Elizabeth’s afternoon encounter with Mr. Darcy left her exceedingly uneasy. She could not make sense of it. Why had he come? What was it that he was going to say—what folly commit? She could not feel anything but justified in her words about Jane and Mr. Bingley, but yet, she had been terribly uncivil at the end.
No sooner had she begun to compose herself, than Mr. Bingley himself called. His arrival coincided with her aunt and uncle’s return to the parlor, and the four of them sat around, making friendly conversation that entirely ignored the earlier awkward scene. As the time drew near for him to leave though, Bingley cleared his throat and leaned towards Elizabeth. “I wonder if I might speak to you confidentially for a moment, Miss Elizabeth.” He nodded to the window.
She got up and went with him, and they stood looking down into the street as he spoke earnestly in a low tone. “Miss Elizabeth, I hope you know that I was not aware of Miss Bennet’s presence in town over the winter.”
She smiled slightly. “I had gathered as much, yes.”
“I, um—I would have called on her, had I known.”
She lifted an eyebrow. “You could also have come back to Netherfield, if you wished.”
He flushed. “Yes, well… I wasn’t certain, you know, if I would be welcomed… really welcomed, by her, I mean.”
“Could you doubt it?”
“Yes.” He rubbed a hand in his curls. “Of course.”
Elizabeth looked at him in perplexity. “I don’t know what you, perhaps, have been told, but…”
“Yes?” he asked eagerly.
“I cannot speak for my sister, sir. It is not for me to divulge what may be in her heart. But if you wish to know the nature of her feelings for you, is it not better to ask her, than to simply… leave?”
“Well, Miss Bennet is so kind, I do not know what…”
“My sister is kindness itself, but I assure you that the last thing she would ever do would be to give some gentleman an idea of her feeling more for him than she did. She is far more likely to show less than she really feels than more.”
“Really?” A light came into his eyes. “Is this the truth?”
“Of course it’s the truth. My sister is an honest woman, sir, and deserving of honest dealing.”
For a few moments they stood eying each other. “I can see what you think of me, Miss Elizabeth.”
“Yes. You think I am either capricious or cowardly—or both.”
She hesitated. “I don’t know what you are, Mr. Bingley, but I would like to think well of you.”
“Thank you. I hope you have occasion to think better of me in the future.”
They returned to the others then, and in a few minutes Mr. Bingley took his leave. They had not spoken of what role Mr. Darcy may have played in the whole affair, but Elizabeth hoped that Bingley’s presence meant that he had decided not to defer too much to his friend or sisters any more.
Thinking about Jane brought to mind the fact that Elizabeth had received no letters from her just recently. Jane was usually a very faithful correspondent, and this silence was beginning to worry her. What was going on at home?
She sat down to try to compose a letter to Jane herself, but found she could not put into words everything that had happened in the last three days. How could she explain Mr. Darcy’s unexplainable behavior—or detail the uncertain conversation she had with Mr. Bingley? She did not understand them herself.
What did it mean? What was she to think?—about Darcy, about Wickham, about Mr. Bingley’s reasons for leaving Hertfordshire? Darcy certainly appeared to be a better man than she had thought him, but he was still just as proud. His attentions to her—what was the purpose behind them? And what had he come there to say that afternoon? Always her mind returned to Darcy. If Wickham was a scoundrel then she was sorry for it, but his poor character only made Darcy’s more unclear.
After a night’s fitful sleep she rose and dressed early, slipping out of the inn at first light. The town was quietly awake around her, shopkeepers opening their doors, street sellers setting out their wares. Wrapped in a light cloak, she stole down the street unmolested, working her way north, out of town—in the direction of Pemberley.
She thought of Pemberley, as she eyed the gracious trees ahead, of its beauty and serenity, of the grace and good taste that adorned its every part. She thought of old Mrs. Reynolds, boasting fondly about a boy who had grown into a man she was proud to call master. She thought of the strange light in Darcy’s eyes when he had looked at her at times, and the angry hurt in his voice when he had left her yesterday. An unconscious shiver ran up her spine.
She had been walking for some minutes along the side of the road, lost in the iridescence of the dawning sky, when a horseman appeared, moving in her direction. She knew who it would be, even before he drew near; it seemed somehow inevitable.
Darcy drew rein about fifteen feet from where she stood, and they regarded each other in silence. “Miss Bennet,” he said at last, and swung down.
“Mr. Darcy.” It was the first time she had spoken that morning, and her voice sounded husky to her ears.
His next remark seemed curiously inconsequential. “My friend Bingley is very angry at me.”
“Yes.” A pause. “Perhaps he has cause.”
She didn’t know quite what to say to that.
Darcy fidgeted a bit, and fingered the reins. “I wish you to understand that I did not intend any disrespect to you… or to Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner.”
She sighed. “Perhaps I was unjust. You are not, after all, responsible for Mr. Bingley’s desertion of my sister, and I can understand that you might find it awkward.”
He looked uncomfortable but said, “May I walk with you?”
She didn’t know why he asked it, or even why he was here this morning, when he seemed so intent on quitting her presence the day before. Yet she consented, and he led his mount around to walk with her in the direction she had been going. After a minute or two he began to speak again, but only to point out a falcon gliding overhead, along with interesting information about its nesting habits in nearby peaks. This was followed by observations on some roadside plants and the probable age of the trees they strolled beneath. Elizabeth listened in respectful silence, surprised alike by his knowledge and verbosity. She could not ever seem to puzzle out this man.
The occasional farm cart rolled past them, and Darcy invariably would take her arm gently as they stepped back, drawing his horse a little forward as if to shield her. Some of the farmers recognized their master in the tall gentleman, and bowed very deeply from their posts on the cart or oxen. Elizabeth rather thought they must be amazed to see him walking beside the road with a strange lady, but she could perceive no discomfort on Mr. Darcy’s countenance. Unexpectedly, something her sister Mary had once said returned to her. It had something to do with the difference between vanity and pride—that vanity had to do with what others thought of you, while pride was what you thought of yourself. It was true; Mr. Darcy might be proud, but he was not vain.
“Does your knowledge of nature extend to all of England, or only your home county?” she asked him.
He smiled. “I am fond of Derbyshire, I admit. My knowledge is the sort that was of interest to a young boy who had the freedom of a large estate. I am sure you could tell me much about the flowers and wildlife of Hertfordshire.”
“Perhaps,” she acknowledged. “Although girls are not generally allowed the same freedoms as boys, I was fortunate to have a father who did not like to see us too much restricted, and who always encouraged my curiosity.”
“My own father believed it best that I learn to love Pemberley from my youth, and that began with a love for its forests and streams, and grew to a love for its farms and mills and villages as well. I do believe my early explorations laid the foundation for all the satisfaction I feel as a landowner and master now.”
Elizabeth glanced sideways at him. “Your housekeeper was quite eloquent in her praise for you in those capacities.”
She might have been mistaken, but a little color seemed to creep into his cheeks. “She is rather prejudiced on my behalf, I believe.”
“Yes, she has known you since you were four years old—or so she told us.”
“It’s true; I was very young when she first came to Pemberley.”
The image of him as a small boy, clambering around those solemn halls, climbing those majestic trees, or—heaven forbid!—rolling down the slope of the mighty front lawn—was just irresistibly endearing. When she had first heard Mrs. Reynolds, Elizabeth had been quite unable to connect the sweet natured child she spoke of with the dour man she herself had known, but now, somehow, the link was made, she saw the two pictures superimposed, and once again her ideas about Mr. Darcy rotated.
“What is it?” asked Darcy, who had evidently been studying the expressions on her face.
She shook her head. “I told you once that I was having difficulty sketching your character, Mr. Darcy. I am doing no better now, all these months later, and I am afraid that if I have to continue making corrections the portrait will soon be hopelessly smudged.”
There was a short silence. “Perhaps you might be willing to begin a new portrait, Miss Bennet,” he said at last, softly.
She was uncertain about what he meant; did he mean that her sketching was poor, or the appearance he had shown her? Was he reprimanding or apologizing?—or perhaps neither? She may have been endowing his words with a meaning he never intended. She glanced at him again, but his face was enigmatic.
They had come now to the beginning of Lambton proper, and she half expected him to part ways with her, but he continued by her, past a few neat houses, past the butcher’s shop and chandler’s, past a general store, and a bakery and the tiny milliner’s. When they finally turned in at the entrance to the Red Lion she paused a moment to look at him enquiringly. He cleared his throat and said, “Perhaps I might come up and greet your aunt and uncle—if you don’t think it too early.”
“I am sure they shall be happy to speak to you.”
“It will soon be breakfast at Pemberley, so I must return quickly, but I should like to—”
He did not finish, but she nodded quickly, and they continued through the taproom, leaving Darcy’s horse with a boy from the inn who promised to give it water. About half way through the lobby they were accosted by the beaming proprietor, who greeted Darcy effusively and announced that Miss Bennet had received two letters just that morning.
On being handed them, Elizabeth saw that they were from Jane, and could not contain an exclamation of pleasure. “I have been anxious for these,” she explained.
He smiled courteously and followed her up the stairs. Her aunt and uncle were awake and in the parlor. Tea and coffee had been brought up but breakfast was still coming, and they were both surprised to find that she was not, as they thought, still asleep in her bed. They greeted Mr. Darcy very civilly, and he put himself to the trouble of actually talking to them, although rather stiffly.
Although Elizabeth had previously been quite wild to read any communication from Jane, her letters naturally paled in interest compared to the man standing now present in the room. He certainly was tall, she found herself thinking, though perhaps it was just the riding cloak that made his shoulders seem so very broad. He looked a bit out of place in the low, old-fashioned room, and not entirely comfortable as he made conversation with her lowly relations, but he was making an attempt of sorts. She could not recall that she had ever seen Mr. Darcy make an attempt to be civil to anyone in Hertfordshire, and the ongoing mystery of his behavior raised new and interesting possibilities in her mind.
