In the brisk walk back to Rosings, Elizabeth had vacillated between bursts of sobbing and bouts of rage, several times over, but managed to calm herself as they entered the house through the back garden. Rebecca’s favorite withering stare sent the servants scampering as she ushered her friend through the house, eager to get her upstairs and installed in a guestroom as quickly and discreetly as possible. Once upstairs, Rebecca led them through the family wing, where they encountered Robert, emerging from his private study at the end of the hall. Seeing Elizabeth's current state of distress, he looked questioningly at his sister, and Rebecca gave Elizabeth a gentle squeeze on the arm before she left her at the door to the guestroom, and approached Robert in all haste.
"What have you done to poor Miss Bennet?"
"It is not what I have done, but what our dreadful aunt has done. I am simply trying to repair some of the damage. By the by, I have reason to suspect her warpath may lead her here, ere long. Whatever business you are about today, I suggest you stay as far from the house as possible until dinner, and take Darcy – take everyone with you."
"I had meant to review some of last year’s accounts with William."
"Well, do it over a pint in the village. I think you had better not be home to satisfy her when she is in such a state."
Robert looked skeptical, but nodded. "Anything else I should be aware of?"
"Our aunt’s carriage. It needs repairs. Lengthy repairs. Something that will take several days. Can you arrange this?"
"Will you tell me why she needs to be neutralized?"
Robert sighed. "I suppose I do not wish to know. Very well, I will see to it."
Rebecca stood on her toes and gave her brother a quick kiss on the cheek, a gesture he only pretended to dislike.
Elizabeth was still waiting in the doorway of her room, and Rebecca quickly ushered her wretched friend into the comfort and privacy of the elegantly appointed bed chamber. “There now, you are quite safe here, Lizzy. Do make yourself comfortable, whatever you require.”
Elizabeth nodded, her lips pursed together in a pitiful attempt at regaining her composure. She slid off her slippers – the carnelian ones, to Rebecca’s delight – and sank down onto the plush feather bed. She did not speak for several minutes, but seemed to have her tears at bay. Fingers trembling, Elizabeth pulled the pins out of her hair and shook it free, before leaning back on the pillows and curling her legs up to her chest. Sobs escaped and she wiped hastily at her face, unable to meet Rebecca’s eye.
It pained Rebecca to see her friend thus. More than that, it made her angry. That her vicious aunt and that dreadful Collins woman, two selfish harpies of the first order, had reduced such a vibrant and deserving young woman into such a miserable state was deplorable. The injustice of it made her blood boil, all the more so because of how utterly helpless she felt under the circumstances.
"Oh, Lizzy," she cried, sitting down beside her friend. "What must I do to cheer you? Please, do not cry. They do not deserve the privilege of affecting you so. I will take you to London! All will be well, I promise."
This only seemed to trigger another wave of tears from Elizabeth. She moaned and said, “Am I to just run away, then? It seems so cowardly. It will change nothing, Rebecca, and will probably lend credibility to their horrible assertions. I am so ashamed. I wish you had not seen that dreadful display. I do not know what has happened to Jane, but she has come to delight in tormenting me, and I fear I will never escape her cruelty."
"Of course you will! You will marry far beyond Jane's station, and she will have no power over you."
"I can hardly see how that’s possible. What if she is right, and I really can do no better than the revolting Seymour Sutton?"
"Lizzy! You know very well that is merely what Jane wishes. She knows she has married the stupidest man in England, and has made it her mission to find someone worse for you, because she is jealous of you. But you are destined for a better fate than she, I am sure of it."
"You say that because you are my friend. I appreciate how well you think of me, but that does not mean the rest of the world will follow suit. I have no money and no prospects, and Jane has already told me that she would turn me out of my home if given half a chance. Perhaps I ought to have accepted Lady Catherine’s offer, after all."
"What a preposterous notion! Truly, Lizzy, that is madness. My aunt and your sister are two of the most deranged individuals I have ever had to endure, and nothing they should say should ever be taken seriously by any person claiming to possess a rational degree of sanity. They both perceive the world as they wish it to be, which in no way reflects reality, I am sure. Do not give credence to their insufferable presumptions."
Still Elizabeth wept, and Rebecca was quite at her wit's end. Torn between her general distaste for strong emotions, and her extreme fondness for Elizabeth Bennet, she could only pat her friend's back and contemplate how to attempt a different approach. "Only think of what fun we will have in London together! Perhaps it is a blessing that we are driven to make our escape so soon, when we might have dragged on in such a dull state here for many more weeks. The season is still in full swing, and once we have replaced your wardrobe, it will be balls and parties every night. Only tell me which sort of gentlemen Jane would most resent you catching, and I dare say we will make short work of it."
Elizabeth laughed bitterly. "You make it sound so simple. You forget I have had two months in London already, and could not even keep Mr. Bingley’s interest, and he is a long-standing acquaintance of my aunt and uncle."
Drat Bingley. Rebecca scrunched her face with annoyance. “Yes, I had meant to question you about that.”
Elizabeth flinched. She had hoped that she could put all that had happened with Mr. Bingley behind her. Having eluded Rebecca on the subject of before she departed London, she had even dared to hope that her friend would have forgotten all about it. And yet, she knew she must tell her. Rebecca was far too dear to her, and was taking great pains to console her; Elizabeth felt she owed her friend some explanation.
Rebecca listened intently to Elizabeth’s account of Mr. Bingley’s sudden departure, her face reflecting her every feeling. She was silent for quite some time before she asked, “And if he is back in London when we return, would you welcome any renewal of his attentions?”
“No, I would not. Now that I understand the extent of his sister’s influence upon his life, I cannot wish to bind myself to such a man.”
Rebecca grinned. “I cannot tell you how pleased I am to hear you say such a thing. I cannot imagine how any self-respecting woman could wish to subject herself to such whims and follies.”
Elizabeth smiled wistfully. “It is a shame, for it might have been a very fine match, were it not for his sister.”
