Ten minutes in Sir Walter’s study was sufficient for Darcy to realise why the rumours about the gentleman’s finances were probably true. Such extravagance over one painting, when the estate was failing to direct funds to more important needs, such as keeping the stock in the fields, was blatant mismanagement.
Whether Sir Walter was entirely to blame, with both an accountant and a legal representative to advise him, Darcy knew not, but he was thankful when the painting’s wrapping was restored and escape seemed imminent.
‘If I could have another moment of your time, Sir Walter?’
Shepherd, Sir Walter’s lawyer, was seated before a desk full of papers. Darcy had attempted to close his ears to their conversation on first arriving in the study. Kellynch business was none of his concern.
‘What is it now, Shepherd?’ Sir Walter gestured towards Darcy. ‘I have visitors.’
‘If you would just sign the authorisation for the quarterly payments?’ The lawyer spoke with quiet authority. ‘I shall not trouble you further.’
Turning away as Sir Walter walked over to the desk, Darcy noticed a large table upon which rested an open book. A quick study proved it to be the Baronetage and, unsurprisingly, the pages were opened on ‘Elliot of Kellynch Hall’.
Darcy’s eyes skimmed the entries, his brow rising as he noted the handwritten additions to the printed entries.
‘Ah, I see you are interested in the family lineage, Darcy. Have no fear,’ Sir Walter had come to stand beside Darcy. ‘The family has long been blessed with the baronetcy. Our credentials are exemplary.’
‘It is a fine volume, Sir Walter.’ Darcy pointed at the entry of his youngest daughter’s marriage a year ago. ‘I am surprised to see the annotations. Do they not affect its value?’
‘Done by my own hand. If anyone has the right, then it is I.’ Sir Walter’s pride in himself was blatant. ‘You would be surprised the value of a good annotation.’ He tapped his nose. ‘Needs must and—’
‘Are you well settled at Meadowbrook House, Mr Darcy?’
Surprised by Shepherd’s interruption, Darcy straightened from his study of the book. ‘Yes, quite settled, thank you.’
‘Good, good.’ The lawyer stepped forward and closed the Baronetage. ‘I have much to work on. If you will excuse me?’
Amused, Darcy followed Sir Walter from the room. Had the man just dismissed his employer from his own study?
‘Hmph.’ Sir Walter cleared his throat as they walked back along the corridor. ‘Shepherd is my confidential friend, you understand, of many years standing. His father before him was my advisor when I reached my majority.’
‘You permit him certain liberties, sir.’
Sir Walter raised a brow. ‘When a man knows the intricacies of your personal business, it is well to both keep him close and allow him some perceived authority.’ He gestured towards a corridor to the left. ‘What say you we go in search of Elizabeth, Darcy?’
A smile touched Darcy’s lips, even as his heart clenched again in his breast. He would gladly do so, and it was only as he followed Sir Walter towards the music room that he realised precisely which Elizabeth he had meant. Resigning himself to the inevitable, he at least felt reassured he would relieve his sister from the obligation of Miss Elliot’s sole attention.
Even so, Darcy had hoped to at least see Miss Bennet, engage her in conversation before he left, and he looked around, half expecting his wishes to have manifested her presence.
Strands of music floated through the air as Sir Walter opened the door to the music room. At least Georgiana would be perfectly content at the piano.
The music room was filled with light, so much so, Darcy felt almost blinded by it at first, but as his eyes adjusted, he realised Miss Elliot was alone in the room.
Elizabeth’s book had failed to capture her attention, her mind engrossed by her recent conversation with Anne. Happiness seemed to hold no sway over the lives of women, who seemed powerless to be their own protectors, whether they had a dowry or not.
Frustrated, Elizabeth checked the weather outside. A brisk walk around the gardens was required, and with that in mind, she hurried to collect her stoutest pair of boots and a warm pelisse before emerging from the boot room into the chill of the wintry afternoon.
Striking out along a path cleared of snow, Elizabeth walked for some time, head down and deep in thought, though none were conducive to raising her spirits.
Poor Anne… Elizabeth’s breath mingled with the chilly air to form swirls, drifting away from her. It was true, this intelligence of her captain had been a shock, and a painful one at that, but as Anne herself had owned, her grieving had been done over many years. Her melancholy may never fully loosen its hold, but her immediate distress would be alleviated given a little time to adjust to the news.
Having reached the shrubbery, Elizabeth turned about and surveyed her surroundings. There were few sounds beyond the cawing of some rooks in the bare treetops, and slowly she began to walk back towards the house. As she entered the formal lawned area, however, a movement caught her eye, and she espied a young woman on the terrace.
