Section I, Next Section
The lovely summer afternoon had been a vast deal too pleasant to waste indoors, and so the Gardiners and their second niece had ventured without with a picnic lunch, determined to enjoy Derbyshire's many beauties first hand. Being well acquainted with the area since her girlhood, Mrs. Gardiner was well suited to the task of selecting the perfect spot in which to stop for their repast, and the trio had not gone four miles from the inn when she directed them toward a charming grove filled with chestnut trees.
"We used to collect the chestnuts here when I was a girl," she remarked fondly to Elizabeth, who was watching the landscape with a true enjoyment for nature as the carriage eased to a halt. "If I remember correctly, there is a particularly fine tree off in that direction, on the green by the smithy."
Elizabeth turned toward her much beloved aunt and smiled affectionately. "Then I shall not be happy until I have seen it, and were I feeling especially naughty, climbed it as well."
Mrs. Gardiner was quick to reply in the same teasing tones. "Oh, Lizzy! You take a great delight in vexing me!"
Elizabeth laughed heartily at this mimic of her mother's antics, then stood in the carriage to be handed out by her uncle.
"I am quite sure my mother is finding plenty of vexations at home without me there to expound upon them, Aunt."
Mr. Gardiner answered for his wife. "I dare say she is, Lizzy. But let us give her the benefit of the doubt and venture not to concern ourselves with the subject, especially on such a fine day."
The driver lifted the picnic basket from the back of the carriage and began to spread the cloth, and soon the party was engaged in the arranging of the lunch things. As they ate a pleasant and companionable discussion ensued on the delights of the excursion thus far, the quaint charms of Lambton, the beauties of Mrs. Gardiner's home county, and of the more agreeable of family matters. When they had finished their meal, Elizabeth felt, not for the first time during her stay with the Gardiners, that she would surely be content to remain in their amiable company forever, and told them warmly she should be happy to spend the rest of her life in Derbyshire.
"And in view of that consideration, perhaps I should explore it more extensively. Would you mind very much if I were to walk out on my own a bit? I'll not go far, and promise to be back here within the hour."
"I can see no objection to that. So long as you see to it that you do not loose your way."
"Though I can not think of a better place in which to loose oneself, I'll endeavor to resist the temptation." Elizabeth stood and replaced the summer bonnet over her dark curls.
"You might try walking over that hill to the west, Lizzy," suggested Mrs. Gardiner, pointing in its direction. "I think you'll find that if you walk for about a mile, you'll be rewarded with the sight of surely the handsomest house and grounds that ever was seen."
"Indeed? Who owns the estate?"
"A very wealthy and respected family, the Darcys. The house is called Pemberley and is a very grand place to be sure, but I think you'll agree when you see it that one almost forgets its vastness when one is confronted with its loveliness. It quite compliments and indeed enhances the beauty of its natural setting."
Elizabeth smiled thoughtfully. "You intrigue me, Aunt. Perhaps I shall have to go and make a nuisance of myself. Or I may be content simply to perch on an nearby hillside and gawk. I have a weakness for natural beauty, as you are well aware."
"Well, go and amuse yourself then, my girl," said Mr. Gardiner jovially. "There are far worse things for a young person to take delight in than fresh air and exercise."
Elizabeth laughed over her shoulder as she began walking briskly toward her destination. "Unless one takes them at Gretna Green!"
Cheeks flushed and eyes bright, Elizabeth kept her energetic pace as she climbed yet another of Derbyshire's rolling hills. Hoping vaguely that she was still headed in the right direction, she was again struck by the beauty of her surroundings. "Wildness and artifice" her uncle had called it, and she was beginning to understand what he meant. She had never known a place so favored with natural beauty, nor so completely lacking in human disturbance. How very different from the bustle of London it was, and even that of Meryton, aflutter with tradesman, silly young girls, and the occasional company of militia. Elizabeth filled her lungs with the sweet Derbyshire air, then with a little grin for herself alone, she pulled her skirts high and ran exuberantly down the hill.
Fitzwilliam Darcy urged his horse forward with a flick of his riding crop. As the scenery grew more familiar he recognized that Pemberley was quite near now, and that soon he would be on his own grounds. Anxious to see his sister and ascertain how she was holding up after the unpleasantness and Ramsgate, he had left his London townhouse and his business matters a day early in order to be with her. A concerned and affectionate brother, he had been able to turn his attention to little else whilst he had been in Town, and now he was eager to watch over Georgiana's recovery from heartbreak himself.
Darcy thought again of the vile Wickham creature and how he'd have liked to send the odious man to the far reaches of the earth on a raft with a gaping hole in it. It was incomprehensible to Darcy how his adversary had managed to disguise his grievous faults long enough to persuade such a sweet and virtuous girl to consent to an elopement and never given himself away. And now poor Georgiana, the gentlest and best of her sex, was suffering because of his mercenary and willful deceit. It was surely too much to be borne.
Darcy was suddenly pulled from his gloomy reflections when he caught sight of a figure moving in the distance. Upon further observance, he realized that it was a young woman, scampering about atop the hill just ahead, as if she were no more than a girl of ten. Darcy was then taken utterly by surprise when the object of his observance snatched the bonnet from her head and flung it high in the air, laughing as it toppled downwards and into her arms.
Slightly amused at this sight, Darcy labeled the young woman as a dairy maid or some such peasant, enjoying a brief moment away from her duties. Yet as he rode closer, he could tell that she was by no means attired as a working class girl would, and though he could certainly not see her apparel in detail, he knew enough of ladies' clothing to be sure that she must at least be the daughter of a successful farmer or merchant in the town.
Meanwhile, the girl, oblivious to her audience, continued to savor the delights of her own company and her own hilltop. And yet, before he even saw her go, Darcy watched as she galloped down the slope and off in the very direction he himself was going. Intrigued, Darcy followed.
Winded and slightly breathless, Elizabeth paused a moment at the edge of a lovely wood to catch her breath. She was beginning to wonder if she would ever reach the house at all, and whether it might be wise to turn back. But pausing to recollect her progress, she realized she could not have been walking more than a quarter of an hour, and that it would do no harm to wander a little farther before retracing her steps.
It was just as she had started walking again that she noticed the horseman riding toward her from whence she had come. He was still a ways off by her calculations, but as he rode closer, Elizabeth admired the ease and skill with which he handled the animal. On the crest of a hill he paused, and it seemed to her as if he stared into the valley to catch a glimpse of herself. Elizabeth flushed as she was able to make out that he was a young man, and though he was still too great a distance away for her to make out his features, she sensed that he was not a plain one either.
Chiding herself for such silly and romantic notions, Elizabeth continued on her way.
The wood was thinning. Through the flowering greenery that embodied the summer foliage, Elizabeth could see a quaint pond in the middle of a clearing, and beyond that, she fancied she would be able to make out the great walls of the house itself.
Once she had emerged from the wood, Elizabeth was rewarded with the sight of a path, further convincing her that Pemberley was near. Resisting the temptation to linger at the pond, she ran along the path until she came to another clump of trees, which she hurried through as well.
And then, it came upon her so suddenly, she hardly knew she had happened upon the object of her wanderings. There stood Pemberley, unfolded to her by the loveliest valley she'd ever beheld, nestled in what she was sure must be the most beautiful landscape in all of England.
The house itself was astonishingly fine, a graceful testament to some of the most exemplary craftsmanship Elizabeth had ever witnessed in an edifice. Mrs. Gardiner had been right. Pemberley, though very grand and luxurious to be sure, was far from ostentatious- indeed, it seemed to be as essential to its surrounding as the wood and the pond had been. It was all loveliness and grace.
Elizabeth could not seem to take her eyes from the house. Never had she beheld such a handsome structure, nor a more beautiful setting. She could think of nothing that would please her more than to spend her whole life simply admiring its fine frame. To be sure, the mistress of Pemberley must be a very happy woman indeed!
Sighing, Elizabeth realized that time was getting on, and that Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner would worry if she did not make a start back soon. With a last lingering gaze toward Pemberley's fine prospect, she turned on her heels and walked back through the trees.
The first glimpse of the pond was a welcome one for Darcy, who, slightly hot and uncomfortable in the warm summer sun, was eager to cleanse himself from perspiration and the smell of his horse. He began to work at loosening his cravat, and when he had reached the crest of the hill which eased its way down to the water, he jumped down from the animal and left it to graze. Pulling off his hat and coat, he made his way down the hill to the water's edge.
He had just sat down to work off his ridding boots when he caught sight of a movement in the trees on the other side of the pond. Supposing it to be only an animal, Darcy paid little attention. But a moment later, a flash of color which he perceived from the corner of his eye caused him to look up in the same direction again, and he saw at once that his first assumption had been quite mistaken.
Emerging from the wood was a girl, in fact, the very girl Darcy had seen not ten minutes ago scampering about the countryside. He had thought that once he had arrived on his own grounds, though she had been traveling in the direction of Pemberley, he would not catch sight of her again. He wondered who she was, and what she was doing there.
As she neared, completely oblivious to his presence, Darcy was able to make a better study of her than he had before. She walked with her bonnet in hand, allowing the sun full access to her flushed complection and rebellious dark brown curls, which seemed indisposed to staying in place. She was young, perhaps nineteen or in her early twenties, with a light and pleasing, though by no means perfect figure, and her walk was brisk and enthusiastic. It was apparent by her dress that she was not, perhaps, a fashionable and well connected lady of the ton, but her attire did attest that she must be at least a gentleman's daughter. She did not smile, but Darcy saw that her face was enlivened by an expression which spoke of both intelligence and good humor. Who ever could she be?
Elizabeth meanwhile, was lost in entirely different reflections. The reappearance of the pond brought an increased delight in her surroundings, and with an inward smile of amusement for herself, she wished she had the nerves to take a bit of a dip in it. But that was quite impossible, even on such a warm day. The Gardiners were waiting, and who could foresee what sort of strange individuals might be lurking about in the woods?
Darcy stood on the bank, in his shirt sleeves, cravat in hand, knowing that at any moment, she would look up and see him there, that undoubtedly, both would suffer some small awkwardness. Without question, she would realize then that he had been observing her for some moments, which would be a poor reflection on his behavior as a gentleman. He decided, then, to make an attempt at easing both her surprise and his own embarrassment.
"Excuse me, madam," he called to her in the most genteel of accents, "might I be of service to you?"
Elizabeth, startled by the unexpected voice, looked up hastily to find a man standing on the opposite shore of the pond. A quick glance up the hill in the horse's direction told her that this must be the horseman whose skill she had admired from afar not ten minutes ago. Now, he stood before her deprived of his ridding coat and hat and, she could not help but notice, looking quite handsome in his shirt sleeves. Elizabeth cheeks, which had been pale with surprise, became flushed with embarrassment at the turn of her thoughts; she dropped her bonnet, stooped quickly to retrieve it, felt dizzy with heat and discomfort, and promptly dropped her bonnet again.
Darcy watched all this from the other side of the pond, and could not help but feel slightly amused at the play of emotions on her expressive features and her vexation with the bonnet. He called to her again.
"Yes, I did hear you, sir," she replied briskly, more from embarrassment than impatience. "I have just come from the direction of the great house, sir. I was told by a reliable source that Pemberley was indeed a very fine prospect, and as a visitor to Derbyshire and an admirer of beauty I presumed to see it for myself. I hope I have not caused any disturbance, sir."
Darcy admired the ease and intelligence with which she spoke, and felt an unexpected eagerness to learn of her other accomplishments. He replied, "No, of course not. There are many travelers who pass through here in the summer months to have a look at the place. And are you pleased Pemberley?"
Elizabeth was surprised with his apparent desire for conversation, unable to determine his connection with the house or the family, and was therefore guarded in her reply. "I think there are few who would not approve."
"I see you give your praise sparingly and with great deliberation."
"Not at all, sir. The house and grounds are indeed some of the loveliest I have ever had the pleasure to view."
He smiled modestly, as if she had given him a personal compliment, and Elizabeth wondered again who he could be. Mr. Darcy himself? Surely not. So illustrious a gentleman would hardly let himself be caught so obviously about to dive into a pond by a country nobody.
"I see you take my view of things," Darcy replied, unwilling to tell the girl who he was just yet, in an effort to save her further embarrassment. "To be sure, I am very fond of Pemberley."
She smiled obligingly and there was a pause. Elizabeth, slightly agitated, tried to think of a manner in which to politely excuse herself, and Darcy, not entirely sure why this young woman should be so interesting, grappled between the conflicting desires to make her stay and let her go. But there was something so promising in that fresh and intelligent face, an elusive quality about it that he could not ignore... He suddenly remembered that she had implied she was traveling.
"You are a visitor to Derbyshire, then, madam?"
"Yes, sir. A relative of mine, an aunt by marriage, was born and grew up in the village of Lambton. I am here, then, with she and my uncle, to visit the place and the surrounding countryside," Elizabeth answered, hoping she had not said too much to a complete stranger.
"Lambton? Why that is but five miles from here. Indeed, it is a lovely place. What is your own opinion of the village?"
Elizabeth smiled. She guessed that he was a quiet man, but for the sake of avoiding further embarrassment in their rather unorthodox situation, was making conversation for her sake. She thought again what a handsome gentleman he was, and being naturally inclined to amicable conversation wherever it could be found, grew more willing to return his thoughtfulness.
"I think it charming, sir. The people are all kindness and generosity. Indeed I find myself attached to everything and everyone in it. I shall be very sorry to leave."
"I can well imagine. I have reason to know the generosity of which you speak."
"You are quite familiar with Lambton then, sir?"
"Yes, very. I have spent most of my days living beside it."
Elizabeth studied his face. He had the features of a contemplative man, she decided, with his dark brow and dark, introverted eyes, a man given to careful thought before every word, every action. She could guess from his conversation that he was both intelligent and sincere. But what intrigued her most was the hint of sadness which vaguely hung about his mouth and eyes. What had brought the melancholy into the face of this courteous young gentleman?
She reluctantly pulled herself from reflection as she realized he was addressing her.
"I hope, madam, that you find the rest of Derbyshire as agreeable as you do Lambton."
Elizabeth was quick to assent. "Yes, indeed I do. The countryside is so beautiful here, so peaceful, not at all disturbed with the bustle of the southern counties. The air too has a sweetness to it which I had never known before now." She allowed herself the luxury of an openly merry laugh in the presence of a stranger, feeling a strange assurance that the chivalrous, vaguely sad gentleman should be trusted. "I take quite a romantic fancy to Nature, sir, and must confess that Derbyshire has completely charmed me. I am almost inclined to think that it is shrouded with a mystic Northern spell, but it is only proof of my own silliness."
As she spoke, Darcy could do naught but watch her intently. He was amazed at the vivacity with which she spoke, especially after her initial (and well founded) reserve. This was the girl he had seen toss her wayward bonnet high in the air, laughing and running about on the hillside. Her features, which were pretty but by no means uncommonly so, were rendered strikingly lovely in her enthusiasm, and the pair of beautiful dark eyes which had drawn him in since they first met glances were now responsible for a faint flutter in the pit of his stomach.
Darcy marveled at himself. It was not his custom to entertain such favorable thoughts concerning young ladies with whom he had an acquaintance of under five minutes, especially those who had nearly caught him jumping into his pond while trespassing on his estate. He set it down as simple delight in conversation with a well-spoken, intelligent, fellow human being after having endured the incessant buzz of inane London small talk. The fact that this fellow human being was a pretty young woman with lovely eyes and an enchanting smile was entirely immaterial.
"Wouldn't you agree, sir?" Her clear and melodic voice cut through his reverie, and he was slightly embarrassed to realize that his contemplation of her personal charms had left him at a loss to recall what she had actually said to him. Hoping to avoid discovery, he merely smiled and ventured to evade her question.
"I should wager, madam, that you will never find a county lovelier than Derbyshire in all of England. I have just returned from London myself, and find that the peace and beauty here is much preferable to all the gaieties of the ton."
"London? Indeed?" inquired the girl, who, to Darcy's delight, had taken a few amicable steps toward him. "My aunt and uncle with whom I am traveling live there. My uncle is a rather successful man of business in town."
"I see. And yourself, do you live in town, madam?"
"Oh, no indeed, sir. My father's estate is in Hertfordshire. But, upon my word, Longbourn is nothing to this..." Elizabeth turned back toward the direction of the house and let her gaze linger about the landscape. It was beginning to disturb her that she had been so open with this gentleman whom she had never laid eyes on before in her life. Why she had allowed herself to be so explicit with a complete stranger, she hadn't the faintest idea. Or perhaps the fact that she was unaccountably attracted to his dark, melancholy eyes and gentlemanly demeanor was too foolish to be acknowledged. After all, she did not even know the young man's name!
"Are you often in London, sir?" Elizabeth asked, trying to avoid to necessity of revealing any more about herself.
His bemused smile made her feel uncomfortably warm. "I go there as rarely as possible. I am immeasurably more fond of the country, though perhaps the society is at times somewhat confined and unvarying. But visitors, such as yourself, are always a pleasure."
Elizabeth tried not to notice how handsome he was when he was smiling at her as he was now. In spite of herself she took a few more steps toward him. His smile grew wider, but Elizabeth accredited that to her imagination.
"I am sure I am very grateful to you for your kindness, sir," she answered, not daring to meet his eyes.
"Not at all, madam, I assure you." Then, beginning to feel a little too bewitched by the girl than he thought was entirely good for him, Darcy made a bold move. "I hope you shan't think me impertinent, but won't you come and sit here in the shade? To be sure, the afternoon is very warm, and I can assure you that it is much cooler on this side of the pond. We may sit on the hillside."
Elizabeth hesitated a moment, then thought, "what harm can it do? He is surely an honorable gentleman, and it is not as if I shall ever see him again after today..."
She smiled gratefully up at him. "A excellent thought. You are right- the sun is very bright on this side of the water."
