Section I, Next Section
Author's Note: Many thanks to Carissa for both the inspiration for this story, based on the beginning premise of No Other Choice, and for your time and infinite patience in editing, suggesting, reassuring, supporting... well, for everything you've done. You're a star... and I'm honoured to call you my friend. Thank you.
"Father, surely you jest?" Elizabeth could scarce believe her father's dictum. What in Heaven's name was he thinking? Surely this was a sign age had begun to addle his mind! Elizabeth breathed deep to steady herself before continuing the argument. It wasn't particularly helpful in soothing her growing rage. "Father," she began in a deadly soft tone, "what reason could you have for suggesting such a thing? Surely you realize the incongruity of this demand? You, who have always impressed upon me the desire, nay the necessity! of marrying only if love and respect are in equal parts present?" She shook her head slowly, sadly. "You now wish for me marriage to a man with whom I could find neither? Please explain to me so sudden a reversal." Her eyes glistened with unshed tears. She would not let them fall.
Mr. Bennet could no longer hold his daughter's gaze. She was in the right. It was as simple as that. Everything she'd thus far said was truth in fact and he knew not how to respond. Turning from her tortured stare, he paced silently at some length before the fire. Elizabeth, he knew, would silently await his response given his obvious agitation.
"Lizzy, I know this is difficult..." Mr. Bennet began but his voice trailed to a halt at the look on his second eldest's face. Her eyes fairly screamed her disbelief... wounded at such a betrayal of her unconditional love.
How could he explain to a well-loved daughter that although he was solely responsible for their present predicament she alone would repair the damage? That had he provided adequately, there would be no need for his Lizzy to be the sacrificial lamb. That her fate with Mr. Collins could have been avoided had he simply opened his eyes and mind much sooner.
He'd always wanted so much more for his girls, all of them... but, of course, his two eldest most certainly. Both Jane and Lizzy... lovely, witty, intelligent, sensible. He stopped of a sudden, faced the fire and stared at the flames licking the small logs within. In his mind's eye he could see her fate all too clearly. A bleak, desolate existence where her wit and charm, so appreciated in these younger years, would be slowly pushed aside in favor of deference to a man for whom intelligent discourse was simply an aspiration, likely never to be realized. What was he thinking to be asking this of her?
Yet even as he fervently wished for another solution, he knew the needs of five were, indeed, more important to protect than the needs of one. That logic provided him no comfort in throwing his Lizzy to the wind. No, even as he despised himself for this decision, he knew it to be the only protection available to those for whom he was responsible.
Mr. Bennet moved to face his daughter once more. Elizabeth's gaze was fixed on her father's face as he turned, the bright light of pride and certainty shone clearly from her eyes. He could not hold her stare as he revealed his decision.
"With the estate entailed away you must realize that almost certain ruin will befall your mother, sisters and yourself at such time as I expire." He raised his head slowly, searched her eyes. "Surely you understand my conflicting desires? I have always wished only happiness for you, my sweet Lizzy," he cajoled, "but in this instance, I must look to the security of all my family."
"I'm to be married to that dim-witted, pompous oaf simply to insure my mother and my sisters are provided an income?" She spoke with obvious disgust, hoping to inflict such pain that her father would acquiesce.
Mr. Bennet drew in a fortifying breath and squared his shoulders. When he spoke, his voice took on an authoritative quality, "Elizabeth, I'll hear no more dissent on this. There is no other choice. Mr. Collins has chosen you. The family requires protection." He paused, waiting for the outburst he was certain would follow. Nothing - no sound, no argument, no tears. His eyes searched hers, and what he saw left him a heavy heart. The love, the joy usually so readily apparent was replaced by a wounded, almost hunted look.
His voice softened somewhat, and yet still remained quite firm, "And Lizzy, to give you the best opportunity to acclimate to this plan, you shall accompany Mr. Collins back to Hunsford for a period of not less than two months - Jane will act as chaperone. During that time I trust you will learn to accept that which fate has brought you." He again found it difficult to keep his attention locked on the young woman whose life he had just dictated to one of misery. Focusing on an imaginary point on the wall over her left shoulder, "Duty demands this." It was said with such finality that Elizabeth knew the discussion was at an end.
With unshed tears swimming in her eyes, a studied calm surrounded her. The strained moment of silence was broken softly, "No Father. Duty does not demand this course of action. You do... because it is most convenient for you to have your problems solved. You cannot force this. I must agree to have him to husband, and I do not." She spun on her heel, and nearly immediately froze on hearing Mr. Bennet's response to her defiance.
"Elizabeth! You say I cannot force your hand and as such you are correct, but I can and will insist on this sojourn in Hunsford," his voice lowered, became almost playful, coaxing. "In those two months, give him the fairest chance to know you... the witty, charming young woman I know you to be. Perhaps you will find him less reprehensible after a time."
She knew she had lost this round and acquiesced rather less than gracefully. Facing the source of her distress once more she said, "Fine Father. I will go. I will be charming. I will try to overlook all of his irritating ways and mannerisms. But I feel I must protest on Jane's behalf. With Mr. Bingley only today away to London, we had thought for Jane to visit with Uncle Gardiner in town. She still counts Miss Bingley among her acquaintance and, perhaps on a visitation with her, might chance to meet that lady's brother." Lizzy thought she had made no impact, for her father's face had stayed firm as stone. "If I must go to Hunsford, why not send one of my other sisters? Mary is next in age, just please Father, do not forbid Jane her chance of happiness and love along with mine."
Mr. Bennet started at the none-too-gentle rebuke. He sighed. "The visitation to Hunsford will go forward as planned," he held a hand up to silence her immediate cry. "But, I will give only this concession. You and Jane may both accompany the Gardiners back to London after Christmas and I will arrange for Mr. Collins to collect you from there in..." he paused briefly, mentally calculating a compromise, "in late February. He will, no doubt, dislike the arrangement, but I will convince him the time will allow for consultation with his patroness and the preparations for his... cousins," he sighed sadly, then continued in a dictatorial tone. "However, and I will hear no argument on this Lizzy, Jane will be your chaperone in Hunsford. Propriety must be observed rather more carefully with his exalted patroness," he said, laden with sarcasm. "As Jane is your only sensible sister, she shall be most appropriate. In any case, she is your closest and I believe will allow you a confidante you would not have with one of your younger sisters." He paused to see the effect of his words. She had grown still, defeated. Mr. Bennet turned back to his vigil over the fire. "Send Jane to me."
A soft knock sounded at her door. Elizabeth glared at the offending slab of wood hoping the visitor would leave her in peace. Peace, ha! A feeling she doubted would figure often in her, now bleak, future. How could her own father expect this of her? The man with whom she had always shared such a close friendship. She had always respected him, loved him, and oft-times engaged in friendly battles of wit simply to while away the deep winter months when the cold was too great for walks. He had once even admitted, in a moment of weakness while she was to sickbed fighting the influenza, that she was his favourite, the very essence of his heart. So what could possibly have brought him to this decision? To demand her acceptance to so completely insupportable a match... simply to secure the financial comfort of her mother and sisters? Why should she be expected to give up her every chance at happiness? There was no foretelling the future; but certainly this could not be the only choice!
The knock was somewhat louder this time, although still well within the bounds of politeness. She was certain it was Jane. After her interview with their father she would, no doubt, be ready to commiserate with Elizabeth over this sorry turn of events. The door opened slowly and Jane peeked into the bedchamber.
"Oh Lizzy! I do not think..." her voice fell to silence as she surveyed the damage of tears on Elizabeth's face. Jane was certain their father would come to his senses long before any proposed wedding would occur, but any comfort would be lost on her sister just now. She held her counsel, patiently waiting for whatever outburst would follow. It wasn't long in coming.
"How, Jane? How could Father demand I marry a simpleton?!" Elizabeth visibly gathered her anger around her, eyes flashing contempt. "He had no cause to teach of love and respect to simply pull those very ideals from me in so boorish a manner! He..." her voice broke as the tears streamed down her cheeks.
