PART TWO: HERTFORDSHIRE
Elizabeth watched the carriage bearing Lydia and her wastrel husband roll away with a sigh of relief. She could scarcely believe that she had ever found his smooth verbosity charming; every time he smiled she had wanted to scream. And Lydia's behaviour had convinced her that she truly was lost to all sense or decorum. But at least they were married. It was a dreary comfort, knowing they were only bound to make each other miserable, but infinitely better than the alternative.
Turning, her eyes landed on her elder sister, standing with hands clasped, and she smiled, her heart immediately lightening. Bingley had proposed. He had proposed even before the news came from London that the runaways had been found; proposed, perhaps, in an attempt to prove that he was not fickle or overly persuadable, but it mattered not. Despite all his past misdeeds, he had been, in the end, unwilling to watch the woman he loved descend into shame and poverty, and so he had offered her everything he had to assist her—his name and his fortune. The engagement had had the added benefit of preventing Mrs. Bennet from crowing quite so much over having a daughter married at sixteen.
Of Mr. Bingley's friend she had heard very little. Bingley had delivered brief greetings from him when he first arrived; since then there had only been the occasional mention of him in passing conversation. Lydia had gotten an odd look on her face when Bingley spoke his name over dinner once, and she began to say something, but her husband had spoken right over her, giving her a look Elizabeth couldn't interpret. It didn't make sense that he would prevent Lydia from criticizing or making fun of Darcy—not unless he was planning to impose often on the Bingleys, and worried that Mr. Bingley would take exception.
She linked her arm with Jane's, and they returned to the house. Certainly, the future looked far brighter than it had in that first miserable week after she arrived back in Hertfordshire. All seemed lost then, but somehow, it had been given back again. First Mr. Bingley had showed and, regardless of all odds against him, proposed. Then, just when there seemed any chance of Lydia's recovery left, the news had come from Uncle Gardiner—they were found, not married, but soon to be so. Their wedding was arranged and carried out with a minimum of trouble for those to whom it most mattered, and Mr. Bennet had only to pay off Wickham's debts in Meryton. Lizzy knew her father believed her uncle had bribed Wickham, and it was a debt that weighed heavily on her heart. But her own marriage prospects had seemingly been restored—that is, if you did not mind a scoundrel for a brother in law. Or a fool for your sister, she added mentally. Or your mother.
"Dear Jane," she said, "how glad I am that you are engaged to Mr. Bingley. Now you have given Mama the wealthy son in law of her dreams, and I may rest easy from the Mr. Collinses of the world."
Jane smiled. "Not all men are like Mr. Collins, Lizzy. You will find one you like soon enough."
"Or I shall simply live with you and earn my keep by fetching your shawl and playing with your children. I think I might like being the lively spinster aunt."
"You would be very welcome, but of course you would not need to earn your right to stay. You have the right because you're my sister, and I love you."
"Oh, but now that I think of it, there may be a difficulty. If Miss Bingley is also to live with you, then it really is best that I stay at Longbourn. The two of us would not do well under one roof."
"I am not certain, but I think Caroline intends to remain with the Hursts. I received a very kind letter from her, you know."
"Jane! Do not tell me your faith in her sincerity is unchanged!"
"No, of course I know she means only to please her brother, but I am glad we can be at peace. It would distress Charles if we were at outs, and that would distress me."
"Why, Jane, that sounded very nearly unfriendly. I'm proud of you."
Elizabeth just laughed.
Another month went by, and Jane's wedding was nearly upon them. There still had been nothing seen of Mr. Darcy, although Elizabeth understood that he was expected to be present some days before the wedding. Bingley spent so little time at Netherfield that it did not seem to matter to him that he was alone in the house.
Miss Bingley and the Hursts appeared about a fortnight prior to the ceremony. They came to dinner at Longbourn with many supercilious looks, and received the women in a return call with rather pinched faces. They were very fond of Jane, though.
Then one day Elizabeth was walking down a lane near Longbourn, and a familiar straight figure came cantering towards her. In an instant, her mind flashed back to that morning in Derbyshire when they had met the same way, and as she moved onto the grass, she held her breath to see what he would do.
