A Quest for Mr Darcy – Chapter Forty Eight

The blurb for this story can be found here.

Chapter Forty Eight

Elizabeth had watched as Mr Darcy walked away from her to resume his search with his cousin and friend. Though her heart had willed her to run after him, she had allowed her head to prevail and made no movement until the door closed upon him. Her mind, however, fell quickly into disarray in his absence. A desperate hope for Lydia being found safe and well warred with her anxiety over what nefarious means had brought about such a situation and what possible chance there might be for any sort of future for her sister after all she had endured. And what of her father’s role in all of this – and Wickham’s?

She had attempted to put aside any consideration for the future she had begun to hope for with Mr Darcy. Such selfishness was not to be tolerated in the circumstances; yet she could not dismiss the fear so easily as she wished. What would her life be like without the prospect of Mr Darcy in it now? She could not bear to think of it and all it might mean. Yet how could he possibly overcome the further stain this would bring to the Bennet name?

Such thoughts tormented Elizabeth as she walked back to the house, and she hurried up the stairs, thankful not to have seen anyone. Barely had she reached her chamber, however, when the door to the dressing room opened, and to her relief, Jane entered.

‘There you are, Lizzy; how was your ride?’

Her ride? Elizabeth blinked. It seemed so long ago! To think all she had been concerned about on her return was how to speak of the locket to Jane – now she had this other more pressing news to relate! Jane had taken Lydia’s passing badly; it had lowered her spirits for some considerable time. For a fleeting second, she wished Mr Darcy were there to give her courage – or better yet, to be the one to speak the words.

The chiming of the clock on the mantel roused her from such futile wishes, and glancing at it, Elizabeth frowned. ‘Where have you been all this time, Jane?’

‘We saw Mr Wentworth before returning to the house earlier. He asked us if we could spare some clothing for some poor waif of the parish, a young woman he hoped to offer assistance to; said she was of similar build to Miss Darcy and much in need. We dropped it off at the rectory on our way to Mrs Thatcher’s.’

With a quickly stifled gasp, Elizabeth sank heavily onto the bed. ‘Oh, Jane! I think I know who this person might be.’

~o0o~

Darcy’s mind was racing as he accompanied Wentworth to the rear of the rectory, but as they approached the yard housing the barns, he stayed the reverend with his hand. This surely required a little thought as to how it ought to be managed!

‘Wentworth, I must speak to you before I see this young lady.’ Darcy glanced over at the barns. ‘Is the building secure? She cannot escape?’

‘No.’ The reverend smiled ruefully. ‘She does not seem to wish to at the moment, though she had made several failed bids for freedom before asking for you.’ He eyed the master of Pemberley thoughtfully for a moment, then nodded. ‘Come with me, sir.’

He led Darcy into the house, along a corridor and opened the door to his study.

‘Please, sir; take a seat.’ Wentworth waved a hand towards his desk and walked around to take the chair on the other side.

Darcy sat stiffly, his gaze drifting around the room as he tried to gather his thoughts. He could not see Lydia Bennet on his own, that much was certain, but how was he to ensure as few people as possible became aware of her presence here?

‘Mr Darcy?’

‘Forgive me.’ Darcy’s gaze snapped back to Wentworth. ‘I am going to make a request of you, Wentworth, with very little explanation to support it. I trust you are prepared to give me the benefit of the doubt. I also must insist on your absolute confidence.’

There was a perceptible hesitation, but then, the reverend nodded slowly. ‘It is clear you know who this young woman is.’

Darcy was unsure how much he ought to reveal. It would take too long to lay before Wentworth what he knew so far of the whole sorry tale; better that they both heard what Lydia Bennet had to say. He did, however, need the man’s assistance.

‘Indeed; though it is not what it might seem.’ Darcy drew in a slow breath. ‘I cannot speak to her without a chaperone present, but it would be unwise to enlist one of your servants. I hoped you might be prepared to fulfil the role. It is a singular entreaty, but I hope you believe me when I say I would not ask such a thing if it were not of the utmost importance to speak to the young lady without delay. Time is of the essence. She has proved elusive, and I am convinced she will find a way to disappear again if she can.’

Curiosity was writ plain upon Wentworth’s countenance, but he assented without hesitation this time. ‘I am at your service, Mr Darcy.’

‘Good; good.’ Darcy’s mind was already drifting towards what he wished to ascertain from Lydia, but how he was to aid her remained quite beyond him at present. Then, he looked up. ‘You have no need to say anything, and you will learn things – assuming the lady is prepared to talk, and if she has requested to see me, one must believe that she will – including hearing some names with which you have some familiarity. Again, I would ask for your confidence over all that you learn henceforth.’

‘Without question, sir.’

‘And what of your man – the one who discovered her and locked her in?’

Wentworth shrugged. ‘Cartwright is a good man when it comes to hard labour, strong as an ox, but he is not educated; nor is he high in intelligence. With the nature of my calling, he has seen all manner of waifs and strays come and go. He will have paid little enough mind, I assure you.’

Darcy got to his feet. ‘Then let us delay no longer.’

‘Should we not bring her into the house, to a more comfortable setting?’

Conscious of the other servants and uncertain how this meeting would play out, Darcy shook his head. ‘Much as I wish to remove her from the unsuitability of her present situation, Wentworth, I think it would be more circumspect to first speak to her where there is no chance of us being overheard.’

~o0o~

Wentworth unfastened the padlock on the barn door, and Darcy pushed it open cautiously. The interior was much like any other of its ilk, dimly lit by any natural light due to a scarcity of windows and smelling strongly of a combination of dry straw and animals.

As his gaze adjusted to the light, he was aware of the reverend closing the door and coming to stand beside him.

‘Over there, sir.’

Wentworth pointed to the far reaches of the barn, and as he walked towards it, his boots hitting the flagstones with a staccato beat, Darcy became aware of the figure of a young woman huddled on a couple of small hay bales against the wall.

She looked up as he approached, though the hood of her green cloak concealed much of her features, but he knew it was the same person he had seen in the woods.

Darcy glanced at Wentworth as he joined him and, though it seemed absurd in the circumstances, he then bowed formally in the lady’s direction.

‘Miss Bennet.’

A decidedly unladylike snort issued from within the cloak. ‘I no longer answer to that name!’

Darcy was conscious of Wentworth’s surprise, though he quickly concealed it, turning to seat himself on an old milking stool.

‘Then you do own to having once answered to it?’

There was silence for a moment; then, she straightened up, swinging her feet to the floor and throwing back her hood. Though Darcy had seen the detailed sketch done by Viola’s hand, it was still a shock to see how gaunt Lydia Bennet had become, her unattended hair hanging lankly around her pale and drawn face.

‘What gain would there be in denying it? You are certain you know who I am.’ With an exaggerated sigh, Lydia Bennet sank heavily back against the wall. ‘But I shall never answer to it again.’

Darcy looked around before dragging over a larger hay bale and settling upon it. Then, conscious of Lydia’s fixed stare, he cleared his throat. ‘What would you have me call you, then?’

For a moment, an assessing look crossed her face, and she summoned an ingratiating smile that was horribly reminiscent of Caroline Bingley’s. ‘You may call me whatever pleases you, sir.’

Darcy’s gaze narrowed. ‘You would do well not to try and play me, madam.’

The smile faded as quickly as it had come. ‘No indeed. Then perhaps ‘madam’ will have to suffice!’

Drawing in a steadying breath, Darcy held her gaze. His patience looked set to be sorely tried! ‘Whatever name you give yourself these days, you were once a Miss Lydia Bennet of Longbourn in Hertfordshire. You have four sisters and a father, and-’

At this, Lydia got to her feet, glaring at Darcy. ‘He has the gall to call himself a father?’

Darcy rose to his not inconsiderable height, and she took a step backwards, sitting down with a thump on the mound of hay. Then, it was as if the flash of anger drained from her, and she slumped back against the wall, shivering.

‘No father should cast a daughter off; yet he claimed he had no choice,’ Lydia whispered. She wrapped her arms around herself, staring into the distance for a moment, then turned eyes wet with unshed tears up to Darcy. ‘He never cared for me; he never cared for Mama. We were his biggest regret, even before… before it all happened.’

Darcy took out his handkerchief and stepped forward to offer it to her, and after a momentary hesitation she took it, blowing her nose noisily into the starched white cotton.

‘I wish to help you, Miss Be…’ Her look stopped him. ‘If you will not give me a name, I shall continue to address you by the one I know you for. The choice is yours.’

Lydia drew in a breath, then nodded.  ‘Very well; it is Sarah. I go by the name of Sarah Hawes.’ She hesitated. ‘Mrs Sarah Hawes.’

Darcy frowned, and she huffed. ‘I can hardly pass myself off as a ‘miss’. Thus I have been obliged to play the role of a young widow, though I was never so much as wed.’ She sighed. ‘How Mama wished for me to marry.’

Ignoring this, Darcy flexed his shoulders slightly to try and ease the tension in them. Then he said in a gentler tone: ‘I was sorry to hear of your mother’s passing.’

Lydia’s brow rose. ‘Truly? I would have thought it troubled you little.’

‘Whatever you may think of me, Miss – Mrs Hawes, I do not have a heart of stone. I lost my own mother when I was of similar age to you. You have my deepest sympathy.’

For a moment, Lydia had the grace to look a little abashed. ‘I suppose I should thank you.’ She frowned, turning to look over at the reverend. ‘And what is he doing here? Do you fear for your reputation, Mr Darcy?’

‘No; it is your reputation I seek to protect as best I can.’

‘Hah!’ Lydia laughed but without humour. ‘It is a little too late for that. You would do better to save your breath.’

Darcy studied her thoughtfully as he sat down again. What was he to do with this girl? He could not take her back to Pemberley, and certainly not with the Latimers still in residence, but something must be done.

‘Why did you ask to see me?’

Lydia shrugged. ‘There is something I require, and I believe you will get it for me.’

‘And what might that be?’

‘I am in need of funds.’

Darcy cursed himself for not anticipating this. ‘You ask on Wickham’s behalf?’

Lydia frowned. ‘Wickham? What of him?’

‘Where is he?’

‘I neither know nor care.’ Lydia threw Darcy a curious look. ‘What is it to you?’

‘I have my reasons for wishing to establish his present whereabouts.’

With a further shrug, she leaned back against the wall. ‘I have not seen him in a twelve-month and hope never to do so again. He played me for a fool, and I fell for it willingly.’

Once more, Darcy felt his culpability. He had opened Elizabeth’s eyes to Wickham’s perfidious nature, yet had given her no leave to do the same service for those around her, hence the local populace of Meryton, Lydia Bennet and even her parents continuing to be taken in by him. This was, ultimately, as much his fault as any other’s, and he had a moral obligation – nay, a duty – to do all in his limited power to improve things.

Restless, Darcy got to his feet again, running a hand through his hair. Damn his moral duty! He would leave no avenue unexplored in striving to make things as right as he could, and for one reason alone: his abiding love for Elizabeth Bennet. That she might be comforted by anything he could do to improve her sister’s plight was his only true consideration.

He turned to address the girl. ‘Miss Bennet…’ She glared at him again. ‘I beg your pardon. Mrs Hawes. Will you place your trust in me? I wish to aid you.’

Lydia eyed him warily. ‘I have found little to trust in the men of my acquaintance in the past. They have done me no favour.’

‘I appreciate that.’ Darcy hesitated. He could give no real assurances at this moment. ‘If it will help you in coming to a decision on such a commitment, then I must tell you, Miss Elizabeth Bennet has lately placed her trust in me.’

Lydia smirked, and despite her wasted features, Darcy was reminded sharply of the young lady she used to be. ‘It is no surprise to me that you asked it of her.’

Darcy frowned. ‘How so?’

‘I saw you; outside the church at Kympton but a few weeks ago. If there is one thing I do comprehend, sir, it is how to interpret the look in a man’s eye when he has it transfixed upon a lady in admiration.’

A little discomfited, Darcy cast a quick glance in Wentworth’s direction, but he had assumed a noncommittal expression.

Clearing his throat again, Darcy pressed on. ‘Though you have eschewed the name of Bennet, I hope you still wish to acknowledge your own kin, however discreetly it must be done?’

For a moment, she looked away, and Darcy thought she was going to rail against her father again, but then she turned back. There was a wetness to her lashes once more, and her voice trembled as she spoke.

‘Do you know what it is to have a sister, Mr Darcy?’

‘I do.’

‘Then perhaps you will understand what drew me here. It was a compelling need to look upon the faces of my sisters once more, to hopefully hear their voices.’ She sighed. ‘Though I do not know where Mary and Kitty are right now, seeing Jane and Lizzy has been sufficient to keep me here, despite the appalling conditions under which I am living. It is far preferable to being cut off from them in its entirety, many miles distant, with not even correspondence to lighten my heart, to feed my memories. I had thought it would be sufficient to see them; to know they are well and happy. But it was not so. I felt unable to leave; even yesterday, after I had been seen.’ Then, she lowered her head, almost talking to herself. ‘Not that it would signify; without funds, how can I travel?’

Compassion rose in Darcy’s breast, taking him by surprise, and he turned away. He could not imagine the pain of being kept away from his sister, his cousin, every single person of familiarity to him, and his home too. To anticipate never hearing word of them ever again, or a sight of them, was beyond his comprehension, and he began to understand how it might make one desperate.

Turning around, Darcy took a step closer to where Lydia sat huddled into her cloak. ‘Then I ask again, Mrs Hawes. Will you put your trust in me?’

She peered up at him. ‘I have nothing to lose, have I? What is it you wish from me?

‘If I am to be of any assistance to you, I need you tell me all you can of what has happened to you’

Lydia glanced towards Wentworth and bit her lip.

‘Mr Wentworth is entirely to be trusted. Your tale will be safe in his hands.’

She looked from the reverend back to Darcy, then nodded.

‘Wickham soon tired of me once we reached Town. He found us lodgings with an old friend, a Mrs Younge, at first, but even she would not tolerate his failure to pay a fair rent. We ended up in this inn located in a very poor part of Town, and within a few weeks, Wickham grew impatient with his circumstances, blaming me for our situation. His eye had begun to wonder, settling on a serving wench; we argued – not for the first time – and he threw me out with only the clothes I stood up in. Everything I owned was left behind.’

The thought of such a fate befalling his own sister was sufficient for Darcy to feel sympathy for the girl in her plight, despite her own failings placing her in such a situation in the first place.

‘Did you know there was a fire – at the inn?’

Lydia shook her head. ‘Not at first. I had thrown myself on the mercy of Mrs Younge, and she did take pity on me. I suspect I was not the first of Wickham’s cast-offs to come across her path.’ Lydia stirred restlessly on her seat of hay bales, her air and countenance indicative of her discomfort in recalling such a time. ‘She was not of a charitable disposition, however, and insisted the next day I return to claim my possessions in order to repay her in kind.’ She drew in an unsteady breath. ‘When I got there, the inn was destroyed, lying in smoking ruins all about. I know nothing of what happened to Wickham, but I hope he is dead.’

Knowing he was not, Darcy turned away and walked a few paces across the barn. That was something he would have to deal with later. For now, he needed to do all he could to salvage this situation.

Turning back, he walked slowly over to where Lydia remained. She had begun to shiver again.

‘Do you wish to continue?’

Lydia looked up at Darcy, then tilted her head to one side. ‘You are not what I anticipated.’ Then, she shrugged. ‘I have little choice, but my throat is dry. May I have something to drink?’

Darcy looked to Wentworth, who rose and walked over to where a tray bearing an empty bowl and a metal cup lay. ‘I will fill this from the water trough and return directly.’

Lydia’s eyes followed Wentworth as he left the barn; then, she peered up at Darcy. ‘Would you do something for me, sir?’

Unsure what her demand might be, Darcy spoke cautiously. ‘If it is within my power.’

For the first time, Lydia smiled properly. ‘All I wish for is that you resume your seat. I am gaining quite the crick in my neck from looking up at you.’

Feeling a little foolish, Darcy walked back over to the bale of hay and sat down.

‘That is better. Thank you.’ Lydia turned to accept the filled cup from Wentworth, who also retook his seat as she drank thirstily.

‘May I ask what happened to you after the fire; where you have been this past year?’

Lydia cradled the empty cup in her lap, then nodded. ‘I stayed with Mrs Younge for a while. I assured her my family would reimburse her for any costs. My father…’ she pulled a face, but said nothing more about the gentleman. ‘He would not let me come home when I wrote to ask him. I had damaged my sisters’ reputations, they were tainted by my actions and so were their prospects. I felt he must exaggerate, that surely he was just punishing me and would relent, but to my dismay, he insisted. I was placed with a lady – a Mrs Wood – in a village quite northwards. She had set up an establishment to provide a home for… widowed young ladies.’

‘And you have been there all this time?’

‘In exile, Mr Darcy. Dead to anyone who ever knew me.’

