Darcy had never had such fastidious care taken with his appearance. Raworth—though he knew not his master’s intentions—had seemed to think it more than adequate recompense for his master having no use of his services the previous evening, and fussed around him, knotting his neckcloth three times before he was satisfied and insisting—with due deference—the green stripe waistcoat suited his master best.
Darcy had hurried down the stairs on pure adrenaline, belying the sleepless night he had passed as he tossed and turned, fighting the voice of reason, of duty, whenever it made itself known.
He was going against all his principles, taking a woman of inferior birth, no fortune, no connections, for his wife. There would be family obstacles to overcome; Darcy would invoke their displeasure by connecting himself to someone whose relations and condition in life were so decidedly beneath his own. Even his own parents would have railed against a match with Elizabeth.
‘Then it is a blessing they are at rest,’ he mused as a footman assisted him into his great coat. The gratification of having Elizabeth as his wife overruled all sense, all reason. His heart would win out, beyond any rational argument Darcy’s conscience could summon.
‘Brother? Where are you going?’ Georgiana had emerged from the drawing room, a book in her hand.
‘Up to the Hall.’
She walked over to him, then frowned. ‘Is anything amiss?’
Darcy, who was committing his speech to Elizabeth to memory, did not respond, so Georgiana tugged at his sleeve as he held out a hand for his gloves.
‘What is it?’ He had not meant to speak so sharply and colour flooded her cheeks. ‘Georgie.’ Contrite now, Darcy waved away the footman and took her hands in his. ‘Forgive me, dearest. I have a matter of some import on my mind.’
Georgiana went into his open arms and he held her close, then dropped a kiss on top of her head.
‘And it will be resolved by your visit?’
Darcy smiled, though she could not see it. ‘Most indubitably.’
‘Then you will return in better humour, Fitz?’ Her voice was somewhat muffled by his coat, but Darcy’s heart swelled with the joy he soon anticipated. The family in general may not approve, but Georgiana would, and hers was the only opinion he cared for.
He set her away from him. ‘I shall. And I hope to bring news.’
Her face brightened. ‘What sort of news, Brother?’
Darcy laughed and tapped her lightly on the nose. ‘Later, Georgie.’ He checked his watch. ‘I must leave directly.’
‘You seem a little better this morning, Anne.’
Elizabeth followed her friend into the small sitting room they had taken as their own.
‘I did sleep for a time.’ Anne walked over to the writing desk against the far wall. ‘I am sorry your night was disturbed, though.’ She placed a bottle of ink into one of the compartments and turned to face Elizabeth. ‘Will you not tell me why?’
Knowing how riled she would become if she began, Elizabeth shook her head. ‘Pay me no mind, Anne. Now, I am curious. I was most taken with this painting the other day. Do tell me about it.’
She gestured towards the portrait hanging above the mantel, and they both walked over to stand before it.
‘This is my mother.’ Anne pointed to the young lady seated in a chair, a baby in her arms. Resting a hand lightly on the figure, she trailed a finger down the canvas to rest upon the baby. ‘And this is Mary.’
‘It is beautifully rendered.’ Elizabeth turned to her friend. ‘And the little girl nestled upon the gentleman’s lap? She appears perfectly content.’
‘She was.’ Anne’s gaze had fallen upon the small figure. ‘I was all of four years of age and despite appearances, apparently I fidgeted a great deal!’
Elizabeth laughed. ‘Who is the gentleman? You were vastly at ease in his embrace.’
Anne’s face softened. ‘Grandpapa James. My mother’s father. We were extremely close.’ Her air crumpled, and Elizabeth took her hand.
‘I am sorry if my inquisitiveness has brought you pain.’
‘It has not.’ Anne squeezed Elizabeth’s hand gently. ‘I miss them both so much. Grandpapa only survived my mother by a year. He was devastated by her death.’ She raised her fingers, placing a kiss upon them before touching her mother’s cheek and then her grandfather’s. ‘Mama used to take Mary and I to visit Grandpapa often.’
Elizabeth frowned. ‘What of Miss Elliot?’
‘My eldest sister preferred to remain here with Father.’
A tap came on the door, followed by the appearance of the housekeeper bearing a salver.
‘The post has arrived, Miss Anne.’
