On the third morning of their stay in Lambton, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner decided to walk to down to the old church, the same one where Mrs. Gardiner was baptized as a baby, and where some of her family were buried. It was, she assured Elizabeth, a very pretty building, and the three of them prepared to depart together. When they reached the lobby of the inn, though, Elizabeth quite literally ran into Mr. Darcy. He appeared to be heading towards the stairs they had just exited, and the two nearly collided.
“Mr. Darcy!” Elizabeth hardly even felt surprise this time.
“Miss Bennet, I, uh… were you going out?”
“Yes, we were just about to walk down to the church.”
“The old one at the end of Windemere Lane, you mean?”
“Well yes, I suppose so. I don’t really know—it is my aunt who is familiar with Lambton.” Elizabeth nodded toward her relatives, but once again he favored them with a mere glance. Irritation at his incivility rose—if nothing else, she had remembered that aspect of his character correctly.
“Perhaps I might accompany you.” He nodded toward the door.
She looked at him uncertainly. “Did you not have some business here, that you were going to do?”
“Ah—nothing of significance, I assure you.”
“And your party at Pemberley? Are they so sanguine at having their host disappear for a portion of each day?”
“They have sufficient occupation.” He offered his arm. “Shall we go?”
She did not take it. “Mr. Darcy, I am here with my aunt and uncle—Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner.” As she spoke she moved backward until she stood next to them. “Perhaps I might introduce them to you?”
He colored a little, whether in anger or belated recognition of his rudeness, she didn’t know. “Of course.”
She made the introduction, and he managed to speak civilly, if briefly, to them, before turning back to Elizabeth. “Miss Bennet?”
It seemed she had no choice but to take his arm and endure his company yet again. Elizabeth felt strange, walking out with him like this, as if they were actually friends, and with her new knowledge of him—or lack of knowledge, rather. She had thought she understood him very well, but instead he was an unreadable cipher, and she hardly knew what to think. As the master of Pemberley, he commanded great respect. His past behavior was deplorable, his current behavior inexplicable, and his dealings with Mr. Wickham increasingly murky and uncertain. How was she to understand such differing evidence? What was she to make of him?
They made their way down the street. Elizabeth caught the occasional amazed glance directed their way, with doffed hats and hasty bows. Mr. Darcy merely nodded in response. He was silent today, without the determined questions of yesterday, and she wondered why he had bothered to come.
“My aunt grew up in Lambton,” she said at last, suddenly unable to bear the silence.
“Yes. She was christened at this church.”
“It was she who suggested we visit Pemberley.”
“Did you not wish to visit it yourself?”
“I did not wish to intrude.”
“You were not intruding.”
“Still… you know, Mr. Darcy, we knew each other very slightly so many months ago. I would not presume to call myself more than the merest acquaintance, and perhaps barely that.”
He looked thoughtful at that. “When do you depart?”
“Tomorrow is the plan.”
“Is that because you imagined you would not wish to stay longer, or because you are expected elsewhere?”
“Lambton is our longest planned stay in any town, sir. My uncle must return to his business soon, and there is much more of Derbyshire to see.”
“Of course,” he murmured, and was promptly silent for the rest of the walk. When they reached the church he surprised her by volunteering information about the windows’ age and design, but otherwise said little as the group explored the sanctuary and grounds outside.
As they were on their way back he unexpectedly took up their former subject. “Do you plan to remain in London for a time, or will you travel directly to Longbourn?”
“I will stay about a week with the Gardiners.” She wondered to what his question tended.
“And your uncle—he lives in Cheapside, is that right?” He winced a bit as he said the name.
“Near Cheapside, Mr. Darcy,” she answered drily. “Gracechurch Street. I daresay that it is unfashionable, but not quite a back alley, either.”
“No, no, your aunt and uncle appear very genteel.”
“They are very genteel.”
Whether he heard the edge on her voice or not, he lapsed back into the same irritating introspection. Elizabeth glanced over her shoulder at the Gardiners walking behind; her aunt raised her eyebrows with a questioning look, and she gave her a bewildered look back.
When they had come back into the center of town, the lead couple found themselves unexpectedly hailed from the street, where an open carriage sat, containing—of all people!—Mr. and Miss Bingley. “Here you are, Darcy, we were all wondering—” Mr. Bingley stopped abruptly upon recognizing his companion, and sat with his mouth hanging open a full inch.
“Mr. Darcy, do show me about this charming town!” Miss Bingley, her face an alarming shade of red, scrambled out of the carriage and took his free arm possessively. “Well, if it isn’t little Miss Eliza,” she added with a nervous laugh. “What a surprise to see you here!”
It was now obvious to Elizabeth that Darcy had not only failed to mention the Bingleys’ presence at Pemberley to her, but also her presence in Lambton to them. This apparent double concealment—which she could not but believe deliberate—enraged her. Swiftly she drew her hand out of Darcy’s arm. “It is a surprise to see you too, Miss Bingley,” she said.
“I say, Miss Elizabeth!” Regaining his self-possession, Mr. Bingley now practically vaulted out of the carriage into the street before her. “What a pleasure this is! To think of finding you in Lambton, of all places—and walking with Darcy! Did you just meet?”
“On the contrary, Mr. Bingley. Mr. Darcy has known of my presence here for the last three days, ever since I encountered him while touring the grounds at Pemberley. But do not tell me that he did not inform you of it!” She opened her eyes very wide. Darcy shifted beside her.
Bingley looked taken aback, but covered it quickly with inquiries after her health and her family. She answered him briefly and said. “Mr. Bingley, please allow me to present to you my aunt and uncle Gardiner.”
“Of course, I shall be delighted.” They came forward, and the introductions were made.
