author's note/disclaimer: this story is based on pride and prejudice and all the characters and other goodness belong to the amazing miss jane austen. my apologies in advance for the possible poor handling of the regency lingo, as well as other possible inaccuracies, and for the fact that i've chosen one of the oldest plots in the JA fanfic book. i simply couldn't resist:)
"Good God, no!"
Later, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley, Derbyshire, often wondered what moment of madness had brought those fateful words to his lips that day. There were times when he was angry at himself for ever opening his mouth and others when he was simply confused. There had been a time, a short happy moment, when he had thought them the three wisest words he'd ever said. That time was gone. But no matter how he thought of them, his thoughts were always inseparably bound to one thing. Always, always Elizabeth. His wife.
Fitzwilliam Darcy looked at himself in the mirror for one last time before heading downstairs. He straightened his neckcloth and pushed an errant strand of hair back in its place. It was not vanity, he told himself, that made him take such fastidious care of his looks, but rather good manners. Looking unkempt would simply be unacceptable for a man of his station. If there was another reason he wished to look particularly well on this particular night, he tried not to dwell on it.
For many days now, there had been a resolution forming in his mind and tonight he was determined to act upon it. He would spend one final evening watching the eldest Miss Bennet, making sure that he was not mistaken, and then the first thing the next morning he would talk to Bingley. If there was time, he might even do it that very night, after the party was over. It would not do for Bingley to attach himself to her, not when her family was so unsuitable and when it seemed fairly sure that she was only accepting his advances to appease her mercenary mother. No, he had seen no signs of particular attachment on Miss Bennet's face, and if it was in his power to prevent Bingley from making this mistake, he would do it.
There was another reason he was so keen to get the unfortunate business over with. If he was worried about Bingley's growing attachment, he was no less worried about his own. It seemed that the more time he spent at Netherfield, the more he found himself either thinking of Miss Elizabeth Bennet or telling himself not to think of her. It simply would not do. All her fine eyes and sharp wit could not compensate for the fact that she came from a family of no connections, of no fortune to speak of. She was quite simply unsuitable. Unsuitable to be his wife, unsuitable to be the Mistress of Pemberley. He would be the laughing stock of the ton.
Darcy cursed under his breath as he walked out of his rooms. His wife. Whenever those words entered his head, his mind was instantly filled with images of her. Elizabeth in his home, her laughter filling the empty hallways. Elizabeth in his arms as he kissed her senseless. Elizabeth in his bed. Clearing his throat he headed towards the stairway, his steps swift and determined. The guests were beginning to arrive.
As decided as he was on the course of his evening, he found himself deviating from it as soon as he laid eyes on her. From the moment she entered the house, in a glowing white gown, a searching look in her eyes, he found himself constantly drawn in her direction, always acutely aware of where exactly she was, of whom she was talking with. It annoyed him to be so easily distracted but he could not help it. How he could ever have declared her tolerable, he did not understand. She was nothing less than luminous.
Her family, however, was not. Everywhere he looked he saw another breach of decorum. Not only was her family unconnected, it was in every way abhorrent. How Miss Bennet and Elizabeth... Miss Elizabeth could be any way connected to that family, he did not understand. But it was their misfortune, he reminded himself, not his and Bingley's. He needed to get himself and his friend away from here, as soon as possible.
It was this thought that finally drove him to ask her to dance. If, he convinced himself, he was leaving in the morning, what harm could one dance do? He had been very careful, sure that she harboured no expectations of him ever making her an offer. One dance would not change that. It would be a suitable farewell. For the both of them. He realized his mistake as soon as he touched her hand.
Every time the intricate patterns of the dance brought their hands together, Darcy felt a little jolt, and the images of her, the ones he was constantly fighting to suppress, came to him stronger than ever. Utterly distracted by the sudden urge to hold her, it took him some time to realize that she was talking to him. What had she said? Something about the dance?
"Yes," he replied, trying to sound more detached than he felt, "I find it most invigorating."
