After breakfast, Elizabeth set out for a long walk. Charlotte and Maria were going into the village with Mr. Collins, and Elizabeth longed once again for the outdoors.
There was no chance for foul weather, so Elizabeth did not worry about a coat, which would have held her back. There was something about feeling the wind on her bare arms and cheeks, which made her think that she had a slight hint of what it was like to fly.
With the morning sun behind her, she hastened up a steep hill covered in new tender grass. The sod softly gave way under her feet, as she ascended to its peak. Elizabeth escaped from everything once again, trying not to think about a man who has not left her thoughts completely for months now. First out of sheer frustration, and now out of sheer fascination. How could he be like night and day? How could he look so grave one moment, and then so tender and admiring the next? She had thought he was the coldest and hardest person of her acquaintance, but now she considered him almost warm and tender, and she could not settle it completely in her mind.
She reached the peak, and found her way to a fallen log that overlooked a vast valley dotted with sheep. She settled herself on the natural bench and took in her surroundings and regained her breath. The sky stretched out before her, happily meeting the picturesque dale below. The few clouds that were in the sky were making small dark shadows against the various shades of green in the valley. She could smell the cool earth and sod, and hear the carefree bleating of the sheep below. She imagined that they were commenting on how fine a day it was, and answered them in turn.
“Yes, it is a very fine day. That is until someone asks for mutton,” she remarked out loud.
“I think it a bit early for mutton, myself…”
Elizabeth started, and almost fell off her perch. She recovered, stood up and swung around to see Mr. Darcy only ten feet away. He was smiling until he realized how startled she was, but still, he only subdued the smile.
“Forgive me, Miss Bennet. I did not mean to startle you.” He let his smile loose again, in hopes that he was forgiven.
Elizabeth stared at him, not knowing how she felt about seeing him. She had tried so very hard not to turn her mind to him this morning, and even though she was completely unsuccessful, she realized now, that she did not do him justice. He was tall, athletic, and handsome to be sure, but his deep brown eyes were softer than she remembered, and had specks of amber in them. His face was angular, but kind, and his thick head of hair was boyish with curls, when it grew in length.
With the sunlight behind him, his dark hair had hints of red in it, and added to his warmth. She had questioned it before, but the answer was, “Yes.” Mr. Darcy was warm. Elizabeth took in a deep breath.
“I am just returning to Rosings. I went to see the sunrise, and found a prime spot that takes in the entire east,” he explained almost nervously.
She still stared at him, not being able to say anything.
“It is still early, how long have you been out?” He questioned.
Elizabeth found her tongue. “I have not been out but half an hour, sir.”
“Miss Bennet, do you mind if I join you?” he asked with the same smile he had at dinner.
Her head started to swim with conflict. There was a time when she wanted to be alone with him. A time where she was ready to ambush him, and pull him from his horse. When she could ask him question after question without an audience, but that was before Wickham. That was before she was ruined in this gentleman’s eyes.
“Sir, I do not think it prudent…”
Darcy’s face changed to pure concern. “Miss Bennet, please know that I would never do anything to compromise you. Never in a million years.”
“No, that has already been done, Mr. Darcy, as you well know. I cannot afford to even give off the appearance of impropriety.”
“That is exactly what I wish to speak with you about, Miss Bennet. Please give me just a few minutes to relay something to you, that will not only explain my behavior to my sister, but will also explain why I feel responsible for what happened to you.”
Elizabeth looked up at him surprised. What could he possibly mean? How can those two incidents be connected? How could he possibly feel responsible for what Wickham did to her? She was desirous to know, but she was even more concerned about being found alone with him.
“Please, Mr. Darcy, can this happen another time, in a more appropriate venue?” she pleaded.
Darcy kept his distance. “There in no appropriate venue, Miss Bennet. It is impossible to talk to you frankly, without several pairs of eyes and ears viewing and hearing everything.”
He looked kindly at her. “Are you afraid of me, Miss Bennet?”
She took in another deep breath.
“I am not afraid of you, Mr. Darcy. I am only afraid of what will happen if a field hand, or a woodsman happens upon us. Your aunt will be seriously displeased, and I do not think she would even spare your ear this time.” She managed a small smile, as did Mr. Darcy.
They stood in silence for a few seconds. Darcy understood her completely, although when he thought about the consequences of being discovered alone with her, he saw nothing unpleasant about them.
