“In a moment, when we leave the trees, you will be able to see the house,” said Mr. Darcy. “There it is, across the valley—Pemberley House.”
Elizabeth smiled at him dutifully, then looked out the window of the carriage where he was pointing. The house was large and handsome, even at this distance, and its situation on a rising hill above the water was lovely. Of course, she had expected as much, having heard its praises sung by Miss Bingley as well as Darcy himself. In other circumstances, she might have been delighted by it.
She became aware that his eyes were upon her awaiting her response. Obediently she turned to him and said, “It is lovely, sir. I do not believe I have ever seen a house more fortunately situated.”
His face warmed with pleasure, and Elizabeth hurriedly looked out the window again, pretending to examine the nearer aspects of the house as they drove along a stream which wound its way downhill. There was no denying the beauty of the park. It would be some consolation to have such fine-looking grounds to wander through whenever she wished.
The driver called out to the horses as they pulled up in front of the house. Darcy stepped out immediately, then turned to offer his hand to Elizabeth. She placed her own upon it, accepting his support as she stepped down, then allowed him to bring her hand to his lips for an intimate caress.
There was no point, after all, in pretending he did not have the right, or that he had not spent the previous night taking every imaginable liberty with her body. She had no reason to complain; he had been kind and gentle, but after a second long day of travel, her spirits were flagging, and she found the pretense of happiness more difficult to sustain.
He did not release her hand, and eventually she glanced up at him to find a slight smile upon his lips. “Welcome to Pemberley, Mrs. Darcy,” he said with evident satisfaction.
* * *
To Elizabeth’s relief, the rooms and furnishings of Pemberley House showed more restraint and true elegance than she had expected. She had tried to imagine living in an even grander and more ostentatious version of Rosings; at least her surroundings would be more pleasant than that. It demonstrated more good taste on Mr. Darcy’s part than she would have anticipated. In all fairness, she had to admit there had been no reason to think he lacked taste beyond the garishness of his aunt’s residence. Nothing about his appearance, from his frockcoats to his horses, was ever lacking. She schooled herself to remember how little she knew this man who was her husband. It was imperative that she learn to grant him the benefit of the doubt if they were not both to be unhappy.
She was greeted respectfully by the housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds. The household appeared to be excellently managed; she could have no complaints in that regard. The servants were deferential without being obsequious, and Darcy appeared genuinely glad to see some of them.
Finally he asked if she would like to see her rooms. Hoping for the chance to refresh herself, she agreed, and followed him through a maze of corridors to a large, well-lit suite.
Darcy closed the door behind them and took her into his arms. It was something she had become accustomed to and in general it no longer made her uncomfortable, but after the intimacies of the previous night, it felt like an intrusion. She schooled herself to bear it and accepted his kisses.
If only she could have a few minutes to herself! She had barely been out of his company since she walked into the church the previous day. It was a long time to play the role of the contented wife without an intermission.
Finally, in desperation, she suggested to him that she needed a little rest, and he reluctantly departed, promising to see her shortly at dinner. As the door closed, leaving her alone at last, her façade visibly collapsed, her shoulders slumping in despair. Surely this would become easier with time. She lay down on the bed, larger than any she had ever slept in before, to which she was supposed to welcome her new husband. Tears of loneliness and fatigue slipped down her face.
How had her life come to this? If only she had paid more attention to Darcy’s puzzling behaviour when they first met and then later at Rosings, perhaps she might have prevented it. But that was useless speculation. There was nothing left but to make the best of it.
* * *
It had begun on one of her solitary rambles through the grounds of Rosings Park. It was a pleasant day; the sun was shining in a clear sky and Elizabeth enjoyed the crisp air of the morning with no hint of the disaster to come.
As had happened more than once before, she came across Mr. Darcy while passing through her favorite glade, and again, he seemed to feel it necessary to accompany her back to the parsonage. Wishing she were still alone, Elizabeth had only half-attended to his occasional forays at conversation. At one point he turned to her for a response, and with the indistinct idea he had been discussing the house at Rosings, she remarked that the house was so large she was sure she had not seen half of everything it had to offer.
“That will change on your future visits, when you will spend more of your time there,” said Mr. Darcy.
His expectation that she would want to know Rosings better irritated her. She said archly, “Do not wish such a fate on me, sir! I assure you that should I visit Kent again, I will be perfectly content to spend my days at the parsonage.”
