Elizabeth could never have suspected the change that would be wrought over the next few days. In all her wildest imaginings, she would not have envisioned their journey to Derbyshire would result in so many visits back and forth with the residents of Pemberley.
In short order, she did meet Mr. Darcy’s sister, the young Georgiana, and found her to be a lovely, genteel, and exceedingly shy girl about the age of her own sister Lydia, though so different in temperament that she seemed much younger. How easily Elizabeth could imagine a girl of such a quiet, amiable nature might have been overwhelmed by the charms of a Mr. Wickham, and how wicked was the character of the chaperone who would have left the two of them alone enough to allow such an attachment to form. Nevertheless, Miss Darcy seemed to have survived such early disappointments and distress, and she was surprisingly eager to make Elizabeth’s acquaintance and become friends.
Mr. Bingley, too, had appeared genuinely pleased to meet with her, and had asked after Jane often enough to make Elizabeth suspect that, despite all of Mr. Darcy and Miss Bingley’s efforts, his sensibilities had not been changed.
Mr. Gardiner had been once already to fish with the men of Pemberley, and Mrs. Gardiner and Elizabeth had used that opportunity to call upon the ladies of the house, where they’d been received most warmly by Miss Darcy and her companion, and most coldly by Mr. Bingley’s sisters. It was evident in every syllable she uttered that Miss Bingley’s chief attitude toward Elizabeth was one of jealousy, a fact which only betrayed to Elizabeth that Miss Bingley, too, had noticed the ongoing partiality from Mr. Darcy that Elizabeth was only now beginning to understand in full.
At Netherfield, she had not realized Miss Bingley had hated her for any reason other than Mr. Bingley’s feelings for her sister. But now, Elizabeth wondered. Perhaps, when she was not around, Mr. Darcy’s attitude toward her was softer than she’d previously imagined. She had pictured many opportunities in which Mr. Darcy and Miss Bingley engaged in mocking and disdainful remembrances of her and her family. Had that ever been the case? It seemed unlikely, especially since Miss Darcy’s conversations with Elizabeth were filled with references to the way Mr. Darcy spoke of her. To hear it from Miss Darcy’s mouth, Elizabeth played and sang most beautifully. Elizabeth was a lively and handsome girl in whom Georgiana might find a friend.
Elizabeth was determined to conclude that these pronouncements of her own suitability as a friend—and perhaps a sister?—were made before she had so rudely and angrily refused his hand at Hunsford. For surely Mr. Darcy could not have been speaking warmly of her since then.
And yet, it had been Mr. Darcy who most eagerly had petitioned for them to meet. There was no real reason to introduce Elizabeth to his sister. Not anymore. Was there?
In another time, another place, Elizabeth might have encouraged herself to laugh at her own behavior, to find so much humor in it that it could no longer prey on her emotions. It was not like her to weigh so heavily every word and look by a gentleman, nor to let her thoughts about him occupy so much of her mind. She had never lingered on Mr. Wickham in this manner, even when his charm and power over her had been at their height the previous fall.
However, Elizabeth was forced to reckon with the fact that she had never shared the intimacies with Mr. Wickham that she had with Mr. Darcy, even as she marveled at the very word. No one in Derbyshire could possibly consider their acquaintance to be anything more than trifling, let alone intimate!
And yet Mr. Darcy knew… and so did she. And now, with a greater understanding of the types of conversations that could pass between a man and a woman, the only thing she wanted to laugh at was the way she’d once spoken of Mr. Wickham. Elizabeth’s interactions with the rakish soldier had been limited to drawing rooms and the occasional stroll about the Longbourn garden, likely because she did not possess the fortune he sought, which would have tempted him to activities of a more compromising nature.
Mr. Wickham had flirted with her, but never declared an ardent admiration and love. He’d never looked for an opportunity to find her alone, nor written her a secret letter, nor paced the grounds around the Hunsford parsonage until he could hand-deliver it to her.
