Elizabeth shifted in her chair uneasily, blinking in yet another desperate attempt to make something of the needlework that was lying in her lap. She couldn’t believe the irony of her situation. Just before going to sleep the previous night, she had promised herself not to think of Mr. Darcy today yet Mr. Darcy was now sitting not ten feet from her.
She might have been overjoyed and more amenable to him if her mind had been working properly, but the truth was that a good night’s sleep had done nothing to erase the symptoms that had rendered her worried the previous evening. Her headache was worse than ever, and she could do nothing to warm herself. She did not want to be ill. That was the reason she had not stayed in bed and pretended to ignore Sarah’s doubtful looks when the maid inquired if she felt quite all right.
The truth was that Elizabeth felt ill, very ill. She could hardly walk, and a paralyzing pain soon spread over her every joint. Her hands were frozen, while her face felt ever so hot. She decided to accept the fact and retire to her room where she could indulge in self-pity, but then Mrs. Bennet spotted Mr. Bingley from the window. Elizabeth sat up, still determined to leave, although her concern for Jane was already giving her pangs of guilt, but as she moved close to her mother to inform her of her intentions and bear her wrath, she saw Mr. Darcy riding next to Mr. Bingley. She returned to her seat without uttering another word.
When she witnessed her mother’s civility towards Mr. Bingley and rudeness towards Mr. Darcy, she started questioning the wisdom of her decision. By the time Mrs. Bennet started talking about Lydia’s wedding, Elizabeth had grown completely miserable. She tried not to listen to her mother’s words when she lamented Wickham’s lack of fortune, but her traitorous ears caught the bitter remarks.
“Thank heaven! He has some friends, though perhaps not so many as he deserves.”
Change the subject, change the subject! Elizabeth’s mind was screaming, but she could not summon the strength to do it. Cold sweat ran down her cheeks, and she felt her limbs growing weaker and weaker. She could not concentrate on her work. The mere sight of needles rather deteriorated her dizziness. Another effort to resume her needlework only succeeded in wounding her thumb. The pain was trifling, but it added to her discomfort. Was it possible that the room was getting darker and darker? She lifted her eyes, scarcely allowing herself to steal a quick glimpse of Mr. Darcy, whose face was still solemn and expressionless.
“How long do you…do you…” Every pair of eyes in the room turned towards her, and even Mr. Darcy seemed surprised by her stammering and faint voice. Good, make yourself even more ridiculous in his eyes, Elizabeth Bennet!
“How long do you plan to stay at Netherfield, Mr. Bingley?” Elizabeth finally asked, with a steady voice.
At least no one is paying attention to me any longer, she sighed with relief, as everyone focused on Bingley and awaited his answer.
“A few weeks, I believe.”
Elizabeth wanted to see his friend’s reaction to the statement, but suddenly her head felt too heavy for her to move in any direction. The room grew even darker. She prayed that she could manage to remain in company until the end of the visit.
“When you have killed all your own birds, Mr. Bingley, I beg you will come here, and shoot as many as you please on Mr. Bennet’s manor. I am sure he will be vastly happy to oblige you and will save all the best of the covies for you.”
Stop her, someone stop her!
But no one could stop her mother, and Elizabeth had long reconciled herself to the fact. Still, she did not want this torture to continue any longer. She reminded herself that as a gentleman’s daughter, she should cling to propriety and patiently wait for the gentlemen to take their leave. Oh, but she wanted her bed—her soft, wonderful bed to lie in and sleep and get rest… Her head was ready to burst.
“I beg you to excuse me,” she said, rising abruptly, and before taking notice of the shocked expressions on every face as she attempted to leave the room, everything went black.
Darcy ran instinctively to her, even before Jane, who needed a moment to recover from the shock. Mrs. Bennet instantly went into hysterics, because this event went against her plans of inviting Mr. Bingley for dinner rather than from any real concern for her daughter—girls constantly faint, after all! Kitty attended her mother while Mary went near to her fainted sister and watched with curiosity as Mr. Darcy and Jane tried to bring her back to consciousness. Mr. Bingley had retracted to the wall at the opposite side of the room, wearing a rather horrified expression on his suddenly pale face.
