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Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Lesser of Two Evils


(2004)
Pride and Prejudice    
"Darcy learns of Elizabeth's dislike before Hunsford" / "Dictionary Game"
Mr. Collins overimbibes on Mr. Bingley's wine, and Elizabeth must flee to protect her reputation.



"If you mean Darcy," cried her brother, "he may go to bed, if he chuses, before it begins-"
Pride and Prejudice,
Volume I, Chapter XI



"Miss Elizabeth...Miss Elizabeth!" The cries were getting closer and more desperate. Quickly, Elizabeth Bennet took note of her surroundings. She was at the base of the stairs. Above were the chambers she and Jane had occupied several days ago during the latter's illness. She heard footsteps. The hall was so long; she would never reach the end before Mr. Collins appeared. If he saw her, all would be lost. She had begged him to leave her be, but he would not hear her in his present careless mood, exacerbated by the copious amount of drink he had consumed. She had no intention of being compromised, the likelihood of it increasing with each minute spent in such company. She felt her stomach lurch. Save the gentleman himself, only her mother, sedulous in her quest to obtain sons-in-law, could find reason to rejoice in that prospect.

Almost as soon as they entered the ballroom at Netherfield, Mr. Collins seemed to claim Elizabeth as his rightful property. His lecherous smile and inane conversation left her no patience for his troublesome habit of touching her at every turn. When he placed his arm around her, she deftly removed herself from the embrace before anyone observed his breach of propriety. While handing her a glass of wine, he leaned over as if to kiss her cheek; she had stepped back in amazement, nearly spilling the drink. No remonstrance on her part, no hint of the irreproachable conduct expected of a man of his profession could stem his advances.

The music brought no cheer, for although Mr. Collins would not dance with her after the first set, he remained steadfastly by her side and other, more deserving men were put off. How she wished for the comfort of a watchful elder brother! Who would provide the remedy? The man was hardly desirable. No lady of sense would seek to turn his eye from Elizabeth; not even mercenary-minded Charlotte would be tempted to undertake it. Mr. Bingley's faithful attention to Jane, whose compassionate heart ached for her, at once kept the eldest Miss Bennet safe from their cousin and too much engaged to lend considerable aid to her sister. Mary, Kitty and Lydia would not go near them. Mrs. Bennet was too pleased and Mr. Bennet too entertained by the pairing to detect the level of distress, even danger, in her circumstances. At last, Sir William Lucas approached them. He greeted them both and asked Collins a series of questions. Elizabeth used the opportunity to slip out of the ballroom. Unfortunately, she had been followed.

She weighed her options and ascended the stairway. It was partially in shadow; she would be concealed well enough should he pass by her. She was halfway up when she saw him. He grasped the railing and for a moment she thought she had been found out. Holding her breath and listening to her pulse drown out almost every other sound, she was relieved to observe him run his hand along the smooth surface and mumble something about the superiority of the grand staircases at Rosings. Praying that the swish of her skirts would not be heard above the strains of music and the man's own muttering, she took two steps at a time and gained the landing. Below, Collins moved on.

There was light at one end of the hall. She felt her way along, seeking a place to hide and wondering whether by now any of her family had noticed her absence. She realised belatedly that the guest quarters were in the other direction, but nothing could induce her to retrace her steps while that man was still so close. She crept further down the corridor. When she reached the end of it, she heard Mr. Collins's slurred voice. "Elizabeth, are you up there? Where have you gone?" She could not let him see her! She groped behind her and, to her surprise, fell against a door as it opened. Scrambling to her full height, she shut herself in the room and released a loud sigh.

She pressed her back against the wall and waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. There was a low fire burning. She could just make out a chair, a desk, perhaps the edge of a bed. She was wondering whether this was Mr. Bingley's room and how soon she would be able to leave it, when the hall erupted in noise. Doors were being opened and shut in quick succession and that dreaded voice was calling her name once more. Collins apparently had resorted to searching the bedchambers. At last, the door beside her swung open, shielding her from view.

