Do not give up on finding love but know that there is a season to all things. Your sad misadventure was caused by allowing your emotions to rule you. If you do not wish to wed yet and cannot abide the society of London, then come to Bath with us.
Fitzwilliam Darcy tapped his fingers on his legs as the carriage rolled slowly closer to his aunt’s estate in Kent. Usually, he dreaded the yearly visit. His mother had been devoted to her younger sister, and so Darcy always did his duty and attended, but it was increasingly annoying. Lady Catherine’s hints of an expectation that he marry her daughter grew bolder with each visit. Anne seemed indifferent to the idea, but Darcy knew he would never offer for her. His parents married late in life, and he had never felt much rush to enter into such a permanent union. At seven and twenty, he was just beginning to think of the usefulness of matrimony before Lady Darcy started pushing for him to find a bride.
It began last summer as he sent his sister to Ramsgate with her newly hired companion. Georgiana was more a daughter to him than a sister and, if he had had a wife, perhaps everything would have been different. He had gone to enjoy a friend’s summer house party, whilst Georgiana longed for the seacoast. His instinct was to go with her, but his friends assured him a young lady of Georgiana’s age did not want a much older brother coddling her or playing nursemaid. Against his better judgment, he went to the country but was among the first to leave. In addition to wishing to visit Georgiana, he could no longer tolerate the none too subtle attempts at matchmaking at the party.
Upon arriving at Ramsgate, his sister soon confessed she hoped to soon wed. Her love had convinced her of an elopement, but she hoped Darcy would give his blessing and not make the secrecy necessary. To his horror, Darcy learned his sister had fallen in love with an accomplished rogue: his former childhood friend, George Wickham. Refusing his consent, he was unsurprised to then learn that Wickham had known of Darcy’s arrival and immediately fled the area. He did not fight for his hopes of marrying Georgiana, proving his attachment was purely for her vast fortune and as a means for revenge on Darcy by ruining the family name.
In the weeks that followed, Georgiana grew despondent. When Darcy’s closest friend, Charles Bingley, rented an estate in Hertfordshire, Georgiana insisted that Darcy go with him. Seeing Darcy every day heightened her feelings of guilt. Part of Darcy’s eager return to London at the end of November was to see to his sister’s welfare. At Christmas, Lady Darcy made a rare trip to London. Shocked by Georgiana’s obvious feelings of self-loathing, she took both Darcy siblings under her wing. Due to her attention and instruction, Georgiana vastly improved.
What brought unease to Darcy’s mind now, however, was knowing he would meet with Elizabeth Bennet again. He had last seen her, very unexpectedly, three weeks ago. She had asked him about Wickham, and he had been unable, again, to tell her the whole truth. More than that, he realised his error in leaving her and Meryton in ignorance of Wickham’s true character. It was a fault he was prone to make, to assume he knew the best. Yet, he saw the worry in her eyes when she asked for information on the scoundrel. He sensed her reluctance to trust him, and he knew the price that his silence and encouraging his sister’s innocence, nay ignorance, nearly cost them.
Pulling him from his thoughts, his travelling companion spoke. “Darcy, will you stop that infernal tapping?”
Darcy smiled at his cousin, Richard. “You certainly are grumpy this morning!”
“Have I not a right to be so when I know our destination?”
“You have faced worst foes on the battlefield, I am sure.”
“Spoken like a politician! You would have me go back and fight over the same piece of land again and again! Or would you order me to infiltrate and begin a coup from within?”
“The idea does have merit,” Darcy replied, thinking that if only their cousin Anne were encouraged to take a stand for herself, Rosings would be more bearable.
“That did not work well for me at Corunna,” Richard patted his knee. He had first been wounded in ‘09 and again mere weeks ago in the Battle of Ciudad Rodrigo. He was sent home to heal after a bayonet wound but otherwise was considered capable of following the flag still.
“I apologise. I did not mean to bring up painful memories. Is there talk of sending you back?”
“The Regiment is ever at the ready. Are you? Lady Catherine will be more desperate than ever for you to marry Anne.”
“She is not the only one I must worry about,” Darcy drawled. “Lady Darcy is also intent on my finding a wife.”
“Yes, if the papers are to be believed, you have danced every set at every one of the ton’s crushes for the last fortnight!” Richard leant forward and cast a worried gaze over his cousin. “Are you ill? Inheriting the barony has addled your mind?”
