About halfway home, she was startled by the sudden appearance of Mr. Darcy on horseback! He was standing not more than forty yards away, looking at her with an unremittingly intense expression. She instinctively stopped, rose to the perceived challenge, and returned an equally steadfast gaze. At length Darcy ended the stalemate by slowly turning his horse toward Rosings. He had not made the slightest gesture of acknowledgment, leaving Elizabeth most unfavorably impressed. "What cold incivility!" she fumed. "Ha! Yes, go away! Who could have any use for such bad manners and false pride!"
Had Lizzy been able to discern Darcy's thoughts, however, her disgust would have been replaced by feelings of a much more charitable nature. A mile downstream from her hideaway, not thirty minutes earlier, Darcy had paused to allow his horse a drink. He spied a sheet of paper trapped by branches in the slower moving water. He waded into the stream to retrieve it, nearly slipping on a mossy rock and taking an unscheduled bath. Laying the paper carefully on a clean flat rock, he dried it as best he could with his handkerchief.
Darcy inspected the document carefully. It was a poem, a bit smeared but still legible, and written in an elegant though unfamiliar hand. The first reading made it plain that the author was a woman with a very lively mind indeed. Although the style was witty and the rhymes were playful, its subject was serious and the underlying tone was resolute. Had he ever met a woman possessing such an independent and confident air? And what was he to make of all the references to nobility? Was she infatuated with things medieval, or had she perhaps been reading Walter Scott? Darcy smiled at the thought. What astonished him most, though, were the indelicate overtones that resonated from such phrases as "the duke of virility" and "wanton delights". The poem was clearly intended for private amusement only. A lady could hardly affix her name to such a work and still remain respectable. It most definitely was not the sort of poem a lady would read aloud in the presence of a gentleman.
Darcy could not resist reading the poem several more times, his wonder and admiration increasing with each repetition. What he found truly fascinating was the insight it afforded into a woman's heart; his first true glimpse, actually. Even as a child he noticed that women were expected to suppress their own desires, interests, and opinions in deference to men. Since coming of age, the ladies of his acquaintance formed a monotonous sycophantic chorus (with Caroline Bingley as the predominant vocalist), whose primary theme was the maintenance of Darcy's comfort and good opinion. He had long ago accepted this situation to be as natural as summer rain. The author of these verses, however, was no such fawn. Her self-assured tone left no doubt that she considered herself quite equal to a man, and that she expected her needs and opinions to be taken seriously. She knew precisely what she wanted, and she seemed fully prepared to use her formidable talents to procure happiness on her own terms. In short, here was a portrait of a woman in complete command of herself; and it intrigued Darcy immensely. His heart told him that there was but one young lady in the vicinity who possessed such qualities. A vision of her fine eyes and lovely smile bewitched him as he leaned against a tree and looked blankly toward the stream.
How long Darcy would have remained so entranced is uncertain, for his impatient horse soon nudged him back to sensibility. Darcy slowly pocketed the poem and resumed his homeward journey. He wondered how, exactly, the poem found its way into the stream and how long it had been there? The paper was not crumpled, so it obviously had not been discarded; perhaps it had been dropped accidentally during a crossing upstream. It could not have happened too long ago or the writing would have been washed out completely.
These mysteries were instantly resolved the moment he reached the trail and saw Miss Bennet. He stopped and looked steadfastly into her eyes, needing no further confirmation of the author's identity. His mind began to race. He wanted to tell her how much enjoyment he derived from her poem, and how greatly he admired her talent; but what, precisely, was the right thing for him to do? He couldn't very well express these thoughts now, could he? No, that would be insupportable. Her knowing that he was privy to her most private musings could only result in her acute embarrassment. No, she must not learn of his discovery. It would be far better to return the poem to its original lost state. Darcy turned his horse toward Rosings, deliberating matters so earnestly that he remained completely unaware of his failure to acknowledge Miss Bennet's presence.
