Premise: What if Darcy hadn't said "She is tolerable," - what if instead he had said...
"She is. Astonishingly beautiful. But I must be careful of creating expectations which I cannot fulfill. As soon as I am seen dancing with any woman, I become her rightful property in the eyes of her mother, and there is an end to any enjoyment or peace of mind I can hope to have for the evening. It is easier to remain aloof and be thought disagreeable."
"Lizzy," whispered Charlotte, "did you hear that?" Her companion's bright eyes and wide smile declared the answer. "What a compliment!"
"Yes," Elizabeth agreed, sighing. "But what a waste of a potentially agreeable partner."
"On the contrary, Lizzy," said Charlotte conspiratorially, "You may enjoy your admirer without any anxiety or thought of consequences. If it is clear to both that nothing... of import may transpire, then you may enjoy a little bold flirtation for all of its excitement without wounding either party."
"Or," added Elizabeth with a twinkle in her eye, "I can try and make him fall in love with me, as punishment for his presuming myself beneath him. Then we shall see what he thinks of creating expectations."
"But Lizzy, he is above your station."
"Oh yes, quite enough above it that I cannot imagine anyone would entertain a passing thought of a man of his position taking any of us seriously. But he was bold enough to say it, and I shall be as enticing as possible to sway his opinion."
"Lizzy! That is a dangerous game you play! Watch out that you do not fall for your own game, and find yourself in unrequited love with Mr. Darcy."
"Why Charlotte, after a compliment like that, I am half in love with him already."
When in the course of the evening, and after the necessary introductions had been procured, Elizabeth found herself standing next to the object of her scheme, she quelled the unease in the pit of her stomach, smiled mischievously at Charlotte across the room, and turned to speak to him.
"Do you dance, Mr. Darcy?"
He tilted his head and smiled slightly, which she thought made him appear very, very handsome. "Not if I can help it, Miss Elizabeth."
She blushed at his intense gaze and tried to compose herself forcibly by laughing. "Forgive me for speaking clearly, but you must be warned that if you refuse to dance, you will be thought arrogant and supercilious when in fact the truth may be much more innocent."
He smiled fully at this. "And what do you suppose the truth to be?"
"Perhaps you are a terrible dancer," her eyes twinkled. "Or maybe you are too shy to dance with people outside of your intimate acquaintance."
"Neither of these alternatives is better than being thought disagreeable." They looked at each other for a moment, each pleased with the other's quick conversation and pleasant company.
"Nothing for it then," said Mr. Darcy after a moment. "We must dance."
"Oh no!" cried Elizabeth. "You must not think I said what I did in order to beg for a partner!"
"I will honor you by supposing that to be true," she gave a little 'humph!' and feigned taking offense, but he laughed and continued, "but nevertheless – you chose to save me from the assembly's disapproval, so it falls to you to complete the favor and be the one to dance with me."
Elizabeth coquettishly kept her face turned deliberately away, but he crossed in front of her and held out his hand. "May I, madam?"
She smiled and gave in. "It would be an honor, Sir."
Every female occupant of the room had their eyes on the couple making their way to the dance floor, but most were too surprised at the wealthy gentleman's choice and condescension to notice the way they looked at each other. Jane and Charlotte did notice, and shared a pleased, knowing glance.
As Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy approached each other, touched hands, circled, and turned away, they kept glancing back at the other with a curiosity and intensity that belied their casual acquaintance. They did not speak, but neither felt any awkwardness. They observed each other's movements and expressions and communicated as well as they could have had they spoken.
Mr. Darcy observed that she was graceful, but strong – there was great depth of feeling in the fluidity of her movements, and yet there was a stoicism she wore like a cloak over a delicate garment – she was somehow guarded, forbidding her true self from emerging. But the silk couldn't help peeking out from behind the calico, and it only made her seem more modest, mysterious and alluring.
Mr. Darcy danced with a gravity which impressed upon Elizabeth the duties of a man in his position, and the severity which characterized most of his days. There was an unassuming quality to his movements, as if he did not care what others thought of him, because he knew himself to be beyond reproach – due equally to the etiquette of society and to the perfect execution of his steps.
He walked her back to their previous place by the window feeling that she concealed the majority of her scintillating personality behind a mask mandated by society. She, in turn, felt as though there were some great weight upon his shoulders which had long since consumed any gaiety or frivolity in the seriousness of his responsibilities.
