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Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Little More Practice (1 of 7)


(2006-2007)
Pride and Prejudice
The day after Lady Catherine critiques her musical performance, Elizabeth Bennet follows her ladyship’s advice and commences practice on the piano in Mrs. Jenkinson’s room.



“I have told Miss Bennet several times, that she will never play really well, unless she practises more; and though Mrs. Collins has no instrument, she is very welcome, as I have often told her, to come to Rosings every day, and play on the piano forte in Mrs. Jenkinson’s room. She would be in nobody’s way, you know, in that part of the house.”

Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 31



Part 1


“Are you certain it is no trouble?”

“Quite so, Miss Bennet. Lady Catherine has instructed me to make the instrument available to you for one hour each day, should you desire it.”

“I would not wish to inconvenience you or to intrude upon your privacy.”

“That will not be the case. I am to accompany Miss de Bourgh in her phaeton this moment. We shall be from the house for the next two hours at least. There will be no inconvenience at all.”

“Then I thank you.”

Mrs. Jenkinson nodded her acknowledgement, and Elizabeth entered the room as the elder lady’s footsteps faded into silence.

~☆☽♭♮♯


‘She likes to have the distinction of rank preserved.’

Mr. Collins’s words of the previous day echoed in Elizabeth’s head as she examined her surroundings. Indeed, there was no useless finery, no ostentatious display in this part of the house. Everywhere she turned, her eyes rested upon a dull grey. The simple, utilitarian furnishings promised significantly less comfort than their more luxurious counterparts in the main drawing room.

She stood still for a time, having the leisure to wonder at her being where she was. A shrill voice drifted up the stairwell and into the corridor and soon halted her contemplation. Her ladyship, no doubt, was instructing Mrs. Jenkinson on the proper way to position Miss de Bourgh’s garment about her, or some equally inconsequential matter; the words themselves were indistinct but the tone was as commanding as ever.

“Be sure to place it sufficiently high about the neck and shoulders.” Elizabeth whispered her mockery to the empty chamber. “Fasten it securely, but not so restricting as to impede the proper movement of the head. Miss de Bourgh must retain her ability at all times to offer a superior, condescending nod to the occasional villager as she passes by him.” She snorted, grateful to be only in Mrs. Jenkinson’s room and not in her position as well, where she might be subjected to such superciliousness every day. Between the Mistress of Rosings Park and the Master of Hunsford Parsonage, Elizabeth had had her fill of pronouncements. Respect and civility she tendered willingly, but reverence for Lady Catherine or her opinions was beyond Elizabeth’s desire and ability to feign.

She fingered the rough fabric draping the windows. If not for the extensive, expertly manicured grounds revealed by drawing the curtains aside, she might have fancied herself elsewhere: Guilford House, before Mrs. Long’s most recent improvements; a rarely used apartment in her Aunt Philips’s home; perhaps even the Parsonage, although, to be fair, Charlotte’s modest guest quarters effected a more welcoming impression, fitted up as they were with comfortable trappings in cheerful hues.

Her thoughts turned from Charlotte to that other permanent resident of Hunsford Parsonage. Thankfully, Mr. Bennet was in tolerable health, for the grasping Mr. Collins no doubt would hasten to claim Longbourn the very moment he heard otherwise. If that terrible moment were to come too soon—she hoped it would not take place for many, many years yet—Elizabeth might find herself in a similar situation to that of Miss de Bourgh’s companion: relegated to four drab walls in another woman’s house; compelled, at her employer’s whim, to share her pianoforte with visiting ladies of no great talent.

Not one hour ago, she had sat in the dining parlour of the Parsonage, ill tempered and desperate to escape her cousin’s irksome society. Luckily, she had recollected Lady Catherine’s offer and informed Mr. Collins of her intent to depart for Rosings directly. Just as she had expected, he hurried her on her way. He could not approve of any scheme of Lady Catherine’s rapidly enough.

She would benefit from the practice. It was true that she did not perform as well as she wished and slightly mortifying that Lady Catherine had not hesitated to point out her deficiencies in company. The primary inducement to seek out Mrs. Jenkinson, however, had been that an hour-long, solitary music lesson seemed a heavenly alternative to bearing with Mr. Collins for any length of time.

