Rivals & Rascals
by Maggie (Zevin)
This chapter is dedicated to all the wonderful writers of Austen Interlude! For those of you who read this story on another site, Chapters 1 to 12 here are consolidated versions of previous chapters 1-19. This chapter (Chapter 13) is new.
August 8, 1812
Mr. Darcy was much more talkative on the last segment of the journey to Hertfordshire than he had been during the previous day's travels. As they drove through the vibrant countryside, he spoke of such things as farming and land reform. Although he primarily directed his comments to Mr. Bingley, he made no effort to exclude Georgiana and Elizabeth from the conversation. To the contrary, much to Elizabeth's surprise, he seemed to welcome comments from both Elizabeth and his sister on what were generally considered to be subjects of conversation exclusively between gentlemen. It was a discussion that interested Elizabeth and one ordinarily that she would have enjoyed having a share in, but she found that her attention kept drifting to memories of the occurrences of the early morning.
The fact that Mr. Darcy sat directly across from her today did little to help matters. Elizabeth tried to divert her eyes from him during the conversation, but her eyes, like her thoughts, betrayed her. Whenever Mr. Darcy turned his attention to Mr. Bingley or to his sister, Elizabeth found herself gazing at him. She had always thought him handsome, even when she disliked him, but now she realized the full extent of his manly beauty. His exterior attractions were enhanced by his uncommon elegance and grace.
Although each of his parts seemed perfectly formed, the feature that drew her attention the most was Mr. Darcy's mouth. With her emotions still reeling from the feeling of his mouth pressed against her own, Elizabeth surreptitiously studied Mr. Darcy's lips. She marveled to herself how his lips managed to look so soft and gentle while conveying an unmistakable firmness of character.
Darcy seemed oblivious to Elizabeth's perusal of his lips, but Mr. Bingley was not. Elizabeth realized to her great mortification that, as Mr. Darcy was listening intently to something that Georgiana had said on the subject on tenants' rights, Mr. Bingley had caught her staring at Darcy's mouth. Mr. Bingley smiled complicitly at Elizabeth; his smile, like Mr. Bingley himself, was generous and non-judgmental, but Elizabeth felt deeply ashamed at being so caught. She paled and turned abruptly toward the window.
Mr. Darcy seemed to intuit at once that something was wrong. "Are you feeling unwell, Miss Bennet?" he asked.
"Not at all. I was enjoying the conversation greatly, but I find I am feeling too tired to do it justice. If you excuse me, I believe I will rest for the remainder of the journey."
"Of course," murmured Mr. Darcy. Both Miss Darcy and Mr. Bingley encouraged Elizabeth to rest.
While the others softly continued their conversation, Elizabeth closed her eyes and contemplated her situation. Mr. Bingley's knowing smile had reminded Elizabeth of how much she had compromised herself this morning.
'I am no better than Lydia,' she thought ruefully. 'Like Lydia, my passion for a handsome face and form are stronger than my virtue.' Even while she thought this, however, she recognized the fallacy of it. While she could no longer deny that she felt passion for Mr. Darcy, she realized as she heard his deep voice that her feelings for Mr. Darcy went well beyond physical attraction. She now began to comprehend that he was exactly the kind of man who in disposition and talents would most suit her. His understanding and temper, although so unlike her own, answered all her wishes.
If they were free to wed, it would be a union that would be to the advantage of both. By her ease and liveliness, his mind might be softened, his manners improved. From his judgment, information and knowledge of the world, she would receive benefit of greater importance. To this, would be added a physical passion that promised to be beyond what she had ever imagined possible.
In contemplating this, Elizabeth realized just how little Colonel Fitzwilliam would suit her. It was true that the colonel's ease and liveliness were equal to what her fancy had always imagined she wanted in a man. On more intimate acquaintance, however, he had proven to lack the qualities she now realized were essential in a husband. If asked to set forth all of these qualities, she might have felt hard-pressed to articulate them all; strength of character and delicacy of mind were chief among them, but there were other more amorphous qualities that she could not name. She was now certain that, whatever these various requirements encompassed, Mr. Darcy possessed them all and the colonel did not.
