With Mr. Darcy’s letter in hand, Elizabeth wandered along the lane for two hours. How could it be that only this morning, she had been so certain of her convictions that Mr. Darcy wronged both her sister Jane and Mr. Wickham? She could hardly reconcile herself to the intelligence in the letter, proving Mr. Darcy a victim rather than a villain. At last fatigue, and a recollection of her long absence, made her return home; and she entered the house with the wish of appearing cheerful as usual.
She was immediately told that Colonel Fitzwilliam had called during her absence, and had been sitting with the ladies for over an hour awaiting her return. Her agitating reflections did not stand her in good stead for civil conversation, yet she assured herself that he was only hoping to take leave of her, since he and Mr. Darcy were to depart the following morning. She endeavoured to compose herself, and with a deep breath she entered the sitting room with a charming, if somewhat unsteady, smile.
“Miss Bennet!” cried Colonel Fitzwilliam. “I had just resolved to walk after you, and here you are!”
“My apologies that I was not here to receive you, sir,” she said with a curtsey. “I fear that I lost all track of time in my rambling.”
“It is hardly a matter of concern, Miss Bennet,” he replied amiably. “I have been enjoying a delightful visit with Mrs. Collins and Miss Lucas, and, as it happens, I anticipate having the unexpected opportunity to take pleasure in your company in the days to come.”
At Elizabeth’s look of confusion, Maria Lucas said, “It appears that Colonel Fitzwilliam is not to depart tomorrow as anticipated, Lizzy! Is that not delightful news?”
“Delightful indeed,” echoed Elizabeth stiffly as a worrisome implication came to her mind. She longed to ask the reason for the change of plans, but feared to know it; she recalled only too clearly their discourse of the previous day when he had said that they were to leave on Saturday unless Darcy put it off again. Surely Mr. Darcy would wish to be quit of this place as soon as possible! she thought in distress. He cannot possibly think to renew his addresses-no, his letter said that he could not forget his feelings for me quickly enough! She awaited with dread his further explanation.
“Well, it is quite true! An express arrived last night from my father, announcing that he and my mother will be descending upon Rosings later today, accompanied by Miss Darcy. Since it would be the height of bad manners for us to depart before they arrive,” he smiled engagingly at his own wit, “here we must remain.”
Elizabeth’s heart sank even further at this intelligence. She tried to rally her spirits by reminding herself that Lady Catherine would certainly have no interest in the company of Mr. and Mrs. Collins with so much of her family at Rosings.
Surely he and I can manage to avoid one another for a week, and then I shall be for London myself, she thought. “So Mr. Darcy will be remaining as well,” she said as steadily as she could manage.
“Yes, of course,” said Colonel Fitzwilliam, “though he is in quite an ill humour about it; I believe that he was looking forward to his return to town. When he heard the news this morning, he looked quite as annoyed as I have ever seen him!”
I can only imagine! thought Elizabeth. I doubt he could be rid of me soon enough!
Words were insufficient for the elevation of Mr. Collins’ feelings on receiving the intelligence that no lesser personages than Lord and Lady Matlock themselves were to appear at Rosings. He resolved immediately to be within view of the lodges opening into Hunsford Lane for the entirety of the day, lest he miss the opportunity to make his first obeisance to the honoured guests. After relating at some length the extra effort which he would put into his Sunday sermon for the benefit of the elevated company, he hastened to Rosings to call on her Ladyship, hoping for the condescension of receiving further news of the visit from her own lips.
Charlotte attempted to engage Elizabeth in conversation, but the latter felt unequal to the circumstance, and begged leave to retire to her room owing to a headache. Concerned that her friend’s ailment of the previous day seemed to have returned, Charlotte suggested sending for the apothecary, but Elizabeth demurred, saying that rest would be all she would require. “If you are still ill tomorrow, Lizzy, I shall insist!” said Charlotte.
Elizabeth was grateful to retire to the peace of her room, but her mind would not long remain still. She took out Mr. Darcy’s letter once more and perused it several times, struggling to collect her thoughts. The information in his letter had been distressing enough when she thought she should never see him again, and it was all the more so for the knowledge that they would likely meet at least in passing in the coming week. I must behave with absolute propriety and circumspection, she resolved. For both our sakes, no one must guess what has passed between us! She speculated whether anyone might know already – could Mr. Darcy have confided in Colonel Fitzwilliam, or had anyone apart from Charlotte noted his interest in her?
