In the following scene, Darcy has no choice but to introduce Elizabeth to his uncle, the Earl of Matlock.
The dreaded missive had arrived. Darcy stared at the elaborate seal for a while before the butler gave a discreet cough and Darcy realized that the poor fellow’s arm must be hurting from holding out the silver salver holding the letter.
“Thank you,” he said, taking the letter, although the last thing he felt was thankful. He wished the wretched thing had been lost. He would then have had an excuse not to deal with the situation.
Now that the letter was there, staring him in the face, there was no point in delaying the inevitable.
Darcy took up the letter opener and broke the seal.
The Honorable Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, Esq.
My dear nephew,
The fact that his uncle was using honorifics did not bode well.
News of a most alarming nature has reached me…
Darcy skimmed through the rest of the letter. It was just as he thought. The key words sprang out at him: duty, ancient family, ancestors, status, rank in society and some other words of similar meaning. These words were inevitably followed by: degrade, throw away, penniless girl, a nobody and other related terms.
The letter ended with a warning.
I shall be arriving post-haste in London and I shall expect you to provide me with an explanation for this untoward behavior. I shall also expect you to introduce me to the young lady in question. I am aware that sometimes strong passion can distort our perception of reality and that in a moment of folly we could destroy all hopes for future happiness. I would not be doing my duty if I did not do all I could to prevent you from taking such an unwise step.
This was followed by a formal listing of his uncle’s titles – again, unusual enough to make it clear that it was reminder of Darcy’s own social situation.
Darcy put down the letter and sighed. It was all happening sooner than he had hoped. He had wanted to enjoy his engagement to Elizabeth without the pressure of family expectations, but now he was forced to introduce her to everyone and his uncle would not make things easy. Of course, it did not matter ultimately what his uncle might do. Darcy was steadfast in his intentions and his uncle could not prevent him from marrying, but in many ways, Darcy looked up to Lord Matlock as a father. He often consulted with him on matters regarding the estate and he trusted his judgement as well as feeling strong ties of affection for him. He would hate to lose all that, especially knowing that as head of the Fitzwilliam family, his uncle could influence how other members of the family would react to Elizabeth.
Darcy took out a paper and penned a response. Time had run out for him. He had to step out of the fairy tale and into the harsh light of day.
Two days later, as they stood at the bottom of the steps to the Matlock’s elegant townhouse, Darcy slipped his fingers between Elizabeth’s and gave her hand a quick squeeze.
“I am certain you will be a success,” he murmured. “Just be true to yourself and my uncle will love you as I do.”
“I hope he will not love me as you do,” said Elizabeth, with a hint of mischief. “I have had enough difficulty determining your feelings. I hope I never have to deal with anyone else’s.”
Darcy laughed. “You are such a minx,” he said, softly, his eyes wandering over her face and settling on her lips. “If it were not for the footman holding the carriage door open, I would plant a kiss on those tempting lips of yours right now.”
“How very fortunate, then, that there is something to restrain you, Mr. Darcy,” she replied, smiling, “or your uncle would witness a rather shocking scene.”
She nodded in the direction of the grand door which had been flung open as a tall man clad in scarlet livery stepped out.
Darcy shuddered. “Heaven forbid. He is already more than willing to believe the worst of you.”
Elizabeth shrugged. “Then we have nothing to lose,” she said, beginning to ascend the steps.
“I cannot believe you are so calm about this encounter with my uncle,” remarked Darcy admiringly. “I am far more anxious for you to make a good impression than you are.”
“I do not know your uncle as you do, so perhaps I am making too light of it. I promise you I shall take the matter more seriously once I am face to face with him.” She gently untangled her fingers. “Meanwhile, let us start with what is proper. The butler is watching us with a dour expression. We have already earned his disapproval. That is hardly a promising beginning.”
How typical of Elizabeth to take that into consideration, thought Darcy. “You need not concern yourself with the butler’s approval,” he said. Then, when Elizabeth laughed, he turned to look at her. “Ah, I see. You were joking.”
