Still, in ‘The Falmouth Connection’ I went for a different fate for Lydia. After all, poor girl, she’s just a kid! Only sixteen. We probably know plenty of sixteen-year-olds who are as wilful, as self-centred and a lot stroppier too into the bargain.
But what if she happens to fall in love with a decent man who, unlike Mr. Bennet, would not spend his married years mocking his silly wife, but trying to build on their affection, sharing his thoughts and feelings, improving her understanding of the world?
Wouldn’t a silly sixteen-year-old blossom into something very different?
But Lydia and her mother are another story. Their mouths run away with them, and before you know it, family secrets or private thoughts are poured into other people’s ears – and thus advance the plot in leaps and bounds!
(Excerpt from Chapter 5)
“Yes, Lydia! Mr. Darcy. Now could we move on to another subject?”
“No, Lizzy, we certainly cannot,” Lydia said with great determination. “I declare he must be enamoured with you, to squire you about the country in this fashion. So much the better! You will be rich – and better still, you will no longer have an eye for Mr. Wickham, so you can leave him to me,” she said and twirled about the room, then dropped unceremoniously on one of the sofas.
“Lydia, I wish you would leave Lizzy be,” Jane interjected sensibly, but by then Elizabeth was too tired to see sense and subdue her temper.
“If you had anything other than flirtation, love and officers in your head, you would understand when I tell you that Mr. Darcy is no more enamoured of me that I of him!”
“So you will persist in accepting Mr. Wickham’s attentions?”
“Probably not,” she candidly owned, the Colonel’s words still fresh in her memory. “But we can speak of Mr. Wickham later. Now, would you take Mamma her tea and let me talk to Jane?”
“Mamma must be asleep. You know she keeps to her bed in the mornings, especially when she is unwell.”
“I did not know she was unwell,” Elizabeth replied.
Few and far between were the days when the mistress of Longbourn did not complain of an ailment or another, so the intelligence did not surprise her. Still, she would have hoped that, in the excitement of travelling to meet this mysterious relation, her mother would not need to seek further excitement in complaints.
“Mamma was well enough when we arrived,” Jane supplied, as though she had read her thoughts, “but when she learned that, after all this rain, the river burst its banks and the ford might have become impassable, the ill-tidings have brought on a headache.”
“I see. So is the ford impassable now?”
“I know not. Papa is to set out with Mr. Darcy to investigate the matter.”
Unlike her mother’s habitual response to any inconvenience, this was highly unexpected, so Elizabeth’s eyes widened.
“With Mr. Darcy?” she exclaimed, astonished.
“See, Lizzy? He is enamoured with you. Why else would he be courting Papa’s favour?”
“Hush, Lydia!” Elizabeth burst out with great vexation.
So the gentleman in question still seemed intent on baffling her then, as though yesterday was not enough. Considerate – silent – jesting – complaining about ferrets – throwing a temper tantrum over the English weather – in pain perhaps, and oddly vulnerable – recovered, chuckling in the darkness and offering to call at Longbourn, of all places. And now investigating the state of the ford with her father!
No plans of that nature had been voiced last night, during the light repast they all sat down to before retiring. Her father had requested it was served – once he had recovered from the shock of seeing her arrive escorted by Mr. Darcy and his cousin – but did not touch it, merely kept the others company as they ate.
As for herself, Elizabeth was too tired to do it justice. She was too tired to speak even, and – true to form – Mr. Darcy did not say much either. It was the Colonel and her father who seemed happy to strike up a conversation, only to find that it effortlessly flowed, much like the wine they had ordered. By the time Elizabeth decided she needed her bed, they were doing battle with the third carafe, while debating over the Peninsular campaign and the shocking way it was reported in the papers.
She had previously assumed that Mr. Darcy must have made his own escape soon after, but since she could not remember any talk of burst riverbanks, impassable fords or the need for investigation, she could only conclude that such matters must have been discussed after she had left them.
Elizabeth all but giggled and shook her head, not quite able to picture Mr. Darcy imbibing with the Colonel and her father – or indeed with anyone – and willingly engaging in lengthy conversations.
