Adventures at Morecastle
Part 1: Boating
“Oh, Jane!” declared Elizabeth. “What are men to sand and sea?”
Jane smiled. “I never knew it could be so beautiful,” she admitted. “The paintings I’ve seen didn’t do it justice.”
“Justice? Not any more than mud pies do Hill’s blueberry tarts justice!” Laughing, she began to run along the sand, albeit a bit awkwardly. Jane followed her, clutching her bonnet and joining in her laughter good naturedly. Lizzy’s own bonnet fell off her head and several of her curls came undone or clung to her face as she came to a gasping halt. When she could breathe again she collapsed on the sand with a sigh of contentment.
“Lizzy,” said Jane in mild reproach, “you’ll ruin your dress.”
“Oh, what is muslin to the superior pleasures of the earth? Jane, how I wish we had come here earlier. How glad I am after all that my Aunt and Uncle Gardiner could not go to the Lakes. I could never have gone there with you, you know, and everything is better with you nearby.”
Jane seated herself in lady-like fashion on a nearby rock. “It is too bad about little Edward becoming so ill, though. I am sure no one ever wished to have to go the coast, or for such a reason.”
“He is well, dearest,” smiled her sister reassuringly. “The doctor said he was well indeed; he just needs some healthy air and sunshine to recover completely. It was so kind of Aunt Gardiner to wish to bring us along! I am just sorry that the whole time I was in Kent you were dealing with such anxiety.”
“I thank God that none of the others got sick.” She repeated her frequent comment of the last week. “And I am glad that I was there to help care for the children while our aunt was so distracted. Were you sorry to leave your friend so soon?”
“Not really. My time there did pass more pleasantly than I had expected. I enjoyed Charlotte’s company very much, and the frequent visits from Colonel Fitzwilliam were very agreeable, but I believe I have had enough of Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine to last me another year at least.”
Jane looked rather slyly. “You must tell me of this Colonel Fitzwilliam. He sounds like a most pleasant man.”
“A very pleasant man indeed,” she agreed with a laugh, and slight color on her cheeks. “A most gentlemanly man, with all the charm and manners which his cousin lacks.”
“I am sorry you should still dislike Mr. Darcy so much. Surely he was not uncivil to you?”
“Oh! No more than to everyone else. He was generally uncivil; generally silent and uncommunicative, that is. I must say he treated me to his glare rather more often than the others, but at least he never said anything slighting to me that I noticed.”
“But you enjoyed speaking with the colonel.”
“Oh yes. We talked on all manner of subjects. I don’t know that I’ve ever had the opportunity to converse with a man who had such a well-informed mind.”
“And his father is an earl?”
“A real life earl. Now, Jane, don’t start talking like our mother!”
“Of course not, dear. But I cannot help but wonder if he might have formed an attachment to you.”
Again she blushed a bit. “I do not think so. Oh, he came often, but there wasn’t really anything else for them to do, you know. Why even Mr. Darcy came often!”
“I imagine you were the main attraction for both of them, Lizzy. Why else would they have called so often? Surely not only to see the Collinses.”
“Well we shall each agree to think as we please on the subject. You’ll begin to sound like Charlotte next.” She stood up and dusted her sandy posterior. Jane joined her arm with hers, and the two sisters began to stroll back up the beach the way they had come.
“What did Charlotte say?”
“Oh, she tried to make out that Mr. Darcy admired me.”
Jane thought about this. “I do not see why he should not admire you,” she said. “It seems perfectly natural to me.”
“Of course it does! Dearest Jane!” She smiled affectionately and squeezed her arm.
“If it’s true that he looked at you a lot I am sure she was right. Why else would a man want to look at you but to admire you?”
“To criticize me, I suppose. It’s what I always thought.”
“I think you are being unkind to Mr. Darcy to be always suspecting his motives so. “
“Perhaps. But on a day like this, what does it matter?” She turned her face up to the sun and would speak no more of serious subjects.
“Do you think she will like it?” asked Charles Bingley anxiously where he stood on the sea wall.
His friend Fitzwilliam Darcy shrugged. “Well enough, I dare say.” He seemed a little distracted, almost as if he was searching the beach for something.
“I still don’t understand why she wants to come here instead of Weymouth or Brighton, but it is very pretty, isn’t it?”
“Yes, very pretty,” replied the other, who, however, was not really thinking of the sand and sea at that moment.
