“Absolutely not, Lizzy!” Mr. Gardiner crossed his arms over his chest, as unyielding as the gritstone escarpment that rose behind him.
“Oh, very well,” Elizabeth said. “I still believe it would be perfectly safe. Look at that gentleman atop the highest tor – he seems perfectly at ease, and he would not have climbed there in fashionable clothing if it were a difficult ascent.”
As she watched, the tall gentleman in the distance reached into the empty air in front of him. Was he releasing something? The distance was such it was impossible to make out if anything left his hand. He held his arm outstretched for a minute more, then slowly lowered it. After standing there a short while longer, he disappeared behind the rock outcropping.
Mrs. Gardiner spread the blanket for their picnic. “I know you would like to climb it, Lizzy, but we simply cannot let you go up there alone. I do not have the strength for such an effort, and it would be unfair to ask your uncle to do so, given how much he dislikes heights. It is enough of a privilege to see the amazing shapes nature has created from these rocks, and we shall enjoy the view over the valley as we eat.”
It would be the height of ungraciousness to criticize her aunt and uncle’s decision. After all, they had been generous enough to invite her to join them on this journey to Derbyshire. It was her business to be satisfied with whatever they offered, or at least to behave as if she were content, so she helped her aunt to set out the cold meats and pastries they had brought with them. If she looked longingly at the rock pinnacle from time to time, she managed to say nothing further about it, restricting her comments to the striking view of the valley.
A family with two children, perhaps eight and ten, drove up in a wagon and set off noisily on the rocky path to the rock spires. If children and their mother could climb it, surely Elizabeth could as well! She had to bite her tongue to stop herself from asking to go with them. Although the view from the top would no doubt be extraordinary, it was not that which drew her. There was nothing like the invigorating sensation of being high up, the wild freedom that came from seeing the ground far below her. She had been an inveterate tree climber until she grew too old for such hoydenish behavior. All that was left to her now was walking to the summits of the modest hills near Meryton. This opportunity was a rare one, and she could almost taste her desire to climb to the top.
As they were finishing their meal, the rattle of pebbles falling made Elizabeth glance toward the path once more. The tall gentleman, now wearing a hat, picked his way down the last steep stretch. His form seemed familiar to her, which she attributed to her time watching him atop the tor. Dropping her eyes back to the picnic, she wondered what he had released from the summit.
Mrs. Gardiner’s brows drew together. “That gentleman is staring at you in a very odd manner, Lizzy. Is he someone you know?”
“I do not think so,” Elizabeth said, but she looked up at him again. Her heart plummeted all the way to her toes when she recognized Mr. Darcy. He started, then seemed immoveable from surprise.
At first she could not believe it was him. He had haunted her thoughts ever since their arrival in Lambton, and most especially since her aunt’s suggestion that they tour Pemberley. It had seemed too good to be true when the chambermaid had assured her the Darcy family was not at Pemberley for the summer. Apparently it was too good to be true, for there he stood. But why was he here, at a spot frequented by travelers and families on holiday? If he had not been at Pemberley two days ago, what would bring him out to see a sight he must be familiar with so soon after his arrival?
And if she was shocked to see him, what must he think of her presence there? Apart from their brief encounter when he handed her his letter and spoke only one sentence, their last meeting had been the nightmarish evening when she had refused his proposal in the strongest terms and accused him falsely. What a fool she had been to believe Wickham’s lies! Her face grew hot, and Mr. Darcy’s cheeks were overspread with blushes as well.
Feeling as awkward as a twelve year old caught in mischief, Elizabeth scrambled to her feet and bobbed a curtsey. How mortifying it was to encounter him in such a place! He must despise the very thought of her.
Mr. Darcy, recovering himself, advanced toward Elizabeth. “Miss Bennet, this is an unexpected pleasure,” he said, in terms of perfect civility, if not perfect composure. “I hope your family is well.”