The sight of Elizabeth, standing with the sun shining down on her, was just as powerful as her baptism in the downpour. Her eyes were turquoise, a perfect mixture of earth and sky, a marriage of the valley and firmament behind her. Her face flushed from her walk, her chestnut hair shining almost golden from the rays, loosely piled on top of her head, made him feel for the very first time, that he understood fully what poetry was—what inspired men to write with such passion, fervor, tenderness and intensity. He could now see and understand wholly what incited men to war, what caused them to become the hero, and what drove them to disaster, and utter madness. He saw it, he smelled it, tasted it, felt it. Elizabeth was all of it, embodied in flesh in front of him.
Elizabeth looked back up at him, and reached in her pocket and pulled out a letter.
“This is a letter from my sister, Jane. I can say that it fell out of my pocket during my walk. If you would be so kind to return it to me with one of your own tucked inside, explaining what ever you would like, I would be most grateful to read it, Mr. Darcy.” She held the letter out toward him.
“You, undeniably, are the sun today, Miss Bennet.” Darcy said with a small smile. He stepped forward and collected the letter, and stepped back again.
Elizabeth smiled at the reference to the Latin verse she uttered months ago, and Darcy could feel that he wanted to voice more than he should, but he did not want to distress the lady any further. It probably was best if they part. Soon.
“I really must be going,” she said, as she prepared to leave.
“No, Miss Bennet. Let me be the one to leave. As I stated, I have been out all morning and was just returning. Enjoy your walk, Madam, and thank you.” He bowed and left.
During afternoon tea, a bell rang at the rectory door.
“I wonder who could be calling upon us, Mr. Collins.” Charlotte smiled, as she positioned herself to receive guests. Mr. Collins looked up from his book, also wondering who might appear.
Elizabeth had told no one of her encounter, and tried not to look panicked when the door to the parlor opened. She was able to catch her breath, when a servant came in and curtsied.
“The gentleman, Mr. Darcy, delivered this.” She held up a letter. He said that he came across it on a path, and could see that it belonged to Miss Bennet. He did not stay, but wished a good afternoon to all.”
She crossed the room and handed Elizabeth the heavy letter.
“Thank you, Ellie,” Elizabeth said, as she took the letter turning it over in her hands. “Now I will not have to retrace my steps as I was planning," she stated, with feigned relief. She tucked the letter into her pocket, hoping that no one would remark on the thickness of it.
“It is unfortunate that Mr. Darcy could not stay,” Charlotte mentioned, as she shot Elizabeth a look that no one else but Elizabeth noticed.
“My dear Charlotte, that gentleman is a very busy man, with much to occupy his time and mind. Cousin Elizabeth is very fortunate that he took the time at all to bother with such an insignificant thing as a lost letter. He could have easily sent a servant to deliver it. However, he would always be a very welcome guest here, as I would see to it myself that he was adequately entertained. I flatter myself, that I have plenty of knowledge and mental resources to keep pace with a great man, such as that.” And then the parson started listing all the things that he could introduce into a conversation, with such a prominent guest and landowner. Elizabeth had lost interest even before he reached the sparkling subject of “manure.”
Elizabeth knew that if she excused herself at that moment, she would raise the suspicions of Charlotte, who was already on high alert. She finished tea, helped Maria with a word puzzle, and then made her way up to her room.
Her hands trembled as she opened the letter. A smaller, but thicker note dropped out. It simply said “Miss Elizabeth Bennet” on the outside. She put aside Jane’s letter and picked up the new one. She took a breath, broke the seal, and opened it.
Dear Miss Bennet,
Please forgive me once again for my inconsiderate behavior this morning. Believe me when I say that my last wish would be to distress you.
The purpose of this letter, is to bring to light the motivations behind a certain painful event, which in turn will tie tightly to another.
I must start first, with my shocking behavior towards my most beloved sister. When you understand what mortification I was under, maybe you will find it in your heart to forgive me, as Georgiana has already done.
The room was almost spinning, as Elizabeth read about his long and most painful history with Wickham. She took in a shocked breath when she realized that Wickham had planned to elope with Georgiana just last summer. Poor dear Georgiana! She could not but help but also think of Miss King, and her recent escape.
