The Means of Uniting Them
As they rode into Meryton, Darcy still fought within himself. The excitement he felt upon seeing Elizabeth – Miss Bennet – again, had to be subdued. He had missed her, oh how he had missed her, but she must not know, for her own sake. His thoughts so occupied him that he barely noticed Bingley's pleasantly surprised gasp.
"Is that not the Miss Bennets there, Darce? How fortunate!" Bingley exclaimed, hurrying his horse towards them.
Darcy followed Bingley's gaze to a group standing along the side of the main street. A smile escaped as his eyes fell on Elizabeth – Miss! – a few errant curls escaping from her bonnet and her face lit with the joy of being with friends. He had eyes only for her, though he schooled his features into an expression of proper indifference.
"How fortunate," Bingley repeated, "for we were just on our way to inquire after your health. And yet here you are!"
The two elder Miss Bennets curtsied gracefully to the gentleman, while the others seemed to bob noncommittally. Miss Jane Bennet smiled up at Bingley. "Yes, here we are. It is such a pleasure to see you, Mr. Bingley, Mr. Darcy. And thank you for your concern. As you can see I am quite recovered."
Bingley jumped down from his horse to be near her as Darcy removed his gaze from Elizabeth – Miss Elizabeth, good God man! – and noticed that the two youngest Bennet girls were giggling with a young soldier and that two other gentleman were part of the group. The man who was obviously a cleric he skipped over with no interest but the gentleman with his back turned to Darcy seemed familiar. As Darcy prepared to dismount, his thoughts centered on being as near to Miss Elizabeth as possible, the unknown gentleman turned around. Darcy felt his body go into a shock of a few seconds, not knowing, not feeling, not moving.
And then he knew, felt, and moved all at once. Wickham! In Meryton! Next to Elizabeth! Not 4 months after breaking dear Georgiana's heart and almost ruining their life, here he was. The scoundrel! Righteous anger pulsed through him alongside the blood; all he could see was Wickham.
Darcy was off his horse, though he couldn't actually remember dismounting, and it was the work of a moment for his decision to be made. He could walk away, it was too fresh after all to think completely rationally in such a situation. He could walk away, but Elizabeth – his Elizabeth – was standing next to Wickham. He could not walk away.
Elizabeth, unable to know the tumultuous thoughts going on in Darcy's head, saw only the reaction to her new friend Mr. Wickham. Mr. Darcy had looked pleasant, as though he was actually glad to see them, until Mr. Wickham turned around and she watched Mr. Darcy's face harden in anger and hatred, his eyes narrowing in disgust. The shock of such a transformation made Elizabeth take a step back, enough to see the color drain from Mr. Wickham's face. Before Mr. Wickham had a moment to recover himself, Mr. Darcy had moved to stand in front of him, towering and stormy.
For a few moments, neither spoke or moved; Darcy focused on reining his temper – he could not let Elizabeth see him so – and Wickham quickly thought through multiple scenarios where he would not end of up on the other end of Darcy's blade. Wickham recovered first.
"My dear Mr. Darcy. Such a pleasure," Wickham drolled, with a mocking tilt of his head.
Darcy wanted to punch the silly little smirk of his face, but realized that they had now garnered the attention of the group, so standing even closer and lowering his voice he said, "How dare you stand here like a gentleman. How dare you stand amongst kind and proper people as though you are one of them. My father, your father, would be ashamed of you. I do not know what you think you are doing here, but get out of my sight. Do not importune this people any further."
Wickham flushed in embarrassment but decided to gait Darcy again. "Darcy, old fellow, you are too harsh." He raised his hand and his eyes to the group surrounding them. "I have just made some new acquaintances and I won't have you interrupting what is a lovely beginning." At the end of his speech his eyes landed on Elizabeth and raked over her body. Darcy didn't even notice Elizabeth's flush as he grabbed Wickham by the collar and brought him nearer.
"Oh please don't let me interrupt, " Darcy growled. "I'm sure eventually you would have gotten around to telling them that you are a liar, a squanderer, a cheat, and a seducer. I will only repeat myself once, Wickham. Get out of my sight." With this, he threw Wickham back and moved protectively in front of Elizabeth.
Wickham straightened his jacket and with narrowed eyes he whispered, "This is not over, Darcy," before he motioned to his friend in the uniform and stalked away.
Elizabeth, now standing behind Mr. Darcy, couldn't believe what had happened and, more specifically, that Mr. Darcy had showed emotion. Anger, at that, but emotion nonetheless. She watched as his broad back lost some of its tension and he turned around to face her and Bingley, who now stood near.
"Miss Bennet, Bingley, I must apologize for that display," he said with a small bow. To Bingley he said, "That is the gentleman we spoke of on our journey from London, the son of my father's steward."
Mr. Bingley seemed to know to what Mr. Darcy was referring from his shocked and concerned expression but Elizabeth's confusion became even greater as she tried to piece together what she had seen. It must have been evident on her face because when Mr. Darcy turned to her, his face softened and he seemed to take a deep fortifying breath. He looked at the group standing around and said, "Please forgive my temper. I should not have had that discussion in public. But I hope you will forgive me and allow Mr. Bingley and I to escort you all wherever you are going."