‘And how did you come to be in Derbyshire?’

‘Relatively easily. I had a little money. Papa sends funds regularly, and as I had little use for them, I saved them. I knew not for what purpose, but then I stumbled upon a letter from him to Mrs Wood.’ She looked at Darcy, then to Wentworth. ‘I knew they had left Longbourn, but Papa never told me their destination. Finally, I had an address, and the temptation took hold, became too much. I was able to travel as far as the coach would take me for the money I had saved. I walked the last few miles, but without funds, I had no way to fend for myself.’

‘What did you do then?’

‘I hid in the woodland around The Grange, sometimes venturing as far as the church at Kympton. I realised I could watch Jane and Lizzy with perfect ease from my hiding places.’ She almost smiled. ‘I saw Lizzy in the garden one day. I know she knew someone hid there, but I could not reveal myself or speak to her. I had already damaged my sisters’ reputations beyond repair. How could I come to life again when it would risk destroying those I have come to realise I truly love?’

It was a strangely noble sentiment in the circumstances, and once again, Darcy found his compassion roused.

‘And what of Pemberley? I know you have been in the grounds.’

‘There was a storm one night. I needed shelter, so I forced my way into a tower in the woods. It served its purpose, and once I realised Jane and Lizzy were no longer at The Grange but guests at Pemberley, it felt the most fitting place to be.’

‘How long have you been here in Derbyshire?’

Lydia shrugged. ‘I have lost track of the days. Perhaps ten?’ She frowned. ‘What day is it?’

‘Wednesday.’

‘I have tarried too long. ’ She sighed wearily. ‘There is no future for me here. I am cold and tired, yet I do not see that anything can be done other than a return whence I came, if you will aid me by supplying the funds to get me there.’

‘It is not quite as simple as that.’

For a moment, fear filled Lydia’s countenance. ‘You will not have me locked up! Do you intend to inform the local magistrate of my stealing from the estate?’

‘I have just asked you to place your trust in me, Miss Be-, Mrs Hawes! How could you think so?’

‘Forgive me; I am being nonsensical.’ She lowered her head, and Darcy felt guilty for his impatience.

‘Not at all. Surely you do not wish to leave here without at least speaking to your sisters?’

‘They must hate me.’ Lydia hung her head even lower, her tone despondent. ‘You spoke of my acknowledging my kin, as you called them.’ She raised anguished eyes to Darcy. ‘My fear is that my sisters will not wish to own an acquaintance with me. When one is left in such circumstances, one has too much time for reflection, for regret. Hindsight is a bitter pill, is it nor, sir?’ She drew in a shaking breath, but whatever she was about to add was never uttered.

The door to the barn was suddenly pulled open, and as they all turned to look towards it, Darcy caught his breath. Standing on the threshold was Jane Bennet, Elizabeth by her side.

A gasp came from Lydia’s corner, but Darcy’s gaze was fixed upon her sisters. Jane had raised a hand to her mouth, her eyes wide with disbelief, but Elizabeth stepped forward quickly, a tremulous smile touching her lips.

‘Oh, Lydia,’ she said softly, her voice breaking as she held out her arms, and Darcy could detect wetness on her lashes. With a muffled sob, there was a rush of air as Lydia flew past him straight into her sister’s embrace.

~o0o~

Chapter Forty Nine will be posted on Tuesday!

Copyright © Cassandra Grafton 2017

Posted in A Quest for Mr Darcy, Writing | Tagged , , , | 44 Comments

A Quest for Mr Darcy – Chapter Forty Seven

The blurb for this story can be found here.

Chapter Forty Seven

Darcy paced up and down on the path running along the back of the house, his eye constantly drawn to the door to the boot room. Elizabeth had gone upstairs to collect her outdoor shoes and a Spencer, but it had been a full twenty minutes, and she had yet to re-join him.

His gaze scanned the grounds, coming to rest on where the wooded hillside touched the edge of the gardens. It would be most convenient if Lydia Bennet would choose this moment to make another appearance, but he knew it was a futile wish.

He checked his watch fob again. They needed to resume their search, yet nothing was more important to him than Elizabeth’s well-being, her peace of mind. How could he tell her the truth, and somehow reassure her on this most singular of matters, when her sister had yet to be found?

Turning impatiently on his heel for what felt like the hundredth time, Darcy was relieved to see the door open and Elizabeth emerge. It seemed he would have no further time to speculate, but must summon all his wits and try to find the words to speak of the impossible to her.

He walked to meet her as she looked around and saw him, relieved to perceive some animation had returned to her countenance, and though she did not smile as they reached each other, it was clear she had become more herself.

‘Miss Bennet.’ Darcy bowed out of habit, though the formality seemed incongruous in the circumstances.

Elizabeth offered a brief curtsey, still unsmiling. ‘Forgive my tardiness, sir. I had need of gathering my thoughts as much as my Spencer, and took a moment to order them.’

‘Not at all.’ Darcy waved a dismissive hand before offering her his arm, and though she hesitated this time, he felt relief as she took it.

He turned to lead her along the path away from the house, a silence settling upon them both, and Darcy wracked his brains for the right words. Unfortunately, all that came to mind were his cousin’s inane suggestions, and he tried to push them away. How could he even make a beginning?

‘There is no doubt in my mind, Mr Darcy, that Miss Viola has drawn a faithful likeness of my youngest sister.’ Elizabeth spoke quietly, and there was a tremor to her voice. ‘If I were inclined to believe in ghosts, perchance I would accept it as such.’ She glanced at Darcy. ‘Yet I have no other choice but to draw a logical conclusion. It was no other-worldly spirit they saw; it was a person made of as much flesh and blood as any other.’

Darcy stared at her. Was it really that simple? Had she truly just cut through all his concerns of how to speak the unthinkable truth of the matter? She said nothing as he held her gaze, the deep emotion in her eyes expressive of her thoughts.

‘You do not question my sanity in so saying, Mr Darcy. Yet it must be so; my sister lives, and is here in Derbyshire.’ Elizabeth’s gaze narrowed as she studied his countenance. ‘And you know it to be true!’

She stopped walking, her hand slipping from his arm.

Reluctantly, Darcy nodded. ‘I did not know how to tell you.’

‘I – I am quite taken aback, sir.’ She drew in a breath. ‘And for how long, pray, have you known this?’

‘But four and twenty hours.’ Darcy eyed her warily, desperate for some indication of her thoughts.

‘I see.’

To his dismay, Elizabeth turned away from him and began to walk on. He caught her up easily, his stride being so much longer, and placed a hand upon her arm to stall her, but though she stopped, she did not turn to face him.

‘You asked for my trust, Mr Darcy, yet you did not think to offer the same courtesy by return, with such significant intelligence in your possession?’

‘When would you have had me speak of it, Miss Bennet?’ Darcy blew out a frustrated breath. ‘During the first set of the ball? Or perhaps the second?’

Elizabeth said nothing for a moment, but he could feel the rigidity of her arm beneath his touch, and he released her. Then, she slowly turned to face him.

‘I begin to comprehend your troubled countenance last night, what it was you were concealing.’ She frowned. ‘Yet we were alone in the still room earlier in the day, were we not?’

Casting his mind back to those few precious minutes, Darcy then fixed his gaze upon her. ‘You believe I could impart such distressing knowledge in whatever time there might have been, with Mrs Reynolds likely to return within seconds?’

Elizabeth sighed, then shook her head. ‘No, of course not. But could you not have spoken to me afterwards?’

‘A man in full possession of his faculties could!’ Darcy ran a hand through his hair. Did she really have no notion of her effect upon him? ‘Despite what I had earlier discovered, there was nothing more prominent in my mind at the time, Miss Elizabeth, than you.’

She stared up at him, eyes wide, and some colour began to seep into her cheeks.

‘You begin to understand me, I believe.’ He touched a hand lightly to her face, then let it drop to his side. ‘Do you think I was speculating upon anything at that moment other than your closeness? Or how I wished I could speak openly to you, without all this between us?’

Elizabeth remained silent, and Darcy willed her to understand him, to want to hear him out; to forgive him, in fact, for failing to reveal such a momentous thing to her.

Then, she nodded. ‘If you could not speak then, will you tell me now? If you know Lydia to be alive, how did you learn of it?’

Darcy stared at her for a moment, then shrugged lightly. ‘I saw her with my own eyes.’

Elizabeth gasped, a hand shooting to her throat. ‘And – and how is she? Where is she now?’ Then, she frowned. ‘And why is she depicted as so unkempt and unlike herself in the drawing, or was that just Miss Viola’s romantic interpretation?’

Darcy shook his head, conscious that, though he felt he had little to offer her by way of fact, there was still much to explain.

‘Come,’ he held out his hand, and she dropped her gaze to stare at it. ‘Take my hand, Miss Elizabeth.’ She looked up then placed her hand in his, and with relief he closed his fingers over it. Then, he indicated they walk on and began to speak in a low voice, telling her all that had happened on his ride the previous morning.

When he had finished, a further silence descended upon them for a while, but then Elizabeth looked up at him, her intelligent eyes wide in her face.

‘There is so much I fail to comprehend.’ She spoke quietly, and her voice sounded taught. ‘Why were we fed a false report of Lydia’s passing?’ She shook her head, her confusion apparent. ‘And what would she be doing here at Pemberley, of all places?’

‘There is much I do not understand either. If – when we find her, we will no doubt gain the answers we seek.’ Darcy hesitated, wary of adding to Elizabeth’s distress. ‘Miss Elizabeth, I know not the reasoning behind any of this, but it may be that your sister’s being alive accounts for Wickham’s attempts to blackmail your father.’

She came to a halt and threw him a shocked glance. ‘You do not think she has been with Wickham all this time? Are they married after all?’

‘I know not, on either count.’ Darcy paused; the evidence thus far pointed to Lydia Bennet being alone in the vicinity of the estate. Then, he frowned. ‘Though we know Wickham has determined your address here in Derbyshire, and I found this when searching for your sister earlier.’

He drew out the ribbon and scrap of paper, but Elizabeth paid them no mind, her gaze fixed upon his face.

‘That was your purpose this morning? Then your cousin and Mr Bingley know also of Lydia’s being alive.’

Darcy could not deny it. ‘I hope you will forgive my sharing of such delicate intelligence with them. My cousin came across me shortly after my discovery, and I was unable to conceal my shock. They are both to be trusted and are committed to doing all they can to find your sister.’

Elizabeth said nothing, then nodded slowly. ‘And did any of you see her today?’

Reluctantly, Darcy shook his head. ‘I had so hoped to find her, to bring you to her as soon after breaking such difficult news as I could.’

Her head drooped on her shoulders. ‘I cannot believe it. It is…’ she stopped, then leaned forward a little as she looked at the items resting in Darcy’s palm.

‘What is it?’

She picked up the scrap of paper bearing nothing but the address of The Grange. ‘This is Papa’s hand!’

Darcy raised a brow. ‘We must hope your father will be able to oblige with some answers upon his return later.’

Elizabeth frowned. ‘You believe my father knew of this? Then is he culpable in some way?’ She put a hand to her head.

Concerned by her renewed paleness, Darcy looked around, and espied what he sought, leading Elizabeth over to a bench beside some thick hedging.

She sank on to it as though her legs barely supported her, and Darcy took a seat beside her. He stared across the grounds unseeingly. Elizabeth may have surprised him with her acceptance of her sister’s being alive, but there seemed to be no end to the further distresses being heaped upon her, and his heart was clenching in his breast on her behalf. He drew in a shallow breath, then looked down to where her hands lay listlessly in her lap.

‘Here, let me.’ Darcy took the scrap of paper from her and placed it on the bench between them, along with the piece of ribbon. Then, with a slight hesitation, he reached out and picked up one of her hands and cradled it in his own. She did not react but neither did she attempt to withdraw it, and he sighed, knowing there was more to be said yet.

‘Where can she be, Mr Darcy?’ Elizabeth’s gaze drifted over his shoulder towards the woodland. ‘The twins saw her near here, did they not?’

‘We have reason to believe a suspected poacher in the woods may have been your sister, attempting to fend for herself.’

‘You mean she has truly been living out there.’ Elizabeth’s gaze drifted to the woodland again. ‘All alone and unprotected?’

‘It would seem so. But our search has only led us so far to where she had been hiding, a hunting tower at the top of Stand Wood. It was evident this morning she had not passed the night there.’

‘It is agonising to think of what she may be suffering.’ Elizabeth sighed, and Darcy lowered his head. It pained him to see the strain upon her countenance, but it gave him courage that he had been right not to tell her on the previous day.

‘Whatever she has done, whatever has befallen my sister, I want to help her as best I can, Mr Darcy. I cannot bear to think of what she may have been through.’ He raised his head and met Elizabeth’s anxious gaze. ‘Though Lydia has made some foolish choices, shown a blatant disregard for the impact upon others, I cannot say she is solely to blame.’

Thinking of his own sister, so close in age to Lydia Bennet and so close to falling victim to the same practised cad, Darcy clasped Elizabeth’s hand more firmly. Who was he to judge the girl for her choice?

‘Lydia is the result of neglect by one of her parents and over indulgence by the other.’ Elizabeth sighed wearily. ‘Jane and I did our best to check her, but with Papa’s disinterest, and Mama’s approval of everything she said or did, our voices carried little weight.’

Not in a position to pass comment upon Elizabeth’s musings, Darcy decided to press on with what he felt might aid the lady best: finding Lydia Bennet.

‘We have searched extensively around Kympton, but there are many places left where your sister may have concealed herself. We do not believe she will have gone far.’ Darcy turned in his seat a little, the better to talk to Elizabeth. ‘Your father mentioned you being aware of someone watching you. Can you recall precisely when this was?’

Elizabeth leaned back against the bench, but she allowed her hand to remain resting in his. ‘There were a couple of times when I had the strangest sensation, of there being someone just out of view.’

‘Where were you? Can you recall?’

Her gaze narrowed in thought. ‘The first time was in the garden at home. I paid it little enough mind, but then the following Sunday – when you first came to Kympton church after your return to Derbyshire – it happened again, after the service when we were all leaving.’

‘And was that all?’

To his alarm, Elizabeth’s skin, which had begun to resume its normal tone, paled again, and he tightened his hold upon her hand.

‘No.’ She shook her head. ‘It happened again at The Grange.’ A strange look crossed her countenance, and she picked the pink strand of ribbon up from the bench. ‘Jane and I had been outside, making lavender bags. I used this,’ she held up the ribbon, ‘or at least, one very like it, to tie them.’

‘And?’

‘The twins came, with Mr Bingley, and we repaired inside, but I went back to collect something… the strong breeze had taken the remaining ribbons.’ She frowned as she remembered. ‘I went to inspect the bushes for them, but there was someone there. It was more than just a sensation this time. I knew they were watching me; I heard them move.’

Elizabeth shuddered, and Darcy took the ribbon from her, dropping it onto the bench before taking her other hand as well, his thumbs stroking the backs of both now, and she raised distraught eyes to his. ‘I cannot bear to think of it being my sister, lost to us and all alone. Why would she not speak, reveal herself to me? What is she hiding from?’

Darcy shook his head, something he felt he had been doing an inordinate amount of this past half hour.

Then, Elizabeth pulled her hands from his and got to her feet.

‘I have to see her; offer her what comfort I can.’ She raised her chin as Darcy got to his feet to join her. ‘You must allow me to come with you. If she is in hiding she is unlikely to come out to a gentleman.’

‘I cannot permit it, Miss Elizabeth. You would do better to wait here for your eldest sister’s return and be there to support her when you share the news with her.’

‘Why can I not come?’

‘It would bring notice of our actions – you must consider how it would look. We are attempting to avoid drawing undue attention to our search. It would not do to attract the interest of anyone outside of our immediate circle.’ He did not wish to mention Latimer’s name, or recall his veiled threat over investigating the Bennets’ background. Elizabeth had sufficient to deal with as it was!

‘You must excuse me now. It is imperative we resume the search as soon as possible.’

Elizabeth managed a tremulous smile. ‘Please find her, Mr Darcy.’

Much as he knew he needed to leave, Darcy instead took a step closer. ‘I shall not rest until I have done so.’

She stared up at him, and he tried to read the message in her expressive eyes. Her antagonism from earlier was no more, and he reached out and moved a stray curl from her forehead.

‘Elizabeth,’ he held her gaze. ‘Despite all that is happening, please tell me you have not failed to understand my wishes?’

The moment stretched; then, slowly a smile began to spread across her features, and Darcy’s heart began to pound fiercely in his chest. She did understand him!

The smile did not endure, however. ‘Yet I do not see how we…’

‘No,’ Darcy shook his head, placing a gentle finger to her lips. ‘Let us not even consider anything that may attempt to influence us. Now is not the time. You have received a shock and are not quite yourself. You have much to assimilate and you have yet to speak to Miss Bennet of your findings today.’ Darcy removed the finger, wishing he could replace it with his own lips, but he was right: now was not the time. Finding Lydia Bennet was the priority and everything else must wait. He sighed. ‘I do not wish to go, but I must.’

Loath though he was to do so, he stepped back. ‘As soon as there is any news of import, I will inform you. You have my word.’ He bowed and turned on his heel, forcing himself to leave.

‘Wait! Mr Darcy!’

Turning back, Elizabeth joined him swiftly.

‘I owe you an apology.

‘Not at all.’

‘Yes, sir. You were quite right not to reveal such distressing news yesterday. I would have struggled to conceal my concerns, especially later in so public a setting as a ball.’ She held his gaze for a moment. ‘What is more, I appreciate that the need to disguise your search is for the benefit of all parties. Do you forgive me?’

Relief filled Darcy’s breast. ‘There is nothing to forgive, other than for you to absolve me from keeping a secret from you.’

Elizabeth smiled faintly, then took his hand in hers. ‘I hope you will also forgive me the liberty I took yesterday, Mr Darcy.’

He eyed her warily, uncertain of her meaning. Surely he was the one who had been taking liberties lately? Had she not noticed his addressing her by name just now?

‘Sir?’

He glanced at their hands, then realised her meaning. ‘Without question.’

‘Good, because I intend to repeat it.’ She pressed her lips to his hand, and Darcy had to summon every ounce of constraint not to pull her into his arms and kiss her soundly. It would hardly help right now, but God help him, he had never wished to hold her close more.

‘I will not fail you, Elizabeth.’ He held her gaze, a charming wash of colour in her cheeks. Then, he raised their still clasped hands and pressed a firm kiss upon her own before releasing it. ‘I will seek you out upon our return; you have my solemn promise.’

Darcy strode away from her down the path before his resolve could weaken any further, but unable to help himself, he turned to look back as he reached the house. Elizabeth remained where he had left her, and he bowed formally to her before turning on his heel to enter the house.

~o0o~

Some hours later and weary from the failure of their endeavours, Darcy rode to meet with his cousin and friend at the agreed place outside Kympton church. With Elizabeth’s intelligence of where she had sensed someone watching her, Bingley had focused his search on the area around The Grange, but to no avail.

A similar purge of the woodland between there and Kympton had produced no hint of Lydia Bennet for the Colonel. Darcy, in the meantime, had headed west to see if she had gone further afield, but it was with low spirits that the three men conceded it was time to retreat for the day and resume their efforts on the next.

‘Mr Darcy! Sir!’

Glancing over his shoulder, Darcy sighed as he saw the Reverend Wentworth almost running towards him from the entrance to the rectory.

‘Hmph!’ The Colonel grunted. ‘It seems he did not like being thwarted earlier, old man!’

Darcy shrugged. ‘Go on ahead, I will join you directly.’

‘We will await you in the library, Darce.’ The Colonel turned his mount to follow Bingley, then called over his shoulder. ‘We may have to alter our approach on the morrow.’

Releasing a frustrated breath, Darcy dismounted and wrapped Bedivere’s reins about the rail before turning to walk to meet Wentworth. He was in no mood for matters of the parish; all he could think of was seeing Elizabeth. How could he tell her their search had come to nothing again? Where could they possibly look next?

‘Forgive the intrusion, sir.’ Wentworth had reached him, a little out of breath in his haste, and Darcy frowned. ‘I tried to see you earlier, but you were engaged.’

‘What is it, Wentworth? A matter of some urgency, I trust.’

To Darcy’s surprise, the man coloured, his awkwardness apparent. ‘It is a delicate matter, sir.’ He gestured back towards the house. ‘My man trapped what he thought was an intruder in one of the old barns last night, but it appears to be a young woman.’

His interest caught, Darcy began to walk back with the reverend. ‘And is she there yet?’

‘Yes, indeed. She will not speak of who she is, nor will she leave the barn without us forcing her, and that I did not wish to do. She has been fed and has been left water for washing but I am unsure how to aid her further.’

Darcy frowned as they passed through the gate and entered the driveway. It had to be Lydia Bennet, did it not? Yet if Wentworth knew not the woman’s identity, why would he come all the way to Pemberley, or even trouble him now? Ordinarily, this would be a matter for him to resolve or at most something to consult with Rivers about…

They were rounding the side of the house now and the barns were in view, and the reverend placed a hand upon Darcy’s arm, drawing them both to a halt.

‘The young woman, sir – she…’ Wentworth hesitated, then cleared his throat. ‘She claims an acquaintance with you, and insists upon speaking to you – and you alone.’

~o0o~

Chapter Forty Eight will be posted on Friday!

Copyright © Cassandra Grafton 2017

Posted in A Quest for Mr Darcy, Writing | Tagged , , , | 36 Comments

A Quest for Mr Darcy – Chapter Forty Six

The blurb for this story can be found here.

Chapter Forty Six

‘Oh, Alice!’ Elizabeth turned away from the pawnbroker’s window, torn between sadness and frustration. Had she not suggested to Jane, only yesterday, that their father may have sold the locket to satisfy Wickham’s demands? Now it seemed all too certain he had; the only other answer was the unpalatable one of it having been taken by someone else, but she could hardly believe any of their servants were culpable.

The housekeeper fixed Elizabeth with a stern eye. ‘Now, Miss Lizzy. Let us not have you take on so. I am sure the master had his reasons.’

Elizabeth could feel warmth filling her cheeks. Though she had little doubt herself, how humiliating was it for Alice to assume it was her father who had done this?

‘I beg you to forgive my forwardness in so saying, Miss Lizzy.’ Alice placed a gentle hand on Elizabeth’s arm. ‘But do you not recall your father’s anger when that receipt fell from between his books? Perchance now we have the reason behind it.’

Elizabeth looked up at the sign again. Alice was right; unfamiliar though she was with this shop, the name did now resonate and she knew why, for she had seen it stamped on the back of the very receipt Alice mentioned.

Turning to stare through the window again, Elizabeth sighed. If her father had needed funds so urgently, and his only recourse had been to sell such a valuable piece of jewellery, then there was no guarantee he would have the wherewithal to buy it back before someone else took a liking to it. After all, it was a stunning piece.

Elizabeth glanced over her shoulder at Alice. ‘What do you think it would cost to retrieve it?’

‘More than you can raise, miss, of that I am certain. We must trust to your father reclaiming it as soon as he is in funds again.’

Elizabeth’s eye drifted to the other items spread out upon the velvet runner. What had brought their owners to such a level as to have to part with these treasured pieces? Surely only her father was in the hands of a merciless blackmailer?

‘Come, miss. It pains me to have had to show you, but now you should not be seen lingering outside such a place.’

‘I cannot bear to think it may be the last I see of Mama’s necklace.’ Tearing her gaze away finally, Elizabeth turned around, then caught her breath. Eleanor Latimer was but a few steps away from them.

‘I wondered what had become of you, Miss Bennet.’ The lady eyed Alice warily, and Elizabeth sought quickly to hide her discomfort.

‘Forgive me, Miss Latimer. I was just about to return to the square.’ She turned back to the housekeeper. ‘Thank you for the intelligence you brought, Alice. I trust we will soon be home, and perhaps we can discuss the matter further at that time.’

They both exchanged a meaningful look, and Elizabeth turned to join Eleanor as they made their way back up the street. Thankfully, beyond casting her a quick glance, the lady made no mention of finding Elizabeth stood outside such an establishment, and she was grateful for her discretion.

In an attempt to divert any further attention from the incident, Elizabeth did her best to act normally, and they passed a pleasant enough couple of hours visiting various shops and ending with a cup of tea and a pastry at one of the local confectioneries before regaining their mounts and making their way back to Pemberley.

During the ride, Eleanor had professed a desire to spend a while practising at the pianoforte, and Elizabeth was unsurprised upon her return downstairs after changing out of the borrowed riding habit to find the lady already ensconced in the music room. Of Georgiana and Jane there was yet no sign, and she retraced her steps along the hallway, only to come across Mrs Reynolds coming out of the library followed by a maid bearing an empty tray.

With a rush of relief, Elizabeth detected the sound of the Colonel’s voice before the door closed upon it. The gentleman must have returned!

‘Good afternoon, Miss Elizabeth.’ Mrs Reynolds encouraged the maid to continue on her way before coming to stand before her. ‘I have just taken some refreshments in to the gentlemen and tea has also been sent into the drawing room for the Miss Bingleys. There are plenty of cups, if you would care to join the young ladies?’

‘Thank you, Mrs Reynolds. I do not suppose there has been any sign of my sister or Miss Darcy?’

The lady nodded. ‘Yes, ma’am. They did return briefly, but only to pack a further basket before heading off again to see Mrs Thatcher. Miss Georgiana was keen to take some things for the new baby.’

Disappointed she must wait longer to share with Jane her news regarding the necklace Elizabeth summoned a smile. ‘Thank you. I will join the twins directly.’

They had reached the main hall now, and Mrs Reynolds headed towards the door at the rear of the staircase, but then, Elizabeth recalled something, a notion that had first taken hold when she had been in the still room with Mr Darcy on the previous day.

‘Mrs Reynolds!’

The lady turned back. ‘Yes, ma’am?’

Elizabeth walked over to meet her; then, she said quietly. ‘I hope you do not mind my asking this.’ She hesitated, then added, ‘you did not truly require my assistance yesterday, did you? With Mr Darcy’s injury?’

The housekeeper studied Elizabeth in silence for a moment; then, she smiled. ‘I may not have needed you, Miss Bennet, but the master most certainly did.’

~o0o~

Mrs Reynolds’ words brought Elizabeth far greater comfort than she could ever know. Mr Darcy’s return to the house also contributed to her improved spirits, and pushing aside her concerns over the necklace for the moment, she slipped through the open doorway into the drawing room.

Mrs Annesley was not there, but Olivia and Viola were seated at a circular table. They were suspiciously quiet, intent upon their endeavours in their respective books, and it was only as Elizabeth took a seat at the table that they both looked up.

‘Miss Elizabeth! We are so pleased you are returned!’ Viola beamed at her, and Elizabeth returned the smile.

‘We are becoming quite bored of our own company, for Mrs Annesley had to leave us for a while.’ Olivia placed her pen carefully into the tray of her writing slope. ‘Thank you so much for not telling Charles about our going outside last night.’

Elizabeth looked from Olivia to her sister. ‘I am not convinced it was the right decision. In return for my discretion, I trust I shall have your word not to do it again?’

The girls exchanged a quick look, then both turned back to Elizabeth, their bright blue eyes fixed upon her.

‘We do not mean to cause so much concern.’ Olivia sighed. ‘Though it may not seem so.’

Viola nodded. ‘We have a tendency to get carried away by a notion, you see.’

‘Indeed.’ Olivia smiled. ‘Our elder sisters say we were born troublesome, but Charles prefers to call it mischievousness.’

With a grin, Viola got to her feet. ‘And a mischievous nature must always be forgiven, you know, because there is no hope of a cure!’

‘And it does add to our charm, does it not, Miss Elizabeth?’ Olivia’s smile widened, and Elizabeth could not help but laugh.

‘Charm is all very well, but I wish you would both exercise a little more caution where your safety is concerned.’

‘We promise to try, do we not, ‘Livia?’ Viola had returned with a cup of tea for Elizabeth which she placed carefully on the table beside her before retaking her seat.

‘Indeed we do. And you must own, we were not entirely to blame for being drawn outside last night.’

Elizabeth raised a quizzical brow. ‘How so?’

Both girls looked surprised. ‘Why, it is the fault of the ghost, is it not?’

Not wanting to be too blunt in pointing out the absurdity of their words, Elizabeth picked up her cup. ‘Are you quite certain of seeing anything? In such poor light it is easy to confuse shadows for forms and shapes.’

‘Oh but we did see someone, Miss Elizabeth.’

‘But as she fled, we were only out for a matter of minutes. It is just unfortunate we were caught!’

‘Unfortunate indeed.’ Elizabeth’s smile faded, however. Had someone truly been out in the grounds? ‘I intend to tell the estate steward about this. You do understand why?’

Olivia and Viola exchanged a look, then nodded resignedly.

Though sceptical over there actually being anyone to trouble Mr Rivers about, Elizabeth knew it was best to err on the side of caution. ‘Do you think you may be able to adequately describe this person’s appearance for him?’

‘Oh yes!’ Olivia leaned forward across the table, fixing Elizabeth with her blue stare. ‘For we have seen her before; we just did not realise it until last night.’

Viola sat up in her seat suddenly. ‘As have you, Miss Elizabeth!’

Elizabeth frowned, placing her cup back on the table. ‘I have?’

‘Indeed. Do you not recall Olivia sharing her story with you and Mr Darcy the other day?’

‘And you expressed great interest in the sketches Viola had added in the margins.’

With a relieved smile, Elizabeth nodded. ‘Yes, of course. Are you going to tell me this ghostly figure resembles one of your woodland creatures?’

‘Not quite, no.’ Olivia flipped back a few pages in the book she had been writing in earlier, and then, getting to her feet, she walked around to stand beside Elizabeth, placing the open book on the table. ‘Here.’

Elizabeth looked at the page indicated. There were the familiar drawings of Mr Rivers as a badger and Alice as a hawk, but Olivia’s finger was pointing to the waiflike winged creature: one Elizabeth had barely paid any mind to. The figure was turned slightly away, but Viola had captured perfectly the sense of a spirited being.

‘It was not until we saw her again, of course, that we realised it was the same person.’

Elizabeth studied the beautifully etched drawing. The facial features were partially hidden behind the long, flowing locks of hair, though one cheek, part of the forehead and the edge of the mouth were carefully depicted. Amused, Elizabeth looked up.

‘She has somewhat the look of my eldest sister about her.’

Olivia peered at the drawing. ‘Indeed she does, Viola. Can you not see it?’ She smirked at Elizabeth. ‘Viola sometimes does not realise what influences her drawings!’

Viola leaned across the table, then nodded slowly. ‘It is true; how singular!’ She looked up and smiled. ‘Though Miss Bennet is quite the most beautiful lady I have ever seen. Our ghost would only ever have been considered tolerably pretty.’

Elizabeth was intrigued. They seemed so certain what they had seen was some sort of ghostly apparition or spirit, yet how could that be? ‘So when did you see this girl? I am certain she did not have wings!’

Viola laughed. ‘No, indeed! At it happens, we were not far from The Grange.’

‘It was on the day we came to invite you to the picnic. You and Miss Bennet were making these!’ Olivia opened a drawer in her slope and rummaged around before bringing out one of the lavender bags Elizabeth had given them. ‘We caught a glimpse of her after we left. She was clad in a dark green cloak and disappeared quickly into the hedgerows, but it fed me the notion of my story.’

Elizabeth frowned. ‘Did your brother not see her?’

‘No – Charles was walking on up ahead.’

‘And of course I have a much better likeness after last night!’ Viola turned to her sketchbook and, her curiosity rising, Elizabeth got to her feet and walked round to look over her shoulder.

‘There she is!’

Elizabeth’s eye travelled to where Viola pointed, expecting to see a similarly vague execution of the gaunt elfin-like girl, but suddenly she felt her skin prickle as her hand shot to her throat.

‘No. No…’ Elizabeth began to shake her head. ‘That is not possible.’

‘Miss Elizabeth? You are gone quite pale. Here, sit down.’

Viola rose from her chair and almost pushed Elizabeth into it.

‘How could you… where have you seen this girl’s likeness before?’ Elizabeth frowned as she stared at the drawing; despite the thin, once-pretty countenance, the similarity was uncanny – a fair interpretation of her youngest sister. Surely Viola must have come across the miniature of Lydia, which lay amongst other family members’ on the console table in the hallway at home? ‘Did you… had you seen her image at The Grange when you called?’

Viola shook her head. ‘No – are you acquainted with her, Miss Elizabeth? Is that why she was near your home?’

Elizabeth’s confusion was intensifying. How could this be? Were ghosts real, then, and had Lydia’s spirit been out in the grounds of Pemberley? It made no sense! Not just the notion of such a world existing, but for someone like her youngest sister to be supposedly haunting a place she had never been and thus had no association with.

‘But there are no ghosts, my dears.’ Elizabeth looked up at Olivia, who had retaken her seat.

Leaning forward again, the better to inspect the drawing, Elizabeth sighed. Had it truly been influenced by Jane’s appearance? Then, suddenly, she paled even further.

‘Miss Elizabeth! What is it?’

Elizabeth’s hand traced the familiar features before her, coming to rest on a distinctive mark below the right ear. Lydia had had a small birthmark in such a place, one she could easily conceal with her curls, but this girl had no such artifice at her disposal. Her hair hung in loose tendrils about her face. There was no denying it; this was a faithful rendition of a saddened, worn-looking Lydia!

