Part 3: The Beach
The next morning Elizabeth looked despairingly into her glass. Although the swelling in her cheek had largely subsided by now, its color just kept growing… well, more colorful. The night before she had tried to make light of it by saying that at least she’d always looked good in blue, but this morning there were greens and yellows as well—and not any shade of green or yellow that she would ever have voluntarily worn.
“It’s hopeless,” she said.
“It doesn’t look so very bad,” comforted Jane. “No one who sees you today will care, I am sure.”
“It does look so very bad, and as for anyone caring…” she trailed off. It disconcerted her to think that the only person she cared about caring was Mr. Darcy.
Jane smiled knowingly. “Both the gentlemen have already seen you,” she suggested tactfully, “and I think it looks better than it did yesterday, now that it is not so swollen.”
“Somehow, that does not comfort me at all.”
“You must try not to think of it. You know they said they would call after breakfast to see how we are. You cannot refuse to see them, not after everything they did for us yesterday!”
Yes, everything they had done. Although she had by no means forgotten Mr. Bingley’s contributions, somehow Darcy filled all her memories of the day. Darcy, bending white-faced above her, cleaning her cheek, carrying her through the rain; Darcy straining his shoulder against the unmoving carriage, smiling at her, wet and muddied and handsome. Darcy turning back towards her, purposeful fire in his eyes—“I gave him three thousand pounds for that living, Miss Bennet, at his request.” She groaned silently.
Over at the hostelry where the gentlemen were lodging, Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley were having a rather painful breakfast.
“I have bruises here, and here and here,” said Bingley, moving his hand down his arm.
Darcy grimaced and reached stiffly for the coffee pot.
“Truly, I thought I was in good condition, but this morning I feel like a lad who’s just ridden a horse for the first time and stayed on it too long.” He frowned. “That is, if riding horses could give you bruises on your arm.”
“Let us face it, Bingley,” said Darcy. “We are gentlemen, and no matter how much exercise we fancy we take, we simply cannot compare to the common laborer in the field who has to employ his muscles every day, all day. I dare say even John and Winker are faring better than we are today.”
Even as he said the last words the door opened and John entered, bearing their freshly cooked eggs. He winced slightly as he bent over, and the two men grinned at each other.
Before arriving at the Gardiners’ rented house the men returned the one still functioning curricle, and Darcy took it upon himself to deliver a rather large piece of his mind to the owners of the business, including instructions as to where, exactly, they could find their missing carriage, and what, exactly, they should do with it, should they see fit to fetch it, which in his opinion was hardly worth the trouble. Having thus mollified his feelings of outrage, he was able to proceed with tolerable equanimity to see Elizabeth herself.
The entire family was in the parlor when they arrived, children and all. Elizabeth’s face was painful to look at, but he thought her no less beautiful because of it.
It was their first time visiting at any length with Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner. Conscious of the need to repair the poor impression he had made by his behavior in Hertfordshire, Darcy made an unusual effort to speak to them and be congenial. To his surprise, he found it was no real effort at all; they were engaging, pleasant, well-bred people, and even their children appeared bright and well mannered. At one point he looked up from a serious discussion with Miss Maggie Gardiner on the merits of shortbread over cake to see Elizabeth watching him in clear astonishment. He colored a bit, and smiled self-consciously. “I have a younger sister.”
“Ah.” She wasn’t sure what to say. This Mr. Darcy was so utterly different from the Mr. Darcy of Hertfordshire and Kent that she knew not how to understand it.
“I say,” spoke up Mr. Bingley. “Darcy and I feel dreadfully about what happened yesterday. We were hoping there might be some way to make it up to the ladies.”
“I daresay you are not blame for the weather, Mr. Bingley,” said Elizabeth, “nor Mr. Darcy for the condition of a rented curricle.”
“Nevertheless we feel we owe you a day’s enjoyment—if not more! I dare not suggest another out of town excursion after yesterday’s disaster, but there are many perfectly safe enjoyments to be had within Morecastle itself. I’ve heard that they have a very decent theatre, a museum, a magic lantern show, and even a menagerie.” He winked at the children.
Mrs. Gardiner and Jane exchanged a look. “Perhaps not the theatre,” said Mrs. Gardiner.
“Or the museum,” confirmed Jane.
