Miss Lydia Bennet's marriage to Mr Wickham had effectively ended a very promising source of gossip; and Miss Bennet's engagement to Mr Bingley was hardly better. The only question was why it had taken so long, for they were without a doubt perfectly suited to one another. Even Lady Lucas and Mrs Long, with several very plain charges to dispose of, could not deny it. If anyone deserved happiness in marriage, it was Jane Bennet - or so the Meryton matrons decreed. She was sweetness itself and so very handsome. It was not her fault that she had been burdened with such a family.
However, Miss Elizabeth's engagement to Mr Darcy was far more lucrative than either. They supposed, naturally, that she had only accepted him for his wealth and consequence. His motivations were not so clear; surely, a young man in his circumstances had met many a pretty young lady? How had Miss Elizabeth - "tolerable" Miss Eliza Bennet - snared him where so many had failed?
"I hope they will be very happy," Mrs James said. A tradesman's daughter who had married into the local gentry, she was a young, pretty girl, and very much awed by the other ladies.
Insincere agreement immediately followed. Although, her chances with such a disagreeable man - Mrs Long left it hanging.
"I never thought him so very disagreeable," Mrs Goulding said, startling nearly all of the circle. She was very quiet, but when she had an opinion gave it most decidedly. "He was always civil to me."
Most of her elders gazed at her pityingly. It was a fact that young women's heads could easily be turned by a handsome man - and there was no disputing that Mr Darcy was exceedingly pleasant to look upon.
"I agree," added Mrs James bravely. "Molly says that she has never worked for a kinder master. Not that she works for Mr Darcy, but he is at Netherfield, so - and her father, Smith, is the butler, and he says that Mr Darcy is the only one at Netherfield who ever concerns himself with the servants, and a proper gentleman."
It had to be admitted that the servants all spoke very highly of him. "He may be a good master," decreed Mrs Long, "but that doesn't mean he will be a good husband. Say what you like about Eliza Bennet, but I pity her."
The other ladies were fully prepared to follow her lead, but soon found themselves in a peculiar sort of quandary. It was difficult to pity someone who had no idea of her own misfortune. On the contrary - she seemed quite delighted with her situation in general, and with her betrothed in particular. She was absorbed in him almost to the point of incivility, talking to him when he was near, and inattentive when he was not. Her eyes often followed him wherever he went, with a peculiar intent expression that Mrs Long in particular found almost indecent.
As for Mr Darcy, whom they had fully expected to act the part of the besotted, distracted suitor, he was very much as he had ever been. Quiet, reserved, elegant, he was properly attentive to his intended, endured the attentions of local society with rather better grace than had been anticipated, but his composure never faltered. There was no greater sign of his affection for Miss Elizabeth than a softness about the mouth and a distinct partiality for her company. Several of the ladies unashamedly eavesdropped on their conversations, and found them not only dull but incomprehensible.
It was decided that Miss Eliza had chosen to marry Mr Darcy because he was the only man who could actually understand above half of what she said. Mrs James murmured wistfully,
"She loves him. I think it's wonderful."
Mrs Long shot her a quelling look. "It might be wonderful if he cared sixpence about her, she said.
"You must be supposing that she proposed to him, then," returned Mrs Goulding, perfectly serene. "Why else should he marry her? She has nothing to offer; and if he only wished for a pretty wife, I daresay he could find plenty among his own circle of acquaintance."
Mrs Long and Lady Lucas decided that they had never liked Mrs Goulding, who was too clever by half, and muttered imprecations against those artful Bennets.
In the first days of their engagement, Darcy and Elizabeth were so deliriously happy that all else faded into insignificance. The curious glances, rampant gossip, and shameless observations that followed them everywhere they went mattered not at all. For that brief time, she had him all to herself, and luxuriated in the pleasure of being so unconditionally loved. She almost solely occupied herself with acquiring a greater intimacy with his ways, her curiosity boundless as they talked, he earnestly and she joyously.
