Rivals & Rascals
by Maggie (Zevin)
August 8, 1812
Elizabeth, accustomed to rising before anyone else in her household, was surprised to find herself alone when she awoke. She dressed quickly and went into the inn's sitting room. Mr. Darcy was sitting there by himself staring unaccountably at her bonnet, which she had left on the table the night before. He started slightly and rose to his feet when she entered the room.
"Good morning, Sir. Your sister has risen before me. Do you know where she is?"
"She likes to practice her music in the morning. There is a fine pianoforte downstairs that the innkeepers reserve for my sister's private use whenever we stay here. She has just gone downstairs to start her practice."
"Ah. And Mr. Bingley, has he risen yet?"
Darcy smiled slightly. "Mr. Bingley would sleep half the day away if anyone would allow him to. He has asked to be woken up five minutes before breakfast is served, and not a minute more."
Elizabeth sat down. At that moment, the sound of Mozart could be heard wafting up the stairs. "Your sister plays beautifully, and she is delightful company. I am very happy to make her acquaintance."
"I was certain that you would get along well together."
"Yes." Elizabeth took a breath. Confessing everything to Mr. Darcy was a more daunting task than she had imagined.
"Mr. Darcy, you must have wondered why I left Derbyshire so precipitously."
Darcy nodded solemnly.
"It is a difficult matter to discuss, but I must do so. For your sister's sake, if for nothing else."
Darcy started again and stared at Elizabeth. "My sister? I do not understand what your leaving so suddenly has to do with Georgiana."
Elizabeth stared at a fixed spot on Mr. Darcy's cravat. "My youngest sister Lydia was staying in Brighton with Colonel Forster and his wife. George Wickham was stationed there and apparently was much in the company of my sister. My sister Jane informs me that he and Lydia ran off together. They have not gone to Scotland." Her voice faltered for a moment. "My family believes that they are in London."
Darcy furrowed his brow. "I am grieved indeed, for your entire family. But is it certain, absolutely certain?"
"Oh yes," Elizabeth could not meet Mr. Darcy's eyes. "It appears that Lydia left a note for Mrs. Forster detailing her arrangements with Mr. Wickham. They have been traced to London but not beyond."
Darcy started pacing the room. "And what has been done to recover her?"
"My father has gone to London to search for her. My Uncle Gardiner will join him in the search as soon as he returns to town." Elizabeth paused and looked, for the first time, directly at Darcy. "Colonel Fitzwilliam has gone to search for them, as well. He feels confident, given his knowledge of Mr. Wickham, that he can locate them."
Darcy stopped short in the middle of a turn about the room. "My cousin?"
"You have confided everything in him, I see." There was an edge to Darcy's voice that had not been there earlier.
"It is safe to assume, then, that you have an understanding with him?"
Elizabeth turned her face away for a moment. "I do."
"You are engaged to be married to my cousin?"
"I have informed Colonel Fitzwilliam that I will not enter into an engagement with him unless Mr. Wickham can be prevailed upon to marry my sister. I will not subject Colonel Fitzwilliam to scandal. I could not contemplate marrying anyone unless Lydia's reputation is restored to some degree."
Darcy turned and faced her squarely. She was shocked by his expression; the disturbance of his mind was visible in every feature. She closed her eyes for a moment to escape the sight of him.
"Is this the real reason why you refused my proposal in Kent? You had an attachment to my cousin, even then?"
Elizabeth eyes flew open. "That is not true. You know very well why I refused you. Do not make me repeat those sentiments."
"You would repeat those sentiments, even now? I had foolishly thought that since Kent you have softened your opinion towards me. I see that I was mistaken."
"You were not mistaken, Sir. My feelings to you did change, at least until I learned how you conspired with Miss Bingley to deceive my sister."
"I may have conspired to deceive Bingley about your sister's whereabouts, but I have never been part of a conspiracy to deceive your sister."
"Miss Bingley led my sister to believe that her brother knew of Jane's presence in London and deliberately chose to shun her. The belief in his purposeful avoidance of her was a source of great pain to Jane. I understood from your comments at Pemberley that you encouraged Miss Bingley in this deceit."
"Miss Bingley acted alone in that deceit. I knew nothing of it."
Elizabeth looked at Mr. Darcy for a moment. The truth was that she did believe him. Before she had a chance to tell Mr. Darcy this, he continued on in an agitated manner.
"You would do well, madam, to speak no more of deceit. You have allowed me to believe this past week that your heart was unattached to another. You even led me to hope that you might return my feelings. When all along your affections were engaged to my cousin."
