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Posted on Thursday, 8 May 2008
The first invitation to dine at Rosings had been joyfully accepted by Mr. Collins; and in Elizabeth's heart of hearts, even if she were indeed not terribly excited by the possibility of her upcoming introduction to the formidable Lady Catherine, she was looking forward to it. Her cousin had already begun wearing on her temper. Mr. Collins had lost none of his previous behavior, except, perhaps, not being quite as marked in his attentions towards her. His admonishments through the door to hurry her dressing were quite unnecessary, because she was desperate to be out of his house for at least a few hours.
Early spring had begun to wake Rosings Park from its winter's slumber, and while she thought it was lovely, she could not, in good conscience, be quite as enthusiastic as her cousin would have wished -- she would rather it had been left a little more wild, left more to nature than to man's interference. Still, the house itself was grand, perhaps too grand, but she was also unwilling to antagonize her cousin so early in her visit as to actually voice this observation to him -- Charlotte's willing amusement would suffice until later.
Mr. Collins and party were greeted by the doorman, and servants escorted the party to the little ante-room where Lady Catherine and her daughter Miss de Bourgh awaited their company. It was not as bright a room as Elizabeth might have preferred herself, but she reasoned perhaps Miss de Bourgh was not feeling quite up to a bright room today. Mr. Collins began the introductions, Charlotte's father and sister being introduced first. Elizabeth stayed a little behind the rest of the party, waiting for her turn, while taking in the room and its occupants. Of Lady Catherine herself, she felt the tug of remembrance, but after consideration, felt it must be the resemblance to Mr. Darcy.
"Cousin Elizabeth?" Mr. Collins queried, motioning her forward. She complied, stepping into direct light for the first time since she entered the room. Lady Catherine, at first, did not exactly look at her, appearing quite bored with the proceedings taking place in front of her. "And this is my cousin, Miss Elizabeth Bennet." Lady Catherine finally deigned to look Elizabeth full in the face, and with a half-strangled gasp, such a look of shock and surprise crossed her expression that Elizabeth was taken aback. Lady Catherine half rose from her chair, a hand stretching out to the girl before her. Miss de Bourgh, equally startled, grasped her mother's other arm.
"Elizabeth?" the great lady whispered into a suddenly quiet room. "Have you come back to us?"
Posted on Wednesday, 28 May 2008
Half an hour after a startled Elizabeth had replied with a reflexive "I beg your pardon?" the commotion in the ante-room had quieted down, due in no small part to the ever-present practicality of Charlotte Collins. Elizabeth, it must be noted, while often practical herself, felt herself to be excused from such considerations after having been the target of hugs and tears from two women she honestly could not recall, but who were certain she was "their" Elizabeth. It must also be said that Mr. Collins had done little other than attempt to admonish Elizabeth for upsetting her ladyship -- at least until Lady Catherine rounded on him and told him in no uncertain terms to hold his tongue. He was currently seated in mute shock (dare we hope it last for long?), slightly removed from the rest of the group.
Charlotte had finally, nearly peeled Lady Catherine off of Elizabeth, although Miss de Bourgh had, for all her slender sickliness, been the more challenging of the two. And it was Charlotte, again, who finally asked the question, "What did you mean, 'come back to you?' To my knowledge, Elizabeth has never been in Kent before."
Surprisingly, it was Miss de Bourgh who spoke, after sharing a glance with her mother. "I was six, going on seven, the day my sister was born. I had barely turned ten the day she disappeared."
"Disappeared?" Elizabeth asked.
Lady Catherine rose from her chair again, pacing to the window, and Elizabeth was forcibly reminded of Mr. Darcy again. "I never did discover how my second born disappeared -- nor did we find any trace of her. Not a servant was missing; the nanny had just taken her for a nap, and had come to tell me she might be a little feverish, and was certainly restless. Ten minutes later, when I followed her to the nursery, my Elizabeth was gone." Lady Catherine pressed a tightly clenched fist to her mouth, visibly attempting to force back sobs. "Sir Lewis roused the household to find her, and the search finally spilled out into the night." This time the sob broke through, though it was quickly stifled. "I remember it was a new moon, with so very little to see by outside. The searchers did not return until daylight, nor did my husband. At first, I was preoccupied with searching and re-searching the house for Elizabeth, but when Sir Lewis did not appear by midday, I had a few of the servants also looking for him. They found him and his horse, but ..." Lady Catherine's voice trailed off.
Miss de Bourgh had closed her eyes in pain before picking up the story. "I remember Father had been an excellent horseman; no one would ever have thought he would have been thrown from a horse, but that appeared to what have happened. The party that found him brought him back to the house, but the injuries he sustained from the horse rolling over him were too much for him, when combined with the grief of losing Elizabeth. He lost his battle to survive not a week later."
Elizabeth felt it would be right to say something, anything, but the only things she could come up with sounded trite and uncaring. Still, the effort should be made. "A double blow, then," she said softly. "It must have been very difficult. My condolences." She hesitated, searching for the politest way to phrase her objection, "But I fail to see what this has to do with me."
Lady Catherine turned from the window. "Yes, it was. And as for what it has to do with you, Elizabeth -- forgive me, but I cannot make myself call you 'Miss Bennet,' not now, not yet -- it has quite a bit. But I think you should see what I mean. Anne?"
Miss de Bourgh concurred, and her companion immediately came to her assistance as she rose. Miss de Bourgh motioned her away. "Miss Elizabeth? Would you mind very much lending me your assistance?"
Elizabeth could not think of a polite way to decline -- she did not want to foster false hopes within Lady Catherine or her daughter that she was the missing Elizabeth. Miss de Bourgh took her arm, and Lady Catherine motioned for the party to follow. Sir William and Maria had been remarkably quiet throughout the conversation -- Elizabeth hoped it would last at least a little bit longer. Miss de Bourgh, a wayward part of Elizabeth's mind noted, was actually almost of a size with her, although general ill-health kept her from being of the same weight, and from this particular angle, she could almost see a resemblance to her more awkward years, just a few years past.
Lady Catherine led them to the family portrait gallery, and they ended up in front of one of Lady Catherine some twenty years prior, seated with Sir Lewis de Bourgh, who had been shorter than his wife. Somewhere behind Elizabeth, Charlotte gasped in recognition. Elizabeth felt disconcerted as she looked up at a masculine face that so resembled her own -- her features were softer, with her cheek bones a little bit higher, but the slightly crooked nose she had always despaired at after a night of being compared to Jane was certainly the same as the one painted in front of her.
"You see now, why our reaction was so... marked," Lady Catherine said quietly. "I do apologize for that; we must have startled you terribly, Elizabeth. But I would not have my daughter frightened or scared of me."
"There is no saying for sure, Lady Catherine," Elizabeth responded after wrenching her attention from the portrait, "that I am indeed your lost daughter. Surely, Charlotte, you can remember hearing my birth be announced to your parents? Sir William, do you not recall anything?"
Sir William floundered, this not being a situation where civility could solve everything. "I ... cannot recall anything specific. It was, after all, nigh twenty years ago."
Charlotte shook her head, frowning. "We had not yet moved to Lucas Lodge when you would have been born, Lizzy, not until you were six. And it was not until that point that our households became so close."
"Then, with your leave, Elizabeth, I would like to send an express to Mr. Bennet, to attend us here -- and my nephews, as I believe Mrs. Collins has mentioned one of them, Mr. Darcy, is acquainted with your family?" Lady Catherine replied.
"Yes, we are, indeed, acquainted with Mr. Darcy, madam. But I am not certain my father will respond. He is... not fond of correspondence, or I should say more precisely, he is not fond of responding."
