As you have wallowed in self-pity for months, I have none left to offer you. I have not said you shamed the family name with your folly, but your inability to rise above matters does. You are not to be indulged any longer. A new companion shall be hired forthwith, and I recall you to London.
Your weary aunt,
“Good day, Darcy!” Bingley ambled into Darcy House with his usual fixed smile. “Ah, Miss Darcy,” he said and bowed over her hand. “You look lovelier every time I have the honour of seeing you.”
“Thank you,” she murmured and blushed bright red. “If you will excuse me.” After a hasty curtsy, she fled the room.
Although thankful for his arrival, Darcy cocked his head as he attempted to make sense of the scene he had just witnessed. Bingley had never been so direct with Georgiana before. Was she simply embarrassed or did she dislike his attention?
“This is the first time in a fortnight I have caught you at home,” Bingley said as he sat in the chair opposite.
Darcy poured Bingley a drink then retook his seat. “You have no idea,” he groaned. “I am hounded everywhere. I heard one debutante say I have been determined the catch of the Season. I cannot think why as I have not yet inherited the title and a barony is hardly worth such fervour.”
Bingley guffawed. “The Darcys are richer than many peers, and you’re far more handsome and younger than many of the doddering dukes who have been sowing wild oats for forty or more years. You can hardly blame a lady for rather snatching you than an arthritic duke intent on finally getting around to having legal heirs.” Bingley shuddered. “You would not wish it for your sister.”
“No,” Darcy agreed. “What brings you ‘round. You might have dropped a note even if I had not the time to return your calls.”
“An invitation,” he said, “to dine with us tonight.”
“Unfortunately, I am engaged this evening. I plan to attend the Duchess of Portland’s ball.”
“Yes, we are invited as well. You may dine with us, and then we can attend together.”
“Very well,” Darcy said, but inwardly groaned. Dinner at the Hurst townhouse meant three hours of courses and insipid conversation before going to the ball with even more conversation and dancing.”
“Come, it is not as bad as that,” Bingley smiled at Darcy’s pained look.
“She had a list today. Asking me to select from various descendants of the original Bluestocking Society.”
Bingley’s brows shot up. “Indeed! Did she have a favourite?”
Darcy shrugged. “With my Aunt it is hard to tell when she truly favours something and when she only argues for enjoyment.”
“Ah,” Bingley said.
The pair of dark, dancing eyes passed before Darcy’s mind again, and he shoved them aside. “She advocated for Lady Elizabeth Thynne, the daughter of the Marquess of Bath. She’s the great-granddaughter of Margaret Bentinck, Duchess of Portland, a notorious Bluestocking. Aunt also favours Lady Charlotte Leveson-Gower, eldest daughter of the Duke of Beaufort. She is the great-granddaughter of Frances Boscawen.”
“Who was she?”
Darcy sighed. “One of the original Bluestockings. Lady Charlotte is a cousin. Frances was my great aunt Anne’s mother.”
“Right,” Bingley nodded. “The one who married the first Earl.”
Darcy gaped at his friend. Had Bingley been looking up his family line? “No, she married the second Earl.”
“Whichever,” Bingley waved his hand as though family lineages meant nothing to him. “What do you think?” He stared at his wine. “They have rank but what are they worth?”
“I actually care nothing for ranks and dowries,” Darcy shrugged. “I do agree with my aunt about finding a lady of sense with real accomplishments and ability to think, not just ornamental pursuits such as rug making. That, however, is not to be found on her lists and so I must meet with them myself.”
“And it must be a descendant from the first set of Bluestockings?”
“No, of course not,” Darcy said, and the beautiful eyes intruded once more.
“And there’s no one else you have in mind that would already suit you if, as you say, you care nothing for rank and money?” Bingley looked at Darcy expectantly.
“Of course not,” Darcy said. He did not often keep confidences from Bingley, but this was paramount. Just a few months ago Darcy had to expound on all the reasons why a match between Bingley and Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s elder sister was imprudent. He could hardly admit to mooning over Elizabeth for…egads, had it been six months? Six months of infatuation?
