Posted on 2016-10-27
August 1, 1812 - Bromley, Kent
The hired chaise rumbled into the Bell Inn, its four horses in obvious distress from having been driven hard at a pace that would have exhausted even animals of more superior breeding. The stable master at the Bell frowned and readied himself for a confrontation. The users of the chaise would obviously wish to replace their animals but he'd be damned if he would allow it without some assurance as to their treatment. As it was, the four beasts he would receive in exchange would hardly be useful again until the morrow or perhaps longer.
A gentleman stepped out of the chaise and turned to assist a young lady to descend. She hardly set foot on the ground when someone exclaimed loudly, "Lydia Bennet! What do you here? And, Mr. Wickham, what is the meaning of this?"
Both parties thus referred to reacted quite differently. The gentleman's surprise was quickly replaced by what the stable master could only describe as alarm as he turned to face the lady who had addressed him. She was a young woman, plain featured, about thirty years of age and accompanied by two much older women, one of whom was tall, finely dressed and possessed of features that once might have been handsome but now displayed little beyond haughty displeasure. The garb and manner of the other elderly woman marked her as a companion or maid. Wickham knew both of the ladies quite well and cursed the mischance that had delayed his removal from the area.
The young lady, Miss Lydia Bennet, was all giggles and boisterous enthusiasm. She was the first to respond and what she said pleased only herself.
"Oh La! Charlotte! What a surprise! You shall be the first to know. My dear Wickham and I are to be married! And I younger than any of my sisters!"
Mr. George Wickham, for that was the name of the gentleman involved, was not pleased at his companion's frankness but could think of nothing to say that would not contradict her. He was saved from replying by another.
"Who are these....people, Mrs. Collins?" Inquired Lady Catherine de Bourgh, looking at the gentleman and Lydia Bennet with disapproval, not at all impressed by the latter's manners.
"Lady Catherine, may I introduce you to Miss Lydia Bennet and Mr. George Wickham. Miss Bennet is sister to my friend, Elizabeth Bennet who, you will remember, visited me several months past. Mr. Wickham holds a Lieutenant's commission with the ____shire Militia."
"Mr. Wickham?" Said Lady Catherine, looking at him more closely, "Are you related to the Mr. Wickham who held the post of steward at Pemberley some years past?"
Mr. Wickham bowed and acknowledged that he was, indeed, the son of the gentleman mentioned.
"I have heard little that speaks to your advantage, Mr. Wickham." continued Lady Catherine. Her frown left no doubt of her displeasure. "By all reports you are a gamester, a wastrel and possessed of a low moral character. A rake, in fact. I am most attentive to such matters and would not wish to see you in the company of a gentlewoman. It shall not be! I....."
"You cannot speak of my dear Wickham in such terms. I do not care if you are a Lady or not. I shall...."
"Be quiet, Lydia!" snapped Mrs. Collins. She turned to Mr. Wickham, "You are to be married? You are aware. . .I presume you know that Lydia requires Mr. Bennet's approval as she is not of age."
"I shall not need Papa's approval in Scotland!" cried Lydia.
"SCOTLAND!" exclaimed Mrs. Collins and Lady Catherine in perfect unity. Mr. Wickham blanched at the disapproving glances turned his way. The confrontation was drawing an audience; however, the increasing scrutiny appeared to discompose only Mr. Wickham whose frantic glances appeared to suggest a desire to be elsewhere - and immediately so.
"Ah." he said and looked around once again at the gathering assembly.
Mrs. Collins, who appeared to understand that the matter required privacy for further discussion, secured Lydia's compliance by a firm grasp of her arm accompanied by a decidedly fierce expression that appeared to disconcert the younger girl. However, as Lydia was a rather tall, stout young woman, it was quickly apparent that Mrs. Collins would require assistance. Lady Catherine responded to the challenge in her usual fashion.
"Dawson!" said she, "Assist Mrs. Collins immediately. Ensure that this. . .Miss Bennet" and Lady Catherine gave an audible sniff, "is escorted into the Bell - at once!"
Dawson moved to secure Lydia Bennet's other arm.
"We shall continue this conversation inside." Lady Catherine continued and then, satisfied that Lydia was securely being escorted into the inn, turned her attention to the need to give minute instructions to her coach driver and the stable master as to the proper manner in which her horses were to be treated - for she was excessively attentive to such details. These gentlemen were very familiar with her ladyship's manner and were properly deferential in listening to her copious advice, nodding their agreement where appropriate and giving every evidence of receiving her directions in the manner most pleasing to her. It was thus some five minutes later before she could join Dawson, Mrs. Collins and Miss Lydia and allowed her servants and the inn's stable hands to undertake the necessary task in their customary manner.
"This is a very small room," she said before seating herself in the largest chair available which Mrs. Collins had thoughtfully ensured was unoccupied, "and the window is full west which makes it uncomfortably warm at this time of year. I am surprised they did not have something more fitting. They are always extremely attentive to me when I stop here. I must speak to the innkeeper before we depart. It would not do for us to be forced to stop at the Red Fox Inn next time. I....."
"Where is George?" cried Lydia.
"Mr. Wickham is, I understand, seeing to the horses for your chaise." replied Mrs. Collins.
Lady Catherine's imperious gaze now fixed itself on Lydia Bennet. "Am I to understand that you propose to marry George Wickham? For if such is your intention, you are an extremely foolish girl. You are the daughter of a gentleman and he is naught but the son of a steward. What can you be thinking to degrade yourself so? And your family? The disgrace would ruin them."
Lydia was about to vehemently defend Mr. Wickham and her intentions, and had opened her lips to express her thoughts on the matter when Charlotte interrupted.
"Of more pressing concern is your intention to elope, for that is your intention, is it not? Why travel to Scotland otherwise? As Mr. Wickham would assuredly fail to gain your father's approval, I suspect that is the only place you could marry."
"Elope!" barked Lady Catherine, "To the disgrace of marrying the son of a steward, you would add an elopement? It is not to be endured! It must not be allowed!"
Her walking cane pounded the floor to emphasize her point and startled the other three ladies.
Lydia pouted, "We are to stop in London for a few days while George takes care of some business matters and then we will be off to Gretna Green."
Mrs. Collins snorted in disgust.
Lady Catherine began to express her disapproval of such an action and spent the best part of five minutes explaining why a proper young lady should not consider such an imprudent action, not forgetting to lament that the Bennet sisters had not had a governess and stating her conviction that such lamentable behaviour was the obvious result. It was only Dawson's basilisk glare and Charlotte's firm grip on Lydia's arm that prevented the latter from trying to escape the lecture and the frequent painful squeeze on said arm every time Lydia opened her mouth that allowed Lady Catherine to finish her exhortation uninterrupted. When she had done, Charlotte, who had become inured to such exhibitions, addressed Lydia calmly.
"Lady Catherine is carrying me home. You shall accompany us, if Lady Catherine will permit it, and we shall ensure you are returned to Longbourn."
Lady Catherine nodded reluctantly after considering the matter for some moments. Lydia was not prepared to submit to such direction and insisted she would travel with her "dear George"; however, it soon proved impossible to acquiesce to this demand. Mr. Wickham had yet to attend them and a maid, sent to request his presence, shortly returned to impart the information that Mr. Wickham had left a short while before and was last seen heading for London in his rented chaise.
Lydia's wails of dismay were loud, unpleasant, seemingly inexhaustible and impervious even to the forceful pounding of Lady Catherine's cane on the floor. That lady, her patience exhausted, finally leaned forward and slapped Lydia firmly leaving a handprint on her cheek.
"Behave like a willful child, and I shall treat you as one. Now be silent and allow me to consider what must be done."
Charlotte smiled. Perhaps for the first time she found reason to appreciate her Patroness' dictatorial manner. She had long wished to administer such a rebuke to Lydia Bennet and could take great satisfaction at seeing her shocked into silence. She wondered only how long they would be spared further effusions of anger and spite from their young charge.
Lady Catherine could see no better option than Charlotte's initial proposal to carry Lydia with her into Hertfordshire, as that had been their initial object and to break their journey at Longbourn would add but a half hour to their trip. Lydia's views on the matter were not consulted and her protestations that, as she was not to be married, she should be allowed to return to Brighton, were treated with contemptuous looks and silence by the other two ladies.
They had travelled for only a quarter hour when Mrs. Collins turned to Lady Catherine.
"We have not discussed how we might explain Miss Bennet's presence with us. I have given the matter some thought and suggest we claim that we met by intention at the Inn, that Mr. Wickham was simply ensuring her safe transport to join us. We can suggest that she was eager to return home and such arrangements had been approved by her father."
"Surely no one would believe such a preposterous story?"
"Perhaps not, but the truth will serve us poorly and as she has not actually eloped, her reputation is not irretrievably ruined. Who would dare suggest otherwise if you condescend to lend your countenance to the story. Your frankness and adherence to rules of propriety are such as to command the acceptance of anyone familiar with your character and would disarm the most discerning observer."
Lady Catherine nodded her head in gracious approval and then directed a fierce scowl in Lydia's direction who, already thoroughly chastened by her experiences with Lady Catherine, met her glare but briefly before returning her own gaze to the passing scenery.
"I believe your understanding of the matter is complete, Mrs. Collins. I must admit that Miss Lydia's behaviour is disgraceful. I cannot comprehend how she could be sister to Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
"It is the reputations of Elizabeth and her other sisters that concerns me now, your ladyship. I would not have them damaged by the actions of a foolish young girl when it is within our power to prevent it."
It was some time later as the carriage was rumbling through the London streets that Lady Catherine stiffened and exclaimed, "It will not do! I will not impose so on my brother."
Mrs. Collins looked at her quizzically, "I do not have the pleasure of understanding your ladyship."
"It is enough that I impose on my brother, Lord Matlock, to accommodate you for the night. I will not ask him to allow Miss Lydia to stay as well. It would be a disgrace to do so given such behaviour as hers. She is not worthy of such condescension. Miss Elizabeth spoke of relatives in London. She must stay with them for the night."
Mrs. Collins nodded slowly, "The Gardiners. I am sure they would be prepared to have Lydia stay with them. We will have to make them aware of the particulars of the matter."
Lady Catherine waved her hand dismissively, "Where do they live?"
Upon being told that the Gardiners lived on Gracechurch Street, Lady Catherine gave every indication that an unpleasant odour had permeated the interior of the carriage. Her countenance did not change upon Lydia's interruption.
"We cannot stay with the Gardiners! They have gone on a tour with Lizzy."
This information was not received well by Lady Catherine who remained adamant that she would not allow her brother's house to be polluted by the presence of Miss Lydia. After no small amount of discussion (none of which involved Lydia Bennet), it was finally resolved that, as there was sufficient time to travel into Hertfordshire if fresh horses could be obtained, they would do so and trust that Longbourn would accommodate the unexpected visitors. Mrs. Collins rather thought it amusing, though her features displayed no traces of such, that Lady Catherine would sooner suffer the indignity of lodging at Longbourn than request her brother accept Lydia Bennet into his house for a night.
Longbourn - much later that day
By the time the de Bourgh coach entered the drive to Longbourn the sun had set and the light was failing quickly. It was therefore a very tired and disgruntled Lydia Bennet who followed Lady Catherine and Charlotte out of the carriage at the entrance to the manor house there to be greeted by her parents and her eldest sister who were clearly confounded by their unexpected visitors.
After the necessary introductions were made, Mr. Bennet looked at Lady Catherine and Charlotte and then at his daughter.
"I have no doubt," he said, "that there is a story here that I shall be required to hear little though I expect to enjoy its telling. Perhaps we might attend the matter inside."
Mr. Bennet guided her ladyship into the house. As they passed through the hall, Lady Catherine opened the doors into the dining parlour and drawing room, and pronouncing them, after a short survey, decent looking rooms, was eventually ushered into the summer parlour. By prior arrangement and with admirable brevity, Charlotte explained their encounter with Lydia and Wickham, her removal from his company and the decision to return her to her parents. The story fabricated to cover Lydia's action was revealed.
That gentleman was shocked into silence for he could well remember Elizabeth's warnings in regards of Lydia's disregard for propriety and his own casual dismissive attitude toward those concerns. Unfortunately, Mrs. Bennet, who had been initially awed into silence by the presence of Lady Catherine in her parlour, found her voice and her concerns were quite different from those of her husband.
"Oh Lydia! To be married! I do not understand why you would interfere, Charlotte. To have a daughter married."
Lydia smiled and bounced as she listened to her mother's effusions.
"It was most cruel, Mama. Why. . ."
"Be silent, you foolish child!" snapped Lady Catherine. She glared at Lydia who, after spending over six hours in a carriage with her ladyship, was greatly disinclined to oppose her and thus was silenced. Mr. Bennet observed this result with evident appreciation. Lady Catherine then turned her glare upon Mrs. Bennet and - to Mr. Bennet's further admiration - silenced her as well.
"Are you as insensible as your words suggest, Mrs. Bennet? Have you lost what few wits you appear to possess?"
Mrs. Bennet began to bristle at being spoken to in such a manner and her irritation overcame her respect for her guest. She remembered that Lady Catherine was Mr. Darcy's aunt and she had always found him to be most disagreeable. His resemblance to his aunt was now obvious.
"I will not be spoken to in such a manner and in my own house too. You may be Mr. Collins' patroness. . ." Her sniff was, in every way, comparable to that of Lady Catherine's, "but that counts for nothing here." She glared at Charlotte. "You are not yet Mistress of Longbourn, Mrs. Collins!"
"BE SILENT, Mrs. Bennet!" growled her husband. "Did you not hear what Mrs. Collins said? Mr. Wickham ran off as soon as he was discovered. He had no intention of marrying our foolish daughter."
Having silenced his wife, who could only gape at him, he fixed his daughter with his sternest look.
"I remember Lizzy advising me against allowing you to travel to Brighton. She feared this very thing - that you would embarrass your family by your behaviour. She was more discerning than I; however, I do remember saying that your behaviour could hardly grow many degrees worse without requiring that you be locked up for the rest of your life. It appears that I was, in this respect at least and to my regret, correct. Go to your room, Lydia, and remain there until such time as I allow you out."
Such was the disapprobation she faced by all in the room (excepting only Mrs. Bennet, who had been rendered silent by her husband's admonishment) that Lydia complied with her father's order with only half the usual amount of complaint and protestations.
When silence was once more restored, Mr. Bennet turned to Mrs. Collins, bowed his head slightly and said, "We are greatly indebted to you and Lady Catherine. It is late and I must assume you wish to see your parents as soon as may be?"
Charlotte nodded. "Lady Catherine is travelling to visit her nephew in Derbyshire. Her plan was to break her trip in London and stay with her brother. We ventured on to Longbourn instead."
Mr. Bennet turned to Lady Catherine, "I hope that you will allow us to express our appreciation for the service you have rendered and stay with us, before continuing on in the morning. It is much too late to even contemplate a return to London."