You see, Miss Bennet, my father’s will was drawn up to make sure that a fortune hunter could not prey on her. Georgiana was but fifteen, and was completely heartbroken when Wickham easily left her side, once he found out that she would not inherit, if she eloped. I did not see him again, until that day in Meryton with you as a witness.
Miss Bennet, I had been in Meryton the very morning you went on your walk with Georgiana, and overheard Wickham talking about going out into the countryside on foot with mischief in mind. You may be able to see now, how distressed I was when I found out that both of you were out there, and could very likely run into him. Georgiana was unaware that Wickham resided nearby. I had spared her from that pain.
Please forgive my rash behavior, Miss Bennet. I was just as concerned about you being out there alone, but I could see that there was no talking you into my carriage—not after my unforgivable behavior. It crushed me to know that I offended you, and it has eaten at me ever since, to not be able to explain myself without exposing Georgiana.
Now, as you can see the connection between that, and another event--I have another deeper apology, and it goes to my very core. If I had not thought it beneath myself to expose Wickham for the unscrupulous person that he was, you would not have found yourself in his confidence, and have befriended him. He would not have taken any liberties with you, Miss Bennet, and I have to confess again, that it is all my fault, and I feel it fully.
Your tears, your distress, and your misery have weighed heavily on me since that day, and I ask you to please forgive me. Please forgive my pride and my reserve. Forgive my great error in judgment that exposed you to such a man, and caused you so much pain. You cannot imagine how many sleepless nights I have had, wrestling with my conscience on this matter.
I thank God that I have been given the chance to explain myself, and to throw myself on your mercy, Miss Bennet. I came to Rosings for the very purpose of seeing and being near you. And if your mercy and forgiveness are bestowed, please know that I have every intention to rectify the entire situation. I will make it my mission to see you happy and taken care of, for the rest of your life.
If your pain is too great, and the thought of me, and what you have suffered because of me, is too much for you to bear, then I fully understand and will bother you no further. I wish God’s great blessings on you and your family, Madam.
I remain, your most humble servant and ardent admirer,
P.S. One look from you at the coming dinner at Rosings, will tell me of your forgiveness or not.
Elizabeth could not breathe. There was not enough air in the room. There was not enough air in the entire country for her to take in. She got up and opened her window. She tried to concentrate of filling her lungs and nothing more. She took in three long, deep breaths, and wondered if her legs were still below her, since she could feel them no more. She looked down, and she smiled at the constant of her feet still being attached. For everything else in her life was in tremendous flux.
She looked out the window again. From her room she could see a section of Rosings, and she could not help but wonder if Mr. Darcy were behind the very stones she was staring at. After several minutes of staring, of wondering, Elizabeth thought it would be best to tear herself from the window, and read the letter again, and again.
Each time she read it, she was struck by how unobservant she was. She considered herself a student of human character, and thought herself astute to understanding those around her, yet how very blind she had been! Mr. Darcy was protecting his sister, not controlling her. Mr. Wickham was afraid of Mr. Darcy for good reason--thus the white face in Meryton when he ran into Mr. Darcy, and his absence from the Netherfield ball. The light drove the darkness away. Why could she not see that?
More painful than accepting the attentions of Mr. Wickham, was the realization that Mr. Darcy was not the stoic, unfeeling monster she had once thought. If anything, he was brimming with emotion. His frequent stares were not filled with criticism. His lack of conversation was not because he was disinterested. Mr. Darcy said nothing around her, not because he disapproved, but because his mind was too full of things he could not find words for. And if he had, he would not be able to express them in the presence of others.
But he was saying things now. Elizabeth read the line over and over again. “I will make it my mission to see you happy and taken care of for the rest of your life.” Was it not clear?
She started to read the letter yet again, but a knock on her door caused her to look up.
The door opened and Charlotte entered, with a note in her hand. She read without looking up.
“What do you think, Lizzy? We have been invited again to dinner at Rosings tomorrow. I guess we know whom to thank for that,” she said smiling, and then looked at her friend.
Elizabeth was sitting on her bed--still holding the letter--and had such a look on her face! Charlotte could not understand it for the life of her, but it smacked of shock and disbelief.
“What ever is it, Lizzy? Is Jane all right? What is the matter?”
Charlotte closed the door and came to Elizabeth’s side.
