Chapter Ten - To Call the King Your Cousin by A.J. Hall
As soon as the Collinses were out of the house, Elizabeth unearthed from her band-box all the letters which Jane had written to her since their parting.
Mr Bingley was not mentioned at all; Miss Bingley only in passing, and with mild disappointment at her perfunctory attentions to Jane in Town and her cold and repulsive manners. Nevertheless, a sense of quiet, stoically borne unhappiness steamed off every line Jane had written. How dare Mr Darcy boast of his triumph in separating Jane and Mr Bingley, when this was the result?
A knock came on the door; she heard the Collinses’ manservant admitting a visitor. To her utter amazement, Mr. Darcy walked into the room.
“Miss Duplessis, how are you feeling? Your cousin told me you were unwell, and I could not rest without finding whether you were feeling better.”
She could not help herself. “Somewhat, thank you. Solitude and quiet have proved sovereign remedies against my headache.”
If he took the hint, he showed no signs of acting on it. He sat down for a few moments, and then, getting up, walked about the room in a manner so agitated that Elizabeth wondered what liquors had Lady Catherine been serving at her party. Not wishing to provoke him if her surmise were true, she remained silent, hoping he might come to his senses, and leave. Instead, his erratic perambulations about the room soon brought him close to her chair, at which point he burst into speech.
“In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”
Astonishment struck her silent. The moment when she could have stopped this lunacy at its source was forever lost.
All that he felt, and — he claimed — had long felt for her spouted forth in one overpowering torrent. To be fair, he expressed himself well: at least while he confined himself to the warmth and sincerity of his feelings. Once he veered away from that safe topic onto his sense of her inferiority, his expectation their marriage would be taken as degradation by all the principal part of his family up to and including the King himself; onto the personal and political obstacles he foresaw and the family feelings he would undoubtedly wound by his proposed course of action, Elizabeth’s initial regret that she must refuse him was overcome first by resentment, and then with outright anger.
Finally, thankfully, his spate of words trailed off into a mere trickle.
“I hope, Miss Elizabeth, that the strength of feeling I have detailed: a strength of feeling which has overcome such earnest striving for so many weeks and months on my part to conquer it, will induce you to take pity on me, and say those words which must make me the happiest of men.”
Elizabeth’s cheeks flamed. She drew a deep breath.
“In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. It is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot—I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly. I am sorry to have occasioned pain to anyone. It has been most unconsciously done, however, and I hope will be of short duration. The feelings which, you tell me, have long prevented the acknowledgment of your regard, can have little difficulty in overcoming it after this explanation.”
At first, Mr. Darcy seemed unable to comprehend what he was hearing. Then his complexion became pale with anger. During the ensuing dreadful, interminable pause Elizabeth waited for the storm to break.
When he spoke, it was in a voice of enforced calmness.
“And this is all the reply which I am to have the honour of expecting! I might, perhaps, wish to be informed why, with so little endeavour at civility, I am thus rejected. But it is of small importance.”
That wound up the mainspring of her anger so much that she must speak or have it snap.
“I might as well inquire why with so evident a desire of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character?”
There was more, but those were the last words she recollected until she surfaced, abruptly, shouting, “Do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?”
His smirk redoubled her anger.
“Can you deny you have done that?”
He sneered openly at her. “I have no wish of denying that I did everything in my power to separate my friend from your sister, or that I rejoice in my success. Towards him I have been kinder than towards myself.”
Holy Mother, the impudence of the man! She curbed her impulse to spit.
“It is not merely this affair on which my dislike is founded. Long before it had taken place, my opinion of you was decided. Many months ago Mr Wickham revealed the kind of man you are. On this subject, what can you have to say? In what imaginary act of friendship can you defend yourself on that point?”
Mr Darcy’s colour deepened. If she had cared, she might have feared him on the point of apoplexy.
“You take an eager interest in that gentleman’s concerns.”
“What person who knows what his misfortunes have been can help feeling an interest in him?”
“His misfortunes! Yes, his misfortunes have been great indeed.”
That incensed her further.
