‘Can you be quite serious?’ Elizabeth stared at Anne in part disbelief, part wild hope. ‘Accompany you to Somersetshire?’
‘Why ever not? Charlotte was to make a stay of several weeks with us. In her absence, why not take her place? Dear Miss Bennet’—Anne spoke earnestly—‘I am sorely in need of company—good company. Will you not indulge me?’
‘I—’ Elizabeth cast around for the right words, but they would not oblige, mainly because her head was simply shouting ‘yes, yes, yes’. Why was she hesitating? Because of Jane.
‘Can you not spare a couple of weeks? Your sister has promised to make no decision before your cousin’s return.’
It was true, and there was merit in the suggestion, for Jane showed no sign of listening to anything Elizabeth said.
She smiled. ‘Pay no mind to my dithering. It is not for want of accepting with alacrity. I am taken aback, that is all. Would it be acceptable to your family? They are vastly my…’
‘They are expecting me to return with Charlotte. Whomsoever I return with will make no difference to my father or my eldest sister.’
‘They sound most accommodating.’
A small sound escaped Anne, but Elizabeth was too taken up with the notion of escape.
‘I must speak to Papa.’ It was a necessity, but Elizabeth knew her father would always take the path of least disruption, and if she made it clear she wanted to go into Somersetshire, then to Somersetshire she would go.
Anne’s face was alight with warmth. ‘I should so love to show Kellynch to you, Miss Bennet! It is, of all things, the holder of my heart, my solace and comfort.’
‘You make me envious.’ Elizabeth looked around the charming walled garden. The golden chimney tops of Longbourn and the rooftops were all that could be seen from here. ‘I do like my home, but I would not say it was the love of my life.’ She turned back to face Miss Elliot. ‘Indeed, of late, I have oft dreamed of escaping its confines for the wider world. Your offer is most fortuitous,’
‘Then you will come? And…’
Colour crept into Miss Elliot’s cheeks, and Elizabeth eyed her with curiosity.
‘Do I ask too much, after so brief an acquaintance…might we use our first names?’
‘Oh, thank heavens!’ Elizabeth beamed at Anne. ‘The formality at times is enough to drive one to bedlam.’ She sobered, but her heart was full at her unexpected good fortune. ‘Come…Anne. Let us repair to the house. I shall speak to Papa directly. With your carriage due on the morrow, I must make haste to address my packing, and you can advise me on the suitability of my wardrobe.’
Darcy dropped Bingley’s latest onto his desk and leaned back in his chair. Distance from Hertfordshire and a certain young lady had done little to lessen his friend’s attachment, and he was making it obvious.
With a faint smile, Darcy got to his feet. Bingley was a lot bolder at expressing his opinion when they were not face-to-face. The momentary amusement faded, and Darcy released a frustrated breath. Damn it! Now he was feeling guilt-ridden once more. Bingley had no patience for writing letters, dashing them off with such speed they were almost unintelligible, yet since Darcy and he had parted company, he had become a regular correspondent.
His gaze drifted to the discarded letter on the desk. All too regular. As was the refrain. His friend was unhappy, excessively so, doubting his own actions and thus the advice he had been given. Bingley never doubted Darcy’s advice.
Frowning now, Darcy left the room and paced the hallway. He had no misgivings whatsoever.
Or did he? Was he not painfully aware of his own danger when in Hertfordshire? Did Darcy not feel the same anguish his friend so freely expressed, whenever thoughts of Elizabeth passed through his mind?
Yet the lady came from the same unsuitable family, who displayed little decorum, had no fortune or prospects, and the weakest of connections. A country town attorney, for heaven’s sake, and a businessman in Cheapside!
An image of Elizabeth formed before him, her chin raised and her fine eyes sparkling as she traded opinions with him, and something deep within Darcy’s breast clenched as he instinctively placed a hand over his heart. Why did she persist in haunting him? Her voice played in his ears day and night, her eyes followed him—intelligent, forthright…
Darcy started and looked towards the drawing room door.
‘Is something amiss?’
Darcy joined his sister, taking her out-stretched hands. ‘Not at all, my dear.’ He frowned again. ‘Why do you ask?’
‘Your countenance, Fitz.’ Georgiana’s eyes scanned his face. ‘I know something disturbs you. We have not been brother and sister these many years without my learning something of your looks.’
‘My habitual dour expression, you mean?’ Darcy smiled and followed Georgiana into the room.
‘You are not dour!’ Georgiana took a seat by the hearth. ‘You are…’
‘Curmudgeonly? Irascible? Cantankerous?’ The colonel had joined them, and Darcy laughed.
‘Quite often.’ He turned back to his sister. ‘But never with you, dear Georgie.’