She knew the exact moment he saw her. He must have been deep in thought because it didn't happen until he was almost upon her; he checked so abruptly the horse nearly reared. By the time he had soothed the animal he looked flushed—whether from embarrassment or some other emotion, she didn't know. Then he looked undecided whether to dismount or to ride on.
Deciding not wait on his whims, Elizabeth dropped a small curtsy. "Good day, Mr. Darcy." She turned and began to walk away.
His voice came after her. "Miss Elizabeth!"
He was still on his horse, his dark gaze fixed on her, gripping his reins tensely. She returned the look, and after a moment his hands relaxed, his body shifted, and he climbed slowly down.
She smiled just a little. "We meet again."
"Yes. How are you?"
"Much as I have always been."
"I am glad for that." He cleared his throat. "And your family? Are they well?"
"Yes indeed. We are all very pleased for my sister, of course. Jane," she added, when he looked uncertain.
"Yes, yes of course. Bingley is very happy—and I for him."
"And how is Miss Darcy?"
"She is very well, thank you. She enjoyed making your acquaintance in August."
"I enjoyed it too," she said with sincerity. "And yourself, sir? How are you, Mr. Darcy?"
"I am..." he glanced away. "I am happy for my friend Bingley."
"Yes, I believe you said that already." A happy smile, nearly a laugh, bubbled to the surface. It was so good, for some reason, to be in his presence again. He was abrupt and enigmatic, but she felt he was... a friend. Yes, Mr. Darcy was her friend, and she was no longer reluctant to say so. "Have you no feelings on your own behalf, Mr. Darcy?" She let the laugh come out, and hoped it would provoke a smile or even an answering laugh from him.
Instead, all expression seemed to disappear from his face, and he ran a hand over his mouth. After another moment of awkward silence went by, Elizabeth said, “I really must be getting home.”
“Yes, of course.” He tipped his hat, but rather than getting back on his horse, stood and watched her as she walked self-consciously away.
There was a dinner party at Netherfield that night, to be followed by dancing. Mr. Bingley had invited half the neighbourhood, much to his sisters’ disgust, and Netherfield’s long table was crowded and noisy and cheerful. As the sister of his future bride—and a daughter of the leading local family—Elizabeth was placed near the top of the table with Sir William on one side and Mr. Hurst on the other, one of whom was terribly voluble, while the other was almost entirely silent. Mr. Hurst certainly appeared to be enjoying Nicholl’s fine cooking, but other than that he had not much to say for himself, while Sir William had opinions to share on everything from the decorations of the rooms to the crops to the probable attachments of various young people both present and otherwise. Since she had known Sir William for most of her life and was genuinely fond of him, Elizabeth bore his conversation very well, but she could not help often glancing at the composed and handsome man who was seated across the table. He seemed to be paying his plate almost as much attention as Mr. Hurst was, but sometimes their eyes met.
“I had a chance to speak to Mr. Darcy before dinner,” said Sir William, in what he undoubtedly believed was sotto voce. “I told him how much we enjoyed visiting at Rosings in the spring, and how affable her ladyship his aunt was when we had the honour of dining with her—three times, I told him. We dined three times at Rosings while I was there.”
“And what did Mr. Darcy say?” she asked back, glancing at him in amusement. Although it was faint, Darcy’s face had taken on the conscious look of a person who knows he is being discussed.
“He said Lady Catherine always enjoys company.”
“A very solid observation.”
“Indeed it was, Miss Elizabeth! A very sound and fitting observation indeed.”
“Did you say anything else?”
“I indicated how sorry I was to hear from Maria about his sister’s illness, and that I was certain that you young ladies were keenly disappointed not to have the pleasure of his company while you were there.”
“I am sure he had some reply to that.” She peeked slyly his way again.
“He said he did not know if you were disappointed or not, but I assured him that any young lady of sense would be sorry to miss such a fine young man, and I well remember how finely the two of you danced together at Mr. Bingley’s ball in November.”
