Darcy adjusted his person in the carriage, stretching his long legs but unwilling to disturb his sister on the opposite bench, who had been sleeping this past hour, her head resting against the shoulder of the lady by her side. Mrs Annesley, a sensible woman in her thirties and companion to Georgiana Darcy, remained engrossed in her book and barely seemed to register Darcy’s existence.
The silence suited him; the thoughts in his head did not. With the passing countryside providing little distraction, Darcy’s mind had turned inwards, as it so often did. And as it so often did of late, only one thing occupied his thoughts: Miss Elizabeth Bennet.
Why? Why could he not free himself from her? Darcy had known his danger, of course. Telling himself he was relieved when she and her sister left after their brief sojourn at Netherfield was mere lip service, and well he comprehended it. Fortunately, no one else was aware of this unfathomable fascination (though Caroline Bingley’s hawk-like eyes missed very little).
But the ball last week… Darcy closed his eyes, a vision of Elizabeth, attired in her finest, her hair prettily dressed, appearing before him. How he had anticipated standing up for a set with her. How he had argued with himself beforehand, debating the pros and cons of doing so, knowing all along he would be unable to resist the temptation.
Yet the set had not delivered. Not at all. Instead, it had revealed Elizabeth’s disapprobation, her disinclination for his company, and worse, her interest in another—in Wickham, of all people. How she had championed him!
A tremor seared through Darcy, and his eyes flew open. Of all people!
Then he took himself to task. Be done with it, Darcy.
He turned to stare out of the window, forcing away the memory. The journey was nearing its end. They had left the turnpike behind some time ago, their speed lessening to accommodate the winding lanes of Somersetshire. It was pretty country, predominantly farmland and small villages, and the state of the roads reflected it. Darcy winced as the wheels found yet another rut, bouncing the travellers roughly in their seats. Georgiana, however, did not stir.
Darcy eyed her with concern. His sister had slept badly of late, her cough troubling her. It was no surprise the somnolent motion of the carriage when on the smoother roads had lulled her to sleep. He hoped—no, he prayed—he had done right in bringing her away.
As the carriage slowed to enter an impressive gateway, rolling in state into the park, Darcy leaned forward and rested a hand on Georgiana’s arm.
‘Dearest. We are arrived.’
Mrs Annesley closed her book as Georgiana sleepily opened her eyes and straightened. Her wan complexion smote Darcy’s heart. Lord, he hoped Wilson’s prognosis was sound.
‘Forgive me, Brother. I have not been the best of company.’ Her voice was hoarse, but Darcy smiled encouragingly as he sat back in his seat.
‘You need your rest, my dear. I will make your apologies to Sir Walter. Remain in the carriage with Mrs Annesley whilst I establish our direction.’
Relief filled Georgiana’s features, and she turned to speak quietly to the lady at her side as Darcy viewed their surroundings with growing interest.
The park at Kellynch was extensive, but the house was soon in sight, an impressive Elizabethan building with an excess of windows. The upkeep must be a severe drain on Sir Walter Elliot’s income—the rumours may well be true after all.
Barely had the steps been lowered before Darcy was out of the carriage and striding forward, exchanging acknowledgements with the baronet who had come out of the imposing doorway to greet them.
‘My good sir, welcome to Kellynch.’ Sir Walter puffed out his chest, and Darcy blinked. He was wearing a ridiculously ornate waistcoat for the time of day, his hair arranged with more care and precision than a lady of fashion.
‘Sir Walter. I trust you and your family are in good health?’
‘What? Ah, yes. Capital, I thank you. But you will see for yourself, Darcy. You will join us for some refreshments.’ He turned on his heel and walked towards the doors, flanked by a pair of footmen.
‘With regret, sir, I must decline for the present.’
A frown creased Sir Walter’s brow, though it was quickly banished. ‘What is this? No refreshments after such a journey?’ He passed a smoothing hand across his forehead, as though in fear the frown had wrinkled it.