As she crossed to meet him, Elizabeth was flattered and a touch embarrassed to see him spread out his coat on the grass for her before taking a seat on the hillside himself. She smiled down at him when their eyes met a moment later, then attempted to lower herself to the ground in the most elegant manner possible. For his part, Darcy could do naught but marvel how much lovelier her fine eyes were when they were so near his own. He returned her smile, feeling himself not a little foolish.
Encouraged by this, Elizabeth felt an unexpected desire to tease him. Laughingly she said, "I have offered you an opinion of nearly every aspect of Derbyshire, sir, and now, perhaps you would like to hear a review of your grass?"
He raised his eye brows, the corner of his mouth twitching slightly. "Perhaps. What has the lady to say of it?"
"Only that, that which grows in the shade of these trees is much more agreeable than that which struggles to survive in the heat of the sun, and that I am sure I have never sat upon more agreeable grass in my life."
The gentleman smiled again, this time revealing a rather charming dimple in his right cheek. "This is praise indeed. From the bottom of my heart, I, and of course the noble grasses, thank you, madam."
Elizabeth laughed. "What a fool I am! I am sure you must think me very silly."
He shook his head, becoming serious. "Indeed, no madam."
"All the same, I should perhaps try harder to be dull, and talk only of the weather and the state of the roads. My mother is of the opinion that I am entirely too impertinent for my own good."
Darcy shook his head, wondering that anyone could tire of her delightful conversation. "To be sure, madam, you are far from impertinent." He paused a moment and stared vaguely into the wood. Elizabeth saw the melancholy slip back into his thoughts and, intrigued, remained silent.
"If you will permit me to say so, madam, you are gifted with an open and affectionate nature- you are not afraid to speak feelingly nor to laugh wholeheartedly. It is something to be valued, to be encouraged... My- I have a sister, the loveliest, sweetest, dearest girl in the world, but sixteen years, whose trusting and affectionate nature was very recently most cruelly exploited. She is no longer in harm's way, but I fear she will never fully overcome her disappointment. I wish I knew how to repair her trust, but sadly, she is very reserved, and unwilling to disclose her feelings even to a loving brother. Take care you never let anyone talk you out of your vivacity and relish for life, madam- they are too precious to loose."
He was silent then, knowing he had said far too much and wondering what in the world she must think of him now. For her part, Elizabeth was touched that he should reveal so much to her, a stranger, and grateful for his kind words concerning herself.
Quietly she said, "You are all goodness, sir. I only wish it was within my power ease your fears for your sister."
Still looking into the wood, he smiled. "Do not trouble yourself. I should not have burdened you with so personal a disclosure."
"Not at all. I admire your openness as you were good enough to admire mine. I am sure your sister possesses an ideal elder brother."
"You are too generous. But we are very dear to one another. My father died a little over five years ago, my mother five before that, and being nearly ten years my sister's senior, I have done my best to take the place of my father for her."
"I am sure she values your efforts deeply," came her soft reply.
"I give her everything I have to offer. But I'm afraid there are things I lack which I can not. I am a reserved man, not given much to large gatherings of society, and I fear that her natural shyness is encouraged by the absence of a greater exposure to larger groups of individuals. She would be improved much by a taste of your vivacity, I think." He colored, realizing he had spoken his thoughts aloud. "Forgive me, I presume too much."
"Not at all. You merely flatter me with your generosity again, sir."
Darcy ventured a tentative glance at his companion, and was gratified to find compassion and understanding in her countenance rather that discomfort or reproach. Admiration for her flooded him with unexpected force; he began to have the ridiculous notion that he was hers to command if she would only keep looking at him as she was now- he surprised himself to learn that it was a sensation which did not entirely displease him.
But her next words were far from domineering. Gently she asserted, "I think I may safely assume, sir, that by the way you have described your sister, she is a dear creature who causes little vexation."
Darcy smiled sadly, unwilling to divulge the details of the Wickham affair. Instead he said simply and fondly, "She is truly angelic."
To his surprise, a affectionate light came into the girl's face, and she replied animatedly, "How strange you should put it like that. That is just what I would say of my elder sister."
"You have an angelic sister too, madam?"
She laughed. "I have four, though perhaps my younger sisters do no truly deserve the title as dear Jane does. I am sure I have never known anyone so good-natured in all my life. In fact, I quite envy her ability to be always charitable and selfless, but it is only proof of how poorly I compare with her. But I love her dearly in spite of the way she has of defining and accentuating my own failings. She is indeed the loveliest and best of women."
"I am glad to hear it. Haven't you any brothers?"
"Not a single one. It is a constant source of vexation to my poor mother, who spends a great deal of her time lamenting that the estate is to be entailed upon my odious cousin, a Mr. Collins, on my father's death. She is therefore always hinting that one of us should marry him, but we none of us pay her any mind on that score." Then she laughed, her features glowing with youth and energy, and she smiled in mock defiance at him. "I am determined that nothing but the deepest love will induce me into matrimony. Though keeping the estate in the family is a noble cause, I would prefer not to endure martyrdom for it."
He laughed. "I see you are an idealist, madam."
She smiled playfully back at him. "Oh, without question, sir, and a Romantic as well- two qualities which will doubtless make me an old maid one day!"
"Surely, madam, you do not know your own worth!"
"Oh! Say nothing of that, sir. I am entirely too fond of contemplating that already!"
A companionable silence settled between them. Elizabeth forgot her worries of social convention and was content to admire the beauty of the landscape in the amiable company of a thoughtful gentleman. Darcy, though slightly more uneasy with the thoughts she had conjured up in his head, was equally satisfied to see his wood and his pond through her eyes and her fresh perspective.
"I should dearly love to spend the rest of my life here," she sighed, enchanted by the scene. She turned to him again and smiled. "You are to be envied indeed, sir. Not everyone is blessed with a life surrounded by Derbyshire's divine beauty. Is there any felicity in the world superior to this?"
He returned a thoughtful smile. "I see that, when I remarked you gave your praise sparingly, I had grossly misjudged you, madam."
"Not at all, sir. There are many things with which I consider it best to withhold my praise, and with good reason- It just so happens that natural beauty is not one of them."
"Well, I dare say there are greater weaknesses."
"I dare say there are. And have you any of them?"
Darcy was a little caught off guard by her forthrightness, then saw with surprise that the merry gleam in her fine, dark eyes meant that she was teasing him again. "Whatever is the girl about?" he wondered to himself. "Sincere and intellectual one moment, kind and compassionate the next, then full of wit and teasing- and the disturbing thing is, every one of her blasted tempers is infernally fascinating..."
He answered her, "It has been a study of mine to avoid those weaknesses which often expose a strong understanding to ridicule."
She laughed. "A very academic answer. You have silenced me, sir."
"I should hope not. I was rather beginning to enjoy your conversation."
She laughed at herself. "There is much to be had of it, I assure you." Then, quite suddenly, she gasped and turned to him hastily. "What time have you, please?"
Darcy fumbled for his pocket watch, laid aside on the grass while he had still intended to enjoy a swim in the pond. "Five minutes past two o'clock. Why do you ask?"
Elizabeth paled and clutched her bonnet. "Oh no! What a fool I am!" She jumped to her feet and brushed the grass from her skirt. "I have been so inconsiderate in my forgetfulness, and now I must be ungracious to you, sir. I am most dreadfully sorry, but my aunt and uncle are waiting for me. I promised to return to our picnic spot by two o'clock, and our conversation so engaged me that I completely dismissed any thought to the time. Forgive me, sir, and allow me to take my leave."
The gentleman had stood to, and Elizabeth could not help but see the confusion and disappointment battle for control of his expression.
"Yes, of course, you must return to your relatives at once. I would not have them worry for your sake on my account."
"Thank you, sir." She offered him a hasty smile and began to walk briskly up the hill, a little disappointed to end such a pleasant interview, but greatly concerned for what Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner must be thinking at that moment.
Darcy felt something within him lurch as he watched her go and, without giving much thought to his actions, hurried after her.
"Wait!" he called, matching her vigorous strides as he fell into step along side her.
"Yes?" she asked briskly, barely looking at him.
Darcy's courage failed a bit at this, but remembering her amiability and warmth during their conversation, he plunged on. "I've enjoyed our talk so much. It's very refreshing to speak with someone as bright and unspoiled as you are, and I hope you won't think me impertinent but..." For nearly the first time in his life, Fitzwilliam Darcy felt awkward and stupid. The girl stopped her furious pace and turned to face him; her cheeks had grown pink, her breath was faintly heavy, and the wind had liberated a few of her dark curls. Ignoring this charming picture, Darcy continued.
"What I mean is ... might I be favored with the name of the lady whose company has been such a pleasure?"
She smiled then, and he was supremely relieved. Putting out a had in friendship she replied, "Miss Bennet of Hertfordshire, sir. Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
Elizabeth could not help but be amused as he took her hand eagerly and pressed it warmly when she had said this. His smile was charming, the dimple on his right cheek having made another appearance, and Elizabeth did not forbid the laugh which rose to her lips to pass between them.
"Thank you, Miss Bennet. You are all generosity."
"If generosity was determined solely on the basis of distributing one's name to the whole of society, I believe a great many selfish and mercenary people would be considered the most generous of us all."
He smiled again. "Perhaps you are right. But I have been inconsiderate in keeping you even this long. Good day, Miss Bennet. My compliments to your aunt and uncle."
With a parting squeeze of her hand, which he had never released, the gentleman turned to go. But he was detained when Elizabeth called out to him, "My dear sir, I shall be unable to communicate your compliments to them unless you are good enough to furnish me with a name."
He stopped his progress back toward the pond and faced her. "Fitzwilliam Darcy, madam, at your service." He bowed to her, and with a lingering final glance, left her to stand wondering at her own blindness as she watched his figure retreat into the distance.
Pemberley passed a quiet evening that night- its young mistress full of silent heartache and its master given much to wordless contemplation. Indeed, there was much for him to ponder.
Not five miles away, in the quiet village of Lambton, was surely the most fascinating, enchanting girl he had ever met. And what was he to do about it? It was not as if they had been introduced by a mutual friend, or were even distant former acquaintances who had just now come across each other again. They had met in the middle of a forest clearing, of all places, she trespassing and he about to dive into the pond, for heaven's sake! Darcy did not know what the social convention was for second visits after making such an unorthodox acquaintance.
Sitting with Georgiana in the music room after dinner, Darcy had been attempting to read. He sighed and set the book down on the settee beside his armchair. It was a miserable failure. He realized that, pathetically enough, after half an hour's perusal he could not even remember the title. He glanced over at Georgiana, whose studious engrossment in her embroidery was an unwitting reproach to his inattentiveness. But a pair of fine dark eyes was so fixed in his thoughts that he found himself unable to pay mind to anything else. He twisted his signet ring impatiently round his little finger. What was to be done about it?
Georgiana looked up from her embroidery and smiled at him, a quiet, sad smile. Anxious to put her at ease, Darcy smiled back.
"Is everything alright, Fitzwilliam?" Apparently, he had not been sufficiently convincing.
"Alright? Yes, of course."
"Good." She paused a moment, then continued. "I am very glad you are come back to Pemberley."
This time he smiled genuinely, his affection for her plain. "I am glad, too."
She laid the embroidery aside and stood. "It has been a long day, and I am very tired. If you don't mind, I think I shall go up to bed now."
"By all means. You must rest. I will stay down here for awhile yet- there are matters which require my attention tonight."
"Goodnight, Fitzwilliam." Georgiana crossed to her brother and kissed him. When he met her eyes he saw she was fighting tears. "I am very glad you are come home."
Darcy tucked the straying strands of fine, fair hair behind her ear and then grasped her hands. "You may always depend upon me, Georgiana. You may be assured of that."
She nodded, unable to speak. She kissed him again, then silently slipped from the room.
Darcy felt the heavy weight return to his shoulders, the weight of worry and uncertainty. How was he to see to it that Georgiana should once again return to full enjoyment of life? He remembered Miss Elizabeth Bennet's words from their conversation that afternoon, "I only wish it was within my power to ease your fears for your sister..."
Perhaps she had only said it as a courtesy, or merely to oblige him, but Darcy was sure she had been sincere. His thought from earlier that day returned. Would not Georgiana benefit much from the society of Miss Bennet? Would not he himself benefit much from the society of Miss Bennet, as he already had done immeasurably this afternoon? Darcy hardly dared to hope such a thing were possible. Every social nicety which had been drilled into him since birth told him it was presumptuous and impertinent to make an overture on their trifling acquaintance, but a nagging voice in the back of his mind kept insisting that he should attempt it all the same.
Perhaps tomorrow, he would pay a visit to the good people of Lambton...
Elizabeth was finding it hard to sleep.
It was by no fault of the inn at Lambton, which was surely all ease and comfort, but rather a head full of questions and self-censure, elation and excitement. As the minutes and the hours ticked by, Elizabeth was continually reviewing the afternoon's interview in her thoughts. What an utter simpleton she had been, to decide at the beginning of their conversation that the gentleman could not possibly be Mr. Darcy, and then to badger him with teasing and playful speech, all the while trespassing on his estate. What must he think of her? She had been too forward, and she blushed furiously to think of it now. Did he think her a silly creature, a young and impulsive fool? No, he had been good enough to compliment her natural vivacity. But had he been sincere? Had he been mocking her all the time? Surely not. His dark eyes had communicated volumes, and she was certain they had not spoken of mockery. She, who prided herself on her ability to ascertain the character of others, could not have been so mistaken. But would anything come of it? How could anything come of it? After all, he happened to be one of the richest and most prestigious men in England. Undoubtedly, it would be a degradation to formally admit her, a country nobody, into his society.
Elizabeth sat up in bed, enormously frustrated with herself, and ran her fingers roughly through her hair. Why should it matter so? Granted, she had had the pleasure of discovering that the reputable Mr. Darcy of Pemberley was a pleasing and agreeable sort of man, but did it follow that there were not equally pleasing and agreeable men to be met? Was she confined to think of Mr. Darcy alone? Of course not. It was madness to think so. But why then did the memory of his melancholy smile and the charming dimple in his right cheek make her forget every other gentleman of her acquaintance? Elizabeth sighed.
This foolishness was not to be borne. She was behaving as silly and naively as Lydia would. There was only one sensible thing to be done about it. Elizabeth slipped her feet into a pair of warm slippers at her bedside and went in search of a cup of tea.
The next morning dawned as beautifully as the last, a fortunate thing as it was market day in the village and good weather was a necessity. The Gardiners and their niece rose early, as was their custom, and determined together over breakfast that they should sample the delights of the market when they had finished their meal. Elizabeth's lack of repose the night preceding did not go unnoticed by the perceptive Mrs. Gardiner, but having been told nothing by her niece of the meeting with Mr. Darcy, was at a loss to determine its cause, and therefore remained silent. Elizabeth had apologized for her tardy return and promised never to be lax in her observation of the time again, and there was nothing more to be said about it.
Elizabeth, though slightly worn as a result of having fallen asleep only shortly before dawn, was inclined to look upon the new day with optimism, and was determined to make the most of the remaining time she had to enjoy Derbyshire in the amiable company of her aunt and uncle. All thoughts of a certain gentleman's perfections were laid aside for more rational considerations, namely, the weather and everyone's health. Both were satisfactory, and so she could be naught but satisfied.
The breakfast dishes were cleared away by Hannah, the sweet young maid at the inn, and donning hats, bonnets, and coats, the Gardiners and Elizabeth left their lodgings for the village square.
While her aunt and uncle went in search of fresh fruit to embellish the afternoon's tea, Elizabeth explored the market on her own. She was enchanted with all the characters she saw there, and as a "collector" of human oddities, was more than pleased to laugh silently at many of them.
It was when she had stopped to admire one woman's display of wild flowers that, what had seemed like an utter impossibility the night before, became a reality. As she smiled over a particularly lovely bunch of lilacs, she was called to alert attention with her own name, spoken by the same voice which had so pleased her yesterday afternoon in the sunshine by the pond.
Elizabeth's heart felt as if it had slammed into her lungs. Could it be that he had been pleased enough with her society yesterday as to seek her out that the acquaintance might continue? She had thought to never see him again- was it possible he did not think her a complete fool after all? Trying to disguise the increased rhythm of her breathing and to still the pounding of her heart, so loud it must surely be audible on the other side of the market, Elizabeth turned to face him. The sight of Darcy's countenance, however, brought back a rush of embarrassment, particularly when she recalled how foolish she had been, unable as she'd proved herself yesterday to connect him with the estate.
But Mr. Darcy hardly looked on her as if he had this oversight in mind. His expression spoke of nothing but, if not ease, certainly friendliness, and surprisingly enough, Elizabeth saw that he looked almost anxious to please her. But she could not afford to make assumptions. She would be guarded and correct in her behavior until his gave her permission to be otherwise.
"Good morning, Mr. Darcy," she finally managed to reply.
He bowed very correctly, and she in turn dropped him a curtsy, glad for an excuse to break eye contact. Then there was an pause, in which both searched desperately for something to say to the other and found themselves equally lacking. Darcy was mentally berating himself. It would do no good to seek the girl out if he was only going to stand before her like an mute imbecile. But to see her face again, which seemed to him even lovelier than it had been the day before or in his memory, had done significant damage to the logical pattern of his thoughts, and the sound of her voice was equally detrimental.
However, one could not endure this uncomfortable silence forever, and something must be said. He plunged in.
"It is strange, is it not, Miss Bennet, that we should have had so much to say to one another yesterday, before even knowing each other's names, and now that we are enlightened, we can barely exchange a common greeting?"
She smiled at this, and he was relieved to feel the tension between them relaxing. "How very astute of you, sir. As a connoisseur of human folly, I should take great pleasure in laughing at our inconsistencies, were I not the chief offender. Forgive me, Mr. Darcy, but shame has held my tongue. I'm afraid I owe you a profound apology."
He looked genuinely confused. "Apology? How, pray, have you offended, madam?"