She wondered briefly if she ought to acknowledge to him in any way that she recognized that she had misjudged and falsely accused him. He would no doubt find it gratifying, but the risk that he might believe that she was inviting a renewal of his addresses could not be justified. She would have to keep her thoughts to herself, and live with the injustice of the matter.
The following day Colonel Fitzwilliam put in his usual appearance at the parsonage, accompanied this time by Miss Darcy. He begged of the ladies the opportunity to introduce them, and Elizabeth, although hardly interested in becoming an intimate of anyone in the Darcy family, could not help feeling a deep curiosity as to the nature of this young woman of whom she had heard such differing descriptions. Mr. Wickham had told her that Miss Darcy was very proud; but the observation of a very few minutes convinced her that she was only exceedingly shy. She found it difficult to obtain even a word from her beyond a monosyllable.
Miss Darcy was tall, and on a larger scale than Elizabeth; and, though little more than sixteen, her figure was formed, and her appearance womanly and graceful. She was less handsome than her brother, but there was sense and goodhumour in her face, and her manners were perfectly unassuming and gentle. Elizabeth, who had expected to find in her as acute and unembarrassed an observer as ever Mr. Darcy had been, was much relieved by discerning such different feelings. Had her situation been different, she thought that she might even have found pleasure in Miss Darcy’s acquaintance, but, as it stood, she could not imagine any connection with the Darcy family that would not create difficulties.
She attempted to encourage interaction between Miss Darcy and Maria Lucas, since they were much of an age, but since Maria was so in awe of Miss Darcy that she could scarcely utter a word, the encounter was somewhat less than successful. Elizabeth found herself conversing mainly with Colonel Fitzwilliam, whose easy manners covered some of the other difficulties. From time to time she succeeded in drawing Miss Darcy into the conversation for a few minutes, but on the whole she could not consider the occasion a success. If only Mr. Darcy were here as well, she thought with frustrated amusement, we could have three silent participants instead of only two! She wondered briefly how there could possibly be any conversation at all at the Darcy dinner table, then recalled that both Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mr. Wickham had mentioned that Mr. Darcy could be quite lively and amiable amongst those he considered his equals. But I will never be the one to observe such a thing, she thought, recalling with anger his vivid recounting of his attempts to suppress his unsuitable feelings for her. She wondered if he knew where his sister was at this moment, and what he thought of it.
She breathed a sigh of relief when the visitors took their leave. Maria Lucas chattered on for some time about the elegance of Miss Darcy, but Elizabeth was scarcely listening; her thoughts had returned to Mr. Darcy’s pointed description of her family and her connections, and she could find little consolation for her shaken spirits.
The following morning Elizabeth dressed for church slowly but with unusual care; her desire to avoid the occasion completely was great, but she knew that her absence would be noted, and that she could not plead a headache forever. Surely we can meet for the brief time needed at church as indifferent acquaintances, she thought, but her anxiety would not be quieted.
She was still far from certain of what she thought of Mr. Darcy. His letter, she was in a fair way of knowing by heart. She had studied every sentence: and her feelings towards its writer were at times widely different. When she remembered the style of his address, she was still full of indignation; but when she considered how unjustly she had condemned and upbraided him, her anger was turned against herself; and his disappointed feelings became the object of compassion. His attachment excited gratitude, his general character respect; but she could not approve him; nor could she for a moment repent her refusal, or feel the slightest inclination to continue the acquaintance. In her own past behaviour, there was a constant source of vexation and regret; and in the unhappy defects of her family a subject of yet heavier chagrin. They were hopeless of remedy. Her father, contented with laughing at them, would never exert himself to restrain the wild giddiness of his youngest daughters; and her mother, with manners so far from right herself, was entirely insensible of the evil. Elizabeth had frequently united with Jane in an endeavour to check the imprudence of Catherine and Lydia; but while they were supported by their mother’s indulgence, what chance could there be of improvement? Catherine, weak-spirited, irritable, and completely under Lydia’s guidance, had been always affronted by their advice; and Lydia, self-willed and careless, would scarcely give them a hearing. They were ignorant, idle, and vain. While there was an officer in Meryton, they would flirt with him; and while Meryton was within a walk of Longbourn, they would be going there for ever.
She was no less severe on her own defects. She was mortified by having been taken in by Wickham’s amiable manners. For the first time, she was grateful to have no fortune of her own – if she had, she should have been in extreme danger from Mr. Wickham, and likely would have found herself married to him before discovering him to be a dishonest wastrel. She could not bear the humiliating notion that Darcy knew this of her – he might forgive the fault in his sister, who was only fifteen, but she had no such excuse of tender age for her folly.