"I have done nothing that was dishonest or deceitful. My heart was not engaged when I met you again in Derbyshire. I have not misled you in any way." Realizing that she said more than she ought, Elizabeth stood up and faced Mr. Darcy.
"When did you enter into an understanding with my cousin?"
"Yesterday." Even as she said it, Elizabeth could scarcely believe that it was only one day ago that the colonel had proposed to her.
Darcy wheeled around and looked at her incredulously. "There was no understanding between you until yesterday? You expect me to believe that cousin proposed to you while you were reeling from the shock and distress of learning of your sister's situation."
Elizabeth could not look at him. She remained silent.
"And you accuse me of selfish disdain for the feelings of others?" Darcy continued.
Elizabeth assumed a tone of cold civility. "If you are implying that Colonel Fitzwilliam is selfish, that is not true. He has been everything that is kind. He has given me reason to hope that my sister is not lost to us forever. He has provided me comfort me when I needed it most."
"He has pressed his suit at a time when you were suffering from great distress. He has preyed upon your vulnerable state." There was venom in Darcy's voice when he spoke.
Elizabeth replied in an equally contemptuous tone. "At least, he did something other than berate me and insult me when I was in an emotionally vulnerable state. At least, he did not attack my own character and that of one of his own closest relatives."
Darcy's complexion became pale, first from anger, and then from mortification.
"I find, madam, that there is nothing more to say. I will leave you now." He turned abruptly and left the room.
Elizabeth stood in the room with her chest heaving with indignation. "How could I have forgotten how insufferable he is," she thought. "How can I possibly breakfast with him, much less spend the rest of the morning traveling in his company."
Her eyes darted wildly about the room and landed on her bonnet. She decided that going for a walk would soothe her nerves. She snatched up her bonnet and reached inside it to retrieve her gloves. Her hand felt something cold and hard at the bottom. She pulled out the object and stared at it. It was an envelope of the finest paper and scrawled on it in an unmistakable hand was her name. She quickly opened the letter and read its contents, which were as follows:
Dear Miss Bennet,
I must beg your pardon for the freedom I am taking, once again, in writing to you. It is not my wish to force communications from you; nor is it my wish to pry into your personal affairs. It is clear, however, that you are suffering no small amount of emotional disturbance, and I cannot sit idly by and observe your distress. If there is anything, no matter how great or small, that I can do to lessen your suffering, you have only to ask. If you choose to accept my offer of assistance, please rest assured that I expect nothing in return, except the honor of being of service to someone I hold in the greatest affection and esteem.
She had just finished reading the letter, and had started reading it a second time, when a noise at the door caught her attention. She looked up from the letter and saw Mr. Darcy stride back into the room. He did not stop until he stood within an inch of her.
"Forgive me," he said.
He was so close to her; too close for her comfort. She took a small step backwards to put some distance between them.
"If there is anything I can do for you, anything at all," he murmured.
She took two small steps forward and found herself suddenly in the arms of Mr. Darcy. Her arms clutched him tightly for a moment and then relaxed. She closed her eyes, and felt him kiss her eyelids. Her eyes flew open and met his; she had never looked at someone so closely before. It was almost as if she was looking inside of him, instead of merely looking at him. Before her mind could register this new experience, he leaned down further still and kissed her, or perhaps, she kissed him. It was impossible to say who was responsible for the joining of their lips. All she knew was that their lips made contact and then clung together. Then his mouth opened slightly and she got a brief taste of him. The sensation was so heady, she almost laughed. He made a small sound in the back of his throat that might have been laughter, or could have been something else entirely. It was this small noise that suddenly brought Elizabeth to her senses. She quickly extricated herself from his arms and stepped back, not taking her eyes off of his face.
"We have forgotten ourselves, Mr. Darcy." She said quietly. "It must never happen again."
"You cannot disregard what just happened, and I certainly will not. You must marry me."
"Marriage between us is unthinkable. You know this as well as I do."
Darcy did laugh then, a harsh, joyless laugh. "Unthinkable? It is almost all that I think about. There are some small complications, yes, but they can all be resolved in our favor."
"My sister's ruined reputation, my understanding with your cousin - you call these small complications, Sir? And then there is our tendency to quarrel whenever we are alone, to say nothing about your concerns regarding our difference in station."
Darcy started to speak and Elizabeth made a gesture to silence him.
"No, I beg you. Since you have offered to grant me any assistance I require, I ask this: Please forget what has just occurred between us and do not say anything more ever again on the subject of marriage between us. That is all I ask. I am going for a walk now, I will be back for breakfast." Clutching her bonnet in one hand, and Mr. Darcy's letter in the other, Elizabeth ran out of the room.
