Darcy paced back and forth in his drawing room. Colonel Fitzwilliam sat nearby, stoking the fire from his seat.
“Get it over with and read the damn thing!” he exclaimed. “You are exhausting me.”
“I am not prepared enough. I will wait until I retire for the evening, and then I will not exhaust you any further,” Darcy answered without humor.
“Pray then, retire now, Darcy. For I have every intention of throwing you in this fire next, but you will not stand still, and I am afraid you will smoke like hell,” he joked, trying to lighten Darcy’s mood.
Darcy finally sat down, and let out a great sigh.
“There was a time not long ago, when I thought her family far beneath me. I thought her relations vulgar, and her lack of connections reprehensible. But what excuse can I give ours? Does Lady Catherine’s fortune give her leave to behave in such a barbaric manner? Elizabeth’s mother is a gossip, and her two youngest sisters are flirts, but there is not a mean spirited person among them. They are not vicious. They wish harm to no one. And her other relations? I have never met with more open, charming and elegant people as the Gardiners. I would be happy to be settled directly across the street from such relations as they."
Darcy put his head in his hands and continued his speech.
"Even before Lady Catherine threw Elizabeth from the premises, she shot vicious little arrows at her, belittling everything about her, from her accomplishments at the pianoforte, to her apparel. Yet Elizabeth bore it like a queen. I am heartily ashamed of the way I felt, and how she was treated. We are the ones with the vulgar and reprehensible connections, Cousin.”
“Brilliant! Let us change the Darcy motto to say exactly that. Vulgar and Reprehensible to the End! It has a certain ring to it, do you not think?”
Fitzwilliam managed to get Darcy to smile, and he went to pour him a glass of brandy.
“Come now, Darcy. Mrs. Gardiner forewarned you. Drink your medicine, then go and read your letter. Cry yourself to sleep, and we will revisit this in the morning.”
Darcy took the brandy from his cousin.
After putting if off longer than he should, Darcy finally made it to his room, and picked up the letter that he had ignored all day. He braced himself for the worst, and it was a very good thing that he did.
My aunt is very clever, and will most likely prepare you for whatever she thinks this letter holds. I love her very dearly, and even though she understands me and returns my love, she does not know my heart.
I did not sleep the last night I spent at Hunsford. I was very happy, and my head was full of many things, including your manners, and your generosity to even think of me. I was struck at how kind you could be to me after all our misunderstandings, and how badly I treated you to your face regarding Mr. Wickham. I cannot look on that without shame. I should have seen through him at the very start, when he started to disparage you within twenty minutes of our acquaintance. A true gentleman would not do that, and I would have not needed you to stand up and expose him, if I had one ounce of sense.
As I said, Mr. Darcy, my head was full of many things that night, but one thing that was lacking, were thoughts of what would be best for you. As much as it stings to admit it, your aunt, although wrong in her approach, and abominable in her execution, was right in her motive. I cannot be a proper companion for you. I would bring derision and censure upon you and your family name. I know nothing of running such an immense estate such as Pemberley, and would be an embarrassment to you with my inadequacies at home, and in society.
I might seem pleasant enough now, with my pert opinions and independent manners, but how would that translate as a wife of such a great man as you? I am an ignorant country girl, with no thought to decorum or propriety. I am completely void of any of the elegance that would be required as your wife. If you only knew what I am guilty of! But I cannot injure you any further by explaining.
Lastly, I must admit that I am weak, and do not think I could bear the constant scrutiny of others. If my spirits are this low after one attack, then how could I ever navigate your sphere in general? Your aunt will make sure my connections are known, and I can only imagine what I would encounter on a regular basis. Every arrow directed at me will hit both of us, and I cannot carry that burden. I do not want to take on that responsibility.
All this to say, that although I think very highly of you, we are not a good match. A couple must be on equal ground to succeed in a marriage, and we are miles apart, Mr. Darcy. I will always be grateful that you thought of me, but I ask you now to think of me no more. I do not want to see you, and I ask you to kindly not call on me in London, or at Longbourn when I return. This is for the best, sir. You will look back and be grateful that I had a moment of lucidity, when you admire your future wife, who will be lovely and well equipped to take on such a great name as Darcy.
I stay forever in your debt for your kindness,
Elizabeth found herself in the drawing room. She was alone in the house. She had been in her uncle’s library, and tried to get lost in a book, but she could not concentrate. If she were back home, she would certainly have gone on a long walk, and would have not looked back. But what folly had come from her walks?
