A Fortunate Mishap by Pamela St Vines
By Aaran St Vines
Thanks to my wonderful husband Aaran St Vines for encouraging me.
She was on the point of continuing her walk, when she caught a glimpse of a gentleman within the sort of grove which edged the park; he was moving that way; and fearful of its being Mr. Darcy, she was directly retreating. But the person who advanced was now near enough to see her, and stepping forward with eagerness, pronounced her name. She had turned away, but on hearing herself called, though in a voice which proved it to be Mr. Darcy, she moved again towards the gate. He had by that time reached it also, and holding out a letter, which she instinctively took, said with a look of haughty composure, ''I have been walking in the grove some time in the hope of meeting you. Will you do me the honour of reading that letter?'' -- And then, with a slight bow, turned again into the plantation, and was soon out of sight.
With no expectation of pleasure, but with the strongest curiosity, Elizabeth opened the letter, and, to her still increasing wonder, perceived an envelope containing two sheets of letter paper, written quite through, in a very close hand. -- The envelope itself was likewise full.
From Chapter 35 of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice
by Pamela St Vines
The letter from Mr. Darcy had shattered Elizabeth Bennet's peace, and her anxiety increased each time she read it. Almost everything she had held against him was a lie. Elizabeth blushed for shame remembering his marriage proposal and her choleric response. Poor Mr. Darcy. He had spoken of love and admiration. Elizabeth had denounced him in turn, saying that he was the last man on earth she would ever marry. How those words tormented her now.
Elizabeth fought to calm herself, but her misery was exceeded only by her mortification. Neither would be so easily dismissed. Although widely admired for her cleverness, Elizabeth knew she had been a fool. Justice now denied her the comfort of blaming Mr. Darcy. The fault here was truly her own.
Elizabeth had chosen to dislike him because of a silly slight. It wasn't even something public. She had been eavesdropping on a private conversation. Remembering that first meeting, Elizabeth was now dismayed by her own vanity. She had never given Mr. Darcy a chance. She had distained the man for his pride, because he had unintentionally wounded her own.
How many months had Elizabeth persisted in her dislike-- ignoring anything that might be to Mr. Darcy's credit? She had been delighted by Wickham's deceitful account of him. Elizabeth had not only believed Wickham's slander. She had repeated it-- defaming the man because he once refused to dance with her. Mr. Darcy-- of course, he was outraged when she accused him of cruelty to Wickham. Mr. Darcy was blameless, while Wickham was truly wicked.
Surely the gentleman was now glad of Elizabeth's refusal. It seemed likely he would never want to see her again. Yet, he had taken the time to write this letter challenging every barrier Elizabeth had erected against him.
Elizabeth slipped the precious correspondence into her pocket, wanting to protect it from her tears. The sound of flowing water drew her deeper into the trees. She would cry herself out and then wash her face before turning back.
Charlotte Collins was used to Elizabeth's morning rambles, but her friend had never been so late in returning to the parsonage. As the morning stretched on, Charlotte wore a path from her sitting room to the front door. Each time she went to the door Charlotte anticipated the sight of Elizabeth rushing breathlessly down the lane. With each disappointment, her anxiety increased. Charlotte was overwrought by the time luncheon was served. Elizabeth knew how rigid Mr. Collins was about meal times, and she was far too considerate to ignore the demands of her host.
"I am worried, Mr. Collins. This tardiness is quite unlike Lizzy."
"She has just wandered too far this morning, my dear Charlotte. I am certain everything is fine. Cousin Elizabeth will be along shortly."
Charlotte's sister Maria nodded her agreement. This was not surprising as Maria was timid by nature. She habitually agreed with the first opinion offered on any subject. Charlotte wisely held her tongue, but she was far from satisfied.
Charlotte found it increasingly difficult to eat as Elizabeth's place remained empty. She almost sighed audibly when Mr. Collins finally pushed back from the table.
"Perhaps we might walk out ourselves, Mr. Collins, in search of Elizabeth. I fear she may have been delayed by an injury. We could divide her usual routes among us so that it would take no more than an hour."
As he had nothing more important to do that afternoon, Mr. Collins agreed to his wife's suggestion. He volunteered to walk down the lane while Charlotte and Maria scoured the groves Elizabeth favored within Rosings Park.
Their search yielded no clue to Elizabeth's whereabouts. Charlotte was near tears by now, but Mr. Collins persisted in the opinion that no harm had befallen his cousin.
"Perhaps she encountered Lady Catherine during her walk and is happily visiting at Rosings even as we speak, my dear."
