Love's Arrow Poisoned
"None of that! ...You cannot by your direst arguments decrease my love"
- Thomas Lovell Beddoes
The Captain's statement was met with stunned silence. Elizabeth, suddenly feeling her legs incapable of performing the task of supporting her adequately, sat down abruptly in the nearest chair. Darcy turned his back on the others and gripped the mantelpiece forcefully, his knuckles white and his face stony. For some moments the only sounds audible in the room were the crackling of the fire, accompanied by the less than harmonious screeching of Darcy's fingernails upon the mantel-shelf as he attempted to regain his composure. The Captain looked extremely uncomfortable and remained quiet, allowing them a moment to digest the news. After several seconds, Elizabeth broke the silence.
"So," said she resignedly, as though to herself, "we are too late." Darcy, coming out of his introspection suddenly and decisively, kicked the fender violently in anger, causing a shower of sparks to fly upwards and the other two to start at the noise, and turned round, demanding furiously, "Are you saying he has fled Newcastle?"
"I am not sure, but I believe not," replied Perry. "But he has disappeared from his usual haunts."
This produced another astonished silence. After a moment, Darcy appeared to regain a little control of his demeanour. He strode purposefully over to the side-table and poured out three glasses of wine, handing one to Elizabeth, who took it abstractedly. With the other two he approached Perry again and, passing one to him, said in a voice of forced calm, "Captain, please sit down and explain."
"Thank you," Perry said, taking a chair. "Well, sir, when I received your response to my express yesterday, I made some inquiries about Mr. Wickham's current movements. I discovered that no one had seen him since early that morning, when he had called at his rooms for an hour or so before departing -- without revealing his destination. Since then I have made further attempts to discover his whereabouts but have been unable to find anyone who has seen him."
"And you say," Darcy mused incredulously, "that you believe he has not fled. What leads you to that conclusion when his actions would seem to indicate it in the plainest terms?"
"Well, when I went to his rooms and discovered that he had not been seen all day," Perry explained, "I made discreet inquiries of the servants, in order to gather any information I could obtain which would indicate his purpose. They assured me that he left with no more than the clothes he was wearing and I concluded that he had not gone for good. I returned this afternoon and when I discovered that he had still not appeared I sent a reliable man to keep a watch on the place to warn me the moment he returned."
"Well, I see our confidence in you is not misplaced," said Darcy with a small bow, "you could not have done better under the circumstances. But where can he be?"
"That I do not know," the Captain replied. "I have," here he coughed discreetly, "made some inquiries in the likely places I know of, but you are no doubt aware that there are many places he might conceal himself in the rougher districts."
"The nearest ale or whorehouse would probably find the b--," muttered Darcy under his breath contemptuously, though not quietly enough to prevent his remark being overheard. The Captain looked a little surprized and embarrassed and Elizabeth gave him a look which bespoke strong shock and disapproval. Darcy started, as he realised he had spoken his inner thoughts aloud.
"I am sorry," said he humbly, bestowing on Elizabeth a look of genuine contrition, "that was not helpful. Please accept my apologies." The Captain nodded his head sympathetically but Elizabeth continued to regard him with dismay and displeasure before averting her gaze. That she had given him no indication of accepting his apology and had turned away in what he was convinced was shame at his outburst made him feel extremely uncomfortable, and he silently berated himself for his indiscretion. 'Oh hell,' thought he, 'I believe I have got myself in deep water there. To say that aloud, especially with Elizabeth in the room, was unpardonable.'
"I can understand your frustration and anger, sir," Perry said, in an attempt to diffuse the somewhat chilly atmosphere, "It must be extremely painful for any respectable persons, such as yourselves, to hear such things of a relation, even if only a relation by marriage."
Captain Perry rose in Darcy's estimation after this speech, delivered in an earnest tone. 'So you are a diplomat too?' he thought. 'Full marks for effort, though I fear your endeavour might be wasted.' Aloud, however, he replied, "Thank you for saying so much but that does not excuse me. I should be concentrating on the matter at hand instead of indulging in worthless and petty jibes. As you say, we are connected and our task is to discover how to prevent Wickham taking steps which would be injurious to himself and, more especially, his wife." As he finished he looked at Elizabeth with imploring eyes and was relieved to see her expression soften a little, though he felt he might have to do a good deal more later to restore her good opinion.
