Because of the Mud
Mr. Bennet looked at the man standing in his study and sighed. "You can imagine how little I relish this," he said. "No man would wish to give his daughter in marriage under such circumstances, even with a better knowledge of his character than I can have on so short an acquaintance."
"I cannot compel you, of course, but I would appeal to your sense of honour. The gossip has already spread so far as to harm her reputation, and I have other daughters whose prospects I cannot afford to risk. If you will not offer marriage then I fear our family may never recover. And although you do not know my daughter well, she is a sensible girl, and generally reckoned pretty. She will make you a credible wife."
"My acquaintance with Miss Bennet," said the man, "although brief, has given me the highest opinion of her. You will find me a man of honour, sir. I will do what is right."
"It is settled, then?"
"With her consent, of course."
"As you can imagine—" Mr. Bennet stood up and walked around his desk— "this has all been very distressing for her. However, as I said, she has sense, and she understands well enough the position she is in. I do not think she will raise any objection—but I am sure that if you can summon any lover-like words, those would not go amiss either."
He went to the door and sent a maid to fetch the young lady in question. The two men waited in rather awkward silence.
Mr. Bennet waved his hand. "We all know the size of your fortune, sir. I am not concerned about that."
"You and she shall deal famously, I dare say."
"I shall treat her well!"
"It would be wise for you to do so, for if you do not, you will have the wrath of her sister Elizabeth to contend with and that, I believe, would be no small thing."
Just then the door opened and a young woman, face pale and eyes red, slipped shyly in. Mr. Bennet took her hand and patted it. "There, there, Jane, there is no need to be distraught. Here is Mr. Bingley, you see, prepared to do the right thing. Mr. Bingley, may I present to you your future bride?"
"You did what?" Mr. Darcy stared at his friend in shock.
"It was an accident!"
"Yes, a very convenient accident—for her!"
"No, no, it was not like that, I swear! It was not her fault at all, it was mine. I wasn't watching where I was going..."
Darcy sighed, and ran hand over his hair. "You had best start again, from the beginning. Who is this lady?"
"She is the eldest daughter of Mr. Bennet of Longbourn, an estate about two or three miles west of here."
"And who introduced you?"
Bingley looked a little ashamed. "Well, no one, actually. Only I was out riding Cyclops—"
"That beast," muttered Darcy.
"—and I happened across the two eldest Miss Bennets—"
"The two eldest? How many are there?"
"Five. Anyway, I happened—"
"Five! And yet you remain unsuspicious of their part in this?"
"You don't yet know what happened," said Bingley patiently. "I was riding Cyclops and when I met up with the two eldest Miss Bennets and...well, they are very pretty girls."
"I thought I might just ask them the direction; that is not very improper, after all. Then of course I had to ask their opinion as to the best views hereabouts, and how to get there, and where the boundaries of various estates lie, and before I knew it I was off my horse, walking along the road with them. Miss Bennet—Jane—really is the loveliest creature, Darcy! And she spoke so sweetly that I thought I might talk with her all day—"
"Even though you had not been introduced! No lady of even common modesty would make conversation with a strange man like that, Bingley. Never mind what you were thinking, what were they thinking?"
"We were on a public road, and they were together, and they knew me by reputation already. I am sure they were only trying to be friendly."
"Yes, very friendly."
"Look, I spoke to them, and I asked them for their assistance, and they were obliging enough not to refuse it to me, even though they did not know me. It was my fault from first to last, and I will not have you say otherwise."
"I do not!" the other retorted. "I blame you entirely—but that does not make her blameless."
"Do you want me to finish the story or not?"
"We had walked down the road only a little way, but it had begun to grow muddy—rain on Tuesday, you know—and so I naturally offered Miss Bennet my arm to assist her. The other Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth, said she could brave the mud on her own, but my Miss Bennet accepted, which brought me no small pleasure, I can tell you. We were going on capitally well when—" He paused.
"Out with it!"
"It was Cyclops."