He felt he would like to know her better, to discover more of her, while she felt all the more heavily the inequality of their positions and the ridiculousness of her intention to pursue an acquaintance.
Mr. Darcy took a glass of wine from the tray of a passing servant and handed it to Elizabeth, who smiled gratefully. Mr. Darcy clasped his hands behind his back and looked a little uncomfortable before saying, "Miss Elizabeth, I very much enjoyed the dance and your company, but at the risk of sounding indelicate, I feel obligated to say that... I am in Hertfordshire only for a short time and would not wish to create any presumption that... "
Elizabeth saved him the embarrassment by quickly saying, "Do not trouble yourself, Sir, we are all very much aware of the fortuitous – error, may I say – which placed you in our society. Meryton is so very small that some mixing of social classes is inevitable and usually not too egregious. In your case, however, it cannot be overstated – I am sure you feel very much out of your usual circle. Certainly, then, no one expects anything of you – but as you can see everyone is only delighted that, finding yourself here, you are favoring us with your attentions."
Mr. Darcy gave her a quizzical smile. "Surely you are too severe upon your own station, or have an inflated supposition of mine."
"Sir, your reputation travels before you and your position is well known. A wealthy landowner, responsible for the livelihood and well-being of hundreds of subjects – you are involved with the highest circles, with the men whose decisions shape our country. We are happy to live our quiet lives among our neighbors and cattle. The distinction I believe requires no great talent to discern."
"Your father is a gentleman, a title I strive every day to deserve. In that we are equal."
She was enamored of his modesty, which was especially becoming on a man of the higher classes – it softened his carriage and made him so charming and personable, that Elizabeth caught herself staring at him a trifle too long, and bit her lip and turned away.
"It is generous of you to say so, Sir, but you and I know very well that I shall be governess to your children if I do not marry a tradesman or gentleman farmer. We are as different as..." she sought for a comparison, "as the chambermaid is to the merchant. And we would never meet in London, or in any place where the distinction of rank was preserved."
He shook his head in wonder. "I am used to people resenting their position, wishing themselves above that in which they were born. You are so... content with your situation I confess I find it unusual."
"Those who are unhappy imagine their relief can only come from a change in circumstances. The lower classes may imagine their superiors to be happy merely because they are mysterious, have more luxuries, and are inaccessible. The real radicals believe that social upheaval and the obliteration of all distinct classes will result in universal satiety and contentment. But the truth is that happiness and tragedy spare no social spheres. Those who are happy know that it is not due to their station or material position."
"You are happy." It was more of a statement than a question.
She smiled. "I am content." But he noticed that she looked wistful for a moment. "In any event," she quickly collected herself, "we may enjoy each others company if we wish, with a perfect understanding on each side that nothing is expected or desired. I am sure you do not often have the chance to enjoy yourself at a dance without every young lady and her mother planning your imminent addition to their family."
He was surprised to find her repeat what he had just been telling Charles Bingley. "I do not think I have ever felt unscrutinized in a woman's presence since I was eighteen," he admitted. But she had said, nothing is expected or desired. Did she not consider him at all, then, as a woman considers a man?
She laughed. "There may be more than one reason for that." She gave him a knowing look which almost made him blush at her directness, and made him hope he was mistaken. "But in any event," she continued, "here you may cast off all suspicions of that kind and enjoy yourself thoroughly without looking over your shoulder in fear of banns being drawn up without your knowledge."
And again he was thrown back into confusion. He looked at her in wonder. Could she mean what she said? Was she really so entirely uninterested, was he not at all attractive or tempting to her? He was so used to being sought after, that her disinterest almost wounded him. And yet, she seemed to enjoy his company. She made him doubt himself. He had always been told he was handsome, although now he began to think that perhaps it was only flattery, and resolved to seek out a looking glass as soon as he returned to Netherfield. He was no fool; he always knew that he was especially sought after for his wealth and position, but he had always thought that there was much more to recommend him, that he had enough good qualities to make people think highly of him in his own right. But perhaps here, where his position was so much out of the present sphere as to be entirely inconsequential, people would treat him not based on what they hoped to get from him, but based on what he was, what he truly and essentially was. And perhaps he was not as extraordinary as he had been made to believe. This thought did not upset him as much as it terrified him.