“Lizzy is Jane all right? Is it Mr. Bingley? Is he ill?” Elizabeth said nothing. Charlotte took her friend’s shoulders and shook her gently.
“The letter is not from Jane,” Elizabeth admitted quietly. Charlotte’s eyes grew large as she looked down at the letter, written in a fine gentleman’s hand. Charlotte gasped, and looked back at Elizabeth.
Elizabeth met her gaze and nodded. Charlotte let go of Elizabeth, and covered her own mouth. This was the most amazing turn! She could hardly contain herself. She sat next to Lizzy on her bed.
“My heart is about to give out, Lizzy! Please tell me what it says!” Charlotte begged.
It was time. It was time to tell Charlotte what happened, and Elizabeth took a deep breath.
Charlotte did her best to keep her countenance, as Elizabeth related to her the entire account. Words were finally put to the event that she prayed fervently to forget, but as the encounter poured forth—Wickham’s words, the darkness that took over him, his actions, her flight, and her rescue. Elizabeth felt relieved. It was almost like handing her burden to someone else to carry for a while. She felt lighter now. She related her shivering state, and the ride back to Longbourn gathered safely in Mr. Darcy’s arms. She finished her story, then handed an astounded Charlotte the letter.
“I have been so stupid, Charlotte. Stupid, blind and reckless. I am heartily ashamed of myself.”
Charlotte slowly took the letter, and read it in its entirety to herself. Elizabeth stayed calm, and practiced breathing while Charlotte finished.
When she did finish, Charlotte sat still as a stone next to Elizabeth, with the letter in her lap. Elizabeth waited, but her friend said nothing. She simply stared at the wall. Finally, Charlotte looked at her friend. Elizabeth was surprised to see tears in her soft brown eyes.
“He loves you, Lizzy. Oh, how he loves you,” she said softly.
“Are you certain he just does not mean to give me some money to make amends, and to raise our family’s fortune?”
Charlotte stood up almost angrily. “How dare you belittle what this man has said, and what he has gone through, Lizzy! He has taken everything you have suffered upon himself!”
She knelt in front of Elizabeth. “He means to take care of you personally, for the rest of your life, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and for the rest of his.”
“Is it that clear?” Elizabeth still was not sure.
“Yes, my dear. It is that clear.” She reached up and wrapped her dearest Lizzy in an embrace. She whispered in her ear. “I never thought I would live to see the day when Elizabeth Bennet was the stupidest person around.”
She gave her a swift kiss on the cheek, and knelt down before her again.
“Now, all he has to do is ask officially.”
The next day, Charlotte and Elizabeth made preparations. The former promised to distract Lady Catherine as much as possible short of fainting, and even thought up topics she could induce Mr. Collins to take up with her ladyship.
But even fainting was a possibility for Charlotte, who could not be happier for her friend. She was surprising herself on how romantic she had become, but it was not due to her own marriage… or maybe it was. Charlotte was not certain, but there was a great possibility that she was with child. The idea frightened and elated her at the same time. She was not ill at the sight of food, but she was easily tired. The rush of emotions that she felt constantly for the past few weeks flustered her, and Elizabeth was receiving the full force of them.
Even though they knew Mr. Darcy would not be making any proposals at dinner, Charlotte felt it was important that they were left to talk alone as much as possible, and she would do everything in her power to facilitate it. Elizabeth felt excited and sickened if she thought about it too much.
Elizabeth was to borrow Charlotte’s ivory gown that had pink rose buds sewn onto the ribbons that went around the waist, and circled and then hung from the sleeves. It was simple silk, but it was elegant, and cast a lovely sheen in the candlelight. It also flattered Elizabeth’s slender figure, and contrasted well with her dark hair and black lashes.
Even though she was not in on the secret, Maria was to help Elizabeth with her hair. Charlotte also thought it fortunate that Lady Catherine’s carriage would be sent for them, since it threatened rain all day.
Nothing was left to do, except to attend the dinner. The carriage came, and the four from the parsonage were taken down the lane and to the great house. Charlotte gave Elizabeth’s hand a squeeze before they stepped out.
Darcy did not know what to do with himself. First, he stood near the doorway, but then decided he was too close, and found another place to stand, but then thought that was too close to Lady Catherine. Fitzwilliam shook his head at his cousin, telling him that he was drawing attention to himself, but it was too late.
“Darcy, what is wrong with you?” Lady Catherine demanded. “You will not stay still.”
