Elizabeth could hear birds starting to twitter and peep outside her window, and see the first light appearing. She had not slept at all. Charlotte’s raptures last night took even Elizabeth by surprise. She did not think her stoic friend capable of any great show of emotion, yet Charlotte was almost beside herself with happiness. Elizabeth could only imagine it was because she was homesick. Charlotte would contrive to get Mr. Collins out of the house early, and would not worry about Maria, since she would sleep til half past eleven and would not stir downstairs for another hour after that. She helped Elizabeth pick out a dress, and ran downstairs to press it herself before she finally retired and left Elizabeth alone with her thoughts.
There was no reason to lie down any longer, now that it was getting light. Elizabeth sat up and thought she might light a candle and read, or start a letter to Jane that she could finish after a certain person called. She was hoping that her eyes would not give away that she had a sleepless night, but after all, it was a good sleepless night. Her thoughts during the night were so unmanageable, so wonderful that she could not rein herself in. She gave in to where ever her mind took her: his smile, they way the wind played with his hair as he faced her and the valley, and the next thing she knew, she could make out the shapes of things in her room. It was morning.
Elizabeth had just put her slippers on when she heard the front door. No one would be calling at this time. Certainly not Mr. Darcy. She looked outside to see a horse or a carriage, but there were none. Voices started to come up in volume and another door slammed.
All Elizabeth could surmise, was that there was a drunk servant being dealt with by Mr. Collins. Elizabeth felt it safer to stay in her room, although she could hear Charlotte now. Mr. Collins should shield his wife from such confrontations.
Suddenly, Elizabeth could hear her. The distinct booming voice carried up the stairs and barged its way through her door. Lady Catherine was in the parsonage! Elizabeth could not imagine what would possess that lady to disrupt this house at such an early hour. What rudeness! Her mother was all gentleness and ease next to this woman.
“It will happen just as I say, Mrs. Collins!” her voice thundered from underneath the door.
“Your ladyship, can we not talk about this in the parlor?” Charlotte begged.
“Absolutely not!! I will not be delayed! You will comply with my wishes, or I will attend to it myself!”
Elizabeth could not bear it any longer. She opened her door and walked to the top of the stairs. At the bottom of the stairs were Lady Catherine, Mr. Collins and Charlotte. Charlotte, still in her nightclothes, blocked the stairs bodily, and Mr. Collins, also in his nightclothes, wrung his hands and tried to think of something to say.
“Lady Catherine, please, as your rector, let me advise you to think on this further. We do not want to do anything that we might regret,” he pleaded.
“Regret?! Regret? I will have regretted everything I have done for you Mr. Collins, if your wife does not go upstairs this instant and produce that upstart girl!”
Mr. Collins looked up to see Elizabeth standing there. “Cousin Elizabeth,” he said under his breath.
Charlotte spun around and looked up helplessly at her dear friend. She started crying, “Oh Lizzy! I am so sorry!”
“What is it, Charlotte?” Elizabeth was alarmed.
Lady Catherine took up the opportunity in full. “Miss Bennet, you are the problem here! I take it upon myself to entertain the friend of my parson’s wife, only to be stabbed in the back. You have come here under false pretences, with a design to take advantage of me, and my dear family!”
“I do not know of what you are speaking, Lady Catherine.”
“You selfish girl! Do not put on your elaborate act with me. You disgust me. How you were able to ingratiate yourself to my nephew is beyond me. You might have been practicing more than one art, but I will have none of it here!”
“Lady Catherine, may we speak in the parlor?” Elizabeth asked. “I am certain that it would be more desirous for Mrs. Collins if we could speak privately, and not be bellowing up and down her stairs.”
Elizabeth gave one last look at the tear-streaked face of Charlotte and closed the door behind her. Lady Catherine was poised for her attack. Her face was scrunched and screwed with contempt, her substantial body in a stance that hinted of a pounce.
“Do not stand there with this stupid look on your face, Miss Bennet. Explain yourself!”
“I do not know what to explain. Please tell me without riddle what I have done, your ladyship.”
“Fine, if you require that I play your game! You are here for the sole purpose to steal my nephew, to take his heart and break it into a thousand pieces. To see him laughed at, and be the object of scorn forever! You want his fortune, Miss Bennet, and you conspired with or without Mrs. Collins to come here and trap him. I know her young sister is too dumb to be in on it.”