A curious expression flashed across Lady Catherine's face when Elizabeth said 'my father' -- if she had to name it anything, she would have said it was a mix of pain, wistfulness and fury, but it was so quick, she would not swear to calling it that. "Then, if he will not come here, on a matter of utmost urgency such as this, we will have to go there." Lady Catherine's tone brooked no disagreement, and Elizabeth -- not knowing what she should think, or what she wanted to think -- actually had no disagreements with the plan at this moment. Something had to convince her ladyship that she was not the missing daughter, although, as she found herself involuntarily looking back up at the portrait, a movement that could not go unnoticed, she admitted to herself that she less certain than she had been, not ten minutes ago.
Posted on Wednesday, 4 June 2008
During the ensuing dinner and discussion, Lady Catherine broached the idea of Elizabeth removing to Rosings, to stay in one of the family rooms. Elizabeth prevailed after pointing out that she was still Charlotte's invited guest; and it would certainly cause talk amongst the servants and villagers. Lady Catherine finally agreed that it was proper for Elizabeth to remain at the parsonage, at least until they had more information from Mr. Bennet. "After all, since certain events, I have learned to be excessively attentive to such things." Her tone of voice recalled Mr. Wickham's description of the lady to Elizabeth, but there was something about the way she said it that sketched a somewhat different story than it would have, had Elizabeth not known her past. It evoked a bitterly learnt lesson in minute responsibility, and a wish that no other mother and wife would need to go through her pain.
Elizabeth spent the rest of the visit in a vain attempt to keep the de Bourghs' hopes from being brought too high -- her birthday somehow was brought up by a comment of Charlotte's, and it corresponded to their Elizabeth's. According to Lady Catherine, her daughter had been a bright, precocious child, with a fondness for and knack with animals of all sorts by the age of three. Her father had doted on her -- already beginning to teach her how to read and simple mathematics, something that Miss de Bourgh laughed (interrupted by a cough) at, as she recounted her Cousin Darcy's astonishment at his then-youngest cousin's achievements. "I believe," Miss de Bourgh said, "he nudged our cousin Richard Fitzwilliam, who is slightly younger than either Darcy or me, and told him that he'd best be getting on with his reading -- a three year-old was beating him at it. The look on Richard's face was quite a sight to be seen."
During this entire time, Maria and Sir William spoke and participated in the discussion -- unfortunately to Elizabeth's mind, some of her more embarrassing escapades were being made known to someone she did not know, and in front of her cousin, who, however silent he may be at the moment, would doubtlessly scold her later. Still, one bright spot in her day -- should she indeed turn out to be a de Bourgh, then at least she would no longer be Mr. Collins' cousin! But how would it affect poor Jane? Jane would always be her sister, she decided in the privacy of her mind, regardless of her bloodlines. And if Jane's connections were to include Mr. Darcy's own aunt, then surely Miss Bingley and Mr. Darcy would not be able to use that argument against Mr. Bingley any longer. She would do almost anything to further Jane's happiness -- even be related to Mr. Darcy!
This thought encouraged her to exert herself over the remainder of the visit -- Lady Catherine wanted to know all about her life... Then Lady Catherine was going to know about all of Jane's virtues and strengths, for without those, Elizabeth would have been condemned to Bedlam years ago.
To Elizabeth's private astonishment, Lady Catherine did seem to want to know all about her life -- and she also seemed inclined to be interested in Jane's prospects and talents. "You speak so warmly of her, my dear," Lady Catherine added at one point, "that I cannot but believe you are very firmly attached to her. I would certainly not force you to give up anyone in your current life you did not want to -- they may not be your real family, but they own the credit of taking you in and raising you as their own, as a gentlewoman. For that I could not praise and thank them enough."
Lady Catherine's gratitude almost broke at one point -- "No governess? Five daughters and no governess?"
"You forget, ma'am," Elizabeth replied with as much civility as she could muster, reminding herself again that this entire situation was a very grey area in the realms of propriety, "that Longbourn is a modest, entailed estate, however old it may be. My fa--" Elizabeth caught herself, as she had already noticed Lady Catherine responded poorly to hearing him spoken of by that title, "Such of us as wished to learn, never wanted the means. We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary."
"Your education sounds like it has been neglected," Lady Catherine fretted, for lack of a better word, a worried frown creasing her brow for a moment.
Elizabeth felt a ripple of amusement as she found herself reassuring Lady Catherine. "Perhaps compared with some families, I believe we were, and those who chose to be idle, certainly might. But while I must confess my accomplishments do not include the ability to draw, it is because Mr. Bennet's library held a greater attraction for me than did charcoal and paper."
Lady Catherine seemed quite astonished at such an answer, and hardly knew how to respond. Therefore, she redirected the conversation towards Charlotte, asking her how the poultry got on; and after instructing Charlotte on a few more particulars, turned her attention to Mr. Collins, asking after the general parish.
Finally Mr. Collins could shine and speak, and speak he did; the flattery and anxiousness to please his patroness Elizabeth had previously noticed in Hertfordshire reappeared. He seemed to not know what to call Elizabeth -- he stumbled over 'Cousin Elizabeth' a few times, to the simultaneous displeasure of the de Bourgh ladies, and he was not in the habit of referring to her as 'Miss Elizabeth'. He praised Elizabeth as completely as he praised Lady Catherine and Miss de Bourgh. Elizabeth ruefully resigned herself to having her abilities and attributes distorted by such an ineffectual lens, and could only hope that Lady Catherine and Miss de Bourgh were capable of filtering out Mr. Collins' more ridiculous comments about herself.
The hour was finally reached where Lady Catherine could not detain the Hunsford party without being overly impolite, and the carriage was offered to Mrs. Collins, who accepted it gratefully, and it was ordered around directly. Mr. Collins took the opportunity to alternate between thanking and re-thanking Lady Catherine for her evening's hospitality, and promising to take extremely good care of Elizabeth while she remained under his protection.
This reminded Lady Catherine, and she spoke to Elizabeth -- "I shall send the express to Mr. Bennet on the morrow; I dare say it will take that long to compose. If you wish to have a letter sent along, do have a servant bring it over as early as possible."
Elizabeth thanked her ladyship for her offer, wondering if she did dare send a note to her father, and what she would write if she did. A laughing account of the spectacle made of her resemblance? It seemed too heartless to the de Bourghs to do such a thing, and she truly did want her father to respond, preferably with a sound negative. Perhaps she would simply entreat him to respond to Lady Catherine's letter as it merited, and not let it sit idle. Yes, that seemed like an appropriate option.
The carriage was announced, and Lady Catherine walked with the party to the door, instructing Elizabeth on what to wear should she choose to venture out the next day, as surely Elizabeth would be caught in the spring storms on the morrow, and cautioning her to stay near the Park where she might be easily found. It occurred to Lady Catherine to suggest that a footman be made available for Elizabeth's walks --betwixt Charlotte, Maria, and Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine had been apprised of Elizabeth's habit in all its dreary detail -- however Elizabeth firmly, but politely, pointed out that she had been walking on her own for several years now, and that it might give rise to gossip if she were found to be walking with a liveried servant of Rosings. She compromised -- if Mrs. Collins could spare a servant, one would accompany her. A glance at Mrs. Collins revealed that she would definitely not be able to spare a servant at any point Elizabeth might be wanting to walk, and she felt relieved that her friend was willing to go along with a little misdirection.
Posted on Tuesday, 10 June 2008
Mr. Collins' raptures were scattered even worse than normal as the carriage pulled away from the great house. "To think that you might be a de Bourgh, Miss Elizabeth! Such connections to so great a family as the de Bourghs could only benefit the Bennets and Mrs. Collins and myself."
Mrs. Collins attempted to stifle her husband's commentary. "While I am sure that Lizzy would not turn her back on either us or the Bennets, it truly is too early to start speculating how this might affect anyone." She gave Elizabeth an uneasy look as her husband completely missed the point.