Elizabeth scarcely dared lift her eyes to his face. “They were quite well when I saw them last, I thank you.”
“You have been travelling? Have you been in Derbyshire long?” His accent had none of its usual sedateness.
“Only a few days so far, sir.” She was astonished at his civility, but every sentence he uttered was increasing her embarrassment.
He glanced around as if distracted, and his gaze lighted on Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner. “Will you do me the honor of introducing me to your friends?”
This was a stroke of civility for which she was quite unprepared; and despite her discomfiture, she could hardly suppress a smile at his now seeking the acquaintance of some of those very people against whom his pride had revolted. He would be surprised when he discovered who they were, since he seemed to take them now for people of fashion.
The introduction, however, was immediately made; and as she named their relationship to herself, she stole a sly look at him, to see how he bore it; and it was not without the expectation of his decamping as fast as he could from such disgraceful companions. That he was surprised by the connection was evident; he sustained it however with fortitude, and so far from going away, entered into conversation with Mr. Gardiner. Elizabeth could not but be pleased, could not but triumph. It was consoling to know she had some relations for whom there was no need to blush. She listened most attentively to all that passed between them, and gloried in every expression, every sentence of her uncle, which marked his intelligence, his taste, or his good manners.
She blushed again and again over the perverseness of the meeting. Mr. Darcy’s behaviour was so strikingly altered. What could it mean? That he should even speak to her was amazing! But to speak with such civility, to enquire after her family! Never in her life had she seen his manners so little dignified, never had he spoken with such gentleness as on this unexpected meeting. What a contrast it offered to his last address in Rosings Park, when he put his letter into her hand! She knew not what to think, nor how to account for it.
“We are taking great pleasure in the scenic delights of Derbyshire,” said Mr. Gardiner, gesturing to the view across the valley. “We have nothing to match this in London.”
“Indeed not,” said Mr. Darcy. “Do you plan to climb to the top after your repast?”
Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner exchanged a glance. “This is as far as we intend to go,” said Mrs. Gardiner. “Neither my husband nor I care for climbing to such heights.”
“And you, Miss Bennet?”
Elizabeth clasped her hands so tightly that her fingers ached. “I will remain with my aunt and uncle,” she said carefully. “Naturally, they do not wish me to go up alone.”
With a puzzled look, Darcy said, “It is a relatively easy ascent, even for a lady, and the view is spectacular. My mother climbed it often. This was a favorite place of hers.”
One of his mother’s favorite places was atop a rocky tor in the middle of nowhere? Elizabeth had never stopped to consider what Darcy’s mother would have been like, but she would have expected her to be fashionable and ladylike, not a climber of rocks.
“I appreciate the reassurance, Mr. Darcy,” said Mr. Gardiner amiably. “Still, it is quite a high perch, is it not? I would not want to take any chances with our Lizzy. But would you care to join us for a glass of wine before you depart?”
Darcy hesitated, and then said, “Thank you. That would be most refreshing.” He joined them on the blanket, choosing the space between Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner, and accepted a glass from Mrs. Gardiner.
Elizabeth could make no sense of it. That he should attempt to be civil was surprising enough, but that he should accept such an informal invitation when it forced him into her company – it was shocking. She could not help but be aware of his nearness when he was only inches away from her.
“Do you come here often, Mr. Darcy?” asked Mr. Gardiner.
“As often as I can. Each summer I try to make a point of visiting.”
“You must be very fond of the view, then.”
Mr. Darcy hesitated, then glanced at Elizabeth. “This place holds special meaning for my family. Both my parents loved it; and after my mother’s death, my father came here to honor her memory. It became a tradition for us to pay a visit each year on the anniversary of her death. Since losing my father, I have continued to do so on my own. I remember her bringing me here when I was a young child, and pointing out how very different familiar places can look from above. On a clear day, it is possible to make out my own home, Pemberley, in the distance.”
