The break in the rain seemed like a sign. It meant Darcy could ride to the parsonage and find out what was wrong with Elizabeth. Mrs. Collins had said she was ill, but his cousin averred that he had seen her but a few hours ago, and she seemed well then. Darcy would have thought Elizabeth would stop at nothing to come to Rosings tonight, his last night in Kent, and her last chance to ensnare him. Instead she had remained at the parsonage, leaving her friend to make her excuses to Lady Catherine.
She must be avoiding him. There could be no other reason for her absence. But why? She had every reason to wish to be in his presence, unless she had decided that winning his love was a hopeless cause. Perhaps that was it. Perhaps his failure to declare himself had left her believing that he was simply toying with her. Perhaps she thought it would be too painful to see him tonight, knowing it would be for the last time. Darcy’s mouth curved a little with the thought. Dearest Elizabeth! How happy she would be to receive his assurances of love.
Just at that moment, the pounding of rain against the windowpanes finally began to slacken as the thunder faded off into the distance. His aunt’s attention was focused on rendering unwanted advice to Mrs. Collins while Richard was attempted to engage Anne in conversation. He could slip away unnoticed. It was definitely a sign.
Once he had escaped the gloomy sitting room, he lost no time in making his way to the stables. In a clipped voice he asked a sleepy groom to ready his curricle.
The man squinted up at him. “I don’t know if that be such a good idea, sir. With those wheels, ‘twould be a moment’s work to find yourself stuck, the road is that deep in mud after all this rain.”
“Then I will ride,” Darcy said firmly. He would not allow bad roads to keep him from Elizabeth’s side, not tonight.
Yawning, the groom went off to saddle his horse. Darcy helped himself to a riding crop from a shelf, then tapped it impatiently against his leg until he heard the clopping of hooves. The air hung heavy on him, thick and full of moisture. Much more of this rain and the crops would rot in the fields before they even had a chance to sprout. He would have to speak to his aunt about relief for the tenant farmers, but now was not the time to think about such matters.
Soon he would be in Elizabeth’s presence, where he would finally be the recipient of her dazzling smiles and hopefully even more. Elizabeth would not be Miss-ish, certainly. It was not in her character. Yes, he had every reason to assume she would allow him to taste those seductive lips that had been tempting him almost past the point of sanity. His body filled with fire at the mere thought. He would finally feel her warmth in his arms and hold that shapely form against him, her shining energy at last his, only his.
He could not afford these thoughts, not now, or he would be in no condition to be in Elizabeth’s presence. He disciplined himself to think of something else, anything else – the weather, his aunt’s latest rant, his horse. He swung himself into the saddle, ignoring the groom’s proffered assistance.
The groom had been correct about the condition of the road. The horse’s hooves squelched and spewed out droplets of mud. Darcy kept to a slow walk, since he did not want to be covered with mud when he paid his addresses to Elizabeth. The pace seemed interminable, leaving far too much time for thought and memories.
Memories of his father, telling him he must marry an heiress because Georgiana’s dowry would cut into the Pemberley coffers. His mother, taking him aside so that his father would not hear, reminding him that he was an Earl’s grandson. She had married beneath her because it was the only way she could escape from the fate her brother had planned for her, but once she had hoped to catch a marquis at the very least. Her voice still echoed in his ears. “Pemberley does not want for money or land. You must find yourself a titled lady to bring honor to the family name.”
Then there was his aunt, Lady Catherine, who was determined that he marry her daughter. Darcy snorted at the thought of Lady Catherine’s insistence that it had been his mother’s wish for him to marry Anne de Bourgh. His mother would not have thought her own niece good enough for her son and heir.
For all these years Darcy had been determined to choose a bride who would have pleased both his mother and his father, but he had yet to meet an aristocratic heiress he could tolerate for an evening, much less a lifetime, and here he was, about to completely defy his parents’ wishes by proposing to a lady whose breeding was questionable and whose fortune was non-existent. The scandal of it might even hurt Georgiana’s chances at a brilliant match. How could he do this, knowing he was failing in his duty to his entire family?
