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Part 1: Boating
Posted on 2013-03-23
"Oh, Jane!" declared Elizabeth. "What are men to sand and sea?"
Jane smiled. "I never knew it could be so beautiful," she admitted. "The paintings I've seen didn't do it justice."
"Justice? Not any more than mud pies do Hill's blueberry tarts justice!" Laughing, she began to run along the sand, albeit a bit awkwardly. Jane followed her, clutching her bonnet and joining in her laughter good naturedly. Lizzy's own bonnet fell off her head and several of her curls came undone or clung to her face as she came to a gasping halt. When she could breathe again she collapsed on the sand with a sigh of contentment.
"Lizzy," said Jane in mild reproach, "you'll ruin your dress."
"Oh, what is muslin to the superior pleasures of the earth? Jane, how I wish we had come here earlier. How glad I am after all that my Aunt and Uncle Gardiner could not go to the Lakes. I could never have gone there with you, you know, and everything is better with you nearby."
Jane seated herself in lady-like fashion on a nearby rock. "It is too bad about little Edward becoming so ill, though. I am sure no one ever wished to have to go the coast, or for such a reason."
"He is well, dearest," smiled her sister reassuringly. "The doctor said he was well indeed; he just needs some healthy air and sunshine to recover completely. It was so kind of Aunt Gardiner to wish to bring us along! I am just sorry that the whole time I was in Kent you were dealing with such anxiety."
"I thank God that none of the others got sick." She repeated her frequent comment of the last week. "And I am glad that I was there to help care for the children while our aunt was so distracted. Were you sorry to leave your friend so soon?"
"Not really. My time there did pass more pleasantly than I had expected. I enjoyed Charlotte's company very much, and the frequent visits from Colonel Fitzwilliam were very agreeable, but I believe I have had enough of Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine to last me another year at least."
Jane looked rather slyly. "You must tell me of this Colonel Fitzwilliam. He sounds like a most pleasant man."
"A very pleasant man indeed," she agreed with a laugh, and slight color on her cheeks. "A most gentlemanly man, with all the charm and manners which his cousin lacks."
"I am sorry you should still dislike Mr. Darcy so much. Surely he was not uncivil to you?"
"Oh! No more than to everyone else. He was generally uncivil; generally silent and uncommunicative, that is. I must say he treated me to his glare rather more often than the others, but at least he never said anything slighting to me that I noticed."
"But you enjoyed speaking with the colonel."
"Oh yes. We talked on all manner of subjects. I don't know that I've ever had the opportunity to converse with a man who had such a well-informed mind."
"And his father is an earl?"
"A real life earl. Now, Jane, don't start talking like our mother!"
"Of course not, dear. But I cannot help but wonder if he might have formed an attachment to you."
Again she blushed a bit. "I do not think so. Oh, he came often, but there wasn't really anything else for them to do, you know. Why even Mr. Darcy came often!"
"I imagine you were the main attraction for both of them, Lizzy. Why else would they have called so often? Surely not only to see the Collinses."
"Well we shall each agree to think as we please on the subject. You'll begin to sound like Charlotte next." She stood up and dusted her sandy posterior. Jane joined her arm with hers, and they two sisters began to stroll back up the beach the way they had come.
"What did Charlotte say?"
"Oh, she tried to make out that Mr. Darcy admired me."
Jane thought about this. "I do not see why he should not admire you," she said. "It seems perfectly natural to me."
"Of course it does! Dearest Jane!" She smiled affectionately and squeezed her arm.
"If it's true that he looked at you a lot I am sure she was right. Why else would a man want to look at you but to admire you?"
"To criticize me, I suppose. It's what I always thought."
"I think you are being unkind to Mr. Darcy to be always suspecting his motives so. "
"Perhaps. But on a day like this, what does it matter?" She turned her face up to the sun and would speak no more of serious subjects.
"Do you think she will like it?" asked Charles Bingley anxiously where he stood on the sea wall.
His friend Fitzwilliam Darcy shrugged. "Well enough, I dare say." He seemed a little distracted, almost as if he was searching the beach for something.
"I still don't understand why she wants to come here instead of Weymouth or Brighton, but it is very pretty, isn't it?"
"Yes, very pretty," replied the other, who, however, was not really thinking of the sand and sea at that moment.
"I do appreciate your coming here with me to check out the houses."
That finally caught Mr. Darcy's attention. "Really, Bingley," he said, "you must have greater confidence in your ability to make your own decisions. Surely you can rent a house at the sea shore without requiring a second opinion!"
Mr. Bingley grinned back, not in the least offended. "But how should I get your company if I did not always need your opinion?" he asked.
"By asking for it, of course."
"Well, but you do give the best advice, Darcy. Why, without you I would have taken that house in the middle of town!"
"That's because you didn't consider how little your sister would like to have every passer by staring into her parlor window."
"Exactly! I never think of these things, but you always do!"
"That's because I've been arranging my own affairs for rather longer than you have," said Darcy, in a gentler tone. "Would you care for a walk along the beach?"
"Oh, yes, what a fine idea!"
They set out immediately, although they weren't really ideally dressed for walking through the sand. Darcy wondered for the hundredth time just how big a fool he actually was being, even if as he could not help but peer at every female figure they passed.
It had been a considerable shock to him when Miss Elizabeth Bennet left Kent earlier than planned so that she could join her uncle and his family at the sea shore. He had been just on the verge of proposing to her, holding out with a sense of virtuous reluctance even while he daydreamed about married life with her, when the news had arrived. It had arrived over his morning eggs and coffee, too, which was an added aggravation. The decision, apparently, was the work of little more than a day. According to Mrs. Collins, when he and his cousin had visited the parsonage to get details, Elizabeth had been very anxious over the welfare of a young cousin who had taken ill shortly after her arrival in Hunsford. Then one day a letter arrived saying that he was much improved but the doctor thought they should take him to the coast for a holiday, so the whole family was going, including the elder Miss Bennet, and would Elizabeth like to come too? She liked very well, and had written immediately to accept, and then been gone before the gentleman even realized she was going.
Darcy had been more than a little put out. What did she mean, leaving like that, without even bidding them goodbye? Didn't she know that he was only seeking an opportunity to speak to her? Nor could Mrs. Collins even recall exactly which seaside town they were to visit--she thought perhaps it hadn't been determined yet when the letter arrived. He was as petulant as a debutante the first day, thinking himself ill-used indeed.
The second day the reality of the situation dawned. Elizabeth was gone. She was gone--out of his life entirely, if he didn't take some measure to actively pursue her. At first he tried to persuade himself that it was for the best. He had been about to make a dreadful mistake and had been saved. But that opinion did not outlast the third day.
By the time he had left Rosings and returned to his house in London, Darcy was determined to find Elizabeth Bennet. If need be, he would wait until her holiday at the sea had come to an end and go to Longbourn. Maybe he would even go to Longbourn now, get her father's permission and find out from him where she was. But he shrank from declaring his intentions to her father before he had declared them to her and hesitated. While he was hesitating, Bingley had written to tell him that his sister had made up her mind to spend the summer in Morecastle, and was anxious that they choose a house early before they all were taken, and would Darcy like to come with him? Besides the fact that he disliked disappointing his friend (especially after his earlier, greater disappointment the November before), the coincidence seemed too fair, too Providential, to be overlooked.
But now, trudging through soft sand past one unfamiliar face after another, he felt ridiculous. Why, of all the sea side towns in the south of England, should Elizabeth be in this one? Not to mention the fact that he was here with Bingley, which couldn't help but be awkward if they did meet. His early optimism fading quickly, he began muttering imprecations under his breath.
All of a sudden the man beside him halted abruptly. Looking up, Darcy was blinded for a moment by the glare off the water, but as his eyes adjusted they came to rest on a pair of flushed, familiar young women walking merrily over the sand in their direction. He drew a deep breath.
"Miss Bennet!" exclaimed both men at once.
Elizabeth experienced a sense of irritated shock. He! What was he doing here? Was she never to be rid of him? "Mr. Darcy!" she replied, and heard Jane's voice saying, "Mr. Bingley!" at the same time. Only then did she notice the other young man who was staring at her sister in a sort of awed wonder.
The greetings were awkward.
Having now established that they all knew each other's names, they fell silent. Elizabeth was too busy watching Mr. Bingley watch her sister to realize how Mr. Darcy was watching her. "Good day," said Bingley at last. "How are you? What brings you to the sea shore?"
"My cousin. Good day. Very well," answered Jane, not very lucidly.
He didn't seem to mind. "That's excellent. I--um," he swallowed. "How is your family?"
"They are perfectly well," said Elizabeth on her behalf, when Jane didn't immediately reply. "And you? How are your sisters?"
"V-very well. We are--that is to say, my sister Caroline and I are to take a house for the summer here. Will you… be here for the summer?"
"A few weeks. We are not yet certain how long it may be."
"Indeed." After which word he and Jane promptly lost all civility in admiring gazes.
Elizabeth was much too pleased to be offended, but she was surprised to suddenly find Mr. Darcy at her side, and smiling down at her in a way that made her vaguely uncomfortable.
"Well met, Miss Bennet," he said softly.
Thrown off guard by his warm tone, she said, "I… did not expect to see you here."
"Yet here I am," he replied, looking rather smug. "In truth I did wonder if this might be the town you and your family had removed to. I am relieved to find it so."
She blinked. Relieved? He was relieved? "And your reason for being here, sir?"
"I came to advise Bingley." And search for you.
"Oh." Of course. Did the other ever make a move without him?
Down the beach a few paces, Mr. Bingley was slowly recovering his wits, and had the presence of mind to offer a deeply blushing Jane his arm. "May we escort you to your destination, Miss Bennet?"
"We should be honored, sir. We were about to return to the house."
"Of course. This way?" It was not, in fact, that way, but Jane was not paying attention and merely nodded. They began to walk, forgetting entirely about the couple behind them. Before she knew it, Elizabeth found herself on Mr. Darcy's arm, being tenderly escorted over the beach. Most unnervingly of all, he had placed his hand in proprietary fashion over hers. She told herself that he was just trying to give her that little bit of extra support, but it was all she could do not to jerk away.
"Your friends at Rosings were surprised to find that you had departed our company so quickly, and without notice," said Darcy.
She almost gaped at the hint of hurt in his tone. "I meant no offense to Lady Catherine. It was simply that my aunt was to depart almost immediately and I had to hurry if I was to join them."
Darcy frowned at her apparently deliberate misunderstanding. "Lady Catherine was not the only one at Rosings."
"I am afraid that Miss de Bourgh and I never had a chance to develop much of a friendship," she replied sweetly, "but I hope Colonel Fitzwilliam understood why I had to leave."
His frown grew. "He was surprised, but not certainly not angry. Fitzwilliam has many ladies among his acquaintance, you know, and although I know he enjoys female company I do not believe he has ever held one particularly above another."
She nearly gasped at this pointed cut. "I did not suppose he held me particularly high, if that's what you mean," she said tartly, "but I am certain he considers me his friend."
"I am certain he does," he replied in a gentler tone. "But you must know he was not the one to whom I was referring."
She was about to say something about her not having any other friends at Rosings--which doubtlessly would have gone down very badly indeed--when Mr. Bingley turned. "I say, Darcy!" he called back. "Miss Bennet and I have had the most capital notion! We should get up a boating party!"
