Too Clever By Half
The weather appeared to be holding, though the clouds still threatened rain, and the two engaged couples determined to break free from the stifling confines of Longbourn to walk through nature’s luscious byways. When they reached a fork in the road, Jane and Charles veered off in one direction, while Mr. Darcy led Elizabeth in the other. She turned and motioned back to her sister and Mr. Bingley, as though to indicate to Mr. Darcy that he had absently taken the wrong turn.
He understood her gesture, but he said, "Let the young lovers have their privacy."
Elizabeth laughed at the appellation. "Young? Mr. Darcy, Jane is my senior."
"I wasn't referring to them," he said.
She was pleased by his apparent desire to be alone with her, but she was also nervous. It was the first time since their engagement they had been entirely unrestrained by the presence of others. Her insecurity faded, however, when she saw him looking down at her with an amused expression on his face; it was then she realized he had been joking. They had crossed wits long before their engagement, but this was a different kind of humour; it revealed a softening of Mr. Darcy's reserve, and she was glad to see it.
"I can judge by the cast of your face," she said, "that you are only toying with me."
Elizabeth merely feigned offense, but Mr. Darcy took her seriously and reproached himself. Women, he thought, expected a man to be deadly earnest when it came to romance. And he was--about her. But not about the game of courtship, with which he had no experience, and which made him feel exceptionally awkward.
"I am sorry, Elizabeth, I did not mean to make light--"
Now she was smiling at him, and he fell silent. So he had mistaken her after all, and no apology was necessary.
He continued to look at her as they strolled on, leaning upon his walking staff for support; and he needed support. Her smile had set off those fine eyes, and they were brighter than ever. He did not understand how a woman could grow more beautiful with each passing day, and yet Elizabeth had somehow accomplished the feat.
"So," said Elizabeth, when he did not speak to her, "should we comment upon the weather? Or do you prefer some other topic? Religion and politics, of course, are forbidden in polite company."
Still he gazed at her wordlessly. It was discomforting, but not wholly unpleasant.
"Mr. Darcy, you persist in attempting to frighten me. I thought we had progressed beyond this phase."
He smiled hesitantly. "I do not always know the appropriate words to speak on any given occasion."
"You have had little difficulty exchanging words with me before, in company."
"We are not in company, Miss Bennet."
"Indeed we are not." She looked down at her hands as they walked. Why was this so difficult? He knew that she loved him; why then did he rarely seem fully at ease with her? She touched his hand gently to stop him from strolling, and he stood patiently, waiting for her reason.
"What weighs on your mind, Fitzwilliam, to make you so silent?"
Fitzwilliam. It was the first time she had called him that, and he was surprised how much the simple sound of his own name could thrill him as it fell from her lips. Her lips. That was what had been weighing on his mind.
How does one build up to this? he wondered. He had no talent for misdirection. And yet, he could not simply come right out and ask her, could he?
"Elizabeth, may I kiss you?" I've said it, he thought. Just like that. How unromantic.
He awaited her response, but the steely confidence that had once propelled him through his first proposal was gone. How would she respond to his directness?
He was not sure he had heard her correctly. It was just one word, one tiny syllable. He had expected at least a good-humoured quip, if not a rebuff.
"You said 'Yes'?"
She smiled at him, but she did not answer.
He repeated himself, more nervous this time, "You said 'Yes'?"
"Yes, Fitzwilliam," she laughed. "I said yes."
"Good," he said, and smile broadly. "Very good." But he did not kiss her. Instead, he took her arm and began walking again.
Elizabeth was bewildered. She peered up at him, trying to read his expression. Was he taunting her? But he only appeared sincerely happy.
Finally, she asked, "Was there a purpose to your question?"
"Of course," he replied. "My goal was to secure your permission."
"But not to act upon it?"
"Oh, well, now that I have your permission, I suppose I may act on it any time I like, mightn't I?"
She stopped walking and looked at him curiously.
"Or," he questioned, "do I need to ask each time until we are married? I'm not sure what the guidelines are on that point."
"Mr. Darcy, I cannot, for the life of me, determine whether you are in earnest."
"About...about anything and everything you have said since we took this path. You behave so strangely."
"In what way?" He actually sounded surprised, as though he really did not perceive the peculiarity in his performance.
"Why, you ask if you may kiss me, you secure my consent, and then you walk on as though the question had never been proposed."
"Oh, but surely you would not wish me to kiss you so soon after asking. That would rather negate the element of surprise, would it not?"
"Is not that the point?"
"I understood you liked spontaneity. You have a very lively spirit, Elizabeth. It is one of the many things that makes you dear to me."
She could not control her laughter, though she tried. "If you wanted to be spontaneous, Mr. Darcy, why did you bother to ask at all?"
He seemed appalled. "How could I not? I would never show you such disrespect."
She shook her head. Was it conceivable that Mr. Darcy had a frivolous side to his personality? No, no, he was in earnest.
"So then," she asked him, "I shall never know when it is coming?"
"No, my dear Elizabeth. You cannot guess."
"I'm not sure that's fair. It gives you complete control."
"How is that? You had the power to refuse me."
"Yes, in that one moment. And in that one moment I desired your kiss. But now I am forever at your mercy, for I cannot retract my consent."
"No, Miss Bennet. A woman may retract her refusal, but I do not think she can, in all fairness, retract her consent. Both facts have worked to my advantage since first meeting you."
"Very well then," announced Elizabeth, taking his arm once again. "We will walk on, and I will anticipate nothing--"
Unexpectedly, he had bent and kissed her quickly on the cheek. The impression was still warm when he withdrew, but she had not anticipated it, and so she had missed the pleasure. "Unjust," she accused. "Most unjust."
"That one did not count," said Mr. Darcy. "For it was only upon a cheek."
"Well you had better warn me when it is to be upon the lips, Mr. Darcy, because I would prefer not to miss it."
"I cannot promise to forewarn you, my dear Elizabeth, but I can at least promise to prolong the experience, in order to ensure that you do not fail to notice it."
He was far too pleased with himself. This would not do.
"You are too clever by half, Mr. Darcy," she said, as she stopped and turned. She then stood on her tiptoes to kiss him firmly and squarely on the mouth.
He actually stumbled back. He looked not just surprised, but outright astonished.
Elizabeth regretted her audacity. He had challenged her, and she had acted according to her competitive spirit. But in so doing, she had usurped from him his masculine prerogative, and she was now sure she had affronted him deeply.
Abashed, she raised her head to apologize, when she felt his hot breath upon her mouth, and sensed him draw near as he closed his lips over hers. For Elizabeth, her own kiss had been a means of inflicting a playful punishment, her way of rebuking him for his self-assurance. She had not really experienced it. But for Mr. Darcy, it had been like the first drop of water to a parched and desperate man.
The passion of his response excited her, and as his soft but determined lips bore down on her own, he ignited an entirely new feeling in her now trembling frame. She was almost frightened. But instead of giving into that fear, she surrendered to the pleasure of the moment.
At length, he withdrew his mouth from hers, but now he wrapped his arms around her and drew her close. She lay her head on his chest, and mumbled, "I thought you were angry with me."
"I presume that misconception has been corrected."
"It has been," she replied, "in the best way imaginable."
Here he held her tighter, gratified to know he had given her pleasure. He looked up at the sky, as if to thank God Himself for this precious, undeserved gift, and he saw that that the clouds had darkened dramatically, but he did not care. Let the floodgates of heaven shake loose their restraints, he thought, let the rains pour forth. Not even a torrent could dampen his spirit today.
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