"Elizabeth Bennet!" She shivered in revulsion. "Where are you?" the man hissed as he stumbled into the room. Her fear kept her silent.

"What the devil are you doing here?"

The irritated growl had come from the vicinity of the bed. A second man was confronting the first. "What do you mean by barging into my room? Are you out of your senses?" The men were almost in the hall now.

Collins's shocked voice uttered, "Sir, I beg your pardon! I did not see you there."

"Answer my question!"

"I...I am looking for a young lady-"

"And why would you expect to find her in another gentleman's bedchamber?" To this, Collins stuttered and stammered, failing miserably to regain control of the situation. "Get out now before I have you thrown out of the house!"

"Yes, yes, I am leaving," Collins said hurriedly. "Please let go of- I am leaving! This instant! The lady is very likely in the ballroom. I shall go there immediately." He backed into the wall, ran off, and scuttled down the stairs. Soon his footsteps could no longer be heard.

Elizabeth's shock at hearing the second voice had doubled when she recognised to whom it belonged. Could any nightmare be as horrible as this? Of all the misfortunes, to exchange Mr. Collins's company for his! She thought he had decamped to London or some other place, anywhere to avoid an evening of merrymaking. How was she going to extricate herself from this madness?

He backed away from the door. She moved toward it. She would appeal to her father. If I can just get to the ballroom! She was almost out when she froze at the unexpected words and rush of breath against the nape of her neck:

"Do not even think of leaving, Miss Bennet."

~*~


Darcy pressed the door closed with one hand and grabbed Elizabeth's arm with the other. "I would not recommend screaming," he whispered in warning, "unless you want that man to return or some gossiping servant to discover exactly where you go when you absent yourself from a country dance." He pulled her into the room.

His remark ignited her indignation. Did he think she had a choice in the matter? Who could have foreseen that Mr. Collins would become so unruly? She saw the wisdom of keeping her voice low but could not resist straining against his grip. "You saw him!" She was shaking as she spoke. "That creature! What if he had found me? I know not what I would have done." She watched while he stoked the fire. "I had no idea this was your...room, Mr. Darcy." She could not bring herself to say 'bedroom.' "Had I known, I never would have presumed..." Her voice tapered off as she wondered whether he was even listening.

Darcy heard every word Elizabeth uttered. He was acutely aware of her. His precautions had been futile; he was not safe in his own chamber. When he refused to venture out of it, circumstances conspired to bring her in. While she was away from him he could delude himself into thinking he had conquered this inconvenient attachment, but seeing her again, even in shadow, was all that was required for ardent desire, renascent and irrepressible, to rule him as completely as it ever had done. He released her and finished his task. Afterwards he locked the door, lit several candles and bade her sit in a chair next to the bed.

He picked up a blanket and draped it over her shoulders. "He has not harmed you?" he asked her, terrified of her reply. She shook her head and he released the breath he had been holding. They could see each other well enough now. Elizabeth's face was streaked with tears. If that man had put one hand on her, he might have been tempted to kill him. He could hurt him even still for causing her such distress.

As he sat across from her on the bed clothed only in an open shirt and breeches, Elizabeth, in her numbness, could do little more than stare at him and think how unlike her cousin he was. She was wary; after all, she had no business here, and her reputation was still very much at risk. Possibly my virtue as well! Yet he has made no attempt to take advantage of me. Perhaps I am too far beneath him even for that. Perhaps it is because he finds me only 'tolerable.' Whatever the reason, it appears that I am safe for the present. After they regarded each other for some moments, Darcy looked down, gasped, and hastily fastened his shirt, muttering his apologies and causing his companion to blush.

