The ladies ambled in silence at first, though Elizabeth sensed Anne’s attention upon her several times. Then, she spoke.
‘You are quite pensive, Lizzy. Did the call not deliver to your expectations? For myself, I cannot see your presence caused Mr Darcy quite the level of dissatisfaction you had hoped for.’
Anne was laughing as Elizabeth mulled on the visit.
‘I confess I paid the man scarce mind. That had always been my intention, of course, but I was distracted by how incompatible my expectations of Georgiana Darcy were compared to the evidence before me.’
Anne raised a curious brow as they continued along the lane.
Elizabeth smiled weakly. ‘I am not certain I comprehend how this has come about. I had heard reports of Miss Darcy from people who had long been acquainted with her.’
They had reached the corner of the lane now, and Elizabeth looked back towards Meadowbrook House, the rooftops and chimneys just visible above the hedge line.
‘Lizzy?’ Anne nudged her gently.
‘Forgive me.’ She turned and fell into step beside her friend once more. ‘Miss Darcy is, in appearance, much as she was described: almost womanly in figure for one so young and handsome.’
‘And the latter can also be said of her brother.’
Elizabeth did not want to think about Mr Darcy. ‘And she is said to be truly accomplished, though I saw little evidence of that today.’
Anne laughed again. ‘What did you expect? That she would recite poetry to us, or perform upon the harp?’
It was Elizabeth’s turn to laugh, the sentiment being so close to what she had been imagining. ‘Even my biased eye can discern Miss Darcy has little…. Another lady of my acquaintance implied they had much in common, but I could not see it.’
The sound of a carriage coming along the lane drew their attention then, and they both stepped up onto a grassy bank out of its way.
To Elizabeth’s surprise, Mr Darcy’s dark eyes met hers as the elegant conveyance slowed to a stop.
‘May I offer you both a ride to the Hall?’
Anne shook her head. ‘Thank you for the kind offer, Mr Darcy, but as you can see, we are enjoying our exercise.’
He doffed his hat as the carriage slowly moved away, Miss Elliot eyeing them smugly from the opposite bench.
‘It seems my sister is more persuasive than I gave her credit for.’ Anne stepped back onto the lane, and Elizabeth joined her as the carriage turned the corner ahead.
‘Aye, or Mr Darcy keeps a carriage permanently readied, that he might make use of it on a whim.’ Elizabeth feigned amusement, but she felt inexplicably resentful. Was Miss Elliot an object with the gentleman? With her own attention fixed on Miss Darcy, she had missed their interactions during the visit.
Oblivious to Elizabeth’s musings, Anne continued the conversation. ‘Miss Darcy is prone to the shyness not uncommon in someone both so young and not out in society, but she is also undeniably sweet.’
They had reached a gate set into the wall bordering the grounds of Kellynch and, pushing it open, they walked into the garden. Anne was quite correct, but Elizabeth could not account for the discomfort this acceptance brought.
‘In truth, Anne, the young lady’s character resembles my dear Jane’s, especially when she was of a similar age.’
‘You are so fortunate, Lizzy, to have Jane as your confidante and friend.’ Anne shivered as they crossed the crisp lawn, still dusted with the morning frost. ‘My sister Elizabeth is so cold. I cannot account for it. Though we are vastly different in nature, why should that not make us friends? You and Miss Bennet are likewise akin to opposites, are you not?’
Elizabeth burst out laughing. ‘Indeed. Sweet and sour, and I am sure you can discern who takes which crown!’
‘You are far sweeter than you give yourself credit for, Lizzy.’
Smiling, Elizabeth stepped up onto the terrace and they both surveyed their immediate surroundings.
‘The grounds here are exquisite.’ Elizabeth turned to Anne. ‘You did not do them justice in your descriptions to me.
Anne raised a brow. ‘Description did not do justice elsewhere today.’
Elizabeth studied her feet for a moment, then raised her head. Anne remained diplomatically quiet.
