a series of JA "what-ifs"
The following is an irregular series of short stories, each one starting with a different point of departure from JA canon. I hope you enjoy them.
Story I – An Uninterrupted Visit
(Author's Note: In this variation, Lydia does not go to Brighton.)
Elizabeth had been disappointed a good deal in not finding a letter from Jane on their first arrival at Lambton. This disappointment had been renewed on each of the following mornings that had now been spent there, but on the third, her repining was over, and her sister justified with the receipt of two letters from her at once. One of the letters had been delayed by being delivered elsewhere in error. Elizabeth was not surprised at it, as Jane had written the direction remarkably ill.
They had just been preparing to walk as the letters came in, and her uncle and aunt, leaving her to enjoy them in quiet, set off by themselves. The one misdirected must be first attended to, since it had been written five days ago. The beginning contained an account of all their little parties and engagements, with such news as the country afforded, but the latter half, which was dated a day later and written in evident agitation, gave more important intelligence.
"…Since writing the above, dearest Lizzy, something has occurred of a most unexpected and serious nature; but I am afraid of alarming you—"
Mr. Darcy appeared at that moment, announced by the maid. Elizabeth looked up in surprise, her fist jammed against her mouth.
Her pale face and impetuous manner made Darcy start, and before he could recover himself enough to speak sensibly, he exclaimed with more feeling than civility, "Good God! What is the matter?" Then, recollecting himself, he continued. "Let me call your maid. Is there nothing you could take to give you present relief? A glass of wine—shall I get you one? You are very ill."
At that, Elizabeth could no long restrain herself and let out a most unladylike howl of laughter. Darcy, in wretched suspense, could only say mutter his concern and observe her in compassionate silence as tears of mirth rolled her pretty cheeks. After several moments thus engaged, Elizabeth took pity on the poor man.
"I thank you for your concern, Mr. Darcy, but let me assure you that I am quite well. It is only that I have received some surprising news from home."
Darcy sat down with no little relief. "I trust your family is well?"
"They are, I thank you, sir. My aunt and uncle are visiting the church, and everyone at Longbourn is in excellent health. No — the news is from Brighton. I would not spread gossip, but this is news that I believe in which you would have some interest. It seems Mrs. Forster — young Harriet Forster, wife of the unfortunate colonel of the ----shire militia — was caught in a compromising situation with a gentleman of our mutual acquaintance." Elizabeth's eyes danced merrily.
Her companion sat back, considering this disclosure. "Mutual acquaintance? In Brighton? Oh!" Darcy's eyes lit in recognition. "You don't mean to say…?"
Elizabeth laughed again. "It seems Lt. Wickham is under arrest, facing several charges, and his commanding officer is not of a mind to show leniency!" She watched Darcy in expectation of his delightful dimples, which surely would be in evidence given this inducement. However, to her great surprise, Darcy's face fell. He stood and walked to the window, hands behind his back. Elizabeth, taken aback at this behavior, could only sit in intense curiosity. Her conscience began to hurt – had she offended the man with her amusement at the Forsters' expense?
She stood. "Mr. Darcy, I must apologize—"
The gentleman raised his hand. "No, Miss Elizabeth. You have nothing to apologize for. The fault is mine."
Elizabeth was flabbergasted. "You, sir?" she exclaimed.
Darcy kept his face to the window. "Yes. If only I had revealed Wickham's true character to the world, this sad turn of events would not have happened."
"Mr. Darcy, you take too much upon yourself!" The gentleman turned to her as she continued. "I think the proper place for blame must reside with the parties involved!"
"But…I knew of Wickham's ways—"
"Indeed you did, and I thank you most heartily that you trusted me with that information. Because you put your trust in me, I was able to convince my father not to allow my sister, Lydia, to accompany the Fosters to Brighton." At his alarmed look, she added, "Do not fear, Mr. Darcy. I said nothing of…of Ramsgate."
