The Caroline Complication

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Chapter 4

The following day, Mr. Collins stood after lunch.

“I apologize for the inconvenience, but I hoped I could have a few minutes to speak to my cousin alone.”

Mrs. Bennet immediately flew into a state of excitement. There was only one reason that a proper man would wish to speak with a proper woman alone, and that was to propose marriage. Think of it – Jane nearly engaged, and the problem of Lizzy solved as well? Nothing could be more ideal.

“Oh, yes!” she said. “Come, all of you, and give Mr. Collins and Lizzy the room.”

“My dear Mrs. Bennet, you mistake me,” said Mr. Collins. “I would speak with Miss Mary.”

The room seemed to gasp all at once. Mary’s cheeks colored, and she appeared to be the most legitimately happy that Elizabeth could recall seeing her.

Mrs. Bennet opened her mouth, then closed it, then finally recovered her composure enough to say “Of course! Everyone else, out.”

Now, of course, ‘out’ meant that they left the room, but they did not go far. Mrs. Bennet pressed her ear against the door to hear what was happening. Jane and Lizzy stood behind everyone else and shared a smile.

“Oh!” cried Mrs. Bennet. “Oh! He is telling her why he wishes to take a wife!”

They waited some minutes as Mr. Collins had apparently put together quite a speech.

“And she says yes!”

With that, the eavesdroppers could no longer stand it and burst back into the room. Mary was beaming and had tears on her cheeks. Mr. Collins looked exceedingly happy.

“My darling Mary!” Mrs. Bennet said, sweeping Mary up into an embrace. All of her sisters crowded around, smiling and congratulating the couple.

However, one step still needed to be taken. Mr. Collins solemnly visited Mr. Bennet in the study and asked for permission to wed Mary. Elizabeth was very glad that she was not in the room, as there is no way she and her father would have maintained their collective composure. As it was, she heard Mr. Bennet snicker-cough in very much the same way she was known to do (indeed, she had learnt the trick from him). Mr. Collins seemed not to notice, though, and came out of the study beaming to announce that Mr. Bennet very much wished for the union to take place, and was so overcome with emotion that he actually appeared to have tears in his eyes. Elizabeth bit her lip, knowing that no good would come of her having a laughing fit as well.

***

It was a joyous time in the Bennet household. Mary was to be married to the designee of the entail, which solved two problems at once. Elizabeth was relieved that Mary was to be the problem solver and that it did not fall on her shoulders. Jane glowed (as did her mother) with thoughts of Mr. Bingley, and soon something happened that delighted the younger girls as well. When Mr. Bingley heard of the engagement, he offered to host a ball in honor of the engaged couple.

“I do think it to be proper for a clergyman such as myself to attend a ball in his own honor,” said Mr. Collins, “particularly because it will give me an additional opportunity to serve as a pious example for the people of Hertfordshire.”

“Yes,” replied Mary, solemnly. “I do believe that you have a duty to share your grace with the world.”

Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet were both getting much better at restraining themselves during these moments, as they had had plenty of practice over the previous few days.

The ball had to be put together quickly to accommodate Mr. Collins’ return to Hunsford (“I cannot wait to tell Lady Catherine de Bourgh that I have granted her fondest wish!”) but Mr. Bingley managed, and it was quite as much of an event as his previous ball.

Darcy knew that he would struggle. There was no chance that Elizabeth would not be there, as the ball was in her sister’s honor. In addition, Caroline had travelled to London to make arrangements for her wedding dress, so he did not even have her to distract him. Thankfully, he did have a lifetime of not letting his feelings show, so he prepared himself as well as he could for what was coming.

It was almost too much for him when Elizabeth walked into the ballroom, dressed in a lovely pink dress that picked up the color in her cheeks. He thought back to the touch of her hand, and he knew that, just for a moment, his emotions were showing on his face. He composed himself as quickly as possible and wandered out to the gardens where he did not need to be so guarded.

As for Elizabeth, she gave Mr. Darcy not a single thought. She was delighted to attend a ball in her sister’s honor, she was delighted that Mary was happy, and she was especially delighted that one of the officers in attendance was paying particular attention to her friend Charlotte Lucas. However, there was one thing that did not delight her – she had hoped to see Mr. Wickham at the ball, as she knew that all the local officers had been invited. However, no matter where she looked, she could not find him.

She finally located Mr. Denny and enquired after Mr. Wickham.

“It was the strangest thing,” Denny said. “He seemed thrilled at the idea of a ball, but when he found out it was at Netherfield, he suddenly said that he had other plans for tonight. I have not been able to get out of him what those plans were.”

Curious. Did Mr. Wickham and Mr. Bingley have history of some sort? Elizabeth could imagine no other reason why the mention of Netherfield would make him change his mind. She made a note to ask him the next time she saw him.

