What if Lizzy was rumoured to be in love with Wickham?
Every girl in or near Meryton was out of her senses about him for the first two months. - Pride and Prejudice - Chapter 47
“Mrs. Long declared that the very mention of George Wickham’s name drove every girl in or near Meryton out of her senses!” Mrs. Hurst exclaimed. Upon hearing the Bingley sisters’ wicked laughter, Mr. Darcy’s felt a shiver course down his spine.
Before he and his friend had announced their presence, they heard Mrs. Hurst’s voice again.
“Did you not tell me, Caroline, that Miss Eliza was quite delighted with Mr. Wickham during the Netherfield Ball? I do wish she could hold off the stiff competition and snare him. Then your Mr. Darcy shall forget all about her fine eyes.” Her cheers had the effect of turning the two men’s faces bright red and their feet immobile.
Raising her voice in excitement, Miss Bingley concurred, “Well said! Perhaps Mr. Wickham could be most obliging and seduce Miss Jane Bennet as well. Then my lies about her not loving Charles would become a reality. I am sure, Mr. Darcy’s mousy little Georgiana will lift Charles’s spirit once he hears that both the Miss Bennets have been compromised by the scoundrel.” Another round of indiscreet giggles could be heard coming from within the room.
Mr. Bingley took a big gulp of air and then dashed into the living room to confront his sisters, while Mr. Darcy walked out of Grosvenor Square with fire in his eyes.
The latter was tormented by the possibility that Miss Elizabeth would have fallen under the spell of the scoundrel. What if she were to marry Wickham? The blackguard would bring her a lifetime of misery. Darcy could clearly see how her fine eyes would turn hollow; her once alluring and voluptuous body turn thin and bony; her wit and sparkle flatten.
I could not bear it! Darcy cried out loud, when he was finally alone in his study.
Not long afterwards, Mr. Bingley came to visit him.
“I have sent an express to open Netherfield Park,” an agitated Bingley said. “I know that tomorrow is Christmas Eve. But I am determined to pay the Bennets a call.”
“I have ordered the servants to pack for me already.” Darcy revealed. “I shall go with you.”
“Do not dream of interfering in my courtship with Jane!” Bingley rubbed his hands together, itching to punch his friend.
“I am going to ask for Mr. Bennet’s help to bring Wickham to justice.” Darcy’s face darkened.
“Then you are welcome to stay with me at Netherfield,” declared Bingley, finally calming down. “May I impose upon you for the night? My sisters sicken me. I cannot forebear breathing the same filthy air as them!”
Darcy poured a glass of his finest port for his friend and they stared at each other silently, each pondering their lovely ladies, until it was time to retire.
By midmorning, Longbourn greeted two haggard travellers. The eldest Miss Bennet looked pale on seeing Mr. Bingley. Elizabeth eyed the gentlemen with caution. The youngest Miss Bennets were nowhere to be seen. The Gardiner family who was spending the holiday with the Bennets looked at the newcomers with interest. Before Mrs. Bennet was given the opportunity to express her raptures on the gentlemen’s visit, Darcy requested a meeting with Mr. Bennet.
Speechless, the Mistress of Longbourn could not fathom what Mr. Darcy’s business could be. Elizabeth recovered first. “Papa is in the library. I shall enquire after his availability.”
“I…request to be present in the meeting too.” Bingley added, as if it was an after thought. Mrs. Bennet grinned, hoping the meeting would be fortuitous for her eldest daughter.
Soon the two men were shown into the master’s study.
“How may I help you?” Mr. Bennet graciously inquired of the flustered gentlemen.
Darcy looked at Bingley. The latter opened his mouth, but could not utter a word. Finally, Darcy drew in a deep breath, a sigh and then replied, “I would like to apologise for our sudden departure last month, without taking leave of you, sir.”
Mr. Bennet’s eyes turned from one gentleman to another. The corner of his lips curled up but he did not say anything, not indicating whether he accepted or declined the apology.
Mr. Darcy gathered himself again and continued. “We understand that Mr. Wickham has been a…charming addition to the neighbourhood. I would like you, sir, to know he is in fact a scoundrel.
I do not wish to see Eli…your daughters hurt by the many falsehoods he spreads. I therefore requested this meeting to lay before you his connection with my family and his true nature.”
Mr. Darcy proceeded to tell the older gentleman about the details of his father’s will and his subsequent dealing with the blackguard, exhibiting the documents that showed the transactions of money. He did not reveal the Ramsgate incident but did show other paper indicating the support given by the Darcy family to some of the young women trifled with by Wickham.
By the time Darcy had finished, Mr. Bennet was in a rage about Mr. Wickham, a man he had thought of as charming before. Mr. Bennet agreed to gather information about any debts Wickham owed to local merchants and accompany the young men to see Colonel Forster after the Christmas.
“Before we go, sir,” Mr. Bingley opened his mouth for the first time. “I would like to confess some deceit my sisters have imposed on Miss Bennet.”
“Ah…my Jane has been rather dull, since November,” Mr. Bennet poured himself a glass of wine. “I think her despondency began after she received a letter from Miss Bingley, saying that her brother admires Miss Darcy greatly.”
Red haze burst through Bingley’s face. But before he could reply, Darcy jumped in. “My sister is still very young.”
