Ooops! I posted the wrong chapter earlier today! Four comes before five, lol!
Do not let melancholy besiege you. You are made of sterner stuff! He is not the only gentleman in the world, and certainly, there are dozens who have better character. Return to London, and we shall find you a match.
At breakfast the following day, the planned visit to Rosings Park was all anyone could speak of. Mr. Collins waxed eloquent, and Charlotte smiled wistfully. It appeared, however much the acquaintance of the ladies of Rosings held no interest for Elizabeth, it held considerable sway in Charlotte’s mind. Her younger sister fairly trembled at considering herself in so grand a house, and Sir William boasted about the fine match his eldest daughter made.
“Not that you need fear Charlotte snatched up the only worthy gentleman, Eliza,” he told her. “I am sure some other gentleman will come to the area sometime. You see how good things come to those who wait. And, of course,” he dropped his voice, but still loud enough for most of the room to still hear, “it does not hurt to have more attainable goals than being the mistress of Netherfield.”
Elizabeth’s eyebrows rose to her hairline, and the only thing that quelled her angry retort was that she had known Sir William all her life. Never before had she thought there was any truth in her mother’s complaints about the artfulness of the Lucases, but the pointed jab at Jane brought all her protective feelings to the front.
“Papa, did my husband show you the orchard?” Charlotte asked and gave Elizabeth an apologetic smile.
Elizabeth turned her face as she felt heat slap it. She did not want Charlotte’s pity!
Sir William furrowed his brow. “No, however, he did mention it. He said it could only be accessed by the gig. What expansive grounds your glebe is!” He walked toward his son-in-law. “Collins, care to show me your gig?”
“Eliza, enjoy your walk. Just be careful to return in enough time, so my husband does not feel the need to worry about tardiness,” Charlotte said before Elizabeth could speak.
“Thank you,” she replied and exited before anyone else noticed her.
While Elizabeth strolled the grounds, Sir William’s words weighed on her mind. It was he who had suggested that Bingley would marry Jane. And now, after Bingley’s departure, he insinuated that Jane tried to grasp too high. Jane never sought Bingley’s attention! Elizabeth’s heart squeezed when she recalled her dearest sister’s shy smiles and blushes at Bingley’s attention the night of their first meeting. Elizabeth squeezed her eyes shut as Jane’s visage flitted through her mind. For those few weeks, Elizabeth had never seen Jane happier. She had always been lovely, but the effects of new love made her radiant. Hopefulness had shone in her eyes, and Elizabeth now wondered if Jane would ever love again.
Restlessness passed through her. She had always known that her parents had never had a happy marriage, nor were they ideal mentors, but it suddenly occurred to Elizabeth that she felt alone in the world. Who was there to protect Jane’s broken heart? Her mother had meant well by forwarding her eldest daughter so much but was useless afterwards as she aired her own feelings without regard for Jane’s. And their father had cruelly laughed at Jane’s pain.
Mr. Wickham’s debauched words resounded in Elizabeth’s ears again. Was it not shocking for a lady, even of her age, to not immediately consider alerting her father to what she had heard? She had always been her father’s favourite, but it was because they had the same sense of humour, not true affection. It was not the sort of relationship Charlotte had with Sir William. He had never called his daughters silly or laughed at Charlotte’s unwed state.
Turning back to the parsonage, Elizabeth shook her head to dispel her thoughts. She was putting too much stock in Mr. Darcy’s words. Before speaking with him, she had thought Wickham merely boasted to his fellow cads. Why should she trust Darcy’s version of Wickham’s character? Because it matched what you witnessed when he was not attempting to charm.
Darcy’s words from Bingley’s ball reverberated in Elizabeth’s mind. “Mr. Wickham is blessed with such happy manners as may ensure his making — whether he may be equally capable of retaining them is less certain.”
Elizabeth had to allow, that Darcy wisely had not argued with her own understanding of Wickham. He did not doubt she had seen enough to find him a friend worth making, but he had also pointed out that she did not know him well enough yet to know if he was a friend worth keeping. Well, now she did.
Such thoughts only lead her to consider that, in a few weeks, Darcy would be at Rosings. He had not displayed manners which made her desire his friendship. Might she have been wrong? Elizabeth chewed her bottom lip, hating the thought. At the very least, with no one but Charlotte to really speak with, he might prove a useful acquaintance. That was if Lady Catherine and Darcy’s intended did not take up all of his time.
Passing through the gate, Elizabeth trudged up the walk, through the Parsonage and to her room to change. Although she had arrived promptly, Mr. Collins promenaded up and down the upstairs hallway giving directives for the ladies to rush their toilettes. He had taken a moment to assure her that whatever gown she had brought would be satisfactory for meeting the great lady as his patroness preferred to have the distinction of rank preserved.