"Cyclops! Bingley," sighed Darcy, "if I have told you once I have told a dozen times that that horse is badly broken in, and mean to boot. He is too unmanageable!"
"You will get no disagreement from me," swore Bingley. "I have told Higgins to sell him at market next week."
"Well—" he scratched his head. "It's a little muddled, to tell the truth. First Cyclops began to dance about and pull on the reins, and that upset my balance, so that I leaned on Miss Bennet—and then she slipped in the mud, and I tried to pull her up again, and then Cyclops pulled harder, and we were both slipping the other way, and someone screamed, and—" He heaved a sigh. "Suffice to say that a minute later there we were, Miss Bennet and I, on the ground together, covered in mud, and some old lady was gawking at us from a carriage with two giggling girls."
"What was the other Miss Bennet doing? Watching?"
"Oh no, she waded in to try to help us, and got quite dirty in the process, but she at least managed to keep to her feet. It was, well, the position we were in, you understand," he said with a blush, "it was terribly indelicate."
A humph was his only response to that. "What happened to Cyclops?"
"Oh, he broke free and ran back home. After that I could not even offer Miss Bennet a ride, and she had twisted her ankle, so all I could do was to try to help her back to her home."
"Tell me you did not carry her!"
"Not all the way. There were some difficult stretches, though—Miss Elizabeth Bennet ran ahead to get help, and we tried to keep off the main roads as much as we could, but I am afraid we were spotted by a few others before her father's carriage finally found us. I must tell you, though, Darcy, that Miss Bennet's behaviour and attitude were remarkable. She never once complained, or blamed me. In fact, she spent most of the journey attempting to make me feel better! She is an angel, and she deserves whatever protection I and my name can give her, after everything I put her through. She must have been so mortified! But she covered it well."
Darcy looked cynical.
"When you meet her you will understand. She is everything that is good, you will see."
"For your sake I hope you are right. That was badly done from beginning to end, Bingley! Why could you not have helped her to some place off the road, hidden from view, and left her there with her sister while you went for help?"
A moment went by. "I never thought of it," he admitted. "I could not think at all of leaving her. Besides, we had already been seen."
"There is a reason for the forms of propriety we follow in our society. None of this would ever have happened if you had not stopped to talk to two young women about whom you knew nothing other than their pretty faces."
"It could have happened just as easily if we had been introduced," pointed out Bingley.
"And this sister! She seems to have been singularly useless. Running off and leaving you two alone, when her presence was the only thing lending you the slightest appearance of propriety!"
"For that matter, I clearly should never have left you alone either. Two weeks by yourself in the country, and this happens. Compromising a local girl! Being forced into marriage! Bingley, that is the
saddest story I have ever heard in my life!"
"It's all Mrs. Goulding's fault," said Elizabeth wrathfully.
"You must not blame her, Lizzy," said Jane, though in a very subdued manner.
"How can I not blame her? Did she stop and offer to help, when she saw the trouble you were in? She could have taken you directly home in her carriage. But no, she drove straight on to Mrs. Long's house and retold it like the most scandalous on-dit, even though any fool could see how innocent it all was. She even forgot to mention that I was standing right there the entire time!"
"Perhaps she did not see you."
"Jane!" Lizzy took her sister's hand. "Even you cannot feel such charity for the woman who ruined your life for the sake of gossip. It is all her fault and you know it."
"No, no, it is my fault." Jane drew her hand away and stared down in her lap. "I should never have taken Mr. Bingley's arm like I did. You did not. I should never have spoken with him so much either, when we had not even been properly introduced. I knew it was wrong, but I did it anyway, and now I must pay the consequences. If only he was not forced into a marriage he must despise!"
"He is getting you for a wife, Jane, and if he does not yet know how very fortunate he is, he will soon. And let us not forget, it is he who stopped to talk, he who offered his arm, and his horse that upset you both! I do not feel sorry for Mr. Bingley at all, only for you."