"You are correct, my dear Charlotte -- but Cousin Elizabeth must surely make use of this time to try to ensure that Lady Catherine takes her on, even if Mr. Bennet can positively state that Elizabeth is not her daughter, such a striking resemblance -- indeed, it may be for my Bennet cousins' benefit if Mr. Bennet and Miss Elizabeth do not dissuade Lady Catherine from her belief; for surely the dowry that Lady Catherine would settle on her would make what my cousin can offer her pale in comparison!" Elizabeth and Charlotte both reproved him for speaking so lightly of 'giving up' her family for such material concerns. Mr. Collins sputtered an attempt to say he hadn't meant that, but surely they could see the benefits for all involved? Thankfully, the carriage arrived at the parsonage a moment later, providing Elizabeth the relief of escaping the carriage's close confines and she hid in her room.
Still, her thoughts would not settle, and she listened to the quiet murmurings of an occupied household slow and settle into a night's rest. She found herself in her nightclothes, sitting at the window, vaguely looking up at the moon. Her thoughts were in complete disarray, and she contemplated what she ought to write to her father. And what about dear Jane and the Gardiners? Should she send them a letter as well, or wait to hear back from her father?
But here at long last, she had an answer to the enigma of Mr. Darcy's constant watching of her back in Hertfordshire. Despite her being only tolerable -- he must have recognized her subconsciously, for even if she wasn't his relation, she looked much like she could be, and she guessed he was very close to Miss de Bourgh in age. He most likely would have met his uncle Sir Lewis enough to have a vague recollection of his appearance, even if he did not remember it directly.
A quiet knock was followed by Charlotte's voice. "Lizzy?"
Elizabeth rose from her spot at the window and went to open the door for her friend. Charlotte held a tray of tea things, and Elizabeth bid her to enter. "I thought," said Charlotte, "that after this evening, you might benefit from a bit of tea to soothe you."
Elizabeth smiled. "It may help," she conceded, as Charlotte poured out a cup for her and added her preferred amount of sugar. Elizabeth took it from her and sipped it, her eyes closing as she luxuriated in the warmth.
"Do you want to talk about it?" came the predictable question.
"I don't suppose there really is that much to talk about," Elizabeth sighed. "You heard everything that I did, and you would remember more than I would, regardless. Even your father wasn't able to recall anything; and then there's the portrait ..." her voice trailed off and then she shrugged.
Charlotte sighed as well. "Until today, I had not known that Lady Catherine had had a second child, let alone that the child had been lost. I also had never seen the portrait of Sir Lewis -- Lady Catherine has always rather discouraged visitors from the portrait gallery."
Elizabeth frowned into her tea before taking another sip. "I suppose in a way, that is reasonable -- unable to take the portraits down for fear of forgetting, but unwilling to be reminded of her losses." She glanced up at her friend. "Although I must admit I am shocked that Mr. Collins had not found out such a grave matter, given how fond of his patroness he is."
Charlotte, caught unawares by the comment, choked slightly on her tea when she laughed. A little anxious, but amused, Elizabeth started to rise to help, but Charlotte waved her back down. "How many times do I need to warn you, Lizzy, to not say things like that when my mouth is full?"
Elizabeth felt like laughing out loud, but didn't wish to disturb their current solitude. "Oh, at least since my eighth birthday when you had convinced your parents to give me one of the pups from your father's prized hunting dogs to raise."
Charlotte giggled, albeit quietly. "Aye. I can see you now, as solemn as you ever got, swearing to your mother you would not let the puppy play in the mud then sleep in your bed, and finding out two days later that you'd meant it, because you intended for the two of you to be sleeping outside."
Elizabeth chuckled. "Well, it did get Mama to back down from that particular ultimatum."
Charlotte grinned. "Indeed it did, although she complained to my mother for at least a week, until something distracted her from it." They lapsed into a companionable silence for a few moments, and then Charlotte put her cup down on the little table. "Lizzy?"
"What is your letter to your father going to say?"
Elizabeth grimaced. "I am not sure what to write. 'Dear Father, Lady Catherine wants to know if your favourite daughter might have been a foundling that happens to be her daughter. Please come rescue me, or find a knight in shining armour to save me from the dungeon? -- Lizzy'. That just does not sound quite right."
Charlotte chuckled at the 'knight in shining armour' comment before sobering a bit. "Something along those lines might not be out of place; but it may be in everyone's best interest that Jane is brought here as well. With that in mind, please note in your letter that I am extending an invitation to both your father and Jane to visit here for a few days, so as not to impose upon Rosings Park."
"But Charlotte --"
Charlotte raised a hand, forestalling her. "Lizzy, I have loved you like a sister since we first met; but right now, the two you need are your father and Jane. Mr. Collins unfortunately takes too much of my time to be as much use to you as I would like to be. Your father would need to stay in our smallest room, I fear, but you and Jane would not oppose to sharing?"
"Indeed we would not; we do so at the Gardiners' when we stay there at the same time."
"Then it is settled," Charlotte nodded firmly, and then changed the subject before Elizabeth could protest again. "What do you think of Lady Catherine having her nephews attend her sooner than anticipated?"
Elizabeth sighed again. "I know nothing of Colonel Fitzwilliam, but -- while I am aware that Mr. Darcy is intelligent, and almost certainly had recognized me -- even if he did not know it himself -- I must confess I am not eager to meet him again."
Charlotte nodded, looking off into the distance. "Lady Catherine," she started, "has frequently mentioned her hope that Mr. Darcy wed Miss de Bourgh." Here she glanced at her friend. "However, given the frequency with which he looked at you in Hertfordshire, it may not be untoward to hope that -- if you are Lady Catherine's missing daughter, she may be persuaded to convince Mr. Darcy to make an offer to you instead, so that both of her daughters would be well provided for."
"Untoward to hope Mr. Darcy would offer for me?" Elizabeth was aghast. She set the teacup down on its saucer. "Charlotte, do you not recall he said I was not tolerable enough to tempt him? That he was cold and arrogant to nearly all of Hertfordshire?"
Charlotte leaned over the small table and gripped Elizabeth's hand. "He is sensible, Eliza, more so than... certain other of your prospects. Lady Catherine speaks of him a great deal; and even in Hertfordshire, he never struck me as a bad man."
"But you heard what he did to Mr. Wickham as surely as I did," Elizabeth protested.
Charlotte pursed her lips and tilted her head, watching Elizabeth for a moment. "And -- I know I have little room to speak, with Mr. Collins for my husband and Lady Catherine for my patroness -- but does that not give you a pause at all?"
Elizabeth blinked at Charlotte, startled. "I... never thought of that," she admitted.
Charlotte nodded. "Neither did I," she agreed, "until these past few months. But it did occur to me earlier today, that... even if your father soundly denies you could be Lady Catherine's daughter, she still may consider you her responsibility. You could happen to mention Mr. Wickham in the next day or so, as a new acquaintance, and see how Lady Catherine responds."
Elizabeth bit her lip before nodding. "That is reasonable, I suppose. I guess..." she stopped and Charlotte raised an eyebrow to prompt her to continue. Elizabeth finished sheepishly. "I suppose I never really did get Mr. Darcy's side of the story, did I?"
"No, and nor did anyone else. Perhaps it is time to change that," Charlotte added, rising with the tea tray. "And now I shall quit talking your ears off and let you sleep. You need it."
"I have missed you, Charlotte," Elizabeth said, as she opened the door for her friend.
Charlotte flashed her a smile. "I dare say, not quite as I have missed you, Lizzy." With that, Charlotte was down the hallway and stepping down the little staircase. Elizabeth shut the door before returning to the windowsill. The late night talk had taken an hour or so, she guessed, and she did not feel terribly less conflicted. But at least, she mused, the tea seemed to have done the trick, for at least she was considering her bed as a stop for the night.
