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Walk With Me - Chapters 10-11

May 10, 2015 05:18PM
Chapter 10 – A Courtship Begins

Mr. Darcy was not to visit until after luncheon and her aunt had decreed that the children were not to disturb their ‘Cousin Lizzy’, which afforded Elizabeth both time and opportunity to reflect upon Mr. Darcy who, she realized, had been dominating her thoughts for some time; but, until her father’s consent to the courtship had been given, she had not allowed herself to consider him as a possible husband. That much of her comprehension of Mr. Darcy’s character had been based on mistakes and misunderstandings had been known to her for some weeks. Once the mortification inherent on recognizing those errors on her own part had passed, she had not allowed herself to wonder at her visceral dislike of Mr. Darcy that had taken hold of her for so many months. She was not sure why this feeling should exist and perhaps she had not been ready to look at the reasons behind it. She now realized that this could not continue and that she would have to address it, for once and for all.

She believed that the source was now more easily determined; She had been attracted to Mr. Darcy almost immediately - how could a woman not be attracted to such a handsome man – but he had insulted her before their acquaintance had even been established – dismissing her as unworthy, as ‘not handsome enough to tempt him’. She recognized the blow to her vanity but had not thought herself so prejudiced as to not allow him to repair the damage – despite evidence, obvious to her now, that his every subsequent action of his had been an attempt to do so - at least in part. His conversations at Netherfield, his repeated attempts to dance with her – of which she had agreed only to the last and then spent chastising him – and his seeking her out to walk with her at Hunsford, were all obvious signs – not that she could see them then – of his interest and a repudiation of his slighting comment – even if that had not been his conscious purpose. She was resolved to put the incident behind her – although she thought it might prove useful should the opportunity arise, to tease Mr. Darcy about it. It was, however, a puzzle to her - why would a man, who otherwise behaved with civility, say something so abominably rude? She thought she was owed an explanation at the very least.

She searched her memory for other aspects of his dealings with her and only the inconsistency of his behaviour puzzled her. The same man who would ask her to dance three times also ignored her presence – beyond the coldest of civil greetings – when they shared the Netherfield library for a full half hour. His visits to the parsonage were equally puzzling. To sit for the duration of a visit without engaging in conversation beyond the barest and briefest of commonplace civilities was unfathomable to her. She had interpreted it as indicative of his disdain and disapproval. Was it something else entirely? Another question she would have to ask or puzzle out.

Then there was the matter of his arrogance and pride. His decision to involve himself in the business of her sister and his friend was surely proof of that arrogance. But what was arrogance but an insulting way of thinking or behaving that comes from believing that you are better, smarter, or more important than other people? Of this, she could find no shortage of proof. Mr. Darcy was clearly much more intelligent than most of those who surrounded him. His importance, she could not deny since his estate and birth would surely support such a feeling and, since he was assiduous in his management of that estate and other business, it was difficult to argue that he was not important. That he was somehow better than those with whom he was required to associate was more questionable. Certainly, society would deem him to be so and, if such a judgement were based solely on his personal merits, she would not fault it. That he felt no compunction on displaying that he viewed those around him as inferior, certainly contributed to her dislike; but, when she considered it further, she remembered that it was principally at the Assembly that the worst of his behaviour was displayed. In other engagements that he attended, he had been withdrawn and certainly not sociable but had been civil for the most part. Was there some reason that could explain his behaviour that one evening?

As she considered the matter further, she remembered his words when they were engaged in a heated discussion at Netherfield ‘But pride – where there is a real superiority of mind – pride will always be under good regulation.’ The pomposity of that statement – and the obvious circular reasoning since to claim such superiority was, in effect, an expression of pride – she found as amusing now, as then. Nonetheless, there was an element of truth contained therein, no matter how impolitic it was to have uttered it. Mr. Darcy did have a good regulation of mind - his judgement was sought and trusted by others – and he was obviously intelligent and thoughtful. He had cause to be confident in his judgement; however, he was fallible – as the matter of Jane and Bingley showed – and perhaps that error would cause him to be more cautious – and less arrogant – in the future. It was the way in which he conducted himself – his haughty manner – that offended and yet, he had greeted her aunt and uncle with perfect civility and every evidence of enjoying their company. Was he aware of how he was viewed? Or did his recent behaviour indicate an awareness of how uncivil he had been? She could not know for certain but the important question was whether this change - this improvement - was of a permanent nature.

