Entering his park at one of the low points and riding up through the woods, Fitzwilliam Darcy struggled against the melancholy which threatened to consume him. This was not the way he planned to return to his ancestral estate. Hot and sweaty, on horseback, and worst of all, completely alone. No, this was not the homecoming of his dreams. That homecoming involved a comfortable, well-sprung carriage and the companionship of Elizabeth Darcy, who simply did not exist. Sometimes he felt as if all that was left to him was dreams, but the comfort of them fled as soon as he awoke. At least the nightmares that had plagued him after Hunsford had become less frequent. Difficult as it was to be left with only dreams, they were certainly better than the nightmares of Elizabeth's anger and horror at his proposal.
Cresting the hill, his eye was caught by Pemberley House on the other side of the valley. It was a beautiful house, combining a near-perfect location and exquisite architecture, but what most impressed him today was the sheer loneliness of the place. Yes, it was lonely, a near shell of a house waiting for a family to fill it. A family he had hoped to have with Elizabeth. Yes, this house was meant for a large family, with many children, visiting family and friends, and most of all, love, life and laughter. Even now, a carriage was being led away toward the stables. Wait, I do not recognize that carriage, Darcy thought. It must be some day-trippers come to view the place.
Not wishing to risk an encounter with strangers in his own home, Darcy turned his mind to a way to delay his arrival for a time. Looking around, he realized he was very close to one of his favorite spots in the woods. Just down the hill and around a small ledge was a small but deep section of the stream below a small waterfall. It was some distance from this pool to where the stream left the woods to flow into the lake, and it was well away from the accustomed circuit walked by visitors to the estate. What better place was there to go on a hot summer day? He would certainly enjoy cooling off a bit, and it would be equally nice to wash off some of the road dust which felt ground into his skin in every nook and cranny. Yes, the waterfall pool would be perfect.
Leaving the road, he rode his horse through the woods, soon coming to his beautiful, deserted pool. No question-that water was just the solution to wash away his dust and melancholy. Dismounting, Darcy tucked his crop into a strap on the saddle, looped the reins back over the horse's neck, and gave him a swat on his hindquarters. The horse would be more than happy to return to the stables on his own, and he would serve to notify the servants that the master had returned. Once the horse was on his way, Darcy sat down on a log beside the pool and removed his coat, waistcoat and cravat, and shook them out before laying them over the log beside himself. He then proceeded to shed his boots and remaining articles of clothing before diving into the cool, refreshing water.
Ahh, what bliss can be found in being home!
Upon exiting Pemberley House, Elizabeth Bennet was caught in deep reflection about Mr. Darcy. His character was so confusing! She had been so convinced that he was an ill-tempered man. However, the testimony of a servant such as Mrs. Reynolds could not be dismissed. To have known him since he was four years old! Why, that must be near a quarter of a century. No man, no matter how reserved, could hide his true character that long. No, it must be true. That small feeling which had come upon her in the gallery, so like regret, stole over her again. Perhaps I really did make a mistake in refusing Mr. Darcy. But truly, how could the man expect me to love him when he hardly made the effort to acquaint me with his true character? Vexing man! I shall think no more of him. I must find a way to restore my peace. If the gardener is anything like the housekeeper, his discourse will hardly help me forget his master.
Turning back to Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, Lizzy asked, "Aunt, Uncle, do you mind if I walk through the woods rather than the gardens? I promise I will return within the hour. I cannot imagine the garden tour will be completed in less time than that. Truly, we have seen so many great houses and formal gardens that I have little interest in them. However, I do not believe I have seen the equal of Pemberley's woods before!"
"Well, Lizzy, if the gardener can direct you to a suitable trail, and if it is not too much an imposition, I shall consent", Mr. Gardiner replied. "I know how much you have missed your solitary walks while you have traveled with us. I suppose it can do no harm to allow you to wander in the woods, as long as you are careful not to get lost."
Lizzy laughed. "You know me too well, Uncle. Very well, I promise not to stray out of sight of the trail or a prominent feature that will orient me to it. Will that suffice?"