“I am as well as ever,” Darcy said in as even a tone as he could manage. The truth was, he did feel as though he might become a bit unhinged due to the stress.
“And what is with all your dancing with bluestockings? It gives you an aura of unattainability which drives the debutantes and their mama’s wild with jealousy.”
Darcy quirked a brow. “And you ask out of concern… or envy?”
“Well,” Richard said as he leant back and crossed an ankle over his knee, “you must leave some ladies for the rest of us.”
“The sorts of ladies you enjoy are not the kind I have ever associated with, and certainly could never be accused of being bluestockings.”
“True,” Richard said, then waggled his eyebrows, “but they do not need to know that. A harmless flirtation in a ballroom never harmed anyone.”
“You should be more sympathetic. After I marry, you will have an aunt and a mother honing all their scheming on you.”
“On second thoughts, a new deployment sounds far more bearable.” A shudder racked his body, and Darcy laughed at the theatrics. “They do say, however, that besides the bluestockings, one lady has captured your attention.”
“I could hardly care less what the papers report,” Darcy said and flicked his gaze through the window. Did the journey seem to take longer than usual this year?
“You should. She’s a schemer, and you could find yourself leg-shackled if you’re not careful.”
Darcy racked his mind to think of who Richard referenced. “I have never danced with any lady more than once.”
“True, but you have danced with Miss Caroline Bingley nearly every night.”
“She is Bingley’s sister,” Darcy said defensively.
“And so it is all the more natural for others to assume a match will be made.”
“Never,” Darcy said.
“It is also stated that you do not shun her company as you once did.”
“Jealous hellcats, the lot of them,” Darcy waved off Richard’s concern.
However, his accusations did ring true. Caroline did not irk as she usually did. She no longer was eager to demean others or boast of her accomplishments. She spoke of current affairs. When she called on Georgiana, she encouraged the younger girl to compose her own masterpieces. She could never be more to him than his friend’s sister, but the primary drawback to Georgiana marrying Bingley had been his sister. Now, it appeared Georgiana would gain an affectionate one. A smile crept across his face as he also considered Elizabeth. Yes, Georgiana would soon gain a loving sister.
“Egads, what is that ridiculous face for? You look like a green boy lusting after his first milkmaid!” Richard contorted his face, in what Darcy hoped was an utter exaggeration, and laughed.
“Keep your foul words to yourself,” Darcy warned, “or Lady Catherine will rack you with her cane.”
Richard sobered immediately. “You never answered my question about how to get out of marrying Anne this time.”
Darcy grinned. “I would never reveal my tactics.”
“And that moony look just now was not for Caroline Bingley?”
“Certainly not!” Darcy said and blew out a breath as they passed the parsonage.
“Look at that little man!” Richard exclaimed. “I did not think a man as round as he could bow so low!”
Darcy chuckled. “Mr. Collins, our aunt’s new rector. I met him in Hertfordshire when I stayed with Bingley.”
“Oh, that is right. I forgot you remained in the same house as the harpy. And yet there is nothing to the rumours?”
“Nothing at all. If you must know, I remain friendly with his sister because I am worried about the man. I had to separate him from a most imprudent match last year.” An imprudent match he now intended to enter into. Well, not entirely the same. Elizabeth could never conceal her affections or be as cold as Jane Bennet had been.
“Indeed!” Richard said as they pulled to a stop before Rosings.
The door swung open, and the gentlemen descended. “Sirs, Lady Catherine awaits you in the blue drawing room,” the butler said upon their entry.
“Certainly, as soon as we have changed,” Darcy said and stepped toward the massive staircase.
“She desires to see you as soon as you arrive. A matter of urgency, she said.”
The butler’s face remained impassive, and so Darcy could not determine if there was any truth to her claims. Ordinarily, she loathed their coming fresh from the carriage into her receiving rooms. Darcy glanced at Richard, who shrugged.
“Very well,” he said, and the butler led the way although Darcy could find the location blindfolded.
“Darcy!” Lady Catherine commanded and pounded her cane on the floor. Beside him, Richard audibly gulped. “I understand that you already know the residents of my parsonage.”
“Yes, my lady. I met Mr. Collins last autumn.”
“And so you have also met his wife.”
