Part 5: Flowers and Ruins
The Gardiners were aghast when Mr. Darcy related what had occurred at the Lorrey's house. Darcy humbly begged their pardon for not taking proper care of their niece, and while they assured him that they did not blame him, he found it difficult to fully believe it. Who would not blame him?
He was almost beside himself. He wanted desperately to speak to Elizabeth again, to profess his love properly and beg her to marry him—to offer his affection and name and fortune as some compensation for what she had suffered. But the very fact of her recent travails kept him silent. How could he press her, at a time like this—when her bruises had not even faded yet? Surely it would be ungentlemanly to importune her with his addresses. And yet it hurt to be around her and remain silent. While he did not know what answer she would give him, just to speak his feelings would be a relief, and she deserved to know how ardently he loved and admired her.
When Bingley and he called the next day, Darcy found that Elizabeth had been ordered by her aunt to remain resting in her room until dinner. He was glad of that, even as he longed to see her and to ascertain for himself that she was well. He sat morosely through most of the visit, making little conversation. Then he looked up to find Jane Bennet's soft gaze on him, and a few minutes later, she made some excuse, and came to sit near him.
"I am sure my sister would wish me to give you her greetings," she said.
"How is she?" He leaned forward in his seat. "Tell me, truly—you know her better than anyone else, Miss Bennet. How is she recovering?"
She smiled understandingly. "I am not sure recovering is a proper word, unless you refer to her very slight injuries. Lizzy declares that she is perfectly well, and that being confined to her room on a beautiful day in a seaside town is a punishment she has done nothing to warrant."
"Of course she would say so, but you must be able to see beyond that. I cannot imagine her surviving yesterday without some ill effects."
"I looked in on her shortly before you arrived and she was asleep, so I think that she was rather tired, but her spirits are excellent. Lizzy…" she hesitated. "You cannot expect Lizzy to react as other girls might. She is strong and brave, and she can never remain unhappy for long."
"You really believe her to be well, then?"
He sat back, feeling a little reassured. Although he did not place the highest trust in Miss Jane Bennet's perceptiveness, her certainty was calming. The call ended shortly thereafter. As much as both men would have preferred to have remained for the day, the Gardiners had other things to do besides entertain their nieces' callers.
Miss Bingley appeared to be in a sour mood when they returned, but Darcy did not stay to hear why. Summoning Winker he went out again. He went by the Lorrey house to check on its occupants, and, having discovered the address of the local magistrate, called to give his evidence and discuss fobbing off the brutish Joseph on to some other poor continent. After that he went into the more fashionable shopping district where he acquired a shameless pile of bribes—trinkets and sweets for the children, French bon-bons for the ladies, and high quality cigars for Mr. Gardiner (who smoked them furtively in the garden when his wife was distracted). For Elizabeth he purchased the most luscious arrangement of spring blooms he could find, and had them delivered with a card bearing his initials. He did not trust himself to write more. Passing a jeweller's shop, he went in and could not help choosing one or two pretty things he thought would look well on her, while not knowing if she would ever be willing to receive them from him. Any fashionable young woman of the ton would regard such gifts as suitable homage, but Elizabeth would see a greater significance in them and, he knew, would not accept them unless she was willing to accept him too.
Thinking fondly of his sister, he bought a pearl hairclip for her, and asked that it be sent to her house in London. In the next shop over he found some pretty little boxes whose lids had been painted with scenes of the Morecastle beach, and, without noticeable hesitation, chose three, thinking that Elizabeth could not refuse to take one if the other ladies did too. Belatedly, and with reluctance, he returned for a fourth, knowing that it would be simply too rude to exclude Miss Bingley. While her recent actions had not left him feeling charitable towards her, she was a friend of some years, and had been a very gracious hostess to him last fall. He could not slight her so openly.
This orgy of spending having somewhat relieved his feelings, he climbed back into his laden carriage, and directed them to drive towards the ocean. There, he spent some time walking along the seawall, watching the waves crash and the seagulls circle overhead.
Back in her rented bedchamber, Elizabeth woke up. She lay on her side for a few moments, letting her eyes adjust. It was brighter than when she had fallen asleep, even with the curtains drawn. Checking the watch on her nightstand, she found that she had been asleep for quite three hours. It seemed Aunt Gardiner had been right when she said she needed rest.
As her eyes moved around the room they came to rest on a large vase overflowing with flowers; someone had placed it on the dressing table. They had not been there before. She sat up, and approached curiously.
It was truly a magnificent arrangement, and all the blossoms seasonal. There were lilies of the valley, pale and regal and spikey; some tall, white narcissi, with their yellow, cup-like centers; hyacinths heavy with crowding blossoms, deep purple pansies, and forget-me-nots like tiny blue stars. With a rapidly beating heart she touched the pansies and forget-me-nots. They were well-known symbols of fidelity and love—as was the ivy that trailed down the side. Something stiff brushed her fingers—it was a heavy, cream-colored card with her name on one side, and the initials F.D. on the other, all written in a firm, precise hand.
She remembered now that Lady Catherine had once informed them that her youngest nephew had been named after his mother's family, the Fitzwilliams. Fitzwilliam Darcy, she thought, tracing the letters. The name was as elegant and aristocratic as he was.
She had received flowers before, small bouquets from local boys after a dance. There had not been many, but enough that she did not feel it outside her experience. No man, however, had ever sent her anything like this, lush and vibrant and entirely extravagant. She knew he must still be suffering guilt over the events of the previous day, but it could not be only her fancy that told her he meant more by it. His behavior over the last few days had been so particular as to raise the hopes of any woman. In fact, she verily believed, as she fingered one velvety petal, that she had the power, if she chose, to bring on a proposal of marriage.
Throwing open the drapes, Elizabeth sat down at the dressing table and scrutinized her countenance in the mirror. It was now five days since the curricle accident, and the bruise on her right cheek was fading into splotches. To her eyes it did not look attractive, but then, Mr. Darcy had never found her beauty arresting. She could only accept his word when he had said he still found her appearance charming. Charming, she thought. Not handsome, charming. Brushing her hair out, Elizabeth pulled it up with a ribbon and wondered if that fashion could be considered charming.
"I say, Darcy," began Bingley almost as soon as he reentered the inn, "Miss Bennet and I were speaking today, and we would still like to visit those ruins we set out to see on Wednesday."
"No more curricles, Bingley," said Darcy wearily.
"No, no, of course not! With my sister here it would not be convenient anyway. We thought perhaps we could take the barouche, if you don't mind. Surely it would seat five."
"Are the Gardiners still set against going?"
"We asked them, of course, but Mrs. Gardiner said it really was impossible at this time. Mr. Gardiner does not wish to be parted from his family when a separation is expected."
Darcy thought about that a moment. "They really are terrible chaperones."
Bingley laughed. "I know, but that's convenient for us, isn't it?"
Darcy agreed without thinking, and then colored when Bingley laughed even harder. "Come now," persuaded his friend, "you need not pretend. You are as set on Miss Elizabeth as I am on her sister."
"Yes," he admitted.
"That is excellent! How long have you felt this way?"
"For far longer than I have been willing to acknowledge. And when we met in Kent, my feelings increased all the more, but she left before I could act."
"Did you know she was here?"
"No, not with any certainty. I knew she was going with her uncle to the coast, but that was all."
"Then it was the most marvelous of coincidences, for both of us."
Darcy smiled wryly. "Except that you have not managed to upset your Miss Bennet in a carriage, or to take her somewhere she might be assaulted by ruffians. She has emerged unscathed from your courtship so far, while Elizabeth has suffered nothing but disaster from practically the first moment we met them on the beach."
"Oh, certainly she does not regard it in that way! Why, if you ask me, Darcy, Miss Elizabeth likes your company much better now than she did when we were in Hertfordshire."
He frowned. "Was it apparent to you, then, that she did not like me?"
"I wouldn't go so far as to say that. She seemed inclined to be offended by you."
"Inclined to be offended," he muttered. And he had been inclined to be offensive.
Bingley went on, explaining the details of what he and Jane had discussed, and Darcy had little to do but agree. They would go the following day, provided Miss Elizabeth felt well enough. There had been some tentative talk of dining together that evening as well, but the Gardiners had felt that a quiet evening was desirable before an all-day outing, especially for Elizabeth. So Darcy and Bingley, Miss Bingley and the two Miss Bennets would all go together in one carriage tomorrow, with yet another picnic lunch stowed away. They would explore the ruins, eat, and return in a leisurely fashion when everyone was ready. "What could go wrong?"
"What could go wrong?" he repeated. "Do you remember our first trip out there?"
Mr. Bingley laughed. "Very well indeed. But we shall be very well prepared in case of rain—not that I think it shall rain—and for the rest, you cannot possibly think it will happen again."
"I think it all too likely that some other horrible accident will befall us."
"Nonsense! You mustn't let a couple of mischances spoil your humor. All will be well, you'll see. It shall be the most delightful day possible!"
Elizabeth certainly looked delightful, when they finally saw each other the next morning. She was wearing a hat he hadn't seen before, of blonde straw, with a wine colored ribbon that somehow made her eyes more vibrant and her skin more delicate. He found himself staring with fascination at where the ribbon fell, over the dark tendrils at her ear and the line of her jaw, down her neck.
Beneath the hat, Elizabeth wondered at Mr. Darcy's mien. He looked so solemn; she wanted to make him laugh, or smile at the least. She hoped the events of the last few days had not irrevocably convinced him of her unsuitability; after all, what kind of lady hit men over the head with pokers? Their eyes met and she smiled shyly at him; to her relief, his countenance softened noticeably, and he came to her side. "Miss Elizabeth."
She liked the way he said her name; it seemed not so ordinary as she often thought . "I hope you are well, sir."
"I am, but I have been very concerned about you." He looked at her penetratingly. "Did you receive adequate rest yesterday?"
"Indeed I did! I slept for so long I felt positively indolent and spoiled when I finally rose. And..." she paused, growing more self-conscious. "I must thank you for the flowers. They are"—she searched for the right word—"exquisite."
"Then they do you justice," said Darcy, and she felt suddenly breathless.
"All ready, now?" Mr. Bingley was as cheerful as ever, with Jane smiling sweetly on his arm.
They all clambered into the carriage and set off. The barouche was commodious enough to admit all three ladies across the forward seat. Somehow Miss Bingley ended up uncomfortably situated in the middle, but it wasn't so bad; she was almost amiable to Jane and nearly polite to Elizabeth. Across from them, Mr. Bingley was in high spirits, and even Darcy, though as composed as ever, smiled more than usual. Seated directly opposite him, Elizabeth felt an irresistible urge to try her power. He was not always sedate—she had seen him angered, seen him passionate, seen him act and labor and even fight a man for her sake. He was too calm now; she wanted to disturb him. And yes, though she hardly could admit it to herself, she wanted to allure him.
"I trust your journey along this road will be more pleasant than your last, Miss Elizabeth," said Mr. Bingley. The carriage shook violently as they jostled over dried mud and ruts.
"I do not know that the last was so very bad," she answered, and gave Darcy the briefest, but most flirtatious of looks. He had been about to speak, but paused, his own eyes widening. Suppressing a satisfied laugh, she turned back to Bingley and continued talking, but every few sentences she would cast Darcy another furtive, provocative look, sometimes very bold, sometimes through her lashes. He did not answer—did not speak at all—but sat in his place, legs elegantly crossed, one arm resting along the open edge of the carriage, his gaze fixed with focused steadiness on her face. This was something—to flirt with only her eyes, to converse with perfect sobriety with one man, while enticing another with glances. The drive took over an hour, and only when the inevitable silence fell did she venture a longer, more proper survey. The only signs of her success were his silent attention and a certain rigidity in his seemingly relaxed posture, but she knew all at once that she had done something that would have certain consequences.
The Bleydon ruins represented the remains of a fifteenth century castle keep, surrounded by a few peripheral structures such as a chapel and a stone-worker's cottage. It was mostly fallen down and over-grown with ivy, featuring primarily a single romantic-looking tower and some picturesque arches. Currently, carpets of bluebells and columbines, foxgloves and celandines filled every cool corner and sunny patch. The ladies could not help exclaiming over the prettiness of it all as the carriage drew up.
When Elizabeth exited, Darcy was there to hand her down. His fingers gripped hers tightly, but Miss Bingley was still waiting for assistance behind her. (Bingley had helped Jane out on his side and then promptly forgotten anyone else.) After giving her a long look, he turned back and did his duty, for which he was rewarded by Miss Bingley taking his arm. "Why, what a charming spot," she said. Darcy turned to Elizabeth, clearly wishing her to have the other arm.
She didn't mean to be contrary or coquettish, but delayed embarrassment swamped her and she could not interpret the expression in his eyes. Had she disgraced herself again by her brazenness? Her uncertainty, his proximity—it was all more than she could handle in the bright sunshine with Miss Bingley looking on. Declining his arm, she walked rather primly beside them, avoiding his direct gaze.
Darcy was exasperated. All his feelings of ardor and tenderness had been aroused to fever pitch by Elizabeth's unmistakable looks, and he had been ready to drag her to a secluded spot at the first opportunity. But now he was stuck with Miss Bingley on his arm and Elizabeth, in bewildering reversal, would neither touch him nor look at him. Bingley, blast him, was off wandering around with his Miss Bennet, blissful and oblivious, while he was left with his sister, and the most teasing woman on the face of the earth!
"Mr. Darcy," said Miss Bingley, as they wondered slowly amid the ruins, "I wonder if you can tell me the name of this lovely flower here. Your knowledge of botany is so extensive!"
He gave it a cursory glance, and his lips twitched. "I believe, madam, that that is Honesty."
"Well of course it is! I need not lie to compliment you!" She caressed his forearm and smiled intimately.
"He means the flower," said Elizabeth in her ear, and she jumped.
"I beg your pardon?"
"The flower. It is called Honesty."
Miss Bingley's bewildered gaze went from her amused eyes to the purple clusters to Mr. Darcy, who seemed to be looking anywhere but at them. "You are joking me."
"No," said Darcy, staring at something in the region of his toes, "Miss Bennet is correct."
"Well I never heard of a flower called Honesty. It is a most peculiar name for a plant." Her cheeks were flushed, but she held her head up.
"I believe it is not so common in the north as it is here," conceded Elizabeth. "Oh, look!"
The group all directed their attention through the next archway, where Mr. Bingley could be seen solemnly studying some pattern in the stones over the arch itself, while Jane read from a guidebook in her soft voice.
"Jane is addicted to guidebooks," Elizabeth said. "Any time we travel anywhere at all she buys at least three, and must read aloud the entries for every old building or interesting field we pass."
Darcy remembered that he had seen her with one at the menagerie, and smiled. His quest for Elizabeth's affections was necessarily bringing him into the company of her sister, and he found he liked Jane Bennet very well. She became more interesting on closer acquaintance. "She will undoubtedly do wonders for my friend's education. I do not believe I have ever seen him evince an interest in archaeology before."
"Oh, Charles won't remember one thing in ten later on," said Miss Bingley crossly.
"Perhaps not, but even that one may represent an improvement."
Miss Bingley took stock of his complacent expression and attempted to modify her attitude accordingly. "Dear Jane will be good for him, I'm sure. Shall we join them?"
Join them they did, and the group strolled about for a few minutes, weaving between shadow and sun, breathing honeyed air and touching ancient stones with fingers curious or careless by turn. Elizabeth wondered off on her own eventually, and Darcy was not long in excusing himself from Miss Bingley's side. After a short hunt he found Elizabeth standing in a tiny, crumbling chapel, staring at the engraved cross over the altar.
"You need your sister's guidebook." His voice echoed a little.
She started and turned. "It does not require a guidebook to explain the purpose of this place, or the meaning of that symbol."
"No," he agreed. "They are known to all Christians."
She turned back without answering, and he moved to stand next to her. "You're determined to drive me mad, aren't you?" he said conversationally.
"Mad?" She seemed startled. "You cannot think so. I have no such ambition."
An eloquently raised eyebrow was her only answer. She blushed vividly then, torn between mortification and gratification, and cast about for a change of subject. "Please tell me... that man—Joseph. Has it—"
"He has been remanded to prison to await trial."
He nodded. "The magistrate saw him yesterday, after I gave him my testimony, and also my support for extradition over hanging. It will not be long—he will see a judge and jury within a day or two."
"Oh." They shared a sober silence. "It's disconcerting to think how suddenly a man's life can change forever."
"Yes, and even faster. Men have died with more speed."
Something about his tone caught her attention. "Your father. How did—forgive me, I should not ask."
Darcy smiled wryly at her perceptiveness. "He was thrown from his horse, riding out to see his tenants one day. They determined later that the beast had been stung by a hornet that got caught in the saddle blanket. One day I was in London, with no greater concern than which balls I should attend, and the next I was master of all Pemberley, and guardian to my sister."
"I'm so sorry." The sentiment came simply and naturally. "I had not thought before, what a heavy thing it might be, to be a man in your position. And I know your father was a very good man—my aunt has often spoken of it, since we met you again."
"He was everything kind and amiable," said Darcy. "I miss him often."
Elizabeth thought of her father, how dear he was to her, and how much she would miss him when he, too, was gone.
"I often wonder," began Darcy again, after a minute or so of silence, "how it would have been for Georgiana if my mother were still alive. My sister is... well, she has not your liveliness. Not that I would wish her to be like you, of course, but I fear she may have suffered for—" he paused at her expression. "No, no, I meant no insult!"
She raised an eyebrow.
"Of course I would not wish my sister to be like you! She's... my sister, and you're... not." He gestured futilely.
It was so hard not to laugh. "It's quite all right, Mr. Darcy. You need not explain." He began to look relieved, and she tried to keep a straight face while playing with her gloves. "I am well acquainted with your opinions on my inferiority—I lack true accomplishment, I am merely tolerable—"
"Enough!" he cried, recognizing the half-concealed smirk at last. "Must you insist on mentioning that remark again and again? What is it that you wish? For me to admit that you are the loveliest woman I have ever known?"
Elizabeth gaped and stammered. "Of course not! I—I—"
"Well, you are, Miss Bennet." He stepped towards her. "Although I may have been too blind to perceive it the first night I saw you, I began to admire you almost immediately afterwards, and since then I have come to think of you as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance." He stood over her, clasping his hands determinedly behind his back, staring at her with those intense, dark eyes. "If I have been overly silent in your presence in the past, Elizabeth, it is because I have been too busy contemplating the expression in your eyes or the shape of your lips. If I have appeared cold or curt in my manner it was because I was restraining a desire to say and do things I should not. Your beauty has been a constant presence in my thoughts for months now." He seemed to lean a little closer, as if about to close the space between them. "Now have I said enough, or do you require further reassurance?"
Elizabeth's face was burningly hot by now, her eyes wide. Speechlessly, she shook her head.
"Good." He smiled slightly, ran his eyes lingeringly over her, and turned away. She looked around faintly for a place to sit.
The moment he began to move away from her, Darcy began to fear that he had been too forward, and that she would now avoid him like the plague. She had driven him to it, stubborn and impertinent woman that she was; it was intolerable that she should believe herself anything less than wholly attractive and enticing to him. But he was unhappily aware that in declaring himself so frankly he may have pushed her too far and lost the rapport they had established in the last few days.
As he emerged through the doorway, the figure of Miss Bingley appeared briefly through the trees opposite. Grimacing, he made good his escape, returning to where Bingley was still listening dutifully as Jane read something about Saxons and Normans—although Darcy noted wryly that his gaze, glazed and mooncalf-like, seemed fixed solely on the curls which caressed the narrator's ear. Miss Bingley reappeared shortly, but as the minutes went by without Elizabeth he began to wonder anxiously if he should have left her, and if he should go back. When she finally walked back through the arch, he breathed an audible sigh of relief and moved towards her without even realizing what he did. For a moment it seemed as if she wasn't going to meet his eye, but then she did, and smiled almost shyly at him. Relief washed through him.
All this time the footmen had been busy arranging blankets and plates and food, and now John appeared to politely indicate that their repast was prepared. He offered Elizabeth his arm, and saw with pleasure how readily she took it. Together they climbed the hill.
It was a delightful spot, under a spreading tree and just elevated enough to afford an excellent view of the ruins. The cold meats and cheeses, the pastries, the delicate strawberries and sweet oranges that left their fingers sticky were all well consumed. Even Miss Bingley seemed to mellow beneath her broad-brimmed hat, and much wit and laughter flowed.
"We ought to play a game of some sort," said Bingley lazily, as the plates were removed. "For I'm sure I shan't be ready for more walking for another half-hour at least."
"I know," said Caroline unexpectedly. "Let's all play a game of Consequences."
"Consequences? I haven't played Consequences in years."
"All the more reason to do it now! What better occupation at a picnic? Here, I shall direct. I even have an old letter in my reticule that shall do to write on!" She searched it for a moment, and produced not only a sheet of paper, half written on one side, but a pencil. "What order shall we go in?"
"I'll go first," volunteered Jane. Elizabeth, for her part, had little interest in what she viewed as a rather silly game, and she could guess from the look on Darcy's face that he felt the same, but of course neither of them could be so rude as to refuse.
"Excellent. Anyone else?" She looked around invitingly, and when no one responded immediately declared, "I shall follow dear Jane, and Mr. Darcy, you must go next, and then Miss Elizabeth, and finally you, Charles. Do you all recall what it is that you must write?"
Darcy cleared his throat. "You may have to refresh my memory as to the rules, Miss Bingley."
"It is very simple. Each of you write down something that I tell you at the top of the sheet, and then fold it over so that the next person after you cannot see it. There will be eleven entries in all. Then when we are all finished, I shall open the paper and read what you wrote like a story. The results are always most amusing, I promise you."
"We shall endeavor to amuse then," said Elizabeth.
Miss Bingley handed over the paper and pencil to Jane. "You must write down an adjective-that is a word that describes-for a man."
Jane looked at the paper, sighed a dreamy little sigh, and wrote down gentlemanly.
"Now fold it over," instructed Caroline, "and hand it to me. I am to write a man's name." She looked deliberately at Darcy and wrote down William. Folding it briskly, she handed it to him with a satisfied smile. "Mr. Darcy."
He took it gingerly. "What am I to write?"
"An adjective to describe a woman." She tried to look at him significantly, but his gaze had moved to Elizabeth beside him. Without hesitation he wrote teasing, and passed it to Lizzy. Their eyes met as their fingers brushed together.
"Miss Elizabeth, you must chose a woman's name," said Miss Bingley.
Elizabeth thought about that for a moment. Then, suddenly remembering what Darcy had called her, she put down Hippolyta, with a mischievous smile.
"And now you, Charles. You may write down the place where they met."
Bingley looked longingly at Jane's beautiful face. At a country ball, he scrawled.
"It is your turn again, Jane." She waited impatiently while Bingley slowly gave Jane the paper, getting lost in her eyes several times in the process. "Say what the man wore."
A blue coat, printed Jane, with another sigh, and gave the paper back to Miss Bingley.
"I will write what the woman wore." With some deliberation she wrote, an aurora silk gown trimmed with Brussels lace, and a saffron turban. It was what she had worn the last evening Darcy dined at their house in town. "And now, Mr. Darcy, you must tell us what the man said to the woman when he met her."
He took the paper without comment (and without returning her look again). They were getting down nearer the end of the sheet now, and he, using his knee as a writing surface, took his time. He looked rather grave as he folded it and handed it to Elizabeth again.
"Miss Elizabeth!" Miss Bingley's voice came out a bit sharp. "It's your turn to write what the woman said to the man."
Elizabeth's eyes remained locked with Darcy's for just a moment before she looked down. She held the paper in her open hand, a bit awkwardly, close to her face so that she could not be seen, and wrote against her palm. For some reason, there was tension in the sunny air.
Bingley was very enthusiastic in his writing—"You must say what the consequence of their meeting was, Charles"—and pierced the paper with the pencil three times before he was through.
"Oh, is it my turn again?" asked Jane. "Or is that all?"
"There is one more, but perhaps you'd prefer I took the extra turn." Miss Bingley reclaimed the paper quickly. "I did choose the game, after all. I," she announced, "will answer the question of what the world said." She wrote with a flourish, and smiled around the circle. "Now, shall we not open it and see what our story says? I fancy some might find the content most interesting." She looked significantly at Darcy again, but he missed it for a third time.
Bingley rubbed his hands. "I say, I'm quite excited about this now!"
Caroline unfolded the sheet, now creased in many uneven lines. In a clear, well-modulated voice she read aloud, "Gentlemanly William met teasing Hippolyta at a country ball. My, what an odd name choice, Miss Eliza." Darcy smirked and Elizabeth merely smiled. "William wore a blue coat"—Jane sighed dreamily again—"and Hippolyta wore an evening gown in aurora silk trimmed with Brussels lace, and an aurora turban."
"Somehow I doubt that," murmured Darcy, only loud enough for Elizabeth to hear.
"He said to her, 'If I had it all to do over again, I would do it differently.' She said to him, 'I should have looked harder—I should have seen who you really were.' And the consequence was, they were perfectly, rapturously happy together all the days of their lives. And the world said, 'It is a most fitting match, between those who are equals in every way."
The silence that followed was broken by Miss Bingley. "Do you know," she said, standing up abruptly, "I do believe I'm growing rather warm. And I really should get out of the sun—unlike some I have a care for my complexion. If you'll all excuse me, I think I'll wait in the carriage."
"But we haven't even visited the pond yet," objected Bingley. "Miss Bennet expressly wanted—"
"I doesn't matter, I don't need to—"
"You may take as long as you please," said Miss Bingley coldly. "But I would prefer to sit in the carriage. I've had enough of dirt and insects for one day."
Watching her walk away, Elizabeth felt some pity for her, but did not know what to do. Her distress was of her own making.
"Perhaps we ought to visit the pond now," suggested Darcy.
They all agreed, and the gentlemen helped the ladies to their feet. Past the main ruins was a small path running between some trees that took them down to the pond. It was very pretty, with trees that overhung the bank, and thick rushes along one end where the water flowed out into healthy stream, heading towards the sea. A small dock stood in the water a little way from them, though there were no boats in sight.
The ladies made some pleased exclamations, and their swains obligingly followed them as they wandered about the banks, looking at the water and waterfowl, admiring the trees, and generally enjoying the unique blessings which nature provides.
Elizabeth paused by the dock. "I wonder if anyone ever uses this."
"Perhaps not any more, but once, yes. I'll bet there's some excellent fishing to be had here."
"Do you think so?" They walked out and peered into the water.
"Look," said Darcy, "in the shadows there—a fine, large perch."
"Oh yes, I see," she said after a moment.
"There are probably pike in a pond like this too, and perhaps the odd trout."
For a few minutes they walked around the edge of the dock, pointing out fish and turtles and one exceptionally fat frog who swam by. The quiet of the place was seeping into them, and the warmth of the sun and the glare off the water put them into almost a haze. Eventually they found themselves at the end of the planks, standing not more than three feet apart, just looking at each other. They had stood together on a dock just the week before, but it had not been at all like this.
"Miss Bennet," said Darcy, slowly. "Elizabeth..."
"Hi, Darcy!" Bingley called from the bank. "Come here and take a look at this, will you?" He and Jane were standing a little away, looking towards the sun.
The cheeks of both those standing on the dock colored, and Elizabeth looked away to compose herself. Darcy muttered an apology and walked off.
"Well, what is it, Bingley?" he asked crossly when he reached them.
He gestured towards some pale, veined flowers growing in the grass. "Darcy, didn't you once tell me that these are called cuckooflowers? I remember it because of the odd name."
Darcy looked at him incredulously. "And this is why you called me over?"
"Miss Bennet wants to know," said Bingley, as if that was all the explanation required.
"I always thought they were called Lady's Smock," added Jane.
"It's called by both names, as far as I know," he said, testy in his frustration. "Really, Bingley, what is this sudden mania for wildflowers, and why am I the person to ask? If you and your sister are so fascinated by the names of common field flowers, you ought to buy a book—or hire a gardener to travel with you! But as for me I..."
At this moment, a gallinaceous racket behind him drew the attention of the party to the events taking place on the little dock.
While waiting for Darcy to return, Elizabeth had found herself accosted by a trio of belligerent geese, who, having often been fed by visitors who came to the ruins, had grown very bold. Their heads came as high as her waist, and though she was at first amused at their approach, she quickly became alarmed as they crowded around her, honking loudly. One of them snatched at her reticule and she pulled it back, looking futilely for something to defend herself with. Another nipped at her skirt, and she gave it a swift kick, but stumbled back a step as she did so. A third nip sent her jumping back the other way—but unfortunately, there was no dock left. Her foot landed more than halfway on air, she teetered, tried to regain her balance and finally, before Darcy's horrified gaze, tumbled ungracefully into the water with an impressive splash.
"Elizabeth!" cried Darcy, and lunged towards the edge of the pond.
"Mr. Darcy, do not!" cried Jane. "I do not believe it is very..." her voice faltered as he practically flung himself into the water, "deep."
Indeed it was not deep. Elizabeth came up sputtering a moment later, hat limp and hair in her eyes. She floundered for just a bit before finding her feet. She stood up just as Darcy reached her, and found the water did not reach above her waist.
"Elizabeth!" he gasped, seizing her by the arms. "Are you hurt?" Her only reply was a hiccup, and a futile shove at the water and hair in her eyes. "Oh, my love..." murmured Darcy, and, without further ceremony, picked her up in his arms.
Such a gesture was not strictly necessary, as Lizzy was unharmed and quite capable of walking out, but she could not find it in herself to object. Instead she clung to him as, holding her tightly to his chest, he began to wade back towards shore. Wading through thigh-high water is never easy, and her added weight caused his fine boots to sink into the mud, but he struggled determinedly on, clutching his prize. When they reached the shore he collapsed on the ground, still holding her.
Elizabeth's hat, which had been so jaunty that morning, was soaked and drooping now; plus, it had an annoying way of getting between her face and Darcy's. She tugged at the ribbons and when they would not give way, pushed it backwards on her head, making an even greater mess of her hair in the process.
"Forgive me, Elizabeth," Darcy was saying, his voice full of emotion.
"Why?" His face was so near, his eyes so full of feeling, and she could feel his heart pounding so clearly, that without even thinking about it, she wrapped both her arms around his neck.
"I have led you into one disaster after another! I am a miserable protector!" If possible, he drew her even closer.
"It was the stupid geese," she said. "I hate geese."
"I hate geese too," he answered, and kissed her.
All this was observed by a highly interested Mr. Bingley and a blushing but also interested Jane Bennet. They would likely have continued in their observations, except that just then a step was heard on the path behind them. Their eyes leapt to each other's, both thinking the same thing.
"Your sister!" hissed Jane, and looked pointedly at the embracing couple.
"I'll head her off," whispered Bingley back, and then added, just before he turned, "my darling."
That one word was enough to make Jane forget all about her sister and lapse into a happy daze of her own.
On the grass, Darcy drew his head back slowly. Elizabeth's head rested against his shoulder, her eyes shut and her cheeks flushed and damp. She still had a mark where her cheek had been cut, surrounded by the mottled remains of the bruise, and her hair was in sodden disarray, but he cared not. "I am surely the most incompetent lover who ever lived," he said, "but I do love you. You must see that."
Her eyes opened, and sparkled. "I got your coat wet, I'm afraid."
"I don't care about my coat! Elizabeth, I'm trying to ask you to marry me."
That made her grow serious again. "You need not, just because I fell into a pond."
"I don't care about the pond either! Or at least, I care, but that's not why I'm asking." He drew back a little further, just enough so that they could really look at each other. "I came to Morecastle on a foolish, improbable whim, hoping to somehow find you—and I did. I've bungled everything since then—I bungled everything before—but it was always—"
"You didn't bungle everything." She removed one hand from the back of his neck and placed it against his cheek. It was still gloved, and the glove was wet, but he did not mind. "On the contrary, you have done what I would never have believed possible." He held his breath, waiting. "In scarcely more than a week, you have effected so material a change in my feelings towards you, that I think... I am almost certain... that is, I believe that I..." She paused an infinitesimal moment, then spoke the word, even as it rose, formed and clear and adorned with truth, in her mind. "...love you." Darcy inhaled sharply. "I love you," she repeated, and smiled tremulously bright.
He closed his eyes briefly, looked in her eyes one more time, and, finally able to do something other than just look, Darcy once again lowered his head and sealed her lips with his own.
"For the last time, Charles, I wish you to stand aside and let me pass!" Miss Bingley had reached a high point of exasperation.
"I can't," he repeated doggedly.
"I don't understand why not! Has the pond dried up all of a sudden? Or is there something shocking about the color of its water, or the ripple of its waves?"
"No, I just think you would prefer to wait in the carriage, as you said."
"It's those Bennet girls, isn't it? They sent you to turn me back! Why? What do they hope to accomplish?" She strained to look past his shoulder.
"Of course it's not them, but I just think, Caroline—" his thought was unfinished as she seized a small opening and darted past him. "No, wait, I really must insist—"
He had just caught up with her and placed a restraining hand on her arm when she burst out of the path into the clearing by the pond. Her gaze, like a homing pigeon returning to roost, lit immediately on the object of its greatest interest, and the clearing echoed, ever so briefly, with a clear, high-pitched shriek.
Miss Bingley did not remain hysterical for long, but it was sufficient to bring the lovers to themselves. Elizabeth blushed furiously but Darcy continued to hold her protectively, until Jane stepped up and delicately reminded them both that Lizzy was soaked and Darcy not much better. Bingley succeeded in sending his shocked sister back to the carriage to request blankets and whatever else might be available to warm and dry them, then volunteered his own coat to wrap the lady. Since Lizzy had become belatedly aware of how immodest a wet gown actually is, she was very grateful to accept it, and to walk with Jane to a more private spot.
Still watching her, Darcy climbed slowly to his feet. Bingley clapped him on the shoulder. "My warmest congratulations!"
"I'll bet you never thought you would owe your happiness to a pair of geese, eh?"
Darcy's gaze turned dark as he peered around the pond. "Those birds ought to be shot."
"I daresay they shall be, one of these days."
"We shall have no geese at Pemberley."
"Of course not."
"Except on the dinner table."
Bingley just grinned. Coming a little more to himself, Darcy glanced ruefully down at his wet leathers and muddied boots. "My man is likely to quit my service when he sees me. He only this morning informed me that the boots I wore last Friday will never be the same again, despite all his efforts. I thought he was going to cry."
"Tell him he's to have a new mistress, and I am sure he shall forgive you."
That made Darcy smile again, his whole countenance lightening as he glanced towards where he ladies had gone. "And you, my friend? When do you intend to secure your happiness?"
"Soon. That is, if certain of my companions can cease drawing attention to themselves."
Rather than taking offense Darcy only laughed and then trudged off, boots squishing, to where Miss Bingley could be seen leading John, his arms piled high with blankets and carriage rugs. After he had done his best to clean himself up, and Miss Bennet had helped Elizabeth to do the same, they all came back together before returning to the carriage. Although drier than she had been, Elizabeth was still wrapped in a large blanket, for warmth and modesty. They had let down her hair, which was beginning to curl wildly as it dried. She looked, in truth, so very desirable, that Darcy could not forbear to take one of the hands that peeked out of her wrappings, and press it to his lips. She blushed happily and grinned at him.
"It would be better for my peace of mind if you were less pleasing than you are, but I cannot regret it," he said.
"Oh! You shall make a fine husband, if you will but continue with comments like that!" she laughed.
"Then I am assured of success." He kissed her hand again.
On the ride home no one objected to the two damp travelers sharing a seat, and if their hands sometimes found each other beneath the blankets, not even Miss Bingley commented on it. Elizabeth was deeply happy and almost as bewildered, unable to care how she looked, but electrifyingly conscious of the man beside her.
She was not so absorbed in herself that she did not notice the eager glances Mr. Bingley threw her sister. As these glances were made over the crown of his sister's hat they were not very effective, but she smiled to herself, knowing it would not be long before Jane joined her in her new status.
When they at last arrived at home it was growing late, and the dinner hour was nearly upon them. There were exclamations from Mrs. Gardiner on seeing how wet and bedraggled Elizabeth was, and a great movement to get her upstairs without delay, but somehow she managed a moment nearly alone with him, in the hall, still wrapped in her blanket.
"I will write to your father immediately," whispered Darcy. "In the meantime, may I speak to your uncle?"
She nodded. "You will return for dinner?"
"If your aunt will still receive me."
"Of course she will."
"If she objects, I have bribes."
"Bribes?" She raised her eyebrows, but he simply smiled a faint, mysterious smile. "You continue to surprise me, Mr. Darcy."
"Well, thank heaven for that, anyway."
They contemplated each other a moment longer, constrained by the company around them from further action, then Elizabeth was hustled away by her aunt. All the way up the stairs she kept looking over her shoulder, and her last glimpse of Darcy was of him standing with damp and tousled hair, a dark line of wet still marking his trousers above the knee, several water marks on his coat, and his eyes fixed with certainty on herself. He was, she thought, the most beautiful man in the world.
Yes, reflected Elizabeth before her mirror as the maid combed the tangles out of her hair, Mr. Darcy was the first man, the only man in all the world, she could ever be prevailed upon to marry. "Jane," she said aloud to her sister, making her own toilette across the room, "is there any felicity in the world compared to being in love? How glad I am that we came here! How glad I am that we did not go to the Lakes!"