The blast of wintry weather had come as no surprise to Darcy, but despite the snow upon the ground and heavy festoons hanging from the branches of the surrounding trees, the planned shoot at Uppercross had taken place. To his surprise, Darcy had passed a pleasant morning in company with Charles Musgrove. Once he had partaken of the traditional refreshments, however, and having sent his man home with his guns, he set out on a circuitous route back to Meadowbrook House.
Striding along, Darcy’s boots made no sound in the virgin snow. The skies were lightening slowly, and he inhaled deeply of the crisp, clear air, relishing its coolness but hoping for a quick thaw, for there would be little opportunity to encounter Elizabeth if the conditions persisted.
A strange tightening in his chest—one that had frequently made its presence felt before he left Hertfordshire—returned, and he walked for some distance, unclear on his direction, until a sound caught his ear, and he stopped to listen: children playing, their shouts of joy and laughter drifting to him like snowflakes on the wind. Turning a corner, Darcy beheld them, using make-shift sledges to fly down a nearby slope. before, pink-faced, trudging to the top again, bent upon repeating the pleasure.
Seeking solitude, Darcy headed away from the children and soon slipped through an opening in the hedgerow, his evasive action proving his downfall. With a resounding thud, something hit him squarely in the throat and, as icy slithers of snow began to slide beneath his neckcloth, his gaze met that of a wide-eyed Elizabeth Bennet.
‘Forgive me, Mr Darcy, I did not expect you.’ Her tone was sufficiently contrite, but her demeanour did not speak of regret. Unless he was much mistaken, the lady was struggling to conceal her mirth.
He wiped the snow from his neck, brushing the remainder from his coat. ‘You have a sure aim for a lady, Miss Bennet.’
A raised brow greeted this comment. ‘For a lady, sir? I will take the credit, begrudgingly though you bestow it, but honesty will prevail. I did not take aim and fire, you merely obliged me by walking into my range.’ She waved a hand, and he followed its direction.
A low stone wall ran the length of the copse and balanced atop it was a small snowman, albeit now minus part of its head. Before Darcy could study it further, Elizabeth spoke from beside him.
‘You place yourself in continued peril, sir.’
She gathered the remnants of the snowball and began forming it into shape before returning to the place where she had first stood and, sensing she would make no allowance, he quickly stepped aside, just in time to avoid the missile as it struck its target.
Elizabeth made a charming picture, wrapped up warmly in a thick coat, a colourful scarf at her throat, her pink cheeks glowing almost as much as her hazel eyes and, despite the lingering dampness about his neck, Darcy’s contentment grew.
‘You force me to repeat my praise, Miss Bennet. Your aim is true.’
She laughed. ‘It is a fine accomplishment, is it not?’ Bending to scoop up another handful of snow, she moulded it into a tight ball. ‘You are gallant, Mr Darcy.’
‘You seem surprised.’
Elizabeth pursed her lips. ‘Aye, I had not coupled you and gallantry together before now.’
Shocked by the implication of her words, Darcy knew not what to say. He was the consummate gentleman! How dare she imply otherwise?
Elizabeth, meanwhile, showed no respect for his inner turmoil, releasing the next snowball with expediency.
As she passed Darcy on her way to inspect the damage, he noted the snow clinging in clumps to her boots and the hem of her coat. ‘You are a long way from home in these conditions, ma’am. May I not see you safely back?’
Elizabeth adjusted the snowman’s body; its head now fully dispatched to the other side of the wall and she turned to study him. Though he could not recall saying aught out of turn, her expression did not auger well.
‘My home is indeed somewhat distant, but should I wish to return to the Hall, I will do so when my desire for solitude is satisfied.’
Accepting the hit, Darcy inclined his head. ‘Then permit me to leave you in peace, madam.’
At this, the lady shook her head. ‘Pay me no mind, Mr Darcy. I am out of sorts with myself more than any other. I accompanied Miss Anne Elliot on a call to Mrs Musgrove and was urged to take the air whilst my friend attended her sister. You are perfectly at liberty to walk here.’
Glad of the reprieve, Darcy smiled. ‘May I be of any assistance?’
Elizabeth failed to conceal her surprise at the offer. ‘I doubt you can. I am sorely in need of an outlet for a surfeit of ill temper.’ She paused, then added, ‘Do not be alarmed, sir; I am merely aggrieved by my cousin…’ She hesitated. ‘You recall Mr Collins? Your aunt’s curate?’
