For a moment, the entire estate of Pemberley seemed to go silent. No rush of the stream, no chirping of birds or buzzing of insects, no rustling of the leaves through the trees or the crunch of boots on the gravel as Mr. Darcy—Mr. Darcy!—strode toward her, unable to hide the shock painting his features.
All Elizabeth could hear was the rush of blood in her ears. This was no painting, no miniature, no words of praise. This was the man himself. And despite all reassurances, he was, in fact, here.
Instinctively, she turned away and might even have run, but then he spoke.
Remembering her manners, she dropped a curtsy. “Mr. Darcy. What a…” she could not finish her sentence. A pleasure to see you? A surprise you are here, at your own house? No statement seemed adequate in that moment, and Elizabeth was forced to reckon with the possibility that she had, in fact, been badly brought up.
“I…” he seemed to be in a similar quandary. “I had not expected to see you…”
Of course he had not. Not at his house, halfway across the length of England, or ever again, after their last interaction.
“I am traveling with my aunt and uncle. We were told you were away, otherwise we never would have presumed to trespass on your privacy.” How foolish she had been to come to Pemberley! All her previous misgivings came crashing down on her at once. She must seem at this moment the absolute worst sort of person, callous and selfish and all manner of badly bred, to come and gawk as a tourist at a house whose master she had spurned.
“Do not trouble yourself. I came back a day early on a business matter.” He was silent for a moment. “And how did you find Pemberley? Is it to your liking?”
“It is a delightful house,” she replied quickly, “and full of many things of great beauty.”
At that, his expression changed to one of such interest that she immediately realized how such an endorsement could be misconstrued, and fell silent.
Mr. Darcy, too, did not quite seem to know what to say. “Have you been traveling long? I trust you left everyone well back in Longbourn.”
“I did, thank you. We have been no more than a fortnight on our journey.” She looked toward her aunt and uncle, who by this time had caught sight of her new companion and were standing at a respectful distance. She was not sure what would happen if she offered to introduce them, and Mr. Darcy himself did not request it.
“I have not been at Pemberley myself,” he said now, “but in town.”
“So I see,” she replied politely, though her head was full of remembrances of their last interview and of the things he wrote in the letter. She suspected Mr. Darcy was similarly occupied, especially when he asked a second time about the duration of her travels.
Soon, he excused himself, and the Gardiners approached with an offer to walk about the lake, a venture Elizabeth was more than happy to accept, thinking that the sooner she might escape the property, the better. The stroll gave her no peace, however, as the Gardiners were occupied in asking after “the man himself.”
“I must say,” declared his aunt, “that his portrait is quite lifelike. One always wonders if the artist is overly flattering to the subject, but in this case, I think he could not have done him complete justice. Lizzy, you had not told us how handsome Mr. Darcy is.”
“Hadn’t I?” was all Elizabeth could trust herself to say.
“Perhaps his sour disposition conceals it once you become acquainted with him,” she offered by way of an excuse. “He did seem a bit out of sorts. And you are not in spirits either, dear. Whatever did he say to you?”
“Pleasantries only. He asked about our journey and inquired as to the health of my family back in Longbourn. I… told him how lovely we found his house.” How soon until she could claim weariness and request a return to the inn?
Not soon enough, apparently, as they rounded the next corner and there he was again, approaching them with purpose.
“Miss Bennet,” he said at once, as they stopped short along the path. “Forgive me for not welcoming you properly earlier. I had only that moment arrived at Pemberley myself. Would you do me the honor of introducing me to your friends?”
Elizabeth was quite taken aback, but collected herself quickly enough to make the introductions. “Mr. Darcy, may I introduce you to Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner. Mr. Gardiner is my mother’s brother, sir, and they recently hosted my sister Jane at their house in London.”
She watched him carefully for a reaction, presuming that he must have mistaken them for people of fashion, instead of the middle-class businessman her uncle was. But for the third time that day, Mr. Darcy surprised her. He broke into a broad, amiable smile, like the kind he wore in his portrait, and greeted them most happily.
“Delighted to make your acquaintance, ma’am,” he said, affecting a bow. “Sir, I hope you are enjoying your visit to Pemberley.”
“Most certainly, sir. Your lake and streams here are among the best I have seen in all the houses we’ve toured in Derbyshire. Do you fish?”
“Yes, and the catch here is most excellent, indeed.” Mr. Darcy fell into step beside them as they resumed walking, pointing out to Mr. Gardiner the best spots for catching fish, and even going so far as to offer him the use of his own tackle for as long as the older man remained in the neighborhood.
Elizabeth vacillated between astonishment that Mr. Darcy was stooping to be civil with her family and happiness at the obvious pleasure he took in their company. At least he would come away from this interaction with the knowledge that she had some family members for which she should feel no shame.
