Chapter 13

Before they parted ways, Darcy had promised her that he and Bingley would call upon Longbourn later, and he would speak with her father. Although she had offered to speak to him herself, Darcy would have none of it. "I fear my behavior has been most inappropriate, and I could not bear it if your father were cross at you for that. No, I will face him and the tongue lashing which may ensue."

"I hardly think that necessary," she insisted. "It is not as though I was an unwilling party throughout." She smiled up at him mischievously.

He twined his fingers in a stray curl near her face. "You were not?" His eyes twinkled, and his cheek dimpled. She lifted her brows, and he leaned in to share a last kiss. "No, I suppose you were not. Nevertheless, I will not be moved." His smile broadened. "Since he all but insisted that I court you, it is fitting that I make my report to him."

Finally she relented, giving way to his insistence. But the weather conspired against them. By noon, dark clouds had gathered and shortly thereafter, a fierce storm began that would not let up for another two days. Lizzy was able to keep her peace during the first day, but by the second, she could no longer hold her tongue. Shortly after dinner, she called Jane up to her room to talk. No sooner was the door closed behind them than she excitedly spilled forth her news.

"Engaged? To Mr. Darcy?" Jane gasped, arms firmly crossed as she fell into a chair. "Surely you must be joking."

Elizabeth sat heavily on her bed. "This is a fine beginning, if not even you will believe me." She pressed her steepled fingers to her lips.

Jane scooted from the chair to sit beside her. "Is this not very sudden?"

"I confess that it is. I do not believe that either of us had any idea of its happening." She shrugged and lifted her hands, bewildered.

"You just happened upon him whilst walking, and he made you an offer of marriage?" Jane pulled her knees up under her chin and stared at her sister intently.

Lizzy sighed. "No, it was not quite like that. I found his horse wandering on Oakham Mount, and I rode him back to find his master…"

"You rode that enormous stallion? Mr. Bingley said that the grooms want nothing to do with that beast!" Jane's eyes widened in horror.

"He is little different than Toppur," Lizzy said with a dismissive wave of her hand, "high spirited and headstrong. He was challenging, though, and Mr. Darcy was quite surprised when I arrived at the field atop him."

"So I should imagine," Jane huffed under her breath.

"When I dismounted, I stumbled, and Mr. Darcy caught me…" Elizabeth's cheeks colored brightly. "…then…the next thing I knew, he proposed."

Jane's brows rose high. "I have a feeling, dearest sister, that you are perhaps leaving something out…like a kiss perchance?"

"Oh," she gasped, her hand flying to her mouth.

"It is as I thought!" Jane nodded triumphantly. Her expression became more serious. "One could say that he compromised you…"

"No!" Lizzy jumped to her feet and glowered. "Do not speak that way. Mr. Darcy is most gentlemanly…" She paced the length of the tidy room.

"I am not sure that many would consider what you have described to have been proper behavior from either of you," Jane scolded. "I am surprised at you, Lizzy. Really, considering what we have been experiencing with Kitty and Lydia, I cannot imagine that you should be so thoughtless. Are we not supposed to be models for them to follow? Is this what you would want either of them to be doing, alone, in the woods with a man?"

"Jane?" Her face lost all color.

"Why do you look so shocked? Have you not actually considered what you have done?"

Lizzy's mouth opened and closed as she struggled to find words, but could not.

"Truly, I am disappointed in you." Jane frowned, pushed herself up and walked toward her sister.

A sob caught in Lizzy's throat as she looked at Jane in shock. She opened her mouth to retort, but could not speak. A moment later she fled the room, not knowing where she was going, just away. Not quite realizing how she got there, she found herself at the door to her father's study.

"Come in, Lizzy," he called, recognizing her footsteps. She paused only a moment before she rushed in. He noticed the raggedness of her breathing and opened his arms. In two breaths she was beside him on the settee, sobbing wretchedly on his shoulder. He held her tightly until the tears subsided. He fumbled to pull a handkerchief out of his pocket and press it into her hand. "Now, my dear, will you not tell me what has you in such a tumult?"

