Fitzwilliam Darcy sat on the sofa in his bedchamber at Netherfield staring unseeingly at the dying fire. It was well past midnight, and he was clad in his dressing-gown. The candles had burnt out, but sleep continued to elude him. He had a problem to work out, and he knew that sleep would be impossible until he arrived at a solution.
Elizabeth Bennet was quite simply the most delightful woman he had ever known, and the most beautiful. His mind ranged back over their encounters to date. He was embarrassed by his unguarded assertions at the country assembly. Tolerable . . . not handsome enough to tempt me . . . ladies passed over by other partners. How could he have said such things in any lady’s hearing? His face warmed and reddened as he thought back over his ungentlemanly behavior. But she had managed a deft return of his serve when they next met at Lucas Lodge, utterly refusing to dance with him even though it meant she had sat out the rest of the evening chatting to her friend Miss Lucas. That had stung, and stung badly. He was unaccustomed to being turned down by ladies, especially young country girls of no particular distinction. His only consolation for that disastrous evening was that he had been able to silence Caroline Bingley momentarily with his comment on Miss Elizabeth’s “fine eyes.”
Now she was in the house, under the same roof, and would likely be here for several more days. His danger was great, and he knew it. She had arrived just at breakfast-time two days before, having walked three miles to visit with her sister, who had been taken with a heavy cold while visiting Netherfield. She appeared suddenly, on foot, startling him out of his early-morning reverie. The sight of her left a vivid impression. He had not noticed the muddy petticoats, but he had observed the neatly turned ankles in the serviceable half-boots. His only conscious thought was that the rest of her legs must be superb. Startled, he quickly elevated his gaze to her face, where he encountered sparkling brown eyes, a complexion like cream and roses, and enticing little curls and tendrils of hair escaping from her neat bonnet. He recovered himself quickly and offered to show her into the house.
The visit was not going smoothly for him. The first evening, she surprised him by blundering into the billiard-room, where he had set up a game for himself. He bowed with grave courtesy, but she turned on her heel and left without a word of acknowledgment. Dinner was awkward. After Miss Elizabeth preferred and accepted a plain dish over an elegant ragout, the Hursts and Caroline Bingley largely excluded her from their conversation. Only the good-natured Bingley, smitten with her elder sister, showed her every kindness and attention. Darcy remained polite yet distant. When she returned to the drawing-room after tending to her sister, her conversation sparkled. Her ready wit far outstripped the conversational powers of Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley, and he found himself on the receiving end of one or two of her most well-executed sallies. He was left in no doubt of the fact that she had been formed for good humor and that her intelligence far outshone that of the majority of his other acquaintances regardless of their sex. The combination of intelligence and accomplishments with her lovely face and exquisite figure and her pleasing manners had kept his senses on edge the entire evening.
He found no respite in sleep, and the subject of his dreams could only cause him disquiet and embarrassment. She was a nobody, the product of a family and an upbringing that could only elicit strong disapprobation on the part of his own family and friends. Nevertheless, visions of her haunted him all night, and he awoke feeling bereft and disquieted. Larkin prepared a bath for him, but he had few words for his faithful valet as he stepped into it. Once he had finished and put on his dressing-gown, he stepped over to the window. It was still early morning, and he saw Elizabeth immediately. She was playing with one of the deerhounds, throwing a stick for the massive creature and engaging it in a tug-of war. She smiled and laughed as she caressed the dog’s silken ears, showing no fear at all. The sun shone through her light muslin gown, clearly delineating her beautiful form, and especially the trim legs, he had imagined the day before and then dreamt of all night. The slim ankles led to firm thighs, rounded hips, a slender waist, and a delectable bosom. How could such a small woman be blessed with such an elegant figure? He imagined himself being welcomed between those thighs, pillowed on one of those lovely breasts. She did not see him, and when she and the dog tired of their game, she picked up her skirts and ran gracefully down the hill. Darcy’s mouth went dry, and he pulled his dressing-gown more closely around him, dismissing Larkin and engaging to dress himself. It was some time before he judged himself fit to be seen.
By the time he could bring himself to go to breakfast, Mrs. Bennet and her two youngest daughters had arrived to visit the elder Miss Bennet. Her mother judged her to be too ill to be moved, and the apothecary concurred in this. At the end of an exceedingly trying visit, it had been arranged that Miss Bennet and her sister would stay at Netherfield for a few more days. By now, Darcy felt his danger from Elizabeth Bennet to be severe, and he spent the day closeted in the library, pleading urgent business correspondence.
