Chapter Five: Question and Answer
After sending a reply to Georgiana, but ignoring Lady Catherine’s unwelcome missive until he was more a master of himself and what he wished to say to her, Darcy had Watkins present him with the chosen ensemble for the evening at Longbourn.
“Sir, may I recommend the Mathematical for this evening? Or perhaps,” Watkins continued with the most subtle of sly looks, “The Trone d’Amour?”
Narrowing his gaze, Darcy ignored the presumption. “The Mathematical, Watkins, will do admirably.”
Mildly chastened for even suggesting the Throne of Love for his master, Watkins nodded and complied, knotting Mr. Darcy’s neckcloth before brushing his dark gray evening coat and breeches. He then finger-combed Mr. Darcy’s rather unruly hair before pronouncing him presentable. “I understand Mr. Bingley and his family will be following later, sir?”
“Would you like me to send along a fresh coat for the evening?”
Darcy smiled crookedly at his valet. “That shan’t be necessary Watkins. This is a family dinner in the country. I am sure your efforts will be superior to the circumstances.”
Watkins bowed, not quite hiding the smug tilt to his lips. “Very good, sir.
Bingley was at his door when Watkins retired to his own quarters. “Darcy. Have you a moment?” His host and friend eyed him swiftly and was not at all abashed about breaking into a broad grin. “You’re in a bad way, my friend.”
Unwilling and unable to deny it, Darcy shrugged. “But is she? That’s the sticking point.”
“Shall I ask my friend Elizabeth for deeper intelligence?”
Darcy blinked, honestly surprised and a bit distracted. “Bingley? Such good friends already as to use Christian names?” The pair of them had been friends for years and rarely did so.
The younger man shrugged, his face tinting with a blush. “Well, Darcy, I can hardly call her ‘Bennet,’ can I? I slipped once, you know, and did so.” Darcy laughed, surprised, and Bingley continued. “We daren’t use those names in front of her family.”
“Well, no. Her mother would be buying wedding clothes within an hour.”
Again, Bingley looked so alarmed that Darcy was concerned for him. “You’re sure I haven’t compromised her?”
“You have maligned my powers of observation once regarding her already, Bingley,” Darcy said with a small smile, “so I have taken care to be more aware. No. As you say, you are friends; unlikely as that might be for either of you. Her affections are not engaged and she has no expectations.” Miss Elizabeth Bennet truly treated Charles Bingley as a schoolfellow, as Bingley had said. “I cannot speak for her mother,” he went on as Bingley snorted in suppressed humor, “but I do not see anyone requiring Miss Elizabeth to, ah, become involved where she doesn’t wish it.”
“And Miss Bennet?” Bingley said, redirecting the conversation with the skill of a barrister.
For once, remembering the recent self-revelations prompted by Lady Catherine’s intrusive, presumptuous letter, Darcy allowed himself to smile in a slightly love-sick manner. “I hope to take her out for a drive shortly, before dinner, to better ascertain her feelings.”
“Oh, ho! As serious as all that, my friend?”
Bingley’s clap on the back was all the encouragement Darcy required. He knew his own heart, knew his own mind, but he would not be so dull as to mistake his wishes for the wishes of another.
“‘It is the essence of human things that the same objects which are highly useful in their season, measure, and degree, became mischievous in their excess, at other periods, and under other circumstances.’ That was on page forty-three, Mr. Darcy.”
Jane’s sigh was almost silent as they drove slowly along a rutted country cowpath in Bingley’s open chaise. It would seat four, but presently seated three: Darcy himself, Jane and – playing the part of chaperon with unknowing perfection – Miss Mary Bennet.
“Thank you, Mary,” Jane said in her patient way, but still sounding like the eldest sister of a family. Her quiet authority, gently asserted, brought only a smile to Miss Mary’s face.
Darcy felt it behooved him to support his lady. “Wise words indeed, Miss Mary. Whose are they?”
The middle Bennet sister’s brows rose behind her round spectacles. “Why, this is Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education, by Hannah More.” She closed the small volume, with a finger between the pages to mark the place. “She has a great many practical ideas, Mr. Darcy. I think they should be applied more widely.”
Darcy nodded slowly, thinking of Georgiana and her artistic pursuits. He couldn’t agree with Hannah More, but he did see how some of the words that Miss Mary had been sharing might be applicable for some of the lower classes. He cast about quickly for something agreeable to say – Miss Mary was Jane’s sister, and he wished for her to be at her ease, no matter how little he appreciated having her with them – but was rescued, thankfully, by his Jane.
His Jane… If only he could be certain of her.
. . .
