Love, Pride & Delicacy

Chapter Two

Please be aware this is an unedited work in progress. While I aim for perfection, I can almost guarantee there will be errors.
I hope you enjoy the story regardless.
xx Maree

“Lizzy, pray tell me what weighs so greatly on your mind. You have not been at all yourself since your return from Kent.”

Elizabeth Bennet looked down to where Jane had settled her petite fingers over Lizzy’s own hand on the carriage bench between them, then looked up to her beloved sister’s face. Worry had etched itself in Jane’s delicate features. Inwardly, Lizzy cursed herself for not making a more concerted effort to conceal her own disquiet.

“Do you have misgivings over rejecting the proposal?”

Lizzy froze. The proposal? She had gone to great pains to keep that matter private; even from her most trusted confidant, Jane. She swallowed her shock and cleared her throat. “I—”

Jane shook her head. “Of course you should not regret it. Even I would struggle to find pleasant qualities in our cousin.”

The tension eased from Lizzy’s muscles. Of course Jane referred to her rejection of their cousin, Mr Collins. She laughed at the notion. “Dear Jane, I believe you underestimate your ability to find the good in everyone. But you are correct, our cousin Mr Collins does make a challenging case. I do surmise he could be the utmost boring person I have had the displeasure of meeting. I truly do not know how Charlotte can bear him.”

“You said she seemed content with her situation?”

Lizzy nodded. “She has made the best of things. From what I witnessed, she spends very little time with her husband. She did not complain. But Jane I worry that, without constant companions, she will become lonely.”

Jane squeezed Lizzy’s hand. “Charlotte is a sensible, practical woman, Lizzy. She is not like you or I, in our need for love and companionship. She is content with her own company. Besides, you said they are quite often invited to Rosings to dine with Lady Catherine and her daughter. And as the Rector’s wife, I am sure she will have much to occupy her time.”

“Still, I shall make effort to be more diligent in my correspondence.”

“You are a good friend, Elizabeth Bennet.”

Lizzy recalled what she had learned of Mr Bingley while she was in Kent. How Mr Darcy’s own cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, had bragged of Mr Darcy’s success in rescuing poor Mr Bingley from the clutches of an altogether inappropriate match. Her fingers clenched as she once again felt fury at Mr Darcy’s interference in Jane’s happiness.

Moreover, she thought of how Mr Darcy and Caroline Bingley had worked together to ensure Mr Bingley remained unaware of Jane’s presence in London. How devastated Jane had been to learn of Mr Bingley’s supposed indifference to her presence there.

And yet despite her anger over Mr Darcy’s interference, Lizzy found herself hesitant to inform Jane of all she had learned. She told herself it was because she believed Jane’s heart had begun to mend. Jane was not likely to survive should Bingley reject her and so thoroughly break her heart a second time. No, it was in Jane’s best interest that Lizzy keep such knowledge to herself.

That Lizzy feared Jane’s reaquaintance with Mr Bingley would bring further interactions with Mr Darcy was inconsequential to her decision. Lizzy’s own heart hurt too greatly when she allowed the memories of Mr Darcy’s words to fill her thoughts. She had no desire at all to be reacquainted with him. Both she and her sister deserved better than the Darcys and the Bingleys of this world.

Lizzy swallowed the pang of guilt that built in her chest. “Yet more evidence of your gift in finding the good in all, dear sister.”

“Do you not agree you are a good friend, Lizzy?”

The carriage gave an unexpected jolt causing both girls to brace themselves to stop from falling from their seats. The pause in the conversation stretched. Looking to her sister, Lizzy saw Jane still awaited her reply. Patience was yet another virtue in which Jane excelled, and in which Lizzy found herself lacking.

She sighed. “Whilst I strive to be a good friend, I do not believe I am always successful in my endeavour.”

Jane laughed. “Dear Lizzy, your greatest fault is that you judge yourself too harshly. for no-one is ever successful in all they endeavour. That you do your best to be considerate of the feelings and needs of others is all anyone can ask of a good friend.”

Considerate of the needs of others. And therein lay the heart of Lizzy’s misery. Not once, but twice now she had pushed aside the needs of her family in favour of her own desires.

Mr Darcy, and even his aunt, the great Lady Catherine De Burgh, might look down upon her mother for having all five daughters out at once. They might view her mother’s actions as vulgar and distasteful, seeing only her mother’s desires for her daughters to secure matches with men of means and position, and believing her actions to be driven by Mrs Bennet’s own desires for societal recognition.

But Lizzy understood, despite outward appearance, and despite Lizzy’s own chagrin over her mother’s indelicacy, that Mrs Bennet’s behaviour was borne from love for her daughters and from her need to see their futures secured in a manner she and Mr Bennet had failed to provide.

Not once but twice Lizzy had rejected marriage proposals that would provide the security and advantage Mrs Bennet sought for her daughters. The first, a man with whom she felt nothing but boredom. Were she more like Charlotte, less fanciful in her pursuit of romance, less in need of stimulating conversation and companionship, Lizzy could have secured the future of Longbourn by marrying Mr Collins.

She squeezed her eyes shut against nightmare-inducing visions of a future married to her pious cousin. No. She would much rather see herself and each of her sisters, even sweet Jane, go into service than to imagine any of them married to that man for the remainder of their days.

