A Quest for Mr Darcy – Chapter Forty Three

The blurb for this story can be found here.

Chapter Forty Three

The Colonel’s interest was clearly roused, and he drew Darcy over to the opposite side of the hall to where the ladies had gathered. ‘You have established the source of this floating light? The twins’ ghostly apparition?’

‘Indeed.’ Darcy glanced over to where Elizabeth stood, but she appeared to have engaged Miss Latimer in conversation, and he turned back to his cousin. ‘I believe what the girls saw was a glow from the upper floor of the hunting tower at the top of Stand Wood.’

Smacking a hand to his head, the Colonel nodded. ‘Of course! It is barely noticeable by day, concealed by the trees as it is, but at night…’

‘If someone was in there and had a lamp or torch lit, it would show through the top most branches, especially now the leaves have begun to fall.’

‘And their perception of this spirited light coming and going; dancing, as the twins put it?’

Darcy shrugged lightly. ‘I suspect it was merely the branches of the trees swaying which gave the effect.’

‘If you are right, we may not be searching for long on the morrow.’

‘Even if I am right, I do not expect to find her there. There was certainly no hint of a light this evening; she is, perhaps, in hiding elsewhere in fear of discovery.’

‘It is, at least, a step in the right direction, Darce. We must take comfort from that.’

‘I will take any that we can find.’ Darcy looked around the hall. Latimer had yet to join his wife and daughter, and there was no sign of Bingley, but Olivia and Viola had emerged from the drawing room and hurried to join the ladies, exclaiming over their dresses.

Smiling faintly, he walked to meet his sister as she too came through the doorway. ‘I am sorry we are to desert you this evening, Georgie.’

Georgiana smiled. ‘I am not in want of company, Fitz. Mrs Annesley is here, and the twins shall no doubt keep me occupied!’ They both looked over to where Olivia stood, now sporting Elizabeth’s cloak about her shoulders, though it fell to the ground in pools of fabric, their height being so dissimilar.

Darcy tried not to stare as Elizabeth, clearly under the bidding of Viola, turned in a circle, that her appearance might be admired. She was laughing, the curls above her nape dancing as she moved, the rich green fabric of her silk dress swirling about her ankles and the beads in her hair catching the light from the chandeliers. Darcy caught his breath.

‘Miss Elizabeth Bennet looks very well, does she not, Brother?’ Georgiana did not look at him, for which he was thankful.

He cleared his throat. ‘She does; very well indeed.’

‘And do you intend to tell her you are not destined for Miss Latimer this evening? You swore me to secrecy until you spoke to her father, which I know you have now done. If you do not speak of it, then I most certainly shall.’

‘Georgiana!’ Darcy spoke quietly but firmly, and she turned a contrite face towards him.

‘Forgive me, Fitz. I seek naught but your happiness. You must know that.’

‘I do; most assuredly, I do.’ He glanced over towards Elizabeth again; Olivia was carefully assisting her with her cloak. ‘I believe the lady begins to understand me, Georgie.’

‘But you must be certain of it.’ His sister was quite in earnest, and he smiled reassuringly.

‘I will make certain of it; I promise you that. And should I fail to make myself understood, which is not unheard of when I attempt conversation with the lady, then I give you leave to rescue me as you see fit.’

Georgiana held his gaze for a moment, then slowly began to smile. ‘Should aught go amiss, you can rely upon me to assist.’

Darcy laughed and watched as his sister crossed the hall to speak to the ladies. She was growing into a confident and delightful young woman, and he was ever thankful for it. Yet it could not fail to pass his mind how closely they had both come to losing each other at the hands of George Wickham. It was a sobering thought, and he stared over at one of the windows. All was darkness without, and the thought of the young girl Wickham had succeeded in ruining, alone and friendless in the woods, quickly lowered his spirits.

‘You look like thunder, Darce.’ The Colonel had come to join him, and he narrowed his gaze as he contemplated his cousin’s countenance. ‘It is merely a dance, old man; not a battle.’

‘It is not the ball I think of, Richard.’

‘Well, whatever it is, I would urge you to put it aside for I do not think it will endear you to your partners.’

Darcy dropped his gaze to his feet. His cousin was right; he must shed this preoccupation with matters he could not resolve this evening. Spending time in Elizabeth’s company would be an effective balm after such an extraordinarily stressful day, and on that he must focus his efforts.

‘On your guard, Darce. Here comes Latimer.’

Darcy looked up just as the gentleman reached the bottom stair, and he came swiftly over to join them.

‘You have made yourself scarce since our meeting, Darcy.’ He eyed the cut on Darcy’s cheek. ‘I trust you found some good sport on your ride?’

Exchanging a swift look with his cousin, Darcy inclined his head. ‘It was an unexpectedly fruitful excursion, Latimer.’ And one he had no intention of sharing with the man!

Latimer grunted, and turned to survey the room, his gaze narrowing as it fell upon his daughter, who appeared to be tolerating the twins’ admiration of her gown. Then, he turned back to them.

‘I trust those foolish girls have been suitably punished for their actions.’

Before Darcy could speak, the Colonel drew himself up in height. ‘The Miss Bingleys meant no harm, Latimer, and in effect, no harm was done. Your daughter looks in the prime of good health, and it is for Bingley to censure his sisters for their behaviour, no one else.’

‘They are a disgrace! If they were under my…’

‘Yet they are not.’ Darcy stared distastefully at the man. ‘Miss Olivia and Miss Viola have offered an apology, and as I understand it, your daughter has accepted it. That is the end of the matter.’

Latimer said nothing, though it clearly cost him dear to hold his tongue. Then, he blew out a breath and forced a laugh.

‘Come, Darcy; we have locked horns once already today. Let us not stand on ceremony.’ He threw an assessing glance towards the Colonel, who met it with inscrutability. ‘You will concede one mark in my favour out of courtesy, I am sure. You cannot allow my daughter to sit out the first set at this ball. It is not fitting for one of her status.’ Before Darcy could respond, he turned and called out to his daughter. ‘Eleanor! Come here, child. Make haste.’

‘It is an unfortunate situation for any young lady, Latimer.’ Darcy bowed as Miss Latimer joined them. ‘I am certain there will be ample young gentleman more than happy to stand up with your daughter. I have already engaged her for the third set and my commitment to my partner for the first will not be altered.’

With a scowl, Latimer turned to his daughter. ‘Eleanor, you must insist upon Mr Darcy rescinding his commitment.’

For the first time, Darcy saw emotion cross the lady’s face. ‘Papa, I shall not! As Mr Darcy has told you, he is to open the ball with Miss Elizabeth Bennet.’ She paused. ‘Besides, I too am engaged for the first.’

Latimer stared at his daughter, speechless for a moment. Then, he spluttered: ‘How so? With whom?’

‘Why, with Colonel Fitzwilliam, of course,’ the lady replied with composure, before turning her back upon her father and crossing the room to re-join her mother.

Darcy looked to his cousin in surprise, but he was making a hasty bow towards Latimer.

Glaring from Darcy to the Colonel, Latimer said nothing, merely turning on his heel to follow his daughter, and they both watched him for a moment before Darcy glanced at his cousin. ‘So – when did you…?’

The Colonel shrugged. ‘No idea, old man.’ Then, he grinned. ‘But if the lady says it is so, then so be it!’

With Mr Latimer joining them, Elizabeth excused herself from the other ladies and walked a little distance away. She had been surprised to find Eleanor Latimer more receptive than usual and had even been enjoying their tentative conversation, but upon returning from the summons by her father, it was clear the young lady’s spirits were affected, and she retreated to her mother’s side and spoke no further.

A keen observer, Elizabeth took a position whereby she could see everyone else in the room, keeping a firm hold on her gaze and not permitting it to drift solely in the direction of a certain gentleman, but even as she noticed Bingley beginning to descend the staircase, she frowned. Mr Darcy had looked so suddenly angry but a moment ago, soon after his sister had left his company. What could have caused it?

‘Miss Elizabeth.’

With a start, Elizabeth looked around. Mr Darcy had joined her, and trying to ignore the tumbling of her insides as he met her gaze, she smiled, then walked around to stand on his other side.

‘You are healing already, sir.’ Elizabeth studied the mark upon his cheek; the skin appeared to be fusing neatly.

Mr Darcy nodded, his gaze on the people milling around the entrance hall.

‘It will be all manner of colours by the morrow, but Mrs Reynolds’ tincture is an excellent method of muting a bruise in its early stages. She has had plenty of practise!’

Elizabeth raised a brow. ‘It is a habit of yours then, to ride recklessly through overhanging trees?’

He shook his head. ‘Not at all. But Mrs Reynolds was a master of concealment when I was young, that my mother might not be too alarmed at my escapades. Needless to say, the frequency of damage was oft enhanced during my cousin’s visits!’

With a laugh, Elizabeth looked over to where the Colonel stood; he had quickly engaged Bingley in conversation as soon as he reached the bottom of the stairs. ‘I can well believe it.’ Then, she frowned. Whatever the gentlemen were discussing, it had not brought the habitual smile to either of their faces; indeed, they looked uncharacteristically solemn.

Before she could raise such a thought, however, a footman appeared in the open doorway and there was a general movement towards him, and Elizabeth took the arm offered to her by Mr Darcy, conscious of the strength of him through the fine fabric of his evening coat. Thankful for the waft of cool, evening air skimming her cheeks as they emerged out onto the steps, she sighed as they made their way down to the sweep of gravel where two elegant equipages stood, one bearing the familiar Darcy crest, the other that of the Latimers.

Mrs Latimer and her daughter took up a position beside the lowered step to their carriage, and Elizabeth and Darcy, followed by the Colonel, walked over to join her sister and Mr Bingley beside the other.

‘Darcy! You will at least travel with us! Why crush five into one carriage when we have space in ours?’

They all looked over to where Latimer stood, gesturing towards his conveyance.

Because it is better company, Darcy muttered under his breath. ‘I thank you, Latimer; but as with many things, I prefer to follow my own choice.’

The Colonel clapped him on the shoulder. ‘I will take this hit for you, Darce.’ He spoke quietly in his ear. ‘But you owe me!’

Striding over, the Colonel took Mrs Latimer’s hand. ‘Allow me, ma’am.’

He handed her into the carriage before turning to assist her daughter, then stood back so that Latimer could step up ahead of him. The gentleman glared at him as he passed, but the Colonel merely rolled his eyes, raised a hand to his cousin who was watching him yet, and entered the carriage, closing the door with a snap.

~o0o~

Froggatt Park, the ancestral home of the Seymour family, was located on a steep rise and reaching it was an adventure in itself. Thankfully, the bright moon, lingering from the previous evening, was some aid to the drivers in leading the carriages safely around the rising curves and bends.

Conversation had been sporadic and though Jane and Mr Bingley had spoken a little, Elizabeth found it difficult to think of anything to say, with Mr Darcy sat opposite, his dark eyes upon her. She was unsure as to his expression, for the lighting within was low, but she was certain his air and countenance were more troubled than at ease.

Unable to discern the cause, however, Elizabeth spent much of the short journey peering out of the window into the semi-darkness, eventually making out a hilly outcrop established with tall trees, then the glisten of water in the distance and a herd of fallow deer, which turned tail as they passed and raced off into the woods.

The carriages passed under the arch of a gatehouse, winding their way up a further short hillside to the west front of the house. It was on at least as large a scale as Pemberley, but of Elizabethan style, its tall, turreted circular tower imposing yet beautiful, the ivy clinging to its walls turned all shades of red and gold by the season.

Soon, they were inside, their outdoor garments handed to a servant, and a footman led them up along a raised hallway to a marble foyer where Sir Charles and Lady Araminta were receiving their guests.

‘Darcy! There you are!’ The gentleman beamed widely at them all before turning to look at Mr and Mrs Latimer. ‘Now, present me to these good people.’

The introductions were swiftly made and everyone was welcomed with a pleasing warmth as they passed along the line. Looking around, Elizabeth’s eyes were assailed by a myriad of colour as gowns, elaborate headdresses and jewels passed to and fro before her.

‘We shall have fireworks later, Darcy!’ Sir Charles laughed. ‘We are determined to out-do our last attempt; make sure you and your party do not miss them!’

Darcy caught his cousin’s eye. Neither of them had forgotten the last time; nor, doubtless, had the hapless footman whose tailcoat had caught alight, much to everyone’s amusement but his own!

Following the general crowd, the party from Pemberley eventually arrived in the elegantly appointed ballroom. It had a vast domed ceiling, extravagant plaster carvings on the pillars and floor to ceiling windows along one side, which reflected the many shimmering lamps and chandeliers. The iridescent fabrics and jostling feathers made a pretty spectacle of it as they made their way down the side of the room. The musicians could be heard tuning their instruments in the gallery above, and two jesters, elaborately dressed in appropriate costumes, were entertaining the guests as they awaited the ball’s opening number.

As their party assembled neatly to one side of the room, Darcy glanced over at Elizabeth. She was in conversation with her sister. He could see Latimer and his wife stood watching the proceedings, whilst Miss Latimer had assumed her usual bored expression. He did not envy his cousin! Bingley, meanwhile, remained at Darcy’s side.

His gaze roamed the room but he could not see the Colonel, and soon he found himself drawn to watch Elizabeth again. She was adjusting the length of her gloves and laughing at something her sister had said, and he could not help but smile at the sound.

‘Well, this is a fine turn up!’ Colonel Fitzwilliam materialised by Darcy’s side, his laughing glance going from his cousin to his friend, whose eye was avidly fixed upon Jane Bennet.

‘What is?’

‘I seem to have stumbled into a field of the verriest mooncalves!’ He smirked and clapped Darcy on the shoulder before walking over to speak to the Latimers, and Darcy looked at Bingley, who shrugged before turning his gaze back onto Jane.

With a sigh, Darcy met his cousin’s amused eye across the room. If it really was so obvious to the world, then surely Elizabeth must understand his feelings for her?

Darcy looked back over to where she stood only to realise she was watching him, and he smiled faintly. He wished for nothing more than to be beside her, yet never had he approached an evening with a more troubled mind. Torn over what he concealed from her, the exquisite anticipation of spending the next half hour in her company had assumed vast proportions. It was as though he feared his whole future hinged upon the outcome of this dance, when in reality, it was grounded in much more mysterious matters.

A smartly dressed footman appeared before him, offering a silver tray of goblets, and Darcy selected two before stepping over to where Elizabeth stood.

‘Would you care for some wine?’

‘Thank you; yes.’ She accepted it from him and took a sip, and Darcy did likewise, letting the chilled liquid slide down his throat, easing the habitual constriction, which tended to rise when he struggled for words.

There was a burst of laughter as the jester nearest to them comically performed a neat somersault, followed by a smattering of applause, and Elizabeth turned a smiling countenance to him.

‘Shall we be permitted to dance at any point, Mr Darcy, or will the guests be too inclined towards other entertainments?’

He looked over to where a large circle had formed around both jesters now as they began a display of acrobatics. ‘I will own to some… anxiety.’

Elizabeth raised a brow. ‘Truly, sir?’ Then, she laughed. ‘I do not think you will be required to perform in such a manner yourself.’

He shook his head, smiling. ‘No, and for that I am thankful. Performance of any sort is not my preference.’ He drew in a shallow breath, then met Elizabeth’s gaze. ‘Dancing is sufficient challenge.’

‘Yet I know you to be proficient.’

‘One can be proficient without enjoyment of the art itself.’

‘How singular. You are the second person to say as much in the past hour. Miss Latimer has just spoken as such with regard to her instrument and the pressure upon her to exhibit her talent.’ Elizabeth studied him thoughtfully for a moment. ‘Yet this is not the cause of your anxiety, is it, sir? Our one and only dance held no pleasure for you.’

He half smiled. ‘Let us say my enjoyment of it did not quite match my expectations.’

She looked contrite, and he wished he had not spoken so. ‘Forgive me, Mr Darcy. You know full well how mistaken my understanding was of your character.’

Darcy shook his head again. ‘Our acquaintance has been governed by misunderstandings.’

‘Aye, that is has.’ She bit her lip, then smiled. ‘Though my mistaking you for a fox was perhaps the most unforeseen.’

Darcy laughed, then turned around at a commotion behind them.

‘Come; come,’ Sir Charles bellowed as he finally led his wife into the ballroom. ‘Let the dancing begin!’ He beamed around at his assembled guests. ‘If you please, Araminta,’ he turned to bow extravagantly to his wife. ‘Will you do us the honour of leading?’

Darcy looked up at the gallery as the musicians struck a chord, then turned back to Elizabeth. ‘Shall we?’

He placed their goblets on a nearby table and held out his hand. Elizabeth placed hers in it, and he closed his fingers over hers, wishing he never had to let her go. It was impossible, despite the wearing of evening gloves, not to think of the feel of Elizabeth’s skin against his when he had held her hand earlier.

The room began to arrange itself into some semblance of order as the jesters performed a final somersault and removed themselves from sight, and Darcy led Elizabeth to a position near the centre of the line.

‘Doubtless he feels that is his due.’ The Colonel nudged Darcy’s arm as he passed behind him, inclining his head towards Latimer and his wife, who stood near the head of the line, before leading Miss Latimer to take a place further away. Jane Bennet had joined her sister, and Darcy smiled at Bingley as he came to stand at his side.

‘It is a long time since Netherfield, is it not, Darcy?’ Bingley beamed widely across at the ladies, and Elizabeth threw Darcy a conscious look. It was impossible not to recall their uneasy partnering.

As the first notes sounded, and their hosts performed a full pattern of the steps, as was their wont before their guests joined in, Darcy became aware both Bingley and Jane and the couples to his other side were already indulging in conversation, and catching Elizabeth’s eye, her brow raised in question, he cleared his throat.

‘I believe we struggled to find topics of mutual approval the last time I had the pleasure of dancing with you, Miss Elizabeth.’

‘I am certain we shall find some common ground, even if it centres around Alice or Mrs Reynolds!’

Darcy smiled, feeling a little more at ease. ‘Yet I think it important to say that I never talk of books in a ballroom.’

To his delight, Elizabeth laughed. ‘Touché, Mr Darcy! Then we must avoid the subject at all costs!’

Feeling a little awkward, he added, ‘I trust you will be in agreement that we should not speak of a certain mutual former acquaintance either.’

Elizabeth nodded quickly. ‘I have no intention of permitting him any purchase during our set, sir.’

‘There,’ he stepped forward to meet her as the guests were finally invited to join in the dance. ‘We have successfully placed our markers and both understand the topics to be avoided.’

Elizabeth smiled as they moved forward again, this time to take each other’s hands, and he relished the moment as they turned about and returned to their original places.

‘And do you not feel, sir, that we comprehend each other better than we did when last we stood up for a set?’

As they exchanged steps with Jane and Bingley, Darcy knew he could not deny it; yet he could only recall with shame his behaviour towards her, both in Hertfordshire and in Kent. Could she really have finally absolved him of it?

They crossed behind each other, then turned to take hands again as the pattern of the dance changed direction. ‘I have tried to improve those aspects of my character which were so lacking.  I remain a little unsure of the level of my success.’

Elizabeth turned her head to look at him as they stepped forward and then back, and he swallowed quickly at the expression on her face.

‘You spoke in the stillroom of the avoidance of doubt, sir, did you not?’

Turning away, Darcy met Elizabeth’s gaze again as they returned to the original line, then nodded.

‘Then let me speak openly.’ They stepped forward again and took hands, and as they turned about, she held his gaze, her colour high.

‘I like you, Mr Darcy; you have no need to seek my approbation, for you already have it.’

~o0o~

Chapter Forty Four will be posted on Tuesday!

Copyright © Cassandra Grafton 2017

Posted in A Quest for Mr Darcy, Writing | Tagged , , , | 33 Comments

A Quest for Mr Darcy – Chapter Forty Two

The blurb for this story can be found here.

Chapter Forty Two

Darcy looked up the instant the name Bennet was spoken, then sat up straighter when he realised Mrs Reynolds was ushering Elizabeth into the room. He looked from the lady to his housekeeper, torn between embarrassment and surprise as he got to his feet and made to put on his coat.

‘Now you just sit back down, Master Fitzwilliam.’ Mrs Reynolds whipped the coat from Darcy’s hands and turned to lay it across a chair, and his eye caught Elizabeth’s. She looked equally embarrassed but also amused. ‘I believe Miss Bennet is made of finer mettle than to be rendered faint at the sight of a gentleman in his shirt sleeves.’

‘It is the second occurrence in almost as many hours, Mrs Reynolds,’ Elizabeth turned to the lady with a smile. ‘The good Colonel rendered Miss Latimer the service of his coat earlier, and I believe I have emerged unscathed from such a vision.’

‘Ah yes; I did perceive, when I assisted the young lady. There, sir,’ the housekeeper turned back to Darcy, who was looking between the two ladies before him warily. ‘I knew I was right about Miss Bennet all along. Now,’ she turned to the table where there were some neatly cut pieces of lint. ‘If you would be so good as to oblige, ma’am. I will speak to Cook about your request and fetch the tincture she is warming. The master will persist in not keeping the compress in place.’

Darcy’s startled gaze met Elizabeth’s, but neither of them said a word as Mrs Reynolds picked up a small piece of lint, placed it over the cut in his cheek and then took Elizabeth’s hand, placing her fingers on it.

‘Keep it in place, ma’am. The master does not take sufficient care and it had begun to bleed again.’ With that, she left the room, leaving the door ajar as a thick silenced filled the air.

Having not seen Elizabeth since his discovery in the woodland, all Darcy could think of at first was the secret he concealed from her and how he wished he did not. As he became more conscious, however, of how close she stood to him by necessity, he could feel his attention being drawn to the lady herself.