His decision to follow his heart and marry Elizabeth had been the hardest of his life, and even now he had his doubts. He was being a fool and he knew it, but for once in his life he was in the grip of a passion beyond his control. He could not help himself. At least that was his excuse, though he could just imagine his father’s scorn and the curl of his mother’s lip if he had ever dared to say such a thing to them.
For a moment he considered reining in his horse and returning to Rosings free of the encumbrance of a distasteful alliance, but the memory of Elizabeth’s sparkling eyes and the way the corner of her lips twitched when she was amused spurred him on. He had to have her. There was nothing else to be done, at least not without dishonoring himself more than he already was by making this proposal. The wild young men at White’s would have some very different ideas about how he should slake his lust, caring nothing for who might pay the price as long as their own desires were fulfilled, but that was not for him. It was such things that made Darcy prefer Bingley’s company over that of his peers. Bingley had been foolish to fall in love with Jane Bennet, but at least he had never considered dishonoring her. It had been marriage or nothing for Bingley, and it was the same for Darcy. But how would Bingley feel when he discovered that Darcy was marrying the sister of that same woman he had insisted was not good enough for his friend? He was a hypocrite as well as failing his parents’ wishes, but Elizabeth would be his.
The sucking sound of the hooves in deep mud gave way to the thud of horseshoes striking wooden planks as he crossed the bridge. The flood waters rushed loudly beneath him, the usually peaceful, meandering river now a raging torrent after the last month of pounding rain. Even in the darkness he was certain that the water must be over the banks by now. The wind was picking up again, starting to lash against his coat.
A flash of lightning split the night sky, causing his horse to shy. Darcy automatically quelled it as the rolling rumble of thunder seemed to make the very air tremble. His skin was tingling, a certain sign that another storm was in the offing. Yes, it was far better to think about floods and rain than to hear voices from the past railing at him.
By good fortune he reached the parsonage at the top of the hill just as the skies opened. Dismounting hurriedly, Darcy led his horse into the slight shelter of the eaves and tied its reins to the waiting ring. Silently he made his apologies to the horse who deserved better than the drenching he was about to receive. Under normal circumstances he would never treat one of his mounts in such a shabby manner, but tonight was not normal and the shelter of a stable was a quarter mile further along.
He thanked his lucky stars that the front entryway was covered. Already a cold trickle had found its way down the back of his neck, sending a shiver down his spine. He rang the bell loudly, hoping someone would come quickly. No one would be expecting callers, and it would be hard to hear anything over the drumming of the rain and the rolling thunder.
The door was opened, not soon enough for Darcy’s taste, by a timid, half-kempt maidservant holding a single candle. Clearly she had not expected her services to be needed tonight. He set his hat and gloves on a small table and brushed the remaining drops of rain from his coat. His valet would have fits were he to see his normally immaculate master in such disarray, but there was nothing to be done for it. He had a mission, and he meant to accomplish it. “I wish to see Miss Bennet,” he told the girl in a clipped voice.
He did not notice her reply, his entire being concentrated on the knowledge that in just a few minutes, Elizabeth would be officially his, putting an end to his months of torment imagining a lifetime in which he would only see her in his night-time fantasies. Half in a daze, he strode past the girl into the sitting room where Elizabeth stood, a pile of letters on the small painted table beside her. She was noticeably pale and did not smile at the sight of him. Perhaps she was in truth unwell?
Suddenly nervous, although he did not know why, he made a correct bow. “Miss Bennet, your cousin informed me that you were too ill to join us at Rosings. May I hope that you are feeling better?”
“It was nothing but a slight headache.” Her tone was decidedly cool.
