The blurb for this story can be found here, along with all previous Chapters.
Yet again, Darcy did not sleep well. As a consequence, he rose early and was soon dressed and on his way down the stairs, determined to pay his call without delay, that he might put the matter aside. His only intent was to establish which other Bennet daughter remained at home, and the answer would determine what he may do next with regard to his friend. Until then…
‘Fitz! Where are you going?’
Darcy looked up as he reached the hall to see his sister emerging from the breakfast room, a napkin clasped in her hand.
‘I have a brief call to make, Georgie.’
‘But you have yet to break your fast!’
‘I shall hardly starve, my dear.’ Darcy walked over and dropped a kiss upon the top of her head and steered her back into the room. ‘I shall return directly, and we will take a walk about the grounds, as I promised you.’
Making good his escape from the house, Darcy decided against using his mount. It was early enough without ensuring his arrival was expedited. He turned his steps in the same direction as the previous evening, trying, with little success, not to dwell upon his first sight of Elizabeth in over eighteen months. Their last two encounters in Kent had been so fraught with tension, he had been thankful for the dim light of the lamp last night, casting her countenance almost into shadow and doubtless his own likewise.
This morning, there would be no hiding, and no element of surprise to excuse them every day civilities. Would she receive him in a more welcoming manner? Then, Darcy swiped at the long grasses bordering the lane with his cane. What did it matter? He had but one purpose with the family, and it did not concern Miss Elizabeth Bennet!
Reaching the entrance to The Grange, Darcy paused as he saw someone coming down the drive – it was the lady herself, a bonnet swinging loosely from her hand, her face raised to the weak sun’s rays. Suddenly, Elizabeth saw him and stopped. He had no choice but to walk on and join her, and the low curtsey she afforded him at least gave him a moment to gather his thoughts.
Meeting his gaze, she raised her chin slightly, such a familiar gesture and, against his volition, his chest tightened.
Swallowing quickly, he bowed. ‘Miss Bennet. No bucket today?’
Her eyes flashed. ‘Not yet.’
‘I have come to call upon your father. Is he at home?’
‘He is in his library.’
‘And – will you take me to him?’
‘If you insist.’ She made as though to turn back.
Elizabeth glanced over her shoulder. ‘Yes?’
‘I do not insist. It was a request, not an order.’
Elizabeth turned back to face him, looking a little shame-faced. ‘Forgive me, sir. You have caught me in an ill humour.’
‘I am sorry to hear it.’ Darcy felt a momentary relief he was not the only person who could affect her so, but then realised there was every chance the sight of him was the cause.
Elizabeth stared at him for a moment, then gave a small shake of her head. ‘Pay me no mind, Mr Darcy. I do not wish to return to the house yet, but propose to shake off my frustrations with a long ramble.’ She curtseyed. ‘Please excuse me. Alice will be happy to show you to my father.’
Darcy turned to watch as she passed through the gate into the lane, made her way up an incline into the trees and quickly moved out of sight.
He did not know what to make of their conversation, if it could be deemed such, but one thing was clear: Elizabeth was still not inclined to look upon him with favour. Time may have passed since the unpleasantness of Kent, but little else had altered.
With a sigh, he turned back and walked to the door. For both their sakes, he was thankful he would not be making a habit of calling at The Grange.
Darcy was shown into the drawing room without delay, where Mr Bennet soon joined him, but there was no sign of anyone else.
‘Forgive the intrusion, sir,’ Darcy bowed as the gentleman entered, a newspaper clutched in his hand.
‘Not at all, Mr Darcy. Do be seated.’ He waved a hand towards a chair before taking one himself, dropping the newspaper onto a nearby table. ‘To what do I owe this honour?’
Shifting awkwardly in his seat, Darcy met the elder gentleman’s gaze warily. ‘I – er – that is, I felt I owed you the courtesy of a more formal call. What took place last evening was inexcusable, and…’
Mr Bennet frowned. ‘Lizzy’s mistaking you for a predator, you mean? I quite agree.’
‘No – no, not at all!’ Darcy knew they were alone, but he could not help glancing about the room, unwilling for Elizabeth to overhear a perceived criticism from him. ‘What I meant, sir, is my trespassing upon your property so late in the evening. I believe I received my due reward.’