It was not an easy matter to resolve, for Mrs. Collins was well aware that her parents, Sir William and Lady Lucas, would be greatly disappointed at not being allowed the honour of hosting Lady Catherine and their displeasure at being usurped by the Bennets would be directed at her. To lose the right to bask in the reflected glory of such condescension on the part of her ladyship would be trial enough, but to have such largesse bestowed on Mrs. Bennet would be doubly wounding for that lady would be sure to inform all her neighbours of the great honour bestowed upon her. Nonetheless, so it was eventually resolved and the arbiter in the matter was Lady Catherine herself. She would overnight at Longbourn and the Lucases were to be allowed only the privilege of informing everyone of the great honour shown their daughter in being carried home by the noble lady personally.
Lady Catherine's object in the matter was unknown but Mrs. Collins rather suspected, as she pondering during her short ride to Lucas Lodge, that her ladyship saw an opportunity to dispense advice and guidance upon a household that was clearly in want of her personal attention.
Mrs. Collins had no sooner left Longbourn House than Lady Catherine turned her focus once more to Mrs. Bennet. Her voice was at its dictatorial best, "You can be at no loss, Mrs. Bennet, to understand my reasons for stopping here for the night."
Mrs. Bennet looked at her with unaffected astonishment.
"Indeed you are mistaken, your Ladyship. I can only account for the honour of your presence due to our kinship with Mr. Collins. And, of course, Longbourn is quite superior in comfort to Lucas Lodge and I am sure. . ."
"Mrs. Bennet," replied Lady Catherine in an angry tone, "We are strangers but you must know that I am not to be trifled with. However insincere you choose to be, you shall not find me so. My character has ever been celebrated for its sincerity and frankness, and in a cause of such importance as this, I shall certainly not depart from it. The reports that I had from your daughter, Miss Elizabeth Bennet - who I must own I found to be a pretty, genteel sort of girl although possessed of a degree of impertinence quite inappropriate for one of her station - led me to believe there is a great deficiency in the manner in which you have raised her sisters. I need hardly say that to encounter one of them attempting to elope with a purse-poor scoundrel of a militia officer - a rake, to be frank - only confirmed the poor opinion I had formed upon conversing with Miss Elizabeth."
Mrs. Bennet hardly knew how to respond. The compliment paid to one daughter was not sufficient to outweigh the disparagement of herself. Worse was yet to come.
"She informed me that she and her sisters had never had a governess. I could not believe that you would allow such a situation to occur. Five daughters brought up at home without a governess! I had never heard such a thing. And then when she imparted that you have played no role in instructing your children, I could not comprehend such neglect."
Mr. Bennet thought to intervene.
"Compared with some families, I believe our children were neglected in this respect; but those as wished to learn never wanted the means. I always encouraged them to read, and had all the masters that were necessary. Those who chose to be idle certainly might."
"Aye, no doubt; but education is too important to be left to chance and most children will choose idleness and frivolity over learning if left to their own devices. That is what a governess will prevent. I should have advised you most strenuously to engage one. I always say that nothing is to be done in education without steady and regular instruction, and nobody but a governess can give it. It is wonderful how many families I have been the means of supplying in the way of a governess. I am always glad to get a young person well placed out. Four nieces of Mrs. Jenkinson are most delightfully situated through my means. And. . ."
Mrs. Bennet huffed, "My daughters require little beyond what I have instructed them. They are all beautiful - well excepting Mary, perhaps - and will have no difficulty in finding husbands."
"They have yet to do so, however. Is that not so? From what you and Miss Elizabeth have said they have no accomplishments whatsoever!" Lady Catherine shook herself in disgust. "And then to allow all five out into society before the first is married. I suppose you had no choice but to do so in the country; however, the result is hardly fortuitous. You should have taken them to town every spring for the benefit of masters."
"Mrs. Bennet would have had no objection," replied Mr. Bennet speaking rapidly before his wife could form a response. "But I dislike London intensely and would not allow it."
Mrs. Bennet had by this time collected her thoughts sufficiently to understand that her guest had found fault with the manner in which her daughters had been raised, although the most painful slight was the reference to none of them being married. This she believed she might address.
"If you had allowed Lydia her way, she might well be married in a day or two. They were planning to wed and. . ."
Mr. Bennet gaped at her in amazement. Lady Catherine's visage expressed only outrage.
"Believe that if you wish, Mrs. Bennet," said she, "but not only did Mr. Wickham scurry away as soon as they were discovered, he had no means of supporting a wife. He's a gamester, Madam. A scoundrel and a wastrel."
Mr. Bennet and his wife were confounded at such a declaration.
"He would have had a valuable living had he not been treated unfairly by another gentleman." said Mrs. Bennet. "He told us of this himself. It was scandalous and cruel. Had Mr. Darcy honoured. . ."
"Be silent!" barked Lady Catherine, "Lest you further expose your ignorance. My nephew - Yes, Darcy is my nephew, his mother and I were sisters - my nephew has never treated anyone dishonourably in his life. The truth of the matter, Mrs. Bennet, is that scoundrel is not fit to don a clergyman's collar, chose to give up the living and take three thousand pounds in compensation. When I learned of it, I spoke harshly to my nephew for Wickham deserved not a farthing. Yet Darcy would give him the money to respect his father's wishes."
"So Mr. Wickham has no means of support beyond his income as a militia officer." mused Mr. Bennet. "I believe we must accept that Mr. Wickham was unlikely to have married Lydia. I certainly would not have given my permission for him to do so, had it been sought."
"I doubt he even has that now, if he planned to elope with your daughter."
Mrs. Bennet was reluctant to release the idea of Mr. Wickham's eligibility as a suitor.
"You must go London and make him marry Lydia, Mr. Bennet! For he is so very handsome and so amiable. Surely. . ."
"No, Mrs. Bennet," replied her husband, "I shall do no such thing. Search for man who wishes not to be found? In the stews of London, most likely? I am not such a fool!"
"But. . .But. . ."
"Exactly, Mrs. Bennet. He did not have marriage in mind. It is clear that your favourite daughter's wanton behaviour has senselessly risked her reputation and that of her family. We must be extremely grateful to Lady Catherine for not only saving Lydia from ruin, but preserving the reputations of our other daughters as well."
Lady Catherine was pleased to see Mrs. Bennet collapse back into her chair, her lips working but no sound issuing forth. Pleased, that is, until she was treated to the hysterics that ensued. Mrs. Bennet's intelligence was far from superior, but it was sufficient to understand that Mr. Wickham's intentions would have spelled the ruin of one daughter, destroyed the reputations of the remainder, and thus rendering it virtually impossible for them to marry. Her reaction to such insights was unpleasant for others in the room; fortunately, Mr. Bennet had sufficient experience to anticipate the onset of his wife's nerves and had called the housekeeper to escort her to her chambers.
Lady Catherine sniffed in disdain at such conduct which confirmed, if such confirmation was necessary, the inferiority of the Bennet family's behaviour and consequence. She was, nonetheless, quite content to remain in Mr. Bennet's company for another full hour, inquiring into the particulars of his estate and dispensing advice as to how he might manage it more appropriately. She, more than once, detected in his manner traces of that impertinence which she had also discerned in his second eldest daughter; however, as he appeared to afford every evidence of consideration to her counsel, she had no cause to question its being received appropriately.
Late that night, after everyone had gone to bed, an express arrived at Longbourn from Colonel Forster informing her family of Lydia's elopement, that he was attempting to trace the couple's path and would follow upon his letter as quickly as possible. They could expect him the next day and, with that in mind, Mr. Bennet could see no purpose in replying to the express since the Colonel was likely to be apprised sooner of Lydia's recovery in person rather than by post.
Posted on 2016-11-01
Lady Catherine departed early the next morning to complete her journey to Derbyshire. Mrs. Bennet was quite recovered enough to venture down to see her leave and her efforts were suitably rewarded, as her ladyship was loath to surrender the opportunity to provide advice on the proper management of Longbourn House, a disquisition which required nigh onto an hour to complete. Lady Catherine did not hesitate to inspect and comment on the minutest details, even going so far as to advise that the kitchen was in need of modernization and recommending the installation of a new stove. Mrs. Bennet hardly knew whether to be offended or pleased at the instructions received, but before she could arrange the matter to her satisfaction, Lady Catherine had settled in her carriage and left.
Mrs. Bennet also wasted no time, after breaking her fast, in requesting the carriage to call upon her sister and such other of her acquaintances in Meryton who might wish to learn of the great distinction of Lady Catherine's visit. These plans, however, were suspended when Mr. Bennet refused her request. The matter of Lydia's departure from Brighton could hardly be hidden; however, Mr. Bennet gave his wife to understand that the story to be told was simply that Mr. Wickham had transported Lydia to Bromley for the purpose of placing her in Lady Catherine's care. That trip had all been prearranged as Lydia wished to return home and Mr. Wickham was conveniently travelling to London. Lydia's letter to Mrs. Forster stating she was eloping was simply a jest on her part and Colonel Forster would be advised of that fact upon his arrival - after suitable apologies had been tendered by Lydia herself. It was a threadbare story and not one that would withstand much scrutiny but Mr. Bennet hoped it would do. It required some time and considerable effort to convince both Lydia and Mrs. Bennet of the wisdom of adhering to the preferred version of events. However, as a portion of the persuasion involved possible restrictions on the allowances of both ladies as well as confinement to Longbourn, they were eventually brought to a proper view of the matter.
Having departed Longbourn, Lady Catherine was oblivious to Mr. Bennet's concerns. All thoughts of Lydia Bennet were banished as she concentrated on the purpose for her trip. She had business with her nephew and planned to call on him at his home in London; however, a response to her express sent two days before confirmed his departure for his estate in Derbyshire. Much as she might wish to defer her own visit and await his return to town, her duty to his mother demanded that she act. She had allowed the matter to be deferred for too many years, unwilling to press the point, convinced he would eventually recognize his duty and act as one of his station and breeding should. All had changed and yet nothing had changed. She had her own responsibility as almost his nearest relation and she was not one to shirk a duty.
Three days later her carriage pulled to a stop before the front entrance of Pemberley, her nephew's estate. To her great annoyance he was not there to greet her. Why he should have gone into Lambton so early in the day was beyond her comprehension and most inconsiderate of him. That she had seen no reason to advise him of her visit did not disturb her conclusions and Mr. Darcy's butler, Mr. Reynolds, no stranger to Lady Catherine's behaviour, suffered her expressions of displeasure with admirable equanimity.
Mr. Darcy's purpose in travelling to Lambton was known to him alone and it was a purpose that he pursued with anticipation and trepidation. He had unexpectedly encountered Miss Elizabeth Bennet and her relatives, the Gardiners, upon his return to Pemberley, had called upon them and introduced his sister to their acquaintance, and been in their company when they returned the call to his home. There was in Miss Elizabeth's manner in their recent encounters sufficient encouragement to allow him to hope that a material improvement had occurred regarding her opinion of him. Thus when she greeted him with a warm smile as he was shown into the small parlour she and the Gardiners occupied in the Lambton Inn, his hopes rose and he could do nothing else but gaze at her in admiration. She had smiled at him in the past but this smile made all the others seem as pale and weak as those only required by civility.
His silent admiration lasted several seconds until Elizabeth finally recalled him to his duty by saying, "I am pleased to see you this morning, Mr. Darcy."
Polite civilities were exchanged; his inquiry into the absence of the Gardiners produced the reply that they had gone to look at the nearby church to allow Elizabeth time to read a letter she had just received from her sister Jane that morning. Elizabeth was roused to playfulness by its content.
"My sister has told an interesting tale, Mr. Darcy, and we apparently owe much to a relative of yours."
Darcy looked at her in surprise and she added, "I must ask when next you correspond with your aunt, Lady Catherine, that you convey my sincere appreciation for the service she has done us."
"My aunt has done you a service? I would hope you are prepared to relieve my confusion."
Elizabeth's mirth overflowed, "We know that your Aunt likes to be of use and, on this occasion, I cannot but acknowledge that she has surpassed herself."
"I believe, Miss Bennet, that you delight in teasing me by increasing my incomprehension."
"Indeed, but I will torment you no further." She laughed, although Darcy could detect that it was slightly rueful. "It appears that my sister, Lydia, decided to elope from Brighton where she was staying. Her companion was a gentleman with whom we are both acquainted who has attempted something similar in the past."
Darcy's exclamation interrupted, "Dear G_d, has she been recovered?"
Elizabeth nodded and waved the letter she was holding, "According to Jane, your aunt and Mrs. Collins were travelling to London and encountered Lydia and Mr. Wickham at Bromley. They removed Lydia from Mr. Wickham's care and he appears to have decamped as quickly as possible. They returned her to Longbourn that same day."
Darcy stalked to a window and gazed out, his thoughts in turmoil. How close Wickham had come to ruining another young girl and possibly his own hopes in regard to Elizabeth. Had he done what he ought as a gentleman, Wickham would never have been allowed into the company of any respectable young woman. His thoughts were interrupted by Elizabeth's soft, "Mr. Darcy?"
He turned to see her gazing at him with a worried look, all traces of humour gone. He immediately stepped towards her and summoned his courage.
"The blame must fall on me, Miss Bennet. Had I made his character known to the people of Meryton, he could not have imposed himself on your sister."
"I believe you take too much upon yourself, Mr. Darcy. I feared my sister's reckless behaviour would lead her into trouble. She could have as well found another instead of Mr. Wickham. However, as there has been little harm done, I suggest we lay the matter to rest."
Darcy was silent. Clearly she did not condemn him in the matter. But why did she appear so worried? When he inquired, her answer was halting.
"I feared from your reaction that such evidence of the lack of propriety of my family would cause a loss of your esteem, Mr. Darcy. You would have. . ."
"Elizabeth. . .Miss Bennet, you need never fear a loss of my respect and esteem. I will not hold you accountable for the behaviour of another."
He looked at her closely. His approbation had pleased her and he gathered his courage once more.
"You are too kind to trifle with me. If your feelings are as they were last April, please tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged; in fact, I have come to love and admire you more than ever and wish for nothing more than that you would do me the honour of becoming my wife, but one word from you on this subject will silence me forever."
Elizabeth could hardly meet his eyes but forced herself to speak, and immediately, although far from fluently, gave him to understand that her feelings had changed so completely from the period to which he alluded as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances.
The happiness which this reply produced was such as he had never felt before, and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do. Had she been able to meet his eyes, Elizabeth might have seen how well the expression of heartfelt delight, diffused over his face, became him. While she could not look, she could listen; he told her of his feelings which, in proving of what importance she was to him, made his affection all the more valuable.
They were not allowed to enjoy the private pleasure of their attachment for long as the Gardiners returned from their walk. Mrs. Gardiner, who had begun to suspect the partiality of Mr. Darcy for her niece, required but a single look at the couple to ascertain that something of significance had occurred. Confirmation was provided when Darcy asked to speak with Mr. Gardiner in private and Elizabeth soon removed the last vestige of uncertainty from her aunt.
