The blurb for this story can be found here.
Chapter Forty Three
The Colonel’s interest was clearly roused, and he drew Darcy over to the opposite side of the hall to where the ladies had gathered. ‘You have established the source of this floating light? The twins’ ghostly apparition?’
‘Indeed.’ Darcy glanced over to where Elizabeth stood, but she appeared to have engaged Miss Latimer in conversation, and he turned back to his cousin. ‘I believe what the girls saw was a glow from the upper floor of the hunting tower at the top of Stand Wood.’
Smacking a hand to his head, the Colonel nodded. ‘Of course! It is barely noticeable by day, concealed by the trees as it is, but at night…’
‘If someone was in there and had a lamp or torch lit, it would show through the top most branches, especially now the leaves have begun to fall.’
‘And their perception of this spirited light coming and going; dancing, as the twins put it?’
Darcy shrugged lightly. ‘I suspect it was merely the branches of the trees swaying which gave the effect.’
‘If you are right, we may not be searching for long on the morrow.’
‘Even if I am right, I do not expect to find her there. There was certainly no hint of a light this evening; she is, perhaps, in hiding elsewhere in fear of discovery.’
‘It is, at least, a step in the right direction, Darce. We must take comfort from that.’
‘I will take any that we can find.’ Darcy looked around the hall. Latimer had yet to join his wife and daughter, and there was no sign of Bingley, but Olivia and Viola had emerged from the drawing room and hurried to join the ladies, exclaiming over their dresses.
Smiling faintly, he walked to meet his sister as she too came through the doorway. ‘I am sorry we are to desert you this evening, Georgie.’
Georgiana smiled. ‘I am not in want of company, Fitz. Mrs Annesley is here, and the twins shall no doubt keep me occupied!’ They both looked over to where Olivia stood, now sporting Elizabeth’s cloak about her shoulders, though it fell to the ground in pools of fabric, their height being so dissimilar.
Darcy tried not to stare as Elizabeth, clearly under the bidding of Viola, turned in a circle, that her appearance might be admired. She was laughing, the curls above her nape dancing as she moved, the rich green fabric of her silk dress swirling about her ankles and the beads in her hair catching the light from the chandeliers. Darcy caught his breath.
‘Miss Elizabeth Bennet looks very well, does she not, Brother?’ Georgiana did not look at him, for which he was thankful.
He cleared his throat. ‘She does; very well indeed.’
‘And do you intend to tell her you are not destined for Miss Latimer this evening? You swore me to secrecy until you spoke to her father, which I know you have now done. If you do not speak of it, then I most certainly shall.’
‘Georgiana!’ Darcy spoke quietly but firmly, and she turned a contrite face towards him.
‘Forgive me, Fitz. I seek naught but your happiness. You must know that.’
‘I do; most assuredly, I do.’ He glanced over towards Elizabeth again; Olivia was carefully assisting her with her cloak. ‘I believe the lady begins to understand me, Georgie.’
‘But you must be certain of it.’ His sister was quite in earnest, and he smiled reassuringly.
‘I will make certain of it; I promise you that. And should I fail to make myself understood, which is not unheard of when I attempt conversation with the lady, then I give you leave to rescue me as you see fit.’
Georgiana held his gaze for a moment, then slowly began to smile. ‘Should aught go amiss, you can rely upon me to assist.’
Darcy laughed and watched as his sister crossed the hall to speak to the ladies. She was growing into a confident and delightful young woman, and he was ever thankful for it. Yet it could not fail to pass his mind how closely they had both come to losing each other at the hands of George Wickham. It was a sobering thought, and he stared over at one of the windows. All was darkness without, and the thought of the young girl Wickham had succeeded in ruining, alone and friendless in the woods, quickly lowered his spirits.
‘You look like thunder, Darce.’ The Colonel had come to join him, and he narrowed his gaze as he contemplated his cousin’s countenance. ‘It is merely a dance, old man; not a battle.’
‘It is not the ball I think of, Richard.’
‘Well, whatever it is, I would urge you to put it aside for I do not think it will endear you to your partners.’