He took his usual seat, trying to make sense of her serious demeanor. Surely she must know why he was there? She should be delighted at his presence! Then it hit him. She must have been expecting his addresses these last several weeks, and his reticence had injured her sensibilities. It was only natural. What lady would not feel wounded when an eligible suitor seemed unable to make up his mind about her? In sudden generosity of spirit, he decided he must be completely open with her. He would tell her his dilemma, of why he had delayed so long, and show her all the barriers his love for her had overcome. He would help her see that it was not a reflection on her charms or the depth of his feeling for her. On the contrary, the depth of his struggle showed the strength of his devotion. But how to begin? She seemed reluctant even to look at him.
His agitation of spirit could not be contained, so he left the chair to pace around the small room, searching for the words to express himself. He wanted nothing more than to pour his heart out at her feet, but first he must tend to the injury he had unwittingly inflicted upon her. What a fool he had been to wait so long to claim her as his intended!
He could not wait another minute. He approached her, coming as near as propriety would allow, and the words began tumbling forth. “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.”
What a relief it was to finally say the words! He had Elizabeth’s complete attention now; she was almost staring at him, her cheeks becomingly flushed, apparently at a loss for words. Telling her was the right thing to do. With greater certainty, he continued, “I have admired you from almost the first moment we met, and it has been many months since I have known that my life would be incomplete without you in it. You may wonder why I have been silent until now, and question the strength of my devotion, but I can assure you it had nothing to do with the depth of my love. I had not known myself capable of a passion such as this. For the first time in my life, I have understood what it was that inspired the greatest poets to produce their masterpieces. Until I met you, I thought their words of love were but a form of artistic hyperbole, and I could not believe that any man would actually find himself so overcome with violent love. But in you I have discovered what it is to need another as I need the air to breathe.”
He paused to collect his thoughts as thunder briefly drowned out his ability to speak. “Indeed, I should have made this offer to you long ago, had it not been for the disparity in our stations in life. My family has a long and distinguished history, and the expectation has always been for me to marry a lady of rank and fortune, and you do not fall into either category. Your lack of dowry could perhaps be overlooked, but my parents would be horrified that I would even consider marrying a woman of such low connections. Your father is a gentleman, although of a rank inferior to mine, but your mother’s family must be seen as a degradation. The very idea of mixing the blood of tradesmen into the fine lineage of my family is nothing short of repugnant. I had no choice but to fight against my attraction to you with all the strength I could muster, my judgment warring with my inclination. I do not have the words to describe the battles I have fought with myself, but in the end, in spite of all my endeavors, I found it impossible to conquer my attachment to you. My sentiments have proved powerful enough to overcome all the expectations of family and friends. My devotion and ardent love have been fiercely tested and emerged triumphant. May I dare hope that my violent love for you will be rewarded by your acceptance of my hand in marriage?” He gazed into her bright eyes, awaiting her affirmative response.
Elizabeth, seeming at a loss for words, unfolded her hands, but at his eager look, she hastily refolded them. She inhaled deeply and said, “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. It is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would…”
An uproarious pounding interrupted her words, accompanied by loud voices. Elizabeth’s brows gathered as she looked over her shoulder towards the door of the parsonage.
A deep shout from without all but rattled the windows. “What ho, the house! For the love of God, let us in!”
Darcy frowned furiously in the direction of the racket. How dare anyone interrupt him at this tender moment and in such a manner? The voice betrayed low origins. Could it be footpads on such a night as this? He could make out the sound of crying children now. Where was that maid? Just then a brilliant flash of lightning flooded the room with light, accompanied by an ear-splitting crack of thunder and a resounding crash. A woman’s scream pierced the night and the pounding began anew.
Darcy strode to the window. Through the rain streaming down the window he could make out the shape of a fallen tree limb. The giant chestnut tree had been split down the middle, smoke rising from the ragged stump. A cluster of shapes huddled nearby.
Light footsteps behind him alerted him to Elizabeth’s presence. She stood just behind him, her hands covering her mouth. The whiteness of her face stirred him into action. He gripped her arm lightly, even in the crisis marveling at his right to do so, “There is nothing to fear. Lightning struck the tree outside, but we are perfectly safe. I will deal with this.”