But before he had time to dwell on the likely repercussions of this discovery, he heard Elizabeth encouraging him to dance. He was hopeful for a moment before he saw that she was leading him in the direction of her friend, Miss Lucas, and he felt thoroughly dismissed and chastened. To make her happy, however, he danced with the young lady and was a perfect gentleman and an amiable partner.
He resolved to take Elizabeth's advice and enjoy himself, and so danced several more dances with some very pleasant girls. As the evening was drawing to a close, he found himself feeling an uncertainty he could not recall ever feeling before, a hesitation and fear of rejection – but he put on a bold front and asked Elizabeth if she would dance the last with him. Her luminous and spontaneous smile at once reassured him and set his heart to beating wildly. "I had thought you had forgotten me," she said gently, "and was beginning to regret my advice."
He led her to the floor and they laughed and conversed for the rest of the evening, until Mr. Bennet came to collect his daughters.
"Miss Elizabeth, it was a pleasure to make your acquaintance." Mr. Darcy did not only bow, as was demanded by civility, but actually took her hand and bent over it for a moment while he looked into her eyes.
She blushed at his gaze but responded with equanimity. "You are a very welcome addition to our unvaried and jaded little society." He did not fail to notice that while he had expressed his personal delight in making her acquaintance, Elizabeth mentioned only the general assembly's interest in a new and refreshing visitor. The truth was that she already felt she had been too forward in her conversation with him, and was too affected by his evident admiration to dare and return it with any admission of her own. But he did not know that.
She traipsed down the stairs to the waiting carriage and turned around just once before alighting to see Mr. Darcy still watching her from the doorway. She smiled again and Mr. Darcy bowed, before she was hurried inside by the rest of her sisters.
Their interaction had been intense but veiled, so that no one in the household but Jane knew to chide Elizabeth about it. Mrs. Bennet was only occupied in the ecstasies of recounting Mr. Bingley's attentions to her eldest daughter – something Elizabeth realized with a start she had been too distracted to even notice.
As soon as the family retired upstairs, Jane entered Elizabeth's room. "Well, sister, you have made quite an impressive conquest today."
Elizabeth sat at her dressing table unbraiding her hair. Her eyes twinkled with merriment, but she only said, "I am sure I do not know what you mean, Jane."
"Lizzy!" Jane laughed. "You can keep nothing from me, as you well know, so you may begin your confession at once."
Elizabeth joined in her laughter and swiveled around on her stool, still holding her hairbrush. "Oh, Jane! He is everything a young man ought to be. Intelligent, amiable..."
"Handsome, and conveniently rich..."
"Oh hush, Jane! I hope I know myself enough to believe that I would not be swayed by such mercenary considerations. He is rich and important, to be sure, but there is an almost shocking modesty about him which is so very endearing – his opinion of himself does not rest upon his wealth and position, but on his performance as a gentleman, and we should judge him in the same way."
"He seemed to be pretty taken with you, Lizzy. Wait until mother hears..."
"I hope she does not, for we would never hear the end of it, although whatever it was, it has in all probability already ended. You know very well he is entirely out of our sphere and I shall never see him again."
"But he is friends with Mr. Bingley, and we are very likely, I hope, to be seeing more of him."
"Yes, Jane – you may dream of your Mr. Bingley as a very possible and likely thing, but I must clear my mind of his friend at once if I do not wish to be grievously disappointed, for there is only one end to this foolish acquaintance."
"I am surprised to hear you speak so stoically, Lizzy, when it appeared that you quite welcomed his attentions this evening."
Elizabeth stood and Jane helped her remove her dress. "Oh yes, I enjoyed the flirtation immensely – it is not often we meet with a gentleman of his charm or conversation – but I knew throughout it all that it was a dangerous thing to do, and I must now set about removing it entirely from my mind."
Jane turned to go, but Elizabeth stopped her. Standing in front of the full-length mirror, dressed only in her shift and corset, she asked absently, "Do you really think he admired me?"
"Well, had he seen you like this..." Jane began, but Elizabeth gasped in horror and threw a cushion at her eldest sister, who ran laughing to her own room.
But she stood for some time in her vanity, scrutinizing and considering her reflection, biting her lip as she remembered his gaze and expressions.
Mr. Darcy, in his turn, spent a long time in bed staring at the ceiling before dropping into a deep sleep filled with the same visions which had prevented it.