“Is that so?” asked Mr. Gardiner. “It must be nearly ten miles! We passed by it yesterday and almost stopped for a tour of the park.”
“You were at Pemberley?” asked Mr. Darcy.
Mortified, Elizabeth said quickly, “My aunt wished to see the grounds there. She remembers them fondly from her younger days when she lived nearby. Unfortunately, she was too tired after our travels to walk so far.” Oh, how embarrassing this was! What must he think of her, that she would even consider visiting the estate of a man she had refused with such unkindness?
The news did not seem to disturb him, since he turned to Mrs. Gardiner and asked, “You are from Derbyshire?”
“Yes, I was raised in Lambton, where we are presently staying. I visited Pemberley’s grounds several times during my youth. I still recall how each turn in the path seemed to take us to a lovelier vista than the one before it.”
“I thank you. The current landscape garden is the work of my parents.” Darcy turned to Elizabeth almost hesitantly. “If you should have the time during your travels, I would be happy to show you Pemberley.”
“We would not wish to impose,” said Elizabeth hurriedly. “Before we left Bakewell yesterday morning, we were given to understand you were not immediately expected in the country, or we should not have even considered stopping.” And why was he back already? Was it solely to perform this memorial for his mother?
“That had been my plan, but business with my steward occasioned me to go ahead of the rest of my party. I arrived home yesterday late in the day, but I assure you your visit would be a pleasure, not an imposition.”
Mrs. Gardiner, who was sitting across from Elizabeth, gave her a look expressive of her wonder at this civility. Elizabeth said nothing, but it gratified her exceedingly; the compliment must be all for herself. Her astonishment, however, was extreme; and she could not help wondering why he was so altered. From what had it proceeded? It could not be for her sake that his manners were thus softened! Her reproofs at Hunsford could not have worked such a change as this, unless perhaps…surely he could not still care for her?
The Gardiners spoke for a while of their tour of Derbyshire, until Mr. Darcy said, “I do not wish to interpose myself, but if Miss Bennet still desires to climb the tor, I would be happy to accompany her and assure her safety. It is not a long walk, no more than half an hour each way.”
Elizabeth’s surprise was only exceeded by her longing to accept his offer. It might be uncomfortable to be alone with Mr. Darcy after all that had passed between them, but she would suffer far worse than that for the opportunity to climb the tor. She looked pleadingly at her uncle.
“Well,” said Mr. Gardiner slowly, “I suppose there would be no harm in it, since you know the place so well; and you and Lizzy are acquaintances of some standing. Poor Lizzy has been trying so hard not to look disappointed we would not allow her to climb it alone.”
“Oh, thank you!” she cried, unsure if she were speaking to her uncle, Mr. Darcy, or both; but she could not disguise her pleasure at the opportunity. “I would enjoy that very much. It is exceedingly kind of you, Mr. Darcy, to take the time when you have only just descended from the tor yourself.”
“It is a sight that should not be missed,” he said seriously. “My mother would have insisted upon it.” He stood and offered Elizabeth his hand.
Accepting his assistance more out of politeness than necessity, she rose to her feet. “Then I am grateful to your mother as well. I confess I was sorely disappointed not to have the opportunity.”
His mouth crooked in a slight smile. “So I gathered from the longing glances you kept casting in that direction. It seemed odd such a great walker would not wish to explore further.”
Elizabeth did not miss the pointed look shared between her aunt and uncle at this juncture, but she limited herself to promising them she would return soon. She only hoped Mr. Darcy had been oblivious to it. To have him think her family had expectations of him would be mortifying!
Her heart beat quickly as they set off on the path, which was narrow enough to require him to go ahead of her. It was something of a relief since she hardly knew what to say to him. That he should show her kindness after her vituperative refusal of his proposal demonstrated a more forgiving nature than she would have thought him to possess. His remarks about his mother had also surprised her. She had known, of course, that he must have had a mother. After all, everyone did, but she had never before conceived of Darcy’s mother as an actual person, one to whom he might have had an attachment. If she had ever given it a thought, she would have imagined her as a perfect lady whose accomplishments tended towards such things as embroidery and watercolors, not as someone who enjoyed the outdoors and loved to climb high escarpments. Perhaps that explained why her son had never been disturbed by Elizabeth’s long walks.