Why this surprised her, Elizabeth knew not. Of course lady Catherine was omniscient! She had eyes and ears everywhere. Elizabeth was upset, but did not feel the gravity of what was happening. She thought she was only seeing a fit that would soon disperse, similar to those her mother displayed daily. Whatever Lady Catherine felt and said, it would not matter, once Mr. Darcy came to call on her. All would be forgotten.
While the lady ranted, Elizabeth wondered who was the traitor, and wagered it was the sheep that turned them in. She would have mutton without any regret from now on.
Elizabeth kept her head about her, as she waited for the lady to finish.
“You are wrong, Lady Catherine. I had no idea of Mr. Darcy or Colonel Fitzwilliam coming here. Mrs. Collins was quite unaware of the gentlemen coming as well. This trip was planned even before Charlotte was married. Mr. Collins can attest to that. No such plan as you have described has ever existed. I assure you.”
“Ha! Listen to your babbling. You have not answered one of my questions. You cannot deny that you intend to take my nephew and make him the laughing stock of the world! Your situation in life is so below his, it is repulsive! I know of your family, your aunts and uncles. What do you have to say to that?”
Elizabeth’s anger began to surface. Her pulse started to pound in her ears, and it colored her voice as she defended herself.
“This is the first question you have asked me, Madam. What you uttered previously were hurled insults and accusations. Here is my answer. If your nephew does not object to my situation in life, than it can be nothing to you,” Elizabeth retorted.
Lady Catherine’s face went red. “You have blinded the boy! He is not seeing clearly. He only sees a pretty face that he will soon come to despise. He cannot see his duty to his family, his station, and he does not see that he would be doing you a great disservice by taking you out of your sphere. You will be over your head as Mistress of Pemberly. You will fail under such a massive responsibility. A vulgar country girl, who knows nothing, but how to walk and sing a pretty song. He will expose you to the censure of everyone you come in contact with.”
“Lady Catherine, he is a gentleman, and I am a gentleman’s daugh--”
Lady Catherine interrupted her. “Mr. Darcy is engaged to my daughter! What do you say to that?”
Elizabeth hesitated, and remembered Wickham mentioning it during the early part of their acquaintance.
“If Mr. Darcy is engaged, then why are you even here? How could you assume he be in danger of me, if he is to marry Miss de Bourgh?”
Lady Catherine paused for a moment, and lowered her voice. “The engagement is of an atypical kind. It has been the sincere wish of their parents since they were infants.”
“Once again, Lady Catherine, if Mr. Darcy is engaged, then you have no reason to think that he will make an offer to me.”
Lady Catherine pounced. “So, he has not made you an offer of marriage?”
Elizabeth was angry that she let herself fall into that trap. She did not say anything, but could hear Charlotte’s muffled sobs behind the door.
“Miss Bennet! Answer me! Has my nephew made you an offer?”
“No, he has not,” Elizabeth answered unwillingly.
“And will you make me a promise never to engage yourself to him, if he should ask?”
“I will not make such a promise to you, Lady Catherine.”
Lady Catherine’s face turned even redder and twisted in such an unnatural way, that Elizabeth could not help but stare at her in alarm. The lady finally opened her eyes and glared at Elizabeth. She lowered her voice, but still used a great amount of force.
“You have one half hour to quit this place, Miss Bennet. I will not extend my hospitality to someone who is intent on ruining my family. Mrs. Collins may protest, but one word from me, and your friend will no longer have a home, and her husband will no longer have a position.”
Elizabeth reeled from the threat. She had no idea that this was what Lady Catherine intended all along. She would not hurt Charlotte, and she would not prolong this, so she answered swiftly, without knowing the consequences.
“I will not stay here one more minute to be abused by you. I will pack now.”
Elizabeth turned on her heel and left the room. Charlotte met her in the hall, but was held back by Mr. Collins.
“Cousin Elizabeth, my carriage will take you as far as the Bromley post,” Mr. Collins offered evenly, without emotion, knowing Lady Catherine would hear. Charlotte covered her face.
Elizabeth leaned in to comfort her friend. “Dear Charlotte, I shall be fine. I will be packed shortly, and this will be all over.”