He walked purposely toward the front door, discovering the maid cowering in the entryway. Frowning at her, he threw open the door to reveal a roughly dressed old man, soaked to the skin, with perhaps two dozen others, mostly women, behind him.
The man said, “Please, sir, the water’s rising somethin’ fierce! It carried off Smither’s cottage and his wife and children with it, and half the village is knee deep in water. We never seen the like of it, never! You have to help us, sir!”
For a moment Darcy wondered irritably if they thought he had the power to stop the river, then he realized the parsonage and church occupied the highest ground on this bank. They had fled to the safest spot they knew.
A high keening reached his ear as a woman appeared, tugging at the man’s arm. “It’s Miller’s Jenny. She’s trapped under the tree, and we can’t lift it!”
Darcy swore under his breath, then turned to the maid. “Take the women and children to the kitchen and build up the fire.” He frowned at the pouring rain. There was no help for it; he would have to go out.
The fallen chestnut was no more than a score of steps away, but cold rain was already trickling down Darcy’s neck when he reached it, following the sound of a child’s wails. He could barely make out shapes pulling at the fallen tree trunk. It was large enough that he would not have been able to wrap his arms around it. One of the figures slipped on the wet grass and fell hard, swearing in the shifting tones of a boy whose voice was starting to turn. Darcy’s vision was beginning to adjust. It was nothing more than the old man and two lads trying to shift a limb far beyond their weight. Darcy crouched down by the small child whose legs were trapped, examining the position of the fallen limb.
“We’ll need a lever,” he said decisively. “You, boy – run to the house and tell them we need a crowbar or something like it, whatever they have.” He pointed to the other boy. “You must find some other branches, big ones. Where are the other men?”
“In t’ village still, tryin’ to save what they can,” the old man said. “Sent me with t’ women, they did.”
Darcy nodded, then turned to the little girl. “You must be very brave and listen carefully to what I say. We are going to find a way to move this, and when I give the word, you must pull yourself out from under it as quickly as may be. Do you understand?”
“Ye…Yes, sir,” she whimpered. “Please, it hurts so much!”
“We’ll have you out of there as soon as we can.” And Elizabeth would be waiting for him, like the treasure at the end of a knight’s quest. With a warm feeling inside despite the cold rain, Darcy pushed a lock of sodden hair out of his eyes, then broke a branch from the trunk and began wedging it under the fallen wood.
Elizabeth hurried upstairs to the closets so carefully arranged according to the direction of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. It was simple to find the blankets she was seeking, but there were not as many as she had hoped. She added the blanket from her own bed for good measure, then returned to the kitchen and began distributing them, encouraging the women with young children to wrap the blankets around them for warmth. The fire was as high as the maid had dared make it, but the soaked refugees still shivered.
One of the women was tending to several others. Elizabeth approached her and said, “Can you tell me of the situation in the village?”
She shook her head. “You can’t believe how high that water is, and the current strong enough to pull a man off his feet. There won’t be much left by the time it goes down.” Her voice trembled a little.
Elizabeth bit her lip. While Mr. Collins and Charlotte were at Rosings Park, it was up to her to make arrangements for all these people. She had no idea what food stores were available or where they would sleep, but she could hardly send Mr. Collins’ newly-homeless parishioners out into the storm with nowhere to go.
The kitchen door swung open to reveal Mr. Darcy, his dark curls sodden and dripping into his face, carrying a young girl in his arms. He called across the kitchen, “Miss Bennet, a word, if you please?”
She drew in a sharp breath. What was he still doing there? She had expected him to be long gone after she refused his startling offer of marriage. After that insulting proposal, she despised him more than ever, and as her rejected suitor, he must be furious with her. He had clearly expected her to accept him. What unlucky fate had forced them to be together, especially under these circumstances?