Bingley, of course, thought it was a capital idea and, as the ladies were just heading home, offered Miss Jane Bennet his arm and led his mount in the direction of Longbourne. The younger Miss Bennets skipped along after them but when Darcy turned back to Miss Elizabeth, she was still standing in place, confusion - and was it fear? – apparent in her eyes. Immediately Darcy was by her side.
"Miss Elizabeth," Darcy began, "Please walk with me. I will explain my abhorrent behavior if you will let me."
Elizabeth could do naught but stare at the man in front of her, pleading, kind and sympathetic. This was not Mr. Darcy, or at least not the Mr. Darcy she had been in company with for the past month. He looked at her so intently and so kindly that she knew not how to respond. She heard Mr. Darcy calling her name, but she couldn't reconcile the taciturn, cold Mr. Darcy with the angry, passionate Mr. Darcy of before nor with the different man before her. She was just beginning to feel her confidence return when she realized that Mr. Darcy was taking her hand in his and looked extremely concerned.
"Miss Elizabeth, please. You cannot keep looking at me so or I shall continue into a spiral of shame which I know you would not approve of." He looked behind him to where Bingley and the Bennets were still walking ahead and then back to Elizabeth with some urgency. "Madam, we really should join your sisters."
Elizabeth flushed with embarrassment and pulled her hand from his as she turned to follow the others. "I seemed to have lost myself for a moment, Mr. Darcy. Thank you for staying to accompany me, but I can assure you I am well."
"I am glad to hear it," Darcy murmured, grabbing his horse's lead and hurrying to walk beside her. She seemed to be deliberating over something and Darcy had just decided to start the conversation when she also began to speak.
"Miss Elizabeth, would you allow me to –"
"Sir, I am very confused –"
They had both stopped to speak and now smiled as they turned to continue walking while Darcy motioned that she should continue. Darcy was glad that she was smiling again, she looked so lovely when she smiled. Elizabeth on the other hand, was trying to remember if she had ever seen Mr. Darcy actually smile before and how handsome he looked when he let himself, so she took a moment to restart the conversation.
"The confrontation before, for indeed sir I can think of no better word for it, was so unexpected and seemed so unlike the manner in which you have conducted yourself in our society, that I confess I am very confused. Would you, that is, I was wondering if you would now explain yourself, or however much you are able to at this time."
Mr. Darcy glanced at the woman beside him. He did say he would explain all, although how much of "all" he was actually going to tell her he now pondered. He knew she was kind and loyal to those she loved but what about him? How did she feel about him? Would she protect his secrets? Bingley had told him to be more trusting, that everyone was not as malicious as Darcy liked to assume. Could he trust Elizabeth?
At that moment, Elizabeth turned her head and met his eyes with such an open expression of sincere interest that Darcy knew he could deny her nothing.
"Miss Elizabeth, what I have to say may cause you pain and some degree of discomfort for which I would like to apologize in advance. I shall try to guard my words but some of the events are so recent and so fresh a wound that I have still not come to terms with them myself.
"Mr. Wickham is the son of a very respectable man, who had for many years the management of all the Pemberley estates, and whose good conduct in the discharge of his trust naturally inclined my father to be of service to him; and on George Wickham, who was his godson, his kindness was therefore liberally bestowed. My father supported him at school, and afterwards at Cambridge. My father was not only fond of this young man's society, whose manners were always engaging; he had also the highest opinion of him, and hoping the church would be his profession, intended to provide for him in it. As for myself, it is many, many years since I first began to think of him in a very different manner."
Here he noticed the Elizabeth had moved closer so she could better hear and he felt himself instinctively offer her his arm. That she took it and then met his eyes to urge him to continue were almost his undoing. Yet he knew he must continue on. "My excellent father died about five years ago; and his attachment to Mr. Wickham was to the last so steady, that in his will he particularly recommended it to me, to promote his advancement in the best manner that his profession might allow—and if he took orders, desired that a valuable family living might be his as soon as it became vacant. Soon after, Mr. Wickham wrote to inform me that, having finally resolved against taking orders, he hoped I should not think it unreasonable for him to expect some more immediate pecuniary advantage, in lieu of the preferment. He had some intention, he added, of studying law, and I rather wished, than believed him to be sincere; but, at any rate, was perfectly ready to accede to his proposal. I knew that Mr. Wickham ought not to be a clergyman; the business was therefore soon settled—he resigned all claim to assistance in the church, were it possible that he could ever be in a situation to receive it, and accepted in return three thousand pounds.
"All connection between us seemed now dissolved. I thought too ill of him to invite him to Pemberley, or admit his society in town. Being now free from all restraint, his life was one of idleness and dissipation. For about three years I heard little of him; but on the decease of the incumbent of the living which had been designed for him, he applied to me again by letter for the presentation. His circumstances, he assured me, and I had no difficulty in believing it, were exceedingly bad.
"You will hardly blame me for refusing to comply with this entreaty, or for resisting every repetition to it. His resentment was in proportion to the distress of his circumstances—and he was doubtless as violent in his abuse of me to others as in his reproaches to myself. After this period every appearance of acquaintance was dropped. How he lived I know not."
