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Posted on 2013-03-14
Longbourn, Hertfordshire. August, 1811.
Thomas Bennet slapped his hand down onto the counterpane. "Blasted rabbits! I'll shoot the lot of them."
"Not until that bone has set, you won't," Mr. Jones said, glancing at the splint as he tended his patient's minor cuts and grazes.
Holding the bowl of water for the apothecary, John smiled at his master. "It could have been worse, Sir. At least Samson suffered naught more than a slight sprain to his hock when his hoof found that burrow. If I slap a bran poultice on him he should be right as rain within a week."
Mr. Bennet groaned and passed his hand across his eyes, recalling the excruciating pain as apothecary and trusted servant had worked together to set his tibia. He shuddered and drained what was left of the brandy. "A gross injustice. The horse enjoys a week's rest, eating his head off in my stables while I, an innocent passenger, bear the brunt of his inattention." He cast a haunted glance around his bedchamber. In the dull autumn light it had taken on the guise of a prison cell, with the apothecary handing down his sentence. "How long will I have to remain trussed up like this?"
Mr. Jones dried his hands. "I recommend you refrain from using the leg for at least eight weeks to allow the bone to knit."
"I would much rather have the bran poultice." He heard John chuckle, but the medical man only shook his head. "So what am I to do in bed for two months? Stare at the ceiling? I will go mad!"
"You need not remain abed for the whole duration. After the first two or three weeks, with the help of your man here, you may be able to sit by the window for a time, as long as you do not cause weight to be placed on the knitting bones."
He shook his head. "The timing is execrable. We need to get the rest of the harvest in, there are still matters to be dealt with before winter and my tenants are too often reluctant to think for themselves. John here can bring my accounts and tallies upstairs to me, but who is to handle the issues that arise on the estate if I am stuck in here?"
"Could Mr. Phillips help?"
"No, he could not. You remember as well as I do, the last time my brother-in-law had dealings with any of my families we almost came to blows. The man has a decent mind for legalities, I grant you, but where practical matters are concerned he has no more sense than my wife!"
The apothecary thought for a moment as he re-packed his bag. "What about your man here?"
Mr. Bennet laughed as John rolled his eyes. "He already does the work of two. I cannot ask more."
Then the servant said, "Could not Miss Elizabeth assist you, Sir? Your daughter could pass on your orders, no problem. She's popular with the families and has old Jacob eating out of her hand, and you know what an irascible old blighter he can be."
"Aye," Mr. Jones agreed. "She has a smart little head on her shoulders does Miss Elizabeth."
"Lizzy?" Mr. Bennet turned the idea over in his head, looking at it from different angles, trying to spot the flaw in the plan. He found none. "She has a quickness about her, to be sure, and her head is not as full of fripperies as her sisters'. I suppose, in lieu of a son, I must make the best use of whatever God has given me. 'Tis not a bad idea, John. Go fetch Lizzy to me and let us see what she has to say."
Some weeks later, Elizabeth found herself in a nearby field contemplating a broad band of oozing mud. The stream that ran down the edge of the field had disappeared almost overnight. "Where has the water gone?"
Mr. Sutton shrugged his bowed shoulders. "It 'as to be backed up, Miss. That storm the other night brought down an 'ole load of trees. The stream must be dammed somewhere, but it's not on my land. I followed the course right up to the boundary and couldn't find nary a blockage. I'd stake my best 'at the problem's somewhere on Netherfield's property."
Word of Netherfield Park's new tenant had spread around the neighbourhood a fortnight earlier and her mother had been wringing her hands ever since. When Michaelmas arrived, so had Mr. Bingley; a young man from the north with a reputed fortune of four or five thousand a year. Her father's injury had left him incapable of calling upon their new neighbour--even if he'd been of a mind to--and Mr. Bennet had sent his card in lieu of a courtesy visit. The card was returned in kind, and as a result of this cursory exchange Mrs Bennet was now in high dudgeon, accusing her husband of breaking his leg on purpose to deny her the chance of an introduction to a man who must surely be the perfect choice of husband for one of her daughters.
Elizabeth looked back at the cattle milling in the far corner of the field, their mournful lowing carrying on the wind. "And what will happen to the animals if the stream remains blocked?"
The burly farmer wiped the back of his sleeve across his forehead. "The cattle 'ave to be watered twice a day, and that's a fact. The lads are bringin' down buckets from the well, but it's damn...beg pardon, Miss...it's awful hard work for them, on top of everythin' else."
"In that case it is clear we must deal with the obstruction. I suppose I shall have to speak to Mr. Burgin about it."
"Burgin? 'E's gone, Miss. I reckon 'e scarpered before this new tenant could throw 'im out, or clap 'im in irons. That old rascal's been linin' 'is pockets for years because Mrs Cowan weren't 'ere to keep 'er eye on 'im. I 'eard there's a different steward at Netherfield now."
This news did not surprise her. It wasn't unheard of for a man in Burgin's position to take advantage of an absent employer. "Then his replacement comes not a moment too soon."
"Aye, 'e's a quick worker too, from what Tommy Green said. Not been there five minutes and 'e's already set men to mendin' the road that runs by twelve acre. 'E's also got 'em pleachin' the 'edge around Barrow field, and he visited Mrs Jamison 'isself to inspect 'er leaky roof. Promised 'er faithful 'e'd 'ave it fixed in a fortnight"
"Oh, that is excellent news. Poor Mrs Jamison has waited so long for that hole to be repaired."
"And she told me missus as he was right sorry to 'ear she'd suffered with it as long as she 'ad, what with 'er chest an' all."
"The new steward sounds very promising. I hope he will give our predicament similar consideration." She looked up into the sky. It was not yet noon. "I will walk over to Netherfield now and see if I can speak to him."
Mr. Sutton replaced his cap on his head. "Right you are, Miss, an' I'll get back to work."
Following the water course along the boundary of the field, she soon came to the line of trees that separated Mr. Sutton's farm from the edge of Netherfield's land. Had she walked directly from home she could have chosen an easier route, but cutting across country from Sutton's farm would be quicker than returning to the road. She hoped she might also be able to spot the location of the problem before meeting the new steward.
Her father did not have a bailiff or a steward. Longbourn's holdings were neither large enough to need one, nor its income generous enough to support one. Instead her uncle dealt with all the legal work while her father oversaw the remaining issues. She knew an educated, professional man often held the position on a larger estate. At Netherfield she also hoped to find him a reasonable one.
Most of the leaves had already dropped as she threaded her way between the trees, carpeting the forest floor with shades of gold, green and brown, while the skeletal branches clawed at the autumn sky. Elizabeth could not spend as much time as she would have liked appreciating the glorious sights of nature, for she was wary of where she placed her boots. The slippery leaves could hide a multitude of nooks and crannies that might turn her ankle in a second. Having left the course of the stream as it veered away to the left, she began to fear she was well and truly lost. However, the trees thinned and after a time she glimpsed the sight of the Netherfield stables in the distance, with the side of the large house beyond.
She passed through the yard where two stable hands bustled about their tasks. Elizabeth stopped by one of the young men as he washed down the glossy paintwork of a smart chaise to ask for directions. Had her mother known her destination she would have instructed Elizabeth to make her appeal directly to Mr. Bingley for help, reminding her to stand up straight and offer him a sweet smile as she did so. But she was not here to disturb that young gentleman's peace. Her business was with his steward. She knocked at the back door and waited until it was opened by one of the new footmen--a gangly young man with sandy hair and freckles. "I would like to speak to the steward."
"Yes, the gentleman who has taken over Mr. Burgin's duties. I need to see him on a matter of business."
He frowned and glanced over his shoulder, then asked for her name. When she gave it he left her on the doorstep as he hurried down the corridor and turned out of sight.
While she waited, Elizabeth paced the flagstones. As a young woman of respectable birth she was not used to being kept waiting outside, but then she smiled, remembering that most young women of respectable birth would neither be interested nor capable of helping their fathers manage their estates. She couldn't have it both ways.
After a few minutes the young man returned and escorted her through the dingy corridors, the bare plaster walls and uneven stone floors causing Elizabeth's footsteps to echo. He came to a plain brown door and knocked twice, waiting upon a summons from within. When it came he opened the door, said, "Miss Bennet, Sir," and invited her inside.
Elizabeth entered a room as cluttered as the hallway had been sparse. Ledgers, almanacs and outdated books on farming practice overflowed from the shelves running along one wall. Opposite, drawers and cabinets stood open, as though someone had been searching for something. The dingy windows, looking out over the stable yard, cast their meagre light upon a large oak desk where a figure sat, his face unlined and his dark hair showing not a trace of grey.
His shadowed eyes met hers for an instant before his gaze moved on--his scrutiny seemed designed more to intimidate rather than welcome--then he indicated the chair opposite; as much an invitation as she was likely to receive.
Mr. Burgin had been a short, corpulent, balding man with a sublime sense of his own importance, strutting around as though he owned Netherfield rather than merely having charge of its land and tenants. The man who had taken his place--though clearly younger than the old steward's fifth decade--had already proven himself far more worthy of the authority that emanated from him.
As she settled herself she said, "You must be very busy. I apologise for interrupting, Mr...?" For a moment she thought he had not heard her, but she eventually received a terse response.
"Darcy." Another stretch of uncomfortable silence followed before he said, "What business may I help you with, Miss Bennet?"
Elizabeth hadn't expected a warm welcome, but neither had she thought to be the recipient of such a haughty, disagreeable tone either. Still, his manners mattered little as long as he offered the assistance she sought. "One of my father's tenant farms bounds Netherfield's park to the west. Do you know of it?"
"I am aware of all the contiguous holdings."
At least she wouldn't have to waste time explaining everything to him. "Good, because an issue has arisen that requires immediate action on your part. The brook that waters the pasture on Mr. Sutton's farm has been blocked and the obstruction is somewhere on Netherfield land. It is of the utmost importance that you set someone to clear it without delay, lest it cause the cattle further suffering. I am sure I have no need to tell you the importance of water for animals."
One of his eyebrows rose at her words. "No, indeed." Another long pause followed before he leaned forward, clasping his hands together upon the desk. "Your father, Mr. Bennet. Why is he not here, or his man of business? Why does he send a...his daughter to deal with something that is rightly a man's office?"
The brief spark of curiosity in his eyes cast a light into the void, making him seem far less imposing than his cool welcome had first suggested. His features--cast from a noble mould--were arranged in such a way that few females would not find appealing. Had they been introduced in a ballroom rather than over a desk within a dusty office, Elizabeth felt certain she would have considered him one of the most handsome gentlemen of her acquaintance.
"My father is recovering from a riding accident and is under orders to remain in his chamber. Because of this he is unable to attend to estate matters and I am acting in his stead."
He frowned, apparently dissatisfied with her reply. "Has he no sons or nephews? No male relations or friends of any sort who he can trust to take this role?"
"No, Sir, only five daughters, and he considers me more than capable of dealing with a few minor issues in his absence."
Shaking his head he reached to the side of his desk and unrolled a map across its top. "Can you show me the location of this brook?"
Elizabeth leaned forward, studying the map, and pointed to the watercourse in question. "It is this one, I am sure of it. I followed it to the boundary and through here." She traced the line through a wooded area. "But at the point where it turned to the right just here I decided it was best to come to Netherfield and lay the matter before you."
His eyes widened. "You mean to tell me you...you walked through these woods...alone?"
She began to think his incredulity now bordered on insolence. "Why should I not? I was already at the farm, and it would have taken me twice as long if I returned home first. This issue needed resolving without delay. The animals do need watering twice a day, you know."
"I am well aware of the fact." Elizabeth was conscious of his intense study as he reclined back from the desk, his fingers laced bar two, which he tapped against his lower lip. After another moment of silence, he said, "Very well. If you will leave everything in my hands, Miss Bennet, I will ensure the problem is dealt with."
"Thank you, Mr. Darcy. That is all I can ask for."
The footman, who had remained in the room throughout the interview, held the door open for her as the steward addressed him. "Please arrange for someone to take Miss Bennet home."
She had been about to leave, but turned back upon hearing his order. "There is no need to put anyone to such trouble. I am quite capable of taking myself home."
He sighed as he massaged his temple. "I do not doubt your capability, Madam. However, as it is not my habit to allow young ladies to walk unaccompanied, I hope you will humour me on this occasion."
Reluctant to cause a scene in front of the footman, Elizabeth agreed, but as she waited for a horse to be harnessed to the shafts of the gig she silently cursed the high-handed and presumptuous nature of all stewards.
As they drove away from Netherfield, Elizabeth glanced back towards the house, trying to identify which of the windows lit Mr. Darcy's office. The new steward had been a surprise in more ways than one. His mode of dress aped the style of any gentleman of fashion and he seemed competent despite his fewer years. Dust on his cuff and the underside of his sleeve--revealed when he had reached for the map--showed that he was willing to get his hands dirty when necessary. His demand that she should be driven home suggested a consideration that Mr. Burgin had never once evinced.
