Beginning, Section II
Posted on 2008-09-15
For the Forster party, the week leading to Lord Almsworth's ball had not been uneventful—there was another visit to the beach for bathing, a picnic outside a nearby fishing village, and the usual rounds of visits and soirées.
For the Bennet sisters particularly, the week saw their romances come to fuller bloom. But whereas Lydia enjoyed the increasing attentions of a corporeal Major of Foot Guards, Elizabeth's lover came to her only in her dreams. On three different mornings, she woke in a state of unfulfilled longing, flushed, damp with perspiration, her nightclothes bunched or loosened in a shameful manner—what her Mr. Darcy lacked in materiality, he more than made up for in ardor!
As Elizabeth finished dressing on the evening of the ball, demurely adjusting the lace at her bosom, Lydia burst into her room and cried, “Lizzy, can you not hurry? I shall die from grief if I miss the first dance!”
Elizabeth grinned at her in the mirror. “Oh dear—then Major DeWitt would pine away with a broken heart. We cannot do that to one of His Majesty's officers, can we? It would be unpatriotic. I will be right down.”
Lydia giggled and disappeared into the hallway. Elizabeth made to follow, but as she picked up her wrap from where it lay on her bed, a residual thrill swept over her. She paused a moment to recall her dream from the night before, and it struck her that she might already have been married to the tall, handsome, responsible, honorable, well-built man from Derbyshire—
But no, she could not forget his opinion of her relations; they would have been lost to her, he would not have permitted the connections to continue. Lydia would have had to navigate Brighton society on her own, and Elizabeth would have forever missed the Gardiners' loving companionship and guidance. Perhaps she would have been permitted Jane's company, but did not Mr. Darcy consider her unworthy of his friend? Even Jane may have been denied her.
These were lucky recollections—they saved Elizabeth from something like regret.
And in any case, her dreams were just that: dreams. Fueled, no doubt, by the sensual delights of Brighton. It could not be a coincidence that she had begun imagining her naked Mr. Darcy shortly after seeing the major and the whale unclothed at the beach. She smirked to herself at the memory of Mr. Upchurch rising out of the sea—hardly a sight to ignite a maiden's dreams. How much more restful her nights might be if only Major DeWitt had looked like that.
She went downstairs and found Colonel Forster and Lydia in the parlor.
“Oh, Lizzy,” said Lydia, “Harriet shall miss the ball!”
Colonel Forster nodded and said, “Indeed, Mrs. Forster is ill again this evening—another headache. She has assured me it is nothing serious.” He frowned. “But I believe I shall send for an apothecary tomorrow.”
Elizabeth was somewhat surprised to discover that the colonel had some feeling for his wife after all, and a little ashamed for having doubted it. Apparently she was destined to go through life misjudging others.
They arrived at Lord Almsworth's residence a half hour later, only to wait another fifteen minutes in a line of carriages as illustrious personage followed illustrious personage up the steps of His Lordship's house. Eventually they trailed almost unnoticed through the ornate doorway into the large entry foyer, where they received only the briefest greetings from His Lordship and Her Ladyship.
The ball was a crush, reminding Elizabeth of a public assembly in Meryton, only with rather more peers of the realm in attendance. In fact, there seemed a general conspiracy against ingress and egress, as many new arrivals latched onto groups near the doorways like iron shavings clumping on magnets. It was only with an effort that Elizabeth and Lydia followed Colonel Forster out of the foyer.
As they squeezed into the ballroom past a huddle of well-dressed young dandies, Elizabeth felt a hand pat her hip. She glowered at the offending gentleman.
“Oh,” he said with an unrepentant smile, “I am sorry.”
Lydia giggled as they continued on. “Don't scowl so, Lizzy—maybe he was your Prince Charming!”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes, then nodded smilingly to a group of redcoats nearby that included Colonel Fitzwilliam and Major DeWitt. “There is your Major Charming,” she said.
The two men made their way over. Greetings were exchanged, and Colonel Fitzwilliam immediately asked for Elizabeth's hand for the first dance—Major DeWitt had requested Lydia's for the opening set days earlier.
As they waited for the dancing to begin, Lydia and the major flirted—she energetically, he sincerely—and Elizabeth listened to the two colonels discuss some sort of military issue, something to do with 'sappers'. Without quite realizing it, she found herself intently observing Colonel Fitzwilliam: his mannerisms, his hair, his hands, his voice, his figure, his eyes—and there it was, a definite resemblance to Mr. Darcy in the shape of his nose and his upper lip!
Her triumph brought a giddy grin to her face, which drew Colonel Fitzwilliam's startled attention. He glanced down at her questioningly.
“Forgive me, sir,” she said, her color rising, “but I just noticed a resemblance between you and Mr. Darcy.”
“I remind you of my handsome cousin? I shall take that as a compliment. You know,” he said with a twinkle in his eye, “I have seen many young ladies smile at Darcy over the years, but this is the first time one has ever smiled at me as his surrogate.” The music began and he gallantly offered his arm. “Shall we?”
Later—as the music was just beginning for the fourth set and Elizabeth and Lydia were enjoying an amiable conversation with Major DeWitt and Colonel Forster—Mr. Upchurch suddenly appeared before them with another gentleman. Elizabeth gasped when she realized that the young man was the brazen dandy who had earlier patted her hip!
She lifted an eyebrow at Lydia who lifted two in response. Lydia leaned close and whispered,
“Your Prince Charming has arrived, Lizzy.”
Mr. Upchurch quickly introduced the young man—Mr. Desmond, who smiled at Elizabeth in what he apparently considered a winning manner—and immediately turned to Lydia.
“Miss Lydia,” he said, offering his arm, “may I ask for your hand for this dance?”
An incredulous look briefly passed over Lydia's face, but then she smiled politely and agreed. They went together to the floor.
Mr. Desmond bowed deeply to Elizabeth, then offered her his arm with a grin. “Shall we, Miss Bennet?”
Elizabeth tried to keep her distaste from being too apparent as she blandly said, “Shall we what, Mr. Desmond?”
Mr. Desmond's smile faded a little, but he gamely offered his arm again. “Shall we dance, madame?”
“Dance? Together, sir?”
Mr. Desmond lowered his arm and said uncertainly, “Indeed, together.”
Elizabeth smiled. “Perhaps we shall dance together someday, Mr. Desmond.” She offered her hand. “It was a pleasure meeting you.”
Having caught her drift at last, he bowed over her hand. As Mr. Desmond departed with an unhappy smile, Elizabeth could have sworn she heard Major DeWitt snort. She turned to him, and he was indeed grinning. He nodded and turned his attention to the dance floor.
“Well done, Miss Bennet,” Colonel Forster said. “I don't much care for Upchurch and his friends. I say, DeWitt, perhaps you should have remained conspicuously absent during his drowning.”
Major DeWitt immediately exclaimed at the dishonor of allowing a man to drown, and Colonel Forster hurried to assure him it was only a jest.
When the major returned his attention to Lydia on the dance floor, Elizabeth found herself challenged to converse alone with Colonel Forster. After some awkward pauses, she was struck by an inspiration.
“I was intrigued,” she said to him, “to hear you discussing sappers with Major DeWitt.”
She had no idea what it meant, but it served. The colonel launched into a lecture on the construction, defense and undermining of military fortifications. And to her great surprise, Elizabeth was rapt—how fascinating to be a soldier! She had never realized. She wondered if all officers knew these things; she could hardly believe it of Mr. Wickham.
Elizabeth almost did not notice when the music stopped, so engrossed was she in talk of war. She cheerfully glanced about the room, and gradually realized that neither Lydia nor Major DeWitt was anywhere to be seen. Oh dear! The major's excellent morality aside, she could easily imagine them getting into some mischief together.
She had begun frantically scanning the room while berating herself for once again forgetting her chaperoning duties, when Colonel Forster pointed and said,
“There they are.” He waved. “Over here, DeWitt.”
Elizabeth turned and looked and her heart sank. Lydia and Major DeWitt walked rapidly toward her, Lydia clutching the major's arm like it was a life preserver as tears ran down her cheek.
The sisters clung to each other as Lydia continued to sob. Elizabeth scowled over Lydia's shoulder at Major DeWitt, whose face looked like death.
“Your sister,” he said, “was alone in a room with Mr. Upchurch. He accosted her.”
He rubbed his right hand as he spoke—it appeared badly bruised. Elizabeth was about to ask for details when Lydia said in a small voice,
“Lizzy, I want to go home.”
Elizabeth, Lydia and Colonel Forster rode back to the Forster's house accompanied by Colonel Fitzwilliam and Major DeWitt, who had insisted on providing escort on horseback. Lydia had calmed by the time they climbed into the carriage, and Elizabeth asked her what had happened.
“Oh, Lizzy, I am an idiot!” she cried. “The whale lied to me to get me alone. He said his sister was at the ball and asked to introduce her to me, and I thought it would be impolite to refuse. We went through a door into a small deserted room—can you imagine any room in that house being empty tonight? Well, it was as empty as Maria Lucas's head.”
“She isn't very bright, Lizzy, you know that.” She wiped her nose. “Anyway, it was empty and I said, 'Where is your sister?' and he said, 'Oh, I just thought we would like some privacy,' and he kissed me! Right on the lips!”
Elizabeth's hand flew to her mouth. “What did you do?” she asked.
“I bit his tongue as hard as I could—he had pushed it into my mouth, you see. It was a little bit like a sausage. Anyway, he screamed and grabbed his tongue in his fingers. I think he tried to call me a nasty name, but I couldn't make it out, it just sounded like slobbering to me. I suppose he was bleeding some.”
Colonel Forster chuckled. Lydia gave him a brief smile and continued,
“That was when DeWitt arrived. I said, 'Help me,' and he grabbed the whale and punched him on the nose.” She looked out the window at her hero and grinned. “That was when he really started bleeding.”
“Poor Lydia!” Elizabeth took her hand. “Are you certain he did not harm you?”
“I am well. I was quite shaken, though, and very thankful afterward for DeWitt's arm. But, Lizzy, I am not sure I wish to stay any longer at Brighton.”
“Will you not miss your new friends here?”
“Major DeWitt has said he will call on me at Longbourn when he is able, and I believe he is a very trustworthy man.”
“I agree. I am sure we shall see him there.” Elizabeth smirked. “Perhaps you should ask him his favorite dish, for Mama will certainly want to know it.”