Now that Elizabeth had no doubt as to the true state of her feelings, she could not help but berate herself for being blind for so long to the state of her heart. If she had realized her wishes sooner, she would never have entered into an understanding with the colonel. It would not have mattered, anyway, she thought sadly. Regardless of her situation with the colonel, she could never have married Mr. Darcy. If Lydia and Wickham never married, the shame of being joined to such an infamous family would be insupportable for a man as proud as Mr. Darcy. If, on the other hand, Lydia should marry Wickham, marriage to her would be equally repugnant to Mr. Darcy, because he would thus connect himself with a family where to every other objection would now be added an alliance and relationship of the nearest kind with the man whom he so justly scorned.
It was true that Mr. Darcy had spoken of marriage to her only this morning and with full knowledge of Lydia's shameful connection with Wickham. She knew, however, given the kiss that they had so recklessly shared, that Darcy's honor would have demanded that he renew his offer of marriage. 'No,' she thought, 'I do not want a marriage to Mr. Darcy on these terms.' She might have considered marriage to him under such circumstances if she had cared for him less, but her awakening passion and love for him would not allow him to bind himself to her to appease his sense of honor. She had little doubt that he still loved her, but she was equally convinced that his love could not survive the inevitable mortification that would result from a union with her.
Elizabeth's thoughts continued in this vein for the remainder of the journey. By the time they had reach Hertfordshire, she had concluded that if she could not marry Mr. Darcy, she would not marry at all, not the colonel nor any other man. Instead, she would devote herself to restoring, as best she could, the happiness and comfort of her family.
The little Gardiners, attracted by the sound of a carriage and four approaching, were standing on the steps of Longbourn House as the carriage pulled to a stop. They watched curiously as Mr. Darcy lightly jumped to the ground and helped Elizabeth step down. The two youngest rushed to Elizabeth's side and were tugging at her skirts before her feet had firmly settled on the ground.
Perhaps because she had been contemplating a life of childlessness, the sight of her young cousins moved Elizabeth to tears. She brushed tears from her eyes, as she leant to kiss them. As she was straightening back up, she heard Mr. Darcy whisper, "Until tomorrow." Before she could respond, Mr. Darcy had disappeared back into the carriage.
By that time, the eldest Gardiner children had surrounded Elizabeth and were anxiously asking about the whereabouts of their parents. Elizabeth assured them that their parents would join them in a couple of days. The children's obvious disappointment in the absence of their parents was soon forgotten as they frisked and capered to express their delight in seeing their favorite cousin. Elizabeth found herself wishing she was young enough to replace sadness with joy so easily. As the children led her up the steps, Elizabeth turned her head slightly and watched the elegant carriage head off towards Netherfield.
Jane came running down the stairs from their mother's rooms just as Elizabeth and the children noisily entered the vestibule. The two sisters embraced tenderly. Elizabeth asked whether there was any news of Lydia and Wickham.
"Not yet," replied Jane. "But now that our dear uncle has come to assist our father in his search, I hope that everything will soon be well." Jane turned and peered out the front door. "Where are our aunt and uncle?"
Elizabeth glanced at the children. "They will be here shortly. I will explain later," she added in a low voice.
"But Lizzy, how did you get here? Surely, you did not travel all this way alone?" Jane looked horrified.
Lizzy hesitated a moment. She was not comfortable discussing all of the events of the past week, at least not while standing in the hallway with their young cousins cavorting at their heels.
"Mr. Darcy and his sister graciously offered me a ride as they were traveling to Netherfield with Mr. Bingley."
Jane's eyes widened and she gasped involuntarily. Before she could question Elizabeth about this astonishing information, Elizabeth grabbed her arm.
"I will tell you about it later. First, I must go see our mother."
As Lizzy and Jane entered Mrs. Bennet's rooms, that lady looked at her second daughter and cried, "It is about time you have arrived, Lizzy! You do not know how we have all suffered while you were away enjoying yourself. Where is my brother?"
When she learned of her brother's delay, Mrs. Bennet leaned back on her day bed and clutched her chest.
"Oh, what is to become of us all now. Here is Mr. Bennet gone away to look for Wickham, and my brother nowhere in sight to assist him. I know that Mr. Bennet will fight Wickham wherever he meets him, and then he will be killed."