Darcy was not to be left on his own the entire evening. Bingley found him and cried that there were young ladies sitting because there were not partners to be had. It was only proper that Mr. Darcy make himself available. With a long sigh, he followed Bingley back inside. He was not paying close attention to where Bingley was headed; if he had been, he might have been able to avert the coming crisis. Bingley led him right to Miss Elizabeth Bennet, who was seated. There was no graceful way to avoid dancing with her.

“Miss Elizabeth, would you do me the honor?” he said with a stiff bow.

“Mr. Darcy, I expected that you would have a dance partner for tonight. Where is your intended?”

“Caroline has travelled to London.”

“Ah, so you are here all alone. Yes, I will dance with you. I know how fond you are of the activity and I would not want to deny it to you.”

He glanced at her, unable to tell if she was joking or if she misunderstood him that badly. The sparkle in her eyes answered his question for him. If only she were not so charming (and lovely, added his mind), it would be easier to put her from his thoughts. He knew that the upcoming dance would be both blissful and terribly difficult for him.

Elizabeth danced as she did everything else that she loved – with delight. It did not matter to her that she was once again partnered with Mr. Darcy. A quick glance down the line showed Jane dancing with Mr. Bingley and Charlotte dancing with the officer she had been speaking with. Mary and Mr. Collins were seated and receiving congratulations from all of the attendees. Mrs. Bennet was speaking with her friends, and Elizabeth did not begrudge her mother her happiness in this moment. If only, she thought, there was someone there for her as well, and her thoughts returned to the charming Mr. Wickham.

Darcy recognized that Elizabeth’s mind was wandering. He tried to reassure himself that this was good – the less he stood out to her, the better. Imagine the trouble if she were to reciprocate! Unfortunately for him, he imagined a bit too much. In his mind, he was just lifting her delicate hand to kiss it when –

“I would imagine, Mr. Darcy, that it is quite difficult to have Miss Bingley away.”

He shook the dangerous thoughts out of his head. “Caroline prefers to do things according to her own schedule, and I am accustomed to that,” he said.

“How fortunate to make a match with the sister of your dearest friend!” said Elizabeth. “She is truly so lovely.”

“But there are things aside from beauty that make an ideal match.”

Why had he said that? He was slipping, and Fitzwilliam Darcy never slipped.

“I imagine so,” said Elizabeth. “I suspect that sort of love might come along only once in a lifetime.”

Darcy suspected that some people might not even get that – he had never intended to, in spite of all the accomplished women with whom he was acquainted. But here she was in front of him, and each time he beheld her, each time he spoke with her, it became more and more difficult to remind himself that, even if she felt the same way, he could never have her.

The dance ended. Darcy bowed and made his escape as quickly as was politely possible. He could not risk another mistake. The next one might give him away entirely.

Elizabeth stared after him. She had hoped that, for Jane and Bingley’s sake, she and Mr. Darcy might be cordial with one another. Each time she spoke with him he made it increasingly clear that he could barely stand to be in the same room as her. What was so deficient about her that caused such a reaction?

***

The ball had been lovely and the entire Bennet family practically floated home (aside from Mr. Bennet, who was far too sensible to float). Elizabeth had managed to put Mr. Darcy from her mind and dance with more amenable partners – although the person that she most wanted to dance with was not in attendance. She wondered again what could have kept Mr. Wickham.

She did not have to wait long for an answer. The Bennet girls attended a dinner at their Aunt and Uncle Philips’ house in Meryton. The Philips had also invited several of the officers to dine with them, much to Lydia and Kitty’s glee. One of those officers was Mr. Wickham. Elizabeth was nearly as giddy as her sisters, although she hid it much better than they.

“Miss Elizabeth! What an exquisite pleasure to see you once again!”

Elizabeth felt her cheeks turn the same color that they were after a brisk walk. “Mr. Wickham, I did not know that you would be present tonight.”

“I thought I quite owed it to you after my absence at the Netherfield ball.”

“Certainly, sir, you do not owe me anything, although I did notice that you were not there.”

He smiled at her. “Is there anything more wonderful in life than to be missed by a pretty girl? Know that if the situation were different, I would have requested a scandalous number of dances from you.”

“Scandalous! Well, perhaps it was best that you were not there. May I enquire as to the situation that delayed you?”

“I was being vague when I said ‘situation’. To speak plainly, there was a person there who has done me grievously badly.”

“No! Who is this person?”

“Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. Have you been introduced?”

“I have – I danced with him last night.” Elizabeth was not particularly surprised to learn the name of the man. Clearly her first impression of him had been correct. “In what way has he wronged you?”

“It is a sad story of an honorable man’s last desire thwarted. Mr. Darcy and I have known each other since childhood. My father was Mr. Darcy’s father’s steward, and the elder Mr. Darcy was my godfather. The younger Mr. Darcy and I came up together. I was a favorite of his father and Darcy and I were quite like brothers.”