Lydia laughed. “It is chicken ragout.”
The carriage pulled up in front of the Forsters' house and Colonel Forster said his adieus to the two Guardsmen and went in to see to his wife. Elizabeth and Colonel Fitzwilliam stood in the front door waiting for Lydia and Major DeWitt to complete their goodbyes. Elizabeth found the scene quite touching, as the two lovers held hands while they spoke soft words and gazed into each other's eyes, until Lydia laughed and gave him a peck on the cheek—a well-deserved reward in Elizabeth's opinion.
As the couple were finally separating, the party's attention was grabbed by a loud crash inside the house, followed by several screams, male and female!
Colonel Fitzwilliam put a hand on Elizabeth's arm and said, “Wait here.”
He hurried inside and started up the stairs but was nearly bowled over by a half-dressed Mr. Wickham, who only avoided a collision by leaping over the banister to the first floor below. Colonel Forster followed close behind, sword drawn, roaring with rage,
“You scoundrel! You blackguard! You . . .”
Wickham dashed out the front door—touching his forehead in polite acknowledgment as he passed Elizabeth—and out into the street, where he disappeared around a corner, buttoning his waistcoat as he ran.
Colonel Forster stopped in the yard, his sword limp at his side, and just stood there for a moment shaking his head from side to side. He looked up at his wife's bedroom window—his face so red that Elizabeth worried for his health—then said with rigid self-control,
“Colonel Fitzwilliam, may I have a word.”
The two colonels disappeared into the house. The other three congregated silently in the yard beside the carriage, which no longer showed any sign of being taken around back. After a few minutes, two servants left on horseback, then a while later the colonels reappeared.
“Ladies,” said Colonel Forster, “you no doubt have formed an impression—probably an accurate impression—of what has transpired here tonight. I will say nothing else, except that I would not wish for this to become public knowledge. May I count on your discretion?”
Everybody nodded except Lydia, who seemed ready to promise just the opposite! Elizabeth was about to scold her when Major DeWitt touched her arm and gave her a severe scowl. Looking contrite, she nodded to Colonel Forster, who cleared his throat and said,
“Thank you. Now we have another problem. For the time being I can no longer offer you my hospitality. I am very sorry about this, but for the sake of propriety—for your own reputations if this should get out—you can not stay here any longer.”
“Of course,” said Elizabeth. “We understand. You are correct. But where can we go? Our father is days away from here. Perhaps we can stay with Miss Carter?”
Lydia shook her head. “They only have a small apartment—it is too small, Lizzy. They have no spare room.”
“Ladies,” said Colonel Fitzwilliam, “I am trying to arrange something. I have some friends in the area and I have already sent out letters. DeWitt and I will wait here with you until we receive some answers. It should not be too long. The farthest is only about 15 miles away. For now, I suggest you pack your belongings.”
Thus it was decided. The Bennet sisters packed their trunks and joined Colonel Fitzwilliam and Major DeWitt in the parlor to wait. The Forsters remained above stairs. Over the next two hours they received two messages, neither of which made the hoped for offer of help, and the little group's anxiety began to mount—stranded in Brighton under such circumstance!
At last, after three hours of waiting, Lydia cried, “Oh, look, an enormous carriage is pulling into the yard!”
Everyone went to the door just in time to see the lone passenger step down onto the pavement and flex his long legs. Elizabeth gasped as Colonel Fitzwilliam laughed and called out,
“Darcy, what took you so long?
Posted on 2008-09-19
Elizabeth felt unable to move, so shocked was she by Mr. Darcy's sudden arrival, and also by his appearance, which was unkempt in a way she had never seen. He looked almost as though he had stumbled directly from his bed into his carriage.
“Mr. Darcy,” said Major DeWitt, his voice thick with emotion, “it is very good of you to help.”
Colonel Fitzwilliam shook Mr. Darcy's hand. “We are glad to see you, cousin.”
Mr. Darcy colored and said, “Not at all.” He glanced at Elizabeth and smiled self-consciously. “I am very happy to help my friends. I hope you are well, Miss Bennet? And you Miss Lydia?”
Elizabeth could only mumble that she was well, while watching intently as he rubbed a hand over stubbly cheeks. He was obviously exhausted, his hair badly needed combing, and altogether he looked so much like the Mr. Darcy of her dreams that she blushed fiercely. She had to remember that this was the real man, the one she had abused horribly, who must certainly now despise her. She forced herself to look away, only to turn right into Colonel Fitzwilliam's curious gaze—which would not do!—so she quickly glanced at Lydia, who was saying,
“I am well, Mr. Darcy, thanks to Major DeWitt.” She gave the major a brilliant smile, which he blushingly returned.
Mr. Darcy's eyes widened. He said, “Perhaps the fewer details—the less said—the better, Miss Lydia.” He cleared his throat. “My cousin wrote that you ladies have tired of Brighton, which I for one can entirely understand, having spent some time here myself a few weeks ago. I found it quite tiresome.”
Unable to stop herself, Elizabeth said, “But you so enjoy a ball!”
Mr. Darcy's mouth fell open for a moment, but then he smiled. “Yes, and you still enjoy expressing opinions that are not your own.”
Elizabeth smiled and her blush deepened. Mr. Darcy seemed to forget himself for a moment, staring at her with a surprised look on his face. After a few seconds of this, Colonel Fitzwilliam loudly cleared his throat.
“Oh,” Mr. Darcy said as though startled, “yes. I have come on behalf of my cousins, Mr. and Mrs. Warring. They have extended an invitation to you ladies to visit Harworth, their estate, and to stay for as long as you choose.”
“But we are not acquainted,” said Elizabeth. She glanced at the carriage. “Are you to take us there? Is it far?”
“It is a lovely place a dozen miles from Brighton. It is smaller than Rosings, but I believe it will be more to your taste. My sister and I have been the Warrings' guests since I left Brighton. I would be honored if you will allow me to take you there tonight.” He took a deep breath. “Georgiana has long expressed a desire to make your acquaintance. I am sure she would enjoy Miss Lydia's company as well.”
“Well?” she asked Lydia. “Would you like to see Harworth for a few days? We can write to Papa from there to make arrangements to return home.”
“I believe so,” said Lydia. She cast a sly glance at Darcy, and then turned back to Elizabeth. “And Miss Darcy is so anxious to meet you, Lizzy, that I would hate to disappointment her.”
Elizabeth gave Lydia a warning look, then went into the house to write a short note to the Forsters. They said their goodbyes to Colonel Fitzwilliam and Major DeWitt, who promised to call at Harworth, then settled into the luxurious coach, Mr. Darcy on one side, the Bennet sisters on the other. Soon they were on their way.
As they pulled out of the yard Mr. Darcy said, “Normally this trip would take about an hour, but I'm afraid it will be longer in the dark.”
Elizabeth nodded. “I understand.”
She wanted to talk to him about, well, about almost anything, but she dared not with a suspicious Lydia right there. Never in her life had Elizabeth seen his manners so little dignified, never had he spoken with such gentleness. His attitude towards Lydia was compassionate and caring. He even wanted them to meet his sister! That was a compliment of the highest order, and Miss Darcy's good opinion of her could only be his doing.
Her astonishment was extreme; and continually was she thinking, why is he so altered? From what can it proceed? It cannot be for me, it cannot be for my sake that his manners are thus softened. My reproofs at Hunsford could not work such a change as this. It is impossible that he should still love me. How could she still have his good opinion after all she had said to him, after her unfounded accusations against his character and his honor?
Yet he had gone out of his way to help her and Lydia, whom he owed nothing and who could do nothing for him. It was all too amazing. She longed to know what at that moment was passing in his mind; in what manner he thought of her, and whether, in defiance of everything, she was still dear to him.
Lydia interrupted her reverie. She whispered, “I am worried about Harriet, Lizzy. What will happen to her?”
“I do not know, dear. But Colonel Forster was so adamant on keeping it quiet, he may not be contemplating divorce.”
“He was very angry.”
“He had a right to be.”
Lydia nodded and fell silent. After a time she began softly snoring. Elizabeth chanced a glance at Mr. Darcy. He smiled and she blushed again, thankful for the dim light in the carriage. She gathered her courage and said,
“Thank you again, Mr. Darcy. I do not know what we would have done tonight without your assistance.”
“I meant it when I said I was honored to help. Please do not mention it.” He looked at Lydia, who still slept soundly, then leaned slightly forward. “You are being very kind to me, kinder than I deserve after our last meetings.”
Elizabeth was amazed—he actually seemed repentant about his insulting proposal. But he was not the only one who had behaved badly. She said, “You deserve no more censure than I. The things I said to you!” She shook her head vehemently. “I misjudged you horribly, and I am heartily ashamed.”
He appeared stunned by her admission. He briefly pulled the curtain aside and looked up at the moon, then abruptly said, “Colonel Fitzwilliam wrote a few days ago that you were in Brighton with your sister. I very nearly went to see you. I almost attended His Lordship's ball tonight just because you would be there. But I remembered what you said in Kent—that I was the last man in the world you would ever marry—and I stayed at Harworth.”
“Oh dear! I am so sorry I said that.”
She sighed heavily and wrung her hands together, suddenly flush with fevered thoughts of her dream Darcy attending the ball. No, it would have been the real Darcy. The flesh and blood Darcy. The Darcy who now studied her so intently from the other side of the carriage, as if trying to discern her thoughts.
“I am glad,” he said a little ruefully, “to hear that you are sorry you said it, but I would be much happier to hear that it is not true.”
Heavens! She could no longer doubt that he still had some feelings for her; but what could she say in return, with her brain so addled by shock and lack of sleep that she could barely tell dream from reality?
Naturally she resorted to teasing. “I am sure there must be some man somewhere whom I would wish to marry less.”
He laughed softly. “I thank you for that generous concession.”
“It is the least I can do for our gallant rescuer.”
She was happy that he seemed to understand, even to the point of enjoying her jest. Had he always been so good-natured and gentle? Had she simply failed to see it? Had she really been so blinded by his saying that she was merely 'tolerable'?
“Thank you for speaking with me about this,” he said. “I hope we will have a chance to talk some more at Harworth.”
She smiled brightly. “I am sure we will talk more. In fact, I look forward to it. For now though, I think we should both try to sleep.”
When he smiled back, she felt an unreasoning urge to lean forward and kiss his cheek, but instead she just closed her eyes and rested. She dreamed that night about a tall, handsome, unshaven man with a gentle voice and dimpled smile. Who made her feel happy and safe without ever touching her, but whom she longed to touch nonetheless.
