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Posted on 2009-10-27
Elizabeth Bennet walked along a wooded path, enjoying the robin's song wafting towards her on the gentle breeze. Though she could not say as much for the company, she freely admitted that the country environs of Rosings Park seemed perfection itself in the height of spring's lush bloom. A flash of color caught her eye, and she turned to see a gentleman galloping across the fields, his horse jumping fences and hedgerows with graceful and fluid movements. She admired the gentleman's posture, eagerly urging his mount to the next hurdle, the tails of his coat billowing behind his swift steed. A sense of dread overwhelmed her as the horse awkwardly lost the rhythm of its stride just yards before a fallen tree. She cringed as she saw the horse halt abruptly, sending its rider flying helplessly over its head, crashing and tumbling into the turf beyond the fallen tree. Frantically she searched the horizon for another rider, hoping the unfortunate man had been accompanied by someone who might offer assistance. Seeing no one approach, her concern only intensified. Elizabeth took the only course of action she could conceive at that moment and hurried down the hill. Running heedlessly towards the vicinity of the gentleman's fall, she did not slow her pace until she neared the fallen tree, wary of looking over its edge for fear of his present state.
When the gentleman's figure came into view, she found him face down, sprawled across the grass.
"Sir?" she inquired uncertainly, "Sir, are you seriously harmed?" she petitioned more forcefully.
Still gaining no response, she hesitantly approached his prone figure, thankful that she could discern a steady rise and fall of his back, indicating that he still took breath. Taking another helpless glance about her, she reached down and gently pressed the man's shoulder, calling softly for him to respond. Firmer attempts and louder calls did not increase her success at rousing him, and as her concern began to grow frantic, she lifted his arm, gently rolling him onto his back. She gasped as she observed the deep gash over his left eye, her wonder over its cause soon overcome by the realization that the bleeding must be stopped. Knowing her handkerchief would be pathetically inadequate, and not daring to remove anything from the gentleman's person, she hastily removed her wrap, rashly tearing at the lightweight material, drawing long strips of cotton fabric to apply pressure to his forehead. He moaned lowly and turned his head as she applied greater pressure, and she resisted the urge to jump back as his hands and arms flicked occasionally at his sides. Suddenly his eyes fluttered open, hazy with disorientation. He hoarsely attempted to speak, drawing Elizabeth's attention.
"Please sir, you have had a terrible fall, and have gained quite a large gash over your eye. Forgive me the presumption, but I bid you lie still while I bind this as best I can."
Elizabeth was not sure how much time had passed, but at length she was grateful to recognize the resounding hoofbeats of several approaching horses mingled with male voices. She turned to see three men arriving on horseback, two gentlemen, one slightly taller and the other slightly fairer than the other, accompanied by a manservant. Her relief at gaining assistance was immediately overshadowed by the shock of finding the taller gentleman all too familiar.
Mr. Darcy and Miss Elizabeth stood staring at each other, equally shocked at facing one another as with the circumstances of the injured party. The fairer gentleman, feeling no such confusion regarding the country lass unbeknownst to him, rushed to the fallen man's side.
"For heaven's sake, what has happened?" he demanded impatiently.
The sharp address snapped Elizabeth out of her stupor and turned her attention back to the unconscious man. "I was walking along that ridge there," she said, pointing to the place where not half an hour previous she had stood in pleasant reflection, "when I saw the gentleman riding across the field. His horse balked when he attempted to jump that fallen tree," she gestured towards the offending wooden mass, "and he took a rather terrible fall. I knew not what to do but attempt to assist him."
"Where is your escort? Did you not send your servant for help?" Mr. Darcy inquired anxiously.
"I was walking alone, sir. I had no one to send for assistance."
"Nevermind that," the other gentleman interjected, "We need to get my brother to the house."
Elizabeth stood aside as the two eased the injured party onto the fairer gentleman's horse – said gentleman walking alongside as they moved towards Rosings as quickly as his brother's precariously slumped position in the saddle would allow.
"Miss Bennet, take my horse," Mr. Darcy said forcefully, his concern leaving him to speak more in a tone of command than request.
Elizabeth had scarcely begun to voice her objection when Mr. Darcy reached to lift her into the saddle, hesitating briefly to see that she gained her balance. He then positioned himself beside the other horse such that he could hold the reins of his mount with one hand, and offer support to the injured gentleman with the other.
During the short trip to the manor house, Mr. Darcy spoke but little, his agitation clear as he belatedly revealed the other two gentlemen to be his cousins, James Fitzwillam the Viscount Cressbrook, and Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam, sons of the Earl of Matlock.
Quite a commotion was stirred as the party returned to Rosings, the Viscount impatiently rushing Mr. Darcy to his side that they might carry his brother into the house, all the while shouting orders to the nearby staff for the doctor and an express rider to fetch his own doctor from London.
"Are those my nephews?" bellowed Lady Catherine, "I demand to know the meaning of this!"
"Richard has been injured, Aunt. I bid you delay your questions until his condition as been ascertained," called the Viscount as he maintained a hold on his younger brother, allowing a pair of footmen to assist in carrying him above stairs.
This was enough to send Lady Catherine barking orders at her staff, calling for the doctor and many other things already requested or being prepared. When Darcy moved to follow up the stairs, however, his aunt immediately turned to detain him.
"Darcy, I insist on being told what has happened to my nephew. I am sure some great negligence has been practiced, as I am excessively attentive as to prevent such occurrences. You young gentlemen are always gallivanting across the country in so reckless a manner. I have told my nephew that Prussian beast he rides –"
"Andalusians hail from Spain, Aunt."
Mr. Darcy's interjection was met with a brief narrowing of the eyes, a far lesser punishment than would be given a correction from any but the gentleman she intended to see marry her daughter.
"I have informed Richard several times that such a mount is entirely unsuitable. The stables of Rosings house sufficient mounts, descended from the superior breeding stock established by Sir Lewis de Bourgh, and he would do well to select an appropriate mount from among them – as shall you, nephew. No horse from my stables would conduct itself in so infamous a manner."
It was for no short length of time that this monologue from Lady Catherine continued, heedless of the fact that any response from her nephew detailing the accident would only come following the cessation of her own speech. Such silence did not come from her for such reasonable motives however, as she was only silenced when she haltingly became aware of the young lady standing aside in the foyer.
"Miss Bennet, it is highly improper for you to stand so without making your presence known. It behooves you that you have taken my advice and desire to avail yourself of my hospitality that you may improve your skills at the pianoforte, but you must realize this is a most inopportune time for such endeavors."
"Aunt," Mr. Darcy interjected with no small amount of frustration, "Miss Bennet's presence this morning could perhaps be termed a gift of providence."
Mr. Darcy braced himself for impact, expecting a rather coarse demand for explanation from his Aunt, and the Lady herself was not one to disappoint.
"Fitzwilliam was thrown from his horse while riding, aunt. I assumed from your previous statement that you had already gathered as much."
"Yes, yes. But of what consequence could Miss Bennet be to the present circumstances? It is so terribly clumsy and foolish to fall from a horse. There was some great negligence in Richard's riding instruction, I am sure of it. I am thoroughly knowledgeable of the best riding masters and if only Anne's health had allowed, perhaps my nephews would have benefited from taking their instructions alongside her."
"The circumstance was unexpected, aunt. Even the best horsemen could fall in such a way."
"You still have not answered my query nor explained in what ill-conceived manner this situation involves Miss Bennet," Lady Catherine demanded impatiently.
If I were afforded a moment of clarity between demands, perhaps I would have, Mr. Darcy thought irritatedly as he replied, "She witnessed his fall."
Lady Catherine turned narrowed eyes in the direction of Miss Elizabeth, who, being anything but impervious to the meaning of the Lady's expression, steadied her voice as she clarified, "His horse balked as he attempted to jump a fallen tree, and he was thrown from the saddle."
"And who was your escort, Miss Bennet?" though stated in form of a question, no pause was allowed for response from the young lady, "He must have brought the incident to the attention of my nephews. Tell him to present himself to me and I shall reward him appropriately."
"I walked alone, your Ladyship."
"Alone? Miss Bennet, that is highly improper."
Mr. Darcy cleared his throat to interject, "Under the circumstances, I cannot think Miss Bennet's actions to be anything but advantageous, her lack of escort notwithstanding."
"Hmph," Lady Catherine turned away, disgruntled by her nephew's lack of complaisance and replied, "Young ladies are never of so much consequence to gentlemen in such predicaments."
"She used her shawl to bind his wounds."
Lady Catherine gasped, visibly affronted at the notion of such a display. Recovering herself, she declared imperiously, "Yes, I suppose in so provincial an upbringing, such nursing skills are quite inherent. Miss Bennet must be present to answer any questions that the apothecary may have. Darcy, you will escort her to the green sitting room until her presence is required."
With that, Lady Catherine strode off, demanding of the nearest footman to know when the doctor was to arrive and sending another to ensure that sufficient supplies were brought up to the sickroom, heedless of the similar demands made not five minutes prior.
The doctor arrived soon after Colonel Fitzwilliam was settled into his room, and after ascertaining that his patient was in no immediate danger and re-bandaging his wounds, he sought out the party waiting in a nearby sitting room.
"Mr. Joseph," Viscount Cressbrook greeted as he rose to meet the doctor of Lady Catherine's regular employ. "I thank you for coming with such haste. How fares my brother?"
"He is unconscious, which is not unusual for such a head injury, though his breathing and pulse are strong. Unfortunately there is little means of predicting the length of time that shall pass before he awakens, though any information I could be given about the patient's state since the accident would be helpful. I understand he was thrown from his horse?"
At this inquiry, all eyes turned to Miss Bennet.
"The horse balked, and he was thrown over the fallen log it refused to jump." the lady offered.
"And has he regained consciousness for any length of time since the accident?"
"A little, sir. He…he did make a hoarse attempt to speak a bit before I attempted to bind his wound."
The Viscount then went to send an urgent summons to his parents, the Earl and Countess of Matlock, who were currently residing in London. He had been hesitant to send a rider off with a vague note, but now that the few specifics of his brother's condition they had been able to extract seemed to be the total of the information that was forthcoming for some time, he could delay the task no longer. He did not hesitate to include that their younger son was currently under the care of Lady Catherine's personal physician, a less than subtle suggestion that their own family doctor would be a valuable addition to their traveling party.
Left in the company of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Joseph, Elizabeth began to feel the discomfort of her intrusion into so intimate a family scene, despite her lack of culpability for it, and suggested it would be best for her to return to the parsonage.
"Miss Bennet, allow me to escort you," Mr. Darcy replied distractedly, more out of duty than inclination.
Though she may not have credited his stiffness to an endeavor at restraining his concern – rather considering it nothing beyond his typical deportment – he did not keep his anxious glance towards his cousin's door from her notice. "That will not be necessary, sir. It is but a short walk to the parsonage, and I am sure your presence is better served here."
Elizabeth stifled a smirk as another anxious glance was thrown over his shoulder towards the door to the sick room, and instead added before he could speak.
"I shall detain you no longer, sir. I wish your cousin a healthful recovery, and he shall remain in my prayers, but I believe Mrs. Collins shall be quite concerned about my own well-being if I do not return in time for tea."
With a short curtsey to the gentleman, Elizabeth left the room before he could offer further protestations, offering a polite nod in acknowledgement to the doctor as her skirts swished through the doorway.
Having received their son's express after darkness had fallen over London, the Earl and his wife, in company with their family doctor, Dr. Grant, departed from town as the first faint glow of predawn light made travel permissible. Upon their arrival at Rosings Park, the housekeeper anticipated them in the foyer. She acknowledged their presence with a subtle nod towards their solemn faces and was not surprised as the sound of their footsteps followed her immediately towards the staircase without pause to allow the waiting footmen to remove their coats. The sickroom was soon reached and Mrs. Jacobs opened the door for the newly arrived guests, curtseying as they passed through the doorway. She quietly informed Dr. Grant as he passed that the nearby maid and footman were at his disposal should anything be required. Closing the door behind them, the housekeeper moved quickly down the hallway to ensure that every comfort had been prepared for her mistress' road-weary guests.
