Elizabeth’s anger mellowed to a simmer by the time darkness fell. She had still not spoken to Darcy again, despite a few attempts on his side. If her ankle had permitted it, she would have left hours ago. However, as she was bound to the bed with not even a book to read—that would have required asking Darcy for assistance—she had nothing but her thoughts.
When she had left Longbourn, it was because there was no other way. Indeed, she had not intended to leave it forever or leave her sisters permanently behind. Her aunt and uncle had chosen to betray her rather than help. Elizabeth thought she learned her lesson on trusting others. Yet, here she was, entirely dependent upon Darcy. He had rescued her as much as any knight in shining armour had a damsel in distress. She had not been locked in a tower, and there was no fire-breathing dragon, but she was trapped just the same. Fleetingly, Elizabeth wondered if the other damsels feared to let go of their past and all they had known—even if it was imprisonment with fear of death—rather than face an unknown life and trust a stranger.
It was not the unknown which made Elizabeth so uncomfortable. She had faced that before. For her own sake, she could choose it again. However, she had come to rely on Darcy. She thought him incapable of disappointing her or of showing that selfishness which invaded every aspect of her life before.
Attached to the fact that she had not learned her lesson regarding trusting others, Elizabeth knew she had acted too rashly. Since leaving Longbourn, it seemed as though every decision required an answer that very instant. More than once she had to decipher if a man meant to harm her or if a hallway was safe to enter. The work in the tavern itself required fast thinking and hearing orders amidst the loud noise. She needed to be mindful of Cuthbert’s demands and attuned to the moods of the other maids. She quickly learned it did not do to earn the patronage of too many tables lest the other ladies have none. In such an atmosphere it was better to focus on cooperative work and keep her head down. Perhaps that is when she began agreeing with everything anyone said. The very decision to come to this town and this inn was decided upon the spur of the moment. Elizabeth had prided herself that it would be all the better then. The Gardiners and Bennets could hardly guess in which direction she fled, and they did not have the resources to search everywhere indefinitely.
The evening wore on and eventually, Darcy excused himself. Molly entered, and seemingly perceiving Elizabeth’s mood, did not chatter as usual. By the time Darcy returned, Elizabeth was in bed feigning sleep. He murmured a good night and laid on the settee.
Rest did not find her that night. Judging by how long it took for her to hear Darcy’s deep breathing and eventual snores, sleep took a long time to find him as well. Elizabeth wrestled with her thoughts until just before dawn. Instinctively, she knew all of this went far deeper than anything Darcy had said or done.
The Elizabeth who trusted Wickham had trusted too easily. Since Darcy left Hertfordshire, there had been blow after blow in Elizabeth’s life, all teaching her to not think well of others. Everyone had their own motive, and it had nothing to do with her well-being. If she did not wish to be trampled by life, she should take care of herself first. Indeed, she was powerless to do anything else. If she could not save Jane, she could not save anyone. The piece of old Elizabeth who could see the good in people and make some allowance for their character—the part that had been influenced by Jane, Elizabeth mused—whispered to allow Darcy time to explain his actions. The new Elizabeth screamed loudly in her mind. She should not trust Darcy or anyone else. Their actions always proved them.
When at last she fell asleep, she dreamed of two versions of herself on a battlefield. Instead of fighting with guns, they grasped opposite ends of a rope and tugged with all their might. She recognised the Elizabeth of her present thoughts: she wore dirty, ragged clothes. Soot smeared on her face, and she wore a mean expression. The other Elizabeth looked as though she had no real care in the world. Her gown was soft and spotless. Her countenance held no regrets, only smiles, and laughter. Throughout the night, they battled, and when Elizabeth awoke more exhausted than if she had not slept, there was no definite winner.
The dream faded in the stark reality. She was cold and alone in the big bed of the chamber. Hating that she had grown accustomed to waking in Darcy’s arms, she mentally scolded herself. Glancing around, she did not see him. Fear replaced the irritation. Where had he gone? Had he left her?
“Why should I care?” Elizabeth asked in frustration as she buried her head in her hands. No tears came but her head ached, and her mind was exhausted from warring with itself.
Darcy knocked and asked if he could enter, his voice immediately calming Elizabeth. She timidly answered. He entered bearing a tray of tea and breakfast things, taking in her expression.
“I thought you might want to eat. You did not yesterday.”
Elizabeth’s stomach loudly rumbled in agreement. She had been too angry to think of food. Should she take his offering? Her stomach growled again, her body telling her she was a fool even if her mind would not. Did she think she was independent and could survive without him? He was gone a matter of minutes, and she worried he had left her forever. She could not even acquire food without his assistance!
Determined to at least rectify that, she tossed her legs over the bed and tested the strength of her ankle. Darcy was tinkering with the tea things, and she was halfway to him when he looked up.
“Elizabeth! I would have helped you!” He began to move to her side.
“No. It is gaining strength. It can never heal if I do not test it.” As Elizabeth said the words, she realised she might be speaking about more than the swollen joint.
