AN: Online beta for this story is now over, and the story is available at Amazon, now titled Mistress.
If you have been reading and actively commenting during the beta period and missed the later chapters or simply want to re-read, message me and we'll work on getting you a copy so you can read the whole thing. I am happy to help those who have helped me with a copy.
I regret that I do not have time to send copies to those who have not commented during the beta period.
A Pride and Prejudice Variation, with Parts Not Suitable for Those Who Have Not Reached Their Majority
May 29, 1815
Near Meryton village, in Hertfordshire, two sisters who had always been particular friends were so fortunate as to live within three miles of each other. One was happily married, and while it would be impolite to say the other was happily widowed, it may be said that she was more content in her widowed state than she had been in her married one.
"My dear Lizzy," said the married sister, who was called Jane, to the other, "we are to have company at Netherfield soon – a small house-party, only, but I hope you will join in our dinners, and perhaps a ball, if I am able to convince Charles that we should have one."
"My year is very nearly complete," replied Elizabeth, who would have rejoined society earlier, if she could have done so without injuring her reputation. "I have for some time been desirous of participating in society, and I would be very pleased to make my re-entrance at Netherfield."
"Oh, Lizzy, I am so delighted you should say that," said Jane. "I must tell you, though, that Mr. Darcy is to be one of the party. I know you did not get on well with him, and I hope you shall be able to meet as polite acquaintances, at least."
"Jane, dear sister, it has been better than three years since I have seen him, although he did write to express his condolences on the death of my husband, which rather surprised me. I cannot say I am looking forward to making his acquaintance again, but I shall certainly be polite to him. I do wonder, though, at his coming to Netherfield. I had thought the breach between him and Charles to be irreconcilable."
"Charles is much too amiable to maintain an irreconcilable breach," said Jane, smiling as though to indicate how well her own amiable nature matched that of her husband. "He and Mr. Darcy met at White's last winter, and they have gradually renewed their acquaintance, with some apology – I understand – on the part of Mr. Darcy, who felt himself in the wrong for what occurred between them some years ago, although Charles says it was as much his fault as Mr. Darcy's."
"Well, I had not imagined Mr. Darcy capable of admitting wrongdoing in any matter, so I am quite surprised at what you say, Jane. I shall meet Mr. Darcy politely, as you ask, and perhaps if he is capable of admitting himself in the wrong, now, we shall get on better than we did before."
Before the two ladies could converse further, Mrs. Hill entered the parlour, and said, "Mrs. Collins, if you please, one of your tenants is in the kitchen, and requesting an audience with you."
Elizabeth rose, and smiled apologetically at her sister, who rose as well, and said she should be going anyway; there were a great many preparations to make for the house party. Thus they separated, Mrs. Bingley to make her return to Netherfield Park, and Mrs. Collins for Longbourn's kitchen.
November 30, 1811
Breakfast at Fitzwilliam Darcy's house in town, and Charles Bingley moping over the sideboard. Darcy surveyed his friend, and wondered if he had taken on an impossible task, in attempting to make Charles forget about Jane Bennet.
It had been easy enough at first. With the eager assistance of Charles's sister, Caroline, the flaws of Miss Bennet's family had been noted, and to these flaws Darcy had added, gently, the lack of evidence that Miss Bennet held any romantic affections for the man who stood dangerously close to becoming her particular suitor. Charles could rather easily be convinced in to believing these things, but things believed by Charles Bingley's head were not so easily absorbed by his heart, and this accounted for his moping over the sideboard.
This could be rectified, though, Darcy thought. He abhorred the idea of conspiring over anything, much less conspiring with Caroline Bingley, but he agreed with her that this was necessary, and that with a little distance from Jane Bennet, Charles would soon enough forget the young lady he had called his angel. In time, then, he might find another angel, one of more appropriate family and fortune.
Charles sat down with his plate, eventually, and the selections thereupon made it clear to Darcy that his friend's appetite had not been much affected, which he took as a positive sign. Time, time was all that was needed to make everyone forget of the Bennets, and time would be afforded to them here, along with every distraction London had to offer.
