This is the third and final installment of Autumn Gone Awry. The first two can be found by clicking these links :
Part Two: Owing Something
Of course, he could not still love you. He would not yet wish to marry you. Now, more than ever, he must make an advantageous marriage.
Elizabeth repeated these words to herself throughout the long night and morning, waiting for Darcy to call. Darcy, in straitened circumstances! It was unthinkable and yet many equally wealthy had suffered the same. Though she did not fully comprehend it herself, she knew enough from her uncle to understand that business was a fickle mistress and could ruin anyone at any time.
He would call on her today and then all would be known. If he did not still love her, she would insist that he take her money, repayment for what he had done for her sister — for all of them—two years ago. And, on the slim possibility that he still had feelings for her, then she would force him to confess them.
It had to be so. She could not go on, could not continue her life without knowing. Other gentlemen had paid her their attentions in the two years since she last saw Darcy. Honourable gentlemen, gentlemen who were worthy of her time and affection, gentlemen who would be fine husbands for her and yet, she could not attach herself to any of them.
She stood at the window in Bingley’s front drawing room, looking out on a busy scene beneath her while her mind revisited her recent mortification with Mr. Milbank.
Milbank was an amiable, caring gentleman who went to school with Bingley. He came to stay with them at Netherfield in the summer, and it was not long before he and Elizabeth formed a pairing of sorts. She enjoyed spending time with him and thought marriage to him would be very agreeable— or she did until he offered it to her.
Caroline came to her one morning while she read in the window seat of the upstairs drawing room. “Milbank wants to speak with you alone!” She hissed in an excited whisper.
She pulled Elizabeth to her feet, giving her a critical look before crying out with dismay. “Just look at you! You are all rumpled and wrinkled.” Her hands brushed over Elizabeth’s skirt in an attempt to straighten them out. “Ah, hopeless! Change your gown, make haste! I will tell him you will be there shortly.”
Elizabeth found herself obeying Caroline, if for no more reason than to give herself a moment to compose herself. After changing, she paused in front of her mirror, looking herself in the eye and saying, “Yes, it will be my honour. Yes, I will be your wife. Yes, I will marry you. Yes, I lo- …” She stopped and hurried out of the room.
She joined Milbank moments later, finding him pacing in the drawing room; the anxiety in his eyes was clear and matched her own. She clasped her hands so he could not see them shake and sat when he invited her to do so.
“Miss Bennet,” he began, “I am sure you—”
Nausea, hot and demanding, boiled up within her gut and Elizabeth felt a bead of sweat trickle down her back. Oh no, I think I may vomit.
“I… warm,” she interrupted him. “It is rather warm in this room, is it not? Perhaps I will open the window, just a crack, to get some fresh air in the room.”
Before he could comment, she was out of her seat, going to tug open the window. It would not give, being stuck just a slight bit, and Milbank rose, coming over to assist her.
“Allow me,” he said releasing the catch and opening it with ease.
He then turned and took her hand in his own, and led her back to the settee. They sat, and Elizabeth watched him draw a deep breath.
“Miss Bennet,” he began, and she could felt a slight tremor in his voice which made her heart beat even faster, as the sick feeling in her stomach multiplied tenfold. “I hope I do not completely shock you when I tell you that I have developed a tender regard for you in these past weeks, as we have come to know one another.”
Dizziness assailed her as a scarlet blush rose on her face. What if I vomit? Why is it still so hot in here?
“In short, I love you, very deeply and ardently, and I would be very pleased if you would agree to be my wife.”
He looked at her very sincerely, she thought. She opened her mouth, and drew in a breath, ready to tell him, yes, she would be honoured to be his wife, just as she had practised it. I shall be happy.
Somehow, the words got stuck in her throat. She said nothing, stupidly gaping at him like a fish for a moment until she closed her mouth again.
Yes, she thought. You must say yes. Say yes to him.
She was incapable of movement or speech. She could not make herself say anything. Her tongue would not move, and it almost felt as though it had swollen in some manner, lodging itself in her throat.
Her breath began to come very quickly, and she must have grown very pale. Elizabeth, say something, she told herself. You must speak. Just say yes. Of course, you want to marry him. Darcy shall be forgotten. Hunsford, Pemberley, that autumn in Hertfordshire… all of it shall be forgotten.
She could not make herself speak. Her tongue choked her, and her throat closed as a roaring sound came into her ears.
Milbank’s voice seemed far, far away when he said, “Elizabe
th, are you well?”
“I…” She stammered. “I am…” And then everything went black.”
Elizabeth woke from her swoon on the fainting couch in the drawing room. Jane was hovering over her worriedly while a maid applied cool cloths to her face and neck.
“Lizzy? Are you ill? Here, sit up just a bit, I think we must loosen your corset a bit. Have no fear; no one will come in.”
Elizabeth did as Jane asked, sinking into Jane’s shoulder as Jane reached behind her to loosen her stays. Jane continued speaking as she tended to her sister, caressing her hair just as she did when they were small. “It is exceedingly warm in this room; I should not be surprised one bit that you became ill like that. You did not eat anything this morning! I am sure that was it.”
Elizabeth shocked them both by bursting into tears.
“He proposed to me,” she choked into her sister’s shoulder.