Another uncomfortable pause ensued. Darcy had lost his train of thought in his self-recriminations and Perry was not sure whether to break the silence or allow the other two an opportunity to dictate the direction of the discourse, should some verbal reconciliation be attempted. Elizabeth, realising this silence was likely to continue indefinitely, determined to restore some equilibrium to the situation and for the first time took an active part in the conversation.
"Tell me, Captain," she asked, "did you see Mrs. Wickham when you called yesterday?"
"No, Mrs. Darcy, I did not," replied he with alacrity, glad for her intervention, "When I called yesterday her maid, a sensible girl from what I can gather, told me she had gone to pay a visit to some friends. Miss Fitton and her sister, I believe she said. When I returned this afternoon, Mrs. Wickham was indisposed and I only spoke to Clara, the maid, again."
"So you do not know if she has any information which may help us? Nor whether she can account for Mr. Wickham's absence or, if unable to, what motive she imputes to it?" Elizabeth continued.
"No madam I do not," Perry answered, "but her maid expressed the opinion that she does not know where her husband is, though she did not appear to become concerned about this until today, which may account for her being indisposed when I called."
"You said before," said Elizabeth, "that the last time Mr Wickham was seen was early yesterday morning, when he called at home for an hour or so. Do you mean that he did not spend the previous night there?"
"No," the Captain admitted, surprized at her insight, "it appears that he did not stay there that night, though her maid communicated that Mrs. Wickham is unaware of it. She informed me that Mrs. Wickham rose quite late yesterday and inquired after her husband and the maid told her he had left an hour or so previously. When Mrs. Wickham asked at what time he had returned the night before the maid dissembled, saying she did not know as it was her night off. Actually, she knew from the other servants' information that he had not been there at all."
"I see," said Elizabeth thoughtfully, then asked hesitatingly, "and do you know anything of their relations, er, how long, for instance, this has been his habit?"
The Captain began to feel a little uncomfortable under the scrutiny of Elizabeth's pertinent questions and steadfast gaze, but could not avoid a direct answer, though he tempered it slightly in deference to her feelings. "Well, for the first four months or so of their residence here they appeared to be quite attached to one another. But in the last two months or so I understand that Mr. Wickham has spent less and less time at home, occasionally being absent for whole days."
Elizabeth nodded her head in understanding. The coincidence in dates between the announcement of Lydia's pregnancy and Wickham's changed behaviour could not fail to register, though she tried to console herself with the thought that the latter may be due to the novelty of his situation wearing off and him finding consolation in other activities.
"And you do not have any indication of where he was?" she persisted. "His military duties, for example, would not be the reason?"
"No, I am afraid I do not know. I have no reason to believe that his duties would account for it, though."
"I understand," Elizabeth responded.
Darcy had listened to this colloquy with unfeigned interest and a growing regard for Elizabeth's sagacity and the Captain's tact and discretion. Under other conditions he would have witnessed her subtle dissection with enjoyment and amusement, but the information being disclosed was disquieting. Since, however, his attempts so far had only led to him making a serious faux pas, he felt quite content to let her take charge uninterrupted.
She appeared to consider for a while, then suggested, "You do not think it possible, Captain, that Mr. Wickham may have been prevented from returning home by accident or mishap?"
"I do not..." he began confusedly, but was interrupted.
"Or some other means perhaps?" This question was accompanied by an innocently raised brow, but her eyes were shrewd.
"I am not sure..." the Captain tried again and faltered.
"In your letter," she prompted, "you mentioned that he had become embroiled with people who frequent the horse-racing. You intimated that they were not the kind who would treat someone who fell foul of them with tolerance. Do you think it possible these people may be responsible for his disappearance -- either because he has determined to keep out of sight for a day or two because they are pressing him, or in a more direct way?"
