DARCY THE BEAST by Cass Grix © 2017
A Jane Austen fairy tale.
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Master Fitzwilliam Darcy ran towards the rose garden as fast as his short pantaloons would allow. Nanny had fallen asleep after tea. She was still sitting upright, but her chin had dropped down
onto her chest and she snored a little. Fitzwilliam would have awakened her, but for once the weather was wonderful and he could not bear to stay another minute inside the house. He had tiptoed downstairs from the nursery, careful to avoid any servant who might notice him.
Then once outside, he ran.
The rose garden was one of his favourite places to play because there was a stone wall to climb and benches to jump from. Fitzwilliam liked to pretend that he was a bird and that he could fly.
This day, he climbed the eight-foot stone wall and walked around the perimeter of the rose garden. The garden was a large circle with a statue in the centre. The stone wall had two-foot gaps where the paths entered, like spokes on a wheel, and he leapt easily across the openings.
At one place the wall was overgrown with ivy. He stepped carefully through it, but then his foot slipped and he fell, crying out.
His head struck the lawn with a loud thump and for a time everything was dark.
He did not know how long he lay there, but then he felt someone’s fingers on his face, soft and gentle. Someone was speaking or singing a delicate song that sounded like wind rustling through the trees. He opened his eyes and saw a beautiful woman.
“Mama?” he asked, then realized it could not be his mother. She had died a few months before and Mrs. Reynolds said she was now in heaven with the angels.
Besides, this woman had long wavy golden hair, unlike his mother’s dark hair. He had never seen a woman with such long hair; it hung down past her shoulders to her waist. The woman was dressed in a long dress of a shimmering bluish green fabric. She had ribbons and flowers woven into hair. She smiled at him and he thought she was the most beautiful person he had ever seen. “Hello,” she said gently.
Her voice made him feel safe and secure, as if he were half asleep and wrapped in a warm blanket. “Hello,” he returned.
“Do you feel all right? Does anything hurt?”
Fitzwilliam tried to sit up, but his head ached and he lay back down. “My head hurts.”
“I am sorry to hear that,” she said. She reached behind and touched the back of his head gently. “Let me see what I can do. Poor darling, you have a lump.”
“No, I am fine,” he said bravely. He flinched as she touched the tender spot, but he did not cry. His father had told him many times that men should not cry.
“I am glad,” the woman said. “But you must be careful when you climb so high.” “It was my boots. They slipped.”
“Then perhaps you should not wear shoes.”
She motioned towards her own feet and he saw that they were bare. Her skin was pale and smooth. Was she a ghost? But if she were a ghost, would he be able to feel her touch? Nanny often told him frightening tales with ghosts and goblins at night, but this woman did not seem frightening.
The woman smoothed his hair off his forehead and tucked the long dark curls behind his ears. “What is your name?”
She nodded. “A pleasure to meet you, Master Fitzwilliam.” “Who are you?” he asked.
She shrugged. “I live nearby. I am your neighbour.” She said, “And you remind me of a little boy years ago who looked just like you.”
“Was he good at climbing?” She smiled. “Yes, very good.” “What became of him?”
“He grew into a handsome young man.” “Was he strong?”
“Yes, strong but also kind.” For a moment, she looked sad. He said, “Why are you sad?”
She said, “I am remembering happy and sad times. I married him and we were very happy together until he died.”
“He grew old. Humans do not live as long as fairies.” “Are you a fairy?” he asked in wonder.
He thought of Nanny’s stories. “You can’t be. Fairies are small.” “Sometimes we are big, too,” the woman said.
“Do you have wings?”
“Sometimes.” She sounded amused.
He could hear one of the footmen calling for him. “Master Fitzwilliam!” the man called out. “Where are you?”
Fitzwilliam struggled to sit up. “Oh, no, I have to go. But if I come back, will I see you again?” “Perhaps.” She kissed his forehead and he felt a warmth rush through him. He felt as if he were
bathed in light. She said, “Promise me one thing.”
At that moment, he would have promised her anything. “Yes, ma’am.” “Promise me that when you grow up, you will marry for love.”
She smiled, although her eyes glistened with tears. “Very good. Then everything will be all right.”
NETHERFIELD PARK 1811
The inhabitants of Meryton had talked about the upcoming Assembly for days, especially since their newest resident Mr. Charles Bingley was rumoured to be bringing friends from London to attend. Mr. Bingley had recently rented Netherfield Park and some said his fortune was four thousand pounds a year.
Mrs. Bennet was particularly anxious because as the mother of five unmarried daughters, she wanted one of her girls to catch Mr. Bingley’s attention.
“I want each of you to dance with him at least once!” she ordered as they travelled in the family carriage into the small town – they were crowded with three on each seat. “I suspect that Jane will be his favourite, for she is the prettiest, but you never know with young men. They each like something different.”
“Which is comforting,” Elizabeth whispered to her older sister Jane. “Life would be too dull if we all liked the same things.”
“Do you think even Mary has a chance?” Lydia, the youngest daughter, asked.
Mary stiffened at the slight. Of the five daughters, she was considered the plainest one. “I am not interested in Mr. Bingley,” she said stoutly. “I am only attending this assembly to listen to the music. I do not intend to dance.”
Mrs. Bennet tsked her tongue. “If you don’t dance, the men won’t notice you at all.” “Perhaps I don’t want them to notice me,” Mary said primly.
“Nonsense,” Mrs. Bennet said. “Do you want to be an old maid?”
Mary didn’t answer and Elizabeth suspected that Mary’s thoughts might mirror her own. Elizabeth would prefer being an old maid to marrying a man she did not love.