"Oh Lizzy, I was so mortified! But he was such a gentleman. He spoke so kindly and cheerfully to me as were trying to walk home, and he apologized so often and so sincerely that even if I had been angry I must have forgiven him. He did his best to take all my weight upon himself and when the ground became too difficult he carried me—did I tell you that he carried me? It was embarrassing of course, and both of us so muddy, but he handled it with such delicacy. I do think he is a very amiable and handsome. I think—" she paused. "I have always felt that to marry without affection would be the worst of all things, but if I must marry in this way, I am glad it is to him. I cannot help but think that I might be very happy with Mr. Bingley. If only it had all come about differently!"
Elizabeth comforted her sister as best she could, privately condemning herself for failing to prevent it somehow. Surely there had been something she could have done which would have changed the dreadful outcome! She knew it would distress her sister further to speak such thoughts, so she said nothing, but only vowed to do everything in her power to ensure that Jane should be loved and cared for as she deserved.
The next morning Mr. Bingley came very correctly to call at Longbourn. He brought with him his friend, Mr. Darcy, who had apparently rushed to his side the day before. Mr. Darcy was very different from his affable friend, dark-browed and serious, looking Longbourn over with a censorious eye.
Jane and Mr. Bingley met with many blushes, uncertain just how to behave with each other. Mrs. Bennet did not help, fluttering excitedly around them and exclaiming over what a fine match it was. She had no concern for the circumstances of the engagement—of everyone present, she alone felt unalloyed joy. Elizabeth, burning with shame, saw the unmistakable look of distaste on Mr. Darcy's face, and though she could not in fairness blame him for it, yet she still felt resentful. Mr. Bingley, though looking very uncomfortable, answered Mrs. Bennet with patience, and once enough time had been spent sitting awkwardly around the parlour, he cleared his throat and asked if Miss Bennet would care for a stroll in the garden. Jane of course accepted, and Lizzy and Mr. Darcy trailed dutifully in their wake.
Bingley and Jane walked ahead, her hand resting perfunctorily on his arm, neither one possessing the ease that had heralded their first meeting.
Bingley determined at last to speak, but no sooner did he begin than Miss Bennet also tried to say something, and both fell silent. After a moment they tried again, to the same result, until he urged, "Please—say what you wish."
She shook her head, too overcome.
"Miss Bennet," he began very earnestly, "I wish that there were some way I could tell you how much I regret—"
"Oh, no! It was not your fault. It was mine."
"Indeed it was not. It was all mine. I approached you most improperly, and I had no caution for your name and—well, I can only imagine what your feelings must be. I can only promise you that I will devote the rest of my life to doing whatever is in my power—anything—to make you happy and—"
"Oh, do not, Mr. Bingley! It is you who must feel yourself so unfairly bound, and all for an act of gallantry—"
"You were the innocent party, you were wronged!"
"You did not wrong me."
"You are an angel for saying so." He stopped walking to turn toward her. "Miss Bennet, Jane, you must allow me to tell you that you are the loveliest creature I have ever beheld, and the best! I have never known a woman who could have borne what you did with so much grace and kindness."
"Please, call me Charles."
"Charles." She blushed anew. "You give me more credit than I deserve. Your very great kindness to me—"
"Your forbearance in the face of such indignities—"
"Oh, good heavens!" muttered Darcy under his breath, from his position a short distance behind them.
He and Elizabeth had at first pretended to talk, but ever since the couple began arguing for their share of the blame they fell silent, and were now listening without shame.
Elizabeth cast a wary glance at him. "They appear rather well matched."
"Yes," he admitted after a moment, with a trace of a smile. "She is as uncritical and forgiving as he is."
"Jane has never known how to find fault with anyone. It is a quality I do not know whether to admire or censure."
"I often feel the same about Bingley. His easiness of temper and natural modesty are his greatest attributes—but also his greatest failings, at times. Also," he added, "his impulsivity. I do not believe I ever find that to be an attribute."
