The loud yelling woke George Darcy from his deep sleep. Blinking open his eyes, he saw smoke blackening the whole room. He jumped up from the bed and dashed to the door, but the thick cloud hindered his progress, especially as he was unfamiliar with the layout of the inn.
“Anne! Fitzwilliam!” he called out desperately as he stumbled around, trying to find the door to the corridor. His wife had not been feeling well and she had retired to a separate chamber. Their son had wanted to keep her company.
When he finally pushed open the door and came to the landing, a large piece of burning wood fell from the ceiling and hit him on the right shoulder, scorching his arm. Gasping in pain, he leaned heavily on the railing.
“Anne! Fitzwilliam!” Believing his wife and young son to be still trapped in their room, he continued calling out for them as he walked on. The smoke was less overpowering here. As he turned left at the corridor, a man of medium height emerged from George Darcy’s right and pulled at his arms.
“Sir you cannot go that way!” The man had an educated voice, a gentleman perhaps. “The fire started on the left side of the building and it seems to be burning like Hades itself.”
Mr. Darcy coughed heavily as he tried to pull away from the other man. Suddenly the sound of crying stopped his movement. The country gentleman was carrying a baby, half tucked inside his coat.
“Shh, my dear, all will be well!” The man rocked the baby quickly as he continued to pull Mr. Darcy away.
“No, I must go that way,” Mr. Darcy said. “My wife and son are there.”
“You are injured. They may have already escaped. We should look outside first.” The gentleman was now using his shoulder to prevent George Darcy from passing through. He had clearly not been injured by the smoke or the fire.
“Let me go! I have to find Anne and Fitzwilliam!” Mr. Darcy cried out angrily.
“Even if you find them, you cannot carry them out. You are hurt.” The gentleman became equally angry at George’s stubbornness. With a shake of his head, he thrust the baby into Darcy’s hands. “Take my daughter out to safety! I shall find your wife and son for you.” Then he pushed Darcy towards the direction of the stairs.
“No!” George Darcy did not want the stranger hurt for his family’s sake. But as the figure of the country gentleman dashed into the left side of the hallway, amidst heavy smoke, Darcy could do nothing but carry the baby girl down the stairs.
When he finally came out of the Bromley Inn and drew in a breath of fresh air, he was led by some servants to lie on the grass. He surveyed the crowd and could not see his wife or son anywhere. He wanted to raise himself to dash back into the inn again but his body was not under his control because the pain rendered him helpless. He could barely move.
As grim emotion gripped his heart, fearing for his wife and young son, the baby in his arms was strangely quiet. The bright moonlight permitted George Darcy to look at her more clearly. She was dressed in baby cloth of a modest quality, not expensive or fine but clean and neat. She had big expressive eyes and a few brown curls. Her silence seemed to bring him some calm.
His arm hurt like the devil and the smoke he had inhaled was making his head spin. Through the haze, his eyes turned to stare at the front of the inn. He prayed for the safe return of his family.
Suddenly the baby stretched her arms and touched his face. He turned to look at her again. She gave him a bright smile and George Darcy’s heart seemed to constrict. He made a heartfelt wish upon seeing the babe’s encouraging smile and hoped both Anne and Fitzwilliam would be safe.
“I am willing to part with the most important thing in my life for a miracle – that my family will be rescued!” he swore. He closed his eyes tightly and prayed. “A newborn signifies happiness. I pledge the future of the Darcy line to you, dear one. May you bring us forever joy.”
He opened his eyes and looked at the baby girl. She had stretched out her hands from the blanket and seemed to be clapping her hands.
Darcy put his own hand into the pocket of his waistcoat and drew out a velvet box he had safely kept hidden. In it was a garnet cross with ruby red gemstones on an exquisite silver necklace. He had had it made by an exclusive jeweller for his wife Anne’s twenty-eighth birthday and had had the words “Forever as One” inscribed on the back face. He put the necklace inside the pocket of the baby’s dress. “You are too young to wear it yet but I pray it brings us all good fortune, precious baby girl. Bring back Anne and Fitzwilliam to me.”
He shut his eyes and prayed again. He wished he could remember the baby’s name. But everything was too painful for him at the moment.
“Agha! Agha!” The cheerful sound of the baby roused George Darcy from the fog of his pain. He turned back to look at the inn.
He heard someone calling loudly and through his smoke-strained eyes he saw the country gentleman emerging from the inn. In his arms was a woman. A young lad had his hand holding onto the man’s coat tail as he ran along beside him.
