Do not fall prey to melancholy again. Let education be your comfort. I will quote Mr. Akenside, who we so lately lost.
Man loves knowledge, and the beams of truth
More welcome touch his understanding’s eye
Than all the blandishments of sound his ear,
Than all of taste his tongue.
The following morning, Elizabeth left the Parsonage earlier than before. Mr. Collins had said no more insulting words, but it would take far more than a day for her to forget his unjust reproofs. Instead, he glared at her as much as possible. Now and then he asked after her reading selections. Charlotte suggested Elizabeth peruse Lady Catherine’s library. It called to mind Miss de Bourgh’s words on the subject as well.
Elizabeth blew a wayward tendril from her face as she laboured up the hill behind Rosings at an unladylike speed. If life had been different and treated women as equal as men, Jane would inherit Longbourn. Elizabeth and her younger sisters would find professions to make their way in the world. Instead, as females, they were little better than property and expected to marry. As such, their mother viewed every male as a prize. With Elizabeth’s combination of vivaciousness and good sense, she made friends of both sexes the most easily out of the Bennet daughters. However, even she had to admit she viewed male specimens primarily from the consideration of marital partners. Mr. Darcy, who had dismissed her for the enjoyment of a mere dance let alone as a suitable spouse, earned her immediate loathing. While she had fumed at the injustice of his words, she had done the same to him.
Immediately, Bingley seemed a probable match for Jane. Collins’ unsuitability had been clear since his first letter. Wickham had seemed promising and worth her interest, but his income too insufficient. She had seen as much early enough in their acquaintance that it required no exertion to prevent her heart from falling in love with him. By the time her Aunt Gardiner had suggested the same at Christmas, Elizabeth was in no danger. Instead, he had become a gentleman Elizabeth believed she could call a friend when she had been disappointed by so many others in so few weeks.
Yet, now Elizabeth knew Wickham was a cad while Darcy had layers of complexity she had never considered. He had not been innocent in forming Bingley’s defection, but neither had he forced his friend’s hand. Elizabeth acknowledged, that if she saw the imprudence in greater affection for Mr. Wickham after a month’s acquaintance, surely Bingley had as much right to reconsider his attentions toward Jane after the same passage of time. She did not like that Jane had been found unworthy. It was not fair, but perhaps it was just.
Perhaps Bingley — and even Darcy — had disliked admitting the truth of the Bennets’ situation in life just as much as she had Wickham’s. Of course, for Wickham, Elizabeth had fixated on Darcy as the cause for Wickham’s distress. The Bennet ladies had no conveniently-placed person to blame for their situation. Some nameless ancestor many generations ago first put an entail on Longbourn and each generation had continued the provision. Elizabeth had never wasted her anger on what was such a common practice. But now, she detested the men who could decide so entirely the fate of her family. She hated the master from those centuries ago who now wounded his own kin, and she hated the men walking among them who never passed laws considering the care of their mothers and daughters, their sisters and wives.
At this moment, she hated so many. She hated nameless creatures near and far. She hated Charlotte and her husband. She hated Bingley for hurting Jane. She detested Lady Catherine and her insipid daughter. She loathed that her father never reined in her younger sisters and mother. As such, not only were they now prey for Wickham, but had likely cost Jane the affection of Mr. Bingley. She abhorred Darcy — mostly for not being the arrogant man she had assumed. However, she reserved her greatest repugnance for herself.
Although raised in a large family, Elizabeth often needed solitude to gather her thoughts. Jane was the closest thing she had to a confidant among her sisters, and there was much they did not see eye to eye on — such as Charlotte’s marriage and, until recently, Miss Bingley’s friendship. Jane saw goodness everywhere. In contrast, Elizabeth harboured far less charitable thoughts about the world although, unlike her mother, she also had the good sense to not air them. Nor did she think like Mr. Darcy. He saw little good but equally disapproved. Elizabeth enjoyed the follies of others. Sir William could never be called intelligent, but he had always been jolly and friendly. Despite her affront, Elizabeth knew he meant no harm with his words the other week regarding her marriage prospects.