"Are you sure you can row well enough, Bingley?"
"Well of course I am! I may not have won acclaim at Oxford for my rowing skills, but I can get a boat around well enough. What do you say?"
"I am agreeable, if Miss Elizabeth is." He looked at her.
She blinked in surprise, looked at Jane's imploring face, sighed and said, "Of course. I should be delighted."
The rest of the way back to the house--once Elizabeth had pointed out the correct street--was spent discussing the finer particulars of their proposed outing. She was further surprised to discover from Mr. Bingley that Mr. Darcy had, indeed, won several prizes in the course of his university career for various athletic events, boating among them. Mr. Darcy himself appeared rather embarrassed at this intelligence; she supposed it was because he thought it beneath his dignity to participate in such plebian pursuits.
It was a very surprised Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner who greeted the entire party. They had long been curious about Mr. Bingley in particular, though of course they had heard of Mr. Darcy as well. Both men were more or less exactly as they had been described: Mr. Bingley the picture of affability, Mr. Darcy of reserve. Oh, he said everything that good breeding required, but no more, and looked around the modest rented house with a most critical gaze. However, he seemed bent on accompanying their nieces and his friend on this expedition, so they must suppose he was not as fully disapproving as he appeared.
The very next day the gentlemen arrived to collect the sisters. The Gardiners had been invited to come as well, but they declared that they could not leave their children to the sole care of the nurse, and sent the young people on their way with many good wishes. They, like Elizabeth, were eager to encourage a reconciliation between Mr. Bingley and Jane. That young lady had been very quiet, but Elizabeth knew that she was very happy, very happy and fearful too, not knowing what would come of this latest encounter.
Instead of one boat that would hold the four of them, the gentleman had instead chosen, by mutual unspoken agreement, to rent two boats which would each hold only two passengers. They took an open carriage to the dock, which they found to be located in a small bay. The object was the opposite shore, which provided a number of delightful picnic spots.
Mr. Darcy had decided that Elizabeth had been teasing him the day before, perhaps trying to provoke him into a declaration. Although as a rule he disapproved of those sorts of arts, in Elizabeth's case he was inclined to be indulgent. It wanted only opportunity to settle things between them; perhaps he would get it today.
Elizabeth, however, was rather less than pleased to be riding the breadth of a bay alone in a tiny boat with Darcy. She dare not even be too rude, lest he lose his temper and tip her into the water in revenge. Besides, not for the world would she disturb her sister's happiness, this day of days. She had never given up her belief that Darcy was influential in removing his friend from Jane's side; why he had apparently withdrawn his objections for the time being she didn't know, but she vowed to do nothing that would offend him.
The gentlemen handed their ladies into the boats, shed their coats, and proceeded to row. Mr. Bingley's boat tossed and turned about quite a bit at first, which only caused him to laugh very heartily as he worked to right it. Darcy handled his oars with ease, but Elizabeth was too busy watching the others to notice. For his part, he was content to watch her. She made such a pretty picture, sitting only a few feet away with parasol and bonnet, her profile turned for his admiration.
"What an astonishing coincidence it is that we should all have met at the same seaside town, so soon after Kent!" she remarked eventually.
"Astonishing, yes, but not, I think, unwelcome?"
Her eyes on her sister's laughing face, Elizabeth said softly, "No. I could not say it is unwelcome."
He smiled to himself. "Perhaps you could say that fortune has favored us."
"Perhaps." Then, suddenly becoming aware of what he had been saying, she gave him an odd look. "Mr. Bingley certainly appears to find it fortunate."
Now he appeared slightly confused. "Mr. Bingley?"
"Yes, he appears uncommonly pleased to see my sister again."
He shifted, pulling on the oars with long, smooth strokes. "I suppose he might be."
After a final, measuring glance, she turned her gaze back onto the other couple. The two boats were too far apart to converse between them, but not so far they couldn't wave. Their progress was not rapid; Bingley worked about twice as hard as Darcy, who often ceased rowing altogether to give the others time to catch up.
"Is this your first trip to the sea shore, Miss Bennet?" asked Darcy after a time.
"Indeed it is."
"What do you think of it?"
"I think the sea quite beyond any descriptions I have read or paintings I have seen. Its beauty and vastness are without possible description."
"I have often felt the same way myself," he said. He missed Elizabeth's faintly incredulous look.
"Are you a studier of nature then, Mr. Darcy?"
"Not, perhaps, to the extent that you are a studier of people, ma'am, but I am certainly not immune to its beauties. Derbyshire has many wonders I have yet to tire of viewing. Hertfordshire," he added after a moment, "is also lovely."
"And Kent. Let us not forget to give Lady Catherine her due. She was entirely justified in her choice of Rosings as a home."
He smiled. "You certainly enjoyed the best of its attractions. I expect that, however well you come to know the formal gardens, you will always prefer your grove, and with good reason."
There he was, doing it again: implying that she might someday stay at the main house. Not to mention referring to the grove as hers. The first time he did something of the sort, on a walk one day, she thought he might be referring to Colonel Fitzwilliam's apparent attraction for her, but she failed to see how he could still think anything might arise in that quarter. What did he mean by it? Trying to cover her confusion she laughed lightly and queried, "My grove, sir?"
He had been watching his strokes in the water, but at that he looked up and his eyes met hers directly. "Very well. Our grove."
That startled her into absolute silence. Surely… Mr. Darcy could not be flirting with her, could he? Worse yet, did he believe she was trying to flirt with him? A vivid blush rose into her cheeks at the thought and she turned her face away.
Darcy saw her embarrassment and contemplated making a declaration on the spot. It was not the most convenient timing, as he was engaged in the rather vigorous exercise of rowing two people across a lengthy expanse of somewhat choppy water, but they had, at least, a measure of privacy. A few words, and they might be engaged before they reached shore.
A pause came, when he could rest on his oars while waiting for Bingley to navigate his way through the currents. The boat rocked slightly, the sky above was very blue, and Elizabeth herself too entirely enticing. "You cannot be at a loss, Miss Elizabeth," he said slowly, at last, "to understand my meaning."
Elizabeth, who was completely at a loss, wondered if he was preparing to deliver a scornful harangue to let her know how entirely beneath his notice she really was. She clinched her hands and pressed her lips together, still not looking at him. "I--"
"I should, perhaps, have spoken to you when we were in Hertfordshire, but I remained silent out of scruples which I am sure you can appreciate, considering your situation and my own. I thought by separating myself from you I could overcome the necessity, but when I saw you in Kent, I knew that it had all been in vain." He took a deep breath.
"Mr. Darcy, I cannot think that we have anything to discuss!"
He looked at her incredulously, and was just opening his mouth to answer when there was the splash of other oars, and Bingley called out, "Hey there to the other boat!" as he pulled his own alongside theirs within speaking distance. "Darcy, must you rub my face in how incompetent I am by lounging around like that?" His face was ruddy and shining from the effort, his grin just as bright. Jane cast her sister an eloquently beaming glance.
Biting back an oath, Darcy replied as coolly as he could, "May I remind you, Bingley, that this was your suggestion, not mine?"
"Oh, certainly! It's a delightful day, and if Miss Bennet doesn't mind my blundering I'm sure I don't either."
"I think you are managing very well, Mr. Bingley," she replied demurely.
"See, Darcy, she thinks I row well enough. Why, I daresay Miss Elizabeth is positively bored from being guided so effortlessly across the water. You had much better dance about, as I do!"
"Why, of course!" Elizabeth laughed, pleased enough on their behalf to forget her irritation and mortification for a minute. "Fortunately we are near now. Oh, look, there are people there already."
"My servants, Miss Elizabeth," replied Darcy. "I sent them ahead to prepare for us."
Rather than being impressed at this bit of extravagance, Elizabeth was just annoyed. Heaven forbid that that the lofty Mr. Darcy get his feet wet pulling a boat up to shore! Or that they be required to spread their own picnic blankets and unpack their own baskets!
Fortunately for her equanimity, Mr. Bingley managed to keep his boat near theirs for the rest of the way, near enough, at least, to preclude any private conversation of a particularly sensitive nature. As further security against insult, she began suddenly to chatter about their uncle and aunt and young cousins, and how Edward had been sick and why the doctor had recommended a journey to the sea shore to completely restore him. Darcy listened courteously enough, but she could see the frown in his eyes and the tense set of his jaw. Too late she realized that such behavior would appear as confirmation of her flirtatious ways--why she would be sounding as cloying as Miss Bingley soon!--but she saw no other alternative.
Once their boats had been duly drawn up to land by the waiting men, she accepted Darcy's hand out of the boat, but lost no time in attaching herself to her sister.
It was not lost on Darcy that she avoided him assiduously for their time on shore. He determined that it must be maidenly anxiety that caused this strange behavior. He had not expected Elizabeth, of all women, to behave so, but he found it oddly endearing. He would have to find a way to move past her embarrassment and nervousness--while not rowing a boat.
The picnic lunch was certainly plentiful for only four people. They were waited on by a manservant who looked utterly out of place, standing there stiffly with sand all over his shoes and his plain black coat buttoned against the sea breezes. Jane and Mr. Bingley kept up a brisk, bright conversation which Elizabeth joined in eagerly, trying not to look at Mr. Darcy. He was as silent as he had ever been, only speaking when directly addressed.
When they had finished and all risen from their blanket on the sand, Mr. Bingley offered to show Jane something further down the beach, and they took off together with hardly a backward glance. Lizzy and Mr. Darcy stood about awkwardly watching the servants pack everything up, and when she finally walked away towards the water, he followed her. Annoyed, she walked away again, over a small, grassy dune. Again he followed her.
"I would like to finish our earlier conversation, Miss Bennet," said Darcy, with great intrepidity.
"Oh, look! Sand crabs!" She moved away to view them but he, refusing to take the hint, followed her yet again.
"You will not escape from me so easily! I will have my say!"
She froze, and clinched her hands. "Very well," she said at last, resentfully. "Say what you will!"
He bent over a little to peer under her hat. "I had not expected such diffidence from you, Elizabeth. Why so anxious to avoid me? Surely you are not frightened?"
At that her chin came up and her eyes flashed. "I? Frightened of you? Indeed not!"
"You have no cause to be." He took her hand. Startled, she pulled it away. He frowned. "Elizabeth--"
"I have not given you permission to address me so, Mr. Darcy!"
Now he was beginning to look vexed. "Must everything be a competition with you?" he demanded. "You must know my desires."
"My most ardent desires." He caught at her hand again. Elizabeth stared at him in confusion. "And I think that I know your desires as well."
"Now that, sir, you do not," she replied tightly.
"Are you angry with me because you think I'm being presumptuous?" He sounded a little incredulous.
"You are too sensible a woman to destroy your own happiness for such a reason."
"I have no intention of destroying my own happiness!"
"Then we are in agreement." He finally caught both her hands now in a firm grip, and pulled her toward him.
Feeling like the situation had gotten wildly out of control and quite beyond her understanding, she gasped, "Sir! I must demand that you explain yourself!"
He smiled a slow smile. "That is precisely what I have been attempting to do, is it not?"
"Yes, but--release my hands at once!"
He did so. "You intend to have no mercy on me, I see."
"Have you need of my mercy?" Had he drunk more wine that she realized during the picnic?
But his look was surprisingly open and disarming. "Of course."
"For what purpose? Surely there is nothing I can do for the great Mr. Darcy!"
He raised his eyebrows, somewhat offended. "Let's not speak nonsense. If you are under the impression that I enjoy that kind of teasing, you are wrong."
"I'm afraid that I have not yet learned to cater my teasing to your tastes."
"I shall give you ample opportunity to learn, then."
The suggestive nature of his comments was beginning to have its effect on her. This could not be Mr. Darcy being amorous, could it? She had feared on the boat he was flirting with her, until she decided he was far more likely to be taking her to task. But this present conversation could make sense in only one context. What had he said? My most ardent desires? Her eyes suddenly widened, and she gasped slightly. "Mr. Darcy," she said desperately, "I really must return to Jane. It's not proper to leave her and Mr. Bingley alone--nor for us to stand around alone either!" She hurried to leave, but again he moved in front of her.
"You will not let me speak to you!" he exclaimed. "You are shy! Why? Is it--" Without thinking, he reached for her hand again, and again she backed away. His eyes lit up with sudden comprehension and his face softened. "My dear," he said gently, "you need not be uncomfortable around me. I will not attempt to kiss you if you do not wish it."
That was too much. "Mr. Darcy!" she cried. "Have you taken leave of your senses? Kiss me? Why should I suppose you wish to kiss me? We are nothing to each other!"
"And now I must beg you to restrain me no longer. I must see my sister!" She stormed off across the sand, while he watched her, dumbfounded.
Nothing to each other? Well, he supposed they were nothing to each other now, but had he not been seeking to change that? And had she not flirted with him time and again in Kent, while they enjoyed leisurely walks and talked of marriage, travelling from home and other pertinent topics? She had encouraged his advances--in the most delicate way possible, of course, without that overt chasing he found so distasteful in a woman. He had been impressed that she seemed content to let him do the pursuing, but there was no question that she had used her considerable charms on him on numerous occasions. Her arch smiles, speaking eyes and witty speeches had been turned on him too many times for him to be mistaken. She had encouraged him, and now she was behaving as it had never happened.
Mr. Darcy was angry.
The ride back across the bay was to be an exceedingly uncomfortable one. Elizabeth would have begged Jane to switch with her, but it was unthinkable to remove her from the joy of Mr. Bingley's presence and subject her to his company instead. She tried a suggestion that she might ride home in a carriage with the servants, only to have Mr. Darcy inform her coolly that there was no room. She said she was afraid she would be queasy riding in the boat with a full stomach, but Jane poo-hooed the suggestion. "Nonsense, Lizzy, you're never sick!"
So, anxious, unhappy and not a little sulky, she found herself right back in the same boat she'd been in earlier, with Mr. Darcy glowering at her.
With a few powerful pulls on the oars, Darcy left the other boat behind. As soon as they were out of earshot, he began without preamble. "Miss Bennet," he said, "I believe I have a right to an explanation."
Elizabeth gaped at him. "An explanation? For what, pray?"
"For the difference between your behavior in Hertfordshire and Kent and your behavior now. What have you to say for yourself?"
"My behavior? What on earth do you mean? It is you who must answer for your behavior!"
He ignored that last comment. "Your manner, madam."
"Yes, your manner. Your flirtatious, enticing, provocative manner."
She gasped, turning quite crimson with indignation. She had been right the first time! "I have never flirted with you!"
"Please do not attempt to deny it. I abhor deceit. You knew very well what you were doing, teasing and alluring me in that way, encouraging, nay, I might say positively forcing my attraction for you to increase! You gave me every reason in the world to believe that you expected a declaration from me, yet the moment I come ready to make it, you rebuff me! Perhaps you think I am the kind of man who is content to be a woman's plaything, but you are sorely mistaken! My character requires justice, and so I demand an explanation from you!"
"Once again, Mr. Darcy," said Elizabeth through her teeth, "I have never, ever flirted with you! Alluring you? Encouraging you! I never knew there was anything to encourage! Why, I don't even like you! Until this afternoon I was certain the feeling was mutual. Of course, if your manner of expressing an attraction is to insult the woman you're attracted to, then it's no wonder that you couldn't discern the difference between a woman who's flirting with you and one who's genuinely trying to offend you!"
If Elizabeth was red, Darcy was pale. "And is this all the answer I am to receive?" he demanded after a speechless moment.
"Mr. Darcy, women who accuse you of pride, vanity and a propensity to hate everybody are not trying to entice you!"
He opened his mouth and shut it again, wildly casting around for an example to throw back at her. "You invited me to walk with you in the grove!" he pointed out triumphantly.
"I did no such thing!"
"Yes, you did! You told me repeatedly that it was your favorite place to walk."
"So that you would avoid it!"
"Well, what about our conversation on women settling near their families? You said very pointedly that a woman could be settled too near, and blushed because you knew we were both thinking of Derbyshire!"
She gasped again. "Derbyshire? Why should I be thinking of Derbyshire? I was thinking of Jane and Netherfield!"
There was a long silence after that one. Darcy, still pale, rowed with vicious swiftness while Elizabeth clung to her seat and refused to look at him. "I think it is deliberate sophistry on your part to pretend that you did not notice my regard for you," he said at last, in a resentful tone.
"Why, of course! I always take refusal to converse as evidence of admiration."
"I paid you pointed attentions, you know I did!"
"What attentions? Staring at me from across the parlor? When did that become a part of proper courting etiquette?"
She couldn't help but look at him as she spoke; his face was flushed from exertion, his hair tousled by the breeze; in his shirt sleeves, he looked little like the inscrutable gentleman she was used to meet. He met her eyes almost sternly. "Do you imagine that I stared out of indifference? Or that I sought you repeatedly in the grove because I disliked you?"
Since that was precisely what she had so foolishly imagined, she blushed anew, her gaze falling. Yet at the last she rallied herself enough to say, "What I thought, sir, was that I wasn't handsome enough to tempt you."
The tips of Darcy's oars skidded across the water as he missed his stroke. His eyes widened in alarm and chagrin. It seemed they had reached an impasse in their argument, each having scored an unanswerable point. Both were extremely embarrassed at their current situation, although only one was suffering pain of another sort. But Darcy pushed aside the rending in his chest for now; there would be time enough to feel it later.
Mr. Bingley had been left far behind by Darcy's efficient passage across the bay. When they reached the dock, Darcy climbed out, tied the boat up, and extended his hand to Elizabeth. She took it out of necessity, but released it as quickly as possible, and they stood awkwardly, as far apart as the narrow wooden platform would allow them.
Watching the other boat's agonizingly slow progress across the waves in their direction, Elizabeth's thoughts returned to her sister. Remembering her very great happiness throughout the day, she was emboldened to speak again, no matter the awkwardness. "Mr. Darcy," she began, and felt rather than heard him shift beside her, "I must beg of you not to let the unpleasantness of today's encounter interfere with the happiness of your friend and my sister. Do not take him away, please! Jane has been disconsolate since he left Netherfield, and while he has not proven himself very steady in his actions, his affections do not appear to have altered from what they were. She is the best of all women; if there is any chance that he may make her happy by his choice, do not deprive them both. I know you have influence with Mr. Bingley, and again I beg you not to use it against Jane in your anger at me."
"I have as much concern for my friend as you do for your sister, Miss Bennet," he replied stiffly. "I would never seek to interfere with his happiness for selfish reasons."
"Surely you can see, after today, that that happiness lies with her?"
"I do not believe that is for me to say." She pressed her lips and looked down, and despite himself, he found himself relenting toward her. Even in his anger and disappointment, he could not deny her. "But I shall certainly not seek to remove him, or hasten his leaving."
"Thank you," she whispered. It was the last thing either of them said until the others joined them.
Part 2: Riding in Carriages
Posted on 2013-03-27
Mr. Bingley was far too caught up in his own happiness to notice his friend's gravity that evening. Mr. Darcy barely made it through his effusions before retreating to his chambers the first opportunity he had.
His anger had mostly faded by then, to be replaced by dismay and strong grief. It was true that he had not actually proposed and therefore had not been technically refused, but her words and manner had been more than discouraging. She didn't like him, she didn't want his attentions, she had thought he disliked her and was satisfied to have it so. Nothing he thought of during the whole course of his miserable night could ameliorate it. He had lost her--more, he had never had her, and he never would.
At breakfast the next morning Bingley was chattering on, something about curricles. "Curricles?" he said. "What do you mean, curricles?"
Bingley laughed. "Don't you remember? We talked about it at the picnic yesterday."
Darcy did vaguely remember something about curricles and ruins, now that he mentioned it. He had not paid much attention, being too preoccupied with watching Elizabeth, but had absently agreed to any plans they might be making. It would never have occurred to him, then, that he might not want to ride out in a curricle with Elizabeth. "I am not about to go careening about the countryside in some rented rattletrap with an unmarried female by my side! Nor should you, for that matter. It's unsafe, undignified, and not at all proper."
"It doesn't seem any more unsafe, undignified or improper than rowing across a bay in a small boat with an unmarried female. You seemed happy enough to do that."
Darcy just frowned into his coffee.
"Come on, man, you already agreed! We're to rent the curricles today and go tomorrow."
"And all of this is just to climb around some broken down old buildings for an hour?"
"Ruins, my dear Darcy, ruins. It's not at all the same, you know. Ladies love ruins."
Darcy muttered something unintelligible under his breath.
"Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth will be expecting it. It's already set."
Darcy opened his mouth to tell Bingley that it was time for both of them to return to London, when he remembered the promise he had made to Elizabeth yesterday. Even if he could drag Bingley away, she would certainly see it as a violation of his word. "You will have to visit the ruins without me," he said flatly.
"But I can't do that!" objected Bingley. "There isn't room for three in a curricle, and I couldn't possibly take Miss Bennet out without a chaperone."
"Take the whole Gardiner clan, then. You can use my barouche."
"Weren't you listening to anything at all yesterday? We invited them when we brought the ladies back, but Mr. Gardiner thought the drive was too far for his son who is still recovering, and said it wouldn't be fair to take the other children without him. Plus, Mrs. Gardiner is feeling under the weather herself."
Darcy would have been willing to bet that the Gardiners were rather eager to promote a match between their niece and Bingley--and perhaps between their other niece and himself--but knew it was pointless to say so.
"You promised, Darcy!" cried Bingley. "You said you would be happy to go, or else the plan would never have gotten along this far. You can't let me down! I've got--" he paused. "I've got another chance, Darcy. I remember everything you said to me about Miss Bennet last year and I'm sure you're correct, but I just don't care anymore. I missed her every day since then and now that I've seen her again I can't leave her. Not if there's any chance I might win her love. She did seem happy to see me, don't you think? She was happy?"
Again he remembered what Elizabeth had said the day before, about her sister being disconsolate over Bingley's absence, and even he had to admit that Miss Bennet had seemed delighted with his friend. "Yes, I think she was," he conceded.
"Then you can't fail me. You must come--you must give me this chance to court her, before I lose it again. I can't--I can't bear another six months like these last ones."
Darcy looked at his friend with sudden sympathy, understanding all too well, now, what he was feeling. Not that Bingley had ever had the misfortune to discover Miss Bennet disliked him, but he had believed her indifferent, and suffered under the belief. Darcy knew it was his fault Bingley had felt that, and although he still thought his opinion a reasonable one, he did owe him some reparations. "Very well," he agreed quietly.