‘Indeed.’ How Mr Collins, who was indeed his aunt Catherine’s clergyman in Kent, could have caused Elizabeth frustration here in Somersetshire was beyond Darcy.
Turning, Elizabeth walked back to a small pile of remaining snowballs and picked one up, weighing it on her palm, before facing him. ‘May I ask you a question?’
Did she wish to ask permission to aim the next missile at him? ‘I—er, of course.’
She smoothed the snowball. ‘Would you always put duty to your family before your own happiness?’
Darcy stared at her thoughtfully for a moment, unsure of the relevance of her words. ‘If I thought I had forsaken my duty, I do not think I could find peace or contentment.’ He studied her troubled countenance, then added. ‘But my resolve has not been tested in earnest.’
What he might have said next, Darcy did not know, for voices drifted towards them on the cold air as two ladies appeared near a stile part way along the wall.
‘Come, Lizzy! Mary is somewhat revived since she has eaten, as you see, and requests you join us for some tea.’
Anne Elliot’s astonishment at perceiving Darcy would have amused him, but as he bowed in the ladies’ direction, he was consumed by the disappointment of the imminent loss of Elizabeth’s company.
The lady appeared a little awkward, then said, ‘I am sure Mrs Musgrove would welcome your joining us, sir?’
Darcy shook his head. Much as he wished to remain in Elizabeth’s invigorating company, drinking tea with the ladies held little appeal.
‘I am bent upon exercise, Miss Bennet.’
‘Then I bid you good day, Mr Darcy.’ Elizabeth curtsied, and he bowed by return. ‘I thank you for bearing me company.’ She held out her latest offering towards him, and he took it.
‘I return the compliment, Miss Bennet.’
Elizabeth soon disappeared over the stile and into the company of her friends, their voices fading, and Darcy stooped to gather more snow, doubling the missile in size.
Though it had been many a year since he had thrown a snowball, Darcy was a keen sportsman with a good eye and a true aim, and the remains of the snowman soon disappeared over the wall in search of its head. How was it he felt such satisfaction from the childish gesture and so revitalised by spending a short time in the lady’s company?
Darcy turned to retrace his steps, deep in thought. A few light flakes of snow began to fall again, and he cast a wary glance heavenwards. Then, he shook his head at his own folly. Whatever the weather chose to deliver, he was caught in a trap of his own making—it was time he owned it to himself.
Anne and Elizabeth been walking in a comfortable silence along the snow-covered lane since saying farewell to Mary at Uppercross Cottage, both seeming wrapped in their own thoughts.
Elizabeth had been attempting to recapture her joy from when she had awoken to a world of beauty, a memory that had almost sunk under Jane’s letter and the complaints of Mary Musgrove. If only the breeze that had now arisen could brush away the lady’s relentless voice as smoothly as it grazed Elizabeth’s cheek.
‘I am sorry your letter did not deliver pleasing intelligence, Lizzy.’
‘I am becoming accustomed to Jane’s correspondence bringing naught but frustration.’
‘Do you wish to share it? You seemed so much better after your solitary walk.’ Anne stayed Elizabeth with a hand on her arm. ‘All the more surprising for your having met with Mr Darcy, of all people.’
Elizabeth laughed. ‘Mr Darcy was sufficiently obliging in taking a snowball in the neck.’
Anne let out a gasp. ‘He did not!’
‘I will own to its aiding me in releasing some vexation. It was unintentional, of course.’ Elizabeth frowned. ‘He took it surprisingly well for such a proud man.’
Her spirits reviving at the memory of the gentleman’s shocked face, Elizabeth turned to Anne as they fell into step once more. ‘And you, Anne? Did your call upon your sister satisfy your concerns over her health? It is a worry in her condition, is it not?’
There was silence for a moment before Anne said: ‘Mary is as well as she ever is.’
‘A few words speak many.’
‘I fear being indiscreet, but you are an astute observer, Lizzy. It will not surprise you to learn Mary has some ailments, which intensify in accordance with how much attention she receives.’
‘Yes, when I first left you, she was only just sitting up and within an hour, you were out walking in the snow.’
Anne smiled. ‘It is the common way with her. A little nourishment always sets her up. She claims my company is a balm, but I fear I am merely an audience for her in Charles’s absence.’
‘I was surprised to learn he was out in such inclement weather.’