Mr. Darcy was starting to look acutely uncomfortable now, so Elizabeth had mercy on him and changed the topic. She reflected that it was so different, seeing him here rather than in Derbyshire. If they had never met there she would have undoubtedly continued to think him unbendingly proud, but she knew now that there was more to him than that. He was a man of real substance, a man of not only wealth but authority and importance, who lived a large life—who was accustomed to beauty and refinement—who could enjoy the small beauties of nature even while influencing the lives of hundreds under his care. It was no wonder that he did not look at home in their small neighbourhood, or that he felt himself to be above much of it. Such feelings of superiority were not, perhaps, commendable, but they were more understandable than she could have grasped before she saw his home and him in it.
Later in the evening, when the men re-joined the ladies, Mr. Bingley persuaded Mrs. Hurst to play so that they could have some dancing. Their numbers had thinned since the departure of the regiment, but the young people quickly paired off.
Elizabeth was claimed for the dance by a local gentleman. She went through the steps with sprightly ease, catching only glimpses of a tall and noble figure across the room. Some other young man asked her when that dance was over. She had some thought of sitting out the third, but just as she finished thanking her partner, that same tall and noble figure appeared at her side. “Will you do me the honour, Miss Bennet?”
She wondered at his behaviour—what the invitation might mean—and to cover her sudden nervousness she smiled and said, as he led her out. “I am flattered, Mr. Darcy, to have been asked to dance for the second time.”
“You are mistaken,” he replied. “This is the fourth time I have asked you to dance. You refused the other two.”
“I suppose you are correct, but I did not believe you actually desired to dance with me those times.”
He looked at her. “Was it concern for my feelings that led you to refuse, then—or it was it rather that you did not desire it?”
She coloured uncomfortably. “Perhaps I shall just say that I believed us to be alike in our opinions.”
They did not say much as they took their places in the set. It was, as chance had it, a reel, and they could not help but smile a little to find themselves here at Netherfield and dancing a reel together at last. Despite his professed dislike of it, Mr. Darcy danced very well, and did not even look out of place performing the lively steps. He managed it, somehow, with rather more dignity than any other man present . The energetic nature of the dance made conversation difficult, and it was not a large enough set to require any couples to stand around and wait their turns.
His hand was very hot through their gloves as he led her back off the dance floor, nor did he immediately leave her side. He stood next to her, not looking at her, but somehow very near. Glancing around, Elizabeth did not see anyone close by. “I wish to thank you, sir—”
“Thank me? What for?”
“Well...” she glanced self-consciously down. “In regards to my sister.”
“Your sister?” His voice sounded a little sharp. “I do not understand you.”
“Well, in regards to two of my sisters, I suppose. Jane, and, uh,” she sighed, “Lydia.”
“I’d prefer not to speak of that,” he said. Glancing up at him, she saw his colour was high, and could only sigh again. Of course he did not wish to be reminded of her sister’s imprudence! She only meant to thank him for his discretion, and for whatever role he might have had in Mr. Bingley’s return. But the subject clearly made him unhappy, confirming that, however kind he may have been in Derbyshire, he would certainly not want to be connected to her family in any closer way.
The silence was strained after that and she soon made her escape. It was foolish to feel so. She had known very well when they left Derbyshire that any chance she might ever have had with him was lost, and nothing that had happened since indicated otherwise—except perhaps the dance, but what was a dance, after all? Other than Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley, who was at the piano now, she was probably the only lady in the room that he’d had more than a passing conversation with. That was the reason he asked her. The only reason he’d asked her.
She made her way back to the end of the room where tea and conversation were to be had, but the conversation was oppressive, and finding a desire to be alone, she slipped discretely through the doorway into the hall.
It was quite empty, and she heaved a sigh of relief. Idly, she wondered up and down, examining the paintings on the wall and a pseudo-Grecian statuette on a stand. When footsteps sounded quietly behind her she glanced around, only to see Mr. Darcy himself again, coming towards her with an oddly purposeful look on his face. Before she could say anything he came to a stop before her.
“Miss Bennet, I—” He glanced around and, catching her by surprise, took her elbow and steered her, before she even knew what was to happen, across the hall and into a window recess. It had a curtain, tied up to one side, but he pulled the tie loose and let it fall across the opening. They were alone, and hidden from sight.