Elizabeth broke the awkward silence. "I suppose I should thank you, Mr. Darcy," she began reluctantly, wrapping the blanket tightly around her. She looked just beyond him to the luxurious linens and pillows gracing his bed. How she wished she could lie down on her own pillow and forget this night. "Though I am aware that being found in a man's rooms would be as detrimental to my reputation as whatever my cousin had in mind," she closed her eyes against the thought, "this is by far the lesser of two evils. And if you can somehow help me get to my father without being discovered, I shall be even more in your debt." She looked up at him with a puzzled expression. "I have always considered you my enemy rather than my friend, yet tonight you have shown me great kindness. I did not expect it. Yes, I do thank you, very much."

Darcy's face contorted in confusion at her words. Your enemy? "I am happy to have been of service," he said humbly. Why does she call me her enemy? He pressed his fists into the bed, pushing his shoulders forward.

"Of service? You were brilliant!" She leaned towards him in her excitement, unaware of the bewilderment into which her confession had thrust him. "You certainly succeeded where I did not. Nothing I said or did discouraged Mr. Collins, not even running away! For a man who is so verbose on the subject of what is 'right and proper,' so proud of his situation in life and his patroness - she is your aunt, I believe - Lady Catherine de Bourgh, yes?" He nodded distractedly. "You should hear how he waxes eloquent, nay, positively magniloquent on the subject of Lady Catherine! Or perhaps it is better that you do not." She rubbed her arms. "For all Mr. Collins's ambition, he has been astonishingly reckless. The wine alone is not to blame, though it would have been better had he not indulged himself."

She continued to talk away her nervousness. "I do hope my father will be persuaded to put him out of Longbourn, but how can I expose him without jeopardising my freedom? I would not want my own words to entrap me in an engagement to that man, especially as there is no cause for it, thanks to your timely interference!" She became thoughtful. "I could not have imagined a clergyman would create such difficulties for me."

Something she said triggered memories of another ordeal, a particularly trying time. Emotions flooded him as he struggled to maintain composure. He shifted his weight on the bed, and without looking up he began to speak in a deceptively calm voice. "I am less surprised, I think. Unfortunately, this has not been my only unsettling experience of late with a man who has, at one time or other, pursued a profession in the church. This summer I had to remove my...ah, that is, a young lady from the influence of just such an unprincipled man. The fellow had long been known to indulge in all manner of vices; however, the lady's sheltered upbringing prevented her from being acquainted with his reputation. At the time she had only a companion with her, for her mother's early death left her bereft of a more natural guide and confidante. Without intervention the man would have prevailed on that innocent girl to marry him at Gretna Green, and I cannot believe they would have been happy together."

The thought of being shackled to such a scoundrel made her shudder. He seems to take an eager interest in the lady. A relation, perhaps? "You are quite the saviour, it appears," she said aloud. His obvious embarrassment in response to her compliment made her smile. So like a little boy he looks, with his red cheeks and errant locks. She was curious to know more. "If I may ask, what has become of the lady? And the gentleman?"

"The lady is recovering from the blow of finding his attachment to her to have a disturbingly mercenary quality. There was no love in the business, at least on his side. As for the gentleman-" He paused, wondering how much to reveal. As he considered what had transpired this night, he decided it would be foolish to allow Elizabeth to remain ignorant and by extension vulnerable to yet another rogue. He looked her in the eye. "The gentleman has lately joined the militia. You have met him, I believe."

Her eyes widened in apprehension. Such a coincidence was impossible. There could not be two such officers in Mr. Darcy's bad books. "Tell me you are not referring to Mr. Wickham?"

"Indeed I am."

She averted her face, exhaling loudly. The man who had inspired in her the sweet whisper, almost a promise, of tender feelings, who had been in her thoughts as she had dressed tonight! His absence had been a great disappointment. Yet she had all but forgotten his existence during her desperate flight from Mr. Collins and the events that followed. He, a villain? It cannot be!