Once her trunk was handed out of the carriage, and placed on the ground next to her, Elizabeth looked around. What was she to do? Lady Catherine quit Hunsford while she packed, and Elizabeth assured Charlotte that she would go to straight to Longbourn, but she could not bear to go home now. Not with the Regiment still there, not with Jane still gone. Besides, it would cost a fortune to travel that length by post. She decided right then to go to London, to the Gardiners, and tried not to think of their shock.
“A fronte praecipitium a tergo lupi,” she quoted to herself. A precipice in front, wolves behind.
She paid her fare to London, and sat numbly in a corner of the Bromley Inn before the post carriage came. It was not until she was seated next to, and across from three strangers, did Elizabeth feel the full force of what happened to her. Lady Catherine required Charlotte to expel her from under her own roof, and even forbade her to write to Elizabeth in the future, lest they continue their plot. Elizabeth assured Charlotte that she would write via Lady Lucas or Maria once she was back in Longbourn, but did not know how she would manage from London.
Elizabeth did her best to be brave for Charlotte. She had never seen Charlotte as forlorn, as she drove away in the open carriage. Charlotte did not listen to her husband, and saw Elizabeth off with tears and kisses. Elizabeth could see Mr. Collins from an inside window, and did not harbor any resentment toward him. He was naturally weak. Not many people could stand up to lady Catherine, and she would not have Charlotte thrown out of her home.
Elizabeth was very aware of the time. Mr. Darcy would not call at the parsonage until after ten, if he would call at all. He could not have known of Lady Catherine’s visit before it happened, but he might know about it now. She could only imagine how angry he would be, and what he would do. He would go to Longbourn. She knew it.
Half the night was spent wondering just what words he would use to ask for her hand. Would he get on one knee? It pained Elizabeth to the point of nausea now to think of it, to think of him. How could she face him now? Elizabeth was more than humiliated. She was mentally exhausted. How many highs and lows she had experienced in just a few short months!
The carriage knocked its occupants to and fro. Elizabeth leaned her head against the corner, away from the strangers. She could hear Lady Catherine’s voice echoing in her head. Elizabeth was a vulgar country girl, she would be his ruin, and he would come to resent her for it.
Elizabeth ran through the rain. She was dressed in her deep green gown, her hair wet and loose down her back. A dark figure in a red coat was waiting in the shadows of the wood. He smiled handsomely, and bid her to come. Elizabeth stopped in horror, and wanted to change her course, but something down the muddy path caught her eye. Mr. Darcy was sitting against the oak, holding her handkerchief, but he did not see her. He saw nothing, for scarlet was rushing from his head, and his body was twisted and broken. A rush of blackbirds startled her awake. She was in London.
Darcy did not even lie down that night. He knew it was pointless. He stayed up late with Fitzwilliam after the ladies retired. They talked over the logistics of his marriage to Elizabeth, what obstacles to overcome, what family they could count on, and those they could not. Darcy knew that Georgiana was all that mattered to him, and she would be thrilled, and had hinted to him on several occasions on how Miss Elizabeth suited him perfectly. What a wise little sister he had. Darcy talked about how the responsibilities of Mistress of Pemberly would be slowly given over to Elizabeth, once she started feeling comfortable with them. But he mostly enthused over the lovely girl who was willing to have him, after all he had done to offend her and drive her away.
While the gentlemen talked freely, Lady Catherine, who had something to discuss with her nephews, stopped short of entering the door when she heard the name “Miss Bennet” used. She listened for as long as she could, and then quietly retreated.
Darcy nervously waited by himself in the parlor at Hunsford cottage, the servant seemed apprehensive and pale when he asked to see Miss Bennet. The doorknob turned, and his heart sputtered wildly, but quieted again when he saw Mrs. Collins enter the room somberly. Her face was flushed and swollen, and she clutched a handkerchief.
Mr. Darcy stood up immediately. “Mrs. Collins. Good day to you.”
Charlotte closed the door behind her. “Good day, Mr. Darcy.”
She crossed the room and sat down, much to his surprise. He continued to stand not knowing what to say. Her looks caused him concern. Concern about Elizabeth.
“Mrs. Collins, are you quite well?”
“Mr. Darcy, I will answer that with a resounding ‘no’. For I am quite miserable right now, and now have to pass that misery on to you.”
