Well, let’s see how our characters are dealing with this quarantine!
Previous Chapter: One
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Darcy slowly chewed his last bite of the meat pie Elizabeth had made. Before today, he had thought cooking beneath a gentleman’s daughter. Now, he found himself grateful that she had learned at her friend’s house. Not for the first time today, he thanked the Lord that Elizabeth was at Netherfield. She had proved indispensable in putting out the kitchen fire, cleaning, and cooking. Bingley’s sisters refused to leave their chambers lest they catch the contagion and insisted their maids stay in their quarters as well. Unfortunately, Miss Bennet was too ill to be of any assistance. The lone housemaid was a hard worker, but it was Elizabeth that stepped into the housekeeper’s shoes and managed to decide what must be done. Additionally, she was not too proud to rely on Molly for instruction or advice. Darcy had never admired a lady more than he now esteemed Elizabeth Bennet.
Mr. Jones, unable to visit due to illness in town, had sent a missive expressing strict quarantine measures. He had disapproved of Georgiana’s nighttime arrival. Still, as sickness was already in Netherfield, the addition of one who might have contracted the disease was hardly a concern. Darcy had restricted himself to speaking to Georgiana from across the room. Thankfully, her companion had travelled with her. As neither of them had contact with anyone ill in London and had not seen anyone at Netherfield, it was decided that Mrs. Annesley would remain in Georgiana’s chamber except to prepare meals. Elizabeth had bristled at Darcy’s edict to thoroughly clean the kitchen before allowing Mrs. Annesley to enter and assemble a light repast for Georgiana. He had only wished to keep those who had contact with the sick from spreading anything to the well. Of course, Elizabeth looked at it in a softer light once Bingley had presented it as such to her.
Now, only Bingley and Darcy remained at the kitchen table. They had decided to forego the formality of the dining room for the foreseeable future. Molly had begun the dishes, and Elizabeth had returned upstairs to see to Jane. Darcy had firmly advised that she sleep and allow Molly to assist her sister. Elizabeth flatly refused the suggestion, although she modified her tone when Bingley agreed with Darcy.
“I suppose we could sit in the breakfast room, could we not?” Bingley asked. “We were there when Mr. Jones issued his command. I do not believe it has been cleaned yet.”
Darcy understood his friend’s unspoken question; he wanted to speak in privacy. The idea had merit but could set a precedent. What they needed most was for Molly to retire for the evening. Suppressing a groan as he returned to his feet, Darcy motioned toward the sink. “It would be rude to shirk a duty.”
As the gentlemen arrived at the sink, Molly looked up. “Just in time, sirs. I finished everything else.”
“Then allow us. You may retire for the night,” Bingley said through a yawn.
The maid glanced at Darcy, who gave a slight nod of agreement. “Thank you.” She blushed and curtseyed before hurrying away.
Bingley scraped the plates and handed them to Darcy. They worked quietly for a moment, concentrating on the unfamiliar, although simple, tasks.
“I have never been so tired in all my life,” Bingley said once they completed the chore and returned to the table. “And I never would have thought that I would see you doing such menial work!”
“My father insisted I rusticate with him in the wilderness in my youth. As a result, I am more familiar with an open fire than I am with the stove here. We dined on simple fare then, like toast and salted meat. However, I have put in a few hours of scrubbing dishes.” Darcy shrugged.
“Yes, but a leisurely adventure is not the same as cleaning a kitchen from top to bottom, let alone after a fire. My muscles have never ached so badly before. When I am next in town, I will advise Gentleman Jack he ought to have his students scrub walls and floors.”
Darcy chuckled. “Indeed. Surely, the remainder of this mandated isolation will not be so difficult. We know how to prevent a fire now.”
Bingley tapped his fingers on the table and avoided Darcy’s eyes. “Unless one or all of us falls sick too.”
“Mr. Jones did not think that very likely. He assured us that being in robust health helps prevent the worst from happening.” The truth was that the apothecary did not seem very sure of anything. As Darcy’s express to his London physician had gone unanswered, he assumed the more learned medical men had little more to offer. However, he did not condone speaking so negatively.
“Miss Bennet never appeared frail, yet she is ailing with a high fever and cough.”
“Her sister says she is fairing well,” Darcy encouraged his friend.
Bingley did not look entirely appeased. “I regret that she is ill here, but at least I may have updates on her situation.” He sighed. “It is well that Miss Elizabeth is present to tend to her.”
Darcy gently shook his head. “I fear she will turn ill herself as she watches over Miss Bennet and assists around the house. She needs to rest.”
“You seem extraordinarily interested in her well-being.” Bingley cocked his head to one side and peered at Darcy.
Fighting the heat that crept up his neck and the tightening of his throat, Darcy attempted neutrality. “I should be concerned for any lady of my acquaintance going through as much.”
“I cannot think of another lady who would act as she does. My sisters…” Bingley shuddered.
“Quite.” Darcy agreed, repressing a chuckle.
“The other day, you joined Caroline in disapproving of Miss Elizabeth’s walking all this way in mud. You had said you would not wish your sister to behave as Elizabeth does. What do you say now?”
Darcy took in a sharp breath. The memory of Elizabeth’s entrance into the breakfast room that morning was a welcome respite from the situation they now faced. Her rosy cheeks and bright eyes had beckoned to him. He had hardly before noticed that he found her so pretty until that moment. Clinging to the borderline impropriety of her journey had brought Darcy back from the edges of insanity. However, today seeing her work ethic and ability to remain in good humour tugged his heartstrings.
“Would you not say there are admirable qualities in Miss Elizabeth’s lack of decorum now?” Bingley asked.
“I would not wish for Georgiana to be so reckless with her health. However, if I had another sister for Georgiana to nurse, I would wish for her to be just as Miss Elizabeth.” Darcy tried not to frown as he finished his statement. It seemed to cast Elizabeth in the role of a sister, and he had decidedly unsisterly feelings for her.
“Perhaps she could be like a sister to Georgiana once we can all gather together again.” Bingley looked away for a moment before turning his face back to his friend with a mischievous grin. “Or maybe she could be sister to Georgiana in fact.”
Darcy’s brows rose high, and his jaw slackened. Bingley laughed at the effect.
Upon sobering, Bingley held up his hands. “How often have I heard you rehearse to others, including your relatives, that you need not marry for money or station? You have shunned the hordes of women thrust upon you and claimed that when you decided to wed, it would be to a lady who could be a proper sister to Georgiana. If you do not hurry, she will be past the age of needing sisterly guidance at all.”
“It is hardly the time to be thinking of matrimony when we have such a severe illness at hand.” Darcy stood. He was too tired to defend himself from Bingley’s good-natured teasing.
“What better time to examine the real character of a lady than under such pressure? When life has returned to normal, you can think more seriously about the merits of marriage to Miss Elizabeth.” Bingley finally stood as well. He snuffed all the candles but two.
“There is no need for two torches. I can carry these urns to Miss Bennet’s room if you can guide the way. They need water for the night.”
Bingley smirked. “Or did you already begin thinking about marriage to her?” He laughed as they ascended the kitchen stairs.
“Which one?” Darcy shot back. “There are two eligible misses upstairs.”
Bingley’s face clouded. “I could not compete with you, not only because I see you as a brother and my most trusted friend. What lady would choose me over you?”
Darcy was about to caution his friend that only the proper lady for him would make that choice when Bingley elbowed him in the side.
“If that is how you want to play it, then I think Miss Elizabeth nearly as beautiful as her sister and her manner refreshing.”
Darcy had never played cards much, and there was an excellent reason why.
Bingley laughed. “Your face says it all, man! When can I wish you joy?”
Darcy remained mute, the best way to silence his friend.
Arriving at the door where Elizabeth and Jane slept, he set the water jugs down before knocking on the door.
“Who is it?” Elizabeth’s voice called out in an anxious tone.
“I have brought you some water. I thought you might need it,” he said through the door.
“Yes. Will you need any assistance bringing them in?”
Elizabeth chuckled. “Thank you, no. I can manage.”
There was silence, and Bingley nudged Darcy with his foot.
“Is there anything else you might need?”
“No, I do not think we do. Thank you very much. Good night, sir.”
“Ah, Bingley is here as well. I needed someone to carry a candle.” Now Bingley elbowed Darcy in the ribs. He looked at the floor, half wishing it could swallow him whole. How could he be so inept at this? The problem was knowing Elizabeth was on the other side of the door, likely already in her nightgown with her beautiful hair down…
“Thank you as well, Mr. Bingley!” Elizabeth said with a hint of laughter in her voice. “Good night, sirs.”
There was something that sounded like rustling fabric beyond the door, and then Jane coughed.
“Is all well?” Darcy asked.
“Yes, yes.” Elizabeth sounded as though she sprinted back to the door. “Jane wishes me to thank you for her as well. Now, I could use the water…only, I require privacy to obtain it.”
“Oh, very well,” Darcy said, taking a step back and bumping into Bingley. “Good night. I pray you both sleep well.”
“If you or Miss Bennet have any need in the middle of the night, please alert me,” Bingley insisted.
“I will,” Elizabeth promised.
Bingley pushed past Darcy. “And you are certain Miss Bennet does not suffer terribly?”
“Mr. Jones has said she is faring well.”
“Good, that is good to hear. Well, not good that she is ill to start with…”
“What Bingley means to say is that he is glad she is healing.”
Although Darcy could not do any better when speaking to his respective lady, he could help his friend along.
“Yes, I understood,” Elizabeth answered. “We all need rest now. Good night!”
Finally, Darcy and Bingley left the doorway and walked toward their chambers.
“That was not well-done,” Bingley said with a sigh. “I have never been tongue-tied like that in my life! Perhaps you are the contagion!”
Darcy chuckled. “You have teased me, but you are the one with the undeniable proof that you fancy a lady.”
“You hate idle conversations, yet just spoke to a door for five minutes in the most painfully dull discussion of politeness I have ever witnessed.”
Darcy decided the only appropriate response was to snuff out Bingley’s candle and leave him in the dark.
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