Lizzy froze. The idea of a duel had not occurred to her before. She could not really imagine her father challenging Wickham to a duel, but the colonel was another story entirely. In fact, now that she thought upon it, she could not imagine how the colonel could get Wickham to marry her sister without threats of some type, threats which could easily end in a fatal duel. While she suspected that the colonel was the better swordsman of the two, she had no doubt that Wickham would not fight fairly. Colonel Fitzwilliam could easily be killed in the mission he had undertaken on her behalf. She could not bear the thought that a man, a good man, might risk his life for her sake. The thought was especially intolerable now that she knew that she could never marry the colonel, regardless of whether or not Lydia married Wickham.
"I must stop him," she murmured to herself.
Despite her weakened condition, Mrs. Bennet's sharp ears did not miss Elizabeth's words. "Yes, Lizzy. By all means, since your uncle will not help us, you must go to London yourself and prevent your father from being killed. For if he is, Mr. Collins will turn us out within the fortnight to starve in the hedgerows, mark my words."
As anxious as Lizzy had been to get home, she was now equally anxious to go to London to convince the colonel to give up his quest for Wickham, and to confess to him that she could never marry him under any condition. She was distraught at the idea that if she did not hurry, she might be too late.
"I will go to London without delay, Mama. If you can spare Jane, I would like her to come with me."
"Spare Jane?" cried Mrs. Bennet. "I cannot possibly spare Jane; who would nurse me then?"
"You have Aunt Phillips, and Mary and Kitty here with you; and there is Hill, too. You will be well looked after, and we will not be in London long."
"No," pouted Mrs. Bennet. "I must have Jane; no one else understands my nerves, as Jane does. Mary and Kitty certainly do not. You managed to get here on your own, Lizzy; you can travel to London on your own, as well."
"But Mama!" exclaimed Jane. "She did not travel here alone, she was given a ride by…" Jane stopped abruptly in mid-sentence.
Thankfully, Mrs. Bennet did not appear to notice. She continued to moan about how she could not possibly do without Jane.
"Mama," Elizabeth said calmly. "Our family's behavior is already under great scrutiny. If you want me to go to London now, it would be best if I do not go alone. There would be talk if I were to take a coach with no chaperone. Jane is the only one who could go with me. You know that traveling makes Mary ill; and Papa would not like for Kitty to be in London, considering what has happened to Lydia. It simply must be Jane. We will speak with Papa and be back in just a few days. "
Although Mrs. Bennet was greatly displeased at the prospect of the absence of Jane's patient ministrations, she knew that Lizzy spoke the truth.
"Yes," she said, grudgingly, "I suppose it is best if Jane goes with you. Make sure that your father is not killed, Lizzy; and see that Wickham marries Lydia without delay, and that she has proper wedding clothes."
If circumstances had been different, Elizabeth would have laughed. Her mother, who generally found little to admire in her second daughter, seemed entirely convinced that Elizabeth could both save Mr. Bennet from imminent death and ensure that Lydia was not only wed quickly, but clad in appropriate attire when she did so. Instead of laughing, Elizabeth nodded gravely and kissed her mother on the cheek.
"We will do our best, Mama. We will make arrangements as quickly as we can and be off without delay. I believe there is a coach leaving for London at half past two; if we make haste we can catch it and be in London before dark."
Before Mrs. Bennet could change her mind, Lizzy and Jane hurried out of the room. Mrs. Bennet called out detailed instructions concerning the wedding clothes as they left.
Jane clasped her sister's hand. "My poor Lizzy, I am so sorry that you must leave again when you have just returned home. You must be exhausted from your long journey. You have not even had a chance to bathe or to dine. Perhaps, we should put off going to London until tomorrow."
Elizabeth shook her head. "No, I think it is best to leave without delay. The journey to London is not overlong, and it will go quickly since I will have you to keep me company, dear Jane." Elizabeth's thoughts quickly turned to her engagement to meet Mr. Darcy the following morning. She knew that she could not leave without sending some word to him. Earlier in the carriage, she had been feeling both excitement and dread at the idea of soon meeting Mr. Darcy alone; she had also been reproaching herself for her foolishness in arranging to meet him alone in public at a time when her family could not afford even the whiff of scandal. Although she knew that it was best to avoid the meeting, Elizabeth felt bereft at the idea of not having one last opportunity to speak with Mr. Darcy in private. She knew that he would be hurt by her failure to keep their appointment, and the idea of causing further pain to Mr. Darcy saddened Elizabeth. She must cause him some small degree of suffering now, however, to spare him a larger share of it in the future.