Could it be possible, as her uncle hinted, that Mr. Darcy admired her? That his persistent presence since their arrival had been his way of paying her attention? And did she wish for his attentions? This question occupied her so completely that she was hardly aware of what was being said until Mr. Darcy said, “But I am keeping Miss Bennet from her letters.”
Her name in his deep voice brought her to herself, and she started and blushed at her thoughts. She went to place those letters on the table—and then he gave her this look—a kind of wry, humorous, speaking, meaningful look from under his brows, and involuntarily her hand jerked.
“Lizzy!” exclaimed Mrs. Gardiner, as hot liquid scorched her fingers. She had knocked her aunt’s cup of coffee over, and spilled brown liquid all over Jane’s precious letters.
The next moments were equal parts bustle, mortification and dismay. Mr. Darcy kindly said little as they mopped up the mess; how he looked she didn’t know, as she couldn’t look at him. They were able to carefully break the seals without much tearing the paper, and spread the sheets open to dry. Elizabeth did not try to read them, except to see that about half of each page was stained, though the occasional legible word peeked through.
A maid arrived to replace the tablecloth, and Elizabeth found herself standing rather awkwardly near Darcy, who for some reason had not yet taken his leave. He smiled at her, a bit tentatively. “I am sorry your sister’s letters suffered damage,” he said. “I know how valuable my own sister’s correspondence is to me, when we are apart.”
“Yes, and you write long letters with four syllable words back to her,” she said without really thinking. “I remember.”
The smile disappeared, and she felt immediately sorry for the tone of her reply. “It was very kind of you to accompany me back,” she ventured. “And to… come upstairs.” She did not want to say meet my relatives in trade.
He looked at her a moment. “I did not do it to be kind.” There seemed to be some message he was trying to convey. For perhaps the first time, she looked at him in a genuine attempt to understand. What did he want from her? Who was he?
“Forgive me, you must wishing for my absence.” Quickly, he made his bow. “We are engaged for this afternoon, then?”
“We will look forward to it,” smiled Mrs. Gardiner.
“This afternoon?” Elizabeth repeated when he had left. “I thought we were to have been gone by this afternoon!”
“Did you not pay attention to anything that was said?” asked her aunt. “Mr. Darcy invited us to take a tour of his park. I told him how much I had always wished it, and he offered carriages immediately.”
“But we have our own carriage,” said Elizabeth stupidly.
“Yes, but that’s not the proper way to see a park like that! It must be done in smaller, lighter carriages, that can get over the ground more easily.”
“He said there were two such carriages in his stables,” volunteered her husband. “A curricle which he generally drives, and a phaeton designed for his sister’s use. He said we might take the phaeton, as your aunt dislikes curricles.”
“I’m always positive they shall tip over!”
“Can we all fit in one phaeton?”
“Well, no, Lizzy.” He cleared his throat. “By we I meant your aunt and I. You shall have to ride in the curricle.”
“By myself?” She was being very stupid this morning.
“No, Lizzy.” Her aunt now. “With Mr. Darcy.”
“Mr. Darcy? Why should—and you agreed? Without asking me?”
The others exchanged looks. “Lizzy,” said Mrs. Gardiner carefully, “you returned from a very early morning walk with him in tow.”
“Clearly, you met him somewhere—”
“But not on purpose!”
“—and felt quite familiar enough with him to not only walk back, but bring him up to speak with us.”
“He asked to come up, I did not invite him.”
Another exchanged look. “Regardless, you can hardly fault us for thinking you quite willing to keep company with him.”
“And you offered no objection to the plan.”
Elizabeth opened her mouth and closed it again, frustrated. Would she have objected to the plan, had she heard it? Did she object? She was at least honest enough to admit that she did not know. The thought of sitting in the close confines of a curricle seat with Mr. Darcy made her heart race strangely. Anxious for change the subject, she went to fuss over Jane’s letters, and read the first, unstained portion of page. “Jane says that the children are well,” she announced. “Edward upset Hill by bringing a stray cat into the kitchen, but she has since forgiven him and reserves all the best treats for him.” There was also some mention of a party, but the sentences after that were stained and blurred and still wet; she could just make out the word Lydia further down the sheet, then surprise, Kitty, rejoice, my father, and how thankful I am, all scattered about. Jane, who disliked the look of crossed pages, wrote instead in a neat but very small hand, and the words were easily lost. “I can’t make out the rest at all.” She glanced at the second letter.
“Perhaps they will be easier to read when they have dried,” suggested her aunt.
“Yes…” She leaned over it. By this time, my dearest sister, you have received…
Breakfast at last arrived in all its toothsome glory and distracted her, then, outside in the street (she stood by a window), a curricle rattled by, reminding her of the engagement to come, and her thoughts returned inexorably to Darcy.
“Is everything well?”
She realized with a start that the repast was all prepared, and the others waiting for her to begin. Blushing a little, she set the paper in hand carefully down again, there on the little table in the sun.
“At Longbourn, you mean? Yes, it seems so. I saw enough to assure us of that, at least.”