Elisabeth was incredulous, and more than willing to convict herself. "I have presumed to venture onto your grounds, without your permission, only to satisfy my own petty curiosity as to the facade of your home, and in the meanwhile disturbed your privacy and made an imposition upon your conversation. Is that not surely grounds for being considered offensive?"
To her surprise, he smiled. "If you have offended me, Miss Bennet, I dare say I should like to be offended more often."
Elizabeth blushed furiously at this, and Darcy, realizing how forward he must have sounded, was quick to color too. "I am sorry- how careless of me..."
"No, no. Do not trouble yourself." She went on quickly, resorting to convention. "I hope you are in good health this morning...?"
"What? Oh- oh yes, of course, I am in excellent health, thank you. And you, you are- are you in good health?" Darcy berated himself inwardly, thinking glumly, "A Cambridge education and I'm incapable of formulating and communicating the most common sentence in the English language to her! She's hardly likely to be impressed with anything but my stupidity."
Elizabeth smiled, charmed by his stuttering and the slightly flustered look on his face. "Excepting the fact that I have made an utter fool myself about three times in the last two minutes, I could not be better, sir, and I thank you for your consideration."
Darcy could not help but sheepishly return her smile at this. "My pleasure, Miss Bennet."
His glance then surveyed the square, looking for the couple who might be her relatives. "Your aunt and uncle, madam, did they accompany you to the market today?"
"Yes, indeed. They have wandered off in search of strawberries." She scanned the direction in which they had gone, but could not see the Gardiners. "I confess, I do not know where they have got themselves to."
Darcy smiled. "With all respect, Miss Bennet, I am almost beginning to doubt their existence."
Elizabeth, to used to being the teaser and not the teased, was caught off guard at first, then delighted by his remark. He had told her himself that he was a reserved man, and there had been that vague aura of melancholy which she had sensed in him, but this ability to match her playful speech and return her teasing made Mr. Darcy all the more interesting and agreeable.
For his part, Darcy was surprised at himself. He had always been stiff and uncomfortable with new acquaintances, quickly growing impatient with the necessity for small talk and flattery. But Miss Bennet... she was different all together. He had been in her company for a little over half an hour, and already he was sure she was the most sincere, delightful person he had ever met. With her, there was no compulsion to talk of the weather, and if one did, it was for the sole purpose of enjoying the conversation and not to fill up a dreaded silence.
"Pray, what so amuses you, sir?"
Her voice called him from his agreeable reflections. "I'm sorry?"
Her fine eyes flashed with wit. "You were smiling just now in the most charming manner. Is it my inability to prove the existence of my aunt and uncle that you find humorous, or has something else amused you?"
"Indeed I could never presume to laugh at you, Miss Bennet."
"That is very flattering of you, sir, but I do not mind telling you, I can not believe it."
"And why should you doubt me?"
"Because great is the chance that I shall do something very silly indeed, thinking myself covered by your kind pledge, and when I do, it would be very hard of me not to permit you to laugh at my folly, would it not?"
"Again, madam, I can only assert that I am incapable of such presumption."
"Difficult man! How am I to persuade you?"
"You might try doing one of those silly things you mentioned, and we shall see the strength of my resolve."
She laughed. "I see you are determined to counter me at every turn, sir."
Darcy smiled. "If only to show you your own worth." He paused a moment, working up the nerve to ask her what he had come to inquire after. How pretty were the curls which surrounded her face when they caught the sunlight...
"Miss Bennet, I have a request to make of you."
"Yes. I think you'll remember that I spoke to you of my sister yesterday."
"I do." She smiled softly. "You told me she was an angel."
"Indeed. Miss Bennet, would you- I hope I do not presume or impose upon you, I know our acquaintance is but a brief and informal one- but I must ask you- My sister, Georgiana is her name, suffers a great deal from melancholy. You must recall that I spoke of her disappointment and her shyness to you yesterday."
"Yes, I do remember."
"I was forward enough to mention what I am about to suggest to you yesterday afternoon, but upon reflection, I have found the idea rather a promising one. But it is for you to say..."
"Mr. Darcy, you are working me into a flurry of suspense. What is it you have to ask me? I am sure no request from your lips could be a disagreeable one."
"You are too kind- forgive my indecision. I mean to ask you, would you be generous enough to bestow the favor of your company on my sister some afternoon, perhaps for tea? You might bring your aunt, perhaps. I do not pretend to know what ladies talk about when they're alone, but I am sure that your society and conversation would do a great deal to cheer and enliven her." When he had finished, Darcy was conscience of a warm feeling in his face and knew he had perhaps praised her too highly for having known her less than twenty-four hours. What would she say? It was his turn to be in a flurry of suspense.
Elizabeth was as touched as she was surprised by his request. She had been flattered when he had confided in her the day before, but the invitation to meet his sister, with the idea that Miss Darcy might find her society improving, was wholly unexpected. Elizabeth wondered somewhat irrelevantly if Mr. Darcy had passed a sleepless night as she had, pondering their conversation by the pond. Blushing for her thoughts, she attempted to formulate an answer for him.
"Mr. Darcy, I am honored that you should think of me in such a case, especially after such a trifling acquaintance. Indeed, if my aunt and uncle do not object, I can think of nothing I should like to do better than spend an afternoon with your sister. Your description of her has intrigued me, and I should like to know her for myself."
Darcy was immeasurably relieved. "Thank you, Miss Bennet." He extended his hand in gratitude and she demurely placed hers in his. In respect, he bowed over her hand, resisting the temptation to kiss it as well.
"My pleasure, Mr. Darcy." Her smile was self-conscience; she was very aware that the hand holding hers was sending tingles up her arm. For the sake of propriety and his own sanity, Darcy ignored the becoming increase of color in her cheeks and refused to admit to himself that her dark eyes were the loveliest and most animated he had ever seen- or at least, he made a very valiant effort at ignoring these qualities.
"Shall we fix a date?" he asked, desperate to be on objective ground. "Would tomorrow suit you?"
"Tomorrow?" she seemed to suffer from momentary confusion. "Oh yes- tomorrow would be lovely. We have no fixed engagements. And I shall bring my aunt, as you were kind enough to suggest."
She smiled. "I wish all people were as easy to please as you seem to be, Mr. Darcy."
"You think I am easy to please? I disagree with you. I have made it a habit of mine to withhold my praise until it may be given on the basis of sound judgment." Then he added silently to himself, "At least, I had before meeting you..."
She laughed, her discomfort forgotten. "I am of the opinion, sir, that one might, in most cases, make a reasonable character sketch of anyone after half an hour's conference. In the time I have spent with you, resulting to little over that specification, you have not had one contrary thing to say to me, and I know very well you are not that sort of stupid person who agrees with everything one says simply because he hasn't the wit to form an opinion for himself. What can your secret be? I hope you do not ridicule my foolishness in your mind as I speak my mind. That would most ungenerous of you, Mr. Darcy."
"Do you wish to exact the pledge from me again? I could never laugh at you, Miss Bennet, despite all your attempts to trip me up by presenting all your supposed faults to me."
She laughed heartily, leaving him bewildered. "Well, at least I have proved one thing."
"And what is that?"
Her eyes were full of vivacity and wit. "You, sir, have just admitted to being very easy to please."
Darcy marveled at her. He had fallen into her trap, he was fully willing to acknowledge it, and yet for once, he, as proud and dignified as he had always known himself to be, he did not care. Indeed, it was almost a pleasure to be silenced by her wit, if it meant consolation by the rippling tones of her laughter.
"You have caught me, madam. I humbly acknowledge my defeat." He smiled contritely at her.
"Oh, take heart, good sir. I am a merciful conqueror. You may keep your dignity, so long as you continue to subscribe to me the praise and approval you did before."
"But they were yours before you conquered," he protested. "Why go to the trouble of demanding them?"
Her smile was mischievous. "I am shameless, sir. Perhaps I did it to see how far they would go, perhaps only to tease you. You pass the test splendidly- I see now that I may get by with a multitude of sins."
"Now I know you are teasing me."
She laughed, but said nothing, and despite himself, Darcy felt his confidence slip. Did she find it amusing to see how many ways she could make his insides turn? But a moment later, as the sun broke from behind a cloud and illuminated her merry face, he knew that she was as lovely and innocent as any young lady he had ever known, if not ten times more so. He wanted to laugh at himself. What a fool he had suddenly become!
But time was getting on. "Miss Bennet, you must forgive me, but I have obligations which I can not keep waiting any longer. Be assured, passing the time in your delightful conversation would be a vast deal more agreeable, but I have an estate to manage."
"Of course. You are a man of responsibilities, Mr. Darcy, and I would be a simpleton indeed to keep you. But I am glad to have had the pleasure to speak with you again. I never had the opportunity to tell you how much I enjoyed our conversation yesterday, but I do so now."
"You are too kind, madam. I look forward to seeing you tomorrow afternoon."
"Yes, indeed. Thank you for your generous invitation." She smiled. "I trust you will refrain from telling your sister that I am a self-satisfied, impertinent, chatterer of a girl, and I hope to prove at least amusing to her on the morrow. If all else fails I shall ask after everybody's health and the state of the roads. Were they very damp on your journey into the village?"
"No, madam, they where very dry."
"Ah, good. I always say, one can not be too careful."
As she spoke, their eyes met and locked. The teasing smile slipped from Elizabeth's face and she was drawn in by the intense expression on his countenance.
"Indeed," asserted Darcy quietly, the gaze still unbroken, "one can not be too careful." Elizabeth knew he was not talking about the roads, blushed, and looked modestly down at her feet.
"Forgive me- I must go. Miss Bennet..."
She ventured to meet his eyes again, then smiling with friendly warmth at him, she offered her hand, which he took readily.
"Until tomorrow, sir."
He touched the brim of his hat and pressed her hand. "Until tomorrow, madam."
Georgiana Darcy sat contemplating the visage in the mirror at her dressing table. The pale, thin face spoke of many worries and sorrows; the hollow, sad eyes attested to many tears and grief.
Countless times in these last months of heartache had she sat before this mirror and wanted to weep for her wrongs and their painful consequences. How stupid and thoughtless she had been, how ungrateful!
Of course, her brother had been her savior when she had been on the precipice of danger, and continued to be in the difficult times which followed. It was selfish of her to dwell in self-pity. Why, this very afternoon he was having his newest acquaintance come to join her for tea whilst he was seeing to estate business. Fitzwilliam had promised that Miss Elizabeth Bennet was everything amiable and good, a delightful young woman who Georgiana would most certainly grow fond of.
Georgiana, who above all was convinced that her brother was never wrong, was perfectly ready to trust his judge of character, but worried that she herself would be a vast deal too dull and unamusing for anyone of Miss Bennet's disposition. Her shyness, even before the incident at Ramsgate, had always been a significant social hamper to Georgiana, and she was never in a stranger's company without feeling awkward. Perhaps Miss Bennet would see this early on and in mercy would limit her stay to the minimum quarter of an hour.
The sound of horses' hooves and the wheels of a carriage on the drive broke Georgiana's train of thought, and reluctantly, she stood from her place at the dressing table and went down to meet her guest.
"I am so pleased to have met you, Miss Bennet, and you as well, Mrs. Gardiner. Please, be seated."
Miss Bennet looked about the drawing room as she took a seat beside her aunt on the settee. Her face seemed to Georgiana to be full of a certain gaiety and lightless, as if she were always contemplating a secret joke. Her eyes, easily the most prominent feature in her intelligent face, were bright and discerning. Georgiana felt somewhat intimidated by Miss Bennet. Surely someone so vivacious and clever would find her supremely dull company. But far from desiring to belittle, Miss Bennet's next movement was almost a rebuttal of Georgiana's anxious thoughts. She turned a friendly and open smile upon her hostess.
"What a lovely room you have here, Miss Darcy."
"I had thought before that Pemberley had surely the most beautiful exterior facade of any house I'd ever had the pleasure to view, but now I see I must reform my opinion. To my knowledge, it is truly the loveliest house, inside and out, in all of England. Do not you think so, Aunt?"
Mrs. Gardiner, a sweet-looking, matronly woman, nodded in agreement. "Indeed, it is very fine. How fortunate you are to have spent all your life in it, Miss Darcy."
Georgiana smiled self-consciously, unsure of how to answer their compliments. "Yes, I consider myself very fortunate indeed. Not only to live in such a beautiful house, but also to have such a wonderful brother seeing over it."
To Georgiana's surprise, Miss Bennet laughed. "Yes," she said smiling, "I suppose it is not difficult to discern Mr. Darcy's considerate and amicable qualities."
"He is the best of men," said Georgiana, more feelingly than she had intended.
Miss Bennet smiled at her hostess' sisterly devotion. "An ideal elder brother, then."
"I could not wish for a better or a kinder one."
"You make me quite envious- I have no brothers at all, only four sisters."
Georgiana smile was unforced. "I should have liked to have a sister."
The merry ripples of Miss Bennet's laughter danced about the room.
"With a brother as amiable as yours, Miss Darcy, I should not be at all surprised if you were granted your wish!"
At first, this remark made Georgiana uncomfortable, and the color rose in her cheeks. But then, realizing that Miss Bennet had meant it as nothing but a compliment to her brother, that she had no intention of giving offence, Georgiana could see the humor in her guest's remark, and allowed herself to smile back at her.
"You must forgive Elizabeth, Miss Darcy," offered Mrs. Gardiner, who was smiling in amusement too. "She is always looking for an opportunity to tease."
Miss Bennet laughed again. "Indeed, I am. You must pay no heed to me."
"Oh, but you needn't say that, Miss Bennet," returned Georgiana, eager to be approved of by this bright and enthusiastic young woman. "What you say of my brother is quite true, you know. I should be the happiest girl in the world if he were to marry."
"Ah, but Miss Darcy, you must see to it that he is sure to marry his equal, for he is a vast deal too good to be wasted on anyone whose passion for fine things exceeds her passion for him."
"I am certain of my brother's discernment in such matters. He would never marry beneath him or for improper reasons."
"I am glad to hear it. Mr. Darcy is a sensible man indeed."
It was then that the parlor maids came in with the tea things, thus sparing Georgiana the possibility of saying something too intimate or private for a casual meeting over tea. Once the trays had been arranged on the small table between Georgiana's armchair and the settee, the situating of plates and teacups and the usual inquires of "Cream, Miss Bennet?" and "Mrs. Gardiner, shall you have one lump or two?" occupied the three ladies too much for conversation. But as soon as one's guests are placidly stirring the additives into their tea, it is the solemn and sacred duty of the hostess to find something, anything to say.
Georgiana took a deep breath and began. "I hope your party's journey into Derbyshire has been a pleasant one."
Mrs. Gardiner's smile was warm, full of affection for her village and home county. "We have had a most pleasant journey, Miss Darcy, thank you. And of course, your hospitality has made it even lovelier. I have spent twenty years of my life in Derbyshire, in Lambton to be exact, but naturally, was never connected with your family. I have always admired Pemberley from afar for its beauty and the Darcy's for their reputation of honor and dignity, but you may image my delight to find them so first hand."
When Mrs. Gardiner had reached the end of her compliments, Georgiana felt that surely her cheeks must be radiating enough heat to keep the whole of Pemberley warm and snug throughout the length of the coming winter. She made a mental note to ask her brother later what was the best way to accept compliments gracefully and with tact.
But for now, a hasty and quiet, "Thank you, Mrs. Gardiner," was all she could manage before she fixed her eyes on the carpet and hid behind her teacup, tortured by shyness.
Yet to her surprise, Miss Bennet was quick to the rescue. "Dear Aunt," she began sincerely, "I fear what you intended for a compliment has embarrassed poor Miss Darcy. Perhaps we aught to talk of something else."
"Yes, of course. I am sorry if I have discomforted you, Miss Darcy."
"Oh, think nothing of it, ma'am."
"You have a very fine park here, Miss Darcy," continued Miss Bennet, sipping her tea as if she had entirely forgotten her hostess' awkwardness already. "I'm sure you dearly love to take an occasional turn in it."
"Yes, yes I am very fond of walking in the park."
Miss Bennet smiled. "I dare say you ride as well."
"Indeed. My brother was good enough to make me the present of a very fine mare two summers ago, and I enjoy ridding very much."
"How delightful for you! I myself am a religious walker. I do not think I enjoy anything quite so much as when I am wandering atop a hillside or ambling through a field full of wild flowers. I would be honored if you would consent to show me your favorite prospects of Derbyshire one day. I should dearly like to see them."
"You are too kind, Miss Bennet."
The latter smiled at her hostess over the edge of her teacup and took a sip. "If you should wish to accredit it to my kindness, Miss Darcy, I am sure I shall not prevent you."
Georgiana was beginning to understand what her brother had meant when he'd described Miss Bennet as "an intriguing, clever sort of girl". Everything she said seemed to have a deeper meaning hidden beneath the obvious.
"What an excellent idea," agreed Mrs. Gardiner. "Though you are already much taken with Derbyshire, Elizabeth, I'm sure Miss Darcy's insight will endear it to you even more."
"Oh, I am by no means an expert," said Georgiana hastily, "but I am quite familiar with the area which surrounds Pemberley. My father used to take me ridding about the countryside when I was a small girl."
Mrs. Gardiner smiled amiably, but said nothing.
Miss Bennet's merry eyes lit up mischievously. "She rides, she walks, admires natural beauty, and serves tea as proficiently as the Princess of Wales! Pray, Miss Darcy, of what else are you capable?"
Georgiana, who by now was moderately used to Miss Bennet's lighthearted manner of speaking, replied while only turning a slight shade pinker, "I am very taken with the pianoforte and like to play and sing very much. Though perhaps I have yet to muster the courage for public performance."
Miss Bennet and Mrs. Gardiner both smiled enthusiastically. "How lovely!" exclaimed the latter. "Why, Elizabeth plays and sings as well."