Jane swallowed her sister's frame in a protective embrace. She didn't know how to respond, and so remained silent. Her younger sister was in the midst of a temper the likes of which even Lydia would be proud... and understandably so. Jane, herself, was disappointed in her father's apparent lack of judgment. How, indeed?
"He told me I have no choice! That my mother and my sisters would depend on this action to secure their future! Good Lord, Jane... how can I be expected to throw my life away?" Elizabeth pulled away from her sister's arms and began pacing in circles around her. "To never know happiness with a husband is abhorrent indeed, but to marry for the security of others? To never even have the opportunity to know love? That is a punishment I do not deserve!" she stilled suddenly, swallowing her outrage. Her gaze softened on Jane's pleasing countenance. Always serene, peaceful, even when everything around her fell to chaos.
"You must then be happy Jane, for me. Promise me." Elizabeth's hand gently cupped her sister's cheek, "If I am not to find love and joy, you must find enough for us both," she smiled and walked a most dignified pace out the door while Jane stood speechless at so complete a transformation. Lizzy seemed placid, nearly resigned to her fate... Jane wasn't fooled for a second.
It was a monumental task he had set for himself. Mr. Darcy's disappointment in Bingley was only outweighed by his concern. He could not believe his friend was actually planning to ask for the hand of the eldest Miss Bennet. Ridiculous! Had Bingley lost his mind? Darcy didn't doubt the veracity of his friend's regard for the young woman, but he was certainly in doubt of hers! This proposal would not occur if he had anything to do with it! His thoughts tumbled around the problems as he rode through the countryside adjacent Netherfield. Oh, how he wished he'd never encouraged the renting of this infernal estate!
Fortunately, Bingley's business affairs had taken him to London before any serious damage had occurred. The bulk of the party had left just that morning, while Darcy had begged off the early departure. He would travel later in the day, but had wanted solitude to prepare his argument against any further contact with the Bennet family. Simply feeling 'out of sorts' had seemed a most convenient excuse, but his plan had nearly failed when both his friend and Miss Bingley expressed their concern. At their suggestion to remain an extra day, Darcy's quick-thinking mixed with a few half-truths convinced them he would be right as rain to follow within a few hours. Bingley being Bingley had not suspected anything was amiss. Bah! He was so innocent! He'd be taken for his fortune if Darcy did not keep an eye on his associates! Especially by a fortune-hunting bride-to-be... Darcy immediately pulled back from the distasteful thought. No, if there was but one thing he was sure, it was that Miss Jane Bennet was not of the ilk of so many London ladies. Indeed, Bingley had nothing to fear in that regard, Darcy was certain... but an unequal regard and status was nearly as destructive. And that was where his friend must be convinced. Yes, all he had to accomplish was to convince Bingley that the lady did not hold him in the same high esteem. That shouldn't be too difficult. But, if he had to hear once more of the 'angelic' Miss Jane Bennet, Darcy thought he might actually do damage!
He crested a knoll and stopped the horse to survey the choice of path before him. Forest or meadow? Forest, definitely. It was darker, more closed and private... perfectly mirroring the state of his thoughts. On the move again, his musings fell back on his friend's folly. Yes, Bingley was far too trusting and open, indeed. In truth, his regard for Miss Bennet had been so plain at the Netherfield Ball Darcy was genuinely surprised the pretentious Mrs. Bennet had refrained from announcing the engagement that very night!
An involuntary shiver spidered up his spine at the thought. Mrs. Bennet. That woman was simply the most ill-mannered, vulgar, uncultured person it had ever been his misfortune to happen upon. Her voice echoed in his head, 'five thousand a year (giggle), yes, five thousand a year... and he prefers my Jane above all, and of course, that will put my other girls in the paths of rich men...' Darcy's blood started a slow boil at the memory. How could Bingley think of attaching himself to such a family? The younger sisters ran rampant, foolishly flirting with anything in a redcoat... and even Mr. Bennet had shown poor taste in publicly correcting young Mary! Darcy nearly cringed in sympathy remembering Miss Elizabeth's horrified reaction to her family's behaviour that night at Netherfield.
Ah yes, Miss Elizabeth... what was the fascination that drew him? When he'd first met her he'd thought her rather plain. How was it, then, her beauty grew with each subsequent encounter? Surely he could not have been so blind as to have missed how her eyes sparkled, dancing with mirth? And her smile... it's luminescence fairly stole his breath. He closed his eyes only to find her image burned in his mind. Breath escaped him on the deepest of sighs. It wasn't only her beauty though... her quick wit and intelligence had piqued his interest as well. It was just unfortunate that her station, circumstance and relations were so far below his own. But there was a surprising appeal he found intriguing...
Shaking his head roughly, he willfully banished the memories as he reined in his horse by a small pond. The water was cold, inviting him to clear his head. Small shards of ice had formed along the edges, but the water itself was free of impediment. Ah, if it had been somewhat warmer than this cold wintery day he might have been tempted to immerse himself. As it was, the refreshment of icy water on his face and neck would have to suffice. He removed his coat, tossing it over the back of his mare, and knelt at the water's edge.
He stilled; sensed rather than heard some, as yet, unidentifiable sound. A voice? Yes, most definitely... a woman's voice. Listening carefully for a few moments he recognized... snippets of poetry...? Were those Shakespeare's lines carried to him on the soft wind? A feminine voice, eerily familiar and yet the tone, the apparent emotion, rendered it foreign. Darcy scanned the area, and seeing nothing out of the ordinary, set out to find the owner of the melancholy speech.
He was close now. He'd fought his way through bramble and bush, skirting large stands of winter-bare trees, but the reward was not far off. The voice was clear, strong, but he still could not actually see the owner. Just a half step to the left and the mass of tangled barren branches seemed to part of their own volition providing him a most unexpected sight. If he'd had a fanciful bone in his body he might have thought there was some form of serendipity or destiny at work. What chance was this? Miss Elizabeth Bennet before him reciting poetry with such depth the hairs on the back of his neck tingled.
"There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray,
love, remember: and there is pansies, that's for thoughts..."
The passage was familiar, but where had he read those words?
"... There's a daisy: I would give you
some violets, but they withered all when my father
died: they say he made a good end..."
Ah, Hamlet... one of Ophelia's speeches. Full of despair. Miss Bennet's voice was laden with emotion. It was obvious he was intruding on a very private moment, yet he couldn't help but be entranced. She was bewitching in her melancholia. He stood transfixed as his heart tugged at the scene before him. He felt a driving desire to ease her pain... and yet knew they did not have the friendship required for such a trust. Darcy decided to retreat and gain some much needed perspective on this woman ambling aimlessly through the woods.
One step back. Two. And then another. Carefully, softly man! He was cautious to make no noise that might draw her attention. Escape would mitigate the embarrassment of his poor behav... CRAAAACK!!
Oh, Good Lord... how was he to explain this? Spying? And he had supposed Mrs. Bennet had no manners? Damn, Elizabeth was almost upon him... what to do? Another step and she'd...
"Miss Bennet," seeming as surprised as she. "What do you do walking unprotected in the countryside?" he comfortably retreated behind his mask of propriety.
"I frequent this country, sir, and therefore see no cause to worry over such simpering conventions as an escort. I desired, or rather required, solitude," she returned pointedly.
He did not take the hint. Darcy decided he would exclude himself from her wish of solitude. Surely if she had been frequenting his thoughts, he must have been in hers? And why not? He certainly had more to recommend him than any other in her meager acquaintance. Yes, that must be the case. He convinced himself Miss Bennet was simply employing her wit on his ego.
"And why do you desire, or rather require, solitude?" he smiled as though vastly amused.
Elizabeth was not impressed to have her words thrown back in her face. Mr. Darcy had clearly lost his senses, for what other rational explanation could there be? Skulking through the woods? Watching an unguarded private moment of one who could not be counted a friend? Challenging her? How dare he? He knew nothing of her troubles, nor her desires. Indeed, she was certain his only thoughts were of his own amusement! She felt violated by his actions and yet he stood oblivious to her distress. What was he about? He seemed almost pleased! Well, she was sure his pleasure was directly related to her own level of despair. Cruel, cruel man.
