I know everyone is dying to know what what happened to Elizabeth. Hold onto your seats!
Previous chapters: One
Elizabeth could hardly think for the distraction of Mr. Darcy being so kind and solicitous to her. The old Elizabeth Bennet would think of some arch or witty reason. She would have mocked his kindness. Even now, she was not sure if she could trust it—she had been hurt by so many—but she would not devalue it.
“The morning after the Netherfield ball, Mr. Collins proposed to me.” Elizabeth snuck a glance to see how Mr. Darcy took the news.
“And after you soundly refused him?”
“What makes you think I would be so hasty to spurn his proposal?”
“You are far too sensible to marry such a ridiculous man. All his talk about his parsonage and Lady Catherine would never turn your head—you are not mercenary.”
“I sometimes think it would have been better for everyone I know if I had.”
“How can you say that?”
“Let us speak plainly, Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth said and determinedly met his eyes. “I do not have the luxury of being as rich as you. Longbourn is entailed, and I am no heiress. Many women accept offers of marriage for convenience and security. As wife to the heir of Longbourn, I would have been able to keep my family in the house. Now, that office belongs to Charlotte Lucas, and she will have it far sooner rather than later, I fear.”
“Can you mean—but is it certain? Your father will soon pass?”
Elizabeth squeezed her eyes shut as hot, tears spilled down her cheeks. They burned angry paths of humiliation as they landed in her lap.
“I fear I have no other handkerchief at the ready,” Mr. Darcy muttered.
No, she had already used his, and she had not had such finery or luxury in months. Suddenly, Elizabeth felt Darcy’s skin upon hers. She held her breath. Was he taking liberties? Should she rebuff him? Should she injure him?
No, she realised. No, he was tenderly wiping away each tear with the pad of his thumb the way a mother would console her child. He was caring for her. He was the last man in the world she would have expected it from and yet, as she had learned she had been so wrong about everything else, it seemed very fitting that he should be kind and compassionate after all. She leaned into the touch, craving the contact and comfort. Soon, he would withdraw it, just as the others had.
“I hate to see you distraught, Elizabeth.” His voice rumbled in her ear. “I cannot bear your tears. If I could take your pain, I would. I know only too much the pain upon losing a parent.”
She had never considered that before. He was such a young man to shoulder so much responsibility, and it must have only come at the hand of his father’s early demise. She had imagined him entirely unfeeling. However, her tears were not formed from tender sentiment at the thought of her father’s passing.
“You are too good,” she said. “I confess I would feel nothing but relief upon his demise now.” When Darcy said nothing, Elizabeth prepared for his rejection.
“Do you fear my reaction?” he asked, meeting her eyes.
Elizabeth’s mouth dried and she fiddled with her tea things. Darcy stilled her movements.
“My father died believing to the last that a young man who was everything vile and evil was charming and proper,” he explained. “I cannnot explain the hurt I felt as I witnessed my father prefer that young man’s company over mine. To see him so deceived and injurious in the process.” Darcy shook his head. “I do not know what calamity has befallen you to bring you here. I do not know why you no longer want your father’s favour. However, I do know what it is to feel betrayed by a parent. I understand the feelings of relief that come when freed from that burden.”
Elizabeth wondered if Darcy had ever said so many words at once before. He appeared more open to her than he had been even in the company of his friends at Netherfield. She had thought she had seen him in an intimate setting while staying in the house where he lived. However, now she realised that the man before her had far more depth and compassion than she could have ever dreamed—in truth than she had ever witnessed before. If this was what laid beneath the surface of Mr. Darcy, it might have been difficult for him to converse with others who could not understand such feelings or even mocked him for it.
“Thank you,” Elizabeth said as she noted her silence had made him anxious. “Your compassion is refreshing and, I admit, of necessity to me right now. I had not thought others could feel as I do.” Elizabeth smoothed her gown before continuing. “I did refuse Mr. Collins. My mother was enraged and spent all day attempting to work on my mind. Papa supported me. Charlotte Lucas had invited Mr. Collins to dinner at her home as it seemed best he should spend less time at Longbourn. A few days later, I was informed they were engaged.”