Mr. Bingley nodded genially. Darcy perceived the reason for their refusals at once—it was Elizabeth. She would not like to be seen in public the way she looked now. “Perhaps you have a preference, Miss Elizabeth,” he said, looking at her.
Elizabeth blushed self-consciously as the eyes of the room turned on her but answered lightly enough, “The menagerie sounds quite delightful, but I also would welcome a chance to enjoy the beach further. After all, ruins and animals are to be found in Hertfordshire too, but we do not have the sea there.”
“The beach it shall be! Mrs. Gardiner, do you have any objection to our joining your party for the afternoon?”
“None at all, Mr. Bingley,” she replied smilingly. “My children enjoy all kinds of company, as do Mr. Gardiner and I.”
There followed a discussion of particulars which resulted in Mr. Darcy dispatching a note to the Black Horse Inn for his carriage. The children clamored to ride in the gleaming barouche and Darcy agreed instantly, smiling an indulgent smile that quite caught Elizabeth by surprise. But then, everything he had done since she saw him on the beach four days before had caught her by surprise. She was quickly concluding that he was the most enigmatic and contrary man she had ever encountered.
Standing before a mirror in the entry way, Elizabeth struggled to fasten a veil to the top of her hat. They had sent a maid out to procure it earlier in the morning and there was nothing wrong with it, as veils went, but she just couldn’t seem to get it to drape right, even when Jane came to help. The mesh fabric itched her face, and she couldn’t seem to fully disguise her bruise or to see out properly. Plus, she looked ridiculous. “Oh, bother,” she muttered at last, yanking it off. “Wearing it will probably draw more attention to me anyway. Whoever heard of wearing to a veil to the beach? In any case, I care nothing for the stares and opinions of strangers.”
“Neither should you, Miss Bennet,” came Darcy’s voice just off her shoulder. She jumped a bit and squeaked.
“Forgive me, I did not mean to startle you.”
“It appears you walk very softly, Mr. Darcy.”
“Either that or you were very preoccupied.” The corners of his mouth twitched.
“I assure you, if you had a bruise this size on your face, you would be preoccupied with it too.”
“I doubt I should wear it as well as you do, though.”
Her look was patently disbelieving. “You have picked an odd time to take up flattery, sir.”
“On the contrary.” He turned as the others prepared to depart. “I never flatter at all.” He looked back at her, and his face suddenly softened. “You may believe me, Miss Bennet… you look as charming as you always do.”
Elizabeth had never considered it before, but the Gardiner’s carriage really was extraordinarily stuffy. As Darcy settled himself into the seat opposite her a few minutes later, she discovered she was positively flushed from the heat, and it was all she could do not to stick her head out the window to cool it.
The beach was lovely. No trace of the previous day’s storm remained in the cloudless sky, and, although it was still too early in the year to play in the water, the weather was just calculated to inspire all manner of sandy frolics. When they arrived they found that John footman and one or two other servants had gotten there before them and were arranging chaise lounges and chairs around spread-out blankets with an array of food. Although these arrangements were similar to the ones that Mr. Darcy had made the day they went boating, Elizabeth found herself regarding them with very different feelings. What had then appeared as evidence of his arrogance now appeared more in the light of thoughtful kindness. She found herself shaking her head even as she watched the servants working, wondering if she were right or wrong to change her opinion so quickly.
“Miss Bennet?” There he was, at her side again, extending his elbow in invitation. She grasped it firmly and they set off over the sand.
It was a merry party. The children had brought a kite with them, and soon Mr. Gardiner and Mr. Bingley were both engaged in helping them fly it, running with great enthusiasm up and down the beach while the ladies called out encouragement and Darcy shook his head sadly. Young Edward, who was still a little pale and weak, grew tired soon and came back to sit with his mother and eat the grapes Darcy had somehow procured. Jane and Elizabeth took a short walk together, admiring the sea once again, watching the others and laughing.
“Mr. Bingley certainly makes up in energy what he lacks in finesse,” remarked Elizabeth.
“It is the wind that is lacking, Lizzy. If the breeze were stronger they would have had no difficulty at all in getting the kite up.”
“Yes, but we would have had much less enjoyment in watching them do it.”
Jane sighed deeply and leaned her head on her sister’s shoulder. “Oh, Lizzy, I am very happy.”