Within what seemed a very short period of time, she knew that he dropped his eyes when considering something, rubbed his thumb and middle finger together when uncomfortable, and frequently pushed his hair back for no reason at all. When he was angry, his lips compressed and his eyes blazed. When amused, a quick, sharp smile curled his lips, while he coloured, glancing away, when embarrassed (and it was very often). She wondered if she was so easily read, and that she had ever found his countenance guarded rarely ceased to amaze, he had become so transparent to her.
There was one little quirk, however, which, while quite endearing, and indubitably amusing, hindered a rather different sort of intimacy. The earnest, almost reverential, respect in which he held her did nothing to alleviate his native primness - for really, there was no other word for such great reserve, and his constant deference to her wishes in that regard, real or imagined, had her quite envious of Jane for almost twelve minutes, until she hatched a plot.
"Aunt," Elizabeth said sweetly, "Mr Darcy and I should like to walk to the Mount again, but I fear it will be too much for you. You do not mind if we just go on without you, do you?"
Sometimes Mrs Phillips' senselessness was more welcome than at others. With a speculative remark about the attractions the Mount must have for such a handsome young couple, she unashamedly left them to their own devices. Elizabeth flinched and glanced up at Darcy apprehensively, and was pleased to see nothing worse than fierce embarrassment writ on his face. She proceeded with her plan.
"I saw you talking with John Lucas, Fitzwilliam," she said, looking about to make sure they were quite alone. "Did you have a pleasant conversation?"
"No," said Darcy, quite happily. "He had some very ridiculous opinions."
"You enlightened him, of course."
"Naturally. We were speaking of the conditions in the North, and he claimed that the poor were solely responsible for their plight, and that any attempt at assistance would only breed indolence and discontent amongst their ranks."
"I beg your pardon?"
Darcy grimaced. "It is not the first time, either, that I have come across that sort of thinking. My uncle, although he is not illiberal in general, claims that I am young and idealistic - even naïve and ignorant when he is particularly displeased with me."
Elizabeth considered asking about Darcy's uncle, for she had gathered enough to realise that the Earl was unlikely to approve of her, but dismissed the idea. That could come later, and it would only distract both from the present possibilities. She clasped his arm more tightly, and smiled up at him. "Mr Lucas looked quite chastened by the end. I daresay you thoroughly educated him?"
"Yes." He turned his head to smile warmly and openly at her - a smile she never saw, except when they were alone. Elizabeth guessed at his height and lamented it for quite the first time. If only he were that bit shorter, this would be so much easier.
"I was glad to find that your uncle agrees with me," Darcy said unexpectedly. Elizabeth, still considering the logistics that his six-foot-three-inch frame necessarily entailed, absently asked,
He looked startled. "No, I meant Mr Gardiner. During - my business in London - " (he had a ready supply of euphemisms for all matters which he did not care to discuss explicitly) "we spoke of it. He, too, felt strongly about the matter, but of course - " Darcy looked slightly vexed - "he is not so young as to be accused of ignorance and naïveté, when he espouses unusual opinions."
Elizabeth smiled, both at the sentiment (which she shared) and the faintly petulant expression of it, and gazed at him fondly for a moment, briefly relishing her good fortune. "Fitzwilliam," she said, and he stopped, glancing at her quizzically.
She placed one hand against his cheek, and met his gaze as directly as she could without paining her neck. He looked startled, but not displeased, and so she stood on tiptoe and firmly pressed her lips against his. For one moment, she was afraid that he would step away, horrified at her forwardness - but after all, did he not admire her for her vivacity? - so she was not too surprised when, after only a brief hesitation, he reciprocated enthusiastically, his lips parting beneath her own, his gloved fingers reaching up to clasp hers.
Breathlessly, they stepped back, Darcy's pale complexion flushed - but not, she trusted, with embarrassment, as his expression was nothing short of delighted. She could feel heat in her own cheeks, after all, and she was not remotely embarrassed.
"I love you," she said lightly, and he simply stared for a moment, the other emotions dancing across his face overlaid with utter astonishment.