“Yes, ma’am.” His eyes flitted to Anne to see if she held any clues to the unexpected summons and questioning. She quickly averted her eyes.
“And in a cruel twist of fate, you even know the guests. This Miss Elizabeth Bennet and Maria Lucas.”
“I have had the honour,” Darcy said, feeling his mouth go dry. Did she perceive any hint of his regard? Had word somehow reached him of his behaviour in Hertfordshire? He had not considered how to court Elizabeth with his aunt knowing and, undoubtedly, disapproving.
“Well!” She said and stomped her cane again. “I am seriously displeased!”
“I do apologise, Aunt. If I had known they would now be here, I certainly would have taken care in making their acquaintance months ago.”
Lady Catherine’s eyes narrowed at Darcy. “And you do not think they follow you here by design? The impertinent one mentioned something about seeing you in London a few weeks ago.”
Darcy fought a smile at his aunt’s description of Elizabeth. “We did meet, by chance, in Town some weeks ago. There, Sir William Lucas explained he was soon to visit his daughter and brought Miss Elizabeth Bennet and his younger daughter with him. Miss Bennet is close friends with Mrs. Collins, I understand.”
“And they could not know you visited every Easter? You must be mindful of your position in life! Ladies will seek to trap you. If you only did your duty—”
“Mama,” Anne interrupted. “If Miss Bennet had known Darcy always visited here and hoped to ensnare him then surely she could have visited Mr. Collins when he asked. Or she could have supported him marrying a sister. Then she would be welcomed far more than by only a friend. Do not forget she sacrificed the security of her family in refusing her father’s heir.”
“Yes! Exactly! She might have thought she should wait and hope for a better offer.”
“Is it not more reasonable to consider that she does not care about such material advantages?” Anne said and sent an apologetic glance at Darcy.
Richard laughed from behind him. “I prefer Anne’s way of thinking, Aunt. Darcy might offer a grand estate and money, but he’s a sour, unpleasant fellow. Is he really such a catch?”
Lady Catherine began to sputter, but Darcy interrupted. “Besides all this, you insult my honour by saying I would fall prey to a woman’s arts. Nor can I condemn enough the accusations you lay at Miss Bennet’s door. A lady who, I believe, you have invited into your home. If you had thought she was of ill-repute, you never should have brought her near Anne.”
Lady Catherine’s eyes widened, and her mouth snapped shut. Yes, bringing up her affection for Anne was always sure to bring her to reason. “I cannot believe you are standing on my new carpet covered head to toe in dust! Both of you are dismissed!”
Darcy and Richard departed as quickly as possible without earning another admonishment from their aunt. Richard clapped a hand on Darcy’s shoulder as they took the stairs side by side. “This Miss Bennet sounds like just the sort of lady I enjoy, and for far more than a harmless flirtation.”
Red clouded Darcy’s vision and the next thing he knew, Richard was laying on the bottom of the floor cursing at having tripped over three or four steps. Darcy carried on to his room. He had never before wished Richard absent on these visits. Far too many times his cousin was abroad in battle at this time of year. Today, he suddenly hated Richard’s presence. Not that he had expected any different, but between Lady Catherine’s suspicions and Richard’s teasing, Darcy knew he would have to keep his courtship with Elizabeth secret.
The day of Mr. Darcy’s arrival, Mr. Collins watched for their carriage from his room. At the earliest hour for calling the following morning, he walked to Rosings to pay tribute. Charlotte had gone to the dining-parlour under the guise of returning something of Mr. Collins, but rather an ill-disguised attempt of watching for his return. Maria blushed assuming her sister missed her husband, but Elizabeth rolled her eyes. Charlotte had adjusted to life here far too easily. She now lived for news on neighbours, and their visitors and plans on how to impress them were of utmost importance.
A few minutes later, Charlotte rushed into the drawing room white as a ghost. “Oh, make haste! Maria help me clear this work.” She scrambled from the door to the table where pieces of fabric and thread were strewn about.
“What has happened?” Elizabeth asked as she put aside her needlework.
“Mr. Darcy has followed Mr. Collins down here!”
“Mr. Darcy to call on the Parsonage?” Elizabeth dropped the sampler she held.
“Yes,” Charlotte said as she tucked a wisp of hair under her cap. “And I may thank you for this civility, Eliza. Mr. Darcy never would have called on us.”
