Finding Folly by Linda Beutler

This month we have a special treat from Linda Beutler, author of The Red Chrysanthemum and gardener extroardinaire, who wrote this little story for you, our readers. 

Elizabeth Bennet was vexed with herself. She would have liked to think that by the age of twenty—soon to be one and twenty—she would have learnt not to trust the April weather. The morning had dawned bright and clear. Oh, she was sore deceived!

Aquilegia_vulgarisShe promised her mother to rescue some columbine from the local hedgerows to transplant at Longbourn. Elizabeth thought it an excellent request, very fitting in that the meaning of columbine was folly. It was certainly the flower she associated most with her mother. Indeed, since the letting of Netherfield Hall the past autumn, it could be said to be the symbol for the entire family. Her father often hinted at having a coat-of-arms fashioned for the Bennets; she must remember to suggest this flower. He would see the sense of folly.

The drenching shower passed and the air warmed. Rather than turn home with an empty basket, Elizabeth made for the south on a little-used path, determined to succeed in her mission. She knew there was a fine stand of columbine along the way to Oakham Mount, but it was no longer a favoured walk. Pairs of lovers were often seen meandering to the promontory. It has become the avenue of Venus, Elizabeth mused, a regular thoroughfare. No, the path to Oakham Mount held no enchantment.

The subject of love brought her heated mind no relief. Her sister Jane, for all her protests to the contrary, could not overcome the tenderness she felt for the capricious Charles Bingley. The best that could be said of the man was, for all of his affability, he was weak willed. After carefully considering the letter given to her by Mr Darcy, Elizabeth believed Bingley undeserving of her beloved elder sister. If his affection had as little spine as a wisp of reed in a breeze, Elizabeth could never approve of him for dear Jane.

Her sisters Lydia and Kitty giggled and ran after officers and called it love, although the regiment had departed for Brighton. Lydia seemed destined to follow them as the particular friend of Harriet Forster, wife of the Colonel. Elizabeth had failed in her attempt to heed Mr Darcy’s warning concerning George Wickham, a lieutenant, and convince her father Lydia’s visit ought not be sanctioned. Still, a portion of Mr Darcy’s information was to remain private, and short of providing her father with details she was not at liberty to divulge, her father would not follow her line of reasoning. In the days since returning from Kent and London, during which Elizabeth observed Wickham armed with a vastly greater knowledge of his character, she wondered how she had ever been taken in by his shallow appearance of goodness. I am not all I thought I was, she fussed silently.

Her musings on love turned to Fitzwilliam Darcy. He loved her, or he had. As time and distance separated her from his awkward, indeed, heavy-handed proposal of marriage, she had come to think very differently of the man than she did at the time of his offer. Aside from the irony of Mr Darcy’s proposal being voiced in the home of another man whom she had refused, her cousin Mr Collins, she was really rather heartily ashamed of herself.

Prior to the evening he offered his hand, and the next morning when he delivered into her care a letter it must have been torture to write, she had misjudged him by every possible measure. She had seen him as impenetrable, and yet she had invaded his hauteur without knowing it. He seemed cold, yet he expressed his deep regard for her with all of the warmth a maiden might require. His comments regarding her family were ill timed, but she could no longer call them ill chosen, for she had to own she agreed with him.

Elizabeth had talked it all through with Jane, but withheld this: about Fitzwilliam Darcy she now felt a pang of regret. Surely they did not know each other anything like well enough to marry at the time of his proposal. He certainly over-estimated her. But now she wished she had not spoken so hastily, with such unkind vehemence. It occurred to her in the last few days, since returning home, that she would have liked the opportunity to know him better. A long courtship might have been suggested, had she not been both woefully misinformed and taken wholly unawares by his profession of love.

She shook her head. Love…she would dwell no more upon love. Clearly she had no knack for it. These were her thoughts as a stout tuffet of columbine was revealed around the next bend, and she was determined to have the whole clump. The buds were not open, but it appeared they would unfold to a very dark blue. Mr Darcy’s eyes, she thought before banishing the notion. Elizabeth bent, armed with a trowel, and was able to release most of the roots from the soil. She wrapped the separated plants in the moist cloth brought for the purpose, and tucked them into her basket. She threw her muddied third-best gloves in after.