If it was, then Mr. Darcy might make a most agreeable husband. As she considered this further, she remembered Charlotte's words - Mr. Darcy had, at the young age of two and twenty - come into the full management of a large estate upon the death of his father. The responsibilities inherent upon this must have been both a great burden and an equally great worry. She could not encompass all of the concerns that he faced but her knowledge of Longbourn and the responsibilities her father discharged - albeit poorly - were, she suspected, small in comparison to those faced by Mr. Darcy. As well, if she remembered correctly, that he had lost the service of a trusted steward scant months after the death of his father. He, perforce, was required to undertake responsibility for his estate without the guidance of a trusted steward. Surely a most demanding and worrisome undertaking; and yet, not five years later, his advice on running an estate was sought by Mr. Bingley who had considered acquiring an estate and also by his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. It could not but speak well for his abilities and dedication to such responsibilities.

When she remembered that, at the time he took on the management of his estate, he was also charged with the guardianship and more importantly, the raising of a ten year old sister - a task for which she was sure he thought himself totally unfitted and which, from her brief acquaintance with Miss Darcy, she believed him to have done particularly well - she could not but feel admiration. That he had been deceived by someone to whom he had entrusted Miss Darcy could not be held to his account - although, given his sense of responsibility, she thought he indeed would do so - and then betrayed by a childhood friend, so lost to a sense of decency as to importune a fifteen year old girl, the daughter of a man whom he professed to honour - could in no way diminished his success with Miss Darcy who, Elizabeth was sure, regarded her brother with affection and esteem. If he could act so carefully and thoughtfully with a sister, would he not also extend the same care, consideration and protection to a wife and children? This was no small concern for Elizabeth when she regarded her own family.

Had Elizabeth’s opinions been all drawn from her own family, she could not have formed a very pleasing picture of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort. Her father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had, very early in their marriage, put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished forever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown. But her father was not of a disposition to seek comfort, for the disappointment which his own imprudence had brought on, in any of those pleasures which too often console the unfortunate for their folly or their vice. He was fond of the country and of books; and from these tastes arose his principal enjoyments. To his wife he was very little otherwise indebted, than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement. This is not the sort of happiness which a man would in general wish to owe to his wife; but where other powers of entertainment are wanting, the true philosopher will derive benefit from such as are given.

Elizabeth, however, had never been blind to the impropriety of her father’s behaviour as a husband. She had always seen it with pain; but respecting his abilities, and while grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself, she endeavoured to forget what she could not overlook, and to banish from her thoughts that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible. But she had never felt so strongly as now the disadvantages which must attend the children of so unsuitable a marriage, nor ever been so fully aware of the evils arising from so ill-judged a direction of talents; talents which, when rightly used, might at least have preserved the respectability of his daughters, even if incapable of enlarging the mind of his wife. She realized that she wanted more and better from the man she chose as her husband. She was not so foolish as to expect that her husband would be without fault; but she was determined that he would have a preponderance of those characteristics likely to ensure felicity and respect in marriage. That she and her husband should respect each the other; that he would provide her with a secure and loving environment in which to bear and raise their children, were all essential. She was determined not to settle for less.

These deliberations had consumed much of her morning and she did not repine when Darcy did not arrive at Gracechurch Street until shortly after luncheon. While Elizabeth had found herself regretting that he would not call after breakfast, her need for time to reflect on their courtship was important to her. Besides, he had indicated the evening before that business matters would occupy his time for several hours every day and that, if he could dispose of them early in the day, he would then be able to attend her for the remainder. She could not disagree with this decision and, when she considered it more carefully, she was pleased that he was so resolute in conducting his business affairs. When she compared his attitude to that of her father, who was somewhat indolent in such matters, she could not feel that the comparison flattered her father. Suddenly Elizabeth remembered the conversation between Miss Bingley and Mr. Darcy when she stayed at Netherfield to nurse Jane.

“How many letters you must have occasion to write in the course of a year – letters of business too! How odious I should think them!”

“It is fortunate, then, that they fall to my lot instead of to yours.”

She realized that, even when visiting his friend, he had attended to business.

When Darcy was shown into the room, he found her sitting on the floor and playing with her cousins – two girls of six and eight years and two younger boys – in the sitting room. Slightly discomposed to be found in such a position – although it did not appear that Mr. Darcy was anything but charmed by the sight – she rose to curtsey and introduce her cousins. Since the afternoon was warm and sunny, Darcy and Elizabeth accompanied the children and their nurse on a visit to the neighbouring park.