“And I admire Jane a great deal more than Georgiana,” Bingley cried out and turned to look at Darcy, either for encouragement or blessing. He quickly recovered. “Of course, what I meant to say is that Miss Darcy is like a little sister to me. But I have great admiration for Miss Bennet.”
He stumbled briefly, and then forged on, “and I would like to ask for your permission to court her.”
“You want Mr. Darcy to give you permission to court his sister?” Mr. Bennet said with a wink, since Bingley had been staring at Darcy the whole time when he last spoke.
Bingley swung his head back to look at the older gentleman, “No, sir, Mr. Bennet, I am asking for your permission to court Jane, your eldest daughter, Miss Bennet.”
“That is better,” Mr. Bennet nodded. “At least your intention is now clearer.”
“Then I have your permission, Sir?” The younger gentleman sprung up from his seat, leaned forward and moved as if to shake Mr. Bennet’s hands.
“I did not say that.” His words sent Bingley into a fit of anxiety. “I must ask Jane first. She may not consider someone who has shown himself to be so inconsistent of heart.”
“Mr. Bennet, I promise I shall not listen to the lies of my sisters henceforth. I shall not listen to Darcy’s dissuasion either. I shall beg Miss Bennet’s forgiveness and love until she will have me. I am most determined to be constant to her, to stand by her side, for better or for worse, forever.”
Darcy closed his eyes on hearing Bingley’s declaration. Mr. Bennet clenched his jaw. “Mr. Darcy dissuaded you from courting my Jane?” He then turned to Mr. Darcy, “Sir, explain yourself, what fault did you find about us? Did you dismiss my girls because they have no dowry? No connections? Or no manners?” His voice raised a notch every time he moved closer to the tall gentleman.
Mr. Darcy held his hands behind his back. “I assure you, Sir, my objection to the match sprang from the best of intentions. I did not see that Miss Bennet’s heart was touched by my friend. I did not want to see Bingley hurt.”
“Yes, sir,” Bingley added quickly. He did not want to see friction between his future father and his dear friend. “Really, sir. Darcy here said he thought Miss Bennet demurely accepted my interest, but she did not seem to outwardly show any more significant feeling for me than she did for everyone else. It was entirely my fault. I was not confident enough to know her heart. I realize now that her smiles were indeed directed to me alone. My friend Darcy was only looking out for me. Miss Bennet was all that was proper in a lady, unlike the many cunning ladies of the town who only chased after me for my wealth.”
Mr. Bennet’s anger dissipated as quickly as it appeared. “My Jane is the model of gentility,” he declared. “She would not fawn over any man, no matter how rich. You can address Jane after I talk with her. But only if she is willing.”
“Mr. Bennet,” Darcy blurted out, “and I ask for your permission to court Miss Elizabeth.”
“What?” Both Mr. Bennet and Bingley were surprised by Mr. Darcy’s outburst.
“Yes, sir. I have admired Miss Elizabeth’s quick wit, intelligence, vivacity and compassion since the beginning of our acquaintance.”
“But Lizzy heard you say that she was not handsome enough to tempt you! Not for a mere dance!”
Mr. Darcy pulled at his neck cloth. He could not imagine a more torturous interview. “I regret the remark. When Bingley asked me to dance with Miss Elizabeth at the Meryton Assembly, I had hardly looked at her. But since then, I have been captivated by her fine eyes. Her manner is playful and her figure light and pleasing…” The glare from the older gentleman shut him up. It was not wise to mention his daughter’s body. “It has been some time since I have considered Miss Elizabeth the handsomest woman of my acquaintance.”
Mr. Bennet paced around the study, eyeing Mr. Darcy up and down for many minutes. The latter pulled at his tight cravat again. Finally, the master of Longbourn pulled open the door, “You stay here, Mr. Darcy. I shall ask Lizzy to come in. Mr. Bingley, I will talk to Jane. You can then talk to her out in the hothouse.”
Bingley followed Mr. Bennet, a spring in his steps. Before he left the room, he turned to give Darcy a mock smack on the head.
Mr. Darcy returned with a fake kick on his friend’s shin. His leg froze in mid air when Miss Elizabeth entered the room. The lady looked from one gentleman to another, surprised at their boyish display.
Bingley gave a hasty bow and closed the door while Darcy put his foot down and bowed deeply.
“Papa said you requested my presence,” Elizabeth said with a frown.
“Yes, Miss Bennet. And did he explain…” Mr. Darcy sighed. Since the lady arrived so quickly, there would be no time for her father to explain about Mr. Wickham or the matter of courtship.
He launched into the explanation about his childhood friend first, careful to gauge her reaction. Her face turned from disbelief, to doubt, frustration and finally to anger. When he had finished, he asked, “I hope, Miss Bennet, you are not very disappointed at what I have told you.”
“Disappointed?” Her voice was shaky.
“Mrs. Hurst had the impression from Mrs. Long that every girl in or near Meryton…was out of her senses about Wickham for the past month.”
“Her intelligence was quite out of date, I am afraid. Mr. Wickham is engaged to Mary King, who has just inherited ten thousands pounds.”
“So you are…not in love with him?” He asked eagerly.
“I do not see how that is any of your business, sir.” She looked flustered.
He paced around the room, staring at her; sat on the chair, stood up and paced again. “Miss Bennet, I have asked for your father’s permission to court you.”
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