Anxiety on Jane’s behalf was another prevailing concern, and Mr. Darcy’s explanation, by restoring Bingley to all her former good opinion, heightened the sense of what Jane had lost. His affection was proved to have been sincere, and his conduct cleared of all blame, unless any could attach to the implicitness of his confidence in his friend. How grievous then was the thought that, of a situation so desirable in every respect, so replete with advantage, so promising for happiness, Jane had been deprived, by the folly and indecorum of her own family!
When to these recollections was added the development of Wickham’s character, it may be easily believed that the happy spirits which had seldom been depressed before, were now so much affected as to make it almost impossible for her to appear tolerably cheerful.
She was mortified at the prospect of having to see Darcy – he who knew just how much of a gullible fool she had been. She had thought so highly of her own perspicacity, and now she knew herself to be quite lacking in that regard. Not only had she been wholly taken in by Wickham and predisposed to find reasons to dislike Darcy, she had also completely failed to observe any sign of his increasing attachment to her in time to circumvent the disaster of his proposal. When she looked back, those signs were obvious – his asking her to dance at the Netherfield ball when he danced with no other lady from Hertfordshire; his frequent, seemingly accidental, meetings with her, joining with her on walks when he easily could have excused himself; their very frank and slightly improper discussion of the nature of the Collins’ marriage, which had to her represented nothing more than her very strong sentiments on the subject, but the very intimacy of which could easily have been interpreted as a sign of her regard for him. Of course, it was true that she did have a certain regard for his incisive intelligence, otherwise she would never have entered on the subject. Oh, how had she missed it? Even Charlotte had noticed, and tried to warn her of it, but she had been blind, so blind…
“Cousin Elizabeth!” came the voice of Mr. Collins. “We shall be late! Make haste, make haste!”
With a sigh, Elizabeth went downstairs and practiced on Mr. and Mrs. Collins the bright smile she was intending to wear in church. Charlotte gave her a sharp glance, but interpreted her artificial behaviour as a response to the scurrying of Mr. Collins.
“Cousin Elizabeth,” Mr. Collins scolded. “Lady Catherine is quite firm on the subject of the desirability of promptness. Any tardiness on our part would be looked on with great disapproval, and hardly show respect for the condescension she had demonstrated toward you!”
Fleetingly, Elizabeth wondered how Lady Catherine would have responded to Elizabeth being presented to her as her future niece. She could not think, without a smile, of what her ladyship’s indignation would have been, but the smile engendered by this idea was rapidly smothered by the recollection of Darcy’s words on the degradation his attachment to her represented. She felt ill as she thought on the folly and indecorum of her own family and how it reflected on her, and how materially it had affected both her and Jane.
She reminded herself firmly that Darcy’s behaviour was as ill-bred as that of anyone in her family, though excessive pride could not be interpreted to be as humiliating a fault as the ignorance and complete lack of decorum of Lydia and Kitty or the stupidity of Mr. Collins. But the style of his address during his proposal, and indeed throughout their acquaintance, deserved censure. No, that was not quite true either, her sense of fairness forced her to admit. He had been insulting and excessively proud on some occasions, but in most of their meetings she had nothing worse to accuse him of than being overly quiet. Yet another failure on my part, she thought.
Mr. Collins was voluble in his relief when they discovered that the Rosings party had not yet arrived at the church, and he hurried off to prepare himself for the service, leaving Charlotte to fend for herself in greeting the parishioners. Elizabeth, equally relieved although for quite a different reason, found her heart pounding each time she heard a carriage pull up outside.
She had not long to wait; soon Lady Catherine swept in, her party following in her wake. She was prompt in demanding her share of the conversation, introducing the ladies to Lord and Lady Matlock – “Mrs. Collins, and Miss Bennet and Miss Lucas, visiting from Hertfordshire,’ she said in a dismissive voice.
Elizabeth politely expressed her pleasure in making the acquaintance. When it came time for her to greet the rest of the party, she found that she could not bring herself to look directly at Darcy; she made her curtsey with her eyes firmly fixed on his cravat, and she knew that her cheeks must be flushed. She managed to keep her polite smile on her face, however, and was able to greet Colonel Fitzwilliam and Miss Darcy with tolerable composure.