The previous evening, the man had not waited for the carriage to pull away from Rosings before lecturing her on the impropriety of monopolising the attention of Lady Catherine’s nephews. Mr. Collins renewed the subject this morning, insinuating that Elizabeth entertained presumptuous aspirations of marrying far above her station. How laughable! She had made the acquaintance of the colonel only the previous week. He had to mean the colonel. As for Mr. Darcy, the notion was ridiculous in the extreme.

From his copious words and bitter tone, it was all too clear that Mr. Collins still resented her refusal in November. She understood that he thought her foolish for spurning his marriage proposal. He was entitled to his opinion on the matter, but to hint repeatedly at such a thing now that he had chosen another, and in Charlotte’s presence, too! How imprudent, embarrassing and entirely unreasonable! “Charlotte is the foolish one for connecting herself with such a man.” Her good friend may have cast her lot with Mr. Collins, but she would not subject herself unnecessarily to his company.

And this was the gentleman who was to inherit Longbourn. The idea of Charlotte’s husband walking into her childhood abode as its owner, of anyone displacing her family, struck her as both unnatural and overwhelming. If Lady Catherine maintained successful control of Rosings, why might not Mrs. Bennet manage Longbourn if she were to survive her husband? Why must the actions of some long-buried ancestor, no matter how respected or beloved, determine the manner in which she and her sisters were to live? Elizabeth suddenly found herself in surprising sympathy with her mother. Before this, Mrs. Bennet’s confusion over the nature of entails had inspired frustration and, occasionally, amusement. Being at a great distance from home, however, with the opportunity to see more of the world, gave Elizabeth a fresh perspective on her own fate. Of course, it would have helped matters if…in truth, all might be very different, indeed, were Mr. Collins a man she could admire and respect…but, alas, that was not to be.

At length, she crossed the worn carpet and sat down at the instrument. Ignoring the sheets of music at her side, she began to play from memory one of several pieces she had taught herself in recent years. Halfway through the selection, she paused in wonder, with her fingers suspended over the keys. Not one note had sounded amiss. The rich, bright tone surpassed that of the pianoforte she and Mary shared at home. “I do believe I would find my sister’s most pedantic efforts much more tolerable on this jewel of an instrument…”

She continued her playing, though with a different song now, bobbing her head in time with the reel. At first she grimaced at every note her impatient fingers misplayed, but by the end she was unable to keep a smile from her face. This was just the sort of music Kitty and Lydia favoured—youthful, lively, spirited—especially when the company of a redcoat was to be had. It was not made for regrets and melancholy.

Melody after melody filled the room as Elizabeth recovered her natural good humour. Sometimes she sang, sometimes not. For her final piece she chose an old favourite: a lullaby, not quite the fashionable choice to perform at country assemblies, but she had no audience now, and she was fond of it, for it displayed her voice to advantage.

She repeated the refrain at the end, humming this time instead of articulating the words. She looked around the room and somehow did not falter at the sight of a familiar form in the doorway. He had his eyes closed and, by the look of it, was enjoying her performance, but she could not be certain from this distance. His head rested against the doorframe. He had never appeared so at ease in her presence before. Was she lulling him to sleep with her singing?

She returned her gaze to the instrument and finished the song, then waited a few moments before glancing at the doorway again. It was empty, as if the man had been merely a vision. She had not heard him walking to or from the room. Perhaps he meant to observe her discreetly. Did he even realise she had seen him there?

Alone once more, she stretched her arms high above her head. The time away from her cousin had proven restorative, and now she felt weary of sitting and anticipated the walk across the lane to the Parsonage.

She met the gentleman on the stair.

“Good day, Miss Bennet.”

“Good day, Mr. Darcy.”

“I was not aware that you were to visit Rosings this afternoon.”

She thought he looked as though he wished to say more. When he did not continue, she told him, “I have been practising in Mrs. Jenkinson’s room. I found I could not refuse your aunt’s kind invitation.” She waited for him to divulge the fact that he knew this, that he had watched her play only minutes ago, but he merely coloured a little, as he had the previous evening at Lady Catherine’s words. “I hope I did not disturb you.” She wondered whether he had found her flawed performance distracting.

“Not at all.”

Then she saw it. She was careful to observe him; even so, she nearly missed it. His stance softened with that same ease she had seen earlier, and his face filled with…tenderness, really, she determined—a trait completely at odds with her knowledge of his character. Just as quickly, his expression reverted to its former inscrutability.

“I should get back to the Parsonage now. Charlotte expects me to return for tea.” She searched his face in her confusion.