Elizabeth settled herself on the grass and laid out her drawing materials. Thankfully, no wind blew. She looked at the view and saw Westerham. In the distance, she could see the tallest spire of Knole House. She had read that it was considered a Calendar House. Very rare, they were built with references to the calendar. Some homes had three hundred and sixty-five windows and fifty-two rooms. As one of the largest homes in England, Knole House reported three hundred and sixty-five rooms, fifty-two staircases, twelve exterior doors, and seven courtyards.
Elizabeth was not impressed by the wealth of the structure and its furnishings or artwork. Nor did she care about the noble family who resided there. Once the property of an Archbishop of Canterbury, it had long been in possession of the Dukes of Dorset. Instead, she was intrigued by the architecture. How much engineering would it take to build such a massive home? What unique secrets did it hold?
Elizabeth loved the architecture of centuries past. She tired of the symmetrical lines of the current fashion. Recreating Greek and Roman spaces never seemed to fit in England. It seemed far too artificial to place those buildings here as though one would mistake Kent for Italy. Additionally, she enjoyed the unexpected and incongruities in life. She lamented that society stood rigidly, and their expectations of behaviour were no different than their tastes in buildings. Everyone must fit into certain moulds. Like a mason pouring clay into his cast, any undesirable excess can be scraped off and cast aside.
The Bennets were hopelessly a family of excesses. They nearly exceeded their income with their impulsive purchases. They exceeded acceptable manners by unreserved feelings and high spirits. Even Mary, although quiet, gave in to her feelings too much by choosing to ignore others and read or desired to sermonise at inappropriate times.
While Elizabeth reined in her emotions better, she felt them intensely. She had disliked Darcy immensely, and imprudently welcomed Wickham’s lies. The only one who acted with any sense was Jane, and yet, it seemed to only break her heart. Darcy had said that both he and Bingley could not determine if Jane had any feelings for Bingley beyond friendship. It appeared Charlotte had been correct and Jane should have been less reserved. Now, after so many months of separation, it seemed Bingley felt nothing for Jane.
An alarming though built in Elizabeth’s mind. In comparison to all other Bennets, Jane was very reserved. It would not take much to consider her reserve, in light of such a family propensity for liveliness, to be emotionless. Elizabeth had not acted as foolishly as Lydia, but she did mock Darcy and Miss Bingley often, and frequently to their faces. Indeed, she could not hoist the blame of her family’s behaviour on others. If Elizabeth had acted more carefully, then perhaps Darcy and Bingley would have taken more care to investigate Jane’s feelings. They would see that of the five daughters, two were different. Instead, Elizabeth’s poor behaviour could have directly affected her sister’s chance at happiness with Mr. Bingley.
Elizabeth ceased her sketching and pulled her knees to her chest, resting her head atop them. She had, at last, restored some of her opinion of Mr. Bingley. Darcy was now excused from nearly all complaints she had against him. If she could forgive Bingley and find him innocent, then Darcy was by extension as well. Her only complaint that had any merit was his behaviour the night of the first ball, and that he had not only explained but apologised for.
Now, Mr. Darcy attempted to help her regarding Wickham and his possible schemes against her family. She ought to forgive him for his first slight. He had more than made up for it with his attention to her since then. It was not as though he paid every lady in Hertfordshire or Kent the same attention.
The thought which should have soothed, gnawed at her. Was his kindness to her due to the guilt he felt? His absence today in the grove was a testament of such. He would have nothing to report yet and had no need to speak with her. In such a situation, she ought to be grateful, but she could not be. She would rather have merited his good opinion and respect. Instead, she was nothing more than a call on his honour. If she were less selfish, she would release him but not until after she learned the truth of Wickham and heard of Lydia being safe.
As the sun climbed high in the sky, Elizabeth gave up her intentions to draw. It now cast shadows over her view, and she rather thought it did over her life as well. Her family was whole and healthy. No calamity had struck them, and yet it did not mean they were happy or content. Nothing short of a crisis would jerk any of them out of their behaviour and, for that, shadows loomed over their sunlight. When Elizabeth had gathered the mental fortitude to return to the Parsonage, she stood and vowed she would be an exception to her family. Unlike her drawings of old buildings, which a rare contemporary man might find value in replicating, Society would level people off and force them into their rectangular moulds then paint them all with the same shade of stucco. She had better amend her ways now before she was too old to do so.
