The Caroline Complication

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Previous: Chapter 7
Next: Chapter 9

Chapter 8

Soon after Lydia, it was the Gardiners and Lizzy preparing to leave. It was bittersweet, saying goodbye to Jane after only a week, but both of them promised to write every day, if they could manage it.

Elizabeth was non insensible to the fact that Pemberley was in Derbyshire. However, the county was very large. What were the chances that she would run into Mr Darcy?

But what would you say to him if you did? pestered her mind. I would not need say anything at all, she replied to herself. He is the one who has made a fool of himself, mocking me by insinuating his affection.

The trip was lovely and the company even better. Mrs Phillips had grown up in Derbyshire, and she delighted in sharing it with her niece. Elizabeth had the opportunity to explore a new countryside, and the weather was so pleasant it was as if they had ordered it just for their visit there. She felt calmed than she had in a long time, with no one to trouble her mind.

Mrs. Gardiner grew up in a little town called Lambton. The Gardiners and Elizabeth let a room at a comfortable inn right in that town.

“You know, dear, we are very close to Pemberley,” Mrs. Gardiner said over dinner. “Why, imagine what stories the people in town must have about Mr. Darcy!”

A man sitting at the next table said, “Oh, there are stories aplenty!”

He introduced himself. His name was Rollins, and he was a farmer tenant to Mr. Darcy.

“What can you tell us about him?” asked Mr. Gardiner curiously.

“I’ve farmed this land for twenty years, under both the elder and the younger Darcy. I have not a single complaint about them, nor do I know anyone who does. Why, my wife took ill several months ago and was housebound. Didn’t Miss Georgiana Darcy bring a basket to my wife and sit with her for a bit? And her brother is as accommodating. It would surprise me if you could find a single soul with a bad thing to say about any of the Darcys.”

Afterwards, her aunt said to her, “This is quite different from the story told by Mr. Wickham.”

“Aunt, I do not believe that Wickham’s word can be taken as truth,” said Elizabeth. “He is the only person who has spoken ill of Mr. Darcy’s character, and Mr. Wickham has proven himself unreliable with his quitting Meryton for London.”

“But Lizzy, you yourself have spoken of how proud and disagreeable he is.”

“Yes, that is certainly true, and what is more, I know of a situation when his influence has deeply affected a person that I care about in a terrible way.”

“So maybe we still do not have all of the picture of Mr. Darcy. This tenant seems to like him, but that does not necessarily mean that all his tenants do. Is there a way that he can be all of these things that people have said of him?”

“It seems not,” said Elizabeth. “Certainly, it does not seem that a man who treats his tenants so well would treat a childhood friend as poorly as Mr. Wickham claims. And my own experience does point to Mr. Darcy’s excessive pride. Also,” she added with a smile, “I cannot reconcile the idea that someone who was not thoroughly unpleasant would ever propose to Caroline Bingley. I tell you, the more I consider it, the more confused I get. If Mr. Darcy is not who I have believed him to be then I have attacked him viciously with my words. But I know that he has been a part of our conversations just as much as I have.”

“It sounds as if you need more information before you can draw a conclusion about him,” her aunt said gently.

“Yes, you are correct, and all this pondering has given me quite a headache. I am going to head up to my room early.”

Elizabeth climbed the stairs to her lodging. She could hear two chambermaids gossiping in the hallway that they believed to be empty. She smiled and had no desire to interrupt them, as they reminded her very much of her sisters.

“…and then you would not believe what he asked me to do,” said one, her voice scandalized. “I said to him, ‘I am a lady, sir! How dare you!’ And do you know what he did then?”

“What?’ asked her companion, breathlessly.

“He grabbed at my skirts. I barely made it out of his reach.”

“But he seemed so handsome and refined.”

“Handsome he may be, and raised up well with those Pemberley manners, but he is not worth one bit of what Mr. Darcy is worth.”

Elizabeth rounded the corner of the hall that the chambermaids were in and they instantly stopped talking and gave her a quick curtsy. She smiled at them, but her mind was elsewhere.

Handsome, raised at Pemberley, and not Mr. Darcy – there was only one person that Elizabeth knew of they could be talking about. Was it possible that Mr. Wickham had been in Lambton recently? What business would he have? This was just another piece of evidence that Mr. Wickham’s account of what happened with Mr. Darcy might stray from the truth. The man that the chambermaid was describing was no gentleman.

She had a hard time falling asleep that night. One thought kept haunting her – what if she had judged Mr. Darcy unfairly?

The next morning, her aunt proposed a trip to tour Pemberley. It was only a few miles away and open to visitors.