“Not entirely. I do believe winning over the servants is one of the best ways of winning over their masters, since the servants inevitably form an opinion and express it.”
“Nevertheless,” said Darcy, “the fact remains that my uncle is a great deal more powerful than a butler, and can sway the opinion of many – whether in your favor or against you,” said Darcy.
Lizzy halted before the last step and turned to him. “Do you mean to frighten me, Mr. Darcy?” she said, looking at him quizzingly. “I have already met Lady Catherine. If her brother is anything like her, then I have nothing to fear. I am not daunted by their arrogance. They can only intimidate me if I allow it, and I have no intention of doing so.”
Darcy felt a rush of pride warm him up inside. Elizabeth was so fearless, her spirit so free that he could almost believe her untouchable, but was it enough to overcome the prejudice she would inevitably encounter? What if they – the Earl and other members of their social ranks — set out to destroy their happiness? What if his uncle and aunt refused to accept her as part of the family? Would her wonderful confidence begin to decline?
He could not bear to think of that sparkling brightness fading in any way. He would do whatever was necessary to protect her.
They followed as the butler led the way, not upstairs to the parlor but to the library. So his uncle had decided that they would have to beard the lion in his den, then? It did not bode well. The heavy mahogany furniture was oppressive at the best of times. Unobtrusively, Darcy crossed his fingers behind his back.
In an unusual show of ill breeding, Lord Matlock did not rise as they entered. He remained behind his desk, fingers joined in a steeple, his sharp grey eyes fixed on Elizabeth.
“Good afternoon, uncle,” said Darcy. “Allow me to present…”
“Yes, yes,” said his uncle, waving his hand dismissively. “You may dispense with the introductions. I am aware that you have brought with you a certain Miss Elizabeth Bennet, daughter of Mr. George Bennet, of Longbourn Estate. You need not stand on ceremony. After all, if you plan to marry her, she is to be part of the family, is she not?”
There was nothing reassuring about his uncle’s statement. In fact, the manner in which he made his declaration made him sound almost savage. Darcy looked towards Elizabeth uneasily, seeking to reassure her but her gaze remained fixed on his uncle.
“So this is the young lady who has tempted you to defy family and tradition. Come closer, Miss Bennet. I cannot see you from this distance. I wish to determine what you look like.” He raised his quizzing glass and fixed an engorged eye on Elizabeth.
Elizabeth drew a little closer and stood still, waiting patiently while he inspected her. To Darcy’s astonishment, her lips twitched as his uncle looked her up and down.
“Could you turn around, please, Miss Bennet?” said Lord Matlock.
“I am not a piece of cattle at a village market to be prodded and probed to discover what price to settle on me,” said Elizabeth.
Darcy winced. He wanted to warn her that his uncle would not take kindly to open defiance but since she was not looking at him, he could not think of a way to do so beyond clearing his throat loudly. She did not indicate that she had heard him.
Meanwhile, Lord Matlock’s demeanor had turned frosty. Darcy knew that expression. It was the same one his uncle had had when he had beaten him with a stick on a single memorable occasion. Darcy had broken the window of an old chapel by throwing a ball through one of the saint’s halos in order to win a wager.
“No, you are certainly not,” said Lord Matlock in clipped tones. “In fact, the shoe is rather on the other foot, I would think. It is Darcy who is to be bought and sold and I would prefer not to sell him too cheap.”
Darcy had never seen his uncle quite so cold, quite so ruthless. In his imagination, he could suddenly see the ancestor they claimed was the original Fitzwilliam, the one who had been known as Aethelfrid the Fierce. Darcy had no objection to his uncle displaying some ancestral traits, but when it came to using them against Lizzy then that was another matter entirely.
“Now look here,” said Darcy, a powerful instinct surfacing to protect the woman he loved from this ruthless attacker. “I will not allow you to speak to Miss Bennet in this manner.”