Darcy paced in the grove awaiting Elizabeth. The day before he and Anne had gone over some possibilities of his conversation today. In the past, he had felt too nervous and had allowed Elizabeth to steer their conversations. He did not miss that such behaviour did little to recommend him to her. She frequently seemed annoyed at bearing the load of discussion. Beside her sparkling wit and lively teasing, he must have seemed dull and cold. If it were not for her request of assistance regarding Wickham, Darcy had little delusions that she would desire to spend any time in his presence. He had been inclined to think it ungentlemanly to press his advantage there, but Anne had insisted all was fair in love and war.
At last, he recognised her figure as it approached in the distance. He felt his lips turn up in a grin and, as she was too far away to see the effect she had on him, for one delicious moment he allowed himself to feel without rebuke. The moment passed too quickly, and as she came ever closer, he chided himself to calm his racing heart and arousal. Scaring the dickens out of a maiden with lust in his eyes and body would not help his suit. Memories of their one embrace, which she had been kind enough not to slap him for, were reserved for once he retired to his chambers for the evening.
Belatedly, he recalled Anne’s direction that he not stop and stare at her. He turned and began walking, quelling the urge to hail her.
“Good day, Mr. Darcy!” Elizabeth called, and he heard the sound of her steps quicken.
Turning, he bowed. “Miss Bennet.” He began to turn and out of the corner of his eye saw her smile fall. “Would you care to walk with me?”
In the past, he had offered to escort her. The phrasing of his words was entirely proper and yet were such that she had little choice in the matter. Anne had recommended that he allow Elizabeth more power.
Elizabeth appeared surprised but smiled shyly as he extended his arm. “I would. I wish Charlotte or Maria walked more,” she said as her small hand wrapped around his arm.
Although their skin did not touch, he felt a spark just the same. Glancing to his right, he wondered if she did as well. She appeared more flushed than usual.
“I had thought you preferred solitary walks,” he said.
“I do,” she nodded. “However, that was in Hertfordshire with Longbourn being so full and noisy. Here…” she trailed off and bit her lip.
“What is it?” He asked gently, hoping she would confide in him again.
“My friend and her husband have a very strange marriage.” She shook her head. “No, that is not right. I suppose it is rather average, but it is not what I would wish to have, and I know not how she bears it!”
“Ah,” Darcy said. “And this makes you seek to be out of doors more often than usual?”
She cast her eyes to the trees. “I have found that I greatly prefer the Kent countryside. After all, I do not know when I shall view it again so I should take it in as often as I can.”
“And the effects of early spring are more…shall we say, interesting than a country Parsonage.”
“Precisely,” she nodded and grinned. “You must feel similarly. All of this,” she motioned to the woods beside the lane, still partially barren, “must appeal more than the splendour of Rosings.”
“Aye,” he said. “So few understand.”
Elizabeth’s step slowed, and he glanced down to her. She shook her head as though clearing thoughts but a look of wonder remained. Had she been surprised to hear they felt similarly about such things?
“I believe you have an added inducement which I do not,” he said and with his free hand motioned to the sketchbook she held. “Is there a particular view you prefer?”
“What makes you believe I sketch something other than manicured gardens and landscapes?”
“We are not walking in the direction of manicured gardens, and there is little view to draw yet.”
“And you do not find it unladylike?” Elizabeth asked with a challenging tone and arched eyebrow.
“Why should a lady have different interests than a gentleman? Or that there be less variety in the things that interest them. I ought not to have presumed it was a view at all. You may prefer some grand historical moment.”
“You have put much thought into this,” she said and eyed him suspiciously. “What would you draw?”
Darcy stroked his jaw before replying. “Methought I saw my late espoused saint Brought to me, like Alcestis, from the grave, Whom Jove’s great son to her glad husband gave, Rescu’d from death by force, though pale and faint. Mine, as whom wash’d from spot of child-bed taint Purification in the old Law did save, And such as yet once more I trust to have Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint, Came vested all in white, pure as her mind; Her face was veil’d, yet to my fancied sight Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin’d So clear as in no face with more delight. But Oh! as to embrace me she inclin’d, I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.”
“How sad and yet beautiful,” Elizabeth said.
“Milton,” Darcy shrugged. “It was my father’s favourite after my mother died. They had seen Herr Gluck’s opera Alcestis the night I was born. Do you know the story?”