"It may comfort you to know, then, that my sister, besides having an excellent understanding, is in general the most serene and steady creature in the world, not to mention the best. She is so very unrelentingly good that I believe I might hate her, were such a thing possible—but, indeed, it is impossible, so instead I love her desperately."
"My friend," he returned after some thought, "is the sort of man who is liked by everyone, and likes everyone in return. His amiability is real, as is his honour."
Elizabeth smiled. "I am glad to hear it." Now feeling on more easy terms with the rather forbidding man, she ventured, "I am afraid you must blame me dreadfully for what happened—but, indeed, I think I would have only ended in the mud myself if I had not pulled away. Jane did hold on to me, for some moments, and I thought she would be right again, but then Mr. Bingley slipped back the other way and—" she sighed. "It happened before I knew it."
But the topic was ill chosen, as he regained his former coldness. "I am sure it was not your fault," he said, but stiffly.
"I suspect you are only being polite, but I must accept it as best I can. Believe me, I have regretted the events of that day most bitterly."
"Why? Is it not obvious?"
"It is a most advantageous match for your sister."
"Oh, certainly!" she cried, her temper flaring. "Every woman dreams of being unwillingly betrothed to a man she hardly knows, under a cloud of the most unpleasant gossip and suspicion. No matter that his character and tastes are a mystery, or that his present attraction may only be passing—she must be perfectly content. She has everything she could wish for."
He drew back and looked at her in some surprise. "You misunderstand me."
She smiled archly. "I do not believe so. But look—we are lagging far too behind for respectable chaperones. We had best increase our pace."
Jane and Bingley, however, had disappeared into the small maze which Mrs. Bennet, with grand illusions, had decided to have planted several years ago. Faced with the choice to go right or the choice to go left, they chose instead to sit on a bench and wait. After a few minutes of heavy silence, Darcy said, still rather stiffly but much less coldly, "I did not mean to insult your sister. The circumstances of this marriage must be, I think, an evil to all who care about them—either of them—but the greater fault must be reckoned to be his. Indeed, if she is all you say she is, my friend may count himself fortunate."
It seemed uncertain at first if she would accept this attempt at conciliation, but then she smiled. "Come, we ought not quarrel. Our time would be much better engaged, I would think, in finding out as much about Mr. Bingley and my Jane as possible—on behalf of our friends, of course. Perhaps we can be of some use in helping them to know each other better."
He thought this over. "Very well. I can see no harm in it, and perhaps some good."
"No confidences betrayed, of course. Only such information as may be common knowledge among their acquaintances."
"Excellent." She smiled again, and this time, to her surprise, he smiled back. "Who shall go first?"
"He is two and twenty years old, and has two sisters, one of whom is married," explained Lizzy. "His father is dead, but his mother is still living. She resides in Yorkshire, where the family is from. They are well known there, and highly respected. Their money comes from trade, but they have been rising into the gentry for the last few generations, and it is Mr. Bingley's intention to complete that process by purchasing an estate."
"It was very kind of you to find out so much—"
"Mr. Bingley himself has a very mild temper, and very good manners. He is not a great reader, but he enjoys all kinds of society, and is the sort of man who likes everyone he meets, unless given a strong reason not to."
"Yes, Lizzy, I—"
"Mr. Darcy considers him impulsive, which our experience with him bears out, but also honourable and trustworthy. He says he is too easily pleased, but that is a small failing, I suppose, when compared with drunkenness, or licentiousness, which he has promised me he—"
Jane smiled and pressed her hand. "You are very kind," she repeated, "but I already know."
"I already know about Mr. Bingley's—Charles's—" she blushed deeply, "family and situation. He told me. And I know about his fondness for society, and dancing, and sports. And that he can often change his mind and act too quickly—he confessed it himself. I am glad to hear that Mr. Darcy praised his good character, though I already felt quite certain of it."
Elizabeth blinked, taken aback. "Did you know that his favourite food is veal with Wow Wow Sauce?"