“But Miss Bingley, you already know Mrs. Gardiner, of course! You met her when you called on Jane at their home, I believe. January, wasn’t it? No, I am wrong, that was when she called on you. You returned the call in February.”
Miss Bingley looked furious, Mr. Bingley beautifully astonished, and Mr. Darcy—when she did finally defiantly meet his eyes—distinctly uncomfortable. Then Elizabeth saw her aunt’s face, and felt briefly ashamed. She had put her on the spot most ungraciously.
“How do you do, Mrs. Gardiner?” asked Miss Bingley through her teeth.
Mrs. Gardiner murmured something in reply, and an excruciatingly awkward silence followed. Mr. Gardiner was the one to finally break it, asking the gentlemen about what kind of sport they were enjoying. After a brief conversation they parted ways, Elizabeth being sure to firmly attach herself to her relatives. Mr. Darcy stayed with his friends.
“I am sorry, Aunt Gardiner. I should not have said it—only I could not help it. Miss Bingley’s treatment of Jane was infamous, and Mr. Darcy was clearly conspiring to keep Mr. Bingley from knowing I was in the country. It just made me so angry.”
Aunt Gardiner sighed. “I did not love you very much at that moment, Lizzy, but I do understand. It seems at least that Mr. Bingley knew nothing of Jane’s visits with his sister—if his countenance was anything to go by.”
“He did look terribly surprised, didn’t he? I wonder if he ever knew she was in town—or if it will make any difference that he knows now. Either he never loved her enough to marry her, or he is far too easily led by others, and neither condition can be cured simply by knowing she called.”
Later in the afternoon when Mrs. Gardiner had retired to her room for a nap, Mr. Gardiner put down his book, and looked at his niece in a serious fashion. “Lizzy,” he said, “Will you be offended if I ask you about the nature of your prior relationship with Mr. Darcy?”
She blinked in surprise. “There was no prior relationship, uncle. He stayed with Mr. Bingley at Netherfield for a few weeks, and we were sometimes in company together, that is all. We have always disliked each other amazingly.”
“He is not behaving as if he dislikes you.”
She colored. “He has been behaving very strangely since we met again. I do not know how to explain it.”
“Is today the first day you have seen him, since your unexpected meeting at Pemberley?”
“No,” she admitted. “I encountered him when walking around the town yesterday too.”
“I see. And it does not seem a remarkable coincidence to you, that he should appear in the same place as you, two mornings in a row? He was going upstairs in the inn until he saw you. Did it occur to you that he might have come to town expressly to call on you?”
“Oh, do not talk so!” she begged him, distressed. “Why, it is absurd. He was the most disagreeable man I ever met, when he was in Hertfordshire. We argued several times, and I haven’t seen him since—not for more than eight months!”
“Even so, he has repeatedly sought your company ever since he knew you were here.”
“It is unaccountable, I freely admit that, but I truly cannot think that it means anything. How could it? Please let us speak no more of it!”
He agreed, and they each took up a book. After a few minutes Mr. Gardiner began to nod off and finally declared his intention of joining his wife in her slumber. Elizabeth, who was still feeling discomposed, was glad to cast aside her book and the pretension of reading it.
It had all been so astonishing, so mystifying, so disconcerting! What was she to think? How was she to feel? And yet they would be gone soon. Surely, whatever Mr. Darcy’s reasons for coming to town—perhaps he was merely evading Miss Bingley’s attentions, she thought hopefully—they would not matter two days hence.
Just as Elizabeth was settling with herself that she had exaggerated the significance of what had occurred, a servant opened the door and Mr. Darcy himself strode in.
“Mr. Darcy!” She rose to her feet and smoothed her skirt, wondering what on earth was to transpire next.
“Miss Bennet.” He looked around the room. “You are alone? Your aunt and uncle—”
“They have retired to their chambers for a time.”
“Good. That is to say, I wish to speak to you privately.” He ran a hand over the back of his head.
“I cannot imagine what about, Mr. Darcy.”
“I—” He hesitated, and took a few restless steps around the room. “I was extremely surprised when I saw you at Pemberley.”
“I am sure you were.”
“The sight of you, standing there, where I had often—” He checked. “But first—we should speak of Bingley.”
“Yes, Mr. Bingley. How strange that you should have never happened to mention that there were people I knew among your party!”
“It was for his sake, you understand.”
“Oh, his sake?”
“Yes. It seemed possible that seeing you might cause him some unhappiness, and I did not wish for that.”
“I see.” Her mouth drew into a tight light. “And what of my sister’s unhappiness, Mr. Darcy?”
“Your sister?” He looked startled.
“It is obvious to me, although you will not admit it, that you want nothing more than to keep our entire apparently poisonous family away from him, just from fear that he might somehow remember the sweet and lovely woman he abandoned last November!”
“You speak as if there were an understanding between them, which you know there was not!”
“But there would have been, had he remained any longer!”
He opened his mouth and shut it again, looking frustrated. “This is not what I came here to speak to you about.”
“You brought it up.”
“A mistake, clearly.”
“I think your mistake, Mr. Darcy, was in coming here this afternoon. Perhaps it would be best if you left.”
“I have not yet said what I came here to say.”
“Whatever it is, I cannot imagine that I would wish to hear it.”
He stared at her, his color very high. “Perhaps you would not say that if you knew what it was.”
She stared back defiantly. “Or perhaps I would.”
He picked up the hat and gloves he had discarded on a side table and gave her a quick, stiff, very slight bow before turning away. Just as his hand turned the handle of the door, though, he paused, and looking back said, “I should thank you, actually. You have saved me from a very foolish action, madam.”
The bite in his tone penetrated even her anger, and she wondered at his words. But then he was gone, shutting the door with pointed force behind him.