The chirping of birds now hard at the task of gathering breakfast, and the distant voices of early-rising folk going about their dealings and deliveries on Mr. Bennet’s estate roused Darcy from sleep. The heady scent of summer grasses and lavender drifting through the open window filled his lungs anew when he yawned and stretched his body.
The resonances and perfumes of summertime did give Darcy pleasure. The season did always seem carefree, so natural to Fitzwilliam Darcy’s manner of living, as he preferred the out-of-doors to anything else. He had always been restless within the confines of walls, the smaller the space the worse it was; he was born a man in need of liberty. Of late, nothing but strife and conflict followed Darcy from one hour to the next, from the last day to the following.
Though he remained sleepy, he blinked his eyes to glance around the little bedchamber, looking at the detail in the light that he had not been able to see in the darkness of the night before, or in his desire to be with Elizabeth, had not cared to notice. The room was indeed small, but for now, with Elizabeth sleeping against his shoulder, he was satisfied to stay confined.
His gaze fell on Elizabeth, peaceful in the bed of her youth. She was everything that was ideal in the eyes of a husband. She was handsome; patently beautiful, really. She remained modest in character, yet abidingly fascinating in wit and attitude; and though she was keen to believe herself informed in the ways of the world, truly she remained an innocent.
Wary not to wake her, Darcy exhaled a clement sigh; for he considered Elizabeth much more than those things classic to a woman of fascination. She was not the sort of woman to use the wiles of her sex for true ill-gotten gain, yet she certainly possessed a talent for appeasing an oft-times temperamental and preoccupied husband.
It was her quickness of mind and her enthusiasm for an honest, well-intended life which prevented her from being ordinary. When Darcy had needed her most Elizabeth had quietened his temper with her wit and her love; yet there had been a moment amid a sigh of want and a whisper of urging, the argot of a passionate union, when Elizabeth had looked as though she knew precisely why Darcy had gone away and what he truly was about.
Elizabeth had come to terms with the complicated façade universal to Darcy’s nature, the veneer she had objected to the very first time she met Mr. Darcy at the Meryton Assembly. She accepted what she could make of his character, and as for the rest of his nature, she seemed willing to grant him his liberty.
Darcy knew well that he was often unguarded in the presence of Elizabeth. It was a husband’s prerogative to be vulnerable in the company of his good wife, and young Mr. Darcy was indeed no exception. Yet it often seemed as if Elizabeth possessed knowledge of everything there was to know of his mind, although Darcy had been careful not to utter a word, not a cloistered sigh between lovers, of his recent plight.
It was beyond Darcy’s comprehension how a man who did love such a woman could tell her of the wickedness in the world. The image of Elizabeth’s blithe smile turning into a distraught frown barred any thought Darcy had of ruining her happiness. Anyone who truly loved Elizabeth could never bear to see her miserable or hurt; her husband most of all.
Darcy kissed the cool, soft skin of Elizabeth’s cheek. He was certain, despite all efforts of prevention, that Elizabeth was to end her visit in Hertfordshire in tears for having to bear the whispers of friends and neighbors, murmurs of reproach for having committed such a childish offense as having been underage, scrawling her name in a marriage register as a lark, and years later being made to pay for the deed.
Elizabeth stirred and pulled the bedsheets against her body. As she moved, Darcy slipped from her side and crept out of bed. He dressed quickly, and quietly, and left the little room.
From the window of the drawing room Elizabeth could see an aged apple orchard where Mr. Bennet had intended to one day have cuttings planted, but as yet had not had the opportunity, or inclination, to do so. Mr. Darcy was beneath the largest tree, leaning against its old, knotty bark, his arms folded across his chest.
Near to where Darcy stood was an out-building, a sort of hermitage; a place that had once been used by the gamekeeper of the estate to tend partridge and pheasant chicks, but had been abandoned for many years. It had been a place where Jane Bennet had been known to sit in quiet and solitude. Elizabeth had the church for her private ponderings, and Jane chose the hermitage.
