Posted on 2016-11-01
Elizabeth's wedding day dawned chilly and grey, with a biting winter wind that persisted well into the dark December evening hours. It was three days after Christmas, and the bride herself scarcely noticed the inclement weather. At least, it did no more than enhance the feeling of despair, grief, and resignation that had already taken root in her weary heart.
Her father was dead. Not a week after the Netherfield Ball, while Longbourn still bustled with the excitement of militia officers, the upcoming holidays, and the abrupt departure of the Netherfield party to London, Mr. Bennet had been thrown from his horse one morning on his return home from his solicitor's office.
At first his injuries had seemed hardly serious, and the gentleman himself had been highly skeptical of the need to rest in bed at all. But the following day he was very pale and weak indeed. The surgeon was sent for, and it was soon discovered that Mr. Bennet's fall had resulted in a great deal of internal bleeding of the abdomen. There was nothing to be done but to wait and to hope for the best. Surrounded by his wife and daughters, Thomas Bennet died but one week later.
Heartbroken over the death of a beloved if imperfect father, and greatly concerned for the well-being of her mother and sisters, Elizabeth faced a dilemma. Mr. Collins, who had seemed after her initial refusal of his offers to turn his attentions toward her friend Charlotte Lucas, now redoubled his efforts to persuade his young cousin to marry him once the news of Mr. Bennet's death became known.
He promised Elizabeth that Mrs. Bennet and her yet unmarried daughters would want for nothing, in particular their home at Longbourn, if she would consent to be his wife. Too worn down by grief and worry to refuse, and against the protestations of her dearest sister Jane, Elizabeth at last relented, and joylessly agreed to marry her cousin.
The wedding breakfast was a subdued affair. Indeed, only Mr. Collins seemed to be genuinely enjoying and congratulating himself. The Gardiners had departed for Hertfordshire as soon as the news of Mr. Bennet's death had reached them. They would remain until Mr. Bennet's affairs had been put in satisfactory order, and the details of the entailment had been firmly settled between his estate, Mr. Collins, and the Bennet family.
And so nothing remained, but for Elizabeth to leave her family and her childhood home, and to become the wife of a man she hardly knew and little respected. She comforted herself with the knowledge that she had secured the welfare and respectability of her mother and sisters, and that Jane would soon come to her in March for the Easter season. The prospect of making her new home in Kent was not without interest, as it was purportedly an exceptionally lovely county. Perhaps amidst its woods and hills she would find some sort of relief for her present grief, and begin to imagine some way of carrying on.
"Oh!" declared Miss Bingley one evening after dinner, gracefully replacing her cup in its delicate saucer and pursing her elegant mouth in the manner of one quite pleased with herself. "I have had a letter from our dear Miss Bennet in Hertfordshire!"
The company, assembled at Mr. Bingley's London house for an intimate gathering acknowledging the new year, paused over their after-dinner refreshments to pay heed to their hostess.
Miss Bingley, having successfully garnered the attention of the whole room, tastefully concealed the triumphant smirk poised to creep across her countenance. "Poor Jane," she lamented, adopting a compassionate expression for Mr. Darcy's benefit, "she is quite an orphan!"
Mr. Bingley's cup clattered against its saucer, spilling a great deal of its contents onto the rug - as well as his trousers - without his evident notice. "An orphan, Caroline? Whatever do you mean?"
"Why, poor Mr. Bennet is quite dead, dear brother!" proclaimed the lady, barely obscuring her enthusiasm for this piece of macabre news. "He had a terrible accident not a week after we were all gone away from Netherfield, and the poor man died but six days later!"
A pained silence settled over the room. There were those, Mr. Bingley chief among them, so distraught for the plight of the Bennet family that speaking at such a moment was impossible. Another contingent, less charitably inclined, was eager only to disguise as pity an intense curiosity for the subject at hand.
"At least we may wish the Bennets joy on one account," continued Miss Bingley after a time, casting another side-long glance at Darcy, who in spite of himself was quite captivated by her remarks, "Miss Elizabeth Bennet, it seems, is newly wed!"
"Good god," pronounced Darcy under his breath, almost involuntarily, immediately searching out his sister's eyes. Georgiana in turn, knowing none of the details, but immediately sensitive to her brother's distress, did her best to offer him a comforting gaze. She did not know the Bennets, or indeed much more about them than that they were a recent acquaintance of her brother's, but having lost her own excellent father at a tender age, she was inclined to sympathize heartily with this family of unfortunate ladies.
"Miss Elizabeth Bennet?" exclaimed Charles Bingley, looking once more with renewed astonishment at his sister. "Why, we knew of no gentleman in Hertfordshire who seemed poised to offer for and be accepted by Miss Elizabeth. Who can her young man be, Caroline?"
"Well, whether the man is young or a gentleman may be the matter of some argument, dear brother, but her husband is none other than Lady Catherine de Bourgh's clergyman -- that Mr. Collins we all wondered at so much at the ball at Netherfield! He is the nearest male relation, the heir to Longbourn, and he is now husband to Mrs. Elizabeth Collins!"
At this, Darcy abruptly rose from his seat and strode to the nearest window, unable to bear Miss Bingley's thinly veiled exaltations. Elizabeth Bennet, married! he lamented internally, running a hand roughly across his chin in distraction. Married to a man so profoundly unworthy of her. . .
"My dear, how very extraordinary!" said Mrs. Hurst at last. "Indeed I am very sorry for dear Jane - such terribly sad news - and for Miss Eliza as well, of course. I suppose she felt a strong obligation to keep Longbourn in the family, and her sense of duty does her credit."
"Oh, indeed!" chimed Caroline. "I only wonder at Eliza being Mr. Collins's choice of bride rather Jane, who besides being the eldest, is quite easily the prettiest girl in the county. . . "
Now Bingley stood up abruptly from his place. "Pardon me - I am feeling unwell, that is - pardon me." And he strode from the room, still holding his cup and its flooded saucer in his hand.
Darcy could not bring himself to believe it. Surely it was impossible.
Perhaps Caroline Bingley, manipulative woman that she was, had invented the whole story as a means of dissuading her brother from any remaining attachment he might harbor for Jane Bennet. But surely there were less fantastic inventions she could have concocted to achieve such a purpose. Damn, damn. It must be true.
Sleep evaded him. Upon returning to his own townhouse that evening, Darcy bid his sister an affectionate, if distracted, goodnight. He spent the remainder of the evening pacing his bedroom, then the library, like a caged animal.
Poor Elizabeth! With her quick wit and self-assurance, Darcy had never imagined he would pity her anything. But from his close observation of her in Hertfordshire, he had also gathered that she had been very fond of her father, who despite marrying the silliest woman in the county, had, it seemed to Darcy, been a clever man genuinely attached to his family. To grieve a beloved father and at once be compelled to marry his thoroughly disagreeable heir was a cruel fate for so brilliant and spirited a woman.
Could he bear to see her in such circumstances when he went into Kent at Easter? It was inconceivable that they should not meet while he was at Rosings and she at Hunsford. His aunt, he knew, enjoyed bestowing her hospitality and condescension on simpering clergymen and anyone else likely to remind her of her own exalted place in her own mind. Mr. and Mrs. Collins would undoubtedly be invited to dine at Rosings while Darcy and his cousin Fitzwilliam were in residence for just such a purpose.