"I simply sought to gain temperate thought through my own counsel. If you would excuse me, good sir, I would continue my walk alone." At the obvious dismissal she again started down the path, leaving him staring at her retreating back in utter surprise.
"Miss Bennet!" he halted her progress once more. "For what reason were you reciting Ophelia's madness?" Temperate thought?
"Surely one needs no specific reason to pay homage to an artist of such skill and wit as Shakespeare?"
"No, no... of course you are correct. But I must admit to noting a deep emotion in your recital before you so abruptly ceased the passage."
"Perhaps I should take that to mean my own skills in discourse require attention?" she fenced, raising a single eyebrow intended to avert attention from her rising discomfort. Deep emotion? He could be far too intuitive when he so chose.
He noted how her hands were quite suddenly and unusually clenched tightly at her waist. Her eyes now showed a depth of emotion he could not quite reconcile to his previous experience with her. There appeared to be a roiling turmoil, a bleak despair... but surely this could not be? He chose retreat for the present, as she so clearly wanted to hide her distress from him .
"Not at all Miss Bennet. I simply meant to convey your recital was rather moving in all its apparent honesty. Certainly no offense was intended," he observed a look of surprise flit lightly across her features, the hands before her waist relaxed significantly. The desired effect accomplished, Darcy thought it best to take his leave without causing further agitation. "I will leave you to your own counsel as you have made clear is your wish. Good day Miss Bennet," he bowed slightly in greeting before slipping once more through the trees, disappearing quickly from her sight.
Mr. Darcy could not understand the emotions emanating from Miss Elizabeth. He was not so foolish as to think he knew the young woman well, but he did count himself usually a solid judge of character... and the Miss Bennet before him today was most definitely not the Miss Bennet he had previously encountered. Darcy resolved to make a few subtle enquiries to uncover this tantalizing mystery. He shook his head ruefully. And she pervades my thoughts once more...
Elizabeth found herself still staring entranced at the hole where Mr. Darcy had vanished from sight, several minutes after the fact. He had been almost charming after his initial surprise that she was walking unattended. He had given her compliments. He had unwittingly challenged her composure and just as suddenly retreated before she risked exposure. To her surprise he appeared far more gentleman-like than she would ever have supposed him capable. Fortunately she knew from both Mr. Wickham and her own previous experience that Mr. Darcy had not the honor nor compassion to truly be a gentleman.
As she continued her walk she found her thoughts returning more frequently to the brief encounter with one Mr. Darcy than to the predicament of an undesirable forced marriage with Mr. Collins...
The sun was high and they were nearing their destination. Mr. Collins had long been trying to engage Elizabeth in conversation to no avail. Although she had made an occasional polite response to his various pronouncements concerning the illustrious Lady Catherine and the incomparable beauty of Miss Anne, it was Jane who'd been carrying the conversation. Each attempt to draw his intended into the discussion resulted in just a brief glance before her attention was snared once more by the passing countryside. He, however, stared frequently at her, pleased that she followed the bounds of propriety and did not meet his gaze. Yes, he was well-pleased, indeed. This two month visitation would only increase her most certain regard of him, thus ensuring the approval of Lady Catherine.
Elizabeth felt Mr. Collins' gaze rest on her yet again. Infernal man! Two months. Two very long months. Surely in that length of time it would be clear they would not suit? As a last resort, she could refuse him... as long as she kept her word to her father and appeared to accept Mr. Collins' attentions. A little voice reminded her it would likely not be so easy as a simple refusal, but Elizabeth squelched the traitorous thought. If she remained steadfast in her conviction to decline the proposal while stoically enduring the painful attentions of her cousin, surely her father would find no argument with which to further force the matter. Yes, that was her only recourse at this point. She had to trust reason would, in the end, prevail. Her reverie was interrupted by their early afternoon arrival at Hunsford.
"Ah, yes. Cousin Jane, my dearest cousin Elizabeth, we have arrived at last," Mr. Collins announced rather pompously, fluttering his hand toward the carriage window as they drew to a halt. "As you can see, I did not exaggerate my circumstances in discourse with your good father. Humble though my personal household and effects, you will see inside such improvements as suggested with kind thoughtfulness by her gracious ladyship." Elizabeth would not have been at all surprised had Mr. Collins snapped together his heels and bowed his head, even seated as he was, at just the mention of his so 'gracious and important' benefactress.
With a pretentious flair he descended the carriage, and reached inside to assist the ladies. "If we are quite fortunate, Lady Catherine might condescend to invite us to dine later this week when I go pay my respects, which I shall accomplish most directly," he said in a self-important air before furtively glancing over his shoulder toward the large estate just visible through winter-bare trees. "Quickly now, make haste! I will show you to your room and must directly away to pay my respects."
With the girls safely ensconced in the bedchamber they would share for the coming two months, Mr. Collins quitted his small abode leaving his young guests to amuse themselves.
"If we are quite fortunate..." Elizabeth mimicked her cousin's declaration. "Goodness, Jane. I quite dread meeting this Lady Catherine. As Mr. Collins describes her she sounds rather a tiresome harridan!"
"Now, Lizzy. Do not be uncharitable. Lady Catherine could very well be kindness embodied, and Mr. Collins' lacking description making her simply appear otherwise."
"Yes, well perhaps it will provide some small amusement to watch Mr. Collins grovel at so 'grand a lady's' feet. What think you, Jane? We could find entertainment to pass along to our father," she grinned.
Jane slowly shook her head, a soft smile touching her lips as she observed her sister. Perhaps these two months would not be so unbearable, after all? Optimistic though she was, Jane didn't hold any great hope her sister's good spirits could be maintained that long. Mr. Collins had already proven he could wear on a saint, and that was most definitely not the first term that leaped to mind to describe Lizzy.
Elizabeth had situated herself by the window, eyes searching the grounds. As far as she could see, there were gardens and tree-lined paths. "Oh Jane, the park is breathtaking. Imagine how beautiful it will be with spring approaching." Her eyes declared her pleasure with a quick glance over her shoulder. "Oh, indeed. With the new growth and flowers over the next month, I believe I shall enjoy walking the paths rather frequently." She turned to face her sister with an impish grin. "And that, of course, will give me leave to escape the company of Mr. Collins."
Jane chuckled at her sister's playful expression. "You know father desired you make an effort, Lizzy, and avoiding Mr. Collins during our visitation will not accomplish that end. Two months is not so very long."
Elizabeth raised a sardonic eyebrow, "Mmm, we shall see how long two months may seem."
The sisters fell into a comfortable silence, unpacked their belongings and explored the remainder of the parsonage. It was quite a simple home, nicely yet sparsely furnished, neat, clean and altogether welcoming. A very comfortable dwelling indeed, and although much poorer surroundings than those to which they were accustomed, Jane and Elizabeth concluded it was more than adequately comfortable for their visitation. They'd even met Emily, Mr. Collins' housekeeper, who arrived daily in good time to prepare the morning meal, kept the little house clean and tidy, and ensured all meals required were provided before retiring to her own home in the village each evening.
Two hours later, Jane decided to lay down for an hour before supper while Elizabeth chose to begin acquainting herself with Rosings's parks. She was enthralled. The paths were wide and inviting with winter foliage and the barest hint of new growth enchanting her steps. Naked trees gracefully arched and protected the walkways from direct sunlight adding to the almost magical quality. On closer inspection, Elizabeth could see a very few buds just beginning to show on the branches. A few weeks would hasten the beginnings of spring, and Lizzy could not contain her delight in the season's imminent change. She stretched her arms straight out beside her, laid back her head, and spun in circles until she nearly collapsed with dizziness. Wonderful solitude! It was peaceful, calm, serene. Yes, walking in these parks would almost compensate for the irritation that was Mr. Collins. She pulled her coat just a little tighter as a chill crept down her back. Almost!