“Yes. Yes, I can see that you are.”
“But I wish I knew what his intentions are. When he looks at me—oh, I feel that he must care for me, at least a little bit, but then I think of how he went away last time, and we shan’t all be here in Morecastle forever. If we go back to Longbourn, and he never returns to Netherfield, how shall I be able to bear it?”
Lizzy put an arm around her waist. “I wish I knew what to say to you, but I don’t.”
“It…” she was silent for a moment. “It isn’t right for him to pay me such attentions, if he doesn’t mean anything by it, don’t you agree?”
“I do. And Mr. Bingley has always appeared to be an honorable man. Yet, you are right. After what happened last year, I no longer feel able to predict the future.” She gave her a little squeeze. “It can only help that Mama and Lydia are in Hertfordshire instead of here, though.”
After a few minutes Jane went to join the group with the kite but Elizabeth remained behind. Presently, Darcy came walking in her direction, and her stomach clenched. She turned her face back to the ocean as he came to stop beside her, and they stood in a silence for a little while before he spoke.
“I believe we have a conversation to finish, Miss Bennet.”
She twisted her hands.
“I do not wish to distress you, but I cannot rest easy until I know you understand the truth about Mr. Wickham.”
She sighed. “Three thousand pounds?”
“Yes, plus he received another thousand as his bequest in my father’s will. I was glad to accede to his request; he has never been fitted for the church. He said he wished to study the law. Only when the living became free two years later he wrote and told me that since he was now out of funds again, he would like to have it after all. I refused then, but I hope you will not blame me for that.”
“How do I know what you say is true, Mr. Darcy?” She was still looking at the ocean rather than at him, but at least he got to study her profile.
“If my cousin Fitzwilliam were here I would ask him to confirm my story. He is my sister’s co-guardian and one of the executors of my father’s will. As it is, I can only offer to send to Pemberley for my papers there. I have Wickham’s agreement in his own hand.”
That did it. Even as she had asked him for proof she had been painfully aware that she had never asked his accuser for proof. “That will not be necessary, sir,” she said hurriedly. “I believe you.” She turned to walk away.
Darcy hastened match to her steps, waiting for her to speak. When she did not he ventured, “Mr. Wickham is a very skillful deceiver. It is not to be wondered at if you believed him.”
“Please, sir.” She would not look at him. “Do not be gracious. I do not deserve it.”
He hesitated. “I cannot agree.”
She shook her head.
“Truly, Miss Bennet, my excellent father always believed in Wickham’s good character, even years after his habits became dissipated. Without actual knowledge of his history or habits, how could you suspect that he was lying to you?” He touched her elbow fleetingly. “You would not suspect others of behavior so foreign to you.”
“Your assessment of my character is too kind. He gave me reason enough to question him, had I the inclination.”
Darcy didn’t have to ask why she didn't. He knew it was his fault. If he had been in collusion with Wickham, he could not have prepared the ground for his lies.
Elizabeth made a small sound and he realized with dismay that she was crying. He fumbled and withdrew a large handkerchief, pressing it on her, and watched while she pressed it to her eyes, wincing as the fabric brushed her injured cheek. "Forgive me," he said, he hardly knew for what, except that he had grieved her.
She shook her head, and unexpectedly smiled. “Of all the things which have befallen me over the last four days, Mr. Darcy, these tears are well-deserved. You should not apologize."
He stared at her, struck by the fact that she said the last four days, not simply the last day, or since yesterday. He could see how his impetuous, imperative speeches and reproaches had indeed befallen her; how confused she must have been! How astonished! And he in his arrogance assuming that she understood him; that she waited so eagerly for his proposal that he need hardly say the words before securing her acceptance. “Miss Bennet,” he began slowly—
“There you are, Lizzy!” Young Andrew Gardiner dashed up. “You’ll let me hide behind you, won’t you?” He ducked behind her skirts before she could say a word.
Elizabeth began to laugh, and stood with her arms out as his older sister proceeded to chase him around her in a circle. Darcy laughed too as he watched them.
“Darcy!” Mr. Bingley approached. “I was just talking with a local fellow and he says there are some caves up this way, if you’d be interested in exploring. I used to love caves when I was a child.”
The children immediately clamored to go.