“Miss Elizabeth, open your eyes. Please open your eyes, Elizabeth,” Mr. Darcy was heard pleading, but the use of Elizabeth’s Christian name went unnoticed by anyone but Jane. She was too preoccupied to give it a second thought.
“She is feverish,” Jane declared, becoming more and more worried.
“Elizabeth, please open your eyes. Please.”
“She is doing it on purpose. She is doing it on purpose,” Mrs. Bennet said, “to ruin everything!”
“Mrs. Bennet, are you serious?” Darcy’s tone would have intimidated an intelligent person, but had no effect at all on Elizabeth’s mother. “Have you no heart at all? Your daughter lies unconscious!”
“And why should you care, Mr. Darcy? You were the one who said she was only tolerable. Why should you care if she dies or not?”
Darcy was ready to form an answer that would do nothing to improve his relationships with the awful mother when Elizabeth’s meek voice was heard. “Mama…”
Immediately Darcy’s eyes locked with hers, showing nothing but the utmost tenderness. He wanted to speak, but he didn’t trust himself to use his voice. His relief was so great, and the fear of losing her had made him so much more aware of his feelings for her that he doubted he would not propose there and then, if he were to open his mouth.
“We should move her to sit on the couch,” Mary said with a look that showed how well-read she was on the subject. “She will recover more quickly that way.”
Elizabeth wanted to tell them that she felt just fine lying on the floor with Mr. Darcy hovering over her, but she decided against it, as he lifted her in his arms and carried her to the couch. Unfortunately, as soon as she sat, she felt all the blood draining from her head again, and she soon surrendered to the blackness.
Darcy cried, “A doctor!”
No one moved. He examined the room, and upon observing Bingley and his horrified expression, he shouted, “What the devil are you doing against the wall, Bingley?”
Bingley answered something, but it was unintelligible.
“Bingley, come here and repeat that again. Louder, please!” His tone was so commanding that even Mrs. Bennet was impressed.
His friend finally obeyed him, and getting closer, he stammered almost inaudibly, “Sh…she is bl…bleeding.”
Darcy’s eyes were instantly upon Elizabeth form, mad with worry, but he could detect no blood.
“There, on the right thumb. Blood makes me dizzy. I want to leave.”
Darcy would have said something very offensive to his friend, after realizing that he was making all that fuss over a mere scratch, but he decided against it, as he saw Jane standing a few yards away. Although she seemed very absorbed with concern for Elizabeth, he was certain she was trying to listen to them, but judging from her expression, she had not heard anything.
“Bingley, please go and bring a doctor. You would help a great deal if you did.”
“Mr. Bingley is not going anywhere!” Mrs. Bennet shouted, irritated that Mr. Darcy was taking his friend away from them.
“No, no, he goes,” Bingley said hastily. “I mean, I go. I would be pleased to go, to be of service.” And before Mrs. Bennet could ask one of the servants to go instead of him, he was out of the door, heaving a huge sigh of relief. Staying behind, Jane decided to attribute his sudden departure to gallantry and be pleased—against her better judgment.
In the meantime, Elizabeth had opened her eyes again, and Darcy was paying her his undivided attention. Jane left her side and was trying to calm her mother, as Kitty could not handle her on her own.
“Miss Elizabeth, do you feel any better?”
“I feel a little dizzy, Mr. Darcy. What happened?” “You seem to have fainted. Twice. And you are feverish. And I was—we were,” he corrected, “very concerned. Mr. Bingley has gone to fetch the doctor.”
“There is no need. I am quite well,” Elizabeth answered, although she thought the whole room was swirling around her, and she was very tempted to close her eyes again.
“Miss Elizabeth, look at me! I mean, please keep your eyes open. Do not give in…”
She simply nodded, wishing she could get back her ability to think clearly and decide if he actually was as concerned as he seemed to her.
