Elizabeth had smiled at him.
It had been a different sort of smile from the arch one she had worn so many times before. No, this had been a genuine – dare he say affectionate? – smile, something Darcy had despaired of ever seeing. It was only four months since Elizabeth had emphatically rejected his proposal of marriage. She had done more than just reject him, by Jove; she had said he was the last man in the world she could ever be prevailed upon to marry! She had accused him of ungentlemanlike behaviour, of cheating a childhood friend, of destroying the happiness of her own sister. Her hands had been clenched, her fine eyes had sparkled with fury.
And yesterday she had smiled at him.
He had not seen her between that horrible evening four long, excruciating months ago and two days previously, when he had returned to Pemberley unexpectedly and found her touring the grounds with her aunt and uncle. Once his shock wore off, he realized that providence was providing him with a second chance. This was his opportunity to show her he had changed, that he was a man worthy of her love. He had done his best, inviting her uncle to fish at Pemberley, introducing her to his sister Georgiana, entertaining them with the very best Pemberley had to offer. And she had smiled at him.
Fitzwilliam Darcy urged his horse into a canter and then to jump over the wide hedge. It would have been much easier to follow the road, but he was too impatient for that. He had been awake for hours, waiting for a civilized hour so he could call on Elizabeth. Once he mounted his horse, he could not hold back any longer. He took the very shortest route from Pemberley to the town of Lambton.
He slowed his horse to a walk on the edge of town, making an extra effort to acknowledge the townsfolk on the street. He had not frequented Lambton in the past, and now this was the second time in three days he had ridden up to the inn on High Street. It would forever be Elizabeth’s inn in his mind now. He dismounted and tossed the reins to a lad from the inn. Would Elizabeth smile at him today?
He was greeted by the innkeeper himself. “Mr. Darcy, welcome back to our establishment. It is an honour.”
Darcy inclined his head graciously. “Is Miss Bennet within?”
“Indeed, sir, she’s right in the private parlour reading some letters. Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, they walked out to the church a bit ago.”
So Elizabeth was alone! This was better than he could have hoped. Would she smile for him today? He allowed a servant to open the parlour door for him, but followed close on his heels.
She did not smile. Instead, she darted from her seat and cried, “Oh! Where, where is my uncle?” Her pale face and impetuous manner made him start, and before he could recover himself enough to speak, she hastily exclaimed, “I beg your pardon, but I must leave you. I must find Mr. Gardiner this moment, on business that cannot be delayed; I have not a moment to lose.”
“Good God! what is the matter?” cried Darcy, with more feeling than politeness; then recollecting himself, “I will not detain you a minute, but let me, or let the servant, go after Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner. You are not well enough;—you cannot go yourself.”
Elizabeth hesitated, but her knees trembled under her, and she felt how little would be gained by her attempting to pursue them. Calling back the servant, therefore, she commissioned him, though in so breathless an accent as made her almost unintelligible, to fetch his master and mistress home instantly.
On his quitting the room, she sat down, unable to support herself, and looking so miserably ill that it was impossible for Darcy to leave her, or to refrain from saying, in a tone of gentleness and commiseration, “Let me call your maid. Is there nothing you could take, to give you present relief? A glass of wine; shall I get you one? You are very ill.”
“No, I thank you,” she replied, endeavouring to recover herself. “There is nothing the matter with me. I am quite well. I am only distressed by some dreadful news which I have just received from Longbourn.”
She burst into tears as she alluded to it, and for a few minutes could not speak another word. Darcy, in wretched suspense, could only say something indistinctly of his concern, and observe her in compassionate silence. At length, she spoke again. “I have just had a letter from Jane, with such dreadful news. It cannot be concealed from any one. My youngest sister has left all her friends—has eloped;—has thrown herself into the power of—of Mr. Wickham. They are gone off together from Brighton. You know him too well to doubt the rest. She has no money, no connections, nothing that can tempt him to—she is lost for ever.”
Darcy was fixed in astonishment. “When I consider,” she added, in a yet more agitated voice, “that I might have prevented it! I who knew what he was. Had I but explained some part of it only—some part of what I learnt—to my own family! Had his character been known, this could not have happened. But it is all, all too late now.”
“I am grieved, indeed,” cried Darcy; “grieved—shocked. But is it certain, absolutely certain?”
“Oh yes!—They left Brighton together on Sunday night, and were traced almost to London, but not beyond; they are certainly not gone to Scotland.”
“And what has been done, what has been attempted, to recover her?”