Supper was a casual affair with cold meats, cheese, and bread providing the main course. Mr. Collins seemed intent on providing his guests every minuscule piece of information in his small mind, bits of wisdom from Lady Catherine of the utmost importance. One such announcement was that after he took a wife, he should no longer require his daily housekeeper. Elizabeth raised startled eyes to her sister at the surprising announcement.
"Why ever would one preclude the other, Mr. Collins?" Elizabeth asked in her sweetest tone.
"Surely, Lady Catherine understands rules of etiquette, dear cousin," he admonished softly. "If that exalted lady decries the need for both, then the extravagance must be ceased. I am certain you understand the need for a man of cloth to surround himself in the humblest of situation?"
"Ahhh, yes, Mr. Collins, I do understand that requirement of your position. But may I ask how you intend for your wife to be trained in the cooking and cleaning if she is, indeed, a gentleman's daughter raised with the privileges that entails?"
Mr. Collins was pleased that his intended was displaying such concern for learning the skills which would enable her to keep his home and, indeed, his life running smoothly. It was certain she was unsure of her abilities and worrying that she would not succeed in her new role. Warmed his heart excessively, so it did. "Oh my dear cousin," he began insipidly, reaching out his hand to cover hers, somewhat disappointed when she used that hand to retrieve her beverage. "The training you most assuredly desire will be afforded you. I would not expect such a genteel young woman as yourself to know these rough skills, but I am most certain you will learn what needs be before this visitation is complete." The strange look on Elizabeth's face was clearly dismay that she may be found lacking in any way. He knew it to be his duty to ease her distress, and with only the barest of pauses continued, "Ah, dearest cousin Elizabeth, do not fear. Emily will surely be honoured to ensure the improvements in your lacking education." And he smiled.
Elizabeth could not believe her ears. Lacking education? Not only did the insufferable toad want her to marry him, he also wanted her to cook and clean? Become a glorified housekeeper for the sake of her father's entailed estate? Not likely! Elizabeth deftly concealed her distaste for the man, but before she could even form a coherent retort, Jane replied, "Indeed, Mr. Collins, it is good of you to think of these solutions for the benefit of your future bride, but perhaps this is not the time for such a discussion as we are so newly arrived. I am confident I speak for my sister as well when I suggest that, perhaps, we should familiarize ourselves with the grounds and village first before discussing this?" Jane shot Elizabeth a quick look, effectively silencing the insult so close to leaving her lips.
"Indeed." Lizzy nearly choked on the word.
Mr. Collins barely acknowledged that Jane even spoke, so intent was he on Elizabeth. "Oh, but my dear cousin, it was the esteemed Lady Catherine who advised me the needs and duties of a clergyman's wife. I merely relayed them," he bowed his head deeply, "and, of course, her suggestion for your education." He looked up at the woman he desired and gave a placid smile. "You will see, my dear, how the Lady Catherine shows such concern over all those in her employ. Why she is likely to even advise on appropriate attire for various occasions. Yes, you will soon see how my good patroness bestows her kindnesses..."
Two months? Of this? Elizabeth could barely contain her temper. She had promised her father to be charming and give fair chance to his plan, but this was most insupportable. No, this would not do at all.
The small party at the parsonage had settled into an easy routine. Mr. Collins took great care in his small garden through the mornings and retired to his study each afternoon to research and write his sermons leaving the young women most of the day to explore the parks and the nearby village. The third day of their visit had been their first audience with the Lady Catherine, an experience Elizabeth most definitely did not enjoy. Lady Catherine treated the visitation as an inquisition, controlled the conversation, and made clear she did not appreciate Elizabeth's opinions being verbalized. Jane had provided a far better impression on the old woman as her easy temperament allowed the impression of deference.
When discussion had turned to talents of any kind, Mr. Collins had piped up incessantly with, "Miss Elizabeth is a most accomplished pianist" or "Miss Elizabeth sings as a canary" or "Miss Elizabeth dances on the lightest of feet". Each such pronouncement of her talent produced yet another exposition of her merits as a clergyman's bride. If she hadn't known the reality, Elizabeth herself would have thought her accomplishments perfect for the role. But, in truth, though she could sing and play passably, her talents leaned far more in the direction of literature and independent thought. Definitely not the sort of accomplishments the Lady Catherine would appreciate.
After only a few expressions of her rather pointed statements, Elizabeth realized it was a losing battle she fought. Lady Catherine simply lectured, loud and long, providing Lizzy detailed instruction on how to better herself for the role of a clergyman's wife. It did not seem to cross the old woman's mind that Lizzy was deliberately trying to display herself in a negative light. Indeed, if Elizabeth could gain Lady Catherine's censure, perhaps the proposal would be rescinded and she would find her way clear of this mess without defying her father. But no, Lady Catherine simply took the opportunity to expound upon the virtues of deference and polite behaviour, two qualities most revered in the old woman's eyes. She even had the gall to display Mr. Collins as a shining example to which Lizzy should aspire! If stating her opinions prompted only lectures and reproofs, how was she to prove the match unwise? How could she display, without doubt, she would not be molded into Lady Catherine's idea of an appropriate clergyman's wife? How could she provoke the response she desired? Elizabeth fell silent as possibilities tumbled through her mind.
Jane quite admirably carried the conversation when she saw her sister's preoccupation. She felt so badly for the predicament in which their father had thrown poor Elizabeth. He couldn't have any idea of the interminable situation at Hunsford, for she could not believe him so unfeeling to his own child... a daughter on whom he'd doted and shared special moments and secrets, no less. No, there must have been some grave misunderstanding. Jane determined to pen a letter that very night and explain.
Mr. Darcy was proud of his accomplishment. Indeed, Bingley had finally been convinced to abandon his folly. It had taken no small amount of persuasion from himself and Bingley's sisters, but they were now quite assured in their success. There would be no offer of marriage, no dalliance, no embarrassing attachment of any sort to the eldest Bennet girl with the intolerable mother. Really, he felt somewhat sorry for the girl, for based solely on her own charms and demeanor she would have been quite acceptable in his social sphere. True, his objections began with the inferiority of her family, her station, and connections, but he was convinced of the rightness in his quest when she showed no outward appearance of attachment toward his friend. Yes, Bingley deserved better indeed. He had no great need to marry quickly, no immediate heir to provide, and so had the luxury of waiting for a woman whose attachment was at least as deep and strong as his own.
Yes, Mr. Darcy was certain his friend would overcome the slight depression in which he now found himself, and when he did, would find such a woman as to obliterate the memory of one Miss Jane Bennet. He would forget this attachment and move on to another as he'd done countless times in the past. Indeed, it truly was best for Bingley to have it done early rather than drag the situation until the inevitable shredding of his pride by Miss Bennet's refusal and perhaps, even ridicule. She, in turn, would certainly appreciate Darcy's interference in saving her the unpleasant task of rejecting a suitor. He nodded once to himself, convinced he had acted with only the best of intentions, although he chose to not examine his methods too closely. Indeed, he hoped Bingley would never discover that he'd kept to himself the knowledge of Miss Jane Bennet lately in London.
Guilt nibbled at the edge of conscious thought. Surely it was reasonable to engage his friend's attention so fully during that time to avoid the possibility of a chance meeting? Miss Bingley had assured him that Miss Bennet would not be a problem. Easily mislead and easily forgotten - - those were Miss Bingley's words - - and yet, Darcy could not help but see the despair in his friend's eyes at each meeting. After Miss Bingley's eventual visit to Gracechurch Street, she had recounted that Miss Bennet was clearly in good spirits and happily surrounded by her young cousins. There was no obvious sign of a lost attachment, no sign that Bingley would even be welcome. Indeed, Miss Bingley did advise that Miss Bennet had neglected to ask even the slightest of questions which would be considered polite manners. Not once did she utter Bingley's name, nor did she ask of his whereabouts or situation. How much more evidence would a man require? Clearly, Miss Jane Bennet had dismissed any tender feelings she may have once felt for his friend... and therefore, Darcy was justified in the small truths he'd withheld. Surely Bingley would be grateful to know the extent to which Darcy had shielded him? Eventually? He shook his head roughly to rid himself of the troublesome thoughts. No, it was the correct course of action... Miss Jane Bennet would simply destroy his friend's confidence with her refusal, and then Darcy would have to gather up the pieces, yet again. No, this was for the best... but why, then, did guilt keep rearing its ugly head?
