When did you last indulge your love of art? Come with me to Bath again. There is a new drawing master I wish you to meet. There is talk that the King will finally agree to an establishment of Britain’s finest artists.
After a night of little sleep, Elizabeth arose even earlier than usual for the day. She walked to the grove and had brought a book with her expecting to wait nearly an hour before Darcy, and hopefully not his cousin, appeared. Elizabeth believed she needed the solitude to steady her thoughts. Charlotte had come to Elizabeth’s chamber yesterday evening and attempted to apologise for the scene with her husband. Elizabeth tried to view things from her friend’s perspective. She had little control over her husband’s opinion or mouth. Even still, Elizabeth did not think she could ever remain silent while her spouse scolded her friend for imaginary sins.
She should not have been surprised to hear her name called out immediately, and yet she was. “Good day, Miss Bennet!”
Elizabeth plastered a false smile on her face. It turned genuine when she discovered Colonel Fitzwilliam did not join his cousin. The man had seemed gentlemanly at their first encounter, but she rather thought it rude of him to ask after her so minutely. Of course, he had no way of anticipating her cousin’s eccentricities. Elizabeth greeted Mr. Darcy and inquired after the Colonel.
“Was the Colonel was still abed when you left? It must be nearly nine now, surely he will happen our way soon then.”
Belatedly she realised Darcy had ceased walking. She turned to look at him with an eager face, and he finally moved forward again. “No, he left at dawn.” He paused for a moment. “I am sorry to have delayed in relaying the plans to you. You must be anxious to hear them.”
They resumed walking. “Actually, it was a welcome respite from my worries.”
Darcy gave her a slight smile. “I am glad to be of service. Richard seeks to have Wickham transferred to another regiment. We worry he would become vengeful if he were suddenly treated differently with his current regiment. As he is certain I am out to ruin his life, knows I frequently visit my aunt this time of year, and knows you are here, it would take little for him to assume I was behind his change in acceptance, and it was by your information I chose to act.”
Elizabeth saw the wisdom in the plan and nodded.
Darcy continued, “I also intend to journey to Longbourn to speak with your father. Wickham likely has debts he will not pay, so I will collect those. Does this meet with your approval?”
Elizabeth disliked his presumption. Her letter to her father had just gone out in the morning post, and they had not discussed this possibility yesterday. “When will you go to Longbourn?”
“I had thought to wait until Wickham was gone. It should only be a matter of days. It is not improbable he will find some other means of harming your family, so I thought it best to explain his history to your father.”
Chewing her bottom lip, Elizabeth considered the best way to voice her concerns. “Mr. Darcy, you will recall yesterday I apologised for believing Wickham’s lies against you. I explained he was telling the whole community of it. Perhaps you think I am silly enough to be charmed by a handsome face—”
“I would never believe that of you,” he said with surprising vehemence.
“It is near enough the truth,” she shook her head, unwilling to accept his kindness. “I am so ashamed, all due to my wounded vanity. Perhaps you think the rest of the neighbourhood silly and thriving on gossip. However, I hope you have seen my father has more intelligence about him.”
“I have,” Darcy gave a slight nod.
Elizabeth took perverse enjoyment in getting him to agree to her father’s intelligence for what followed was his just desserts. “He also believed Wickham’s accounts of you.”
Darcy whipped his head in her direction and flushed. “Your father had no difficulty believing this of me?”
His words ceased her movement. His rebuke toward her father was more than Elizabeth could stand. Anger simmered in her veins, and she grit her teeth until she could reply with tolerable civility. “How can we know a man but by his actions and words? You disapproved of all of Hertfordshire. You would not speak to nearly a soul! You showed yourself to be proud and disagreeable. It would be no hardship to believe you denied a servant’s son — whether out of pride or jealousy — a valuable living and dishonoured your father’s will. Had I not noticed Wickham’s lies and inconsistencies I could easily believe it of you still; even if I allowed Wickham to not be everything he wishes others to believe.”
Darcy was silent for several minutes, and Elizabeth perceived he was searching for composure. Taking a few deep breaths, he finally replied tersely. “Very well. I have offended the entire county, and your father will not listen to me. Should I send someone in my stead?”
Elizabeth noted he did not apologise or seem overly concerned by the opinions of those so far below him. “How many people know of your history with Wickham?” she asked.
“Colonel Fitzwilliam was one of the executor’s of my father’s will. He knows the details of it and of when Wickham gave up the claim to the living and was fairly compensated for it. Bingley knows as well.”
Elizabeth was surprised, for Bingley did not divulge information on Wickham when asked by Jane at the Netherfield ball. “That might be enough to discredit Wickham’s dislike of you but will it be enough to make my father see that Wickham is a threat to the community?”
“Your father cannot be so naive as to think most soldiers behave like true gentlemen.”
“Did not your own father know Wickham and fall for his lies for years?” How dare he rebuke her father when his own was guilty of so much more.