Darcy took a step toward her. “Is Miss Bennet all right? May I see her?”
“I would tell you to sit, Mr. Darcy, but I doubt if you will. But if you would let me explain, I will get this out as quickly as I can.”
Darcy stared at her, waiting for the blow.
“Mr. Darcy, Lady Catherine came to Hunsford before six this morning, and forced my dear friend to leave this place. She accused her in a loud voice of seducing you, of conspiring to get your fortune, and in short, of trying to ruin you forever.”
Darcy looked at her in horror and shock. This could not be true, yet he knew it was. His mind started running, and blood boiled in his veins.
“Elizabeth tried to reason with her, but Lady Catherine called her names, and insulted her to every degree. The ‘great’ lady gave her but a half hour to pack and quit this place, or she would take the living she had provided for Mr. Collins away, and cause us to pack up and leave as well.”
Darcy started to pace, and hit his hat against his thigh over and over again.
“We provided our carriage to Elizabeth, but only to deliver her to the Bromley post. Lady Catherine forbade Mr. Collins to accompany her and make sure she was safely transferred.” Charlotte started crying again. “She means to go to Longbourn, but at what expense, Mr. Darcy? How can someone so elevated treat another human being in that manner? It is not to be borne, although Elizabeth was comforting me!” She continued to cry.
Darcy finally spoke in a low measured voice. “Mrs. Collins, I am so sorry that you had to be exposed to my aunt’s tirade. She is the last person that I would have wanted this information to fall to.” He thought for a moment. “You say that Miss Bennet left in your carriage after six?”
“About half past. Our driver is already back, and I am certain that she would have to wait no more than an hour before catching a carriage north to Hertfordshire.”
“And you are certain that Miss Elizabeth had enough money for the journey?”
“I pray so, Mr. Darcy. I offered her money. Actually, I begged her to take it, but she kissed me and said that she had more than enough to get home. Oh, Mr. Darcy! How can she be so good in face of such evil? Lady Catherine accused me of conspiring with her, but Elizabeth defended me fiercely, and I could not do anything for her. Excuse me for referring to your aunt as such, but she did do such an evil thing.” And Charlotte was taken off again with more fits of tears.
Darcy paced some more and then came to stop in front of Charlotte. “Mrs. Collins, I appreciate you coming to meet me, but I must beg to leave you. I must rectify this situation immediately.”
Charlotte looked up with hope. “Mr. Darcy, you will never find a better being than Lizzy. I have never met someone so lovely, so intelligent and brave as her. Please do not let your aunt ruin your happiness.”
He bowed. “I will not, Mrs. Collins. Now, if you will excuse me.”
And Darcy was out the door.
“Richard!” Darcy roared as he threw his hat and gloves down. “Richard!” He kept calling until he found his cousin still lolling in the breakfast room. Darcy walked in wild-eyed and startled the Colonel.
“What is it, Darcy? You look as if you’ve killed someone.”
“I am not far from entertaining the idea! Lady Catherine found out. I do not know by what means, but she found out about my attachment to Miss Bennet. The woman we call our aunt, came early this morning to the rectory and expelled Miss Bennet from the premises! She made her leave all alone to Bromley, and she is most likely on a post right now to Hertfordshire. Once again, all alone!”
Fitzwilliam stood up, shocked. “Really, Darcy?”
“Where is Lady Catherine?”
“I understand from the housekeeper that she and Anne are out for the morning.”
“Of course! She would not want to face me after the cowardly thing she did. Why did she not confront me? Why did she have to go and humiliate Elizabeth?” he fumed and paced.
“Because our aunt is an intelligent creature. She would not be able to stop you from doing anything you set your mind on, Darcy. She did what she knew would work. She is quite cunning in her strategy. England would be sunk if she took up with Napoleon.”
“Have a care, Richard! I am leaving for Longbourn, directly. I need to see her as soon as I can. I want to leave within the hour. On horseback. Would you join me?”
“Stand, cousin. Wait for a minute. Why horseback? Even if we arrive tonight, we cannot call at such an hour.”
“I will not call on her tonight, but I will first thing tomorrow. I do not want her to think that I have abandoned her for one minute longer than is necessary, Cousin. I need to assure her that she will not be treated like that again.”
