If you missed the first installment of ‘The Devil and Mr Darcy’ on Jane Austen Variations, read it here…
On the night following All Hallow’s Eve, Fitzwilliam Darcy left Pemberley and descended the front steps. He glanced up. The wind had risen and the moon hid itself behind scudding clouds. “Is my horse ready?”
The groom nodded. “Aye. Cold out tonight it is, sir.” His breath plumed out before him as if to give credence to his words.
Darcy drew on his gloves. “Don’t wait for me. I don’t expect to return until quite late.” He thrust his boot in the stirrup and swung himself up on the stallion. He held the reins tightly; the horse was restive.
“It’s nigh on midnight, sir,” the groom pointed out. “Can yer business tonight not wait till morning?”
“No. It cannot.”
Darcy bid him goodnight and, without further remark, urged the horse into a gallop. There wasn’t a minute to waste. The cold was indeed brutal tonight, and soon turned his extremities numb; but it also served to sharpen his focus as the darkened countryside rushed by, and strengthened his resolve.
How could he have been so foolish as to make a bargain with the devil? Yet he had. Worse still, he was about to compound his mistake and deal with the devil again.
It was madness. Insanity. If not for his deep and unwavering love for Elizabeth Bennet, and his despair of ever securing her affection in return, he would never have left Netherfield, nor found himself alone in a deserted and skeletal wood, facing the Dark Lord himself. He’d given up his very soul to obtain Elizabeth’s love.
Now he wanted it back.
Tonight’s meeting, he was determined, would end in his favor. He would regain his soul, no matter the cost. Even if it meant relinquishing his supernatural hold on Miss Bennet. He would earn her love on his own terms, or not at all.
Quite some time later – an hour, perhaps two – he slowed the horse and slackened his grip on the reins as they neared a juncture in the road. The forest he remembered loomed just ahead and to the left. The woods bordered a lonely stretch of land inhabited by neither man nor beast.
Darcy set his mouth in a grim line. His business of the night before was not finished, and would not be finished until he found the man he sought. Nothing would deter him.
Dismounting and looping the reins around a low-hanging tree branch, Darcy took his bearings. Yes, this was the place…the very place where he had so recklessly bartered his soul.
He strode into the thick of the wood. Ignoring the rustle of leaves around him, the mournful moaning of wind in the branches, Darcy did not pause until he reached a clearing set deep amongst the trees.
“Show yourself,” he called out as his gaze raked over the drifts of dead leaves and the sentinel-like phalanx of tree trunks surrounding him. “I have need of you.”
As before, a wind arose out of nowhere and sent the leaves swirling at his feet, and thunder rumbled and reverberated overhead.
“Why have you summoned me?” the devil demanded as he appeared. His face was set in a fearsome scowl. “Our business is finished.”
“No, it is only begun. I have a proposal.” Despite the dread that held him to the spot as surely as the gnarled roots of the trees around them, Mr Darcy gave no sign. He could not, would not, show anything but indifference and distain to this creature.
“A proposal?” The devil threw his head back and laughed. It was a black and mirthless sound, capable of curdling milk and withering the leaves on the trees. “Very well; what is it you propose?”
“I will relinquish my hold on Elizabeth Bennet’s heart,” Darcy informed him. “In exchange, you will relinquish my soul. It will be as if we had never crossed paths.”
“And I have told you, Mr Darcy, that your fate is already sealed. Your soul is mine. A bargain, once struck, cannot be undone.”
“Hear me out, at least, damn you!”
The black-clad gentleman lifted his brow. “As you wish. Your passion sways me, but your words, however persuasive, will not.”
“Only listen,” Darcy commanded. “If I cannot win Elizabeth’s love by midnight a week hence – and by my own doing – then you may have my soul, and gladly. For if I cannot win her heart by fair means, only foul, my soul is of no consequence.”
“Pretty words.” The devil’s scowl deepened. “You try my patience, Mr Darcy.”
“You have nothing to lose. Whereas I-” Darcy paused. “I have everything to lose. If, by next Saturday midnight, I cannot win Miss Bennet’s love – a thing I’ve failed to accomplish thus far on my own – you will regain my soul, and I will have nothing.”
For some moments, the only sound was the rustle of leaves falling to the ground and the low sigh of the wind through the branches.
