Here we are with almost the final visit to A Love Most Ardent.
I have really enjoyed sharing the last several chapter with all my blog friends and hope that when we do reach the Epilogue, you will continue to join me as I share my thoughts, books, giveaways and posts.
When Darcy returned to Netherfield, the young stable lad lay asleep in the corner of the tack room, so, he unsaddled his horse and brushed Nelson down himself. Having bedded down his favourite steed for the night, Darcy made his way back to the house and his room.
He was not surprised to find Fletcher had waited up for him.
“Good evening, sir. I have taken the liberty of procuring a decanter of brandy for you. Even summer excursions in the moonlight can cause one to catch a chill,” Fletcher said without any hint of sarcasm.
“Thank you, Fletcher. I can tend to myself now.”
“Of course, sir,” Fletcher replied, but he remained in the room, tidying up this and moving that. From previous experience, Fletcher knew his master needed to unburden himself, and rightly or wrongly, he looked on Mr Darcy as the son he might have had.
As Fletcher anticipated, Mr Darcy soon began to relay the details of his disastrous evening.
“I’ve made a mess of things, Fletcher, and now there is a real risk that Mr Bennet will withdraw his consent and forbid me to marry his daughter.”
“Yes, sir. There is always the risk of that.” Fletcher said without emotion. “However, if the young lady returns your affections, as you now believe, I understand she will be of age in a few months’ time and will no longer require her father’s permission to marry.”
Fletcher was right, Elizabeth would be one and twenty in four months’ time. Once she had reached her majority, she would no longer need her father’s consent, but Darcy knew Elizabeth would not get married without her father’s blessing.
“Then, sir, as I see it, you have two options,” Fletcher said, and then proceeded to give his opinion whether Darcy wanted to hear it or not. “You could profess how sincerely sorry you are for your momentary lack of control, explaining that for one mad minute, you let your heart rule your head, thus throwing yourself on the father’s mercy, or,”
“Or…” Darcy waited.
“Or you and the young lady could elope. It seems to be quite the fashion. Good night, sir.” And with his parting words still ringing in Darcy’s ears, Fletcher left the room.
“Elope!” Darcy scoffed, pouring himself a long draught of brandy. He had already been involved in two elopements in the past month, and that was quite sufficient for one lifetime!
Darcy sipped the amber liquid, pausing to give Fletcher’s remark more thought. Maybe, just maybe, it was an option.
Though Darcy had wanted to speak to Elizabeth before he saw her father, he did not look for her. If Mr Bennet was to revoke his permission for them to marry, it was best he did not see Elizabeth at present. Though that did not mean he would give up. Defiantly, Darcy thought Elizabeth would be his wife.
Standing before the study door, Darcy almost jumped when Mr Bennet barked, ‘come in’ in answer to Darcy’s knock.
Opening the door, he quickly surveyed the room and spied Mr Bennet standing by the window which looked out over the front of the house. His hands were clasped behind his back, and his shoulders were squared and firm. His overall appearance screamed of his anger and disdain towards Darcy.
This must have been from where he saw them last night.
“Sit if you will,” Mr Bennet said as he turned to face his caller.
“I prefer to stand, thank you, sir,” Darcy replied, though he did rest his hands on the back of the offered chair. He could not strike his usual pose for fear of offending Mr Bennet. It had been mentioned to him only recently that his regular stance gave him the appearance of being bored or of having an air of supercilious detachment for whomever he was conversing with.
“You can be at no loss as to why I asked you here, Darcy,” said Mr Bennet, dispensing with his usual form of formal address when conversing with Mr Darcy.
“I am not, sir.”
“Then you must also know that I am not to be trifled with. I demand an explanation and do not try to fob me off with lies and concealment.”
It had been many years since Darcy had been spoken to in such a manner. His name, wealth, reputation, and standing in society meant that he was usually treated with respect and admiration. Some might even treat him with a form of reverence; Mr Collins being a prime example.
Shifting his weight from one foot to the other, Darcy repeated the speech he had devised and rehearsed all last night and again this morning.