He’d never proposed in a fit of ill-advised passion.
For a man so possessed with the topic of proper behavior, Mr. Darcy had certainly skirted close to the line.
There—at last Elizabeth had found a sense of the ridiculousness in all of this, and she smiled with as much humor as relief. She would conquer this confusion regarding her most recent proposal of marriage, and the man who had delivered it. If reason would not argue it away, she’d try laughter. But either way, it would be forgot.
Her resolution, though sincere enough at its formation, did not persist long, however. It evaporated the moment the men returned from their outing. Once again, Elizabeth was to be in the same room with Mr. Darcy, and once again, she could not find a sense of ease about that. Her feelings about him were all in a tumble. And so, when he arrived, she made sure to be sitting, surrounded by others, and involved in enough conversation that she would be unlikely to be approached by him.
Still, as he moved about the room, talking to others in their company, she could not help but be aware, at every moment, of where exactly he stood. A few times she even risked a glance in his direction and found his eyes upon her as well. Her breath quickened, her color heightened, and she could not keep track of the conversation around her.
“Pray, Miss Eliza,” Miss Bingley asked her abruptly.
It took Elizabeth a moment to realize she was being addressed. How she hated being called Eliza!
“Have I heard that the militia are removed from Meryton? That must be a great loss to your family.”
“I haven’t any idea what you could mean,” Elizabeth responded evenly. This was impertinent, indeed. Miss Bingley could only ask such a question as an attempt to bring Elizabeth shame. They all knew the level of folly her family had achieved regarding their behavior around the officers.
“Do you not?” the woman continued with a sniff of derision. “I had understood that you and all your sisters were quite fond of the officers stationed in your village. Was there not one you particularly liked?”
How dare she! She could not mean any man other than Wickham, and could not be broaching the topic for any reason other than to suggest, in Darcy’s presence, that Elizabeth still had feelings for the soldier.
But just as quickly, another thought came rushing in and supplanted all Elizabeth’s anger. She must prevent Miss Bingley from mentioning the man’s name in Miss Darcy’s hearing. It would doubtless cause pain to the girl, and whatever Miss Bingley’s attitude toward Elizabeth, she was certain the woman would not want to put the young girl in a position of distress. A quick glance at Miss Darcy was enough to reveal to Elizabeth that the girl was already discomfited by talk of girls and soldiers.
“Ah, Miss Bingley,” she said quickly, “it is my family’s great misfortune that we do not enjoy the wide social circle that you must in London. I know we seem silly for letting our heads be turned by a small regiment. We do not have the advantages that you must by moving in very fine circles.”
Miss Bingley seemed satisfied by this reminder of her social superiority and let the matter drop. An involuntary glance at Mr. Darcy, however, showed that he had not missed a single syllable of the conversation. His color was heightened, and he made no effort to conceal the intensity with which his gaze now met Elizabeth’s.
His expression she dared not name, but it caused her heart to seize and her breath to catch in her throat. For a moment, it was as if they stood alone in the room and could talk freely about all the subjects that so clearly weighed on both of their minds.
Most miraculous of all, the confusion and unease which had persisted ever since entering Derbyshire, the questions that had grown in her mind since first receiving his letter in Hunsford, since hearing Mrs. Reynolds’s description of him here, since seeing him interact with her on his own estate and in his own neighborhood — those questions and concerns that had seemed so unsolvable and perplexing over the last few days—suddenly quieted in her mind, leaving only two behind.
What were her feelings toward Mr. Darcy?
What were his feelings toward her?
She desperately feared the answers to these questions, answers which remained shrouded in mist, though they were growing clearer with every glance that passed between them.
Elizabeth longed for a moment to herself, or even a room in which she and Mr. Darcy were not so closely monitored, where they might converse, even briefly, with relative privacy. But it was not to be. There were too many eyes, and Miss Bingley was too watchful.