But what of Mr Darcy’s proposal? As the Mistress of Pemberley, Lizzy would have had every opportunity to better the lives of her sisters. Were Lizzy to marry and produce an heir during her father’s lifetime, Longbourn would also be saved.

For the briefest moment the image of a small boy, dark eyes filled with mischief and a mop of unruly dark hair curling over his forehead, as she imagined she would have found on the head of a young Mr Darcy, filled her vision.

“My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

Try as she might, Lizzy was incapable of keeping Darcy’s words from replaying incessantly in her mind. She squeezed her eyes closed against the traitorous thoughts, turning away from her sister as she wiped the errant tear from her cheek.

Mr Darcy would never cause her physical harm. Nor would she suffer the boredom she imagined poor Charlotte faced. On a number of occasions, Lizzy had found herself delighting in spirited repartee with the other times stoic and cold man. Indeed, had his behaviour towards others—towards dear Jane and the charming Mr Wickham—not been so reprehensible, had his pride not been so severe, Lizzy believed she would be quite content as the Mistress of Pemberley.

“Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? To congratulate myself on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?”

There. That was the true Fitzwilliam Darcy. The man who claimed love, yet believed her not handsome enough to dance with. The man who claimed love, yet denied his friend the same. Denied dear Jane the same. “Arrogant, hateful man.”

“Lizzy?” Jane’s voice was filled with love and worry. Dearest Jane. Always putting others before her own needs. Always worrying about her sisters. Always.

What if Lizzy had accepted Mr Darcy’s proposal? As Mrs Darcy, Lizzy’s sisters, Jane, would by extension be Mr Darcy’s sisters. How, then, could he keep Mr Bingley from Jane?

Would marriage to Mr Darcy have been so terrible? He might not consider her a handsome woman, but Lizzy was confident he would treat her with respect. He was too proud a man to do otherwise.

“Lizzy, you must tell me what rests so heavily on you that it affects you so. I do not believe I have ever seen you display such pallor, nor carry such dullness in your eyes.”

Lizzy began patting her cheeks to bring them colour.

Jane reached out and pulled Lizzy’s hands away from her face. “Stop, Lizzy. Please, talk to me.”

She turned her hands over in Jane’s and linked their fingers. Succumbing to the pleas of her sister, Lizzy’s resolve to keep her secret crumbled. “Oh Jane, how could I possibly agree to marry such a wretch of a man? And why would he declare love when he clearly thinks so little of our family?”

“Mr Collins declared love? Oh Lizzy, I do not believe Mr Collins has any notion of love. His marriage to Charlotte is one of practicality. It may not be for you or for me, but I believe they will make the best of the situation. Even Mama has accepted Longbourn will not be saved through marriage to Mr Collins. Papa is of good health. There is ample time for any and all of his five daughters to wed and produce heirs. Longbourn is not yet lost.”

“No Jane, you do not understand. I do not speak of Mr Collins.”

“But—”

“Mr Darcy! Oh Jane, Mr Darcy proposed! He proposed and I turned him away.” Tears made tracks down Lizzy’s cheeks as she shared her confession with her sister. “I turned him away because he thinks so little of us all, but Jane, had I accepted…”

Overcome with shame Lizzy found herself, for possibly the first time in memory, unable to speak. She took a deep breath. Her whole body shuddered with the effort, but she was determined to compose herself. “I am sorry, Jane. Truly sorry.”

Jane pulled Lizzy into her embrace. It was unsettling for Lizzy to be comforted by her sister. While she appreciated the gesture, Lizzy had always taken on the role of providing comfort to her sisters. She prided herself in her steady nature.

Sensing Lizzy’s discomfort, Jane pulled back from the embrace, but rested her hands on the sides of Lizzy’s head, brushing errant curls back from her sister’s face. She leaned forward and rested her forehead against Lizzy’s until she was confident Lizzy had accepted her comfort.

“Elizabeth Bennet, you have nothing to apologise for.”

“But—”

“No, Lizzy. There are five Bennet sisters. It is not your sole responsibility to save our family. If anything, as the eldest daughter, it should have been me betrothed to our cousin. Had Mama not believed so strongly a proposal would be made by Mr Bingley—”

Jane choked on the words. This time it was Lizzy who offered comfort. Having not experienced love herself, she could not imagine the pain Jane suffered. She did not truly believe Mr Darcy loved her. And that was for the best, given how little he thought of her family.

“Oh Lizzy, you must make promise to marry with only thought to your own love and happiness. I cannot bear thought of you living a future of sorrow or melancholy.”

Lizzy tightened her embrace a moment before releasing her sister, leaning back and holding Jane’s gaze. “I shall only promise on your agreement to the same.” She waited until Jane nodded her agreement, then returned her promise.

Both girls sat back on the bench watching the landscape pass by as the carriage continued its journey. “Perhaps it will be Lydia who find a happy match with a wealthy military man and saves us all.”

Jane’s body shook with retrained giggles, and it was not long before Lizzy joined her.

Clearing her throat, Jane was first to control her ill-mannered outburst. “Oh Lizzy, I do love our youngest sister’s vivacity and enthusiasm in her quest for a husband, but I fear if our future is in her hands, all is lost.”