The gentleman peered through the crowd and finally saw Darcy and the baby.
As the baby’s father drew closer, George saw with a quickening heart that he was carrying Anne and the lad holding his waist was Fitzwilliam.
“They are safe!” George Darcy breathed out a sigh of relief and kissed the cheek of the baby girl. “Thank you! You are our saviour!” Then his words caught in his throat as the pain finally took hold of him and he fell into blackness.
It was two days before George Darcy regained consciousness. Mrs. Darcy was unconscious for several hours but their loyal servants were able to settle them in another inn and call their doctor from London.
When he inquired about the identity of the country gentleman and the baby girl, none of the servants was able to answer his questions. If Fitzwilliam had not said that the father and his baby daughter had left with a “God be with you” amidst the flurry of activity to bring the injured to another inn, the Master of Pemberley would have thought his family’s saviours were mere apparitions.
Five years after the death of his father, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy was astonished to meet the woman wearing the garnet cross.
In a letter left to him by his father, Fitzwilliam was told of the fire at Bromley Inn when he was eight years old, of which he had no memory. His father wished for him to find this gentleman and his daughter, whom George Darcy had been unable to locate, and offer to take her for a wife.
“A promise to the Lord cannot be rescinded, son! I had so many more years with your mother and with you, all thanks to this gentleman and his precious baby girl.”
Fitzwilliam was resentful of this request. He did not remember his rescuer, let alone the baby girl.
Where will I find this gentleman and his daughter? How long should I search for them before I give up? What if I meet another woman I love instead? Am I to give up my future for my father’s moment of…insanity? Weakness?
He had engaged the services of a man earlier who professed to have once plied his trade as a Bow Street runner to find the baby girl and her father. But after a year without success, he abandoned the search. “May the Lord help me plan my future as He sees fit.”
It was an absolute shock to Mr. Darcy, at the age of eight and twenty, to find Miss Caroline Bingley wearing this garnet cross. He had known Charles Bingley since their days together at Cambridge. His elder sister was a lady who always treated people condescendingly and scornfully, especially servants and those from lower circles. She had set her cap at Darcy and was relentless in her pursuit of him whenever they were in company together.
Darcy would never have considered her as a partner for life, if not for finding out that she was in possession of the garnet cross.
One morning in the summer, without notice, she came with Bingley to visit Darcy at Ashford Hall, his townhouse in London. It was then that he noticed the ruby garnet cross seated comfortably on her over-powdered chest. She said that it had been her most treasured possession since she had been a baby.
“Why is it a treasure? I have never seen you wearing it before,” Bingley said to his sister with a frown. Darcy was thankful that his friend was asking the question for him, because he could not shake the thought that he might be forever linked to her.
“Charles, you did not know because you were not yet born!” Caroline replied with a raised voice.
“The design looks quite unusual. So father gave it to you when you were a baby? It was a strange thing for a baby. I would have thought it suited a grown woman better,” Bingley said.
“It was a mysterious gift from an acquaintance of father.” Caroline looked at Darcy with a smile as she replied. “I have never worn it before because I only found it in father’s treasure chest a few days ago with a letter of explanation.”
“Was … was there an inscription on it?” Darcy finally managed to gather his wits to ask.
“It was so beautiful, why does it need an ins…” Caroline stopped in mid sentence. She fingered the pendant and then turned her eyes away from Darcy. “Oh, I had totally forgotten that I have another appointment with Miss Wolfring.”
When the Bingleys had departed in haste, Darcy was left in total confusion. He feared for his future happiness if Miss Bingley was truly to be his betrothed. But a promise was a promise. He would not fail his dearly departed father’s last wish.
But the way she had avoided answering his question about the inscription had made him suspicious. Perhaps Miss Bingley had somehow learned of the story behind the garnet cross and was trying to force his hand in marriage. His mind was in turmoil. He needed to go see his sister, Georgiana, to make sure that he would not act in haste and tie their future to this mean-spirited lady.
His luck was such that he arrived in Ramsgate in timely fashion to prevent his sister from falling into the hands of George Wickham, a childhood friend who had turned quite wild. Wickham was allowed to court Georgiana by the governess Mrs. Younge. Georgiana was persuaded that she was in love and had agreed to elope with the scoundrel. Fortunately, when Darcy talked to her about his own future in regards to the necklace, his sister then confessed to him the imminent elopement with Wickham.
After Darcy had sent away the rake and the irresponsible governess, and settled Georgiana back in Pemberley, he rethought his own future. He had to agree that perhaps Miss Bingley was truly that baby girl of long ago. She was the reason the Darcy family had been saved.