Despite his desire to walk with Elizabeth on his arm, Darcy found himself escorting Miss Gardiner – named for her grandmother, Margaret – on one elbow and Miss Ellen Gardiner on the other. If he was dismayed at the prospect, he hid it well and was gravely solicitous to both girls as he escorted them. Elizabeth’s hands had quickly been usurped by her youngest cousins who alternately skipped, hopped and chattered unceasingly as they attempted to hurry her to the park. Her apologetic look at him was met with a small smile and a quiet, "Do not concern yourself, Miss Bennet. I am not unfamiliar with young ladies." Turning to her cousins, "And I am particularly pleased to have made the acquaintance of these two fine young ladies." which produced a most charming blush on the part of Miss Gardiner and a soft chuckle from Elizabeth.

Once they reached the park, the two youngest Gardiners quickly dropped Elizabeth's hands and, pursued by their governess, scampered away accompanied willingly by Miss Ellen and somewhat reluctantly by Miss Gardiner who had been charged with assisting in controlling her brothers by both her mother and governess. Darcy was not slow to offer his arm to Elizabeth and she was not reluctant to accept it. They walked in a comfortable silence for a short distance before Darcy spoke, "I like your cousins. They are a lively bunch. Your Cousin Margaret reminds me a little of Georgiana - quiet and rather shy, perhaps."

"Margaret is very much like Jane and Georgiana. My aunt hopes that when she goes to school in a year or so, she will become more comfortable around people she does not know." Elizabeth was quiet for a few seconds and, as Mr. Darcy did not seem inclined to pursue that topic and indeed appeared to be in a contemplative mood himself, wondered if it would be an opportune time to start seeking answers to the questions that her morning’s contemplations had raised but decided to explore the subject of his current thoughtfulness. Before she could do so, however, he spoke rather tentatively, "I believe, Miss Bennet, I owe you an apology - perhaps several since I suspect I committed a number of offences."

Elizabeth simply gazed at him, rather surprised that he would apologize for anything, before chastising herself for such an unkind reaction. 'When am I ever going to give this man his due?'

She realized that Darcy had noted her surprise and she hoped that he was not aware of the reason for it. "Yes, indeed we spoke of it last night when I was recounting my meeting with your father. I feel I must make my apology for those most insulting words that I spoke at the Assembly where we first met."

"Actually, Mr. Darcy, I do not believe we had met. If I remember correctly, you refused the acquaintance."

"Your memory is, unfortunately, all too good. It was perhaps the most uncivil and insulting thing I can remember doing. If I had known you had heard it - that anyone had heard it - I doubt I would have the fortitude to show my face there again."

"Are you apologizing for the action, Mr. Darcy - insulting me - or the consequences - it being heard? For if it is only for the consequences but you do not regret the action, an apology is meaningless."

"I am apologizing first for saying it and also for being so lost to propriety as to have said such in a public setting. That it was heard but adds to my shame." He paused, "I will make no excuses. It was a reflection of my mood and displeasure. I will not try to disclaim my actions by saying I did not see you. I did but what I did not see then, I began to see over the course of the following weeks. You were more than tolerable enough to tempt me, Miss Bennet, and, if truth is to be known, the reputed claims to beauty of your elder sister are nothing compared to your own."

Elizabeth could not help but blush in amazement at the compliment, knew not how to respond and unable to meet his eyes, gazed at the ground in front of her.

Darcy seeing her discomfort could not resist a tease, "You will have to get used to such compliments, Miss Bennet. You will surely receive many such from me in the future."

"I believe, sir, you are enjoying my embarrassment!"

"Indeed I am, and you are encouraging me to repeat it frequently. I do admire your countenance when you blush." His grin faded as he said in a less light-hearted voice, "I do hope you will forgive and forget my unkind words, Miss Bennet."

"I have spent a considerable amount of time lately considering them and other matters that lie between us. I can assure you that I had resolved this morning to put them behind me so your apology is accepted, sir. You are forgiven; however, ..." and her voice took on a teasing note, "...it would be very remiss of me to forget the offence and thus lose the opportunity to tease and plague you about it in the future which you can be assured I will do."

Darcy smiled, obviously not offended, as he replied, "I admit I like being teased by Miss Elizabeth Bennet and hope to give you many opportunities in the future."