Miss Bennet laughed, and to Georgiana's surprise, looked a little embarrassed. "I play a little and very ill. I shouldn't wish to excite your anticipation."
Georgiana smiled at her, feeling a surge of confidence. "I am sure you are too modest. Perhaps- if I may suggest it, perhaps we ought to try our hand at a duet."
At this, Miss Bennet smiled openly and said, "I would be honored to join you, Miss Darcy, though I shall prove myself a very poor musical companion indeed." Georgiana felt appreciation for Miss Bennet fill her, and thought fondly that she was a generous young woman, to be sure.
It was then that Mrs. Gardiner, upon looking at her watch exclaimed,
"Oh, Lizzy! I had entirely forgotten! I have an appointment to visit Mrs. Hillyard in the village at five o'clock! It would be most inconsiderate to slight her."
"Then we must leave at once. We can just make it back to Lambton by five."
"Oh, dear no! I wouldn't dream of interrupting your acquaintance with Miss Darcy for the world! I shall return to Lambton on my own, and send the carriage back for you when I have reached Mrs. Hillyard's."
"That is very good of you, Aunt- are you sure?"
"Indeed. That is, if Miss Darcy agrees to the scheme."
Georgiana smiled obligingly. "Nothing would please me better."
"There, it is all settled." Mrs. Gardiner rose, as did her niece and her hostess. "Thank you for a lovely tea, Miss Darcy, and accept my humble apology for running off in such a haste. I did so enjoy your company."
"Thank you, Mrs. Gardiner. And you needn't trouble yourself. I am sure we shall meet again very soon."
"I'm sure we shall. Well, goodbye then, Miss Darcy. I'll see you this evening, Lizzy. I shall see myself out."
Mrs. Gardiner bobbed a curtsy and Georgiana returned the gesture.
"Good day, ma'am."
When the door had closed behind her aunt, Miss Bennet turned to Georgiana with a bemused twinkle in her dark eyes.
"Dare we venture to the music room, Miss Darcy?"
Georgiana smiled, feeling the bubble of excitement which had eluded her since she'd felt it that last evening at Ramsgate. "Indeed we shall, Miss Bennet."
Darcy walked briskly through the front doors of Pemberley and into the entry hall, working impatiently at his riding gloves. His frustration was mounting. The morning spent debating with his solicitor had been entirely for naught; the man refused to see reason. What did he pay the blighter for if not to make things easier for him instead of leaving the whole thing a blasted mess? Legal matters were now the last things Darcy wished to be preoccupied with, and it angered him that now should be the very time in which they chose to rear their ugly heads.
But, fortunately for Darcy, his disagreeable thoughts were soon interrupted by the faint strains of a song, wafting from the direction of the music room. With a start he remembered that Miss Bennet had promised to visit his sister that very afternoon, and that it would do no good to appear before her cross and brooding. Darcy tried to relax the tension in his shoulders and did his best to exchange his negative thoughts for more agreeable ones, namely thoughts of the visitor herself, then made his way toward the music room to join the ladies, in hopes they might cheer him.
When he had neared the door, which had been left about a fourth of the way open, Darcy walked silently for fear of disturbing Georgiana, who rarely played for anyone, let alone someone she had known for an hour. As he looked into the room, however, Darcy saw that there was not one young lady seated at the pianoforte, but two, both intensely engaged in the faithful rendering of her part in the duet.
Darcy felt the last of his unease fall away as he watched the charming picture before him, smiling to himself. He had been right.
Miss Bennet could truly work wonders- if she had already commissioned a performance from Georgiana, what else could she coax out of the girl in a week's time, in two weeks' time?
As he was thus reflecting, his attention was caught by the sound of a grossly erroneous note played by one of the pianists. Seeing the expression of suppressed laughter on Miss Bennet's countenance, Darcy deduced that she was the guilty party. Miss Bennet contained her amusement admirably until she played the same wrong note a few measures later, thus completely destroying the sweet melodic line of the piece, and both girls erupted with laughter.
Darcy was indeed a great deal surprised and delighted to see his usually timid and melancholy sister so thoroughly enjoying herself in the company of a new acquaintance, and his once high opinion of Miss Bennet now soared. If propriety condoned it, he would have swept her up in his arms and kissed her full on that sweet, laughing mouth.
When Georgiana caught sight of her brother standing in the doorway, she turned a lovely and unreserved smile of affection on him. She rose from her seat at the pianoforte and called to him.
"Fitzwilliam! How glad I am that you have returned from your business so soon!" He entered the room, returning her smile and taking her hands as she offered them to him. "You were quite right about Miss Bennet. She is indeed the cleverest, most generous person of my acquaintance, and we have been talking and laughing all afternoon."
Darcy directed his glance toward Miss Bennet, who stood at the pianoforte, smiling sympathetically at brother and sister. He thought perhaps she might considered it an impertinence that Georgiana had implied in her enthusiasm that he'd praised her so highly on such a sort acquaintance, but there was not a trace of discomfort in her manner. If anything, her smiled grew warmer when their eyes met over Georgiana's shoulder.
"I see you have made a devoted admirer of my sister, Miss Bennet," he remarked to her. "Is it your custom to do so with everyone you meet?"
Miss Bennet laughed. "Is it not the wish of everyone to give pleasure where they receive it? Your sister exaggerates my finer qualities to be sure, and has completely overlooked my lesser ones! It is she who is the loveliest creature on earth, and I am delighted that you should have provided me with the opportunity to meet her."
Georgiana turned and smiled fondly at Miss Bennet, who returned her affectionate look, and Darcy could see that one of those fast and fierce female friendships was already forming between his sister and this intriguing girl from Hertfordshire.
A sly thought then came into Darcy's head, and he asked Miss Bennet teasingly, "Pray, madam, could not your aunt join you on your visit?"
The corner of Miss Bennet's expressive mouth twitched and her eyes flashed with humor. She replied archly, "Indeed, Mr. Darcy, but I'm afraid she was obliged to depart earlier this afternoon in order to honor a previous engagement in town."
Darcy smiled at her with mock skepticism. "That is unfortunate. I was so looking forward to meeting her."
"Yes, I was sensible of that."
"What a pity she should always be engaged elsewhere."
"That is the plight of some, sir."
"Well, I shall hope to meet her in the near future."
"Indeed, sir, you may depend upon me to do everything in my power to see that you do."
Georgiana watched this exchange with some bewilderment, but set it down to being some sort of private joke between them, seeing that both Miss Bennet and her brother were smiling playfully at one another.
"You did not tell me that Miss Bennet was a musician, Fitzwilliam," she reproached her brother.
"Only because I did not know it myself. Had you a reason to conceal you talent from me, Miss Bennet?"
"Merely the fact that my musical talent is nothing worth revealing, Mr. Darcy. I am a shameful practicer and never perform unless commanded. But to play with your sister is not only a pleasure but a lesson in proficiency. She plays like an angel, and I am a poor but attentive partner."
Georgiana colored at the compliment. "Please, Miss Bennet, you make it sound as if I were a concert pianist."
"And no doubt you could be if you would set your mind to it!" laughed Miss Bennet. "But I am content to admire your skill from a seat beside you at the pianoforte, and would dislike the distance a concert hall would necessitate. You therefore have my full encouragement to restrict your recitals to this lovely music room."
Georgiana smiled and colored again, but was pleased with Miss Bennet's compliment. Darcy, who had forgotten all his previous frustrations in the relief of seeing his beloved sister lively again, looked out the window and had a sudden desire to be outdoors in the fine summer climate.
"Shall we not continue or talk outside? I'm sure Miss Bennet would enjoy a tour of the grounds...?
Miss Bennet's face lit up as soon as he had suggested it. "Indeed, I should be delighted."
At first, Georgiana looked agreed, but when her eye caught the clock on the mantelpiece, she frowned. "Oh! I promised Mrs. Annesley I would help her this afternoon with her rounds to bring soup and blankets to our less fortunate tenants. I must be ready to leave with her in five minutes."
Miss Bennet's features fell. "Than we shall wait for another day."
"Oh no, I would not have you delay your tour on my account. It does not matter. . ." She smiled. "I have seen the grounds a great many times already."
Miss Bennet laughed. "Very well. I confess I am wild with curiosity to see those beauties of Pemberley which I have not already had a taste of."
"You pay Pemberley a great compliment, Miss Bennet."
"A great one, Mr. Darcy, but not one given lightly."
Georgiana moved to bid Miss Bennet good day. Extending her hand to her she said warmly, "Thank you, Miss Bennet, for a lovely afternoon. I am very pleased to have met you."
Miss Bennet returned her hostess' affectionate smile, as only young ladies can do, and taking her hand replied sincerely, "Thank you for your kindness and hospitality, Miss Darcy. I have enjoyed this afternoon more than I can say." She then laughed at herself. "And that is a rarity, I assure you!"
For a moment, Darcy thought he saw Georgiana's eyes glimmer in a bath of sudden happy tears. But then she replied, "I shall hope to see you again very soon."
Miss Bennet's expressive features softened. "And so you shall. You have but to ask, and I will appear."
Georgiana nodded, turned to her brother and smiled fondly at him, then silently slipped from the room.
Their feet crunched along the gravel path that wove its' way along the stream that cut Pemberley's grounds in two.
"You astonish me, Miss Bennet."
They had walked in a companionable silence since leaving the house, and Elizabeth had been content to muse fondly and wordlessly over her new acquaintance and was more than happy to revel in the beauty of her surroundings. Now she wondered suddenly if his silence had been resentful, and his words the opening to a reproach. But when she looked up into his face as he walked beside her, she could see that he was not upset, but rather, a little mystified smile was hanging about the corners of his mouth. She felt relieved, and allowed herself to share his smile.
Darcy looked to his companion, wondering that she had not replied him, and saw that her lips were turned slightly upward, as if she were secretly amused.
"Do I?" she asked softly, her amusement apparent in her voice.
"Yes, at every turn! When I requested you to meet my sister, I had hopes of finding her much improved by your company, but never did I expect to return this afternoon to discover her laughing and so full of enthusiasm. You have transformed her over a cup of tea and a simple duet on the pianoforte!"
Elizabeth's smile grew wide and she remarked pertly, "For my part, I can assure you, the duet was not simple!"
"Perhaps you cannot realize, Miss Bennet, that it is very unusual for my sister to play for anyone outside our family circle. You were privileged to hear her."
"Indeed I was. She plays very well, as I cannot."
"I'm sure you want nothing but a little practice."
"I am sure you are right, but unfortunately, I lack the dedication to prove our supposition correct or otherwise."
Darcy smiled at her. "I admire your honesty."
Elizabeth feigned impatience. "With all this admiration, Mr. Darcy, you are sure to make me the proudest, most conceited and intolerable person in the world, and I am determined to prevent you from doing so."
"Be assured, Miss Bennet, I only have your best interests in mind."
She met his eyes and smiled, defeated. "Then I suppose I shall be forced to believe you."
As they continued their walk, Elizabeth scanned the landscape with her eyes and took in all the natural beauty before her. She breathed deep the late afternoon air of the summer, smiling at its' sweetness and relishing the still loveliness that surrounded her. The sun played a spray of vibrant colors across the sky and a chorus of birds called to each other from the tops of the willow trees. For his part, Darcy was content simply to match her step as she ambled along the path, thinking of how strange and wonderful this lady had made the last few days. Perhaps he had only imagined her, perhaps he would wake in a minute to find himself in London, to find that he had never gone back to Pemberley at all, for surely such meetings as this never happened while one was awake. But the apparition was speaking.
"What a lovely place this is. I shall be ever so sorry to leave it."
A sudden panic struck Darcy. "And when shall that be?"
A sad smile crossed her lips as she looked at him. "A week."
"A week? So soon?"
"I must return to Hertfordshire. My father cannot spare me much longer."
"Your father? But. . ."
Miss Bennet was quick to counter him. "Yes, I know what you are thinking. It is unusual, I know, but why should a daughter be any less necessary to her father than she is to her mother?" She sighed.
"Forgive me, sir, I spoke hastily. In truth, my mother is a very silly creature, and though I love her dearly, my disposition is often in conflict with hers. I am perhaps more my father's daughter than my mother's, and he is very attached to me, as I to him."
Darcy nodded, feeling slightly guilty for having apparently offended her. "That is quite as it should be- you're relationship with your father, I mean. I envy you. My father and I were never very- well, we did no always see things eye to eye. Of course I loved and respected him very much, but he was a stubborn man, a proud one, and I, in my willful youth, was forever countering him, if only to prove that I could. I wish that he had lived to know me as I am now. Perhaps we might have understood one another better."
Elizabeth turned to examine his face, warmed toward him by his frankness and his sincerity. "I doubt it not. He would surely commend your loving care for your sister and your apt and capable maintenance of the estate. He would have nothing to censure, I am sure."
At her words, Darcy felt the pang of remembrance, and wondered what his father would have said about the Ramsgate affair. Surely his father would condemn his blindness and his weakness. Especially since they had both come at Georgiana's expense.
"You are kind, madam."
"I only speak of what I have evidence to believe is true."
"Then you assume too much."
She was silent a moment. Darcy was beginning to hate himself for his abruptness when she said, "Perhaps you are right. I am often prey to my first impression, too hasty to make proper judgment- but I am not blind. Your sister is the sweetest creature who ever breathed, sir, but she is not a child."
Darcy was bewildered by her comment. "I'm sorry, I fail to understand your meaning."
She stopped her progress on the path and turned to face him. "I see that you love her very much, sir, and it is to your credit. But you must put away this notion that you need suffer all her sorrows for her and bear all her grief. It is an injustice to her and to yourself. When we first met on the hillside by the pond, I sensed a sadness about you that I could not trace, and now that I have made an acquaintance with your sister, I know its source. You told me of her disappointment, of her melancholy, and I can see that you blame yourself. And yet, whatever it is, sir, you must allow her to feel, for herself, all that it entails. You cannot attempt to cut her off from feeling pain, because if you do, that is all she will ever feel- and all that you will."
She had cut through to the core of him, snatched away the layers of pretense and revealed the essential truth. Darcy had never felt so unnerved, so exposed by anyone. He resented her for a moment.
What presumption, to speak to him, Fitzwilliam Darcy, in such a condescending manner! But she was right, oh she was painfully right.
Raw emotion rose in Darcy's throat. He was in awe of her.
"You cut me, madam."
She smiled, a soft, sad smile, not longer his vindicator, only a concerned friend. "Then I am sorry. I only meant to scratch."
"If that is your notion of scratching, then it behooves any man to stay in your favor."
"You have not fallen from my favor, Mr. Darcy, I assure you. It is rather my concern to see you and those connected with you happy that moved me to speak as I did. If I have been forward and impertinent, or spoken out of turn, then I am truly sorry."
"You needn't be. I can see that your wisdom in such matters is impeccable, and I value what you have said. I only hope that I may have the courage to act upon it."
There was a silence then, not awkward, but uncomfortable, and in an act of reconciliation, Darcy wordlessly offered her his arm so that they might continue their walk. Grateful that he did not seem to resent her, Elizabeth accepted it and fell into step beside him.
"I have been an appalling tour guide," he confessed to her. "I promised you a tour of the grounds and so far have only given you a tour of my thoughts."
Elizabeth laughed gently. "You needn't trouble yourself on that account, sir. I have found your thoughts to be as intriguing as your grounds, if not more so."
"There I cannot agree with you. To me, Pemberley will always be a thing to wonder at. I, perhaps, have the advantage over you in that my thoughts are my constant companions and you hear them only when I chose to give them voice; but Pemberley will always fascinate me, no matter how long I spend analyzing it, funding it, maintaining it, and living in it. I am filled with anticipation each time I ride into the drive and see it standing against the sky. It is worth far more than anything I and my petty thoughts can have to say about it."
Elizabeth smiled warmly at him, full of appreciation for his words and the feelings that prompted them. "I think you have just redeemed your previous lapse in the fulfilling of your duties as the leader of this tour, Mr. Darcy."
He laughed. "I am glad to hear it."
They wandered along the path by the stream for sometime then, alternately conversing and silent, teasing and sincere. Darcy was beginning to feel an earnest attachment to this fascinating and disarming woman who had so captivated him and felt anxiety seize him when he remembered she was only to stay another week.
Elizabeth continued to delight in his company, and her initial impression of his goodness and superiority to any other man of her acquaintance was quickly becoming solidified in her mind, and in her heart. But what was to be done about it? She would be gone in a week, and then what connection could possibly bring them together again?
They were returning to the house, being nearly time for Elizabeth to go back to Lambton, when Darcy ceased his step, and turning toward her, grasped her hands and asked, "Miss Bennet, I hope you'll not think me too forward, but would you do Georgiana and I the honor of dinning with us tomorrow evening?" He smiled teasingly.
"Together with your imaginary aunt and uncle?"
She laughed and squeezed his hands. "I see you are determined to prove me a fibber. But I will not give you that satisfaction."
"Then you'll come."
She colored. "It would hardly be proper of me to accept your many gracious invitations, Mr. Darcy, for I'm sure you extend them only out of your generosity, and I could not impose upon such an amiable quality."
He meet her eyes frankly. "Do you really think I feel only generosity toward you?"
Elizabeth felt her cheeks flame and cast her eyes downward, but her heart leaped. "You mustn't say such things, sir. We have known each other only three days."
"Forgive me, I've no wish to discomfort you. But. . ." He sought her eyes again. "Please, Miss Bennet, please say you'll join us tomorrow evening."
His dark eyes captivated her and she could not look away. Surely it would be cruel to refuse, to him and to herself. "Very well," she half whispered.
He kissed her hand then with more feeling than mere conventional gratitude required, and Elizabeth felt the goose bumps race down her back. Darcy let his eyes imprison hers again; Elizabeth knew she had never seen anything so warm and dark and passionate. She felt herself in danger of becoming like so many heroines of romances and fainting dead away into his arms. Resisting the temptation, Elizabeth cleared her throat and looked away.