Was he holding the only copy of the poem, he wondered? If so, it would be deplorable to destroy it. But where could he place it so that she alone could discover it without suspecting his intervention? He could hardly return it to the most likely spot for recovery: the place where she had lost it, for indeed, he did not know where she had been. He could perhaps return it to the stream and pretend he had never found it; but to do so he would have to pass by Miss Bennet again, and that would be most awkward. And what would be the point of returning it to the stream? It would be highly improbable that she would ever discover it there. He could perhaps send it anonymously to her by morning post; but that would surely arouse her suspicions and, more importantly, would not prevent her embarrassment. After their chance meeting in the woods, she would instantly guess that only he could have found it, recognized her as the poetic protagonist, and then mailed it to her. Perhaps he should secretly keep the treasure for himself, but that hardly seemed the decent thing to do. She had not given the poem to him; indeed, she did not even know he possessed it; so how could he in good conscience retain something so personal? No, keeping it was out of the question. Darcy reluctantly concluded that the only honorable course of action would be to burn the poem that evening in his bedchamber's fireplace; yet he could not quite shake the feeling that the lesser sin would be to preserve, rather than destroy, something so intrinsically valuable.
Darcy tried his best to clear his mind by concentrating on features of the landscape; but he could not long prevent his thoughts from wandering back to Elizabeth. He smiled as he relived their dance together at Netherfield: the loveliness of her gown, her sweet smile, the smoothness of her complexion, and the sensuous fragrance of her hair. He lingered on the fond memory of her shapely form pressing lightly against him as they walked arm in arm to the starting position of the dance. He sighed passionately as the same involuntary sensations swept over him anew.
The trance was broken, however, when he recalled the mention of Wickham's name during their verbal pas de deux. Other unwelcome recollections soon followed: Mary's monopolization of the piano; her humiliation occasioned by her father's public rebuke; Mrs. Bennet's loud and vulgar conversation; and the uproar caused by the reckless behavior of the younger sisters. Darcy felt pure empathy for the embarrassment he had observed on Elizabeth's face. What a great pity it was that such a beautiful, talented, and superior creature should be cursed with such an inferior family.
These melancholy thoughts were becoming simply too unbearable. Darcy had to escape them, so he turned to the only available method: he retrieved Lizzy's poem. "One last time", he promised himself. Darcy read it aloud as his horse ambled down the path.
My Constant Heart
My blithe heart could hardly submit
To a man of vacuous wit,
Were he the king of dance he
Could not command my fancy,
As my heart is forever my own.
Should I in a suitor detect
A trace of covert disrespect.
Even a duke of virility
Would shrink in ignobility,
For my heart is supremely my own.
And should some fool knave try to force
My heart to his predestined course,
He will gain fresh perspective
From my sharp-tongued invective,
For my heart can be fiercely my own.
Away with false pride and pretense,
All men should be blessed with good sense,
So whatever my charms they
Will be daily in harm's way,
While my heart stays serenely my own.
I swear by sweet heaven above
I shall only marry for love.
Then bound to a most lively knight,
I'll rollick in wanton delight,
And my heart won't be simply my own.
"My 'Queen of Hearts'", sighed Darcy heavily, finally admitting to himself how completely and irretrievably he had fallen under Lizzy's spell; how utterly incapable he was of destroying the charming artifact; and how dearly he wished to be the knight that shared her wanton delights. No, he would find the right time and place to return the poem to its rightful owner, a time when they would be on more intimate terms. "Soon...", he heard himself saying with great intensity. "I must find a way soon...Very soon..."
Darcy carefully folded the poem and placed it inside his vest, next to the heart that no longer was his alone.
Trying her best to shield her betrothed from the idle curiosity of her Longbourn circle, Elizabeth intercepted Darcy's arm and suggested a walk to the north of Meryton.
"A walk along the river? Certainly! The delightful weather appears especially made for it." Darcy smiled, just as eager to avoid disagreeable social obligations in favor of Elizabeth's exclusive company. They strolled in contented silence toward the stone bridge near Meryton, then proceeded on the footpath along the western bank. Soon they passed some young boys fishing from rocks that jutted into the river. Darcy smiled at the recollection of the happy times he had spent fishing with his late father in Derbyshire.