Darcy dropped his gaze to his feet. His cousin was right; he must shed this preoccupation with matters he could not resolve this evening. Spending time in Elizabeth’s company would be an effective balm after such an extraordinarily stressful day, and on that he must focus his efforts.
‘On your guard, Darce. Here comes Latimer.’
Darcy looked up just as the gentleman reached the bottom stair, and he came swiftly over to join them.
‘You have made yourself scarce since our meeting, Darcy.’ He eyed the cut on Darcy’s cheek. ‘I trust you found some good sport on your ride?’
Exchanging a swift look with his cousin, Darcy inclined his head. ‘It was an unexpectedly fruitful excursion, Latimer.’ And one he had no intention of sharing with the man!
Latimer grunted, and turned to survey the room, his gaze narrowing as it fell upon his daughter, who appeared to be tolerating the twins’ admiration of her gown. Then, he turned back to them.
‘I trust those foolish girls have been suitably punished for their actions.’
Before Darcy could speak, the Colonel drew himself up in height. ‘The Miss Bingleys meant no harm, Latimer, and in effect, no harm was done. Your daughter looks in the prime of good health, and it is for Bingley to censure his sisters for their behaviour, no one else.’
‘They are a disgrace! If they were under my…’
‘Yet they are not.’ Darcy stared distastefully at the man. ‘Miss Olivia and Miss Viola have offered an apology, and as I understand it, your daughter has accepted it. That is the end of the matter.’
Latimer said nothing, though it clearly cost him dear to hold his tongue. Then, he blew out a breath and forced a laugh.
‘Come, Darcy; we have locked horns once already today. Let us not stand on ceremony.’ He threw an assessing glance towards the Colonel, who met it with inscrutability. ‘You will concede one mark in my favour out of courtesy, I am sure. You cannot allow my daughter to sit out the first set at this ball. It is not fitting for one of her status.’ Before Darcy could respond, he turned and called out to his daughter. ‘Eleanor! Come here, child. Make haste.’
‘It is an unfortunate situation for any young lady, Latimer.’ Darcy bowed as Miss Latimer joined them. ‘I am certain there will be ample young gentleman more than happy to stand up with your daughter. I have already engaged her for the third set and my commitment to my partner for the first will not be altered.’
With a scowl, Latimer turned to his daughter. ‘Eleanor, you must insist upon Mr Darcy rescinding his commitment.’
For the first time, Darcy saw emotion cross the lady’s face. ‘Papa, I shall not! As Mr Darcy has told you, he is to open the ball with Miss Elizabeth Bennet.’ She paused. ‘Besides, I too am engaged for the first.’
Latimer stared at his daughter, speechless for a moment. Then, he spluttered: ‘How so? With whom?’
‘Why, with Colonel Fitzwilliam, of course,’ the lady replied with composure, before turning her back upon her father and crossing the room to re-join her mother.
Darcy looked to his cousin in surprise, but he was making a hasty bow towards Latimer.
Glaring from Darcy to the Colonel, Latimer said nothing, merely turning on his heel to follow his daughter, and they both watched him for a moment before Darcy glanced at his cousin. ‘So – when did you…?’
The Colonel shrugged. ‘No idea, old man.’ Then, he grinned. ‘But if the lady says it is so, then so be it!’
With Mr Latimer joining them, Elizabeth excused herself from the other ladies and walked a little distance away. She had been surprised to find Eleanor Latimer more receptive than usual and had even been enjoying their tentative conversation, but upon returning from the summons by her father, it was clear the young lady’s spirits were affected, and she retreated to her mother’s side and spoke no further.
A keen observer, Elizabeth took a position whereby she could see everyone else in the room, keeping a firm hold on her gaze and not permitting it to drift solely in the direction of a certain gentleman, but even as she noticed Bingley beginning to descend the staircase, she frowned. Mr Darcy had looked so suddenly angry but a moment ago, soon after his sister had left his company. What could have caused it?
