*Apologies for a typo in the last post. Darcy does not know Jane is STILL in London. As such, he did not know about Jane’s visit to Miss Bingley.
For the next week, time stood frozen at Rosings. Each morning, Darcy would awake after a night of dreams filled with restless longing for Elizabeth. Dark shadows filled under his eyes. His valet greeted him with concern, and even Lady Catherine remarked on his state. After four nights of little to no sleep, he resorted to requesting a sleeping draught, but it had no effect.
During the day, Darcy would linger over Lady Catherine’s accounts. They did not require the scrutiny, but he could claim his exhaustion as a source for the slowness of his task. When his body cried for movement, he resorted to vigorous target practice and fencing. Richard saw no reason to stay away from the entertainment of the Parsonage. After each visit, Darcy questioned him, eventually earning strange looks from his cousin.
Darcy had planned to visit Rosings for a fortnight. He would not change his plans because of Elizabeth’s presence. He had run from her once when he left Hertfordshire, he would not do it again and leave early.
Unfortunately, all the arguments he had made against the match were proven false. Her insupportable family was of no consequence when they were miles away. Lady Catherine liked her. Undoubtedly, she would not like Darcy marrying Elizabeth, but she had no complaints about the acquaintance or her situation in life. Richard was delighted with her wit and grace. Astonishingly, Elizabeth functioned well in the circle of Darcy’s peers and family. She would make the leap to his station without fault. Her comparative poverty meant nothing to him with all the Darcy wealth.
The only remaining doubt in his mind relied on memories of his mother and the man who raised him. They had married unequally, but Mother had a very different sort of disposition than Elizabeth. Darcy suspected she would prefer the country life, which he also enjoyed. However, she had been to London. And more than a few times for a brief visit, he was sure. Cheapside was not Mayfair, but the crowd and noise of London were the same everywhere.
Darcy had tossed aside his pen and stood by a window in the library. Half a mile down the lane, he could make out the church steeple. Next to it, was the parsonage and Elizabeth. So close…
He put a hand against the glass and braced himself as he rested his forehead on a pane. His solitude was broken by the entry of Richard. Darcy whirled to face his cousin. It would not do for the other man to believe Darcy having a fit of the doldrums. “Another visit to the Parsonage?”
Richard nodded and relaxed in a chair.
“Why do you go so often?”
“You mean aside from the exciting company here?” Richard’s wry tone belied his sarcasm. “Not everyone is like you, Darcy. Not everyone is content to sit in silence the whole day.”
“I apologise,” Darcy said. “I had not meant to neglect you.”
Richard shook his head. “Not me. I welcome some peace and quiet after cannon blasts and drilling young scapegraces. Miss Lucas and Miss Bennet are not on holiday at some resort. There is no shopping. There is little to occupy a young lady here, especially with Lady Catherine now ignoring them.” Richard sighed and hooked a boot over his knee. “Even so, Miss Lucas must be used to living with Mrs. Collins, who probably has her home set up very much like her mother’s.”
Darcy stared at his cousin. “Do I understand you mean that you visit to cheer Miss Bennet?” A festering bit of jealousy rose in his throat. “I thought you said you would not flirt.”
“I am not!” Richard insisted. “I am being a friend.”
Darcy’s brows furrowed as he considered his cousin’s words. Elizabeth felt unhappy here? Well, who could blame her with the company of Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine? “What does she say to you, friend?”
“Oh, we talk of nothing serious,” Richard waved his hand. “As well-practiced as she is in conversation, it would take more than a week old’s acquaintance for there to be things of substance.”
It did not sound like Elizabeth to be vapid. “Substance?”
“We talk about music and books. General drawing room talk,” Richard shrugged. “I gather we feel similarly on many things, but they are the sorts of things that anyone with more sense than Collins or our Aunt would feel.”
Elizabeth had talked about soul-baring things with him at Netherfield. Did she miss that stimulus as much as he did? Perhaps, if he considered that his motive was to ease her discomfort and not to indulge his attraction, he could give her the opportunity to experience something beyond Mrs. Collins’ parlour.
Richard and Darcy fell into conversation regarding other subjects until it was time for dinner.
“Aunt,” said Darcy as the soup was served, “did you intend to invite Mr. Collins and his guests to tea tomorrow evening?”
“Why should I do that?” Her ladyship’s soup spoon hovered above her bowl as though her nephew had sprouted another head. “Tomorrow is Easter.”