There were several minutes before the service was to begin, and Elizabeth was for the first time grateful for Lady Catherine’s propensity to dominate the conversation, as it relieved her of the burden of finding something to say. As she attended to her ladyship, though, she began to despise herself for her cowardice. She forced her eyes up to Darcy’s face, only to meet his implacably cold gaze.
That she had expected scorn and anger did not lessen the distress Elizabeth felt on seeing it on his face. She held his gaze only briefly before taking the excuse of Lady Catherine’s ongoing discourse to look away. She thought of how he had said that his good opinion, once lost, was lost forever. How he must be congratulating himself for his near escape from a woman of so little perception and judgment! she thought, humbled by her fall from grace, surprised that the thought of his disapproval troubled her.
When she chanced to raise her eyes to his face again, unable to resist the painful impulse of curiosity, she found him looking on no object but the ground. It was with the greatest of relief that she heard Lady Catherine pronounce that it was time for the service to begin.
Elizabeth was grateful that she was seated behind Mr. Darcy, where she need not fear his incisive gaze. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you. How he must regret those words, those sentiments which had led to his harsh and unfair castigation at her hands! In addition to blindness and prejudice, she was also obliged to claim cruelty and short-temperedness among her many faults.
Her eyes drifted to him – the tousled dark curls against the brilliant white of his cravat as he sat proudly upright in the pew. She could not deny that he was handsome; she had acknowledged that even at the Meryton assembly when she first saw him. It was only his insulting behaviour and forbidding countenance on that occasion that had led her to disregard the appeal of his appearance. But good looks and a good fortune could not by themselves determine a good husband. In vain have I struggled. It will not do. Although she wished she had dealt differently with his proposal, when she thought of his humiliating references to how greatly he had striven to rid himself of his feelings for her, she could not bring herself to regret her decision. An image came to her of his intent gaze as it had so often rested on her, and unaccountably she shivered, wondering at his thoughts on seeing her again.
The object of her thoughts was at that moment brooding on the question of whether his life could possibly become any worse. He could not help being viscerally aware of Elizabeth’s presence any more than he ever had been, only now it was like an ache in his breast rather than the guilty pleasure it had so often been in the past. If that were not enough, he had to suffer through the sycophantic ramblings that her idiot of a cousin considered a sermon – a reminder of just how low he had sunk in offering her marriage. And then there was his family… but he was not even going to think about that now.
He had spent the last two days struggling to convince himself that the Elizabeth Bennet he had loved was a figment of his imagination; he had never known the real Elizabeth Bennet at all, she of the cruel and spiteful words and the misjudgments. She was as misguided and capricious as all the other women he had known. He had taken her fine eyes and wit and spun them into a fantasy of a woman of real sense and feeling who would understand him, and now he knew that no such woman had ever existed. He was mortified for himself and furious with her, and the worst of it was that the instant he had laid eyes on her again, standing in front of the church, he had wanted her every bit as much as he ever had. He hated her for her power over him, and despised himself for a weak fool.
As attuned to her presence as he was, he could not fail to notice that she was lacking her usual sparkle that morning. He hoped that this meant that she had realized what a dreadful mistake she had made, and that she was going to pay for the rest of her life for listening to George Wickham’s lies and then spewing her venom all over Fitzwilliam Darcy. She would end up a poor spinster, dependent on the charity of her family, or married to some ignorant pig of a tradesman, she who could have been Mistress of Pemberley. If she is suffering now, it is no more than she deserves, he thought with vindictive fury, then closed his eyes in pain, knowing that all he had wanted when he had seen those dark circles beneath her eyes was to take her soft body into his arms and kiss those tempting lips, and to tell her that she need not worry, that he would take care of everything…
But fantasies would not provide him any answers, he told himself grimly. And if his uncle said to him one more time, “It would be different if you were married and settled, but with a bachelor lifestyle, it simply will not do,” he would not be responsible for his actions. He could ignore Lady Catherine’s repeated demands that he marry Anne immediately; he had a lifetime of practice at that, but to face the accusation that it was his fault that he was not married just at this bitter juncture was more than a man should have to bear. He realized that his fists were clenched, and that he had not heard a word that Elizabeth’s embarrassment of a kinsman had servilely uttered – not that it was any loss.