‘But what is it, Brother?’ Georgiana’s gaze was unwavering, and Darcy stirred under its intensity. Where the devil was this coming from?
The colonel looked from one to the other, then dropped into an armchair opposite his young cousin, a smirk spreading across his features.
‘Aha! Caught out, I gather?’ He eyed Georgiana with a smile. ‘What has Darcy been revealing? He has a secret of some sort, though I have yet to discern it. Perchance you will have better luck than I.’
‘I have no secret.’ Darcy bit out. You lie, whispered a soft voice, somewhere out of reach. ‘Nothing at all.’
‘I fear he doth protest too much, Georgie.’ The colonel stretched his legs out in front of the fire. ‘How shall we cajole the facts from him?’
‘Is it to do with your time in Hertfordshire?’ Georgiana looked from Darcy to the colonel and back. ‘Did something happen there, some misfortune befall you?’
Leaning back in his seat, Darcy eyed his sister across the room. If only she knew.
‘Your silence is telling, Brother. Is it connected to Mr Bingley?’
Darcy blinked. ‘What makes you say—’
‘You told me you and his sisters hastened after him, though you did not elaborate on your reasons. And between your return and our departure for Somerset, you barely saw him, yet it is customary for him to lodge with us or Mr and Mrs Hurst rather than in an hotel. Thus, I must conclude, there is a difficulty between you both.’
‘I think it is something other than that, Georgie.’ Colonel Fitzwilliam smirked at Darcy. ‘He has already told me of the service he rendered to Bingley in successfully extracting him from a situation in Hertfordshire.’
Georgiana’s expression was filled with concern. ‘Had he formed another attachment?’
Darcy nodded. ‘Bingley was quickly smitten, but the lady less so.’
‘Oh, poor Mr Bingley!’
‘An indifferent lady and a besotted Bingley.’ The colonel barked a laugh. ‘You did the lady a favour, that much is certain, Darce.’
‘I merely pointed out the ills of such an alliance. The lady was of inferior birth and the family’s situation appalling. Separating them was in both their interests.’
Georgiana was frowning. ‘But if you feel thus, why would it plague you so, have you pacing the hallway with such a conflicted air?’
‘Hah!’ The colonel laughed. ‘Definitely caught out!’ He glanced at his young cousin. ‘I wonder, Georgie, if it has aught to do with this mention of a young lady in Hertfordshire.’
‘Enough of this.’ Darcy got to his feet, weary of the subject. ‘Amuse yourselves as best you can. I have correspondence to attend to.’
Darcy closed the door on his cousin’s chuckling. Let them speculate at will. There was no possible chance of them stumbling upon the truth.
A new day dawned soon enough, and the trunks were quickly loaded onto the Elliot carriage, but before Anne and Elizabeth left the house, Hill joined them in the entrance hall.
‘A letter has been sent up from Lucas Lodge, Miss Lizzy. For Miss Elliot.’ Hill handed over the missive and hurried away, and Anne frowned.
‘I am not expecting any letters. Oh! It is Elizabeth’s hand.’ She looked up. ‘You share a name but little else.’
Elizabeth smiled. ‘Shall we get on our way? You can read it as we travel.’ She looked around. ‘Where is your maid?’
‘She is to travel with the coachman as the weather holds for now.’
‘Is that not a little singular?’ Elizabeth followed Anne into the elegant carriage and took a seat opposite her.
‘Elise and James are married.’
Elizabeth looked out of the window at Longbourn as the carriage began to move. It would have been difficult to say goodbye to Anne, for she had been the best of companions. She also talked with such warmth of her home, of Somersetshire, that Elizabeth was all anticipation for her visit.
She waved to her sisters, who had come to see them off, feeling little regret at leaving them behind. Elizabeth turned away from the window. Never before had she been parted from Jane without wishing they could remain together.
As the carriage set off along the turnpike towards the West Country, Anne leaned back against the cushions.
‘You look disturbed, Lizzy. Is it leaving Miss Bennet behind?’
Elizabeth settled back in her seat. ‘I am astounded at my relief. Normally, when I am parted from Jane, I miss her immediately.’
‘Perchance the separation will do your sister some good, permit her to see a way forward more clearly.’
‘I truly hope so.’
Anne’s mild, dark eyes met Elizabeth’s solemnly. ‘Be not so concerned, Lizzy. A disappointment—even one that may not be fully overcome—can be borne. For your sister, it is too raw, too soon, for her to see beyond her immediate sense of loss. I feel for her, I truly do.’
Not for the first time, Elizabeth sensed there was hidden meaning behind Anne’s words, and she responded gently.
‘You are kind and compassionate. As is Jane. You would do well together, I am certain.’
Anne said nothing, turning her attention to her letter. Her eyes skimmed the two sides of the paper, then her hand dropped into her lap.
