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Astonished in Derbyshire
PART ONE: DERBYSHIRE
Of Mr. Darcy it was now a matter of anxiety to think well; and, as far as their acquaintance reached, there was no fault to find... they soon became sensible that the authority of a servant who had known him since he was four years old, and whose own manners indicated respectability, was
not to be hastily rejected. Neither had anything occurred in the intelligence of their Lambton friends that could materially lessen its weight. They had nothing to accuse him of but pride; pride he probably had, and if not, it would certainly be imputed by the inhabitants of a small market-town where the family did not visit. It was acknowledged, however, that he was a liberal man, and did much good among the poor.
With respect to Wickham, the travellers soon found that he was not held there in much estimation; for though the chief of his concerns with the son of his patron were imperfectly understood, it was yet a well-known fact that, on his quitting Derbyshire, he had left many debts behind him, which Mr. Darcy afterwards discharged. -P&P, ch. 44
When Mr. Bingley left Hertfordshire with his two proud sisters and even prouder friend, Elizabeth Bennet regretted only Mr. Bingley, and only on behalf of her sister. She was incensed at the way Jane had been abandoned by a man so lately paying her pointed attentions, and bitterly blamed his companions for influencing him, but did not think much on those companions themselves. She didn't actually think of Mr. Darcy at all, except in connection with Mr. Bingley, and sometimes in connection with her friend Mr. Wickham, who liked to tell tales of growing up on the Darcy estate.
They almost met when she went to visit her friend Charlotte Collins in Kent; she learned soon after her arrival that the Lady Catherine de Bough was expecting a visit from her nephews Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam. Two days before their scheduled arrival, however, Mr. Collins returned from Rosings in great distress to report that Mr. Darcy's sister had fallen unexpectedly ill and he did not feel able to leave her. Elizabeth was surprised that Darcy should have so much brotherly feeling, and felt a combination of relief at not meeting the unpleasant man again, and disappointment that there would be no addition to the company or entertainment Hunsford and Rosings had so far provided.
She had to admit that Lady Catherine seemed genuinely anxious over the wellbeing of her niece, and Elizabeth was mildly pleased when word arrived that Miss Darcy was out of danger and recovering nicely. The gentlemen's visit was rescheduled for a fortnight following her own departure from the area, so she returned home without having seen either of them.
She did not think of Mr. Darcy over the following months, until she came into Derbyshire with her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner, and her Aunt Gardiner expressed a wish to visit his estate, Pemberley. It seemed odd to visit the home of someone she had actually met, but Elizabeth found herself curious to view the place which Miss Bingley had so praised, and decide for herself if it was worthy of such accolades. She fully expected to find it much like Rosings, ornate and pretentious, and once the maid at the inn had told them that the family was away for the summer, she set out in the best of spirits, fully prepared to mock so much prideful munificence.
It was a very bemused Elizabeth who returned to the inn that afternoon. The day had not gone at all like she expected. First, she had been astonished at the real beauty and elegance of Pemberley. Indeed, as they walked its halls and viewed its grounds, she had to admit that it truly was, as Miss Bingley had said, the most delightful place in the world, and even that the man who owned it might have some cause for pride. She was quick to remind herself that Mr. Darcy had not built it, he merely inherited it, but even she had to concede that the current state of the house and grounds, and the tastefulness of the furnishings, reflected well on its owner.
Still more astonishing had been the account which Mrs. Reynolds, the housekeeper, had given them as she led them about the public rooms. She had been filled with extravagant praise of her master, had named him the best master, best landlord, kindest, fairest, sweetest tempered—! Her tribute went on until Elizabeth's head was reeling. Undoubtedly she was an extremely partial old family retainer, but still! She, Elizabeth, would never have believed him capable of inspiring such loyalty in those under him.