The feelings Elizabeth had awakened in Darcy had remained strong since his return to London, despite many valiant attempts to concur and forget them. Now, it seemed, fate had done his work for him, and he should be forced to forget her, a married woman, whether he did so of his own volition or not.
And his connection to Rosings, as hers to Hunsford, now seemed fixed for the considerable future. If he did not meet with her this Spring, he would certainly meet with her next. No, better to face it now, to offer her his condolences and his sympathy, and to forget her finally and forever.
Few things were of more comfort to Elizabeth than the company of her sister Jane. It was with great emotion, then, that she welcomed her beloved sister to her new home at Hunsford.
"Dear, dear Jane! How I have wanted you!" exclaimed Elizabeth, fervently clasping her sister's hands.
The two women sat together in Elizabeth's sitting room shortly after Jane's arrival. Mr. Collins had been called away suddenly by some whim or other of Lady Catherine's, and the sisters had the parsonage to themselves.
"And I you! I have counted the days since you left Longbourn in anticipation of our being together again! Mamma and Mary and Kitty and Lydia all send their love. You are so very much missed at home, my dear." Jane looked anxiously into her sister's face. "How are you Lizzy?"
"Well enough," Elizabeth sighed, not quite convincingly. "I miss Hertfordshire terribly." She pressed her sister's hands and looked away. "And Papa."
"Yes," agreed Jane in barely more than a whisper. "And Papa." The two were silent for some time, struggling with emotion.
"And Mr. Collins?" asked Jane finally, when she had gained the courage. "Is my brother well?"
"Oh indeed," replied Elizabeth, almost flippantly. "For him to be unwell would be a great inconvenience to Lady Catherine."
"I admired the parsonage gardens very much as we drove up to the house. Are they his handiwork?"
"Mr. Collins tends the gardens himself, and spends a good deal of every day in them."
"The exercise must be beneficial," offered Jane, helpfully.
"Yes. . . I encourage him to be in his garden as much as possible."
"And then, he has to walk to Rosings nearly everyday - "
"Indeed. I encourage him in that as well."
"Walking is very beneficially exercise."
"And when he is in the house," continued Elizabeth, "he is mostly in his book room, which affords a good view of the road whenever her ladyship's carriage should drive by."
Jane nodded, beginning to understand that the domestic situation at Hunsford was pretty much as she had apprehended. "And you prefer to sit in this parlor?"
"Yes. So it often happens that a whole day passes in which we've not spent more than a few minutes in each other's company."
"But there is so relatively little to tell about my quiet life here. How does Mama? And Mary, Kitty, and Lydia? Besides your own, Mary's letters are the only ones remotely decipherable, and I must confess that lately I find it difficult to get through even a letter from Lydia without weeping a little!"
Jane smiled sadly. "I'm afraid Mama is still much as she was when you left Hertfordshire. Her spirits are very low, and she laments your departure often. Of course, we are all very grateful to Mr. Collins for his kindness in allowing us all to remain at Longbourn."
"Yes, Mr. Collins is kindness itself. . . and our sisters?"
"Still very low, too. We are thankful to have our home, Lizzy, but - " Miss Bennet's eyes filled suddenly with tears, "but it will never be the same home again."
The two girls wept together quietly for a time. Elizabeth was first to dash the tears from her eyes, and once more reached for her sister's hands. "Enough now, enough. We have shed so many tears already, you and I. Let us leave them for now. Tell me of Meryton gossip! Is Wickham still destined for the heiress Mary King? How many hearts to date has the regiment broken? And please tell me that Charlotte has run away with a handsome stranger!"
Jane laughed in spite of herself, drying her eyes, and the two sisters passed the remainder of the afternoon, if not in high spirits, at least in the comfort of each other's reassuring and beloved presence.
"Can you tell me why Mr. Darcy keeps staring at me? What do you think offends him?"
Colonel Fitzwilliam regarded his hostess with surprise, at first concerned that she was really affronted, and then relieved to see a faint flash of subdued humor cross her face.
"My cousin is an enigmatic man, Mrs. Collins," replied the Colonel good-naturedly. "I should be extremely reluctant to represent myself as any sort of expert on the workings of his mind. But I daresay he would be a fool to think anything but the very best of you."
Lady Catherine's nephews had arrived in Kent the previous day, and now sat drinking tea in the parlor of the parsonage with Mr. Collins, the lady of the house, and her eldest sister.
Mr. Darcy, who had been attempting to hear as little of Mr. Collins's incessant conversation as possible, now rose abruptly from his seat and approached the table where his cousin sat with Elizabeth.
"I must express how truly sorry I am for the loss of your father, Miss Bennet, and for the pain it must cause your entire family. I understand he was very much loved by you all."
Elizabeth hardly knew what affected her more - his unexpected expression of what appeared to be genuine sympathy, or the uncorrected use of her maiden name. A slip of the tongue, perhaps?
"Thank you, sir." She replied haltingly, when she found her voice. Their eyes met and held a moment too long, and she turned away with sudden confusion and emotion. She could not yet trust herself on the subject of her father's death without losing the thin veil of civility and disinterest with which she now found it necessary to shield her true feelings on nearly a constant basis.
For his part, Darcy strode to the window, stood there restlessly a moment, then reclaimed a seat next to Jane. That lady favored him with a gracious but melancholy smile, also visibly touched by his condolences. The two eldest Bennet girls, once lively, charming, and amiable, were shadows of their former selves. The degree of their transformation pained Darcy to a point that surprised and unsettled him.
"Mrs. Collins's father was indeed an excellent man," continued Mr. Collins, eager to amend Mr. Darcy's error, but unwilling to openly correct his patroness's nephew. "The loss of such a man, opined Lady Catherine just the other day, is not easily to be remedied. . ."
"Miss Bennet, I understand you are only very recently arrived in Kent yourself," remarked the compassionate Colonel Fitzwilliam to Jane, keenly aware that a new topic was required, and ready, as ever, to converse with a pretty girl. "Is this your first visit?"
"Yes, indeed Colonel," replied Jane, relieved to have something mundane to speak of. "It is a very beautiful county, and I look forward to joining Elizabeth on some of her favorite walks."
The two continued on in this pleasant way, with an occasional interjection by one of the others, for roughly half an hour. Elizabeth, inclined to be silent, found her gaze frequently drawn to the figure of Mr. Darcy on the settee next to her sister, always to find that he was already regarding her with his usual inscrutable expression. Soon the time came for the gentleman to return to Rosings, and the party bid each other a kindly farewell. Mr. Collins then returned to writing his sermon, thoroughly pleased with all aspects of the interview.
Weary from the day's visitors and events, Elizabeth sat at her vanity table that night, distractedly brushing her hair. Grief made her so easily tired these days, stubbornly hanging about the edges of every thought and interaction, muting her interest in all the things she used to find diverting.
Her father had taught her to do that - to find amusement in the little everyday follies and foibles of neighbors, friends, and acquaintances. To do so now, especially where her husband was concerned, was painful to the point of impossible. Sometimes, in moments of particular self-reproach, she wondered whether it was her father's death or her own resultant circumstances that distressed her more. Many tears shed over the question had not yet resolved it, and Elizabeth was resigned to shed yet many more.