“Would you not like to see the grandeur with your own eyes, Lizzy?”

She had to admit that she was curious, but she was anxious about seeing Mr. Darcy before she had a chance to puzzle through all the information that she had learned.

“Well, that is a question easily answered,” said her uncle, and asked one of the men working at the inn if the Darcys were at Pemberley for the summer. He was told that they were away at that time. That relieved Elizabeth greatly, and she agreed to the day trip.

The grounds of Pemberley were beautiful. After taking a lane through a grove of trees, the main lawn came into view, with the house itself as the backdrop. Elizabeth was entranced. The design respected the natural grace of the land and never tried to overpower it with artifice. A stream ran out front. To Elizabeth, it seemed as if the most perfect natural location was found and Pemberley gently placed there in a way that did not disturb the splendor of nature.

The house rose from these lovely grounds, made of stone and looking very assuming. She was shocked at the size of it. She had visited other estates, but Pemberley was singular in its beauty.

They made their way inside and waited for the housekeeper. Elizabeth had some time to look around.

Imagine, she thought. I could have been mistress of all this.

***

The housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, arrived to greet them. Elizabeth had expected a certain pretension from the servants of Pemberley, but the housekeeper was very welcoming. She bade them to look around at their leisure. Elizabeth was impressed with the tastefulness of the design. Nothing was ostentatious or gaudy, but the quality of everything in the house shone through. She looked out the window to the back of the house and saw that the beauty of the grounds continued there.

Mrs. Gardiner had found a set of miniatures. “Is one of these Mr. Darcy?” she asked Mrs. Reynolds.

“Yes, that is him there.”

“Lizzy, come tell me if this is a good likeness.”

The housekeeper smiled broadly at this. “Does the young lady know Mr. Darcy?”

“A little,” Elizabeth stammered, trying to keep her voice steady.

“Is he not handsome, miss?”

“Yes, very handsome.” That was not a lie. Whatever faults Darcy possessed, a lack of beauty was not one of them.

Elizabeth took the oppotunity to put her mind at rest. “Is the family home?”

“No, they are not,” replied the housekeeper, “although we expect them with a party tomorrow.”

Elizabeth was greatly relieved that they had come on this day and not on the following.

As they continued, Mr. Gardiner engaged Mrs. Reynolds in conversation.

“What type of man is Mr. Darcy?”

“Oh, sir, he is the best type. He has never spoken a cross word to me. He is both the best landlord and the best master you can imagine.”

Elizabeth was shocked. This was so far from her opinion of Mr. Darcy she wondered how they could be talking of the same man.

“He is also the best brother you can imagine to young Miss Darcy. He dotes on her, as well he should. She is quite as lovely a person as he.”

Elizabeth had created a picture in her mind of Georgiana Darcy tempting Mr. Bingley away from Jane, so it startled her to hear this account.

Mrs. Reynolds led them to the portrait gallery. There was an enormous painting of Mr. Darcy hung in there. He was smiling, which surprised her greatly. He looked nothing more than the beneficent master of a great estate. She fancied there was a warmth to his eyes too. Could this be the same man who could not bear her presence?

After viewing all that there was to be seen, the Gardiners and Elizabeth headed out to the grounds. They were near the stables when who should appear but the man himself. They were so close Elizabeth could not possibly hope to avoid his view, but nonetheless she tried to turn away, stricken with embarrassment and confused about who he really was. However, their eyes met and both of them flushed. Mr. Darcy walked over to where the group was standing.

“Miss Elizabeth, I did not expect to find you at Pemberley.”

She turned even more red. She explained that she was on holiday with her Aunt and Uncle, and added “Sir, I never would have come had I known that you would be here.”

“I am glad to see you. We did not part on good terms and I have been saddened by that. How is your family?”

She told him of what had happened since they had last spoken. She noticed a change in him. He seemed much more open than he ever had in the past, and she could see some of the Darcy from the portrait in the man who stood in front of her.

“Are you staying in Lambton long, Miss Elizabeth?”

“For two more days.”

“It would bring me great joy if you would accept my invitation to dine at Pemberley tomorrow. Would you be so kind as to introduce me to your aunt and uncle, so that I might extend the invitation to them as well?”

Elizabeth was startled that he wanted her as a guest after everything that she had said to him. However, she reminded herself that there might be a side to the man that she was not aware of, and certainly dining at Pemberley would help her sort out what was true and what was not.

They walked over to the Gardiners so Elizabeth could introduce them to Mr. Darcy. They were a bit flustered to meet him, but very pleased when he extended the invitation to dinner. It was agreed upon that they would dine together the following evening.

