Elizabeth turned to stare at Anne, whose shoulders had stiffened. What strangeness was this?
‘Wentworth?’ Anne spoke faintly, and Elizabeth put a supporting hand under her friend’s elbow as she walked unsteadily towards the men.
‘Did you say Wentworth?’ Anne’s voice hitched, but the stranger looked over with relief.
‘Yes, ma’am. A Captain Wentworth. Badly injured, pulled from the ice-cold sea.’
‘Then he is alive.’ Anne wilted against Elizabeth, who put both arms around her and held tight. Involuntarily, her gaze flew to Mr Darcy, but he seemed as bewildered as she.
‘Sir’—the stranger had turned back to Sir Walter—‘I beg of you, as an emissary of the Navy, give the man shelter and a fighting chance. His injury may well do for him, but at least let him die in peace, not on the road.’
‘If he is to die, then so be it. He is no loss to me.’
A whimper came from Anne. ‘Where is he?’ She spoke so distantly, only Elizabeth heard her, or so she thought, but Mr Darcy turned his head suddenly, taking in Anne’s distressed state, before turning back to the stranger.
‘Take him to Meadowbrook House. It is but a mile back down the lane.’ He turned to Sir Walter. ‘You will not object, sir.’ It was not a request, but the gentleman’s colour deepened, and he began a spluttering protest.
Mr Darcy, however, much to Elizabeth’s surprise, ignored him, turning instead to the newcomer. ‘There is no fever?’
The man shook his head. ‘Captain Wentworth suffered no open wounds but took a severe blow to his head. He was pulled aboard another ship, along with a handful of survivors. At first, he drifted in and out of consciousness, which permitted the intake of some fluids, but the captain has not roused once since before the journey here commenced, and if he remains insensible, he will fade rapidly.’
‘If you would be so good as to accompany the gentleman. My housekeeper will summon a local surgeon. Rest assured, sir, he will be well cared for by my staff until…’
Elizabeth held Anne even tighter as a further whimper escaped her lips.
‘Wait. You said he spoke but two words upon his rescue.’ Sir Walter glared at the stranger. ‘Can you not take him to this other place?’
The man shook his head. ‘I would, sir, but it is not a place. He spoke only of Kellynch and a name: Anne.’
Anne swayed in Elizabeth’s arms.
‘I must go to him.’ Her voice was weak, but the emissary nodded. ‘Where is he?’
‘In the carriage out front, ma’am, but…’
Wrenching herself from Elizabeth’s grasp, Anne fled towards the door, and Elizabeth did not hesitate, breaking into a run—propriety be damned—and reaching the carriage standing on the gravel sweep just as the coachman opened the door for Anne to clamber inside.
An anguished cry came, and Elizabeth hurried over and peered into the small space. Anne had fallen to her knees beside the prone figure lying awkwardly across one of the benches. The gentleman was too tall for it, his legs half off the seat, though clearly he was insensible to the fact.
‘Frederick!’ Anne’s voice broke as she grasped his nearest hand. ‘You said my name…’ Tears began to stream down her face as she lowered her head, her body shaking.
Elizabeth leaned forward and placed a comforting hand on Anne’s back.
‘Take hope, Anne. You thought all was lost.’ Her friend did not answer, continuing to cling to the captain’s lifeless hand and weep. ‘Mr Darcy will ensure he has the best possible care.’
Elizabeth blinked. Where on earth had that sentiment come from?
The words seemed to reach Anne, however, and she raised her head, sniffed back her tears, and turned to Elizabeth.
‘Do you think…’ Anne sniffed again. ‘Is it possible Frederick may come round in time?’
‘Anything is possible.’ Elizabeth hesitated, knowing she must be honest. ‘You must prepare for the worst, for what you had already believed to have happened, but there is hope, Anne, as long as he breathes.’
Anne raised a tentative hand and brushed a thick lock of hair from the captain’s forehead, which bore testimony to the blow it had taken. Leaning forward, Anne pressed a kiss upon it, and Elizabeth felt tears prick her eyes. It was a poignant moment and a far better farewell for her friend than never seeing the captain again.
‘Frederick…’ Anne’s voice was a whisper, and Elizabeth leaned forward.
