IN DARCY’S DREAMS
By the third day of rain in Hertfordshire, Fitzwilliam Darcy wondered if he should not have cut his visit with his friend Bingley short. He was tired of the dreary weather, which had kept them all indoors for days. He had no interest in the paltry collection of books at Netherfield Park. He was weary of politely repeating the same conversations with Bingley’s sister, which always, despite his best efforts, turned into opportunities for her to tease him about Elizabeth Bennet.
That topic reflected well on neither of them—Miss Bingley by comparison, and him because he was far too bored by his surroundings to risk lingering overmuch on thoughts of Elizabeth Bennet. It had been dangerous enough while they stayed under the same roof. Darcy could not remember when he’d last met a lady so bewitching. He’d gone to great lengths the last day she and her sister were at Netherfield, to ensure that he did not allow any of his growing admiration to show, wary that she—as well as Miss Bingley—might be able to detect a peculiar regard.
Once they had been left in a room alone together for an entire half-hour. He had spent that time in a state of carefully maintained composure, concentrating entirely on a book he had already read—and hadn’t enjoyed much the first time—rather than daring to speak more than ten words to her.
But as far as he could tell, Miss Bennet neither noticed nor cared.
Miss Bingley found it all a very great source of amusement, but all her laughter only served to remind Darcy uncomfortably of Elizabeth’s far more natural humor. Of the way she seemed not to care a bit that everyone found her tastes simple and her manners unfashionable. It was all so very curious. Had he ever before known such a woman, a woman like Miss Bennet? A woman who was neither uncouth nor ignorant, but who also cared very little for the approval of her social betters? Who showed him no deference and did not seem even to relish the attention he grudgingly paid her?
That notion gave him pause. It was very possible. It was very possible he had never met someone like her in his life.
Before he knew what he was about, he was wearing a coat and hat, and calling for his horse to be brought around.
“Darcy!” cried his friend Bingley, when he heard of the plan. “You cannot mean to go riding in this weather! It is not fit for man nor beast out there.”
“Leave me go, Bingley, for I seem to recall how well you know what an awful object I can be, on particular occasions, in particular places, when I have nothing to do.”
And then Bingley stopped, remembering the jab he had made at Darcy’s expense several nights ago. “Very well,” said he, “if it shall clear your head. Only do take care not to kill yourself, or your horse. I am most fond of poor Peaseblossom.”
Darcy cringed. If Georgiana insisted on naming all their horses, and after fairies too, why could she not have reserved something more distinguished for his personal mount? Oberon would have been preferable.
Georgiana, of course, would say it was his own fault for not taking the trouble of naming the animal himself.
“It is merely a shower—and, look, the rain has already stopped.”
“This hour,” Bingley argued. “But there are more black clouds upon the horizon, and the ground will be slick. If you care not for yourself, do think of the trouble we shall have pulling you out of a ditch.”
But Darcy would not be moved.
And so it was that Peaseblossom, his glorious black mane glistening, was brought about by a servant, who appeared quite astonished that the gentleman would wish to ride about in the storm. The man went so far as to advise Darcy as to which trails and fields should be best avoided, should he wish to spare his horse.
Darcy wished he could spare both of them.
A quarter hour’s hard riding did what he had hoped, however, with the exertion taking all his mental and physical focus, and the pounding rain cooling his fevered thoughts. He slowed to a trot, and then a walk. Peaseblossom was caked in mud, and Darcy knew his valet would not appreciate the state of his boots, pants, and even the lower half of his coat. His hat was ready for the dustbin. His cravat, which had long since come undone, blew about, spattered with muck.
And to think, the previous week they’d been sitting about the drawing-room discussing a few inches of mud on the hem of Elizabeth Bennet’s petticoat.
Darcy clenched his jaw. More riding was needed. But Peaseblossom seemed to have quite enough of the endeavor and, despite his exquisite pedigree and rigorous training, was turning petulant beneath the reins. Or maybe Darcy had just lost the heart to force the issue. He could not blame the horse—every step along the slick ground was a danger, and they’d been pressing their luck for long enough. Very well then. He pulled the reins to turn the beast back toward Netherfield, and the creature’s legs slipped out beneath him.
Before he could stop himself, Darcy had gone toppling off his mount and hit the ground, rolling at the last second lest he be crushed by his own horse.
For a moment, all Darcy could do was lie there, dazed, hardly able to take stock of his body. Peaseblossom, the wretched beast, stood a few steps away, panting heavily, his head hanging down, his mane streaming with water.
Darcy’s shoulder ached where he landed, but he was otherwise unharmed. He lay on the soaking grass, trying to catch his breath.
Thunder cracked overhead, and the sky opened up.
Fitzwilliam Darcy, flat on his back in a field in Hertfordshire, could do naught but laugh.
Well, he could never claim he hadn’t been warned—by his friend, by the servants, and, he barely need add, by his own better judgement. He’d been impulsive and foolish, but at least there was no one around to mark his performance.
With some difficulty, he stood. His coat, now thoroughly wet through, hung heavy on his shoulders. His hat appeared to have blown away entirely, for though he searched the ground nearby, he saw no sign of it. The rain grew harder every second, and he grabbed for his horse’s reins and pulled him along. Seeing an ancient yew tree some thirty yards away, he made for it on foot, guiding Peaseblossom, as the downpour simultaneously drenched him and washed away all the mud from his fall. His dark hair lay flat upon his face like streaming snakes, and he swiped ineffectually at the strands. Just a few more yards, and he would be sheltered by the yew’s overarching boughs and thick foliage.