Darcy continued to enlighten her. "The elder Mr. Wickham was my father's steward and the elder Mr. Darcy was young Wickham's godfather. Our families were on intimate terms. As we grew, I became aware of my friend's propensity to engage in dissolute behavior. My father was never apprised of this, at least not by me, and he remained Wickham's greatest supporter until his death over four years ago. In his will he left him one thousand pounds and the recommendation of the living at Kympton, which has a respectable income. A fair prospect for a man whose own father could give him nothing due to his wife's continual extravagance."

"He said you denied him the living."

So the viper has been spreading his poison! Obdurate, calculating, manipulative bastard...what else did he tell her? He reined in his anger and addressed her implied question. "Yes I did, but only after he refused to take orders and requested three thousand pounds instead. I gave him the money, which he promptly spent. When he later approached me about the living, I reminded him that he had chosen to forfeit it. Regardless, I could not grant it to him, as I had already promised it to another. I am happy to say that by all reports Mr. Fenton discharges his duties admirably."

She let it sink in. Swallowing hard, she asked Darcy, "And so Mr. Wickham sought to make his fortune through marriage? In the summer, did you say?" She felt foolish for having defended him to Jane when the latter had tried to allow for an imperfect understanding of the circumstances.

"Yes, four months ago."

"You care deeply for the young lady who was so cruelly deceived." Why did I say that aloud?

"She is my sister." Why did I tell her that?

"Oh!" Her hand flew to her mouth. She remembered Wickham's description of Miss Darcy as proud and his claim that the young girl meant nothing to him. She felt ill. Was no man what he appeared to be?

Darcy had not intended to disclose so much. He watched Elizabeth settle back into the chair. It was agonising, what she had been through, but she seemed to be rallying her spirits tolerably. Studying her profile, he marvelled at how right it felt to have her in his room. This night had taught him two things. The first was that she, unlike so many young women of his acquaintance, had not been harbouring any expectations of him; quite the contrary, in fact. The second was something he had already suspected but had not wished to believe: here in this most intimate setting, she was everything he could want. What could fortune and rank add to her more substantial perfections? What could the lack of them detract from her essence? He realised that his openness with her had nothing to do with his belief in her discretion, though he did not doubt her, and everything to do with the need to share himself and his world with her and to have a place in her life as well.

It occurred to him that he could have spared her all this by attending the ball. He could have kept her away from Collins by dancing with her himself. But would he really have approached her, or simply looked on in distaste at those around her, holding fast to his previous opinion that she and all her connections were beneath his notice? He wondered whether she had detected such feelings in him. It was not improbable. Was that what had made her dislike him? Did she find him too condescending, too proud? He had been accused of that and worse by those who did not know him well, but he had never cared what impression he made on anyone. Suddenly he did care. She needed to know that he had never been her enemy and never would be.

She would have to return very soon. He put away his selfish thoughts. "Miss Bennet, will not your friends wonder where you are? It is a pity they could not help prevent this unfortunate situation."

She sighed the sigh of one who ages ago had come to terms with the deficiencies of her family. "It is useless to blame them. It would change nothing. My mother saw no wrong in the heir to Longbourn showing interest in one of her daughters. My father did not witness enough of our cousin's indelicacy to give alarm or he would have acted." She was not as sure of this as she wished to be. "My younger sisters do not like the man any more than I do. Pleased that he had not favoured any of them, they kept their distance."

She looked steadfastly at the flames. "And dear Jane! She is too good! She did notice that I was unhappy and would have done anything to help me. She would have sacrificed her own considerable pleasure in Mr. Bingley's company and stayed by my side all evening if I had asked it of her. But I could not ask it." Reflecting on the past week, she added, "I can be grateful that she was spared my mortification, at least. Had Jane not been well on her way to being in love with your friend when Mr. Collins arrived last week, and had not Mr. Bingley been so obvious in his admiration, my mother would have allowed our cousin to pay his addresses to her instead. She could have been the one running through the halls of Netherfield when she would rather dance."