‘I thank you sincerely for the kind offer, sir, but my sister has been unwell and requires rest. If your man would be so good as to supply the direction to our lodgings, I will ensure she is comfortably installed before coming to pay my respects.’
Sir Walter’s gaze drifted towards the open door of the carriage.
‘Of course. Shepherd.’ He gestured towards a neatly-dressed man hovering just inside the doorway. ‘Be so good as to furnish Mr Darcy’s coachman with directions to Meadowbrook House.’ He bowed fussily to Darcy. ‘We shall see you directly, sir.’
Darcy was back in the carriage before Sir Walter had disappeared inside the building. His impression of the gentleman had not wavered. He was as much a spectacle at home as he was in Town.
Some minutes later, the carriage drew up on a gravel sweep before a substantial property of much more recent build than the main house. The columns supporting the portico, the tall windows, and the smooth stonework spoke of its Georgian origins. It was, perhaps, in a similar style to Netherfield, only on a smaller scale.
Once inside, Darcy was relieved to see his valet, Raworth, and Mrs Reynolds, the housekeeper from Pemberley, waiting in the entrance hall.
‘Welcome to Meadowbrook House, Mr Darcy.’ Mrs Reynolds dropped a curtsey as Raworth relieved Darcy of his greatcoat. ‘Shall I bring tea to the drawing room?’
‘Georgiana?’ Darcy turned to his sister and her companion.
‘May I go to my room, Fitz?’
‘Of course.’ He turned to the housekeeper as Georgiana’s maid, Tilly, took her coat and bonnet. ‘I trust you and the staff are well settled, Mrs Reynolds?’
‘Of course, sir. Come, Miss Georgiana, Mrs Annesley. I will show you to your apartments and send up some tea.’
Darcy watched the ladies making their way up the elegant staircase, then walked over to where one of the Pemberley footmen held open the door to the drawing room, and he entered with interest.
It was a well-furnished room, and a roaring fire in the grate made it all the more welcoming. There was a well-stocked bookcase along the far wall, and Darcy walked over to inspect it, only to mutter at the first book he selected. Was not this the very volume of poems Elizabeth had been studying during that interminable half hour in Netherfield’s library? How he had struggled through those endless minutes, determined to remain in his place, yet equally committed to ensuring no particular attention to the lady escaped him on the final day of her stay in the house.
‘Enough,’ Darcy said aloud as he thrust the slim volume back onto the shelf, turning his back on the books.
There was a desk under the far window, and a quick inspection showed it to be well equipped with the necessary writing implements. Taking a seat, Darcy selected a pen, dipped it into the ink and started to write. His cousin could be relied upon for many things, providing distraction being a particular talent. The sooner Richard came to visit, the better.
Elizabeth Bennet closed the door to her sister’s bedroom with a snap. She was quite out of sorts, torn between frustration and concern for Jane. How could someone so sweet-natured be so… so stubborn? With a huff, Elizabeth hurried along the landing and down the stairs. She needed fresh air and, hopefully, a renewed perspective, because as things stood, she could not see a way forward.
Within five minutes, suitably dressed for the chilly November weather, Elizabeth was clambering over a stile into the field situated on Longbourn’s western border, thankful for the crisp overnight frost and the solid ground underfoot.
Deep in thought, she strode purposefully along, barely heeding her surroundings. Was Jane truly serious in her consideration of an engagement to Mr Collins? It was nonsensical. What could she possibly do to help her sister see things differently?
Pausing to draw breath as the terrain began to rise steadily, Elizabeth put her hands on her hips, her brow furrowed.
‘There must be something,’ she muttered.
At least her aunt and uncle would be here soon for their annual Christmas visit, along with their brood. If anyone could talk some sense into the sister Elizabeth once viewed as the most grounded and sensible of them all, it was Aunt Gardiner. There was, at least, that shred of hope to cling to.
Upon reaching the summit of the small mound, Elizabeth paused again to take in the vista of open country. However, it did not deliver the usual contentment as her mind returned to her current concerns.
