"Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel–writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding.... There seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel–reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss — ?”

“Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language." --Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, Chapter 5

Monday, July 8, 2013

Adventures at Morecastle, Part Two


Part 2: Riding in Carriages


                Mr. Bingley was far too caught up in his own happiness to notice his friend’s gravity that evening. Mr. Darcy barely made it through his effusions before retreating to his chambers the first opportunity he had.

His anger had mostly faded by then, to be replaced by dismay and strong grief. It was true that he had not actually proposed and therefore had not been technically refused, but her words and manner had been more than discouraging. She didn’t like him, she didn’t want his attentions, she had thought he disliked her and was satisfied to have it so. Nothing he thought of during the whole course of his miserable night could ameliorate it. He had lost her—more, he had never had her, and he never would.

At breakfast the next morning Bingley was chattering on, something about curricles. “Curricles?” he said. “What do you mean, curricles?”

Bingley laughed. “Don’t you remember? We talked about it at the picnic yesterday.”

Darcy did vaguely remember something about curricles and ruins, now that he mentioned it. He had not paid much attention, being too preoccupied with watching Elizabeth, but had absently agreed to any plans they might be making. It would never have occurred to him, then, that he might not want to ride out in a curricle with Elizabeth. “I am not about to go careening about the countryside in some rented rattletrap with an unmarried female by my side! Nor should you, for that matter. It’s unsafe, undignified, and not at all proper.”

“It doesn’t seem any more unsafe, undignified or improper than rowing across a bay in a small boat with an unmarried female.  You seemed happy enough to do that.”

Darcy just frowned into his coffee.

“Come on, man, you already agreed! We’re to rent the curricles today and go tomorrow.”

“And all of this is just to climb around some broken down old buildings for an hour?”

“Ruins, my dear Darcy, ruins. It’s not at all the same, you know. Ladies love ruins.”

Darcy muttered something unintelligible under his breath.

“Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth will be expecting it. It’s already set.”

Darcy opened his  mouth to tell Bingley that it was time for both of them to return to London, when he remembered the promise he had made to Elizabeth yesterday. Even if he could drag Bingley away, she would certainly see it as a violation of his word. “You will have to visit the ruins without me,” he said flatly.

“But I can’t do that!” objected Bingley. “There isn’t room for three in a curricle, and I couldn’t possibly take Miss Bennet out without a chaperone.”

“Take the whole Gardiner clan, then. You can use my barouche.”

“Weren’t you listening to anything at all yesterday? We invited them when we brought the ladies back, but Mr. Gardiner thought the drive was too far for his son who is still recovering, and said it wouldn’t be fair to take the other children without him. Plus, Mrs. Gardiner is feeling under the weather herself.”

Darcy would have been willing to bet that the Gardiners were rather eager to promote a match between their niece and Bingley—and perhaps between their other niece and himself—but knew it was pointless to say so.

“You promised, Darcy!” cried Bingley. “You said you would be happy to go, or else the plan would never have gotten along this far. You can’t let me down! I’ve got—” he paused. “I’ve got another chance, Darcy. I remember everything you said to me about Miss Bennet last year and I’m sure you’re correct, but I just don’t care anymore. I missed her every day since then and now that I’ve seen her again I can’t leave her. Not if there’s any chance I might win her love. She did seem happy to see me, don’t you think? She was happy?”

Again he remembered what Elizabeth had said the day before, about her sister being disconsolate over Bingley’s absence, and even he had to admit that Miss Bennet had seemed delighted with his friend. “Yes, I think she was,” he conceded.

“Then you can’t fail me. You must come—you must give me this chance to court her, before I lose it again. I can’t—I can’t bear another six months like these last ones.”

Darcy looked at his friend with sudden sympathy, understanding all too well, now, what he was feeling. Not that Bingley had ever had the misfortune to discover Miss Bennet disliked him, but he had believed her indifferent, and suffered under the belief. Darcy knew it was his fault Bingley had felt that, and although he still thought his opinion a reasonable one, he did owe him some reparations. “Very well,” he agreed quietly.