‘I do not understand.’ Elizabeth put a hand to her head, which had begun to ache. There had to be a reason behind this, a simple, logical explanation, did there not? How could Viola have seen anything to direct her hand to produce such a clear likeness? Yet she must have. No miniature would have shown this mark!

Yet Lydia had been dead for more than a year now, had she not? Elizabeth’s head began to spin with all manner of unthinkable thoughts, and she slumped back in her seat, unaware she had paled even further. The twins exchanged a confused glance.

‘Miss Elizabeth?’ Viola stared at her sister. ‘Why does she not respond?‘

Olivia shrugged, but when a further entreaty to Elizabeth went unheard by the lady, Viola’s eyes lit up.

‘We must fetch help for her!’

Leaping to her feet, Olivia nodded. ‘Let us fetch Georgiana! No, wait; she is not here! We must fetch our brother; he will know what to do!’

Viola, however, shook her head. ‘No – this is Miss Elizabeth, ‘Livia!’ She threw her sister a meaningful glance, and Olivia gasped.

‘Yes, of course! We must fetch Mr Darcy!’

~o0o~

Darcy’s gaze drifted over the map of the estate, which they had spread out across the long wooden table in the centre of the library. Their initial search of the Kympton woods and its surroundings had delivered no sign of the missing girl, and they had taken a circuitous route back to Pemberley before deciding they must consult a map of the estate to direct them.

Eschewing the one in Rivers’ office for fear of drawing attention to themselves, they had repaired to the library, and Darcy had been thankful their return had not been detected beyond a couple of the servants. Despite this, his thoughts drifted to Elizabeth and how her morning had gone. The pleasures of the ball seemed a lifetime away already.

‘Any thoughts, Darcy?’

Darcy blinked, then focused back on the map.

‘I think we had best divide our search now, Cousin.’ He tapped the map. ‘Perhaps if one of us explores the area around The Grange – Bingley, would you oblige?’

‘Indeed.’ Bingley placed his coffee cup on the table and came to stand beside Darcy. ‘I will go through the woodland between here and there as well.’

‘Capital!’ The Colonel turned away to replenish his cup, but they all looked over as a knock came upon the door and a footman entered.

‘Forgive the interruption, Mr Darcy.’

‘What is it, Carter?’

‘Mr Wentworth has called, sir.’

Darcy exchanged a look with his cousin. ‘I cannot come at present; tell him I will call in on him later.’

‘As you wish, sir.’

‘Oh, and Carter? We wish for no further disturbance.’

The footman bowed. ‘Yes, sir.’

The Colonel grunted as Carter withdrew. ‘How trustworthy is the good reverend, Darce?’

‘Perfectly so. Why do you ask?’

With a shrug, Colonel Fitzwilliam resumed his study of the map. ‘We may need to enlist his aid in keeping an eye out around Kympton, that is all. We are spread all too thin at present.’ He pointed to an area of the map beyond The Grange. ‘Could she have gone as far as Curbar Edge, do you think? It is remote but well suited to someone desirous of not being found. We will have our work cut out to find her, if so.’

Darcy did not want to think on how difficult it was going to be now Lydia Bennet was so on her guard against being discovered. Then, he frowned. ‘It seems odd Rivers had received no further reports. Do you think…’

He looked up in frustration as a further knock came upon the door, but this time, Viola came hurrying in.

‘Mr Darcy! You must come. Make haste, sir!’

Darcy straightened up, a frown upon his brow, but before he could speak, Bingley walked over to meet his sister.

‘What is it, Viola? I trust you have good reason for entering in such an unfitting manner?’

Viola sent him an admonishing look. ‘This is no time for convention, Brother. Miss Elizabeth is in need of Mr Darcy’s immediate assistance.’

A bolt of anxiety shot through Darcy. ‘What has happened?’

‘She seems a little unwell, sir. Please,’ Viola waved a hand towards the door. ‘Do come.’

Darcy exchanged a swift look with his cousin and friend, and the Colonel shrugged. Though he knew not the nature of the assistance required, Darcy was already half way to the door before he turned back. ‘Excuse me; I shall return directly.’

The Colonel smirked. ‘We will not hold our breath, eh, Bingley?’

Bingley grinned as they both resumed their study of the map. ‘No, indeed! Take your time, Darcy!’

Closing the door upon their amused countenances, Darcy turned to walk swiftly along the hallway. ‘What ails Miss Bennet?’

Viola was almost skipping to keep apace with his stride. ‘I know not, sir. She seems out of sorts and will not speak to us.’

Darcy’s gaze narrowed as they reached the drawing room. This was most unlike Elizabeth; she could not possibly have discovered the purpose of their search, could she? They entered the room to find Olivia still seated beside Elizabeth, holding one of the lady’s hands and talking quietly to her.

Elizabeth’s gaze was fixed upon something on the table before her. She was excessively pale.

‘Miss Bennet?’ Darcy fetched up beside her chair, but she did not look up. ‘Miss Elizabeth? Is something wrong? The twins are concerned for you.’

There was no response, and Darcy frowned.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s head remained all confusion, her gaze riveted upon the face in front of her. It was only as someone took her hand that she started and looked up. Mr Darcy had taken the seat beside her.

‘Miss Elizabeth? Can you hear me?’ She stared at him uncomprehendingly, her gaze then dropping to where her hand lay in his. ‘Are you quite well?’

Elizabeth bit her lip. What could she possibly say? Would he not think she was losing her mind if she said her sister’s spirit appeared to be haunting the grounds of Pemberley? She drew in a shallow breath. ‘I am quite well, sir; only disturbed by an inexplicable vision upon this page.’

She was uncertain how to speak of such nonsense, but then Mr Darcy’s gaze drifted to the open book and her own eyes widened as she saw the recognition in his. It was not her imagination, then; this sketch was identifiable to others as Lydia too!

Darcy’s eyes flew back to meet Elizabeth’s, and he squeezed her hand lightly. ‘Let me get you some wine.’

‘I shall fetch it!’ Viola turned away, but Darcy stalled her.

‘I think not, Miss Viola, but I would appreciate your coming with me.’ She fell willingly into step beside him as he crossed the room to a side table housing all manner of drinks. He did not reach immediately for a glass, however, but said in a low voice.

‘How came you to draw such a picture as the one which has shaken Miss Elizabeth so?’

‘It was the ghost, Mr Darcy. We saw it clearly, for as we approached it looked right at us before fleeing.’ Viola frowned. ‘It is as though Miss Elizabeth recognised her.’

Knowing precisely what they had seen, Darcy sighed. Though there would never have been an easy way to tell Elizabeth or her sister about what he had discovered, this was no way for her to find out!

‘Miss Viola, might I ask a favour?’

‘Of course, sir!’

‘Would you be so kind as to lend me this drawing? I wish to show it to my cousin and your brother.’

Viola’s eyes widened. ‘Charles does not know of our… adventure, Mr Darcy.’

‘I will be circumspect, I assure you.’

Relief filled Viola’s countenance and she nodded as he poured a small glass of wine, then turned about. Olivia was talking quietly to Elizabeth again as they walked back to where she sat. Some colour had now returned to her pale skin, and she smiled tremulously up at Darcy as he handed her the glass.

‘Drink it; it will help restore you.’

Elizabeth took a sip before placing the glass on a side table. ‘Forgive me, sir. I do not know what came over me. I think perhaps the late night…’ she waved a dismissive hand. ‘Some lingering fatigue must have been a contributory factor to my imagination running away with me.’

Darcy wished he could agree with her, but this was not the place to reveal what he must. The twins were good-natured and kind, but it would not do for such a thing to be spoken of in their presence. There could also be no further delay in putting things before her.

‘Do you feel well enough to take a walk, Miss Elizabeth? I am certain some fresh air will help to restore you further.’

Elizabeth met his gaze and held it for a moment, but then she smiled faintly and nodded. ‘Yes; I think you may be right, sir.’

‘Then come with me.’ Darcy held out his hand, and she placed hers in it without hesitation as he drew her to her feet. This was going to be perhaps the most challenging walk he had ever taken!

~o0o~

I will be posting on Wednesday and Friday next week, so Chapter Forty Seven will be posted on Wednesday, 22nd March!

Copyright © Cassandra Grafton 2017

Posted in A Quest for Mr Darcy, Writing | Tagged , , , | 35 Comments

A Quest for Mr Darcy – Chapter Forty Five

The blurb for this story can be found here.

Chapter Forty Five

Elizabeth smiled as she closed the door to the twins’ chambers. She had returned to Pemberley wrapped in a cocoon of wishful dreams. The ball had delivered so much, as had her set with Mr Darcy. His words to her during the firework display, though awkward in delivery, had held a message both to please and charm her, a message which had brought such comfort, drawing her tentative hopes out into the open.

Even Olivia and Viola, up to their usual mischief and disregarding the restrictions placed upon them, could not disturb her feelings of anticipation for the following day and whatever moments she might then secure with Mr Darcy. Though he had spoken of being out with his friend and cousin, she did not doubt he would find time later in the day to speak to her.

Walking swiftly back along the hallway of the guest wing, Elizabeth emerged onto the main landing. She had tried to caution the twins, had asked them to consider more carefully their own safety, but she was unsure she had even had their full attention. By the time she had closed the door upon them, Olivia had already reached for her writing materials, and Viola was staring dreamily out of the window into the darkness.

What she had also been unable to discern from their excited chatter was whether they had genuinely seen anything at all, or whether it was simply a grasped opportunity, in the absence of everyone else, to carry out the escapade they had been denied the night before.

Reaching the top of the staircase, Elizabeth paused to listen. There was no sound from anywhere, though lamps still shone brightly downstairs. She suspected the gentlemen may have gone for their customary nightcap, and she turned to hurry along the landing leading to the rooms she shared with Jane.

‘There you are!’ Jane came from the dressing room as Elizabeth entered, her hair hanging about her shoulders but still dressed in her ball gown. ‘I had begun to wonder what had become of you. Mr Darcy said something vague about your having to repair to the upper floor directly.’

‘He was circumspect, then.’ Elizabeth closed the door and turned to face her sister. ‘Olivia and Viola were scampering up the stairs as I entered the house and had clearly been outdoors.’

‘Good heavens!’ Jane raised a brow. ‘What could be their purpose at such an hour?’

Shedding her cloak onto the bed, Elizabeth walked over to the dresser and dropped her fan and reticule upon it before beginning to remove her gloves. ‘I understand they were tempted to try ghost hunting in everyone’s absence.’

Jane walked over to join her. ‘Surely they would not be so foolish as to enter the woods after dark?’

Placing the gloves in a drawer, Elizabeth turned to the mirror and began to remove the beaded pins from her hair. ‘They said not, but claim they saw a hooded figure from their window and were convinced it was their elusive ghost.’ She met Jane’s gaze in the mirror’s reflection. ‘When it fled into the woodland, they did not follow. Apparently, Colonel Fitzwilliam’s word carries more weight than any other, and he had warned them not to do so unescorted!’

Jane shook her head, but smiled nonetheless. ‘They are incorrigible!’

‘Indeed; but they are also adamant over what they saw.’ Elizabeth frowned. ‘They say their ghost is a young woman; she was weeping – until they startled her by their approach, that is.’

Jane frowned too. ‘How singular. What would a young woman be doing out in the woods alone, especially after dark?’

‘I cannot imagine. I wonder if I ought to tell Mr Darcy, or perhaps Mr Rivers?’ Then, Elizabeth shrugged. ‘We do know the twins to have quite the over active imaginations. It is too late to report it tonight; besides, I saw no sign of anyone when I came along the landing.’

‘Can you unfasten me, Lizzy?’ Jane turned about and Elizabeth began to undo the buttons in her bodice. ‘The Latimers retired immediately, but the gentlemen went towards Mr Darcy’s study.’

‘I suspected as much.’ Elizabeth recalled suddenly the solemn faces of the Colonel and Bingley earlier in the evening and her discussion with Mr Darcy over whatever troubled him. ‘There is something afoot, though I know not what. Mr Darcy indicated he, his cousin and Mr Bingley would be out early. I hope it is merely a desire to go shooting and nothing to do with Wickham.’

‘If it is, there is no one better able to handle him than Mr Darcy or his cousin.’

Elizabeth smirked. ‘You do not credit Mr Bingley with the same abilities, then?’

Jane laughed. ‘Mr Bingley’s affable nature does not lend itself to confrontation. Look at how challenging he is finding managing his own sisters!’

‘Aye, you may have the right of it.’ Elizabeth unfastened the remaining two buttons. There, you are free! Well, I am due to ride into Lambton with Miss Latimer once we have broken our fast. I shall call at the estate office on my way to the stables and report this possible sighting to Mr Rivers then.’

‘That seems a good compromise.’ Jane stepped out of her dress and draped it over a chair before coming to stand behind her sister to render the same service. ‘And how was the ball for you, Lizzy?’

A smile spread quickly across Elizabeth’s features, and Jane laughed. ‘I suspected as much. I could see how well your exchanges with Mr Darcy were going on the dance floor.’

‘Oh Jane!’ Elizabeth turned about and grasped her sister’s hands. ‘Part of me is so happy. When we spoke later, Mr Darcy all but declared his admiration to be what it was last year!’

‘Do you wish me to feign surprise?’

‘Why is it so easy for others to see what is not clear to oneself?’ Elizabeth started to remove her own dress. ‘He also confirmed he is not to marry Miss Latimer.’

Jane raised a brow. ‘What an informative set you had, Lizzy!’

‘Mr Darcy seemed determined to take advantage of the evening, to address matters where he could.’ Elizabeth hesitated. ‘Though as I mentioned, something troubles him; whatever it is, it seems to prevent him from speaking openly.’

Jane took her sister’s gown and laid it on top of her own. ‘Do you think it is this unresolved matter with Papa and Wickham?’

‘I do not know. Perhaps.’ Elizabeth turned to stare at her reflection again. Her elevated spirits were succumbing to doubts once more. ‘Though I have loosened the rein upon my hopes a little, I cannot help but apply some caution. It may yet all come to naught.’

Jane patted her on the arm and headed for the dressing room. ‘Do not dwell upon what you cannot resolve, Lizzy. Come, we must get a few hours rest.’

‘Do you still intend to call on Mr Wentworth?’

Jane paused on the threshold and turned about. ‘I do owe him an answer, but my priority is to resume my visits to the parishioners. Miss Darcy has arranged with the cook for several baskets to be made up. Indeed, she had offered earlier today to accompany me; with my need to speak privately to the gentleman, I had been inclined to decline her offer, but I think I will enjoy her company.’ Jane smiled. ‘Mr Darcy was kind enough, when I stood up with him, to offer the use of a curricle. It seems he remains wary of us going anywhere on foot.’

‘Then it is perhaps fortunate I am to visit Lambton on horseback!’ Elizabeth frowned. ‘Though my oft neglected riding habit is at The Grange. I do not know what I can possibly wear for such an outing.’ Then, she shrugged. Her pelisse would have to suffice.

With Jane retired to her own chamber, Elizabeth quickly prepared for bed, clambering between the sheets and laying her head upon the pillows. Her mind felt too full for sleep, despite the energies expended throughout a long evening, and she stared up at her canopy consumed by her thoughts.

Could Mr Darcy truly overcome her current status as the daughter of a tenant of the estate? Yes, Mr Bennet was still a gentleman, and retained ownership of the Longbourn estate and its lands, but society must note the difference. Then there was the disgrace of the previous year, with Lydia’s running off – a scandal that was not even an elopement, but far worse, the disgrace reinforced by the humiliation of her father’s questioning by the Magistrate.

Elizabeth sighed and rolled onto her side. Though it had not been his intention, Mr Darcy’s use of his earlier proposal to illustrate his point had brought that whole evening to the forefront of Elizabeth’s mind. Was Mr Darcy, who had struggled so hard to overcome Elizabeth’s lack of connections and her family’s position in society, which he had declared as being so decidedly beneath his own, prepared to take such an unprecedented step as to offer his hand to the same woman and, moreover, for a second time, when that lady’s situation had only worsened? And what of the blackmail hanging over her father? What did Wickham know that had yet to come out?

Finding no answers in the darkness, Elizabeth closed her eyes, striving to think only of her dances with Mr Darcy, to recall his words as they watched the firework display, but as exhaustion finally took her, the doubts were never far behind, and her sleep was peppered with dreams of what might have been.

~o0o~

Darcy surveyed the grounds from the window of his study, then raised his cup to take a sip, the strength of the coffee providing the necessary bite. He had barely slept in the few hours since retiring and dawn breaking, his mind wandering from the exquisite moments in Elizabeth’s company at the ball and the hope he had drawn from their conversation to the implications of what they might discover today. He glanced at the clock on the mantel: it was barely six o’clock.

‘Morning, Darce!’ He turned around as his cousin breezed into the room, followed by Bingley. Darcy did not know if it was his military training, but the Colonel never seemed affected by a shortage of sleep. ‘What is our plan of attack?’

Darcy placed his cup and saucer on the desk. ‘A visit to the hunting tower is the priority. What we do or do not find there will determine our next course.’

The Colonel nodded. ‘It is surely worth asking Rivers if there have been any more sightings of the alleged poacher. Shall I speak to him? That may aid our direction if the tower does not deliver.’

‘A fair point, Richard.’

‘What is my instruction, Darcy?’ Bingley’s air and countenance were uncharacteristically serious. ‘What would you have me do to assist?’

‘I would have you come with me, Bingley, if you are willing to oblige. If by any chance Miss Bennet is at the tower, she will no doubt make for an escape, and someone will need to remain by the door to prevent her.’

‘Then let us go directly to the stables.’ Colonel Fitzwilliam turned towards the door. ‘I will speak to Rivers discreetly; he will never know my true purpose. Where shall we meet up?’

Darcy and Bingley walked over to join the Colonel as he opened the door. ‘I think it best if you come to the tower once you have spoken to him, Cousin. There is always the small hope our search will end as soon as it begins.’

Before long, they had reached the stables and whilst Darcy and Bingley gained their mounts, the Colonel left them to call upon the steward in his office. It did not take long to reach the hunting tower, as they took a winding bridleway up through the woods, and reining in Bedivere, Darcy swung from the saddle and fastened the reins securely before turning to survey the scene.

‘What is the best approach?’ Bingley spoke quietly as he secured his mount, and they both walked over to the tower.

‘Caution.’ Darcy then pointed to a discarded axe leaning against the stone wall. ‘Rivers had been told of a stolen axe last week.’

Bingley inspected the iron handle and lock on the door, then looked to Darcy. ‘It would appear it was used to force entry. Someone seeking shelter?’

Darcy grasped the handle and turned it slowly, keen not to make any unnecessary noise. It was early yet; there was always a chance the girl was asleep. ‘Wait here, Bingley, in case of need.’

Bingley nodded. ‘I shall be on my guard, my friend.’

Pushing the door aside, wincing as it wheezed on its hinges, Darcy stepped inside. All was dark, there being no windows on the ground floor, and there was no sound of movement. He let his eyes adjust to the dim light provided by the open door, then, seeing little indication of occupation, he began to climb the circular stone staircase. The first floor had clearly been in use, but not in recent hours. An attempt had been made at a fire, but the embers were cold. There was an empty water flask and some discarded victuals in one corner, some of which had clearly turned, and Darcy wrinkled his nose. These were no conditions for a gentleman’s daughter to be living in, whatever her past misdemeanours were.

He climbed the final flight, and there was the proof he sought. Not only were there a few items of clothing spilling from a small leather bag, the fabrics more suited to the drawing room than a forest, but an old oil lamp swung from a hook by the window – no doubt the source of the flickering light in the trees tops.

Darcy turned over the remains of another cold fire, and then inspected what must be Lydia Bennet’s sleeping quarters. A horse blanket seemed to have sufficed, but nestled in one of the folds he found two things: a scrap of paper bearing a few words and some strands of pink ribbon. Picking them up, Darcy retraced his steps, blinking as he emerged into the light.

‘No sign of her, Bingley, but this is clearly where she has been hiding out. We shall have to seek her further afield.’

‘What is that?’ Bingley pointed to the items in Darcy’s hand, and he held them up. ‘Ribbons?’ His friend frowned. ‘It is a strange vanity, is it not, in the circumstances?’

Darcy shrugged, and then turned about as the sound of hooves approached along the bridleway.

‘Nothing to report from Rivers.’ The Colonel dismounted and walked over to join them, then raised his eyes to the tower. ‘Nothing to report here, either, I assume?’

‘She has been here, but I suspect did not return last night. Apart from some clothing and stale victuals, this was all I found.’ Darcy held out his palm and the Colonel picked up one of the strands of ribbon.

‘I will wager this is the same as the one the twins found caught in a tree.’ He nodded at the scrap of paper. ‘Is that of any help?’

Darcy shook his head. ‘It is merely the address of The Grange, but in whose hand I cannot say other than it is not Wickham’s.’

The Colonel grunted. ‘I thought the Bennets’ direction here in Derbyshire was a closely guarded secret.’

‘So did I, Cousin.’ Darcy sighed. He did not like the implications of his find.

‘What now, Darcy?’ Bingley looked around the immediate area. ‘Where do we concentrate our search?’

Running a hand through his hair, Darcy mulled upon the options before them. ‘Let us explore the copse of trees near Kympton where I first saw Miss Bennet. It is our only recourse at present.’

Darcy tucked the ribbons and scrap of paper into his coat. Time was of the essence; he could speculate upon anything else once the girl had been found.

~o0o~

The remaining ladies made a much smaller party at breakfast, with the gentleman long gone and Mr and Mrs Latimer away at Froggatt Park. Before long, Jane and Georgiana returned to their rooms to change into outdoor clothing and the twins, still under the restriction of staying in the house, left for the drawing room.

In the absence of Mr Bingley, Elizabeth had been unable to inform him of his sisters’ latest exploit and had instead enlisted the help of Mrs Annesley, who had promised to keep a watchful eye upon them.

Agreeing to meet Eleanor Latimer at the stables in a half hour, Elizabeth left the breakfast room and crossed the hall intent upon reaching her room, but as she took the first stair, a footman approached.

‘There is a letter come, ma’am, addressed to both you and Miss Bennet.’

Elizabeth took it, relieved to see her father’s hand though the postmark was unfamiliar to her, and she hurriedly broke the seal, her eyes scanning the short message inside.

Releasing a relieved breath, she looked up. The footman was just about to disappear through the door to the service areas.

‘Excuse me!’ She walked over to meet him, and as he bowed she said quickly, ‘Do you know if Mr Darcy is returned yet?’ She was certain he would wish to know of her father’s imminent return.

‘I believe not, ma’am.’

‘Oh. Thank you.’ Turning away, Elizabeth studied the letter once more. Then, with a sigh, she slowly began to make her way up the stairs. She could not fool herself. Her unpalatable dreams lingered yet; she longed to see Mr Darcy for no other reason than to reassure herself she had not erred in her understanding of his meaning. Besides, once her father returned to Derbyshire, she and Jane would be leaving Pemberley, would they not? How strange that only four days ago she had been appalled at the thought of staying here, yet now she wished she might never have to leave.

Pushing away such futile regrets, Elizabeth rounded the corner to the hallway leading to her room, only to find Georgiana awaiting her.

‘I hope I am not too presumptuous, Miss Elizabeth. With you professing to not being a regular horsewoman, I was unsure whether you had brought riding attire with you.’

Georgiana held out a beautifully tailored habit. ‘This is one I rarely use; I asked my maid to tack the hem up this morning, for you and I are of similar build other than our height. I am certain it will suffice.’

Deeply touched at such an attention, Elizabeth reached out a hand to savour the fine wool. ‘That is very kind of you, Miss Darcy!’

Georgiana smiled, and Elizabeth returned it warmly. ‘You are most welcome, Miss Elizabeth. I shall look forward to hearing all about your ride later today.’ She excused herself, and Elizabeth entered her room, carefully laying the elegant habit on the bed.

‘Jane?’ She hurried over to the dressing room door just as her sister entered from the other side. ‘Papa has written!’

‘Oh, I am so pleased!’ Jane took the letter from Elizabeth and quickly scanned the content. Then, she raised her head and smiled. ‘As brief as always!’

Elizabeth laughed, her relief at having finally heard from their father all consuming for a moment. ‘It is good to know he is on his way home; that he even thought he might precede the letter’s arrival.’ She turned to study the envelope, then frowned. ‘I am not familiar with this direction, are you?’

Jane peered at it. ‘Bellingham, Northumbria? Not at all, but it must be a place quite northwards.’

‘I was not wrong in thinking the carriage did not turn for the London turnpike, then.’ Elizabeth did not wish to dwell upon it, or the purpose behind her father’s sudden departure; she was only thankful he was safe and well.

With Jane’s help, she quickly donned the riding habit, and then they made their way downstairs.

Barely a quarter of an hour later, Jane and Georgiana had set off in the curricle and Elizabeth and Eleanor Latimer stood beside a mounting block as a groom walked their mounts out of the stables. The attempt to speak to Mr Rivers had been unsuccessful, for when Elizabeth had called at the office, he was already out on the estate, and she resolved to try again upon their return.

Glancing at the overcast skies, Elizabeth smiled. Though there was no sun today, the cloud looked sufficiently high to bring no rain and with the stiff breeze blowing, it would be a pleasant ride into town.

‘Shall we?’ Once secure in her saddle, Elizabeth gestured down the winding driveway towards the lane to Lambton, and then led her mount into step beside her companion’s. ‘Do you spend much time in the country, Miss Latimer?’

Eleanor shook her head. ‘It is not in Papa’s interests at present. He wishes me settled, thus I must be paraded about Town to be seen. We do have a home in Surrey, but we rarely visit.’ She looked around as they reached a rise in the ground. ‘There is a remarkable contrast between the south and here; Derbyshire is so much more rugged.’

Elizabeth could not help but agree, as it had been her first sentiment upon visiting the county with her aunt and uncle. Now, however, she had grown attached to it and found her memories of the undulating farmlands of Hertfordshire less appealing.

They joined the lane, and Eleanor set off at a canter, calling over her shoulder, ‘Come along, Miss Bennet. You wished for practise, did you not?’

Urging her mount along, one she had been assured was not likely to want to suddenly leap over fences and gallop off into the far yonder, Elizabeth gradually found her rhythm. She had forgotten the pleasure of riding, so little had the opportunity been back at Longbourn. Perhaps she ought to indulge more in the occupation now the horses were not needed on the land?

Once they reached the outskirts of the town, they slowed their pace and drew alongside each other again, and Eleanor threw Elizabeth an assessing glance.

‘Papa says you are beneath my notice.’

Elizabeth laughed. ‘It is no surprise to me!’

Eleanor sighed. ‘He is not subtle. Mama, however, says you are excellent company.’ She studied Elizabeth for a moment. ‘I fail to comprehend his belief in his superiority. His grandfather – my great-grandfather – made his fortune, it is true, but in trade, just like so many others. All I see is that such wealth and status do not necessarily result in happiness.’

‘Perhaps not, but there is no denying that it may help!’ Elizabeth laughed ruefully. ‘I have a very good friend who claims happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance and, as such, she was prepared to settle for a situation in the hopes it might deliver as good an opportunity as any other for satisfaction.’

They continued in silence for a short while, but then Eleanor looked over at Elizabeth again.

‘Does Colonel Fitzwilliam visit his cousin often here at Pemberley?’

Surprised, Elizabeth’s brow rose. ‘I do not know; though we have been in Derbyshire a year now, it was only recently that Mr Darcy returned from his travels and took up residence at Pemberley again.’

Eleanor said nothing to this, merely nodded, and Elizabeth concealed her smile. She suspected the lady might have enjoyed her set with the Colonel a little more than she might wish to own.

Once in the market square, Elizabeth suggested they leave their horses outside the apothecary, where there was both a rail and a block, and before long both ladies were back on solid ground.

‘Was there anywhere particular you would like to visit?’ Elizabeth waved a hand around, and Eleanor studied the bustling square lined with all manner of purveyors, many of which were displaying their wares on the traditional large shelves outside the bay windows.

‘I had not anticipated such a variety of offerings.’ She glanced over towards the windows of the haberdashery. ‘Let us see what wares they have on offer.’

Elizabeth laughed as she fell into step beside her. ‘I suspect you will not find it comparable to those in Town.’

They had reached the shop now and Eleanor studied the displays for a moment before turning to Elizabeth. She was smiling tentatively. ‘I am beginning to find many things here in Derbyshire which are not comparable to Town, Miss Bennet.’ She turned back to the window, then added softly. ‘And I find I like it very well.’

‘Miss Lizzy!’

Turning around, Elizabeth saw Alice beckoning to her across the square. ‘Will you excuse me, Miss Latimer? Our housekeeper from The Grange is calling me.’

‘Yes, of course. I will be inside.’ Eleanor gestured towards the door, and Elizabeth hurried across to join Alice, a smile spreading across her face.

‘We have heard from Papa, Alice! He will return directly, perhaps even later today. Is it not good news?’

‘Aye, miss; good news indeed, and not in isolation.’

Elizabeth frowned. ‘How so?’

‘Your mother’s locket, Miss Lizzy. I have found it.’

‘Oh, Alice! That is such a relief.’ Elizabeth’s smile returned.

‘That is as may be, but that is not all. Come, make haste.’ She turned on her heel and puzzled, Elizabeth followed her. They turned into a street she had never been in before. One side of it consisted of a row of cottages, but the other, on which they now walked, contained several commercial premises.

Alice did not stop, however, but continued down the street.

‘Where are we going, Alice?’

The housekeeper turned on her heel. ‘Cook asked me to call at the smithy; she wanted some knives sharpened, hence my being at this end of town.’ She waved a hand across the road to where the blacksmiths could be seen, then turned towards the building on their left and pointed at the bay window beside the door.

Glancing up at the sign above it, Elizabeth’s heart sank as she realised its significance. Slowly, she edged towards the window and peered inside. On a swathe of velvet drapery lay an assortment of items: pocket watches, key chains, various pieces of silverware and there, in its fine leather box, was Mrs Bennet’s gold locket.

~o0o~

Thank you all for your patience with me! Chapter Forty Six will be posted on Thursday!

Copyright © Cassandra Grafton 2017

Posted in A Quest for Mr Darcy, Writing | Tagged , , , | 49 Comments

Pride & Prejudice: Behind the Scenes – Four

In this final scene on the day following Darcy’s initial proposal to Elizabeth Bennet, the Colonel fills in a few gaps for Darcy. If you hadn’t read these before, I hope you have enjoyed them! If you had, my apologies for a week of nothing new from me. Posting of Quest will resume next week, I am pleased to say!

A Conversation between Cousins

10th April, 1812

Darcy had filled the remainder of his final day at Rosings with activity, determined to exhaust both his mind and body and leave no room for thought or feeling. After a long ride, during which he tried not to think of Elizabeth or how his cousin’s presence had been received, he returned physically fatigued but still fighting his memories and his despair.

The ensuing hours were spent sequestered in his chamber, burying his head in matters of business; matters he had ignored during his repeatedly extended stay in Kent, with correspondence from his steward at Pemberley, his legal advisors in London, and even his sister, abandoned as his fascination with Elizabeth had taken full hold and left him powerless to think of aught but her.

It was evening, therefore, before Darcy encountered any other person, where he endured, much as he had anticipated, a long lecture from his aunt over his absences in the past eight and forty hours. Dinner passed with Darcy contributing little to the conversation, but there was no escaping his cousin as he all but marched him from the room when the time came to separate, ignoring Lady Catherine’s annoyance over the men withdrawing before the ladies.

‘And so,’ said the Colonel, glancing over at Darcy as the two men approached the library, ‘here ends another visit to Kent and yet no proposal of marriage!’

Trepidation shot through Darcy, and he threw his cousin a frantic look. ‘I beg your pardon?’

They had reached the door, and the Colonel turned to face him. ‘Cousin Anne, old man. Aunt Catherine will now have to spend a further year attempting to draw you down to Kent at every turn.’

Preceding his cousin into the room, Darcy berated himself for his foolish thoughts. Of course, Richard was referring to Anne; he had no reason to think otherwise. Elizabeth would never have mentioned… she would not even have hinted at what had befallen her the previous evening… He gave an involuntary shudder as he came to a halt in the centre of the room.

‘Are you well? You look…’

Darcy turned about and raised a hand. ‘Be done with it, Richard.’ He had no desire to know how he looked.

With a shrug, Colonel Fitzwilliam closed the door and came to stand before him. ‘I regret to inform you I failed in my mission, Cousin.’

Mission? Of course! ‘She would not believe you.’

The Colonel shook his head and walked over to the sideboard where a tray of spirits glistened in their crystal decanters. ‘I had no chance to try her, Fitz. I waited beyond an hour, suffering all manner of inanities from the hapless parson, but she did not return. I contemplated walking out to try and come across her, but the park is so vast and the lady, as we both know, a keen walker. It would have been akin to seeking a tack in a hay bale.’

Taking the proffered glass from his cousin, Darcy walked over to the fireplace where he stood and stared into the flames. Why had Elizabeth stayed away so long? Was it an indication she had read his letter and needed time to consider it? Did she comprehend at last how faulty her judgment had been?

‘Darce?’

With a start, Darcy glanced over at his cousin who was now seated in a fireside chair, watching him keenly.

‘Sit down, man; it makes my neck ache to look up at you standing there so stiffly!’

Darcy did as he was told, sinking into the opposite chair and placing his glass on a nearby side table. ‘I appreciate your efforts. It was a foolish hope, that she might wish for clarification, might wish to at least consider the truth of all I had shared with her.’