But if Elizabeth had counted on Mr. Darcy's absence to clear her mind of his memory, she found herself quite pleased the next day to be disappointed in this hope. She was walking with Jane back from Meryton where they had called on Charlotte Lucas and stopped in a few shops, when they heard hoof-beats and moved to the side of the road. The riders were none other than the two gentleman who had been occupying the girls' thoughts, though neither had been bold enough to admit it to the other. They slowed their horses and dismounted, commenting on the fortuitous chance of meeting.
"We were just on our way to calling on you this afternoon," exclaimed Mr. Bingley.
Elizabeth smiled. "Alas, Sir, you will not find us at home when you arrive, for we are out."
"How unfortunate," said Mr. Darcy, playing along. "Then perhaps we shall not hurry after all, and will join you on your walk. Perhaps when we arrive a little later we will find you have returned."
"Very likely," said Elizabeth, taking his proffered arm, "and greatly preferable to waiting in a stuffy drawing room with lukewarm cups of tea."
By the time they had arrived at Longbourne the greater part of an hour later, all of Elizabeth's resolve had vanished, and she decided it was far pleasanter to enjoy his company and suffer his departure later than to forgo such tempting amusement.
Mr. Darcy on the other hand, didn't quite know what he was about, only that he was enjoying himself with an astoundingly refreshing young woman in a way he could never recall ever having done before. She was interested in everything, entertained an opinion on everything with which she was familiar and was not ashamed to admit her ignorance of that with which she was not. He felt that she had done the best with the opportunities given her, had improved her mind as much as she could, but that there was a wealth of curiosity and yearning for so much more than would ever be presented her. She was born into the wrong society, he almost concluded, before admitting that even in the higher circles, women's education was not so much aimed at improving their knowledge as at "finishing" them into the kinds of well-bred women who would make fine wives for wealthy men.
Over the next few weeks, the two gentlemen visited Longbourne frequently, and although Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy pretended to keep up their intention of enjoying each other's company merely as friends, their interaction was too marked to be mistaken. They proclaimed to everyone who commented that theirs was a purely innocent friendship, but no one who saw them could believe it. Despite Mr. Bennet's raised eyebrows, his wife's raptures and her sisters' smirks, Elizabeth continued looking forward to his visits, to the sound of his deep voice in the foyer saying, "Thank you, Hill," while relinquishing his hat and gloves to the old servant woman. And despite Caroline's horror, her sister's disapproval and Bingley's knowing grins, Mr. Darcy continued rising every morning with one thought in mind - the expression of her eyes, the sound of her laughter.
What everyone intimated, and what they themselves knew better than any observer - was never spoken of between them. If she caught his passionate gaze, or if he heard her wistful sigh, they never acknowledged it, but only turned away and proceeded to delude themselves further. He was buoyed and elated to perceive in her a definite interest in himself - and although he had declared to Bingley that he would be wary of creating false hopes, he deceived himself by remembering her words, her own determination to expect nothing - and chose to believe that it was harmless. She in turn, knew herself well enough to perceive that she was hopelessly smitten, and yet convinced herself that it was entirely one-sided, and that the superior gentleman was as above her common weakness as he was above her station, and that he would never forget himself enough to cause any real attachment or harm.
And perhaps they would have succeeded in deceiving themselves if they hadn't been thrown together for nearly a week in Netherfield during Jane's illness. The feelings between them had no time to dissipate, but only accumulated into a tension that was impossible for either to endure. When he was not talking to her, he was staring at her, his thoughts in turmoil, every second on the brink of some new determination. And she - she found herself unable to concentrate on a single line of her book, on a single hand of cards, knowing that he was there, hoping and yet dreading for him to approach her.
At last Jane recovered and she escaped the confines of the house, the house that held him and all her foolish inability to be mistress of herself in his presence. She was relieved when he, feeling himself equally eager to compose and regulate himself, did not visit for several days. He felt himself in serious danger, and finally realized the necessity of detaching himself from a situation he could not adequately resolve. He knew she would not be offended - she had proclaimed the impossibility of their connection more emphatically and categorically than he had ever admitted aloud. He determined to avoid her for his own protection; it was he who had fallen deeper into their acquaintance than she had ever expected or allowed.
She knew that she was allowing herself to drown in a tempest of fancy, and yet prolonged her own torture by refusing all the aid which her own intelligence extended to her. She embraced all the agony which her thoughts of him evoked, and treasured it as something precious and rare which would soon disappear and fade of its own accord, by the necessity of his departure.