As they walked the half mile to Rosings, Elizabeth found much to enjoy. Most impressive were the grounds around the house, as it was situated on a hill. However, Elizabeth did not admire them for the reasons Mr. Collins would have liked. Elizabeth perceived she would have a view of some miles and thought she might sketch the spire of one of the churches, or the towers to some of the old homes in the area. Of course, if Lady Catherine knew Elizabeth sketched she might be insulted if Elizabeth did not copy Rosings. She looked up at the dull stucco and shuddered at the gaucheness, whilst Mr. Collins blithely enumerated the cost of the chimneys and the windows. The Palladian style home was, indeed, grand and intimidating-looking when seen from a distance. Having studied architecture, Elizabeth realised the style relied on looking colossal and expansive, but really the homes were rather shallow in width.
As they entered the entrance hall Maria, and even Sir William, appeared alarmed at the ostentatious finery around them. Elizabeth, however, bore it all with calm observance. Rosings was not as large as most visitors would presume. Nor had Elizabeth heard anything about Lady Catherine that made her sound frightening. Elizabeth was not in the habit of fearing the wealthy. While the lady’s manners sounded repulsive, they did not seem intimidating.
At last, they followed the liveried servants to the large drawing room where Lady Catherine, Miss de Bourgh, and her companion sat. The ladies went so far as to rise at the entrance of guests. Thankfully, Charlotte provided introductions, and therefore they were saved the many mortifying apologies Mr. Collins would have found necessary to utter. Sir William bowed low but remained mute, and Maria sat near her sister nearly clutching her side. Elizabeth did have some sympathy for the young girl who had only just entered society after Charlotte’s marriage. While she was almost three years older than Lydia, she had less experience in company.
As Elizabeth observed Lady Catherine, she felt a prick of unease. Her Ladyship seemed very much like the picture Mr. Wickham depicted only days ago. How foolishly Elizabeth had believed every word, he had said and had imagined him as the most upstanding gentleman she had ever met! From Wickham to Darcy, Elizabeth’s thoughts turned. Brought all the more to the fore as she soon saw enough in the aunt to be reminded of the nephew.
Next, Elizabeth noted Miss de Bourgh. The lady was far smaller than Elizabeth had observed the day before. Elizabeth had always imagined such delicacy was a mere figment of a novelist’s imagination but Anne de Bourgh indeed looked like one strong wind could lift her away. Nor did she make up for her size and plain looks by a striking personality. She seldom spoke, and when she did it was only to Mrs. Jenkinson.
Shortly after Lady Catherine had detailed how the view, at which she had commanded them all to look, was better in the summer, they were called to the dining parlour. Dinner was as exemplary as Mr. Collins had promised and he took his position at the bottom of the table and carved and flattered in equal skill—that is to say leaving much to be desired. Sir William had recovered enough to echo all of his son-in-law’s words while his youngest daughter remained too frightened to speak.
Separating from the gentlemen served only to allow her ladyship to pontificate at length. Elizabeth soon recognised that there was nothing in her parish the Lady did not care to know or render an opinion on. Must she give advice on Charlotte’s shopping? It was not as though she had ever been a parson’s wife. Despite provocation, Charlotte spoke to Lady Catherine with an ease which surprised Elizabeth.
“Miss Bennet,” her ladyship said in a tone Elizabeth imagined would suit a general on a field of battle, “I have told Mrs. Collins that you are pretty, genteel kind of girl.”
“Thank you,” Elizabeth mentally added she was not entirely sure it was a compliment and therefore deserving of gratitude.
“Tell me about your family, Miss Bennet.”
Elizabeth gave the woman a false smile. “I am the second of five daughters.”
“You are cousins to Mr. Collins, I believe.”
“That is correct, ma’am.”
“A pity your mother had no son.” She turned toward Charlotte for a moment. “For your sake I am glad, but otherwise I see no need to entail estates away from females. It had not been thought necessary in Sir Lewis de Bourgh’s family.”
How fortunate for you! Elizabeth thought to herself, and used all her self-control to not roll her eyes. Sir Lewis’ station, wealth and family had been so new that it could make such progressive decisions.
“Do you play or sing?”
Elizabeth bit back a sigh. The inquisition was not over, it seemed. “A little.”
“Oh! Then you shall have to play for us sometime. Our instrument is capital. Probably far superior to what you’re—Do your sisters play?”