How strange to see Mr. Darcy again today. She felt as though it might have been a different lifetime when she danced with him at Netherfield - a happier, untroubled lifetime.
She was reluctant to admit it, but Darcy's words to her that afternoon had soothed her. She felt his expressions had been sincere, heartfelt, even kind. His own father and mother were both dead, she knew, though she was aware of none of the particulars. While her previous opinion of his character had not been generally favorable, she did know enough of him to surmise that he was a serious, thoughtful man, to whom the family bond was significant and profound. The sympathy of such a man at such a time comforted her.
A knock on the door that separated her bedchamber from that of husband startled her from these reflections. The quiet, but unmistakably hopeful voice of Mr. Collins followed the knock from behind the door with a request. "My love, are you abed? May I come to you tonight?"
In a response to this question becoming troublingly familiar, Elizabeth felt her body tense and a cold dread settle like a heavy weight in the pit of her stomach. She paused some moments to steady her voice before replying, "Mr. Collins, I am not well tonight. Forgive me, I am not at all well."
He paused a moment, Elizabeth supposed to reconsider his strategy. "Elizabeth, dearest Elizabeth. . . have I not been patient? Have I not done everything you have asked of me?"
Elizabeth sighed silently and cast her gaze heavenward. In a firm, steady voice she rejoined, "my dear, I would beg you to remember your promise."
There was silence again for a moment on the other side of the door. Just before she began to hope he had been rebuffed for the evening, he began anew, "my dear, Lady Catherine assures me that it is not good for a man and wife to be - "
"You promised me you would not force my hand until my grief would allow it," continued Elizabeth, feeling her throat tighten in anger. "I agreed, on your insistence, to wed before my full season of mourning had elapsed. I agreed to keep your house and serve your parish. I agreed to be a useful, obedient, and dutiful wife to you, and to one day bear you an heir. But out of respect for my dear father's memory, and in consideration of the delicate state of my own feelings, I cannot consent to anything further before I am once again complete mistress of my own heart and mind."
This speech, the rough components of which had been formulating in Elizabeth's thoughts for some days, seemed to have its intended effect. He would not press her further. "As you wish, my dear. Of course, you speak rightly. Goodnight."
She was reminded suddenly of how he had once accused her of attempting to increase his love by suspense "in the usual manner of elegant females." Perhaps such a ridiculous notion will sustain him now, she reflected mirthlessly.
Posted on 2016-11-07
In deference to Elizabeth's ongoing period of mourning, Mr. and Mrs. Collins had not been often required since their return to Hunsford to dine at Rosings with her ladyship. With the advent of her ladyship's nephews and Mrs. Collins's eldest sister to Kent, however, Lady Catherine's curiously would now brook no opposition. They were all summoned forthwith to dinner.
Elizabeth, on the authority of having endured two or three meetings with her husband's patroness, disliked her ladyship. She was interfering and unpleasant in a way only the very rich could successfully carry off. She talked and advised a great deal without the benefit of any real information or insight, and preferred the company of those compelled to flatter and agree with her to anyone unobligated and uninclined to do so. But, to Rosings they would go.
Mr. Collins was excessively eager for a further opportunity to display his pretty, genteel wife and her even prettier, genteel sister for Lady Catherine's appraisal. It suited him to fancy himself the gracious and benevolent head of the Bennet family, and it was a role of which he hoped her ladyship would take special note.
Lady Catherine declared herself pleased with Miss Jane Bennet, and expressed her sorrow that so charming a young lady should lose her father at such a crucial period for her marriage prospects. She instructed Mr. Collins on no uncertain terms that his chief concern should be to find his beautiful young cousin a suitable husband as soon as the family's mourning period was at an end.
The stuff of Mr. Collins's reply was such that Elizabeth, cheeks flushed and eyes burning with indignation, was forced to look away from her husband's place at the table to conceal her ire. In so doing, her gaze caught Mr. Darcy's once again. His expression was dispassionate and detached as usual, but once more, he held her gaze and, despite the confusion that soon crossed her face, would not look away.
Dinner passed with no greater awkwardness than this exchange afforded, and when the final plates had been cleared, the ladies rose to take their coffee in the drawing room. Upon the return of the gentleman, Colonel Fitzwilliam seemed more than happy to continue engaging Jane in pleasant conversation. She responded cordially, but it was clear, even to Darcy, that her heart was not likely to be touched by the admittedly charming Colonel. Darcy thought briefly of his friend Bingley. Miss Bennet was a modest woman, despite her great beauty, and yet, Darcy wondered whether this evident disinterest in his cousin as a suitor was not entirely due to the melancholy of a daughter having recently lost her father.
When coffee was over, Colonel Fitzwilliam, turning his attention from the elder sister to the younger, reminded Elizabeth of her promise made the day before to play to him. After some gentle encouragement from that gentleman, she was persuaded to sit down at the instrument. Lady Catherine listened to half a piece, and then talked, as before, to her other nephew. The latter indulged her silently a few minutes, then moved with his usual deliberation towards the piano-forte.
Elizabeth saw him approach, and at the first convenient pause, turned to him with a subtle but diverted smile. "You mean to frighten me, Mr. Darcy, by coming in all this state to hear me?"
"Not at all," he replied genially, buoyed by this glimpse of her former facetiousness.
"My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me." Her fingers wandered about the keyboard in a modest string of scales and chord progressions, having finished the first piece but not yet ready for another.
"I have no doubt of that."
"You question Darcy's motives, Mrs. Collins?" asked the Colonel, grinning and ready as always to tease his cousin.
"Mrs. Collins could not really believe me to entertain any design of alarming her," replied Darcy to Fitzwilliam, without taking his eyes from the pianist. "I have had the pleasure of her acquaintance long enough to know she finds enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which are not her own."
Darcy's provoking reply caught Elizabeth unawares, and she looked up from the keyboard to search his face with curiosity. Was he teasing her? "Your cousin," she said presently with a little incredulous laugh, "would teach you not to believe a word I say, Colonel Fitzwilliam." Darcy's expression remained unchanged - a challenge? "I must say, Mr. Darcy, your remarks are as impolitic as they are ungenerous, for they provoke me to retaliate by disclosing to your cousin the particulars of your sins in Hertfordshire."
"I am not afraid of you," said he.
"Pray, what have you to accuse him of?" rejoined the Colonel, almost gleefully. "I should dearly like to know how he behaves among strangers!"
Elizabeth, looking mischievously up into Darcy's expression of quiet amusement, was ready to voice her critique of his behavior at the Meryton assembly ball, when her husband's affected voice rang out from across the room.
"My dear, I hope you do not bother Mr. Darcy. He is wanted here, by Miss de Bourgh. Why have you stopped playing? Her ladyship is eager for more music."
"Yes, indeed, Mrs. Collins, continue!" commanded Lady Catherine. "Darcy, come here. Your cousin Anne has not had the benefit of your conversation all evening. Fitzwilliam will turn Mrs. Collins's pages."
All three at the piano were immediately deflated by this unwelcome interruption. Darcy, casting a long look back at Elizabeth, noticed her face was flushed in anger again, but that she seemed resigned to comply. Without another word, he strode back across the room to his aunt's side.