“Miss Elizabeth, clearly, you are not well,” he continued. “What may I do to help you? Please, tell me to do something…anything to be the means of assisting you. Please,” he whispered into her ear.
Despite everything, he could not help relishing the intimacy of their closeness, and for one moment, he was grateful to Mrs. Bennet who created a great deal of fuss at the other corner of the room, allowing him some moments of privacy with Elizabeth.
If Elizabeth were well, she would not have said what she did. But she was not well—not well at all.
“I… I felt better when I was lying down.”
Darcy was not certain if he had heard well.
“On the floor?”
“Yes,” she whispered.
“You want me to put you back to the floor?” He was not sure he wanted to witness Mrs. Bennet’s reaction if he did something of the kind.
“No… I would like to lie…anywhere.” Darcy swallowed hard and reminded himself that Elizabeth’s words were innocent. Innocent. Innocent. Unfortunately, his thoughts were far from innocent at the moment. Think, Darcy, think!
“Then I will take you to your room, Miss Elizabeth.”
“No, sir… My maid could help me…”
“You cannot walk at all. Your maid cannot carry you,” he said very decidedly.
“A servant could…”
No servant will take you to his arms as long as I live, Elizabeth.
“Miss Elizabeth, I insist.” With that, he lifted her in his arms and walked towards the stairs.
It was at that moment that Mrs. Bennet decided to turn around.
“Where do you think you are going with my daughter in your arms, sir?”
Not her again! I was offensive at Hunsford, Elizabeth, and arrogant and conceited, but regarding your mother, I was right!
“To her room. She needs rest…” Away from you.
He took a few more steps.
“No, sir, you cannot! You have no right to put your hands upon her!”
“Mama, please.” Jane’s voice was pleading, although she was as astonished at Mr. Darcy’s impropriety as her mother. However, she believed his concern for Elizabeth’s welfare was genuine, and since Elizabeth was not opposed to the idea, she could see no reason to deprive him of the pleasure of being of help.
“No, Jane, do not try to stop me. You, sir, may not compromise my girl just because you are tall and handsome and have ten thousand a year. These liberties are acceptable only between husband and…”
Mr. Darcy turned and cast Mrs. Bennet a venomous look and then disappeared upstairs carrying Elizabeth, but that was not why Mrs. Bennet suddenly gasped and covered her mouth with her hand. She had simply recalled two of the words she had used: compromise and husband.
“Hill!” she cried, ignoring Jane’s pleas to calm down. “Tell Mr. Bennet to come here at once. He must make Mr. Darcy marry Lizzy immediately!” She clapped her hands and then embraced Jane, who had turned white and Kitty, who was giggling.
“A lady’s honor…” Mary began.
“With a special license, of course!” Mrs. Bennet cut her short.
The faces of the four occupants of the drawing room later that day betrayed very different moods. Mr. Bingley wondered how much he had managed to humiliate himself in the eyes of Jane Bennet with his ridiculous fears that morning. Mr. Bennet was simply worried about what the apothecary would find wrong with his favorite child. Mrs. Bennet had an expression that could have easily been called sullen, but actually, it was conniving, for though her husband refused to even consider her ranting until he was certain that their daughter was out of danger, she was by no means discouraged. Mr. Darcy appeared to be staring at the carpet very intensely, but in truth, he was meditating of the very great pleasure Elizabeth’s imagine lying on her bed could bestow. His mind took another path, transferring her breathtaking form to his own bed at Pemberley. These were not gentlemanlike thoughts at all, and he was acutely aware of the fact. Still, after touching her so intimately, after pressing her whole body against his as he carried her to her room, he was rendered incapable of having gentlemanlike thoughts.
