The very next day the gentlemen arrived to collect the sisters. The Gardiners had been invited to come as well, but they declared that they could not leave their children to the sole care of the nurse, and sent the young people on their way with many good wishes. They, like Elizabeth, were eager to encourage a reconciliation between Mr. Bingley and Jane. That young lady had been very quiet, but Elizabeth knew that she was very happy, very happy and fearful too, not knowing what would come of this latest encounter.
Instead of one boat that would hold the four of them, the gentleman had instead chosen, by mutual unspoken agreement, to rent two boats which would each hold only two passengers. They took an open carriage to the dock, which they found to be located in a small bay. The object was the opposite shore, which provided a number of delightful picnic spots.
Mr. Darcy had decided that Elizabeth had been teasing him the day before, perhaps trying to provoke him into a declaration. Although as a rule he disapproved of those sorts of arts, in Elizabeth’s case he was inclined to be indulgent. It wanted only opportunity to settle things between them; perhaps he would get it today.
Elizabeth, however, was rather less than pleased to be riding the breadth of a bay alone in a tiny boat with Darcy. She dare not even be too rude, lest he lose his temper and tip her into the water in revenge. Besides, not for the world would she disturb her sister’s happiness, this day of days. She had never given up her belief that Darcy was influential in removing his friend from Jane’s side; why he had apparently withdrawn his objections for the time being she didn’t know, but she vowed to do nothing that would offend him.
The gentlemen handed their ladies into the boats, shed their coats, and proceeded to row. Mr. Bingley’s boat tossed and turned about quite a bit at first, which only caused him to laugh very heartily as he worked to right it. Darcy handled his oars with ease, but Elizabeth was too busy watching the others to notice. For his part, he was content to watch her. She made such a pretty picture, sitting only a few feet away with parasol and bonnet, her profile turned for his admiration.
“What an astonishing coincidence it is that we should all have met at the same seaside town, so soon after Kent!” she remarked eventually.
“Astonishing, yes, but not, I think, unwelcome?”
Her eyes on her sister’s laughing face, Elizabeth said softly, “No. I could not say it is unwelcome.”
He smiled to himself. “Perhaps you could say that fortune has favored us.”
“Perhaps.” Then, suddenly becoming aware of what he had been saying, she gave him an odd look. “Mr. Bingley certainly appears to find it fortunate.”
Now he appeared slightly confused. “Mr. Bingley?”
“Yes, he appears uncommonly pleased to see my sister again.”
He shifted, pulling on the oars with long, smooth strokes. “I suppose he might be.”
After a final, measuring glance, she turned her gaze back onto the other couple. The two boats were too far apart to converse between them, but not so far they couldn’t wave. Their progress was not rapid; Bingley worked about twice as hard as Darcy, who often ceased rowing altogether to give the others time to catch up.
“Is this your first trip to the sea shore, Miss Bennet?” asked Darcy after a time.
“Indeed it is.”
“What do you think of it?”
“I think the sea quite beyond any descriptions I have read or paintings I have seen. Its beauty and vastness are without possible description.”
“I have often felt the same way myself,” he said. He missed Elizabeth’s faintly incredulous look.
“Are you a studier of nature then, Mr. Darcy?”
“Not, perhaps, to the extent that you are a studier of people, ma'am, but I am certainly not immune to its beauties. Derbyshire has many wonders I have yet to tire of viewing. Hertfordshire,” he added after a moment, “is also lovely.”
“And Kent. Let us not forget to give Lady Catherine her due. She was entirely justified in her choice of Rosings as a home.”
He smiled. “You certainly enjoyed the best of its attractions. I expect that, however well you come to know the formal gardens, you will always prefer your grove, and with good reason.”
There he was, doing it again: implying that she might someday stay at the main house. Not to mention referring to the grove as hers. The first time he did something of the sort, on a walk one day, she thought he might be referring to Colonel Fitzwilliam’s apparent attraction for her, but she failed to see how he could still think anything might arise in that quarter. What did he mean by it? Trying to cover her confusion she laughed lightly and queried, “My grove, sir?”
He had been watching his strokes in the water, but at that he looked up and his eyes met hers directly. “Very well. Our grove.”
That startled her into absolute silence. Surely… Mr. Darcy could not be flirting with her, could he? Worse yet, did he believe she was trying to flirt with him? A vivid blush rose into her cheeks at the thought and she turned her face away.
Darcy saw her embarrassment and contemplated making a declaration on the spot. It was not the most convenient timing, as he was engaged in the rather vigorous exercise of rowing two people across a lengthy expanse of somewhat choppy water, but they had, at least, a measure of privacy. A few words, and they might be engaged before they reached shore.