“Next time, Lizzy, take care that you fall in love with a man who does not have such a malevolent sister.”
“I shall try.”
“Good. Now, Elizabeth, I do not mean to give you any more pain, but I must ask you, regarding my aunt’s suspicions about you and my cousin Darcy…. I cannot help but suppose that this morning was not the first time you have enjoyed my cousin’s company during your morning excursions.”
Elizabeth looked away, burying her hands in the folds of her dress. She had feared her morning routine would eventually be discovered, and after meeting with the Fitzwilliam siblings that morning, she had been quite certain such questions were to be expected, but she knew not how to answer. Rebecca was a good friend, but surely her loyalty would only extend as far as what did not directly involve her own family. Darcy was still Rebecca’s cousin, and was in deep mourning for his wife, who had also been Rebecca’s cousin. Elizabeth could not imagine that Rebecca’s affection for her would outweigh any natural dismay her friend might feel at discovering what Elizabeth herself had only just begun to realize was in her heart. She cared for Mr. Darcy, as more than a friend. More than she had ever cared for a man. Still, she could not bring herself to acknowledge it.
Surprisingly, Elizabeth's silence made Rebecca burst out laughing. “Oh, no, Lizzy! It is too much! Can you really care for Darcy? You are aware, are you not, that he is completely devoid of every proper feeling?”
Elizabeth could only behold her friend in astonishment. “What do you mean?”
"Only that he cares for nothing but business, which is infinitely boring. He never dances, hardly ever cracks so much as a smile, and I daresay I have not seen him laugh since we were children.”
Elizabeth could not reconcile this illustration of Mr. Darcy with the man she had come to know. He had danced with her, albeit reluctantly, the very first night they met, and had smiled at her and even laughed during every conversation they had ever had together. He was diligent and committed to the running of his estate, to be sure, and seemed to take a great deal of pride in fulfilling his responsibilities, and rightly so. “I hardly think we are speaking of the same person, Rebecca. Perhaps Mr. Darcy has reason to be very somber, at present, but really, I think he is naturally reserved, and perhaps too often alone with his thoughts. I will own, we have happened upon one another whilst walking the grounds of Rosings several times, and he has always seemed as if he simply needs the assistance of a willing conversationalist to put him at ease.”
Rebecca seemed to consider this, as one would process the most shocking of discoveries. “I am quite astonished by your illustration of him, Lizzy. Whenever I am around Darcy, he always seems quite put out.”
Elizabeth could not resist giving her friend an arch look. “I cannot think why.”
Rebecca smirked. “Oh hush, wicked girl! I tease him as I do my brothers, and they are not so very dour about it.”
“I can only surmise that Lord Hartley’s experience in battle has given him some advantage in his dealings with you.”
Laughing, Rebecca wrapped an arm around Elizabeth’s shoulders. “Well, now. It looks as though your good humor is returning, if you can abuse me so cheerfully. I am glad of it. I will call for a maid to attend to you, and send for your trunk to be brought over from the parsonage so that you can dress for dinner.”
Elizabeth’s stomach lurched. “Oh no, Rebecca, I do not think I am quite so recovered. Would you mind terribly if I took my repast here?”
Rebecca frowned for a moment, but then her countenance softened and she gave Elizabeth’s hand a gentle squeeze. "Of course, my dear, if that is what you wish. I will have a plate sent up for you, instead. Rest now, dearest; all will be well.”
Relief washed over Elizabeth as her friend quit the room. Rebecca’s efforts had brought her some relief, but solitude, she knew, could work wonders. Reclining comfortably on the soft pillows, she lost her self in thought, and soon after in a restful slumber.
Rebecca made her way down stairs and sent one of the new maids, loyal to the Fitzwilliams and not to Lady Catherine, over to the parsonage to collect Elizabeth’s things. She included a message for Mrs. Collins, indicating that if anything was missing from her sister's possessions, it would go very ill for her and her husband.
Just as this order had been dispatched, Richard sauntered into the room and gave her quite a look. “Have you had an interesting morning, sister?”
Rebecca frowned at her brother. She had hoped he would heed her warning to Robert, and leave the house for a while. “Have you?”
“Oh yes, Lady Catherine has been here. I daresay I might have saved your life by telling her I had not the vaguest idea of your whereabouts, nor those of Miss Bennet. Where is she?”
"She is upstairs."
"So, she is under our protection now?"
"Yes, she is under my protection, and she will remain so for as long as necessary."
Richard chuckled. "So, there is a heart under all that prickly exterior."
"Do not become overly sentimental, brother, it makes you quite ridiculous."
Richard smiled, and rubbed his hands together mischievously. “Well, shall we get on with it? I know you saw what I saw this morning. There is some truth to Lady Catherine’s ranting and raving.”
That there was. Though Elizabeth had not owned to it, she liked him. Stoic, stony Darcy. It was most extraordinary. “Indeed,” Rebecca drawled, and gestured toward the sofa. “Do come sit, for we have much to discuss. I have a plan."
The Earl of Matlock retired early after supper, as was his custom since his recent marriage. Suppressing her disgust at what that was likely to portend, Rebecca relished the opportunity to be alone with her brothers and cousin. She waited a few minutes after the departure of her father and his ridiculous young bride, curious to see what turn the conversation amongst them would take; as usual, the gentlemen were all very dull. Robert and Darcy were discussing estate matters, some difficulty with a stable hand that Lady Catherine had only exacerbated.
Rebecca lowered the book she was pretending to read and glared at Richard, beseeching him to come to her aid. He answered with a knowing smile and a subtle wink, and poured them both a brandy before throwing himself down on the sofa in a wildly indecorous attitude. "This is all very tedious, let us talk of something other than estate matters," he groaned, dragging out the last two words to emphasize his ennui. "I am bored of being so serious!"