“Nevertheless, Mr. Darcy, I admit to being puzzled as to why you would express yourself so ungraciously. Nothing I observed in your subsequent behaviour would support such behaviour.”

Darcy walked in silence for several minutes before replying, “I cannot say for certain. I admit I had attended with some reluctance and to learn that my income and worth, as measured by such, was common fodder for discussion within minutes of my appearance, was…very distasteful. I admit it happens in London but more discretely, I assure you. I knew no one outside my own party and those to whom I was introduced did not recommend themselves to me. I am afraid Sir William and your mother did naught but exacerbate my discomfort.” He paused and Elizabeth could see him scrutinizing her countenance. She hoped that he could detect no censure since she felt none. She could easily understand the reaction of a well-bred man to the improprieties of one and the foolishness of the other. She thought to reassure him saying, “I can well imagine your discomfort at both. I believe that I have become so used to both as to be somewhat oblivious to their behaviour.”

Darcy obviously did not believe her entirely – she remembered that he had seen her embarrassment at her mother’s behaviour on several occasions – but did not comment further as he continued with his explanation, “Well, as I said, I was not in a happy mood which was derived also from my concerns about my sister. While I was visiting Netherfield to assist Bingley, I was also separating myself from Georgiana – at Mrs. Annesley’s recommendation – since my sister found my concern somewhat…smothering, I believe Mrs. Annesley said. In any event, I felt obliged to attend the assembly but did not wish to dance. I confess that if I had not attended, Miss Bingley would also have remained at Netherfield and that was a prospect I did not wish for. Unfortunately, Bingley, who is everything amiable and sociable, sometimes presses on me severely. That evening was one such time and I found his admonishments to be extremely bothersome. That I lashed out so unfairly, so unjustly as to insult you or any other young lady, shames me. I cannot…”

“Enough, Mr. Darcy. Your penance is complete. I have accepted your apology but I wish you to accept mine. I spoke most unkindly of you and to you afterwards and my behaviour was no less improper than yours. Let us leave this topic for now and think on those which should prove more enjoyable. What think you of Milton’s Paradise Lost?”

The remainder of their walk was spent on less personal subjects and their preferences in literature were explored as were those books that had been read recently. If both realized a need to step back towards less emotional topics, the subjects and books discussed were of interest to both. That differences of opinion would exist was to be expected, although they found agreement on more than either expected. When disagreements were discovered, Elizabeth was pleased to discover that he was prepared to listen with respect as she defended her position. All too often it had been her experience that men – no matter how poorly educated or lacking in intelligence – were inclined to be dismissive of her opinion simply because of her sex. She had perceived Mr. Darcy’s respect for her opinions when at Netherfield, but had been inclined to give him little credit for it. Now, she did and their discussions gained by the freedom and respect that he afforded her.

Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, their discussion of books did not survive the impingement of several young persons clamouring for attention - albeit in a most genteel manner under the stern eye of their governess. Darcy and Elizabeth shortly found themselves engaged in entertaining, and being entertained by, her young cousins until they all returned to the Gardiner home. If Miss Margaret was content to walk beside Mr. Darcy in such a demure fashion as to raise a carefully hidden smile from Elizabeth, her sister was a veritable font of questions most of which were also directed at Mr. Darcy. Prominent amongst them were whether he was to marry Cousin Lizzy or why was he so tall? Darcy appeared to take it all in stride and, while his customary reserve was intact, Elizabeth thought it was slightly softened when addressing her cousins.

Darcy had been invited to dinner and the evening passed in an agreeable fashion. It also set a pattern for future dinners inasmuch as the two oldest children sat with them to eat and Darcy, encouraged by their manners, had no reservations about asking to include his sister in future, invitations which met with general approval.

Chapter 11 – A Night at the Theatre

Tonight’s entertainment was not, in contradistinction to those meetings which had taken place previously, a casual affair. The invitation had been extended at dinner the same evening that she and Darcy had walked in the park with the young Gardiners. And, if Elizabeth had not understood the full implications of the invitation, her aunt, who was much more sophisticated in the ways of London society, had understood them quite well indeed and the moves necessarily associated with them. As she informed Elizabeth after Darcy had left, “Mr. Darcy is, with this invitation, being more explicit about his intentions, Lizzy.”