Lady Catherine had bestowed the living he enjoyed on Mr. Collins. She was also related to many other illustrious personages including Mr. Darcy. Yes, Mr. Collins was quite happy to imagine his cousin ingratiating herself to his patroness.
Eager that he see reason, Charlotte began, "Elizabeth is not so inconsiderate, Mr. Collins. She would have sent word--" Realizing her error, Charlotte caught herself. Mr. Collins would never admit he was wrong, unless it was to oblige Lady Catherine de Bourgh, of course.
Charlotte smiled at him as she tried again. "I am sorry, my dear. You are probably right. Would you mind calling on Lady Catherine to verify that all is well?"
Mr. Collins was always eager to pay homage to his noble patroness. "An excellent suggestion, my dear, and do not worry. I will be the soul of discretion. Lady Catherine will never know she has inconvenienced us by delaying Cousin Elizabeth."
By the time he returned, Charlotte had abandoned all pretext of normal activity and was anxiously pacing the front hallway. She knew Elizabeth was not taking tea at Rosings. It was Charlotte's hope that their neighbors would act when her husband would not. Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam were still visiting their aunt Lady Catherine. They were both sensible men and Charlotte had long suspected Mr. Darcy was partial to her friend. Yes, Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam would know what to do.
When Mr. Collins strolled into sight, Charlotte rushed out to meet him.
"Well, Mr. Collins, what news of Elizabeth? Has a broader search begun?"
"Has she not returned, Charlotte? I was certain she would be home by now. That was Lady Catherine's opinion, too. We discussed the matter at length over tea."
"My dearest friend is missing and you stopped for tea with Lady Catherine? What of Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam?"
"Oh, I did not see the gentlemen, but Lady Catherine believes--"
For the first time in their married life, Charlotte interrupted her husband. "Never mind, Mr. Collins. I shall handle this myself."
Mr. Collins was speechless. He had never witnessed his wife in a full temper.
Charlotte clutched her shawl around her and stormed up the lane. She walked quickly toward Rosings and asked for Mr. Darcy. Darcy's heart skipped a beat when he heard that Mrs. Collins desired to see him. It was highly unlikely that Elizabeth would respond to his letter in writing, but perhaps Mrs. Collins had a message for him.
The anguish on Charlotte's face dispelled his hopes. Something was terribly wrong. Charlotte managed to speak collectedly, but Darcy could see the extent of her distress.
"Thank you for seeing me, Mr. Darcy. I would not normally impose upon you, but--" Charlotte paused to regain her composure. "Elizabeth is missing and I had hoped you--"
"Miss Bennet is missing?" Darcy's own distress made it difficult to breathe, let alone speak. "Of course, you will have my full assistance, Mrs. Collins. How long has it been since you last saw her?"
"Elizabeth left for a walk early this morning, Mr. Darcy, and we have not seen her since. Maria and I searched the groves this afternoon and Mr. Collins walked down the lane, but we found no sign of her."
Darcy rang for the servants even as he spoke. "Then we haven't a moment to lose. I happened upon Miss Bennet in the park this morning, Mrs. Collins. I will return to that site and begin to search from there. In the meantime, Colonel Fitzwilliam will organize a full search party. Perhaps you should return to the parsonage, unless you would prefer to wait with my aunt."
"No, sir, while I appreciate your offer I had best return home." Charlotte wiped her eyes. "Thank you, Mr. Darcy."
"No thanks are necessary, Mrs. Collins. I am glad you thought to consult me."
Darcy quickly apprised Colonel Fitzwilliam of the situation and ran off across the park. When he reached the gate where he had last seen Elizabeth, Darcy stepped out into the lane. His heart constricted in fear at the thought of how many hours it had been since their meeting here.
Certain that Elizabeth would have wanted privacy to read his letter, Darcy took the direction leading away from the parsonage. How he regretted writing that letter now. If he had not imposed upon her, Elizabeth might have followed her usual route and returned to the parsonage safely.
Knowing blame was useless now, Darcy forced himself to concentrate on finding her. Elizabeth must be injured or d-- Breathing deeply Darcy refused to contemplate that possibility. She was injured and he would find her. Darcy walked slowly, stopping occasionally to call her name and listen for a response. Confident that Elizabeth would have eschewed Rosings Park today, Darcy carefully examined the woods along the other side of the lane. He had been walking for some time when Darcy spotted something small and white back among the trees. He left the path and soon held Elizabeth's handkerchief in his hand. It had to be hers for Elizabeth's initials were embroidered on one corner. Darcy lifted it to his face and he could smell her perfume. Elizabeth had definitely come this way. Darcy traced the letters absentmindedly as he considered which way to proceed.
Although he attended services regularly, Darcy did not consider himself to be extremely religious. Standing there uncertain of which way to go, Darcy whispered his first heartfelt prayer in many years. "Dear God, please help me find her."
Instinct led him deeper into the woods, continuing along the same trajectory that had led him to Elizabeth's handkerchief. Darcy moved slowly, scanning from side to side for further evidence that Elizabeth had passed this way. It was nearing dusk and Darcy had begun to despair when he spied something up ahead. He broke into a run. It was indeed Elizabeth lying pale and still.
Every instinct urged Darcy to gather her up into his arms, but he dare not move Elizabeth without first determining her injuries. Darcy gently touched her face as he tried to rouse her.
"Elizabeth-- Miss Bennet, can you hear me?"
There was no immediate response, but her breathing assured him Elizabeth still lived. Darcy persisted in calling her name and stroking her cheek. After what felt like an eternity he was rewarded by a flutter of Elizabeth's eyelashes. Darcy took her hand and squeezed it gently.
"Please, Elizabeth, you must wake up. All will be well. Please wake up, dearest."
Elizabeth stirred slightly and then she opened her eyes. When she was able to focus on his face in the fading light, Elizabeth gasped, "Mr. Darcy?"
She immediately tried to sit up which was a mistake. Her head began to swim and she would have fallen back upon the ground had Darcy not caught her.
"Easy, Eliza-- Miss Bennet. You are injured. If you wish to sit up, please allow me to assist you."
Elizabeth was too disoriented to be embarrassed by Darcy's arm around her shoulders. She accepted his help and leaned into him gratefully.
Darcy's heart was pounding in response to her nearness, but he managed to speak normally. "Judging by that bump, I'd say you probably fell and hit your head, Miss Bennet. Do you have any idea how long you were unconscious?"
"I'm not certain, Mr. Darcy. It was already nearing sunset when I fell, so I don't think it was very long before you found me. There is a stream just a little farther on. I was drawn there by the soothing sound of the water this morning." Elizabeth felt herself blushing in the growing darkness.
Darcy was acutely aware of why Elizabeth would have been agitated. He merely nodded as he continued to support her.
Elizabeth sighed and went on. "After I-- after-- when it was time to go, I rose to return to the parsonage. It was so silly, Mr. Darcy. I slipped climbing up the bank and turned my ankle. I couldn't put my weight on it, so I waited all day in hopes that someone would come along. The lengthening shadows finally convinced me that I'd best attempt to reach the parsonage, but I only made it this far before I fell again. That's all I remember, Mr. Darcy, until I heard you saying my name."
Knowing she would not be able to see a smile in the fading light, Darcy gently patted Elizabeth's shoulder in reassurance. "Well, I am enormously relieved that you have not been unconscious all day, Miss Bennet, but I am still concerned about the bump on your head. As I cannot carry you out of here safely in the dark, it would seem that we are stranded until daybreak. Perhaps a cold compress would halt the swelling. How far is the stream?"
"Not far at all, Mr. Darcy. It's just over the rise."
Darcy nodded. He rose and lifted Elizabeth in his arms.
"I'm sorry, Miss Bennet, but I cannot leave you unattended. We must keep you conscious for some hours to be certain your head injury is not serious. I promise to step carefully. Just point me in the direction of the stream."
Elizabeth directed him. What Mr. Darcy said about her injury made sense; however, she had not been carried since she was a small child. It was oddly comforting, but disconcerting, too. When they neared the stream Darcy gently lowered Elizabeth to the ground under a large tree and wrapped his coat around her shoulders.
"There, Miss Bennet. Lean back against the tree while I brave the slippery slopes to dampen a handkerchief."
Elizabeth appreciated his small attempt at levity. "Thank you, sir, but please do take care. I would be of little assistance if you fell, too."
Darcy was soon back by her side. He had elected to use his own handkerchief for the compress reasoning that it was larger than hers and would therefore be more effective. The truth was that Darcy had no intention of parting with Elizabeth's handkerchief. It was safely tucked in his vest pocket. He folded the dampened cloth and carefully applied it to Elizabeth's brow. She shivered slightly in response.
"Here," said Darcy with seeming calmness. "We must get you warm."
With that he sat beside her and drew Elizabeth into his arms. She stiffened momentarily, but then found herself relaxing into his embrace. Her head instinctively leaned against Darcy's shoulder and her shivering ceased.
"Better?" Darcy asked.
"Yes," Elizabeth whispered. She had spent the entire day thinking about Mr. Darcy and all the things she wished to say to him. Now that she had the opportunity, Elizabeth hardly knew how to begin.
They sat in silence until it was quite dark. Feeling the quiet rise and fall of her chest against his side, Darcy feared Elizabeth was falling asleep.
"Elizabeth-- Miss Bennet?"
"Yes?" she responded.
"I know you are probably exhausted but I am worried about the repercussions of your injury. You mustn't fall asleep for at least several more hours. Please talk to me so that I will know you are awake."
"I do want to talk to you, Mr. Darcy, but I don't know how to begin."
"We need not speak of anything in particular. I just need to hear your voice to know that you are well."
"I must confess that I am very embarrassed, sir."
"There's no reason to be embarrassed. It was an accident."
"I was speaking of last night, Mr. Darcy. I am so very sorry. It was wrong of me to speak to you that way."
"No, it is I who owe you an apology, Miss Bennet. I understand now that my offer was very poorly done. I find it difficult to express my emotions. Last night was proof of that. I apologize for insulting you. I'm also sorry that I wrote that letter while I was still so angry with you."
"Your letter was not harsh or unkind, sir. In fact, I was most grateful for it. The letter helped me to understand you better. It was very disconcerting to realize just how greatly I had misjudged you. Please forgive me, Mr. Darcy."
"There is nothing to forgive, Miss Bennet. I have been in love with you from the earliest days of our acquaintance. But I ignored my affections and allowed my absurd pride to dictate my behavior. Even last night in the midst of proposing marriage to you, I was still battling the considerations of pride. I have been a fool. I hope that you will be able to forgive me one day."
Relieved that he was not angry with her, Elizabeth instinctively nestled into Darcy's shoulder as she said, "I do forgive you, sir, most gladly. Let us think on it no more."
She barely heard Darcy whisper to himself, "Would that it were that simple."
"I'm right here you know," Elizabeth said with a laugh. "What do you mean, Mr. Darcy?"
Darcy sighed, "I'm afraid these circumstances have all worked to my advantage, Elizabeth. I should be most grateful for our present situation, but I would not wish for you to be unhappy even if it were to my benefit."
"Unhappy? How so, Mr. Darcy?"
"Do you not see, Elizabeth? After spending the night here alone with me, honor and duty will require us to marry."
"Oh--" Elizabeth had not considered the ramifications of their situation. Oddly, what had seemed so distasteful the night before was not displeasing now. Elizabeth felt as is she had never truly seen him before today. Yet being held by Mr. Darcy-- feeling his arm around her-- and now knowing his anxiety was for her happiness-- it was easy to think well of Mr. Darcy. Wanting to alleviate his worry, she spoke in a teasing tone. "I had not realized that your gallant rescue would demand such a commitment from you, sir."
"This is serious, Elizabeth. You know my wishes, but I regret that our circumstances force you into marriage when you so clearly despise me."
"But I do not despise you, sir."
Elizabeth silenced him by placing her fingers against his lips.
"I thought we had agreed that last night was to be forgotten, Mr. Darcy. Most of what I said to you was based on false information. I realize now that I hardly know you, sir, but it does not mean that I cannot-- that I do not like you."
Darcy breathed his second heartfelt prayer of the day, a prayer of gratitude. Knowing she did not hate him was a vast relief. He was also reassured by Elizabeth's calm acceptance of the news that they must marry. It gave Darcy reason to hope that she would return his affections in time.
Elizabeth pulled away from him and proceeded to remove Darcy's coat from around her shoulders.
"Elizabeth," he asked, "What are you doing?"
"I appreciate your giving me your coat, Mr. Darcy, but since we will be here all night, I think it best that we share it. If our presence here has already compromised my virtue, it is silly to stand on ceremony and risk your taking a chill. After all my honor is in your hands, sir."
That said, Elizabeth returned her head to Darcy's shoulder and pulled his coat over both of them. Darcy wrapped his arms around her tightly, scarcely daring to dream this might come out all right.
"Then you are not unhappy, Elizabeth?"
"Strangely, no, Mr. Darcy. This morning I expected to spend the rest of my life wracked with guilt for my ill treatment of you. Guilt is very debilitating, so I consider this an infinitely superior solution. I cannot say that I love you yet, but you are most intriguing, Mr. Darcy. I would definitely prefer to have you as my husband over another Mr. Collins."
Darcy smiled before he fully absorbed the import of her words. "Collins? Do you mean he actually had the nerve to propose to you?"
Elizabeth laughed. "Yes, he did, Mr. Darcy. It was not the most romantic of marriage offers. I cannot imagine any discussion featuring Lady Catherine as being romantic. At the time I attributed its oddness to the quirks of the gentleman. However, more recent experience has led me to think that perhaps there is something about me that elicits such strange declarations. You do appear to be a sensible man after all."
