The next day, when Edward finally gave up trying to sleep and arose from bed, Darcy was nowhere to be found. He had apparently gone riding, leaving no word of when he would be back, and so it was that Edward and Jane departed to Longbourn without having seen him.
The two occupants of the carriage were too preoccupied with their own thoughts to have any conversation; one gazing dreamily out a window, the other, inescapably introspective. There was nothing to stop Edward from thinking about the previous evening's confrontation with Darcy, nothing that could distract him from dissecting every word spoken by either of them, nothing to divert him from tasting the bile that rose equally at the memory of his own naiveté and at Darcy's response.
Edward's feelings could not be expected to improve with his return to Longbourn. It was no longer a sanctuary, no longer a place where he could be himself. His father, for the longest time the only person who completely understood him, could not fill that void now; in truth, he had not filled it for some time.
All too soon, they were at home. He had to descend the carriage, hand Jane down, and walk to the door with a smile, as if his boots did not weigh impossible tons each. He could not believe his luck when he spied one of the footmen going around the corner of the house to replenish the dwindling stocks of firewood, and lost not one moment in sending him away and, coat discarded, taking charge of the task himself. His father's questioning eyes could wait; he had no desire to face them.
Now, instead of succour, this former ally presented only the danger of his keen mind and quick perceptions. Mr. Bennet, even though in all probability unable to figure out the reason for Edward's recent oppression of spirit, was undoubtedly capable of using that apparent weakness to press the fitness of his own plan for Edward's life, as if the whole mess had not been his idea to begin with. He acted as if now, turning back presented only the logistical problems of the disappearance of one personae and the appearance of another; of just changing costumes behind a curtain, as it were.
It was not so, it was so clearly not so to Edward, that his mind could not wrap around the idea of his father—of his own dear father and mentor—knowing him so little. It was only then, after the dreadful discussion with Darcy, that he saw his father's words in that light.
The crack of the wood as it splinted marked a hypnotizing rhythm, and Edward fell under its spell with practiced ease.
"Deceit," he had called it. "My child, you are not made to endure such a deceit throughout your whole life," he had said. And Edward, focused on his father's other arguments, had not remarked on it, had dismissed it as so many empty words. But, had he not coped more than ably until that moment? Then again, was not that what everyone would think; every single person who would somehow come across the truth from here on out? Deceit…Was not that what Darcy thought as well?
The axe was pleasantly heavy in his arms, the task barely demanding at first. The only drawback was that his mind was free to roam, and his thoughts refused to let themselves be burned out in the concentrated heat of the activity.
The accusation smarted more than he could have thought it would, and surprisingly, it hurt as much coming from Darcy as from his father.
The axe sunk with a satisfying sound into the wood; sweat was beginning to pool on his brow and underarms, cold air almost freezing it as soon as it sprang.
He had thought, at one time contemplating full disclosure, that Jane would not be like that, would not think that his whole life had been a disguise, an elaborate prank, but now, he could not vouch for it. He had thought Darcy, and even his father, would be sympathetic, but they had not behaved as expected. Would Jane think all his life a lie? He would not, could not, risk it.
All too soon there was a sufficiently big pile and he had to collect his coat and enter the house. His dishevelled state was good enough excuse to allow him to retire upstairs immediately, but he knew that he would have to face his father by at dinnertime.
And indeed he did, his father entertaining them with his customary dry wit. There was the observation that he was glad to have them home, that he hoped the trip had not tired them, that he expected Longbourn to be too dull indeed for two such ones as themselves, used to the company of the voluble personalities of their neighbours at Netherfield. Edward tried to answer each with an observation of his own, with a smile, but the effort tired him. It had never cost him so much to be merry.
His refuge then was the oftentimes hated day-to-day business of the estate, which had lately showed a tendency to accumulate that he could now exploit. And in that manner he kept himself busy and retired early pleading fatigue.
Such was his strategy for some days. That it was a temporary one could not be denied, for even estate matters are resolved at some point, and relatives aroused to curiosity by a normal person's sudden preoccupation with it. But Edward could not be faulted, he thought, if he left the future to the future's care for a little while; he did not want to preoccupy himself with what he would do if he was not able to bring himself out of his depression before Jane realized something was wrong with him. As it was, he could barely avoid his father's questioning looks for much longer. He did not want to think of the rest of the mess he was in.