At first disbelieving Mr Bingley’s decampment from Netherfield to be interminable, Elizabeth had dismissed Jane’s doubts and anxieties. Now, it was impossible to ignore the facts. She had encountered the gentleman’s housekeeper yesterday in Meryton, who had confirmed there was no indication her master intended to return. A skeleton staff was to be retained through the winter, but rumour was that, come the spring, the property would be sub-let to another.
Elizabeth was torn. Keeping secrets from Jane went against her nature, yet if she spoke of it, her sister would surely give in to her mother’s pressure over Mr Collins.
Anger towards Caroline Bingley and her sister rose in Elizabeth’s breast, a familiar sensation of late. This was their doing. Releasing a frustrated breath, she studied the surrounding farmland. As for Mr Bingley, how could he be persuaded against his affection for Jane? Yet Elizabeth suspected the blame was not theirs alone. He was equally culpable, she was certain—if not even more so.
That man! Setting off at a keen pace, Elizabeth tried to out-run her thoughts as she descended the slope. Mr Darcy. Mr Cane-Up-His-Rear Darcy. He would fail to recognise true affection were it to rise up and poke him in his sardonic eye.
She doubted not he had brought undue influence upon his friend. After all, had not Mr Bingley himself declared Mr Darcy to be the person he turned to for advice on all matters?
Advice from Mr Darcy on matters of the heart? Unfathomable.
Elizabeth looked up as she reached even ground. Charlotte Lucas was in the lane bordering the field with her guest, Miss Anne Elliot, a young lady of four and twenty years and impeccable manners. She was of a slender frame, average height, and had kind brown eyes, and Elizabeth had enjoyed making her acquaintance over the past week.
With an enthusiastic wave, Elizabeth hurried across the grass to a nearby stile and scaled it.
‘We are well met, Eliza.’ Charlotte smiled. ‘For we were on our way to pay a call at Longbourn.’
Elizabeth pulled a face. ‘It is well to avoid the place.’ She sent an apologetic look towards the lady at Charlotte’s side. ‘Pay me no mind, Miss Elliot. I am attempting to walk off a bout of ill temper. How are you enjoying this spell of crisp weather?’
‘It is welcome, is it not, after the persistent rains of late?’ Anne glanced at their mutual friend. ‘I am grateful for Charlotte’s kind invitation, for the downpours in Town were not conducive to taking the air.’
Charlotte indicated they walk on, and Elizabeth fell into step beside them. ‘You were in Town with your godmother, I understand?’
‘Yes.’ Anne smiled. ‘She is also a dear friend. Lady Russell much prefers the winter pleasures of Bath, and upon that city she is now bent. For myself, I had endured sufficient of hard pavements, bustle, and noise.’
Her recent frustration dissipating with the balm of company, Elizabeth laughed. ‘And you have exchanged them for muddy lanes and puddles.’
Anne’s expression was wistful. ‘It is always my preference over Bath.’
They paused on the verge for a moment to let a horse and cart pass.
‘I should like to see Bath very much,’ mused Elizabeth as they continued along the lane. ‘I travel so rarely.’
Charlotte seemed disbelieving. ‘You visit your aunt and uncle in London often enough, Eliza.’
‘Yes, but that is all. There is so much to be seen, and I have experienced so very little. I would love to journey as far as the Lakes or the Peak District.’ Elizabeth looked around at the surroundings. ‘I will own to being generally content with my lot in life, but of late, I have become somewhat disenchanted.’
Charlotte was frowning. ‘Is this to do with Jane?’
Silence fell upon the ladies as they negotiated a crossing on the lane. Longbourn was now in sight, and Elizabeth viewed it with mixed emotions. She had not anticipated so precipitous a return. However, now was not the time to discuss Jane and Mr Collins—not in company with someone with whom she had only so recently become acquainted
Elizabeth frowned as she addressed Charlotte. ‘I comprehend the connection between your fathers, their having met at St James’, but how is it you are both acquainted?’
