Part 5 – The Third Day
Elizabeth awoke in Darcy's arms, this time facing him. He had spoken about Pemberley for hours the evening before, and Elizabeth lost herself in his tales. He spoke of his amiable father, proud yet loving mother, and shy sister. He talked about his complicated relationship with his Fitzwilliam cousins—his stern uncle the earl, his irascible Aunt Catherine, the wastrel viscount, and the dependable colonel. She did not know when she fell asleep, but she was content, and her dreams were sweet.
She was almost sorry she woke up. Her body ached, and her stomach was empty. To take her mind from her hunger, she rolled over on her back and gazed at her companion.
Darcy was still asleep, and she took the opportunity to take her fill of him. He was certainly handsome—she always granted that even when she disliked him. But in sleep, he was different. The public mask fell away, and she now saw the man underneath. Dark, full eyelashes that many a lady would envy rested on pale cheeks. His aquiline nose, which so suited him, appeared less severe while in repose. Jet whiskers covered his chin. With his tousled hair, he wore an air of relaxation, openness, and vulnerability. He looked younger, especially with his lack of cravat.
That was how a young gentleman of twenty-eight should appear without the weight of responsibility and expectation that threatened to crush him. So much rested on one so young. Everyone depended on him: his sister, his servants, his estate, his best friend—even his otherwise formable aunt and charming cousin, she did not doubt.
Who did he depend on? Who was there to give him comfort? She knew that he had chosen her for some unfathomable reason. What did he see in her that led him to believe she was capable of caring for so great a man—perhaps the best man she had ever met? She was contemplating his lips, which could be so soft, yet were capable of uttering strong words, when she noted his eyes had opened.
"Good morning, Elizabeth," he said.
Adverting her eyes, suddenly shy, she said, "Good morning, sir."
Darcy stretched with a groan, raising his strong arms above his head. He got to his feet and fetched a mug of hot water from the pot. He offered it to Elizabeth first. She accepted with a small smile, drinking about half the mug. Darcy finished the rest in a gulp. He stood up, excused himself and put on his overcoat. A moment later he was out the door.
Elizabeth shook her head at her stupidity. After everything that had happened in the last week, she was too shy to speak to him? She quickly made her ablutions, straightened her dress, and gathered the chamber pot. Sure enough, Darcy was outside the door when she opened it. She surrendered her burden without protest, trying to take offence at Darcy's knowing smirk and failing. She retreated to the fire, feeding a few branches to the flames, resolutely not thinking of breakfast. It was here Darcy found her when he returned.
"The weather has moderated," he said as he replaced the chamber pot. "The sun is shining, and the air is still. I believe an attempt for the coaching station might be in order."
Elizabeth turned as he approached her. "Do you plan this soon?"
He shook his head. "Better at mid-day, or even a little later. It is always warmer in the afternoon." He noticed her expression. "What is amiss?"
How well he could read her now! "It is nothing. I only wish I could wash my face and hands."
"Why not use the water in the pot?"
She gave him a look that questioned his wits. "That is our drinking water."
He laughed. "Elizabeth, water we have in abundance! Use what you like. I can get more clean snow."
She had to laugh in return. "I cannot believe how silly I am! Pray excuse me."
Feeling his eyes upon her, she knelt and rinsed her hands in the steaming water. She then bent over the vessel and slowly washed her face. There was no soap, of course, but the hot liquid was delightful. Oh, how she wanted a full bath! She ran her wet hands over the nape of her neck, idling thinking of his kisses there yesterday, when a handkerchief appeared before her.
"Here, you will need this to dry yourself." His voice was strained.
Puzzled, she glanced up at Darcy as she dried her face. He wore the same intense look he so many times had at Netherfield and Rosings. Knowing now what it meant, she flushed. "Would you like to refresh yourself?" Her voice was relatively level.
"I thank you, no," he smiled. "There is but one handkerchief." Once she rose, he gathered the pot, using the damp handkerchief to shield his hand from the hot handle, and carried it outside. A minute later he returned, the vessel filled with snow.
The pair resumed their places before the hearth, their shoulders touching, fighting the cold air that had invaded their sanctuary.
"Lord, I am hungry!" Elizabeth cried. "Forgive me. I should not have said that."
"I cannot condemn you when I feel the same. Here, drink more of the water. I saved some for you."
Elizabeth drank a bit and offered the mug to Darcy. He took it, but she noticed he set it aside without drinking. She suspected he was saving the water for her, and feared the noble sacrifice could prove to be foolish. Fitzwilliam needed water, too. "Perhaps waiting until the afternoon to walk out is unwise. Is it a long walk, do you think?"
"I have no idea. Here, let me show you." Darcy scooted away, closer to the fire, and began to draw something on the dusty floor. "I believe the stream is east of Bromley, and that we are actually a mile or two southeast of the town." He drew a long, straight line. "This is the road from Hunsford to London. It parallels the stream, see? I intend to walk due west until I reach the road, and then follow it into Bromley." His finger moved again, leaving a triangle on the floor. "As I do not know how far we are from the road, an exact prediction is impossible. However, I doubt we are more than a mile from it." He sat back on his heels. "It would be longer than walking straight into the village, but since the path is completely obscured by the snow, I suggest the longer route is safer. I have turned this over in my mind constantly since we arrived, and I can think of no better plan."
"How long do you think it will take us to walk three miles in the snow?"
"Only one mile, to the main road. There, the going should be easier. And you are not leaving in any case."
"You expect me to stay here?"
"Of course. I shall walk to Bromley, get assistance, and return here with a sled or some other means of safe transportation."
"That is very kind of you but unnecessary. I shall be going with you."
"Elizabeth, you are not going with me. That is final."
Elizabeth steeled herself for battle. Before today, she would have let her temper get the best of her and rail at the obstinate man before her. She now knew better. Reason and logic were the only tools capable of moving Fitzwilliam Darcy, particularly when he was being nonsensically selfless.
"Fitzwilliam, I know your intentions are for my safety and comfort, and I thank you kindly for the consideration, but I must insist you rethink the matter." She raised her hand at his attempted protest. "Pray hear me out. Walking through the snow is a hard business. It may take three hours or more to reach Bromley. What follows then? Gathering help, sleds, and horses to pull them takes time. An hour, at least—agreed? Then returning here. It will be shorter, I know, but it will not be quick. Truly, I do not think it can be accomplished in less than six hours. It could well be dark by then."
"Then I will leave this instant!"
She laid a hand on his. "And what do I do? Wait six hours for your hoped-for return? What if misfortune befalls you? What happens then?" Her eyes filled at the thought of Darcy injured, lying in the snow, and no one to help him. She shook her head. "It is best I go with you. You are big and strong and can break a trail for us."
"Elizabeth, I cannot bear to place you in danger!"
"I placed myself in this danger and you too. It will not do. Can you not see? Far better I go with you and face our fate together."
Darcy took her hands in his, piercing her with his gaze. "This is not what I intended when I asked you at Hunsford to be with me forever. I can deny you nothing, but please do not ask this of me."
Elizabeth was lost in his dark eyes, her heart torn by his tender words, even while her mind rejected his entreaties. She tried to answer him, but common sense battled with the force of his personality and stilled her tongue.
Darcy dropped her hands with a start. "What was that?" He turned to the door.
It took a moment for Elizabeth to respond. "What? What do you hear?" His answer was to spring to the door. He opened it carefully. Elizabeth scrambled to her feet, her spirits rising. "Is someone outside?"
"Hello!" Darcy bellowed without. He waved, and then retreated, closing the door behind him. "Quickly!" he cried. "Move over to the far corner." He took their coats in his hands. "Put on your coat and wrap one of those blankets about you."
"What is wrong?" she asked as she took her coat from his hands. "Were you not calling to someone?"
"Yes," he hissed between his teeth as he shrugged on his overcoat. "Two men approach. We must be ready." He looked about. "Blast! Is there no staff about?"
"Why are you acting this way? We are saved!" She frowned. "Something is wrong."
"Perhaps! They might be rescuers looking for us. They might be farmers heading for this shelter. Or, they might be others."
"Thieves, highwaymen, gypsies—I do not know. I will not take any chances. Just do as I say. Stand behind me and say nothing—nothing at all." He grasped her shoulders. "Please trust me."
Fear squeezed her heart. She nodded and took her position behind him. For dreadful long moments she waited, her feelings alternating between elation and trepidation. She could now hear footsteps crunching in the snow, growing ever louder. She jumped at the knock on the door.
"Enter," said Darcy, his voice level.
Elizabeth peered from behind Darcy's broad shoulder. Two men entered the room, shaking off the snow from their heavy coats. One man pulled off his hat. She saw that he was rough and bearded as he scrutinized them.
"We're searchin' fur two gentle-folk who got themselves lost in th' storm a couple of days back. Be ye them?"
Elizabeth felt Darcy relax. As for herself, she wanted to scream for joy, but she promised she would stay quiet, so it was Darcy who spoke.
"I am Mr. Darcy," he started as if he was in a sitting room in London, "and this is Miss Bennet. I believe we are the people you are looking for. May I have your names?"
If the first man was taken aback by Darcy's calm, prideful behavior, he did not show it. Elizabeth knew he had once again donned the armor he persistently wore to protect himself from the world. That is something we will have to change, Mr. Darcy, she vowed.
"My name's Cartwright," said the first man. "I work in th' stables. An' this here's a gent from London, sent ta look fur Miss Bennet."
The second man, who had retained his hat, gave a short bow. "I am Mr. Billings. I am in service to Mr. Gardiner."
Delighted, Elizabeth stepped forward. "Oh, Mr. Billings! I should have recognized you but for all the heavy winter clothing! How good it is to see you again!" She held out a hand in welcome, which Mr. Billings readily took. Meanwhile, Darcy remained where he was.
"I cannot say how happy I am to find you well, Miss Bennet!" cried Mr. Billings. "I barely got here through the storm. The roads were terrible."
"Aye, twas as bad a storm as I've ever seen," chimed in Cartwright. "We feared for ye, that's th' honest truth. Today's th' first day we could get out to look for ye." He looked around the cabin. "Have ye been in here all this time?" There was a suspicious note to his voice.
Elizabeth expected Darcy was valiantly attempting to conjure up some explanation, so she answered for him. "Yes. Mr. Darcy was fortunate to find shelter, or things would have been very bad, indeed. But as you can see, my betrothed and I are quite safe, and we thank you for your efforts to find us."
Elizabeth felt, rather than saw, Darcy's astonishment. As for the other men, Cartwright smiled in understanding while Billings looked confused.
"Begging your pardon, Miss Bennet," said he, "but Mr. Gardiner said nothing about your betrothal."
Elizabeth's smile beamed. "That is understandable, for he had no time to learn of our happy news. Mr. Darcy proposed only last Sunday, and today is—my goodness, I have quite lost time. May I ask what day it is?"
"Friday, ma'am. May I take this opportunity to wish you and Mr. Darcy joy?" Billings held out his hand, which Elizabeth shook. After a moment, Darcy came forward and did the same.
"I should've known," said Cartwright with a grin as he did the same. "I remember ye, Mr. Darcy. Ah, miss, he was in a fine state when he learned ye were missin' and th' storm brewin'. Organized th' search, he did, runnin' around orderin' men about like he was th' Iron Duke hisself. I wondered why he be so desperate, but now meetin' ye…well, I can't say I blames him!" He honored her with a wink.
Darcy cleared his throat. "Umm, yes. How far are we from Bromley?"
"'Bout a mile-an-a-half, as the crow flies. A bit more on foot, workin' yer way through th' woods," said Cartwright. "Don't ya worry 'bout walkin' out, though. We got a horse an' sled over on th' main road, an' that's 'bout a half-mile away. We'll go fer it, so you folks just stay close to th' fire."
Billings grinned. "I am so relieved to find you safe, Miss Bennet. Praise the Lord! I was not looking forward to delivering any bad news to your uncle."
"Oh, dear, he must be frantic!" cried Elizabeth. "And Miss Darcy!" She turned to her companion. "Your poor sister must be worried sick!"
He turned unreadable eyes to her. "We shall be in London soon to comfort our relations, Miss Bennet, thanks to these brave souls. I shall not forget the service you have done, my good men."
"Thankee kindly, Mr. Darcy," said Cartwright. "We'll be back afore ye know it."
"Wait!" cried Darcy. "Forgive me, but would you happen to have any food with you? Miss Bennet has had nothing for the last two days—"
Billings cried, "What a fool I am. Here, I have biscuits in this pouch, and you've nothing to eat for two days!" He handed it to Elizabeth.
"When we leave, ye will hear two pistol shots," said Cartwright. "Don't ye be startled—it's just so's th' others know we found ye." The two took their leave and exited the cabin.
Elizabeth had moved to the table and opened the pouch. She extracted two biscuits, offering one to Darcy while beginning to eat the other just as the shots rang out. She jumped a little before asking, as archly as she could with a mouth full of biscuit, "Is there something wrong, Fitzwilliam?"
Darcy's blank, unbelieving face was quite diverting. "Elizabeth! What you said…I did not intend…I would not have you regret...you must not feel trapped into something you—"
Elizabeth swallowed and ended his babbling. "Mr. Darcy, upon entering this dwelling two days ago, I knew full well I was utterly compromised, and if we were discovered together, there would be nothing for it but to marry." Her smile proved she was not opposed to the idea as she took another bite. "Please eat. You must be starving."
"I would not have you do something against your will."
Elizabeth smiled. "I can think of worse things, sir."
Darcy made an inarticulate sound. "You are too generous to trifle with me! If your feelings are still what they were last week, tell me so at once!" He grew close. "My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject forever. I will find some way out of this for you."
Elizabeth cocked her head. "I think silence on your part would be unpleasant and boring, especially as we are to marry."
Darcy shook his head. "You are exasperating and impertinent, Miss Bennet!"
"I thought that was what you liked about me. My beauty you had early withstood." At his frown, she added. "I refer to your remark upon first seeing me at the Meryton assembly."
Darcy thought for a moment and then groaned. "You heard! No wonder you disliked me."
"You do improve upon acquaintance, Mr. Darcy. Eventually."
"I can improve on other things as well, madam." With that, Darcy dropped to one knee. Overriding Elizabeth's protests, he said with great emotion, "My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."
Elizabeth smiled sweetly. "You have said that before. As charming and pleasing as those sentiments are, what followed was not."
"Then I must correct my mistake. Let me say now that for many months I have considered you the handsomest lady of my acquaintance. But my admiration is not just based on the loveliness of your face and figure, but your character as well. I am enchanted by your wit, impressed by your intelligence, touched by your kindness and goodness, and captivated by your ability to charm all about you. You have bewitched me, body and soul. I want to be a better man, so that I may be a worthy husband to you. Please allow me to care and protect and love you always. End my sufferings, I pray, and agree to become my wife."
Elizabeth could not help crying at such a declaration. "I would be pleased and honored to be your wife, Mr. Darcy."
Darcy rose and kissed the back of her hands. "Elizabeth, you have made me very happy. But I do not deceive myself. I know that the love is all on my side."
Elizabeth reached up to stroke his whisker-covered cheek. "Fitzwilliam—" Her voice broke. "Fitzwilliam, you must not despair. It is true that my present feelings are not the equal of yours. How could they be when I have only lately begun to see the man you truly are? But I have always held strong feelings about you, and my admiration and affection has grown so much in such a short time. I know not what the future holds for us, but I promise that I will honor and respect you and be a good wife to you."
"I will honor and cherish and love you all the days of my life. Anything you desire, Elizabeth, anything that would make you happy, if it be in my power, you will have it, I swear."
Elizabeth smiled shamelessly. "How fortunate it is for you that I am a creature unused to expensive gifts or grand gestures! But such is the woman with whom you have agreed to share your life. I require only two things of you, sir."
"Name them, and they are yours."
"They are these, and they cannot be negotiated. Promise me, most earnestly, that I will never lose your affection." She smiled wider. "And swear that I will NEVER be hungry and cold again!" She reached for the biscuits. "Are you certain you are not famished, Fitzwilliam?"
Darcy swept Elizabeth into his arms to prove there was hunger for things greater than biscuits. For her part, Elizabeth was not disinclined to learn.