The first news Edward had of Darcy was when Bingley, a couple of days later, came to call on Jane. Apparently a letter had come from Miss Darcy. In it, she urged her brother to spend the Yuletide in Derbyshire. Of course, Darcy was completely devoted to his sister and could not but yield to her desires.
He had, Bingley said, tried to convince him otherwise, suggesting that Darcy bring his sister to Netherfield, but Miss Darcy was by nature a very timid person, and her brother did not want to put her in an uncomfortable position. Darcy was not to be moved by any argument and was at the moment occupied with travel plans. He had, of course, vowed to call on the neighbourhood by the morrow, to take his leave before travelling to London from whence he would accompany Miss Darcy home.
Edward knew Darcy would not lie. He was equally sure that Darcy was avoiding his presence. He probably found it impossible to bring a younger, impressionable sister where she would be in contact with one such as Edward. If the damned revelation had been avoided, and there Edward blamed himself, they would all have passed the season together, as Bingley regretted aloud, all grouped in such a charming party.
Knowing when to expect him, Edward managed to be away when Darcy came to say goodbye, deciding it was for the best. Both Darcy and he needed time to recuperate their equanimity, and he guessed that Darcy had made sure Bingley brought the message as a way of arranging that very thing.
From then on, and in the absence of his more restrained friend, Bingley was at Longbourn almost every day. Meryton's tongues wagged with such a fury, Edward thought it a wonder they did not catch fire.
Since it was him that Bingley visited, Edward could not avoid sitting in the drawing room with Jane and him. It was, he thought, more than it could be asked from anyone to endure: to be forced to spend time with two people who barely knew he existed when his mood was so dismal. The only good thing about the situation was that he was not forced to hide his feelings, as he was when his father was present.
A sudden silence made him look up at Bingley and Jane, who were both standing and looking at him in an inquiring fashion. Edward tried to remember if they had asked him anything, and when inevitably nothing came to mind, he tried to smile. He knew he had not been entirely successful when Jane frowned.
"Are you well, Edward? Perhaps we had better stay indoors today; you are very pale."
Relieved at the reprieve, as he now could guess they wanted him to chaperone them in a walk, Edward stood and answered as brightly as he could, "If I am pale, it is because I have stayed inside too much! No, let us go."
Jane was not appeased and protested, insisting, "But are you absolutely sure you are well? You seem distracted and are pale as a ghost."
"Of course, I am well. I was only absorbed in my own thoughts; not very polite, to be sure, but hardly a sign of illness."
"Let us walk the gardens, then. I know you do not want me to worry, but truly I would be calmer if we remained close to the house. Mr. Bingley will agree with me that you do not seem well."
A jest then sprung naturally to Edward's lips and he replied, "I am quite sure too that he will agree, but I doubt that that has anything to do with my apparent health or lack thereof; he is quite unable to bring himself to disagree with you. I am fine, but of course we will do whatever the lady wants."
Of course, Bingley had no intention of disagreeing with such an eminently reasonable thing, and he said so with such enthusiasm that Jane could not but blush and be charmingly distracted.
They walked out, Edward soon lagging behind the couple, sure that they would appreciate it, but most of all wanting to be alone with his thoughts. His mind returned always to Darcy, evading any effort on his part to distract himself with other matters, and he could not decide if bitterness or regret were the most prominent of his feelings.
He wanted to purge himself of such thoughts by the time they returned to the house. Such an exploit, of course, sounded impossible, given what had recently passed between himself and his former friend, but he was not a person to enjoy dwelling on his sadness and so he was sure he could make himself happy again.
So distracted was he, that he had not seen the couple entering the walled wilderness that extended at one side of the house and wandered in himself not much time afterwards. He was then consequently startled out of his musings by the sight of Bingley on one knee in the soil, in front of Jane, who sat blushing on a bench. That Bingley was holding her gloved hands and even kissing them–fervently–was too much for Edward, who turned around with the intention of retiring as to avoid further embarrassment for all involved.
Alas, any hope of resolving the situation so discretely was dashed, when he turned around and his boots snapped a twig. The noise called the attention of the lovers back to their surroundings and their reluctant witness. At once, Jane blushed violently and stood up. Bingley, for his part, separated himself so quickly from Jane that he risked tripping over his own feet.
Looking away, Edward vacillated. He could not really go away now that he had been seen, but then again he could not stay either. He turned back at them and just when the silence threatened to become unsupportable, Bingley turned to Jane. They exchanged a few words that Edward could not make out (not that Edward had any real desire to hear them, mind), and after tipping his hat to Edward with a smile, Bingley set out in a brisk walk toward the house, while Jane went to her brother.