“I do appreciate your coming here with me to check out the houses.”
That finally caught Mr. Darcy’s attention. “Really, Bingley,” he said, “you must have greater confidence in your ability to make your own decisions. Surely you can rent a house at the sea shore without requiring a second opinion!”
Mr. Bingley grinned back, not in the least offended. “But how should I get your company if I did not always need your opinion?” he asked.
“By asking for it, of course.”
“Well, but you do give the best advice, Darcy. Why, without you I would have taken that house in the middle of town!”
“That’s because you didn’t consider how little your sister would like to have every passer by staring into her parlor window.”
“Exactly! I never think of these things, but you always do!”
“That’s because I’ve been arranging my own affairs for rather longer than you have,” said Darcy, in a gentler tone. “Would you care for a walk along the beach?”
“Oh, yes, what a fine idea!”
They set out immediately, although they weren’t really ideally dressed for walking through the sand. Darcy wondered for the hundredth time just how big a fool he actually was being, even if as he could not help but peer at every female figure they passed.
It had been a considerable shock to him when Miss Elizabeth Bennet left Kent earlier than planned so that she could join her uncle and his family at the sea shore. He had been just on the verge of proposing to her, holding out with a sense of virtuous reluctance even while he daydreamed about married life with her, when the news had arrived. It had arrived over his morning eggs and coffee, too, which was an added aggravation. The decision, apparently, was the work of little more than a day. According to Mrs. Collins, when he and his cousin had visited the parsonage to get details, Elizabeth had been very anxious over the welfare of a young cousin who had taken ill shortly after her arrival in Hunsford. Then one day a letter arrived saying that he was much improved but the doctor thought they should take him to the coast for a holiday, so the whole family was going, including the elder Miss Bennet, and would Elizabeth like to come too? She liked very well, and had written immediately to accept, and then been gone before the gentleman even realized she was going.
Darcy had been more than a little put out. What did she mean, leaving like that, without even bidding them goodbye? Didn’t she know that he was only seeking an opportunity to speak to her? Nor could Mrs. Collins even recall exactly which seaside town they were to visit—she thought perhaps it hadn’t been determined yet when the letter arrived. He was as petulant as a debutante the first day, thinking himself ill-used indeed.
The second day the reality of the situation dawned. Elizabeth was gone. She was gone—out of his life entirely, if he didn’t take some measure to actively pursue her. At first he tried to persuade himself that it was for the best. He had been about to make a dreadful mistake and had been saved. But that opinion did not outlast the third day.
By the time he had left Rosings and returned to his house in London, Darcy was determined to find Elizabeth Bennet. If need be, he would wait until her holiday at the sea had come to an end and go to Longbourn. Maybe he would even go to Longbourn now, get her father’s permission and find out from him where she was. But he shrank from declaring his intentions to her father before he had declared them to her and hesitated. While he was hesitating, Bingley had written to tell him that his sister had made up her mind to spend the summer in Morecastle, and was anxious that they choose a house early before they all were taken, and would Darcy like to come with him? Besides the fact that he disliked disappointing his friend (especially after his earlier, greater disappointment the November before), the coincidence seemed too fair, too Providential, to be overlooked.
But now, trudging through soft sand past one unfamiliar face after another, he felt ridiculous. Why, of all the sea side towns in the south of England, should Elizabeth be in this one? Not to mention the fact that he was here with Bingley, which couldn’t help but be awkward if they did meet. His early optimism fading quickly, he began muttering imprecations under his breath.
All of a sudden the man beside him halted abruptly. Looking up, Darcy was blinded for a moment by the glare off the water, but as his eyes adjusted they came to rest on a pair of flushed, familiar young women walking merrily over the sand in their direction. He drew a deep breath.
“Miss Bennet!” exclaimed both men at once.
Elizabeth experienced a sense of irritated shock. He! What was he doing here? Was she never to be rid of him? “Mr. Darcy!” she replied, and heard Jane’s voice saying, “Mr. Bingley!” at the same time. Only then did she notice the other young man who was staring at her sister in a sort of awed wonder.
The greetings were awkward.
Having now established that they all knew each other’s names, they fell silent. Elizabeth was too busy watching Mr. Bingley watch her sister to realize how Mr. Darcy was watching her. “Good day,” said Bingley at last. “How are you? What brings you to the sea shore?”
