‘I shall miss your company when you leave in the morning.’ Elizabeth glanced at Anne as they made their way through the lanes near Meryton.
‘And I yours.’ Anne looked over her shoulder as a burst of laughter emanated from Lydia Bennet, who was walking behind them with her sister, Kitty.
‘But not my sisters’!’ Elizabeth shook her head as she and Anne turned their steps towards Longbourn. ‘No attempt to check them holds sway. Did you ever have such trials from your youngest sister?’
‘Mary is quite the opposite, though her younger sisters through marriage are not dissimilar.’ Anne smiled. ‘Louisa and Henrietta are away at school, which may tame some of their exuberance.’
Anne preceded Elizabeth through the open gates, and they continued down the drive towards the house. ‘Sisters can present many challenges, can they not?’
Elizabeth pulled a face, then laughed. ‘Aye, that they can. Tell me about Mary. You said she is the only one of you to marry so far?’
‘Yes, she wed a Mr Charles Musgrove but a year ago.’
‘And is she content?’
Anne did not answer, and Elizabeth stayed the lady with her hand. ‘Forgive me. I am too inquisitive.’
‘Not at all.’ Anne’s smile was reassuring. ‘I was merely reflecting. How much do any of us truly comprehend of a married couple’s life when all we see is their public face? Mary is with child at present and some of her ailments make her querulous, so happiness in her present situation is difficult to determine.’
‘You are quite the diplomat, Miss Elliot.’
Anne shook her head. ‘I speak as I find.’
‘Which is why we get on so famously.’ Elizabeth laughed. ‘Though I will own, you speak with less impertinence than I.’
She flinched at a shout of laughter from Lydia as they resumed their walk. How Anne had endured these few days, she had no idea, but there were another four and twenty hours to get through before she would be able to escape Longbourn. How could she help her pass them without excessive exposure to her family?
Darcy and the colonel were passing the impressive entrance gates on the driveway leading to Kellynch Hall, and they reined in their mounts again.
‘How extensive is the estate?’ The colonel shielded his eyes from the low winter sun as he took in the vista around them.
‘Not dissimilar to Pemberley, but in need of some investment.’ Darcy gestured towards a nearby boundary with his crop. ‘Many of the walls are in need of repair, there are some fences down, and I have already discerned several trees which ought to be felled before they choose to do so of their own accord.’
The colonel raised a brow. ‘The estate is not channelling its resources into where it is required. Is Sir Walter strapped for cash?’
‘I believe he is headed that way.’ They both urged their mounts to walk on. ‘There seems no shortage of funds for garments, fine dining and refurbishment of the principal rooms in the house.’
‘That would conform to the general consensus in Town.’ Colonel Fitzwilliam grinned. ‘Sir Walter is as fine a specimen as is ever seen, other than Brummel himself, of course. Quite the dandy and, to be fair to the gentleman, not looking his age.’
‘He may not look his age, but he ought at least to dress it.’
The colonel laughed. ‘I can imagine his flounce and fancy would not be to your taste, Darce!’
‘There is very little about Sir Walter Elliot that is to my taste, other than Meadowbrook House is proving perfect for its purpose.’
‘Georgiana does seem in better spirits.’
Darcy mulled on this as they reached the bend in the lane. ‘Much as I hate to give you reason to gloat, Georgie has improved remarkably in spirits since your arrival.’
The colonel snorted. ‘Yes, she has been telling me you are not much aid to cheering her up. Your introspection has not gone unnoticed, Darce. Come on, it is high time you came out with the cause.’
It certainly was not!
Darcy urged Gunnar into a canter, calling over his shoulder, ‘Riding is not conducive to conversation.’
He was in no mood for one of his cousin’s interrogations, nor did he wish to reflect upon the origin of his introspection.
An image of Elizabeth rushed into his mind, and nothing he could do would expunge it. Trying to ignore the habitual ache within his breast, Darcy sped on towards home. He would not be drawn in. Elizabeth was his own secret to keep.
Back in Hertfordshire, Anne and Elizabeth were strolling in the garden, both reluctant to give up the fine day.
‘What is through that gate?’
Elizabeth followed Anne’s gaze. ‘A pleasant grove. Would you like to see it?’
‘Oh yes. I have always had a particular fondness for groves.’
‘It is perfect when one wants to escape for a while.’ Anne threw Elizabeth a curious glance, and she smiled. ‘My younger sisters are unlikely to consider venturing out here unless they think red coats might be growing.’
They strolled in the grove in a companionable silence for a while, but Elizabeth felt out of sorts.
‘Will you think badly of me, Miss Elliot, if I speak more openly than our acquaintance might warrant?’
‘If speaking will aid you, then please do. You can trust in my discretion.’
Elizabeth took Anne’s arm and they resumed their walk.
‘I am unsurprised by my mother playing upon Jane’s lowness of mood, but I cannot comprehend my sister’s lack of faith in Mr Bingley’s returning. Her consideration of Mama’s proposition is not duty. It is madness of the highest order.’