“Darcy, did you hear me?” Bingley’s voice sounded as though it came from far away and there was a dull roaring sound in Darcy’s ears. “Darcy! Are you ill?”
Suddenly alert again, Darcy shook his head. “Forgive me. I just recalled a matter I must attend to before leaving this evening.”
“You are certain you are well?” Bingley could not contain his concern.
“The picture of health,” Darcy said. “Dinner will be served six o’clock?”
“As always,” Bingley said and stood.
“Perfect,” Darcy said and stood as well. He hastily walked Bingley toward the door. “I look forward to it. Give my regards to your family,” he said with a nod of his head to serve as a bow.
Hoping to avoid sisters and all visitors who might speak of marriage or remind him of Elizabeth, Darcy retired to his chambers before dressing for dinner. Georgiana would remain at home with her recently hired companion, Mrs. Annesley. She had come highly recommended from Lady Darcy. A widow of only a few years, she had served as a companion to several other ladies before their marriage and could contribute to the sort of education Georgiana lacked: sense and self-knowledge.
At six o’clock, Darcy arrived at Hurst’s townhouse. He joined them as they were discussing the most recent account of battles from the Peninsula Campaign. It was not often that they spoke of current affairs. At least not in his presence and he rather doubted at all. The discussion continued throughout dinner.
“You have a cousin who has served, do you not, Mr. Darcy?” Caroline Bingley said from a chair to his right.
“Yes, but I doubt when he joined he imagined we would be at war for so long,” Darcy said. “He is now a colonel. He is very proud to have earned the rank rather than have bought it.”
Caroline blinked rapidly for a moment, and there was silence at the table. It was as though they did not know the basics of how ranks were attained in the army.
“Well, I suppose it is good that not too many of the lower classes are considered his equals, then,” Caroline said at last. “Like it is in the Militia.”
“The Navy,” Bingley muttered, and Caroline blushed.
“Yes, the Navy, I mean.” She sipped her wine. “I hope you can remain for supper, Mr. Darcy. We have found a book in Hurst’s library which we think you would take a keen interest in.”
In the past, the only time Caroline had seemed interested in a book was when he was already reading one. In fact, she eagerly dismissed Elizabeth Bennet’s interest in them while at Netherfield. This sudden interest further heightened his suspicions at the motives for their unusual behaviour. “I am sorry I cannot. I have promised to go to the Duchess of Portland’s ball.” His head began to pound at the mere thought.
“What Caroline meant was, if you had rather not go we would gladly host you here,” Bingley said.
“You had said you were invited as well,” Darcy said knitting his brows. Why was everyone acting so peculiarly?
Caroline cleared her throat. “I have often said that a ball is an absolutely irrational way to spend one’s evening. Conversation can be more easily had at home.”
Darcy could think of only one time she had ever said such a thing and that was in hopes of convincing her brother to not host a ball at Netherfield. And Bingley had never missed a chance to dance.
“I have promised the Baroness. I would be pleased to view it another time,” he said leaving no room for argument, and conversation soon turned to other topics.
Although they all arrived at the Portlands’ ball, Darcy was soon ferried away by his aunt. After the fifth dance, he sought refreshments. Bingley and his sisters were nearby.
“Darcy! There you are,” Bingley called out. “I have never seen you dance so much in your life.” He grinned.
Grinned! “I believe I always pay the proper civility to every establishment,” he answered neutrally.
“I confess I have been surprised by your partners,” Caroline said.
Darcy braced for her to either gush over his abilities or demean his partners, as was her usual wont.
“I had believed you disliked conversation with strangers,” she finished with a knowing smile.
“I do find it tedious,” he said. Hearing the orchestra strike up again, he held out his hand. “If you are free for this set, Miss Bingley, might I have the pleasure?”
“Indeed, it would be my pleasure,” she smiled at him.
It occurred to Darcy that when she did not try so hard to please, she would make some gentleman — not him — a suitable wife.
“There, now. We may remain silent if you choose,” she said in a gentle but slightly teasing voice.
“I do not mind speaking with you,” he said. “We have no shortage of topics we can discuss.”
