“You are very quiet this morning, Lizzy!” exclaimed Mrs. Gardiner, as the carriage carried them along the road to Pemberley. “Are you quite all right?”
Elizabeth Bennet broke free of her reverie and looked at her aunt, trying to play off her unease with a laugh. “Certainly, aunt. I am just lost in the beauty around us.”
She was not.
It was a fine day, with clear skies dotted by tiny white clouds, and the sound of summer insects chirping merrily from the woods along the road. Mrs. Gardiner had always spoken so warmly of the village of Lambton, where she’d lived as a child, and Elizabeth could see why. It was a charming place, and Derbyshire was a beautiful county.
But as much as she was enjoying her trip with her aunt and uncle, Elizabeth could not be at ease. Not on her way to Pemberley.
As much as she’d tried to think of it as merely another great house, no different from Chatsworth or Blenheim, Elizabeth could not divide herself from her knowledge of its owner, the things he’d said to her when last they met, and the things he’d written to her after she’d rejected his marriage proposal.
Be not alarmed, madam, upon receiving this letter, that it contains any repetition of those sentiments, or renewal of those offers, which were last night so disgusting to you.
She hid her sniff of derision behind her handkerchief and looked out over the landscape. Every time she thought of Mr. Darcy’s letter, she came away with a different impression of him. He had been misunderstood and had acted most admirably on behalf of his sister. He was as rude and ill-natured as she’d ever considered him. He was a gentleman. He was a snob.
He was altogether too much on her mind.
By the time they reached the estate itself, her spirits were in high flutter. They entered the grounds at one of its lowest points and drove for some time through a beautiful wood, stretching over a wide area.
“Isn’t it lovely!” exclaimed her aunt, and Elizabeth could not help but agree, nearly wordless with admiration at every remarkable spot and point of view.
They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House.
It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of woody hills, which descended into a widened stream that lay still like a pond and reflected back the beauty of the house. Its banks were neither formal nor falsely adorned, but rather displayed the fine green beauty of the summer.
Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. Against her will, her mind conjured up images of Mr. Darcy, the fine but not pretentious cut of his coats, the neat but not overdone knots on his cravats, the particular fall of his hair against his stiffened collars. If the eyes were windows into the soul, what could actual windows reveal about their owner?
She took a deep breath and let it out. However would she make it through this tour?
“A fine house, and a fine pond here,” her uncle remarked. “I understand the master is seldom at home to appreciate it, though.”
“Do you know, Lizzy?” her aunt asked.
Elizabeth could, in fact, reconstruct much of Mr. Darcy’s movements around the country in the past year. He’d spent the fall with Mr. Bingley at Netherfield, then the winter in London, where he’d known Elizabeth’s sister Jane had been in town, but concealed it from his friend, who was fond of Jane. And then there was springtime, when he’d visited Lady Catherine at Rosings Park… she felt her face heat.
“All I know is that we were told in the village that the family is in London for the summer,” she said, shocked she could keep her voice so even.
“What a shame, to miss all this beauty.” Her aunt shook her head, sadly. “Though I suppose we must consider differences in temperament. Perhaps Mr. Darcy is not a lover of nature like we are.”
Elizabeth felt the sudden need to defend him on this point. She had often found him walking about, especially at Rosings Park, though in retrospect, she wondered how often it was that he did so in hopes of meeting her on the path. He had, after all, been quite appalled by the state of her petticoat the day she’d hiked through the mud from Longbourn to Netherfield.
Even that, however, had not stopped him from proposing.
“I believe, madam,” Elizabeth said, “that Mr. Darcy appreciates his estate no more or less than is warranted.”
“And who wouldn’t?” her uncle said, as they crossed the bridge and pulled up to the door.
The housekeeper, a Mrs. Reynolds, appeared in short order to take them around the house. She was a respectable-looking, elderly woman, much less fine, and more civil, than Elizabeth had any notion of finding her, and she delivered an abundance of knowledge regarding the background and history of the house as they moved from the entrance hall to the dining-parlour and beyond.
Elizabeth was pleased to find the furnishings to be much more in keeping with real elegance, with less of the showy opulence that she’d seen at Lady Catherine’s home in Rosings Park. The chairs looked as if they would be comfortable to sit in, the tables as if one might set down a book or a bit of sewing.
Each room also had the happy situation of grand prospects, with windows overlooking the hill crowned with wood, or the stream with trees scattered on its banks, or the winding valley through which it flowed.
“And of this place,” she said to herself, when she could no longer bear to keep the thoughts trapped in the back of her mind, “I might have been mistress! With these rooms I might now have been familiarly acquainted. Instead of viewing them as a stranger, I might have rejoiced in them as my own, and welcomed to them as visitors my uncle and aunt.”
But then she remembered that such things could never have been. Even if she had married Mr. Darcy and come to this place as his wife, she would not be her family’s Lizzy any longer. No, her aunt and uncle would have been lost to her. A man such as Mr. Darcy would never have invited these people to his lofty home.