"Perhaps we'd better continue. It is getting late."
Disappointed and relieved in the same moment, Darcy offered his arm to her again, and together, in a silence alive with the unspoken, they continued their progress back toward the house.
Elizabeth pulled the last of the pins from her dark mass of curls and ran her fingers roughly through the lot of it. What a day it had been.
Reaching for the brush on the dressing table, Elizabeth caught a glimpse of her face in the mirror and paused for a moment to scrutinize her features. There seemed to be a heightened color in her cheeks and her dark eyes were luminescent in the candlelight. Elizabeth knew that she did not possess any sort of striking beauty, certainly nothing to that of her sister Jane, but tonight her countenance was strangely radiant, and she looked uncommonly pretty. She wondered how much the attentions of a certain gentleman were responsible for her improvement.
Stepping away from the mirror, Elizabeth began to run the brush absently through her hair. He had been constantly in her thoughts this evening, since the moment he had handed her into the carriage and took his leave; or, to own the truth, since he had walked into the music room that afternoon. Every detail of their conversation was ingrained in her memory. She remembered every word, every look, the respectful confidence now between them, and above all her thoughts lingered over the way his eyes had sought and captured hers. Was there any man superior to him in the world? Was she in danger of forming an attachment to him? What did he feel for her? Was three days time too short an acquaintance to declare oneself in love?
The brush encountered a hard knot, jerking Elizabeth's neck sideways and causing her not a little pain. Grumbling, she muttered to herself, "This is no use. It is impossible that a man of his station in life should even look twice at a woman of mine. It will certainly all come to nothing- and I might as well come away with a heart unbroken."
But she knew that she had already begun to place her heart in jeopardy, and did not know how to reverse her action, or even if she wanted to. Elizabeth thought harshly for a moment toward her tendency for hasty judgment. In truth, she knew hardly anything about Mr. Darcy. Perhaps he was amiable now, but how would he behave in a large gathering of people who shared his rank? Would he snub or jilt her? Had everything he confided to her been spoken in honesty? She knew that it would be foolhardy to believe herself in love with him after so short an acquaintance, but her reason was fighting a losing battle with her sensibilities. He was so gentlemanly, so understanding; how could he ever be any less?
Tired from the day's activities and further wearied by her flurry of self-imposed questions, Elizabeth set down the brush on the night stand, crawled into bed, and blew out the candle. She would answer them all tomorrow.
Darcy was having difficulty concentrating. He had sat down in his study to see to estate affairs, but instead of thinking about facts and numbers, he was musing over a figure of quite a different sort. Money matters and letters from his solicitor paled in comparison to the delightful ripples of her laughter and the sweet clip of her playful speech, the loveliness of her dark eyes. How could he pay heed to anything else when so charming a picture was before his mind's eye? He was a man distracted.
Bits and pieces of their conversation from the previous afternoon kept running through his head. How honest she was, how sincere, generous, witty, how compassionate and intelligent; he could list her perfections for hours. And she was to return to Pemberley that very evening. If he was not in love with her already, he was sure he would be before the evening was out.
Such were Darcy's reflections when a knock on the study door announced the arrival of the afternoon post. Darcy took it in hand and dismissed the footman. Sifting through it, he found little of interest, until he came to a letter covered with Lady Catherine DeBourgh's ostentatiously correct and unmistakable hand. Curious to know what his meddling aunt could have to say this time, Darcy turned the letter over and broke the seal.
July 5th, 18-
My Dear Nephew,
I hope this letter finds you and Georgiana in the best of health. I was quite concerned in regards to your sister's indisposition last month and am eager to see her set to right. I am sure the broth I prescribed to Mrs. Reynolds did the trick nicely- indeed it has always cured Anne's every ailment, even with her weaker constitution. But she is truly the best of her sex and never complains.
Now, on to the main business which moves me to write you. I have decided that a change of air and society is just the thing for Anne, who has taken to being quite pale and tiring easily of late. Have no fear for your dear cousin, Darcy; all she requires is a bit of the wholesome Derbyshire air. I have therefore taken the liberty to make preparations for the journey to Pemberley. I know that you and Georgiana will be happy to receive us. I suppose we might stay a month or two.
We arrive Sunday the 12th. Until then, I remain, yours etc.
Darcy was hardly pleased with this whim of his aunt's. Not only was her presumption offensive, her timing was utterly disastrous. The moment Lady Catherine saw that he was "carrying on" with a country nobody without family, connections, or fortune, she would make her displeasure known both to him and to Miss Bennet in a grand tirade, the effects of which would surely not bode well for the future of their acquaintance. From what Darcy knew of Miss Bennet thus far, she would certainly not look kindly on a brazen attempt to school her actions, and he could not blame her.
But what could he do? Nothing would prevent Lady Catherine from descending upon them once she had made up her mind to come, not when she was so obviously planning to throw her daughter and her nephew together as frequently as possible. There wasn't a thing to be done about it.
Sunday the 12th was tomorrow.
"You must tell us about this Darcy fellow, Elizabeth," insisted Mr. Gardiner as the carriage carried his wife, his niece, and himself to Pemberley that evening. "He must be very keen on you if he insists on dragging a simple tradesman and his wife to dinner and enduring them throughout the length of it so that he might have the pleasure of your society." Mr. Gardiner laughed at his own jest.
Elizabeth colored but laughed with him to hide her discomfort. "You are mistaken, Uncle. Mr. Darcy is the most generous of men, and his invitation springs purely from his kindness. We have become friends, I think, since our rather singular meeting and take a mutual delight in each other's conversation. Though it is easy to see after five minutes' conference that he is both intelligent and an excellent regulator of his property, he is a reserved man and not prone to display. I respect him a great deal, and feel certain that you will as well, Uncle."
"According to praise such as this, it would be most ungracious of me not to like him, Lizzy!"
Elizabeth smiled. "I see you are determined to tease me."
"Well, my dear, someone must do it in your father's absence!"
Elizabeth smiled again, but offered no comment. Her thoughts were turned toward Longbourn, where she had left six individuals as different from each other as they could be at home. Staring out the carriage window and into the setting sun, the beloved features of her father rose before her mind's eye-- his teasing smile, his wise, merry eyes alight with wit. As always when she contemplated her father, Elizabeth's heart tightened with a kind of wistful affection. He was a good man to be sure, if only he were not so quick to take advantage of his wife's feeble intellect and excitable nerves. If her parents' marriage had taught her anything, Elizabeth knew that to unite oneself with one's equal was of tantamount importance. She would not suffer the heartache of being unable to respect and love unrestrainedly her life's partner. Sighing quietly to herself, she wondered absently after Mr. Darcy's view on the subject. . .
"There! Did I not tell you that Pemberley is the loveliest house in England, my dear?" Mrs. Gardiner made the appeal to her husband as Pemberley's fašade rose between the crests of the hills opposite them. Elizabeth abandoned her thoughts and looked upon the aspect of the fine house. She was taken again with its elegant yet unassuming beauty, its graceful quietude. Now, in the hazy, fading light of dusk, it seemed to take on an enchanted quality, as it had when first she saw it standing at the edge of the wood, as if it had come out of a fairy story.
Elizabeth sighed, feeling content and unsettled all at once. How she had grown to treasure the lovely house and grounds, and how she would loathe to leave them- to leave him...
"Indeed you are right, my dear," said Mr. Gardiner, in agreement with his wife. "It is a very fine house to be sure."
Mrs. Gardiner smiled in response. Her husband then turned his attention to their niece, and observing her said laughingly, "At least we may be assured that Elizabeth has a great deal of enthusiasm for it! She has been transfixed by Pemberley's prospect since it came into view!"
Elizabeth laughed with him. "How may I defend myself? I am shamefully attached to the place, I know, and find myself quite put out with the fact that I shall not be permitted to go on gaping at it forever. Grudgingly, I admit it- I am hopeless."
"Surely not hopeless, Lizzy," protested Mrs. Gardiner. "To be sure, there are far worse things to have a weakness for."
"Oh yes, indeed, Aunt. But it is rather detrimental to my pride that I should have to admit to any weakness at all!"
Mr. Gardiner chuckled and patted his niece's hand affectionately. "Well said, Lizzy, well said."
The carriage passed through Pemberley's gates and onto the circular drive that stretched before the great house.
Standing at the great doors which opened on the front hall of his magnificent home, his sister on his arm, Darcy caught sight of his visitors' carriage and smiled warmly. He anticipated much from the evening, and was eager to match wits once again with the enchanting Miss Bennet. Georgiana was looking forward to the society of their guest as well. There was no fear of awkwardness or embarrassment in Miss Bennet's amicable company; she was all ease and friendliness, even if her skills at the pianoforte were somewhat lacking.
The carriage reached the foot of the steps leading up to the great doors and came to a stop. The footman jumped down from the driver's bench and went to open the carriage door. Darcy saw a lady's gloved hand extended to be helped down, and a moment later, Miss Bennet's charming form, exceedingly lovely in evening dress, was before him. Smiling, he descended the steps to meet her.
Miss Bennet's eyes rose and returned his gaze. She smiled sweetly at him, the light in her countenance well complementing the rest of her, which seemed to be glowing with loveliness to the admiring eyes of Darcy.
A middle-aged couple had stepped down from the carriage behind her, and Miss Bennet's angelic smile promptly turned facetious. Her eyes flashed in merriment as she looked from them to Darcy, her mouth pursed in a pert little twist of her lips. Darcy allowed himself to dwell for a moment on how irresistible was the temptation to taste the kisses of that sweet mouth. Coloring at the vividness of his imagination, he remembered himself and his duties as a host.
"Good evening, Miss Bennet. How glad I am you are come to dine with my sister and I. I trust this is your aunt and uncle?"
The teasing gleam in Miss Bennet's eyes became almost too inviting to be resisted. "Indeed, you presume correctly, sir. May I present Mr. and Mrs. Edward Gardiner? Aunt and Uncle, this hospitable gentleman is the esteemed Mr. Darcy of Pemberley, and the lovely young woman on his arm is his charming sister Miss Darcy."
Mr. Gardiner, who was always abounding in good will toward everyone, stepped forward, his hand outstretched.
"I am very please to meet you, sir, and thank you heartily for your hospitality. My niece speaks very highly of you."
Darcy clasped the older gentleman's hand. "That, I think, Mr. Gardiner, is due primarily to her own kindness of nature instead of any accomplishment of mine, but I thank you all the same. You and Mrs. Gardiner are welcome to Pemberley, sir." He smiled amicably at Miss Bennet's aunt, who returned his warmth in kind.
Georgiana, meanwhile, was exchanging an uncharacteristically enthusiastic greeting with the young woman whose company she had so enjoyed the previous afternoon.
"How delighted I am to see you again so soon, Miss Bennet!" she piped. "I must thank you again for a delightful afternoon yesterday."
Miss Bennet's smile was affectionate. "It is I who should thank you for being such a charming hostess. I enjoyed myself very much." She laughed. "I'm sure I've never had such wonderful tea cakes before in all my life, nor eaten so many!"
Georgiana joined in her laughter. "You tease me!"
"Indeed, it is a vulgar habit of mine! How shall you punish me?"
Georgiana pretended to contemplate a horrific means of chastising her folly, then said mischievously, "I shall insist that you play a duet with me tonight!"
"Your punishment is quite effectual, Miss Darcy! For with penitence to serve as harsh as this, I shall certainly never tease you again!"
"Shall we go in?" Darcy inquired to the rest of the party.
Georgiana led the way inside, falling into conversation with Mrs. Gardiner, who had complimented the lacy ribbon she wore in her hair. Mr. Gardiner, smiling indulgently at the interests of the ladies, followed.
Darcy turned to Miss Bennet, who still lingered on the steps. When their glances met, she held his with a playful smile that illuminated her features. Knowing she had something witty waiting to roll off her tongue, Darcy challenged her with a smile of his own and wordlessly offered his arm. She accepted it, and together, they ascended the steps after the others.
"There, sir, do you believe me now?" she asked quietly, the richness of her voice making him acutely aware of her nearness. He could hear too her amusement in its timbre.
Ignoring this he returned innocently, "I'm sorry?"
She laughed softly. "You needn't play at ignorance with me, Mr. Darcy. I told you I had an aunt and uncle."
He smiled down at her. "So you did."
"I hear from your niece that you are a man of business, Mr. Gardiner."
The ladies had left the table and retired to the music room, leaving Darcy and Mr. Gardiner to enjoy their port and their politics. Darcy, however, could not remember a time when he had been less interested in either. All he wished to ponder were the exquisite dark eyes which had danced with merriment in the candlelight across the dinner table not ten minutes ago. He hoped she would consent to play and sing this evening when they joined the ladies in the music room.
"Indeed, Mr. Darcy. Stocks and securities, mostly. Generally rather tedious stuff, but one does meet a great deal of rather amusing people." Mr. Gardiner laughed rather nostalgically, as if remembering a few in particular.
Darcy smiled thoughtfully in recognition of his guest's assertion. "You hail from London, I understand."
"My wife and I reside in Gracechurch Street, but naturally I try to accommodate my clients outside our home. Are you often in London, sir?"
Darcy leaned back in his chair, feeling quite easy in Mr. Gardiner's presence, despite his growing attachment to the man's niece. "I go there as rarely as duty permits, and hardly ever for pleasure. Though my sister is very frequently in town, due to the demands of her education and such, and I am more than willing to make the journey for her sake. Derbyshire, with all its beauties and endearments, cannot rival her for my loyalties."
Mr. Gardiner smiled. "As it should be."
"Miss Bennet is a native of Hertfordshire, she tells me."
"Yes, and a rather odd little piece of it too, to be sure."
Darcy failed to understand his meaning. "Odd, sir?"
"Why yes, sir!" Mr. Gardiner chuckled. "I do believe there are more laughable personalities in Meryton than you shall find in any other village in the land, Mr. Darcy. Everyone seems to have their own peculiarity."
Darcy smiled. "Which is no doubt why Miss Bennet has developed her natural amusement at trifling human inconsistencies."
"Indeed, sir, indeed! That, together with the influence of her father."
"She takes after Mr. Bennet then?"
"As night follows day. Her intelligence and lively wit are entirely her father's contribution, for though my sister is an affectionate woman deeply concerned for the futures of her daughters, she has not the cleverness her husband and second daughter share."
"Yes, she told me she was the second of five." Darcy smiled, leaning forward. "Tell me, Mr. Gardiner, do the Bennet women model the variance of temperament found in their community?"
At this, Mr. Gardiner laughed heartily out loud. "Surely you read my thoughts, sir! Nothing was ever so true. I have told you that my sister is a rather simple woman, and her two eldest daughters could not be more different from her, Elizabeth in particular. The middle girl is a great deal more interested in books than in the human community which inspired them, and the two youngest are a pair of rambunctious, enthusiastic young ladies who are very much enamored with balls, parties, and the red coats who attend them. No, sir, a set of women more different from one another under the same roof you shall never find."
Darcy laughed. "You make me glad to have but one sister."
As she seated herself in one of the music room's lovely armchairs, Elizabeth was aware that a profound sense of warmth and contentment had been steadily filling her since their arrival at Pemberley. Her host and hostess had been kindness itself, had welcomed her aunt and uncle with true hospitality, and everything that had transpired between them that evening had gone off marvelously well. At dinner it had seemed to Elizabeth that the Darcys had always been a part of their family, that this meeting over supper was merely a casual gathering of individuals taking a mutual delight in the society of one another and mutually concerned for the well-being of one another. Every word that had passed between them had been good-natured and spoken out of honest respect and affinity for the listeners. Elizabeth doubted that any collection of people anywhere had ever met on such amiable terms, nor reached such a delightful easiness in each other's company so soon. And those deep eyes that had met hers so often over the candlelight, surely they were in part responsible for this warm glow in the pit of her stomach. . .
Her thoughts were broken by the sound of laughter, and Elizabeth turned to her companions to find her aunt and Miss Darcy looking in her direction with mirth written clearly on their faces. She colored.
"What, pray, so amuses you?"
Mrs. Gardiner covered her mouth. "Oh, nothing to concern yourself with, my dear."
"I do insist, what merits this outburst of merriment?"
Miss Darcy was not attempting to hide her girlish ripples of laughter, and her young face was pleasantly flushed with the manifestations of her amusement. "Dear Miss Bennet, 'tis you!"
Elizabeth felt the color rise in her cheeks. "I fail to understand your meaning."
Mrs. Gardiner smiled playfully at her niece. "The look on your face just now, how very odd and inconstant with your character it was! For a moment I did think you were posing for the cover of a sensational novel, for you did look quite the part of the tragic heroine!"
"Yes indeed!" agreed Miss Darcy, her laughter subsiding. "That is exactly how I should have described the look."
"I think you are both a trifle mad. A tragic literary heroine, indeed!"
"Well," said Mrs. Gardiner, smiling fondly at Elizabeth, "let us set the matter aside."
Elizabeth smiled back, but felt a bit unsettled, wondering how much of her growing feelings for Mr. Darcy were made plain in her unconscious actions. She sincerely hoped that Miss Darcy should not perceive them and discontinue their budding friendship on the basis of thinking her a simpleton to raise even her thoughts to her brother. But she could not expect such severity from a creature as sweet as Miss Darcy, could she?
"Come, Miss Bennet," said the girl, moving toward the beautifully crafted instrument at one corner of the room. "You promised me a duet, and I am determined to have one!"
Elizabeth smiled without reserve, her naturally lively temperament urging her to lay aside her heavy contemplations in favor of enjoying her hostess' delightful company. She allowed a laugh to escape from her lips, and said merrily, "What duet would you have, Miss Darcy?"
Miss Darcy's sweet mouth spread into a wider smile and she replied enthusiastically, "Come chose a piece with me. We must find a wistful love song, to suit your mood!"