Elizabeth sunk her head. “I confess I did not like her choice. I even attempted to persuade her otherwise, but she was adamant. While I was engrossed in my own little drama, Jane received word from Miss Bingley that she had gone to London to stay with her brother.”
Here, she peeked up at him. Elizabeth had long supposed Miss Bingley fabricated an attachment between her brother and Miss Darcy due to her own wishes in that quarter. Elizabeth had also perceived that Mr. Darcy did not approve of his friend’s attachment to Jane. He did look a little guilty.
“I do not know if you can imagine the scene, but the Bennet home was at sixes and sevens. My mother loudly bemoaned the loss of Mr. Bingley. She was certain—we were all certain—he was about to propose to Jane. Her grief was more than I can describe. She tried to rally, but her heart was too deeply touched by him.”
“I had not thought—I did not know—” Darcy stammered as he flushed. “Was she very hurt?”
“She changed,” Elizabeth answered and choked back a sob. “She withdrew and became distant. She spent more and more time alone and lost all interest in her usual employments.”
“I am sorry—”
Elizabeth held up her hand to cut him off. She wanted to finish her story and have done. He could examine his actions and say his apologies when she finished. She no longer cared, she no longer blamed anyone him or any of the Bingleys. They could not have foreseen what came from their actions. “Mama was often indisposed as her two eldest daughters had lost suitors. She was angry with me—I had thrown Mr. Collins away. But she was disappointed with Jane, and she never had been before. I think that is what weighed on my sister the most.
Mama complained more than usual, annoying my father more than usual in the process. He seldom stirred from his library, and she rarely left her bed.” Elizabeth shook her head as remorse swept through her. “I should have done better. I was so blind and selfish! Kitty and Lydia relished the new freedom as our parents became less watchful. They would walk to Meryton and spend the whole day talking with anyone they would meet. Mostly officers.”
Elizabeth took a deep breath and then delved into the topic in truth, knowing once she began it would bubble forth like a rushing brook. “She never seemed to grow close to a specific man. She appeared happy to have the attention of them all. She became the favourite of Mrs. Forster and was invited to stay in their home where officers came and went at all hours. Mama insisted that she go since Jane and I had ruined our chances. Kitty demanded to come as well. Mrs. Forster was more than happy to have her, and in the end, Mama wailed enough for my father to relent. Mama and the girls had images of balls every night and being introduced to other colonels. Mary never enjoys walks to Meryton and Jane seemed so poorly, I spent much of my time with her. I should have visited my sisters more often or asked after them. Perhaps then I could have—but no, I do not know that I could have ever made them see reason, no matter what my mother says.”
Elizabeth looked at Darcy for the first time in many moments and knew she had made little sense. He did not seem annoyed by her poor storytelling abilities. He would be more than annoyed when he understood just how far the Bennet family had fallen and how much she bore responsibility for it. “About a fortnight after they had gone to Mrs. Forster’s house, the Colonel arrived in the middle of the night in great distress. Lydia, Kitty, and Mrs. Forster were missing.”
A quiet gasp came from Mr. Darcy, and Elizabeth nodded in confirmation of his unsaid fears. “It was after a dinner party with only a handful of others. A few were invited to stay for cards, but the Colonel was called away. When he returned, the others were gone. A note was found. The ladies had eloped with the dashing, young officers.”
“Who—may I ask the names of the men?”
“Indeed,” Elizabeth said and squeezed her hands together. “I believe you know one quite well. The men were Lieutenants Denny, Saunderson, and Wickham.”
“What was done to recover them?”
Elizabeth could sit no longer. Tears streamed down her face, and her eyes were swollen, but she needed movement. “What can be done in such a moment? The disgrace of the colonel losing his wife to one of his own officers became much known in the area and with her infamy so was my sisters’. One of their friends suggested that marriage might not have been on the minds of all of the gentlemen, however. We soon heard word from Kitty. She had made it to Scotland with Denny. Maria Forster and Saunderson accompanied her but Lydia and Wickham…we had heard nothing of when I left.”