With a harrumph, though Darcy could not tell if it were from amusement or otherwise, Mr Bennet got to his feet and tugged the bell near the fireplace. Then, he turned to study his visitor, his gaze narrowed, and Darcy forced himself to remain still under his scrutiny.
‘Pemberley is your estate, Mr Darcy, and you have every right to… inspect whichever of your properties you desire at whatever time is convenient. Of course, a little notice is usually the order of the day, but if I am not mistaken, your presence here yesterday evening was less to do with this house and more to do with its inhabitants.’
The man was all too astute, damn him, but at least he had no idea which particular possible inhabitant had drawn him out so late in the day! Darcy shifted his position in his seat as Mr Bennet retook his own and then cleared his throat which felt strangely tight.
‘I will not deny it. I had learned recently of a new tenant here by name of Bennet; I apologise for being unable to quash my curiosity until a more civilised time of day.’
Mr Bennet waved a hand in the air. ‘Let us speak no more of it, Mr Darcy. I assure you I have chastised my daughter for her part in it. Though she generally means well, Lizzy is altogether too impetuous for her own – and others’ – good at times.’
Darcy was torn between gratitude for the gentleman’s forbearance and dread of what precisely he may have said to Elizabeth. It was no wonder the lady had been out of sorts at the sight of him this morning.
The door opened then, and Alice stood aside to allow a young maid to enter bearing a tray of tea, which was soon placed on a low table between the two gentlemen. Darcy’s stomach let out a protesting rumble as the smell of freshly baked scones reached him, and he eyed the laden platter keenly.
‘Come, sir, do not stand on ceremony. Alice will report to the cook if you do not show her offering adequate appreciation.’ Mr Bennet handed Darcy a dish of tea before pressing the plate of scones on him, and there was silence for a while as both men munched contentedly.
Conscious, however, that the main purpose of his call was to ascertain the whereabouts of Jane Bennet, Darcy settled back in his chair and surveyed the room as discreetly as he could over the rim of his cup, seeking some sign of who the other occupant of the house might be.
There was a workbasket on the floor beside a comfortable looking chair near the fire, over-spilling with colourful embroidery silks, but that could belong to any of the girls. There was a small stack of books on a table beside the chair opposite him, but he could not read the spines to determine their subject. Glancing to his right, he could see some prettily arranged flowers – not the hothouse variety, more of the nature to be found in a country garden such as The Grange possessed – but again, they could have been placed there by any hand, even a servant’s.
Darcy turned back to face his host; to his alarm, the gentleman was now watching him intently.
‘I trust you find all in order, Mr Darcy? We have made very few alterations.’
Darcy threw him an apologetic look. ‘Forgive me. I must be honest with you. I mentioned my curiosity over whether the Bennets in residence here were one and the same family I made the acquaintance of in Hertfordshire in the year eleven.’
‘Indeed, you did. That has surely been satisfied.’
‘Yes – yes, of course. But,’ Darcy hesitated. He felt incredibly ill at ease.
‘Come now. You know what befell us, what brought us to your fine county. I am not a man to air his business with all and sundry, but as you can claim a prior acquaintance with all of us, and we are now beholden to you as our landlord, I have no objection to answering your questions, should I feel they are of relevance.’
It was such an opening, such an invitation, and Darcy, who had not the highest opinion in the world of Mr Bennet from his past observations of him, felt grateful for the attempt to put him at ease.
‘I have one question, sir; the response will determine whether it leads to more.’ Darcy met the gentleman’s eye firmly, ‘My steward advised me of a widower, a Mr Bennet, taking over the lease of The Grange before I left Town. He referred to you as having two daughters. Whilst I understand the loss of your youngest, and I have met with Miss Elizabeth Bennet, I held some further curiosity – and please forgive me for it – about the second daughter who remained at home. I assume your other two daughters are now happily settled and wish to offer my congratulations.’
Mr Bennet grunted and took a long draught from his cup before leaning forward to place it on the tray.
‘Congratulations, you say? There has been little opportunity for celebration this past year, sadly.’ Then, he sighed. ‘I do not resent the question and consider it perfectly justified, though I will own to some surprise at the depth of your interest in our family?’
Mr Bennet raised a questioning brow, but unable to answer this, Darcy said nothing, and the gentleman continued. ‘My eldest daughter remains at home with Lizzy. You recall Jane, do you not? I believe your friend had the misfortune to take her in as a guest when she fell ill on a visit to Netherfield.’
