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A Wicked, White Cravat
by Anton M.

Chapter 3: A Bit of Muslin

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The wedding date had been agreed upon with vehement disagreement from Mrs. Bennet, who considered mid-December to be far too close for any wedding preparations to be worthy of a man such as Mr. Darcy. In contrast, Mr. Bennet — and, of course, Mr. Darcy, who was surrounded by the social norms of the upper class — found it to be almost, but not quite, too far away already.

It would be a short engagement, but given the nature of its beginning, three weeks was plentiful. December 14, a Saturday, was agreed upon.

Elizabeth was relieved to discover that the three hours that she spent with Mr. Darcy felt like three minutes. She was mortified by her reaction to his suggestion that she kissed him in the hopes to gain a wealthy husband, but the cause for the incident also encouraged her — regardless of his comments, Mr. Darcy was after a union based on mutual affection. She remained hopeful.

Upon her return, Elizabeth changed out of her outdoor clothes before finding her mother drinking afternoon tea in the sitting room with Kitty and Lydia chattering away.

"Mama, may I please have a quick word with you?"

"Is something the matter? Can it not wait until I have finished my tea?"

"I would prefer to have a word now, if that suits you — before the Lucases arrive for dinner. I will only take a minute of your time."

Once in the drawing room, Elizabeth paused. She had tried reasoning with her mother countless times before, and she could not predict her mother's reaction.

"Mama, I am pleased that you are celebrating my upcoming wedding, but I have to ask you to stop exclaiming your joy regarding my clever catch, as if I planned the situation that brought about my engagement."

"Oh, pish-posh! Nobody in their right mind would ever consider that a stubborn girl like you could have planned such a situation!"

"Mr. Darcy does not know me, Mama. We had only spoken very briefly prior to our engagement, and his belief that I ensnared him into this engagement might discredit me, or worse, make him break it."

"He cannot possibly do such a thing! He is too honourable!"

"But he heard you, and again, he does not know me. I denied his belief, but he cannot have more reason to doubt me. If you continue as you have, you might prevent all my sisters from ever finding sensible gentlemen to marry."

"Mr. Bennet would sue him for breach of promise if he breaks the engagement."

"Mama, do you really believe that a man with as many means as Mr. Darcy would care about that? You know that he would walk away unscathed while we would all suffer the consequences. Please be sensible, Mama."

Mrs. Bennet stared at her daughter as if she could not believe that a man such as Mr. Darcy could take her words seriously, or that her daughter had come to insinuate that she had been unreasonable, but all her daughters facing ruin because Mr. Darcy did not know Elizabeth better was too grave a possibility to consider.

"Very well," she said. "I shall be on my best behaviour."

"That is all I ask," Elizabeth replied, hugging her mother. "Thank you!"

As they started walking back, Mrs. Bennet took her daughter in the crook of her arm. "Now, tell me what Mr. Darcy likes! Which flowers are we to choose? Which colour should your dress be? Oh there's so much to do and so little time!"

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Elizabeth could not quite put into words how she felt about her engagement. It had happened so quickly, and she had not even consciously begun to acknowledge her budding feelings when she found herself halfway attracted to Mr. Darcy. His proposal after her kiss was, in spite of his fears, not expected or planned. Shame filled her when visitors or acquaintances alluded to the beginning of their courtship, and she found frustration with Darcy when he exhibited all the traits of a life of privilege with no evidence of anyone having ever made him work for their approval.

His admittance that he never would have proposed to her, regardless of his feelings, was like a bucket of cold water, and she had to hold her tongue not to tell him that she could simply move to London as a governess and never get married. It hurt, knowing that her compromising him was the only thing that made him overlook the difference in their stations, but she was unsure how to bring it up without arguments.

In spite of all the pitfalls, she also had to acknowledge that she had a sort-of fluttery, visceral reaction to Mr. Darcy whenever he stood close, held her hand, or revealed his tender side. She was not wholly sure that she would ever get used to his pride, but she could not deny that he could be the kindest, most protective man, and when he revealed that side of himself, she felt herself in more danger of falling in love with him than ever.

While preparing for bedtime, Jane was lying on the bed and embroidering a handkerchief when Elizabeth wrapped a shawl over her nightgown to go downstairs in search of a book to keep herself company in case Jane fell asleep before her. Only the library candles were still on. Their family was not so formal at home that her father would be bothered or even notice her level of undress, and Elizabeth quietly snuck into the library in search of reading material.

Directly behind the door, however, was Mr. Collins, eyes glassy when he slammed the door shut behind Elizabeth.