Still, she had no choice but to follow him into the hallway. The last thing she wanted to do was to meet his eyes, so instead she turned her gaze to the limp form in his arms. “Is she injured?” she asked.
“I believe her leg is broken. It is fortunate for her that she fainted when we tried to move her. What is the best place for her?” Mr. Darcy sounded remarkably calm under the circumstances. His tone carried none of the anger she had expected.
If he could be civil, she would as well. “Could you bring her upstairs? I will show you the way.” The simplest thing would be to put the child in the room she shared with Maria, since the bed in the spare room was not made up.
He inclined his head. The gesture lost a great deal of its aristocratic air owing to the water dripping from his hair. Elizabeth barely controlled a smile as she fetched a candle from the sitting room and led him up the dark staircase to her room. She set the candle on the vanity and found a towel to spread across the bed.
The little girl moaned as Mr. Darcy set her on the bed, taking great care to move her as gently as possible. One of her legs was bent at an unnatural angle. Elizabeth tried to remove her shoe, but stopped as her action provoked another moan from the child. She only hoped the girl would remain unconscious long enough for her wet clothes to be removed.
Elizabeth dried her hands on a corner of the towel, then looked up to find Mr. Darcy’s dark eyes fixed on her. She realized with a shock that, apart from the unconscious girl, she was alone in a dark bedroom with a man who claimed to be violently in love with her. To her utter astonishment, he smiled slightly.
“But you are quite wet, sir! Mr. Collins’ rooms are just down the passage. I am sure he would not object to the use of some of his clothing. After all, he would be mortified if you were to take a chill while in his house,” Elizabeth said, aware that she was babbling.
“An excellent idea,” he said, but made no move to go.
“And I must find this child’s mother. She will need comfort when she awakens.” Elizabeth began backing out of the room, anxious to depart from his unnerving presence.
He picked up the candle and held it out to her. “Do not forget this. I would not want you to trip on the stairs.”
His courtesy was unnerving, but she would not allow it to intimidate her. “I thank you, but I have been down the stairs many times, and you will need the light in Mr. Collins’ room.”
“I could not possibly…” Darcy paused, then his face lit up with a smile. “Perhaps a compromise is in order. I will see you downstairs with the candle; then, when you are safely ensconced there, I will return with it to Mr. Collins’ room, if you will be so kind as to indicate where I might find it.”
Was this a battle of wills to see who could show the most courtesy? “Very well, sir. An excellent idea.”
He bowed and swept his free hand out, indicating the door. “Also, there would be no point to dry clothes before I find shelter for my horse. The shed in the garden – would it be large enough to accommodate him?”
Elizabeth nodded numbly. “Perhaps there will be a break in the rain soon and you will be able to return to Rosings.” It could not happen soon enough for her.
He shook his head. “I cannot possibly leave you here alone under these circumstances. Besides, there will be no need for a break in the rain. No doubt Lady Catherine will order her carriage for Mr. and Mrs. Collins, and I will return in that conveyance.”
“As you wish. Now, if you will excuse me, I must find out how many guests we must provide shelter for.” Anything to give her an excuse to leave his company. She started down the stairs.
His voice continued from behind her. “However many there are here now, the number is likely to increase. Apparently some of them are still attempting to rescue their possessions, and will most likely arrive later. I have already instructed the men outside to settle themselves in the church. Fortunately, it is not a cold night, so blankets and hot bricks should be enough to keep them warm until morning.”
Trust Mr. Darcy to assume command of any situation, regardless of whether he had any rights in the matter! Elizabeth fumed, not least because she had not thought of that solution herself. She did not trust herself to answer him in a temperate manner, so she said nothing. She would not waste her energy on Mr. Darcy when there were so many others who needed her assistance.
Darcy stripped out of his soaking attire as quickly as possible, but he had to wrestle with his tightly fitted topcoat, which was snug enough that it usually required his valet to remove. Being saturated with water did not help matters. He had a brief fantasy of asking Elizabeth for her assistance – how he would enjoy having her remove his clothing!