They arrived at Harworth shortly before dawn. The house still slept except for a handful of servants. A sleepy maid quickly showed Elizabeth and Lydia to their rooms, which were adjacent with a connecting door that they immediately opened. Inside of ten minutes they were again asleep.
It seemed like she had slept no more than five minutes when Elizabeth was awakened by Lydia's cry of, “The morning is half over, Lizzy. Wake up!”
Elizabeth blinked at the sunlight streaming into the room and after a moment of disorientation remembered where she was. Lydia, still clad in a nightgown, sat on her bed bouncing up and down.
Elizabeth grabbed at her sister's arm. “Stop that, Lydia.”
Lydia got off the bed and stuck her tongue out. “Spoilsport.”
“Let's get downstairs,” Elizabeth said as she threw her bedclothes back. “I think I need a large breakfast.”
Elizabeth rang for a maid and began looking through her clothes, but Lydia just stood in the doorway between their rooms watching with her arms crossed. When Elizabeth gave her a questioning look, Lydia said,
“Lizzy, was Mr. Darcy the one you did not have a romantic adventure with in Kent?”
Elizabeth stopped and stared at Lydia, who had a broad smirk plastered across her face. “Did you hear our conversation in the carriage last night?”
“You mean where you apologized to him for saying he was the last man in the world you would ever marry?”
“Lydia, how could you eavesdrop like that!”
“I was right there, Lizzy. You woke me up. What should I have done? Would you be happier if I had suddenly said, 'Will you two just kiss and have done with it?'”
Elizabeth sat on her bed and frowned at the floor. “I am sorry,” she said. “I wanted to talk to him so badly, I just didn't think.”
Lydia sat next to her. “Did you refuse Mr. Darcy in Kent?” Elizabeth nodded. “Why? He is no Mr. Collins. He is so rich, and he is as handsome as Wickham. Does he treat his mother badly or read the wrong books?”
“Stop teasing me,” cried Elizabeth. She slapped Lydia's shoulder and they laughed. “I just misunderstood him. And he misunderstood me. We both behaved badly.”
“You were very unhappy with him after that assembly in Meryton, when he said you were not handsome enough.”
Elizabeth groaned. “And thus pride goes before a fall. Or vanity goes before a fall.”
“Do you like him now?”
She hesitated, knowing she admired him, wondering if she could love him. She thought of the things she admired—his character, his judgment, his loyalty, his voice and hair and eyes and figure and smile—but what of his manners? In the light of day would he revert to the proud and disagreeable man she had known in Hertfordshire?
But then she tried to imagine him proposing a second time . . . and she knew that she could not possibly refuse him. Love him or not, given her new understanding of his character she could not refuse him a second time.
She smiled and said, “Yes I do like him, and I would be a fool not to accept him.” She felt almost giddy, relieved to have come to a conclusion and excited by the possibilities that stretched before her, for if his improved manners continued, the possibilities were exciting indeed—memories of her dream Darcy flashed by, and she blushed fiercely.
Yet nothing was certain; she had to prepare herself for the possibility of disappointment. She said, “But I do not really know what he feels, not anymore; and even if he still likes me, can he swallow his pride and make me a second offer? So please act as though you do not know about this. Can you do that?”
The maid knocked and entered as Lydia said, “I think I can. But you will tell me if anything happens, will you not?”
Elizabeth assured her she would be the first to know, and they each went to dress. When they went downstairs, they were shown into a drawing room where two ladies sat waiting. The younger introduced herself as Mrs. Warring.
“And this,” she said, gesturing to the older woman next to her on the sofa, “is my husband's mother, Lady Arthur Warring. I must say how surprised we all were this morning to find we had new guests.”
Elizabeth just blinked, but Lydia said, “Mr. Darcy told us that you had invited us.”
Mrs. Warring looked quite vexed for a moment, but then smiled insincerely and said, “Of course. And you are both quite welcome.”
“Diana,” said Lady Arthur, speaking for the first time, “do you think we can offer Miss Bennet and Miss Lydia something to eat?You two are probably very hungry.”
They thanked her, and she offered to show them the way. When they were in the hall, she said, “Please forgive my daughter's manners. I sometimes wonder . . . Well, she was surprised when Darcy told us you were here this morning, and she does not like surprises.”
They sat at the breakfast table, her ladyship nibbling on toast and smiling as her guests stuffed themselves in as lady-like a manner as possible.
Elizabeth felt rather embarrassed about the entire situation, and said, “Did Mr. Darcy tell no one that he was fetching us from Brighton?”
“He told my son, so your rooms were made ready.”
“I am sorry we intruded.”
Lady Arthur waved it off. “Please, do not even think of it. Darcy speaks very highly of you, and we are not overcrowded. You must let us know if we can make you more comfortable.”
“Do you have other guests, besides us and the Darcys? I hope we are not inconveniencing them.”
“Yes,” said Lady Arthur, “we have other guests, but you are not inconveniencing them in the least. My brother-in-law and his wife—Lord and Lady Westingham—are staying here, along with their son Lord Chad.”
For the first time that Elizabeth could recall, Lydia appeared intimated by the company she now found herself in. Elizabeth though felt her courage rising, and said,
“I look forward to meeting everyone. Are the others out?”
“The men as usual are fishing, though Darcy was reluctant at first,” she said this with a sly glance at Elizabeth, “which was surprising as he is normally quite the angler. Lady Westingham has gone riding with Miss Darcy and her companion—Georgiana wanted to wait to meet you, but Lady Westingham insisted. Do you ladies ride?”
“Not very well,” said Elizabeth, who had begun to wonder what Lady Arthur knew of her relationship with Mr. Darcy. She turned to Lydia, who was nervously playing with her food, and raised one eyebrow.
“Oh,” said Lydia, “I do not ride well, either. But I intend to learn soon.”
“You are still young,” said Lady Arthur with an appraising look. “I daresay you will find some young gentleman to teach you one day. Darcy loves to ride,” she gave Elizabeth another sly look, “he taught Georgiana. Gentlemen like to teach us things. It makes them feel important.”
Elizabeth now had no doubt that Lady Arthur suspected something; but she seemed unperturbed, perhaps even pleased. But who was Lady Arthur? “Might I ask how you are related to Mr. Darcy, Lady Arthur?”
Lady Arthur smiled and said, “I am his aunt. His late father was my dear brother—Darcy is the very image of him. I married Lord Arthur Warring, the second son of the fourth Marquess of Westingham, and this estate was left him by his mother.” She smirked. “My brother-in-law is now Marquess number five.”
At least one of his aunts seemed to like her! Feeling cheerfully expansive, Elizabeth said, “I am already acquainted with some of Mr. Darcy's relations, the deBourghs and Colonel Fitzwilliam.”
“You have met Lady Catherine deBourgh? Oh dear—and you still wish to know more of Darcy's relations?” She and Elizabeth laughed. “When her sister married my brother George, I still lived at Pemberley, and I made our father promise to send me away to my Uncle Darcy whenever she was to come for a visit. I suppose you've heard of her plot to marry Darcy to Miss deBourgh?”
Elizabeth smiled and nodded, but Lydia cried, “He is engaged?” She turned wide eyes on Elizabeth.
“No,” said Lady Arthur, “he is not engaged.” She glanced quickly at Elizabeth, who blushed. “Not that I know of, at least. No, it is just that the Matlock family—those Irish wool merchants—nearly got their talons in Pemberley once, and they can not bear that it got away. My brother would have none of Lady Catherine's plans. Darcy is his own master and perfectly free to make his own choice.”
To Elizabeth's utter mortification and Lady Arthur's obvious amusement, Lydia smiled and said, “Oh, Lizzy, you must be so relieved.
Posted on 2008-10-09
Suddenly Lady Arthur looked over Elizabeth's shoulder towards the doorway and cried, “Darcy! How was your fishing?”
Desperately hoping he had heard none of the preceding conversation, Elizabeth blushed as he said,
“I was not having much luck, so I left the trout to the others.” He strode to the breakfast table and bowed. “I hope you ladies are well this morning?”
They assured him they were. He took a chair between Lady Arthur and Elizabeth, and helped himself to a piece of toast and a slice of bacon.
“Forgive me,” he said before he took a small bite, “but I ate very little before we went to the stream.”
He wore tall, muddy boots, a brown field jacket and a wide brimmed hat which he laid on the table. Elizabeth had never seen him dressed for sport—she found it a very pleasing look, and began to wonder if Mr. Darcy was perhaps not so invariably stiff and formal as she had supposed.
Lady Arthur however was not as pleased. “Nephew, you may traipse all about Pemberley House looking like a gamekeeper if you choose, but I will thank you to dress properly at Harworth.”
Mr. Darcy colored and put his food down. “I beg your pardon, ladies. I will go dress.”
“No point in it now,” said Lady Arthur, motioning him back into his chair, “but heavens, Darcy, it is one thing to be so casual in our family circle.” She glanced at him meaningfully. “You should look your best before our new guests.”
His eyes widened and he looked quickly at Elizabeth, who to be sure was finding some amusement in the situation. He said to his aunt, “Of course.” Then his lips twitched slightly—was it a smirk?—and he murmured, “It is a good thing I left my rod and creel in the hallway.”
They all laughed, even the still subdued Lydia. Elizabeth was pleased that Mr. Darcy's easy manner had not disappeared with the night; and from all appearances—he barely nibbled on his impromptu sandwich—he had abandoned his sport just to sit with her while she ate breakfast.
“How bad was your luck?” she asked, not wishing to waste the opportunity to talk to him. “I hope you did not leave an empty creel in the hall.”
He laughed. “It is quite empty, as was Mr. Warring's when I left the stream. But do not fear for your supper, Miss Bennet—their lordships are catching enough for us all.”
“The privileges of rank?”
“Just so,” he agreed with a smile.
With the utmost nonchalance, Lady Arthur said, “Miss Bennet was just telling me that she does not ride.”
“Oh? Not at all?”
“I can ride a little,” said Elizabeth. “That is, I'm unlikely to fall off a motionless animal. But I am no horsewoman.”
“Is that due to circumstance or inclination?”
“Primarily inclination—it is a long way down from the saddle, and I prefer not to travel the distance head first.”
“Would you like to ride better? It is really just a matter of confidence,” he smiled, “which I have never known you to lack before.”