Mr. Collins had insisted that a contingent from the parsonage arrive shortly after breakfast to console and support, as befitting his position as a clergyman, and indeed as he felt anyone should conduct themselves towards so noble a personage who had provided such condescension upon their humble persons. Once admitted to Lady Catherine's drawing room, Mr. Collins, it seemed, was perfectly content to remain where he was, and offered his particular services to his patroness. It was Mrs. Collins, however, who had the sense of mind to inquire after the Colonel and his newly arrived family and offered to provide whatever comforts and assistance they might require. Lady Catherine gave her approval and offered to escort them above stairs – provided of course, that Anne remain and not expose herself to the certain risks inherent to a sick chamber. This scheme came as quite a relief to Miss Elizabeth, anxious as she was for any news she might hear of the injured party more sensible and relevant than Lady Catherine's monologues on the previous injuries of the inhabitants of Rosings Park.
Upon reaching the sitting area adjacent to the sick room, Lady Catherine provided the necessary introductions and inquired of Mr. Joseph after the current state of the patient. She received her doctor's information imperiously, giving the impression that it was not indeed vastly similar to the report she had gained not an hour before, and that the Matlocks' own doctor was not in fact conducting his own examination at that very moment. Some moments were devoted to Lady Catherine's pontifications that any doctor aside from her own Mr. Joseph should not be necessary, which Lord Matlock dismissed with the finesse of a man well used to handling his sister's eccentricities. Lady Catherine was particularly grieved however, to find that the specific nurse she had recommended had yet to arrive, and with a disgruntled huff, announced her intent to see to the matter personally. Charlotte Collins was fairly confident that Mrs. Larson's absence was due to her primary role as a midwife and the coinciding knowledge that Mrs. Hamilton had called for her services early the previous evening. However she also had a great deal of confidence that such information would be little appreciated by her Ladyship, and therefore resolved to keep such assurances to herself. That she was also fairly certain Lady Catherine's personal attention to the matter translated into the butler being commissioned to perform the task without delay, she knew was neither here nor there in relevance to the situation at hand, and she nodded politely as her husband followed his patroness out the door.
So it was that Mrs. Collins and Miss Bennet remained and discreetly took upon themselves the tasks of ordering refreshments and seeing to whatever general comforts they might be able to provide. Whether their continued presence was due to Mr. Collins' insight or Miss Bennet's first-hand knowledge of the accident was left for each party to determine.
Soon after, Dr. Grant emerged and explained that in essentials, his diagnosis of the Colonel's present state did not vary greatly from that which the family already knew. The Earl motioned gravely to his elder son and nephew, requesting they join himself and the doctor for a private conference in the library. He gave no verbal explanation as he rose, though the gentlemen knew he would wish to be thoroughly appraised of the details of his son's accident and his prospects for recovery, not withholding any details that ought not to be repeated before the ladies.
"Miss Bennet, you must allow me to thank you most sincerely for your assistance to my son," Lady Matlock said earnestly as the gentlemen left the room. "James told us briefly of your assistance. I understand Richard was thrown from his horse and you came to his aid?"
"Yes ma'am," Elizabeth replied cautiously, "I knew not what to do but offer him any assistance I could. We…we were very fortunate that Viscount Cressbrook and Mr. Darcy arrived so quickly."
"Of course, my dear," agreed Lady Matlock, pausing to maintain her composure before inquiring further of what details the young lady before her could relate.
The ladies continued to speak as pleasantly as they were able under the present circumstances, when Lady Matlock asked Mrs. Collins if she would be so kind as to relay a brief message to her relations below stairs. She apologized for the unusual nature of her request, but Charlotte placatingly offered her understanding, and could not fault the Lady for wishing to remain near her son.
When the two ladies were alone, Elizabeth did her best to provide comfort to Lady Matlock, as she recognized the unfortunate truth that sensible counsel was unlikely to be found amongst the female residents of Rosings Park. She did not realize that this proffered degree of intimacy would wreak quite a drastic change upon the circumstances of her presence in the great house.
"Oh, Elizabeth…I hope you do not mind if I address you so informally…I must tell you again how grateful I am that you were present so quickly after Richard's accident, and you need not feel you are to blame in any way. You could not have known he would ride so recklessly." In her distress, Lady Matlock did not observe the confusion passing over her companion as she spoke.
"Richard told me, you know, that he had met a young lady in London recently. He was quite insistent upon journeying to Rosings this spring knowing that so dear an acquaintance would be nearby."
"You need not tell me…I know I should not speak of this, but Richard told me…" though her confusion had heightened considerably, such that it might be most recognizable as alarm, Elizabeth could not but reach out and place her hand over Lady Matlock's as the Lady's voice broke.
At last feeling herself in control of her emotions, Lady Matlock smiled lightly at the young lady holding her hand and said, "I am so very glad he found you!"
Posted on 2009-10-31
Not more than an hour later, Mrs. Collins and Miss Elizabeth walked in the direction of the parsonage, possessing neither the desire nor the fortitude to await Mr. Collins.
"It was good of you to accompany me above stairs, Lizzy," Charlotte began.
Miss Elizabeth nodded briefly in acknowledgement.
"Your presence seemed a great comfort to Lady Matlock, though I must say your countenance had taken quite a turn when I returned to you."
"Oh Charlotte, you will scarce believe me when I speak of it to you, but I beg you would save this conversation until we can be assured of our privacy."
"Certainly, Lizzy. My husband is not likely to return to the house before dinner, let us go into my parlor for tea. Once I have given Mrs. Hitchens some directions for the evening meal she shall not have reason to disturb us."
Upon reaching the house, Mrs. Collins spoke briefly to her housekeeper and after gathering a tea tray from the kitchens, entered the sitting room where Miss Elizabeth had been waiting for her. Encouraging her friend to be seated, she poured a cup of tea for each of them as she spoke.
"Now tell me Lizzy, what has occurred to distress you so?"
"It is simply a mistaken impression that I must correct as soon as may be. At the time I thought it odd that Lady Matlock requested you personally communicate her message to Lady Catherine and Miss de Bourgh, for I had no idea that she would be desirous of a private audience."
Miss Elizabeth proceeded to relate the details of the conversation that had led to her present situation.
"It was so frustrating Charlotte! After hearing such a declaration, I could not allow the conversation to continue without rectifying the situation, but with each attempt to correct her, her Ladyship assumed that I was merely reluctant to speak of such things without a formal arrangement or that I was distressed over the Colonel's present state. I was reluctant to speak frankly in the face of the Lady's own distress, and with the reentrance of the Earl and the doctor, the subject had to be dropped before I could tactfully correct her mistaken impression."
"That explains the whispered conversation I observed between them," Charlotte said almost under her breath.
Elizabeth turned an inquisitive gaze upon her friend, fearful that her situation was about to endure a further complication.
"Oh t'was nothing at first sight; I should have mentioned it sooner otherwise. As we spoke to Mr. Collins before taking our leave, I observed that the Earl and his wife retreated across the room for a private conversation. I thought perhaps Lady Matlock wished to speak of some detail of your involvement yesterday that had yet to be related to the Earl, as they both looked at you a great deal as they spoke. There was an odd expression passed between the two, which I now interpret quite differently in light of your information."
"That will certainly make things more interesting when I tell them the truth, as now I shall have to request the presence of two persons for the interview."
Mrs. Collins considered her friend carefully as she replied, "Lizzy, I wonder if such an interview ought to be attempted."
"Charlotte! I can hardly allow such a falsehood to be taken as truth!" Elizabeth cried, taken aback by the suggestion.
"But consider, Lizzy, surely they will be reluctant to spread this mistaken intelligence under the present circumstances. All of this can be addressed when, God willing, the Colonel awakens, at which time their primary occupation will be the happy circumstance of their son's recovery.
"I saw the look she gave you Elizabeth," Charlotte added earnestly, "I think she will benefit from your support during this time of uncertainty."
"I know," Elizabeth acknowledged softly, "she beheld me so earnestly, and then the gentlemen rejoined us, and I simply could not tell her."
The next morning Elizabeth set out for a walk, determined to escape the house before her cousin demanded her presence at Rosings Park, that she might attempt to order her thoughts before facing the inhabitants of that great estate. She was surprised to be drawn from her reverie by the approach of a gentleman she had not expected to encounter outside of the walls of Rosings.
"I did not expect, sir, to find you walking this morning."
"I have been making the tour of the Park," he replied, "as I generally do whenever I happen to visit Rosings. I admit I did not expect to do so this morning any more than you might have supposed, though my father concurred with Dr Grant's insistence that no amount of pacing in the hall shall speed my brother's recovery, nor is it conducive to the quiet environment they are attempting to maintain."
"And so you find yourself relegated to the groves and shrubberies, and the company of whatever young ladies might happen to pass by?"
A slight smile crossed his face, "Yes, I believe I do, though I would not have you think I do not appreciate your company. It is beneficial in cases such as these to escape the somber miens at Rosings for more spirited company."
Elizabeth returned his smile appreciatively before he continued, "I believe in time you may have a similar effect on my mother. Her spirits were improved after the time she spent in your company."
At this, Elizabeth's face fell, disheartened by the misconception which had falsely raised the Lady's spirits. She turned an uneasy gaze upon her gloved fingers as she spoke, "I think it is best I apprise you of a misunderstanding that arose between Lady Matlock and I when we met yesterday."
"Come Miss Bennet, I realize she may not be at her most agreeable at present, but surely you can understand my mother is going through a rather trying time…"
"No! Forgive me, sir, I meant no slight. Lady Matlock has been all that is kind and amiable, despite the present difficulties. It is simply that she formed a mistaken impression of me, and the fault is now my own for not finding the means to correct her."
"I do not understand; what could have been misunderstood that would distress you so?"
"She believes your brother and I to be engaged."
"Engaged? To be married?!" he cried.
Calming himself, the Viscount added, "You must pardon my ungentlemanlike outburst – I am only at a loss to understand how such an assumption could be made."
"Apparently your brother had written to the Countess of a young lady he had met in London…a young lady he had hopes of meeting again in the spring…in Kent," Elizabeth answered uncomfortably. "It seems my presence so near his accident has led to the assumption that the lady in question was me."
The Viscount remained silent for a moment, staring intently at the horizon in a manner Elizabeth found not dissimilar to another gentleman of her acquaintance. She was surprised to find reflections of Mr. Darcy's stoic behavior in the gentleman she had assumed would be relatively amiable under different circumstances.
"Perhaps it is best that my mother not be corrected," he stated firmly, not bothering to shift his gaze to his companion.
"But, sir! That is hardly fair to the Colonel, nor to the lady he truly cares for."
"If I know my brother, it is more likely that any preference on his part was exaggerated, either in his explanation to my mother or her interpretation of it. He will soon be one and thirty, and my mother has long been desirous of seeing him well settled. It has not been uncommon for him to hint at a future attachment with a suitable young lady in order to appease our mother."
"If that is truly the case, then at least I may need not be concerned for the lady's feelings, but that still does not solve the primary issue at hand."
"Miss Bennet, surely you see the advantage to yourself that will arise from this situation. My brother may be a second son, but he is the son of an earl, a very eligible match for you. I realize our acquaintance is a very short one, but I believe my brother could be quite happy with you, and it would be best for all parties to consider this an act of providence."
Viscount Cressbrook imparted his speech quite passionately, equal parts convinced of the material advantages that should oblige Miss Bennet to accept the match and true conviction that his brother deserved a felicity in marriage unlikely to be found in an arrangement such as his own. His wife was in every way what was considered to be an appropriate match, rich in connections by noble birth as the granddaughter of a duke and by her dowry of twenty five thousand pounds, and lacking in compassion and affection. If the Earl could be swayed by the precarious situation of his younger son's injuries and the tacit approval of his wife, such circumstances could only play to his advantage.
