When they arrived at the parsonage to take their leave, he was relieved to find Miss Bennet still out. Whether she was reading his explanation or merely striving to avoid just such a visit, he couldn't say; either way, he was resolved to do his duty by the Collinses and depart. Fitzwilliam could do as he liked. Despite his cousin's more congenial manner, at the moment he was not at all concerned by the idea that they might have an opportunity for a private farewell if he left.
It wasn't as though Miss Bennet was in a very welcoming frame of mind just then. And while he now knew her attitude was directed specifically towards himself--indeed, she'd had no qualms about telling him as much--her anger was so great he doubted not that it was more than sufficient to carry over to his nearest relations. He didn't know what Fitzwilliam's intentions towards her might be, but they weren't likely to be furthered by a conversation that morning. In any case, Miss Bennet could hardly request corroboration of the events he'd related if he was present.
The socially-mandated courtesies were completed as quickly as propriety would allow, and he made to return to Rosings to oversee the final preparations for their departure the next day. As he'd expected, Fitzwilliam chose to stay a while longer, so he began the walk back alone. With each step, he resisted the urge to walk faster out of fear of meeting her on her way back to the parsonage. He'd barely managed to restrain himself during their brief encounter that morning, torn as he was between anger, hurt pride, and that stubborn longing for her that even now refused to be suppressed; at least then he'd had a task to focus on. He couldn't bear the thought of having to be civil to her again so soon.
Luck was with him, and he saw no one prior to entering Rosings. Though rather more stiffly formal than he preferred, there was no denying that Lady Catherine's staff was well-trained; none of the servants he passed on the way to his chamber commented on what he was certain must be his unsettled demeanour. His valet, of course, would notice nothing until receiving a signal that he wished to discuss it--a signal that would not be forthcoming in this instance.
Against his will, a part of his mind refused to stop listening for Fitzwilliam's return, wondering just what could be keeping him so long, imagining scenarios he'd really rather not think about. It took the better part of an hour for him to hear the familiar tread approaching down the hallway, providing him with sufficient warning to prevent his starting in surprise when his cousin's voice rang out behind him.
"Well, that was a waste of time."
"Oh?" The implication naturally caught his attention, but he feigned disinterest; his cousin was almost too perceptive at times, and he was in no humour to entertain questions.
"The lovely Miss Bennet never made an appearance, and though Mrs Collins is amiable enough, her husband remains as dull as ever. There was only so long I could bear his company."
"You could always have avoided such a fate by coming away with me," he pointed out dispassionately.
"Ah, but then I would have had to suffer through your black mood on the walk back. Mind telling me what's got into you all of a sudden, Darcy?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," he replied stiffly. "Is your packing completed?"
"All right, I'll let you change the subject for now, but only because I have the entire trip ahead of me in which to uncover what's going on. My man says he'll be finished by dinnertime."
"Very well; I'll go tell them to have the carriage ready at first light." He seized the opportunity to evade further interrogation once that was accomplished by spending time with Anne. Ostensibly he was saying farewell, but internally he was trying to resign himself to the prospect of one day acceding to his aunt's wishes and taking her as his wife. He'd always rejected the notion out of hand in the past, but clearly his best efforts were insufficient to win the sort of woman he would want for that role, and familial duty made permanent bachelorhood impossible. That left the social climbers or his cousin. At least if he wed Anne she could finally emerge from under her mother's thumb, and she would be a better guide for Georgiana than some high society fortune hunter--or, worse still, Caroline Bingley. Nevertheless, even with all these thoughts in mind and his resentment and pain at their height, he could not quite bring himself to stomach the prospect of spending his life with Anne or any other woman. Perhaps he should cease thinking of the matter until he had no alternative.
As was usually the case, Lady Catherine monopolised everyone's attention at dinner, making private conversation impossible. When the evening drew to a close, Darcy and Fitzwilliam formally took leave of their aunt. They departed at dawn as scheduled, seen off by only a sleepy footman. Despite his dread of spending the next several hours trapped in a closed carriage with his too-perceptive cousin, it was with a sense of relief that he left behind Rosings and all the associations he now held with the area.
Predictably enough, he was subjected to a cross-examination throughout the ride to London. Perhaps the only positive outcome of his disastrous interview with Miss Bennet two nights earlier was that he was sunk so deep in his own thoughts and recriminations that he barely heard his cousin's questions. Instead he was too busy mentally revisiting every moment of his acquaintance with Miss Bennet yet again, endeavouring to determine where he'd gone wrong.
They hadn't begun well, he admitted that. But even as early as her stay at Netherfield to tend to her sister, they had had such stimulating conversations. She was so refreshingly forthright, and even now he could swear she had enjoyed their debates as much as he had. Clearly, he was wrong. How could he have been so misguided? How did he mistake the depth of loathing she'd revealed to him at Hunsford for pleasure? These questions consumed him even after they'd reached their destination, to the point where he barely returned Georgiana's greeting. He realised his lapse later, in his study, but by then it was too late to rectify the situation without having to offer an explanation for his uncharacteristic distraction. That was something he was not prepared to do, not even to soothe his sister's hurt feelings.
He stayed in his study for the remainder of the evening, then retired to his chamber for his third mostly-sleepless night in a row. Knowing well the importance of maintaining appearances, he forced himself to attend breakfast at his usual hour and make enquiries as to Georgiana's activities since last he'd seen her. He left it to Fitzwilliam to answer her own questions about their time in Kent. He heard with relief Mrs Annesley's tactful suggestion that it was time for her charge to begin her morning practise. Georgiana, as always, graciously complied, temporarily sparing him from further interrogation.
Pleading estate business left unattended to during their stay at Rosings, and taking shameless advantage of the fact that he was now surrounded by his own unswervingly loyal staff, Darcy promptly returned to his study, hoping to elude Fitzwilliam's curiosity for the remainder of the day. If only he made it to the following morning, the Colonel would run out of leave and be forced to re-join his regiment.
Whether no one attempted to interrupt him or his staff was indeed effective at keeping his relations away, Darcy remained undisturbed for the next several hours. His conscience prodded him to make a genuine effort at dealing with business, but he found concentration difficult. As had been happening far too often in the past several months, his mind kept drifting to thoughts of Elizabeth Bennet, although now he took no pleasure in them.
He failed to understand how she could dislike him so strongly as to overlook all his advantages. Though he'd long known Elizabeth herself was not one of those mercenary young women he encountered so often, his wealth could only be in his favour. He was more than capable of making her comfortable for the rest of her life, which she surely must take into consideration when deciding her future, in light of her father's inability to provide for his family after his death. For Mrs Bennet, he knew, it alone would be sufficient to make him a desirable match for her daughter.
He tried to take some consolation in the notion that Mrs Bennet's inevitable reaction to learning one of her daughters had rejected a man of his standing might prompt Elizabeth to keep the matter to herself, thereby inadvertently sparing him from having his humiliation made public.
But even disregarding his financial status, there were numerous factors in his favour. He came from old, prominent families on both sides; was well-bred and well-educated; was often described as being intelligent and handsome; took his responsibilities seriously; and had sound principles. He was admittedly not as sociable or gregarious as some other men, but that meant that neither was he flighty, as such men often were. His attention was not constantly in search of a newer, fresher object. George Wickham's slanders aside, none could doubt his character.
How, then, had he failed so entirely to earn Elizabeth Bennet's goodwill? Surely it could not be attributed entirely to Wickham; the lady had said herself that her dislike of him had already been established before Wickham had had the opportunity to poison her opinion of him. She had exhibited no aversion to dancing with him at Netherfield, and although he hadn't acquitted himself as well as he would have liked, knowing what he did now it seemed obvious that she had been deliberately provoking him with her references to Wickham. Surely she would not be so unjust as to hold against him behaviour she herself intentionally drew out.
Such thoughts haunted him, adding to his distress by making it impossible to concentrate on the tasks he really ought to be focusing on. Although his steward was fully capable of handling the day-to-day business of the estate, Darcy's recent prolonged absences--first in Hertfordshire, then in Kent--had led to the accumulation of matters which, while not urgent enough to send to him directly as they had arisen, nonetheless required his personal attention. Attention which he appeared incapable of giving them. Adding the resultant guilt to his other all-consuming thoughts did nothing to rectify the situation.
By the time dinner rolled around, he was almost relieved for the distraction it would provide, despite the dangers of sitting at table with Fitzwilliam. To forestall any questions, he made a point of asking Georgiana about her day, feigning interest in every minute detail. His cousin kept shooting him looks that said "I know what you're trying to do", but so long as it was effective he really didn't have the energy to care. After the meal, he requested that she play for them, and volunteered to sit by her and turn the pages, though that required paying sufficient attention to what was happening around him to know when to do so. He welcomed the impetus to force himself out of his darker thoughts.
Once again he retired early, careful to lock the door to his chamber after his valet withdrew. No need to risk a late-night visit from inquisitive relations who had never learned to stay out of others' private affairs.
Again Darcy slept poorly, his mind refusing to calm long enough for any meaningful rest despite his body's protests. Although he abandoned any hope of sleep well before dawn, he did not go down until well after he heard the carriage depart, taking his cousin with it.
Georgiana alone, he felt, he was strong enough to face. She knew nothing about Miss Bennet's visit to Kent; although he had from time to time mentioned her in his letters from Netherfield, his own conflicting emotions had kept him silent on the subject when writing from Rosings. He was confident he could deflect any passing inquiries she might happen to make regarding his Hertfordshire acquaintance without her noticing anything peculiar. He was nevertheless in no mood to be sociable even with her, and was relieved when Mrs Annesley hinted that it was time they leave him to attend to business matters.
The following days passed in much the same manner. Eventually the accumulated exhaustion enabled him to sleep nights, but during his waking hours he continued to brood over every interaction between himself and Miss Bennet, and what it might mean. What he had missed that had caused her to decide against him so emphatically. When he stopped to consider the matter, he was relieved Georgiana was too young to be out, as it relieved him of the burden of having to accompany her into society he preferred to avoid under the best of circumstances, and shunned altogether now. As it was, he could safely leave his sister to the care of her companion, in whose sense and judgement he trusted considerably more than Mrs Younge's. At least that was one worry he could leave to someone else.
His staff had longstanding orders not to admit most visitors--another luxury he would have to give up after Georgiana came out--so he was able to spend the vast majority of each day in uninterrupted reflection. Whether that was a blessing or a curse he had yet to determine. It enabled him to escape the pretense of caring about others' concerns--for which he had neither the energy nor the will, disliking anything that came so near dishonesty--but left him with nothing to force his mind from thoughts he'd been drowning in since that disastrous evening. The sameness of his days led one to blend into the next without distinction until one afternoon his butler knocked and entered.
Darcy looked up, surprised at the intrusion, and noticed the message tray he was bearing. "I'm not receiving visitors," he said curtly.
He crossed the room nevertheless and presented the tray. Glancing at it involuntarily, Darcy saw Bingley's card. That explained the interruption; Bingley was on the list of people whose calls he ordinarily welcomed. Now, however, the last thing he wanted was to see someone who knew him so well. Then, of course, there was the pang of guilt that struck him the moment he'd seen Bingley's name. Reluctantly, he said, "I am not at home."
"Very good, sir."
Watching the door close, leaving him in solitude once more, Darcy considered for the first time how selfish he'd been. Not once had he considered what Elizabeth Bennet's revelations meant for Bingley. He could forgive himself for persuading Bingley not to return to Netherfield--his personal motives aside, at the time he had truly believed Bingley's affections to be unrequited--but his first task on returning to London ought to have been to enlighten his friend now that he knew he was mistaken. He was ashamed to realise he had not even considered the idea.
Even now he was reluctant to confess his error. Doing so would in all likelihood secure his friend's happiness, it was true, but it would also require relating his own humiliation. There was no way to inform Bingley of one Miss Bennet's affection without explaining the context in which the other had revealed such private information. They had certainly not been such intimate acquaintances as to make such a confidence unremarkable, even to one of Bingley's unsuspicious and open nature. Moreover, if Bingley did succeed in his suit, there could be no way to avoid being thrust into the society of the one person he both longed and dreaded to see again. There was no doubt that it made him a poor friend, but he could not bring himself to face that possibility. Not yet. It was far too soon; he had not gained sufficient control of his feelings to withstand such a meeting. Yet nor could he lie to anyone, much less so good a friend as Bingley. No, the only thing to be done was to avoid him until some better solution presented itself.
Not surprisingly, the reminder of having, however innocently, put Bingley through some of the pain he himself was now experiencing left Darcy feeling even worse. He'd failed his sister the previous year, in choosing such an unsuitable woman to look after her; he'd failed to earn the esteem of Miss Bennet, and imposed his most unwanted attentions on her; now, he realised, he'd failed his dearest friend as well.
Needless to say, by the time he emerged for dinner, he was in a foul mood. Georgiana, excited about some piece of music she'd finally mastered, appeared not to notice; when she had finished regaling him with information about the piece and how long it had taken her to learn it, she innocently remarked that she had seen Bingley's card in the hall, and asked why he had not stayed to dine with them as he usually did. Without thinking, he snapped at her to stop asking him questions.
He regretted it immediately. He didn't need the tears in Georgiana's eyes or the usually unflappable Mrs Annesley's shocked expression to tell him he had been entirely too harsh; they were, after all, trying to encourage Georgiana to speak more, and in any case, she had done nothing that deserved a scolding. Her inquiry was perfectly commonplace; she had no notion of how the reminder would hurt him. Knowing how deeply she felt any criticism, he rushed to repair the damage as best he could.
"Georgiana, I apologise. That was unpardonable of me. I'm afraid I am...not myself, of late. You did not deserve to be spoken to so harshly. Can you forgive me?"
His sister was no longer meeting his eyes, he noticed, but she nodded, then asked to be excused. Mrs Annesley rose as well, following her charge out of the room with a look of reproach and a coldly polite, "Good evening, sir."
Groaning in self-disgust, Darcy buried his head in his hands, unable to erase the look on his sister's face from his mind. It appeared he was incapable of behaving properly towards any woman, even the one who most deserved his gentlest treatment. The image of Georgiana's hurt, crestfallen expression contrasted sharply with the memory of Elizabeth Bennet's anger and disgust as she informed him that his application for her hand would have failed even if he had "behaved in a more gentleman-like manner."
He remained there for some time, contemplating the potential benefits of indulging in more than his customary amount of brandy before dismissing it as only a temporary relief. The faces of the two beings he loved most in the world refused to fade from his memory, their contrasting images serving as a double reminder of his faults, Miss Bennet's reproofs ringing in his ears.
Hours later, he realised that while it was too late to make things right with Miss Bennet, Georgiana deserved more from him. It was time he learned to be a better brother, a better man. He would take the faults enumerated to him at Hunsford and strive to correct them; his manners and temperament both could use some improvement, he saw now. No true gentleman could ever have a harsh word for so sweet a girl as his dear sister, which could only mean that he had indeed been misjudging himself all along.
He might have lost the opportunity to earn Elizabeth Bennet's affection and respect, but he could nevertheless take it upon himself to become worthy of them.
He would start tomorrow.