There were a few remarks about the shock in leaving Jane behind. We don’t have the entire story yet but I would also say that Jane is not Elizabeth’s responsibility. In such an abusive and traumatic situation, one must ensure their own safety. When the house is on fire, you get yourself out. If you’re not a fireman it’s not very feasible to think that you can rescue anyone else. That’s not to say there won’t be guilt attached. Nor does it mean she has ceased to care.
Are you ready for more??
For a moment, Darcy could say nothing. He saw the proud lift of Elizabeth’s chin—a gesture he witnessed several times in Hertfordshire and reconciled it with her earlier self-reproach. She believed he would reprimand her or scold her. Gently bred ladies did not leave their home and all their protection behind. They did not travel without an escort. They did not shun their family, talk ill of them, or find work. Elizabeth was a survivor but how many others might be in her position and remain silent and the dutiful daughter? How many might it drive to Jane’s choice? He knew from his own sister the repercussions of concealing pain.
There was much still to say and understand. Instinctively, Darcy knew Elizabeth’s story had more to it. How could Elizabeth be so friendless as to live as a barmaid in a tavern in a small market town so far away from London and Meryton? Additionally, he knew she must have had some reason to leave Jane behind. “How came you to be here?” he asked her. “Meryton lies on a different road.”
Elizabeth blinked in confusion. “You do not condemn me?”
“Not in the least. I applaud your strength!”
“I would say you did not always find it so appealing, but I suppose you would rather me answer your questions.”
Darcy did not know what she referenced. It seemed her belief that he would censure her did not rely entirely on her recent experiences. He nodded in reply.
“I made it as far as Ware and then sent an express to my Aunt and Uncle Gardiner in London. Usually, when Jane or I visit them, they will send a hack to Cheshunt, and then Papa only has to send the carriage halfway. I was already nearly there but almost entirely out of funds. I wrote to them from a carriage inn a few miles from there. I begged them to take me in and told them about Jane. My faith in them was so strong—I believe I loved them more than I did my parents. What was left of my heart broke when they refused. They had sent an express ahead and scolded my foolishness in leaving Longbourn. They were packing that very minute to take me back. They called me ungrateful and unloving. They declared I would put my mother in an early grave. They did not even acknowledge Jane’s illness.”
“Such things make some people very uncomfortable,” Darcy said. “It ought to be talked about more.” From his sister’s situation, he knew no good came from silence.
“Unwilling to return to Longbourn, I spent the last of my money on a hack and then walked the rest of the way to this village. Here, Mr. Cuthbert had pity on me and allowed me to work for room and board.”
“How long have you been here?”
“About two months,” Elizabeth said, and her chin quivered.
“You have been through more than anyone should—betrayed by all you knew and trusted. My heart truly breaks for you.”
Elizabeth looked at him warily. “Why should it? Why should you feel so much for me? Why take me in? Why ask all these questions?”
Suddenly she bolted from her seat. “Oh, I have been such a fool. Has this made you feel mighty? How the Bennets have fallen—how Elizabeth Bennet, headstrong, impertinent girl that she is–has her just desserts.”
She darted to the door, but Darcy reached it first. “Madam, I will not allow you to leave my company and face God knows what out there.”
“I have been here months and have managed to keep my virtue intact if that is your concern.” She glared at him, tilting her head back to meet his eyes. “I have no reputation left to lose at any rate.”
“I have no care for your virtue or reputation! I care for you! It is not safe, and you require rest. Your mental fortitude is at stake which I cherish far more—”
“Cherish?” Elizabeth’s eyes fluttered, and the tension in her frame eased. She now appeared slightly more confused than affronted.
Darcy led her back to the sofa. “It is natural after so many hurts to be wary of others. You do not know who you can trust, and I did not display much in our previous acquaintance to earn it.”
“No,” she agreed. “You did not.”
“Allow me to rectify that now,” he knelt at her side. “I will not return you to Longbourn. I do not condemn you, and I am not mocking you. Indeed, the story of your family concerns me, and I will speak more on that later. Allow me to assist you.”
“Are you to be my benefactor now? I did not forget your high handedness in ending my employment.”
“I ought to have considered differently, and if you still wish employment after you hear my offer, then I will help you procure some honorable position.”
“What is your offer?”
Darcy saw Elizabeth’s hands grip the armrests of her chair and felt her body shift to plant her feet more firmly on the ground. She was ready to run from him in an instant. It made his next words all the more foolish than if she were only a penniless runaway. Indeed, Elizabeth did not trust him and probably did not even like him very much. It mattered not. Once more, Darcy gathered her hands in his and attempted to put all the sincerity and emotion he could into his eyes. “I offer you my hand in marriage.”
Elizabeth leaned forward and peered into his eyes before ripping a hand from his and placing it on his brow. “Are you unwell, Mr. Darcy?”
“I am not ill and of a perfectly sound mind, if that is what you are asking.”
Pulling her hand back, Elizabeth leaned back in her seat. “Why would you offer me marriage? A man in your position must think he could have me for far less. An honourable man might suggest the governess trade or a lady’s companion. I had thought perhaps you meant to give me a recommendation to some poor relative.”