He visited once briefly, with Charles Bingley, to invite her family formally to the ball at Netherfield. He did not engage her for any of the dances, or even sit long enough to say much of anything besides stating that he would be leaving for London on the day after the ball as planned.
Her family perceived his coolness toward her and wondered at it, but she knew that he was merely disengaging himself in preparation for the final dissolution of their acquaintance. She was proud of him, and grateful for herself, and only looked forward to the day of the ball so as to see him one last time.
She knew that it was uncharitable of herself, but she could not help taking extra care of her appearance on that last Tuesday, touching every curl individually and pinning every pearl in place with fastidious precision. Let him remember me like this, she thought. If he remembers me at all. Jane observed her silently, understanding her sister's weakness, and held back her reprimands.
But when he saw her, in her white silk dress and pearl adornments, he forgot all his determination and strode over to her directly. One last encounter will do no harm, he reasoned, and immediately secured her hand.
Their second, and last, dance was like their first - neither said anything. But when she stepped toward him, it was closer than before, and when he bent over her, it was nearer. He pressed her hand firmer, and she held his gaze longer. He breathed in the scent of her hair, and she memorized the sound of his breathing.
When the music ceased, so did her poise, and she turned away before he could escort her. She desperately wanted fresh air, to cool her feverish agitation and steady her shaken resolve. Every balcony was occupied, so she escaped the company to find herself in the secluded garden.
The merriment would continue till morning, but she could not bring herself to return to the house. It was in the faint light of the rising dawn that he found her among the trees and the dew.
It was his voice which roused her, more than the sound of her own name. She turned around quickly to face him, to face his raw expression, stripped of any attempt at composure or concealment. She was stunned by the pain, the passion in his gaze.
She sought for something to say, anything to relieve the fire that was approaching her, fast consuming her. "I... needed some air," she stuttered. "I have been walking some time."
"I have been watching you," he rejoined.
She turned away to hide her burning cheeks, but he caught her hand and stayed her. "Elizabeth," he began again. "Please hear me." His voice was deep and ragged, his breath coming fast and urgent.
"I have struggled in vain and can bear it no longer. You must - you must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you." The last was said so softly, so gently, that it impressed her heart more than it reached her hearing.
She turned to him with tears in her eyes, the tears that had been collecting there since she first realized she loved him. "Don't say that," she chided softly. "You will only make our parting more difficult."
"No," he pleaded, "no parting. I never wish to be parted from you from this day on."
"Stop," she gasped, as her tears began to fall. "You know it is impossible. Please, do not go any further."
He ignored her order and urged on, taking both her hands in his. "Marry me," he breathed. "Be my wife, be my love -,"
"Stop!" She sobbed, tearing her hands from his and taking a step back. "Why do you aggravate what is already too much to bear? You know it is impossible. Do not prolong what is inevitable!"
"Why impossible?" He implored, "Why inevitable?"
"Because honor, decorum and prudence forbid it!"
"Yes! Our alliance would be a disgrace; we would be censured, slighted, despised, by everyone in your circle."
"They would not dare say a word against me - I know it."
"Not against you, perhaps," she smiled sadly, "but I could not bear it."
"Would you not be happy enough with me, to forget the censure of society?"
"I would!" She exclaimed with passion, "You know I would! But it would poison you with time. Your family is respected, honorable and ancient; I have no family, connections or fortune -"
"If these objections are nothing to me," he implored her, "What are they to you?"
She gazed up at him with tears and adoration in her eyes. "That may be true, my love, but in this case yours is not the only opinion to be considered."
His breath caught at her words and he stood still, seeing in her eyes the echo of his own turmoil. He stepped as close to her as he ever dared, and she did not step back, but stood looking at him with all the emotion he could ever hope to elicit. He bent down to her and was only a moment away - when she shook her head slowly, and wordlessly, sadly, mouthed, "No."
He did not apologize or step away, but held on to her. "Tell me at least that you return my love. Tell me at least that I may remember you like this, and not indifferent."
"You know I do," she whispered. "But you must release me. One day you will admit my decision. You will forgive me, and thank me."
"No," he pleaded, "never -."
"Yes." She disentangled herself from his half-embrace and ran a trembling hand across her cheek. "Yes. Forgive me."
"You can not just leave, Elizabeth. You can not leave me with nothing!"
"I leave you with your freedom and honor intact. I have nothing else to give." She stepped away.
He started after her. "Elizabeth, please."
She turned away and whispered. "Goodbye, my love."