And since she had never met a man who made her heart flutter in the slightest, at the ripe old age of twenty-one, Elizabeth was beginning to think she might become an old maid after all. Who knows, she thought. Perhaps in later years, she and Mary could put out a shingle, selling pin cushions or giving elocution lessons.
She would much rather work with Jane, but she thought it highly unlikely that Jane would remain unmarried for long. She was astonishingly beautiful and had the sweetest disposition. One of these days someone rich enough to please their mother would win her heart and she would be gone.
And Kitty and Lydia were so man-mad, they would probably be snatched up as well. She wouldn’t put it past either of them to elope to Gretna Green in a fit of foolish passion.
Once inside the Assembly, they were met by their neighbour Charlotte Lucas. At twenty-seven, Charlotte might also be a candidate for the Old-Maid Society, Elizabeth thought and wondered if her friend might also want to set up shop. They lived in difficult times, wherein women were dependent upon their husbands for status and there were few occupational options for women. Elizabeth supposed she could become a governess or a companion someday – both dismal prospects – but perhaps instead she could visit Jane and her future husband as a perpetual aunt.
Mrs. Bennet wandered off to speak with her friends Lady Lucas, Mrs. Long, and Mrs. Hendricks. They were often thick as thieves, either gossiping about Meryton and London society or playing cards.
Elizabeth asked Charlotte if Mr. Bingley had arrived.
“Not yet,” Charlotte said calmly. “They say he is to bring twelve ladies and seven gentlemen tonight.”
Elizabeth said, “I’ve heard it is only five women – his sisters – and one gentleman, his cousin.” “Still poor odds,” Charlotte said. “Do you think his cousin might be wealthy as well?”
“Time will tell,” Elizabeth said philosophically. “What must it be like to be so wealthy that everywhere one goes, one is the subject of conversation? I suppose such attentions could make a person either shy or conceited.”
“Mrs. Long says Mr. Bingley is very personable.”
“My father liked him as well,” Elizabeth said. Mr. Bingley had called on her father several days before and the women of the family had caught a glimpse of him from the upper story windows as he walked up to the house. He was slightly taller than average and wore a blue coat. Elizabeth was looking forward to finally seeing the man face to face after all the conjecture.
After a few more minutes, the evening became infinitely more interesting as Mr. Bingley’s party arrived.
Elizabeth saw that there were only five in total, two women and three gentlemen.
“Oh, there he is!” Lydia squealed. “It is Mr. Bingley. And look at the tall gentleman next to him.” Elizabeth’s eyes were already turned towards the tallest gentleman. He was a large man, well over
six feet, with very broad shoulders, a barrel chest and long dark hair tied in a queue. Most gentlemen these days wore their hair much shorter. His looked as if it might touch his shoulders if untied. At least his hair appeared to be its natural colour and not powdered like that of previous generations. But what was most remarkable about him was that he wore a jewelled mask that hid nearly all of the left side of his face.
“Do you think he thought it was a masquerade tonight?” Kitty asked.
But as the man walked, Elizabeth saw that he had a cane and he limped slightly. “No, I think he may have been injured.”
Mrs. Phillips, her aunt, knew more of the Town gossip. As she walked by, she overheard Elizabeth’s comment and added, “That is Mr. Darcy. He wears a mask because he was injured and disfigured in a fire. He’s a widower. His wife died in a fire at his estate in Derbyshire. At one time the Darcy family was very wealthy, with an income well over ten thousand pounds a year, but no one knows what the estate produces now.”
Elizabeth scarcely heard what her aunt was saying. Mr. Darcy’s eyes were the most piercing blue she had ever seen.
She watched as he surveyed the room and then stood back by one of the walls, discouraging conversation with a forbidding, disagreeable countenance.
In contrast, Mr. Bingley soon made himself acquainted with all the principal people in the room. He was good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance and easy, unaffected manners.
He was lively and unreserved. He danced first with Charlotte, then seemed struck with Jane as she was going down the dance. He enquired who she was, got introduced and then asked her for the two next.
Elizabeth observed all this with pleasure for Jane deserved the distinction, and unlike Lydia, she would not become puffed up with pride.
Elizabeth herself danced several times, but then due to the scarcity of gentlemen sat down in a chair on the edge of the large room. During that time, Mr. Darcy stood near enough for her to overhear a conversation between him and Mr. Bingley, who came from the dance for a few minutes to speak with him.
“Come, Darcy,” Bingley said. “I know you cannot dance, but that does not mean you must stand in a corner, glaring at everyone.”
“I am not glaring,” Mr. Darcy returned.
“Well, you might not think so, but from my perspective, you look very fierce.” “It is the mask.”
“Then take it off.”
Mr. Darcy shook his head. “I don’t want to frighten everyone.”
Bingley said, “You are too scrupulous. Remember, I have seen the scars and they are not that bad.”
“You are too kind,” Mr. Darcy murmured. “But trust me, I know what disgust and horror my unadorned face creates.”
Bingley said, “Well, at least try to have a conversation with someone.” “I have nothing of interest to say.”
“Then say something boring. Good heavens, man, you must make an effort.” “Why should I?”
“Upon my honour, you are determined to be cantankerous. Personally, I never met with so many pleasant girls in my life, as I have this evening; and there are several of them you see who are uncommonly pretty.”
“You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room,” Mr. Darcy said. Elizabeth was gratified to see that he referred to Jane.
Bingley said, “Oh, she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say, very agreeable.”