"And that he is a bad correspondent?"
"With terrible handwriting."
"But perfectly charming in every other way."
Jane sighed. "Yes indeed."
Elizabeth regarded her with amusement. "I hope he did not talk the entire time, Jane."
She laughed. "No indeed. He asked as many questions as he answered, I am sure. It is just that we were so very anxious to know more of each other."
"So I see. And you were happy with what you learned?"
"Yes, dear Lizzy. So very happy."
"Well. I will wager Mr. Darcy told me one thing today that Mr. Bingley did not tell you." She leaned forward. "He told me," she said in a mock whisper, "that Mr. Bingley has the most beautiful singing voice imaginable."
Jane's eyes grew wide. "And I cannot sing at all!"
"I am the luckiest man on earth, Darcy!" declared Mr. Bingley.
"So it would seem. If her sister is to be believed, Miss Bennet is a prodigy of all goodness and feminine sweetness."
"Truly she is indeed! I have never in my life enjoyed an afternoon more than the one we spent at Longbourn today."
"If such matters are of concern to you, I am reliably informed that her favourite colour is blue, and she likes to read the poetry of Donne."
"Yes, she loves blue because it reminds her of the sky."
"How very original," murmured Darcy sardonically, but low enough for his friend not to hear.
"Her favourite flowers are blue hydrangeas. Do you know where I might procure some?" Then, without waiting for reply: "She is gentle and modest, and so exquisitely lovely that it makes my heart hurt to look at her! Besides that she has good sense, a great delicacy of mind, and the kindest heart it is possible to imagine. She will never speak ill of anyone, even me!"
"She cannot sing."
He laughed happily. "For which I shall be eternally grateful! If she did, she might be always expecting me to sing with her, like Caroline does. But Jane confesses to no immoderate love for music, thank heaven."
Darcy had to laugh with him, but shortly became serious again. "She has not a penny, you know."
Bingley was silent for a moment. "I know—at least, there will be some little money when her mother dies, but not much."
"And that family is atrocious—all but Miss Elizabeth."
"They are not so bad. Mr. Bennet is very clever, you know."
Darcy gave him an eloquent look.
"Mrs. Bennet is a very handsome woman, for her age. She is merely... the youngest daughters are very lively, of course, but they are young. And Miss Elizabeth is as delightful a young lady as one could hope to meet."
"How would you know? You scarcely said ten words to her the entire afternoon."
"Well, she appeared quite delightful the first morning I met her, before Jane and I... and she is Jane's favourite sister! That must argue in her favour. You spoke at length with her today. What was your opinion?"
Darcy did not answer at first. "She was delightful," he said at last.
Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy visited with great regularity over the following days, and the engagement was duly announced to the neighbourhood. Four weeks seemed a suitable mid-point between guilty haste and undesirable leisure, so the date was set. Mrs. Bennet rushed about raving of satin, cake and carriages, Mr. Bennet took up permanent residence in his library, Bingley and Jane walked every day with Darcy and Lizzy as chaperones, and the younger girls did pretty well as they pleased.
"I hope you don't mind Mr. Darcy's company," said Jane one evening.
"Hmm?" Lizzy looked up from her embroidery. "Oh no, I don't mind Mr. Darcy. I thought him quite proud when we first met, but he is good for conversation, and he bears my teazing quite well, which is always important."
"You do not teaze him too much, do you?"
She smirked, and pretended to suppress it when Jane looked reproachful. "He needs to be teazed," she said into her fabric. "He is too serious. But let us not speak of him, let us speak of Mr. Bingley. Are you still pleased with him?"
"Yes." Jane sighed happily and smoothed the intertwined J and B she was stitching. "He is everything a young man ought to be."
Indeed, by now Jane and Bingley seemed to have mostly forgotten that their engagement was ever anything but voluntary. Only when the old ladies in town clucked disapprovingly at Jane did she seem to remember what happened, but she accepted their censure with calm humility. "It is no more than I deserve," she told Lizzy soothingly, after one such incident. "And Mr. Bingley..." she smiled. "Mr. Bingley is more than I deserve. I feel a little guilty, to receive such happiness as reward for behaving so badly."