She reached the settee and practically leaped into it, sighing when her weight was off her feet. It had been painful and challenging, but she had done it, and with more practice, it would grow easier. Darcy handed her a teacup, and their fingers grazed. Instead of the usual shock and tingles, she felt relief and comfort at his touch. He was still here, despite her behaviour and actions.
“I apologise for my words about your sister. You were correct, I was very hurt and not thinking clearly. I should allow you to explain.”
Darcy ceased stirring his tea and met her eyes. “I am exceedingly sorry to have wounded you. I would be happy to explain, but I do not understand what great sin I committed.”
Elizabeth bristled. She was doing more than meeting him halfway. She apologised first, and he still acted as though he were blameless! There was the pride and conceit he hid from her for the last few days. He acted as though it were all a matter of opinion or perspective. She was sure if someone had treated his sister as he had done to Jane, he would feel just as angry.
“Perhaps I ought to have concealed matters,” he said. “I should not have told you the truth. However, I do not think our relationship should be based on lies. I knew you would be unhappy for me to voice it, but I thought you understood. You had asked how I could marry you with a damaged reputation and I said I no longer cared what the ton thought. Two nights ago, I explained my reasoning for such. Although I did not outright state it, I did care what they thought. Their perceptions of me and what they held as right affected me greatly. I chose to leave Hertfordshire rather than fall in love with you. It was only after I left that I realised I had already fallen. I was in the middle before I knew I had begun.”
Elizabeth’s teacup remained halfway to her mouth during his speech. He thought she was angry on her own behalf? She had accepted that his love was inadequate to the obstacles her situation presented: relations in trade and little dowry. These realities barely troubled her. Could he be so senseless to the wound he gave Jane? Had he not just the other night blamed himself for Lydia? Lowering, her cup, she said, “I am not angry for myself. You confessed to convincing Bingley to remain in London.”
“The word convince might be a stretch,” Darcy said as he leaned back, seemingly accepting this could be a lengthy discussion. “I said nothing to him that I did not say to myself. I have no special mind control tactics or abilities. For that, you would need to speak with my cousin, the Colonel. He oversees querying captive soldiers for information.”
“What were these reasons? It did not seem to disturb Mr. Bingley before you spoke with him that we had relations in trade or little money.”
Darcy gave her a confused look. “I will admit those would have been greater evils to me than to my friend, but they were not what I discussed. You have explained your reasons for leaving Longbourn to me and have made it seem as though it was all because of a few poor decisions since November. However, you are no fool. You know it goes deeper. I would wager those are the thoughts that torment you when you think I am not looking. Will you hold me accountable for perceiving what you did not until recently?”
Air left Elizabeth’s lungs on a whoosh. Had she attempted to blame him when she really blamed herself? Yes. Yes, she certainly had. She ducked her head. “You left Hertfordshire because of my family’s behaviour?”
“It was a confluence of things. There was almost a total want of propriety from your mother, three younger sisters, and even your father. It was not one or two actions or statements. It was apparent to me that the Bennet family had many disorderly attributes and I had no hope of them improving. If they acted that way in public, what happened in private? What evil working would befall their minds and work their way into a marriage?”
“And my sisters’ elopements are a testament to that!”
“Do not forget that my sister also desired to elope. I did judge harshly when I had no right. My sister hid her misery whereas yours did not. However, Georgiana also chose to tell me about the elopement. She eventually confided in me about her abuse. However, we have left the topic at and.” He sighed. “The evening of the ball at Netherfield, Sir William Lucas made it sound as though the entire area expected a proposal from Bingley—or that he already had and they only needed to settle a date. I had often seen Bingley in love and had not previously thought anything of his attachment to your sister Jane. After Sir William’s words, however, I took careful notice of them. Bingley did display a greater preference than I had ever seen before. Your sister, however, did not. For a lady who could be so assured of Bingley’s sentiments—I would say far more assured than most ladies—she seemed to take no pleasure in his attention or the inevitable outcome. Your mother loudly crowed all evening of her intended goals for Jane—and all of you. It would not be unusual for a docile daughter to follow her mother’s choices. If my own observation of Jane had not been enough, your mother constantly declared Jane the most biddable and agreeable daughter. I believed it probable she would marry where directed without regard to her own feelings. A marriage built upon that would be nothing but disaster. Bingley would be in love, and Jane was not and might never be.”
“Do you not see you have struck the very bargain you had hoped to keep your friend from?”
“Yes! To him, I have been kinder than to myself!”
Elizabeth marvelled that he could congratulate himself on sparing his friend’s feelings until she took in his countenance. Dark circles shaded under his eyes after their argument the previous evening. The acknowledgment that she might never love him had torn at him. The anguish he had when explaining about Miss Darcy was once again evident on his face. “You did not think Jane might have learned to love him?”
“To me, it appeared that was unlikely or that she would even have the opportunity with your mother rushing them to the altar. I have seen marriages like that. They end up despising one another as neither can give what the other most wants. We cannot be other people. We can only be ourselves, no matter how much we might try otherwise.”