Elizabeth was in a similar position. She did not want to ride in a curricle with Mr. Darcy to see the Bleydon ruins, no matter how pretty they were. If possible, she wanted it even less than she had wanted to go boating with him yesterday--it would be unbearably awkward after everything that had passed between them! It still boggled her mind that Mr. Darcy should have developed some sort of admiration or tender feelings for her, and that he had been, moreover, on the point of making some sort of declaration (though she could hardly imagine it would have been a proposal). It embarrassed her exceedingly to realize just how blind she had been, and if she was embarrassed, she could only imagine how much more embarrassed he was. She would have given almost anything in the world to have avoided the necessity of riding with him that day--almost anything, that is, but her sister's happiness. All thoughts of feigning an illness went out of her head when she saw how happy Jane was, and how eager for the outing.
She expected Darcy himself would bow out, and failing that, wished that Aunt and Uncle Gardiner could have found a way to come with them, but the fact was that Aunt Gardiner had just recently discovered that she was expecting their fifth child, and while in general she felt well, the thought of spending the better part of a day in a rocking carriage was simply too much for her. She much preferred to sit on the beach where she could watch her children play. Perhaps it was a bit daring for the Gardiners to let their two attractive young nieces go around like this with two gentlemen, but they had a very strong regard for those nieces' trustworthiness, and Mr. Bingley was known to be an honorable, amiable gentleman. Mr. Darcy was a bit more of an unknown quantity, but Elizabeth had been in his company a great deal and was able to assure them, with laugh, that he posed no threat to her virtue. They, like everyone else, could see just how much Jane wanted this, so they gave their consent, after Mr. Gardiner extracted a promise from the gentlemen that they would all remain together at all times.
Of the two curricles the men had found to rent, one was sturdy and well-sprung, the other rather less so. Somehow, Darcy and Elizabeth ended up seated in the one that was rather less so. Darcy's own horses were hitched to it--he had liked the rented horses even less than the rented carriages--but even so they jostled and swayed quite alarmingly along the road towards Bleydon. Elizabeth hadn't ridden in a curricle for years, and was sure it could not have been as high or as unsteady as this one. She clung tightly to her seat, trying hard not to bump shoulders with Darcy at every rock in the road.
They had not spoken since the moment he handed her up into it. Instead they followed behind Bingley and Jane, who appeared to be enjoying their ride immensely. Darcy focused on his driving and Elizabeth focused on not falling out. Each was acutely aware of the other, neither one willing to be the first one to speak.
Finally, when the silence had grown so painful that Elizabeth was contemplating screaming to relieve it, Darcy spoke. "I am sorry," he said stiffly, "that you should be forced to endure my presence today. If I could have remained at home without offending my friend I would have."
"And I am here only in support of my sister," she replied.
"Perfect. Now we understand each other." He whipped his horses a little faster.
That may have been the last thing they said to each other that day, if the axle hadn't broken.
They had come to a particularly rutted portion of road, each keeping to their seats by sheer grim tenacity. There was a lurch, a large bump that made Elizabeth go, "Oh!," a deafening crack, then the seat seemed to drop away beneath her. Before she knew what was happening she was half-sliding, half-tumbling, skirts, parasol and all, colliding with the fallen wheel on the way down. The horses reared; Darcy had nearly fallen out of the curricle before somehow regaining his balance enough to pull on the reins, and if it wasn't for an almost superhuman effort on his part, they would surely have dragged the tilted carriage another hundred yards, quite possibly running Elizabeth over in the process.
Elizabeth lay on the ground, largely unhurt but for a bruised posterior and a cut on one cheek, and stared meditatively at the sky above her. It was, she thought, quite lovely. It was presently blotted out by Mr. Darcy's face, very pale, and she realized absently that he had been calling her name for the last half minute or so. "Elizabeth," he begged. "Miss Bennet, say something."
His hand touching her face brought her back to herself and she swatted him away, sat up and grunted. He staggered with relief and sat down himself. Neither one said anything more for a little while, glumly surveying the wreckage. At least the horses were quiet now.
"I'm going to kill Bingley," said Darcy at last.
For some reason this line, along with the image of her and the dignified Mr. Darcy sitting in the dirt at the side of road together, struck Elizabeth as overwhelmingly funny. She began, to Mr. Darcy's considerable astonishment, to giggle. The giggle quickly grew, and she threw back her head and laughed until even Darcy could not help but join in. They all but howled, and if Elizabeth had been with another woman she would have drummed her feet on the ground. By the time they finally quieted, both were considerably lighter of heart, and the tension that had existed between them earlier seemed gone. "You are a remarkable woman, Miss Bennet," said Darcy, smiling at her.
"Speaking of Mr. Bingley," she replied, ignoring that, "where have he and my sister absconded to? Surely they didn't just drive off and leave us here."
"Their curricle had just rounded that corner up there when our accident occurred. If I know Bingley, he hasn't even noticed we're not behind him anymore. Once he does he'll turn back to find us, but until then our only option is to wait." He gave her an apologetic look. "I could attempt to walk back to an inn, but it would probably take just as long."
"I imagine I am as capable of walking it as you are, but hopefully it won't come to that. I have faith that Jane, at least, will look back at last."
"Are you truly well?" he asked her earnestly. "Your face--"
She touched it gingerly. "Is it very bad?"
"No, but it looks painful."
"It is a bit." She fished a handkerchief out her reticule, where it still dangled from her wrist, and, wincing, began to apply it to her cheek. Darcy took it from her gently.
"Here." He pulled a flask out of his pocket and poured a little liquid over the cloth to dampen it. "It's only water," he said to her questioning look. "Allow me?"
She nodded, and he began to clean the wound carefully. A different silence fell over them, punctuated by their breathing. Elizabeth's eyes, very wide, were fixed on his face, frowning in concentration just a foot or so away. "Will it require stitches?" she whispered.
"No," he replied, latent tenderness in his voice. "No stitches. I don't think it will scar, either." Not that it would matter to me. He didn't tell her that a large bruise was developing; there was no point in distressing her over what she could not help. When he had done what he could he handed her the flask. "Drink."
She did as he requested, but they kept watching each other, and neither one moved from their positions until one of the horses stomped and tossed its head. Darcy started. "I should--" He jumped to his feet and went to attend to them. Elizabeth watched him as he spoke soothingly to the animals, releasing them from their traces, and decided to take the opportunity to attempt to stand. She was fairly certain that it would be an undignified process, and preferred to do it while Darcy was otherwise occupied.
By the time that Darcy had released both horses into the grassy field on the side of the road, Elizabeth was upright and dusting her skirts off. She was sore in places she'd rather not discuss, her gown was torn around the hem and her hair beginning to fall down, but otherwise she was intact. He went back to the broken curricle, retrieved a basket and returned to her. "Forgive me," he said, offering her his arm, "I should have gotten you off the road earlier."
She shook her head but took the arm, leaning on him more than she would like and trying to suppress a grimace. He was watching her closely and cried, "You're hurt!"
"No," she assured him. "No, I am not hurt, just--stiff."
He looked doubtful but did not argue. By the time they reached a shady spot to sit, she was fairly certain he had figured out what was wrong with her, but he was kind enough not say anything. Instead he spread his coat for her to sit on, despite her protests that her gown was already too dirty for it to matter. At least the grass was softer than the road had been.
The contents of the basket were investigated. The hotel where Darcy and Bingley were staying had divided the food between two baskets, one of which went into each curricle. Theirs was found to hold primarily bread and fruit; the wine and meat, apparently, were with Jane and Bingley. Darcy muttered something about Elizabeth needing a glass of wine, but she denied it, and took a pear instead. "I'm not really hungry," she confided, "but it is somehow rather comforting to eat after being so upset."
Darcy just smiled faintly. Their eyes turned back to the bend of the road, around which they expected their companions to appear at any moment. They waited ten minutes, fifteen, making occasional dilatory conversation, each content and anxious by turn. When Darcy turned to look at Elizabeth he saw that she was attempting to fix her hair, pulling out stray pins and sticking them back in again. She had pulled her hair straight back, displaying the perfect oval of her face. Her skin was a little pink, from the sun and the warmth, with a small red mark on her right cheek, surrounded by a darkening area, and her lips were very red, her eyelids bluish and heavy. He loved her so much he could scarcely breathe.
"Miss Bennet." Her eyes lifted. "Miss Bennet, I know that--I know that we have grossly misunderstood each other in the past, and that is likely my fault, but I wish--that is, I would like to know what it is that has caused you to--" he swallowed and looked away, "to dislike me so much."
Elizabeth sat silent for so long that he wondered if she was going to answer him, but she did, at last. "Do you truly wish to hear it?"
"You--" she paused. "You did not make much attempt to disguise your contempt for our society in Hertfordshire, sir. You cannot suppose such behavior designed to please."
He flushed, but what could he say? "Is that all?"
"No… though it would be enough for simple dislike, I believe. Yet I had never thought you actually dishonorable or bad until…" her voice became suddenly uncertain. "Until Mr. Wickham."
"Mr. Wickham?" he repeated, his heart sinking and his temper rising.
"He told me of his history with you."
"I doubt that very much."
"He said you denied him the living your father wished him to receive."
"I'm sure he did." Darcy stood to his feet and took a few steps about, trying to calm himself enough to offer an explanation. Just as he turned towards her, opening his mouth to begin, there was the rattle of wheels and Mr. Bingley's voice called his name. He shut his eyes. "Would you do me the honor of continuing this conversation later?"
"I don't really see the point, sir."
"Nevertheless, I demand--" he drew a breath. "I request an opportunity to answer the accusations he made against me. You must concede that that is only fair."
"You mean to say that you have an answer?"
"A very good one, I believe."
She looked skeptical, and Darcy felt his ire rise again. Was her opinion of him really so very bad? By this time Bingley was drawing up next to the wreckage, so he had no choice but to turn towards them. He took a few steps, stopped, turned and looked her full in the eyes. "I gave him three thousand pounds for that living, Miss Bennet, at his request." He walked off and left her staring after him.
Mr. Bingley was profuse in his apologies for not noticing they were gone for quite half an hour after the accident occurred. Jane, likewise, nearly wept when she saw Lizzy's injury and begged her forgiveness a dozen times. Elizabeth just laughed at her, trying to cover the many feelings which her time alone with Mr. Darcy had produced. His last shocking words kept echoing in her mind. Only three days before she would have unhesitatingly voted him a liar for making such a claim, but now she was not at all certain. There was no doubt that he had appeared in a dramatically different light to her these last days, and his behavior towards her after their accident had been such as to make her want to trust him. Even as she had accused him she had lacked conviction.
After some minutes of discussion, Mr. Darcy came back to talk with the two ladies. "I'm afraid you'll be forced to share a seat, ladies. The closest inn is about four miles on, and Bingley will take you there. I shall ride one of the horses and lead the other. And," he paused. "We have agreed, Miss Bennet," he looked at Elizabeth, "that it would be best for all concerned if we told people that both carriages remained together at all times."
Elizabeth flushed as she took his meaning, but she nodded, and Jane did likewise. Of course it would not do to let everyone know that she had been alone with him for an hour--not when she would be returning with a torn gown and tumbled hair.
The inn to which Mr. Bingley drove them was a small affair, with narrow windows and a low roof. Inside it was dark and hot and musty. It turned out that there was little to be had for refreshment but small beer and ale, but the second basket of food was recovered and unpacked. This caused some indignation on the part of the landlord's wife, which Mr. Bingley cheerfully ignored. Elizabeth was given a room and some water to wash with; Jane went with her, and they did the best they could. She was mortified to realize how her face actually looked.
"I'll startle everyone in the common room," she muttered.
"No indeed," said Jane reassuringly. "You can wear your bonnet, and we'll find a table where you may sit next to the wall, or the window, perhaps."
The blood rose in Lizzy's face as she remembered Mr. Darcy's behavior towards her, the intensity of his gaze as he cleaned her cheek, the gentleness in his hands and voice. Somehow, he was not the man she had thought him. What sort of man he was, though, she did not know, but if his words about Wickham were true, she would have to rethink everything she believed, everything she felt, about him.
Replacing her bonnet as cheerfully as she could, she went with Jane to rejoin Mr. Bingley in the common room below.
By the time Darcy reached the inn, he was hotter and dustier than he ever remembered being, and he was incensed to learn that they were seated in the common taproom. Bingley and the ladies were at a table in the corner, eating their picnic lunch, but they stood out painfully in a room full of farmers and laborers. He caught more than one pair of male eyes trained on the two young females and glared coldly at them as he passed.
His displeasure grew as he saw Elizabeth. She was seated by the wall, her wounded cheek turned away from the room, and her bonnet throwing her face into shadow. It infuriated him that she should be forced to hide her appearance from gawking eyes in such a way. He came to a stop by their table.
"There you are, Darcy," said Bingley cheerfully. "If I may say so, you look rather the worse for wear."
"Bingley, a word?" he asked tersely, jerking his head sideways. Bingley's brows rose but he got up and followed him a few feet.
"What do you mean by exposing the ladies to this common rabble this way?"
Bingley blinked. "I beg your pardon?"
"Can't you see that every man in here is ogling them? Or that Miss Elizabeth doesn't even have the freedom to remove her bonnet?"
"If they had a private parlor I would have taken it, but they don't. This is our only option."
"Surely some other accommodation might be made!"
"I'm sorry, but I can't see what, unless you'd have us all sit around in one of the bed chambers!"
Darcy muttered darkly and stalked back to the table. He took the seat opposite Elizabeth and looked earnestly at her. She met his gaze warily, and he realized belatedly that his black mood could not be endearing him to her. He looked away, attempting to compose himself to smile and speak pleasantly, when he happened to see the man at the next table staring at Elizabeth in a rather leering fashion. Before he had even thought about it he was on his feet again, moving across the floor.
He came to stop before the roughly dressed fellow, looming over him. "I would suggest you direct your eyes elsewhere," he hissed.
The man grew a little red faced. "Now look 'ere--"
"No, you look here." He leaned forward, making the most of his height, his hauteur, and that indelible air of command which years as master of a large estate had given him. The man could not possibly misunderstand his wealth or his authority. "Those are ladies over there, not common trollops, and if you do not wish me to have you thrown out of this taproom immediately you will behave with proper respect towards them, which includes keeping your eyes off their persons."
The man sputtered a bit, clearly taken aback. "'Ow could ye have me thrown out?"
His gaze flicked contemptuously around the small room. "I'll buy it if I have to." The other stared at him with dropped jaw; he gave him a cold smile and returned to his own table. His sense of satisfaction disappeared when he realized that now everyone at the table was looking at him warily; Elizabeth's eyes seemed dismayed as well. Closing his eyes, he silently cursed his own stupidity and bad luck; she probably had not noticed the man's look, and would not have understood why he had acted as he did.
Eventually, a stilted conversation sprang back up, centered around what they were to do next. Darcy reckoned that it would take some hours to repair the axle, if it was reparable at all, and he was highly disinclined to pay for the curricle's retrieval and repair at all, since he held the business which rented it to him fully responsible. Mr. Bingley had already ascertained that this small inn had no available carriage, even a gig, and it was impossible that they should all four fit into a single curricle. Even the short ride there with three of them had made Jane blush prodigiously. Eventually, Bingley declared it his intention to drive the remaining curricle back to Morecastle and retrieve a carriage which could accommodate all four of them.
It was Elizabeth who first noticed that the light in the tap room had grown dimmer. It was only the middle of the day still, far too early to get dark, so Darcy went to the window to check the weather. The previously gloriously blue and brilliant sky was now covered with dark clouds. A spring storm was brewing.
The others took the news with composure. "It's just as well that we didn't drive all the way to the ruins then anyway," observed Elizabeth.
Darcy couldn't help but reflect that sheltering outdoors beneath ancient arches might have been much more pleasant (not to mention romantic) than this dark and dank room. "I'm sorry, Bingley," he said.
"Never mind," he answered cheerfully. "I'll raise the hood, and I never did care much about getting wet anyway."
This example of his courage and good humor caused Jane to smile so beatifically at him that he lost his power of speech for the next half a minute.
When Darcy came inside from seeing Bingley off--the first raindrops were already starting to fall--he found the two ladies whispering together. His eyes turned immediately to Elizabeth, but it was Jane who approached him. "I believe my sister would like to lie down," she said. "Although she will say little of it, I think her face is paining her."
Ill-concealed by the shadow of her bonnet, Elizabeth's cheek was indeed ripening into a deep purple, with some swelling. Although disappointed to lose her company, he agreed swiftly. "I'll see if the landlady has any ice," he suggested. Jane thanked him and went to accompany her sister.
The landlady did indeed have some ice--though very dirty it looked to him--and he requested that she have it sent up, trusting Jane to find the best way of applying it. He was now left to his own devices and reflections, alone in a miserably common taproom with pouring rain outside the window and the smell of beer, tobacco and unwashed bodies within it. The landlord had bustled about closing the windows at the first fall of rain, but he found a seat by one and pried it open, determined to breathe some fresh air by any means. There he remained as the spray dampened his coat, bearing a grim expression and deep in thought.
It was not, strangely, the matter of his old friend George Wickham which occupied his mind. That, after all, was an affair in which he could easily prove himself blameless. It would not be so easy to prove himself blameless in the matter of his attitude towards her neighbors in Hertfordshire. Beyond that, there were other thoughts that bothered him, one in particular. She had not known that he cared for her. She had not had the slightest idea of his interest. Considering what that said of his skills as a suitor, he shifted uncomfortably.
When he had seen Elizabeth lying still on the ground, his world had seemed momentarily to stop. The feelings which the entire experience had aroused simply could not be denied. One way or another, he would have to attempt to do better. He would have to do whatever it took to win her.
By the time that Bingley returned with a closed carriage, it had been raining steadily for well over an hour. It was hardly the ideal weather to travel in, but no one had the slightest desire to remain any longer at the inn, so they crowded without hesitation into its interior. Beside the driver up front there was one long-suffering footman, both dressed in raincoats and hats. The coach lurched and moved forward unevenly.
Inside, the men sat on the back-facing seat and the ladies on the forward facing. Mr. Bingley's cheerfulness was unimpaired by his ride through the rain (he had changed clothes before returning), and he and Jane spoke to each other as intently as they could with the space of the carriage floor dividing them. Darcy wished desperately for something to talk to Elizabeth about, but she stared out the window resolutely.
If he had but known it, she was more embarrassed than anything else. The combination of her appearance and their brief conversation about Wickham made it hard for her look at him. She had turned his explanation over in her mind a hundred times and found that as much as she wished to discard it, she could not. Although she had not completely set aside her skepticism, if he offered her any proof at all she would have to accept it. She was already mortified at her lack of perceptiveness where he was concerned, and if she had truly been so prejudiced and foolish as to believe a suave liar against an honest man without proof, her character was in question too.
The road had grown very muddy during the heavy downpour and the longer they rolled along, the slicker the mud got. Even the passengers could feel how slow they were going, and the way that the coach occasionally slid a little bit. Lizzy, not unnaturally, clutched her seat tightly any time this happened, and Darcy watched her with concern. It really was the most cursed luck.
They did not, fortunately, turn over, but they did get stuck. After a particularly laborious slog, the left front wheel stuck deep into cloying, wet, red clay and would not budge any further. When it became apparent that they weren't moving any longer, Darcy sighed and pulled his overcoat a little tighter. "I had better go see what has happened."
"I'll go too," said Bingley.
They both climbed out into the rain. The driver and footman were already on the ground, morosely examining the stuck wheel. "I'm sorry, sir," said the driver when he saw Darcy. "I tried to avoid the worse patches, but there was just too much mud along this stretch."
"It's all right, man, not your fault." He looked down at the mud. "What is your recommendation?"
"John and I'll have to push."
"I'll help," said Bingley.
"And so will I. It's going to take all of us to get us out of here."
Bingley trudged back to the carriage door to speak to the ladies. "We're stuck in the mud," he explained. "Darcy and are going to help push."
The two Miss Bennets looked at him and each other with wide eyes, and began to rise as one.
"No, no! Stay there. It's not fit for you outside."
"Of course we're coming out," said Elizabeth. "We can't sit in here and make your work harder for you." She moved to the door and Bingley automatically moved over to make room for her. Darcy, however, when he looked up and saw Elizabeth about to descend the carriage steps, was not so polite.
"What do you think you're doing?"
She blinked. "I'm getting out."
"I most certainly can! Jane and I have to get out to make the coach lighter."
"That's absurd. Your combined weight is nothing as compared to the weight of the coach."
"Nevertheless, we choose not to add to it."
She made the last step into the rain and mud and Darcy, with a smothered exclamation, tore off his long coat and swung it around her shoulders. "You can't stay out here!"
"We'll stand under that tree over there, see?" She nodded in the direction of a small tree some fifteen or twenty feet off the road.
Darcy was already coming to understand Elizabeth's character well enough to realize that he was not going prevail upon her to return to the dry interior of the carriage. He eyed the expanse of mud that lay between her dainty feet and the tree and, perhaps out of concern, perhaps out of spleen, perhaps out of the fierce desire to do something that would ordinarily be impermissible, he bent over, picked her up, and carried her across the short distance before she could recover from her surprise enough to react. "Stay there," he growled as he put her on her feet.
In the meantime Jane was standing framed by the carriage doorway, looking truly angelic. Mr. Bingley, who had watched Darcy's masterful display with some admiration, made a low bow and smiled adoringly, even while rain ran in rivulets off the brim of his hat. "Madam, if you would permit me--?"
She blushed but nodded and he reverently wrapped her in his riding coat before lifting her in his arms and carrying to her to a place beside her sister. There, the Bennet sisters were treated to a most engaging sight: two young, good-looking men in their shirts and waistcoats, soaking wet, mud up to the top of their elegant boots, straining against the back of a carriage in the rain. The footman, who was young and strong, pushed with them, while the older driver stood at the horses' heads, urging them forward.
It was a long and arduous effort. It seemed for some time that the wheel could not be reclaimed and they would never get the carriage moving again that day. They received an unexpected boon when the rain began to let up; although they were already so wet it hardly mattered, it was easier to see and to grip the sides of the carriage, and the horses were more willing. They took a short break, breathing heavily, and all conferred. Eventually, Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley approached the ladies, who were still standing wrapped in their coats beneath the tree.
"You must forgive us," began Mr. Darcy. "We are most reluctant to ask this--"
"But we feel we need a fourth man to push."