Rising from her seat, Elizabeth laughed again, delighted to be teased by the girl who had been so timid at the beginning of yesterday afternoon and so dear by the end of it. She joined Miss Darcy at the instrument and began glancing through the music.
When Mr. Gardiner and his host entered not five minutes later, they were greeted to the music room by the rich, warm strains of the melody the young ladies had chosen. It was a lovely little piece, simple yet full of unspoken depth, as if the music was keeping a treasured secret from the listener. Mr. Gardiner smiled at the sight of his niece and her charming young companion at the instrument and went to sit beside his wife on the divan. But Darcy stood alone in the doorway, transfixed.
He had been seized again with the feelings of yesterday afternoon, when he had stood just as he did now and watched his sister and Miss Bennet at the pianoforte. He studied Georgiana's beloved face as she played. The faint pinkish coloring had returned to her cheeks, and her eyes were alight with the beauty of the music. Relief washed over him. At last she was happy- not healed, perhaps, but on the mend. And it was all the doing of the girl who sat beside her, the perplexingly fascinating girl who had swept into their lives and somehow made them so much more worth living in a meager four days time.
Darcy's attention shifted from his sister's face to Miss Bennet's. As she played, her rosy countenance was vaguely lit with a secret smile, all for herself, as if she knew what she was doing to his reason and enjoying it. Heartless woman! Did she not know she was unlike any lady he had ever met, ever conceived existed? Surely she must have found him out by now; he had been perilously close several times this evening to blatantly giving himself away, in the presence of Georgiana and her aunt and uncle, which would have been inexcusable. Perchance she thought him presumptuous and overbearing, that he would use his rank and station in life to take whatever he wished from her. He agonized at the thought. He could not abide the idea of inadvertently pushing her away. How dearly he wished to know her thoughts. . .
But Miss Bennet smiled on, without regard for his troubled musings, and as if to puzzle him still, she began to sing.
How like the buds of May
Blown gently in the Breeze
Is the bloom of my Love's cheek,
The luster in her Gaze.
Darcy recognized the song from his childhood-- his mother had sung it to him often when he was small. To hear Miss Bennet's clear and sweet voice ring through the phrases was like a breath of the summer evening air with its warm, intoxicating stillness. She sang well, better than her skill at the pianoforte would suggest, and it was a pleasure to hear her perform regardless of what other significance he might attach to it. But the pleasure was even greater when his sister gathered her courage and joined in the song, her voice entwining in perfect counterpoint to Miss Bennet's sweet melody.
She bid me to her tenderly
And banished all my Care-
Her Beauty knows no mortal like,
Her sweetness fills the Air.
Yet I am bruised and faint of Heart,
My trust was oft' betrayed-
To love her is to stake my Soul
Of broken vow I'm afraid.
But she has promised Faith to me
She takes away All fears-
Forever will she loving be,
Why waste sweet Youth with tears?
The last chord and the voices of the singers died slowly away to nothing. Elizabeth took her hands from the keys, smiling affectionately at her companion as their listeners applauded. Miss Darcy was flushed with a sort of quietly profound happiness, and the look she returned to Elizabeth spoke volumes as happy tears lingered at the corners of her eyes.
"You have a very beautiful voice, Miss Bennet."
"How kind you are. But yours, I know, is the loveliest I have had the pleasure of hearing in quite a while, and you are much better trained than I am. However, I think our voices compliment each other well, at least better than my playing compliments yours!"
Miss Darcy smiled sweetly. "You are not so unskilled as you think."
"Indeed no," interjected Darcy, who had been listening to their conversation. "Miss Bennet, you play much better than a good many young women I have heard, and to hear you sing is a greater pleasure still."
Elizabeth colored at such high praise, and at a loss to answer it with some clever remark merely looked down at her hands and replied modestly, "Thank you, sir."
Mr. Gardiner chuckled. "I see you have found my niece's weakness, sir! For someone as disposed as she is to exercise her wit on us all, she cannot abide by personal compliments."
"Uncle, surely you misunderstand me!"
Mr. Gardiner laughed again. "Perhaps I do, my dear, perhaps I do." But the teasing light in his eye belied his words.
Coffee was served, and the party sat down to enjoy it over further conversation. Miss Darcy and Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner quickly fell into a discussion of the advantages and detractions of living in London. Elizabeth, who after rising from the pianoforte had been joined on the divan by Mr. Darcy, saw that she would have to overcome her conflicting thoughts and wishes regarding that gentleman and carry on a sensible conversation with him. She smiled indulgently at her own silliness in the matter. Of what overmastering significance could a simple, friendly conversation be?
"Why do you smile to yourself, Miss Bennet?"
"I beg your pardon?"
Darcy, in turn, smiled too. "I have noticed that you have a curious habit of smiling to yourself, either when someone else is speaking or when you are otherwise silent, as if you were keeping a secret amusement from us all. Tell me, does all of humanity entertain you? I must confess to finding it quite bewildering."
Elizabeth laughed. "Have I got you in a muddle then, Mr. Darcy?"
His eyes turned grave and his voice lowered in earnestness. "Yes indeed, madam."
Elizabeth colored, sensing a deeper meaning in his words but unsure if he had intended it. Wishing to avoid the necessity to make a guess, she said quickly, "I was merely reflecting that I was ill qualified to speak extensively of London, that is all."
The seriousness slipped from his face and he smiled again. "I see. As am I. I have told you already how I feel about the place."
"None too kindly. I wonder that you should find it so distasteful to you though. Are you not even the slightest bit interested in the detailed workings of the world's finest city?"
"I confess I am too much bombarded with them everyday in my business dealings. But perhaps, had I your disposition and temperament, I should take an eager interest in them. You are intensely curious, are you not, Miss Bennet?"
"I must confess, I am. How did you guess?"
"A mere conjecture on the basis of what I already know of you. You have the eyes of a curious person."
Elizabeth smiled, amused at his way of putting it. "Have I? Pray, how exactly do curious eyes look?"
Darcy feigned a scholarly demeanor. "Well, my dear Miss Bennet, perhaps to answer your question I shall have to do better research. Would you be so kind. . .?"
Elizabeth smiled wide, but contained her laughter and tilted her chin upwards to let the light further illuminate her face, looking expectantly into his. Darcy made an adequate perusal of her fine dark eyes, with the mock inspection of a critic at first, and then, caught once again by their beauty and depth, with the gaze of a man transfixed.
Elizabeth had noticed the change and was swept along with it, returning his looks with equal intensity, though she knew not precisely what they meant nor what exactly it was they inspired in her. They might have sat there staring at each other forever, had not the silence in the room, which they had not noticed before, been disrupted by a cough originating from Mr. Gardiner. Startled and embarrassed, Elizabeth and Darcy quickly broke eye contact and reluctantly faced the others. Mr. Gardiner was smirking silently to himself, Mrs. Gardiner was a touch embarrassed for having witnessed so private an exchange between her niece and Mr. Darcy, and Georgiana was positively glowing with excitement. Elizabeth felt slightly sick to her stomach. How weak she had been to expose herself thus! What must he think of her now?
"Elizabeth, I do believe it is time we returned to Lambton for the evening." Mr. Gardiner and his wife stood.
Relief and disappointment fought for control of her emotions. "Yes, uncle."
Darcy rose too, recovered from the momentary let down of his guard. "You are leaving so soon? Surely you can afford to stay a little longer?"
"I am afraid we must go," answered Mrs. Gardiner. "Though we should love to stay in your company yet a while longer, we have an early excursion to view the lake just north of here tomorrow morning and will need sufficient rest before we depart."
"Shall you return by the afternoon?" asked Miss Darcy.
"Yes, if all goes according to plan."
"Why then, Miss Bennet, and Mrs. Gardiner, of course, you must come and take tea with me again tomorrow afternoon."
Elizabeth smiled, her feelings of embarrassment eased slightly by Miss Darcy's eagerness to see her and her aunt again so soon. "We should be delighted, dear Miss Darcy."
"Then it is all settled." Darcy moved to open the door. "I shall see you out."
The Gardiners exchanged a good-natured farewell with Miss Darcy, thanking her for her kindness and hospitality. The leave-taking between Miss Darcy and Miss Bennet was affectionate and full of anticipation for their meeting on the morrow. That done, Mr. Gardiner offered his wife his arm and preceded toward the front hall, casting a pointed glance at Darcy on his way past, as if to suggest he follow his example. Darcy attempted not to color, but was not completely successful.
Gathering his courage, Darcy followed suit and offered the young lady his arm. "Miss Bennet. . ."
She smiled demurely and took his arm without a word. With one last look back at his sister, she allowed herself to be led from the room.
As they fell into step behind the Gardiners, Darcy said quietly to his companion, "I was very glad to have you and your aunt and uncle dine with us this evening, Miss Bennet. They are charming people and I should not hesitate to become better acquainted with them."
"Thank you, Mr. Darcy. Your hospitality has been graciousness itself. I enjoyed this evening very much."
They fell into a thick silence, both full of questions and self reproach after what had happened between them in the music room, both unwilling to give the subject a voice. Finally, Darcy's curiosity got the better of him, and unable to contain his desire to know what was in her thoughts, he spoke.
"Miss Bennet, about what transpired just now, allow me to say. . ."
"Please, sir," she interrupted. "I beg you would not say anything. My liveliness of temper often borders on the impertinent, and I know that just now I allowed myself too much liberty. You must forgive the weakness of my pride- I meant no offence."
Darcy was surprised. "Indeed, Miss Bennet, you are completely guiltless in the matter, not to blame at all. It was I who encouraged you. You must feel no discomfort at all on my account."
She smiled. "I see you are still determined to think me a subject worthy of your admiration."
He returned her smile, glad he had not upset her. "Why should I cease to do so without sufficient cause? If anything, you continually raise yourself in my estimation."
She laughed. "I see that you have set before me great expectations to be met! But have no fear, sir. You may be assured that I shall do everything in my power to rise to the challenge!"
When the Gardiners and Elizabeth returned to Lambton the following afternoon, they found one of the Darcys' fine carriages waiting outside the inn to take the ladies to Pemberley for tea. Mr. Gardiner, to Elizabeth's chagrin, found the situation very amusing, and did not let her escape unteased. Toilette refreshed and summer bonnets donned once more, Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner stepped into the Darcy carriage and made their way to Pemberley.
As Derbyshire's beauties, vibrant and arresting in the summer sun, sped past the window, Elizabeth reflected for what seemed like the hundredth time on the many passions within her that fought for control of her heart. She knew it was foolish and ill-advised to place all one's hope in so sudden an attachment. The more she thought of Darcy, the more she realized how little she knew of him. She had yet to see him in a large company, or to hear the objective opinions of others concerning his character, and was ignorant even to whether he was engaged to be married already, as people of such high station often were.
And yet, whenever she thought of his kindness, his sincerity, all his amiable qualities, she could not help but silence all her objections. She could not think of a man in her acquaintance who had ever pleased her more, who had ever inspired such feelings in her. But what was to be done about it? She would be gone in less than a week, and he would surely forget her in half that time.
Mrs. Gardiner's hand reached across the carriage and took hold of Elizabeth's. She smiled gently at her niece, as if she had overheard her thoughts and knew her every reflection. Elizabeth tried to smile back, but could only manage a sigh.
"Oh, Aunt. . ."
"You have nothing to fear, Lizzy. No matter what befalls, I believe that in the end, you cannot be anything but truly happy."
Elizabeth leaned back against the seat and looked into her aunt's kind face. "I wish that I could be as certain as you are. I feel such a silly young girl, na´ve and inexperienced. It's just that I- I would wish. . ." she smiled at her unfamiliar difficulty to find the words. "I don't know. I'm in a muddle."
Mrs. Gardiner pressed her niece's hand. "But not for long. Take heart, my dear. The fog will clear, and no doubt sooner than you think it will."
Elizabeth returned her aunt's smile wistfully. "How I pray that might be so. . ."
"What a lovely evening we had last night, Miss Darcy. I do think it was a definite high point of our holiday, wouldn't you agree, Elizabeth?"
At Mrs. Gardiner's appeal, Elizabeth smiled affectionately at Miss Darcy and said, "Indeed it was. A perfectly delightful evening."
Miss Darcy beamed at her guests. "I'm so glad you thought so. It was a pleasure to have you here. My brother and I rarely receive company when we are in the country, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to enjoy the society of such lovely people as yourselves."
Elizabeth laughed lightly. "How now, dear Miss Darcy! May one so easily catch the plague?"
Miss Darcy set down her cup and saucer, and puzzled, inquired, "The plague, Miss Bennet? Whatever can you mean?"
"Your brother has a disconcerting habit of agreeing with everything I say, which I find most jeopardizing to my modesty. To discover the same fault arising in you is alarming to say the least!"
Miss Darcy's sweet little face lit up with a merry smile. "Well, if I must have a fault, Miss Bennet, better to have such an agreeable one."
Elisabeth laughed again, taking delight in her new friend's good-humored remark. Her expressive eyes twinkled with amusement at Miss Darcy over the rim of her tea cup, raised to her lips, and she was about to make her hostess an reply when, through the open door of the drawing room, there was heard a commotion in the front hall.
An authoritarian, matronly voice was heard to say, "You will see to it that my and my daughter's things are properly looked after, Mrs. Reynolds. I shall require my usual room, with the balcony overlooking the stream and the east meadow, and Miss DeBourgh the one next to it. Is that clear, Mrs. Reynolds?"
"Perfectly, your ladyship."
"Good. See to it immediately, if you please. Where is my nephew?"
"Out on business, ma'am."
"And Miss Darcy?"
"In the drawing room, madam, but she is receiving. . ."
The footsteps grew louder on the polished floors; Elizabeth looked to Miss Darcy and saw that she had turned quite pale. Whoever was the owner of the shrill, commandeering voice? She must be very horrible indeed.
"Never mind, Mrs. Reynolds. Anne, you will accompany me to greet your cousin."
A moment later, a flustered footman threw the door to the drawing room open wide and announced breathlessly, "Lady Catherine DeBourgh, Miss Anne DeBourgh". His warning was not an instant too soon, for before the words had even died on his lips, her ladyship thrust her way past him and strode purposefully into the center of the room.
Miss Darcy stood hastily, with the look of a guilty child who'd been caught by the headmistress of a grammar school doing something very naughty indeed. Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner, not a little confused, rose as well.
Lady Catherine was a tall woman, whose height was added to considerably by a rather ugly looking apparatus covered with drooping pheasant feathers, designed to serve the purpose of a hat and situated precariously at the top of her head. Contemplating the self-important woman before her, Elizabeth nearly laughed aloud. Her haughty air of supreme dignity and condescension made her sour, aging face very laughable indeed. Elizabeth had not thought it possible until now to hold one's nose quite so high.
"My dear Georgiana, how well you look. Come and kiss your aunt, my child."
Obediently, Miss Darcy crossed to her aunt and did as she was told. Mechanically and without affection, she kissed her cousin as well. Elizabeth felt her heart ache for her friend. She could see that the painfully self conscious look that had haunted Miss Darcy's face upon their first meeting had returned.
"How lovely to see you, Lady Catherine, Anne. Fitzwilliam told me yesterday that you would be coming to visit us. Had you an agreeable journey?"
"Oh, no my dear, not at all! The roads were simply dreadful! I will speak to Darcy about it immediately upon his return; something must be done about them. Poor Anne was hardly able to withstand the jolting!"
"Yes, of course."
Lady Catherine then condescended to recognize the presence of her niece's guests. She stared at them quizzically, almost rudely, then asked Miss Darcy, "Who pray, have you got here, Georgiana? I have never seen this girl or this lady in my life. I hope you have not taken to entertaining strangers, my dear child."
Elizabeth's cheeks burned at being talked of as if she were not present, while Mrs. Gardiner looked humbly down at her shoes in an attempt to avoid eye contact. Miss Darcy's glance met Elizabeth's and asked silently for her forgiveness, which Elizabeth could not but give. Taking a deep breath, she willed herself to be composed and courteous.
"These ladies, Aunt, are new acquaintances of mine. May I present Miss Elizabeth Bennet and her aunt Mrs. Gardiner? Miss Bennet, Mrs. Gardiner, my aunt Lady Catherine DeBourgh and her daughter Miss Anne DeBourgh."
Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner dropped simultaneous curtsies, and a general murmuring of the mandatory "how do you do" was aired. Elizabeth perceived that, from the look of her, Miss DeBourgh, a pale and sickly creature who almost hid behind the grand personage of her mother, was dreading this encounter. It struck Elizabeth as odd that so gregarious a mother should have produced so timid and feeble a daughter.
Lady Catherine was scrutinizing this young woman Miss Bennet, wondering why so pretty a young lady was being entertained in her nephew's house and why she had not been informed of her existence earlier. Best to find out her origins immediately.
"Bennet, you say? Are you, by any chance, a relation of the great Bennets of Shrewsbury?"
Elizabeth fought hard to contain her laughter. "Indeed no, madam. My family resides in Hertfordshire. My father's estate is just outside the village of Meryton."
Lady Catherine's nose climbed altitude. "I have never heard of such a place in my life."
Elizabeth was unperturbed. "Quite naturally, your ladyship. It is not half so grand as Shrewsbury, with all its great Bennets. Alas, in Meryton, we have only seven Bennets, and none of us are very grand at all."
Lady Catherine, who hardly knew how to answer this comment, or indeed even how to interpret Elizabeth's implication, eyed the girl opposite her warily, as if to discern from her countenance what she was about. "Georgiana, however did you form an acquaintance with this singular person?"
"Well. . ."
"How do you come to be in this part of the country, Miss Bennet?" inquired Lady Catherine, not pausing to hear her niece's reply. "Hertfordshire is quite a distance, is it not?"
"I am on holiday with my aunt and uncle, ma'am. They have graciously permitted me to share in their excursion to Derbyshire."
"Oh, well that's something, I suppose. What attracts you to Derbyshire, Mrs. Harbinger?"