She only hoped he would take a request from a mere female seriously.
When she reached home, Elizabeth tugged at the ribbons that tied her bonnet, freeing the constriction around her throat. She dropped it in Hill's waiting hands and climbed the stairs to her father's room. There she found him where she had left him just after breakfast, reclining in a chair, his bandaged leg extending before him as he looked through the window.
"Lizzy, did you discover the source of Mr. Sutton's problem?"
"Yes, Papa." She explained the difficulty and described her visit to Netherfield and her hopes that the new steward would rectify the issue.
"Burgin's disappearance does not surprise me in the slightest. I wrote to Mrs Cowan myself, warning her about some seed that I heard he was selling rather than using in the fields, but since her husband died she has little interest in the property. As she has chosen to lease the estate to someone else I assume she wanted them to take on the responsibility."
"Mr. Darcy seemed surprised that you would trust a female, and a daughter at that."
"Well, my dear, that just shows how little he knows you, does it not?" Her father looked towards the window, where the late afternoon sun was already sinking towards the horizon. "Thank you for your help today, my dear. I do not know what I should have done without you. Now, you best go and change before your mother sees all that mud on your petticoat."
Posted on 2013-03-21
Fitzwilliam Darcy rose from his chair, rubbing at the ache above his brow. He had come into the country expecting to enjoy a few days of shooting at Bingley's new estate. He had not expected to be unearthing evidence of theft and neglect against Netherfield's former land steward, nor taking a direct hand in hiring his replacement.
He recalled the hours he had spent as a boy with his father's steward. The serene calm permeating Pemberley belied the industry that went on out of view, like the webbed feet paddling beneath the surface providing momentum to the stately swan. The lessons he had learned had proven to be invaluable as he had taken over the reins of Pemberley in the wake of his father's death.
Darcy turned his back on the overflowing shelves and disorganised records. How the former steward had worked in such a mess was beyond him, but it had become clear enough why Burgin had left with such alacrity.
Resting his hand on the window frame he closed his eyes, allowing himself a respite from his investigations. His thoughts wandered to the moment, earlier that afternoon, when he had first seen the unfamiliar young woman walking across the lawn from the stables.
As the grandson of an earl, women had been throwing their handkerchiefs at him since his father had first taken him into society. Once he had inherited his family's estate and fortune they had progressed to throwing themselves instead ... occasionally risking life and limb to do so. But during the past five years none had broken the rules of propriety as blatantly as to attempt to visit him alone, in daylight and without friend or chaperone. For a moment he had considered refusing to see her. His situation had been a dangerous one. If she was of a mind, a single scream and some wild accusations might have seen him trapped into marriage before he knew what was happening, but he considered himself too clever to be caught by such paltry tactics.
Miss Bennet. Her name had been as unfamiliar as the face and the body that carried it. His intention had been to bestow a single, withering glance upon his unwanted visitor, but as her curious eyes roamed the shelves of the steward's office his had turned into a more thorough examination. This was not the sort of woman he had expected. Closer study revealed cheeks tinged pink and windblown hair, and the amount of mud on her half-boots--glimpsed under her serviceable walking dress--could not have come from a simple stroll across a well-tended lawn. Racking his brain he could not bring to mind one instance when a female had attempted to catch his attention in quite this manner.
When she had asked for his name he'd offered it with reluctance, waiting for the tell-tale flicker of recognition in her eyes, but there was none. Once she explained the reason for her visit he had decided to humour her, waiting for her to betray herself. However, even when he unfurled the map--giving her the opportunity to move around to his side of the desk to view it the right way up--she had not taken the bait. Instead, she studied the topography before she reached over to follow a blue line representing one of the many watercourses that flowed through the grounds and tapped on the vellum.
He had not believed her at first. No young woman would have walked all that way, let alone taken the route she had chosen. As he'd questioned her decision, her eyes had flashed with indignation and there was a challenge within them, echoed soon after in her own enquiry. She was quite right. If her father did not object to her walking unaccompanied, it could be nothing to him.
Only then had he looked more carefully at the young woman in front of him, having not expected to meet her like in this quiet corner of Hertfordshire. She seemed sensible and held the trust of her father--two rare qualities in a female--and she had explained her requirements in a straightforward manner, without resorting to coquetry or simpering helplessness. After he agreed to her request, it had looked as though she would say more, but instead she nodded. When she finally spoke, it was only to thank him for his time and bid him farewell.
He had let her leave, still not wholly convinced by her professed reason for seeking him out. Later, the man he set to the task reported back, describing the mass of trees that had fallen during the storm, diverting the course of the stream away from Mr. Sutton's farm. Only then did Darcy begin to credit Miss Bennet with any altruistic motives.
The following day he half expected her to call again, ostensibly to thank him for freeing the obstruction and allowing the water to return to its course. It was the sort of opportunity any female in London's Marriage Mart would grasp without hesitation. After waiting in all morning he banished the thought with a shrug and went out to spend the rest of the day shooting with Bingley.
"Do you know anything of the Bennet family at Longbourn?" Darcy asked as they strolled back to the house at dusk.
Swinging his first brace of Netherfield wood pigeon with pride, Bingley nodded. "Bennet? Sir William Lucas spoke of the family. Mr. Bennet is a gentleman whose family has long resided in the area. He has two or three tenants and a home farm, the estate bringing in somewhere around two thousand pounds a year. He recently suffered a riding accident which left him temporarily bed-ridden. A broken leg, I believe. Oh ... and he has four or five daughters reputed to be uncommonly pretty."
Hearing Bingley's description of the daughters, he could not recall Miss Bennet being uncommonly pretty; in fact, upon their meeting he had thought her looks to be no more than tolerable. However, he had been forced to admit that while he originally suspected her motivations for coming to see him those suspicions appeared to be unfounded.
"Sir William spoke of an assembly that will soon be held in Meryton. I thought we could go back to town and collect a small party: Caroline and Louisa, probably Hurst, and perhaps a few others as well."
Darcy knew how difficult it was to move the Hursts from their townhouse and imagined Bingley could be away for at least a week. "There is still much to do here. Someone must supervise the repairs to that roof and I have received two more responses to your advertisement for the post of steward. I would like to verify their references before you make the final decision."
His friend snorted. "You mean before you make the decision, don't you?" Receiving no reply, Bingley said, "Well, if you are sure you do not mind being cooped up alone here in the country for a few days, of course you are welcome to stay. But what will you do for a valet while I am gone?"
Darcy had temporarily availed himself of the services of Bingley's gentleman while he had allowed his own man to visit his sick mother in Derbyshire, but Mr. Briggs would be following his master to town. Unfortunately he reposed no confidence in any of Bingley's newly hired staff to take on the task. The footmen in particular were none too bright. Darcy considered sending a note to his townhouse for one of his own men, but soon discounted the idea. "Do you think me incapable of dressing myself?"
Bingley regarded him with laughing alarm. "Very well, if you insist on staying behind, I'll let Mrs Nicholls know you will be remaining here while I am gone."
The following morning, after waving Bingley off, Darcy took out his horse for a ride. He followed Netherfield's estate boundary until he reached the area that bordered Mr. Bennet's holdings. For a few minutes he allowed his horse to crop the grass as he looked down into the fertile valley. He wondered how far off Mr. Bennet's property lay, and whether he should call to enquire if the clearing of the fallen trees had successfully reinstated the stream.
His eyes were drawn to a flash of colour. He stared hard and after a few moments was rewarded with a further sight of it. Someone was walking along a footpath beyond the next field; a young woman with a wide yellow ribbon securing her bonnet. He wondered if it might be Miss Bennet. From this distance it was too far to tell. Darcy watched the figure until it disappeared behind a hedgerow. Although he sat for a few minutes longer, his eyes trained intently along the path, he saw nothing more.
If Miss Bennet had been trying to attract his attention, then why had she not followed up her advantage with a second meeting? Deep down he knew the answer, although his pride still struggled to accept it. He had judged her against all the other women he had known and assumed her to be like them, but now he understood she was not.
The absence of flattery and flirtation had only one explanation in Darcy's mind. It was clear that Miss Bennet's heart must be so firmly attached elsewhere that even a man of his consequence could be of no interest. He turned his horse back towards Netherfield, feeling a sense of relief that there was at least one female in the district with whom he did not have to be on guard.
Since hearing from Mr. Sutton, by way of his young son, that the stream was flowing once more, Elizabeth now considered the matter closed. There would be no reason for her to meet Mr. Darcy again.
But her traitorous memory had other ideas, for his dark, watchful eyes had haunted her dreams. The next morning she woke early, feeling as though she had been under his scrutiny for half the night, and half wishing it had been longer.
Elizabeth left her rumpled bedclothes and dressed herself, donning her old straw bonnet with the wide yellow ribbon, a plain velvet spencer and a shawl around her shoulders. She slipped out of the kitchen door, hoping the brisk autumn air might blow the ludicrous fantasies she had been entertaining out through her ears so she could sleep free from distraction. She had barely been out for twenty minutes before she caught sight of a lone figure in the distance, on horseback, looking across the fields. Even clad in his tall hat and long riding coat she recognised him immediately.
It had been impossible from the distance between them to tell whether he had seen her, but she took no chances. Waiting until she reached a particularly impenetrable stretch of hedgerow she huddled down and observed the bane of her nocturnal hours through the dense branches. After a few more minutes he turned, making his way back towards Netherfield.
If asked, she would not have been able to say what had prompted her to hide from him. He was only a steward after all. They had met once and she had been in his presence for less than ten minutes all told, but she could remember every second of her visit. Somehow, regardless of his condescending manners, her heart had developed a fascination with him she was determined to quash.
Although Elizabeth had shared the news about the arrival of the new steward, she had not foreseen Mr. Darcy would become the main topic of gossip in the neighbourhood. As she had been one of the few to meet him in person she bore the brunt of her family's curiosity.
"Lizzy, you sly thing. You never told us Netherfield's new steward was handsome," Lydia said later in the day, as she dropped her reticule on the sofa.
"Or so young," added Kitty, who had accompanied Lydia on her walk into Meryton.
Elizabeth raised her eyes from her book. "How does his age concern us? If Mr. Bingley thinks him capable of holding the position then our opinions are nothing."
Mrs Bennet, preferring gossip over work, discarded the shirt she had been half-heartedly sewing for her husband. "When did you meet him?"
"Oh, we didn't," Lydia said, her sulky pout reflecting her disappointment. "But we ran into Maria and Charlotte while I was buying some ribbon to dress my bonnet. They told us Lady Lucas saw him on horseback yesterday. He passed her carriage and behaved in a very gentlemanlike manner. She described him as having a pleasing countenance and doubted he was above thirty years!"
If Lady Lucas had only thought Mr. Darcy pleasing, then she had not been attending him closely, for that did not begin to describe him. Elizabeth dreaded the reaction of her youngest sisters when they finally saw the Netherfield Steward for themselves. If one of them did not swoon at the sight of him she would be almost disappointed.
Mary, distracted from copying abstracts, put down her pen. "That seems rather young for such a responsible position."
"Oh, hush, Mary. I have not yet told you the best part. When we visited Aunt Phillips, Mrs Nichols stopped to take tea and she proclaimed Mr. Darcy to be quite the mystery."
"How so?" asked Mrs Bennet, her nose twitching like a mouse scenting cheese.
"Well, Mr. Bingley told Mrs Nichols to put him in the best guest bedroom, yet the man has no valet. He spends all his time in Mr. Burgin's office, up to his eyes in dust, but when she asked Mr. Bingley where she was to serve dinner while he was gone he told her Mr. Darcy would eat alone in the south dining room!"
"I'll swear to it Mr. Burgin never ate in any south dining room," Mrs Bennet muttered. "Not unless it was the Widow Oldroyd's dining parlour, and that's nothing to shout about."
Kitty coughed. "We told Mrs Nichols what Lizzy had said about Mr. Darcy being the new steward. She seemed miffed that Mr. Bingley hadn't seen fit to inform her of it, and instead had treated him more like a friend."
Jane put down her book. "May he not be both friend and steward to Mr. Bingley? It is not unknown for young men to form an acquaintance with those who can assist their future careers, or for gentlemen to sponsor friends who are in less fortunate circumstances than themselves. Could not one friend be helping another?"
Her mother nodded. "Aye, that is likely the way it was. Mr. Bingley is helping an acquaintance to make his way in the world by giving him a position on his new estate."
"It is beholden on all men of stature to assist their associates in time of need," Mary said. "It bodes well for Mr. Bingley's character that he should behave so charitably."
"But what of Mr. Darcy's character?" Jane looked to her sister. "Lizzy, what did you think of him? Is he very different from Mr. Burgin?"
Elizabeth could not forget how different the steward's countenance and figure had been from the previous incumbent; the memory of his dark gaze still sent a shiver down her back. However, his noble mien and admirable efficiency could not entirely temper his arrogance in questioning her right to assist with the running of her father's estate. "He is certainly an improvement on Mr. Burgin, but I was too busy thinking of Mr. Sutton's poor cattle to pay much attention to Mr. Darcy," she lied. "He seems to be an efficient steward, although I suspect his manner can be haughty and overbearing. I saw no deficiency in his dress. In fact, he appeared quite à la mode."