Elizabeth awoke the next morning to the same thoughts and meditations which had at length closed her eyes. Her mind was still awhirl, and she felt quite indisposed for writing to her father. But she knew that Lady Catherine's express might be read with indifference and not acted upon; or perhaps worse, not read at all, if she did not add her own entreaty to it. She assured herself that his answer would be in the negative, of course, for certainly he would have told her something, or the Gardiners or the Phillipses would have let it slip. Even Mrs. Bennet could not be trusted to not speak of it -- and here Elizabeth came to a pause -- she was her mother's least favourite daughter, which very well could be the foundation of her dislike. Elizabeth consoled herself as she finally gathered pen and paper to begin her note; as soon as she found a suitor she would accept, she would be Mrs. Bennet's favourite daughter -- at least until one of the others managed the same feat.
Still, her pen hovered over her bottle of ink, as she frowned at the blank piece of paper. She dare not be flippant or risk her father not responding to Lady Catherine. She started off --
An interesting occurrence has arisen during my visit here at Hunsford. I assure you, I remain in the same good health that you saw me off in, and neither Charlotte nor my cousin are indisposed. Lady Catherine's express should detail the nature of the occurrence. I know not what to think of it.
Charlotte has requested that I extend her offer of hospitality to both you and Jane. She is under the belief that I would benefit from having the two of you here for the next few days while this is sorted out with Lady Catherine. I confess, my mind would be eased knowing that two of my dearest are close at hand. I beg you to please respond, be it by letter or in person.
Ever your loving daughter,
She read it back over before nodding at it. Once she blotted and closed it, she addressed as proper. As she exited her room, she met Charlotte.
"Did you get your letter written, Lizzy?" Charlotte asked.
Elizabeth nodded, waving it. "I should get it over to Rosings now, I suppose. Would you mind horribly if I did not sit down for breakfast immediately?"
Charlotte smiled and shook her head. "Of course not, Lizzy. Do as you need to -- I will simply inform Mr. Collins that you have gone to Rosings, and try to convince him not to follow."
Elizabeth laughed. "You are the best of friends, my dear Charlotte."
Charlotte disclaimed all praise and threw it back at her friend. "Be gone with you now. However tame Lady Catherine's behaviour was last night, I would not expect her to hold back the express any longer than she must."
Elizabeth nodded, and gathered her bonnet and other articles. She admitted to herself that while it may have been more proper for her to send a servant, she could not pass up the opportunity to forgo a morning of her cousin's company. The weather was beautiful, and if not for the events of last night and the letter in her hand, she should have had nothing but enjoyment in her walk to the great house.
Upon approaching, a servant opened the door for her, and after she gave her name, took the letter, begging that she wait in the entryway. Apparently Lady Catherine had given orders if Miss Elizabeth arrived, she was to be informed. The same servant hurried back with a second, who was carrying several letters to be dispatched. "Pardon me, ma'am, but her ladyship has offered you breakfast if you wish it." Elizabeth actually did not wish it, but felt it would be polite to sit a few moments before continuing her walk.
The breakfast nook was as grand as the rest of the house, and in her opinion, it was not the best environment in which to eat breakfast. Still, if nothing else, Lady Catherine set as fine a breakfast table as she did a dinner table, and not even Elizabeth could resist her favourite dish when it smelled as divinely as it did at that moment. She made the necessary polite comments while Lady Catherine talked of nothing but how she had predicted but the night before such a clear and beautiful day. Elizabeth kept her countenance although she knew not how. Lady Catherine's opinion on the matter was finally exhausted as breakfast drew to a close. "We should, my dear," said she, "speak of what your dowry and entitlement will be."
Elizabeth coloured and spoke to forestall such a discussion. "Ma'am, I beg you recall we have not spoken with Mr. Bennet. Certainly such a topic of discussion need not take place until that time, if at all?"
"Nonsense," Lady Catherine waved this away. "Sir Lewis had, in his last few days, ensured your dowry was to be kept safe in case you were returned to us. His will placed the entire estate into my trust until such time as I choose to dissolve it or I followed him, so that as long as you came back before my own demise, you would not be left destitute. As Anne is the elder, she was always to inherit Rosings itself as well as most of the land-holdings, along with the de Bourgh fortune. On you, we settled my fortune of 15,000 pounds as well as a small estate of some two thousand pounds per annum in Derbyshire, near your Darcy and Fitzwilliam cousins. The interest of that sum has been reinvested with the principal at approximately the four-percents these last twenty years."
Elizabeth did the math in her head without pausing. She can't be serious! Thirty thousand pounds?! squeaked a voice inside Elizabeth's head. She shook her head to dislodge the thought. "Ma'am, please. If your conjectures are wrong, this is information I should not be privy to."
Lady Catherine pursed her lips. "Even if you were not my daughter, you are a gentlewoman, and in the last day -- despite a tendency to voice a decided opinion -- you have shown you have discretion." Lady Catherine rose, signalling the end of breakfast. "Indeed, Elizabeth, I do believe you can be trusted." Lady Catherine inclined her head towards Elizabeth and then Anne. "I have some matters of business to discuss with the steward. I have little doubt, Elizabeth, that you will insist on continuing your morning constitutional now that you have broken your fast -- I suggest you wander to the East Garden, it is most attractive in the morning sun."
Elizabeth managed to formulate a polite response, and took her leave of both Lady Catherine and Miss de Bourgh. An oppressive weight seemed to lift off of her shoulders as she exited the house. If Lady Catherine remained this... overbearing, even if she was her daughter, how would she remain in such a household? Her opinion of the lady, as of yesterday, had been far more favourable. Charlotte had said Lady Catherine's behaviour had been tame in comparison to her usual self. As Elizabeth made for a path that she had already established a preference for in the past few days (very specifically avoiding the garden on the morning-side of the house), she wondered how she would make it through the next few days -- for her father could not be expected to be here much before the day after tomorrow, and that would only be if it was possible for him to leave the estate on such short notice with neither Jane nor herself there to stay in his stead.
Eventually, Elizabeth's thoughts turned towards her might-be-cousins. The Fitzwilliams she knew little of, other than Mr. Darcy's mother had been a Fitzwilliam, the daughter of an earl, which made Mr. Darcy the grandson of an earl. Laughter bubbled up inside of her as she imagined the look on Mr. Darcy's face if Lady Catherine announced they -- after all -- were cousins. She wondered if he would remark that he could not be related to someone who was not handsome enough to tempt him; but she reminded herself, Miss de Bourgh was too ill to be handsome. However, had she been healthy, that may have been a different case altogether.
But even these thoughts gave way as she contemplated Jane's situation. How would she stand being parted from the one person she loved as much as her father? Her younger sisters -- as much as she loved them, being parted from them would in all honesty not be a bad thing. Should the idea be true, it was entirely possible that Lady Catherine and her father would agree to place her within the de Bourgh household -- it would be a fine connection for the Bennet girls, and one less split of their meagre fortune. She was unsure whether to trust Lady Catherine's previous statement of not wishing to part her from her beloveds after her officiousness this morning. Which was the true Lady Catherine?
Mr. Wickham's comments offered little help, although she could see some of the same behaviour Mr. Darcy exhibited under duress in Lady Catherine. Proud and condescending, she could well believe, but even when she had suggested the East Garden, Elizabeth now felt Lady Catherine's motives had been to try to give Elizabeth a chance to familiarize herself with Rosings on as much of her own terms as Lady Catherine could give her room to do so. She felt a prickling of shame and guilt she had so rebelliously avoided the garden. The older woman must be as terribly confused as Elizabeth herself was -- here she had the girl she believed to be her daughter, yet was a stranger to her. Her maternal feelings must surely be at war with her more normal behaviour -- and it was clear she was a woman who considered herself to be in charge of all matters within her realm. Even if they weren't actually within her realm.
Elizabeth found herself looking at a small pond with a log bench beside it. She sat and tried to lose herself in the quiet whispers of the breeze in the trees, the chatter of the birds, the sounds of the insects and frogs; but to no avail. Not even here was there respite from her confusion. She sighed and took in a slow deep breath, much like she would when trying to combat her embarrassment at her mother's behaviour, exhaling just as slowly. And then she began to list the pros and cons of each possibility. Better to be prepared, she supposed, than caught unawares, if Mr. Bennet told them she had been a foundling.