As Robert and Darcy gawped at her brother, Rebecca seized the opportunity to speak her piece. She rose from her chaise, giving Richard an affectionate pat on the shoulder and twirling the brandy around in her snifter as she languidly approached her cousin. "Dearest Richard, you cannot begrudge them having a serious conversation. 'Tis a very serious time, and they are naturally of such a serious disposition, anyhow. As it happens, Darcy, I have something serious I would speak to you about." She fixed him with a saucy, nearly seductive smile, one that would scare a lesser man out of his wits.
Darcy's response was a dubious scowl; no doubt he expected her to question him about Elizabeth, and just what they were doing alone in the groves that morning. Knowing how ineffective it would be to ask him directly, Rebecca meant to take a different approach. "Now do not look at me like that, cousin Darcy, you haven't even heard my proposal yet. I only wish to help."
His disbelief was evident, but he begrudgingly nodded for her to continue. "How do you mean to assist me?"
"By proposing. What I mean is, I will marry you. The relative situation of our families is such that an alliance between us must be regarded as a highly sensible decision. As a rational creature myself, I cannot but regard it as such."
Richard sat up on the sofa, his face alight with diversion, while Robert recoiled, sinking into a chair in the corner and looking as if he wished to be anywhere else. Darcy cast an importuning glance at each of them before facing Rebecca with bewilderment, and perhaps a trace of anger. "In such cases as these, I believe the established mode must be to express a sense of gratitude. Beyond that, I cannot gratify you; accepting your offer is impossible."
Rebecca inwardly sighed with relief that he had not called her bluff and accepted, but persisted nevertheless. "And this is all the reply I am to expect? Your daughter needs a mother. Georgiana needs someone to guide her. Pemberley needs an heir. I am offering you all of this, and my dowry, which is nearly double that of your sister. These are circumstances highly in my favor. I might, perhaps, wish to be informed why, with so little endeavor at civility, I am thus rejected. But it is of small importance."
Darcy fixed her with a severe look. "I might as well inquire," said he, "Why, with so evident a design of offending and insulting me, you choose to make your offer at all? 'Tis no secret that we barely tolerate one another. Is not this some excuse for incivility, if I was uncivil?"
For a moment Rebecca nearly felt guilty. Though it had always amused her to vex her somber cousin, she did care for him, in her own way; it had never occurred to her that he might not like her very much. On the verge of feeling a strong sentiment, she gave a great sigh of frustration and looked to her brothers for assistance. Richard, still in a state of juvenile hilarity, had finished his brandy and was pouring another. He gave her a quick wink, but was clearly not inclined to speak up.
Robert cleared his throat, pausing a moment to give both Rebecca and Darcy a punitive scowl. "Come, now, there is no need for anyone to be uncivil. Rebecca, I know you think it is a fine joke catching Darcy unawares, but it is hardly appropriate at a time like this. And I know for a certainty that is not your first this evening." He swiftly plucked the brandy snifter from Rebecca's hand and set it on the table behind him. "And Darcy, though she has gone about it all wrong, you might do well to hear her out. If not Rebecca, you should marry someone. Mourning or no, there is a child to consider. Society will forgive you, and I am sure Georgiana will thank you."
Darcy's mouth twitched into a grateful half-smile, and he nodded at Robert. "I suppose there is some wisdom in your reasoning. Even so, it is too soon to think of such things. I intend to honor Anne with full-mourning. After that, if I do marry again, I should want it to be for more than necessity."
At last Richard seemed keen to enter the fray, and he sauntered over to Darcy with a devilish grin. "And now we come to the crux of the matter, eh? You have done your duty once; the second time, you want to want it."
"I wish to marry with affection, yes."
"What a pity, then," Rebecca drawled, "That my dear Lizzy is set to accompany me back to London so soon. I might have been able to help you on, there, but I fear we have not the time."
Darcy turned his head toward her, his eyes betraying what he would not say. He pressed his lips together, determined not to confirm what Rebecca already knew. Once again, the beginnings of a strong emotion stirred inside her; it was very annoying.
Richard frowned into his brandy. "That is dreadful news. I daresay she is the only person outside this room that has made this place bearable at all since we have come."
Darcy regarded Richard with something like suspicion until Robert spoke up, earning a greater share of it. "Rebecca, I thought you were trying to match Miss Bennet with me?"
Now all three of them stared at her with displeasure, and Rebecca threw her hands up in exasperation. "I will own the thought did occur to me, but neither of the interested parties seemed interested enough, so I decided to let the matter rest."
Robert smiled ruefully, fidgeting with his cravat. "She is a lovely girl, to be sure, but she is rather too like you, sister, and one Rebecca in the family is quite enough!"
Rebecca merely rolled her eyes; it was Darcy who took offense to the comparison. "Miss Bennet does bear some similarity to your sister in temperament, but beyond that, Miss Bennet possesses a much greater depth of feeling."
"And you think I do not, cousin Darcy? I have no desire for such great depth of feeling. It would no doubt make life very dreary, indeed. Case in point, Elizabeth Bennet. She is absolutely wretched at present. Why? Feelings! What an awful notion!"
Her brothers exchanged a sardonic look. Darcy, seething with indignation, stepped closer to Rebecca, his height forcing her to tip her head up to meet his eye. "She is not your plaything, Rebecca," he growled.
Remembering how wonderfully ferocious she had felt while putting Jane Collins in her place that morning, Rebecca drew her shoulders back and stood on her toes to face down his towering pose. "Is she yours?"
"How dare you!"
"No, how dare you, you big blockhead! How righteous you must feel, ever the gentleman, you would never dream of damaging a lady's reputation, isn't that right? Only that is just what you have done! I did not warn you and Robert away this afternoon on a lark - I thought to spare you pair of ninnies the wrath I incurred when our aunt discovered your mopey little morning rambles with Elizabeth, and she was made to flee her sister's house. She is under my protection now. Whatever you presume, know this, she is my friend, and as I have stood up to her vile sister, that awful parson, and our Aunt Catherine, I can easily do the same to you if I must."