“Bingley, I do not think Miss Elizabeth is quite up to—”
“Mr. Darcy, do you actually imagine that because I have a bruise on my cheek, my limbs no longer work?”
He laughed deprecatingly. “You are quite right. But are you certain that there are no other—effects from yesterday?”
She flushed a little, discerning what he had too much delicacy to ask outright. “Are you certain you feel no effects from yesterday?” She had noticed both he and Mr. Bingley seemed a little cautious in their movements at times.
“No more than I can manage.”
“Then I shall say the same.”
Jane decided to stay behind, so Darcy, Bingley, Elizabeth and the two oldest Gardiner children all trekked across the sand and over the black rocks that led to the mouth of the caves. “It’s low tide right now,” Bingley had explained, “and so the best time to have a look.”
“Is this your first time in a cave, Miss Elizabeth?” asked Darcy as they stood peering into a long, narrow opening.
“A sea cave, yes, but there are a few caves in our area that I used to explore with my sisters when we were children.” She smiled reminiscently. “My elder sister may not appear much like an intrepid explorer now, but she was quite the expedition leader in those days. In fact, I think Jane is the only reason we ever came out safely. She always made sure we took all the proper precautions.”
“And yourself? I cannot believe you simply held back and followed the others.”
“It was my job to walk ahead with the torch—in case of bats, you know. I was less frightened by them than the others.”
Darcy smiled an odd little smile on hearing this.
The cave before them was not a particularly remarkable sight. The ground was a mixture of sand and rock, rather damp, a few jagged formations providing the only real interest. Maggie and Andrew, of course, were delighted with it, and explored as far as light would allow. After a time they moved on to a second, larger cave. This one proved to be full of tide pools, smooth and glimmering in the half-light; they kept a tight grip on the children, unwilling to let them too close on the uneven footing. The glare from the slick, dark rocks and white sand was unexpectedly bright, coming out, and everyone squinted a little bit and stumbled at first as they worked their way towards the third cave, a bit further down. Mr. Bingley good naturedly swung Andrew from one rock to the other, while Darcy insisted on keeping Elizabeth on his arm and she, in turn, held Maggie’s hand.
“Oh, oh!” cried the children, as they entered. Bright shafts of sunlight, slanting down from openings in the roof, turned the floor to a glittering brightness where they struck. Elizabeth, too, clapped her hands in delight and joined hands with the children as they danced around in a circle inside one large light shaft. When she came to a halt, flushed and breathless and laughing, she saw Darcy watching her with a little quirk to his brow and lip.
“I know you despise dancing, Mr. Darcy.”
“You mistake, Miss Bennet. Just because I do not frequently enjoy participating in the activity does not mean I cannot, on occasion, enjoy witnessing it. Especially,” he added, “when it is performed with such charming glee and innocence.”
Charming glee and innocence. Did she want Darcy to attribute charming glee and innocence to her? She straightened with sudden self-consciousness and smoothed her skirt. She was a grown woman, after all, not a child.
They lingered there for a time, staring up through the openings, examining the rocks and enjoying this secret bit of beauty. Finally Darcy judged it time to return to the others, so they made their way back over the uneven surface. At one point Maggie slipped, tore her stockings and skinned her knee. She was an old enough girl not to cry, even though she blinked her eyes fiercely. She said she could go on, but Mr. Darcy picked her up in his arms and carried her the rest of the way over the rocks.
“Lizzy, look at me!” she crowed triumphantly over his shoulder.
“I see, dear. Is the view nice up there?”
“Oh yes! I can see ever so much more! Mama says I am too old to be carried now but Papa sometimes carries me and I like it. Mr. Darcy is taller than Papa is, though. Have you ever been carried, Lizzy?”
Lizzy almost stumbled herself. “When I was a little girl like you, of course. Ladies usually have no reason to be carried, you know.”
Mr. Darcy murmured something—she couldn’t quite make out what it was but she thought it might have been the word usually.
When they got back to the others they found that Edward and Mrs. Gardiner had both fallen asleep, he on a blanket and she in a chaise. Mr. Gardiner and Jane were sitting quietly entertaining little Harriet Gardiner; the father looked up when his other daughter came running across the sand to him. “What’s this?” he asked, looking at her torn stocking.
