We are skipping ahead two weeks since Darcy and Elizabeth last met at the theatre. It may seem like a big leap, but I promise there will be plenty of introspection later. Right now, they’re mostly just holding their breath to see how things turn out.
Nearly two weeks had passed since Darcy had last seen Elizabeth. However, scarcely a minute had gone by that he had not thought of her. He had resolved to give her time. Informing Bingley that Jane Bennet was in London and confessing his part in separating them was a crucial first step in showing Elizabeth that he would be the man she deserved. He knew, though, that one action and a few weeks could not overcome her dislike. So, he had not called on Gracechurch Street with Bingley until the day before the Bennet ladies were to return to Longbourn.
Despite having seen one another for a few moments at the theatre, anxiety consumed Darcy. He wondered if he would ever overcome his embarrassment about what happened between them at Rosings. Although welcomed into the Gardiner home with all the friendliness he could wish, Darcy barely spoke a word. He stared at Elizabeth, scrutinizing her every feature. Did she appear unwell? Was she still angry with him? She had every right to be. How could she ever forgive him? How would he be able to speak with her privately?
It had previously been arranged for Darcy to dine at the Gardiner residence that evening. An opportunity to talk with Elizabeth arose when Mrs. Gardiner needed to speak with the housekeeper. At the same time, her husband went to his study in search of a book he recommended. Jane and Bingley were occupied in their own conversation.
“Are you well, Miss Elizabeth?” Darcy murmured. He had taken the seat next to her in hopes of such a chance.
“I am very well,” she answered.
“I am as healthy as I ever was.”
“Kent and London have agreed with you then? You have had no changes in your constitution due to your travels?” Inwardly, Darcy groaned to himself. There was a reason why relationships should not be consummated until marriage. Attempting to have this conversation without saying anything directly defied all logic.
“Thank you kindly for your concern, sir, but there has been no change in my well-being whatsoever. Pray, have no anxiety on my part.”
Elizabeth then, finally, met his eyes, and her look seemed to convey that all was truly well with her. Darcy’s heart sank, and he mentally reproached himself. Shame and confusion mingled in his mind rendering him mute. Elizabeth looked as though she hoped he might say more, but any coherent speech was impossible. Thankfully, Mrs. Gardiner returned a moment later.
Darcy barely spoke for the rest of the evening. The Gardiners were admirable hosts and took pains to put Darcy at ease. They conversed on subjects that would typically animate him more. However, he remained disquieted by his reaction to Elizabeth’s information. A larger part of him than he had realised had hoped she was with child. Would his selfishness never cease?
He watched Elizabeth from across the table. She laughed and smiled, seeming every bit her usual self. Seeing her at a family gathering warmed his heart. Although he had dined with her several times in Hertfordshire, they were large dinner parties. The intimate meals of Netherfield and Rosings had not had the current atmosphere, which put her at ease and showed her to greatest advantage. What he would not give to have her at his table every day and night. She would be the perfect hostess and exactly the companion he desired, whether he wished to laugh or discuss serious matters. Darcy had never met a woman like her.
Conscious that he spent too much time looking at her while she seemed entirely oblivious to his presence, the food, while delicious, sat heavily in his stomach. By the time Mrs. Gardiner asked the ladies to join her in the drawing room, a headache had formed. Darcy tried to participate in Mr. Gardiner and Bingley’s easy discussion of sport and fishing. Still, his mind kept going back to Elizabeth.
In the weeks since leaving Kent, he had yet to come up with a real plan on how to court Elizabeth. No matter how many times he thought about the issue, he could barely get past step one: give her space and time. His feelings would not change. He was well past attempting to give her up. He had no fear in that area. Nor did he think Elizabeth would give her heart to anyone in a matter of weeks. There seemed little need to rush or force things.