Lady Catherine grew impatient at the correction. "Yes, yes, of course."
"I spent my girlhood here, ma'am, in the village of Lambton."
"In the village?!" Lady Catherine's eyes looked as if they would leap from their sockets.
"Yes, but my husband and I reside in London now, your ladyship."
"I see. . ." Lady Catherine shot a disapproving glance at her niece, unimpressed with the "quality" of the people she entertained. Miss Darcy looked as if she were feeling slightly unwell. Elizabeth saw it would fall to her to rescue them all.
"Lady Catherine, how often Mr. Darcy has spoken of you, and with such warmth. I dare say he enjoys the pleasure of your company, and Miss DeBourgh's, very much indeed."
The fib had a nearly magical affect on Lady Catherine. She smiled fondly at this recollection of her own superiority, and looked upon the unpromising girl from Hertfordshire quite as she would the richest and most well connected young lady of the season.
"Why, you are more perceptive than I would have given you credit for, Miss Bennet," declared Lady Catherine in unwitting irony. "Darcy is indeed an exemplary nephew, and his attachment to Anne certainly grows whenever we meet. We have great hopes for the future, do we not, Anne?"
Elizabeth nearly choked. Mr. Darcy, attached to his sallow, silent, and insipid cousin, who was so obviously a slave, devoid of will, to her mother's command? She could not believe it. Everything she knew of Darcy told her that, though his kindness and his loyalties were strong, he would never feel obligated by them to marry where he felt no regard. Perhaps Lady Catherine had only imagined her nephew's attachment to Miss DeBourgh to please herself. Or did Elizabeth conjure these reasons up in her own head, for the same purpose?
It was clear that Miss Darcy was in an agony of discomfort and embarrassment. Her cheeks, a healthy pink before the arrival of her aunt, were now radiating a vivid red, and she wrung her hands in the anxiety of uncertainty.
Sympathetic to her friend's awkwardness, Elizabeth caught Miss Darcy's eye and nodded suggestively toward the tea things on the small table that was situated in the center of the seating arrangement. With a look of heartfelt gratitude for Elizabeth and her prompting, Miss Darcy found the courage to address the formidable Lady Catherine.
"My dear aunt, Cousin Anne, I'm sure you must be very tired after your journey. Will you not sit down and take some refreshment?"
This evidently pleased Lady Catherine, for she was more than happy to deposit herself in the seat her niece had formerly been occupying on the divan, replying to Miss Darcy's kind offer, "Thank you my dear, that would be most agreeable. Anne," she commanded her daughter, "you will take the seat beside me."
Miss DeBourgh was quick to obey her mother's bidding, and as Elizabeth watched her cross to the divan, she felt a certain pity rise in her for the privileged girl who so obviously lacked the ability to think her own thoughts or act as she pleased.
"And in your rather- extraordinary family, Miss Bennet," began Lady Catherine when they had all been seated, "have you any promising brothers? I expect your father should wish them to go into the law or the clergy, or some such capacity. His estate cannot provide for them all, I expect."
Elizabeth lowered her eyes to hide her amusement at Lady Catherine's prying. "No, indeed, ma'am, for I fear I have no brothers at all, only four sisters. As it is, we can have no great expectation of being totally provided for by the estate, either, for it is all to be entailed away on a distant cousin."
Lady Catherine looked as if she would drop the cup and saucer her niece had just handed her. "Five daughters? How does your mother expect to feed you all when your father has passed on?"
Elizabeth was surprised and taken aback at Lady Catherine's obvious want of simple tact, but realized quickly that she must be operating under the presumption that the very rich can afford to give offense wherever they go". Elizabeth's cheeks burned again, but she refused to let it be known that she had taken offense.
"That, I think, your ladyship, is taken into account by my father's will. And in the unfortunate event that one of my sisters or myself be unmarried on my father's death, we have reason to hope that our cousin Mr. Collins will not be completely insensible of his familial duty."
Lady Catherine's ears pricked up at this. "Collins, you say? Surely this is an extraordinary coincidence. You do not mean Mr. William Collins, a clergyman?"
Elizabeth was all astonishment. Surely her cousin could not keep such elevated company. "The very same, your ladyship."
"Then you must know, Miss Bennet, that your cousin Mr. Collins is clergyman of my parish! What have you to say to that?"
Elizabeth was glad she had finished her tea before Lady Catherine's entrance, else she might have spit it out all over her ladyship's noble visage. "Your ladyship, I must confess myself quite amazed at the discovery!"
"You might well believe it, Miss Bennet. Oh yes, Mr. Collins is a very agreeable young man," proclaimed Lady Catherine. "He is easily conversed with, but not vulgar or presumptive as so many young people are at present- he unarguably knows his place and is most careful to always present himself accordingly. Perhaps Mr. Collins' sermons are a bit too long, but that is nothing, I think, that further experience will not remedy."
Elizabeth, still too surprised at the unexpected connection, could only nod in agreement. "Your ladyship gives Mr. Collins a pleasing report, though I fear I am ill qualified either to concur or disagree with your assessment of his character. I have never had the honor of meeting my cousin."
Lady Catherine looked condescendingly toward Elizabeth and remarked, "Yes, I suppose that is to be expected. There are some to whom family and connection mean very little indeed."
Yet again, Elizabeth felt moved by indignation to defend herself, but the pressure of Mrs. Gardiner's hand covering her own was enough to silence Elizabeth once more.
Her ladyship was quite ignorant of this, however, and continued on with her observations on Elizabeth's cousin. "What Mr. Collins lacks is a sensible, modest, and orderly woman for his wife. I believe a clergyman is nothing without such a creature's assistance, and I am determined that Mr. Collins should marry one as soon as may be."
Despite her anger at Lady Catherine's earlier comment, Elizabeth could not help but feel the corners of her lips twitch in amusement. She began to see that her ladyship had set out on an eternal quest to meddle in other people's private affairs and solve them on their behalf, no doubt for lack of anything meaningful in her own life with which to employ herself; except perhaps the marriage of her insipid, lifeless daughter to her impressive and wealthy nephew. Elizabeth felt rather sorry for the vain, opinionated woman who sat regally across from her. Whatever would she do when people stopped bending to her sage advice?
"I'm sure it would behoove Mr. Collins to abide by your ladyship's suggestion."
Her ladyship stirred her tea slowly and eyed Elizabeth as if to measure her up to a lofty and unreachable- except of course by Miss DeBourgh- standard. "Yes. . ."
It was then that any further comment on the part of Lady Catherine was silenced by the entrance of her nephew, Mr. Darcy, who strode into the room with the air of a man engaged in the entertainment of pleasant reflections. Completely oblivious to the presence of his rather ostentatious aunt and her daughter, Darcy smiled upon his sister and her guests from Lambton, then bent to kiss Miss Darcy.
"Good afternoon, Georgiana." He straightened and turned his gaze on Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner. "Mrs. Gardiner, you are very welcome, ma'am." As he fixed them upon the lady seated next to her, his eyes grew warm and full of unspoken promises. "Miss Bennet. . ."
Elizabeth felt her heart leap into her throat, but was afraid to return any of the particular attention he showed her for fear of provoking Lady Catherine's righteous anger. She settled for a subdued, rather apologetic smile.
"Ah, Darcy there you are." At the cacophonous inflections of his aunt's jarring voice, the agreeable light in Darcy's looks turned guarded, and it seemed to Elizabeth as if he stiffened visibly. How alike was his reaction to his sister's upon Lady Catherine's arrival. It was obvious to Elizabeth that her ladyship was a presuming and unpleasant sort of woman, but what about her alienated her niece and nephew so?
Mr. Darcy had turned reluctantly to face his aunt. "Lady Catherine, this is a pleasant surprise."
"Surprise, Darcy? Whatever can you mean? I am sure you must have received my letter."
"Indeed, I had the honor of receiving it yesterday, madam. When I spoke of surprise I was merely referring to the brevity of time that passed between your ladyship's decision to quit Kent and your arrival here in Derbyshire. I wonder, what might have occasioned such haste?"
Elizabeth nearly laughed when she heard the sarcasm in his voice, but was quick to stifle her amusement. It would be vastly unpleasant to be caught between two such willful personages as Lady Catherine and her nephew, especially when he was looking so very grave.
"Oh Darcy, I am sure you say all this only to vex me! As I wrote you in my letter, I am concerned for dear Anne's health, and you know the Derbyshire air cures her as nothing else can."
Darcy did not appear convinced. "Indeed. Your ladyship has said as much on many occasions. But I trust that, despite my cousin's slight indisposition, I find you both tolerably well."
"Very well, Darcy, how gentlemanly of you to ask. Is it not, Anne? Thank your cousin for his kindness, child!"
Miss DeBourgh looked absolutely terrified at the prospect of being forced to speak to Mr. Darcy, unable as she was to even make eye contact with him. But painfully aware of her mother's keen watch, she managed to bring herself to nod timidly at his shoes. Elizabeth's discomfort was growing with each passing moment. It was very clear to her that Mr. Darcy was in fact very displeased with the arrival of his aunt and cousin, and his furrowed brow together with the tightening of his jaw made her long to flee the uncomfortable situation.
Lady Catherine, however, seemed quite insensible of her nephew's thinly veiled displeasure. She continued to prattle on for several minutes on essentially two themes: her advice to the general, unenlightened public, and her daughter's perfections. It was hardly difficult to see that Mr. Darcy was also wishing to be freed from the embarrassment of his aunt's monopolization of the conversation, but it seemed that an opportunity would never present itself.
". . . and so I told the head gardener that if he did not plant my roses exactly where I had instructed him, then he would surely be seeking employment elsewhere, for I would not settle for the inferior placement of my plants! And the next morning, I was vastly happy to see them under the window box of the morning room, just as I had prescribed. . ."
Elizabeth saw the chance for escape and snatched it up greedily. She stood and spoke hastily before Lady Catherine could interrupt. "What a fascinating story, your ladyship. It puts me in mind. . . I wonder, Mr. Darcy, if we might continue our tour of your lovely gardens?"
While his aunt struggled to comprehend why she had suddenly lost the floor, Darcy understood Elizabeth's intent, and throwing her a grateful look replied, "Indeed, Miss Bennet I should be delighted to oblige you. Mrs. Gardiner, perhaps you would like to accompany us?"
Mrs. Gardiner shook her head apologetically. "You are very kind, Mr. Darcy, but I'm afraid neither Elizabeth nor myself may accompany you. We must return to Lambton to meet my husband presently."
At this, the hearts and countenances of both Darcy and Elizabeth fell. "I am sorry to hear it, madam. It is a pity to lose both your companies so soon, especially as you are to leave us in less than a week."
Elizabeth, whose disappointment was only heightened by this reminder of Darcy's, turned a pleading look upon her aunt, who in turn recalled herself upon her first serious attachment, and so relented.
"Well, perhaps Elizabeth may be spared. That is, sir, if it does not inconvenience you to send your carriage to Lambton twice in one afternoon."
At this, Lady Catherine's ears pricked up. "Your carriage, Darcy? Am I to understand that you are accommodating villagers with the use of your carriages?"
Darcy chose to ignore his aunt's rude inquiry and continued to address his other guests. "If Miss Bennet is agreed to it, I can see no objection."
Miss Darcy finally gathered her courage to dare Lady Catherine's disapproval and walked toward Elizabeth. Defiantly placing her arm through her friend's she said, "Oh please, Miss Bennet, do stay a while yet."
Elizabeth smiled at brother and sister. "How can I do aught but accept? Thank you, I should be delighted to stay. You do not mind, Aunt Gardiner?"
Mrs. Gardiner smiled affectionately at her niece and pressed her hand. "Of course not, my dear. I am sure that when I acquaint Mr. Gardiner with the matter, he will not be displeased. Quite naturally we wish only for you to enjoy yourself." She turned to Mr. Darcy. "Thank you for your hospitality, sir. It is most appreciated."
"My pleasure, madam. Allow me to show you out."
"Oh, there is no need, I assure you. Thank you, Miss Darcy, for another lovely afternoon. Lizzy, you will return to the inn prior to six o'clock, I hope?"
"Of course, if you wish it, Aunt."
Mrs. Gardiner smiled in her customarily good-natured manner, then addressed the company. "I wish a pleasant evening to you all. Good day."
When Mrs. Gardiner had disappeared, Lady Catherine was sure to be the first to speak. "Darcy, you and Miss Bennet must take Anne along on your walk. She will benefit much from the purity of the air, and I'm sure Miss Bennet will be sensible of the privilege of her conversation. As for Georgiana, she must stay here with me. I have not seen the dear child in months and I long to know how she is faring after the sad and unexplained loss of her spirits earlier this summer."
At this remark, both the Darcys colored, one from shame and one from indignation. Miss Darcy's arm slipped from Elizabeth's and she starred sullenly down at her toes, while her brother looked as if he was trying desperately to contain his temper. Elizabeth noticed that poor Miss DeBourgh was looking terrified again.
"Indeed, Lady Catherine, you will forgive me if I say you assume too much. I am sure Cousin Anne is a vast deal happier where she is and does not wish to venture out of doors. As for Georgiana, your ladyship, I am sure the air would do her good."
"Oh nonsense, Darcy! Anne longs to see the gardens, do you not Anne? And dear Georgiana must be entitled to the confidence of a loving aunt, if she is to be denied the confidence of her dear mother."
At this, it appeared to Elizabeth that Darcy had given up all resistance and only wished to be free from his aunt's suffocating presence. "Madam, be it as you wish."
And so Darcy and Elizabeth reluctantly resigned themselves to a less pleasurable outing than they had first anticipated.
As the trio stepped outside and began to descend the front steps, Darcy looked to his cousin and had pity on her. Poor Anne had begun shivering violently, despite the relative warmth of the summer afternoon, and on her sallow countenance there was a look of fearful timidity mixed with an intense dread. No matter what his aunt had to say on the subject, Darcy knew that Anne did not want to marry him any more than he wished to marry her, and the sooner the matter was discussed between them privately, the better. He should rather like to know Anne as one would a dear sister, certainly not as a wife. But for now, all he could do was rescue her from himself.
"Cousin Anne," he began gently, "I see that you have yet to accustom yourself to our northern climate. I have no wish to see you uncomfortable. Please, return inside if you wish it, and do ask Mrs. Reynolds to light you a fire in the library. I am sure you will be much happier employing yourself there with a book and a cup of tea."
The wave of relief that swept over Miss DeBourgh's face was truly pitiful. Elizabeth felt a pang in her heart for the girl and offered her a compassionate smile.
"Thank you," whispered Anne, who then wasted no time in disappearing into the house.
Darcy was glad to have done his duty by his cousin, but all the same quite pleased to have managed the opportunity to monopolize Miss Bennet's charming attentions and conversation. About to suggest that they commence their walk, he looked upon his companion with a smile that would have conquered any sensible young lady's heart. But Miss Bennet, to his slight vexation, was ignorant of his attentions, paying no mind to anything save the retreating figure of his cousin.
Elizabeth looked contemplatively after Miss DeBourgh a moment, unable to remain unconcerned for the pale and silent young girl, then turned to the gentleman beside her and smiled gently up at him, as much relieved as he was to once again have the opportunity for private conversation. Darcy, ignorant of her thoughts, felt it very unfair that she should be unmoved at his smiles while hers seemed to shake the very essence of his being. He motioned rather unsteadily with his arm that they should descend the steps together.
"Is your cousin Miss DeBourgh very lonely, Mr. Darcy?"
The question caught Darcy unawares. He had been anxiously formulating an apology for his aunt and could not understand why Miss Bennet should be considering his nearly invisible cousin.
"Lonely, Miss Bennet?"
His heart twisted as the corners of her lovely pink lips curled into an amused smile. "Yes, sir, lonely. Need I explain the feeling to you? It is a rather disagreeable one- I had rather not dwell on it."
"Then I shall spare you that pain and answer your inquiry without further deliberation."
"How very considerate of you, sir."
He smiled. "It is you who are considerate, Miss Bennet. I believe the only person who truly pays my cousin any mind is Lady Catherine, and I'm afraid none of us are very eager for her attentions."
Elizabeth looked down at her feet to hide her smile. When they had reached the foot of the steps she turned to face him. "Then Miss DeBourgh is quite friendless?"
"I'm afraid so. Living on one's own with a mother such as Lady Catherine tends to discourage visitors. Except for her pet clergyman, of course."
At this, and much to Darcy's bewilderment, Elizabeth burst out laughing.
When the peals of her laughter had abated somewhat, Darcy remarked, "I'm afraid that I am unable to see what amuses you so, Miss Bennet. Was it something I said?"
Her smile for him then was so delightfully overwhelming that Darcy nearly forgot the question he had posed to her. But she was quick to remind him.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Darcy, but I've only just learned the most incredible thing from your aunt. It appears that we are not wholly unconnected after all!"
"Indeed! It so happens that Lady Catherine's 'pet clergyman', as you call him, is none other than my cousin Mr. Collins!"
Darcy was incredulous. "I must confess to sheer amazement, Miss Bennet, and can only venture to assert that the world, or at least English society, is very small indeed!"
"It appears we must conclude it to be so, Mr. Darcy. And the discovery does present a benefit to myself."
"And that is?"
"Why now I am assured of how I may introduce you to anyone." She stepped back and feigned the introduction. "Allow me to present my cousin's patroness' nephew, Mr. Darcy."
Darcy laughed, and bowed politely to her imaginary acquaintance. He extended his hand to her and she placed hers in it as if she was the lady receiving the introduction. He bent and kissed her gloved fingers.
"I say, Miss Bennet, your friend is very lovely indeed. I understand she is my aunt's clergyman's cousin, is she not?"
"Why to be sure, sir! However did you guess?"
"Did not you know, Miss Bennet? The general consensus is that it is a very small world."
