The Way it Ought to Be
"I see your design, Bingley," said his friend. "You dislike an argument, and want to silence this."
"Perhaps I do. Arguments are too much like disputes. If you and Miss Bennet will defer yours till I am out of the room, I shall be very thankful; and then you may say whatever you like of me."
"What you ask," said Elizabeth, "is no sacrifice on my side; and Mr. Darcy had much better finish his letter."
Chapter 1: Unpredictable, but Always Unpleasant
Mr. Darcy's quill scratched slowly over the surface of his paper. It was the loudest sound in the room, interrupted only by the irregular jangle of Mrs. Hurst's bracelets. Combined, Elizabeth found them intensely irritating.
There was a mumble at the card table. She turned her head, and watched as Mr. Hurst languidly placed a card on the table. Just as languidly, Bingley picked one up. Miss Bingley's skirts brushed the carpet as she moved in a monotonous circuit, from the card table to the writing desk, and back again.
Oh, for heaven's sake, she thought. Could anything be more tedious than an evening at Netherfield Park? After a short period of debate earlier, the whole room had fallen into a lethargy; a lethargy that threatened to swallow her too. Even now, her needle seemed to move more slowly, the simple task of pushing it through the fabric requiring more exertion. Quite soon, she felt sure, they would all fall asleep like Mr. Hurst was wont to do. Oh, Jane, she thought, get better.
With a last, incisive rustle of paper, Darcy folded his sheet, and pushed it away. "I wonder," he said, moving his chair back, "if I might beg you ladies for the indulgence of some music."
His movement seemed to startle the room. Elizabeth blinked at him dazedly; Miss Bingley moved with haste toward the pianoforte. "Of course, Mr. Darcy, " she said. "I shall be delighted—unless Miss Eliza Bennet would like to lead the way?"
All eyes now turned on her. For several seconds she failed to understand what was being asked of her, so deep was the apathy that had overtaken her. Then she saw the instrument, the gleaming keys, the sheets of music, and her mind cleared. "Yes!" She seized the opportunity to dispel her sense of listlessness. Playing and singing would give her something to do. "Since you have heard me before, I need fear nothing. I am at your disposal." Miss Bingley, clearly disappointed, was forced to retire.
Casting aside the despised needlework, she rose, went to the instrument, and began to look over the music. It was all Italian arias and French cantatas, and while she could appreciate both, she knew they were not her strength. She preferred good English airs, folk songs and love songs which were simple to play and pleasant to sing.
"What a pity you did not bring your own music," said Miss Bingley, from her chair. "I am sure you would prefer it."
"I am sure I would. However, I believe I shall contrive without it." None of these would do for her current mood. Yielding to impulse, she decided to perform an old song she knew very well, an Irish love song which had captured her fancy when still a child. It would suit her, even if it did not suit her audience, and the conviction that Mr. Darcy would disapprove such an ordinary choice only made her more determined.
She began her song, and the pleasure of singing it soon overtook any other feeling. How fine it was to play on such an excellent instrument, to hear its resonant tones and hers together, to wind her way through the familiar fingering, and to have both her heart and voice lift with each beloved line. If I were a blackbird, I'd whistle and sing. I'd follow the ship that my true love sails in. And in the top rigging, I'd build my nest…
At the song's plaintive end she sat, a small smile on her lips, until her eyes met Mr. Darcy's. He was very serious. She looked archly as Mr. Bingley began to applaud; Mr. Darcy applauded too after a moment, but she hardly gave him credit for that. It could only be an empty formality on his part. Nevertheless she stayed where she was and performed one or two other pieces until Miss Bingley's impatience became too overt to be ignored, when she yielded her place and returned to her seat.
Miss Bingley began with a very complicated concerto indeed, and Elizabeth did her justice enough to say she played it well. After a few minutes she was surprised to see Mr. Darcy leave his chair and walk in her direction. Surely, she thought, he would have nothing to say to her. He sat down near her and looked as if he would speak, but instead sat silent for several more minutes. Miss Bingley finished the first movement and began the second. Mr. Darcy again looked as if he would speak. She could not help smiling quizzically at him, and his brows snapped together. Sorry for the smile, she looked away.
Finally, after another lengthy pause, he spoke. "If I Were a Blackbird—you have sung it often, I suppose."