"Well, never mind, Mrs. Collins," said the amiable Colonel, when Darcy was seated. "We will press him to make an account of himself another time. Here, I wonder-- do you know this one?"
Elizabeth began to play again, hoping the task of performing would distract her from the uncharitable feelings which her husband's interference had inspired. The latter gentleman made his own case more difficult, however, by rising a few minutes later to join his wife and her companion at the instrument. He spoke loudly and at length to the Colonel about his lovely young wife's talents, drawing compliments from the Colonel the gentleman might otherwise have given easily, but under present circumstances were forced and awkward.
Irritated, Elizabeth refused to look at either gentleman, pretending to be more engrossed in the music than she really was, playing as loudly and forcefully as she dared in an attempt to drown out the unpleasant remarks of her husband. Mr. Collins, oblivious to all this, merely raised the tenor of his voice to the Colonel, who endured the whole scene with the patience and fortitude of a saint. Darcy, ignoring his aunt and his cousin Anne, observed the scene at the piano-forte from his place across the room, and regretted again how so exceptional a woman could be yoked by circumstance to such an abject ass.
That night, returning to the parsonage in her Ladyship's carriage, Elizabeth wondered at the exchange between herself and Darcy. He and the Colonel had provided a pleasant enough distraction from the now familiar feelings of sadness for her father, disgust of her husband, and boredom in her current situation. But there was another feeling, one that fluttered timidly somewhere between her heart and her belly, that she could not identify.
The next afternoon, restless and irritable, Darcy set off on a walk. With no particular destination in mind, he found himself wandering through the woods near the parsonage.
The determination with which he had entered Kent, to forget Eliza Bennet, was failing miserably. The image of her face --now melancholy where it had once been merry, still painfully beautiful as ever to him-- was constantly before his mind's eye.
Perhaps he had been naive to think he could forget a woman by thrusting himself into her presence, but what could he do? Her husband was so shockingly unworthy of her, only to prove it further every time he opened his mouth. Darcy longed to comfort her as a devoted husband should comfort a beloved wife, to gather her in his arms and to share her sorrows, to lighten the burden of her grief-- but this possibility was forever closed to him.
His thoughts were interrupted by an unexpected sound coming from somewhere up ahead, like a sudden breeze, or a woman . . . was it sighing? On closer inspection, Darcy realized it was the lady of his thoughts herself. She appeared not to have noticed him, and was seated on a fallen log several yards ahead, in a kind of alcove some ways off the main path. Indeed, had he taken a few steps forward or back, he would have missed her altogether through the thick cover of trees.
He could not help himself but approach her. She was quite alone, and as he neared her, he began to understand why - she was weeping quite openly. He paused a moment and considered returning to Rosings undetected, to give her some privacy, but the sound of her cries was instantly heart-wrenching. Tears streamed down her face, and her shoulders shook with the force of her emotion. Here was a woman genuinely heartbroken.
Darcy was in an agony of indecision. Dare he approach her? Dare he make his presence known? Or should he follow his original instinct and return to the house, leaving her in peace?
Her cries calmed somewhat, and she was now running her thumbs across her cheeks to dash away the tears collected there.
"It's alright, Mr. Darcy," she said, in a voice that was ragged from crying but entirely self-possessed.
Darcy froze, astonished. How long had she known he was there?
He gathered himself and emerged into the alcove, facing her. "Forgive me, madam. I've no wish to disturb you-- I was going along a favorite path through the park when I happened upon you."
"Please, do not trouble yourself. I am perfectly well now."
"Yes, I see."
They regarded each other awkwardly for a moment, neither certain whether or how to proceed.
"Perhaps I ought to apologize to you, sir," she said presently, "for spoiling your otherwise peaceful excursion with the alarming sight of a woman hysterical."
He could not tell if she was teasing him, referring sarcastically to her own display of emotion, or in earnest. "I know you are too sensible and even-tempered for actual hysteria. Moved by genuine greatness of feeling perhaps, but never hysterical."
She seemed mollified at this. "Thank you, Mr. Darcy. I hope you are right."
Propriety told him this moment was the proper one to end the interview amiably and be gone, but again he felt the stronger pull to remain with her. Her fine eyes had adopted such a perpetually sad expression. . .
"Forgive me, but-- When my own father died, I spent many days wandering aimlessly about Pemberley as if I had no thought or direction. I was the heir to the estate, but despite the myriad of responsibilities I acquired the moment of his death, I could think of nothing else but how dearly I missed the best man I had ever known. On occasion I wept as I had not done since I was a small boy. My mother was already gone, and I had never felt so alone in the world. But gradually, I remembered the many things and people that required my fortitude, my clear mind, my efforts, and while attempting to be the man that everyone expected me to be, I learned how to move forward, how to be happy again."
He spoke so easily, with so little effort. It seemed natural to share these intimate reflections with her. It was only at the end of this speech, when he noticed the surprise in her face, that he realized how much he had divulged.
"Your confidence honors me, sir. I am sorry you suffered so, but glad your grief was not insurmountable." She swiftly brought the wadded handkerchief in her hand to her eyes, dashing away a few remaining tears. "I'm afraid mine is still too new to think of much beyond my present unhappiness."
Was it her father's death alone she spoke of, or did "present unhappiness" include other realities as well?
"You must do as you see fit. Again, forgive my intrusion. Good day, madam."
And with that, he took his leave and was gone, leaving both parties to puzzle over the interview.
That afternoon, Elizabeth and Jane were sitting in the parlor of the parsonage when a letter arrived from Mrs. Bennet. It contained some news of Meryton goings-on, but was mostly concerned with the widow's own trials and tribulations, chiefly in reference to her youngest daughters Mary, Kitty, and Lydia. She was sure she would never get them all husbands before Mr. Collins turned them all out of Longbourn forever. And poor dear Jane! How shockingly Mr. Bingley had treated her in November, how callously! Mrs. Bennet was comforted only by the idea her eldest daughter would die of a broken heart, and then the undeserving gentleman would surely be sorry.
Both sisters, having read the letter, regarded each other with the kind of affectionate exasperation they reserved especially for their mother.
"Poor Mama," said Jane. "She worries a great deal of late."
"Yes, indeed," said Lizzy, sighing. "She needn't worry about the house, though. Mr. Collins has agreed on no uncertain terms to allow you all to remain until the last of us is married. And I am determined that he should not forget his promise."
Jane smiled sadly at her sister. "I have every confidence in you, Lizzy. But Mama, as you know, is not so easily persuaded."
"No, she is not."
Some moments later, inspired by the contents of her mother's letter, Elizabeth began tentatively, "What news from Caroline Bingley? I suppose she must have written since Papa. . ."
Jane flushed, and confusion, pain, and hope spread simultaneously across her countenance. "I wrote to her in December, just after-- your wedding. Her reply was everything kind. She expressed her condolences along with those of all her family. They are to remain in London until the summer."
"And Mr. Bingley. . .?"
"Is apparently a great favorite of Mr. Darcy's sister," said Jane, turning pale and setting aside her embroidery in agitation.
Elizabeth felt sorry to give her dearest sister pain, but was determined not to allow her to throw away all chance of happiness --as Elizabeth herself had been forced to do-- if there was the slightest chance it was still attainable. "Jane, dearest. . . do you - that is - do you still love him. . .?"