“Oh, I slipped on the rocks,” she said blithely, “but Mr. Darcy carried me and did you know that he’s taller than you are, Papa? The caves were lovely, especially the last one. Andrew and Lizzy and I all danced around in a sunbeam like we were fairies and Mr. Bingley said that Jane looks like she could be the queen of the fairies. And oh, there were pools in the second cave, but they wouldn’t let us get close because they said we might slip and fall into them but I don’t think I would have minded because—”
“Maggie,” said her father in gentle remonstrance. “Don’t run on so much. Take a breath every now and again.”
“Yes, Papa.” She kissed him on the cheek and tumbled out of his arms onto the ground next to Harriet, whom she began regaling with a more detailed description of the wonders she had seen.
“I am grateful to you for helping my daughter,” said Mr. Gardiner to Mr. Darcy.
“It was nothing, I assure you. I am only sorry that she should have slipped in the first place.”
Mr. Gardiner waved aside his concern, assuring him that Maggie incurred an injury of some sort nearly every week, and the two men settled down into a quiet conversation. Mr. Bingley and Jane began to speak together, while Lizzy sat close enough to alternate between conversing with them and with the children.
After a while, Darcy, who had been engaged with the tradesman in an engrossing discussion on the current economic state of Great Britain, looked up to find Elizabeth watching him again. There was an expression in her eyes that he could not interpret. Their gazes met and she did not look away, but her look was different from the one to which he had become accustomed. It held no archness and no challenge; no hidden laughter. In a moment imports and exports, populations and resources disappeared. There were only her luminous eyes, asking him some unarticulated question. He gazed back, hoping to give her the answers she sought, even as he didn’t know what they were.
Mr. Gardiner’s seat creaked a little as he shifted, and Darcy’s eyes snapped back to him. “Yes, sir, I believe you were saying…?”
Mr. Gardiner covered his mouth with his hand. “Actually, I believe you were saying, sir.”
“Oh. Yes.” Darcy flushed a little and tried to remember what he had been talking of. “The progress of manufacturing in the north…”
They sat on the beach talking for another half an hour before Mrs. Gardiner suddenly woke with a start. “Oh,” she murmured, her hand going automatically to her hair. “Oh, Andrew! Maggie! You’re back so soon?”
There was a moment’s silence followed by childish giggles and some less than subtle snickering, led by her husband.
The first carriage had already left, taking with it Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, Jane, and the two youngest children. Just as Elizabeth prepared to enter the second carriage, she was arrested by the sight of a young boy, being led in the rough grip of a local constable. He was crying piteously, and her heart wrenched at the sight.
Darcy followed her gaze, and immediately his brow contracted. Releasing his grip on her hand, he strode in the pair’s direction. After a surprised moment she followed him, leaving Mr. Bingley with the children.
“—Found ‘im stealin’ stuff off the beach,” the man was saying.
“I wasn’t stealin’!” insisted the child. “I was just pickin’ up what people left behind. People are always leavin' 'ats and scarves and toys on the beach. They don’t belong to nobody no more!”
The constable made as if to cuff him, but Darcy stayed his hand. “Do you have any parents?” he asked the boy.
He nodded vigorously. “Ma mother lives down that way. Ma father died in the war. Please, sir,” he pleaded. “I didn’t mean any 'arm. I thought we could sell the stuff.”
“What, so your mother could spend it on gin?” scoffed the other.
He started crying again. “No, on—on me—me'icine for me sister!”
Darcy looked between the two with pursed lips. “I’ll vouch for this boy, constable,” he said finally.
“Are you sure, guv’nor?” He scratched his head.
“Perfectly. My name is Darcy.” He reached into his coat. “Here is my card. I am currently staying at the Black Horse Inn.”
“That will be all.” He said it with a dismissiveness that would have usually infuriated Elizabeth, but on this occasion delighted her. The lowly constable, apparently recognizing a man of some importance, surrendered the imp with a shrug and a warning.
“Now, my boy,” Mr. Darcy stood very straight and looked down at the boy sternly, “you will tell me truth, because if you lie I will certainly find it out. Is your sister really ill?”
He sniffled and gulped. “Yessir.”
“And did your father really die in the war?”
“Yessir. In battle in the—the penin—penininsule—”
“The Peninsula, you mean.”
“Is your mother a respectable woman?”