Darcy's plan seemed poised for success through breakfast, and the pot of coffee that followed it, taken leisurely in the drawing-room. Miller came in with the post, and there was a letter for Charles, which was studied silently for some time, before he attempted to comment upon it.
"My God," Charles said, "Mr. Bennet has passed. There was some trouble with his heart, and apparently he succumbed to it."
"Charles, are you quite sure?" Darcy asked, for his mind was racing as to how this affected Elizabeth Bennet, and as he had determined to think no more of any Bennets, this was most troubling.
"Sir William Lucas wrote to me of it," Charles said. "He has been assisting Mr. Phillips and Mr. Collins with the preparations for the funeral."
"Those poor girls," Darcy murmured, although he thought only, poor Elizabeth!
"I think the same, Darcy. I think I should go to them – to Miss Bennet," Charles said. "I know you said you do not think she has affection for me, but everything has changed, and I am not sure that she did not – "
"Charles, I beg you, do not act hastily. Miss Bennet will only be more vulnerable in her present situation, for losing all her security in life. I expect she would gladly accept anyone that came to her and seemed likely to secure her a home. Is that all you seek in a wife – gratitude, for putting a roof above her head?"
It was at this moment that Fitzwilliam Darcy lost his particular friend, for Charles Bingley, not ever before having been required to seriously examine anything in his life, did now examine his present situation, and his most recent courtship, and said, "Err – no. What I seek in a wife is a sweet, amiable temper, a pretty turn of countenance, and a respect of my thoughts, and all of these things I had in Miss Bennet, and you convinced me I should not pursue her because of her family, and because she was not attached to me."
Darcy nodded, acknowledging that all his friend said was true, and wondering what was to come next.
"I am going to go back to Netherfield," Charles said. "I hope Miss Bennet is still able to see me in her present situation, and if she is, that she shall accept my hand in marriage. For if such an exquisite creature is marrying me for my fortune, I will care not. I will enjoy my sweet wife, and even if she does not love me as I do her, I have no doubt of her faithfulness and continuing sweet temper."
"This is precisely why we determined to separate you from Miss Bennet," Darcy said, unthinkingly.
"You determined? You mean this was planned? All of these seemingly casual conversations about Miss Bennet were the result of some determination between you and my sister?"
"Yes, Charles, we thought it best for you."
"Did no-one think perhaps I might be able to determine what is best for myself!" Charles shouted, growing a concerning shade of red in his countenance. "Do you all think I am a child, rather than the head of my household? A feeble-minded half-wit, that you must conspire around?"
"That is not at all what we thought. But a man in love may not think so clearly – "
"I am thinking clearly enough! I am thinking that if there is a woman in this world that I love, and she is a gentleman's daughter, and I can secure her hand, there is absolutely no reason why I should not!"
"Charles, think of what you are saying. Think of what you are taking on – not just Miss Bennet, but the whole family. Are you prepared to have the mother and the silly sisters living under your roof at Netherfield?"
"I am not so selfish as you, Darcy. If I can ease Miss Bennet's present distress by offering a home to her family, that will be pleasing to me, not abhorrent."
"You think me selfish?" Darcy asked, prepared to present Charles with any number of arguments to the contrary. Yet each of his arguments seemed to dissipate, as soon as they formed, and he listened to his friend with growing concern:
"Of course I do, Darcy, although if I must sum you up in one word, I suppose it would be proud, and I suppose I would say you have spent so long in pride of the Darcy name, and presuming what those who hold the Darcy name must do – and apparently what friends of those who hold the Darcy name must do – that you have always acted selfishly. You do not want me to marry Jane Bennet because it would reflect poorly on you, to have a friend make such a connexion."
"That is not why I discouraged the connexion, Bingley."
"Oh, isn't it? Perhaps it is not why you discouraged the connexion. Perhaps you could not bear to see me happy, while you wallow in your own misery. Yes – misery. You will spend your whole damn life worrying over maintaining your position in society, and you will never do anything to pursue your own happiness. Now that I am presented with the choice, I have no interest in being like you. I will pursue my own happiness, and I will ask for Miss Bennet's hand, and I do not care if you do not like it, you arrogant arse."