Anne took Elizabeth’s arm. ‘It would take more than a few inches of snow to have Charles stand down the beaters. I suspect my brother-in-law is lingering at the post-shoot gathering at the lodge.’ She hesitated. ‘Do you believe in happiness in marriage, Lizzy?’
For a moment, Elizabeth knew not what to answer. ‘I wish to. I long to marry for love, though I know it is not always possible.’ They had reached a crossroads and turned towards Kellynch, retracing their own footsteps in the snow from earlier.
‘Mary and Charles muddle along. They seem as content as any other couple of my acquaintance.’ Anne frowned. ‘I am saddened that I have thus far failed to meet a married couple who demonstrate the happiness and contentment I anticipated with… Perhaps it does not exist.’
Elizabeth noted the slip. Anne had never said anything about a past love, but she suppressed her curiosity.
‘My experience is equally limited, and my parents are a poor example, though my aunt and uncle Gardiner are exceptionally happy.’ The memory of Mr and Mrs Hurst flashed into Elizabeth’s mind. ‘Even wealth, status and good connections do not necessarily equate to a happy marriage.’
‘I fear they often preclude it.’
Meadowbrook House came into view, and Elizabeth became thoughtful.
‘Mr Darcy said he could not be content knowing he had forsaken his duty.’ Elizabeth mulled upon his words. ‘I doubt he was referring to marriage, but it did not surprise me. I have heard he is destined for a cousin.’
‘I believe Mr Darcy takes his guardianship of Pemberley extremely seriously and would put it before anything—other than his sister’s happiness.’
Musing on Jane’s letter, Elizabeth’s thoughts on Mr Darcy’s sister remained all confusion. Then, she let out a huff of breath.
‘You are fairer towards him than I.’
‘I do not have a sister whose own happiness he has damaged.’
Elizabeth shivered, thankful that the chimney tops of Kellynch were in view. ‘Speaking of which, you asked about Jane’s letter. Are you certain you wish me to share my troubles? I believe you bear the confidence of many.’
Anne shook her head. ‘Do not deprive me of the pleasure of being your friend, Lizzy.’
‘Jane’s consideration of Mr Collins continues to be a grave concern with me.’ Elizabeth felt all the frustration from earlier return with a vengeance. ‘There is no sign of Netherfield being readied for its master’s return—and no word in response to Jane’s letter to Miss Bingley.’
‘Mr Bingley is a distant lover, then, if he remains in Town whilst his alleged amour is here in Somersetshire.’
Elizabeth frowned. ‘You are right. If Miss Darcy has been unwell and Mr Bingley is so devoted, why is he not here?’
‘Will you say as much to your sister?’
‘I shall indeed, though I begin to wonder if I have erred in believing the gentleman in love with Jane. To make matters worse, Mr Collins’s return to the neighbourhood draws nearer, and he is sure to press his suit.’
‘And has your sister implied as much?’
‘Jane generally conceals her feelings from the world, attempting to distract me by relating some of Mr Collins’s ridiculousness in his latest to Papa, though I suspect it derives from another source.’
Anne glanced at Elizabeth as they turned their steps along the drive to the Hall. ‘How so?’
‘Mr Collins relayed to Papa some of Lady Catherine’s advice—which, of course, is the gospel by which he lives. She is the person who instructed him to find a wife in Hertfordshire, and she has now had the temerity to suggest his choice must learn to conduct herself in “a manner most befitting the wife of a clergyman with such an honourable benefactress”, or some such nonsense.’
Anne was suitably astounded, and Elizabeth laughed, though without humour. ‘Precisely. Mr Collins, it seems, is beside himself with gratitude that Lady Catherine would deign to give such personal advice.’
‘And how does Jane feel?’
‘She seems to have decided it is humorous.’
‘Your sister appears a sensible young woman.’
‘Far too sensible. I would like to feed Mr Collins his insulting suggestion along with his stupid hat. I have always had great respect for men of the cloth, but my cousin is testing my faith in them.’
Anne smiled, but then it faded, the consciousness returning.
‘The Reverend Wentworth—he is the gentleman presently with my father—is a good man. He has been presented with a living in Shropshire. He departs on the morrow, as I understand it. Though his parish is not under the jurisdiction of the estate, he has called as part of his general farewells to the neighbourhood. My father will not appreciate the gesture, for he does not have much time for the clergy outside of a church.’
