I am delighted to hear of you have seen our cousin’s new baby girl. A pity she would rather wish for a son. I would suggest she spend more time with her aunt as I know my mother has always wished to be closer to her brother-in-law’s children. When you marry I hope you will not think sons are the only children worth having. Your uncle loves our girls.
As much as she tried to tell herself otherwise, Elizabeth could not mistake the look of pain and hurt in Darcy’s eyes as he left. She had done so much more than wound his vanity. Is that what she wanted all along?
Elizabeth thought over the history of her acquaintance with Darcy. She barely spoke to him without wishing to cause him pain. When had she become such a spiteful creature?
Elizabeth knew not how long she stood in place, alone and crying until she felt someone leading her off the path again.
“Miss Bennet, are you well?” Mr. Darcy had returned!
She could not answer. What must he think of her? Never before in her life had she been so cruel to a person! Always, always he provoked her past the point of civility! She allowed herself to be tugged into a sitting position.
“Please, do not cry for my sake.”
When she still did not speak, she felt something entirely unexpected. Mr. Darcy pulled her into his arms and held her! Near a public path on his aunt’s estate! All men from Derbyshire must be mad!
She pulled back from his arms and looked up at his face. “Mr. Darcy…”
This was madness! Why did he still hold her? Why did she let him?
This time she pushed against him, intent on rebuking him but something in the way he watched her stilled her tongue. She had said enough for one day. How long would she hold a grudge for one statement eight months ago?
“I cannot bear to be the cause for your tears and distress,” he said with an unfathomable gentleness.
Who was this man? Not the Mr. Darcy she knew in Hertfordshire, or even thus far in Kent. He let go of her and Elizabeth was nearly positive she saw regret etched on his face. Yes, he must regret speaking to her if she could not even keep a civil tongue and then resort to tears!
She said nothing as he sat beside her looking straight ahead. She was certain she had the most dumbstruck look on her face.
“Do you truly believe I dislike you and think so little of everyone around me?” His voice was quiet and uncertain.
Still not trusting herself to look at him, she fixed her gaze on the distance. “I confess it has been my firmest opinion these many months.”
Darcy was silent for many moments and Elizabeth hazarded a glance in his direction. Now his eyes remained forward, but she saw his jaw clenched tight and a muscle twitching near his eye.
Darcy plucked a blade of grass and focused on shredding it into small pieces while he spoke. “I do not mean to offend. I become nervous meeting new people. They all look at me, are judging me, estimating my income, presenting their daughters to me, approaching me with a business proposition, wanting to meet my uncle.
“More than that, with all the unwanted attention I am under constant scrutiny. I have been careful to not besmirch my family name. It is one reason I do not attempt to slander Wickham and why I have given into his financial demands before. The one time I did not, it nearly cost me dearly.”
Elizabeth thought over his words before replying. “I never thought you may be feeling that way, but did you ever think what other people might be feeling when the most powerful and richest person they have ever met enters the room, and will not even make eye contact with them? Will not speak with them? And who are you? Only a gentleman. You are not a peer or prince! We have our pride in Meryton, as anywhere.” Belatedly, Elizabeth recalled that he would one day inherit a barony.
“And I wounded yours.” Elizabeth blushed. “I never should have said it. I was in a foul mood but should have danced anyway. Truthfully, I would have danced after Bingley pointed you out but you know how I feel about Bingley’s ability to be easily persuaded. I only grasped at something to say.”
Before she could speak in reply, such as noting that it was the poorest apology she had heard in some time and she grew up with three younger sisters, he pressed on to the more important topic of discussion. “We still must decide how to warn your father. It seems he would not listen to your testimony and he will not listen to mine. Is there someone he may respect?”
Excessively grateful for the turn in conversation, she took a moment to think. She considered suggesting Bingley return, but it did not seem like her father would be willing to take Bingley’s word for it either. “My father greatly esteems my aunt and uncle in London. You have met them and know they have good sense.”
However much Darcy accepted his eccentric and titled aunt inviting the Gardiners to her home, Elizabeth knew it would be a stretch for a man of such pride to visit a tradesman, and was astonished when he did not hesitate to answer.
“If I explain matters do you think he will keep the confidence?”
“Yes, he certainly would. He met Wickham at Christmas. My aunt, especially, enjoyed his tales of Derbyshire and Lambton as she is from there, but they would be very interested in knowing the truth of his character. As you saw, they had no prejudice against you.” Unlike me.
Darcy smiled a little, and she was pleased that he noted her non-stated apology. Then another thought struck her. “Well, they did hear of you,” she could not bear to explain it was from her own mouth, “but they are fair people and enjoyed meeting you in London. My aunt had wondered about Wickham’s sensibilities when he began to pay attentions to a young lady who recently inherited ten thousand pounds when, previously, his affections seemed to lie…elsewhere.” Realising she rambled, she suddenly ceased speaking. She attempted not to blush but could feel the heat on her face.
“I see.” He sounded angrier than she expected. He clenched his jaw again.
