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Happier in Her Friends Than Relations

Chapter Text

  1. 14.

 

 

 

     For nearly a week, there was little discourse between the residents of Rosings and the parsonage. Mr. Collins ventured thither each morning, only to be told that the family was much occupied with estate matters; he was most seriously displeased. Jane did her best to console her husband, reminding him that the business of estate management required very little counsel of an ecclesiastical nature. She advised that they direct their attention toward their parishioners, seeing to their spiritual needs and reminding them to keep Lady Catherine and her daughter in their prayers – and if the family at Rosings took notice, so much the better.  

     Elizabeth continued her morning walks, and on several occasions she encountered Mr. Darcy. She was relieved to find that there was no awkwardness between them after their first meeting by the stream, for she had half expected him to regret his openness with her, yet it appeared he did not. She might even say they were friends. He was reserved and often sullen, no doubt due to recent events, though Elizabeth could not imagine him as a naturally gregarious man, even under ordinary circumstances.  

     Their conversations, though not so serious as the first, were stimulating and genuine. They each spoke at length of their homes, and as neither had either seen the other’s home county, there was much to be said of both. Mr. Darcy was charmed by Elizabeth’s sentimental account of her village, and she did not feel at all silly in professing her attachment to Longbourn and its environs. He was no less proud of his own ancestral home, and painted such a beautiful picture of Pemberley, that Elizabeth almost wished she could see it for herself when she travelled to the Lakes with her aunt and uncle. Of course, she would never presume.  

     Elizabeth offered very sincere praise of Rosings, as well. The house, though not to her taste, was very fine, and the grounds were truly breath taking. “It is strange to me” said he, “That all this now belongs to my daughter, though she is still in her cradle.” He sighed, his face clouding with a melancholy that would often overtake him. At such times, Elizabeth knew not how to react. There was such a tremendous sorrow about him, which she could not fully understand, and at times she caught herself wishing to comfort him, perhaps more than she had any right to.  

     She gave his arm a little squeeze, earning a wistful smile from her companion. “I think she will love this place. I hope you bring her here often as a child, so that when she is truly mistress of the house, she might be able to walk the grounds as we do now, and at every turn she will have some happy memory to think upon.” 

     Mr. Darcy smiled warmly at her. “Do you know, there are traces of the poet about you, Miss Elizabeth Bennet.” 

     Elizabeth shrugged, caught off guard by such a compliment. “I merely speak from experience, sir. I know every inch of Longbourn, and though our park is rather smaller, it is very dear to me. I might walk through the gardens, where I was scolded for trampling the flower beds, or through the grove where I fell out of a tree picking apples, or along the pond, where I doused my sister’s new bonnet when I was cross.” 

     He raised an eyebrow. “You must have been an exuberant child.” 

     Elizabeth affected her most serious expression. “‘Tis generous of you, sir, to presume these events took place in my youth.” 

     It was the first time she saw Mr. Darcy laugh, and it was a magnificent thing. His teeth were white and utterly perfect, and his dimples affected her so much she nearly trembled. “Might I ask which of your sixty-three sisters made the grievous mistake of incurring your wrath?” 

     “Only Lydia drives me to such drastic measures. In my defense, however, it had been my bonnet, but she stole it, pulled it apart and made it up new, and said she would wear it to church. I thought myself well within my rights by disposing of my own property as I saw fit.” 

     “And you are sure it is the youngest who has given your parents grey hair?” 

     Elizabeth was amazed by his comfortable, teasing manner, and by her own ability to affect such a change in his solemnity. “I am sure that I must retract my previous observation regarding your generosity!” 

     She was rewarded by more laughter and questions about her childhood. He seemed fascinated by her having so many siblings, so close in age, and she began to suspect he was rather envious of that, having but one sister at such a distant remove in years. It saddened her to imagine what a lonely youth his must have been, though it explained his reserve. He was more apt to listen than speak, though when asked the right manner of question, he could be surprisingly expansive. 

     He was exceedingly well-read, she learned, and she took delight in discovering one whose enthusiasm for reading equaled, and perhaps even surpassed her own. Books were a safe topic at times when he returned to his usual reticence, though even the silence between them was companionable. She began to look forward to her morning walks with him, for after the first few days they had arrived at unspoken agreement that it was to be their routine, and he would suggest other scenic spots they might explore.  

