“Stop him!” Elizabeth exclaimed, dashing down the stairs. “Stop that man!”
The servant barely had time to register his shock at the young lady streaking past him, no coat, no bonnet, no gloves, before she was in the street.
Elizabeth looked left and right, as pedestrians stared, and caught sight of him, striding purposefully down the block.
“Mr. Darcy!” she called, before she could bring herself to think better of it.
His figure froze in the street, forcing the traffic to flow around him. His back was perfectly straight, and he seemed to weigh the benefit of turning around for quite some time. But at last he did turn, and for a full second she thought she must have gotten it wrong. For this was not Mr. Darcy—at least, not the Darcy she pictured every day and night. Not the Darcy she had come to know at Pemberley. No, this man was a different Darcy. One she had almost begun to believe was a myth.
For a long moment, he did nothing but stare at her, his face as unreadable as it was alien. And then he gave her a stiff bow and turned away.
Her mouth opened, and she almost called for him again. But a shocked look from a passing governess and her charges made her remember herself and what little breeding and elegance might still be claimed for the Bennet family. She would not chase a gentleman down a city street in Cheapside.
She returned to the house in a state of pure astonishment. The servant who manned the door still stood. “Miss Elizabeth,” he sputtered. “Can I… is that a person of interest to your father?”
“What card did he leave?” she asked the man. “What message for my uncle?”
“Nothing,” the man insisted, with an insistent shake of his head. “He asked to see Mr. Gardiner. He is not… begging your pardon, miss, but he is not the man your father is looking for, is he?”
“No,” Elizabeth said, and the servant seemed relieved that he had not let her sister’s seducer slip away from their grasp. But it was hardly proper to have that discussion with him.
What in heaven’s name had Darcy been doing here? She’d always figured the gentleman may, perhaps, have heard of such a place as Gracechurch Street, but he would hardly think a month’s ablution enough to cleanse him from its impurities, were he once to enter it. And what possible reason might he have for coming to her uncle’s house at all?
Her uncle was at work, her aunt engaged, her father had been put to bed. She had no one to ask, no one to help purge the disquiet from her mind. He had not come for her—of that Elizabeth was certain. His every look, every movement made it perfectly clear he wanted nothing to do with her.
Did he wish to invest in Mr. Gardiner’s business? They had spent time together at Pemberley, and Darcy seemed to respect him, tradesman or otherwise. Perhaps they had struck a deal of which Elizabeth was not aware. It would be natural, and reasonable, too, that Mr. Gardiner had not mentioned the arrangement to her, given everything else the Bennets currently faced.
And nothing would be more natural than for him to flee as soon as he realized she was in residence. He would not want to make her believe he was calling on her. No, not that, not ever again.
The afternoon dragged endlessly on. Elizabeth wrote to Jane, telling her of their plans to delay, but struggled to invent a reason that would neither give her sister hope that they had found a clue as to Lydia’s whereabouts, nor fill her with fear that their father was seriously ill.
I had hoped by this time to be already at your side, but circumstances have arisen to delay our journey a day or two. Be not alarmed when I tell you that father is indisposed. It is only a cold—no more serious than the one you suffered at Netherfield last year. I am confident that a day or two in bed will be all he needs to recover, and then we will be on our way home. How I long to be back at Longbourn. Please send everyone our love. I remain your most loving sister,
It was, like all the letters she had sent to Jane since being in London, not entirely true, as Mr. Bennet’s health had deteriorated throughout that day, and Elizabeth was very relieved that they had not attempted the journey back to Longbourn. By evening, his fever had not broken, but become so dire that Mrs. Gardiner had even called for an apothecary, who ministered to Mr. Bennet throughout the evening hours.
They would not be able to leave on the morrow, nor perhaps for many days, and a resumed search for Lydia was out of the question.
Dinner was a quiet affair, in which Mrs. Gardiner attempted halfheartedly to fill the silence with some news of their neighbors’ twin babies. Elizabeth considered bringing up Mr. Darcy’s arrival, but decided that as he had not left a card, it was not her place to mention it. If he did wish to involve himself in Mr. Gardiner’s trade, then there would be plenty of time to attempt the connection after Elizabeth and her father had quit the house.
After dinner, Mr. Gardiner retired to his study to tend to some business matters, and Elizabeth followed Mrs. Gardiner to her private sitting room. Mrs. Gardiner was working on a lovely bit of embroidery on her daughter’s winter coat, but Elizabeth felt too dull for needlepoint and decided to read instead.
Or rather, she pretended to read. Her eyes moved across the passages over and over without really taking them in, and more than an hour passed without her making any serious progress. Instead, her mind wandered, lingering on the vision of Mr. Darcy in the street, still as a statue and just as cold.
Their days in Pemberley now seemed as distant as a dream, the humor and good nature of Mr. Darcy she felt as if she was uncovering there, a fleeting fantasy. Had the conversation in the inn at Lambton happened at all? Had she exchanged jokes with the gentleman, even flirted? Had he pressed her to allow him to propose again, and had she, in a regrettable excess of caution, urged him to wait?
Was it so very regrettable, though? What choice would Elizabeth make, were she to find herself engaged to Mr. Darcy in this moment? Would she allow it to continue, force a man like that to align himself with a family in disgrace? No, she would have released him. For all the reasons she had doubted the constancy of his affections, for all the reasons she’d feared the two of them would not suit, this trial had proved it.
The servant came in and entreated Mrs. Gardiner’s presence at her child’s bedside. Her aunt, ever the indulgent mother, assented, leaving Elizabeth alone. No longer obliged to pretend to read, Elizabeth stared into the fire, unseeing. She would conquer this feeling. Whatever attachment she might have had with Darcy could not be real. She had disliked him so long, and until so recently. She could not really regret the passing of his affections. No, far more likely her sense of loss now was a substitute for all she feared they would lose, all the loss that might come when the full extent of Lydia’s fate was known.
“Pardon me, miss?” It was Mr. Gardiner’s manservant again. “It is not my place, but I felt that you best know. The gentleman from earlier today. He has come to see my master. He is even now enclosed in Mr. Gardiner’s study.” The man bowed and retreated, leaving Elizabeth to attempt in vain to cover her shock.
Mr. Darcy, here so late? This was not the time to discuss business. Before she quite knew what she was about, Elizabeth had quit the sitting room and was creeping down the corridor toward Mr. Gardiner’s study. She did not bring a candle, but made her way along the hall by the firelight seeping out from the study door, which remained slightly ajar. Elizabeth could hear male voices in intense conversation inside, but knew not what they said. She swallowed thickly and risked another few steps closer.
“It shall be my doing. I do not wish the Bennets to know anything of it.”
“Mr. Darcy, I must insist—”
“No, I must insist, sir. I do not judge Mr. Bennet to be a person I might properly consult on this matter.”
“But do you not think Elizabeth—”
She gasped aloud, hearing her name spoken in such familiar tones by her uncle to Mr. Darcy.
All sounds ceased in the room beyond. A moment later, the door flew open and there, above her, stood Mr. Darcy. His face was shadowed by the fire at his back, but she needn’t see his features to know the look he wore. As haughty and disapproving as ever, no doubt, to find her listening at doors.
She pulled herself up as straight as she could and looked him in the eye. “Mr. Darcy. Whatever are you doing here at this hour?”
He did not respond, just stood looking at her, and she could see his chest rise and fall as if he, too, struggled to breathe. His brow was furrowed, thinking.
“Miss Bennet,” he responded at last. “Since my attempts at discretion are to be repeatedly challenged by you, perhaps you ought to come inside and hear the whole story.” He held the door wide for her, ushering her inside her uncle’s office. She moved past him and within, where her uncle sat behind his desk, his hands steepled before him, a grave look on his face.