“My aunt is predisposed to think well of you as she knew how good your father was.” Unexpectedly, Darcy smiled a sincere smile at that. His expression changed, and Elizabeth recognised that was when he was feeling proud. It was rather becoming.
“When do you leave for London?”
“I am to stay nearly another month.”
“I cannot call on your aunt and uncle without cause.”
A sly smile crept across Elizabeth’s face. “Mr. Bingley could call on my sister, and you could accompany him. I could send a letter with you.”
He began shaking his head before she had even finished her suggestion. “I would prefer you to be present.”
Elizabeth was annoyed he did not respond to her suggestion about Bingley. Of course, Darcy knew Jane as well and could call on her without his friend’s presence, but he seemed to have rejected that idea.
“Might you leave early?” he pressed.
Elizabeth huffed. “I do not have the freedom to order my own life. Mrs. Collins expects me here for another month, and my aunt and uncle are not prepared for me.”
“Perhaps you could write and ask if you may arrive in advance? You could argue the society here is discomforting, and I think that would be rather truthful. If they reply in the positive, you could find some excuse to Mrs. Collins.”
“I suppose you will tell me it is only fifty miles of good road and I might see my friend again frequently,” she said with something nearing sorrow. With all that Charlotte and Mr. Collins had put her through, leaving them would be no hardship but she had the distinct feeling her friendship with Charlotte would suffer forever.
Darcy cast a nervous look at her. “Might we worry about this trouble with Wickham before we borrow more from the future?”
“Very well. I can see, sir that your suggestions are prudent. I will sacrifice my leisure for the benefit of my family and the community. Oh, what I do for my beloved sisters!” She said dramatically, for greater effect.
He smiled at her theatrics. “Again, you cannot be certain what the future holds.”
Darcy pulled out his watch and noticed the time. “Allow me to escort you to the parsonage.” Once they began walking again, Darcy inquired, “When will you write your aunt?”
“I will write today. Things should be arranged in less than a week.”
Darcy frowned. “We had not considered how to convey you. Surely Miss Lucas would desire to stay with her sister longer. Additionally, your relatives might wish for you to remain in Town for a time rather than send you immediately to Hertfordshire, as Miss Lucas would likely prefer.”
Elizabeth chewed her lip. Was there a hint of anxiety in Darcy’s eyes? “I had not thought of that. We were to travel by stage, but my uncle was to send a manservant for us.” Darcy looked away, but Elizabeth saw him wince at her news. Undoubtedly, he would never dream of travelling by stage.
“If I could arrange for a maid to travel with us, might you ride in Lady Catherine’s carriage while I ride on my horse?”
Elizabeth disliked having to accept so much from Darcy, but it was the only feasible way. She could not travel with only a manservant and hated to have to beg for a maid from either the Collinses or the Gardiners. “Thank you.”
They arrived at the Parsonage gate, and Darcy bowed over Elizabeth’s hand. As he left, she sighed. Once again, she could not make him out at all. Fortunately, there were two such people just within who would rectify that feeling immediately.
Darcy knocked on Anne’s sitting room door and looked up and down the hall, hoping no servant would see him.
“Yes?” she called out.
“It’s Darcy,” he said. A memory of them as young children flashed in his mind. They would play “hide from the dragon.” Richard and their other cousin would never let Darcy hide with them. Anne, as a resident of Rosings, always knew the best places to hide. How often had he knocked on a wardrobe or cover and said, “It is me,” and she knew his voice immediately? Now, because of her mother’s scheming, they had grown into mere strangers.
Anne opened the door and also scanned the hallway. “Well?” she asked.
“I need to speak with you privately. Might I come in?” Darcy watched as Anne’s nervousness increased tenfold.
“If you must,” she said and walked toward the seating area. She lowered herself slowly into a chair and motioned for Darcy to do the same. Sitting on the edge of her chair, as though prepared for flight at a moment’s notice, she stared at her hands rather than look at Darcy.
“I must ask for your assistance,” he began nervously.
Anne’s head shot up. She looked a mixture of relieved and sceptical. “You need my help? Whatever for?”
“Miss Bennet finds she must journey to London earlier than previously planned. Neither the Collinses nor her relatives in Town have a suitable conveyance. I have offered to escort her, but she will need a chaperone and use of one of your mother’s carriages.”
Anne’s eyes widened, and she placed a hand protectively over her neck. “I cannot journey so far! London? No, never!” She looked ghost white, and she clenched the arms of her chair in terror.
Darcy gently touched her arm, causing her to jump. “Forgive me,” he said and drew it back. “I did not mean to alarm you,” he said. While some might fear confined places, Anne never did. No, she feared large groups of people. The result of being nearly trampled as a child when taken to see Macbeth with her father and a riot broke out due to an increase in ticket prices.
“Wha — what did you want then?” she asked, her chest still heaving but the fear easing.
“I wondered if you could arrange for a maid to accompany us. Miss Lucas will not wish to leave so early.”
“Oh, is that all?” Anne sagged against the chair in relief and looked younger than he had seen her in ages.
