By the time that Mr. Darcy arrived with his groom and two carriages, Elizabeth still had not read any more of Jane’s letters. She had gone out with her aunt and uncle immediately after breakfast, for her aunt had recalled yet another old family friend she wished to visit, since they had decided to remain another day. They also went into the general store for a new pair of driving gloves for Mr. Gardiner, since he had not brought anything suitable for the purpose, and the ladies became occupied with choosing small gifts for the family at Longbourn. By the time they returned to the inn, heavily laden with packages, there was only enough time to hastily change into a more suitable gown, and to pin her curls up more firmly and exchange her bonnet for a hat, before the gentleman was announced.
Darcy seemed a bit self-conscious as he explained how the afternoon would go. He and Miss Bennet would occupy the curricle, while Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner drove the phaeton. There was a perch for the groom on the back of the phaeton, which meant that, should the Gardiners by chance fall behind, he would insure they did not become lost. Of course that meant that Elizabeth and Darcy would have no chaperone, the curricle having no extra seat behind, but he assured her uncle that they would all remain close together.
Elizabeth had an odd feeling as they set out, a premonition of trouble almost, but nothing happened to disturb their sunlit drive. It was a golden day, and the trees threw dappled patterns across the grass as they passed. The winding trail around the edge of Pemberley’s park led them through forests glades, by rocky outcroppings with glorious views, shining ponds… there seemed a new beauty around every corner. Mr. Darcy was a pleasant and knowledgeable guide, who neither sat in uneasy silence nor distracted her with needless chatter. He answered her many questions patiently and did not seem to be in the slightest hurry; any time she gave hint of wishing to explore on foot, he would immediately draw reign and jump down to assist her. The Gardiners were always right behind them, and they would pull up too, sometimes climbing out to walk around with her, and sometimes sitting in quiet conversation and enjoyment of scene.
They paused eventually on a ridge which afforded them an excellent view of the house, from a different angle than she had seen it before. “It is a very well situated,” said Elizabeth, feeling all the inadequacy of the remark.
“Yes, I am indebted to my forebears for that.”
“I am… I am glad you have not succumbed to the modern mania for improvement.”
“Cut down trees for a Grecian temple, you mean? I think it would look sadly out of place.”
“And so it would be. What I find especially silly is this idea of building a ruin.”
“You do not like ruins?” He turned his head to look at her.
“Real ruins, with real history attached to them, yes, although they still always seem a bit sad to me. A new ruin is ridiculous—a conceited waste of building materials and labor.”
“I agree.” His eyes dwelt on her with a soft look she found pleasing and disconcerting at the same time. “Would you...” he cleared his throat. “Would you do me the honor of taking some refreshments at the house, before returning? I would very much like to introduce my sister to you.”
Now this was a compliment, and Elizabeth felt its weight. She wondered what she had possibly done to have earned such favor from a man like him, and what could have engendered such an apparent change from the arrogant face he displayed in Hertfordshire.
Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, on having the invitation communicated to them, agreed with surprise and pleasure, and once they had completed the circumference of the park (which took some time), they got down once again before the great doors. Inside, they were led to a smaller, private parlor which had not been on the tour. Fruit and cake and other pleasant things appeared almost instantly, and Mr. Darcy urged them to help themselves before disappearing to find his sister.
The three left in the room looked at each other. “This is very particular attention, Lizzy,” said Mrs. Gardiner.
Lizzy just shook her head a little, unable to discuss it. She did not know what to think, much less what to say. In a few minutes Mr. Darcy returned with his sister, who turned out to be a sweet, shy girl (more proof that Mr. Wickham had lied, thought Lizzy). They spoke haltingly for a few minutes, then Mr. Bingley turned up, seemingly restored to his usual jovial spirits. With him in the room conversation went on in a spirited fashion for some twenty minutes before the Gardiners indicated a desire to return to the inn—more out of politeness than feeling. They all knew that Mr. Darcy had other guests. Mr. Bingley’s sisters did not appear, but no one lamented them.
Elizabeth and Darcy travelled the miles back to Lambton in near silence. It had grown rather hot and Elizabeth could feel a bead of sweat making its way down the back of her neck, but she refused to think of that. It was just entirely too beautiful, too perfect, and the perfection, to her continuing and substantial surprise, included the man sitting beside her. Casting a glance at him, she could not but admire him. He was handsome, handsomer even that Wickham, his face in profile, hat straight, posture relaxed, one foot on the dash, and the reins held easily in capable, brown-gloved hands. She wished she knew what he was thinking.
When he helped her down in front of the inn she expected to be bid goodbye, but instead he came upstairs with them, still not saying much, his brow furrowed just a little, as if in thought.
When they came into their private parlor, Elizabeth gave a cry of dismay. Jane’s letters, left to dry by the window, lay scattered on the floor.
“Oh dear, we forgot to shut the window, didn’t we?” said Mrs. Gardiner, as Elizabeth gathered the sheets.
“I think the promise of a ride around your estate must have distracted the ladies,” said Mr. Gardiner humorously to Darcy. “I never think of such things myself, of course.”
“I’m afraid it’s my fault—I’m the one who kept us rushing around all morning. I simply could not resist using our extra hours here.” Mrs. Gardiner sighed.