Mary sniffed. "You cannot judge a man by the quality of his clothes alone. All young men these days aspire to copy the fashionable set and think nothing of running up dreadful debts to their tailor."
Mrs Bennet seemed disappointed. "He no doubt feels the pressure of taking on a position from an older, wiser and more experienced practitioner, especially if he has to contend with a house full of new servants besides. 'Tis a shame he told you nothing of himself or his background. I wonder where he comes from."
The youngest Bennet daughters picked up their mother's challenge. Kitty guessed he might be the son of an attorney. Lydia countered with the thought that Mr. Darcy could be the younger son of an Admiral who preferred a career on land to one at sea. Elizabeth entered into the spirit of things, putting forward her own idea. "He could be the youngest son of a poor country gentleman whose expectations are not large enough to provide him with a satisfactory income and needs to supplement it with a profession."
"He should have bought a commission in the army," Lydia sighed. "There's nothing like a young man in regimentals."
"Well, my dears," Mrs Bennet said, "it does not signify how handsome he is. With only a stewards salary his family background makes no matter. Unless he is waiting upon a large inheritance from an elderly spinster aunt, then he can be nothing to Mr. Bingley. Mr. Burgin received eighty pounds a year from Mrs Cowan; although if some of the stories are true he took a little more for himself, which is no doubt why he left so suddenly. Even if Mr. Darcy is paid twice that sum it still falls far short of what I should wish for any of my daughters.
"I am determined that, when Mr. Bingley returns from town, he will take a fancy to one of you. Probably Jane, for she is our brightest hope. Then, once that is accomplished, it will be an easy task for Jane to find husbands for her sisters among the rich gentlemen of Mr. Bingley's acquaintance in town and I shall have nothing further to worry about."
Jane shook her head. "Poor Mr. Darcy. Does his lack of consequence leave him with no chance of his own domestic felicity?"
"Oh, not at all. He will make a fine match for some young female; preferably one who is used to helping in the kitchen. They wouldn't be able to afford more than a young maid of all work unless he supplements his income by other means. Lady Lucas might accept him for Charlotte, if she cannot find better, for she is getting no younger, and Mrs Long would be over the moon to secure him for one of her nieces, who are sadly plain-faced girls."
No longer able to listen to her mother, Elizabeth slipped from the drawing room unnoticed, with the thought of immersing herself in the thickest book of poetry her father's library possessed. She knew it would take more than one sonnet to starve away an inclination her mother would only scorn.
Posted on 2013-03-28
Rain kept Darcy confined inside Netherfield the next morning. As he stood at the window, watching the wind whipping the trees from side to side, he once again questioned his decision to remain behind in Hertfordshire instead of returning with Bingley to town. It was incredibly uncomfortable to stay alone, in someone else's house, without company or conversation during the long autumn evenings. Solitary card games bored him, the sparse entertainment of Netherfield's library was barely worth perusing and he could only write so many letters to Georgiana before he ran out of things to say.
He briefly regretted offering to sort out the disorder they had found on their arrival at Netherfield, but his friend knew no one else with the same breadth of experience. The current steward at Pemberley was an excellent man, who cared a great deal about both the land and its people. It was only right that he should steer Bingley's feet in the direction of prosperity, through the sensible care of Netherfield's tenants and their land.
While waiting for replies to his letters of enquiry, he had begun an inventory of the holdings, more for something to occupy him than for the benefit of the man who would take on the position. However, such a simple task could not wholly divert his mind from his recent visitor. He had not been more than a few minutes in her company when she had visited the steward's office, so why in God's name did Miss Bennet remain so prominent in his thoughts?
He could only put it down to his lack of stimuli, and maybe also curiosity. A young woman of marriageable age, who was not bursting her stays with the effort of gaining his attention, was a novel and rather pleasant experience for him.
Later that afternoon, while studying the previous steward's almost indecipherable accounts, his presence was requested to deal with the matter of sheep straying through a broken fence, damaging another man's crops. Mr. Green, the injured party, was the latest member of a family who had been tenants at Netherfield for at least two generations, as he had been at pains to point out. The sheep had escaped from a neighbouring farm that was part of Longbourn's holdings.
The rain had ceased, leaving lighter grey clouds hanging overhead, so Darcy agreed to view the damage for himself. As he mounted his horse the thought flashed through his mind that he should send another in his place. He wasn't the steward here and was under no obligation to deal with this problem, but a lack of anything else to occupy his mind provoked him to get involved.
Arriving at the farm, Mr. Green showed Darcy where the damage had occurred. He detailed at length the many issues that had arisen between himself and his neighbour, painting the erstwhile Mr. Jacks as a slovenly fool who barely knew a horse from a hay rick. On the face of it the case was clear. The winter crops were trampled, and although the animals responsible were nowhere to be seen, the sight of their wool snagged on the broken spars of the fence offered damning evidence.
"The old squire that 'ad Netherfield afore yer master was a very generous man, Sir. The last time this 'appened he gave me Da some money. 'E called it comp...comping..."
The man's grizzled face brightened. "Aye, sir! That's what it was."
Darcy was about to correct the man's assumption that he worked for Bingley, when a rustle behind caught his attention. Miss Bennet stood on the other side of the break in the fence. "Might I have a few words with you, Mr. Darcy?"
"Yes, of course." He turned to the farmer, explaining that he would consider the matter and let the man know his decision.
As Darcy stepped across the broken timbers, he noticed that Miss Bennet appeared even more dishevelled than she had been at their last meeting. Her glossy chestnut locks--dressed in a simple style--now fell in irregular tendrils around the nape of her neck. Her cheeks were coloured from exertion, her breathing laboured and her eyes bright. In short, she appeared to be recovering from a run, rather than a walk. "Are you quite well, Miss Bennet?"
Her hand came to rest upon her heaving chest as she favoured him with a weak smile. "I came…as soon as…we received Mr. Jacks' message."
"Yes, that George Green was up to his old tricks again. I hope you have not agreed--"
He held up his hand to forestall her. "I have agreed to nothing. Do you take me for a green boy?" Darcy smiled to soften his words, gratified that she would go out of her way to ensure he was not fooled.
"I believe he was hoping to take advantage of your generosity by playing off your ignorance. Did he say that sheep had broken into his crops?" When Darcy nodded, she pointed into the distance where blobs of white dotted the far green hillside like apple blossom. "Mr. Jacks has been grazing his sheep over there since September, and will continue to do so until the spring."
"How do you know this?"
"Is it not the responsibility of landowners to have knowledge of the people who owe their livelihood to their land? From Mr. Sutton's distaste for the cabbages he grows, to Mrs Ellard's wish for a daughter after having four sons."
"Well, yes, it helps to know the peculiarities of each tenant." He looked around, realising that she was once again unaccompanied. "You came here alone?"
Her lips pursed a second before relaxing then she held out her arms, capitulating before the argument could begin. "As you see."
"I still find it hard to believe that your father allows you out without a footman."
Miss Bennet laughed. "If we had a spare footman kicking his heels with nothing better to do, I am sure he would agree with you. As we do not I have learned to manage without."
He noticed the bedraggled hem of her dress, damp from walking through the wet grass. "Still, I am grateful you came all this way to warn me in such uncomfortable conditions."
"I wish I could claim such charitable motives. After the rain we had this morning and being confined to the dubious company of my mother and younger sisters, the opportunity to escape and spend a little time alone was the greater inducement."
Her comment reminded Darcy of the time when Bingley bought his sisters to Derbyshire and how inclement weather had forced them all together for two solid days. Pemberley had never felt so small and he had longed to escape. While he still didn't agree with Miss Bennet walking unaccompanied, at least he could understand her desire to do so. "May I at least see you safely home?"
To this she declaimed the necessity. "There is no need to put yourself out. My task here is complete and you must have more than enough work of your own to finish."
On any other day Darcy would not have pressed the point, but the time spent in his own company had exhausted even his desire for solitude. "On the contrary, with Mr. Bingley not in residence to distract me, I am shockingly ahead of myself."
"I am pleased to hear it, for your sake, but I have an appointment I cannot miss, and I am late already." She bobbed a curtsey and bid him a polite farewell before turning and continuing down the path.
Darcy did not importune her further to accept his company. Indeed, her resistance to his offer had done nothing to injure his opinion of her. As she walked away he was able to appreciate her light, pleasing figure from a distance, until a curve in the track hid her from view, and he idly wondered who she might be meeting.
As he moved to collect his horse he imagined her escaping from her family in the hopes of encountering an amorous swain somewhere in the neighbourhood. Riding home he could not help but wonder what manner of man had been so fortunate as to earn Miss Bennet's undivided affections.
In the days that followed, Elizabeth encountered Mr. Darcy with a surprising frequency. On the Friday, her morning walk had been interrupted when the Netherfield steward came upon her while out for a ride. Having dismounted, he had accompanied her for a while as they exchanged opinions on the weather, until his restive animal had become too lively for her peace of mind. After apologising twice for his horse's unruly behaviour, she had watched him remount and continue upon his journey with mixed emotions.
On Saturday morning, while walking towards Lucas Lodge to visit Charlotte, she spotted Mr. Darcy in close discussion with the elder Mr. Pickard in front of the King's Head. Although she had not expected either gentleman to notice her passing, Mr. Darcy had made a point of pausing to offer a greeting and tip his hat. Later, Charlotte had been forced to recall Elizabeth's attention twice as her thoughts had wandered to the memory of his smile as he had wished her good morning.
Indeed, she was recalling just this pleasant image rather than paying attention to Jane's discourse, when her sister said, "Lizzy, do you know that gentleman?"
Elizabeth turned as Jane nodded down the High Street where a man rode towards them on horseback. She stifled a sigh. "That is Mr. Darcy," she replied, with as much disinterest as she could muster.
As the object of their discussion was still some fifty yards away, Jane whispered, "Your description did not begin to do him justice. He is very handsome and rides more like a prince than a pauper."
She could only agree as Mr. Darcy walked his horse down the street, his bearing stately as he endured the scrutiny of more than one lady--especially those with a daughter or two in tow. Elizabeth took a breath to calm the worrying flutter in her chest.
"In fact, I can find only one fault in his appearance," Jane continued. "The arrangement of his neck cloth would never pass muster among the town gentlemen."
"That is hardly a fair objection. He clearly has his priorities in hand if he cares more for his occupation than his presentation. Besides, I prefer men to look like men, not clothes-horses."
Jane only had time to raise her eyebrows at her sister's spirited defence of the steward before the gentleman in question halted in front of them. He tipped his tall beaver towards the sisters and dismounted before Elizabeth made the introductions. With the formalities complete, Mr. Darcy turned to Elizabeth with the smile she remembered so fondly. "I am glad to see you are not wholly averse to walking in the company of others."
Elizabeth laughed, before explaining to her bewildered sister, "Mr. Darcy thinks it is very improper of me, wandering around the countryside without a chaperone."
"It is only your safety that concerns me," he said in a serious tone. "The impropriety is for your parents to judge, not I."
She chose to ignore a topic they would never agree on, and instead demanded to know why he had not been present at morning service on Sunday. He excused himself, saying he had been busy and had furthermore not familiarised himself with the location of the church. Elizabeth suspected his absence had more to do with not wishing to be the object of curiosity, and could not blame him. Many of those shivering in the draughty nave had been hoping to receive an introduction to the new steward--including Mrs Bennet and their youngest sisters--and Elizabeth had not been alone in regretting his absence. "We are on our way to see our Aunt Phillips and you would be most welcome to join us. She is a very good person to know in Meryton for she has a wide circle of acquaintance."
Mr. Darcy shook his head. "I could not intrude on a family visit."
"It would be no intrusion," Jane assured him with a smile. "Our aunt receives a steady stream of visitors throughout the morning and one more or less would not bother her in the least. Mrs Nichols is a particular friend of hers."
It seemed to Elizabeth that his whole bearing stiffened upon hearing this information, reminding her of his haughty manner during their first meeting. She wondered if he had taken a dislike to the Netherfield housekeeper, which might make a visit to Aunt Phillips' most uncomfortable. "I am sure Mr. Darcy has many calls on his time. We should not keep him from them any longer."
The gentleman agreed, and after saying their goodbyes, the two sisters continued down the High Street. Once Jane judged the steward to be out of earshot, she said, "You could have been a little more encouraging, Lizzy. If Mr. Darcy intends to make his career at Netherfield, then Uncle Phillips would be a useful person for him to know."
Elizabeth glanced over her shoulder. "I do not believe he welcomed the invitation. Did you not see how he tensed at the mention of Mrs Nichols?"
"I saw no difference in his manner, except perhaps at the end when you dismissed him so abruptly. He seemed a little surprised then."
As Elizabeth had only seen what she took to be relief on his features she forbore to comment further, but she felt a certain measure of satisfaction when they arrived at their aunt's to find Mrs Nichols holding court on the sofa, sharing her decided opinion of her new master.
"I only wish Mr. Bingley was already married. You're never kept so well informed as when there's a mistress in the house. Before the old master wed, Mr. Cowan would think nothing of turning up on a whim to shoot, with no notice of his arrival, and all of a sudden I would have eight gentlemen to feed and not a joint in the house. I fear Mr. Bingley will be just the same; not that he isn't pleasant to me, because he has beautiful manners. Still he clearly didn't think it was necessary to tell me about Mr. Darcy taking Mr. Burgin's position."
Mrs Phillips' hand hovered over a slice of fruit cake. "And what of the mysterious Mr. Darcy? Has he been any more forthcoming about his background?"
"Oh no, tight as a winkle is that one. Mr. Burgin might pass the time of day with me when he was in the mood, but Mr. Darcy sits in that office and will tolerate no distraction. I think he'd barricade the door if he could, for he hates to be disturbed."
"Has he moved into Mr. Burgin's rooms yet?"
"No, and I don't believe he intends to either. It was understandable that he should have taken a guest suite at first, for Mr. Bingley ordered it so and we had no notion that Mr. Burgin would leave so abruptly. Mr. Darcy didn't seem pleased that the steward had only three rooms at the back, rather than a house on its own, such as they have at Haye Park. Still, they've been cleaned right through and new bed linen purchased. I only await his word to move his things downstairs where they belong."
When Jane mentioned meeting Mr. Darcy in the street their aunt questioned them both closely, but as neither could add any new intelligence to that already known, the discussion soon passed to the upcoming assembly, and the news that Mr. Bingley meant to bring twelve ladies and seven gentlemen with him from London. The occupants of Mrs Phillips' parlour concurred that nothing could be more delightful, for they all knew that to be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love; a circumstance even Mrs Nichols could not find fault with.
Returning home to Longbourn, Elizabeth found that the assembly was also a topic of great import between her mother and younger sisters, as they depleted their closets deciding which of their evening dresses required furbishing with new lace or ribbon. She escaped the shrill chatter by visiting her father and she found him sitting in his usual spot in front of his bedroom window.
Mr. Bennet smiled a welcome as he lowered his book. "And to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit? I thought I had given you a day's recuperation from your onerous duties."
"I do not find them the least bit onerous. Discussing dresses for the assembly on the other hand…"
"Say no more. I have no difficulty understanding your feelings, although you realise that your mother only wishes you to have the best opportunities for finding a worthy suitor."
"Not that our neighbourhood can offer much in the way of opportunity, at least until Mr. Bingley returns."
Mr. Bennet studied her over his glasses. "I had no idea you had your hopes set on Mr. Bingley."
"How can I when I have never met him? Besides I am convinced Jane will cut us all out when he realises she is five times as pretty as any other woman he might meet in Meryton. I know we only have Sir William and Lady Lucas's word for his pleasing countenance, although if he is anything like his friend Mr. Darcy--"
"Ah, Mr. Darcy! I am glad you mentioned him, for it is almost twenty hours since you last spoke his name and I feared he had been quite forgotten."
Elizabeth smiled at her father's teasing. "Oh no, not forgotten. We met him in the High Street when Jane and I were on our way to our aunt's."
Her father's eyebrows rose. "How convenient."
"'Twas mere coincidence, I assure you. I had no idea he would be there."
"It is a very odd thing," said Mr. Bennet, his brows furrowed with thought, "for I could go weeks without meeting Mr. Burgin, and yet you appear to be tripping over his replacement with alarming regularity. I am desirous to meet this gentleman you speak so highly of. It is a shame my leg prevents me from calling on him."
She felt herself colour and turned to glance through the window. "If I do speak highly of Mr. Darcy it is only because he is so very different from his predecessor. I think even you could not fail to be pleased by him. If you wish I could ask him to visit. I am sure he would not object, given the circumstances."
"By all means have him call, if he is not above entertaining a cripple."
"You are hardly that. Besides, unless you intend to dance a jig for his entertainment I cannot see how your injury can signify in the least. I would be shocked indeed if Mr. Darcy thinks any less of you for it."
Mr. Bennet rubbed his chin. "I have no idea what Mr. Darcy might think, but I find myself curious to learn more about him."
Elizabeth busied herself straightening a pile of books, while hoping that her father did not guess how closely her own curiosity mirrored his.
Posted on 2013-04-04
It was an unseasonably mild autumn day and Elizabeth Bennet strolled along the grassy track with her face tilted up to catch the fading rays of the pale yellow sun. Her gloved fingers trailed over the tips of the tall grasses, sending them dancing in her wake as she strode purposefully towards the stile. Climbing the obstacle she jumped down from the other side and one of her boots became temporarily trapped in the mud. Her laughter, as she pulled her foot clear, drifted across the field and caught Darcy's ear as he watched from behind a gnarled oak.
He waited a moment until she had passed out of sight and then followed at a distance. He did not know her destination. Had she been his sweetheart two rendezvous in one week would never suffice, and who else could she be meeting in such an out of the way place?
Darcy had ventured into Meryton the previous day to visit the library, hoping their selection could improve upon Netherfield's inadequate offerings. While perusing the shelves he overheard two matronly females gossiping about the Bennet daughters; particularly the youngest two who were often to be seen in town and did not command quite the same respect as their elder siblings. More to his purpose was the news that none of Mrs Bennet's off-spring was known to be receiving romantic attentions from any gentleman, despite the eldest being considered rather handsome with pretty manners. He had no difficulty guessing that the second sister--Miss Elizabeth--was the one helping her father during his convalescence.
This therefore begged the question: if the Bennet sisters had no known admirers, who was Elizabeth Bennet meeting and why should their assignations be made in such a clandestine manner? Had she lost her heart to someone unsuitable for her position, such as a strapping farm labourer or a burly butcher's boy?
Quickening his pace Darcy followed her, wondering, not for the first time, why he should put himself to such trouble when she was none of his concern. While Longbourn was nothing to Pemberley, Mr. Bennet was still a gentleman, and Elizabeth Bennet a gentleman's daughter. Granted, she was somewhat disadvantaged by the attorney uncle in Meryton, but even if her dowry was small her pleasing countenance and lively manners would have found her a number of eligible suitors in town. If she could not look too high then at least she did not have to settle for a match that fell far short of the standard she would be used to.
He glanced around, realising he had lost sight of her chip straw bonnet. Darcy continued in the direction she had been walking and within five minutes came to the remains of an old stone barn. The side and corner nearest to him had completely fallen down, along with at least two thirds of the roof timbers, while a sapling grew through the gap. The furthest section and outer wall appeared solid enough and he could hear the faint murmur of voices beyond.
At this point he began to question his sanity. He had left his horse at Netherfield and walked out into the Hertfordshire countryside, perhaps to protect the reputation of a young woman who was neither related nor connected to him. If Miss Bennet's beau took exception to Darcy's enquiries he might find himself knocked to the ground with a black eye for his impertinence. A wise man would turn around and leave this matter to those whose concern she was.
Darcy paused, debating the wisdom of intruding into the conversation, but then he heard a faint, "No, no," from behind the wall and found himself half way towards it before he realised he had moved. Rounding the corner of the broken building he saw nothing but a grassy clearing at first, but then spotted Elizabeth Bennet sitting on a fallen log in the lee of the stone wall with a sandy-haired child of ten or eleven years. She leaned towards the boy as he attempted to form his letters on a slate, and Darcy felt an inexplicable relief that her companion wasn't a decade older.
Both jumped up at the sound of his voice; the boy's eyes were fearful, while hers were only surprised. That surprise soon softened when she saw who had spoken. She smoothed her skirt. "Mr. Darcy! How did you find us here?"
Should he admit how long he had looked for her? Maybe now was not the right time. "I happened to be passing and I heard voices. Would you introduce me to your friend?"
She indicated the scrubby boy who watched him with narrowed eyes. "This is Joseph Marsh." Possibly feeling the need to explain her presence in such a remote spot, she added, "He wishes to learn to read and write, in order to obtain alternative employment, but his father would not allow him to go to Sunday school. I offered to teach him, as long as Mr. Marsh does not discover us." She turned to the boy. "Joe, this is Mr. Darcy, from Netherfield."
Darcy bowed his head. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Joe. What occupation do you wish to pursue?"
The boy stood straighter, a defiant look in his eye. "Me dad wants us to work on the farm, like me brothers, but I want to drive a Mail Coach when I'm bigger."
Miss Elizabeth smiled. "Joe loves horses. He's very good with them."
Warming to his subject, the boy described seeing the spectacle of the black and red Mail Coach changing team at The Feathers Inn. When they'd picked up the passengers Joe had watched them checking names against a paper and writing something down. "So I know I 'ave to learn or they won't 'ave us."
"Well, if you are to achieve your goal you will also benefit from experience with stable work and perhaps some coach maintenance."
Joe's shoulders slumped and he shook his head. "'E wouldn't pay for us to be a 'prentice, even if 'e could afford it."
Miss Bennet's eyes rose to pierce Darcy, the smooth line of her forehead marred by a slight crease. She then turned to the boy, patting his grubby shoulder as she urged him back to the log. "Learning to read and write is an important first step towards self-improvement. Many more opportunities will be open to you and you never know where you may go from there." As they settled back into their spot, she spared Darcy another brief glance. "I am sure you will not mind if we continue our lesson."
Darcy acknowledged her chastisement with a bow. He then crossed the clearing, settling himself on an ancient stump that stuck out of the ground at a comfortable height. Resting his leg across his knee, he studied the incongruous pair on the log.
As Elizabeth Bennet returned her attention to the young boy, Joe concentrated on his efforts, his tongue protruding as the tip of the pencil formed the shapes on the slate. While Darcy watched them working together he imagined how she would look surrounded by more children, their dark hair and fine eyes marking them as her own. That she would cope admirably with motherhood was beyond question, as was her compassion for the young lad's situation. He closed his eyes and shook his head to dispel both the vision and the marked desire that had grown in its wake.
Raised a Darcy, he was acutely aware of his own responsibilities towards those who lived and worked within the sheltering arms of Pemberley's estate and holdings. However, the time and effort he expended on their welfare had been born from a sense of duty, and the expectations laid upon him as Master, rather than any selfless desire to improve the lives or condition of the families in his care.
Seeing Elizabeth Bennet with the boy uncovered long forgotten memories of his mother, and the occasions she had spent visiting the older women of the parish as they spun wool by the light of the hearth, or carrying bread and broth to those struck down with sickness. As a youngster, he had looked upon his mother in the light of an angel, sent to assist those in need, but the passing years since her death had all but erased those remembrances until now.
As though he had called to her, the object of his attention lifted her head, casting a glance across the clearing towards him. Their eyes met and held--he could not have said for how long--and Darcy was conscious of his heart beating in his chest, like the galloping of a horse. As Elizabeth returned her focus to Joe's work, he saw a blush rise on her cheek and felt some indistinct pleasure that he had not been the only one affected by their silent communion.
The lesson soon over, he listened to her praising the boy's efforts as she reclaimed the slate and pencil. "Now you best get off home before your father misses you. We will meet here again tomorrow." She watched the boy run off down the hill with a gentle smile upon her lips and he wished she might bestow such a benediction upon him.
"I apologise for disturbing your lesson, Miss Bennet."
She returned the slate to her basket. "We dare not spend longer than twenty minutes each day, so he is not missed. It is frustrating when the boy is so keen to better himself but is held back by his family's selfishness. They see him as another pair of hands in the fields, rather than allowing him to fulfil his potential in a different sphere."
"Still, it is kind of you to go out of your way to teach him."
She shrugged. "Who else will help him if I do not?"
"You seem to have a way with children."
Her eyebrows rose. "And you seem to comprehend a great deal while sitting on a stump."
"A few minutes observation may reveal as much as an hour of polite conversation, when people are apt to offer anything but an honest opinion."
Her smile ignited a mischievous twinkle in those fine eyes. "I can assure you, I have no difficulty in owning my opinions."
"That had not escaped my notice."
"Not when I attend closely." On the contrary, the more he was in her company, the greater difficulty he had focussing upon anything else.
She looked down and made a show of tidying her basket. He waited to see what she would say next, and was not surprised when she took the opportunity to change the direction of their conversation.
"Mr. Darcy, I wonder whether you would object to calling on my father. He is still recovering from his accident and cannot yet leave his room. When I told him of the assistance you had rendered in the matter of the blocked stream, he expressed a desire to thank you personally. He receives few visitors and would welcome your company."
Curious to discover what sort of man Elizabeth's father was, he said, "Would he be receiving guests now?"
"At this moment?"
"Yes, if it is convenient. I assume you are returning directly to Longbourn. You have no other errands to run or young boys to teach?"
She smiled then. "No, there is no one but Joe."