She thought of all her mistakes towards him, her unfounded confidence in her own judgment—what an idiot she had been!—and said, “Sometimes my confidence is misplaced.”
He shook his head earnestly. “Nonsense. You have the makings of a fine rider. You have great courage and excellent judgment, and you are one of the most physically fit young ladies I have ever met—from your love of walking, no doubt.”
“Yes, I do like to walk,” replied Elizabeth, coloring lightly at such extravagant praise, “even if it is only a turn about the room. Very well, Mr. Darcy, I will endeavor to improve my equestrian skills.”
He seemed very pleased as he said, “We shall start tomorrow morning, then.”
Elizabeth had expected it, of course, and she found the idea of Mr. Darcy as her teacher—even if the subject was not swimming—extremely stimulating. But she was also beginning to feel manipulated by Lady Arthur, and had no desire for a contrived courtship. So she said,
“Your riding lessons,” said he.
“I will ask my father for lessons at Longbourn.”
Lady Arthur frowned at her in such transparent exasperation that Elizabeth nearly laughed.
Mr. Darcy, though, persisted. “I understand your desire to rely on your father,” he said, “but why wait? You can not return home for some days. Here you have eager friends and docile horses, so why not take advantage of us?”
“I would not call you 'docile',” she teased, to his evident delight. He certainly seemed eager, and Elizabeth could no longer deny him, or herself. But she was determined to make at least a small point. “Very well, if you would rather spend the morning with horses than fishes, we shall be happy to learn.”
“We?” asked Mr. Darcy.
“Lydia also wants to learn, do you not, dear?”
Lady Arthur actually harrumphed; but Lydia shook her head and said, “Major DeWitt has promised to teach me to ride, Mr. Darcy.” Then she addressed her plate. “I am afraid that you are stuck with Lizzy alone.”
“I shall persevere nonetheless,” said Mr. Darcy. He turned back to Elizabeth and flashed her his widest grin.
“You will need perseverance,” she warned as she felt heat rise up the back of her neck at the sight of his dimples. “I do not remember my previous lessons with any fondness, and I can be quite refractory.”
He raised one eyebrow. “I had not noticed.”
Elizabeth laughed out loud and could not help saying flirtatiously, “Then you do not remember me very well. Am I so easily confused with other, more compliant, young ladies?”
“I could never mistake you for anyone.”
The breakfast room fell silent for a moment as Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy just smiled at each other. Lady Arthur broke the silence. With a distinct note of triumph, she said,
“Well, I believe that issue is decided.”
That afternoon, after Elizabeth had composed a heavily-edited letter to her father, she and Lydia returned to the drawing room and found the entire party assembled there—very properly attired. Mrs. Warring made the introductions, by the end of which Elizabeth felt that Curiosity had nearly crowded its cousin Manners from the room, so great was the barely suppressed interest in the Bennet sisters.
Elizabeth of course was curious as well, but mostly about Miss Darcy, of whom she had heard so much and who was so important to Mr. Darcy. It turned out that this young lady was not at all what Elizabeth had expected—rather than being as acute and unembarrassed an observer as ever Mr. Darcy had been, Miss Darcy was very shy, barely murmuring her monosyllabic greeting after a curtsy that could only be described as tiny.
In that tiny curtsy Elizabeth found a world of ironical amusement, as Miss Darcy was anything but tiny herself. She was tall, on a larger scale than Elizabeth, and her figure was was very womanly and well-formed for her age. She and Lydia could have worn each others gowns with virtually no alterations.
“Welcome to Harworth,” said Mr. Warring. A plump man, he ran his pudgy gaze from Elizabeth's shoes to her hair, and a look of confusion came over him. “You are a, uh . . . friend of Darcy's, I believe?”
“Yes,” said Elizabeth with an amused glance at the gentleman in question. “We became acquainted last October.”
Lady Westingham asked, “Had you been at Brighton long?”
“A few weeks, your ladyship.”
“And you decided to leave?”
“It was rather sudden, was it not?”
“Indeed, but due to unforeseen circumstances, our hosts could no longer accommodate us. We had tired of Brighton in any case and were ready to leave.”
“Dreadful place,” sneered Lord Westingham. He coughed. “I always catch cold at the shore.”
“You always catch cold in Town too, Father,” said Lord Chad with a laugh. He was quite handsome, about Jane's age and very fashionable. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Bennet, Miss Lydia. I hope we will have your company for some time. We are usually an insular little summer party at Harworth.”
Mrs. Warring would not let that stand. “Insular? Nonsense, we are nothing of the sort. I should have called our party 'intimate', as a family party should be.”
“Of course, cousin. 'Intimate' to be sure. Well, a little less intimacy is a good thing now and then, and I have been very happy to have the Darcys here this summer.” He smiled at Miss Darcy, who blushed and looked down at the floor. He turned his smile on Elizabeth. “The Miss Bennets only increase the pleasure.”
Mr. Darcy rolled his eyes, forcing Elizabeth to stifle a laugh. She said, “We hope not to inconvenience anybody during our stay. I know we were not expected, and we are very grateful to you, Mr. and Mrs. Warring, for inviting us.”
“Think nothing of it,” said the still confused Mr. Warring. “Any friend of Darcy's, and all that.”
Mr. Darcy said, “I have offered to assist Miss Bennet in improving her riding tomorrow morning. She is a little uncertain on horseback and I had hoped she might use your mare, Georgiana.”
“Of course, Brother.” She smiled timidly at Elizabeth. “If you give her a carrot, she is gentle as a lamb.”
“I shall remember,” said Elizabeth. “I much prefer to ride a lamb than a horse, to be honest.”
Miss Darcy laughed and blushed, then looked at the floor. Mr. Darcy looked at his sister in astonishment, then smiled at Elizabeth and said, “I shall be sure to pack a carrot.”
Lady Westingham, who had bristled with anxiety since her interrogation had been interrupted, now asked, “Are you to accompany us to Pemberley at the end of the month?”
“I believe we shall return home in a few days.”
“And where is home, exactly?”
“My father's estate is in Hertfordshire. It is called Longbourn.”
Darcy interrupted to say, “I met the Bennet family when I stayed at the house my friend Mr. Bingley leased in Hertfordshire. It is only three miles from Longbourn.” He turned to Elizabeth. “Bingley and his sisters and brother-in-law will be joining us at Pemberley.”
His embarrassment was evident—no doubt he was remembering the last time Mr. Bingley had been mentioned between them.
“And are there any other sons or daughters in your family?” her ladyship asked.
“We have three other sisters at home. Alas, we have no brothers.”
“Five daughters and no sons?” cried Lady Arthur. “Who is your father's heir? Is the estate to be split between you and your sisters?”
“The estate is entailed to our cousin.”
“Your mother must be anxious to marry you off, then,” said Mrs. Warring accusingly.
“It is the business of her life,” replied Elizabeth in a solemn tone.
Mr. Darcy chuckled and Elizabeth nearly stuck her tongue out at him. She limited herself to one lifted eyebrow.
Lady Westingham said, “And how has she succeeded so far?”
“We are all single, ma'am.”
“How large is your fortune?”
“Lady Westingham,” said Mr. Darcy in a stern voice, “that is enough.”
“Goodness, Darcy,” her ladyship said, “I am only asking to see if I might help. You and your sister are pretty, genteel creatures, Miss Bennet, and I am sure we can find a nice gentlemen for you both. And for your other sisters if it comes to it.”
“But I have a nice gentleman,” said Lydia, speaking for the first time. “I do not want another. And Elizabeth . . .”
After a brief challenging look at Elizabeth, Lydia fell silent.
Lady Arthur took Elizabeth's hand and said to the others, “I do not think Miss Bennet or Miss Lydia will have any trouble finding husbands.” Elizabeth blushed deeply and forced herself not to look at Mr. Darcy. “But, Darcy,” Lady Arthur continued, “you have invited them to Pemberley, have you not?”
Darcy looked in alarm at his aunt. “No, I had not. Not yet, that is. I mean, of course you are invited.” He recovered himself and with a bow said to Elizabeth and Lydia, “My sister and I would be very honored if you would join us at our home.”
“We can make no plans yet, sir,” said Elizabeth with great regret. “We must await word from my father.”
His face fell. “I understand. The invitation remains open. If it would help, Georgiana could send a letter of invitation to your father.”
His eagerness was endearing and very flattering. How she wished she could simply accept—and not only because she wished to see Pemberley, to see him in his own home amongst his own people. She also wanted to accept because it would make him happy, and suddenly that seemed the most important reason of all
Posted on 2008-10-13
That evening, during a fine supper of trout, discussion turned once more to riding lessons, and it was determined that Elizabeth had brought no suitable clothes.
“But I have ridden in walking dresses before,” she said to Lady Westingham. “I can do so again.”
“You shall not do so at Harworth,” declared the marchioness. “Diana, you have two riding habits, do you not?”
Mrs. Warring acknowledged that she did, but she said with some pride, “Mine would hardly fit Miss Bennet. My figure is more robust.”
“Better too loose than too tight, I think. And it would fit her very well about the bust,”—at that point Mr. Darcy could be heard to clear his throat—“so you shall lend one of them to Miss Bennet.”
Thus the next morning found Elizabeth, Lydia and one of the Warrings' maids trying to determine how best to dress a 115 pound woman in a riding habit tailored for one who weighed 140 pounds. They did their best. When Elizabeth presented herself to Mr. Darcy at the stables—after having warned Lydia to behave in a manner that would not embarrass Major DeWitt—he simply said,
“You look very well this morning, Miss Bennet.”
She detected no smirk; but as he was not blind—and as she had come to understand that he paid rather a lot of attention to her appearance—she could not let it rest. She put her hands on her hips and asked, “Do you like my riding habit?”
“It is very fine.”
She narrowed her eyes. “And how do you like the fit?”
Now he grinned. “It fits Mrs. Warring very well.”
She laughed and accepted his hand as she stepped from the block up onto the saddle. She settled her right leg between the crutches, placed her left foot in the stirrup and took the reins from the groom. She looked at Mr. Darcy and said with just a touch of impertinence,
“How am I doing so far?”
Not well, as it turned out. He immediately corrected her posture and the manner in which she held the reins. “There,” he said, “now you are much less likely to take that headfirst fall.”
Already she felt more secure. “Thank you,” she said sincerely. She patted the horse, whose name was Frigga. “She really is very gentle.”