“But can you make her such a promise, Darcy?”
Mrs. Gardiner was fully shocked when Elizabeth stood at the door with her trunk. All Elizabeth could manage to say was, “Please Aunt, I will explain everything in a while. I just need a little time to myself. I need to rest from my journey.”
A small knock came at the door, and Elizabeth woke up. It was dark outside and she had no idea what the time was. In fact, she was not sure where she was. The door opened and her aunt appeared holding a lamp. She came to sit upon the bed and placed the lamp on the stand. She stroked her niece’s long hair knowingly. Elizabeth felt suddenly sick when everything flooded back. It had not been a nightmare.
“I’ve ordered a small dinner to be brought up soon, Lizzy. I also wrote an express to your father to tell him that you have come to stay with us for a while at my bidding, to help with the children. I included nothing that will spark any unease or speculation, my dear. Your mother will either look on the express as having great affection for you, or as flaunting our money, but either way, they will know you are safe.” She continued to stroke Lizzy’s hair.
“Thank you, Aunt.”
Mrs. Gardiner looked at her face, still wet with tears. “Did you have a good cry, my love?”
“And just when do you think you will finally let me into that pretty head of yours, Lizzy? I can assure you that I will comfort and protect you, for you are more than a niece. You are like a sister to me, my dearest. And I want nothing more than your happiness.”
Elizabeth sat up and looked at her aunt, who took a strand of her hair and placed it away from her face. How did she keep finding herself at the sharp edge of these nightmares? Elizabeth did not know whether to blame herself, Mr. Wickham, or even Lady Catherine for her troubles. If she would just quit walking, nothing would ever have happened! Mr. Darcy would never have been injured, she would have never run into Wickham alone, poor Georgiana would not have been frightened by her own brother, and Elizabeth would never had gotten a letter from him needing to explain his behavior. Elizabeth could not take the weight of it alone any more. The tears came once again.
“Oh, Aunt!” Elizabeth cried, and she managed to relate the entire sordid story between sobs.
The next morning Elizabeth came down to breakfast with the Gardiner family. She was able to sleep even longer after her nap, and her long talk with her aunt. Mrs. Gardiner was dumbfounded and incensed by the treatment of her favorite. She, like Elizabeth, was certain that Mr. Darcy would go after her to Longbourn, and felt it was a good thing that she did send an express, for what would the Bennet’s do when they heard from Mr. Darcy that Lizzy was missing?
The matter of Mr. Darcy concerned Mrs. Gardiner greatly, for Elizabeth had no wish to see him, at least not for now. There was no talking to her in such a state, so she let her niece alone for now. She needed time to sleep, to cry some more, but she would soon make her see that hearing from Mr. Darcy would be the only way for her to get over her current grief.
Elizabeth remarked as soon as she entered the breakfast room, how wonderful it smelled, and how hungry she was. Her young cousins were thrilled to see her, but were warned by their mother not to hang all over her for now, that she was tired and needed to rest. Bertram still managed to climb up into her lap and insist that she share her toast, which she did happily, as she kissed his rosy cheek.
Breakfast at Longbourn was much less jolly. Kitty and Lydia were grieving over the news that the militia would be moving to Brighton at the end of May. Mrs. Bennet, since the wedding was over, and Jane at Bath, had nothing to occupy her mind or her nerves. So she kept after the girls for any minor infraction. Mr. Bennet was out of humor all together, in the absence of the only two in his household who spoke any sense. He did his best to always have something between himself and the current residents of the house. A book, a glass of brandy, a sharp letter opener… This morning, it was the London Times.
“I do not see why my sister-in-law had to send an express, Mr. Bennet. I thought I should have a heart attack when the knock came at our door last night. Only bad news comes that late in the evening. My nerves will never be the same. We could have found out just as easily tomorrow that Lizzy quit Hunsford and came to stay with them,” Mrs. Bennet complained. “I think that sometimes, Maggie means to flaunt the fine style in which she lives with my brother. I think it more desirable if he had not married at all. My nerves certainly would be better this morning if he had not.”
“Do not you think it curious that Lizzy left Charlotte early? And to help with our cousins?” asked Kitty.
“Maybe she could not stand one more minute with that odious Mr. Collins. I know I would not. How he must put everyone to sleep! I never slept so much as when he was with us all those months ago. Every time he opened a book to read aloud, my eyes glazed over,” added Lydia.
