Welcome to Part 2. Straight to the action…..
Elizabeth had once heard Mr Bingley remark that he did not know of a “more awful object than Darcy, on particular occasions, in particular places; at his own house especially, and of a Sunday evening when he has nothing to do”.
Not that she had any respect for Mr Bingley’s judgement of late, but in this he was proved correct. Mr Darcy, constrained and imprisoned by the snow, had become a brooding, restless creature who frightened small children. Upon seeing him enter a parlour, her cousins would hide under tables, or scamper from the room.
Though she could not very well take refuge beneath the furniture, Elizabeth tended to follow their example. She ran from Mr Darcy whenever the opportunity of escape presented itself.
The man had trouble sitting still, he roamed Longbourn’s corridors while scowling at his watch. He would examine the skies through every window he passed, perhaps hoping the next might offer a view that showed particular signs of a thaw, as the one three feet away, which he had looked out moments before, did not.
Clearly he liked occupation, to be always doing something, and presently he had nothing to expend his energy on. It was if he were a spring, being wound tighter and tighter by his imprisonment. Jane, with her soft smiles and calm manner, managed to soothe him somewhat and he amazed Elizabeth by seeking her sister out; when even he seemed to be irritated by his pacing. He would sit beside her while she sewed, offering the occasional comment, asking the odd question, but generally, he was silent.
Her father tried to ply him with port in an effort to put at him ease, only to discover he was not much of a drinker.
Her mother tried to ply him with food, but there were only so many puddings and pies a man could eat in one day without feeling ill.
It was Mrs Gardiner who eventually managed to draw him out; to exchange with him just enough words as might legally constitute a conversation.
They were sat in the parlour in the late afternoon, while most of the family were engaged in a game of cards, with the exception of Elizabeth and her aunt, and Mr Darcy. He was supposedly reading, but his book did not seem to hold his attention, for he shifted continually in his seat and frequently gave a heavy sigh.
“It is a shame you will not have Christmas at Pemberley, Mr Darcy. Such a beautiful house, and how pretty the grounds would be, all covered in snow,” Mrs Gardiner said.
“You have seen Pemberley, Mrs Gardiner?” He asked, immediately shutting his book without bothering to mark his place in any way.
“Oh yes, Mr Darcy. I grew up in Lambton, which is not five miles from Pemberley.” She smiled at him before modestly informing him that he would not remember her family, for they would have moved in very different circles.
Elizabeth half expected him to sniff and open his book again, but he grew animated and there followed a long exchange between he and her aunt. Elizabeth had never seen him so lively as he spoke of horse chestnut trees, smithies, tors, rivers and beauty spots they both knew.
“I dearly love the countryside around Pemberley, Mrs Gardiner, but I was not headed there. We have not had Christmas at Pemberley since my mother died. She had methods of making it special. She would hide presents around the house for me to find. Ridiculous gifts, silly things, such as a pine cone, a bag of dried fruit, or a handkerchief. I gained far more enjoyment from searching out those small presents than I did any expensive item my father gave me. Since her passing my sister and I have joined our family at Matlock almost every year. While we have a pleasant time, it has never been quite the same for me. Another family’s customs and traditions can never mean as much to you as your own.”
This speech made Elizabeth oddly emotional—she had no idea of when Mr Darcy’s mother had died or what the family at Matlock were like—but her imagination conjured up an image of a young boy running around a grandiose house looking for trinkets one year, then clad in black crepe the next. She saw him being driven from his home to spend Christmas with austere relatives, his baby sister opposite him in the carriage on a nurse’s knee; the baby blissfully unaware but the boy desperately missing his mother.
She had a sudden urge to go and kiss her own mother, a feeling which she shamefully acknowledged, rarely overcame her, and she managed to easily resist it. Instead she got her feet. “One of our customs, Mr Darcy,” she said, clapping her hands to gain everyone’s attention, “when Christmas draws so near, is the singing of carols. We have been neglecting our traditions and that ought to be remedied.”