“My father is gone to London, and Jane has written to beg my uncle’s immediate assistance, and we shall be off, I hope, in half an hour. But nothing can be done; I know very well that nothing can be done. How is such a man to be worked on? How are they even to be discovered? I have not the smallest hope. It is every way horrible!”When my eyes were opened to Wickham’s real character. — Oh! had I known what I ought, what I dared, to do! But I knew not — I was afraid of doing too much. Wretched, wretched, mistake!”
Darcy made no answer. He seemed scarcely to hear her, and was walking up and down the room in earnest meditation; his brow contracted, his air gloomy. Elizabeth soon observed and instantly understood it. Her power was sinking; every thing must sink under such a proof of family weakness, such an assurance of the deepest disgrace. She should neither wonder nor condemn, but the belief of his self-conquest brought nothing consolatory to her bosom, afforded no palliation of her distress. It was, on the contrary, exactly calculated to make her understand her own wishes; and never had she so honestly felt that she could have loved him, as now, when all love must be vain.
But self, though it would intrude, could not engross her. Lydia – the humiliation, the misery, she was bringing on them all — soon swallowed up every private care; and covering her face with her handkerchief, Elizabeth was soon lost to everything else; and, after a pause of several minutes, was only recalled to a sense of her situation by the voice of her companion, who, in a manner, which though it spoke compassion, spoke likewise restraint, said, “I am afraid you have been long desiring my absence, nor have I any thing to plead in excuse of my stay, but real, though unavailing, concern. Would to heaven that any thing could be either said or done on my part, that might offer consolation to such distress! — But I will not torment you with vain wishes, which may seem purposely to ask for your thanks. This unfortunate affair will, I fear, prevent my sister’s having the pleasure of seeing you at Pemberley today.”
“Oh, yes. Be so kind as to apologize for us to Miss Darcy. Say that urgent business calls us home immediately. Conceal the unhappy truth as long as it is possible – I know it cannot be long.”
“Of course. You may be assured of my secrecy.” Darcy paused, then added, “I shall trouble you no longer. Please give my compliments to Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, and accept my best wishes for a happier conclusion to this affair than can presently be foreseen.”
Elizabeth stood. “Thank you.” How the situation had reversed itself since that afternoon in the Hunsford parsonage! Now she was the one desiring Darcy’s good opinion and affections, while he was departing with a wish to sever the connexion. She had lost him; she would never see him again. But before they parted, she knew she must tell him somehow that she recognized the error of the terrible accusations she had made that day in April. He had shown by his gentlemanly behavior he had attended to her rebukes; she needed to demonstrate to him she recognized that her former opinions were based on lies and prejudice.
Gathering a desperate resolve, she said, “I would also like to thank you, sir, on my own behalf as well as that of my aunt and uncle, for the courtesy and hospitality you have shown us here. You and Miss Darcy have been all that is kind and amiable. Your sister is a charming and pleasant young lady, and I am very glad to have made her acquaintance, however briefly. Please know that, despite this unfortunate ending, these days in Lambton are ones I will always remember with pleasure.”
For a moment his face remained closed and distant, almost pained, then he approached her. Somehow she found her hand in his, unsure who had initiated the contact.
She saw his mouth form the word ‘Elizabeth’, though no sound emerged. Then, recalling himself, he took a deep breath and said formally, “Miss Bennet, the pleasure has been entirely mine.” He paused, appearing to struggle for words for a moment, then added slowly, “I hope your acquaintance with Georgiana need not be brief. She has told me repeatedly of the pleasure she has had in your company, and I am certain that she will be most disappointed your stay is to be interrupted. She does not make friends easily, and is often lonely, I believe, for the company of other young women. May I hope, or do I ask too much, that you will continue the acquaintance, and perhaps correspond with her from time to time?”
The surprise of this application was great. She felt relief that, despite Lydia’s shame, he would still at least consider her an acceptable companion for his sister. Then she realized all of his behavior – his closeness to her, his hand around hers, and most importantly that look in his eyes she was now coming to recognize – combined to tell her that though his words were about Georgiana, his meaning was quite different. In all respectability, he could not, as a single man, contact her directly, but Miss Darcy could; he was offering her a way to continue their own contact by proxy.
How had it come to pass that his good opinion was so important to her that this reassurance could bring tears once again to her eyes? Elizabeth struggled to calm herself. “I …. I should like that, sir, very much.”
The slightest of smiles warmed his face becomingly. “And perhaps, in happier times, you might honor us… honor her with a visit?”
