At Austen Authors (http://austenauthors.net), we are celebrating the 200th anniversary of the events found in Pride and Prejudice. This is another of my excerpts from “Darcy’s Passions.” In this one, Darcy returns to Longbourn in hopes of renewing his proposal to Elizabeth Bennet.
Returning to the security of Pemberley, having both Georgiana’s and Bingley’s company brought Darcy comfort. The turmoil of the past few weeks had taken its toll on his usually resilient composure. He required the company of family and friends after his dealings with the nefarious Mr. Wickham. Yet, being with Bingley constantly reminded Darcy that he must make amends for his duplicity in separating Bingley from Jane Bennet. One early autumn day, he and Bingley sought time outdoors.
Bingley said wistfully as he accepted the loaded gun from Darcy’s servant, “I believe the last time we partook of the season’s shooting was at Netherfield.”
“I believe you correct, Bingley,” Darcy paused as he planted the idea. “That was a pleasant time, was it not?” Although he did not purposely initiate it, a sigh slipped from his lips. If he were to maintain his sanity, he desperately needed to know Elizabeth’s company again. “I was wondering, Bingley, have you made a decision on Netherfield? It appears a waste of your father’s inheritance to let an estate one never uses.”
As expected, Bingley readily seized upon Darcy’s veiled suggestion. “Not having stayed through the winter, I remain uncertain of the house’s soundness. Mayhap I should return to Netherfield and make my decision based on what I find.”
“That appears a most prudent means of making a your verdict.”
Bingley asked cautiously, “Would you consider joining me, Darcy? We could shoot, ride, and enjoy my estate. My sisters remain in Hampshire. I would be indebted if you would come with me.”
Darcy chuckled with the success of his ploy. “I would enjoy that, Bingley.”
“Capital! I will send servants to open the house. We could travel to Hertfordshire next week if you are agreeable.”
Darcy’s heart leapt: He would see Elizabeth again. Could they continue what they had begun at Pemberley? “I would be happy for the time together,” Darcy said. His friend took his words to mean his time with Bingley, but Elizabeth was very close to Darcy’s mind.
Over supper that evening, Bingley told Georgiana of his plan to return to Netherfield. “Your brother has consented to join me,” he shared. Georgiana smiled knowingly at Darcy, but she said nothing other than to assure Bingley that she and Mrs. Annesley would be quite content to remain at Pemberley. Georgiana knew Darcy well enough to know the uncertainty he felt in returning to Elizabeth’s home. Everything could change in the next few weeks.
When he and Bingley set out on the following Monday, Georgiana hugged Darcy a bit longer than usual and reached up to caress his cheek. “I shall say a prayer for your safe and successful journey, Brother. As always, I wish you the greatest of happiness.” He smiled weakly at her as he boarded his coach; Darcy could think of nothing but Elizabeth and the tenuous situation of their relationship.
* * *
“Darcy, we have been at Netherfield for two days,” Bingley mused, “and Mr. Bennet has yet to call. Would it be bad manners if we would call on him first?” His friend stared morosely out the library’s window. Darcy had taken up residence in one of the overstuffed chairs, but, in reality, his mind was no more on the book he held on his lap than was Bingley’s mind on the gardeners he watched. Darcy had found it as frustrating as his friend that Mr. Bennet had ignored Bingley’s return. The snub would make it more difficult for Darcy to determine if Miss Bennet would accept a renewal of Bingley’s affections, and Darcy still required a legitimate excuse to call upon Miss Elizabeth.
“Let us wait until tomorrow to see if the situation changes. If not, then, we can offer our own civilities,” Darcy said evenly. He prayed his hopes did not pepper his words.
“Tomorrow it is then.” Bingley continued to stare out the window. “It has been too long since we have enjoyed the Bennets’ companies.”
Darcy’s heart clinched in anticipation. The past two days had played havoc with Darcy’s emotions. There were few places at Netherfield where images of Elizabeth did not dance through Darcy’s head. He saw her on the staircase, as she was on that last Sunday before she and her sister had returned to Longbourn; he saw her carrying the water through the upper passage to Jane Bennet’s sickroom; he saw Elizabeth reaching for a book of poetry in the library. The images haunted his waking, as well as his sleeping hours. Tomorrow, he thought, tomorrow will speak to whether I declare my love to Elizabeth Bennet again.