Modest, sensible Jane burst immediately into tears.
"My dear!" cried Lizzy, crossing the room to gather her sister in her arms.
"Oh Lizzy!" cried Jane. "I am certain he has forgotten all about me!"
"No, no! I am certain a man so much in love cannot have forgotten so easily! And if he has, he is an abominable simpleton unworthy of such a lady's love and such a lady's devotion!"
Jane's crying stilled somewhat. "You are too kind to me, Lizzy. But I know well enough that all is over between us. I was hardly worthy of his notice before, and now I am a poor, fatherless woman of no fortune and few connections. I shall hope for a man of sense and honor, of modest income - but I must dismiss any thoughts of love in marriage. I will never love anybody else as I could have loved him."
The two sisters sat in silence for a time, unable to deflect their thoughts from painful reflections on their former hopes for loving unions with worthy men. How much everything had changed in a matter of a few short months!
"But what of the handsome Colonel Fitzwilliam?" asked Lizzy presently, determined to cheer them both. "He certainly seemed taken with you last night. He is a younger son, but rich enough in his own right, to be sure. If you could withstand the disapprobation of the entire Darcy family, I daresay your union would be as happy as any could boast on entering the married state."
"Lizzy!" replied Jane, once more ready to laugh.
"Of course, you would have to bear Lady Catherine's displeasure, but I daresay she will reserve it most for whatever lady Mr. Darcy chooses over the pale and insipid Miss de Bourgh!"
"And as a faithful and loving sister, I would pledge to divert as much of that displeasure to myself as I could possibly manage - indeed her ladyship already seems poised to rebuke me whenever possible."
Jane smiled and laughed and soon was coaxed out of her melancholy. Even the return of Mr. Collins later that afternoon was not enough to much dampen the sisters' improved spirits. But Elizabeth had formed a quiet determined that her sister should not be forced to give up Bingley if she could help it, not if there was any chance he stilled cared for her as she did him.
"You're in love with her, aren't you?"
Colonel Fitzwilliam met his cousin's startled gaze with perfect equanimity, even smiling a little at the other's obvious surprise.
"Good god, Richard. What a fool you are."
The two men were riding out on the outskirts of the estate, a brotherly custom which had started between them in boyhood and continued to the present day. They were stopped at a prominent viewpoint, overlooking at a great distance the channel toward France.
The Colonel chuckled, evidentially pleased with this bit of detection. "I cannot say I blame you. She is uncommonly pretty, clever, and thoroughly charming. The oafish husband is, I grant you, an unfortunate impediment."
"Fool," repeated Darcy again, refusing to look at his companion.
"But why shouldn't you make love to her?" replied his cousin, laughing good-naturedly. "She is unlikely to get anything of that kind at home. Her husband is ridiculous, and more concerned with my aunt's notice and approval than his wife's. Surely it is a gentleman's duty, if he is so inclined, to please and entertain a woman so worthy of his attentions."
Darcy bristled, and turned his horse about, ready to gallop away. "Fitzwilliam, you are a fool, an ass, and I forbid you to speak of her in such a manner." He rode off swiftly in displeasure.
The Colonel, chastised, gave chase. When he at length caught up with Darcy, he was properly serious. "Good god, you do love her."
"No," said Darcy sternly, continuing to train his gaze on the path ahead. "I admire her, I think her an exceptional woman, but I do not love her. She is a married woman, Fitzwilliam."
His cousin knew better than to press him on the subject, and so relented - for the present.
"Jane Bennet is a remarkable beauty," he offered instead. "Were I not a younger son . . ."
"Hmmm. . ." replied Darcy, still somewhat crossly.
"Had she many admirers when you knew them in Hertfordshire?"
"Yes, I suppose. Bingley chief among them."
"Bingley, eh? Yes, of course! She is exactly the sort of woman to suit Bingley. Why did he not speak to her father? Or had the gentleman already. . ."
"No, no - we were had gone from Netherfield before the gentleman's death. No, Bingley was much taken with Jane Bennet, but despite the lady's beauty and other good qualities, he at last came to see that her family (with the exception of Mrs. Collins) was entirely unsuitable."
Fitzwilliam regarded the other man somewhat suspiciously. "He came at last to see, is it? . . . dare I venture a guess you had something to do with this realization of Bingley's, cousin?"
Darcy sat straighter in his saddle, but refused to give his cousin any sign of misgiving. "I had a hand in it, I suppose, yes, as did his sisters. But I acted only out of concern for my friend. Jane Bennet is loveliness itself, but I detected no signs of particular regard for Bingley in her behavior towards him last autumn. It seemed more likely than not that her encouragement of his attentions was chiefly at the behest and by the design of her calculating mother. I felt it my duty to warn my friend against a marriage that might begin with all promise of happiness but devolve into disappointed hopes and frustrated love." Darcy turned away and added under his breath, "Towards him I have been kinder than towards myself."
Colonel Fitzwilliam, whose original aim had been nothing more than to affably bait his often serious cousin, found he had in fact stepped far out of his depth. He felt genuinely sorry for Darcy, sorry for Jane Bennet, and sorry especially for Elizabeth Collins, but there was nothing to be done about any of it.
"I apologize, Darcy. I had no idea circumstances were anything like what you describe."
For the first time in the exchange, Darcy regarded his companion directly. He knew his cousin meant well, and had no desire to quarrel with him. "No matter, Fitzwilliam. Enough talk. Come, do you mean to laze about on that fat, old horse of yours, or do you actually intend to get any exercise?"
And with that, the two were racing back in the direction of Rosings.
Posted on 2016-11-21
"I summoned you here today, Mr. Collins, because I think it a wise thing for you to take on a curate at Hunsford."
Her ladyship summoned Mr. Collins to Rosings most every day, to discuss one crucial parish matter or another. On this particular Tuesday, they were seated in her Ladyship's morning room, and had been discussing at length, or rather Lady Catherine had been discussing at length, changes she would like to see effected in the near future. Mr. Collins was only too eager to hear his patroness.
"Indeed, your ladyship, I had begun to contemplate the wisdom of such an action myself --"
"You must choose a sensible young man, one who understands his place and does not have any modern ideas of his own. Someone useful and obliging, who appreciates the significance of our little sphere and is eager to do his duty."
"Naturally, your ladyship, such a man would be my only selection for such a post --"
"I am prepared to set aside a reasonable income for him, and when he is installed at Hunsford, you may have the comfort of knowing, whilst you are in Hertfordshire, that your duties here are being attended to."
"In Hertfordshire, your ladyship?" asked Mr. Collins with some surprise. "Do I understand that you think it right for me to turn my attentions more steadily toward my inheritance at Longbourn?"
"Why of course, Mr. Collins. Mr. Bennet has been dead nearly four months now, and while your generosity to his widow and his daughters is everything proper, you must begin to think of how you will manage your estate in the future to the benefit of yourself and of your heir."
Mr. Collins sat back in amazement. "Indeed, your ladyship, indeed!"
"I am sure your mother-in-law and sisters are very grateful to you, as they should be. You have been uncommonly magnanimous, I am sure. But I am also certain that it would be very detrimental for the Bennet ladies to come to expect that you will give precedence to their allowance and their dowries over any other concerns - you have your future heir's inheritance to think of now."