Darcy opened his mouth to make some reply, but just then Elizabeth gasped loudly. Turning, they saw her looking pale, her eyes frantically scanning the page she held. It was the second of Jane’s letters, and unlike the first, the coffee had stained primarily the upper middle of the page, leaving a few lines at the top and a larger section at the bottom. The section her eyes had lit upon, and which she now read aloud in an agitated voice was, “…gave them to understand that they were going to Gretna Green, something was dropped by Denny expressing his belief that W. never intended to go there, or to marry Lydia at all, which was repeated to Colonel F., who, instantly taking the alarm, set off from B. intending to trace their route. W! Can it be?” She looked up with horrified eyes. Seeing only shocked faces she did not wait for a reply, but turned the paper over and continued, “He did trace them easily to Clapham, but no further; for on entering that place, they removed into a hackney coach, and dismissed the chaise that brought them from Epsom. All that is known after this is—oh, I cannot read any more!” She moved down the paper “…feared W. was not a man to be trusted. My poor mother is really ill, and keeps her room. Could she exert herself, it would be better; but this is not to be expected. And as to my father, I never in my life saw him so affected. Poor Kitty has anger for having concealed their attachment; but as it was a matter of confidence, one cannot wonder. I am truly glad, dearest Lizzy… where is the other page?” Frantically she looked around the room. “There was another page! Where is it?”
The others recovered from their stupor enough to help her search, but the missing sheet was not to be found. “I am afraid it must have blown out the window,” said her uncle.
“Oh, wretched, wretched fool!” Elizabeth castigated herself. “Why did I not read them this morning?” She snatched up the first letter, searching it for clues and, upon turning it over, realized that there was more writing on the fold on the back. “Off Saturday night about twelve… express… Lydia left a letter… oh, there’s nothing here either!”
“May I see?” Taking the second letter from her, her uncle put on his spectacles and studied the stained area closely.
Elizabeth rung her hands, suddenly and miserably conscious of Darcy, his face so grave and stern. “Lizzy,” asked her aunt hesitantly, “is it certain who it is… the man, I mean? Might Lydia know some other W besides Wickham?”
She shook her head. “I cannot tell you. I know of none, but… oh, wretched, wretched little fool!” she repeated, but this time speaking of her sister. The tears she had been disregarding ran over, and she dashed them away.
“Mr. Darcy, you have known Mr. Wickham for many years. Can you tell us anything of him—give us any insight to his character?”
Darcy shook his head, looking grim. “I wish that I could offer you some reassurance, Mrs. Gardiner, but I cannot.”
“By which you mean that it is entirely conceivable that he might run off with a girl like my sister, and not at all certain that he would marry her.”
He said nothing.
“London!” exclaimed Mr. Gardiner by the window. “Mary, come and look at this. Does it look like it says London to you?” The ladies crowded around him. The small, blurred word he pointed out did, indeed, look like it might spell London, and coming closely after the words all that is known after this is, they had hope that it might be a clue. “If they have not gone to Scotland,” he argued, “then London would be the next logical destination. I would bet my brother has gone there to search.”
Their speculations were interrupted by Darcy’s voice. “Forgive me,” he said, “I have imposed on you far too long. I have… I would wish…” his eyes moved to Elizabeth’s and held them for a long moment. “I know there is nothing I can say to ease your distress, but you may be assured of my discretion.”
“We cannot thank you enough for your kindness, sir,” said Mr. Gardiner.
“Not at all.” He bowed, looked again at Elizabeth, and was gone.
Their departure from the inn was swiftly accomplished. Not until they were sitting in the carriage did Elizabeth have luxury again to consider the gentleman who had dominated her days here. Derbyshire had been filled with surprises, most of them involving him. As she watched the countryside outside the window she could not help but remember the idyllic hours of that very afternoon—how long ago it seemed!—and alternated between futile questions about what might have been, and bleak thoughts of what almost certainly would be.
There was no pleasure in the rushed trip home, no matter how splendid the scenery. It was not until they reached Longbourn that they were able to finally receive the whole story. It was, indeed, Wickham who had stolen Lydia and her virtue—and all their futures—away. The news seemed hopeless, so that even Jane was near despair. The Gardiners returned to London with their children and soon met up with Mr. Bennet, but none of their searches were successful.
Then, as if by a miracle, Mr. Bingley returned to Hertfordshire and began calling again. He seemed to know their troubles before he arrived; she supposed Mr. Darcy must have told him, but could only be grateful. She also had to give Mr. Bingley credit for coming now, without waiting to see how their fortunes would turn out, and lending them his countenance. It did not stop the stares and whispers, but at least no one had shunned them yet. She was equal parts happy for Jane and disgusted with her mother, who fawned vulgarly over him and spent half an hour pouring laments about Lydia into his ears. He handled it with remarkable grace.
In her free time, those dull, heavy hours when there was nothing to do but fret, she would occupy herself with imagining how things might have gone with Darcy if Lydia had never run away. He seemed always more desirable as she thought of him, as unattainable as the stars, and as unknowable. She tried to recall how arrogant he had been last autumn—but instead, found she could only remember his profile in the sunshine as they rode. In her mind, she arranged fancies wherein he had been secretly in love with her ever since the autumn—but she knew that they were just fancies. The fact was, any interest he’d had in her could only have been passing, and was certainly over now. The fact was that no man was ever likely to look at her again the way that he had looked at her that day.
Elizabeth had always been sanguine about the future and her chances at a happy marriage, but now she admitted that her prospects had never been very good. She and her sisters were bred as gentlewomen, forbidden from looking to prosperous men in shops and farms, and yet too poor in fortune or connections for men of their own class. The only men who could afford to marry without consideration for fortune did not want an obscure country gentleman’s daughter, and that was before the ruined sister. Now that Lydia had disgraced them, they had not even respectability to offer. Jane, perhaps, with her beauty and excellences of character and manner, would marry her Bingley, should his love and will prove stronger than before, but would it be enough to redeem them all? She did not think so.
No, thought Elizabeth, staring at the clenched hands in her lap, she surely could never marry a man of sense and character now… and so, she would never marry.