“I think it kind that Lizzy went to help the Gardiners. She left behind pleasure with a friend, to help another in need. We should all practice self-denial. It is essential to the soul,” expounded Mary.
“Maybe that was it. Maybe she absolutely regretted seeing how Charlotte lived, and knew all that could have been hers, and Longbourn soon enough. Maybe it made her miserable,” wondered Mrs. Bennet out loud.
Mr. Bennet put his paper down. “Maybe, my dear Mrs. Bennet, our daughter went to London to visit the Gardiners. Period.”
He stood up and left the room for his study.
Later in the morning, the Bennet’s received two gentlemen callers. Mrs. Bennet could not fathom why Mr. Darcy would show up with his cousin, who was a stranger to all, but whom the youngest Miss Bennets were smitten with. Mrs. Bennet greeted him graciously, since he was a dear friend of her new son-in-law, but sat there stupidly with her three remaining daughters until Darcy finally spoke.
“We were both hoping to see Miss Elizabeth, is she well?”
Mrs. Bennet looked around. “Mr. Darcy, Miss Elizabeth is not with us. She has already been gone these three weeks.”
Darcy looked over at Fitzwilliam and back at the lady of the house.
“We understood that she would be home from Kent by now.” Darcy was getting nervous that she never made it, but tried not to show it in his voice.
“You are right that she is not at Kent, Mr. Darcy. She is now in London, with my brother and his family. We just got news of it late last night,” explained Mrs. Bennet.
Darcy had an audible sigh of relief that Fitzwilliam quickly covered.
“We are very glad to hear that she arrived safely,” added Colonel Fitzwilliam while Darcy recovered from the news. “We had seen her in Kent, and were under the impression that she came straight home. We came to convey a message from Mrs. Collins, but will have to delay the message.”
Lydia, who could not take her eyes off of the handsome Fitzwilliam, spoke. “Colonel, you may give me the message, I will be sure to give it to Lizzy when she returns home.”
Fitzwilliam looked at Lydia with humor, she was a pretty little thing. He actually saw a little bit of Elizabeth in her, but she was only fifteen, and was boldface flirting with him.
“When do you think she will return, Mrs. Bennet?” asked an eager Darcy.
“Oh, my sister did not say, but not any time soon, I imagine. She enjoyed London well enough a few months ago. I am sure we will hear from Lizzy herself soon. My sister only wrote because my daughter was quite overtaken from her journey, which I do not fully understand since it is only a three-hour trip, and Lizzy generally is a good traveler. She usually has boundless energy.”
The gentlemen did not know what to say. Darcy was grieved to hear of Elizabeth in such a state. He was calculating at that moment, how long before he would arrive in London.
“How much did you see of my daughter in Kent? Was she well last time you saw her?”
“Yes, Ma’am, she was in excellent health. We saw her just over a day ago. She had dinner at Rosings with us, and left the next morning,” Fitzwilliam offered.
“Oh, dinner at Rosings! She did write about how very generous Lady Catherine was to invite her to dine at her splendid estate more than once. How very obliging of your aunt to entertain my Lizzy and little Maria. I am sure that we owe your aunt many thanks in extending her gracious hospitality.”
“Not at all, I assure you, Mrs. Bennet,” Darcy added almost abruptly. “Speaking of hospitality, Madam, we thank you for having us here. We must be going, as we are only passing through. We will relay the message to Miss Bennet at a later date.”
The gentlemen stood up, as did the ladies.
“Come again,” Lydia said, looking only at Colonel Fitzwilliam.
Sitting in her uncle’s library, Elizabeth had a book opened on her lap, but she stared at the wall instead. Her aunt entered and saw her niece lost in thought, and still in a great deal of pain.
“Lizzy, he will come here. It might be tonight, and if not, then tomorrow for certain.”
“I know, Aunt. I know. If there was anywhere else I could flee, I would. I do not mean to distress you.”
The lady made her way across the room and sat next to Elizabeth.
“It has to be more, than just being embarrassed, my dear. If you would have received him at the parsonage, then why will you not receive him here? He is not the one who humiliated you. In fact, I am quite certain that he is humiliated by his aunt’s behavior as well. He most likely feels responsible.”