"Mr. Collins!"

He was holding a glass of liquor in such a way that it was dripping on his trousers, and Elizabeth stepped backwards. He reeked of alcohol.

Her heartbeat picked up.

"Sir, please open the door."

He leaned (or swayed) closer to Elizabeth and ran his fingers on the edge of her sleeve. Unfortunately, he was both taller and heavier than Elizabeth.

"Elizabeth! Did you know that your beloved—" He took a sip of liquor. "— is engaged to a Miss Anne de Bourgh?"

"I demand you open the door at once!"

Mr. Collins swayed closer, tapping a finger against her bare neck. "But I did not know, cousin, that you were such a bit of muslin. Had I known that, I would have…"

He pressed her body against the door and attacked her neck with his mouth. Elizabeth, after a momentary shock, wrenched herself downwards, backed up, and threw her fist into his face with such force that she felt a crack. She cried out, from the pain and the shock, and screamed louder when Mr. Collins started moving towards her. His glass shattered.

Seconds later, Jane was beating at the door, and when it was pushed open, Mr. Collins keeled over, blood dripping on the shards. Elizabeth, barefoot, did not dare move.

"She punched me!" Mr. Collins cried, and his nose was broken in such a way that one could temporarily see bone. Blood rushed in Elizabeth's ears as she locked eyes with her father.

"He attacked me," she whispered, voice unbelieving and uncharacteristically high-pitched. "I came to— I came to get a book for when I can't sleep, and he shut the door and attacked me!"

Mary went to call on the scullery maid to clean up the shards while Mr. Bennet, Jane, and her younger sisters stood at the entrance of the library in shock.

"Is this true, Mr. Collins?"

Mr. Collins sputtered as blood continued dripping on the floor. Elizabeth became aware of the pain in her hand and felt rather than saw blood warming her knuckles. Her throat burned from holding back tears.

"No," Mr. Collins lied, in a voice so nasal it almost did not seem to belong to him.

Elizabeth could not look at him.

"Now why would Elizabeth, engaged to be married to a man she respects, wilfully seek out the company of the man she rejected?"

Elizabeth had never seen her father look as severe and bubbling with rage as he looked right now.

"She is wanton," Mr. Collins replied, and the moment the words left his mouth, Mr. Bennet lifted him off the ground against the shelves.

"Sir, I believe you are not in enough pain yet," he said, and when he let go, Mr. Collins slipped onto the ground in a way that must've caused a thousand cuts. Mr. Bennet did not pay any attention to his high-pitched whine. Stepping closer to Elizabeth (he was wearing slippers), Mr. Bennet carefully took her in his arms and set her down on his armchair.

"Let me see that," he muttered, opening her fingers, and Elizabeth bit her shawl in pain. He looked at her hand, asking her to create a fist and release it, and finally, said, "We need to call for a doctor."

"Papa," she whispered, eyes welling with tears.

It was one thing to compromise a single bachelor, it was another to be compromised by another man while already engaged to be married.

"Mr. Darcy need not know," Mr. Bennet said, understanding her worry. "And if he must know, Lord help him, he will understand that it was not your fault."

The shards were cleaned up, a doctor was called, and Kitty and Lydia returned to sleep after ensuring that Elizabeth would be all right. Both looked more serious than Elizabeth had ever seen them, and their whispers when they climbed upstairs were more worried than giddy. It was a jarring experience to see them so somber.

Jane sat on the edge of the armchair, running her hand up and down Elizabeth's back, Mr. Bennet was trying to figure out what to do with Mr. Collins (he was determined to throw their cousin out but it was the middle of the night and he must, after all, be seen by the doctor). In the end, Mr. Collins was given a few clean rags to keep under his face as he lay down sideways on a bench in the kitchen. The footman, Mr. Finch, was requested to watch over him. Elizabeth was glad Mr. Collins was taken elsewhere.

"So that is where my liquor has been going," Mr. Bennet said, absent-minded as he set the bottle back on his shelf.

The house was quiet, and some candles flickered while others faded entirely. Jane started to doze off as they were waiting for the doctor, and Mr. Bennet sent her to sleep. The scullery maid finished up washing the floor.

Elizabeth held a cold, wet cloth to her arm. "Esther?"

"Yes, madam."

"Why don't you take tomorrow afternoon for yourself?"

"But Mrs. Hill—"

"I will talk to her," Elizabeth assured. "If needed, I know that Jenny at the Lucases is eager for extra work. We will manage."