~%~


                Elizabeth was in a similar position. She did not want to ride in a curricle with Mr. Darcy to see the Bleydon ruins, no matter how pretty they were. If possible, she wanted it even less than she had wanted to go boating with him yesterday—it would be unbearably awkward after everything that had passed between them! It still boggled her mind that Mr. Darcy should have developed some sort of admiration or tender feelings for her, and that he had been, moreover, on the point of making some sort of declaration (though she could hardly imagine it would have been a proposal). It embarrassed her exceedingly to realize just how blind she had been, and if she was embarrassed, she could only imagine how much more embarrassed he was. She would have given almost anything in the world to have avoided the necessity of riding with him that day—almost anything, that is, but her sister’s happiness. All thoughts of feigning an illness went out of her head when she saw how happy Jane was, and how eager for the outing.

                She expected Darcy himself would bow out, and failing that, wished that Aunt and Uncle Gardiner could have found a way to come with them, but the fact was that Aunt Gardiner had just recently discovered that she was expecting their fifth child, and while in general she felt well, the thought of spending the better part of a day in a rocking carriage was simply too much for her. She much preferred to sit on the beach where she could watch her children play. Perhaps it was a bit daring for the Gardiners to let their two attractive young nieces go around like this with two gentlemen, but they had a very strong regard for those nieces’ trustworthiness, and Mr. Bingley was known to be an honorable, amiable gentleman. Mr. Darcy was a bit more of an unknown quantity, but Elizabeth had been in his company a great deal and was able to assure them, with laugh, that he posed no threat to her virtue. They, like everyone else, could see just how much Jane wanted this, so they gave their consent, after Mr. Gardiner extracted a promise from the gentlemen that they would all remain together at all times.


                Of the two curricles the men had found to rent, one was sturdy and well-sprung, the other rather less so. Somehow, Darcy and Elizabeth ended up seated in the one that was rather less so. Darcy’s own horses were hitched to it—he had liked the rented horses even less than the rented carriages—but even so they jostled and swayed quite alarmingly along the road towards Bleydon. Elizabeth hadn’t ridden in a curricle for years, and was sure it could not have been as high or as unsteady as this one. She clung tightly to her seat, trying hard not to bump shoulders with Darcy at every rock in the road.


They had not spoken since the moment he handed her up into it. Instead they followed behind Bingley and Jane, who appeared to be enjoying their ride immensely. Darcy focused on his driving and Elizabeth focused on not falling out. Each was acutely aware of the other, neither one willing to be the first one to speak.


                Finally, when the silence had grown so painful that Elizabeth was contemplating screaming to relieve it, Darcy spoke. “I am sorry,” he said stiffly, “that you should be forced to endure my presence today. If I could have remained at home without offending my friend I would have.”


                “And I am here only in support of my sister,” she replied.

“Perfect. Now we understand each other.” He whipped his horses a little faster.

“Indeed.”

That may have been the last thing they said to each other that day, if the axle hadn’t broken.

They had come to a particularly rutted portion of road, each keeping to their seats by sheer grim tenacity. There was a lurch, a large bump that made Elizabeth go, “Oh!,” a deafening crack, then the seat seemed to drop away beneath her. Before she knew what was happening she was half-sliding, half-tumbling, skirts, parasol and all, colliding with the fallen wheel on the way down. The horses reared; Darcy had nearly fallen out of the curricle before somehow regaining his balance enough to pull on the reins, and if it wasn’t for an almost superhuman effort on his part, they would surely have dragged the tilted carriage another hundred yards, quite possibly running Elizabeth over in the process.

Elizabeth lay on the ground, largely unhurt but for a bruised posterior and a cut on one cheek, and stared meditatively at the sky above her. It was, she thought, quite lovely. It was presently blotted out by Mr. Darcy’s face, very pale, and she realized absently that he had been calling her name for the last half minute or so. “Elizabeth,” he begged. “Miss Bennet, say something.”

His hand touching her face brought her back to herself and she swatted him away, sat up and grunted. He staggered with relief and sat down himself. Neither one said anything more for a little while, glumly surveying the wreckage. At least the horses were quiet now.

“I’m going to kill Bingley,” said Darcy at last.

For some reason this line, along with the image of her and the dignified Mr. Darcy sitting in the dirt at the side of road together, struck Elizabeth as overwhelmingly funny. She began, to Mr. Darcy’s considerable astonishment, to giggle. The giggle quickly grew, and she threw back her head and laughed until even Darcy could not help but join in. They all but howled, and if Elizabeth had been with another woman she would have drummed her feet on the ground. By the time they finally quieted, both were considerably lighter of heart, and the tension that had existed between them earlier seemed gone. “You are a remarkable woman, Miss Bennet,” said Darcy, smiling at her.

“Speaking of Mr. Bingley,” she replied, ignoring that, “where have he and my sister absconded to? Surely they didn’t just drive off and leave us here.”

“Their curricle had just rounded that corner up there when our accident occurred. If I know Bingley, he hasn’t even noticed we’re not behind him anymore. Once he does he’ll turn back to find us, but until then our only option is to wait.” He gave her an apologetic look. “I could attempt to walk back to an inn, but it would probably take just as long.”

“I imagine I am as capable of walking it as you are, but hopefully it won’t come to that. I have faith that Jane, at least, will look back at last.”

“Are you truly well?” he asked her earnestly. “Your face—”

She touched it gingerly. “Is it very bad?”

“No, but it looks painful.”

“It is a bit.” She fished a handkerchief out her reticule, where it still dangled from her wrist, and, wincing, began to apply it to her cheek. Darcy took it from her gently.

“Here.” He pulled a flask out of his pocket and poured a little liquid over the cloth to dampen it. “It’s only water,” he said to her questioning look. “Allow me?”

She nodded, and he began to clean the wound carefully. A different silence fell over them, punctuated by their breathing. Elizabeth’s eyes, very wide, were fixed on his face, frowning in concentration just a foot or so away. “Will it require stitches?” she whispered.

“No,” he replied, latent tenderness in his voice. “No stitches. I don’t think it will scar, either.” Not that it would matter to me. He didn’t tell her that a large bruise was developing; there was no point in distressing her over what she could not help. When he had done what he could he handed her the flask. “Drink.”

She did as he requested, but they kept watching each other, and neither one moved from their positions until one of the horses stomped and tossed its head. Darcy started. “I should—” He jumped to his feet and went to attend to them. Elizabeth watched him as he spoke soothingly to the animals, releasing them from their traces, and decided to take the opportunity to attempt to stand. She was fairly certain that it would be an undignified process, and preferred to do it while Darcy was otherwise occupied.

By the time that Darcy had released both horses into the grassy field on the side of the road, Elizabeth was upright and dusting her skirts off. She was sore in places she’d rather not discuss, her gown was torn around the hem and her hair beginning to fall down, but otherwise she was intact. He went back to the broken curricle, retrieved a basket and returned to her. “Forgive me,” he said, offering her his arm, “I should have gotten you off the road earlier.”

She shook her head but took the arm, leaning on him more than she would like and trying to suppress a grimace. He was watching her closely and cried, “You’re hurt!”

“No,” she assured him. “No, I am not hurt, just—stiff.”

He looked doubtful but did not argue. By the time they reached a shady spot to sit, she was fairly certain he had figured out what was wrong with her, but he was kind enough not say anything. Instead he spread his coat for her to sit on, despite her protests that her gown was already too dirty for it to matter. At least the grass was softer than the road had been.


                The contents of the basket were investigated. The hotel where Darcy and Bingley were staying had divided the food between two baskets, one of which went into each curricle. Theirs was found to hold primarily bread and fruit; the wine and meat, apparently, were with Jane and Bingley. Darcy muttered something about Elizabeth needing a glass of wine, but she denied it, and took a pear instead. “I’m not really hungry,” she confided, “but it is somehow rather comforting to eat after being so upset.”


                Darcy just smiled faintly. Their eyes turned back to the bend of the road, around which they expected their companions to appear at any moment. They waited ten minutes, fifteen, making occasional dilatory conversation, each content and anxious by turn. When Darcy turned to look at Elizabeth he saw that she was attempting to fix her hair, pulling out stray pins and sticking them back in again. She had pulled her hair straight back, displaying the perfect oval of her face. Her skin was a little pink, from the sun and the warmth, with a small red mark on her right cheek, surrounded by a darkening area, and her lips were very red, her eyelids bluish and heavy. He loved her so much he could scarcely breathe.


                “Miss Bennet.” Her eyes lifted. “Miss Bennet, I know that—I know that we have grossly misunderstood each other in the past, and that is likely my fault, but I wish—that is, I would like to know what it is that has caused you to—” he swallowed and looked away, “to dislike me so much.”

                Elizabeth sat silent for so long that he wondered if she was going to answer him, but she did, at last. “Do you truly wish to hear it?”

He nodded.

“You—” she paused. “You did not make much attempt to disguise your contempt for our society in Hertfordshire, sir. You cannot suppose such behavior designed to please.”

He flushed, but what could he say? “Is that all?”

“No… though it would be enough for simple dislike, I believe. Yet I had never thought you actually dishonorable or bad until…” her voice became suddenly uncertain. “Until Mr. Wickham.”

“Mr. Wickham?” he repeated, his heart sinking and his temper rising.

“He told me of his history with you.”

“I doubt that very much.”

“He said you denied him the living your father wished him to receive.”

“I’m sure he did.” Darcy stood to his feet and took a few steps about, trying to calm himself enough to offer an explanation. Just as he turned towards her, opening his mouth to begin, there was the rattle of wheels and Mr. Bingley’s voice called his name. He shut his eyes. “Would you do me the honor of continuing this conversation later?”

“I don’t really see the point, sir.”

“Nevertheless, I demand—” he drew a breath. “I request an opportunity to answer the accusations he made against me. You must concede that that is only fair.”

“You mean to say that you have an answer?”

“A very good one, I believe.”

She looked skeptical, and Darcy felt his ire rise again. Was her opinion of him really so very bad? By this time Bingley was drawing up next to the wreckage, so he had no choice but to turn towards them. He took a few steps, stopped, turned and looked her full in the eyes. “I gave him three thousand pounds for that living, Miss Bennet, at his request.” He walked off and left her staring after him.

~%~


                Mr. Bingley was profuse in his apologies for not noticing they were gone for quite half an hour after the accident occurred. Jane, likewise, nearly wept when she saw Lizzy’s injury and begged her forgiveness a dozen times. Elizabeth just laughed at her, trying to cover the many feelings which her time alone with Mr. Darcy had produced. His last shocking words kept echoing in her mind. Only three days before she would have unhesitatingly voted him a liar for making such a claim, but now she was not at all certain. There was no doubt that he had appeared in a dramatically different light to her these last days, and his behavior towards her after their accident had been such as to make her want to trust him. Even as she had accused him she had lacked conviction.


                After some minutes of discussion, Mr. Darcy came back to talk with the two ladies. “I’m afraid you’ll be forced to share a seat, ladies. The closest inn is about four miles on, and Bingley will take you there. I shall ride one of the horses and lead the other. And,” he paused. “We have agreed, Miss Bennet,” he looked at Elizabeth, “that it would be best for all concerned if we told people that both carriages remained together at all times.”


                Elizabeth flushed as she took his meaning, but she nodded, and Jane did likewise. Of course it would not do to let everyone know that she had been alone with him for an hour—not when she would be returning with a torn gown and tumbled hair.

~%~

                The inn to which Mr. Bingley drove them was a small affair, with narrow windows and a low roof. Inside it was dark and hot and musty. It turned out that there was little to be had for refreshment but small beer and ale, but the second basket of food was recovered and unpacked. This caused some indignation on the part of the landlord’s wife, which Mr. Bingley cheerfully ignored. Elizabeth was given a room and some water to wash with; Jane went with her, and they did the best they could. She was mortified to realize how her face actually looked.

                “I’ll startle everyone in the common room,” she muttered.

                “No indeed,” said Jane reassuringly. “You can wear your bonnet, and we’ll find a table where you may sit next to the wall, or the window, perhaps.”

The blood rose in Lizzy’s face as she remembered Mr. Darcy’s behavior towards her, the intensity of his gaze as he cleaned her cheek, the gentleness in his hands and voice. Somehow, he was not the man she had thought him. What sort of man he was, though, she did not know, but if his words about Wickham were true, she would have to rethink everything she believed, everything she felt, about him.

Replacing her bonnet as cheerfully as she could, she went with Jane to rejoin Mr. Bingley in the common room below.

~%~

By the time Darcy reached the inn, he was hotter and dustier than he ever remembered being, and he was incensed to learn that they were seated in the common taproom. Bingley and the ladies were at a table in the corner, eating their picnic lunch, but they stood out painfully in a room full of farmers and laborers. He caught more than one pair of male eyes trained on the two young females and glared coldly at them as he passed.


                His displeasure grew as he saw Elizabeth. She was seated by the wall, her wounded cheek turned away from the room, and her bonnet throwing her face into shadow. It infuriated him that she should be forced to hide her appearance from gawking eyes in such a way. He came to a stop by their table.


                “There you are, Darcy,” said Bingley cheerfully. “If I may say so, you look rather the worse for wear.”

                “Bingley, a word?” he asked tersely, jerking his head sideways. Bingley’s brows rose but he got up and followed him a few feet.


                “What do you mean by exposing the ladies to this common rabble this way?”


                Bingley blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

“Can’t you see that every man in here is ogling them? Or that Miss Elizabeth doesn’t even have the freedom to remove her bonnet?”

“If they had a private parlor I would have taken it, but they don’t. This is our only option.”

“Surely some other accommodation might be made!”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t see what, unless you’d have us all sit around in one of the bed chambers!”

Darcy muttered darkly and stalked back to the table. He took the seat opposite Elizabeth and looked earnestly at her. She met his gaze warily, and he realized belatedly that his black mood could not be endearing him to her. He looked away, attempting to compose himself to smile and speak pleasantly, when he happened to see the man at the next table staring at Elizabeth in a rather leering fashion. Before he had even thought about it he was on his feet again, moving across the floor.

He came to stop before the roughly dressed fellow, looming over him. “I would suggest you direct your eyes elsewhere,” he hissed. 

The man grew a little red faced. “Now look ‘ere—”

“No, you look here.” He leaned forward, making the most of his height, his hauteur, and that indelible air of command which years as master of a large estate had given him. The man could not possibly misunderstand his wealth or his authority. “Those are ladies over there, not common trollops, and if you do not wish me to have you thrown out of this taproom immediately you will behave with proper respect towards them, which includes keeping your eyes off their persons.”

The man sputtered a bit, clearly taken aback. “’Ow could ye have me thrown out?”

His gaze flicked contemptuously around the small room. “I’ll buy it if I have to.” The other stared at him with dropped jaw; he gave him a cold smile and returned to his own table. His sense of satisfaction disappeared when he realized that now everyone at the table was looking at him warily; Elizabeth’s eyes seemed dismayed as well. Closing his eyes, he silently cursed his own stupidity and bad luck; she probably had not noticed the man’s look, and would not have understood why he had acted as he did.

Eventually, a stilted conversation sprang back up, centered around what they were to do next. Darcy reckoned that it would take some hours to repair the axle, if it was reparable at all, and he was highly disinclined to pay for the curricle’s retrieval and repair at all, since he held the business which rented it to him fully responsible. Mr. Bingley had already ascertained that this small inn had no available carriage, even a gig, and it was impossible that they should all four fit into a single curricle. Even the short ride there with three of them had made Jane blush prodigiously. Eventually, Bingley declared it his intention to drive the remaining curricle back to Morecastle and retrieve a carriage which could accommodate all four of them.

It was Elizabeth who first noticed that the light in the tap room had grown dimmer. It was only the middle of the day still, far too early to get dark, so Darcy went to the window to check the weather. The previously gloriously blue and brilliant sky was now covered with dark clouds. A spring storm was brewing.

The others took the news with composure. “It’s just as well that we didn’t drive all the way to the ruins then anyway,” observed Elizabeth.

Darcy couldn’t help but reflect that sheltering outdoors beneath ancient arches might have been much more pleasant (not to mention romantic) than this dark and dank room. “I’m sorry, Bingley,” he said.

“Never mind,” he answered cheerfully. “I’ll raise the hood, and I never did care much about getting wet anyway.”

This example of his courage and good humor caused Jane to smile so beatifically at him that he lost his power of speech for the next half a minute.

When Darcy came inside from seeing Bingley off—the first raindrops were already starting to fall—he found the two ladies whispering together. His eyes turned immediately to Elizabeth, but it was Jane who approached him. “I believe my sister would like to lie down,” she said. “Although she will say little of it, I think her face is paining her.”

Ill-concealed by the shadow of her bonnet, Elizabeth’s cheek was indeed ripening into a deep purple, with some swelling. Although disappointed to lose her company, he agreed swiftly. “I’ll see if the landlady has any ice,” he suggested. Jane thanked him and went to accompany her sister.

The landlady did indeed have some ice—though very dirty it looked to him—and he requested that she have it sent up, trusting Jane to find the best way of applying it. He was now left to his own devices and reflections, alone in a miserably common taproom with pouring rain outside the window and the smell of beer, tobacco and unwashed bodies within it. The landlord had bustled about closing the windows at the first fall of rain, but he found a seat by one and pried it open, determined to breathe some fresh air by any means. There he remained as the spray dampened his coat, bearing a grim expression and deep in thought.

It was not, strangely, the matter of his old friend George Wickham which occupied his mind. That, after all, was an affair in which he could easily prove himself blameless. It would not be so easy to prove himself blameless in the matter of his attitude towards her neighbors in Hertfordshire. Beyond that, there were other thoughts that bothered him, one in particular. She had not known that he cared for her. She had not had the slightest idea of his interest. Considering what that said of his skills as a suitor, he shifted uncomfortably.

When he had seen Elizabeth lying still on the ground, his world had seemed momentarily to stop. The feelings which the entire experience had aroused simply could not be denied. One way or another, he would have to attempt to do better. He would have to do whatever it took to win her.

~%~

By the time that Bingley returned with a closed carriage, it had been raining steadily for well over an hour. It was hardly the ideal weather to travel in, but no one had the slightest desire to remain any longer at the inn, so they crowded without hesitation into its interior. Beside the driver up front there was one long-suffering footman, both dressed in raincoats and hats. The coach lurched and moved forward unevenly.

Inside, the men sat on the back-facing seat and the ladies on the forward facing. Mr. Bingley’s cheerfulness was unimpaired by his ride through the rain (he had changed clothes before returning), and he and Jane spoke to each other as intently as they could with the space of the carriage floor dividing them. Darcy wished desperately for something to talk to Elizabeth about, but she stared out the window resolutely.

If he had but known it, she was more embarrassed than anything else. The combination of her appearance and their brief conversation about Wickham made it hard for her look at him. She had turned his explanation over in her mind a hundred times and found that as much as she wished to discard it, she could not. Although she had not completely set aside her skepticism, if he offered her any proof at all she would have to accept it. She was already mortified at her lack of perceptiveness where he was concerned, and if she had truly been so prejudiced and foolish as to believe a suave liar against an honest man without proof, her character was in question too.

The road had grown very muddy during the heavy downpour and the longer they rolled along, the slicker the mud got. Even the passengers could feel how slow they were going, and the way that the coach occasionally slid a little bit. Lizzy, not unnaturally, clutched her seat tightly any time this happened, and Darcy watched her with concern. It really was the most cursed luck.

They did not, fortunately, turn over, but they did get stuck. After a particularly laborious slog, the left front wheel stuck deep into cloying, wet, red clay and would not budge any further. When it became apparent that they weren’t moving any longer, Darcy sighed and pulled his overcoat a little tighter. “I had better go see what has happened.”

“I’ll go too,” said Bingley.

They both climbed out into the rain. The driver and footman were already on the ground, morosely examining the stuck wheel. “I’m sorry, sir,” said the driver when he saw Darcy. “I tried to avoid the worse patches, but there was just too much mud along this stretch.”

“It’s all right, man, not your fault.” He looked down at the mud. “What is your recommendation?”

“John and I’ll have to push.”

“I’ll help,” said Bingley.

“And so will I. It’s going to take all of us to get us out of here.”

Bingley trudged back to the carriage door to speak to the ladies. “We’re stuck in the mud,” he explained. “Darcy and are going to help push.”

The two Miss Bennets looked at him and each other with wide eyes, and began to rise as one.

“No, no! Stay there. It’s not fit for you outside.”

“Of course we’re coming out,” said Elizabeth. “We can’t sit in here and make your work harder for you.” She moved to the door and Bingley automatically moved over to make room for her. Darcy, however, when he looked up and saw Elizabeth about to descend the carriage steps, was not so polite.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

She blinked. “I’m getting out.”

“You can’t.”

“I most certainly can! Jane and I have to get out to make the coach lighter.”

“That’s absurd. Your combined weight is nothing as compared to the weight of the coach.”

“Nevertheless, we choose not to add to it.”

She made the last step into the rain and mud and Darcy, with a smothered exclamation, tore off his long coat and swung it around her shoulders. “You can’t stay out here!”

“We’ll stand under that tree over there, see?” She nodded in the direction of a small tree some fifteen or twenty feet off the road.

Darcy was already coming to understand Elizabeth’s character well enough to realize that he was not going prevail upon her to return to the dry interior of the carriage. He eyed the expanse of mud that lay between her dainty feet and the tree and, perhaps out of concern, perhaps out of spleen, perhaps out of the fierce desire to do something that would ordinarily be impermissible, he bent over, picked her up, and carried her across the short distance before she could recover from her surprise enough to react. “Stay there,” he growled as he put her on her feet.

In the meantime Jane was standing framed by the carriage doorway, looking truly angelic. Mr. Bingley, who had watched Darcy’s masterful display with some admiration, made a low bow and smiled adoringly, even while rain ran in rivulets off the brim of his hat. “Madam, if you would permit me—?”

She blushed but nodded and he reverently wrapped her in his riding coat before lifting her in his arms and carrying to her to a place beside her sister. There, the Bennet sisters were treated to a most engaging sight: two young, good-looking men in their shirts and waistcoats, soaking wet, mud up to the top of their elegant boots, straining against the back of a carriage in the rain. The footman, who was young and strong, pushed with them, while the older driver stood at the horses’ heads, urging them forward.

It was a long and arduous effort. It seemed for some time that the wheel could not be reclaimed and they would never get the carriage moving again that day. They received an unexpected boon when the rain began to let up; although they were already so wet it hardly mattered, it was easier to see and to grip the sides of the carriage, and the horses were more willing. They took a short break, breathing heavily, and all conferred. Eventually, Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley approached the ladies, who were still standing wrapped in their coats beneath the tree.

“You must forgive us,” began Mr. Darcy. “We are most reluctant to ask this—”

“But we feel we need a fourth man to push.”

“I would gladly loan you my spare man,” said Elizabeth, “but I must have mislaid him back at the inn.” To her surprise, Mr. Darcy laughed out loud at that. In fact, he was looking astonishingly cheerful, as if the physical labor and dirt had somehow wiped out his black mood of earlier, and it struck her in that moment how very handsome he was, face and eyes bright, with mud splattered across one cheek.

“It is your assistance we seek, my dear ladies,” answered Bingley.

They exchanged startled glances. “I am afraid our feeble efforts may not be of much assistance,” said Jane, “but we are willing to try pushing, if you wish.”

The gentlemen’s faces reflected their horror at this idea. “No, no, no!” cried Bingley. “I apologize, I did not mean that we wished for you to help us push the carriage. We would never ask that!” Darcy shook his head emphatically in agreement. “What we were wondering is if one of you might be able to stand with the horses and lead them forward. Then Winker will be free to add his strength to ours.”

Both ladies thought about this. “I can do it,” said Jane.

“Jane, are you sure?”

“Lizzy, you know I am much more comfortable with horses than you are.”

“But I am much more comfortable with mud.”

“You are injured. It will be far better if you leave it to me. I am not afraid.”

Darcy nodded his approval of this plan, and Mr. Bingley was all admiration. “I’m afraid that you’ll almost certainly ruin your shoes,” he said, “but I would be honored if you would allow me to buy you a new pair to take their place.”

Jane blushed and demurred, then took his arm and allowed him to support her as they picked their way towards the horses. Winker the driver was waiting to give her instructions.

His hands on his hips, Darcy looked Elizabeth over carefully. “Are you well?”

For some reason she blushed under his gaze. “Perfectly. Although—” she glanced upward. “I suppose I should move, really. It is beginning to be wetter under this tree than the sky.”

“I would offer you my arm, but—” he looked down at his soaked sleeves.

For some reason she could not readily explain, Elizabeth found herself reaching for him anyway, wrapping her hands around his forearm, wet fabric, sinew and all. Darcy smiled happily at her and she blushed again, fiercely wishing away her bruised face.

Darcy left Elizabeth standing a little way from the tree, in a grassy patch that provided relatively solid footing. With Jane at the horses’ heads, all four men put their backs into it. Two took the back of the coach, and two applied themselves to the stuck wheel. The horses pulled, the men heaved, and all at once they began to move. Slowly at first, and then with increasing speed, the carriage pulled through the deep mud and rolled onto a firmer stretch of ground. A great cheer went up and then Darcy and Bingley were clapping each other on the back and shaking hands with the other men as if they were their equals. A cheer was given for Jane, too, who had done her part valiantly, and everyone prepared to depart.

Both women were assisted back to the interior of the carriage (Jane modestly slipping off her caked half boots while the men’s backs were turned), but once they had seated themselves they found to their dismay that the men, who were now as dirty as they were wet, did not intend to join them.

“We are truly are not fit for it,” said Darcy, shrugging his relatively dry coat back on.

“And we may have to push again,” added Bingley, seemingly undisturbed by the possibility.

“But where will you ride?” the ladies asked.

“On top.”

“On top of the carriage?” repeated Elizabeth, looking at Darcy incredulously.

He smiled a little at her expression. “Certainly.”

“You’ll catch cold,” said Jane, distressed. “You cannot ride in the open air when you are so wet.”

Everyone remembered how ill she had become when she had ridden outside wet, and hastened to reassure her.

“Our coats are hardly wet at all,” said Mr. Bingley earnestly. “We’ll have them on over our shirts, and we can put our overcoats on again too.”

“Now that the rain has stopped it’s quite warm out,” contributed Darcy. “The sun is shining, and we are all very warm from the exercise too.”

In the end, there was nothing the ladies could say to induce the men to seat themselves opposite them in their current state, so they had to hope that the remaining journey would not take long (they weren’t far out of Morecastle now), and be uneventful.

Everyone seemed to take for granted that Darcy would sit next to the driver, but he declined and insisted on finding a perch on the top of the coach next to Bingley, something in him perhaps rising to the implied challenge of Elizabeth’s incredulity. She did not believe he would ever condescend to sit, clinging, to the top of a carriage, and therefore he was determined to do it.

Winker cleared his throat. “If I may, masters…” he leaned over and pulled a flask of wine from under his seat. “The missus always sends some of this with me, in case it should be needed. If you’d condescend to share it with me, I’d be greatly honored.”

“What a fine idea!” proclaimed Mr. Bingley and the flask was passed around in a sense of true camaraderie, each man receiving just enough to warm him a little.

They were moving by then, and although Darcy found the seat a bit precarious, he could not help but enjoy the sunshine and the air ruffling his hair as it dried. “This isn’t too bad,” he remarked to Bingley, who was grinning. “I’ve never actually ridden on the top before, you know.”

“Not even when in your college days?”

“Not even then.”

“Oh, we used to think it was great sport, to sit on the top like this and urge the coachman to go faster and faster.”

“Sounds dashed dangerous to me.”

“Yes, but that was the point, you know? Didn’t you ever wish to do anything really madcap when you were younger?” At Darcy’s expression he threw up his hand. “Never mind, don’t tell me!”

Sitting alone below them, two rather disgruntled young ladies could hear voices and laughter drifting down from up above. “Jane,” said Lizzy, “why do I feel like we got the worst of this situation?”

Jane’s only reply was a small huff.

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