His greatest obstacle was that he had no idea what Elizabeth desired in a suitor. Her rejection had illuminated that she wished to respect her husband. Obviously, he must address the defects in his character, which she saw as ungentlemanly. Although they had not discussed it, he had little doubt that she had accepted his words about Wickham. More than that, however, and Darcy had little idea on how to please Elizabeth. He could never be as charming as Wickham or Bingley.
Darcy guessed too, that she, like him, felt extreme mortification about their affair. Time alone could ease their embarrassment. The impulse to join Bingley in Hertfordshire clawed at him, despite knowing that Elizabeth would not welcome him there and that he had no plan in place to win her heart. By the time Mr. Gardiner said they should join the ladies, Darcy had settled on one solution to his problem. He would take Georgiana and make a tour of their estates in Scotland and perhaps Ireland as well. Then, he would rejoin Bingley at Netherfield in the autumn. He and Elizabeth could begin again.
The Gardiners had a small pianoforte, and Elizabeth was asked to perform a few songs. She chose cheerful and humorous folk tunes. It was such a refreshing change from the sorts of songs Darcy was used to ladies playing in his presence. They always wished to show their skill to the greatest advantage. However, Elizabeth had always chosen songs that every listener could immediately apprehend her enjoyment of the piece.
Next, Mrs. Gardiner and Jane sang together. It was a simple love song. As Jane gazed at Bingley with a light blush to her cheeks, Darcy wondered how he had ever missed her affection for his friend. He must have been blinded by pride and fear.
Once Mr. Gardiner was called on to sing, Darcy began to grow nervous. Would he be requested to perform? He absolutely could not. Even if he had been blessed with any musical talent, he could never display it before others. How could he refuse and not appear rude to Elizabeth’s relatives?
Bingley happily joined the fray, all the while, Darcy’s headache intensified. The dreaded moment came.
“Mr. Darcy,” Mrs. Gardiner asked, “would you care to have a turn at either the instrument or singing?”
“Thank you, no, madam,” he answered, hoping he did not sound too cold.
“If you fear to do it on your own, I am sure your friend or my husband would happily join you.”
Darcy stiffened. Did they all assume he was afraid? He was not fearful! He simply did not care to be on display. His vanity did not need it, and he found no enjoyment in it.
“I am sure Mr. Darcy has no reason to fear us, Aunt,” Elizabeth said from the pianoforte. “However, I think I know him well enough by now to say that he does not wish to perform for others.”
Darcy breathed a sigh of relief. Did Elizabeth perceive his feelings? She would not blame him for not joining in the entertainment?
“What deficiencies he has in providing entertainment for others, he makes up for in being a keen listener. As the rest of us have no qualms against performing, what more could we ask for but to have such an attentive audience?”
Darcy met Elizabeth’s eyes. It seemed she gave him a small smile, and he had to fight his from growing. Perhaps he would not need to stay away quite so long as he had first feared.
The others decided they ought to make a quartet, and much discussion was had about which piece would be best. They chose a sea shanty and sang with such amusement and enthusiasm that Darcy’s applause at the end was genuine indeed.
By the time the musicale ended, coffee and tea were served.
“I am sorry that we do not have time for cards, Mr. Darcy, since you did not get to partake in the music,” Mrs. Gardiner said as she handed him his cup. “I did not mean for us to be so carried away with the production, and now it is too late as the girls depart for Longbourn tomorrow.”
“Do not apologise on my behalf,” Darcy said. “I do not believe I have enjoyed an evening of music more.”
Bingley startled at Darcy’s confession. “Indeed? I had thought you greatly enjoyed listening to Miss Darcy.”
“And so I do. Perhaps I ought to have said, I do not know when I last found more amusement in an evening of music.”
“Miss Darcy must perform a very different sort of music than you heard tonight, then,” Elizabeth said.
Darcy scrutinized her before replying. Was she insecure? Did she think he was laughing at her? Or did she take his words to prove his prejudice against her relations in trade? “My sister prefers complicated sonatas. I believe there is a time and a place for such pieces. However, there is also great enjoyment to be had in light-hearted music. One is not superior over the other.”
“You do not claim to have your aunt’s superior taste in music?” Elizabeth asked with an arched brow.
“I regret to say that there is some family resemblance in our characters. However, I hope that I am very different from my aunt in my sense of superiority and inability to enjoy myself.”
Mrs. Gardiner glanced between Darcy and Elizabeth. He quickly searched for something else to say which the whole room could speak on. “Have you had any news from Longbourn?”
Elizabeth’s brows drew together for a second, but she smoothed her features and replaced her pensive look with a smile. “My father is rather desperate for the return of Jane and me. He is not much of a correspondent, but he did write last week to hurry home.”
“I hope all is well for him,” Darcy said.
“Oh, to be sure he is tried within an inch of his life—or at least his sanity—with my mother and younger sisters. However, girls at that age can be very trying, and my mother’s anxieties often overpower her.” She glanced at Bingley. “She has already written to me, inviting you to dinner on any night you choose, Mr. Bingley.”
“I shall look forward to it and be sure to thank her when I call on Longbourn. I suppose she will want to have several days’ notice.”
“I think she would be delighted if you would come on your very first night in the county. In fact, she might design for you to never leave the house again!”
Everyone laughed at Elizabeth’s words. When they had recovered, Darcy asked, “Bingley, when do you leave for Netherfield?”
“I had wanted to go tomorrow and accompany the Miss Bennets. However, there is business I must attend to and cannot put off. I hope to be in Hertfordshire before the week is out.” Glancing first at Elizabeth and then at Darcy, he added, “When do you join me, Darcy?”
Darcy looked at his coffee cup. “I am uncertain at present. I thought of taking Georgiana on a tour of Scotland and Ireland. We would be gone most of the summer.”
“How splendid that sounds,” Mrs. Gardiner exclaimed before explaining their travel plans for the summer.
Darcy stole a look at Elizabeth. He hoped to glean her reaction to his news. However, she did not look at him. He had vaguely followed Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner’s discussion about their intended journey.
“If you come near Pemberley, you must visit,” Darcy said. “It will be no trouble at all for Mrs. Reynolds to show you the house, and I will leave word that you have my permission to tour as much of the grounds as you wish and fish if you like.”
“That is exceedingly generous.” Mr. Gardiner smiled like a schoolboy given a pile of sweets.
Soon, it was time to depart for the evening. Elizabeth and Jane walked the guests to the door. Darcy hung back to allow Bingley and Jane some privacy. Elizabeth stayed by his side. Her lavender scent wafted over him, and the light in the hall cast shadows over her face, reminding him so much of that night at Rosings.
He had imagined them engaged by now. He had fantasized about her shy goodnight kisses as he courted her in London and at Longbourn. It would be they with their heads joined together as they whispered to one another instead of Bingley and Jane. Instead, an icy fear gripped his heart.
“I wish you safe travels tomorrow, Elizabeth,” he whispered to her. “Do not forget what I told you if you should need to contact me.”
“Thank you, I will not forget, but all seems well.” Her eyes finally left her shoes, and she met his gaze. “I wish a safe journey for you as well. Please greet Miss Darcy for me. I am sorry I did not get to see her again.”
“I also regret that the two of you did not get to see more of each other. Is that something you would welcome?”
“Miss Darcy seemed everything sweet and endearing. I would be happy to call her friend.”
“I look forward to the day when I can bring her to you.” Darcy glanced at Bingley. He did not appear ready to leave Jane’s side, but Darcy could only endure so much of this sweet torture. “My best wishes that you have a happy summer. Good night, Miss Elizabeth.”
Darcy bowed to her, resisting the urge to take her hand in his and lift it to his lips. If he touched her again, he might ignite in flames. He approached Bingley, who reluctantly bid Jane a good night before remembering to call out a farewell to Elizabeth. Darcy cast one last look at her before leaving. She stared at him. That same look he could not decipher was on her face. One day, he hoped to find out what it meant. Perhaps that would be the key to knowing how to win Elizabeth’s heart.