     These little adventures made the tedium of the parsonage bearable, for with Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth felt she might be truly comfortable. There was no expectation placed upon her to behave a certain way, no underlying tension or fear of sudden outburst, as there was with Jane. And though Jane seemed grateful for her sister’s company, even heeding her advice in adjusting to the Fitzwilliams, it was the change in manners that Elizabeth was able to evoke in Mr. Darcy that brought her the deepest satisfaction. That her friendship held such true value to him was evident, for though he did not profess his pleasure in her company, as Jane so often did, it was shown in every conversation with a sincerity that even Jane could not contrive. Elizabeth began to feel happy indeed that she had come into Kent. 

*** 

     Lady Rebecca called at the parsonage one morning, not long after Elizabeth had returned from her walk and eaten breakfast with Jane. Mr. Collins had gone to the church to prepare for the morrow’s service, which he felt would require more than usual delicacy, so Jane and Elizabeth received their guest, who came bearing a basket of fruit and flowers from the hothouse for Jane and a parcel wrapped in brown paper for Elizabeth. 

     Jane received the gift with grateful surprise, and her attitude toward Lady Rebecca instantly relaxed. Elizabeth took her parcel with teasing suspicion, knowing her friend’s inclination to spoil her with lavish gifts. 

     “Before you open it,” Lady Rebecca said, “I must extract a promise from you, Lizzy, and from your sister as well, that you will join us on Monday, for the Suttons are to give a luncheon at Cranbrook, and I desire you come and even out the numbers, for I find the gentlemen at Rosings very dull, and female companionship is just the thing. Oh, I have longed to come visit sooner, but there has been so much to do at the manor. Lady Catherine has begun to move her things to the dower house, and I had no idea there would be so much work involved! She is very particular about her arrangements, and I understand the place has been shut up since old Lady Helen died some twenty years ago. Twenty years’ worth of dust to be shaken from everything – I declare I never wish to sneeze again in the whole course of my life!”  

     Jane schooled her countenance into a smile. “How is Lady Catherine? I do hope she is comfortable in her new home.” 

     Lady Rebecca smirked. “She does love a good project. She has determined to change out all of the furniture and the linens, and to make some other modifications. Darcy and Robert have agreed that Rosings will fund all of the alterations she desires, so long as she cedes control of all estate matters to them. She will take her favorite servants with her, and they will see to the hiring of a new staff at the manor. It is a great relief that they have all got past the initial quarreling. Indeed, I think she is rather relieved to be free of the heavier concerns, though she is too stubborn to admit it.” 

     “‘Tis very kind of them to be so accommodating,” Jane said cautiously. “I am very glad to hear it.” 

     “Indeed, Jane. I told you they would not be cruel. Now, as to the luncheon, will you both join me? Your husband is most welcome, as well, of course, though I thought Mr. Collins might perhaps wish to pay a call on Lady Catherine, who is, at last, nearly ready to receive visitors.” 

     Elizabeth tried not to panic at the thought of Mr. Collins ruining such a fine prospect with his ridiculousness, while Jane appeared to consider. “I am sure he will prefer to see Lady Catherine. I should like to as well, but I can accompany him on his next visit. Let it be us ladies. Only, you are sure Lady Catherine will not object to our going? I could well forego the amusement if it were offensive to her.” 

     “She could hardly wish us to be so rude as to decline the invitation from Cranbrook. Sir Gerald is one of her oldest friends. Besides, it would do well for Robert to become better acquainted with our nearest neighbors.” 

     It occurred to Elizabeth that the parsonage was their nearest neighbor, and the glint in Lady Rebecca’s eye seemed to privately suggest that had indeed been her meaning. She gestured to the parcel. “Now, Lizzy, do open it.” Elizabeth tore away the paper and opened to box to find an elegantly tailored day dress of very fine embroidered cambric, the exact shade of green as her eyes. She looked at her friend with affectionate exasperation, and Lady Rebecca merely shrugged. “Well! I cannot help it if I dislike seeing you all clad in black. And besides, did I not mention the multitude of gentlemen we shall encounter? Look, even Jane is in agreement.” 

     Jane appeared conflicted between defending Elizabeth's mourning apparel and agreeing with what would surely draw the attention of suitors for her sister; she nodded in reluctant accord. Elizabeth, frustrated at the near-constant mention of suitors and prospects, was inclined to think that her sister and her friend were each had a very different gentleman in mind for her, and was about ready to tell them both off. Perhaps Seymour Sutton has a violent aversion to green. 