Elizabeth started off with the problems -- being related to a family who was prideful, arrogant and condescending was certainly a con in her books. But, Elizabeth had to admit, even Mr. Darcy's pride was not entirely undeserved -- he was easily one of the most intelligent men Elizabeth had had the displeasure of meeting. Strength of mind and character were two traits that Elizabeth herself prized and prided herself on -- something she certainly had in common with Mr. Darcy and the de Bourghs, from her current observation.
In Lady Catherine's favour, Elizabeth had to start off with the fact that Lady Catherine seemed to be endeavouring to remember all of Elizabeth's preferences -- that she preferred to walk for long periods of time, even how much sugar she took in her tea. Charlotte had mentioned some time that Elizabeth favoured strawberry jam to honey on her toast, and Elizabeth distinctly recalled that Lady Catherine noted how little she and Anne liked strawberries -- apparently, it had been their Elizabeth's favourite food, and they never did understand why -- yet this morning, there had been strawberry jam on the table for her use. When compared with the mother who had raised her, Lady Catherine's behaviour seemed far more concerned with her than with Lady Catherine's own wishes. The oft-repressed desire for a mother more like herself in temperament attempted to raise its head for a moment before Elizabeth promptly pushed it back down under the proverbial table.
She came to the conclusion she was in the same situation she was before she settled down to think about it -- she had no idea what to think. She could only hope that Mr. Bennet would arrive sooner rather than later, and that he would have the answer to put this entire incident to rest. Then she could go home in five weeks, and in ten years look back at this and laugh at her confusion. She started back for the parsonage; as she certainly wasn't doing anyone (including herself) any good out here contemplating something that couldn't possibly be true.
Posted on Wednesday, 18 June 2008
"Lizzy!" Maria cried, when she returned. "Come help us!" She had been waiting in the hallway for her, apparently, and began tugging Elizabeth towards the kitchen.
Elizabeth frowned, removing her outdoor garments quickly. "Of course, Maria -- with what, may I ask?" Maria pulled her into the kitchen and gestured at the main preparation table.
Charlotte hovered over a basket, looking up as Maria pushed open the door. "Oh thank goodness, Lizzy, you're here. You know what to do in these situations."
"In what --" Elizabeth broke off, for the basket had answered her question with a hungry, tired little mewling. "Ah." Elizabeth felt amused -- surely Charlotte should know this by now. Still, she moved over the basket to peer down into it. A little black and white kitten blearily peered back up at her, then mewled again. "And who might you be?" she asked the kitten, already reaching to pet the tiny, bony creature. "An egg yolk, milk and a little bit of sugar, well mixed and warmed up. A clean rag. Goat's milk, if you have any, would be best, or sheep's milk," she added as an aside to Charlotte and the kitchen maid who hurried to find what she requested.
The kitten was hungry, and immediately began to investigate her hand to see if it could nurse on her fingers. "Shh, little one. In due time," Elizabeth cooed at the baby. She glanced at Maria. "I take it there are no other kittens?"
Maria shook her head, large brown eyes filling with tears. "I found him in with a couple of other kittens, but they weren't ..." Maria glanced away from Elizabeth, trying to stifle herself. "I saw no signs of the queen."
Elizabeth nodded, and patted Maria on the shoulder with her unclaimed hand. "Sometimes it happens that way. At least this one has a chance."
"Does he?" Maria asked hopefully.
"That mostly depends on it," Elizabeth replied. "It seems hungry enough -- that is a good sign. It is a little young to be motherless, but not so young it definitely won't make it. I think it is five or six weeks old. We may even be able to get it eating some of the leftovers from the meat dishes in the next couple of days."
Maria nodded, and reached into the basket to pet the kitten. "I've never had a queen abandon her kittens before."
Elizabeth could only shrug helplessly. "Like I said... sometimes it happens. I wonder if there are any nursing cats nearby who might take this one on. That might be for the best."
Charlotte and the kitchen maid appeared with her requisitions. "Shall I show you how to feed the kitten, Maria?" Elizabeth asked.
Maria's eyes lit up. "Do you think I can help then?"
Elizabeth laughed. "Of course. Just because your older sister has problems with taking care of kittens, doesn't mean you should."
"Lizzy!" Charlotte protested. Elizabeth merely grinned at her friend before showing Maria how to test to make sure the milk wasn't too warm, and how to soak up just a small amount to give to the kitten at a time. Soon, the kitten's belly was full, and Maria was ecstatic that the kitten had fallen asleep in her arms.
Maria refused to relinquish the kitten, still cuddling it in the sitting room when Mr. Collins returned to the house half an hour later, Sir William in tow. Mr. Collins was taken aback when he had three women shush him upon loudly coming into the room. "You'll wake the kitten, my dear," Charlotte told him.
"A kitten?" Mr. Collins repeated stupidly.
"Maria found an abandoned kitten," she explained.
"Isn't he adorable, brother? See, father?" Maria piped up, still protectively cradling the leggy ball of fur.
Sir William -- well used to random creatures being dragged into his or a neighbour's house by anyone close to Elizabeth -- nodded and wisely agreed with his daughter. Mr. Collins simply shook it off much like a dog shakes water, and continued to relay to Elizabeth what he'd wanted to in the first place. "Cousin, Lady Catherine has invited us to dinner again tonight; she thinks it is not unlikely that her nephews may arrive, and she wishes to see if they see the resemblance before she tells them of her beliefs."
Maria -- surprisingly -- protested. "But if we go to Rosings, who will tend the kitten?"
"The kitten could be left with the servants," Charlotte responded, "unless you wish to stay at home to tend to him."
Maria looked divided -- the glories of a dinner at Rosings (and the chance for more gossip) versus the lure of caring for an abandoned kitten. Elizabeth solved it. "Maria, if you leave the kitten with the staff this evening, you could simply care for him overnight. The kitten will surely get hungry in the middle of the night."
"Oh." Maria considered the idea. "That would keep me from being impolite, would it not?"
"Indeed it would," Elizabeth concurred. To herself, she could only hope that Maria's chattering about the kitten may help prevent Lady Catherine from divulging any other family information. If the remainder of the day was any indicator, Elizabeth felt there was a good chance this would hold true -- Maria, having never cared for a kitten or even an older cat all on her own -- spent the day peppering Elizabeth with questions of all sorts. Elizabeth finally managed to talk to Charlotte alone for a moment -- and she asked, "I do hope Sir William will not mind another mouth to feed -- I do not think Maria is going to give up the kitten easily."
Charlotte smiled in the direction of her younger sister, seated across the room, quite engrossed by the baby. "Oh, after having lived around you for all this time, my dear Lizzy, I doubt anyone in Hertfordshire would have the gall to deny a kitten admittance into their household."
"Charlotte!" Charlotte merely grinned and went back to her sewing.
When it came time to dress, Maria startled Charlotte and Elizabeth both, by hurrying and barely caring how she looked -- she wanted to stay with the kitten as long as possible. Elizabeth, on the other hand, discovered she felt a little bit of trepidation at the idea of meeting the forbidding Mr. Darcy and the unknown Fitzwilliam cousin under such circumstances. She did her best to not dress up any more than she would have a day ago, but she suspected she failed. She could only hope that no one would interpret it as her attempting to catch either one's eye, particularly after Charlotte's comments from the night before.
Even after the kitchen maid swore faithfully to wait on the kitten's every demand while she was gone, Maria was fretful about leaving the little one behind, and could barely make herself walk from the parsonage to Rosings. Elizabeth and Charlotte kept their countenances at Maria's constant turning around to look at the parsonage -- even after it was not easily in sight, but Elizabeth knew not how she did it. When finally they reached Rosings, Maria remembered herself (mostly) and began to attend to what was going on around her.