With Elizabeth's words still ringing in his ears, Darcy wheeled around and started after her. He found Elizabeth in the hallway with Bingley. Bingley was haphazardly dressed, no doubt the effect of traveling without a valet. He immediately advanced upon Darcy and shook his hand warmly.
"I was just about to congratulate Miss Elizabeth and now I can congratulate you both. I think you are perfectly suited for each other. I was surprised and mortified just now, I can assure you, when I interrupted you. I am sorry to have disturbed your privacy, but I am overjoyed. I do not remember when I have been more pleased by news of an engagement."
Darcy stared at his friend and then dared to look at Elizabeth. He could not discern what she was thinking from her expression. Darcy turned back to Bingley.
"We are not formally engaged. Please do not announce this to anyone, not even to my sister, until you hear further from me or Miss Elizabeth."
Bingley nodded enthusiastically. "Of course. You will want to talk to Miss Elizabeth's father first. I completely understand." Bingley lingered in the hallway grinning alternatively at Elizabeth and Darcy. Darcy and Elizabeth were too busy exchanging mutually incomprehensible looks to respond to him.
Bingley cleared his throat and adjusted his clumsily tied neck cloth. "I came to tell you that breakfast is being served downstairs. Are you coming down?"
"We will join you momentarily. May I have a moment alone with Miss Elizabeth first?"
Bingley nodded and disappeared down the stairs at lightening speed. Elizabeth and Darcy were left facing each other in the narrow hallway. Elizabeth looked beyond Darcy to the walls and noticed, for the first time, that there was a pattern of cabbage roses in a hideous shade of pink embossed on the wall covering. She knew that, whatever else happened in her life, she would never forget that moment or that particular shade of pink.
Darcy gestured towards the open door, and Elizabeth walked back into the parlor. Darcy shut the door firmly behind them, and then leaned on the door as if for physical support. He was certain that Elizabeth would be incensed with him for implying to Bingley that they were informally engaged and he braced himself for her retribution. He was thus caught unprepared by her first words.
"In case you are wondering, I did not tell Mr. Bingley that we were engaged, but I suppose this is a case where one could think that actions speak louder than words. We have been found out, it seems."
Darcy could hardly believe what he had just heard. He could only think of one plausible interpretation for her words - that their intimate embrace moments earlier bespoke a mutual commitment to marry on their part. This interpretation seemed so plausible, in fact, because it matched his own sentiments. Knowing Elizabeth, however, and considering her earlier request of him, he was wary about assuming this interpretation was the correct one. He diplomatically refrained from saying anything, hoping Elizabeth would say something that further elucidated her feelings.
Elizabeth started pacing about the room, reminding Darcy of his own agitation earlier in the morning. "Before yesterday, I might have said that it was only possible to be wholly engaged to a man; either a woman is engaged to a man, I always thought, or she is not. There seemed to be nothing in between. I might also have said that it was impossible to be engaged to more than one man. I find, however, that I am in the unusual situation of being practically engaged to two different men, in the midst of family circumstances which make entering into any kind of engagement improper. What say you, Mr. Darcy? Am I not in a most interesting predicament?"
To Darcy's surprise and relief, Elizabeth's expression was amused and playful. Knowing that it was probable that his future happiness depended on his next choice of words, Darcy steeled himself to overcome his apprehension and adopt an equally playful tone.
"Very interesting, Madam, although, not quite as interesting as the predicament you found yourself in when Mr. Bingley apparently interrupted us." He waited with baited breath for Elizabeth's reaction to this brazen remark.
Elizabeth looked at him with amazement, and he smiled at her shyly. She laughed gaily.
"I believe that you are correct, Sir. It has been a thoroughly astonishing morning, all around. We have much to sort out before we involve ourselves, and all sorts of other people, in even more curious predicaments. I suggest that we discuss this further after we reach Hertfordshire and have had more time to contemplate our options."
Darcy nodded. "I agree." Then, he bowed to Elizabeth and held out his arm to her in his most courtly manner. "Shall we have our breakfast now, Miss Elizabeth?"
She placed her hand on his arm and allowed him to lead her out of the room.
As they entered the hallway, Darcy asked softly, "How do you propose we ensure that we have the necessary privacy to discuss this matter?"
"You know my habits, Sir. If you care to walk out early tomorrow morning, you are likely to find me within the hour after dawn on Belfry Lane."
"Very well." With that short phrase, Darcy agreed to the assignation that could prove to be the most important of his life.
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