"A scene such as this does make me eagerly anticipate the day when I shall have sons of my own to take fishing."
"Sons? Is it so absolutely certain that we shall have sons? It is certainly conceivable, if you will excuse the phrase, that we may have only daughters. You may perhaps recall that my parents have set an excellent example for us in that regard."
Darcy grinned. "And should that be the happy case, I can safely predict that, given our great love of nature, the girls too shall find the various allurements of water as difficult to resist as their parents do. But you forget, Lizzy, that my excellent parents produced a son as well as a daughter. So perhaps it may be premature to speculate on populating our family with daughters alone."
Lizzy could not suppress a grin of her own. "Now it is your turn to willfully misunderstand me, William. I am certain that, with enough practice, we can learn the art of making sons as well as daughters! And should we have sons alone, or daughters alone, or any delightful admixture between, I am in agreement that our offspring shall heed our good example and take a keen liking to all that nature has to offer. Perhaps the entire family will have the inclination to fish together down by Pemberley pond; assuming, of course, that a certain party is able resist the urge to fling himself into the water and frighten off all the fish!"
Darcy chuckled and gave her hand a gentle squeeze. "A family fishing expedition it shall be then. But as for swimming, I failed to notice any offense taken on your part the last time I emerged from the pond." He squeezed her hand a bit more firmly.
"That is quite true," countered Lizzy, "but I am afraid that you shall be required to act in a more circumspect manner in the presence of our many respectable children. And for my sake as well, for I can not be held accountable for any subsequent wanton acts that such damp displays might provoke!"
They looked at each and burst into laughter, regaining their composure only upon the approach of a hunting party just coming into view around the bend in the river. Darcy nodded to the gentlemen and made friendly inquiry as to their success in the woods that lay beyond the meadow behind them.
After walking a while in a state of blissful silence, Darcy turned to Elizabeth. "My dear Lizzy, I have not been completely forthright with you in our conversation yesterday, and my conscience demands that I own up to it." The playful tone of his voice prevented any alarm. "You had asked if I knew when I began loving you; and although my reply was substantially correct, your charms did gradually wear down my resistance, I believe I can identify the moment when I first became aware that my admiration for you had transformed itself into true love."
"Oh? -and what prevented your revealing this vital information to me yesterday? Was it my beauty or my wit that so incapacitated your powers of recollection?"
"Neither, I trust, but you have quite correctly identified two of your many attractions that I continue to find irresistible. I merely wished to delay my complete response until I had in my possession the artifact that produced the moment of sudden clarity. Am I correct in presuming that you are unable to guess what that article is?"
"H-m-m", responded Lizzy as she raked her memory. "Some bright thing capable of exciting love... From the timing of your first proposal, it must have happened last April in Kent. But I had sent you no letters, I had lost no jewelry or glove or any intimate thing... I am afraid I am at a loss to account for it, but am I correct in assuming that you shall reveal it to me sometime today", she said arching her brow.
Darcy reached inside his vest and produced a package wrapped in red satin and secured with a white silk ribbon. "The very article in question", he announced, bowing as he handed it to his queen.
Elizabeth inspected the package with intense curiosity, then ceremoniously untied the ribbon and revealed its contents. She gasped as she recognized her poem. "'My Constant Heart'. Where...? This is astonishing. I never... How...? Oh yes, I remember now -- this must be the very poem I lost on one of my walks at Hunsford. But how did it come into your possession, William?"
"I have my horse to thank for it, actually. Its thirstiness gave me time to notice the poem trapped in branches growing over the stream."
"Did you recognize it immediately as my work?"
"I had strong suspicions at first, but as I was unfamiliar with your handwriting, and as I found it in such a remote and unlikely spot, I had great difficulty accounting for its presence. But when I happened upon you shortly thereafter in the forest, I became completely convinced that no one else could compose such lively, forthright verses. I recall wanting to return the poem to you then and to congratulate you on your marvelous work; but given its intimate nature, I knew of no manner of doing so without causing your embarrassment."