He stared back at her, saying nothing until the silence grew awkward. “Have a pleasant walk, Miss Bennet.”

“Thank you, Mr. Darcy.”

~☆☽♭♮♯


“Oh, Eliza! That is lovely work, but I do believe you will run out of that colour before you are quite through. I am sorry I have nothing of a similar shade to give you.”

“This had no chance of being perfect in any case, Charlotte.” She held up the cloth and eyed the short length of floss dangling from it, sighing at how little attention she had been paying to the work before her. “I am sure a different colour will do as well, and if not, I shall complete it some other time.”

Elizabeth sat with Maria and Charlotte in the latter’s favourite parlour. Embroidery was not her preferred form of employment, but she had read, walked, practised music, dined, and discussed both the weather and poultry already, so there was little left from which to choose.

She wished to answer Jane’s most recent letter, but she had nothing to write that might raise her sister’s spirits. That feat could only be accomplished by Mr. Bingley’s return to Netherfield, and until that occurred her family must be content with a less cheerful Jane Bennet.

“I still cannot believe how grand Rosings is, Charlotte!” Maria’s grip loosened on her sewing as she spoke. “I have seen nothing to compare to it, except Netherfield, which is not half so impressive. Miss Bingley did prepare the ballroom very well in November, I will say, yet I cannot help but think that a ball at Rosings would be ten times grander. Do you not agree?” She turned her bright eyes towards Elizabeth. “Would Mr. Darcy ask you to dance again, Eliza? He could not be always paired with Miss de Bourgh. Even if they were positively engaged, it would not be proper. But he does not dance much, as I recall, and is none too amiable, either, for all that he’s so handsome and rich. But the colonel would ask you to dance, I’m sure, and perhaps he would ask me as well.”

A wistful look spread over Maria’s face, and Elizabeth smiled despite her exasperation. Dance with Mr. Darcy again? Never! Not that he would ever ask. She saw no reason why he should approach her at all, and shuffled uncomfortably in her seat as she recalled his presence in Mrs. Jenkinson’s doorway. Just as she had firmly decided that neither of them would take pleasure in standing up together for a set or two in the Rosings ballroom, she recalled his expression on the stair. “But that signifies nothing, surely,” she murmured. “He is still the most hateful man.”

“What were you saying, Eliza?”

Elizabeth blushed when she saw Charlotte looking at her. “Oh, I just recalled something. It is of no consequence.” Charlotte nodded knowingly, much to her chagrin, but, thankfully, said no more on the subject and instead discussed with Maria her plan to walk into the village the following morning and call on some of the cottagers.

Sleep did not come easily to Elizabeth but at length it did come, although it was not to last through the night. Some hours before dawn, she awakened from a dream in which she sat, dressed all in grey, on the edge of the bed in Mrs. Jenkinson’s room and sang her favourite lullaby to a little boy. He was beautiful. She ran her hands through his hair as he rested with his cheek pressed against the pillow. The last note faded and he broke the silence with a voice too deep for any lad. “No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you can think any thing wanting.” He turned, no longer a boy, and looked upon her with a familiar tender expression...

She sat up, fully awake, and stared into the dark. Much as she endeavoured to prevent it, her thoughts strayed towards Rosings and remained fixed upon one of its inhabitants well after the sun had risen.

~☆☽♭♮♯


Part 2


Elizabeth sat alone at breakfast. Though she had risen early, she had left her room very late. Charlotte and Maria were gone to the village as planned, and she did not expect them home before afternoon tea. Mr. Collins was shut up in his study, presumably writing a sermon.

She considered whether to go again to Rosings. The novelty of a long practice, as well as the fine sound of the instrument, held an attraction for her. Still, she hesitated. Remnants of the dream persisted, and she wished to avoid meeting with Mr. Darcy if at all possible. If she went to Mrs. Jenkinson’s room again, would he come stealthily to watch her as he had before?

A commotion arose at the front of the house. It was Mr. Collins’s “Lady Catherine is here!” that decided the matter for Elizabeth; in her current state, she had not the fortitude to bear with her cousin and the great Lady together. She slipped around the corner and retrieved her bonnet as Mr. Collins bolted out the front door to greet his patroness. Then she made her way to the back of the house as quietly as she could and walked out of doors and across the lane, taking care to stay far from the dining parlour windows. Before she had settled on a particular destination, her feet carried her up the steps to Rosings and through the entrance. She considered turning back but decided to stay. The house was pleasant enough when Lady Catherine was not in it. Her ladyship likely would remain at the Parsonage for an hour, and from there perhaps proceed to the village to seek out Charlotte for the pleasure of advising her on how best to carry out her charitable work.