The more he thought about it, the more he realized that he had indeed compromised Elizabeth. At the time, he thought he was doing nothing more than what was necessary for his beloved’s safety. Still, if he could judge by the desires awakened in him, he had not done the right thing. Mrs. Bennet had been correct—much more so than he had been. He shuddered at the thought and heard Mrs. Bennet ask a servant to add a log to the fire… Had she been watching him?
Not that the prospect of marrying Elizabeth was a displeasing one. In fact, it would be the fulfillment of dreams, hopes and wishes that had haunted him for the past year. Still, to be forced to marry her would simply not do… No, that was not the worst. The worst would be to have her accept him simply because she was compelled to do so. In all his fantasies, she forgave him, and she fell as madly in love with him as he was with her. His pride would not bear a marriage based on obligation. It was true that loving Elizabeth had taught him to forsake his pride, but he was not willing to go so far. He had to talk to Mr. Bennet that very day, and he had to stop showing such an open interest in Elizabeth, at least for the time being.
He let out an inaudible sigh, but Mrs. Bennet’s watchful eyes caught it, and she was about to ask him about it, but he was spared as Mr. Jones entered the room, followed by Miss Bennet. Mr. Darcy stood up before everyone else, and forgetting his resolutions of a moment ago, he started his inquiries before anyone else had the chance to speak.
“Is she out of danger?”
Mr. Jones smiled encouragingly. “My dear sir, Miss Elizabeth never was in danger. She is one of the healthiest girls I know. This is one of the very few times she has needed my services.”
“But then, why did she collapse so suddenly? Surely, this cannot be considered a sign of good health!” Mr. Darcy was already contemplating sending for his own physician in London and missed Mr. Bennet’s annoyed grunt. Mr. Jones, however, did not lose his good humor.
“It was not an alarmingly sudden incident, sir. Miss Elizabeth caught a cold yesterday, and she admitted to having overexerted herself. If she had kept to her bed this morning, she would have been considerably better now.”
“Do you think that her recovery will take long?” Mr. Bennet finally managed to speak before Darcy.
“She is feverish right now, but that is not alarming. I think that she will improve considerably within the next two days. In any case, I will return tomorrow morning. You may call upon me if you witness anything of an alarming nature during the night.”
“I will stay with her,” Mrs. Bennet said. Darcy gritted his teeth, but fortunately, Jane intervened.
“I will spend the night with her, Mama. I will be repaying the services she bestowed on me,” she said with a small smile and a glimpse in Mr. Bingley’s direction that considerably improved his mood and self-esteem.
“How is Miss Elizabeth now?” Darcy was again the one to speak first.
“She has fallen asleep. I am sure rest will benefit her.”
Mr. Darcy did not seem satisfied, but Mr. Bennet extended his hand to the apothecary.
“Thank you, John.”
“Will you stay for dinner, Mr. Jones?” Mrs. Bennet inquired politely but half-heartedly. Bingley and Darcy had agreed to dine with them, and she didn’t want a stranger in her table. Luckily for her, Mr. Jones expressed his wish to return to his wife as soon as possible. Mrs. Bennet sent Kitty and Mary to escort him. She then declared that Mr. Bingley was pale and would be extremely benefited from a walk in the garden. Jane was subsequently encouraged to join him, and perhaps to take him as far as the Oakham Mount. She, as a conscious mother, replaced her daughter in Elizabeth’s room.
Thus, her cunning bore fruit. Mr. Bennet and Mr. Darcy were left all alone.
Mr. Bennet had no intention of promoting a marriage between his daughter and Mr. Darcy, no matter how persistent his wife was about Elizabeth’s having been compromised. However, the young man’s behavior had puzzled him exceedingly, and he meant to have a serious talk with him.
“Mr. Darcy,” he began, clearing his throat, “I heard that you were most attentive to my daughter this morning.” Although he expected nothing more than a contemptuous look from his companion, he witnessed him stiffen, while a look of self-consciousness appeared briefly on his face.
“Mr. Bennet, I am not sure what you have been told…”
“Merely that you carried my daughter in the presence of her mother, her sisters, your friend and two members of the staff and that you entered her bedroom, as her maid kindly informed me.”