The Captain's eyebrows rose. He had at first wondered at Elizabeth's presence, both in Newcastle and more particularly at this interview. He had pondered Darcy's reasons for bringing his wife on what was likely to be unpleasant business but now he began to believe he could comprehend it. He realized she had a full grasp of the situation and was following the conversation closely and able to make deductions from what she heard. She had fixed her eyes on him steadily as she asked her questions and he could see the intelligence as well as the beauty in them. He resolved not to underestimate her; or Darcy for that matter -- for he must be a remarkable man to have won her, and an intelligent one to realise she would be an asset in his endeavours and allow her to involve herself. The Captain, being a career military man, had seen too many wives who were treated as mere possessions or adornments and was struck by the fact that here were a couple who were equals or, if anything, she was the senior partner. Looking into those dark eyes, he felt he could begin to understand why. They could make a slave of any man and he felt sympathy and at the same time a pang of jealousy for Darcy. It must be quite something to be married to such a woman, he mused -- fiery, intelligent, stubborn, beautiful -- it certainly wouldn't be tedious! He came to his senses as he realized those eyes were still awaiting his answer.
"It is impossible to be sure," he replied. "It may be, as you say, that he has decided to keep a low profile, but then the question follows -- where is he keeping so well hidden? I do not think he has been harmed. Usually their tactics in such situations are to frighten at first and then slowly increase pressure, so I find it hard to comprehend they would have taken steps which would make it impossible for him to appear -- should he wish to do so."
"Let us hope you are correct, Captain," Elizabeth continued sincerely. "I take it that if they are not responsible they will soon be aware of his elusiveness and take steps to locate him themselves?" she asked.
"Yes, that would be quite likely," Perry admitted sombrely.
"Then we must find him first," stated she simply, but with a conviction that made both the others feel some confidence that they would.
"Yes, we must," Darcy affirmed, speaking for the first time for several minutes, though in a constrained and formal manner which was in marked contrast to his earlier ease when first greeting the Captain. "But it is getting late and we have not even discussed the arrangements for our accommodation. Captain Perry, I hope I did not inconvenience you by taking up your offer of organising matters for us?"
"No indeed sir," Perry answered. "As a matter of fact my General, when I informed him of your intention of travelling here, insisted that he and his wife be allowed the pleasure of receiving you at their house in --- Place."
"That is very kind of the General," remarked Elizabeth, "I hope we are not inconveniencing him or his wife."
"Not in the least, madam, I assure you," Perry said firmly. "He has a large establishment and, moreover, is an acquaintance of your cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam. He and his wife were most insistent."
"Well then, we shall be honoured," Darcy said, "I have never been in company with General Ashe, but my cousin has mentioned him to me and intimated he is an excellent man."
"Yes, and I believe that I mentioned in my express that he thinks very highly of your cousin as well," Perry responded, "and his wife is a charming woman too. I am sure she will make your stay as pleasant as possible, given the unfortunate circumstances."
"Then we will be delighted to meet her," said Elizabeth.
"Well then, if you are ready we can leave directly," suggested the Captain.
"Yes," Darcy agreed, "I will order the carriage."
The journey was a relatively short one and within a quarter of an hour the carriage arrived outside a fine house in one of the newer neighbourhoods. They were admitted into a pleasant drawing room where the Captain introduced them to General Ashe. He was a well-looking man of some five and forty years, with a benevolent look in his twinkling eyes and a figure which inclined toward the rotund.
"Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, a pleasure," the General greeted them in measured tones, shaking Darcy's hand and kissing Elizabeth's with gallantry, "Allow me to introduce my wife, Mrs. Ashe."
That lady stepped forward readily. She seemed to be eight or ten years younger than her husband and had a pleasant mien, as well as a simple and unostentatious elegance. She smiled at her guests and greeted them warmly, "Mrs. Darcy, Mr. Darcy I am delighted to welcome you. I hope your journey was not too unpleasant?"
Darcy, towards whom this last enquiry was directed, was at first at a loss how to respond. His mask of reserve and diffidence, which had been in evidence since his verbal blunder at the inn, allied with his natural unease in the presence of strangers seemed to tie his tongue in knots. He observed four pairs of eyes regarding him with interest and took a deep breath. "Thank you ma'am, it was tolerable, but..," he began solemnly and then paused in confusion. About to mention that the circumstances of the journey had been such as to make any consideration of their comfort whilst undertaking it unimportant, but realising that he was unaware to what extent Mrs. Ashe was in possession of the facts relating to those circumstances, he amended his response with, "..er, it has been two long days, though I am quite used to such travelling, unlike my wife, though she seemed to bear it remarkably well."
"Yes, I am used to a more leisurely pace," Elizabeth confirmed, observing his struggles and seeking to put them all at their ease. "But we found very comfortable accommodations on the way and now you have extended such a kind invitation -- and with such warmth -- that I am glad we did not travel at a more leisurely pace, for then we would have had to wait another day before meeting you."
