One Has All The Goodness
Part One--Mr. Darcy's Resolution
The expression on Fitzwilliam Darcy's face was stony, betraying nothing of the turmoil of his thoughts. Despite the activity of his mind, however, his eyes never ceased darting back and forth, peering into one murky doorway and alley after another, constantly on guard against being surprised. Gentlemen were not so plentiful in this part of Town, and some footpad more desperate—or more foolish—than most might take it into his head to try his luck. "Then God protect him, for I am in no humour to be meddled with," he thought grimly.
When Elizabeth Bennet had told him of Wickham's latest piece of villainy, he had been shocked to discover the strength of his emotions, but what had surprised him even more had been the variety of his feelings. Seeing her distress, her stunned expression, and the tears that filled her lustrous eyes as she told him of Lydia's disgrace, the desire to enfold her in his arms and comfort her had nearly overpowered him. For one glorious moment, a delightful image had flashed before him, and he had pictured Elizabeth's head resting on his shoulder while he stroked her soft curls and whispered to her that he would see to everything, that Lydia should be saved from the consequences of her folly, if it lay in his power to effect it. He had ached to kiss away her tears and reveal how much she meant to him, how he cherished her. "You are my angel, the Queen of my soul and my life, my heart's desire. I adore you! Without you, my life has been nothing but ashes and bitterness. Only with you am I whole; you complete me. Tell me you forgive me and will never leave me! Say that you will release me from this agony of loving you and wanting you without any hope!"
It had been the impulse of the moment to pour out his feelings to her, but he had resisted. She was in so much pain that Darcy felt ashamed that his selfish passion had nearly caused him to act in a manner that could only serve to increase her distress. Perhaps she thought better of him than she had after that terrible afternoon at Hunsford; perhaps he might hope to comfort her; perhaps, in this time of need, she might allow him to be her friend. But how could he possibly imagine that this was the proper moment to renew his addresses to her? He would not add another injury to the one that Wickham had given her.
Yet mingled with these bewitching visions of Elizabeth Bennet, he had discovered another, more disturbing, emotion growing in his heart. It was a black, burning rage at the man who had caused this unhappiness to the woman he loved. Had George Wickham been within reach, Darcy could not have answered for that gentleman's safety. Indeed, Darcy felt sure that nothing could have prevented him from a violent demonstration of the degree of his disapprobation.
Then, as he knelt before Elizabeth's weeping form and hesitantly took her soft hand in his, he had heard her say the words that had haunted him every hour since. "Had his character been known, this could not have happened. But it is all—all too late now." In that instant, the tiny flame of hope that he had begun to nurture, the hope that she might someday forgive him, and come to love him as he had dreamt of for so many weeks and months, died. It was no consolation to him to hear Elizabeth blaming herself for what she regarded as her own lack of foresight. Darcy knew that the real, the original, fault was his. It was he who had neglected every opportunity to inform his acquaintance of Wickham's true character, even withholding this knowledge from his own father. He it was who had suppressed the most damaging facts concerning Wickham's past, and thus allowed that gentleman to dupe so many with his pretended virtues. Even this catalogue, however, did not comprehend his greatest fault. For, though he had enlightened Elizabeth, he had bound her to silence by a demand for her secrecy, and by doing so, he had fettered her actions and prevented her from protecting those dearest to her.
He could no longer expect Elizabeth to return his love. That was finished, and he would not deceive himself with a belief that he could ever deserve her forgiveness. He would always love her, but his love from this moment would be like the thirst of a man lost in a great desert: ever-present, gnawing, maddening, and without hope. Darcy could not bear to contemplate the years stretching out before him without any possibility of true joy, or even contentment. As he paced back and forth, not daring to glance at Elizabeth's face, he silently resolved to dedicate the remainder of his life to securing the happiness of those he loved. Whatever he had to endure in the years to come, perhaps this would give his existence some value, some meaning. He would begin by remedying the evil which had destroyed all his hopes. He would trace Wickham and Lydia; he would do whatever was necessary to mitigate the consequences of Wickham's roguery and Lydia's folly. If he could not hope for Elizabeth's love, at least he could try to secure her happiness and wipe away the misery he had helped to cause by his lack of consideration for others.
Having reached this resolution, Darcy ceased to pace the floor, and spoke for the last time to his beloved Elizabeth. "I am afraid you have been long desiring my absence, nor have I anything to plead in excuse of my stay, but real, though unavailing, concern. Would to Heaven that anything could be either said or done on my part that might offer consolation to such distress! But I will not torment you with vain wishes, which may seem purposely to ask for your thanks. This unfortunate affair will, I fear, prevent my sister's having the pleasure of seeing you at Pemberley to-day."
"Oh yes. Be so kind as to apologise for us to Miss Darcy. Say that urgent business calls us home immediately. Conceal the unhappy truth as long as it is possible, I know it cannot be long."
Darcy readily assured her of his secrecy; again expressed his sorrow for her distress, wished it a happier conclusion than there was at present reason to hope, and leaving his compliments for her relations, with only one serious, parting look, went away.
Dismounting from his horse at the conclusion of a thoughtful return journey to Pemberley, Darcy summoned his head groom to attend him immediately. "Wilkins, I will require my carriage and the four fastest coach horses in the stables at first light tomorrow. I return to Town urgently. Please see to it."
Part Two--Mr. Darcy Enters The Lists
This second installment finds Mr. Darcy in London, and I have taken some license with the progression of events as portrayed in P&P2.
A disreputable, down-at-heel part of Town, thought Darcy, as he picked his way carefully through the rabbit warren of dingy courtyards and small, noisome closes that dominated this section of London, but hardly a surprising choice for a couple seeking concealment. The denizens of this mean jumble of streets bore the same tumble-down appearance as the structures that surrounded them. Slatternly women, often stinking of cheap gin, jostled with crippled veterans of the wars. Grubby, ill-clothed, hungry children competed with the beggars hoping to catch the eye of the few prosperous-looking passersby. In the background the constant murmur of voices, sometimes a peal of wild laughter, a shout, a curse. And yet, all around these depressing scenes the bustling activity of the capital flowed on: hackney coaches and wagons loaded with freight rattled over broken cobblestones, street vendors cried their wares, a tinker sharpened the knives two housewives had brought him, a brewer's cart unloaded barrels of ale while the tavernkeeper conversed with the baker's assistant from next door.
Darcy's first task upon reaching London had been to discover and question his sister's former companion, Mrs. Younge. He had experienced some delay in locating her, for she now resided in a part of Town with which he was glad to confess he was totally unfamiliar. Having found and confronted her, his interrogation quite soon produced confirmation of Darcy's suspicion that Mrs. Younge knew of the fugitive couple's whereabouts. The ensuing negotiation to decide the terms upon which she would agree to divulge this information had tried Darcy's patience and validated his opinion of her, but, perhaps fortunately for him, she remained in ignorance of how great were his inducements to persevere. In the event, twenty guineas provided sufficient motive for her to sell her scruples, though Darcy felt that he had paid too dearly for such an article.
Mrs. Younge's directions were precise, and having obtained the information he required, Darcy had assured her in a calm, collected tone of the dire consequences to herself should she attempt to impose on him further by playing him false. "So ends your part in this sordid business, Madam. And in order that you should understand that it is in your interest to give up any scheme of further interference in what has ceased to concern you, I will venture a brief word of warning. Times are hard, Mrs. Younge, but I fear that such a consideration will not weigh heavily in the scales should you happen to fall foul of the magistrates for complicity in some of the less savoury activities of your lodgers."
Mrs. Younge's face paled, and a look of fear crept into her eyes, but she rallied. "You can prove nothing, Sir, and as a respectable woman, I find both the tone and the implication of your statement insulting!"
Darcy merely smiled. "Since when has it been possible to insult you, Madam? Recollect, I know you," he sank his voice and carefully emphasized his words, "and...you...know...me. You therefore can be in no doubt of my sincerity when I tell you that I am resolved not to be thwarted in this matter. A discreet word in the right quarter will ensure that this house receives the unremitting attention of the Bow Street Runners. Should I be given any cause for believing that you have neglected my wishes, I will not hesitate to give it. Even if nothing is proved, I daresay many of your lodgers will find it advantageous to remove from you. I trust that you will pardon me for observing that your present circumstances and mode of life would seem to indicate that you could ill afford such a development. You are well out of this affair, Madam, and I earnestly caution you to remain so. Good day."
As he walked on, Darcy reviewed his plans for working on the greed and selfishness of his former companion. "Money cannot be plentiful with them at present, and I must use this lever to the utmost possible effect." That money was never plentiful with Wickham, Darcy knew from his own information. The years they had spent together at Cambridge — years which should have been graced with the joys of learning and the discovery of the wider world — what painful memories they brought to mind! There, even as Darcy's youth had burst into full, vigorous manhood his life had never been free from shadow: the ever-present fear lest George Wickham's vicious and dissipated way of life should become the gossip of the town, as it had begun to be within the University itself, and whispers reach Pemberley of the true character of his father's beloved godson.
Darcy had known that, whatever it cost him, he must prevent such a revelation; his father's increasingly frail state of health might be fatally undermined by the shock of such a discovery. Darcy had witnessed Wickham's descent into debauchery first in shock, then in growing despair and anger, but (God forgive him!) he had been powerless to prevent it. Worst of all was the realization that George Wickham knew, or guessed, his fears and had no compunction about using them against him. How many times, Darcy thought, had George Wickham strolled jauntily into his rooms at Trinity, and opened the conversation with some seemingly casual remark which in reality was a thinly-disguised demand for money.
So it was that Darcy, to protect his father from the collapse of all his hopes and plans for George Wickham, had been forced to become the latter's unwilling banker. But amidst his shame at what he considered this breach of his honour and principles, he had had the consolation of knowing that his debasement had attained the desired end. No breath of scandal had reached Pemberley, and Mr. Darcy had died peacefully in his sleep. Yet Darcy had gained one small piece of valuable knowledge from these painful experiences: money, or rather Wickham's persistent lack of it, was the only sure way of controlling the man's excesses, at least to some degree. Where Wickham was concerned, money was always the object.