“You often invited Dr. Montague,” Darcy explained. “You would not wish to seem exclusive or unkind.”
“That was many years ago!” She put down the spoon. “He was in poor health the last four years, and I could not invite the curate he hired.”
“Now, I see no need to entertain my parson when my nephews are present.”
“Because he is not a doctor of divinity?” Richard asked.
“Dr. Montague was a cousin to Lady Montague-Churchill. They are of two very different sorts of backgrounds,” Lady Catherine explained.
“Lady Montagu-Churchill came from no great distinction,” Darcy said. “Her father had been a tradesman as much as Mrs. Collins’ father was.” The lady had married into an impoverished title. When she inherited Mr. Montagu’s funds, her husband added the surname to his own.
“And Miss Bennet is the daughter of a gentleman,” Richard pressed.
Darcy would have appreciated the help if he did not worry his cousin had ulterior reasons.
“Mother,” Anne rasped, her frailty more evident than ever, “I do miss the ladies.”
“Why should you need the ladies when Dar—your cousins are here?”
Richard covered a laugh at Lady Catherine’s slip of the tongue with a cough.
“Very well,” Lady Catherine conceded. “We shall invite them to tea in the evening. However, I will not have them for dinner.”
“An excellent and proper compromise,” Darcy smiled.
Somehow, the remainder of the meal, in which his aunt continued to suggest an attachment between him and Anne, seemed bearable. He would see Elizabeth’s face light up in amusement again. Her eyes would dance not just from the effect of candlelight but in joy. Her need for excellent company would be satisfied—surely he and Richard qualified as such. Something about picturing her in the drawing room at Rosings set his heart to racing. In his mind’s eye, she seemed to belong perfectly in the place. She belonged at his side.
The following morning, Darcy waited impatiently for the others to gather in the entry. They would take Lady Catherine’s barouche box and arrive together. He had nearly made up his mind to walk to the church alone when the others arrived. How did they always arrive together? There was some sort of grace to knowing when others were leaving their chambers and Darcy had never known the secret. As much as George Darcy had grilled pedigree and estate management into his heir’s head, things like that seemed to occur naturally to the set born into them. No education could teach Fitzwilliam Darcy the social niceties he did not experience in his formative years.
The church service itself seemed to take forever. Mr. Collins’ text varied little from any other Easter sermon, but he delivered it poorly. If he had to earn his keep, the man would be a pauper. As it was, most of the congregants had fallen asleep as the rector’s voice droned on and on. From his position in Lady Catherine’s pew, Darcy could not see Elizabeth. His eyes felt starved for her. Merely knowing she was in the same building as he made his skin tingle.
When the sermon was over, Mr. Collins did his duty. That is to say, he preened over Lady Catherine and ignored the members of the parish. Darcy noted that Mrs. Collins, and by extension her sister and friend, did the office instead. At least they knew what was truly due.
Without hearing the words, Darcy knew when Lady Catherine had rendered her invitation. Mr. Collins’ jaw dropped in awe and then snapped up with such a force it reverberated through his head. Colour rising and eyes widening, he bowed to her ladyship and belatedly called out his thanks as she walked away. Then, Collins raced over to the women of his party. He talked such rapidity Darcy wondered how he could breathe. Mrs. Collins, although Darcy had always thought she was a sensible woman, displayed far more glee at the news than it deserved. Her sister followed her suit. Elizabeth, lovely Elizabeth with green trimming her gown and bonnet, merely smiled and nodded. Darcy knew the expression well. She was restraining herself; holding herself back from laughing outright and making a spectacle. Seeing her hover between laughter and demurral, she beamed like a lighthouse on a coast and he, Darcy, a frigate in danger of being lost. Her cheerful disposition warmed Darcy’s soul.
“Darcy, we are leaving!” Lady Catherine commanded as she walked past, ripping his gaze away from the vision of loveliness.
Interminable hours passed before the Hunsford party arrived at Rosings. Fortunately, Lady Catherine and Anne had spent the hours until dinner in their chambers. Then, Darcy only needed to survive the many-coursed event allowing his aunt’s words to flow in one ear and out the other, as usual. After the meal, he fidgeted in his seat, pulled on his waistcoat, and fiddled his cufflinks.
“Would you cease all that?” Richard exclaimed as he tapped ash from his cigar. Taking a long draw, he puffed the smoke out in circles.
“My behaviour annoys you?” Darcy chuckled at the irony.