"My dear, how kind of you to say so," Mrs. Ashe responded, gratified. The General beamed in approval at Elizabeth's statement, which was delivered with a pleasant smile and devoid of any trace of insincerity. If there was one thing the General despised it was the insincere or those who sought to flatter, which was something he perceived was not in Elizabeth's nature. He caught the Captain's eye and raised his brow, receiving a smile of amusement in return.
Darcy was no less pleased. Elizabeth had adapted his statement, the last half of which was unplanned and not terribly accurate since Elizabeth was an excellent traveller, and paid their hosts a compliment which immediately made everyone more comfortable. Always nervous with strangers, even those who claimed a previous acquaintance with his cousin, he marvelled again at the ability she had to achieve it so naturally. And to think he had considered coming here without her! He couldn't decide whether the impulse to kick himself or kiss Elizabeth were the stronger.
"You are both very welcome," the General proclaimed. "I have met your cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, and he is a fine man and a good officer. When I saw him in town earlier this year he spoke of your recent marriage and since then I have had quite a curiosity to meet you both." His eyes twinkled impishly.
"As have I," agreed Mrs. Ashe.
"Then I hope that we shall live up to your expectations," said Darcy more comfortably, "though knowing my cousin as I do..." He gave her a wry smile.
"Yes," she assented, "your cousin does like to spread a little innocent mischief. But do not be alarmed, Mr. Darcy, he only had good to tell of yourself and your wife."
"Especially your wife," added the General with emphasis and a chuckle.
Elizabeth watched Darcy with a little apprehension to see how he would react to this statement. He had learned to laugh at the Colonel's praises of her when they were in company together, since they both knew the Colonel only said them to discompose him and the one thing the Colonel loved was to see Darcy with his guard down. How he would respond to hearing them repeated by relative strangers she was less sure. She was steeling herself to break into the conversation when he turned and gave her a look which she usually saw only in their private moments together and nearly melted her bones.
"Well then, for once I have no reason to dispute with him," he said quietly but decisively, gazing at her in undisguised admiration the whole time. She felt herself blush and her knees weaken. He broke his gaze and turned back to Mrs. Ashe and smiled, which allowed Elizabeth a moment to attempt to regain her composure.
The Ashes and the Captain, having witnessed this exchange, were at a loss for words and the conversation faltered. The Captain, having perceived some of Elizabeth's qualities during their conversation at the inn, now began to apprehend some of Darcy's. That she could have power over him he had understood but that Darcy could reciprocate in such a decided manner, in public too, made him believe he was beginning to understand their mutual regard. The General was no less impressed by Darcy's reaction to his gentle leg pulling. Rather than being offended or attempting to laugh it off he had used it to pay his wife a compliment in the most pointed manner.
Mrs. Ashe was more interested in Elizabeth's response, and being the closest of the three could observe it better. She had seen those dark pupils dilate immediately and the mouth form itself into a small pout -- though certainly not of disapproval. This had been accompanied by a becoming blush which had spread over every inch of visible skin from her forehead to her neck and shoulders. She had never seen a more physical reaction to a look, all the more remarkable since it was involuntary, and suddenly felt the room was rather warm.
After several seconds of silence, which seemed much longer, the General spoke genially, "Well, my dear," he said to his wife, "I am sure Mrs. Darcy would like to see their rooms, perhaps you should show her."
Elizabeth, suppressing a laugh at the implications of this statement considering what had just happened, expressed her approval of this scheme and she and Mrs. Ashe departed, though not before Darcy had given her a look she understood.
"Mr. Darcy, can I offer you a glass of brandy in my library?" the General asked.
"Thank you, General, that would be most agreeable," Darcy responded, his eyes still fixed on the door through which the ladies had exited.
"Perry, you will join us too, I'm sure," added the General, leading the way.
"No doubt the Captain has acquainted you with the latest news regarding your brother-in-law, Darcy," the General began, when they were comfortably ensconced in the library, each with a large glass of his best brandy.
"Yes, he has," Darcy replied, "and I must thank you, General, for your allowing the Captain to spend his time and energy helping me in these matters."