Reflecting on this history, Darcy could not help asking himself if he been justified in acting as he had. Had he been right? Perhaps his current errand, rather than a mission of honour and compassion, was instead a deserved penance from God for concealing evil and abetting Wickham's sin, however unwillingly, rather than exposing it. Or was God punishing him for another sin entirely — a sin which he himself had only recently come to recognize and repent of, once it had cost him the woman he loved? His pride had cost him any hope of gaining Elizabeth Bennet's affections, just as this same pride had demanded that his dealings with Wickham should be concealed from the world. Now he had to protect still another victim of Wickham's infamy and selfishness.
As he drew near Tinley Street and Barham's Close, Darcy had no doubt that the sum he had paid Mrs. Younge for her assistance in discovering Wickham would prove well spent. But like the experienced sportsman he was, he had made doubly sure of his quarry. A few pounds had sufficed to acquire the assistance of several reliable men recommended to him by Josiah Perkins, his London valet, and these men were even now mounting an inconspicuous watch at Mrs. Younge's lodging house and in Barham's Close. They had been carefully instructed how to intercept any message Mrs. Younge might attempt to slip to Wickham or Lydia in order to warn them that Darcy was in London and searching for them. Darcy had also provided them with descriptions of both Wickham and Lydia, and they would be sure to send him word should the couple attempt to contact Mrs. Younge or shift their lodgings, but thus far his careful precautions had proven unnecessary. Yes, he felt sure his "birds" would still be found in their covert.
Darcy's first impulse upon discovering Wickham's and Lydia's address in Barham's Close had been to hasten there immediately and confront them, but he had quickly restrained himself, recognizing that the situation demanded careful thought and not a little finesse. He had come to know his own character somewhat better in recent months, he reflected ruefully, and he was fast becoming practiced at being honest with himself. This interview with Wickham would be exceedingly awkward. Darcy knew that he would be forced to restrain his tendency to bluntness of expression, and that he must not display his usual disdain when confronted with the shortcomings or the vice of others. At all costs he must hold his anger in check; to allow himself the indulgence of crimination in such a case would be worse than useless, since it might betray to George Wickham the importance which he, Darcy, attached to a successful outcome. If possible, he must seek to detach Lydia; should this prove unattainable, he would negotiate a marriage contract, though it pained him to reflect on how little the prospective Mrs. Wickham might thank him for his efforts in the years to come.
Darcy entered the archway leading to Barham's Close, stopping at a vantage point which allowed him to observe the front of the house where Mrs. Younge had told him Wickham and Lydia could be found. He made sure that his own tall and imposing figure remained hidden in the gloom of the passageway. Gazing with fixed attention at the upstairs window of the house, he heard familiar footsteps behind him and a few moments later sensed that he was no longer alone. Without bothering to turn or take his eyes off the house, he began his interrogation.
"What have you to tell me, Perkins?"
"No change, sir. He nor the lass 'as stirred since you was 'ere yesterday, or I'd 'ave sent my boy Arthur along to fetch you. They 'as all their meals brought in, and spirits besides."
"So he drinks, does he?" All to the good, Darcy thought, though drink seldom seemed to dull George Wickham's shrewdness. But if Lydia Bennet had had no previous experience of his more objectionable habits, her new knowledge might serve to render her more amenable to Darcy's inducements to leave Wickham and return to her family.
"Oh, aye. Five bottles we counted yesterday, and two more today."
"I am gratified to find that you have been so exact in your observations, Perkins, but I would not wish to show my hand, if there is any possibility of a mistake. You are certain that Mr. Wickham and the lady are here?"
"Not a doubt of it, sir. The lady 'as been in a fidget all morning. Keeps coming to the window to look about, though there's little enough for 'er to see, 'Eaven knows. An' no one could have got past without us seein' 'em. As for 'im, 'e's there all right. 'E don't show hisself, but 'e sent out for a newspaper with 'is breakfast, bold as brass. One o' the lads not on watch wus resting at the 'Bull', and 'eard the landlord complain that these gennelmen was no end of trouble, beggin' your pardon, Sir. 'E come round soon as 'e could to tell us."
"Excellent. Which of you is on watch at present?"
"Besides me and Wilson watching the front, I told off Charlie Waters to keep 'is eye on t'other side. We 'as all the bolt holes stopped, sir."
"I am quite confident of it, Perkins. You and the others have done well. You will not find me ungrateful." Darcy had all his preparations complete, and now he would set matters in motion.
Part Three--Mr. Darcy Seats His Lance
Striding forward from the archway which had served to conceal him, Darcy quickly crossed the small open courtyard between it and the front door of the house. Out of the corner of his eye he thought he detected the curtains at the upstairs window flutter briefly, but he could not be certain, and, in any case, there was no longer any motive for avoiding detection. Since gaining intelligence of Wickham from Mrs. Younge his mind had been engaged in endless rehearsals of the coming drama, and now, after a day and a half of careful thought and reflection, he could barely contain his impatience to come to grips with the man...
Glancing out of the upstairs window, Lydia Bennet's eyes grew wide in astonishment as she directed her attention to a tall, dignified man moving purposefully across Barham's Close. No, she thought, it could not be! But there was no mistaking that imposing figure dressed in the height of fashion—Fitzwilliam Darcy!
"Lord, what can HE be doing here?" she blurted out. "What a joke!"
George Wickham, who had been seated at a small table at the opposite end of the room, spun around in alarm. Possibilities darted into his mind. Had Colonel Forster traced their route? If so, the man was more formidable than he had suspected. He would not have believed him capable of it. But perhaps...Lydia's father? No, in either case Lydia would have no reason for being surprised. "Who is it?"
"You'll never guess!"
His frustration flashed into annoyance. "Who IS it?"
Wickham sprang to his feet, and turned to face the doorway. Darcy, here? The sound of voices floated up from below. He MUST think! What inducement could influence Darcy to trouble himself in this way? He racked his brain, but found no answer to this puzzle. "Quick, my love! Do you know of any cause why Mr. Darcy should interest himself in our affairs?"
Lydia scarcely heard him. She was grateful for what promised to be a source of unanticipated diversion. How dull the past few days had been! No amusement, no entertainment, stuck in this horrid little room! At first, the excitement of it all had been delicious--eloping with her darling in the middle of the night, fleeing Brighton without betraying a word of it to anyone, dashing off to Town—what a wonderful, glorious adventure! But ever since reaching London, her dear Wickham had been so peevish! She could scarcely tempt him to stop looking at all those silly papers he had brought with him. "No, dearest. Perhaps my father asked him to come...".
"Your father? Why would your father ask Darcy to--"
His question was interrupted by a sharp rapping on the door. Wickham moved deliberately towards it and, sliding back the bolt, opened it. Fitzwilliam Darcy, who was in the process of calmly removing his gloves and placing them in his hat, met his defiant stare with a look of detachment.
"Good day, Mr. Wickham." What was this? Wickham could discern no trace of either anger or disdain in Darcy's tone. He simply didn't know what to make of it.
"Mr. Darcy...good day."
"May I enter, Sir?"
After a moment's hesitation, Wickham moved to one side to allow him to pass. "As you wish, Sir."
"Thank you." Darcy stepped into the room. "Good day, Miss Bennet." Darcy bowed. "I trust I find you well?" Darcy noticed that neither Wickham nor the lady corrected the form of his salutation to her, but he was not surprised.
"Quite well, Sir, I thank you. And you?"
He smiled at her. "I am well, though perhaps a little fatigued. I must beg your pardon, Madam, for this unexpected intrusion, and for the necessity which compels me to deprive you of Mr. Wickham's presence for a short time. The matter is rather pressing, I fear, else I should not presume to come upon you thus unannounced. May I hope that you will allow me the privilege of a brief conversation when we return?"
Lydia was rather bewildered at the revelation of this complaisant side to Darcy's character. Nothing she had seen of him in their very limited acquaintance had prepared her to expect anything of the sort. To her surprise, she found that she was not merely confused, but also slightly awestruck. "I anticipate our conversation with pleasure, Mr. Darcy."
"Splendid!" He turned to face Wickham, and spoke with pretended cheerfulness. "Mr. Wickham, I desire to speak with you, but not here, I think." Again, he smiled at Lydia. "I would not impose any further on this lady's gracious indulgence of me. Fortunately, I know of a snug little alehouse close by where we might discuss our business in privacy. If you will accompany me, I believe I have something to tell you which you will find to your advantage." For the first time since Darcy's arrival, Wickham betrayed the hint of a smile.
"Mr. Darcy, you intrigue me. How can I refuse?"
"Then I bid you good day, Miss Bennet," he bowed to Lydia again, "for the present."
Part Four--A Passage of Arms
As he and Wickham made their way together to the 'Bull', Darcy cautiously congratulated himself on his efforts thus far. Extracting Wickham from the house in Barham's Close had been his first object, for had they remained there, he felt sure that the substance of his intended conversation with that gentleman could not fail to distress Lydia Bennet. Darcy's observations of Lydia's behaviour at Meryton had given him a low opinion of her understanding and her sense of propriety, but she was still young, and it was possible that she might have sensibilities of which he knew nothing. His caution on this point increased when he recalled how he had been mistaken concerning Jane Bennet. Thus, when framing his plans over the past days Darcy had determined to proceed with gentleness and discretion where Lydia was concerned. She had been reckless and foolish, but had not his own sister been saved from acting as Lydia had only because the person closest to Georgiana had realized her danger in time and had been free to protect her? He must keep reminding himself whose fault it was that Lydia had not been so fortunate.
Upon reaching the 'Bull', Darcy immediately engaged the use of a small private room where he and Wickham might discuss their business. Unused to entertaining such guests, the flustered proprietor showed them the room, brought them two tankards of ale, and in response to Darcy's polite request, promised him that he would see to it that they should not be disturbed. Darcy handed him several coins. "Thank you, landlord. My friend and I will summon you if we require anything further." As the door closed behind their host, Darcy sat down at one end of the only table the room boasted, and pushed his tankard to one side.
Raising his own, Wickham bowed slightly to his companion, and with a trace of mockery in his manner, toasted Darcy's health. Darcy's gaze remained fixed on Wickham during this performance, but his face remained impassive, though his carefully assumed composure was belied by his flashing eye. He remained silent, however, and waited for Wickham to seat himself.
"Well, Darcy, you mentioned something to my advantage. What did you mean by it?"
"Merely that I propose to assist you, provided that you agree to certain conditions."
"This is most gratifying news, but--pardon my mentioning it--rather unexpected. You are the last man in England I would look to for the hand of friendship. You have withheld it too often in the past!"