She hated this feeling of worthlessness, that she was breathing someone else’s air. Elizabeth felt like she had no home, no direction, and no end in sight. She looked back at her last few years and felt heartily ashamed. If knighthoods could be given for excellent letter writing, harmless gossiping, and sophisticated scampering about the countryside, Elizabeth would be “Sir Elizabeth” one hundred times over. At this moment, she did not see much difference between herself, and Lydia. Elizabeth was simply more covert with her folly, and it made her ill.
Without thinking, Elizabeth walked directly to the pianoforte. She looked over some music, and sat down in front of the instrument.
Three hours later, Mrs. Gardiner found her niece still playing. She stopped at the door and listened to Elizabeth master a very difficult section. Elizabeth put her entire being into the music. It was a sad, but beautiful composition, and she felt it fully. It resonated throughout her frame, and she in turn poured her soul out through her fingertips. She could linger on a melancholy note as long as she wished, and she could hit bold chords with righteous anger. It was exhilarating. It was freeing. Elizabeth found a new love. Her aunt turned and left her alone.
For days the Gardiner’s let Elizabeth play without interruption. Mrs. Gardiner even went out and bought more sheet music for her. And every day, Elizabeth would overcome some little stumbling block that had kept her from taking that instrument seriously before. Elizabeth disciplined herself; she refined her technique, and developed a new appreciation for excellence. She thought of nothing else. That was her plan.
None of the Bennet girls were ever taught to stay at one thing. They flitted to whatever caught their fancy at the moment. Mary only stayed at the pianoforte because it set her apart from her sisters. Vanity disguised as discipline. Elizabeth hated to think it, but her father did them all a great disservice by not taking a more active role in their education. Elizabeth vowed that if she was ever blessed with daughters, she would make sure that they were rational, disciplined and learned creatures.
A letter from Netherfield came for Elizabeth. Jane had returned from her honeymoon in Bath, and has requested her sister to come home. Elizabeth had been in London for over two weeks now, and was torn, she was not sure that she was ready to leave quite yet, but felt there was a tenor of unrest in Jane’s letter. Jane said nothing specifically, but it was what she did not say, that concerned Elizabeth. She knew her sister. Oh, how she missed her! She would go, and God help her, if she ran into any gentleman that she wished not to.
While Elizabeth packed, her aunt brought her a note. She kissed her niece’s cheek.
“You did not say he could not write,” she said with a sad smile.
Her aunt stood before her holding the note in her hand. Elizabeth immediately recognized the handwriting, and it made her heart skip a beat. A flood of emotion came over her. Her head spun. She could not move.
“It will not bite you, dear.” Her aunt placed it in her hands and walked out, closing the door behind her.
She placed the letter carefully on her nightstand, and sat numbly upon her bed. “You did not say he could not write.” He was not playing fair. Elizabeth must have sat there arguing with herself for a half hour, before she finally picked up the letter. She held it for several seconds. She did not know why, but it comforted her to know that it had been in his hands.
Elizabeth turned it over to break the seal. She hesitated. She could not bring herself to open it. For doing so would only open up a host of things she was not at all ready to face. Breaking the seal might break her resolve. So she held it for a while longer, even pressing it against her heart, and then she tucked it deep into her trunk.
Peeking out from the carriage, Elizabeth beheld Netherfield. Although it looked much the same, the simple knowledge of who was now Mistress, transformed it into a very welcoming home, indeed. Caroline went to go stay with the Hursts in London, not long after the wedding, making way for her new sister to step in her proper place. As irritated as both sisters were with the match, they were resigned to it. And keeping them far away, was the dearest wish of Bingley, who wanted his new bride to feel nothing but complete happiness and freedom in her new home.
Jane met Elizabeth at the door, and the sisters embraced whole-heartedly. How much she had missed her favorite sister! Elizabeth was surprised at the rise of emotion, once she beheld Jane. It startled her. She did not want to let go. She wanted Jane to hold her, and she wanted to cry on her neck for hours. But Elizabeth’s troubles were deeper than tears. They were deeper than explanation. They were deeper than her own comprehension.
The two held hands as they made their way toward the drawing room.
Mr. Bingley was waiting anxiously by the mantle. The door opened, and his lovely wife, and her dearest sister came through together.
Bingley bowed, and then strode over toward them. “Miss Elizabeth! How happy I am to see you!”
Elizabeth smiled widely, and curtsied. Bingley came to stop right in front of her, and reached for both of her hands.