“Agreeable enough to take pity on me?” Mr. Darcy said sharply. “Not if you growl at her,” Bingley said.
“Which do you mean?” Mr. Darcy asked and turning around, he looked for a moment at Elizabeth. She felt as if she could not move; his brilliant gaze held her pinned to her chair.
He held her gaze briefly, then withdrew his eyes. “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me,” he said coldly. “You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles before she thinks you have abandoned her.”
Mr. Bingley followed his advice. Mr. Darcy walked off; his movements slow and laboured with his cane.
In other circumstances, Elizabeth might have felt charitable towards the man and been sympathetic to his pains, but after his slight, she did not harbor any cordial feelings towards him.
Not handsome enough to speak to! It was unbelievably rude. Who did Mr. Darcy think he was – some Turkish Pasha or Chinese Emperor judging all the women in the room?
It was absurd, and Elizabeth who often found amusement in anything ridiculous, took delight in repeating the incident with great spirit among her friends. She had a lively, playful disposition, and she would not let one irritating, proud man ruin her enjoyment of the evening.
Later that evening, she spoke to her sister Jane privately as they prepared for bed. Jane liked Mr. Bingley. “He is just what a young man ought to be – sensible, good humoured, lively. I never saw such happy manners – so much ease and with such perfect good breeding.”
Elizabeth smiled. “He is also handsome, which a young man ought likewise to be, if he possibly can.”
Jane blushed. “You are laughing at me.”
“No, truly. I am merely laughing at all of us, having to get to know gentlemen in such limited situations. I think it difficult to know anyone well after only a few dances.”
Jane sighed. “You are right, of course. I will have to know him longer to know him better, but I like what I see thus far.”
Jane was apt to like everyone. She never saw a fault in anyone. All the world was good and agreeable in her eyes. “What did you think of his sisters?” Elizabeth asked as she hung her gown in a closet. “Their manners are not equal to his.”
Mr. Bingley had brought his two sisters: The first, Mrs. Hurst, married to a large, dull gentleman, also present at the dance, and the second, Miss Bingley. They were both handsome women of fashion, proud and conceited.
Jane sat on the edge of their bed, brushing her hair. She said, “They are very pleasing women when you converse with them.”
“You are too generous,” Elizabeth said. From what she had heard, they each had a fortune of twenty thousand pounds, they had been educated in one of the first private seminaries in Town, and they were accustomed to associating with people of rank. From observation, Elizabeth saw that they thought well of themselves and meanly of others. Miss Bingley had surveyed the room with a constant sneer.
But Elizabeth did not care about them. She wanted to talk about Mr. Darcy most of all, but she had mentioned Bingley and his sisters first so as not to imply any special interest in that gentleman. She asked carefully, “And what do you think of his friend, Mr. Darcy?”
“The poor man,” Jane said. “I know he insulted you, but with his every faltering step, my heart went out to him. I suppose he must be in pain and that explains his shortness of manner. I wonder that he had the strength of will to attend the Assembly knowing that he would be unable to participate. No doubt he did it to honour his friend Mr. Bingley.”
Jane’s kind words made Elizabeth’s conscience smart. Had she been unkind to make fun of his rejecting her? But, she thought, she had not made fun of his physical infirmities, merely his haughty attitude. “You may like him, but I don’t,” she said bluntly. “And I hope never to see him again.”
“So, what did you think of the Assembly?” Miss Bingley asked.
Darcy, Bingley and his sisters sat at a card table in the Netherfield drawing room. Mr. Hurst lay on a couch, snoring.
Since Darcy was no longer capable of dancing, he had found the Assembly tedious, and standing for long periods of time made his left leg ache even more than usual. He was glad to be sitting now. Once the evening was over, he would ask his valet Bowles to rub his injured leg with oil so he could sleep.
Bingley said, “I have never spent such an enjoyable evening.”
Darcy shuffled the cards and dealt the first hand. “I have heard that before.”
“No, it is true,” Bingley said. “I have never met with pleasanter people or prettier girls in my life. Everybody was most kind and attentive. There was no formality, no stiffness and indeed, I soon felt acquainted with all the room.”
Darcy looked at his friend, wondering how any man could be so consistently happy. Either Bingley had a faulty memory, or his charmed life proceeded with an ever-increasing level of contentment. “I think your happiness is due primarily to the attractions of one Miss Bennet.”
“Oh, she is beautiful. I cannot conceive of an angel more beautiful.” Darcy said, “She smiles too much. Perhaps she is a simpleton.”
“Oh, Mr. Darcy do not be so harsh,” Miss Bingley said, amused, “It merely shows that she has a sweet disposition.”
“I agree,” Bingley said. “And I want to get to know her better.”
Darcy shrugged. Bingley fell in love almost every other month. In six weeks, he would forget all about Miss Bennet.
Miss Bingley asked, “Mr. Darcy, did you not find anyone agreeable tonight?”
Darcy said, “Other than the present party, no. I saw only a collection of people in whom there was little beauty and no fashion.”
“You must prefer London society, as I do.”
Actually, Darcy disliked London as well, but he felt it his duty to marry and produce an heir, a concern that weighed heavily on him, and he had recently decided to make the effort to secure a second wife.
And he would have succeeded if his fiancé Miss Haskill had not cried off four months before. All an all, it had been a disastrous summer, first with Georgiana’s near elopement with a scoundrel and then his fiancée jilting him. Added to this, three years of poor crop yields and a mining investment gone sour made him even more anxious to tie the knot.