He hurried the last few yards and ducked beneath the branches, then stopped dead.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Darcy,” said Elizabeth Bennet, from her perch on an upturned root. “Lovely weather, is it not?”
Elizabeth Bennet had wanted nothing more than to escape the notice of Mr. Collins for a half hour. The rain had kept them all inside for days, and sometime during the interminable dreariness, it had dawned on her that the Longbourn houseguest had a very particular purpose in coming to visit his long-estranged cousin: to find a wife among the young ladies of the house. Moreover, she ascertained that her cousin had selected her from among her sisters as his intended bride. It was Elizabeth whom he wished to spirit off to Kent, there to be the mistress of the Hunsford parsonage and to help make the fourth at the card table at Rosings, should there be no more-eligible visitors. Now he sought her out in all corners of the house and paid her abrupt and unexpected compliments as to her supposed beauty, charms, wit, and vivacity. It did not take Elizabeth long to understand his purpose, particularly when he managed to extract from her a promise to dance the first two dances at the Netherfield ball, which she had been hoping to preserve for her new acquaintance, Mr. Wickham.
When a short break in the weather arrived, Elizabeth threw caution to the ill wind and went for a ramble. Better muddy fields and drizzle than conversation with Mr. Collins! But the rain had started again, and she’d been forced to seek shelter beneath the boughs of the great yew on the back field of Lucas Lodge near the Meryton Road.
At least there it was quiet and solitary. The thick foliage shielded her from the worst of the rain and, despite the wet days behind them, she was able to find a few dry spots on an upturned root upon which to rest. Perhaps she’d stay here all day—though, of course, that would never do. Mr. Collins would soon enough note her absence and inform her mother, who would pretend to be worried in all the ways she was not worried when Jane had been out in the rain, and for precisely the same reasons. Perhaps Mrs. Bennet might even send Mr. Collins to look for Elizabeth and escort her home, like some gallant knight out of a novel.
Just then, Elizabeth heard the sound of horse hoofs approaching. She stood and peered through the boughs to see if, indeed, her unwelcome admirer had been sent to retrieve her. But, despite the distance, she could tell it was not Mr. Collins. He sat too tall on his horse—a huge, black thing she could not immediately place. It certainly wasn’t a Longbourn horse. And the man who so excellently—daringly!—guided the creature through the rain-swept fields at such a fast clip…he was not her cousin or her father.
A few moments later, she recognized the figure. Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth retreated into the shadows of the boughs. She would not want him to see her there. She did not wish ever to speak to the man again after the account she had received from Mr. Wickham. When she’d known him at Netherfield, she’d thought him proud and disagreeable, but now, to have learned of his ungenerous, cruel nature—to know that he had deprived a family friend of his rightful legacy and livelihood!—well, that resolved the matter for her. There was no hope for such a man.
He had stopped his horse now and stood still in the field for a long moment. How strange that he should be out and about in such weather. Even from here she could see the toll his endeavor had taken on his fine clothes. She was not in any better shape—Mrs. Hill would cluck her tongue and beg Miss Elizabeth to have a care for her petticoats—but mud looked out of place on Mr. Darcy. She could not imagine what might have brought him to ride out today of all days.
Just as she thought it, she saw him turn his horse, and then—Elizabeth wasn’t quite sure how—the animal seemed to slip, or rear, or slide, and Mr. Darcy went toppling from its back.
She gasped, bringing her gloved hand to her mouth, and nearly burst from her hiding space. The horse did not fall but cantered away a few steps and stood still, but Mr. Darcy—he did not move.
Oh dear! Had he been trampled? Had he, perhaps, hit his head? Elizabeth rushed from the protection of the boughs, heedless of the slippery ground. There was a roll of thunder from above, and it began to rain again. And then she heard it.
Mr. Darcy was lying flat on his back and laughing as loud as any man she had ever heard. Elizabeth froze in her tracks at the sound. Would wonders never cease? Well, at least she could be sure he had not been injured. She could hear him even over the rain that grew heavier by the second.
Elizabeth lifted her skirts and raced back beneath the boughs of the yew. She shook the water from her skirts and the brim of her already-sodden bonnet, her heart racing, the sound of Mr. Darcy laughing somehow seared permanently into her ears.
She could not have imagined such a man capable of laughing at himself, even when he thought he might be alone. She would not have anticipated him to have any sense of humor at all. Or, at least, not one she might enjoy.
And the sound—it had such a curious effect on her. She’d heard her father laugh, of course, and the male servants, occasionally, on a midwinter’s night when they’d had too much wine. But the full, hearty laugh of a young man who thought no one was about to hear him—well, Elizabeth had no brothers. Such a sound was a mystery to her. A most unexpected and appealing mystery.
She looked through the foliage again and caught her breath. For Mr. Darcy was marching toward her, leading his horse. He had seen her! She backed up until she felt the roots of the tree hit the back of her knees, and sat. There was no escape.
A moment later, Mr. Darcy, too, was beneath the sheltering boughs of the yew, and his countenance upon finding her there too was nothing short of astonishment.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Darcy,” she blurted. “Lovely weather, is it not?”