“I welcome you as my very own sister, now. What a merry addition to my family you are, and I need not say, that we hope that you will consider Netherfield a second home.”
Elizabeth returned his enthusiasm. “You might regret that open invitation, Mr. Bingley. For all the charm that Longbourn once held for me, has taken up residence here. I fear you will very soon, be quite tired of me,” she joked.
“Nonsense! We want nothing else, then to hear of London, Kent and what ever else you have been up to, but I must excuse myself until dinner, dear sister. I am sure you have some catching up to do.”
Bingley left the ladies alone, and the two quickly found comfortable seats and started to catch up. Jane spoke of their trip to Bath, their elegant accommodations, the sights, and the concerts they attended. Elizabeth smiled when a few of her own questions caused Jane to blush, but the sisters were mostly at ease and free in their conversation, at least where Jane was concerned.
Elizabeth, however, had to do an intricate dance, to be able to explain her early departure from Kent, to her almost monastic lifestyle she led for the last few weeks in London. Elizabeth had carefully gone over it in her head, and worked out any inconsistencies, oddities and any hint of sadness. But before Jane could ask too many questions, Elizabeth popped up.
“Jane! You will never guess,” Elizabeth teased. “You will never guess in a million years, so I will just have to show you.”
Elizabeth moved over to the pianoforte and sat down. She glanced once more at Jane before she started playing. Jane smiled quizzically, until Elizabeth was a few measures in. Then Jane’s smile became a look of wonder, as she heard Elizabeth play like never before. Elizabeth performed with intensity, feeling and with surprising skill. The music swelled from the instrument, and caught Jane up in a spiral of emotion, as the movement crescendoed into a full rhapsody.
Jane stood up and walked toward her sister. Elizabeth continued, her fingers moving back and forth with great ability. Jane stood in awe, as her sister felt each note acutely. The movement ended in sadness, but it was exquisitely beautiful.
Jane wiped a tear.
“For heaven’s sake, Jane,” Elizabeth teased, “it was not that bad!”
Surprised laughter filled the room as Jane expressed her disbelief. “How did you get to be such a proficient, Lizzy? This is astounding!”
Elizabeth shook her head. “I am not a proficient, Jane. I have to master one piece at a time, but I have fallen in love. I never knew how satisfying it could be, to truly apply yourself to something with all your heart. Aunt and Uncle let me take over their drawing room, and I was rarely disturbed. I chose whatever music I fancied.”
Jane was still in shock.
“You should have seen Mary’s face last night, when I applied myself in front of her, for the first time… I actually felt guilty. For she looked as if I had gone up into her room and snatched something most valuable from her.”
“Oh, poor Mary,” Jane stated with true pity. “Maybe this will bring you both closer together. Maybe you can share this new passion with her, Lizzy.”
“Possibly, Jane.” She looked at her sweet sister, and felt a twinge of guilt. “How very kind you are, Jane. I am certain I will become quite boorish without your influence.”
Jane touched the fine instrument. “Yes, I can see just what the absence of my influence does for you. I am beginning to think I was simply a distraction.”
“No, dear Jane, this is the distraction.” She closed the lid, and stood up to take her sister’s hands.
“I am not ready for questions at this time, Jane, but I do have a great favor to ask of you.”
Jane waited for Elizabeth to continue.
“I do want to be here with you and Mr. Bingley, as much as you have offered, however, I do ask that you will let me know if…” Elizabeth took a breath. “…if Mr. Darcy comes to visit.”
Elizabeth could not look at her sister’s concerned face anymore, so she glanced down at their hands.
“I just ask that you tell me when he comes, so I can be… elsewhere. That is all.”
Jane squeezed her hands. “Lizzy, I will honor your wishes, but you need to know that I wish very much to speak with you on that very subject when you are ready.”
Elizabeth would still not look up at her.
She finally met Jane’s lovely clear blue eyes.
“I will wait until you are ready.”
And with that, Jane deposited a kiss on her cheek, and then questioned her sister if she had the same stipulations for when Caroline and Mrs. Hurst came to visit. Elizabeth was too curious to see how they would act around them both, since they were now considered family, and declared she would not miss that for the world.
There was no news of Darcy, so Elizabeth was free to come to Netherfield as often as she pleased. Life at Longbourn was as altered as Elizabeth feared, but she was able to nurture a closer relationship with Mary, although Mary still preached frequently, and did point out that Elizabeth put too much feeling in her music, and thus was misinterpreting what the composers originally meant.