After a steep but brief climb, the path became wider and almost level. Mr. Darcy waited for her to reach him, then walked by her side. “I hope I am not going too quickly for you.”
“Not at all. The climb is invigorating. You are fortunate to live in a region where such hills and views abound. The ones in Hertfordshire, alas, are but pale imitations.”
“Hertfordshire has other riches – fertile land and lovely gardens, among others. The rocky soil here is less forgiving to those who must make their living from it.” He gestured towards a break in the rocks through which the view of a wide valley was visible. “If you look through there, you will see the River Wye. It joins the River Derwent just south of us.”
Elizabeth paused to examine the view. It took her a moment to find the winding trail of the river, visible more by the trees lining its edge than the water itself. “You must know this place well after visiting it so often.”
“Yes, my parents brought me here even as a young child. We would picnic not far from where your aunt and uncle set up their meal, though we would climb the tor first. My father would tease my mother, saying she would stay up there forever if hunger did not drive her down.”
“He must have been very fond of her to have established the tradition of coming here in her memory.”
“He was.” Darcy looked off into the distance, then began walking beside her again. “Their bond was…exceptional.”
This was a potentially dangerous subject given her history with Mr. Darcy, but Elizabeth found herself inexplicably curious about his parents. Perhaps it was the affection with which he spoke of them. “How did they meet? Was it an arranged marriage?”
“It was not arranged at all; quite the contrary, as it disrupted other arrangements. They first met as children when my father’s family visited hers. My mother announced her decision to marry my father at the advanced age of four, and continued to insist on it for some years afterward, even though she did not see him again until much later.”
Elizabeth laughed. “He must have made quite an impression upon her!”
“You might say so. Depending on which of them was telling the story, he saved her from either drowning, a beating, or both – though I never understood how she could have been beaten if she had already drowned. She apparently still received the beating, but it was several years later when her father told her he had heard quite enough of this nonsense about her marrying James Darcy; he would be the one to decide whom she would marry, and James Darcy was not even on the list of possibilities. Apparently she was not easily convinced, even at ten years of age.”
“A young lady of strong will! What did your father think of this?”
“He knew nothing of it. To him she was just the little girl he had fished out of the pond and saved from a beating by taking the blame for the entire episode himself, even though he had been nowhere near her when she decided to pretend to be a fish.”
“How chivalrous of him!”
“He claims he felt sorry for her since she was so frightened, and one beating more or less made no difference to him. He was no stranger to beatings, having a strong will of his own – as she discovered much later.”
“After they were safely married, no doubt?”
Darcy laughed, and suddenly he looked years younger. “No, it was much earlier – the day after they met again as adults, when she pointed out to him all the reasons why she could not marry him, and he simply went on planning for it.”
Elizabeth’s eyebrows shot up. “He did not accept her refusal?” she said with some indignation.
With a sidelong glance, Darcy said, “Well, it was not so much a matter of her being unwilling, but of circumstances not permitting it.”
“But if she refused, he should have listened to her!” Too late Elizabeth realized that refusal of offers of marriage was the last topic which she should discuss with him.
Darcy remained silent for a moment, then said, “Tell me, when your aunt and uncle gave their reasons why you could not climb the rocks here, did it make you stop wishing to do it?”
“Of course not, but I did not tell them I was going to do it in spite of what they said.”
“Still, I imagine you tried to think of ways to get around their interdiction.”
“Yes, but I did not insist on having my own way!”
He paused, his lips tightening, and shook his head. “I am not explaining this well. Perhaps I should start at the beginning.”