Bingley had entered the morning room to find Darcy dressed for a journey, which had brought a surprise to his friend’s countenance. “Darcy, it appears you plan to leave Netherfield today?”
“I do, Bingley.” He had spent a restless night anguishing over what he would say to his most loyal friend.
“Why must you leave so soon? Are you not satisfied at Netherfield? I know country society does not appeal to you, but I had hoped you would find it more pleasurable this time,” Bingley reasoned.
“Bingley,” Darcy established the tone of what he had would confide. “Would you please join me at the table? I have something of import to impart.”
“Bingley, I am not departing Netherfield because of country society. In fact, I have been served an education; some parts of the country can be very agreeable.” The ambiguity of Darcy’s speech obviously had confused Bingley, but Darcy could not seem to bring himself to leave thoughts of Elizabeth Bennet behind. “I do have business to address in London, but that is not my main reason for leaving. After I say what I have avoided saying for so long, you will desire my going.”
“Darcy, this speech lacks sensibility; I could never turn away a friend such as you have proved to be.”
“I have been a deplorable friend, Bingley. You have trusted me unwisely.”
“Please, Bingley, I must say this while I still possess the nerve. I have given you a disservice.” Uncertain where the conversation led, Bingley sat unresponsive. Having to finish this sad business quickly, Darcy swallowed hard before saying, “I conspired with your sisters last fall to separate you from Miss Bennet; I did so because I considered you to be my dearest friend, and I believed, at the time, that Miss Bennet was indifferent and did not desire your affection; however, that is no excuse for what I have done.”
“Darcy?” Bingley said incredulously. His friend had immediately risen to his feet to pace the room. “Am I to understand you kept me from Miss Bennet with some sort of deceit? How could you? You of all people! You recognized how I felt about the lady? You have consulted your own will and made it mine without my permission. You have brought me pain, but what is worse, you have wounded Miss Bennet!”
“Bingley, you are correct to be so upset. I practiced without reason; my conceit at thinking I knew what was best for you is unforgivable.” Darcy, eyes lowered; realizing he had ruined his relationship with Charles Bingley, he sat dejected.
Several minutes passed before Bingley spoke again. “Darcy,” Bingley forced evenness into his voice, “I am not certain how I will be learn to forgive you, but I must assume some of the blame in this matter. This much I know: My nature is too changeable. What you did, you completed in my name, and I permitted it to happen. I should have returned to Netherfield as I had planned; I have known that fact for a long time. I should have been man enough to seize my own happiness.”
Realizing how much in his vain glory he had damaged the one true acquaintance Darcy most treasured, he grimaced, but Darcy’s conscience would not permit him to tell Bingley only half-truths. “Bingley, you are excelellent to offer your absolution; yet, I have something else to confess.”
Bingley’s countenance displayed his vexation. He was seeing Darcy for the first time. Turning his disappointment on Darcy, he said, “Please continue.”
Darcy lifted his head to meet his companion’s dark, lethal gaze. “Miss Bennet was in London last winter for nearly three months; she stayed with Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner. Miss Bennet sent word to Caroline and even called at the townhouse one day. Caroline, with my permission, gave Miss Bennet a direct cut by not returning the visit for many weeks. She led Miss Bennet to believe you were interested in Georgiana. I was aware of your lady’s presence in London, but I told you not. Again, I had witnessed your falling in and out of affection so often I did not judge your regard to be constant. Since the time I have realized you and Miss Bennet were meant to be together, I have attempted to turn back the clock.”
“Darcy, you have overextended your influence on my life. Is it no wonder Miss Bennet sees me as being a lothario.” Bingley’s hands fisted at his side, and Darcy did not blame the man. If the situation had been reversed, he would have planted his friend a facer. Yet, even in the tension-filled room, Darcy had found hope. Bingley, evidently, did not observe the true regard for his friend found in Jane Bennet’s countenance.
Bingley protested, “She can not! Miss Bennet must think me a cad–to be indifferent to her!”
