THE MEASURE OF A MAN
Part I: Gold
"All that glisters is not gold," William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
The first time he took notice, true notice, of Jane Bennet, she wore a gown of deep gold.
Only three months had passed since he fled Netherfield Park, with as much fanfare as a thief in the night. In the intervening months, Fitzwilliam Darcy had refused to so much as glance over his shoulder to remember what he had left behind. A moment of self-reflection would have made him admit he acted as though it were bloodthirsty ruffians and not the fine eyes of a pretty woman that waited to pounce on him from the shadows. He most determinedly avoided such reflection and used all his great and imposing will-power to forget all he had left behind.
He refused to think about, refused to remember, refused to acknowledge her; and he, most ardently, wished to avoid heeding the ache in his heart that so pungently wafted her memory through his mind. Thus, he determined his steps in any direction other than towards Hertfordshire, even if it meant he spent his days in the cacophony of London.
He was mostly successful in his endeavors, or so he told himself. That is, until the evening he caught a flicker of gold in the candlelight of a foyer in a London theatre. How could he look upon Jane Bennet and not have the long-repressed memories of her sister assault the defenses of his fortified mind?
Miss Bingley had warned him of Miss Jane Bennet's presence in London. In triumphant glee, Bingley's sister had informed him of the necessary degradation of the visit to Cheapside and her severance of the connection – "all for the benefit of poor Charles." Together, Darcy and Miss Bingley determined to hide her presence from Charles. Like a fishing net in reeds, they had worked too hard to separate the pair to cast the net right back into the tangles and they needed to ensure their continued separation. It would not be difficult. Their circles were far removed and as long as diligence was maintained, Charles would remain in blessed ignorance.
Darcy was not as fortunate.
No matter how far he ran from Hertfordshire, Hertfordshire came in chase, setting its hounds to flush him out of hiding and forcing him to face all that he had left behind.
Jane Bennet held her head high, a soft smile firmly painted across her flawless complexion. The candlelight glowed off of the gilded edges of her hair and the delicate folds of her gown. It was appropriate, he thought, that she wore gold. Everything about her reminded him of the precious metal – soft, shimmering, malleable, unreliable, and only as strong as the metals it was combined with.
Yet, what was a Jane Bennet of Hertfordshire in comparison with the finest jewels of London society? While in Hertfordshire she may have been praised for her rare loveliness, in London she was easily outshone by the glitter and sheen of an earl's daughter or a duke's niece. Jane Bennet was one of a multitude of jewels on display in the London theatre that night - and she, by no means, shone the brightest.
Now, though, his heart nearly stopped in his chest at the unexpected sight of her.
He had not expected the sight of Jane Bennet to affect him so. Even when they first became acquainted, he hardly paid her a second glance or bestowed upon her any attention but the same cursory politeness due to every gentlewoman of his acquaintance. They had only been in frequent company due to Bingley's interest. As an object of his friend's notice, Darcy must pay her at least some attention. She had been one among many of Bingley's sought after feathers, the next golden-haired "angel" to take his notice and make him fancy himself in love. In truth, Darcy held her in as much esteem as a plow horse among a field of thoroughbreds. He had not given her a second thought after separating her from Bingley, other than to support Miss Bingley's continued prohibition against her presence.
Now, though, it was not Jane Bennet that he saw. In Jane Bennet's countenance, in the unexpected sight of her profile, Darcy was thrust back into his days at Netherfield Park. How could he see Jane Bennet and not remember Elizabeth? How rarely had the sisters been in company apart from the other? In a barrage of memories, he saw her fine eyes, full of mirth and affection, gazing at her sister in Netherfield's drawing room and meeting her face from across the ballroom. He heard her voice call Jane's name and entwine their delicate hands together in undisguised affection. Jane Bennet was part and parcel of Elizabeth and he was momentarily stunned by the rush of emotions that poured over him like a cataract.
Unwittingly, he realized he was as parched for any drips of information about Elizabeth Bennet as a man wandering desert dunes without the reprieve of water. Without conscious thought, Darcy's feet carried him straight to the eldest Bennet sister and he addressed her as all courtesy required. Introductions were made to her aunt and uncle beside her and polite inquiries after their respective acquaintances were made.