At Elizabeth’s obvious confusion, she sighed, “Mr. Darcy has invited us to see a play, at the most prominent theatre in London – Covent Gardens – and to view it from his private box. You…we will enter the theatre in public – you on his arm - for I am sure he means to conduct you personally to his box - and be assured that, at this time of year, the play will be well attended by those prominent in society. It is very much a public declaration of his interest.” She let her words hang for almost a minute while her niece considered them before saying, “If you do not wish to…or if this is too soon, we should let Mr. Darcy know immediately.”

Elizabeth had not believed the invitation to be more than an enjoyable entertainment and the play – A Midsummer's Night’s Dream – was one she had enjoyed reading for years but never seen in a theatre. She was loath to lose this opportunity. To come under such scrutiny, to be of public interest, was not something she had contemplated and was not sure she wished for it to happen; and yet, if she were to accept Mr. Darcy’s assurances at some point, this would be part of her life as Mrs. Darcy. Was she ready to take another step on that path? Or was her aunt reading too much into the situation? No, on this, she must defer to her aunt’s greater understanding. If she took this step, she was effectively admitting that she desired the courtship to continue; that she was confident enough in her ability to handle the situations likely to arise and in her feelings to allow it to become public knowledge – albeit no one would know that an official courtship was taking place. But even an unofficial courtship would give rise to speculation and, if such were the case, it would be, she thought, much better that such speculation take place here in London than in Hertfordshire. A sudden thought occurred to her,

“Aunt, are we…am I likely to be introduced to Mr. Darcy’s friends and acquaintances?”

“I think that goes without saying, Lizzy. I would anticipate many visitors to the box during intermissions and, possibly, even family members, if they are attending. This is a very public affair, Lizzy. Very public! And they will wish to meet of the woman Mr. Darcy is escorting.”

Mrs. Gardiner allowed her niece a few more moments of contemplation before stating emphatically, “Well, if you are not to withdraw, we must ensure that you are suitably garbed. I know you have nothing truly appropriate with you, so we must visit my modiste immediately.”

Elizabeth’s assent had been absent-minded, as her thoughts were more engaged on contemplating the gradual change in her view of Mr. Darcy. Her inattentiveness carried her through the business of readying herself to visit the modiste and the trip to her shop. What did this invitation to such a public event say about Mr. Darcy’s opinion of her? That his affections were engaged, she had come to accept. That he thought her beautiful, she still had trouble accepting - although his words had warmed her. Now it appeared he was prepared to present her to his society, to introduce her to his friends and, possibly, his family; and obviously to stand with her and support her while doing so – or was he testing her ability to act in an appropriate manner? She knew enough of his honour to believe that he would not wish to embarrass her or himself, and therefore he must believe her capable of handling such a situation, perhaps even enhancing it. And now she had to accept that the poverty of her connections and portion were of no significance to him and that his pride and arrogance, which had decried those connections in Hertfordshire as beneath his notice and attentions, had been put aside in her favour.

She was not allowed to linger on such thoughts when they entered the Modiste’s shop as they were quickly shown into a private room. Mrs. Gardiner’s modiste, while not favoured by the highest of society, was very much appreciated by those in trade with a recognition of style and fashion and the monies to afford her. As Mrs. Gardiner was wont to say, “Madame is not cheap but her gowns will compare with any modiste in town, and you are not paying for the privilege of saying they were designed by Madame ___ or some other modiste favoured by the ton.”

Within two hours both ladies had agreed on the materials and styles they wished to wear, measurements taken and gowns and fittings guaranteed for the following afternoon – at a premium over the cost, of course – Madame would have to incur additional cost to ensure the gowns were completed in two days time prior to attending the theatre. Satisfied with the gowns, Mrs. Gardiner led her niece through a procession of shops to acquire other necessities to complete their outfits. By the time they returned to Gracechurch Street, Elizabeth regretted that Mr. Darcy had been dissuaded from calling due to the need for the ladies to shop; however, he and Georgiana had been invited for dinner and duly arrived to find an Elizabeth refreshed by an hour's rest. The two oldest Gardiner children had again been allowed to dine with the adults and were introduced to Miss Darcy who had, upon entering the parlour, been captured by Elizabeth and led to a settee somewhat removed from the rest of the room where, in company with the young Miss Gardiners, Elizabeth began to draw her into a conversation. Since both of the young Gardiners were learning to play the pianoforte, Elizabeth had used that topic as a means of capturing Miss Darcy’s interest and within fifteen minutes they had moved to the instrument in the room with Miss Darcy showing the others some of her skills, and observing and commenting on their efforts in her gentle voice. When it became apparent that her three companions were comfortable in each other’s company, Elizabeth withdrew to join her aunt and uncle and Darcy who greeted her by saying, “Thank you. Georgiana is so shy she has a difficult time in company. I find it interesting that she feels so comfortable with your cousins and with you.”