"Indeed," said Mr. Collins again, who despite his surprise at the topic of conversation, was never averse to being persuaded to consider his own interests. "I am most sincerely obliged to your ladyship - I had not thought of that at all."
"Yes, well, in my experience, newly married men with pretty young wives think hardly at all. But then, neither do men in general."
"Yes, your ladyship."
"Naturally, Mr. Collins, despite your obligations in Hertfordshire, I should like you to remain as head of this parish for as long as may be possible. You understand, I think, how things ought to be done here, and have none of those headstrong, independent ideas that some young members of the clergy may be tempted to inflict upon their congregations. I quite depend upon your loyalty and reliability, Mr. Collins."
This compliment was enough to send William Collins into rhapsodies of gratitude, which Lady Catherine endured for a few brief moments before curtly informing the clergyman the interview was over and he ought to return to the parsonage directly.
Mr. Collins was abuzz with excitement as he walked back to the parsonage. Lady Catherine had filled his head with new ideas, and he was all eagerness to share them with Elizabeth.
"My dear!" he called as he entered the house. "My dear, I have such news from Rosings!"
Mr. Collins burst into Elizabeth's sitting room, where she spent most mornings.
"My dear, listen to this! Oh, hello Mr. Darcy, how do you do, sir?"
The latter gentleman, evidently surprised at the sudden appearance of the master of the house, stood abruptly from his place on the settee next to Mrs. Collins.
"Sir." His patroness's imposing nephew bowed correctly, then turned to his hostess. "Good day, madam."
Elizabeth returned his farewell without looking up from her hands folded in her lap. "Good day."
Mr. Darcy strode from the room without another word, and Mr. Collins thought briefly of rebuking his wife for her apparent coolness to so grand a person as Lady Catherine's rich nephew, but his excitement for his news overcame this whim.
"My dear Mrs. Collins, I have had the most fascinating conversation with Lady Catherine this morning. What do you think she has said?"
Elizabeth raised a flushed face to her husband, and her eyes held a hazy expression. Mr. Collins was too excited to notice.
"She has authorized and encouraged me to find a curate!"
Elizabeth seemed to regain her self-possession. "But is not the parish too small to employ both a clergyman and a curate? Will there be sufficient employment here for such a young man?"
"Why indeed there shall, my dear, for when we are more often at Longbourn -"
"More often at Longbourn?" Elizabeth regarded him suspiciously. "How do you mean, Mr. Collins?"
"Well, Lady Catherine has put me in mind that soon we will want to take a more active role at Longbourn, and you know your sisters will not always be at home. . ."
"Has not my uncle Gardiner settled the details of my father's estate satisfactorily, and set up a suitable steward at Longbourn? Are not my mother's efforts to keep the house in good order sufficient in your estimation?"
"My dear Elizabeth, you misunderstand me!"
Elizabeth's tone and expression grew stern. "Then pray, what can you mean, sir?"
Mr. Collins had learned over the brief period of his marriage that Elizabeth could grow quite intimidating when she had the mind to be. He chose his words carefully.
"My dear, I am very happy to be in a position to keep your good mother and sisters in nearly the same position they enjoyed before the death of your esteemed father. But despite my regard for their happiness, indeed, as a natural extension of my love and respect for you, my dear, I cannot neglect my own interests - our interests! Lady Catherine has reminded me that very soon your sisters will be married and settled, with their own establishments. And when that is the case, my love, I am sure your mother would find it very hard to be always alone at Longbourn and vexed with the little annoyances of running such a place, with nobody but a lowly steward to depend upon. I should like to return to Longbourn after Easter - as soon as a suitable curate may be found. After all," he added, straightening to his full, if unimpressive height, "I am now master of Longbourn. I should like my heir to know the place he will one day inherit."
Elizabeth fixed her eyes on him throughout this little speech, her expression giving away nothing. But internally, her courage began to waiver. She had known she would not be able to distract him from thoughts of Longbourn very long, but she feared what Mr. Collins' greater role in the management of (admittedly) his estate might mean for the allowances and the well-being of her mother and sisters. And though she knew her duty, his reference to an eventual heir for Longbourn could not have been more distasteful to her.
"You must do as you think right. I cannot deter you. But I hope you will consult me, husband, before forming any serious designs."
Mr. Collins breathed an audible sigh of relief, and began his customary effusions. "Of course, dearest Elizabeth, of course! You are so very clever that I shall depend upon your judgment in these matters as in all others! . . . "
Unable to bear hearing him speak anymore on the matter, and whilst her husband still prattled away, Elizabeth excused herself to see to the first household matter she could think of.
The afternoon of the following day, as she took one of her now customary walks through the lovely woods near Hunsford, Elizabeth was still preoccupied by the conversation with her husband of the previous morning.
She had been under the impression, perhaps carelessly, that he had meant to leave off the matter of becoming true master at Longbourn somewhat indefinitely. But now that Lady Catherine had encouraged him otherwise, Elizabeth worried he might also be persuaded to assert his authority in ways that might have unfortunate consequences for her mother and sisters, such as diminishing their allowances, or even revoking his promise to let them remain in their home.
Until now, Elizabeth had been confident enough that Mr. Collins's fondness for her would provide sufficient motivation for him to abide by her wishes in matters of Longbourn, but she had no illusions that her influence on him was anything compared to that of Lady Catherine. What would she do if her husband's patroness persuaded him to effectively disregard her family's interest?
"How do you do, madam?"
Elizabeth was pulled from her thoughts by a voice becoming increasingly familiar.
"Mr. Darcy. You have found me out again, sir."
With a little half-smile of greeting, she continued walking by way of inviting him to join her, and accordingly he fell into step at her side.
They walked silently in this manner for some time. Elizabeth had been surprised to see the gentleman at the parsonage yesterday, when he called unexpectedly while Mr. Collins was at Rosings and Jane in the village to post a reply to their mother. He spoke of nothing of out the ordinary, inquired pleasantly enough after how she found running her own home, what she thought of the distance between Hunsford and Hertfordshire, and was gone immediately upon her husband's return. But there was something unspoken in the expression of his dark eyes and sternly handsome face that had at once intrigued and unsettled her, something that made her cheeks flush warmly and her heart beat ever so slightly faster.
Here in the outdoors, however, walking companionably together, she felt none of that agitation. "I have had a letter from my sister Georgiana in London," he said, presently. "She sends her condolences to you and to your mother and sisters."
"I hope you do not find her remarks presumptuous-- she was present when we learned your father had died from Miss Bingley, who'd had a letter from Miss Bennet."
"Yes, of course not. I am obliged to Miss Darcy. She is very sweet to be so kind to ladies she has never met before."
Darcy's smile was warm and genuine. "She is very kind."
Elizabeth was somewhat surprised at this exchange, given her memory of how Mr. Wickham had described the same young lady not four months earlier. Very proud and haughty he had called her, lamenting the change in her character between childhood and womanhood. But of course, a proud man himself, Mr. Darcy would perhaps be blind to these qualities in his sister.
"I envy your letter-- my own sisters are terrible correspondents, but for Jane. Though there is much on everyone's mind at Longbourn just now."