Elizabeth stood and looked about her. In the distance, she could see Netherfield Hall. This was the first time she had glimpsed the fine house since being returned from Kent, and doing so made her disheartened. It was a fair prospect, but no good memories were inspired by it. Within its walls Jane had been ill, Elizabeth had debated with Mr Darcy without understanding the compliment of his attention, and Mr Bingley’s sisters insulted her and Jane constantly. In its ballroom she danced with Mr Darcy—the handsomest man in attendance—and could do nothing but tease and torment him through the whole of it.

And during all that time he had fallen in love with her. She took off her bonnet, which tangled in some pins and pulled several ringlets down her back. Not if he could see me now. She snorted softly.

Elizabeth stared more carefully at the large house. Were the windows open? She peered at it with a creasing of her brow and saw a maid fling a dust cover from the second story, giving it a violent shake. Elizabeth smiled and her eyes began to sting. Could Mr Darcy have done it? Could he have admitted he was wrong and encouraged Mr Bingley to return?

The sackcloth apron over the front of her plain print gown was soaked and muddy. Elizabeth removed it and slung it in the basket. As if unable to resist, she skirted the freshly tilled fields and approached through Netherfield Park. She had to know if Mr Bingley was nigh onto returning, or if the house was imminently to be let to another.

She kept to the trees, hoping a servant she knew, or the housekeeper, might appear and answer her questions. As she moved, the rain came again, but she did not notice her chill.

The man watching her approach, however, did.

Fitzwilliam Darcy had arrived a day ahead of the rest of Bingley’s party, accompanying the wines and fortified spirits he always brought as a gift. He smiled at the wary progress of Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and knew he must face his fear of seeing her again in order to preserve her modesty. Her gown was thin, and the rain, while not as pelting as the earlier shower, was none the less having its way with her clothing.

Darcy bolted through the house, donning a great coat and grabbing a second to cover Elizabeth. He exited the house from a door on the opposite wall to avoid being seen, made a quick loop through the trees, and called from behind her when he neared.

“Miss Bennet!”

Darcy saw her freeze in place, straightening herself. Her head started to turn.

“No! I beg you…remain as you are. Do not face me.” He could already have reported from his vantage point in the window the coloration of her bosom. He knew the image would taunt him forever.

Her hair was a chestnut tumble of curls down her back. The long wet sleeves of her gown were pasted to her arms, and he feared for his very sanity if he glimpsed her face and front up close.

As she cried, “Mr Darcy!” he enveloped her in the spare great coat and took her basket. He had forgotten a hat, and his curls dampened onto his forehead.

After feeling her in his arms for the slightest moment, he stepped back. Holding the coat closed with her hands, Elizabeth did turn. Their eyes met. They did not breathe.

He is the handsomest man I have ever seen.

She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.

Their eyes softened from alarm to something like fondness, and they smiled at each other.

Darcy drew in a breath and spoke first. “It might be the fashion at the finest balls in London for ladies to show their figures in dampened gowns this season, but I hardly think you need be so stylish here in the woods, Miss Bennet.”

Realizing he was teasing her, she replied, “You are quite right, Mr Darcy. My attempts to be au courant are wasted on the rabbits and squirrels, and their opinions are not sound, in any case.”

“Miss Bennet…”

“Mr Darcy…”

He nodded that she should be the one to proceed.

“Is Mr Bingley to return? But you are here, so it is silly to ask. The answer must be yes.”

“When I returned to London Bingley had gone to Bath with the Hursts. I wrote him I was mistaken in your sister, and he agreed to meet me here. He arrives tomorrow. As does my sister.”

“Your sister. Miss Darcy?”

“Indeed. Bingley is angry with Miss Bingley at present. He has been blessedly less so with me, and asked Georgiana and I to come, so that she may act as hostess, in the likelihood we need to entertain.”

Their eyes met again. Elizabeth held the great coat more snugly; not comprehending it was a surrogate for its owner’s embrace.

“After the letter I wrote you, Miss Bennet, you can have no reason for kindness, but please, may I introduce my sister to you? I believe she would benefit greatly from any friendship that might arise.”

Elizabeth sputtered, “I, yes…yes. I thank you, yes. I should be delighted to meet her.” A little hand emerged from the coat and touched his forearm impulsively. “I am not insensible of the honour it represents, sir.”

Darcy smiled tentatively and lowered his voice, “So you do not still abhor me?”

Elizabeth’s cheeks, already pink with embarrassment, darkened further. “No, sir. I think the wonder here is that you do not disdain me.”