A few things had changed since Elizabeth had gone; none of the Bennet girls were allowed to stir outdoors by themselves, and gentlemen callers would only be received and entertained in the parlor. Mr. Bennet had set an edict without a word as to why. Elizabeth thought it odd, especially when he was the one to pay the price with his two youngest daughters whining and crying about his unfairness even more than usual. But Elizabeth was in agreement, knowing what she now did. But she still wanted the exertion and the woods, so she bargained pianoforte time with Mary, in exchange for a walking partner.
On one such walk, Mary posed a question.
“Lizzy, why your sudden interest in the pianoforte? You never seemed to care that much before. It was merely a fancy that you indulged at whim.”
Elizabeth smiled. “Ah, yes, Mary, it was,” she confessed, as they continued their walk.
“I guess I discovered what you had, and found value in a discipline. Maybe I grew up.” Elizabeth smiled. “I guess that we all have to grow up sometime, Mary.”
Mary waxed. “That is true. We only keep from growing, when we close our eyes and refuse to see the very things in front of us, be it good or bad. I think of it, as if we were plants, and did not let the sun shine down on us. Though it had the possibility to scorch and burn, if we did not give ourselves over to it, we would never grow.”
Elizabeth was thoughtful for a couple of minutes. “Mary, that was very wise.”
They walked in silence for a few more minutes.
“Mary, do you ever see yourself getting married?”
There was a long pause as their feet moved forward.
“I have thought about it. It does not seem unpleasant under the right circumstances. Marriage is, after all, ordained by the Lord,” Mary stated. “I would not want what Jane had, though. I do not care for the finery, the attention and the public display. I think a wedding should be an intimate reverent occasion.”
Another few seconds passed.
“Do you picture yourself getting married, Lizzy?”
“I have thought about it as well.” She took a deep breath and managed a smile. “But I do not think I will ever marry. I am too headstrong for my own good, and there are not many people I truly like, to be quite honest. To actually find someone who I actually love and respect, and who loves me back—well, that is quite an impossibility.”
Kitty appeared just then, from off the path. She looked a bit flustered and flushed.
“Kitty! What are you doing here? Where is Lydia?” Elizabeth demanded.
Kitty glanced over her shoulder, before answering.
“Lydia is coming. She had to tie her lace, that is all.”
Elizabeth saw something in Kitty’s eyes. She would not maintain eye contact with her. Lydia showed up moments later, just as red-faced, but she was not flustered, she was euphoric.
“Lizzy! Mary! How happy we are to meet you, for we were racing home in order to show you our new purchase!” Lydia raised a package that was tucked under her arm.
“We bought the most horrid bonnet, but will pull it to pieces once we get home!”
“Why did you even buy it?” asked Mary flatly.
“Oh you would never understand, Mary.” Lydia laughed. “Actually, the bonnet looks very similar to the one you have on. I wish you would let me at it as well.”
“Lydia, keep your thoughts to yourself.” Elizabeth interjected.
She looked between her two youngest sisters, who were shooting each other looks. Something was going on, but something was always going on with those two. Elizabeth was just glad that they were together, and that they were all heading safely home.
Jane was falling into the role of Mistress of Netherfield beautifully. She was preparing for the arrival of her sisters-in-law, and showed no anxiety at all. Elizabeth followed her around as she gave instructions to her housekeeper, the kitchen staff, and the upstairs maids. Although Jane was always overly kind, she did possess a certain authority that surprised Elizabeth.
Jane had the main guest rooms rearranged, even though Caroline had them made over just a few months prior. Everything was in place, and the anticipated guests arrived.
Elizabeth was invited to join them for dinner, and stay the night. She took the opportunity to wear her light blue gown with the seed pearls, and as she stood in front of a mirror, she could not help but think of when she last wore it. She thought of her tall dance partner, with his dark piercing eyes, and how he confessed that she took his breath away. And she thought about an unopened letter, tucked in between the letters she had received from Jane. And then she put both thoughts out of her head, and went down to dinner.
Dinner was surprisingly pleasant. Caroline and Louisa were on their best behavior. They mostly talked with Jane and Bingley, but Elizabeth was addressed with civility on a few occasions.
“I understand that you were in Kent, Miss Eliza,” Caroline said. “Did you have the opportunity to meet Lady Catherine de Bourgh?”
The name sent unwanted images through Elizabeth. Charlotte in tears at the foot of the dark staircase, a miserable carriage ride with three strangers, and the thought of him, not far away, and not knowing any of it was happening.