“My cousin. Good day. Very well,” answered Jane, not very lucidly.
He didn’t seem to mind. “That’s excellent. I—um,” he swallowed. “How is your family?”
“They are perfectly well,” said Elizabeth on her behalf, when Jane didn’t immediately reply. “And you? How are your sisters?”
“V-very well. We are—that is to say, my sister Caroline and I are to take a house for the summer here. Will you… be here for the summer?”
“A few weeks. We are not yet certain how long it may be.”
“Indeed.” After which word he and Jane promptly lost all civility in admiring gazes.
Elizabeth was much too pleased to be offended, but she was surprised to suddenly find Mr. Darcy at her side, and smiling down at her in a way that made her vaguely uncomfortable.
“Well met, Miss Bennet,” he said softly.
Thrown off guard by his warm tone, she said, “I… did not expect to see you here.”
“Yet here I am,” he replied, looking rather smug. “In truth I did wonder if this might be the town you and your family had removed to. I am relieved to find it so.”
She blinked. Relieved? He was relieved? “And your reason for being here, sir?”
“I came to advise Bingley.” And search for you.
“Oh.” Of course. Did the other ever make a move without him?
Down the beach a few paces, Mr. Bingley was slowly recovering his wits, and had the presence of mind to offer a deeply blushing Jane his arm. “May we escort you to your destination, Miss Bennet?”
“We should be honored, sir. We were about to return to the house.”
“Of course. This way?” It was not, in fact, that way, but Jane was not paying attention and merely nodded. They began to walk, forgetting entirely about the couple behind them. Before she knew it, Elizabeth found herself on Mr. Darcy’s arm, being tenderly escorted over the beach. Most unnervingly of all, he had placed his hand in proprietary fashion over hers. She told herself that he was just trying to give her that little bit of extra support, but it was all she could do not to jerk away.
“Your friends at Rosings were surprised to find that you had departed our company so quickly, and without notice,” said Darcy.
She almost gaped at the hint of hurt in his tone. “I meant no offense to Lady Catherine. It was simply that my aunt was to depart almost immediately and I had to hurry if I was to join them.”
Darcy frowned at her apparently deliberate misunderstanding. “Lady Catherine was not the only one at Rosings.”
“I am afraid that Miss de Bourgh and I never had a chance to develop much of a friendship,” she replied sweetly, “but I hope Colonel Fitzwilliam understood why I had to leave.”
His frown grew. “He was surprised, but not certainly not angry. Fitzwilliam has many ladies among his acquaintance, you know, and although I know he enjoys female company I do not believe he has ever held one particularly above another.”
She nearly gasped at this pointed cut. “I did not suppose he held me particularly high, if that’s what you mean,” she said tartly, “but I am certain he considers me his friend.”
“I am certain he does,” he replied in a gentler tone. “But you must know he was not the one to whom I was referring.”
She was about to say something about her not having any other friends at Rosings—which doubtlessly would have gone down very badly indeed—when Mr. Bingley turned. “I say, Darcy!” he called back. “Miss Bennet and I have had the most capital notion! We should get up a boating party!”
“Are you sure you can row well enough, Bingley?”
“Well of course I am! I may not have won acclaim at Oxford for my rowing skills, but I can get a boat around well enough. What do you say?”
“I am agreeable, if Miss Elizabeth is.” He looked at her.
She blinked in surprise, looked at Jane’s imploring face, sighed and said, “Of course. I should be delighted.”
The rest of the way back to the house—once Elizabeth had pointed out the correct street—was spent discussing the finer particulars of their proposed outing. She was further surprised to discover from Mr. Bingley that Mr. Darcy had, indeed, won several prizes in the course of his university career for various athletic events, boating among them. Mr. Darcy himself appeared rather embarrassed at this intelligence; she supposed it was because he thought it beneath his dignity to participate in such plebian pursuits.
It was a very surprised Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner who greeted the entire party. They had long been curious about Mr. Bingley in particular, though of course they had heard of Mr. Darcy as well. Both men were more or less exactly as they had been described: Mr. Bingley the picture of affability, Mr. Darcy of reserve. Oh, he said everything that good breeding required, but no more, and looked around the modest rented house with a most critical gaze. However, he seemed bent on accompanying their nieces and his friend on this expedition, so they must suppose he was not as fully disapproving as he appeared.