“Georgiana will be delighted,” said Mr. Darcy. “It is rare that she gets to spend time with girls who are close in age to her.”

Elizabeth had not even considered that if Darcy was there, Georgiana was as well. She was a bit nervous to meet the girl who was taking Mr. Bingley from Jane. She knew it was an impertinent question, but she had to know the answer as soon as possible.

“Miss Bingley led Jane to believe that Mr. Bingley and your sister have been spending time together. Should we be waiting for an announcement?”

Darcy looked at her, confused. “Georgiana and Bingley? That does sound like something Caroline would maneuver. They are very fond of each other, it is true, but certainly not in the way that you are implying.”

Elizabeth was relieved to hear that. She could now anticipate the dinner the following night without feeling that she was being untrue to Jane.

***

Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner were very excited for their dinner at Pemberley. Elizabeth was more nervous than any other emotion. She had rarely managed a conversation with Mr. Darcy without unpleasant things being said (usually by her). Could she endure the entire evening without anything uncivil happening? For the sake of her aunt and uncle, she resolved that no matter what happened, she would restrain her temper.

She changed her dress several times, feeling more and more foolish each time that she did. Precisely who was she planning to impress? Certainly she hoped to make a good impression on Georgiana, but that could not possibly account for trying on every dress that she had packed. It was probably the case that she was just nervous to dine at a large estate. Her mind was not to be easily convinced, however – Elizabeth knew that she had taken no such care when dining at Rosings Park. So was she choosing her dress for Mr. Darcy – the man who was engaged to be married? Preposterous. She was not that kind of girl, and regardless of what he might have said at Hunsford, he was not that kind of man.

She finally decided on a pink dress that flattered her complexion nicely. She made sure that her hair was pinned properly and went downstairs to meet her Aunt and Uncle. Her Aunt immediately noticed the care with which Elizabeth had prepared herself for this dinner. She did not say anything, but she gave Elizabeth an apprising look.

They arrived at Pemberley in the early afternoon, at Mr. Darcy’s invitation. He had mentioned something about excellent fishing, which had gotten Mr. Gardiner’s attention. However, first, he introduced the party to Georgiana.

She was a lovely and sweet girl, and Elizabeth was relieved that she did not have to oppose Georgiana on the principle of her taking Mr. Bingley from Jane. Georgiana mentioned that she had heard quite a bit about the Bennets, and Elizabeth in particular. Elizabeth glanced at Mr. Darcy, trying to get a sense of what he had told his sister, but he just gave her a small smile and said nothing.

While the men headed out to fish, Georgiana took Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner on a more extensive tour of the grounds than the one they had already received. Elizabeth had the time to study all the details and nuances of Pemberley, and she found herself more and more taken with the estate. Georgiana, too, was endearing herself to Elizabeth. She carried herself like a lady of importance, but there was no trace of snobbery in her attitude. Elizabeth wondered how such a dear girl could be friends with Caroline Bingley. She suspected that Caroline was more accommodating than normal around Georgiana. The girl was sweetly naive, and would be an easy mark for a person trying to use her to their own means.

Mr. Darcy and Mr. Gardiner returned from fishing, laughing together as if they were old friends. Elizabeth could not help but smile at the scene. Darcy looked at her, the smile still on his lips, and their eyes met. Elizabeth was startled and looked away. There was a longing, an understanding, in those eyes, but he could not possibly feel that way about her – not while he was intended for Caroline.

Darcy knew he was on dangerous ground, spending so much time with Elizabeth, but he simply could not help himself. She enchanted him completely. However, he would need to give her up soon. Thankfully for him, since Bingley was no longer attached to Jane Bennet, Darcy did not have the same risk of running into Elizabeth at every turn. He put those thoughts out of his head for the night and determined that he would enjoy his time with her for what might be the last time.

The party returned inside for dinner. The food was fairly simple but deliciously cooked, and the conversation was light but enjoyable. Everyone at the table seemed to be in a particularly good mood after such a lovely day. Elizabeth was seated next to Darcy, who was at the head of the table. She sneaked glances at him when his attention was elsewhere. He truly was a beautiful man, and even more so when he smiled. His hair was just the tiniest bit mussed, and she thought that it added to his charm. It was obvious how much he enjoyed being at home and spending time with Georgiana, who, in turn, worshiped him. Elizabeth could not believe that she was feeling this way about the horrible Mr. Darcy, who ruined Jane’s life. But what if he was just trying to protect his friend? her mind asked. As it was, she no longer had faith in anything that Mr. Wickham had told her, and the case against Mr. Darcy seemed to get thinner with every passing minute.