She seemed satisfied with this reply and he was glad to be silent again. He was desperate to get away from her, from the brightness of her eyes, from the light but intoxicating smell of rosewater left floating in the air whenever she passed him. What had he been thinking, asking her to dance? Did his foolishness know no bounds? And there she was, talking again.
Carefully trying to compose his features into a polite smile, he replied:
"I assure you, madam, that whatever you wish me to say shall be said."
"Very well," replied she, "That reply will do for the present. Perhaps by and by I may observe that private balls are much pleasanter than public ones. But now we may be silent."
He loved it, the arch manner with which she flirted with him, and could not help but continue, even if she had given him permission to say nothing at all.
"Do you talk by rule, then, while you are dancing?"
"Sometimes. One must speak a little, you know. It would look odd to be entirely silent for a half an hour together; and yet for the advantage of some, conversation ought to be so arranged, as that they may have the trouble of saying as little as possible."
He smiled. She was teasing him again. It was such a fresh change compared to the inane fawning he was so used to from other ladies.
"Are you consulting your own feelings in the present case, or do you imagine that you are gratifying mine?"
"Both," she replied, "For I have always seen a great similarity in the turn of our minds. We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the eclat of a proverb."
He wondered for a moment where she was headed with this. Her mind seemed to always be taking turns he was not expecting it to.
"This is no very striking resemblance of your own character, I am sure," he finally replied, "How near it may be to mine, I cannot pretend to say. You think it a faithful portrait undoubtedly."
"I must not decide on my own performance."
Her reply was curt and he wondered briefly if he had insulted her somehow. But it was of no importance for he was leaving the next day, was he not? In all probability he would never see her again after this night. The thought stung him more than he cared to admit. But it would have to be done. He would leave her. He would conquer this.
In an attempt to distract himself from his thoughts, he tried to continue their conversation, blurting out the first thing that came to mind:
"Do you and your sisters often walk to Meryton?"
He immediately noticed the turn of her countenance, the almost devious arch of her brow. What was she up to now?
"We do, sir." She paused for a moment, contemplative. "When you met us there the other day, we had just been forming a new acquaintance."
The effect on his mood was immediate. Deuced Wickham! How did he become a part of this conversation? She could not possibly have given credit to anything that blackguard might have had to say, could she? She was far too clever to fall under the charms of the likes of him! Was she not?
This unpleasant train of thought was interrupted by the sudden commotion on the other side of the room. The music came to an abrupt end and the dancers paused to see what was happening. Turning his head, Darcy saw that someone seemed to have fallen on the ground and there were people gathering around him. A shrill voice that Darcy immediately recognized as Mrs. Bennet's, cut through the air:
"Mr. Bennet! Mr. Bennet! Oh, where are my salts?"
Suddenly, Darcy felt a pair of hands on his arms, pushing him forcibly to the side, almost toppling him over. A white blur swept past him towards the commotion. Elizabeth. Instinctively, he followed on her heel as she determinedly pushed her way through the crowd towards her mother's voice. And then, suddenly, she fell to the ground as well, the desperation in her voice chilling him to the bone.
- - -
Two weeks later Darcy found himself in a most unexpected situation. If all had gone according to his well-laid plans, he would at that very moment have been in London, maybe fencing or at the club with Bingley. Yet, by an odd twist of fate, he was still in Hertfordshire and if that was not enough, he was sitting in a room full of members of the very family he had been so keen to avoid.
The ball in Netherfield had come to an unexpected end when Elizabeth's father, Mr. Thomas Bennet, had suffered some sort of a seizure and had been rendered unconscious. The apothecary had been called and Bingley and Darcy had carried the elderly gentleman to one of Bingley's guestrooms. When the apothecary had turned out to be a hesitant, nervous man with very little skill to recommend him, Bingley had insisted on sending for his own physician from town. But it had been of little help. Mr. Bennet was unconscious and, according to Bingley's physician, it was impossible to know when, if ever, he would wake up.