Edward could not help smiling, perhaps his first easy, unforced smile in some days, at the expression of unmitigated delight that he found upon his sister's face.
"So I take it," he said, "that I may speak of a wedding in the offing without being a dreadful teasing brother?"
She was still blushing, all smiles. "Yes, he has proposed!"
"And I take it you have accepted. I suspected as much." Then, seeing his sister's flushed countenance, Edward could not help gesturing to the now empty bank and adding with a smirk, "Otherwise that would have been a dreadful breach of propriety, and I cannot see you standing it."
Jane turned redder, if that was even possible.
"I am so happy! It is too much, I do not deserve so much happiness," she said, undoubtedly trying to ignore his gibe, and embracing him.
"Nonsense! You deserve that much and more, and I do not doubt your felicity can only increase from now on. Bingley is an excellent man; I do not feel any reserve in trusting him and you with your happiness."
"He has gone to see my father already. He is the best of men!"
"The best? And so it goes that the brother is relegated to second place so easily; for I hope I have second place at the very least. But do not correct yourself, what is said is said. He is the best of men, and I could not countenance giving you up to anyone less deserving."
"Oh Edward," said Jane, looking at him in the eyes, "how I wish everyone could be as happy as I am."
Her tone was wistful.
"No one can be as happy as you, Jane; we do not dare. Until we have your goodness, we cannot have your happiness."
She looked down for a moment, and when she raised her eyes to meet Edward's again, her expression was serious.
"You can jest as much as you like; I have noted your humour lately."
"My humour? I have been occupied with boring subjects lately, but not even you can believe that the normal business matters of the estate can bring to gentlemen a fit of sudden dejection."
"Indeed, I am not saying anything like it. I am not claiming I know what is oppressing you."
"Nothing is oppressing me, Jane. I have been busy, and perhaps that is making me rather uncharacteristically serious, but it is nothing your and your betrothed's merry company will not cure."
"Your friend has gone away, too," she said. And suddenly her eyes on his face felt too keen, too knowledgeable for Edward's tastes. He had to take a step back from her and force a smile before he felt equal to answering.
"He is, but I am sure we will see him soon." The lie was easier to tell than he expected it to be, and Jane appeared satisfied with the answer. She threaded her arm with his and said, "Well, then, let us enter the house."
When she spoke again she was looking elsewhere and so she made it impossible for Edward to learn her expression. "Miss Bingley was sad to see him go, though not as much as she would have been before, I think."
"Less than before? Why would she?"
"Why? Because she now has other friends in the neighbourhood to entertain her even when one goes away, of course."
Edward could now see the faintest of smiles hovering at the corners of her lips.
"Ah, that is perhaps understandable. You are a very good friend to her."
His tone was unconvinced, but he did nothing to change it. He still did not know what to think of the nature of such a friendship, the characters of its members were so dissimilar. Jane was goodness personified, while Miss Bingley… the less thought about her character the better. Jane's next question made that plan impossible.
"And so, Edward, what do you think of Miss Bingley?"
Edward felt entitled to some suspicion. "I do not think of her. What about her?"
"Well, she is to be my sister and you are my brother. I cannot help but realize that you will be thrown into company more than ever after my marriage."
"The thought has crossed my mind," said Edward, with a tone as level as he could make it.
"Anyone would say you do not get on so well, arguing every time you happen to be in the same room."
Edward looked at Jane. Only her twitching lips gave away her amusement.
"And I would say they would not be wrong," he answered, and continued in a final tone to forestall any more discussion on the matter, "but do not worry, I will take care of comporting myself with the utmost politeness towards her in the future. She will be your family very soon, after all."
Jane beamed, patted his arm, and only said, "Of course you will, Edward," before entering the house.
As it was perhaps to be expected, Mr. Bennet gave not only his consent but his blessing to the marriage, and a date was settled not three months from then, in the spring equinox.
That same afternoon, Longbourn received Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley's visit. They stormed into the house and were settled in the drawing room in moments, without giving Edward time to escape. They came to congratulate Jane, and to make the final arrangement of the journey to town that was 'absolutely necessary', in Miss Bingley's own words, to outfit Jane for her future as Bingley's wife. It was apparently very important that she ordered her trousseau in town. Miss Bingley knew 'just the modiste to do Jane's beauty justice'.