While not oblivious to the Viscount's impassioned defense of his position, Miss Elizabeth was no more convinced of its soundness, her skeptical expression encouraging him to continue.
"Perhaps you shall at least agree to wait until the situation of my brother's state of health is not so dire before this subject is broached. I truly believe you and my brother to be well-suited, and I would advise you to at least further the acquaintance before rejecting him out of hand. If after some reasonable length of time your objections remain, I shall speak to my family of their mistaken assumptions."
And if by this my brother's charm can persuade you to change your mind, then all the better. Mother does deserve to see at least one of her sons happily married.
Glancing down at his companion, the Viscount was drawn from his reverie by her expression. "Forgive me, Miss Bennet, I see I have distressed you with my persistence, a rather fallible trait amongst the Fitzwilliams, I am afraid. Allow me to escort you back to the parsonage."
"It is quite alright, sir. I merely require time to order my thoughts, I confess my mind to be troubled by the present circumstances, but I am perfectly capable of returning safely."
"Very well, though unless you intend to venture further into the park, I insist that you allow me to attend you at least to the point where the path to the parsonage breaks from that to Rosings."
No sooner had Elizabeth reached the parsonage gate than her cousin could be seen moving rapidly in her direction.
"Cousin Elizabeth! Thank goodness you have returned in time. We have been invited to take tea at Rosings this afternoon, and I am certain I need not relate to you the importance of accepting that which is always an honor of the highest order, but can also, in the particular instance, be termed as the expressed desire for conciliation and support during this most difficult time. I must impress upon you the importance that we arrive promptly, as the hour is hard upon our heels. Make haste, dear cousin, make haste!"
The scene at Rosings was much as it had been the two days previous, and Miss Elizabeth immediately felt a pull of remorse over her reluctance to attend when she observed the strained countenances of the Fitzwilliams, and the slight smile that came across Lady Matlock's face when her eyes met Elizabeth's. More disturbing, however, was when Elizabeth observed Lady Catherine paying her equal attention, a circumstance which was neither precedented nor expected, and could not be interpreted as anything but foreboding.
"Miss Bennet, I understand you are to remain several weeks at the parsonage before your return to London."
Elizabeth's reply died in her throat as Lady Catherine began to speak again without troubling herself to hear the young lady's response.
"And you wish to be of assistance, I am sure, during these trying times, in those ways which you are able."
"Indeed, she would, your Ladyship," Mr. Collins interjected subserviently, "Since your honorable nephew's most unfortunate accident, I have advised my young cousin on those ways in which we ought be of assistance to the noble family which has provided such condescension upon my humble person so willingly, particularly as that condescension has so graciously been bestowed upon herself by extension."
Miss Elizabeth fought to keep her countenance as she began to ponder the fact that her monosyllabic reply could not be accommodated, yet her cousin's ridiculous soliloquy went uninterrupted. Perhaps she ought practice her fawning if she desired to be heard, as comments seemed to be received on the basis of their servility rather than their pertinence to the conversation. She politely returned her attention to her hostess, however, as Lady Catherine addressed her anew.
"I have always known the most appropriate entertainments to be provided for those persons confined, and would direct Anne appropriately, if her health allowed for her presence in the sickroom. You, Miss Bennet, seem a stout and healthy sort of girl, and your voice seems tolerably pleasant for reading, though your diction would undoubtedly improve with practice. If you promise to remain and assist in my nephew's care for a month complete, I shall see to it that you are established in the guest wing of Rosings. You will be in nobody's way in that part of the house, and it would be most inconvenient if you happened to be at the parsonage at such a time as you could be of use. If your presence is required beyond that length of time, I shall see you as far as London in the barouche box. I am most attentive to all these things, and shall reward your Christian charity appropriately."
An air of silence swept across the room as Lady Catherine completed her remark – at least it felt as such to Elizabeth, who felt anything but equal to an appropriately civil response to such an officiously communicated request. Her disbelief was soon interrupted as Mr. Collins began to extol the great thoughtfulness and compassion of Lady Catherine's offer, as well as the eagerness with which it would so humbly be accepted by his young cousin.
"At my request, Mr. Jacobs collected an appropriate selection of tomes from the library this morning, Miss Bennet. Your reading shall begin with this," Lady Catherine offered up a book with some distinction, which Mr. Collins did not hesitate to retrieve and ceremoniously transfer to his cousin, who needed but the slightest glance at its title to confirm her suspicions of the Lady's rigid and monotonous literary tastes. "Upon its completion you may choose from the other titles you see here," She motioned dismissively towards an overburdened table. "The best diction is given when you are familiar with the text. Be certain that you have read sufficiently ahead so that you will be prepared appropriately. You could not have had the opportunity to do so today, but it is most appropriate that you begin reading now and continue on until an hour before dinner, therefore I shall not entirely blame you for your present lack of preparation."
"Perkins!" Lady Catherine called abruptly to the footman awaiting her near the entrance to the room – though whether her tone was unnecessarily shrill, and perhaps caused the nearest constituents of her unfortunate audience to wince, the great Lady termed herself resonant and was not to be contradicted on the matter.
Returning her attention to the young lady before her, Lady Catherine continued, "Miss Bennet, Perkins will see that the remaining volumes are placed appropriately for your convenience. I trust that you shall prepare yourself accordingly, and apply yourself to the certain strictures of your attendance as I relate them to you."
Having accepted the book she was to begin reading aloud – immediately, Elizabeth received a dismissive nod from her hostess, and observing the summoned footman, book-laden and waiting at the ready, realized she had little recourse but to excuse herself from the company and begin the first of many appointments with the Colonel.
As Elizabeth followed the footman into the sickroom, she began to understand that her presence there had been anticipated. The curtains on one side of the room had been partially drawn, allowing a gentle stream of natural light to fall upon a chair adjacent to the foot of the bed, which Elizabeth amused herself in imagining to be quite deliberately placed at what Lady Catherine would deem the only acceptable angle.
Nodding her acknowledgement and offering a small smile to the maid that entered the room and began to stoke the fire, Elizabeth made herself comfortable – as comfortable as could be in a chair which she discovered to have a surprisingly rigid back, all the better to enforce proper posture for reading aloud, she supposed – and cleared her throat in preparation to read. She opened the book, turning the first few pages until she reached the text, and with a good humor that some might classify as impertinent, began to read aloud. After she had read a few pages, however, she reflected that perhaps it was not so bad that her education had been rather self-guided, as she had an inkling many governesses insisted on such a text by form. She soon cleared her mind of such thoughts, and allowed herself to become absorbed in the printed pages before her and their melodic rhythm as she gave them voice. She was only vaguely aware of the maids who moved quietly about the room, seemingly ever-present, adjusting the curtains, changing wash basins, or placing hothouse flowers on a table beside the bed.
She could not but feel compassion for the gentleman who lay motionless aside from the steady rise and fall of his chest. Her thoughts turned to the many times she had attended her family and close friends in times of illness, and she determined that if it were in her power to bring some amount of cheer and assistance in this case, she would. Be it at Lady Catherine's bidding or her own, she hoped the result to be a positive one all the same.
Her reflections were interrupted by Mrs. Jacobs who informed her that Mr. and Mrs. Collins had already departed, but a coach was arranged to return her back to the parsonage. As she was escorted downstairs, it was explained that the family party had retired to dress for dinner, so she need not concern herself about taking her leave of them this evening.
Upon her return to the parsonage, Miss Elizabeth possessed enough familiarity with her cousin's tendencies to expect very little reprieve from the absurdity of the day until she could escape to her rooms for the night. It was with very little surprise and a great deal of politely concealed dread that she observed his very person lying in wait to usher her from the equipage to the house. Thankfully Mrs. Collins appeared in the foyer as they entered, undoubtedly prepared to subtly intervene on behalf of her friend, as she was no less familiar with the direction her husband's fancies should take him were they to go on unchecked.
"My dear, let us allow Elizabeth to retire upstairs before dinner. She may appreciate a few moments to refresh herself and we would not want to delay the meal."
As expected, Mr. Collins immediately lapsed into parroting Lady Catherine's most valuable advice regarding appropriate dress for dinner and the importance of maintaining a proper schedule for the meal, along with the inherent evils of disheveled guests and late dining.
During the meal Charlotte was so kind as to draw Maria into conversation, thus inhibiting her husband from inquiring after the smallest details of Elizabeth's extended time at Rosings Park. After dinner Charlotte's efforts proved to merely be a stay of execution, however, as upon their entrance into the parlor, Mr. Collins came to sit near his cousin, overtly attentive to her every response, no matter how vague and hesitant it might be. After a few minutes' reflection, during which he appeared to be pondering the information analytically, Mr. Collins replied,
"It does you credit, my young cousin, that you should acquiesce to the wishes of so illustrious a person. As I am sure you are well aware, Lady Catherine is most knowledgeable regarding such matters as the honorable Colonel's recovery, and how could she not be, given her rank and attentiveness! As it stands, should Lady Matlock find that your presence is in any way beneficial to her comfort, I must advise you to make yourself available to her in whatever manner she may wish. I flatter myself that I have rather refined the art of servitude appropriate for cases such as these, and shall advise you periodically as to how you might best make yourself agreeable to those persons of superior station."
A rather tight smile was all Elizabeth could manage in response to this speech, and so Mr. Collins continued with his latest epiphany.
"Perhaps if you are quite lucky, Lady Matlock will desire to take you on as her companion. Imagine the society you should bear witness to in so privileged a situation!"
For Elizabeth, this conversation was of course quite vexing and equally distressing. No semblance of her composure was gathered sufficiently for her to speak without bursting forth with most natural though highly inappropriate responses. With a brief curtsey she excused herself, belatedly murmuring an excuse regarding her fatigue, and made her escape.
The following morning at breakfast, Mr. Collins excitement had not waned in the slightest, and he addressed his cousin immediately upon her joining the family party.
"What a fine morning, is it not, cousin Elizabeth? How I neglected to inform you last evening, I cannot explain, though I trust her Ladyship has related that a carriage will be brought round to collect you within the hour. Do not trouble yourself over the packing of your trunks, Margaret has already been sent up to assist you, and Lady Catherine will undoubtedly be most attentive to your needs."
So it was that before noon, Elizabeth found herself once again being of use in the sickroom while her trunk was transported to a room in the guest wing. Though the solitude of such arrangements could not go unnoticed, she admitted a location amongst the family apartments to be neither expected nor particularly desired, and at least she was not relegated to the same corner of the house as Mrs. Jenkinson.
Elizabeth allowed herself to once again become absorbed in the task of reading, all the while watching hopefully for any increased sign of movement from the gentleman bedridden beside her. She could not but observe the copious amounts of attention paid by several maids and footmen to a multitude of tasks, just as they had the afternoon prior, and wondered just how many persons had encountered head wounds at Rosings Park for Lady Catherine to be such an expert on the subject of recovery from unconsciousness. As she observed a maid coming to dab the Colonel's brow with a cool damp cloth for the third time in no more than half an hour, she wordlessly stilled the young woman's hand, and looked up to meet her startled gaze. Elizabeth smilingly assured her that she could very well complete so simple a task in her stead, as her presence would continue throughout the day whether or not she had been charged with a specific occupation, and she would prefer to be of some use rather than to sit idle.
It was not until she heard the gentleman clear his throat that she noticed Viscount Cressbrook leaning against the doorway, watching her with a peculiar expression as she returned the cloth to its tray and moved to resume her seat. He nonchalantly explained that the doctor was due to examine his brother shortly and he was eager to hear if she had any positive changes to report. When she hesitantly explained that she had not yet detected any of the movements such as flickering eyelids or fingertips that the doctor predicted would preclude his regaining consciousness, his peculiar expression finally faded into the impassive countenance she found so familiar.
Elizabeth dearly wished to tell the Viscount how the situation was getting out of hand. Allowing a false pretext to remain from a distance where she may not have had the opportunity to correct it was one thing, but being expected to live a lie within the bosom of their family was another matter indeed! There was very little she could say, however, with so many servants bustling in and out of the room at any moment.