“Your sister is very sweet. I think she will find being in company easier as her confidence grows. I remember saying to your cousin that she is at a trying age. I can remember how awkward I found it.”

Mr. Gardiner laughed, “Indeed, I can remember how much you resented having your mother push you into society when you wished to roam the trails and read.”

“I vexed her greatly, I am sure.” laughed Elizabeth. Not wishing the conversation to devolve into one in which her mother’s foibles arose, she told Darcy, “I fear our afternoon tomorrow is also to be spent at the modiste. It is a necessary but unfortunate task, if we are to attend the theatre, I am afraid.”

Darcy thought quietly for a few minutes as the conversation flowed around him. If the others noted his abstraction, no comment was made and when conversation seemed to lag slightly after a few minutes, he addressed Mrs. Gardiner, “I have been in the habit of getting my business matters done in the morning so as to afford time to visit here in the afternoon; however, if tomorrow afternoon you both are otherwise engaged, I could easily defer my business to the afternoon. I wonder if Miss Elizabeth,” and, glancing at that lady, smiled before continuing, “would like to join me and Georgiana for a walk in Hyde Park. I am asking since I know Elizabeth is often engaged with her cousins in the mornings and I would not wish to disturb any arrangements you may have.”

Mrs. Gardiner caught Elizabeth’s eye and receiving a slight nod – which Darcy did not miss – responded, “Indeed, I see no problem with such a plan. Lizzy’s involvement with the children is not fixed at all.”

Suitable arrangements were made to have Elizabeth arrive at the Darcy house after breakfast the next morning and shortly thereafter Mrs. Gardiner announced that dinner was ready. The remainder of the evening passed pleasantly and, while the main topic of conversation revolved around the play they were to see performed two evenings hence, the Darcys were interested to learn of the Gardiner’s proposed trip to The Lakes in the summer and both, having visited there themselves, were able to impart their appreciation for the area and enlighten Elizabeth as to the beauties that awaited her. In the process, Darcy found himself enjoyably engaged with Mr. Gardiner in a discussion on the joys of angling - to the amusement of Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner who commented, “I am so glad that Mr. Gardiner has found a sympathetic ear on this topic. I cannot understand the attraction myself and he has few opportunities to indulge his interest actively or in conversation.”

~~~

When Elizabeth arrived at the Darcy house the next morning, she found that Georgiana had woken feeling slightly ill and had chosen to avoid the morning’s walk. Elizabeth had found, despite her pleasure in Georgiana’s company that she looked forward to being able to talk with Darcy alone. When she considered that walk, she remembered her surprise on seeing those who also were enjoying the pleasure of a warm spring morning. Nurses and governesses with infants and children there were aplenty; but of couples there were very few. She mentioned her observation to Darcy and she found his response intriguing.

“Most stroll in this park for one purpose,” said he, “to see and be seen by others of fashionable society. And the proper time for doing so is between five and seven in the evening.” He could not contain a short bark of laughter, “Since neither I nor Georgiana relish being on display, we favour an earlier hour – like now.” His quick glance at Elizabeth elicited a brief nod from her, “and knowing your love of walking, I was quite sure you would enjoy a brisk walk.”

Elizabeth had no trouble assuring him of her delight in doing so and they had enjoyed an hour or so of exercise and conversation interrupted only occasionally by being hailed by acquaintances of the Darcys. Elizabeth had not been oblivious to the questioning looks cast her way but was only required to deflect one or two questions before Darcy would urge them back to their walk.

Concerned that he was reluctant to expose her unduly she felt a need to say, perhaps more sharply than necessary, “I am quite prepared to handle impertinent questions, Mr. Darcy!”

“I never doubted it!” said he. “I was but exercising my preference to walk with you.”

Mollified, Elizabeth was pensive for some minutes before raising an issue that her aunt had mentioned the day before.

“Mr. Darcy, my aunt told me to expect that quite a few people were likely to seek our acquaintance tomorrow night. Is this a common event, sir?”

Darcy was somewhat surprised at the question since he had not really considered the implications of their attending the show and, as he began to consider what was likely to happen, his uneasiness with what was to happen caused a look, that Elizabeth recognized well from his days in Hertfordshire, to dominate his features. She instinctively released his arm and stepped away, sensing the return of the Mr. Darcy she had disliked. The cause she could only attribute to the thought of her becoming acquainted with people he considered friends. She wished that she could return to Gracechurch Street and thoughts of the theatre had lost their anticipated pleasure.

Darcy had walked several steps, wrapped in gloom at the thought of the increased attention he would garner tonight, before realizing that Elizabeth no longer clasped his arm. He stopped in confusion and looking at Elizabeth, could not see her face hidden by her bonnet but she had also turned to look away from him. He stopped and placing a hand on her arm – willing her to turn – he asked, making no effort to mask his concern, “What is the matter, Miss Bennet?”

“I would ask you the same, sir.” Replied she, "I would know why the Mr. Darcy of my first acquaintance in Hertfordshire has returned. Is the thought of my being greeted by your friends and relatives so displeasing, sir?”

Darcy could not take her meaning and, after a brief pause, said as much; to which Elizabeth replied, “You are glowering much as you did in Hertfordshire. I have to believe that my presence at the theatre is the cause of this sudden displeasure. I would remind…”

Darcy hastily interrupted her, “You could not be more wrong, Eliz…Miss Bennet. I had not realized that my face was so unwelcoming.” He paused as he tried to assemble his thoughts, before blurting, “I will not deny that I thought poorly of Hertfordshire and its inhabitants when I first arrived – or at least most of its inhabitants. My thoughts now, however, are simply…well, I greatly dislike such attentions paid to me. I derive no pleasure – quite the reverse, in fact.”

“I do not really understand. You have nothing to fear in such company.” Elizabeth thought carefully - understanding that he could get so wrapped in his own concerns and discomfort that he could not understand hers – before adding, “You know that most will be more interested – to my dismay - in determining who the woman on your arm is? I expect them to be quite delicately and subtly fierce in their investigations. Would you not agree, sir?” Darcy was relieved to see a return of her teasing smile and his own faced softened in return.

“You have little to fear, Miss Bennet. You own civility will armour you against any inquiries and I will not allow any disrespect – from anyone!”

This was said with such determination that Elizabeth simply nodded her head in thanks as she took his arm once more and resumed their walk. As such things must, they had to conclude their exercise. Elizabeth had to return to Gracechurch Street to prepare to visit the modiste and Darcy to his business affairs. Nevertheless, Elizabeth was resolved that she would not allow his discomfort to persist. Clearly it affected him to such an extent that he did not consider how he affected others or how he appeared to them.