Charles set his coffee cup down with crashing violence, then, the remnants of his coffee splashing onto the tea table. Any other man would have strode out immediately, but Bingley took out his handkerchief, rapidly mopped up the spilt drops of coffee, then stood and walked out of the room, ending his acquaintance with Fitzwilliam Darcy. The man who had until now been his particular friend watched his exit in stunned silence, desperately trying to conjure something to say to make him return. As a man who did not make close friends easily, Darcy felt the deepest desperation over losing one, and as the result of his own actions. But he could not bring himself to say he had been wrong. That might, he realised, be further evidence of his pride.
He began a study, then, examining his thoughts, words, and actions in the whole course of his life, but particularly since his father had died, searching for selfishness and pride. In shame, he found them in abundance, and he sat there, alone, considering how he had come to err so grievously, and how he could affect the changes in his character he now knew he needed to make. This was not the only thing he considered, however, for he could not help but wonder what it would be like to do what Charles had spoken of: what would it be like to pursue his own happiness?
November 27, 1811
It happened so quickly, they did not even have time to send for Mr. Jones. They were recounting all that had happened at the Netherfield ball over breakfast, when Mr. Bennet complained of a strange sensation in his arm. His wife said it sounded precisely like her nervous attacks, which silenced him for a while, but Elizabeth could see he was truly not well. His countenance appeared pale, glistening with sweat, and she asked if they should send for the apothecary.
"Not yet, Lizzy. I think I shall just go and sit quietly in my library for a time," he said.
He rose, took a few steps toward the door, and collapsed, clutching his chest. He was surrounded by his wife and daughters, exclaiming in their shock and fear, and Elizabeth, who was as shocked and afraid as any of them, but kept her exclamations to herself, was forced to push her way between Mrs. Bennet and Catherine, to see if she could ascertain what ailed her father. He gasped, and whispered, "Lizzy," but could say no more, and Elizabeth focused her attentions on trying to soothe him, for his affliction seemed most painful. Minutes later, he was gone.
Elizabeth was not allowed the luxury of shock, or grief, for her mother and younger sisters descended in to hysterics, her mother worst of all, and someone was required to manage things, to order the servants to carry the body of their master to the parlour, to lay him out there and cover him. Jane was quiet, but clearly as shaken as the rest of them, at first, although Elizabeth found that if she gave her sister a command, it would be followed, and that Jane seemed better, when she had tasks to accomplish. As for Mr. Collins, he determined his proper function was to assist with prayer, and quoting bible verses, which perhaps soothed Mary a little, but was of little benefit to anyone else in the household.
Eventually, Mr. and Mrs. Phillips came to lend their assistance, and Elizabeth went up to the bedchamber she shared with Jane, to rest for a few minutes, and have a little time in privacy, to finally adjust to what had happened, and fully feel her grief. She was not alone for five minutes, before there came a knock at the door.
It was Mr. Collins. She knew what he was going to ask, and she was horrified by it. Her father was not even cold, much less buried. That he would choose this time, of her greatest shock and vulnerability, that he would not even allow her half-an-hour of quietude, before forcing her to think of where her family was going to live, was completely abhorrent to her.
In that moment, she hated him, and yet she knew she would have to marry him regardless.
December 6, 1811
Darcy heard no more from his friend. He spent the days following the breach in quiet reflection, continuing to be most affected by what Bingley had said, and shameful of his past behaviour. He did not know if Charles had sensed his tendre for Elizabeth Bennet, and if therefore his comment about Darcy's pursuing his own happiness had been meant specifically, and not generally. Darcy thought about this – this alien concept of doing what he wished, without a thought of connexions or society, of asking the loveliest creature of his acquaintance to marry him. Yet if Charles thought these things of him, what must she think?
Still, he considered it, until one day, there was an announcement in the papers, short, simple, and incredibly wounding. It was not the one he had been expecting. "Miss E. Bennet, of Longbourn, in Hertfordshire, is betrothed to Mr. W. Collins, vicar of Hunsford, in Kent."