To Elizabeth’s regret, she had awoken that morning to find her husband had quitted the little bedchamber for the downstairs parlor, his mood little changed. She had been overjoyed to have him come back to her last night; so perfect was the reunion that she had to smile for the remembrance. Yet her smile faded away the longer that she stood behind the pane-glass of the window and studied Darcy, out in the heat of the day in his shirtsleeves and waistcoat, choosing to be in that vicinity rather than in her father’s house, and in his wife’s company.
Darcy’s delight and contentment had been clear from the moment Elizabeth had accepted his hand the last autumn that one had rarely seen him frown or look austere, since. Mr. Darcy had come to smile more often than not, and he had been known to laugh wholeheartedly, mostly when he was in the company of his beloved Elizabeth and her good example.
Since being in Hertfordshire, Elizabeth had seen nary a hint of happiness in her husband’s countenance, except for that day when they had walked out in the wilderness alone. She still wondered perhaps it was his uneasiness to be so near to her family that dampened his spirits, though he had tried his best to be helpful to Elizabeth’s father, flattering to her sisters, and at the very least, liberal thinking when it came to associating with her mother. Having pondered all of that, Elizabeth was convinced that his ill mood was all her fault.
Darcy’s turn of mood was all her doing; somehow, Elizabeth knew it was so. She must not have been attentive enough; she must learn not to tease and laugh at so proud a man as when she had mistakenly clipped short his whiskers and thought him ridiculous for placing so much importance on so trifling a thing.
Perhaps it had tainted Darcy’s favor and played at his pride to wonder that Elizabeth had ever been in love with another man. Elizabeth thought of how the tables could be turned; had she known Darcy had ever been enamored with another woman, she could have been positively green with envy, wounded by the jealousy that she had considered so unbecoming in her spouse.
Elizabeth had certainly injured Darcy with her confession at the church and with her nonsensical dream of a faceless man. She did not know that there was much more to the business than jealousy and vanity, yet she was beginning to have her suspicions. All that her imagination could see when she looked at the man through the rippled pane of glass was the vision of her recent dream; the pretense of a book in Mr. Darcy’s hands, his fingers forcefully tearing out the page of his regret for having been so good as to ask for Miss Bennet’s hand in marriage.
Jane and Mr. Bingley came to Longbourn that morning. Charles Bingley tried to engage Darcy in some activity away from the heat and the out-of-doors, but Darcy would have none of it, preferring to be alone. Bingley thought his friend Darcy odd at times, as much as he could spend his time thinking of anything else, and so he paid no heed at being slighted and left Darcy to sulk. Sitting in the drawing room reading the Gazette, Bingley looked up with indifference when Jane crept behind her sister near to the window and placed a tender hand on Elizabeth’s shoulder.
“There is shade at the hermitage, Lizzy,” Jane whispered. “Perhaps you and Mr. Darcy could talk there.”
Elizabeth squeezed her sister’s hand in gratitude for the notion, and in an instant Elizabeth was gone down the hallway and out the front door. She could not walk fast enough to suit her feelings, and so Elizabeth ran, stopping to smooth her skirts and to compose and present her figure in a respectable manner before coming into Mr. Darcy’s sight.
On hearing footsteps, Darcy turned about. “Elizabeth!” he exclaimed as if astonished to see her, and he tugged at the bottom of his waistcoat.
“The bench by the hermitage is in the shade by now,” Elizabeth spoke, taking in a breath for her own encouragement. “Will you join me there?”
Darcy complied with a nod and held out his hand, and together they strolled to the bench. Darcy insisted that Elizabeth sit down, and when she did, he took up a place by her side.
“It is much cooler here, I think,” he sighed, resting his elbows on his knees and folding his hands together in a disposition of comfort. Darcy glanced up at the sky, and his ease did not last long, for as Elizabeth studied his countenance, something overhead seemed to catch his eye. “We have been very happy,” he declared, “you and I, these months that we have been married.”
Elizabeth replied without hesitation. “Indeed we have, my love.”
“I still wonder,” he grumbled; his voice like that of far-off thunder, his teeth biting his lip to foil any burgeoning vexation, “if you would have been happy with the man of your fancy; the one whose name you did choose to scribble in that book.”
Elizabeth flushed; aggrieved by the insult, an offense that her husband would not let die. “I was delightfully happy,” she touted hastily; her prickly reply prompting Darcy to look at her sideways. “I was happy for the better part of a day with my invented lover until a childish daydream gave way to reality. As quickly as the joke had entered my head, it had left it again; and even as a young girl, I was mindful that reality would always be superior to any silly dream.”
“Reality is often cruel,” Darcy’s jaw set once his position was articulated.
“Still,” Elizabeth said defiantly; “I have to confess that I prefer it to any fantasy.”
“That,” Darcy huffed with implication, “you may regret.”
“That is life, sir. If it is reality that taints the bond of a husband and a wife when they lose a child, then it is meant to be, Mr. Darcy. Should a husband tire of his wife and wish to take his pleasure in London, then reality it is—and nothing that his wife says or does will prevent him from leaving.”
Affronted, Darcy snorted, “Is this what you believe is real?”
“This is what I have to wonder!” she replied miserably. “Know that I will always be faithful to you, Fitzwilliam Darcy, even if you cannot do the same.”
Darcy bowed his head, aggrieved to know Elizabeth would think her future so dismal a prospect.
“There is no truth to anything you wonder, Elizabeth,” he said with a heavy heart. “What is real is a husband who loves his wife wholly; so completely, in fact, that he cannot bear to see her come to tears.”
The air surrounding Longbourn was not cooler, it was still and stifling; more so than in the days prior, yet Darcy ignored the gloomy clouds gathering in the sky overhead. The daylight took on a peculiar ochre hue, the unique wash of a storm brewing, the type of storm Darcy had witnessed only once or twice in his lifetime, in the most violent of climates.
Though Darcy’s eyes were cast to the sky, his mind was simply not fixed on the danger, but on his own tumultuous feelings, and those of Elizabeth. Circumstances had gone beyond the pale between the lovers, and Darcy could remain silent no longer. He turned and grasped Elizabeth’s shoulders, and spoke to her pointedly.
“There are people in the world who live to deceive,” Darcy’s voice trembled. “They do not care what happens to you and me, as long as they obtain what they desire most.”
“Then let them do what they will,” Elizabeth unflinchingly declared. “I would rather be deceived by others than by my husband. I do not wish to spend another moment quarrelling with the man I love.”
Darcy was confounded, for Elizabeth was determined to be happy in marriage, no matter the consequence to her character. She was indeed a clever woman, and she was correct; and her courage had given Darcy the answer he so desperately sought. Darcy gathered Elizabeth’s hand in his own, and kissed her palm profoundly. At once he told her all that had transpired in the last few days; all of his troubles, all of the quandaries, every single one of his thoughts and fears; and Elizabeth listened keenly.
With devotion for her husband’s efforts to protect her reputation, and with absolute relief that he remained hers alone, Elizabeth whispered, “Whatever may come from this, we will weather it together. We cannot let this man have what he desires.”
Darcy smiled; a smile of total liberation, and he said, “I will take you back to the house, and go find this Mr. Pritchard, directly.”
Elizabeth stood up to take Darcy’s arm, but instead of attending her, Darcy was once more preoccupied in observing the sky. He strained to detect the hint of a sound, and his expression was curious, as his face lost all color.
“What is wrong?”
“It is eerily silent, Elizabeth. There is not the song of a thrush, a linnet; no bird or animal.”
Elizabeth listened carefully, and Darcy was correct, there was not the least twitter of a bird, nor bleating of a sheep. There were no people to be heard about the estate as earlier that morning, and the lack of customary clatter made the skin on Elizabeth’s neck tingle in fright.
Darcy wrapped an arm around Elizabeth and in keeping an eye toward the sky, prompted, “Make haste.”
He held Elizabeth close, away from any tree, as they hurried back to Longbourn house. Elizabeth was terrified as she glanced once again at her husband’s fretful face; and she noted the spectacle of her father standing at the steps of the house waving frantically as he caught sight of his daughter and son-in-law.
“Come, come,” Mr. Bennet shouted; and Darcy pushed Elizabeth past the threshold of the door. Once inside, Elizabeth gasped and turned back toward her husband and father. Both men stood beneath the portico, staring in awe at the darkened sky above.
“Is everyone in the house?” Darcy abruptly asked of Mr. Bennet; the angst in his voice triggering a shudder in Elizabeth.
“I believe so,” replied Mr. Bennet.
“Go further into the house, to the middle of the hallway is best,” Darcy instructed his wife. “Take your mother and sisters…”
Darcy was unable to speak another word before a flash of lightening and a din so ferocious in nature rattled every windowpane in Longbourn house; the reverberation of the awful sound seeming to shake the ground beneath Elizabeth’s feet. On instinct Darcy’s arm shielded Elizabeth’s body, and with his other hand he grasped the nape of Mr. Bennet’s coat, pulling the two close. Elizabeth shrieked in panic, her eyes shut tight and her hands covering her ears for never having heard such a sound in her life.
Through her palms, Elizabeth heard her mother scream from within the house, and her sisters wail in terror. Elizabeth forced her eyes open to ascertain that her father had survived the terror, and her fingers came to grip the starched sleeves of her husband’s linen shirt.
Darcy labored to free himself from Elizabeth’s grasp. “See to your family.”
The air was no longer still as a tempest swirled through the trees. The once ochre sky turned black, and the air filled with the taste and choking smell of brimstone, the atmosphere filling with ash. Through the churning branches could be seen a column of abundant smoke.
Darcy cried out in alarm in the resonance of a man’s panic. “The church! Bingley! To the church!” At once he freed himself from Elizabeth’s grip on his clothing. “Do not leave this house,” he growled a fearsome command, and in the blink of an eye his long legs carried him in the direction of the smoke.
Charles Bingley rushed to the doorway, stopping long enough to see the column of smoke for himself. Elizabeth heard her brother-in-law gasp in a hasty understanding, and he shimmied out of his dress coat, throwing it to the ground below.
As his legs began to scramble beneath him, he cried, “All of you stay put!”
Charles Bingley followed Darcy, both disappearing into the smoke and the ash. Elizabeth watched helplessly as house servants, stable boys, and farmhands hurried about, carrying wooden pails and leather buckets, rugs and beaters, shovels and brooms; all heading in the direction of Longbourn church.
There was no doubt that the looming column of smoke came from the lower roof of the parish church. The splendid tower, constructed of limestone, as well as the walls surrounding could not be burnt, yet the roof above the nave was fashioned of old hewn beams and coarse lath shingles, weathered from neglect and dry from the recent heat.
Mr. Bennet’s disregard for his duties when it came his interests, and his reluctance to part with his money on something of prudence, had taken a toll on the old structure. The master of the estate had ignored the trees surrounding the church, for they had not been tended and trimmed in quite some time, and the summer heat had caused the foliage to grow particularly dense. Years of tinder and leafy rubbish had fallen atop the church, gathering into piles in every nook and every corner, tempting fate.
The large old oak standing proudly in the churchyard had been the mark of a wretched bolt of lightning which had rattled that corner of Hertfordshire. A heavy limb from the tree splintered free by the extraordinary force had tumbled onto the church roof. Sparks from the limb set the tinder ablaze and the violently burning branch seared a hole directly through the shingles and timbers of the roof, and smoldered black within the nave of the church.
Darcy was the first to arrive at the church and what he saw gave caused distress, first and foremost, that perhaps Reverend Goodwin might be trapped within the structure. The young man glanced about the grounds, seeing nothing but small fires set in the grasses near to the foundation of the church, yet before he had fixed his mind to search, Darcy observed the figure of an old man approaching as hastily as he was able.
“Darcy, my good man!” the good Reverend exclaimed, his hands in the air; woefully frightened.
Darcy grasped him by the arm; “Come away,” the younger man condoled at the plight of such a happenstance, guiding the elder to a safe spot a distance from the smoldering fire and the precarious canopy of the trees.
“Good sir!” the Reverend’s cries were frenetic, though he had not come by any injury. “Our church! What is to become of our church?”
There was no time for further comfort, however much Darcy wanted to bestow such benevolence on the Bennet’s dear friend. Men from Longbourn and the neighborhood had arrived and brought what they could to help, and they eagerly awaited any instruction from someone of authority. They were now the keen subjects of Mr. Darcy for they all had come to know of the good sense that he possessed; yet that man’s mind was awhirl as he considered a method as to extinguishing the inaccessible flames.
The sight of Charles Bingley was a welcome relief to his friend. “Darcy!” he shouted, on the run. “What is to be done?”
Darcy mopped at his eyes with his shirtsleeve, as soot billowing from the church exasperatingly followed him wherever he stood. The black grime and the sweat on that portion of his face rubbed off onto the pristine white linen, though Darcy did not fret at all about those things easily replaced.
“I am not certain what can be done, Charles,” he confessed through ragged breaths, his voice choked by suspended ash, and hastened by angst. “I suppose someone will have to venture in and take a look.”
“If that be the case, I say we let it smolder,” Bingley replied, his breathing much the same as that of his friend.
Darcy took another look at the old church—at Elizabeth’s church. Not simply a place of worship, it had meaning to Elizabeth beyond commonplace perception. It was beloved to her family; and so it had come to suggest quite the same to Darcy, for indeed it had been the place where he had wed his love.
“We cannot let it go, Bingley,” sighed Darcy.
“You there!” he bellowed afterward, pointing to an able craftsman. “Is it possible to pry out those windows at the casings?”
“It is, sir.”
“Good. Then do so, in haste,” Darcy instructed to the now swelling crowd. “When done, try to locate the source of the fire. If it has not spread, perhaps it can be extinguished with water alone. But mind yourself! The air from the open windows may fan the flames higher.”
Reverend Goodwin dared disrupt the man. “Mr. Darcy!” he cried as before. “I beg you, sir—the registers! Who shall know what has happened at this place if our ledgers are burnt?”
In the weary eyes of the estimable Reverend, young Mr. Darcy stood tall; he was indeed a good man, lofty and valiant, yet the young gentleman once again cast his own eyes in a wary stare toward the smoldering structure.
To enter a burning building was very nearly madness; a risky prospect that Darcy was reluctant to do for the sake of a few ledgers and a small parish’s provincial past. The laws on the books of the land stated it plainly; that one, who it was determined had committed such a wild lapse of judgment willingly, did forfeit his fortune for the good of the Crown—and in Darcy doing so, Elizabeth and Georgiana would be left with nothing but their memories of a praiseworthy husband and brother.
Darcy came to think of the contemptible ledger, that very book locked away in the chest in Mr. Pritchard’s room off of the vestry; and he wanted nothing more than to see it burn away in reality. That book had become the bane of Darcy’s newly married life. Should he go in and bring out the records that the good Reverend feared if lost, Darcy was determined to allow that one ledger to burn.
Darcy grasped Reverend Goodwin by the shoulders. “If I do not come out,” he spoke in not quite a whisper, emphasizing his resolve and particular meaning upon the old man by the most impassioned appeal of his life, “you will avow that I was caught inside from the beginning. Do you hear what I am saying, my good man? Do you understand what I say?”
“I do. And I will do so,” answered the Reverend, “for you, son. Godspeed.”
Mr. Bennet was powerless as he looked at the column of smoke from the safety of Longbourn house, his wife no more useful as she stood behind her husband, bewailing the certain ruination of Mr. Bennet’s personal estate.
Elizabeth could bear no more of it; she wanted to see the church, and she insisted that her husband be well within her sights. She did not need a champion in her life; she did not require a hero, yet she desperately wanted her one and only husband. Numbly, Elizabeth’s feet carried her a few faltering steps in the direction of the church, until she felt a gentle hand seize her bare wrist.
“Lizzy, no!” marked a dutiful Jane. “We are to remain here, you heard my husband tell us so!”
Elizabeth turned to face her sister. The hue of her eyes wild in their reflection of the turbulent sky, and her lovely cheeks pallid in fear.
“When do we ever mind our husbands, Jane?” she uttered a lament suffered by all wives in time, for Elizabeth would never be as obedient as Jane. “Certainly,” she did confess to her sister, “now is not the occasion.”
Indeed, Darcy had done the unthinkable, and had entered the burning church. It was not yet difficult to find his way to the small room where the registers were kept, but the nave and vestry of the church were rapidly filling with smoke and ash; and prayer books, furnishings, and linens began to go up in flames.
Once inside the room, Darcy found the stacks of ledgers piled upon a modest desk, and he wasted no time in whisking them up into his arms. He turned immediately to leave, when he heard a reckless voice call out in haste.
“I cannot budge this damnable lock!”
Indeed, Darcy was astonished to see Enoch Pritchard bent over the old traveling chest, working in vain to open the lid. “Come out now, man,” he said to the curate, rattling what was left of the fellow’s composure.
“You?” Mr. Pritchard groused in indignation. “Certainly, you should want me to leave!”
“And you are more of a fool than I imagined,” snorted Darcy in retort. “Be sensible. Leave the book, and come out with me!”
“I shall not!” the curate cried. “It will not suit my purpose at all!”
Darcy was surely infuriated. “Is that all there is—your purpose? What becomes of the ruin of a beautiful woman, a woman who has never thought to harm a soul?” he growled, realizing that the air was becoming scant, and to his own eyes objects were more and more difficult to see. “Your purpose is bent toward the malevolent. I think now would be the perfect time to do what you do best, man, and consider your own skin!”
Pritchard worked feverishly on the stubborn lock of the chest, choosing not to take note of a word that Mr. Darcy did say. In desperation, he found a file to wedge between the lock and the chest, and he succeeded in opening the lid, and locating the object of his dissolute obsession, bringing the book out of its confines and pressing it firmly to his immoral breast.
Darcy reached out and grabbed the collar of the man’s coat with a fumbling hand. “Come now!” he shouted to save them both, though his effort was wasted as the curate scrambled to his feet, pushing Darcy aside to make for the door.
The man scurried from the room in his attempt to save himself, alone; and Darcy as well hastened out into the dark nave of the church. The flaming beams above tottered by splinters, and foul, thick and choking smoke from the burning oak branch filled the nave faster than before, giving Darcy some trouble in seeing his way free. He did the sensible thing, as surely as one would tend to believe, and he ran a hand along the wall for guidance, making sure that his pace was steady, and that his wits did resist the temptation to panic.
In the manner that Fitzwilliam Darcy’s character was levelheaded and sound, Enoch Pritchard’s temperament simply was not. In his haste, the curate had become confused and disoriented by the dense smoke, and his excessive hurry to save his own hide.
He chanced to call out emphatically to the one person he knew could lend him a charitable hand. “Mr. Darcy!” he bawled pathetically, “Pray, do not leave me here!”
Darcy had reached the door, his body halfway out of the church, and he gulped for any air he could find, as his ears rang with the curate’s reprehensible entreaty. Fitzwilliam Darcy had one more choice to make, one more reason to tempt good fortune before he did liberate himself.
Elizabeth ran with the whirling of the ash toward the source of the smoke, her heart sinking at the sight of what had happened as she drew closer to the church. Never in her tender years had she born witness to such an awful sight, and her face drew up in unchecked feelings of loss, for herself, and for her neighborhood.
She found Charles Bingley out among the grounds near to the old doors of the vestry. He held a corn sack in his hand, which he used to slap out fires in the grasses when the sparks from the church roof toppled down from above.
“Brother!” Elizabeth wailed, capturing his loose shirtsleeve in her trembling fingers. “Where is my husband?”
“Elizabeth!” For once, Charles Bingley looked annoyed with his sister-in-law as he spoke her familiar name in astonishment. “You were not to come! Do you suppose my wishes are to be taken with impertinence, sister?”
“I do not,” Elizabeth was genuinely made timid by his manner.
“Then go back to your father’s house, at once!”
Elizabeth looked about the churchyard disregarding her fear of reproof from any man, and then she turned to importune her brother-in-law once more. “My husband! Please Charles, I beg you most keenly, where is he?”
By the horrified look upon Elizabeth’s face alone, Charles Bingley took pity on her and threw down the sack in his hand. His kind hands came to rest on her shoulders, for he wondered what she might do should he tell his sister what was true.
“Darcy is in the church.”
What Bingley had supposed was indeed true, and Elizabeth tried to struggle from his protection, bound for the perils within her beloved church. “Let me go!” she shrieked and fought her guardian. “Please,” she sobbed, “I must find him!”
When a man is pressed beyond his limits, even a good man’s failings can be deemed wicked. Fitzwilliam Darcy, upon hearing the mortal petition of the curate, hesitated.
“Mr. Darcy!” came the choking plea once again; “I am your servant sir, if you will only assist me!”
Darcy heard every word, yet he did not move an inch. Persuasion had a curious grip of young Darcy; the temptation to leave behind a very bad memory and to preserve his own self from harm did seem to outweigh every other sane motivation. The earth and its situation shuddered to a halt, and Darcy did not feel as though he had a breath within him left to take; and he wondered, truly, if he had come to die.
His mind conjured a portrait of his future, the prospect: a secluded landscape of his beloved Pemberley. But instead of a life of woe, it looked to be a joyful existence, prosperous and good.
The inducement to do what was right, the enticement to do what was expected brought Darcy back to sanity with one more cry from the lips of the curate. Darcy so wanted to survive, for he had every reason in the world to do so, but he could not live with himself knowing he had made a choice of iniquity.
Darcy pitched the ledgers he held in his arms out of the church, held what little breath he could find, and with one hand grasping the handle of the door, he reached as far as he could with the other into the smoky depths of the church, until his frantically searching hand caught hold of something most prized.
With a chaotic yet commanding pull, Darcy dragged the gangly, struggling curate out of the church, pulling him by the binding of the book the curate held securely within his arms. The man fell upon the dry grass, still clasping fast to the church register, which concealed the name of Elizabeth’s make-believe lover.
Darcy tumbled to his knees, exhausted by his ordeal, winded and nearly retching from need of good air. Oddly he could remember nothing of what had just happened, nothing save this man’s promise made the moment before Darcy had pulled him from certain ruin.
“Give me that ledger!” he managed to gasp, losing all good regulation. Darcy crawled through the grass after the curate on his hands and knees, coughing and searching for a breath as he wrapped his strong fingers onto the lapel of the man’s coat and pinned him to the ground with his arms and his body.
“Never,” the curate, labored to inhale.
Darcy had gone mad with rage, and he was certainly insensible to what it was that he did. “You are indebted to me, you wretch!” he exhaled with a sob.
“I owe you nothing!”
Darcy would not relent, quite the contrary, for he lifted the curate from the ground and then pushed him back toward the earth with all the muscle that he could assemble. “Give it to me at once,” he gasped with unconscionable persuasion, “or I will tear it from your wicked hands!”
From that moment on, whatever ranting utterances spewing forth from Darcy’s parched lips were only to be made out by one person. Suffice it to say that Mr. Darcy and Mr. Pritchard did not strike an amiable bargain that day. Yet the curate did not give up his position, preferring to be battered about and insulted by a man twice his size and ten times his consequence.
“Stop this!” a woman’s tone of voice was shrill to both men’s ears.
Darcy would not bring his torment of the curate to an end, since for Darcy the torture had lasted days and now he sought distinct retribution. He tossed the man about, to and fro several more times, growling scurrilous phrases singular to such a respectable gentleman, nearly snuffing out what breath was left in the one person who was the object of Darcy’s abhorrence.
“Mr. Darcy!” Elizabeth shouted at the pinnacle of her influence. “No more—please!”
Darcy looked up, bewildered; his hands still clutching Pritchard’s collar. His response to his wife’s entreaty was not immediate, though it appeared to Elizabeth that he finally came to his senses and did realize his crime.
His confusion was acute, although not nearly as much as when he finally become aware of the fact that strangers had gathered all about, curious bystanders to a contemptible sight. Darcy’s complexion went ashen, his character stained in ignominy, and he removed his hands from the curate’s cravat, crawled away on his knees and sat in the grass beyond.
Elizabeth did not go to him, but she was neither ashamed of her husband nor angry. Instead, she directed her attention toward the curate.
“Do what is right and give the book to me,” she demanded of Mr. Pritchard.
Enoch Pritchard hesitated a moment, his hands unwilling to comply. Yet, curiously what remained of the man’s own conscience stirred within his brain. His sport had never truly been aimed at this gentle woman, it had always been with the husband, and therefore he was made to surrender his prize.
Elizabeth took the ledger from his hands. Her eyes did not look at it, nor did she open the book and glance inside. She dutifully took it to where Darcy sat in the grass, and she presented the object to him, a gift in return for one earlier bestowed.
Darcy took the book from Elizabeth’s outstretched hands, and when it was before him, he opened it, turned some ten or so pages, until he happened on one of particular interest. His soot-covered fingers ran across the page, smearing what was written, and when they came to the edge he grasped the paper between his thumb and forefinger and tore it loose from the binding.
It was just as Elizabeth had seen in her curious dream days before. Mr. Darcy did certainly tear apart a book in the doorway of the church.
Darcy struggled to stand on his weary legs, yet he would accept no assistance from Elizabeth, and she backed away in dismay. One could see that Darcy was not sure what to do with the paper in his hand, but he espied a small fire in the grass near to him, and he limped toward it and held a corner of the paper to the flame.
That one page of the register of Longbourn Parish burnt completely within Mr. Darcy’s fingertips, and the ashes fell to his feet. People gathered all around were astonished at what had happened, and in wonder of the obvious and resentful temper of proud Mr. Darcy. But the church continued to burn, and there was simply no time for speculation and gossip.
Most of the roof of that portion of the church was now gone, and several craftsmen were successful in removing the windows as Darcy had wanted. Men hauled pails of water and buckets of dirt to throw onto the burning branch, and women stamped out the fires in the grasses outside.
With another crack of thunder, rain poured from the sky, and mercifully doused what remained of the smoldering fire; and exhausted folk made for shelter. Only Elizabeth and her husband lingered behind.
Forceful raindrops rolled onto Fitzwilliam Darcy’s face, washing away the soot and the grime, and staining his white shirt to a miserable gray, the unsightly color of a sky he hoped never to see again. The rain did save him the trouble of stifling his suffering however, for as Darcy looked back at what remained of Elizabeth’s church, and he remembered all the vulgar things that he had wished and had felt, he wept openly in testament of his own ruin.
Elizabeth beheld an aspect of her husband that she was sure she would never come to know. The pride of her man and his sturdy character had come to cinders, and it was left to Elizabeth to own enough strength to comfort them both.
She knew that it was not essential to weep over the destruction of her beloved church, and Elizabeth had no reason to shed tears for her husband. Darcy was not truly harmed and that was all that mattered; and whatever had been in the church register, whatever fancy of hers that had nearly caused one man to destroy another, was gone forever.