Darcy was silent as Elizabeth began to pace the room. "We both know the kind of man Mr. Wickham is. I have made the acquaintance of Mrs. Forster, and a sillier girl has never been born. She married the colonel for his money and status, so she was easy prey for the first rake to cross her path. Had it not been Mr. Wickham, it would have been someone else. She is a married woman; she must have known what she was about.
"And her husband — what of him? Taking for his bride a young, foolish child almost half his age! What kind of wife could she be to him?" She glanced at her companion, only to see him hide a grin. A picture of Harriet Foster's pretty face and well-formed figure came into her innocent mind, and in a flash, Elizabeth knew exactly what had attracted the colonel. Realization of what she had said mortified her, and she blushed red.
Darcy crossed to her. "Do not distress yourself, Miss Elizabeth. I comprehend your meaning."
Elizabeth hid her face in her hands. "Oh, what must you think of me?"
Speaking very low, Darcy responded, "Of all people, you know most certainly what I think of you, and your defense of my actions – or inactions – have only increased those feelings."
Elizabeth was confused. Before coming to Pemberley, she was certain that Darcy despised her for her stupid and intemperate words in Kent. But the gentleman's kind and open friendliness to her and her relations at Pemberley and Lambton had given rise to improbable hopes. Might he still love her? What did his words mean? She looked at him, the question plainly in her eyes.
Darcy seemed suddenly to realize that they were alone in a closed room. "Miss Bennet, might I tempt you to a stroll about the gardens of the inn until your relations return?" Elizabeth agreed to the scheme, and upon notifying the maid, the pair set off directly. When they reached their destination, Darcy offered his arm to the lady, who demurely took it.
Walking beside a rosebush, Elizabeth said, "You have been very kind to my aunt and uncle, sir."
"Say nothing of that. While I enjoy meeting such excellent people as Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, my first thought was to take to heart a hard lesson taught to me by a very kind lady and take the trouble of practicing more the art of gentlemanly behavior."
"Oh!" she cried, "pray do not repeat what I then said. I assure you that I have long been most heartily ashamed of it."
Darcy looked at her with a small, ironic smile. "What did you say of me that I did not deserve? For, though your accusations were ill-founded, formed on mistaken premises, my behavior to you at the time merited the severest reproof. It was unpardonable. I cannot think of it without abhorrence."
"We will not quarrel for the greater share of blame annexed to that evening," said Elizabeth, shaking her head. "The conduct of neither of us, if strictly examined, would be irreproachable. But since then, we have both, I hope, improved in civility."
"For you, I will make no such claim. You have always treated me in a manner that I most richly deserve, a service for which I thank you. But I cannot be so easily reconciled to myself. The recollection of what I then said — of my conduct, my manners, my expressions during the whole of it — is now, and has been many months, inexpressibly painful to me. Your reproof, so well applied! I shall never forget: 'Had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner.' Those were your words. You know not, you can scarcely conceive, how they have tortured me, though, it was some time, I confess, before I was reasonable enough to allow their justice."
"I was certainly very far from expecting them to make so strong an impression. I had not the smallest idea of their being ever felt in such a way."
"I can easily believe it. You thought me then devoid of every proper feeling. I am sure you did."
"Had anyone had such thoughts in the past," she prevaricated, "please know that they would be completely overthrown by any causal study of your character. I can assure you that for many months, I have considered you one of the most admirable men of my acquaintance." Elizabeth stopped. She had not planned to go so far, but after a moment, she added, "Sir, you really should learn some of my philosophy. Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure."
She chanced a look at her companion and saw that her words had left their mark. His dark eyes burned in a manner she had seen before in Hertfordshire and Kent. Then, she thought he only looked upon her to find fault. Now she knew better. A frisson of nervousness, anticipation, and trepidation flowed through her body.