Silence descended upon them, disturbed only by the crackling of the fire in the hearth. Darcy stared into the flames again; what might Elizabeth be doing at this moment? Had his letter made any difference at all, or had she destroyed it unread? Was her disgust at his attempt to address her in such a manner so powerful, she had not permitted him the liberty of doing so?

Her face rose before him, dark eyes flashing and her lips speaking those cutting words, words that were in danger of haunting him forever:

Had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner…’

‘It is a shame I did not know of your intentions beforehand, Fitz.’

Darcy’s gaze flew to meet his cousin’s. ‘How- how so?’

‘I met Miss Bennet during my farewell tour of the park yesterday, and we continued in company.’ The Colonel frowned. ‘We spoke of you; it would have been the perfect opportunity to provide the authentication you sought from me over Wickham.’

Leaning forward slowly in his seat, torn between curiosity and trepidation, Darcy stared at his cousin. ‘You – you spoke of me?’

‘Indeed,’ the Colonel picked up his empty glass and got to his feet, gesturing to his cousin to drink up. ‘Though she would likely have been in no humour to hear me out. My last memory of Miss Bennet is not of the pleasing good nature I had long associated with the lady. Her air and countenance were sufficient to guide me in her dissatisfaction with your actions.’

‘What in heaven’s name were you speaking of?’ Darcy fixed his cousin with a fierce stare. ‘What did you say to cause her such… such discontent with me?’

The Colonel shrugged. ‘I merely advised her of your care for others, most particularly in saving a friend recently from an imprudent marriage. I mentioned no names, though I assumed it was Bingley. He is the most likely to get himself into a scrape of that sort, and you have spent an inordinate amount of time with him these past months.’

Releasing a slow breath, Darcy sank back against the cushions of his seat. Elizabeth’s understanding of his part in separating his friend from her sister was finally clear. Whatever her own suspicions may have been, this intelligence from his own cousin would have been sufficient to confirm her worst opinion of him. Though he saw now his suit would never have succeeded, he began to appreciate the significance of the timing of his cousin’s revelation so close to his own call upon the lady.

Grabbing his glass, Darcy took a hefty swig, letting the liquid burn a trail down his throat. Then, he handed it to his cousin, who turned towards the drinks tray.

‘Would you like to know what I think?’

‘A rhetorical question, Cousin. You will tell me, regardless.’

Colonel Fitzwilliam grunted. ‘You are inordinately troubled over the opinion of a young woman whose path will likely never cross with yours again.’

Knowing he had looked his last upon Elizabeth was sufficient trial without his cousin reinforcing it. The tight band around Darcy’s chest flexed itself, and he swallowed hard on a sudden constriction to his throat.

Taking his refreshed glass from his cousin, he tried to breathe evenly to ease the tautness.

‘I can well observe the matter is best left alone for the present.’ The Colonel raised his glass to Darcy. ‘Here is to the end of our captivity in Kent, be it to duty or otherwise.’

Clearing his throat, Darcy nodded, thankful for the reprieve and raised his glass in return. ‘Indeed.’

‘Besides,’ the Colonel settled more comfortably into his chair. ‘There will be ample time for further discourse on the way to Town on the morrow.’

With that, he turned the conversation to Georgiana and the upcoming summer, and Darcy reluctantly followed his lead, unsure what unsettled him most: the notion of another endless night with no sleep and nothing but his disappointment and despair to console him or what his all too observant cousin may choose to challenge him with as they finally left Kent, and Elizabeth Bennet, behind.

~o0o~

And this day was the last time Darcy saw Elizabeth until she mistook him for a fox some eighteen months later! 😉

As you probably know, the Prologue to A Quest for Mr Darcy picks up about two months after the above scene, when Darcy makes his decision to go abroad in August rather than return to Pemberley.

Thank you for bearing with me whilst I get myself back to full health. I am beginning to feel better and have started work on knocking next week’s chapters into shape! 😀

Copyright: Cassandra Grafton 2017

Posted in Writing | 6 Comments

Pride & Prejudice: Behind the Scenes – Three

Here is the third scene from the day after the failed proposal – Darcy waits in the grove at Rosings Park in the hope of seeing Elizabeth and being able to hand her his letter:

Walking in the Grove

10th April, 1812

Darcy strode firmly down the path, away from Rosings and towards Hunsford, half expecting a shout from behind him and for his cousin to come after him. Not finding Richard lying in wait for him outside his chamber on cautiously opening his door had been a relief – he had not relished the notion of using the servant’s staircase instead.

Despite his desire to leave the house undetected, however, Darcy knew he must speak to the Colonel regarding one portion of his letter – that pertaining to Wickham. His pace eased a little once out of the immediate grounds, and he pushed aside any difficulty which may arise with his cousin. It was not his focus; for now, he must just keep walking, keep putting one foot in front of the other. Why was it his head knew his purpose, the only option for private delivery of his letter being to meet Elizabeth out on one of her walks, yet his body showed such reluctance to retrace his steps from the previous day?

As he reached the area spanning the southern edge of the park, his gaze scanned the trees and paths. Where might Elizabeth be on this fine morning? What if she had chosen not to walk, for fear of encountering him?

What if he came across her, but she would not take the letter? Perhaps she might take it but never read it, consigning it to the grate in the way his first attempts were! How would he ever know if she permitted him the liberty of an explanation?

A sense of panic gripped Darcy, and he stopped abruptly. Had he seen his last of her already? Anguish almost overwhelmed him at the thought of never seeing her again, never hearing her voice.

‘You fool,’ he muttered bitterly. ‘What possible good could come from seeing her again? She despises you; you heard it from her own lips.’

After their heated exchange the previous day, the accusations levelled at him, her words still cut through Darcy like knives. He felt wounded – hurt and humiliated by her. With the stirring of his anger again, Darcy harnessed it. He needed to feel his outrage once more, to enable him to stay strong, to do this. Straightening his shoulders, he stared ahead, scanning the park for any sight of the lady; then, he set off towards the grove where he had most often encountered her.

Soon he passed beneath the outer trees of the grove, and for some time Darcy paced to and fro under their canopy, his courage wavering one moment, his irritation drawing him back a moment later. Where was she? He flicked open his watch; he had been here nigh on twenty minutes – how much longer should he stay?

Perhaps this was how it was meant to be. Writing the letter could never be considered a sensible action; perhaps he was being saved from making an even bigger fool of himself. Darcy pulled the letter out and stared at it. Should he leave, do as he had already considered and consign this letter to the same fate as his other attempts?

The neatly written name, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, wavered before him, and he traced the lettering reverently with his finger. This would be the last time he would ever see those precious words upon the page.

With a rush of sensation, Darcy was consumed by the feelings he had repressed throughout his sleepless night. How was he to make his way forward in life and never lay eyes upon her again? Would he ever hear word of her, learn what life had lain before her?

What if… what if Elizabeth had been likewise afflicted? Perhaps with a night of contemplation she may have allowed him a hearing, may have thought carefully about all he had said and recognised she had made a mistake? Had she reflected upon their conversation, acknowledged she had erred in her judgment? Had she, even, reflected upon the offer of marriage she had spurned, of all that she was turning down? Perhaps…

Hope floated swiftly through him; for a moment, he truly believed it might be so. The heavy weight in his breast seemed lighter, the future – one he had imagined lately with so much pleasure – made a tentative gesture to return. Lost in such futile speculation, it was a moment before Darcy discerned a figure beyond the palings of the park, moving along the lane: Elizabeth! Swallowing hard upon his trepidation, he walked forward in the hope of meeting with her by the gate, but on glimpsing him, she turned away as though she would avoid him. A sense of despair gripped him, and he called her name, anxious to stall her escape lest this was his only chance.

‘Miss Bennet!’

All was dashed in an instant as the lady stopped and turned to face him, her air and countenance proving her to be wishing herself anywhere but in his presence. With hindsight, he was thankful for it. It restored some measure of pride in him, encouraged him to say as little as could be whilst doing what must be done.

Darcy stepped forward quickly as Elizabeth, with palpable reluctance, walked to meet him by the gate. This reminder of how things truly stood, coupled with the wariness upon her pale countenance, struck him forcibly. There would be no second chance, no hope of her having repented her fierce condemnation of his character or her refusal of his hand.

Ignoring the pain gripping his chest anew, Darcy pulled his tattered dignity about him like a cloak, straightening his shoulders and raising his chin.

Presenting the letter to her, which Elizabeth instinctively took, he said in what he hoped was a measured tone, ‘I have been walking in the grove some time in the hope of meeting you. Will you do me the honour of reading that letter?’

Then, he bowed and turned away, walking as quickly as his pride would permit, even as his heart protested against leaving her. Why oh why had he not brought his mount, that he might be away from here more quickly? Increasing his stride, Darcy refused to give in to the urge of a backward glance; he strode on, trying in vain to banish the image of Elizabeth, pale and strained and reluctant – oh, so reluctant – to meet him. On and on he walked, his heart pounding almost as much as on the previous day, and before he knew it, the monstrosity of Rosings had risen before him.

‘Darcy! There you are!’

Looking up, Darcy saw his cousin walking briskly down the steps from the entrance to the house, bent upon joining him. The timing was opportune. He must make haste and enlighten his cousin – enlighten with much concealment – that he might be on his guard should an application be made to him during their final hours at Rosings.

‘You are out early for a walk! I am off to the stables, such a fine morning warrants a gallop across the fields. Will you join me?’ The Colonel peered more intently at him. ‘You look like you need one, you are pale as can be!’

‘Cousin, I need you to do something for me.’

The Colonel frowned. ‘I am well versed in taking orders, Darce, but not from such a source. What would you have me do?’

They turned to walk in step together towards the stable block, a silence falling as Darcy struggled to phrase what he wished to express as vaguely as possible. Silence, however, was not in the Colonel’s nature.

‘Well come on, out with it!’ He threw his cousin a quizzing look. ‘Does this have anything to do with your rather odd behaviour yesterday evening? Our aunt took some pacifying, I can tell you, when you did not show your face at all.’

Darcy’s pace slowed and perforce so did the Colonel’s, and they came to a halt beside the mounting-block outside the stable. Drawing in a steadying breath, Darcy met his cousin’s curious gaze.

‘Something arose yesterday – a situation… I mean, a conversation,’ he halted as a vivid memory of his meeting with Elizabeth seared through his mind. That is what you call a conversation’, whispered the ever-present voice in his head, but he pushed it aside. ‘I have found it necessary to inform Miss Elizabeth Bennet,’ again, he stopped and swallowed hard on rising emotion as her name passed his lips. ‘I had to share with her the past history of our dealings with Wickham.’

What! Are you taken with madness?’ The Colonel met Darcy’s defiant gaze with incredulity. ‘No, Fitz,’ he shook his head, ‘surely not everything?’

‘Yes. I am sorry, Richard; there was no alternative but to lay before her the connection between him and the Darcy estate in each and every aspect, both pecuniary and… personal.’

The Colonel grunted. ‘And am I to be told why you found it necessary? I assume you feel you can trust to her confidence? You have been in her acquaintance far longer than I.’

Did he trust her? It was a question that had beleaguered Darcy throughout the penning of those parts of his letter. Before yesterday, he would have given an affirmative without hesitation, but after her damning condemnation of his character, did he retain any faith in her?

‘Darce? Come on, man! This is important!’

‘Yes – yes, forgive me, Cousin. I do trust her.’

‘Hmph. And pray, how did the lady receive such intelligence? I assume you are not going to enlighten me as to why you felt it necessary?’

‘It was necessary, Cousin. Please just accept my word and that I would not have gone to such lengths had there been any other alternative.’ Darcy passed a weary hand across his forehead. ‘I do not know how she received it. I put it in a letter which I have just handed to her.’

The Colonel for once seemed lost for words. He stared at Darcy wide eyed in surprise, his mouth slightly open, but then he seemed to rouse himself. ‘A letter? You addressed her by letter? You truly are losing it, Darcy! ‘

Darcy merely shook his head, but his cousin fixed him with a fierce stare. ‘I had no choice, Richard. Please just trust me in that. All I would ask of you is that vouch for the truth of matters with regard to Wickham, should she seek clarification. I told her you were aware of each and every circumstance.’ He could not handle an interrogation from his cousin at that moment, and he turned away. ‘You must excuse me; I will leave you to enjoy your ride.’

‘Wait!’

Darcy turned back warily, but his cousin’s countenance was less forbidding now and more expressive of concern.

‘We must take our leave of the company at Hunsford, Darcy. Shall we go at once? I can defer my ride if you would rather get it over with.’

Darcy paled. ‘Must we?’

The Colonel shook his head. ‘Really, Darcy. You know we must.’

Why had he not thought of that? Darcy could feel trepidation rising at the thought of such a fraught occasion. Would Elizabeth have returned directly from her walk, or would she still be enjoying the beauty of the morning? He looked about frantically. What could he do, how could he deal with this?

Then, the Colonel grunted. ‘With hindsight, perhaps not; I suggest we make our calls separately.’

Darcy blinked and then stared at his cousin. Separately?

‘Why do you not run along now and do your duty, and I will call in an hour or so. Should Miss Bennet wish to approach me regarding any of the content of your letter, she is unlikely to do so in your presence, do you not think? I can easily suggest a turn in the gardens to give her ample chance to air any concern she may have.’

A wave of relief rolled through Darcy and he nodded quickly, thankful for his cousin’s level head. ‘Yes – yes, of course. I will go directly.’

The Colonel hailed the stable boy to ready his mount, then turned back to Darcy and stayed him with his hand as he turned to leave.

‘I will do as you ask, and I will do it willingly, but I am no fool, Darcy. I can see that there is something far beyond what you are revealing in all of this. Do not think you will get off this lightly when we are both returned. You owe me some answers.’

With that he turned and strode into the stable, and Darcy walked back down the path towards the lane to Hunsford. If this call must be paid, the sooner the better, and then let it be over. He hoped desperately, for both his and Elizabeth’s sake, the lady had yet to return to the parsonage, but regardless, he would spare them five minutes of his time and no more.

Beyond that, he did not care to think, for he was unlikely to fair any better on his return to Rosings. His cousin was a keen interrogator; he would not let him off lightly.

~o0o~

The final scene from this ‘prequel’ covering the aftermath of Darcy’s failed proposal, A Conversation between Cousins’, will be posted tomorrow!

Copyright: Cassandra Grafton 2017

 

 

 

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Pride & Prejudice: Behind the Scenes – Two

Continuing with this ‘prequel’ of sorts to A Quest for Mr Darcy, here is the second scene from the aftermath of the failed proposal:

Darcy Writes a Letter

9th April, 1812

Having dismissed his valet with the strict instruction he was not to be disturbed, Darcy had fallen wearily into a damask-covered armchair near one of the windows of his chamber. For some time, he simply stared ahead, but then his shoulders drooped, and his head dropped into his hands as he rested his elbows upon his knees. Thus he continued for some time, the passing of the hours making no impact upon him, nor the alteration in the light; he remarked neither the chimes from his mantel clock nor the falling dusk finally being consumed by the night.

The only disturbance to his introspection had been Colonel Fitzwilliam rapping on his door some time ago, but he had ignored him, closed his ears to the sound.

Gradually, Darcy had begun to acknowledge some of the content of Elizabeth’s words. Her refusal had been a profound shock, but to learn of her dislike of him, her poor opinion of his character… the pain occasioned by such knowledge, accompanied by the devastation of all his hopes for the future, was almost more than Darcy could bear, and for a time he had become lost in the depths of his own despair.

Struggling with a combination of disbelief and a dreadful sensation of sadness, of loss, Darcy found himself unable to remain calm, coolly assessing his situation, to assume an outward appearance of control, all things which had been ingrained in him since childhood – an edict from his father: one must always keep oneself under good and strict regulation.

But how to put this debacle behind him, how he was even to make a beginning was beyond him. His hands tightened on his aching head as he stared at the floor, conscious of a dull heaviness settling close to his heart. Despite his efforts to the contrary, he could focus on nothing but Elizabeth; over and over spun the facets of their meeting through his mind, the echo of her words, the memory of her countenance and her steadfast dismissal of him – his character and his hand – and her passionate defence of George Wickham.

Darcy stirred in his chair. Elizabeth’s defence of that worthless bounder had cut him badly. His anger towards her had slowly been diminishing, but this recollection roused it quickly, his mind tormented by questions for which there were no answers.

What level of intimacy existed between them? Elizabeth had shown a surprising understanding of Wickham’s present circumstances – or at least, whatever he had portrayed them to be. Clearly, he had informed her of the living, though no doubt he left out the pertinent fact of his taking a pecuniary benefit in its place. Raising his head slowly, Darcy leaned back in his seat, then pressed a palm against his pounding forehead.