Darcy took a step toward Elizabeth. Passion and fire snapped in his blue eyes. His voice came out as a ragged and harsh whisper. “My father was very grateful to his steward. Father inherited an estate in need of repairs and revitalization. Mr. Wickham proved very capable. He guided my father and taught him to be the best landlord and master. People of the area still speak his name with devotion and reverence. He believed he owed his steward very much. You should not criticise what you do not know!”
Elizabeth took a step forward. She arched her head to meet his eyes. “That is very fine coming from you!” Suddenly, she could feel heat radiating off Mr. Darcy
“What can you mean?”
Anger emanated from his frame, but Elizabeth would not back down. She approached even closer. “Your dislike for anyone not of your rank and wealth!” Her neck tilted back more and she straightened her spine. She would not be made to feel small even if he were so tall. “You feel superior in every possible way without knowing the person at all.”
“We are not all blessed with making friends quickly. Did you not learn recently to not judge a character by that?”
Elizabeth persevered, unfazed by his intent to wound her pride. Lacing her words with as much hatred as possible, she continued. “And for those you do know there is not a friend you have that you do not interfere with, is there? You always know the best way for everyone!”
“What is this of my friends? Speak plainly, madam. I would understand your accusations.” His voice had a mocking quality.
Elizabeth held onto her anger so tightly she feared she might actually snap in half. Looking now at his smug face, so sure she had no weight behind her words, she held nothing back. “I have no doubt Mr. Bingley’s sister played a role as well, but I am confident you played the greater part in separating my most beloved sister from the man she loved! You decided my sister’s love would not be enough to make him happy.” Her chest heaved, but she rejoiced in seeing her verbal punch landed full force. Colour drained from Darcy’s face. “That fortune and rank — that your sister would be a better match!”
“Good God woman! What has happened to your intelligence? I had taken you to be the cleverest woman of my acquaintance!”
She gasped. “My intelligence is not in question—”
He interrupted and spoke over her. “Bingley violently in love with your sister! Would a man violently in love be able to give up so easily? Would he give up love for a greater match as you suggest?”
“And you did nothing to help him? You journeyed to London to keep him away!” Elizabeth clenched her hands. Growing up with four sisters with high spirits she was no stranger to fisticuffs and, at the moment, desired to scratch out Mr. Darcy’s brilliant blue eyes.
Darcy laughed hollowly. “He liked your sister very much, and I am sorry if he raised her expectations, but I did not perceive any particular regard from her. When I questioned Bingley about it, he was uncertain as well. In a match with no fortune or connection, which is sure to be spurned by society, there should at least be mutual regard to ensure marital tranquillity.”
Darcy’s words jolted Elizabeth. She had not thought he considered matters with such sound logic. “Do you deny your assistance in the matter?”
“I have no wish to deny it,” he said and shook his head. “However, you would lay it all at my door. You will not entertain the idea that it was impossible to know if your sister even liked Bingley with the way your mother declared a match between them? It never crossed your mind that to attach himself to a family with such disadvantages — such improper behaviour — Bingley needed to be assured of his attachment.”
“It matters not if you are innocent in such a charge!” Elizabeth exclaimed. “From the first moment of our acquaintance, your arrogance and conceit built a dislike that was firmly in place before a month was over.”
Pain flooded Darcy’s eyes. Moderating his voice, he said slowly, “You believed Wickham’s lies of me. You think I interfered with my dear friend’s happiness for my own desire — perhaps even my own good as you seem to believe I prefer him for Georgiana. You think that I am proud and disdainful to all around me. Can you truly say I have behaved as such? Why do you persist in disliking me so?”
“Because you dislike me! Without even a proper introduction you believed me unworthy of even a dance!” Her face had turned red long ago, but she felt a fresh wave of heat slap her cheeks. She turned her face from him.
Darcy dipped his head, and his breath tickled her ear. She could not see his face but was now so close she could feel his chest move with each exhalation. She felt the raw emotion in his voice. “Dislike! Unworthy? I seem to recall asking you to dance thrice before receiving a favourable answer. Certainly, you noticed I did not pay such attentions and persistence to any other lady.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “You asked to mock me.” She suppressed a sob. This was all far too much. She had been dreadfully wrong first about Wickham and now Darcy? She refused to believe his words. “I know I am not handsome enough to tempt you! You declared it so yourself!”
Darcy stepped back as though she struck him. He remained silent for several minutes, and Elizabeth felt his eyes compelling her to turn and face him. She would not.
“You are determined to judge me from the words of one evening,” he sounded weary and defeated. “Your feelings are perfectly clear to me. I can only apologise for taking up so much of your time.”
Darcy turned and left Elizabeth trembling in the grove. She immediately burst into tears.
Darcy walked away from Elizabeth, on legs that followed their own course. How the limbs moved when his heart had been meleèd by Elizabeth’s lashing, he knew not. Blood somehow still circulated through his body but all the while, he felt as though life had left him. How did one live if their heart did not beat? How did one exist when they could not breathe? He loosened his cravat.
How had he not seen it before? Recalling their previous conversations, it now appeared clear to him. Elizabeth Bennet believed he disliked her. She thought he had found her inferior and not worthy of his notice. And it had hurt her.