Elizabeth engaged Mrs. Jenkinson in conversation as they walked to the pianoforte.

“Her ladyship had it imported from the continent several years ago.” Mrs. Jenkinson appeared delighted with her guest’s praise of the instrument and eagerly answered her inquiries. “There was, apparently, a misunderstanding. Lady Catherine expected a much larger, grander instrument, one fit to replace the pianoforte in the drawing room.” There was such animation in her features, as if she were honoured to be asked for an explanation. “She wanted it returned immediately, but Miss de Bourgh requested that it be brought here instead. She—Miss de Bourgh, that is—recalled that I had no instrument, and kindly suggested that it might allow me to prepare for those occasions when my playing is required. Unfortunately, Miss de Bourgh is often unwell and rarely desirous of lingering in the drawing room to hear music, and as I must attend her, of course, this does not get very much use.” She sighed and trailed her hand along the edge of the piano.

Elizabeth had never heard so many words from this woman before, and it pleased her. She was even more curious now. “Shall I hear you play before I leave Kent?”

Mrs. Jenkinson started, as if she had been asked something quite shocking. “I am sure I do not know, Miss Bennet. I cannot tarry here much longer. Miss de Bourgh is going out again in the phaeton.”

Elizabeth thanked Mrs. Jenkinson and, watching her leave, tried in vain not to think of the next person she was likely to meet before leaving Rosings. But surely he would not come a second time…would he?

Why him? Why not the colonel instead? She knew of one good reason for that, at least. If Colonel Fitzwilliam sought her out now, as Mr. Darcy had done, would it not show particular interest? Surely the son of an earl, especially a younger son in need of a wealthy bride, would not wish to court a dowerless country gentlewoman. His friendly attention to her was unlikely to become more than that.

“At least he does not look upon me only to criticise, as his cousin does.” Yet, Mr. Darcy had not criticised her the previous day or questioned her right to be there. Perhaps he had come to ensure that his aunt’s advice was properly heeded, or her playing had been too loud and had distracted him from his business concerns. Though he did not seem displeased in any way; quite the contrary, in fact…Had he been anyone else, she would think that he…

She perused the selection of music at her side in an effort to push that thought out of her head.

Elizabeth wondered at her dubious talent for drawing the attention of men who either repulsed her or could ill afford an attachment to her. Most heartily did she wish herself in possession of a fortune such as that which Mary King had; ten thousand pounds would be of no little comfort, for at least she would have the means to support herself should the worst occur. Or the best. She thought wistfully of Mr. Wickham and let her fingers fall into place.

She began with somber pieces. One song in particular she played over and over, earnestly attempting to improve her execution, until she grew sick of the sound. When at last she abandoned it, the tone of the instrument again worked its magic, and again her anxieties melted away until her fingers drew happier music from the keys.

She saved the lullaby for last. This time she heard the footsteps but refused to look up. As she hummed the final note, she heard him retreating. She tiptoed to the doorway and saw him disappear down the hall. Why had such a great, proud man gone out of his way to listen to a child’s song? It must have been the song that compelled him, for he thought little of the songstress, surely… She blushed at the memory of the little boy and full-grown man of whom she had dreamt the previous night and shuddered at the notion of the dream recurring. The sudden heat in her cheeks compelled her to seek the fresh air of the Park.

This time when she met Mr. Darcy on the stair, she did not stop straightaway. In her haste, she brushed past him on the landing and took a false step. Only his quickness to grasp her arm kept her from stumbling.

“Miss Bennet? Miss Bennet, are you well?”

She realised how uncivil and how agitated she must appear. “I…I apologise, Mr. Darcy. I was not attending.”

He walked to the step below her and observed her intently, clearly concerned. “You look as though some creature is hard on your heels. Though I can scarce imagine what might be fierce enough to intimidate such a courageous young woman as yourself.” His slight smile did not diminish the intensity of his stare.

Was he teasing her? She shifted her arm and he released it. “I am only hurrying out to enjoy the beauties of Rosings Park, nothing more.”

“It is a lovely day, and the weather is perfect for walking out.” He seemed to be deliberating. “Will you allow me to escort you?” he said at last, offering his arm.