‘Speak a little louder. If you were in his thoughts when last he was conscious, your voice may reach him wherever he is.’
‘Er, excuse me, ma’am?’
Elizabeth looked up. The stranger was at the open door.
‘You are fortunate in your neighbour. I must get Captain Wentworth to Meadowbrook House as a matter of urgency, that the local medical man may be summoned.’ He raised a folded piece of paper. ‘I have instructions from the gentleman for his housekeeper.’
‘I wish to go with him.’ Anne clung tighter to the stricken man’s hand. ‘I cannot leave him. I will not.’
Elizabeth frowned. What was she to do? Anne’s determination to withstand any family opposition to following her heart a mile down the road was evident, but Elizabeth could hardly enter Mr Darcy’s home uninvited in the present circumstances!
Darcy had come out onto the portico. His confusion over who this Captain Wentworth might be and why Miss Anne Elliot had reacted so strongly had soon been answered by a terse explanation from Sir Walter and his eldest, who had joined them. The gentleman’s aversion to accommodating the injured man was thus accounted for, but his lack of compassion was not. How could anyone be so unfeeling of any human soul in such a condition?
Taking in the scene before him, Darcy assumed his habitual mask as Elizabeth aided her friend from the carriage, determined no indication would escape him of his admiration for her. His heart was less obliging, clenching in his breast and drawing an involuntary hand.
‘Anne Elliot! You forget yourself. Come here at once.’ Sir Walter stepped forward to stand beside Darcy.
The lady’s skin was pale but her expression firm as she walked up to her father, Elizabeth at her side.
‘I am staying with Captain Wentworth, Father, and I shall not be persuaded otherwise.’
Sir Walter looked astounded, his mouth open and closing like a stranded fish. ‘You’—he huffed a breath, then blustered on—‘you overreach yourself, Anne. The man was beneath you then. He is beneath you now, and undeserving of any particular attention. Besides, why can his brother not care for him?’
‘The Reverend Wentworth has left the district, as well you know, Father.’ Anne raised her chin as Elizabeth grasped her hand. ‘To send Frederick onward in his condition would be inhumane.’
‘For heaven’s sake!’ Miss Elliot had now emerged from the building. ‘Why must you, Miss Anne Elliot of Kellynch, daughter of a baronet, no less, be reduced to nursing a sick man? There are people paid to do such chores. It will reflect badly upon us. We have a name to uphold, and—’
‘Sir Walter.’ Elizabeth’s interruption drew Darcy’s attention almost against his will, and he strove not to admire her intelligent eyes as they fixed upon Sir Walter. ‘If Mr Darcy permits’—she looked to Darcy. Was she seeking his approval?—‘I can be at Anne’s side throughout the duration of…’ She hesitated, and Darcy knew she comprehended as well as he the likely outcome for the captain. ‘There is no infection in the case, so your daughter’s attendance upon the gentleman will affect no one adversely.’
‘Gentleman?’ Sir Walter all but spat the word. ‘He is a sailor, not a gentleman.’
Elizabeth’s eyes flashed. ‘Captain Wentworth is one of His Majesty’s naval officers, sir, and it is our Christian duty to care for him.’
Darcy wished he could applaud. Instead, he turned to Sir Walter.
‘Miss Bennet will be the most fitting person to be with your daughter. I will send for medical advice, and my housekeeper is more than competent. Miss Anne will not be required to do anything beyond being present.’
‘But a single young woman staying in a room with such a man! It is unseemly.’
‘With Miss Bennet in attendance and my sister’s companion, Mrs Annesley, also on hand, the lady will be more than adequately chaperoned.’
Sir Walter harrumphed, then turned back to Anne. ‘I am vexed beyond measure by your unfathomable behaviour, but never let it be said I am not an indulgent father.’
A small sound escaped from Elizabeth, but Darcy kept his attention firmly on Sir Walter. He, however, had turned his narrowed eyes upon the lady.
‘It goes without saying, Anne must never be alone. You understand, Miss Bennet. You must accept your duty. It is time you were the companion I have always believed you to be.’