"Come now, Jane, it is not as if you ran off in the middle of the night with him—or as if you came upon the town."
"Well? There are scandalous women, and then there are scandalous women, and you, my dear, are not a scandalous woman. On the contrary, you are the best person I have ever known, and you deserve every bit of your happiness. Besides—the first time he ever saw you, Mr. Bingley liked you so well that he completely overthrew every rule of propriety to speak with you, and you liked him so well that you did the same. I make small doubt that this affair of the mud may have hastened your fate, but did not change it."
Jane sighed. "Do you think so?"
"I do indeed."
If Mr. Bingley regretted the match he hid it admirably well, and looked more mooncalf-like by the day. Mr. Darcy never did seem comfortable around Mrs. Bennet or the younger Bennet girls, but he still came with his friend, and he and Elizabeth talked for hours along garden paths and forest trails. Wedding clothes multiplied rapidly and all proceeded smoothly until Mr. Bingley's two sisters and brother-in-law arrived at Netherfield. These sisters, thought Elizabeth, were not very like their brother, but were civil enough—most of the time.
"They are much kinder to me than I expected," confided Jane. Elizabeth rather found their kindness grudging, and she had caught them sneering behind their hands when their mother or Mary or Lydia were in the room, but she tried to smile for her sister's sake, even when that same disdain was turned in her direction. Miss Bingley, in particular, seemed to take Elizabeth into almost instant dislike. She could not account for it at first, except in thinking that her own dislike must have translated, until she had the opportunity of watching her with Mr. Darcy one day when they all went to visit Netherfield.
"Mr. Darcy," said Miss Bingley, "how I wish we were all at Pemberley together right now, admiring the view from the south parlour, and listening to your dear sister play!"
"I would be glad to see my sister," was all he said in reply.
"As would I. I do declare, I absolutely adore her!"
No reply at all to that.
"What beauties Pemberley must hold this time of year! It is the finest place I have ever laid eyes on. Do you not feel so yourself?"
"It is only natural to prefer one's home," he said. "Miss Elizabeth Bennet, I daresay, considers Hertfordshire the best place in England."
"Since I have had little opportunity of travelling England," she answered, "I do not feel qualified to offer an opinion."
He raised an eyebrow. "This is surely the first time I have seen you hesitant to offer an opinion on any subject, Miss Bennet. I feel certain you must have one, no matter what you say."
She laughed. "You know me too well by now, I fear—but, truly, I love my home, and the fields and woods around it, but how can I claim to rate them against attractions I have never seen? I am not so bent on argument as all that."
"I have had the opportunity to travel extensively," put in Miss Bingley, looking displeased, "and I can assure you that among the many beauties of our kingdom, Mr. Darcy's estate Pemberley rates among the finest and most delightful."
"I am sure you are right." She looked cheekily at him. "Mr. Darcy would never allow for anything else."
Mr. Darcy did not hide his amusement. "I knew you would say that. I knew you would not let pass an opportunity to teaze me."
"Teaze Mr. Darcy!" Miss Bingley flashed in again. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Miss Elizabeth. Mr. Darcy must never be teazed, for there is nothing to teaze him about." She turned to smile at the man in question. "For that, a man must make himself ridiculous in some fashion, and Mr. Darcy never does that."
"Of course not," agreed Elizabeth, but her smile and the quirk of her brow once again turned her words mocking.
Miss Bingley, looking to see how Mr. Darcy bore this, was disappointed: he appeared quite complaisant. After that she called Jane over and engaged her in the type of interrogatory conversation that made it impossible for anyone else to talk. Elizabeth seethed at such treatment, but Jane, dear Jane, only appeared all the more to advantage, her calmness and sweetness a pleasing contrast to the other's more affected manners.