"I would gladly loan you my spare man," said Elizabeth, "but I must have mislaid him back at the inn." To her surprise, Mr. Darcy laughed out loud at that. In fact, he was looking astonishingly cheerful, as if the physical labor and dirt had somehow wiped out his black mood of earlier, and it struck her in that moment how very handsome he was, face and eyes bright, with mud splattered across one cheek.
"It is your assistance we seek, my dear ladies," answered Bingley.
They exchanged startled glances. "I am afraid our feeble efforts may not be of much assistance," said Jane, "but we are willing to try pushing, if you wish."
The gentlemen's faces reflected their horror at this idea. "No, no, no!" cried Bingley. "I apologize, I did not mean that we wished for you to help us push the carriage. We would never ask that!" Darcy shook his head emphatically in agreement. "What we were wondering is if one of you might be able to stand with the horses and lead them forward. Then Winker will be free to add his strength to ours."
Both ladies thought about this. "I can do it," said Jane.
"Jane, are you sure?"
"Lizzy, you know I am much more comfortable with horses than you are."
"But I am much more comfortable with mud."
"You are injured. It will be far better if you leave it to me. I am not afraid."
Darcy nodded his approval of this plan, and Mr. Bingley was all admiration. "I'm afraid that you'll almost certainly ruin your shoes," he said, "but I would be honored if you would allow me to buy you a new pair to take their place."
Jane blushed and demurred, then took his arm and allowed him to support her as they picked their way towards the horses. Winker the driver was waiting to give her instructions.
His hands on his hips, Darcy looked Elizabeth over carefully. "Are you well?"
For some reason she blushed under his gaze. "Perfectly. Although--" she glanced upward. "I suppose I should move, really. It is beginning to be wetter under this tree than the sky."
"I would offer you my arm, but--" he looked down at his soaked sleeves.
For some reason she could not readily explain, Elizabeth found herself reaching for him anyway, wrapping her hands around his forearm, wet fabric, sinew and all. Darcy smiled happily at her and she blushed again, fiercely wishing away her bruised face.
Darcy left Elizabeth standing a little way from the tree, in a grassy patch that provided relatively solid footing. With Jane at the horses' heads, all four men put their backs into it. Two took the back of the coach, and two applied themselves to the stuck wheel. The horses pulled, the men heaved, and all at once they began to move. Slowly at first, and then with increasing speed, the carriage pulled through the deep mud and rolled onto a firmer stretch of ground. A great cheer went up and then Darcy and Bingley were clapping each other on the back and shaking hands with the other men as if they were their equals. A cheer was given for Jane, too, who had done her part valiantly, and everyone prepared to depart.
Both women were assisted back to the interior of the carriage (Jane modestly slipping off her caked half boots while the men's backs were turned), but once they had seated themselves they found to their dismay that the men, who were now as dirty as they were wet, did not intend to join them.
"We are truly are not fit for it," said Darcy, shrugging his relatively dry coat back on.
"And we may have to push again," added Bingley, seemingly undisturbed by the possibility.
"But where will you ride?" the ladies asked.
"On top of the carriage?" repeated Elizabeth, looking at Darcy incredulously.
"Certainly," he replied calmly, smiling a little at her expression.
"You'll catch cold," said Jane, distressed. "You cannot ride in the open air when you are so wet."
Everyone remembered how ill she had become when she had ridden outside wet, and hastened to reassure her.
"Our coats are hardly wet at all," said Mr. Bingley earnestly. "We'll have them on over our shirts, and we can put our overcoats on again too."
"Now that the rain has stopped it's quite warm out," contributed Darcy. "The sun is shining, and we are all very warm from the exercise too."
In the end, there was nothing the ladies could say to induce the men to seat themselves opposite them in their current state, so they had to hope that the remaining journey would not take long (they weren't far out of Morecastle now), and be uneventful.
Everyone seemed to take for granted that Darcy would sit next to the driver, but he declined and insisted on finding a perch on the top of the coach next to Bingley, something in him perhaps rising to the implied challenge of Elizabeth's incredulity. She did not believe he would ever condescend to sit, clinging, to the top of a carriage, and therefore he was determined to do it.
Winker cleared his throat. "If I may, masters…" he leaned over and pulled a flask of wine from under his seat. "The missus always sends some of this with me, in case it should be needed. If you'd condescend to share it with me, I'd be greatly honored."
"What a fine idea!" proclaimed Mr. Bingley and the flask was passed around in a sense of true camaraderie, each man receiving just enough to warm him a little.
They were moving by then, and although Darcy found the seat a bit precarious, he could not help but enjoy the sunshine and the air ruffling his hair as it dried. "This isn't too bad," he remarked to Bingley, who was grinning. "I've never actually ridden on the top before, you know."
"Not even when in your college days?"
"Not even then."
"Oh, we used to think it was great sport, to sit on the top like this and urge the coachman to go faster and faster."
"Sounds dashed dangerous to me."
"Yes, but that was the point, you know? Didn't you ever wish to do anything really madcap when you were younger?" At Darcy's expression he threw up his hand. "Never mind, don't tell me!"
Sitting alone below them, two rather disgruntled young ladies could hear voices and laughter drifting down from up above. "Jane," said Lizzy, "why do I feel like we got the worst of this situation?"
Jane's only reply was a small huff.
Part 3: The Beach
Posted on 2013-03-31
The next morning Elizabeth looked despairingly into her glass. Although the swelling in her cheek had largely subsided by now, its color just kept growing… well, more colorful. The night before she had tried to make light of it by saying that at least she'd always looked good in blue, but this morning there were greens and yellows as well--and not any shade of green or yellow that she would ever have voluntarily worn.
"It's hopeless," she said.
"It doesn't look so very bad," comforted Jane. "No one who sees you today will care, I am sure."
"It does look so very bad, and as for anyone caring…" she trailed off. It disconcerted her to think that the only person she cared about caring was Mr. Darcy.
Jane smiled knowingly. "Both the gentlemen have already seen you," she suggested tactfully, "and I think it looks better than it did yesterday, now that it is not so swollen."
"Somehow, that does not comfort me at all."
"You must try not to think of it. You know they said they would call after breakfast to see how we are. You cannot refuse to see them, not after everything they did for us yesterday!"
Yes, everything they had done. Although she had by no means forgotten Mr. Bingley's contributions, somehow Darcy filled all her memories of the day. Darcy, bending white-faced above her, cleaning her cheek, carrying her through the rain; Darcy straining his shoulder against the unmoving carriage, smiling at her, wet and muddied and handsome. Darcy turning back towards her, purposeful fire in his eyes--"I gave him three thousand pounds for that living, Miss Bennet, at his request." She groaned silently.
Over at the hostelry where the gentlemen were lodging, Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley were having a rather painful breakfast.
"I have bruises here, and here and here," said Bingley, moving his hand down his arm.
Darcy grimaced and reached stiffly for the coffee pot.
"Truly, I thought I was in good condition, but this morning I feel like a lad who's just ridden a horse for the first time and stayed on it too long." He frowned. "That is, if riding horses could give you bruises on your arm."
"Let us face it, Bingley," said Darcy. "We are gentlemen, and no matter how much exercise we fancy we take, we simply cannot compare to the common laborer in the field who has to employ his muscles every day, all day. I dare say even John and Winker are faring better than we are today."
Even as he said the last words the door opened and John entered, bearing their freshly cooked eggs. He winced slightly as he bent over, and the two men grinned at each other.
Before arriving at the Gardiners' rented house the men returned the one still functioning curricle, and Darcy took it upon himself to deliver a rather large piece of his mind to the owners of the business, including instructions as to where, exactly, they could find their missing carriage, and what, exactly, they should do with it, should they see fit to fetch it, which in his opinion was hardly worth the trouble. Having thus mollified his feelings of outrage, he was able to proceed with tolerable equanimity to see Elizabeth herself.
The entire family was in the parlor when they arrived, children and all. Elizabeth's face was painful to look at, but he thought her no less beautiful because of it.
It was their first time visiting at any length with Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner. Conscious of the need to repair the poor impression he had made by his behavior in Hertfordshire, Darcy made an unusual effort to speak to them and be congenial. To his surprise, he found it was no real effort at all; they were engaging, pleasant, well-bred people, and even their children appeared bright and well mannered. At one point he looked up from a serious discussion with Miss Maggie Gardiner on the merits of shortbread over cake to see Elizabeth watching him in clear astonishment. He colored a bit, and smiled self-consciously. "I have a younger sister."
"Ah." She wasn't sure what to say. This Mr. Darcy was so utterly different from the Mr. Darcy of Hertfordshire and Kent that she knew not how to understand it.
"I say," spoke up Mr. Bingley. "Darcy and I feel dreadfully about what happened yesterday. We were hoping there might be some way to make it up to the ladies."
"I daresay you are not blame for the weather, Mr. Bingley," said Elizabeth, "nor Mr. Darcy for the condition of a rented curricle."
"Nevertheless we feel we owe you a day's enjoyment--if not more! I dare not suggest another out of town excursion after yesterday's disaster, but there are many perfectly safe enjoyments to be had within Morecastle itself. I've heard that they have a very decent theatre, a museum, a magic lantern show, and even a menagerie." He winked at the children.
Mrs. Gardiner and Jane exchanged a look. "Perhaps not the theatre," said Mrs. Gardiner.
"Or the museum," confirmed Jane.
Mr. Bingley nodded genially. Darcy perceived the reason for their refusals at once--it was Elizabeth. She would not like to be seen in public the way she looked now. "Perhaps you have a preference, Miss Elizabeth," he said, looking at her.
Elizabeth blushed self-consciously as the eyes of the room turned on her but answered lightly enough, "The menagerie sounds quite delightful, but I also would welcome a chance to enjoy the beach further. After all, ruins and animals are to be found in Hertfordshire too, but we do not have the sea there."
"The beach it shall be! Mrs. Gardiner, do you have any objection to our joining your party for the afternoon?"
"None at all, Mr. Bingley," she replied smilingly. "My children enjoy all kinds of company, as do Mr. Gardiner and I."
There followed a discussion of particulars which resulted in Mr. Darcy dispatching a note to the Black Horse Inn for his carriage. The children clamored to ride in the gleaming barouche and Darcy agreed instantly, smiling an indulgent smile that quite caught Elizabeth by surprise. But then, everything he had done since she saw him on the beach four days before had caught her by surprise. She was quickly concluding that he was the most enigmatic and contrary man she had ever encountered.
Standing before a mirror in the entry way, Elizabeth struggled to fasten a veil to the top of her hat. They had sent a maid out to procure it earlier in the morning and there was nothing wrong with it, as veils went, but she just couldn't seem to get it to drape right, even when Jane came to help. The mesh fabric itched her face, and she couldn't seem to fully disguise her bruise or to see out properly. Plus, she looked ridiculous. "Oh, bother," she muttered at last, yanking it off. "Wearing it will probably draw more attention to me anyway. Whoever heard of wearing to a veil to the beach? In any case, I care nothing for the stares and opinions of strangers."
"Neither should you, Miss Bennet," came Darcy's voice just off her shoulder. She jumped a bit and squeaked.
"Forgive me, I did not mean to startle you."
"It appears you walk very softly, Mr. Darcy."
"Either that or you were very preoccupied." The corners of his mouth twitched.
"I assure you, if you had a bruise this size on your face, you would be preoccupied with it too."
"I doubt I should wear it as well as you do, though."