Jane Bennet's countenance failed to hide the warmth of her address or the eagerness with which she inquired after their respective acquaintances. He hoped his own inquiries after her relations at Longbourn were more circumspect and he immediately chastised himself for behaving like an overeager fool. Both walked away as dissatisfied as they were indebted to the other for the morsels of knowledge each had gleaned.
After their brief interview, Darcy felt an uncomfortable niggle of doubt rise in his breast. The warmth in Jane Bennet's blue eyes when she asked about Mr. Bingley was unmistakable. For the first time, he wondered if she was truly as indifferent as he had believed… or if he could remain as indifferent as he tried to force himself to be.
He never spoke of their meeting to Bingley and as winter turned to spring, he hoped his friend's affection had cooled enough to put all thoughts of Miss Bennet behind him.
Unusual deluges that spring forced him to postpone his usual trip to Rosings. Ensconced at Pemberley, he was not sure whether to feel relief or profound disappointment when he learned Elizabeth had visited Kent during the allotted time of his usual visit – or the delight Colonel Fitzwilliam felt at their acquaintance. His emotions remained in similar contradiction upon Bingley's decision to release Netherfield Park without a return visit to the neighborhood. Though neither man spoke of it, they shared a firm belief that they dare not make a step within Hertfordshire without returning to the profound danger of resurrecting the feelings they had fought so hard to overcome.
He should applaud his friend for his decision. It was the one he had encouraged Bingley to make. Yet, he could not quite loose the grip of loss. It was as if all his unspoken dreams and impossible desires had been twisted into a rope that was now twisted around his mind and pulled taut by his traitorous emotions.
Neither Bingley nor Darcy spoke of Netherfield again after its release. It was as if the words remained unspoken then the memories that plagued them would be sapped of their potency. Bingley remained chastened and more subdued than he had been before. Darcy was hardly better. If either man noticed the change in the other it remained as unspoken as the tenuous breech which had grown between them in the interim months. While still on amiable terms, neither sought the other with the same whole-hearted openness as before. Bingley was more hesitant to seek his advice and Darcy more reluctant to grant it. Yet, the weight of those few months weighed heavily on both, as if a thorn had been wedged between them and now silently festered.
Darcy was all the more convinced of the service he had done his friend after the next tidings he heard of the Bennet family. Nearly a year had passed since he last heard word of Hertfordshire and try as he might, he could not contain his curiosity upon his next visit to Rosings Park.
"Tell me, Mrs. Collins, how fares our mutual acquaintances in Hertfordshire?" he inquired, only a few days after his arrival in Kent. He met Mrs. Collins on the path between Rosings and the parsonage and decided to accompany her on the remainder of her walk. He tried to still his heart as he waited to hear news of those he most truly longed to hear of, but first, politeness insisted he hear about each and every Lucas brother and Long niece and Goulding harvest. Once she had completed her recital of the well-being of what felt like the entirety of Hertfordshire, her expression turned thoughtful.
"There has been much news from Longbourn, as well."
"Tell me, how fare the Bennets?" Darcy asked, sighing in relief that his suspense would soon be over.
Mrs. Collins was silent for a moment, as if considering how much to speak out loud. "The youngest, Miss Lydia, as was, married last summer. Her husband was an acquaintance of her uncle in trade and they have since departed for Northumberland. The three middle the Bennet sisters have been staying in London with their aunt and uncle for some time and enjoying the diversions the city has to offer."
"I am glad to hear it," Darcy forced out after a moment's pause. It was the correct sentiment to say, though by the expression in Mrs. Collins' eyes, he knew what she did not say. Darcy knew enough of Miss Lydia to read between the lines of such an arrangement. That scandal would follow the brash young woman was as inevitable as the spring rain. The best that could be accomplished to salvage her reputation in the aftermath was a marriage to a social inferior and a quick removal to another location. It would dampen the prospects of all the remaining sisters, not that their prospects were high to begin with. With the damage to their reputations around Hertfordshire, the best they could hope for was to seek prospective partners among the greater obscurity to be found in London. It was doubtful they could hope to marry well. They would have to settle for tradesmen or lower gentry undisturbed by reputation or empty coffers.
His momentary flash of pity for the remaining sisters warred with self-congratulation for severing the connection. This was shattered with the information Mrs. Collins next relayed.
"In the last letter I received, I was informed that Miss Elizabeth Bennet is now engaged to a Captain Hayward. They are to marry from London in a fortnight. Miss Catherine is soon to follow, though the particulars of her arrangement have yet to be announced. Miss Mary remains in London to attend her sisters. Miss Bennet stays at Longbourn with her parents."
Darcy paused and momentarily closed his eyes in order to compose himself. He hardly grasped any of what Mrs. Collins relayed after his initial shock.
Married. Elizabeth Bennet married.
Of course, she would marry. He had always known that. Was not the very prospect of her need to marry precisely what he had been avoiding? He fled from Netherfield, so many months ago, so he would not be tempted to volunteer for such an office. Yet, despite how he avoided any of her expectations, it did not follow that he wished for any one else to take such an office upon themselves.
In his mind, she remained as she always had been – coy, unattached, waiting only for him and longing for his advances. How foolish to hold to such whimsies! In his recalcitrant imagination, he had elevated her to more of an elusive sprite, an incarnation of temptation, than the gentlewoman of limited means that she truly was. He had done his best not to raise her expectations in any way and with such a distance of time between them, she would prover herself as blind and foolish as Miss Bingley to continue in wait for him.
Yet, why did it ache so much that she did not?
With a scandal surrounding her youngest sister and the entailed estate of her father, the remaining sisters' situation was precarious at best. It was little wonder that they were sent to London to make any match they possibly could in order to provide for the interests of the family in future.
Yes, Bingley had been spared connection to such a family. He had not been forced to wade through the mires of scandal or take on the burden of so many penniless relations. He would soon settle at his newly purchased estate in Yorkshire, or so his last letter proclaimed.
Darcy remained free from the degradation that would have inevitably followed if he had pursued his irrational fancy for "fine eyes" to its ultimate conclusion.
When it became clear that Mrs. Collins had no more news she wished to share, Mr. Darcy bid her a good day and left her at the door to the parsonage. He was grateful for the solitude the grounds of Rosings gave him to explore his thoughts. He wandered the paths and groves, hardly aware of which direction his feet took him. His mind was too full to think of anything except those thoughts he had banished under lock and key. Now, they burst forth, and he was forced to wrestle with the tangled mess of emotions that burst out of his heart.
No matter how he sought to congratulate himself, he could not shake the weight of jealousy at the thought of Elizabeth Bennet marrying any man but himself. He could taste the pungent hint of regret that clung to the edges of his heart as he wondered what might have been, if he had acted, if he had done anything other than flee. No matter how his mind and good sense applauded him for his decision, it was his heart which rose in protest and refused to accede in uniformity.
It was his heart which still insisted on resurrecting the shades of that woman into his dreams at night. Free of all conscious strangleholds and cords of self-discipline, his unconscious mind punished him soundly with images of the woman he adamantly refused to pursue.
The one who would never be his.
It was not long after this that Mr. Darcy received more news on the Bennets, though in a much more unintentional way. It had been an exceedingly tedious morning at Rosings and his head ached from the hours spent pouring over the accounts of the estate. He decided to clear his mind with fresh air and a turn about the garden. He was tempted off the main path by the appearance of a bench, hidden just out of sight of the main path, but in full view of the afternoon sun. He determined to spend the next quarter hour away from view of Rosings and any of his aunt's servants and reading a book he had procured from the library. He settled himself quite comfortably, enjoying the warmth of the sun, when he was interrupted from his musings by voices on the path. The first voice was so quiet, he could not fully make out the words until she came closer but the second spoke so loud, he thought all Rosings could hear him.
"Mrs. Collins, I cannot help but rejoice in our good fortune! Why, if the doctors are true in their assessment, then it will not be long before Longbourn will be ours! By this time next year, we will take our places as master and mistress of Longbourn. It is more than I could have hoped for so soon!"
"Mr. Collins, how can you speak so? You cannot expect me to rejoice in the ill fortune of friends who have been as dear to me as the Bennets," his wife cried out.
"I expect you to rejoice in the opportunity to raise our coming olive branch in his future estate, his birthright, and in the manner of a gentleman."
"You have no reason to assume you will have a son. What if this proves a daughter?"