~~~

The press of carriages lining up to deliver their passengers to Convent Gardens was long enough for Elizabeth to be thankful that her uncle had insisted on an early departure from Gracechurch Street. When they finally arrived, it seemed that less than a half hour remained before the play was scheduled to start. Elizabeth knew that Darcy was to meet them at the theatre but was still surprised that he was there to help her step out of the carriage. When she stepped out to stand in front of him, he appeared to forget that her uncle and aunt had yet to exit; it took a pronounced throat clearing by her uncle to bring his attention back and induce him to move. He did not remove his eyes from Elizabeth and she could almost feel the warmth in his voice as he said, “You are most beautiful tonight, Miss Bennet.”

She was about to tease him about being ‘more than tolerable’ but decided a simple ‘thank you’ would be best at this point. She was not yet truly comfortable in teasing him now that she no longer disliked him. He had not relinquished her hand after helping her to exit the carriage, and now placed it on his arm to lead her and her aunt and uncle into the theatre. Elizabeth could see his countenance beginning to settle into a guise with which she had been all too familiar when he visited Hertfordshire. “Mr. Darcy,” she whispered sharply. His glance settled on her face and she began to withdraw her hand from his arm. His impulsive tightening of his hand atop hers broke the mask he had assumed, “Is there something wrong, Miss Bennet?”

“Only that the Mr. Darcy I have become acquainted with has again disappeared and a stranger is in his place.” She had stopped in place with the Gardiners waiting patiently behind them and focused her attention on Darcy.

Dismay flooded his face as he looked at her closely and she saw a less severe look settle there. “I am sorry, Miss Bennet. Truly! I have always disliked intensely the scrutiny I receive here.”

“Tonight, I am counting on you to help me face that scrutiny.”

Darcy could see a trace of anxiety in her eyes although she had hidden it from her features, and squeezing her hand on his arm, said simply, “And so I shall, Miss Bennet. So I shall!”