Oh, Elizabeth, what have you done? was his only thought at first. Yet it was clear enough what she had done: she had acted to secure a home for herself and the remains of her family, and accepted the offer of that odious parson cousin of hers. Charles must by now have made his return to Netherfield, but not his offer, and poor Elizabeth had sacrificed happiness for the security of what remained of her family.
Darcy thought, in that moment, of going to Hertfordshire, of staying at an inn, if Charles would not have him at Netherfield, of making, in essence, a counter-proposal to her. Surely she would prefer him to Mr. Collins! Yet every reason to order his trunks packed and his carriage readied seemed to be followed by two reasons why he should not do so. The mother and the silly sisters could be set up in a separate establishment, somewhere in Derbyshire but not too near to Pemberley. To ask her to break her existing engagement would be substantial, but she was a woman, and could do so if she decided in Darcy's favour. But, acting on the perceived impossibility of a marriage between them, he had been guarded with his affections; any proposal from him would likely come as a surprise to her. Thinking of this returned his thoughts to conjecturing as to her opinion of him. If it was poor – if she would refuse him, if she would choose that horrid man over him – it would be his undoing. He thought of how it would be, of riding from an inn to Longbourn, of requesting a private audience, and the myriad ways in which she could refuse him.
It would be better to write to her, he thought. Putting his proposal in a letter would enable her to spend some time in deliberation between her two offers, to be informed of his affections in a manner that would be better done than what he would likely manage in speaking. And if she did choose to refuse him, whether out of preference or out of honour in keeping her present engagement, at least he would not have to hear her speak it. The shattering of his soul could occur in private, in the comfort of his study, with a decanter of brandy at hand.
Darcy gathered his writing things, and after spending the better part of the morning and a quire of paper on various drafts, finally arrived at:
"Dear Miss Bennet,
"Please accept my sincerest condolences on the death of your father. I believe you and he were close, and I am sure this makes what would already have been a difficult time all the more unbearable. Having lost both of my own parents, I can say that time will heal the wound somewhat, but never completely. I still feel their absence, even now, and believe I shall for the rest of my own life.
"Having seen news of your engagement in the papers, I should now congratulate you upon it. However, I cannot, for Mr. Collins has secured the very hand in marriage that I myself desire, and while I abhor breaking a commitment, and expect you do as well, I am going to request you do just that.
"I admire you greatly, and I have felt my affections towards you growing for some time, and wish I had declared myself sooner, before another offer could be made to you. As I now find myself second, I will not attempt to compare myself with your betrothed, but will make the case for myself as best I can.
"Pemberley brings in more than 10,000 pounds every year, and sometimes nearer 11,000. Of that, I had thought 700 pounds an appropriate amount for your pin money, but that may be increased if you think it insufficient for your needs as a married woman. Your jointure, on my death, I would settle at 1,200 pounds, so you would have a sufficient amount to set up your own establishment. I do regret to say that Pemberley does not have a dower house, so this may be necessary. I would also set up an establishment for your mother and younger sisters, and would ensure Mrs. Bennet and any of your sisters who do not marry are kept in comfort for the whole of their lives.
"You would have your own bedchamber and dressing-room, both at Pemberley and my London house, and no expense would be spared in decorating them to your taste, as well as any updates you desire within the remainder of either house. Pemberley is a large house, but my housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, has held that post for fourteen years and is a most diligent and trustworthy woman, so you may decide for yourself what proportion of your time you wish to spend in household management.
