As soon as Elizabeth awoke, her thoughts were of her friend and all she had revealed the night before, and she only just allowed Lottie to insert the last pin into her hair before hurrying from the room.
Relieved to find Anne no longer in her own chamber, Elizabeth made her way down the stairs and walked through the great hall towards the breakfast room. Voices drifted towards her, indicating Sir Walter and his eldest were at table, and Elizabeth’s steps slowed. Was she hungry enough to tolerate their company?
Elizabeth decided she was. Besides, Anne may need her.
‘I have told you time and again, my dear. You cannot be too choosy.’ Sir Walter’s strident voice carried to Elizabeth through the partially open door as she approached.
Miss Elliot’s response was muted, but her father continued as Elizabeth pushed open the door. ‘It is the perfect solution. After what I did for you a year ago, you are in no position to delay, and the gentleman is—ah, Miss Bennet.’
Elizabeth curtseyed as Miss Elliot spun around in her seat, discomfort apparent on her features, but she quickly assumed her usual indolent air.
‘Excuse me, Sir Walter. Is there word from Miss Anne this morning?’
The gentleman raised a brow. ‘We have not seen her. She must be in her room.’
Miss Elliot completely ignored Elizabeth.
‘If you will excuse me, sir, ma’am, I shall seek her out.’
Closing the door with a snap, Elizabeth mulled over where Anne might be. It was good to know she had felt well enough to leave her room but breaking her fast had clearly not been the incentive.
Elizabeth clutched her stomach as an ominous growl emanated from it. She would have to do a raid on the kitchens later, finding Anne took precedence.
A search of all the rooms on the ground floor bore no fruit; a passing footman had no answer for Miss Anne Elliot’s whereabouts, and Elizabeth was on the verge of heading down to the kitchens to beg for a piece of toast or plum cake before searching further when she saw Anne coming through the doorway leading from the boot room, dressed in her riding habit. Her face was flushed and her hair a little disarrayed as she removed her hat, but when she saw Elizabeth, she raised a hand in greeting.
‘I was so worried about you!’ Elizabeth hurried her steps to meet her friend. ‘Where have you been?’
‘Come, Lizzy.’ Anne said no more but took Elizabeth’s arm and urged her along to the small sitting room they had gone to the previous day.
‘You are cold.’
Anne nodded, gesturing for Elizabeth to precede her into the room, and she closed the door and turned around to lean against it.
‘I wished to catch the Reverend Wentworth.’
They each took a seat either side of the hearth where a welcome fire crackled in the grate, and Anne held out her hands towards it. Elizabeth chewed her lip. Her friend spoke in a matter of fact manner that belied the dullness of her eyes and the slump of her frame.
‘Did you sleep at all?’
‘I do not feel as though I did, but I had such dreams…and one must sleep to dream.’ Anne sat back in her seat, tucking her hands into her lap. ‘I had to see Reverend Wentworth, to see if he had any further intelligence.’
‘And did he?’
Anne shook her head. ‘It is oft the way in such cases. Initial reports reach the press before private word can be delivered to the families, the distances being so great.’
‘And is the reverend the only family in this instance?’
The colour in Anne’s cheeks, borne of the brisk walk in the cold air, was receding. ‘Frederick had a sister to whom he was seriously attached—he spoke of her often and with great affection. She married a naval man, now an admiral, and they are currently in the West Indies. It will be some time before they learn what has befallen her brother.’
Elizabeth leaned back in her own seat. ‘So much sadness to be borne, for the families of each and every man lost on the ship. I am so grieved for you, Anne.’
‘Reverend Wentworth is now on his way to Leominster, where he is to be wed. His new wife will be his comfort.’ Anne stretched her stocking-clad feet out towards the hearth, wriggling her toes in search of its warmth. ‘He had heard rumours of a ship going down in the Irish Sea but had no reason to suspect it was the Laconia.’ Anne drew in a short breath. ‘He is full of regret for having only seen his brother twice in the past five years. I cannot help but feel I am to blame. Frederick, as you can imagine, never returned to Somersetshire after we…after he…he has not visited his brother at home since the year six. They met in Southampton, when he was ashore, but he was mainly at sea and…’ Her voice trailed away as her mind drifted, and Elizabeth clutched her stomach again as it let out a protesting gurgle.
‘You have not eaten.’
‘I wished to find you.’
‘Dear Lizzy.’ Anne stood up. ‘I will profess to having no appetite, but I am sensible enough to comprehend I will do myself little service by not eating. Let us see if Mrs Howard can supply us with a little nourishment. I cannot face the breakfast table.’
Grateful though she was to know food would be imminent, Elizabeth took Anne’s arm as they made their way back along the hall.