Elizabeth smiled playfully at her companion, glad to see him laughing with her again after the tension that had enveloped everyone in the sitting room. She was not of a disposition to dwell for long on unpleasant reflections, and she was happy to find him as eager to forget them as she. And he was so very handsome when he smiled at her. . .
Darcy knew he was well on his way to becoming completely enchanted with Miss Bennet. With each smile he lost a little piece of himself to her charms, and with each peal of laughter she claimed a bit more of him. At that moment, he could wish for nothing more than the pleasure of her company. A pleasant thought came to him.
"Miss Bennet, perhaps your friend might enjoy an excursion to the pond? I have heard it is an excellent place to become familiar with new acquaintances."
As he expected she would, Miss Bennet colored becomingly and looked away. But her smile still hovered about her lips and the increase of color in her cheek spoke more of vitality than of embarrassment. Darcy was keenly aware of the sore temptation to brush those soft cheeks with the tips of his fingers and to cover her sweet mouth with his own, but for the sake of modesty and the fear of offending her he refrained.
"Indeed, sir, your grounds altogether are so lovely that I should be more than happy to be led anywhere on them."
This response earned Elizabeth a smile, and blushing still, she took his offered arm demurely and allowed herself to be led in the direction of the pond.
It was another beautiful late afternoon in summer, and a warm, fragrant breeze was rustling through the ringlets that lay against Elizabeth's neck and the magnolia trees rising above their heads. The sun, which had only just begun to sink toward the horizon, infused the sky with hints of a richly orange light, swirled together with the white wisps of filmy clouds. Pemberley caught the light and reflected it with a majestic beauty, her grace and dignity warmed with the vibrant hues of the setting sun.
Elizabeth watched the play of the light on the landscape in wordless admiration, enraptured and moved to silence by all she saw. For a moment she forgot the gentleman who walked beside her and thought only of the loveliness of his home.
Darcy meanwhile, had returned to thoughts of his aunt's atrocious conduct and how he might beg Miss Bennet's pardon for it. But the sweetness of her features in the glow of the setting sun proved to be vastly distracting, and it was with great difficulty that he formed the words to say to her.
"Dear Miss Bennet," he plunged in, shaking her from her reverie, "please allow me to make my sincere apologies for Lady Catherine's behavior. Though I know not what she may have said to you before I arrived, I know enough of my aunt to venture a guess that it was not the most pleasant interview in your experience."
Upon hearing this, Elizabeth laughed, having quite forgotten the oppressive atmosphere of the sitting room and glad to be breathing in the perfumed summer air by his side. But as she saw he was truly concerned, she was quick to reassure him. "Have no fear for my displeasure, sir. I think we may safely say that there are worse faults than a desire to be always telling everyone how they aught to conduct themselves, and no doubt I myself have many of them in abundance!"
Darcy winced and argued, "But her complete want of tact, Miss Bennet. I dare not imagine what sort of impertinent questions she put to you."
His words recalled to her mind the earlier unpleasantness caused by Lady Catherine's probing inquires, and Elizabeth answered gravely, "I will not attempt to deny that the interview was at times a touch awkward, but you needn't fear the waning of my desire to solicit the company of yourself and your sister because of it. I flatter myself in thinking I am not so fickle as to let a few questions asked in poor taste taint a holiday that has otherwise been so enjoyable."
Darcy met her eyes and smiled, relieved to know that he was in no danger of losing her company sooner than must be. He had envisioned her desperately seeking an excuse to return to Lambton, and upon the morrow to hear that she had fled to Hertfordshire, never to be seen or heard from again.
"I am glad to learn as much, Miss Bennet."
She smiled contemplatively. "As am I to communicate it." Then she laughed. "We seem to be forever plagued with the difficulty of aunts, Mr. Darcy, for mine is imaginary and yours is prone to intruding curiosity!"
He laughed with her. "How perceptive you are, madam. Alas that it should be so."
"Why alas? Do not you find it amusing?"
"Miss Bennet, I do believe you could reveal to me the humor in anything, even Lady Catherine's escapades."
To his delight, this comment earned him another cascade of her laughter. "Your aunt is certainly a singular individual, Mr. Darcy."
He rolled his eyes. "I've reason to know it, I assure you."
She looked up at him, her fine eyes alive with the vibrancy of wit and merriment. "Does she make a habit of these surprise visits?"
Trying valiantly to ignore the tempting twist of her sweet mouth that always drove him to distraction, Darcy looked ahead of them into the wood. "She comes often enough to keep fresh in my memory her desire for a particular future action on my part." Darcy could not keep the tinge of bitterness from his voice.
Elizabeth looked down at her feet, inferring that he was addressing the subject of his cousin Miss DeBourgh. But she was unwilling to say anything to that effect as she knew nothing of the matter and did not wish to force his confidence. She was afraid to learn that he might be planning to bend to his aunt's obvious wishes. "But what should that matter to me?" she questioned herself silently. "Does it follow that he should make me an offer because he does not present Miss DeBourgh with one? It would be foolish to entertain such an impossible hope!"
As they moved into the wood, Her silence brought Darcy to regret his words and to admit as much. "Forgive me for burdening you with my family affairs, Miss Bennet. I know they can be of little interest to you."
"It is I who must request forgiveness, Mr. Darcy, for I should not have displayed such an inappropriate curiosity. Your family affairs are none of my concern."
"I beg you would not censure yourself on my account." He met her eyes with a warmth of feeling that he hoped would convey his sincerity, and in understanding she brought her hand to rest on his elbow through which her other arm was entwined, smiling softly. He was struck with the gentleness and grace of her movements, the simple dignity and kindness that seemed to govern her every action. Would he ever cease to find perfections in her? He sincerely hoped he would not.
"I must thank you again for your efforts on behalf of my sister, Miss Bennet. Her spirits are much improved since you came, and I have watched with pleasure as your acquaintance strengthens."
Elizabeth's smile grew in warmth and affection when Miss Darcy was mentioned. "I am glad to hear you say so, sir. Your sister is truly amiable and I admire her more with every visit. Her sweetness of temper and gentle mannerisms remind me a great deal of my elder sister Jane, and there is perhaps no other person whom I admire more than I do her."
Elizabeth saw the great love she knew Mr. Darcy bore his sister made plain on his face. "That is very generous of you, madam."
"Not at all, sir. It is your sister who displays the generosity- I am merely the happy recipient."
Apparently, Mr. Darcy was not content to leave it at this. "Miss Bennet. . ."
It was then that the trees around them thinned, and the pond, situated placidly in the middle of the clearing, came into view. Eager to be enchanted by its quaint beauty once again, Elizabeth broke from her companion and walked a little ahead of him, reaching the clearing first.
When she stepped out of the shadow of the woods and into the sun, the light fell full upon her face, and Elizabeth, closing her eyes against the brightness, smiled in delight as the warmth traveled from the tip of her nose, spread across her cheeks, and slipped down her neck. As she often did when confronted with the pleasures of nature, Elizabeth felt again a great enthusiasm for life and the living of it. She had a great desire then to break into a run, but decided against it for Mr. Darcy's sake. And so, with a little smile for no one in particular, she turned to face her companion.
A laughing remark had been on her lips as she did so, but when she met his gaze it died away into silence. His looks were so intent upon her, so fixed, that she felt self-conscious color rise in her cheeks once more. Yet she could not look away, so caught was she by the depth of feeling she found reflected in his dark eyes. Her thoughts raced in desperation to free herself of this weakness to him. "Does he enjoy toying with my emotions, as delicate and easily swayed as they are? He must know this is all impossible, yet why does he taunt me so? How am I ever to resist him?"
Darcy's reflections were quite the opposite. He was rather indisposed to resisting his fair companion's charms; indeed he should have found it very hard to do so had he wished it. Her simple delight in the beauties of the afternoon had so arrested him that the only possible course of action was to stare at her in wonder and admiration. How unspoiled she was, and yet how intelligent and discerning, quick and teasing yet full of all modesty and kindliness- he had never known a woman to be such a striking culmination of paradoxes. Watching her move before him, the lines of her form illuminated by the orangish light of the sun, Darcy felt almost intoxicated. But what was he to do?
Elizabeth, her discomfort rising, knew that she must say something trivial or else be forced to make a most unintended confession of her feelings. Wrenching her gaze away from his, she offered lamely, "The afternoon is very fine, is it not, sir?"
Darcy's eyes remained fixed upon the lady on whom they had so long rested. "Indeed, I have never seen it fairer."
Elizabeth's blush raged in her cheeks, but the realist in her told her she must take his words at their face value.
"Shall we sit on the hillside, as we did before?" he asked, his voice quite irritatingly steady and unmoved. Elizabeth stole a rather shy glance up into his face and nodded silently.
When they sat down together, Darcy was careful to leave ample space between himself and Miss Bennet, placing no faith in his own ability to refrain from embarrassing them both should he be tried. She seemed to notice this, and as he watched her profile he thought he caught again a trace of amusement about the corners of her mouth. But did she not know that even the manifestation of her private entertainment was a temptation for him?
Miss Bennet smiled at Darcy then in friendly affection, and it seemed in part to clear the air between them. He remembered sitting here beside her just so upon their first unexpected meeting, and upon that reflection felt ample cause to return her smile.
"I venture you never thought five days ago that at the end of them you would be sitting here with me again, Miss Bennet."
The breeze lifted one of her ringlets from her check and began to toy with it. "No indeed, sir. But it does not follow that the surprise was unwelcome." She caught the strand of hair and tucked it behind her ear.
Darcy smiled and looked out across the pond. "How kind of you to say so."
They sat together in silence a while, a relatively companionable one, but both still full of questions for the thoughts and feelings of the other. Darcy was in a sort of impatient quietude- eager to make her aware of his regard but unwilling to risk offending her, and yet, sitting beside her in the still warmth of the afternoon, he could wish for no greater happiness. But no matter how he tried, he could not completely forget that she was to be gone within a few days, and that he must reach a resolution before then.
His thoughts and the silence were broken by Miss Bennet's voice. "I think I shall befriend your cousin Miss DeBourgh, sir. Have you any objection?"
Darcy was surprised by her comment but by no means adverse to it. "If the undertaking should please you, Miss Bennet, I have neither reason nor desire to impede you. I should be delighted to see you form a friendship with my cousin. She is in need of a confidant, I think, and you are as capable as any of gaining her trust."
Miss Bennet's smile turned apologetic. "I am sorry, Mr. Darcy, for it must seem that I am fishing for compliments."
"No, I assure you, such a thought never entered my mind. Indeed, Miss Bennet, I can think of few who are so deserving of compliment as you are."
She laughed. "Now you tease my conceit, sir!"
He smiled. "Well, perhaps a little." Then his looks turned serious. "You would be very generous to provide Miss DeBourgh with your friendship. I think she has been used to allowing her mother to perform everything on her behalf, including her- social arrangements."
As she watched his face, Elizabeth recognized that he was thinking once more of his aunt's intentions for her daughter and nephew, but was afraid to offer a remark that might inform her of something of which she would be better off remaining ignorant.
But this time, he seemed inclined to confide in her. Still looking thoughtfully out over the pond he began, "Miss Bennet, I suppose that, should you have further encounters with Lady Catherine during the remainder of your holiday, you will have no difficulty in perceiving that my aunt harbors special wishes for my future connection to my cousin Miss DeBourgh."
Elizabeth colored uncomfortably, unsure if she wished him to elaborate or no. "Yes, Mr. Darcy, I believe I have already been afforded the opportunity to determine her intent in that regard."
Darcy shook his head in resignation. "As I mentioned before, Lady Catherine is not known for her tact. The unfortunate circumstance is, then, that I have no desire to marry my cousin, any more than she does to marry me, and I'm afraid that my aunt will not look fondly upon the ruin of her cherished hopes."
Elizabeth at once felt exceedingly relieved, then chastised herself forever staking her heart on the matter. Perhaps he was free from his cousin, but free to bestow his affections on a country girl with few connections and no fortune? Surely not!
"What will you do, sir?" she asked, her voice low and still for fear of betraying her warring thoughts and emotions.
He took a deep breath. "I suppose I shall have to confront my aunt with the truth. But I do not relish the prospect. I have avoided it for so long that it now looms quite unpleasantly in my mind, but there is nothing to do but tell her and be done with it." He went silent a moment, then seemed to be struck with an idea. "I say, Miss Bennet. . ."
"Might I, or do I presume too much, ask yet another favor of you?"
Her smile was a gentle invitation. "What would you have me do on your behalf?"
"Perchance, if you would be so kind, you might be able to speak to my cousin Miss DeBourgh concerning the matter, for though I know she is not desirous of becoming my wife, I am unaware of how far she is willing to obey her mother, or whether she is willing to face Lady Catherine's displeasure. My situation, and most likely her own, would perhaps be easier if I were sensible of these things. Do I ask too much?"
Elizabeth shook her head and smiled. "You may be assured of my assistance. Speaking as one well versed in the art of husband catching, I may very well be your cousin's greatest ally."
He laughed. "So long as you prove as capable in the releasing as the catching, I can have no complaint."
"My skill is unmatched, sir! My dear mother has been drilling lessons on the subject into my head since I was old enough to wear pink ribbons in my hair and dance the minuet! You will find me an invaluable asset to your cause."
Darcy smiled contemplatively at her and repeated absently, "Invaluable. . ."
His gaze caught her up once again, and never more than at that moment did Elizabeth truly wish to dispense with her fears and her acute knowledge of the sensible thing to do, her careful guard of her heart. Why should she resist him? How could his dark, warm eyes be anything but sincere and trustworthy? She closed her own eyes a moment, dizzy with his gaze and the fragrance of the rich summer air, but when she opened them again, his looks enveloped her still, unwilling to release her from this torture of indecision, forcing her to make a choice.
Darcy knew not what he did. That he was transfixed by her, he could easily surmise. That he was dangerously close to closing the distance between them and covering her lovely mouth with kisses, he was beginning to understand. However, how he could even contemplate such an action was still a mystery to him. He valued her good opinion of himself too much to ruin it with selfish advances, but it was beginning to become a matter of just how long he would be able to hold off. As if in answer to his own question, Darcy found himself leaning closer to her, eager to feel her sweet breath brush his face.
Elizabeth was unable to decipher the play of emotions that flickered across his countenance, and became even more uncertain of her own feelings when he lessened the distance between them. She felt herself lean into him almost unconsciously, as if the faction of her demanding she obey the commands of her heart had temporarily got the upper hand of her will. As his hand reached up to rest itself on her cheek, she closed her eyes, her lips parted, no longer a victim of her better judgment. . .
The village clock in Lambton was heard in the distance to strike the hour, and both individuals, remembering themselves, parted hastily before they had touched.
Elizabeth's cheeks were aflame with shame and confusion, and Darcy could only stare mutely at his companion, his mind too clouded to formulate an apology. Elizabeth wetted her lips nervously and wrung her hands in her lap, refusing to meet his eyes. What a forward, wanton fool he must think her! How could she allow her guard to slip so thoroughly? Whatever was she to do?
Meanwhile, Darcy was finding plenty of harsh, unpleasant titles to bestow upon himself. "Rash, unthinking, selfish brute! Will she ever trust you now? How glad you were to hear before that Lady Catherine had not frightened her away, but now you do a better job of it than she! What's to keep her here now, your feeble apologies?"
"Miss Bennet, I must beg your forgiveness. I can't think what came over me. . ."
Elizabeth stood hastily. "You needn't blame yourself for what is to be laid at my door, Mr. Darcy. I acknowledge the fault was mine and would ask for your pardon."
Not to be outdone in self-reproach, Darcy stood too. "Please, Miss Bennet, I implore you to acquit yourself of any blame, and humbly ask that you would forgive my thoughtlessness. I should be very distressed to loose your good opinion."
Elizabeth looked down at her feet, too embarrassed to rest her eyes elsewhere. When she found her voice it was soft but strong. "You have not lost my good opinion, sir. Indeed you will never lose it."
Darcy felt as though a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. "For that, my thanks, madam." She offered her hand rather hesitantly and he seized it at once, bringing it to his lips. A self-conscious, but altogether lovely smile resurfaced upon her countenance as he did so, making it wildly difficult for him to restrict his lips merely to her hand.
"You are making it vastly simple for me to feign innocence, Mr. Darcy."
To his own surprise, Darcy was able to return her smile. "You have not so many faults to cover as you think you do, Miss Bennet."
"Perhaps, but it is better to overestimate one's imperfections than to not admit to any of them."
With Darcy's apologies and her own attempts at lightness, Elizabeth had managed to make herself somewhat less awkward with the situation, but she longed for solitude in which to decipher her own thoughts and heart. "I'm afraid the time has passed already for me to return to Lambton, sir. I must ask you now to escort me back to the house."
She took his offered arm once more, no enmity but only a slight awkwardness between them. The majority of the journey back to the house was completed in silence, both Elizabeth and Darcy having a great deal too much to reflect upon for conversation.
When they had reached the drive, at Darcy's command the carriage which had borne Elizabeth and her aunt to Pemberley was brought round to fetch her back again.
Faced with her departure, Darcy was determined not to let her go thinking any ill of him.
"Miss Bennet, I wish you to know that I've enjoyed our acquaintance more than I can say, that I am very grateful for your kindness to my sister and now to my cousin. I. . . I hope you will come to call upon us tomorrow."
Her smile was gentle and full of understanding for the words he had left unspoken. "Thank you, sir. I shall look forward to it, though I suppose it means I shall have to condescend to be condescended to."
He smiled in response to her words, then took her hand again and kissed it, lingering over her fingers slightly longer than was absolutely necessary. That done, he assisted her into the carriage and shut the door behind her. "Good day, Miss Bennet."
Her countenance was colored with a faint blush but a gentle, affectionate smile. "Good day, Mr. Darcy."
And so, as the vehicle bearing her away to Lambton grew smaller in the distance, disappearing into the trees encompassing the road, Darcy knew by the dull ache in his chest that he was indeed very much in love with Miss Elizabeth Bennet.