The next morning, Darcy was at work in his study when he heard the doorbell followed by the excited chatter of ladies and Georgiana’s squeal of joy. One voice rose above the fray—Elizabeth. Darcy pinched the bridge of his nose as a deep boring sensation drilled* into his head. He had not known she was to call today. He would have made plans to be out of the house.
All hope of productivity vanished. If it were any other set of visitors, he would at least make an appearance. He did not wish to appear uncivil. Just when he determined to leave and go anywhere, if only there could be one place on Earth where he was free of thoughts of Elizabeth, the door rang again. This time, Bingley and Marshall entered his study. Neither even gave the pretence of coming to visit him.
“I believe Jane is here,” Bingley asked more than said.
“My sister has guests. I did not confirm, but it did sound like Mrs. Gardiner and her nieces,” Darcy answered.
“It is too fine a day to be inside,” Marshall said and waved at the shred of light shining through the April clouds. “We should invite them on a drive in the park.”
Darcy raised his brows. “There is an uneven number of couples.”
“Then we will walk,” Bingley suggested, borrowing Marshall’s excitement. “Jane and her sister often walk in Meryton.”
“Georgiana is no great walker, and Mrs. Gardiner likely would not prefer it.”
“You could drive with them in the coach,” Marshall suggested. He glanced at Darcy for the first time since entering and did a double take. “What the devil happened to your face?”
Darcy chuckled. “The foundlings. They’re a bunch of scamps!” Bingley and Marshall laughed as Darcy told them how he spent yesterday. “As for the idea to enjoy the day in the park, may I suggest we ask the ladies instead of choosing for them?”
“Excellent idea,” Marshall grinned and led the way.
The other two men bounded into the sitting room, but Darcy’s breath caught when he saw Elizabeth sitting in a ray of sun. It highlighted her features and made her face glow. She hid a laugh as Bingley and Marshall animatedly invited them to walk or drive in the park, her eyes shining with the amusement. Although her expression did not change, her gaze flitted toward the door and collided with Darcy’s. For a fleeting instant, their eyes met, and Darcy felt the familiar tug to her as he always did when they glimpsed one another in that way. His feet propelled him into the room.
“Oh my goodness!” Mrs. Gardiner exclaimed with a hand to her heart. “Mr. Darcy, whatever happened?”
Darcy smiled and related his tale, with Marshall adding in more colourful description now and then. He was the better storyteller, it had always been that way, even if he had not been present.
“Well, I applaud your service,” Mrs. Gardiner smiled. “I would not have expected such a hands-on approach and to hear how you rescued the smaller boy several times. What a fine father you will make!”
Darcy flushed, and Marshall came to his aid. “It does not surprise me at all. We met in a very similar fashion.”
“Really?” Mrs. Gardiner continued the conversation, but the eyes of everyone were upon Darcy and Marshall.
“I was the small boy with a chip on my shoulder, going toe to toe with bullies a foot taller than me,” Marshall laughed. “I could barely do school work all first term because my eyes were too swollen.”
“My goodness! Did the teachers put no end to this?” Mrs. Gardiner cried.
“Boys are little savages,” Bingley laughed while the ladies exchanged looks of alarm.
“One particular day, the set pummelling me was larger than usual—or some sort—I never really asked Darcy why he suddenly noticed me—but he pulled a livid young lordling off me.” Marshall looked at Darcy with a wistful smile. “Why did you notice me that day?”
“You make it sound as though I walked by you—or others—dozens of times during a beating,” Darcy said while shaking his head. “The truth is, I spent that term in my room as much as possible. I studied and read my books. I had no notion such things occurred, and I could not abide watching it.”
“That is just what I would have expected,” Elizabeth said in a tone of genuine praise.
Darcy was too shocked to say anything in reply, but Marshall had never been speechless in his life. “I suppose everyone left you alone because you were a Darcy. Then we left University, and suddenly no one could leave him alone, so it all evened out.”
Just before Darcy dropped his eyes, Elizabeth met his gaze again. A softness had entered them. Could she understand now how lonely he had been as a child? Then how guarded he had to be as an adult? Everyone he met desired something out of him. Even Bingley and Marshall had been conscious of who he was. Elizabeth was the only one who had never given a fig about it. Lord, he was so sick of civility and deference, all the officious attention when he had met Elizabeth. Darcy had never met a woman who had a real brain in her head, they all cared for nothing but his opinion. Then he met Elizabeth and her lively mind burned like a thousand candles in the darkness of his existence.