“Forgive me,” she said softly. “I should not have intruded upon your private conversation…”
Mr. Gardiner waved her off. “This concerns you, too, Lizzy. I do not fault you for wishing to have your part in this.”
Elizabeth directed a quizzical look at Mr. Darcy, but he was standing stiffly by the only other chair in the room, waiting for her to sit. So sit she did, and, clasping her hands in her lap, braced herself for what news was to come.
“Mr. Darcy,” prompted her uncle.
“I have located your sister,” he said in clipped tones, “as well as Mr. Wickham.”
“You have!” Elizabeth twisted in her seat. These were, quite possibly, the last words in the world she had expected to come from Mr. Darcy’s mouth. That he was here in Gracechurch Street was shock enough. That he had bothered to concern himself in the slightest with her family’s misfortune… was this another dream?
“How?” she managed to ask.
“I am, most unfortunately, acquainted with some of Mr. Wickham’s more disreputable friends.”
“Do you mean Mrs. Younge?” Elizabeth asked. Mrs. Younge had been the woman caring for Miss Darcy at Ramsgate during the fateful summer in which Mr. Wickham had been allowed to ingratiate himself in the girl’s heart.
“Lizzy!” Mr. Gardiner exclaimed, clearly shocked that his niece might know any of these unsavory particulars. But Elizabeth was beyond caring about propriety. Every person in this room knew the levels of impropriety that had brought them to this pass.
Mr. Darcy nodded, stiffly, still looking at a spot somewhere above her head. “I regret to inform you that your sister remains unmarried.”
Foolish Lydia! Elizabeth covered her mouth with her hand.
“I entreated her most urgently to leave her residence with Wickham and come with me to Gracechurch Street,” he explained. “I informed her that her family was searching for her, I offered my assistance as far as it might go, but she shows no interest in any of our help.”
“What did she say?” Elizabeth pressed.
“I do not wish to upset you.”
“Sir, this is my sister.”
Mr. Darcy appeared to consider this for a moment, as if weighing the impropriety of upsetting a lady with that of keeping from her the comments, no matter how distressful, of her wayward sibling. “She told me she cared for none of her friends.”
“She wanted no help of mine, and she would not hear of leaving Wickham.”
Elizabeth bit her lip to keep from crying out again.
Mr. Darcy, as if decided that, having gone this far, he might as well deliver the final blow, continued. “She declared that she was sure they should be married some time or other, and it did not much signify when.”
Elizabeth, quite speechless, looked to her uncle as if for confirmation. His face was pale with rage, and Elizabeth was at once relieved that Mr. Darcy had decided to conceal Lydia’s utterances from her father. Many fathers, upon hearing words of this nature, would cast their daughters off at once. Mr. Bennet, she ventured, might be tempted to do so, but in his current state she worried more that it would only further break his heart.
“I must see her,” Elizabeth exclaimed. “I must be allowed to work on her, to make her see the folly of her actions. She must be made aware of the great injury she is doing to our parents.”
“That I cannot permit,” Mr. Gardiner said. “Under no circumstances would I have you travel to that part of town, or consort with such low company.”
Elizabeth’s mouth was set in a firm line and she looked from Mr. Gardiner to Mr. Darcy, feeling the full weight of her sex’s fate, that did not permit one sister to call upon another, though it allowed Mr. Darcy—a veritable stranger—whatever movement he desired.
“Then what is to be done?” she said in tones that made it clear she was not happy with this state of affairs. “What have my uncle and this gentleman decided, on behalf of my father, my entire family?”
“This gentleman!” Mr. Gardiner repeated, incredulous. “Lizzy, let us dispense with this disguise. It is to no one’s benefit at this late date.”
Elizabeth frowned. “I have not the pleasure of knowing your meaning, sir.”
Mr. Gardiner merely looked to Mr. Darcy, and so Elizabeth did, too. Mr. Darcy, for his part, seemed wearied and annoyed with the entire charade. He sighed—actually sighed.
“This gentleman,” he said, his voice dripping with derision, “who shall, in short order, take you to wife.”
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