Anne took up the letters as the housekeeper hurried from the room.
‘There is one for you, Lizzy.’
‘Oh, it is from Jane.’ Elizabeth broke the seal and began to read, sinking onto a chaise beside the hearth, but within seconds, her hand dropped into her lap and her fingers clenched as she struggled not to screw the letter up and hurl it at the glowing fire.
‘What is it?’ Anne came to sit beside Elizabeth, who released a frustrated breath.
‘Mr Collins has returned a week ahead of himself, but that is not the worst of it. Here.’ Elizabeth handed the letter at Anne. ‘Read the first paragraph, and you shall see.’
Anne did as she was bid, then handed the letter back. ‘So, Miss Bennet has capitulated. I am grieved for you, Lizzy.’
‘I truly thought Jane would come to view the scheme as nonsensical.’ Elizabeth leapt up, though uncertain of her purpose. She took a few steps, turned on her heel, and walked back before sinking onto the chaise beside Anne again. ‘How rude of Mr Collins, to return unannounced to press her for an answer? This is Lady Catherine’s doing, I am certain. He will heed no one’s advice but hers. A curse on that family! I wish they had never been born—any of them.’
‘Lizzy,’ Anne cautioned.
Elizabeth laughed but without humour. ‘Mr Darcy will not overhear me from here, Anne, though more is the pity.’
‘Read the letter fully, Lizzy. See what your sister has to say on the matter.’
Elizabeth took the letter and tried to focus on Jane’s words, striving to suppress her growing despair.
Her sister was resigned, as she had expected her to be, and Elizabeth’s spirits lowered. Much as she had not condoned Jane’s decision to do her duty, as she saw it, to detect her slow awakening to the permanence of her situation was heart-breaking. Damn Mr Bingley for deserting her, and damn Mr Darcy for his influence upon his friend.
‘A letter from Caroline Bingley arrived, putting an end to all doubt. Her brother is settled in London for the winter with no view of returning to Hertfordshire for many months, if at all. The remainder of Miss Bingley’s letter—the chief of it—was given over to praise of Miss Darcy and the anticipated union with her brother.’ Elizabeth was touched by the compassion in Anne’s face. ‘At least my father is insisting upon an engagement of no less than three months. Jane claims her acceptance to be the only logical response, but I cannot condone it. I feel as though I have lost my dearest sister.’
‘Oh, Lizzy. I am so sorry, both for you and for Jane.’
Elizabeth stood again. ‘Will you excuse me, Anne?’ She gestured towards the window. ‘I do not wish to desert you, but I fear if I do not walk off my temper, it will consume me. I am so…I am so angry with that man.’
Anne bit her lip. ‘Is it wise to lay all the blame at Mr Darcy’s feet, Lizzy? It seems Mr Bingley’s family were equally instrumental in separating them?’
Elizabeth knew what they were both also thinking. Jane had put herself in this situation, even if it was a direct result of Mr Bingley’s desertion.
Frustrated and saddened, Elizabeth almost wrung her hands. ‘None of this would have happened if persuasion had not been brought to bear upon Mr Bingley.’
‘Go for a walk, Lizzy. Shed your vexation in the garden.’
‘I am doing you a disservice. I promised you company.’
Anne stood up. ‘Come and find me when you are refreshed. I shall repair to the music room for a while.’
Elizabeth followed her friend out of the room, and they parted at the foot of the stairs.
Anne, of course, did not know of Mr Darcy’s treatment of Mr Wickham. Her mind full of the gentleman’s transgressions, Elizabeth headed for the boot room. Hopefully, Anne’s advice to take the air would adequately calm her agitation, and if Fate was kind, she would return to the house in better spirits and more able to support her friend.
Relishing the crisp wintry morning, Darcy inhaled deeply. He could not stop smiling as he strode down the lane, oblivious to the crunch of snow beneath his boots or the chill wind all but freezing the tips of his ears. Elizabeth would be astonished, of course. For all he had shown her attention, she could not expect an honour such as this!
Darcy felt invigorated, the smile on his face widening as he rounded the corner and approached the gates to Kellynch Hall. All he needed to do was choose the right words, and then, when Elizabeth’s intelligent eyes fixed upon his, her attention fully on him in a way it had never been before, he would not lose the power of coherent thought.