Darcy glanced at Fitzwilliam before he answered. “I apologize, Lady Catherine, I felt a draft over by the door, and thought this would be more comfortable.”
“Yes, the halls are drafty. You know that, nephew. I have always been jealous of Pemberly, only because you do not have such issues,” she admitted. “Anne would be better off at Pemberly, and I am sure that her health would improve greatly there.”
“You both are welcome to stay at Pemberly any time, Aunt. I am planning on being there this summer with Georgiana.”
“Ah, little Georgiana. Does she still play well? Has she improved?”
“Yes, she continues to study, and plays very well. I am planning on buying her a new pianoforte as a gift, when we are together again.”
“It has been a long time since I have seen your sister, Darcy. How old is she, now? Sixteen? When will she be presented at court? I am very attentive to things like that, you know.”
Darcy was poised to answer when the doors swung open. Mr. Collins and Charlotte stood next to each other, and Elizabeth and Maria were behind them. The footman came forward and bowed.
“Mr. and Mrs. Collins, Miss Bennet and Miss Lucas,” he announced. He then bowed once more and let the guests enter. Charlotte and Mr. Collins entered first, followed by Elizabeth and Maria.
Elizabeth’s face grew hot as she entered. She knew not where to look. Charlotte instructed her to greet Lady Catherine first, and then find Mr. Darcy while Lady Catherine was still busy with her guests. Elizabeth followed the Collinses in, not looking to the left or right. She could make out figures from the corner of her eyes, but she kept focused on Lady Catherine, and Anne.
She made a curtsey, and Charlotte immediately asked boldly if Lady Catherine would have an opinion on whether a side of pork or hind quarter would be better suited for her to order from the butcher. Lady Catherine was decidedly distracted.
Elizabeth breathed in and turned to find a seat, and more. She turned in the direction of Colonel Fitzwilliam first, and caught a very measured and gracious smile on his face, and he bowed deeply.
“Miss Bennet,” he simply said.
She curtsied to him and continued in her search. A few feet away from Colonel Fitzwilliam stood Mr. Darcy. She immediately caught her breath. His face was admiring, yet concerned. She wanted to put him at ease as soon as she could, but her heart was pounding so loudly in her chest, that she was sure everyone in the room would turn, to ascertain what it was. She was not one to swoon, but she felt very equal to it at that moment. She stared at him, not able to move, or to smile. She tried to keep from falling over.
Darcy’s eyes took in hers. Her eyes were ocean blue, with a circle of green around them, but they were frightened, he determined. Elizabeth was pale, and the smile that he waited for did not appear. The soft look that he had anticipated did not come. Darcy understood in an instant. She could not forgive him. She meant to reject him. He bowed quickly to cover his immeasurable disappointment.
Elizabeth quickly found a seat before she came tumbling down. She knew she needed to rectify the situation, but thought it was better for her to be safe from fainting first. She was seated and looked back over at Darcy who was looking to the other side of the room. Colonel Fitzwilliam, however, was looking right at her with questioning eyes. She looked back at him helplessly.
“You look pale, Miss Bennet. Would you like some refreshment?”
“Yes, indeed. I do think the change from the cool evening, to this warm room has had an effect on me,” she answered with a weak voice, but gratefully.
“Darcy, will you please get Miss Bennet a glass of wine? I will see if the other ladies are in a similar state.” Fitzwilliam quickly moved toward Maria and Charlotte.
Without looking at Elizabeth, Darcy moved toward the wine table. A servant was quick to hand him two glasses, which he took and made his way toward Elizabeth. He was in the depths, and was too numb to even be angry at his cousin, for making him wait on the lady who just rejected him. He brought Elizabeth the wine.
“Thank you, Mr. Darcy,” she said, as he turned to walk away. He turned back, and bowed slightly without looking directly at her.
“I also wanted to thank you for finding and delivering my letter today.”
He started at her words, and cautiously looked at her face, which was now turning pink and covered in a warm smile.
“I had despaired that I would ever see it again, for I like to read my letters over and over again. They give me such comfort, especially when I am so far from home,” she continued almost breathlessly.
He let her words sink in, and felt his own smile break across his face. This was all too good. He thought his chest was going to burst with all of the feelings that swelled within it.
“Did you find this particular letter comforting, Miss Bennet?” he managed to ask.