"Is it a favorite of yours?"
"I do not suppose I would have sung it so often if it was not."
"The imagery in it, of transforming into a bird and following your lover across the sea—it appeals to you?"
"Within the context of the song it does."
"This is something you would do in actuality."
She wrinkled her brow. "Transform into a bird?"
"No, follow the man you loved—love even when it seemed hopeless."
"Having never known hopeless love, I do not know. I hope I would not completely abandon common sense. Mr. Darcy, the reasons I have for liking that song so well are not in any one element of it. It is the song, as a whole, that appeals to me, and it is not fair to try to extract any one idea, any more than it would be to extract a single note. If you wish to understand why I like it, then look to the song, not to me."
He leaned in a little bit. "So you mean to say that the song is a representation of you, in a sense."
"Not entirely." She was sure he meant to mock her now. "I hope there is more to me than one song, Mr. Darcy."
At that he drew back, but continued to stare at her, and after a moment she heard him murmur, "Yes, I suppose you would have many songs." Almost immediately he stood up and retreated to his former place. She was baffled, but quickly put it out of her mind.
She met Mr. Darcy again the following morning, when she went down to breakfast. He was the only one in the room when she arrived: he stood as she entered, they each bowed, and she went to fill her plate. She felt his gaze and wondered again why he should persist in staring at her.
At the table she sat as far from him as she could manage, though that was not so far, since it was a small table. She applied herself to her food and hoped that he would do the same, but instead he took a sip of coffee and asked, "You are an early riser?"
She arched an eyebrow. "Apparently."
"You prefer country hours."
"We are in the country."
"I suspect, though, that you would prefer country hours even in the city."
"And you enjoy long country walks?"
"Only when I can get them."
"Which is often."
She put down her fork. "Is there a point to this inquiry?"
"Not at all." He returned to his coffee and toast, and Elizabeth made some progress on her meal. When she happened to glance up she found him staring at her again.
"Do you wish to critique my table manners, Mr. Darcy?"
He seemed startled. "Of course not."
"I wonder you should find them such a cause for study, then."
She might have thought he blushed, were it not for the look of greater hauteur that spread over his features. "You must be mistaken. Forgive me, I will leave you to breakfast in peace." He rose, leaving his coffee cup half filled. Elizabeth was glad that he was gone, a little embarrassed at having made him leave, and more determined than ever in her dislike of him.
"His moods are capricious," she told Jane later. "Unpredictable, but always unpleasant."
"Perhaps he likes the way you look," suggested her sister.
"That is a suggestion only my dear Jane could make. You know that matter has long been settled. No, if anything, Mr. Darcy stares only to put me out of countenance. Well!—he shall not succeed." She smile determinedly. "Now, your Mr. Bingley seems very anxious about your welfare. I daresay he would ascend the lattice and climb into your window if he could, just to get a glimpse of you."
Jane blushed. "Mr. Bingley is very kind. I wish I were not so prone to fevers, or I might be able to go downstairs and speak with him."
"You are improving, I am sure you are. Soon enough you will be well. We must be optimists and believe the length of your sickness is only increasing his interest. The longer he has to wait, the more he will anticipate seeing you."
Jane shook her head but smiled, and the two sisters laughed together. Elizabeth remained with her upstairs for the rest of the morning, talking to her, reading to her, or simply sitting with her. Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst eventually came by for a short visit, and were congenial and amusing for the time they were there. Mr. Bingley sent his kind inquiries and regards. Elizabeth collided with Mr. Darcy in the corridor when she ran to her own room for some item—though how, she did not know, because his own rooms were on the other end of the house—and for a moment she thought he was not going to move out of her way, but finally he bowed and stepped aside. "Horrid man," she muttered to herself, laughing, as she continued on.
In the early afternoon Jane fell asleep again, and Elizabeth, hesitating between remaining or seizing her liberty, decided at last to go down to the library for a book. Its offerings were rather sparse, but she was sure she could find something worthy of an afternoon's entertainment.
And there, again, she found herself unexpectedly coming across Mr. Darcy, while browsing the shelves. Not that he was in the room; rather, he was outside of it, in the garden, and he was pacing.