Elizabeth turned again to Viscount Cressbrook as he watched his brother intently from his position at the foot of the bed. He moved suddenly, as though deliberately trying to break his fixation. He smiled weakly and uttered a short chuckle as he raised the book Elizabeth had placed on the side table not five minutes before.
"I see my aunt has been quite attentive to your choice of reading material," he said, returning the book to its place as he continued, "It is unfortunate that she had selected a volume so infamous for inducing my brother into slumber even in the best of health."
"I admit a preference for livelier selections in situations such as this, though that may very well be because I am usually charged with entertaining my sisters or my young cousins."
"If you would care to change your reading material, I am familiar with my brother's taste in literature, and we might hope that a few favorites can be found amongst my aunt's collection."
Elizabeth smiled as she replied, "I believe I would, sir. I would be glad to read something known to your brother for less nefarious reasons."
"Very good," the Viscount smiled back before raising her current book and adding conspiratorially, "I shall, however, leave you with the recommendation that you keep a tome such as this in a prominent position. I would not wish for you to endure my aunt's ire, particularly over so trivial a source."
"Do not worry, sir. For the sake of the Colonel's entertainment, I will be sure not to leave evidence of my dissention." Elizabeth smiled impishly, glad to see her companion in raised spirits for the first time in their acquaintance, no matter how short lived the sentiment might be. "I shall excuse myself to the library then, so that you may visit with Dr. Grant."
Elizabeth descended the staircase, grateful for the relative freedom of venturing towards the library on her own. She smiled to herself as she recalled her cousin's loquacious descriptions of the many rooms of Rosings Park and the inherent advantages of their superior arrangement, struck by the ironic truth that the information would actually prove useful for locating the library.
Entering timidly, she was happy to find the library unoccupied and began to leisurely peruse the shelves, her eyes seeking out familiar titles as well as the particular objects of her search. She was just about to reach for a book when the soft creaking of oak and hinges alerted her to the entrance of another.
"Miss Bennet, I see you have found your way to the library."
"Good day, Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth curtsied.
The gentleman responded with a curt bow, and when no additional reply came, she added, "I was selecting another book to read aloud, as your aunt has advised such entertainment to be advantageous for the recovery of those confined to a sick room."
"Indeed, in that we are in agreement. There are several medical journals that suggest continued stimulus is highly conducive to minimizing the lasting effects of a head wound."
"Yes, my father's library contains more than one such work. Though I confess through personal experience I have found reading those passages which are familiar to and favored by the indisposed party are particularly beneficial."
"My cousin may not be an avid reader, but it would be no trouble for me to locate a few titles he would enjoy."
"I thank you for the offer," Elizabeth replied as she plucked a book from the shelf, which Mr. Darcy could not help but notice would have been one of his first choices, had he been permitted to make the selection, "I have found the book I was seeking."
Though she had not argued with her sister by marriage when Lady Catherine had quite officiously dictated that Miss Elizabeth should be installed at Rosings, Lady Matlock at least had the good sense to see to it that the young lady was well attended, and showed her appreciation by requesting that they take tea together. She expressed a preference for taking their tea in the Colonel's room, for though it was an unorthodox location, being near him would be a comfort to her as his mother.
So it was that before Elizabeth had been afforded much chance to decide how to address the mistaken impression she had made upon Lady Matlock, she found herself ensconced in the sitting room and taking tea with the Lady herself.
Though Lady Matlock's agitation due to the present circumstances was only thinly veiled by her attempts at composure, it did not reduce her efforts at making herself agreeable to the young lady before her, an action which Miss Elizabeth could not but reciprocate with compassion.
"Miss Bennet, it is so kind of you to come and assist my son."
"It is the least I can do, your Ladyship, I only hope my efforts will be as effective as Lady Catherine anticipates them to be."
The ladies smiled in tacit agreement that Lady Catherine could not be matched in determination, though whether or not her methods were actually effective was left to be seen.
"I am afraid both of my sons are determined to put me through such trials at their bedsides at some point in their adult life."
Elizabeth nodded understandingly.
"Unfortunately it is not only my Richard whose enthusiasm can lead to trouble. Though James's circumstances were not nearly so serious, he did give us some days of concern a few years ago, at the hands of that driving club of his, no less. He paid his due punishment, however, when the doctor ordered two weeks bed rest to ensure he would suffer no residual injuries. I believe the time would have passed more amiably for him, if only…"
Lady Matlock paused to refill her teacup, stirring thoughtfully before she continued.
"Little James, my grandson, was but a swaddling infant at the time, hardly capable of the pleasant diversion he can give his father now. And as to Lady Cressbrook," Lady Matlock paused and looked affectionately upon her young companion with a knowing smile, "not all men are blessed with such a compassionate woman to stay by their side."
Not knowing how to respond to the last, Miss Elizabeth instead inquired further about the Lady's young grandson. The conversation turned pleasantly to four year old James, who according to his grandmother was quite the strapping young lad and rather adored his father. Tales of his escapades and scrapes it seemed were not dissimilar from those of the Viscount and Colonel in their younger days, and soon the Lady's conversation centered on her young Richard. Whether this was out a misguided consideration for Elizabeth's preference or her desire to think of her son in happier than his present circumstances was debatable, though Elizabeth chose to believe the latter for her own peace of mind.
Such effort was made fruitless, however, by her Ladyship's next inquiry.
"Elizabeth… I hope you do not mind if I address you as such, my dear?" Elizabeth indicated that she should not mind in the least. "Splendid, and I hope I shall be Lady Cassandra to you. Will you tell me how you met Richard?"
Miss Elizabeth smiled weakly as her mind fumbled and raced to find a suitable response that was not a direct untruth. Thankfully Lady Matlock took this pause as a means to continue. "I can well imagine him riding up through Hyde Park on that dashing horse of his, and we all know him to be more than genial enough to effect a pleasant introduction."
"Well," Elizabeth began cautiously, "when I first saw him, he was indeed riding his horse…I could not but admire the beautiful animal, and the gentleman's skillful seat. I had not known it at the time, but I realize now that from that moment, my life would never be the same."
Lady Matlock squeezed Elizabeth's hand affectionately, but was kept from any verbal response by the entrance of Mr. Darcy and Lord Matlock. Feeling rather discomposed from having made such an intentionally misleading statement to Lady Matlock, Elizabeth made her excuses to return to the Colonel and Lady Catherine's literary dictates for an hour before retiring to dress for dinner.
Elizabeth descended the stairs in her more formal dinner attire and joined the party gathered in the drawing room awaiting an announcement that the evening meal was ready to commence. Though she had dined at Rosings Park on one previous occasion, she did feel a certain awkwardness at joining a more intimate family party. Such feelings were universally pushed aside, however, as she found herself not seated in a similar manner to previous experience there, but relegated to the chair beside Mrs. Jenkinson. Though the others around the table attempted to include her in their discourse, the majority of conversation was made by Lady Catherine, whose interest in Miss Elizabeth was primarily limited to her adherence to the instructions she had been given regarding her conduct in the sick room. It seemed her personal concerns, once a great subject of concern when Lady Catherine discovered her five sisters to be out and having grown up quite without a governess, were now equally insignificant as those of Miss de Bourgh's companion.
Elizabeth arose quite early the following morning, which caused her no consternation whatsoever, and rather instilled a hope that she might find a quick breakfast and escape what would surely be a repeat performance of last evening's condescension if she were to break her fast with Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
Expecting the room to be occupied by no more than a few of the kitchen staff delivering pastries and such, she was surprised to find Viscount Cressbrook and Mr. Darcy already seated and enjoying a leisurely breakfast over coffee and newspapers.
Both gentlemen greeted her with civility, albeit one more cordially and the other more curtly. The Viscount saw that the young lady was served her choice foods and settled with a cup of tea before excusing himself, undoubtedly anxious to look in upon his brother.
Elizabeth enjoyed her breakfast with nothing more than the occasional rustle of a newspaper page for company. She was rather surprised, then, when as she rose from the table, the newspaper was folded down, and Mr. Darcy spoke his third and fourth words of the morning.
Elizabeth turned towards him, keeping her expression as innocent and polite as her wit would allow.
"I was about to take some morning exercise, as is my usual habit, and as I know you are fond of walking, Miss Bennet, I thought you might accompany me."
"Indeed, sir. I happened to be moving in this direction with a similar intent."
Mr. Darcy escorted Miss Elizabeth through the pleasure gardens, seeming perfectly content with allowing the lady beside him to observe the flora while keeping his own gaze fixed upon the distant expanse of Rosing's grounds. At first satisfied to enjoy the fresh air despite her taciturn companion, Elizabeth amused herself with the thought that perhaps she should not have been specific to the ballroom when suggesting the oddity of spending a half-hour of each other's company in silence.
"Aha," Elizabeth said softly, pausing to pick a vibrant bloom from a nearby planter before continuing on her way.
Mr. Darcy turned inquisitively at her outburst, but her only response was to meet his eye with a challenging gaze of her own. She could not hide her amusement at his obstinate refusal to break the silence between them, and at length he gestured towards the flower whose stem was being twirled between her fingers.
Elizabeth smiled to herself, not a little proud that in some small way he had ceded the point that her own stubbornness could stand equal to his. "It would seem this is the source of some of the flowers so carefully placed in the Colonel's sickroom."
"Yes, you will find my aunt to be… quite particular in the placement of such things."
"I gathered as much when a third servant entered to make some adjustment before I had read but a page."
Mr. Darcy's brow furrowed slightly at this, though whether in consternation over his aunt's officiousness or distaste for Elizabeth's audacity to not only be present in Kent, but now housed at Rosings – and speaking so of his Aunt no less – was for one to know and the other mistake.
"I hope you do not find the circumstance uncomfortable."
"Not at all; were I not accustomed to the bustling presence of others, I should never be able to concentrate on anything at Longbourn."
An extended silence was his only response, aside from the continued rhythmic crunching of gravel beneath his boots, and Elizabeth was surprised to see him dart his eyes down towards them when she turned to look at him.
"I thank you for your company, sir," she said as they reached the end of their current path, "I believe it will soon be time that I am wanted in the house."
"Allow me to escort you, Miss Bennet."
Though she expected that they might part ways at the stairs, Mr. Darcy gave every appearance of intending to escort her to her destination, and his actions soon proved such to be the case as he opened the door to the sickroom, revealing a small bevy of servants bustling about the room, adjusting bed linens, delivering wash basins and he knew not what else. Elizabeth retrieved her book from the side table and moved towards her chair.
"My throne awaits," she remarked lightly.
"It is a rather interesting chair," Mr. Darcy replied, running his hand over the tall back and finding its large cushion remarkably firm.
"Indeed, though I suppose its… uprightness… must be thought beneficial to my posture."
Mr. Darcy politely bid her a pleasant day and left the room, his opinion on the usefulness of that particularly oppressive piece of furniture not far from his mind.
That morning, Elizabeth diligently attended the Colonel with a combination of adherence to her Ladyship's dictates and deviance to her own knowledge where Lady Catherine's advice conflicted with common sense. In fact, it could be said that the remainder of the day passed without incident, with one exception. After luncheon, Elizabeth returned to the sickroom, only to find two footmen positioning a new chair beside the Colonel's bed, her previous reading chair having been moved to a far wall. The upholstery of said new chair was clearly suited to the color scheme of some other room in the house, but after Elizabeth seated herself, her only care was to enjoy that it was infinitely more comfortable. She thanked the footmen for their efforts, and turned to pick up her book, curious at the changeable requirements of Lady Catherine de Bourgh and wondering just how many of her numerous staff had time remaining to be occupied by anything else.
Posted on 2009-11-04
"It is insupportable, such incompetence in my own house. Repeatedly have I given specific instructions regarding my needs from the apothecary, which each of the servants I have sent simply cannot manage to follow. I am most seriously displeased. To think of such erroneous concoctions being of any use to my nephew's recovery!"