He could see that Georgiana was looking at him strangely. He took a deep breath to calm himself and forced a pleasant smile to his face, at which point she resumed the sullen expression that she had worn ever since her arrival, a reminder of her obvious disappointment with him for his inability to make all her problems disappear. What had happened to the sweet, docile girl she had been? Sometimes he could still see that girl, but more often these days she seemed angry with him about one thing or another. Colonel Fitzwilliam thought it was but a matter of her being at a trying age, but Darcy could not help suspecting that the whole George Wickham affair had something to do with it. Georgiana could not know, of course, how harshly he continued to castigate himself for his error in choosing Mrs. Younge as her companion. The thought brought back the all too familiar refrain of reproaches: Why did I not question her references further? Why did I allow myself to believe that her amiable manner implied impeccable morals? Why did I send Georgiana off with her so quickly, instead of keeping her under my observation for a longer period of time? Why did I give in and agree to let Georgiana have her own establishment in the first place when she was still so young? The entire situation was wholly my fault. No, on the whole, Darcy did not think that his life could be substantially worse.
He was forced to reconsider this a few minutes later when he heard his aunt issue an invitation to Mr. Collins and his party to come to Rosings that evening. He ought to have expected as much; she had done so the previous two Sundays as well, but he had thought that with so much of her family around her, her interest in having her pet clergyman fawn over her would be diminished. Apparently he was to have no such reprieve, and he was beginning to think of the excuses he could make when he saw Elizabeth turn her head away in an attempt to hide her distress at the idea, and he knew that he would not be able to stay away. He damned himself for his susceptibility to her. Remember, she thinks you devoid of every proper feeling and completely lacking in honour, he reminded himself. She is nothing but a silly girl who would throw away an opportunity most women spend their lives dreaming of because she was offended by your honest scruples. With a stab of pain, he heard her voice again saying, “You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.”
What spiteful fate had determined that the woman he loved should be the one woman in the world who wanted nothing to do with him? He wondered whether such a turn of events constituted a tragedy or a farce. He managed the semblance of a civil nod to Elizabeth and the rest of her party before forcing his feet to carry him away from the woman who had so bewitched him.
Elizabeth felt quite unequal to company following the painful excursion to church, and knowing that she would be required to face an even more excruciating version of the same torture that evening, resolved to take some time to herself for reflection in her favourite manner. She therefore excused herself for a solitary walk after luncheon, brushing aside Charlotte’s protests regarding her pallor and recent headaches. Sooner or later, she knew, she would have to face her friend’s growing suspicions that all was not well with her, but she could not begin to face that task at present.
Her feet led her without conscious thought to her favourite grove. On recognizing where she was, she felt a moment of panic, knowing now that it was where Darcy had often sought her out in the past. She realized, though, that she was quite safe, as there would be no place that he would more fervently avoid at present. He had, after all, made the state of his current regard for her more than clear, that his feelings were cause for shame, and could not be forgotten too soon. His cold look in church demonstrated that he had lost no time in putting those tender feelings behind him. She could not blame him; she certainly deserved no special notice after she had abused him so abominably.
Her sense of shame over her behaviour led directly to thoughts of the unhappy defects of her family, the subject of yet heavier chagrin. She burst into tears as she thought of it, and from actual weakness leaned against a tree as she wept. She had always avoided acknowledging the extent to which the lack of fortune of the Bennet girls combined with their mother’s improprieties materially affected their prospects for marriage; it was easy enough to say that she should not marry where she did not love, but Mr. Darcy’s words were forcing her to face the truth that even the beautiful, gentle Jane had only had the one suitor when she was sixteen before Mr. Bingley, and Elizabeth’s assets were certainly no greater than her sister’s.
She was sufficiently deep in her own distress as to be unaware of approaching footsteps. Darcy stopped short at the sight of her across the grove, immediately thinking to leave before he was observed. At the realization that she was weeping, however, he was torn by uncertainty. He could not be sure of the cause of her distress, but it could be assumed to relate to his disastrous proposal. A part of him longed to go to her and comfort her, while at the same time it felt only proper that she ought to suffer as he did. Nor could he expect her to welcome his attempts to relieve her distress – she had made it perfectly clear what she thought of him, and he would be the last man she would wish to offer her solace. With an unfamiliar sensation of helplessness, he realized that there was nothing he could offer her for her present distress. The question in his mind, however, was as to why she was upset. He was the rejected suitor, he was the one misjudged and falsely accused. The answer was not long in coming; with a bitter taste in his mouth, he realized that her tears had nothing to do with him at all, but must represent the pain of her disillusionment over Wickham. Her feelings for him must have been more tender than Darcy had ever considered, and a surge of hatred rose in him. Was it not enough that Wickham had injured his beloved sister, without taking away the woman he loved as well?