When the gentlemen rejoined the ladies, Mr. Gardiner stated, "I cannot adequately express my happiness at this development. I have given Mr. Darcy my approval of the engagement; however, it remains my brother's right to give the final approval and, as we know his partiality for Lizzy, I doubt he would wish to delegate that office. It was suggested," and he nodded at Darcy, "that his approval be sought immediately; however, as I suspect he would wish to speak with Elizabeth on the matter, I have recommended to Mr. Darcy that he return with us to Hertfordshire and plead his case then."
The last was offered with a slight smile at Darcy.
"Your uncle, Miss Bennet, has asked that our engagement be kept a secret until we have your father's approval."
Elizabeth nodded, "That will not be trial for me, Mr. Darcy, although I do believe you should inform your sister. I shall certainly be writing to Jane for she would never forgive me for withholding such information."
Mrs. Gardiner laughed, "And we all know how unforgiving Jane can be."
The Gardiners then removed to their room, allowing the young couple a few minutes of privacy. A few minutes only were indeed all that could be spared as Elizabeth and her relations were to call on an acquaintance of Mrs. Gardiner and Darcy knew he had guests at Pemberley who required his attention. Before he departed, he impressed Elizabeth once more with the ardency of his affections, and her face was thoroughly flushed and her breathing unsteady when he finally left her.
For his part, Darcy was hardly aware of traversing the five miles between Lambton and Pemberley. The blitheness of his spirits took a tumble, however, when he dismounted at the stables and saw a familiar and unwelcome carriage being moved into the coach house. His aunt, Lady Catherine, had made a most unexpected visit. He wondered at her purpose and whether, in light of her past object of his marrying his Cousin Anne, the latter had accompanied her. It was not, he thought with resignation, how he might have wished to pass the remainder of the day. Lady Catherine and Miss Bingley were well matched in their ability to strain his civility and only the prospect of Elizabeth and the Gardiners joining them to dine that evening offered pleasure.
He managed to reach his chambers without being accosted by any of his guests and then, once refreshed, made his way to the drawing room where he found his aunt holding court with his sister, Mrs. Annesley, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst. He waved off the footman who was about to open the door and paused briefly to listen to the conversation within. His aunt appeared to be conducting an interrogation of Miss Bingley and one that was replete with his aunt's usual presumptuousness and condescension.
"Your brother is Mr. Darcy's particular friend, is that not so, Miss Bingley?"
Miss Bingley's reply was indistinct.
"I have been given to understand that you have a handsome dowry. You do? Excellent. But how is it that you are not yet married?"
He could not hear Miss Bingley's response.
"How old are you? Five and twenty?"
"I am not yet five and twenty, your ladyship!" Miss Bingley's reply was now quite clear.
"Five and twenty and not married! How is this possible? Your sister has managed a most appropriate match for one of her station. Surely you could, by now, have found a similar suitor? Or have you been hoping to find one even better? Do not set your sights too high, Miss Bingley. As the daughter of a tradesman, a gentleman such as Mr. Hurst would do much to improve your station in society. I would be quite prepared to find such a husband for you. There are several gentlemen living near Rosings Park with estates of two or three thousand that would suit you well. You are not unattractive, I suppose, and your dowry would be welcomed by most of them."
Darcy smiled to himself. Miss Bingley's aspirations would suffer a serious setback when his engagement to Elizabeth was announced and he would hardly repine the absence of those attentions she directed at him. His aunt was another matter altogether, and he wondered if he would be able to deflect her demands without revealing his attachment to Elizabeth. He pushed open the door and entered the room. It took only a single glance to determine that Miss Bingley was unhappy at being the focus of his aunt's interrogation; similarly, from her countenance, his aunt was not particularly impressed by Miss Bingley. If what he had overheard was any indication, his aunt had been as overbearing, opinionated and condescending as usual. With is entrance, however,Miss Bingley was no longer his aunt's principal object.
"Ah, nephew, I had wondered when you would attend me. What do you mean by travelling to Lambton?"
"Lady Catherine, I am pleased to welcome you to Pemberley, although I confess to some surprise for I do not recollect you informing me of any plans to visit." Darcy had no intention of answering his aunt's question.
"A matter of some urgency arose and I decided that it should be dealt with as soon as possible."
Darcy's interest was piqued. This was not his aunt's usual approach to forwarding a match between him and her daughter. Moreover, his aunt apparently was not disposed to defer a discussion for which she had travelled near two hundred miles, for she stated abruptly, "We shall discuss the matter. . .at once."
Darcy's eyebrows rose at his aunt's peremptory tone; however, his curiosity was aroused and his mood too buoyant to take offence. "Let us remove to my study then, Lady Catherine." He turned to his sister, "Georgiana, will you request Mrs. Reynolds to provide us refreshments?"
Once her assent was provided, he followed his aunt to his study and seated her in one of the two armchairs placed in front of the fireplace and took the other himself. Commonplace civilities were exchanged and, as Elizabeth would be dining with them that evening, he thought it best to prepare his aunt for her presence.
"I believe you will be interested to learn that Miss Elizabeth Bennet, whom you met last April, is touring Derbyshire with her relatives. I have invited them to dine with us this evening. I encountered Miss Bennet today and it seems that she has been informed of a particular service you provided her family a few days past."
Lady Catherine humphed.
"I have no interest in discussing such a family."
"Nonetheless, I believe Miss Elizabeth will wish to express her appreciation."
Lady Catherine waved her hand dismissively and Darcy could see the subject was truly of little interest. That surprised him as his aunt was all too prone to delight in belabouring the misadventures of families other than her own. He wondered when she would broach the object of her visit and he fully intended to allow her to take the initiative.
They sat in a silence that lasted a minute. . .then two. . .and finally Lady Catherine huffed in exasperation.
"You are just like your father."
"Thank you, Aunt Catherine."
He knew she hated to be called 'Aunt Catherine', just as he knew that the comparison to his father was not intended as a compliment. His aunt had always resented the greater worth and beauty of Pemberley as compared to Rosings and even more had she resented the fact that she could never bend his father to her will. He waited. She would not bend him to her will either. He had resisted her demands in regards to marrying his cousin Anne for five years, he would resist for five, or even fifty, more. This prolonged silence on the part of his aunt was most uncharacteristic for she had rarely, if ever to his knowledge, found a silence she was unwilling to fill. He could only suppose the matter of which she wished to speak had either left her bereft of words or uncertain as to those she should use. He could only wait patiently to determine which. Finally, she spoke.
"It is beyond time for you to marry."
Darcy was silent and he could not help but think of Elizabeth and how she had refused to meet his eyes, her delicate blush colouring her face as the words he so wished to hear fell from her lips. He suddenly realized that his aunt had filled his silence with words of her own and he had not the least idea of what they were.
". . .find someone suitable."
"I beg your pardon, Lady Catherine, but I was not attending. Of what are you speaking?"
Lady Catherine huffed in exasperation before speaking sharply, "I simply stated that you need to marry. Pemberley needs an heir and you need a wife. I have in mind several eligible and suitable young women."
Darcy's surprise was complete. His aunt spoke of his marrying and, in the process, appeared to have excluded her daughter. What could she mean by it?
"I confess to some surprise that you would raise this subject without reference to my cousin."
Lady Catherine was clearly uncomfortable at his mention of her daughter, and his instinctive desire to deflect his aunt from attempting to further her matchmaking warred with his sudden concern for his cousin. He and Anne had become more distant as her mother's wishes for their marriage became more overbearing. Neither of them wished for such a union. He had never spoken to Anne on the subject but such subtle indications as she could manufacture allowed him to discern that her distaste for the concept equaled his own. As they had no feelings for each other except familial, it had suited them both to avoid any indication of pleasure in the other's company. That his aunt, who only last April had spoken with certainty of his marriage to Anne, would now suggest he marry another was alarming. Very alarming! He could not help but wonder at the cause of such a change.
"Lady Catherine?" he prompted. It was several moments before she responded.
"Your uncle insisted that his doctor - that physician you recommended to him - attend Anne. I could hardly refuse given his reputation. Although I had no reason to find fault with Mr. Lester who has served me well these past twenty years."
Darcy nodded slowly. He had never been overly impressed with Mr. Lester who, it seemed to him, was prone to tailor his diagnosis to that which his aunt wished to hear. He had decried any concerns about Anne's ill-health when Darcy had mentioned his views on the matter. His aunt would never agree to Darcy's recommendations and, after his most recent visit to Rosings Park, he had become even more concerned as to his cousin's health. He had finally spoken to his uncle, the Earl of Matlock, about his cousin's health and his reservations about the care she was receiving. Apparently the Earl had wasted little time before acting on his nephew's observations and Lady Catherine would rarely stand against her brother. That the physician recommended had impeccable credentials and a prestigious list of clients which included the Earl himself, would silence any objections she might harbour.
"What did Mr. Harrington conclude?"
His aunt was reluctant to speak on the matter and it took some persistent albeit careful questioning to elicit the story. In essentials, Mr. Harrington examination of Anne had lasted for over an hour and he had then interviewed both the local apothecary and Anne's maid. His conclusion was simple and given in terms that might appear harsh if one was unacquainted with Lady Catherine and her belief that she could order events to her purposes. Marriage and childbirth would almost assuredly cause the death of Anne de Bourgh. As much as Lady Catherine wished for her daughter to marry, she did not wish for that decision to cause her death. Nonetheless, it apparently took every particle of her brother's persuasion and insistence for Lady Catherine to surrender her dream and she mourned its passing.
"You were intended for each other," she lamented. "It was the favourite wish of myself and your mother. While in your cradles, we planned the union. You are both descended, on the maternal side, from the same noble line; and, on the fathers', from respectable, honourable, and ancient -- though untitled - families. The fortune on both sides is splendid. You were destined for each other by the voice of every member of your respective houses, and now it shall not be."
Darcy remained silent. There was no point to discomfiting his aunt with the revelation that he had never intended to marry his cousin. Of more concern were Anne's health and his aunt's intentions.
"And Anne. How does she take such news?"
"She was. . .pleased," declared Lady Catherine unhappily. "She confessed she had long dreaded the very thought of marriage."
Darcy nodded. "I thank you for advising me of my cousin's condition, but I wonder at your coming such a distance when it could well have been imparted in a letter. What can you mean by it?"
Lady Catherine sniffed impatiently. "As almost your nearest relation and the mother of the woman who can no longer be your wife, I felt it incumbent upon me to take the matter of your marriage in hand. You know it is past time that you wed. You must attend the season this autumn and find a wife. I shall accompany you."
Darcy's eyebrows rose in amazement. This was a development he could hardly have expected. And an unwelcome one.
"My dear aunt, I have been participating in the season for the past five years at least. I can assure you that consideration of a prospective wife was never far from my thoughts during that time." He held up a hand as his aunt was about to expostulate, "I realize that you had expectations of a marriage between myself and Anne but neither your daughter nor I harboured similar intentions. Her health was always an obstacle to the realization of your dream and I have long been aware that marriage could not be in her future. However, as I had not found a woman I wished to marry, neither of us saw a purpose in correcting your opinion on the matter."
"In my. . .investigation of the various ladies presented to me in London society, I could find none who would suit my character and needs. Beauty and fortune are not in want but there is a shallowness of character, an insipidness and want of understanding and, all too frequently, an indelicacy of manners that is seriously displeasing. I am not prepared to enter a marriage where Pemberley and my fortune are my primary attractions. I will not accept a woman possessed only of wealth and connections, for what need have I of either?"
Lady Catherine snorted inelegantly in derision. "Your position in society, nay your family's name and that of your mother, demand of you that you marry appropriately. It would be a degradation to marry one who will not enhance our standing."
Darcy gazed at his aunt with some perplexity. How was he to work on her so as to allow Elizabeth to join his family without causing a breach with his mother's sister? Lady Catherine placed such importance on rank and position that he could not see her easily accepting Elizabeth as his wife. While he had no wish to create such a breach, he would not be dissuaded from marrying Elizabeth for fear of it. Lady Catherine must be made to be reasonable. She was not an unintelligent woman. Buried amongst all her pretensions was a core of sensible knowledge . Rosings was well managed under her direction and her understanding of society was excellent. For all her faults she could be reasoned with on those matters which did not touch her most closely.
"What are you about, nephew? What causes you to scowl so disagreeably?" she demanded.
Darcy did not answer directly. He wondered how best to raise the matter with this most difficult relation. He could not, for a surety, explain the revolution in attitudes that he had undergone. She would simply not comprehend and indeed would most likely consider him a fool and discount everything that he subsequently did or said. To present that truth would be foolhardy. She would, however, recognize that as head of his family, his right to make the decision of whom to wed was his alone. He needed approval from no one. The question he faced was how to present this reality in such a way as to not offend and indeed possibly earn her acceptance, if not approval, beforehand.
Darcy made his tone as non-confrontational as possible. "My dear aunt, allow me to pose a matter for your consideration."
Lady Catherine reluctantly gave her assent, not at all pleased at her nephew's refusal to answer her question. He seemed, in her opinion, to be dissembling and she had always prided herself on her frankness, and, while she rarely valued that quality in others, in this instance she wished him to be forthright. It was a shock to learn that her nephew had never intended to offer for her daughter, that his plans for marriage had never entailed joining Rosings Park and Pemberley and that he had successfully hidden his intentions from her for years. She wondered if she knew him at all. Ultimately, it mattered not, for she knew what his duty was and it was her responsibility to see that he fulfilled it.
"Lady Catherine . . . Aunt, what I am about to say is not easy and I do not wish to cause you pain, but some truths must be faced."
"I do not have the pleasure of understanding you, nephew."
"First, I will gladly acknowledge that my family has a long history, that we have built and held Pemberley for generations. I am proud of my Darcy ancestors' accomplishments and I am resolved to ensure that Pemberley and the Darcy family prosper."
Lady Catherine was concerned by her nephew's continued reference to the Darcy family. Did he give no consideration to the Fitzwilliams, his mother's family? She said as much and at some length, leaving him in no doubt that in her opinion the Fitzwilliam connection was the more important. He listened calmly until she had finally finished speaking and before she could organize her thoughts sufficiently to begin anew, he interjected.
"This is all well and good, Lady Catherine, but you must accept that I am to be guided by my father's wishes on this subject. He told me on more than one occasion that while he respected his wife's family, he was a Darcy first and foremost, and that I should be guided by what is best for the Darcy family without concern for the Fitzwilliams. He rather pointedly mentioned several decisions made by your father and brother that forwarded the Fitzwilliam interests at the expense of the Darcys."
Darcy waited several moments, allowing his aunt to digest this unpalatable truth, before continuing. That she was displeased at his frankness was clear.
"Do you mean to suggest that you would entertain entering a match of which your relations would disapprove? I cannot credit that you would be so disrespectful. Your mother would be heartily ashamed and my brother, your uncle, excessively displeased. You cannot deny the Fitzwilliam connection and the obligations that are attached to it. It is not to be endured! It shall not be tolerated!"
Her rising voice was accompanied and emphasized by the staccato beat of her walking cane on the floor.