A number of solutions to this problem entered the minds of those seated around the breakfast table at Rosings Park, though the Lady presiding over the table continued to speak before any of said solutions could be voiced.
"Each servant has impudently claimed that they repeated my exact request to Mr. Joseph Jr., though I know this must be the grossest falsehood, as such is not the preparation I have received, and I cannot believe the apothecary to blame. Why, Mr. Joseph Jr. has been serving Anne's apothecary needs these five years at least, just as his father, Mr. Joseph, has competently provided and planned her medical care from infancy."
Having been present when the housekeeper relayed instructions for the most recent failure, Miss Elizabeth addressed her Ladyship, though perhaps such an action was against a fair portion of her better judgment and best interest. "Is it an herb and sage draught that you seek, your Ladyship? I have often seen as much recommended to the tenants of my father's estate by our apothecary."
"Yes, indeed," Lady Catherine imperiously concurred, "Though I cannot consider it proper for a young lady of good breeding, and would never approve of Anne becoming knowledgeable of such things, in this case, your correctness behooves you, Miss Bennet."
"Perhaps the nurse shares a familiarity equal to Miss Bennet's, and might prove more effective in attaining this elusive curative?" Viscount Cressbrook suggested.
"Absolutely not, for should her services be needed during her absence it would be most distressing," Lady Catherine replied, speaking as though her nephew's suggestion had been most ludicrous. "This is all quite vexing."
"I would go to the apothecary, your Ladyship, that this dilemma be resolved without any further vexation," Miss Bennet offered, the manner in which she referred to her Ladyship's 'vexation' not lost on at least one member of the present party.
"I suppose you would have me call a carriage for you, Miss Bennet. Yes, you would be quite glad to opportune yourself of the barouche box, I am sure of it," Lady Catherine nodded definitively.
"Though I do appreciate the kindness, your Ladyship, I would be perfectly content to walk into the village. It is not above two miles hither and I have often accompanied Mrs. Collins on such an excursion these past weeks."
With a slight narrowing of the eyes in response to this dismissal of her celebrated generosity, Lady Catherine proclaimed that Miss Bennet would journey into the village that very morning, being sure to read for an hour complete before departing from Rosings, and to return before luncheon, as her Ladyship was not in the habit of having her meals delayed for any reason.
After having recited from a livelier than recommended selection for no less than one hour, Elizabeth cheerfully donned her bonnet and gloves, anxious for the fresh air and exertion to be found in her walk to Hunsford village. Though maintaining a sedate and ladylike pace within the bounds of Rosings Park, once gaining privacy from the house, she could no longer restrain herself from assuming the quick pace she was wont to take through the privacy of her favorite haunts about Longbourn. No sooner had she reached the main road to Hunsford village, however, than the sounds of a conveyance could be heard behind her and she reluctantly shortened her strides.
It was much to her surprise when rather than slowing to pass her, the rhythmic pounding of the horses' hooves gradually came to a halt and an immediately recognizable voice addressed her.
"Good morning, Miss Bennet."
"Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth replied with a brief curtsey.
"Allow me to be of assistance to you."
Elizabeth glanced down the road, where the outmost buildings of Hunsford were already clearly visible. "I thank you, sir, but it is not necessary, I am only destined for the village, which is not much farther."
Even as she politely refused the offer, the gentleman had already descended from his curricle and upon hearing her words, made no effort to change his course.
"It would be my pleasure to escort you, madam," he replied, offering his arm to escort her to the conveyance.
"As you wish, sir. Though truly it is not far, and I am not opposed to walking," she answered as he handed her into the curricle, maintaining a firm grasp on her gloved hand until she was firmly seated.
"Of that I am well aware." Mr. Darcy quickly resumed his place and gathered the reigns before adding, "Despite my understanding of your fondness for walking, a gentleman cannot in good conscience leave a lady unattended on the roadside."
Though he had tried to mask it, Elizabeth was at this point familiar enough with Mr. Darcy's stoic expressions to detect the smug satisfaction that accompanied this speech, and in her opinion, such orchestrated behaviors were not to go unanswered.
"It is most convenient, sir," she smiled amicably, "that you happened to drive out in this particular direction. For myself, I might have chosen a less common route to better view the countryside."
"Perhaps I would agree with you, in terms of a longer excursion."
"May I assume you have just departed Rosings?"
Mr. Darcy nodded in the affirmative.
"It is an interesting time to set out, being so close to luncheon, unless you did not plan on returning to dine."
Elizabeth smiled impishly as she turned to her companion, well aware that he would now be recalling his aunt's declaration that the entire party would be present at luncheon, his concurrence, and her own presence bearing witness to the whole.
"It seems you have found me out, Miss Bennet, though I should know you well enough to expect nothing less."
"Well, I suppose now that you have admitted to driving out for the express purpose of assisting me, I am obliged to thank you," she replied smartly.
"And in turn I am obliged to assure you that no thanks are required," Mr. Darcy replied with a smile.
In a matter of moments their conveyance had reached Hunsford proper, and Mr. Darcy made quick work of reining the horses in before the apothecary's shop and hopping down to assist Elizabeth from the seat. "If you will excuse me, Miss Bennet, I do have some small matters of my own to address. I shall return to collect you directly."
Elizabeth entered the establishment, and was immediately addressed by the proprietor himself.
"Mr. Joseph Jr., Apothecary," he greeted with a short bow, "May I be of service, Miss…?"
"Bennet, sir. I am currently a guest at Rosings Park."
"Miss Bennet, to what do I owe the pleasure?"
"I thank you, Mr. Joseph. It seems Lady Catherine has had some difficulty in her messengers' relating her needs to you, and thought to send a proxy more familiar with the goods at hand."
Over the course of their continued conversation, Elizabeth observed that while Mr. Joseph Sr. may have been a reasonably sensible gentleman, Mr. Joseph Jr. was a somewhat awkward fellow. Though rather taller than her cousin, and more handsomely featured, he was not so unlike Mr. Collins in that his figure suggested an equal fondness for honeyed ham and thick dressings of all sorts. Though Mr. Joseph Jr. did not conduct himself with half of her cousin's obsequious servility, that said servility was just as strongly directed towards herself proved quite alarming, and she was quite pleased when Mr. Darcy arrived, having completed his own business in the village.
Miss Elizabeth laughed politely at Mr. Joseph's parting sally and thanked him for his services as he reminded her that the required draught would be prepared and delivered to Rosings the following morning.
Mr. Darcy's behavior during their return trip to Rosings reflected much of the same reserve Elizabeth had learned to expect of the gentleman whence they first met in Hertfordshire, such that with little more than a perfunctory bow from him, Elizabeth found herself released to the routine that had been established the previous day. Scheduled readings, a formal luncheon accentuated by Lady Catherine's pontifications, thankfully directed towards Mrs. Jenkinson and Miss De Bourgh rather than herself on this occasion.
While the Viscount had a reputation for being no less a personable man than his younger brother, he was by no means any less astute than his stoic cousin. Now that the Colonel's situation was not so dire as he had initially feared, he began to think more clearly on his conversation with Miss Bennet and the possible reasons behind her reluctance. He still gave her credit for being of sturdier character than to jump at the opportunity to be attached to the son of an Earl, but given the vehemence of her attempted refusal, he should have considered the chance of a prior attachment on her part. It did not escape his notice that Mr. Darcy paid Miss Bennet more attention that the rest of their party, and there did exist a prior acquaintance from the fall. Though she may be affronted, there was nothing for it but to approach Miss Bennet and inquire, hoping he had not muddled things even further than he first imagined.
"Miss Bennet, shall we take a turn about the garden before tea?" Viscount Cressbrook inquired from the doorway of the sickroom. "Your reputation as a great walker precedes you, and I would not have you feeling neglected cooped up in the house."
Elizabeth kindly agreed, equally desirous of enjoying the fresh air and attempting again to reason with the Viscount about deceiving his relations. To which end, they had not escaped the prying eyes and ears of the house for more than a moment before she addressed the latter.
"Lord Cressbrook, while I am very happy to do what I can to aide your brother in his recovery, I must implore you again to address the misapprehension between Lady Matlock and myself."
Quite prepared for this line of questioning, he smilingly replied, "I am sorry that my family has imposed on you so, and I do realize I had neglected to ask something of you when we spoke of this last, as much as I hesitate to do so now."
One glance at the lady's serious expression was all the Viscount needed to obligingly continue, "I should have asked if there were a prior commitment you had made or an expected attachment…I understand you made the acquaintance of a few eligible men this fall, not the least of which being my cousin Darcy."
"You have nothing to fear on that score," Elizabeth smirked. She debated on whether or not to say more, though her countenance hinted that she was anxious to speak. Her indecision was swayed by the impish curiosity that tugged at the Viscount's innocent expression.
"Though it is impolitic for me to repeat them, they are the gentleman's own words, and this will be a small confidence in comparison to that which you already hold for me – 'She is tolerable, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me.' – so you see we are not the best of friends."
"Ha! Leave it to Darcy to mistake a lady such as yourself so thoroughly, for you must know that he quite missed the mark. In that case then, we shall proceed as planned – you can continue to charm my entire family, be of great aide to my brother, and we will address the rest when the time comes."
James Fitzwilliam smiled at his companion and offered his arm, putting an abrupt end to further attempts at conversation. "Now then, let us return to the house before we miss tea."
Elizabeth entered the sickroom, surprised to find it rather placid considering the milling of servants that had become her constant companion during each of her visits. For a moment she wondered if the early hour were to blame. She had never come before breakfast before, but she only intended to remain for a few moments – on second thought perhaps she ought to remain longer so that the Colonel would not be left unattended. It was not until she had collected her book from the side table and turned to her chair that she noticed the space to be occupied.
She observed none other than Mr. Darcy, his formal mien belied in repose as his left leg lay sprawled out comfortably before him and his head rested on the wing of the chair, his ever artfully arranged curls having shaken their restraints, a few resting loosely across his forehead.
At that moment, she could not but recall that while he spoke little at Rosings – hardly unexpected given their previous acquaintance – when he did speak, the majority of what he said regarded his cousin. Against her own inclination, she admitted herself touched by this evidence of his concern, as she herself had been found in such a position at Netherfield not so many months ago. Not desirous of creating a scene which would embarrass him and be no more comfortable for herself, she retreated to the doorway, being sure to clear her throat and re-enter the room with far less that her usual grace, her manner more reminiscent of a foot soldier than a gentleman's daughter.
Thankfully, movement could be detected from Mr. Darcy's quarter before Elizabeth had taken more than a few steps into the room, such that he soon rose, and she was able to feign surprise over his presence.
"Mr. Darcy, forgive me. I had not expected to find anyone here and did not intend to interrupt your privacy."
"It is quite alright, Miss Bennet."
The gentleman took only a few steps towards the door before turning somewhat awkwardly to address Elizabeth. "I was…concerned upon hearing that Richard's sleep had become so restless yesterday afternoon."
Elizabeth nodded softly, her kind and understanding expression leaving Mr. Darcy more at ease to continue.
"I suppose I overstayed last night, but am glad to see him sleeping peacefully this morning."
"As am I, Mr. Darcy." Indeed, I seem to have found two gentlemen sleeping peacefully this morning. Elizabeth blushed at the thought, and teasingly added that they both ought to prepare for breakfast before they were missed, else Lady Catherine might send out the hounds in search of them. She dropped a slight curtsey and hastily left the room.
Mr. Darcy remained idly rooted to his spot, still somewhat groggy from sleep and equally affected by the lady who had awakened him. At last he recollected that he stood in his waistcoat and shirtsleeves, most likely appearing quite disheveled in his rumpled attire from the previous day. Shaking his head, he knew there was nothing for it but to send for his valet and prepare for the day ahead, so with a last long look at his cousin, he did just that.