Elizabeth looked up at him with all graciousness and affection.
“Yes, sir. Even though there was a time of foul weather for them, I found this particular letter to be filled with reports of happiness and great felicity. It is a great comfort to me to know that… Jane is so happy.”
Darcy had to look away for a moment, because he was so overwhelmed with gratitude. Colonel Fitzwilliam had seen the exchange, and like Charlotte, was afraid that his aunt would see the sparks that were flying as if from a bonfire on that side of the room, so he came to join them.
“Miss Bennet, I understand you are quite a walker,” Fitzwilliam teased as he came to stand next to Darcy. Both Darcy and Elizabeth smiled, as they knew they would have to put up with the good Colonel’s antics all evening long.
“Yes, Colonel. I do enjoy a good walk. Am I to understand that you heard of my wayward letter from my sister?” she looked up at him archly, and almost recovered.
“I did hear of it. I hope that everything is set straight now, Miss Bennet.” He looked between both of them as he sipped his own wine.
“I am happy to have received it,” she said perfectly at ease.
“Capital. Excellent… Glad to hear it,” he effused as he smiled, and shot Darcy looks. Darcy, finally feeling equal to speak unaffected, joined in the conversation.
“Have you ever been to Bath yourself, Miss Bennet?”
“No, sir, I have not, though Jane has promised to have me join them next time they go. I should very much like to see the Roman baths.”
“Do we dare tell Miss Bennet of our adventures in the Roman baths, Cousin?” Fitzwilliam looked at Darcy, who smiled back, relieved to have his assistance, since his mind was still decidedly distracted.
The Colonel continued. “You may find it difficult to believe, with the two of us standing before you, appearing very respectable and quite proper, that as lads, we were continually getting into scrapes together.”
Elizabeth’s eyes danced. “I do not find that difficult at all to believe. Tell me, did this “adventure” involve swimming betwixt some stranger’s legs, or was it something even more sinister?”
“Darcy!” Lady Catherine bellowed. “You will escort Anne to dinner.”
All three smiled as if they were caught playing Hide-and-Go-Seek. Darcy looked over at Elizabeth and quietly said, “I hope that we will be able to speak again later, Miss Bennet.”
He bowed, never breaking his gaze. He then turned, to satisfy his aunt. Colonel Fitzwilliam was left standing next to Elizabeth suppressing his own great smile.
“Fitzwilliam! I am waiting for you!” Lady Catherine called.
The Colonel smiled and bowed to Elizabeth. “I better go, before she grabs my ear.”
Elizabeth sat in between Colonel Fitzwilliam and Charlotte, and directly across my Mr. Collins. Mr. Darcy was still close by, but not in direct line of conversation, as Lady Catherine did bend his ear quite a bit, and tried to get him to talk with Anne, who sat next to him. She heard Anne speak on the subject of bees, and thought she heard her say that a hive reminded her very much of town, to which Darcy smiled politely, and said that he liked the metaphor. He then took a drink from his glass and looked over at her, catching her eye.
For the first time, Elizabeth did not feel the need to look away from him. Her heart picked up in beats, but she maintained the gaze, and a tremendous warmth spread all over her. “He was warm,” she told herself again. They continued the gaze for several seconds, until Charlotte interrupted.
“Be careful, Lizzy. Lady Catherine has eyes like a hawk,” she warned in a whisper between bites, and without looking directly at her.
Elizabeth nodded in understanding, feeling the loss of his eyes the moment she looked away.
“Do you think you will be able to swell a song this evening, my friend?” Charlotte bated, her voice louder.
“I have resigned myself to it, knowing that I will be ordered to, no matter how I feel about it,” answered Elizabeth.
“Colonel Fitzwilliam?” Charlotte addressed around Elizabeth. “Should you turn pages for my dear friend after dinner? For she has been easily persuaded to sing and play for us this evening.”
“It would be my pleasure, Mrs. Collins. Let us entreat Darcy to pick out the music, for he has excellent taste,” he stated slyly.
“Yes, my nephew has inherited his excellent taste in music from his mother’s side of the family, as has Georgiana and Anne. His mother and I had great appreciation for music, although she chose to play, to gratify herself. Even though I saw no need to learn an instrument, I always found that I had a great gift of treasuring music, and am quite certain I would have been the superior player,” Lady Catherine surmised.