“I will agree to your bargain,” the devil said reluctantly after a moment’s consideration. “With one stipulation.”
“You must win Elizabeth’s heart by midnight…tomorrow.”
Darcy paled. “Tomorrow? But – that’s far too soon!” Outrage suffused his face. “You’ve set me an impossible task! How am I to accomplish that which I could not manage in weeks, months – and in only one day?”
“Prove me wrong, then, Mr Darcy. The choice is yours. Secure Miss Bennet’s affections by this time tomorrow – or your soul shall once again be mine, for all eternity.”
The ground trembled and shook as the devil raised one long, black-nailed hand skyward, and with another terrible rumble of thunder he vanished, leaving only the stench of sulfur behind.
Dear God – what have I done? Darcy thought as he turned, dazed, and stumbled back to his horse. He had one day to turn Elizabeth’s indifference towards him into love.
How would he do it? Could he do it?
He had no choice. He must impress on her the depth of his feelings, or lose his soul – and her heart – forever. He must find the words to convince her that he loved no other and never would.
Darcy left the forest and swung himself up into the saddle once again. Feeling suddenly exhausted, his brain swept clean of thought, he turned his horse towards Pemberley, and home.
* * *
Early the next morning Elizabeth woke with a start. She rose and dressed warmly, and after hurriedly scribbling a note for her sister Jane, propped it on their bedside table and slipped outside for a walk. She had much to think about.
Mr Darcy’s behavior on All Hallow’s Eve still troubled her. After discovering his disappearance following the musicale, those remaining at Netherfield – herself included – had searched the surrounding area, to no avail.
Where had he gone during those darkest hours of the night?
She walked quickly across the fields, scarcely noticing the bales of hay or the bare trees, intent only on puzzling out Darcy’s strange, impassioned words when she’d finally found him.
He had professed his love for her. Never had she thought to hear such a declaration of devotion from a man as austere and aloof as Fitzwilliam Darcy. It was unexpected. It was shocking.
It was completely unlike him.
Climbing up and over a stile and into the adjoining field, Elizabeth continued on, scarcely aware that her steps led her unerringly towards Pemberley. She could find no explanation for Darcy’s behavior, unless a fever had gripped him during his walk. She remembered his eyes had shone with the unnatural brightness of a sickbed patient.
He had said he loved her; she’d told him the same, though she knew in her heart it could not be true. A man like Mr Darcy did not love someone of so little consequence as she.
A man like Darcy, Elizabeth thought darkly, did not love at all.
The distant drumming of hoof beats caught her attention. She looked up, startled to see that she had wandered onto Pemberley’s grounds, and even more astonished to see who sat astride the great black stallion.
He sat slumped forward against the horse’s neck; the reins had slipped from his hands and hung free. His face, she saw as she drew nearer, was as pale and colorless as tallow, and his eyes were closed.
“Mr Darcy,” she cried again, “what has happened? Are you unwell? Shall I fetch a doctor?”
He stirred and struggled to sit up. “Miss…Bennet,” he murmured. “I am so…tired.” Perspiration dampened his forehead. “So very tired.” Once again he sagged forward, and had Elizabeth not caught him by the shoulder, would surely have fallen.
After struggling to right Mr Darcy in the saddle, Elizabeth took the reins in hand and led the horse towards Pemberley, and help.
* * *
When Darcy awoke later that afternoon he was aware of two things. He was in his own bed…and Elizabeth Bennet sat in the chair beside him.
He lifted his head. “Miss Bennet,” he croaked. “What are you doing here?’’
“Do you not remember?” She rose and straightened the pillows behind him so he might lean back more comfortably. “You rode up this morning on that great black beast of yours, half fallen from the saddle, as dazed and exhausted as if you’d just come from the battlefield.” She paused. “Where were you, Mr Darcy? Where did you go?”
“If I told you,” he replied, his expression closed, “you would not believe me.”
“I have never known you to lie.”
He sighed. “Very well. I went to a forest some miles away and made a bargain with the devil.”
“Indeed?” Her eyes settled on him, alight with amusement. “I do hope you got the better end of the deal.”
“As to that, I do not know. I won’t know, until…”
“Until what?” she prompted him gently after a moment. He was obviously feverish.