It was good to keep reminding herself of this. It saved her from feeling anything that might be called regret.
As Elizabeth passed into the next room, a little way behind the group, she heard her uncle ask Mrs. Reynolds whether the master of the house were really absent, and her heart leaped into her throat at the thought that they may have been mistaken.
“Yes, sir, he has been for some time, though we expect him tomorrow, with a large party of friends.”
“Tomorrow,” Elizabeth blurted, unable to keep the quaver from her voice. That was, indeed, too soon for her liking. They were fortunate that nothing had delayed their own journey by a day. What might she have done if she had seen Mr. Darcy, here, in this house?
This room was a lovely little sitting-parlour, with personal artwork on the walls, comfortable chairs, and several shelves of books. Elizabeth busied herself examining the titles, trying to calm her beating heart, while Mrs. Reynolds described some of the paintings that adorned the walls. She heard snippets of descriptions of this-Darcy and that-Darcy, who had lived and died in centuries past, but she kept her eyes averted, concerned that any of the personages might look upon her with Mr. Darcy’s proud eyes or his grim turn of mouth and completely destroy her composure.
The books were a decent enough distraction though, and she was, she admitted, pleased to find a large variety of her favorite titles on the shelves, including several by authors she had come to know in her own father’s library. She recalled a conversation at Netherfield, long ago, where Miss Bingley had accused Mr. Darcy of “always buying books” and Mr. Darcy in turn had declared that he would never “neglect a family library in such days as these.”
This library was indeed, as Mr. Darcy had described it, the “work of generations,” but it was apparent Pemberley’s current master was always adding to it, as she spotted several volumes of recent issue. These she studied even more intently, in hopes that they might provide insight into the mind of their owner. What had led Mr. Darcy to purchase these books in particular, and had he read them all himself, or merely collected them, like trophy heads for his wall?
Elizabeth was inclined to believe the former, especially given his stated preference for women who had proven themselves accomplished via “the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”
She had teased him at the time, as he had added this final requirement onto a lengthy list of Miss Bingley’s devising that included dancing, music, drawing, singing, multiple foreign languages, and who knows what other item the lady had named in order to best shame Elizabeth for her country upbringing. But now, knowing what Elizabeth did about Mr. Darcy’s hidden attachment, she wondered if he’d meant it instead as a compliment to Elizabeth, who did enjoy reading—much more than Miss Bingley.
“Lizzy, come see this. I believe I have found someone we know.”
She steeled herself and joined Mrs. Gardiner by the mantelpiece. Her aunt pointed out a likeness of Mr. Wickham, suspended in miniature with several others. The young man grinned with careless glee from the tiny painting, and Elizabeth blinked in surprise. She had not expected to see that here, of all places. Why would the Darcys keep a portrait of their enemy on the premises?
“How do you like that? How handsome is he here!”
Mrs. Reynolds came close. “That is Mr. Wickham, the son of the late Mr. Darcy’s steward. My late master was quite fond of the boy, and brought him up at his own expense. He’s gone into the army now, but I’m afraid he has turned out very wild.”
“Indeed!” Mrs. Gardiner looked toward her niece with an expression of surprise, and Elizabeth fought to keep her expression neutral, especially in front of the housekeeper.
Mrs. Reynolds, however, did not dwell on Wickham, but turned quickly to another miniature, this one depicting Mr. Darcy himself, as a slightly younger man. “And that is my master—and very like him. It was drawn at the same time as the other—about eight years ago, when the late Mr. Darcy was still with us.”
“I have heard much of your master’s fine person,” said Elizabeth’s aunt, looking at the picture. “It is a handsome face. But, Lizzy, you can tell us whether it is like or not.”
Mrs. Reynolds’s respect for Elizabeth seemed to increase with this intimation of her knowing her master, for she smiled and exclaimed, “Does that young lady know Mr. Darcy?”
Elizabeth blushed prettily. “A little.”
“And do not you think him a very handsome gentleman, ma’am?”
She wished the floor of this fine house would open and swallow her whole. “Yes, very handsome.”
“I am sure I know none so handsome; but in the gallery upstairs you will see a finer, larger picture of him than this. This room was my late master’s favorite room, and these miniatures are just as they used to be then. He was very fond of them.”
At least now Elizabeth knew why Wickham was among them.
Next, Mrs. Reynolds showed them a portrait of the young Miss Darcy, pictured at just eight years old. She was a darling girl, with rosy cheeks and lightly curled hair and—Elizabeth thought — just a touch of her brother’s countenance, especially about the eyes. But she seemed jolly and gay where her brother was stern and serious. Still, as Elizabeth recalled Mr. Darcy’s explanations, she began to piece together a story that cast her would-be suitor in a very different light. What might anyone have grown to be, with a father dead when he had barely reached the age of independence, with all of the responsibility of a large estate and a young sister to bear?