Her look was patently disbelieving. "You have picked an odd time to take up flattery, sir."
"On the contrary." He turned as the others prepared to depart. "I never flatter at all." He looked back at her, and his face suddenly softened. "You may believe me, Miss Bennet… you look as charming as you always do."
Elizabeth had never considered it before, but the Gardiner's carriage really was extraordinarily stuffy. As Darcy settled himself into the seat opposite her a few minutes later, she discovered she was positively flushed from the heat, and it was all she could do not to stick her head out the window to cool it.
The beach was lovely. No trace of the previous day's storm remained in the cloudless sky, and, although it was still too early in the year to play in the water, the weather was just calculated to inspire all manner of sandy frolics. When they arrived they found that John footman and one or two other servants had gotten there before them and were arranging chaise lounges and chairs around spread-out blankets with an array of food. Although these arrangements were similar to the ones that Mr. Darcy had made the day they went boating, Elizabeth found herself regarding them with very different feelings. What had then appeared as evidence of his arrogance now appeared more in the light of thoughtful kindness. She found herself shaking her head even as she watched the servants working, wondering if she were right or wrong to change her opinion so quickly.
"Miss Bennet?" There he was, at her side again, extending his elbow in invitation. She grasped it firmly and they set off over the sand.
It was a merry party. The children had brought a kite with them, and soon Mr. Gardiner and Mr. Bingley were both engaged in helping them fly it, running with great enthusiasm up and down the beach while the ladies called out encouragement and Darcy shook his head sadly. Young Edward, who was still a little pale and weak, grew tired soon and came back to sit with his mother and eat the grapes Darcy had somehow procured. Jane and Elizabeth took a short walk together, admiring the sea once again, watching the others and laughing.
"Mr. Bingley certainly makes up in energy what he lacks in finesse," remarked Elizabeth.
"It is the wind that is lacking, Lizzy. If the breeze were stronger they would have had no difficulty at all in getting the kite up."
"Yes, but we would have had much less enjoyment in watching them do it."
Jane sighed deeply and leaned her head on her sister's shoulder. "Oh, Lizzy, I am very happy."
"Yes. Yes, I can see that you are."
"But I wish I knew what his intentions are. When he looks at me--oh, I feel that he must care for me, at least a little bit, but then I think of how he went away last time, and we shan't all be here in Morecastle forever. If we go back to Longbourn, and he never returns to Netherfield, how shall I be able to bear it?"
Lizzy put an arm around her waist. "I wish I knew what to say to you, but I don't."
"It…" she was silent for a moment. "It isn't right for him to pay me such attentions, if he doesn't mean anything by it, don't you agree?"
"I do. And Mr. Bingley has always appeared to be an honorable man. Yet, you are right. After what happened last year, I no longer feel able to predict the future." She gave her a little squeeze. "It can only help that Mama and Lydia are in Hertfordshire instead of here, though."
After a few minutes Jane went to join the group with the kite but Elizabeth remained behind. Presently, Darcy came walking in her direction, and her stomach clenched. She turned her face back to the ocean as he came to stop beside her, and they stood in a silence for a little while before he spoke.
"I believe we have a conversation to finish, Miss Bennet."
She twisted her hands.
"I do not wish to distress you, but I cannot rest easy until I know you understand the truth about Mr. Wickham."
She sighed. "Three thousand pounds?"
"Yes, plus he received another thousand as his bequest in my father's will. I was glad to accede to his request; he has never been fitted for the church. He said he wished to study the law. Only when the living became free two years later he wrote and told me that since he was now out of funds again, he would like to have it after all. I refused then, but I hope you will not blame me for that."
"How do I know what you say is true, Mr. Darcy?" She was still looking at the ocean rather than at him, but at least he got to study her profile.
"If my cousin Fitzwilliam were here I would ask him to confirm my story. He is my sister's co-guardian and one of the executors of my father's will. As it is, I can only offer to send to Pemberley for my papers there. I have Wickham's agreement in his own hand."
That did it. Even as she had asked him for proof she had been painfully aware that she had never asked his accuser for proof. "That will not be necessary, sir," she said hurriedly. "I believe you." She turned to walk away.
Darcy hastened match to her steps, waiting for her to speak. When she did not he ventured, "Mr. Wickham is a very skillful deceiver. It is not to be wondered at if you believed him."
"Please, sir." She would not look at him. "Do not be gracious. I do not deserve it."
He hesitated. "I cannot agree."
She shook her head.
"Truly, Miss Bennet, my excellent father always believed in Wickham's good character, even years after his habits became dissipated. Without actual knowledge of his history or habits, how could you suspect that he was lying to you?" He touched her elbow fleetingly. "You would not suspect others of behavior so foreign to you."
"Your assessment of my character is too kind. He gave me reason enough to question him, had I the inclination."
Darcy didn't have to ask why she didn't. He knew it was his fault. If he had been in collusion with Wickham, he could not have prepared the ground for his lies.
Elizabeth made a small sound and he realized with dismay that she was crying. He fumbled and withdrew a large handkerchief, pressing it on her, and watched while she pressed it to her eyes, wincing as the fabric brushed her injured cheek. "Forgive me," he said, he hardly knew for what, except that he had grieved her.
She shook her head, and unexpectedly smiled. "Of all the things which have befallen me over the last four days, Mr. Darcy, these tears are well-deserved. You should not apologize."
He stared at her, struck by the fact that she said the last four days, not simply the last day, or since yesterday. He could see how his impetuous, imperative speeches and reproaches had indeed befallen her; how confused she must have been! How astonished! And he in his arrogance assuming that she understood him; that she waited so eagerly for his proposal that he need hardly say the words before securing her acceptance. "Miss Bennet," he began slowly--
"There you are, Lizzy!" Young Andrew Gardiner dashed up. "You'll let me hide behind you, won't you?" He ducked behind her skirts before she could say a word.
Elizabeth began to laugh, and stood with her arms out as his older sister proceeded to chase him around her in a circle. After a moment, Darcy laughed too as he watched them.
"Hallo!" Mr. Bingley approached. "I was just talking with a local fellow and he says there are some caves up this way, if you'd be interested in exploring. I used to love caves when I was a child."
The children immediately clamored to go.
"Bingley, I do not think Miss Elizabeth is quite up to--"
"Mr. Darcy, do you actually imagine that because I have a bruise on my cheek, my limbs no longer work?"
He laughed deprecatingly. "You are quite right. But are you certain that there are no other--effects from yesterday?"
She flushed a little, discerning what he had too much delicacy to ask outright. "Are you certain you feel no effects from yesterday?" She had noticed both he and Mr. Bingley seemed a little cautious in their movements at times.
"No more than I can manage."
"Then I shall say the same."
Jane decided to stay behind, so Darcy, Bingley, Elizabeth and the two oldest Gardiner children all trekked across the sand and over the black rocks that led to the mouth of the caves. "It's low tide right now," Bingley had explained, "and so the best time to have a look."
"Is this your first time in a cave, Miss Elizabeth?" asked Darcy as they stood peering into a long, narrow opening.
"A sea cave, yes, but there are a few caves in our area that I used to explore with my sisters when we were children." She smiled reminiscently. "My elder sister may not appear much like an intrepid explorer now, but she was quite the expedition leader in those days. In fact, I think Jane is the only reason we ever came out safely. She always made sure we took all the proper precautions."
"And yourself? I cannot believe you simply held back and followed the others."
"It was my job to walk ahead with the torch--in case of bats, you know. I was less frightened by them than the others."
Darcy smiled an odd little smile on hearing this.
The cave before them was not a particularly remarkable sight. The ground was a mixture of sand and rock, rather damp, a few jagged formations providing the only real interest. Maggie and Andrew, of course, were delighted with it, and explored as far as light would allow. After a time they moved on to a second, larger cave. This one proved to be full of tide pools, smooth and glimmering in the half-light; they kept a tight grip on the children, unwilling to let them too close on the uneven footing. The glare from the slick, dark rocks and white sand was unexpectedly bright, coming out, and everyone squinted a little bit and stumbled at first as they worked their way towards the third cave, a bit further down. Mr. Bingley good naturedly swung Andrew from one rock to the other, while Darcy insisted on keeping Elizabeth on his arm and she, in turn, held Maggie's hand.
"Oh, oh!" cried the children, as they entered. Bright shafts of sunlight, slanting down from openings in the roof, turned the floor to a glittering brightness where they struck. Elizabeth, too, clapped her hands in delight and joined hands with the children as they danced around in a circle inside one large light shaft. When she came to a halt, flushed and breathless and laughing, she saw Darcy watching her with a little quirk to his brow and lip.
"I know you despise dancing, Mr. Darcy."
"You mistake, Miss Bennet. Just because I do not frequently enjoy participating in the activity does not mean I cannot, on occasion, enjoy witnessing it. Especially," he added, "when it is performed with such charming glee and innocence."
Charming glee and innocence. Did she want Darcy to attribute charming glee and innocence to her? She straightened with sudden self-consciousness and smoothed her skirt. She was a grown woman, after all, not a child.
They lingered there for a time, staring up through the openings, examining the rocks and enjoying this secret bit of beauty. Finally Darcy judged it time to return to the others, so they made their way back over the uneven surface. At one point Maggie slipped, tore her stockings and skinned her knee. She was an old enough girl not to cry, even though she blinked her eyes fiercely. She said she could go on, but Mr. Darcy picked her up in his arms and carried her the rest of the way over the rocks.
"Lizzy, look at me!" she crowed triumphantly over his shoulder.
"I see, dear. Is the view nice up there?"
"Oh yes! I can see ever so much more! Mama says I am too old to be carried now but Papa sometimes carries me and I like it. Mr. Darcy is taller than Papa is, though. Have you ever been carried, Lizzy?"
Lizzy almost stumbled herself. "When I was a little girl like you, of course. Ladies usually have no reason to be carried, you know."
Mr. Darcy murmured something--she couldn't quite make out what it was but she thought it might have been the word usually.
When they got back to the others they found that Edward and Mrs. Gardiner had both fallen asleep, he on a blanket and she in a chaise. Mr. Gardiner and Jane were sitting quietly entertaining little Harriet Gardiner; the father looked up when his other daughter came running across the sand to him. "What's this?" he asked, looking at her torn stocking.
"Oh, I slipped on the rocks," she said blithely, "but Mr. Darcy carried me and did you know that he's taller than you are, Papa? The caves were lovely, especially the last one. Andrew and Lizzy and I all danced around in a sunbeam like we were fairies and Mr. Bingley said that Jane looks like she could be the queen of the fairies. And oh, there were pools in the second cave, but they wouldn't let us get close because they said we might slip and fall into them but I don't think I would have minded because--"
"Maggie," said her father in gentle remonstrance. "Don't run on so much. Take a breath every now and again."
"Yes, Papa." She kissed him on the cheek and tumbled out of his arms onto the ground next to Harriet, whom she began regaling with a more detailed description of the wonders she had seen.
"I am grateful to you for helping my daughter," said Mr. Gardiner to Mr. Darcy.
"It was nothing, I assure you. I am only sorry that she should have slipped in the first place."
Mr. Gardiner waved aside his concern, assuring him that Maggie incurred an injury of some sort nearly every week, and the two men settled down into a quiet conversation. Mr. Bingley and Jane began to speak together, while Lizzy sat close enough to alternate between conversing with them and with the children.