Soon enough, Mrs. Gardiner required the use of her husband’s arm and fell back to walk with him, leaving Mr. Darcy to take her place by Elizabeth’s side. Elizabeth steeled herself for more of the awkwardness that had marked their previous conversation, but Darcy seemed to have regained his composure most admirably, and took noted pride in pointing out various views of the park and the house to her as they strolled along. Elizabeth, for her part, was far too astonished to keep up her end of the conversation, but Mr. Darcy kept pressing, a fact which Elizabeth found all the more astonishing, and which flustered her even further.
Who was this gentleman who now took her arm whenever a root or dip appeared in their path, who talked with grace and ease of fishing and the places he played on these grounds as a boy? He was not the cold, imperious Darcy of Meryton or Netherfield, not the disagreeable, stiff man who had proposed to her in Hunsford. No, if anything, the man who spoke to her now reminded her of nothing more than the one she’d first caught a glimpse of in his letter to her. Elizabeth was not sure what to make of it. Was it Derbyshire that had affected this transformation? Perhaps Mr. Darcy was never himself unless he was in his own home.
He brought up the party the housekeeper had mentioned would arrive with him. “They will join me early tomorrow,” he continued and looked away, almost shyly, “and among them are some who will claim an acquaintance with you—Mr. Bingley and his sisters.”
Elizabeth nodded. She felt she could do little else, as the mere mention of Bingley could only make her remember the last time his name had passed between them. She had accused him of driving Mr. Bingley away from her sister, and he had admitted — openly!—that he had done so. She must keep hold of that. She looked to Mr. Darcy and saw in the uncertain twist of his mouth that perhaps he was thinking of that time, too.
“There is also one other person in the party,” he continued at long last, “who more particularly wishes to be known to you.”
Elizabeth turned to him, her curiosity piqued. Whoever could he mean? Mr. Bingley and Colonel Fitzwilliam had always been kind to her, but Bingley’s sisters were another matter entirely, and she could not imagine that Mr. Darcy had many friends who were eager to make her acquaintance after his reports might have reached their ears.
“Will you allow me, or do I ask too much, to introduce my sister to you during your stay at Lambton?”
Elizabeth turned away then, to hide her sharp intake of breath. She hadn’t the least notion that the young Miss Darcy knew of Elizabeth’s existence. If she wished to meet Elizabeth, however, that must be the work of her brother. It was a compliment of the highest kind, to think that whatever his resentment of Elizabeth, whatever might have passed between them those months ago in Hunsford, that he did not really think ill of her.
A gratifying thought indeed. And one that doomed her to contemplations that threatened her composure even more. For if Darcy was speaking well of her to his sister, what else might be his current opinion?
“Of course,” she responded, and she could not keep the breathless tone from her voice. “I would be honored to meet your sister. I have heard everything wonderful about her from all quarters.”
Now he did give her a look, a curious one, with a sort of half-smile, and Lizzy instantly remembered that the only negative report she’d ever received of the young Miss Darcy was from Mr. Darcy himself. She bit her tongue in mortification that he might consider her words a reference to her knowledge of what had passed between Miss Darcy and Mr. Wickham.
“Miss Bennet,” was all he said, and then seemed to be able to say no more.
“I meant…” she pushed out, not quite certain what she had meant, when all was said and done. “I meant only that your Mrs. Reynolds, just now, has been paying your sister the loveliest compliments. Of her interest in music, of the sitting room you have just had redone for her birthday. Of—”
“Of course, Mrs. Reynolds,” Mr. Darcy replied. “She is an excellent woman.”
“Yes.” But this topic, too, was not designed to make Elizabeth feel at ease, for the only other thing she could say of Mrs. Reynolds was that she had a great fondness for the man at her side, and Elizabeth could hardly say that, now could she?
All reasonable conversation between them had now come to an end, and they walked on in silence, Elizabeth’s mind filled with thoughts ranging from astonishment to confusion and even to what might be described as the tiniest sliver of regret.
She dare not examine that emotion too closely. Neither dare she speculate on what it was that occupied Mr. Darcy.
At last they arrived at their carriage, and though Mr. Darcy invited them into the house, Elizabeth thought she could not bear more of his solicitous regard and insisted she was tired and must be allowed to return to the inn. But she quickly saw her mistake for when he handed her into the carriage his grip on her fingers lingered fully a second longer than strictly necessary, and his farewell, though addressed to all three people in their party, was delivered with his eyes fixed upon her. He promised to bring his sister by soon and left unspoken another promise she felt nonetheless. She was not sure she drew breath until the carriage pulled beyond the gate of the park.
For the rest of the ride back to the inn at Lambton, her aunt and uncle discussed the surprising events of the afternoon and peppered her with questions as to whether or not his invitations to fish and his professed intention to call on them could possibly have been meant in earnest.