"Yes, Lizzy, that will suit admirably. Mind you pay attention and do not get lost. We have old friends to locate and I am simply too excited to wait beyond our arrival in Lambton this afternoon."
Shaking her head, Lizzy laughed softly. "Dear aunt, I am so happy for you to have the opportunity to renew your friendships. I would not dream of delaying you a whole evening! I shall not get lost. Oh, look, here is the gardener. Let us ask him for a suitable trail."
Mr. Gardiner turned to the young under-gardener who was to guide them through the gardens. "Hello, young man, would it be possible for my niece here to take a trail through the woods rather than tour the formal gardens with my wife and I? I am afraid she much prefers the designs of nature to those created by man's hand."
"Yes sir, there's fine trail just across the bridge. It goes through the woods and comes out at the other end of the lake. Can't get lost that way."
"Will that suit you, Lizzy? It looks to be a fine trail. I imagine there are birds and trees enough to satisfy even you."
"Oh, uncle, I do not see how that is possible! However, I believe that trail will suit me admirably. Please enjoy your time in the gardens, and I will meet you back here at the end of the tour. I trust you will have many wonderful rhapsodies to share about these fine gardens. We shall have to see who can outdo the other in rising to new heights of outrageousness in our praise of the proud, proper, and perfect Pemberley!"
"Oh, go on with you Lizzy, now you are being quite silly. Enjoy yourself my dear, and please return to us in one piece!"
So saying, Mrs. Gardiner and her husband turned to follow Peter, the under gardener, while with a happy laugh and a joyous step, Elizabeth happily stepped out toward the bridge over the stream and the beckoning trail beyond.
Freedom! I shall find some peace this day!
Mr. Darcy swam for a considerable period of time. The peace he felt as he shed the cares of London and returned to his own native soil could not be overstated. What a pleasure it was to return to the country! It always amazed him how he could bear to be gone for more than half of the year from his home. Unfortunately, the demands on him by both business and society made it very difficult to devote more time to Pemberley. Perhaps once Georgiana's education was more complete he could begin to spend more time at home. At present, he simply felt the need to be available to her, and since she lived primarily in London, so must he. While she was in school, his presence did not seem so important, but then she left and Ramsgate happened.
Darcy tried to turn his mind from anything related to George Wickham. He had long disapproved of the man George had become, but after what he did to Georgiana, that disapproval had turned to a very strong dislike. And after Wickham's skillful maligning of Darcy to Elizabeth, that extreme dislike had become utter loathing. Naturally it did not help that Darcy understood he himself could have affected both outcomes had he simply been more open with those he valued, but it was in the past now and there was nothing he could do about that, right? Displeased with himself, Darcy once again attempted to discipline his wayward thoughts away from Wickham without allowing them to stray toward his dreams of Elizabeth. There was no point in torturing himself, after all.
With a deep sigh and resigning himself to the fact that he did indeed have business that must be accomplished before his guests arrived on the morrow, Darcy swam to shallow water, where he stood and began to slowly walk toward the shore, looking for fish in the shadows near the edge of the pool. Just as he neared knee-deep water, he heard a gasp and jerked his head up. Suddenly he realized that it was, in fact, possible for his dreams to turn to nightmares once again. He thought Elizabeth Bennet had stripped him of all his pride at Hunsford. He was wrong. Mortified, Darcy threw himself back under the water as a new, terrifying thought occurred to him.
Have I just ruined my second chance?
Elizabeth privately rejoiced as she stepped off the bridge and entered the Pemberley woods. Her thoughts were so unsettled as she wandered through the house that she truly had no idea how she felt about Mr. Darcy anymore. In the months since Hunsford, she had come to accept that she had been wrong about Mr. Darcy's character, but still felt no sorrow over refusing his proposal because she could not bear the thought of being forever tied to such an ill-tempered man. Yet now, Mrs. Reynolds' report had caused her to doubt even that judgment of him. Currently, her only comfort was in thinking that he would not have welcomed her low connections into his home. She could never separate herself from her beloved aunt and uncle. However, if she was so wrong about everything else related to Mr. Darcy, was it possible he would have welcomed them? After all, Mr. Bingley's wealth came from trade and Mr. Darcy seemed to feel no shame related to that connection. Her uncle was every bit as genteel as Mr. Bingley and considerably more educated. And when it came to comparing Aunt Gardiner with the Bingley sisters, well, the less said about that, the better. Perhaps she was wrong again?
