Part One: Owing Nothing
He was gathering his thoughts, preparing to speak, when she began.
“Mr. Darcy, I am a very selfish creature; and, for the sake of giving relief to my own feelings, care not how much I may be wounding yours. I can no longer help thanking you for your unexampled kindness to my poor sister. Ever since I have known it, I have been most anxious to acknowledge to you how gratefully I feel it. Were it known to the rest of my family, I should not have merely my own gratitude to express.”
“I am sorry, exceedingly sorry,” replied Darcy, in a tone of surprise and emotion, “that you have ever been informed of what may, in a mistaken light, have given you uneasiness. I did not think Mrs. Gardiner was so little to be trusted.”
“You must not blame my aunt. Lydia’s thoughtlessness first betrayed to me that you had been concerned in the matter; and, of course, I could not rest till I knew the particulars. Let me thank you again and again, in the name of all my family, for that generous compassion which induced you to take so much trouble, and bear so many mortifications, for the sake of discovering them.”
“If you will thank me,” he replied, “let it be for yourself alone.”
He stopped, swallowing as she glanced up towards his face. For her alone; indeed it was for there was nothing he had done that had not been done with her in his mind. He had been driven nearly mad by the remembrance of the tears she shed at the inn in Lambton, crying for the selfish, thoughtless actions of her sister.
But gratitude? He had never wanted her thanks; indeed the abhorred the very notion that she should feel a debt to him.
It was done for the wish of giving happiness to you.
Such sentiments could not be uttered. Not now, not with words of appreciation and obligation still defiling the air between them.
She would agree to marry him now. Of this was he certain. She would feel it her duty, and this was the most grievous of all outcomes. Could he bear it? Could he enjoy the felicity of marriage to her while wondering if she had genuine affection for him? Could he live knowing that he had, in essence, purchased her?
She glanced up at him again, and he looked away, unable to meet her eye.
“Your family owe me nothing,” he said at last, with some hesitation. “I believe I thought… that is to say, I know I thought only of—”
“Lizzy!” Miss Kitty Bennet came running up behind them. “Lizzy you will never guess what happened!”
“What?” Elizabeth turned to her sister — was that relief on her face? Was she glad they were interrupted?
At this, Miss Kitty began a lengthy and stupendously silly tale about a kitten and Miss Maria Lucas’s needlepoint pillow. The story ended with Elizabeth advising her younger sister to take the kitten into her bedchamber, taking care to avoid the notice of Mrs Bennet who believed kittens were difficult on her nerves.
When the story was done, they turned back towards Longbourn. Miss Kitty ran ahead once they were nearly at the door, presumably racing to hide the kitten in her bedchamber. When Miss Kitty had gone, Elizabeth stopped and turned towards him, smiling kindly.
“I cannot remember where we were when we were interrupted, but pray do know that I do thank you, on behalf of all my family.”
He had no idea what to say to that and so could only offer a small bow.
Elizabeth dressed for dinner that evening with great care, her mind a tumult of all which had transpired that day. Mr. Darcy had come! Her heart had been scarcely able to bear the happiness of seeing him, and when they walked out, with Jane and Bingley providing them with a happily careless chaperonage, it seemed all would soon be settled to the felicity of them both.
It had all begun well enough, but something had stopped him. Elizabeth knew not what, only that a softness which had been in his eyes had suddenly disappeared, leaving a cautious blank look.
Why would he return if not for her? For Bingley? Bingley was situated in his courtship with Jane. He did not need the oversight of his friend now. So Darcy must have come for her? And perhaps did not wish to propose on a dirty country road?
Or perhaps he does not wish to propose at all, the sceptic in her retorted. Perhaps he has decided your family is too low, too weak. Perhaps he realised he cannot be a brother to Wickham. Perhaps he simply does not love you.
No. She would not permit such musings.
With a determined smile, she adjusted her gown and tucked a wayward curl up into her coiffure. She was ready to meet him with whatever arts and allurements his aunt believed she possessed.
The evening began in a promising way. Darcy looked very handsome and greeted her with warmth in his eyes. She hoped she mirrored that warmth directly back to him. They chatted easily, speaking of nothing of consequence; indeed, her nerves were such that she had no idea what he said or even what she did, but they spoke, and he smiled, and she smiled, and it seemed all would be right again.
Dinner was not quite so happy. Mr. Darcy was seated by Mrs Bennet who made no secret of her disdain for him. She sang the praises of Mr. Wickham even while remarking on proud friends and Wickham not receiving his due. Elizabeth cringed knowing that Wickham had received far and above anything he should have and that what he deserved was time spent in gaol, or perhaps a good, decisive duel.
The torment was ended at last, and the ladies exited the room. “That Mr. Darcy has certainly not improved in manners,” said Mrs Bennet loudly, tossing herself onto the chaise. “Silent as a nun the whole of the dinner.”
“Mama,” Elizabeth hissed. “Pray do not dislike him so. We owe him—”
“Owe him? We owe him nothing! He should not even be received in this part of the country, and you have said it yourself, Miss Lizzy. No need to take airs about it now, I know what you think of him.”
No, you do not. But Elizabeth could say nothing more for then the sound of the men were heard coming to rejoin them. Soon the drawing room was noisy with conversation about the wedding and advisements for the young couple on where they ought to live. The purchase of Netherfield was urged strongly by nearly every Bennet in the room save for Elizabeth.
When Mr. Darcy chanced to move close to her, she saw her opportunity. With a gentle smile, she encouraged him to sit next to her on the small sofa on the edge of the room. He joined her and returned her smile but unfortunately said nothing.
It seemed it would be to her to begin things and being that her mother was again across the room crying out in thinly veiled insults on friendship and how friends ought to help each other, she believed she knew how it should best be done.
“Mr. Darcy, I must apologise for my mother. She is… she intends no harm…”
“No, no,” he said warmly, turning himself towards her, “you must think nothing of it.”
She gave him a relieved smile. “If only she knew that you, you of all people have shown more of friendship than anyone in this room, she would not speak so rudely.”
Something in Mr. Darcy’s eyes dimmed a bit though Elizabeth could not comprehend it. She offered him a smile.
In a very thoughtful way, he said, “You think me a friend to your family? To… to you? Have we become friends?”
Elizabeth gave an uncertain laugh. “Indeed I do, sir. I am privileged to consider you my friend. I hope we will always be friends.”
He stared at her then, a long awkward moment, before saying, “You may be assured, you can always depend upon my friendship.”
She knew not what to make of him. His words were kind, but his countenance was… she knew not how to describe it.
“You may always depend on my friendship as well,” she offered, and he bowed, just a little, before rising.
“I must take my leave of you, I fear. I shall leave early in the morning.”
“So soon?” she asked. “Have you not just returned?”
He paused a moment, looking down at her. “I… yes, I fear I must go. My warmest wishes to you all.”
True to his word, he was gone early the next morning. Bingley seemed confused by it but only momentarily. “That is Darcy for you. Here and there, just as he likes! He must have had some business to take care of.”
Darcy returned for the Bingley’s wedding, and though agreeable to them all, he showed no particular notice to Elizabeth, at least not enough to see her heart was breaking on his behalf. Elizabeth, contemplating his behaviour in the lonely weeks following Jane’s wedding, decided that he must have put aside whatever attachment he once held for her. She resolved not to be distressed about it though some days found her more able to keep to her resolution than others.
I’ve left it very bleak I know! Part 2 of Autumn Gone Awry will post Nov 6th… a happily ever after will come in part 3!
Hope you’re all having a fantastic autumn!
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