With a start, Elizabeth looked around. Mr Darcy had joined her, and trying to ignore the tumbling of her insides as he met her gaze, she smiled, then walked around to stand on his other side.
‘You are healing already, sir.’ Elizabeth studied the mark upon his cheek; the skin appeared to be fusing neatly.
Mr Darcy nodded, his gaze on the people milling around the entrance hall.
‘It will be all manner of colours by the morrow, but Mrs Reynolds’ tincture is an excellent method of muting a bruise in its early stages. She has had plenty of practise!’
Elizabeth raised a brow. ‘It is a habit of yours then, to ride recklessly through overhanging trees?’
He shook his head. ‘Not at all. But Mrs Reynolds was a master of concealment when I was young, that my mother might not be too alarmed at my escapades. Needless to say, the frequency of damage was oft enhanced during my cousin’s visits!’
With a laugh, Elizabeth looked over to where the Colonel stood; he had quickly engaged Bingley in conversation as soon as he reached the bottom of the stairs. ‘I can well believe it.’ Then, she frowned. Whatever the gentlemen were discussing, it had not brought the habitual smile to either of their faces; indeed, they looked uncharacteristically solemn.
Before she could raise such a thought, however, a footman appeared in the open doorway and there was a general movement towards him, and Elizabeth took the arm offered to her by Mr Darcy, conscious of the strength of him through the fine fabric of his evening coat. Thankful for the waft of cool, evening air skimming her cheeks as they emerged out onto the steps, she sighed as they made their way down to the sweep of gravel where two elegant equipages stood, one bearing the familiar Darcy crest, the other that of the Latimers.
Mrs Latimer and her daughter took up a position beside the lowered step to their carriage, and Elizabeth and Darcy, followed by the Colonel, walked over to join her sister and Mr Bingley beside the other.
‘Darcy! You will at least travel with us! Why crush five into one carriage when we have space in ours?’
They all looked over to where Latimer stood, gesturing towards his conveyance.
Because it is better company, Darcy muttered under his breath. ‘I thank you, Latimer; but as with many things, I prefer to follow my own choice.’
The Colonel clapped him on the shoulder. ‘I will take this hit for you, Darce.’ He spoke quietly in his ear. ‘But you owe me!’
Striding over, the Colonel took Mrs Latimer’s hand. ‘Allow me, ma’am.’
He handed her into the carriage before turning to assist her daughter, then stood back so that Latimer could step up ahead of him. The gentleman glared at him as he passed, but the Colonel merely rolled his eyes, raised a hand to his cousin who was watching him yet, and entered the carriage, closing the door with a snap.
Froggatt Park, the ancestral home of the Seymour family, was located on a steep rise and reaching it was an adventure in itself. Thankfully, the bright moon, lingering from the previous evening, was some aid to the drivers in leading the carriages safely around the rising curves and bends.
Conversation had been sporadic and though Jane and Mr Bingley had spoken a little, Elizabeth found it difficult to think of anything to say, with Mr Darcy sat opposite, his dark eyes upon her. She was unsure as to his expression, for the lighting within was low, but she was certain his air and countenance were more troubled than at ease.
Unable to discern the cause, however, Elizabeth spent much of the short journey peering out of the window into the semi-darkness, eventually making out a hilly outcrop established with tall trees, then the glisten of water in the distance and a herd of fallow deer, which turned tail as they passed and raced off into the woods.
The carriages passed under the arch of a gatehouse, winding their way up a further short hillside to the west front of the house. It was on at least as large a scale as Pemberley, but of Elizabethan style, its tall, turreted circular tower imposing yet beautiful, the ivy clinging to its walls turned all shades of red and gold by the season.
Soon, they were inside, their outdoor garments handed to a servant, and a footman led them up along a raised hallway to a marble foyer where Sir Charles and Lady Araminta were receiving their guests.
‘Darcy! There you are!’ The gentleman beamed widely at them all before turning to look at Mr and Mrs Latimer. ‘Now, present me to these good people.’