Darcy looked stricken as he processed her words, and for a moment Rebecca almost found it difficult to continue railing at him. If only the stupid man would just admit he was in love with Elizabeth Bennet! "I see what you are about," Rebecca said, her tone softening. "Your conscience dictates.... blah, blah, blah. Very sad." She scowled dramatically, and shook her head. "I know what I must do, cousin Darcy. It is time you made your mind up." She fixed Richard with a significant look, feeling not the least bit guilty for leaving her brother to clean up her mess, and swept out of the room.
Elizabeth did not meet him for their morning walk, nor did she come down for breakfast. Darcy had been incensed when Richard told him she had been at Rosings, unbeknownst to him, for the greater part of the previous day.
Despite his displeasure, their conversation had been a fruitful one, and vastly more rational than his altercation with Rebecca. Still, though he could not but resent her effrontery, Darcy begrudgingly acknowledged that Rebecca did have a point. He had put Elizabeth’s reputation in jeopardy to satisfy his own selfish need of her company. He had allowed his guilt and grief over Anne to cloud his judgment, and he had sought the comfort of Elizabeth’s companionship, thinking only of his own feelings. It had been wrong of him to put her at risk while offering her no security in return. He meant now to rectify that – he meant to offer her everything.
Darcy had known he loved Elizabeth Bennet the minute she met his eye in the candlelit ballroom on the Twelfth Night; he had known that he loved her every moment he had spent in her company since then. High-handed as they were, his cousins had forced him to accept it.
After speaking with Richard, Darcy was ready to proceed, unencumbered by the many obstacles he had conceived. Anne would want him to be happy, and she would want a mother for little Julia. Georgiana would flourish with Elizabeth as a sister. Even Bingley was no longer an obstacle, as it had turned out.
That thought rankled Darcy’s temper. He was not best pleased to learn that Bingley had raised so much speculation, only to disappear, exposing himself to the censure of the world for caprice and instability, and Elizabeth to its derision for disappointed hopes. It was not right, and yet Darcy felt some relief that at least he would not have to spend the rest of his life calling his beloved ‘Mrs. Bingley.’
No, she would become Mrs. Darcy, and as quickly as he could arrange it. She would return to London with Rebecca as planned, and he would ride to Hertfordshire to secure her father’s permission at once. He would perhaps be obliged to spend a couple more weeks assisting Robert at Rosings, but a fortnight was the most he could possibly wait before carrying Elizabeth off to Pemberley. Yes, an April wedding, and an extensive honeymoon on the continent in the summer. Then they would return to Pemberley, for autumn had always been his favorite season. They would even bring back the Harvest Festival he had so loved in his youth. And then, to London for Christmas with his cousins – how happy Elizabeth would be to be reunited with Rebecca again, and perhaps by then there might even be a baby on the way. And in the spring, Elizabeth would assist to Georgiana with her coming out into society. Darcy let out a sigh of contentment, completely ignoring his breakfast as he lost himself in the reverie of planning out the rest of their lives together, a perfect world where Jane Collins and Lady Catherine did not even exist.
His cousins were amused to discover him wool-gathering when they came downstairs some time later. Darcy was obliged to turn his attention back to his repast, trying to appear unaffected by their cheekier than usual teasing. In the end, it was not his cousins’ raillery that began to distress him, but rather Elizabeth’s continued absence from the breakfast table. They had all quite finished eating and prepared to go about their business, when Darcy began to fear that Elizabeth meant to keep to her room for the entire day.
Lady Rebecca, of course, knew what he was about. “I say, cousin Darcy, it almost seems as though you were impatiently waiting for someone.”
Darcy allowed himself just a trace of a smile. The wicked glint in Rebecca’s eye was almost affectionate. Perhaps she was not so very bad. “Cousin Rebecca,” he drawled, “I happen to have some urgent matters to attend to today.”
”I hope they are not matters of business – how odious that would be.”
“Indeed, they are not.”
Rebecca grinned. “I hope your urgent matters will not keep you away from the house this afternoon.”
“That is very good to hear. I have every intention of luring our elusive houseguest downstairs for some amusement. I am certain you would wish to assist me in entertaining her.”
Darcy had to admit, he enjoyed the strange sense of camaraderie he suddenly felt with his cousin. “I shall look forward to it.”
He retired to the library, where he began composing two letters. The first was a quick message to the doctor in Frodsham, requesting for the doctor pay a call on his sister and ascertain her recovery and readiness for travel. The second was a longer letter, detailing this plan to Georgiana with assurances of his affection, and a promise that he would depart Rosings within a fortnight. He left room at the bottom to include a postscript after Elizabeth had accepted his proposal.
Elizabeth had no intention of leaving her room. She did not rise early for her morning walk, for fear of encountering Mr. Darcy. She was frightened of her own uncertain feelings about him, and had no wish to lend credulity to her sister and Lady Catherine’s insinuations from the previous day. The sooner she left Kent, and all of its denizens behind, the better. It cheered her to think of how fortunate she was to have such a friend in Lady Rebecca. Elizabeth spent the morning in her room, indulging in her own private speculation as to what adventure might await her and her eccentric, amiable, and conveniently wealthy friend.
It occurred to her that she would have to acquaint her family, both in London and at Longbourn, of her travel plans. She sat down at the little desk in her chamber to begin penning a quick note to her aunt and uncle, informing them of her return to London as a guest of the Fitzwilliams.
The letter she penned to her father was given more consideration. He had always been her dearest confidant, and a part of her longed to confess the true reason she was leaving Kent, yet she knew it would only pain him to hear of Jane's behavior. In the end she decided to limit her communication to the facts: Lady Rebecca had quarreled with her aunt, and subsequently decided to bring Elizabeth to London with her when she returned. Knowing she must be giving her father disappointment in staying away longer, yet beseeching him to grant her permission nonetheless, Elizabeth closed the letter with effusions of how dearly she loved and missed him, and how much she would have to entertain him with when she returned.
She rang for a maid to post the two letters at once, and had only just sat down at her dressing table when a knock came at her door; a moment later, Lady Rebecca let herself in.
