I was sick this weekend and away the first half of the week so I’m behind on posting here. Sorry!
My Darling Niece,
You must not let the words of some prejudice and vain people make you feel insecure. All who know you understand your worth. I would charge you to continue your daily reading and do not dwell on such negative thoughts.
“Eliza!” Charlotte said and embraced her friend tightly after greeting her family. “I am so pleased you came!”
“Thank you for the invitation!” Elizabeth returned the hug. “Three months without Jane, and seeing Kitty and Lydia run senselessly after officers, was more than I could bear!”
Charlotte laughed, and it seemed some of their earlier closeness was restored. However, as Mr. Collins approached Elizabeth, she had to wonder, again, how her best friend could have concealed such an artful heart. As Charlotte suddenly busied herself with talking louder than before with her father about the pathway to the house, Elizabeth perceived Charlotte was not as happy as she would pretend. For herself, Elizabeth always knew she would be in danger if she married for anything less than the greatest respect for a man, and he for her.
“Dear Cousin Elizabeth!” Mr. Collins hailed as he toddled closer to her. “Welcome to our home. In a moment, you can refresh yourself after your tiresome journey. I know how delicate young ladies are.” He opened the gate to come even closer. “Forgive me for not being out earlier, but I had abandoned my post of watching by the window to deal with a matter regarding our gardens. Very elegant gardens, and you’ll see them later.”
“I would be most pleased — ”
He interrupted her. “And how are your family? Your father is well?” He then brought his hands to his mouth steepled like a prayer. “Not that I am asking in hopes of finding him in deteriorating condition. Never think that I am anxious to see his demise and become master.”
“Rest easy, cousin. I would not think—”
“Of course, when that most unfortunate event does take place, you will always have a place with us as my dear Charlotte is your friend.”
“Thank you,” Elizabeth said without the intention of saying more. She did not need to wonder why Mr. Collins believed she would need housing and protection like a pitiful spinster. In his proposal to her, he had argued she would never have another offer.
After pausing and apparently expecting Elizabeth to prostrate herself on his intended future kindness, he frowned. Charlotte and the others moved toward the house, and Mr. Collins followed. He resumed speaking, now and then looking over his shoulder to confirm Elizabeth followed like a dog at his heels.
“And your mother and sisters are well? I trust Mrs. Bennet’s nerves have not consumed her too much since my marriage. Although Mrs. Collins’ letters from her family sometimes indicate there is much to vex your mother.”
Before Elizabeth could answer his question, he began speaking again. “Your sisters enjoy good health, although I wonder if such liveliness does not come with its own cost. It’s hardly worthwhile to never be ill but have your soul in mortal danger.”
“Mr. Collins,” Elizabeth bit out. How dare he insinuate that her sisters were at risk of hell. She may not like their behaviour all the time, but they were not godless sinners!
“Mr. Collins, my father would like refreshments,” Charlotte quickly interjected and cast an apologetic look at Elizabeth.
“Oh, certainly, certainly! Well, Sir William,” the toadstool of a parson lumbered up the walk to his father-in-law.
“Charlotte, how shall I ever live without your timely rescues?” Elizabeth asked, and her friend gave her a tight smile. A faint blush swept over Elizabeth. She should recall that Charlotte would not appreciate her poking fun at her husband.
Once inside the house, Mr. Collins again welcomed them. Tea was brought in, and although Charlotte saw to everyone, her husband echoed every request she made. In between bites of biscuits, he would point out various pieces of furniture, their cost and how he came by them. More than once he addressed Elizabeth by name so as to single out her reaction to the proportion of the room and any other means of making her regret her refusal. Elizabeth blushed for Charlotte’s sake but took secret delight in knowing that she could not fulfil his fondest wishes. Everything seemed neat and tidy, no doubt due to Charlotte, but even all the simple luxuries the parsonage afforded, she could never regret not marrying such a ridiculous man.
Finally, it was recommended they see the garden. Mr. Collins excitedly herded them outside and whisked his father-in-law about. “I encourage him to work in the garden as much as possible,” Charlotte said at Elizabeth’s side. “It is so beneficial to his health,” she managed to say without a smirk or sigh.
“Indeed,” Elizabeth offered, quite at a loss of what else to say.
Next, he desired to show them his two pastures but the ladies did not have the proper shoes and they returned to the house while the gentlemen stayed outside. Charlotte led them to a small parlour in the back of the house. At first, Elizabeth was surprised her friend had not chosen the larger room for herself but recollected that Mr. Collins’ office had windows facing the road. He would forever be lurking and waiting for the admittance of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, so the smaller back parlour had its advantages.