Therefore, he took up an invitation from Bingley, leaving Georgiana in Pemberley.
He went to stay at Bingley’s newly-rented estate in Hertfordshire and nursed the heartache of failing to protect his sister Georgiana from the previous summer’s embarrassment. He was seriously thinking of asking Miss Bingley for her hand. Perhaps she would know how to lift his sister out of her despondency.
But two days later, imagine his surprise when, on arriving at Meryton’s Assembly, he came face to face with a second woman who was also wearing the unique garnet cross. A Miss Elizabeth Bennet. How could there be another garnet cross of the same individual design? And it appeared so similar to the other one Miss Bingley was wearing. How could that have happened?
He wanted to talk to the young lady about it but her mother, Mrs. Bennet, had no sense of propriety. She looked at Bingley and himself with calculating eyes, trying to push her daughters to dance with them.
He turned to see that Miss Bingley was also taken aback. She was not wearing the necklace this night. In fact, she had not worn it since Darcy had arrived in Netherfield two days ago.
So who is to be my wife? Miss Bingley or Miss Elizabeth Bennet? Who is the woman my father swore my future to? Darcy stalked off and leaned on the farthest wall of the Assembly room. He was suddenly very angry again.
How can father connect me to either of them? Miss Bingley is mean, fawning and mercenary. And Miss Elizabeth – she is from such a family? The mother is loud and silly. The eldest daughter, Miss Jane Bennet, though very handsome, smiles too much. The other two or three daughters are running wild in the room, flirting with almost anyone. How can my connection with any of them help Georgiana through her trials? And this Elizabeth Bennet, she is hardly tolerable…with more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form. Her manners are not those of the fashionable world. At least Miss Bingley is more elegantly dressed. That cannot be much better. My future cannot possibly be linked to either of them. Perhaps I am right. Miss Bingley somehow has faked that necklace and someone else must have given Miss Bennet the garnet cross necklace. I must find out the truth, somehow!
Mr. Darcy strode decisively across the room to ask Miss Bingley for a dance. The young lady accepted with keen interest.
“Mr. Darcy.” She spoke with a smirk. “Have you seen such savage society before?”
“Why do you think them savage?”
“Come, come, sir! Do you not see the dresses of the women? They are horrible, at least three seasons old. A definite imitation of the sophistication of the ton but with poor workmanship.”
“I am no expert on women’s fashion. But I am fascinated by Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s.”
“Miss Eliza’s?” Did Miss Bingley’s voice really appear to tremble? “How so?”
“She wore a garnet cross very similar to the one you said was left by your father.”
She drew in a deep breath. “I see you are as astonished as I am.”
“So you have no idea how such a coincidence could occur?” His voice turned cold.
“I could not possibly know why.”
“If you do not mind my intrusion, could you share with me what your father said in his letter that accompanied this piece of jewellery?”
Miss Bingley hesitated for a few seconds before replying. “I do not understand your interest in the cross.”
“What about its back? Does it have anything of interest written upon it?” he persisted.
“I see, you are asking about…the inscription.” Miss Bingley’s eyes darted to another lady in the room.
“So there is an inscription?” Darcy asked the question curiously, in order to throw Caroline off balance.
She turned her gaze back to him. “Well, I have not worn it since that day in London. I shall have to examine it more closely later on.”
“You have brought it to Hertfordshire?”
“Indeed, I would not want to part with such a precious gift.”
“And yet, you are unsure of the design on the back.”
“I was more fascinated by the story behind it.”
“But you prefer not to share it with me?” Darcy continued.
“It was rather private.”
“Yes, I am sure,” he nodded and murmured in a low, threatening voice. “So private that you may have known just the half of it.”
Feeling the tremor in Miss Bingley’s hands, he was sure that she possessed a fake garnet cross. Angry at her deception, he spent the rest of the dance in cold silence.
When the dance ended, he took Caroline to Bingley and said intently in front of her, “Charles, could you introduce me to Miss Elizabeth Bennet? She seems…intelligent enough for me to become acquainted with her.”
Bingley laughed and shook his head. “Darcy, it is a dance, not a debate!” They left Miss Bingley alone, not before he saw her staring at Miss Eliza Bennet as if wishing her serious harm.
Miss Elizabeth was surprised by the introduction and the request for a dance. But she accepted gracefully.
Mr. Darcy observed the amazed looks on her mother’s face, and on those of the other people in the room.