“My, aren’t we luxurious this morning, lingering so long above stairs, still in our night dress.”
Elizabeth smiled at her friend with an impish glint in her eye. “I am of the opinion that anguish and despair can only be treated with absolute indulgence.”
Lady Rebecca laughed, a robust, vastly unladylike laugh. “Dear Lizzy, I believe I am beginning to rub off on you. That is most satisfactory.”
“You cannot take credit for all of my impudence, you know. I was already very bad indeed, when we met.”
"Oh, yes, I felt it instinctively; that is why I was determined we would become the best of friends."
Elizabeth grinned, feeling the stress of the last several weeks melting away. “I suppose you have come to tell me I must dress. I had meant to be quite idle today, and shall require some convincing to do otherwise.”
"I am sorry to disappoint you, but indeed I have come to tell you to dress, and quickly, for there are callers downstairs who are very keen to see you.”
Elizabeth panicked. "Good God, who is it?"
Rebecca rolled her eyes. "Surely you do not think I would I would make you see anyone unpleasant. It is only Emily, come to visit with her fiancé and Mr. Middleton, who, I must say, was so very impatient for your company that I have rather taken my time fetching you. He is far too eager, that one, and it is a bit overpowering. Can you like such a man?"
"I think you must be mistaken. Mr. Middleton is civil to me, but nothing more. He is far from flirting with me the way Henry Audley does."
"Henry Audley flirts with everybody. Indeed, I shall have to remember to seek him out when he returns to town, he is one of the few men brave enough to try anything with me." She gave Elizabeth a saucy wink.
Now it was Elizabeth's turn to roll her eyes. "I suppose I shall have to do something with my hair. If you can keep them all from rioting, I daresay I can be down in a quarter of an hour."
"Oh, let them grumble – here, I will pin your hair up for you. I find it quite fascinating."
Elizabeth looked incredulously at her friend. Rebecca’s black hair was thick and curly, and cropped short in the newly fashionable style, hanging in waves just below her ears. “Surely you have no interest in such things.”
"Infact, I do. Sometimes I miss my hair – it was quite long before I cut it.” Rebecca approached the dressing table and began styling Elizabeth's auburn curls in a complicated arrangement. “I cut it off years ago, after my mother died.”
Elizabeth glanced up, meeting her friend's eye in the reflection of the mirror. “Why?”
Rebecca smiled, a slight wistful smile. "My mother doted on me, and I adored her. Ever since I came out, we shared a private tradition. On special occasions, when we were going out to some ball or grand event, my mother would come into my room and send the maid away, and she would do my hair herself. I have Fitzwilliam hair, thick and unruly. My mother's was thin and fair, and not much could be done with it. She loved arranging mine, and could really do some wonderful things with it. I humored her, though I never thought much of it. And then....”
Rebecca’s hands stilled, and she burrowed her fingers into Elizabeth’s hair. Elizabeth reached behind her head and placed a hand on Rebecca’s.
"When we came out of mourning, the first event we attended after I returned to London.... When the maid came in to do my hair... I took the pair of scissors from my drawer and cut it all off, right then and there. I have kept it short ever since.”
Still locking eyes with her friend in the mirror, a single tear slid down Rebecca’s cheek. She ignored it, gave a little shake of her head, and quickly returned to finishing Elizabeth’s elegant up-do.
“I had always thought the short hair was merely a manifestation of your defiance.”
"I suppose it is, in a way. There now, what do you think?"
Rebecca’s handiwork was nothing short of spectacular. Delicate little curls framed Elizabeth's face while the rest of her hair had been plaited and piled high on her head, elegant but not ostentatious.
“I dare say this is hardly a special occasion, but I shall certainly look as though it is.”
"And perhaps it will be. Now, put on that lovely green dress and I shall meet you downstairs."
Elizabeth quickly dressed and met her friends in the front parlor, which was already looking less opulent since first Elizabeth had come. Lady Catherine’s ornate throne-like chair had been replaced with a much simpler, more tasteful settee, where Rebecca and Emily sat, gesturing for Elizabeth to join them.
Mr. Fitzwilliam and Lord Hartley were engaged in conversation with Mr. Sutton and Mr. Middleton; they all gave her a bow of acknowledgment as she entered the room, but only Mr. Middleton broke away and followed her to join the ladies.
Emily greeted her cousin with a ready embrace, expressing her delight in Elizabeth joining them at last. Emily had much to say, for Mr. Sutton had returned that morning from London, having received the blessing of her uncle and her step-mother, and had given her his own mother’s engagement ring, which was presented for Elizabeth’s admiration.
Elizabeth was happy to congratulate her cousin, and listened to several more minutes of her exuberant conversation; Lady Rebecca and Mr. Middleton, who had presumably already been appraised of most of Emily’s information, seemed likewise content to hear it all again as they took some refreshment.
"How I wish we could have seen you yesterday, Lizzy," Emily lamented.“Mr. Middleton and Cecily and I came round to the parsonage yesterday to see you, but we were turned away directly. I understand you and Jane had a quarrel.”
"Elizabeth simply decided she is quite ready to return Town," Lady Rebecca replied.
"I am certainly very pleased to hear it - in fact, I did hear it from Jane, when we went back to the parsonage this morning."
Elizabeth began to feel some panic again, but a quick glance at Lady Rebecca put her more at ease.
“La! That reminds me - I have a letter for you.”
"A letter?” If it was from Jane, Elizabeth had no desire to read it.
"It arrived for you when we were visiting with Jane. It was the strangest thing, Lizzy," Emily said, leaning in to whisper. "It almost seemed as though she had intended to keep the letter, for when I offered to convey it to you, she was most reluctant, and only acquiesced because Mr. Middleton assured her repeatedly that it would be no trouble, as we intended to come here directly. I cannot think what she meant by it, but Lizzy, I must warn that you she hinted at some very unpleasant things having occurred.”