For some reason, despite having seen him light-heartedly bantering with his cousin on their journey, she rather doubted the same genial manner might have emerged in her father’s presence.
The thought gave her pause. Perhaps it had. Perhaps this was precisely why her father was prepared to ride out investigating fords with a man whom, much like herself, he could scarce abide.
Not that she found Mr. Darcy as intolerable as ever – not after yesterday. She did not like him –… No, that was not strictly true. She did like the facets encountered over breakfast. And speaking of breakfast and the ensuing warnings, she was no longer certain she could or should detest him on account of Mr. Wickham. But that was neither here nor there.
“Oh, Lizzy, only think!”
“Believe me, Lydia, I am trying to – if you would only let me! Come, take Mamma her tea – wake Kitty – find Mary –… ”
“I will not! You are sending me away so that you can confide in Jane, but I want to hear it too. I am not a child anymore, and I would like to hear of your beaus as much as anybody. Come, Lizzy, do tell! You spent a whole day in his carriage, surely you have something to impart! Did he hold your hand? Did he ask for a private interview? Did he flirt? Goodness, no, what am I saying? Of course he did not flirt – who can imagine Mr. Darcy flirting! Was he all brooding and romantic, then? Oh, Lizzy, just think – and he said you were not handsome enough to tempt him. Oh, what a laugh! Who would have thought it? Mr. Darcy!”
“Hush, Lydia!” this time Elizabeth and Jane urged, both at once, and Jane stared at her sister in concern, as Elizabeth’s mouth literally fell open.
Yes, he did hold her hand.
Yes, he did ask for an interview – or at least asked if he could call at Longbourn.
Yes, he did flirt – after a fashion.
Yes, he had been brooding – and perhaps romantic!
What sort of a world was this, were Lydia made her see things that she had not?
And there was more – things that Lydia would not even understand and never thought of mentioning. He had been mindful of her comfort. He had brought her into his inner circle. He had curtailed his visit with his aunt and had gone out of his way to convey her to her relations. He had even silenced Mr. Collins, when he most needed silencing – and had now moved on to staying late into the night with her father and planning rides to ascertain whether the ford could be crossed in safety.
Was Lydia in the right? Was Mr. Darcy in love with her? Was he about to propose – to her, of all people? Was that why he had been so vexed by the wet weather and the lack of a private parlour?
“What is it, Lizzy?” Lydia piped up.
“Lizzy, are you unwell? You have gone very pale!”
Elizabeth pursed her lips and forgot to reply, as compassion softened her troubled mien. Poor man! He will be disappointed and she was sorry for it. What a blow must this be, for so proud a man, to learn that his affections were not returned!
His affections? Good Lord, was she blind? How did she not see it? Or had she been misled by her own former dislike of him into thinking that he disliked her also?
The unexpected word almost made her start. Former dislike? Where did that come from? She disliked him no longer – after just one day? After just one day of revelations? After just one day of casting his reserve aside?
Why now, though? Once Lydia had begun to nudge the pieces into place, others followed, until it was plain to see that he had singled her out as far back as the ball at Netherfield. Throughout his stay in Hertfordshire he had shown more interest in her than in any other female. So why had it taken him so long to discard his reserve?
More to the point, why did it matter? She was going to refuse him, was she not?
“Good heavens!” she repeated, this time with a loud gasp.
“What is it, Lizzy?” her eldest and her youngest sister chorused and then Jane added, “What is wrong?”
Wrong? Wrong? This was a disaster! It had just come to her – their final conversation in the darkened carriage. He had asked for permission to call on her at Longbourn, presumably with the intention to propose, and she had urged him to speak up on the morrow! Now – today!
‘I should like that very much. Aye, Miss Bennet. God willing, on the morrow.’
Poor man! He must have thought she was encouraging him – while all she aimed for was teasing him out of the notion of calling upon them in Hertfordshire.
“Good heavens!” she said, for the third time.
“Lizzy, would you stop saying that!”
“Hush, Lydia!” came the familiar admonishment, just from Jane this time, followed almost instantly by an urgent, “Lizzy, look!”