After a while, Darcy, who had been engaged with the tradesman in an engrossing discussion on the current economic state of Great Britain, looked up to find Elizabeth watching him again. There was an expression in her eyes that he could not interpret. Their gazes met and she did not look away, but her look was different from the one to which he had become accustomed. It held no archness and no challenge; no hidden laughter. In a moment imports and exports, populations and resources disappeared. There were only her luminous eyes, asking him some unarticulated question. He gazed back, hoping to give her the answers she sought, even as he didn't know what they were.
Mr. Gardiner's seat creaked a little as he shifted, and Darcy's eyes snapped back to him. "Yes, sir, I believe you were saying…?"
Mr. Gardiner covered his mouth with his hand. "Actually, I believe you were saying, sir."
"Oh. Yes." Darcy flushed a little and tried to remember what he had been talking of. "The progress of manufacturing in the north…"
They sat on the beach talking for another half an hour before Mrs. Gardiner suddenly woke with a start. "Oh," she murmured, her hand going automatically to her hair. "Oh, Andrew! Maggie! You're back so soon?"
There was a moment's silence followed by childish giggles and some less than subtle snickering, led by her husband.
The first carriage had already left, taking with it Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, Jane, and the two youngest children. Just as Elizabeth prepared to enter the second carriage, she was arrested by the sight of a young boy, being led in the rough grip of a local constable. He was crying piteously, and her heart wrenched at the sight.
Darcy followed her gaze, and immediately his brow contracted. Releasing his grip on her hand, he strode in the pair's direction. After a surprised moment she followed him, leaving Mr. Bingley with the children.
"--Found 'im stealin' stuff off the beach," the man was saying.
"I wasn't stealin'!" insisted the child. "I was just pickin' up what people left behind. People are always leavin' 'ats and scarves and toys on the beach. They don't belong to nobody no more!"
The constable made as if to cuff him, but Darcy stayed his hand. "Do you have any parents?" he asked the boy.
He nodded vigorously. "Ma mother lives down that way. Ma father died in the war. Please, sir," he pleaded. "I didn't mean any 'arm. I thought we could sell the stuff."
"What, so your mother could spend it on gin?" scoffed the other.
He started crying again. "No, on--on me--me'icine for me sister!"
Darcy looked between the two with pursed lips. "I'll vouch for this boy, constable," he said finally.
"Are you sure, guv'nor?" He scratched his head.
"Perfectly. My name is Darcy." He reached into his coat. "Here is my card. I am currently staying at the Black Horse Inn."
"That will be all." He said it with a dismissiveness that would have usually infuriated Elizabeth, but on this occasion delighted her. The lowly constable, apparently recognizing a man of some importance, surrendered the imp with a shrug and a warning.
"Now, my boy," Mr. Darcy stood very straight and looked down at the boy sternly, "you will tell me truth, because if you lie I will certainly find it out. Is your sister really ill?"
He sniffled and gulped. "Yessir."
"And did your father really die in the war?"
"Yessir. In battle in the--the penin--penininsule--"
"The Peninsula, you mean."
"Is your mother a respectable woman?"
"Oh, yessir, she used ta work in a shop and now she takes in sewin' so that she can take care of Nancy, but then Nancy got sick and there's no money for me'icine, and my da, afore he left he said I was to be the man and take care a them, so I thought I could take the things nobody wanted no more and--"
"Yes, I understand." He thought for a moment. "What is your name?"
"Tom, I will go with you to your house right now. If everything is as you say, then I will help you. If it is not, then you will regret lying to me. Do you understand?"
He nodded, big eyed.
"Let us go back this way first--" He started as he turned and found Elizabeth, standing just behind him. He obviously had not realized that she was there.
"Don't go alone," she said immediately.
He blinked. "Why not?"
"Because you don't know where he might take you--what kind of neighborhood. And while I don't believe he's lying, if he is--"
Darcy smiled a little. "In that case, I will take my footman with me. Will that reassure you?"
"Yes, but your carriage--"
"Will return and wait for me here."
Elizabeth couldn't say anymore; her heart was too full. The three of them returned to the carriage, where Darcy had a brief, low-voiced conversation with Mr. Bingley and gave his servants the necessary orders. Elizabeth's last sight, as they rolled away, was of him walking down the street with calm, confident strides, one hand on the shoulder of the boy beside him, John the footman following behind.
The gentlemen had promised to dine with them that evening. Elizabeth could hardly sit still through the interim, so anxious was she to learn the outcome of Darcy's inquiry. Everything about his dealings with Tom and the constable had been admirable, from the speed with which he stepped in, to his willingness to stake the reputation of his own name, to his handling of the boy. She also knew that he had not acted out of any desire to impress her; his surprise on seeing her had been too real. Whatever else Mr. Darcy might be, he was not an actor. Rather, she felt that she had seen a glimpse of the real man, perhaps for the first time ever.
She could not stop thinking about him, wondering what he had felt for her before, what he felt for her now. Was this transformation in his behavior for her? Had he truly been attached to her, and was it possible that his attachment had survived her rudeness and every indication against him? And did she hope for such an outcome or dread it? She would have dreaded it in Kent. She would have been appalled to learn that Mr. Darcy cherished amorous feelings for her. Now, everything was changed, just as he was changed, just as her faulty judgment was changed. Every reason she had had for hating him seemed removed. He was not, after all, the dishonorable cheater of honest men, nor did he seem to have had any role in separating her sister from Mr. Bingley; not if his current behavior was any judge. Her most firmly held opinion of him, that he was not a pleasant man, and that his pride must make him disgusting to any discerning person, was crumbling rapidly too. The man who had carried Maggie in his arms--who had talked politics with her uncle--who had refused to blame her for believing in Wickham's lies and had offered charity to an unknown boy--that man was neither unpleasant nor improperly proud. Elizabeth hardly knew what to think, but she found herself wishing, for the hundredth time, that her face had not been injured. If he had found her only tolerable when she was looking her best, what must he think of her now?
She dressed with unusual care that evening, but not all her preparations could conceal the source of her distress. Jane suggested pulling out a few curls to fall over the offending area, but she concluded that it would cover nothing and look silly, and with almost vicious defiance, swept it all back. Mr. Darcy would have to take her or leave her like everyone else. She descended the stairs with a determined tilt to her chin and a flash in her eyes.
If Elizabeth had known how little attention Mr. Darcy paid to the bruise on her cheek (except to worry that it was paining her), and how much attention he paid to the brilliancy of her eyes, she would have felt much relieved. He liked this way of doing her hair. Although curls around the face were fashionable, he found he preferred to see the smooth expanse of her brow and the delicate curve of her ears unobstructed.
He was also suffering from a slight sense of unreality. Never would he have imagined dining, with perfect equanimity, at a rented house in the middle-class section of Morecastle with a tradesman, and even less that he would enjoy doing so. The Gardiner's intelligent and well-bred conversation, Bingley's easy congeniality, and most of all Elizabeth's light banter and laughter warmed him better than wine. If he squinted just slightly he could see Georgiana sitting right there, next to Miss Bennet, comforted by her gentleness and cheered by Elizabeth's liveliness. It made an entirely complete picture, one he wished badly to bring to reality.
"Mr. Darcy," she spoke softly beside him. "I wish you would tell me what happened with the boy Tom. Did you meet his mother? Was his story true?"
He looked a little self-conscious, but answered readily. "Entirely true, as it turns out. I did indeed meet his mother, and saw his sister Nancy, too."
"I am so glad! And were you able to help them?"
"I arranged for an apothecary to visit the house and provide whatever treatments necessary. I also," he coughed and ran a hand over his hair, "intend to inquire about the local law--about whether it really would be illegal for Tom to gather lost items from the beach. It seemed a rather ingenious plan to me."
"Is there no other assistance that can be given them? His father died fighting for his county--isn't some provision made for the widow?"
"I'm afraid only officers' wives receive a pension. Tom's father joined the army because he could not find other work, and he apparently sent back every penny he could, but it was very little. There was also some small amount of prize money, which is why they are not entirely penniless, but their situation is certainly hard--and not, I am afraid, unusual."
Elizabeth suddenly felt both her own ignorance of the world and her own privilege within it. She had spent so much of her life living under the shadow of the entail that she had never before fully considered how blessed she truly was to have been born a gentleman's daughter and to have any portion, no matter how small. "Surely we can help them some way!"
He smiled. "What can be done, shall be," he promised. "I do not have much acquaintance or influence here in Morecastle, but I will do my best."
She flushed as she saw her own presumption. "Forgive me, I did not mean that you should have to--"
"All men and woman of means should do what they can," he replied firmly, and cleared his throat. "It may be possible to find Mrs. Lorrey some better paying work than she has."
Elizabeth murmured her assent. "What would you have done if he had been lying about his circumstances?" she asked curiously.
"I would still have tried to help him--but it can be difficult to help someone who doesn't want help. Even children of ten can be hardened thieves and tricksters, wishing for no other life."
"Can nothing be done about them?" she asked. "Is there no one in a position to rescue those poor souls before they are ruined forever?"
"There are workhouses," he said, "but it is no wonder the children would rather steal than go to one. There are a few others who are attempting to do some good--I personally know of two institutions in London which are dedicated to rescuing orphans off the streets. They attempt to give them a home and teach them some useful trade--but the number of children that they lose back to the streets is very high. It is good work though, and I believe they find their few successes a sufficient reward for their failures." He looked self-conscious again as he spoke, and Elizabeth thought, he knows so much about them because he supports them. Rather than being a surprising conclusion, it seemed the natural one.
Shame flooded Elizabeth as she pondered how deeply she had maligned and misjudged him. Displeased only by his manners in company and his initial slight of herself, she had decided his entire character and believed gross lies simply because it pleased her. In doing so, she had wronged a most honorable and generous man.
Darcy saw her countenance change, but could not guess what she was thinking. He longed to speak at greater length about causes that were dear to him and the work he was helping to do--about all the good he believed she could do with him--but caution kept him silent. He would not repeat his errors of presumption.
"Perhaps you might like to visit them yourself?" he suggested tentatively. "I believe Mrs. Lorrey would be glad to speak to another woman."
Her face lit up. "I should like that very much. I often visit my father's tenants, but of course it is not the same in the country as it is in the city."
"The poverty in cities is greater," he agreed, "and the crime higher. Necessities like fresh food and clean water can be hard to come by."
"But Morecastle is not a very big city, and it is on the ocean. Surely there is an abundance of fish available?"
He smiled. "It is not quite so simple as that, but you are right. The neighborhoods in Morecastle are not so bad as London's, even the poorest ones. Just the same, there is plenty of poverty in every place."
"The poor will always be with you," she quoted.
They spoke for a time on similar subjects, and although Darcy's knowledge was certainly more extensive than hers, as was his experience, Elizabeth's quick and eager mind kept easily pace with his. By the time the gentlemen had to leave, both were conscious of a new depth of understanding and sympathy between them. Darcy thought of all those days he had sat in the Collins's parlor and said nothing, and rued the time he had wasted.
"Thank you," he said to Mrs. Gardiner at the end, and meant it. "I have seldom enjoyed a day more."
"Well, Lizzy," she said when they had left, "Mr. Darcy may appear rather proud when you first meet him, but I think he improves on acquaintance."
"Yes," said Lizzy, not noticing her knowing look, "yes, I think he does."Continued In Next Section