Eying the building’s facade as he walked along the driveway, Darcy’s confidence faltered somewhat. He had not even considered the practicalities! How the devil was he to find a moment alone with Elizabeth? She was constantly at her friend’s side, and even if he found them all in the drawing room, extracting Elizabeth from the room would be nigh on impossible, for what credible reason could he give? What if Miss Anne Elliot was still indisposed and Elizabeth attended to her?
The Fates, however, seemed to be in his corner. As Darcy neared the house, a movement caught his eye, and he espied Elizabeth—alone—walking away from him on the terrace bordering the west wing.
Darcy moved forward, trying to recall his carefully rehearsed speech, insensible to the frozen ground beneath his feet.
‘Collect yourself, man,’ he muttered. ‘You are asking the lady for her hand. It is hardly difficult…just consider all you wish to explain.’ To Darcy’s consternation, this merely brought the entirety of his arguments against the match tumbling into his head.
‘Enough,’ he cautioned himself. ‘You have made your choice. Just decide where to start. The rest will follow.’
Tell her you love her, you dunderhead.
Though the colonel knew not of Darcy’s intentions, he could hear his cousin’s voice as clearly as though he stood before him.
Yes, Cousin. That is precisely where I shall begin.
Elizabeth would be so gratified, and all he wished to say—of his struggle, of all he was sacrificing for her, of the obligations overcome with such difficulty—would follow quite easily, for his feelings were natural and just in the circumstances.
‘Just breathe,’ Darcy intoned quietly as he reached the terrace. Adrenaline was rushing through him again, filling his ears with noise…
His startled gaze met that of Elizabeth Bennet’s. She had turned about and fetched up short in front of him.
Her name fell involuntarily from his lips, but the lady seemed decidedly out of countenance. Darcy stared at her, entranced by the pretty picture she made; then, he recalled himself.
‘Forgive me. Miss Bennet.’
Heat permeated his skin despite the cold.
Speak, you simpleton! Seize the moment!
‘In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to—’
‘Must I, Mr Darcy?’ Elizabeth’s expression was not encouraging. ‘Well, I must choose not to listen. If you will excuse me, sir.’ She gestured with her hand. ‘I wish to continue my walk.’
Her tone was uncompromising, and Darcy frowned. Had he so affronted her with merely the slip of address? He could hardly help it; it was how he had thought of her for weeks now.
‘Forgive me, ma’am. I meant no offence and certainly had no intention of treating you with any less respect than you deserve.’
Elizabeth raised a brow. ‘Truly, sir? I am curious to learn what level of respect that might be?’
Darcy drew in a short breath. ‘The fullest respect, ma’am. Without question.’ He ran a hand through his hair. Lord, it was more difficult than he had imagined.
‘I repeat, forgive me, Miss Bennet, for such a slip. I should have been more circumspect.’
A sound escaped the lady. ‘How singular of you to own it.’
Darcy winced. ‘I have made my share of mistakes, like any man.’
Elizabeth laughed, but he sensed she was not amused. ‘How…astonishing.’ She looked around. ‘And how unfortunate I am the only audience for this incredible show of humility.’
Something was definitely wrong. Darcy’s perplexed eyes met Elizabeth’s as she returned her attention to him.
‘Have I committed some particular transgression today, Miss Bennet?’
‘Today, Mr Darcy? Not particularly.’
Darcy released a relieved breath. ‘Then—’
‘Your offences, sir, extend far beyond today.’
He almost rolled his eyes as Elizabeth skipped around him and moved towards the house. Surely she was not going to repeat her defence of Wickham from the ball? Then, he frowned.
‘Offences?’ He set off in pursuit.
Elizabeth raised her chin as he fell into step beside her, fixing him with her intelligent eyes. How he wished to lose himself in them and—
‘You are so consumed with your own consequence, you cannot see worth in anyone not fortunate enough to have your background and upbringing. You may have been raised with good principles’—Elizabeth’s agitation was blatant. She did not sound as if she believed it—‘but you seem to follow them in pride and conceit.’
She headed for a nearby door, then stopped so abruptly, he almost ran into her.
‘You are made of the same ilk as Sir Walter and Miss Elliot. Judgemental, supercilious, and filled with arrogance.’
This was her opinion of him?