"You mistake me, Mr. Wickham," Darcy replied quietly, almost as though he were correcting a child who had gotten his sums wrong. "I did not mention friendship. Indeed, any possibility that we two could be friends ended long ago." He continued in a calm, unhurried voice, "Furthermore, I am satisfied that my reasons for arriving at this opinion require no explanation, particularly to you. Nor do I intend to enter upon a discussion of the past injuries which you have accused me of causing you, and I do not believe that it would be in your interest for you to adopt such a course. Your doing so might only succeed in convincing me that I have erred in coming to you. I assure you that my mind is occupied by more immediate concerns; might I suggest that you concentrate yours in a similar fashion?"
"Then why have you come, Darcy, if you would just as soon see me go to the devil as not? Why should you wish to help me if you believe me a scoundrel?"
"My motives are irrelevant."
Wickham smiled slyly. "No, no, Sir, that will not do! You cannot expect me to meekly allow you to insert yourself into my concerns with no word of explanation. I insist upon knowing why a gentleman who fancies himself so great, who thinks himself of so much consequence in the world, should take such trouble and so lower himself in his own estimation as to notice my misfortunes!"
From his knowledge of Mr. Wickham, Darcy had anticipated this demand from the first, and he felt justified in suppressing certain facts. "I should have thought that all this was obvious, Mr. Wickham. Very well. I shall explain myself for the first and last time. As I have said, my motive in seeking you out was not friendship; as you yourself have surmised, I am utterly indifferent to your fate. My concern is entirely for the interest of the lady whose honour and respectability you have seen fit to compromise. To be candid, I am willing assist you only because I am persuaded that by so doing, I will be more advantageously placed to carry out my resolve to assist her. My motive for taking an interest in this affair is equally simple. I am convinced that had I enlightened Miss Bennet's family and others of your acquaintance in Meryton of my opinion of your character, and given them the details of your past history to substantiate my view, this elopement would not have occurred. I could not fail to observe at the time that she and others had been taken in by your manner, yet I forbore to intervene. That I believed myself justified in this course is no excuse. Even my slight acquaintance with Miss Bennet and her family demanded that I consider their interests. In failing to act, I was in the wrong, and I am determined to repair the injury which has resulted from that wrong without delay. Now, Sir, at the risk of repeating myself, I give it as my opinion that none of this is to the purpose. I have stated my intention to aid you in extricating yourself from your present embarrassed circumstances. Therefore, the only task which remains to you is to decide whether you desire my aid. Well, Sir?"
"What can you know of my circumstances, Sir?"
"Mr. Wickham, this discussion grows wearisome. Perhaps I should tell you that since learning of your removal from Brighton, I have caused certain discreet inquiries to be made there. I confess that my intelligence is incomplete, but I know enough of the particulars to permit me to form a judgment regarding the state of your affairs. For instance, I know that your finances are in disarray, that you are heavily in debt to several of the tradesmen of the town, and that you have no prospect of satisfying these creditors. Added to this, I have been informed that you have gaming debts amounting to a considerable sum. Taken together, your indebtedness cannot be much under a thousand pounds, or perhaps rather more--as I say, my inquiries are not yet concluded. Have I been rightly informed?"
"Yes, damn you! For the want of a thousand pounds--a tenth part of your income--I am forced to flee like a cur with his tail between his legs!"
A most apt analogy, thought Darcy. "Then may I ask why you thought it either necessary or desirable to involve Miss Bennet in your difficulties? Why this pretended elopement? Of what possible advantage could it be to you to induce her to betray her interest?"
"I was desperate, Darcy. They were pressing me hard; that puppy Farnsworth had threatened he would go to Colonel Forster next morning. Even if I could convince him to hold off, I had a day, perhaps two, not more. Then it would all come out—not just the gambling, all of it. I was facing prison, or the hulks. If I was to save myself, I thought, it was now or never!" He paused and ran his hand through his hair. "Miss Bennet had grown excessively attached to me. There was to be a large ball that evening. I knew that, should I fail to appear, my absence might escape the notice of others—I had to trust to that--but I felt that she would be certain to notice, and would cause a search to be made. At the least, she might remark on my not being in attendance to some of the officers present who would guess what it meant."
Darcy stared at him in momentary disbelief, but quickly regained his air of detachment. "Am I to understand that in order to assure yourself of Miss Bennet's silence for a few hours more, you determined to entice her to come away with you by making her an offer of marriage? I am astonished, Mr. Wickham. I gave you credit for more cunning than this. Could you think of no other means to realize your object than to resort to such a desperate expedient?"
"Sir, you have admitted that your acquaintance with the lady in question is somewhat limited. Allow me to say that Miss Bennet's character may be graced by many desirable qualities, but discretion is not among them. Indeed, if I may be permitted the comment, it has been my observation that precisely the opposite is the case. She appears to find it impossible to refrain from remarking on whatever happens to strike her fancy. Even had I succeeded in devising some plausible explanation to account for my going away, promised her that I would soon return, and entreated her to keep the matter quiet, I would have felt no confidence in her assurance of secrecy. I believed then, and still feel I had good cause for believing, that her silence could only be definitely secured by removing her from any temptation to break it. How best to accomplish this removal became my constant anxiety. Miss Bennet's age and situation almost seemed to dictate my course. How else could I have hoped to persuade her to come away with me, and at the same time impress upon her the essential importance of that absolute secrecy which was so vital to me?"
Darcy was silent for a few moments, and then resumed the conversation with an added note of asperity in his tone. "To borrow your expression, Sir, this will not do. I assert that this account provides no credible explanation for your actions. Nothing simpler than for you to attend the ball that evening, dance with Miss Bennet once or twice, and then invent some pretext to be gone in good time to effect your departure from Brighton the same night--alone. Even supposing that your motives were as you have stated them, you would have succeeded in your object by removing Miss Bennet from her friends for the space of a few hours. Having accomplished this, there could be no necessity for inducing her to remain with you any longer. Once arrived at the outskirts of Town, you might have arranged to have her conveyed back to Colonel and Mrs. Forster, or sent her on to her parents in Hertfordshire. Miss Bennet might have opposed such a scheme, but I have great faith in your powers of persuasion—I have seen their efficacy demonstrated too often to question them. You would have devised something, had you thought it to your advantage." Darcy paused, and then continued. "I must warn you, Mr. Wickham, that should I detect any further attempt at deception on your part, I shall immediately take steps to effect your confinement in a debtor's prison. I flatter myself that I could as easily gain my object with you thus confined as not. I ask you again, why did you contrive to persuade Miss Bennet to elope with you?"
Wickham's anger could no longer be contained. "Because I desired it! I desired her to come away with me!" He struggled to recover his demeanor, with some success. "I am...fond of her, and she had made her preference for me clear. Even so, had she refused my proposal, I would have dropped the matter. Miss Bennet must be answerable for the consequences of her own actions!"
Darcy's face was grim. "Do you imply that Miss Bennet bears an equal share of the responsibility for her present situation with yours?"
"She could be in no doubt as to my prospects; I hid nothing of that from her family and others while I remained quartered in Meryton! I spoke as plainly upon the subject as anyone could wish. They all knew that I had nothing to hope for in that regard save what I could attain by my own talents and effort. Nor do I doubt that Miss Bennet and her sisters were aware that any match between one of them and myself would be regarded by their parents as highly imprudent. If she now regrets her decision to accompany me from Brighton, at least she cannot fairly claim to have lacked information concerning the difficulties and disapprobation she would encounter by pursuing such a course. Her own folly and willfulness conspired against her interests to far greater effect than any design of mine. My schemes concerning her--however you may describe them, give them any name you choose: seduction, betrayal, or any other—could not have been effectual without Miss Bennet's agreement and cooperation."
Listening in silence to this feeble attempt at justification, Darcy was overwhelmed with disgust. How any man could openly avow such dishonourable actions, while shifting the responsibility for the success of his designs to the person whom he had victimised, was impossible for him to comprehend. He rejoiced that Elizabeth's eyes had been opened concerning George Wickham; in that, at least, he thought, it was possible to discern the hand of Providence, and he offered up his thanks. He would claim no share of the merit for having enlightened her. His letter to her at Hunsford had been an imperfect instrument at best; written in bitterness, lacking in any spirit of contrition, and phrased in a manner better suited to offend by its haughty tone than to mollify her, Elizabeth might easily have dismissed his account of his actions. That she had not, that her intelligence and her firm principles of justice and right had served to protect her, must surely be the will of God.
Darcy's suspicion of Elizabeth's regard for Wickham had tortured him from the moment it had first been excited by her comments while he danced with her at the Netherfield ball. His interview with her at Hunsford Parsonage had been rendered even more painful by the jealousy he had experienced during her passionate defense of George Wickham at his own expense. Afterwards, Darcy's suspicions had gradually grown into a terrible fear that Elizabeth might feel more than regard for Wickham. The vision of his beloved in the arms of this man, trusting him, confiding in him, had nearly driven Darcy to distraction. His jealousy had not given him an hour's peace until he had seen her again at Pemberley, and witnessed her reply to Caroline Bingley's ill-natured reference to Wickham. Now, he was convinced, Elizabeth was safe from Wickham's smooth insincerity—after this episode, she would never be any danger from him. But the present occasion was no time to indulge in such comforting reflections. Darcy returned to his questioning.
"Mr. Wickham, you stated previously that you have some feelings for Miss Bennet. While her father is not imagined to be very rich, yet he might have been able to do something for you, and your situation must have been benefited by marriage. You came away with Miss Bennet from Brighton having promised to marry her. Yet I find you together in Town, still unmarried. Sir, if you intended to marry the lady, I feel obliged to ask you: why is it not done?"
"Mr. Darcy, before I answer your question, I would wish to be reassured on one point. Does your offer to assist me depend upon the opinion you form of my actions based upon the information you receive from me in the course of this interview? If I am candid with you, am I injuring myself in the process?"
"I will assist you without regard to my opinion of the answers you give to my questions."
