The next morning dawned with a watery and ill-favored sky. Elizabeth rose, bleary-eyed, and looked at the prospect from her bedroom window with dismay. The weather, too, could not decide what it wanted to be. Perhaps it would rain and keep Mr. Darcy from visiting, or perhaps the clouds would merely loom overhead. But it would not decide for them, or save them from their own folly.
She’d passed a sleepless night. One moment she was determined to confess to Mr. Darcy that whatever she might have said last night, they should not make any hasty decisions today, and the next moment she feared that some calamity might befall them before they ever got the opportunity to speak freely again.
Already there had been too much impropriety in their interactions. The very existence of the letter he’d sent her after her first refusal would be enough to set tongues wagging. If those same tongues were ever to discover the knowledge such a letter contained, it would spell ruin for more than simply herself and Mr. Darcy, but also for Mr. Bingley, Jane, Miss Darcy, and, of course, Mr. Wickham.
Then again, Mr. Wickham of that number was the one who most deserved to see his reputation in tatters. But how often it was that those for whom judgment was warranted were the last upon which it was imposed.
Once again, Elizabeth longed for the confidence of her sister Jane. She had written to her about that first, awkward meeting at Pemberley, but had not had the opportunity to relay any more of the goings-on that had so consumed her days. Indeed, Elizabeth had been a good deal disappointed in not finding a letter from Jane on their first arrival at Lambton, and as the days passed, the disappointment was renewed twice over, as the post never did bring her a missive from her sister.
But on this gray, portentous morning, as Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner were preparing to walk to church, two letters arrived in the early post. Elizabeth was relieved by their arrival, as it gave her reason to make her excuses and stay behind, as she had promised Mr. Darcy that she would.
And so it was that she settled in the sitting-room of the inn to read her letters, while she kept one wary eye on the street below, hoping to get an early warning of Mr. Darcy’s arrival. The first of Jane’s letters was marked as having been missent elsewhere due to Jane’s directions having been written remarkably ill. Elizabeth wondered at what might account for it—her sister was usually quite fastidious in her handwriting.
She opened the letter to see a date marked five days earlier and settled in to read. Jane’s summer reminded her much of her own winter left alone at Longbourn, with days occupied by Meryton village news and engagements, as well as the regular trials and tribulations brought down on their heads by the follies of their mother and sisters. At the very least, Jane did not have the added vexation of Lydia, seeing as how she was spending the summer in Brighton with Colonel and Mrs. Foster… and the regiment.
She finished the first page of the letter and was about to turn it over to read the reverse, when the door to the sitting-room opened, and the chambermaid showed Mr. Darcy in. Was it her imagination, or did he dress with more care than usual this morning? His cravat was all the whiter, his coat the deepest blue, and strands of his hair, windswept from the ride, curled about his high, aristocratic forehead in a manner both careless and fetching.
Was she staring? She set the letter down on the table and greeted him, as he doffed his hat and gave her a curt nod.
“Miss Bennet,” he said stiffly. “I hope I find you well this morning.”
“Quite well,” she replied. “I was just reading a letter from my sister Jane.”
He glanced at the papers on the table, a frown crossing his features. “I beg your pardon. Do you wish to finish? I would not want to delay any pleasure of yours.”
She waved it away. “No, the letter will wait. It has apparently waited five days already.”
“Your family is in good health?”
“Yes, thank you. And everyone at Pemberley?”
“I was gone from the house early this morning,” he confessed. “I found myself… eager to be out of doors this morning, despite the unfortunate weather.”
Elizabeth might have felt the same, were she here with a horse of her own. A swift ride might do wonders to drive out all these unruly contemplations. “You wished to call upon me this morning.” It was a statement, not a question.
“I did,” he replied. “I understood from our conversation yesterday that such a visit would…not be unwelcome.” He crossed the room to the mantelpiece and rested his hand there, all the ease he’d shown yesterday at Pemberley gone in an instant.
Elizabeth’s heart seized, and she fought for a light tone as she said, “Indeed, it is not.” She gestured to a nearby chair. “Will you not sit down?”
“I do not know.” A moment’s pause and then he turned his head to her. “What shall we talk about, Miss Bennet? What conversation might occupy two people such as ourselves? I have wondered, this past week, if I might be in danger of exhausting all possible topics. I have spoken to you of my home and my woods and my fishing spots. We have talked about my sister and my friends and your family and the weather. We have talked about everything except for the things foremost in my thoughts when I am in your company.”
Elizabeth’s throat went dry, and barely had her lips parted to reply, when he continued.
“You and I alone know what passed between us the last time we were in a room by ourselves.”
At this, she cast her eyes downward. For she had told Jane, at least, of Mr. Darcy’s proposal and her angry rejection. But Darcy had no brother, and of course he could not have told his best friend that he’d proposed to Elizabeth, after discouraging Bingley from doing the same to her sister.
“I would not have you ill at ease, sir,” she said, almost pleaded. “Had I known the distress I was causing with my visits to Pemberley, I—”
“I want you there.” But he didn’t even look at her when he said it. “I knew from the first moment I saw you on the grounds that nothing could be more right. Nothing could be more fitting.”
Elizabeth could not wait for him to find a seat; she groped for the chair and lowered herself into it, no longer trusting the strength of her legs.
A moue of concern twisted his mouth. “Be not alarmed. I only meant that I had hoped to give you an impression of me somewhat different from the one I’d previously inspired. I had hoped that you would see now that I am not worthy of every accusation, every aspersion you cast at me during our last…” he broke off, turned again toward the mantle. “But of course you think otherwise. That perhaps I have been imagining you… in my home.”
“Not at all,” said she, though the moment he’d brought it up, it was all she could imagine. “And for my part, I have been more circumspect in praise of your home than it deserved, for fear you might take my words in a way I did not intend.”
He looked at her. “Then you truly do like Pemberley?”
“I like it very much.” She took a deep breath. “And I can admit now that I may have been harsh in my assessment of its master as well.”
He left the mantle and strode across the floor to the chair by her side. “You are too generous to trifle with me, Miss Bennet. I must know your meaning.”
How could she answer that for him? She hardly knew it herself.
“You recall once I related my difficulty in making out your character,” she said.
“That I do not. On the contrary, you seemed quite certain of its nature, and toward it had fixed an immovable dislike.”
Elizabeth winced to hear her words thus thrown back in her face. She had cast up to him accusations of arrogance, conceit, and selfish disdain for the feelings of others. But when she could bring herself to look at him again, she saw no anger or bitterness, or even impatience in his countenance. They both knew what had been said between them, and if she wanted, she might remind him of his cruel impressions of her own family. Neither party was blameless for striking out in bad temper.
“I confess,” she said at last, “that I now believe I did not know you well enough in Hunsford to properly judge. I have come to know your mind and manners more since then.”
“And what is your verdict?” he pressed.
Elizabeth hesitated. “A verdict on your character?”
“A verdict on how you might wish to be attached to it.”
Here, then, was the material point. He looked at her with such earnestness that there could be no doubt of his feelings. Elizabeth knew that she could bring him to speak again with nothing more than a word, a look, but also, she feared being too hasty. This understanding between them was too new—merely the work of a few days—and so fragile. She could not risk a decision they both might later regret.
She clasped her hands in her lap, one holding the other as if for strength. “Mr. Darcy, I am in an extraordinary situation. Perhaps it is my manners that cannot be vouched for, as they so often give you the wrong impression. Only a very wicked woman would encourage the continued—even repeated!—addresses of a man without being quite certain of her own feelings. To act otherwise would be to completely disregard what I owe a gentleman such as yourself.”
He listened in perfect silence. She wished him to speak, but he would not. He waited, waited.
“I have no wish to cause you either grief or pain, and now, unlike in Hunsford, I am conscious of your own attachment. And so you see that I must tread carefully. I must be absolutely sure.”
He let out his breath then, and every part of him softened, from the cut of his mouth to the set of his broad shoulders, and even something deep in his eyes, those fine, intense eyes of his that did not for one moment leave her face.
“There is hope, then.”
“Mr. Darcy, I—” There was so much more she wanted to say. She ought to urge him to use this opportunity to see if his more rational mind might be prevailed upon. Now that Elizabeth was made familiar with his estate, she had a greater understanding of the concerns that had made him long question his feelings for her. Were Elizabeth honest with herself, she could not even fault him for it. Ten thousand a year or not, he might owe Pemberley an heiress. Whereas Elizabeth had nothing to lose, and would be made happy with only a comfortable home, so long as it came with marital happiness, Darcy might owe his family and dependents something more.
“That is all I require from you, Miss Bennet,” he said, his tone somehow both clipped and reassuring. “To know there is a chance of hope. I have made my intentions clear. My wishes remain unchanged from last April, and so I will wait.”
At once, a terrible need rose up in Elizabeth, a fear that she might be embarking on some great folly. In the back of her mind, she heard the voice of her dear friend Charlotte Collins, admonishing her to secure the affections of a man of such consequence, that she had plenty of time later to learn to be in love. She heard her mother wailing at the prospect of losing all of their comfort should her father pass before one of them had secured a decent match. Such inducements had never been enough to sway her before, not with Mr. Collins at home, or even Mr. Darcy at Hunsford.
Only now there was a new voice, a tiny, frantic one warning her that to let him slip away again would be the most intolerable regret of her life. Mr. Darcy was so close—she could reach out and touch him, if only she dared.
But she did not, as she was uncertain by what manner such a gesture would be received. “Shall we be friends?”
“Friends,” he repeated gently. “That is a word that has never applied to us, and I think rarely has applied to those in our predicament.” A smile quirked the edge of his mouth. “You are aware, I hope, Miss Bennet, that it is common for a young lady of fashion to accept in haste and then repent later? She, unlike a gentleman, is given that choice.”
“It is fortunate, I believe, that I am not a lady of fashion.”
“I did not mean to—”
She could not help but smile back. “And very unfair such a system is! Where a woman can withdraw her consent to an engagement, but a man cannot. For is it not true…” and here her tone became low and teasing, “that a young man might suppose himself violently in love, but then recall how very unsuitable a lady’s family is?”
“He may indeed recall it,” Mr. Darcy replied, and his tone teased as well. “But I have it on good authority that no matter how he might struggle, he cannot diminish the sincerity of his attachment.”
Now Elizabeth did look away, blushing. She had enjoyed matching wits with him, even when she had disliked him. If this was how it was to be between them henceforth, she doubted Mr. Darcy would have to wait very long for an answer from her at all.
He rose from the chair. “I recall that I am keeping you from reading your letters. I shall trespass on your time no longer.”
She rose, too, and curtseyed. “Thank you for coming to see me.”
“Thank you,” he replied. “Thank you for…” but at that, he seemed to lose his composure, and quickly donned his hat and departed.
Elizabeth took a moment to reflect upon all that had transpired in this room in the previous few minutes. Her mind was more at ease now than it had been since first coming into this county, and certainly since first seeing Mr. Darcy again at Pemberley. All the questions plaguing her had faded away. She was confident in his continued feelings for her, and relieved at his willingness to wait for her own feelings to resolve themselves.
She suspected that neither of them would have to wait very long, if circumstances continued as they had been. Her uncle and aunt planned to stay several more days in Derbyshire, which should give her ample time to ascertain if the understanding she was beginning to form about her suitor was in fact correct.
Thus soothed, Elizabeth sat down once more to read Jane’s letters, anticipating amusing recollections from her sister of all her family at Longbourn. She quickly reviewed what she’d already read, then turned to the next page.
Since writing the above, dearest Lizzy, something has occurred of a most unexpected and serious nature. But I am afraid of alarming you—be assured that we are all well. What I have to say relates to poor Lydia…