Author's Note: This story began as a response to the AUs circulating here in Jane Austen land where Elizabeth marries Mr. Darcy due to her father's premature death. The ones I read were intriguing but did not convince me based on the justification they offered for the change of heart. I set out to discover how such a thing would occur, and produced the following.
Disclaimers: Pride and Prejudice was written by the very talented Jane Austen, and her characters and writing deservedly belong to her. The first chapter largely lifts from Austen's original writing, and I will intersperse my own with hers in an effort to keep this AU as close to canon as possible. If such usage of the text offends you, please do not read further.
Also, bear in mind that I am from the US and may, despite my best efforts, butcher the King's English with "Americanisms." I apologize for such inaccuracies, and will attempt to correct those I discover or that are brought to my attention via reviews. Thank you in advance for your kind critique.
More than once did Elizabeth, in her ramble within the park, unexpectedly meet Mr. Darcy. She felt all the perverseness of the mischance that should bring him where no one else was brought, and, to prevent its ever happening again, took care to inform him at first that it was a favourite haunt of hers. How it could occur a second time, therefore, was very odd! Yet it did, and even a third. It seemed like wilful ill-nature, or a voluntary penance, for on these occasions it was not merely a few formal inquiries and an awkward pause and then away, but he actually thought it necessary to turn back and walk with her.
He never said a great deal, nor did she give herself the trouble of talking or of listening much; but it struck her in the course of their third rencontre that he was asking some odd unconnected questions—about her pleasure in being at Hunsford, her love of solitary walks, and her opinion of Mr. and Mrs. Collins's happiness; and that in speaking of Rosings and her not perfectly understanding the house, he seemed to expect that whenever she came into Kent again she would be staying there too.
His words seemed to imply it. Could he have Colonel Fitzwilliam in his thoughts? She supposed, if he meant anything, he must mean an allusion to what might arise in that quarter. It distressed her a little, and she was quite glad to find herself at the gate in the pales opposite the Parsonage.
She was engaged one day as she walked, in perusing Jane's last letter, which had begun on trivial matters regarding entertainments in town, but had ended in such a way as to awaken a great curiosity and a hint of unease.
"My dearest Lizzie, you will be surprised, I have no doubt, to see I have returned home sooner than either of us had thought. Pray do not be alarmed, but our mother wrote to say that I am dearly needed there. She would not say the reason, only that it was of the upmost importance and I must directly return. I write to assure you of my good health and say that my Uncle Gardner will still send the chaise for you and Maria at the end of your visit. I shall write you again when I know more of the particulars."
She was ruminating on the possible meanings of such a summons, and dwelling on the abrupt phrasing that proved Jane had not written in spirits, when, instead of being again surprised by Mr. Darcy, she saw on looking up that Colonel Fitzwilliam was meeting her. Putting away the letter immediately and forcing a smile, she said:
"I did not know before that you ever walked this way."
"I have been making the tour of the park," he replied, "as I generally do every year, and intend to close it with a call at the Parsonage. Are you going much farther?"
"No, I should have turned in a moment."
And accordingly she did turn, and they walked towards the Parsonage together.
"Do you certainly leave Kent on Saturday?" said she.
"Yes—if Darcy does not put it off again. But I am at his disposal. He arranges the business just as he pleases."
"And if not able to please himself in the arrangement, he has at least pleasure in the great power of choice. I do not know anybody who seems more to enjoy the power of doing what he likes than Mr. Darcy."
"He likes to have his own way very well," replied Colonel Fitzwilliam. "But so we all do. It is only that he has better means of having it than many others, because he is rich, and many others are poor. I speak feelingly. A younger son, you know, must be inured to self-denial and dependence."
"In my opinion, the younger son of an earl can know very little of either. Now seriously, what have you ever known of self-denial and dependence? When have you been prevented by want of money from going wherever you chose, or procuring anything you had a fancy for?"
"These are home questions—and perhaps I cannot say that I have experienced many hardships of that nature. But in matters of greater weight, I may suffer from want of money. Younger sons cannot marry where they like."
"Unless where they like women of fortune, which I think they very often do."
"Our habits of expense make us too dependent, and there are not many in my rank of life who can afford to marry without some attention to money."
"Is this," thought Elizabeth, "meant for me?" and she coloured at the idea; but, recovering herself, said in a lively tone, "And pray, what is the usual price of an earl's younger son? Unless the elder brother is very sickly, I suppose you would not ask above fifty thousand pounds."
He answered her in the same style, and the subject dropped. To interrupt a silence which might make him fancy her affected with what had passed, she soon afterwards said:
"I imagine your cousin brought you down with him chiefly for the sake of having someone at his disposal. I wonder he does not marry, to secure a lasting convenience of that kind. But, perhaps, his sister does as well for the present, and, as she is under his sole care, he may do what he likes with her."
"No," said Colonel Fitzwilliam, "that is an advantage which he must divide with me. I am joined with him in the guardianship of Miss Darcy."
"Are you indeed? And pray what sort of guardians do you make? Does your charge give you much trouble? Young ladies of her age are sometimes a little difficult to manage, and if she has the true Darcy spirit, she may like to have her own way."
As she spoke she observed him looking at her earnestly; and the manner in which he immediately asked her why she supposed Miss Darcy likely to give them any uneasiness, convinced her that she had somehow or other got pretty near the truth. She directly replied:
"You need not be frightened. I never heard any harm of her; and I dare say she is one of the most tractable creatures in the world. She is a very great favourite with some ladies of my acquaintance, Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley. I think I have heard you say that you know them."
"I know them a little. Their brother is a pleasant gentlemanlike man—he is a great friend of Darcy's."
"Oh! yes," said Elizabeth drily; "Mr. Darcy is uncommonly kind to Mr. Bingley, and takes a prodigious deal of care of him."
"Care of him! Yes, I really believe Darcy does take care of him in those points where he most wants care. From something that he told me in our journey hither, I have reason to think Bingley very much indebted to him. But I ought to beg his pardon, for I have no right to suppose that Bingley was the person meant. It was all conjecture."
"What is it you mean?"
"It is a circumstance which Darcy could not wish to be generally known, because if it were to get round to the lady's family, it would be an unpleasant thing."
"You may depend upon my not mentioning it."
"And remember that I have not much reason for supposing it to be Bingley. What he told me was merely this: that he congratulated himself on having lately saved a friend from the inconveniences of a most imprudent marriage, but without mentioning names or any other particulars, and I only suspected it to be Bingley from believing him the kind of young man to get into a scrape of that sort, and from knowing them to have been together the whole of last summer."
"Did Mr. Darcy give you reasons for this interference?"
"I understood that there were some very strong objections against the lady."
"And what arts did he use to separate them?"
"He did not talk to me of his own arts," said Fitzwilliam, smiling. "He only told me what I have now told you."
Elizabeth made no answer, and walked on, her heart swelling with indignation. After watching her a little, Fitzwilliam asked her why she was so thoughtful.
"I am thinking of what you have been telling me," said she. "Your cousin's conduct does not suit my feelings. Why was he to be the judge?"
"You are rather disposed to call his interference officious?"
"I do not see what right Mr. Darcy had to decide on the propriety of his friend's inclination, or why, upon his own judgement alone, he was to determine and direct in what manner his friend was to be happy. But," she continued, recollecting herself, "as we know none of the particulars, it is not fair to condemn him. It is not to be supposed that there was much affection in the case."
"That is not an unnatural surmise," said Fitzwilliam, "but it is a lessening of the honour of my cousin's triumph very sadly."
This was spoken jestingly; but it appeared to her so just a picture of Mr. Darcy, that she would not trust herself with an answer, and therefore, abruptly changing the conversation talked on indifferent matters until they reached the Parsonage. There she intended to shut herself in her room as soon as their visitor left them, but was interrupted by the arrival of the post. She gratefully accepted a letter from Jane and resolved to think on all she had heard at a later time.
It began in an unsteady hand. "My dear sister, I hardly know where to begin. I have neglected you in the midst of our troubles, and so now have the unhappy duty to inform you why I was summoned home. Our dear father, who you will recall had taken a slight cold when we departed, is not improved; far from it, for the doctor has ordered him to bed, and my poor mother is so distracted with worry that she has retired as well. She has begged me not to write you, for fear your absence would alert your hosts to our troubles prematurely, and in truth I agreed in the hopes that you might finish your visit without anxiety. Our father's condition has not improved, though, and I begin to have a real fear for him. Also, he has asked more than once when you will return. I am sure it would do wonders for him were you to come, and so I apologize for this harsh summons but do indeed earnestly beg your return as soon as may be arranged. I have written our uncle to find if he may send for you now, and have instructed him to address his reply to you. I will pray for your safe journey and remain, yours, Jane."
The tumolt of Elizabeth's mind barely allowed her notice of Jane's brief ending. "My poor father," was her primary concern. "And when I have been laughing and enjoying myself, to think what he has suffered!" There could be no reliance on her uncle's coach arriving early, that she believed, nor could she write home in hopes of having one. Every thought was of how her father must have suffered, and her dear Jane must be pressed. She briefly allowed her anger to rise at the man who, if his own vanity did not mislead him, was the cause of all that Jane had suffered, and still continued to suffer. He had ruined for a while every hope of happiness for the most affectionate, generous heart in the world; and no one could say how this new crisis might but inflict a lasting evil on a sensitivity already taxed by sorrows and disappointed hopes.
Still, Lizzy was a practical creature, and though she was now certain beyond a doubt as to Mr. Darcy's guilt in the matter of Jane's discontentment, she could not in all fairness blame him for the timing of her father's illness. Nor did her affection and esteem for the one man give her much leave to dwell on her dislike of the other. Her father's health must be her primary concern, and with a final belief that he possessed a respectability Mr. Darcy would probably never reach, determined to put the matter away until such a time as she might think more clearly on the subject. Her fear and distraction, though, gave her a complete unwillingness to attend her cousins to Rosings, where they were engaged to drink tea. She had no wish to endure the censure of that society, or the impudent comment of Lady Catherine on such a personal subject.
Upon hearing her malady, Charlotte immediately offered to same home with her. It was soon decided that Mr. Collins alone would attend her Ladyship and nephews, as Maria was far too shy to venture forth into such company with only the unreliable aid of her brother-in-law to call on. He left in some degree of uncertainty as to what his proper course should be, and even went so far as to mention returning early, but was prevented such a dilemma by his wife's insistence that he should apprise Lady Catherine of the situation and reassure her as best he could. Mr. Collins promised to do so and left with a clear conscience, not the least bothered by his forgetting to offer his deepest sympathies.