“Surely you know this is no teasing matter, Miss Bennet,” he said. There was an edge to his voice that made her look at him sharply.
“Mr. Darcy, I have no conception of any sort on the subject.”
“You know what my hopes and wishes are,” he said in a voice of tight intensity. “You have seen me struggle against it, but it will not do. None of the objections—and I know there are many—none have the power to move me any longer. My feelings will not be suppressed. I have never been so bewitched by any woman. Your low connections, the degradation which it will bring to my honored family name, the opposition I will face from my family have long prevented me from speaking or even considering a union with someone so far my inferior.”
Elizabeth’s astonishment was beyond expression. Could he possibly be attempting to declare himself? Mr. Darcy, who was so proud as to look at her only to criticize? She could not credit it. That he would harbour such insulting thoughts about her family was not surprising, but what lunacy could bring him to say them aloud?
He continued, unaware of her silent struggle. “But ardent love will not be denied. I can no longer imagine a future without you by my side. Your wit, your charm, your beauty hold me captive. The depth of my tender regard for you can be demonstrated no better than by the obstacles I have overcome to make this declaration.”
She could hardly believe she was not dreaming, but she could never have dreamt a more absurd set of circumstances. She knew she must stop him, and she turned to him with great determination. “Mr. Darcy,” she began, but before she could say anything further, he had taken her by the arms and pressed his lips against hers.
She felt nothing but shock that he would so violate propriety as to take a husband’s prerogative. As soon as she could speak, she cried, “Mr. Darcy! You must not…”
“No, Elizabeth, indeed I must,” he said in a voice of surprising tenderness. “You need not worry. I will not allow anyone in my family to be unkind to you.”
“That is hardly the point, sir,” she said, her voice trembling with barely suppressed anger. “You assume far too much.”
“Surely you do not think your father will deny my suit?” There was a light of exhilaration in his eyes. Before Elizabeth realized what was happening, he was kissing her again. This time she struggled free and backed away from him. She could not believe it, even of him.
His countenance expressed concern, but no loss of assurance. “My apologies, dearest Elizabeth. It was not my intention to frighten you.”
“Darcy!” An angry male voice interrupted them. “How dare you?”
Startled, Elizabeth turned to discover Colonel Fitzwilliam, breathing heavily as if he had been running. Close behind him were two of Lady Catherine’s gamekeepers.
Her first response was relief at no longer being alone with Mr. Darcy; the second, horror as she realized Colonel Fitzwilliam must have seen the entire episode. There could be no hiding her shame; there were too many witnesses.
Darcy did not even look taken aback. “You misunderstand, Fitzwilliam. Miss Bennet has just done me the honour of consenting to become my wife.”
Was his pride so great that it did not occur to him she might refuse him? Elizabeth opened her mouth to deny his allegation, but before any sound could emerge, she recognized her danger. If she claimed it was not true, her reputation was ruined, regardless of whether she had welcomed his advances or not. What was her other option, though – marriage to a man she heartily disliked? She looked at him, utterly furious he had put her in this position.
Colonel Fitzwilliam turned to her. “My congratulations, Miss Bennet,” he said. “I wish you the best of luck with that rogue.” He smiled at his own joke.
No, she was sure of it – she would prefer ruin to marriage to Mr. Darcy. Even had she liked him, his cruelty to Mr. Wickham would have convinced her against him, and she still suspected he had a hand in Jane’s cruel disappointment.
Dearest Jane – what would this do to her when word of Elizabeth’s shame got out? It would be the ruin of her as well, and of their other sisters; what little marital chance they had would not survive Elizabeth’s disgrace. Jane and Mary, Lydia and Kitty – they would be forced to grow old together, spinsters surviving on the charity of the Gardiners and the Phillipses.
Although she would not marry Mr. Darcy to save herself, neither could she condemn her sisters. Tasting the ashes of lost hopes, she said faintly, “Thank you, Colonel.”
She could not even look at Darcy. He was standing closer to her than she liked, and she could hear the happiness in his voice as he accepted his cousin’s congratulations. “But let us not tell Lady Catherine until I have Mr. Bennet’s consent,” he said. “I will ride to Hertfordshire tomorrow, and if all goes well, I will return the following day.”