"Then a son will come in time – and with your good sense, you will be sure to teach our daughters to behave with more wisdom and gratitude then my cousins possess. For a man with five daughters and no sons, I am ashamed at the lack of foresight Mr. Bennet gave to his family's care. He wishes to place the burden of their care onto every man except himself."
"Surely, you will show them charity, Mr. Collins," Mrs. Collins said, her tone both firm and pleading. "It is your Christian duty to show them mercy, though they may not deserve it."
"My attempts at generosity of heart and charity of station were more than whole-heartedly repulsed. Need I remind you of Miss Elizabeth's offensive refusal of my offer of marriage? Not only so, but Mrs. Bennet placed all her hopes for the family on the prospects of their eldest and refused me the chance to offer my suit.
"Where is this eldest now? By all reports, one suitor fled from her as if she was a plague and has refused to so much as speak a word to her since. Then, she has the audacity to refuse an offer from a gentleman of means and situation, despite her age and the ruination of her youngest sister. Thus, she remains a burden on the rest of her family because of her obstinacy. No, I will show no charity to such profligate, ungrateful relations. I have done all I could for their comfort and well-being and without a word of appreciation from a single one. Instead, my cousins spurned my efforts and mocked my goodwill. No, Charlotte, when Mr. Bennet leaves this world, I intend to wash my hands of the care of the rest of his relations as soon as I possibly can with a clear conscience."
Charlotte answered in a muted, fierce tone, but the pair had wandered so far out of earshot that Darcy could not make out her reply. His book was forgotten as he stared at the trunk of the nearby tree without noting its existence.
Mr. Collins offered for Elizabeth? He thought in a mix of wonder and horror. In his mind, he imagined Elizabeth Bennet as Mrs. Collins, walking along the path to Rosings on the arm of that bumbling parson. He could see her quick wit and intelligence constantly caged and bridled by Lady Catherine's overbearing hand. Mr. Collins and Elizabeth Bennet would have been unsuited to each other to the point of absurdity.
Yet, he also was forced to admit the benefits of the match. Without dowries or prospect, the opportunity to rise into the position as the next mistress of Longbourn was more than could be hoped for by any of the Bennet daughters. The future of her mother and sisters would have been secured. By all the measures and dictates of Society, it would have been an entirely suitable match.
Darcy was not sure whether to consider her refusal an act of foolishness or profound wisdom and the fact that there were such contrasting viewpoints to the matter unsettled him more than he wished to admit.
Miss Elizabeth's parents had not forced the match upon her, despite their circumstances and his eligibility.
It is because he is a fool, Darcy tried to convince himself. If Collins was a more amiable fellow, they would have pressed the matter. Surely, they would have been more willing to force her hand, say, if he had been someone more similar in temperament and nature to Bingley.
There was the thorn in his conscience. There was the source of his guilt.
If the Collins' were to be believed, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet had not forced the hand of either of their daughters, despite the dire nature of their circumstances.
He should not be concerned with the fates of such a family. He had met throngs of similar families during his years in society. He had avoided their well-mannered and more eligible daughters without a second thought of their future prospects or future scandals. Yet, the downturn of the Bennets' fortunes bothered him more deeply than he wished to admit.
A darker, deeper voice in his soul whispered he was responsible for at least part of their misfortunes.
He tried to argue his point, claim his own superiority of intent, the benefits of the outcome for himself and his friend, his still the guilt remained.
Jane and Elizabeth Bennet were unsuitable. Entirely unsuitable. Their family was without prospects, connections, fortune, or even basic propriety.
Yet, as he considered the situation anew, he was forced to reconsider. What, exactly, made a woman suitable as a wife? Society fawned over the glitter and gold. It delighted in youth and beauty, charm and status. A woman's worth was determined primarily by external features – the web of relational connections she was suspended in, the lineage of intermarriages that had produced her, how well she performed her role in a drawing room and ballroom, how gracefully she carried herself and chose to adorn herself. Contrarily, the lack of family wealth, powerful alliances, and intimate knowledge of the unwritten, contradicting rules of Society was her downfall. The behaviors and decisions of those entirely outside her control determined her destiny. What of the woman herself? What of her own character, her own heart?