Elizabeth cast a nervous glance towards Mr. Middleton, who seemed to have suddenly taken an interest in leafing through a book he picked up off a nearby end table.
Trying to maintain her composure, Elizabeth accepted the letter Emily passed to her, and seeing that it was from Longbourn, quickly tucked it into her pocket.
Emily spared her having to reply by turning the subject back to London. “By the by, Lady Rebecca, I brought my things back to the parsonage this morning. My mother wishes me to stay there until I return home, as it would not be proper for me to continue on staying at Cranbrook, now that Mr. Sutton and I are engaged. Jane is very out of sorts, and I don’t much want to stay at the parsonage any longer than I have to. Since you are for London tomorrow, do I presume too much, asking to travel with you?”
"No, indeed," Lady Rebecca said at once. "I think it a fine idea. How merry we shall all be on the way to London!”
Elizabeth agreed that Emily would make a wonderful addition to their traveling party. In such high spirits, surely it would not be long before she was laughing about all that had happened.
Mr. Middleton seemed less enthusiastic, and struck a very dramatic pose as he frowned at them. “What, all of you leaving Kent, and on the morrow? It is a very shocking thing you know, to deprive the whole country all at once of three of the most desirable companions for miles. I cannot like this plan, though I daresay I shan’t be able to persuade you from it. It is a sad day, indeed, when the distinction of prettiest face in Kent must now be passed to poor Mr. Sutton there.”
Darcy heard feminine laughter as he approached the front parlor, seeking out his cousin and Elizabeth. He faltered for a moment as he entered the room, astonished to find so many people within. His cousins were engaged in a game of chess, and Mr. Sutton looked on, speaking idly about some neighborhood business. Darcy could barely give them more than a civil greeting before his attention was claimed by Elizabeth.
She was an absolute vision, seated on the settee with sunlight pouring in the window, lighting up her beautiful auburn hair. Rebecca had gotten her to abandon the mourning garb her sister had ludicrously imposed on her, and she was dressed in an enchanting shade of green that set off her eyes to perfection. Her lovely face was animated with laughter, and though envy stirred within him, he was nonetheless captivated by the sight of her.
Rebecca looked up and sensed his hesitation. With a subtle nod, she rose to her feet and moved across the room to call for more tea, graciously vacating a seat on the sofa near Elizabeth. Darcy made haste in claiming the spot beside her, though he knew not how to draw her attention away from Mr. Middleton and his irritating charm. Awful chatty, he is, for such a plain fellow.
"Miss Bennet, I trust you are well," Darcy said, inwardly berating himself for thinking of nothing better to say.
"I certainly hope I do not look unwell," she said with a teasing smile.
"Certainly not. I missed you this morning - that is, we were concerned when you did not come down for... breakfast.”
Elizabeth blushed prettily. “I am fond of breakfast, but this morning I woke rather out of sorts. However, I am recovered, now."
Darcy felt all the compliment of her words, and was pleased that his presence cheered her. Certainly she would have joined him for their morning stroll, were it not for the unfortunate circumstances caused by his officious aunt. Now he only had to devise some way of getting her alone, and all it would be quite settled between them.
He had gone in search of her, certain and finding her with none but his cousins, which would have made it far easier for him to garner enough privacy to propose. He had even brought his sketchbook with him in the hopes that after she accepted him, she might allow him the liberty of taking her likeness, for he wished to include a portrait of his intended in his letter to Georgiana. His sister had a long held an interest in Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and he thought her curiosity might be gratified by seeing Elizabeth's likeness before they met in person. It would be a sort of peace offering, and perhaps, if time allowed, he might make a copy for himself.
Mr. Middleton interjected once more, assuring Elizabeth of the importance of taking care of oneself and observing how shocking it had been to hear of the discord between Elizabeth and her sister.
Rebecca, ever vigilant, made her way back to them, and perched on the arm of the sofa near Elizabeth. “I heartily agree with Mr. Middleton, Lizzy. Do not neglect your daily walk, I know how dear a custom it is to you. I do believe you will not quite be yourself at all today, unless you satisfy this imperative portion of your routine. You must take your walk, we all quite insist.”
Darcy seized upon the opportunity his cousin had given him. How could I ever have thought her so very odious? “Indeed, Rebecca is quite right,” Darcy said, enjoying how strange that sentence felt on his tongue. "I had meant to go out in the garden this morning myself, and have even brought my sketchbook down for the express purpose of doing some drawing out of doors, for it is such fine spring weather we are having it last. I should be happy to accompany you.”
Rebecca clapped her hands. “Capital idea, Darcy. Miss Bennett has a letter from home she might read while you are about your drawing, only do see she gets some manner of exercise.”
Darcy ignored Rebecca's devilish wink and deliberate implication. He rose to offer Elizabeth his arm, and she seemed happy to accept, when Mr. Middleton stood up beside her, apparently eager to invite himself along.
"Oh, dear Mr. Middleton," Rebecca cried. "I do hope you will not abandon us, for there is a very diverting little parlor game I wished to play, and I understand that six is exactly the perfect number for it, for it is a thing that is played in pairs. I had hoped you would partner me, as Emily will no doubt partner her fiancé, and my brothers must slog along together as best they can. What say you, sir?"
Darcy could barely contain his sense of triumph as Mr. Middleton was obliged to acquiesce. With Elizabeth on his arm, Darcy hastened from the house.
“I was not aware you are an artist, Mr. Darcy.”
“It is a passion of mine, though not one I am disposed to share with the world. I enjoy sketching, when the subject is something of great significance to me.”
“And what subject shall inspire you today, sir? Oh, of course, it is Rosings, is it not, now that it belongs to your daughter?”
Darcy had not thought of that, but supposed it would be a challenging enough subject to be enjoyable some time, though first he meant to capture the exquisite beauty of the lady on his arm. “I have written a letter to my sister, and wished to include something that would give her some cheer.” Darcy faltered a moment, as he searched for the words to explain just why his sister would soon have cause to rejoice. How happy this delightful creature would soon make them all - truly, it was she who would make their family whole once more. He would tell her everything, knowing that her tender heart would accept his abhorrent deceit, and even accept Georgiana and little Julia as her nearest and dearest.