Darcy inclined his head. ‘I trust Miss Bennet, along with Miss Elizabeth, continue in good health, sir.’
‘Yes, yes, of course. And how is that curiosity now, Mr Darcy? Fully sated? Or do you wish to know the whereabouts of my other daughters? Perhaps, by way of exchange, I should challenge you to recall their given names before I tell you?’
Names? Darcy blinked. Was the gentleman serious? Before he could search his memory, however, Mr Bennet gave a short laugh.
‘I sport with you, Mr Darcy. Forgive me. My sole company is that of Jane and Lizzy, but most often my own, and I am enjoying having the chance to spar with another gentleman.’
‘I would not suspend any enjoyment of yours,’ Darcy said quietly, attempting to mask his discomfort.
‘Well, then – my two other daughters – Kitty, or Catherine, as she was christened and Mary – are gone away to be educated. Properly educated, sir. It is long overdue, and had I the resources or the inclination sooner, it might well have saved their sister from her fate.’
Darcy did not know what to say, but it seemed he had no need of words, for Mr Bennet continued, ‘You see the enhancement of my decision, I trust? Longbourn, though entailed, is a valuable and extensive property, and being so conveniently located to Town, it commanded a premium in rental value. Derbyshire, though an admirable county, is adequate distance from any major city, and most notably London, so as to offer sufficient opportunity to lease a substantial property at much lower cost. The difference permits me to send two of my daughters to a finishing school where I hope they will learn how to comport themselves as young ladies should and where their talents – such as they are – will receive some polish.’
‘An admirable decision, sir. I trust – that is, the girls, are they well settled? It must be hard for them to be away from their sisters.’
‘Yes, well, what must be suffering for one is pleasure for another. I am relishing the peace and quiet!’
Unsure whether the gentleman was serious or not, Darcy refrained from smiling, but, having ascertained all he needed to know, he got to his feet.
‘I have trespassed on your good nature long enough, sir. I will take my leave and restore you to your peace and quiet.’
Again, Mr Bennet grunted. ‘My good nature has been sorely lacking of late.’ He got to his feet as well and shook Darcy’s proffered hand. ‘But I appreciate your calling, sir.’ He glanced over towards the clock on the mantel. ‘I am due to leave myself directly. I will set you company as far as Pemberley.’
Having parted company with Mr Bennet where the lane to Pemberley forked in two directions, the elder gentleman continuing on his way towards the nearby town, Darcy hesitated. He needed to return to the house; he had promised his sister a walk and the morning was already well advanced, but he felt the need for a moment to consider what he might do about his friend.
Mr Bennet’s figure was some distance along the lane to Lambton now and, turning on his heel, Darcy turned down the even narrower lane, signposted to Kympton. It would result in a two-mile detour, but the time afforded by the longer walk would be beneficial. Knowing Jane Bennet remained unmarried and living here on his estate, he was honour-bound to let Bingley, though it would have to await his arrival. It was too late to send word ahead and besides, Darcy knew this intelligence needed to be accompanied by a long overdue confession that ought not to be communicated by letter.
This much he had understood. What he did not fully comprehend was how Miss Bennet might feel about seeing his friend again. Could the lady still retain feelings for Bingley after all this time, especially in the light of his perceived neglect? If her affections had been as engaged as Elizabeth had implied, it might well be so. Yet it was a good deal of time, was it not, almost two years? Bingley and Miss Bennet had not been in company since the night of the Netherfield Ball, and their acquaintance had lasted but two months in its entirety. Surely there could not be such a depth of feeling it inspired a lasting attachment?
Yet you saw Bingley’s reaction to the notion of Miss Bennet’s being wed to another, did you not? And did not your own attachment, forged in the same amount of time, linger, taunted the familiar voice in the back of his head. So much so, you carried it with you into Kent?
Pushing the words ruthlessly aside, Darcy increased his pace. That was in the past. His present focus was upon his friend and Miss Bennet.
Engrossed in such thoughts as he walked, Darcy barely noticed as he passed through the village of Kympton, skirted the church and continued alongside the green. It was as he neared the other side, he heard the sound of a voice and the click of a gate latch being closed.
Raising his head, Darcy was surprised to see Jane Bennet turning away from one of the cottages, an empty basket on her arm and a smile on her face as she walked to meet him.
Chapter Thirteen will be posted on Tuesday next!
Copyright © Cassandra Grafton 2016