To this Mr. Collins had many observations on her ladyship’s matchless taste and musical comprehension, which effectively distracted the great lady, and gave Elizabeth the chance to turn to Charlotte.
“What a friend you are! I said nothing about singing,” Elizabeth complained.
“Miss Bennet, do not censure Mrs. Collins, for I was preparing to ask for a song this evening, as I know you are quite capable of it. I assure you that none of us will regret the opportunity of hearing you both in keys and voice,” Mr. Darcy stated with alacrity.
Elizabeth finished her song with sincere applause from nearly everyone in the room. Lady Catherine clapped a little, but could not help but to say loudly to Mrs. Jenkinson and Anne, who were sitting near her, that even though Elizabeth’s voice was not as weak as she had expected, she felt it was too clear and sweet, and needed to be rounder with more vibrato, to make it truly elegant.
Colonel Fitzwilliam escorted her back to her seat next to Maria.
“Lizzy, you played and sang so very well! How I wish I could be as accomplished as you,” Maria enthused.
“Maria, you and I both know that I am not accomplished. I merely had the opportunity to practice, and you should play just as well, if you spent a little less time on your bonnets, or in the company of my youngest sisters,” Elizabeth answered.
She saw Mr. Darcy looking at her, smiling from where he was sitting. She felt her face redden, but she smiled back, and then turned her attention on Charlotte, who was very pleased with the way the evening was turning out. She and Mr. Collins were able to claim much of her ladyship’s attention, and even Colonel Fitzwilliam would engage her in conversation here and there.
The evening was wrapping up and Lady Catherine ordered her carriage for the guests. Charlotte grabbed the opportunity to ask Lady Catherine what she thought about Mr. Collins planting potatoes behind the cottage since they were not a very pretty plant.
Seeing that Mrs. Collins had successfully distracted his aunt, Darcy came near Elizabeth, who was alone.
“Miss Bennet, may I call upon you at Hunsford tomorrow?” He seemed nervous, but in good spirits. Elizabeth could see that Colonel Fitzwilliam was also watching and positioning himself just so, to make sure that Lady Catherine would not see them talking by themselves.
“Certainly, Mr. Darcy,” she answered smiling, but with her heart pounding.
Darcy waited a few seconds, shifted his weight and added, “Is it too much to ask… to request a private audience with you tomorrow, Miss Bennet?”
Elizabeth took a sudden breath. His eyes reached into hers, and this time she was willing to give them anything they wanted to pull out. If he asked for her very last breath, she would have given it freely.
“Of course,” she answered in almost a whisper. “I will see to it that we are alone.”
And with her answer, that familiar and heartbreaking smile broke out on his face, with no pretense, no reserve and no fear. That smile made her feel safe, it made her insides liquefy, and it made her long for tomorrow. Elizabeth wanted that smile to burn into her memory right then, so she would be able to recall it a hundred times tonight, when she lay wide awake upon her bed. She returned his smile, but it was mostly a smile of awe and wonder.
“Cousin Elizabeth! We must be going. Do not bother Mr. Darcy with your prattle,” Mr. Collins lectured loudly from across the room.
Darcy immediately came to her defense.
“Mr. Collins, do not assume that Miss Bennet has nothing of benefit to say. You are quite wrong, and owe her an apology. I assure you, sir, that she has not bothered me. It would be more correct to say that I have bothered Miss Bennet, for I have kept her from your party.” Darcy turned his gaze back at her and bowed without breaking his gaze. “My apologies to you, Miss Bennet.”
Mr. Collins was stunned at the gentleman’s swift reproof, and tried to recover. “Please excuse me, Mr. Darcy. Of course my dear cousin would not bother you.” He turned to bow to Elizabeth as well “Forgive me, Cousin Elizabeth.”
Everyone in the room was listening to the exchange. Charlotte and Fitzwilliam were assessing Lady Catherine, who was looking at the pair severely.
Elizabeth answered as quickly as she could. “Not at all, Mr. Collins. You know me very capable of unpleasant speeches.” She smiled, curtsied to Mr. Darcy and made her way across the room. She felt Lady Catherine’s heavy stare on her, and did her best to act unaffected.
Charlotte grabbed Elizabeth’s hand in the dark carriage, and held it tightly until they arrived in front of the parsonage.