"My dear aunt, please calm yourself. It does no good to react so strongly. I believe you misunderstand my intentions." Darcy paused briefly, hoping that by speaking more quietly, his aunt's ire would be lessened. He donned his most severe, haughty demeanour to lend weight to what he said next. His aunt would, he knew well, interpret any attempt to placate as a sign of weakness and would attempt to impose her will. He rose and stood before her. He smiled to himself, for his father had told him that a man commanded - nay, demanded - respect and obedience when on his feet. "Sit" he had said, "to consult, stand to command."
That his action discomfited his aunt was evidenced only in the widening of her eyes. She was a tall, large woman but was dwarfed in this instance by her nephew. He could admire her courage, for it was comparable to that of Elizabeth who had stood against him in her anger at Hunsford. He rather thought his aunt would, if she could overcome her prejudices, come to admire and respect Elizabeth.
"I wish" he said coldly, "only to make several things clear. To me they are obvious but I can see that you may suffer some misapprehension. First, you must recognize that I am the head of the Darcy family. I am, in fact, my own man and not required to seek the approval of anyone for my decisions. In this I simply act in the same manner as does my uncle for the Fitzwilliam family."
He paused, waiting for his aunt to acknowledge the verity of this assertion. His aunt's features made her disagreement evident. He stepped closer and leaned towards her bringing his own face even closer to hers.
"Do. I. Make. Myself. Understood?"
He spoke clearly, firmly and slowly. Her acceptance was late in coming, given only reluctantly and he could hardly be sure that she would not declaim her agreement at a later date. But for now, he was content to have her agree. He stepped back and away from her and he could hear her soft exhalation of relief. He regretted having to intimidate her but knew gaining her her acceptance required nothing less. His tone and manner moderated.
"I am glad that you have agreed, Lady Catherine. I have a great deal of respect for your appreciation of such matters." He paused very briefly before continuing, "Second, while I will not expect your approval of my choice, I will insist on civility. I have always been civil to the Viscount's bride although she is the most insipid, silly creature, chosen only because she is the daughter of a Duke and has a fortune of fifty thousand. My approval was not sought." He snorted. "I can only hope that my uncle lives for quite a few more years because such a creature will hardly enhance the Fitzwilliam name."
His aunt gaped at him in bemusement, obviously ignoring his last comment. "Why should your approval have been sought?"
An uncomfortable silence lasted for almost a minute before Darcy resumed speaking.
"Finally, I would like to address those family concerns which are sure to arise in regards to any wife I choose. You know me too well, I hope, to believe that I have not given full consideration to my choice of a wife. I do nothing casually." Darcy was relieved that his aunt would never learn of his impulsive and ill-considered proposal to Elizabeth at Hunsford, although even then he had weighed and discounted any potential family objections to the match.
"As to fortune I am quite indifferent. I can provide well for my future sons and daughters without a dowry from their mother. My character is also well known. I am not a creature that craves society other than that of my closest friends. They will not be dissuaded by my choice of a wife and will, I have no doubt, be most welcoming. The opinions of society at large matter very little to me and the wealth and consequence of the Darcy name will ensure general civility and that is all I will demand and insist upon - but I will have that, and any that show disrespect will be cut from my acquaintance. Do not doubt me on this, Madam. Do not!"
"Finally, I will undoubtedly be importuned as to the damage to Georgiana's prospects arising should I contract what some will consider to be an imprudent marriage. I will not attempt to deny that some gentlemen might be dissuaded but, if they are, then they are not worth my consideration. Or Georgiana's. My sister's character, her fortune and our family name will ensure a suitable match regardless of who I choose to be her sister."
Lady Catherine's gaze had changed from outrage to confusion. "You speak, nephew, as though you have already settled on a choice."
Darcy cursed to himself. His manner had clearly been too revealing. He began to dissemble. "Be assured, Madam, that when I am ready to announce my choice of a wife, I shall inform my relations. At this point I will only acknowledge that my deliberations will encompass those that you and my uncle would consider unsuitable."
Lady Catherine wondered why this disclosure did not anger her as much as it might have in the past. She could only assume that, having relinquished any expectation of a marriage with her daughter, her concern over whom her nephew chose had lessened. That did not mean, however, she would be persuaded to accept someone totally unsuitable. Her tone was sharp as she finally replied.
"While I will not gainsay your right to choose a bride, nephew, I do hope that you do not intend to offer for that. . .cit - that Miss Bingley - who is visiting here at the moment. She is not even of the gentry, little though she likes to admit it."
Darcy laughed. "You need harbour no fears on that account, my dear aunt. I am quite familiar with Miss Bingley's aspirations and have no intention of offering for her."
He was not to learn what his aunt's response would have been for at that moment a knock on the door signalled the end of their discussion. Luncheon was to be served. As Darcy's other guests had a claim on his attention, an opportunity to continue their talk was not to be had.
Posted on 2016-11-07
Elizabeth and her relatives arrived at the appropriate time for dinner. She had clearly worn the best gown she had brought on her travels and, if not the finest she owned (which had been left behind at Longbourn), its design and colour flattered her greatly. Darcy was there to hand her down from the carriage and the obvious appreciation expressed in his gaze and words brought a flush of gratification to her features. He greeted the Gardiners with almost equal pleasure and, with Elizabeth on his arm, brought them to the drawing room where his other guests awaited them. By prior agreement, Darcy and Elizabeth had resolved to display no uncommon preference for the other in order to prevent any intimation of an attachment between them. It was a task that neither was able to perform to their satisfaction. Darcy's character was not such that happiness overflowed in mirth and yet tonight he felt uncommonly happy; had there been present an observer who knew him very well, the ebullience of his manner might have been discerned. As it was, only his sister might have done so but her attention was too fixed by her aunt to allow her to pay much attention to her brother. On Elizabeth's part, her joy was such as to permit her to greet the incivilities of Mr. Bingley's sisters with amusement and indifference.
Lady Catherine acknowledged her re-acquaintance of Elizabeth with a civil, if brief, inclination of her head and deigned to be introduced to the Gardiners, a task that Elizabeth undertook. Having previously been informed by Miss Bingley as to their roots in trade, Lady Catherine was not persuaded to afford them more than the coolest of civilities and resumed her conversation with Miss Darcy immediately following the introduction. Warned of her Ladyship's opinions in regards to the distinctions of rank, neither of the Gardiners was surprised at her behaviour and cheerfully moved away to direct their efforts to engage Bingley in conversation. They had heard much about that gentleman over the preceding months and their brief interactions had not so far allowed them to understand him better. What little they had observed suggested he retained an interest in their oldest niece. To know him better thus became an object of some importance.
It required but a few minutes for Elizabeth to discern that Miss Darcy was extremely uncomfortable being the focus of her aunt's attention. Such a shy creature, who experienced difficulty uttering the simplest sentences amongst the most amiable companions, was reduced to quivering silence by an authoritative relative like Lady Catherine. Elizabeth was not at all surprised therefore to have Darcy lead her to join this one-sided conversation. He had no doubt that his aunt would relish the opportunity to question Elizabeth, although what she might say could hardly be guessed. Of Elizabeth's ability to deal with his aunt's overbearing condescension he had no doubt, having seen her do so with equanimity in Kent. He was not disappointed. Once Lady Catherine had exhaustively instructed her niece on the matter of her studies, the opportunity to question Elizabeth about her travels, where she stayed and the estates she had toured, was too enticing for Lady Catherine to ignore. The hoped-for result was quickly achieved. Elizabeth cheerfully took onto herself the burden of Lady Catherine's interest and allowed Miss Darcy to perceptibly relax. It was a charge Elizabeth was required to endure for only a quarter hour before they were informed that dinner awaited them and the move to the dining room took place.
Lady Catherine, in deference to her rank and seniority, had agreed to act as hostess for the evening, thus ensuring that, as she said, "Georgiana is provided with an excellent example of how a lady should comport herself in such a circumstance. You must watch, Georgiana, and learn from my example for I am sure that you will be required to perform such duties at some time or other and one must be attentive to the proper behaviour. I am renown as an excellent hostess and your mother more than once complimented me on the matter. I can remember her saying that she had never before encountered the like in her life."
Miss Darcy bore the loss of the duty well and maintained her own countenance during her aunt's explanation.
The seating arrangements had not been left to chance and an uncommon degree of formality was attached to the process, for Darcy was not about to suffer Miss Bingley's attentions more than was absolutely essential, nor did he wish to be deprived of Elizabeth's company throughout the meal. If he could not make his interest in her commonly known, he could at least engage her in conversation under circumstances where his attention would be deemed appropriate and in keeping with his duties as the host. Thus he had enlisted the cooperation of Mr. Gardiner and also persuaded his friend in effecting the desired seating arrangements. Darcy led the procession into the dining room, escorting his sister and aunt, settling the latter at the foot of the table before moving to the other end placing his sister at his left hand. The other gentlemen followed and shortly everyone was comfortably seated, albeit several could find little pleasure with their companion on either side. Darcy could see his sister visibly relax when Mrs. Gardiner was placed beside her and that Elizabeth had been given the signal honour of being seated at Darcy's right hand and across from her. Miss Bingley, however, was not pleased to be so far removed from Darcy and to be seated between Mrs. Gardiner and her own brother, who sat to Lady Catherine'sright. That lady could hardly be pleased at her table companions for Mr. Hurst and his wife sat to her left; however, as she rarely required more from those beside her than to listen to her conversation and thus Mr. Hurst, who had few interests apart from food and wine, served her purposes more than adequately.
Lady Catherine had never been known for a love of silence and she did not depart from her usual habits on this occasion. If Mr. Hurst had laboured under the illusion that he would be allowed to enjoy his meal with minimal attention to his hostess, he was shortly to be disappointed. Lady Catherine, true to her usual wont, inquired into his background and, upon learning that he lived mainly in town when not visiting relatives or friends, dispensed such advice as she felt appropriate to the circumstances.
"I am alarmed, Sir, at such carelessness. You cannot always be so casual on this matter. A gentleman, to be worthy of the name, must have an estate, Sir. You should not expect to live upon your brother's indulgence for though he is not married now, he is of an age to marry and then where shall you be? No! No! It will not do! You must bend your thoughts to acquiring an estate. Mr. Bingley, you agree with me, I am sure. Yes. I see that that you do. I shall investigate the availability of estates in Kent, Mr. Hurst. I am quite attentive to such details for it is but a year or two since I settled a son of Lady Metcalf on an estate near Rosings Park. It was not a large estate to be sure, and the manor house is quite too small for my liking and poorly situated - for it is quite surrounded by trees and the gardens are minuscule - but it shall do very well for him as he is only a third son and his means were limited. I have examined the house in some detail and recommended a number of changes which I am sure they will implement. It was a most satisfactory business and Lady Metcalf was most appreciative."
Having settled this matter to her satisfaction, Lady Catherine turned her attention to Bingley, a move which met with a faint but discernible sigh of relief from Mr. Hurst.
"My nephew has given me to understand, Mr. Bingley, that you are leasing an estate. Where is it?"
"Hertfordshire? I passed though there several days past. Rather attractive country although it is nothing to Kent. How does your estate do? Do you plan to purchase?"
Bingley was unsure how forthcoming he should be on the matter, particularly given that Elizabeth Bennet and her relatives were likely to overhear anything he said. But he knew from experience that his was not a character that could dissemble without looking awkward and sometimes discomfited. He contented himself by simply stating that he had yet to make a decision on the property.
Miss Bingley could not allow this topic to pass without comment although she could not be as openly critical as she might wish.
"I am sure, Lady Catherine, that the society in Kent is much superior to that found around my brother's estate. I remain hopeful that Charles will look to acquire an estate elsewhere, perhaps in Derbyshire, for I find this country particularly agreeable."
"That is odd," said her brother, "as I have yet to see you venture outside the house."
Miss Bingley forbore to acknowledge to this comment and any response she might have made was preempted by Lady Catherine.
"What is the income from this estate, Mr. Bingley?"
"About four thousand a year, madam."
"Hmm. A decent-sized estate then though much smaller than Pemberley and Rosings. It seems appropriate for one in your circumstances. Miss Bennet is from Hertfordshire. Did you make her acquaintance there? I recall that you did not require an introduction when she arrived."
"I. . .ah, I met Miss Bennet and her family this past autumn when I was last at Netherfield."
"Last autumn! And have you not returned to your estate since then? You have not! Whatever can you mean by such neglect? I recollect that my nephew intimated that you planned to learn the workings of an estate. How can that be done if you have not been there for - what is it now - yes, nine months? Why have you not returned? Darcy spends, I know, at least half the year at Pemberley and I spend as many months, if not more, at Rosings. You cannot hope to learn to manage an estate if you do not attend to it regularly. Perhaps you acquired the lease for the hunting only? Is that the case? No? Then you must be more attentive to your responsibilities, Mr. Bingley. You wish to become a landed gentleman, to improve from your roots in trade, but you must perform your duties with more care if this is your object."
Miss Bingley sniffed. "I am sure," she said, "that I found nothing to enjoy when we stayed at Netherfield. The society is limited and poor; and some I found to be quite savage." She turned towards Darcy, "Is that not so, Mr. Darcy? I seem to recollect your saying something to that effect when we arrived there."
Darcy looked at her coolly. "I may indeed have thought so when we first arrived, but I have since come to the conclusion that the fault lay more with my perception than the neighbourhood."
Bingley looked at his friend in amazement and was about to inquire into the matter; however, Lady Catherine was not to be dissuaded from her object and prevented any comment from him by returning the discussion to the management of an estate. She was content to discourse on the subject for some time, requiring little contribution from her companions. She was finally distracted from this exercise by observing the easy conversation at the other end of the table. She did not scruple to call out, "What is it you are saying, Nephew? What is it you are talking of? What are you saying to Miss Bennet? Let me hear what it is."
"Mrs. Gardiner and Miss Bennet have expressed a desire to view more of Pemberley's park, Madam. I have engaged them and Mr. Gardiner for a tour tomorrow morning."
Miss Bingley, more from a desire to ensure that Elizabeth was not allowed to enjoy Darcy's company without her presence than any particular interest in exploring the park, interjected, "What a pleasant prospect, Mr. Darcy. I am sure we would all enjoy such an outing."
Darcy frowned slightly before replying, "I am afraid I am unable to satisfy your request, Miss Bingley. Only my curricle and phaeton can traverse the paths that surround the park and they can carry only four people. And, as the Gardiners and Miss Elizabeth are to soon return home, this shall be my only opportunity to satisfy their request. I am sure, however, that your brother would be willing to perform the service when we return or we might consider doing so another day before you depart."
Elizabeth could see that Miss Bingley was unhappy at being so excluded but, as that lady had been at Pemberley in the past without availing herself of a tour of the grounds, Elizabeth could hardly believe that Miss Bingley's present interest would even survive Elizabeth's departure.
When Lady Catherine led the ladies to the drawing room following the meal, Elizabeth was required by her ladyship to sit in the chair beside her so as to facilitate their conversation, for she had much to speak about with Elizabeth.
"I was, as I am sure you appreciate, much surprised to encounter your youngest sister in Bromley, Miss Bennet."