He had asked her father – whom he vastly preferred to converse with when possible – if he could take Miss Bennet and her maid out for a drive, as the day was fine.
Mr. Bennet’s lips had twitched against a smile. “Indeed, Mr. Darcy. I am sure she will be happy to go with you. But my daughters, you see, share but one maid between them.” Instead of sounding abashed, Mr. Bennet seemed to find this indication of either penury or ease amusing. “And I’m afraid that the girl is engaged in nursing Mrs. Bennet, who is suffering from a nervous complaint this afternoon.”
“I do hope she’ll be well for dinner,” Darcy had murmured, though to be perfectly frank, he felt nothing of the sort. Still, a man had to say something.
Mr. Bennet laughed lightly. “I’m sure she shall. But that leaves Jane without a maid, does it not?” The look Jane’s father gave him was shrewd, but not displeased. “I propose you take one of her sisters with you, Mr. Darcy.”
. . .
Jane spoke to Mary, that afternoon in the chaise. “I thank you for sharing your reading with us, Mary. I was wondering, might you like to walk for a bit? Sitting so long is so confining, you know, and a bit of exercise is also healthy for young women. I would walk myself, if my ankle did not prevent me.” She smiled serenely at Darcy, who watched her in something like awe. “Does not your sister, Miss Darcy, engage in exercise from time to time, sir?”
Oh, he loved her. He knew it, but it was clearly manifest that she would suit not only himself, but his home and his family as well. Emotion thickened his throat, so he kept silent until he was again master of himself. A nod was apparently enough of a response.
Miss Mary Bennet took Jane’s advice and departed the chaise, book in hand, to walk and read simultaneously. Bingley’s driver slowed the horses down to the barest of walks to accommodate and Darcy could only bless his good fortune.
Somewhat daring, he took Jane’s hand in his own. Neither wore gloves for this rather casual outing, so the sensation of her bare skin in his palm was new and welcome. “You demonstrate a great understanding of your sisters, Miss Bennet,” he said after a moment. “I can only admire such wisdom in one so young.”
Jane blushed, her eyes lowered as she thanked him. “Truly, Mr. Darcy, it is nothing of merit. It is my role, yes? You are the eldest in your family, are you not?”
“I am.” He kept her hand in his, thankful that she didn’t pull it away. He was a gentleman and would not wish to do anything untoward. “It is a role that not many undertake to do well; I – I could wish that my sister would have had an elder sister like your sisters have. She might feel more at ease with herself if she had.”
Dark blue eyes met his, wonder widening them and – he hoped – emotion warming their lake-deep hue. “Mr. Darcy…”
He leaned closer to her, knowing exactly what he wanted. “Miss Bennet – Jane, if I may – I had never expected to meet someone of your beauty, grace and kindness. Not anywhere.” Her lips parted; his eyes dropped to them and temptation flamed under his skin. Still, he refrained, reminding himself that the lady was not his.
“I never expected,” she whispered, her usual gentle notes lost somewhere between her tongue and his ear, “never expected to meet a gentleman of your caliber either, Mr. Darcy… I, I am honored you think so highly of me.” She seemed to recover herself somewhat. Lifting her chin, she offered him a small smile, tentative, hopeful. His heart swelled within his chest as she continued. “You have used my Christian name, but I do not know yours.”
Had she not inquired? Most young women he had met had done so instantly – hopeful of having that type of intimate knowledge – shortly after an introduction. His Jane though…she was not like other women. “Fitzwilliam, madam.”
“Jane,” she reminded him, her eyes twinkling with what he hoped was joy.
He bent toward her, momentarily forgetting he had not yet actually secured her consent. “Jane…”
“Yes?” She moved her head back a trifle, enough to recollect him to the circumstances: the driver, Miss Mary walking alongside the chaise, and the fact that he had not asked for an answer.
He stiffened his spine, steeling himself to be able to say it with all due gravity, to choose his words carefully, for this was the most important question he had ever asked anyone. “Jane. You must know how ardently I admire and love you. In the short time we have known each other, I have come to feel for you a most passionate regard, and can only pray that you feel the same. I offer my hand, my name and all that I am. May I hope that you will do me the honor of accepting me as your husband? Of becoming my wife?”
His hope grew with his confidence in her answer with every sentence, as his Jane gripped his hands in both of her own, their strength reassuring. The color in her face fluctuated, tears stood in her eyes, but she never looked down or away. Modest she was, gentle and kind she would always be, but Jane Bennet was a brave woman and he loved her with his entire heart.
She moistened her lips and he manfully resisted temptation yet again. “Oh Mr. Darcy. Fitzwilliam. Yes, yes, I will.”