"Yes, naturally." This remark was followed by a longer pause, in which he seemed to be debating whether to embark on a particular course of conversation. Then he said, "have you and . . . Mr. Collins much thought of returning permanently to Hertfordshire?"
Elizabeth laughed a little, mirthlessly, at his having guessed the direction of her thoughts before their meeting. She stole a look up into his face to see whether he had any notion of having done so, but his expression was innocent enough. "Longbourn belongs to Mr. Collins now," she said, returning her gaze to the path before them. "It is his to decide whether and when to return to Hertfordshire. Of course, he is also very eager to please your aunt. He is not likely to consider the possibility of leaving Hunsford and her sphere forever without a great deal of painstaking deliberation."
"Indeed," replied Darcy, who, to his credit, seemed a little embarrassed at this indirect reference to his aunt's overbearing manners. After another long pause he inquired, "And you? Would you be pleased to return home?"
She could not explain it, but his ordinary, unassuming reference to Longbourn as her home threatened to bring tears to her eyes and created a small lump in her throat. "I should be pleased to return to the place I grew up, to the home and the people I loved so well. But everything is changed now. My present hope is to do what I can for my mother and sisters, and to faithfully remind my husband of his duty to provide for them in every eventuality."
"I am sure Mr. Collins is sensible of his duty to his relations."
"I hope you are right, sir. But I am also not unaware of the fact that many men find the burden of providing room, board, servants, and an allowance to a mother-in-law and four sisters to be more onerous and impracticable than the excitement of overseeing his own inheritance as he sees fit."
Darcy stopped and regarded her face to face. "Has he given you any reason to think so, madam?"
Elizabeth looked away, suddenly aware she had perhaps said too much. "Forgive me, Mr. Darcy. I am a little tired today and I fear I misrepresent myself to you--"
She began to continue walking, but he reached out and earnestly took hold of her hand. "Madam, please. You are the most sensible person I know. If your husband neglects his duty to care for those your father has left behind, he must answer for it."
Once again their eyes locked, and Elizabeth felt herself falling into something far beyond her current emotional depth to name or understand. "Sir," she said presently, still holding his eyes, "you are very good. But I assure you, I am equal to the task of protecting my family's interests."
He seemed partially mollified at this, but his grasp still held her fast. "I have no doubt of that, madam. However. . ." he sighed impatiently and pressed her hand, "I've no wish to impose upon you-- but if you should feel at any point you might benefit from the aid of an ally. . ."
Elizabeth was genuinely astonished at this, but could not find it within herself to refuse what seemed an open offer of help into the future. Would it be so very bad to be in Mr. Darcy's debt?
"You are too kind, sir."
"No, I'm not. Say you'll let me help you. If you need me."
Elizabeth looked up into his face again with renewed astonishment. Could he . . .?
"Elizabeth! Mr. Darcy!" called Jane, smiling warmly at her sister and the gentleman as she approached from the direction of the parsonage.
The two figures flew apart, abruptly turning their attention from the intensity of the previous moment toward the advancing Miss Bennet.
"Jane! I thought you were resting at the parsonage," said Elizabeth as her sister neared, finding for the second time in as many days that her cheeks were flushed and warm.
"I was. But then I thought one of your walks was likely to do me good, Lizzy, and I set off to find you. How do you do, Mr. Darcy?"
"Well, Miss Bennet, thank you."
"Will we see you at dinner this evening, at Rosings?"
The three exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes, until Darcy bowed correctly to the two ladies and excused himself to return to Rosings to deal with some pressing matters of business. Jane bid him goodbye very cordially, then looping her arm through her sister's, continued down the path. Elizabeth allowed herself to be led away, but she couldn't help a long glance over her shoulder, watching Darcy depart.
The gentleman had just joined them after dinner, and Colonel Fitzwilliam had once more taken a place at Jane's side. He was talking to her in his pleasant, humorous way, entertaining her with stories of his boyhood exploits at Rosings. The Colonel was everything kind and gentlemanlike, and Jane had been a pretty young woman long enough to know when she was admired. But while she found him a pleasant companion, even a handsome one, her heart remained untouched. There was another gentleman, one she was resigned never to see again, who had already claimed it.
"I fear my aunt at times makes tedious company," continued Colonel Fitzwilliam. "Your sister is marvelous with her - polite and obliging, but able to hold her own ground. Poor Darcy is less able to disguise his annoyance."
Jane turned her gaze across the room to where Lady Catherine sat enthroned in her usual place of honor. Her daughter was to her right, and Lizzy, Mr. Collins, and Mr. Darcy nearby. After the Colonel's remark, Jane had expected to see Darcy regarding his aunt with his usual thinly veiled coolness, but he was not. He was staring intently at Elizabeth.
"Lady Catherine is a kind hostess. I am sure that any appearance of tedium in her conversation is only due to her determination to give others the benefit of her experience."
Colonel Fitzwilliam regarded her with a wide smile and an incredulous but appreciative chuckle. "Good heavens, Miss Bennet. I do believe you could turn the devil himself into a saint if you had a mind to. You are truly an angel."
Jane blushed deeply at this teasing compliment, and insisted she was not, then let the Colonel continue to talk prettily to her until the evening was over. But after her notice of the way Mr. Darcy regarded her sister, she gave little heed to her amiable companion and paid more attention to the little drama that was playing out across the room.
Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins were continuing in their usual way to dominant the conversation - she to lead it and he to agree emphatically with everything she said - but Darcy seemed to completely disregard them. His eyes remained fixed on her sister, as if he were at once trying to memorize every contour of her features and will her to return his gaze. And though Elizabeth seemed generally determined to ignore that gentleman and offer little interjections to the conversation between her husband and his patroness when called upon, there was a moment when she gave it, turned her eyes to Darcy, and held his gaze for several long moments before turning away with a confused and distracted look and a flushed face.
Jane felt genuinely puzzled and alarmed by everything she had seen pass between them. Her sister had not seemed to take much notice of Mr. Darcy at all in the past, except to censure him. And yet, his looks were not those of an indifferent acquaintance. They were the looks of a man in love. She remembered how Charlotte Lucas had teased Elizabeth in the autumn about Mr. Darcy's admiration for her, but neither Lizzy nor anyone but Charlotte seemed to take such a notion seriously. Perhaps Charlotte's shrewd perception had been correct all along.
These reflections plagued Jane on the journey back to the parsonage that evening, and soon she resolved that the only way to ease her mind on the subject would be to speak to her sister about it. She retired to her room to prepare for bed, then tiptoed out into the hall to knock on Lizzy's door.
"Come in, Jane," replied her sister.
"I thought you would not be in bed yet," said Jane, slipping into the room. Elizabeth was still wearing her gown but had taken down her hair and was brushing it by the fire. She smiled at her sister.
"This is very nice - just like we used to do at Longbourn."
Jane sat down on the bed and smiled sadly. "Yes."
"I am sorry we've been obliged to dine at Rosings so many times since your coming. Lady Catherine, I'm afraid, is a determined hostess. But such an invitation cannot be refused."
"I don't mind, Lizzy, really. She means well, I think. And I have been enjoying the Colonel's company. I do begin to feel sorry for poor Miss de Bourgh, though. Lady Catherine is a most attentive mother, but . . . one can't help feeling that perhaps Miss de Bourgh would not be in need of so much medical attention if Lady Catherine were not so determined to give it to her."