They had seen a miniature of Mr. Wickham at one point, and she had eagerly asked about him, hoping and expecting to hear some praise at least equal to that lavished on Mr. Darcy, but received only a, "He turned out very wild, I am afraid." It was as if Pemberley was some sort of upside-down place, where things she believed inviolable were turned topsy-turvy—where Mr. Darcy was honorable and affable, and Mr. Wickham only wild.
He was a handsome man, she thought, as she looked at his portrait in the gallery. Handsome and certainly far richer and grander than she had fully appreciated before. It appeared he had at least some good qualities—he took care of his estate, and treated his servants well. His arrogance would not appear so out of place here as it did in the Meryton Assembly room—but still, she could not like him, or approve of his treatment of Mr. Wickham.
But the most startling part of the day happened when they were lingering on the lawn, admiring the view of the house from there, and Mr. Darcy himself walked around the corner. Any discomfort Elizabeth might have felt was completely lost in amazement at his reaction to the sight of her. Instead of looking displeased and offering a distant acknowledgement—or instead of not recognizing her at all, which would not have surprised her—he positively started. His mouth opened and then closed, and a deep blush suffused his cheeks. "Miss Bennet!" he said.
She gave him a small curtsy. "Mr. Darcy. Forgive us, we were told that you were from home."
"I was." But he didn't seem to be paying attention to what he said; instead, his eyes were fixed earnestly on her face. He came closer.
"We just enjoyed a tour of your house," she said helpfully, wondering at his attitude.
"Did you like it?" He came closer again, still intent on her face.
"Of course." She smiled. "It is everything Miss Bingley said."
The other woman's name seemed to recall him to a sense of himself. He blinked and stepped backward. "I trust you are well, Miss Bennet? How is your family?"
The return to normal civilities relieved her. "I am very well, thank you, and so are my family. I am here with my aunt and uncle."
"Ah." He glanced toward the couple standing in the background.
"We are touring Derbyshire."
They stood awkwardly for a few moments. "If I may inquire, how is your sister, Mr. Darcy? I understand she was ill in the spring."
"You had that from Lady Catherine, I imagine."
"She is entirely recovered, thank you. It was a surprise to me to learn, when I arrived at Rosings, that you had so recently been there."
"Really?" Elizabeth had now run out of remarks and had nothing to say.
"I had wondered whether it was possible that we might meet each other there at some time, knowing your friendship with Mrs. Collins, but I could not have reasonably supposed that it would happen so soon—as indeed it did not, but if Miss Darcy had not been unwell, we would certainly have been in each other's company."
For the life of her, Elizabeth could not imagine why he was making so much of it. He seemed different, in an odd way—or rather, it was he who was odd. Certainly her perceptions of him had been softened by the preceding hour, but she was sure that he had never looked or spoken in just that way before. "I am glad she is better." She waited, and when he made no further reply, but just continued to look at her, she made a motion as if to leave. "I am keeping you, I believe…"
"Not at all," he said, then seemed to realize that he was still standing in his riding coat, windblown and dirty. "Forgive me, I should go inside."
She curtsied and turned, but before she had gone more than two steps he called her back. "Miss Bennet!"
She turned slowly. "Yes, Mr. Darcy?"
"If I may inquire, where are you staying?"
"At the Red Lion, in Lambton."
He nodded. "I know it. Perhaps…" he paused. "Perhaps we will run into each other again."
She smiled thinly. "Perhaps so. Good day."
She walked the distance back to where her aunt and uncle stood, feeling his eyes the entire time.
"So that was Mr. Darcy, Lizzy!" said her aunt. "He is very handsome, isn't he?"
"I suppose so, yes."
"What were you talking of so long?"
"Nothing of consequence."
"He did not seem to want to let you leave, from what I could see."
"Yes," said Elizabeth slowly. "It was almost like that—but of course, it must have been something else. Only he was behaving so very strangely!"
"These great men often do take queer starts," observed her uncle. "Perhaps it is only that he liked the look of you, Lizzy."
She laughed at that. "No, uncle, I am certain that was not the reason! I have it on the best possible authority that Mr. Darcy has never admired me."