‘So be it. The visit was not unpleasant. Miss Darcy was a delightful surprise. Beyond that, I am unwilling to venture, though I will express some sympathy towards her for having such a brother.’
Anne maintained her silence, though humour filled her countenance, and Elizabeth was goaded into speaking.
‘Mr Darcy may have done little this morning to worsen my opinion of him, and I have, on the contrary, shown myself to be wrong in my expectations of his sister, but you must trust me on this, Anne. I have first-hand experience of the harm that man has wrought upon others, of the lives he has ruined.’
Anne nodded. ‘I respect your word, Lizzy. And I comprehend fully your belief in it. All I am saying is that Mr Darcy, for any faults he may have, was on this occasion both a gracious and accommodating host, and his affection for and protection of his sister was evident.’
‘I will not argue with you, though you must own there are few that do not extend unconditional love to their own family, however they might perform to strangers.’
Anne did not respond, and Elizabeth immediately wished to retract the words. The Elliots had so far demonstrated little regard for familial love.
Elizabeth took Anne’s arm and turned her about.
‘Come, we have had sufficient talk on the matter. Let us continue our exercise and permit our minds to wander in a happier direction. I anticipate a letter on the morrow from Jane, and I remain hopeful of a favourable one.’
Relief swept through Darcy as the coachman closed the carriage door, and he ignored Miss Elliot waving him off from the portico at Kellynch Hall as though they were old friends. The more time Darcy spent in the lady’s company, the less he found to admire.
He tried to settle back against the squabs as the carriage found every rut Elizabeth and Anne had negated, as though mocking him.
Mocking him… Elizabeth’s eyes when they had met his as the carriage passed the ladies had been assessing, as though she would judge him. What the devil could he possibly be doing wrong by acceding to Miss Elliot’s request to deliver her safely home?
It was fortunate the carriage had previously been readied to carry him to his appointment, meaning he only had to leave the lady unattended for as long as it had taken to don his great coat. Thankfully, Georgiana had been spared, having gone up to her room to rest, and Miss Elliot had seemed to find plenty to engross her in the book his sister had lately been perusing.
Darcy stared out of the window at the passing scenery. They would be on the turnpike, heading west, shortly where the roads would be in better condition and they would make faster progress. He needed to turn his thoughts to his appointment at the bank, but instead they were firmly fixed on a certain lady.
Had Elizabeth arrived home? Her pink cheeks and bright eyes had been evidence of her pleasure in taking the air.
He frowned. Miss Elliot had made a disparaging remark about Elizabeth’s presence at Kellynch as the carriage had moved on. It had made little impression upon Darcy. He knew full well the situation of her family without it being pointed out to him. He had been more struck by how tightly Miss Elliot appeared to be clutching her reticule. Did she fear he might expect payment for the ride home?
Laughing under his breath, Darcy pulled out his watch to check the time. Miss Elliot’s disdain for others echoed all he had known of her father, and she had clearly been an attentive pupil.
Uneasiness swept through Darcy. Was not this condescension towards those of lower rank also his attitude? Had it not been a significant part of his reservations over Bingley wishing to attach himself to Miss Bennet? Had it not plagued him day and night, both during his stay in Hertfordshire and here in Somersetshire, how far Elizabeth was below him, unworthy of his notice?
It would seem he was not only guilty of looking down upon those less fortunate than himself but also of judging them in the same way the Elliots did. This notion was of little comfort. Darcy was full aware of his own duplicity and, exasperated by his endless speculation about Elizabeth Bennet, he endeavoured to cull the futile dreams and desires whirling through his mind by forcing it onto the impending meeting.
Darcy returned from Yeovil with a half hour before dinner, and little time to refresh himself but confident in the gentleman who would liaise with his London banker as and when required. The weather had turned even colder, so much so, even Darcy realised the West Country was about to receive an unprecedented snowfall. He only hoped it would not be prolonged or oft repeated. If the roads became impassable and the colonel was unable to join them for the season, he might well go mad.
