The following day, the parsonage paid a condolence call on the family at Rosings, clad in their mourning regalia, and they returned the next day after church, for Lady Catherine had arranged a sort of memorial gathering for Anne, which all the local families respectfully attended. Jane took it upon herself to assist with all of the duties of hostess that Lady Catherine was too stricken to perform. As she served refreshments and made all the appropriate comments, Elizabeth began to notice several curious undercurrents of the assembled group.
All of the young people from Cranbrook seemed to have coupled up very cozily, Emily and Mr. Sutton most of all. As the odd man out, Seymour Sutton seemed intent on focusing his attentions, unwelcome as they were, upon Elizabeth. Mr. Darcy, though he did not speak to her, beyond accepting her condolences, seemed to look her way a great deal. She was still unsure as to the exact degree of their acquaintance; did an introduction even count, if she did not at all remember it? With too much else to occupy her thoughts, including the sad reason for their gathering, Elizabeth had to tuck this matter away for further consideration.
She was introduced to Mr. Robert Fitzwilliam, whose conversation was unhappily monopolized by Mr. Collins, having been informed by his wife of the new dynamic at Rosings. After hearing how eager her brother-in-law had been to extol on the many similarities of the two gentlemen’s situations in life, Elizabeth chose to take Jane’s approach, and conveniently hear as little of it as possible.
Lady Rebecca was duly mournful, and took care to speak to everyone a little, saying what was right and proper. However, she also took every opportunity of emphasizing the great comfort she felt in having her dearest friend Elizabeth so close by at such a trying time, often in the hearing of Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine.
Jane was very attentive to Lady Catherine, whose demeanor was vastly altered from her previous conceit. Rather than issuing authoritative opinions and unsolicited advice, as seemed to be her wont, the dowager said very little to anybody, her haughty expression now a blank. Jane remained at her ladyship’s side for most of the visit, and Elizabeth quickly realized that there was a great deal of genuine affection between Jane and Lady Catherine, and no little animosity between Jane and Lady Rebecca. It was no surprise, given their first encounter, and the great difference in their temperaments. Though Jane never said anything for which she might rightly be rebuked, her tone and expression made it abundantly clear that she resented Lady Rebecca’s familiarity with Elizabeth, and that she was affronted on Lady Catherine’s behalf.
Jane made no attempt to conceal her feelings when they returned to the parsonage. As Mr. Collins had remained at the manor to be of service to the family, the two sisters were left alone, and argument was inevitable. Jane sat brooding for some time after they had entered the house, taking up some embroidery work and then setting it back down several times. Elizabeth began to grow nervous as her sister’s anxious fidgeting increased, and was on the verge of quitting the room entirely, when Jane finally exploded. “I cannot imagine how you tolerate Lady Rebecca, Lizzy. I think you do not see her true nature – or perhaps you do not care.”
Bracing herself, Elizabeth stared her sister down. “Jane, I cannot imagine this manner of conversation doing either of us any credit. Perhaps we had best let the matter drop.”
“I cannot. Her behavior toward Lady Catherine at such a time is unpardonable,” Jane spat.
Elizabeth took a deep breath, determined not to be baited into a heated argument. “Your loyalty to her does you credit, but really, Jane, what is to be done? I think it better for everyone concerned if we both try to stay out of it. If Lady Catherine is displeased with her family, I am sure she is perfectly capable of addressing the matter directly.”
“But she is bereaved! She has suffered a terrible loss, and does not deserve to be so ill used by her relations.”
“They are all bereaved by Anne’s loss; Lady Catherine is not the only one to feel it, and it is not for us to stand in judgement.”
“But who could not feel for her? She has done so much for us. I cannot sit idly by while she is thus treated. The Fitzwilliams are grasping, artful people, and your friend is the worst of them. How she rejoiced in her brother’s elevation, with no regard to how callously Lady Catherine is shunted to the side, cast out of her own home and shipped off to the dower house. It is not right!”
“Perhaps not, but it is the law, Jane. Estates are passed down, from one generation to the next, as I am sure you are fully aware.”
“How dare you? I see what you mean, you insolent girl. I am ashamed of you. You seem to think nothing at all of your own sister, and yet you are all too eager to defend… those people! Perhaps you think to catch the viscount’s eye, clinging to his impudent sister and swooning at the sight of him.”
Elizabeth was horrified. “Jane, no!”
“No? I saw how he spoke to you, when they first arrived. He ought to have addressed one of the gentlemen, but no, he only had eyes for you. No wonder you could not secure your Mr. Bingley. He might have been a fine match, but you would aim too high!”
Is that was this is about? “Jane, I beg you would stop this, think of what you are saying. Whatever it is that has truly displeased you, can you not remember that I am your sister? Let us stop this, and speak reasonably,” Elizabeth cried, angry tears beginning to burst forth.
Jane seemed poised to lash out again, but fell silent, a look of alarm on her face. A moment later, Elizabeth realized they were not alone; behind her, a gentleman cleared his throat.
Elizabeth spun around, wiping the tears from her face. Mr. Darcy stood in the doorway, looking deeply uncomfortable. Before she could speak, he cleared his throat again and took a step toward her. He held her reticule in his hands, and awkwardly offered it to her. “You left this – I came to return it. I knocked, but….”
“The servants are all helping your aunt,” Elizabeth answered, unable to meet his eye. “I thank you for returning this, sir. It is very kind.”
“Indeed,” Jane agreed, her attitude instantly shifting back toward her usual demure civility. “I wonder at your coming all this way on account of foolish Lizzy. My husband might have brought it back when he returns from the manor.”
Elizabeth stared at her sister in horror. Mr. Darcy was sure to have overheard far too much of Jane’s vitriol, and yet she offered him the same innocent smile she had been fooling everyone with for years. Elizabeth braved a glance at Mr. Darcy, and was gratified with the severe glare he cast upon her sister.
“It is no trouble, madam. The fresh air and exercise were most welcome. I am only sorry to have intruded at an inopportune moment. I will leave you now.” With a sympathetic nod at Elizabeth, he gave a slight bow and hastened from the room.
Jane watched him depart, her civility turning toward suspicion. When Mr. Darcy had gone, she fixed Elizabeth with an accusatory look. “How disappointed you must be that Lord Hartley did not take your bait.”
“Jane, this is madness! I did not leave my reticule on purpose. I have no designs on that gentleman, or any other.”
“You must admit, it does not look good. No better than Lydia dropping handkerchiefs for the soldiers to pick up.”
Elizabeth threw her hands up in frustration. “If that is what you truly believe of me, I cannot imagine myself to be welcome in your home any longer. I certainly have no desire to remain. I will go see to the packing of my trunks.”
Jane’s anger again turned to panic, and she grabbed her sister by the arm. “No, wait. I do not wish you to leave. Oh Lizzy, why must we fight like this? I only wish for us to be friends.”
Elizabeth recoiled from Jane’s grasp with enough force to send her sister staggering backward. “Have you truly lost you mind? You have insulted me in every possible way. You have threatened me, humiliated me, and accused me of the worst sort of behavior. And you have stolen and destroyed my property! No, Jane, I am done with you.”
Jane let out a wild shriek that dissolved into sobs as she sank onto the sofa. “Lizzy, please! Do not leave me.”
Elizabeth could only gape at her sister in sheer dismay, and for a moment she wondered if Jane had truly gone mad. Every logical impulse told her to flee before Jane could do her any further harm, and yet the sight of Jane’s distress still tore at her heart. After what felt like an eternity of struggling with herself, Elizabeth, with a heavy groan, sat down beside her sister. She chewed her lip for a moment, still too angry to offer any words of consolation.
Finally, Jane stopped her weeping and looked up, taking Elizabeth’s hand in hers. Elizabeth tensed, and she stared expectantly at her sister, her jaw taut with anger. Jane’s lip quivered as though she might start crying again, but she did not. “How you must despise me,” she sighed.
“I do not despise you, Jane, but I do not like you very much, either, at present. Perhaps I do not even know you.”
Jane flinched. “What an awful thing to say.”
“After everything that you have said to me?”
Jane’s voice was low and lifeless, and she leaned forward, her elbows propped on her knees and her head resting in her hands. “All I wanted was for you to be happy for me, to see the wisdom in my marriage, and to let me make a good match for you, too.”
Withdrawing her hand, Elizabeth grimaced at her sister. “Yet you were angered when you supposed Lord Hartley to be interested in me? How can that be?”
“I wanted you to need my help. You used to look up to me.”
“You used to be a better person.”
Jane’s head snapped up, and she gave Elizabeth a dark look. “I am still a good person. ‘Tis those Fitzwilliams who aren’t good people. I know they cannot dismiss my husband, but they have the power to make our lives here very unpleasant, and I have no doubt that they will. It may satisfy your vanity to have such elevated friends, but what kind of people turn their own aunt out of the house before her daughter is cold in her grave?”
Realization dawned on Elizabeth. Lady Catherine, who doted on Jane, had been supplanted by the Fitzwilliams, who were fond of Elizabeth. For the first time in her life, Jane was jealous of her sister. Though it was tempting to take pleasure in the thought, Elizabeth found it troubling.
Her first object was to coax some rational sense back in to Jane, as immediate departure was not an option. “All will be well, I am sure of it. Lady Catherine is not insensible to your affection for her, and she will still be a good friend to you. She is fond of being useful to others, you said so yourself. And I daresay you will still be much in company with her, and will see that she is not mistreated by her family. I promise, they are not the villains you fear them to be, and treating them as such is hardly the way to foster a friendship. You made a favorable impression on Lady Catherine when first you came here, and I know you can do it again with her relations. They are not so very elevated – they have been very kind to me.”
Jane considered this for a moment. “That is true. If they can like you, why should they not like me?”
“And besides,” Elizabeth added, unable to resist herself, “If you are right about Lord Hartley harboring tender feelings for me, he should hardly let his brother make mine so very unhappy.”
“Oh Lizzy, now I know you are teasing me. You may refute it, if you like, only promise me you will not encourage him. It will only make things harder on me, and besides, there are several very suitable alternatives at Cranbrook.”
“As I said, I have no designs on any gentleman at present. I came into the country only to make amends with you, Jane, and not to find a suitable gentleman. You do have some very agreeable neighbors just now, I will own, but I am not expecting any of them to be paying their addresses.”
With Elizabeth’s assurances, Jane returned to a vastly improved state of mind. Elizabeth, though relieved to have diffused their altercation, could not shake off her disillusionment. Jane’s fragile vanity required a degree of mollification that Elizabeth felt herself unequal to sustaining for very long, and she dreaded the next, inevitable outburst when Jane felt eclipsed by her sister.
Elizabeth slipped out of the house for the early morning walk that had become part of her routine since arriving in Kent. It felt good to partake of the exercise, the solitude, and the beauty of nature all at once, especially after being unable to do so for two long months in London. Everything in the landscape bespoke the coming of spring, and Elizabeth enjoyed the feeling of renewal awakened within her. Amid such an exquisite dawn, the events of the previous day seemed far away, and not at all so very bad.
She had been given some new insight into her sister’s mind, and Jane had finally been honest, to some extent, about her feelings; it was a good start. Elizabeth had never imagined her sister to be such a complex creature, but was willing to own that perhaps that was a failing on her part. Jane was neither all good nor all bad, but equal measures of both – she was human. Elizabeth had long been encouraged by her father to laugh at the follies of others, but had never, until Mr. Collins’ arrival in their lives, believed Jane capable of such folly, and could not laugh at the discovery.
It would take some getting used to, this new view of Jane. Elizabeth had long felt her sister to be worthy of praise, without ever realizing she was so dependent upon it. Elizabeth knew that she was going to have to tread carefully with her sister if they were to stand any chance of reconciliation.
A turn of the path led Elizabeth into a little clearing, where she had discovered a particularly scenic spot on her previous walks. Over the ebbing of the stream, Elizabeth thought she heard the sound of someone crying, and she hesitated, peering around to see if anyone else was there. Off to the left, seated on a fallen tree trunk, sat Mr. Darcy, who appeared to be reading over a letter, his shoulders rising and falling with the force of his sobs.
Presuming him to be lamenting over some memento of his late wife, Elizabeth attempted to backtrack and find a different path, that the poor man might have his privacy. However, as she began to back away, she stepped on a twig, which snapped loudly, alerting him to her presence. His head shot up, and Elizabeth froze as his eyes alighted upon her.
“I am not spying,” she blurted out. “I am so sorry – I walk out every morning, and never see anybody – you must wish me away.” Feeling entirely foolish, Elizabeth had turned to flee, when he called out to her.
“Miss Bennet!” Elizabeth turned to face Mr. Darcy, who rose and gave a slight bow. “Perhaps fate has done me a small kindness. I should be grateful to accompany on your walk, if you would permit me. I have been too much alone with my thoughts of late, and your lively disposition would be a balm to my spirits.” He approached her, leaping over the little stream without losing a modicum of dignity, and offered her his arm.
Elizabeth was all astonishment at his gesture, and a strange sense of familiarity overtook her as she accepted his arm. “You are very kind, sir. I would understand completely if you were to send me on my way after coming upon you at such a moment.”
He steered them down the narrow path that ran along the steam, his gaze intent upon her. “I certainly shall not.”
Again came the strange sensation of a feeling half-remembered at the back of her mind. There was something there. “You were out of spirits at the ball,” Elizabeth murmured, struggling with the vague trace of a memory. “Oh, of course you were – your wife…. Oh, I am sorry.”
Mr. Darcy looked at her with feeling. “I have never been easy at such large parties, but yes, Anne’s illness weighed on me that night. I was at once eager for distraction, and disgusted with myself for finding it. Making your acquaintance that evening was, however, a pleasure I cannot regret.”
The sincerity in his words touched Elizabeth’s heart, though she felt a pang of guilt. How could it be that what had given him so much pleasure had not even made a mark on her memory? Good God, I hope I did not flirt with him!
Elizabeth made no reply but a sad smile, and Mr. Darcy continued. “I feel I can be open with you, Miss Bennet. Might I make a small confession?”
Oh no, I flirted with him, didn’t I? He is so handsome, and I was well and truly in my cups! Fearing the worst, Elizabeth nodded nervously, unable to meet his eye.
“When you came upon me, I was crying. You are too generous to mention it, perhaps you do not wish to make me feel less of a man, but I am not ashamed of it. Disguise of every sort is my abhorrence.”
Elizabeth let out a little sigh of relief at his innocuous revelation. “That is a worthy sentiment, indeed, and I can well understand your feelings at such a time, sir.”
They continued on in silence for a moment, before Mr. Darcy spoke again. “I had a letter from my sister this morning, which caused my distress.”
Elizabeth wondered at his disclosure, as though he thought grieving for his wife was not sufficient reason for tears. “Is she unwell, sir?”
He sighed. “I suppose it would be nearer the truth to say that things have not been well between us.”
“I am sorry to hear it. I would hope that at such a time, a sister might offer the comfort of consolation, rather than further distress.”
Mr. Darcy looked pained. “I had hoped so as well. Perhaps she is too young to see it that way.”
“What age is Miss Darcy?”
“Only just sixteen.”
Elizabeth gave a rueful smile. “Then I am very sorry for you, indeed. My youngest sister will be sixteen this summer, and has already given my poor parents gray hair.”
“Georgiana and I have lost both our parents.”
“Oh – I am so sorry.”
“As am I, Miss Bennet. I have not been the best guardian for her. Last summer, there was an incident…. She became rather rebellious, and I was sure she hated me. When I married Anne, I hoped things would improve, and Anne was determined to see us reconciled, but circumstances were… complicated. It seemed easier at the time to send her away. I made another attempt, but a month ago, and I thought we had made some real progress. But then, Anne’s passing, and the baby…. She is angry that I left them. I did it to protect her, to keep our aunt away by coming here instead. She does not see it that way; she says I have abandoned her.”
Elizabeth gasped. “How awful!”
“I suppose I should not blame her for it, though it wounds me. She is full young to understand my actions, but I am nonetheless disappointed.”
“It seems an impossible situation. It is strange, is it not, that the more you love someone, the more power you give them to wound you. Perhaps the very nature of love lends itself to disappointment, or at the least, impossible expectations.”
Mr. Darcy looked earnestly at her. “Very wise words indeed, Miss Bennet.”
“I speak from experience, sir, as the second of five sisters.” Mr. Darcy’s eyes widened in astonishment, and perhaps a little bit of hope, as if she had further wisdom to bestow upon him. “Do not think, Mr. Darcy, that I hold the answer to your puzzle. As much as I know how quarrelsome sisters can be, I am no more accomplished than yourself when it comes to reconciliation.” Elizabeth blushed, wondering what had possessed her to add that last part.
He looked at her with curiosity. “Mrs. Collins….”
“Yes. Much like you, I first thought distance would be the thing, and when that did not work, I came here to try again. It has been… challenging.”
“What happened? That is, you may tell me, if you wish to.”
“Mr. Collins,” Elizabeth sighed. They came to a small stone footbridge that arced a few feet above the stream, and Elizabeth sat down along the edge of it, her feet dangling above the water.
Mr. Darcy hesitated a moment before sitting down beside her, his face a blank as he gazed out across the water. “You dislike him.”
His lips curled upward, almost smiling. “Only to those who feel the same, I suppose.”
Elizabeth stared down at the stream, the steady ebb strangely soothing. “How can I respect her decision, when I disagree with it so very much? Yet, how else am I to restore the affection that once existed between us?”
“It is an impossible situation,” Mr. Darcy echoed, and as Elizabeth noticed the moisture glistening in his eyes, she supposed he was speaking of himself as well.
Darcy felt a single tear slide down his cheek, but as he locked eyes with Elizabeth, he was unable to wipe it away, for fear that any movement might shatter the moment. Here was the woman who had long occupied his thoughts, after only a single, brief meeting, and who seemed to understand him so perfectly. It was like a dream, only better, because it was real. In fact, it felt like the realest experience he had had in quite some time. He at once wanted to bare his soul to her, and to take her in his arms.
He wanted to believe she felt it, too, this exhilarating connection. She held his gaze for a moment longer before turning her eyes back to the stream, but extended her hand towards him, and he happily took it in his; the two sat in silence for several minutes, watching the sun rise over the trees, their hands clasped between them.
At length she withdrew, giving him an apologetic look. “Your hands are cold.”
He rubbed his hands together; she was right. “Shall we walk again?”
“If you wish.”
Darcy stood and helped Elizabeth to her feet, wishing their walk would never end. How easy it was just to be with her. He felt he could tell her anything and everything, and in the impulse of a moment, he asked, “Miss Bennet, might I unburden myself to you?”
He could see her surprise, but she offered him an empathetic smile. “Have you not done so already, sir? I can think of any number of people at Rosings that might be more qualified than I to hear what is on your mind, but I am happy to be your confidante.”