Together they began the journey to his box. Their journey, although not long, could not be completed quickly as they moved into the press of the crowd. Progress was slow and was impeded by the occasional stoppage as one or other of Darcy’s acquaintances blocked their progress to greet him and obviously to gain an introduction to the woman on his arm. Introductions were kept brief with the convenient excuse of needing to gain their box. The process she found quite revealing as it soon became possible to discern which, of those who approached them, Darcy considered a close acquaintance and which he did not. His mien grew more stiff, tension increased in the arm her hand rested on and his manner became more distant, the more tenuous the acquaintance with the individual who greeted them. His manner of introducing her was always faultless but with such individuals, little effort was made to converse beyond the barest civility. With those he held as close acquaintances, his manner was much warmer, his body less tense. In all, Elizabeth could not be disheartened by the manner in which she was treated. She expected some incivility and coldness – Miss Bingley was not an anomaly in society, after all – but amongst those with whom Darcy felt most comfortable, the predominant reaction was that of curiosity which she deemed a reasonable response.

They had barely settled there when the lights began to dim. Nevertheless, even in the few minutes that lapsed during which they could be seen by others, Elizabeth could feel herself being the focus of many eyes. Leaning towards Darcy she whispered, “Now I know how Daniel felt in the lion’s den!”

He chuckled, “I have no doubt they will break their teeth on you, Miss Bennet.” His voice turned more serious, “Do not concern yourself. I will not leave you alone tonight. Let us try and enjoy the play.”

And enjoy it she did. Once the theatre darkened, she was able to forget that she was an object of interest and tried to focus on the play unfolding before her; however, she found that her concentration suffered at first from the presence of Mr. Darcy sitting beside her. Never, in her experience, had she been so conscious of a man’s existence. He smelled of sandalwood and some other fragrance she could not identify, his physical size and the warmth of his breath, as he occasionally whispered beside her ear, disconcerted her immensely. She tried to keep her focus on the play but found it increasingly difficult and, as the first intermission arrived, it was only her intimate knowledge of the play that allowed her to pretend - with creditability she hoped - an awareness of the acting that had taken place. Mr. Gardiner had departed the box to acquire drinks while Darcy remained to deal with the expected visitors.

He was not disappointed as several of his acquaintances, none of whom could successfully claim to be close, visited the box. Darcy was not altogether comfortable with the intrusions but could not but be pleased at how easily Elizabeth deflected even the most impertinent questions. Fortunately, most of the visitors were well-mannered and more interested in being able to say that they had met the young lady that Darcy had escorted to the theatre, than to be inquisitive.

Elizabeth found, as the play progressed, that the presence of Mr. Darcy became less of a distraction and became aware, by the time the closing scene arrived, that she was quite comfortable with his physical being although she had yet to realize that she experienced it as, in truth, rather pleasant. It was during the second and third intermissions that several gentlemen, whom Darcy considered to be friends, invaded the Darcy box attended by their wives, mothers or sisters. Elizabeth observed Darcy’s reserve slipping a little further and, while certainly far from jovial, his manner showed pleasure in the company; however, it took but one newcomer who could claim only a more distant acquaintance, for his reserve to re-establish itself. Oddly, none of his friends seemed particularly bothered by the change – and one gentleman actually teased him slightly about it - from which Elizabeth could only infer that this behaviour was of long standing. His manner towards her remained solicitous throughout and her obvious ease and ability to converse intelligently with his friends appeared, she believed, to afford him considerable satisfaction. From his friends, she could detect nothing but curiosity and pleasure in her company which undoubtedly added to her ease. Since she was also intimately familiar with the play itself, it provided a ready source of conversation and she made no pretence of hiding her delight in seeing it enacted on a stage.

Their exit from the theatre was not dissimilar to their entry with many people approaching to claim, or trying to claim, an acquaintance with Darcy. Elizabeth truly realized as they made their progress that Darcy was a most recognizable figure in society and that he faced such pressures on almost every public social occasion; she could more readily now appreciate his reserve and disinclination for such events and his discomfort with them. The haughtiness of his manner was perhaps partially attributable to his awareness of his station relative to others with whom he had found little in common or to appreciate; however, his reserve and taciturn nature made it even more forbidding. It was, she believed, something he must ameliorate and soften if they were to have a future together; but his reserve she could tolerate since she was coming to appreciate the qualities of the man behind it.
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Walk With Me - Chapters 10-11

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