Never good at conversation with a stranger, he was considering with great intent how to interrogate this lady about the cross.
“We must have some conversation, sir,” the lady said with a playful tone.
“Do you speak according to rule?”
“No, indeed. But would it not seem awkward to spend half an hour together without an exchange of a single word?” She arched her eyebrows. “I can talk about the dresses of the ladies. You can comment on the wine being served.”
“Do you presume to know my interest?”
“If you ask a question every time you honour me with your voice, I shall have to presume a great deal.”
How very impertinent this young lady is! Darcy thought. But he could not stop his lip from curling up to smile. At least she is not agreeing with everything he said. He wondered what she would say about the garnet cross. “I am interested in your necklace,” he said.
She cast a glance at the jewellery on her bosom. “Indeed? May I ask why?”
“It is a unique design.”
“Since I have not seen a great many pieces of jewellery, I cannot know if it is unique or not.”
“But what attracted you to buy it in the first place?”
“I did not buy it.”
She shook her head.
“I am intrigued now.” He looked at her intensely.
“You would know soon enough anyway. Mama likes to talk about it.”
He tilted his head to urge her on.
“It was left in my clothes when I was a baby.”
Darcy missed a step and trod on Miss Bennet’s toes. She cried out. He was so surprised by what she said that he was not aware of what had happened to his dance partner.
His mind was unprepared for this. He was hoping against hope that she had obtained the garnet cross through other means. He was praying that she would not be his betrothed. What shall I do? he thought. His mind was full of confused feelings and continued in an agitated silent manner until the dance ended.
When he brought Miss Elizabeth back to where her mother stood, he failed to give both ladies a polite bow. Mrs. Bennet blamed Elizabeth and for the rest of the evening lamented that her second daughter had upset the wealthy man.
Mr. Darcy spent the night in turmoil, arguing with himself about the morality of obeying his father’s wish or not. The next day, he and Bingley went out to meet some officers stationed in the town.
Darcy was in no humour to meet more new acquaintances. But to have spent the day with the ladies would have been even worse. On their return, they learned that Miss Jane Bennet had been invited to Netherfield and had fallen ill while riding on horseback during torrential rain. Miss Bingley had sent for the apothecary and dispatched a letter to inform her family.
On the morning of the second day, Miss Bingley greeted the gentlemen angrily as they were taking breakfast.
“In addition to their lack of decorum, this Bennet family is entirely witless,” she said.
“What? Did you not notice Miss Bennet’s mother at the Assembly? She was saying Mr. Darcy must be attracted to Miss Eliza’s form. How crude!”
Indeed! But she does have a pair of fine eyes, Darcy smiled. Her bottom certainly appeared to be quite shapely, too. Stop it, man! A gentleman must not think such vulgar things about a lady. Did you not at first think that she was not handsome enough to tempt you at the Assembly? And do not forget she has a horrible mother.
“Caroline, you appear even more crude for repeating such a remark.” Bingley protested.
“Mrs. Bennet said Mr. Darcy’s ten thousand a year would do very well for all her daughters when her husband dies, for their estate is entailed away. They have an uncle in trade, living in Cheapside, and another uncle, a Mr. Philips, in Meryton who is merely an attorney,” Caroline continued on her course of exposing the unsuitability of the Bennets’ lowly connections.
Am I to be burdened with a whole circle of connections decidedly below my own? Darcy frowned.
“You forget that our fortune comes from trade as well,” Bingley argued.
Caroline gave her brother an irritated look, then said, “Mr. Darcy, you are very silent. What do you think of Miss Eliza? Should we congratulate you on your good fortune soon, as you singled her out as a dance partner?”
“Thank you for your concern with my future happiness,” Darcy gazed at her. “You seem very interested in Mrs. Bennet’s conversation. Perhaps you find a friend in her.”
Bingley grinned. Caroline was trembling, perhaps with anger. Mrs. Hurst, desiring to help her sister, provided more detail concerning their eavesdropping on Mrs. Bennet at the Assembly and their interrogation of Jane Bennet before she became ill.
“Mrs. Bennet also boasted of Miss Eliza’s good fortune. She said her second daughter was given the exquisite garnet cross when she was a baby.”
Darcy turned to see Miss Bingley winking at her sister. Perhaps she was trying to stop Mrs. Hurst from revealing the information as to how Miss Eliza had come in to possession of the garnet cross.