He cleared his throat and threw Elizabeth a quick glance. She did not seem overly disturbed, but she was frowning, her eye fixed upon the compress. Then, she turned to look at him, and Darcy found himself completely entranced by this rare opportunity to study her at such close quarters. Her skin held an almost luminous quality, the chestnut curls framed her face charmingly, and he could see flecks of gold in her expressive, brown eyes…

‘Mr Darcy?’

He started, mortified at having been caught staring so blatantly.

‘What is this?’ Elizabeth did not seem overwhelmed at all, but gestured with her other hand towards his cheek. ‘How is it you are wounded thus?’

‘It is of little consequence; a mere scratch. Mrs Reynolds has tended my scrapes since I was a small child. When Thornton came seeking one of her remedies, she dismissed him out of hand and insisted I come to her.’

‘You have not answered my question, sir.’

For a moment, Darcy held her gaze. Then, he smiled faintly. ‘No – I have not; you are quite right. I was caught unaware by a branch whilst out on my ride.’

‘I see.’ Elizabeth’s gaze returned to the place where her fingers rested, and she lifted the lint to inspect the cut before replacing it and pressing a little more firmly. ‘You will appear quite the dashing hero at the ball, sir, though you may need to fabricate a more daring tale than being beaten by a recalcitrant bough!’

Darcy mused upon the truth of the matter, of the reason for his chase through the low hanging branches. He drew in a shallow breath, conscious of the continued pressure of Elizabeth’s fingers against his cheek. He knew Mrs Reynolds would return at any moment, and besides, he had no intention of being anything but a gentleman. He wanted Elizabeth to respect him, to fall in love with him, not give him a corresponding mark on his opposite cheek. Yet the temptation to indicate something of his affection for her was almost more than he could bear.

Darcy focused on the opposite wall, where a wide shelf held all manner of items: a pestle and mortar, some measures and more of the silver-topped bottles. ‘For the avoidance of doubt, I hope you comprehend there is only one before whom I would wish to appear a hero.’ He spoke quietly, but he knew from her stillness she heard his words. ‘If I could win that lady over, I would desire the approbation of no other person.’

He turned to look at Elizabeth, and she held his gaze, her eyes wide. It struck him suddenly she might think he meant Eleanor Latimer. After all, he had forbidden Georgiana from revealing his change of heart over a marriage of convenience to the lady, had he not, citing the need to speak to Latimer first? Well, that he had done earlier in the day, so…

‘You do comprehend my meaning, Miss Elizabeth?’ Darcy hesitated, conscious of footsteps in the corridor, but before more could be said, Mrs Reynolds bustled into the room, a small dish in her hand.

‘There now, Miss Bennet, if you would step back whilst I administer.’

It took little more than a few seconds for the salve to be applied, and thereafter his housekeeper declared him treated for the time being. ‘The bleeding has stopped, and it will be the morrow before the bruising comes out. You will do for now.’

‘Thank you.’

‘You are welcome, Master Fitzwilliam.’ Mrs Reynolds turned to Elizabeth. ‘I have never had a cross word from him, man or boy, but he is such a fidget when he has little patience with things. I thank you for your assistance, ma’am. Fortuitous timing indeed. Now, be off with you both; I will see to the tea being sent up to Miss Latimer.’ With that, she sailed from the room as Darcy picked up his coat and shrugged into it.

‘A fidget, sir?’ Elizabeth’s eyes were amused, and a reluctant smile touched his lips. ‘I never would have thought it of you.’

‘Mrs Reynolds comprehends things about me even I do not understand!’

They walked along the corridor towards the door into the main hall, and as they reached it, Elizabeth turned to face him. She lifted a hand slowly as though to touch the gash on his cheek, before letting it fall to her side.

‘Forgive me; your housekeeper will not thank me for undoing all her work to cleanse the wound.’

Caring not for the implications, Darcy boldly reached down and took her hand in his. ‘I do not care.’

‘But you should, sir. Besides, we cannot have you unfit for the ball. Would you have me sit out the opening set for want of a partner?’

Darcy felt all the shame of that first meeting with Elizabeth descend upon him, when he had slighted her and refused to stand up with her, and he ran a hand across his forehead. His other hand she had yet to give up, and it was a great comfort.

‘No – no, I would not.’

‘Well then, sir.’ Elizabeth made to turn towards the door, but he held it shut; just one second longer, he pleaded with himself. Moments like this were too precious to begin with, but with the mystery of Lydia Bennet hanging between them like an invisible veil, he felt it all too keenly.

Her gaze dropped to their clasped hands, neither clad in gloves. It was an intimacy rarely experienced, and Darcy could only assume it accounted for the sudden rush of colour into Elizabeth’s cheeks.

Then, she looked up and smiled and his heart began to race in his chest. Slowly, she raised his hand and pressed a kiss upon it before releasing it.

‘If you will excuse me, sir.’ Elizabeth gestured towards the door. ‘I must find my sister.’

~o0o~

Slipping through the now open doorway, Elizabeth hurried across the entrance hall towards the drawing room. She paused by the double doors and drew in a calming breath, willing the colour to fade from her cheeks. Had she really just done that?

Unable to help herself, she glanced over her shoulder before entering the room. Mr Darcy remained where she had left him, framed in the doorway, his eye intent upon her. Turning away, Elizabeth pushed the door open, only to find no one inside but Mrs Annesley.

‘Good afternoon, Miss Elizabeth.’ The lady smiled and put aside her book. ‘Miss Georgiana has just returned to her chamber to seek a missing volume.’

Elizabeth returned the smile. ‘Have you seen my sister, Mrs Annesley? She was in here but a short time ago, I am certain.’

‘She went upstairs to her chamber when Miss Georgiana left. Mr Latimer is returned from a walk and went up to see his wife and daughter, and Mr Bingley has taken his sisters to their rooms. I believe he wished to speak to them in private.’

Feeling for the twins, but knowing Mr Bingley was unlikely to be too harsh, simply because he did not know how, Elizabeth nodded. ‘Then I will leave you to your reading, ma’am, and follow my sister’s example.’

Opening the door with caution, she found the entrance hall empty and hurrying across its expanse, she quickly mounted the staircase.

‘There you are, Lizzy! I had begun to wonder what had become of you!’ Jane looked up from one of the chairs beside the hearth, then put aside her needlework as Elizabeth closed the door and turned to face her sister.

‘I went to call upon Miss Latimer to see how she fared; she had a little accident up at the stables.’

‘I did hear about it from Mr Bingley.’

Elizabeth laughed, thankful for something to distract her from her recent encounter with Mr Darcy. ‘You have spent an inordinate amount of time in that gentleman’s company today. Is his presence becoming more palatable?’

Though a faint wash of pink filled Jane’s cheeks, she shook her head. ‘I have always found him to have a pleasing air and such easy manners, Lizzy.’

‘Indeed.’ Elizabeth smirked. ‘You are encouraging him, Jane, whether you intend to or not.’

Jane’s expression sobered. ‘I do not mean to, but I will own to being conscious it may be so. I must also speak to Mr Wentworth and intend therefore to call at the rectory at the earliest opportunity on the morrow.’

‘Are you quite certain, Jane?’

Getting to her feet, Jane walked over to join her sister.

‘The gentleman did me the honour of offering his hand on Friday last; though it is but a few days since then, it seems such an age. Our coming to stay at Pemberley has caused an alteration on more than one front.’ Jane sighed. ‘Spending time in Mr Bingley’s company has been beneficial in helping me draw a conclusion, to realise what I could not see in either gentleman. Though I am unsure of my feelings for Mr Bingley, I do know it is time I gave Mr Wentworth my answer, for of that I am quite certain.’

Elizabeth’s thoughts flew immediately to Mr Darcy. His words to her in the stillroom had brought her comfort beyond measure, his taking possession of her hand had spoken more to her than any words. Was she right to hope so?

‘Lizzy?’ Jane peered at her sister intently, and Elizabeth squirmed under her assessing gaze. ‘What has happened?’

Turning away, Elizabeth walked over to the dresser. ‘Had we best not begin our preparations for the ball? We shall have to pay attention to the elaborate dressing of our hair to do our new gowns justice!’

‘You are being evasive again!’

Elizabeth drew in a shallow breath and turned about, conscious of the warmth in her cheeks intensifying as she dwelled upon Mr Darcy’s recent words. ‘I – I saw Mr Darcy.’

Jane released a small laugh. ‘We are in his home, so I am surprised at the level of disturbance this has caused!‘

‘He – I…’ Elizabeth released a frustrated breath. ‘Mrs Reynolds was tending to him. He incurred a slight injury to his face during his ride this morning.’ Recalling standing so close to the gentleman in the stillroom, her fingers pressed against his skin and separated from it merely by the thin piece of lint, she swallowed quickly.

‘And?’ Jane’s smile widened as Elizabeth walked slowly back across the room. ‘You are becoming pinker by the moment!’

‘He said… he implied… at least, I think that is what he meant…’

‘Your wits appear to have deserted you, Lizzy!’

Elizabeth sighed. ‘I have little doubt of it. I fear I may read too much into things because of how much I wish it to be so.’

Jane smiled encouragingly. ‘And?’

‘Something Mr Darcy just said to me hinted at his…’ Unable to put it into words, Elizabeth raised her eyes to her sister.

‘That his affection remains with you, just as I suspected?’ Jane nodded. ‘And you, Lizzy? What did you do?’

‘I wished… I tried to show him that my ill opinion of him is long gone. It pains me to think of him labouring yet under the impression I do not respect or admire him.’

‘I believe Mr Darcy understands you far better than you think.’ Jane took her sister’s hands. ‘Talk to him, Lizzy. You have a full half hour with him during the opening set this evening. Make good use of the time. There is such a houseful here, moments for private discourse are rare.’

They were indeed. Elizabeth gave Jane’s hands a slight squeeze before releasing them and turned back to the dresser, opening the drawers in search of pins for her hair. ‘I will heed your advice, Jane, though I harbour some trepidation. The one and only occasion when Mr Darcy and I stood up together was not an auspicious one.‘

Jane laughed. ‘Then this one will surely surpass it with ease!’

~o0o~

Once Elizabeth had entered the drawing room, Darcy had turned his steps in the direction of his study, only to find it already occupied by his cousin who had settled into a seat beside the hearth.

‘Where is Bingley?’ Darcy closed the door and walked over to join him.

‘Having a few words with his sisters.’

‘Ah; I see.’ Picking up the poker, Darcy stabbed at the logs, causing them to flare and spit.

‘He said he assumed we would reconvene after we return from the pleasures of this evening to plan our approach on the morrow.’

Darcy replaced the poker and dropped into the chair opposite the Colonel. ‘Are you certain you wish to be involved in this search, Richard? You have never met the young lady concerned and would not know her appearance.’

‘True, and we can hardly march into The Grange and demand a likeness of Miss Lydia Bennet, or ask her sisters for one!’ The Colonel held his cousin’s gaze for a moment. ‘There cannot be too many waiflike apparitions hiding in Pemberley’s woods! I think I shall know her well enough, Darce, if our paths cross!

With a nod, Darcy’s gaze drifted towards the fire for a moment; then, he frowned and looked up. ‘Cousin, you do not think… there cannot be any connection between this girl and the ghost the twins claim they keep seeing?’

Colonel Fitzwilliam shrugged. ‘I cannot see how so. They have seen, when all is said and done, nothing but a flicker of light in the tree tops and a discarded ribbon!’ He snorted. ‘There is no ghost, of that I am certain.’

‘Then these things must be connected.’ Darcy tried to think back to what had been seen or said of the suspected poacher. ‘Bennet spoke of there being someone out there; Miss Elizabeth had sensed being watched. Perhaps we can ascertain discreetly where it was she felt this?’ Then, he frowned again. ‘Did the twins not claim Miss Elizabeth Bennet had also seen this strange light? I meant to remind her to show me where it had appeared.’

‘I leave you to work on it, Darcy. Not an easy conversation during your set this evening, but perhaps you can weave some of it in!’

Darcy stretched his legs out in front of the fire. His mind was all confusion. The unexpected moment with Elizabeth earlier had given him such hope, yet he knew how precariously things stood with the two baffling mysteries of Wickham’s blackmail and Lydia Bennet’s return unresolved. ‘And what of Wickham? If Bennet does not return on the morrow, do we try to ascertain where they were expected to meet on Thursday?’

The Colonel shrugged again. ‘Buxton, was it not? The town is not overly large, but the instructions were too vague; where might a ‘west entrance’ be?’

‘A church; a chapel?’ Darcy sighed. ‘All towns have a wealth of those, and Buxton is no exception. A manor house, perhaps?’

With a grunt, the Colonel stirred in his seat. ‘I cannot imagine Wickham would be in circumstances to be established in a property of sufficient size to warrant anything beyond a rear entrance!’

Darcy was barely listening; his gaze had drifted to the fire in the hearth, his thoughts with Elizabeth. He pressed his thumb against the back of the hand she had placed a kiss upon. ‘I fear the outcome of all of this; I fear losing what I have so recently found.’

The Colonel fixed him with his eye. ‘You must not speak of our discovery this evening, no matter how much you wish to rid yourself of the disguise. I doubt very much either of the Miss Bennets could sufficiently conceal their emotion over such intelligence, and with Latimer…’

‘I understand, Cousin. Besides, how does one even make a beginning?’ Darcy ran a hand through his hair. ‘It is a matter upon which it is impossible to speak with coherence.’ He eyed his cousin uneasily. ‘But there will come a time in the next day or so when it must be broached, and I have no notion of how to make a beginning.’

‘You are a proponent of honesty, Fitz.’ Colonel Fitzwilliam got to his feet. ‘It will be the only way forward when the times comes.’

Darcy threw his cousin a helpless look as he too got to his feet, and the Colonel smirked.

‘You know, Darce, try something like, ‘good news! your sister is no longer dead.’

‘For heaven’s sake, Richard!’

Too abrupt? Perhaps try, ‘I have seen your sister in the parkland; the one you thought to be no more? Hmph. Perhaps not.’ The Colonel paused, then his eyes lit up. ‘Aha! How about ‘a most singular thing happened when I went for my ride…

Darcy released an exasperated breath. ‘It is not a sport, Richard!’

The Colonel grinned. ‘Merely trying to lighten the mood, Darce. You are about to attend a ball, not a vigil!’

~o0o~

Within a few hours, and with the aid of Georgiana’s maid once more to help in the intricate dressing of their hair, Jane and Elizabeth were soon assisting each other into their ball gowns, but as the latter fastened the complex buttons on the back of her sister’s bodice, she sighed.

‘Part of me is all anticipation for the evening ahead; yet another is tortured by questions for which there is no answer. Papa; Wickham. It is all too confusing, too unsettling.’

‘These are all things we can do nothing about, Lizzy.’

‘I know; I am in conflict, that it is all. I suppose I feel guilty for my hopes of the ball when I know not what suffering might be afflicting Papa.’

‘He would not wish it to be so. Come, it is almost time to go down.’ Jane turned towards the dressing room. ‘I have yet to choose some jewellery.’

She returned directly, and Elizabeth fastened a necklet of beaded droplets about her sister’s neck as she attached similar droplets to her ears.

‘You look quite as beautiful as ever, Jane; more so, in this gown.’ Elizabeth lifted the folds of blue silk and let them fall as her sister walked over to the looking glass.

‘I do wish I could have worn the locket, though.’ Jane met her sister’s gaze through the reflection of the mirror. ‘It is the first ball we have attended since Mama’s passing; it would have felt a fitting tribute.’

There was little Elizabeth could say; she patted her sister’s arm, then walked over to pick up her cloak from the bed. Then, she stopped and turned around.

‘Jane, you do not think… I mean, if the necklace is truly not at home, then someone inside the house must have taken it.’

Frowning, Jane picked up her own cloak. ‘You suspect Papa? Wickham would hardly be satisfied with a piece of jewellery.’

‘No – no, he would not. But I wondered if, perhaps, Papa needed to access pecuniary resources with haste… it is worth a considerable sum, is it not?’

‘But surely there are funds accessible to our father without him having to sell such a treasured and personal item? He has land independent of the entail and a few other assets besides.’

‘Land and assets cannot be disposed of quickly, Jane. I suspect Wickham has given Papa little time to meet his demands.’

Jane met her sister’s gaze and sighed. ‘Oh dear.’

‘Oh dear, indeed.’ They stared at each other for a moment; then, Elizabeth summoned a smile. ‘Well then. Let us be determined to enjoy this evening, Jane, for who knows what the future will bring!’

Jane responded with a smile of her own. ‘I cannot deny the precariousness of our present situation, but I believe you are right. We shall take what enjoyment we can from the ball, and we will concern ourselves with other matters on the morrow.’

‘Come, then.’ Elizabeth draped her cloak around her shoulders, picked up her reticule and opened the door, only to find Mr Darcy on the other side.

‘Miss Bennet; Miss Elizabeth.’ Darcy acknowledged them both, conscious of Elizabeth’s surprise to find him loitering outside her chamber. ‘Forgive the intrusion, but I wonder if I might trespass on a moment of your time?’

He was aware of the ladies exchanging a swift glance, but then Jane Bennet smiled. ‘Of course, sir. How may we assist?’

Darcy smiled faintly in return, then turned to Elizabeth. ‘Miss Elizabeth, the twins showed you the other night where they had been seeing this ghostly light from a window in the guest wing. Would you indulge my curiosity and confirm exactly where it was you saw it too?’

Elizabeth nodded. ‘Of course, Mr Darcy. You did mention wishing to understand where it was – I had quite forgotten.’

‘Then please, ma’am’; lead the way.’

They all proceeded in silence, and before long, they had reached the far end of the main hallway of the guest wing, and Elizabeth came to a halt beside a window facing towards the wooded hillside which rose up from the parkland behind the house.

‘It was there, sir.’ Though it was now almost dark, the moon continued to do its duty in permitting some light upon the scene, and Darcy followed the direction of Elizabeth’s hand, his gaze narrowing.

‘In the trees?’

‘Yes, sir. Quite in the top branches – a flickering light which seemed at times to come and go. I cannot account for it, but it was most assuredly there.’

Jane frowned. ‘Could it not have been the moon behind the trees?’

‘No, for it was never constant. Besides, the moon was elsewhere in the sky that night.’

Darcy stared out across the moonlit lawns towards the dark mass of trees, and a sudden suspicion struck him in an instant. He turned quickly to the ladies. ‘Thank you; allow me to escort you both downstairs.’ He offered an arm to each of them, and they walked back along the hallway and out onto the main landing, where they encountered Colonel Fitzwilliam at the top of the stairs.

‘Well met, ladies. Darcy.’ He bowed formally. ‘Are you perchance taking some pre dancing exercise?’

Elizabeth smiled. ‘Not at all, sir.’ She released Darcy’s arm, much to his regret, and took her sister’s as they preceded the gentlemen down the staircase.

Conscious his cousin was eyeing him with curiosity, Darcy threw him a quick glance. ‘I had a purpose, Richard, one that has delivered.’

‘Good grief, Darce!’ The Colonel spoke quietly, slowing his steps somewhat, that Jane and Elizabeth might pull ahead of them. ‘You did not propose?’

Darcy all but rolled his eyes. ‘With Miss Bennet present? Besides, I hardly think Miss Elizabeth is quite ready for another of my capital approaches, and as I do not wish to lose my one last chance to secure her, I will not ask her until I have devised a manner of eradicating all memory of my last attempt.’

‘To be fair, old man, it would be difficult to make a worse job of it.’

‘Thank you, Richard; succinct as ever.’ They had reached the main hall now, where the ladies were walking over to where Mrs Latimer was beckoning them, her daughter by her side.

Turning to his cousin, Darcy said quietly. ‘Enough of this. I said my purpose had been answered; I believe I know where the missing young lady has been hiding out.’

~o0o~

Chapter Forty Three will be posted on Thursday!

Copyright © Cassandra Grafton 2017

Posted in A Quest for Mr Darcy, Writing | Tagged , , , | 46 Comments

A Quest for Mr Darcy – Chapter Forty One

The blurb for this story can be found here.

Chapter Forty One

The Colonel stared at Darcy as though he had run mad, and Darcy could not blame him. Had he not been wondering if it were truly so himself?

‘Wait! A dead woman – girl?’ Pushing a hand through his hair, the Colonel looked away, then back at his cousin; then, his gaze narrowed. ‘Of whom do you speak?’

‘One who should be dead, yet she lives and breathes as surely as you or I; as surely as her sisters do.’ The words sounded nonsensical when spoken aloud.

‘Her sisters?’ The Colonel stared at him incredulously for a moment, then walked over to the window before swinging around. ‘You are saying you caught sight of someone in the woodland near Kympton church and it is the sister of the Miss Bennets, the one whom we all believed to have died? The one upon whose grave I laid flowers but two weeks ago?’

It could not be; yet it was. ‘The very same, Richard. There is something foul afoot here, and I am having the devil of a time seeing my way through to what it is.’

‘But it makes no sense!’

Darcy released a frustrated breath. ‘Do you not think I comprehend that?’

They stared at each other in silence for a moment. Then, the Colonel walked over to stand before Darcy. ‘If you are adamant it was the girl, then so it was. You may be getting on a bit, Darce, but you have not yet lost full command of your faculties.’

Darcy all but rolled his eyes. ‘You are such a comfort, Cousin.’

‘Well do I know it. So? Did you question her?’

Shaking his head, Darcy sighed. ‘I had no chance. I was so taken aback; she gained a moment on me and fled. I pursued her again, but this time I lost her.’

‘What then is your plan? You have formulated a plan, have you not?’

‘Not yet; I can barely think straight, though I know something must be done.’ Darcy glanced at the clock on the wall. ‘We need to enlist Bingley’s help directly.’

‘Why?’

Darcy walked over to the door, then turned to face his cousin. ‘We have to find this girl, but we have to be discreet. If Latimer were to discover…’ Darcy’s skin went cold at the thought of the harm he could do.