“It is not so much the humiliation, dear Aunt… As much as I hate to admit it, Lady Catherine was right on many accounts.”
“Lizzy! How can you listen to one word that horrible woman said? I do not care how much money she has. She has no manners, and that means that she has not understanding. How can you give any weight to what she said, Lizzy?”
“Even you have to admit that he can make a much better match, Aunt.”
“In fortune only, my dear. He would never find your equal in beauty, intellect and wit.”
“Your praise of me is from pure affection. You are too kind, and blind. But please, think! It is true that his family will not look kindly on me. I am not accomplished. I would not know what to do as Mistress of Pemberly. It is a tremendous estate! Much would be expected. I am afraid that I would embarrass him, and that, eventually, he would tire of me.”
“Nonsense! I cannot believe that you let that woman get to you, Elizabeth. You are much smarter than that.” Mrs. Gardiner looked at her niece in earnest. She did not believe that the broken girl in front of her resembled Elizabeth at all, and it grieved her.
“Maybe it was Providence that kept him from proposing. I did not think it all through. I only thought about how kind he was, how handsome I found him, and how he meant to take care of me. I did not think about what I had to offer him. Beauty fades, wit only lasts for as long as the ear entertains it. I have nothing to recommend myself. I will not be able to help him in society. I will only drag him down. I cannot do this to him. He deserves much better.”
“I cannot even offer him my first kiss,” Elizabeth whispered. She stared across the room again, this time with a tear streaming down her face.
Mrs. Gardiner spoke with a firm, but gentle voice. “That is a falsehood of the blackest kind, my dear.” She touched Elizabeth’s cheek and made her look back at her.
“You did not kiss Mr. Wickham, Elizabeth. There is a big difference between taking and giving. If someone steals an apple from a cart, would the cart owner berate himself for giving it to him?”
Elizabeth halfway smiled.
Her aunt leaned over and gave Elizabeth a kiss on her cheek. “Let us go see what your little cousins are up to, Lizzy. I did promise that you would be helping me. You must not make me a liar.”
Late the next morning, Darcy called at the Gardiners. Mrs. Gardiner warmly welcomed Darcy into the drawing room. He scanned the room as he entered and saw that Elizabeth was not there. Mrs. Gardiner bade him to sit and have some tea with her.
“You see, Mr. Darcy, that we are alone.”
“Yes, Mrs. Gardiner. I can see that,” he answered gravely. “It seems I am following a phantom.”
“Come, Mr. Darcy. We both know that we have a problem to solve, so please put your hat down, for we have much to discuss.”
“Will she not see me?”
His crestfallen face almost broke her heart, and she looked on him with pity.
“Not at this time, Mr. Darcy. Please do not be cast down, for it is not your fault.”
“But I am here to make amends. She needs just to see my face to know that I would do anything to make it up to her. Anything,” he explained earnestly.
“That is part of the trouble, Mr. Darcy. She is humiliated. She does not want you to make anything up to her, because she does not blame you one bit. She feels that she has brought shame upon you, and will continue to bring shame on you if you keep up the acquaintance.”
Darcy was startled. “If I keep up the acquaintance? Does she mean to stop our… friendship?”
Mrs. Gardiner looked at him knowingly. “She is young. She does not know what she wants. She has not given me permission to speak to you so freely, Mr. Darcy, but I feel I must. She hears your aunt’s harsh words in her head, and cannot stop giving them credence.”
“That is utter nonsense! She should not listen to one word she says!”
“We both know that, Mr. Darcy, but my dear Lizzy needs to come to that herself. She has been through some very trying episodes in the past few months. She still is a young person, and even working through one of these happenings would be hard enough, without having several of them stacked on top of each other.”
Darcy looked helplessly at his hostess.
“Drink some tea, Mr. Darcy.” Mrs. Gardiner was all graciousness and beauty. Even though he was pained to the core that she would not see him, Darcy was relieved that Elizabeth chose to come to London. She would be well taken care of here.
“Thank you, Mrs. Gardiner.” He took a sip, but looked back up at her with a flash of panic.
“Is there anything else I should know about what happened with Wickham? He swore to me that he only talked with her harshly and kissed her,” he asked fervently.
