Fitzwilliam Darcy was pacing about the room, ruffling his hair, and seething with frustration.
“I will not marry this Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and that is my final word.”
Charles Bingley leaned back in his seat and clasped his hands behind his head.
“I don’t suppose you have much choice in the matter.”
The words hung in the air. Coming from the eternally optimistic Bingley, they sounded like the voice of doom.
“I wish you would not point out the obvious, Bingley,” said Darcy, grinding his teeth at the unfairness of it all.
“You know,” said Bingley, in his usual offhand manner. “I used to envy you. I always thought, because you held such a powerful position, you must be free to do as you wish. Now I’m realizing you have even less choice than I do.”
“Free? Choice? Ha!” Darcy spat out the words. “How could you possibly have imagined such a thing?”
“I never gave it much thought, you know,” said Bingley.
Neither had Darcy. He had always shouldered his responsibilities and done whatever was required of him. Yet this was his reward for all those years of service!
“Well, now you have it. The bitter truth.”
Darcy wondered if there had ever been a moment in his life when he could have forged his own path. He had always been guided by duty, honor, and good principles, and he had never thought to question their hold on his life. Today, for the first time in his twenty-seven years on earth, he was chaffing at the bit.
“There must be a way out of your predicament, surely,” remarked Bingley. “We simply haven’t found it yet.”
It was just like Bingley to think there could be a happy ending to the whole dismal affair.
“If there is a solution, you had better hurry and come up with it,” said Darcy, “because they are travelling to fetch the young lady tomorrow.”
“Already?” Bingley sounded shocked.
So much for finding a solution.
“Of course,” said Darcy, bitingly. “What did you expect? The situation is urgent. Nothing but the most pressing circumstances would make me even consider such a marriage.”
Bingley sank down deeper into his chair, looking defeated.
“And then there is the problem of Anne. I proposed to her, and she accepted.”
“Congratulations,” said Bingley, without thinking. “Miss de Bourgh has been expecting this for some time.”
Darcy raised his brow pointedly at his friend.
Bingley looked sheepish. “Yes, of course, no point in congratulating you when you’re about to marry someone else. But why did you not tell me?”
Again, Darcy threw him a meaningful glance. Really, did Bingley never think before he spoke?
“I suppose you could not have announced it, not with everything that happened.” Bingley looked rueful.
“Precisely. That is the only silver lining in this situation. No one knows about the engagement. At least poor Anne will not be publicly humiliated.”
Bingley’s face brightened suddenly. “But don’t you see? If you tell them you are already engaged to Anne de Bourgh, they may relent and give up this ridiculous idea of marrying you to Miss Bennet. Miss de Bourgh has a bloodline going back as far as your own.”
No one would give a thought to Anne, even if he told them about the engagement. Anne was nothing more than cannon fodder in the battle against Napoleon. Just as he was, though not in the same way.
“It will not make an ounce of difference. You are clutching at straws, Bingley.” Darcy rubbed the back of his head. “What am I to do?”
“Only one thing you can do,” said Bingley, promptly. “Write to Miss de Bourgh and break it off. She knows how things stand. You are not doing this for your own benefit. It is for the good of the Kingdom.”
Darcy closed his eyes. He hated having his hand forced, and he hated injuring Anne even more. She would take this very badly. Their affection did not run deep, but she was twenty-seven, and she had waited many years for his proposal. The last time she had written to him, she had talked about coming to London to prepare her trousseau.
He stopped pacing and threw himself into the only other armchair in Bingley’s bedchamber.
“Haven’t I sacrificed enough? What more do they want of me?” His voice grated on his own ears. He cringed at the note of despair in it.
Bingley was watching him, his eyes full of sympathy. “You have the consolation of knowing that you are doing your duty.”
“There is only so much a man can take in the name of duty!”
He was ready to explode with frustration. He drew in a breath, trying to compose himself.
“You must go on, for the sake of King and Country,” said Bingley. “Look, I know things have been more difficult for you than for anyone else, but you have to put the past behind you.”
Everyone mouthed the same empty words. Put the past behind you. As if the past was an overcoat that could be shrugged off at will.
Darcy rose impatiently and went over to the window. The river looked so peaceful in the last rays of the sun, the rigging of the boats outlined against the orange sky. He wished he could sail with them down the river, away from all this.
Except that, when he looked more closely, he could see they were not moving. There was no wind to fill the sails today. Even the boats were at the mercy of other forces, just like he was. Freedom was nothing but an illusion. There was no escape.
The explosive frustration began to ebb away, leaving behind a smoldering sense of resentment.
“Maybe it won’t be as bad as you think, Darcy,” said Bingley. “Maybe Miss Bennet will prove to be a good sort of wife.”
Even Bingley could not come up with anything more reassuring than that.
“An insignificant young lady, from an insignificant family, and an even more insignificant village? I hardly think so.”
Darcy turned from the window to look at Bingley. The setting sun cast a garish light on his friend’s face.
“All I can hope for is that she is at least tolerably pretty,” he said, bitterly, “or do you think that would be too much to ask?”
The way his luck had been going lately, he did not believe even that tiny wish would be granted.