Elizabeth could not even begin to imagine what her father’s response might be. Oh, how had she found herself in this miserable situation? Her sole consolation was that Colonel Fitzwilliam was disinclined to let her return to the parsonage with only Darcy for company after what he had witnessed earlier. She did not think she could bear it if Darcy touched her again that day.
She managed somehow to make replies when she was spoken to, but she barely knew what she was saying; her mind was awash with dismay. Surely there must be some escape from this! Perhaps if she spoke to Colonel Fitzwilliam, she could convince him to tell no one. But no, that would not help – there were still the gamekeepers, and she had no hope of keeping them silent.
They reached the parsonage at last. She did not invite them in. Darcy bowed over her hand, and when she met his eyes she found them full of a bright fire she had never seen in him before. It unnerved her, but she forced her lips into a smile.
She went into the house, barely pausing to greet Charlotte in a civil manner before she fled to her room. Charlotte was not deceived, and made haste to follow her.
“What is troubling you, Lizzy?” Charlotte asked as they reached the sanctuary of Elizabeth’s room.
Under ordinary circumstances, Elizabeth preferred to keep her difficulties private, but it was pointless now. Charlotte would know what had happened soon enough; indeed, everyone would know.
“I am engaged to Mr. Darcy,” she said in a lifeless voice.
“Eliza, my dear!” cried Charlotte. She was not completely surprised, as she had often thought Mr. Darcy interested in Elizabeth. Her friend, though, looked so unhappy that Charlotte checked her impulse to congratulate her on making a brilliant marriage, and said only, “It is a very prudent match for you.”
“It is not for me at all! He caught me quite by surprise with his proposal, and I should have refused him in no uncertain terms, but before I could he kissed me without so much as a by-your-leave, and we were observed,” Elizabeth said angrily. “He is the last man in the world I wish to marry.”
“Oh, Lizzy. I am sorry you are unhappy for it. I know how much you dislike him, but is it not possible that with greater knowledge of him, your opinion might improve?”
“What is there to learn of him? I know what he has done to Mr. Wickham, I have heard him speak most degradingly of my family, and he has conceit enough to assume I would marry him! If it were not for the disgrace it would bring my sisters, I would never, never have agreed.”
“It will be an advantage for your sisters as well. Only think – you may be in a position to bring Mr. Bingley and our dear Jane back together.”
“Something which is only necessary because my future husband likely had a hand in separating them!” Elizabeth paused to think; it would be some consolation to her if her sacrifice could lead to Jane’s happiness.
Charlotte observed her the change in her friend’s face. “Marriage is a matter of compromise, Eliza. I know you believe I have compromised more than I should. I do not think Mr. Darcy is totally without redeeming features, even apart from the practicalities. By all reports he is a good brother and guardian to his sister, and Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mr. Bingley, both amiable gentleman, have called him friend for years. He is well-educated and sensible, which I know is of importance to you. He has his faults, but I cannot believe he is all bad.” She left hanging between them the specter of Mr. Collins; knowing how Lizzy felt about him, perhaps the comparison might give her some ease.
Elizabeth stood and began to pace the room. “I grant you he is not completely despicable, but I do not want to marry him!”
Charlotte did not respond for some time. Finally she said, “No, of course you do not, but given that you must, there is nothing for it but to make the best of it. Perhaps you cannot love him, but you must work on finding things to like in him, Lizzy. Your resentment will do you nothing but harm in the end.”
She could hear the sense in her friend’s words, much as she disliked them. Closing her eyes tightly and clenching her fists, Elizabeth said, “So what is your advice then, Charlotte?”
“Be amiable to him, my dear. He must be violently in love with you to have made you an offer; that will naturally incline him to treat you well, if you do not give him reason to change his mind. Perhaps at some point your influence may be enough to lead him to alter some of those behaviors you dislike in him.”
“Your advice is eminently practical,” said Elizabeth, “but you know I am no actress. I cannot counterfeit well, and I confess I feel no urge to make him happy.”
“I am not suggesting this in his interest, but in yours. What will your life be like if you make him miserable? Would you live with a husband who hates you? Please, Lizzy, do not give him that power; for your own sake, find ways you can be happy within a marriage you do not want. You need not spend much time with him once you are married.”