“You said things I deserved to hear. A man needs to know how he is perceived by the world. How else can he make amends, if he is misunderstood by those he values?”

Elizabeth shook her head, shivering her curls. “That I assumed the worst of you does me no credit. My vanity was flattered by another, to my detriment. When one’s opinion of oneself is based upon a false premise, in my case my apparently not so acute ability to observe others, it is never easy to admit a failing. I must thank you for your letter, Mr Darcy.”

“You did read it? You did not burn it?”

“I would never! It has led me to understand myself. And you.”

Darcy gazed into her warm brown eyes. He feared he would blurt another proposal, but said instead, “We should get you to Longbourn. Sadly I rode alone, beside the cart with provender from Town. The carriages come tomorrow. But… May I have the pleasure of escorting you back to Longbourn?”

Elizabeth looked down, and although she nodded, she could not meet his gaze. She turned from him and worked her arms properly into the sleeves of the great coat. It trailed upon the ground. After buttoning the front, she held the garment gathered in one hand above the wet grass.

When she turned, she took Darcy’s proffered arm with her other hand.

“Your family is well?” Darcy did not want to sink into stilted conversation, but could think of no other gambit to draw out the silent Elizabeth.

“Yes, sir. Very well. In a few days time Lydia will travel to Brighton as the guest of Mrs Forster.” She made a discouraged scoff. “I have tried to dissuade my father from allowing it, but he does not listen.”

Darcy stiffened. “But Mrs Forster is the colonel’s wife. Are the militia gone to Brighton?”

“Yes, and that man with them.”

“And did you explain about him to your father?”

“You requested my secrecy, sir.”

“I would speak with him, Miss Bennet, if you do not oppose it?”

Her grateful smile answered his question, and she unconsciously tightened her grip of his arm. “Thank you. You greatly relieve my mind. I was at a loss…”

When at last they neared Longbourn, Elizabeth stopped their progress as they walked behind a hedge. “Mr Darcy, there is an apron in the basket, which will afford me some modicum of modesty as I enter the house. You may take this coat and return to Netherfield. I fear what might be said if you see me to the door.”

Darcy looked carefully into her face. “I had not thought to stop at the door, let alone here. I must speak to your father about Miss Lydia and Brighton.”

“Surely you could return in the afternoon. No one would be the wiser.”

He looked a little stricken and said, “You do not wish to be seen with me, Miss Bennet?”

“Quite the opposite, Mr Darcy. I would assume you do not wish to be seen so informally with me. You know what they are capable of.” She nodded toward Longbourn and its occupants.

“Indeed I do. But the one in that house who is still a conundrum to me is yourself.”

“As you are to me.” Elizabeth blushed and looked down.

“Miss Bennet. Miss Elizabeth… When I speak to your father, might I also request permission to pay you court? It is what I should have done from the first. If you believe nothing will come of a courtship, please say. I will not ask again.”

Elizabeth tucked up the corner of one lip with her teeth before replying, “In spite of anything I have previously said, you have always been a gentleman, Mr Darcy. I would welcome the opportunity to know you better.”

“You are beautiful,” he breathed. “In spite of anything I have said previously.”

His eyes, like an ocean, poured their passion into Elizabeth’s astonished gaze.

Silently they rounded the end of the hedge, and the ever-vigilant Kitty Bennet was heard crying to her mother, “Here’s Lizzy now…with Mr Darcy!”

A screech came from Mrs Bennet. “With Mr Darcy? Whatever do you mean, child!”

Kitty stared as her second eldest sister smiled up into the beaming face of Mr Darcy, and held his arm with such ease. “I mean she is with Mr Darcy, Mama!”

Just before entering the front door Darcy slowed their pace. “Miss Elizabeth, you must tell me…” He held up her basket. “Other than your apron and bonnet, what have I been carrying all this way?”

“Some plants of columbine, Mr Darcy, for the garden. It is the flower of folly.”

Darcy started to laugh, as full and rich a sound as Elizabeth had ever heard from him. “So it is folly that has brought me here, my love?” he whispered.

“Indeed, sir,” she whispered in reply, her eyes dancing. “Folly has brought us together.”

Laughing, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy entered the house, proceeded past a flailing Mrs Bennet—to whom they handed the basket—knocked and were admitted, still arm and arm, into Mr Bennet’s library.