Elizabeth nodded. “Alcestis loved her husband so much she volunteered to die in his place.”
“Yes,” Darcy agreed solemnly. He had never thought of how backwards such a story was until he considered the woman beside him. He would lay down his life for her. It should never be the other way around. Of course, now was not the time to discuss such matters. “If I had the talent to draw, I think I would portray the scene of her reunion with her husband. Of course, the difficulty is not merely in creating figures and scenery. It is capturing the emotion. I had often seen my father mourn my mother and wish her to life. It is an image that is ingrained in my mind.”
“He must have loved her very much,” Elizabeth said. She sounded regretful, perhaps because her parents did not have the same relationship.
“Yes, he did. I believe it was losing her which made him enjoy Wickham’s company.”
They had reached the top of a hill. Darcy led Elizabeth to a bench. He had long ago left the safety of Anne’s suggestions of conversation. How ruinous to court a lady while regaling her with maudlin stories of your mother’s death and father’s bereavement!
“Speaking of Wickham,” Elizabeth said and smoothed her skirt before gripping her hands. “I do not know that my father will read my letter immediately. Have you heard from your cousin?”
“Yes, forgive me for not mentioning it earlier.” Elizabeth’s brow was furrowed, and Darcy wished he could kiss away the lines of worry from her forehead. “He has been detained. There has been an outbreak of illness, and he is taking duties for another colonel. Instead of being able to visit his contacts, he must write them and await replies.”
“Your suggestion to visit my uncle now has greater merit than I had first credited.”
“Do not worry over the carriage. I have spoken with Anne, and she will secure a maid to chaperone you in the carriage when we depart.”
“Thank you,” Elizabeth said, but Darcy thought he sensed a grudging acknowledgement. She did not like to be indebted to him.
“Over there,” he pointed to a tall spire in the distance, “is Knole Park. My aunt is friends with the Dowager Duchess’ mother, the Dowager Countess of Liverpool, who frequently stays at Knole. The Duke is still at Oxford, and his mother maintains control. The Dowager Liverpool often enjoys battling with my aunt on the matter of her sons vs. Lady Catherine’s nephews.”
“Oh my,” Elizabeth said and covered her mouth to muffle her laughter.
“Of course, Liverpool inherited the earldom nearly a decade ago and has served as Home Secretary. Richard and I can hardly compare.”
“And the other son?”
“Jenkinson is also in politics. He also volunteered for the Austrian Army in ‘05. Richard quite reveres him. He married about two years ago, has one babe and another on the way.” Darcy smiled at the vision of marital harmony Charles Jenkinson and his wife made. “His father-in-law is an accomplished astronomer. Mrs. Jenkinson has interests there as well.”
“How fascinating,” Elizabeth said. “And is the other Mrs. Jenkinson, that is Miss de Bourgh’s companion, a relation?”
“Yes…she is the first earl’s natural daughter.”
“Ah,” Elizabeth blushed.
“Jenkinson and his wife are visiting. We have an invitation to dine there in a few days’ time. I believe my aunt could be convinced to invite the Collinses and their guests.”
Elizabeth’s eyes went round at his words. “Truly?”
“Lady Catherine delights in exposing her favourites to better society.”
“But a duchess?”
“She bows to her mother, who was born the daughter of a squire. The Dowager’s brother-in-law is George Dance, the architect. She invites her family to the estate every Easter.”
“George Dance is there?” Elizabeth said in a voice full of wonder and hopped off the bench. She slowly approached the edge of the hill and stretched forward a hand as though she could touch the spire.
Darcy followed her. This was why he loved her. Meeting a humble architect meant more to her than duchesses and countesses. Investigating an old house meant more to her than trinkets and baubles. And while the coveted Society in London taught their daughters to conceal their feelings and emotions, to suppress everything they enjoyed for the sake of conforming to a mould, Elizabeth Bennet now gazed at a distant hill with wonder and joy. Darcy had never wished more than that he could pull her into his arms and kiss her with abandon. For then, he might have that lightness touch his soul. He suppressed a groan with a cough, and Elizabeth turned her head.
“I must seem very ridiculous to you,” she said with mirth in her eyes.
“Indeed, you do not. Ridiculous is how I describe Lady Catherine. Or do you think you are of the same disposition?”