“That is all that happened, but it was more than enough, Mr. Darcy. Most of us will not know what it is like to have someone force themselves upon us in such a close and most unwanted manner.”
Darcy shifted his weight at the thought, and tried to keep his anger at bay. To keep the thoughts of just how he was going to make that man pay further, what was already in the process…
“Did you know that Elizabeth slapped him with all her might?”
A small smile came to Darcy’s face. Among all the feelings that swirled in his head, a single, salient one pushed its way to the surface. He was proud of her. How he admired her. “I suspected as much, since he was holding his cheek when we rode up.”
“That is my Lizzy through and through, but did you also know that weeks before, in another more civil attack, Mr. Collins’ proposed to my niece? He did not touch her person, but he would not accept her response, although she refused him over and over again.”
“I did not know that.”
“It happened the morning after the ball that Mr. Bingley held at Netherfield. She finally quit the house to end his overtures, and her mother would not let her hear the end of it for weeks. I was a personal witness to her being accused constantly of ruining her family and not carrying out her duty.”
The pieces were falling into place. He remembered Elizabeth mentioning to him while he lay bleeding next to her, that they both had bleak mornings, but she was able to redeem hers by helping him. She had refused Collins that very morning! Now everything made sense, why she was out in foul weather, not dressed appropriately and not caring to go back anytime soon. She was not careless; she was distressed.
Mrs. Gardiner continued. “I thought that was why she wanted to come away to London with us, but I was wrong. It seems that a certain unpleasant scene with you caused her to quit the county. You see, you have quite a hold on my niece, Mr. Darcy.”
“I was able to explain my behavior to Miss Bennet since then.” He explained.
“I know that, Mr. Darcy, and it does you credit, but even though you charmed her here in London, she was still uncertain about you. Then after what Wickham did to her, she thought that you would have no thoughts of her anymore. And for fear of making Jane unhappy before her wedding, and also fear that she would be forced to marry Mr. Wickham, Elizabeth did not tell a soul of her unfortunate encounter. She lost Jane just days after that. She was happy to go off to Kent. To leave countless troubles behind.”
“And she had no idea I would follow her there.”
“You seem to be in the habit of following my niece around everywhere, Mr. Darcy,” the lady said with a sly smile. “But it seems you made the most of it,” she added.
“Yes, I thought I was making great progress, that was until my aunt…” Darcy shook his head. “ I cannot even think upon it without feeling sick, Mrs. Gardiner. The pain, the mortification she must have suffered.”
“Exactly, Mr. Darcy. Tell me, how do you think your dear sister would weather all of this?”
Darcy looked up at her with painful understanding.
“I know that they have very different temperaments, and Lizzy is strong and speaks her mind, but even the strong need rest and sustenance. The poor thing has been battered and beaten over and over again. She is not even allowed to correspond with Charlotte by your aunt’s decree, and her dearest sister is no longer at home. My Lizzy is lost. There is a person here who resembles her only in form. The rest of her is gone.”
“I would do anything for her. She must know that. I need her to know that.” Darcy looked at the door. “Please, Mrs. Gardiner, is she in the house? May I call for her myself? I need to see her,” he begged.
“I think she needs time, Mr. Darcy.”
“How much time?”
“I have no idea. I wish I could be of more help to you.”
Darcy thought for several seconds before he spoke again.
“You are a gracious woman, Mrs. Gardiner, and I could not ask for more than you have given me.”
“There is one more thing, Mr. Darcy.”
He looked up at her.
“She wrote you a letter. She would not tell me what it contained; so that is why I sat you down to have this talk. She has not been herself, and I fear that there are foolish words in here Mr. Darcy.” She pulled the letter from a cushion in the couch.
“I want you to read it, knowing everything I told you,” she warned.
Darcy looked at her and the letter. She finally put it out and into his grasp.
“Thank you, Madam. You have been most kind.”
He stood up and pocketed the letter in his coat. He took his hat and bowed to Mrs. Gardiner.
“Good day to you, Mr. Darcy. I hope that our paths will cross again, soon.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Gardiner. Good day to you.”
With tears streaming down her face, Elizabeth watched Mr. Darcy enter his carriage from the corner of an upstairs window.
“Abiit, excessit, evasit, erupit,” she quoted to herself. He has left, absconded, escaped and disappeared.