“The garnet cross!” Bingley said. “I did not notice it at first when Miss Elizabeth was introduced to me. But when I danced with her, I noticed that it looked very similar to the one you have worn, Caroline. I did not ask her about it for do you not agree it would seem rude for a gentleman to enquire about a lady’s jewellery upon such short acquaintance?”
Mrs. Hurst looked at her sister with confusion. “You have a similar piece of jewellery? Why did I not know about it?”
“I do not tell you about all the jewels I have.” Caroline tightened her lips.
Ah, so she did not tell her sister of the treasure her father left her? “Mrs. Hurst, do tell us more concerning Mrs. Bennet’s story,” Darcy said.
“If you would excuse me,” Caroline said. “As I have a sick patient, I have a lot to do.” She rose to take her leave. “Louisa, can you come? I have some private matter to discuss with you.”
Mrs. Hurst was about to rise when her brother prevented her. “You go along first, Caroline. Louisa can join you in a few minutes, after she answers Darcy’s question.”
Caroline gave Bingley an annoyed look and seated herself once more. “I shall stay then.”
“Mrs. Hurst,” Darcy urged.
“Mrs. Bennet said they were staying in the Bromley Inn some twenty years ago. A fire broke out. Apparently her husband became separated from Miss Eliza for a few moments during the incident. When she returned home, she found this piece of expensive jewellery in Miss Eliza’s baby cloth.”
“I wager the Bennets have some unsavoury connection and they have embellished a stolen piece of jewel with a story,” Miss Bingley added sharply.
“Caroline!” Bingley chastised her.
“Is there an inscription on it?” Darcy asked, though he knew there was no disputing his father’s wish. The story was of a piece. But it seemed Mr. Bennet did not claim to be a hero. Darcy’s respect for his saviour increased.
“Did you know about this jewel?” Bingley asked him. “You asked Caroline if her garnet cross had an inscription as well. In fact,” he turned to his sister, “you failed to answer his question.”
Caroline was breathing with difficulty now. “Yes, there is an inscription.”
“On yours or the one that Miss Elizabeth possesses?” Darcy said.
Before Miss Bingley was able to furnish a reply, a caller was announced. “Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
Miss Bennet came into the room and smiled cautiously at the seated assembly.
She curtseyed. “I come to enquire after my sister.”
The gentlemen rose. Darcy took in her appearance. Did she really walk three miles alone to visit her sister? It is not proper. But her face is rosy pink and her eyes sparkle. She looks so lovely with the curls that escape her hairpins falling around her face.
Caroline seized the opportunity and whisked her sister and the intruding caller away from the gentlemen. Darcy did not have a chance to continue the question about the inscription.
Darcy completed his dinner preparations far too early. He learned that Bingley had invited Miss Elizabeth to stay with her sister. Miss Bingley had sent a servant to deliver a note to Longbourn and to fetch the guest’s trunk.
Earlier that day, the gentlemen had visited the patient. From the entrance to the sick room, Darcy could see that Miss Elizabeth was genuinely concerned for the wellbeing of her older sister. Before Bingley had made their presence known, she had been placing a cold compress on Miss Bennet’s forehead. She was wiping the patient’s neck and whispering tender words of encouragement to her sister.
Darcy’s heart swelled on seeing the scene. He could imagine Miss Elizabeth caring for Georgiana, nursing her from sickness and heartache. For the first time since learning of the history of the garnet cross, he felt at peace with his father’s pledge.
He decided to go to the billiard room for a game before dinner. On passing the corridor, he saw Miss Elizabeth outside the door of her guest room.
He was about to bow and greet her when a voice sounded from her room.
It was Miss Bingley.
Miss Elizabeth’s hand froze on the handle, seemingly unsure of what to do. A moment’s hesitation gave Darcy an idea. He put his hand on hers. They both gasped on contact. She looked at him with wide eyes. He then helped her open the door.
Miss Bingley was crouching on the floor, in front of a trunk. Darcy was distracted by the sight of stockings, stays, corsets and dresses thrown haphazardly out of the trunk. Glancing at Miss Elizabeth, he noticed a shade of pink spread from her cheeks, down her neck and to her chest.
“Why are you searching through my clothes?” Elizabeth raised her voice.
Darcy turned his attention back to Caroline. “Is it because you want to exchange your garnet cross with Miss Bennet’s?”
“What?” Elizabeth repeated in confusion. She did not see that Caroline was holding two garnet crosses in her hand.
Miss Bingley dropped one of them back into the disarray of clothes and closed the trunk immediately, with no regard to the garments thus caught by the lid. She stood up and dashed for the door.