“Do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man, who has been the means of ruining, perhaps forever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?” Could it be possible that Elizabeth despised him as he did Wickham, for the hurt willfully done a beloved sister? The thought that his actions could be seen in such a light was acutely disturbing, the more so because he could not even defend himself against the charge. Whatever his motives, concern for the feelings of Jane Bennet had never entered his head, only the advantages he perceived for Bingley and for himself in their separation.
His heart aching, he turned and retreated as quietly as possible to reflect upon his painful realizations – his Elizabeth, so deeply involved with Wickham as to be devastated by his revelations about her favourite, and her right to despise him as being no better than Wickham himself. How was he ever to face her? How was he to live with the knowledge that she would never be his?
Elizabeth knew that it was hopeless to think that she could appear even tolerably cheerful at Rosings that night, and had settled it with herself that merely maintaining her composure would be enough of a goal. That she was quieter than usual was not immediately a problem; Lady Catherine was perfectly capable of handling the conversation without input from anyone, and it appeared that this was a tendency that Lord Matlock shared with his sister.
Darcy gave no visible reaction to her arrival, though she noticed that he quickly abandoned his seat opposite her to walk behind her where she could not see him. She could feel, however, the pressure of his gaze on the back of her neck, and she remained acutely conscious of his presence, all the more so after Lady Catherine said irritably, “Darcy, will you stop that pacing? You are making me quite dizzy!”
Darcy obeyed his aunt’s command somewhat ungraciously, feeling that pacing was a substantial improvement over the other possibilities that came to his mind, both of which involved taking bodily hold of Elizabeth Bennet, though whether to shake her or to kiss her he was not quite clear. He ignored her further directives to sit down immediately by Anne.
Darcy being insufficiently responsive to her demands, Lady Catherine’s vexation grew, and as her eye fell on Elizabeth, she turned to this new target. “Miss Elizabeth Bennet, you are very quiet tonight!” exclaimed her Ladyship. “No more of your decided opinions for you?”
Aware of the gentleman behind her and the wrong she had done him, Elizabeth seized the opportunity to make a sort of apology. In as composed a manner as she could manage, she replied, “Your ladyship has brought to my attention that there is a danger in owning decided opinions. I have realized that there is the risk that one might hold them on the basis of false information, which could lead to regrettable circumstances.”
Lady Catherine was undecided as to whether this response qualified as impertinence or appropriate humility, but decided that it must represent the latter. “I am glad to know that my advice did not go unheeded, Miss Bennet, and to hear that you are not above taking the counsel of your betters in these matters.”
Darcy, who had been frozen in place by Elizabeth’s unexpected admission, winced at his aunt’s ill-bred words. Was that how he sounded to Elizabeth?
Lady Catherine’s attention now shifted to Miss Darcy. “Georgiana, your brother has given me excellent reports on your progress at the pianoforte. I should be pleased to hear you play now.”
Georgiana paled. “Please excuse me, Lady Catherine, I could not possibly play before all these people,” she said.
Her aunt frowned at this disobedience. “Nonsense, Georgiana. You play quite acceptably, though perhaps not quite so well as my Anne would have had she had the chance to learn. I must insist that you play for us.”
“I beg you to excuse me,” the girl said in a voice barely above a whisper.
“I will not have this, Georgiana! You are my niece, and I refuse to believe you unable to perform before a small family party!” Lady Catherine’s annoyance with her niece’s stubbornness was clearly growing rapidly.
Elizabeth had never seen Lady Catherine in a mood quite as vindictive as tonight, and her heart went out to Miss Darcy, who was clearly petrified. She could not even bring herself to answer, and tears were beginning to gather in her eyes. Elizabeth was relieved to see Darcy move to stand beside his sister’s chair, his hand resting comfortingly on her shoulder. “If Georgiana does not wish to play,” he said deliberately, “I see no reason why she should have to do so.”
“Now, see here, Darcy,” rumbled Lord Matlock. “You are mollycoddling her again. That is no way to help her!”
Darcy’s jaw was set in clear lines of anger. Elizabeth could not understand the precise nature of the problem at hand, but she could see that Miss Darcy was on the verge of losing her composure completely.
With sudden resolve, Elizabeth fixed her eyes firmly on Darcy, willing him to look her way. As if drawn by a magnet, his gaze turned to her. She gestured slightly with her head toward the piano forte. He watched her unreadably for a moment, then said, as if unwillingly, “In fact, I had been looking forward to hearing Miss Bennet play tonight.”