He smiled. “I already gave her a carrot.” He reached into his jacket pocket and produced another. “I saved this one for you to give her after your ride. She will be your friend for life.”
“I shall enjoy that,” she said. Then with a smirk,“I only hope Miss Darcy won't be jealous.”
“She will not be,” he replied. “Horses have big hearts with plenty of room for new friends.”
They decided to begin with a ride at the walk. Mr. Darcy mounted his stallion—a monster name Odin—and they took a trail along the trout stream where he had fished the day before. He continued giving her instructions from time to time, and Elizabeth found her confidence steadily increasing—she could come to enjoy riding very well indeed!
Particularly with her current companion. He was extraordinarily considerate and patient, and subtly displayed a deep admiration of her—like her dream Darcy, she thought blushingly, but with an amiable manner and no improper pride. She again found herself wondering if he had really changed or if she had simply been blind to his goodness. At last, she decided it did not matter how it had come to be, so long as it did not end.
“Thank you for this, Mr. Darcy,” she said as they rode side-by-side along a grassy trail between the creek's bank and a thick stand of woods that bordered that side of the park for its entire length. “I know I have taken you away from your sport, but I am very selfish and not at all sorry!”
He laughed with her and assured her he did not mind in the least.
“How is it,” she asked, “that you understand sidesaddle riding so well? Is it from teaching your sister?”
His color rose and he turned to her with an embarrassed smile. “Actually, I experimented.”
“Oh?” This engaged Elizabeth's liveliest curiosity. “What sort of experiments?”
“After our first lesson, Georgiana complained of soreness in her, uh . . . in a limb. So I tried it myself.”
“You rode sidesaddle?”
“I did. Several times. I experimented with different positions and different postures—I used my mother's saddle. It was educational.”
Elizabeth glanced from his outfit—which included leather riding breeches that were quite tight, more so than his other clothes—to her own tent-like riding habit, and gave him a questioning look.
Mr. Darcy blushed even more deeply and said, “To get the proper effect, I wore my great grandfather's kilt.”
With unsuppressed mirth, she asked, “Your great grandfather owned a kilt?”
“My father's mother was a Gordon,” he said proudly. Suddenly he pointed to their front. “There they are, catching our supper.”
She looked where he pointed and saw the other gentlemen with several attendants strung out along fifty yards of the far bank. The gentlemen stood in shallow water, casting and reeling, over and over, with no apparent result until Lord Chad cried, “Oh! It's a big one,” and one of the servants splashed toward the middle of the stream, net in hand. But this was followed by his lordship flinging his rod into the water with a loud curse as the servant carried his empty net back to dry land.
“Oh dear,” whispered Elizabeth. “Perhaps we shall have mutton for supper tonight.”
Mr. Darcy struggled to keep his countenance.“It is best to be quiet around fishermen, Miss Bennet. Untoward outbursts—particularly laughing at a young earl whose big one just got away—are definitely frowned upon.”
“Of course,” she said with a grin. “I have much to learn about sport.”
He stared at her a moment, then said more seriously, “I have recently come to realize that none of us ever really stop learning.”
Intrigued, she asked, “What have you still to learn?”
“Mostly I need to learn more about myself, I think. At Rosings you said I was uncomfortable around strangers because I made no effort not to be. I have decided you were correct, and that leads me to wonder what else of my behavior I should try to alter for the better.”
So he had made a conscious effort to change—to think her comments had had such a result! She was moved to say, “If my opinion still counts for anything, I have not detected any faults in your behavior of late.”
He thanked her and seemed about to say more, but only smiled.
They continued on and had a brief conversation with the frustrated sportsmen—it was apparently a fine morning to be a fish—then made their way back to the house, where Elizabeth fed Frigga a carrot and then held out her hand to Mr. Darcy as she thanked him for his efforts and his company.
“Not at all,” he said. “You made very good progress. For now, I think you should practice riding at a slow pace. Only when you are comfortable doing that, should you try going faster.” He hesitated a moment, her hand still in his. “May I accompany you again?”
He was so uncertain of her. It was understandable, she supposed, after all that had happened between them, but she wanted to get past it. She did not want to return to Longbourn with Mr. Darcy still not knowing that she looked forward to spending time with him—in fact, she could not think of another gentleman with whom she would rather be.
With her brightest smile, she said, “I would like that very much; and I am glad you asked me, because it would have been ill-bred for me to have asked you.”
He laughed and shook his head. “Yes it would have been, and you would never have done it.”
“No,” she agreed softly, “though I would have been sorely tempted.”
His eyes seemed to darken and his smile disappeared. He swallowed and said in a low voice, “Do not speak to me of temptation, madame.” Then he very carefully removed her glove and bent to kiss her bare hand.
Elizabeth's dream Darcy was quite forgotten.
By the fourth day of the Bennet sisters' stay at Harworth, Elizabeth's state of mind was one of contented anxiety. The previous night she had lain awake in bed for two hours contemplating her feelings, wondering about the difference between infatuation and love, certain that she was falling into the throes of one or the other. Or maybe both.
She had ridden with Mr. Darcy again, and it had been as pleasant as the first time. There had been no more talk of temptation—which was just as well, for she suspected that between her and Mr. Darcy, the thought could quickly become father to the deed—but his manner toward her was impeccable, his admiration of her unmistakable, his concern for her welfare evident to all.
In fact, the entire Harworth party now seemed aware that Mr. Dacy was determinedly courting Miss Elizabeth Bennet. While Lady Arthur continued to champion the romance and Miss Darcy appeared shyly pleased by whatever pleased her brother, there was some ambivalence—Mrs. Warring and Lady Westingham had begun dropping hints to Mr. Darcy about his duty to marry well in order to retain his standing in society.
Elizabeth was put off by their behavior. After all, Mrs. Warring was merely Mr. Darcy's cousin's wife, while Lady Westingham was no relation at all, only a connection by Lady Arthur's marriage. Why should they feel at liberty to interfere in his life?
The reason soon became evident. That morning Miss Darcy had claimed the privilege of ownership to ride Frigga herself, so Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy packed a lunch and went for a long hike. They ventured in the direction opposite the trout stream, where the South Down rose like a green wave above the farms and villages of the estate.
As they climbed the Down, amiably challenging each other to further exertions, they saw Miss Darcy and Lord Chad galloping together along the ridge, with Miss Darcy's companion Mrs. Annesley trailing sedately on her fat pony.
“I wonder if I will ever be able to ride that that,” cried Elizabeth. “It is thrilling to watch, a little like the races at Brighton.”
“I am sure you will,” he replied, but he spoke absently as though his mind was elsewhere.
She turned to him. He was watching his sister very carefully, a little smile turning up the corners of his mouth. Elizabeth followed his gaze and saw that the riders were now stationary and appeared deep in conversation.
“Are Miss Darcy and his lordship very close?” she asked.
“They are growing closer, I believe. They had never met until this summer.”
“Is this your first time at Harworth?'
“Not at all. We have visited Aunt Alicia many times over the years, but not since Father died. He considered Harworth something of a palate cleanser after our annual visits to Rosings, so we would travel from Kent to Sussex each spring. But this is the first time we have been here with the Westingham family.”
“And is it by design that you are here at the same time this summer?”
He nodded. “It is. Colonel Fitzwilliam and I decided that we had not exposed Georgiana enough to society. I wrote to Lady Arthur and asked her advice, and she suggested I bring her here to introduce her to Lord Chad.”
“Mr Darcy, you are matchmaking!” She laughed. “No wonder Lady Westingham has made your family's social standing her own concern.”
“I wish she would keep her opinions to herself.”
“I have not liked hearing them,” said Elizabeth, “mainly because I thought her officious. But if your sister may become her daughter, she has an interest.”
He frowned and said, “Her opinions have no effect on me. I do not need her approval, and neither does Georgiana. She is a Miss Darcy. She can make an excellent match in her own right, or Lord Westingham's heir would not now be riding out with her. She will not be harmed by any decisions of mine.”
Elizabeth was happy to hear it, and was so amused by this reappearance of the Darcy pride that she could not help teasing him. “Even if you decide to marry one of your tenants' daughters?” she asked him.
He laughed. “Even then, unless I were to spend Georgiana's fortune to keep the lady in silk and jewels.”
“Which your natural prudence would never allow.”
“Absolutely,” he said. “I may marry a milkmaid, but I would be too prudent to spend much money on her.”
This teasing about his marrying beneath him was striking too close to home for Elizabeth's taste, so she changed the subject. “Do you often visit Brighton?”
“Because you catch colds?”
He laughed again. “You were just there—do you think it is the sort of place I would enjoy?” She grinned and shook her head. “Of course not,” he continued. “It is some of the most superficial, insincere society I know. It is all my cousin Fitzwilliam can do to stay sober there.”
“And you, sir—did you stay sober there?”
“I seldom drink to excess. But he is a soldier, so . . .” He shrugged. “I understood that you enjoyed the town well enough.”
“Yes, but you know me,” she said. “I love lively society and making new acquaintances. Music and dancing, Mr. Darcy, are great delights.”
“Music, certainly. Dancing?” He smiled at her. “At times, perhaps.”
Elizabeth could not bring herself to press him further on the subject of his diversions in Brighton, though she was embarrassed at how much she wanted to talk to him about swimming. Just the thought of it made her blush and turn away from him. She looked back up at the riders, who had begun moving away.
After a moment, Mr. Darcy said hesitantly, “Since last summer, I had hoped that Georgiana and Bingley might be well suited, but they have never shown any interest in each other.”
Elizabeth felt anew some of her indignation at his interference in Jane's relationship with his friend. “Miss Bingley implied as much in her last letter to Jane,” she said a little harshly.
“I am sorry I interfered, but I honestly thought your sister had no deep feelings for him.” He cleared his throat. “I intend to suggest that he return to Netherfield for some shooting in the fall.”
Her resentment melted away. She smiled and said, “More matchmaking, Mr. Darcy?”
He took her hand. “I will accompany him if you will allow me.”
“Do you need my permission,” she asked as her heart skipped a beat, “to visit your friend's house?”
“I need your permission to visit Longbourn, for that would be my reason to go to Hertfordshire.” He grinned. “There is one match in particular I hope to make.”
She trembled and tightened her grip on his hand. “Indeed? Has one of our milkmaids caught your eye?”
He shook his head. “Miss Bennet, at times you are quite impossible.
