Darcy’s tongue continued to plague him in the following week. Something Richard noted as he teased him about his recent trips to the Parsonage and frequent walks around Rosings. As Darcy could not find the courage to speak his heart to Elizabeth, he had to delay his return to London more than once.
Finally, a day came when he really could not wait any longer. Georgiana wondered about him in letters and Richard must return to duty. Besides, staying longer fuelled Lady Catherine’s hopes. During his daily walk, Darcy rehearsed his intended proposal. Settling on discussing his feelings as the source of his discomfort, he decided to spend as little time as possible on the regard he felt for Elizabeth but could not put into words.
Two days before Darcy and Richard intended to leave, Mr. Collins and his group dined at Rosings. Darcy conceived it possible to settle matters that evening. He had not seen Elizabeth out walking that morning and had run out of time. Pacing the drawing-room awaiting her arrival drew the curious looks from Anne and Lady Catherine. Having few ideas of how exactly he would speak with Elizabeth alone, Darcy could not have been more shocked when the guests arrived, and Elizabeth not numbered among them.
“Pray,” Mrs. Collins curtsied to Lady Catherine, “excuse Eliza for not coming. She returned from her walk feeling very ill. She has remained in bed with a headache all afternoon.”
As her ladyship suggested various remedies for an ill head, Mrs. Collins darted worried eyes in Darcy’s direction. Was Elizabeth truly ill? Was it worse than a headache? Did she have need of a physician?
Having a moment to speak with the woman after her husband began conversing with Lady Catherine, Darcy confessed his concern. “I am terribly sorry to hear Miss Bennet is ill. Do you think she has caught a cold? Or should we send for a physician?”
Darcy recalled how tenderly Elizabeth nursed her ill sister while at Netherfield in the autumn. Who would see to her now? If it were Mrs. Collins in bed, he doubted Elizabeth would come no matter if Lady Catherine would feel slighted. She nurtured those she loved. However, Mrs. Collins evidently felt a greater loyalty to Lady Catherine than her friend.
Mrs. Collins gave Darcy an indulgent smile. “Thank you for your concern, sir. However, Eliza complained only of a headache. I am certain all she needs is rest.”
Frowning, Darcy asked, “What do you think brought on this condition?”
“Some ladies often have headaches.”
“But not Miss Bennet,” he said without thinking. He had never heard her complain of one before whereas Anne often had them, as did Miss Bingley.
“True, I have not known Eliza to suffer from the ailment before, but there may be a first for everything. She has been reading letters from her sister, and I believe returning to Longbourn weighs on her mind.” Mrs. Collins met his eyes directly. “I hope the weather stays fine for your own journey. We will certainly feel your absence, sir.”
Her attention was soon called away by Lady Catherine, leaving Darcy to consider the lady’s words. Had Elizabeth despaired of him paying his addresses? It would fit with the other moments of strange or cold behaviour he had recognised. She must believe he had merely been toying with her affections. Elizabeth did not aspire to things she was not, like her mother. Her sister had failed with Bingley, and they certainly had more of a visible courtship with a match-making mama pushing them together. Of course, Elizabeth would not immediately assume Darcy had honourable intentions but suffered from insecurity.
Not that it was Elizabeth’s fault. He often felt calmer and more in control in her presence than he did anywhere else. Even when she exposed his weaknesses and flaws. She accepted them and did not ask him to change or wonder why he was the way he was. She never seemed to think he was deficient because he did not act according to her plans and wishes. In fact, she was one of the very few people that did not seek anything from him. No, the insecurity was a relic of his past; a shadow never to be removed but perhaps with her light in his life it might fade.
The dinner bell sounded, and as the others moved to the dining-room, Darcy requested his horse readied. His plans had altered, he would take the time to explain some of his hesitancy, but he would also be afforded greater privacy. You and me, Elizabeth, and damn the rest of the world.
From the entry, he could hear Lady Catherine loudly wonder where he had gone, but Darcy paid it no heed. He had enough of duty and expectations. Enough with pangs of disappointment and feeling like a hollow shell. He wanted to live.
Arriving at the Parsonage, the maid showed Darcy to the Parlour where Elizabeth sat surrounded by papers.
“You are out of bed,” Darcy blurted as he approached. “You are feeling better?” He cleared his throat as her eyes went round as saucers. “That is, I heard you were unwell and called to check on your welfare.”
“I am as you see,” Elizabeth said with a slight raising of her chin as she waved her hand out to offer a seat.
Darcy gazed at her for a long moment. Her eyes looked tired and her shoulders tense. Did she guard herself against disappointment from him or did the letters she had been studying contain cause for her distress? Elizabeth gathered the paper into a neat pile and pushed it aside. She sat, waiting for him to speak.
Emotion boiling over in his heart, Darcy impulsively left his chair and paced the room. His heart pounding in his ears and palms sweating, he walked by her five times while attempting to force his jaw open to say the words of his heart. He came to bare his soul, and now every facet of him threatened to explode. His body longed to gather Elizabeth into his arms and kiss her until she moaned his name and surrendered to his manly persuasions with no words needed at all. The tenderest part of his heart that had always been moved by her agreed with the base instinct but desired no more than to hold her close. She would hear his heart beat for her and then exchange the favour. However, his brain insisted words were necessary. It reminded him of his plan; that he had concluded Elizabeth’s feelings wounded due to his absence and silence.
At this moment, he came near her again, and wise enough to be out of touching range, words rushed out. “In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”
Darcy’s chest heaved as he scrutinised Elizabeth’s reaction. She blushed and looked away but showed no sign of asking him to cease.
“I love you, darling Elizabeth,” he let out a deep exhale. Those treasured words did not fall lightly from his lips. Terrified of laying his heart out more, he turned to the far safer subject of logic. “I have not come to ask for your hand on a whim, and I apologise for any torment you may have felt while I considered the viability of our relationship.”