"Yes, I do recall our meeting -- it was nearly two weeks before your first proposal. But Darcy, you read the poem and had sufficient time to contemplate its import" I am very afraid, my dear, that this does not speak well of your navigational abilities. I had unknowingly provided you with a road map that exposed the most direct route to my heart. How could you then not manage to steer clear of the blockades and traps I had so explicitly set forth?" Lizzy teased.
"I have asked myself that very question so many times since", Darcy answered soberly. "Upon entering the parsonage I presumed that I was playing the knight, taking rightful claim of the affections of my queen. I had absolutely no notion that I was playing the foolish knave instead. Your just words then brought clearly into focus my guilt in trying to 'force you to my predestined course'."
"But what prompted you to retain the poem until now? You are quite right -- I would have been shocked then to have learned of its being in your possession. I had no intention of sharing it with anyone other than Jane. But if you could not find a way to return the poem at Hunsford, why did you not destroy it immediately?"
"I admit to struggling with that question as well. I had resolved to do as much that very day, but as it was your poem that induced me to acknowledge at last my heartfelt desire for you, I could not destroy it without feeling criminal. I had the poem on my person when I first proposed to you; but, as we are well aware, my unfortunate behavior at the time prevented my returning it to you. I locked it my desk drawer before beginning my letter to you that evening, and then put it out of mind completely. After my hopes were rekindled by Lady Catherine's call, I remembered the poem and immediately retrieved it. I wanted only one more opportunity for redemption. Had you refused me a second time, the poem would have been destroyed, and along with it, all my hopes for happiness."
"My dear William, do not make yourself uneasy", said Elizabeth, tenderly taking his arm. "I am most grateful for the turn that events have taken. Were it not for miscalculations on both our parts, our understanding of each other, and of ourselves, would not be so nearly complete as it is now."
Darcy found it impossible to find words to express the emotions that now overpowered him. He placed his hand on her arm and smiled in grateful acknowledgment.
They had nearly reached the end of the meadow. "Look at the lovely willows there -- my favorite sort of tree", exclaimed Lizzy, letting go Darcy's arm and running towards them. Darcy took up the chase, catching her as she ducked under the low hanging branches.
"Willows are favorites of mine as well", said Darcy. "My father planted more than a dozen around the pond, and I spent countless hours in play around them and in them as a child. Come, I must show you a special place."
Darcy took Lizzy's hand and led her to an adjacent willow that bounded the river. "Look! A log bench -- how delightful!" she exclaimed. "How did you know it was here, William?"
"Why, here we are but a mile from Netherfield", he replied. "I discovered this refuge last fall and arranged to have this log positioned as you see it. I too am fond of walks and this is one of my favorite destinations."
"How strange", said Lizzy. "This is so reminiscent of a grove near Rosings..." Darcy's laugh interrupted her thought. "You! ... You! -- It was you who fashioned the log stool by the large willow beside the stream! I had not the least suspicion..."
"Yes, I confess that I found that enchanted spot in my youth, when my parents visited Rosings. Ten years ago I fashioned that stool with an axe. So, was that the spot where you lost the poem? I am indeed gratified to learn that you share my excellent taste in scenery!"
Shielded from the world by an opaque curtain of willow leaves, the lovers then seated themselves on the accommodating bench and embraced and kissed as passionately as any lovers before or since. Lizzy relaxed her grip on the poem and entrusted its care to the dancing breeze. Having found its way from one heart to the other, the poem ended its journey at the bottom of the swift running river. Its physical loss was of little consequence: its words had long ago been branded indelibly upon Darcy's heart. There would later arise many moments, when obligation deprived him of Elizabeth's sweet companionship, that Darcy would recall with fondness the closing verse of 'My Constant Heart':
I swear by sweet heaven above
I shall only marry for love.
Then bound to a most lively knight,
I'll rollick in wanton delight,
And my heart won't be simply my own.
Darcy smiled at the realization that no matter what honors or titles would eventually come his way, no joy or distinction could ever surpass his becoming the fortunate knight who would forever share the heartfelt delights of his lovely Red Queen.
© 1997 Copyright held by the author.