To know he hoped to see her again, desired to see her enough to invite her to Pemberley! It seemed too much, coming so soon after despairing of any possibility of his favour. “Mr. Darcy,” she said, then paused, gaining strength somehow from his steady gaze, “the honor would be mine, and I would delight in seeing Miss Darcy once again.”
She would not have thought his gaze could become more intense. The sensations she felt as he raised her hand to his lips were such as she had never felt before, and the intensity of those feelings was so great she felt the need to drop her eyes, recalling she was alone with him and that in the tension of the moment neither he nor she might be best able to follow the dictates of appropriate behavior.
With that thought came the recollection of Lydia’s situation – how could she have forgotten it even for a moment, and how could she so have forgotten herself as to be consenting to accept Mr. Darcy’s addresses in light of Lydia’s ruin? Her breath caught as tears began once again to overtake her, but even in her distress she felt the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, and she found herself tightening her fingers on his lest he perceive her loss of composure as a rejection of him.
“Miss Bennet, I must apologize for putting my …. concerns before you at a moment when you are facing such distress,” he said quietly, displaying an extraordinary sensitivity to her shift of mood. “Please, you must sit. You are not well.” Releasing her hand most reluctantly, he led her to a chair.
Burying her face in her handkerchief, she whispered, “I am sorry.”
“No, your feelings do you credit,” replied Mr. Darcy. Had she been able to encounter his eyes, she might have seen how he was struggling not to take her in his arms to offer her whatever comfort he could. “ But how may I be of assistance to you? You are eager to away to Longbourn; shall I ask your maid to pack your bags?”
She nodded, still unable to look up. He quitted the room, and she heard him call to the servant. When he returned, he slipped quietly into the chair opposite her.
“Miss Bennet, will you allow me to sit with you until your aunt and uncle return? There is no need for you to make conversation, but I do not wish to leave you alone at a time like this.”
“As you wish, sir.” Elizabeth tried to breathe deeply and calmly. Mr. Darcy handed her his handkerchief while taking her own damp one. Somehow in the process he managed to reclaim her hand with his.
Elizabeth’s thoughts could not stay still. They fluttered from Lydia’s disgrace to Mr. Darcy to the shame her family would face in the future. How hopeless it seemed that there could be any resolution to this crisis! She felt both pity and furious anger at Lydia for the thoughtless behavior that would ruin so many of the family’s hopes, and then, with a sinking heart, connected those unhappy thoughts once again with the man next to her. Would she risk the reputation of the Darcy family name merely by association with them? She could not bear the idea she might do him harm, no matter how high the cost of preventing it. If that cost was never to see him again, she would pay it.
“Mr. Darcy,” she said, her voice trembling, “I find I must ask you to reconsider your … willingness to further my acquaintance with your sister. It is certain that in light of this event my family’s reputation will be severely harmed, and I would anticipate many good families of much lower standing than yours will no longer consent to receive us. Will you risk associating your sister with a family in such disgrace?”
“Miss Bennet, what has your sister done that my sister would not have done were it not for an accident of timing? Surely there are no two people more likely to understand your position than Georgiana and I.”
She could hardly believe her ears. Even with the many changes he had wrought in his behavior since Rosings, could he possibly be putting aside his pride so far as to compare Georgiana with Lydia?
“But in this case what you understand and what society understands are two very different matters. And I must argue with you, sir, in your comparison; though there are similarities in their situations, Miss Darcy is far more sensible than my heedless, thoughtless sister.”
“They both took the same risk,” he said with a dark look . “Miss Bennet, if you are attempting to tell me that you have for your own reasons changed your mind from the preferences you stated earlier, please tell me so at once, and I shall trouble you no more. But do not use your family as an excuse.”
“You confuse my meaning entirely, Mr. Darcy; my feelings have not changed, but I am concerned about the wisdom of this course. Or perhaps,” she said, hoping to inject a note of playfulness into the discussion, which seemed to be headed to dangerous ground, “I should say that my feelings have not changed recently, as we both have reason to believe my opinions not to be completely immutable.”
“So long as you see no reason to change your opinions further, I see no reason for complaint.”
The warmth of his gaze brought blushes to her cheeks and tremulous sensations new to her. She could not look away, and she longed to find a witty comment to lighten the atmosphere, but found all words failed her just as she needed them most.
He seemed as much caught as she, his fingers lightly stroking the back of her captive hand. Elizabeth felt hypnotized by the soft tracery of his touch, and was quite taken aback when he abruptly released her hand and pulled away, the old cold and distant look returning to his face.
