The Awkward Business of the Shrubbery
“… the expression, certainly, would be difficult to capture, but their color and shape, and the lashes, so remarkably fine, might be—”
Darcy’s words came to an abrupt halt as he and Miss Bingley rounded a corner of the hedge and ran smack into Mrs. Hurst and Miss Elizabeth Bennet herself, standing with her lovely eyes wide open and a look of shock on her face that left no doubt that she had heard him. He shut his eyes for a moment, feeling the blood flood his cheeks, but on opening them, happened to see Miss Bingley’s countenance, which bore such an expression of chagrin that he wanted to laugh.
“Mr. Darcy!” Mrs. Hurst moved quickly to intercede, taking his free arm. “Were you walking this way? Do let me join you!”
She steered them toward another walk, but his head turned to watch Elizabeth, now standing alone and still looking adorably confused. It was unconscionably rude for them to walk off and leave her there, and he wanted to invite her along, to suggest they go into the avenue, but his composure wasn’t strong enough. Their eyes met for a fleeting moment, then she turned and almost ran back towards the house.
Darcy spent the rest of the afternoon wondering what he should do. It all depended, he finally decided, on how much of his conversation with Miss Bingley she had overheard. If she had caught only the last few lines and somehow managed to deduce that they were about her, then he rather thought the best thing would be to say nothing. It was not so terrible if she knew that he admired her eyes; really, he had no wish to deny it.
But Darcy was very concerned about raising false expectations, and he had certainly been paying her a great deal of attention lately. If Elizabeth had overheard enough of the conversation to know that Miss Bingley was teasing him about the idea of marrying her, then it was quite possible that she had gotten entirely the wrong idea. For while Darcy was attracted to Elizabeth, while he admired her and enjoyed her company and was at times positively bewitched by her, and while the idea of marrying her was undeniably delightful and appealing, it was impossible. He did not have, could not have, any serious designs on her. It would be dashed awkward, but the best, kindest thing in that circumstance would be to tell her the truth.
He went to Mrs. Hurst to discover the crucial information. This lady looked astonished and uncomfortable at the question, but finally admitted that they had heard quite enough to have gotten the gist of the conversation. “I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “You were coming straight towards us, and she was quite frozen with astonishment. I would have hurried her away if I could have.”
“It’s not your fault,” he said shortly.
It was his fault. It was his fault for being so unguarded in his speech to Miss Bingley, and so obvious in his admiration. He could only imagine that Elizabeth was even now planning her wedding clothes, and while a part of him was sorry to disoblige her, it had to be done.
“Miss Bennet.” He came across her in the hallway. “I wonder if I might have a word with you?” He nodded toward the library.
She hesitated but entered, and he came after her. “What is this about, Mr. Darcy?” For the first time he had ever seen her, she seemed shy around him, and would not look him directly in the eye.
“Miss Bennet, forgive me for speaking so frankly, but I have never liked disguise, and it would serve me ill now. I know that you overheard Miss Bingley and I when we were discussing you.”
She flushed. “I did not eavesdrop by design!”
“I am not suggesting that you did. I only wish to make my position clear, lest you misunderstand.”
“Yes, I…” he was finding this more difficult than anticipated, and shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t wish you to take from Miss Bingley’s teasing… to suppose that her fanciful jests are reflections of my stated—or implied!—intentions—or to form any expectations because I—”
“Mr. Darcy!” Miss Bennet was beet red by now. “I assure you, nothing was further from my mind! I would never… and you especially!”
“Oh. Oh, well then… I am relieved to know that,” he said, feeling terribly disappointed.
“Now, if you would excuse me…” she moved hastily towards the door.
“Miss Bennet!” he found himself calling her.
She paused reluctantly. “Yes, Mr. Darcy?”
“Miss Bennet, in one respect the conversation you overheard was entirely accurate. You have remarkably fine eyes.”
Those eyes widened, and for several moments blinked at him, before shifting rather longingly to the doorway. She bobbed a quick curtsy. “Good afternoon.”
He continued to stare at the door even after she had exited through it. A sudden thought occurred to him. Him especially, she had said. Why him especially!?