* * *
Riding beside Bingley as he entered the pathway leading to Longbourn, both gentlemen remained silent, deep in the bewilderment of what the next hour would bring. Darcy held no doubt that Bingley wondered if he could renew his relationship with Jane Bennet; meanwhile, Darcy wondered whether Elizabeth would welcome his presence in her home. Of course, this was Longbourn, not Pemberley. The excellent company he had found in Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner would be replaced by the simple-mindedness of Mrs. Bennet, but what Mrs. Bennet said did not interest him. Elizabeth was his only concern. He could tolerate any insensibility on Mrs. Bennet’s part for the pleasure of seeing the lady’s second daughter smiling genuinely at him. Today, Darcy had a dual purpose for this visit: assess Jane Bennet’s feelings for Bingley and Elizabeth Bennet’s feelings for him.
Darcy’s eyes immediately sought Elizabeth. Weeks had passed since he had last seen her; his wish was to determine whether she had recovered from that awful day at the Lambton inn when Elizabeth had wept for the ruination of her youngest sister and for her family. Those tears had driven him to action. Memorizing Elizabeth’s every gesture and the full gamut of her emotions, he had observed his Elizabeth for weeks last fall; therefore, he instantly recognized her uneasiness; however, the source of the awkwardness remained in question. Was it his presence at Longbourn? Was it that others might discover what happened at Hunsford and at Pemberley? Was it embarrassment regarding his knowledge of Miss Lydia’s folly? I must be patient, he cautioned his foolish heart. Let me first see how she reacts to my coming to Hertfordshire; then I will decide my next step. Regrettably, Elizabeth lowered her eyes before she made both gentlemen a curtsy and then eagerly returned to her needlework.
Mrs. Bennet warmly welcomed Bingley. “Please, Mr. Bingley, you must come sit by me,” she insisted. “Allow me to send Mrs. Hill for refreshments.” Barely civil, she acknowledged Darcy only by name. “And you are welcome as well, Mr. Darcy. Please have a seat.”
Darcy chose a chair where he might observe both Elizabeth and her elder sister. Jane Bennet appeared a bit paler and more sedate than he expected; but she received them with tolerable ease. If Jane Bennet held no resentment, Charles stood a chance to recapture the lady’s heart. Darcy wished her sister would show him some preference. As far as he could tell, Elizabeth had ventured only one glance in his direction. He wanted to be alone with her, to hear her voice, to observe her smile; he wanted only the opportunity to profess his continuing love. Instead, he swallowed hard and forced himself to say, “Miss Elizabeth, may I inquire about the health of your aunt and uncle?”
“They are…they are well, Sir,” she stammered.
“I am pleased to hear it.” He smiled easily at her. It was important for her to know that she brought him great pleasure.
“They were,” she hazarded another quick glance in his direction, but, in reality, she spoke to the floor, “so pleased with Pemberley. My uncle still speaks fondly of enjoying the sport he found there.”
Darcy said earnestly, “He will always be most welcome there.”
Before the conversation could continue, however, Mrs. Bennet interrupted, “You may not be aware, Mr. Bingley, of changes in the neighborhood. Miss Lucas has married Mr. Bennet’s cousin, Mr. Collins, and my youngest daughter has married Mr. Wickham. Although I cannot think it necessary for Mr. Wickham to accept a commission that has sent him to Newcastle, I must tell you, Mr. Bingley, that having a daughter well situated is a great relief.”
The mention of Wickham’s name sent a shiver down Darcy’s spine. He could easily recall the immundity in which he had found Mr. Wickham and Miss Lydia. He regretted that the foolish girl would not accept Darcy’s warning that she must marry quickly if she were to save her own reputation and the reputations of her sisters. He seriously wished that he could have placed the youngest Bennet sister in a better situation, but the girl appeared to hold Darcy’s former friend in deep affection. He hoped it would be enough to carry them forward for he knew Mr. Wickham loved no one but himself
Too mortified to look at him, Elizabeth notably stiffened as Mrs. Bennet asked, “Mr. Bingley, did you by some chance see the announcement of our dear Lydia’s marriage in the London papers? She married from my brother Gardiner’s home, and, of course, he did not put in more than a brief mention of her family.” Elizabeth may not meet his gaze, but Darcy could not force his eyes from her.
“I did see it; may I offer my congratulations,” Bingley replied. Darcy purposely did not join the conversation for fear his tone would betray his true thoughts of George Wickham.’s worthiness.
Mrs. Bennet lamented, “With Mr. Wickham’s having been stationed in the North, I have no idea when we might see our dear Lydia again.” Personally, Darcy had rejoiced in Mr. Wickham’s removal. The commission Darcy had purchased for his former friend was under a very strict comm.