Of her, Elizabeth thought with a brief smile. Mr. Wickham had shared many humorous stories about the old lady and how much her nephew was like her. However, remembering his story brought to mind only his degenerate words and actions in the alley and Mr. Darcy’s visceral reaction to hearing of his schemes.
“Eliza,” Charlotte interrupted her thoughts. “I do not think you heard me. It is unlike you to not offer an opinion on what I just said.”
“Oh, yes!” Maria said excitedly from beside her. “I know you cannot like him, but I only hope to hear all the hateful things you have to say about him.”
“About who?” Elizabeth rapidly blinked her eyes and shook her head to dispel her previous thoughts.
“Mr. Darcy will be visiting his aunt for Easter,” Charlotte said.
“As it happens, I already knew,” Elizabeth said with assumed nonchalance.
“What?” the Lucas sisters cried in unison.
“Yes, he told me the other evening.” Elizabeth sipped her tea.
“You saw him the other evening!” Charlotte cried.
“And yesterday,” Maria leant forward to tell her sister. “He spent many minutes speaking with her alone both times.”
Charlotte gaped at her friend. “Is this true, Eliza? He must be in love with you!”
“Maria makes too much of it,” Elizabeth said as she shook her head. “I was separated from our party at the theatre and accidentally ran into him. The others in our party approached just as his aunt did and she invited us all to her home. I am certain she was only extremely polite. Mr. Darcy did not speak with her at all to indicate a desire to spend more time with us. He never would, you know.”
“And he would never ask you to dance either,” Charlotte said with a raised eyebrow, and Elizabeth hoped her friend would not talk about the subject in front of her husband.
“As to his visiting his aunt here,” Elizabeth ignored her friend’s hint. “There is no reason to believe it was not his usual time of year to visit. Rosings is quite convenient to London over the Easter holiday. A man may come and go as he pleases without young ladies fancying it is because he loves them.”
Even as she said it, she rather wished ladies had the freedom men did, and they could come and go as they pleased. Eventually, Charlotte and Maria worked on some embroidery while Elizabeth pulled out her sketch book.
“Have you drawn anything new?” Charlotte asked and peered over Elizabeth’s side.
“Oh, I’m forever re-imagining Longbourn,” Elizabeth sighed.
“I would be eager to see what the Parsonage could look like,” her friend said.
“Really?” Elizabeth asked hoping to conceal her disbelief. Would Lady Catherine allow alterations?
“Indeed. Her Ladyship is often saying it could benefit a more substantial remodel.”
Elizabeth troubled her lower lip. She had every expectation that Rosings was a very modern building and Elizabeth favoured an older style. “The wattle and daub timber framing of the house would look garish when matched with the contemporary propensity for Palladian symmetry and stone work.”
Charlotte nodded. “That is why I think you could draw up sufficient plans to show Her Ladyship.”
Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders and agreed. However, she thought to herself that when she married she would rather have more freedom to choose matters of her life, not have to satisfy a patroness’s whims. The Collinses did not have a lease, nor have to pay rent for their house, but had little say in matters which must be quite disagreeable. And of course, Lady Catherine had opinions about matters large and small.
The following day, Elizabeth readied herself for a walk when Maria flew up the stairs telling her to look out the window.
“Why, it is only Lady Catherine and her daughter. You gave me a fright!” Elizabeth admonished the younger lady.
“La! ‘Tis not Lady Catherine. That is Mrs. Jenkinson, Miss de Bourgh’s companion.”
“They ought to come inside. How rude of them to keep Charlotte out of doors in this wind.”
Never mind that she had planned on walking in the mild breeze only a moment ago. She could not bear to think of the ladies of Rosings with any charity at all. Nor did she care to wonder why she presumed the worst.
“Charlotte says they rarely come in. It is the greatest honour when Miss de Bourgh enters the house.”
Elizabeth took a moment to evaluate Miss de Bourgh. She knew from Wickham that the lady was Mr. Darcy’s intended. Of course, they must keep all the wealth and estates in the family. Beyond that, she saw only a frail, sick looking woman.
“She will do very well for him, so sickly and cross.”
“Do for who?” Maria asked.
Elizabeth’s eyebrows jumped to her hairline. She had not meant to say her thoughts out loud. “Oh, not to worry. I simply remembered a book I read.”