“Oh, yessir, she used ta work in a shop and now she takes in sewin’ so that she can take care of Nancy, but then Nancy got sick and there’s no money for me'icine, and my da, afore he left he said I was to be the man and take care a them, so I thought I could take the things nobody wanted no more and—”
“Yes, I understand.” He thought for a moment. “What is your name?”
“Tom, I will go with you to your house right now. If everything is as you say, then I will help you. If it is not, then you will regret lying to me. Do you understand?”
He nodded, big eyed.
“Let us go back this way first—” He started as he turned and found Elizabeth, standing just behind him. He obviously had not realized that she was there.
“Don’t go alone,” she said immediately.
He blinked. “Why not?”
“Because you don’t know where he might take you—what kind of neighborhood. And while I don’t believe he’s lying, if he is—”
Darcy smiled a little. “In that case, I will take my footman with me. Will that reassure you?”
“Yes, but your carriage—”
“Will return and wait for me here.”
Elizabeth couldn’t say anymore; her heart was too full. The three of them returned to the carriage, where Darcy had a brief, low-voiced conversation with Mr. Bingley and gave his servants the necessary orders. Elizabeth’s last sight, as they rolled away, was of him walking down the street with calm, confident strides, one hand on the shoulder of the boy beside him, John the footman following behind.
The gentlemen had promised to dine with them that evening. Elizabeth could hardly sit still through the interim, so anxious was she to learn the outcome of Darcy’s inquiry. Everything about his dealings with Tom and the constable had been admirable, from the speed with which he stepped in, to his willingness to stake the reputation of his own name, to his handling of the boy. She also knew that he had not acted out of any desire to impress her; his surprise on seeing her had been too real. Whatever else Mr. Darcy might be, he was not an actor. Rather, she felt that she had seen a glimpse of the real man, perhaps for the first time ever.
She could not stop thinking about him, wondering what he had felt for her before, what he felt for her now. Was this transformation in his behavior for her? Had he truly been attached to her, and was it possible that his attachment had survived her rudeness and every indication against him? And did she hope for such an outcome or dread it? She would have dreaded it in Kent. She would have been appalled to learn that Mr. Darcy cherished amorous feelings for her. Now, everything was changed, just as he was changed, just as her faulty judgment was changed. Every reason she had had for hating him seemed removed. He was not, after all, the dishonorable cheater of honest men, nor did he seem to have had any role in separating her sister from Mr. Bingley; not if his current behavior was any judge. Her most firmly held opinion of him, that he was not a pleasant man, and that his pride must make him disgusting to any discerning person, was crumbling rapidly too. The man who had carried Maggie in his arms—who had talked politics with her uncle—who had refused to blame her for believing in Wickham’s lies and had offered charity to an unknown boy—that man was neither unpleasant nor improperly proud. Elizabeth hardly knew what to think, but she found herself wishing, for the hundredth time, that her face had not been injured. If he had found her only tolerable when she was looking her best, what must he think of her now?
She dressed with unusual care that evening, but not all her preparations could conceal the source of her distress. Jane suggested pulling out a few curls to fall over the offending area, but she concluded that it would cover nothing and look silly, and with almost vicious defiance, swept it all back. Mr. Darcy would have to take her or leave her like everyone else. She descended the stairs with a determined tilt to her chin and a flash in her eyes.
If Elizabeth had known how little attention Mr. Darcy paid to the bruise on her cheek (except to worry that it was paining her), and how much attention he paid to the brilliancy of her eyes, she would have felt much relieved. He liked this way of doing her hair. Although curls around the face were fashionable, he found he preferred to see the smooth expanse of her brow and the delicate curve of her ears unobstructed.
He was also suffering from a slight sense of unreality. Never would he have imagined dining, with perfect equanimity, at a rented house in the middle-class section of Morecastle with a tradesman, and even less that he would enjoy doing so. The Gardiner’s intelligent and well-bred conversation, Bingley’s easy congeniality, and most of all Elizabeth’s light banter and laughter warmed him better than wine. If he squinted just slightly he could see Georgiana sitting right there, next to Miss Bennet, comforted by her gentleness and cheered by Elizabeth’s liveliness. It made an entirely complete picture, one he wished badly to bring to reality.
“Mr. Darcy,” she spoke softly beside him. “I wish you would tell me what happened with the boy Tom. Did you meet his mother? Was his story true?”