Later, Lizzy reflected on the various exchanges. It was obvious to her that Miss Bingley had an ambition to become Mrs. Darcy—an ambition Mr. Darcy did not share. She had not liked the easy intercourse that Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy had fallen into, it had made her jealous; but that, of course, was absurd. Not only did Miss Bingley have no right to be jealous, but she was quite mistaken. Mr. Darcy had certainly not thought of Elizabeth that way, and Elizabeth, for her part, would never contemplate marriage with a man like that—a proud, rich man, a good man, to be sure, and handsome, and so tall, with such nicely broad shoulders... But he had very reserved manners, not at all the type that Elizabeth cared for—though his smile was quite beautiful when he made it, and he could be very teazing himself sometimes, in a quiet way, not to mention his conversation. Such sensible and clever conversation was hardly to be found anywhere. When Jane was married and Mr. Darcy gone too, Elizabeth would be quite desolate—but that did not mean she was in love with him, of course. She would not want to be married to him, would she?
She stopped and put a hand over her mouth. Would she?
"My dear Mr. Darcy!" exclaimed Miss Bingley that same day, after Netherfield had been emptied of its visitors. "How I wish you had been here to prevent Charles from falling into such a dreadful disaster."
"If I had chosen to go out riding with him that morning then events may have transpired differently," he replied, "but I might just as well have remained behind, and it all would have happened the same. We cannot really know if my being here would have changed anything."
"Certainly you would have been able to prevent the entanglement, though!"
"I apprehend you mean the engagement."
"Yes, of course. You would have talked him out of so foolishly committing himself, I know. Why, he need not have married the girl, all because she was so hoydenish as to fall into a mud puddle with him."
Mr. Darcy looked at her over the top of his book. "Miss Bennet's reputation was compromised, and by his doing. Would you expect him to do less? I would not."
"Oh, well." She grew flustered. "There must have been some other solution, rather than condemning himself to a life of misery!"
"He does not seem miserable," he said dryly.
"Her family is dreadful, you must acknowledge that! The mother—silly and vulgar, and the younger girls just the same, only headstrong as well, and the homely middle one who only quotes extracts and proverbs." She would have done well to stop there, but could not restrain herself. "And even Miss Elizabeth, who everyone seems to think so much of! She is pert and conceited and for myself, I cannot see any beauty in her at all."
"That," said Darcy rising to his feet, "is doubtlessly because you are not a man. Good day, madam." And with that, he strode out of the room.
"Jane," said Bingley that evening, gazing at his betrothed's face beneath a brilliant night sky, "Jane, I have something I wish to say."
She turned her melting gaze on him. "Yes?"
"We are going to be married in three days. I know—I know—how our engagement came about, and I will never forgive myself for having subjected you to such humiliation—"
"Charles." She laid her soft, cool fingers over his. "We have already discussed this."
"—but," he continued, "I will never, ever regret the outcome. I would say that the moment I tumbled into the mud with you was the luckiest of my life, except that I know, in my heart, that we would have married eventually anyway—if you would have had me. I already admired you, and I know that I would have fallen in love with you, and wanted you for my wife, and hoped that you might love me in return. I do, you know—I love you. I am in love with you. Wildly, madly... desperately! I cannot believe that I shall have the good fortune to be your husband and I can only hope that maybe in time you will come to feel—that you will not regret—"
"Charles," she said again. He could see she was blushing even in the darkness, but her eyes shone like stars. "Charles..." Hesitantly she touched his face with those same cool, soft fingers. Then, in a move unlike any she had ever made before, Jane Bennet leaned forward and pressed her lips to those of the man she loved. With a grateful gasp, he gathered her close.
Meanwhile, in another corner of the garden sat another couple.
"And there—Orion, the hunter. Do you see him—the three stars in his belt, and the sword hanging from them? At his shoulders, the red star called Betelgeuse, and blue-white Rigel, which is one of the brightest stars in the whole night sky."