The introductions were swiftly made and everyone was welcomed with a pleasing warmth as they passed along the line. Looking around, Elizabeth’s eyes were assailed by a myriad of colour as gowns, elaborate headdresses and jewels passed to and fro before her.
‘We shall have fireworks later, Darcy!’ Sir Charles laughed. ‘We are determined to out-do our last attempt; make sure you and your party do not miss them!’
Darcy caught his cousin’s eye. Neither of them had forgotten the last time; nor, doubtless, had the hapless footman whose tailcoat had caught alight, much to everyone’s amusement but his own!
Following the general crowd, the party from Pemberley eventually arrived in the elegantly appointed ballroom. It had a vast domed ceiling, extravagant plaster carvings on the pillars and floor to ceiling windows along one side, which reflected the many shimmering lamps and chandeliers. The iridescent fabrics and jostling feathers made a pretty spectacle of it as they made their way down the side of the room. The musicians could be heard tuning their instruments in the gallery above, and two jesters, elaborately dressed in appropriate costumes, were entertaining the guests as they awaited the ball’s opening number.
As their party assembled neatly to one side of the room, Darcy glanced over at Elizabeth. She was in conversation with her sister. He could see Latimer and his wife stood watching the proceedings, whilst Miss Latimer had assumed her usual bored expression. He did not envy his cousin! Bingley, meanwhile, remained at Darcy’s side.
His gaze roamed the room but he could not see the Colonel, and soon he found himself drawn to watch Elizabeth again. She was adjusting the length of her gloves and laughing at something her sister had said, and he could not help but smile at the sound.
‘Well, this is a fine turn up!’ Colonel Fitzwilliam materialised by Darcy’s side, his laughing glance going from his cousin to his friend, whose eye was avidly fixed upon Jane Bennet.
‘I seem to have stumbled into a field of the verriest mooncalves!’ He smirked and clapped Darcy on the shoulder before walking over to speak to the Latimers, and Darcy looked at Bingley, who shrugged before turning his gaze back onto Jane.
With a sigh, Darcy met his cousin’s amused eye across the room. If it really was so obvious to the world, then surely Elizabeth must understand his feelings for her?
Darcy looked back over to where she stood only to realise she was watching him, and he smiled faintly. He wished for nothing more than to be beside her, yet never had he approached an evening with a more troubled mind. Torn over what he concealed from her, the exquisite anticipation of spending the next half hour in her company had assumed vast proportions. It was as though he feared his whole future hinged upon the outcome of this dance, when in reality, it was grounded in much more mysterious matters.
A smartly dressed footman appeared before him, offering a silver tray of goblets, and Darcy selected two before stepping over to where Elizabeth stood.
‘Would you care for some wine?’
‘Thank you; yes.’ She accepted it from him and took a sip, and Darcy did likewise, letting the chilled liquid slide down his throat, easing the habitual constriction, which tended to rise when he struggled for words.
There was a burst of laughter as the jester nearest to them comically performed a neat somersault, followed by a smattering of applause, and Elizabeth turned a smiling countenance to him.
‘Shall we be permitted to dance at any point, Mr Darcy, or will the guests be too inclined towards other entertainments?’
He looked over to where a large circle had formed around both jesters now as they began a display of acrobatics. ‘I will own to some… anxiety.’
Elizabeth raised a brow. ‘Truly, sir?’ Then, she laughed. ‘I do not think you will be required to perform in such a manner yourself.’
He shook his head, smiling. ‘No, and for that I am thankful. Performance of any sort is not my preference.’ He drew in a shallow breath, then met Elizabeth’s gaze. ‘Dancing is sufficient challenge.’
‘Yet I know you to be proficient.’
‘One can be proficient without enjoyment of the art itself.’
‘How singular. You are the second person to say as much in the past hour. Miss Latimer has just spoken as such with regard to her instrument and the pressure upon her to exhibit her talent.’ Elizabeth studied him thoughtfully for a moment. ‘Yet this is not the cause of your anxiety, is it, sir? Our one and only dance held no pleasure for you.’
He half smiled. ‘Let us say my enjoyment of it did not quite match my expectations.’
