The meal passed more pleasantly than Elizabeth had anticipated, mainly down to the amusing and undemanding conversation offered by the colonel and having very few, almost monosyllabic, exchanges with Mr Darcy, and before long the dessert dishes had been arrayed on the table.
‘How are you finding the Somersetshire air, Miss Bennet?’
‘I have yet to experience it, Colonel. We arrived just after noon, and I have only seen the house. I hope to explore the grounds on the morrow.’
The colonel leaned forward a little to peer at his cousin, before settling back in his seat.
‘And you hail from Hertfordshire, I believe?’
‘Yes, near Meryton.’ Elizabeth admired the delicate glass dish of blancmange before her. ‘It is a small enough town. I doubt you would have heard of it.’
‘Meryton, you say? On the contrary.’ The colonel sounded amused. ‘I became acquainted with the name quite recently.’
Elizabeth frowned. Had a word emanated from the silent man to her right?
‘Coincidences are only that.’ Mr Darcy’s clipped tone drew Elizabeth’s attention. ‘Anyone who deems to read further into them is destined for failure, and not least a waste of their time.’
‘Is that so, sir?’ Elizabeth arched a brow. ‘I have been prone to wonder whether a coincidence is truly such, or perchance it is a question of Fate.’
‘Ah, the Fates.’ The colonel laughed, and Elizabeth turned back to him with relief. Mr Darcy’s compelling dark eyes seemed to be boring into her this evening, and she did not appreciate the notice. ‘My cousin has spent some time in Hertfordshire of late, which is, I assume, how you come to be acquainted? I am not incorrect, Darce, if I recall the name Meryton from a letter you wrote?’
‘I… er, I do not recall writing to you during my stay, Cousin. It was of short enough duration.’
Elizabeth almost rolled her eyes. It had seemed endless to her! ‘I believe you were in the neighbourhood five weeks complete, sir.’
The colonel sighed exaggeratedly. ‘Despite which, he did not show me the courtesy of a single letter. My sole intelligence arises from my cousin’s correspondence with his sister.’ He leaned forward. ‘Why have you gone so pale, Darcy? Take some wine.’
He indicated Darcy’s almost empty glass, then applied himself to his dish of raspberry trifle with relish, and Elizabeth welcomed the silence until—
‘You…er, I did not know you would be in Somersetshire, Miss Bennet.’
Why could Mr Darcy not remain mute?
‘That is correct, sir, you did not.’ Elizabeth eyed the gentleman for a moment, then relented. ‘To be certain, nor did I until two days ago.’
She picked up her spoon and plunged it into the blancmange but before she could raise it to her mouth, Mr Darcy spoke again.
‘May I enquire how it is you are acquainted with the Elliot family?’
Amused despite her general dissatisfaction with the gentleman, Elizabeth lowered her spoon.
‘I see what you are about, Mr Darcy. You are surprised to discover a person of my status counting the daughter of a baronet amongst her intimate friends.’
The gentleman appeared quite taken aback, and Elizabeth faltered.
‘Forgive me. It has been a long day, and I am fatigued.’ Elizabeth cast a longing look at the closed doors, wishing she could disappear through them. ‘Miss Anne Elliot came to visit my friend, Miss Lucas, recently. When Lady Lucas fell ill, Anne became a guest at Longbourn and invited me to return with her to Somersetshire.’
Mr Darcy seemed unable to formulate a response to this, and Elizabeth took the opportunity to attend to her dessert. A minute later, however, she lowered her spoon again as the colonel addressed her.
‘Do you intend to stay long at Kellynch, Miss Bennet?’
‘As long as is tolerated, Colonel!’ Elizabeth’s eyes twinkled. ‘By either my hosts or my family.’
‘I am sure there will be quite the battle between them in due course,’ he added gallantly, and Elizabeth laughed.
‘You are generous, sir. I am certain there are some at this table who would disagree. Regardless, I hope to stay for a couple of weeks.’
A movement caught Elizabeth’s eye, but Mr Darcy had merely picked up his wine glass, and she was finally at liberty to pay the blancmange the attention it deserved.
So relieved was she, when Miss Elliot finally signalled for the ladies to withdraw, she almost tripped over her own feet upon rising. Colonel Fitzwilliam moved with alacrity, but when a hand grasped an arm to steady her, it was not his.
Mortified, Elizabeth could feel heat stealing into her cheeks, but she raised her chin as Mr Darcy released his firm grip on her.
‘I thank you, sir.’
She held his gaze for a second, then dropped a curtsey and hurried to join Anne.
‘Mr Darcy has not moved, Lizzy,’ Anne whispered as she took her arm and followed Mrs Musgrove and Miss Elliot from the room. ‘You appear to have turned the gentleman to stone.’