Was that for her? Elizabeth’s conscience niggled at her even as she would have rather thought it applied to him as his pride had re-emerged after all. Oh, he had been so arrogant and conceited to think he could decipher Jane’s feelings from his limited observation. However, one thing was clear. It was done in compassion. He intended to save his friend from the feelings now tormenting him.
“I cannot explain it any better than that, Elizabeth,” he said. “I am a human, and I made an error. However, young couples in love are often separated, and they do not resort to what Jane did. You cannot make me responsible for her feelings any more than you are responsible for them.”
Incapable of forming words immediately after such blows, Elizabeth remained silent. She chose to finish her tea and read for several hours—or rather to hold a book as the pages could not interest her—before replying.
She had thought Darcy incapable of disappointing her. Then, she felt because he had that it must have been as motivated by selfishness as her relations. She had despaired of every good thing about him. The guilt of such thoughts weighed heavily on her for had she not seen his kind heart and actions over the last several days?
The ability to err and it not be a grievous wrong, that it was not with the intention to hurt, or acknowledged later with an apology and was foreign to her. It was freeing, too. For weeks she had wondered if she had done wrong by leaving Jane and Mary at Longbourn. It was not done with that intention, but that is where the decision led. Now, she acknowledged to herself there were things outside her control. She never could direct their feelings or how they handled a crisis. Why did Jane become so melancholy over Bingley? Whether or not it was a mistake to leave Longbourn, there could be recovery. She only needed to forgive herself.
“I have been thinking,” he said after an hour or two of silence. “If you believe your ankle is healed enough to travel, you could start on the journey tomorrow. It might be better if we do not travel together. You might enjoy the privacy and freedom to keep your own hours.”
“You wish me to leave you?” Elizabeth asked as sorrow filled her heart.
“No,” Darcy sighed. “The close confines have not served us well, I think. The sleeping arrangement is not what it should be, and I feel as though I am forcing you into things you do not prefer.”
Elizabeth returned her attention to her book, forcing herself to think for several minutes before replying. While Darcy spoke earlier, she had the realisation that she no longer wished to be carried by her emotions. She had reasoned that before but as she did not understand why she had come to rely upon them, she could not end the habit. Finally, she set her book aside. “I have been thinking about everything all wrong. I had thought you rescued me, which rankled my pride, even as I welcomed the reprieve. However, I think we are saving each other and learning to work together as a proper marriage requires. I must see things from your perspective, and you must see some of mine.”
“I am very willing to listen,” he encouraged.
“I apologise for blaming you for Jane’s feelings. I can see how it appeared to you and that you meant no harm. Indeed, the harm that did befall was unlikely. Additionally, I suppose you are correct. There must be some deeper problem at work for her to feel as she did. I am beginning to recognise there are for me too. Despite Jane’s goodness, she could not be immune to the devastation our parents wreaked.”
Elizabeth paused to see if Darcy still listened. He met her eye and seemed to smile encouragingly. Elizabeth explained to him all she had recently realised. It was nothing compared to the trials his sister faced and it did not manifest in the way it had with Jane, but it crippled her all the same.
It was as though she had lived with a disease for many years and now it finally attempted to make its claim upon her life. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet had never truly been the parents of Longbourn. That role fell to Jane and Elizabeth, mostly the latter as Jane was too kind-hearted to scold or anticipate deceit and poor decisions. It was not enough to merely acknowledge that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet were responsible for the actions of their daughters. Elizabeth is the one who had tried to manage everything and everyone. She had believed she did a better job of it than either parent and yet her family disintegrated around her.
Somewhere in the middle of the exhausting retelling, Darcy had come to her side. He wrapped his arms around her, lending her strength and comfort. Elizabeth melted into his side.
“I fear it may take years to unlearn all the broken thinking with which I was raised.”
“That is perfectly acceptable,” Darcy said. “You are not alone in that. We all learn things from our parents and must choose to improve as adults.”
“I like how you say that. I choose to improve, although it is not easy, and I am terrified.”
“You do not have to do it alone,” he murmured against her ear. “Have you decided if you would prefer to journey ahead of me?”
As much as Elizabeth was acknowledging she needed to regain control of her impulses and emotions, she did not hesitate to squeeze Darcy tightly and kiss him before answering. “No. I do not wish to part from you. We will make our way together.”
Darcy answered with a searing kiss.
It will be a few days before I come back with the next chapter. The story is no where near finished, we are not quite at the half way mark. There is far more to come. The conflict will continue to center around Elizabeth’s psychological development but there are issues that need addressing: Wickham/Lydia, Georgiana, Jane and Mary, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, the whole barmaid secret thing. We’ll go through it all but at each stop, the conflict will be about how it affects Elizabeth’s development and the relationship with Darcy and it might not be what you have come to expect from the average JAFF (which I have certainly done before so I am not putting anyone down). I hope you stick around for the ride!