“Sir, I am entirely to blame for the shameful breach of propriety in the early hours of this morning. Miss Elizabeth is in no way responsible. I wrote her a short note but lacked the courage to give it to her in person. That was why I was journeyed to Longbourn at such a time. Unfortunately, Miss Elizabeth was still awake and observed me as I checked that the house was in darkness. I only intended to deliver the missive and then leave, but circumstances and emotions overtook us.”
“Overtook you!” exclaimed Mr Bennet. “You are not some greenhorn in short trousers, sir!” Mr Bennet said forcefully before resting his hands on his desk to reprimand Darcy further, “You, sir,” he hissed, “are a man of the world, a world that my Lizzy has no experience of. Do not suppose me ignorant of the wants and desires of a man in his prime.”
His words were harsh and deserved.
In response to Mr Bennet’s accusation Darcy’s pride resurfaced.
At no time was his intention to despoil Elizabeth.
“You accuse me unjustly, sir. I was in perfect control of my loins the entire time. It was merely a kiss, sir, nothing more.”
At Darcy’s reply, Mr Bennet walked around the desk that divided them and stood before him.
“I suspect my arrival was the reason for that, sir, not your self-control!”
Darcy was affronted to think Mr Bennet imagined him unable to control himself. As lovely as Elizabeth was, and as much as he wanted to make love to her, he had no intention of doing so until they were in their marital bed. Only Fletcher’s advice saw him tone down his reply.
“I can only offer you, and Miss Elizabeth my sincere apologies, sir and assure you, most fervently, that it will never happen again.”
Mr Bennet walked back to the window and stared out at the entrance to his property. He had scarcely been able to believe his eyes as he watched the events of last night unfold.
When Lizzy had left him the previous evening, and the house was finally silent, he stayed in his study to enjoy a quiet drink in peace; something that was often in short supply in this house of females. Sitting in his favourite armchair beside the empty hearth, he had picked up a book and began to read. A full stomach coupled with a glass or two of alcohol soon saw him fall asleep.
At first, he wasn’t sure what had roused him from his slumber, but he was soon to find out. Peering out of his study door, he detected a breeze and an unknown source of light dancing along the corridor, illuminating the floor and walls. Setting out to discover what was afoot, he made his way along the hallway, where he came upon the open front door. He realised it must have been the unbolting of the front door that woke him. Cautiously, he stepped outside to investigate. It was then that he witnessed Elizabeth and Darcy amidst a clandestine rendezvous.
“Mr Bennet, sir?” Darcy said, concerned by the older man’s silence.
“I accept your apology, Mr Darcy, but must ask that you do not speak to Elizabeth until you hear from me.” Mr Bennet’s tone was flat yet commanding.
“But, sir, my apology…” Darcy protested.
“My mind is made up. I will send word to you at Netherfield of my decision. Good day, sir.”
Mr Bennet’s words and dismissal pained Darcy more than anything he could remember, overtaking even the death of his parents. Mr Bennet clearly did not believe him, bringing into doubt his honesty, integrity, and honour. How was he to convince Elizabeth’s father when his opinion of him was so low?
Darcy straightened, turned, and then opened the door. Waiting on the other side, was Elizabeth, her face etched with grief and her eyes damp from crying.
She took a single step forward, fraught at the prospect that he would leave without speaking to her, only for her belief to be true.
Darcy kept his arms rigid by his side as he struggled with his instinct to pull her close and offer her comfort. He would give Mr Bennet no further reason to doubt or distrust him. He pursed his lips together into a thin line, turned, and strode out the front door with not even a backwards glance.
Mr Bennet watched until the angry young man had left Longbourn atop his huge black stallion. Only then did he allow his shoulders to slump. Thomas Bennet felt his age descend upon him like a lead collar. Wearily, he moved from the window and once more sat in his well-worn armchair. He had thought long and hard about the repercussions he could inflict upon Mr Darcy, but it was not in his nature to be a vindictive man. Of course, they must marry, there was no question of it. If he withdrew his consent, they would merely wait the few months until Elizabeth came of age. But he would be estranged from his Lizzy, and that was one step he was not willing to take. If only Darcy could be like Bingley. Now there was a congenial man, a man he could bear with equanimity.
Elizabeth had waited outside her father’s study for almost an hour before finally giving up and returning to her room. He had not sent her, he did not want to see her, and she had neither the stamina nor the inclination to speak to her sisters or mother on the subject, especially not her mother.