She drew a deep breath and tried several times to begin, but only succeeded in stammering and crying once more.

"I see; that is quite a dilemma," he teased gently, a wry smile lifting one side of his mouth. "If you cannot tell me, I fear I will have to try to guess, and you know that never seems to be a useful exercise." Finally she giggled, dabbing at her eyes with his handkerchief. "Did you quarrel with Jane?" he asked softly. She nodded into his shoulder, sniffling. "That is unlike either of you. Will you not tell me what happened?"

It took several minutes and much soothing and coaxing, but she finally confessed the entire story of her encounter with Darcy and her conversation with Jane.

"Well, my dear," he leaned back, arm still firmly around her, "that is quite a tale. I hardly know where to begin." He brushed back his thinning hair. "It is difficult for me to disapprove of the outcome, though, considering I have already granted my permission for him to court you."

"The way I understand it, you all but ordered him to do so," she teased, some of the sparkle returning to her eyes.

"He told you that, eh?" He smiled wryly. "Ah, well, call it what you will. Obviously he understood me, perhaps a little too well." Mr. Bennet chuckled softly. "It is just your way of going about this that leaves something to be desired."

"I know I have disappointed you. If only I had learnt to be a proper lady…" she choked back a small sob and buried her face in her hands.

"Hush now, Lizzy, I said no such thing. You know my notion of a proper lady has never aligned with the ton , but rather something far more enduring. It is not coincidence that I have had you read to me from the last chapter of Proverbs so often. That is my notion of a proper lady, one that you fits very well." He carefully reached and found her face, tucking an unruly curl behind her ear. "Mr. Darcy appears to agree with me."

"But Jane was right, it was so very improper…"

Mr. Bennet sighed, "I certainly would not approve of Lydia meeting a young man alone in the woods, much less of her kissing him." He frowned, his stomach knotting at the thought. "But, you are not your sister, and I am convinced that you did not anticipate this clandestine meeting. While I will insist that you conduct yourselves more circumspectly in the future, I do understand and cannot condemn you."

Lizzy pulled back and stared at him. "Truly, Papa?" She sniffled and bushed tears from her cheeks with her palms.

"My dear, your sister is full young and at a time where she is all attitude and rebellion. I pray that it shall soon pass. She still requires firm supervision and cannot yet be trusted to make good decisions on her own. We lost your mother when you were her age, so you had little time to spend in your willful period. I am afraid you grew up very quickly, perhaps a little too quickly." He sighed and pulled her close. "You, my dear, are anything but willful. You are entirely dependable and trustworthy. Longbourn's prosperity is a testament to your wise management and decision making. If anything, you are too responsible. You have devoted yourself to all of us so whole-heartedly that you have lost sight of the need to make a life for yourself."

Lizzy listened quietly, and though what he was saying was familiar, it was as though she heard it for the first time.

"How you have argued with me every time I have tried to get you to see a future beyond Longbourn." He chuckled again. "You are very stubborn, my dear, as is your Mr. Darcy. I do not know all his reasons any more than you do, but I believe he has done much the same as you have, talked himself out of his own future in favor of his duty. You are both so hard-headed, it would have taken something quite startling for either of you to realize what has been staring you in the face for some time now."

"Am I really so…"

"Yes, dear, you are very much like your mother in that. She would not allow me to follow my inclinations after my injury. She insisted I present myself to the world as I was and to continue living. I know I did not make it easy for her; it was her stubbornness that eventually prevailed. I am ever grateful for it, as I am grateful for that trait in you. But it does have its limitations as well. I cannot see that either you or Darcy would have come to this agreeable conclusion if his stallion had not pushed you into his arms."

"But, Papa, how will you manage? I cannot leave you and my sisters! I cannot have you suffer on account of my own selfishness. "

"I am in no hurry to see you go, but I could not live with the guilt of your throwing away what you should have for me. I do not know how it will all work out, but we shall come to a solution, I am sure." He stroked his chin thoughtfully. "I think perhaps Mr. Darcy might be consulted on these matters. I have a feeling that he might have some useful ideas to consider. After all, he has the best motivation in the world to see our dilemma resolved. It will be well, Lizzy dear, you shall see."

She swallowed hard. "I have not disappointed you?"

"I do not see how you could." He kissed the top of her head. "That is not to say I want you to repeat what you did this morning…"

Lizzy laughed, "I understand, Papa. Mr. Darcy told me he intended to call upon you that afternoon, but the weather turned so dreadful! I am certain…"

"I have no doubt he is quite honorable in his intentions. But I think I will call upon him myself tomorrow morning. I will ask Jane to take me to Netherfield…no, do not argue. I want to speak to her. I believe Mr. Bingley has left her discomposed, and I think it is time I had a talk with her. Some time away from the house with her is just the thing we need for that."

"Yes, sir."

"I know you have told Jane of your unusual understanding with Mr. Darcy. Please do not speak to your younger sisters of it right now. Until Mr. Darcy is at liberty to marry, I think it best not to say anything."

"I agree with you. The moment Lydia hears, it will be all over Meryton, and I am certain that will not suit Mr. Darcy at all. Perhaps I should not have said anything…"

He felt the tension return to her shoulders. "You could not have kept it from Jane. Do not fret. She cannot stay upset with either of us. I am sure you two will be right soon enough." He patted her shoulder. "Now, I am sure you cannot yet sleep, so how about you see if there is any shortbread or biscuits left in the kitchen, and we will have a game of chess."

Late that night, Jane crept into Elizabeth's room. "Lizzy?" she whispered from the doorway.

"I am here," Lizzy called quietly from the chair near the window. A soft glow from the dying fire just barely lit the room, reflecting off the raindrops trailing down the window pane.

Jane's bare feet padded softly across the floor. She sat on the floor beside Lizzy's chair and rested her head on her sister's knee. "I am sorry, Lizzy. I do not know what came over me. I so worried about Lydia, and the officers, and the gossip about Mr. Darcy's refusing to allow Mr. Wickham's introduction," she whispered, "…and Mr. Bingley."

The room was silent for a moment as they listened to the patter of soft raindrops on the glass and their father's ragged snoring down the hall.

Jane dragged her fingertips over the smooth worn wood of the floor, tracing the edge of the floorboard anxiously. "I should never have said what I did. I am very happy for you." She hugged Lizzy's knees.

"Thank you, I cannot bear it when you are cross with me. I do not ever want to disappoint you."

"You have not. That was a cruel and thoughtless thing to say, and I cannot tell you how I have regretted it. I was just so startled; I did not take time to think about what I was saying." She paused a moment, hiding her face in the folds of Lizzy's nightdress. "I confess, I think I was a little jealous, too. That is such a romantic notion…"

Elizabeth reached down to stroke her sister's hair. "You did not braid your hair. Can you reach my brush? Let me do it for you, or it will take you all morning to get the snarls out." Jane handed her the brush, and she patiently worked out the tangles and began to plait her sister's long locks. "I do not know when, or even if, we will ever marry. He said there are family obligations he must first manage."

"Oh, I did not realize…"

"It is still lovely to have been offered for." She tied a ribbon firmly around the thick braid.

"I am sure he will manage those things quickly. He will not leave you waiting for very long." She stood and moved behind Lizzy's chair, bending to wrap her arms firmly around her sister. "I am sure of it."

Though reassured by her reconciliation with Jane, sleep still eluded her, and it was nearly dawn when Elizabeth finally crawled under her covers and fell asleep. Shortly thereafter, the household began to rise. Just three hours later, all but Lizzy had risen and were taking breakfast. The rain had stopped sometime in the night, so Mr. Bennet had the gig readied, and he and Jane left soon after their meal. The three younger sisters remained at the table in the morning room, finishing their breakfast.

"I am so glad that dreary rain has finally stopped," Kitty remarked as she reached for a dish of jam.

"What does it matter? Papa keeps us locked up here like prisoners! I cannot recall the last time we were allowed outside without our jailors!" Lydia glanced over her shoulder to see Mrs. Hill walking past the doorway. "I swear that woman is always watching me!"

"Do not be so disrespectful, Lydia!" Mary scolded, leaning forward on her elbows.

Lydia snorted and made a face.

Kitty shot an exasperated look at Mary. "That is so unladylike, Lydia, you should really see what you look like when you do that."

"You are a fine one to be scolding me! Have you ever looked at yourself when you laugh? You look utterly ridiculous," she argued haughtily "Besides, Mr. Wickham found that expression amusing."

"Another reason we should all be glad you have been forbidden his company," Mary snapped, reaching for her water glass.

"Why are you all against him! Why are you not appalled at the way Mr. Darcy humiliated him at the assembly?" Lydia brought her hands down on the table sharply.

"I am sure he had a good reason, Lyddie," Kitty said softly, staring at the scone she was buttering. You seem to know a great deal about that though Lizzy and Jane have said little.

"Mr. Darcy is proud and arrogant, and that was his reason. He looks down on poor Mr. Wickham because Mr. Wickham is the son of Old Darcy's steward." Lydia tossed her head with an air of authority. "He has told me much of the wrongs Mr. Darcy has committed against him."

"Do you not think it interesting that Mr. Wickham freely gossips about Mr. Darcy's wrongs but Mr. Darcy keeps his peace?" Mary observed, looking at Kitty.

"Of course, it is because Mr. Darcy has nothing to say against Mr. Wickham. He is merely resentful that Mr. Wickham is so well liked despite his poor station in life," Lydia scolded.

"I would not be so certain," Kitty mumbled.

"I thought it was the perverse man who stirs people up against each other. He is using gossip to separate us.(1) We cannot consider those the actions of an honorable man." Mary glared at Lydia.

Lydia huffed loudly and threw her napkin down on the table. "No one wants your sermons, Mary! I have lost my appetite." She pushed her chair away and stomped upstairs to her room where she slammed the door and locked it behind her.

"Oh! They make me so angry! What do they know!" She clomped around her cluttered room, finally pulling out the chair at her dressing table and tossing aside the garments piled there. "They are ugly, freckled things! I swear Kitty has more freckles coming out over her nose every day! And Mary, with those horrid glasses and her stupid books, she looks like a spinster already, even more so than Jane and Lizzy! They have no beaus, no admirers; what do they know about men?" She unbound her hair and began brushing it.

"They are just jealous. They wish they could be as pretty and lively as I, with all the officers paying attention. That is why Papa forbade me from attending the assembly, lest there would be no one to dance with Jane and Lizzy!" She set the brush down and began carefully arranging her chestnut locks. "Papa is such an old bore! He does not remember what it is to have fun!

"Poor Wickham! It has been these three days together that he has not seen me. Well, I will remedy that! I shall see him today, no matter what anyone says! The last time, he talked of going to Greta Green. How romantic that would be! To return from there as Mrs. Wickham – how well that sounds! Oh that I should be the first one married and at just fifteen, the youngest of all my sisters!" She rose and twirled in front of her mirror. "Oh, this dress will not do at all. But this," she scooped up a yellow sprigged frock that had been draped over the side of the mirror, "will! I shall just carefully pack it up and change at the Lucases. It would not do to get mud all over it since I shall have to walk to town."

Humming to herself, Lydia carefully folded her dress into a neat bundle and wrapped it in a shawl. With a practiced grace, she swung out the window and scrambled down the trellis and hurried toward Meryton.

(1) PR 16:28 A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends.