Here's a new Pride and Prejudice Variation to discover: Four Proposals of Marriage. It's by Laura Moretti, who has generously granted 3 readers of My Jane Austen Book Club the chance to win a copy of her new release. Scroll down, read chapter one and try your luck in the giveaway contest!
ABOUT THE BOOK
What if Darcy had to propose marriage four times—yes, FOUR—before Elizabeth accepted his hand?
The Darcys and the Bennets have always been neighbours and close friends, and Fitzwilliam Darcy grew up scampering through the fields in the company of Mr Bennet’s two daughters, the very pretty Jane and the very impertinent Elizabeth.
Now, Elizabeth is a proper young lady with an excellent education and a sizable dowry. Elizabeth and Darcy see each other daily, they debate, they laugh. Till Elizabeth is whisked away to London to find a husband and Darcy realises, belatedly, that she is the only woman he could ever marry.
Friendship blossoming into love—a common story! This should be a simple, uneventful tale.
But no love story is ever simple…
READ CHAPTER ONE
Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy was seventeen when he proposed to Miss Elizabeth Bennet for the first time. She was fifteen.
A generous luncheon had been laid out on the grass, on an immaculate cloth, far away from the house but still within the grounds of Hartfield, the beautiful, well-maintained Bennet property. The food had been quickly devoured, and now Bingley and Jane were playing croquet, while Elizabeth sat on the riverbank, hatless, in the moving shadows of the weeping willow, admiring the view down on Highbury, the prosperous village to which Hartfield belonged.
Miss Taylor, the Bennets’ governess, was comfortably settled on a thick cotton sheet near the remnants of the meal, embroidering and watching the croquet game, smiling at Charles Bingley’s antics and at the always very proper answers of Miss Jane Bennet.
“Hide me, Fitzwilliam,” Elizabeth asked the young gentleman at her side. She began to unlace her boots. “I want to dip my toes in the water.”
Fitzwilliam Darcy panicked. “Are you joking?”
He glanced at Miss Taylor, who paid them no heed. “You cannot do this,” he whispered. “It is not proper. It would be conduct unworthy of a lady. Also, you should call me Mr Darcy, I am at Eton now.”
Elizabeth removed her first boot, and Fitzwilliam Darcy turned as red as a beetroot.
“Are you going to keep your…” He gestured towards Elizabeth’s white-cotton-clad feet. Clearly, the word ‘stockings’ was not one a young gentleman educated at one of the country’s best schools was allowed to utter.
“Of course, Mr Darcy,” Elizabeth whispered back with all the sarcasm she could invoke. “I am not going to show you my…”
No power in the world would have enticed her to pronounce the word ‘ankles’, but she hid her blush. She would not become missish. She would not take airs, especially not for Fitzwilliam. She would not become like Caroline, Charles Bingley’s sister, who behaved more and more obnoxiously every time she saw her.
The second shoe was discreetly removed and put aside, to be hidden from view if Miss Taylor looked in their direction. This was a wise decision because the kind-hearted governess threw them an affectionate glance before turning back to her work.
Then, rebellion. Elizabeth’s feet barely skimmed the water, just enough to disturb the bright, silver surface. It hardly wet her stockings, but still, it felt like an act of mutiny, some tiny piece of freedom after all the dance moves, the proper postures, the endless pianoforte and drawing lessons that Miss Taylor had at last painstakingly convinced Mr Bennet were necessary for his daughters’ future. Oh, and also French. And Italian. And singing.
But at last it was July, and Fitzwilliam Darcy had come home for the summer with Charles Bingley in tow as usual, and the two Bennet sisters had begged—well Elizabeth had begged, Jane had asked politely—Miss Taylor to reduce the infernal rhythm of their new ‘necessary’ education.
“You are not behaving properly, Elizabeth,” Fitzwilliam commented haughtily. “And you are fifteen now. My aunt is right, you Bennet girls have been suffering from an unforgivable lack of schooling. She says you have been running wild.”
Elizabeth paid him no mind. The water was cool under her feet. She sighed and closed her eyes. “I love summer.”
Fitzwilliam watched her for a while. The sun was playing on Elizabeth’s white dress. On the stockings of her half-revealed calves. On her muslin fichu. Caressing the skin of her neck, the turn of her cheek. Her fluttering eyelids.
“We should marry,” he said.
This was such a change of tone that Elizabeth opened her eyes. “I—beg your pardon?”
“I mean, later,” Fitzwilliam added, with a distracted wave. “In a few years. When I am back from school and you are properly educated.”
“I—” Elizabeth tried to think. She read novels; marriage proposals were important matters, and you had to answer them in a respectable way. “I—am quite flattered, Fitz—Mr Darcy, but—”
“My aunt will disapprove, of course.” Fitzwilliam was deep in thought. “But Father will like it, and Lady Catherine always listens to him in the end. And our union makes sense, even if—I suppose I could do better. Your dowry is fine, but your mother was— I could make a better alliance. I suppose I should.”
“Thank you, Fitzwilliam. You do me great honour, but—”
“But then, our families have always been so close, and uniting the two estates would be a wise move. I think, yes—I believe father will be pleased. You will have to speak to me with proper respect, of course. Do you want me to announce our engagement tonight?”
Elizabeth regretted her outburst instantly. If she was to tell the story to Jane and Miss Taylor, she wanted to be congratulated on her ladylike behaviour. “I apologise for my lack of manners, Fitzwilliam. But I do not wish to marry you.”
He scoffed. “Of course you do.”
“I do not.”
“All young ladies want to become the mistress of Pemberley. My wife will be a very fortunate creature—Elton said so.”
“I do not need to become the mistress of Pemberley. I shall be mistress of Hartfield when Jane marries.”
“You should be flattered, you know. Catching the heir of Pemberley, only because we are neighbours. This is what my aunt warned me about, in fact.” Fitzwilliam Darcy reflected for a moment. “Really, you are lucky I even thought of you.”
Lucky? Elizabeth was not thinking of marriage yet, but when she did, she would choose someone…kind. Someone who smiled. Someone romantic who took her hand in his and wrote sonnets and did not always criticise her actions. Someone like her sister Jane, but, you know, a man.
“I do not feel lucky. I do not want you to think of me. I think… I think you are mean to me.”
“What? I am perfectly gallant!”
“You are not! You are—haughty and scowling now—and this expression your face makes—yes, this one! Since you came back from Eton, you have acted like you are above your company. Our company. We have been friends for all these years but you—you are too high and mighty for us now—you are always disapproving. Even Charles is tired of you sometimes!”
“That is a lie!”
“He told me! Well, he told Jane, she told me, and—”
“You are not even really that handsome! Tolerable, maybe, but—”
“I shall never marry you,” Elizabeth hissed.
“I did not really want you any way. I—”
“Elizabeth, Mr Darcy, is something the matter?”
Miss Taylor. Walking towards them. When had she risen? Elizabeth scrambled to hide her boots.
Too late. The Bennet sisters’ governess was of a mild, reasonable character, but seeing one of her charges, at the wise age of fifteen, voluntarily exposing part of her legs to a gentleman was enough provocation even for her.
If she had been of a temperament to yell, she would have. As it was, Elizabeth was severely scolded and sent home, thoroughly humiliated. Miss Taylor went to see Mr Bennet directly; the gentleman sighed, tried to make light of his daughter’s misdeeds, and made jokes, but Miss Taylor was adamant, and Mr Bennet had to summon his child and choose an appropriate punishment. Elizabeth was given even more lessons, she was forced to listen to even more speeches about appropriate conduct, and Fitzwilliam Darcy’s proposition of marriage was very soon forgotten.
“Mr Bennet, Miss Bennet,” Darcy said, entering the drawing-room at Hartfield with the ease of a dear friend of the family, used to going in and out of the place at all times—he even had a favourite armchair. “You both seem sombre. Is this a day of mourning or a day of joy? And are you sure you need this fire?” he added, glancing at the powerful blaze. “It is rather hot outside.”
“It is,” Elizabeth confirmed. “Our guests suffered all afternoon, but they pretended well enough. The vicar would be satisfied, vanity was punished. The ladies who only wore light muslin could bear the oppression, but those who added silk, cashmere, or jewels suffered for their sins.”
Darcy only smiled. “I am sorry I missed the ceremony. I hope you conveyed to Miss Taylor—Mrs Weston now—all my wishes of joy.”
“I did, sir,” Elizabeth answered very properly.
“Sit, my boy, sit,” Mr Bennet said, waving towards the armchair. “The fire is burning because of me, I fear. I am always cold these days. Elizabeth bears the temperature like a martyr from the gospels, if martyrs used irony as a tool of rebellion against their oppressors.”
“I hardly feel the heat, Papa,” Elizabeth said, the amused light in her eyes a good illustration of her father’s words.
“I fear she inherited her sense of humour from you, sir,” Darcy said, still smiling, while Elizabeth ordered tea.
Darcy had always felt happy at Hartfield, he realised. The Bennet property was comfortable and welcoming in a way Pemberley was not any longer, not since his parents’ untimely deaths. Jane had married Charles Bingley two years ago; yes, try as he may, Darcy still thought of the Bennet girls by their first names, despite Elizabeth—Miss Bennet, now—having reached the very respectable age of twenty-one.
Jane and Bingley now resided in London, where Bingley was managing his father’s affairs. Darcy had been afraid that Hartfield would feel as deserted as Pemberley was, now that Mr Bennet was sickly and only Elizabeth was left to tend to him. But his fear had not been realised. The love between Elizabeth and her father was palpable, Darcy was warmed by it, and sometimes it felt like there were only the three of them left in the world. It created a sort of welcome intimacy; it felt—yes, it felt like home, another home, spending the evenings at Hartfield, helping Mr Bennet with the responsibilities of his estate and trading affectionate barbs with his second daughter.
The truth was, Darcy cared for Elizabeth. He believed their affectionate, sometimes adversarial relationship during their youth had given him the right to act like an old friend.
All the news from London was soon related. Jane and Bingley were as happy as ever in their comfortable home, Darcy explained. Little John was as healthy as a young fawn and with the same questionable sense of equilibrium.
“I felt an air of melancholy when I entered this room,” he added, after a short hesitation. He looked at Elizabeth. “You will miss Miss Taylor’s companionship, I am sure.”
Elizabeth raised her eyes with a sad smile. “I shall. Since I turned eighteen, she has been a governess only in name—more of a companion and a dear friend. But she and Mr Weston looked so happy…whom would I be if I did not rejoice in their union?”
“Her new home is barely half a mile away. You will walk every day to see her,” Darcy said. “You will meet her in Highbury when you go for your morning visits. It will be as if she never left.”
“But great must be the difference,” Mr Bennet intervened, “between a Mrs Weston, only half a mile away, and a Miss Taylor in the house. And as certain as I am of my powers of captivating people with the sheer strength of my intellect,” he continued, “I am worried for Lizzy. She will feel the lack of a female companion—of a companion of any sort. You will entertain her, will you, Darcy? Take her on walks and stuff her ears with news of your mines and the agricultural prowess of your tenants. Seriously, she needs to hear a voice other than mine.”
“I shall entertain her, sir, I swear.”
“I am beside myself with joy,” Elizabeth said dryly.
Darcy smiled. “Indeed, Miss Bennet. I know how you cherish my presence and my scintillating conversation.”
“Do you now?”
The gentleman was most amused. “I shall do better. I shall ask Georgiana whether she is amenable to coming home this summer. Then Pemberley will have a hostess, and we shall organise…whatever gatherings fashionable people are supposed to enjoy, I suppose. Tea parties on the grass, archery, elaborate dinners—Georgiana will know.”
“I am exhausted just picturing it,” Mr Bennet said.
“Honestly, sir, so am I. We shall let the ladies rejoice in all the sophistication, whilst we shall retreat to the study, pour ourselves some brandy, and pretend to talk about Aristarchus of Samos.”
“Pretending to be clever—one of my favourite activities.”