"Why, whose authority do you mean?"
"His own, of course!" She smiled cheekily at their surprise and led the way further on. But inwardly, she felt very oddly herself. Pemberley was not what she expected, Mr. Darcy was not what she expected… what had happened?
The next day her aunt and uncle went to pay calls on some old friends, and Elizabeth was left to herself. The Red Lion was situated in the middle of town so she decided to walk about a little bit and look at the shops. In a country town like this she thought little of going out alone.
Out of the corner of her eye, as she crossed the street, she caught a glimpse of a tall figure who reminded her instantly of Darcy—but when she turned her head, he was not there. Nevertheless, not ten minutes later as she was lingering before a tiny milliner shop, the man himself appeared behind her shoulder. She saw his reflection in the glass, and wondered that her stomach jumped so. "Mr. Darcy!"
He tipped his hat. "Good morning, Miss Bennet. I said we might meet again, did I not?"
She gaped just a little. "But—I understood your party was to arrive this morning. Was I in error?"
"No." He looked a bit uncomfortable. "They are expected, but I had some business that brought me into town. Miss Darcy will act as hostess." He gestured toward the window. "Do you like hats?"
Did she like hats? "No more than reason," she replied flippantly.
He smiled. "My sister frequently attempts to convince me of the same thing. In fact," he went on rather quickly, "I intend to purchase one for her this morning, as… a gift. Would you be so kind as to come inside with me, and give me your opinion?"
This request left Elizabeth more astonished than ever; firstly, that a man like Mr. Darcy would choose his younger sister's hats; secondly, that he would purchase them here instead of in London; and thirdly, that he should care at all for her opinion. She was too astonished to demur, and they went into the store together.
It was, in truth, little more than an enclosed booth, with hats and bonnets hanging all over the walls and even suspended from the ceiling. She was quite certain that Mr. Darcy had never been in there before, as he eyed the small space with unrestrained wonder. The lady who emerged from the rear of the store clearly recognized him; she turned quite pink, and her bosom swelled to see the great man standing in her establishment. Elizabeth was hard pressed not to burst out laughing.
"Mr. Darcy," the proprietess breathed. "Sir, I am honored by your patronage."
He looked down at her as if he had heard such sentiments a thousand times. "I want a hat."
"Yes, sir! Might it be for Miss Darcy, or—" she glanced at Elizabeth.
"It is for Miss Darcy. Miss Bennet, however, will chose it."
"Mr. Darcy!" exclaimed Elizabeth. "I cannot take such an office on myself. All I promised was my opinion; it is you who will have to make the choice."
He studied her thoughtfully for a moment. "Tell me what you like."
Suddenly unaccountably blushing, Elizabeth began to look about, scanning her eyes over the rows and rows of millinery creations. It appeared that the lady had a taste for flamboyance and color; there was really little among the feathers and artificial flowers to interest. Still, she made a show of looking diligently, and eventually she came across a hat that was plainer than the others, made of blonde straw, with a wide, apple green ribbon that tied under the chin. She thought it charming, primarily because of its lack of adornment. "This would be appropriate for a young girl," she told him.
Mr. Darcy regarded it with one corner of his mouth just slightly upturned. "Would you wear such a hat?"
"In the summer time? Certainly."
He looked at the lady behind the counter. "Box it up."
He was heading out the door when Elizabeth stopped him. "Mr. Darcy?"
"Did you travel in your carriage today?"
He looked surprised. "No, I rode. Why?"
"It's just that…" she couldn't suppress a smile. "You might find it rather awkward carrying that hatbox on your horse."
He looked down at the round box in his hands and colored a little. "You are right, of course." He placed the box on the counter. "Have that delivered to Pemberley."
The lady assured him it would be done, and Darcy and Elizabeth exited the shop together. Once on the sidewalk Elizabeth prepared to part, but he suddenly asked, "Have you been enjoying your tour of Derbyshire?"
"Very much," she replied. "It is a beautiful country."