Elizabeth contained her laughter as she saw her cousin bow whenever Miss de Bourgh looked his way. At length, the ladies rode away, and Charlotte and her husband returned indoors. The hefty parson defied the laws of gravity by bouncing on his toes.
“What good fortune! What good fortune!”
“What?” Maria asked, catching her brother-in-law’s excitement.
Elizabeth cringed but checked her mouth lest she hurt Charlotte.
“Lady Catherine, with such amazing condescension, has invited you both and Sir William to dine at Rosings Park tomorrow evening. To dine.”
Maria shrieked, bringing Sir William to the room and then the information was relayed again.
“I thought perhaps she would invite us to drink tea with her on Sunday, but who could have imagined?” Mr. Collins said.
“From all that I know of the peerage, such elegant breeding and good manners are quite common,” Sir William said. “Indeed, I am not surprised at all since you have long declared how affable she is.”
“Quite right. Quite right, sir,” Mr. Collins reversed his position and began another lengthy exuberance about Her Ladyship’s gracious condescension.
Charlotte watched the scene with a smile and Elizabeth approached her. “Excuse me, Charlotte. I was just about to go walking when Miss de Bourgh arrived. I shall return shortly,” she said.
“Of course,” Charlotte replied, but her smile did not reach her eyes. Elizabeth felt a twinge of guilt that her friend could see that Elizabeth did not feel the happiness the others did and had expected her to have.
As she walked, Elizabeth allowed that for all her mistrust of peers, they had beautiful grounds. Well, Lady Catherine had not married a peer. However, it seemed the breeding of an earl did not desert her upon her marriage to a baronet. Nor would it escape her daughter’s behaviour if Mr. Darcy was any standard for how grandchildren of earls behaved.
Darcy walked into his club, steadying himself for the unwanted attention. Last week, the courts determined he was the only living male descendant of John Darcy and, when his aunt died, he would inherit the title. Yesterday, the papers had printed it. A wry smile tilted his lips up. It surprised him they took so long. Usually, the gossips salivated over such news. Well, unless there was a young lady of quality who had misbehaved in some fashion to scandalise over, often while sparing a gentleman any blame at all. Bingley waved him over, and Darcy ignored the suddenly intrigued looks and nods from gentlemen who had never bothered to care about him before.
“Darcy! Where have you been,” Bingley said and greeted him with a familiar grin. “We have not seen you in weeks. Caroline is beside herself,” he added with a laugh.
Noticing the curious gazes of eavesdroppers, Darcy fixed each one with a glare. A waiter approached. Darcy’s tone when ordering sent the last impertinent man back to his corner and the servant seemed ready to flee as well.
Bingley sat back and assessed him, eyebrows furrowed. He dropped his voice. “What has you in such a bear-like mood?”
Darcy scrubbed a hand over his face. “My aunt.”
“The one in Kent? After you to marry her daughter again?”
“No, the Baroness.” Bingley looked blankly at him. “Have you read a paper recently?” The expression on Bingley’s face explained it all.
Darcy left the table and grabbed a newspaper from a gentleman near the fire. Not caring about his startled and angry curse. Darcy tossed it at his friend and took his seat.
“You are going to be a baron?” Bingley yelled in surprise.
The occupants of the room whipped their heads in their direction and grew silent. A growl emitted from Darcy’s throat. The waiter approached trembling.
“Ah-ah-anything else?” he asked. Darcy glared at him, and the servant left.
“Darcy, is this really correct?” Bingley said, still far too loud as interlopers leant in their direction.
Darcy tore the paper from his friend’s hand. “Do be quiet!” he hissed. “I do not care for my affairs to be so publicly bandied about.”
Bingley gaped at him. “You will inherit a title. A seat in Parliament. It is not like it can be private.”
“It can be more private than you screaming it in the middle of Brooks’,” he muttered, and Bingley had the good grace to flush.
“So, you are angry at your aunt,” Bingley said, finally whispering. “Did you not know you were to inherit?”
Darcy raised an eyebrow and bit back a sarcastic retort. He should not take his temper out on his friend, even if he was stupidly smiling again. “Of course, I knew. She has had her title for a very long time, however, and does not play the usual role of a Society hostess. She’s too eccentric for them to worry about. It took years to settle the title on her after her sister died. They almost held it for my father.”
Darcy paused and shook his head. Was it that which first captured the Fitzwilliam family’s attention? “At any rate. Her petition was accepted, it must go through her hands before continuing down the line.”
