The third week came, and the two ladies had settled into an agreeable routine. Georgiana had Elizabeth riding almost every day after breakfast, and Elizabeth was surprised at how much she enjoyed it. Once again, the familiar feeling of flying intrigued her, and although she was hesitant and still a bit awkward, she was able to go faster than she ever had, after learning to trust the gentle beast below her. She was able to see more of the Pemberley grounds than if she were on foot, and she came to believe that she was staying in the most beautiful place she had ever beheld.
After their daily ride, and after a bit of lunch, the ladies would relax and read. In the late afternoon, they would either play the pianoforte or practice their French, “just in case” as Elizabeth liked to joke. They decided for at least one hour each day, they would speak nothing but French, although they ended up pointing and using a lot of gestures in addition.
The servants had Sundays off, and on this particular Sunday, since there was a significant summer storm, there was no church or horseback riding. The ladies moved up “French Hour,” and were in the middle of it, when Elizabeth had a very horrible idea indeed. Georgiana loved every one of Elizabeth’s horrible ideas, and could not wait to hear the newest one. They were to play Hide-and-Go-Seek, but only on the first floor and only in the bedroom wing, since they would be out of sight and earshot from Mrs. Reynolds, who was the only one home, and tucked in her own little parlor on the main floor near the kitchen.
The two stole up to the first floor with covert smiles. Taking into account the enormous size of the house—even just the bedroom wing, and knowing Georgiana definitely had the advantage, Elizabeth amended the rules: if they were five feet or closer to the hidden person, and called out loud in French, the one hiding was required to answer—in French.
It still took Elizabeth over one half hour to find Georgiana. She was behind a thick floor length curtain in one of the many corridors. Georgiana did not have to answer until Elizabeth was close enough to jump out at. They each covered their mouths as they hoped their screams did not carry down the lengthy flight of stairs, through the great hall and into Mrs. Reynolds’ parlor on the opposite side of the house.
It was now Elizabeth’s turn to hide, and she found herself in a substantial bedroom she had never been in before. She could hear Georgiana counting out in French far away, so she did not bother hiding herself quite yet. The room was masculine and looked lived in, as if someone actually took up residence there, though maybe not recently. Elizabeth stepped to looked out the window, but the rain made it difficult to see anything. She then walked around the room, and up to an enormous wardrobe that would be a perfect hiding place. She opened the thick doors and saw that it was filled with men’s clothing.
A moment of panic seized her, thinking this could possibly be Mr. Darcy’s room. But she was almost certain that his room was closer to Georgiana’s, but then again, it was only mentioned the first day she arrived, and she did not have her bearings at all then. She quickly closed the wardrobe doors.
Calming herself, she looked at the objects in the room, wondering if they were used by Mr. Darcy. She picked up a pen, and held it in her hand. It comforted her to know that he might have touched it. She also saw a thick lock of hair tied in a red ribbon lying next to a stack of books. The hair was not dark enough to be Mr. Darcy’s, and she wondered what sort of memento it was. It was possible that his hair was fairer in his youth, and she smiled thinking of him as a lad.
She returned the pen to its stand and walked near the bed. Elizabeth noted that it had been a couple of minutes since she heard Georgiana, when the doorknob turned. Elizabeth immediately ducked under the bed.
She did not have a view at all from where she was, but she could hear footsteps. Heavy footsteps. Elizabeth’s heart went up into her throat.
There was a man in the room!
She could hear him walk over and place something on a small table. She then caught a view of his boots as he walked by the bed. He then turned and sat upon it. Directly above her!
Elizabeth’s mind was at full gallop. Although wet, and a little muddy, those were the boots of a gentleman! She did not even want to let her mind go there, but where else could it go? What if Mr. Darcy came home early? She could not think of anything more mortifying than having him find her under his bed.
She held her breath, and prayed as fervently as if she were in a grand cathedral surrounded by hundreds of flickering candles. Please, dear Lord, let it not be Mr. Darcy!