"I would hope for a marriage in which your affections matched my own, but I fully understand they may not, at the time of your reading this letter. I would ask only that you allow me to do all I can to grow them over time. I await your response, and remain –
"Your most humble and obedient servant,
Once he had read it through several times, and determined it to be what he wished to say, and of appropriate tone to be proposing marriage to a young woman who had just lost her father and accepted the hand of her cousin, Darcy then turned his mind to how to get it to her. It would not be appropriate to send it to her directly; the best thing to do would have been to send it to Charles, and ask that his friend give it to her discreetly. But as that was not an option, he eventually decided to send it under cover to Mrs. Bennet. He did not think that woman liked his company, but he also did not think she would turn down the possibility of her daughter marrying into a greater income. Indeed, he thought, she might be his greatest ally at Longbourn. Thus another letter of condolence was written, to Mrs. Bennet, informing the woman that it covered one to her daughter, a proposal of marriage. He gave this packet to a servant to post, and then there was nothing to be done but wait.
December 15, 1811
"I publish the banns of marriage between Miss Elizabeth Bennet, of Longbourn, and Mr. Collins, of Hunsford. If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in holy matrimony, ye are to declare it: This is the third time of asking."
Elizabeth listened to the banns in that mixture of sorrow and dread she had known since her father's death and Mr. Collins's proposal. Had she known tMr. Bingley was to return, was not to stay in town for the winter as his sister had said he would, and had she known he was to return and offer marriage to Jane, she most certainly would not have accepted Mr. Collins's proposal. Mr. Bingley had been surprised at learning of Elizabeth's betrothal, but it had been no impediment to him making his own declaration, and now Jane had the greatest comfort that could be had, at such a time, in the gentle sympathy of her husband-to-be.
Whenever the tide of dread rose too high, Elizabeth considered breaking the engagement. She considered it, and she desired it more than anything she had ever desired, and yet she would not go through with it. Some women, in some engagements, might be able to do so with little damage to their reputations, but Elizabeth knew that would not be true for her situation. To break an engagement merely because another man had stepped in to provide her family the promise of security would be to expose herself to their neighbourhood as fickle, and ungrateful. Nor was she entirely sure she would prefer being dependent on Mr. Bingley over being mistress of her own household, and in command of her own pin money, even if it meant she must be married to Mr. Collins.
Still, it was a relief to have him gone from the house, if just for a little while, for he had returned to Kent to settle his affairs there, and take his leave of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Of all the misfortunes surrounding her father's death, it was but one of them that Mr. Collins was living with them when Mr. Bennet had passed, but it was one Elizabeth felt acutely. Not only was he there, to offer her marriage at such an inappropriate time, but there had also been no formal handover of the house, due to his constant presence. One day, he was a guest, and the next, he became the master. And in three days, he would become her husband.
December 20, 1811
When a fortnight passed with no response from Elizabeth Bennet, Darcy began to fear he would not receive one at all. He thought over his letter, and wondered if it was too businesslike, not affectionate enough. He wondered if merely asking for her hand in marriage, when she was already betrothed, had been abhorrent to her – so abhorrent, that she did not even think it worth a response. He wondered if her response had been misdirected in the post, or his own letter had gone astray, or whether he had been wrong about Mrs. Bennet's willingness to give his offer to her daughter.
Misdirection of one letter or another could, at least, be rectified, and now, finally, Darcy ordered his trunk packed, and his carriage readied. Later that day, he saw the wedding announcement in the papers. He was shocked, at first – he had not thought things should progress so fast as they must have, with the Bennets in mourning. Further rumination, however, brought him to the conclusion that society would have been more judgmental over Elizabeth Bennet's living in the same household as her betrothed – with no other man about the house – for an extended period of time, than it would be over her marrying so soon after her father's death.
Then he turned his thoughts over to despair, for his despair upon understanding that Elizabeth was now irretrievably lost to him was complete. She was lost to him, and whether it was by choice, or by lack of knowledge that another option existed for her, he alone had been responsible. Oh, Elizabeth! Poor, lovely Elizabeth, to be locked in matrimony with such a man!
Darcy amended his orders, now, that the journey should be a return to Pemberley, that it should be delayed until after Christmas, and that Georgiana and Mrs. Annesley should prepare their things as well. For that was his only desire, now, to take his sister and return home.
It was too late to make any improvements as a lover, but he could improve himself as a brother, and as a man. There might not be any promise of happiness in that, but there would be satisfaction, at least, in correcting his ways, in better doing his duty. That was all he had to live for, now.