Had it not been for Jane squeezing her arm, very tightly, Elizabeth would have missed the warning, just as she had missed Lydia’s outburst, the ensuing reprimand, the knock on the door and Lydia’s voice piping up again to ask the caller to come in. She winced at the tight squeeze – but her head snapped up, only to see the door opening to admit Mr. Darcy.
“Jane, do not leave me!” she whispered in something very much like panic.
Had she been in command of her senses, she would have laughed. With a small difference – ‘Jane’, rather than ‘Kitty’ – this was, word for word, exactly what she said when she had been confronted with Mr. Collins’s imminent proposal. Was she forever doomed to enlist the help of one of her sisters, in order to escape her suitors?
Poor Mr. Darcy, the thought intruded yet again. How disagreeable must it be for him, if he ever learns that he was in the same boat as Mr. Collins.
Her highly-strung mind jumped erratically from one thing to another – from Mr. Collins’s imaginary boat to Polperro and then to damsels in distress, before she suddenly clenched her fingers together in her lap and willed herself into some control over her scattered senses. When she thought she had achieved it, she stood up.
“Mr. Darcy. Pray come in, Sir,” she offered, then looked back down towards her elder sister, her eyes pleading.
“Of course, Lizzy,” Jane reassured her in a whisper, before instructing Lydia, unusually sharply, to sit still and keep quiet – or else leave the room.
Making a show of pressing her lips together, Lydia did not budge.
‘Of course not!’ Elizabeth all but groaned, knowing full well that wild horses could not drag her away from a scene such as this. More worrying still, whatever Lydia learned would soon be broadcast over seven counties! For a moment, she contemplated the wisdom of walking out with Mr. Darcy, but thought better of it. If Lydia was the price for Jane’s support, then so be it!
With a deep, steadying breath, she walked towards their visitor.
“Good morning, Mr. Darcy. I hope you are well rested.”
“I am, I thank you, as I trust are you.”
“Would you not sit down – unless you are pressed for time? My sister tells me you have agreed to ride with my father to ascertain whether the ford can be crossed in safety.”
“I have. We are to depart shortly. I was… hm!… hoping to see you, though, before I left.”
It was cowardly in the extreme to feign forgetfulness – and yet that was precisely what she did.
“Oh? Were you?”
“I was. If you remember, there was something I most particularly wished to speak of.”
“Oh, yes, of course. Pray, be seated. Would you care for tea?”
“I thank you, no. I…”
Darting swift glances towards Jane and Lydia, Mr. Darcy walked towards the sofa that was nearest to the door, and waited. She joined him there and sat down, yet apparently that was not what he was waiting for, as he did not take a seat, but came to stand behind a nearby chair, fidgeting with his cuffs.
It was so extraordinary to see Mr. Darcy fidget, that unreserved compassion flooded her again, chasing away the cowardly notion of suggesting that he should not speak now, but call at Longbourn after all.
No, she could not do that, she determined in the face of his acute discomfort. She had to let him say his piece, now, and be kind in her refusal. He would be hurt, but he would heal. He had his family – … No, the family included Lady Catherine. Well, at least he had his cousin. He would heal, and the sooner she allowed him to begin, the better. It was not fair for her to do otherwise. After all, it was not in her nature to torment a respectable man – as she had already said to Mr. Collins.
‘But this is not Mr. Collins!’, a sharp thought intruded, making her wish she could cover her eyes, run from the room and hide until the spinning haze that clouded her mind receded.
“Miss Bennet, I…” he began, then darted a look at Jane again. With a deep breath, he finally came to sit beside her. “Miss Bennet, is there a chance to talk in private?” he asked with some determination. “I am not comfortable speaking of it in your sisters’ presence.”
As nearly everybody is wont to do, at some time or other in their lives, Elizabeth understood exactly what it pleased her. She understood him to mean ‘sister’s’. That, coupled with his frequent glances towards Jane’s side of the room, painted the most rewarding picture. Sudden, blessed relief coursed through her and she all but laughed in sheer delight at her own folly, to have lost her senses over nothing!
“Mr. Darcy,” she said with a wide smile, “was it Mr. Bingley you wished to speak of?”