Posted on 2009-02-25
"I am sorry," said Elizabeth. "I should rein in my impertinence for once. Mr. Darcy, I would be very happy to receive you at Longbourn."
A look of heartfelt delight came over him, which Elizabeth found quite becoming. They stood thus, holding hands and smiling into each other's eyes, for long seconds. So overwhelmed was she by the moment--he actually intended to call on her at home, as a suitor!--that when his head drifted down toward hers, she lifted her face up to him unthinkingly.
But at the last moment before their lips met, he seemed to remember himself. He suddenly straightened and said in a thick voice, "Forgive me. That would have been very improper."
"Nothing happened, so there is nothing to forgive," she said, as the butterflies in her stomach began to settle. Even if something had happened, she could not have criticized him for it, for she would have been a most willing participant. In fact, she felt some pride that she had not pulled him back into an embrace as soon as she realized he was not going to kiss her! Her dream Darcy had never shown such forbearance. But it was probably just as well; they were, after all, quite alone and several miles from Harworth House.
"I think it is time we returned," she said.
"Very well. We will see the view from the top another time. Perhaps we can ride up the slope someday soon."
Elizabeth nodded smilingly, and they made their way back. They stopped only once, unpacking their lunch by a scenic water course, where--to Mr. Darcy's manifest disgust, which amused her greatly--they were distracted from each other by a rather aggressive ant colony. By the time they arrived at the house it was late afternoon, and Elizabeth was pleasantly done in.
No sooner had she plopped fully-clothed on her bed to await a maid, than Lydia appeared through their connecting door, accompanied by none other than Miss Darcy. Miss Darcy stood uncertainly in the doorway as Lydia sat on the edge of the bed and, with more enthusiasm than Elizabeth had seen from her since their first breakfast at Harworth, asked,
"How was your hike?"
"Very nice," said Elizabeth. "We nearly made it to the top of South Down."
"Really? Miss Darcy rode there today." Lydia gave Miss Darcy a sly look.
Deciding that Miss Darcy could use some good-natured teasing, Elizabeth said, "We saw Miss Dacy with Mrs. Annesley," she arched both eyebrows, "and his lordship."
Miss Darcy blushed.
Lydia giggled. "I told her three's a crowd, but she refused to leave Mrs. Annesley behind."
"Miss Lydia!" cried Miss Darcy. "Do not believe her, Miss Bennet. She was only teasing when she told me that."
"When you ride with him tomorrow," Lydia said to Miss Darcy, "you should take a picnic lunch. Lizzy and your brother did that today, did you not Lizzy?"
"Yes, but it was overrun by ants. You may wish to eat indoors."
"The idea," said Lydia with a chastising glance at Elizabeth, "is to find a way to spend more time with him." She paused and looked Miss Darcy up and down. "Perhaps you should walk together instead of riding. Then it will be easier for him to admire your figure--I often catch my Major DeWitt admiring me as I walk. And you cannot take his arm while on horseback, or brush up against his shoulder. Of course you should not be too forward, as you would not want him to think you are not well-bred."
With a touch of bewilderment, Miss Darcy said, "I like to ride. We both do."
"Whose company do you enjoy the most--your horse's or his lordship's? You can ride when you are alone. It would be different if you did not already know how to ride; then he would be able to teach you, which gentlemen like. Come," said Lydia, that subject now closed, "let us find you a fetching dress for supper."
Lydia took Miss Darcy's hand and led her from the room. Elizabeth stared after them in amazement; and while she was reasonably certain that Miss Darcy's good upbringing could not be undone by a single week of exposure to Lydia Bennet, she decided to speak to Lydia about it just the same.
When Lydia returned, Elizabeth went to her room and said, "You and Miss Darcy seem on intimate terms."
"Yes, I suppose so. We had a long talk yesterday morning when you rode out with her brother, though it was difficult at first to get more than a word or two out of her. She was moping, I think, because Lord Chad had gone fishing again. I told her she needed to find an excuse to spend time with him," Lydia smirked, "and I reminded her that Frigga was her horse and not yours."
Elizabeth sat on the bed as Lydia rang for a maid. "Do you think it is proper that you should be giving her advice on romance after such a short acquaintance?"
"The girl needs somebody's help, Lizzy. Did you know that they brought her here just to introduce her to Lord Chad? They acted like it was only a regular family party, but she is not stupid. And now she's met him and believes that she likes him--he is quite handsome, though not so handsome as my DeWitt--but she has no idea what to do! He has been spending all his time fishing, and then his manner with you--"
"Well of course! He can't really flirt with you, not with your Mr. Darcy right there, but he obviously likes you. Miss Darcy was envious."
"But she has her own aunt here, dear. Can she not go to Lady Arthur for advice?"
"She is shy of Lady Arthur. Before this summer they had not seen each other since old Mr. Darcy died, when Miss Darcy was only eleven. And you have seen how Lady Arthur can be."
"What about Mrs. Annesley?"
"For some reason, she refuses to ask her companion for advice about men"
Poor Miss Darcy! "What exactly did you advise her to do?"
"I told her to suggest a ride with his lordship--she knew he especially enjoys riding--and to smile and talk more. That is what she did and they had a very pleasant time. But do you not think that now they should leave the horses behind and walk?" Elizabeth merely shrugged in response. "Well I do" continued Lydia. She grinned. "I think his lordship will not be fishing quite so much."
The maid arrived and Lydia held up a dress for Elizabeth's opinion. "Miss Darcy says these sleeves are the latest fashion in London and that the yellow favors my coloring."
"I believe she is right," said Elizabeth.
"She usually is right, I think. She does not know much about men, though."
Elizabeth left Lydia's room feeling quite sanguine--Lydia might actually have done Miss Darcy some real good, and judging from the tasteful dress Lydia had chosen to wear for the evening, Miss Darcy had returned the favor.
Supper that night was again marred by Lady Westingham's obvious allusions to the difference in the Bennets' and Darcys' respective stations in life. Now fully confident of Mr. Darcy's view of the matter, Elizabeth resolved to ignore her ladyship's provocations, but the tension at table was sufficient to bring about several embarrassed silences. When the sexes separated after supper, Lady Westingham sat beside Elizabeth on a small sofa and continued her campaign.
"Did you enjoy your excursion today, Miss Bennet?" asked her ladyship.
"I did indeed. This country is very beautiful."
"You were gone some time. I hope nothing amiss occurred."
Elizabeth reassured her that everything had been well.
"I am glad," said Lady Westingham. "But you were gone so long, it is only natural that we might wonder what could have happened. We may even speculate." She placed a hand on Elizabeth's arm. "I hope you will remember that. Speculations can do you no good, Miss Bennet. A lady's reputation is very precious."
Elizabeth felt the insult; and though she had no desire to openly dispute the marchioness in a roomful of Mr. Darcy's female connections, she could not help responding, "There is nothing wrong with my reputation."
"Thank goodness. But such will not always be the case if you continue to brazenly pursue a gentleman who can never marry you."
Another uncomfortable silence fell over the room. Fortunately, Elizabeth was spared having to reply to such ill-bred presumption. Miss Darcy now spoke for the first time, in a tone that reminded Elizabeth of Mr. Darcy at his most superior.
"My brother," said she to the surprised room, "is at liberty to marry as he thinks best. Fashionable society may approve or not," here she actually lifted her chin a fraction of an inch, "it is nothing to him."
"Indeed," said Lady Arthur.
The next morning Elizabeth intended to sleep in--the long hike and emotional stress of the day before had taken a toll, and in any case Mr. Darcy and the other gentlemen would be spending the morning fishing at a neighboring estate. But she had not reckoned on Lydia, who burst into her bedroom bright and early.
"Get out of bed! We are to have visitors," she cried as she tugged the blanket off Elizabeth. "Colonel Fitzwilliam sent a note to Mrs. Warring. He and Major DeWitt will be here this afternoon!"
Elizabeth rubbed her eyes as she digested the news. Then she smirked. "Colonel Fitzwilliam must miss his cousins something awful; but poor Major DeWitt, to be dragged all the way out here just to keep the colonel company."
"Tease me all you like, Lizzy. I do not care. I shall see my DeWitt today!"
Elizabeth agreed that it would be pleasant to see them again, but insisted nonetheless on more sleep. It was two hours before she made her way down to breakfast, where Lydia once again accosted her.
"Oh, Lizzy! You have an express from Papa!" She handed her the letter. "I have not opened it," she said proudly. "Miss Darcy said it would be improper, as it is not addressed to me, and I quite agreed."
She fidgeted as Elizabeth silently read:
I am happy to hear that you and Lydia are well, but quite shocked to discover that you were "rescued" by Mr. Darcy! Well well well! My first inclination is to tease you a bit, but I am too worried about your present situation. He is likely not a man to take disappointment well. Do not allow him to pressure you into anything. If there is any obligation in this business, it is mine and I shall meet it. I should have listened to you, dear Lizzy. Neither you nor Lydia should ever have been allowed within fifty miles of Brighton!
I have contacted my Brother Gardiner and asked that he send his man to accompany you and Lydia to Gracechurch Street via post--he will probably arrive at Harworth a day or two after this letter. You probably do not know that the Gardiners' northern trip was delayed by a fortnight and they are still at home. I will personally collect you from London.
Your failure to disclose the reason why the Forsters cast you out, does not lessen my alarm at this development. You might have some compassion for my nerves.
Your loving father,
"We will be going home soon," said Elizabeth. She showed Lydia the letter.
Lydia squinted at it for a moment, then looked up and frowned. "You told Papa I should not go to Brighton?"
"I did. Do you not think as Father now does, that events have proved me right?"
Lydia examined the letter again. She bit her lip and slowly nodded. "Yes, I suppose so." Suddenly she looked up and smiled. "But it turned out well in the end, did it not? I met Major DeWitt. And I do not believe that you are unhappy to have again crossed paths with Mr. Darcy."
Elizabeth agreed that it had turned out very well indeed.
Lydia made as if to leave, but suddenly turned and hugged Elizabeth. "I am glad you are with me, Lizzy. What an adventure we have had!"
The Harworth gentlemen returned about noon, and shortly afterward the two officers arrived from Brighton. After the introductions, they expressed their delight at seeing the Miss Bennets again, and Colonel Fitzwilliam clapped Darcy on the shoulder and said,
"I hope it has not been too great a burden, cousin, having the company of two amiable young ladies."