*** 

     The Fitzwilliam carriage came round to the parsonage to collect the two sisters at the appointed hour. It was a large equipage, perfectly accommodating for six, and even more luxurious than Elizabeth had imagined. Their journey to Cranbrook was swift, and once there, Elizabeth discovered that Lady Rebecca’s fear of lack of female companionship had been totally unfounded, for the group assembled in the conservatory at Cranbrook was a large one, and the gentlemen were decidedly outnumbered. 

     In addition to those she had expected to see, Elizabeth met with the widow Barnes, a kindly and fussy woman in her early fifties, who resided in the village and was well regarded in the community, despite her genteel poverty. She was joined by her favorite niece, a winsome, willowy blonde named Mary Barnes, who visited each year. The Eastons, whom Jane and Elizabeth had visited at their estate, Grandale, were also present; Jane was on friendly terms with Mrs. Easton, who had been the Sutton girls’ governess before marrying so fortuitously. The two Miss Eastons, daughters from Mr. Easton’s first marriage, had lately arrived to the neighborhood after completing their schooling in London, and their evident disdain of their new stepmother did not recommend them to many of the party. 

     Mr. Seymour Suttons was among the few to find the Miss Eastons a very welcome addition to their little party, for they listened with dutifully fawning attention as he spoke of his upcoming journey to his Scottish estate; Elizabeth, despite Jane’s subtle machinations, seized the first opportunity of escaping that conversation.   

     As was inevitable among so large a party, they quickly broke up into smaller groups, seating themselves at little tables that had been placed near the windows, creating the illusion of a picnic. At the back of the room was a long buffet table, where guests might avail themselves of sweet meats, bread, cheese, and fruits, as well as cold tea, punch, and lemonade. Servants were on hand to see to everyone’s needs, commanded like a small army by Sir Gerald. There was even a quartet of musicians situated in an alcove draped with vines, to provide ambiance. It was a lavish affair, which Elizabeth could not but imagine even Lady Catherine would have approved.  

     Lady Rebecca certainly did, and quickly obtained two plates heaped high with every delicacy, before leading Elizabeth to an unoccupied table offering a pleasant view of the distant pond and groves beyond. Her brothers and Jane soon joined them, arranging themselves so that the table was fully occupied. Lady Margaret, who had abandoned her husband, the Earl, to the tedium of his sister, was likewise abandoned to the hospitality of Sir Gerald and his younger son. Lady Rebecca gave Elizabeth a sly wink as they observed the Countess try, with little success, to escape their eager company.  

     So happily grouped, Elizabeth and her companions savored their delectable meal, and conversed very comfortably. Jane’s posture relaxed as she began to draw out Mr. Fitzwilliam, who, though shy, soon warmed to Mrs. Collins’ kind efforts at conversation. She was sincerely solicitous of Lady Catherine, though no less interested in his own impressions of the manor and their happy neighborhood. His approval of both elicited a meek smile from Jane. She expressed her own fondness for all the local families, and a hope that he would come to feel the same about those who had so quickly become dear to her.  

     Once satisfied that he was no villain, Jane excused herself to go speak with the Eastons, and regarded Lord Hartley with surprise when he stood and offered his arm; he expressed a desire to become better acquainted with the younger members of that family in particular. Elizabeth experienced a moment of doubt as to the veracity of such a claim, for he gave Lady Rebecca a most particular look before leading Jane away, leaving his sister alone with Elizabeth and Mr. Fitzwilliam.  

     Lady Rebecca smiled widely, and sighed with contentment. “Is not this a perfect day, brother?” His voice soft and timid, he owned that it was. “How glad I am to be away from Rosings for a while. And it is wonderful that at last you have a chance to come to know dear Lizzy better. I do not know what I would do without her here.” 

     Elizabeth arched an eyebrow. “Attend your step-mother, perhaps?” 

     “Ha, never!” 

     Mr. Fitzwilliam chuckled. “The new Countess has taken some getting used to, Miss Bennet, as I am sure you are aware. My sister takes little care in disguising her feelings.” 

     “I can heartily attest to that,” said Elizabeth. “Did she not tell you how she accosted me when first we met?” 

     Mr. Fitzwilliam, his countenance full of quiet mirth, asked her to tell the story, and Elizabeth only added a very little embellishment in doing so. When she had finished, he laughed merrily. “I can well believe it was just so. And so the dreadful Miss Bingley brought you together. What a pity she cannot rejoice in such a job well done!” 

     A pang of bitterness welled up inside Elizabeth as she considered another job well done, which Caroline Bingley undoubted was rejoicing in. Schooling her countenance, she teased, “And now that you are master of Rosings, I suppose your sister has two brothers to protect from that lady.” 

     “I doubt it – I am neither as tall nor as rich as my brother, and therefore perfectly safe.” 

     “You are a very distinguished height, brother. Perhaps Miss Bingley is rather tall for a woman – hardly an advantage – but to a woman of Miss Elizabeth’s petite stature, for instance, your height would be exactly right, I think.” She gave Elizabeth a significant look.  

     Mr. Fitzwilliam laughed nervously. “My brother and cousin quite tower over you, do they not, Miss Bennet?” 

     Lady Rebecca answered for her. “Miss Bennet is not so diminutive as myself, and I believe her liveliness and wit make it so that she could never be overlooked. And of course, she happens to be incredibly beautiful, do you not think?” 

     Mr. Fitzwilliam blushed almost as deeply as Elizabeth herself, but owned that she was, particularly when wearing his favorite shade of green. Elizabeth saw what her friend was about, and cast a desperate glance around her. She managed to find Emily across the room, speaking with Mr. Sutton and Mr. Middleton, and at Elizabeth’s pleading look, the three headed over. Lady Rebecca was obliged to forego her machinations for the time being, but a quick glance at Elizabeth told her the matter was not so easily dismissed. 

     Mr. Sutton greeted his guests very civilly, and seated himself near Mr. Fitzwilliam. He asked how he was settling in to life at Rosings, and once satisfied with Mr. Fitzwilliam’s answer, he would hear everyone’s opinion on his own lovely estate. The grounds were admired, and a tour of the house was offered was offered and readily agreed to. Elizabeth was happy to accept the offer of Mr. Middleton’s arm as they made their way out of the conservatory, and she glanced backward over her shoulder, sticking her tongue out at Lady Rebecca when no one was looking. Lady Rebecca rolled her eyes and responded with a saucy smile. 

     They went through the ground floor of the house, saying everything that was appropriate in each of the elegant rooms. Elizabeth found she was less pleased by the furnishings than by Mr. Sutton’s marked attentions to her cousin, whose every look bespoke an engagement in the making. After they had seen everything of note inside the house, Mr. Sutton would show them the garden, which was neatly terraced and led down the pond. 

     Mr. Fitzwilliam demurred, claiming he knew little of gardens or picturesque scenery, and suggested that he and his sister had an obligation to return to the conservatory and become better acquainted with their other neighbors. The others continued on, still in pairs, and as they wound through the garden, Elizabeth realized she and Mr. Middleton had quickly fallen behind Emily and Mr. Sutton. Her companion made pleasant enough conversation, but for the first time since her arrival at Cranbrook, it occurred to Elizabeth that she was very sorry Mr. Darcy had not been of their party. Why ever would I prefer walking in this garden with him, more than any other gentleman? 

     After a few minutes of idle chatter, Mr. Middleton peered over the shrubs, murmured, “Very good,” and gestured to a nearby bench.  

     “I have heard you are a prodigious walker, Miss Bennet, so I will not impugn your reputation by suggesting you might be fatigued from our stroll already. Nonetheless, let us pretend that you are, and take a few minutes rest.” He sat on one end of the bench, motioning for Elizabeth to join him. With some apprehension, she did so. “You seem a very clever sort of girl – I’ve no doubt you already suspect what I am about.” 

     “You require some assistance in identifying the various species of flowers?” 

     “Charming,” he laughed. “But no, I care nothing for flowers – despise me if you dare.” 

     “Have you perhaps a pebble in your shoe, sir?” 

     “Wrong again, Miss Bennet. I must say, I am surprised you did not guess it straight away. I will tell you.” He leaned in slightly, his voice dropping to a whisper. “I promised my dear friend Mr. Sutton that I would help him find a way to get some time alone with a certain lady today. I believe he has something very particular to ask her.” 

     “Oh! But how wonderful! I am so happy for them.” 