‘Good Lord!’ The Colonel walked across the room to join him. ‘He must be kept entirely in the dark at all costs!’

They crossed the yard, Darcy thanking his steward for the use of his office as they passed him, then strode on in silence, down the stone driveway and passing through the gate into the grounds and out of the sight and hearing of anyone.

‘This means I cannot enlist the help of Rivers or any of the estate workers, either. There are only three of us who can be in involved in this matter, Cousin. Bingley knows what Miss Lydia Bennet looks like…’ Darcy stopped, recalling what he had seen. ‘Though I will own, the girl was wan, almost waiflike, her attire dishevelled – she no longer bore the look of a Miss Bennet of Longbourn.’

‘She must have been shocked to be so nearly caught.’

‘More than that – there was fear in her countenance.’

The Colonel raised a brow. ‘Fear?’

‘Of discovery, perhaps?’

‘You may be right, but even that defies comprehension. From whom must she conceal herself?’ The Colonel glanced at Darcy as they began to walk again. ‘And you are quite certain, Darcy? Without question, it is she?’

‘Cousin, I have no doubt. Her appearance is altered, yes, and my acquaintance with her was limited, but it was not only I who recognised her; she knew me at once – I saw it in her face.’

~o0o~

When Elizabeth had returned to the house, she had bumped into Mrs Reynolds, who informed her water was being sent up for Miss Latimer, that she might bathe, and so she returned to her chamber to tidy herself and wait a while.

She tried to occupy herself with a book at first, but with her thoughts so entirely upon Mr Darcy, she instead spent the best part of a half hour staring out of her window into the grounds, hoping to see some sign of him, but to no avail.

As the clock on the mantel struck the hour, Elizabeth swung around and surveyed her room. Surely it would now be acceptable to call upon Miss Latimer? She did not relish meeting again with her father, but the courtesy of asking after the lady overruled any qualms she had, and she walked out onto the landing and looked around.

There was no one about, and Elizabeth hurried along to emerge onto the main landing, but barely had she taken two steps when she was hailed from the staircase.

‘Miss Elizabeth!’ Mrs Latimer had just reached the top of the stairs, a smile upon her face, and Elizabeth walked on to join her. ‘I am just returning to Eleanor.’

‘I had hoped to call upon Miss Latimer – if you think she will be amenable to a visitor?’

‘That is exactly as I had hoped, my dear.’ They fell into step together. ‘My husband did mention your being present during this unfortunate happening.’

‘Yes; I trust your daughter is not unduly distressed by it. It must have come as quite a shock.’

‘Not all shocks are bad for one, I have found.’ Mrs Latimer laughed lightly. ‘It does one good now and again to have a little shake up, does it not?’

Elizabeth was unsure of the lady’s meaning, but she smiled nonetheless.

‘This way, my dear.’ They turned their steps down the hallway leading to the guest wing. ‘Eleanor has been in need of something to rouse her from her stupor for some time. Mr Latimer exacerbates the situation, of course, little does he realise.’

‘I am sorry to hear it.’ Though not surprised, mused Elizabeth.

‘Mine is precisely the marriage my daughter resists whilst her father so assiduously seeks it for her.’ The lady smiled, but Elizabeth detected some sadness in it. ‘I never possessed a handsome face, only a handsome fortune. You may think a small dowry a burden, my dear, but I found the opposite to be true.’

Mulling over the small sum available to whoever was prepared to take her for it, Elizabeth could not help but smile, but it faded slowly as she recalled Mr Darcy’s proposal. He had wished to marry her, despite her lack of dowry, had he not?

‘I was betrothed on my 18th birthday,’ Mrs Latimer continued, ‘and wed but a month later, with little say in the matter. Eleanor is our only surviving child, and I will own to doting on her. Her father, however, paid her little mind as she grew up. It was not until she came out that he took it upon himself to take charge of her life. He considers himself a good father for placing a large dowry on Eleanor and, in his eyes, permitting her some elements of choice in her partner in life.’

The lady drew their steps to a halt beside a set of doors and turned to face Elizabeth.

‘Mr Darcy is not her choice, my dear. He is – was – her father’s.’ She sighed. ‘Of course, he had convinced himself Eleanor was Mr Darcy’s choice too.’ There was a twinkle in Mrs Latimer’s eye as she turned to open the door. ‘And Mr Darcy was not an unpalatable choice, when all is said and done.’

Elizabeth stared after the lady, her interest at its height. Did she imply something had gone awry with her husband’s hopes for securing Mr Darcy? Could any of this account for his need to escape on his mount earlier?

Trying to rein in the swirls of hope which had so quickly risen, Elizabeth followed Mrs Latimer into the suite of rooms, relieved to see no sign of Mr Latimer.

‘I suggested to my husband he go for a walk.’ The gleam in Mrs Latimer’s eye was even more pronounced. ‘I find if he breathes in some fresh air in between his bouts of ill temper, it has a calming effect. I counselled him not to return to the house until it was so; I suspect it will be a walk of some duration.’

She walked over to tap upon one of several doors, opening it and ushering Elizabeth inside. ‘You have a visitor, my dear. Miss Elizabeth Bennet has come to enquire after you.’

To Elizabeth’s dismay, Mrs Latimer then excused herself, closing the door as she went, and she turned to look at Eleanor Latimer, who was eyeing her across the room from her chair beside the hearth. A maid had been building up the fire, and she slipped away through the servant’s door as Elizabeth approached. The lady was dressed once more in dry clothing, a shawl about her shoulders and her hair – which had clearly been washed and brushed – lay in damp tendrils about her face.

Elizabeth pinned a smile on her face. ‘I trust you have not suffered too badly for the unfortunate incident, ma’am. I am truly so sorry.’

There was no response for a moment, and Elizabeth stood awkwardly, uncertain what else to say. But then, Miss Latimer indicated the chair opposite.

‘Please; be seated.’

Elizabeth sank gratefully into the chair.

‘Why are you sorry? My father is adamant the young Miss Bingleys are responsible.’

Elizabeth shook her head. ‘I do not feel they alone are at fault. You see, I suspect the idea of showering someone with water came from me. Not that I mentioned any of your family,’ she added quickly as the lady raised a surprised brow. ‘The twins are easily influenced, and I had told them a story about it happening to… someone I know.’

Before Miss Latimer could respond, the door opened again, much to Elizabeth’s relief, and she turned around in her seat.

‘You have more visitors, my dear. Is this not nice?’ Mrs Latimer stood aside, and Olivia and Viola came into the room, their hands behind their backs. They bobbed identical curtseys, then skipped across to where the ladies sat and turned warm and eager smiles upon Miss Latimer, and Elizabeth had to bite her lip to conceal her own. The lady eyed them warily.

‘We have come to apologise, Miss Latimer,’ began Olivia.

‘Indeed.’ Viola’s blond curls bounced up and down as she nodded vigorously. ‘We never meant for you to get wet, did we ‘Livia?’

‘We did not! It is all a big mistake.’

Viola nodded again and the lady’s eyes widened.

‘Most indubitably! The water was meant for your father, you see!’

A smothered noise came from Mrs Latimer, who then cleared her throat. ‘Do you not have something for Eleanor, my dears?’

‘Oh, yes!’ Olivia brought her arm round with a flourish and held out a small bunch of flowers, neatly tied with a piece of satin ribbon.

‘We selected these especially for you, Miss Latimer.’

‘Pickering – he is the gardener – have you met him?’ Viola looked at her expectantly and Miss Latimer slowly moved her head from side to side, her gaze transfixed upon her young visitors. ‘He is very nice. His wife makes the most delicious hot cakes, did you know?’

‘Do not be silly, Viola. How can Miss Latimer know such a thing if she has never met them?’ Olivia rolled her eyes, then turned back to the lady. ‘We will ask her to make some for you.’

‘I have something for you as well.’ Viola brought her own arm around. In her hand were two sheets of paper, taken, or so Elizabeth surmised, from her sketching book. She held the first one out to Miss Latimer, who looked down at it. ‘It is the newest mare in the stables. She is most obliging when I wish to sketch her!’ Viola smiled kindly at the lady, then added. ‘I believe you are fond of horses?’

‘There. That is nice, then, is it not?’ Mrs Latimer sent her daughter an encouraging look, and she reached out to take it.

‘Thank you.’

‘You are most welcome, ma’am.’ Viola beamed at her, then glanced down at the second piece of paper. ‘I thought you might like this too.’ She thrust it into the lady’s hand, who stared at it for a second; then, her gaze flew to her mother’s. ‘I – it is…’

‘Your Papa, is it not?’ Olivia smiled. ‘Viola has a collection. She will add you to it too if you wish. Does not your father make a fine ass?’

Elizabeth bit her lip hard this time, desperate to prevent her laugh from escaping, her gaze moving from the stunned expression on the lady’s face to the twins’ happily smiling ones. Then, she caught Mrs Latimer’s eye, and she nodded.

‘My dears,’ the lady stepped forward. ‘That is so kind of you both; would you be so good as to call upon Eleanor again? She needs a little rest now, if she is to be well enough for the ball later.’

‘You must tell us all about the ball on the morrow, Miss Latimer.’ Olivia begged her, and then, before anyone realised what she was doing, she leaned forward and wrapped her arms around the startled lady in a hug.

‘And we will show you the story we are writing and illustrating!’ Viola took her sister’s place, giving Miss Latimer a second embrace, before stepping back.

Eleanor Latimer said nothing, only stared at the twins as though she had never encountered anyone quite like them before, which she likely had not!

Getting to her feet as the twins turned away, Elizabeth was waved back into it. ‘Remain a little longer, if you will, Miss Elizabeth. I will show the Miss Bingleys out.’

Mrs Latimer followed the girls from the room, and Elizabeth turned warily to look at Miss Latimer. Surely, after such an onslaught, she would not wish for any further company, particularly hers? Besides, Elizabeth wanted nothing more than to find Georgiana. It was she who had first opened her eyes to her brother’s intentions regarding the lady. Surely she would know if there had been such a significant alteration?

Eleanor Latimer’s gaze was fixed upon the flowers she held. It was a lovely, informal mix of late-flowering blooms from Pemberley’s walled garden, and a soft smile slowly touched her lips as she beheld them.

Unable to help herself, Elizabeth smiled too. ‘I have not seen you smile before, Miss Latimer.’

She raised her eyes, and Elizabeth could detect wetness on her lashes. ‘I think I had forgot how.’ She attempted another, tremulous smile, but as she did so, tears began to spill over and flow down her cheeks in earnest.

~o0o~

Whilst they awaited Bingley, a footman having been sent to find him, Darcy and the Colonel talked through what little they knew, growing none the wiser for it. Deciding it was time for medicinal aid, the Colonel walked over to pour them each a tot of brandy just as the door was tapped and Bingley’s head appeared around the frame.

‘You wished to see me, Darcy?’ He walked into the room, but it took barely a second for him to register the thick atmosphere and both gentlemen’s serious expressions. ‘What on earth is the matter? You look as though someone has died!’

‘Quite the reverse, Bingley. Here,’ The Colonel poured him a tot as well. ‘Pull up a chair – you may need this.’ He thrust the glass into Bingley’s hands and returned to his seat opposite Darcy’s desk.

Not wanting to speculate on how Bingley might react to his news, Darcy plunged in and related his tale of his encounter with the hooded figure, the subsequent chase, what he had discovered and then Miss Bennet’s escape from him. When he had done, a heavy silence fell upon the room, and he eyed the pale features of his friend, whose air and countenance were indicative of his shock and bewilderment.

‘This is impossible!’ Bingley shook his head in denial. ‘Yet I can see you are in earnest, Darcy; of course you are. Yet how can this be? Miss Lydia has been dead these twelve months!’ Bingley stared wide-eyed from Darcy to the Colonel and back again.

‘I know, Bingley. I believed it as much as you, as much as the sexton in Longbourn churchyard believed it. Yet I am speaking the truth. The youngest Miss Bennet is alive.’

Bingley took a sip from his glass and shuddered. ‘Unfathomable. And she has run off, who knows where.’ He threw Darcy an appalled look. ‘I cannot tell Miss Bennet! What is there to tell her, with no sister to reunite her with?’

Darcy had no answer, nor for how deeply any of it might impact his tentative relationship with Elizabeth.

Bingley got quickly to his feet. ‘Darcy, we must do something. Miss Bennet suffered badly for the loss; if there is any way to bring her sister back to her family, it must be done.’

‘Be warned, Bingley.’ The Colonel shook his head. ‘This young girl has fallen on hard times, possibly bad times. It may be that restoring her to her family is not an option.’

‘Oh Lord. What a mess.’ Bingley ran a hand through his hair. ‘What is to be done, then?’

Darcy shrugged. ‘The only thing we can do is try to find Miss Lydia Bennet again. She should be able to provide us with answers. Until that happens, we cannot discern what the right path for her will be.’

The Colonel let out a huff of breath. ‘Something has drawn her here, but likewise, something must be holding her back. Why else would she not approach her family? If only Bennet were here; where the hell has he gone?’

Bingley sank back into his chair. ‘Do you think he knows? About his daughter being alive, I mean?’

For a moment, Darcy recalled the gentleman’s words after he had responded to the Express on Saturday, something about families and secrets? ‘He may do.’

The Colonel raised a brow. ‘And what of the Miss Bennets?’

Darcy and Bingley looked at each other and simultaneously shook their heads.

‘I am adamant Miss Bennet knows nothing.’ Bingley sighed. ‘She has spoken to me of her sadness over the loss of her mother and sister. It was genuine, I have no doubt of that.’

‘Elizabeth knows nothing either.’ Darcy was blind to having referred to the lady by her name, as he was to the glance exchanged between his cousin and his friend, one amused, the other surprised, but with the discussion so sombre, nothing was said.

‘I wonder how long the girl has been here in Derbyshire.’ Bingley took another cautious sip from his glass. ‘In the woods, even.’

Darcy leaned back in his chair. ‘And we thought we had an incompetent poacher, Cousin – raiding chicken runs and kitchen gardens instead of setting traps and shooting game.’

The Colonel grunted. ‘It also accounts for Rivers claiming the fires were ill made.’ Then, he frowned. ‘How does this connect to Wickham, though, and his threats? I find it hard to believe it a coincidence.’

Bingley’s brows shot up. ‘Wickham?’ He turned to Darcy. ‘Your old adversary, the Militia man believed to have run off with Miss Lydia Bennet?’

‘The very same.’ Colonel Fitzwilliam and Darcy exchanged a look. ‘Tell him, Darcy. Show him the letter. We are too few, and if Bingley can be trusted with today’s intelligence, then he needs to understand all that we have discovered.’

Looking between them in confusion, Bingley met Darcy’s gaze, and he nodded before reaching for the key to his desk drawer.

It took Bingley barely a minute to take in the content of the letter, and the look of disgust upon his features when he dropped it back onto the desk did not surprise Darcy.

‘What on earth is his intention? What is he blackmailing Bennet over?’

‘We had no notion upon first reading it.’ Darcy picked the letter up and stared at the familiar, taunting hand. Then, he raised his eyes to his cousin and his friend. ‘I suspect we now have a clue, in discovering Miss Lydia Bennet lives yet.’

‘Then our priority is to find her, Darce.’ The Colonel got up and walked over to return his empty glass to the drinks tray.

‘You do not think…’ Both Darcy and the Colonel looked to Bingley. ‘You do not think Wickham is also out there? In the woods?’

‘There is every indication he is not; the postmark of his letter was Buxton, and it is known Bennet had a matter of business to attend in the town last week.’ Darcy stared at the letter once more, then returned it to the drawer and turned the key. ‘It is clear this is not the first sum Wickham has demanded from him.’

‘We have to proceed with caution. Nothing of this can be spoken of with the Miss Bennets yet. You do both understand?’ The Colonel looked from his cousin to Bingley, who both exchanged a glance.

Then, Bingley nodded. ‘I could not bring myself to speak of it to Miss Bennet; not unless we find the girl.’

‘Darcy?’

‘I comprehend the reasoning, but I do not like the disguise.’ How was he to keep this from Elizabeth? Had he even the right to?

The Colonel sent him an understanding look. ‘I know you do not; but we must keep this intelligence close for now; yes?’

Getting to his feet, Darcy acknowledged the sense of his cousin’s advice. He was right; they must keep this to themselves for the present. ‘So be it.’

The Colonel gathered the remaining glasses and added them to the tray, and Bingley stood up.

‘When do we begin to look for her?’ Bingley glanced over to the window. ‘It will be light for a while longer.’

‘I think it best to let things lie until the morning.’ The Colonel shrugged. ‘She will not go far, and will be too on her guard after today’s near miss.’

Bingley was frowning. ‘But what if she leaves the district?’

‘If that is her only recourse, she will already be gone, but I doubt very much it is the case.’

Darcy nodded. ‘Something brought her here, Bingley, and whatever it was, there is no reason to suppose such a purpose has gone; besides, she did not look as though she were particularly in funds or in good health. I do not think she has either the resources or the strength to go far.’

‘Well, gentlemen,’ Colonel Fitzwilliam walked over to the door, then turned to face them. ‘We had best not over-indulge this evening at the ball. At first light, it seems we are destined to be sleuthing in the woods between Pemberley and Kympton!’

‘The ball!’ Bingley turned to his friend. ‘We must attend, I suppose.’

‘It is essential no hint of anything untoward reaches the others; thus we must keep our commitments as they stand.’ Darcy felt a rush of relief in the midst of his utter bewilderment. The thought of dancing the first set with Elizabeth was the only thing keeping him sane right now.

Bingley looked from Darcy to his cousin. ‘You have my word, I will keep my own counsel on this; going forward, you have my unquestioning support.’

‘Thank you.’ Darcy hesitated. ‘We must keep ourselves well shielded from Latimer’s prying eyes, Bingley.’

The Colonel released a short laugh. ‘I would not be concerned. I doubt he has forgotten this morning and will be too focused on today’s little drama with the twins.’

‘The twins? What have they done now?’ Bingley looked horrified, and the Colonel clapped him on the shoulder as he joined him by the door.

‘I shall regale you with it as we walk, Bingley.’ He winked at Darcy and made to leave, but then he turned back and pointed at his cousin’s bruised cheek.

‘You had best get Thornton to work some of his magic on that. You are attending a ball in a matter of hours, and you will not be fit to be presented to the lady.’

~o0o~

Once she had begun to weep, it seemed Eleanor Latimer had neither the ability nor the desire to stop, and Elizabeth hurried to her side, placing an arm about her shoulders.

‘Please do not cry, Miss Latimer! You have had a shock, to be certain, but you must not let it affect you so.’

The lady said nothing as the tears continued to flow down her cheeks, and Elizabeth bit back on suggesting to her that if she did not cease, she would soon be as wet as when she left the stables. She suspected it was not the time for levity!

‘I will fetch your Mama.’

Elizabeth crossed the room and pulled open the door. Mrs Latimer was in the sitting room alone, and she smiled at Elizabeth as she got to her feet.

‘Please, Mrs Latimer, will you come to your daughter? She is… she seems quite distraught.’

The lady walked past Elizabeth into the room. ‘Oh my dear girl!’ She hurried over to where Eleanor Latimer remained in her seat; she was almost sobbing now, her breath coming in short gasps, and not wishing to embarrass her further, Elizabeth quietly took her leave, closing the door upon them.

She leaned back against it with a sigh. She could not understand such a reaction to the day’s events, unless… had the warmth of the twins once again taken someone by surprise, so much so it had unleashed long suppressed emotions?

Straightening up, Elizabeth walked across the room and let herself out onto the landing. She would go and speak to Mrs Reynolds to see if some calming tea and a few special delicacies could be sent up.

Elizabeth saw no one as she crossed the main entrance hall and headed for the door behind the stairs leading to the service areas, though voices drifting out from the drawing room indicated both Georgiana and Jane had returned from their respective outings. She would go there once her errand was complete; there was always a chance she might be able to engage Georgiana in conversation and thus she may be forthcoming about what had happened with her brother.

Mrs Reynolds was not in her room, nor was she in the kitchen, though Cook said she had been there but five minutes ago, and Elizabeth turned about as she stood in the corridor surveying the line of doors, wondering where she might be. She supposed she could ask Cook directly if something could be sent up, but unsure of the hierarchy, she did not wish to cause any trouble or to overstep a boundary. Mrs Reynolds had always been her intermediary, had she not?

Before she could deliberate further, however, a door to her right swung open and the lady herself appeared.

‘Miss Bennet! Is there anything I can do for you?’

‘I do hope so! I have just come from Miss Latimer’s room. She is a little distressed, quite overcome, in fact, and I wondered if some tea and perhaps a delicacy or two could be sent up?’

‘Poor dear! I will fetch some of my special chamomile for her, and Cook has been busy preparing all sorts of fancies for Miss Georgiana and the Miss Bingleys to indulge in this evening. I am sure she can spare some.’ She smiled warmly at Elizabeth, then pushed open the door she had just come through. ‘By return, you may be able to assist me, Miss Bennet.’

Curious, Elizabeth entered the room, Mrs Reynolds following in her wake. It was clearly a still room of sorts, with various potions and creams in silver-topped bottles stacked neatly on shelves, a large stone sink and in the centre, a sturdy wooden table. Seated upon it, his discarded coat across his lap, was Mr Darcy.

~o0o~

Chapter Forty Two will be posted on Tuesday, 21st February!

I’ll be posting on Facebook once I’m in Derbyshire with photos from in and around the Pemberley estate for any of you who use that particular form of social media! 😀

Copyright © Cassandra Grafton 2017

Posted in A Quest for Mr Darcy, Writing | Tagged , , , | 38 Comments

A Quest for Mr Darcy – Chapter Forty

The blurb for this story can be found here.

Chapter Forty

Elizabeth turned to the twins, who had now risen to their feet and wore identical expressions of horror as they took in the disorder by the tack room door.