"Good, in that case you can have no objection to me escorting you home, as I am going there myself." Darcy started down the track towards Longbourn, leaving her little choice but to follow him. Once she had fallen into step by his side, he asked whether she ever visited town, and if so how often. Darcy had assumed her experience of London might replicate that of other young ladies, who all enjoyed balls, musicales and rides in Hyde Park. He should have guessed Elizabeth Bennet's response would be something out of the norm.
"Oh yes. I often visit My Uncle and Aunt Gardiner in Gracechurch Street."
He shuddered as he imagined the sort of people who resided upon one of the main thoroughfares of Cheapside. "Your mother's family, I collect?"
"Her brother." She paused briefly, looking down at her gloves. "Mama married well."
Darcy began to wonder whether she was hinting him away. If so she could not have chosen a better method than to introduce another unsuitable pack of relations to his notice. However, his initial contempt for her connections was soon diverted by the revelation that, rather than being embarrassed by her uncle in trade, she instead chose to describe the family with a great deal of affection. She spoke at length about her cousins and the entertainments she had attended with her aunt. Indeed, he became so caught up in her enthusiastic descriptions of her time there that he found himself laughing at the stories she shared about the Gardiners' youngest son Henry before he recalled that they would be wholly ineligible to become in any way connected with the Darcy family of Pemberley.
Listening to Elizabeth comparing the calm atmosphere of the Gardiner household with her mother's highly strung nerves and matchmaking tendencies, he said, "I take it Mrs Bennet is not the most comfortable of parents?"
"Please, do not misunderstand. I have a dutiful respect for my mother, but she would try the patience of every saint in the calendar. At the moment her chief concern is the upcoming assembly and making sure my sisters and I look our best. She is rather anxious to present us to Mr. Bingley. I realise she is only worried that we all marry well, for we have no other option, but it can be lowering to be paraded like cattle at a market."
Although Darcy had made a similar comment on many occasions he had always considered himself to be the one treated like a prize bull to be bought for mating, while the females played the role of eager purchasers. He guessed it was not only Bingley who formed the target for Mrs Bennet's matrimonial ambitions, but understood that even Elizabeth might balk at admitting how he would also be an object of keen attention among the hopeful mamas of Meryton. "Can you not explain to your mother how you feel and ask that she …ah, dampen her enthusiasm?"
"I dare not. She already considers me too impudent by half. Would you make such suggestions to your mother?"
"I would welcome the opportunity. She died when I was no more than Joe's age."
Her hands flew to her mouth and her eyes widened. "Oh! I beg your pardon, Mr. Darcy. I spoke without thinking. I had no idea…"
He shrugged. "It is of no matter. You could not have known."
"But surely your father…?" When he shook his head she reached out and laid a sympathetic hand on his arm. "No? Have you no family at all?"
He would have smiled at her solicitousness had her instinctive touch not sent his senses reeling. Taking a breath to clear his head, he said, "Pray, do not think me without connections. I have a younger sister, who is presently visiting my aunt and uncle and I could produce a handful of cousins without difficulty if I had the need."
Realising the location of her fingers she withdrew them quickly, clasping both hands behind her. "I am glad to hear it. I was beginning to think you without a soul in the world."
"Oh, I have a few acquaintances. Despite the differences between us Mr. Bingley and I have been friends ever since university."
"I thought that might be the case."
"What do you mean?"
"Only that sometimes you have to call on the goodwill of your friends to get on in the world."
"That is very true. As it happened, the less than estimable Mr. Burgin took our arrival as his cue to leave, which put Bingley in the position of having to find a new steward. As he has little experience I offered my assistance. Once he has appointed someone to the role my work will be done and I will return to my own responsibilities."
"Your own? Oh, I thought…" Elizabeth stumbled over a rock protruding from the path and he offered the support of his arm. She shook her head, refusing his assistance. "I had not realised you would be leaving us so soon."
"You sound disappointed."
She smiled weakly. "With the exception of my father and perhaps my older sister, I rarely have the opportunity to converse with someone who has both sense and education."
"I am pleased you do not think me wanting for sense. Indeed you pander to my vanity for I have always prided myself on my improvement of mind."
Her eyes glinted as she said, "Take care, Mr. Darcy. That statement smells strongly of conceit."
Not so long ago he might have been affronted by her words, but the mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner made it impossible for him to take offence. "Where there is a genuine quickness of mind there can be no conceit. There must be some facet of your character or accomplishment of which you are excessively proud."
She looked down at the track, a hint of colour on her cheek. "If there was it would be immodest of me to own it."
Her reluctance surprised him as he rarely met a woman who did not scruple to broadcast her virtues or offer her accomplishments as a recommendation. Compared to the usual females he met, Elizabeth was a breath of fresh air. Not wishing to make her uncomfortable, he cast about for another subject. His eyes lit upon the stubble in the fields that would soon be tilled ready for sowing. Had he been in company with any other female he would never have considered agriculture a suitable subject for discussion, but he knew his question would cause her no difficulty. "Has your father decided what crops he will grow next year?"
"I believe wheat and rye, along with the turnips already in the south field."
"Is rye a profitable crop?"
"I assumed you would know."
"It is not generally grown in my county."
Elizabeth turned to him. Her rather fine eyes, half hidden by her bonnet, mirrored her curiosity. "Your county?"
She looked away and continued walking for some moments in silence before saying, "Derbyshire is reputed to be beautiful in its wildness. I have heard much about the rugged peaks and windswept moors. I imagine you must miss it terribly."
"Yes, I do, although there is much in Hertfordshire to admire." Darcy now recognised a constraint between them that had not existed earlier and for some minutes as they continued towards Longbourn the only sound was the rustling of the wind through the boughs of the trees. He wondered whether she had somehow been offended by his admiration of her county, for in truth he cared little for Hertfordshire as a whole and more for the small part brightened by her presence.
As she continued walking towards Longbourn he began to wonder whether she bore any tender feelings for him at all. Apart from the glance they had shared across the clearing, and the brief moment when he had felt the warmth of her fingers on his arm, she had not shown any marked preference for him or attempted to catch his notice with any of the usual feminine artfulness he so abhorred. Indeed, with the exception of their meetings on estate business, it had been he who had gone to some lengths to spend time in her company.
He had to smile at the irony--that the only unmarried female in England not clamouring for his attention was the one woman he feared he was falling in love with.
Posted on 2013-04-11
The sight of Longbourn's black iron gates had never before occasioned such relief and Elizabeth could not get through them fast enough.
When Mr. Darcy had discovered her, teaching Joe in the clearing by the barn, she had been surprised by his appearance. She doubted his assertion that he had come across their hiding place by chance, and the thought that he might have sought out her company had pleased her beyond measure. For a brief time she had even forgotten his position, thinking of him as no more or less than a delightful companion. Only when they had started walking to Longbourn did he reveal the news that had turned all her happiness to bitter disappointment.
As they followed the carriage drive towards the house, she wondered if this would be the last time she would have the chance to walk with, or even talk to Mr. Darcy again. He had said he would be leaving, but she had no idea when that event might occur. As they stopped in front of the main door, Elizabeth remembered her manners enough to thank him for his escort.
"It was my pleasure, Miss Bennet. And may I take this opportunity to say that if you require any further assistance while your father is recovering please consider me at your disposal. Not that you need my help. You appear to be coping admirably."
Although Elizabeth could not be insensible of his compliment, the pleasure she felt at his praise was no recompense for the future loss of his friendship. "Might you be at Netherfield for a while longer then?"
Elizabeth doubted she would take up his offer of assistance. She was not sure her heart could stand it. She thanked him again before opening the front door. They were met in the hallway by Mrs Hill, who showed neither surprise nor censure at her returning home in the company of a gentleman. Although she knew her father would be in his usual chair, she asked Mr. Darcy to wait while she checked he was awake and prepared to receive his visitor.
As expected she found Mr. Bennet staring out of the window. "Papa?"
He turned at the sound of her voice. "Yes, my dear?"
"Mr. Darcy is downstairs. Will you receive him?"
His quiet acceptance and lack of surprise confirmed that their arrival had been observed by at least one member of her family. "Of course, by all means, show him in. After an hour listening to your mother repeating gossip, I would welcome some intelligent conversation."
Elizabeth made no mention of the steward's intended departure, instead allowing her father to discover the news for himself. She returned some minutes later with Mr. Darcy and made the necessary introductions. Once the two men had completed the formalities, she escaped to her room to consider the implications of the information he had so recently revealed.
Mr. Darcy would not be staying at Netherfield.
As she repeated the fact to herself she felt a twinge in her stomach, like the pangs of hunger. She had observed him from beneath her lashes as he sat across the clearing, waiting for Joe's lesson to end. As handsome as he had looked, sitting patiently on the stump with the air of a gentleman, it was not only his countenance that pleased. There had been a comfortable humour in his glance and a generous respect in his tone as he had questioned her about her father's plans for the estate.
She had known from the beginning that there could be nothing more than friendship between them. However, she had not realised until today how important it had been that she might still occasionally pass the time of day with him when they met, see him on the High Street in Meryton to say hello, or meet him at church on a Sunday.
To discover that he would soon return to his home and position in the north--who knows how far from Longbourn--had left her in low spirits indeed.
She shook herself, remembering how imprudent it would be to form an attachment to Mr. Darcy. Despite having the manners and appearance equal to any gentleman, his income alone must preclude her from considering him as a possible partner in life. Had she been brought up to help in the kitchen, maybe allowed to bake a few biscuits or kneed a loaf, then the idea of taking on the cooking, making a bed, or doing the laundry would not be so alien to her. Every day couples lived on far less than a steward's salary, with no assistance from servants, and were very happy.
But that would not be her fate.
Elizabeth heard a scuffling noise in the hallway and composed herself just before Lydia and Kitty burst into her room, the latter wagging an admonishing finger. "We saw you walking down the drive with a man. Who was it?"
Lydia smiled. "We couldn't see him very well from our window, but he was very tall and looked rather smart in his blue coat."
"What is his business here, Lizzy?"
"Papa wished to speak to him."
Kitty frowned. "Why was he walking? What happened to his horse? Can he not afford one?"
She had been so pleased to see him, it had not occurred to Elizabeth to wonder why Mr. Darcy had appeared in the clearing on foot.
"Mr. Burgin had a horse," Lydia said, "and a trap too."
"It was probably Mrs Cowan's horse and Mrs Cowan's trap and Mr. Burgin took them like he took everything else," Kitty replied, showing herself to be familiar with all the neighbourhood gossip.
Elizabeth shook her head. "No, Mr. Darcy has a horse, for I have seen him riding it, and so has Jane."
"He was probably riding one of Mr. Bingley's horses," Lydia suggested. "He is so rich he must have a stable full of them."
Mr. Bingley was the sort of gentleman Elizabeth's mother hoped they would all marry: wealthy and well connected; a man who could keep them all in comfort, removing Mrs Bennet's concerns about the effects of the entail. "Even Mr. Darcy can afford to keep a horse. Besides, it is a necessary part of his occupation that he can easily travel from one side of an estate to the other."
"If he does not have one of his own I am sure Mr. Pickard would be willing to sell one of his."
At this change in direction Elizabeth detached herself from the conversation, allowing her sisters to gossip unchecked. As silly as they could sometimes be, she was at least grateful that they had distracted her from her maudlin thoughts about the temporary steward of Netherfield.
Darcy found Elizabeth's father sitting by one of two tall windows that looked out from the front of the property. The table by his side held a small pile of books and ledgers and another smaller pile had grown on the floor by the chair.
Shrewd grey eyes assessed him over wire-framed spectacles as Miss Bennet made the introductions, but other than repeating the usual social observances, both men remained silent and watchful until the heavy door closed behind her.
Mr. Bennet waved his hand around the room. "Please forgive me for receiving you in these less than formal surroundings. I have been forbidden from attempting the stairs."
"I quite understand, Sir." Darcy glanced at the man's extended leg, resting upon a cushion. "Is the injury healing to your satisfaction?"
"It proceeds at far too slow a rate for my peace of mind, but there is little I can do. Nature works to its own clock and will not be hurried, or so the doctor assures me. But you did not come here to pander to the ramblings of an invalid, I am sure."
"Your desire for a speedy recovery is understandable, given your circumstances. It must be difficult when you have so many responsibilities and cannot attend to them personally."
"Ah, yes." The older man nodded. "Elizabeth told me you did not wholly approve of her assisting me while I am unable to leave the house."
He bit his lip to hold back his first response. That Mr. Bennet would willingly send his daughter out to do a man's job, with no thought to her safety or reputation, still rankled. "It is not for me to approve or disapprove. She is your daughter."
"That is correct," Mr. Bennet observed in a pleasant tone, as though commenting on the weather. "She is."
The two men stared at one another in silence before Darcy's gaze fell and he brushed a speck of dust from his knee. Despite his strong opinions on the subject of Elizabeth's safety, it would not serve his purpose to antagonise her father.
"You must understand," the older man continued, "I would not have allowed Elizabeth to attempt these tasks on my behalf if she was not both willing and capable."
"But for her to walk alone--"
"She loves walking."