Mary, as eager as she always was to display her questionable skills, made a dash towards the pianoforte. Elizabeth was lighter on her feet, however, and beat her to the stool, where she sat down triumphantly. Mary sulked while everyone else seemed relieved. When Elizabeth began to play, the mood of the room lifted. They laughed at each other when they went wrong, applauded Mr Gardiner’s perfect baritone on the lower notes, and managed some true harmony, not always in their song, but in their sentiments and feelings.
Mr Darcy was urged forward to join them several times but declined. He moved to the card table, where her nephews, who did not enjoy the singing, were busy trying to make a pyramid out of cards. Taking a seat between them, he began to assist. By the time the carols had made the singers all thirsty and they stopped to refresh themselves, the tower was several stories high, and Mr Darcy did not look quite so foreboding as he had previously. His shoulders had been almost as high as his ears, but now his posture was loose. He smiled when she came near him, stopped her to tell her how much he had enjoyed the music. His unspent energy, the frustration which had looked fit to consume him, appeared to have dissipated. What had caused the change, she could not say—Mrs Gardiner’s speaking of Pemberley, his time with the children, the carols perhaps?
Whatever it was that was making him more amiable by the minute, she could only be glad of it, and she was pleased his congenial mood carried over into the morning.
When Elizabeth casually mentioned during breakfast that she had liked his mother’s idea of a Christmas treasure hunt, and how the Gardiner children might enjoy such an activity—confined to the house as they were—he immediately jumped up, found paper and pen and started planning one for them.
Caught up in the excitement, Elizabeth worked alongside him at every turn. They hid treasures and made maps together at a table; their elbows bumping together as frequently as their intellects, as they turned phrases over and thought up clues. They sat next to each other at the top of the stairs when the hunt commenced, enjoying the excitement they had created, and smiling at each other as George held the chubby hand of his smallest sister, helping her along rather than selfishly dashing off to seek his own prizes.
“I am willing to forgive the snowball incident,” Mr Darcy said. “He is an excellent boy.”
Elizabeth could only smile, she was unusually lost for words. He was as much of a puzzle to her as the game they had created for the children – who were now more inclined to run after him, rather than away from him. They would tug at his coattails and call his name, beg him to swing them around-and he would put aside his dignity and do so, no matter how many times they asked.
Was this really Mr Darcy? The same despicable Mr Darcy whose officious interference had ruined Jane’s chances of happiness with Mr Bingley. The same Mr Darcy who had acted so dishonourably towards Mr Wickham? She realised with a jolt, that she had rarely thought of Wickham in the last few days.
Then he was there! Mr Wickham himself, along with two or three other officers, at the front door of Longbourn. As there had been no callers for three days, their arrival was greeted with astonishment. Shrieks of laughter and delight were heard from Kitty and Lydia who ran out into the cold to greet them. When Elizabeth went to the door she saw they had acquired a sledge from somewhere and had attached to it two great shire horses.
They looked delighted by their own ingenuity and were showing off, standing atop the sleigh while declaring that nothing could keep them from calling upon their favourite ladies. Wickham, Elizabeth was glad to note, was more circumspect, not so loud or bragging, and came towards her with a sheepish smile. He bowed gallantly and apologised for his companions’ boisterousness.
“Though I own I was equally eager to call, as I ….” He stopped mid-sentence as something over her shoulder caused a look of fear to cross his countenance. “Darcy. You are the last person I expected to see.”
“And the last one you wanted to, I imagine.” Mr Darcy replied, from behind her. “Might we speak in private, Wickham?”
Though she remained with Kitty and Lydia—determined to ensure they did not lose all sense of propriety—Elizabeth managed to observe Mr Darcy and Mr Wickham talking in a far corner of the hall. She could not hear what was said, for it was all carried on in hushed tones, but it looked very much like Wickham was receiving a lecture.
When he came into the room to join the rest of the party, Mr Wickham took a seat next to her. He rolled his eyes and leaned towards her, whispering, making her his conspirator.