Elizabeth did not wish Lydia's escapade to become a subject of discussion, not in the present circumstances certainly. While she had some doubts as to Lady Catherine's sensibleness, she believed it unlikely her Ladyship would continue to address the matter in such a public setting.
"We are greatly in debt to your Ladyship for conveying Lydia home. It was most courteously done. May I inquire about Mrs. Collins? I have not heard from her for more than a month."
Lady Catherine was quite willing to be diverted and spoke exhaustively on the doings of the Hunsford Parsonage until the gentlemen rejoined them. Darcy was at once commanded to Lady Catherine's side and, as Elizabeth was now superfluous, she was allowed to move to sit with Miss Darcy, who was currently the uncomfortable focus of Miss Bingley's efforts at conversation. The newcomer was welcomed coolly by the latter who, after the failure of her previous efforts to disparage Elizabeth, chose instead to ignore her presence. Miss Darcy, however, welcomed her and immediately inquired, "I understand my aunt conveyed your youngest sister home."
Elizabeth acknowledged this to be true.
"Are all your sisters at Longbourn? I recollect that my brother said you had four sisters."
"They are indeed all at Longbourn. Jane is my elder sister and Mary, Kitty and Lydia are younger than me. Lydia is not yet sixteen."
"Miss Bennet is well, then?" asked Mr. Bingley who had drawn closer. His manner was slightly self-conscious. Elizabeth could not believe his question to be disinterested.
"Her spirits are improving, I believe. It is difficult to remain otherwise in the company of my young cousins. She is a great favourite with them, and they did much to buoy her spirits when she was in town this past winter."
"Miss Bennet was in town?" Elizabeth could have no doubt as to his surprise at this news. She nodded.
"I wonder," he said, "that she did not call on my sisters."
Elizabeth could form no reply to this statement without discomfiting Darcy and Bingley's sisters; Miss Bingley dared not respond at all. An uncomfortable silence lasted for several long moments. Miss Darcy appeared frozen by the palpable tension and Elizabeth felt obligated to move the conversation to a different topic. An inquiry into Miss Darcy's preferences in composers proved efficacious and the awkward moment gradually passed; however, Elizabeth could see that Bingley remained discomfited and suspected the cause to be the knowledge that Jane had been in town and apparently had not called on his sisters. As his sisters had promoted the friendship, it was incomprehensible to him that Miss Bennet would be so uncivil as to not call upon them.
It was, however, a matter which Elizabeth could not address and she could only hope that Darcy would do so. She had forgiven him his interference in the matter of Bingley and her sister, having come to believe that regardless of Bingley's personal modesty, it ultimately was his responsibility to act in the matter. Bingley alone was best placed to gauge her sister's heart and his want of conviction in the matter spoke as poorly of his understanding as it did of his resolution. Nonetheless, he was the man her sister loved and, if Jane could accept such a weakness, Elizabeth could do no less. None of us are perfect and Elizabeth recognized that she had enough faults of her own that she could ill afford to be overly severe on another's.
Darcy left Pemberley the next morning at an hour which he hoped would bring him and his equipage to Lambton soon after the Gardiners and Elizabeth had finished breaking their fast. He drove his curricle and a groom, the phaeton intended for the Gardiners. The groom would later ride on the seat on the back of the phaeton. Thus, should the two vehicles become separated, the Gardiners would not become lost. That Darcy and Elizabeth might be unchaperoned for some time was less of a concern now that they were betrothed, but he was not slow to assure the Gardiners that he intended for the two vehicles to remain close together.
It was as beautiful a day as one could imagine in the summer. Trees, shrubs and grasses had not yet lost their freshness and when they finally reached Pemberley's park, the narrow trails they followed were frequently blessed with an umbrella of branches, leaving the sun to create dappled patterns as they passed. Birds there were aplenty, and Darcy and Elizabeth were equally quick to attach songs to the bird. A few were unknown to Elizabeth and Darcy would often mimic their calls to her amusement.
The winding trail around the edge of Pemberley's park led them through forested glens, by outcroppings of rocks and fields of boulders with unrivalled prospects, along by small ponds rippling in the breeze and dotted with lily pads. . .there seemed to be a new beauty around every bend in the trail. Darcy was a knowledgeable guide, his reticence making him a welcome companion for he did not sit in an uneasy quietude nor distract Elizabeth with mindless inanities. He answered her many questions patiently and did not seem to be in the slightest hurry; any indication she expressed of wishing to explore on foot, he would gratify by immediately drawing rein and jumping down to assist her. The Gardiners were never far behind them, and they would pull up too, occasionally climbing out to walk around with her, but more often remaining seated in quiet conversation and enjoyment of the scenery. That they wished to afford the young couple an opportunity to converse in private, which circumstances had largely denied them, was clearly their purpose.
Eventually the two vehicles arrived at a ridge which afforded them all with an excellent view of the house, but from a different perspective than Elizabeth had seen before. "I remember thinking, when we first espied it, that I had never seen a place where nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. It is so very well situated," said Elizabeth, feeling somehow that her remark was inadequate as a description of Pemberley House.
"I wish I could take the credit for it," Darcy replied, "but I am greatly indebted to my ancestors. It is my responsibility to maintain and improve where I can."
"I can find no fault with their taste or yours, Fitzwilliam."
"And now I am to gift the Darcy family with an exemplary mistress."
"I would not wish your expectations to be too great." She responded with a sense of unworthiness at the prospect of what lay before her as Mistress of Pemberley. "I am the daughter of a gentleman with a small estate. I have never dealt with such responsibilities."
He drew her arm closer and laid his hand atop hers and squeezed. Her unease had become palpable and he did what was within his power to alleviate it. "You are, beyond a doubt, an intelligent and caring young lady. If Longbourn has not fitted you with all the experience that a Mistress of Pemberley might require, I have no reservations, none at all, as to your ability to learn what must be learned. Besides," and he laughed softly, "Pemberley has been without a Mistress for more than ten years. I dare say it will survive well until you have learned what is required. Mrs. Reynolds will welcome your arrival and will be overjoyed to assist. She has been hinting for some time that it was time for me to marry."
"Yes, although she was quite firm in telling my uncle, when she guided our tour, that she knew no one who was good enough."
"She had not come to know you but, once she does, will be delighted with the new Mrs. Darcy."
"Mrs. Darcy! I can hardly comprehend that it is possible. That you should still love me." She glanced up at him through her eyelashes, "I can hardly account for your having fallen in love with me. That you would carry on quite charmingly once you had done so, I can believe. But how came you to start in the first instance? I know you found me barely tolerable at first." A teasing smile accompanied the last remark. Darcy only gave her a wry smile, shook his head and chose to ignore it.
"I confess to that but my attraction began not long after that evening. We were often in company together and each time I saw you, I found something more admirable. That was the foundation, I believe. It was a short step from admiration to love, although I confess that I was slow to realize that I had succumbed and was quite lost long before I admitted it to myself.
"I know I treated you most abominably at first. Impertinent and was impertinent and even uncivil on occasion. I daresay you would have hated me for it had your character not been truly amiable - although you did disguise that very well. But in spite of your efforts to disguise this part of your character, your feelings were always noble and just and, in your heart, you despised those who so assiduously courted you. There, I have accounted for it all, and upon reflection I feel my explanation to be very reasonable. Of course, you knew no actual good of me, but who can think of such when they fall in love?"
"Was there no good in your care and attention to your sister when she fell ill at Netherfield? Or in your willingness to endure your cousin in order to visit your friend?"
"Dearest Jane, who could have done less for her? But you have my permission to make a virtue of it. And truly, I saw little of Mr. Collins during my stay. My good qualities will be under your protection, and you are to exaggerate them as much as possible. You realize that having won your regard with my impertinence, I am resolved to continue to tease and quarrel with you as often as I can."
Darcy smiled and did not appear at all discomposed by the prospect; however, their conversation was shortly interrupted by an inquiry from Mr. Gardiner as to when they would return to Pemberley House for his wife was finding the increasing heat of the day fatiguing. As they were by now only a short distance from the house, within a quarter hour Darcy led them to a small private parlour which they had not previously seen. Fruit and cake and other pleasant things appeared within minutes, and Darcy urged them to help themselves before disappearing to find his sister.
Miss Darcy returned with her brother and they were able to converse in the most agreeable manner for some time. There was no shortage of subjects that could be encompassed but their tour of the park must form the majority of the discussion and Miss Darcy was pleased to listen to their approbation and to impart those aspects which she found most interesting. About a half hour later, Darcy turned to Elizabeth, "Might I interest you in a tour of the conservatory? It is something my father introduced and I have attempted to improve upon it."
The invitation was extended to the Gardiners; however, Mrs. Gardiner was loath to leave the comfort of the parlour and her husband and Miss Darcy chose to remain with her. That Miss Darcy harboured some thoughts as to her brother's interest in Miss Bennet was obvious from the manner in which her gaze flickered from one to the other. However, whatever her musings, she said nothing.
Once they had gained the privacy of the conservatory, Elizabeth inquired as to whether he had as yet informed his sister of their engagement.
"I have not, although I shall do so before too much longer. I suspect we have roused her suspicions and I would not wish her to remain in ignorance."
Elizabeth assented, noting that she had already sent a missive to her sister informing her of the engagement and requesting her secrecy until their father had given his permission. Darcy nodded and his mien grew more thoughtful. She wondered at it but determined to await his willingness to speak on whatever perturbed him. Finally, he did so.
"As much as I wished to show you the conservatory, there is another matter which we must discuss. I spoke with Bingley last evening after you departed. I confessed to him my actions in separating him from your sister. He Had been sorely puzzled that she would come to London and make no attempt to call on his sisters and himself. He became quite. . .upset, irate even, to learn of our deception. As he should be. I cannot think of how abhorrently I acted."
"I will not pretend that your actions, no matter how well intentioned, did not anger me greatly or that I believe you did not exceed your responsibility as a friend; nonetheless, I have come to understand that Mr. Bingley must accept the greater share of responsibility for his actions, or rather inaction, in this matter." She paused briefly before adding, "And did you speak of my sister's heart?"
Darcy shook his head. "Not in so many words, for Bingley was more concerned with his sisters' deception and incivility; however, I did intimate that I believed my advice had been unsound. I implied a quarrel between us when we met in Hunsford led to such a revelation."
He fell silent once more, clearly ruminating on the confrontation with his friend. Elizabeth thought to prompt him slightly.
"Did Mr. Bingley give any indication of his. . .plans? Will he return, do you think, to Netherfield?"
Darcy's response was slow in coming. "I cannot say with any surety. I believe he will do so although I gather he must first accompany his sisters to the north to visit some relatives there. I believe, however, that when he learns of our engagement, he will return. Certainly, I will press him to do so."
"Do you plan still to follow my party to Longbourn?"
"I do. I shall be but two days behind you. There are some matters pertaining to Pemberley that I should attend to before I leave again for what may be an absence of some duration."
"We have not spoken of this, but when shall we marry?" She paused and glanced up at him teasingly, "You must know that once my mother learns of our engagement, six months shall not be sufficient for the preparations she will wish to make."
Darcy grimaced and Elizabeth chuckled.
"I believe," said she, "that, while this is a matter for you and my father to resolve, were my preferences to be consulted, a date around Michaelmas would be satisfactory - most satisfactory."
Darcy turned to face her, brought both her hands to his lips and pressed a kiss on each. "I would not wish to disappoint you on such a matter, Elizabeth."
She thoroughly enjoyed the way he pronounced her name, almost lingering over every syllable.
"But will six weeks be sufficient time, do you think?" he asked.
"It shall be for me. I do not wish for an elaborate affair, unless. . ." She paused and gazed up at him with a question in her eyes. "Do you require longer, Sir? Will your relations anticipate a more. . .illustrious affair?"
He shook his head. "I have to please few besides Georgiana and myself. I would marry as soon as possible and Michaelmas seems to be a reasonable compromise. Shall we garner your mother's ire?"
"I believe Mama will be so astonished at my marrying a man of such consequence that she shall want the wedding to take place before you regain your wits."
"So six weeks is to be preferred to six months then?"
She laughed again. "I do not doubt it, although I am also sure that I shall never hear the end of her lamentations of being ill-used at having to plan a wedding on such short notice."
"We will brace your mother together."
Elizabeth shook her head, "No indeed. This shall be one task I will not ask you to face. Mama shall learn of the engagement from me alone. I shall spare you this and earn your gratitude for doing so. I trust her ire will be of short duration."
"I will not object to your mother's response, Elizabeth."
"Nonetheless, I will take onto myself her first transports. To you shall fall the burden of convincing my father."
Darcy was surprised. "Do you expect he shall object then?"
It was Elizabeth's turn to be embarrassed. She had never enlightened her parents as to her improved opinion of Darcy and, indeed, the whole neighbourhood only remembered him as the proud, disagreeable man who offended one and all last autumn.
"I believe my father is quite unaware of the change in my feelings towards you. He shall be quite surprised when you apply for his consent. Perhaps," she mused, "I should inform him of your arrival and explain. I would not have you discomposed by my father's response."
"It is not necessary, Elizabeth. I shall. . ."
"Nevertheless, I am resolved to speak with him. I shall have a day or two before you arrive."
Darcy looked at his timepiece and scowled. "I fear our privacy must be ended before your uncle reaches the opinion I am not the gentleman he thought me and seeks us out."
She smiled up at him, nodded silently and allowed him to lead her back to the Gardiners. They paused outside the door and after satisfying himself that they were alone, Darcy brushed her lips with a kiss. "I shall have to be content with that until I return to Hertfordshire. It shall, I confess, be an endless separation."
"She stood on her toes and brushed his cheek with her lips. "I shall await your arrival, dearest."
Her endearment could not be allowed to pass unrewarded and his second kiss was firmer, longer and left her slightly breathless and quite flushed.
"Oh my!" was all she could summon the wits to say.
He smiled and guided her into the room, consciously proud of having rendered her so pleasantly discomfited. It was a condition he hoped to create with some frequency in the future; however, as that thought crossed his mind, it was followed by the realization that a wife, particularly one as lively as Elizabeth Bennet, could work the same effect on him. He smiled at the thought.
Their leave-taking when he later assisted her into the Gar
Posted on 2016-11-17
Shortly after breaking his fast the next morning Darcy encountered his butler whose normally stoic and composed mien portrayed a confusion that Darcy had never before seen him display. Darcy's inquiries elicited a response that left him equally perplexed, for his aunt had commandeered her carriage and departed with unusual haste almost a half hour past.
"Has she not had her breakfast?"
"I understand she had a tray sent to her chambers, sir."
Darcy pondered this peculiarity. His aunt had ever been a late riser and rarely took her meals in her rooms.
"Did she disclose her destination, Reynolds?"
"And she took no baggage?"
"No, sir." Reynolds paused, "Dawson did not accompany her either." Both men understood that Lady Catherine obviously intended to return, else her maid would have accompanied her.