“Until I ask a very important question of you.” He sat up once again. “But…I cannot ask it now. You should not be here, alone with me. It’s most improper.”
“Jane is here,” Elizabeth assured him. She returned to her chair and sat down. “I sent for her as soon as I arrived at Pemberley. She’s gone downstairs to fetch you a pot of tea.” Her lips curved into a smile. “I think in this particular instance, Mr Darcy, the proprieties might be dispensed with for a few moments.”
“I disagree. You are alone with me, an unmarried man, at my bedside, with nary a chaperone in sight. Propriety dictates that I rectify the situation and marry you at once to spare your reputation.”
“My reputation?” She let out an astonished laugh. “Surely I’ve done nothing wrong, if no one knows of my presence here but Jane and myself?”
“I know. And that is enough. I will not allow your name to be tainted by the possibility of gossip.”
Elizabeth bristled. “And I will not accept a marriage proposal from a man who does not love me. No matter how noble and self-sacrificing such a proposal might be.”
“Noble! Self-sacrificing?” He scowled at her. “I am many things, Miss Bennet, but I claim neither of those attributes – as least, not as pertains to love.”
“Love?” It was her turn to echo his words. “What knowledge do you have of such a – a foreign emotion?”
“More than you might imagine. ” He fixed his eyes, so dark and unreadable, on hers. “You captured my heart, Elizabeth, from the first moment I set eyes on you.”
“You had a very odd way of showing it,” she said tartly.
“I cannot pardon my behavior at Meryton, except to confess that I’m not – have never been – at my ease in social gatherings. I wished myself elsewhere that night.” His voice softened. “Until I saw you.”
She said nothing. She couldn’t.
“Whenever you are near,” he admitted, “I turn into a tongue-tied schoolboy. I cannot put words into a sentence or summon a sensible thought in my head. The art of conversation abandons me. Indeed, I can do nothing but admire you from afar, and wish with all my heart and all my soul that you were mine.”
“Mr Darcy-” Elizabeth protested, her cheeks stained pink. “You are feverish, your words are running mad. You should rest.”
“I am not feverish. I am in love with you, Miss Bennet. That is my only affliction.”
“You do not mean that-”
“I have never meant anything more.” His expression was bleak. “That is the truth of it. I want to marry you, not to satisfy the gossips or prevent a scandal or to save your reputation, but because I love you more than I ever thought possible, and I want you for my wife.” His head fell back against the pillow and he closed his eyes. “But I know you do not return my feelings.”
The silence stretched out between them.
“If that is so,” Elizabeth ventured, and rose once again to her feet, “then you must presume to know my feelings better than myself.”
Something – hope, perhaps – flickered in his eyes. Her heartbeat quickened as he reached out for her hand.
“Do you mean to tell me otherwise?” he asked.
After a moment’s hesitation she placed her hand in his. “I mean to tell you, Mr Darcy, that until this very minute, I had no indication that you harbored such feelings for me. You are a difficult man to know.” She smiled. “I thought you churlish and judgmental…arrogant and haughty. Impossible.”
“Was I – am I – truly so bad as that?”
Elizabeth laced her fingers through his. “At times you seemed so, at least to me,” she admitted. “But as I’ve come to know you better, I’ve learned otherwise. You possess an integrity few men can match. You stand on the strength of your convictions. You love deeply, but not extravagantly. Like me, you bestow your heart only after careful deliberation.”
“Does that mean-?”
“It means,” she whispered, “that I return your feelings, Darcy. I…I love you.”
Thunder, distant but distinct, rumbled outside.
“Say it again, Elizabeth,” he commanded, and gripped her hand more tightly. “Please.”
She smiled at him indulgently. “Very well. I love you, Darcy. I will marry you, and be your wife, and gladly. I only regret that it took us so long to confess our true feelings to one another.”
He drew her closer. “My dearest, sweetest Elizabeth.”
She sat down beside him, as naturally and unselfconsciously as if they were already wed, and leaned forward to kiss the man who’d captured her heart so completely.
“What was that?” she asked a moment later, lifting her head and frowning as another, louder roll of thunder sounded nearby and faded into silence.
“It’s nothing.” Darcy smiled and drew her closer. He thought fleetingly of the devil. Elizabeth’s declaration of love, as heartfelt as it was unexpected, had saved him, had saved his very soul. “Nothing at all.”