‘Is it truly?’
Anne’s soft-spoken question merely confirmed what Elizabeth already knew.
‘No, of course not. But my father…’ She stopped and faced Anne, conscious of rising agitation. ‘If Jane is willing, Papa is not going to dissuade her from her apparent choice.’
‘And you feel Mr Bennet should act?’
Elizabeth raised both hands before dropping them to her sides. ‘Having been rescued from such a match myself, I find Papa’s acceptance of the situation unfathomable. His reasoning is that Jane needs time to reflect, time to see the commitment from a more rational perspective.’ She let out a breath. ‘It does have some merit. Jane is caught up in her own misery. She cannot see happiness with any man and thus concludes she may as well make a convenient match to aid her sisters.’
‘It is a noble gesture.’
‘And I wish I could accept it.’ Elizabeth’s every thought railed against it; her heart rejected the notion.
‘Come, let us walk on.’ Anne urged Elizabeth into step, and they followed a winding path to their left.
‘Jane once said I was not formed for ill humour. Never did I foresee the sweetest, most benevolent of my sisters putting me in a humour such as this.’
They came to a bench nestled against the hedging and sat down.
‘Oh, Miss Elliot. How fortunate you are.’
‘I?’ Anne’s kind eyes clouded for a second. ‘Yes, of course. Though I struggle to ascertain your present meaning?’
‘Forgive me, I am over familiar.’
Anne shook her head. ‘Our friendship may yet be of short duration, but we have already formed quite the bond, have we not? Thus, the boundaries are quite liberal and shall no doubt be infinite in time.’
Elizabeth was warmed by the sincere sentiments. ‘I fail to recall a time when I was not conscious of the expectation for all of us to secure a match—and that at least one of us must make a good one to protect the future of the others.’ She paused, inhaling the crisp winter air. ‘Though Mr Collins is not a rich man, being heir apparent to the estate would offer protection for us all. Yet I cannot reconcile myself to Jane’s sacrifice.’
‘The entailment is something we have in common. Kellynch is destined for my father’s cousin, William Walter Elliot, Esq.’
‘And has there been no pressure upon your eldest sister?’
Anne released a short laugh. ‘I think the pressure might well have been upon the cousin, but it bore no fruit. My sister, from as early as I can recall, meant to marry Mr Elliot—he is the heir presumptive, you see and a future baronet—and my father had always meant that she should.’
‘Was Miss Elliot deeply attached to the gentleman?’
‘Not at all. I believe they only met twice in Town. Both my father and my sister were angered by Mr Elliot snubbing the hand of friendship from the head of the family and then going on to marry a woman of inferior birth.’
‘Oh!’ Elizabeth frowned. ‘So, Miss Elliot and yourself…’ It would be indelicate to ask if they were in need of a match. Surely they had plentiful dowries and would not fail to secure a situation when they chose to? ‘You have not been persuaded by your father to settle down, have no desire to follow your younger sister’s inclination?’
Anne’s features were indicative of some discomfort. ‘It is true my eldest sister has, this last twelve-month, seemed almost desperate for a situation, and my father is equally desirous of her securing one. For myself,’ she hesitated. ‘I have never feared being thrust into a situation against my wishes, but…’
Elizabeth eyed Anne with growing curiosity.
‘It is simply…’ Anne hesitated. ‘Well, there is the truth. It is not simple at all. Dear Miss Bennet’—she sighed—‘the grass spreads no greener over the fields of Kellynch than it does elsewhere. Perchance it is simply of a different hue.’
‘Is your present situation not of your choosing?’
Elizabeth was conscious how carefully Anne was speaking. Something about her air bespoke disquiet. Perhaps she ought to redirect the conversation?
Anne, however, continued. ‘Choice is a complicated thing for a woman,’ Then, she waved a hand. ‘Pay me no mind. For the present, I will own to some regrets—regrets that have yet to leave me.’
Elizabeth smiled. ‘You make me curious, but I will ask no more. One day, I hope you will share your burden with me.’
‘I am quite content with my lot in life.’
Quite content? Elizabeth knew it would not be sufficient for her, and she doubted, ultimately, it would be sufficient for Anne Elliot.
The lady at her side shivered, and Elizabeth stood up. ‘Come, let us walk back towards the house whilst you talk me into a better humour.’
Anne fell into step beside her. ‘I wish I had an attachment to either of my sisters as strong as yours. I envy you, Miss Bennet.’
Elizabeth followed her out of the grove, then turned to take Anne’s proffered arm.
‘Jane is my truest friend and a most beloved sister.’ Elizabeth mulled upon this for a moment. ‘I have never felt this way about her before, as though we are drifting apart.’
‘May I make a suggestion?’
‘A change of scene may bring you some reprieve. Dear Miss Bennet, will you not come with me, in Charlotte’s stead, to Kellynch?’
Chapter Four can be found HERE!
Copyright © 2020 Ada Bright & Cass Grafton