Darcy understood the Bennets' predicament and could sympathise with the mother's desire to see her home preserved and a daughter married in a single stroke. Nonetheless, he was disgusted. Mr. Bennet's neglect was inexcusable, however. A young lady should not have to rely on younger sisters or even an elder one to protect her while her parents stand idly by. The whole muddle brought to mind again what Georgiana's fate would have been had he not, on the merest whim, visited her at Ramsgate. He refused to dwell on it. He felt enough guilt for having allowed her to travel with Mrs. Younge in the first place.

What Elizabeth had said of her sister was another matter. Could Miss Bennet's serene countenance conceal a fervent attachment? Bingley would be pleased to hear it, provided his interest in her was of stronger stuff than his usual infatuations.

"You say your sister may be in love with Bingley? I had not noticed it."

She is certainly in love with him now. I have never seen her so taken with anyone."

"Not even with the gentleman who wrote her those verses your mother mentioned?" he asked, recalling what Elizabeth had said about poetry putting an end to the man's affection.

She smiled. "No, certainly not. He was rather well-to-do, and my mother would have been delighted to welcome him to the family. Unfortunately Jane found neither his person nor his character appealing and could not like him for his wealth alone."

Miss Bennet grew in his esteem with her sister's sketch. He had admired her beauty and manners but feared she would turn out to be another fortune hunter. He was relieved to hear otherwise. He hoped Bingley was not raising expectations he did not intend to meet. If he were, he had a feeling Elizabeth would be very angry on Miss Bennet's behalf...

Elizabeth! He must get her to safety. He would arrange it. "Miss Bennet," he said, taking her by the hand, "do you trust me?"

She hesitated, then answered, "I have no reason not to."

"Then allow me to assist you. I will do what I can on my own and will involve others only as absolutely necessary. Remain here. I shall return in a moment." He rose, taking one of the candles with him, and went into his dressing room. In a short time he was by her side again.

Unconsciously she had reached over to smooth the bedcover where he had sat upon it. She was running her hands over the spot when he returned. He looked even more impressive in formal attire. As she stood, the blanket fell from her shoulders.

"Miss Bennet, shall we begin?" She nodded and he felt a sudden loss. How ironic that he would help her leave him! How sorry he would be to see her go! "Allow me to ascertain Mr. Collins's whereabouts and to ensure that the path is clear. Be very careful and quiet while I am gone."

He slipped out of the room. Elizabeth positioned herself behind the door as she had earlier. But how different now were her feelings, how improved were her circumstances! The danger would soon be past, for Mr. Darcy was nothing if not capable. He had handled this scabrous situation with finesse. She fancied she could hear someone talking. More voices, silence, then footsteps...

She had been so wrong about him. Yes, he was proud, but he was not unfeeling. He was an able guardian to his young sister. He was responsible and generous. He had taken great care with her, and wonderful care of her. She wished to know more of him. The door opened, interrupting her thoughts.

Darcy shut himself in and extended his hand to her. "Come." She rushed to his side and he leaned down to speak to her. "Supper is about to start. I have made inquiries. Mr. Collins appears to have imbibed more than was good for him. Apparently his rather obstreperous attempts to procure even more wine compelled Bingley to have him escorted from the room. He is at this moment lying insensible in the study." She smiled her relief. "And now for your escape." His eyes danced with the excitement of a boy on his first adventure as he advised her on the safest route to the ballroom and concluded with his best wishes for her health and happiness. A thought occurred to him and he grasped her hand and led her to his bedside table. He picked up a worn volume and handed it to her. "Have you read this?"

She glanced at the title. "It is one of my favorites!"

"All the better as you may need a credible excuse for your extended absence. If you must, say you found it in the library. Will that do?" he asked as he walked her to the door.

"Perfectly! You have thought of everything!" He beamed at her and she responded in kind.