"And she did not say where she was bound?" Darcy repeated. Reynolds shook his head and prepared to return to his study as his master slowly wandered off clearly puzzling over his aunt's actions. Reynolds was surprised, therefore, to see Darcy suddenly stop, turn to him and, with evident discomposure, order his horse to be brought to the door immediately. Darcy himself ran up the stairs obviously heading for his chambers. He left the house a scant ten minutes later dressed for riding, leaving his butler in a state of ignorance as to his master's destination quite as complete as that produced by Lady Catherine's departure.
A few minutes saw Darcy urging his horse to the quickest pace which it could sustain for the five miles to Lambton. He could think of only one place and one person that Lady Catherine would wish to call on at such an hour and he was not prepared to allow any relative of his to impose on Elizabeth if it was within his power to prevent it. That Lady Catherine meant to impose was a certainty.
No one - not even Mr. Collins when expressing his most fulsome praise - had ever had cause to assert that Lady Catherine de Bourgh was of a contemplative nature. It is doubtful that she would even have considered such a suggestion as praise, for she had ever prided herself on her frankness and decisiveness and rarely overlooked an opportunity to proclaim the virtues of such traits and her possession of them. The precepts and opinions which guided her behaviour had been inculcated at her wet-nurse's breast and buttressed thereafter by her parents, governesses and those few acquaintances (all titled and of equal or superior rank) whose opinions she held to be of consequence.
Thus, when she had inadvertently observed her nephew's amorous embrace of Miss Elizabeth Bennet, her shock had been immediate, her outrage followed immediately thereupon, and she had been about to remonstrate Miss Bennet when she recalled her nephew's words and manner during their earlier meeting. He had clearly rejected her direction on the matter of marriage and she had been unable to turn his father from a path he was resolved upon. Her nephew, to her dissatisfaction, had proven to be cast in his father's mould and she entertained no expectations that she might be more successful with him.
She had thus removed quietly to her room to consider the matter. Her ruminations would have astonished her nephew. Indeed, she would have been astounded and outraged by them herself only a few weeks ago. If her nephew could not be bent to her will, she doubted that Miss Bennet would be as resolute. Lady Catherine pondered how Miss Bennet could be made to understand the inappropriateness of a marriage between herself and one who was the nephew of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She considered those arguments she felt were most important: Miss Bennet's lack of fortune, the disparity in the respective stations of the Bennet and Darcy families, the want of propriety exhibited by members of the Bennet family - particularly her mother and youngest sister. True, Lady Catherine had observed no deficiency in the behaviour of the eldest Miss Bennet who seemed everything that was proper and certainly one could not fault her beauty. Even Mr. Bennet appeared to be a decent man, he was perhaps a trifle complacent and lax with regard to the behaviour of his daughters, but he was civil, intelligent and an interesting conversationalist nonetheless. However, it was Miss Elizabeth Bennet that was of direct concern. Lady Catherine could find nothing to criticize in regard to her behaviour during and after the dinner. It had been exemplary and everything that was proper and ladylike. She was a welcome contrast to Mr. Bingley's sister who exhibited all the obsequious deference displayed by Mr. Collins albeit with a touch more elegance. Lady Catherine enjoyed such behaviour from her minions but could not tolerate it amongst her family. In this regard, she suspected Miss Elizabeth Bennet would please her, for while the young woman had been civil, she had not been overly deferential.
She recalled that young lady's behaviour when she visited Rosings Park. Miss Bennet had never, in her many visits, been loath to express her opinions and had easily withstood her hostess' demands. Although they were matters of little moment, she had refused to extend her visit despite being pressed to do so by Lady Catherine and had had no qualms in expressing and defending opinions contrary to those held by her ladyship. If she would not bend on matters of little significance, how willingly would she bend on a matter of great import to her future? Lady Catherine wished to believe that she could change Miss Bennet's mind and, if it were a matter of defending her own daughter's interest in the matter - if it were possible for Anne to marry her nephew - she would have seen Miss Bennet as an interloper, as one whose claim to Darcy was inferior to that of Anne's in terms of fortune, consequence and birth. She did not doubt that her objections would then have been expressed loudly and forcefully. Since Anne could no longer be considered a possible bride for her nephew, Lady Catherine did not find that the issue of Miss Bennet's admitted inferiority to other possible claimants to the title of Mrs. Darcy elicited overwhelming anger or distress. Miss Bennet was Darcy's choice; on that there seemed to be little doubt, given the ardency of the couple's embrace that she had observed. Therefore, she and the remainder of the Fitzwilliam family must either accept Miss Elizabeth Bennet as Darcy's wife or face a cleavage with the Darcy family. Her duty, therefore, was clear and she would not be gainsaid by Miss Bennet.
Lady Catherine de Bourgh arrived at the Lambton Inn only minutes after her absence from Pemberley was made known to Darcy. As she prepared to enter the inn she wondered, not for the first time, whether her course of action was desirable or even necessary but, recalling once more her impression of the Bennet family, she firmly put those reservations behind her.
While Lady Catherine's object - if it had been known to the company that greeted her - was perhaps laudatory, her manners were as imperious as ever. Upon admittance to the Gardiners' chambers, she sat for almost a minute gazing about with her usual condescending air and then, ignoring the Gardiners altogether apart from a curt nod of her head in their direction, demanded to speak in private with Elizabeth. Mr. Gardiner, offended at her presumptuous manner - although far from surprised at it, for she had barely deigned to acknowledge his presence the previous evening - refused.
"My niece is under my protection and I am reluctant to consent to any interview where I am not present."
"I am not to be dissuaded from my objective, sir. You would do well to remember your station and not obstruct me in this matter."
"And you, madam, would do well to remember that these are my chambers and that Elizabeth is my niece. While I am not insensible of the obligation that exists in regards to the service you have rendered our family, I will insist on civility. Again I must remind you that Elizabeth is under my protection and I do not take such duties lightly."
Lady Catherine was seriously displeased that a tradesman would contend with her on the matter and was about to remonstrate him; however, a glance at Elizabeth, who was watching her carefully, made her first hesitate and then decide to placate Mr. Gardiner's concerns. The change did not, however, encompass an apology, for Lady Catherine did not perceive anything wanting in her manner. If truth were told, she thought herself due an apology from Mr. Gardiner, congratulated herself on her forbearance in not insisting on one, and addressed him as placatingly as was possible for her.
"I do not," she declared stiffly, "intend any harm to Miss Bennet. I wish only to speak with her in private."
Mr. Gardiner looked at Elizabeth who, after several moments of consideration, nodded briefly. He turned back to Lady Catherine.
"My wife and I shall allow this conference and remove ourselves to our chamber; however, should I have cause to be concerned as to the direction of your conversation, do not doubt that I will return."
Lady Catherine sniffed and Elizabeth hid a small smile. Lady Catherine's behaviour was much as it had been in Kent. She was overbearing and officious, ofttimes rude and discourteous, and rarely given to consideration for the feelings of anyone else. Lady Catherine could never see that she gave offence. In many respects, Elizabeth realized, Lady Catherine was as blind to propriety as her own mother. Nonetheless, her understanding was significantly greater than Mrs. Bennet's and her advice, despite being frequently unwanted and occasionally nonsensical, was often useful and her criticisms, valid. She was a curious mixture. On the one hand she would make the pretentious claim that she would have performed excellently on the pianoforte had she made the effort to learn (which she had not), while on the other hand her claim of a superior understanding of music had proven itself when discussions turned in that direction. Elizabeth could also remember clearly her Ladyship's opinions regarding to the Bennet sisters being raised without a governess and all being allowed out into society at the same time. Elizabeth had defended her family's actions; however, she had not been blind to the merits of those criticisms. If Lady Catherine wished to converse with her in a civil manner, Elizabeth had no reason to deny her the opportunity to do so. It may have been her imagination - a wish perhaps being mother to the thought - but she had observed Lady Catherine closely during the prior evening and could not rid herself of the impression that her ladyship was not her usual self - that some matter had disturbed her composure. She seemed diminished somehow and Elizabeth could not account for it.
The Gardiners removed themselves, shutting the door to their chamber firmly. The conversation between their niece and her visitor would be private, although should the volume of their voices rise unduly, Mr. Gardiner was determined that he would intervene on Elizabeth's behalf.
The two ladies looked at each other, both apparently expecting the other to initiate the conversation. Elizabeth was certain that Lady Catherine's visit involved her engagement to Darcy but, as her ladyship had requested the interview, Elizabeth felt no obligation to begin the discussion. The silence continued until a barely perceptible rise in Elizabeth's eyebrows seemed to prompt Lady Catherine to speak.
"I am sure, Miss Bennet, that you must know the reason for my desire to speak with you."
"I believe I understand the subject which you wish to discuss; however, I confess I am quite at a loss at what you expect to achieve."
"Miss Bennet, you should know that my character is celebrated for its frankness and I shall not depart from it now!"
Elizabeth bowed her head ever so slightly in acknowledgement.
"I must believe, after the disgraceful exhibition I observed between you and my nephew last evening, that he has made you an offer of marriage. He has, has he not?"
Elizabeth flushed. She had believed them to be unobserved and instead, to have had such a witness! She forced herself to respond.
"And you have accepted him! Of course you have. You could hardly aspire to a better match. My nephew's fortune and consequence would make a refusal impossible."
Elizabeth wondered what her ladyship's reaction would be if informed that a refusal was far from impossible and had been tendered some months in the past at Hunsford. However, such a confession could not be made and she doubted that Lady Catherine would even believe it unless it fell from the lips of Darcy himself. She knew she should not feel affronted that Lady Catherine would ascribe mercenary motives to her acceptance. Society, in general, would be unable to see otherwise. She chose not to respond.
Elizabeth's silence did not discourage Lady Catherine, whose glare made clear her displeasure with the matter. "My nephew," said Lady Catherine, "could certainly have done much better in selecting a wife. I cannot understand why he would choose someone whose consequence is so much lower than his."
Elizabeth made no effort to repress the touch of asperity in her voice when she finally replied.
"That question should, I believe, be addressed to Mr. Darcy, your Ladyship. But he has made his choice and if I am that choice, why should I not accept him? I have done so. While I do not expect you to believe or understand my reasons for doing so, I can assure you that Mr. Darcy's fortune and station were of importance to me only insofar as he could provide me and our family with a comfortable subsistence. His character is everything that is admirable and I could not have chosen a finer man to be my husband."
Lady Catherine huffed. "Your reasons are your own. I suggest that they remain so, for many will consider you a simpleton if they learn of them."
"I care not for the opinion of society as long as Mr. Darcy is satisfied with his choice."
"Well I do care! You will, by this marriage, be connected to the de Bourgh and Fitzwilliam families. More importantly, your family will be connected to ours. It will not do!"
"Whatever my connections may be, Lady Catherine, if your nephew does not object to them, they can be nothing to you."
"Do not be foolish, Miss Bennet. Your position in society as Mrs. Darcy will suffer from having such low connections. My niece's reputation will suffer despite what my nephew claims. She. . ."
"Mr. Darcy has spoken of this to you? No, that cannot be so for you sought confirmation from me of our engagement. I wonder at your seeking it from me and not your nephew? What can you mean by it?"
The oddity of Lady Catherine approaching her about the engagement and making no attempt to dissuade her from it suddenly struck Elizabeth. In fact, her ladyship, while decrying the attachment, appeared to have accepted it. The silence arising from Elizabeth's contemplations afforded Lady Catherine the opportunity to press her case.
"You are a pretty, genteel sort of girl. Too impertinent for the general approval of society but I suspect that is part of your charm to my nephew. He has ever been a mystery to me in that regard. My sister has for years paraded society's finest young women before him without his deigning to give any a second glance; he has chosen you instead. I will not profess to understand his choice but neither will I attempt to gainsay him on it. If you had a respectable fortune and adequate connections, I could remove to Rosings content, if not fully satisfied. No, this situation will not do! I am most seriously displeased and. . ."
Elizabeth had listened to this diatribe with no little irritation and suddenly felt compelled to interject.
"With all due respect, Lady Catherine, allow me to repeat myself. If my fortune and connections are acceptable to Mr. Darcy, they can be nothing to you!"
"Foolish girl! Do not interrupt! Have I not said I will not gainsay my nephew? That does not mean we should be satisfied with your circumstances. It would be best if you cut all ties with your family, for their circumstances will do naught but lower yours in society. You certainly could not bring your youngest sisters into society - consider the behaviour of Miss Lydia, attempting to elope with the penniless son of a steward - and your mother would be an embarrassment to us all. She has no more sense than my goose of a parson!"
Elizabeth could barely constrain a burst of surprised laughter. She had never thought Lady Catherine was aware of Mr. Collins' blatant stupidity, for she had always given the appearance of enjoying his flatteries; perhaps her pleasure had been of a different sort altogether. Elizabeth wondered if she had misjudged her ladyship completely. Regardless, she must respond to such a demand and only one response was possible for her.
"Notwithstanding my family's behaviour, I shall never accept an estrangement from them. I assure you it is fruitless to importune me further on the matter."
Lady Catherine briefly considered the possibility that Miss Bennet would end her engagement should her nephew be convinced of the merits of demanding she sever her relationship with her family; however, Lady Catherine remembered that he had felt no compunction about inviting the Gardiners into his home and appeared to be on excellent terms with them. As well, he had met the Bennets, knew them well - almost certainly better than she did - and their behaviour had not dissuaded him from offering for Miss Bennet.
She huffed in exasperation. "You cannot intend to introduce your mother into society?"
"Mr. Darcy and I have not had an opportunity to discuss our future but I would hope to spend much of our lives here at Pemberley. My mother, my family, will be welcomed here, although my mother hates to travel and Pemberley is such a distance from Longbourn as to make travel difficult."
"You cannot be always in the country. Mrs. Darcy must take her place in society. Georgiana will be out in a year or two and must be supported and make her presentation." Lady Catherine looked down her nose at Elizabeth. "I dare say you will require assistance to carry out such a task. You have not been presented at court? No, I thought not. I would have heard. A voucher for Almack's is quite out of the question in that case. I suppose we must see to remedying that deficiency as well. I expect we shall require the assistance of my sister, Countess Matlock. Insufferable woman! How she can be on such good terms with Lady Castlereigh is beyond my understanding. It is well, I suppose, that it is so, although I do not understand how my sister can tolerate such incivility. Lady Castlereigh was unconscionably rude when I last spoke with her. I had not been treated with the respect my rank demands but she would hear none of it; and when I suggested improvements, she laughed! How she could have been placed in her position is beyond my understanding."
Elizabeth listened to this exposition with equal parts dismay and delight in the ridiculous. She had no particular desire to spend time amongst the ranks of the haute ton. Her exposure to the manners of Miss Bingley, and even those of Lady Catherine, did not promise more than brief amusement at such follies. She had endured Miss Bingley's discourtesy and that of Lady Catherine with tolerable ease, although the amusement had palled after several exposures. To endure months of such company was more than she could wish for and she could only hope that Darcy's acquaintances were more intelligent and courteous.