Darcy had long noted the lady’s bravery. However, the sharpness of tongue she just displayed only came out when she was hurt and embarrassed. What had it cost her pride to declare she had known of his supposed dislike? Darcy shook his head. He did not believe he could debase himself before anyone in such a way.
He could scarcely remember the words he had uttered to Bingley the night he had first seen Elizabeth. Had he found her less than beautiful? But that was only when he first knew her. He had yet to understand the teasing glint in her eye, the way they shined in amusement. He had not become fascinated with the arch of her brow or the graceful line of her neck. He had not clasped her hand in his as he led her to the dance floor and felt his blood surge in response as an animal instinct declared “She is mine!”
It was also before he had been separated from her for months before a chance meeting brought her back to him. It was before he knew the thrill of excitement as he counted the days until their next meeting — here, at a place that he had hated his whole life. Each night he spent in the company of titled and wealthy debutantes, he instead longed for Elizabeth’s conversation. Each outing with a bluestocking thrust at his side made him appreciate Elizabeth’s liveliness all the more.
She was not the most beautiful lady — at least not by the standards of the world. Nor was she the most intelligent, although he had no doubt she could learn anything she desired. She could add nothing to his material comforts.
For all the reasons he should not love her, nothing could cease his passion. Not just to know her intimately as only a husband should, but to savour each moment when she smiled, to hear each teasing retort. He wanted to consume her heart and soul the way she did his.
Darcy ceased his walking. The way she consumed him. A chill swept over his body. How arrogant he had been! Now, removed from her side he allowed himself to feel the full weight of her disapproval. She abhorred him!
This time, his heart shuddered to a stop, and he rubbed a hand over the ache in his chest. His presumptuous words even yesterday to Richard about her affection driving away the belief she was a fortune hunter echoed hollowly in his ears.
But why did she hate him so? Because of the first comment to Bingley? Had he not given her attention at every turn? Could she not understand how he cared for her? Perhaps she hated him because she perceived his regard but twice before he did not play the suitor.
Finally, the pain in his heart eased, and he stalked off the path to sit under a tree. His friends had always teased him for his fastidiousness. He was meticulous in his planning and methodological in his business. For this reason, many, like Richard, had assumed he did not hold emotions in high regard. They could not be more incorrect. To overcome his sentiment, Darcy relied on sense and logic. And despite all his planning, he had never thought he would fall in love and certainly not unintentionally. In recent days, he had been so surprised by the truth he had not spared thought to question if Elizabeth reciprocated his regard or how to court her and win her favour.
Darcy scrutinised several possibilities. He could be forthright. He could even avoid mention of love entirely. She could not be senseless to his situation in life. However, Anne had said that Elizabeth refused Mr. Collins. While Darcy flattered himself that she must prefer him — or anyone — to her cousin, it did not follow that she would marry for monetary gain.
What did she require in a spouse? Darcy considered all he knew of her. In his catalogue of memories of her, there were as many instances of her playfulness as there were occasions of her embarrassed by her family. Heat crept up Darcy’s face. Had that agony been because of him? She had presumed he found fault with them — and he did; never even caring to disguise the truth. He had thought they were of like minds about her family, but, in reality, his dislike had only served to hurt her and make her hate him in return.
What she deserved was respect. Someone should accept her with any flaws she might have, including her family. He had always treated her as an equal and allowed for her opinion even when they debated but was that the same as respect? Many men were his equals in rank, but he did not respect them. He did not care for their opinions or allow their words to hold any weight with him. Instead, Bingley, a man of lesser rank, meant far more to him. He respected Bingley, and as such he bore with his friend’s sister. Likewise, he respected Lady Catherine for her position in his family.
Darcy rested his elbows on his bent knees and dragged his hands over his face. He had respected aspects of Elizabeth, but as long as he could not accept her family and situation in life, he could not say he respected the whole of her. What a lesson! He now saw his treatment of her the first night, which must have built her dislike, stemmed from his disrespect for society as a whole. However, he would not dare voice it in a crowded London ballroom. How insulting that he did so in Meryton!
He was not a man used to seeking others’ good opinion in life. At some point, that transformed into treating everyone with disdain. As such, he did not have the first clue how to articulate his revelation to Elizabeth.
If he had thought before declaring his sentiments of love and devotion were nigh on impossible, Darcy was now hopelessly lost. Still, no one had ever accused him of cowardice. Uncertain how to dispel Elizabeth’s opinion of him or if she could ever alter it, he determined he must, at least, apologise. Validating her feelings when only moments ago he criticised them was surely the first step in demonstrating his new found respect.
Gathering his courage, he stood and dusted himself off. Glancing down the path, he saw Elizabeth still standing on the road. His heart constricted as he considered the pain he must have caused her. Why had she not moved? It was unlike her to not be moving. As he grew closer, he saw her hands on her face, and her shoulders shake.
Darcy’s heart shattered as he realised his arrogance and selfish disdain for the feelings of others caused the beautiful and strong woman before him to resort to tears. Quelling the urge to pull her into his embrace and kiss away each tear, he instead spoke her name.