The physician had declared that his patient should not be moved and Bingley, ever the gentleman, had invited the entire Bennet family to stay at Netherfield. And so, despite his sister's adamant protests, several guestrooms had been prepared and Mrs. Bennet and her five daughters – along with their cousin Mr. Collins, who had seen fit to invite himself along because, according to him, in situations such as these the constant presence of a man of the cloth was imperative – had come to stay for an indefinite period of time.
As days had passed, the physician had seen little improvement in his patient and it had become less and less likely that Mr. Bennet would ever regain consciousness. Darcy had watched as the dark shadows under Elizabeth's eyes had grown more and more pronounced. At dinnertimes he had noticed that she only pushed the food around her plate and hardly ever ate a bite. One afternoon, he had found her at the library, a forgotten book on her lap, her gaze unfocused, with such a forlorn look on her face that he'd had half a mind to rush to her, wrap his arms around her and tell her it would all turn out well. He had turned on his heels and left the room immediately.
And now, two weeks had passed and Darcy felt that he was on the brink of losing sanity. Every night he tossed and turned in his sheets, sleep evading him. Never in his life had he felt such an overpowering urge to comfort someone, to protect them from the evils of the world, and he could not understand it. He knew he should make his excuses to Bingley and leave for London, but every day he found himself coming up with a new excuse to delay his departure. Bingley needed him, he told himself, he might do something rash if Darcy was not there to look after him. How ironic his little excuses would later seem to him.
It was tea-time in Netherfield and Mrs. Bennet was holding court in the drawing room, surrounded by her younger daughters, Mr. Collins and several ladies of the neighbourhood who were more eager to hear fresh news of the tragedy than Darcy thought was entirely proper. Even less proper was the way Mrs. Bennet seemed to enjoy being the center of attention, almost seeming to secretly indulge in the horrible situation. Did she not realize how this could affect her? How potentially devastating the situation was for the future of her daughters?
A little distance away, Elizabeth sat in quiet conversation with Bingley. Miss Bennet was nowhere to be seen and Darcy assumed she was with her father. Darcy hardly ever saw Elizabeth and Miss Bennet together these days, as one of them seemed to always be sitting with Mr. Bennet. He had also noticed with disapproval that the patient's wife and younger daughters seemed much less eager to participate in this vigil. Sometimes he thought that if one were to judge the situation only based on the behaviour of the two youngest Bennet daughters, one might never guess that anything at all was dreadfully amiss. They seemed almost as boisterous as ever, only subdued when reprimanded by their eldest sisters.
Darcy's attention was suddenly caught by a new turn in the conversation Mrs. Bennet was leading. It seemed that one of the prying ladies from the neighbourhood – Mrs. Long, if Darcy remembered correctly – had finally thrown propriety to wind and asked the very question that was on everyone's mind these days. What would happen to Mrs. Bennet and her daughters if the worst was to happen?
To Darcy's utter amazement, Elizabeth's mother actually tittered. At a moment like this! Did her impropriety know no limits?
"Not to worry, Amelia dear," she said in a staged whisper "it is all taken care of."
What was taken care of? Was she talking about Bingley and Miss Bennet? Darcy's breath caught in his throat when he heard her continue:
"It has been agreed," and here she looked pointedly at Mr. Collins, "that my Elizabeth and her cousin will wed as soon as possible. Do you not think it a perfect solution to all our problems?"
As if everything was happening in slow motion, Darcy took in the expressions of the people around him: Mrs. Bennet's self-satisfied smile, the smug look on the face of that obnoxious cousin of theirs. Elizabeth's face, white as a sheet, full of shock and humiliation. And then, he felt himself pouncing up from his chair, unable to stop the words that blurted out of his mouth, loud and heated:
"Good God, no!"
Suddenly, all eyes in the room were fixed on him. Bingley was the first to recover from the shock enough to open his mouth: