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tolerably well acquainted

Chapter Text

“But Lizzy, you can tell us whether it is like or not.”

Elizabeth stared down at the miniature. Of course, she knew what Darcy looked like. She had seen him more times than she had bothered to count, in Hertfordshire and Kent both. At a moment’s thought, she could bring to mind the frozen hauteur of his face, the distaste evident in the set of his shoulders and folded arms, the cold voice. Who would find any of that in a miniature?

“Does that young lady know Mr Darcy?” cried Mrs Reynolds.

Elizabeth glanced up. His housekeeper was smiling with unaffected pleasure and—yes, approval. She could not help but flush at that.

“A little,” she said.

“And do you not think him a very handsome gentleman, ma'am?”

In perfect honesty, she had always disliked him too much to think about it one way or the other. Well, perhaps at first she had noticed—Elizabeth lowered her eyes back to the picture. The nose was too broad, she decided. Darcy’s was straight, but narrower. And the lips were wrong, though that seemed a quirk of the artist. He gave everyone tiny rosebud mouths, even Wickham, with his wide smile. The oval shape of the face was exactly Darcy’s, though, and the sharp line of jaw and cheekbone, the hair falling over his forehead, the dark blue of the eyes. Did he have longer eye-lashes? She thought so. And, of course, the miniature would not show him towering over everyone in the room. Really, even when she believed him absolutely depraved, she had never considered him an ill-looking man—not, she thought, that eye-lashes and a good figure could compensate for everything else.

“Yes,” she said, hearing her voice catch. She felt her cheeks turn even hotter. “Very handsome.”

“I am sure I know of none so handsome,” said Mrs Reynolds, in a tone of the utmost satisfaction. Mr and Mrs Gardiner exchanged smiles. “But in the gallery upstairs you will see a finer, larger picture of him than this. This room was my late master’s favourite room, and these miniatures are just as they used to be then. He was very fond of them.”

Elizabeth’s eyes went back to Wickham’s miniature. Well, that explained that.

“And here is one of Miss Darcy, drawn at the same time.”

They dutifully studied the picture of Jane’s rival, though the most suspicious observer could not have seen a rival for anything in the round face, with its wide eyes and dark curls. Over ten years Darcy’s junior, Elizabeth remembered.

“She was but eight years old,” said Mrs Reynolds fondly.

The twitch about Mr Gardiner’s lips grew more pronounced. “And is Miss Darcy as handsome as her brother?”

“Oh! yes!” cried Mrs Reynolds. “The handsomest young lady that ever was seen; and so accomplished!—She plays and sings all day long. In the next room is a new instrument just come down for her—a present from my master; she comes here tomorrow with him.”

“Is your master much at Pemberley in the course of the year?”

Mrs Reynolds heaved a deep sigh. “Not as much as I could wish, sir; but I daresay he may spend half his time here; and Miss Darcy is always down for the summer months.”

Except when she goes to Ramsgate. But then, she was only fifteen that summer, sixteen this year. Before that, she would have doubtless been too young. Elizabeth looked back at the girlish face in the miniature. Eight years ago, then. She would not be that child now; still, Elizabeth could not help thinking even less of Wickham than before.

“If your master would marry,” Mr Gardiner was saying, in his easy, pleasant way, “you might see more of him.”

Mrs Reynolds straightened up. “Yes, sir, but I do not know when that will be. I do not know who is good enough for him!”

Mr and Mrs Gardiner smiled at that pronouncement, so exactly of a kind with the rest. Perhaps they only saw family pride, for they must believe it all nonsense. Elizabeth, with her better information, could not help blurting out,

“It is very much to his credit, I am sure, that you should think so.”

The housekeeper stared at her. “I say no more than the truth,” she said, plainly taken aback, “and what everybody will say that knows him.”

Elizabeth’s eyebrows rose. Even family partiality, she thought, could not go that far.

“I have never had a cross word from him in my life, and I have known him ever since he was four years old.”

Mrs Reynolds could not feel more surprise at Elizabeth’s doubt, than Elizabeth felt at this. It was one thing to miss the real Darcy in a miniature drawn eight years earlier, by an unfamiliar artist. It was quite another to find that this woman who had lived at his whim for over twenty years, had never encountered the original as Elizabeth knew him. She could not make any sense of it. Elizabeth had always believed him ill-tempered, known it from his own conduct—or—of course, none of it had been quite so bad as she believed, she had recognized that long ago, but—still. Even supposing Mrs Reynolds to have overestimated his merits, the man she knew could not possibly have lived out a life so contrary to her every idea of him. Never spoken harshly to a servant? Their own Mrs Hill could not have said the same of anyone but Jane.

Darcy, surely, was no Jane?

Mr Gardiner remarked, “There are very few people of whom so much can be said. You are lucky in having such a master.”

Mrs Reynolds beamed. “Yes, sir, I know I am. If I was to go through the world, I could not meet with a better. But,” she added, “I have always observed that they who are good-natured when children are good-natured when they grow up, and he was always the sweetest-tempered, most generous-hearted boy in the world.” She wheeled around, leading them towards the next room.

Elizabeth stood stock-still for a moment, stunned, then had to hurry to catch up, her mind whirling. Darcy? Darcy, who … but Elizabeth looked at the housekeeper’s thin, frail form, saw her evident pride in her place in the great family, and even Darcy’s worst moments seemed to fade into insignificance. He should not have said what he did, of course, nothing could make it appropriate, but—how many other men, pleasanter in a ballroom, would have treated a Mrs Reynolds half so well? How many would even have kept her on at her age?

Mrs Reynolds dutifully described the pictures, the price of the furniture, the size of the rooms, directing her comments as much to Elizabeth as her uncle and aunt. Mr and Mrs Gardiner seemed to think nothing of it, Mrs Reynolds herself could not possibly know that Elizabeth might have been her mistress, and Elizabeth’s thoughts were too scattered to catch above a word in ten, but still she blushed and blushed again. It was only when Mr Gardiner made conversation with the housekeeper that she composed herself somewhat; and only when he smiled and steered Mrs Reynolds back to her favourite subject that Elizabeth managed to attend to what she said.

“He is the best landlord and the best master that ever lived. Not like the wild young men nowadays, who think of nothing but themselves.”

Your selfish disdain for the feelings of others. Elizabeth swallowed. How could this be the same man?

Mrs Reynolds went on, “There is not one of his tenants or servants but what will give him a good name. Some people call him proud; but I am sure I never saw anything of it. To my fancy, it is only because he does not rattle away like other young men.”

He certainly was not a rattle. But she would never have dreamed that anyone would regard him in so amiable a light, not even those who loved him best, his friend and cousin and unseen sister. But a servant, an intelligent, respectable woman who had lived under his power from his boyhood? Whose praise could be more valuable? She trailed after Mrs Reynolds, climbing up the staircase without much seeing it.

“This fine account of him is not quite consistent with his behaviour to our poor friend,” Mrs Gardiner whispered into her ear.

Wickham’s slander was the least of Elizabeth’s concerns. She murmured back, “Perhaps we might be deceived.”

Mrs Gardiner looked startled. “That is not very likely. Our authority was too good.”

Elizabeth could only shake her head.

Mrs Reynolds showed them into a pretty sitting room, even lighter and more elegant than those they had seen thus far. Elizabeth, distracted as she was, found herself glancing around in pleasure.

“This room was only just refitted,” Mrs Reynolds announced. “Mr Darcy had it done to give pleasure to Miss Darcy, after she took a fancy to the room when she was last here.”

Now she did think of Wickham’s account. Brotherly pride, he had said, voice cooling, and a very kind and careful guardian of his sister; and you will hear him generally cried up as the most attentive and best of brothers. She supposed Wickham would know that. But it was not out of pride that a man decorated a room on the chance that his sister might like it.

“He is certainly a good brother,” she said aloud, walking over to one of the windows. Soft yellow curtains hung about it, framing the pane without obscuring her view. Elizabeth brushed the fine fabric. She had seen nothing to make her doubt Darcy’s fraternal loyalties—Miss Bingley plainly thought flattering his sister a path to his favour, and whenever he mentioned Miss Darcy it was with evident fondness, even when describing her misadventure with Wickham. Wickham himself could only half-heartedly attribute it to pride. Yet she felt almost overpowered, caught a glimmer of her wide, startled eyes in the glass. Her father, on whose affection she had always depended, would never have done such a thing.

“I can only imagine how delighted Miss Darcy will be when she sees it,” said Mrs Reynolds, smiling fondly. “And this is always the way with him! Whatever can give his sister any pleasure is sure to be done in a moment. There is nothing he would not do for her.”

But then, Elizabeth thought, Mr Bennet would never have put himself to real trouble for her sake, or anyone’s. Once, she had assured herself that Darcy, for all his arrogance, could never measure up to her father, never approach his merits, whatever the latter’s eccentricities. Even once she realized that Darcy was not the monster she had thought him, she did not change her mind about that. Yet—she looked around the room with a lump in her throat. Miss Darcy was luckier in her brother than Elizabeth and Jane in their living parents.

She numbly followed Mrs Reynolds into the long gallery, filled with portraits and paintings that she supposed were good. Elizabeth’s interest in the family must be confined to the man she knew, not remote ancestors, and she knew nothing of art; she would have rather returned to Miss Darcy’s drawings, which were at least comprehensible. While Mrs Reynolds explained the history of some armoured Darcy who had fought for the Lancastrians, Elizabeth wandered further down the hall, searching for the one face she would know.

And then she saw him, just past a handsome, dark-haired lady. Mrs Reynolds had been right; it was a much finer picture than the miniature, the painted features unmistakably those she recalled. Even the eye-lashes, she thought, and suppressed a nervous giggle, glancing back at Mrs Reynolds and the Gardiners. They didn’t seem to have noticed anything, and she returned her gaze to the painting. She’d rather expected to find him coldly expressionless, as she always thought of him—but he was smiling, the smile one she recognized as soon as she saw it. As often as not, that was how he looked at her. She had taken it as a smirk, a sneer, when she allowed herself to see it at all: anything but good humour.

On the way back, Elizabeth stopped before the portrait again.

“That was taken in my late master’s lifetime,” said Mrs Reynolds, on a sigh.

So at least five years ago. He must have changed very little since then, thought Elizabeth, gazing upwards once more. How funny! She had never liked him half so much as she did in this moment, certainly never thought better of him. He was not only the man who had slighted her at a dance, in a proposal of marriage, given disastrous advice to a friend. He was a brother, a landlord, a master; and there his power was absolute. In an instant, he could alter the shape of anyone’s life, of hundreds of people’s lives. He could bring happiness or misery, act for good or evil, whatever he chose. And every word suggested that he had chosen good, not here or there, but consistently, actively caring for the welfare of others. Good-humoured and benevolent—even setting aside Wickham’s lies, was that not the exact opposite of what she had always believed him?

Not without reason, of course, but not entirely with it, either. Elizabeth stepped back, so that the painted eyes seemed to settle upon her. For the first time, she felt gratified to have been loved by such a man. She did not regret refusing him; but she was grateful nonetheless.

They left the house not long afterwards, Mrs Reynolds delivering them to a gardener. As he led them across the lawn, towards the river, they all paused to look back one more time.

“A very fine place,” Mr Gardiner remarked. “Elizabethan, I suppose, or perhaps later? Yet I cannot quite place the chapel—”

And Mr Darcy walked out from behind the stables.

He was not twenty yards away; Elizabeth could not have evaded his sight had she dived into the river, which she was very nearly tempted to do. He started back, eyes flying wide open, cheeks flushing red, and Elizabeth could feel the shock mirrored on her own face, heat crawling upon her skin. For a moment he did nothing but stare at her, while Elizabeth, more embarrassed than she had ever been in her life, dropped her eyes, wishing she could hide behind her uncle or aunt or anything. Instead she stood just in front of them, turning away, while Darcy drew nearer.

“Miss Bennet,” he said, and if his voice were not exactly welcoming, it was not indignant either. “I—I … what an unexpected pleasure. I did not … I hope you are well?”

She froze, breath catching in her throat. “Y-yes, very well, sir.”

“And your family? They are in good health?”

Elizabeth said something in reply—perhaps that they had all died of smallpox—she knew not what.

“I … am glad to hear it,” he said, then said something so quickly that she could not catch the words.

“I beg your pardon?”

He coloured even more deeply. “Have you been long in Derbyshire? When did you leave Longbourn?”

Elizabeth answered as well as she could, clinging to her composure; it took a few terrible seconds to dredge up their itinerary.

“Your sisters, I hope, are all well? Are they all at home?”

“No—that is, they are all in excellent health, but my sister Lydia has gone to Brighton. She is companion to … a lady there.” She had no intention of mentioning the militia if she could help it. In that instant, the entire British army seemed to exist only to remind her of one of its most unworthy members.

“Ah. And your parents? You left them how long ago?”

Had she been less distracted herself, she might have stared. “Nine days, sir. They are very well, also.”

“I am glad to hear it,” he said. “And when did you come to—Bakewell, is it?”

The Darcy of her memories always spoke with a cool assurance, but there was nothing of that in this one. His voice was higher than she remembered, at once hesitant and quick. She had only dared one brief glance at his face, embarrassment flooding her the moment she caught his startled eyes. Now she kept her gaze fixed on the grass beneath her feet.

He fell silent for several moments. Just as Elizabeth realized with some horror that she had left him—Mr Darcy—to carry the conversation on his own, he apologized for keeping her and strode away towards his house. She let out a shaking breath.

But, of course, the respite was brief. Her aunt and uncle immediately hurried forward the last few feet to stand on either side of her.

“A fine figure of a man,” Mr Gardiner remarked.

Elizabeth stared after Darcy’s retreating form, trying with all her strength not to have an opinion on that point. He was certainly as tall as she remembered.

“He does have an excellent build,” said Mrs Gardiner. “Rather lean, but that suits him, I think?”

Merciful God, Elizabeth thought. Why had she even come here? Why had she not demurred more firmly, or remained in the inn while they went on? What must he think?—that she had purposely thrown herself in his way! that she—oh! She could not imagine a more terrible meeting than the one that had just occurred. Why had he come? It was his house, true, but everyone had said he was not in the country—she could not have known—he was so vain, surely he must think—oh, no, no.

Thinking back to her brief glimpse of him, he’d been dressed for riding, hair windblown, a few flecks of mud on his coat. He must have only just arrived when he espied her. And he had been so—so different! She would not have been surprised had he refused to speak to her at all, or ordered her off his property. But he had not only addressed her. Awkward as he was, he had also been polite—more than polite, courteous in his stiff way, his manner gentle even as he blushed and stammered. Asking after her family! The family he had dismissed not many months ago. She could not imagine the reason.