Go; quickly, now!’ She whispered.

They exchanged a glance with each other before heeding Elizabeth’s advice and almost ran from the stables, their skirts whipping out of sight just as she turned back, only to find the Colonel’s eye upon her.

‘I thought as much.’ He shook his head. ‘Bingley will have the devil of a task to rein those two in.’

Elizabeth’s attention, however, had been drawn to Mr Latimer, who was berating the blameless groom; Eleanor Latimer remained where she was as though frozen in place, the only movement being the water trickling down her face into her sodden Spencer.

‘Do not just stand there, you simpleton! Fetch a robe, a towel, anything!’

The young lad seemed dazed as he looked from the drenched young lady to the red-faced man before him, and Elizabeth silently urged him to do as he was bid.

‘Come on, man! What are you dallying about for? You will lose your position for this, you incompetent fool!’

The groom started, then began to bluster around before thrusting a thick horse blanket at the gentleman, which Mr Latimer threw quickly to the floor. ‘I am not placing that flea-ridden thing on my daughter!’

‘Allow me.’ The Colonel stepped forward and removed his coat. ‘If you will permit, ma’am.’ He placed it carefully around Miss Latimer and, with his height and breadth of shoulder, it proved a more than adequate solution for her present need.

Then, he turned to address the groom. ‘Do not fear for your position, lad. This is not of your making.’ He bent down to retrieve the horse blanket and passed it back to him before turning to speak to Mr Latimer, who remained red in the face and clearly suppressing strong emotion. ‘Pemberley’s stables are too well kept to permit fleas to breed within the bedding.’

Unable to take her eyes from Miss Latimer, Elizabeth moved forward hesitatingly, only to stop as her father turned his outraged eye upon her. ‘Someone will pay for this!’ His gaze narrowed. ‘I heard a shout before the water fell. It was one of those…’

‘It was me, sir; there is no one else here.’ Elizabeth walked past him and pulled her shawl from her shoulders. ‘Here, Miss Latimer. Use this to dry your face.’

The lady stared at her as though unhearing, and Elizabeth forced it into her hands. Looking down, Miss Latimer hesitated, then raised the shawl to do as she had been bid, pushing the sodden hair clinging to the sides of her face away before handing it back.

‘No, truly, keep it for now. Here.’ Elizabeth shook out the shawl, only part of which had been dampened, and then laid it carefully over the lady’s wet hair, wrapping it neatly about her shoulders. ‘It will keep you warm as you walk back to the house.’

‘This is not the end of the matter,’ snapped Mr Latimer as he pushed past Elizabeth to take his daughter by the arm. ‘You mark my words!’

All but dragging Eleanor Latimer along, he glared at them as he left the stables, and Elizabeth bit her lip. She had an insane urge to laugh, and throwing the Colonel a quick glance she almost indulged in it. He winked, suppressed his own grin and turned to reassure the young groom once more, before suggesting to Elizabeth they return to the house.

Emerging into the autumnal sunlight, Elizabeth breathed in deeply. For all her wealth and position, she did not envy Miss Latimer. What an unpleasant man her father was!

‘Shall we?’ Looking around, Elizabeth smiled at the Colonel. ‘If you will excuse the informality of my attire.’ He indicated his shirtsleeves as they fell into step and strolled back through the gate into the immediate grounds.

‘I have no objection, sir; besides, I feel I may be somewhat responsible for all that has happened.’

The Colonel glanced at Elizabeth, frowning. ‘How so?’

Elizabeth sighed. ‘The twins were pressing me for the reasoning behind something Mr Darcy said, when we were inspecting Viola’s illustrations to her sister’s story.’ She looked at the Colonel, then smiled ruefully. ‘I do not know if he ever told you how we first became reacquainted upon his return to Derbyshire?’

‘No, he did not, but now I am intrigued and demand satisfaction!’

With a laugh, Elizabeth looked away. ‘Yes; that is not dissimilar to the twins’ claims before breakfast!’ She hesitated, then threw the Colonel a quick glance. ‘I mistook your cousin for a fox, sir, troubling our hens, and I paid him the compliment I always show such behaviour, by liberally dousing him in water.’

The Colonel released a bark of laughter. ‘Capital! I wish I had been there to see it!’

Recalling her mortification at the time, Elizabeth shook her head. ‘I wish I had not! And even more so now this has happened.’

‘Do not take the blame upon yourself, Miss Elizabeth. Latimer’s condescending manner towards the girls has not gone unnoticed, and must have been quite the provocation for Olivia and Viola. If it were not this, something else would have occurred to them. Indeed, if I were he, I would be on my guard. With this mission failing, they will be even more determined next time!’

‘Oh dear.’ Elizabeth sighed again. ‘I cannot say I blame them for their actions, though I did feel for Miss Latimer. Do you think she will ever recover from her state of shock?’

A smile tugged at the Colonel’s mouth again, and Elizabeth shook her head. ‘I feel sufficiently culpable, Colonel; do not make me laugh at the lady’s predicament!’

He grinned widely. ‘Have no fear, ma’am. Your secret is safe with me.’

They had reached a fork in the path, and he looked to Elizabeth for a direction. ‘Do you wish to return to the house? I can hear nothing of Latimer, so perhaps his nice wife has managed to calm him.’

Elizabeth’s gaze roamed the gardens. It was a lovely day for so late in the year. ‘If you will excuse me, sir, I think I will remain outdoors for now.’

‘Then you will not object to some company? I know Georgiana and Mrs Annesley are gone to Lambton and will not return for some hours.’ He looked down at his state of dress again. ‘Of course, I am not fit for a lady’s company!’

‘Your chivalry should not prevent you from enjoying the fine weather, Colonel. Besides, I-‘ Elizabeth stopped, then narrowed her gaze as it was drawn up the sloping lawns to the edge of the trees where the woodland came to meet it. ‘Is that one of the girls, up by that statue? What are they up to now?’

Following her gaze, the Colonel snorted. ‘No good, I suspect. Unless I am mistaken there is a leg dangling from that tree, and I will wager the other twin is attached to it!’

Picking up their pace, they turned their steps onto the grassy slope and headed for the large horse chestnut tree, keen to discern the twins’ purpose and, ultimately, ensure their safety.

~o0o~

Darcy rode fast once he left Pemberley’s grounds, setting his mount, Bedivere, across the fields, taking hedges and fences with the ease of a natural horseman.

He knew whence the depth of his anger stemmed, and it was not solely down to Latimer’s arrogant assumptions over Darcy’s intentions. His veiled threats towards the Bennet family had roused something deep within him, a protective instinct he barely knew he possessed.

Scaling yet another fence, Darcy gave the stallion its head, low in the saddle as he raced across a further grassy field, the sheep grazing near the far wall raising their heads to stare at them as they flew past.

Wickham’s letter, its pointed message and its threat of harm to one of the Bennet daughters had shocked him; he had found it distasteful and it caused him concern, but Latimer’s implication he could delve into Elizabeth’s background, dig up whatever he wished and use it against the family brought him fury.

What if the man attempted to destroy their newly established reputation in Derbyshire? Darcy did not care for himself; all his pain, his anger was on Elizabeth’s behalf. She had endured enough; to put her through such unpleasantness again and, worse, perhaps have Bennet feel he must disappear once more, alarmed him. What if he chose to go without giving even Darcy a clue as to their whereabouts? What if, after having just found Elizabeth again, she was taken away from him, and their paths never crossed again?

A searing pain lanced Darcy’s breast, and he sat up in the saddle, easing his mount into a canter. He would not allow it to happen!

‘At ease, Bedivere,’ he whispered, leaning forward to pat the neck of his mount. ‘There is a water trough nearby; you deserve to slake your thirst!’

They were passing a small copse of trees now as they approached the hedgerow bordering the far side of the field, but suddenly, a cloaked figure darted out, and Bedivere reared onto his hind legs in protest.

‘Steady, boy!’ Struggling to calm his startled mount and not lose his seat in the process, Darcy used all his strength to bring him under control, conscious of startled eyes in a pale face before the figure fled back into the undergrowth. Breathing heavily, he turned Bedivere in a circle, his eye then caught by a discarded hessian sack on the ground, an assortment of victuals spilling from a torn seam. Had he just come across the poacher from Pemberley’s woods?

Peering into the trees, Darcy could see no sign of anyone, and slowly he turned his mount towards a gap in the hedgerow ahead, emerging onto a lane on the outskirts of Kympton. A strange sensation had taken hold of him, his heart still pounding in his ears, and he searched his mind for what had struck him so forcibly about the strange figure as he steered Bedivere in the direction of the village. It had not looked like a villager, dressed as it was in a long, moss green cloak, the hood concealing all but a glimpse of a face – yet there was something about it which tugged at Darcy’s memory.

Pushing his speculations aside, Darcy rode on and they soon neared the church, where a stone trough was located beside the mounting block. Reining in his mount, he dismounted, flipping the reins over the attendant rail before bending to splash some water on his face. As Bedivere drank thirstily from the trough, Darcy flexed his shoulders and ran a hand through his windswept hair. He must be going mad to have such imaginings. That or the twins and their fancies were beginning to affect his mind!

Almost amused at his thoughts, Darcy turned to unfasten the reins from the rail, when suddenly a movement beside the bell tower caught his eye, and his gaze narrowed. Unless he was mistaken, the same hooded figure had just disappeared into the trees at the rear of the church.

‘Bide your time, Bedivere; I shall return directly.’ Darcy spoke quietly to his mount, giving him a further pat on the neck, before turning to stride up the path and into the churchyard in pursuit. Thick woodland fringed the rear of the church, and Darcy walked under the overhanging trees, then paused to listen. A sensation of being watched came upon him, causing his skin to go cold, and then there was the crack of a foot upon a branch. His head turning quickly to the right, he caught a glimpse of a pale face again as the figure in green began moving, and he set off in pursuit once more.

In the dim light of the over hanging branches, the sunlight barely piercing its leafy canopy, it was hard to see, and Darcy allowed his instinct and his hearing to guide him. Whoever it was, they were quick on their feet, and he increased his pace as the ground began to rise underfoot. Branches clawed at his clothes as he ran, one scoring his cheek and drawing blood.

Regardless, he did not give up the chase, closing in on his quarry as it darted to and fro. Clearly, they knew their direction and the paths underfoot better than he, but his legs were longer and his strength greater, and as they emerged into a clearing in the centre of the wood, the person concealed beneath the cloak tripped and fell.

Darcy stood, hands on his hips, breathing heavily, as the figure struggled unsteadily to its feet, dislodging the hood in the process. Startled, Darcy took a step backwards, then stared in disbelief at what he beheld.

~o0o~

Barely had they reached the tree, when Viola dropped to the floor from it, brushing her skirts free of some leaves.

‘Oh, Colonel; Miss Elizabeth! We did not see you approach!’

‘Clearly,’ said the Colonel dryly.

The twins exchanged an anxious look, then turned contrite eyes upon him. ‘Do you forgive us, sir? We did not mean for the lady to become the victim.’

‘It is not for me to forgive you; I suspect we might all feel a little less… guilty if the intended recipient had been at the end of your prank!’

They had the grace to look a little chastened, but it was momentary, and Elizabeth had to hide her smile so as not to indulge them.

‘We promise not to attempt it again.’

‘You should not attempt to climb trees, either, Miss Viola. You are young ladies now!’

‘But we wished to recover this, Miss Elizabeth.’ She held aloft a piece of pink ribbon, which had clearly been battered by the elements.

Olivia took it from her. ‘We saw it when the Colonel took us ghost hunting.’

‘And here it remained, lodged in the branches of this tree.’ Viola pointed whence she had just come. ‘We could not retrieve it by our efforts the other night.’

‘So we decided to try an alternative approach.’

‘We think it may belong to our ghostly spirit!’ Viola beamed at the Colonel as Elizabeth laughed.

‘I am not certain a ghost would have much use for such a material thing as a ribbon, my dear.’

Olivia shook her head. ‘Oh, but we can be certain of one thing, Miss Elizabeth! We may only have seen the ghost as a floating glimmer in the tree tops, but it exists nonetheless.’ She smiled widely. ‘You saw it yourself, did you not?’

Elizabeth smiled in return. ‘You both have splendid imaginations, but do take care where it leads you! Scaling the branches of a tree for a piece of discarded ribbon could have led to a fall and all its consequences.’

‘Oh look! Is that Mr Darcy?’ Viola pointed back towards the stable block, and they all turned to look. Positioned as they were on higher ground, it was possible to see over the boundary wall and observe a horse travelling at speed up the stone driveway towards the stables, the rider’s coat billowing behind him.

The Colonel frowned. ‘It is indeed.’ The twins had turned away to inspect their find, and he glanced at Elizabeth. ‘I told him to burn off his anger, not bring it home with him.’

Elizabeth bit her lip. ‘It seems his ride did not answer.’

They waited, Elizabeth’s insides all a flutter, expecting Darcy to enter the grounds through the same gate they had used as it was the nearest to the stables, but when he did not, the Colonel excused himself.

‘I will see if I can track him down, discover what is amiss.’

Watching Colonel Fitzwilliam stride purposefully back the way they had just come, Elizabeth regretted she could not go with him. If something was troubling Mr Darcy, she wished to know about it. He was perfectly capable of looking after himself, she knew full well, but she had a pressing desire to simply be near him when he was in need of comfort.

‘We are taking our find back to the house, Miss Elizabeth.’

Turning around, Elizabeth smiled at Olivia. ‘I will come with you. I think I will call on Miss Latimer and see she has come to no harm for her recent… adventure.’

Both girls looked a little shamefaced for a second, but then they brightened. ‘Perhaps we should come too!’

Viola looked to her sister in excitement. ‘We could bring something for her – a gift of some sort!’

‘To say we are sorry! What a superb notion, Viola!’ Olivia turned to look at Elizabeth. ‘What do you think, Miss Elizabeth? Would she appreciate such a gesture?’

Elizabeth found she had no answer; it was nigh on impossible to say what Miss Latimer might think about anything!

‘An apology is a necessity, of that I am certain.’ She turned and began walking towards the house and the twins fell into step behind her. ‘I would be grateful,’ she added over her shoulder, ‘If you would permit me to see her – if she will allow it – first?’

‘Yes, of course.’ Viola nodded. ‘You go on ahead, Miss Elizabeth. We will put our heads together on what we can bring, and we will await permission to call upon the lady.’

Leaving them to whisper excitedly to each other, Elizabeth could not help but smile as she walked back towards the door to the boot room. How easily they were distracted from anything negative in their lives; how little they chose to dwell upon the disagreeable, seeking only to appease. It was the way of their brother too – though how well he might take this latest incident she could not begin to imagine!

Elizabeth’s gaze scanned the parkland, but there was no sign of Mr Bingley and her sister, and she hurried her steps, keen to see how things lay with the Latimers. It would provide adequate diversion, to be certain, from dwelling upon what ailed Mr Darcy.

~o0o~

Darcy ran a hand through his hair as he paced up and down in his steward’s office. His mind was reeling, the tension in his shoulders taut as can be, and his heart continued to pound fiercely in his chest. To think, he had left home that morning wrapped up in his anger and frustrations over Wickham, Latimer and everything connected to them; he did not need further complications! When would there ever be a moment to try and speak to Elizabeth, to see if anything could be resolved between them once and for all?

Muttering an expletive, Darcy turned on his heel, but his eye was then caught by the large estate plan on the wall. He walked over and glared at the mark indicating the village of Kympton and its church. What was he to do about this latest development?

‘There you are!’

Darcy started and turned about. His cousin was peering around the door. ‘Rivers said you were in need of some privacy. Shall I make myself scarce?’

‘No – no, you had best come in, Richard.’

The Colonel sauntered over to join Darcy, who had turned back to study the plan on the wall, conscious of his cousin’s eyes widening as he took in his dishevelled appearance.

‘You are white as a sheet, man!’ He placed a hand on Darcy’s arm and turned him about. ‘What the devil has happened to you?’

‘I wish I knew, Cousin.’ Darcy leaned back against the wall. ‘Let us say, my ride was not quite the remedy we had hoped for.’ He closed his eyes for a moment, running a hand across his forehead. He was gaining the devil of an ache in it, that much he did know.

‘Clearly!’ The Colonel pointed at Darcy’s face, and he lifted a hand to touch the cut in his cheek, then winced; his fingers bore the evidence of it bleeding yet.

‘An uncompromising branch.’

‘You are quite done in. Here, sit.’ The Colonel pulled Rivers’ chair out from behind the desk and almost forced Darcy into it, and he rested his elbows on his knees and let his head drop into his hands. How could he possibly make any sense of what had just happened?

‘Here; drink this.’

Darcy raised his head and squinted at his cousin; he was holding out his hip flask, and he took a slug from it, relishing the sting of the liquor as it rolled down his throat. The Colonel took it back and splashed some of the alcohol onto a scrap of clean cloth he had found before giving it to Darcy, and he held it against his cheek, wincing again as the sting hit home.

Both had the desired effect, however, in rousing him, and Darcy sat up straighter in the chair, trying to gather his bewildered thoughts. Then, he frowned. ‘What happened to your coat?’

‘It is a long story. It can wait. Yours cannot; come on, Darce. Spill the beans.’

‘I would if I only knew how to.’ Getting to his feet, Darcy resumed his pacing. ‘I am struggling to comprehend what I have seen, to attribute any sense to it.’

Turning on his heel, he cast his cousin a glance as he passed him again. ‘I have made a rather singular discovery which suggests some nefarious intent.’ Darcy drew in a shallow breath, then turned around to face the Colonel.

‘I happened upon a hooded figure, near Kympton; chased it through dense woodland – hence this.’ Darcy gestured at his face. ‘

The Colonel shook his head. ‘You should have taken more care! Was it our suspected poacher? They carry weapons, Darce!’

‘I did not think; I felt compelled to follow. But the figure tripped; fell to the ground, and then we were face to face. I may not fully comprehend it yet, but I do know the truth of what I saw.’ Darcy drew in another shallow breath.

‘What did you see – who was he?’

Darcy shook his head. ‘She; it was a woman, Richard; a mere girl.’

‘Good Lord!’

‘Indeed. But there is more,’ Darcy swallowed hard as he met his cousin’s astonished eye. ‘This particular woman I know to be dead.’

~o0o~

Chapter Forty One will be posted on Thursday!

Copyright © Cassandra Grafton 2017

Posted in A Quest for Mr Darcy, Writing | Tagged , , , | 58 Comments

A Quest for Mr Darcy – Chapter Thirty Nine

The blurb for this story can be found here.

Chapter Thirty Nine

Darcy invited Latimer to take a seat before his desk, then reclaimed his own on the opposite side. It seemed a suitable barrier between them, and he wasted no time in opening the conversation.

‘I trust you and your family are comfortably settled at Pemberley?’

‘Indeed, Darcy. You have a finely tuned household; we could ask for nothing more.’

‘I am pleased to hear it.’

‘Speaking of being pleased to hear things, an announcement would be as good as anything.’ Latimer fixed him with his eye. ‘I trust you will not keep my daughter waiting much longer?’

Darcy leaned back in his seat, feigning a nonchalance that was far from the fact. ‘I had suspected you anticipated some sort of offer to be forthcoming. It is why I was determined to speak with you. I am afraid I must disappoint you.’

‘I do not think you will.’ Latimer leaned forward. ‘Do not fear, sir. Eleanor’s manner is not inviting towards anyone. She will accept you.’

‘I have no fear of that nature; you misunderstand me – deliberately, perhaps. Let me be clear on this: I have no expectations towards your daughter; I do not intend to ask for her hand.’

Latimer sat up straighter in his seat, his gaze still fixed upon Darcy. ‘Though you have not been overt in your attentions to Eleanor since our arrival, I am nonetheless somewhat surprised by your declaration, sir.’

‘For which I can only apologise; it proves assumption can be a dangerous thing. That said, the situation stands.’

There was silence for a moment as both gentlemen eyed each other across the expanse of Darcy’s desk.

Then, Latimer settled back into his seat. ‘I hear your words, Darcy, though I do not appreciate them.’ He paused, then raised a brow. ‘Yet can you say, with full honesty, you did not consider Eleanor for a time?’

What could Darcy say in response? He would not lie, yet to confirm his foolish plans on returning to England, to own to having considered Miss Eleanor Latimer the solution, would only open him up to more pressure from Latimer himself.

‘I am not so in error, then.’ Latimer narrowed his gaze. ‘I cannot help but wonder what – or who – has influenced you sufficiently to divert you away from your intentions?’ He paused for a moment, and Darcy almost held his breath. ‘A rhetorical question, of course; had I seen you look at Eleanor with but half the intensity you spare for a certain other young lady, then I would have been having the Banns read.’ Latimer laughed, though he sounded little amused.

Darcy remained silent. Surely this was the end of the matter? Once Latimer had left the room, he could turn his mind to more important things, such as what to do about Wickham and his threats.

Latimer, however, showed no sign of leaving, instead stretching his legs out in front of him. ‘I have become quite curious about these Bennets. They portray themselves as respectable, landed gentry, yet what if it is an illusion? As you say, assumption is a dangerous thing. One has to wonder if there is something disreputable about the family; something they are trying to hide.’ He stared at Darcy without blinking. ‘Perhaps I should summon an Express rider. I can have a man in – where was it your friend said his estate was near? Ah, yes, Meryton – in but a matter of days to ask around, make a few enquiries.’

Darcy’s expression became noncommittal, despite his increasing heart rate. ‘I cannot imagine why you would think such a thing, or consider acting upon it.’

Latimer eyed Darcy keenly, and he did his best to remain still and hold his stare. ‘Can you not?’ He raised a brow. ‘I am no fool, Darcy. For what reason might a gentleman lease out his family’s estate to another? Not only that, but why else might he move such a distance from it? Crippling financial difficulties?’