Elizabeth inclined her head. ‘As you wish, sir. You will be unsurprised to know you have likewise, in this time of crisis, shown yourself to be what I have always believed you to be.’
Anne had turned to Darcy, her usually mild eyes deep with feeling. ‘May I go to Meadowbrook House directly, sir?’
Darcy turned to the emissary. ‘Are you able to convey Miss Elliot?’
The gentleman bowed. ‘There is room only for one, but if you will allow me, ma’am?’ He offered an arm to Anne, who took it.
‘I will follow on foot. Let me first gather our pelisses.’
Sir Walter glared at Darcy as the carriage pulled slowly away. ‘You have been part of ruining my day, sir.’
Darcy raised a brow. ‘I am sorry to hear it, sir.’
‘Father!’ To Darcy’s surprise, Miss Elliot sent him a condescending smile before turning back to Sir Walter. ‘You mistake Mr Darcy. Has he not been of the utmost assistance in removing any obligation for us to take that man in? We ought to be grateful to him, do you not think?’
‘What? Hmm, I see your point. Well, you can redeem yourself, sir. Let us now attend to this matter of business.’
‘You will have to excuse me, Sir Walter. I have a duty to go to Meadowbrook House to ensure all is done for the injured man. I shall return later, if that is convenient?’
Sir Walter scowled, then gestured at the footman who hovered by the door. ‘Bring a fresh bottle of brandy to my study! Well, go on, man!’
The footman scurried away and Sir Walter, with a dismissive wave of his hand to Darcy, stalked back into the house.
‘It is all too disagreeable, Mr Darcy. But at least we may assume the situation will persist for a short while only.’ Miss Elliot spoke in her usual languid tone, but Darcy merely bowed. He needed a moment to collect himself, to prepare.
Elizabeth had hurried into the house, bent upon retrieving some outerwear for herself and her friend, and Darcy tried to marshal his thoughts. So much for distancing himself from Elizabeth. Now she was to spend the remainder of the day under his own roof.
The involuntary exclamation fell from Elizabeth’s lips as she emerged from the front door once more, a laden basket upon her arm.
She had hoped—nay, fully expected—Mr Darcy to have left, but there he was, turning from his contemplation of who knew what, his expression uncompromising.
Without a word, he held out a hand for the basket, but Elizabeth merely stared at him. Was he truly intending to walk with her, after all that had occurred the previous day?
‘I am perfectly capable—’
‘Did I say anything to the contrary, Miss Bennet?’ Mr Darcy threw her a frustrated look. ‘I cannot allow you to bear the weight of it over such a distance.’
Elizabeth moved aside to take the step down onto the gravel path, but with an exclamation from the gentleman, he tugged the basket firmly from her grasp and set off down the driveway.
She glared after Mr Darcy, then followed, taking a small skip now and again in an attempt to catch up. The basket would indeed have become quite the burden, but Elizabeth was in no humour for his acting the gentleman.
Her step faltered. She was accustomed to holding Mr Darcy in little esteem, but in the time it had taken for Elise to fold Anne’s pelisse and add further items to the basket, she had been unable to shake a sense of confusion over him. His gallantry and compassion in permitting a sick stranger to be taken into his home spoke volumes, but this conflicted with all Elizabeth knew him to be. Or did it truly?
Mr Darcy had reached the gates, and he turned around to wait for her, so she hurried her steps. They made silent progress along the lane at first, and Elizabeth assumed he preferred it that way. He was, after all, prone to being taciturn, and this was hardly a social occasion.
Elizabeth tried not to dwell upon all that had been said between them, though she was conscious the gentleman had constrained his stride now and was merely a pace ahead. Her thoughts most naturally fell upon Anne and the implications of the captain’s sudden arrival. It was evident his chances were slim, but what if he were to recover?
Whichever direction the Fates took Captain Wentworth, Anne would likely need Elizabeth for the foreseeable future, and with no wish to curtail her visit, she realised it might be best if she tried to clear the air.
The gentleman slowed further, though he did not turn around, and Elizabeth hurried to fall into step beside him, chewing on her bottom lip, unsure how to begin.
‘Miss Bennet? You had something further to say?’
‘We have angered each other.’
‘And you have more you wish to add?’ Mr Darcy’s tone was not encouraging, but Elizabeth persevered.