"In that case, I confess that it was never my intention to marry Miss Bennet. Had I wished it, we would certainly have continued our journey to Scotland. Once wed, I have no doubt that her parents would have become reconciled to the match in time, and would have done what they could for us. But, Sir, consider how little, in all probability, that would amount to, and, as you have discovered, my need is great. I have no profession or occupation. My commission is forfeit, and I mean to resign it immediately. Had Miss Bennet and I married, I dare say my situation would have been benefited, but only slightly; married, we would have had next to nothing to live upon, instead of nothing. As matters stand, I know I must go somewhere, but I do not know where. But at least I can still shift for myself; and I am not without hope. I still think it possible that I may marry well, perhaps to a lady of fortune in another country. I fancy that I could live as quietly and respectably as any other gentlemen, if I were once freed from this continual worry over money!"
Darcy rose from his chair. "Mr. Wickham, I have said that this account of your actions would not affect my intention to assist you, and I now reaffirm that statement. Fortunately, however, I am not obliged to agree with your opinions. I am satisfied that this interview has served its purpose. I suggest that we rejoin Miss Bennet; I wish to speak with her—privately. Depending upon the result of my conversation with her, I may need to talk with you again."
Wickham stood up as well. "You mentioned conditions..."
"I did, and it is right that you should understand my intentions. I will speak with Miss Bennet, and I shall use every argument in my power to convince her to abandon you and return to her friends immediately. You can scarcely object to such a procedure, having admitted your schemes for the future and your unwillingness to honour your promises to her. Should you attempt to interfere with my efforts, my promise to assist you becomes void. If I am successful with Miss Bennet, I will arrange to pay your passage on a ship bound for any part of the world you desire, provided it be outside Great Britain and Ireland. Further, I undertake to provide you with my banker's draft in the sum of 200 pounds, negotiable at any of his correspondents abroad. So long as you do not set foot in Britain for a period of five years, and keep silent concerning your dealings with Miss Bennet, I will send you an additional 200 pounds annually. At the end of five years, I will discharge your debts in this country, and you will then be at liberty to return. However, should you fail to abide by either of the conditions I have mentioned, all my assistance to you will be finished."
"And if Miss Bennet will not abandon me?"
"In that event, there will be no necessity for your sojourn abroad, and we will speak again. Now, Sir, I believe that we have kept Miss Bennet waiting long enough. Are we agreed thus far?"
"One moment, Sir. If your first object is to detach Miss Bennet from me, I could arrange the matter very easily by leaving her. You have no need for these elaborate safeguards!"
"Perhaps not, but I view the matter somewhat differently. I consider it only just that your fate be decided by the lady whom you have treated so despicably. Indeed, Mr. Wickham, I must insist upon it. Of course, you may choose not to wait upon Miss Bennet's verdict. You may determine remove from her despite my wishes—or hers. However, should you do so, I shall regard it as proof of your resolution to decline my aid."
"Now I comprehend the value of your promises, Sir! But I hardly expected anything more of you!"
"I am sorry that you feel yourself injured, Mr. Wickham, but I fail to comprehend how I may have been the cause of it. I stated my intention to assist you; I informed you that this assistance was conditional. I have stated my conditions, and you appear to find them onerous. I apologize for it, but surely this is merely a case of differing opinions. No fact of which I was aware before we entered this room, and nothing you have told me since this conversation began, has affected my offer of assistance. Neither the account of your past actions nor the motives which you have admitted influenced you has altered my resolution. I stand ready to assist you, but I think it only reasonable to demand as a condition of my aid that your actions from this moment forward will conform to my wishes. Furthermore, I must be allowed to be the judge of the means best calculated to achieve the object which induced me to offer my assistance to you in the first instance."
"So you are to be the judge of all in this, as in everything else?"
"In what concerns you, who more fitting, Sir?" And he moved to the door.
Part Five--At the Lady's Pleasure
The two gentlemen retraced their steps to Barham's Close in silence. Darcy did not regret the time and effort he had expended in rehearsing the scene just past; he felt that his careful preparation had borne fruit. Wickham had been caught off guard, though how long this desirable condition would last it was impossible to conjecture. Darcy was determined not to fall into complacency, however; his adversary was both reckless and resourceful--a dangerous combination. It would be best, he decided, to force the pace and bring matters to a conclusion.
It threatened rain; the sky had grown overcast and gloomy, though it was barely past midday. As they walked along, each man's thoughts were abstracted. George Wickham was preoccupied with a desperate search for some means of overthrowing Darcy's carefully-devised restrictions on his freedom of action. For his part, Darcy was oppressed by a sense of foreboding when he anticipated the conversation he was about to initiate with Lydia Bennet. He could not be certain of the extent of Wickham's power over her, but several remarks which his companion had made during their talk had heightened his concern that Lydia's affections and judgment had become so completely subject to Wickham's influence that any attempt he might make to detach her were foredoomed to failure.
Reaching the door of the lodging house, Darcy turned to face his companion, and spoke to him with coldness. "I remind you, Mr. Wickham, that I will brook no interference. When we rejoin Miss Bennet, you will find some excuse for leaving the room, and await me here. You will do or say nothing to cause her concern. Is this quite understood?"
"You have made your wishes very clear, Mr. Darcy."
Reentering the room, they found that Lydia had not been idle in their absence. She was absorbed in the task of arranging her wardrobe, and appeared to be in some perplexity. The two men bowed, and Darcy greeted her once more. Short of breath, Lydia curtsied and returned their greeting--although the effect was somewhat spoiled by the bonnet she held in either hand.
"Oh, there you are! I am so glad! Mr. Darcy, you and dear Wickham must advise me which of these gowns will look best! I rely upon you both, as I have not so much experience of London." Darcy directed a challenging glance at Wickham, managing to convey his impatience at the other man's continued presence by means of a slightly raised eyebrow, and waited for him to make his excuses.
"I am very sorry, dearest, but I must leave you again for a short while. Mr. Darcy has brought some papers with him that require my urgent attention. We rushed back to you as soon as we could, and I have not yet had an opportunity to examine them. I must look through them before he goes, but I will return as soon as I am able. Until then, Mr. Darcy will stay with you." Lydia pouted, and Wickham contrived to look both unhappy and apologetic. "Truly, my love, I would much rather stay here with you, and I shall envy Darcy every moment of your company." Wickham gave her a glowing smile, and Lydia's face brightened. He turned and quietly left them.
Lydia faced Darcy with a radiant, excited expression. "Mr. Darcy, of course you will understand that I wished to have Mr. Wickham's opinion, but, now that I think of it, perhaps you have even more experience in these matters. So, do you think this worked muslin is fine enough for an evening at the Little Theatre? And what of this pelisse? I fear I have nothing better."
It was Darcy's turn to be taken off guard. "The theatre, Miss Bennet? Surely, you cannot...that is, I was not aware that you and Mr. Wickham contemplated attending the theatre this evening."
"Oh! I am sure he will oblige me if I ask him. My dear Wickham has been so fretful about money of late, but he looked so pleased and happy when you returned just now! I think you must have given him good news--you said that you had something to tell him that would be to his advantage, did you not? I know he was most grateful. He is the gentlest and best of men! And I must not forget to thank you, as well, Mr. Darcy!"
"Miss Bennet, I do not believe that you should depend upon Mr. Wickham accompanying you to the theatre this evening.... Pardon me, may I be seated?"
"Of course, Sir!"
"Thank you." Darcy sat down, gazing at her intently, but his expression was gentle. He paused for a moment; when he spoke, his tone was mild. "I am grateful for this opportunity of speaking with you privately, Miss Bennet. It has been my great desire to do so for several days past, but I own to having felt great apprehension when I contemplated what might transpire in the course of this interview. I fear that what I must relate will shock and distress you. I beg you to believe that such is not my intention, though I regret that it may well prove unavoidable."
"Lord, Mr. Darcy, this is a very solemn way of going on! What a frightening man you can be!" But Lydia hardly appeared frightened, and Darcy thought that her manner seemed intended to be teasing. He fancied she would not remain so carefree for much longer.
"The matters I must raise with you are of a most solemn and serious nature. They affect nothing less than your own future life and happiness, together with the respectability and social position of your family. Miss Bennet, however strong your affection for Mr. Wickham, you cannot fail to comprehend that--at the very least--you have laid yourself open to a charge of serious imprudence by acting as you have. Your elopement from Brighton amounted to an open proclamation of your disdain for the propriety demanded by social convention. The general opinion of the world will view your action as a deliberate affront to its standards of morality, and your continuing to remain with Mr. Wickham as a willful persistence in sin."
"You speak of the opinion of the world, Mr. Darcy. La! I find that a rather puny consideration! I am a lady with no fortune, a lady without title, connection, or expectations. I will explain to you what the opinion of the world demands, Mr. Darcy. It demands that I catch at whoever I can, or be left a penniless old maid owing whatever she has of comfort and happiness to the grudging sufferance of her relations. What do I care for the opinion of the world? If I chance to gain the affection of a gentleman who is handsome, intelligent and charming, but is without money, and must live by his own wits and exertion--well, what of that? The opinion of the world would have it that this is good enough for such a lady as I--and a better fate than I have any right to expect. So be it! I am content."
"I will not contend with you over the justice of the world's dispositions in these matters, Miss Bennet. I would merely observe that you have spent your life surrounded by a loving and indulgent family; I do not believe that you realise how sternly your behaviour will be censured, nor how harsh the world's punishment of such an offense can be.
However, should you remove from Mr. Wickham immediately, before news of this episode becomes widespread, it may be possible to retrieve the situation. If you return to your friends displaying repentance for your past errors, and act with discretion and prudence in future, I dare to hope that your reputation will suffer no permanent injury. Your youth and lack of experience of the world will be seen as offering some excuse for your actions. I earnestly counsel you to adopt this course; every hour you delay increases the likelihood that your situation will become generally known, and, when this occurs, the resulting scandal will ruin your reputation beyond recovery. At that point, your removal from Mr. Wickham--no matter how desirable this would be in itself--becomes a futile exercise."
"This is beyond anything! If this sort of speech comprises the sum of your advice to me, you had much better save your breath, Mr. Darcy. As I have attempted to inform you, I think that I know my own interest."
"Sadly, Miss Bennet, I cannot admit that you do know it in the present case. I have come hither determined to inform you of certain facts, in the belief that, by so doing, I might persuade you to think most carefully about your present situation, and of the consequences for yourself and others should you insist upon remaining with Mr. Wickham. I am afraid that you do not know what Mr. Wickham truly is. His elopement with you is only the most recent example in a long catalogue of his offenses. I will be candid with you, Miss Bennet. I am convinced that it would be in your interest to leave him immediately, and, should you agree, I hope that you will allow me to escort you to your aunt and uncle's home as soon as this conversation is concluded."