“Thank you, but it is not necessary. I am quite well.” The last thing she needed was to walk back to the Parsonage on the arm of Mr. Darcy.

“Then at least allow me the pleasure…er, um, comfort of seeing you to the door,” he said with some awkwardness. He linked her arm in his without waiting for an answer, and they began the descent.

Thinking it would be rude to reclaim her arm now, but having nothing to say to him, Elizabeth walked on in silence. Darcy turned to her as they neared the base of the stairwell. “Did you enjoy your practice today, Miss Bennet?”

He must know, as he had observed it for himself; nonetheless, she answered him. “Very much. I find myself grateful to Lady Catherine for the suggestion. Mrs. Jenkinson’s pianoforte has a pleasing sound, not at all inferior to the grand instrument there.” She gestured in the direction of the drawing room.

“I quite agree.”

“Do you?” She turned to look straight into his eyes. “So you have heard it for yourself, then? Have you also been admonished to improve upon your skills by making use of that particular instrument?” She watched him, tempted to laugh as his expression registered surprise and embarrassment before he turned away. “I am astonished that your aunt has banished her favourite nephew to the servants’ quarters. Perhaps she does not approve of gentlemen performers.” She wondered how he would acquit himself now that he had been discovered.

“I…I…er, hm…Well, I have heard that…” He stammered and blushed as they stood in the hall and, when he dared to meet her eyes again, quietly asked, “So you saw me, then?”

She restrained her smile. “Yesterday, I did. Just now, I heard you coming and going.” She would not dare admit that she had rushed to the door to catch a glimpse of him.

“And I congratulated myself on being so quiet.” He sighed. “I never meant to disturb you.”

“You did nothing of the sort,” she lied. If dreaming of the man you were determined to hate was not disturbing, she did not know what was.

“Your playing was lovely.”

“I cannot agree with you there, but I did enjoy myself.”

“You should not think so meanly of your abilities.” He leaned closer to her ear so as not to be overheard by a passing servant. “Everyone is not as…critical an observer as my aunt.”

“I must go.” The look in his eyes and his nearness disconcerted her, and she wished herself away.

“Then I shall not detain you further. Good afternoon, Miss Bennet.”

“Good afternoon, Mr. Darcy.” As she left him, she could hear the faint humming of a certain lullaby.

~☆☽♭♮♯


Part 3


Upon her return from Rosings, Elizabeth resolved to remain at the Parsonage all of the following day and enjoy the company of her friends. Her encounters with Mr. Darcy unsettled her, and she had no wish to repeat them.

Events conspired against her, however. That evening, Colonel Fitzwilliam called at the Parsonage as he had done several times before. The colonel sat by her and the two of them conversed with an animation that drew a steady glare from Mr. Collins. Charlotte chatted in a desultory manner with Maria, unable to mask her discomfort. Elizabeth wondered if she would be forced to display incivility towards an amiable man in order to pacify a curmudgeon. She hoped it would not come to that.

Thankfully, the colonel’s visit did not last long, and Elizabeth retired early to her room. At breakfast she learned that a night’s rest had been insufficient to relieve her cousin’s mind; he once again lectured her and accused her of employing her arts and allurements to draw in the unsuspecting Colonel. The rest of the morning he refused to speak to her directly but talked of her to Charlotte and Maria as if she were not present. The moment Charlotte went out to work in her garden, Elizabeth slipped out of doors as well, feeling that she could not escape the house soon enough.

~☆☽♭♮♯


Elizabeth surveyed what fraction of the sixty-four windows could be viewed from her position on the front lawn of Rosings. She laughed at her newfound appreciation for the estate and wondered whether she might be developing a preference for grand houses.

She saw movement in one of the windows: the silhouette of a man stepping back, the drawing of a curtain. Whether it was Mr. Darcy she could not tell from where she stood, but the possibility deterred her from further consideration of practising her music. She turned and walked back down the wide stone steps and into the shrubbery beyond.

She was heading in no particular direction when a man approached her. She hoped Mr. Darcy had not spied her from the window and set out to meet her. Her apprehension soon gave way to relief at the welcome sight of Colonel Fitzwilliam.

“I have been making a tour of the Park, as I do every year. Shall I escort you back to the Parsonage? I am going there myself, as it turns out.”

“I…had not…”

“I received an express today.” He continued without acknowledging her halting reply. “My leave is cut short. I must travel to London tomorrow and rejoin my regiment shortly thereafter.” He smiled ruefully as her countenance fell. “I am sorry not to have the opportunity to improve our acquaintance, Miss Bennet.”