As his thoughts drifted from the eldest Miss Bennet, he was inexorably drawn back to Miss Elizabeth. He could not understand why it had been so difficult to exorcise her image from his head. Time and distance from the cause of his distress had brought no relief, indeed, he felt an ache in his chest for which he could not account, whenever his thoughts rested on her... a far more frequent occurrence than he was willing to admit. She was driving him to distraction. When last he had seen her, in such despair as to recite the madness of Ophelia, he had determined to discover the cause. He simply could not reconcile the impressions in his own mind, and therefore, could find no peace. This was, of course, simply an exercise to relieve his curiosity. Yes, once he knew the answers he was seeking, surely he could put her from his mind!
It was only this past week that his discreet inquiries had finally produced results. For nearly three months it had seemed Miss Elizabeth Bennet had vanished from the earth, as though she had never existed but in his mind. Carefully placed questions had revealed that Elizabeth had left Hertfordshire, but Darcy's contact knew not where she had traveled. And then nothing, not a whisper for weeks. When he'd seen Miss Jane Bennet at the Bingley townhouse, his heart had jumped to his throat, but alas, she had been alone. ... and then, suddenly, just this past week, his continued investigations had finally yielded much-awaited intelligence. As a result, he knew not the particulars, but had lately discovered her presence at Hunsford visiting her cousin. Perhaps an early visit this year to his aunt was in order...
Elizabeth pulled off her bonnet and coat, wiped her shoes on the small carpet inside the door and bounded up the stairs to check on Jane. The night before, an express had arrived from Longbourn and, after reading the letter, Jane had withdrawn into herself. Elizabeth feared bad news, but until her sister chose to reveal the contents, she would simply have to wait. Since she had wakened earlier than usual, Lizzy had decided an early morning walk through lightly-frosted grass would be her treat. She had crept quietly outdoors before lengthening her strides, and had soon found herself surrounded by the magic in Rosings park. It had transported her mood. The freshness in the air had left her spirits light and had fortified her for the day ahead with Mr. Collins.
After more than a fortnight of successful avoidance, she would be forced to spend the entirety of the afternoon with the odious toad. Yes, Mr. Collins had announced only the night before, his desire to oversee her education in the kitchen. He had outlined for their dining pleasure his favourite courses and today Elizabeth was placed in the unenviable position of learning to prepare the food to his taste. Oh father, if you could only see what your daughter endures for the sake of your stubborn pride! Her sunny mood was quick dissolving.
Quietly opening the door to their shared bedchamber, she was surprised to find Jane with tears glistening on her cheeks, seated on the edge of her bed. The letter was barely visible in her tightly clenched hands. When their eyes met, Elizabeth was horrified at the empty look of loss within. Her own worries forgotten, she rushed to the bed.
"Good gracious, Jane! Whatever has happened?" Elizabeth enfolded her sister's hands with her own.
"It.... it is.... oh Lizzy, Mr. Bingley!"
"He... he... he is to be... married!" Jane's breaths were shallow, quick. Elizabeth was stunned into silence. How could this be? She had seen with her own eyes the very real attachment between her sister and Mr. Bingley. What in Heaven's name could have changed in just a few short months? She had never truly believed Miss Bingley's account of his possible affection for Miss Georgiana Darcy - indeed, even when Jane had not seen him during those nearly two months in London, Lizzy still had held hope. She had thought Mr. Bingley confused, perhaps duped by his sisters, but never had she imagined he would cast aside the affection he'd had for Jane in Hertfordshire.
Her sister's distress had sparked a protective anger in her, but when she spoke it was with a forced even tone. "Surely you have misread the letter, Jane, for his regard of you was great in Hertfordshire and I do not believe he is the sort of man to toy with young ladies for his own amusement. He struck me as far too honourable for such a past-time."
Hope fluttered for the barest of seconds, but Jane was far too sensible to long for the impossible any longer. An icy anguish spread through her middle, accentuating her loss. How could he have forgotten her so easily? She had truly believed his feelings ran as deeply as her own. His eyes had spoken volumes on his desires, his touch had electrified her senses. Could he truly have felt nothing, or had something terrible and unforeseen occurred? Oh, why didn't he visit her in London, for surely Miss Bingley had passed on the message? She had been foolishly holding hope when she should have embraced reality. She had not seen him for more than three months. How could she have allowed her heart to be laid so bare, so vulnerable that it only now gave such pain.
"You have not seen this latest missive from Miss Bingley, Lizzy," she said in a small voice. Elizabeth gently pried open her sister's grip and smoothed the paper half-heartedly. As she began to read, her simmering anger quite nearly undid her. She could barely contain the sudden burst of hatred that washed over her as she read the words so callously penned from one once thought a friend. Pacing the room in an attempt to bring her emotions under control, she wondered how a forthcoming engagement could be so coldly announced when it was not even clear one was imminent. How could that Miss Bingley be so hateful? And especially to Jane!
She forced herself to remain calm. "But Jane, you see here? It's not at all certain... It says only Miss Bingley suspects her brother will soon announce his betrothal to Miss Georgiana Darcy, not that the engagement has actually occurred. Until we have more than Miss Bingley's musings-"
"But Lizzy, this is the second such assertion she has made! Indeed, this missive is far stronger for she hints the engagement has occurred, simply not announced publicly! At least in her last letter she said she thought he might propose... do you not see the difference? If there was no truth to this, do you honestly think she would continue her warnings? Surely you would not have me hope in vain..." Jane dashed at the tears lingering on her cheeks. She could read the meaning in her friend's missive. It was clear Miss Bingley was only concerned for Jane's happiness and well-being. There was, it was true, only her friend's assertion that her brother would wed Miss Darcy, but surely that oblique reference was all that needs be said for the meaning to be caught. In higher society, it was just such a suspicion that wound up as fact. Jane knew this as true and pressed upon her sister the veracity of her conclusions. There was no hope for Mr. Bingley to be hers, and that knowledge seared her heart. She faced a desolate future. Where there had been tender buds of love, now lay only tattered ruins in the certainty she could never find happiness. As she looked at Lizzy, still pacing like a caged animal, an idea crept slowly into her mind. Distasteful, yes, but perhaps some small good could come of this...
"Lizzy..." she began rather hesitantly, drying her cheeks with her handkerchief. She did not know for certain how Elizabeth would react to her budding plan, but Jane thought she could convince her of its merit. "Lizzy? I..." Oh gracious, how was she to do this? Her sister deserved happiness, and if Jane could be the means...
"What is it Jane?" Elizabeth was puzzled by her sister's reticence. They had never kept secrets from one another, and had always enjoyed a frankness in their discussions. Whatever was bothering Jane must be great indeed.
"You do not want to marry Mr. Collins, do you?"
"Good God, no! How could you even ask such a thing?"
"In that case..." she hesitated for the smallest of moments and then the words just tumbled out. "Why not allow me the duty? Perhaps, then, you may find happiness for I know now, I shall not," she held up a hand to silence Elizabeth when she would have protested. "Allow me this, Lizzy. I have a more accepting temperament than do you. There's a better chance I could carve a tolerable existence."
Elizabeth was overwhelmed by her sister's selfless kindness. The tiniest spark of relief flared before guilt crashed over her. How could she feel even the smallest degree of happiness at Jane's distress? Feeling shame seep through her pores, she opened her mouth to speak and found she could utter no sound. A hand flew to her throat as she stood shaking her head slowly, never breaking their gaze.
"Lizzy, you know it would be best..."
She found her voice at last and whispered hoarsely. "No..." And Elizabeth fled.
Mr.. Bennet turned from his intense study of the flames dancing in the hearth. Striding to his desk, he picked up a letter to examine its contents yet again - contents that pierced his conscience and wounded his heart.