"But not as beautiful as your native Hertfordshire, to your eyes. I do not suppose you would find any place as appealing as your home."
"I wouldn't say that," she answered slowly, once again surprised and unnerved. "I have a great fondness for the country around Longbourn, it is true, but it does not make me unable to appreciate such wonders as the Peak District offers."
"Did you visit Dove Dale?"
She was obliged to answer again, and in that way the usually silent Mr. Darcy somehow drew Elizabeth into conversation, so that she soon found herself strolling down the street with him, discussing Chatsworth, Matlock all the sights of the county. When they had circled around and came to the front of the Red Lion, she finally managed to extract herself. He looked oddly nonplussed to see the inn, but bowed politely, bid her a crisp good day, and strode away even before she went inside.
Elizabeth found herself mysteriously reluctant to speak of Mr. Darcy to her aunt and uncle, so instead she asked them questions about their visits. After describing the events of the morning, Mrs. Gardiner said, "There is something else I thought I ought to mention to you, Lizzy, although I am afraid you will not like it."
"Why, what do you mean?"
"When I was speaking with Mrs. Grayson I happened to mention that I had met Mr. George Wickham, who was also from this area, and asked her if she knew him."
"No, but she had heard of him. I am sorry to say this, but it seems his reputation here is very bad."
Elizabeth felt her heart thud heavily. "In what way?"
"According to her, he was here on an extended stay some two or three years ago, and when he left, he left behind numerous debts with all the shopkeepers, amounting up to several hundred pounds or more."
"I'm afraid it is true. Amelia is a very honest, kind woman and would not repeat mere unkind gossip. It was not only one man—the whole town was speaking of their losses to him." She looked at her niece for a moment. "When it became clear that he would not be returning, some of the shopkeepers wrote a letter to Mr. Darcy. They knew of Wickham's association with him and asked his help in locating him. Mr. Darcy replied very promptly, she said, and told them that he did not know Mr. Wickham's location, as all intercourse between them had long been at an end, but if they would send him a list of debts he owed, he, Mr. Darcy, would pay them."
"Mr. Darcy paid Mr. Wickham's debts?" repeated Elizabeth.
"In full." She paused for a moment for that to sink in. "Well, naturally after that I had to ask her more about Mr. Darcy and his reputation, because the report you gave of his character is not at all like what his housekeeper described, and seems rather at odds with such generosity. She said that the Darcys are felt to be proud, but only because they do not visit in Lambton. Mr. Darcy himself is known to be just and honest in all his dealings, and to do a great deal of good among the poor."
"What about the living? Did you ask her about that?"
"Well, yes, but she could not tell me anything of the matter—except that the current rector at Kympton is a fine, God-fearing man, who tends diligently to the people. It was her opinion that Mr. Wickham would have made a very poor rector indeed, and Mr. Darcy must have known that."
Elizabeth sat there for a long time after that, absently twisting her hands in her lap. Her mind immediately leapt to give any explanation which would exonerate her own judgment. She supposed that Mr. Darcy had only paid the debts because he felt guilty over denying Mr. Wickham the living—that Mr. Wickham perhaps had only spent such sums in anticipation of receiving it, and being denied it, felt he had no recourse but to flee—and yet her suppositions no longer had any conviction behind them. Mr. Darcy's word she might doubt, even the word of his friends, but the words of a respectable elderly citizen of Lambton?
For the first time in a long time her mind went clearly back to that original interview with Wickham, the one that had left her so certain of his truthfulness. Even he had admitted that Darcy claimed he lacked the character to be a clergyman—extravagance and imprudence, didn't he say? At the very least, that was true. And Wickham had admitted to Darcy's good character, too, though he attributed it all to pride. He had called him generous, and hospitable, a kind brother and good to the poor. The words rose to her consciousness, as if from a great depth. Just, sincere, honorable... at the time she had thought such characterization proof of Wickham's fair mindedness and charity, but now she could only wonder why she had believed a pride which produced such results to be so abhorrent.