He did not miss for a minute the glances Elizabeth was sending his way. She smiled at him when he spoke and studied him when she thought he was not looking. He was elated at the idea that she might not hold him in the contempt that he was accustomed to from her. He planned to enjoy this evening, to mark it in his memory for the future. The idea of Elizabeth looking at him kindly only made the situation more delightfully memorable.

After dinner, Georgiana excused herself to her chambers, apologizing deeply for not staying longer. Elizabeth embraced her, happy to have made the acquaintance of such a lovely girl. Mr. Darcy then suggested a walk by the water, which the Gardiners and Elizabeth heartily agreed to.

After walking for some time, the Gardiners fell behind, leaving Darcy and Elizabeth in relative privacy. Darcy had no intention of ruining the evening by opening his mouth and saying something to displease her, but Elizabeth had no such qualms.

“Mr. Darcy, I fear that I might have misjudged you. Everyone that I have spoken to since arriving in Lambton has had nothing but praise for you, and I have been impressed with how jovial you have been this day.”

“Miss Bennet, nothing could make me happier than your approval,” he said, stopping and looking deep into her eyes.

Elizabeth stared back, and it seemed there was an understanding between the two of them. Suddenly, she shook her head.

“I beg your forgiveness, Mr. Darcy. I am afraid that foolish notions are swirling around in my head right now that I do not wish to subject you to.”

“Miss Bennet, your notions could not possibly be more foolish, nor more audaciously hopeful, than my own.”

She looked at him, afraid for him to continue but much more terrified for him to stop.

“I have tried in vain to repress my feelings, and I am aware of how very many people I might injure with this statement. However, before I must be parted from you forever, I must tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

Elizabeth’s eyes filled with tears. “Sir, I confess that my feelings mirror your own. But I know that you cannot be mine. You are promised to Miss Bingley and nothing will change that fact.”

“I would run away with you,” he whispered hoarsely. “We can be together, and no one would know of our shame.”

She shook her head. “You do not mean that. I cannot be parted forever from my family any more than you could be parted from Georgiana. Do not fool yourself that there is hope for us.”

“We could bring Georgiana. She will be happy anywhere that I am.”

“Mr. Darcy, you know why this cannot be.”

There were tears in his eyes too. He knew she was right. He could not leave Pemberley, could not bring shame to the Darcy name, no matter how badly he wanted her. He lifted her hand to his lips and reverently kissed her palm. Elizabeth sighed and cradled his cheek in her hand.

“If only I had waited for you. If only I had known that love would come to me,” Darcy whispered.

The tears were streaming down Elizabeth’s face. “But it is not to be.”

They stepped back from one another and struggled to get their emotions under control before they were spied by the Gardiners. Darcy reached out and wiped a tear off Elizabeth’s cheek.

“My darling,” he said, then took another step back as the Gardiners walked into sight.

“Why Lizzy, whatever is wrong?” asked her Aunt.

“Oh, Aunt, it is the most foolish thing,” cried Elizabeth. “A bug has flown into my eye, causing it to water!”

Her Aunt stepped forward to look in her eye. “I do not see anything.”

“Perhaps it has resolved itself. However, the sun is setting. Should we not take our leave?”

Darcy’s heart dropped at hearing her say that, but he knew that their separation had to come quickly, for both of their sakes. “I hope you have enjoyed your time at Pemberley.”

“Would that I could stay here always,” replied Elizabeth with a sad smile.

***

Elizabeth tried to regulate her emotions on the way back to the inn, but she struggled. Mrs. Gardiner could well see the pain that Elizabeth was in, and she guessed the cause of it. However, she knew that there was no way in which the situation could resolve itself to everyone’s satisfaction. Elizabeth would just have to accept what was to be and continue on with her life.

When they reached their lodgings, Elizabeth claimed a headache and took to her bed, where she sobbed quietly. She could not believe how quickly the understanding of loving him had washed over her, and she had never felt such joy as when he told her that he loved her too. She was sorely tempted by his offer to run away, but she knew that his conscience would not abide such a decision. She would not let their love for each other destroy what it was that made Fitzwilliam Darcy so singular.

Two miles away, Darcy lay in bed desperately trying to determine how he could marry Elizabeth without bringing shame to his family. It was not to be done. Caroline would never set him free, especially to someone she disliked as intensely as Elizabeth. He felt as if he finally had a chance of happiness and it was slipping through his fingers. It was a relief to slip into sleep. At least he could hold his beloved Elizabeth in his dreams.

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Next: Chapter 9

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