“As am I, Colonel Fitzwilliam.” Just her luck; the only amiable gentleman in the vicinity was now leaving. She had a sudden, happy thought. “Will your cousin return to town with you?”

“No, indeed. My aunt insists that he remain at Rosings at least a fortnight. She is quite immovable on that point. Darcy humours her, but on the fifteenth day, he is back in London before noon, without fail.” His broad smile made him appear almost handsome. “Lady Catherine is less concerned with my plans, however, and the demands of my profession take precedence, at any rate.”

“Then I do hope you enjoy the remainder of your stay.”

The colonel offered his arm and led her in the direction of the Parsonage. Elizabeth halted him, having no wish to hurry back into the presence of her cousin or to arrive in the sole company of Colonel Fitzwilliam and hear Mr. Collins’s strictures on the subject. “Actually, Colonel, I would prefer to walk a little longer in this garden, if it is not any trouble.”

“None at all. But do you wish to go into the house, then?”

“No; I should like to remain here.”

They walked along the path and spoke little until Elizabeth introduced a certain subject.

“Does Miss Darcy often accompany you to Kent?”

“Yes, but this year we thought it wise to allow her to remain in London.” At Elizabeth’s questioning look, he explained, “My cousin and I share guardianship of Miss Darcy.”

“Oh.” Elizabeth wondered how long Mr. Darcy’s parents had been deceased. Just then it occurred to her that the colonel, as cousin to the Darcys, might be in the position to confirm or deny Miss Bingley’s conjectures regarding her brother and Miss Darcy. “I understand that your charge has been much in company with one of my Hertfordshire neighbours, and that he and Miss Darcy are quite attached to one another.” Not that she believed Miss Bingley’s assertions for a moment, but she wanted to discover what Miss Darcy’s feelings were, if she could. She was surprised to see the colonel’s expression darken.

“The scoundrel! So he has loosened his tongue since Darcy left the county, eh? He will pay dearly for this!”

Elizabeth heard his quiet, heated words, though she could not imagine what had inspired them.

The colonel rapidly regained his composure. “I am deeply sorry for my outburst, Miss Bennet. Your information quite took me by surprise.” He paused, as if considering his words carefully, then he looked to her, resolute. “I hate to importune you, but I must know what he has told you. It is of great import, I assure you, or I never would presume…Pray, tell me, what exactly did George Wickham say?”

“Mr. Wickham?” What had he to do with it? And why was the colonel so disturbed? “All Wickham ever said about Miss Darcy was that she was fond of him in her youth but had grown very proud, like her brother.” She caught herself and looked up at the colonel, wondering whether he had heard her incautious mumbling. “I do not follow your meaning, Colonel. When I spoke of my neighbour, I referred to Mr. Bingley, not Mr. Wickham. Miss Bingley twice wrote to my sister Jane predicting an alliance between Miss Darcy and her brother.”

“Bingley?” He sounded as though he either did not believe her or did not understand whom she meant.

“Yes, Mr. Charles Bingley, Mr. Darcy’s friend.”

The colonel was visibly relieved and a little embarrassed. “Oh! Now, that is another matter entirely.” His face took on a firmness that belied his light tone, and he looked every bit the soldier as he said, “Would you be so good as to forget we had this misunderstanding, Miss Bennet?” It was not a request.

“Certainly, Colonel. Let us speak of it no more.” The man looked so severe, she had no choice but to oblige him, no matter how perplexed she was that Mr. Wickham’s name should be raised during a conversation about Miss Darcy and marriage prospects.

“I thank you. And in return for your kindness, I shall tell you this: I have never known Georgiana to claim more than a brotherly affection for Mr. Bingley.” His demeanor regained that ease and amiability which she had been accustomed to find in him. “As for Bingley, poor chap, it is my understanding that his inclinations lie with a young lady who, unfortunately, neither loves nor deserves him.”

It was Elizabeth’s turn to be shocked. She could well imagine where Colonel Fitzwilliam had received his intelligence of Mr. Bingley’s ‘inclinations’ and she silently cursed the source of the colonel’s information. How dare he! ‘Neither loves nor deserves him!’ She was too angry to respond.

“Miss Bennet?” The colonel gently called Elizabeth out of her reverie. “I do believe I shall escort you back after all. You appear to be unwell.” She did not protest, and they walked slowly to the Parsonage.