A pause came, when he could rest on his oars while waiting for Bingley to navigate his way through the currents. The boat rocked slightly, the sky above was very blue, and Elizabeth herself too entirely enticing. “You cannot be at a loss, Miss Elizabeth,” he said slowly, at last, “to understand my meaning.”
Elizabeth, who was completely at a loss, wondered if he was preparing to deliver a scornful harangue to let her know how entirely beneath his notice she really was. She clinched her hands and pressed her lips together, still not looking at him. “I—”
“I should, perhaps, have spoken to you when we were in Hertfordshire, but I remained silent out of scruples which I am sure you can appreciate, considering your situation and my own. I thought by separating myself from you I could overcome the necessity, but when I saw you in Kent, I knew that it had all been in vain.” He took a deep breath.
“Mr. Darcy, I cannot think that we have anything to discuss!”
He looked at her incredulously, and was just opening his mouth to answer when there was the splash of other oars, and Bingley called out, “Hey there to the other boat!” as he pulled his own alongside theirs within speaking distance. “Darcy, must you rub my face in how incompetent I am by lounging around like that?” His face was ruddy and shining from the effort, his grin just as bright. Jane cast her sister an eloquently beaming glance.
Biting back an oath, Darcy replied as coolly as he could, “May I remind you, Bingley, that this was your suggestion, not mine?”
“Oh, certainly! It’s a delightful day, and if Miss Bennet doesn’t mind my blundering I’m sure I don’t either.”
“I think you are managing very well, Mr. Bingley,” she replied demurely.
“See, Darcy, she thinks I row well enough. Why, I daresay Miss Elizabeth is positively bored from being guided so effortlessly across the water. You had much better dance about, as I do!”
“Why, of course!” Elizabeth laughed, pleased enough on their behalf to forget her irritation and mortification for a minute. “Fortunately we are near now. Oh, look, there are people there already.”
“My servants, Miss Elizabeth,” replied Darcy. “I sent them ahead to prepare for us.”
Rather than being impressed at this bit of extravagance, Elizabeth was just annoyed. Heaven forbid that that the lofty Mr. Darcy get his feet wet pulling a boat up to shore! Or that they be required to spread their own picnic blankets and unpack their own baskets!
Fortunately for her equanimity, Mr. Bingley managed to keep his boat near theirs for the rest of the way, near enough, at least, to preclude any private conversation of a particularly sensitive nature. As further security against insult, she began suddenly to chatter about their uncle and aunt and young cousins, and how Edward had been sick and why the doctor had recommended a journey to the sea shore to completely restore him. Darcy listened courteously enough, but she could see the frown in his eyes and the tense set of his jaw. Too late she realized that such behavior would appear as confirmation of her flirtatious ways—why she would be sounding as cloying as Miss Bingley soon!—but she saw no other alternative.
Once their boats had been duly drawn up to land by the waiting men, she accepted Darcy’s hand out of the boat, but lost no time in attaching herself to her sister.
It was not lost on Darcy that she avoided him assiduously for their time on shore. He determined that it must be maidenly anxiety that caused this strange behavior. He had not expected Elizabeth, of all women, to behave so, but he found it oddly endearing. He would have to find a way to move past her embarrassment and nervousness—while not rowing a boat.
The picnic lunch was certainly plentiful for only four people. They were waited on by a manservant who looked utterly out of place, standing there stiffly with sand all over his shoes and his plain black coat buttoned against the sea breezes. Jane and Mr. Bingley kept up a brisk, bright conversation which Elizabeth joined in eagerly, trying not to look at Mr. Darcy. He was as silent as he had ever been, only speaking when directly addressed.
When they had finished and all risen from their blanket on the sand, Mr. Bingley offered to show Jane something further down the beach, and they took off together with hardly a backward glance. Lizzy and Mr. Darcy stood about awkwardly watching the servants pack everything up, and when she finally walked off towards the water, he followed her. Annoyed, she walked off again, over a small, grassy dune. Again he followed her.
“I would like to finish our earlier conversation, Miss Bennet,” said Darcy, with great intrepidity.
“Oh, look! Sand crabs!” She moved away to view them but he, refusing to take the hint, followed her yet again.
“You will not escape from me so easily! I will have my say!”
She froze, and clenched her hands. “Very well,” she said at last, resentfully. “Say what you will!”
He bent over a little to peer under her hat. “I had not expected such diffidence from you, Elizabeth. Why so anxious to avoid me? Surely you are not frightened?”