‘You would tar me with the same brush?’
‘No, you are right. I should not.’
Darcy’s relief was fleeting.
‘Sir Walter and his daughter have slighted me inconsequentially. I find their contempt diverting. You, sir, on the other hand, have brought permanent harm upon people I care for—far greater offences and ones I find no humour in.’
Cut to the quick by this affirmation of her continued interest in Wickham, Darcy drew himself to his full height.
‘I will not discuss Wickham’s false claims.’
Elizabeth’s eyes flashed. ‘His misfortunes are of your infliction. An offence, to be certain, but not what most angers me against you. That is the ruin of my sister’s happiness by your hand. Your obsession with wealth and consequence should not be imposed upon others, nor should your influence be brought to bear to deny someone the chance of making a marriage of affection.’
Darcy suddenly felt on a surer footing. After all, he had done Miss Jane Bennet a service. ‘I do not deny I was instrumental in separating my friend from your sister. Miss Bennet has much to recommend her—’
‘But not fortune or connections.’
With frustration, Darcy shook his head.
‘Your sister’s air was calm, and her manners towards my friend were cheerful and engaging, but I detected no symptom of particular regard, merely a dutiful daughter following a mother’s objective. I observed your sister closely, and Miss Bennet received Bingley’s attentions with pleasure but did not return them. I acted only to protect him from—’
‘Protect him?’ Elizabeth was shaking. ‘Please do finish your sentence, sir. Your friend needed protection from what, exactly? And what of my sister and the protection of her heart? Does Mr Bingley make a habit of paying his attentions to young ladies when he is expected to please his family and friends by marrying your sister?’
Darcy frowned. ‘What has Georgiana to do with this?’
Elizabeth ignored the question. ‘I hope they are happy together because I like Miss Darcy. My concern is not with your sister, sir, it is with mine and her current circumstances. A dreadful situation for which I hold you wholly responsible!’
Darcy was thoroughly confused, the ache in his breast intensifying at the words falling from Elizabeth’s lips. What the devil had happened to his intentions for today?
‘I have not the pleasure of understanding you.’
‘My father’s estate, as well you know, is entailed upon my cousin, Mr Collins. Jane has, in the light of Mr Bingley’s defection and her subsequent broken heart, succumbed to persuasion and agreed to marry this cousin.’
Broken heart? His was the heart that was breaking.
Elizabeth grasped the door handle, then turned around. ‘For dear, sweet Jane to have agreed to such an attachment is unbearable.’ She glared at Darcy. ‘I have no doubt you will see the fruits of your labour in person when next you call upon your aunt, for the engagement is to last until the spring, after which my sister will be shackled to the Reverend Collins for eternity. Your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain for the feelings of others has brought Jane to this.’
Darcy’s head was reeling; his hopes and dreams collapsing around him. Almost in a trance, he stepped forward to stand beside Elizabeth, who held her ground, glaring at him from the fine eyes he had so long admired.
How could he turn this around, speak words that would diffuse the situation?
The silence between them swelled; then, Elizabeth pushed open the door.
‘If you will excuse me, sir. I find the air out here quite disagreeable.’
Drawing on every reserve as Elizabeth disappeared inside the building, Darcy turned his back on it. How could this have gone so disastrously wrong? The ache in his breast he tried to ignore; pain and disappointment would overcome him later, but not now. His head was reeling with the relentless words that had fallen from Elizabeth’s lips and…
The click of the latch as the door opened, roused him. She had come back! He swung around, hope filling him.
‘Elizabeth! I must explain my—’
He broke off as Miss Elliot fluttered her lashes.
‘Mr Darcy.’ She smiled coyly. ‘You are a little familiar, but it confirms my hopes. What is it you wish to say to me?’
‘No! Forgive me, madam. I meant…’ Involuntarily, Darcy’s gaze drifted beyond the lady into the house, and the expectant smile was wiped from Miss Elliot’s face.
‘Miss Bennet appeared to be in rather a hurry just now.’
Darcy had no reply to this. After all, what was there to say?
‘If you will excuse me, ma’am.’ He bowed and turned on his heel, walking rapidly back towards the front of the house, desperate to put distance between himself and the debacle of his altercation with Elizabeth.
Chapter Seventeen 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