She waved a hand, recognising Georgiana Darcy, who returned the gesture.
As she reached the terrace, however, Elizabeth became concerned. ‘Miss Darcy, should you be out here?’ She considered the girl’s white complexion as she put a hand to her mouth to conceal a cough.
‘I have been waiting for my brother, but I could not bear’—Georgiana stopped, the hand flying back to her mouth, her eyes widening. ‘Forgive me. I must not speak out of turn.’
‘I did not know you were at Kellynch.’ Curious though Elizabeth was about what Georgiana had been about to say, she was more interested in how she came to be there.
‘My brother’—she cleared her throat—‘Fitz felt obliged to call upon Sir Walter, so I begged him to allow me to come too. I had hoped to see you.’
Elizabeth eyed Georgiana with surprise. ‘Me?’
‘Oh, and Miss Anne Elliot, of course. Only instead I…did not know where to find you.’
Gesturing for them to walk on, Elizabeth fell into step with Georgiana.
‘I cannot condone you being out in this cold weather, Miss Darcy, but as it is not my place to prevent you from doing so, I shall instead keep you company.’
‘Fitz will not be pleased with me, but I could remain no longer in the music room.’ Georgiana shuddered, and Elizabeth frowned.
‘Was the instrument not to your liking?’ Perhaps she was as fastidious in her tastes as Wickham had implied?
‘Oh no! It was exquisite. It is…I was with Miss Elliot.’ Georgiana stopped and turned to face Elizabeth. Her expression conflicted, and colour flooded her cheeks. ‘I know I should not say it, but I do not find her good company.’
Suppressing a laugh, Elizabeth laid a hand gently on Georgiana’s arm as they moved on. ‘She is an acquired taste. We cannot all like each other in the same way. It is human nature and how we are formed. Though I empathise with your desire to escape, I do not think Mr Darcy would wish you to be out for too long.’
‘My brother is protective of me, as he is of those he holds dear. We are but a small family, but Fitz would offer his protection to any of his close friends, or indeed those acquaintances who had need of it.’
Thinking of Wickham, Elizabeth was unimpressed. She liked Georgiana well enough, but she was incredibly naïve. Suddenly struck with a notion, Elizabeth glanced at her.
‘May I ask you a question, Miss Darcy?’
‘You are well acquainted with your brother’s intimate friend, Mr Bingley, I assume?’
Georgiana smiled. ‘Indeed. When we are in Town, he is as much in our house as we are. Fitz considers him almost family.’
That was not what Elizabeth wished to hear! They had few steps to go along the terrace before they were back at the door to the boot room. Ought she to ask more? She was being impertinent…
‘Mr Bingley was well liked in Hertfordshire. It is a shame he is said to be giving up the estate.’
‘I was surprised when my brother first told me.’ They had reached the door now and Elizabeth opened it, waiting for Georgiana to precede her into the building. ‘But Fitz takes care of him where he needs it most, and Mr Bingley is most grateful to him for the service.’
Her dissatisfaction with Mr Darcy growing by the minute, Elizabeth did not respond, hanging her pelisse on the coat stand and sitting down to unlace her boots. The sooner the man was gone from the Hall, the better. Then, she frowned.
The words were out before Elizabeth could think about the appropriateness of them, but Georgiana Darcy was busy hanging up her own pelisse and continued to chatter, unwittingly revealing her brother’s hand in the separation of his friend from a most unsuitable young lady in Hertfordshire.
Pacing was no aid to Darcy, despite the lateness of the hour. Unable to settle, unwilling to make any attempt at sleeping, he glared at the embers in the hearth, scowled at his reflection every time he passed the looking glass and glowered at the undisturbed bed as though his present unrest was down to them and them alone.
Now, a good half hour after dismissing his rather peeved valet, assuring him that he was quite capable of preparing himself for bed for once, Darcy remained wide awake, his mind in more turmoil than ever.
He strode over to the window of his chamber and stared out into the all-consuming darkness. A crescent of the waning moon stood as a slender sentinel in the sky—just as motionless as Darcy. If his line of sight had been clear of trees, and it was not the dead of night, he might be able to see straight to Kellynch Hall. Did Elizabeth’s room face in this direction? Was she, too, awake and unable to settle? Did she think of him?
Resuming his pacing, Darcy’s expression became thoughtful. His sister had long since retired, her delight in her first visit to the Hall down purely to time spent in Elizabeth’s company.