Elizabeth’s eyes widened at her ladyship’s lapse she just barely kept herself from insulting Elizabeth directly. Beside her, Miss de Bourgh made a noise that suspiciously sounded like a cough disguising a giggle. “One of them does,” Elizabeth answered.
If Elizabeth had told Lady Catherine that she had a pet unicorn and pigs were flying outside, the lady could not look more shocked. “Why did you not all learn? I know of a family of girls who learned and your father’s income is better than theirs.”
Elizabeth chose not to reply but shot a glance at Mr. Collins. How nice of him to share their family’s income with his patroness!
“Do you draw?”
“No, not at all.” Elizabeth avoided Charlotte’s eyes. The matter of her refusing to call architectural sketching, “drawing”, had been a source of contention between them.
“What, none of you!” Lady Catherine blinked rapidly as if again she had never heard something so strange in all her years.
“Not a one.” By now, Elizabeth took perverse pleasure in rendering her ladyship shocked.
The conversation continued as Lady Catherine canvassed more of Elizabeth’s accomplishments and upbringing. After each turn, it had not seemed like her ladyship could be more aghast, but the next question always trumped the last. Elizabeth inwardly laughed. It seemed the woman had never been in contact with people who had a life that had been different than her own. Mr. Darcy had once said country towns had a constrained and unvarying society, but surely this woman had moved in fine circles of life and yet Elizabeth, who was no oddity in Meryton, was rendered peculiar.
When Elizabeth confirmed that all of her sisters were out in Society at once, she really thought Lady Catherine might have an apoplexy. She had turned red, and her eyes bulged. Elizabeth made a point that excluding sisters could not encourage sisterly affection, hoping to soothe the lady but seemed to make her only angrier.
Lady Catherine sucked in a deep breath. “Upon my word, you give your opinion very decidedly for one so young. What is your age.”
Elizabeth could not keep the mischievous smile from inching across her face. “With so many younger sisters who are grown up, you can hardly expect me to admit it.” She made her eyes wide and blinked innocently. Another giggle-cough escaped from Miss de Bourgh.
Lady Catherine’s eyes narrowed. Whether at her daughter or her guest, Elizabeth was less sure. Elizabeth bit back a smile at the idea of being the first person to dare trifle with such a lady and her ridiculous questioning.
“You cannot be more than one and twenty. Therefore, you have no reason to avoid telling the truth.”
“I am not one and twenty.”
Thankfully, before Lady Catherine could say more, the gentlemen returned and the card tables were brought out. The evening passed with little diversion or animation. Mr. Collins sat with her ladyship and apologised when he felt he won too much. Maria and Elizabeth joined Miss de Bourgh and Mrs. Jenkinson at cassino, but no real conversation was attempted.
Later than Elizabeth would have liked, the carriage was offered and brought round. As it conveyed Elizabeth and the others back to the Parsonage, Elizabeth considered that Mr. Darcy’s presence might be more welcome than she had first thought. She had never thought well of him, and they had often disagreed. However, her time at Netherfield had taught her he had no shortage of things to say when he felt comfortable. That must be vastly preferable to impertinent questions from such a domineering fishwife or the restless sighs from a mouse of a woman.
“Fitzwilliam, be reasonable!” Darcy’s aunt called after him after he stormed off from the drawing room where she and Georgiana had descended upon him with charts and plans for marriage.
Stalking down the hall, he entered his study and locked the door. Pouring a glass of Madeira, he pulled a shaking hand through his curls and glared at the Darcy crest and motto that hung above the mantle. Hide the sins of his father’s godson? Yes, he could do that. Sacrifice years of carefree life for Pemberley and his sister? Of course. Accept the barony from his aunt? He had little choice. Indulge her with finding a group of bluestocking women? Why not. Allow her to arrange a cold, formal marriage for him? Absolutely not. Duty and honour be damned.
“I want…” he trailed off as his eyes dropped to the fire. He daredw not complete his thought. Loosening his cravat, he threw himself into the chair behind his desk.
To take what he truly wanted would be turning his back on all duty and honour. While he did not want Lady Darcy and Georgiana selecting a spouse for him based on charts of ancestry and the size of their dowry, neither could he imagine forsaking everything that had been ingrained in him for so many years. He would not choose a wife from a flat list of attractions on paper. Unfortunately, it meant he would actually have to converse with the ladies.
Darcy sighed and shook his head. That was likely his aunt’s plan all along. It was unlike her to believe a woman’s worth could be ascertained in a list of accomplishments or monetary value. Nor could he see any reason to rush finding a wife. His aunt was hale and hearty for eighty. On the other hand, both his parents had been gone these many years. Death was no respecter of age. Likewise, his uncle, the Earl Fitzwilliam, had long ago handed the overseeing of the estates to his eldest son. Indeed, Winchester had married ages ago and now had two boys. Richard, the Earl’s younger son, had little chance of inheriting the earldom now — to his own relief. In many ways, Darcy’s continued bachelorhood was selfish. No wonder every female relation worried over his marital state.