"I remember," said Elizabeth, her eyes large and full of starlight, "when my father used to sit out here with me and show me the constellations. But it has been years now, and I had half-forgotten them."
"In Derbyshire we have very bright stars."
"Is it true that they grow larger when you are higher up?—when you climb into the mountains?"
When Elizabeth turned her head she found him looking at her, his face shadowed but unexpectedly near. He was sitting with his arm across the back of the bench, and seemed to be bending toward to her. "Stars grow more beautiful the closer you get to them," he said.
They sat there then for a long time, not moving, breaths growing shorter and more rapid. Not surprisingly, it was Elizabeth who broke the silence first, simply unable to bear it longer. "Mr. Darcy..." She half put out a hand and then tried to draw it back, but he caught it.
"Miss Bennet." His voice sounded lower by several tones.
Now there was nothing she could do. She did not wish to draw back, but could make no further move either, so she stayed still and waited. It seemed to take forever—both of them, frozen in place.
Finally, so slowly, he lowered his head, pressed a light kiss on her hand, and let it go. At the same time, Elizabeth let her breath go, feeling rather foolish, especially when he stood up. But then he did a rather peculiar thing—he began to pace thoughtfully before the bench.
At last he came to a halt and addressed her. "When I first came to Hertfordshire," he said, "and heard the story of Bingley's engagement, I thought him foolish and pitied him very much. But in the weeks since, then, Miss Bennet—can it truly be only four weeks?—I have come to feel rather differently. Instead, I have come, in all but one point, to envy him."
Elizabeth's heart began to race; she could hardly bear the suspense.
"Well?" he asked after a moment. "Will you not ask me the point of my envy?"
"You," her voice came out breathily, "you wish to marry my sister?"
He laughed quietly for a moment, and coming closer, placed one foot on the bench beside her. "Teazing minx," he said, and leaned forward. "No, I envy Bingley not because of his choice of bride, but because he came into a strange country, and on nearly his first day here, with no effort at all, in defiance of every proper consideration, he secured for himself, as his wife, the one woman above all others in the world who could make him perfectly happy."
His voice and piercing look were both too full of significance; his meaning could not be mistaken. Elizabeth blushed, and blushed again, but happily. Feeling that he was waiting expectantly, she asked the next question. "But there was one point in which you say you do not envy him?"
"Yes." She could see his lips curve, and he looked away. "Yes, there is one point in which I feel that Bingley's approach leaves much to be desired."
"And what is that?"
"Well, Miss Bennet..." She could hear the smile in his voice now. "Of all the ways to compromise a young lady, falling into the mud would hardly be my choice."
"Oh?" She could barely talk, her breathing was so rapid. "What would you choose, then?"
"Something much pleasanter."
"Oh." He was so close now, he blotted out the stars. "Such as?"
His answer took a long time to give.
Meanwhile, inside the parlour a rowdy game of Speculation was taking place. "I won!" shrieked Lydia. "I have the high card! I get the pool!"
"It doesn't matter. You'll lose it all again, you always do," said Kitty.
"No I shan't!"
"If you keep playing you will. You know you can never win at Speculation for long. Is that not right, Maria? Lydia loses everything she wins, doesn't she?"
"You do, Lydia, you know you do."
"That's a lie, Maria, take it back!"
"She shan't take it back, because it's true."
Miss Bingley gritted her teeth and turned long suffering eyes across the room. Mrs. Hurst was playing whist, Mr. Hurst was asleep, the others were not to be seen. "Mrs. Bennet," she called, starting up. "May I assist you with the tea tray?"
"Oh no, dear," smiled Mrs. Bennet. "Mary is giving me quite enough assistance. Do go on with your game. I know how you young people love a good game!"
"I will win all your fish before the evening is over, Kitty, see if I don't!"
"No, you never will, not until you learn how to negotiate, and no one here will trade you their trumps now anyway."
"I can so negotiate, can't I, Maria?"
"Yes, a very good game," Miss Bingley muttered between her teeth.