“In that light, my behavior seems unforgivable indeed, Mr. Bennet,” Darcy replied coldly. “However, Miss Elizabeth was in evident distress and appearances were not my utmost concern at that moment.”
“You admit, then, that you surpassed the limits of propriety?” Mr. Bennet was somewhat alarmed.
“I only spoke of appearances. My behavior towards your daughter was entirely honorable, as are my intentions.”
“I beg your pardon?” Mr. Bennet was certain that Darcy could not mean what he thought that he meant.
“Mr. Bennet, although my actions were motivated purely by my concern for your daughter’s situation, I understand that I have conducted myself in a way that might lead to scandal. Since you think that marriage is the most appropriate solution…”
“Indeed, Mr. Darcy, I said no such thing!” he exclaimed and gained a genuinely surprised look from Darcy, who did not expect to be interrupted.
“But you do think that I have compromised Miss Elizabeth.”
In truth, all that Mr. Bennet wanted to do was to punish the arrogant man for his superior airs by telling him that he was not allowed to do whatever he pleased in his house. He had not expected the conversation to take this turn.
“No, Mr. Darcy… I…” again he cleared his throat, “I simply wanted to know your opinion about the whole affair.”
“Are you asking me if I think that I have compromised your daughter?”
“In a way, yes.”
Darcy was taken aback. He had expected a scene with Mr. Bennet ranting and storming and threatening that he would kill him if he did not agree to take Elizabeth as his wife, but the gentleman in question would not come to the point. What was he up to? Why did he not ask what he meant to ask directly?
“When I acted this morning, I thought that I was doing nothing that an honorable man would not do. However, on second thought…”
“Yes, on second thought,” Mr. Darcy confirmed, even more puzzled, “I think that my conduct could be misinterpreted. I esteem Miss Elizabeth too much to have her subjected to…”
“But you had justification.” Mr. Bennet’s voice betrayed anguish.
“Elizabeth could not move by herself.”
“But I had not her mother’s consent…”
“Her mother was too upset to give consent.”
“A servant could have carried her…” Darcy tried to be neutral as he said the last phrase, although the thought still made him shiver.
“No male servant was in the room,” Mr. Bennet said quickly.
“And as you said, two servants witnessed…”
“Mrs. Hill and Sarah are very discreet.”
Darcy did not wish to argue any longer. “Mr. Bennet, are you trying to make excuses for me?”
The older man cast his eyes down and replied in a low voice. “I am trying to be reasonable.”
“Do you… Is it possible that you do not wish a marriage between myself and your daughter?”
“I would rather not place you both in a disagreeable situation.”
“Disagreeable situation?” Darcy cried with agitation, and suddenly Mr. Bennet remembered that he was speaking with a man to whom he would never dare deny anything that he condescended to ask.
“Do not take offense at my words, Mr. Darcy. I merely meant that… that I am assured that your conduct this morning has been beyond reproach and that a marriage is not necessary.”
“Would you oppose to such a marriage?”
“I implore you, do not take this as an affront. I would not wish a marriage of duty—of convenience—for Elizabeth. She deserves… She is too special to be happy or to make her husband happy in a union forced upon her.” Mr. Darcy’s features relaxed a little at the evident tenderness with which Mr. Bennet referred to his daughter. A small smile curved his lips as he asked the next question.
“But, suppose it was not a forced marriage out of duty?”
Mr. Bennet was certain he had not heard well. “ Not a marriage out of duty? What kind of marriage could it be?”
“A marriage of love,” Mr. Darcy said with such firmness and determination that however shocked Elizabeth’s father might have been, at least he was certain that he had not misunderstood him.
“Do you love my daughter?”
Darcy breathed deeply. “I had hoped to inform you under different circumstances, Mr. Bennet, but yes, I do.”
“This cannot be. You had proclaimed her to be only tolerable!”
Mr. Darcy wondered if there was anyone in Hertfordshire who had not heard about the stupidest remark he had made in his whole life.