"Jane, I wish to write a letter to Miss Darcy before we leave but it shall not take me long. I want to spend a few moments with Kitty and Mary before we leave, as well. Would you please tell Hill of our plans and see to the packing of our clothes while I attend to these things?"
Jane nodded her acquiescence, and Elizabeth kissed her sister again before she hurried off to write her letter. Although Jane felt that it would have been better for Elizabeth's sake to delay their journey until tomorrow, she was secretly relieved that Elizabeth had insisted on traveling to London today. Jane had been greatly shaken by the news that Mr. Bingley was back in Netherfield. She was fearful of seeing him again, particularly now that her family faced such scandal and disgrace. Despite everything that had transpired, Jane still cared deeply for Mr. Bingley and could not bear to see him under such painful circumstances. She had no doubt that once her mother found out that Mr. Bingley had returned that she would waste no time in trying to push Jane into his company, even though everyone else could plainly see that there was no longer any hope of such a union. Jane was grateful for the opportunity to leave Hertfordshire and could only pray that Mr. Bingley would be gone from Netherfield by the time she and Lizzy returned home.
In the early evening, Georgiana was sitting in the parlor at Netherfield playing with one of the resident cats. It was a small elegant cat of Siamese heritage, and it had a playful nature that delighted Georgiana. She dangled a skein of embroidery thread in front of it and laughed when the cat batted at the thread. Bingley smiled at Georgiana and the cat, but he seemed ill at ease. He drank more sherry than usual and glanced repeatedly at the door, as if he was expecting visitors to arrive. Darcy stood at the window staring out into the night as if he, too, was awaiting something or someone.
Despite the general air of anticipation, everyone was surprised when a footman entered the room bearing a letter on a silver platter. Mr. Bingley jumped to his feet and practically leapt across the room in the direction of the footman.
"The letter is for Miss Darcy, sir," said the footman in a toneless voice.
Georgiana stepped forward with an eager smile and took the letter. "It must be from Elizabeth, as no one else knows that I am here."
Darcy had never heard Georgiana call Elizabeth by her first name before, and the sound of her first name on his sister's lips made him smile involuntarily. He watched his sister intently as she opened and read the letter.
Georgiana read the letter quickly and her face soon darkened with disappointment. Darcy's heart sank.
"Is there any news of interest?" he asked tersely.
"It is from Elizabeth. She regrets that she must travel on to London today on family business. Her sister Jane goes with her. She apologizes for not saying goodbye properly and sends her fond regards to all of us."
Georgiana looked up from her letter to see her great disappointment at this news magnified in the countenance of her brother and their friend. A long silence followed, punctuated by the mews of the cat who, at this point, was hopelessly ensnared in long silken threads. Georgiana occupied herself with entangling the cat. By the time the cat was freed, Mr. Bingley had left the room. Mr. Darcy had returned to the window, his posture more erect than usual. Georgiana joined her brother at his post.
"Elizabeth asked me particularly to tell you that she regretted her hasty departure since she did not have the opportunity to thank you for all of your many courtesies to her. She entreats your forgiveness and sincerely wishes us both future happiness."
Georgiana folded the letter carefully and tucked it into the sleeve of her gown. "It sounds so very final," Georgiana said sadly, "as if she expects to have nothing more to do with us."
Darcy continued to look out the window. The disappointment that he had shown clearly a moment earlier was no longer evident. He stood silent and expressionless, his gaze fixed on some distant object.
Georgiana looked at her brother for a long moment and then sighed softly. She scooped up the cat and left the room.
Even in his solitude, Darcy's expression betrayed nothing of what he was feeling. He stood at the window for a long time looking out. Just as the sky was beginning to darken, he leaned his forehead against the windowpane.
"She thanks me for my many courtesies," he whispered.
He had come so far, both in terms of distance and hope, only to have his fondest wish placed entirely out of reach, once more.
Return to Rascals and Rivals page
Return to Austen Interlude
© Maggie 2005-2006