"I cannot imagine myself agreeing to anything of the kind, Mr. Darcy. Upon my word, you are remarkably free with your 'beliefs' and 'convictions'! But why should I be surprised? This is just the sort of speech everyone has come to expect of you; your arrogance and presumption appear to know no bounds. By what right do you take it upon yourself to lecture me?"
"Miss Bennet, I acknowledge that our acquaintance has been very slight, and apparently you have formed a very unfavourable opinion of my character and motives. I freely admit that my past behaviour has given you--and the rest of your family--ample foundation for such a view. When I recollect a number of incidents in which I have been concerned in recent months, I am ashamed. If I have offended you, please accept my apology, and do me the great kindness of trusting that I have somewhat more of humility than formerly. Indeed, Miss Bennet, if I were capable of expressing to you how sincerely I have had cause to repent the past, you might well be astonished."
He paused for a few moments, and appeared deep in thought. His expression revealed a mixture of sadness and resignation. When he resumed speaking, his voice was quiet. "I claim no rights whatsoever in this affair. I have no right to insist upon directing your decisions, and I certainly shall not attempt to coerce you in any way. Whatever course you may resolve to pursue, I assure you of my continued friendship. Further, I pledge you my support and my assistance, as far as I am able to provide them. I have come to you because I am of the belief that, had you been so fortunate as to have a brother to advise you in these circumstances, he would speak to you as I shall. But I have another inducement. You may be aware of my long-standing acquaintance with Mr. Wickham. Miss Bennet, I would venture to declare that no other person is so familiar with Mr. Wickham's character and history as I am, not excepting yourself. If I have been guilty of a presumption, it comes of the conviction that no one else could speak to you with such authority and such full information as I can."
Lydia lifted her chin in show of defiance. "Mr. Darcy, you can have nothing to tell me of Mr. Wickham which I would care to hear. We are to be married! We have engaged ourselves to each other, and we do not care what the world may say! Do you seriously suppose that I, who am to be his wife, would credit anything you could say to diminish him in my eyes? You, who have so often injured him in the past?"
The sickening thought flashed into Darcy's mind that, had events arranged themselves differently, Lydia's words might have been spoken by her sister, Elizabeth. But, no--once again, he was undervaluing Elizabeth's understanding and virtue! Regardless of the warmth of her sentiments, she would never act as Lydia had.
"I perceive that Mr. Wickham has chosen to give you some account of our past dealings with one another. I have no doubt that what he has related has caused you to think me cruel, arrogant, and vindictive. Miss Bennet, I deeply regret that, at present, I am unable to provide you with conclusive proofs to contradict his statements..."
"Because you cannot! Or, rather, you dare not, because you know that he could demonstrate the falsehood of anything you might say!"
"Miss Bennet, I have merely stated that I could not present the proofs to which I referred at the present moment. Nevertheless, if you demand that I produce them, I will do so. I will require a few days to assemble the necessary documents, however. In the meantime, I trust that you will have no objection to removing to your aunt and uncle's home until this task is completed?"
Lydia's face flushed a deep red, and she appeared even more annoyed than previously. "Oh, yes, that would be an excellent scheme, indeed! What a conniving man you are! You will not 'coerce' me, I think you said. So, instead, you attempt trickery--and such a feeble, transparent ruse! You must believe me a simpleton! But I am not so easily caught out, Sir. I will not abandon Wickham, and I will not leave this room, unless it be to meet him on our wedding day!"
"Miss Bennet, I am sorry that you have seen fit to question my word. Since you obviously credit what you have heard from Mr. Wickham, perhaps you feel entitled to reproach me. Yet, when I offer to supply you with proof of my truthfulness, and request but a few days grace to effect this, you accuse me of still another deception. Is this quite fair? Is it reasonable? I ask you to remember that everything you have learned of my supposed untrustworthiness you have received--directly or indirectly--from one source. No matter how greatly you esteem Mr. Wickham, surely you will allow me the same right the law of England accords every accused man--the opportunity to defend himself. All I have requested of you is that you suspend your judgment concerning the reliability of my account of my past dealings with Mr. Wickham for a short time. If you are unwilling to grant me even this much, I shall appeal to your candour: can you name a single falsehood that I have told to you or to anyone of your acquaintance?"
Lydia's face still retained a look of defiance, but she appeared somewhat chastened. She said nothing. Darcy gave her a few moments to recover her composure, and then resumed.
"In that case, may I remind you of the assurance I gave you a moment ago? I have said that I would be guided entirely by your wishes in this matter, and that I would provide you with what assistance I could. I intended no trickery in making the suggestion that you remove from Mr. Wickham for the time being. You must see that such a removal would be most desirable without regard to the decision you reach this afternoon. I have stated my conviction that you would be well advised to abandon Mr. Wickham, immediately and forever. However, if, after you have heard what I have to say, you remain determined to marry him, there necessarily will be a great many arrangements to be completed before a marriage can take place. In the interest both of propriety and convenience, these arrangements should be carried out while you remain in your relatives' home and under their protection."
"I do not admit that, Mr. Darcy. Have you consulted my father or Mr. Gardiner? If so, why have they not accompanied you here?" Darcy noticed a change in Lydia's countenance. Where she had been angry and irritated only a moment before, she was now overcome with eagerness. "Has my father agreed to my marrying Mr. Wickham? Will he give me my bride's portion? I would so adore to be married in Town! Mama will be so pleased--she always admired dear Wickham. And I shall have all my sisters to be my bridesmaids! Jane and Lizzy will be exceedingly jealous of me, but Kitty will love it above anything!"
Darcy thought it best to stem this tide of enthusiasm. "I regret that I have neither seen nor spoken with your father or Mr. Gardiner since learning of your elopement, Miss Bennet. I know that Mr. Bennet had journeyed to Town some days ago with the design of discovering your whereabouts, and that Mr. Gardiner would, in all probability, be enlisted to assist him, but I have not encountered either gentleman. However, I have reason to know that your father and the rest of your family are extremely concerned for you. They regard this elopement as highly imprudent, to say the least. And some of your relations, who are perhaps better informed than yourself concerning Mr. Wickham's history, believe that you have compromised your reputation and risked irremediable injury to your family's respectability for a man who is unworthy of your notice. I am obliged to say, Miss Bennet, that I am in entire agreement with this view of the matter."
"Allow me to say, Mr. Darcy, that I find all this very strange! How, if you have not spoken with either gentleman, can you know this?"
"I first learned of your elopement with Mr. Wickham from your sister, Elizabeth. She and your aunt and uncle had undertaken a tour of Derbyshire, and had broken their journey at Lambton, which is but a short distance from my own home. We met, quite by chance, and renewed our acquaintance. A few days later, I called on her, and happened upon her just as she had finished reading a letter from your eldest sister which informed her of what had occurred." Darcy paused as he recalled the painful scene at Lambton. "Your sister was most affected, Miss Bennet. I cannot recall ever witnessing a lady in such great distress; she could hardly stand, and appeared to despair that the situation could be retrieved. By that time, it was known that you and Mr. Wickham had not gone to Scotland, and your sister told me that Mr. Bennet had already left Longbourn for Town. She and Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner began their return to Hertfordshire the same morning."
"La! I can certainly comprehend why Lizzy should have been 'affected,' as you call it, Mr. Darcy. Mr. Wickham has always been a favourite of hers, but if he has bestowed his choice elsewhere, she can scarcely complain of it! Lizzy would never take the trouble to make herself agreeable to a man of spirit. If you will believe me, she opposed our family visiting Brighton after the militia removed from Meryton! She was so indifferent it nearly drove me distracted, and Mama was as shocked as I was! I ask you, Mr. Darcy, what man would not look elsewhere after experiencing such coldness? Oh, I do pity her, of course. But if she is unhappy, she must look to her own actions for the explanation of it!"
This response left Darcy momentarily speechless with astonishment. How is it possible that she could misunderstand and undervalue her own sister so completely? How could she live with Elizabeth in the same home, in the same family circle, all her life and yet believe her capable of such shallowness? He felt that, though almost completely ignorant of Lydia's character, he would not have believed her capable of voicing such opinions, had he not actually heard them.
"Miss Bennet, you wrong your sister by believing that these considerations influenced her view of this episode, even in the smallest degree. I am quite certain that her concern was entirely devoted to safeguard your interest, and to prevent your family from being injured by what she regarded as your foolish and reckless disregard of morality and social convention. I beg your pardon; I did not intend to speak to you so bluntly."
Darcy paused to calm his emotions and check his frustration. For her part, Lydia appeared startled at this momentary lapse from the calmness he had heretofore displayed. Her face had the look of a drowsy person who had been prodded into wakefulness by some sudden noise. Noticing this change, Darcy felt that perhaps his outburst had produced some good, and resumed his account with increased hope.
"Her distress was increased by her knowledge of Mr. Wickham's true character and history. I myself had enlightened your sister regarding these matters some months previously, but my disclosure was accompanied by my clearly-stated expectation of her secrecy respecting the most damaging of my revelations. Thus, she was not at liberty to share all of her information with you, and for this, I alone am responsible. She also confided to me that she had made the mistake of withholding what she knew from her family and others, but only because she had been uncertain how much she could--or should--reveal. I am satisfied from what I know of her character that she would not have done so had she perceived a risk to any of you, and she probably reasoned that any occasion for revealing what she knew would be removed by Mr. Wickham's departure from Meryton.
Now, however, I have the unpleasant duty of relating something of the same intelligence to you. I entreat you to hear me in silence; I find these recollections exceedingly painful, and I would finish with them as soon as possible." Darcy rose and walked slowly to the window; he stood silently for a few moments, and seemed to gaze at some far distant object.
Then, in a slow, methodical voice, Darcy told Lydia of Wickham—and of himself. He related stories of their youth spent together, and described his father's fondness for George Wickham. As he passed to an account of their years at Cambridge, he suppressed nothing of Wickham's debauchery and dissolution. Nor did he omit to confess what he regarded as his own complicity in Wickham's outrages, and attempted to explain his reason for it. He disclosed his father's hopes, and his own subsequent dealings with Wickham concerning the living at Kympton. He revealed everything he knew of the extravagance, deceit, treachery, selfishness and immorality of her companion. After nearly three quarters of an hour, he turned to face her again.