Now it was the dead of night, and rather than settle into the same troubling dreams, he had seated himself before the fire to brood. Earlier in the evening, she had managed to outshine her rival, Caroline Bingley, in every respect from the chaste simplicity of her muslin gown to the intricate complexities of her mind. She outshone every woman he had ever encountered. He felt he must have her. He knew he had lost his heart to her.
He imagined her as his bride and the mistress of Pemberley. He would be at her side for her first view of their home, welcoming her with all his heart. He hoped she would love it as he did. He imagined making love to her in his wide bed, or watching her delight as she discovered the vast family library. He imagined her laughing at him across the breakfast-table. He could imagine her enjoying the woodlands and lakes that made up so much of the park, coming in with rosy cheeks and sparkling eyes after a long walk. He would walk with her. He knew he would seek her out at day’s end so that he could share the successes and troubles of his work. She would be there with her wise, thoughtful counsel and her loving acceptance. God willing, they would set up the nursery, and Pemberley would be enlivened by children—sons he could guide and foster, daughters he could dote on and protect.
He was disturbed by the sound of a log falling in the grate and rose briefly to stir up the fire. The room was growing cold, but he did not wish to add another log. The dimness suited him.
He shook off his reverie of home, and his thoughts turned to London. He could find her a charming town house at some suitable distance from Darcy House. He pictured setting it up, designing each little detail to delight her eyes and her mind. Of course, there would be a library, and they would set that up together and shop for any books she desired. Upstairs, he would build them a delightful retreat—a silken bedchamber, a dressing-room large enough to suit all of the clothes he would buy her, and a cozy sitting-room. Perhaps he would even add a dressing-room for himself. He imagined her to be a passionate woman beneath the maidenly exterior, and they would spend hours exploring the delights of the bedchamber. She would grace his arm at the theatre, at lectures and musical performances—he would proudly escort her anywhere and brave whatever the gossips came up with. He would make her such a grand settlement that she would never want to leave him, and any children would be educated and provided for. Of course, she could never come to Darcy House, never meet Georgiana, never come to Pemberley. He would set her up in Lambton when he needed to attend to the estate.
He stood. This was the logical solution. He would offer her a carte blanche, a suitable arrangement so generous that she would be unable to refuse it, and so comprehensive that she would always want to stay. There was no disgrace to a man’s taking a mistress. His family would be satisfied—until they learned that he would never marry. He needed to sleep so that he could write to his solicitors on the morrow with all the details. Darcy left his bedroom with his mind made up and walked downstairs to the library. A book and a good brandy would set him to rights in no time. Perhaps he would begin working on the letters tonight. Obtaining her consent to such an arrangement would be a formidable task, and the sooner he got on with it the better.
She lay, fully dressed, on the recamier sofa next to the library fireplace. A thimbleful of brandy sat on the table next to her, and a book lay open face down beside her. He squinted to read the title: Wordsworth. He had always known she appreciated the beauties of Nature just as he did. He stood entranced. Her creamy skin was gilded by the light from the dying fire, and her dark hair had escaped from its pins and lay disheveled around her face. He could count every eyelash on her cheeks. Her breathing was soft and regular, her lips slightly parted. Most engagingly of all, her arm clutched one of the silken cushions that decorated the couch. She held it close to her, as a child might hold a rag doll, and one rounded cheek was pillowed upon it.
Darcy could not move. He could not breathe. He thought to leave her there, to turn and leave the room as quietly as he could so as not to disturb her. Even in her sleep, he could discern the dark smudges beneath her eyes. She was worn out by caring for her sister. The room was chilly. He saw that her shawl lay on the floor beside the sofa, and he picked it up. Hardly daring to breathe, he reached for it and spread it out over her as best he could. She sighed in her sleep and turned a little, but she did not awaken.
Allowing himself one last look, he turned and left the room. As he did so, a line or two from some ancient Greek play came to his mind unbidden: And shall not loveliness be loved forever? He was too tired to sort out which play.
The next morning, he was up early, and when Elizabeth Bennet left the house for her walk, he approached her. “May I accompany you, Miss Bennet?”
She nodded, and they strolled along in a silence that felt companionable to both. When they arrived at a copse of trees just out of sight of the house, he stopped. “Miss Bennet,” he began. “In vain have I struggled. It will not do. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you. The sheer elegance of your mind, your incomparable beauty, and your indomitable spirit have combined to convince me that I cannot be happy unless I spend the rest of my life with you. My heart is yours, Miss Bennet. Will you put an end to my suffering and do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
It took him several long moments before he could look at her, and when he finally did, she was smiling. “Yes,” said Miss Elizabeth Bennet. “With all my heart.”