A sudden image flashed through his mind, Elizabeth’s fine eyes meeting his across the music room as she entered, his sister in tow. He could not recall what he had said. Miss Elliot had been talking to him, but his interest was all with Elizabeth.
Darcy frowned. She had not seemed her usual serene self, and her terse response when he had enquired after Miss Anne Elliot confounded him. Was it because her friend was unwell? If it were to be a lengthy indisposition, would Elizabeth’s time be wholly consumed by attending the lady?
It was Elizabeth’s way to care for others. Had Darcy not seen it for himself when she nursed Jane Bennet through her illness at Netherfield? He had seen it too in the way she had spoken so kindly to Georgiana when first they met, and earlier…
Walking to the looking glass, he took in his conflicted air. How could Elizabeth have such a hold on the Darcys? He was bewitched; there was no other word for it. Entranced by her, unable to pull his gaze away.
Georgiana had blossomed under Elizabeth’s attention as she encouraged her to play a duet. When had Darcy last seen such animation in his sister’s face, such rapt attention upon anything, even her music? The sound of her laughter had been a delight, and he had smiled gratefully at Elizabeth.
Was her assessing stare borne of a growing interest in him? Darcy had yet to fathom the intricacies of Elizabeth’s mind, but she must have detected it, for he was becoming powerless to conceal it.
Darcy prowled over to the window again, staring once more in the direction of the Hall. How could any woman affect him so? Elizabeth could not possibly understand the impact she had upon him; he could scarce account for it himself.
What was it he had said? A stammered compliment about the music, and, because he was eaten up with longing to take a seat beside Elizabeth, to have her notice upon him and him alone, Darcy had done the opposite. He had held out his hand for his sister and, he hoped, made a civil retreat from the room and the house.
Consumed by emotions he knew not how to harness, Darcy turned around and leant against the sill. He had known the danger, back in Hertfordshire, not only of paying Elizabeth too much attention, but of wanting more from the lady than a gentleman of his standing should consider or permit. Now he fully comprehended the truth he had battled to suppress. Denial was futile.
Reaching up to unfasten his neck cloth, a faint smile touched Darcy’s lips. The battle with himself was over; the war had been won.
Darcy’s heart was already Elizabeth’s and, God help him, he was going to marry her.
Pacing to and fro in her room, Elizabeth was thankful Anne had decided to retire early, though relieved her friend had seemed more herself. She had chosen not to relate her conversation with Georgiana, for Anne was sufficiently burdened with her own concerns.
Georgiana Darcy’s naiveté could easily be put down to her inexperience in the world, and the cosseted way she had likely been raised…
Stopping in the middle of the room, Elizabeth drew in a short breath. Yes, she wished to blame Mr Darcy for the entirety, even his own sister’s gaucheness at times, but honesty forced her to acknowledge that over-protectiveness surely had more merit than the lethargic approach of her father towards his daughters.
Elizabeth dropped onto her bed. She had placed the blame for Bingley’s desertion with his sisters—Miss Bingley in particular—though she had not been blind to Mr Darcy’s disparaging opinion of her family. Aside from anything he might have said, it was blatant upon his face, tangible in his air when any of the Bennet family was within close proximity.
To learn from Miss Darcy he had been instrumental in removing his friend from the district and advising him not to return had been galling and infuriating. The girl seemed little troubled by it. If she had any affection for Mr Bingley, it clearly did not distress her to know he had paid attention to another.
‘Poor Miss Darcy.’ Despite herself, Elizabeth could not help but smile a little at the recollection of Georgiana’s face as she realised whatever she was saying was affecting Elizabeth.
It had taken a lot of reassurance, and Elizabeth’s best endeavours, as they walked through the hall, to not blame the bearer of such intelligence, before Georgiana could be reassured no harm had been done.
‘No harm?’ muttered Elizabeth, getting to her feet as agitation returned in full measure. ‘What lies we speak to save the innocent.’
Well, she had done her utmost to make the girl easy, had accompanied her back to the music room only to find him there already. Oh, how proud her parents would have been at the restraint Elizabeth held over her feelings upon entering the room.
As for Mr Darcy…
The door to the servants’ staircase opened and Lottie entered with a pitcher of hot water.
‘Oh! Are you ready, miss?’
‘As ready as I shall ever be, Lottie.’
The morrow was another day, and if chance favoured her, Elizabeth would not see Mr Darcy until she had herself under better regulation.
Chapter Sixteen can be found HERE!!
There will be a chapter a day on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, but then posting will take a break over the holidays, returning in January 2021!!
Copyright © 2020 Ada Bright & Cass Grafton