Was the lady’s outrage on Wickham’s behalf born of tender feelings for the scoundrel? If he had imposed himself upon her… the ache within his breast intensified, and Darcy caught his breath. He knew not how he would bear it if it were so. He rose quickly from his chair and then peered into the grey light within his chamber, finally becoming conscious of the darkness. Then, he walked to the dresser against the far wall and lit a couple of lamps from which he also lit two candles. He stood for a moment, both candleholders in hand, staring at them as if unsure of their purpose, before walking over to place them on an ornate writing desk near one of the other windows. Then, he began to pace to and fro across the room.

Wickham was evil; he was degenerate and unworthy. That he had maligned Darcy’s character to Elizabeth surprised him not; she would hardly be the first person to whom he had appealed, but to what extent had he imposed upon her open and generous nature? How was it that, in their brief acquaintance, Elizabeth had such a picture of him from Wickham? With a groan of frustration, Darcy turned on his heel and paced back across the room. Such thoughts were counter-productive; none of it signified, for even had Wickham not vilified his name, he had to accede that, in Elizabeth’s eyes, his faults lay in more than one quarter.

“Do you think any consideration would tempt me to accept the man, who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?”

How had she come to such a conclusion? Was it merely a supposition, an attempt to draw him out on the matter, to confess? Well, he had done as she wished; he had owned it openly, including his satisfaction over the outcome.

Darcy paused in his pacing as an uncomfortable notion filtered into his head. Could he have erred? Had the lady’s affections been truly engaged, as Elizabeth had implied?

No! He had the right of it! He had made sure to observe the lady closely and had thus done his friend a great service. How could Elizabeth doubt his good intentions? For heaven’s sake, Jane Bennet and Bingley’s acquaintance had last but two months from start to finish! ‘As did yours with Elizabeth,’ whispered a voice in his ear.

Darcy sighed heavily. If only he had been strong enough to do the same for himself. He had tried, oh how he had tried, but all his efforts were proved worthless when the true test came. Had he not fallen at the first hurdle? From the moment he had learned of Elizabeth’s presence in Hunsford, he was a doomed man.

Wearily, Darcy dropped into a chair adjacent to the desk and stared unseeingly at the window, oblivious to the darkness without and his pale and gaunt reflection flickering in the shadow of the candles.

Elizabeth’s accusations haunted him, the discovery of her ill opinion consumed his every thought, and he could perceive no respite from it. Why had he not defended himself, spoken up to refute her allegations? Why did he not speak, challenge her words with the truth as he knew it to be?

He needed resolution, to defend himself and his character – but how? Her opinion of him was a matter of no little import, and if there was aught he could do so she despised him less then do it he must.

Darcy’s troubled gaze fell upon the writing instruments on the desk, and he studied them thoughtfully. A letter went quite against the form; moreover, in all likelihood she would refuse to accept it and, even should she do so, he had no guarantee she would read it with any intention of believing his word. It was hardly a fool-proof plan, yet he had no other.

Yet it was the only answer. Opening the drawer of the desk, Darcy retrieved a piece of parchment, selected a pen and flipped open the ink well. The letter must be written and without delay.

~o0o~

Dawn had risen over Rosings Park, the day beginning with the beauty of a sunrise quite lost upon the occupant of one dimly lit room where the fire had long smouldered in the grate, and the candles had burned low in their holders.

Discarded sheets of parchment littered the desk and floor, testament to the struggle Darcy had faced in trying to put his case to Elizabeth. Forcing himself to recollect every memory of their discussion had stirred his anger once more, but as the night passed, his exhaustion dampened some of the fire in his belly. In its place, an ache had settled beneath his breast, at times gripping him with such intensity as words poured from his pen that he had struggled to continue.

Then, as the clock on the mantel chimed eight in the morning, he began his final draft; within a half hour, it was done – all but the close.

Darcy dipped his quill into the ink-well one more time, and then paused before placing the tip of the pen on the page. How did one close the most difficult letter one had ever had occasion to write?

He hesitated, then wrote, I will only add, God bless you, followed by his name. Blotting the words firmly, he then folded it precisely and reached for a roll of wax and one of the candles. It was done, and all he wanted was to rid himself of it, that he might shed once and for all his past hopes and dreams.

This thought propelled Darcy from his chair, and he strode over to the window. Having failed to close the shutters on the previous evening, the morning light poured into the room, and he narrowed his eyes against the glare. The day was fine; his only hope of passing his letter to Elizabeth was if he could encounter her in the park; a call upon her at the parsonage was unfathomable on such a purpose.

With that in mind, he headed to the washstand, splashed some water over his face, and turned to survey the room where he had been closeted. It was time; he must dress without delay and find a way out of the building without being perceived.

~o0o~

The third scene, Walking in the Grove, will be posted tomorrow.

Copyright: Cassandra Grafton 2017

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Pride & Prejudice: Behind the Scenes – One

Unfortunately, I’m still not well, though I am improving slowly. There will be no new chapter of A Quest for Mr Darcy this week, but posting will resume next week. I am sorry for any disappointment. 😦

In the meantime, I’m sharing a few scenes I wrote for Pride & Prejudice: Behind the Scenes. This was a collaboration between 15 Austen-inspired authors on the Austen Variations blog and was published last year. All the proceeds from this book go to Austen-related charities.

This scene, and the ones to follow tomorrow, Thursday and Friday, were all ones I contributed to the project. They give Darcy’s point of view of the immediate aftermath to his rejection by Elizabeth Bennet.

As A Quest for Mr Darcy begins with Darcy in the summer following his failed proposal, these seemed worth posting as in some ways they work as a ‘prequel’ to the story. The scenes are all based on and inspired by the original novel, not any of the adaptations, and therefore take their cues from what Jane Austen gave us in the book and also attempt to fill in some gaps.

I hope you will enjoy these whilst I am still recovering!

Scene One: After the Proposal ( A Rejected Darcy Returns to Rosings)

9th April, 1812

Removing himself from the room with the remains of his dignity in place took all of Darcy’s will power. He grabbed his hat and cane from the coat-stand in the hall and let himself out of the parsonage, thankful not to encounter any curious servants, and closed the door behind him with a resounding thud.

Then, he stood stock-still, the rigidity of his frame belying the incessant thoughts spinning around in his head. What, in the name of the devil, had just happened?

Be calm, Darcy cautioned himself as he inhaled deeply of the cool evening air, then stared about, striving to heed his own advice, but the rapid pounding of his heart and the raw anger filling his very being fought against him. How could the world look the same as when he had entered the parsonage, so determined, so fired up by his decision, so excited almost in his anticipation of claiming Elizabeth as his own? Elizabeth… Darcy could not bear to even think of her; she, who had ensnared his mind, his senses, and finally his heart. For longer than he cared to own, she had filled his thoughts… but now he must think of her no more. It was over; all over.

A momentary anguish gripped him, sweeping aside the wave of anger and disbelief that had carried him from the house. He must get away from this place, away from where Elizabeth remained but a few solid walls from him, an angered Elizabeth he did not recognise, speaking words he could never have imagined.

Somehow Darcy forced his body into action, at first his legs moving tentatively, as though they would not obey him, but then mechanically, rapidly, as his need to put space between himself and his recent humiliation increased. He strode quickly, his forgotten hat still clutched in one hand, but not fast enough to miss the chimes from Hunsford church as they chased after him.

Was it really only seven o’clock? Had all this – the utter destruction of his hopes and dreams, the defamation of his character at the hands of one woman – taken place in so little time?

Sufficient time, however, for it to have gone spectacularly wrong! Far from realising his dreams, the past half hour had unfolded into a nightmare of wretched proportions, and Darcy’s mind reeled with the relentless sound of Elizabeth’s voice and its cutting accusations.

 ‘…the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.’

Darcy willed her voice into silence, but failed to displace her image from moments earlier; her furious air and stony countenance smote him to his core, and he winced.

How could this be? Rejected! And what is more, rejected on every level: as a lover, as a gentleman, as a man of good character. Heat rose in his breast and stole into his cheeks as he strode along. Well, at least he had made it clear any affection he may have declared for her would soon be over. She would not believe him a love-sick pup, bemoaning his loss; she would understand the truth of it. What was it he had said?

‘I perfectly comprehend your feelings, and have now only to be ashamed of what my own have been.’

Comprehend? He perfectly comprehended her feelings? Never! Never on this earth would he ever comprehend! But ashamed? He shied away from this thought. He did not wish to dwell upon what his feelings had been; they must be forgotten. Elizabeth Bennet did not deserve such honourable affections to be bestowed upon her, and certainly not from a gentleman of such standing…

 ‘…had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner’

Darcy came to an abrupt halt. Un-gentlemanlike? How could his conduct be considered anything but that of a gentleman? Was he not of excellent character, family and social standing, acknowledged by all for his integrity and honesty in his dealings with the world?

Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman: it was how he was known, had been known ever since his majority. It was everything about whom he believed himself to be. How could Elizabeth question it? How dare she?

Releasing a frustrated breath, Darcy stared around. How could everything be so benign, so still, when all within was in turmoil, raging and broiling like a fierce torrent? Why were the birds still singing softly in the trees? Why were the heavens not thick with black clouds the like of which filled his mind, why was thunder and lightning not raging about him?

His throat felt tight, and he tugged at his neck-cloth as his gaze fell upon Rosings, ahead of him through a break in the trees. How he despised it and all it represented. Yet slowly he began to move again, walking towards the house with no choice but to return, his eye fixed upon the stone edifice, desperate to settle upon something to calm him; all was in vain.

‘… your arrogance, your conceit and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others…’

Ridiculous! Unfounded, totally erroneous accusations and, what is more, a slur on his character! His conduct was never questioned – never! What did she comprehend of his worth? Nothing!

A sudden memory touched him, words she had spoken at Netherfield, of seeking the illustration of his character, of trying to make it out, and Darcy was swept rapidly back to the previous autumn in Hertfordshire. Memories of Elizabeth flooded his mind and not even in his present anger towards her could he stem the relentless flow, nor taint the remembrance of his growing admiration for her back then. This interest in his character he had taken as affirmation of his being an object with her. It had stirred him beyond any expectation whilst simultaneously causing anguish of mind as he had acknowledged the futility of his interest in her.

It was the recollection of this struggle, of his vain attempts to cease his fascination with her, that roused his ire once more. His failure had been his downfall; enough with the lady! He swiped his cane angrily, decapitating wild grasses as he strode purposefully along, forcefully closing his mind to the past. The present, however, was less dutiful, and returned with a vengeance as once more Elizabeth’s angry countenance appeared before him, her beautiful lips showering him in false accusation. How could he have admired and valued her refreshing opinions when this was hers of him? How could he have been so mistaken, and how the devil could she have so misconstrued him?

‘Your character was unfolded in the recital which I received many months ago from Mr. Wickham.’

A physical pain seared Darcy’s chest. Elizabeth’s championing of Wickham had cut him badly. Why had he not refuted her accusations, defended himself against whatever it was the cad had claimed? Why had no words come to save him in his hour of need, no words to prove his honour?

Stopping suddenly, Darcy caught his breath. Perhaps he should go back – demand a further audience and make Elizabeth see the truth, force her to listen to his side of the story? Yet before such a foolish notion could take firmer hold, more of the lady’s words spun through his mind.

From the very beginning of their acquaintance, she had said. His actions as Elizabeth perceived them, towards her sister and Wickham, were merely contributory factors in building ‘so immoveable a dislike.’

Darcy sighed heavily. Nothing could be achieved by trying to put his case to her, nor could he face more of her anger, her indignation and risk even further censure from the very woman in whom he had trusted and upon whom he had, but an hour earlier, pinned all his hopes and dreams. All his inner struggles had been for naught, swept ruthlessly away by such precious hands.

Striding down the path, Darcy emerged into the immediate grounds of Rosings and headed for the stone path leading to the front entrance of the house. It was bordered by flowering cherry trees, the spring blossom opulent and the scent over-powering. Would he ever acquaint it henceforth with his present feelings?

Wearily, he climbed the stone steps to the imposing entrance and then paused before lifting the latch to enter to glance over his shoulder at the parkland lying between the house and Hunsford. Dusk was settling upon the treetops, drawing down a mantle over his return, the day ending, much as his hopes had.

His eye was caught by the only brightness, a scattering of pale blossom on the path along which he had just walked. It lay like petals from a bridal posy, mocking him, and with a feeling of disgust, Darcy turned his back and entered the house, intent upon seeking the solitude of his room.

He had barely made it to the third stair, however, when Colonel Fitzwilliam appeared in the hall.

‘There you are, Darce! You were missed at tea. What was the pressing business? I assumed you would be sequestered in your room, up to your ears in papers, but I see now you have been out!’

Knowing he was in no humour for company, no humour for anyone, Darcy ignored him and continued to take the stairs two at a time. The sanctuary and solitude of his chamber was all he could think of, all he sought.

Darcy!’ The Colonel was not one to give up a chase, however, and he bounded up the stairs behind his cousin. ‘Good grief, man, whatever is wrong with you?’

Wrong with him? Darcy stopped outside his chamber door and swung around to face the Colonel’s puzzled countenance. Bitterness seared through him as words almost fell from his tongue, sarcastic words, suggesting his cousin consult Miss Elizabeth Bennet. She would be able to enlighten him directly on all and everything at fault with Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. With difficulty, he bit down upon them.

‘Forgive me, Richard. You must excuse me.’ Before his cousin could make any response, Darcy entered the room and quickly closed the door upon the Colonel’s frowning face.

~o0o~

Tomorrow’s scene will be Darcy Writes a Letter.

Copyright: Cassandra Grafton, 2017

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Posting Update – A Quest for Mr Darcy

As some of you know, I’ve been unwell this last week. I’m afraid there won’t be a chapter tomorrow. I will aim to post one chapter next week, but I’m not promising anything just yet. I hope to be back to full fitness after that and can only apologise for the delay.  😦

The story is just about to enter some key chapters delivering lots of answers, and I really need to be feeling 100% to be sure I give the story the attention it needs. I hope you will forgive me for the break. I know some of you are keen to get answers at last.

With best wishes

Cass ❤

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A Quest for Mr Darcy – Chapter Forty Four

The blurb for this story can be found here.

Chapter Forty Four

Darcy almost missed his step as they turned to take their places back in the line. Did Elizabeth truly mean it? Had he somehow succeeded in redeeming his character in her eyes? A rush of relief consumed him, swiftly followed by a wish for it to be so much more, which he quickly stifled. This had to be sufficient for now, did it not?

A silence settled upon them as they continued the dance, as though by mutual consent, but it held no awkwardness, and as the formation of the steps meant they performed a pattern with each neighbouring couple in turn, it was a moment before they were returned to each other’s company.

A faint smile touched Elizabeth’s mouth as their eyes met, and Darcy returned it. It seemed he understood her correctly! Then, his expression sobered as reality took a firmer grip. If only they did not have the spectre of her younger sister rising between them, the uncertainty of what the morrow might bring.

‘You once told me, Mr Darcy, of your abhorrence of disguise.’ Elizabeth raised a brow as they stepped forward to exchange places.

‘I have little patience for it.’

‘Then in the spirit of openness, will you permit me to ask you a question?’

Darcy almost laughed. If she only knew that which he most wished to ask her! He met her inquiring gaze, then smiled.

‘Is that your consent, sir?’

He inclined his head.

‘Then that will have to be sufficient, and you must heretofore absolve me of any… disrespect.’

They crossed behind each other once more and then turned to take hands as the pattern of the dance changed direction.

‘I have always admired your ability to speak your mind.’

Elizabeth laughed lightly as they stepped forward and then back again. ‘You may make a virtue of it if you wish, sir. I shall raise no objection. Yet I know impertinence when I hear it, even from my own lips!’

Turning away as they returned to the line, Darcy met her gaze again and nodded. ‘Then speak, Miss Elizabeth. Ask me what you will.’

‘What troubles you so this evening?’ She spoke firmly but quietly, that only he might hear her. ‘I do not believe it to be solely the person whose name we agreed not to mention. And do not pretend, or say ‘naught of consequence’, for that will be disguise of the highest sort.’

What on earth could he say? The ballroom was no place to speak of those rising from the dead!

‘Mr Darcy? Is it so difficult?’ Elizabeth bit her lip. ‘Forgive me; I am thoughtless. Your business is your own, and I should not speak so.’

‘No – not at all! Please, Miss Elizabeth, do not feel badly. It is only that I am bound to secrecy. I hope very much to be able to shed its veil at the earliest opportunity, but for now, I cannot.’ He sighed. ‘It prevents me from speaking as openly as I would wish on more than one matter.’

Elizabeth’s eye seemed drawn to Eleanor Latimer, a little further down the line.

‘No.’ Darcy spoke quietly, but as they were repeating the opening movement now and crossing the dance, she could surely hear him. ‘I know my sister spoke to you. That I have resolved. I have made it clear to Latimer I have no intentions towards his daughter.’