Elizabeth threw herself into a chair and sobbed into her hands. “It’s all my fault, as my mother never ceased to tell me. I do not blame myself for everything—that I will not take on—but I did distinguish Wickham. I thought him very gentlemanly. Lydia knew it. She was desperate to be above me in the esteem of everyone, and I also knew it was her sore spot. I nearly taunted her with it. My mother and father, while good and loving, do not always make the clearest choices for their children. I could see the evil that could happen in going to Mrs. Forster’s, but I said nothing—I should have—I ought to have—”
“You are not to blame for anyone’s choices but your own,” Darcy interrupted her self-reproach with a firm voice. “You could not foresee an elopement, and even if you had, you are not her mother or father. You had no responsibility to consider such things, and neither of them would have listened to you. I know this as a man who has the care of a much younger sister. I am her guardian and she does esteem me but I am not her father, and she recognizes that.”
“You do not excuse me of believing Mr. Wickham,” Elizabeth sniffled. “You may not remember our last conversation, Mr. Darcy, but I do. It echoes in my mind constantly. I championed him and all but accused you of abusing him. I know now he must have lied. How could you have ever borne my gross impertinence, I do not know. Even now,” she met his eyes with a cautious look, “you are far kinder than I deserve.”
“Nonsense. Do not distract me with flattery.”
The corners of his lips lifted up slightly causing Elizabeth to mirror the action. “I would not dream of flattering you, sir. That would be a dangerous habit, indeed.”
“You must continue. That cannot be all that happened.”
“Indeed,” Elizabeth’s smile slipped. “You can imagine we have been shunned by most of the area families. Mr. Collins had even refused to allow Charlotte to visit us. I have had no letters from her since she married. I assume she is well-settled in Kent by now. Mary no longer found solace in scriptures or music. Instead, she found it in her wine glass. One day, Mama had been berating me as usual. I could stand it no more. I gathered my pelisse and bonnet and set out for a long walk. When I returned, I was met with silence. I thought it a blessing. Mary had fallen asleep in the drawing room, and I was informed my mother had taken to her room. I was sure to find Jane upstairs—we still shared a room although Kitty and Lydia’s was now available. There I found—”
Elizabeth choked on her words but pushed past the lump in her throat. “I found Jane looking lifeless. She was turning blue and her breath so shallow. I screamed for help. I cried as I pulled her to me. I tried shaking her. Mama came at the sound of my distress. Finally, her smelling salts were truly necessary. They revived Jane a little, and she muttered something about wanting to sleep forever. She asked for “more.” More of what I could not understand until I saw the laudanum bottle on the table near the bed.”
Surprisingly, the tears slowed at this moment. She had cried enough over Jane’s distress. “I wanted to call for the apothecary. I wanted a physician. I wanted our rector. I wanted anyone who might help Jane. I blamed myself that she had felt so hopeless and depressed and I did not know. I should not have left her alone. My mother refused them all. No one could know the truth. Jane was too beautiful to be mad and she would never wed if anyone knew. Everyone would blame Mama, and she would not have anyone say such things about her. It had been my fault. I was closest to Jane. Mama was always too ill to look into their life. If I had married Mr. Collins or if I had not been so saucy to you then Mr. Bingley might not have left.”
Darcy visibly winced at Elizabeth’s final statement. “I assure you, I quite enjoy your ‘sauciness.’ Did your sister recover?”
“Papa would not stand up to Mama. He would not call anyone to assist Jane. She was well when the others finally went to sleep. After a few hours of sleep, she awoke and confessed to her attempt at taking her life. She was so ashamed but also thankful she survived. The next morning, I asked my father to find help for Jane or send her to London to reside with my aunt and uncle. He refused. Later, I walked to a nearby town and spent nearly everything I had on a hack. I left Longbourn without a backward glance.”