‘Anne and I met when we attended the ladies’ seminary for a twelve-month.’ Charlotte smiled. ‘You recall, Eliza, do you not, my stay in Surrey some years ago?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘We remained in contact through correspondence,’ Anne interjected. ‘But have rarely met in the interim. I had never visited Hertfordshire before, and Charlotte has never come to Kellynch. That is our home in Somersetshire,’ she added.
‘Yet now we are to address the situation!’ Charlotte’s smile widened as they made their way down the drive to Longbourn. ‘Anne has kindly extended an invitation to accompany her when she returns to the West Country. I shall make a stay of some weeks.’
Knowing of Charlotte’s importance to the running of the household at Lucas Lodge, this was surprising intelligence to Elizabeth and sufficient distraction from her present vexations, and the three young ladies continued a lively discussion on the charms of home until they were inside the house.
‘She is pleasant, is she not?’ Jane Bennet turned away from the window as Elizabeth returned to the room from seeing the callers on their way.
‘I find her excellent company. She has an independent air that is much to be admired.’ Elizabeth walked over to join Jane by the window, determined to make a point. ‘She epitomises the prerogative of a lady’s choice to remain unwed.’
Jane raised an admonishing brow at her sister, but Lydia, the only other of the Bennet ladies remaining, snorted.
‘I did not find her good company. Miss Elliot is far too piano for my tastes.’ Lydia flounced out of the room, and Jane and Elizabeth exchanged a resigned look.
‘’Tis a shame Lydia makes so little use of the mute pedal herself.’ Elizabeth held out a hand to her sister, and Jane smiled, taking the hand as they crossed the room to settle on a chaise beside the hearth.
‘No, Lizzy.’ Jane placed a hand on her sister’s arm. ‘I beg of you. No more. Let me come to my own decision.’ She raised a hand as Elizabeth opened her mouth. ‘And in my own time.’
Sensing the swift return of her annoyance, Elizabeth blew out a breath. ‘I cannot condone you even considering Mama’s scheme.’
‘Dear Lizzy’—Jane turned in her seat, her eyes solemn—‘Mama was quite right. One of us must secure the futures of the others. It is incumbent upon me to at least give the heir to the estate some consideration. Besides, think of the peace of mind it would bring to our parents.’
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. Peace of mind? Never! ‘Those are Mama’s words! And Papa is not as content as you may believe.’
‘I know.’ Jane sighed. ‘I do not wish people to be at odds, but I am only doing my duty in not dismissing it out of hand, and if it is my choice, you will not talk me out of it.’
‘So be it. It shall no more be spoken of.’ Neither of them believed it a solemn promise. All the good of Charlotte and Anne’s visit faded as melancholy settled upon Elizabeth with a firm hand.
‘Do not be sad. Let us speak of pleasanter things, such as this evening’s invitation to dine at Lucas Lodge.’
Elizabeth stayed her sister with her hand as they both rose from their seats. ‘Promise me one thing, Jane.
‘Just one, Lizzy?’ Jane smiled over her shoulder as they reached the door.
‘I am perfectly serious.’ Elizabeth stepped aside as Jane swung the door open. ‘Will you promise to make no commitment to Mr Collins at this point? After all, he has already said he will return in a fortnight.’
Jane held Elizabeth’s gaze for a moment, then nodded. ‘It is the least I can commit to. The matter is sealed.’
‘Nothing is sealed yet,’ Elizabeth muttered as she followed Jane out into the hallway.
‘Did you say something?’
Elizabeth shook her head, her faint hopes taking a firmer hold. ‘Nothing of any consequence.’
Perhaps it was time to channel Mr Darcy himself? If he could persuade his friend away from her sister, perhaps there would be a way for Jane to be persuaded from this ridiculous notion of taking Mr Collins as a husband?
You can find Chapter Two HERE!
Copyright © 2020 Ada Bright & Cass Grafton