Georgiana was waiting for him in the drawing room, and he poured them both a small sherry.
‘Is all well, Fitz?’ Georgiana was sitting across from him in the chairs they had taken as their own, either side of the fireplace. She remained pale, but her cough seemed less frequent, and Darcy smiled.
‘I am by my hearth with you, my dear. What could possibly ail me?’
She took a sip from her glass and pulled a face. ‘I have not acquired a taste for sherry.’
‘Then do not take it. I would not presume, but it has seemed to aid your throat of an evening.’
‘Indeed, but it seems much clearer these past four and twenty hours.’
‘I am glad to hear it. What did you do with your afternoon?’
Georgiana appeared a little evasive, and Darcy frowned.
‘Did anything occur to disturb you?’
Now she seemed positively anxious. Darcy put his glass aside and moved over to crouch beside her, taking one of her hands.
‘You are cold.’ He rubbed the hand between both of his, then reached up to pull her woollen shawl back onto her shoulders.
‘I am well, Fitz. It is better my skin feels cool to the touch than feverish.’
Darcy sat back on his haunches. He did not wish to recall the concern he had felt when he found Georgiana’s illness to be far more severe than he had been told.
‘Indeed.’ He straightened up and returned to his seat. ‘Did anything happen in my absence, Georgie?’
‘No. At least, I was searching for a letter, but I could not find it.’
Darcy’s eyes narrowed, and she stirred restlessly under his scrutiny. Why had he instantly assumed she had been seeking the one in which he had recklessly mentioned a Miss Bennet?
He ran a hand through his hair. Damn it, why was Elizabeth so easily recalled?
‘I asked if you were troubled, Brother?’
Darcy shook his head. ‘By nothing of consequence. I believe we are set for some snow overnight. I will ensure your fire is well stoked when you retire.’
‘I like the snow.’ Georgiana’s voice was wistful. ‘I should like to be able to go out in it, like we do at Pemberley.’
‘I think now is not the best time, my dear. Let us get you to full health first. If the harsh winter that is predicted comes about, this will not be the only fall.’
‘I hope Miss Bennet is staying in Somersetshire for Yuletide.’ Georgiana became more animated. ‘I should so like to know her better.’
Darcy drained his glass. So, would he, but he must not accede to the temptation.
‘Come, Georgie.’ He stood up and held out his hand. ‘Let us dine, and we can start to think about the entertainment we might be able to offer Richard. We have limited acquaintance in the neighbourhood, but I am certain we can find much to amuse him.’
Georgiana hurried to his side, taking his hand. ‘What an excellent notion.’ She almost skipped into the dining room as she said, ‘He will be certain to want to see Miss Bennet and Miss Anne Elliot again. I am sure he found them good company. We must ask them to dine, Fitz.’
Darcy opened his mouth, then closed it with a snap. This instinctive urge to acquiesce to anything where Elizabeth was concerned had to stop, or else he would be in even more danger than he had been in Hertfordshire.
Elizabeth found sleep on her second night in Somersetshire more difficult to come by, though she was at a loss to account for it. She had spent a good deal of the day in the crisp winter air, had indulged in a good meal, and plenty of enjoyable conversation with Anne. She should have slept like the proverbial log, but rest was proving elusive.
Even after dawn had broken, Elizabeth tossed and turned in her bed, eventually rolling onto her side and staring at the heavy curtains across the windows. The light filtering in from outside had a strange greyness to it and seemed to be flickering. Sitting up, Elizabeth shoved her hair over her shoulder and swung her legs out of bed.
She shivered. The fire in the grate had reduced to embers, and Elizabeth grabbed a thick shawl from a nearby chair and wrapped it around her as she padded over to pull back one of the curtains.
The grounds of Kellynch were white over, and snow continued to fall from a leaden sky that portended no end to the current conditions. Delighted, Elizabeth pushed both curtains aside and reached up to unfasten the clasp and opened the window.
