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Darcy’s Spotless Reputation by Jane Grix © 2017
Fitzwilliam Darcy was a methodical man, and he believed in the efficacy of habit. He went to bed religiously no later than midnight and woke every morning, no later than six a.m. to a cold bath. He found that the application of cold water was invigorating and he believed that it was one of the reasons for his robust health. His preference was to dip into the pond waters at Pemberley, but when travelling elsewhere, he made do with either a tub of cold water or if that was not available, a pitcher of cold water and a rough cloth.
At present, he was staying in Hertfordshire with his friend Charles Bingley and as fortune would have it, Netherfield had a small pond in the midst of some decorative gardens. Every morning of his visit, Darcy dressed in casual clothes and walked down to the gardens, where he would strip and bathe, then dry off with a towel and dress to return to the house before anyone else was the wiser.
But on this morning, he did not wake naturally before six a.m. He had spent the evening before dining with Bingley and some of the officers in the local militia. Too much wine had been consumed, and he, in a surprising lack of discipline, had slept in. Therefore, his trip to the gardens was much later than he liked. He thought the odds of his being discovered were slim because the November weather was cold and the air damp with mist and a light sprinkling of rain.
The night before it had rained, a torrential downpour that left the ground muddy.
But Darcy was not concerned. His valet Mr. Bowles never complained about muddy boots.
As he walked, Darcy thought about Elizabeth Bennet. She was one of Bingley’s neighbours, the second daughter of a gentleman, that he had seen several times in the past three weeks. For some reason he thought of her often, much more than her meagre attractions warranted.
He had seen her first at an Assembly when Bingley tried to get him to dance. He had looked at her without admiration and dismissed her as nothing out of the ordinary. He had scarcely allowed her to be pretty, and in discussing her with his friends, he said she had hardly a good feature in her face, but then his opinion began to change.
He noticed that her countenance was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes.
He had previously detected more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, but upon further observation, he was forced to acknowledge that her figure was light and pleasing.
And her manners which were not those of the fashionable world, were easy and playful.
He was drawn to her. He wished to know more, and recently at a party at Sir William Lucas’s, he spoke with her twice. He even asked her to dance, which she declined with an arch look that intrigued him.
As a gentleman of extensive property and an income over ten thousand pounds a year, he was accustomed to young women fawning over him, seeking his attention and approval. But Miss Elizabeth Bennet was different.
The rational part of him thought that her actions were just another attempt to flirt with him, but the emotional part of him wanted to command her attention, with the hope of winning her over.
It was most disconcerting.
Miss Bingley had noticed his obsession for Miss Elizabeth and had teased him, implying that he had fallen in love with her and that Mrs. Bennet would soon be his mother-in-law.
That had been enough to bring him back to his senses. Mrs. Bennet was a vulgar, shrill woman, with one brother a lawyer and the other a merchant. Despite her many charms, Elizabeth Bennet’s family and connections made it certain that she could never be Mistress of Pemberley.
He was a fool to even entertain the idea.
And he did not want to marry anyway, at least not for a few more years. There would be ample time in the future to put his neck in the parson’s noose.
Darcy walked briskly and soon he was at the edge of the Netherfield pond. Along the bank, there was a cement path and several stone benches.
He stepped out of his boots, stockings, pantaloons and waistcoat. He lined the boots up next to the bench and neatly folded his clothes. Then, wearing only a loose-fitting lawn shirt that reached down past his hips, he stood and performed two minutes of stretching exercises, which included jumping and push-ups.
Then he removed the shirt, folded it as well, and stepped into the cold water as naked as the Good Lord made him.
At Pemberley, he could dive straight in, but here at Netherfield, the water was not as deep. He stepped into the cold water quickly, for he believed that a quick immersion was better than a gradual descent.
“Ah,” he gasped at the freezing water. He bent down to swim for several yards, enjoying the harsh sensations. He then immersed himself, diving under the surface so the water covered his head as well. He finally returned to the surface, took a large breath and swam for ten minutes.
When he left the water and walked, dripping, over to the stone bench, he could not see his clothes. He walked to each of the stone benches, but to his dismay, his clothes had not fallen to the ground.
They were nowhere to be found.
And he did not have even a towel for modesty. “Damnation.”
* * *
At breakfast, Elizabeth Bennet received a letter from her older sister Jane, informing her that she was ill and currently staying at Netherfield, too sick to travel the three miles home to Longbourn. She had gone to Netherfield the night before to eat dinner with Bingley’s two sisters, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst.
Mrs. Bennet was thrilled with the news, for she wanted Jane to stay at Netherfield in order to secure the affections of Mr. Bingley. Mr. Bingley was the most recent addition to their social circle – a pleasant young gentleman rumoured to have an income of four thousand pounds a year. He was currently renting Netherfield Park with his unmarried sister acting as hostess.
“I am so thankful for that rain,” Mrs. Bennet said happily. “I knew it was most likely that they would ask her to spend the night, but for her to catch a cold, that was most fortuitous.”
Mr. Bennet looked up from his newspaper. “Not if she dies from it.” Mrs. Bennet said, “People do not die of little trifling colds.”
Elizabeth glanced at the letter again, narrowing her eyes to read Jane’s script. Jane had said that she was very unwell at the beginning of the letter, but by the end she said it was only a sore throat and a headache. No doubt, she did not wish to complain or exaggerate, but knowing Jane, she was worse than she stated. Elizabeth said, “I want to go see her.”
“Do you want me to send for the horses?” Mr. Bennet asked.
“No,” Elizabeth said. “I know they are needed on the farm. I don’t mind the walk.” Indeed, there was nothing she liked better than a long walk, outside, by herself. She was the second of five sisters and her home was rarely quiet. Her father found respite by retreating to his study and closing the door. Elizabeth, with no personal study, went walking instead.
Mrs. Bennet said, “In this weather? In all this dirt? You will not be fit to be seen when you get there.”
“I shall be fit to see Jane,” Elizabeth said.
At that moment, the youngest daughter Lydia interrupted their conversation to repeat some gossip she had heard from Mrs. Phillips, Mrs. Bennet’s sister, the day earlier. Mrs. Bennet said, “Do what you want, Lizzy, but don’t make a spectacle of yourself.”
“Yes, ma’am. I will do my best.” Elizabeth had a natural grace to her movements, but sometimes she was awkward, as if not sufficiently noticing her surroundings. If she was not careful, she might bump into the furniture. Mrs. Bennet thought it was because she spent too much time reading – “Your head is in the clouds. Just like your father!” And Elizabeth, in order to compensate for her occasional mishap, had developed a wry sense of self-deprecating humour.
Kitty and Lydia offered to walk with her as far as Meryton, so the three young ladies set off together. Elizabeth wore a heavy pelisse as well as a shawl and sturdy ankle boots.
“If we make haste,” Lydia said as they walked along, “Perhaps we may see something of Captain Carter before he goes.”
A local militia was stationed at Meryton and Elizabeth’s two younger sisters could talk of little else. They giggled, they simpered, and they planned stratagems to win the hearts of all the officers.
Elizabeth could admire a man in a redcoat, but she was not giddy.
In truth, she had begun to wonder if she would ever marry. Marriage seemed a precarious endeavour. Few of the marriages she had observed were happy ones. Her Aunt Phillips continually complained about her husband’s stinginess, Lady Lucas complained that Sir William was forever under her feet, and her mother complained that Mr. Bennet had no compassion for her nerves.
It seemed to Elizabeth that women spent the first years of their lives trying to catch a husband and then spent the remainder of their lives complaining about him.
Granted, Mrs. Bennet was a silly, sometimes hysterical woman, but her father, instead of encouraging her to become more rational, found humour in her weaknesses and sometimes exploited them for his own amusement. And whenever the domestic situation became too chaotic, he hid away in his study.
If Elizabeth ever chose to marry, she hoped her husband would be more like her Uncle Gardiner – a blunt, cheerful man who adored his wife. The Gardiners had four children and Mrs. Gardiner seemed content.
At Meryton, Elizabeth parted from her sisters. Kitty and Lydia walked off to the lodgings of one of the officer’s wives, and Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity.
As she neared Netherfield, she admired its decorative gardens. She had often walked to Netherfield when she was a child, so she walked confidently among the tall cone shaped shrubberies and sculpted hedges, her boots making little sound on the gravel walk. She noticed that the rose garden was brown with the plants already cut back for winter, but some of the pale yellow hydrangea were in bloom.
She then turned a corner, heading towards the house and ran straight into a man – a naked man. She screamed.