My dearest Father,
I hope this letter finds all well within the walls of Longbourn. Elizabeth and I enjoyed our stay in London with Aunt and Uncle Gardiner, and I thank you again for allowing us the privilege of the visit. We enjoyed a quiet but lovely time with our relations, and I shall look forward to another such visit in the future.
Papa, I now find I must turn to the subjects of Hunsford and Mr. Collins. I cannot pretend to understand your assertion that my sister must marry this man. Surely our family's financial situation could not be so important that Lizzy must sacrifice her every opportunity at happiness? I can only think that you did not realize what the situation here in Kent would entail. Mr. Collins appears to have no abilities in reasonable thought, intelligent conversation, nor even in the most basic understanding of our Lizzy's temperament. She would wither in this environment, dear Papa, and I have no doubt that your concern for my sister's well-being will outweigh your fears of financial ruin. Surely, all your daughters have the opportunity to marry, if not for riches, at least for comfort with a man that does not expect a complete change in personality? Indeed, I fully realize Lizzy has faults, but she is loving, caring, kind, intelligent, and spirited... and it is that very spirit that will be the cause for her misery. Dear Papa, I beg of you to reconsider your stand in this matter, for I know you would not want to sentence my sister to a life wasted in misery.
I do hope all is happy and well at home, and I shall look forward to our reunion in less than two months. Please pass my best wishes and love to my mother and my sisters.
During the past fortnight, Mr. Bennet had read these words several times daily. The letter was imprinted in his memory... so clearly that each time he closed his eyes he saw the words accusing him, and shame coloured his features. The love he felt for Elizabeth warred with the duty he knew for his wife and family, and he did not know what course to take. He wanted to rescind his demand that Lizzy accept Mr. Collins' proposal, yet he feared for the others if he died suddenly. Surely this was the required course, even distasteful as it was? Yet, the idea that his Lizzy could be unhappy the rest of her days brought him more pain than he could bear. Could there be an alternative? Was it simply his fear to which he bowed, or was this the responsible choice? He sighed deeply, sadly.
A shriek found its way into his study. He shuddered as he heard his wife's exclamation of nerves as she berated their second youngest child. And then he heard the dreaded, "Oh, if only Lizzy would do her duty to this family, my nerves would be at peace!" He didn't need to know the entirety of the conversation... there had been several variations on the theme over the past few months since Mr. Collins' proposal of marriage. Mr. Bennet pulled out some paper, picked up his pen and sat heavily on the chair before his desk. A defeated chuckle escaped his lips as he thought of the number of times he had begun this particular missive...
My dearest Jane,
I thank you for your intelligence in the matter of Mr. Collins. Your mother and sisters do well, though I find myself quite at a loss without the sense of my two eldest. I anticipate your return more than you know.
Now, the essence of your letter has distressed me greatly these past days, indeed I have found myself turning the situation in my head at all hours of the day. My concern for Elizabeth's future is at odds with my duty to your mother and your sisters, but I find I can no longer hold to this false hope of an easy compromise. I would ask that Elizabeth attempt to see the positives in this situation with a clear sight, however, I will no longer force the matter. You may inform your sister I have rescinded my demand...
He stopped. Sighed. Was this the correct course? Was he following his desire instead of his duty? He buried his head in his hands. Tears stained the page...
Elizabeth could not believe this turn in fortune. Tears pooled softly in her eyes as she thought of her sister's selflessness. She was tempted, of course, but knew she could never forgive herself if Jane married Mr. Collins in her stead. No, she would not allow her beloved sister the sacrifice... but such love Jane had shown in her offer! Elizabeth was engulfed by extremes of gratitude and despair. Surely, a better solution could be found? She refused to believe marriage to Mr. Collins was inevitable... but given the current climate, she could envision her own refusal simply resulting in Jane bearing the duty. No, this had not only destroyed her sister's hope for happiness with Mr. Bingley, it had also decreased Elizabeth's own chances of escape.
A cold fury settled in the pit of her stomach at the thought of Jane's unhappiness, her tears. Elizabeth kicked angrily at the foliage lining the path where she had fled. A pox on Miss Bingley! There had to be a solution. Somehow, she had to find a way to give Jane peace. Lizzy would even willingly marry Mr. Collins if that would guarantee the return of Jane's Mr. Bingley and her happiness. Somehow... Her thoughts scattered as she turned a bend on the path and saw the figure of a tall man only feet before her, his back turned in her direction. Recognizing Mr. Darcy, she instinctively crept backwards, keeping her eyes trained on the man she least wanted to see. What in Heaven's name was he doing here.
"Miss Bennet! I see you still enjoy your morning walks?" he smiled softly as he strode toward her. Upon closer inspection he noted her tears still threatening to fall. "Good God! What is wrong?"
She raised her hands up before her as a barrier, "I'm... simply out of sorts this morning, sir..." She could not meet his eyes, missing the concern so evident within. "I should away to the parsonage for Mr. Collins is expecting me. Good day, Mr. Darcy," and she turned to retrace her steps.
Good Lord! Why was it this woman dismissed him every time he was within ten feet of her? Just once he'd like the pleasure himself! "Since I had planned a tour of that section of the park, surely you have no objection to my accompanying you?"
She sighed silently. Seeing no way to extricate herself politely, she reluctantly agreed. Conversation was halting, awkward, uncomfortable... until he mentioned his sister, Georgiana. Elizabeth was only too happy to grasp onto a subject, any subject, where conversation could flow freely. Remembering the negative impressions Wickham had imparted about the girl, Elizabeth asked only a few questions which started a clearly proud recital of Miss Darcy's accomplishments. The images didn't mesh. It seemed Mr. Wickham had been describing a completely different girl than the man before her praised. Was it simply fraternal blinders? As he spoke, Lizzy began to hope Mr. Darcy might let slip a few details concerning the supposed relationship between Miss Georgiana and Mr. Bingley, but not a mention was made. With only the barest of acquaintance between them, Lizzy could not broach the subject, but surely if there was an impending engagement he would mention it, if only in passing?
As the parsonage came into view, Elizabeth turned to her companion, "Mr. Darcy, I thank you for your escort. I... our conversation was rather pleasant." Amazement laced her voice.
"And I, Miss Bennet, quite enjoyed our time together. Perhaps we will meet again during my stay with my aunt?" Lizzy couldn't help but note how he had seemed somehow more animated, smiling rather more frequently, and how his eyes had become more alive than she'd previously seen. He was actually quite an attractive man! She attributed the change in demeanor to their conversation regarding Georgiana for it was obvious he held his sister in the highest esteem.
Elizabeth cocked her head to one side and gazed up this unpredictable man who seemed intent on confusing her at every turn. "I... thank you, sir. Perhaps we shall..." Their eyes held just a moment too long. She felt a fluttering nausea at his intense stare and lowered her eyes. "Good day to you, sir." Her voice was just a little breathless as she spun on her heel and quickly made her way toward Mr. Collins' small abode. As she walked she couldn't resist peeking, just once, over her shoulder. A strange warm queasiness washed over her again when she saw he was still there. Watching her...
"Darcy!" He inwardly cringed at the imperious shriek. Could his Aunt never speak with a cultured tone? He stopped a passing servant and gave the message he would join Lady Catherine shortly, but would need a brief visit to his bedchamber first. The young girl's eyes widened to saucers of fear at his order.
"Go on, now," he said crisply. And then he softened and whispered, "She will not bite." The girl stood agape, watching his retreating form take the stairs two at a time. Ye think not? She dragged her feet toward the parlour where the old woman was waiting. Why could I no' work for 'im?
Lady Catherine was most seriously vexed that her nephew had not immediately shown himself upon his arrival. He'd have to be taken to task for such a breach, and she was surely the only one to whom he'd listen. Not too harshly, though, for he had graced them with his presence early this year. Indeed, she'd been pleasantly surprised to receive his missive late the previous week providing advance notice. He cannot not stay away from my Anne. It was all coming according to her plan. Less than a month until the requisite yearly Easter visit, yet here he was... obviously most anxious to see his cousin. Did she sense a proposal in the wind? Ah yes, she could hear wedding bells, that was certain. A summer wedding, as she'd always hoped.