“I apologise if my offer offends,” he awkwardly rose from his kneeling position and took a seat on the sofa. Clearly his voice and attempting to conceal his mortification, he added, “I do not have any relations that would require your services, but I can make inquiries.”
“Pray, forgive me. I did not mean to seem affronted,” Elizabeth said quickly. “Only, think of what you have heard. It would be madness for any reputable gentleman to marry me.”
“Your present circumstances say nothing about your abilities. I am not taking a risk on an untried servant girl who can barely write her name. You are a gentleman’s daughter.”
Elizabeth gave him an astonished look. “And I suppose if having relations in trade were offensive that I have worked in a tavern means nothing at all?”
“As it stands, it does not sound as though you are very close to those relations.”
“So having no connections at all is sufficient? The conduct books should include that as a method to ensnare a wealthy suitor.”
“Be reasonable, Elizabeth,” Darcy said and leaned forward. “Do not make me into a monster. I would have you even with London or Longbourn connections. Even Mrs. Phillips—even Mr. Collins.”
Elizabeth gulped. “Why is that? You did not appear some great admirer or me in Hertfordshire. I am convinced you disapproved of my family and—”
“But never you,” he interrupted. “I never disapproved of you, Elizabeth. If I did not appear to admire you, it was only through the utmost effort on my part. I, too, have had revelations in our weeks apart. As much as you have faced hurt and betrayal—allowing you to see the truth of character of friends and family, I have also come to realise the depth of regard I have for a woman who I could not shake from my mind.”
“Forgive me,” Elizabeth shook her head. “Months ago, I came to understand that I must have misinterpreted you. I understood that Wickham played on your poor presentation in public and on my obvious dislike. I perceived if he was the very opposite of what he would show Society then you must be as well. I should not have brought up past hurts.”
“You are avoiding the topic at hand.” Darcy had noticed Elizabeth’s breath hitch when he said he could not forget her. Even now, her chest rose and fell rapidly. She would not meet his eyes, but she was not adamantly refusing him. She was not fleeing for the door. She did not push him aside—indeed, now she claimed to think well of him. He leaned closer.
“You will regret your choice. If anyone ever knew of my misfortune,” she shuddered. “You would be laughed at, and your sister would be shunned in Society.”
“I am not so simple-minded that I have not considered such an argument, weighed it, and found it unlikely. Even if it were to happen—I do not care.”
“You are too kind.” Elizabeth twisted her hands in her lap. “If Wickham is the foulest man on the Earth and he hates you, then you must be the kindest, and he hates all that you stand for. You cannot marry me simply because you feel sorry for my situation. Compassion is no way to start a marriage.”
Leaning forward more, Darcy whispered in Elizabeth’s ear, “What of love, then?”
Elizabeth stilled and gasped. “L-l-l-love?”
“I love you, Elizabeth.” He caught the tear that escaped one eye with his thumb and brushed it away. “I love you as the headstrong woman who argued with me in Hertfordshire, the devoted sister who walked miles in the mud and did not care if anyone censured her. I love the misguided miss who attempted to put me in my place in a ballroom, and I even love you like this—wretched and poor, alone in the world, and feeling unworthy of love. I did not know it when I first saw it—I did not know what that kind of love was—but I know it now.”
Darcy’s heart hammered in his chest, and he held his breath as he awaited her reply.
Elizabeth could hardly make sense of Mr. Darcy’s words. His words on love should bring a feeling of pleasure—surely it was complimentary, but she sought to diminish his reasons for them. The logic ran false in her head. She would think to herself that his senses were addled and yet he had wits enough about him to converse this long and offer her aid. She would consider that he had always been peculiar and then another part of her mind would scold her for reverting to her past belief of him. Time slipped by, and she became acutely aware of her long silence.
“In such a moment as this, I do not know what the customary response is. I thank you for your compliment. I surely owe you gratitude for your assistance—”
“Gratitude!” he cried. “I do not want your gratitude!”
“I meant no offense,” Elizabeth soothed. “Surely you know me well enough that you understand I would not accept a marriage proposal only out of obligation.”
Darcy said nothing but dipped his head in reply.
“There are logical reasons to consider your offer. However, I still find there are more reasons, out of consideration for your welfare and even more since your recent declaration, to refuse. What happiness could there be if I am so selfish? For much of my life I have been accused of bringing misery to all around me and in such a situation, I truly could.”
“I have stated I do not care for the opinion of the ton, and I will explain my reasons to you later, but I do not want them to influence your decision at the moment. Your heart is far tenderer than mine has ever been. I can offer you security and a sufficient reputation. I do not promise glittering balls or being the envy of Society. I believe you would not care for such things at any rate. Fear not, the name Darcy is well-respected and garners respect. No scandal has occurred since our last meeting. However, my eyes have been opened to the disgusting practices and hypocrisy of many of the ton’s favorites. If they think less of me for marrying you, then I will not have one moment’s concern. Surely the world, in general, is too sensible.”