"Oh not a bit, not a bit, say nothing of that," the General proclaimed, "we are happy to oblige you. When I was informed that Wickham had failed to report for duty for two days, naturally I had to take an interest, and the Captain came to me and told me of your cousin's inquiries and your own intention to travel here to aid matters. As a matter of fact, I was a little surprized that Colonel Fitzwilliam did not contact me when he wanted information about Wickham, but I think I can understand his reasons. Not only is Perry here better suited to dealing with the people most closely involved, but my position makes it difficult for me to turn a blind eye if I hear anything really serious."
"Yes, I confess," agreed Perry, "that knowing he had an acquaintance with you I too was surprized that he did not write to you, sir. But you are right, I believe. He would not want to put you in an equivocal position, where his friendship may make unreasonable demands which are at variance with your military responsibilities."
"Quite right," the General concurred, "for all his easy manners and jocular talk off-duty, Fitzwilliam strikes me as an intelligent and forward thinking man."
"He is, though he tries to hide it sometimes," said Darcy thoughtfully, swilling his glass and looking at the amber liquid against the light. "But if I may ask, how long have we got available to us before you will have to take official notice of this absence of Wickham's?"
The General pondered this question seriously. "Well, I think I can promise you a few days at least, say a week at the outside," he replied after consideration.
"Thank you sir, I am much obliged to you," Darcy said, "now we must plan how to use the time if Wickham does not reappear of his own accord."
"Yes. What are your thoughts, sir?" Perry inquired.
"Well," Darcy considered, "there are, it seems to me, two avenues open to us. First I should like to be apprised with all the information you have, and any more we can obtain, about his finances; who his creditors are and what he owes. This may explain why he is lying low and I shall, anyway, have to meet with these people and pledge myself to cover his debts."
There were murmurs of protest at this. "Sir, is there no other way?" asked Perry, "I am sorry to say this but I am almost inclined to believe that a real scare may be good for the man. If you simply pay off his creditors, what is to stop him continuing this profligate lifestyle?"
"What else can I do?" Darcy replied with feeling, "I can not have Wickham thrown into debtor's prison and dismissed from the regiment. While he remains married to my wife's sister I have little choice."
"Yes," the General agreed sombrely, "your thoughts are obviously for your wife and her family. And I can understand and appreciate it. And there is Mrs. Wickham to consider, though -- I beg you will not take offence Mr. Darcy -- having met Mrs. Wickham and now your wife, I can scarcely believe they are sisters."
"Do not worry, General, I find it hard to believe myself," Darcy said, and lapsed into silence. The three ruminated for a while.
"What was the other aspect you want to look into?" asked the Captain after some moments.
"Er.." Darcy came out of his reverie, "oh yes, well it is Wickham's domestic situation and his...er...his.."
"Moral behaviour?" provided the Captain, to Darcy's relief.
"You think one of seductions or assignations may have taken a turn which has caused him to hide himself away?" suggested Perry.
"Well, it must be considered," Darcy replied, "and we must find out what we can discreetly, to ensure we deal with tact and delicacy with Mrs. Wickham. We would not want her to discover about these things through some other means."
"Indeed," agreed the General. "I understand she is with child?"
"Yes, sir," Perry confirmed.
"Then we must protect her as much as possible from any unpleasant repercussions," the General said.
Upstairs, Mrs. Ashe had shown Elizabeth a lovely suite of rooms, in which Helen, her maid, and Danvers, Darcy's valet, were already unpacking their trunks. After barely twenty minutes in each others company, each found herself warming to the other. Having expressed her thanks again for their hospitality and her delight at the accommodation she asked Mrs. Ashe how well acquainted she was with Lydia.
"I have met her only at social functions and once or twice at the homes of mutual friends," Mrs. Ashe replied, "I could not say I know her well, though I know some of those she socialises with quite well."
"I see," said Elizabeth, "and would you think me impertinent if I asked you about them sometime? I do not know how much your husband has told you of the reasons for our journeying here, but I am concerned for my sister and I would like to know your thoughts on those she spends her time with."
"Of course, I am willing to help in any way I can and I could never believe you capable of asking for information without good cause," Mrs Ashe replied earnestly. "My husband has only told me that Mr. Wickham's behaviour has given cause for concern and that you and your husband are here to try to help and look after your sister if the need arises."
"Mrs. Ashe, thank you," Elizabeth said simply.