‘If there is anything I can do, Anne, anything at all… I know there is no way to heal your immediate pain, but if you wish to talk to me, speak of Captain Wentworth in confidence, you have my solemn vow, never shall a word be spoken to another of anything you wish to share.’
They had reached the door to the service areas, and Anne turned to face Elizabeth, her expression solemn.
‘Thank you, dear Lizzy. If I had been here with just my father and my sister, then I do not know how I would have borne the news. I could not share it with them, nor would they understand my loss. They had no time for Frederick, he is… was… of no importance to them.’
‘He was important to you, and that is all that matters. I will let you be the guide but I remain at your disposal.’
Anne pushed open the door. ‘Of that I shall take full opportunity, dear Lizzy. Let us eat, and then, after I have changed out of these clothes, we will go up to the long gallery for some exercise and conversation. It will be the best possible balm.’
To Darcy’s disappointment, only Sir Walter and his eldest daughter were present when he and Georgiana were shown into the drawing room, and once his sister had been introduced to the gentleman, she sat in awed silence and Darcy was left to carry the conversation.
To his further discomfort, Miss Elliot paid Georgiana little attention beyond what was required and came to sit beside him to engage him in inconsequential nothings, to which he responded in a distracted manner, his eye upon his equally uncomfortable sister, and his mind wandering the building in search of Elizabeth.
‘Do you not think so, sir?’
Darcy blinked and turned to the lady at his side. ‘I—er, yes, of course.’
‘There! It is as I told my father only this morning. I was certain as to your finding it most agreeable for you to join us for dinner prior to the ball.’
He looked from Sir Walter to Georgiana, who seemed suddenly interested in the lady.
‘We shall, of course, be inviting only the best company.’ Miss Elliot frowned. ‘Though we are under duress to have all the Musgroves here.’ She did not appear overly pleased by this. ‘A family obligation, you understand.’
Georgiana looked eagerly at the lady. ‘And Miss Bennet?’
Miss Elliot trilled a light laugh.
‘Good heavens, I think not. Miss Bennet will have long gone on her way by St Stephen’s.’ Miss Elliot leaned confidentially towards Darcy, who instinctively leaned further away. ‘My sister, Anne, has some singular notions. Her bringing Miss Bennet here was a misjudgement, one I am certain you comprehend.’
Thankfully, she straightened, permitting Darcy to do the same and save himself from falling off the back of the chaise.
He was torn between indignation at her derogatory tone and owning it would have been his exact reaction, had someone had the temerity to bring someone of the Bennets’ status to stay at Pemberley.
‘Her connections, Mr Darcy, and the situation of her family! An uncle who is a small town, country lawyer and another in trade! You can imagine how Father and I felt when we took steps to investigate the Bennets’ wealth and consequence.’
Elizabeth has more consequence than you could ever dream of.
‘Did you say something, sir?’
Darcy shook his head. ‘Do please continue. You were talking of the ball?’
Miss Elliot accepted the invitation, but Darcy paid no heed to her words. He had known Elizabeth would only stay for a few weeks, but he had hardly seen her.
Why was he so devastated at the thought of her leaving Somersetshire? His hand went involuntarily to his breast. He was not prepared for this chance encounter to come to a precipitous ending.
The door opened, and a butler entered to address Sir Walter.
‘Mr Shepherd is here, sir. I have shown him to the study, where he awaits your instructions.’
Sir Walter rose from his seat. ‘Darcy, join me, if you will. I must just speak with my legal man, but I have recently sourced a valuable painting and it arrived this morning. I am certain you will appreciate seeing it.’
Sir Walter waved a dismissive hand at his daughter. ‘Miss Darcy will no doubt be grateful for your attention, my dear. Come, Darcy.’
To Darcy’s surprise, Georgiana nodded as he got to his feet, albeit she eyed Miss Elliot warily.
‘I will return directly, Georgie, and we will be home in time for your music practice.’
‘Music practice be damned, Darcy. Elizabeth’—Sir Walter turned to Miss Elliot— ‘take Miss Darcy to the music room. She can try out the instruments to her heart’s content, and you can display your own talents by return.’
A glimpse of Miss Elliot’s countenance was sufficient for Darcy to comprehend the lady’s view on this, but then she perceived Darcy’s eye upon her.
‘It will be my pleasure. Do come and find us, sir, when your business is complete. Come, Miss Darcy.’ She offered a hand to Georgiana who, after a fleeting look in her brother’s direction, arose to take it, allowing herself to be led from the room.
Elizabeth and Anne had completed several lengths of the long gallery, an impressive area in which the two of them were quite lost, but which enabled them to speak freely without fear of being overheard or interrupted.