Mr. Collins glowered at Elizabeth when she entered the house on Colonel Fitzwilliam’s arm. He relented somewhat as the colonel explained that Miss Bennet had taken ill, and after seeing his guest out, he allowed Elizabeth to retire to her room without recrimination.

~☆☽♭♮♯


Elizabeth was still in her room when she heard the ring at the door signalling the colonel’s return. He had promised Mr. Collins that he would call again in the evening to take leave of them all. Charlotte convinced her easily enough to come down and say her farewells, but when she saw that Mr. Darcy had accompanied him, she heartily wished she had stayed in bed. She spoke amicably to the colonel, but she ignored Mr. Darcy when she could, and was coldly civil to him when she could not.

The next few days brought no invitations to dine at Rosings. Elizabeth, however, went thither each afternoon and practised most diligently in Mrs. Jenkinson’s room, with that most obliging lady’s consent, and showed, unbeknownst to herself, slight improvement. The piano’s rich voice soothed her anger and frustration over Jane’s disappointment. She never looked up at the doorway, though she knew Mr. Darcy was there each time. He had ceased his silent approaches now that there was no need for disguise of any sort. Each day when she met him on the stair, she gave no more than a cursory greeting before leaving the house. Mr. Darcy called at the Parsonage each evening, which was highly unusual behaviour for him, but she kept to her room and refused to see him.

On Sunday, Lady Catherine again invited the Collinses and their guests to Rosings for tea. Elizabeth would have been content to spend the afternoon scowling at Mr. Darcy and ignoring him by turns. Unfortunately, Lady Catherine often demanded her attention, and even asked her to entertain them.

“Mrs. Jenkinson informs me that you have been eager to improve your proficiency at the pianoforte and have practised several times on the instrument in her room. Let us hear what you have been able to accomplish in just one week.”

Elizabeth complied with the request and played with fervour and, for her, uncommon accuracy. Polite applause ensued. All enjoyed the performance; even Miss de Bourgh truly appeared pleased by it.

“Eliza, I always love to hear you play, but that was especially delightful.”

“Thank you, Charlotte.”

Mr. Collins grudgingly echoed his wife’s words. Lady Catherine then launched into a discourse on the benefits of constant practice. When she had said more than enough to satisfy all parties, the carriage was called and Elizabeth once again allowed her thoughts free rein, imagining all manner of scenarios in which Jane wasted away from a broken heart and Mr. Darcy was made very sorry for what he had done.

The following day, Elizabeth resumed her music practice. Mr. Darcy—it could have been none other—appeared at Mrs. Jenkinson’s door earlier than was his habit, and instead of remaining at the threshold, he strode into the room.

Elizabeth heard the door close behind him. She stopped playing but did not turn her head. “I do not recall inviting you in.” It was useless to try to contain her hostility now that she was presented with the object of it.

“I was not aware that I needed to ask your permission.” He moved quickly towards her.

“Perhaps you do not. As the future Master of Rosings Park, I suppose you might take certain liberties.”

“What?” He looked at her in consternation. “Please, spare me that nonsense. I came here to talk of something of a most serious nature. The last several days I have desired to speak to you, but you would not see me at the Parsonage and you always manage to leave Rosings before I have an opportunity to—”

“I doubt you can have anything to say that I wish to hear. Why did you close the door? Surely you know it is improper for us to be shut in here alone together.”

“If you are concerned for your reputation, you need not be. This is the last place where rumours would be tolerated.” He smirked. “Lady Catherine can ill afford to have my name linked with that of any woman other than my cousin Anne, if her plans are to come to fruition.”

“Then you are to marry your cousin.”

“Lady Catherine wants me to marry my cousin. There is a great difference. But, as I said before, I did not come here to discuss the vain wishes of my aunt. I came to talk to you about a mutual acquaintance.”

“Mr. Bingley!” Though he had closed the door, she was careful not to raise her voice overly much. “Ah, your very persuadable friend! Yes, what do you have to say for yourself?”

“That is not—”

“I have thought of little else for days now, and I have dwelt on Jane’s heartache far longer. Pray tell, what did she ever do to you to deserve your censure and cruelty?” Her anger drove her on before he could answer. “She ‘neither loves nor deserves him’—those were the words I heard, and I could not believe my ears! It must assuage your conscience a little to plead ignorance of Jane’s true feelings while enumerating your objections, which I imagine are only that she has one uncle who is a country attorney and another who is in trade in London.”