In his bedchamber, Darcy was leaning forward, his hands braced on the top of the writing desk. His reflection stared out at him from the small mirror tacked to the wall. Ah, what luck! To have come upon the very Miss Bennet he had braved this early visit to see. Strange that the last two times he had met the girl, she had been clearly out of sorts. Once, her melancholia had been plain to see, and this latest she had actually been on the verge of tears. He did not know her well, it was true, but she had not struck him as the sort to be easily distressed. The mystery of Miss Elizabeth Bennet was more than a little tantalizing.
He paused momentarily before entering the parlour. Courage to beard the lion. Darcy let a smile creep across his lips and pushed open the door. Lady Catherine was seated on the only chair in the room. The remaining furniture consisted of a variety of settees and two Italian backless couches against the back wall. Darcy quickly swept the room with hooded eyes. Anne and Mrs. Jenkinson were seated on the settee to the right of his aunt, and Mr. Collins was seated to her left. Darcy's first impression of the man had been most unkind, but he saw now it had also been accurate. The slightly hunched frame wore an ill-fitting black suit, his hair had not been groomed, and he wore such an obvious expression of servitude Darcy wondered if the little clergyman would ever have the temerity to disagree with his patroness.
"Darcy, it was most unseemly to disappear immediately on your arrival." The old woman's tone was more than brusque, it was downright mean.
"Indeed Aunt, I do apologize for the breach. I was immediately attracted to the park and found myself quite in need of refreshing before presenting myself."
She glared at the young man, trying to decide if he was being truthful or sarcastic. Lady Catherine chose truthful for she could not believe her own flesh and blood would slight her in so obvious a fashion. "Do you not wish to address Anne?" she barked. The young lady in question coloured fiercely.
"Indeed, Cousin Anne. How good it is to see you again." Darcy bowed properly. He knew how to handle his aunt. The appearance of deference was all one required, and he had been practising all his life.
"Cousin Darcy. Likewise." She allowed a small, sickly smile and offered him a limp hand before retreating back into her shell, quietly staring off into space.
"And Mr. Collins, how are you getting on in your post?" Darcy sounded bored, was bored. At this juncture, the early visit seemed a ludicrous idea... Miss Elizabeth Bennet or no. Mr. Collins' response bounced off Darcy's disinterest as his thoughts wandered to any subject outside the room.
The parlour conversation continued as one would expect. Nothing was really said, much was alluded, and no real truths uttered. Gossip centred around acquaintances in London - who had been seen with whom, the latest scandals, fashions for the next Season, even vouchers for Almack's were discussed. Darcy despised the smallness of such talk... if one had nothing to say, he believed the mouth should stay firmly closed. And the Ton? His least favourite subject... but this was society, and society had its petty rules. His musings screeched to halt when his aunt mentioned the Bennet name.
"... and you will bring them Friday afternoon for tea," Lady Catherine ordered. Mr. Collins' bobbing head and grating obsequiousness were the last step on Darcy's patience. He could pretend interest no longer.
"Please excuse me, Aunt. I find myself somewhat tired from the journey. The hours, as you could well imagine, were unusual for me to arrive so early in the day," he bowed once to Lady Catherine and then again to the ladies on the settee. Turning briefly toward the clergyman, he nodded sharply and exited the room before his aunt could overcome the shock of his rude announcement.
He wandered out into the formal gardens. As he inspected the patterns, Darcy thought how presumptuous was the attempt to control nature. How foolish could the upper classes be, to think control of the ruling force on earth was even possible? If the gardener did not preen and primp the gardens on a regular basis, they would take over the surroundings. Indeed, he much preferred Pemberley, where the grounds, although manicured, were designed to complement nature rather than the owner. Continuing his meanderings, he found himself taking a path leading to the parsonage. Perhaps a visit would improve his temper.
Elizabeth was standing in the kitchen, kerchief over her dark curls and apron tied at her waist. How in Heaven's name had she ended up in this state? Mr. Collins wasn't even here. He was over at Rosings ingratiating himself to his patroness, while she stood in the kitchen learning how to bake bread! Oh, the humiliation... She had left Jane upstairs to conquer her distress at learning of Mr. Bingley's possible engagement, although Elizabeth still doubted the veracity of the news. Just the thought of Caroline Bingley's missive raised her temperature.
Emily had patiently shown Lizzy how to measure and sift the flour. The big bowl sitting on the table in front of her was nearly full as she sifted the last of the white powder needed for the bread. She picked up the bowl to move it to the larger preparation table where Emily had said there would be plenty of room for mixing and kneading. Ah, at least Lizzy had plenty of frustrations to take out on the dough. Turning, she and Emily collided. The bowl flew up, spraying the freshly sifted flour all over the kitchen, coating Elizabeth and Emily in the finest of coatings. The women's eyes met in shock and dismay. After the briefest of moments they dissolved into fits of giggles each pointing out the other's most comical appearance.
A knock on the door interrupted their merriment and while Emily went to deal with the caller, Elizabeth grabbed a broom. After a only a few moments, she heard Emily open the door behind her. "And who was at the door, Emily?" her amusement still clearly evident. When there was no immediate answer, she glanced over her shoulder. Oh Lord...
There stood the impeccably attired figure of Mr. Darcy, a smile playing at the edges of his lips. Emily had quite disappeared. Elizabeth straightened her shoulders and affected the haughtiest tone she could muster. "Mr. Darcy, what a delightful pleasure."
"Miss Bennet," he inclined his head politely. "I seem to have... emm... caught you at a most inopportune moment."
"Indeed, sir. I was..." she glanced quickly around the little kitchen. As she realized there was no way to talk herself out of this humiliation, Lizzy capitulated to the humour of the situation. "I was learning how to bake bread," she grinned. Ah, that ought to shock him.
Darcy could not deny the pull of desire. His smile widened. Did this woman worry over none of today's social conventions? Menial labour? In the kitchen? Really! But her mussed appearance was somehow endearing. "I had thought to ask for your company in the park, but I see you are... otherwise engaged." The laughter edging his tone did not sit well with Elizabeth, but she didn't rise to his bait.
"Why, thank you sir. If you would just wait in the parlour, I shall be ready directly." Anything to leave this blasted kitchen! Lizzy motioned to the door and quirked an eyebrow to hurry his exit.
Still grinning his amusement, Darcy moved toward the exit. He paused, and threw over his shoulder, "White powder quite becomes you." He safely slipped through the opening before the rest of the flour floated in his direction and chuckled his way into the parlour.
As he waited, Darcy inspected the little room. It was simply, yet comfortably furnished, neat and clean. He noticed a letter on the writing desk and his curiosity overcame his better judgment. It appeared to be a woman's hand, and with a quick glance the author was shown to be Elizabeth. His eyes drifted lazily over the words, until he saw Bingley's name. His interest piqued, he started to read...
It was lovely of you to send word on the happenings in the county, and so I shall return the favour. Hunsford is quite tolerable, yet the parks neighbouring which belong to Rosings are really rather spectacular. You know, of course, how I enjoy my walks and I find the solitude on my journeys more than a little relieving after spending any length of time with our intolerable cousin.
We have had some unsettling news, however. Poor Jane is distressed to hear from Miss Bingley that that lady's brother is to be married. I sincerely doubt the veracity of this assertion as the prospective bride was named to be Mr. Darcy's younger sister, but as I know no firm intelligence to the contrary, I find myself at quite a loss in how to comfort dear Jane. Perhaps with Mr. Collins' connections to the family we will somehow hear if there is any truth to Miss Bingley's claim, however I doubt that such matters would be discussed so freely with us in attendance. Jane is so very distressed that she has offered to take my place in this horrible situation in which Papa has placed me. I have not the slightest intention of allowing her to throw her own future on the wind for my sake, however. Do not fear, dear Kitty, I shall find a way to avoid this fate. I am determined!