Shivering again, she hugged the shawl closer, but leaned out, stretching her hand to catch the flakes, and laughing as they danced away from her. The world was strangely muted, as though someone had placed a blanket over it, and Elizabeth was filled with contentment. It so rarely snowed in Hertfordshire, and when it did, it drew protests and wails from Kitty and Lydia until the roads were once again passable. Here, she felt wrapped in a cocoon of silence.
Elizabeth spun around. Lottie had entered and a young servant was heading to the hearth to set a fresh fire in the grate.
‘Come now, miss. Close the window, or you will catch cold.’
The maid helped her latch the windows, and Elizabeth submitted to her attentions and soon joined Anne, who was alone in the breakfast room.
‘My sister is breaking her fast in her room, as her hearth is more accommodating, and my father has gone to prepare for a meeting with the departing curate of Monkford—a nearby parish—who is due to call at noon.’ Anne seemed a little conscious, and Elizabeth observed her with curiosity as she picked up a plate from the console table. Was there a chance Anne was sweet upon this clergyman?
‘Is it not beautiful?’ Elizabeth waved a hand towards the leaded windows. The room was bathed in the glow of the snow, despite the heavy skies.
‘It is indeed. And I suspect you are eager to go out, but Lizzy, I must ask you to wait until the snow at least ceases.’
‘Of course.’ Elizabeth filled her plate from the array on offer and poured a cup of tea. ‘What time do you receive the post?’
‘It is usually collected by late morning.’ Anne smiled as Elizabeth took a seat beside her. ‘Today, of course, there may be a slight delay.’
Despite the roaring fires in every grate, Miss Elliot, once persuaded downstairs, complained as steadily as the flakes fell, of the coldness in the air, the ineffectiveness of the chimneys and the paucity of the neighbourhood for offering any possible distraction in such circumstances.
As the clock struck noon, she settled beside the drawing room fire, refusing to move from its warmth. Sir Walter had removed himself to attend the visiting clergyman who, despite the inclement conditions, had managed to arrive on time, and Elizabeth had been relieved when a note came from Uppercross Cottage, requesting Anne to call on her married sister, who was suffering from a recurrence of an old ailment.
‘You will join me, Lizzy? I am sure you are eager for fresh air, and it is a good two miles to Uppercross from here.’
‘It would be my delight!’ Elizabeth, who was sick and tired of Miss Elliot’s complaints, suspected she merely traded them for Mrs Musgrove’s, but the exercise and fresh air each way would be welcome and well worth the sacrifice.
The door opened and Anne greeted the housekeeper, who handed over the post.
‘Here is that which you seek, Lizzy.’
Taking the letter from Anne, Elizabeth viewed the postmark and her sister’s familiar hand with a mixture of trepidation and pleasure.
‘You wish to read your letter in peace?’ Anne took her friend’s arm as they left the room. ‘Shall we meet at the front door in a half hour and head over to Mary’s?’
At the appointed time, Elizabeth hurried down the stairs, fastening a thick scarf about her neck and pulling on her warmest gloves. The letter had delivered news, but none of it to her satisfaction, for the situation in Hertfordshire had hardly improved. Jane was making the best of it, but Elizabeth still feared for her sister’s declining spirits. A brisk walk was required to walk off her frustrations, and though Elizabeth regretted Mrs Musgrove’s apparent ailment, accompanying Anne to Uppercross Cottage would more than compensate.
Anne was waiting for her on the steps, but as she reached the doorway, Elizabeth noticed gloves and a cane on the hall table and a cleric’s hat suspended on the coat stand.
‘The curate from Monkford is with my father.’
The strange consciousness filtered across Anne’s features again, but then she took Elizabeth’s arm.
‘Come. Let us make good our escape!’
With that, they hurried along the passageway were soon stepping out onto the snow-covered terrace.
Chapters Twelve can be found HERE!!
Copyright © 2020 Ada Bright & Cass Grafton