     “As am I, Miss Bennet. I have known Samuel since we were but boys, and I wish him all the best. I have never seen him happier than he has been in the past week, with her here. I hope you will be at Cranbrook more often in the coming weeks, to see it for yourself.” 

    “I should like that as well. Perhaps Jane and I shall pay a call to congratulate them tomorrow.” 

    “I think that he will be in London tomorrow – it is customary to seek permission from the lady’s guardian, is it not?” 

     “Oh, yes, of course. In my excitement, I quite forgot.” 

     “And it does you credit, Miss Bennet. You are very fond of your cousin, are you not?” 

     “She is as dear to me as any of my sisters.” 

     Mr. Middleton smiled. “Then perhaps I will bring her to the parsonage tomorrow to pay a call on you. I daresay she would be happy for the distraction while Mr. Sutton is away.” 

     “I think it an excellent idea, Sir. I am sure my sister would be happy to receive you.” 

     Mr. Middleton nodded his agreement, a stood to take another glance over the rose bushes. “Ah, here they come now, Miss Bennet. Prepare to act surprised.” He winked and offered her his arm, and they made a great show of examining the budding roses when the happy couple joined them. 

     The announcement was made, warm congratulations were offered, and the cousins shared a joyful embrace. Mr. Sutton was keen to share the news with all their friends, for though he intended to seek permission from Emily’s uncle, he did not plan on taking no for an answer; the matter, in his mind, was quite settled.  

     Once they had rejoined the indoor picnic and made the announcement, Sir Gerald called for champagne and some dancing, and the quartet was obliged to play a lively reel. After a country dance and a cotillion, the guests were fatigued, and delighted quite enough for one day; the party broke up, and the revelers returned to their respective homes.   

     The chatter in the Fitzwilliam carriage was lively. Elizabeth was relieved that she had largely avoided not only Mr. Seymour Sutton, but her sister's ill humor. Mr. Fitzwilliam was very well pleased with his new neighbors, Jane was very well pleased with Mr. Fitzwilliam, and Lady Margaret was pleased to be out of the sun at last, for she had begun to fear for her complexion. Lady Rebecca was happy for Emily, and suggested that oftentimes one engagement would lead to others in the community. Lord Hartley gave Elizabeth an arch look before flatly asking his sister which lucky gentleman had caught her eye. Determined to be obtuse, she replied that she had always fancied finding a second son with holdings in Scotland, and burst into riotous laughter as Jane grimaced at her.  

     Back at the parsonage, after the events of the day had been relayed to Mr. Collins over dinner, Elizabeth announced she was exhausted, and retired early. She was happy for Emily, truly happy for her, but could only think of herself. The expectations placed upon her by all her family, and even her dearest friends, seemed too much to bear.  

     Lady Rebecca seemed determined to have her for a sister, though it had crossed Elizabeth’s mind that Lady Rebecca had only concocted the plan as a lark, thinking to vex Jane by setting Elizabeth up as the new mistress of Rosings.  

     Jane’s intentions were more troubling. She wished Elizabeth to wed for selfish reasons, and seemed to feel a sense of authority in selecting the man. The brothers at Rosings were out of the question, for Jane could not countenance her sister reaching too high. She had originally fixed on Seymour Sutton, likely enjoying the notion that he was almost as much of a toad-eater as Mr. Collins, and in marrying him Elizabeth would not be triumphing over Jane. Perhaps she even wished to see Elizabeth shipped off to Scotland.  

     Jane had made no objection to Mr. Middleton’s paying her attention, and though he, as well as just about every man in England, seemed vastly preferable to the younger Mr. Sutton, Elizabeth was only just beginning to know the man. The hunting party at Cranbrook would not likely last much longer, nor would Elizabeth’s tenure at the parsonage, leaving them very little time to become acquainted, despite his charming promise to call upon her. Smiling, she considered how very enjoyable it had been when he had whispered in her ear on the bench in the garden. He was not quite a handsome man, but there was something very pleasant about his mouth when he spoke. 

     Bah! I am grown nonsensical. The truth was, she would soon return home, and must bear her mother’s disappointment in the hopes that it would soon pass. Six months ago, before Mr. Collins came around, there was no such fuss about the urgency of matrimony, other than the occasional speculation from her mother. Elizabeth was determined that she would fret no more about it; she would be as she ever was, perfectly content, and say as little as possible to her family about Mr. Bingley and the other gentlemen she had met.  

     That night, she dreamt of Mr. Darcy.