"I have almost done, Miss Bennet, but not quite. There is yet one further example of Mr. Wickham's villainy which I must recount to you. Since it bears so near a resemblance to your own situation, I believe that you are entitled to hear of it, and that I am justified in communicating it to you. When you comprehend its nature, I trust that you will excuse my inability to be more precise with respect to the particulars of the case....
Some months ago, before he came to Meryton and entered the militia, Mr. Wickham engaged the affections of a young lady of nearly the same age with yourself. Both Mr. Wickham and I had been intimately acquainted with this lady from a very young age, which is how I came to hear of it. She is possessed of a very large fortune, and has an affectionate and trusting disposition. Mr. Wickham's finances at the time were in a precarious condition, and he desperately required a large sum of money. He also felt himself aggrieved by certain actions of the lady's guardian, and sought a means of revenging himself on this gentleman.
Mr. Wickham accordingly contrived to gain regular admittance to see the lady through the collusion of the woman who had been engaged as her companion. He soon convinced her that he was in love with her, and, having succeeded in gaining her affection, it was a simple matter to persuade her to elope with him. At almost the last moment, however, the lady's guardian discovered what had been going forward, and he was able to thwart Mr. Wickham's scheme. I am assured that, when questioned, Mr. Wickham confessed to having felt no genuine affection for the lady he had used so shamefully, but instead admitted that he had been motivated solely by vindictiveness and his pressing need of money. He was thereupon bribed to take himself off, which he immediately did.
Miss Bennet, I wish that I could tell you that the lady in question felt as little for him as he deserves, but such was not the case. Her esteem and affection for him were real, and she has had to confront the realization of Mr. Wickham's treachery, together with the mortification of what she regards as her own imprudence, every hour since.
This is the man to whom you have chosen to entrust your future happiness and well-being. After everything I have told you, will you not reconsider your resolution to remain with him, and agree to accompany me to Gracechurch Street?"
Lydia's eyes had grown wider with each sentence of Darcy's narrative. He had carefully observed her reactions as he spoke, and thought he had detected her lower lip begin to tremble slightly. When he had finished, she hesitated, searching his face for some sign that might betray the falsehood of what he had related. Finding none, she averted her eyes. A few moments later, she suddenly shook her head, and gave him a look of defiance.
"No, Mr. Darcy, I will not. I am decided; I will not leave Mr. Wickham! If he has acted wrongly in the past, what is that to me? And if he has done so, he was impelled by desperation! I care nothing for what you think of him! If you think so meanly of him, you cannot know him as I do! I will not be bundled off to Cheapside to be preached to by my aunt and uncle! I insist upon making my own choice in what so nearly concerns me. You may assist me or not, as you will. I do not ask for your help, and I do not desire it! I will return to Longbourn a married woman, and I do not care how long it may take!"
Darcy walked to the table, and picked up his hat and cane. "If this is your final determination, Miss Bennet, I shall make no further attempt to dissuade you. I will do whatever I am able to secure your marriage with Mr. Wickham at the earliest possible moment. I am sorry if anything I have said or done has caused you distress; the only excuse I can offer for my actions is my real concern for your future happiness, and the regard I have for your family. Pardon me, I have trespassed too long on your patience. Good day, Miss Bennet."
"Good day, Mr. Darcy."
As he descended the stairs and walked out into Barham's Close, Darcy's mood was somber and subdued. Wickham met him there, a questioning look in his eyes.
"It appears that we shall have occasion to talk further, Mr. Wickham. Have the goodness to meet me in the 'Bull' tomorrow morning at nine o'clock; I think we may discuss matters more comfortably there."
"As you wish, Sir."
"One more thing, Mr. Wickham..."
"Miss Bennet may want discretion, but she is not lacking in loyalty, I think."
Wickham smiled. "I never doubted it, Mr. Darcy."
"Did you not? Well, perhaps it is fortunate for you that Miss Bennet is still young, and does not yet appreciate that her loyalty should be earned. Good day, Mr. Wickham."
Part XI--A Wedding March
It was but a few minutes shy of half past ten o'clock on a brilliant morning in late August when Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy's barouche drew up before the Church of St. Clement Danes in the Strand. Without waiting for assistance, the vehicle's sole occupant promptly opened the door and stepped down into the street. Moving the short distance to the front of the carriage, he spoke to his coachman in a calm, quiet voice.
"I shan't require you again for perhaps an hour or thereabouts, O'Malley. Be so good as to remain here."
"Yessir," replied the driver respectfully, touching his hat. He had been in Mr. Darcy's employ for better than a year now, but had never seen the master in this mood before. "He's as stony-faced as one o' them old Roman statues this mornin'. Someone's for it, that's certain!"
Darcy turned away from O'Malley to face the church, and found himself impressed yet again by the beauty and elegance of Sir Christopher Wren's design. Of all the churches in London, he believed St. Clement's had always been his favourite. To be sure, it was not the most fashionable or the most imposing; nevertheless, the sight of this church had never failed to fill him with pleasure and lift his spirit. Viewing it now, he found that he could not repress gloomier thoughts.
How ironic that Wickham had elected to conceal himself and Lydia Bennet in the parish of St. Clement Danes, and by so doing, determined that this church would be the scene of their wedding! Having failed to obtain lodgings with Mrs. Younge in Edward Street, the fugitive couple had sought refuge in the district of London most familiar to George Wickham—the area surrounding the Temple, where he had resided during his abortive "legal career". In discussing the arrangements, Darcy and Edward Gardiner had agreed at once that any thought of performing the ceremony in Longbourn parish church was out of the question. Thus, the two gentlemen were left with no option; St. Clement Danes it would have to be. Darcy could not help feeling a poignant sadness. Will I ever see it after today without painful memories?
Removing his hat and gloves, Darcy went into the cool interior of the church; once inside, he made his way to a pew near the front and quietly seated himself. After the bright sunshine of the street, it required a few moments to adjust his vision to his new surroundings. Gazing slowly around him, he observed that, for the moment, he was alone.
Darcy's reflections turned to the ceremony that was about to take place, and the strain of the preceding weeks. His negotiations with Wickham had proven a severe trial of his patience. It had required several interviews before everything had been settled--although perhaps not to that gentleman's complete satisfaction. From the outset, it had been apparent that Wickham viewed Lydia's determination to proceed with the marriage as an opportunity to extort concessions from the man who had stepped forward as her protector.
He had begun by demanding that Darcy reward him for his agreeing to Lydia's wishes with the conveyance of what he chose to term "a moderate estate"--to be carved out from the latter gentleman's lands in Derbyshire. Darcy smiled grimly as he recalled the accomodating tone Wickham's voice had assumed when he had hastened to assure him that the property in question "need not be worth more than two thousand-a-year." Darcy had not anticipated this particular ultimatum, an oversight which he could not help thinking had been foolish of him. He was not surprised to discover that the thought of living the rest of his days with Mr. and Mrs. Wickham as near neighbors--all the while knowing their estate to consist of land which had once been a part of Pemberley—filled him with dismay and revulsion.
Darcy had not responded to this proposal with the contempt it merited, however. Instead of an absolute negative, he had countered with an offer intended to deflect Wickham's avarice into other channels. Nevertheless, the subject of landed property had been constantly renewed in the course of the discussion; Mr. Wickham was nothing if not persistent. Yet Darcy had had the advantage of the certain knowledge that Wickham's position was hardly unassailable, and he had noted with satisfaction that the size of Mr. Wickham's projected estate diminished with each subsequent mention of it until, at last, it vanished altogether.
Having thus disposed of George Wickham's ambition of establishing himself as a member of the landed gentry, Darcy had found it far simpler to persuade him to talk of actual possibilities. Both the Law and the Church had been canvassed, but both had been promptly discarded. Wickham had declared the first-named profession "unsuitable" to his talents, and, just as decidedly, Darcy had expressed his opinion that any scheme which resulted in George Wickham taking holy orders would be similarly unsatisfactory--although he refrained from enumerating still other, more cogent, justifications for dismissing this alternative. They had agreed that the Navy was quite impossible by reason of Mr. Wickham's age, if for no other reason. Only the Army, therefore, remained to be discussed.
Darcy soon learnt that Wickham had grown disenchanted with the militia: his fellow officers in the Blankshire, he felt, had not exhibited the proper "dash" or "presence". While good enough fellows, they were still "just lads". On the other hand, a commission in the regulars--a captaincy, perhaps--would be "just the thing." Eventually, an ensigncy in a regiment of the line had been determined upon, although Darcy had reserved to himself the choice of the corps which would be honoured with Ensign Wickham's services.
The settlement itself had proven a relatively straightforward matter. Wickham, of course, had coveted a far larger sum than Darcy was willing to consider, but a number of subtle reminders from the latter concerning the pressing nature of Wickham's financial situation, together with a pledge to discharge his debts, had succeeded in finally wearing down his resistance....
At this point, Mr. Darcy's reverie was interrupted by sounds coming from the rear of the building which seemed to emanate from the street. Turning towards the source of this disturbance, he observed George Wickham passing through the outer door and into the church. Mr. Wickham closed the door behind him, restoring silence to the interior of the church, and then walked briskly up the aisle. As he approached Darcy, the two men nodded to each other, but neither spoke. Wickham stepped into the pew, and seated himself immediately beside Darcy.
The Rector of St. Clement's, The Rev. Dr. Charles Beddowes, joined them a few minutes later, and soon engaged the bridegroom in quiet conversation. George Wickham, as always, contrived to render his words and manner agreeable to his audience, and Darcy thought he detected that Dr. Beddowes was much impressed with Mr. Wickham's candour and gravity on what the elderly clergyman repeatedly referred to as "this solemn and joyous occasion."
As Darcy listened in silence, his face an impenetrable mask, a great deal was said concerning the importance of allying affection with prudence and discretion when contemplating entering upon the marriage state. The Reverend Doctor expressed his view that the choice of a marriage partner was among the most momentous and fateful decisions in life, and therefore, should be one attended by very serious and careful reflection. Mr. Wickham's ready assent to this opinion appeared to gratify at least one of his listeners, and Dr. Beddowes' countenance assumed a glow of warm approval.