“Mr. Bennet, you know your daughter well enough to understand why, upon further acquaintance, I came to regret my foolish and ill-judged remark most acutely. Surely you cannot doubt that Miss Elizabeth can inspire the tenderest of feelings?”
The older man thought that he was constantly losing ground. “But you despised her! She despised you!”
Darcy nodded sadly. “I am only too aware of her former feelings, Mr. Bennet. I have done everything in my power these past few months to change… to become worthy of her affection.”
Mr. Bennet was absolutely certain that he had been propelled into a different universe and was talking with a different Mr. Darcy, because the Mr. Darcy that he knew would never have such a look of contrition on his face nor would he make such humble confessions. He would not have fallen in love with his Elizabeth in the first place! All that he could think to say was, “And… have you?”
“I am afraid I don’t understand your question.”
“Have you become worthy of my daughter’s affection?”
“I cannot answer that, sir.”
“Has my daughter bestowed her affection on you?” Mr. Bennet demanded in a raised voice.
“No. No, she hasn’t.”
Mr. Bennet was not certain if he was relieved. He was at a loss to know how he should proceed.
“Mr. Bennet, to resume our talk…”
“There is nothing to talk about. There is no need for a marriage.”
“But sir, there is a wish for a marriage.”
“On your part.”
“Not on yours?”
Mr. Bennet stood up and paced to the window in frustration. For a few minutes, unbearable silence dominated the room. Mr. Bennet fixed his gaze outside, but he felt the younger man’s eyes watching him intensely. Finally, he turned and faced him again.
“I only wish my daughter to be happy.”
“I will do anything to make your daughter happy, sir,” Darcy stated and continued formally. “I ask for your permission to court your daughter, Elizabeth, Mr. Bennet.” He was not used to begging, he was not used to trying to make a good impression on others, especially on such an eccentric individual as Elizabeth’s father, but something reflected on the countenance of his companion stirred a sensitive chord deep within him. Mr. Bennet seemed suddenly old, tired and vulnerable, and his eyes, big and black, that suddenly struck him as much like Elizabeth’s, were now full of sorrow. So, he stood up, paced towards Mr. Bennet and offered him his hand.
“And while I court your daughter, we can be further acquainted, sir. I fear we hardly ever talked, and I am sure we share many interests.”
“Books, for example.”
Mr. Bennet took the offered hand and shook it.
… In short, I have no idea what to make of the whole day. My traitorous head, which will not stop pounding, will not make my efforts easier. Jane is watching me as I write, and I struggle to keep from gesturing in pain, because she will insist that I should go to bed. However, I am not sure if sleep is the sage thing to do, since whenever I close my eyes, his image comes before me, and his hands tighten around my waist, and his eyes bestow that… that burning look on my face. Rest, under these circumstances, is naturally out of the question.
As for reading a book until I feel tired and fall asleep, it is out of the question as well. I feel an unreasonable amount of hatred towards A Sicilian Romance, which I consider, quite irrationally, as the cause of all my misfortunes. As for alternative reading, I have to say that my father left me speechless by sending me this evening The Taming of the Shrew. He knows that of all Shakespeare’s works it is my least favorite, yet he chose it for such a moment.
I think that everything conspires against me. Maybe I will close my eyes and find that nothing of this day has actually transpired.
Disturbingly, I realize that I do not want some parts of the day to be just a dream—although they were like a dream.
I am not certain if I should be overjoyed, or hopeful, or patient. Somehow I feel light-hearted, but I know that I should not trust my judgment today. I wish I could have seen what transpired during the rest of the gentlemen’s visit at Longbourn. Jane tells me they stayed until supper and that they kept asking after my progress, but she does not dwell on details or their exact words, as I would wish. I am not sure if I am relieved or disappointed by her discretion, but it is an aspect of her character that I have always admired.
I can only have faith in tomorrow and listen to my sweet sister who implores me to go to sleep.
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