Mr. Darcy and the Secret of Becoming a Gentleman

BOOK: Mr. Darcy and the Secret of Becoming a Gentleman
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Copyright

Copyright © 2011 by Maria Hamilton

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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Hamilton, Maria

Mr. Darcy and the secret of becoming a gentleman / by Maria Hamilton.

p. cm.

1. Darcy, Fitzwilliam (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Bennet, Elizabeth (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 3. Gentry—England—Fiction. I. Austen, Jane, 1775–1817. Pride and prejudice. II. Title.

PS3608.A689M7 2011

813'.6—dc22

2010041901

To my father, who taught me to believe
that all of life's choices were mine to make;
to my mother, who ensured that my opportunities became reality;
to my children, Max and Victoria, who always make me proud;
and most importantly to my husband, Russell,
whose support and sense of humor would make Elizabeth Bennet envious.
Chapter 1

Leaving Hunsford Behind

Fitzwilliam Darcy rested his head against the seat of his well-appointed coach, relieved that he was at last leaving the outer boundary of Kent. He hoped that the physical distance between himself and the scene of his recent disgrace would allow him to put his humiliation and loss aside, even for just a little while. The next half hour of failed sleep, however, proved his supposition foolish. Regardless of time or distance, he could scarcely meditate on any subject without it reflexively leading back to Elizabeth Bennet's rejection of his marriage proposal at Hunsford.

With a contemptuous laugh and a sad shake of his head, he recalled his emotions before he had entered the parsonage. He was sure that Elizabeth Bennet would be expecting his addresses. He had envisioned her acceptance and his rapture. His optimism now seemed ridiculous. His misjudgment of the situation was another sin to add to the list that Elizabeth had catalogued. His mind jumped to his letter. Surely, in it he had explained himself. Not that it mattered now. He would never see her again, and even if he did, she could never love him. She had made that quite clear. He closed his eyes and took a long deep breath, trying to quell the enveloping despair.

He had to take control. He could not continue this way. He incessantly replayed his failed interaction with Elizabeth, and it always led to the same conclusion. She did not love him and never would. The question was whether she was justified in her opinion of him. Yes, she had been wrong about Wickham, but what of her other complaints? Was he arrogant and selfish? He had to admit that his conduct toward her could be considered arrogant. How else could he explain his misjudgment regarding her opinion of him? During the many weeks that he conducted his internal debate as to her worthiness to be his wife, he had never once considered that his regard for her was not returned. He simply assumed his position and fortune would be sufficient inducement. But, in hindsight, was that really what he hoped would persuade Elizabeth to accept his hand? Oh, if only he had truly considered her reaction. He still would not have her, but the horrible humiliation of his proposal would have been avoided.

In the end though, what did it matter? The results were the same. He had not only lost her, but he now knew that she held him in contempt. That she was alive in the world and thinking so poorly of him caused him a level of despair that he could never imagine overcoming.

But he knew he must. People relied upon him, and not just his younger sister Georgiana. Yet he was about to prove Elizabeth's reproof as to his selfishness true by embarking on a sustained plan of self-pity. In an attempt to steel himself, he thought of the grief he had endured over his parents' passing and how he had eventually picked himself up to tend to his responsibilities. He knew that in this new despair, he would also have to learn to carry on. In the past, he had thrown himself into the management of Pemberley and the care of Georgiana, but now he questioned his own judgment. How could he be trusted to know the right course of action for others when he had failed himself?

He knew he had to plan a path to a future that did not include her. But he could not envision it. Her rejection threatened to indefinitely cast a pall over everything he did. How could he return to Pemberley after he had spent so many nights fantasizing about arriving there with her on his arm—bringing her into his bed? London held nothing for him. Bingley was there, but he could hardly face him now that he knew that in addition to his own remorse, he was responsible for causing his friend's misery.

As his ruminations swirled, self-doubt quickly turned to self-loathing.

Darcy was finally roused from his torment by the voice of his cousin and traveling companion, Colonel Fitzwilliam. “Darcy, what are you thinking of? I have been watching you for the last few miles, and the dark clouds that pass over your countenance are disturbing to say the least. Surely, you do not regret your removal from our aunt?”

“No, not really,” muttered Darcy.

“Has Lady Catherine's obvious references to the unification of your families become too heavy-handed for even you to bear? Because, otherwise, I thought the visit far more enjoyable than usual. The frequent inclusion of some of the Hunsford party was an unexpected pleasure.”

Choosing to ignore the oblique reference to Miss Bennet, Darcy simply replied, “Our aunt's comments were no more than I expected. Although I think the situation she refers to is just one more area of my life where I fear I have not behaved as well as I could.”

“What is this, cousin?” exclaimed the colonel amiably. “Critical introspection? That is a trait I was not aware you possessed. I have always admired your decisive confidence. If I were in your shoes, I would not begin to know how to handle our aunt. I think your studious avoidance of the topic borders on tactical genius.”

“Perhaps,” replied Darcy, “but I have of late come to realize that I look on all my interactions solely from my own selfish perspective. The other side of decisive confidence is arrogance. I have never considered how my actions affect others. For instance, I have never thought of whether my avoidance of the topic of Cousin Anne gives pain to Anne or not. It is clear that my disinterest in her as a wife will grievously injure our aunt, but I am content to take the coward's way out and never convey my thoughts on the subject. It seems obvious now that the whole situation is but another example of my selfish disdain for the feeling of others.”

“Darcy, what are you saying? Why this melancholy? You have always acted honorably. You know our aunt is impossible and that she has unfairly cast you into this situation with Cousin Anne. What is this really about?”

“You are right in one respect, Fitzwilliam; it is not the situation with Cousin Anne that is disturbing me. In fact, perhaps I have been too hasty in regard to her. Perhaps I should consider her as a mistress for Pemberley. I see no other suitable prospects on the horizon who would have me.”

“That, sir, is hardly likely,” Colonel Fitzwilliam said evenly, suspecting that his aunt's endless prattle could not induce this mood in Darcy. “I am more interested in knowing what has gotten you into this state.”

Darcy knew that brooding alone was not the answer, and he did trust his cousin implicitly. But then again, he did not think he could speak plainly about Elizabeth so soon after the disastrous events in Kent and retain his composure. His pride may have been his worst enemy, but it was all he had left, and he could not bear the thought of lamenting the loss of Elizabeth in front of anyone, even one of his closest relatives. So he responded in a quiet tone by simply saying, “I recently had the opportunity to see myself through someone else's eyes, and I am not pleased with the result.”

“Of whose eyes are we speaking?” the colonel asked, his curiosity piqued.

“It does not matter. The important thing is that it has awakened me to my many failings and my selfish nature.”

“What failings, Darcy? What selfishness? You are a good man, a loving brother, a fine and fair master to many servants and tenants, and a good friend to me and to others.”

“I thank you for the effort, but I believe you are taking the bare requisites of civility that I occasionally exhibit and exaggerating them into virtues. It would be more honest to admit that I am basically a selfish and self-absorbed man who only interacts generously with others when the dictates of duty demand it.”

“Darcy, come now, you are not selfish. You are generous in both material matters and in spirit. Did you not recently tell me of the service you provided a friend in need? Is that not evidence of your concern for others?”

“A service I provided!” Darcy spat contemptuously. “That, my dear cousin, is exactly what I am talking about. In this very carriage I boasted to you about my behavior toward Bingley last fall, and now I realize that I may have committed a grave injustice. In retrospect I cannot believe how officiously I acted—all because I hold my own opinions in such high regard that I convinced Bingley to rely upon them above his own. If this is not a failing, then I know not what is.”

Looking at Darcy with great remorse, Colonel Fitzwilliam confessed that he had concluded that it was Bingley whom Darcy had spoken of on their earlier journey and had stated as much to Miss Bennet in Kent. “Darcy, I am so sorry for my lack of discretion in this matter; in an attempt to defend your character, I let it slip to Miss Bennet that you had recently protected a friend from an unfortunate alliance. Did I put you in an awkward situation?”

“No more than I deserved, Fitzwilliam, and defending my character to Miss Bennet is an undertaking no mortal could accomplish.”

“Then you two spoke of it?” the colonel inquired. “Does she know the family involved?”

“Fitzwilliam, she is a member of the family involved! Bingley was taken with Miss Elizabeth's oldest sister, Jane Bennet. I believed, it now seems erroneously, that Miss Bennet had no real regard for Bingley and was accepting his overtures out of deference to his position and fortune. Bingley trusted in my estimation of her regard above all others and quit Hertfordshire indefinitely without even extending her a proper good-bye.”

“Darcy! This is entirely my fault,” exclaimed Colonel Fitzwilliam. “I must make amends. What have I done? I need to speak…”

Darcy held up his hand to silence his cousin. “Do not trouble yourself about it any further, Fitzwilliam. If my actions cannot withstand the light of day, then they do not deserve protection. Miss Elizabeth Bennet is a very astute young woman and no doubt suspected my interference without your accidental intelligence. We had an opportunity to… discuss the matter, and I confessed my involvement to her. She led me to understand that I was wrong about her sister's affections, and through that and other circumstances, I have come to see my behavior for what it was.”

“Knowing you as I do, and considering Miss Bennet's forthright disposition, I can only imagine that your discussion was a lively one.”

“Yes,” Darcy muttered, “that is an understatement.”

“So that explains the tension I thought existed between the two of you whenever I saw you together in Kent,” surmised Colonel Fitzwilliam. “You always seemed so uncomfortable around her. I even wondered at one point if you preferred her, but I thought it unlikely given her connections.”

“Yes, Fitzwilliam, you know me well enough to know I would measure at a woman's value by first appraising her financial status and her family's position in society.”

“Darcy, I implied no such thing. How singularly you are behaving. Let me help. I could endeavor to further my acquaintance with Miss Elizabeth and then explain your motives to her.”

Gazing out the window, Darcy said resolutely, “There is no point in discussing how I could change Miss Elizabeth Bennet's estimation of me. I have attempted to justify my conduct to her already, and I feel fairly certain there is nothing more to be gained in that regard. The question is, what do I do about Bingley?”

“I suppose, Darcy, you must tell him what you now know or, at least, talk him into returning to Hertfordshire so he can find out on his own.”

“But what if that would only make matters worse? I have already jeopardized their happiness by my presumptuous interference. What if I excite Bingley's hopes and she no longer has affections for him or cannot forgive him for his seemingly thoughtless treatment this fall? In the same vein, if I induce Bingley to return to Hertfordshire and he has finally gotten over his attachment for Miss Bennet, his return will excite unwarranted hope on Miss Bennet's part, given that her sister will undoubtedly have told her of my interference.”

Knitting his brow, Colonel Fitzwilliam replied, “I guess then you must be surer of your facts before you act. I understand that you feel guilty about your mistake, Darcy, but I do not quite comprehend the level of distress this is causing you. It was an innocent error on your part. Even with your interference, they are both adults and can figure this out themselves. Besides, now that Miss Elizabeth knows the truth, she may be able to resolve the problem herself.”

Darcy took his time to respond and eventually said, “I do not think Miss Elizabeth would be in a position to effect much of a change to the situation, and in any regard, I would rather not impose upon her any further.”

“Well,” inquired the colonel, “then what is your plan?”

“I will visit Bingley in London and determine where his affections lie. From there, I will just have to see.”

Suspecting that there was more to the story than Darcy was admitting, the colonel added, “That seems prudent, and I hope you are able to resolve the situation to everyone's benefit, not only for their sake but for your own. If this is the cause of your dark mood since our departure from Kent, it is affecting you more than it should. I believe you take too much upon yourself.”

Darcy failed to respond and instead continued to gaze out the window. Despite the length of the journey, sleep never found him.

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