“That shall be hard enough without arousing the suspicion of your mother.” Darcy stood to leave.
“And what of my suspicions?” She said, and if it were not for the fact that Anne seldom left the vicinity of Rosings, Darcy would despise the way she sounded like her mother. As it was, she could hardly help it.
Darcy raised an eyebrow but said nothing. “You will not dally with Mrs. Collins’ friend, will you?”
“I hardly need to explain myself to you,” Darcy turned to go but at the last moment thought better of it. He was striving to be a better man because of Elizabeth’s rebuke. “Forgive me,” he said and retook his seat.
Anne furrowed her brow, unaccustomed to him caring about her opinion.
“I assure you, I have nothing but honourable intentions toward Miss Bennet, but that is all there is worth saying at this moment.” He took a deep breath and pushed forward. “Anne, surely you know… That is, it can be no surprise…” Blast it. There was a reason he had never discussed the situation of her mother’s hopes before.
Anne squeezed her hands tightly and stared at her feet.
Respect. “No, I will not dictate to you as you have had done your whole life. I will not tell you how you must think or feel and will not presume to know better than you.”
Slowly, she lifted her eyes, tears misted them.
“It was wrong of me to avoid this conversation for so many years. Your mother has made her preferences quite known, and I suspect has even raised you to expect our union.”
Anne timidly nodded.
“I ask your forgiveness. I ought to have discussed my feelings long ago.”
“You love Miss Bennet,” she said with understanding.
“I do,” Darcy confirmed. “However, I had felt since my youth that I could not marry you.” She opened her mouth, but Darcy waved it off. “Please, do not disparage yourself. I do not find you wanting. Another man will be quite blessed to have you as a wife. You deserve a man who passionately adores you. I have always known I am not that man and believed I was doing you a service by not bowing to your mother’s wishes.”
Anne exhaled a long breath and tears streamed down her eyes. “Thank you,” she clapped her hands together. “Thank you! Thank you! I have lived in fear, in dread of your proposal for most of my life.”
Despite his relief that she did not resent his rejection, it stung to hear yet another lady wanted no part of his courtship. “Again, I apologise for not stating my feelings earlier.” He stood to depart.
“I can help you!” She called out as his hand reached for the doorknob. He turned back toward her. “I can assist you with Miss Bennet.”
“What makes you think I need your assistance?”
Anne laughed. “She has not the faintest clue you admire her. She would sooner expect Richard’s stallion to grow wings.”
“And you are an expert on matchmaking now?”
“Those who cannot wed, plan!” Anne exclaimed. “I will tell you a secret.”
Dutifully, Darcy returned to his seat and leaned forward as Anne motioned. “I write for a ladies’ magazine. I am Mrs. Mabel Fairweather, mistress of hearts.” She scurried off to her desk and brought correspondence for him to inspect.
Darcy turned them over, recognising her penmanship. “I do not know what to say. You are accomplished beyond my wildest thoughts.”
“Now, you have begun your courtship on the wrong foot,” Anne grinned and retrieved her letters. “However, Elizabeth is a reasonable woman. She can be convinced to let the past remain there. She is prejudiced against your rank and wealth, and it does not help that she knows my mother,” Anne groaned at the thought.
Darcy silently added that Elizabeth’s other accusations involved Wickham and Bingley. “I have already determined I must show her and her relations greater respect.”
Anne nodded. “An excellent start. And how will you demonstrate this? Just wait for them to appear? Or to be brought up in conversation?”
Indeed, that was exactly his plan. Conversation was not his strong suit. Now, if only Society allowed him to demonstrate his passion for the lady…
“Do not fret,” Anne said. “We can practice some conversation and” she waggled her eyebrows, “we can discuss the appropriate behaviour of suitors. You must not leave her in doubt of your regard.”
Darcy loosened his cravat. The ways in which he desired to show Elizabeth his affection were not suitable for a lady’s ears, or anyone really. He had long struggled with accepting that he could feel very carnal desire for Elizabeth and love her intellect and personality as well. He stood to leave.
“When do you see her again? I imagine in the morning. I have not seen her sketching as early as she used to.”
“Oh yes,” Anne nodded. “She favours the hill overlooking the village. In the distance, you can see the spires of Knole Park. It does not surprise me that she has an interest in architecture.”
Darcy grinned. A true bluestocking. Neglecting fashionable pursuits for “gentlemen’s art.” She could not be more perfect for him than if he had intended to find a wife upon his entering Hertfordshire. He might have searched for many years before finding her.
“We do often meet in the grove,” Darcy answered neutrally.
“Do not go tomorrow,” Anne said. “Leave her wishing she had seen you. Visit me, and we will discuss how to proceed.”
“Thank you,” Darcy said, uncertain he should encourage her meddling in his life.
“And where the devil did you send Richard?”
“He had business in London and is detained by an ill commander. He hopes to return soon.”
“Yes, well, Mother pesters me more about you when he is absent.” Anne waved a hand. “You may go.”
Darcy, at last, left her sitting room, marvelling how much she was like her mother, and yet, that was not an entirely bad thing.