‘If only I could!’ Elizabeth laughed as they returned to the drawing room, shedding her embarrassment over stumbling so inelegantly. Not wishing to dwell upon Mr Darcy’s coming to her aid, she occupied her mind by strolling around the room and admiring more of the paintings—until, that is, an altercation drew her notice.
Miss Elliot and Mrs Musgrove seemed to be at odds over a chaise longue, upon which the eldest was languidly posed with studied elegance, whilst Mrs Musgrove berated her sister from the middle of the room.
‘How can you say such a thing, Elizabeth? A chaise longue does not care for the distinction of rank. Besides, as a married woman, I outrank you even though you are the eldest. My condition surely dictates the use of it. I should not be so surprised if the purpose of a chaise longue was first designed for women who are in my condition.’
Observing Miss Elliot feign a yawn that was surely as false as the lady herself, Elizabeth turned back to study a portrait of a beautiful Georgian lady with dark, expressive eyes and a decided likeness to Anne.
There was a rustle of fabric, and Elizabeth turned about.
‘Who is this lady? She is beautiful.’
Mrs Musgrove scarcely looked at the painting. ‘My mother. Did you ever hear of such rudeness, Miss Bennet, that a person in my delicate way should be expected to sit in rigid position, like a soldier awaiting his orders?’
Elizabeth smiled kindly at the lady.
‘I cannot imagine what the French were about, designing such uncomfortable seating as a chaise longue, Mrs Musgrove. You are well relieved of the discomfort.’ Elizabeth lowered her voice. ‘Do you not see how pained your sister seems in her choice? It is not a position I would covet.’
Anne came to her sister’s side. ‘Come, Mary, take the red couch. I have oft considered it the most comfortable in the drawing room.’
She took Mrs Musgrove’s arm, but her younger sister was digging her heels into the rug much as a reluctant mule being led to water might. Pushing away her sister’s arm, Mrs Musgrove strode across the room and lifted Miss Elliot’s feet up and swung them to the floor, quickly taking the vacated part of the seat.
With a loud tsk, Miss Elliot sat upright but moved no further, and they both stared in opposite directions as the bickering continued.
Elizabeth and Anne exchanged a look.
‘Would you care for some tea? Or maybe something stronger?’
Elizabeth laughed. ‘Do I seem as though I need it?’
‘I am grieved the gentleman’s presence brings you displeasure.’
Elizabeth waved an airy hand. ‘Mr Darcy may do as he pleases. I shall not seek him out, and I doubt he will seek me out either. We are not the best of friends.’
‘Just the tea, then?’
‘Yes please.’ As Anne approached the tea tray, Elizabeth walked over to one of the tall windows, studying her own distorted image and thankful the lingering warmth of Mr Darcy’s touch on her arm had faded. Despite her words, she felt out of sorts. That man was putting her into an ill humour again, and she could not allow it to take hold.
Anne joined her, handing over a cup. Across the room, the war of words between Miss Elliot and Mrs Musgrove continued, albeit in hissed undertones now.
Taking a sip of her drink, Elizabeth peeped at Anne over the rim of her cup. ‘I begin to feel I am appearing in a farce on the stage.’
The two ladies exchanged a look encompassing both the ridiculousness of the battle of the chaise longue and the insanity that was Mr Darcy’s being resident on the Kellynch estate.
Anne’s amusement soon faded, however. ‘I feel I should apologise. If I had taken more interest, I might have ascertained the name of the people who had taken Meadowbrook House.’
Elizabeth shook her head. ‘Not in the least. None of this is your doing, and what would be gained by my having known in advance? Besides, this may inadvertently turn out to be a balm for my aggrieved feelings. Though I may not be able to voice my dissatisfaction with Mr Darcy directly, being in his company once more is allowing some imaginary confrontations full rein, and I feel all the more masterful for it. If Mr Darcy could but hear my thoughts, he would be begging for atonement.’
‘Of that, I have little doubt.’
Miss Elliot’s voice carried towards them. ‘Do play for us, Anne, and make it something soothing, before Mary has a fit.’
‘Excuse me.’ Anne placed her cup on a nearby table and walked to the pianoforte, and a moment later, a soft, lilting melody filled the room. Elizabeth let her lids drop over her eyes as the soothing music floated around her, effectively silencing both Miss Elliot and Mrs Musgrove. She would have to ask Anne if she could make a copy, for she would dearly love to play this piece on her return home.
Elizabeth’s moment of peace was not to endure, however, as Miss Elliot’s strident tones reached her, and she opened her eyes.
‘Miss Bennet, I wish to have my curiosity satisfied. How is it you are acquainted with Mr Darcy?’