“I wonder how you would have turned out, Mr Darcy,” Elizabeth said, keeping her eyes on her work, “if you had not found yourself with the boisterous, barbaric Bennet girls as your closest friends and neighbours. Whom would you have talked to? Whom would you have played games with? Would you have even ventured outside?”
“Boisterous, barbaric Bennet girls? Your sister, Jane, has always been perfectly civilised, as I recall.”
Elizabeth smiled. “Well played.”
“And on that note,” Darcy said, rising, “I shall quit whilst I am ahead. Pemberley is waiting. I wish you both a good night and pleasant dreams. Mr Bennet, I shall see you tomorrow night, to settle the petty matter of taxes you mentioned last week.”
“A petty matter for the owner of Pemberley, mayhap,” Mr Bennet smirked. “For us here at Hartfield, the matter is of some importance. But you patricians will never understand the struggles of the plebeians.”
This was all theatrics, of course. The Bennets were quite well off and in no danger whatsoever, even if the tax issue did not resolve itself in a satisfactory manner. Elizabeth had a thirty-thousand-pound dowry; in London, Bingley and Jane were managing their affairs quite cleverly; and Hartfield was a profitable estate. But this was a game Mr Bennet had liked to play with Darcy’s father; they had debated in Latin about wealth and friendship and enjoyed themselves immensely.
“I shall walk you out,” Elizabeth said to Darcy when he rose to leave. “The truth is, some fresh air will do me good.”
The gentleman asked for his light summer coat back, and he and Elizabeth stepped through the western door, stopping for a moment on the stone steps—there they had a view of the rose garden, then the trees and the hills. A pleasant breeze flowed, carrying the potent fragrance of the fields having roasted all day under the burning sun.
“Oh, how I love summer,” Elizabeth said, closing her eyes for a moment.
“Yes, you always did.” Darcy felt at peace with the world. “Do you remember,” he said, seized by a sudden impulse, “that day, ages ago, on the riverbank? When I asked for your hand in marriage?”
Elizabeth turned red. “Oh please, do not remind me. When I think of—” The mere idea of showing her feet—her stockings!—to a gentleman. “No wonder you proposed, you had to save me from my own brazen behaviour.” She turned to Darcy with a half serious, half bemused expression. “I never apologised for my conduct, sir. Let me do so now. I was very wrong, and you must have been quite horrified.”
“No, I am the one who should apologise. I remember some of the things I said— My rank, my so-called importance in society… I was a stupid coxcomb, and I am very sorry.”
“You called me ‘barely tolerable’, you know.”
“I certainly did not.”
“You did!” Elizabeth protested, laughing. “Or maybe just ‘tolerable’, I do not quite recall.”
“I do not remember that,” Darcy protested haughtily. “I believe you are making it up, Miss Bennet, to further shame me.”
“At least you preferred me to Jane. All that talk about dowries and uniting the estates, you should have chosen the eldest, but no, you talked to me. It was flattering, in a way.”
“Your sister is the most beautiful, charming woman that ever existed…”
“…but we all knew she was destined for Charles. I think he must have been in love with her since— Forever.”
“Oh yes. And she felt the same. She never expressed it, of course, you know Jane.”
“At least one of you understood what being a lady entailed.”
Elizabeth just laughed. “And you intend to let me breathe the same air as your sister all summer.”
“Well. You have made some progress. You know,” Darcy added in a more sober tone, “some of your reproaches were true—I did speak to Bingley later that week, to ask him if I really acted as though I were above my company. Bingley was very kind about it, but…”
“He said there was truth to the allegation?”
“It was a severe accusation. Saying that I behaved badly towards my longtime friends because of—unjust pride… I took the matter seriously.”
“Well. You have made some progress.”
“Thank you, Miss Bennet—I live for your approval. And now I really must go. I wish you both a good evening.”
“Good evening, Mr Darcy,” Elizabeth answered with an exaggerated curtsey.
Then she returned to her father, while Mr Darcy asked for his horse and rode back, along the perfectly maintained lane, to the luxury and the loneliness of Pemberley.