Lady Arthur answered for him. "They are everything delightful," said she. "We could not be happier to have them here." Mrs. Warring made a sour face, which Lady Arthur primly ignored as she enquired after the colonel's "excellent family."
While Colonel Fitzwilliam regaled her ladyship with Miss De Bourgh's most recent indispositions, Major DeWitt asked after Lydia's health and comfort with a subdued earnestness that she responded to with smiles, light touches and much teasing; though Elizabeth noted that she nevertheless answered him fully and accurately. In the course of his interrogation, he asked when they were returning to Longbourn.
"Very soon," Lydia told him. "Lizzy received an express from Papa this morning. My uncle will send a man for us in a day or two."
Mr. Darcy said to Elizabeth, "So soon? Did he agree to your visiting Pemberley?"
"Not yet. I wrote to him before you invited us." He frowned. Elizabeth touched his arm and smiled, saying, "I will be certain to ask when I see him, which should be soon. He will take us home from London himself."
"You ladies will be at Pemberley?" asked Colonel Fitzwilliam. He lifted one eyebrow at Mr. Darcy, but it was Lady Arthur who again answered him, saying,
"Of course they will go."
Mr. Darcy said, "I have invited them, but as you heard, Mr. Bennet has not yet given his consent."
"He will consent," said Lady Arthur.
Elizabeth said, "I hope he will, but I have been away from home quite a lot this year. He may want me to stay at Longbourn."
"But surely . . .," began Lady Arthur. Then she said with a look full of meaning, "Pemberley is a very fine estate, dear. Surely your father would like to have you visit there?"
Elizabeth colored and looked at the floor. "Mr. Bennet wishes me to be happy, but, well, he has never heard me express any interest in Pemberley."
"Georgiana," Mr. Darcy suddenly called out, "perhaps you should write a letter of invitation to the Miss Bennets."
"Certainly," Miss Darcy said. Then after a moment, "Oh, you mean right now?"
Colonel Fitzwilliam laughed.
"We will be here at least another day," said Elizabeth, who was both greatly amused and delighted by Mr. Darcy's overt eagerness. "I am sure there will be plenty of time for invitation writing after Colonel Fitzwilliam and Major DeWitt have returned to Brighton."
"Of course," said Mr. Darcy. He blushed and cleared his throat.
"Is your estate far from Hertfordshire?" asked Major DeWitt.
"It is in Derbyshire."
"That is quite far." He turned to Lydia. "Will you be in Derbyshire long?"
Lydia said, "I shall not go. Thank you for the invitation, though, Mr. Darcy."
"Oh, I wish you would come!" Miss Darcy exclaimed, much to everybody's surprise. "I mean," she said softly, "it would be very pleasant to have you there."
Lydia took her hand. "I am sure it would be very nice, but," and she looked at Major DeWitt, "I would like to be near home for a while."
That evening after the officers had returned to Brighton, Mr. Darcy found Elizabeth as she was leaving the library. He gave her a sealed letter.
"Another letter, sir? Have you been walking the hall for some time in the hope of meeting me?"
He rolled his eyes. "This is a letter of invitation from Georgiana. Please give it to your father as soon as possible. That is, if you really desire to visit Pemberley."
"Oh, I do, truly. But how shall I travel alone?"
"We will find a way, do not worry. I will come and collect you myself if I must."
She smirked. "That would almost be worth the trouble to you just to see my mother's face. But let us hope we can find a simpler way."
"Yes, let us hope; but I will make certain that proper arrangements are made one way or the other."
"If my father doesn't want me to go, what should I do? That is," she said blushingly, "what should I tell him?"
"Do you mean about us?" She nodded. "Whatever you think is necessary. I am finished with disguise, and if anybody else has a right to know my intentions towards you, it is your father. If you like, I will write to him myself."
"Thank you," she said as a wave of affection washed over her, which increased almost painfully when he flashed her a grin.
"I could do no less for Miss Bingley," he assured her. "She would be desolate without your company."
Posted on 2009-10-13
"This is most inconsiderate of you, Darcy," cried Mrs. Warring. "Rushing off so suddenly, abandoning your relations, and for what?" Then, sotto voce, "Or should I say, for who!"
Elizabeth rolled her eyes at Lydia, who sat beside her in the carriage trying not to laugh. Mr. Gardiner's man sat opposite, stone-faced. They had been ready to leave Harworth for half an hour, had been actually sitting in the coach for ten minutes, but they had yet to budge; for that morning Mr. Darcy had declared that he could not in good conscience allow two young ladies to travel with only a servant for protection--he would accompany them. Upon hearing this, Mrs. Warring had declared him most unfeeling toward his own relations, and she continued haranguing him in that vein for half the morning, while luggage and passengers transferred from the now-dismissed post-chaise to Mr. Darcy's own carriage.
Now Mr. Darcy had finally made it up into his saddle and, unless Mrs. Warring took physical hold of the bridle, they could be on their way. Perhaps to forestall such an assault on Mr. Darcy's tack, Lady Arthur grasped Mrs. Warring firmly by the arm and pulled her away toward the house, saying pointedly,
"Come, Diana, let us be out of the way so they can leave."
At last the carriage rolled out of the yard toward the High Road, London-bound. Mr. Darcy rode alongside on Odin, and as they went down the lane Elizabeth caught his eye. He smiled and touched his hat, and she waved smilingly back. It had been a most satisfying morning! Mr. Darcy's determination to ride escort (and spare her uncle the expense of the hired carriage) had warmed her heart as thoroughly as Mrs. Warring's absurdity had tickled her funny bone.
And now she was to spend the whole day in Mr. Darcy's company. It was too bad that he was in the saddle instead of in the carriage, but there would be stops enough for flirting. There was even a good chance that they would have to stay overnight at an Inn, long though the daylight hours were, since a 60 mile journey required five time-consuming changes of horses no matter how good the road, and of course the early July weather could be obligingly unpredictable.
Elizabeth released a happy sigh, and a laugh suddenly erupted beside her.
"La, Lizzy, what a sight you are!"
Elizabeth blushed, then turned from the window to smirk at Lydia. "No worse than you when your dearest DeWitt is near."
"I dare say we shall have the two handsomest husbands in Hertfordshire! How jealous Kitty will be!"
"Lydia," scolded Elizabeth, casting a glance across the carriage at the still stone-faced servant, "we are not even engaged, let alone married. You must guard your tongue. Well-bred young ladies do not start rumors." To be sure her point was made, she narrowed her eyes and said, "What would Major DeWitt think of such talk?"
Lydia's face contorted into a stubborn pout. "He seems to like me well enough, so perhaps it would not bother him as much as you think."
"I know he likes you, dear, and very much." Lydia brightened. Elizabeth cautiously continued, "I also have no doubt that Mr. Darcy likes me very much. But if he and I had continued behaving as we did when we were first acquainted, he would not know be accompanying us to London, regardless of his feelings. Do you understand?"
Lydia did not answer, but merely turned to scowl out the window. Elizabeth could only hope that she would have more discretion in her future ebulliences.
That hope was tested during their final stop to change horses at Bromley. With dusk nearly upon them, the travel-weary party had separated to attend to first needs--the men to the necessary house, and the ladies to the inn's newly-installed water closet--intending to congregate later in a private dining room to eat and decide whether to continue on or stay the night.
As the Bennet sisters approached the facility, Elizabeth heard a familiar voice call out,
"Miss Elizabeth Bennet?"
Elizabeth turned in shock to see Lady Catherine de Bourgh herself approaching through the crowd, flanked by two burly footmen.
"Lady Catherine--what a surprise!" She gave a small curtsy.
"A surprise indeed, Miss Bennet. It is very good to see you again." Her ladyship frowned. "We have been quite dull at Rosings since you and Miss Lucas left the Parsonage. Your next visit, I insist that you stay three months at least. Your father will simply have to do without you." She stared at Lydia. "Who is this young lady?"
With an inner wince, Elizabeth said, "Lady Catherine, may I present my youngest sister, Miss Lydia Bennet? Lydia, this is Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mr. Collins's patroness and Mr. Darcy's aunt."
Lydia's eyes briefly rounded before she made a deep, picture-perfect curtsy.
Lady Catherine smiled approvingly. "Your sister seems a demure, polite girl, Miss Bennet."
Fortunately Lady Catherine was looking at Elizabeth as she said this--she missed the expression of incredulity that flashed across Lydia's countenance. Elizabeth feared for a moment that Lydia would snort in derision, but that danger passed quickly, and she was able to exchange the common pleasantries with a straight face.
The whole time, Elizabeth worried over what to reveal. She abhorred disguise as much as Mr. Darcy did, but if Lady Catherine learned that they traveled in Mr. Darcy's carriage with him as their escort, it would surely result in a scene best played out in private rather than in the common room of the Bromley coaching inn. So she said nothing of it.
After some minutes of health and roads and weather, Elizabeth said, "If you will excuse us, your ladyship, we only just arrived. We would like to refresh ourselves."
Lady Catherine nodded. "I have ordered a fine dinner. You will eat with us, of course--Anne and Mrs. Jenkinson will be pleased to see you and hear of your travels. Come to my private parlor when you are ready."
Lady Catherine took her so much by surprise with this invitation that without knowing what she did, Elizabeth accepted. After a brief condescending smile, her ladyship disappeared up the stairs.
Lydia smirked. "Oh what a tangled web we weave when . . ."
"Yes, thank you, Walter Scott." Elizabeth bit her thumbnail.
"What do we do now?"
"I don't know about you, but I need to pluck a rose. Come on." She pulled Lydia along to the water closet.
As they made their way up to Mr. Darcy's dining parlor a few minutes later, Lydia said, "Do you not think, Lizzy, that you should tell Lady Catherine the truth?"
"No, I do not. I will tell Mr. Darcy and let him decide what to tell his aunt and when to tell it."
"I do not blame you--the better part of valor is discretion, after all."
Elizabeth gave her sister a sly look. "First Walter Scott, now Shakespeare? I thought you did not like to read."
"I do not," said Lydia, "but neither does DeWitt, and I should not like for us both to be ignorant. Miss Darcy helped me choose some books in the Harworth library." She made a face. "La, they were boring! The Shakespeare one--Henry-whatever--didn't even rhyme most of the time! But there is another book called The Monk that I would like to read very much."
Elizabeth was astonished. "Did Miss Darcy tell you about The Monk?"