His wet clothes made a puddle on the floor as he toweled himself dry as best he could. The friction of it warmed his cold skin a little, but not anywhere near as much as Elizabeth could just by looking at him.
Her recent behavior was puzzling, though. She had seemed almost skittish just now, unlike her usual self. Perhaps she was worried about failing to handle this crisis with the aplomb he would expect from the mistress of Pemberley. That was no doubt the cause; it was so like his sweet Elizabeth to be already taking her future role so seriously! He would have to make a point of telling her how well she was doing. Later, perhaps, he could give her some pointers on how she should have behaved. It was generous of her to attempt to help the villagers herself, but she should not have been in the kitchen as if she were one of them.
There were clothes in Mr. Collins’ wardrobe that were dry, but that was the best that could be said for them. Some appeared freshly pressed – he supposed he could thank Mrs. Collins for that – but others were rumpled, and all were of coarse fabric he would never dream of wearing under normal circumstances. His shirts were a long way from the pristine white Darcy usually required. Making a face, he picked out the least grey shirt and shook it out. It was passable, he supposed, wrinkling his nose. Like the entire room, it was imbued with the stink of sweat that he associated with Mr. Collins.
He did not mind if Elizabeth wished to continue her friendship with Mrs. Collins. Although her father was in trade, Mrs. Collins was a nicely-mannered woman and would not embarrass either of them, at least as long as she did not mention her family. Mr. Collins was another story. Darcy had no intention of having that fool at Pemberley even for a day. It was hard to believe that he was related to Elizabeth, not that most of her family were much better, of course. Fortunately, there would be little need for her family to interact with his, and Darcy supposed that for Elizabeth’s sake he could somehow manage to tolerate the Bennets in brief doses.
He paused, his arm half-way into the shirtsleeve. Elizabeth was his, by God! Even wearing disgusting borrowed clothes and being forced to deal with the riff-raff from Hunsford could not diminish his sense of triumph that it was finally settled. No more second thoughts or doubts; it was done. And if he had anything to say about it – and he intended to say a great deal about it – they would be married as soon as the banns had been read. He would have liked to hear more of Elizabeth’s reply to his proposal, but that was not the important thing. They were engaged. And he still planned to steal a kiss once he had everyone settled for the night. If Mr. and Mrs. Collins were not yet returned, it might be even more than a kiss. Now there was an idea to improve his mood! If he was very, very lucky, the roads would be completely impassable and he would have to spend the night at Rosings.
He pulled the shirt over his head and looked in the mirror. Ill-fitting, of course, but the smile he could not repress made up for it.
Several hours later, some thirty villagers had been settled in the church. Elizabeth had rationed out the few available candles, while the cook took stock of their food supplies, muttering gloomily about having to feed such a crowd in the morning. In the parsonage, a few young children rested on blankets in front of the hearth in the larger sitting room, their mothers beside them. Mr. Collins would not be pleased by it, but Elizabeth had no intention of allowing the children to fall ill simply for his convenience. She had been unable to find the parents of the girl with the broken leg – apparently they were still in the village trying to salvage whatever they could – so Elizabeth had assisted two of the village women in splinting her leg, a nerve-racking experience since the girl screamed in agony whenever they touched it. Fortunately, an older woman offered to sit with the girl afterwards.
Elizabeth peered out the window of the small sitting room for the what seemed like the hundredth time, as if she would be able to make out anything in the ongoing deluge. The single candle, barely lighting the room at its best, flickered each time the wind rattled the windowpanes. It was almost midnight, and Mr. and Mrs. Collins still had not returned. Would this day never end? It seemed like weeks since she had walked with Colonel Fitzwilliam in the garden, totally unaware that Mr. Darcy admired her. She leaned her forehead against the window frame.
She could never forgive the part he had played in separating Jane and Mr. Bingley, but in all fairness, he had handled her refusal remarkably well. She would not have thought him capable of even basic civility under these circumstances, but he had been polite and had shouldered responsibility for their unexpected guests.