‘You are displeased with its content?’
Anne folded the letter and tucked it into her reticule. ‘It is always the way of it. Rarely does my eldest sister write me, and whenever such an occasion arises, she never fails to disappoint.’
‘My sister takes much after my father, and displays a decided lack of empathy. I must warn you, Lizzy…’ Anne leaned forward in her seat. ‘They are not like me. Or leastways, I am not like them. I know not what I mean to say, but they may not be as welcoming towards you as I would wish.’
It was no surprise to Elizabeth that a baronet and his eldest might look down upon her. ‘Miss Elliot will object to your bringing an acquaintance to stay who is not of equal social standing.’ Elizabeth’s tone was matter of fact, but a blush stained Anne’s cheeks.
‘Perhaps. She and my father are obsessed with rank.’
Elizabeth laughed as Anne sat back in her seat. ‘They sound very like Mr Darcy.’
‘That proud, arrogant man you mentioned? The one who has great influence over his friend?’
‘The very same. Mr Darcy is full of a sense of his own importance, thinks meanly of anyone of lower rank, and is disdainful of those with a prior claim upon him.’ Feeling disgruntled and not liking the sensation, Elizabeth pushed away her memories of the gentleman. ‘But tell me more of your sister. Is she much older than you?’
‘By two summers.’
‘Oh!’ Elizabeth was surprised. ‘I thought she must be quite the elder, with being so keen for an establishment.’
Anne looked thoughtful. ‘I always believed my sister was content with her circumstances. Something altered, and if I recall correctly, it was during the preparations for Mary to wed Charles.’
‘Perchance she resented a younger sister marrying before her?’
Anne clasped her hands in her lap. ‘Perhaps.’
Elizabeth pulled a face. ‘It is ironic, is it not, that the need to find an establishment affects all classes of society?’
Anne smiled faintly. ‘For women, certainly.’
Not wanting to dwell upon this, Elizabeth adjusted her position then smiled at Anne.
‘Let us talk of Kellynch. I am intrigued by how attached you are to your home and would love to hear more about it.’
Thus, they continued on their way, the conversation remaining light and easy, until they reached the first inn and change of horses.
Although the air was crisp and the temperature dropping as night fell, both Darcy and the colonel felt the need for exercise after dining with Georgiana and Mrs Annesley, and they set off on foot down the lane. They had only gone but a half-mile, however, when a voice hailed them.
‘Ah, Darcy. Well met.’
Looking to his left, Darcy discerned Sir Walter Elliot about to enter a carriage in front of Kellynch parsonage. Waving away his footman, the gentleman strode towards them in the falling light.
‘Sir Walter. Permit me to reacquaint you with my cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam. I believe you have met before now in Town?’
‘Delighted.’ Sir Walter bowed fussily, and Darcy threw the colonel a warning look.
‘Likewise.’ The colonel over-exaggerated his own bow. ‘It is a fine estate you have here, sir.’
Sir Walter drew himself up. ‘Most certainly. Extensive acreage in all directions.’ He waved a hand expressively, then patted his coiffure and replaced his hat. ‘Regrettably, it is entailed upon a male cousin.’
‘As is oft the way of it, sir.’ Darcy glanced beyond the gentleman at the parsonage.
‘The living is under review.’ Sir Walter waved a dismissive hand towards the building. ‘You would not normally find me attending to such matters myself, of course, but I wish to ensure my own man is installed. Still, glad to have caught you, Darcy. Wished to extend the invitation to dine with us. The morrow would be convenient.’
Darcy and the colonel exchanged a lightning glance, and the former inclined his head. ‘Your attention is appreciated, Sir Walter. Would it not be an imposition?’
‘Not at all. My youngest and her husband will be in attendance, and my other daughter is to return from her travels on the morrow. Bring Miss Darcy along. We shall make a fine party without need of additional guests.’
Darcy shook his head. ‘My sister is…’
‘My cousin is delighted to accept, Sir Walter.’ The colonel silenced Darcy with a look. ‘Miss Darcy is not yet out, and though her health is much improved, she will be better-served by a warm hearth and her companion to attend her.’
‘As you wish. Well, gentlemen, I bid you farewell until tomorrow evening. Shall we say pre-dinner drinks at six?’
They watched in silence as Sir Walter returned to his carriage, then gave them a regal wave on passing by, and they then continued their walk.
‘How far is it from here to the hall?’ The colonel did not look at Darcy as they walked.
‘Less than a half mile.’
A snort came from his cousin, and Darcy smiled into the falling darkness. He knew Richard would find the gentleman ridiculous too.
Chapter Five can be found HERE!
Copyright © 2020 Ada Bright & Cass Grafton