At that her chin came up and her eyes flashed. “I? Frightened of you? Indeed not!”
“You have no cause to be.” He took her hand. Startled, she pulled it away. He frowned. “Elizabeth—”
“I have not given you permission to address me so, Mr. Darcy!”
Now he was beginning to look vexed. “Must everything be a competition with you?” he demanded. “You must know my desires.”
“My most ardent desires.” He caught at her hand again. Elizabeth stared at him in confusion. “And I think that I know your desires as well.”
“Now that, sir, you do not,” she replied tightly.
“Are you angry with me because you think I’m being presumptuous?” He sounded a little incredulous.
“You are too sensible a woman to destroy your own happiness for such a reason.”
“I have no intention of destroying my own happiness!”
“Then we are in agreement.” He finally caught both her hands now in a firm grip, and pulled her toward him.
Feeling like the situation had gotten wildly out of control and quite beyond her understanding, she gasped, “Sir! I must demand that you explain yourself!”
He smiled a slow smile. “That is precisely what I have been attempting to do, is it not?”
“Yes, but—release my hands at once!”
He did so. “You intend to have no mercy on me, I see.”
“Have you need of my mercy?” Had he drunk more wine that she realized during the picnic?
But his look was surprisingly open and disarming. “Of course.”
“For what purpose? Surely there is nothing I can do for the great Mr. Darcy!”
He raised his eyebrows, somewhat offended. “Let’s not speak nonsense. If you are under the impression that I enjoy that kind of teasing, you are wrong.”
“I’m afraid that I have not yet learned to cater my teasing to your tastes.”
“I shall give you ample opportunity to learn, then.”
The suggestive nature of his comments was beginning to have its effect on her. This could not be Mr. Darcy being amorous, could it? She had feared on the boat he was flirting with her, until she decided he was far more likely to be taking her to task. But this present conversation could make sense in only one context. What had he said? My most ardent desires? Her eyes suddenly widened, and she gasped slightly. “Mr. Darcy,” she said desperately, “I really must return to Jane. It’s not proper to leave her and Mr. Bingley alone—nor for us to stand around alone either!” She hurried to leave, but again he moved in front of her.
“You will not let me speak to you!” he exclaimed. “You are shy! Why? Is it—” Without thinking, he reached for her hand again, and again she backed away. His eyes lit up with sudden comprehension and his face softened. “My dear,” he said gently, “you need not be uncomfortable around me. I will not attempt to kiss you if you do not wish it.”
That was too much. “Mr. Darcy!” she cried. “Have you taken leave of your senses? Kiss me? Why should I suppose you wish to kiss me? We are nothing to each other!”
“And now I must beg you to restrain me no longer. I must see my sister!” She stormed off across the sand, while he watched her, dumbfounded.
Nothing to each other? Well, he supposed they were nothing to each other now, but had he not been seeking to change that? And had she not flirted with him time and again in Kent, while they enjoyed leisurely walks and talked of marriage, travelling from home and other pertinent topics? She had encouraged his advances—in the most delicate way possible, of course, without that overt chasing he found so distasteful in a woman. He had been impressed that she seemed content to let him do the pursuing, but there was no question that she had used her considerable charms on him on numerous occasions. Her arch smiles, speaking eyes and witty speeches had been turned on him too many times for him to be mistaken. She had encouraged him, and now she was behaving as it had never happened.
Mr. Darcy was angry.
The ride back across the bay was to be an exceedingly uncomfortable one. Elizabeth would have begged Jane to switch with her, but it was unthinkable to remove her from the joy of Mr. Bingley’s presence and subject her to his company instead. She tried a suggestion that she might ride home in a carriage with the servants, only to have Mr. Darcy inform her coolly that there was no room. She said she was afraid she would be queasy riding in the boat with a full stomach, but Jane poo-hooed the suggestion. “Nonsense, Lizzy, you’re never sick!”
So, anxious, unhappy and not a little sulky, she found herself right back in the same boat she’d been in earlier, with Mr. Darcy glowering at her.
With a few powerful pulls on the oars, Darcy left the other boat behind. As soon as they were out of earshot, he began without preamble. “Miss Bennet,” he said, “I believe I have a right to an explanation.”
Elizabeth gaped at him. “An explanation? For what, pray?”
“For the difference between your behavior in Hertfordshire and Kent and your behavior now. What have you to say for yourself?”
“My behavior? What on earth do you mean? It is you who must answer for your behavior!”
He ignored that last comment. “Your manner, madam.”
“Yes, your manner. Your flirtatious, enticing, provocative manner.”