Caroline laughed lightly. “Oh, yes. But do you not ever tire of speaking of what Society says we ought? I will remark on the room or the dance. Later, I will observe the couples, and if it is ungenerous, then that is all the better.”
She had rendered Darcy mute. He did not know how to approach a Caroline Bingley who did not belittle her peers. “What would you rather have us say?”
“Do you recall when Elizabeth Bennet suggested my intimacy with you could tell me how to tease you?”
Did Darcy imagine it or did she attempt to add huskiness to her voice with that word? “My memory is never so exact as a woman’s.”
Caroline laughed again. “There is your wicked sense of humour. I have thought of it,” she said and waited until the dance drew them closer again before continuing. “I cannot think of how to tease you that will not pain you.”
“That hints at believing you know of ways that would hurt me,” he said. The inflection in his voice made his statement into a question.
She waved a hand around, gesturing at the room. “We are here. Surely, some find enjoyment in teasing you for discomfort.”
“But you do not?” He waited for the dance to bring them together.
“No,” she said breathily.
He had never before believed Caroline had any genuine affection for him. Then again, never before had he really looked for a wife. Could it be she now felt threatened? Strangely, he felt a shred of compassion for her.
“I would rather speak of your sister,” said she. “Georgiana always brings you happiness.”
Darcy readily agreed, and their conversation turned toward her. At the close of the dance, for the first time in a very long while, Darcy believed he had almost enjoyed his set with Caroline Bingley.
As the night wore on, his patience frayed. It was more than mere exhaustion of insipid conversations with strangers. He disliked going through the motions of what his heart had already decided.
Returning to his office, Darcy snatched up the blasted lists of ladies and crumpled them into a tight ball. Throwing them into the fire, he watched as they burned and turned to ash. He needed no more lists, and he needed no more balls. No lady contained on those pages or in the rooms of London would fit his requirements for a wife. He already knew what he wanted, and it couldn’t be less convenient. He could not determine when he had lost all sight of reason and done the most foolish thing in his life, but it could not alter the fact that Darcy had suddenly recognized he was in love with Elizabeth Bennet.
Sir William stayed only a week at Hunsford and left suitably impressed with his daughter’s situation. Elizabeth summoned a smidgen of pity for her mother who would hear all the virtues of Hunsford extolled from the family she now viewed as her mortal enemy. Elizabeth smirked as she considered that the rude questions of Lady Catherine and the annoying exultations of Mr. Collins were preferable to the wailings of her mother.
Despite the change in scenery, Elizabeth found the listlessness that had settled over her in December continued. Sir William’s departure did little to alter the routine of the Parsonage. The ladies sat in the smaller drawing-room, away from the lane, which afforded Mr. Collins the dining-parlour where he could keep count of how many carriages passed and when Miss de Bourgh drove by in her phaeton, which was nearly every day. He spent the chief of his time between breakfast and dinner in the garden or in his book room. Additionally, he walked to Rosings almost daily, and Charlotte often went with him.
Lady Catherine called several times and examined every nook and cranny to see if there was anything critical she could say she had overlooked at the previous visit. The maid was deficient, the furniture ought to be rearranged, and even their needlework required improvement. Lady Catherine was the sole authority on any subject a person could think of, and whether she spoke of music or literature, she acted as though she were a great patron. Nor were visiting the cottages of the neighbourhood beneath her. Her ladyship was an ever-present balm to anyone with complaints ranging from disputes to poverty. She would soon remind one of every blessing they had been afforded if not from the Lord, then from her hand. Mr. Collins was her faithful servant and brought to her the minutest concerns.
Twice more they had dined at Rosings, and it was no different than the first time, except there being one less card table. There were few other engagements, but this did not concern Elizabeth. She contented herself with half hour conversations with Charlotte and enjoyed much free time to walk around the grounds, often returning to a worn looking bench off a path some distance from the manicured gardens. The view from the hill allowed her to sketch the buildings she had desired and no one bothered her. Seldom had Elizabeth observed a gardener.