"You - I - why - " He stopped, and then, struck, it seemed, by a fit of coherence, said, between kissing her hands passionately, "You are inimitable, irresistible. You are the delight of my life. You are - "
Elizabeth briefly touched his head, startled and touched by the intensity of his response to her careless declaration. She was not quite certain how best to manage the situation, until it occurred to her that his face was conveniently near at hand. She tangled her fingers in his fair hair and kissed him again.
Not since the day he had proposed to her had she seen him so voluble and incoherent, nor had she been so quiet. Elizabeth's feelings were overwhelmed and disordered enough that she could not understand them with any clarity; but his were easier to comprehend. He seemed taken by a violent delight, overflowing with admiration and a little feverish in the expression of it, stripping off his glove and hers with a quick, breathless, "do you mind?" and lacing his fingers through hers almost before her smiling acquiescence.
Elizabeth laughed at her own silliness in the pleasure she took at the sudden contact, his fingers entwined with hers - at one point she sat beside him on a strategically placed log, turning his hand over in hers and admiring it, making him laugh a little.
"You are so small," he said in his quiet voice, tilting his head to the side as he looked at her. "You have such presence that one forgets, sometimes."
"My mother has bemoaned my size more than once," Elizabeth told him, with a faintly mischievous smile. "She wishes that I were more like Jane, or Lydia." The look of heartfelt horror on Darcy's face sent her into gales of laughter. "Although for years she has comforted herself that I shall undoubtedly grow stouter with children - 'if only she could get me married!' "
Rather than laughing, a peculiar expression came over his face, one she had not yet identified. He caught his breath, and at once he seemed intimately, powerfully near, and far too distant and remote for comfort. "Fitzwilliam," she laughed, tugging at his sleeve, "where are you?"
He came to with a start. "Oh! I was only thinking."
Elizabeth shook her head. "Should I be afraid, losing your attention so early in our engagement? What does this bode for our marriage?"
Alarm flashed across his face, but was as quickly dispelled by her teasing look. "Oh, I am easily distracted," he said, smiling. "It is better you discover it now, rather than later."
"Not according to Charlotte," Elizabeth murmured, wondering what precisely he meant - for once he was set on a course of action, there was no stopping him. But then, perhaps the distractions heretofore had not been interesting enough. Elizabeth dimpled happily, and laid her head against his arm, clasping his hand once more.
"I can well imagine what your friend may believe, but then, she is married to Mr Collins," said Darcy, then started as he realised he had spoken aloud. Elizabeth laughed heartily.
"You are far superior to Mr Collins, my love," she said, once she had regained herself. "I think I may safely say that I would prefer to acquaint myself with your idiosyncrasies as soon as possible, so that I may become accustomed to them before we are wed." Then she smiled, more than a little mischievously. "And, of course, so that I may distract you at my leisure."
Darcy blushed but only arched one brow, his response all the more powerful for its brevity.
It was really more than a lady of passionate disposition, with such a strikingly handsome young man at her disposal, could be expected to endure. This time, no planning was involved, and she was not even certain if she or he had begun it; but one moment they were sitting next to one another very decorously, the next she was pressed against his side, and they were kissing wildly. It was, some time later, only the need for air that separated them, and Darcy, emitting a sound rather like a squeak, fled to the opposite side of their log, a safe distance of about three feet from her. Elizabeth was not certain whether to be offended or merely embarrassed, but the frankly yearning look he gave her returned her to her senses.
"Ah . . . Elizabeth," he said awkwardly. "Perhaps we ought to join the others?"
Elizabeth looked at him incredulously.
"That is - we have been gone . . . awhile - and your aunt . . ." Darcy floundered.
"Mrs Phillips would be delighted if you dragged me to Gretna Green," Elizabeth said bluntly, and Darcy shut his eyes, looking pained for a moment, before regaining his composure.
"Elizabeth," he said, very gently, "we should bear in mind that we have only been engaged a week."
"I think it a very promising beginning," she said.
