Soon after the wedding of Lydia to Wickham, Darcy stood between his solicitor and the Gardiners outside the house at Gracechurch Street watching the newlyweds’ coach depart for Longbourn, and the last tenuous thread tying him to Elizabeth snapped. In a few hours, they would be with her, the woman he loved whom he would never see again.
Darcy knew scores of reasons he should decline the Gardiners’ invitation to dinner, but he heeded only the one reason he had to accept: he could not yet cede all connection to Elizabeth. To himself he acknowledged that, a mere four months before, he would not have deigned to break bread with a family so far below his social strata; and now he could scarcely conceal his eagerness.
The house near Cheapside had defied his expectations. While certainly the furnishings were not comparable to his own in worth, unharnessed from the weight of generations of wealth, they bespoke a lightness, so fresh and new, which Darcy found appealing. The laughter and chatter of children contributed to the harmony that caused a bittersweet sensation to well within him. Here was a home the likes of which he would never know.
During the first courses, an implied moratorium on discussing the inhabitants of Longbourn hung over the dining room table, perhaps no one wanting the recent unpleasantness to spoil their meal. How Darcy craved, though, any word of Elizabeth – even to hear them pronounce her name. Instead, Darcy and Mrs. Gardiner spoke at length of Lambton and her childhood there and all the places in Derbyshire they knew in common.
Darcy then addressed Mr. Gardiner. “And you grew up in Meryton?” Edging ever so slightly closer to the one of whom he longed to hear.
“Yes, that is quite so, although I have not resided in Hertfordshire in over thirty years.”
“How is it you came to London?”
“As you might know, my father was an attorney in Meryton, and he hoped I would join him in that profession; but I had my own idea of making it in the world. My father invested greatly in my education and sent me to Oxford for two years.”
“Yes, but perhaps he erred in that. During breaks, I found myself coming to Town more often than going home to Hertfordshire until I had no notion of returning to Meryton at all. His clerk Mr. Phillips took the position intended for me – and my sister, as well!”
Darcy smiled. “So it was you and two sisters, then, growing up?” Darcy could not reconcile this elegant man of good breeding with those vulgar women.
Mr. Gardiner gazed into his wine glass pensively before taking a sip. “You may have noticed that I am more than ten years older than Mrs. Phillips and Mrs. Bennet – much like yourself and Miss Darcy. After I was born, my parents did not have any other children for quite some time, at least none that survived. Then my sisters came along not even a year apart, but my dear mother…well, she was not strong. I believe her passing broke my father’s heart.”
Mr. Gardiner cleared his throat as if the unpleasant memory had caught in his craw. “After raising a son for ten years, my father had no notion of what daughters were all about. Not having a wife to guide him, he left it to the housekeeper to raise the girls, but that was no parenting to speak of. I stayed busy with my studies and treated them like dolls when I paid them any attention at all. Then I went away to school, and I suppose they were left to their own devices, no guidance or discipline.”
Darcy comprehended the intent of Mr. Gardiner’s story as an apologia for his sisters, and he could not but be moved to sympathize with those motherless little girls – not so different from Georgiana in that regard, but denied the affection and structure his sister had been privileged to receive. He nodded at Mr. Gardiner in acknowledgment.
Darcy turned to Mrs. Gardiner, his patience nearing the end. “You are quite close to your nieces, yes?”
Mrs. Gardiner gave him a knowing smile. “Yes, particularly with Jane and Elizabeth.” Elizabeth. “They lived here in Town with us for almost two years.”
“Ah, so that must have been when Miss Bennet became acquainted with a young poet.”
Mrs. Gardiner smiled. “Why, yes, in a manner of speaking. How did you know about that?”
“I recall hearing that his verse brought an end to the romance.” Darcy had often wondered how the two eldest Bennet sisters could demonstrate a comportment unknown to the youngest, and now he recognized the influence of this refined couple. “How did they come to reside with you here?”
“I understand you have heard Elizabeth play the pianoforte, have you not?”
“Yes, I have had that honour.” Now that the conversation had veered to his most desired topic, Darcy struggled to remember he was supposed to be eating.
“Elizabeth has a genius for the instrument and might have been quite the proficient. She came here to study with a master; but she and Jane were so close, so we invited them both to stay with us.”
“You say she might have been a proficient. Did she stop working with the master?”
Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner passed a look between them as if silently discussing how much they should reveal. “I fear I am to blame,” said Mr. Gardiner. “You see, I took Jane and Elizabeth to the British Museum. Elizabeth was fascinated with the Rosetta Stone, as if it unlocked a whole new world to her. With her avid curiosity, she became absorbed with the Ancient Egyptians. She began reading about them, which led to another subject and then another. She soon turned into such a voracious reader, she lost interest in music for the most part. At least she would not practise to the satisfaction of the master.”
Darcy scowled in confusion. “Eli – Miss Bennet once insisted that she was not a great reader.”
“Her mother believes she ought not spend so much time with her head in a book,” said Mrs. Gardiner, “or at least not own it lest she be thought of as a bluestocking, which Mrs. Bennet considers a sure path to spinsterhood. A woman, especially, if she has the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.”
Darcy marveled at all he was learning about his beloved and yet how clearly he could see how Elizabeth had become the only woman he could love. He smiled and glanced down and, reminded of the plate before him, pushed his food around. “I had been given to believe Mary Bennet the musician in the family.”
“Elizabeth taught Mary how to play. We tried to bring her here to study with a master; but after two months, she declared London ‘wicked’ and returned to Longbourn.”
Darcy smiled with his hosts. He recalled his time at Netherfield when he had joined Bingley’s sisters in their ridicule of Elizabeth’s relations, denigrating her uncle for being in trade without having ever met the man. Now he found he envied him: his light and happy home, his laughing children, his loving wife, all those things Darcy’s wealth and status would never provide. Mostly, though, he envied him Elizabeth, that he would see her smiles and hear her play and enjoy her wit – all lost to Darcy.
His envy and consciousness of his own loss, however, did not dissuade Darcy from his next objective. Indeed, realizing the happiness he would be denied made him determined to undo his unconscionable actions so Bingley might have a chance at the joy that he himself would never know. Darcy hoped it not too late to make amends. Many months had passed – perhaps her heart, if ever it had been touched, had now turned against Bingley. Nevertheless, if Jane Bennet harboured any affection for his friend, Darcy must do all within his power to effect a reunion. If that meant he must face Elizabeth again, so be it.
(The scene is excerpted and adapted from Volume 3, Chapter 4 of Pulse and Prejudice.)