His mother Lady Anne had been the second daughter of the Earl of Matlock. Upon her marriage, her father had divided her settlement funds into three payments. The first was her dowry, given to his father George Darcy on their wedding day. The second was paid on his birth, and the third would be paid directly to Darcy upon the birth of a son, who would have been his mother’s first grandson, if she had lived that long.
The sooner he had a son, the sooner he could repair Pemberley’s fortunes. Upon his father’s death, he had learned that the property had been heavily mortgaged. Five years of frugality had restored much of the estate, but it was still not prospering as it had done for five hundred years previously, and an infusion of capital would be welcome.
But in order to have a son, he needed a wife. He looked closely at Caroline Bingley. She was a tall, handsome woman with some education – no worse than most – and she had the benefit of being related to his good friend Charles Bingley. For several years she had flirted with him, but he did not know how much of that was her personality and how much was directed to him. Could he marry her? He had agreed to come to Hertfordshire to determine the matter.
Darcy was not looking for love, he would leave that to the poets of the world, but he was looking for civility and loyalty. His first wife had neither.
And as it developed, Miss Haskill had been lacking as well.
Even now, he felt some resentment in the way Miss Haskill had rejected him, for the timing, if not for the manner. They had been engaged, the settlements were drafted with an August wedding date set, when the old rumours began to circulate about him.
Rumours that he had driven his first wife to suicide. Rumours that Mrs. Darcy had been on the brink of divorce.
Miss Haskill had ignored the rumours at first, but then as they persisted, she grew increasingly pale, visibly unhappy. She was unavailable when he called at her father’s townhouse. He sought a private audience with her and bared his soul, giving her some of his marital history, and she had seemed to accept his assurances, but then one week before the wedding, she cried off.
And the rumours increased – this time with the implication that he had been extreme in his affections and that is why she had rejected him.
Darcy clenched his teeth. It was infuriating. He had never done more than kiss Miss Haskill’s hand. If Miss Haskill had been a man, he could have challenged her to a duel, but as a woman, she was protected. She could spread all manner of lies about him, and he had no recourse.
He hoped that Miss Bingley who had known him for several years would overlook the gossip and agree to marry him.
He supposed the question was not whether he could make himself marry Miss Bingley, but whether she would accept him.
* * *
Over the next three weeks, Darcy stayed at Netherfield, often siting outside or riding with Miss Bingley and conversing with her in the evenings, whether at Netherfield or when attending social events in Meryton.
During this time, he noticed his friend’s marked attentions to Miss Bennet and as a natural consequence, he became more aware of the entire Bennet family.
Mrs. Bennet was a loud, vulgar woman who spent too much time exclaiming over her winnings at the card table and promoting the beauty and accomplishments of her five daughters. In comparison, a fish monger was more discreet. Mr. Bennet was a quiet, ineffective man who appeared oblivious to his wife’s impropriety. Jane was sweet tempered and well-bred, but the three youngest sisters, no doubt taking their cue from their mother, were either silly or rude, often both.
And then there was Miss Elizabeth Bennet, sometimes called Lizzy by her family. Lizzy. It made him think of lizards. It was an appalling appellation.
She was not as pretty as her older sister. Her hair was brown with red highlights and curly. At first, he’d thought she had hardly a good feature in her face, but as he observed her conversing with others, he noticed that her face was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression in her dark eyes.
She intrigued him, so he began to watch her.
Although he had noticed that her physical form did not have a perfect symmetry, upon further observation, he had to admit that her figure was light and pleasing.
And her manners, which were not those of the fashionable world, had an easy playfulness.
He found himself thinking of her at strange times of the day, wondering what she might be doing, or what her reaction to a particular situation or conversation would be.
It was most disconcerting.
With Miss Elizabeth’s family and lack of dowry, she would not be suitable as Mistress of Pemberley. He was determined to focus on Miss Bingley instead, and redoubled his efforts with her.
They often spoke of Pemberley and his younger sister Georgiana, and he thought that in a week or two, he would propose.
And then one day, Miss Elizabeth appeared when he was sitting at breakfast with Bingley, the Hursts and Miss Bingley.
When Miss Elizabeth was announced, he rose to his feet out of politeness, and he was stunned, nearly struck breathless when he saw her.
She was radiant with her hair falling from its pins, her face flushed from a morning walk. She was beautiful, and he had never been stirred by a woman as greatly as he was stirred by her at that moment.
He had difficulty paying attention to the conversation around him. Apparently, she had walked three miles from her home to attend to her sister Jane, who had visited Miss Bingley the afternoon before and taken ill, spending the night, but all he could do was stare at her.
Bingley said something and Miss Bingley arranged for a footman to escort her upstairs to see her sister.
Darcy sank back to his chair.
Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst spoke among themselves. “Poor Miss Elizabeth looked almost wild,” Mrs Hurst said. “Her hair was so untidy, so blowsy!”
Miss Bingley added, “And her petticoats, six inches deep in mud, if not more. Did you notice it, Mr. Darcy?”
He demurred. He could hardly admit that his gaze had gone no lower than her glorious bosom. Bingley said he thought Miss Elizabeth looked remarkably well and that her petticoats had escaped
Darcy’s eyes narrowed as a wave of possessiveness overcame him. He did not want to fight Bingley for Elizabeth’s favour. But he quickly dismissed that ridiculous thought. Bingley preferred Jane, and even if he switched his affections to Elizabeth, that was none of his concern.
She could be nothing to him.
Miss Bingley said, “What could she be thinking to walk so far, unattended? It shows a conceited independence, a complete lack of decorum.”
Bingley rose to her defence. “It shows an affection for her sister that is very pleasing.” Miss Bingley sniffed, “She could never behave that way in London.”