They attended Lady Catherine in the parlour, and both she and Miss de Bourgh greeted the party more civilly than Elizabeth would have suspected from this morning's interactions. Thankfully, when asked how she was doing, instead of giving the normal politely positive answer, Maria launched into a retelling of the day's events, and not even Lady Catherine's astonishment could slow her words -- she was quite oblivious to anything except talking about the kitten, even though shortly she had repeated herself at least twice. The only thing Elizabeth regretted about the situation was how often she was praised by Maria for knowing how to take care of the kitten and for showing her how to do it as well.
It was in the middle of the third -- or was it fifth? seventh? Elizabeth had lost track at least a repetition ago -- recital of Maria's kitten-filled day that the sound of newly arrived guests broke into the room. Even as it was apparent that the guests were not going to immediately enter the parlour -- almost certainly going up to their rooms to refresh themselves prior to being seen -- there was no question that Elizabeth was going to have to face Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mr. Darcy today, after all.
Lady Catherine had sent messages up to her guests, requesting their presence as soon as may be, on the matter of grave importance she had mentioned (but not specified) in her express that morning. Elizabeth hoped Lady Catherine had been more specific in the letter to her father -- else Mr. Bennet would never come, even with Elizabeth's own entreaty.
As it was, Elizabeth sat in Lady Catherine's sitting room, feeling as if she were on tenterhooks with the morrow's meal. Searching for some sort of employment until she had to face Mr. Darcy again, she asked if Lady Catherine minded over-much if she availed herself of the pianoforte for the next few moments. Lady Catherine -- anxious to hear her capabilities -- agreed.
Thus, Mr. Darcy found himself walking head-on into a situation that, during waking hours, he avowed to himself was his worst possible nightmare -- Elizabeth Bennet seated at a piano, singing. However, one must also add that for a "worst possible nightmare," Mr. Darcy had regularly found himself lingering abed to recall those dreams a time or three, these past few months.
He stopped. He stared. And Colonel Fitzwilliam ran smack into him, while he stood dumb in the doorway. "I say, Darcy, what is the matter with you?" the colonel exclaimed. Elizabeth, startled by the unknown and somewhat unexpected voice (she had nearly forgotten why she had retired herself to the pianoforte), missed a few notes and then stopped playing. Mr. Darcy had, by this point, roused himself from his momentary stupefaction, and come into the room, bowing as he greeted the occupants, the colonel coming up behind.
"Come here, Elizabeth," Lady Catherine beckoned. "I should introduce you to Colonel Fitzwilliam." Elizabeth duly came to Lady Catherine and Miss de Bourgh's side, and it was then that both Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam stiffened in recognition.
"But --" Mr. Darcy started.
"How --" the Colonel sputtered.
Lady Catherine nodded, a triumphant expression on her face. "You see what I do, then. I can only suppose," she nodded at Darcy, "that the resemblance to Anne was something you would not have seen without them side by side."
"I --" Mr. Darcy was at a loss. He couldn't very well admit he'd been looking at Elizabeth for months, although something in Elizabeth's expression made him believe she had been quite aware of his attention. An emotion he hesitated to call "hope" began to rise in him. If she was... but there was still much to be discussed and analyzed, he reminded himself before he could finish that thought.
Elizabeth, on the other hand, was surveying both the men in front of her. Colonel Fitzwilliam had the air of a generally genial man, an almost convivial attitude that Elizabeth would have thought at odds with someone in the regulars. He was not as handsome as his cousin, but not unpleasant either. Mr. Darcy, on the other hand... she almost suspected he was more relieved by this possible revelation than horrified, as she had privately believed he would be. Perhaps, she reasoned, it was that now he had the answer as to why he had been unable to stop watching her.
Mr. Darcy started again. "I readily admit, Aunt Catherine, that I never even thought to consider such a possibility." He shrugged slightly. "We had, after all, given up on finding my cousin Elizabeth years ago." He glanced between Miss de Bourgh and Elizabeth again. "But the resemblance is... striking."
Mrs. Collins agreed. "The portrait of Sir Lewis looks much like her, although one can see the Fitzwilliam influence."
Mr. Darcy became grave again. "Has Mr. Bennet been asked about Elizabeth's history?"
Lady Catherine nodded. "I sent an express to him at the same time I sent the one to you."
"Then, with any luck, he may be here as soon as tomorrow," Mr. Darcy half-asked, glancing at Elizabeth.
She smiled mirthlessly, before moving back in the direction of the pianoforte. "Only, Mr. Darcy, if he does not treat this as a grand joke." Ordinarily, she would not be so interested in the pianoforte, but she preferred the option of music to talk about something she still refused to believe was a possibility, even with the growing consensus among the also growing party at Rosings that she did indeed favour the de Bourghs in appearance.
Mrs. Collins observed Mr. Darcy as she watched her friend return to the pianoforte. He was as inscrutable as he had ever been in Hertfordshire, but the intensity with which he watched Elizabeth gave Charlotte a great deal of hope for Elizabeth's future. However, she retrained her attention to Elizabeth's performance when she realized that Lady Catherine had noticed her watching Mr. Darcy watching Elizabeth. Lady Catherine bore a thoughtful frown as she glanced between Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth, and Anne. Mr. Darcy compounded the problem himself, however, when he attended Elizabeth to the pianoforte, ostensibly to turn the pages for her. Elizabeth had little choice but to be polite and accept his assistance.
Thankfully, to Elizabeth's mind, dinner was announced ere long, and she rose quickly from the pianoforte to escape Mr. Darcy, believing he would be relieved to not have to escort her to the dining room. He forestalled her by requesting exactly that, and Elizabeth had to stifle an impulse to glance around for someone else to lay prior claim to that office. Elizabeth acquiesced with as much grace as she could muster. She hoped she would be able to escape to the far end of the table once in the dining room, but to no avail. As soon as they entered, Lady Catherine asked, "Elizabeth, I should like it if you sat on my left, across from Anne. Darcy can sit beside you." Elizabeth once again found herself caught by politeness.
The only saving grace remained that Maria was in easy speaking distance, and after the servants had withdrawn for the moment, Elizabeth forestalled direct conversation with herself with a single question. "Maria, have you given thought as to what you will name the kitten?" And Maria was off, talking of nothing but the kitten.
Mr. Darcy was quiet and grave as usual, to Elizabeth's experience, although she did detect at least a slight amusement at Maria's single-mindedness. Still, he did ask some pertinent questions of Maria regarding the kitten, and the colonel made a few suggestions for a name. Mr. Darcy cautioned against naming the kitten anything too suggestive -- thereby shutting down one of the colonel's suggestions of "Loki." Mr. Darcy carefully worked around to asking how the kitten was found, and the recital of the morning's events began once again. Elizabeth felt the tiniest bit of relief -- surely if Lady Catherine had been unable to turn Maria's attention away from the kitten directly, Mr. Darcy would meet with the same failure.
To Elizabeth's dismay, alas, she was proven wrong. Mr. Darcy -- for all his sullen graveness in Hertfordshire -- proved quite adept at getting a young girl on to the topic he wanted, which involved Elizabeth and her habit of rescuing kittens and puppies and anything else (except horses) that came with four legs. Elizabeth reminded herself that Mr. Darcy did have a younger sister about Maria's age. "You do not like horses, Miss Elizabeth?" the colonel asked in astonishment.
"For as long as I can remember, I have trusted my own two feet more than four feet under the control of another," she replied.
Mr. Darcy looked thoughtful. "Do you remember, Fitzwilliam, during our last visit to Rosings before our cousin disappeared, how enthralled she was with the horses?"
The colonel laughed. "Indeed. She did little but beg us for a ride on the pony your father bought for you and Wick---" here the Colonel abruptly stopped, and Mr. Darcy and he turned simultaneously grave and quiet for a few minutes. Lady Catherine glowered and Miss de Bourgh drummed her fingers on the table for a moment.