Darcy shrugged. ‘Surely it is the act of a gentleman not to enquire into another’s business?’

Latimer ignored him. ‘It could, of course, be to escape a scandal. I do not suggest making enquiries for myself, sir. It is for my daughter’s sake.’

With a frown, Darcy got to his feet and turned to stare out of the window. Then, he swung around. ‘My connection to the Bennets can have no relevance to your daughter, sir.’

‘I disagree. You have forced the acquaintance upon Eleanor by placing these Bennet girls in your house when you knew you had visitors arriving. Did you not trouble yourself to investigate them properly when they applied to be tenants?’

Darcy glared at Latimer. ‘You would do well to temper your words, sir, when you speak of the Bennet family. They are old acquaintances of mine, as you have already been told, and thus need no investigation; further, Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth are here under my protection in their father’s absence. You know this also.’

Latimer got to his feet, a condescending smile on his face. ‘There, there, Darcy; calm down. Surely you do not blame me for being a little disgruntled about Eleanor’s position being usurped by an upstart young woman with no fortune and no connections to speak of. Oh yes, Darcy; as I have already intimated, I have seen your eye upon Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and it is not protection which draws it so frequently.’

Struggling to contain his anger, Darcy walked round from the desk and faced Latimer. ‘Let us be clear on two things,’ he bit out. ‘Firstly, your daughter does not have, nor has she ever had, a ‘position’ in relation to me, and thus it is impossible for her to be usurped. Secondly, you will not impress me with talk of wealth and consequence. There was a time when I was as much a slave to them as you appear to be.’ Duty, status, connections… it was a trap Darcy had almost allowed himself to be caught in again. ‘Thankfully, I have learned the error of such narrow minded thinking, for I have discovered something I value far more highly when considering a marriage union.’

Latimer looked genuinely puzzled. ‘In truth? And what, may I ask, is that?’

‘Happiness,’ Darcy replied, regaining his composure, and he turned to open the door. ‘I believe our discussion is at an end, Latimer.’

Barely had the door closed on the gentleman’s back when a rap came upon the wood and the Colonel breezed into the room.

‘How was it, old man?’ He studied Darcy thoughtfully for a moment. ‘Hmph. If your air and countenance are anything to go by, it was not an easy canter.’

Still trying to calm his anger, Darcy walked over and threw himself into the chair behind the desk. ‘It did not all go as well as I had hoped.’

‘He is intransigent? Would you like me to take him out?’ Colonel Fitzwilliam made a movement as though wielding his sword as he walked across to stand before his cousin.

Reluctantly, Darcy smiled. ‘It is the nineteenth century, Richard, not the Middle Ages!’

‘You are not considering my satisfaction in the matter.’ The Colonel turned to pull up a chair. ‘What possible hold can he have over you? You were never engaged to Miss Latimer.’

‘I have no fear in that respect, and I have told him so. But I will not have Miss Elizabeth Bennet dragged into this.’

‘Ah. So he has seen sufficient to give him reason to suspect your… interest in the lady.’

Darcy drew in a shallow breath. ‘So it would seem.’

‘But what of it?’

‘You may recall Bingley being swept into conversation with Latimer after dinner last night.’

‘Indeed. Poor chap!’

‘Latimer, I suspect, showed some interest in Netherfield and thus managed to extract the name of the nearest town from Bingley. He has suspicions over why Bennet removed from his own estate, claimed he could have a man in Meryton in days, asking questions.’

‘These are idle threats, Darce. What use is any intelligence his man finds out?’

‘It would undo all the good of the Bennets’ attempt to make a fresh start here in Derbyshire; their lives would become tainted by the past, and they do not deserve it.’ Darcy got to his feet and turned to the window. ‘Miss Elizabeth’s spirits are already disturbed by her father’s absence and the contents of Wickham’s letter. I will not have Latimer causing her more pain and anxiety.’

The Colonel’s hand landed on Darcy’s shoulder as he came to join him. ‘Go for a gallop, Darce. Out run your distaste for the man, he is not worth it.’

Darcy stared out of the window, then studied the blue sky. ‘I will do as you say, Richard.’

‘And keep away from Latimer until you are calmer!’ The Colonel grinned as they walked to the door where he preceded Darcy out into the hallway. ‘He is keen to visit the stables to select mounts and so forth. I said I would take him, but I will stall him for twenty minutes or so to give you time to escape.

~o0o~

Jane and Elizabeth had returned to their rooms after quitting Mr Darcy’s study, the better to speak in confidence, and as soon as they entered Elizabeth’s chamber, she sank down onto the bed.

‘I wish I understood what was happening, Jane.’

Coming to sit beside her, Jane took one of her sister’s hands in her own. ‘As do I; but there is nothing we can do at present other than wait for Papa’s return. At least Mr Darcy and his cousin are aware of the situation.’

Elizabeth smiled ruefully. ‘It is a strange thing, is it not? On the one hand, I am horribly embarrassed that such a personal predicament is known outside of our own family circle; on the other, I cannot think of anyone I would rather have shared the intelligence with.’ She frowned. ‘What did you make of that line about ‘your daughter will be at risk’? In what way? Which daughter, and why only one of us?’

Getting to her feet, Jane patted Elizabeth’s hand before releasing it. ‘I do not know what to think. But for the present, Mary and Kitty are quite well, as are we. You must put it aside, Lizzy. There is nothing you nor I can do to solve the puzzle of Wickham or the content of his letter. We must leave it in the hands of others for now.’

Elizabeth sighed. ‘I suppose you are right. We have the protection of both Mr Darcy and the Colonel, after all.’

‘Speaking of Mr Darcy, you have chosen well, Lizzy.’

Staring at her sister, Elizabeth’s throat tightened. ‘What – what do you mean? Jane, you know Mr Darcy is destined for…’

You, Lizzy.’ Jane opened the door to the dressing room, then turned to face her sister. ‘Think on it! How many times in the past four and twenty hours have you caught the gentleman with his eye upon Miss Latimer?’

Biting her lip, Elizabeth sought her memory, but when she met her sister’s gaze, Jane laughed.

‘Precisely. And how many times have you caught him with his gaze upon you? I declare, it is more than I can reasonably count!’

Getting quickly to her feet, Elizabeth shook her head. ‘It means nothing more than absence of mind, I am certain.’ With another laugh, Jane walked into the dressing room and Elizabeth followed her. ‘Why do I amuse you so?’

‘Because you are not being honest, with me or with yourself.’

Elizabeth released a huff of breath. ‘I am attempting to face the truth of the matter. Whatever may be derived from Mr Darcy’s present demeanour, his sister would not lie. If she says he intends to secure Miss Latimer, then so he does.’

Jane looked up from the drawer she had opened. ‘And that was, I am certain, before he became reacquainted with you, dear Lizzy. Whatever he may have intended, I believe he is as much in love with you as ever.’

Her insides dancing with a combination of anxiety and hope at her sister’s words, Elizabeth walked slowly over to the full-length mirror and stared at her reflection. Could it be so? She raised a hand to her face. Why would Mr Darcy have placed a kiss upon her cheek the other night? Why would he have placed his hand there only last night? He had told her, oh so long ago, how disguise of every sort was his abhorrence. Was it really as simple as a mark of affection, an indication of the continuance of the admiration he had declared for her back at Hunsford? Was it truly just as it seemed?

But what, then, of Miss Latimer?

‘What do you think, Lizzy? Shall I wear the cream or the white?’

Spinning about, Elizabeth stared at the gloves her sister held. Then, she frowned. ‘Dress gloves?’

Jane dropped them onto the dresser and opened the closet, pulling their new gowns to the fore. ‘We have a ball to prepare for later, Lizzy! Which colour is best with my gown?’

Elizabeth’s eyes widened. ‘It had almost slipped my mind! It feels wrong to be considering such a thing, with all that is happening and when we know not what has become of Papa.’

‘We have to continue with life as best we can in his absence. At least we can assume he is nowhere near Wickham at present, and that is a comfort, is it not?’ Jane smiled reassuringly at Elizabeth. ‘Besides, we could speculate on all aspects of that horrid letter the whole day long, and still we would be none the wiser by nightfall.’

‘Why are you so sensible, Jane?’ Elizabeth smiled ruefully. ‘Forgive me; I will do my best, for the remainder of this day at least, to put it to the back of my mind and focus on something else.’ Walking over to the closet, Elizabeth extracted her new ball gown and held it up against her body as she walked back to the mirror. The silk fell in generous folds and the small beads sewn into the bodice sparkled as the light caught them.

‘Let us speak only of the ball, and perhaps later we ought to attempt a movement or two.’ She caught her sister’s eye in the reflection and laughed. ‘After all, it is so long since we danced, I am not certain I recall the steps!’

Jane merely smiled and turned to remove her own gown from the closet, and they busied themselves in laying out their dance slippers and cloaks ready for brushing by the maid, before making their way back downstairs.

Before they were half way across the entrance hall, however, Mr Bingley came bounding out of the drawing room.

‘I appear to have mislaid the twins again!’ He beamed at them both, and Elizabeth could not help but laugh.

‘You seem rather as though there could be no finer thing than mislaying two of your sisters, sir!’

Mr Bingley’s grin widened. ‘You forget I have other sisters whom it has been a great pleasure, before now, to lose sight of! Now, Miss Bennet. Will you do me the greatest of favours, or do I ask too much? I am certain they went out into the grounds to seek adventure, though they have been banned from approaching the woodland. Will you accompany me in search of them? Miss Elizabeth,’ he turned to her. ‘You are most welcome too.’

‘Lizzy?’ Jane looked at her sister, but Elizabeth shook her head, smiling.

‘I have seen Olivia and Viola move at great speed. I will leave you both to begin the chase and will take a more leisurely stroll, if you will excuse me.’

Leaving Jane to agree with Mr Bingley on their route as they walked away, Elizabeth turned on her heel and surveyed the now empty hall. The corridor to her left led down to the music room, but there were no sounds emanating from it today. Surely Mr Darcy was not still holed up in his study with Mr Latimer?

With a sigh, Elizabeth turned her steps in the opposite direction and passed through the door at the back of the stairs and continued along to the boot room, where she quickly donned some outdoor shoes and a shawl she had left there a few days before.

Once outside, she could see Mr Bingley, with Jane on his arm, walking slowly towards the ornamental ponds, and she smiled. They were unlikely to come across the twins at such a sedentary pace!

For a while, she meandered along the pathway closest to the house, but then she was drawn to the lawns and began to walk up the grassy slope. She had gone barely ten paces, however, when she was hailed from behind.

‘Miss Elizabeth!’

Turning about, she saw Mr Latimer, his daughter and Colonel Fitzwilliam walking along the lower footpath, the latter of whom was waving an arm.

She raised her hand in return, and within a few minutes, their paths had intersected.

‘Ah, yes, Miss Bennet.’ Mr Latimer met Elizabeth’s gaze, a small smile playing around his mouth. ‘Circumventing your companion duties to Miss Darcy yet gain, I see. Well, we are off to the stables. Come, Eleanor.’

Elizabeth was conscious of Eleanor Latimer’s glance in her direction, her gaze then falling upon the Colonel, who was sporting his usual wide grin, before she turned to follow her father.

‘May I, Miss Elizabeth?’

She took the Colonel’s arm, as they fell into step.

‘I am not certain I wish to visit the stables, sir.’

‘Take pity on me, ma’am. I am quite outnumbered if you do not stay with me!’

Elizabeth could not help but laugh. ‘As you wish, Colonel.’ If only she could ask his cousin’s whereabouts, but…

‘Darcy has gone for a long gallop across the fields.’ Colonel Fitzwilliam threw her a quick glance. ‘He needed to blow off some steam.’

‘Oh dear. I am sorry to hear it.’

‘Do not be so. It is merely the product of his having had a rather trying morning!’

Elizabeth frowned. ‘I do not understand.’

‘Nor should you wish to. Take no heed of my ramblings, ma’am. Darcy often says I would do better to wear my neck cloth about my mouth!’

With a smile, Elizabeth’s gaze roamed across the parkland as they continued to walk in a comfortable silence. Where had Mr Darcy gone? Was his difficult morning solely down to Wickham’s letter, or something else? What preyed so heavily on his mind, that he needed to escape on horseback?

‘Here we are.’ The Colonel stepped aside for Elizabeth as they reached the stable block, and she preceded him inside, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the dim light after the bright sunshine outside. Mr Latimer was already speaking to a groom at the far end, and Miss Latimer had turned her attention to the horses, gently stroking their noses and talking to them softly. It seemed she had no difficulty in finding words for her four-legged acquaintances!

‘We must select saddles, Eleanor. Come, let us go to the tack room.’ Mr Latimer followed the groom across the hay-strewn floor to a door that was slightly ajar, beckoning his daughter, who did as she was bid.

The groom gestured for Mr Latimer to enter the room, but the gentleman stayed him with his hand. ‘Ladies first, if you please, lad.‘ He turned to his daughter as she approached them. ‘After you, my dear.’

Exchanging a quick smile with the Colonel as he walked over to inspect one of the empty horseboxes, Elizabeth looked around, then narrowed her gaze. Peering at her over the top of a large hay bale were Olivia and Viola, their eyes widening in panic.

Elizabeth turned back to see what caused such consternation, when suddenly, three things happened in quick succession: a frantic shout of, ‘No, wait!’ came from behind her, followed by a shriek and then the clatter of tin striking the flagstones as the large bowl which had been precariously balanced on top of the partly open door liberally showered its contents over Eleanor Latimer, soaking her from head to foot in icy water.

~o0o~

Chapter Forty will be posted on Tuesday!

Welcome to February! I am going to be travelling in England for 10 days from 9th February, so there will be no chapters posted for the week commencing Monday, 13th February. Posting will resume on Tuesday, 21st February until the story is done (i.e. I have no further travel plans in the coming months).

Copyright © Cassandra Grafton 2017

Posted in A Quest for Mr Darcy, Writing | Tagged , , , | 45 Comments

A Quest for Mr Darcy – Chapter Thirty Eight

The blurb for this story can be found here.

Chapter Thirty Eight

The knock on the door silenced both gentlemen in the study, but when no one entered, Darcy walked over to pull it open. ‘Bingley, did you forget… Miss Elizabeth!’

Swinging the door wide, Darcy stared in surprise at Elizabeth. She looked pale in the glow of the lamps. ‘Is something wrong? Are you in need of assistance.’

Elizabeth shook her head. ‘I am perfectly well, sir. I saw Mr Bingley with his sisters just now.’ She waved a hand back along the hallway. ‘It was evident from his words you and your cousin were still downstairs.’ She looked at him beseechingly, and Darcy stood aside to usher her into the room. It was not difficult to surmise what kept her from peaceful repose.

The Colonel got to his feet as she entered and bowed quickly. ‘Darcy could hardly believe his eyes when he saw the twins scampering across the lawn just now. It is fortunate they were waylaid!’

‘Mr Bingley was doing his best to censure them, sir.’ Elizabeth glanced between the two gentlemen. ‘Please excuse the intrusion so late at night. I should not have come.’

‘Not at all!’ The Colonel smiled at Elizabeth, his glance dropping to the paper clasped in her hand. Darcy exchanged a look with him, then steered Elizabeth into a chair before retaking his own. She looked pale and anxious, and his heart ached for her as he gestured towards the letter.

‘Have you read it?’

‘Not yet.’ Elizabeth bit her lip. ‘But I find I can bear it no longer. I have to know what it contains.’ She turned the letter over in her hand, then raised troubled eyes to Darcy. ‘I am not lacking in courage, sir, but for some reason I did not wish to be alone when I read it. I cannot imagine how anything from Wickham’s hand to my father could be benign.’

The Colonel grunted. ‘We are, sadly, both experienced in handling Wickham’s propensity for nefarious deeds and their consequences. Perhaps one of these days he will surprise us and it will turn out he is offering to do good in some way or other.’

A faint smile touched Elizabeth’s lips. ‘You remind me of my sister’s faith in human nature, sir.’

He let out a bark of laughter. ‘I should not! I do not believe a word of what I said!’

‘Miss Elizabeth.’ She turned to Darcy. ‘The sooner you read it, the sooner you shall know Wickham’s purpose.’

Elizabeth nodded, then broke the seal and scanned the contents. To Darcy’s alarm, she became, if anything, paler than ever, a small gasp escaping as her hand dropped into her lap, the letter falling from her fingers to the floor.

There was silence in the room other than the crackling of the fire in the grate, and Darcy glanced at his cousin before getting up and walking over to where Elizabeth sat.

Crouching down, he picked up the letter. ‘May I, Miss Elizabeth?’ She did not look at him, but nodded again, and he rose and walked over to a nearby lamp the better to read it.

Thursday, at the same time as the last.

This time, go to the West Entrance and

Bring double the sum.

Come alone, or else your daughter

will be at risk.

If you do not show, all will be revealed and everyone will comprehend

what you have done.

W

As the import of the message struck him, Darcy felt disgust rise within him. His distaste for his former childhood companion was all consuming at that moment.

‘Darce?’ He looked up; his cousin was holding out his hand, but the Colonel then looked to the lady. ‘With your permission, Miss Elizabeth?’

‘Of course.’ She had raised her head, her air and countenance bewildered, and Darcy’s anger towards Wickham continued to simmer in his breast.

The Colonel read the brief content, then raised steely eyes to his cousin. ‘Same time; double the sum. What the hell does the blackguard think he is up to?’

Elizabeth had sunk back in her chair, and Darcy wished he could put his arms around her. He took the letter from his cousin and read the words again. Then, he dropped it onto his desk and walked over to take the seat opposite Elizabeth. She was staring into nothing, so far as he could tell.

‘Here, Miss Elizabeth, take this.’

Darcy looked up. The Colonel was pressing a small glass of wine upon her, and she looked at him blankly for a moment before reaching out to take it.

‘Take a sip or two. It will help you.’

Elizabeth did as she was bid, taking first a sip and then a longer drink. A little colour began to seep into her cheeks again, and her gaze flew to meet Darcy’s.

‘I know not what to do, sir! What can this mean?’ She gestured towards the letter on the desk. ‘I mean, I see it is blackmail, but what can be his purpose? I cannot begin to comprehend it.’

Desperately wishing he could take her hand, offer her some comfort beyond that which he willed her, Darcy sighed. What could he say? He had no answer.

The Colonel returned to his seat, stretching his legs out in front of him. ‘It cannot be over your family’s whereabouts; who could be so interested, that Bennet would consider the information such a threat? Does Wickham intend to reveal his ruin of your sister to your new acquaintance here in Derbyshire?’

‘I do not believe it to be that either, Cousin. Look.’ Darcy got up and retrieved the letter and pointed at the final line. ‘Or I shall reveal to the world what you have done.’ What could Bennet have done, and whatever it is, how could Wickham be privy to such knowledge?’

Elizabeth stirred in her seat. ‘There is something… he may have heard… but it is also nothing, if you see what I mean?’

Both gentlemen turned to look at her as she sat forward in her chair and placed the wine glass on a side table, and Darcy frowned, drawing on his memory of his brief visit to Hertfordshire with Bingley. There had been mention of rumours, had there not?

‘When my mother was taken ill for the final time, Papa insisted on nursing her himself. We were sent to our Aunt Gardiner in Town. No visitors were permitted access to Mama’s chamber, though we understand the local apothecary did call upon her a few times. Her sister – our Aunt Philips, who lived in Meryton – was most put out about it, and when Mama did not recover, she…’ Elizabeth swallowed visibly, then raised her chin and met Darcy’s eye. ‘She claimed some devious intent and instructed the local Magistrate to investigate, citing suspicious circumstances surrounding the death. She implicated Papa. It was…’ she drew in a shallow breath. ‘It was awful. A terrible time.’

In an instant, Darcy recalled the hints from Bingley’s housekeeper of there being some sort of scandal around Mrs Bennet’s passing. ‘But such allegations were unfounded, I am certain.’

‘Yes, of course!’ Elizabeth sighed. ‘Papa and Mrs Philips had never got along; he considered his wife to have a propensity for silliness, but he found her sister to be even more proficient in the art.’

The Colonel frowned. ‘And Wickham; he is acquainted with your aunt?’

‘Yes; he frequented the Philips’ home in Meryton when the Militia were established there. If he approached her – and though they moved away, their location is no secret – she would have no hesitation in telling him of her suspicions, of her belief that Papa brought about Mama’s death by his own hand.’

Darcy stared at the letter again, but the words merely taunted him, revealing little else about Wickham’s intentions. Out of the corner of his eye he could detect Elizabeth concealing a small yawn behind her hand.

‘Come, Miss Elizabeth; you must get some rest.’ He tossed the letter onto his desk. ‘It grows too late; we could speculate the whole night long and be none the wiser. Let us speak of this again on the morrow.’ He held out his hand to her without thinking. It was only as she, after a slight hesitation, placed her own in his and his fingers closed upon it that he realised what he had done. Refusing to look at his cousin, he helped Elizabeth to her feet and as she raised troubled eyes to his, he drew her a little closer. He had long considered her eyes to be the finest he had ever seen, and he…

‘Ahem.’

Darcy blinked, sending his cousin a lightning glance before giving Elizabeth’s hand a light squeeze; he felt a return of the pressure from her before they dropped their hands to their sides and she turned to his cousin, who had also got to his feet.

‘Goodnight, Colonel.’

‘I am at the service of yourself and your sister, Miss Elizabeth. We will out-wit Wickham in the end, have no doubt of that.’

‘Thank you.’ She turned towards the door, which Darcy held ajar before following her out into the corridor. Despite the dimness of the lamp-light, he could see the worry writ clear upon her countenance; observe the uncharacteristic slump of Elizabeth’s shoulders. The urge to sweep her into his embrace, to declare himself her protector for all time, to keep her safe from whatever devious plans Wickham had up his sleeve, was almost overwhelming, and he placed his hands firmly behind his back.