With her spirits considerably discomposed, Elizabeth wandered ever deeper into the woods. The trees were certainly beautiful and the shade a most welcome respite from the hot sun they had endured all day as they traveled from Bakewell to Pemberley House. Her uncle was correct in his predictions about the birds and wildlife as well. Lizzy acknowledged that this communion with nature was precisely what she needed.
Turning to round a bend in the trail, Lizzy heard a quiet waterfall nearby, and more interestingly, the unmistakable sound of a woodpecker. Realizing that the waterfall and the small ledge it dropped from made an excellent landmark for finding the trail, she slipped quietly between the trees in search of the woodpecker.
Searching carefully as she rounded each tree, Lizzy was unprepared for the sight that met her as she neared the waterfall. Coming around a large tree, she looked up and gasped as she saw, not twenty feet ahead of her, the most shocking sight she had ever beheld in all her twenty years.
There, standing in water to just above his knees, was Mr. Darcy, and he was as naked as the day he was born.
Can this day become any more mortifying?
Darcy lunged to the surface of the pool. Embarrassed or not, this was the chance he had been longing for. Granted, she now had yet another offense to lay to his charge, and a fairly large one at that, but he must seize this opportunity! If she could possibly forgive him for separating Bingley from her sister, perhaps she could forgive a surprise sighting of him . . . well, unattired.
Gasping for air, he called out to the young lady whose back was now turned to him while her hands were pressed firmly over her eyes. Heavens, walking like that she was bound to fall and get injured. "Miss Bennet, please, wait! Just . . . stay facing away for a moment, but please, wait. I would very much like to speak to you!"
Oh, Darcy, you fool! How are you going to recover from this debacle? How will you even look her in the face after being so exposed to her? Well, I thought there was nothing left to hide after Hunsford and that dreadful letter, but it appears I was wrong about this as well! Somehow I shall conquer this as well. I suppose she truly is destined to strip me of all my pride. They say that 'pride goeth before the fall' and I have well and truly fallen. Now I shall have to see if I can get back up!
Darcy climbed to his feet and floundered, rather gracelessly, to the edge of the pool and his clothing. Realizing there was no way to salvage his appearance after this, he threw on his stockings, breeches, boots, shirt and waistcoat as quickly as possible. With his clothes sticking uncomfortably to his wet body, we walked up beside Elizabeth, staring straight ahead, and quietly cleared his throat.
"Miss Bennet, I hope you are well?"
Idiot! Can you not possibly think of something better to say than 'are you well'? Of course she's not well after that shock!
Upon seeing Mr. Darcy in all his manly glory, Elizabeth spun around as quickly as possible and covered her eyes as she prepared to flee the scene of the crime. While she certainly had not ogled his body, she had seen enough to see that he much more closely resembled the illustrations she had seen of Michelangelo's David than her young Gardiner cousins. He's certainly no infant! Oh my, I thought before I would never be able to face him, but now I KNOW I shall never be able to look him in the eyes again! I should never have come!
Just then, Lizzy heard Mr. Darcy call out and beg her to wait to speak with him. Wait, did he truly just BEG me? The proud Mr. Darcy, begging? I cannot leave without being unpardonably rude after such an entreaty, but oh, what can I say to him?
As much as she truly wished to decamp as quickly as possible from this mortifying scene, her good manners overruled her desires and she halted. Just like I did that morning in the park at Rosings. I wonder if he has another letter to present me. If I needed any more humiliation, I have certainly had my fill today!
Elizabeth stood quietly as she heard splashing behind her and then the rustle of clothing. After a few minutes, she heard footsteps behind her and then they came to a halt beside her. And then the sound she dreaded, Mr. Darcy's deep voice, inquiring after her health. Oh my, did he truly just inquire if I am well after THAT shocking sight? How am I to answer such an inquiry? Surely I can not say 'No Mr. Darcy, the sight of your completely unclothed body has left me more embarrassed than even reading your letter last spring. Somehow, sir, you manage to completely discompose me almost every time we meet, and it is only becoming worse! What next, shall you demand I ride a horse naked through the streets like Lady Godiva?' Oh, I wish I had never come to Pemberley!
"Miss Bennet? Is your family in good health? How is it that you are in Derbyshire? When did you leave Longbourn? And your family, they are well?"
Never had Elizabeth seen or heard Mr. Darcy so disconcerted. In shock, she momentarily forgot her humiliation and dropped her hands as she looked toward him. Meeting his eyes, the cheeks of both were overspread with the deepest possible blush. Never had Lizzy been so embarrassed, and judging from the expression on Mr. Darcy's face, as well as the hurried and repeated inquiries about her travel and her family, he was equally perturbed.
Suddenly, the extremely absurd nature of this encounter struck Elizabeth with force. As the humor of the situation dawned upon her, she began to shake with barely suppressed laughter. Mr. Darcy, however, seemed to be suffering under increased distress.
"Miss Bennet, are you unwell? Is there anything I can do for you? Please, just speak to me!"
Lizzy could no longer hold back her mirth at the preposterous predicament she found herself in. Shaking too much to stand, she fell to her knees on the ground in a heap as peals of laughter burst forth. She laughed so hard tears began to stream down her face. Glancing up at Mr. Darcy, she saw a range of emotions swiftly cross his face, from concern, to confusion, then chagrin, and finally a small smile dawned on his lips. This swiftly grew into a quiet chortle, and before Elizabeth could feel the shock of it, the first true, unfettered laugh she had ever heard from Mr. Darcy burst out upon the little clearing. He quietly dropped to a seat beside her and continued to chuckle. It was amazing what a difference a smile and a laugh could make to his once-haughty persona. This was quite a different Mr. Darcy to the one she had grown accustomed to in Hertfordshire and Kent.
Who was Mr. Darcy really? This man was really quite 'tolerable'! Just the thought brought on more giggles.
As he looked down upon Elizabeth's quietly shaking shoulders, Mr. Darcy was at a complete loss of what to think. Did the sight of me overset her completely? My Elizabeth is not such a missish, faint-hearted creature. What is wrong?
When she dropped to her knees, Darcy became increasingly worried. He had no idea what to do! Never had he been at such a loss to gain control over a situation that had been so completely out of control right from the beginning. Then, the most lovely sound he'd ever heard rang forth. Elizabeth, his glorious Elizabeth, was laughing. Whatever the cause, suddenly Darcy had faith that all would be well. In his relief, he began to laugh along with Lizzy. Only she could possibly have this effect on him. Without her, he was doomed to be the most serious, strait-laced, dull man alive! Only she could save him from himself. After all, the situation truly was absurd.
What a woman!
Finally gaining control over herself, Lizzy was at last able to subdue her mirth. Turning to Darcy with a little grin on her face, she said:
"Mr. Darcy, I do not know what it is about you and I, but I can safely say we have never had any perfectly boring interactions. Indeed, I fear for the well-being of England itself if our meetings become any more exciting! I am afraid though, that unlike our other conversations, I truly have no idea how to retaliate this time. I believe I must concede defeat!"
"Miss Bennet, surely you understand by now that I truly have no desire to frighten you! However, I must own that your courage truly does rise when challenged. I must beg your pardon for the unseemly nature of our meeting just now, but truly, I had no intention of seeing anyone!"
"Do not concern yourself sir, I asked your gardener if I might wander the trail through the woods rather than take the tour through the formal gardens with my aunt and uncle. I stumbled upon you as I was searching for a woodpecker. I certainly had no design of coming upon an unsuspecting gentleman. I am sorry, Mr. Darcy. I beg you can forgive me for that as well as for my laughter at the ludicrous predicament we found ourselves in. Surely our situation and conversation could not have been more ridiculous if we had tried!"
"You are undoubtedly correct, as always, Miss Bennet. In truth, I am grateful for the laughter. I do not believe I have been more embarrassed in my life than I was just now. I cannot help but be grateful for any opportunity to see you and speak to you again, but I must thank you for breaking though the awkwardness of this first meeting. Although the situation and this conversation are unquestionably improper by society's standards, socially acceptable forms of conversation seem rather impossible under the circumstances, do they not?"
"Unquestionably, sir. I thank you for your forgiveness. Now, however, I must be heading back toward the house before my aunt and uncle begin to worry for me."
"Please, will you permit me to escort you back? I should like to meet your relations."
"My aunt and uncle? These are the relations who live near Cheapside, sir. Are you certain you wish an introduction?"
"Absolutely, Miss Bennet. I can think of nothing else I would rather do just now. Admittedly, finding a clean set of clothes is nearly as appealing, but not if it means missing more time in your company."
"Please, sir, there is no need to flatter me. My uncle and aunt and I expect no extraordinary kindness from you. We would never have intruded on your home this way if we had not been assured that you were not presently expected in the country."
"Pray, do not make yourself uneasy. I am very glad to find you here and you are always welcome."
Once again he shocks me! Will I ever stop misunderstanding him?
All things considered, this conversation is going rather well, Darcy thought. Although certain his ears were permanently stained red from mortification, the simple fact that he was speaking in complete sentences felt like a rather significant achievement. Now, if he could manage to walk twenty minutes back to the house, meet Elizabeth's relatives, and conduct himself in a gentlemanlike manner throughout the whole despite his embarrassment and disheveled appearance, perhaps he would be able to make a new beginning with Elizabeth. Denying his desire to do so after this would be the height of foolishness. No other gentlewoman of his acquaintance would still be present and speaking to him after such a ... revelatory ... incident. Perhaps he could begin showing her that he had changed?
"What brings you to Derbyshire, Miss Bennet?"
"My aunt and uncle invited me to tour the Lakes with them this summer, but my uncle's business prevented us from leaving as soon as we wished, so they substituted a tour of Derbyshire instead. My aunt lived in Lambton for some years of her youth and wished to see the area again. She has many fond memories of her time here. I enjoy both their companionship and the opportunity to see new places, so I was most happy to be invited."
"Are you often able to travel?"
"Not so often as I would like, but this year has been a particularly good one. I was able to spend time in Kent with Mrs. Collins, a few days in London, and now this tour. My aunt and uncle have taken me a few other places in the past few years as well."
"That sounds delightful. They sound like very doting relatives."
Alright, Darcy, you've exhausted the possibilities of relatives and the trip to Derbyshire. Should we continue to discuss traveling and other 'polite' topics, or do I dare try to bring up something a little more significant? Considering how this meeting began, I think propriety is rather superfluous at this point! Oh, I wish I could think of something to say!
Elizabeth marveled again at how changed Mr. Darcy seemed. Considering that he sat an entire half an hour in the library at Netherfield last autumn without uttering a word to her, it was astonishing that he would be the person endeavoring to continue their conversation after a much more distressing beginning. He was even more communicative than during all those walks at Rosings in the spring! How could this possibly be? He could not still care for her, could he? Whatever his motivation for his efforts, she could not leave all the initiative in this conversation up to him.
"It has been some time since we last took a walk through the woods together, Mr. Darcy. I must say I prefer the wildness of your woods to the tame lanes and groves of Rosings, although I did enjoy them as well."
"I must admit to a preference for Derbyshire myself, although Kent is lovely in the spring. I enjoyed those walks with you very much."
"I hesitate to mention such a painful subject as our last conversation in April, sir, but I feel I owe you an apology for the accusations I made against your character. I have long been heartily ashamed of what I said. Considering the rest of this particular meeting, perhaps it is better to clear up all our misunderstandings at once?"