She looked away, confused, wondering what had happened. Could she not manage to stay in accord with him for the length of a conversation? Or was she somehow misinterpreting him, as she had done so often in the past? She resolved that this time, at least, she would find a way to ask him, rather than assume, what he meant by his behavior.
Taking a deep breath, she said impertinently, “Pray, sir, what brings on the dread Darcy look of disapproval?”
“The dread Darcy look of disapproval?” he replied with a raised eyebrow and the slightest of smiles.
Elizabeth nodded gravely. “What sin could I have committed, I wonder? Could it have been something I said? Something I did? Hmmm – might you have taken a dislike to the style of my hair, or perhaps the color of my dress?”
Darcy could not help smiling, pleased to see her teasing him again. “As you know full well, Miss Bennet, I approve very much of everything about you. In fact, sometimes I approve far too much, and must then disapprove, not of you, but of myself.”
“Disapprove of yourself! For approving of me? Come, sir, that is hardly friendly.”
“Exactly my point, Miss Bennet.”
“So approval leads to unfriendliness! I must assume I am supposed to ask how this could be, but I shall not fall into your trap, sir.”
It had been too long since I have crossed wits with Elizabeth, Darcy thought, but I must take great care on this point. He said lightly, “I shall decipher the riddle for you anyway. I have always prided myself on my self-control, which has served me well until now. Since meeting you, however, I have discovered the sad truth – that my self-control is far more limited than ever I thought, though fortunately this difficulty seems to be limited to the times when I am in your most approved presence. I am sure you will appreciate my difficulty. Given how far my self-control eroded when you still disliked me, imagine how much more difficult it is to maintain in the presence of your smiles. Hence, I must disapprove of too much approval, lest it lead me to dangerous ground.”
Dangerous ground, indeed, thought Elizabeth. “Mr. Darcy, I have every faith in your gentlemanly behavior.”
He winced. She could not know how much he had been hurt by her words in Hunsford about his ungentlemanly behavior, so he tried to keep any bitterness out of his voice as he acknowledged the unhealed wound. “But as you yourself have pointed out in the past, I am quite capable of behaving in an ungentleman-like manner.”
“Pray, sir, do not remind me of the unjust and misinformed things I have said in the past! In cases such as these, a good memory is unpardonable.”
“That particular reproof was well-deserved, as I recall.”
Elizabeth flushed. “My philosophy is to think only of the past as it gives me pleasure, so I prefer instead to think about my current better understanding of you, which includes acknowledging that your behavior is gentlemanly in every way! But I shall try to heed your warning and not test your self-control, lest you be irreparably harmed by discovering its limits.”
“Miss Bennet, I urge you to take care,” he said intently, teasing put aside. “The only thing that separates me from this” – here he touched her letters – “is that self-control you mock. There is otherwise no difference between Mr. Wickham and me.”
“Do not,” she cried, “do not ever let me hear you comparing yourself in any way to that…. that scoundrel! There is a world of difference between you!”
He smiled slightly. “Perhaps I should learn to criticize myself more often, for the pleasure of hearing you defend me.”
“I speak only the truth, and you, sir, know enough of my frankness to believe that!”
“Elizabeth, you are playing with fire. Trust me when I tell you not to trust me too far.”
His use of her Christian name felt very intimate, and she sensed that some line had been crossed. She knew instinctively this was the moment when she should look away and change the subject, but instead she found herself saying, “And am I the only one playing with fire?”
“Touché,” he said softly. “But do not say that I did not warn you.” Taking her hand, he lifted her to her feet. “Elizabeth,” he breathed as he slowly lowered his head and allowed his lips to caress hers for a brief moment.
Elizabeth felt the power of his touch run through her, shocked both by the sensation and her acquiescence – nay, her cooperation – in the kiss. What did it mean that she desired his kisses? Was he as shocked at her behavior as she was?
“Elizabeth,” – his voice made her name a caress – “Tell me to leave. Please.” Even as he spoke, he pulled her closer and sought her mouth again, more urgently this time.
She allowed herself a moment of stolen pleasure, then, steeling her resolve, forced herself to say in the steadiest possible voice, “Mr. Darcy. You must stop, sir.” She dropped her eyes, knowing instinctively she must not meet his gaze.
He inhaled sharply. “Yes, so I must.” He firmed his resolve and began to pull away, but could not resist the temptation to let his lips linger a moment on her hair as he did so.
Unfortunately, it was then and not a moment later that the door opened, revealing Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner.