Several chapters later, I'm still not Jane Austen. I've learned so much from writing this story. I've learned about some of my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. I've learned that there's still so much I don't know, about the Regency period as well as about writing in general. And I've learned how much comments matter, especially about how much more effective a criticism is when it's accompanied by a compliment, or at least by some expression of pleasure. Thank you all, for your interest, for your compliments, and for your honesty.
Note: I have changed the way some of the characters are addressed in this chapter (see above regarding things I didn't know before). Forgive the inconsistency, but now that I understand how it should be done better, I couldn't leave it as it was.
Overheard, Chapter Seven
Fitzwilliam Darcy disliked many things. He disliked porridge, assemblies, sea voyages, and bees. But the one thing he despised more than any other was simpering.
The woman standing before Darcy, simpering flirtatiously with the ease of long practice, was both a welcome sight and a painful irritant. Her emerald green dress was striking, as was her tall, peacock-feathered headdress, and he couldn't help but think that she looked lovely. As much as he'd always wished her exterior matched his knowledge of her mind, he had to admit that she knew how to attire herself to her own best advantage. He was certain that every eligible man in the room had just remarked her presence. If only he could warn them in advance of the evils of drawing her attention.
"Mr. Darcy! It has been far, far too long! I am most put out at the number of dinner invitations you have declined from Louisa in the past few weeks. You cannot truly have been so busy as to have no time for some of your very dearest friends."
Miss Bingley pouted in a way he suspected was meant to be alluring, but the manner in which it contorted her face made her quite unattractive.
"I have been busy," he answered, being most careful not to offer any kind of apology. "My personal affairs have taken a toll on my social calendar. But I am glad for the opportunity to host tonight. I hope you have a… memorable evening."
"I hope to find a more private opportunity to speak with you tonight, sir," she said, leaning forward conspiratorially. "I am concerned about Charles—I've barely seen him of late, and he's been acting very strangely."
"He has indeed." Darcy met her gaze for a single moment but made no promise to find her later. Instead he turned to the couple entering his door and offered them an enthusiastic welcome.
He held a quick conversation with his friends but his mind followed Miss Bingley a few steps to his left.
"Georgiana!" Miss Bingley cried in delight, taking Georgiana's hands and clasping them warmly. "It has been ever so long. You seem to have been as busy this week as your brother has been. I called on you Tuesday morning, and again on Thursday. Did you not receive my cards?"
If Darcy hadn't known her better, he'd have truly thought she felt neglected. Perhaps she did.
"Of course I received them, Caroline," Georgiana said, shifting a little uncomfortably but maintaining a warm smile. "But I have been terribly busy, especially since we decided to host this dinner party, and I've had no time whatsoever to make visits. I hoped you would allow this evening as my apology."
"Oh, yes," Miss Bingley said, still looking a bit like an injured puppy, "I understand. But you must find some time amidst your duties tonight to spend with me. We will have much to discuss after being cruelly parted for so long."
Georgiana smiled weakly, and Darcy practically pushed his friends toward her, which forced Miss Bingley out of the way before Georgie had to form some sort of awkward reply. Darcy watched Miss Bingley enter the large formal parlor of Darcy House and look around, noticing the Hursts standing on the far side of the room with Bingley and then searching with narrowed eyes, probably hunting for the most socially advantageous person with whom she could begin a conversation.
Darcy sighed. A part of him felt guilty for the planned course of the evening's events. Well, that was not the entire truth. He, himself, felt not a single grain of guilt for what he'd planned. The guilt he was feeling was all for Elizabeth's sake. She had been worrying for the past two days about the evening, waffling back and forth between feeling vindictive and forgiving regarding Miss Bingley's actions. He didn't want to hurt Elizabeth, but he knew that a just punishment now for Miss Bingley was the best way to assure his and Elizabeth's future security, as well as Miss Bennet's.
Bingley, too, had been having second thoughts, but Darcy had managed to keep them all strong, and now it was too late to change plans. They would simply have to wait and see how the evening unfolded.
"Nephew!" called an imperious voice at the door. Darcy turned as the footman helped Lady Matlock with her cloak. There was little remarkable about the Countess of Matlock, besides the fashionable state of her attire, but just like her son, she drew the attention of every person in any room she entered. "It is almost as if even the weather recognizes the significance of a dinner party in your home. I was certain it would snow, but the world remains brown."
"Yes, milady," Darcy replied with a smile, kissing her hand although his eyes lingered on the doorway. "I put in the Heavenly orders myself yesterday afternoon."
"Very thoughtful," she chuckled.
Darcy's intense stare toward the door was finally rewarded as Elizabeth, Miss Bennet, and the Gardiners appeared. Three of them looked cheerful and impressed at his home's appearance, but Elizabeth's eyes sought his immediately, and he could see the apprehension there.
"It is not considered very fashionable, Darcy," advised Lady Matlock in a whisper, "for young men to sigh at every appearance of their beloved. You are expected to be respectful but not overly attached."
He blushed a little and smiled ruefully at the delighted humor on her face. "I shall do my best to remember your advice."
Darcy greeted Elizabeth and her family, wishing he could do more than kiss her hand but holding back as they had discussed. Bingley appeared at Georgiana's side as she greeted them happily, and he took Miss Bennet's arm immediately.
"Come along now, Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth," commanded Lady Matlock imperiously. "There are a few people to whom you must be introduced as soon as possible. Oh, Lady Watson!"
Darcy remained at the door but watched as Lady Matlock swept the Bennet ladies through the room, introducing them to several of his family members and friends before finally leaving them and returning to stand near Georgiana and greet her properly.
As another set of guests entered and drew Georgiana's attention, Darcy saw Miss Bingley leave her conversation and almost run toward Lady Matlock, moving so quickly that her headdress nearly toppled.
"Miss Bingley," his aunt said, inclining her head slightly and smiling.
"Countess, how very fine to see you." Miss Bingley curtsied low but kept her eager eyes on his aunt.
"And you, my dear. You look well."
"As do you, milady. I am so very glad to see you. I feel as if I've seen none of my friends this week."
Darcy had been most surprised to discover from Lady Matlock that Miss Bingley had been invited to tea at Matlock House several times in the past few weeks. It was strange to see her interacting so comfortably with the aunt of whom he'd always known her to be in awe.
"Yes, we have all been very busy. How have you been?"
"I've been very well, thank you. And yourself?"
"Very well, indeed."
Miss Bingley looked around then, and Darcy snapped his eyes onto the latest guests entering, greeting them loudly. He noticed Miss Bingley draw his aunt further aside. Luckily for him, the alcove in which they stood, shaped to allow for the displaying of a bronze bust to best advantage, also directed the sound of the conversation most effectively back toward him.
"Milady," Miss Bingley finally said, her voice hushed and her eyes furtive. "Would you allow me to ask you something?"
"It appears that you have become acquainted with Miss Jane Bennet and her sister Miss Elizabeth. You conducted them here tonight?"
"Yes, they have been recently introduced to me. It seemed kind to share my carriage with them."
"Are you aware, milady, of who they are?"
"Who they are?"
"Indeed," Miss Bingley answered, looking pained, as if sorry to divulge anything unpleasant. "Do you remember the beginning of our acquaintance?"
"Of course, I do. 'Twas only a few weeks ago you sent me that letter warning me about…" His aunt stopped as Miss Bingley raised her eyebrows significantly. "Oh, dear."
"You do remember! Miss Elizabeth Bennet, with whom you seem so friendly, is the woman I mentioned to you. I was most afraid Mr. Darcy would continue to pay attentions to her. I have done my utmost to separate them but she seems quite wantonly determined to keep his attentions. Do you know much of her family?"
"I have received some small summary of the situation. She is certainly not all I would wish in terms of fortune for my nephew, but I believe he likes her a great deal. And she is quite charming."
"Oh, yes, she does seem acceptable at first, but milady, looks can be deceiving. If you will remember the things I told you about her, it has obviously grown worse in these past weeks, especially considering that she came to London to continue her pursuit. It is embarrassing how easily she influences him! I am horrified both by his interest in her and her continuing attempts to maintain his attentions. Milady, I tell you this only for his sake. I would not wish for him to make a match that he would regret, nor Georgiana—dear Georgiana! She would suffer so much if he made such an inappropriate choice."
Lady Matlock's expression had become very grave. "I see what you are saying, Miss Bingley, and I thank you again for your warning. Indeed, it has had a very powerful effect on my opinions in these past weeks."
"Milady, you compliment me." Darcy had never seen Miss Bingley looking so delighted.
"I will think upon what you have said. Thank you for your advice."
"Oh, no! I would never presume to give advice. I only shared information."
"Of course. Thank you, Miss Bingley. Forgive me, but I must return…"
"Yes, of course. I hope to find you later."
"I hope you do."
The two ladies nodded graciously at one another, and Lady Matlock glided smoothly past Darcy and Georgiana, meeting Darcy's eyes for a single significant moment before moving past him toward a small circle of her favorite confidantes, which included her two sisters.
Miss Bingley returned to scanning the room for advantageous conversations, stopping to scowl pointedly at her brother, who was conducting Miss Bennet from person to person and introducing her and Elizabeth to as many people as he could possibly manage. Elizabeth noticed Darcy's eyes on her and gave him a wry grin.
Yes, it should be Darcy introducing her to everyone, they both knew, but he would rectify the situation as soon as he was able.
A few more minutes passed as the last of the guests trickled through the door, and once the final set had arrived, Darcy nodded to the footman. He disappeared out the door as Darcy escorted Georgiana toward the center of the room.
"Well, cousins," Colonel Fitzwilliam said as they approached him, "your evening has certainly begun as a success. Few other dinner parties could draw such an illustrious crowd on such short notice during December."
Darcy raised his eyebrow and glanced around the room. Fitzwilliam was correct—the gathered company was fairly impressive in terms of social stature and accrued wealth. There were nearly more titles in that room than the queen's parlor could boast on any given afternoon. That was not, however, what Darcy saw. He saw merely a collection of his dearest and most trusted family and friends. There were many who had not been invited that night who might say they should have been, and there were many more who would read about it in the society pages tomorrow and wish they had been, but the people gathered in that room at that moment were truly only distinguished by how much the Darcy siblings cared for them.
And there was Miss Bingley.
"Let us hope it continues to be so successful," Darcy answered.
"What is it you three have been planning?" asked Lord Fitzwilliam, Colonel Fitzwilliam's older brother, as he stepped up beside Fitzwilliam and looked between the Darcy's and the colonel. "Richard has been very tight-lipped for two days, and mother has been downright giddy."
Darcy looked at Lord Fitzwilliam and his wife Lady Amelia Fitzwilliam. They were a handsome couple, both lightly colored with noble features, and after their five years of marriage, they still seemed happy. Darcy remembered what Georgiana had mentioned during their conversation several days before about Lord Fitzwilliam's former mistress, but he hoped she knew how loving and loyal he had been to his wife since their marriage. Darcy, of course, had never approved of much of what his elder cousin did—his politics were much too liberal, as far as Darcy was concerned, as had been his personal life—but he had certainly watched the viscount's marriage with surprised admiration.
He only hoped that he and Elizabeth would be as happy, and as well matched.
"All will be clear soon enough," Darcy assured him. "It would take far too much explanation now."
"I hope it's something dastardly," Lady Fitzwilliam laughed, her eyes sparkling. "Lady Matlock has been saying for weeks how very boring our family has been this year. Hardly a scandal in sight."
"Well, we'll take care of that," Darcy muttered drily as he caught sight of the footman returning. The young man nodded, and Darcy stepped far enough back to turn to his guests. "Ladies and gentlemen, Georgiana and I are delighted that you've all been able to join us tonight. Dinner is served."
The waiting footmen opened the double doors into the dining room, and Darcy led Georgiana into the room at the front of the company, conducting her to her seat at the far end of the table then returning to his at the head. The rest of the guests filed in and found their places, arranging themselves accordingly. Bingley led his sister to her seat somewhere near the center of the left side of the table then conducted Miss Bennet, who was on his other arm, down to their seats on Georgiana's right.
Miss Bingley looked quite dismayed, Darcy noticed, as she found herself flanked by his great-uncles. The two older men, who were known for their vociferous arguing on the floor of the House of Lords, greeted each other and Miss Bingley politely. She looked uncertain and subsequently shocked as the two men began a deeply serious discussion practically over her head. She would learn for the first time that night that these same uncles were also known, within the family, to spend any time not on Parliament's floor cheerfully discussing fishing. For hours.
Finally, among the last to enter, Fitzwilliam escorted Elizabeth into the dining room just ahead of his parents. Even after his conversation with Fitzwilliam about her loyalty, it still caused Darcy a pang to watch his cousin conduct her into the room. She was smiling at him, evidently still laughing about an earlier comment, and Darcy wanted to hit him.
Darcy found satisfaction, however, in the seating arrangements. Fitzwilliam escorted Elizabeth to her seat exactly on Darcy's right-hand and bowed to her before returning to the far end of the long—very long—table to sit on Georgiana's left.
"Good evening, Miss Elizabeth," Darcy offered warmly.
"Good evening, sir," she answered, smiling gently. "I am quite overcome by the distinction of sitting beside my host."
"I could not bear to spend any more of my evening than necessary separate from you," he replied quietly.
She blushed and stared into her lap, but he saw the reluctant smile on her face.
After everyone was seated, Darcy stood, clearing his throat for their attention. "Ladies and gentlemen, friends and family, Georgiana and I have invited you here this evening to celebrate the season with us—as most of you know, Christmas is Georgiana's favorite time of year. However, few of you are aware, but we are gathered here tonight not only to celebrate Christmas together, but also to celebrate an occasion that will occur a few weeks in the future. Most of you know my friend, Mr. Bingley, but I have been given the honor tonight of announcing his engagement to this lovely young lady, Miss Jane Bennet of Hertfordshire."
There was polite applause around the table as Darcy's relations looked over Miss Bennet with what seemed, after a few moments, to be approving eyes. She was radiant, attired in a new dress that well-befitted what would be her new station, and her becomingly shy smile and modest blushing only added to her charm. The only disapproval came from Miss Bingley, who had released an embarrassingly dismayed moan just after the announcement and then managed to hold her tongue, even if the anger in her eyes might have flayed Bingley alive across the distance between them.
"Bingley, we congratulate you and Miss Bennet from the bottom of our hearts, and wish you both long life and happiness. And now, I propose that our meal begin!"
The footmen gathered at the sideboard dispersed, and as the chatter of long-acquainted family and friends began immediately around them, Darcy turned to Lady Matlock, who was seated on his left. "Is everything in place for after the meal?"
"I decided to move forward a bit early," his aunt replied, winking mischievously at Elizabeth. "An excellent opportunity appeared some minutes ago, and I simply had to take it. If I'm not mistaken, we'll be able to hear the fruits of my effort before many more minutes pass."
Darcy gazed uncertainly at his aunt. He wanted to question her initiative, but he simply nodded and tried not to look disapproving. Her dark eyes were sparkling, as they always did when she was excessively pleased with herself. He could see her resemblance to her sons most powerfully when she smiled. She was a handsome woman still, but even more than that, she was a powerful one, and everything about her carriage and expression indicated that she had become quite comfortable with the influence she wielded. She was all feathers and pearls and cheerful confidence that night in particular. Darcy thought of himself as a powerful man, but even he did not question Lady Matlock, especially not about something like this.
Darcy was just moving to turn back to Elizabeth when Lord and Lady Fitzwilliam engaged her attention. His cousin was at his most charming and Lady Fitzwilliam was at her sweetest as the two of them began a gentle-yet-merciless questioning of Elizabeth's background and situation. Lord Fitzwilliam regularly shot Darcy curious looks as Elizabeth answered each one of their questions with complete candor, although she squirmed her way through their needlings about her fortune and connections in an elegant and completely uninformative manner.
Lady Matlock listened to the whole exchange with nearly silent chuckles as Elizabeth dodged each one of their angles of attack, all the while appearing completely calm, collected, cheerful, and open.
Darcy glowed and almost couldn't control the wide smile that threatened to break out over his face.
Finally Lady Fitzwilliam's, and therefore her husband's, attention was diverted by someone on their far side, and Darcy heard Elizabeth draw in a long, deep breath.
"You navigated that situation most impressively," he muttered to her.
"How did they manage to interrogate me so deeply and remain so charming?" Elizabeth asked, laughing with chagrin.
"Years of practice. The question is, I believe, how you managed to escape their snares so blithely."
"The answer is the same—years of practice. Society is not so very different in London, I think, sir. It is simply larger, and its fads, whims, and caprices are more magnified by its greater concentration."
Darcy nodded in agreement, and Lady Matlock laughed, also nodding sagely.
"Mama!" Lady Fitzwilliam hissed, turning toward Lady Matlock across the end of the table. "Have you heard?"
Lady Matlock's expression was eager, far more than it should have been, but Darcy tensed, and he could sense Elizabeth's sudden stillness beside him.
"I had no idea of it," Lady Fitzwilliam went on, her eyes bright, "but of course now that I know it, I am unsurprised. She has always been most attentive to any man of more than ten thousand a year, and I remember seeing her with him several times, always in company but most attentive to each other. Oh, I am embarrassed not to have realized it before!"
"Of what do you speak, Amelia?" Lady Matlock asked impatiently. "Who?"
"Why, Miss Bingley, of course!" she whispered, the sound barely carrying over the distance between them.
Lady Matlock began to question her daughter-in-law, but she noticed that their conversation was drawing too much attention and gave them all a quelling glance, leading them to spend the rest of the meal finding other topics of which to speak. Darcy was torn between relief—he hated listening to gossip, even when it was important—and disappointment—he most ardently wanted to hear the story.
It wasn't until after the gentlemen had rejoined the ladies in the parlor that Darcy's curiosity was finally appeased.
"Lizzy! Did you hear that?"
Elizabeth stood next to Darcy, having just finished conversing with one of Darcy's favorite cousins, and she turned quickly in response to the emotion in her sister's voice. "Hear what, Jane?"
"Did you hear what that woman was saying about Caroline?"
Elizabeth looked vaguely ill for just a moment before feigning ignorance. "No, I didn't."
"Oh, it was too awful. I can't even repeat it!" Jane moaned, tears springing up in her eyes. An uncomfortable tightening of his chest irritated Darcy. This was why they hadn't told Miss Bennet—she was far too kind a creature. Bingley stood next to his intended, staring at Darcy murderously.
"Please, Jane. I would very much like to know what has upset you so?"
"I can hardly bear it." Miss Bennet sniffled, using a handkerchief Bingley had handed her. "She said that Caroline… No, I cannot say it."
"Jane, you must be strong."
Miss Bennet sighed and gulped. "Very well. She said that Caroline is…m-m-mistress to a Lord McCormac? Is that right, Charles?"
"Yes," Bingley answered gravely. "Lord McCormac. He is a Scotsman, a distant cousin who inherited a title but has not managed an entrance into society very graciously. He is wealthy, to be sure, but Caroline his mistress? That seems difficult to believe."
"Difficult to believe?" Miss Bennet turned wide eyes on him. "Charles, are you drunk? How can you speak so unfeelingly about it? I know you are still angry at your sister, but you could not wish for this lie to spread."
"No, I do not wish it to spread." Bingley turned that glare back on Darcy and leaned nearer. "You're sure, Darcy?"
Darcy waved him away in irritation. Had the man no discretion?
"Jane, what else did she say?" Elizabeth kept Miss Bennet's attention.
"She said that not only was she mistress to him, but that they were to be married as soon as possible because… Oh!"
"Because she is with child!" The words escaped her mouth wrapped in a moan, and she covered her mouth with the handkerchief before closing her eyes and bursting into silent tears.
As Elizabeth took Miss Bennet's arm and led her quickly out into the hall, Mr. and Mrs. Hurst approached them, Mrs. Hurst's eyes wide. "Have you heard what they are saying about Caroline?"
"Yes, yes," Bingley said absently, watching his distressed beloved disappear through the doorway.
"Charles! How can you be so inattentive to something regarding your own sister? It is too horrible!"
"'Tis not inattention, Louisa," Bingley cried, turning back to her impatiently. "I am simply trying to think through the situation!"
"How could this have happened?" Mrs. Hurst asked, sending furtive glances around the room as she lowered her voice. "Everyone is talking about her!"
"Well, it's a simple enough mistake to be a little indiscrete in such an affair," Mr. Hurst said gruffly.
His wife, his brother-in-law, and Darcy all stared at him, dumbfounded.
Mr. Hurst reddened and turned away. "Darcy, where is that fine brandy you know I like?"
Mrs. Hurst watched her husband's back with narrowed eyes for just a moment before turning back to her brother. "Well! I must find Caroline. We must find a way to stop this rumor as soon as possible."
She bustled away, disappearing among the chattering guests.
"Darcy, are you certain it has not gone too far?" Bingley whispered, his eyes having returned to the doorway.
"I am certain this is how things must happen. This is the best way. Charles, don't you see that?"
"No, I do not. I am most fearful of what will happen if..."
"'Tis not even risk. We will be very careful." Darcy tried not to speak through clenched teeth. Why could none of them remember how necessary this was?
"Very well. Poor Jane."
"Yes. Yes, perhaps you'd best go and comfort her. Although, she may not wish for your comfort at the moment."
"Thank you very much for that, by the way."
"I am sorry, old man." He was sorry, sorry for Miss Bennet's pain, for Bingley's fears, and for the look of uncertainty is Elizabeth's eyes as she turned away. She agreed with him, didn't she? This was the right course, was it not? "I am sure it will all come right soon enough."
"Did you hear?" a shrill voice demanded. Darcy had intended to return to mingling with his guests, but Bingley had needed distracting once he returned from attempting to comfort Miss Bennet, who had informed him definitively, though kindly, that he should return to the party without her. He had noticed the bobbing peacock feather, trailed by the Hursts, approaching them just a moment too late to make his escape.
"Charles! Did you hear what these people have been saying about me?" Miss Bingley whispered in a voice so high she sounded strangled. "That was me, was it not, about whom they were speaking? I thought at first… I had heard whisperings all night. Everyone has been looking at me so strangely. And snubbing me—they were snubbing me! I thought perhaps they just could not hear me. How could something like this happen? It's so ridiculous! Lord McCormac?"
Bingley shifted uncomfortably. "Well, you did dance with him once, did you not?"
"Of course I danced with him once! He asked me, and I wanted to dance the rest of the evening—I could not say no—but that doesn't mean that…" Her voice trailed off, and her face reddened even further, which combined with her emerald green dress to remind Darcy strikingly of the holly on the mantel. "Oh. Oh! How mortifying! Charles, you must defend me. You must do something!"
Darcy tensed. Here was the moment. Darcy caught Bingley's elbow and nodded toward the doorway, leading him, Miss Bingley, and the Hursts into the library across the corridor. He gave Bingley a significant glance as they entered the room and arrayed themselves near the fireplace, and Bingley nodded, looking determined. Bingley straightened, resettling his jacket on his shoulders. "How can I defend you? Caroline, I have no proof."
"Proof?" She squeaked, her eyes traveling the shadows of the room before landing desperately on her brother's face. "You are a gentleman. Your word should count…"
"No man's word can stand on its own," Bingley interrupted, his voice impressively powerful, "particularly when I know nothing of the truth of the circumstances. For all I know you are engaged to Lord McCormac."
"And carrying his child?" Miss Bingley's sharp voice pierced Darcy's skull like a nail. "Charles, how could you?" She turned to Darcy. "Mr. Darcy, will you do nothing? This is your home! You hold much influence with your guests. I demand that someone defend me!"
Darcy couldn't hold back. "Really, Miss Bingley? Who defended Miss Elizabeth when you spread such defamations about her character all over Meryton?"
Miss Bingley's aspect shifted from holly to mistletoe in a single breath, her skin as pale as the snow Darcy noticed had just begun falling. "W-w-what?" she stammered, taking an automatic step backward. "I don't… I don't know what you could possibly mean, sir!"
Darcy drew a fortifying draught of air, determined to appear calm and unruffled despite his raging emotions. "Miss Bingley, there is a mountain's worth of evidence against you. It would be greatly to your detriment to continue denying what we all know to be the complete truth. Reserve some of your dignity, and be honest."
He could see his words register, see her eyes dart back and forth between Darcy and her brother. She swallowed convulsively, seeming to shrink so that her peacock feather almost dwarfed her. "I did not spread the rumor deliberately. It was… it was practically an accident!"
"Practically?" Bingley scoffed.
Darcy noticed that Mrs. Hurst, who had been standing a moment before next to her sister, her staunch, loyal supporter, had now shuffled backward toward her husband, who was watching the entire proceeding with a wickedly delighted grin.
"Well, I… oh, I was only trying to help."
"To help what?" Bingley and Darcy both replied instantly.
"I was only trying to save you from making such a foolish match, both of you!" She cast pleading, innocent eyes on them. "No offence to Jane Bennet. She is a sweet girl but certaintly not the best match you could make, Charles. You must see that. Can you not see why I was concerned?"
Bingley began to speak, rising to defend Miss Bennet, but Darcy spoke over him. "Yes, but it was not Miss Bennett about whom you spread such a rumor, was it?
Miss Bingley stared at Darcy anxiously, and he could see her calculating, trying to decide which answer would serve her best. Finally, she made her decision. She stood tall, held her head high, and replied, "Well, it was the best I could do to rescue you from that tart!"
Darcy hadn't even had time to register the depth of his rage before a calm, gracious voice said from the doorway. "I beg your pardon."
"You notice she does not deny it?" Miss Bingley cried, panic in her eyes. The accusing finger she was pointing at Elizabeth, who had stepped through the door with her sister on her arm, was trembling. "She does not even react in outrage to my calling her such! Is that not evidence against her? I think so."
Darcy scoffed. "Miss Bingley, you are clutching at straws and embarrassing yourself."
"I am not embarrassing myself," she replied harshly, as if to convince herself of her words. "You deny the truth! You are the one who remains completely unaware of how ridiculous your attentions are to a girl so wholly inappropriate." She stared at Elizabeth and stepped once toward her. "We all know of your intention to trap Mr. Darcy. You embarrass yourself by being so brazen, so wanton in your flirtations." Then she spun and came to Mr. Darcy's side, winding her arm through his as she faced Elizabeth again. "And sir, I must say that it is embarrassing how much you lead her on. He would never offer for you, Miss Eliza. He is far too intelligent, too honorable and aware of his status in society to make such a preposterous choice! Are you not, sir? Do you not see her for what she is?"
"I see her, Miss Bingley," Darcy said, none too gently unwinding Miss Bingley's arm from his, "for exactly what she is."
"What is happening here?" Miss Bennet finally said. She was glancing back and forth between Elizabeth, Darcy, Bingley, and Miss Bingley, her eyes wide and worried. "Caroline, why would you say such a cruel thing about Elizabeth? I am sorry, so sorry, that my engagement to your brother makes you so unhappy, but that does not mean you may say such awful things about my sister. Please, can we not all calm down and calmly discuss the situation. I am sure, when all our feelings are aired, we may all be friends."
"Friends?" Miss Bingley barked, glared at Elizabeth. "I will not be seen in public with any of you, not for years! I shall make my distance very clear, and when society rejects all four of you for your stupidly low marriages, I shall remain undefiled."
"I believe," Darcy said, vengeful satisfaction rushing through his veins, "that of all of us here, you, Miss Bingley, are the least likely to remain undefiled. What person of quality, even a compassionate brother and loyal sister, could survive the scandal of supporting Lord McCormac's unwanted whore?"
Her anger had obviously driven her fears from her mind for a few moments because the rush of them all returning to her was so overpowering that her face was suddenly as white as chalk, and as her hand raised to cover her mouth, her legs seemed to give way beneath her. Bingley jumped to her aid and lowered her quickly onto a chaise, where she closed her eyes and took quick, shallow breaths.
All the occupants of the room stood watching her for several moments, each one too full of conflicting impressions and emotions to be certain how to act. Finally, Mr. Hurst, surprising everyone, said gruffly, "Mrs. Hurst and I will take her home. I am sure she will need days' worth of coddling and cossetting before she'll be fit company again. Make our excuses, would you?"
Darcy assented mutely, but before leaving, he stopped directly in front of the chaise and Miss Bingley. "Madam, if I ever even suspect that you have been meddling in the affairs of my loved ones again, the scandal that will spread through London after tonight will be only a drop compared to the deluge of misery I will bring down upon you. Be warned."
Then he stepped into the hallway and directed a footman to have the Hursts' carriage prepared. Everyone but the Hursts and Miss Bingley left the library, exiting silently. As they crossed through the corridor, Darcy attempted to stifle his rage and return to a more cheerful mien, wondering how he could possibly continue with the evening as if nothing had happened.
Miss Bingley had admitted her guilt, and her shocked horror at both their discovery of her despicable behavior and the reality of the consequences that such an accusation would bring upon her had been immensely satisfying. He could not have asked for a better response.
But the simmering anger that still roiled in his chest remained. How dare she say such things about Elizabeth, to her face and to his? How dare she try, even amidst her complete failure, to continue to injure Elizabeth in his opinion? And how could he bear the realization that his past behavior had somehow convinced Miss Bingley that such arguments and accusations might sway him, that he would hold the perceptions of society in greater honor that his own knowledge and affections?
No, clearly this punishment he had devised for tonight had not been enough. She would continue to torment Elizabeth and her sister. But he held within his grasp a way to erase Miss Bingley's influence forever.
As he escorted Elizabeth into the parlor, he could feel her eyes on his face, but his mind was racing too quickly to acknowledge her. He moved immediately toward his aunt, who was laughing merrily with a group of his other female relations. He begged their pardon and drew her aside, speaking so quietly that Elizabeth had to strain forward to hear.
"What was that, Darcy?" Lady Matlock asked, also bending toward him. "Is it time for me to complete my task?"
"No, milady. I was saying that the rest of your duty is unnecessary. All is already as it should be."
Elizabeth straightened in surprise, and Lady Matlock stared at him uncertainly, pursing her lips. "You do understand, young man, that if I leave all as it is, Miss Bingley will be ruined forever, irrevocably?"
"It may come out that the story is not true," Darcy offered callously. "If so, she will be lucky."
"It would be far too late to salvage her. You are man of the world, dear nephew, and as such, you know the Ton offers no forgiveness, not for a woman."
"Then so be it. She had no mercy on Elizabeth; therefore, this punishment is just and well-deserved."
"Mr. Darcy…" Elizabeth began.
"No," he interrupted, slicing his free hand to cut her off. "I will listen to no pleas for clemency. Her crime was inexcusable, and she will now know the misery of those who try to harm my family."
"It is your decision," Lady Matlock said with a gracious nod. "I, for one, will not mind being rid of her, but I hope your conscience is clear and you are truly taking this step with a worthy purpose."
She gave Elizabeth what seemed to be a significant look then nodded and return to her prior companions. Darcy noticed Miss Bennet and Bingley standing in the far corner. Miss Bennet was speaking quietly with others, though she looked subdued, but Bingley was watching Darcy hopefully, waiting for what would now never come.
Darcy could not meet his gaze. Bingley would understand… eventually. This was simply how it must be.
"She will never harm us again," he finally muttered, using the words as a wall between him and Bingley.
"No, she will not," Elizabeth confirmed quietly. He looked down at her, but she was gazing at the fire in the grate.
"It will be best this way."
Elizabeth was silent for several moments, the crackling of the logs seeming louder than the hum of conversation and the cheerful tune someone was playing on the pianoforte. Finally, she sighed heavily. "I knew a man once. He was well-respected in society, wealthy, independent, and ridiculously handsome. He told me one night, in a fit of self-revelation, that his greatest fault was that his good opinion once lost was lost forever. I redefined such a weakness as a propensity to hate everyone, but I think perhaps I was mistaken. The inability to forgive those who harm us, the unwillingness to offer a second chance, is a much different and much greater feebleness than misanthropy."
Darcy stepped back from her, the heat of embarrassment, anger, and hurt rising in his face. "You would make such accusations? When I am doing this for you?"
"You are not doing this for me," she answered sadly. "You are doing this for yourself."
Darcy scoffed. "Chasing her from society is the only way to protect you completely. And you cannot pretend that you are not as angry as I am over what she has done."
"Of course I am angry, and I admit there is a part of me that wants to do what you have suggested. But listening to that voice will only bring misery, for us as well as for her. We will suffer with her, through Mr. Bingley and Jane, and our consciences will never be clear, just as your aunt suggested, not for the rest of our lives, knowing the ruination we have caused her."
Darcy squirmed uncomfortably, feeling like a schoolboy again. "You cannot ask me to forgive her."
"If you cannot try, if you move forward with the revenge you have chosen, then you will once again be the man I met in Hertfordshire," Elizabeth said, a tear tracing down the side of her nose and over her lips. "How could I bear to marry that man when I have fallen in love with someone wholly different?"
Darcy gaped at her, unable to speak.
"Refusing her forgiveness would be the height of hypocrisy, sir, considering that our relationship, all the love I feel for you, is based on the second chance we gave each other. Can you not see that?"
Darcy floundered, trying to find an answer, trying to tug his thoughts back into order despite the thunderous tumult of his emotions.
"Lizzy," Georgiana said quietly, appearing from behind them on Fitzwilliam's arm, "I've spent nearly an hour convincing Cousin Richard to play for us tonight, but he assures me that he will only play if you are listening. Apparently, he must make up for a less-than-impressive performance from the other day?"
Elizabeth wiped quickly at her face and offered a pained laugh. "Yes, I was most disappointed in his talents. I am eager to see him in a more earnest attempt. Lead the way." She stepped forward and accepted Fitzwilliam's other arm, refusing to meet Darcy's eye.
"Not just now, Georgie," Darcy said, his voice sounding strained, even to his own ears.
She nodded, looking concerned, but he turned before they could question him further and strode from the room.
Darcy cursed as his shin banged against the velvet footstool in the library. He should have brought a candle with him when he'd entered a quarter-of-an-hour ago, but he had assumed the fire's light would be plenty to accommodate his pacing.
He cursed again, though this time it wasn't the pain. How could he have been such a fool? It had only taken him a few calm moments to not only see the validity of Elizabeth's accusations but to also see the greater consequences of allowing the accusations against Miss Bingley to stand. Not only would Bingley and Miss Bennet suffer, but also the Hursts, himself, and Elizabeth. Even Lord McCormac, who was a decent man despite his lack of acceptance in the Ton, would face derision, even if it would not stick to him the way it would to a woman.
And yes, he admitted to himself, he knew deep in his heart that it would be wrong to take such a complete revenge. He would never forgive himself for doing such irreparable harm.
He began to wonder about the merits of sackcloth and ashes for a month—he probably deserved them.
Instead he strode to the library door and flung it open. Standing in front of it, her fist raised to knock, was his aunt.
"Lady Matlock," Darcy said, offering his arm and drawing her back toward the parlor, "I believe it is time to finish what we started tonight."
She smiled proudly, patting his hand as they walked. "I was hoping to convince you of that myself. I am pleased that won't be necessary."
"Elizabeth has already convinced me," he offered, painfully subdued. "I only needed time to realize it. Now I must hope she'll forgive me for forcing her to clout me on the head with my own stupidity."
"She will," Lady Matlock assured him. "She knows you and loves you. She is simply waiting for you to remember yourself."
She had said that, hadn't she? She had said she loved him. If only it had not been while he was being the world's greatest fool.
Entering the parlor again, Darcy could hear the sound of conversations winding down, people offering farewells and preparing to leave, many of them having only waited for Darcy's return. Elizabeth stood near the center of the room with Georgiana and Fitzwilliam, bidding good evening to Lord and Lady Fitzwilliam. Lady Fitzwilliam's arm was wound through Elizabeth's, and they were laughing amiably together. Darcy had known she'd win his family over effortlessly. How could he have ever doubted it, even for a moment?
"Ladies and gentlemen," Darcy said over the din, immediately drawing the attention of the entire room, "Georgiana and I would like to thank you all for coming tonight. Before you leave, there is one more small matter, an invitation I would like to issue to each and every one of you. Mr. Bingley is not the only one who will be…"
"Oh!" Lady Matlock cried beside him, the volume of her outburst drawing everyone's notice and stopping Darcy mid-speech. "Bingley! Oh, no! What have I done?"
"What is it, milady?" Darcy asked solicitously, taking her arm again.
"Oh, I just remembered! What a wretched mistake!" Lady Matlock seemed torn between chagrin and humor, half-laughing as she continued, "Poor Miss Bingley. I've only just remembered—Lady Victor this morning, she mentioned two names to me, and one was Miss Bingley, but I believe… no, no I am certain now… She referred to Miss Bingley as a potentially eligible match for Mr. Hendricks. It was Miss Bingham who has been playing mistress to Lord McCormac! Oh, dear!"
Darcy tried to keep a straight face as he watched the entire room dissolve into murmured conversations, first sounding surprised, then after a few moments, absolutely accepting. "Knew she would not have been so incautious," and "Obviously Miss Bingham is much more the type," were the general direction of the comments he overheard. He marveled again at Lady Matlock's extraordinary influence.
"Well, I shall write poor Miss Bingley a note of apology tomorrow first thing," Lady Matlock sighed. Darcy noticed Fitzwilliam and his father, Lord Matlock, watching her fondly. They both knew of the planned deception, and Darcy knew they were as amused as he was at the scale of her performance.
"I thank you, madam, for correcting the mistake," Bingley offered, shooting Darcy a relieved glance. "I'm sure Caroline will understand."
Lady Matlock turned dark eyes on Bingley. "I hope she does."
He nodded, looking a little chastised, and backed off, returning to an overjoyed Miss Bennet.
"Well," Darcy said, drawing the attention back to himself, "as I was saying, Bingley is not the only one who will be relinquishing his single status in the near future. I would like to invite all of you to attend a wedding ceremony at ten o'clock on New Year's morning. I am happier than I can say to be marrying Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and I hope you will all join us to celebrate."
The room erupted in applause, underpinned, Darcy could sense, by a sort of hesitant approval. The hesitancy ended quickly, however, as Lady Matlock swept across the room toward Elizabeth and kissed her on both cheeks, welcoming her into the family. Elizabeth smiled shyly at Lady Matlock and around the room, but as her gaze locked with Darcy's, her shyness vanished, replaced by warmth and delight.
The couple accepted many congratulations, and it wasn't until almost another hour had passed that only the Bennets, the Gardiners, and the Fitzwilliams were left.
"You've made a bold choice, young man," Lady Matlock said as she allowed him to kiss her cheek. "Not everyone will accept her, but I will do my utmost for her. She will make a fine Darcy."
"Thank you for everything, milady."
"'Twas my very great pleasure," she laughed, taking her husband's arm as they both offered warm goodbyes to Georgiana and Elizabeth.
"Well, congratulations again, cousin," Fitzwilliam said, clapping Darcy on the shoulder then taking Elizabeth's hand. "You've not only captured the brightest jewel in Britain, but you've assured my perpetual bachelorhood. How could I marry any other woman knowing you've already found the best?"
Elizabeth laughed in delight as Fitzwilliam kissed her hand gallantly, and Darcy seriously considered dragging him to the door by his ear and throwing him down the snowy stairs.
"You have approximately three weeks to continue your outrageous flirting before my husband will be well within his rights to challenge you to a duel," she advised him. "You had much better spend your time finding a young lady who will surpass me and make him feel sorry for himself."
"Never," Darcy replied immediately. He was still basking in the pleasure of hearing her call him her husband. He took her hands and drew them to his mouth. "I will never for a moment wish for any woman besides you."
"Then I suppose your cousin's case is hopeless," Elizabeth said, her eyes twinkling.
"The poor wretch."
"For who can fight against love?"
Darcy kissed both her hands, his lips lingering against her skin as long as he could manage, while his eyes held hers. Her smile slid away, and the look they shared intensified.
"I do love you, Elizabeth, and I am sorry for making you question that."
"I never questioned it. You love me, and I love you. I just wanted to make sure you remembered who you are."
"I am not perfect, my love. I will forget often, I fear."
"As will I. But we will remind each other."
They stared for several seconds before a cleared throat drew their attention. Mr. Gardiner was standing at the front door, and only then did they realize that they had been otherwise abandoned. Darcy was both embarrassed and grateful.
As he waved at the carriage carrying Elizabeth away, he realized that now, finally, after all these weeks and all his worries, he felt whole. He felt complete, not only because she loved him, but because he knew she would keep loving him, even when he wasn't worthy of that love. Their love was real, and it would last as long as they let it. And they would be so very happy.
Fitzwilliam Darcy had never liked winter. Yes, he loved Pemberley at Christmas, but winter itself had always been a season that required simply gritting one's teeth and surviving.
He was, however, considering changing his mind about the season as he watched the delight on Elizabeth's face as she gazed over the small park before them at that morning's newly fallen snow. Her cheeks were pink from the crisp air, and her eyes were wide with childlike eagerness as she watched a few stray flakes still falling from the clouds. She wore a scarlet winter cloak trimmed with ermine, an engagement gift he'd presented to her only a few days before, and the color made her pop from the landscape, drawing his eyes to her at every moment.
Not that he wasn't usually looking at her, scarlet cloak or no.
"Oh, isn't it perfect?" she sighed, tightening her arm on his in a small hug. "I love walking outside in the winter."
"Until the roads grow muddy and impossible and even a warming pan and a fire in the grate are not enough to keep you warm at night."
She turned scolding eyes on Darcy. "Stop being so unromantic. Let me enjoy this while it lasts. When I have grown tired of icy toes and sodden petticoats, I will inform you, and then we may complain together to our hearts' content."
He laughed. "Forgive me, my love, but you ought to know by now that I am truly not a romantic."
"I think you simply don't know yourself well enough yet. You are far more romantic than you realize."
"How could that possibly be? Ask Fitz and Bingley—they are the romantics, not I. Even Georgie has commented regularly on my offensively practical approach to the world."
"And yet, you are walking outside in the snow with a young woman who, in the eyes of society, is inferior to you in every way, and you are planning on marrying her within a fortnight. There must be something romantic within you, or you would never have overcome your scruples enough to care a drop for me."
"You are not my inferior."
"That is not the point," she laughed, pointing a finger at him in accusation. "Admit it—there is some romance within you."
"Never. I'll die a realist."
"Fine. You force me to it, but you leave me no other choice. You have read Lyrical Ballads."
Darcy blushed. "How do you know that?"
"I found your copy sitting on your desk in the library when I was visiting Georgie a few days ago."
"Well, there is nothing wrong with taking an educated interest in current popular trends in literature."
"Your copy is dog-eared."
Darcy cleared his throat. "I am interested in the theory Wordsworth and Coleridge espouse."
"You underlined parts of 'The Nightingale.'"
"Very well!" Darcy laughed, drawing back from her and raising his hands in mock surrender. "I must admit that there may possibly be some very small portions of my soul not entirely restricted by practicality."
"So glad you see it my way, sir," Elizabeth said condescendingly before moving forward again with her nose held high in the air.
Darcy caught up with her just as they passed into a small copse of trees on the edge of the park. He tugged on her arm, turning her grinning face to his. "You are very high-handed, madam. It does not do to humble one's husband so harshly."
"Then I shall be thankful you will not be my husband for ten more days, sir. Though I'm not certain ten more days of humbling will be enough."
He grasped her elbows and raised an eyebrow at her surprised expression as he pulled her to stand very near in front of him. "Ten more days before we are wed will be far too much time. If I could convince you, I would ride off right now for that special license of which I spoke before."
She caught her breath and blushed at his proximity, but she did not try to escape his hold. "Ten days is not so very long, sir."
"It is an eternity," he argued gently, his eyes traveling over her face before finally settling on her lips.
She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. Instead, after a few moments, she licked her lips nervously. "We shall marry quite traditionally, with all the respect and honor we deserve."
"Yes, I suppose we shall," he murmured.
He bent toward her.
She stepped back a few steps, moving out of the copse of trees, her eyes wide and her breath coming quickly.
Blast! Again, she had avoided him. For over a week now, ever since the night they'd announced their engagement, she'd been doing this, teasing him, flirting shamelessly, and refusing to allow him even a single kiss.
He shook his head. He knew she was drawn to him—that look he saw in her eyes so often now could not be misinterpreted. Hadn't it been she who'd reached for his hand in the darkness as they sat in the theatre a few nights before? Hadn't it been she who'd orchestrated this mostly solitary walk today, only one of several on which they'd found themselves in the previous week?
And yet every time he approached her, she drew back suddenly and skipped away.
After all these weeks, so many conversations, she still remained so much a mystery to him. He had a vision unfold before him of years of chasing her through the hallways of Pemberley only to meet with a closed door once they reached their rooms.
"Elizabeth," he asked, growling out his frustration and losing all grip on his good manners as he came even with her again, "why are you so frightened of me?"
She turned wide eyes on him for only a second, enough to see that she was still blushing, before staring down at the snow. "It is not you, sir."
She went silent, and it was all Darcy could do not to growl again. "What?"
"Mama always says… oh, I cannot explain. I find myself wanting to… well… and then I begin to wonder whether you will think less of me if we… urgh. I do not know what to say. I do not want to prove myself the low-born hussy much of society probably believes me to be." Her steps in the snow grew deeper as she trod more heavily in her frustration.
Darcy couldn't speak. Instead, he reached out for her hand and strode confidently forward, practically dragging her behind him. They crossed several more feet of open ground before finally reaching a mostly secluded spot behind a tall hawthorn tree with a very wide trunk.
Darcy stopped moving and spun, allowing Elizabeth's momentum to carry her directly into his arms. He dipped his head down as his arms tightened around her, letting his mouth stop only a breath from hers.
"To me, my darling, you will always be a queen, and I will treat you as such. And if you do not want me to kiss you, you must tell me right now."
She swallowed deeply, and he could feel her shift against him, but she didn't speak.
Not that he really left her much time. He covered her mouth with his before she could even draw another breath and let his mind fill with the softness of her lips, the feel of her in his arms, and all the reasons he knew she was the only woman he ever wanted to kiss again.
He pulled back just enough to look down into her eyes, but she hadn't opened them. She remained still, all except where her tongue darted out to lick her lips again.
"William?" she whispered.
"I do not want to be a queen or hussy. I just want to be your wife."
He pecked her lips once, softly, tenderly. "Then that is all you shall be. And that will be more than enough."
"Would it be very brazen of me to ask you to kiss me again?"
He kissed her again this time with even more confidence, and then again, and all their kisses began to connect, leaving both of them breathless and clinging to one another and far warmer than anyone out in the snow had any right to be.
When Darcy finally moved back enough to press his forehead against hers and try to calm his racing heart, she laughed a little breathlessly. "Isn't it curious, sir, that I don't feel brazen at all? Or perhaps I feel quite brazen, but I do not mind in the least?"
He laughed joyfully, hugging her to him and spinning her around, only setting her back on her feet after kissing her once more.
"Elizabeth?" Mrs. Gardiner called from somewhere near the center of the small park.
"You are a miracle," Darcy said into Elizabeth's hair, pressing her against him once more before releasing her enough to allow them to walk out from behind the tree.
"You've said that before, sir," she answered, giving him a smile that seemed both sheepish and unrepentant.
"I'll say it again and again, for our entire lives," he answered. "So often you'll tire of it."
"Only when I tire of loving you, William, which shall be never."
"I love you, too, Elizabeth. More than I can ever say."
They made their way through the unmarred snow back toward their party, but that kiss, that moment, imprinted itself on Darcy's heart, never to be forgotten. It was only once he'd returned home that evening and found himself gazing like a love-sick fool out the window of his study that he realized the tree behind which he and Elizabeth had paused had been none other than the tree he could see from his window, the same one that had sheltered other lovers on the terrible night weeks before when Fitzwilliam's arguments had nearly driven his future to its grave.
He laughed, and as the warmth of hopes nearly realized swept over him, filling him to the top with contentment and peace, he swore to himself that he would make sure they returned and made use of that tree many times in the future.
And they would return one night, perhaps in a few months, to Netherfield's library as well, where he would make certain Elizabeth knew exactly how profoundly grateful he was for having overheard her harsh, incautious words to her sister and for her habit of reading when she couldn't sleep. Perhaps this time, she would even find a book to read.
But he intended to make that as difficult as possible.