"I could not agree more, Miss Bennet. Please, do not make yourself uneasy about that last meeting in Kent. Although your accusations were ill-founded, my behavior to you was unpardonable. I can hardly bear to think on it. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me."
"Of course, Mr. Darcy, it shall all be forgotten. I hope that you can forgive me, as well. Perhaps we should abide by my philosophy: think only on the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure. Now that we have forgiven one another, perhaps we can be friends?"
"Just friends, Miss Bennet? Surely you know I would like us to be much more than just friends. In truth, I have missed being in your company exceedingly. Would it be possible, would you ever consider . . . that is, could you find it in your heart to give me a second chance to earn your affections? I am actually grateful for our rather spirited conversation at Hunsford parsonage last April. You did me a great service by pointing out the flaws in my manners at the time. I have endeavored to correct my behavior, to live more by the spirit of what I was taught rather than by the expectations of society based on my wealth and connections. You inspire me with the desire to be a better man, to be someone worthy of you. Is there any possibility you could grow to care for me?"
Lizzy looked at him in astonishment. Despite all that had happened between them, their barely civil debates, misunderstandings, and especially the acrimonious encounter in Hunsford, he was still interested in pursuing her? Could she ever learn to love this man? Slowly, she began to answer.
"Mr. Darcy, I once told you that I was endeavoring to sketch your character and did not get on at all. I am afraid that at that time I believed my sketch was being done in ink, dark and indelible. I am beginning to think now that yours is a sketch requiring a slate, allowing me to freely rub out lines and correct the myriad details that make up your character. I am coming to believe that yours is a particularly intricate character, and as I also once said to you, intricate characters are certainly the most amusing to study. I have a feeling, sir, that I would very much like to study your character in greater depth. In short, I believe there is a definite possibility that I could grow to care for you, although I must say that you are still somewhat of a mystery to me, and I would need to know you much better before I could consider even the outlines of your sketch to be complete. And you must realize, sir, if you continue to spend time with me, there are bound to be more mistakes, leading to many more heated discussions! I may even seek to humble you again!"
"I look forward to all conversations with you, heated or otherwise. As far as humbling me goes, I believe you were extraordinarily successful at that in Hunsford. And if you had not so thoroughly succeeded then, I daresay the incident just now would have sufficed to accomplish that goal. As it was, the surprise of seeing you certainly brought me to my knees."
Lizzy laughed in delight. "Mr. Darcy, I believe you have a sense of humor after all! You have been concealing it for far too long, sir. You must expose it more often!"
"There seems to be no point in concealment any more, Miss Bennet. Being circumspect has not served me well with you. At the risk of sounding like Lady Catherine, with you I would much rather be celebrated for frankness. Miss Elizabeth Bennet, would you permit me to court you?"
"Yes, Mr. Darcy, I believe I would like that."
I cannot believe it! He must still be in love with me! I now begin to see the man Mrs. Reynolds spoke of. Perhaps he really was the 'sweetest-tempered boy in the world'. I believe Aunt and Uncle Gardiner are going to receive a shock in a few minutes. I imagine they will give both of us quite an examination. How much do I dare tell them?
From despair to humiliation to great joy. How many emotions can one man feel in a few hours?, Darcy wondered. This day was certainly nothing like he had anticipated it would be, although so far it was much better. Despite having the love of his life find him in a state of extreme undress and dripping wet, he once again was able to hope, as he had never dared to hope before. His entire future spread out before him, full of light, life, happiness, and love. The idea of Elizabeth here with him forever, in his beloved home, surrounded by a family they would have together, was such a joyful thought that he could not stop a great smile and a happy laugh.
"What pleases you so, sir?
"At the risk of sounding very presumptuous, Elizabeth, I was thinking about what a delightful story this would make to tell our child one day: he owes his life to an impromptu swim and a woodpecker!"
Ah yes, happy thought, indeed!