"Elizabeth, since we are 'forgetting' last night, perhaps you would allow me to renew my addresses now."
"Very well, sir. I am listening."
Darcy found it much easier to voice his admiration this time. He gently kissed her hair before he spoke.
"Miss Bennet, you are truly the most beautiful woman I have ever known. I speak not only of your physical charms, but also of your laughter, your intelligence, your wit--- For some months now, I have been in love with you, but it is such a novel sensation for me that I have not known how to act around you. Sometimes I look at you and I feel like a tongue-tied schoolboy. When I saw you again at Rosings, I was struck by the intensity of my feelings for you. Miss Bennet, I humbly ask you to marry me and be my wife."
"Thank you, Mr. Darcy. That is much more like what I had hoped for."
"And your answer, dearest?"
"Yes, sir. I will marry you."
"You are not very unhappy?"
"No, Mr. Darcy, I am strangely content. Even though I do not know you as well as I would hope, that is easily remedied, and even now I see that there are certain consolations to be had in our union."
Darcy could hear that teasing note in her voice again. "I am very glad you are content, my love. Might I ask you to share what these 'consolations' are?"
Having long admired the quickness of her mind, Darcy was eager for Elizabeth's response. She was equally eager to elaborate.
"Certainly, sir. I have always felt that paying one's debts is most satisfying, Mr. Darcy. After your heroic rescue of me this evening, it will be my pleasure to reciprocate."
"And just how do you intend to do that, my dear? My ankle is quite sound and I doubt you could carry me were it not."
She laughed delightedly. "I propose to rescue you, sir, by the very act of marrying you. In becoming your wife, I shall save you from the aspirations of all the Caroline Bingleys who have been making your life a torment."
Darcy chuckled appreciatively. His friend Bingley's sister was unbearable, and she was only one of the many fortune hunters determined to trap him into marriage. Curious to know what else Elizabeth had in mind, he prompted her to continue, "You mentioned consolations--plural, dearest. What else about our marriage will please you?"
"I know that you dance very well, Mr. Darcy, even though you dislike the amusement so very much. I, on the other hand, am very fond of dancing. As your wife I can make certain demands upon you in that regard."
"I see your point, Elizabeth. Marrying to secure a dancing partner is entirely logical. Is that the extent of the consolations you expect from our marriage?
"Oh, certainly not. I have just begun, sir." Elizabeth was taking great delight in teasing the somber Mr. Darcy. "I understand that your estate is in Derbyshire."
"Yes, it is." Darcy was suddenly uneasy. Surely Elizabeth was not interested in his fortune. It had meant little enough to her last night.
"The location of your estate thoroughly delights me for two reasons, Mr. Darcy. Firstly, I have always longed to travel and see new places. My second delight in removing to Derbyshire is that it will be a considerable distance from Hertfordshire. As a wise man once observed, it is quite possible for a woman to be settled too near her family."
Darcy threw back his head and laughed. Who but Elizabeth would throw such a statement back in his face? "I see you have given this considerable thought, my dear."
"Certainly, Mr. Darcy, I have spent the entirety of our engagement-- which is some minutes now-- thinking of all the advantages to result from our marriage."
"And is that your complete list, Elizabeth?"
"Most definitely not, I've saved the most important two for last. Shall I continue, sir, or do you grow bored with my conversation?"
Darcy's answer was most decided. "I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours, my love. Pray continue-- please."
"Well, I will be gaining a very handsome husband. It has not been a particular goal of mine, but is has certain advantages nonetheless. Would you not agree, sir? After all, our children may take after you. In this instance having children who look like their father would not be a hardship in the least."
Darcy felt his face flush, but he was not ready to desist. "And?"
"The most important consolation is that I will have a husband who dearly loves me, whom I will grow to love in return."
Darcy's heart began to pound as he gently lifted her chin. He kissed her-- hesitantly-- tenderly. When he felt Elizabeth's arms go up around his neck, Darcy drew her onto his lap and deepened the kiss. When he was nearing the limits of his self-control, Darcy gently pulled back. It was too dark to see her face, but he breathed a sigh of relief when Elizabeth did not draw away. In fact, she clung to him.
"I do love you, Elizabeth," he whispered. "And I promise you that I will do anything in my power to make it possible for you to love me, too."
"Anything, Mr. Darcy?" she asked breathlessly.
"Anything," he whispered with a fierce intensity.
"Then I think, perhaps, you should kiss me again."