“Charles, there are not many things of which I am absolutely certain, but the constancy of Miss Bennet’s feelings for you is one of the few things upon which I would venture a gamble. At Hunsford, Miss Elizabeth reprimanded me for my misgivings regarding the lady, and the Gardiners have showed me how thoughtful Miss Bennet can be. One of my purposes in coming to Netherfield was to observe the lady’s reactions to your renewed entreaties; her love still rests in you, Charles, if you are willing to ask her.”
“Ask her? Ask her what?” Bingley’s voice rose in bewilderment.
“Ask her to marry you, Bingley,” Darcy said confidently. “Miss Bennet will accept you.”
Bingley frowned. “How can you be so certain? I am not of the same mind, and it is I to whom you reportedly believe the lady directs her attentions!”
Darcy sucked in a deep breath as the vivid memory of Elizabeth Bennet flared in his mind. “You are too close to observe the look in the lady’s eyes when you walk into the room. Most men would give their life for one such glimpse. The lady stirs your soul, Charles; with Miss Bennet you may share your innermost self with respect and dignity. You may wait; you may postpone, but if I were you, I would grab ‘happiness’ with both hands and ask Miss Bennet to accept my hand in marriage.”
“Miss Bennet will say ‘yes,’ Charles.”
Bingley began to pace, to spin, to stop, and to start all over again. “If Miss Bennet agrees, Darcy, then you will be completely forgiven.” Bingley laughed nervously.
“Then I am forgiven,” Darcy smiled. “You will send me news of your happiness, but pray write legibly.”
“I will send you my fate,” Bingley’s thoughts were, obviously, at Longbourn; but then his friend recalled his sisters’ parts in his misery. “I hope you have predicted Miss Bennet’s response accurately, Darcy, for it will offer me an opportunity for revenge when I demand that Caroline and Louisa present Jane her proper due as my wife. They believe me to be with you at Pemberley. What I would not give to see their countenances when they read I am at Netherfield, and I have offered Miss Bennet my hand.”
Darcy retrieved his gloves from a nearby table. He shook Bingley’s hand and then slapped him on the back. “I must leave you now, Bingley.”
“When will you return? If Miss Bennet accepts, you will stand up with me?”
Darcy claimed his hat and walking stick and headed for the waiting carriage. Bingley followed close behind. At the carriage, Darcy turned, and Bingley extended his hand. “Friend,” he said.
Darcy firmly grasped the offered hand. “Friend,” came his thankful reply.
* * *
There had been little to do in London, but Darcy had taken little note; his mind could not be happily employed. He had gone to the theatre one evening, for his spirits had wanted the solitude and silence, which only numbers could provide. A protégé of David Garrick had performed magnificently, but the drama The Chances had reminded Darcy of Elizabeth for like the character’s jealousy, Darcy had remained envious of the possibility of anyone else taking Elizabeth as his wife.
At Longbourn, they had not spoken beyond common civilities. He had once believed their hearts were intertwined, and that nothing could come between them. Their natures so similar–their understanding so perfect–he could never imagine their not finding each other. It was impossible for him to forget how to love Elizabeth Bennet, but the fact was when they had last met, she had not appeared to require his conversation–to require him in her life. Despite his desire to know her as his wife, Darcy had set about convincing himself that Elizabeth would never return his regard; he held no choice but to put distance between them. The distance between Pemberley and Longbourn was one type of distance, but it would be necessary for him to build a wall around his heart. Darcy was Bingley’s friend, and Bingley would marry Miss Bennet; Darcy could not avoid seeing Elizabeth…but he could learn to practice indifference.
After a week, a dispatch had arrived from Bingley. It read
You are forgiven. Miss Bennet said “yes.” My fate is sealed! We await your return to Netherfield. Your most humble servant…
In many ways, the letter had brought Darcy relief; yet, when he had envied Bingley’s chance for happiness, bitterness and lost opportunities had marred his ability to wish his friend happiness. If Darcy had realized how much a refusal to dance at an assembly would have changed his life, he would have dance with Elizabeth the first time he had met her; if he…. He did not know whether he could live with all his regrets–with this profound ache of love lost.