He paused, hoping to see Elizabeth’s eyes but she stared at her clenched hands. He must leave her in doubt no longer. If she only understood what he overcame for her, she would not doubt his affection and sincerity.
“The arguments against our union, which I regularly rehearsed in my mind, held many sound points. The difference in our stations, while not extreme, are so imbalanced as to be imprudent. My world of splendour—and yes, pomp—is far removed from your country origins. The difference is more keenly our immediate families. You must admit they would never meet in ordinary circumstances. You have an uncle in trade while mine is a peer of the realm. I can hear his voice railing against me now and yet, I do not care about the degradation. I do not care about your inferior position.”
Staring at her a moment, wishing she would look at him, he paused to gather his thoughts. “I have been tormented since leaving Hertfordshire and find myself unable to leave your side again. Such steadfastness and courage, I hope, will find its reward with your hand in marriage.”
As instantly as he finished, he turned away. His body carried him some five or six steps to the fireplace, and he leant against the mantle. Although he had no doubt that Elizabeth would accept him, the ingrained need for defence arose. Had he not seen consistent evidence that she cared for him?
At last, Elizabeth looked up with an unreadable expression in her eyes. “In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned.”
Her voice sounded icy to Darcy, and nervousness filled his belly.
“It is natural that obligation should be felt,” Elizabeth continued, “and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot—”
Had she punched him in the gut, it could not hurt worse. Nausea rolled in his stomach, threatening to come up.
“I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly.”
If Darcy trusted his mouth to not spit out his insides, his jaw would have dropped to the floor at that statement.
“I am sorry to have occasioned pain to anyone. It has been most unconsciously done, however, and I hope will be of short duration.”
Out of this entire interview, this was the only part Darcy could congratulate himself on correctly understanding Elizabeth.
“The feelings which, you tell me, have long prevented the acknowledgment of your regard, can have little difficulty in overcoming it after this explanation.”
Elizabeth’s words settled in and blood drained from Darcy’s face as his heart slowed its beat. He remained upright by sheer force of will and due to leaning against the mantle. Even so, the floor swung up to him and he fought the urge to sway. How could she turn his generosity on him? He did not have to tell her what delayed his approaching her. He could have flattered and made it sound like his admiration was newly created. Anger surged in him, and he welcomed it so he would not faint.
“And this is all the reply which I am to have the honour of expecting! I might, perhaps, wish to be informed why, with so little endeavour at civility, I am thus rejected. But it is of small importance.”
He had seen Elizabeth in a wide variety of social dynamics. Her patience and kindness—which he had the utmost reliance upon—strained by the treatment of Miss Bingley and even her own mother. Darcy had never seen Elizabeth speak or act with such intent to wound.
“I might as well inquire,” replied she, “why with so evident a desire of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character? Was not this some excuse for incivility, if I was uncivil? But I have other provocations.”
Darcy remained silent. He could think nothing that would deserve such treatment. For a fraction of a second, a sudden fear that she knew the truth of his birth danced through his mind. But no, Elizabeth would have no way of knowing and he had previously felt sure she would not care. Of course, that was before he found out how much he had misunderstood her.
“You know I have. Had not my feelings decided against you— had they been indifferent, or had they even been favourable, do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?”
Relief filled Darcy as he caught Elizabeth’s words. Her grievance came from his actions to separate her sister from Bingley. He wondered how she could know but then she had always been clever, and he had not been secretive. Now that she was not to be his wife, he was most anxious to keep it concealed from her.
For the next ten or fifteen minutes—Darcy had lost all track of time—their argument continued. He learned how vastly he had misjudged her. All these months he had thought of her with tenderness and love, she had hated his very existence. She blamed him for Bingley not marrying her sister. Elizabeth had listened to Wickham’s lies. Considering what else the man might have told her, filled Darcy with dread. He might have probed or told her the truth of that man’s character had she given him an opportunity.
To illustrate that no change in his approach, no well-rehearsed speech would have earned her hand, Elizabeth filleted him with her sharp tongue. “I had not known you a month before I felt you were the last man in the world I could be prevailed upon to marry.”
“You have said,” he began to shout before she had even finished, “quite enough, madam.”
Elizabeth silenced but stared at him defiantly.
“I perfectly comprehend your feelings, and have now only to be ashamed of what my own have been.” He had never said truer words.
Despite his anger, Darcy loved her still. That combining with his growing shame at his utter misunderstanding of Elizabeth’s estimation of him and the piercing pain of her rejection pulled him in so many different directions, he did not know whether to yell or bolt. One glance at Elizabeth, however, sealed his actions. Tears shimmered in her eyes. The night had not only affected him. His poor Elizabeth had not desired his attention, and he came barging in and flinging insults mixed with words of love. This on top of her not knowing his real character, because I have hidden my true self, he acknowledged, must be more than even she could bear.
Darcy took a step forward, and Elizabeth’s eyes widened followed by firming her frame. Drawn up to her full height her head could still nestle against his chest. Darcy dropped his voice, “Forgive me for having taken up so much of your time, and accept my best wishes for your health and happiness.”
Leaving the parlour and returning to Rosings passed in a daze. Ignoring the calls of his aunt and the others who had noted his entrance, Darcy swiftly sought his chambers. He rang the bell immediately and rifled through his escritoire while he awaited his valet.
“I shall require a supper tray and more writing supplies,” Darcy said when the man appeared.
Although he hardly touched the food, he wrote long into the night making alterations and corrections to his letter. When he had finished, he laid it aside to write a fresh copy in the morning. Stumbling to his bed, he collapsed on it and prayed for no nightmares while knowing he could have no pleasant dreams. Any he had ever had were crushed forever.