Mrs. Bennet’s next remark offered Darcy a purposeful cut. “Thank Heavens, Mr. Wickham has some friends, though perhaps not so many as he deserves!” If Mrs. Bennet only knew what Wickham truly deserves, Darcy thought. Hopefully, the lady would never know of the perfidy that Mr. Wickham regularly practiced.
This time it was Darcy’s turn to lower his eyes. He could not say what he wished to tell the Bennets: How much he loved Elizabeth, how he had rushed to Miss Lydia’s rescue, and how foolish Mrs. Bennet was to consider Mr. Wickham a proper match for the lady’s youngest daughter. Instead, he assumed the characteristically aloof air that had served him well in the past, but which he knew would mark him as a proud, disdainful man in the Bennet family’s estimation.
As he cursed under his breath, Darcy heard Elizabeth ask, “Do you plan to stay long in the country, Mr. Bingley?”
Her words reached Darcy as nothing else could; even the simplest phrase added to the image he drew of her. The words she said did not fascinate him; it was the way she responded to each situation–how she knew him–had known he needed her to deflect her mother’s attention. She had reacted in a similar manner at Netherfield when Mrs. Benent had argued against his comment regarding the simplicity of country life. Elizabeth had a way of manipulating her family to protect him, and Darcy loved her for it. Her tenacity added to his portrait of Elizabeth Bennet.
Nervousness echoed in Bingley’s response, “I hope to stay several weeks, Miss Elizabeth–for the shooting. Several weeks would be most gratifying.” Bingley hesitated as he shot a quick glance at Jane Bennet.
Both Elizabeth and Darcy observed how Bingley’s response to Elizabeth’s question affected Miss Bennet. Darcy wondered why he had never seen the admiration the lady held for Bingley. Elizabeth glowed as the spark between her sister and Bingley was rekindled. Darcy wished she would look at him with such persuasion. Elizabeth had protected him from her mother, but was that because she feared further embarrassing censure of her family or because she held feelings for him?
When Bingley and Darcy rose to take their leave, Mrs. Bennet issued an invitation to Mr. Bingley for dinner in a few days’ time. “You are quite a visit in my debt, Mr. Bingley, for when you departed last winter you had promised to take dinner with us as soon as you returned. I have not forgot, you see.” A less civil invitation was also issued to Darcy. “Of course, you may join us too, Mr. Darcy.”
“That would be most congenial,” Bingley said with a full smile.
The gentlemen were shown to the door. As the Bennet family gathered around, there was no way for Darcy to speak to Elizabeth again. His bow and her curtsy were all they could manage.
Returning to Netherfield, Bingley was obviously ecstatic, his hopes held possibilities. Jane Bennet did not turn from his friend’s attentions, as Bingley had successfully engaged her over and over. Miss Bennet smiled at him, laughed lightly at his attempts at humor, and made eye contact with Charles repeatedly.
Darcy, on the other hand, experienced pure misery. Elizabeth had appeared uneasy from the beginning; she had answered his questions, and her voice became stronger with each response, but she barely looked at him, and she had offered him no encouragement. His hopes plummeted as scenes from previous encounters at Netherfield and Hunsford flashed before his eyes. You were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry…. I hear such different accounts of you as puzzle me exceedingly…. I have every reason to think ill of you…. Had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner…. All the old insecurities had returned. Would he never succeed in making her love him? He had thought positively when they were alone at Pemberley, but at Longbourn she had been so different. How was he to judge her sentiment? Mayhap, he should leave. The feel of the hand as he had assisted Elizabeth into her uncle’s carriage said otherwise; the backward gaze as she and her family departed his home said she cared; her caress of the petals of the boxwood rose said she believed in constancy. Which images? Which images should he believe regarding Elizabeth Bennet? He would wait until after he and Bingley dined at Longbourn before making his decision. Possibly, it was the shock of his being in her home. Possibly, she was embarrassed by her mother’s actions. Possibly, she was more concerned with Miss Bennet’s welfare. All of these possibilities were characteristic of Elizabeth. I must remain calm and allow life to take its course, he cautioned his bruised heart. After Mrs. Bennet’s invitation is met, he confirmed his resolve. Only if Miss Elizabeth offers me proper encouragement will I remain in Hertfordshire. Besides, I must assess Jane Bennet’s estimation of Bingley’s affections before I confessed my previous deceit. Darcy told himself all these things. Surely, if Elizabeth cared for him as he hoped she did, their hearts would find each other before long.