Elizabeth laughed outright at this and regarded Jane with amusement lighting her eyes. "Goodness, Jane! That almost sounded like unkindness!"
Jane colored self-consciously, then laughed a little at herself. "Perhaps. Time and experience must change us all, I suppose."
Elizabeth laughed again. "Perhaps!"
"Lizzy, there is something I wished to speak to you about. . ."
"You needn't worry Jane," said her sister, her expression still alight with amusement. "Though Lady Catherine does dispense a great deal of advice, I've no intention of following much of any of it!"
Jane shifted uncomfortably "No, I know you are too stubborn, Lizzy, to let her ladyship persuade you to do anything you had not already designed to do yourself."
"Then pray, what it is it?"
Preparing to broach the uncomfortable subject of her purpose, Jane took a deep breath and reached for her sister's hands. "You know that no one admires your judgment and character as much as I do, or more dearly wishes to see you happy and loved. . ."
"Good heavens, Jane, you make me feel quite worried. What is it?"
Jane shook her head, feeling as though she had already made a bad beginning. "I have no wish to alarm you, Lizzy--- but, I fear what I have to say you will not like."
Elizabeth's expression grew serious. "Oh?"
Jane took another deep breath and squeezed Elizabeth's hands earnestly. "I feel I must put you on your guard, dear sister. Your own conduct is beyond reproach, but there are others, I think, who might secretly wish that it were not so."
Elizabeth had grown suddenly very quiet and very pale. "Whatever can you mean, Jane?" she asked in a voice barely about a whisper.
Jane let out a heavy sigh and solemnly met her sister's eyes. "I have seen the way Mr. Darcy looks at you, Lizzy. And while I am certain you have done nothing to encourage him, I am also certain that he is love with you."
Elizabeth pulled her hands abruptly from Jane's grasp, stood, and strode away to face the window. Jane saw her shoulders slowly rise as she took in a large, steady breath, as if to calm a host of rioting emotions.
"You are mistaken, Jane," she said presently, "if you think Mr. Darcy cares for me. Why, we have faithfully disliked each other for many months now."
"I do not think that can be true, Lizzy. Not on his side."
"Please, Jane-- "
"Believe me, I do not say these things to pain you," said Jane, growing tearful. "I would gladly be silent on the subject of my suspicions if I were convinced that no harm would ever come of them. But Lizzy you are a married woman now, married to a clergyman no less, and he is the nephew of your husband's patroness. I have no doubt your own conduct has been faultless, but there must not be even a hint of impropriety between you."
Elizabeth spun around, her expression agitated. "Of course you are right, but what do you propose I do? Shall I confront him?"
"No, no. But you must make it very plain by your behavior that you do not wish for or welcome his affections. I fear you must be a little cold to him, publically, until he understands."
Elizabeth's demeanor became grave once more and she turned again toward the window. "Yes, yes of course."
Jane rose from her place and crossed the room, wrapping her arms protectively about her sister's waist from behind. "I am sorry, Lizzy," she said, resting her chin on Elizabeth's shoulder. "I am sorry to trouble you with this. I hope you know I have only your ultimate happiness in view."
Lizzy laughed a little. "Yes, misery me. To be the only woman for whom Mr. Darcy's attentions are not the envy of all her peers."
"He is a sensible man, and a good one, I think. He must feel very deeply if he does so poor a job of hiding it."
Lizzy laughed again, and brightened enough to remark to her sister, "Do you mean to make me feel better or worse about all this?"
Jane colored but laughed with Lizzy. "I will say no more on the matter, then. I felt it my duty as your loving sister to share my observations, but I trust you to address the situation sensitively and honorably."
"Sense and honor," said Elizabeth in a love voice, growing contemplative. "What a funny world we live in Jane, where sense and honor will always be more highly valued than love."
"Be careful, Lizzy."
"I know. I will."
Determined to shake the melancholy mood of the previous evening, Elizabeth set out on her daily walk the next morning, rather earlier than usual, with Charlotte's latest letter. Charlotte's friendship and implacable good sense was always a cure when Elizabeth found herself in low spirits, and news of Meryton was just the sort of mundane comfort to calm her.
She had just finished the first side of the page when the sound of branches cracking under approaching footsteps interrupted her. In a panic that Mr. Darcy had again managed to meet her along the path of one of her walks, she looked up from her letter with wide eyes and a pounding heart. But it was in fact Colonel Fitzwilliam, alone, walking in her direction some distance up ahead.
When he was near, Elizabeth put away her letter and forced a smile. "I did not know you ever walked this way."
"I am making a tour of the park, as I do every year, and planned to end with a call to the parsonage. Are you going much further?"
"No, I should have turned in a moment."
"Then shall we walk together, Mrs. Collins?"
She turned and fell into step beside him. "You leave Kent on Saturday, Colonel?"
"Yes. Back to London, where Darcy's sister awaits us. Perhaps you do not know - I am her joint guardian."
This information surprised Elizabeth. "Oh, no I did not know. She is still very young, then?"
She smiled up at him, teasing. "I hope your charge does not give you too much trouble, Colonel Fitzwilliam. Young ladies of sixteen are full of headstrong notions, and if she has anything of the Darcy spirit, I imagine she likes to have her own way."
To Elizabeth's surprise, rather than responding to this comment with a good-humored reply of his own, the usually sanguine Colonel looked at her with concerned instead. "Georgiana is a sweet, serious, and obedient young person, and she has got over the most trying age. I hope you have heard nothing to the contrary, Mrs. Collins."
"No, indeed. In fact, she is a very great favorite with some ladies of my acquaintance who I think you know --- Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley."
The Colonel's countenance cleared and Elizabeth felt she was out of danger. "I know them a little. Their brother is a pleasant, gentlemanlike man. He's a great friend of Darcy's."
"Oh yes," said Elizabeth, dryly. "Mr. Darcy is uncommonly kind to Mr. Bingley and takes a prodigious deal of care of him."
"Yes, I believe Darcy does take care of him. I understand, that Darcy credits himself on lately having saved Mr. Bingley from the inconvenience of a most imprudent marriage."
The words had barely escaped his lips when he seemed to realize he had made a critical error. Elizabeth stopped suddenly and grew pale. "Did Mr. Darcy give his reasons for this interference?"
"Well, I've certainly no reason to believe my cousin would-- "
"And by what means did he endeavor to separate them?"
The poor Colonel looked quite miserable now. "Forgive me, Mrs. Collins. I fear I have been thoughtless and said more than I ought. Darcy told me a very few things in confidence, and I really know very little of the matter. If I have given you offense I humbly beg your pardon."
Elizabeth could hear her heart pounding in her ears, and felt tears threatening to flood her eyes.
"No, no," she said a moment later, rousing herself enough to respond. "Indeed, Colonel, do not trouble yourself on my account." She tried to offer him a reassuring smile but managed only a sigh. "Indeed, you may have done me a greater kindness than you know."
The gentleman gave her a contrite smile and silently offered her a conciliatory arm, which she accepted. The remainder of the walk back to the parsonage was largely silent. Rather than pay his call as intended, Colonel Fitzwilliam bid her a genteel goodbye at her door, and continued back to Rosings.To Be Continued . . .