"With no chaperone?"
"This is Hertfordshire, not St. James' Street, and Elizabeth has only been visiting tenants she has known since she was a child."
Darcy remembered the moment she had first entered the steward's room at Netherfield. How differently might the meeting have progressed if Mr. Burgin had been sat in that office instead of him, or any other man for that matter? The thought sent ice down his spine. "Would it not be safer for her to travel from place to place on horseback?"
Mr Bennet cast a disgusted look at his afflicted leg. "As safe as I was? Besides, Elizabeth does not care to ride, and of all my daughters she is the only one with sufficient understanding for the task."
The first part of this speech explained why he had always met her on foot, and Darcy could not argue with the second. "Miss Bennet does you great credit. I have rarely met a young woman who so instinctively recognises the symbiotic relationship between an estate and its tenants, and does what she feels necessary to promote it."
"I am pleased to hear you rate my daughter so highly, for she has certainly been most complimentary of you. Indeed I feel I know you already, for she has never passed a day this week without telling me what Mr. Darcy thinks or Mr. Darcy has said. It appears she has been much in your company of late."
Upon hearing that Elizabeth had spoken of him to her father, Darcy sat straighter, a flush of warmth growing in his chest. "I have been fortunate to have crossed your daughter's path while acquainting myself with the neighbourhood."
Mr. Bennet looked at Darcy over his spectacles. "Hmm."
Had Darcy been the father to a daughter like Elizabeth, he would no doubt be just as suspicious. "Miss Bennet and I were discussing what you planned to grow next season. She mentioned you already have turnips in your south field. What sort of yield will you see from them?"
If Mr. Bennet recognised his desire to divert the course of their conversation, he did not remark on it. "They will produce around three and forty ton per acre, if you set them five to the yard. That will feed the entire flock over winter."
Darcy thought back to the figures he had pieced together from the papers he had found in the steward's office. "That is an improvement on the figures Netherfield saw last year. How did you manage it?"
"It is very simple concept, although one Mr. Burgin failed to grasp. You have to sow the seeds in the ground before you can harvest the crop. Mr. Burgin was undoubtedly sowing three to the yard and selling the rest on. He preferred to have the money in his pocket."
Darcy shook his head, disgusted but hardly surprised by the image Mr. Bennet painted of Netherfield's former employee. "Such behaviour from a man who held a position of trust is as much a crime against the tenants as the owner."
"I agree. I never could like the man."
"Your daughter also spoke of you growing rye. Do you find it worth the effort?"
"Certainly on a dry sandy soil, such as we have in the lower fields, rye is the only crop that will turn a profit. Have you not planted rye before?"
"No, we do not have the right ground for it. Some of the tenants have wheat in the lower fields and graze sheep and dairy on the higher pastures."
"I've never been one for cows but I do have a soft spot for my pigs. Do you not find the current price of wool disgraceful?"
"So I understand. Fortunately we have enough income derived from alternative sources that a small drop in the wholesale price does not unduly affect the estate income as a whole."
Mr. Bennet rubbed his chin. "Alternative sources?"
"We also quarry granite for millstones and I have a pit that produces an excellent red clay for brickmaking."
"Granite on Netherfield land? I've never heard such a thing."
Darcy wondered for a moment whether Mr. Bennet had hit his head when he fell from his horse. "No, there is no stone at Netherfield. I referred, of course, to my estate in Derbyshire."
The older man sat forward, his eyes now lit with curiosity. "Derbyshire, you say? With so much happening there I wonder they can spare you to watch over Mr. Bingley's concerns."
"It is true I have not spent much time there of late. However, my steward is more than capable of managing estate affairs during my absence. I have no fear for Pemberley. Mr. Bingley, on the other hand, has no experience of holding land or managing tenants. Although my initial presence at Netherfield was merely to bestow approval of his choice, Mr. Burgin's behaviour meant me temporarily taking the estate in hand until I could find a suitable replacement."
Seemingly confused, Mr. Bennet frowned. "I am sorry. Did you say you employ a steward?"
"Yes, a very good sort of man."
Mr. Bennet sat back in his chair then, a smile on his face. "May I ask how much land you have?"
While Darcy was too well-bred to be boastful of his possessions, he also recognised a desire that Elizabeth's father should think well of him. To this end he described the estate that surrounded Pemberley with a great deal more thoroughness than he might otherwise have offered to someone he had only just become acquainted with. They then discussed field rotation, weighed the merits of various seed merchants, and exchanged opinions on the current state of Parliament before Darcy could extricate himself from Mr. Bennet's presence.
Although he had cherished a small hope that Elizabeth would be waiting for him, he saw no one but the housekeeper as he left Longbourn. Darcy's return to Netherfield, on foot and with nothing but the birds in the trees for company, seemed very dull indeed. He found himself wishing more than once for her conversation and regretting that she was not by his side.
Later that evening, Jane studied her sister while plaiting her hair in preparation for sleep. Most evenings they came together before bed to mull over the events of the day, but tonight Elizabeth's thoughts were miles away as she stared unseeing into the candle flame. Jane could guess their direction, but remained at a loss to know how to broach the subject. "Papa seemed happier when I visited him after dinner."
Lizzy nodded, her eyes fixed on the flickering light. "He chafes at the restrictions that keep him in his room."
"It cannot be much longer before he can resume his duties."
"Only when Mr. Jones removes the splint can Papa go downstairs with John's help, but not before," Lizzy said as she drew the fringe of her shawl through her fingers.
"I imagine you will be pleased to be spared the work once he is able to deal with all those farming problems for himself."
Outside an owl hooted as the wind buffeted the glass in the casement. Finally, Lizzy said, "Would it be wrong if I were not pleased?"
"No, not wrong. I think you enjoy the challenge of solving the problems that arise. The marketing and housekeeping never satisfied you half as much, did it?"
"You deal with them so much better. Mama relies on you now. She hardly need lift a finger."
Jane secured the finished braid with a ribbon, determined to steer the subject of the conversation towards its intended course. "I overheard Mrs Jamison sharing her opinion of Mr. Darcy outside church. It sounds as though he is like a new broom, sweeping away the neglect at Netherfield."
At the mention of his name Lizzy met her eye. "A carter called at her cottage a few days ago with a delivery of new tiles. She sings the steward's praises to all she meets. He could not have made a more valuable ally."
"It shows a pleasing conscientiousness to his work."
"I can hear what you have left unsaid, Jane. You wanted to add that he ought to show a similar care over his appearance, but I cannot let you slight him for something as unimportant as a hastily tied neck-cloth."
Jane feigned surprise. "I had no intention of slighting Mr. Darcy. Indeed, I would never do so for he is almost frighteningly good looking."
She heard Lizzy sigh. "Yes, he is."
"'Tis a shame he does not have a more promising future."
She looked down, twisting the edge of her shawl around a finger. "We know not what his future holds. Indeed, he may have expectations of which no one else is aware."
Jane cast a sly glance out of the corner of her eye. Her sister remained silent and thoughtful. If she had made light of the steward's situation, it would have been a different matter. The fact that her mention of Mr. Darcy's position had not provoked the least desire in her sister to tease was a worrying sign.
She placed her hands on her sister's shoulders, giving a reassuring squeeze. "I know you are too sensible to fall in love merely because you are warned against it, Lizzy, and therefore I am not afraid of speaking openly. I would have you be on your guard. Do not involve yourself, or endeavour to involve him in an affection that his want of fortune would make so very imprudent for both of you. I have nothing to say against him. Mr. Darcy is a most interesting young man. If he had a gentleman's fortune I should think you could not do better, but as it is--"
"As it is, my dear Jane, you need not fear for me," Elizabeth replied, fixing a smile to her face. "Of course I am not in love with Mr. Darcy, and I am sure he is not in love with me. Indeed, he will be leaving soon and I do not expect I shall see him again."
"Leaving? How can that be?"
As Elizabeth explained the circumstances to Jane, she laughed at her mistake of assuming Mr. Darcy would be a permanent fixture at Netherfield. But her laughter sounded forced, and although her lips curved upwards the smile did not reach her eyes, and Jane was not fooled for a moment.
Posted on 2013-04-18
Despite being confined to his chamber, isolated in blissful solitude, Mr. Bennet still retained an awareness of almost everything that happened within the household. He heard the faint strains of Mary practicing her piano. He could not miss the idle, frivolous chatter of Kitty and Lydia as they passed outside his bedroom door. Elizabeth kept him apprised of happenings on the estate and his dutiful daughter Jane made a point of passing a quiet moment with him every day. He also had the dubious pleasure of Mrs Bennet's company at night, as she punctuated her preparations for sleep with the latest gossip of the neighbourhood.
He had therefore considered his understanding of Mr. Darcy's position at Netherfield to be complete.
The description collated from his family's knowledge was that of a young man, with a fine countenance, an efficient if slightly haughty manner and a sadly insufficient income for him to become a target for his wife's schemes. Upon meeting the gentleman he had found the picture to be mostly accurate, except in one important detail.
How on earth could his wife and daughters--and by common report many of the residents of the neighbourhood--have believed Mr. Darcy to be a man of so little consequence?
Although Mr. Darcy was well beyond the level of gentleman he had expected his daughters to attract, it was clear that the young man appreciated many of Elizabeth's better qualities. Likewise, Mr. Bennet had seen evidence of his daughter's predilection for Mr. Darcy, and he felt it would only take a little effort on his part to bring the two together, if he so chose. Had it been any of his other daughters, he would have left the matter in his wife's hands. As it involved the happiness of his favourite, he did not begrudge a small amount of exertion on her behalf.
When Elizabeth came to see him the next morning, he noticed the dark smudges under her eyes and her face appeared drawn. "Did you not sleep well, Lizzy?" She only smiled and shook her head. "I know something that will blow those cobwebs away. I would like you to take a note to Netherfield."
Her smile faltered. "I am sorry, Papa, but I cannot go today."
"There is something I would like to discuss with Mr. Darcy if he will favour me with another visit."
She turned away then, fiddling with the standish on his side table. "I fear Mr. Darcy was quite correct about females being unequal to the task of estate management. I am feeling almost faint from exhaustion. A walk to Netherfield would be beyond me at this time."
"Of course, I would not ask you to walk. You may call for the carriage for I can well spare the horses this morning."
"I have no intention of leaving the house, Papa."
Mr. Bennet shook his head, knowing how stubborn his second daughter could be. "I do not understand. Is Mr. Darcy not a favourite of yours?"
"Mr. Darcy is…" She took in a breath. "He is an excellent man. I am sure the gentleman he has hired to be Mr. Bingley's steward will be excellent also."
"I am relieved to know that you have now discovered your mistake. It must be obvious even to those of the meanest intelligence that Mr. Darcy was never employed at Netherfield, but I did think you would find more pleasure in the news. You are not, I hope, going to be missish just because you misunderstood his position."
Elizabeth's chin rose, her manner as imperious as the Queen with whom she shared her name. "Not at all. I am sure I do not care what Mr. Darcy chooses to do. Please, Papa, ask John to take your message. I cannot."
Mr. Bennet did send John out, but not to Netherfield.
While waiting for his man to return he sat in his chamber looking out of the window. He found it an entertaining spot to while away the hours, as his view took in part of the grounds as well as the drive coming down from the lane. From there he could watch the comings and goings of his family, whether it was Kitty and Lydia returning from a walk to Meryton, or Jane collecting rose hips. If he leaned closer to the glass it also afforded him an opportunity to observe Elizabeth wandering around her favourite part of the garden.
This morning she had not seemed herself, and this was borne out by her agitated pacing across the frost-bitten lawn, hands clenched by her side. She moved towards the gate, but then stopped, looking across the wall to the fields beyond; fields that covered the three miles between Longbourn and Netherfield. It pained him to see Elizabeth so upset, and he wondered at the cause. He might have expended further effort on this conundrum, had not Mrs Hill chosen that moment to announce a visitor.
"I am pleased to see you following my instructions," Mr. Jones said as he entered the room. "I did fear you would try to do too much during your recuperation."
"As much as I dislike having my movements restricted, one learns to make the best of the situation."
The apothecary unwound the bandages and examined the site of the break. He must have been pleased with what he found as he removed the splints and encouraged his patient to stand. "Well that is the first stage of your healing complete. I will rewrap your leg with lighter support and you may walk with the aid of John's arm or these crutches I have brought for you. The bone is not yet returned to its full strength and you should still rest whenever possible, but at least you can now go downstairs and spend some time with your wife and family."
"That hardly seems to be a fair recompense for adhering to your instructions so faithfully."
Mr. Jones laughed. "Well, it is not compulsory. I only ask that you are mindful of the limb for a few more weeks. No running or jumping or dancing until I declare it safe to do so."
"I think I can promise you there will be no dancing in my future."
As the apothecary left, John returned from the Meryton circulation library with a small brown volume, explaining that it was the only book they had on Derbyshire.
Mr. Bennet took the book, and turned it over in his hands hoping that this New Historical and Descriptive View of Derbyshire would satisfy his curiosity about the family of the young man who had caused his daughter such unaccustomed anxiety.