Only Jane tried to seek her out, but even she was turned away.
Elizabeth had spent her day wishing and hoping, and regretting and crying, but as evening came, nothing had changed.
The house became silent as its occupants retired for another evening, and still, no-one had seen Elizabeth all day.
Jane had never known her sister to be so downhearted that she remained in her room for an entire day. It pained her to know that Elizabeth was for some reason, so unhappy. All efforts to speak to her had been met with either silence or crying. Unable to settle herself until she had spoken with her sister, Jane crept along the hallway and tapped gently on her door.
“Lizzy, may I come in?” Jane waited some minutes for a reply, but all she heard was the creaking of the house and the occasional hoot of an owl.
Jane turned the door handle and looked in.
Elizabeth was curled up in the window seat, with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. She was still in her day dress, and where some of the pins had fallen out her hair, it was a terrible mess. Her slippers and stockings had been removed and lay discarded in a heap on the floor.
Slowly, Jane approached Elizabeth, careful not to startle her, until eventually she had made it across the room and now stood at Elizabeth’s side.
“Lizzy, I have come to help you get ready for bed,” Jane said softly.
She carefully began to remove the remaining pins from Lizzy’s hair, one at a time. As she tugged the final one out, Elizabeth’s hair cascaded down, covering her shoulders and tumbling down her back.
Jane picked up the hairbrush and gently teased a few strands of hair through the bristles of the brush.
Only now, with the gentle tugging on her scalp, did Elizabeth realise she was no longer alone.
“Jane? How long have you been here?” she asked, turning away from the window. “It’s dark already. What time is it?”
“It’s after eleven, Lizzy. You have been in your room the entire day.”
“Yes,” Elizabeth replied with little emotion.
Jane squeezed herself onto the end of the window seat and spoke with candour.
“What happened last night, Lizzy? I thought I heard you speaking to father, and now you have not ventured out all day, and Father has not moved from his study since breakfast. He has had no dinner or supper, not even a cup of tea.”
Lizzy was grateful that her hair was unpinned. She had an abominable headache from fretting and crying all day. She was exhausted, her eyes were sore, and she just wanted to go to sleep and not wake up until her father had made his decision.
Elizabeth took hold of both her hands in her own, and said, “Oh, Jane, I did the most foolish thing. I’ve ruined everything.”
“Why, Lizzy? What did you do?”
Elizabeth narrated the entire tale to her sister, leaving nothing out.
At first, Jane had been shocked. Meeting a man that was not yet your husband in the dead of night was unthinkable, but to do so in your night clothes was the most shocking thing she had ever heard. Perhaps she would have been less shocked if it had been Lydia, as she considered her something of a wild child. Though Lydia no longer surprised anyone, anymore. But it wasn’t Lydia, it was Elizabeth, and her actions seemed so out of character.
As the minutes ticked by and still Jane said nothing, Elizabeth could bear the suspense no longer.
“You are disappointed in me Jane, do not deny it, it is written on your face.”
“No…well, yes, but it is not an unalterable situation, not yet.”
“I fear it is Jane. Papa has made his opinion of both Mr Darcy and me quite clear. I apologised, Mr Darcy apologised, but father was resolute. We are not to see each other until he has made his final decision.”
“But he had not withdrawn his consent?”
“No, but I am convinced it is only a matter of time…”
“Time?” Jane repeated, more to herself than to Elizabeth. “It’s all a matter of time!” Jane jumped off the bed and headed for the door
“Lizzy, would you mind if I spoke of this to Papa?”
“No, but what is it that you…” Jane had gone, and Elizabeth’s words trailed away as she now sat alone.
Elizabeth could not help thinking Jane’s effort would be in vain. Father was in no mood to listen to reason, or explanations.
Jane made her way downstairs, and though the hour was late, she was not surprised to see a shaft of light coming from under the study door. She gave it a gentle tap and then slipped inside.
“Papa, may I speak with you?”
p.s. Only one more chapter and the epilogue to go. But never fear, I have already started on Mr Darcy and Elizabeth’s next adventure. If you have any ideas or want a character or storyline considered, leave me a comment.
Also, please spread the word about my website. Maybe you know a friend or family member who would enjoy a little light entertainment.
Till next time,