Elizabeth said nothing as she took her position again, but then she nodded. ‘Something was said earlier, by Mrs Latimer. It did make me wonder…’

As they crossed the dance once more, this time their hands clasped, he put some pressure upon hers and her gaze flew to his face. The tendrils of hope, so quick and easy to rise and then fall, were taking a firmer hold as they spun a web about his heart.

‘Do I have your trust, Miss Elizabeth?’

They stepped around the other dancers before coming back together. ‘With my life; with all my family’s life.’

Darcy nodded as they turned to perform the same steps again. ‘You are right to feel so.’

As they took their positions back in line, Elizabeth met his gaze. ‘You make me quite anxious, sir.’

‘It is not my intention.’ The dance was drawing to a close, and Darcy felt relief at knowing a second was to follow. As the movements ceased and the last note faded, he bowed along with all the other gentlemen, then raised his eyes to meet Elizabeth’s. Her faith in him meant everything, and whilst these precious moments in her company were exquisite, his mind could not help but turn to the morrow once more and doing everything in his power to assist the Bennets with whatever troubles were about to visit them.

~o0o~

After enjoying the second dance of her set with Mr Darcy, with the conversation decidedly lighter, Elizabeth then partnered Colonel Fitzwilliam, followed by Mr Bingley, after which time she expressed the desire to seek some form of refreshment.

Mr Bingley willingly led her over to the room where drinks were being served, only to find Mrs Latimer watching out for her and beckoning her over to join her daughter and Jane, who had assembled there for the same reason.

‘It is rather warm, is it not?’ Mrs Latimer smiled as she waved her fan. ‘Come, you must take some sustenance if you are to endure the course.’

Excusing himself, Mr Bingley left to find the gentlemen and, soon furnished with a chilled glass of wine, Elizabeth took a seat beside Eleanor Latimer.

For a moment, they both watched the milling of the ladies going to and fro, for this seemed to be their domain. Then, conscious any attempt at conversation would be in her hands, Elizabeth turned to the lady at her side.

‘Do you enjoy yourself, Miss Latimer? I will own to being as much a stranger to the majority of the guests as you are.’

There was no response for a moment as the lady’s gaze continued to roam the room. Then, she turned to face Elizabeth. ‘I have oft found myself preferring a crowd of strangers; it is easier to maintain an air of… disinterest.’

Elizabeth laughed. ‘And this is your preferred air?’

‘It is unwelcoming, is it not?’

‘Most certainly.’

‘Then you understand my purpose in so doing.’

Studying her for a moment, Elizabeth took a sip from her glass. ‘You do not wish to seek attention; the attendance of others.’

‘I am tired of being played like a pawn ever since I came out.’ Eleanor Latimer glanced at Elizabeth. ‘I wish the game to cease, to be over. I went along with my father’s persuasion this time out of resignation. And whilst I have no desire to be tied to a man who is clearly in love with someone else,’ She looked pointedly at Elizabeth, who could feel the warmth filling her cheeks. ‘I do long to escape into the care of someone who is not like my father.’

Feeling rather awkward at the turn of the conversation, Elizabeth sipped her drink.

‘Are you close to your own parents, Miss Bennet?’

To her surprise, Elizabeth hesitated. Never had she done so before when speaking of her father, and she sighed. ‘To my Papa, yes; my mother – she died last year – but we were not close.’

‘I am sorry for your loss.’ Eleanor glanced over to where Mrs Latimer stood in conversation with Jane. ‘My mother is the only person I have ever loved, or whom I felt loved me.’ Then, she looked back to Elizabeth. ‘Will you ride with me on the morrow?’

‘I?’ Elizabeth was taken aback; then, she laughed. ‘Gladly, Miss Latimer, if you are not seeking a swift gallop! My skill as a horsewoman is not oft on display!’

‘I wish to see something of the local neighbourhood; the nearest town: Lambton, I believe?’ Eleanor hesitated, a faint colour washing her cheeks, and Elizabeth suspected she was not in the habit of issuing invitations. ‘I would appreciate your company.’

Elizabeth smiled warmly. ‘And I appreciate your request, Miss Latimer. If Mr Darcy’s stables can provide a suitably staid mount to match the level of my expertise, I will gladly ride into Lambton with you.’

~o0o~

‘Latimer is on the prowl.’ The Colonel inclined his head towards the far corner of the card room. ‘Putting some new bait on his line, I suspect.’

Darcy followed his cousin’s gaze to where the gentleman could be seen laughing with three younger men; it seemed he had the right of it and, for a moment, he felt some sympathy for his daughter.

‘His wife seems to be paying particular attention to the Miss Bennets this evening, Darcy. Does she do his bidding, do you think, in keeping such a keen eye upon them?’

Shaking his head, Darcy turned to accept the glass offered to him by his cousin. ‘Mrs Latimer has simply appointed herself chaperone to the ladies in the absence of their father to escort them.’

The Colonel grunted. ‘These Latimer women have hidden depths the father would do well to emulate.’ He looked up. ‘Ah, Bingley, there you are!’

Bingley quickly joined them, his genial smile soon fading. ‘I have left the ladies to their refreshments.’ He eyed his two companions. ‘So – what is the plan? We must avoid any speculation over our purpose.’

Darcy shook his head. ‘I doubt anyone would suspect our purpose, Bingley.’

‘You comprehend his meaning, though, Darce?’ The Colonel looked around before turning back to address his companions. ‘We cannot be seen to be orchestrating a search, especially under Latimer’s watchful eye.’

Darcy’s gaze drifted towards Sir Charles Seymour who was holding court with his wife near the doorway into the card room. ‘I think our host may be able to assist with the Latimers. Leave it with me.’

‘Capital. Then we must hope for the other ladies to keep themselves adequately occupied to not miss our captivating presence!’

Bingley smiled ruefully. ‘We must also hope for dry weather.’

Darcy met his friend and his cousin’s gaze with a steady eye, and spoke quietly but firmly. ‘If we must hope, it is for finding this girl, whatever the elements may throw at us.’

Excusing himself, Darcy walked over to where Sir Charles and his wife stood.

‘Sir Charles, did I hear correctly earlier – you are planning a day’s shooting on the morrow?’

‘Once we are up and about, yes, Darcy. Joining us?’

‘I must decline on this occasion, sir, but I wondered if you might offer some sport to Latimer?’ He gestured towards the gentleman across the room.

‘Capital idea, Darcy! I know how challenging it can be to always be finding entertainment for visitors. We have a house full just now, with the ball, and it will be a large party which can easily accommodate one more.’ He turned to his wife. ‘And you, my dear. Can you fit Mrs Latimer in on your jaunt?’

Lady Araminta smiled widely. ‘We are taking the ladies by carriage to Dove Dale, Mr Darcy. They have heard much of its reputed beauty. Would Mrs Latimer care to join us, do you think?’

‘I am certain she would. May I leave you to extend the invitations?’

Returning to his cousin and Bingley, Darcy smiled grimly. ‘That is the Latimers disposed of for the day. What of the rest?’

Bingley shrugged. ‘Miss Bennet mentioned calling upon Mr Wentworth. She says she used to help out around the parish a great deal and has missed doing so.’

‘And what of your sisters?’

He laughed, though Darcy was unsure of his friend’s amusement. ‘After their attempt to sneak out to ghost hunt the other night, followed by their antics at the stables earlier today, they are confined to the house for at least the next four and twenty hours. I suspect the patience of Miss Georgiana and Mrs Annesley will have been sorely tried by the time they are set free again!’

The Colonel snorted. ‘I hope we find Miss Lydia Bennet without delay. There are only so many days of subterfuge one can stomach!’

Bingley’s expression had sobered as he turned to Darcy. ‘I have never forgotten your words in London, Darcy: to protect the girls with my life if Wickham were in the vicinity. With this threat of his to blackmail Bennet, I am not inclined to let the girls out of Pemberley’s grounds until the matter is entirely resolved.’

Darcy met his gaze solemnly. ‘You are wise to be on your guard, Bingley, though I believe we shall see neither sight nor sound of the man until Bennet does not show at wherever the appointed place is on Thursday.’

They all looked up, then, as a footman entered and struck the gong in his hand, announcing the serving of supper, and as the room began to empty, the Colonel held his cousin back for a second.

‘We must be on our guard, all the same. Wickham’s mind does not work as others’ do; who knows what his intent is, or his present connection with this girl.’

~o0o~

With supper complete, the dancing resumed until the Seymours gathered everyone out on the long terrace running alongside the ballroom, in readiness for a characteristically flamboyant ending to proceedings courtesy of several acrobats, the jesters and culminating in the promised display of fireworks.

It was during the latter that Darcy found himself drawing near to where Elizabeth stood. Or rather, if he were honest with himself, it was where he had consciously taken himself. Despite the evening holding such moments of unanticipated pleasure, it was impossible now, as it faded, not to be consumed by his concerns for what they might discover the following day. It felt as though time was of the essence; short in duration, as though change was upon them, and he knew not in what form.

Edging closer to where she stood beside her sister, Darcy drew in a steadying breath. Elizabeth had taken the step to make it clear her opinion of his character had altered. Though he wished for more, it was a beginning, and he did not intend to make the same mistake as in the past, when she had held no notion of the depth of his admiration for her. He wished somehow, within the constraints of such a public setting, to let her know that his wishes had not changed.

Perhaps Elizabeth detected the intensity of his stare, for she turned her head and saw him before he reached her, her smile welcoming.

‘Are you enjoying the display?’ Darcy gestured at the latest spray of light in the night sky.

‘A little. Perhaps only a very little!’ Elizabeth laughed, though it did not linger, and her gaze when it met his was serious. ‘All I can think of is those poor young deer and what they must make of such noise and spectacle.’

‘It does quite shatter the peace of the country, does it not?’ They turned to watch the latest shower of sparks for a moment. Then, as the noise subsided, he lowered his voice. ‘Miss Elizabeth, might I have a word with you?’ He gestured back towards the house, and Elizabeth whispered something quickly to her sister before turning to follow him.

They fetched up beside one of the full-length windows to the ballroom, its light spilling out over the terrace, and turned to survey the scene, visible to all but out of hearing, the noise of the fireworks themselves providing further cover.

‘Miss Elizabeth, I spoke earlier of secrecy, of something preventing me from saying something I wished to. In some ways, they are not connected.’ He stopped, his gaze dropping to his feet, uncertain how to proceed. ‘Nothing has altered, yet I would not have you wonder…’

‘Mr Darcy.’ He looked up. ‘You are under no obligation to speak to me of anything.’

‘Yes – yes, I know.’ Darcy leaned back against the wall, frustrated with himself. He could be inarticulate around Elizabeth at the best of times, and having to speak in what felt like riddles yet also ensure she understood him was a trial he could do without.

‘I am quite intrigued now, sir!’

With a sigh, he turned to face her. ‘I would have you remember something from Hunsford.’

Elizabeth’s eyes widened. ‘I think, sir, I shall never quite forget Hunsford!’

Darcy acknowledged the hit. ‘Nor shall I; yet I would wish for your not recalling all that took place, merely some of it, for it may serve a purpose.’ He drew in a calming breath. ‘I spoke few fair words amongst the foul that evening, Miss Elizabeth; but such as those were, they hold as significant a meaning today as they did then.’

Elizabeth frowned, and he was unsure if it was the recollection of his appalling approach to her or simply her attempt to recall what he had said. Was this really the best he could do?

‘I believe we both spoke many words that evening, sir.’

She met his gaze again, and Darcy sighed. His opening lines were etched upon his memory, there to taunt him for all time of his inability to secure the woman he loved. After all, he had practised them often enough, had he not?

‘I meant the first words I spoke to you, Miss Elizabeth; before we descended into our, er, debate on the merit or otherwise of my… suggestion.’

There was a further silence. Then, a hint of humour touched Elizabeth’s eyes.

‘And these words.’ She bit her lip. ‘They would not be about struggling in vain?’

He shook his head.

‘Or perchance, being unable to sufficiently repress one’s feelings?’

He almost laughed at the amusement now filling her countenance. ‘You remember every word, then. I would not have you recall them, but for…’ he hesitated. ‘For those that followed soon after.’

Elizabeth said nothing at first as he willed her to recall the declaration of his ardent love and admiration for her, but if the colour rising in her cheeks was any indication, perhaps she did. The humour faded from her eyes, replaced with something… if only he could understand what it was, yet he was certain it was not aversion.

Tilting her head a little to one side, a small smile touched her lips. ‘I believe I understand you, sir. Perhaps better than you understand yourself?’

Darcy smiled ruefully. ‘I always feared it to be so.’

‘Then on this occasion, we are in harmony.’ Elizabeth met his eye solemnly. ‘I cannot begin to comprehend what it is that prevents you speaking openly, sir. Yet I trust that whatever troubles you is soon remedied, for I do not like to see you so.’

It warmed his heart to hear her say it. ‘You have my word; it shall be resolved.’ Darcy paused, smiling faintly, and slowly she responded.

~o0o~

With the fireworks drawing the evening to its conclusion, the party from Pemberley soon reassembled under the turreted archway to Froggatt Park to await their carriages.

Much as he tried to hold onto the pleasure of the past few hours in Elizabeth’s company, to delight in the progress they had made, Darcy’s thoughts were being consumed more and more with his purpose. What would this forthcoming day bring?

‘Darcy! Make haste, man!’ Looking up, Darcy frowned. The Colonel was handing Miss Latimer into their carriage, and he glanced over at Latimer’s conveyance, only to see Bingley doing the same service for Miss Bennet.

‘Cousin?’ He walked over to where he stood. Elizabeth and Miss Latimer were now installed inside, and Darcy lowered his voice. ‘Did I miss something?’

The Colonel grunted. ‘No more than the usual, old man.’ He gestured towards where Latimer was now joining his wife and the others in his own carriage. ‘He was pushing again for Miss Latimer to travel with you; this seemed the best compromise.’

Darcy rolled his eyes. ‘He is as tenacious as we suspected. It will be to no avail.’

‘I think he knows that; he is merely making things as difficult as he can in the meantime. Come. It is late, and we have an early start ahead.’

He turned to enter the carriage and Darcy followed his cousin inside, resuming his seat from earlier opposite Elizabeth.

They set off in procession, back down the winding driveway, and the Colonel turned to his cousin.

‘It was good to see you putting your education to good use this evening, Darce.’

Darcy frowned, and the Colonel grinned. ‘When you are so reluctant to enter into a dance, as is your habit, people must wonder if that aspect of your tutoring had been lacking.’

Darcy met Elizabeth’s eyes in the faint light of the lamps. ‘Sadly, my practise of it is all too infrequent.’

She smiled. ‘Speaking of infrequent practise, Mr Darcy, may I ask a favour? Miss Latimer has proposed riding into Lambton later this morning. Could I be so bold as to request the loan of a steady mount?’

Exchanging a swift glance with his cousin, Darcy agreed. It was opportune timing.

‘I will send a message to the stables at first light. I – we,’ he gestured between himself and his cousin. ‘Propose being out for most of the day and will not, I am afraid, have the pleasure of your company at the breakfast table.’

The remainder of the short journey was completed discussing the bridleways on the estate, and before long, Darcy was taking Elizabeth’s hand to assist her from the carriage. Not wishing to let her go, he retained his hold for a moment, and she sent him a soft smile which warmed his heart.

A light rain had begun to fall, and leaning forward, Darcy raised the hood of Elizabeth’s velvet cloak and draped it over her hair.

‘Thank you, sir.’

‘It would not do for you to catch cold.’

‘I think I shall survive the journey from here to the door, Mr Darcy, but I appreciate your concern.’

Darcy smiled, then watched as she turned to walk up to where a footman held the doors ajar. He looked around. The Latimers stood talking to Bingley beside their carriage, and his cousin was offering his arm to Miss Latimer. Glancing at the skies, which appeared thick with cloud now, the moon having long abandoned them, he brushed a few fine drops from his face and turned to take the steps two at a time.

When he entered the hallway, however, Elizabeth was already hurrying up the stairs, and glancing upwards he saw why. Olivia and Viola, their leaf-clad boots clasped in their hands and their cloaks hanging from their shoulders, were part way up the staircase, staring at Elizabeth in trepidation as she approached.

‘Make haste; make haste!’ She urged them, and after meeting Darcy’s gaze with wide-eyed ones of their own, they both turned quickly and hurried ahead of Elizabeth onto the landing and out of sight, just as Latimer and Bingley walked through the doorway.

~o0o~

Chapter Forty Five will be posted on Tuesday!

I apologise for the late posting of this chapter and for its quality. I have been a little unwell for the past 48 hours and lost a day and a half of writing time as a result. This is a very rushed version, but I did not want to let anyone down by not posting anything at all today. I will improve the chapter when I get chance to go back to it.

Copyright © Cassandra Grafton 2017

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