Elizabeth was not a fool; she could see her friend’s point, and she spent the next day schooling herself to acceptance. It was not easy for one of her spirits. She made a list of Mr. Darcy’s virtues in her mind—albeit a very short list—and repeated it to herself regularly. She could not help wishing something might happen—that her father might refuse his consent, though it would solve nothing, or at the very least that Darcy’s return would be delayed. She did not trust her own ability to dissemble, and after the events surrounding his proposal, she was not under the illusion that he would make no physical demands during their engagement. She planned to make every effort to avoid being alone with him.
His arrival was timely, however, with news of Mr. Bennet’s consent and a letter from him to Elizabeth. She met him with a smile and put the letter aside for later. Knowing her father, she did not expect it to contain the normal platitudes, and she did not imagine he would be happy with this match.
To her dismay, no sooner had Darcy appeared than Charlotte manufactured an excuse to leave them alone together. Glancing despairingly after her friend, Elizabeth said hurriedly, “Did you find my family well, sir?”
“Your father was well, but I confess I did not see any of the others.”
“My mother was not aware of the occasion of your visit?”
“Your father kindly offered to share the intelligence with Mrs. Bennet,” Darcy said in a tone of slight distaste. “I was happy to absent myself from the occasion.”
I am sure you were! thought Elizabeth indignantly. Why tolerate more degradation than necessary? “I am glad it did not take up any more of your time,” she said, trying to mask her hostility with a smile. Remember, Bingley and Colonel Fitzwilliam think highly of him. He is truthful. He is a good brother. The litany was becoming wearying.
“It allowed me to return to your side as soon as I could,” he said with slightly more grace.
Elizabeth wondered what he had been thinking, all those times he had stared at her in the past. Clearly it was not only to criticize. She could not comprehend, though, how he had come to love her, for love her he must, to make her an offer despite his opinion of her family. She had rarely been anything but saucy and impudent to him, and he had not often troubled himself to speak to her. Now her cheeks coloured at what he might be thinking.
He took her blush to mean something else, though, and moved to the chair beside hers. Taking her hand, he pressed it to his lips.
It is only a kiss on your hand. Other gentlemen have done the same, she told herself. There is no reason to allow it to trouble you now. Other men, however, did not fix their eyes on her with such heated intensity, nor hold her hand a little too long. She looked away uncomfortably.
He gave a low laugh. “I would not have expected you to be shy, Elizabeth.”
His use of her christian name only fueled her embarrassment. “Mr. Darcy, you must allow me some time to become accustomed to thinking of you as something beyond an acquaintance.”
“Surely you knew I would be making my addresses.”
“I assure you, sir, there was nothing in the world I expected less,” she replied spiritedly. It was one thing to be pleasant to him, but there was no reason to pretend she had been part of some covert courtship process.
“I cannot believe you failed to notice my interest in you,” he said. “Or did you think perhaps I was only trifling with your affections?” He sounded amused by his conceit.
“Sir, it never crossed my mind that you particularly noted my existence, or thought me more than merely tolerable.” She realized she was very close to provoking a quarrel with him, and reminded herself how disadvantageous such an action would be. With a distinct effort she smiled at him.
He looked at her probingly. “Perhaps that explains something.”
Elizabeth was not at all certain she wished to know what it explained, but she responded as he evidently expected. “And what is that?” In another lifetime she might have said it archly, or even chosen to tease him by ignoring his hint, but no longer.
He did not quite smile, but his eyes warmed. “I had not realized I was taking you by surprise.”
She gave him a puzzled look, then her eyes grew larger as he leaned toward her, his intent obvious. He said, “Perhaps this time you will not be caught unawares.”
His lips touched hers. She felt a moment of panic at the intimacy of it. She would not let it show, though; instead she forced herself to think how her marriage might provide another chance for Jane and Mr. Bingley.
Although it was distinctly odd to be kissed by Mr. Darcy, it was neither terrible nor disgusting, she decided; it was tolerable. The thought of applying that term to him was rather amusing. Perhaps she should start trying to think of him as tolerable.
“Yes—that is better,” he said softly as he drew away.
If all he expects of me is not to push him away when he wants to kiss me, it should be simple enough. She would have to ask someone, perhaps her aunt Gardiner, how much more there was to marriage. The thought made her blush, which seemed to please her new husband-to-be.