“If your master would marry, you might see more of him.”
Elizabeth was jolted from her thoughts by this pronouncement from her uncle. How had marriage entered into this discussion?
“`Yes, sir,” Mrs. Reynolds responded. “But I do not know when that will be. I do not know who is good enough for him.”
Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner smiled, as if thinking they were sure such a proud person as Mr. Darcy could not imagine anyone good enough for him, either, whether duchess or queen.
Elizabeth felt ill at ease again, as if she were truly deceiving both her family and this loyal servant, by standing silent through this conversation. She couldn’t help but reply. “It is very much to his credit, I am sure, that you should think so.”
“I say no more than the truth, and what everybody will say that knows him,” replied the housekeeper.
This Elizabeth could not believe. The opinion of a long-time servant was bound to be loyal, but she knew Mr. Darcy well enough to know his opinion of most of the world.
Which is why it so astonished her when Mrs. Reynolds added, “I have never had a cross word from him in my life, and I have known him since he was four years old.”
Would that Elizabeth could say the same. Almost every word she’d ever had from Mr. Darcy was a cross one. He seemed to take special pleasure in the pursuit, just as she did in responding to him with impertinence and teasing. He could not possibly be a good-tempered man.
Then again, if all Mr. Darcy had to recommend her was her treatment of him, it’s possible she would not be portrayed as the most good-tempered of women. For had she not insulted him, called him ungentlemanly even in the moments after he’d confessed his love?
Mrs. Reynolds was still praising her master. “If I was to go through the world, I could not meet with a better. But I have always observed that they who are good-natured when children are good-natured when they grow up, and he was always the sweetest-tempered, most generous-hearted, boy in the world.”
Could this be the same Mr. Darcy?
“I could not say that I know your master, but his father was an excellent man,” said Mrs. Gardiner.
“Yes, ma’am, that he was indeed, and his son will be just like him.”
Elizabeth was nearly breathless with astonishment. Of course a housekeeper must be loyal to her master, but this level of praise was beyond anything she had ever heard. Their guides at other fine houses barely mentioned their lordly masters, except in clipped phrases of respect, as was their due. But as they proceeded together up the great staircase, Mrs. Reynolds kept up such a steady stream of descriptions of Darcy’s many merits as could no longer be denied. This was a woman who must know him well, and her love for and loyalty to him could be nothing but genuine.
“This fine account of him,” whispered her aunt, as they left the small parlour, “is not quite consistent with his behavior to our poor friend.”
“Perhaps we might be deceived,” was all Elizabeth would trust herself to say.
Upon reaching the spacious lobby on the floor above, they were first shown into a very pretty sitting room, lately redone for Miss Darcy as a present from her brother, and then into the picture gallery.
Many family portraits lined the gallery, and Elizabeth surveyed them quickly on a quest to find the only one that mattered. At last she saw it— a striking portrait of the man she was only beginning to realize she might not know as well as she thought. It was a large, handsome painting, of recent origin, and in it Mr. Darcy wore a smile the likes of which she had seen only momentarily, in glances, when the bearer had not known she was looking at him. She contemplated it for several long minutes, turning the matter over and over in her mind.
What, really, did she know about the man she had refused? He thought her family low, beneath his notice, but kept as a best friend Mr. Bingley, a man whose own family had only recently risen above the trades. He’d separated Mr. Bingley from Elizabeth’s beloved sister, but had confessed to her that he’d thought Jane a fortune hunter, whose own heart was not moved toward his friend. And Mr. Darcy would have known about such fortune hunters, as he’d already separated his own sister from Mr. Wickham.
Mrs. Reynolds’s opinion could not be discounted. Such effusive praise, even from a servant, was no trifling matter. There must be so many people supported by this grand estate—so many farmers, and tradesmen, and families, and children, all owing to the Darcys their lives and livelihoods. And if Mrs. Reynolds was to be believed, every person on the estate agreed with her assessment.
She stared at the painting and tried her hardest to discern the mystery of its subject. Was Mr. Darcy as proud and disagreeable as she had always thought him? Or was he something else? A man who had been thrust into a place of prominence at a young age, a man who wished to protect the vast responsibility he had been handed, and was not always entirely sure how best to represent it when he was far from Pemberley and the people who knew him best?
Soon after, they completed the tour of the house and Mrs. Reynolds turned them over to the gardener to tour the grounds. As they walked across the lawn towards the river, Elizabeth turned back to look again upon the great house. Her uncle and aunt stopped also and began to debate upon the date Mrs. Reynolds had given as to its original construction. Their discussion was lively, if amiable, and Elizabeth smiled as she listened to their good-natured squabble.
This was the expression she was wearing when a figure came around the side of the house from the stables and stopped dead on a path less than twenty yards away, his own face a mask of shock, his cheeks colored with a deepest blush.
It was Mr. Darcy.