She looked contrite, and he wished he had not spoken so. ‘Forgive me, Mr Darcy. You know full well how mistaken my understanding was of your character.’
Darcy shook his head again. ‘Our acquaintance has been governed by misunderstandings.’
‘Aye, that is has.’ She bit her lip, then smiled. ‘Though my mistaking you for a fox was perhaps the most unforeseen.’
Darcy laughed, then turned around at a commotion behind them.
‘Come; come,’ Sir Charles bellowed as he finally led his wife into the ballroom. ‘Let the dancing begin!’ He beamed around at his assembled guests. ‘If you please, Araminta,’ he turned to bow extravagantly to his wife. ‘Will you do us the honour of leading?’
Darcy looked up at the gallery as the musicians struck a chord, then turned back to Elizabeth. ‘Shall we?’
He placed their goblets on a nearby table and held out his hand. Elizabeth placed hers in it, and he closed his fingers over hers, wishing he never had to let her go. It was impossible, despite the wearing of evening gloves, not to think of the feel of Elizabeth’s skin against his when he had held her hand earlier.
The room began to arrange itself into some semblance of order as the jesters performed a final somersault and removed themselves from sight, and Darcy led Elizabeth to a position near the centre of the line.
‘Doubtless he feels that is his due.’ The Colonel nudged Darcy’s arm as he passed behind him, inclining his head towards Latimer and his wife, who stood near the head of the line, before leading Miss Latimer to take a place further away. Jane Bennet had joined her sister, and Darcy smiled at Bingley as he came to stand at his side.
‘It is a long time since Netherfield, is it not, Darcy?’ Bingley beamed widely across at the ladies, and Elizabeth threw Darcy a conscious look. It was impossible not to recall their uneasy partnering.
As the first notes sounded, and their hosts performed a full pattern of the steps, as was their wont before their guests joined in, Darcy became aware both Bingley and Jane and the couples to his other side were already indulging in conversation, and catching Elizabeth’s eye, her brow raised in question, he cleared his throat.
‘I believe we struggled to find topics of mutual approval the last time I had the pleasure of dancing with you, Miss Elizabeth.’
‘I am certain we shall find some common ground, even if it centres around Alice or Mrs Reynolds!’
Darcy smiled, feeling a little more at ease. ‘Yet I think it important to say that I never talk of books in a ballroom.’
To his delight, Elizabeth laughed. ‘Touché, Mr Darcy! Then we must avoid the subject at all costs!’
Feeling a little awkward, he added, ‘I trust you will be in agreement that we should not speak of a certain mutual former acquaintance either.’
Elizabeth nodded quickly. ‘I have no intention of permitting him any purchase during our set, sir.’
‘There,’ he stepped forward to meet her as the guests were finally invited to join in the dance. ‘We have successfully placed our markers and both understand the topics to be avoided.’
Elizabeth smiled as they moved forward again, this time to take each other’s hands, and he relished the moment as they turned about and returned to their original places.
‘And do you not feel, sir, that we comprehend each other better than we did when last we stood up for a set?’
As they exchanged steps with Jane and Bingley, Darcy knew he could not deny it; yet he could only recall with shame his behaviour towards her, both in Hertfordshire and in Kent. Could she really have finally absolved him of it?
They crossed behind each other, then turned to take hands again as the pattern of the dance changed direction. ‘I have tried to improve those aspects of my character which were so lacking. I remain a little unsure of the level of my success.’
Elizabeth turned her head to look at him as they stepped forward and then back, and he swallowed quickly at the expression on her face.
‘You spoke in the stillroom of the avoidance of doubt, sir, did you not?’
Turning away, Darcy met Elizabeth’s gaze again as they returned to the original line, then nodded.
‘Then let me speak openly.’ They stepped forward again and took hands, and as they turned about, she held his gaze, her colour high.
‘I like you, Mr Darcy; you have no need to seek my approbation, for you already have it.’
Chapter Forty Four will be posted on Tuesday!
Copyright © Cassandra Grafton 2017