“I shall speak to her as I please,” said his uncle. “She is an upstart and a fortune hunter and I will not allow her to take advantage of a moment of weakness on your part.”
“You call love a moment of weakness, your lordship?” said Lizzy, her fine eyes flaring. “When it is one of the noblest emotions human beings are capable of? Poets have sung its glories from the earliest times—”
“I care nothing for poets,” said Lord Matlock. “I deal with reality. The reality is, Darcy has little to gain while you have a great deal to gain from this marriage.”
“I beg your pardon, Uncle,” said Darcy, horrified at his uncle’s bluntness. If he had known Lord Matlock show so little civility, he would never have brought Elizabeth to meet him. “I believe I am the best judge of what I have to gain from this marriage.”
“Your opinion is biased and is therefore beside the point,” said Lord Matock. “I wish to hear from this young lady what she thinks she has to bring to this marriage.”
Darcy’s agitation was growing so great he began to consider whether to plant his uncle a facer. He had never struck out in anger in since his early childhood when he did not know any better. His gentleman’s code would not permit it. His uncle, however, had well and truly overstepped his limits. How dare he sit there so calmly and show Elizabeth so little of the respect she was due?
Elizabeth raised her chin and looked Lord Matlock straight in the eye. “Surely a person’s worth is not measured only by how much land they own or how powerful a position they occupy. If that were the case, then the world’s worst tyrants would be the most valuable people on earth, and I cannot accept that bleak view of humanity.” Her gaze flicked towards Darcy then back again to his uncle. “I have a great deal to offer your nephew. I offer him companionship, affection, friendship and yes – the love that you seem to hold in so much contempt. I offer him something more valuable even than all these. I offer him happiness. I know I will do everything I can to ensure that he will be happy with me and that he will never regret his choice.”
Darcy would have liked to protest that he would be pleased to be rid of that seat in Parliament. It meant nothing more than sitting through long, tedious sessions in which self-important men sought the attention of their peers. However, he had the feeling that at this moment whatever he said was irrelevant, that his uncle’s attention was entirely centered on Elizabeth. As long as she was holding her own, he would not interfere, but the moment his uncle pressed too hard, Darcy would make it abundantly clear that if he had to choose between Elizabeth and his family, he would choose Elizabeth.
“Any friends who abandon him for marrying someone they do not approve of are not worthy of the name,” said Elizabeth. “However, I am not so foolish as to think that we could find happiness if we lived in isolation. I mean to support my husband in his endeavors, not to destroy his ambitions. I will do everything within my power to mend any quarrels our marriage has caused.”
She paused and took a step forward. “Which is why I will reach out to you, Lord Matlock, in the hopes that you will give Mr. Darcy your blessing. I know you have been like father to him in many ways, and, while he does not require your approval, it will bring him great happiness to have it.” She advanced to the desk and held out her hand. “Will you do it, Lord Matlock?”
Darcy held his breath. Elizabeth was smiling – smiling – as if the encounter was nothing more than a routine afternoon call. Far from being cowed by his uncle, she was actually enjoying the situation.
For a long moment, Darcy thought Lord Matlock was going to snub her. Then suddenly, his uncle rose to his feet and with a swift movement, he took her hand and bowed over it.
“Miss Bennet, I have a strange feeling that if I do not, you will hound me until I agree. You certainly do not lack spirit.”
Darcy let out the breath he did not realize he had been holding.
As if he had heard it, his uncle turned to address him. “I cannot pretend not to have misgivings, but I will give you my blessing. I can see that your young lady is quite capable of managing a grand estate and all that is required.”
He paused and seemed for a moment lost in thought. “In fact, she reminds me of an incorrigible aunt of mine, Lady Amelia. Same fiery manner. Same brown eyes. She was quite exhausting to deal with.”
Lord Matlock sank back into his chair and waved them away.
“Now go, before I change my mind. I shall have to think of a way of explaining my capitulation to Lady Matlock, who will be none too pleased…”