“Not so hasty, Miss Bingley!” Darcy commanded loudly. He was not master of hundreds of servants and tenants for nothing.
Caroline stopped on the instant.
“What is the matter?” Bingley appeared at the entrance, looking at the three of them with confusion.
“I am sorry to upset you, Charles,” Darcy said. “Your sister has been going through Miss Bennet’s trunk for the garnet cross, in the hope of exchanging it.”
“I did no such thing!” Caroline finally found her voice and protested.
Bingley drew in a deep breath. “Show me what you have in your hand.”
“I take offence to your tone, Charles. Remember I am your elder sister.”
“But as the master of this house, he has every right to see off a thief,” Darcy added.
“I am no thief!” Caroline hid her hands behind her back. “This is my garnet cross.”
Elizabeth opened the trunk and found the necklace easily. “Why would Mother pack the garnet cross? I do not wear it except during special occasions.”
“Remember, Miss Bingley helped you send for the trunk.” Darcy folded his arms. “She could have easily persuaded your Mother that I am the special occasion.”
Miss Bennet’s face turned even redder. She gave him a cold stare.
Before Caroline could open her mouth to protest, Bingley asked the guest, “Did your jewel have an inscription?”
“Yes, on—” Elizabeth began to reply. “But this is not my garnet cross! There is no inscription on it.”
“Caroline, how could you go through Miss Bennet’s belongings and exchange your necklace for hers? What is the importance of this garnet cross?” Bingley said in a raised voice.
“Whoever is in possession of the treasure is Mr. Darcy’s intended!” Caroline said. “You cannot rescind your father’s words. I have this garnet cross. We are to be married.” She waved the jewel in front of Mr. Darcy.
Both Elizabeth and Bingley gasped. They looked at Miss Bingley’s frenzied gesture.
Darcy was extremely calm. Finally the secret was out. “How did you come across my father’s letter?”
“It is of no importance. I have the treasure. I shall be your wife and the next mistress of Pemberley.” Miss Bingley tilted her head knowingly.
“Then you apparently did not read the letter in full,” Darcy said. “Did you know why my father pledged my future to Miss Bennet?”
“I…I…” Caroline looked at Elizabeth. “My father and the late Mr. Darcy met in Bromley Inn and made the marriage contract there.”
“In what year?” Darcy asked.
“I…I…was a baby. It must have been 1785.”
“Miss Bingley, my father made the pledge in 1791, when Miss Bennet was a baby. You were six years old by then. His pledge did not only mention that whoever was in possession of the garnet cross would be my fiancée. There were circumstances you did not know. Please return the garnet cross to Miss Bennet,” Darcy commanded.
Anger rose in Caroline’s chest. She threw the necklace at Elizabeth, then lunged at her.
Darcy dashed to Elizabeth’s side, embraced her and took the brunt of Miss Bingley’s attack.
Bingley stood in a stupor for a second before restraining his sister. Amid her loud screams and abuses, the host hauled Caroline over his shoulder and carried her out of the room. “It is all your fault, trollop! Mr. Darcy was going to make an offer to me. I had the garnet cross made exactly like the drawing on the letter. I could have been the Mistress of Pemberley if not for you… you penniless country chit of a girl without suitable connection or fortune. I shall ....”
“Are you hurt?” Darcy tilted Elizabeth’s head up to examine her.
“I am well,” she replied and struggled from his embrace to retrieve the necklace on the floor.
“Is it damaged?” He frowned, not sure why she had shied away from his touch.
She smoothed her hands over the front and back of the garnet cross and shook her head.
“Good. My late Father would be happy that it is not broken.” He walked closer to the window and looked out at the darkness. Thinking of his father gave him strength to tie his future with this unknown lady. He turned around to begin. He gave Miss Bennet a brief account of what had happened at the Bromley Inn. “Now that you have heard the story behind it, I am sure you are ecstatic to know that we are betrothed.”
The lady was silent. But the high colour of her cheeks and her shortness of breath confirmed his estimation.
He felt the need to rein in her enthusiasm, setting the boundary of their marriage. “Frankly speaking, I was very resentful when I read my father’s letter after he passed away. I did not appreciate the fact that my future would be tied to an unknown woman. She might have been ugly or witless. What was Father thinking? When I saw the fake cross on Miss Bingley, I regretted the fact that she would be my intended. You probably can guess that she treats servants and people from lower circles exceedingly badly. And then when I saw the necklace around your neck, I was even angrier. Your mother and younger sisters behaved in a highly improper manner at the Assembly. Your coming here alone on foot was not looked upon with favour either. Nevertheless I could see that you were genuinely worried about your sister’s well-being. Your caring nature puts you in a good light. I am now at peace with my father’s momentary insanity. I would like to make an offer for your hand. But your family would need a lot of guidance on proper behaviour.”