She gasped, turning quite crimson with indignation. She had been right the first time! “I have never flirted with you!”
“Please do not attempt to deny it. I abhor deceit. You knew very well what you were doing, teasing and alluring me in that way, encouraging, nay, I might say positively forcing my attraction for you to increase! You gave me every reason in the world to believe that you expected a declaration from me, yet the moment I come ready to make it, you rebuff me! Perhaps you think I am the kind of man who is content to be a woman’s plaything, but you are sorely mistaken! My character requires justice, and so I demand an explanation from you!”
“Once again, Mr. Darcy,” said Elizabeth through her teeth, “I have never, ever flirted with you! Alluring you? Encouraging you! I never knew there was anything to encourage! Why, I don’t even like you! Until this afternoon I was certain the feeling was mutual. Of course, if your manner of expressing an attraction is to insult the woman you’re attracted to, then it’s no wonder that you couldn’t discern the difference between a woman who’s flirting with you and one who’s genuinely trying to offend you!”
If Elizabeth was red, Darcy was pale. “And is this all the answer I am to receive?” he demanded after a speechless moment.
“Mr. Darcy, women who accuse you of pride, vanity and a propensity to hate everybody are not trying to entice you!”
He opened his mouth and shut it again, wildly casting around for an example to throw back at her. “You invited me to walk with you in the grove!” he pointed out triumphantly.
“I did no such thing!”
“Yes, you did! You told me repeatedly that it was your favorite place to walk.”
“So that you would avoid it!”
“Well, what about our conversation on women settling near their families? You said very pointedly that a woman could be settled too near, and blushed because you knew we were both thinking of Derbyshire!”
She gasped again. “Derbyshire? Why should I be thinking of Derbyshire? I was thinking of Jane and Netherfield!”
There was a long silence after that one. Darcy, still pale, rowed with vicious swiftness while Elizabeth clung to her seat and refused to look at him. “I think it is deliberate sophistry on your part to pretend that you did not notice my regard for you,” he said at last, in a resentful tone.
“Why, of course! I always take refusal to converse as evidence of admiration.”
“I paid you pointed attentions, you know I did!”
“What attentions? Staring at me from across the parlor? When did that become a part of proper courting etiquette?”
She couldn’t help but look at him as she spoke; his face was flushed from exertion, his hair tousled by the breeze; in his shirt sleeves, he looked little like the inscrutable gentleman she was used to meet. He met her eyes almost sternly. “Do you imagine that I stared out of indifference? Or that I sought you repeatedly in the grove because I disliked you?”
Since that was precisely what she had so foolishly imagined, she blushed anew, her gaze falling. Yet at the last she rallied herself enough to say, “What I thought, sir, was that I wasn’t handsome enough to tempt you.”
The tips of Darcy’s oars skidded across the water as he missed his stroke. His eyes widened in alarm and chagrin. It seemed they had reached an impasse in their argument, each having scored an unanswerable point. Both were extremely embarrassed at their current situation, although only one was suffering pain of another sort. But Darcy pushed aside the rending in his chest for now; there would be time enough to feel it later.
Mr. Bingley had been left far behind by Darcy’s efficient passage across the bay. When they reached the dock, Darcy climbed out, tied the boat up, and extended his hand to Elizabeth. She took it out of necessity, but released it as quickly as possible, and they stood awkwardly, as far apart as the narrow wooden platform would allow them.
Watching the other boat’s agonizingly slow progress across the waves in their direction, Elizabeth’s thoughts returned to her sister. Remembering her very great happiness throughout the day, she was emboldened to speak again, no matter the awkwardness. “Mr. Darcy,” she began, and felt rather than heard him shift beside her, “I must beg of you not to let the unpleasantness of today’s encounter interfere with the happiness of your friend and my sister. Do not take him away, please! Jane has been disconsolate since he left Netherfield, and while he has not proven himself very steady in his actions, his affections do not appear to have altered from what they were. She is the best of all women; if there is any chance that he may make her happy by his choice, do not deprive them both. I know you have influence with Mr. Bingley, and again I beg you not to use it against Jane in your anger at me.”
“I have as much concern for my friend as you do for your sister, Miss Bennet,” he replied stiffly. “I would never seek to interfere with his happiness for selfish reasons.”
“Surely you can see, after today, that that happiness lies with her?”
“I do not believe that is for me to say.” She pressed her lips and looked down, and despite himself, he found himself relenting toward her. Even in his anger and disappointment, he could not deny her. “But I shall certainly not seek to remove him, or hasten his leaving.”
“Thank you,” she whispered. It was the last thing either of them said until the others joined them.