Elizabeth stared up at him, her eyes wide with anxiety and, he suspected, tiredness. ‘Forgive me, Mr Darcy, for involving you and your cousin in our troubles. Though it may not seem so, I take some comfort in knowing the letter’s content. It may bring no relief in terms of Wickham’s intentions, yet it gives me some peace to know you and your cousin are fully informed.’

Darcy nodded. ‘Try not to worry too much, Miss Elizabeth.’ Unable to help himself, he freed one arm and raised a hand to gently touch her face, and she closed her eyes. Heaven help him! That hardly made things easier!

He caught his breath as she raised her own hand to place it over his before opening her eyes to meet his gaze. The look she gave him touched his heart.

‘I thank you, sir, for your… for your kindness towards me.’ Elizabeth slowly lowered her hand, as did he, and she turned to walk back along the hallway.

Darcy watched her until she was swallowed by the darkness, then went back into the study and closed the door.

The Colonel was pouring brandy into two glasses, and he turned and handed one to Darcy as he crossed the room to join him.

‘Though I barely know him, I cannot believe a man like Bennet would see to his own wife’s demise. You have been longer acquainted and saw him in his home environment. What is your understanding of the man’s character?’

Darcy met his cousin’s raised brow with a shake of his head. ‘I cannot believe it either. Bennet was – is – a well-respected landowner. His family has held the Longbourn estate for several generations.’ He hesitated. ‘Though there were members of the family who did not always comport themselves as well as they should, I saw no evidence of questionable behaviour in the man.’ Darcy sank into the chair behind his desk, recalling his visit to Netherfield, both in the year eleven and more recently. ‘Besides, if the Magistrate was called upon and found nothing untoward, that ought to be an end to the matter.’

‘Aye, though we know it is not always the case. Rumour alone can suffice to cause damage, even with no proof to substantiate it. One can imagine the stain upon the family. We are blessed, are we not, born into the upper echelons of society? Families of such ranking can weather all sorts of scandal and conjecture, real or imagined. The landed gentry is equipped with little more than its respectability.’

Darcy took a slug of his drink, letting the liquid burn a trail down his throat. Though his cousin had the right of it, it was an unpalatable truth. The Bennets’ respectability and reputation had already been sullied; could they recover from further scandal, even if it had no basis in fact?

The Colonel picked up the letter again, then grunted. ‘There is, of course, the one matter we did not speak of in front of Miss Elizabeth.’ He tapped the page and Darcy took it from him.

Or else your daughter will be at risk.’

Feeling the stirring of his temper again, Darcy screwed the letter up into a ball and hurled it at the fire, but the Colonel’s hand shot out and caught it before it reached the flames.

‘Not yet, Darce. I comprehend your anger, but we must keep it intact for now if we are to be of any assistance to the family.’

Drawing in a steadying breath, Darcy nodded reluctantly, knowing his cousin was right.

‘So,’ Colonel Fitzwilliam dropped the balled up letter back on the desk and retook his seat. ‘What are your thoughts on this? Is it clear which daughter Wickham refers to?’

‘I believe he means Elizabeth.’

The Colonel narrowed his gaze as Darcy met his eye. ‘I comprehend her being your first thought, Darce, but what makes you so certain?’

‘Miss Elizabeth is Bennet’s favourite and always has been, and she is likewise attached to him. No secret was made of the fact in Hertfordshire, and Wickham would likely have been even more aware of their close bond, for he spent time with the family and amongst their acquaintance.’ Recalling his feelings at the time, Darcy drew in a steadying breath, willing his distaste to fade. ‘Even our Aunt Catherine mentioned something to the effect, do you not recall? She was bemoaning the lack of guided education given to the Bennet daughters after making Miss Elizabeth’s acquaintance and spoke of the father seeming to have influence over his second eldest, but not wielding it to good effect.’

Colonel Fitzwilliam glanced over at the letter again, then sighed. ‘Then we had best be on our guard over the coming days. If Bennet does not return in time to make this rendezvous, you can be certain Wickham will not let it lie.’

~o0o~

Darcy had agreed with Latimer they would meet in the former’s study soon after they had broken their fast. After a poor night’s rest, his mind tormented by futile speculation, waves of anger towards Wickham and fears for Elizabeth and her safety, Darcy stood at the window and stared out into the park.

It had been clear Elizabeth remained deeply troubled over breakfast. Whenever their eyes had met – and despite his best endeavours, with Latimer watching him like a hawk, his glance had been drawn to her often – she had seemed torn between sadness and worry; he had no notion which was prevalent. Did this all stem from her concern over her father and that damned letter, or was something else troubling her?

Darcy rested a hand against the shutter and watched the water tumbling from one of the fountains. Could it be… dare he hope she was developing some depth of feeling for him at last? The look she had bestowed upon him the previous evening as they parted, along with the hesitation of her words, spoke of some consciousness between them, had it not? Had he not made it clear to her how much he thought of her? Did she really think he was going to be so foolish as to offer for Eleanor Latimer?

Turning his back on the window, Darcy blew out a frustrated breath. Enough of this! As soon as he was done with Latimer he would seek Elizabeth out and offer her what reassurance he could.

A quick rap came on the door, and it opened to reveal his cousin, who closed it firmly and then stood surveying Darcy with a keen eye.

‘Everyone’s indulgence in the refreshments is complete, and they have begun to disperse in various directions. I suspect Latimer will be here directly.’

‘He cannot come soon enough, Richard. Let the matter be put to rest once and for all.’

‘He will not be a happy man; not that I care a whit for his mood. Yet I would not have him making life unpleasant for those around him. Latimer has been talking all morning of selecting a mount for himself. As soon as you are done with him, I will take him up to the stables.’

The Colonel glanced over Darcy’s shoulder towards the window, then let out a short laugh. ‘Talking of making life unpleasant, he has not endeared himself to the twins. Did you hear the way he spoke to them at breakfast?’

Darcy turned around. Olivia and Viola were crossing the lawn, engrossed in their conversation. There was something furtive about them, however, in the way they glanced over their shoulders and then hurried their steps.

The Colonel had come to stand beside him. ‘Latimer may well reap his own reward. Take my word, those girls are up to something!’

‘Well, at least they are not heading in the direction of the woods this time!’

There was a further light rap on the door, and Darcy straightened his shoulders. ‘Here we go, Cousin.’ He turned around and called, ‘Come in, Latimer,’ but as the door opened slowly, it revealed instead Jane and Elizabeth Bennet standing hesitantly on the threshold.

‘Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth! Please, come in,’ Darcy walked over to hold the door open, and the Colonel bowed as the ladies entered the room.

‘If you wish me to leave…’

‘No, sir.’ Elizabeth turned to the Colonel. ‘Please – if you could be so kind, we would like you to stay.’

‘Then I do so gladly.’ He pulled forward two chairs for the ladies, as Darcy sat behind his desk, before taking a seat opposite.

‘I trust we are not intruding, Mr Darcy, but Lizzy informed me this morning of her having opened Wickham’s letter. It is not something we would have ever considered in normal circumstances.’ Jane met Darcy’s gaze, raising her chin in a manner evocative of her sister. ‘But this is not normal, is it, sir?’

‘No – it is not.’

‘May I… I would like to see it, if I may?’

‘Oh! Of course!’ Darcy unlocked the drawer to his desk and pulled out the crumpled letter, which he had done his best to smooth out the night before. ‘I must apologise for…’ he gestured helplessly at the condition of the paper as Jane took it.

‘You have no need, Mr Darcy.’

Jane’s gaze dropped to the letter, and Elizabeth glanced sideways at it before looking away, as though she could not bear to see the words.

After a moment, Jane released a long sigh, then looked up at Darcy. ‘So it is as Lizzy said: Wickham is blackmailing Papa over something he believes him to have done.’ Jane frowned. ‘What are we to do?’ She passed the letter back to Darcy and turned to her sister, her anxiety apparent.

‘I know not.’ Elizabeth sighed too, then looked at Darcy. ‘We have no notion of where Papa is, nor how long he will be away. Yet Wickham will be waiting for him… somewhere… and expecting an undisclosed sum, in but two days’ time. The only clue seems to be Buxton.’

Darcy turned the letter to study the postmark. ‘You are thinking Wickham is hiding out there?’ Jane and Elizabeth exchanged a glance.

‘We are not certain, but I think I mentioned earlier Papa went to Buxton, Thursday last?’ Elizabeth met Darcy’s gaze again. ‘He said it was a business matter, but we have never known him go there before, for his only business dealings in Derbyshire have pertained to the tenancy of The Grange, and thus are connected solely to the Pemberley estate.’

‘Did he seem troubled, or did he seem himself?’

‘He has not been truly himself lately. He was pale and looked tired. I was concerned about him travelling, even though the distance was not great.’

The Colonel stretched in his seat. ‘So it seems Buxton may be the connection indeed. But where, precisely? The ‘west entrance’ to what?’

Such speculation was not to continue, however, as yet another knock came upon the door, and Darcy blew out a frustrated breath.

‘Forgive me, Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth. This will be Latimer. I cannot – nor do I wish to – delay speaking to him. Will you allow me to keep hold of this still?’ He raised the letter, and they both nodded. ‘As soon as I am done with the gentleman, my cousin and I will turn our minds to it.’

The look of relief filling Elizabeth’s countenance was both a comfort and a concern as he placed the letter back in the drawer and turned the key. He had no notion of what they might do, but one thing was certain: something had to happen, and directly!

Darcy opened the door to meet Latimer’s keen eye, only to watch it narrow as it took in his cousin and the ladies. Jane and Elizabeth curtseyed neatly, and the latter threw Darcy a quick look as they left the room, the Colonel excusing himself and following them along the hallway, but Latimer turned to watch them walk away.

‘An urgent matter of business, Latimer.’ Darcy stood aside so he could enter the room.

‘Business? With young ladies, Darcy? How singular.’

Latimer sauntered into the study and, closing the door with a snap, Darcy straightened his shoulders. If the gentleman wanted to understand Darcy’s business, then he had best open his ears.

Chapter Thirty Nine will be posted on Thursday!

 

Copyright © Cassandra Grafton 2017

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

A Quest for Mr Darcy – Chapter Thirty Seven extra! Wickham’s (rather short) Letter

The blurb for this story can be found here.

Wickham’s Letter

Falling into the opening scene of Chapter Thirty Eight, I am showing below the short content of Wickham’s ‘letter’ – as you can see, it is very brief and to the point!

It won’t tell you who actually opens it, or who gets to see it, but you can probably tell from the crumpled state it ends up in, someone is rather angry!

In case you find it hard to read from the image, the text is below:

letter

Thursday, at the same time as the last.

This time, go to the West Entrance and bring double the sum.

Come alone, or else your daughter will be at risk.

If you do not show, all will be revealed and everyone will

comprehend what you have done.

W

crumpled-letter

Chapter Thirty Eight will be posted on Tuesday!

Copyright © Cassandra Grafton 2017

Posted in A Quest for Mr Darcy, Writing | Tagged , , , | 38 Comments

A Quest for Mr Darcy – Chapter Thirty Seven

The blurb for this story can be found here.

Chapter Thirty Seven

Darcy caught up with his cousin as he entered the hallway leading to the study, and the Colonel eyed him thoughtfully as they fell into step together.

‘That looked a little intense; of what were you speaking?’

‘The ball.’

‘Hmph. Let me speculate: Latimer assumes you will stand up with his daughter for the first.’

Darcy turned to face his cousin as they reached the study, and he opened the door. ‘He did.’

The Colonel raised a brow. ‘Did? I like your style, Darce. How did he take it?’

‘Begrudgingly.’ Darcy walked over to his desk and threw himself into his chair. The rush of anger at Latimer’s arrogance was fading, but his displeasure was not. ‘I had to get away from him, but I have made it clear I will not be persuaded from my first choice.’

The Colonel smirked at him. ‘On more than one count, I suspect.’

Darcy shook his head at his cousin as he settled into the chair opposite. ‘Enough, Richard!’ He sighed. ‘Latimer has played me well; this side of him was fully concealed before now. I suspect he is impatient to settle matters.’

With a nod, the Colonel eyed him seriously for a moment. ‘And when do you propose making the situation clear to him?’

‘On the morrow, as soon as the opportunity presents.’

‘And Miss Elizabeth Bennet? She remains in the dark as to your true intentions, does she not?’

‘Richard!’ Darcy eyed his cousin, torn between frustration and fondness, for he knew he had his best interests at heart. ‘I cannot risk complicating things further!’

‘I know; I know!’ The Colonel raised a hand in submission. ‘You will handle matters in your own way. Besides, do we not have a more pressing matter to address?’

‘You mean Wickham?’

‘I do.’

Darcy leaned back in his chair, then nodded. ‘So it is; yet I cannot see how we make a beginning. We have no authority to open Bennet’s post, and clearly he has not given that permission to his daughters, either.’

‘But if Bennet does not return on the morrow, or send word of his direction so the letter can be sent on, we must act. We may not comprehend Wickham’s purpose, but experience dictates it is likely to be of a devious nature. He cannot surely have been in contact before now, from the lady’s reaction?’

‘From what Miss Elizabeth has told me, the Bennets had no intelligence of Wickham, nor if he even survived the fire.’ Darcy met his cousin’s gaze solemnly. ‘Leastways, that was her understanding when we spoke of it. Whether Bennet would tell a different story now, I cannot say.’

The Colonel grunted. ‘Let us hope the fire at least marked him; thus he will find it harder to ruin another young girl by exercising his charm and, by default, her family’s reputation! It is a mystery as to how he has tracked the family down, but regardless, he will have his reasons and his purpose, and Bennet will rue the day if he tries to thwart him.’

‘You are making me uneasy, Cousin.’

‘Forgive me; you know I tend to speak as I find. You comprehend Wickham’s character as well as I; we know what he is capable of.’

Darcy got to his feet and walked over to the window. Dusk had long fallen into darkness, but there was a full moon tonight and reasonable light shone upon the immediate grounds. His gaze drifted to the statue near the edge of the woodland, and he frowned. ‘Do you think he is out there? You do not think it is Wickham who is…’

‘What?’ The Colonel had come to stand beside him.

Darcy gestured with his arm. ‘This so-called poacher, hanging out in the woods between Pemberley and The Grange.’

‘I suspect this poacher will turn out to be just that, only a poor one. Perchance it is merely a youth, or even a young lad, for he seems rather inept at his profession! We know Wickham to be proficient in such things since he was in short breeches.’

‘This is true; and he would have to be severely altered by the fire for no one to have recognised him. There are many still in the district who have known him man and boy.’

Darcy turned his back on the window. He did not like to think of anyone hiding in the undergrowth, be it here or especially at The Grange. If it was Wickham, whom was he watching? Was it only Elizabeth who had sensed the presence of someone? Recalling Wickham’s preference for the lady reminded him suddenly of hers for him, and he winced. Then, he pushed it aside. Elizabeth was more than reconciled to Wickham’s true character, and her own family had suffered badly at his hands, as a result of the repercussions of his actions and influence. No, he would not take her in again, but that did not mean Wickham was not still drawn to Elizabeth. Could it be he was not done with trying to attach himself to the Bennets?

~o0o~

Despite his concern over what Wickham was up to, the Colonel soon persuaded Darcy to return to the drawing room, reminding him there was little they could do at present.

Glancing around, Darcy instinctively sought Elizabeth. She remained seated in-between Olivia and Viola, a book still open before them on the table, and though she looked up briefly, she quickly returned her attention to the pages. Bingley was in conversation with Latimer and his wife across the room; their daughter stood with them, though not noticeably contributing to the conversation. Jane sat with Georgiana and Mrs Annesley, who had been well enough to join them after her day of resting, in a small grouping near the hearth, and the Colonel walked over to join them.

‘Mr Darcy!’ Viola looked up and beckoned him over. ‘Come, do take a seat. Olivia has written some very pretty pieces.’

Before he could do anything about it, Darcy found himself ushered into Viola’s vacated chair beside Elizabeth, with the young lady hurrying round to stand behind her sister as they all turned their attention to the pages before them.

Darcy’s eyes skimmed the words, though he took very little in, conscious as he was of the closeness of Elizabeth by his side. Not wishing to hurt Olivia’s feelings, however, he tried to assimilate what he was reading, then looked up.

‘It is a very creative story, Miss Olivia. I have barely begun, but I shall be most disappointed if I find there are no spirits of the forest in it!’

Olivia beamed widely at him. ‘I shall not spoil the surprise!’

He glanced back at the book with a smile. ‘This looks remarkably like your work, Miss Viola.’

‘It is,’ Elizabeth commented, and he glanced at her but she quickly looked away to point at the open page. ‘Look, sir. I suspect you will recognise it if you look more closely.’

Though Olivia’s neat script filled the pages, the borders contained small drawings clearly by the hand of her sister.

Darcy studied the figure, then bit back on a laugh. It was clearly identifiable as Mr Hurst, one hand gripping a toppling glass from which the liquid was spilling, the other resting on his ample girth, the shirtfront stained, but his features had been exaggerated, and now resembled nothing more than a toad. ‘A remarkable likeness, though I am not certain your brother would appreciate the depiction!’

Olivia shrugged. ‘Our brother Hurst has no interest in our pursuits.’

Turning the page, he found one filled entirely with similar sketches, and Elizabeth indicated each one in turn as Darcy sought to name them, much to the twins’ delight.

‘Mrs Reynolds… Thornton… is that Pickering, the gardener, and his wife?’ Darcy looked up at Viola and laughed. All had been represented quite accurately, but clearly inspired by and representing a variety of woodland creatures such as birds, squirrels and dormice.

Elizabeth turned the page again. Aside from an elfin creature with flowing locks and fairy-like wings, there was a very clever rendition of Rivers as a badger, and…

‘Is that…?’ Elizabeth leaned closer as she studied another drawing, and Darcy inhaled her light scent, wishing he could stay where he was for the remainder of the evening. ‘Oh my goodness!’ She sat back in her seat, laughing, and Darcy looked back at the book.

Even with his limited experience with The Grange’s housekeeper, there was no denying her hawk-like features which had been enhanced in the drawing, along with a pair of beady, knowing eyes, and Darcy smiled. ‘I have long suspected Alice has an all-seeing eye and misses very little. You have chosen well, Miss Viola!’

For some reason, colour had risen in Elizabeth’s cheeks at these words, and she threw him a conscious look. Intrigued, Darcy wished he could ask her about it, but she had returned her attention to the book.

He stared at Elizabeth’s slender hand resting on the table. Did she have any notion how much he wished to take it in his? Casually, he placed his own on the table too as she turned another page, then slowly edged it a bit closer. Someone cleared their throat and looking up suddenly, Darcy caught Viola’s eyes upon him. She smiled widely at him and winked, then schooled her features into polite interest as Elizabeth looked up.

‘I am a little anxious to turn a page and find myself represented as a hare or worse, a sow!’

‘You need have no concern, Miss Elizabeth. I enjoy sketching you just as you are.’

Elizabeth laughed, and Darcy moved his hand a little closer again. ‘And Mr Darcy?’ She cast a quick glance in his direction.

Viola shook her head, her fair curls dancing against her cheeks. ‘Mr Darcy is too fascinating a study in himself. I cannot think of him as a woodland creature!’

An impish look filtered across Elizabeth’s face, and Darcy could feel a smile tugging at his mouth. ‘I think Miss Bennet would expect you to draw me as a fox.’

Olivia and Viola turned delightedly to Elizabeth. ‘Why would Mr Darcy say such a thing?’ They both begged her to tell them.

‘It is a long story.’

‘But you must share, Miss Elizabeth!’

‘Yes, do share, young lady.’

Looking up, Darcy frowned as Latimer came to stand at the table, his wife following behind him.

Getting quickly to his feet, Darcy’s hand brushed against Elizabeth’s, and even he did not know if it was an accident or not.

‘Now, now; what have we here at this little gathering?’

Olivia and Viola exchanged a look, and the former closed the book with a snap, giving Mr Latimer what Darcy could only describe as her ‘Caroline’ look. ‘Naught of consequence, sir. Mere ramblings.’

She got to her feet and Viola linked arms with her as they performed an identical joint, but perfect, curtsey. ‘If you will excuse us, sir, ma’am, we have a pressing desire to speak to Georgiana.’

Darcy was keen to divert Latimer from saying anything untoward in front of Elizabeth. ‘May I offer you some further refreshment, Latimer?’ He gestured towards the gentleman’s empty glass.

‘A capital notion, sir. Lead the way.’ Darcy threw Elizabeth an apologetic glance as she got to her feet, but she had already turned towards the other lady and was inviting her to take a seat by her side.

‘I trust you will forgive my husband his intrusive manner, Miss Bennet.’ Though Mrs Latimer spoke quietly, her words were perfectly clear, and Elizabeth looked at her curiously. ‘He is sadly accustomed to having his own way.’ The lady was staring across the room to where Mr Latimer was in conversation with Mr Darcy, his glass now replenished. He seemed quite in earnest about something, and Elizabeth sighed. She suspected he may be pressing for an announcement.

Unhappiness weighed heavily upon her for a moment, but then she realised she had not responded to Mrs Latimer.

‘I must ask you to forgive me, ma’am. My attention is sorely lacking.’ Summoning a smile, Elizabeth turned in her seat, unsure if it was the better to attend her companion or to prevent her gaze from fixing upon Mr Darcy. It would not do to be observed doing so by either Miss or Mr Latimer, when he was so clearly considered as their property.

‘My husband took possession of most of my fortune, though not all of it. Sometimes he forgets, so intent is he upon settling Eleanor.’ She smiled at Elizabeth. ‘He pays my wishes very little mind, but I shall know when I need to make a stand. But, there,’ she patted Elizabeth’s hands where they rested in her lap. ‘You must take no notice of my ramblings, Miss Bennet.’