As if the mere thought of him caused him to appear, she heard his footsteps behind her. She closed her eyes, silently willing him to go away. Instead, the footsteps continued to approach her, stopping only when he was so close behind her that she could practically feel the warmth radiating from his body.
“Miss Bennet, you must rest. It is very late, and there is nothing more you can do tonight,” he said quietly.
She shook her head. “I will not be able to sleep until Mr. and Mrs. Collins are back safely.”
“They will not return tonight. According to a villager who just arrived, the bridge is out. It is hardly a surprise; it has not been maintained as it ought to be. I have told my aunt as much on several occasions. But you need not worry; the Collins’ will stay the night at Rosings Park. In the morning, it may be possible for them to travel upstream to the next bridge.”
Elizabeth sighed. “Then I had best make plans for breakfast, if Charlotte will not be here.”
“You need not trouble yourself. I have spoken with the maid, who has recruited two of the village women to assist the cook in the kitchen in the morning. The fare will be simple, but no one will go hungry. All will be well.”
She hated to admit it, but she was relieved that he had dealt with it, relieved enough that she did not immediately realize the source of the comforting warmth around her waist. But she could not miss the brush of lips against the side of her neck, especially since it created a riot of sensation far beyond the immediate stimulus. In a moment of weakness, she was half-tempted to lean back against the strong body behind her, but that very desire brought her to her senses.
She pulled his hands off her waist and slipped under his arm. Once she had reached the safety of several paces away, she whirled to face him. “How dare you, sir! I had just been noting that for once you seemed to be behaving like a gentleman, and now I discover it is nothing but an attempt to take advantage of my situation.”
He had the gall to look puzzled. “I apologize for distressing you. You seemed in need of comfort, and under the circumstances I thought you would not object.”
“Under the circumstances that I am stranded with you and have no other choice?”
“Under the circumstances that we are engaged to be married, Elizabeth. I know you are fatigued, and perhaps it would be better to speak of this in the morning.”
“I am most certainly not engaged to you, and I have not given you permission to make free with my Christian name!”
He inhaled sharply. “I am sorry if I overstepped my bounds, but I cannot believe you wish to call off our engagement because of that.”
She stared at him in astonishment. “There is no engagement! In case you were not paying attention earlier, I was in the process of refusing you when the villagers interrupted us!”
He paled, taking a step back. “That is nonsense. You were hoping for, no, awaiting my addresses. You have no reason to refuse me.”
“No reason! Do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man who has been the means of ruining, perhaps forever, the happiness of a most beloved sister? You dare not, you cannot deny that you have been the principal, if not the only means of dividing Mr. Bingley from her, of exposing one to the censure of the world for caprice and instability, the other to its derision for disappointed hopes, and involving them both in misery of the acutest kind.”
She paused, and saw with no slight indignation that he was listening with an air which proved him wholly unmoved by any feeling of remorse. He even looked at her with a smile of affected incredulity.
“Can you deny that you have done it?” she repeated.
With assumed tranquility he then replied, “I have no wish of denying that I did every thing in my power to separate my friend from your sister, or that I rejoice in my success. Towards him I have been kinder than towards myself.”
Elizabeth disdained the appearance of noticing this civil reflection, but its meaning did not escape, nor was it likely to conciliate, her.
“But it is not merely this affair,” she continued, “on which my dislike is founded. Long before it had taken place, my opinion of you was decided. Your character was unfolded in the recital which I received many months ago from Mr. Wickham. On this subject, what can you have to say? In what imaginary act of friendship can you here defend yourself?”
“You take an eager interest in that gentleman’s concerns,” said Darcy in a less tranquil tone, and with a heightened colour.
“Who that knows what his misfortunes have been, can help feeling an interest in him?”
“His misfortunes!” repeated Darcy contemptuously; “yes, his misfortunes have been great indeed.”