Before he could continue, Elizabeth spoke to fill the silence. “Today seems to be a good day for letters from our families; I confess I am looking forward to mine. I hope it is from my father, though I suppose that if it is from my mother or one of my sisters, it will no doubt be just as amusing, though perhaps not quite the same way.”
Darcy nodded knowingly. He understood that Elizabeth was her father’s favorite, and that the two shared a similar sense of humor and enjoyment of intellectual pursuits. Elizabeth spoke less often of her mother, leading Darcy to wonder if perhaps the woman was more like Elizabeth’s elder sister. The younger sisters she described as being full young and very silly, though she was still dearly fond of them. “Of course, you must be wishing to read your letter. Despite the deprivation of your charming conversation, I must pray you sit here on this accommodating little bench, and read. I shan’t disturb you.”
Elizabeth gave him a pert smile. “To your sketching, then, sir. Only consider yourself warned, for when I have quite finished, I intend to disturb you. You will be quite longing for the deprivation of my charming conversation when I am peeking over your shoulder and offering you little suggestions for your drawing.”
Mr. Darcy arched an eyebrow as he had so often observed Elizabeth do. “We shall see about that.” He sat down on the bench opposite her, and opened his sketchbook. Her letter appeared to be two full pages, and as Elizabeth was quite engrossed, he took the surreptitious liberty of beginning to sketch out her frame. He had just begun to highlight the finer details of her face, when she let out a great sigh of contentment and turned the first page over. It struck him how perfectly at ease he was with her thus. Even the silence between them was companionable as they went about their individual pursuits. Is this what life at Pemberley together will be like? Darcy’s heart swelled with hope. How quickly she had become absolutely everything to him; it was sheer bliss, after so much torment. Finishing her lovely face, framed by the most enchantingly unruly curls, Darcy moved on to sketching the wondrous curve of her bosom.
Elizabeth had set aside the first page and move onto the second page when she suddenly gasped, and a moment later burst into tears, clutching the letter to her chest. “Oh good God, no!”
Darcy sprang up at once, and rushed to her side. He knelt down in front of her, taking her hands in his. “Elizabeth, what is it? Is your father well?” His heart tore apart as she shook her head, her face pink and crumpled with despair. No, not this, anything but this. Knowing all too well the pain of losing a father, Darcy wanted to weep, and without realizing what he was about, he wrapped his arms around her.
A strange sensation came over Elizabeth as Mr. Darcy dropped to his knees before her. She felt the briefest moment of elation, followed by a sharp stab of guilt. To be thinking of such a thing, at such a time as this! Distracted by the delightful warmth of his hands around hers, she scarcely heard what he said to her. No, not like this, not at such a time. Oh, how could this have happened? She shook her head wildly, trying to shake away the selfish delight she took in his attentions - her family needed her. And then, suddenly, she was in his arms. Incapable of any degree of restraint, Elizabeth melted into his embrace, clinging to him as though she were drowning. She wept into his shoulder at length, not only for the loss of her father, which the physician predicted would be soon, but for the loss of what might have almost been.
Reality set in, and Elizabeth pulled away from Mr. Darcy, who seemed to remember himself and stepped away. Had it not been just yesterday that she had tried to convince herself he was just a friend? And yet now, when she must part with him, the idea tore her heart to pieces.
Selfish girl, she chided herself. Her feelings must all be for her father and her family. Surely he had not been kneeling down to – Shame on you, Lizzy! She rose shakily to her feet. “I must go home, I must be with him at the end.”
“Yes, of course. I will notify Mr. and Mrs. Collins at once, and send a servant to ready your things for immediate departure.”
“No, there is no need to speak to Jane, she has already read my letter.”
Darcy appeared taken aback. “Had she any idea what the missive would contain?”
“I do not know. 'Twas added in the postscript that Papa had fallen ill. He is feverish and unconscious, and the doctor is not optimistic.” Fresh tears spilled down Elizabeth’s face and she wrapped her arms around herself, slowly rocking back-and-forth on her heels.
Darcy came toward her again, and for a moment Elizabeth indulged in the dreadful hope that he would take her in his arms once more, that she could smell the delicious oaky fragrance of his coat as she wept into his chest. He did not embrace her again, but took her hands in his and drew her closer to him. “I am so sorry, dearest Elizabeth. I know the pain of losing a father - I have lost both my parents. It is a terrible anguish I would spare you if I could. That your sister would not come and break the news to you gently is unconscionable, but you are among friends here.” He leaned his head against the top of hers, and for a long moment Elizabeth could feel his heartache as deeply as she felt her own. And then, she felt the incredible sensation of his lips brushing against her forehead. She let out a shaky breath and clenched his hands in hers, letting the dizzying comfort of the gesture wash over her. And then she felt him leaning into her - his hands were on her shoulders - in her hair - his fingers slid down her cheeks, wiping her tears away, and then his lips came down hard on hers - his mouth caressed her lips - his tongue slid against the roof of her mouth - her fingers clasped his lapel, and for an earth-shattering moment Elizabeth forgot everything but the feel of him.
He pulled away, his breathing ragged, and Elizabeth instantly felt the loss of his proximity. She was overcome with embarrassment as his gaze bore into her. Had she really just done that? Trying to pull herself together, she looked away and said, “Sir, I believe I must go.”
His voice was strained. “Yes, of course. Forgive me. I am not at liberty to depart Rosings at present, Robert needs me, but my other two cousins will bring you home at once. I will see to everything. We’ve not a moment to lose.”
Mr. Darcy made ready to return to the house, but Elizabeth felt frozen in place. There were far too many people at the manor, and Elizabeth was not equal to meeting with them in such a heightened state of emotion. “I cannot – that is, might I wait here? I dare say I shall have a clear view of the front drive when the carriage is made ready. I have not even unpacked my trunks from yesterday. I am ready to depart at a moment’s notice.”