They did not remain long after Miss Bingley’s rude line of questioning came to an end, and Elizabeth was surprised, pleased, and surprised that she was pleased, when Mr. Darcy himself insisted upon showing them to the carriage. Elizabeth could not have guessed what the Gardiners thought of their visit, but they did hang back to admire a flower arrangement near the entrance, while Mr. Darcy walked with Elizabeth to the door.
She struggled to find something to say to him unburdened by hidden meaning or portentous reference, and failed. His presence at her side loomed large and warm, larger even than his handsome height suggested, and again, Elizabeth considered that humor, which she had so often relied upon to save her in moments such as these, could not always keep her safe.
“Miss Bennet,” he said at last. “I hope you enjoyed your visit here today.”
“Yes, very much. I have been so pleased to make your sister’s acquaintance.”
“She feels much the same about you, I gather.” He paused now, for a long time. “I do hope that Miss Bingley—”
“I am well aware that I am the object of Miss Bingley’s barbs.”
“Are you aware of the reason?” Now he did look at her, and there seemed to be more to the question than was first apparent.
She did not know how to answer. Was not Mr. Darcy the reason? How could she respond without entering into the area she thought they had silently agreed to avoid. “She does not approve of me or my family.”
“You do not seem to care if people approve of you or your family. You certainly didn’t give it much thought when I did not.”
When? Elizabeth’s steps stuttered, and he tightened his grip, ever so modestly, on her arm. Did he mean to inform her that he no longer thought ill of her family and their low connections? Perhaps in spending time with the Gardiners, he realized that whatever his previous opinions of people of their status, Elizabeth had no cause to be embarrassed by her relations. Perhaps he meant to communicate even more.
She gathered herself together and spoke. “You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy. I cared a great deal. But I hold my own opinions as to my worth, and my family’s respectability, too. I am not inclined to give much weight to the feelings of others so wholly unconnected to me. So in a case such as this, I will stand by my previous judgment, and not be persuaded to think ill of myself or my family based on the opinions of those for whom I hold little regard.”
“Little regard,” he repeated, absentmindedly.
Elizabeth’s head jerked up. She had been speaking of Miss Bingley. Hurriedly, before she had even thought it through, she said, “Sir, do you remember once telling me that your good opinion, once lost, is lost forever?”
“I do.” He gave her a curious look.
“I recall, at the time,” she said, “describing such implacable resentment as a decided fault in a person.”
“I remember that part of our conversation as well.”
They had reached the carriage now, and as he took her hand to help her inside, she gave him a tiny curtsy and said, “It is not, I am fortunate to report, one of my faults.”
She settled herself in her seat, scarcely believing her own forwardness, and when she was strong enough to meet his eyes, she caught a look that could be described as nothing but revelation upon his face.
He had taken her meaning, then. She was not one who could not change her opinion of a man, if reason enough had been given. And his letter to her, the information they’d received at Pemberley, and all of his behavior to her and her family since their arrival here—was that not reason aplenty?
“Good evening, Mr. Darcy,” she said. The Gardiners were nearly upon them. They had only seconds remaining.
“Miss Bennet”—all in a rush—“may I call on you tomorrow?” Mr. Darcy’s eyes held a hint of something like a plea. “Alone?”
Elizabeth had time only to nod, before her aunt and uncle arrived.
As they drove away from the house, Elizabeth glanced back and saw Mr. Darcy standing and watching the carriage go, as far as he could see until it turned the abrupt corner and headed out of the park.
She sat back in her seat, still astonished at her own words. They had been rash, and encouraging, and she’d done it all before she had fully thought through the ramifications.
He was still the man who had separated Mr. Bingley and Jane. He was still the one who had imperiously informed her he could never rejoice in joining a family whose condition in life was so decidedly below his own.
She’d once told him he was the last man in the world she could ever be prevailed upon to marry. Had she just told him he was welcome to try again?