"Thank you, M'am, thank you! My brother is getting married in a fortnight and they were going to—" she slapped her hand on her mouth, and Elizabeth was sure that she remembered Mrs. Hill's admonishing. "Forgive me."

"I remember." Elizabeth attempted a smile. "Send our greetings and have a lovely time."

Esther curtsied, a beaming smile on her face. "Thank you, M'am!" She almost turned but then whipped her head around. "We are mighty glad you have found a gentleman such as Mr. Darcy! He's a little high in the instep but he always set himself in the room so that he'd be near you, and we in the kitchen are not at all surprised you found each other!"

Elizabeth smiled and thanked the girl.

Mr. Bennet walked closer to the maid. "Esther, I know you are a good girl, but I would like to remind you, if you can, to not talk about this to anyone."

"I haven't seen nothing, sir! My aunt, when she was younger, her brother's friend turned out to be a proper rake loose in the haft and he forced himself on her and she was forced to marry him! Sir, I haven't got much but my conscience is clean. I would never injure Miss Elizabeth in this way!"

"That is good enough for me," Mr. Bennet replied. "Enjoy your time with your family."

"Thank you, sir," a curtsy, "M'am," and she left the library.

"Do you think she can be trusted?" Mr. Bennet asked after a pause.

"It might not matter if Mr. Collins shares a different version of the story to anyone who will listen," Elizabeth replied, shifting the blood-soaked cloth so that the cold side was touching her knuckles. She could feel her hand starting to swell, and yet, it did not compare to her emotional turmoil.

"Papa," she whispered. "What if Mr. Darcy releases me from our engagement?"

Mr. Bennet leaned on his table, brown slippers peeking from his under his floppy-collared robe, and stared quietly at Elizabeth. A kiss that compromised a gentleman had certainly ensured that the world, and perhaps Mr. Darcy, could easily be persuaded that the Bennet sisters were light-skirts. Nobody would believe otherwise, and the result would be disastrous.

"We must ensure that Mr. Collins is removed from Hertfordshire immediately. We must also have an excuse for your injury."

They both looked around in the room.

"I fell on this ladder," Elizabeth said, pointing at the ladder in the corner. "Reaching for… A Rime of the Ancient Mariner." She chose a book on the topmost shelf, "and you had left the glass in the corner of the table, half-full. It shattered on the floor when I fell. Mr. Collins, he got kicked by our stallion. Marion was always skittish around him anyway."

She looked her father in the eyes, half-fear, half-hope, filled with the knowledge that containing the details of her attack was the only thing that could prevent their ruin.

"So be it," Mr. Bennet nodded, and they agreed on the details that must be shared first thing in the morning with everyone who had seen or heard anything at all: Kitty, Lydia, Mary, Jane, Esther, and Mr. Finch, the footman. An attempt must also be made to share the story with Mr. Collins, contingent upon his state of mind, sober, and all servants must be questioned with regards to how much they heard in a way that would not raise suspicion.

Mrs. Bennet was absent from the whole affair due to having exerted herself so vigorously in her excitement for the upcoming nuptials that she had not even moved when Mr. Bennet heard her daughter's cry.

The doctor arrived and took care of Mr. Collins and Elizabeth. Mr. Collins, he said, would almost certainly be left with a disfigured face even if infection did not spread. However, he was likely to survive and was left under the care of the footman, whose kindness would be generously rewarded.

The doctor did not believe that Elizabeth had broken any bones. However, the flesh wound and a sore, possibly pulled muscle in her forearm were enough to remain cautious and avoid any big movements for at least two weeks.

When everyone had left and the entire house was quiet, Mr. Bennet shut the door, lifted his chair closer to the armchair Elizabeth was sitting on and squeezed her unharmed hand.

"How attached do you believe your gentleman to be?"

"I do not think I know him well enough to guess, but he was offended by my insinuation today that he claims more depth of feeling than he feels."

"That is good, at least, for a beginning."

They sat in silence for a moment before Mr. Bennet asked, "Do you think, if he were to find out the truth tomorrow, his attachment to you would prevent breaking off the engagement?"

"I do not know," she replied. "He told me that he would have never proposed marriage to me, regardless of how deeply he felt for me, had I not compromised him at the Netherfield drawing room."

Just twelve hours previously, the gentleman in question had doubted her intentions towards him. If given reason to believe that he was marrying a bit of muslin, would be believe such a lie? Would the beginning of their engagement encourage him to think less of her?

Mr. Bennet took a long, drawn out breath, and stood up. "Like it or not, we are now all at the mercy of Mr. Darcy."