"Would you call me Catherine, my dear?" Mrs Ashe asked.
"Of course, if you will call me Elizabeth."
"Certainly," she replied. "Now I am sure you are tired, despite what you said earlier, so I will let you get some rest. I have ordered hot water should you want to bathe. If you require anything else, then please do not hesitate to ask."
"Thank you, Mrs..., sorry, Catherine," Elizabeth said.
"You are welcome." She turned to leave and had almost reached the door when Elizabeth stopped her.
"What was it really that Colonel Fitzwilliam said about Mr. Darcy and myself?" she asked nervously.
Catherine laughed softly and retraced her steps, asking mischievously, "Do you really want to know my dear?"
"Yes," Elizabeth answered, "as long as it is not too shocking or does not give me a swelled head." Catherine laughed again, "I can promise the one, but not the other," she replied. Elizabeth looked at her quizzically. Catherine glanced around to ascertain the servants were not within earshot and leaned close to Elizabeth, saying quietly, "He told us that your husband had had the sense to marry for love, to marry someone who would make him a better person and to marry someone who was his equal."
"His equal," Elizabeth exclaimed incredulously, "but he knows I was a country gentleman's daughter with no dowry."
"Yes, but I don't think he was referring to social position or money and, having met you, I believe he was correct. Goodnight."
Darcy, beginning to feel the fatigue of the day creeping up on him, aided by the General's brandy, and wishing to see Elizabeth before she was asleep, was trying to think of a way to terminate their conference without appearing rude. Luckily, the General achieved it for him by saying, "Well, Darcy, I am sure you will want to rest, as you have much to do on the morrow. But shall we just recapitulate what arrangements we have made?"
"Yes," agreed he with alacrity. "Captain, you have a man watching Wickham's house?"
"Yes, he will report as soon as there is any sign of him appearing or any other development."
"Good," the General remarked, "Perry, see we have someone to relieve him when necessary."
"My groom, Farrow, is available if you need him, Captain," Darcy offered.
"Thank you, but that will not be necessary," Perry replied, "the General has given me leave to utilise some of our men to do the job."
"General, that is most helpful, I thank you."
"Well, got to give 'em something to do," the General said with a laugh. "I have also spoken to the local magistrate, who is a friend of mine. He has spoken to the Constables and the men of the watch and asked them to report anything unusual to him, which he has promised to pass on. He has given them a description, so we have quite a few pairs of eyes looking. Since I have asked for his discretion and he has no grounds anyway, they are ordered not arrest Wickham but to follow him and report."
"General," Darcy responded with feeling, "I hardly know what to say."
"Well, as I said, he is a friend," said the General modestly, "and we have to give ourselves the best chance possible."
"True," agreed Perry, thinking about the possibility of the horse-racing fraternity getting to Wickham first.
"I suggest we meet after breakfast and Perry can let you know the details of all he has discovered about Wickham's creditors," proposed the General.
"Excellent," Darcy said, "then we can plan the next step. I believe my wife will want to visit Mrs. Wickham tomorrow morning, which will give us a start in discovering some details about his domestic situation."
"Good," the General remarked, "Perry, why do you not join us for breakfast so we are ready to start promptly afterwards."
"Thank you, sir, I would be delighted."
"Well," said the General, ringing the bell, "I think, Darcy, we have kept you from your...er, rest for long enough."
Anxious as he was to see Elizabeth before she was asleep, Darcy could not but admit the effect that the long days travel had wrought on his appearance. He felt unkempt and dirty and so called Danvers to prepare him a bath, which he took as quickly as the requirement to let it perform its office effectively allowed. Having dismissed Danvers, he dressed himself in his night-clothes and robe and entered the bedchamber quietly, lest Elizabeth already be in arms of morpheus, and with a little trepidation.
She was sitting in one of the armchairs before the small fire, reading some papers or letters and did not hear his approach. He watched for some moments, with the intention of trying to ascertain her demeanour, but his efforts were impeded by the mere sight of her, which distracted his thoughts almost before he had commenced. She was dressed only in her night-gown, for it was a mild night, her hair was down and the fire and candlelight was playing on her complexion, which looked fresh and displayed not a trace of two days travel on dirty or dusty roads.