A knock interrupted his solitude. “Lady Darcy to depart,” the butler said through the wood-paneled door.
With another sigh, Darcy gulped the last of his drink and hoped the beverage could deaden his memories of dark, dancing eyes. He strode across the room and unlocked the door. His aunt looked up from where she was pulling on her gloves.
“Well?” she gave him an expectant look.
“I will attend the ball, however,” he folded his arms across his chest, “I will not choose to court a lady from a list of qualities you provide. If she is to be my wife, I must talk with her and see if we are compatible.”
“Excellent. Just the decision I knew you’d make!” Lady Darcy smiled in glee and Darcy contained the urge to roll his eyes. She stepped towards him and then on tiptoe, kissed his cheek. “Anyone but that Bingley woman or your cousin Anne,” she whispered in his ear.
A shudder racked through Darcy. “I can assure you, madam, that I will absolutely never, under any circumstances, make either an offer.”
“Good,” she nodded.
Darcy escorted her to her waiting carriage. When he returned inside, Georgiana awaited him in the office.
“Well?” she asked and settled in a chair, tapping her fingers on the paper containing lists of names of possible marriage partners.
“You have been spending too much time with our aunt.” He ordered tea and sat next to her.
“I could spend more time with you,” she offered.
“I believe even our aunt would say for a girl of your tender years that is hardly appropriate.”
“I am no longer a child,” she whispered. “Nor are you up to rakish activities you must shelter me from.”
“What do you know of rakes?” he asked. God help him if he ever had daughters. He could sympathise with the fathers in fairy tales that always locked them up.
“I believe I understand the danger they pose to young maidens far more than you do,” she said. “After Wickham—”
“I never should have allowed you to remain deluded about his character.”
“I do not know that I would have listened to you had I not experienced the pain for myself,” she said and shrugged her shoulders.
It was the first time they had spoken of him. “Why is that?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Georgiana said and ran a finger around the rim of her teacup. “I know I agreed to an elopement because it was exciting and empowering.”
“Empowering?” How little he understood ladies!
“Certainly! To believe yourself able to command the admiration of a handsome man who has the ability to make any woman in love with him. Believing that he saw me, not Fitzwilliam Darcy’s sister, not thirty thousand pounds, was very seductive.”
Yes, he well understood the irresistible pull of believing another knew your real character.
“And while I never thought badly of you or felt you had been unfair, I think I would have been too happy to remain in denial. The truth hurts, and I would have probably lashed out at you rather than accept your words about Wickham.”
“But I could have told you years ago, long before Mrs. Younge took you to Ramsgate.”
“But I had known him then myself. I had been smitten with him from a young age. No doubt he saw that as well and used it to his gain. Mrs. Younge quickly perceived it from the way I spoke of him.”
“You carried a tendre for him for years, and I did not know!” Darcy paled at realising how little he had understood of his sister.
“Do not be so aghast. I daresay girls that confide with their much older brothers about youthful fancies are far more the exception than the rule.”
“Perhaps so, but I would not have us be that way,” he murmured. “I do value your understanding. When I was twelve and you just born, the years between us seemed extreme, but surely that is less so now. At sixteen, you are considered full grown and marriageable. Our differences in understanding now are related more to our sexes and experiences than our ability to learn and reason.”
“Thank you,” she said and stared at her hands. Suddenly she looked up and smiled. “I do not have anything to report now. No one interests me.”
“Oh?” Darcy asked. He had rather hoped someday — eventually — she might take a fancy to Bingley. “What sort of man do you think you would like when you are older?”
She thought for a moment and then her eyes lit with amusement. “I am unsure, and so I think the best way would simply be by meeting as many as possible!”
“Georgiana,” Darcy warned. “You will make me go grey.”
“Well, then,” she said and grinned, “we had best marry you off before you look in your dotage!”
“Not you too!” he feigned annoyance but really was impressed with her ability to bring the conversation around so fully.
“And since I confided in you,” Georgiana leant forward and batted her eyes, “you should reciprocate. Is there anyone you fancy?”
“I have work to do,” he said, standing.
“So there is!” she stood as well. “Oh, please tell me who she is! I can help you!”
“Georgiana, please” Darcy pressed two fingers to his temple. “This morning was excruciating enough.”
“Because your heart has already decided?”
A knock at the door interrupted them. “Mr. Bingley, sir.”