"Oh yes." His tone, and sudden smile, had her flushing from head to toe. He coughed, then continued, "However, if one considers that we are far nearer to the beginning of our engagement, than to the end of it . . . the inevitable conclusion one draws is, er, that if we continue as we have begun, er - "
"Oh!" said Elizabeth, enlightened. "You must think me terribly silly."
"No, only very - vivacious."
Elizabeth laughed again, and recovered their gloves, handing him his, replacing her own, and taking his arm.
"We must, then, distr - " Elizabeth stopped. That word would never have quite the same meaning again. " - Occupy ourselves with other activities." She cast a sly glance at her intended from under her lashes, and added, "Most of the time, that is."
She laughed, delighted at his prudery, and said, "Come, Fitzwilliam, let us talk. Really, I know very little of you beyond the essentials. Where is your favourite place?"
"Pemberley," he said instantly, and she laughed.
"I should have guessed at that."
"And you?" he asked, surprising her. With a faint flush, she said,
"I think - I must choose Pemberley also." His eyes widened, and for a moment she stopped walking, then looked away.
"We are incorrigible! Very well. Are you accomplished, sir?"
"I beg your pardon?"
She had only mentioned it because she must say something, but liked the idea and gamely went on. "You already know that I am not, at least by Miss Bingley's standards. I daresay you speak the modern languages well enough, and you most assuredly have, what did she say? - a certain something in your manner of walking."
"Miss Bingley!" he said derisively, and Elizabeth bit back a smile.
"Poor Miss Bingley, she shall be my sister now, and worse still, yours. Her agony must be acute. But you have dis - misdirected me! Do you play, do you sing?"
"Yes, and no," Darcy replied, helping her down the steps. Elizabeth was indeed distracted by this sudden information.
"Really? I daresay I have embarrassed myself dreadfully before you, for you are undoubtedly far more proficient at the instrument than I. Is it not so, Fitzwilliam?"
"Of course not," he said warmly. "Your performance is far more pleasing than mine could ever be - not that I would give one."
"Oh, you do not perform to strangers, do you? But we are hardly strangers - shall I ask you to play for this evening's entertainment?"
He looked paralysed for a moment. "Certainly not! I should refuse in any case."
"I would like to hear you - " she wrinkled her nose at his obdurate expression. "There must be some way to persuade you."
"None at all."
"Not even pleasant distractions?"
Darcy prudently stepped away. "Not even those."
"If you do not wish to perform, and do not practise, I wonder that you took the trouble of learning?"
"I never said that I do not practise," he said austerely, "but it was not my idea. My mother began teaching me almost as soon as I could reach the keys."
"I never guessed," said Elizabeth, "but of course, you did not wish to perform."
"No, nor did my father wish me to."
Elizabeth listened eagerly. Darcy rarely spoke of his father, and then with only a distant sort of respect, and his mother he did not mention at all. She could not help wondering what sort of standard she would be held up to. "You have not played since your mother died?"
"I have. At Rosings, I have always been permitted, even encouraged, to practise all I like. Lady Catherine is really fond of music, her pretensions notwithstanding. I did not take a great deal of pleasure in it myself, after my mother died, but continued practising for her sake; and when Georgiana and I were reunited, I helped her, as Ma - my mother had intended to do herself."
"She must have been very accomplished."
"Oh, yes, she drew, and danced well, but music was her passion. She played the pianoforte and the harp, and she had a lovely contralto."
She sounded terrifying. "What did she look like? Was she handsome?"
Darcy looked uncomfortable. "I - I suppose so. She was said to be very beautiful." Smiling slightly, he added, "My uncle says that she broke the hearts of half of London."
There was a laugh, and a slightly dishevelled Bingley emerged from a path just to the right. "Who are you talking about, Darcy? Lady Ravenshaw?"
"Certainly not," Darcy said coldly, and bowed to her sister. "Miss Bennet."
Surprisingly, he seemed a little troubled, and briefly Elizabeth's sororal instincts warred with her newer confidence in her betrothed. I will not leap to any conclusions, she told herself firmly, and determined to speak to him about it as soon as the opportunity would allow.