After Elizabeth had left her father's chamber, she found it impossible to settle either her body or mind. When she attempted to return to her room she disturbed two maids making her bed. Not wishing to stop them working, she grabbed her yellow spencer and instead went for a walk in the garden. Her gaze drifted over the boundary wall as her thoughts strayed to Netherfield and the gentleman who currently resided there. She wished she'd had the presence of mind to ask how much longer he would remain in the neighbourhood, but at the same time doubted she would have wanted to hear the answer.
The part of her mind that most loved being outdoors strained towards the gate, wishing for freedom. It was a long time since she had denied herself the pleasure of a daily walk but she knew in her heart that meeting Mr. Darcy again would be too painful right now. Perhaps she should hide herself away until he had left the area altogether. Would that not be easier than re-living the agony of his leaving over and over again?
Elizabeth wandered through the shrubbery, kicking a stone and watching it fly into the bushes. In the distance she caught sight of the same two maids who had been in her chamber. They were carrying arm-loads of linen sheets to the wash-house and she found herself again wondering how much work one young maid could do in one day, or what tasks a wife of a steward would be expected to undertake to compensate for the lack of servants. As young girls, she and Jane had spent some time in the kitchen, but she had never really stopped to consider the amount of work involved. They had always given her the impression of a hive full of bumblebees, hovering from flower to flower, always moving, never still.
She drifted closer to the kitchen door, watching the industry within. The cook was busy preparing a joint for roasting, while the kitchen maid addressed a pile of vegetables with a paring knife. Neither was too busy to welcome her with a curtsey as she entered the room.
"Mrs Smith, I wondered if I might be of use to you this morning."
"Why no, Miss Elizabeth, we have everything in hand. Besides, Mrs Bennet would have my hide if she discovered you here."
"I would not tell her."
The cook crossed her arms. "No, but she would find out all the same and then what would I say?"
"You would say that every young woman should know what goes on in a kitchen."
"Ah, but should she? That is what your mother has Mrs Hill for, and you will have your own housekeeper to manage the kitchen when you are married."
Of course, Mrs Bennet held an expectation that all her daughters would have servants of their own one day. Like any mother, she only wanted the best for her children and Elizabeth had never before questioned her desire to see her offspring well married. Indeed, she had always imagined herself presiding over a household very similar to that of Longbourn, although hoping that she would be blessed with a greater degree of conjugal felicity than she had witnessed between her parents.
But now it appeared even that future would be denied her. For while she knew she had not been brought up to be the wife of a steward, earning less than one hundred pounds a year, she could no more conceive of finding another man who made her feel as Mr. Darcy did.
Leaving the kitchen, she could not help but wonder how Eros could have loosed his arrow so unthinkingly as to wound her with such an impossible desire.
Early the following morning Darcy studied his reflection in the mirror. He tugged the offending neck-cloth, first one way then the other, and shook his head; disgusted by his inability to complete a simple task to his satisfaction. Whatever he was paying that man of his, it was nothing like enough.
He had always prided himself on his independence and steadfastly refused to be a mute canvas for his valet's art. He chose his own clothes and was more than capable of shaving himself when necessary. But when it came to folding and tying the white linen stock, he could only manage a rough approximation of the quiet elegance that his man created with a deft flick of his wrist.
The cry of a raven drew his gaze to the window, but his thoughts could not be constrained by mere panes of glass. Instead they ranged across the landscape, over ploughed fields and hedgerows covered with haws and elderberries. He closed his eyes, the better to bring Elizabeth Bennet's likeness into clearer focus.
It was said that absence diminished small passions and increased great ones, as the wind extinguishes candles and fans a fire. He could attest to the truth of that for a day without seeing her--without spending a moment in her presence--had left a burning sensation in his gut that no amount of Bingley's best brandy had been able to extinguish.
He had spent most of the previous day criss-crossing the landscape, searching for any sign of her among the lanes and paths she most often frequented between her home and Meryton. In the end it had taken a chance meeting with the young boy Joe, chopping firewood near his parent's home, to reveal the time and place when he would be most likely to find her.
But it had meant waiting through an interminable evening of solitude, when he would have welcomed even Hurst's questionable companionship if it had momentarily distracted him from the tick of the mantle clock, an infernal mechanism that seemed to mark time while still slowing its passage.
Yet the long night had finally passed and the light through the windows bore testament to that fact. He withdrew the watch from his pocket and checked the time. It only wanted half an hour before he could order his horse prepared. Then he would ride out to find Elizabeth.
When he reached the clearing by the old barn, Darcy saw her familiar figure through the trees, sitting on the log where she usually taught Joe, the basket by her feet. As he walked towards her, he whispered her name and she turned at the sound. Her immediate smile of pleasure rekindled the smouldering fire somewhere within him.
She stood, brushing her skirt with her hands as he came towards her. "Mr. Darcy. I did not expect to see you today. I am waiting for Joe."
"Joe is unable to keep his appointment. I offered to let you know so you would not be concerned by his absence."
"That is very thoughtful of you, as I would have most certainly worried."
He indicated that she should resume her place on the log. "May I sit with you for a few moments, Miss Bennet?" When she nodded, he took Joe's usual place, crossing his long legs in front of him as he studied the bare branches of a distant birch. "It seemed strange for us not to meet yesterday."
He heard a slight quiver in her voice as she said, "I did not go out. I had a headache."
"I am sorry to hear that. I hope you are feeling better today?"
"Yes, much better, thank you."
They sat in companionable silence for a couple of minutes and Darcy embraced the feeling of peace he derived merely from being in her presence. The six inches separating them on the log seemed both infinitesimal and a canyon of vast proportions. "I understand there is to be an assembly in Meryton. Will you be attending?"
"Of course. My family would not miss it." She paused, inspecting a loose stitch on her glove. "Shall we see you there?"
"Mr. Bingley has all but ordered me to accompany him. He knows how little I usually enjoy such entertainment."
"You would be very welcome, for we are always short of gentlemen. I am sure you will both find it a pleasant evening."
"I will answer for it being pleasant if I may have the honour of dancing with you."
A blush crept up her cheeks and Darcy took heart from it. "I… I suppose one dance cannot hurt."
He cleared his throat, wondering how she would react to the news he had yet to impart. "I am afraid I may have been the means of you losing your student."
"I offered Joe a position in the stables at home."
A moment of silence followed his pronouncement before she said, "You would be taking him with you to Derbyshire?"
"Yes, if he accepts. There is room for advancement if he works hard. Joe could even end up as Head Coachman one day, or his experience would help him obtain a position on one of the Mail Coaches if that was still his wish. He will also be able to attend school and learn as much as he chooses. "
While he appreciated Joe's desire to improve himself, he had made the offer primarily because he thought it would give pleasure to Elizabeth. He was therefore surprised when he heard her sniff. She had angled herself away from him, a handkerchief pressed to the corner of her eye. "Miss Bennet, what is the matter?"
She sniffed again and took a breath before she spoke. "It is of no importance. I was merely surprised by your news. I did not imagine Joe would be leaving as well."
The smouldering embers within him flared into life. Dare he hope that she regretted his leaving more than the boy's? "Derbyshire is not so far away. He will be able to visit his parents from time to time. It is less than one hundred and forty miles."
She shared an all too brief smile over her shoulder. "No great distance, then."
"No," he agreed. "Less than three days travel on good roads."
At this Elizabeth's tears were renewed ten-fold and she turned her back as her shoulders shook. Darcy could only look on helplessly as she bravely attempted to master her emotions, only to be overwhelmed by them once more.
Seeing her so distraught pushed him beyond endurance. Had they been anywhere else he would have controlled himself better, but they were some distance from the nearest house, with no servants to intrude. He reached out, turning her gently back to face him before enfolding her within the comfort of his arms. "I cannot bear to see you unhappy, Elizabeth. Please do not cry."
She made a token effort to withdraw from his embrace but when he resisted she soon subsided into gentle sobs as she lay her head against his chest, allowing him to enjoy--if only for a moment--the warmth of their close contact. Although Darcy had been brought up to safeguard what was his, this was the first time he had felt such an overwhelming compunction to comfort and protect someone outside the responsibility of his estate or family. He knew then that he had not mistaken his growing feelings for the young woman in his arms, and he would do anything in his power to restore her spirits.
As he held her close he consigned her bonnet to the devil, for it hid her face from him. Nor was he able to determine whether she had calmed enough for him to speak his mind. Instead, he said, "Joe would be distressed indeed that the thought of his leaving would be the cause of such grief."
The brim of her bonnet rose until their gaze met. Although her profusion of tears had muted the usual brilliance of her eyes, he could not look away. He felt that he was drowning in them, but he did not fight the sensation. Indeed, he welcomed it, particularly when he heard Elizabeth's whispered reply. "It is not only Joe's departure I will grieve for."
With his arm holding her against his body he could feel every breath she took, every sigh, and he knew those sighs were for him alone. The delicate blush on her cheek contrasted with the darker rose of her lips…lips he wanted to kiss as he had never wanted anything before.
As the silence stretched between them, the pull towards her grew stronger. Even Mother Nature herself seemed to hold her breath as the wind dropped and the birds in the trees fell silent. Elizabeth, holding his gaze, offered him neither encouragement nor discouragement, instead remaining perfectly still. When he pressed his lips to hers Elizabeth closed her eyes, and Darcy made a silent vow to uphold the trust she had shown in him. He kept his kiss light and gentle, not wishing to frighten her with the strength of his feelings as she melted into his embrace.
When Darcy drew back, Elizabeth raised her fingers to her lips, stifling a gasp as her eyes grew wide. He felt a primitive satisfaction that he had been the first man to kiss her, even as the impropriety of his ungentlemanlike behaviour gnawed at his conscience.
Elizabeth dipped her head--her face once more obscured by the confounded bonnet--but she made no attempt to withdraw from his arms, and until she did so he had no intention of letting her go.
Posted on 2013-04-25
Elizabeth closed her eyes as she leant against Mr. Darcy's chest, listening to the comforting drum-like beat of his heart. The only tangible remnant of their kiss was a slight tingling across her bottom lip, but she would always remember how her breath had caught in her throat and her stomach had danced with pleasure from his gentle caress.
The silence in the clearing lengthened, but this perfect state of happiness could be no more than a stolen moment; a pause in time where even the most unlikely of events are possible before her life resumed its inevitable course. The disappointment rising from that thought escaped as a sigh. "I wish we could remain like this forever."
His quiet laugh echoed inside his chest. "It might get a little chilly once the evening draws in, but I am willing to brave the elements if you are."
As appealing as the idea was, Elizabeth knew she could not stay. She had already tarried for too long and paid the price--losing the last piece of her heart to the man holding her in his arms. "I think my mother would have something to say about that." She tried to smile and laid a comforting hand atop his. "Besides, you will soon be returning to Derbyshire and will quickly forget the friends you have made here."
He stilled beneath her fingers then released her and sat back, the better to look into her eyes. "I have no intention of forgetting you, Elizabeth. On the contrary, I hope you will consent to come with me. You could even continue Joe's lessons if you desire. I feel sure he would be happier accepting the position in Derbyshire if he knew you would be there."
An image of young Joe, devouring the education he so craved, could only be a minor consolation. "You paint an attractive picture, but we both know it cannot be."
The lines across his brow grew more pronounced. "I am not making sport of you, nor toying with your affections. I love you, Elizabeth, and I want you for my wife."
His unexpected proposal hit her like a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky. Any spark of pleasure she might have felt at his declaration was smothered by the knowledge that she could never accept what would be the greatest wish of her heart. She jumped up and staggered back from the log, until she felt the rough, sandy texture of the barn wall behind her. Her voice shook as she said, "Mr. Darcy, I am sensible of the compliment you pay me, but it is not necessary, I assure you. I am not so innocent as to think myself ruined by one kiss."
As he moved towards her she deflected him with her outstretched palm, and he held himself at a distance, his hands out in supplication. "I do not make this offer because of my behaviour. I want to marry you because I can no longer imagine my life without you in it."
She was already shaking her head before he had finished. "You know I have no choice but to decline."
"You cannot mean that."
"Indeed I do."
Mr. Darcy's complexion paled with anger, the disturbance of his mind visible in every feature. While he struggled to master his emotions, the dead air stretched between them. "Why do you have no choice? Are you promised to another?" His face contorted as another thought crossed his mind. "Do you love someone else?"
"No…no, there is no other."
"In that case," he said, in the imperious tone that reminded her of their first meeting at Netherfield, "I have to wonder why you feel so unable to accept."
Elizabeth had hoped to spare them both the embarrassment of touching upon the one insuperable barrier between them, but his stubborn questioning left her no choice. She threw her hands up as frustration strengthened her voice. "You know it is impossible! The disparity of our status and our relative positions in society forbids it."
He paused a moment, weighing her words, and the expression around his eyes softened, even if his voice did not. "I do not think we are so dissimilar that it should concern us."