“As have I,” added Colonel Fitzwilliam quickly.
Elizabeth stood before any objection could be raised. “It would be my pleasure. Miss Darcy, might I impose upon you to turn the pages for me?”
Miss Darcy agreed to this idea with embarrassing alacrity, escaping in Elizabeth’s shadow to the pianoforte. As they sat down to the instrument, Elizabeth began paging through the sheet music. “Thank you,” said Georgiana softly.
Elizabeth turned to her with a smile. “You are quite welcome. I hope that you do not pay overmuch attention to what was said,” she said quietly.
“What do you mean, Miss Bennet?” she asked shyly.
Placing her fingers on the keyboard, Elizabeth said mischievously, “I daresay that you will hear criticisms of my playing tonight, but I would have to play a great deal worse than I do in order to be as ashamed of my playing as I would be of being so ill-mannered.”
Colonel Fitzwilliam drew a chair near them, putting an end to their conversation, but the interchange had not gone unnoticed by Darcy. Although unable to make out their words, he could see Georgiana’s look of surprise and admiration, and he wondered what Elizabeth had said to her. Before her playing could begin to cast its usual spell on him, he looked straight at her to remind himself of the accusations she had made, and the familiar rush of anger at her willful misunderstanding of his nature filled him once again.
Lady Catherine, misinterpreting the look of distaste on his face and quite prepared to criticize anything about her nephew, said, “Miss Bennet plays none too ill for one who has not had the advantage of a London master. One could hardly expect her to meet the standards to which you are accustomed, Darcy, nor to have taste equal to Anne’s or Georgiana’s. If she would only practice more, I believe that she would be a pleasant performer.”
Elizabeth inclined her head toward Miss Darcy. “It begins already, you see,” she whispered, amusement in her voice. “Now, I urge you to ask yourself, which of us has cause to be embarrassed.”
Georgiana giggled, her admiration of Elizabeth nearing adulation as she continued to receive Lady Catherine’s remarks with forbearance, but not without quiet commentary of her own. Elizabeth was pleased to see the girl’s spirits rising, but wondered how her brother would feel about her attempts to encourage his sister to assert her independence. She was grateful, however, to Lady Catherine for offering her the distraction of worrying about Miss Darcy’s feelings; it was far more tolerable than her own concerns. With these thoughts, she continued to play till it was time for her party to return home.
Colonel Fitzwilliam and Miss Darcy called again at the parsonage the following day. Georgiana was anxious to spend time with her new idol. Although under ordinary circumstances Elizabeth would have enjoyed her company, Georgiana continued to be an unpleasant reminder of her brother. The suspicion that Darcy would not approve a friendship between his impressionable sister and the woman he wished to forget, and that he would not wish Georgiana to be tainted by Elizabeth’s low connections, could not but enter her thoughts. With her mind so occupied, it was difficult for Elizabeth to retain her concentration. Reflection must be reserved for solitary hours; whenever she was alone, she gave way to it as the greatest relief; and not a day went by without a solitary walk, in which she might indulge in all the delight of unpleasant recollections. But despite Elizabeth’s distraction, Miss Darcy pressed on her an invitation to visit with her at Rosings the next day, an invitation she dearly wished to decline, but she could come up with no excuse.
Thus it came to pass that the morrow found Elizabeth slowly making her way to Rosings, hoping against hope for the absence of Mr. Darcy. On her arrival, she was shown to a mercifully empty parlour while a servant went to locate Miss Darcy. To calm her nerves, she picked up a book lying on a table. Finding it to be a volume of poetry she had an interest in reading, she took it over to the window for better light and began to leaf through it.
Unaware of her presence in the room, Darcy entered, and was immediately captivated by the picture she made, her dark curls framed by the sunlight pouring in the window. Her lips were moving as she read, clearly tasting the metre and the rhythm of the poetry. He could not look away; all his anger with her momentarily drowned by his need to touch her face and kiss those lips.
Warned by some sense that she was no longer alone, Elizabeth looked up to discover Darcy, his dark eyes intent on her with a meaning she could not comprehend. A becoming flush stole up her cheeks at what he must think of her presence there. “Pardon me, sir; I did not mean to intrude; I am waiting for Miss Darcy,” she said with a certain agitation.
Say something, damn it! he told himself. “My apologies for disturbing you, Miss Bennet. I was merely looking for my book.”