‘No, sir. It is…in the circumstances, with this new development and my friend needing my companionship, I wondered if…’
‘We both know how to conduct ourselves, madam.’
Elizabeth felt she could well contradict Mr Darcy on this, but her situation was precarious enough.
‘It is an imposition for me, in the circumstances, to enter your home.’
She raised her brows. Was it not?
‘Whatever you may think of me, Miss Bennet’—Mr Darcy’s voice was clipped, and he continued to stare ahead—‘I do have compassion. This gentleman is in need and unable to ask for help. Providing a safe place for him to pass his remaining days is the least I can do. From the little I have seen and heard, the captain was once of some importance to Miss Anne Elliot. It would be uncharitable to prevent her from being by his side at such a time.’ He threw Elizabeth an assessing glance. ‘She wished you with her.’
‘Aye. And I’ll wager you wished me the other side of the county.’ Perhaps she should not have spoken so, but surely it must be the truth?
‘If it were so, I would hardly be escorting you to my home, Miss Bennet. It is the only right thing to do.’
Elizabeth mulled this over for a moment, but then Mr Darcy spoke again.
‘There is one thing I wish to know. Will you permit me one question raised by our conversation yesterday?’
Elizabeth almost laughed. ‘You are generous, Mr Darcy, in calling it that.’ Uncertain where this might lead, however, she clasped her hands together. ‘Do, please ask, and I shall endeavour to reply appropriately.’
‘Your inference of there being an understanding between my sister and my friend concerns me. If there are rumours to this effect, I would be grateful if you would take no heed of them. Protecting Georgiana’s reputation is of the utmost importance to me.’
With mixed feelings, Elizabeth studied the chimneys of Meadowbrook House as they came into view above the hedgerows. Thankful though she was that, of all the words thrown about on the previous day, this was what he wished to speak of, she also appreciated her own indiscretion. It had been thoughtless of her to mention such a thing.
‘Forgive me, Mr Darcy. I spoke out of turn. I have heard no general rumours, but…’ Elizabeth hesitated. Ought she to reveal her source?
The gentleman stopped, and perforce, Elizabeth did too. Mr Darcy turned to face her, his countenance unreadable.
‘You would not fabricate such a thing.’
‘Never!’ Elizabeth drew in a short breath. ‘It was presented as almost a fait accompli to my sister, Jane, recently, and with it so intrinsically connected to her unfortunate situation—of which I had but that morning received news—I spoke without caution.’ She raised wary eyes to his. ‘As you may have noticed.’
Mr Darcy regarded her silently. Then, he resumed walking and Elizabeth did likewise.
‘I will not ask you for your source, Miss Bennet, for I believe I can guess. Suffice it to say, my sister is only recently turned sixteen and not yet out. I do not envisage her seeking an establishment for the foreseeable future.’
Elizabeth nodded. ‘I was unguarded, sir, and regret that the words were spoken.’
‘We shall speak of it no more.’ He paused, then added. ‘The entire conversation is to be forgot.’
Elizabeth blinked. She doubted she would ever forget it. ‘Must you always have your own way, sir?’
To her surprise, Mr Darcy stopped again, his shoulders stiffening. He drew in a visible breath, then said, ‘If you believe I have had my own way of it lately, then you are much mistaken, madam.’
The look upon his features was unfathomable, but Elizabeth could not help but smile. ‘You did win the battle of the basket, Mr Darcy.’
The gentleman closed his eyes briefly, the edges of his mouth twitching, before he set off again. ‘I believe you would charge me with selfishness again, Miss Bennet.’
Elizabeth winced but persevered as they approached the gates to Meadowbrook House. ‘Will you not enlighten me?’
Mr Darcy gestured with his free arm. ‘We are in public, are we not? No gentleman would be seen walking empty handed beside a lady bearing a burden. Just think of the damage to his reputation.’
Elizabeth laughed, but then she sobered, assailed by a myriad of emotions as she saw Anne hovering beside the carriage, and she hurried forward as fast as her skirts permitted.
Chapter Nineteen can be found HERE!!
Copyright © 2020 Ada Bright & Cass Grafton