Elizabeth was surprised. ‘How so?’
‘He does not consider them “gentlemen”. Thus, beyond the service they render, Father sees no value in the connection.’
There was little enough time to speculate on this, as they had rounded the side of the house and entered the boot room, but not before tapping their boots on the scraper to remove the excess snow.
‘My stockings are quite wet through!’ Elizabeth studied her damp toes, as an obliging maid took charge of their boots for drying and cleaning.
They padded along the corridor to the stairs, intent upon finding dry stockings, but before they had reached the bottom step, Sir Walter came striding through from the great hall.
‘There you are, Anne. Where have you been?’
‘We walked over to Uppercross, Father, to call upon Mary. She sent a message to say she was unwell. Did my sister not tell you?’
‘Hmph.’ Sir Walter turned to admire his image in a nearby looking glass, tucking a newspaper under his arm to inspect his coiffure more closely.
‘Your sister is quite out of sorts. The weather is not to her liking.’
Elizabeth raised a brow. ‘How remiss of Mother Nature, sir.’
Sir Walter had not heard, having dropped the newspaper, which he bent to retrieve with a frown.
‘That Wentworth is a singular fellow. I am not displeased that he has been offered a living elsewhere.’
It was Anne’s turn to frown. ‘But you had so little to do with him, Father.’
‘And thankful am I that it was so.’ Sir Walter drew himself up. ‘I am of course consulted on many a matter concerning the wider district. Wentworth came to pay his respects, or so he said, but the man left without the courtesy of a by your leave!’
Anne raised a brow. ‘How extraordinary.’
‘This is what one must expect when lower classes try to raise themselves. Picked up the newspaper, he did. Proceeded to ask me some such nonsense about a report. Then, the oddest noise came from the man, the paper fell to the floor, and he was gone! Preposterous!’
Sir Walter tossed the offending newspaper onto a side table and stalked off, and Anne, sending Elizabeth a small smile, followed her up the stairs.
They had agreed to meet again in thirty minutes, and by the time Elizabeth was coming back down the stairs, she could see Anne perched on a settle in the great hall.
‘Come, let us repair to the small sitting room.’ Anne rose from her seat, turning back to retrieve Sir Walter’s discarded newspaper before joining Elizabeth. ‘We shall be undisturbed there.’
The room referred to by Anne overlooked the rear terrace and the manicured gardens beyond and had been spared from Miss Elliot’s redecorating schemes thus far, remaining much as it was when the late Lady Elliot had styled it.
‘How lovely!’ Elizabeth stood in the centre of the charming room, turning around to take it all in, drawn immediately to a large painting over the mantelpiece depicting a kindly-faced gentleman, a young woman holding a baby, and a small girl sat upon the man’s knee.
‘Who are these people?’ Elizabeth looked over to where Anne was, but her friend was staring at the newspaper in her grip—a grip that shook the words on the front page.
‘What is amiss?’ She hurried to where Anne had sunk against the doorjamb, but her friend merely stared at her blankly. She was white as the freshly fallen snow.
‘Come.’ Elizabeth placed a firm hand under Anne’s arm and led her to a chaise where her friend all but fell onto the cushions, then waited.
Anne remained silent, drawing in shallow breaths, but then she held out the newspaper to Elizabeth, pointing a shaking finger at a passage in the left-hand column.
‘The Laconia is sunk. All hands lost!’
Elizabeth skimmed the article, then raised her eyes to meet Anne’s.
‘Someone you knew was on this ship.’ Anne said nothing, but the anguished look on her face was sufficient confirmation. ‘Do you wish to talk about him?’
Anne shook her head as a solitary tear rolled down her ashen cheek. ‘Help me to my room, Lizzy. Please.’ She got unsteadily to her feet, tugging a handkerchief from her sleeve and patting her damp skin. ‘I wish to be alone.’
Concerned, Elizabeth offered her arm, unsurprised when Anne kept hold of the newspaper even after she had slumped into a fireside chair in her room.
‘Shall I give your excuses at dinner, have a tray sent up?’
Elizabeth was not sure Anne had heard her. She remained staring into the flames in the hearth, the newspaper clutched in her hands. Leaning down, Elizabeth gave her a gentle embrace, casting one lingering look at her afflicted friend before softly closing the door.
Chapter Thirteen can be found HERE!!
Copyright © 2020 Ada Bright & Cass Grafton