One thing puzzled Elizabeth greatly. It was a subject she had not canvassed with Darcy and perhaps should not raise it now with Lady Catherine; however, the latter appeared willing to support their engagement and her willingness to do so was a surprise given what Elizabeth had been told about her Ladyship's marital expectations for her daughter.
"Lady Catherine," she said cautiously, "I admit to confusion as to your intention of supporting my engagement to Mr. Darcy. I had expected you to strongly oppose it on your daughter's behalf."
Lady Catherine's posture stiffened even more and her countenance became forbidding. It was some moments before she replied and her tone made it clear that further discussion of the matter was unwelcome.
"My daughter's health does not allow her to marry."
Elizabeth nodded slowly. This answer would account for much of the change in Lady Catherine. To have been denied not only a long-held wish - the marriage of her daughter to Darcy - but also to know that her daughter's life might well be in jeopardy would dishearten the most resolute mother. And Lady Catherine was a mother and obviously possessed of a abiding concern for her daughter's welfare. Equally obvious was her desire to repel any consolation from others. Elizabeth could only suppose it evidence of her Ladyship's pride - her vanity - that such solace should be neither needed or wanted.
The privacy of their conversation was ended by the arrival of one who was greeted by Elizabeth and Lady Catherine with pleasure and annoyance, respectively.
Darcy knew his surmise was correct as soon as he arrived at the Inn, for his aunt's carriage was drawn up in the courtyard. In a matter of a minute or two he was mounting the stairs to the Gardiners' quarters. His aunt he could hear as soon as he arrived at the door although her words were impossible to understand. A sharp rap on the door brought a silence within and he could hear someone walking briskly towards the door. It was opened by Elizabeth and, if she was surprised by her visitor, she hid it very well. Darcy rather thought that his aunt's visit may well have inured her to further surprise. His welcome by Elizabeth would appear to suggest as much.
"Mr. Darcy! I am pleased to see you."
Oddly enough, Darcy thought, he could detect no sign of particular relief and he wondered if his aunt had been less disagreeable than was her usual wont. He took Elizabeth's hand and brushed his lips across the back of it.
"You are well?" He murmured.
"Of course she is well! I am not some hoyden come to harm her." declared his aunt.
Elizabeth's slight smile mirrored Darcy's.
"May I inquire as to where your aunt and uncle are, Elizabeth?"
"They have allowed Lady Catherine and me to converse in private."
"Ah, I see, and has this. . .conversation been interesting?"
"You do not need to ignore my presence, Nephew! Come sit here and we shall continue this discussion."
"Might I inquire as to what exactly is being discussed?"
His gaze was directed at Elizabeth, whose shrug was supplanted by the response of Lady Catherine.
"We had not gotten to the particulars of the matter but I intend to assist Miss Bennet's acceptance into society. I will not allow Mrs. Darcy to reflect poorly on our families. It shall not be endured. I. . ."
"Excuse me, Aunt, but I do not believe Miss Bennet could possibly reflect poorly on our families. There. . ."
The touch of Elizabeth's hand on his arm forestalled his next comment. His displeasure with his aunt's presumptuousness warred with his surprise at her willingness to support Elizabeth and their marriage.
"I would be pleased to consider any advice that your aunt might wish to offer." asserted Elizabeth.
Darcy gazed at Elizabeth thoughtfully. If his aunt was oblivious to the careful phrasing of Elizabeth's statement, he was not.
"Indeed," said he, "advice is always welcome." He turned to his aunt, "However, all this is rather precipitous as I have yet to gain Mr. Bennet's consent."
Lady Catherine sniffed - Elizabeth rather thought her ladyship's sniffs conveyed a wealth of meaning and this one was dismissive - and replied, "Nonsense! Miss Bennet is one and twenty, is she not? I thought so. Her father's consent is irrelevant. Should he deny it - he is not so insensible - the wedding could be held here at Pemberley. In fact, I think it should be held here regardless. I believe. . ."
Elizabeth was not to learn Lady Catherine's further thoughts on the matter for at that moment the Gardiners, having heard Darcy's voice, chose to leave their chamber and join their company. After the usual civilities were exchanged, Darcy spoke to his aunt, "The matter of where the wedding is to be held will be discussed after I secure Mr. Bennet's consent. For now, I believe we should return to Pemberley. The Gardiners and Miss Bennet are to join us after midday and I have some business that I must complete before their arrival." He turned to Mrs. Gardiner, "I trust that we have not interfered with your plans for the morning?"
Mrs. Gardiner assured him that they had not been inconvenienced; however, Lady Catherine was not as yet ready to quit the matter.
"You are to stay to dinner, Miss Bennet? I thought so. We shall announce the engagement tonight! We. . ."
"I would prefer to have Mr. Bennet's consent and blessing, Aunt, before any such announcement is made."
Mr. Gardiner nodded in approval but his effort to voice his support was overridden by her ladyship.
"Nonsense!" Said she, "You, Mr. Gardiner, as Miss Bennet's nearest relation, will announce it tonight. Or perhaps it would be best, as a matter of rank, that I undertake the office. Yes! That will do very well! And we," looking at Mrs. Gardiner, "shall accompany Miss Bennet to review the Mistress's chambers to see what changes are required. I shall not be dissuaded on this, Nephew."
Darcy looked at his aunt askance and wondered how he could oppose her. He was quite sure that she would not hesitate to make such an announcement even without his consent. He saw Elizabeth's rueful smile and surmised that she had come to the same conclusion. A slight shrug of her shoulders signalled her unwillingness to contest the matter. He remained silent and Mr. Gardiner, observing the silence of his niece and Darcy, concluded correctly that neither would oppose Lady Catherine. He too remained silent.
After a few more polite exchanges, Lady Catherine and Darcy made their departures. Once assured of privacy, Mr. Gardiner turned to his niece.
"And what was Lady Catherine's purpose?"
Elizabeth explained, as best she could, the substance of their conversation and her aunt and uncle were confounded by the revelations.
"She means to assist you in society?" exclaimed Mrs. Gardiner when she had finally marshalled her thoughts. "That is most unexpected and I can only wonder at it, given her manner toward us."
Elizabeth shrugged in bewilderment. "I confess to being amazed myself. I had not thought her to be so. . .obliging."
"It will ease your introduction for a certainty. For her to be so - agreeable is hardly the appropriate word - so tractable is almost beyond belief."
"Lady Catherine does like to be of use." replied Elizabeth.
Posted on 2016-12-04
If Elizabeth supposed that the confrontation with Lady Catherine would allow the remainder of the day to unfold in relative peace and quiet, she was to be disabused of that notion. Her visit to Pemberley began innocuously enough. Upon their arrival, she and Mrs. Gardiner were greeted unexpectedly by Mrs. Reynolds, and Mrs. Reynolds only. Elizabeth's hopes of being allowed to enjoy a walk with Darcy amongst the gardens of Pemberley lasted no longer that the time it took for Lady Catherine to be notified of her presence. As Darcy had been called away to the far reaches of the estate on urgent business, Lady Catherine suffered no qualms in commanding Elizabeth's time and attention, for there was a matter of significant importance that required immediate attention.
"You cannot allow," declared her Ladyship, "the Mistress' chambers to remain in their current state. It has been thirty years since my sister decorated those rooms and they are in a shocking state. Is that not so, Mrs. Reynolds?"
Mrs. Reynolds maintained an air of careful neutrality. "The late Mrs. Darcy redecorated extensively at the time of her marriage but the rooms were updated several times before her passing."
Lady Catherine humphed.
"Perhaps we might see the rooms?" urged Mrs. Gardiner quietly.
Mrs. Reynolds led the way up the stairs and informed them that Mr. Darcy had requested that the Mistress' rooms be prepared for their inspection. As they were ascending the stairs they could hear a male voice, clearly angry but muffled by distance and the closed door of the room in which the argument was taking place. Elizabeth thought she could also discern a female voice also expressing itself vehemently. The room at issue was in the guest quarters and as the Bingleys were the only resident visitors, she supposed that Bingley and his sisters were the ones engaged in the dispute. Mrs. Reynolds ignored the disturbance, although Elizabeth thought she detected the woman rolling her eyes. Lady Catherine bestowed nothing more than a slight sniff and muttered something under her breath. Elizabeth did not believe her comment to be charitable.
Elizabeth was musing about the cause of the Bingleys' argument and rather suspected that it had to do with his sisters' treatment of her elder sister; however, she was not allowed to explore that train of thought for they had arrived at their destination.
"These are the Mistress' chambers, and while they have been unused these fifteen years, we have ensured that they remained ready for use." said Mrs. Reynolds.
The rooms were most elegantly furnished with light wallpapers which, if slightly too ornate for Elizabeth's preference, were not unpleasant and lent an air of brightness to the rooms. She determined that, although some of the furniture did not match her tastes and could be replaced and others were in need of being reupholstered, she was satisfied with such modest improvements at this time.
Lady Catherine, however, was far from equally pleased and gave her opinion that the rooms were in need of extensive renovation. As Elizabeth, from her remembrances of Rosings Park, had no doubt as to what such an initiative might entail and, since she had no desire to live surrounded by such ostentation, she was only prevented from a firm rejection of such advice by a wish to avoid offending Lady Catherine.
"I believe," said Elizabeth cautiously, "that for now I will be satisfied to make only such modest changes as will render the rooms comfortable for my immediate use. I will certainly consider the need for a major renovation and your counsel," she nodded in Lady Catherine's direction, "will be then appreciated. At present, however, I see no reason to expend monies unnecessarily before I have determined exactly how I wish these rooms to look." She turned to Mrs. Reynolds and began identifying those changes she currently wished to be made.
Surprisingly, it was Mrs. Gardiner who raised a concern. "Lizzy, it is not unexpected that a new bride would change her private rooms to suit her preferences and most new husbands would wish her to do so."
Elizabeth gave a slight smile, "I am not displeased with these rooms at all. I rather think Lady Anne's tastes and my own are not too dissimilar."
Lady Catherine humphed again, and Elizabeth looked at her inquiringly.
"My sister and I could never agree on this matter and I dare say you will be as obstinate as she in defending her preferences. Yes, I can see you will! Well, so be it, I shall not further contest the matter. But you must rid yourself of the carpet in the dressing room. It has faded horribly."
Elizabeth walked back into the room and inspected the carpet again. It clearly had faded though not from use but, as she had just rejected her soon-to-be aunt's advice on the need to make wholesale changes, she saw no reason to be stubborn on a matter of trifling importance.
"I agree" said she.
A thorough discussion followed and the opinions of Mrs. Gardiner and Lady Catherine sought as to a design appropriate to the room. When it concluded, Mrs. Reynolds was left with an appreciation for the sense and sensibility of the young lady who was to become the next Mistress of Pemberley.
Having dealt with the matter of the Mistress' chambers, Lady Catherine was disposed to remove to her rooms to rest, for she had risen earlier than was her usual custom. Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner were directed to the drawing room which, upon entering, they found to be inhabited by Miss Bingley only. As that lady was not inclined to lay aside the journal she was reading and, in fact, pointedly ignored the two intruders, Elizabeth and her aunt were more than content to sit and converse quietly as far removed from Miss Bingley as possible. After passing only a few minutes so engaged, a maid entered with a note for Mrs. Gardiner from her husband asking for her company as soon as possible, a request honoured at once by that lady.
Mrs. Gardiner's departure appeared to spur Miss Bingley into activity, for the former had not been gone more than a few minutes when she rose from her seat and approached Elizabeth. Miss Bingley was angry, frightened, and increasingly desperate; all three conditions could be traced back, directly or indirectly, to the Bennets of Longbourn. She would have had no regrets had she never heard the name or made that family's acquaintance.
Her brother had clearly been out of sorts the day before. He had scowled whenever he was in her company or Louisa's and had avoided them as much as possible, frequently removing himself from a room as soon as they entered as though he could not bear to be in their presence. Why he should behave so only became clear the next day when he commanded their presence in the sitting room assigned for their use. He had the audacity to call her behaviour into question when her only concern had been to assure that her brother married appropriately. Was it not the responsibility of any family member to act to ensure that the family station in society was enhanced? Why he could not see that marriage to Jane Bennet would not accomplish such a goal and would indeed tarnish the Bingley name and indisputably damage his sister's own marriage prospects, was beyond Caroline's comprehension.
He had placed his own happiness above hers, called her selfish and insincere and then informed her that he intended to return to Netherfield to court Jane Bennet. It could not be tolerated and her anger and words had risen to equal his, until he made a final declaration that had left her speechless. He would not allow his sisters to accompany him to Netherfield, would not welcome them into his home and intended to place Caroline into her own establishment if the Hursts did not take her into theirs. It was the latter that frightened her the most, for Caroline's entry into the upper levels of society depended upon her brother, or rather upon her brother's close acquaintance with Darcy. If Charles did not escort her thither, she could not go. Not only would she lose access to that portion of society of greatest importance, she would also not be in Darcy's company. How was she to secure him if such happened?
Caroline was not sure how her brother had come to be informed of her actions towards Jane Bennet; she could not suppose that Darcy would do so. It was, therefore, to be assumed that he had spoken to Miss Elizabeth Bennet. It was this supposition that fuelled her ire as she approached Elizabeth who only became aware of Miss Bingley's proximity by the peremptory and harsh question addressed to her.
"What is your purpose in coming here today?"
Elizabeth's eyebrows rose in amazement at Miss Bingley's presumption. Her tone indicated a degree of entitlement quite at odds with her status as a guest of the Darcys. Nonetheless, Elizabeth was not inclined to match such incivility.
"I was invited to tour some of the rooms." It would not, she thought, be in her interest to disclose which rooms and Miss Bingley was hardly one with whom she would share any confidences.
Miss Bingley sniffed and Elizabeth barely managed to suppress a bubble of laughter at the thought that Miss Bingley ought to request instruction from Lady Catherine as to the proper method of expressing disdain by a sniff. Elizabeth returned her attention to the book she had taken up upon her aunt's removal. Miss Bingley, however, was far from inclined to cease the expression of her displeasure at Elizabeth's presence. She had had every hope that during this visit Darcy might be convinced to offer for her. Her attentions to him had been assiduous, but he seemed unaware of them and had given no sign that her company was preferred above all others. Caroline was not so blind as to be oblivious to the fact that another had claimed those attentions which properly belonged to herself. It had been the greatest of shocks to learn that he had encountered Elizabeth Bennet while she was touring his estate and an even greater shock to observe his pointed interest in her. She had thought his attraction to that lady had expired, and to see it reignited so thoroughly was disturbing in the extreme. She could see her hopes and aspirations crashing around her and desperation made her unwise. Hoping to quell any expectations that Elizabeth might harbour, she chose to adopt a proprietary air.
"I am sure," Caroline finally replied, "that you cannot have seen a finer house during your travels. I quite believe Pemberley to be the finest estate in the country although," as she cast her eyes around the room, "it suffers from the lack of a woman's hand."
"Indeed. It is quite outdated in its furnishings. The next Mrs. Darcy. . ." and here she straightened her shoulders slightly as if to settle the burden of such a responsibility, "the next Mrs. Darcy will undoubtedly wish to remodel the rooms extensively."
