“If gratitude and esteem are good foundations of affection, Elizabeth’s change of sentiment will be neither improbable nor faulty.” ~ Jane Austen
When Mr. Darcy and Miss Elizabeth Bennet meet by accident at Pemberley, they fall violently in love with each other. What is the consequence of their hastened understanding? Will the young lovers face it together, or will they be torn apart?
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Derbyshire, England – Summer 1812
“Elizabeth, my dear, I could not help but overhear you questioning the chambermaid about Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy’s presence in this part of the country. Are you really so opposed to touring his home? Are you afraid you might encounter him?” asked Mrs. Madeline Gardiner, her expression puzzled. An elegant lady of sense and education, she sat down opposite her niece. “I know there was a time when you thought rather poorly of him, but I was given to believe your opinion of the gentleman had suffered a material change after your having spent time in company with him while the two of you were in Kent at Easter.”
One of five unmarried daughters whose mother made it the business of her life to marry each of them off to whoever would have them, Miss Elizabeth Bennet measured her response to her dearest aunt carefully before speaking. She had concealed so much of what had actually transpired between Mr. Darcy and herself from her family, her friends, everyone apart from her dearest sister, Jane: specifically, that the gentleman had offered her his hand in marriage. Her trip to Derbyshire with her uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, had allowed her to escape her matchmaking mama’s machinations, but it was not without its risks.
Elizabeth softly exhaled. “It is true. My opinion of Mr. Darcy has improved considerably over the course of our acquaintance, but that does not give me license to visit his home with impunity. Were Mr. Darcy to discover me roaming about his estate, I fear he might think I am impertinent, or worse, throwing myself in his path.”
The older woman shrugged. “These great men have always made their homes available for public tours. Why should you not avail yourself of the same liberties as anyone else?”
“Oh, Aunt, I fear my reasons are very sound, and if you really knew the nature of my acquaintance with Mr. Darcy, you would think so too.”
“What is there to know other than he wounded your vanity when you first met and it was many months before he was able to overcome your ill opinion as a result? Do you harbor some lingering resentment over what you perceive as his ill-treatment of Mr. Wickham, or perhaps what you believe is his part in separating Jane and Mr. Bingley? Perhaps you believe he is too proud?”
“Yes,” Elizabeth cried with energy. Quickly rethinking her firm stance, she said, “What I mean to say is no. Indeed, no. I do not think … I do not know.” Again, carefully measuring her words, Elizabeth continued, “I harbor no such resentment of Mr. Darcy for either of those reasons you cited. As I told you, Mr. Wickham’s character is not at all as he would have any of us believe.”
While in Kent, Elizabeth had learned that Mr. George Wickham, a man whom she had once held in the highest esteem upon making his acquaintance, was not only a scoundrel, he was an accomplished liar, especially in matters concerning Mr. Darcy.
“Then, what am I not understanding?”
“Dearest Aunt, I have been harboring a great secret since my return from Kent–one I have shared with but one other person: my dearest Jane. I fear nothing short of a complete disclosure will help you comprehend the nature of my despair, but first, I must have your promise that you will tell no one.”
“Of course, I shall keep your secret, my dear.”
Elizabeth took a deep breath. “Mr. Darcy offered his hand to me. He professed his love for me, most ardently, when the two of us were in Kent.”
Oddly enough, her declaration was like a breath of fresh air. Finally, she had shared her secret with someone other than her sister Jane and with her favorite aunt, no less, whose good opinion Elizabeth relied upon.
Her surprise in hearing this evident, Mrs. Gardiner said, “I know you too well to suspect you are secretly engaged, and thus I must beg you to disclose the reason you refused such a man.”
Elizabeth hesitated, but only for a moment, attempting to collect herself. “It is a rather long sordid affair to be sure, but suffice it to say that Mr. Darcy could not have proposed to me at a worse time, neither did he do so in a manner which might possibly recommend his suit.”
Indeed, the gentleman had confessed to loving Elizabeth against his will, against his reason, and even against his character. She told her aunt as much.
Having rejected two marriage proposals in the span of five to six months, Elizabeth was not sure her aunt would understand why she would refuse a man of Mr. Darcy’s consequence.
It was Mrs. Gardiner, after all, who had cautioned Elizabeth to be reasonable as regarded her esteem for Mr. Wickham and quite explicitly advised her against falling in love with such a man whose circumstances in life would do nobody, not even himself, much good.
Mr. Darcy, on the other hand, was of ten times Wickham’s consequence. Even her best friend, the former Miss Charlotte Lucas, who later went on to marry a decent albeit ridiculous man, had told Elizabeth thus.
Mrs. Gardiner had advised Elizabeth of just how such a disadvantageous alliance would affect her father, her mother, and her sisters. Surely she would think her niece was not so clever as everyone liked to believe, were Elizabeth not to understand the advantages for everyone if she became Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy, the mistress of Pemberley.
At length, Elizabeth said, “I know I have your promise not to confide my secret to anyone. I must also beg you not to judge me too severely. I do not know how I would endure were I to lose your esteem.”
“I should hope that I have never judged you, my dear. I confess I am wont to share my opinion when I believe it is warranted to alter a particular path you might be tempted to choose for yourself, but I should like to think I never judged you.”
Another burden was thus lifted from Elizabeth’s shoulders even though she could not say she did not sometimes second guess herself. Mr. Darcy’s letter explaining his motives in separating her sister and Mr. Bingley, as well as his exposing George Wickham and possibly subjecting his own sister to censure, had made a lasting impression on Elizabeth.
After Elizabeth and her aunt had exhausted the topic of Mr. Darcy’s failed proposal, and Elizabeth had confessed all that she could without risking the demise of any esteem her aunt might hold for Mr. Darcy, the older woman threw a furtive glance outside the nearby window.
“It looks like there may be rain today. Perhaps Mr. Gardiner and I are the ones who should forgo the tour of Pemberley. We might easily send you to Pemberley alone, on horseback, no less, and of course, you may be forced to spend the night. You might be compelled to remain there until Mr. Darcy’s eventual return, at which point he will profess his undying love for you and the two of you shall live at Pemberley as man and wife for the remainder of your days.”
Elizabeth laughed. “Now, who is entertaining silly conjectures and playing matchmaker?”
“Oh, do let us go to Pemberley,” Mrs. Gardiner cried. “I daresay it will probably do you a great deal of good to see the place at least once. As I recall from having spent a good part of my life in this part of the country, it is by far the most spectacular estate you have yet to behold.
“I fear if you leave this part of the country without visiting Pemberley, especially out of misguided fear, you might never forgive yourself. The chambermaid has assured you Mr. Darcy will not be there, and we have no reason to doubt her.
“Besides, what if she were mistaken? What is the worst thing that would happen? That Mr. Darcy might behave the scorned man and refuse to acknowledge your presence. If such is the true nature of his character, then you will at least have the satisfaction of knowing that you did the right thing in refusing his hand–forever eliminating any lingering doubts you may be harboring.”
Elizabeth half smiled at this picture of a possible encounter with the gentleman. He had been rather abrupt in taking his leave after handing her the letter in the grove. She, as much as anyone, knew aloofness, haughtiness, and thinly veiled disdain were not beyond him. She would be surprised if such a characterization did not aptly describe him.
Indeed. What is the worst thing that can happen?