Mr. Darcy pacing in the garden? It was quite the strangest thing Elizabeth had seen at Netherfield, and she could not help but stand at the window and watch him. His steps were quick and impatient, his manner distracted. Most of the time his hands were clasped firmly behind his back, but occasionally he would raise one in a half-gesture before returning it hurriedly to its place. Sometimes he would glance toward the house, particularly the upstairs windows. Back and forth he went, up and down the gravel pathway outside the library. It was obvious that something was disturbing his mind, but Elizabeth could not imagine what it might be. Something very significant must have happened to cause the usually sedate Mr. Darcy to behave with such open perturbation.
At long last, when she was almost tired just from looking at him, he stopped, and stood staring at nothing for some moments. Then he turned on his heel, and walked back toward the house and up the steps to re-enter by the long library windows. He moved so quickly that Elizabeth had barely time enough to jump out of the way and turn toward some shelves before he was in the room with her.
Three firm steps upon the carpet, and then—"Miss Bennet!"
He sounded inordinately startled; Elizabeth turned and made a polite curtsy. "Good day, Mr. Darcy." She could not resist studying him to see what hints his person might give: he looked the same as always, but his hair was a little ruffled, and he was staring at her again. "It is a fine day outside," she ventured.
It took him a moment to reply. "Yes, very fine."
"Did you enjoy your walk?"
He blinked, glanced toward the door and back again. "I do not know."
It was such a very odd thing for Mr. Darcy, of all people, to say, that she began to laugh, but checked it at the expression on his face. He seemed... disoriented.
"Good afternoon," she said finally, and, making another quick curtsy, turned to walk out of the room. Whatever was the matter with him, she no longer felt inclined to stay here and discover it. Mr. Darcy's problems were certainly none of her concern.
She had almost reached the door when he called after her. "Miss Bennet!" She glanced back. "Please," he said, "stay a moment."
This was stranger still, but she turned obediently and walked a few steps back into the room, waiting for him to speak.
He looked for a moment as if he would start pacing again; she noticed his hands, clenching and unclenching. His dark eyes were fixed on her face with uncomfortable intensity.
As if reaching a sudden resolution, he came forward and began. "I know," he said, "that your situation in life is decidedly beneath my own. Your connections are inferior, and your relations are vulgar. However, despite these and other objections, I have felt the strongest attraction to you since very early in our acquaintance, and I believe that in these last days my feelings have grown beyond attraction, to something more warm and ardent. I believe, in short, that I have fallen in love with you, and since I am not the sort of man who falls in and out of love with ease, I have every reason to expect the attachment to be lasting. Therefore, despite your lack of suitable connections or fortune, I would like, without further delay, to offer you my hand—to ask you to be my wife."
Elizabeth's surprise was beyond expression. At first she could only stare in wonder, and as his avowal continued, she progressed with such rapidity through indignation, dismay and repugnance that when he finally ceased talking she scarcely knew what to say. He extended his hand to her as he finished, clearly expecting her to take it, but instead she moved her hands behind her back and stepped away from him. "No," she said at last.
His astonishment was not likely to endear him to her. "No?"
Desperately she tried to gather her scattered thoughts. "I am honoured by your proposal, but I cannot accept."
His hand fell slowly; he seemed uncertain what to do. "May I know the reason for your refusal?"
"Must a lady give a reason?"
Again he seemed caught off guard. "A man wants to know."
"Very well." She put up her chin a little. "I do not believe we should suit."
"The decision is mine to make, however, and I cannot be so careless as to agree to a match that I believe would lead both of us into misery."
He drew back, almost as if she had slapped him, and looked... well, he looked hurt. She was sorry for that, especially if his feelings for her were as strong as he professed—but that she truly doubted. Surely this affection was a perverse fancy on his part, perhaps borne of the very fact that she did not flatter him like Miss Bingley did. He would quickly forget it. And even if he did not, she could not accept a man she detested! Mr. Darcy might be rich, and she supposed she knew no actual ill of him, but he was proud and unpleasant, and she could never be happy with him. The very manner of his proposal was offensive, though she did not suppose he even realised it.
"If I have caused you pain, I am sorry," she said quietly, "but please believe that it was most unconsciously done. Now, I beg you will excuse me." She turned and left before he could say another word.