“And there is no reason to stare at the clock so often.” Another puff of smoke exhaled from his mouth. “They will be here soon enough.”
“They?” Darcy swirled his port and pretended to not know of whom Richard spoke.
“Do not worry,” Richard drawled. “I will not tattle on you and let them know your better nature.”
“I cannot conceive what you mean.” Why was it taking so long for an hour to pass?
“Darcy, only you would refuse to visit people and sit stiffly and silent when you are there but go out of your way to ease their feelings in a way that will likely cause far more discomfort to all.”
“What does that mean?” A conversation from Netherfield flitted through Darcy’s memory. What must his friends think of him if they can call him an arrogant ass to his face and think he will feel nothing?
“I mean you choose an extraordinarily inconvenient time and way to show general courtesy.” Richard drew several more puffs on his cigar before continuing. “When we visited the Parsonage, you barely spoke. You have not visited since although you question me frequently. I mention Miss Bennet’s apparent discomfort, and you manage to invite her to Rosings. You would have done better to visit her yourself than get her to come here when Lady Catherine had not wanted it.”
Darcy turned away, refusing to allow his cousin’s words their justice.
An hour or so later when the guests had arrived, Lady Catherine’s behaviour proved Richard correct. She barely greeted them and then spent as much time talking to Darcy as she could manage. Even worse, Richard did flirt with Elizabeth—who seemed to enjoy the attention. Lady Catherine began to insist on knowing their choices of conversation, which suited Darcy perfectly as it was on the tip of his tongue as well.
However, when the answer came of only speaking of music, it did not seem very likely to Darcy that they were forming an attachment. He released the breath he did not realize he had been holding. Richard was merely a friend, and Elizabeth had simply been lonely and welcomed the distraction. Had he not seen her in livelier spirits in Hertfordshire? There he did not suppose it meant she flirted with every man. Indeed, the only man whom she treated differently than the women of her company was himself.
“How does Georgiana get on, Darcy?” Lady Catherine asked regarding his sister’s skill on the pianoforte.
Being brought from the haze of his thoughts, his voice sounded abrupt to even his own ears. “Her masters praise her considerably. They are always talking about giving her more advanced work and wishing for peace on the Continent so she might study abroad.” A soft smile spread across Darcy’s face. “Her one delight is music and, as such, it cannot be far from my heart.”
Lady Catherine then began telling Darcy how much Georgiana should practice, how much she and Anne would have practiced had they ever learned, and scolding Elizabeth for not practicing enough. If his aunt could read minds, she would be angry to know all how he mentally asked her to shut her mouth. When she suggested Elizabeth practice in the room belonging to Anne’s companion, Darcy barely restrained himself from speaking them aloud.
Finally, coffee was over, and Richard asked Elizabeth to play on the instrument. Ignoring his aunt as much as possible, Darcy watched Elizabeth as she played with Richard by her side. How did she feel in this room? She had been critiqued by Lady Catherine but bore it well. She had made a friend of Richard. An image of her playing at Pemberley with Georgiana emerged before he could warn his mind away.
Drunk on the feeling the picture gave, Darcy approached. Like a cleansing rain, Elizabeth’s wit washed over him. She teased and scolded and begged him to bare some of the deepest recesses of his soul. Before he could think of doing differently, he had made his confession which he had never told another soul. The only secret he guarded more closely was that of his birth.
“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess,” said Darcy, “of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”
He could not understand people so different from him. The ones who were born in their mansions with a loving family. The people who had no cause to suspect everyone and keep them all at arm’s length. Every statement said to him was scrutinised again and again. Had they been trying to use him? Did they think he was weak or vulnerable? Did they suspect he was not a Darcy?
Elizabeth had offered understanding and validation but not pity. As no governess or tutor had managed to explain before, she recommended practicing. Elizabeth boldly stated that her fingers were just as capable of playing anything on the pianoforte if only she applied herself to it. Had he not worked hard to learn about Pemberley and how to be the best master? It did not matter if he was not born to it.
“We neither of us perform to strangers,” he told her.
Then, he knew. Conviction pierced his heart even as his aunt tried to turn his attention to Anne. Suddenly, Darcy understood why he could not forget Elizabeth Bennet in all the months since he left Hertfordshire. He comprehended the reason for his concern for her welfare and happiness. At last, he perceived why he desired her like no other lady he had known. Why none of the arguments he made regarding her sister could apply to her.
He loved her, and he would have her for his own.