The next thing Elizabeth knew, a gentleman’s jacket was tossed to a nearby chair. She only had one option at this time. She simply would never come out. Ever. They would discover her decomposing body in a few weeks, when it started to smell.
How could she explain herself? A woman of one-and-twenty playing a child’s game. This was a very horrible idea! As Elizabeth scrambled in her mind of what to do, the gentleman started to take off his boots. Elizabeth had to cover her mouth, for she was near making a noise, but she knew not whether it was an hysterical laugh or a horrified cry.
Just then she heard the door open.
“Mademoiselle Elizabeth? Etes vous ici?”
She then heard Georgiana take in a sudden breath.
Georgiana ran over toward the bed and embraced her cousin. And Elizabeth was greatly relieved, at least in part, and thanked her merciful Savior for answering her desperate prayer.
“You are wet!” Georgiana cried.
“Yes, I am—very. Dear Georgiana, I looked for you, but the house seemed abandoned. I thought you were still at church, even though I could not imagine anyone going out in this storm.”
“No, we have not stirred from the house all morning. What are you doing here? Not that I am not happy to see you, Cousin. Elizabeth will be happy to see you as well. Have you seen her?”
“No. Have you misplaced her?” he joked.
“No, we were--” Georgiana stopped mid-sentence.
Elizabeth added to her prayer right then and there, that Georgiana would keep their little secret.
“I was showing her the bedroom wing, and I lost her…” she explained.
“And she answers to French when she is lost?”
“Oh, it is French Hour. Well, I guess it has been more than an hour. We speak only in French for at least an hour each day.”
The Colonel laughed. “Well, let me change into something dry, and we will combine our terrible French, and find Miss Bennet together.”
“I will have you know that my French is tres bon.”
At that very moment, Elizabeth tugged lightly on Georgiana’s skirt. Georgiana jumped, but recovered quickly.
“Richard, you should not stay in this room, for it is very drafty. You must stay in the blue room, for it is much bigger and the fireplace works better,” she said all in one breath.
“But I always stay in this room, Georgie. I have clothing here. I do not find it drafty at all.”
“Please Richard, I am acting as Mistress of Pemberley now, and I insist that you stay in the blue room. Come, get your things, and I will make sure that you are comfortable and warm,” she managed with a little authority mixed with a hint of mania.
The Colonel eyed his young cousin for a few moments. Georgiana did her best not to let her face betray her, and she did not look down at Elizabeth’s hand that was gesturing to get the Colonel out of the room. The Colonel smiled.
“How can I refuse the great Mistress of Pemberley? Let me gather my things.”
Much to Elizabeth’s relief, the door closed and she found herself alone. After she started breathing again, she extracted herself from under the bed. She brushed her dress off, and marveled that her heart was still working. She carefully opened the door and made certain that they were gone before she slid out, and closed the door silently behind her.
She tiptoed past the blue room, and met Georgiana at the stairway. They tried desperately not to laugh out loud. Elizabeth grabbed Georgiana’s hand and they hurried down the stairs, only letting the laughter loose when they where safely on the main level.
“You were brilliant, Georgiana! The way you got the Colonel to change his mind was pure guile.”
“I should have died for wanting to laugh, Lizzie! When you pulled on my frock, I thought I should have screamed, until I saw your hand motion toward the door. I am certain I shall not sleep a wink tonight thinking about something more sinister under my bed!”
Both ladies got the remainder of their laughter out.
“What a ‘remarquable’ end to our French hour,” Elizabeth mused.
“Oui!” Georgiana answered, wiping a gleeful tear.
Elizabeth helped Georgiana gather refreshments for the Colonel in the kitchen, when the Colonel himself walked in.
“Miss Bennet! I see that you were found. Did you leave breadcrumbs?”
The Colonel bowed, and Elizabeth smiled and curtsied.
“I was not lost, Colonel, only separated. You would think staying here for more than two weeks, I would have seen every nook and corner by now.”
The Colonel looked at her in a particular manner, and it reminded Elizabeth very much of the way Bingley looked at her when he came calling at Longbourn. Like he held a secret. But this time, it was a sad secret, and Elizabeth knew it very well.