Elizabeth's eyebrows rose once more and she surveyed the room. Her initial impression was, she knew, unaltered. The room was in need of no change. She smiled slightly.
"Indeed?" She replied.
Miss Bingley required no further encouragement and spent the next few minutes explaining eloquently and in detail the changes she deemed desirable, as though by the expression of such she could render the probability of it occurring more likely. When she finally paused for breath, Elizabeth contented herself with saying, "I am sure that Lady Catherine would agree with you."
Miss Bingley looked at her disdainfully. "And how, might I ask, would you comprehend her Ladyship's preferences on the matter?"
"Lady Catherine's house, Rosings Park, is furnished much as you have described."
Miss Bingley gaped at Elizabeth. "You have visited her ladyship?"
Elizabeth bent her head slightly in acknowledgement.
"And how could that be? You do not move in her circles."
Elizabeth bristled at such blatant rudeness. "I do not claim to do so; however, last Easter I visited my cousin, Mr. Collins, who married my good friend Charlotte Lucas. Mr. Collins, though you are probably unaware of the fact, holds the living of the Hunsford parish from Lady Catherine. We were, on numerous occasions, invited to Rosings Park."
"Mr. Collins?" murmured Miss Bingley, attempting to recollect the gentleman. "Was he not the rather. . .interesting dancer?"
Elizabeth smirked, "An exhibition better to observe than endure."
"I thought you were to marry him. It would have been a most suitable arrangement for you and certainly appropriate in terms of your relative stations in life." Elizabeth could not miss the buried sneer in Miss Bingley's voice.
"Perhaps, but as I was of a different opinion, Mr. Collins directed his attentions to my friend."
"And your mother accepted this? She was most outspoken on the matter at the ball. I can easily remember her praises of Mr. Collins. Such a sensible man, I recollect her saying." Miss Bingley made no pretence of masking her sneer as she spoke. "I understood that she had great expectations of your marriage to him."
"It is the fortunate circumstance then that it is my father's prerogative to have the final word in such instances."
Elizabeth, tiring of this pointless conversation, returned her attention once more to her reading and pointedly attempted to ignore Miss Bingley. If she hoped that Miss Bingley had exhausted her ire, she was disappointed. The latter could not allow Elizabeth to have the last word.
"You shall not succeed! He will not offer for you and you would be well advised to give up this fruitless pursuit of Mr. Darcy."
Elizabeth just smiled and continued to read. Shortly thereafter Miss Bingley, having failed in her attempt to discourage Elizabeth and seeing the object of her ire resolute in her attention to her reading, left the room to seek her sister's company. Elizabeth could only sigh in relief and was about to go in search of the Gardiners when Georgiana entered the room.
"Ah, I am glad to have found you. I am surprised that you have not ventured out to walk the pathways on such a day as this."
Elizabeth smiled, "I had hoped to do so with your brother but am to be disappointed as he has been called away."
Georgiana, who had been taken into their confidence regarding his engagement, was quick to offer first her apologies for her brother's absence - a tenant's home had suffered some damage from a small fire - and then her services as a replacement.
"I would," she added quietly, "much appreciate the opportunity to know my new sister better."
Such an earnest request could hardly have been denied, and since Elizabeth was equally of a mind to become better acquainted with Georgiana, they soon found themselves walking comfortably down one of the paths which entered a beautiful walk by the side of the water. Every step brought forward a nobler fall of ground, or a finer reach of the woods to which they were approaching; but it was some time before Elizabeth was sensible of any of it for Miss Darcy could not, with the benefit of privacy, restrain herself in expressing her pleasure at gaining a sister. It was some time before Elizabeth realized that they were following the path where she had first encountered Darcy at Pemberley. Though she still managed to respond appropriately to her companion, her thoughts were fixed on wishing that Mr. Darcy was was there with them.
At length, however, the remarks of Miss Darcy roused her, and she felt the necessity of appearing more like herself and directed her thoughts to her present companion and not the missing one. They entered the woods, and bidding adieu to the river for a while, ascended some of the higher ground; where, in spots where the opening of the trees gave the eye power to wander, were many charming views of the valley, the opposite hills, and occasionally part of the stream. After some time, while descending among hanging woods, they came to the edge of the water at one of its narrowest parts. They crossed it by a simple bridge which suited the general character of the scene. It was a spot less adorned than any they had yet visited; and the valley contracted here into a glen that allowed room only for the stream, and a narrow walkway amidst rough coppice-wood which bordered it. Elizabeth remembered wishing to explore its windings; but knowing that Pemberley would soon be her home, resolved to defer that pleasure until it could be undertaken with her husband. The thought of Mr. Darcy as her husband again made her eager for his company and so, when they had crossed the bridge and Miss Darcy perceived their distance from the house and indicated a desire to return, Elizabeth readily agreed. They bent their steps in that direction, making their way towards the house on the opposite side of the river.
The two young ladies returned through the formal gardens that backed onto the house and there encountered Mrs. Gardiner enjoying a leisurely tour under the direction of an under-gardener. As this activity captured the interest of the younger ladies, Mrs. Gardiner was quick to welcome their company, and for the following half hour they strolled slowly, allowing their guide the enjoyment of the full exercise of his knowledge. Eventually the warmth of the day persuaded Mrs. Gardiner to retreat to a shaded area, and her companions required little encouragement to join her.
Miss Darcy arranged for refreshments and they were enjoying their cool drinks when their company was expanded by the arrival of the gentlemen returning from fishing. Elizabeth was unhappy but not surprised that Mr. Darcy was not of their number, although she had hoped that his task might have been completed by now. Miss Darcy, sensitive perhaps to her mood, murmured. "My brother is not likely to return much before dinner. The farm he had to visit is some seven miles from Pemberley."
Elizabeth smiled, a trifle wanly, and spoke equally softly. "I understand completely. The estate's demands must have first importance."
Elizabeth resolved, not for the first time that day, to put aside her thoughts of Darcy and concentrate her attentions on her companions. Mr. Hurst did not remain with them long, leaving after only a few minutes to refresh himself. Elizabeth, from her previous experience with the gentleman, rather suspected him to retire to the most comfortable sopha available. Mr. Bingley remained with them for slightly longer but appeared to be labouring under some heavy concern for his conversation lacked its usual cheerfulness and he lapsed into contemplative silence on more than one occasion. After one such period of abstraction he made his excuses and wandered into the house leaving Elizabeth to wonder as to the cause of such behaviour from a gentleman whose disposition tended more toward garrulousness than otherwise. Yet, to inquire was impossible. She could only suppose that he remained discomposed as a result of the fierce argument she had inadvertently overheard earlier that day; certainly, Miss Bingley had been unusually rude and condescending in their brief encounter. It was all too much to make sense of at present, she decided, and returned her attention to her current companions. The concerns of the Bingley family would undoubtedly make themselves known soon enough.
Elizabeth now viewed that evening's dinner with mixed emotions. As she had not had the pleasure of Darcy's company all afternoon, to be able to sit at his right hand and converse for the duration of the meal she anticipated with pleasure; however, the announcement of her engagement to that gentleman might, given the presence of Mr. Bingley's sisters, prove uncomfortable. That Miss Bingley would be disappointed she understood; how that disappointment would be expressed was uncertain. Although Elizabeth knew the lady to be quite aware of proper behaviour, she had experienced enough of her disrespect to wonder at what might ensue. She could remember very clearly Miss Bingley's conduct in her mother's company; her disdain for Mrs. Bennet had been poorly concealed. Among such a party as surrounded the table tonight, similar behaviour would not pass unnoticed or ignored. Unfortunately, the situation was beyond her control and in the hands of Lady Catherine, who was determined to announce the engagement - despite the protests of her nephew and Mr. Gardiner - and make the announcement, she certainly would.
Elizabeth rather doubted that Lady Catherine, who had decided that the formality of rank should be observed when people were led into the dining room, was aware of the impact it would have on one person in particular. Mr. Hurst's arms were thus encumbered with Lady Catherine and his wife as he led the procession, while Mr. Darcy followed with Elizabeth and his sister. Mr. Bingley had the honour of escorting Mrs. Gardiner while Mr. Gardiner did the honours for Miss Bingley and Mrs. Annesley. As Elizabeth was being seated to Darcy's right, she happened to observe Miss Bingley's countenance and wondered if anyone could look more affronted. To be so slighted - even unintentionally - was clearly hard for that lady to bear. Miss Bingley was herself so impressed by her fortune and education at a distinguished seminary as to quite forget her roots in trade, but to be required to allow the wife of a man engaged in trade to take precedence over her, was beyond her comprehension. If she had questioned her Ladyship on the matter, she would have been given to understand that while Mrs. Gardiner was indeed the wife of a tradesman, she was also the daughter of a gentleman which, in Lady Catherine's opinion, gave her precedence over Miss Bingley. It was, perhaps, not the more common understanding, and Elizabeth could only suppose that her Ladyship's age and dislike of Miss Bingley's presumptuousness formed the basis of it.
Fortunately, Elizabeth could see that her uncle was more amused than otherwise by Miss Bingley's manner; he took no offence at the barely perceptible pressure of her hand on his arm (as though she might be contaminated by such proximity) and seated her with perfect equanimity. Elizabeth could only hope that his genial nature would not be overly taxed during the meal for she doubted that Miss Bingley would deign to converse with him any more than was absolutely necessary and then only with condescending civility. It was, she thought, fortuitous that he had more amiable company near enough to support discourse. She rather suspected that Miss Bingley would be largely silent for the course of the meal, as her other dinner partner was Mr. Hurst, whose conversational skills had ever proved wanting.
Of Lady Catherine's ability to sustain a conversation there had never been any question and she was as ready as ever to assume the burden of discourse. It was difficult for Elizabeth to speak with Darcy or Georgiana without attracting an intervention by either Lady Catherine or Miss Bingley. While the former's interruptions were annoying, they did not occur with the purpose of disruption and prevention. However, Miss Bingley, ill-placed as she was at the table, nevertheless desired to inhibit any meaningful intercourse between the Darcys and Elizabeth. As frustrating as it was, they did listen politely to Miss Bingley's frequent interjections and provided brief, courteous responses before returning to their own discussion.
Elizabeth paid only cursory attention to the other conversations around the table, although she could not help but smile at the increasingly glazed expressions on the countenances of Mr. Hurst and Mr. Bingley as they endured Lady Catherine's harangues. By the time the last course of the meal was being cleared from the table, she was sure both wished to be anywhere else.
As for herself, she had sat in anticipation of Lady Catherine announcing her engagement, but had not been apprised of when that would take place. The pleasure she felt at the public acknowledgement was accompanied by a fear that it would be met with an expression of such disapprobation and anger by Mr. Bingley's sisters as to detract from that pleasure. As the meal progressed and Miss Bingley's incivility increased, her concerns multiplied until she reached the point of finally dreading the announcement's taking place. Lady Catherine, however, had no intention of being swayed from her course and, as the last plate was being carried out of the room, rose from her seat. Mrs. Hurst, expecting that the ladies were to withdraw, also began to rise; however, Lady Catherine's words made her plop most inelegantly back into her chair.
"I have an announcement!" declared her Ladyship, "But first, recharge your glasses."
Once this was done to her satisfaction - accompanied by the brief (for Lady Catherine) instruction on the proper method of doing so - she continued.
"I have the singular honour, as his next closest relative, of announcing the engagement of my nephew, Fitzwilliam Darcy to Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
She raised her glass, swept it in the direction of the happy couple and took a sip. Everyone but Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst did likewise. It was, as Elizabeth feared, too much to expect that Miss Bingley could control her reaction to such unsettling news which overset all of her aspirations.
"NO!" She cried, "It cannot be!" She glared at Elizabeth and turned what could only be termed an imploring gaze at Darcy. "Surely. . ."
An interruption came from a most unforeseen source.
Elizabeth had never thought to hear Mr. Bingley speak so authoritatively.
"You will cease these. . .these objections, Caroline, and you will cease them immediately. Be silent!" Mr. Bingley had risen as he spoke and leaned towards his sister, impaling her with his glare. Miss Bingley returned his glare but subsided into her chair and clamped her lips so tightly as to make them the thinnest of white slashes across her face.
Bingley turned to Darcy and Elizabeth. "Allow me to offer my sincere congratulations to you both and an apology for my sister's unseemly behaviour. I shall be returning to Netherfield to take up residence shortly. I would hope, Darcy, to have you accompany me."
"I have decided to travel with Elizabeth and the Gardiners to Longbourn. Georgiana will follow when your visit is complete."
Lady Catherine, who viewed Miss Bingley's display with considerable displeasure, finally chose to have her share of the discussion.
"I am most seriously displeased at such a blatant display of ill-breeding." she stated, glaring at Miss Bingley so forcefully as to leave no doubt as to whom she referred although, after a few moments, she turned her glare upon Mrs. Hurst. "I cannot suppose, Mr. Bingley, that you would wish to inconvenience my niece by the continued presence of those who have so clearly insulted the Darcy and Fitzwilliam families. Mr. Hurst, I suggest you take your wife in hand; this is not fitting behaviour for one who presumes to the rank of a gentlewoman."
Mr. Hurst nodded numbly, clearly adrift and becalmed in foreign waters.
Mr. Bingley nodded in compliance. "You may be assured that we will not hinder the plans of our hosts. My sisters and Mr. Hurst will depart on the same day as the Gardiners. They may go to London or to the north. Which is it to be, Hurst?"
Hurst grunted, "North."
"So be it. Darcy and I shall remove then to Netherfield. Miss Darcy may thus accompany us."
Lady Catherine was, however, not finished. "My niece and Miss Bennet will travel with me and I shall come to Netherfield. You will require a hostess, shall you not, Mr. Bingley?"
Bingley was obviously nonplussed at Lady Catherine's declaration but could see no way to refuse. He nodded and voiced his acquiescence weakly.
Darcy and Elizabeth sat bemused by the speed with which matters had been settled, and Darcy finally recovered his composure sufficiently to inquire of his aunt, "You do not plan to return to Rosings Park then, Aunt?"
"Of course not! I have much to do in Hertfordshire. And. . .well, more of that later."
Elizabeth's eyebrows rose. She wondered at what was comprised of "more" in Lady Catherine's mind. If she travelled with her Ladyship, she rather thought the information would be vouchsafed to her and suspected that she might not be altogether pleased with what she learned. Another matter was a more pressing concern, however, and she was not about to be gainsaid on it.
"I travel at the invitation of my aunt and uncle. It would, I am convinced, be not only rude but improper to not return in their company."
Lady Catherine was not well pleased at being so disobliged but not all her remonstrance - not even the disclaimers weakly tendered by the Gardiners - could dissuade Elizabeth from her resolve. Darcy refused to join in support of his aunt, allowing that the matter was one that properly lay in Elizabeth's province to decide. After no small amount of argument, Lady Catherine was required to accept Elizabeth's decision and was later heard to grumble, "That girl is as stubborn as any Darcy." Which, when relayed to Darcy, accorded him no small degree of satisfaction.To Be Continued . . .