Darcy said, “No, because London is so crowded. Surely the rules for walking across unoccupied fields should be different from those for walking in the city.”
“I doubt you would want your sister Georgiana to take such a journey.”
“Not without a maid or footman, no,” he agreed. “But the Bennets may not have sufficient servants to perform that duty.”
Miss Bingley smiled. “Exactly. I suppose in a few minutes I will go upstairs and check on our guests.”
“Please do,” Bingley said. “And be sure to tell Miss Bennet that I hope she recovers quickly.” Darcy nodded, pleased with his friend. Darcy tried to dismiss Elizabeth Bennet from his mind,
but she appeared at dinner at six-thirty, and he learned that she had been invited to stay at Netherfield until her sister felt better. A servant must have been sent to Longbourn for clothes, for Miss Bennet had changed into a different dress and tidied her hair. But she had one wayward curl at the back of her neck that his fingers itched to touch.
Bingley asked about Miss Bennet’s health and Elizabeth explained that the apothecary said she had a violent cold and needed to rest. “I don’t believe her illness is out of the ordinary, but I appreciate your hospitality in letting her stay while she recuperates.”
Darcy said, “I hope she feels better soon.” He was sincere in his wish, for the sooner she felt better, the sooner Miss Elizabeth would leave.
“Thank you, sir,” Elizabeth said politely.
Miss Bingley said, “I am most grieved for your sister, Miss Elizabeth. It is so disappointing and shocking to have a cold. Especially in the colder weather, which makes it seem worse.”
“I hate being ill,” Mrs. Hurst added. “It is so tedious.”
“And boring,” Miss Bingley said. “When all one can do is lie down and wait for the malady to leave.”
Darcy wondered if Miss Bingley thought her conversation was helpful. “And it is so unattractive to have a red nose and a fever,” Mrs. Hurst added.
Miss Bingley nodded, as if her sister were a sage. “It is so difficult to endure. And it is so easy to slip into despondency when one is feeling ill. Poor Miss Bennet. Do tell her my heart is touched by her illness.”
“I will,” Elizabeth said.
“Mine, too,” Mr. Bingley said. “Tell her that we all miss her and look forward to her being able to join us in the evening.”
Miss Bingley sighed. “You sister seems to be facing her trial with fortitude, which is admirable. As for me, I dislike being ill excessively.”
Darcy saw the corner of Elizabeth’s mouth lift in a hint of a smile.
“Does something amuse you, Miss Elizabeth?” he asked quietly.
“Oh, no,” she said pleasantly. “I was merely thinking on the ambiguity of Miss Bingley’s sentiments. I am not certain whether she greatly dislikes being ill to any degree or if she merely dislikes being greatly ill.”
Miss Bingley, overhearing their conversation, said, “I dislike both, Miss Eliza. Surely there is no one who enjoys being ill.”
“No, of course not,” Elizabeth said politely.
Darcy thought that perhaps Miss Elizabeth had a wry sense of humour, finding amusement in Caroline’s verbose sympathy.
When the dinner ended, Elizabeth returned upstairs to visit her sister.
As soon as she was gone, Miss Bingley said sharply, “Charles, I hope we will return to London soon, because society is very limited here and if Miss Elizabeth Bennet is an example of what we can expect from the neighbourhood, we shall be thoroughly bored.”
Darcy asked, “Why do you say that?”
Miss Bingley laughed. “Surely you noticed. Miss Elizabeth has poor manners. She had no conversation, no style, no taste and no beauty.”
“She was quiet,” he agreed. “But I assumed she was thinking about her sister.” “Indeed,” Bingley said.
But then Mrs. Hurst said, “I find little to recommend in her other than her being an excellent walker.”
Both Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst tittered with amusement. Darcy said, “She cares for her sister.”
Miss Bingley, sensing his disapproval of their humour, said quickly, “Yes, and that is admirable. But I miss London and its society. I suppose we should not expect superior conversations when stuck in the country.” She flashed her brother a quick look of irritation, then looked back at Darcy with a smile.
Darcy said nothing. In his opinion, conversations were equally boring in the country and the city. He longed to go back to Pemberley, but he had decided that he would not return without a bride.
Mrs. Hurst furthered the conversation by emphasizing the Bennet’s relations in trade – an uncle in Meryton was an attorney and another uncle in Cheapside was a merchant.
Bingley made a rash statement about not caring if the Misses Bennet had enough uncles to fill all of Cheapside. It would not lessen their appeal.
Darcy disagreed. He was more aware of society’s restrictions and he knew that the Bennets’ relations and connections would materially lessen their chances of marrying men of consequence.
He, for one, could never consider Elizabeth Bennet as a potential wife. His father would turn over in his grave.
It was bad enough that he was considering Caroline Bingley. But at least it was her grandfather rather than her father who had been in Trade, and she did not have any inconvenient aunts or uncles for Bingley’s father had been an only child. And as soon as Bingley became a landowner, Caroline’s respectability would increase.
And she had a reasonable dowry, something of which her father would approve. His father understood the need to make sacrifices for the benefit of Pemberley and the Darcy family fortune
– indeed, he had required a sacrifice from Darcy when Darcy was twenty-one.
Darcy frowned, thinking of Justine, his first wife. Perhaps they had both been too young to marry, but that was water under the bridge. There was nothing he could do to bring her back to life or to make amends now.
He must move forward.