"You must realise that anything between us would be wondered at … talked about. We would both become objects of cruel speculation."
"Well, yes. It could occasion remark in some quarters but that will not last for long. Do not think I did not take these differences into consideration. I have thought of little else, but every objection raised was as nothing when I realised I loved you."
"However strong the affection we might bear for one other, it can never be enough to bridge the two very different spheres we each inhabit. You might have had little difficulty in overcoming your scruples, but I can assure you that my parents will not overcome theirs. Even if I chose to go against my family's wishes, I am still of an age that I need my father's permission to wed, which I very much doubt he would grant."
His eyebrows rose as he looked at her with an expression of mingled incredulity and mortification. "This is ridiculous! I cannot believe your parents would be so unreasonable."
She could only shake her head as she looked away. Regardless of her emotional attachment, a marriage between them would never work. Her indifferent accomplishments, with embroidery, piano, and watercolours, would be of little practical use as a steward's wife, and she would not give him the opportunity to regret his choice.
Two large hands seized her shoulders in a firm grip. "Tell me you do not love me, Elizabeth." The pain in his voice startled her. "Look at me and say you have no love for me. Only then will I believe it."
She breathed in as her gaze rose to meet his. His eyes, as implacable as flint, stared back, echoing his challenge. "I…I…" Her throat closed on the words she could not speak. Like ice on a pond, her thin veneer of calm shattered as another tear crept down her cheek. "Mr. Darcy, please accept the answer from my heart, for both our sakes, and let us say no more. This situation is wholly impossible. I beg you will not importune me further on the subject."
The colour drained from his face and with it his frustration. Pursing his lips he held himself still as he released the breath he had been holding. He shook his head, still disbelieving, then raised his hand to brush the solitary tear away. "I shall remain silent, for your sake. I would do anything to avoid causing you further distress."
A relieved sigh escaped her. "Thank you, Mr. Darcy, for being so understanding. You are truly too kind. I do not deserve such generosity."
It seemed that he would launch into further debate, but again he brought his emotions under control, and she hoped he had finally accepted the futility of their situation. She was only a little surprised when he said, "May I at least escort you home?"
Elizabeth shook her head. "I think it would be best for us to part here, as friends." She would need some time alone to compose herself, knowing that her tear-stained countenance would raise uncomfortable questions at Longbourn. Bidding him adieu, and receiving a muted farewell in return, she collected her basket and headed down the track that would take her back home.
Leaving Mr. Darcy in the clearing, the tumult of her mind overwhelmed her every thought and she barely attended to the path. As the enormity of her decision crashed down upon her, Elizabeth knew not how to support herself, and before she had covered a third of the distance towards home, she crumpled against a tree and cried for half an hour.
Darcy held himself firm until Elizabeth passed beyond sight. Then, a sudden lethargy pressed upon his shoulders and he staggered back to the log they had recently vacated.
How could she refuse him?
Dragging in a breath, he considered their relative positions in society, imagining the reactions in the drawing rooms of London to the news that Fitzwilliam Darcy had married an unknown country miss from Hertfordshire. There would be speculation, of course--spite and curiosity were the ton's raisons d'etre after all--but the support of his aunt and uncle would ensure they received Elizabeth with every outward appearance of respect.
It was understandable that she might have some qualms about marrying into his family, for she would be moving into a world quite different from her own. He found some difficulty imagining her attorney uncle having any congruency upon which to base a conversation with his own uncle, the earl. Likewise, he struggled to picture how anyone in his family could hold comfortable discourse with a denizen of Cheapside.
But there could be no objection to Elizabeth. He would not allow it. If he closed his eyes and imagined her at Pemberley it felt like the most natural thing for her to be there, with him. He had no doubt that Georgiana would soon come to love her almost as much as he.
Had he caused her to question her suitability to be the Mistress of Pemberley? Could he have unconsciously given the impression that she was somehow unfit to bear his name? He could think of nothing in their conversations that might have given rise to that belief. Indeed, they had not spoken of Pemberley at all, so he did not see how she could yet be daunted by the prospect of managing such a large household.
The one part that rang particularly false was Elizabeth's insistence of parental disapproval. He knew Mr. Bennet had no cause to refuse his suit, not when his daughter would have everything her heart might desire. He would see to it that she wanted for nothing. Why else would he have promoted young Joe's career? Such a lad would have normally been beneath his notice, but he sensed Elizabeth's desire to encourage the boy to better himself and that was enough for Darcy to take an interest.
Shaking his head, he left the barn behind and made his way back to Netherfield. She had all but admitted she loved him, and he had not mistaken her sadness as she spoke of him leaving. Therefore, there had to be some other external constraint that stopped her from accepting him. The only possible solution to his dilemma was to speak with Elizabeth's father and, if necessary, request permission to pay his addresses to her. If there was a genuine reason why they could not wed, Mr. Bennet would make it known. Darcy was determined. He would allow an hour for Elizabeth to recover her composure, and then he would ride to Longbourn to request a conference with her father.
But as he arrived at Netherfield he found an obstruction to his plan, in the form of the Hursts' carriage and Bingley's chaise pulled up in the yard. Servants congregated around a mound of baggage that was being toted into the house. In the distance he heard the shrill note of Miss Bingley's voice raised in the hallway, tossing contrary demands around like handkerchiefs, and just as heedless of where they fell.
Darcy made his way around the back and entered through the servant's passage, finding temporary solace in the dusty silence of the steward's office. He ought to be happy to have the house occupied once more, but he could derive no pleasure from his host's arrival. Not when it would preclude him from speaking to Elizabeth's father. As soon as Bingley found him he would expect an accounting of everything that had happened since he left for town and he knew it would be impossible to get away.
Later that evening, following what felt like an endless dinner, Darcy found himself staring at the flickering flame of a candle set on the table. He ran a finger beneath his neck cloth, loosening the constriction around his throat. Although he had welcomed the unexpected return of his valet, he found that the more formal arrangement of the stock now made him feel like a trussed goose. A scraping sound distracted him as Hurst pushed his chair from the table, mumbling something about joining the ladies. Darcy could stomach no more of Miss Bingley's presence tonight. Her self-seeking flattery had only set his teeth on edge, while her fawning praise of Pemberley and all its beauties had come close to giving him indigestion. While her behaviour was no different from any other female in town, tonight it had only served to highlight Elizabeth's superiority.
"I'd offer a penny for your thoughts, Darcy, although I imagine you value them a great deal higher."
He turned to glare at Bingley, but seeing the concern in his friend's features he softened his expression. Regardless of how he felt about Miss Bingley she was still Charles' sister. "On the contrary, they are barely worth a farthing."
"Well, something has made you thoughtful. You were quiet all through dinner and that is not like you at all. Maybe I was wrong to leave you without company for so long. I knew it! I am a terrible host."
Darcy smiled. "Indeed, no. My task is complete and I have obtained for you the services of an admirable man with a great deal of experience. I have no doubt you will be pleased with my choice."
A crease appeared between his friend's brows as he appeared to contemplate the refractory properties of his port. "Mrs Nichols said something deuced odd this afternoon. She asked me when you would be moving into the steward's rooms."
"Why would that bird-witted woman think I would relinquish my comfortable bed for those dingy apartments?"
"Maybe she thought you were the steward?"
"That is utterly ridiculous. Even a half-wit in Bedlam would know better."
His friend could only shrug, his interest in the subject already waning. "This is why you never hear of a female steward. They just don't have the brains for the work."
"Ah, Bingley, you are too harsh on the fairer sex. It may be rare to find a woman who would be capable of fulfilling the role, but by no means impossible."
"If that is your notion of an accomplished woman, 'tis no surprise you're so damned difficult to please."
Darcy made no reply, but as his thoughts turned once more to the perfection that was Elizabeth he could not suppress a smile.
"Still, it could not have been comfortable, being here alone with so little in the way of good society. I know you think the neighbourhood to be below your touch--"
"Not at all. You have quite delightful neighbours. I am only sorry I did not have the chance to spend more time with them."
"Then you will accompany me to the upcoming assembly? I thought I might have to drag you there."
A vision of Elizabeth standing opposite him in the set made his smile widen. "On the contrary, I wouldn't miss it for the world."
The following morning, Darcy ordered his horse to be readied while he breakfasted. Had it been up to him he would have left immediately to call on Mr. Bennet, but he doubted such an early visit would endear him to Elizabeth's father, or gain him the approval he so desired.
As a man of wealth and position, he had never considered for one moment that his first choice of wife would be denied him. He had assumed that being a Darcy was enough to make him a pleasing prospect to any family, which only made Elizabeth's conviction otherwise all the more confusing. He had property, income, the esteem of his peers and the goodwill of his tenants and staff. But would it be enough to secure Mr. Bennet's permission?
It was this question that had kept him awake for half the night, as insidious doubts had crept through the darkness, dampening his assurance and leaving him questioning whether he had mistaken her affection.
During his previous visit to Longbourn he had come to realise that Elizabeth held a special place in her father's heart. There had been a subtle softening around those grey eyes whenever she had been the subject of their discussion. Despite the questionable decisions Mr. Bennet had made regarding her safety, Darcy had found him, on the whole, to be a man he could respect; someone he would not be embarrassed to call his father-in-law. All that remained was to convince Mr. Bennet that Fitzwilliam Darcy was a desirable husband for his favourite child.
He only wished he felt more confident of the outcome.
Voices in the hallway wrenched Darcy from his reflections. He had grown accustomed to breakfasting alone at Netherfield, and the thought of having to engage in polite conversation with Bingley's sisters at this time of day irked him. He relaxed when Bingley entered the dining room alone.
His friend settled himself at the table, piling his plate with slices of cold beef and freshly baked bread. "There is nothing I like more than waking up in the countryside, with the birds chirping merrily outside my window. Much better than the racket one awakes to in the city."
Darcy acknowledged his thoughts with a nod, knowing that Bingley preferred the sound of his own voice above a silent room. But he would be damned before he encouraged him.
"I thought we might try our luck with the gun rather than the rod this morning. As you yourself said, the charms of Netherfield come from its well-stocked covey, and after spending so much time with Caroline in my chaise yesterday my finger itches to shoot something."
"You must give me leave to defer such delights until later. I have a call to make."
Bingley's eyebrows rose. "May I ask with whom?"
He took a sip of his coffee, wishing, for a moment, that disguise was not so abhorrent to him. "Mr. Bennet at Longbourn."
"Was he the … oh yes, I remember! Our neighbour with the pretty daughters. Do you think they will be attending the assembly?"
"Yes, I believe they will."
"In that case perhaps I might join you, so you can introduce me to my neighbour and his family."
"I am only acquainted with Mr. Bennet and his two eldest daughters. I have yet to meet the remaining members."
Bingley leaned forward, his eyes alight with curiosity. "And are the ones you have seen as pretty as reports suggest?"
"I think you would agree Miss Bennet is handsome. Miss Elizabeth Bennet is…" Darcy ran his finger around the rim of his coffee cup, at a loss to describe her in a manner that would not reveal his strong partiality.
"Oh dear. Is she that bad?"
Darcy sighed as a vision of Elizabeth sprang unbidden from his memory. "No, no. She is quite lovely."
Bingley froze, a fork loaded with beef midway to his mouth. "Is that so? Then I hope the ladies are at home when we call."
At any other time he would have been pleased to include his friend. Bingley had a happy knack of rarely being lost for words and settling himself easily into any social situation--and when Bingley chose to make himself pleasing, it saved Darcy the trouble of having to do so. But on this particular occasion, Bingley's presence had already hindered his opportunity to speak to Mr. Bennet once, and he was not prepared to divert from his intended course again.
His friend examined the mound of food still on his plate. "Well, let's see. After breakfast I should change, as I am not dressed for visiting. Shall we meet in the hall in, say, half an hour?"
Darcy glanced at the mantle clock as he pushed his chair back from the table. "As you wish, but I may be delayed. There is a task I need to take care of first, if you will excuse me." Leaving the dining room he tarried only long enough to don his riding coat and hat, before heading towards the stables.
He would, of course, apologise later, and accept whatever censure he deserved for leaving Charles behind.
After a short ride, Darcy arrived alone at the gates of Longbourn House. As he walked his horse down the drive, he scanned the gardens for any sign of Elizabeth, but saw none. The groom's smile and acknowledging nod as he surrendered the reins of his horse did nothing to calm the odd tangle of nerves in his stomach as the memory of Elizabeth's words tolled like a tenor bell in his head: "They would never allow me to marry you."
"Preposterous!" he muttered, shaking his head. He was a Darcy of Pemberley. Any parent would fall over themselves to secure a man like him for their daughter.
Memories of the previous day intruded upon his consciousness. He had offered Elizabeth his hand and his heart, and had been in no doubt of her acceptance. Now, he stood before Longbourn House, aged seven and twenty, feeling as nervous as when he had been a young boy, awaiting his father's appraisal of his studies.
Taking a deep breath he presented his card at the large black door and asked to speak with the master of the house.Continued In Next Section