After Darcy had completed his proposal he anticipated hearing Miss Bennet’s acceptance. Instead, as he impatiently waited for her answer, he observed that the lady’s countenance was surprisingly clouded with irritation.
“In normal circumstances such as this, even if the lady does not accept the offer, she should express her gratitude,” she said. “However, I cannot. I never desired your offer and you decidedly bestowed it most unwillingly. Therefore, I release you from your father’s pledge. Good day, sir!” She walked to the door and held it open for him to leave.
Darcy was astonished by her refusal. He drew in several deep breaths. Instead of walking to the door, he turned back to look out of the window. How could this have happened, Father?
A single cloud above the estate traversed the sky quickly. After a few moments of silence, he had himself under control and turned back to look at Elizabeth. Her eyes flashed with a burning flame. Why would she be so angry at such an eligible offer? Ire rose in his chest as well.
“Your father’s estate is entailed away. Have my father and I not bestowed the greatest fortune on you! May I ask why you reply with such lack of civility?”
“Am I uncivil?” Her voice rose. “What about you? Were you civil when you criticised my family and me, directly to my face?”
“A less honest gentleman would hide his true concerns and offer you flattery. But masquerade of any sort is abhorrent to me. I am not in love with you and I would not express admiration where there was none.” Darcy paced around the room.
“A true gentleman would do his duty with humility. You belittled your father’s gratitude to the Lord. You reproached my family’s behaviour without really knowing the circumstances behind it.”
“How can you expect me to rejoice in a connection so decidedly undesirable and beneath my own?”
“Sir, your arrogance, your conceit and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others know no bounds. Although I have only known you for a few days, I already feel sure to say that you are the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed upon to marry.”
“You have said quite enough, madam. I perfectly comprehend your feelings.” With that he bowed and walked out of her room with fury in his chest. The loud slamming of the door by the lady was one last insult.
The dinner at Netherfield and the breakfast the following morning were quiet affairs, with Miss Bingley, Miss Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy absent. It seemed an epidemic of headaches had descended on the house, with all three individuals pleading their absence because of their suffering.
Darcy took his horse out for a ride very early. He was still outraged by Miss Elizabeth’s uncivil and ungrateful refusal. Perhaps this is for the best. I am relieved of this obligation and can marry whomever I wish now.
Scanning the gentle slopes of Hertfordshire countryside, he realized the vast difference between it and Derbyshire’s untamed beauty.
He suddenly felt a moment of regret for not knowing this contrasting county and its inhabitants more. Were the rocks and hills of Derbyshire truly superior to the flat horizon of Hertfordshire? Why did the Lord make such distinctive landscapes and people?
Should I not congratulate myself on having my own wealth and connections, over her lack of it? What would be a more gentlemanly approach in the face of such disparity? And what of her foolhardy behaviour? To refuse an offer that could save her family should her father meet his destiny? What set her so decidedly against me?
These conflicting ideas were assailing his thoughts until he came upon a gentleman walking in a field.
“Sir, are you lost?” The gentleman greeted Darcy with a tip of the hat.
Darcy was in no humour to meet any new acquaintances. But this man reminded him of someone. Darcy climbed down from his saddle and returned the greeting. “Darcy of Pemberley. I am a guest of Mr. Bingley at Netherfield.”
“Fitzwilliam Darcy? You have grown.”
“I beg your pardon. Have we met before?”
“You told me your name at the Bromley Inn some twenty years ago, though not where you hailed from. When I heard my wife talking about you a few days ago, I did wonder if you were the same lad.” Extending his hand he made the introduction. “Bennet of Longbourn.”
Darcy was in awe. Suddenly the frightening scenes during that fire so long ago flashed before his eyes. He remembered everything now. The sense of despair and helplessness when he had tried to move his mother to safety, she being overcome with smoke, sprang back into his memory. He had lacked the strength and had prayed to the Lord that she would be saved. He had prayed out loud, promising his life to the one who was their saviour. And this gentleman did come to their rescue. He remembered the encouraging words Mr. Bennet had murmured amidst the cracking sound of burning wood. The memory of dark choking smoke and intense heat which had stayed hidden at the back of his mind came rushing forth. He suddenly felt faint and as he started to sway towards the older gentleman, he grabbed the other’s shoulders and hugged him.