Elizabeth was enthralled by this story, but propriety stopped the many questions she had. She stayed silent in the hope that Mr. Wickham would answer those questions as he talked.

“The late Mr. Darcy had always planned to give me the best living he had available. I was raised for the church and I had never imagined my life anywhere else. However, after Mr. Darcy’s death, the younger Mr. Darcy gave away the living that was to be mine to another man.

Elizabeth could stay silent no longer. “But how could he ignore his father’s will?”

“I am afraid that the promise the late Mr. Darcy gave to me was of the informal sort. However, I took both the man and the son to be gentlemen and assumed that I would receive my due.”

“How horrible, that he denied you your living!”

“I am exceedingly lucky that Denny told me of the opportunity here in the militia. A military life is not what I had planned, but it is a far cry better than being destitute.”

“I am so angry on your behalf!” said Elizabeth. “I know now that Mr. Darcy is deceitful in addition to being proud. How I wish more people knew how ill he used you!”

“What is done is done, and I have made my peace. And one lovely thing has come of it. If I had entered the church, I might never have met you.”

Elizabeth blushed once again. She seemed to be making a habit of it every time she was around Mr. Wickham.

***

Jane wore a worried look when Elizabeth told her what she had learnt from Mr. Wickham.

“I cannot reconcile what you are telling me with the Mr. Darcy I know.”

“I do not understand how you feel that a man as unpleasant as Darcy is incapable of such behavior.”

“I just do not believe that anyone who is as close to dear Mr. Bingley as Mr. Darcy is could behave so poorly.”

“Do you doubt Mr. Wickham?” Elizabeth asked.

“He has given me no reason to do so.”

“Dear Jane. Were we all to be as generous in spirit as you. It is clear that both of them cannot be thought of highly.”

“Still, I would rather hear Mr. Darcy’s side of things before making judgement.”

“I cannot imagine what he could possibly say to acquit himself, but as I love you more dearly than anyone, I will speak no more of the subject.”

Elizabeth kept her word – at least for a time.

***

Mr. Collins returned to Hunsford, with the intention of returning in a month to marry Mary. This provided enough time for the banns to be read and for the Bennets to prepare, but it was so busy that Elizabeth had little time to consider the situation between Mr. Wickham and Mr. Darcy.

Mr. Bingley once again opened his house to the Bennet family and their guests for the wedding breakfast. Elizabeth knew that Mr. Bingley was kind by nature, but she suspected that he also did not mind the opportunity to spend time with Jane. They were still getting along wonderfully, and Elizabeth suspected that she was not alone in anticipating another engagement any day.

The day of the wedding arrived quickly. Mary was being bossier than normal and Elizabeth knew it was just her way of working through the nerves. Mary was dressed in her finest and escorted by her family to the church. Elizabeth suspected that there had never been two people who took a ceremony more seriously than Mary and Mr. Collins. They solemnly intoned their parts as required, and soon they were wed.

Elizabeth had tears of joy in her eyes, which Mr. Collins took in the wrong way. He took her aside and said, “dear Cousin Elizabeth, I know that you are thinking of what might have been. I certainly never intended to get your hopes up only to dash them. I wish for you to find someone who makes you as happy as my bride does me.” He beamed at Mary from across the courtyard.

It was his wedding day; who was she, on this of all days, to deny him his mistaken pride? Elizabeth simply nodded and told him she would not marry until she felt a love as strong as he and Mary did, “even if it might make me a spinster.” With that she made her escape, dabbing her eyes until she was well away from him. At least he would remain a decent trip away most of the time. The man really was so foolish.

The wedding breakfast was the first time that Elizabeth had seen Mr. Darcy since the engagement ball. What is more, she was seated directly next to him. Miss Bingley had returned, but she was seated further down the other side of the table. Elizabeth considered ignoring Darcy, but she did not want to be rude at such a happy occasion. Mr. Darcy, for his part, was as stiff and formal as ever. Halfway through the second course Elizabeth could restrain herself no longer and spoke.

“I met someone of your acquaintance in the village recently. A man who knows you from your youth.”

“I cannot imagine of whom you speak, Miss Elizabeth.”

“To hear him tell, you two know each other quite well – or you did, once. His name is Wickham.”

At the mention of Wickham’s name, the color drained from Darcy’s face, which Elizabeth took as a further confirmation of his guilt. It took Darcy but a moment to compose himself.

“Mr. Wickham is good at making new friends. Whether he is able to keep them is another thing entirely.”

“It seems that you have no value for his friendship, after you used him so poorly!” responded Elizabeth. “Taking away his living. That poor man.”

Darcy uttered a humorless laugh. “Oh, is that the way of it by his telling?”

“Do you have any defense?”

“You will think of me what you will, so there is no point in continuing this conversation.”

And they sat in silence, each angry for a different reason, until the breakfast was over.

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Next: Chapter 5

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