Once again the sound of the door being opened reached them, causing the three men to look up and turn towards the rear of the church. Lydia Bennet preceded her aunt and uncle up the aisle towards them; she was dressed in a simple yet becoming gown, and was holding a small bouquet of summer flowers before her. Her face was radiant, her eyes shone, and she smiled at everyone and everything in turn. Darcy and Wickham rose to their feet; Mr. Beddowes bestowed a gentle smile upon the bride, and asked her softly if she was ready to proceed with the ceremony.
"Oh, yes, please! Everything looks so delightful! I am quite ready, I assure you."
Wickham stepped forward to stand by her side; opening his Liturgy to the proper page, Dr. Beddowes moved to stand before the bride and groom, and began the service...
"Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony; which is an honourable estate..."
Thus, thought Darcy, is the sole ambition of Lydia Bennet's young life realised. How soon will she come to repent of her eagerness and teach herself to question the value of what she has achieved today? Will she ever recognise that she has bartered any hope of obtaining the substance of what she pursued in exchange for its appearance? Where true love and esteem existed, what a blessing to have God's grace unite two souls! But in such a case as this...what misery I foresee!
Still, they are well-matched, man and wife: both of them extravagant, and both selfish. She, calculating--but foolish, and incapable of perceiving the price she pays for her schemes; he, cunning--yet blind to the injury he does himself through the villainy of his actions and the baseness of his objects. Resembling each other in their recklessness, their caprice, and their shallowness. A couple bent on giving the appearance of virtue and respectability in spite of their complete ignorance and indifference concerning the effort necessary to attain either. Both of them sensitive upon points of rank and dignity, while neither their characters nor their accomplishments warranted their pretensions...
"George, wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife..."
Darcy could not avoid painful reflections on the significance of this marriage for himself. In only a few moments more, George Wickham was to be finally and irrevocably connected to the one family in England--apart from Darcy's own--where his relationship would cause Darcy the most distress. Only the success of Wickham's scheme to elope with Georgiana last summer would have grieved him more than what was about to occur. Was it just a year ago? And what have I gained by all my effort and care of the past month? From this day forward, George Wickham will serve as a constant reminder to those at Longbourn of the wound my pride has inflicted on them! But I was powerless to prevent it; I could do no more!
"Lydia, wilt thou have this man to thy wedded husband..."
But wait! Was that the truth? I might have bribed Wickham as I did last summer. He was willing to abandon Miss Bennet, but I insisted that he wait upon her decision. Yet his silence after removing from her was as vital an object as his removal, and had I agreed to his suggestion, I would have lost any power of insuring this. I could not have relied upon Wickham's continued silence regarding Miss Bennet—I had not the right. Georgiana is my sister, and I am her guardian; I might risk that Wickham would hold his tongue where she was concerned--it was my own family's respectability at stake. I enjoyed no such privilege while I sought to protect Miss Bennet's interest.
"Who giveth this woman to be married to this man?"
Mr. Gardiner stepped forward and answered Dr. Beddowes, prompting Darcy to consider what he and Mrs. Gardiner must be enduring as they witnessed this ceremony. Darcy had experienced a growing fondness for the Gardiners over the past several weeks; from necessity, he and Edward Gardiner had been thrown together a great deal whilst attempting to successfully negotiate the terms of the marriage settlement and arrange the wedding itself.
Darcy had found this opportunity for close cooperation with Elizabeth's uncle most rewarding, and his respect for the older man had steadily increased. Indeed, from the moment of their first meeting at Pemberley, Darcy's opinion of Mr. Gardiner had never ceased to improve. The energy, good humour, common sense and intelligence which Mr. Gardiner never failed to display--when allied to his evident concern for his niece--had succeeded in demonstrating to Darcy the error of his former haughty disdain for those whom circumstances had assigned to a lower rank in society than his own. In short, he had come to feel the greatest esteem for Mr. Gardiner, and it pleased him to think that the other man might return his regard.
Mrs. Gardiner, too, had earned Darcy's respect and esteem. Calling upon them both in Gracechurch Street, he had observed the harmony and comfort which she strove to maintain in their home. Her constant attention and activity was directed to secure the welfare of her family, and Darcy was convinced that neither her husband nor her children could have wished for a kinder or more untiring guardian. In conversing with her, he had formed the opinion that her intelligence had a greater natural penetration than her husband's, but he observed that though Mr. Gardiner constantly sought her advice on various weighty matters, she offered it in a manner which never betrayed a sense of her own superiority. They were obviously devoted to one another, and to their children; each partner's gifts ideally complemented the other's, and Darcy had come away from his visits with the feeling that the Gardiners had attained a degree of happiness in their marriage which any couple might well envy.
Thus, Darcy could only sympathise with the Gardiners' obvious sadness as they watched the final resolution of this deplorable affair. Having themselves lived together companionably for so many years, Darcy imagined that the thoughts of both husband and wife could not fail to dwell on their own mode of life--and to contrast their happiness with their expectations for the pair who stood before them. Over the past month, Darcy had felt bound to share with them his information regarding Wickham's history. Knowing what they now did, they could have no illusions regarding the hopes their niece might entertain for the future.
"Forasmuch as George and Lydia have consented together in holy wedlock, and have witnessed the same before God and this company, and thereto have given and pledged their troth either to other, and have declared the same by giving and receiving of a ring, and by joining hands; I pronounce that they be man and wife together, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
It was done. As Dr. Beddowes began the reading of the psalm, Darcy was no longer able to suppress his remembrance of Elizabeth, and the torment of his remorse and despair.
And is this--this hideous travesty of a marriage—is this to be the last service I shall perform for her? What if I should never see her again? Am I fated never to look into her beautiful eyes once more; never to hear her voice; never to see her glorious smile? And yet, what I am feeling is nothing compared with the misery to come! What will I suffer when I hear that she has given her love to another? Oh, dear God, I could not bear it!
Dear Lord, if I must suffer this emptiness and longing, I pray for the strength of Your healing grace. I acknowledge the justice of my punishment, but I entreat You to show me mercy! Teach me to live hereafter in patient and humble submission to Your will.
I beg You to keep her safe and well. I do not think I could endure it if I knew that she was in any pain! Give her every happiness; reward her with Your blessing in all that she does; support her in every trial of her life; and protect those dear to her.
Lord, grant her Your favour always...
The service ended with the completion of the prescribed prayers. Extending his congratulations to Mr. and Mrs. Wickham, Dr. Beddowes showed them to the vestry, where the Gardiners and Darcy witnessed the entry to the parish register recording the performance of the ceremony.
With this final formality accomplished, the newlyweds led the wedding party into the brilliant August sunshine; once outside the church, the Gardiners immediately came up to the young couple to add their congratulations to those of Dr. Beddowes. Darcy allowed the family group a few minutes of private conversation before approaching them; removing his hat, he bowed to Lydia.
"Mrs. Wickham, may I wish you joy? You and Mr. Wickham will always have my very best wishes for your future health and happiness. Mr. Wickham, my compliments; you have acquired a most lovely bride this morning. I wish you joy, as well, Sir." The two men bowed to each other, but Darcy could not bring himself to offer Wickham his hand, and Wickham did not appear to expect it. Instead, the bridegroom smiled ingratiatingly and responded as form demanded.
"On behalf of Mrs. Wickham and myself, I thank you, Mr. Darcy. Naturally, I am exceedingly gratified that my oldest friend has found it possible to attend my wedding. If I may say so, you have been a witness to my securing what has already proven to be the source of my greatest happiness." Pausing here, he bestowed a warm smile on Lydia, who, it soon became apparent, could no longer contain her excitement and triumph.
"Oh, Mr. Darcy, I am so happy! I was afraid something might happen to put it off, and after I had waited simply forever until everything was arranged. And now it is all finished in less than an hour, and we are married til death us do part! Is it not wonderful?" Scarcely pausing to recover breath, she went on in the much same manner.
"Oh, I long to be at Longbourn so that I may tell them all about it! How my sisters will envy me! I, the youngest of the Bennet girls, am the first to wed. And I shall show them my ring whenever they may ask to see it--for, of course, they will want to see it very often."
Darcy was somewhat at a loss how to respond to these exclamations or, indeed, to decide which of them required an answer from him. Consequently, he was relieved when Lydia concluded by excusing herself to rejoin her new husband, who was conversing with Mr. Gardiner a few yards off.
At this point, Mrs. Gardiner walked up and placed herself by his side. They stood together silently for a few moments watching the others before she turned and spoke to him in a low tone.
"Mr. Darcy, my husband has requested me to extend an invitation to you to dine with us tomorrow evening, if you are not engaged. I told him that I would be delighted to comply with his wish in this. We would both enjoy your company very much, and I hope that you are at liberty to accept."
"Madam, you honour me. I am free tomorrow evening, and I cannot imagine anything that would give me greater pleasure than to dine with you and your family. I thank you both for the consideration you have shown me by thinking of it."
"I fear that the honour is all on our side, Sir. When I reflect on the trouble and expense you have borne to bring about our niece's wedding, and the delicacy and circumspection you have unfailingly displayed in surmounting every difficulty...."
"Madam, please! I beg that you spare me from these flattering observations! You and your husband are too kind. As I have explained to you both, my motives in undertaking everything that I have attempted in the past several weeks were entirely selfish. I am gratified that you feel I have been of some service to your family. Yet, having learnt of the injury your family had suffered, and being convinced that it was the consequence of my own mistaken pride, I could not, in conscience, have allowed myself to do less--unsatisfactory as I fear the passage of time will prove the result. I assure you that I sincerely desired a far different outcome to this affair than the one which we both witnessed this morning. I commenced my efforts in the belief that such an outcome might be achieved. I deeply regret that events have demonstrated that my hopes were too sanguine. As matters stand, I suspect that your family may soon come to regard my interference with considerably less charity than you do at present."
"Then our family would deserve to be thought of by the whole kingdom as the most ungrateful persons in the world. If you have not succeeded in achieving everything that your generosity deserved, I am satisfied that this was entirely owing to the imprudence and obstinacy of my niece. Even before this disgraceful incident, I had long believed that her parents' faulty indulgence of her headstrong nature, and the lack of any perceptible system in her upbringing and education, could not fail to produce the most deplorable results. I hasten to add that I take no consolation from this evidence of my own prescience. Despite her shortcomings, I love my niece, and have no wish to see her unhappy--even if her own folly were the cause of it. Yet, from what I know of him--of them both--I fear it will be so."