“Not content with having stolen everything from me, he sees fit to play the role of my lord and master. How I abhor the rich and the power they wield over us. I confess I would be happy with fifty pounds a year, a small piece of land I might call my own, and a few chickens and geese to roam upon it; yes, how content I would be then, as long as God granted me a beautiful partner in it all. Someone with whom I could share my interests and passions, someone who understood me.” He smiled at her softly. “Do you deplore me for not telling Darcy off, for not standing up to him as I ought? You see, I still cling to the hope he might gain a conscience and reward me with something, as his father would have wished him to.”
She made no reply but found herself wanting to move away. Previously, she had enjoyed their talks, the easy intimacy that existed between them. His flirting, his manners, everything had pleased her immensely. Yet now, for a reason she could not quite determine, she was uncertain of him.
“Do you know he had the temerity to warn me off you? I am apparently banned from going within ten feet of a Bennet girl! Shall we pretend to be madly in love to spite him, Miss Elizabeth?”
“I am afraid I am not adept at acting, Mr Wickham,” she replied. “Is it something at which you excel?”
He blinked and appeared alarmed, could not look at her for a few moments. “Please tell me he has not turned you against me, as he has the rest of the world? I could not bare that. You must know I have hopes; hopes I cannot yet voice.”
He was so handsome, his voice so lyrical and his manners so good that it was difficult not to feel flattered by his addresses. “I am not against you,” she replied quickly. “Yet, I must tell you that on becoming further acquainted with Mr Darcy I feel I may been unfair. Not that I forgive his trespasses against you, but I do believe I begin to understand his disposition better. I cannot quite hate him as I once did. There is a certain kindness about him, incongruous as that is with some of his past behaviour.”
“As I have said before, he can be liberal and generous when he chooses to be,” Wickham said blithely. His attention was then caught by the general conversation that was occurring on the other side of the room and he turned away from her to better hear it.
Elizabeth only half listened, was busy watching Mr Darcy enter the room. The frown that had been missing all day had returned to his countenance. Why did he have to be so dour?
“She has ten thousand pounds left to her by an uncle. I wish someone would die and leave me ten thousand pounds,” Lydia cried, leaving Elizabeth thoroughly ashamed of her. She thought to quiet her, but Lydia went on before she could intervene. “All the men will want to dance with her, and will want to kiss and romance her, but they will not mean it, for she is an awful freckly thing. No one could truly admire her.”
Wickham laughed at Lydia’s speech. “Who do you speak of?”
“Mary King, of course.” Lydia announced. “Wait till you see her, Wickham. She is not very pretty. Oh, what a shame Colonel Forster’s party on Christmas Eve will not be possible.”
“The party is to go ahead,” one of the officers said. “Have you not heard? The house he has taken is so conveniently situated in the centre of Meryton that a great number of the guests can walk to it.”
Kitty pouted. “We cannot walk.”
“Then we shall send the sleigh for you, and you will be conveyed home on it afterwards,” Wickham declared, to the delight of almost the entire room. Mr Darcy’s frown grew deeper.
Elizabeth interjected that her parents might object to the plan, but no sooner had she given voice to the caution than Mrs Bennet entered. Upon being told of the scheme, she squealed as loudly as Lydia had. Mr Bennet would agree to almost anything if it meant his wife would leave him in peace, and so it seemed they were to go.
“You will not join us I suppose, Darcy?” Wickham said. “Music, dancing, levity and conversation; not your favourite pastimes, are they?”
“On the contrary, if the invitation extends to me, I shall be there,” Mr Darcy replied, before rising from his seat, bowing to the room and leaving them.
Their visitors remained within them less than an hour. The days were short and darkness was falling rapidly. As soon as they had been waved off, Elizabeth found her warmest coat and hat, and decided to risk a short stroll in the shrubbery, the paths of which had been partially cleared. It was still freezing, cold enough to rob her of her breath, but she could bear ten minutes outside if it meant some fresh air. The layers of snow made everything still and quiet, and so she heard Mr Darcy’s approach long before she saw him.