Elizabeth sat in Jane’s bedroom for a long time after her sister fell asleep because she did not want to return to the rest of the guests in the drawing room. Jane, who was still feeling poorly, had coughed and asked about Mr. Bingley and his sisters. Elizabeth had assured her that they all wished her well. Fortunately, Jane did not ask about Mr. Darcy.
Elizabeth did not know what to think of him. He was so irritating. His mask – a simple dark blue satin in contrast to the jewelled black one he had worn at the Meryton Assembly – hid some of his expression, but she could still see that he stared at her with a scowl on his face, as if he found her beneath his notice.
But if she was beneath his notice, why was he noticing her?
Like Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth also wished that Jane would recover quickly. She wanted to leave Netherfield as soon as possible.
A servant had summoned her for coffee earlier, but Elizabeth had not wanted to go when Jane was awake, so she had said she would join the party later.
Elizabeth sighed. She could not procrastinate forever. She must return and perform her social obligations.
On entering the drawing room, she found the whole party sitting at a small square table, playing silver loo. Mr. Bingley invited her to join them and this was seconded by Miss Bingley, but Elizabeth declined. Unlike her mother, she was not much of a cardplayer and she suspected they were playing too high for her, so she made Jane the excuse. “I will only be here for a short time, before I go back to my sister. I will find a book to read.”
Mr. Hurst looked at her with astonishment. “Do you prefer reading to cards? That is rather singular.”
“Miss Eliza Bennet despises cards,” Miss Bingley said, “She is a great reader and has no pleasure in anything else.”
Elizabeth saw Mr. Darcy watching Miss Bingley with narrowed eyes. Did he scowl at everyone, she wondered? Out loud she said, “I deserve neither such praise nor such censure. I am not a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things.”
“Such as nursing your sister,” Bingley said kindly, and the conversation shifted to books and libraries. Miss Bingley praised Darcy’s library at Pemberley.
Elizabeth found a book on a side table to read. She idly turned the pages, barely reading the words before her and not listening completely to her company. Then suddenly Miss Bingley said, “Miss Eliza, you must visit Pemberley. It has the most amazing library.”
Elizabeth nodded. “Perhaps someday I will see it.”
Darcy said, “If you are ever in Derbyshire, speak to my housekeeper Mrs. Reynolds and she will give you a tour.”
Elizabeth was amused. Did Mr. Darcy think she had been begging for an invitation? If so, he was mistaken. She had no desire to see his house despite the effusive praise from Miss Bingley. Did he think that fobbing her off on the housekeeper would set her firmly in her place?”
Miss Bingley continued, as if wanting the attention back on herself. To Elizabeth she said, “Pemberley is a beautiful, majestic home, but the library is its heart.” Then she turned to Mr. Darcy, “I don’t know how you can bear to leave it, Mr. Darcy.”
Elizabeth was amused to see how Miss Bingley flirted with Mr. Darcy.
Mr. Darcy said, “You are correct that it is difficult to leave Pemberley, for it is my favourite place in the world. But when life’s duties draw me away from it, I often carry a few volumes from the library with me.”
“It’s true,” Bingley said. “Whenever we travel, Darcy always has a book or two. I don’t know how he can read in a moving carriage. I cannot. It upsets my stomach.”
“Charles, please,” Miss Bingley said. “Let us speak of something else.”
Elizabeth said to Darcy, “I have always thought that men of wealth and status could do what they wished, but it is comforting to think that we all have obligations. I will not be as envious, now.”
“Do you envy wealth?” Miss Bingley asked pointedly. She glanced at her sister Mrs. Hurst with a smug smile.
“No, I think I envy men,” Elizabeth said simply. “Are you a Radical, Miss Bennet?” Darcy asked.
“If by Radical, you mean wanting more freedoms for women, then yes, I am.” “What sort of freedoms?”
“More rational education primarily and a society that does not view women as belonging to their parents first and then their husbands.”
“We all have obligations to our families,” Darcy said. “Yes, but men have the control.”
Darcy smiled coolly. “You have not met my aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She ruled her husband for twenty years.”
Elizabeth said, “But she is an exception. I am speaking about the average woman.” “Is anyone average?” Bingley asked pleasantly.
Darcy ignored him. He said, “It sounds as if you have been reading Mrs. Godwin.”
He made it sound like an accusation. Elizabeth lifted her chin. “Yes, I think A Vindication on the Rights of Women raises many important questions.”
“I hope you will not take the author as a guide. She was an immoral woman and many of her beliefs, if implemented, would bring nothing but shame and sorrow. She writes of women behaving rationally without sentiment, and yet she flouted society’s rules by having affairs and an illegitimate child.”
Elizabeth had heard rumours about the author, but did not know the details, having not had access to Mr. Godwin’s Memoirs. “I trust that my own morals will not be corrupted by merely reading a book.”
“No, of course not,” he said coolly. “But not everyone has your strength of will. Too many women are weak, excitable creatures, easily flattered into impropriety.”
He sounded as if he spoke from bitter experience. “Hence the need for that education,” Elizabeth said pointedly.
His jaw tightened. “And why fathers, brothers and husbands must rule their families with a strong hand.”
Elizabeth thought she had never spoken with such a disagreeable man. “I believe we must agree to disagree, Mr. Darcy,” she said finally, determined not to argue with him.
Miss Bingley interrupted to take a greater share in the conversation. “I never knew you were a such a bluestocking, Miss Eliza,” she said and then gave an insincere laugh. “It is amazing what one can find in the country.”
She smiled at Darcy to see if he agreed with her.
Elizabeth, thoroughly annoyed with all of them, excused herself to return to Jane.