Tossing a pile of loose thread to Maria, who shoved it in a basket and slid it under a table, Elizabeth huffed. “Of course, he would call eventually. A gentleman always does his duty.”
Did she just defend Mr. Darcy? Fortunately, the sound of the front door made all other conversation impossible. Colonel Fitzwilliam led the way. He was about thirty, not handsome, but tall and well-built. The smile on his face showed his gentlemanly breeding, and his open manners lent more force to the term. Darcy entered looking as uncomfortable as Elizabeth was used to him looking in Hertfordshire. He sat when asked and glanced around the room. At first, she supposed he would not say anything, but he gave Charlotte a compliment on her marriage and home. Elizabeth scrutinised all without speaking. Observing was a much better use of her time.
Colonel Fitzwilliam entered conversation easily. Against Elizabeth’s hopes that Mr. Collins would be rendered silent by the extreme compliment that both of her ladyship’s nephews paid his humble abode, the parson spoke at length. Contrary to Darcy’s general affronted demeanour, Colonel Fitzwilliam seemed to view the scene with amusement.
“How do you like Kent, Miss Bennet?” Colonel Fitzwilliam asked.
“I like it very much. Rosings has some of the most beautiful grounds I have ever seen.”
“Allow me to correct you, Cousin Elizabeth,” Mr. Collins interjected. “I flatter myself that I have seen far more country houses and estates than you have. Rosings is the picture of beauty. I would not change one blade of grass.”
“My aunt’s gardeners would send their thanks for your praise,” the Colonel said. “Do I take it that you have walked beyond the gardens, then?” He addressed Elizabeth again.
“Indeed. I much prefer a wooded grove for daily exercise.”
The colonel nodded. “My cousin entirely agrees with you. He takes a morning walk every time we are here, even if it threatens to rain.” The colonel gave Elizabeth a knowing look, and she quelled the urge to laugh. Yes, she could well understand the need to be away from Rosings. He went on to describe Darcy’s preferred path, one Elizabeth had enjoyed as well. “As an officer in His Majesty’s Army, I much prefer riding.”
“I think riding far nobler,” Mr. Collins said. “I had always wished to learn. There is something undignified about walking. Not that I would ever mean you are undignified, Mr. Darcy.” Collins bowed to the man who made no remark.
Insensible to Darcy’s insult, Collins again turned his attention to the Colonel.
“My aunt has said you can always judge a clergyman by how he cares for his land,” the Colonel said.
“Indeed?” Mr. Collins nearly panted in excitement. “I would be pleased to show you the garden and orchard. Her ladyship often compliments it. Although, I owe her suggestions have always proved the most useful. What a green thumb she has! So accomplished in gardening and not above knowing the botany of several species.”
Elizabeth little believed her ladyship did know botany. After all, in Elizabeth’s experience thus far, her ladyship claimed expertise on everything and yet did nothing. Her musings were interrupted by Mr. Darcy, and she was unable to hear the Colonel’s reply.
“I hope your family is in good health, Miss Bennet,” Darcy said to her.
“They are, thank you. And the Bingleys?”
“They were very well the last I saw them,” he answered with less surety than Elizabeth was accustomed to.
“Darcy has become the belle of the ball!” Colonel Fitzwilliam laughed.
Elizabeth furrowed her brow. “I do not think I understand the Colonel’s joke.”
Mr. Collins nearly trembled with excitement. He pressed a hand to his mouth as though he needed it to keep words from flying out.
Darcy stiffened. “My cousin delights in tormenting me. I had supposed everyone had heard. Recently, the courts have determined I will inherit my aunt’s barony.”
“Ah,” Elizabeth said. Why was she disappointed?
Mr. Collins bounded to Darcy’s side. “Her ladyship told me some time ago and swore me to secrecy. I must admit I am surprised they allow your aunt, however honourable I am sure she is, to hold the title when there is a gentleman who is the heir.”
Elizabeth steeled her jaw from correcting her cousin’s misogynistic opinions, and even Charlotte blushed.
“As it is,” Darcy answered coldly, “I do not inherit until my aunt’s passing from this world and, as such, I am in no hurry.”
“Oh, I quite understand,” Collins continued without understanding the rebuff he was given. “As I will inherit Mr. Bennet’s estate upon his death, and I have assured my dear cousin Elizabeth several times, I am in no hurry for such an unlikeable event.”