“And of your infliction,” cried Elizabeth with energy. “You have reduced him to his present state of poverty, comparative poverty. You have withheld the advantages, which you must know to have been designed for him. You have deprived the best years of his life, of that independence which was no less his due than his desert. You have done all this, and yet you can treat the mention of his misfortunes with contempt and ridicule!”
“And this,” cried Darcy, as he walked with quick steps across the room, “is your opinion of me! This is the estimation in which you hold me! I thank you for explaining it so fully. My faults, according to this calculation, are heavy indeed! Perhaps someday you will do me the honor of telling me what manner of falsehood Wickham is spreading about me now, and for what reason you have chosen to believe whatever he said in the complete absence of proof!”
“I saw enough proof with my own eyes! Your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form that ground-work of disapprobation before I ever met Mr. Wickham; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”
“Now it is all clear! You disliked my pride, so clearly any manner of slander attached to my name must be true. I ask you again, what proof did he supply of his so-called misfortunes?”
“And I might ask you what proof you can offer that his claims are untrue!”
“None, in as much as I do not know what claims he made, but I can produce more than enough evidence of his deceitful nature. It is clear there is no point in doing so, however, since you clearly have already determined not to believe a word I say. Forgive me for having taken up so much of your time. I will hope for the good fortune of an end to this rain so that you need not tolerate my presence in the morning.”
With these words he hastily left the room, and a moment later Elizabeth heard a door bang shut.
Covering her face with her hands, Elizabeth sank into the nearest chair, tears of anger and fatigue filling her eyes. What a disaster! She did not know which was worse, his ridiculous assumptions or her intemperate behavior. Even if he had misunderstood her earlier, she should have simply been firm with him about her refusal. There had been no call whatsoever for her to lose her temper with Mr. Darcy, but exhaustion and shock at his unseemly behavior had taken a toll of her composure. His forwardness had been disturbing, but was understandable enough given his misapprehension, but his abominable pridefulness had surprised even her. That he should think she had been hoping for his addresses! And that she would agree to marry him, for no other reason than that he wished it! She would have found it comic if she had not been so very tired – and if she did not have to face him in the morning. And to think her opinion of him had been improving since he had been so helpful and polite to her once the refugees had arrived! It was only because he believed he had prevailed. Vexing man!
Somehow she must get some rest. Swaying slightly, she trudged up the stairs, but stopped short at the door of her bedroom. The girl Jenny lay in her bed, while the elderly woman who was watching her would likely be asleep in the bed Maria Lucas used. Elizabeth leaned her head against the doorframe, forcing herself to think. There was Charlotte’s room, but that had a connecting door to Mr. Collins’ bedroom where Mr. Darcy would spend the night. The mere thought was enough to banish sleepiness. No, the smallest bedroom, the one that had been reserved for Sir William Lucas, would be her best option, even if the bed was not ready.
At least the small room had been aired out already, the bare mattress resting on the bedframe. She considered hunting for some linens, but could not face the effort, nor the possibility that she might once again encounter Mr. Darcy. It did not matter; the counterpane sat folded on the windowseat, and she could simply wrap herself in it for the night.
She would have to sleep in her shift in any case, since her nightdress was in the other bedroom. Undoing the buttons on the back of her dress presented something of a challenge, but somehow she managed it. As the muslin slid down her body, her hands paused on her hips as she unexpectedly recalled the sensation of Mr. Darcy’s hands around her waist. Her skin tingled oddly, a disturbing sensation which made her step out of the dress with less care than she might have otherwise. She tripped over the skirt in the darkness, and the sound of ripping fabric made her wince.
Elizabeth shook her head at her own clumsiness. It was just one more sign of this disastrous evening. Tossing the dress carelessly over a nearby chair, she took the counterpane and climbed onto bed, hoping for sleep to come instantly. It might even have done so had the memory of Mr. Darcy’s lips on the sensitive skin of her neck not intervened. Her hand crept up to touch the spot, and she fell asleep with her fingers covering it.