Breakfast that morning did not include any further dictates regarding Elizabeth's schedule, with the exception of a brief comment that her Ladyship understood Miss Bennet's performance at diction thus far to have been tolerable – though perhaps not remarkable enough to tempt Lady Catherine into speaking further on the matter. Elizabeth therefore presumed herself at liberty to spend the late morning as she wished, and after having spent an hour reading in the sickroom, wasted little time before escaping out of doors to explore the gardens. She thought wistfully that a week previous she would have sooner found herself exploring the groves and undisturbed beauty found in the furthest recesses of the park, though at least she could enjoy the gardens without the risk of finding her petticoats six inches deep in mud.
It was with no great amount of surprise, though a far larger amount of dread, that Elizabeth found her morning constitutional interrupted by an approaching rider, none other than Mr. Joseph Jr. She now doubly wished that she had not restrained herself to the gardens and hurried her steps, attempting to lose herself further into the garden's depths. Her efforts proved unsuccessful, however, as the distinct crunching of gravel behind her could not be mistaken for anything but a gentleman determined to approach her.
"Miss Bennet, what a pleasant surprise to come upon you this morning," Mr. Joseph Jr. greeted her, smiling widely as he bowed.
"Mr. Joseph," she curtsied in reply.
"I hope you will find these remedies to be as requested," he replied, indicating the parcel he had removed from his saddlebag before he approached.
"I am sure they will be satisfactory, and I believe the housekeeper, Mrs. Jacobs, will know where to keep them."
"Very well, then. Allow me to escort you inside, Miss Bennet."
Elizabeth had little choice but to accept his proffered arm, little knowing that the exchange had been observed from the library window. It was unfortunate that from his vantage point, the observing gentleman could not discern the reluctant expression on her face, nor have any way of knowing that once the housekeeper was met in the entrance hall, Elizabeth left Mr. Joseph Jr. to that lady's company, excusing herself to return upstairs.
That afternoon, Elizabeth entered the Colonel's sitting room only to find it occupied by the Fitzwilliams anticipating a report from Dr. Grant, who was at that moment completing his examination. She immediately turned to excuse herself, and suggested that she might be found in the library once their private business had been addressed, but as Lady Matlock met her eye and wordlessly held out her hand, Elizabeth could not but offer her support. Reaching out to give the Lady's hand a comforting squeeze, she seated herself beside the anxious mother. Elizabeth drew some comfort of her own as she received an approving nod from the Viscount, missing the soft expression on the face of the other young gentleman in the room as Mr. Darcy looked upon her compassion with admiration.
The Earl and Dr. Grant exited the sick room, bearing less somber expressions than they had upon entering it, giving some sense of relief to the three family members who noted the difference.
"He shows no sign of fever, which relieves my greatest concerns," began Dr. Grant, "His breathing is steady and his heart is strong. Though I must caution there is always a strong danger inherent to such lapses of consciousness, his sturdy constitution gives us every reason to believe that he shall eventually awaken, and be able to make a complete recovery with time."
Though their highest anticipation was in hopes of the moment the Colonel would awaken, this news was no less a blessing to those assembled outside of the sickroom. Elizabeth smiled upon seeing the heartfelt relief that Dr. Grant's confident report spread across Lady Matlock's features. Nothing could be stated for certain until the Colonel was awake, but Dr. Grant's confident report and the faith her husband had put in it were enough to sustain her optimism.
The party from Hunsford Parsonage called at Rosings Park the following morning just as those in residence completed their breakfast. Lady Catherine announced that she had parish business to discuss with her parson, and declared that Miss Bennet would join her to receive Mrs. Collins and Miss Lucas. After the requisite half hour had passed, and Charlotte relayed news of no great consequence, Lady Catherine made note of the time, prompting Elizabeth to excuse herself to attend the Colonel.
The upstairs staff now familiar with her frequent presence, Elizabeth entered the sickroom and took her place beside the bed. She opened her book and began to read, occasionally pausing to dab the Colonel's brow with a cool cloth from the nearby basin, and looking up to acknowledge each of the servants who occasionally came near.
She was surprised then, to see one the maids bringing a tray laden with a pitcher and pair of drinking glasses. When a footman followed with a small side table and the tray was placed beside her, she paused in her reading and inquired if she was to attempt to get the patient to drink, and if so a spoon or small ladle such as the nurse had used would make the task easier.
"Oh no, miss. This was requested specifically for your use."
Elizabeth smiled and politely expressed her thanks, wondering to which of the Fitzwilliams her kindness was truly owed, for she hardly expected such a gesture from her cousin's noble patroness.
The gentlemen at Rosings were called from the library for luncheon, only to return to it at the completion of the meal to conclude their business affairs, as the family situation that kept them in Kent by no means suspended the needs of their estates. Mr. Darcy found that his own affairs were settled rather quickly, whether this was due to his own strict diligence or to the distraction of the other two gentlemen could not be discerned. He politely excused himself from his uncle, and before he had thought to have any particular destination in mind for the remainder of the afternoon, he found his hand reaching for the door of the Colonel's sitting room. A moment's hesitation later and he found himself in the room, treading towards the bedchamber, only to stop abruptly upon hearing the soft and pleasing voice lilting through from the other side of the door. He cursed his foolishness in forgetting that she would more likely than not be reading to the Colonel at any given moment throughout the day. He then argued back, albeit weakly, that his thoughts were of course strictly concern for his cousin. He lingered over the seemingly simple decision, neither wanting to make him presence known nor able to tear himself away. He stood transfixed as he fought the niggling feeling that told him he knew full well she would be there, and it was her very presence that had drawn him hither.
At last his reason intervened, and he acknowledged that worse than taking the course he fought desiring would be to be discovered in his present position, without any sensible excuse for his hovering at a closed doorway as though he were daft. Frustrated at the thought of ever describing himself as thus, he determinedly left the sitting room, an act which proved quite providential when but a moment later, a young woman entered the same, shrugged at the mistaken notion that she had heard someone there, and exited the room herself.
Breakfast the following morning was carried out with all the usual grandeur the participants had learned to expect – the party fully assembled in a rather formal setting, the lady of the house staking her claim to a vast majority of the conversation, pontificating on matters regarding her estate that were of little concern to anyone but herself.
Elizabeth startled at the clipped pronunciation of the address and was thankful she had been paying some mind to Lady Catherine's words rather than having tuned them out completely.
"As any young lady ought consider, it would only be appropriate to return the call paid by Mrs. Collins. As it would not be of great inconvenience to accommodate for your brief absence, and I know the weather to be tolerable, you shall want to address that civility this morning, I am sure."
"Yes, ma'am. I should always enjoy time in spent Charlotte's company."
Elizabeth was rather proud of how she addressed the civility of receiving and responding to such a 'suggestion', but whether her thoughts remained equally civil during the rest of the meal is best left unmentioned, as it would hardly reflect in her favor.
"Miss Bennet," Mr. Darcy spoke, rather conveniently as they left the breakfast room and the scope of Lady Catherine's attention, "Cressbrook and I should like to join you in calling at the parsonage this morning."
"After all," the Viscount leaned in to interject, "the residents of this house have quite shamelessly stolen one of Mrs. Collins' guests, and some of us ought express our appreciation of her forbearance."
"I shall go and request that the horses be saddled – I am quite sure the groom has a suitable ladies' mount, Miss Elizabeth," said Mr. Darcy as he turned from the lady to his cousin, "And I am sure your stallion will be glad to seat his master rather than a groom this morning."
Not in the least oblivious to Miss Elizabeth's opinion of such presumption, the Viscount turned to address his cousin, and was quite amused to see that the purportedly intelligent fellow seemed completely unaware. "You forget, Darcy, that while Miss Elizabeth enjoys a well deserved respite, I shall be seated at my brother's side."
With that, Viscount Cressbrook headed towards the staircase with a twinkle in his eye, one which his misguided cousin was inclined to interpret as much more for his advantage than reality would have it be. Nonetheless, said misguided gentleman mused that he did not have the slightest objection to keeping Miss Bennet's company all to himself.
"Mr. Darcy, I thank you for the offered mount, but I would much rather walk. I am no horsewoman after all, and besides which, I would not be adequately attired."
"Of course. I shall have the curricle brought 'round."
Had she not been distracted by her increasing frustration with the presumptuous gentleman now headed towards the stables, Elizabeth would likely have heard the soft chuckling of the Viscount halfway up the stairs. At his cousin's last statement, James Fitzwilliam was even further amused that so intelligent a man could not see how his obtuse behavior nettled Miss Bennet.
During the ride to the parsonage, conversation was found as uncomfortable by one party as it was encouraging to the other. "It must be very agreeable to Mrs. Collins, being settled within so easy a distance of her own family."
"An easy distance, sir? Why it is nearly fifty miles."
"And what is fifty miles of good road? Little more than half a day's journey. I call it a very easy distance."
"I would not consider Mrs. Collins as settled near her family, and I am persuaded she would not think of herself as such at half the present distance."
"It is a proof of your own attachment to Hertfordshire," Mr. Darcy smiled, "Anything beyond the very neighborhood of Longbourn, I suppose, would appear far – though I did not imagine you would wish to be settled so."
"I do not mean to say that a woman may not be settled too near her family," Elizabeth replied thoughtfully, "The far and the near must be relative, and depend on many varying circumstances. Perhaps where there is fortune to make the expense of travel unimportant, a woman may consider such a distance as near her family, but that is not the case here."
Mr. Darcy drew himself a little towards her and said, "You cannot have a right to such very strong local attachment. You cannot have been always at Longbourn."
Elizabeth knew not quite what to make of this speech, but thankfully the drive to the parsonage was a short one, and as they had nearly arrived, she was saved from having to make any reply.
Mrs. Collins welcomed her friend quite warmly, grateful to have Elizabeth back as her guest, if only for a short while. She accepted Mr. Darcy's compliments gracefully, finding it rather unfortunate that the gentleman's presence impeded any chance for the ladies to discuss Elizabeth's situation, no matter how strongly they wished to. Such a circumstance could not be helped, however, and Charlotte Collins determined that the visit could still be of some use to forwarding the interests of her friends.
Having dispensed with the prerequisite civilities, Charlotte saw to it that each of her guests were settled comfortably with a cup of tea, and set to engage the two silent parties in conversation.
"It has been some months since we last met in Hertfordshire, Mr. Darcy. I trust you have been well, sir?"
"Very well, ma'am," the gentleman replied.
"It is unfortunate we never had the opportunity to meet after the Netherfield Ball. I must say having that great house occupied again and the additional society did make my last months in Hertfordshire quite enjoyable."
Here Charlotte did not dare sneak a glance at Elizabeth, knowing how well her friend was likely to suspect the direction of her conversation and how unlikely she was to approve it. Alas she had never quite agreed with her friend's assessment of Mr. Darcy, nor been equally convinced that he bore the greatest share of blame for Mr. Bingley's withdrawal. Here was an opportunity to discover the truth of the matter, and so she continued, "Though I suppose the crush of engagements that come with a new neighbor does inevitably fade. I trust Mr. Bingley has found himself well settled into the neighborhood since I have left?"
That Mrs. Collins would be uninformed of the activity, or lack of activity, in one of the principle houses of her old neighborhood while having so many gossiping acquaintances to litter the post seemed highly improbable to Mr. Darcy, and such sentiment was not entirely hidden on his visage. Elizabeth looked upon him with apprehension, and turned in askance to her childhood friend.
Thankfully, however much he may have doubted the veracity of the lady's statement, Mr. Darcy was too much the gentleman to acknowledge it, and replied, "I understand that Mr. Bingley has remained in town on business, and finds himself quite fixed there."
That this information was not surprising to Mrs. Collins, and that it was not taken well by Miss Elizabeth was etched on each of their countenances, though the former carried on the conversation without missing a beat.
"His sisters must be enjoying London," said Mrs. Collins. Turning to Elizabeth, she asked innocently, "Has Jane had the opportunity to call on Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley?"
"Yes," Elizabeth replied as kindly as she could, considering her anger towards one of the persons in the room and her growing ire towards the other, "She was quite anxious to renew the acquaintance upon leaving Longbourn, and called in Grosvenor Street very shortly after her arrival in London."