“Oh!” Jane pushed Elizabeth upright. “He did not drop a word! Oh, this is wonderful! Engaged! Just wait until I tell Bingley.”
“No!” Elizabeth stopped her. “I did not answer him.”
Jane brushed off that minor detail with a giggle. “So, you were so overcome,
you swooned? Shall I call him back in, you can give your answer now.”
Elizabeth began again to cry. “I cannot say yes, I tried, I wanted to, but the words would not come out.”
“It hardly signifies! He will understand once you explain—”
“Jane, you do not comprehend me,” Elizabeth said. “I simply cannot do it.”
And so much to the disappointment of her sister and Bingley, Elizabeth chased off a worthy suitor for the memory of a man who likely had not given her the least thought for above two years. She had humiliated herself and Mr. Milbank, but she had decided it could not stand. She would resolve this matter one way or another, this very day.
It was easy to smile at him when he entered, though to see him brought her bittersweet pangs of longing. What if this was their last meeting? What if the meeting brought her the unspeakable pain of knowing she meant nothing to him? She brushed these thoughts aside as she invited him to sit and joined him.
There was a strain in his countenance that she had not before seen and it made her ache for him. His arrogance had deserted him, she realised.
“My brother and sister regretted that they were not here to receive you with me. I must say for my purpose however it—”
“I presume you must wish to return my letter?”
“Your letter? Oh—that letter. Ah… no.”
“You said you had something that belonged to me.” He frowned and met her gaze. “Is it a book or something?”
“No.” She took a deep breath and bit her lip for a moment before beginning. “Sir, I… some years ago, you did my family a great service. Indeed you were kind to us in a way no one else could be, and I want—”
She faltered seeing a fire had blazed in his eyes even as his face remained stoic.
“You speak of the matter of your sister and Wickham.”
She nodded. “It… it does not escape me that a vast deal of money likely went into the arrangement.”
He leapt to his feet, putting his back to her as he stalked to the window.
“And I would like to—”
“Do not dare,” he said in a low, dangerous tone, “suggest that you should give me money. I should sooner accept my own demise than your money, Elizabeth.”
She quailed a bit at his tone but did not give way. This was what she wanted, to provoke him into saying what needed said between them. She rose and approached him, pressing her palms to her skirts to remove the dampness from them.
“That is a vastly silly reply,” she said lightly. “Should not the family be charged with the expense of frivolity?”
He turned then, anger blackening his eyes. “No doubt you have heard much gossip about my finances and difficulties, but I assure you, I am not in need of your charity or that of anyone else.”
“But my family needed and gladly accepted yours back then,” Elizabeth entreated him. “At that time I had nothing to repay you with but my gratitude, but now I do.”
“You offend me,” he spat, turning and walking away from her. “I never had any wish for your gratitude, then or now, and I am equally disgusted by the thought that you should wish to repay me.”
“I do not wish to be in your debt,” she said calmly. “I only wish that whatever should come of us should have no taint of debt or gratitude on either side.”
This quelled his ire just a little. He stopped walking away from her and turned to look at her, the fire in his eyes having mellowed to a simmer. She felt it upon her then, the need to throw off these ridiculous games between them, the uncertainties and the strife. Speak Elizabeth, she scolded herself. Now before the moment is gone.
“You may have my money, Mr. Darcy,” she began in a trembling voice. “A repayment of an old debt, if you will. Or you can take my money and me along with it. No debts, no repayments, just… just me. Because my feelings and wishes are still very much as they were for… I do not know how long. A long time. Some years.”
He stared at her, the anger gone from his eyes completely. She did not know what the emotion was in them now; most likely it was merely confusion, but she hoped it was at least tinged with love.
“What are you saying to me?”
“I am not the best prospect for you,” she admitted. “I learnt from Miss Goddard only a few days ago that Lady Lavinia Shaw had set her cap for you. Daughter of a viscount, quite beautiful and a fortune that would put an immediate end to your difficulties. But I have dared to hope that something of our former attachment remains.”
“I have never stopped loving you,” he said while walking slowly towards her. “Not once.”
“But you left me, in Hertfordshire, having said nothing.”
“I could not bear the idea that you would marry me, thinking it your duty.”
“I would never have thought so,” she said. “I felt grateful, yes, and humbled by your generosity; but these alone would not have induced me into matrimony.”
“Then what will?” he asked.
She forced herself to meet his eyes. “Only you,” she said simply. “If you will ask me.”
He reached out and took her hands
in his own, and she closed her eyes, relishing the feel of them. “I am asking you then if you will at last consent to being my wife.”
“Yes.” The joyful word nearly burst from her lips. “Yes. Yes, I will.”
He pulled her into his arms, crushing her against his chest, so tightly that she felt the breath pressed out of her in a most delightful way.
“I only ever did it for you,” he said. “With the wish of making you happy. You owed me nothing for that, not now, not ever.”
“I suppose your repayment— which I shall force you to suffer by the by— shall be me making you happy.” She tilted her head to look up at him. “For the rest of your life. Can you bear that?”
A broad smile creased his face. “I can indeed. That repayment, I shall be glad to accept.”
Photo credit for Austen in Autumn banner: Paul Lakin – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Autumn_in_England#/media/File:Almost_Autumn,_Cottingham_Park_IMG_8214_-_panoramio.jpg