“What brings you here in this storm, Colonel?” Elizabeth questioned, trying to stop the unspoken exchange.
“Darcy sent me to check on the two of you.”
He tried to measure Elizabeth’s eyes when he mentioned the name, but Elizabeth, who was becoming quite accomplished at more than the pianoforte, betrayed nothing.
“We were together in town, and he asked me to stop by on my way back to Matlock. So, here I am, rudely interrupting your cozy coupling.”
“Oh, it is not an interruption, Richard! We are happy to have company,” interjected Georgiana.
“I am just sorry that I missed ‘French Hour,’” he teased. “What did I come in time for?”
“Sustenance… Sit, Colonel. Your fair cousin is getting together a dish for you,” added Elizabeth. “What condition did you find the roads in?”
The Colonel went to sit, and Elizabeth joined him, letting Georgiana put together a small meal.
“They were not bad. It has been a dry summer. I am sure this wet offering will be well received.”
Georgiana came to the table with a plate of bread, hard cheese, and sliced apricots.
“Thank you, Georgie. You are filling the responsibilities of Mistress of Pemberley quite handsomely,” he said with a wink.
Georgiana blushed and looked down. “It is nothing. Mrs. Reynolds does everything, but she has left the menus to me, and Elizabeth helped me plan seven courses the other night.” Georgiana clapped her hands. “Now that you are with us, we may plan another seven course meal!”
Elizabeth looked over at the Colonel, and not being able to ask what she truly wanted, she settled on, “How long are you staying, Colonel?”
“I have not made definite plans, although Darcy returns here on Saturday.”
“Oh Richard, please stay with us for as long as you would like. We could use a third to play card games,” Georgiana begged. “Maybe you will be able to entreat Elizabeth to stay a few days more with us, as she leaves on Friday. I will be so desolate without her.”
Colonel Fitzwilliam looked between his eager cousin and a more reserved, but smiling, Elizabeth.
“I certainly will stay the night, and will make a final decision when we see what the weather holds tomorrow.” He turned his gaze to Elizabeth. “And as for entreating Miss Bennet to prolong her stay, I am under the impression that although a lady might have her mind made up, she certainly can review her reasonings, to make sure they are sound.”
Elizabeth turned from his gaze and stared at the grain of the wood table. “I am at the mercy of my Aunt and Uncle, Colonel Fitzwilliam. For they are picking me up on their way home.”
The Colonel only smiled as he took a hearty bite of bread and cheese.
The unexpected addition to their intimate party was very welcome. Colonel Fitzwilliam diverted both ladies in conversation and games. Something had shifted between he and Elizabeth. His conversation was still flirtatious, but it did not contain the underlying gravity that she had felt during the early days of their acquaintance, while they danced at the balls in London. She was relieved to feel it, and knew that she had a great friend in the Colonel, but still, certain expressions that crossed his face, or a phrase he uttered would recall another gentleman, more dear, but not dear enough…and would cause her to ache even more.
It had been almost three months since she had seen his face that was not a reflection on glass or in her mind. It was three months since his warmth washed over her, since she had sent him away, since he had left her a letter, still unread, but cherished all the same.
Elizabeth slipped her hand into her pocket, and lightly touched the familiar letter. She could feel the unbroken seal beneath her fingertip, and it gave her a fleeting moment of comfort.
Georgiana and Elizabeth played a very happy duet for the Colonel, and he clapped heartily when it ended, and the ladies curtsied several times to match the generous applause.
“So, how can we top that?” asked the Colonel. “I think the only thing that can come close would be a serious round of Hide-and-Go-Seek… or is that only played during French Hour?”
He let loose a huge sly grin, and the ladies exchanged surprised glances at each other and then at him.
“Richard! How horrible you are! How did you know?” Georgiana gasped.
“My dear Georgiana, it is always a soldier’s job to know what everyone around him is up to… Besides, a true gentleman always knows when a lady is hidden underneath his bed.”