* * *
The next few days were unpleasant, and Elizabeth spent as much time as possible with Jane to avoid the other residents. She could not retreat to the library, for Mr. Darcy was often there, but she could escape to the gardens for long walks. Mr. Darcy with his limp rarely went outside, except to ride.
Finally, Mr. Jones said Jane was well enough to return home to Longbourn. Their mother was not pleased to see them, for she had hoped that Jane would stay at Netherfield for an entire week, but she was pleased to learn that Jane had spent two evenings in Mr. Bingley’s company and that he had talked of hosting a ball. “I believe he will propose to you, Jane, but you must do everything in your power to catch his attention and keep it. I think it is time for you to have a new ballgown.”
“It seems an unnecessary expense,” Jane said. “My blue gown is perfectly fine.”
“Perhaps new ribbons,” Elizabeth suggested. “To smarten it up.” Their mother was overly generous and apt to spend beyond her quarterly allowance, which led to tears and arguments with their father. Elizabeth hoped that new ribbons would be sufficient to satisfy her.
Mrs. Bennet tsked her tongue. “I believe a new gown will be an investment in your future, Jane. It is well worth the expense.”
Mary looked up from the book of sermons she was reading. “But I thought you hadn’t paid the dressmaker.”
“Oh, that is right,” Mrs. Bennet said. “I was waiting until the New Year to do that. I suppose ribbons will have to suffice, unless I can invite Mrs. Long and Mrs. Hendricks to play whist. Mrs. Hendicks’ cousin Lady Stretton is visiting and she likes to play.”
Their mother often played cards for the extra pocket money and there was nothing she liked more than to mention the names of her aristocratic playing partners. “The other day when I was playing whist with Lady Stretton” she would begin.
The day after Elizabeth and Jane’s return to Longbourn, the Bennets had their own company – Mr. Bennet’s cousin, Mr. Collins, who would inherit Longbourn at Mr. Bennet’s death. Mrs. Bennet had been adamantly opposed to meeting the man for years, but when he arrived, seemingly eager to make one of her daughters his wife, she had changed her tune.
Mr. Collins was a clergyman, and to Elizabeth’s surprise, Mr. Darcy’s aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh was his patroness. Mr. Collins was a heavy-set man of twenty-five with an obsequious manner. He bowed, he scraped, he flattered, he simpered. When he first arrived at Longbourn, he singled out Jane for his attentions, but after a quick word from Mrs. Bennet who said Jane was almost engaged, he shifted his attentions to Elizabeth, who was appalled.
She thought she would rather be lowered into boiling oil than accept him as a husband. She tried to keep her distance and to discourage him as much as possible.
One day, four of the Bennet daughters planned to walk to Meryton to visit their Aunt Phillips and Mr. Collins joined them. The journey was only a little more than a mile, and Elizabeth walked at a brisk pace so that Mr. Collins was left behind to speak with Jane.
When they entered town, Lydia and Kitty ran across the street to speak to Mr. Denny, one of the officers in the local militia. Elizabeth, Jane and Mr. Collins followed at a more circumspect pace. Mr. Denny introduced them to Mr. Wickham, a handsome young man who had recently joined the militia. He wore normal attire rather than a uniform.
Mr. Wickham smiled at Elizabeth in a way that was most encouraging. He was tall with an excellent figure and an engaging smile. For a moment, she did think it a shame that the heir to Longbourn was the annoying Mr. Collins rather than the handsome Mr. Wickham.
While they were discussing the possibility of all going to her aunt’s house, two riders on horseback came into the street.
It was Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy.
Jane smiled at Mr. Bingley who asked about her health.
Elizabeth thought that she had never seen such an imposing figure as Mr. Darcy with his dark mask and dark hat. He was seated on a huge black gelding. He looked like something out of a fairy tale, an evil villain ready to snatch up an unsuspecting damsel and carry her off to his castle. All that was needed to complete the picture was a dark, moonless night and for him to be wearing a silk lined cape.
She noticed how Darcy’s brilliant blue eyes blazed with fury when he saw Wickham. Wickham paled.
They must know each other, but then Darcy drew his horse away and left the conversation. Bingley, realizing that his friend had withdrawn, made his apologies and left as well.
Elizabeth stood for a moment, watching them ride away. Then she let out her breath slowly. “Is that Mr. Darcy?” Mr. Denny asked.
Wickham said, “Yes, it is.”
“Careful now, don’t be challenging the man to a duel your first day in town,” Mr. Denny joked. “I don’t think Colonel Forster would approve.”
“A duel?” Lydia repeated. “How romantic. Do tell us all about it.”
Wickham smiled. “No, my good friend here spoke out of turn. I have no intention of fighting any duels – not even with Mr. Darcy, although if I did, I would have just cause.”
Lydia teased him to get more information, but he demurred. “I have said more than I ought. Forgive me.”
The officers accompanied them to Mrs. Phillips house but declined an invitation to join them inside. Mrs. Phillips arranged for a card party the following evening and Elizabeth had an opportunity to speak to Wickham then.
Nearly everyone else was playing cards, and by his choice of seating arrangements, they could speak privately, within sight of others, but beyond earshot.
“I am glad that you dislike playing cards,” Mr. Wickham said. “It gives us a chance to get to know each other better.”
“I do not mind cards,” she said honestly. “But I do prefer conversation. Are you enjoying your stay at Meryton, Mr. Wickham?”
“I am,” he said. “I find the company charming.”
Elizabeth blushed. She already thought that Mr. Wickham was one of the most pleasant young men she had ever met. He was superior in person, countenance, air, and walk, and best of all, he seemed to like her.