An interesting happening occurred just after Jane relayed her terrible news this morning. I had gone for solace into the park, and imagine my surprise when I came upon Mr. Darcy himself! Of course, I attempted to avoid the man, but must have made some noise for he turned and spied me as I tried to creep back around the bend. How vexing! Alas, I could come up with no excuse for him not to join me on my return to the parsonage, and I was quite surprised to find him capable of providing pleasant company! Please do not misunderstand me, though. He has not changed my opinion one whit... I still know him to be hateful and deceitful for his past actions have spoken rather more clearly, but perhaps he has one or two redeeming qualities? We shall see. I will probably not see him while he visits with his relations and, therefore, will have no opportunity to discover any more.
Oh, Mr. Collins has just advised me to prepare for my first lesson. Good gracious, Kitty! I am to learn to bake bread for tonight's supper! Never would I have thought it possible for Papa to turn his back as he has, but I shall persevere! I must join Emily now, and so will bid you adieu.
Take good care to not be embroiled too deeply with Lydia's schemes for, though you tend to hide it rather well, I am certain your sense far outweighs our youngest sister's. Indeed, to see you without her poor influence would be a gift most welcome. I send my love to you and our family.
Darcy felt a tumbling of confusion and hurt at reading Elizabeth's own words. Indeed, while he had been thinking well of the lady, she had been most diligent in her hatred and derision. And what was that news of Bingley and Georgiana? Not bloody likely! As much as he cared for his friend, his young sister was just that. Too young to be contemplating any kind of attachments, and after the Wickham debacle Darcy was certain this was simply foolishness on the part of Caroline Bingley. Most intriguing, though, was the allusion to Elizabeth's situation... what in Heaven's name was that about?! And what of lessons in menial labours? Baking bread? How dare Mr. Collins order such foolishness? But his thoughts involuntarily returned to her words regarding himself. Perhaps there are redeeming qualities? Perhaps?! Indeed, he'd show her redeeming qualities! He would be nothing but gentlemanly in her company, all that is honour and just. Perhaps? Indeed!
She interrupted his growing outrage with her entrance into the parlour. "I am ready to be squired through the parks, Mr. Darcy," she said with an impish curtsy, her playfulness easing his temper.
Darcy approached her, took her hand and settled it into the crook of his arm. Patting it gently, he said, "Well, then. Shall we, Miss Bennet?"
She nodded her assent, unable to find her voice as a liquid warmth swirled in the pit of her stomach. It began with his touch.
"Make haste! Make haste! You know what store Lady Catherine places on punctuality!" Mr. Collins was in a fine state indeed. Elizabeth quickly snatched her bonnet off the bureau and hurried down the stairs. A simpering approval crossed Mr. Collins' face at the sight. "Yes, you'll make a fine impression, dear cousin. A fine impression, indeed." His eyes followed her with pompous proprietorship.
"Lady Catherine has already met me, sir, and I believe the impression was not at all favourable," she quipped, swiftly passing him and slipping out the door to join her sister.
Mr. Collins trailed after her. "No indeed, Miss Elizabeth. She merely expresses concern at your," he bowed his head deeply, "ofttimes incorrect opinions."
"Incorrect opinions!" she looked to Jane and nearly burst into peals of laughter. "How can one's opinions be incorrect? They are simply how one views the world and issues surrounding him, or her, as the case may be."
As they began the short walk to Rosings, Mr. Collins tried to impress upon her the ideal of subservience to nobility, to the gentry. After a few minutes, Elizabeth could listen no longer. She held up her hand and said, "I am a member of the gentry. I am a gentleman's daughter, therefore your arguments fall on deaf ears! Mr. Collins, you seem to have no opinion other than those given you by Lady Catherine. I am not so easily led, sir, as to require someone else's thoughts planted in my mind for lack of my own, whether she be above me in station or no."
"Lizzy..." Jane whispered urgently.
"No, Jane," she stopped her sister's caution. "Mr. Collins, status is not necessarily an indication of intelligence, nor, most assuredly, of honour!" she said sharply, thinking of poor Mr. Wickham's troubles with this family. "Indeed, it is often those thought meaner and poorer who display more kindness, generosity, and honesty!" When she stopped for a breath she noticed Mr. Collins had suddenly gone quite white. She couldn't understand such a drastic reaction until she realized he wasn't actually looking at her. He was staring, with that expression of horror, at something over her right shoulder. With a sinking feeling, she slowly turned... and saw Mr. Darcy standing not ten feet behind them. Oh Lord...
He seemed... amused?... or was that an expression of justified superiority? Oh Lord, she'd just shown him she was everything he'd ever suspected: an uncouth, uncultured country girl! Her heart slid to her heels, helpless to stop her embarrassment . Why, oh why did he have to come upon them just then? He had an amazing sense of timing where she was concerned, continually catching her at her worst! Not that she cared for his good opinion, but did he have to have his every negative thought justified by happenstance? Just once she'd like to have him come upon her when she wasn't upset or behaving badly or... or... baking bread! And what, exactly, did Mr. Collins think he was doing? Did she actually just hear him apologize for her behaviour? Was that an excuse proffered about lack of education? Did that toad really just utter something about a woman's emotions and sensibilities?! Please God, just open the earth and swallow me whole! Her face flushed with humiliation as she attempted to salvage what little remained of her tattered pride. "Mr. Darcy. We... I... did not see you there..." Clearly! "Uhm... did you by chance hear any part of our discussion," she asked in her sweetest, most innocent tone. Yes, best to find out exactly what he'd heard...
Mr. Darcy could not believe the scene before him. He was desperately hanging on to his decorum by the barest of threads. Elizabeth looked so very guilty standing before him, trying to appear an innocent waif and yet he'd just heard her blast the whole of high society! He was perilously close to losing control. In the most upper class tones he could muster, he said, "I did not hear the substance, simply the flavour, Miss Bennet." Her deepening colour nearly undid him where he stood. "I apologize, but I am expected at the house. Indeed, I should already be in attendance. Please, excuse me." As soon as he had passed the little party a smile broke over his face that could have lit a thousand candles. His laughter was controlled only until he rounded a corner in the path. Oh famous, indeed! Her expression of mortification was pure delight! Darcy could not have wished for a better interlude to take his mind off his infernal aunt!
Elizabeth looked to the sky in supplication. Where is a miracle when you need one? A small hole... that's all I ask... Mr. Collins was trying to impress upon her the gravity of the situation, Jane was clearly sympathetic, and Mr. Darcy's enigmatic expression was permanently etched behind her eyelids. He'd heard everything, she was certain. And now she had to appear at Rosings for tea? To sit with him in the very same room, knowing her outburst proved her own terrible lack of propriety? She couldn't do it. Not just yet. There was no possible way she could face him so soon after such a humiliating display of her temper.
"Mr. Collins, pray excuse my interruption, sir," she began most politely in a effort to redeem her bruised ego, if only slightly. "I fear I have developed a most uncomfortable headache. I believe it would be best if I return to your home without delay." As Mr. Collins immediately protested the breach of good manners, Elizabeth silently begged her sister for her support.
Jane swiftly understood the plea in the other's eyes. "Mr. Collins, do you not see how flushed Lizzy has become? It is quite clear, sir, her health is in need of a few quiet hours of recovery."
"But... Lady Catherine..." he sputtered, not knowing how to stand firm against his cousins united.
"Lizzy, did you want me to accompany you to ensure a supply of fresh cold compresses? I might have a dose of headache powder in one of my satchels that could help," she improvised.
Sometimes Elizabeth wondered about that tiny devious streak Jane displayed so infrequently. When needed, she could certainly rise to the challenge, yet never did she let it rule her. It was a trait Elizabeth had long admired, since her own bit of the devil overtook her far too frequently... not the least of examples was just moments before. She declined Jane's offer of assistance, citing Lady Catherine's wrath if neither of the Bennets were in attendance and returned to the parsonage alone.