Elizabeth stared at her hands as she could not meet Darcy’s eyes. “Such unequal affections cannot be the recipe for marital happiness. You will forever be hoping or watching—”
“Are they so unequal? You have confessed to thinking well of me. Allow me to show you my true nature—such that I did not do in Hertfordshire. I would propose a time for courtship before pressing for a decision but there are no available rooms for you this evening, and I fear for your safety. My honour and affection can offer you nothing less than marriage if you stay here.”
Elizabeth furrowed her brow. “I could return to my old room.”
“Do you really wish to do that?”
Elizabeth shook her head. The other girls she roomed with were friendly, but they often shocked her with bringing gentlemen back to the room. Her virtue was intact but her innocence long gone. She had never been assaulted but was propositioned daily, and there was always the possibility the next man might not accept her refusal. “No.”
“I will not hope for more than you can promise to give, Elizabeth.”
The urgency in Darcy’s voice pulled on Elizabeth’s heart. He so desperately wished for her to accept him and she perceived a good measure of that was for her sake—not his. She had once prided herself on being sensible. For too long she had reacted on emotion alone. Mr. Darcy was a good, honourable man. His name would provide her with security and protection. She would never want for food or comforts again.
“I accept on condition,” her voice faltered, but the joy in Mr. Darcy’s eyes at her words encouraged her to continue. “On the condition that we begin with mutual respect and esteem. I cannot promise to ever fall in love with you. You surely deserve my love, as insufficient a return as it would be, but I do not know that I am capable of loving anyone else again.”
“You honour me,” Darcy raised her hands to his lips. “Thank you, Elizabeth. You will not regret it.” Squeezing her hands, he allowed her to return them to her lap. “Respect and esteem are the foundation of friendship and I will not press for more than that or demand any husbandly rights.”
“Sir, I will be your wife! Will you not—?” Elizabeth blushed. It was indiscreet for her to know of the actions of married couples let alone speak of them.
“I know that you do not reciprocate my feelings. I will not take or ask for what you do not wish to give.”
“I…” Elizabeth blushed as she considered what her next words would mean. “I do not wish to not have the full…ahem…experiences…of a married lady. I would not wish for a life without children. Surely if I am to bear the burdens of marriage, I should enjoy the liberties as well.”
Darcy’s lips twitched, and a smug look appeared in his eye, causing Elizabeth’s cheeks to heat even more.
“What do you expect are the burdens of marriage?” he asked.
“My parents never seemed to agree on anything. If my mother were serious in a concern, my father mocked it. If my father were serious, my mother could not comprehend why.” Elizabeth twisted the handkerchief in her hands. Speaking or thinking of her family now made her nervous. “It seems they only married out of attraction, although I suppose my father believed it to be love.”
“Is that what has worried you about my offer? That I cannot discern the difference between love and attraction?” Seeing Elizabeth nod, he continued. “And does this mean that you are also attracted to me and distrust it?”
Elizabeth’s face had finally returned to her usual colouring but flamed red again at his words. “You are not without charms.”
“Oh, I am very much without charm.”
Was there amusement in his voice? He looked as though he immensely enjoyed this. “You know you are handsome.”
“There is quite the difference between thinking well of yourself and hearing of one’s manly beauty from the lady one admires.”
Elizabeth pursed her lips. “I did not say ‘manly beauty.’ I can see that my role will be to tease you lest you become too arrogant.”
“I hope you will,” he answered with real joy lighting his eyes.
“I thought you did not like teasing. Miss Bingley said—”
“Miss Bingley is often incorrect. I very much enjoy your lighthearted way of teasing. I have not seen you be uncivil but neither do you feign approval or interest. When you dislike something, you are direct about it. There is no sting in your teasing.” Darcy shrugged. “Your teasing is a part of who you are. I would not wish for that to change or cease. It is a part of what made me fall in love with you.”
Elizabeth sighed. He really could be so eloquent when he tried. It would not be an awful thing to be courted or loved by this man for her entire life. She believed he would always respect her. “Thank you.”
“Now,” Darcy said while leaning forward, “should I put your mind at ease about the liberties in marriage which you mentioned?”
“Sir!” Elizabeth cried. “You really must stop that.”
“Stop what?” he chuckled and moved a little closer.
“Shocking me so I will blush.”
“But it is such a delightful blush,” he cupped a rosy cheek. “May I request something of you?”
Elizabeth’s breath caught as she guessed what he would ask. Meeting his eyes, she subtly and slowly nodded.
“Except in very formal situations, would you call me Fitzwilliam and may I call you Elizabeth rather than Mrs. Darcy?”
Inwardly laughing at her folly, she agreed. Hearing Mrs. Darcy falling from his lips and directed at her made tingles spread over her body. It felt foreign and yet it settled in the pit of her stomach as right.
“Now, it is growing quite late, and we should get some rest. I will allow you the bed, and I shall sleep on the settee. No, no,” he argued above her words, “I insist. I shall wait in the hall to allow you some privacy.”
Elizabeth smiled her thanks, and he made his way to the door. Just before leaving, he looked over his shoulder at her. “And Elizabeth?”
“I will claim that kiss later.”
Immediately turning scarlet, Elizabeth noted the grin he wore as he left.