"I understood from my mother that Jane had been somewhat out of spirits of late. I hope being reacquainted with her new friends has helped to distract her and bring her out of her melancholy?"
"Unfortunately it seems the same business matters which keep the brother in town have also kept the sisters much occupied." Elizabeth could not stop herself from casting a sharp look towards Mr. Darcy as she said this, and prided herself that he did not seem unaffected by it. "As much as Jane would like to continue their friendship, Miss Bingley informed her that she is so busy she does not know when she will be able to resume her morning calls."
The contempt in which Elizabeth held this falsehood was thinly veiled as she spoke. Mr. Darcy could not deny the falsehoods that lay hidden behind Miss Bingley's claims, having been a party to them. Their effect on Miss Elizabeth, however, made such an impression on him that he was content to withdraw into his own thoughts. Mrs. Collins, desirous as she was to converse with her friend, and gathering she would be unsuccessful at ferreting additional information from Mr. Darcy, paid little mind that the gentleman hardly contributed to the continuing conversation.
While the ladies chatted, as old friends are wont to do, Mr. Darcy thought over his actions the previous fall. At first, he could not find fault with them. His concern over Mr. Bingley's tendency to move from admiration to love, and from love to matrimony in a moment was legitimate. Considering how such a disposition could be opportunized, and given Mrs. Bennet's blatant and vulgar interest in the face of her daughter's unaffected manner, his concern was natural and just.
His actions in London, however, he could not look upon with an equal sense of pride. To deliberately hide Miss Bennet's presence in town from Bingley had been beneath him. He had known it almost from the moment the deceit had been carried out, and yet had seen little advantage to his friend in revealing the truth so belatedly, unless – What if he were to have truly been mistaken where Miss Bennet's feelings for Bingley were concerned? And here he was on the verge of courting her sister! No, it would not do. He would at least inquire further and reconsider the matter, he owed Bingley as much.
As Mr. Darcy drove her back to Rosings Park, Elizabeth was perfectly content to ride on in silence, her mind occupied by unpleasant thoughts of the Bingley sisters and their actions against Jane. Mr. Darcy, however, observed her darkened countenance, and hoped to be of some comfort to her.
"I am sorry to hear your sister is not as well as when I saw her last, Miss Bennet."
Elizabeth accepted the gesture civilly, but made no effort to forward the conversation.
"Perhaps she is in want of her sister's lively company?"
"No, sir, I am afraid not," Elizabeth sighed despondently. "As much as I have attempted it, I fear it is not my company that would lighten her spirits, for she has not been herself since early December last year. Even the Christmas season did not bring anything that could restore her good humor."
"Miss Bennet does not strike me as one prone to ill humor."
"She could not be farther from it! You have been in my sister's company enough to know that she is as good-natured as she is serene and reserved. My sister may not be overly expressive, and I daresay she tries to make herself appear as tranquil as is her wont, but those closest to her know of her disappointment."
Well, there you have it, Darcy. Unless you believe Elizabeth is lying directly to your face, or that her own sister has deceived her, Jane Bennet truly did share Bingley's regard, as she now shares his melancholy… While Mr. Darcy still could not think of Jane Bennet as the best match for his friend, he had to admit the primary motive behind his interference had just been overturned.
"I must say that Bingley seems to have been experiencing much of the same in London," Mr. Darcy replied seriously, pausing before he added, "Perhaps if he knew the address at which to call upon your sister, a renewed acquaintance might lighten the spirits of both?"
Mr. Darcy could not believe the words he had just spoken to sound anything like himself, but as he turned to Elizabeth with a falsely innocent smile, he found his efforts well rewarded in the bright smile she returned.
"Then perchance a friend will tell Mr. Bingley that my sister stays with our aunt and uncle Gardiner who reside in Gracechurch Street," Elizabeth replied merrily, "I can say for certain that at least one party will be very happy to become reacquainted." Oh, Jane! If only I could be there to see you so happy! I do hope Mr. Darcy is in earnest.
Elizabeth cast a sidelong glance at Mr. Darcy, whose slight smile became a bit self-satisfied as he met her look with a knowing gaze. Of course he shall keep his word, like him or not, Mr. Darcy is nothing if not fastidiously honorable.
Posted on 2009-11-09
Miss Elizabeth was sent to the apothecary again the following morning, as given her previous success, Lady Catherine saw it only fitting that she continue with the task. She was not surprised to find once again that a curricle approached not long after she had departed Rosings, though she did not look upon the identity of the driver with quite the same aversion that she had once felt towards him. Little conversation was to be had as they travelled into the village, both parties inhibited by the subject of their last conversation; she not quite brave enough to ask if he had written to Mr. Bingley, and he bearing a letter in his pocket addressed to the very same.
That evening after dinner, Lady Matlock approached Elizabeth as the party left the dining room and pressed that she would enjoy her conversation over tea and coffee. While she had a genuine interest in becoming further acquainted with the young Miss Bennet, she was also very eager to demonstrate to the young lady that she considered her one of the family party, no matter Lady Catherine's opinion on the subject.
Elizabeth was thankful for the pleasant reprieve of making polite conversation with Lady Matlock, speaking on the same trivial subjects that are common between new acquaintances. Neither lady objected to the neglect from their hostess, as they were quite content to talk amongst themselves, and nearly a half hour passed before Lady Catherine's voice became loud enough to command the attention of the entire room.
"Darcy," the great Lady called imperiously, summoning her nephew to her side. "I understand you have been ordering the curricle quite frequently. I trust you find the conveyance and the horses to your approval."
"Indeed, Aunt. They suit my needs most adequately."
If at this statement Darcy turned away from Lady Catherine and looked about the room, daring only the briefest of glances towards a certain young lady in attempt to meet her eye, none were the wiser as to his intent. All those present, including that certain lady, assumed his actions to be nothing more than the formal and aloof behavior he typically exuded in his aunt's presence.
"Taking the air in such a way is most beneficial, nephew, as I have never hesitated to express, and I often encourage Anne to ride out with her phaeton and ponies when the weather is suitable to her constitution. And to do so without the inherent risk of going by horseback," Lady Catherine continued as she turned smugly to her larger audience, "my nephew, being such a staid and serious young man, is obviously quite cognizant of the inducements."
A rather violent coughing fit immediately followed the last of Lady Catherine's statement, and all eyes turned towards the gentleman responsible who appeared to have choked on his tea. Mr. Darcy's only response was to discard the offending teacup and saucer on the nearest table and develop a sudden interest in a turn about the other side of the room, resolutely keeping his back to the party until he heard the general hum of conversation resume.
As he had on the occasion previous, Mr. Joseph Jr. came to Rosings Park the following morning to deliver his draughts, once again desirous of taking them directly to the lady who had requested them. Upon his arrival, he was directed to the Colonel's sickroom, where Miss Bennet was to be attending the patient. Somewhat shocked by his sudden presence, Elizabeth excused herself from Lady Matlock, with whom she had been conversing, and attempted to address the awkward situation as smoothly as possible. Lady Matlock, confident that Elizabeth's heart belonged to her son, immediately recognized Mr. Joseph Jr. for the unwelcome admirer that he was, and did not take long to follow the pair into the sitting room.
It was unfortunate that while Lady Matlock was easily able to discern Elizabeth's discomfiture, the gentleman causing it was not. Though the business that brought him to Rosings could have been resolved by a simple exchange, Mr. Joseph Jr. was inclined to draw out the conversation – and how could he not be, with such an inducement before him. Polite attempts by both ladies to curtail his visit were unsuccessful, whether this was due to his determination to press his suit or obtuse ignorance they could not determine, but either case seemed rather likely. At length came an interruption – which was quite welcomed by the ladies – as Mr. Darcy entered the sitting room.
If Mr. Darcy was surprised to find the sitting room thus occupied, his countenance did not show it. After greeting his aunt civilly, he was quick to express his purpose in joining them. He suggested that Miss Elizabeth might benefit from taking the air, and that he would accompany her. Lady Matlock was quick to corroborate with the scheme, as she assumed her nephew to have made the suggestion in order to help discourage Mr. Joseph Jr. She may have given too much credit to Mr. Darcy's astuteness, however, as he was inclined to take her ready agreement as a forwarding of his own suit.
As the other half of the already established walking party, Miss Elizabeth had little choice but to accept Mr. Darcy's invitation – although she was quite willing, considering her other option for male company.
Mr. Darcy led Elizabeth out to walk in the back gardens. Their conversation was slow to start – she being the more sociable of the two, and still regaining her equanimity after her encounter with the younger Mr. Joseph.
For Mr. Darcy's part, he endeavored to think of something to speak to her about. It was too early to know if anything had come of his revelation to Bingley, and surely no good would come of speaking on that subject if in the end all were to come to naught. Surely there is some intellectual topic on which we are both knowledgeable…
At last he settled on a more neutral topic. "And how do you like Rosings, Miss Bennet?" Apparently I am content to settle on a more inane topic, Mr. Darcy thought ruefully after he spoke, though he soon reminded himself to attend her answer.
"My opinion continually improves as I get more opportunity to see the grounds."
Mr. Darcy knew he looked at her strangely there, and he feared she would note his reaction to be more than her simple answer warranted. He was in fact contemplating how well she might like getting to know the grounds at his own estate, and struggling for a more articulate manner of expression than the phrase running through his head, 'When we are married, you will take an even greater liking to our grounds at Pemberley.' – very eloquent indeed.
He could not realize that she fancied his pause to be due some interpreted slight to his Aunt's home in her previous comment and added, "The house itself is very grand, and I am becoming sufficiently familiar with a good portion of it, such that I can find my way without becoming hopelessly lost."
He smiled at this, as she had hoped he might, considering her previous concern. "My Aunt does rather pride herself on procuring the finest and grandest, as she has little need to limit her expense. Perhaps on future visits you will have occasion to become more familiar with the house."
Conversation came to a stilted halt as both parties turned away. The implication that she would be a guest at Rosings Park on several occasions in the future affected Elizabeth greatly, though perhaps not in the way Mr. Darcy had hoped. Where he felt to have made a strong allusion to his intentions, she was brought to mind of how deeply rooted and complex the Earl and Countess' misconception was, and realized they must have shared their 'intelligence' with their nephew. She was quite apprehensive of Mr. Darcy's opinion on this subject. The notion of her being acquainted with and engaged to the son of an Earl was rather unrealistic to her mind, and Mr. Darcy had seen enough in Hertfordshire to know her every reason.
As she kept her eyes steadily averted from Mr. Darcy, Miss Elizabeth saw a rider off in the distance; undoubtedly Mr. Joseph returning to the village. Now that her inducement for remaining outdoors had departed, she murmured her excuses to return to the Colonel and hastily retreated towards the house. Mr. Darcy was left standing amongst the shrubberies, wondering at her odd behavior.
Mrs. Collins had issued an invitation for her friend to take tea with her at the parsonage that afternoon, no doubt credited by her husband to the preconceived request and approval of Lady Catherine. Given the odd events of the morning, Elizabeth was happy for the freedom found in the company of her friend, and the two spent a pleasant half hour conversing in the parlor. Elizabeth had acquired plenty of experiences at Rosings Park which she could relate with good humor and a sense of wit, which Charlotte was not averse to hearing.
The afternoon took an unfortunate turn however, when another visitor could be heard arriving at the door. A heavy shuffling in the hall indicated that Mr. Collins had anticipated this visitor, unexpected as he might be to the mistress of the house. The identity of the caller soon became known when Mr. Collins ceremoniously swept into the room, presenting Mr. Joseph Jr. and expressing their intent to spend 'a most pleasant afternoon in the company of two most charming ladies'. Having heard enough of Elizabeth's anecdotes to guess her feelings about such company, Charlotte sent her friend an apologetic look. She truly had not expected her husband to use an innocent invitation to tea for such machinations.
The ladies were obliged to greet Mr. Collins and his guest politely, no matter their true feelings regarding the interruption of their tete-a-tete; and when Charlotte offered the gentlemen tea, Elizabeth had little choice but to regain her seat. Mr. Joseph Jr., she was grateful to find, did have a sufficient sense of propriety not to take the seat beside her on the settee, but his taking the armchair angled just beside it she considered a rather small degree of improvement.