Elizabeth’s eyes rounded and then she laughed. “I did not believe you ever teased!” Her normally brown eyes turned green with her amusement, and a sparkle in them remained even after she ceased laughing.
“Perhaps, I am learning,” he said. “What a tutor you are!” Darcy watched in horror as her smile fell slightly.
She clasped her hands behind her back and walked toward the bench. “You should take your aunt’s advice and practice more.”
Rather than dwelling on her rebuke, he caught hold of Elizabeth’s hint that Lady Catherine had disapproved of her in some manner. “I apologise for my aunt. I cannot conceive she found you wanting in any way.”
Elizabeth took up her sketch book and ambled toward the path. “Oh, I am not offended. I daresay she controlled herself mightily. For I gave her much ammunition and she only found one thing, thus far, to suggest I improve.” She looked over her shoulder and smiled. “As you have had the displeasure of hearing me perform you could attest that I do indeed need to practice the pianoforte more.”
Darcy lengthened his stride so he might walk beside her. “Your performance was lovely. I scarcely recall a more enjoyable evening from my time in Hertfordshire.”
Elizabeth first raised her brows and then knit them together in confusion. “It is certainly nothing compared to your sister’s abilities,” she said.
“You have not heard Georgiana play and know it only by reputation.”
“This is true,” Elizabeth said. “Do not think that I have not learned from my experiences and mean to judge her without merit. However, I did meet her, and I have heard her speak of her love for music. It is my belief that no lady will spend such time on something if she has no talent.”
Darcy searched for the correct reply. For, she was mistaken. He could not name a dozen ladies who indulged their interests and yet everyone he ever met was cried up as accomplished. It was not that the term was wrongly applied and their endeavours inferior. Surely they could all paint china far better than he ever could. Elizabeth simply had no understanding of how rare she was in the world.
He watched as she hummed a tune and trailed a finger along a bush just beginning to bloom. She looked wholly unspoilt and pure. What did she know of the darkness of high society? He had found her family inferior, but it was really the men and women of the ton who forced their children to cast aside their preferences. Parents used their children as chess pieces, plotting the next familial alliance and ways to improve their standing or financial gain.
While Darcy had taken offence at Mrs. Bennet’s designs on his friend, she had not forced her daughter, as beautiful as any London lady, into a match at a younger age. Nor was Bingley mean or deficient in abilities. Elizabeth had explained Darcy was disliked in Meryton. The Bennets had not suggested Jane attempt to entice Darcy; they apparently cared something about their daughter’s happiness. Neither had they forced Elizabeth to wed Mr. Collins, if what Anne had said was true.
“You have grown reticent, Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth interrupted his thoughts. “And have quite the fearsome scowl on your face.”
“I am sorry,” he said. “You have the benefit of having met my sister and no longer cling to the prejudices you first had. Might you tell me something of your sister?”
Anne had suggested Darcy take an interest in Elizabeth’s family to display his respect for them. Elizabeth stumbled, and Darcy grasped her elbow to keep her from falling.
“My thanks,” she said hastily. “You wish to speak of my—my sisters?”
Darcy looked at the path before them. “I do not know that we will have time to discuss them all,” he said and winked.
Elizabeth grinned. Lord, he felt like he could move mountains when she looked at him like that.
“Very well,” she nodded. For the next few minutes, Darcy listened as his beloved explained the gentleness of her eldest sister. As Elizabeth talked, he could feel her love for Jane. He had known, since Elizabeth walked to Netherfield, that she worried over Jane but could now appreciate how Elizabeth depended on her sister. He conceded, from Elizabeth’s explanations, Jane deserved the devotion. His regret for interfering with Bingley doubled.
They reached the Parsonage gate. Elizabeth turned to him. “Will you come in, Mr. Darcy?”
Darcy pulled out his watch fob. “I regret I cannot at the moment, but I will call on the morrow.”
“Very well,” Elizabeth said. “Thank you for the pleasant walk,” she genuinely smiled, and Darcy felt his heart race.
Impulsively, he grabbed her hand and bowed over it. “The pleasure was mine, Miss Bennet.” As he lifted her dainty gloved hand nearly to his lips, he thought he heard her gasp. Feeling just bold enough to meet her eyes when he rose, he saw a flicker of confusion before he turned and left.