After a remark on the beauty of the scene which she concurred with, he walked a few feet away, as if he were about to go on without her, but then changed his mind, turned and stopped. “It is no business of mine, but may I take the liberty of cautioning you against Mr Wickham? I have heard your sisters tease you about him, and he does appear to favour you, but I should not count on his attentions lasting. You are too poor, I am afraid, to be a serious object with him.”
Her mouth hung open in shock at his bluntness.
“Money is his motivation in all things, Miss Bennet,” Mr Darcy continued, moving closer to her. “I hope you will not feel too wounded when he transfers his affections elsewhere.”
“Mr Darcy, to have reduced him to his current state is crime enough, must you seek to slander him too? He has not the means at present to think of a future with any lady, but that may not always be the case, and he is not fickle. He is most loyal to the memory of your father, which is why he will not publicly expose you.”
“His curious way of not exposing me, Miss Bennet, is to relate his story of my supposed misdeeds to everyone he meets.”
Her temper, which has been in full flow, suddenly had the wind knocked out of its sails. For he was right. Mr Darcy had made it easier for the residents of Meryton to dislike him by standing about disdainfully at every gathering, but it was Mr Wickham’s tales that had truly confirmed him as a villain in everyone’s eyes. Wickham had not been discreet, not at all.
“Who is this girl with the ten thousand pounds?” Mr Darcy asked.
“Miss Bennet, I have no doubt you will look exceedingly pretty tomorrow night. You will be as charming and witty as ever. You will dance, or sing, or play beautifully, yet he will not single you out. He will not spare a thought for your feelings, or feel the slightest guilt when he transfers his attentions from you to Miss King. He is without conscience.”
“I think you are wrong, Mr Darcy,” She said, but truthfully, she felt less sure of herself with every passing moment. “Perhaps you try to lessen the effect of your own crimes against him by sabotaging his character.”
“Shall we have a wager on it?”
“For money!” she exclaimed.
“Oh no, I would not take money from a lady. If I am wrong I will pay you a forfeit, and if you are wrong then I will extract a forfeit from you.”
“Do I get to choose the forfeit?” she asked warily.
“Why not? Please, go ahead.”
“Very well. If Mr Wickham does not single Mary King out tomorrow night, you will write a letter to Mr Bingley. In it, you will inform him that my sister will be in Town after Christmas, staying with my uncle, and you are certain she would welcome a call from him.”
Mr Darcy was smug. “If I am wrong, Miss Bennet, I will go to Town myself for the express purpose of encouraging the call.”
“And you will withdraw your opposition to my sister, you will not interfere between them at all? It is no use denying it, Mr Darcy, I know that you have.”
“I will not deny it, yet I do regret it.”
Her head snapped up in surprise. “You do?”
“I have heard your mother previously, Miss Bennet, talking about my friend Bingley as if he were nothing more than a walking, talking pound note. I wrongly assumed your sister regarded him in the same manner.” He sighed and leant on his stick. “I did not imagine his leaving would cause her any great pain. I now see that it has. I will gladly pay my forfeit, if I lose, but I will not lose.”
Elizabeth nodded in satisfaction. “I am certain that I will not either, so it hardly matters, but out of interest, what is to be my forfeit?
“Oh, I have not decided yet.” He straightened up and began to walk away. “I shall let you know when I do. Enjoy your walk, Miss Bennet,” he called over his shoulder.
Diverting from the paths, kicking up snow and making her petticoats wet, Elizabeth spent longer outside than she had first intended. She needed time to think through all he had told her—about Wickham, about Bingley—and about that which most perturbed her. Somewhere, during their odd exchange, had he really described her as witty, charming and pretty?
Was she not merely ‘tolerable’ any more?
So, this story, which was supposed to be one post long, grew to two parts, and now, by crikey – there is to be a third!
I hope you are all enjoying it and please let me know what you think below. I get terribly lonely while tapping away on my laptop with only these fictional characters to keep me company (though I grant you, they are entertaining).
See you soon for Part 3 – which will definitely be the conclusion…as I have presents to wrap and stockings to hang.