Georgiana threw her hand over her mouth in shock, and Elizabeth tried not to turn the same shade as the couch beneath her. At that moment, she wished she had possessed the presence of mind to add “or Colonel Fitzwilliam” to her devout prayer from under the bed.
“Why did you not pull me out yourself, Colonel?” Elizabeth asked once she was somewhat recovered, with her own repressed smile. “It was much easier getting under than getting out.”
“Believe me, Miss Bennet, I was tempted to peek down and meet your eyes, but I felt it best to let you both believe I was not aware of your little game… It has been my very own secret all day.”
“I am glad you have come, Cousin, even if you are quite impossible.” Georgiana stood up and kissed him on the cheek. “I must go and give Cook the breakfast menu.” And Georgiana left.
Both the Colonel and Elizabeth were very aware that the conversation could take a different turn, now that Georgiana was absent. Elizabeth looked around for some needlework, even though she despised it.
Elizabeth cringed inside, and then looked up.
“I have not seen you since April. I hope that all is well with you… and your family.”
Elizabeth smiled at his gracious comment, although she knew that he was asking much more.
“I am well, Colonel. My family is well, although Longbourn is not the same place since my sister, Jane, got married.”
“And do you find yourself at Netherfield more frequently?”
Elizabeth smiled. “Definitely. I know those three miles like I do my own name, although Jane usually sends a carriage for me now.”
Colonel Fitzwilliam had a smile on his face that turned to seriousness. “Miss Bennet, do you consider me a friend?”
“Of course, Colonel. I consider you a very faithful friend,” she calmly answered, but braced herself.
“Why do you have to leave before Darcy arrives back? And know that I have already heard your excuse about the Gardiners.”
Elizabeth did not know what to say. Her aunt had tried to gently broach the subject with her unsuccessfully several times, but Elizabeth was certain that she would have a more difficult time with the Colonel’s straightforward military tactic.
“So it is your job to know what those around you are up to?” she teased to ease the tension, and possibly change the subject.
“Especially when it affects those I most care about, Miss Bennet… He puts up a brave front, but he is absolutely miserable.”
She did not want to hear that. It pierced her very soul. She fought back tears, and met the Colonel’s eyes.
“Why will you not see him?”
She could not find the words, and only looked at him helplessly.
“Is it Lady Catherine? She is inconsequential, Miss Bennet! She never need set foot again in Pemberley, believe me, Darcy has told her as much. He has not spoken to her since he confronted her for her unforgivable behavior. Please tell me that you did not heed what that unconscionable woman uttered!”
Elizabeth could not look at him further. She smoothed her dress, trying to form words from her fragmented thoughts.
“Colonel Fitzwilliam, I do not mean him any harm. It pains me greatly to know that he is suffering, but you have to understand...” Elizabeth’s voice trailed off to nothing.
“Miss Elizabeth!” There was surprise, but warmth in his voice. “Where is the lady that I had the pleasure of dancing with last winter? Where is the lovely, witty woman who had decided opinions, and effused confidence decades past her tender age?”
“Colonel, please… I do not think I can take this conversation any further”
“Forgive me, Miss Bennet, but I will not bow to feminine delicacies. I know you better than that. We are both soldiers, and have to make our own way in this unfortunate world. I will not accept that you have succumbed to the words of a conceited, cold hearted woman--who wants nothing more than to have the Darcy fortune secured by her own daughter! She is no different than any fortune-hunting mother. She is just better dressed, and in need of more fabric than most.”
Elizabeth managed a small smile, and looked down.
“Please, tell me what is unequal. Do we not have embarrassing relations? Do we not have our own scandals to deal with and hush up? Do we not have our own shortcomings and faults? We are all the same. It is just ours happen in grander and draftier surroundings.”
Elizabeth looked up to meet his sincere gaze. “Colonel, what if I was to say that it was not so much me believing myself as unequal to Mr. Darcy? What if I was to say that I was unequal to being placed among those who will not spare me as your aunt did not? I cannot pretend that it would be all to save him from that pain. What if I chose to be spared all that for my sake as well?”