“Mr. Bingley!” Darcy exclaimed in his turn. “No, I do not wish to speak of Mr. Bingley!” he forcefully retorted – and at that, predictably, both Jane and Lydia looked up.
Before Elizabeth could feel concern for her elder sister – and indeed before she could fully comprehend precisely why the forceful retort seemed to please her rather than bring back the turmoil – equally predictably, Lydia spoke up:
“Mr. Bingley! Is he coming back to Netherfield, Sir?”
Two pairs of eyes turned upon her with silent but stern warnings and the elder sisters prayed that she would take heed. As for Darcy, he decided to attend to the interruption – albeit with considerable vexation.
“No, Miss… er… Lydia, I should imagine not.”
“He is not? How horrid! He is not giving up the lease though, is he?”
‘Hush, Lydia!’ would not have been civil enough for company, which is why Jane and Elizabeth simultaneously decided to drop the ‘Hush’.
“I really cannot tell. Why should you wish to know?”
“Because then he will never come back again and Jane will never see him.”
“Lydia!” they both urged, even louder, and at that she impatiently shrugged.
“Oh, la, Jane, what does it signify? Why can I not ask? You have been pining for him these five or six months together. Do you not wish to know whether he is coming back or not?”
“Lydia, enough!” Elizabeth commanded in the most determined manner.
As for Jane, she seemed to have forgotten how to speak. Extreme concern etched in her countenance, Elizabeth stood from the sofa with a swift, “Would you excuse me, Mr. Darcy?” and walked up to her elder sister.
She would not discomfit her by making a scene and putting her arms around her. She merely took her hands and asked, “Jane, would you not go to our mother?” before pursing her lips and almost hissing over her shoulder, “As for you, Lydia, you most certainly should!”
Lydia narrowed her eyes and folded her arms in defiance. Jane merely shook her head.
“I am well. Go to Mr. Darcy,” she softly urged and, reluctant as she might have been to leave her, Elizabeth felt compelled to follow her advice.
She found the gentleman standing by the sofa, his eyes fixed on Jane’s pained countenance. She did not sit, and neither did he.
“Miss Bennet,” he brought himself to ask, very quietly, “Was your sister much attached to Mr. Bingley?”
Mortified in extreme by the entire debacle, Elizabeth could only offer:
“Forgive me, Mr. Darcy, but I cannot discuss my sister’s sentiments with you.”
“But your sister Lydia – ”
“Has spoken out of turn!” she concluded, very firmly, then instantly regretted her sharpness of both tone and manner, for it was Lydia who deserved it and not him. On an impulse, she laid a hand on his sleeve. “I must apologise, Sir,” she said with a tentative smile. “Not only for the unmerited sharpness just now, but also for having to ask you to postpone our conversation. It seems…” she trailed off, with a slight gesture meant to indicate that she was needed elsewhere.
“I understand. Forgive me for having intruded for so long,” he offered, reaching to gather the small hand still resting on his sleeve.
He held it pressed between his palms for something that, by every standard, was a long time. Still – erroneously or not – she did not withdraw it. Suddenly, a smile fluttered on his lips.
“There is still Longbourn, Miss Bennet, is there not?”
The warmth in his eyes was unmistakable, as was the underlying message, and Elizabeth accepted both with unthinking pleasure, inordinately relieved that nothing had to be decided now. That she was suddenly freed from the fear of making a terrible mistake – one way or the other. His all-but-declared interest was gratifying, or at least had become so of late, and she could not help feeling thankful for his understanding and his patience. She had not orchestrated a respite – he had offered it freely, and at that very comfortable thought, her lips curled up into a smile.
“Indeed, Mr. Darcy. There is always Longbourn.”
She saw him swallow hard, before he carried her hand to his lips. They were warm and – strangely – both firm and soft at the same time, and his tingling breath sent a very foolish flutter right into the pit of her stomach, when he whispered against her skin:
“I thank you, Miss Bennet.”
He did not release her hand, but pressed it to his lips once more – a firm kiss that seemed to brand itself into her very flesh – before he gave the deepest bow, relinquished her fingers, farewelled her sisters, and was gone.
* * * *
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