She remembered something her Aunt Gardiner had once said. There is nothing so attractive as a man who is attracted to you. But she knew her aunt would urge caution. Her aunt was a very practical person, not romantic like her mother. She would not favour a young man merely because of his uniform.
Elizabeth and Mr. Wickham spoke idly of the weather and briefly of the inhabitants of the room, then Mr. Wickham asked, “How long has Mr. Darcy been staying at Netherfield?”
“About a month,” Elizabeth said. “He is a man of very large property in Derbyshire, I understand.” “Yes, Pemberley. I know it well. I grew up there.”
Elizabeth was surprised.
“No doubt you noticed the cold manner of our meeting yesterday.” “I did.”
“And Mr. Denny’s rash comment about a duel.”
“I did hear that, as well, but you need not explain –”
“No, I would be happy to, as long as I can rely on your discretion.” “I am not a teller of tales, Mr. Wickham.”
He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Excellent. I never thought you were, but you must have a generous nature to hear my woes.”
“If it is too personal a matter –” she began, but he said, “No, no, it will be good for me to tell someone. I have kept it bottled up inside for too long.”
“If you wish,” she said. She was flattered that he trusted her with his confidences.
“My only concern is that you will not believe me. I think most of Meryton would be astonished to hear what I know of Mr. Darcy. No doubt he is esteemed as a man of property and well liked here.”
“Oh, no,” Elizabeth said. “He is not all liked in Hertfordshire. Everybody is disgusted with his pride. You will not find him favourably spoken of by anyone.”
Wickham said, “Then perhaps some of the gossip from London has reached here as well.”
“I don’t know of any,” Elizabeth said honestly. “Other than my aunt telling me that Mr. Darcy is a widower and that his face and body were injured in a fire.”
Wickham nodded. “That is only part of it. But wait, I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Let me first explain our history. Darcy and I were born in the same parish, within the same park, and the greatest part of our youth was passed together, inmates of the same house, sharing the same amusements. My father was the late Mr. Darcy’s steward. He was most highly esteemed by his employer. The late Mr. Darcy was one of the best men that ever breathed and the truest friend I ever had. He was my godfather and paid for my education, out of respect for and kindness to my father. Mr. Darcy meant for me to have the church as my profession, and upon his death, he promised to let me take possession of a most valuable living.”
Elizabeth was confused. “But you chose instead to become a soldier?”
“No, I had no choice for the present Mr. Darcy refused to honour his father’s bequest and gave it elsewhere.”
“But that is abominable! How could he do that? Why did you not seek legal redress?”
“There was an informality in the terms of the bequest as to give me no hope from the law. A man of honour could not have doubted the intention, but Mr. Darcy chose to doubt it or ignore it.”
“But why? What could have been his motive?”
“He has too many motives, I’m afraid. First, he hates me. I had a tender relationship with his father that he always resented. And then, there was the sad situation of his wife.”
“Yes, Justine Lawford before she married. Perhaps you have heard of her family. Her father owns extensive property and mines in Cornwall.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “No. I have not heard of them or her.”
Wickham sighed. “Justine was a sweet girl, but Darcy married her only for her dowry and for an inheritance from his own mother’s estate. His mother was Lady Anne, daughter of the Earl of Matlock. Her marriage settlements included a payment of fifty thousand pounds to be given to her husband at Darcy’s birth, and the same sum to be given to Darcy upon the birth of a son.”
Elizabeth gasped. “So much?”
“Yes. A fortune when combined with Miss Lawford’s dowry.” He said, “The Darcy family has always been wealthy, but it was not enough for Darcy. He always wanted more. Poor Justine; she deserved better.”
“What happened to his wife?”
“She was the sweetest girl and he treated her abominably. Mr. Darcy is an angry, violent man. I saw bruises on her arms.”
“Oh no,” Elizabeth breathed out. She remembered what Mr. Darcy had said about husbands needing to rule their families with a strong hand. Had he beaten his wife?
“Yes. Mrs. Darcy and I were acquainted. Since my father was Mr. Darcy’s steward, we occasionally spoke casually in passing. Nothing more. But I knew she was unhappy and over time, I learned the reasons. She endured in silence for years, but once Mr. Darcy Senior died, she tried to leave Pemberley. Out of kindness, I helped her by taking letters to her parents. She wrote to them about obtaining a separation or divorce, based on his cruel behaviour, but Darcy would have none of that. He wanted an heir.”
Elizabeth felt a sense of dread. “For the inheritance.”
“Yes. And when she refused, they say Darcy killed her and started a fire at Pemberley to hide the evidence.”
“Good Heavens!” Elizabeth cried. “Are you saying he is a murderer?’
“I don’t know. I don’t know all that happened. I was not living there at the time. My information has come from the neighbours and my acquaintances among the staff.”
“Why did a magistrate not bring charges?”
Wickham looked at her meaningfully and Elizabeth flushed red and answered her own question. “Of course. Mr. Darcy had just inherited. He was one of the most wealthy men in England.”
“Correct. And he hates me for helping his wife, exposing his flaws to the world.” “And his scars, the ones hidden by his mask?”
“I saw them only once before they healed. They are hideous, but somehow it seems appropriate for his face to match his black heart.”
Elizabeth shuddered. “It is difficult to believe. It sounds more like a novel than real life.” She had known Mr. Darcy was a proud, disagreeable man, but she could not believe that he was so evil.
“Believe me, Miss Bennet, it is completely true,” Wickham said earnestly. “Among those who know of his inhumane actions, he is referred to as Darcy the Beast.”