"I cannot give you credit for any philosophy of the kind. Your retrospections must be so totally void of reproach, that the contentment arising from them is not of philosophy, but, what is much better, of ignorance. But with me, it is not so. Painful recollections will intrude, which cannot, which ought not, to be repelled. I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child, I was taught what was right; but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately, an only son (for many years an only child), I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves (my father particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable), allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing — to care for none beyond my own family circle, to think meanly of all the rest of the world, to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, from eight to eight-and-twenty; and such I might still have been but for you!"
Elizabeth thought she would faint.
"What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you I was properly humbled. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased."
The couple stopped, and in a low earnest tone, Mr. Darcy said, "You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged; but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever."
"But," he continued, "if you would give me one more, underserved chance, I swear you will not be sorry for it. Allow me to court you—properly, openly, as you deserve."
Elizabeth had not known how much she wanted Mr. Darcy to renew his addresses until she heard his words. She knew that there was no man on earth that so suited her, in manner and disposition! If anyone could make her happy, it was he, and she was sure she brought some small level of joy into his life—
Jane! Her mind screamed that one issue unresolved between them. Darcy seemed to see the confusion on her face, for he spoke again.
"You are uncertain. I am sorry to declare myself so forcefully, when you are unprepared. Forgive my selfishness—"
"No, Mr. Darcy! I…I must admit I receive the assurances of your continued regard with nothing but pleasure, but we must have some conversation before I answer you."
"Of course, of course! Shall we sit down?" A bench suited their purposes, one that offered some privacy, but was not too hidden to cause scandal.
Elizabeth could not look at her suitor. "Mr. Darcy, there are two issues I must raise with you. One is the matter of my sister and your friend."
"I expected this conversation. I had already decided to speak to Bingley as soon as practical about returning to Netherfield, where, I hope, he may judge for himself the level of your sister's attachment." At Elizabeth's perplexed look, he said, "I am done with match-making and match-breaking. As I said before, disguise of any sort is my abhorrence. You see how it has ill-served me. Bingley must see to himself. Should Miss Bennet return his affections, I will confess all to him."
"You are very good, sir." Elizabeth then smiled impishly. "Of course, Mr. Bingley's return to Hertfordshire suits your purposes, if you intend to carry out your courtship of a certain lady there!"
At first, Elizabeth thought she had gone too far, as Darcy's face blushed. But he saw the twinkle in her eye and barked out a relived laugh. "I suppose you are correct, as always, Miss Elizabeth!" Lizzy's heart beat wildly at the sight of his dimples. Heavens! Had he smiled like that at Netherfield, how things might be different! "But, now for your second question."
"Sir," she hesitated. This argument was far weaker than it had been only minutes before. How was it that Darcy could so overthrow her thoughts? "Sir, please know I do receive your assurances with pleasure—a great deal of pleasure. However, my character demands that I be open with you. You should know that while there has been a warming of my regard, I cannot say my feelings are equal to yours."
Darcy sighed. "I could not hope that they were. Thus, my intention to court you. To give you time to know me and allow me the opportunity to convince you to accept me."
"You are not concerned?"
"Elizabeth, I have loved you for a very long time. I can be patient if I have hope."
Elizabeth's heart turned over at Darcy's use of her name; his voice was a caress. She knew she must answer him, but her innate fear of totally surrendering to him was hard to overcome.
"Your name is Fitzwilliam, I believe?" She hoped her answer would serve for now. It did—his dimples made their reappearance as he nodded. "Fitzwilliam, you may speak to my father."
"And your uncle here in Lambton?"
Elizabeth laughed. "I see you are most determined!"
Darcy took her hand. "Have you just realized that? Do you not know I will do whatever I must? Are you uncertain of me?"
"No," she breathed. "It is just…that this...is all so new to me."
"For me, as well." He kissed her hand. "Elizabeth?"
"May I seal our agreement with a kiss?"
Elizabeth grew lightheaded, but she managed to say, "I believe, Fitzwilliam, it is a requirement."
As his lips approached hers, he whispered, "I believe you are right again, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth!"