“Yes, I did, Miss Bingley. On several occasions.”
“Did not Mr. Darcy come to Kent while you where there?” asked Louisa. “I thought he mentioned it when we saw him in London.”
Elizabeth hoped that the heat she felt from her face, was not apparent to anyone else. She looked over at Jane, who had stopped with her fork in mid-air. She had said nothing to Jane about Mr. Darcy being in Kent.
“Yes, I saw Mr. Darcy and his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, at Rosings.”
Elizabeth could see Caroline go pale at this. Louisa looked at her sister with concern, and for the first time, Elizabeth actually felt sorry for the lady. It was apparent to anyone, blind or deaf, with or without their wits, that Caroline was after Darcy with a vengeance. Elizabeth could only imagine how many years Caroline had been tracking him, for she was almost three years older than Jane. But to see her trying to maintain her countenance when she, and everyone else, knew it was a losing battle, made her seem vulnerable and human for once.
“I left not long after they arrived. I saw very little of them, actually,” Elizabeth added with mercy.
Caroline looked up, with a glimmer of hope. “I am certain that once her family arrived, that Lady Catherine did not see the need to entertain a simple parson and his friends anymore.”
Well, that was short lived.
Bingley quickly interjected. “I actually heard the opposite. I heard that you were invited to Rosings to dine with Darcy and the Colonel, on more than one occasion. Is that not right, Miss Elizabeth?”
Elizabeth would have been glad at his assistance, if he was not giving out information that she would rather be forgotten. Once again, she caught Jane surprised face. This was all new to her. What a terrible sister I am!
“Yes. We did have two dinners while they were there, but I left the very morning after the second. It all happened so fast, and it all seems so long ago now.”
Louisa changed the subject for the sake of her sister, who plummeted once again into the depths, but this time Elizabeth was not stirred to compassion.
Elizabeth was now aware that Bingley had been corresponding with Mr. Darcy, and she wondered how much more he knew. She could gather from Jane’s face, that he had not divulged anything to her, and was happy that he knew his bride well enough not to distress her with the shock that her dearest sister was kicked out of Kent, like an old shoe.
The knock that came at Elizabeth’s door was anticipated. Jane slipped in with a candle and came to sit next to her. Jane’s face was hurt, but also concerned for Elizabeth.
Elizabeth looked up at her, and felt remorse for not disclosing this sooner.
“I am sorry, Janie. I should have been a better sister to you, and trust you with such things.”
“You need not apologize, Lizzy. I was actually more shocked that Charles knew what I did not. He explained to me that Mr. Darcy had told him in the strictest confidence, but when the subject came up, he took the opportunity to press you.”
She looked at her with a warm smile. “He thinks you are very stubborn, by the way.”
Elizabeth laughed. “I am in danger of having that, and only that, chiseled on my gravestone… Oh Jane, I can’t quite give it words.”
“Give what words?”
“Everything that has transpired. There is too much, and most of it too painful.”
“Charles has assured me that Mr. Darcy is very much in love with you, Lizzy. Is that not clear to you?”
Elizabeth hesitated. “No. That seems to be the only thing that is clear at this point, Jane.”
“I do not understand, Lizzy. Do you still not like him? What did he do? What happened that made you leave for London after Christmas, in the first place?”
“It was a misunderstanding that has been since rectified, Jane. Mr. Darcy has been very kind and generous. It is me at this point, that I am doubting.”
“Can you not love him?”
Elizabeth could not answer. Several seconds went by before she could speak.
“It is possible to love someone who is not good for you.”
Jane could not comprehend what was in Elizabeth’s head.
“And you think that Mr. Darcy is not good enough for you?”
A small laugh escaped from Elizabeth. “Dear Jane! Only you would not be able to fathom that it is I, who is not good enough for Mr. Darcy.”
Jane was thoughtful for a while. “Lizzy, do you think that I am not good enough for Mr. Bingley?”
Elizabeth started at her very words. “Of course not! You know very well that you are the best sort of woman who ever existed, Jane!”
Elizabeth reached to touch Jane’s face.
“I see where your logic is taking you, Jane. But you and I are different creatures. You are all goodness and mercy. I am all stubbornness and impertinence. You are elegant, and I am –“
Jane interrupted her. “Hush, Lizzy! I will not hear any of this.” She stared in her sister’s face, and for the first time, she could read the great pain. She also saw tears welling up in Elizabeth’s eyes.
Jane took in a sudden breath. "Dear Lizzy… what happened to you?”