Mr. Joseph enthusiastically expressed his delight at finding Miss Elizabeth present, Mr. Collins' introduction having implied the meeting to be intentional not hindering his effusions in the least. Miss Elizabeth replied civilly, if not with equal enthusiasm, which Mr. Joseph took as sufficient encouragement to monopolize her attention for the next quarter hour. He expounded on his father's prestigious position as doctor to more than one of the principal houses in the area, and his having been brought up to follow in his father's footsteps once he had completed his schooling. How it was that he was now at least five and twenty and had instead become the local apothecary was conveniently left out as he went on to speak of his own career and what he considered to be the finer points pertaining to it.
As much as she enjoyed so detailed a description of the numerous advantages Mr. Joseph believed his situation entailed – and therefore could offer a wife – Elizabeth noted the time, and that she could now excuse herself from the conversation without giving offense. Before another moment passed, she turned to her friend and announced the hour had come that she must return to Rosings Park.
Another week went by, the busy comings and goings at Rosings Park carrying on much as they had during the days previous. Lady Matlock grew very fond of the young lady she expected to one day call her daughter, and quite often requested that they take tea together. Lady Catherine's rigorous schedule for the servants attending the sickroom did not change, nor did her frequent commissions that Miss Bennet attend personally to some apothecary need or other. It came as no surprise to Miss Elizabeth that a curricle would invariably happen to overcome her not long into her walk, sometimes driven by the Viscount but most often by Mr. Darcy, and that the gentlemen would gallantly offer to assist her. Elizabeth was more surprised to note that just as the opportunities she found to escape the house for a walk increased, so did the occasions where she would either be accompanied by Mr. Darcy or come across him in the park. She had always been at ease with making conversation, and he often made more of an effort to join her. Upon reflection she did note the subjects he brought up were sometimes disconnected, sometimes strange; she could not discern whether these odd questions were intentional or merely due to his want of practice making idle conversation.
As much as Miss Elizabeth feared his mentioning the supposed engagement, he did not, and the context of his speeches did not often imply that he might aware of it. Thus all the more disconcerting were Mr. Darcy's continued implications about her future visits to Rosings Park. Once he even went so far as to suggest that there would be no need to avoid riding on the next occasion, as the Colonel would likely want to be up in the saddle again even sooner than his recovery would allow. However he went on to speak of the far corners of the estate he and his sister Georgiana would enjoy showing to her, which puzzled her more and more.
The only difference to note was the frequency with which Mr. Darcy came to be in the Colonel's sitting room. He would of course attend to business matters first, and would often retire to the library once the post had arrived. Yet Pemberley continued to run remarkably smoothly, quite conveniently allowing its master a prolonged absence with little issue, and thus leaving him with very little to do. Ostensibly he reasoned that the sitting room was simply a natural place to be available should his cousin's condition change and a quiet place to read the books he often picked up on his way out of the library. Whether or not he spared a glance for the books' titles as he reached for them, and knew whether he held Mrs. Radcliffe's latest novel or Aristotle, was neither here nor there.
Mr. Darcy would settle in with his book, smiling softly at the tranquil melody seeping through the sealed doorway, a certain lady reading peacefully beyond it. On the few occasions that he was caught, there were ready excuses that the doctor was to examine the Colonel soon or that he had come to offer her a walk once her reading was completed. Most often, however, he was left to his own company. It was during these times, as he stared past the pages before him, that Mr. Darcy realized he knew exactly how many days Elizabeth had been in residence at Rosings. He knew which dishes she enjoyed most when they dined, and he knew when he would be most likely to encounter her on her way out for a walk. He had long come to recognize the expressions on her lovely face, but he now knew the things to say that would make her smile, raise her playful ire or bait her wit. His idea of their future was no longer just a blurry vision of idyllic happiness, but of specific outings he knew she would enjoy, and places she would like to visit again, or had expressed an interest in seeing.
Mr. Darcy allowed himself to consider further the reason he had been behaving so uncharacteristically. He had long given up the pretense of limiting his time in her company, and though he was not a man given over to romantic sentiment, admitted that he was all but pursuing her openly. His previous conviction that she would be an inappropriate match for him had slowly crumbled, and was further shattered by the Matlock's open acceptance and admiration of her – clearly welcoming her as more than a slight acquaintance. He even considered that they had perhaps noticed his regard and acted thusly not only out of respect for her admirable character, but as a sign of their tacit approval. A languorous smile spread across his features as he gave himself leave to think further on the matter.
The gentleman who sat beside his ailing cousin showed none of his usual calm, his agitation at last dragging him to his feet, as though the movement would ease his preoccupation. Mr. Darcy had come to an unfortunate juncture, where having at last acknowledged the depth and strength of his feelings, the next step was less clear. The natural course of progression for such cases as these was simple enough; and required naught but a particular question from him and affirmative response from her. Under his family's present circumstances, however, it seemed grossly vulgar to make her an offer at the present time, particularly as she was so closely involved in the situation. But surely there must be some way to broach the subject with her? Even if I should not yet propose, or we cannot make a formal announcement, to go on without reaching some sort of understanding –
Miss Elizabeth entered the sickroom, surprised to find therein Mr. Darcy pacing back and forth, the agitation of these thoughts etched upon his countenance. Unfortunately her attempt to make her escape unnoticed was thwarted by a creaking hinge, and after a brief passing of shock, and then perhaps embarrassment over his features, Mr. Darcy sedately moved to sit beside the bed, and offered for Miss Elizabeth to do the same.
"Will you not be seated, Miss Bennet?" he said, hoping to have schooled his tone into some degree of normalcy.
"Thank you, no," she replied with a light smile, not nearly as calm as she wished it to be, "I would not wish to intrude – that is, had I known you were here, I would not have dreamt to trespass upon your privacy."
"There are two of us present, besides yourself," Mr. Darcy said lightly, indicating his cousin, who, he was happy to note, once again had more color than the day before.
Appreciating the smile that accompanied his speech, she replied in kind, "Hence my arriving at the hour deemed appropriate for reading today, as Lady Catherine has suggested."
"Yes, my Aunt is very fond of giving 'suggestions'."
At that moment, a maid entered from the adjoining sitting room and announced, "A Mr. Joseph for Miss Bennet, sir."
Elizabeth excused herself to the sitting room, so as not to unduly disturb the Colonel. Mr. Darcy remained by his cousin's side, turning frequently to the door that lay partially ajar between the bedchamber and the sitting room, each glance growing more rueful as the voices of Miss Bennet and Mr. Joseph Jr. trickled through its opening. Though he could distinguish very little of what was actually said, he found Mr. Joseph far too ingratiating and Miss Bennet far too receptive. How much his own interest in the lady biased these opinions, he would not admit. At length Miss Bennet returned, nonchalantly explaining that Mr. Joseph had brought some additional remedies for the Colonel. Mr. Darcy internally scoffed that their conversation seemed rather longer than necessary for such an exchange. To Miss Elizabeth he responded politely, and making excuses on the pretext of business, made to leave.
Had not the darkening of his mood been clue enough, Miss Elizabeth distinctly recalled Mr. Darcy's remark at luncheon stating that his business for the day was already in order. She was not immune to the agitation he had displayed before she made her presence known – which had apparently returned – and supposing it to be attributed to weighty concern for his cousin, was compelled to draw him out of it. In truth, she was a few minutes early for her scheduled reading, and in this instance she was inclined refer to her own judgment on how to best help this family rather than refer to Lady Catherine's.
Elizabeth suggested a walk, surprising herself at the ease that came with making such an offer. He looked at her questioningly for a moment, but her challenging expression dared him to reassert the pretext of business which she obviously knew to be false. With a smile, he welcomed the opportunity, and they agreed that a brief tour of the gardens would best suit Elizabeth's time constraints. Conversation easily returned to anecdotes and suppositions about other occasions where Lady Catherine's suggestions were not heeded.
Mr. Darcy entered the sitting room early one afternoon, hoping once again to sit and ostensibly read while a young lady in the next room did the same, albeit more earnestly. However, finding the room occupied by Lady Matlock, he did not wish to intrude and bowed slightly before turning to take his leave.
"Darcy," his aunt called after him, much more softly than another of his aunts was inclined, "do come and sit beside me."
Mr. Darcy did as he she requested, and gently took his aunt's offered hand as he settled himself beside her. "He is going to be alright, you know," Mr. Darcy began, "I have been reading several texts on the subject, and as Dr. Grant has said, there are many particulars that indicate he should make a full recovery, and likely very quickly."
"I know, Fitzwilliam," she said softly, reaching over to pat the hand which comfortingly held hers. "I assure you I did not have so dire a reason for asking you to remain.
"My Richard would have our heads for sitting and worrying over him in such a way," she added, drawing a small chuckle from both. "Am I not allowed to simply welcome the company of my nephew?"
Mr. Darcy raised an eyebrow, something about her innocent tone implying a far less simplistic reason behind her request.
If Lady Matlock noticed this gesture, she wisely chose not to acknowledge it. "Come, let us go and sit beside Richard. You and Dr. Grant are always reminding us that it may soothe him to hear our voices, so we may as well continue our conversation there."
"It is so kind of Miss Bennet to assist us in such a way," she said, gently running her hand over the book left on the side table, "I certainly hope she has not taken offense at my sister's manner of request."
"I would think her more likely to find humor in the situation than offense."
"Yes, she is quite witty, though I sometimes wonder if she speaks so out of discomfort, meaning to defend herself."
"On the contrary," Mr. Darcy smiled softly, "I believe she takes pleasure in advocating her side of a debate. At times I think she quite enjoys professing opinions which are not her own."
Lady Matlock continued to speak of Miss Bennet, occasionally recounting an experience with the young lady from the past weeks at Rosings, though always return to more direct questions and fishing for her nephew's opinions of Elizabeth.
"May I ask to what these questions tend?" Mr. Darcy asked, having answered his aunt's many inquiries about Elizabeth's social habits and acquaintances, reading preferences and musical taste – and not being particularly fond of the exercise.
"Come Darcy, I am merely trying to learn more about the young lady's character. Given your longstanding acquaintance, I thought you would know more of her and I did not think you would mind speaking on the subject."
"I am not so very well acquainted with her as you seem to think," he replied carefully, "I had not met her before visiting at Netherfield last fall." Throughout this interview, Mr. Darcy had become increasingly convinced that his aunt was probing for information to qualify her as a future niece. This in itself was not a daunting prospect, as he had every intention of making her just that and he believed his aunt to be fond of her already. That his aunt had detected his interest and chose to address in it such a matter was more disconcerting.
"Oh? I had thought perhaps you would have been introduced in London," Lady Matlock replied, not only oblivious to his attachment, but also his present distress.
"In London? I do not see how that would be possible, as unfortunately we do not move in quite the same circles, and thus we are not likely to have any mutual acquaintance there."
"Richard did not introduce you?" asked Lady Matlock with some degree of incredulity. Perhaps she should not feel so excluded after all if Richard had not introduced her to Darcy either.
"Richard?" Mr. Darcy found himself thoroughly confused by the conversation's sudden change in direction, "I had not known he was previously acquainted with the lady."
"Then you truly do not know? I had only assumed you were hesitant to speak of it." Lady Matlock continued softly, almost to herself, "How very strange, I had always understood the two of you to be thick as thieves."
Here Mr. Darcy began to panic as he tried to piece together what his aunt could possibly be referring to, none of the possibilities boding well at all. "Aunt," he replied slowly, trying to keep the agitation from his voice, "what is it that you had assumed I would know?"
Lady Matlock hesitated at her nephew's intense gaze, but there was nothing for it but to speak of the knowledge he apparently lacked. "I cannot say for certain how formally the subject has been broached between them, but I am quite sure that if Richard and Miss Elizabeth are not engaged, once he has recovered they very soon shall be."Continued In Next Section