“Misfortunes of your infliction. You have reduced him to his present state of poverty—comparative poverty. You have withheld the advantages which you must know to have been designed for him. You have deprived the best years of his life of that independence which had been not merely promised to him, but which he deserved. You have done all this, and yet you can treat the mention of his misfortune with contempt and ridicule.”
At this, Mr Darcy broke into speech: none of it welcome.
That he should reproach Elizabeth for rejecting him, that she had expected.
That he should put her rejection down to hurt pride at his manner of confessing his love, rather than a considered and rational objection to the idea of putting her life and happiness within his sole control: well, she had the experience of rejecting Mr Collins, and — disappointingly — it would appear there was a family similarity about these affairs.
But even Mr Collins had not dreamt of throwing her supposed inferiority of birth or the vulgarity of her connexions in her face.
She drew herself up with all the dignity she possessed.
“You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner.”
He started, visibly, but she had the floor, and would not be deterred from completing what she had to say.
“You could not have made the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it.”
She would never have the opportunity of speaking such truths again and would not back down.
“From the very beginning—from the first moment, I may almost say—of my acquaintance with you, your manners, which impressed me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form the groundwork of disapproval on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike that I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”
Mr Darcy appeared, visibly, to collect his shattered self.
“You have said quite enough, madam. I perfectly comprehend your feelings, and have now only to be ashamed of what my own have been. Forgive me for having taken up so much of your time, and accept my best wishes for your health and happiness.”
With these words he left the room, and Elizabeth heard him the next moment open the front door and quit the house altogether.
She collapsed onto the sopha and cried for half a turn without ceasing. Once she had emerged from her first paroxysms of reaction, though, her dominant feeling was astonishment.
An offer of marriage from Mr. Darcy: incredible. More incredible: that he should have been in love with her for many months.
But with unblushing assurance, he had admitted his behaviour towards Jane and towards Wickham. Those put him quite beyond the pale. Thank goodness for Colonel Fitzwilliam’s indiscretion and Wickham’s confidences; they had protected her from any temptation she might otherwise have felt to accept him, despite her inherent dislike.
Still, she continued in agitated reflections till the sound of Lady Catherine’s carriage bringing the Collinses home made her feel how unequal she was to encounter Charlotte’s scrutiny, and she took refuge in her room.
Morning saw Elizabeth out early along her favourite walk through Rosings park. She hoped strenuous exercise might do something to deaden the agitated feelings which had permitted her little rest. With equal fervour, she hoped she might be spared meeting any of the Rosings party. That hope was destined to be dashed.
On reaching the stepping stones spanning the stream, she saw Mr Darcy on the far bank. Retreat was impossible. He held out an envelope with a muttered entreaty that she read it, and once he had seen it into her hands, turned away, seemingly as terrified she might seek to engage him in conversation as she was of hearing him.
She found a secluded spot and opened the letter: a densely written sheet, covering both sides of the paper and enclosed in an envelope containing almost as much again.
The opening words — Be not alarmed, madam, on receiving this letter, by the apprehension of its containing any repetition of those sentiments or renewal of those offers which were last night so disgusting to you — deprived Elizabeth of any expectation of what she might find in the remainder.
Indeed, the opening part proved to be an involved and, to Elizabeth’s mind, self-serving account of how Mr Darcy had conspired with Caroline Bingley to separate Jane and Mr Bingley. Some of the key phrases she could not but read aloud to herself in a tone of angry contempt, garnished with fury.
The situation of your mother’s family, though objectionable, was nothing in comparison to that total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed by herself, by your three younger sisters, and occasionally even by your father.
That observation left Elizabeth shaking with rage. She had to rise, take deep breaths and compose herself before she could continue reading. Only once Mr Darcy turned to the topic of Wickham could she recover a portion of her self-command.
Wilfully and wantonly to have thrown off the companion of my youth, the acknowledged favourite of my father, a young man who had scarcely any other dependence than on our patronage, and who had been brought up to expect its exertion, would be a depravity, to which the separation of two young persons, whose affection could be the growth of only a few weeks, could bear no comparison. But from the severity of that blame which was last night so liberally bestowed, respecting each circumstance, I shall hope to be in the future secured, when the following account of my actions and their motives has been read.
His account of Wickham’s early life and connections with the Pemberley family differed from Wickham’s own only in that Wickham had, if anything, understated the degree of interest the late Mr Darcy had taken in his young protégé. He had indeed treated Wickham as a second son, sending him to the University in white-steepled Zalona where, free from the constraints of home, Wickham had somehow ingratiated himself into a fast, aristocratic set, who inclined towards Prince James as the promise of all that was novel and fashionable.
How Wickham had managed in such rarefied circles, given the expensive and dissipated habits of his companions, Mr Darcy confessed he found a mystery. That Wickham had contracted debts, and strained the limited resources of his father and the generosity of his patron went as a matter of course, but, still, he had managed better than one might imagine. Though Mr Darcy touched only lightly on these matters, Elizabeth was left with the strong impression that Mr Darcy believed Wickham had survived amid the fast set of Zalona by doing favours for his wealthy fellow students: favours of a kind which would by no means withstand the light of day.
The death of the elder Mr Darcy allowed the two young men to avoid even the appearance of acquaintance, save only for matters of business.
In his Will, the elder Mr Darcy bequeathed Wickham an annual competence of 600 thalers per annum, to be paid in twice-yearly instalments once Wickham reached his majority. However, by contrast to Wickham’s own account, the approach to Mr Darcy and the proposal for converting this annuity into a lump sum had come from Wickham. There was a profitable business opportunity which would assuredly make him wealthy for life, Wickham asserted, could he only find the capital to buy his share. Despite numerous remonstrances from Mr Darcy and from his man of business as to the imprudence of committing one’s entire resources to a single speculation, Wickham had carried his point. He had compromised his entire expectations for a lump sum of ten thousand thalers.
When, some three years later, Wickham applied to him once more, the speculation having utterly failed and his circumstances being very bad indeed, Mr Darcy had had no scruple in refusing to assist him further. From that time the men had no contact at all.
I must now mention a circumstance which I would wish to forget myself, and which no obligation less than the present should induce me to unfold to any human being. Having said thus much, I feel no doubt of your secrecy. Nevertheless, having committed it to paper, I implore you to burn these pages once you have read them, lest what follows come to eyes other than your own.
Such an opening could not but whet Elizabeth’s curiosity.
As you may be aware, my sister Georgiana is of an age with the Crown Princess and, as a result of our connexion through our mother’s family, has known her since her earliest years. On several occasions the Crown Princess and the King have been guests at Pemberley. The convent at which Her Grace spent four years of her education is located at a convenient distance from Pemberley, and she sometimes spent holidays with us, when brevity of time and the shortcomings of the roads made it ineligible for her to return to Gondal Town.
During our father’s lifetime, Mr Wickham came and went at Pemberley with almost the freedom of a son, so in consequence he saw a good deal both of my sister and of the Princess.
The marriage treaty with Gaaldine was a closely guarded secret. I did not myself hear of it until the King summoned me to a private meeting, within days of the planned date of departure. Lady Agnes Campbell had been due to accompany the Princess on her wedding journey, but at the last moment her father had withdrawn his permission. Faced with the prospect of sending his only child into a foreign land with no companion of her own age and near rank, the King turned to me. If Georgiana consented, he asked, would I permit her to accompany the Princess to Gaaldine? I debated long and hard with myself, but concluded that if Georgiana wished to accompany the Princess I should not stand in her way. Despite many qualms and grief at leaving me and the home she loved, she accepted the Princess’s’ invitation.
The day before they were due to leave, I had business with my bankers which I could not avoid. I hurried it as much as I could, however. To my considerable surprise and annoyance, on my return home I apprehended Mr Wickham in the very act of leaving the house. Ignoring my anger, he laughed at me and went on his way. I confronted Mrs Younge, the widowed lady who acted as Georgiana’s companion and chaperone. It appeared that in her character we had been most grievously deceived. Under pressure, she revealed that Mr Wickham had renewed his acquaintance with Georgiana during the summer, which she and Mrs Younge had spent in a villa near the port of Elbe. Playing on the affections she had cherished for him as a child, he had persuaded Georgiana to believe herself in love. When I spoke to my sister, she confided that her clandestine meeting with Mr Wickham that day had been to inform him that they must part for some considerable time, but that her heart remained as affectionate as ever. She steadfastly denied having told him the reason for her impending departure, but I did not doubt a sly, plausible man such as Wickham might have obtained more intelligence from an unsuspecting and infatuated young girl than she intended to give him.
Given the matter touched upon the safety of the Princess, there was only one thing I could do. I rode straight to the Palace, demanded a privy audience with the King, and laid the whole before him. His wrath was terrible. Georgiana was forthwith dismissed from the wedding party, and he sent soldiers to apprehend George Wickham, albeit without success. Believing speed essential, now the element of surprise had been lost, the King instructed the Princess’ party to depart at once. I myself, having dismissed Mrs Younge straightway, took Georgiana and retired to Pemberley. We were there when the terrible news reached us of the ambush of the Princess’s party, and the slaughter of seven of her men and her two attendant ladies. Georgiana’s grief and contrition were so excessive that for a time I feared her reason and health would be overthrown.
Elizabeth’s hand went to her mouth. Her first instinct was to deny the truth of everything. But she had always heard Darcy speak with the deepest affection of his sister. She could not credit that he would implicate Georgiana in something so serious simply to exonerate himself in the eyes of a woman whom he was unlikely ever to see again and for whose good opinion he could have little value.
Once the matter of espionage came into play, George Wickham’s encouragement of Elizabeth’s communicating with her uncle at Gaaldine’s court bore a by-no-means innocent explanation. Dear God, why had she been such a fool? With a trembling hand, she turned the page.
In consequence, we remained at Pemberley into the summer. The King’s illness progressed; it was an open secret that he could not survive long past the Midsummer Festival. My letters to His Grace, requesting a final audience, in hope that we might be reconciled before his death, were returned unopened. Either he had given orders to that effect, or someone in his circle had taken it upon themselves to stand gatekeeper. My suspicion it was the latter increased when the annual lists of those honoured for services to the realm were published. Such an honour, as you know, carries with it a general pardon. Those so honoured last Midsummer numbered several close friends of Prince James, including Lord Rupert Lestrade, exiled to his estates these many years past for duelling. They also included George Wickham. I could not conceive of any circumstances under which the King would voluntarily pardon George Wickham. I was forced to conclude that acts done in the King’s name were not necessarily acts of the King’s own volition. It seems that George Wickham had somehow acquired a powerful protector in Prince James’ circles, perhaps in consequence of his earlier services.
In such circumstances, you can imagine my consternation when George Wickham reappeared in Meryton in the character of an ensign in the Duke of M-’s regiment. As your father will doubtless already have informed you, Meryton has long had the reputation of being a stronghold of the Modernist Party of which your father was once a well-known adherent, as many suppose him still to be.
If Papa had once been a passionate adherent of Queen Felicia’s cause, the ashes of that passion were cold past rekindling. But, it occurred to her with a stab of apprehension, if Mr Darcy was misinformed on the point, so too might be the King. Her most imprudent attempt to contact her uncle could then be seen in the worst possible light. Mr Darcy’s next words confirmed it.
I find people are often apt to suppose me more inward to Court circles than is in truth the case, especially since my cousin succeeded to the throne. I have several times of recent months been warned — no other word will suffice — of a rumoured clandestine exchange of information with Gaaldine, such exchange centring around Meryton. Longbourn itself has been mentioned more than once. I can but suppose that too much is being made of the ordinary exchange of commonplaces between families, though I fear George Wickham, being conscious of the need to supply those to whom I suppose he answers, may also have provided material cut from whole cloth. I need not urge you to keep this information close within your heart; I confide that your discretion is to be relied on.
This, madam, is a faithful narrative of every event in which we have been concerned together; and if you do not absolutely reject it as false, you will, I hope, acquit me henceforth of cruelty towards Mr. Wickham. I know not in what manner, under what form of falsehood he had imposed on you; but his success is not perhaps to be wondered at. Ignorant as you previously were of everything concerning either, detection could not be in your power, and suspicion certainly not in your inclination.With which, Madam, I must close. I will only add, God bless you.
The letter was ended, but Elizabeth’s turmoil of soul only just beginning.