Elizabeth smiled; for all her immediate connections, she liked Mrs Latimer very much. She followed the lady’s gaze across the room to where Mr Latimer was summoning his daughter to his side, and the smile faded quickly.

‘My daughter and I, we are close. I cannot say the same for her relationship with her father.’ The lady sighed, then turned her warm smile on Elizabeth. ‘But what of you?’

‘Quite the opposite, ma’am. I grew up very close to Papa, but Mama and I were less so.’

‘Were?’

‘Indeed; my mother passed away about a year ago.’

‘I am sorry to hear it, my dear. Yet you say you were not overly close?’

Elizabeth cast her mind back to when her mother was alive. ‘I did love Mama, but she and I are… were, so very dissimilar.’ She smiled at Mrs Latimer. ‘Our approach to life was not the same.’

‘But your father lives yet, I trust?’

‘Yes, he is… travelling, but should return directly.’ Elizabeth bit her lip. What if her father had come to some harm? What if this letter from Wickham was a threat to him in some way, connected to his rapid and unexplained departure?

‘Then I shall look forward to meeting him on his return.’ Mrs Latimer’s gaze drifted around the room. ‘Everyone here has such warm and happy manners. I am hoping it will be good for Eleanor.’ She smiled ruefully at Elizabeth. ‘She did not wish to come; she has spent too much time in society quite unlike this, and I suspect she anticipated more of the same. She will no doubt find herself ill-equipped to adjust.’

Elizabeth followed Mrs Latimer’s gaze again, which had settled upon her daughter. To her surprise, Eleanor Latimer was looking straight at her across the room, clearly paying no attention whatsoever to the conversation around her. Tentatively, Elizabeth smiled at her. Unsurprisingly, the lady did not smile in return, but she inclined her head in acknowledgement.

‘I hope you will not judge her too harshly, Miss Bennet.’

Elizabeth glanced enquiringly at Mrs Latimer. What could she mean? Could she know how she envied her daughter, not for her fortune or position in society, but for being Mr Darcy’s choice?

‘You are far richer, my dear, than you realise.’ The lady sighed softly as her gaze returned to her daughter. ‘I fear Eleanor has forgotten life should be a pleasure, not a trial.’

~o0o~

Sleep evaded Elizabeth upon retiring for the night. When she was not puzzling over Mrs Latimer’s words and her revelations about her daughter, she was filled with sadness over the imminent announcement between Eleanor Latimer and Mr Darcy. Not only would it remove all hope, but surely their gradually developing rapport would draw to an immediate close?

Stirring restlessly, Elizabeth turned on her side, burrowing her head into her pillow. She could not rid herself of the image of Mr Darcy, Miss Latimer on his arm, walking in the gardens prior to dinner. How well they had looked together, the lady’s tall frame complementing the gentleman’s height and breadth of shoulder. From her window, it had been impossible to tell the mood of either, but they clearly were in a conversation of sorts. Did the lady open up when Mr Darcy was with her and they were away from her father’s assessing eye? Was she charming, sharing intelligent conversation with him, smiling, even? He had bestowed many a smile upon Elizabeth in recent days, and had he not placed a kiss upon her cheek?

Feeling warmth fill her cheeks at the remembrance, Elizabeth rolled onto her back. It was all so much more unbearable than she had imagined. With a frustrated sigh, she sat up. This would not do! She must not think of him in such a way. Whatever feelings he may retain for her, no matter how much she could detect the remnants of his former interest, Mr Darcy had made his choice, and she was not it.

Drawing in a quick breath at the sharp pain lancing her breast at such a thought, Elizabeth swung her legs out of bed and reached for her candle, hurrying over to light it from the embers of the fire.

She straightened up and placed the candleholder on the mantel, but as she did so, the glow from the flame fell upon the letter addressed to her father. Shivering, she glanced at the fire. There was no chance of reviving it fully until the morning, when the maid came to re-set the grate, and she grabbed a thick shawl from the end of the bed, wrapping it around her shoulders.

Biting her lip, Elizabeth reached out and picked up the letter. Why would Wickham contact her father? How had he learned of their new address and from whom? The black lettering gave no answers, merely taunted her with its slanting, flamboyant style.

She had to know what was inside! Hurrying across the room, the passed through the dressing room and pushed open the door to Jane’s chamber and walked over to stare down at her sister. She was sleeping deeply, and with a sigh, Elizabeth turned away. She could, of course, awaken her, but why disturb her slumber? Morning would be here soon enough, and it was not as though opening the letter now would solve anything, other than likely preventing any further rest for either of them.

Walking slowly back into her own room, Elizabeth stared around, her gaze falling on the clock on the mantel. She crossed over to the window, but despite the moonlight, saw nothing to distract her interminable thoughts and blowing out a frustrated breath, she headed for the door and tugged it open. Looking out onto the dimly lit landing, she sighed. One could hardly go wandering the hallways looking for distraction at this time of night!

About to close the door again, Elizabeth stopped, then listened keenly. There were voices drifting along the corridor towards her from somewhere, and recognising them, she pulled her shawl more tightly about her shoulders and stepped out into the hallway.

Holding her candle aloft, Elizabeth hurried along and turned onto the galleried landing from which the central staircase descended. To her surprise, she beheld the flicker of a lamp, then realised it was held aloft by Olivia, who was deep in discussion with her sister as they reached the top of the stairs. They did not see her until almost upon her, but then there was an audible gasp.

‘Miss Elizabeth!’ Olivia stared at her, wide-eyed.

‘We did not expect… we…’ Viola’s voice petered out as she met Elizabeth’s enquiring look.

‘Might I ask what you have been doing?’ Worried as she was by Wickham’s letter, she was almost equally disturbed to note the twins were dressed for the outdoors. ‘It is gone midnight!’

‘The moon is full; we saw a movement by the edge of the woods, and we were convinced of its being the ghostly cloaked figure we saw earlier.’

‘You went out in the dark – into the woods – alone? Girls, you must not! What would your brother say if he knew?’

‘He does know,’ Elizabeth turned to look down the stairs to see Bingley climbing them two at a time. ‘And he was most seriously displeased!’

He turned as severe a gaze as he could clearly summon upon the twins. ‘Girls, what were you thinking?’

Biting her lip, Elizabeth turned aside; she was unused to hearing Bingley speak so firmly or look quite so stern and she was certain he was finding it a challenge!

‘We were not afraid!’ Viola straightened her shoulders and fixed her brother with a firm look. ‘We may be small in stature, but we are fierce warriors when we must be!’

Bingley sighed. ‘I am sure you both are; quite fierce indeed. But do heed my warning, please. If Darcy had not been at the window of his study just now, heaven knows what may have become of you! The Colonel was extremely dismayed. He feels he has encouraged you and could not speak enough of his regret for humouring you both. You owe him an apology on the morrow for such misuse of his indulgence.’

Suitably chastised, the girls nodded, then took their leave of Elizabeth in a subdued manner. Bingley wished her goodnight before following them back along the landing towards the guest wing, and they soon faded from sight. Remaining as she was until she heard their doors close, Elizabeth then turned back to her own chamber.

Raising the candle, she studied the clock once more. The hour was late, but it sounded like Mr Darcy and his cousin were still downstairs. Walking over to the fireplace, Elizabeth picked up the letter again and balanced it on her palm. It was light of weight and doubtless therefore light in content. Yet she would know what it contained and was not prepared to wait until morning. Whatever lay between herself and Mr Darcy, he had promised her protection, and she had no reason to doubt his sincerity.

Quickly changing into a simple shift dress which had no complicated fastenings, Elizabeth donned her slippers and tied her hair back neatly with a ribbon. Wrapping a lighter shawl about her shoulders, she grabbed the letter from the mantel and went out onto the landing.

There was no sign of anyone as she reached the staircase, and she descended in haste before hurrying along the hallway towards Mr Darcy’s study. The corridors were still lit, and she paused outside the door. Yes, she could definitely hear voices from within. Elizabeth drew in a steadying breath, then stepped forward and knocked firmly.

~o0o~

Chapter Thirty Eight will be posted on Tuesday! However, as Tuesday is often considered a long way away on a Thursday, I may post just the content of Wickham’s letter later today. Don’t get too excited – it’s very short!! 😉

Copyright © Cassandra Grafton 2017

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

A Quest for Mr Darcy – Chapter Thirty Six

The blurb for this story can be found here.

Chapter Thirty Six

With a walk no longer possible, and Mr Darcy gone in search of his sister, Elizabeth had taken the letters to her chamber. She quickly read through Mary’s, paying it only half her attention, her gaze straying time and again to the one resting on the counterpane. The knowledge of whose hand had penned the direction was sufficient to cause her some anxiety, and she longed for Jane’s return and the chance to discuss what, if anything, they might do about it in their father’s absence.

By the time Elizabeth returned downstairs, the entrance hall was empty, though the front doors were open and she could see movement aplenty outside. Hurrying to the morning room, which overlooked the front of the house, she stood to one side of the window, concealed by the heavy drape.

The carriage had now arrived on the gravel sweep, and Mr Darcy and Georgiana stood waiting as a footman hurried forward to lower the steps and open the door. Under the instruction of the butler, an array of other footmen had emerged from the service entrance and began unloading a secondary conveyance bearing the Latimers’ luggage, along with their personal servants.

A gentleman stepped down into the sunlight, and he turned to offer his hand to a lady, presumably his wife, before greeting Mr and Miss Darcy formally. Elizabeth bit her lip; they seemed personable, friendly even. She was all but holding her breath, awaiting Miss Latimer’s emergence from the carriage, but as the conversation continued between Mr and Mrs Latimer and their hosts, there was no sign of her.

Elizabeth’s gaze settled on Mr Darcy. He was not smiling, particularly. Indeed, his air and countenance bore a striking resemblance to when she had first made his acquaintance in Hertfordshire: inscrutable, keeping himself distant almost, and she frowned. Surely he had been anticipating this visit, as it must have been at his own invitation?

Releasing a soft sigh, Elizabeth’s hand rested on the drape as she continued to look out of the window. She felt so conflicted. Mr Darcy’s attention, his care of her, seemed to intensify by the day, and instead of facing reality and trying to stem the depth of her feeling for him, she found herself becoming more and more attached to him. Where could it possibly lead? Then, she drew in a quick breath. Mr Latimer had turned back to the carriage and held out his hand as a young lady alighted onto the gravel driveway. Miss Latimer was tall, slender of figure and fair in colouring; a handsome, rather than beautiful, woman. Her air and countenance, however, spoke of disinterest. Most indubitably, she raised no smile for her hosts on their greeting her, and from what could be seen, spoke nothing beyond the common civilities.

Elizabeth started as the door to the room swung open and the Colonel walked in. ‘There you are, Miss Elizabeth! I thought for a moment you had managed to escape on a walk after all!’

Elizabeth smiled. ‘Sadly not, sir.’

‘Ah, here they come.’ The Colonel grunted as he joined her by the window. ‘Behold Miss Eleanor Latimer, aged two and twenty, accomplished horsewoman and musician and, moreover, with a dowry of fifty thousand. Quite the catch, so they say.’

‘She must want for very little, then.’ Elizabeth watched intently as the young woman followed her parents up the steps, Georgiana at her side. They were not speaking, and Georgiana looked uncomfortable. Elizabeth sighed again. She had borne a distinct heaviness in her breast over the past few days; with an introduction to the lady Mr Darcy intended to take as his wife imminent, it seemed to have increased ten-fold.

‘What do you know of her disposition, Colonel?’

‘Nothing of any note.’ Colonel Fitzwilliam turned away, then said over his shoulder, ‘and nor does Darcy.’

Reluctantly following the Colonel out into the entrance hall, wishing Jane was by her side, Elizabeth straightened her shoulders before pinning a smile on her face. No one must know how little she desired this encounter, how low this alteration to the party at Pemberley brought her.

The introductions were swiftly made, and the Colonel, who was slightly acquainted with the Latimers, took it upon himself to steer the head of the family towards the drawing room, his wife and daughter following in their wake. Georgiana took Elizabeth’s arm and, taking one glance at her face, the latter smiled comfortingly, before looking at Mr Darcy. He smiled faintly at her and fell into step beside them as they crossed the hall to join the others.

‘I hope to continue our discussion as soon as is practicable, Miss Elizabeth.’ He spoke quietly, with no reference to the letter from Wickham, and though Georgiana threw him a curious glance, she seemed pleased with the inference, and her usual smile reinstated itself as they entered the drawing room.

As Georgiana encouraged everyone to take a seat, Darcy gestured towards a long table set up at the far end of the room.

‘My housekeeper has refreshments prepared. I am sure you are travel weary, but I hope you will partake of some before being shown to your accommodations.’

A delicious spread had been laid out, and ably assisted by some of the house’s footmen, they were all soon comfortably supplied with tea and small plates of delicate pastries.

Mrs Latimer was a quietly spoken but pleasant woman, and Elizabeth took a quick liking to her. She was tall and fine of figure, like her daughter, though her features were not markedly handsome. There was, however, intelligence in her eyes, and before long Elizabeth found herself sat beside the lady on a chaise-longue, enjoying a light-hearted conversation about the countryside and its perils. Mrs Latimer, it seemed, was much as Elizabeth: a competent but reluctant horsewoman and much fonder of walking than participating in traditional country pursuits.

The gentlemen’s conversation was much as expected, with the Colonel and Darcy speaking with Latimer regarding his journey, the weather, plans for a shooting party and beyond. Yet all Darcy could think on was the pressing matter preying upon his mind – how quickly could he extricate himself from whatever Latimer’s assumptions might be?

Darcy glanced at the clock on the mantel. Bingley and his party had been gone for several hours now; surely their return must be imminent? With more people on hand to distract Latimer, he stood a far better chance of conversing with Elizabeth, something he was almost desperate to do. He looked over to where she sat with Mrs Latimer, and at that moment, she looked in his direction. He sent her what he hoped was a reassuring smile, and she returned it before turning back to her companion. How was she feeling, knowing Wickham had addressed her father by letter, had found out their address somehow? Darcy knew from his original conversation with Mr Bennet that he had known they could not disappear entirely, but such knowledge in Wickham’s hands could never be a good thing.

Turning back, he found the conversation had lagged, for his cousin had returned to the table to refill his plate, and only Latimer remained, watching Darcy with an assessing gaze, which he met firmly. He was not about to be intimidated in his own home!

‘If you will excuse me, sir.’ Latimer bowed and walked across the room, and Darcy frowned as he approached Elizabeth, who was laughing at something Mrs Latimer had said. He glanced over at Georgiana, who was trying gamely to eke out some conversation from Miss Latimer, and he sighed. How could he have been so blind? How could he even have considered such an unapproachable woman to be beneficial to his sister? Turning back, he drew in a quick breath. Mrs Latimer had risen and was walking away, and as Latimer took the seat beside Elizabeth, Darcy made to join them.

The Colonel, who had returned with his well-stocked plate, stayed his cousin with a hand upon his arm. ‘At ease, Darce. I know no one better qualified than Miss Elizabeth Bennet to withstand an interrogation by Latimer.’

‘That is as may be, Richard, but I intend to be on hand, all the same.’ Making his way circuitously around the room by stopping to have his cup replenished, Darcy took a seat with the other ladies, Mrs Latimer having joined her daughter and Georgiana, and as the former swept his sister into conversation, he listened as best he could to what was happening behind him.

‘I trust you are not too wearied by your travels, sir. Derbyshire is a long way from Town, is it not?’ Elizabeth’s tone was friendly, and Darcy smiled, picturing her expression.

‘Indeed, indeed.’ There was a pause from Latimer. ‘So, tell me a little about yourself, Miss Bennet.’

Elizabeth laughed, and Darcy relaxed a little. ‘Good heavens, sir. What an opening. Where shall I begin?’

‘I am told your family is well acquainted with the Darcys, yet I do not recall ever seeing you in Town?’

There was a further pause, and Darcy almost held his breath.

‘We have family in London, sir, but we have not visited with them this past year.’

‘And whence do you hail? Where is it you call home, Miss Bennet?’

‘Our home, sir?’

Darcy paled as Elizabeth said nothing, but from the chink of china, he assumed she took a drink of her tea also.

‘Why, it is Derbyshire.’

Almost smiling again at such a sentiment, Darcy placed his cup aside.

‘Derbyshire, you say? The far reaches, I assume, ma’am, as you are residing here at present?’

‘Not at all, sir. Just two miles distant.’

Admiring the readiness with which Elizabeth delivered her words, Darcy bit back on a smile.

‘You are… let me understand this. You are tenants, then? This is quite the intrigue, Miss Bennet. How is it you are here as a guest?’

‘Mr Darcy is a good friend to our family, sir. To put my father’s mind at rest when he was called away on urgent business, he invited both my sister and myself to make a short stay. We are happy to be company for Miss Darcy.’

‘Ah yes; of course. Now I understand.’ Latimer sounded quite satisfied with this explanation. ‘You are nothing more than companions.’

Elizabeth laughed. ‘That is, indeed, one perception of company, sir!’

Hearing Latimer excuse himself, Darcy released a pent up breath as he caught his cousin’s eye across the room. As was oft the case, Richard had the right of it where Miss Elizabeth Bennet was concerned!

It was more than an hour later that the visitors finally followed Mrs Reynolds from the room, and with a sigh of relief, Darcy closed the door on them. He did not relish the coming days, but he knew he must endeavour to offer every civility to his guests and, in the meantime, nothing would delay him from speaking to Latimer on the morrow.

Barely had Darcy crossed the room towards where Elizabeth now sat with Georgiana, however, when Bingley entered, Jane and the twins following behind. Under the twins’ enthusiastic chatter about their excursion, he beckoned Elizabeth to join him and turned to walk over to where his cousin stood near the window.

‘Mr Darcy, I am most anxious about Wickham’s purpose in writing to Papa.’ Elizabeth turned and gestured towards her sister. ‘I must speak to Jane about it, for we have been given no authority to open his post in his absence. Though it was marked Strictly Private, it does not necessarily mean it is urgent, does it?’

Elizabeth’s tone was hopeful, and Darcy could only wish her surmising to be accurate.

‘No – no, it does not. Your father indicated he may return within a few days and, if not, he would send his direction. Try not to worry, for word may arrive on the morrow, if not Mr Bennet himself.’

‘Did you happen to note the postmark, Miss Elizabeth?’ The Colonel smiled at her. ‘It might allay your concern a little if it came from some distance.’

Shaking her head, Elizabeth looked from the Colonel to Darcy. ‘It is marked ‘Buxton’; barely sixteen miles away. It is a strange coincidence, for Papa went there last week – on Thursday – a matter of business, he said.’

Darcy frowned. ‘Buxton? And do you know what purpose he may have had there?’

‘Not at all, though it was most singular.’

‘How so?’

‘Papa returned so swiftly. He must barely have passed minutes at his destination before turning about to begin the journey home. Jane and I both remarked upon it at the time.’ Elizabeth bit her lip as she raised troubled eyes to Darcy. ‘If Wickham is writing from Buxton, and Papa went there on business that cannot be explained, we must surely concur they are connected.’ She glanced over her shoulder. ‘Forgive me, Mr Darcy; Colonel Fitzwilliam. I must speak to Jane.’

Darcy exchanged an uneasy glance with his cousin as Elizabeth excused herself to join her sister. All they could do was hope for the swift return of Bennet and some answers.

~o0o~

There was a general breaking up of the remaining party soon after, with the Colonel standing by his word and taking the twins on a ramble through the edge of the woods so that they could attempt to seek their ghostly apparition in relative safety.

Georgiana returned upstairs to see how Mrs Annesley was faring and whether she would be up to joining them for dinner, and Elizabeth and Jane left the room soon after. Darcy could only surmise they wished for some privacy to discuss the letter and its implications, though he did not like letting Elizabeth out of his sight. This unexpected rearing of Wickham’s head had unsettled him, coupled with the notion of there being a stranger at large – poacher or not – and he was only thankful Elizabeth was under his protection here at Pemberley and not two miles away at The Grange.

Barely had he and Bingley reached the door to the billiard room, however, intent upon a game before heading upstairs to change for dinner, when they were hailed from behind. Turning about, Darcy blew out a frustrated breath as Latimer approached.

‘A rare moment to find you almost alone, Darcy! I will own to having had no notion you would have quite such a full household here.’

Bingley laughed. ‘Darcy very kindly offered my sisters a place to stay before they go off to school next week, Latimer. They are having a delightful time, but we shall be gone on our way shortly!’

‘And these Bennets, too!’ Latimer raised a brow. ‘I wonder if they, too, will be on their way directly.’

‘They are most pleasing young ladies, are they not?’ Bingley smiled genially. ‘The Bennets are former acquaintances – neighbours, in fact – from Hertfordshire. My estate is there, and Darcy became acquainted with the family during my residence.’

Latimer narrowed his gaze, looking from Bingley to Darcy and back again. ‘So – first they are neighbours to you, sir; then, they are neighbours to Darcy.’ He released a short laugh. ‘One might think there was some design in this Bennet’s choice of location! It is uncommon, is it not, for a gentleman to be changing residence quite so much?’

‘I think we must allow a gentleman his reasons, sir.’

A movement along the hallway caught Darcy’s eye, and Latimer turned to follow his gaze.

‘Ah, Eleanor! There you are. Come.’ He held out a hand towards his daughter, then turned back to Bingley and Darcy.

Glancing at Miss Latimer, who maintained her usual air of disinterest as she joined them, Darcy summoned a smile. ‘None of the ladies are downstairs at present, ma’am. Would you care to make use of the music room or library?’

‘My daughter wishes to be shown some of the gardens before dusk falls fully, Darcy. You will, of course, have no objection to escorting her.’