“Did you ladies decide what you would like to do about the park?” Bingley asked. “Should we leave for a moment to allow you to come to a consensus?”
Georgiana frowned. “I think our meagre sunshine is gone.”
In unison, they swung their heads to the window and saw rain beating down on the street below. Darcy particularly noted Elizabeth’s shoulders slump.
Darcy thought quickly. “Why not make definite plans for the next day of tolerable weather and, if you still wish to leave the house, we might tour a museum?”
“Where shall we go?” Jane asked.
“Weeks’ Mechanical,” Bingley suggested, and Jane blanched.
Mrs. Gardiner diplomatically weighed in. “I think some of the displays may not be quite to our taste.”
Darcy nodded. He had seen the giant mechanical tarantula and saw more than one lady actually swoon.
“Art, then?” Marshall looked at the ladies.
Georgiana rolled her eyes. “I am sick of looking at portraits. I’ve never been to the British Museum.”
“We cannot enter today,” Marshall said. “They always make you request a later date.”
“Not always,” Darcy said, biting back a smile. This was one of the few perks of being so well-known. Lest Elizabeth think he was proud or arrogant, he added, “I would be pleased to use my connection for the enjoyment of my friends.”
“That would be delightful,” Elizabeth beamed. “It has been many years since I have toured the place.”
“Excellent,” Marshall clapped his hands and jumped out of his chair.
Soon, they all packed into separate coaches and drove through the crowded streets, arriving nearly an hour later. The porter began to explain the policy of arranging a later date for touring but immediately changed his policy when Darcy mentioned his name. He invited the party of seven in.
To a man of Darcy’s intellect, the Museum housed untold wonders and diversions. He earned his entry today both from frequent visits in his younger years before he was burdened with the duties of a large estate and also by donating some manuscripts from a long-ago relative.
Although called the British Museum, much of the displayed collections came from Greece, Rome, and Egypt curiously mixed with British items. The corner stone of all things British, the original Magna Carta, stood on display in the manuscript room. Although damaged from a fire decades before, it continued to command awe and respect. Georgiana gasped at the frescos and marvelled at the vases and remains of ancient life. She had never before conceived history could come alive.
As the group moved to other rooms, their amazement continued. The concept of fossilisation fascinated Darcy. Years and years of pressure impressed two objects together so much that when one disintegrated its image remained fixed in the other object. Elizabeth is etched in my heart like this, Darcy thought as he considered a fossilised leaf. Something so delicate and innocent had left an indelible and immovable mark on a hard, unyielding rock.
Continuing through the animal rooms, Bingley and Marshall gawked at the strange creatures. Consulting his pocket watch and their cards, the officer rushed them through the coin room, and none of them appeared to care. Returning to the great hall, Elizabeth stopped before two black monuments covered in Egyptian hieroglyphics. The others moved to inspect a series of Greek sculptures. Without intention, Darcy walked to Elizabeth.
“What does it say?” Elizabeth asked with a note of awe in her voice. She had not looked up, and yet it seemed she knew who was at her side.
“That is the mystery of it all,” Darcy explained. “There is Greek here,” he pointed to the appropriate section, “while these others are Ancient Egyptian.”
“They read in pictures?”
Darcy chuckled at her tone of incredulity. “At some point. Language evolves over time. We know this area,” Darcy waved his hand over the middle portion, “is a form of Egyptian first used before the first century.”
“And the…images?” Elizabeth’s mouth twisted as she attempted to treat the idea of reading via images seriously.
“They are not certain but thousands of years before Moses led the Hebrew children out of Egypt.”
Elizabeth gasped. “What an incredible time we live in.”
“Indeed,” Darcy smiled down at her.
“These three languages each say the same thing?”
“No, that is the tricky part. Scholars can read the middle area, and they can read the Greek, but it does not match perfectly. As such, they stumble at the hieroglyphics.”
Elizabeth nodded. “I see. They must understand the meaning, the full concept and then they might break down what each of the…what did you call them? Yes, hieroglyphics—what they mean.”
“That is the hope. It has been over a decade since the stone was discovered, however, and it may take many more years before someone understands the key.”
“Is that not like all of us, sir?” Elizabeth turned her eyes upon him. “Words can mean so many different things to each of us. What one considers harmless criticism, another may perceive as a deadly insult. One might try to compliment but only give offence.”
Darcy stared at her. Was she referencing his proposal? Their entire acquaintance? “Yes, that is a misfortune, indeed.”
“You and I begin to understand each other, I think,” she said softly.
“Do you?” Darcy felt himself step an inch closer to her. Was he imagining the air turning thicker between them?
“Perhaps I will keep that secret,” she teased.
Darcy met her gaze, his eyes piercing into hers. “How I wish it were true.” If he could never have her, just knowing someone in the world really saw him made his heart beat wildly.
“Darcy, Miss Elizabeth,” Bingley called to them. “Mrs. Gardiner requires rest. We must go.”
The spell broken, Darcy and Elizabeth turned to leave. The others had already entered the carriages. Outside, the rain had muddied the streets and created puddles everywhere. As soon as they exited, it began to pour, marring visibility. Elizabeth laughed as she jumped over several puddles to avoid soaking her shoes and garments. Darcy was seized with the urge to lift her in his arms and carry her to safety.
“Take care, Miss Elizabeth,” he called over the roar as the rain slapped the cobbled streets filled with the noise of people and carriages.
Elizabeth laughed again, pulling a smile from Darcy’s lips. Her carriage was only a few steps away when a flash of black caught the corner of his eye. A man ran up the street, his hat crammed over his eyes. Heedless of where he went, he crashed into Elizabeth. Darcy dashed several steps and lunged to reach her, saving her from just falling entirely in a puddle. As it was, her gown hung in it, and his movements sloshed water around them. As Darcy settled Elizabeth into an upright position, Marshall jumped from his coach he shared with Bingley.
“You there!” He shouted at the reckless man and ran after him.
Darcy imagined he had him by the collar, but he could not take his eyes off Elizabeth.
“You harmed a lady! You good-for-nothing-drunk, apologise!” Marshall continued to berate and argue with the man.
Finding his voice, Darcy asked, “Are you well?” He scanned Elizabeth’s features as the rain slowed.
A variety of emotion crossed her face. She was unhurt and found the whole thing ridiculous, she did not like Marshall’s treatment of the man…and a final expression Darcy could not name but her eyes did not leave him.
“I am well,” she answered. “I am well,” she said again in a stronger voice.
Darcy realised she repeated herself for his benefit. His hands still gripped her arm, and he had felt terror seize him as he watched her begin to fall. It was too much like his disturbing dream. “You are certain?”
Elizabeth nodded, and as Darcy let go of Elizabeth, he heard Marshall approach.
“I am sorry I could not get the worthless lizard to face you and apologise directly,” Marshall said with a bow.
“I am uninjured. Mr. Darcy’s aid was most timely,” Elizabeth said with a blush.
“Thank God for that,” Marshall winked at Darcy then stepped forward to hand Elizabeth into the carriage.
He heard her reassure her aunt and sister of her well-being before it strolled away.
“To your club?” Marshall asked.
“I must return Georgiana home.”
“She went with the ladies.”
Darcy scoffed. A bloody proper chaperone he was. Still, before she lived with him, she and Mrs. Annesley came and went as they pleased. Actually, that would solve Darcy’s need to see less of Elizabeth.
“Then I should go to the Hospital. The boys will not be able to play today, and Mr. Evans will need assistance in redirecting their energies.”
Marshall grinned. “Then we must go with you. Send your carriage back.”
Darcy rolled his eyes but laughed to consider Bingley and Marshall hoping to help at the Hospital. They had no idea what they signed up for. After speaking to his coachman, he followed his friend and lumbered into the carriage, feeling it dip and sway with his movements.
“I hope you left a message with your man about guests for dinner,” Bingley grinned.
“My cook knows to keep extra supplies on hand the first she hears of your presence in town,” Darcy smirked.
Marshall laughed, “Good man, Darcy. Good man.”
The three friends joined in laughter and discussed various games to play with the children. They could involve the girls, as well.
Darcy had noted many of them watching their football exercises with longing in their eyes. With as much energy as Georgiana had to shop and visit, he firmly believed females had the skill to engage in any number of sporting activities. If only he could convince the Hospital staff of the same thing. He needed an ally amongst the women volunteers who spent their time with the girls. Darcy mentally noted to seek one out at his next visit.