Elizabeth longed to ask what Wickham had been doing at Rosings with the Darcy and Fitzwilliam families, or even to mention she had met him -- and thought him amiable -- but from the expressions of the four seated closest to her, she thought that may be foolhardy.
Charlotte had other ideas.
"We met Mr. Wickham in Hertfordshire, when he joined the regiment there," she said nonchalantly into the lull. "I and several others thought him quite amiable. Although he had told us there was a... falling out, between himself and you, Mr. Darcy."
Lady Catherine spoke, her expression exceedingly grim. "Mr. Wickham is no longer acquainted with this family, Mrs. Collins. And for the time being, this will be the last time his name is brought up in a conversation." Mr. Darcy had turned exceptionally pensive and withdrawn, even for a normally quiet and taciturn man.
Elizabeth was astonished. Such a baldly stated disassociation was worse than the cut direct, and she could not help but wonder what could have affected such a thing. Even a steward's son could be a useful connection -- properly trained stewards were fiendishly difficult to come by, and as rare a commodity as a rich single man of marriageable age. A sullen air hung heavily over the remainder of the meal, and extended into the visiting hours.
At last, Lady Catherine offered the use of her carriage again, and Mrs. Collins accepted. Lady Catherine spoke to Elizabeth while they waited. "The moment Mr. Bennet arrives, do send me word, for I should like to speak to him as soon as may be."
Elizabeth nodded. The sooner her father arrived and put an end to this flight of fancy on behalf of the de Bourghs, the sooner her life could go back to normal.
Thomas Bennet read and re-read the express from his cousin's patroness with rising disbelief. After seventeen years, he had long since stopped fearing this day would come; and it was all he could do to keep from crying himself. Fanny... she would need to be told. Fortunately, Kitty and Lydia were walking into Meryton -- even Mary had bestirred herself to accompany them, and he knew where to find his wife at this time of day.
He stood outside of her bedroom door, steeling himself for the conversation to come. He knocked. "Fanny?"
She opened the door. "Yes?"
"May I come in?" She was perplexed, he could see, for it had been several years since he had willingly stepped foot in here -- all too often it had reminded him of his multiple failures -- but she opened the door further for him to enter.
Once inside, he felt his resolve start to crack. He took Fanny's arm and led her to a chair. He kneeled beside it, holding her hands. "My dear, I have an express from Lady Catherine de Bourgh."
Mrs. Bennet was all astonishment. "What could her ladyship have to say? Oh, I hope my dear Lizzy is well, even if she is an entirely ungrateful daughter."
Mr. Bennet swallowed hard. "It is, indeed, about Lizzy." He stayed her as she began to rise in a fret. "She is well. But..." he closed his eyes, and then pulled Lady Catherine's letter from his pocket. "I think it best if you read this."
Mrs. Bennet took the letter from him and began to read. She sat in mute shock for a moment, and then began to protest its contents. "This can't -- She's our Lizzy." Mrs. Bennet started to cry, reaching for her husband. "Please, don't let her take our Lizzy away from me! Not a second time!"
Mr. Bennet drew his wife to him, his own tears dampening her hair, but said nothing, for he knew not what to say.
Posted on 2008-06-25
When Madeline Gardiner heard her brother-in-law's voice at her door, so late in the day, she was instantly worried something grievous had happened at Longbourn -- Mr. Bennet disliked travel intensely, and would often go to great lengths to avoid it. To find him here... she would not complete the thought until she knew more of the situation. The maid announced him to the room, just as Jane turned around and saw her father.
"Papa!" Jane was clearly pleased to see him, until concern flashed across her face. "This is unexpected; how fares my mother?"
"Jane, it is good to see you looking tolerably well. Your mother is... well enough." Mr. Bennet rarely temporized, and this heightened both Mrs. Gardiner's suspicions as well as her niece's. "My dear sister Gardiner, it is good to see you as well."
"Brother Bennet, the same. What brings you to London then?" she asked. There was no sense in beating around the bush about the unusual situation.
An expression Mrs. Gardiner recalled from the earliest days of her acquaintance with her now-brother flashed across his face so quickly, she could not be sure she had seen it. "There is a matter that I need to speak with both of you and Mr. Gardiner about, prior to my travelling to see Lizzy. Jane will be accompanying me, and it may be best for all of us if you came with us, sister."
Jane gasped. "Is Lizzy ill? Injured?"
This time the expression could be nothing other than what Mrs. Gardiner had suspected originally. "She is in health. This... does concern her, and by extension, the entire family."
Mrs. Gardiner watched her brother-in-law for a few minutes more. "It has been discovered then, has it?"
Mr. Bennet looked away from Mrs. Gardiner and drew in a deep breath before nodding, still not looking at either of the women. "Indeed it has, although only a part of the story is known."
Jane looked between her father and her aunt, clearly bewildered. "I do not understand. What is going on with Lizzy?"
Mrs. Gardiner patted her niece's hand. "In due time, my love," she said. "I doubt neither your father nor your uncle will have the strength to tell the tale twice, much less three times."
"You share part of it, Madeline," Mr. Bennet observed quietly.
"Yes," she sighed. "Indeed, I do."
Elizabeth escaped the next morning, as early as she was able. She did not wish to speak to anyone; she only wanted Jane or her father. She resolved to avoid the party at Rosings Park, and even her dear friend if she must, to avoid the discussions about her possible parentage. She hoped, desperately, that her father was able to arrive today, tomorrow at the latest, because it was increasingly difficult to force everyone around her to recall they had not verified anything yet, had not established anything apart from a likeness to a portrait and Anne de Bourgh.
Everyone -- except Maria, who only partook partially, as the kitten absorbed most of her attention -- discussed, without reference to any wishes of Elizabeth's, how her future should be handled. Mr. Darcy had even intoned -- "But of course she must come to Pemberley after she has gotten comfortable at Rosings. I have been looking after ------ for Aunt Catherine since I took over the management of Pemberley -- it would allow me a chance to introduce you to your own estate, Miss Elizabeth, and to show you the paperwork and books."
Frustration was not an unknown emotion to Elizabeth -- but it had always before been related to her mother and her younger sisters, and the occasional gentleman who attempted to court her (or Mr. Darcy, but he was his own category in more ways than one). Now she felt frustrated at everyone -- Lady Catherine, Mr. Collins (that was not unexpected), Mr. Darcy (again, not unexpected), Miss de Bourgh, herself, Charlotte, her father and even Jane. The latter two had become a source of frustration the longer the day wore on without news they were to arrive or had arrived.
She found herself seated on the log bench once again after a couple hours of restless walking up and down the paths around the parsonage and Rosings Park. With a conscious effort, she focused on the sights and sounds around her, attempting to lose herself in more pleasant reflections. Such a plan proceeded with difficulty, but she persevered, settling on recitation of multiplication tables as a method of distraction when her mind would not quiet of its own accord. Diverted by the cool logic of the activity, she became properly inattentive to her surroundings, as one ought, when seeking solace outside.
"Six times three," she started.
"Is eighteen," supplied a most unwelcome voice.
"Mr. Darcy!" she exclaimed, rising. "Forgive me, I did not notice you."
"It is of little matter, Miss Elizabeth," he replied. With a slight smile, he continued, moving to stand by the bench looking at the lake, "Although I had thought your enjoyment of nature to be such as to not need mathematical recitations to enhance it."
Elizabeth coloured but spoke with composure. "I was always fond of mathematics, multiplication in particular. I enjoyed watching the patterns evolve. Mathematics, at least, follows a clear logic, and does not vary based on one's mood."
"It is good to know I am not the only soul in the world who resorts to numbers as a way to quiet my thoughts," Mr. Darcy replied. "And I suppose situations like the one we are currently experiencing are so unnatural as to need greater measures to be employed to act as one ought."
"Just so," Elizabeth concurred and lapsed into silence, settling herself back down. She truly had nothing she felt like discussing with Mr. Darcy.