Bingley whistled. “Not very many peerages go through the female line.”
“Yes, few of them were written as such.”
“So your father died before he could inherit.” Darcy nodded. “It should have been clear then that you were the next in line.”
Darcy let out a disgruntled sigh. “It should have been, but they must examine the line again and search for a relative that had been overlooked. The title might be held by women and passed through them, but invariably favours men.”
Darcy rolled his eyes at the thought. Their king was mad, his son, the Prince Regent, was a wastrel, and all the other princes were equally worrisome. The next heir to the throne was Prinny’s daughter, Princess Charlotte. And yet it would go to her son if she ever bore one. Whether or not that son proved worthy or if he had a dozen elder sisters. Well, whilst it was only with poor grace that the English allowed women to inherit at all, the French had not and look at what happened to them.
“So, the courts have finally conceded you will inherit?” Bingley summarised, although in truth Darcy had already said as much.
“Yes,” Darcy ground out. They were now getting to the heart of his distemper.
“And that has you angry? You do not wish for a title? Or you are angry that your aunt did not marry and have her own children?”
“What?” Darcy started. Such thoughts never entered his mind. His aunt’s life was her own to live. He might not like the added duties and responsibility that would ensue, but it had fallen to him, and he would not condemn her choices like a petulant child. Bingley shrugged and gave a sheepish smile. Darcy wondered if Bingley could be pardoned of murder with that look whereas he was often accused of offending with a mere look.
Darcy glanced around the panelled room full of Society’s wealthiest men. They could gossip worse than women. He locked eyes with the servant and the young man approached, trepidation in his eyes. Darcy fished several coins from his purse. “We require privacy.”
The servant’s eyes widened, and he snatched them as though Darcy would change his mind. How interesting to see that in this establishment that purported itself as among the finest of clubs for noblemen, and even princes, it did not treat its servants fairly. The man had walked off with renewed determination and soon herded the crowd to other seats.
“Well?” Bingley said with an amused look.
“She wants me to create a club.” Darcy took a sip of his brandy. “For women.”
Bingley’s face of disbelief said it all. Everywhere Darcy went, he received similar looks.
“A club of wealthy women from good families, preferably peerage. They are to discuss art, science, literature, and such like. However, there will be no conversation about politics and gambling will be prohibited. They are to be patronesses and also produce works themselves.”
“A club for bluestockings,” Bingley chuckled.
“This is hardly a laughing matter. It’s near impossible to find women to meet her qualifications.” Well, at least for him to meet such women. The ones thrown in his path had money and rank enough to their name, but little sense or intelligence, and all had only one goal: marriage.
“Oh, come, Darcy!” Bingley said and took a sip of his drink. Grinning, despite Darcy’s ill-humor, he explained. “Do you not recall in Hertfordshire? You and Miss Elizabeth Bennet argued about accomplished women.”
“Debated,” he said. He did not argue with the spirited lady. Besides, they mostly agreed. It was Caroline Bingley who had set herself opposed to Elizabeth.
“Disputed,” Bingley said expectantly.
In truth, Darcy could scarcely remember what he said to Elizabeth that evening. Instead, his memories filled with the look of her profile in the glow of the fire, the way her eyes danced when she presented her opinions and shone as she would not rescind them when he disagreed.
“You had said you knew only half a dozen accomplished ladies.”
Darcy frowned. He had not been exaggerating. After weeks of searching, he had only six names for his aunt’s club.
“Caroline rattled off some ridiculous load of nonsense women should know to be considered accomplished — a euphemism for marriageable in her usage — and Miss Elizabeth patently refused it to be possible.”
Darcy took a sip of his drink to keep from smiling. He did remember the encounter now. God, she was clever.
“You asked if she actually believed it so difficult to find women that skilled and after my sister’s list, Miss Elizabeth declared she was surprised you knew any.”
How did she not see I meant her? In his weeks in Hertfordshire, he had feared others noticed his attraction to the country lady. I will see her again soon… Darcy clamped down on the thought so tightly his jaw ached.
“Good Lord, Darcy!” Bingley blanched. “Is that monstrous frown from finding women for your aunt’s club or from mentioning the Bennets?”
Darcy released a breath he did not realise he had been holding. “Neither.”
Although he took no pleasure in either task, Darcy would rather face a firing squad than admit the next, but it occurred to him he needed a confidant. “My aunt demands I marry one as well.”
Bingley’s eyes bulged, and he called for more brandy. Darcy agreed with the sentiment wholeheartedly.