Lydia nodded. "She said all the girls at school were in a rage over it, though they were not supposed to have it. I wonder if Papa might send me away to school."
"You are out in society, Lydia, being courted by an officer of the Foot Guards--it is a little late for school."
"I am sixteen. There are girls still in school at sixteen."
"Is Major DeWitt supposed to call on you at this school of yours?"
"Why not, if he loves me." Lydia grinned. "I could be the first girl to be engaged before she had even enrolled!"
They entered the parlor in giggles, and found Mr. Darcy ordering their meal from a waiter.
"Miss Elizabeth, Miss Lydia, what would you like--chicken or beef? They had a goose, but a party of fine ladies has already claimed it." Apparently perceiving the Bennet sisters' unease, he asked, "Did you have your hearts set on the goose?"
"No sir," said Elizabeth, "I can live very happily without the goose." She asked the waiter to step outside, then turned back to Mr. Darcy. "We met an acquaintance downstairs who invited us to dine with her party. It is your aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh."
"I'll bet she has our goose," said Lydia.
Mr. Darcy just stared at Elizabeth in amazed silence.
Elizabeth said, "I agreed to eat with her. I did not tell her you were with us."
"Do you want it kept secret?" he asked in an injured tone.
"No, not at all. I merely wanted to avoid a public scene." She smiled and looked up at him through her lashes. "And I hoped that you would be the one to tell her."
He stood like a statue, unsmiling, staring at the floor. Elizabeth began to wonder, to worry whether he was afraid to confront his aunt. Perhaps familial disapprobation would be too much for him. His silence continued, and she knew she had lost him. He would put them on a stagecoach to Gracechurch Street as soon as possible. She would never see him aga--
Elizabeth was sure she had misheard him. "What did you say?"
"I asked you to marry me." He threw his arms out. "What am I to tell Lady Catherine? That I find you pleasant company? That I admire and esteem you? I love you! I want to marry you. I want her to know it. I want the world to know it." He stepped forward and took her hand. In a soft voice he said, "You know it, do you not? Surely you know that I love you beyond reason. That I never stopped loving you. Please, Elizabeth, marry me."
Elizabeth was so stunned and embarrassed that she could say nothing for a moment, but she felt the warmth of his affection fill her heart.
Lydia's surprise took a different form. She cried, "Heavens, Lizzy--say yes!"
Elizabeth laughed, blushed and gripped his hand in both of hers. "Very well, wise sister. Yes, Mr. Darcy--Fitzwilliam--I will marry you." As he bent to kiss her hands, she said, "Now, let's go eat goose with Lady Catherine."
"I have so much to say," Mr. Darcy told her.
"As do I," replied Elizabeth, who in truth was uncertain she could say much at all for embarrassment; "but now is not the time." She looked out the window--it was nearly dark. "We will have plenty of time to talk later. I doubt we are going anywhere tonight."
They made their way through the maze of passageways to Lady Catherine's dining parlor, and entered the room together. Lady Catherine first stared in bewilderment, then recovered herself to cry happily,
"Darcy! Whatever are you doing here? Come sit by Anne. I suppose you've been visiting that woman, your father's sister. How fortunate that you came across the Miss Bennets downstairs."
Mr. Darcy cleared his throat before speaking. "I did not meet them downstairs. They were visiting at Harworth for the past several days and I am escorting them to London, to their uncle's home."
Her ladyship's eyes narrowed. "I was unaware that you were acquainted with the Warrings, Miss Bennet."
"I have only recently become acquainted with them."
"Miss Elizabeth and Miss Lydia," interrupted Mr. Darcy, "were at Harworth at my invitation. I introduced them to Lady Arthur and her family."
Lady Catherine's face betrayed her shock. "You introduced them? But you are only the merest acquaintance yourself, Darcy." Suddenly, comprehension dawned. "Miss Bennet, how well do you know my nephew?"
"Miss Elizabeth and I are engaged," Darcy said in a firm, clear voice.
Miss de Bourgh and Mrs. Jenkinson gasped. Lydia stepped next to Elizabeth and took her hand.
"Impossible," cried Lady Catherine. "You are engaged to Anne."
"Nonsense. I never agreed to any such engagement."
"It was understood."
"Not by me. I have been dropping hints for years that I will not marry her. Perhaps I should have been explicit, but there never seemed to be a proper moment to say, 'Oh, by the way, I will not marry your daughter.'" He turned to his cousin. "Forgive me, Anne."
Elizabeth was amazed when Miss de Bourgh actually responded. She said softly,
"I forgive you, cousin. It is as you say. There was no promise, only hope." With a sideways glance at her mother, she said, "I at least understood your hints." She wiped her eyes, which had grown suddenly moist. "We would never have suited anyway. You are much too quiet for me." She reached out her hand to him, and he took it in his. "I wish you and Miss Elizabeth good fortune."
"Anne," gasped Lady Catherine in disbelief.
"Please, Mother. Let us eat." She sniffed and wiped her eyes again, then smiled a little at Elizabeth. "We have a fine roast goose."
Posted on 2014-01-15
AS they ate, the silence grew so oppressive that Elizabeth began to feel that if she did not speak, she might never have the courage to do so again in Lady Catherine's presence. She forced a smile and said,
"This is very kind of your ladyship. Lydia is quite fond of goose."
Lady Catherine acknowledged this pleasantry with a slight, scowling nod.
Elizabeth persevered. "Has your ladyship been staying in town?"
"In summer? No one is in town in the summer."
"My uncle is in town. That is where Lydia and I are bound."
"Obviously," sneered Lady Catherine, "London is not entirely denuded of its population between June and September. I meant that no one of any consequence stays in town in the summer, and you have yet to contradict me."
Darcy glared at his aunt. Lady Catherine smirked triumphantly.
Just then Lydia jostled her ladyship's arm reaching for more sauce.
"Watch yourself, girl!" cried Lady Catherine. "This is not Longbourn."
Lydia grinned. "I had noticed. Mama would have more sauce on the table."
"Too much sauce and not enough manners!"
Oh how Elizabeth wished for a return of blessed silence, but it was not to be.
"Heaven and earth, how can you eat so much?" asked Lady Catherine as Lydia refilled her plate.
"I am hungry," whined Lydia.
"That is no excuse, girl. Look at my daughter," her ladyship nodded proudly toward Miss de Bourgh, "see how she eats--daintily, as a young lady should. No matter how hungry she is, she does not toss food into her mouth like hay!"
Lydia reached for still more sauce--none too daintily--muttering, "I am not a horse."
"You are as large as a horse. A young lady should be small and . . ."
"Weak? Fragile? Simpering? Helpless? Like your daughter?"
With that, Miss de Bourgh burst into tears.
"Lydia!" hissed Elizabeth.
Lydia jumped to her feet and shouted, "She started it," then ran from the room.
Elizabeth, tossing a worried glance at Mr. Darcy, hurriedly followed. She found Lydia just outside the door, wiping away tears of her own.
"How could you," Elizabeth said. "After Miss de Bourgh was so kind. Oh, Lydia."
"She said I was as big as a horse, Lizzy." She wiped at her eyes again.
Elizabeth pulled her into a hug and felt Lydia half sob, half sigh against her. "She was very cruel, dear, but so were you. You know you were."
"I know. I will apologize to Miss de Bourgh." She pulled away and stared hard into Elizabeth's eyes. "I will never apologize to Lady Catherine."
"I do not expect you too. Horrid woman."
Lydia laid her head back on Elizabeth's shoulder, saying, "Please don't tell Major DeWitt about this. He would be so disappointed in me."
Elizabeth assured her she would not. Hand-in-hand, they returned to the dining room a minute or two later, just as Mr. Darcy was saying,
"And is Georgiana also as large as a horse?"
Elizabeth loudly cleared her throat, then looked expectantly at Lydia, who said softly,
"Miss de Bourgh, I hope you can forgive me for being cruel. I am sometimes very thoughtless when I lose my temper. You have been so good to us all, and I behaved stupidly."
"Oh, of course I will forgive you," said Miss de Bourgh, who had not looked up from her lap, "if you can forgive me for my mother's horrible behavior."
"Anne, how can you say that?"
"You were not horrible," Lydia said to Miss de Bourgh, and Miss de Bourgh only. "But I was, and I apologize. I hope we can be friends." She smiled tentatively. "After all, my sister is marrying your cousin, so we will often be in company."
Lady Catherine audibly groaned.
"I hope to be friends as well," said Miss de Bourgh. Then, with a sideways glance at her mother, "You are not as big as a horse, Miss Lydia. I wish I had your figure."
"You're just a bit tiny, is all." Lydia's face suddenly lit up and she said, "You know, my Major DeWitt must have many handsome friends in town."
Miss de Bourgh colored a little. "Who is Major DeWitt?"
"He is an officer in the Foot Guards," said Lydia proudly, "and he is my beau."
Darcy, who had watched the scene unfold with something like amazement, now said, "He is a gentleman of excellent character and respectable family, and a friend of Colonel Fitzwilliam."
"He is also very handsome and an excellent swimmer," added Lydia. "He is going to call on me at Longbourn, which is why I cannot go to Pemberley with Lizzy."
Then, just when Elizabeth was certain that her sister's behavior could not possibly be any more mortifying, Lydia said,
"You are very rich, are you not?"
"Well, she is. So you do not have to be so very pretty to find a handsome husband. In fact, my sister Jane is very beautiful indeed, but she is 23 years old and still single!"
"She is though, Lizzy. Perhaps it is better to be--well--less beautiful but richer."
Miss de Bourgh colored more deeply. "I am very rich."
"Perhaps," said Darcy, who was clearly torn between amusement and disgust, "perhaps a lady's character is more important than either looks or fortune."
"Lucky for me," said Elizabeth, cocking an eyebrow at Darcy.
Lydia laughed. "You two are so funny."
"What is that supposed to mean?" asked Elizabeth, a little bit offended to be an object of mirth in such a matter.
"Oh, you both say that character is so important, but look at you." They cast bewildered looks at each other, drawing forth even more laughter from Lydia. "Oh, heavens! What I mean is, every man Lizzy meets is charmed, and every woman Darcy meets swoons, but you two must pretend you fell in love with each other's character."
Elizabeth smirked down at her feet as Darcy loudly cleared his throat.
"Excuse me," said Miss de Bourgh to the waiter who stood stone-faced against the wall, "I would like some more sauce."To Be Continued . . .