The decision to travel to town forthwith was taken with barely enough time for Jane to admit that she did look forward to the outing, and without Edward's opinion being requested at all. He would not have minded it overmuch if he had not known he would be required to escort the ladies. As it was, he could not demure after his sister had expressed the wish to go. He could not find it in himself to deny her anything.
Nevertheless, the conversation bored him, and he could only follow it with half a mind. The moment he deemed them sufficiently distracted he went to the window as a step before escaping. He could not plead estate business when he knew Jane wanted him to feel part of the proceedings. She clearly had the idea that he would feel excluded if not consulted for every decision.
It followed the enumeration of every purchase that needed to be made and the discussion of every particular fabric and cut, in or out of fashion. Edward, who had grown up giving his opinion to Jane over almost all matters, including her clothes, did not hesitate to do so when he felt like it, to Miss Bingley's astonishment.
He intervened from time to time, barely turning from the window, sarcastic more often than not, entertaining himself with what was at hand; wishing himself away yet at the same time knowing he would not go until he could perceive Jane would not be offended when he did so.
"Not many gentlemen understand feminine fashion and are disposed to discuss their opinions of it at length!" said Miss Bingley, surprised he had a decided opinion on the colour of his sister's gown.
"iLength/i is a relative term. What more can be said about it after I clarified my opinion? The decision rests with Jane, and discussion would lead us nowhere; half the world does not understand the taste of the other half."
"Well, I certainly do not think that fashion is solely a subject of personal opinion. Individual styles are all very well, but they cannot be fashionable if they do not follow some general guidelines!" and then she smiled, mischievously, and added, "But you are right on one account, discussion would lead us nowhere; strange as it must seem to you, I happen to agree with you. A white dress would be perfect for the wedding."
At a loss, Edward could only look away, muttering, "Of course," and hope all attention would soon be turned elsewhere. He did not understand Miss Bingley's sudden amiability, and consequently, could not like it.
Perceiving himself now under Jane's watchful and somewhat mocking gaze, Edward strove to behave in a spotless manner. He was, he knew, only barely amiable, and the best he could try was to be for the most part silent. He did what he could to be unnoticed, but Miss Bingley made it almost impossible.
"Oh, Jane, do you really think so? Coquelicot is a very nice colour, and suits someone like Mrs Hurst very well, but I do not think it would favour your more delicate complexion at all. Let us ask your brother," and Miss Bingley, raising her eyes, called Edward, who was still looking out the window. "Mr. Bennet, do you not agree with me? A pale pink, or blue, would suit your sister much better."
Edward turned around, and stalled a little on what to say. It was disconcerting that Miss Bingley would make his task of being polite to her so easy; it quite robbed him of speech.
"Of course, I… Jane, perhaps you could have a ball gown of that colour, if you like it so—I'm thinking with gold trimmings it could be quite magnificent—but I agree that a sedate hue would be more flattering to your complexion."
"You are both right," said Jane, smiling a little. "Of course. I just saw how lovely the colour was on Miss Bingley the other evening, and I could not help but like it. Was she not lovely, Edward?"
Miss Bingley's face turned just a shade darker, and she looked at him.
Edward threw Jane a sharp look and muttered, "Of course." He was a little rattled, because he had just remembered from where he had extracted the idea of the golden trimmings, and turned to the window again.
All in all, the call was concluded with impeccable manners from all parties involved, and somewhat improved amiability from some. By the next day, Edward was actively attempting to distract himself again, or at the very least to rouse himself from his well of self pity and depression. He had long ago discovered that walks, especially long and rapid ones, tended to tire him, and that so tired, his thought process could not go beyond the day to day concerns.
And so he went, early morning after early morning after troubled night. He could soon deceive himself into thinking he had forgotten all about his erstwhile friend, and he could not bring himself to regret missing his call to take leave of the neighbour. All was well, he decided. Life could go on as it had done before he even knew a Mr. Darcy existed.
A/N: As always, thanks to my betas and thanks to all of you that commented. As I wrote in my profile, I wont update this story here anymore for now. (I'm busy with other things.) However, don't dispair, there is a link to the story on an open archive. (In my profile.) I did that a couple of days ago, but now after receiving another review asking for an update, I realize most of you wont have seen it. (Yeah, I'm dumb.) OK, there it is. Go and read the ending all at once. ;)