Elizabeth looked down at the book in her hands with a sinking feeling. She closed it quickly and held it out in his direction. “This must be yours, then, sir,” she said, feeling as if she should apologize for trespassing on his property by having read it even for a moment.
“If you are enjoying it, Miss Bennet, please continue; there are many other books I can read… Are you fond of Wordsworth?” he asked desperately, not completely sure why he was pursuing this conversation. She had once again undercut his equanimity, and it was hard to recall why he had been so angry with her when she was before him.
“I have enjoyed what I have read of it,” she replied automatically. “When I was in London there was a discussion one evening at my uncle’s house about Mr. Wordsworth and Mr. Coleridge, and how they have been transforming the art of poetry. Mr. Monkhouse, whose cousin is married to Mr. Wordsworth, was saying that his personal vision of nature contrasts with the formal meanings that were common to Cowper and Gray, and I was curious to see for myself what might appear in this edition…” She felt as if she were talking to no purpose but to fill the empty space in the room.
“You have not read this collection before, then?” He was beginning to recover himself from the shock of seeing her so unexpectedly, and his voice grew more formal and distant.
She heard the surprise and the chill in his voice. “No, sir, I have not had that privilege,” she said shortly, loath to admit a deficiency in her education to him. Since he had made no move to take the book from her, she set it down on the neutral territory of a small table.
“You are welcome to read it, Miss Bennet. You might enjoy Lyrical Ballads by Coleridge and Wordsworth as well – that was their first published work.”
The turn of his countenance was making her quite uncomfortable, as did his condescension in pointing out the obvious regarding poetry. “I have read many poems from it already; it indeed heralded a new age in poetry. I am interested to see where Mr. Wordsworth goes with his current work in progress.” She looked at him challengingly.
“The Prelude? What do you think of it?”
Displeased to find that she could not better him on the subject, Elizabeth said shortly, “I have seen only brief excerpts from it.”
“I hope that you will have the opportunity to discover it for yourself in its entirety soon, then, or at least such parts as have been published,” Darcy said lamely, aware that he had somehow displeased her.
Elizabeth heard his discomfort and misinterpreted it. “Thank you, Mr. Darcy, but we must be realistic, must we not?” she said with a bite in her voice. “I must consider my restricted opportunities; after all, my father has an excellent library for a man of his means, but that does not extend to the newest books; those of us with inferior connections cannot hope to have such amenities.”
Darcy grew pale. “Miss Bennet,” he replied, his uneasiness causing him to take on an unintentionally haughty air, “I did not mean to imply anything of the sort.”
Finding his manner infuriating, she discovered that once opened, the wound would not close. “My uncle may have entertained Mr. Wordsworth himself, but of course, he is merely in trade and could not be expected to have such sensibilities. Is it not a degradation for you, Mr. Darcy, to even discuss this with me? What would your family think?” She caught her breath, horrified that she had uncontrollably poured out to him her injured feelings in such a manner. “Pray excuse me, Mr. Darcy!” Blindly, she moved past him, thinking only of escape.
Darcy, stunned by this unexpected attack, put out a hand to stop her flight. It had never occurred to him that she might feel wounded by what he saw as his factual recitation of the gulf between them. “Miss Bennet,” he said, his voice pained, “It was never my intention to grieve you in any way.”
She looked up at his pale face. “Then you have gone about it in a most unusual way!” She was mortified to realize that her eyes were swimming with tears. “If you would be so kind as to release me, sir.”
He removed his hand from her arm instantly. “I shall trouble you no further, madam,” he said formally, cut to the quick by her sudden fury. You fool! he raged to himself. Did you learn nothing from that horrible night? She wants nothing to do with you; how much clearer can she be? The conclusion was as intolerable as ever.
“Miss Bennet!” came Georgiana’s light tones from the doorway, causing both Elizabeth and Darcy to immediately attempt to assume poses of exemplary propriety. Even Georgiana could not be blind to the tension in the room as Darcy bowed silently and exited. However, as she could think of no possible source of disagreement between her brother and her new friend, she quickly dismissed the incident from her mind.
Elizabeth could not forget it so easily – her sense of humiliation could not have been any greater than it was after her outburst at Darcy. It was dreadful enough that he thought those things of her; to have him know how much his scorn for her family disturbed her was worse. She was furious with herself for displaying her vulnerability to his criticism, and could not begin to imagine what he must be thinking of her now. No sooner had she left Rosings after her visit with Miss Darcy than she resolved that under no circumstances would she ever set foot there again. If she had to lay abed pleading illness until her departure for London, she would do so.