"Would that I had acknowledged your right to partake of my information sooner, Madam! Indeed, it was precisely this dereliction which was the origin and cause of my responsibility for what has transpired. I cannot cease blaming myself for my lack of consideration towards you all."
"Fie, Mr. Darcy! You must not go on so, Sir, or I shall soon grow quite cross with you! Surely you cannot claim to have foreseen any of this, any more than did my own niece, Elizabeth--and she had the advantage of you in having lived together with her sister from Lydia's birth. When Elizabeth shared her information concerning Mr. Wickham's true character with us during our return journey to Longbourn, we were both exceedingly shocked and concerned, as you may imagine. Nevertheless, her surprise at what had happened was hardly less than our own.
My niece then told us that she had acquired her intelligence regarding Mr. Wickham whilst she was in Kent last spring visiting Charlotte Collins, and I think I might hazard a guess regarding the name of the person who was responsible for opening her eyes. Thus, Elizabeth was armed with the fullest appreciation of Lydia's character--which you could not have acquired during your brief acquaintance with her sister--together with a much truer knowledge of Mr. Wickham's nature and history. She had known all of this for some months. Despite this, I have no doubt whatever that the news of Lydia's elopement took her completely unawares, as I said a moment ago. At first, she accused herself of a lack of penetration for her failure to recognise what was going forward between her sister and Mr. Wickham, and also with a mistaken caution in neglecting to inform others concerning what she knew of him. It distressed me to behold her in such a frame of mind, but she soon came to a more just and reasonable view, and granted herself pardon."
"To which she is unquestionably entitled. My conduct, however, was inexcusable. Had I acted in conformity with the principles I had been taught, and as my obligations to others commanded I should act, I should not be oppressed with these regrets. Instead, I allowed myself the indulgence of a prideful reticence, and compounded my fault by burdening others with my unjust demands for a similar reserve from them. But perhaps your niece failed to inform you that I had bound her to secrecy regarding some of my disclosures to her. She was not at liberty to protect her sister."
"Mr. Darcy, I have every confidence in the honour, discretion and good sense of my niece. But I also know her well enough to state with great assurance that she is eminently capable of balancing the requirements of these three attributes, and to choose among them as necessity demands. Had she perceived any danger to her sister from Mr. Wickham's attentions, do you seriously suppose that any promise to you respecting her secrecy would have prevented her from acting to forestall his designs?"
Mr. Darcy smiled somewhat ruefully. "I seem to recall making a very similar remark to Mrs. Wickham some weeks ago, Mrs. Gardiner. I thank you for reminding me of it."
"Very well, then. I am glad that we are of one mind on this point. Under the circumstances I have related to you, if my niece does not blame herself for what has occurred, she can scarcely blame you. Furthermore, I know that she does not; she would not have spoken as she did during our journey to Longbourn had she felt that she had any cause to censure either your actions or your motives. Nor is this to be wondered at. After experiencing the kindness and civility of your attentions to us during our visits to Pemberley, Elizabeth could not believe you undeserving of her regard. Her character has too much justice to permit her to fall into so gross an error. On the contrary, I am convinced that she regards you with the utmost esteem--as, if I may say so, do I."
What was this?! Elizabeth does not blame me? She does not despise me? Can this be true? And, if it should be so? The arresting implications of Mrs. Gardiner's disclosure momentarily stunned him. Then, in an instant, the delicious possibilities began to flash through Darcy's brain, and his thoughts were in turmoil. He struggled to maintain his composure, but he was sure that his expression betrayed something of his surprise and delight. Only when he had recovered himself sufficiently to notice Mrs. Gardiner looking at him with obvious puzzlement did he realise that he had been standing for some moments staring at her in silence. He succeeded in reining in his chaotic thoughts sufficiently to attempt an appropriate response.
"Excuse me. I beg your pardon, Mrs. Gardiner. I...I shall always strive to act in such a manner as to deserve it, Madam."
"Mr. Darcy, are you unwell?"
"No, I am well, I thank you, Mrs. Gardiner. Although perhaps the sun...I...my mind must have wandered for a moment. I beg your pardon, again. I am quite well now, I assure you."
Mrs. Gardiner seemed about to say something more, but was prevented by Lydia, who cried out that she and "dear Wickham" would have to be off in a moment. Darcy accompanied Mrs. Gardiner as she walked over to stand next to Mr. Gardiner, and all three then bid farewell to the bride and groom, calling after them their wishes for a good journey. They were gone from sight in less than a minute, their carriage quickly swallowed in the anonymity of London. Darcy wondered if he would see either of them again; he certainly did not relish the thought, but where Mr. Wickham was concerned, he had learnt that anything was possible--save virtue.
Still gazing into the distance, Mr. Gardiner spoke to Darcy in a low voice.
"Will they keep silent, do you think? Can we trust their promises?"
"Mr. Wickham will say nothing. He will not want the Bennet family to know anything more of his conduct than they do already, nor how much I have done for him. It would reveal too much of the falsehood he has practiced on them. Mr. Wickham's deceptions are his children; he grieves to see any of them sicken and die, and will prevent this if he can. As for Mrs. Wickham, I know not how to answer for her. Despite everything that has happened, I feel I hardly know her. Mr. Wickham's influence may prove sufficient to insure her secrecy, although I must confess to some disquiet on that point. Still, we have done all we could; it is out of our hands now."
"Yes, you are right. We have done all we could.... Well, Mr. Darcy, it only remains for me to express my thanks to you once more, and bid you a very good day. My wife has just told me that you will be dining with us tomorrow. I am very pleased to hear it; I look forward to conversing with you under far more pleasant circumstances than heretofore."
"And if the conversation should happen to touch upon the subject of fishing, I dare say you would not object, eh?"
Mr. Gardiner laughed for the first time that day. "Ah, the beautiful Pember! What a delightful little stream it is! And to think, it was only a few weeks ago...." He sighed. "Well, I fear I must be getting back to Gracechurch Street. Monday, even such a Monday as this has been, is still a day for business. I bid you good day again, Mr. Darcy."
"Good day, Mr. Gardiner. Good day, Mrs. Gardiner."
"Good day, Mr. Darcy. We will dine at six, if that is convenient?"
"I am at your disposal, Madam. Six o'clock will suit me admirably."
The Gardiners' carriage drew up; Mr. Gardiner helped his wife in, and then climbed in after her. Darcy watched them disappear to the eastward, and then walked a few yards to where his own barouche stood waiting.
As his carriage proceeded westward along the Strand, Darcy was occupied by much happier reflections than for some weeks. If Elizabeth does not blame me...I might still have some hope, after all. It would not do to build too greatly on Mrs. Gardiner's information, at least until I have had an opportunity to see her at Longbourn again. I must see her again!
I will talk to Bingley, and attempt to persuade him that we should both go down to Netherfield again this autumn. That should not prove too difficult! I saw how anxious Charles was to engage Miss Bennet in conversation while she was at Lambton, and I can guess what he wished to speak to her about, as well! If Elizabeth is correct concerning her sister's sentiments...how could I have been so mistaken? Of course, she must be right! How could I doubt her in this when I know how much she and Jane are in each other's confidence? Once I have assured myself that Charles still feels the same affection for Jane Bennet, I will admit everything to him, and ask for his forgiveness. Incredible, insufferable presumption on my part! Yes, all this must be arranged very soon--no, immediately!
And while I am at Netherfield, I shall accompany Charles to Longbourn as often as possible. I will observe her carefully; I will try to gain the opportunity of speaking with her. Do I have any hope of gaining more than her esteem? Might I one day win her affection--her love? An hour ago, I would have been grateful for her esteem, and now...now I know it would be agony to have only her esteem. She must not learn what I have done for her sister; I want her love, not her gratitude. She must love me for the man I am; I could not bear it if I thought she felt only an obligation to me!
When I saw her at Pemberley--when our eyes met in the music room--dear God, it was like an angel had seen into my very soul! I would have sworn I heard her voice whispering to me. I could feel her touching me with such tenderness--softly, delicately--but at the same time with complete assurance, as if she knew me, knew what I was feeling, thinking. She must look at me that way again--she must! Could I have been mistaken in thinking that she was beginning to care for me? No! No! I will not believe it unless I am forced to--I will earn her love, no matter how long it may take! And then I shall offer her my heart with humility: I will tell her how much she means to me, how I need her and want her, and only then will I entreat her to be my wife.
With this resolve fresh in his mind, Darcy suspended his pleasurable imaginings of the future, and noticed that his carriage had almost reached Charing Cross. He called out to his coachman, instructing him to pull up at St. James' Park. Reaching his destination, he got out and addressed the driver.
"You may return home with the carriage, O'Malley. It is such a lovely day that I think I shall walk through the Park."
"Yessir, Mr. Darcy."
Watching Mr. Darcy enter the park, his driver experienced some perplexity. O'Malley had noted the bright tone of Darcy's voice, the glimmer in his eye, and, most unusual and mysterious of all, the broad smile which lit his face as the master had issued his orders.
Now, as he observed his employer in the distance, he witnessed still another strange departure from Darcy's normal behaviour. His master had paused upon encountering a small lad of perhaps seven or eight years of age, and was presently occupied in instructing this individual--accompanied by several practical demonstrations--in the proper method of feeding the ducks.
Which, the carriage driver thought, just went to show that what his own mother had always told him was the simple truth of it: the gentry were a breed apart, and it was therefore useless to concern yourself with their odd moods. Still, being of an inquiring turn of mind, he sought the opinion of his equine charges.
"Well now, what d'ye make 'o that, eh? Gloomy as a Presbyterian preacher one minute, and grinnin' from ear to ear the next."
Receiving no elucidation from this quarter, however, he was reduced to a reliance on his own intellectual resources. He therefore concentrated his mind on accounting for the unexpected change in Mr. Darcy's mood since the morning, and soon satisfied himself that he had arrived at the obvious explanation.
"Well, 'o course! Should'a tought of it straight off! Just been to a weddin', ain't 'e? Ah, weddins is hopeful tings. Nuttin' like a weddin' to cheer up folk!"
And so, reassured by a discovery which proved that the gentry were not so eccentric as is generally supposed, James Patrick Francis O'Malley drove home to his dinner.
© 1997 Copyright held by the author.