Darcy led them back onto the path through the grove, relishing the feeling of her gloved hand on his arm, and her kind eyes on himself. “I suppose that is just it – my family, as much as I love them, are too close to the situation. Lady Catherine is angry with me, Robert is terrified out of his wits, and Rebecca is, well, Rebecca. Richard has been a faithful friend all my life, and knows everything already, for he has experienced it all alongside me.”
Elizabeth looked questioningly at him. “Do you speak of the problems with your sister, sir, or of losing your wife?”
“I suppose the two are woven together in many ways. Last year after the problems began, Richard attempted to assist me, for he shares guardianship of Georgiana. He spent about a month with us at Pemberley; it was a dreadful time. I felt as though I did not even know my sister. She was resentful, hateful even, and accused me of holding her prisoner, among other things I cannot bring myself to repeat.”
Darcy closed his eyes, the pain welling up inside him. He could neither bring himself to mention Georgiana’s pregnancy, that secret he would take to his grave, but everything else threatened to spill out at once as Elizabeth gazed up at him so intently. “It was Georgiana who summoned Lady Catherine and Anne to Pemberley in August. She knows we do not get along, and acknowledged she did it to vex me. It was then that Anne proposed to me, after a fashion.”
“Mrs. Darcy proposed to you?”
“It was a marriage of convenience.” Darcy exhaled deeply – it felt good to say it at last.
“Oh,” Elizabeth breathed, her voice a whisper. “I had understood your marriage was long in the making.”
“In Lady Catherine’s mind, perhaps. Anne and I had never truly wished it. She was so ill, and I had always hoped to….” The words died on his lips, for he suddenly grew nervous, speaking to Elizabeth of his desire to find love.
She seemed to understand him, and nodded for him to continue.
“At any rate, when Anne suggested marriage, it seemed the most logical course of action. I thought it would solve everything. She and Georgiana got on well together, but my sister and I still did not. By October it became necessary to send her away. She and Anne corresponded regularly, but I had not a single letter from her. It was a very dark time for me, Miss Bennet. My sister was estranged, Anne’s health was declining, and I felt myself to blame. I couldn’t stand the sight of her, some days. I fled to London, to get away from it all.”
Elizabeth looked at him with tears in her eyes, and for moment Darcy feared she must despise him, but she gave his arm a gentle squeeze, prompting him to continue. “Before long, I realized I was just as wretched in London, and so I returned home. I intended to try harder to be a better husband. It was not easy, with Georgiana still a sticking point between us. Finally, about a month ago, we traveled to the seaside, and I thought Georgiana and I were making some progress, until Anne passed. We had a most interesting conversation about you, by the bye, for Lady Rebecca took your likeness in one of her letters to my sister.”
“Oh dear. That must have been… colorful.”
“You know Rebecca. At any rate, I was duly admonished for refusing to stand up with you at the ball.”
“But we did dance together, did we not?”
“Yes, you made a very convincing, and candid argument.”
“I am sure you deserved it,” Miss Bennet teased, and screwed her face up quite delightfully.
Darcy nodded his assent. “I think she would like to meet you, Miss Bennet. Perhaps if Mr. Bingley makes his annual visit to Pemberley this summer….” He instantly regretted mentioning Bingley, for Elizabeth blushed at the name, and turned away. “I apologize if that was indelicate.”
“Not at all, sir.
“And what of the rest of it? Do you think me a beast, Miss Bennet?”
She shook her head emphatically. “No indeed, Mr. Darcy. How could I think ill of one who has suffered so much? I think you are so determined to be a good man, you torture yourself undeservedly. Do not give up on your sister. It is clear you love her very much, and I would hate to see her miss out on experiencing that kind of love. Fight for her, and I am sure you will be rewarded, for a young girl at such a tender age has such a full heart to give, I can well attest to that.”
Darcy was overcome with emotion, and stopped walking for a moment to gaze at Elizabeth, bringing both of her hands to his lips. “I cannot tell you what that means to me, Miss Bennet. You have given me absolution, and better, you have given me hope.”