He looked a little self-conscious, but answered readily. “Entirely true, as it turns out. I did indeed meet his mother, and saw his sister Nancy, too.”
“I am so glad! And were you able to help them?”
“I arranged for an apothecary to visit the house and provide whatever treatments necessary. I also,” he coughed and ran a hand over his hair, “intend to inquire about the local law—about whether it really would be illegal for Tom to gather lost items from the beach. It seemed a rather ingenious plan to me.”
“Is there no other assistance that can be given them? His father died fighting for his county—isn’t some provision made for the widow?”
“I’m afraid only officers' wives receive a pension. Tom’s father joined the army because he could not find other work, and he apparently sent back every penny he could, but it was very little. There was also some small amount of prize money, which is why they are not entirely penniless, but their situation is certainly hard—and not, I am afraid, unusual.”
Elizabeth suddenly felt both her own ignorance of the world and her own privilege within it. She had spent so much of her life living under the shadow of the entail that she had never before fully considered how blessed she truly was to have been born a gentleman’s daughter and to have any portion, no matter how small. “Surely we can help them some way!”
He smiled. “What can be done, shall be,” he promised. “I do not have much acquaintance or influence here in Morecastle, but I will do my best.”
She flushed as she saw her own presumption. “Forgive me, I did not mean that you should have to—”
“All men and woman of means should do what they can,” he replied firmly, and cleared his throat. “It may be possible to find Mrs. Lorrey some better paying work than she has.”
Elizabeth murmured her assent. “What would you have done if he had been lying about his circumstances?” she asked curiously.
“I would still have tried to help him—but it can be difficult to help someone who doesn’t want help. Even children of ten can be hardened thieves and tricksters, wishing for no other life.”
“Can nothing be done about them?” she asked. “Is there no one in a position to rescue those poor souls before they are ruined forever?”
“There are workhouses,” he said, “but it is no wonder the children would rather steal than go to one. There are a few others who are attempting to do some good—I personally know of two institutions in London which are dedicated to rescuing orphans off the streets. They attempt to give them a home and teach them some useful trade—but the number of children that they lose back to the streets is very high. It is good work though, and I believe they find their few successes a sufficient reward for their failures.” He looked self-conscious again as he spoke, and Elizabeth thought, he knows so much about them because he supports them. Rather than being a surprising conclusion, it seemed the natural one.
Shame flooded Elizabeth as she pondered how deeply she had maligned and misjudged him. Displeased only by his manners in company and his initial slight of herself, she had decided his entire character and believed gross lies simply because it pleased her. In doing so, she had wronged a most honorable and generous man.
Darcy saw her countenance change, but could not guess what she was thinking. He longed to speak at greater length about causes that were dear to him and the work he was helping to do—about all the good he believed she could do with him—but caution kept him silent. He would not repeat his errors of presumption.
“Perhaps you might like to visit them yourself?” he suggested tentatively. “I believe Mrs. Lorrey would be glad to speak to another woman.”
Her face lit up. “I should like that very much. I often visit my father’s tenants, but of course it is not the same in the country as it is in the city.”
“The poverty in cities is greater,” he agreed, “and the crime higher. Necessities like fresh food and clean water can be hard to come by.”
“But Morecastle is not a very big city, and it is on the ocean. Surely there is an abundance of fish available?”
He smiled. “It is not quite so simple as that, but you are right. The neighborhoods in Morecastle are not so bad as London’s, even the poorest ones. Just the same, there is plenty of poverty in every place.”
“The poor will always be with you,” she quoted.
They spoke for a time on similar subjects, and although Darcy’s knowledge was certainly more extensive than hers, as was his experience, Elizabeth’s quick and eager mind kept easily pace with his. By the time the gentlemen had to leave, both were conscious of a new depth of understanding and sympathy between them. Darcy thought of all those days he had sat in the Collins’s parlor and said nothing, and rued the time he had wasted.
"Thank you," he said to Mrs. Gardiner at the end, and meant it. "I have seldom enjoyed a day more."
"Well, Lizzy," she said when they had left, "Mr. Darcy may appear rather proud when you first meet him, but I think he improves on acquaintance."
"Yes," said Lizzy, not noticing her knowing look, "yes, I think he does."