“Of course, you must require solitude. I will speak to my cousins at once.”
Elizabeth sank down on the little stone bench as she watched him go, wondering with regret if this was to be the last time she ever set eyes upon him. How eager he was to be gone from her presence after her wanton display! Elizabeth chided herself, trying to think of her family, as was her duty at such a time. Poor, dear Papa! She wiped away a fresh set of tears as the Sutton carriage pulled around the shrubbery and stopped in front of the house. A moment later, the two gentlemen from Cranbrook exited the manor, followed by Emily, who whispered eagerly into her fiancé’s ear. Mr. Middleton, averting his gaze from the affectionate display, took notice of Elizabeth, and waved at her. She mustered up a smile and waved back, trying to compose herself as the two men drove away, and Emily came rushing towards Elizabeth in the garden.
“There you are, Lizzy! I thought I caught a glimpse of you out the window before, but Lady Rebecca was most perversely determined to position herself just as to block my view of you. Indeed, it looked almost as though you and Mr. Darcy had quarrel. Lizzy, good heavens, are you crying?”
Elizabeth nodded feebly, and was obliged to fill her cousin in on the contents of her letter from home, and her plan to return there at once. Emily’s reaction was just what Mr. Darcy’s had been, shared commiseration for the loss of a father and outrage at Jane’s callous disregard for the situation. And yet, her empathy lacked the intensely passionate response Mr. Darcy’s has evoked with her. Elizabeth shivered.
“Well, I am certainly not going to spend another night in that house with her, Lizzy – I am coming with you.”
Elizabeth had not the spirit to argue with her friend. “Is your trunk still packed? We must be off at once.”
“Hang my trunk! I will just borrow one of your dull grays, and Mr. Sutton can bring the trunk to me when I return to London.”
Elizabeth nodded distractedly at Emily, who put an affectionate arm around her. “All will be well, Lizzy. Your father’s health may yet improve. Trust in God. He will not abandon you, and neither will I.”
Once back inside, Darcy hurried into the front parlor, where his cousins sat clustered in excited conversation. They froze as he entered, staring in surprise at his frenzied state.
Richard was the first to jump to his feet. "Good God Darcy, what has happened? Where is Miss Bennet?"
Rebecca joined her brother in rushing toward Darcy. "She hasn't refused you, has she?"
"We must ready the carriage – we've not a moment to lose."
Rebecca laughed. "What, eloping to Gretna?"
"It is Elizabeth’s father – he is gravely ill, and the outlook is grim. She must return home at once."
Richard let out a heavy sigh as he took in the gravity of the situation.
Rebecca frowned. "Her letter from home... blast it, Emily!"
Darcy could feel his face contorting with despair as he choked back a sob.
Richard placed a reassuring hand on Darcy's shoulder. "Please tell me you had already proposed when she read this letter."
"No, I had not. Damn my stupidity! It was I who suggested she read it straight away, and afterward, I knew it was too late. And to think I could have offered her the comfort of a fiancé!”
His cousins fell silent for a moment, offering him a look of commiseration before they sprang into action.
"I will call for the carriage directly," Richard said. "Rebecca will accompany you, for the sake of propriety."
"Yes, of course," Rebecca agreed. "I will call for her trunk and prepare to depart immediately."
Darcy turned to Richard, nearly choking on his words. "I cannot go with you – Richard, you must go. Keep them safe on their journey, and see that it is swift. She must not know the pain of being too late."
"Of course. I will ensure we take our fastest team of horses, only, are you sure you do not wish to come yourself?"
"We are not engaged, Richard, and I do not think I can offer her the meager comfort of a mere friend when she is in such distress before me. Not after....”
He hesitated, glancing warily at Rebecca, who scowled at him before rushing from the room to make ready. "I kissed her, Richard. I do not know what I came over me, and I am heartily ashamed of myself, to have taken advantage of her at such a moment. I do not know if I can face her again.”
Richard nodded, his countenance solemn. He seemed to understand how hard it had been for Darcy to make such an admission, how he despised himself for his own behavior.
"I hardly know what to say. I know this is a terrible blow for you. Would that I had left well enough alone, and not persuaded you to such a course of action that has only led to your present disappointment.”
"Do not say that. I imagine I would have felt it anyway. At any rate, it is Miss Bennet who is to be pitied. Would to God that I could spare her any pain, especially such as this." Darcy approached a little writing desk in the corner. "I shall need a rider to take this letter express to London. I am summoning my own personal physician to attend her father in Hertfordshire. Perhaps it is not too late.”
“You are a good man, Darcy.” Shouting for the carriage to be made ready at once, he strode from the room, leaving Darcy alone with his anguish.
After sending off at his hastily written missive to Doctor Willis, another idea occurred to Darcy, and he quickly scrawled a second brief note, blowing on the ink before tucking it into his pocket. He made for the kitchen, where he bundled an apple, some cheese, a sweet roll and a small crust of bread into a small basket, and tucked his note at the bottom.
Resolved, he joined his cousins in the front drive as they prepared to set off. Emily was with Elizabeth, leading her affectionately by the hand towards the carriage. Richard and Rebecca climbed in first, and Darcy helped Emily in before turning to Elizabeth. She hesitated as he offered her his hand, and met his eye with a fearful, searching gaze. He stared back at her, committing her every feature to his memory. “I know not when we shall meet again," he sighed.
She took his hand, squeezing it tightly as she stepped into the carriage, her eyes still staring into his. They were full of tears, and it broke his heart to part with her thus. Accepting the offered basket, she attempted a slight smile and nodded her head. "Thank you, thank you for everything. Goodbye, Mr. Darcy."
A moment later the carriage was off, but Darcy remained rooted in place. He watched as the carriage disappeared from sight at the end of the lane, his hand tingling with the sensation of that last brief moment, when her hand had been in his.