Mr. Collins then turned to Colonel Fitzwilliam, as he did not know the Bennets or Longbourn, to explain to him his relation to Elizabeth’s father and details of the estate. Mr. Darcy approached the table near Elizabeth and looked through the newspapers. Was he going to read rather than talk?
“I am sorry I could not answer your question better,” he said quietly enough that only she could hear. “I have not seen Bingley in nearly a week despite us going to the same functions. I have no reason to think he is unwell. Miss Bingley assuredly would have told me.”
“Miss Bingley? You have seen her but not her brother?” Elizabeth did not mean to ask so candidly. Rather than this offending the man who would one day be a peer, he smiled.
“When frequenting Society’s events, it is helpful to have a friend to ease the way. London has been full of gossip about my future, and plans I might have.”
As in marriage. So, they imagined he was hunting about the ballrooms for a wife. And Caroline Bingley just happened to be at each event to soothe poor Mr. Darcy’s ruffled feathers from having to mix with so many people eager to flatter and know him? Elizabeth would give Caroline credit for persistence and intelligence. Few would undertake such a task, especially when he would know combining his fortune and estate with Rosings would give him more power and influence in the world of politics.
“You sound as though you have been very busy. I am sure you have not seen my sister or other relatives then,” she said and was pleased when he looked a little ashamed.
“I do regret that I have not had the pleasure of their company since our time at my aunt’s. I have often thought of our conversation there.” He paused and scrutinised her face. Did she imagine the look of anxiety? “I assume since no one contacted my aunt there has been no need to worry?”
Elizabeth chewed her bottom lip. “I have heard no new developments, but I do find myself curious about the information you offered to share with my uncle. If you do not mind the impertinence of my asking.” She added a saucy smile.
Darcy stared at her a long time, his blue eyes seemingly transfixed. Her smile began to slip. He owed her no explanations.
“Darcy!” Colonel Fitzwilliam said, drawing the attention of both. “We have importuned on the Collinses, and their beautiful guests,” he winked, “long enough. Lady Catherine will desire us back.”
“Certainly,” Darcy said in his usual aloofness.
“It is no imposition at all,” Collins gushed. “To entertain my patroness’ nephews, and one to become a baron!”
Elizabeth sighed. Had she thought the addition of Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam would somehow make her stay more enjoyable?
“Good day,” Darcy said and bowed to Elizabeth before offering his compliments again to Charlotte. In a few moments, despite Collins’ protestations, the gentlemen departed.
Mr. Collins was in such a state afterwards that Charlotte suggested he see to the garden to expel energy. “Quite right, my dearest. The colonel may wish to view it on his next visit.” He then scurried away to be about his task.
Charlotte sat with Maria and Elizabeth with a satisfied smile on her face. “You say the compliment was not for you, Eliza,” Charlotte said as she pulled a needle through her sampler, “and yet do no think I did not see how Mr. Darcy spoke nearly exclusively to you.”
“We merely spoke of acquaintances,” Elizabeth shrugged. “Recall that I had met his aunt and sister.”
“The Baroness!” Maria exclaimed. “But she is nothing to Lady Catherine. I wonder at a woman of superior rank, like Lady Darcy, being so friendly with the lower classes.”
Elizabeth looked out the window, longing for solitude with her thoughts and sketch book. The Lucases had strange opinions on the matter of rank. Well, truthfully, most would say the Bennets had an irreverent attitude toward them while the Lucases merely upheld traditional values.
The day wore on as it usually did. Elizabeth supposed she would need to speak with Charlotte soon about visiting Rosings. Miss de Bourgh was correct. She had read all the books she cared to at the Parsonage. She could not be out of doors the entire day. And if facing Lady Catherine and her daughter’s scrutiny would afford her a break from the tedium of life and worry of her sisters, she would welcome it.
As day slipped to evening, Elizabeth considered her continued concern over Wickham’s words. It was unlike Elizabeth to not laugh matters away. Additionally, it was unlike her to not long for more information. As a general rule, she enjoyed learning, and she had already listened to Wickham on the matter. Why did she continually deter Darcy from sharing his version of events? Gathering her courage, she determined to face her fears and doubts head on. She would find a way to speak to Darcy privately as he walked in the morning.