Suddenly her smile faded and tears threatened to spill from her eyes. "I do not know how to thank you enough, Mr. Darcy," she said in a tremulous voice, "but I thank you with all my heart." Impulsively she stood on tiptoe and kissed him on the cheek.

Darcy touched his face where her lips had been. Then he ran a finger along her chin and returned the gesture, deliberately catching the corner of her mouth under his own. "You are very welcome, Miss Bennet," he whispered. "Now, go." He opened the door and watched her disappear into the darkness.

~*~


In the ballroom, Mr. Collins's indecent display was everywhere discussed. Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst were particularly severe in their remarks and shunned the Bennets for the remainder of the evening. Mr. Bingley became very concerned for Jane and her sisters. He offered his assistance to their father, and it was decided between the two men that Mr. Collins would be removed from the premises at the conclusion of supper.

Mr. Bennet planned to settle his cousin at an inn not far from Meryton where he would remain until he could be dispatched to Kent the following day. He would see to the man’s trunks in the morning. He refused to let him continue to lodge under the same roof as his daughters. Mrs. Bennet decried the plan - she still had hopes for a match between Mr. Collins and Lizzy - but she could not sway her husband and had to be satisfied with boasting throughout supper of Jane's conquest of Mr. Bingley. In all the excitement, Mary forgot about performing the song she had practiced for just such an occasion, and Kitty's and Lydia's usual giggles and chatter were reduced to furtive whispers.

Elizabeth's absence was indeed noted and Collins had been questioned upon first returning to the room. He had only said that she required air and solitude. Mr. Bennet thought this perfectly reasonable in light of his cousin's deteriorating condition. He was glad Lizzy had been spared the worst scenes, but he began to worry when she had not returned for supper. He was vastly relieved to see her walk in at last and seat herself next to Jane.

While Jane's anxiety was put to rest by seeing her sister perfectly well, Bingley's was heightened. He had a good idea of where that book in her possession had come from; other than in its owner’s hands, he had only ever seen it in one place before.

Bingley kept his own counsel until after the ball, which ended much earlier than planned. He was to become Darcy's third unexpected visitor. The two friends went immediately to the library where all was revealed and much of the evening spent in conversation.

~*~


Elizabeth confided in Jane that night and, at her sister's prompting, in her father the following morning. Mr. Bennet was mortified to discover the degree of peril to which he and her mother had exposed her. He did not speak a word for a full five minutes. When she told him about Wickham, he declared that their family would drop the acquaintance. At the conclusion of the interview, Mr. Bennet ordered the carriage. Minutes later he was standing with two young men in Netherfield's study, humbly conveying his deepest apologies, his utmost appreciation, and his anticipated pleasure in seeing them at Longbourn for dinner at any time convenient.

Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy frequently called on certain of their neighbours after the evening of November twenty-sixth. Jane and Bingley reached an understanding in the days leading up to Christmas. Darcy and Elizabeth took a little longer; the former waited to propose until he could be sure his beloved would not accept him merely out of gratitude. He finally allowed himself to hope one day during a walk between Longbourn and Netherfield. Elizabeth, determined at once to reveal everything, took his face (and their fate) in her hands and kissed him, missing his cheek entirely.

Mr. Collins never married. Word got back to his patroness of his egregious conduct and she strongly reprimanded him. He tried practicing moderation in all things with little success. Eventually his unfortunate habits, of which there were several, contributed to his early demise less than two years after the Netherfield Ball. Mr. Bennet marked the occasion by predicting the surname of the new heir to Longbourn, 'Bingley' and 'Darcy' being equally welcome possibilities.

~The End~

4 comments:

  1. Since I first read it, this has been one of my favorite JAFFs. Thank you for writing it.

    —Nat KC

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  2. Thanks for commenting, Nat! I appreciate it. Glad you like the story.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Congratulations on writing an absolute gem! An original and persuasive 'what-if' that I've happily bookmarked.

    --Barbara Rose

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  4. Thanks so much! Glad you enjoyed the story.

    ReplyDelete