Darcy actually groaned involuntarily. When he should be humbling himself before her, for his unpardonable outburst at the inn and his uncomfortable manner in first greeting the Ashes, here she was driving his thoughts into quite a different direction. Seeing her sitting there, perfect in every imaginable way to his eyes, made him feel even worse about his earlier behaviour and it was only with great self-control that he managed not to rush over and prostrate himself at her feet. But he was spared any further contemplation by her turning, on hearing the sound he had made, and smiling at him.
This was too much even for Darcy. He gripped the door frame with one hand, while the other came up to cover his mouth in a fist as he struggled to regain control of his thoughts and body. Elizabeth, noticing this extreme reaction to a simple gesture of greeting, regarded him with concern and asked, "Fitzwilliam, what is wrong? Are you unwell?"
After a few seconds, he regained his composure a little and, shutting the door behind him quietly but with deliberation, he crossed over to her as steadily as his legs would allow -- which was not very well -- and, taking her hands, knelt in front of her chair, so their eyes were brought level.
"I am well," he replied, "the only thing that ails me is that I may have done something this evening which would make you justifiably angry with me." He paused and looked down at their hands, clasped together on her lap, and after some hesitation continued, "My unguarded outburst at the inn. All I can offer in my defence is that my anger and shock at hearing the Captain's news of Wickham's disappearance got the better of my self-possession."
Elizabeth, who had until the moment of this declaration feared that Darcy had some further terrible revelation about Wickham's misdemeanours to convey to her, imparted to him in that conference in the library, sighed audibly in relief. She had almost forgotten about the incident which seemed to distress him so, as the further discussions with the Captain and the Ashes, and especially that look she had received from him just before leaving the drawing room, had placed other thoughts uppermost in her mind. She considered at first that he had overestimated her shock and disapproval because of her reaction at the time, but decided there was more to this response than that idea suggested. Then she recalled with dismay that she had not acknowledged his attempts to apologise and began to discern the underlying reason for his behaviour. 'Of course,' thought she, 'he cannot bear to think that he has made me think less of him. He still has that insecure voice telling him that he loves me more than I do him, and this business with Wickham is dragging him back to where he was last year.' Recollecting how hard he had struggled to win her good opinion, she berated herself for allowing him to imagine that she had permitted a few intemperate words spoken in haste to damage it. She remembered the vow she made to herself at the inn in York, to provide support to his emotional needs during this time and avoid, if possible, a return to his reserved manner and reflected with some mortification that she had failed the first test of this resolve. She considered her response. She knew he was a man who would be neither convinced nor contented by her dismissing his fears summarily as baseless -- he would never be persuaded to anything without lucid reasoning -- but how was she to proceed? An eloquent avowal of love? No, too likely to lower his own opinion of himself and possibly too insightful, as it may betray her comprehension of his struggles, which was not her intention. No, an honest answer, tempered with a little humour, seemed called for.
"My dear, I can well understand how your anger got the better of you. It was indeed a shock to discover we may have failed before we have begun," she replied sincerely. Then with a return to her playful manner added, "Indeed I am glad it was only the fender that bore the consequences, for I fear if the inn's pet cat had been near it would have suffered permanent damage."
He could not help laughing a little at that picture, though he felt he had escaped too lightly and answered, "You are too lenient, my dear."
"And you are too hard on yourself," she responded.
"And to think I considered coming her without you!" he exclaimed. "Perhaps I should have been the one to stay at home. You asked much more pertinent questions of the Captain and made the Ashes welcome us with open arms, whilst I stood there not knowing what to say."
"Enough," she said decidedly, "I must speak plainly. I would much rather have to endure the occasional outburst of emotion than see a return of that Darcy reserve you displayed so well when we first met. I would not have you act a part or retreat behind a mask to spare my feelings. The one incident was the cause of the other. You said something you regretted and it made you uncomfortable with the Ashes because you mistrusted yourself to speak easily. I am sorry if my reaction to what you said at the inn is part of the reason, but the Captain understood why you said it and does not think any the less of you."
"And you?" Darcy asked, unable to keep the anxiety from his voice.
"I love you, and if you want me to think any less of you, then you are going to have try a great deal harder than that." She let go of his hands and stood up, leaving him still on his knees before the fireplace, feeling -- and, he was convinced, looking -- rather ridiculous while she extinguished the candles.
"Now come to bed," she said from the shadows.
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