‘I shall, at least, have my memories of the happy times we shared, Lizzy. It is more than some can ever aspire to.’
Anne stared out of one of the many windows along the gallery, and Elizabeth joined her. The colour in her friend’s cheeks was returning, as was her calm manner.
‘I have long mourned the man I loved, and though this is wretched, it alters not my own situation.’ She turned to face Elizabeth with a soft smile. ‘There will still be moments of anguish, but I have had five years to accept my lot in life.’
Impulsively, Elizabeth embraced her friend.
‘What you had with Captain Wentworth, though it ended in a way you would not wish, was more than many experience. You are quite right, the memory cannot be taken away from you.’
Anne was silent for a moment, then she nodded. ‘I have come to realise that Frederick Wentworth was the most important person in my life. So much of who I am today is rooted in the love we shared and lost. I had never connected them until now.’
Elizabeth felt consumed by sadness. She wondered if perhaps the good captain had never quite recovered from his affection for Anne. It was certainly likely he had never come across another such woman.
‘The past few months have shown me the many complications pertaining to matters of the heart.’ Elizabeth took in the beautiful expanse of land, then leaned against the windowsill beside her friend. ‘I begin to understand why so many marriages are founded on business. I do not like it, but it seems finding love is oft insufficient.’
‘And sometimes it is entirely too much.’
‘It is sadly true. I hear all you have endured, and I think of Jane and Mr Bingley.’ Elizabeth turned towards her friend earnestly. ‘I know he cared for her, Anne. I know he did. But persuasion was the means of separating them, much as it was in your own case, and for similar reasons, no doubt. I do not fault you for your decision. I have struggled not to fault Mr Bingley, but if he truly is intending to wed Miss Darcy, I ought to rail against him for his blatant attentions to my sister.’
Anne frowned. ‘It may account for his being so easily persuaded to leave Hertfordshire, particularly if his unguarded attentions had given rise to a general expectation of there being a commitment between Mr Bingley and your sister.’
Elizabeth pursed her lips. ‘I had not given such a possibility credence, but now I begin to wonder. Mr Bingley’s manners were so open and inviting. What if he is prone to such missteps and has had to be warned before now by his friends of the danger of his paying too much attention to a young lady?’ Then, she shook her head. ‘But I am certain he was genuinely attached to Jane, that he fell in love with her.’
‘Being destined for another does not necessarily prevent someone from falling in love elsewhere, certainly if the prior arrangement is more of a business arrangement.’
‘Aye.’ Elizabeth’s mind was grappling with this interpretation. ‘Though I did not accept it at the time, with Mr Bingley’s settled absence, I must began to give it some weight. As for Miss Darcy, she had been portrayed by Miss Bingley and’—Elizabeth caught herself before mentioning Wickham’s assessment— ‘and held up as a virtue, so much older and mature than she is. It seems there was some deception in the case.’
‘And what do you think Miss Bingley’s motives were in making you believe this?’
Miss Bingley’s she could surmise, but Elizabeth was unsettled to realise it was harder to fathom Mr Wickham’s purpose. Surely he had known Miss Darcy all her life, and his interpretation ought to be the most reliable?
‘At the time, I told Jane I believed it was more about Miss Bingley wanting Miss Darcy as a sister through her own marriage to Mr Darcy.’
‘Mr Darcy?’ It was Anne’s turn to frown as they both pushed away from the window and walked across the room. ‘Is he engaged to the lady?’
Elizabeth laughed as they reached the door. ‘Oh, how I wish! Mr Darcy deserves such a life, for all he has done to ruin others! The machinations of marriage are all too much for me. I shall have none of it.’
Anne opened the door, and Elizabeth looked back along the gallery.
‘You are fortunate to have such a place for when the weather is inclement.’
‘And you would, whatever the elements, prefer to be in the fresh air?’
Elizabeth smiled as she followed Anne down the stairs. ‘We cannot always have what we prefer.’
They had reached the first floor, and Anne paused. ‘Will you excuse me, Lizzy? I wish to take a little rest. My poor night of sleep has made me weary.’
‘Of course. May I return to the small sitting room with a book? You are certain you do not wish for companionship?’
They had reached the door to Anne’s room now, and she turned to face Elizabeth. There was a noticeable calmness about her now. ‘I am quite well. I merely wish to rest. I will join you once I am feeling stronger.’
With that, Elizabeth had to be content, and she hurried to her room to collect the book she was reading before heading down the stairs to the seclusion of the late Lady Elliot’s sanctuary.
Chapter Fifteen can be found HERE!!
Copyright © 2020 Ada Bright & Cass Grafton