With Miss Latimer before him and her father holding out her hand towards him, there was nothing Darcy could do. Much as he had little patience for Latimer and his machinations, he would not embarrass the lady or offend her.

Taking her hand, he placed it upon his arm.

‘Bingley, perhaps you could engage Latimer in a game in my absence.’ Without waiting for a response, Darcy drew in a steadying breath before leading the lady along the hallway to the entrance hall. ‘What is it that you wish to see first, Miss Latimer? I am at your disposal.’

~o0o~

Dinner was a less relaxed affair than of late. The twins maintained an unfamiliar aloofness around the Latimers and, as a result, were quieter and more restrained with everyone else at the table. Elizabeth seemed pre-occupied, and Darcy suspected the mysterious letter to be the cause, and though Mr and Mrs Latimer were pleasant company enough, even the friendliness of Bingley and his cousin’s usual manner could not lift the atmosphere. As for himself, Darcy was feeling all manner of frustration. He wished for nothing more than to be talking to Elizabeth, offering her whatever reassurance he could in her father’s absence. Wasting time escorting a fairly uncommunicative Miss Latimer around the immediate grounds merely to satisfy her father had hardly improved his mood, either.

Not wishing to spend too much time with Latimer before he could speak privately to him, Darcy had led the gentlemen back to join the ladies within a half hour of their withdrawing. As soon as everyone was settled, Darcy walked over to the hearth and turned to survey the scene. Jane had taken a seat beside Miss Latimer and appeared to be attempting to converse with her. The lady, however, was looking anywhere but at Jane as her gaze roamed the room. Her air and countenance did not speak of her finding anything worthy of her interest or appreciation – she looked entirely bored!

‘The twins believe they saw a cloaked figure in the trees tonight, though I saw little evidence of it!’ Colonel Fitzwilliam had come to stand beside Darcy, who frowned.

‘With what we learned earlier…’

‘Do not concern yourself, Darcy. I do not know what they think they saw, but if Wickham is in Buxton, he cannot be lurking in Pemberley’s woods as well!’ Glancing across the room, he grinned. ‘Miss Elizabeth appears to be engrossed in the delights of Miss Viola’s latest sketchings! I wonder if she will comprehend all she is seeing.’ The Colonel winked at Darcy as he walked away, taking a seat by Georgiana and Mrs Latimer.

Looking over, Darcy studied Elizabeth’s subdued air and countenance. Though her attention was indeed with the open sketchbook before her, she was not herself, of that he was certain. Was this a good thing? He had no desire to cause her any discomfort, but if she was disturbed by the arrival of Miss Latimer, did it auger well for him, indicate the altered feelings he had hoped he had not misread were genuine?

‘Your friend tells me there is to be a ball, Darcy, and that Sir Charles Seymour has liberally extended the invitation to your guests.’ Latimer had come to stand beside him, his back to the hearth, and Bingley joined them.

‘I am sure you and your family will take much enjoyment from it, sir.’ Bingley glanced at Darcy, then grinned. ‘The Seymours are renowned for their hospitality.’

‘I shall look forward to it.’ Latimer turned to look across the room to where his daughter sat. ‘Eleanor will, of course, expect to stand up for the first set with you, Darcy.’

Darcy stared at him, then shook his head.

‘On the contrary, Latimer. I am already committed for the first, but will speak to Miss Latimer about engaging her for a set of her choice thereafter.’

Meeting the gentleman’s indignant gaze, Darcy held it resolutely.

‘This is most singular; may I ask to whom you are already obligated?’

‘You may; Miss Elizabeth Bennet.’ Darcy spoke firmly; on this he would not yield.

Latimer smiled patronisingly. ‘Then I am certain the young lady will not object to your standing down on this occasion. If she is a neighbour – nay, the daughter of a mere tenant – then, I am sure she fully understands her place, and more so, where her importance lies now that you have people of… significance in residence.’

Bingley stared from Latimer to Darcy, his mouth partly open as though he would speak but could not find words. For once, Darcy found he could think of plenty.

‘You are perfectly correct, Latimer. As a true lady, Miss Elizabeth Bennet would not object, should such a thing be asked of her. Yet it will not. I would hope also she fully comprehends where her importance lies.’

‘I am gratified to hear you are a man who stands by his word, Darcy. Perhaps it is something we can discuss on the morrow.’

‘Gladly. Understand this, Latimer: you can trust that when I know I have committed myself to something, I will stand by it to the end.’ Darcy inclined his head, holding onto his temper with difficulty. ‘If you will excuse me.’

Darcy strode across the room to his cousin, who had clearly been watching the exchange. ‘A word, Richard, if I may?’

They turned to leave the room, but then Darcy realised Elizabeth was watching them, and he paused on the threshold, holding her gaze. He wished he could take her out of the room, away from Latimer, away from everyone. Then, conscious Latimer had his eye on him, Darcy bowed towards Elizabeth before closing the door and walking rapidly after his cousin.

Chapter Thirty Seven will be posted on Thursday!

Copyright © Cassandra Grafton 2017

Posted in A Quest for Mr Darcy, Writing | Tagged , , , | 53 Comments

A Quest for Mr Darcy – Chapter Thirty Five

The blurb for this story can be found here.

Chapter Thirty Five

Much as he had anticipated, Darcy passed a restless night, his sleep peppered with vague dreams and his waking moments filled with pointless speculation.

What had he been thinking to make such a gesture towards Elizabeth? His cousin may have cautioned him to make better known his feelings, but was this truly how it ought to be done?

It was Elizabeth’s silent plea to him that had been his undoing. Rarely had he seen her show vulnerability, leastways, not to him. When such a moment came, he had found himself powerless, wanting naught else but to hold her and never let her go; to gather her into his arms and carry her to wherever she might feel safe.

Except, of course, if he had picked her up on the previous evening, she would not have felt remotely safe and would doubtless have slapped him directly, and quite rightly so. Further, in all likelihood, she would have refused to speak to him thereafter – other than to berate him for his appalling behaviour!

As Darcy opened his chamber door on Monday morning, preparing to face Elizabeth over the breakfast table, a flicker of hope touched him. It had been the lightest of touches; perchance… was there the slightest, just the smallest chance she had not noticed?

‘Morning, Darce!’

Darcy looked up as he turned to close his door.

‘Richard.’

His cousin came to stand before him, a distinct sparkle in his eye. ‘So – how was your slumber?’

Running a hand through his hair, Darcy shrugged. ‘As I anticipated – decidedly lacking.’

‘Hmph. Head not quite so clear as you had hoped, I suspect. Come, let us go down; I am famished!’

They walked along the hallway, and Darcy could not help but glance at Elizabeth’s door as they passed. Was she still in there, unwilling to come downstairs, to face him?

He paled as they neared the alcove. The heavy tapestry curtain had been tied back into place, as was the custom during the daytime. Darcy bit his lip. Perhaps Elizabeth was already in the breakfast room, pacing angrily in wait for him.

They reached the top of the staircase before the Colonel spoke again.

‘I offer you my congratulations, Cousin.’

Darcy threw him a wary glance as they started down the stairs. ‘For what?’

‘Making progress with Miss Elizabeth Bennet. I feared yesterday was a wasted day, but I believe the evening was less so.’

‘What do you wish to say, Richard?’ Clearly, his cousin’s pause beside the tapestry had delivered intelligence on some level or other. He glanced around the entrance hall as they reached it, thankful to find it empty. ‘And please be circumspect!’

The Colonel laughed and slapped Darcy on the shoulder, propelling him steadily towards the breakfast room. ‘You have worn the same cologne for years, Darce. Besides, the lady has prettier toes than you!’

‘It is not what it might seem!’

Stopping, the Colonel turned to hold his cousin’s gaze seriously for a moment. ‘You have naught to fear from me, Darce, as well you know. There are none who comprehend you as well as I; I do not doubt you were acting the gentleman, whatever your purpose.’

Darcy stood still, staring after his cousin who had continued on into the room and was greeting the occupants in his usual cheery manner. Recalling once more the kiss he had been unable to resist placing on Elizabeth’s cheek, he drew in a shallow breath. Would she consider him a gentleman in the circumstances?

Breakfast was a relatively informal meal at Pemberley, as all guests soon discovered. Large covered dishes were arranged on a long console table against one wall, along with the urn for the making of hot drinks, and seating was down to the individual’s choice. Though a footman remained in the room, he only came when summoned for assistance and beyond that, guests were left to help themselves.

With the main breakfast table being circular in shape, it also removed the need for a ‘head’ of the table, and thus contributed to the relaxed feel as the party broke their fast.

When Darcy entered the room a few moments after his cousin, he was unsure if he was relieved or disappointed to find only Bingley and his sisters at the table.

He walked over to the console and poured himself a cup of tea, glancing at his cousin, who was liberally piling food upon his plate.

‘You do realise Mrs Reynolds will be offering more refreshments within a few hours from now, Cousin?’

The Colonel nodded. ‘And between now and then, I shall need sustenance!’ He straightened up, his laden plate held aloft. ‘I think that will suffice for the moment.’

Darcy shook his head as he turned to follow him to the table, and as he took a seat, Georgiana entered the room.

‘Mrs Annesley is feeling a little unwell this morning; she is resting in her chamber.’

‘Naught of concern, I trust, Georgie?’

‘No, Brother. A head cold, that is all. I promised I would sit with her after breaking my fast, perhaps read a little to her.’

‘Colonel Fitzwilliam, may we go ghost-hunting again?’

Darcy smiled at his cousin’s amused countenance as he took the seat next to Olivia’s. ‘Of course! I am at your disposal.’

‘Richard, I am not sure, with this poacher…’

‘Be calm, Darcy. They will be with me, and from what Rivers has said, this so-called poacher cannot even light an adequate fire. He must also be an appalling trapper or shot if he has to resort to raiding kitchen gardens! I doubt he will outwit me should we cross his path!’ He lowered his voice as Olivia and Viola talked excitedly to each other across the table. ‘Besides, the girls, sweet as they are, do not understand the concept of proceeding with caution! Even a half-wit poacher would have ample notice of our approach!’

‘A fair point.’ Darcy turned to his friend. ‘Bingley? Do you have any objection?’

He shrugged. ‘If the girls are happy, then so am I; after all, they could have no finer escort!’

Throwing Darcy a smug look, the Colonel returned his attention to his plate, and Darcy raised his cup to take a sip, only to lower it again slowly as the door opened once more, and Elizabeth and her sister entered.

There was a flurry of good mornings before Jane turned immediately for the console table, and after a slight hesitation, Elizabeth followed her. Darcy’s eyes were fixed upon her, trying to gauge her mood, and it was as though she sensed it, for she turned her head suddenly to meet his look. She did not seem displeased; in fact, she gave him a tremulous smile.

‘Miss Elizabeth! Come!’ Viola waved her over. ‘I have saved a seat for you beside me.’

‘I will bring you some tea,’ Jane spoke over her shoulder to her sister, and with little option, Elizabeth did as she was bid.

‘Miss Elizabeth.’

‘Mr Darcy.’

As she settled into her allotted seat in between Viola and himself, Darcy strove not to look at Elizabeth, though he was aware she had accepted a cup from Jane, who then walked around the table to sit beside Georgiana.

‘Is Pemberley’s not the finest library you have ever seen?’ Viola placed her cup of hot chocolate on the table and turned her gaze to Elizabeth.

‘I dare say there is not a book one could not find in there!’ Olivia smiled widely at them from across the table.

‘But we do have a favourite corner already, do we not, ‘Livia?’ Viola beamed at Darcy, and he smiled back.

‘And which is that?’

‘The shelves filled with Shakespeare’s plays!’

The Colonel grinned. ‘I suspect your penchant is for tragedies, Miss Viola, with your present fascination with ghostly apparitions!’

Viola laughed. ‘Our interest in Pemberley’s ghost has not waned; this much is true. However, I believe Olivia and I are more formed for enjoyment of his comedies.’

Olivia nodded vigorously. ‘Indeed, Colonel Fitzwilliam; we were born on Twelfth Night – did you not know?’

‘Mama was an ardent admirer of Shakespeare.’

Elizabeth smiled. ‘I did wonder! It is one of my favourite plays. And your youngest sister? Is it Julia?’

Viola sighed dramatically. ‘She was to be a boy, who would be named Julius.’

Georgiana’s eyes widened in surprise. ‘Truly? That is not a particularly…’

Grinning widely, Olivia shook her head. ‘Viola teases you, Georgiana. Our youngest sister is named for Juliet, but we all call her Julia.’

‘Then your mother was quite the romantic then!’

‘Indeed. As are we!’

‘And you, Miss Elizabeth? Do you believe in romance?’ Viola looked archly between Darcy and Elizabeth. ‘I believe Mr Darcy does.’

Darcy stared at Elizabeth. Colour had flooded her cheeks, though he could sense from her eyes she was also amused. What was he to say?

‘I thought I might take Olivia and Viola to Mam Tor and to see the remains of Peveril Castle.’ Bingley smiled genially around the table. ‘Would any of you care to join us? We can always take an additional conveyance.’

‘I will have to forego on this occasion, Bingley.’ Darcy glanced at the clock on the mantel. ‘I cannot stray quite so far from the house with visitors due.’

‘What time do you expect them, Brother?’

Darcy looked over at Georgiana and shrugged lightly. ‘I have no notion. I suspect it will depend upon the condition of the roads after yesterday’s rainfall.’

Olivia turned to Georgiana and tried to press her to join them on their outing, but she stood by her promise to her companion, saying she would enjoy hearing about the excursion upon their return.

‘Miss Bennet! You will come, will you not?’

Two pairs of identical eyes fixed upon Jane, and Darcy glanced at Elizabeth. Who could resist such supplication?

‘There is room in our own carriage for one more!’ Viola’s voice was pleading.

‘And there are caves near the castle!’ Olivia smiled encouragingly at Jane. ‘It is in all ways most splendid, is it not?’

‘’Livia says there are bats in them! How thrilling.’

Olivia nodded eagerly. ‘Do you think they will attack us?’

Both girls stared wide-eyed at each other, positively quivering with anticipation, and the Colonel laughed as Bingley turned to Jane.

‘Do take pity on me, Miss Bennet. I shall otherwise be quite outnumbered!’

With a smile, Jane nodded. ‘Thank you, sir. I shall be delighted to be one of the party.’

Elizabeth laughed as she exchanged a look with her sister. ‘Much as being set upon by bats sounds incredibly exciting, I find myself somewhat relieved to have long overdue correspondence I must attend to.’

As the conversation continued to flow around the table, Elizabeth got to her feet and walked over to where the tea urn stood, and Darcy’s gaze followed her. She seemed quite at ease now, and the smile she had bestowed upon him earlier did not speak of any resentment. Draining his cup, Darcy got to his feet.

‘Oh!’ Elizabeth turned from refilling her cup as he joined her. ‘Forgive me, Mr Darcy. I – you startled me.’

He gestured towards the urn. ‘I came for a refill.’

‘Allow me, sir.’ Elizabeth placed her own cup on the console and took his from him. He studied the curls against the soft skin of her neck as she busied herself, then drew in a shallow breath. This would not do!

‘Are you quite well, Miss Elizabeth?’

She glanced at him briefly. ‘I am, sir. Thank you.’

‘I would not wish you to… you have recovered from your… last night… being lost.’

Slowly turning around, his cup and saucer in her hands, Elizabeth raised her eyes to his. Did he sound as though he were trying to apologise?

Elizabeth seemed equally unsure, for she said naught but held out his replenished cup, but as he went to take hold of the saucer, their eyes locked upon each other. What else could he say? Had he made it plain enough this time that he admired her? Did she comprehend him? He felt a compelling need for it to be so before his visitors arrived. The silence swelled between them, despite the muted sounds of the others at the table.

‘Just a word of caution.’ Their gazes flew to the Colonel as he came to stand beside them. ‘One of you needs to take ownership of that cup of tea. If you both rescind the saucer at once, the liquid will be quenching the rug, not your thirst.’

~o0o~

Elizabeth stared at the piece of parchment before her. She had written no more than, ‘My dear Charlotte’, and beyond that she had yet to progress, though she had been staring at the words this past quarter hour. With a sigh, Elizabeth dropped the pen, its nib long devoid of ink, onto the desk and rose from her seat.

She walked to one of the windows and stared out into the grounds. Though she had expected to lie awake half the night, she had in fact slept well, only to awaken to the tumult of questions on which her eyes had closed. What had driven Mr Darcy to act as he had? What could he have meant by it? And he had seemed almost… concerned about her, earlier. Could she still be dear to him? It brought little comfort to think so, with Miss Latimer’s arrival imminent. How could it bring Mr Darcy any solace either, if it were so?

Knowing the answers she sought would not miraculously appear before her, Elizabeth straightened her shoulders and turned her back on the window.

Georgiana remained upstairs, reading to her companion; Jane and the Bingleys had headed off on their little excursion, and Mr Darcy and his cousin had gone for a short ride. Restless, Elizabeth walked slowly back across the drawing room. It was a beautifully decorated space, without question, but above all, it was a home, and she sighed as she looked around.

‘So much more real elegance than Rosings.’

‘I could not agree more, Miss Elizabeth!’

With a start, Elizabeth turned about. The Colonel had come into the room, and she smiled warmly at him, a question in her eyes.

‘Darcy’s mount lost a shoe when we had gone but a few furlongs. We decided to return to the house and enjoy the peace whilst it lasted!’

Elizabeth laughed, thankful for the interruption to her interminable thoughts. ‘That sounds more in keeping with your cousin, sir, than yourself. I suspect you do not mean it at all.’

The Colonel winked at her, picking up a newspaper from the sideboard and settling in an armchair near the hearth. ‘Ah, Darce; there you are. I am being much maligned by Miss Elizabeth Bennet, who does not believe a word I say. It is only fair you come to my aid.’

‘She is quite right not to have faith in any of your fancies, Richard.’

‘I trust your mount is not injured, sir?’ Elizabeth met Mr Darcy’s gaze warily. Did he consider her foolish for her fear of being discovered last night? Had she not placed both of them in an even more precarious situation by being concealed behind the tapestry?

‘Not at all.’ He looked around the room, his eye falling on her discarded writing slope. ‘Do we disturb? We can remove to the library or my study if…’

‘No, sir.’ Elizabeth shook her head. She did not wish to be left to her own devices any longer. ‘I have achieved little and welcome some distraction.’

‘We have been remiss, Miss Elizabeth.’ The Colonel looked up from his paper. ‘It is a fine day. If it is company you seek, I am certain we can place ourselves at your disposal, should you wish to go for a walk?’

Smiling, Elizabeth looked from the Colonel to his cousin. Mr Darcy nodded. ‘Indeed. I do not believe you have seen the arboretum?’

‘Good thinking, Darce. The colours are quite something at this time of year.’

‘I would be delighted to see it, and I am sure I could not have better guides.’

The Colonel laughed. ‘Well, in Darcy you could not. My attention tends to wander too easily!’

Back in her dressing room, Elizabeth hurriedly changed her footwear and picked up a warm shawl. The chance to walk with Mr Darcy, albeit in his cousin’s company, was unexpected, and she intended to enjoy it.

She barely threw the alcove a passing glance as she walked back along the landing, but as she reached the top of the stairs she looked down the gallery towards the guest wing where the twins had taken her on the previous evening. Mr Darcy had asked her to show him the view which had afforded the ghostly vision, had he not? Perhaps she ought to mention it before they began their walk.

When she neared the bottom of the staircase, she could see Mr Darcy waiting, and he walked to meet her as she reached the entrance hall.

‘My cousin will be here directly.’

Willing her heart to stop its skipping, Elizabeth drew in a calming breath. ‘I wish neither you nor your mount any harm, Mr Darcy, but I am thankful for the loss of its shoe.’

Mr Darcy took a further step towards her, and Elizabeth stared up at him. ‘Much as I enjoy a gallop across the fields, I find I, too, can bear its loss quite well.’

Against her volition, Elizabeth raised a hand to her cheek, and the gentleman’s eye followed it before his gaze flew back to meet hers.

‘Miss Elizabeth,’ he hesitated, swallowed visibly. ‘I – I hope you forgive my forwardness.’

Anxious to allay his concern, Elizabeth began to shake her head.

‘Excuse me, Miss Bennet?’

With a start, they both took a step backwards as a footman approached bearing a silver salver.

‘A servant from The Grange has called with some post which arrived this morning.’

Taking the two envelopes from the tray, Elizabeth thanked him, before glancing at the first one.

‘It is a letter from my sister, Mary.’ She looked up. ‘Sir – are you quite well?’ Mr Darcy had gone exceedingly pale.

‘That letter…’

Elizabeth glanced at the second. ‘It is for Papa.’

‘The hand; Miss Elizabeth, do you recognise the hand?’

Elizabeth frowned at the urgency in his tone as she studied it carefully. ‘Not at all. Though ‘tis singular; apart from my sisters’, all post comes via my uncle’s address in London.’

‘Richard!’

Elizabeth turned around; the Colonel had returned to the entrance hall, and he walked swiftly over. ‘Is aught amiss, Darcy?’

‘May I?’ Elizabeth nodded as Mr Darcy took the letter from her and held it before his cousin.

Wickham,’ the Colonel muttered.

Elizabeth’s eyes widened. ‘Then he did survive the fire. But why… I mean, how could he know we are here in Derbyshire? And why would he write to Papa?’

‘Mr Darcy? Sir?’

Darcy dragged his eyes away from Elizabeth’s anxious face. His housekeeper had come to join them. ‘Mrs Reynolds?’

‘There is a carriage just crossing the bridge, sir. I believe your visitors are here.’

~o0o~

Chapter Thirty Six will be posted on Tuesday!

Copyright © Cassandra Grafton 2017

Posted in A Quest for Mr Darcy, Writing | Tagged , , , | 50 Comments