The Colonel looked at her with concerned understanding. He waited for a few seconds before he spoke.
“You make a good argument, Miss Bennet, but if I were in his place, I would swear to you that no one would ever treat you ill again. No one would be allowed near you or near Pemberley who had one black thought against you,” he declared with a knowing smile.
Elizabeth smiled back at him. “That would be very kind, but not only impractical, but impossible, as you well know. He could never be able to protect me from all of that. Mr. Darcy is many wonderful things, but he is not a mind reader, Colonel.”
They both smiled.
“You seem to be a reluctant soldier, as am I, Miss Bennet. You may choose your battles carefully, but I find that the biggest and costliest ones have the most satisfying end. A great reward worth the price paid. Worth the pain.”
Elizabeth’s smile slipped into seriousness. “I do not want to cause him any sort of pain, Colonel.”
“Yet you do cause him pain, every minute you make him stay away from you.”
A tear rolled down her face, which she wiped away, before she was able to speak again.
“It can be very exhausting being a soldier, can it not, Colonel?”
“Indeed, Miss Bennet. Indeed.”
They both smiled once again, as Elizabeth concentrated on having no more tears in front of him.
Georgiana returned, and the ladies took their leave and retired for the evening, although Elizabeth knew that sleep would not find her, after the refreshingly honest exchange. She respected the Colonel all the more for it. She truly did consider him a faithful friend and fellow soldier.
She was right, sleep would not come easily and if the rain had not continued to pour down outside, Elizabeth would have been tempted to take a turn around the garden. After writing a long letter to Mary–hoping that she would appreciate the description of Georgiana’s new pianoforte and their daily French Hour—minus the unfortunate game of Hide-and-Go-Seek, she finally settled into bed and hoped that the steady drops would lull her into sleep, and stop her mind from where it wanted to go. She pictured herself at Georgiana’s beautiful instrument, a precious and most thoughtful gift, and played to the rhythm of the rain.
As she imagined her fingers moving along the keys, she could think of nothing but Mr. Darcy’s pain. She did not want to be the cause of his suffering. His suffering meant more to her than her own. How she wished she could erase it all. How she wished that she could have back the past three months.
Lady Catherine, enormous and obstinate, dressed in a deep red gown, leaned away from her, holding her cheek. Elizabeth turned on her heel, rubbing her stinging hand. She walked away only to see two horses advancing over the crest. Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam approached. She was not sure what expression was on her face—she thought it was one of happiness upon seeing him, but Mr. Darcy was off of his horse in an instant and by her side, consoling her, comforting her. He looked beyond her at the lady who stood defiantly, with her twisted red face, and then back at his dear Elizabeth.
Without breaking his concerned gaze, he ordered his cousin to take care of Elizabeth, while he would go to confront the imposing red figure behind her. He gave her one more reassuring look before he turned to go, but Elizabeth called to him and took hold of his arm. He turned once again to meet her gaze with his deep beautiful eyes. She gasped when she saw a significant trickle of blood come down from his hairline. She took out her kerchief and reached up to gently brush it away. The contemptible woman down the path screamed for her to stay away, but that only caused Elizabeth to tend to his wound with more care. This time, the crimson wiped away, and his forehead was clean once again, and he looked at her with gratefulness and awe.
Elizabeth stood in front of him, her breath quickening, and without a thought, she leaned in and pressed her lips on his. And as she did, the shrieking lady, the horses and the Colonel melted away and soaked into the ground, leaving the cool colors of the sky and the leaves behind, as they swirled around and mixed together. Only she and the gentleman who seemed to have no end to his devotion to her existed. He breathed her in, and pulled her close… and Elizabeth woke.
Out of breath, she sat straight up. Her room was dark. She managed to get her bearings, and tried to get over her astonishment at such a dream, and suppress the sharp disappointment that followed waking up from it. Waiting until her breathing calmed, and her heart slowed, Elizabeth then wrapped herself tight in her blanket. She lay down once again, her cheeks still burning, and wondered if she would dream of him again… and not wake.