They had, at this point reached the outskirts of Longbourne and, not wishing to lose her company or leave Elizabeth with half the story, Darcy bade her to slow her walk. Her hand was over her mouth after covering a small gasp, a reaction to his tale, and she seemed to be recovering her wit as she looked up at him. He knew not how to proceed.
"You have covered 'liar, squanderer, and cheat' Sir. Do you have anything else to accuse Mr. Wickham?" She said the last with a tilt of her head and a teasing raised eyebrow, an obvious ploy to bring good humor back into the conversation. Darcy could have kissed her then and there.
Instead he sadly smiled and said "My dear madam, if I could end my tale there I would, most heartily, but last summer he imposed himself on those I hold dear, most painfully. I must now mention a circumstance which I would wish to forget and Miss Bennet?" He stopped walking to look at her fully and, having her hand on his arm, she was obliged to stop as well.
"Miss Bennet, I feel no doubt of your secrecy but I must ask that what I am about to tell you never leaves our conversation. A young lady of my intimate acquaintance was taken from school and visited Ramsgate last summer; and thither also went Mr. Wickham, undoubtedly by design; for there proved to have been a prior acquaintance between him and her companion in whose character the young lady's guardians were most unhappily deceived. By her connivance and aid, he so far recommended himself to this young lady that she was persuaded to believe herself in love, and to consent to an elopement. She was then but fifteen."
"Oh my! How cruel and terrifying," cried Elizabeth. "And then?"
Darcy nodded and motioned for them to continue their walk. He wanted to tell her all. He wanted to tell her of his joy in seeing Georgiana again, his confusion at finding Wickham in the townhouse, and his anger when Georgiana revealed all. He wanted to tell her of Georgiana's heartbreak at being so misled and his own guilt at placing her in such a position in the first place. Instead he said simply, "One of her guardians joined them unexpectedly a day or two before the intended elopement and the young lady acknowledged all. Wickham was thrown from the house under duress."
"And the young lady?" Elizabeth asked tentatively. "Still recovering," Darcy sighed.
Elizabeth peaked up at him from under her bonnet but quickly turned her eyes forward when she saw the honest pain and suffering written on his face. She wondered if Mr. Darcy was seriously attached to this young woman of whom he spoke. Mr. Darcy, feeling love and attraction? It seemed unlikely, yet he had acted so unlike her previous understanding of him over the past hour. She was sure of nothing, except that she was grateful for his interference and cognizant of the great honor he bestowed by sharing this story with her. He did not owe her anything, yet he had trusted her with something that obviously meant a great deal to him.
"Thank you, Mr. Darcy, for narrating so faithfully all your dealings with the gentleman. I am slightly shocked and overwhelmed but I do thank you." She seemed nervous and on the verge of speaking when they rounded a corner and Longbourne House was before them.
"Was there something else, Miss Bennet?" Darcy asked, not wanting to lose an opportunity to better understand her.
"I just… I wanted to…" She stopped and turned to face him, looking up at him with a mischievous glint in her eye. "I think I may have misjudged you, sir."
Ah, so humor and challenges were her mechanism. She had told her friend Miss Lucas that she was not made for melancholy, well here was the second time that she had used her wit and charming smile to drive the sadness away. Darcy let himself smile down at her, longing to take her in his arms and never let her go. He wanted to keep that happiness near him at all times. She was a light, a beacon of hope.
"As long as I am now redeemed, madam," he replied with a slight bow.
"Darcy!" Bingley strode towards them with Miss Jane Bennet on his arm. "We have just been invited to tea. You don't have anything pressing at Netherfield, do you?"
"Not at all, Bingley. Thank you for the invitation Miss Bennet." As the group began entering the house, Darcy turned and bowed again to Elizabeth, retreating quickly into his habitual stiff and proper self before having to endure the mother.
"Oh no, Mr. Darcy, that will not work at all," Elizabeth exclaimed walking past him and into the house.
"We have seen you smile now and I know your secret." This she said over her shoulder as she removed her bonnet. For a moment Darcy panicked, regretting his candidness and openness from before. "You can be quite a conversationalist when you put your mind to it. I shall not let you hide behind your mask of indifference now."
A small sigh of relief escaped Darcy as he watched her head to the drawing room after a quick teasing glance in his direction. Of course she would be discreet, she wouldn't betray his trust. Oh God, he loved when she teased him. And to call it his mask! She and Georgiana would be thick as thieves…. But no. That was a dangerous line of thought. He had done his duty in protecting Elizabeth from Mr. Wickham and that was all there was. He had let his guard down in order to better equip her for whatever tales Wickham would tell, but it was for her own good that he must now revert to his rigid and proper behavior. Yes, she was lively and kind and happiness incarnate - and perfect, his heart screamed, perfect for you - but that did not excuse her mother, or her sisters, or her relations in trade. No, he had done his duty by Elizabeth and now he must remember his duty to his family. Armoring himself with that thought he handed his hat and overcoat to the maid with instructions about his mount and strode into the drawing room.