“Perhaps he may be a little whimsical in his civilities,” suggested her uncle. “Great men often are, and therefore I shall not take him at his word about fishing, as he might change his mind another day, and warn me off his grounds.”
Elizabeth felt she could not let this remark go by unchallenged. “Uncle, if there is anything I know of Mr. Darcy, it is that his word ought to be believed. If he has invited you to fish on his grounds, it was a genuine offer.”
“Indeed!” replied her aunt. “But what of the report we have had from Mr. Wickham? A man with a reputation of keeping his word would not deny a family friend the living his own father had promised.”
Elizabeth looked away. “I have heard an alternative explanation for Mr. Wickham’s troubles, ma’am, which gives me reason to believe we may have been deceived by him.”
“Lizzy, is this true? And you and he were supposed to have been such friends.”
She recalled then a sentiment that Mr. Darcy had long ago expressed to her. Surprising how fitting she now found it to be. “Mr. Wickham is blessed with such happy manners as may ensure his making friends. Whether he may be equally capable of retaining them is less certain.”
Her aunt considered this, in the quietly perceptive way she always had. “And Mr. Darcy? He is perhaps not so disagreeable as widely agreed upon?”
“Perhaps,” Elizabeth allowed with a smile.
“There is,” her aunt said now, “something pleasing about his mouth when he speaks.”
There was something pleasing about his mouth at all times, Elizabeth thought, and then colored deeply and turned, shielding her face with her bonnet.
“And there is something of dignity in his countenance, that would not give one an unfavorable idea of his heart.”
Elizabeth laughed now, at her aunt’s earnest attempts to make up for her earlier opinion of Mr. Darcy. “I do not need for you to like him or not on my behalf, ma’am,” she said teasingly.
“Do you not?” her aunt replied. “Curious.”
Her uncle looked from one to the other, a quizzical expression on his face. “I find, my dears, that I am having a difficult time following the line of this conversation.”
“It is not properly meant for the ears of men,” Mrs. Gardiner responded, patting his arm. “But look, we are nearly arrived at Lambton. Do you see that fine hill? In the spring, it is nearly pink with wildflowers.”
Elizabeth was relieved by her aunt’s change of subject, and settled back for the rest of the ride, lost in a tumble of conflicting thoughts, each so pressing and upsetting that she was scarcely able to ruminate on one before another one pushed its way to the forefront and demanded consideration as well.
The rest of the day passed in a similar state of unease, and Elizabeth excused herself soon after dinner to go to her room and lie down. She wished fervently that Jane had joined her on this trip, as she had no one to speak to in order to help her understand all these unexpected events. And though she lay awake over two hours, she was not sure she understood them any better.
The sight of Pemberley had broken all her attempts at composure. That must be admitted at first, before any other consideration. To be told a man was in possession of ten thousand a year was impressive, to be sure. How they all had marveled at such numbers back at Longbourn. But to see his ancestral home, its beautiful rooms and well-kept grounds, and to know that Mr. Darcy took an active interest in the estate and how it looked—that was something different. She’d been in fine houses before. She’d seen what Lady Catherine de Bourgh had chosen with her fortune, and Rosings Park could easily be found wanting in comparison with Pemberley. Elizabeth had delighted in Pemberley, it must be said. And so, it followed that she would have softer sentiments toward the man most responsible for its nature.
Then the description by Mrs. Reynolds, which though it had astonished her at the time, had helped her gain perspective on where her first impression of the housekeeper’s master might have been mistaken. At any rate, Mrs. Reynolds’s opinion of Mr. Wickham was quite in keeping with his reputation in the village as well. Mrs. Gardiner had brought his name up to the innkeeper that evening. The man had scowled and told them about the unpaid debts Mr. Wickham had left behind when he quit Lambton, debts that had been quietly paid off by Mr. Darcy.
When Mrs. Gardiner had related that they’d made the acquaintance of Mr. Darcy at Pemberley that very day, the innkeeper’s eyes had widened, impressed. For however low was the villagers’ opinion of Mr. Wickham, their regard for their rich neighbor was quite high.
Elizabeth found that she could not account for these discoveries, and the matter weighed upon her most heavily. All night she tossed and turned, wondering how much her dislike of Darcy had rested in his actual behavior to her, and how much had rested in her first impression of him, back in Meryton, when he’d spoken ill of her. How those sparks of insolence had been fanned by the charming and apparently disreputable Mr. Wickham. How they’d reached full strength upon hearing the account from Colonel Fitzwilliam of Mr. Darcy’s influence over Mr. Bingley in the matter of Jane.
This was the story she had told herself when she’d responded to his proposal with disdain and anger. This was the justification she had given herself when she’d hurled the epithet “ungentlemanly” at him.
But there was another story as well. One which she was just beginning to uncover, here in Derbyshire.
One whose ending she could not imagine.