Elizabeth approached the fought-over chaise longue. ‘A close friend of the gentleman leased a property near our estate in Hertfordshire, and Mr Darcy came to make some stay with him.’
‘I see. It can only have been a passing acquaintance then.’ Miss Elliot was eyeing Elizabeth’s simply-styled evening dress. ‘You do not know each other well.’
‘Passing acquaintances are oft the best, in my experience.’ Elizabeth tilted her head to one side. ‘Though I believe spending several days in the same house as Mr Darcy contributed a little more to our understanding of each other.’
Miss Elliot’s expression was indifferent. ‘It is as I suspected, a fleeting connection of little consequence.’
‘It is certainly as deep an acquaintance as I could ever wish for.’ Elizabeth dropped a brief curtsey and joined Anne, who had finished playing and was browsing through some music.
‘Shall we play a duet?’
Anne was a little taken aback. ‘I have never done so.’
Elizabeth was astonished. ‘Not even with your sisters?’ She surveyed the silent women on the chaise. Perhaps not. ‘We have plenty of time during my visit for me to teach you, but for now, perhaps you play, and I shall sing?’
With a flourish, Anne placed some more music on the stand and Elizabeth scanned the words and nodded.
‘I am familiar with this. It will liven our spirits.’ She took her place by the pianoforte and, as soon as the rich notes reached their cue, she began to sing.
Darcy’s preference had long been for a prolonged separation of the parties after dinner. He had never precipitated the return to the ladies before now, but this evening was proving to be interminable.
What the devil had Elizabeth’s meaning been earlier? For the sake of good manners, she could not—would not—elaborate on the well-being or otherwise of her family? Then, he took himself to task. What of it? Maintaining her confidence was the lady’s prerogative, should she wish to exercise it.
‘Darce?’ The colonel nudged him as a footman offered more port.
Darcy declined, his eyes moving from his cousin to the doors.
‘Bent upon escape, old man? They will not open of their own accord.’ The colonel sipped his refreshed drink. ‘Though you are in luck. Sir Walter may be ready to grace the ladies with his presence directly.’
The gentleman had left the table to check his appearance in a looking glass.
‘Musgrove, here, has invited us to shoot at Uppercross this Friday.’
‘Indeed, indeed!’ Charles Musgrove grinned affably across the table. ‘There is much sport to be had, Mr Darcy. Your cousin says he must leave on the morrow, but I trust you will join us?’
‘I am all for the activity.’ Darcy flexed his arms. He would relish a little movement now, preferably towards the drawing room.
Sir Walter, who had completed his inspection of the fall of his neck-cloth, swivelled around to face them.
‘Come, gentlemen.’ He waved a hand at the footman, who flung the doors wide. ‘Let us rejoin the ladies.’
Charles Musgrove fell into step with his father-in-law as they left the room, and the colonel drained his glass and placed it on the table before he and Darcy followed suit.
‘Musgrove is a genial chap, though I suspect his interest lies more with your rifle of choice than your company.’
‘There is little enough to occupy my time and attention in the district. A shoot will be a welcome diversion.’
‘You surprise me, Darce. You seem sufficiently disrupted as it is.’
Darcy threw his cousin a frustrated look. ‘I am in no mood for your nonsense, Richard.’
‘No mood, you say?’ The colonel grinned. ‘I begin to comprehend your distracted air, especially—’
A welcome intervention came when Sir Walter drew their attention to a particularly fine landscape in the great hall, before leading them up the steps to the drawing room.
Darcy instantly sought Elizabeth, who was bringing a song to its conclusion, to Anne Elliot’s accompaniment. She made a striking picture, so vibrant in contrast to the paleness of her friend. Might he manage some further conversation, and—
‘As I was saying,’ the colonel continued in a low voice. ‘Especially in the light of Miss Bennet’s being from Hertfordshire and, I suspect, the mysterious Elizabeth.’
Darcy stood stock still at Fitzwilliam’s words, but his cousin marched past him to the ladies, bowing deeply and breaking into applause as the last notes faded.
‘Capital, ladies. It is unfortunate we were not privy to the whole performance. Would you be so kind as to oblige us with another song?’
Darcy was unable to hear Elizabeth’s response, but she had clearly acquiesced, and he was able to relish the indulgence of not only listening to her performance, but also keeping his eyes upon her throughout.
Though Elizabeth’s accomplishment at the pianoforte in Hertfordshire had in no way been of the highest standard, Darcy could well recall listening to it with great pleasure. He had also heard the lady sing before, but this evening he was completely entranced.
In his enchantment, however, Darcy remained oblivious to his cousin’s knowing smirk.
Chapter Eight can be found HERE!!
Copyright © 2020 Ada Bright & Cass Grafton