In the ignorance and arrogance of youth, Darcy had looked upon acquiring a wife in the same way he would an estate or a broodmare. They were acquisitions to add to his wealth and consequence, carefully chosen by his own impressive wisdom to contribute to his happiness. If one potential estate displeased him for its location, he simply pursued a different one. If one mare proved less admirable than he wished, he would find another that pleased him more.
He had approached the marriage establishment with similar beliefs. The parade of debutantes before him could be easily sifted through, like horses at the market. From his detached position by the window, he perused them all without speaking to a single one, declaring each as "adequate" or "undesirable" based on the measurements he had been taught by Society. One woman could easily be passed by for another and there was no shortage of willing partners. If he wished for a wife, all he must do was condescend to ask.
Yet, what were the characteristics he truly wished for in his future wife? Was his future happiness determined by Society's dictates or his own? He could not admire the outcome of many of the lauded Society matches. His own circle of acquaintance provided more than enough examples of how similarity of fortune, rank, and beauty did not always promote affection within marriage and there was more to be gained from the marriage state than heirs for the estate.
The marriage between Mr. Collins and Mrs. Collins unsettled him more than he wished to admit. Mrs. Collins was a sensible, intelligent woman who accepted a match Society praised. Yet, Darcy could only surmise it was not the man she sought but his situation.
He had long feared fortune-hunters for this very reason and the betrayal of Wickham had been all the more devastating for what it revealed about the value of his friendship to his childhood companion. He knew there were many women he would meet that would go to any lengths to become his wife – but not because they wished to marry him, as a man, but because of the role he could offer them as his wife.
Was a man, too, only an acquisition? He had never questioned his worth before. He had never needed to. Pemberley alone was enough to ensure his warm welcome anywhere he went. Yet, if he was not the grandson of an earl or the master of such an estate, would society give him a second glance? Was he as interchangeable as a stallion or a comfortable cottage house? Was it Pemberly and the circumstances of his forebears that made him a man of worth or his character?
Even if he was in possession of a menial estate, and born to humbler circumstances, his person would gain him a certain amount of acceptance. He knew he was considered handsome; though, he wondered which was more attractive- his ten thousand a year or his strong features and tall figure. Surely, if he only possessed a thousand a year, he would be considered far less handsome.
Yet, when had he ever offered a woman anything, but the traits Society praised him for? He had never openly courted a woman. He assumed their good opinions by default -and for what? He relied entirely on the merits of the circumstances of his birth to garner favor. Yet was the true measure of a man determined by merits so entirely out of his own control? It was a humbling proposition.
As much as he prided himself in his lineage and his situation as master of Pemberley, he could not wish his future wife to marry him solely for such offerings. He hoped to be respected for his character and admired for his strength of heart. Yet, why would he measure potential wives by a different standard than the one he wished used on himself?
He was not yet ready to consider the reasons he deemed Elizabeth Bennet unsuitable. It was too much to overthrow so many bastions of his perspective so soon. However, he was honest enough to admit that many of his objections paled in the light of the prospect of her upcoming marriage.
With such tumultuous thoughts on his mind, Fitzwilliam Darcy left Rosings and returned to London. Georgiana was officially "out" and it was his responsibility to escort her through the social heart of London. In the whirl of balls and soirees, he was caught up in the flood of feathers and pearls, smiles and fluttering eyelashes. Yet, the thorn planted in his mind in Kent only grew and festered.
More than once he considered calling upon the Bennets in London, but he could not think of an excuse for such an action after such a short acquaintance and such length in its severance. What would he possibly accomplish by such an action? No, he would put them out of his mind and not consider them further.
Elizabeth Bennet would marry her captain and Fitzwilliam Darcy would do well to follow her example and seek his prospects in the sphere in which he was born to.
Very few were surprised when the master of Pemberley returned to his estate without a wife and another year passed on.
Author's Note: A couple of warnings before we go on: 1.) This is an exploration of a Fitzwilliam Darcy/Jane Bennet pairing. 2.) There is a time-period appropriate amount of character death and illness (not quite as extreme as an Elizabeth Gaskell story, but much greater than most of Austen's works). There will be a HEA. 3.) This is my first foray into this fandom.
Disclaimer- I gave up moderating comments part of the way through this story. I do not condone any comments nor do I endorse the opinions stated on my review page. I have not read a good swathe of them. Please, don't eat me.