Additionally, Elizabeth poured over letters from Jane, half-dreading any sign of continued melancholy. In her usual manner, Jane attempted cheerfulness, but Elizabeth could only hope Mr. Bingley would never return to Netherfield. To ease her own mind, Elizabeth had also taken care to write her father and Mary. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Bennet did not reply, and Mary had nothing but sermonizing words to share. Elizabeth did not dare give Mary any hint of her concerns about Lydia or Wickham, but Mary did not report anything out of the ordinary in anyone’s behaviour.
As Easter approached, Lady Catherine could not contain her excitement for the arrival of her nephew. Elizabeth then learned that Mr. Darcy brought his cousin, the younger son of the Earl Fitzwilliam, with him. While her ladyship praised them both beyond what Elizabeth could believe possible for any human let alone the Mr. Darcy she knew in Hertfordshire, her daughter seemed, if possible, more withdrawn and disinterested than usual. Elizabeth had looked forward to seeing how fruitless Caroline Bingley’s designs on Mr. Darcy were as he was intended for his cousin. However, it seemed the cousin was less inclined for the match. Not that Elizabeth could blame the lady. Still, if Miss de Bourgh were unwillingly courted, it did remove some of the amusement. She would never be so unkind as to hope to see Darcy, or any man, rebuffed or a lady forced into marriage against her inclination.
The night before the hoped for arrival, they dined at Rosings. To Elizabeth’s astonishment, Miss de Bourgh asked to sit next to her after dinner when the card table had been brought out. Shortly after the game had begun, the lady whispered to Elizabeth, “It did not escape my notice, Miss Bennet, that you did not have any praise to offer about my cousin.”
“I do not believe we are acquainted,” she replied. If Miss de Bourgh was intent on having this conversation, Elizabeth would not make it easy for her.
“You know very well I mean Darcy. Although, I am sure as soon as you meet Richard you will find him vastly preferable.”
“Perhaps you, as well, have no kind words for Mr. Darcy?”
Miss de Bourgh let out one of her giggle-laughs, and Mrs. Jenkinson raised worried eyes to her. Her concern was waved aside. “Darcy can be difficult to get to know. His reserve is often mistaken for displeasure.”
“Reserve only happens when occasions lack intimacy, and I believe it is the burden of the seeker to establish intimacy.” In much the way that Bingley and his sister had led Jane to believe that they wanted to know her better.
“This is true, but do you not agree it might take some longer to feel comfortable in new surroundings than others?”
Elizabeth glanced at Maria who bit her bottom lip, and now and then glanced around the room wide-eyed with wonder. “I agree the timid may take longer to adjust.”
“Ah, but it is not only timidity. Sometimes it might be rigidity.”
Elizabeth remained silent as it seemed Miss de Bourgh wished her to do. “If one is used to things going a certain way then they might feel uncomfortable in a new environment. Especially, if they are unused to things going well.”
Elizabeth played a card. “I cannot think what you mean by these references.”
“Oh, just some observations I had believed you would find interesting and only a few days from Easter.”
Elizabeth had no ready answer, and Miss de Bourgh offered no more great insights.
After several minutes of silence, Miss de Bourgh leaned toward her once more. “I understand you are an avid drawer, despite what you have told my mother.”
“A lady does enjoy having some secrets,” Elizabeth countered.
“And you may keep yours,” Anne nodded. “However, I suggest you do not neglect your practice at the pianoforte. Additionally, I would be delighted to offer you a tour of the library.”
“The library?” Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. She had the distinct feeling the only place Anne de Bourgh would help her would be out of the highest window.
“Mrs. Collins has said you are an avid reader. I believe you will soon find her husband’s library deficient if you do not already. You are welcome to anything in ours. It is, of course, the primary reason why your friend visits Rosings so frequently.”
Mrs. Jenkinson and Maria played their final cards and the carriage was ordered. Elizabeth breathed a sigh of relief when safely ensconced in it’s confines. Were Miss de Bourgh’s words about Darcy? Were they about herself? Were they for Elizabeth? Elizabeth enjoyed her walks, but she could never feel comfortable at Hunsford or Rosings. It was simply too different to what she was used to. Nor had she ever guessed Charlotte walked to Rosings so often to take refuge in its library.