“Mr. Bennet, I have wanted for such a long while to thank you….” His voice was trembling. “Thank you for saving my mother and myself.”
“It was nothing, my boy. I did what any gentleman would have done.”
The word “gentleman” sounded like thunder to Darcy’s ears. He was utterly ashamed of his uncharitable feelings towards Mr. Bennet’s family and his mode of declaration to his second daughter. If not for the older gentleman’s bravery, Darcy would not have grown to be the master of Pemberley. His wealth and connections could not compare to the gift of life Mr. Bennet had given him.
“I must beg your forgiveness, sir.” Darcy said with head lowered.
“I behaved in an ungentlemanly manner towards Eliza…towards your second daughter.”
“What? What did you do to my Lizzy?” Mr. Bennet pushed Darcy away from him and glared at him.
“I insulted her with my offer of marriage.”
“What? Why would you offer her marriage? You have only known her for a few days.”
Darcy squared up his shoulders and told the older gentleman of the pledge made by his father and then of his fiery exchange with Elizabeth.
“I did wonder where the garnet cross came from,” Mr. Bennet said as he turned and walked slowly back in the direction whence he had come. Darcy followed him, not sure if his saviour would forgive his transgression.
“You are right, Mr. Darcy,” the older man said. “I have neglected the silly behaviour of my wife and younger daughters for too long. It grieves me to know that Jane and Lizzy’s future will be hurt by their impropriety.”
“Sir, please do not dwell on my arrogant opinions. Miss Elizabeth was right to call me conceited. And please call me Fitzwilliam.”
“Yes, Lizzy is correct. You are arrogant. But I do understand that those are your genuine apprehensions.” Mr. Bennet stopped. He continued walking for some time, a variety of emotions passing over his face. He looked unhappy and angry. “I am abashed to admit that the fire at Bromley did change me for the worse.”
“I do not understand, sir. You performed a brave act. How could it have changed you for the worse?”
“When I helped you and your mother outside, we stepped onto a man’s body.” The grey haired gentleman drew in a deep breath. “Do you remember that?”
Mr. Darcy shook his head. He had been too young or confused at that time.
Mr. Bennet continued. “I suddenly thought that I could have died like that man. How could I have left my wife, Jane and Lizzy to fend for themselves? I vowed to make up for them if I was fortunate enough to escape the fire safely. From then on, I started to indulge my wife, showering her with gifts and allowing her to spend beyond our means.”
He stopped again, looking at a building not far away. It was a lovely house, about half the size of Netherfield. Mr. Bennet’s countenance seemed tortured. Darcy was sorry to evoke such painful memories in him.
“Did you know that my estate is entailed away?”
Mr. Bennet continued, “I always thought that Fanny and I would have a son. So when I died, my daughters and Fanny would be taken care of. By the time I realised that I would not have an heir, it was too late to start saving. Fanny started to fear for the future. She became sillier and sillier in her pursuit of rich husbands with which to match the girls.”
He shook his head and picked up his pace. “It is all my fault. I should have been more prudent to save for my children’s future. But instead of doing that, I laughed and joked about Fanny’s silliness, allowing her to indulge the younger girls too. I am utterly ashamed of myself. It is too late now. What can I do at this late hour? Both Jane and Lizzy and all of them will have to suffer for my incompetence!”
Darcy was surprised and saddened by Mr. Bennet’s revelations. He understood Elizabeth’s earlier indignation. He had reproached Mrs. Bennet and her younger daughters without taking the time to know them personally or the circumstances that lay behind their present behaviour. Where was his humility or sensitivity to the feelings of others?
“Mr. Bennet, please do not blame yourself. But surely it is not too late to make amends. You are in good health. You can still start saving. You can still encourage your younger daughters to learn the proper ways of society. If you do not mind my intrusion, may I offer my assistance?”
“Do you really think I can?” Mr. Bennet stopped and looked at the younger man. Mr. Darcy’s eyes conveyed a look of admiration. The esteem of a master who possessed a large fortune seemed to give the older gentleman courage.
“I suppose that if I were to live until my seventieth decade, I would still have many more years to do so. Good, my boy, we are almost at Longbourn, my estate. My wife and the younger girls are visiting Netherfield at the moment. She said she had to instruct Lizzy on how to use her arts and allurements to snare you,” Mr. Bennet said with a sardonic smile. “Come, we will go to my study and start planning the grand scheme of saving the Bennet women!”
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