Mr. Darcy continued to stand for a moment longer before asking, "May I join you on the bench?"
"Oh, excuse me, of course." Elizabeth started to rise yet again, "But I should likely return to the parsonage; Charlotte is sure to have missed me these last few hours."
Mr. Darcy prevented her. "Mrs. Collins is aware of your discomfort, Miss Elizabeth, but when she sent me in the correct direction to look for you, she also said you were perfectly welcome to stay out as you felt necessary."
"She sent you to look for me?" Elizabeth's expression showed her doubt.
Mr. Darcy looked mildly abashed. "I offered to find you, after Mr. Collins professed concern about you being out so long and started to suggest he look for you himself. I thought... you may wish to avoid his company a bit longer."
Elizabeth could not help but laugh at such an astute observation. "You are forgiven, then, for interrupting me. But I should still return."
"I..." Mr. Darcy paused, searching for words. "I did not just come to find you. I wanted to discuss a mutual acquaintance of ours."
Elizabeth felt a rush of sudden anger, and rose abruptly. "There is little regarding either Mr. Bingley or his damage to my sister that I wish to discuss."
Mr. Darcy looked startled. "I was not speaking of my friend, but of another person, the one touched upon last night."
"I am sure there is even less regarding your and this family's treatment of Mr. Wickham I care to hear, Mr. Darcy," she responded coldly. For the moment, she could not be neutrally rational, as she had the last three days. "From all that I have seen, even if I am Lady Catherine's missing daughter, I am not sure I could force myself to associate with such a family."
Mr. Darcy flushed with anger himself, before going pale. "Force yourself to associate with your own family?"
"Indeed, sir," she replied. "Even if this wild hare of an idea is true, do you think I would give up the family who raised me, give up my father or Jane, who is as much an angel as any mere mortal could be, for one that is cold and unfeeling of those outside of their immediate circle? For a family that can be so heartless to one raised as their own? Be cousin to one of my own enemies?"
"You speak, I suppose, of Mr. Wickham's supposed problems caused by my hand?"
"Yes, supposed." Mr. Darcy had risen himself, and would not look at her, his hands clasped so tightly behind his back that his knuckles had turned white. "It is a story that must be kept within the family, Miss Elizabeth -- and I do mean the Bennets as well as the Darcys and Fitzwilliams." He finally looked at her. "Because they are your family, even if you belong to us, even as degrading as such connections might be for us, gratitude and respect for raising you as they have must take precedence over everything else."
"Degrading!" Elizabeth snorted. "At least my mother does not offend every person she meets the moment she meets them, unlike yourself."
"Lady Catherine is your mother," Mr. Darcy replied quietly, ignoring the rest of her comment.
"You are mistaken. Mrs. Bennet is my mother."
Mr. Darcy closed his eyes for a moment, and then opened them to look at Elizabeth. She was startled, for she had thought he was furious with her, but his expression... was something else, something she could not define. "Yes, she is," he finally agreed. "But so is Lady Catherine. And here and now is not the place to discuss what we need to regarding Mr. Wickham -- and I do not wish to have to repeat it to Mr. Bennet when he arrives. I should much rather we say it only once."
Elizabeth gritted her teeth. "And what of Mr. Bingley and his toying with my sister?"
"That..." Mr. Darcy looked torn asunder. "I am sorry, Miss Elizabeth. Mr. Bingley is his own man. I had not realized Miss Bennet was so attached to him as you seem to indicate; else I would have counselled him more strongly to return to Netherfield."
"You... counselled him to return?" Elizabeth was startled. She had felt sure he had helped keep Mr. Bingley from Jane.
"His... sisters wished for me to do otherwise," he confessed, once again not looking at her. "At first I thought the same, but the more I thought upon it, on the ride into London, the more I felt his honour had been engaged, after such marked attentions. I told him both my concerns for such a match, as I believed Miss Bennet to only be but slightly touched, and my concerns for him if he did not make an offer. And when he settled upon returning only a week after he had originally meant to, to weigh his options (in a distinctly non-Bingley fashion), Mr. and Mrs. Hurst left Miss Bingley while they travelled to visit Mr. Hurst's family."
Elizabeth was not sure if she was angrier he had originally set out from Netherfield to dissuade Mr. Bingley, or that Miss Bingley had apparently forced her brother into remaining in London. "But she has been in town these last three months," she finally settled on saying.
Mr. Darcy's head snapped around. "I had not heard a word of it, and I know Mr. Bingley has not; surely she has corresponded with Miss Bingley?"
"Miss Bingley stated that her brother had been much engaged with visits to you and your sister, and that she had informed her brother of Jane's stay. She spoke of her certainty of calling Miss Darcy her sister at some point in the near future." She could not quite bring herself to tell Mr. Darcy how injured Jane truly was, not yet.
"My sister is not yet out, and will not be for another two years at least," Mr. Darcy replied. He glowered at the pond a few more moments, while Elizabeth once again thought of several punishments for Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst. He broke the silence. "I had not realized your opinion of me," he said quietly. "I am sorry to have... misinterpreted things. In the name of... familial harmony, I should like to propose, Miss Elizabeth, that until we know of more from Mr. Bennet, that you and I call a truce. I have never wanted to quarrel with you."
Elizabeth felt disoriented once again. Politeness forced an answer from her. "I cannot promise to not quarrel with you, Mr. Darcy. Forgive me for assuming you had anything to do with my sister's pain, but until I have the particulars regarding Mr. Wickham -- knowing what I do of his misfortunes -- I do not know that I can be more than coldly polite. Forgive me for being frank."
"His misfortunes?" Mr. Darcy sighed and shook his head. "That will suffice for now, Miss Elizabeth. I can but hope that once you have heard of what his misfortunes truly entail, you will think differently of both of us."
Something in Mr. Darcy's tone prompted a wry comment from Elizabeth. "You make it sound like you actually care what my opinion is. If I am not your cousin, then surely my degrading connections will be as much a factor in our mutual behaviour as it ever was in Hertfordshire -- you shall be arrogant and aloof, provided you ever again sully your shoes with our soil, and I shall be irritated with you for being so."
"Did I truly call them degrading?" he asked with a flinch.
Elizabeth felt another flicker of wry amusement. "Even if you had not, just a few minutes ago, your behaviour has been such that there are few in Hertfordshire who would think differently than I."
Mr. Darcy looked abashed. "I have to admit, Miss Elizabeth, that I was... I was not myself, in Hertfordshire, for more than one reason. Even I know I can be taciturn and unsociable, but I promise I am not normally quite so bad. I apologize for the comment I made just now, however; it was inexcusable."
She did not acknowledge his apology, not quite yet. "May I ask why?"
"I should like to defer that conversation until Mr. Bennet arrives -- for it is part-and-parcel of the conversation I should dearly like to only have once, not twice."
Elizabeth sighed. "Then I shall attempt to stay my irritation and curiosity until my father arrives." She glanced at her watch. "I suppose I truly should return to the parsonage now. Perhaps I can find some form of meaningful employment with which to distract myself until my father and Jane arrive."
Mr. Darcy started to reply, then shook his head as he thought better of it. "I think it is time I returned myself. May I escort you back to the parsonage, so that Mr. Collins may be assured you were kept safe?"
Elizabeth hesitated. She had not agreed to a truce -- but he seemed sincere enough in the wish for it. She accepted his arm for the walk back, something completed in near-silence. At the parsonage gate, he released her arm, and she started into the house. "Miss Elizabeth?" She turned. "Thank you for the honour. And I am... I apologize, for having spoken so freely the last day, of things we should not assume until we know more."
Elizabeth curtseyed in farewell. "Apology accepted, Mr. Darcy. Please tell Lady Catherine that when my father arrives, I shall have her informed."
"As you wish." That look she had not been able to define earlier was back, but she could no more decipher its meaning now than she had half an hour beforeContinued In Next Section