She lost patience with him for not making the slightest effort to explain himself even while remaining vaguely aware of the fact that she had interrupted his every attempt. “Is it true, then? Did you persuade Mr. Bingley to abandon Jane? Can you deny it?”

“I have no wish to deny it.”

She closed her eyes against her building fury. “And to think I was prepared to lay the principal fault at Miss Bingley’s feet, especially after she treated Jane so abominably in town.” She suddenly recalled Mr. Darcy’s confusion during their first conversation after his arrival in Kent. “I suppose you knew all along that my sister has been in Gracechurch Street since January.”

He said nothing; his eyes only widened and he looked uneasy.

“I wonder if Mr. Bingley is aware of it.”

He turned his face from her.

Elizabeth knew Miss Bingley would never willingly reveal Jane’s whereabouts to her brother, and now Mr. Darcy had all but admitted to conspiring to keep that information from his friend. Her strong dislike of him was blossoming into hatred.

“I daresay you congratulate yourself on saving your friend from what you must consider a most imprudent marriage, and why? Because my mother and uncles are not sufficiently grand for your tastes? Because Longbourn has not the income of Pemberley? It is horrid enough that your pride, your arrogance…”

“My arrogance? What—”

“…and your selfish disdain for the feelings of others have brought misery to both my sister and your friend. But then to boast about your contemptible actions to others! How could you?” She noted his shocked, reddened face and supposed people rarely spoke to him in this manner.

“How could I not advise my friend against a union with a woman of no connections and no fortune to speak of, with so few relations of sense and breeding? A handsome face and pleasant manners might be found anywhere. It was clear to me that she could offer him nothing, not even tender feelings.”

His words made her wince at first. It was one thing for her to say the Bennets were not grand enough to suit the likes of Mr. Darcy but quite another to hear him confirm that opinion. She struggled to remain focused on the subject at hand. It was too important to allow her anger, no matter how justified, to obscure it. “I will not even inquire how you dare insult my family to my face. After all, Jane’s connections or fortune can be of no importance to you. It is Mr. Bingley’s opinion that matters in this case, and he never appeared displeased with anything about her! And what you say of ‘tender feelings’ has no bearing, for Jane loves him. Have you heard nothing I have said today? My longsuffering sister has loved him all this time! Such an inconstant man does not deserve her.

“Miss Bennet certainly displayed no evidence of love.”

Her hands formed tight fists. “What evidence do you require?” How she could refrain from screaming she did not know, but she managed to keep her voice at a respectable level. “And who are you to require it?” His gall, his callousness was shocking. She could not help but feel some disappointment that such a clever mind was hampered by a complete lack of human feeling. What could he possibly know of love? “I should have expected as much from the man who threw off his childhood friend and denied his own father’s wishes.”

“What do you know of my father, or any of my private affairs? And what right has any person so wholly unconnected to my family to inquire?” He smirked again. How she hated the look on his face. “Considering that the source of your intelligence on the matter is anything but forthright and disinterested, I would venture to say that you know nothing at all.”

“I do know this, Mr. Darcy: you have proven, over and over, the accuracy of my initial impression of you, and I despise you as much as you despise me. Please, leave me in peace.” She was not usually one to be so uncivil, but what he had done was unfair. This place, this humble room had become her refuge, and he had spoilt it. Jane was rendered miserable, and Wickham made poor, by his hand; yet he was unrepentant. She would not say any more, but neither would she shrink from the challenge in his eyes. She waited in silence for him to go.

In the midst of her anger, she could not help but notice that he looked very like the image in her dream. That was when she realised his expression had changed. Had he taken her words to heart? She could not imagine he would deign to apologise, or that any explanation he could offer would appease her.

“Is that what you truly think, Miss Bennet? That I despise you?”

The question surprised her, but, thankfully, he did not wait for an answer. He turned, took several steps and stopped. Five steps, she counted, a fair way to the door, certainly, for such a tall man. Why did he not go? As if her unspoken thought prompted him to action, she heard the steps continue. To her astonishment, the sound grew louder, instead of fainter, as he moved; in another moment, she could hear him breathing. She refused to turn. There was no more to say, and he had been dismissed; sooner or later he would see this and leave her.

“I do not hate you, Elizabeth. Even if I wanted to, I could not.”

She felt him draw out a loose curl at the nape of her neck. He twisted it around his finger before tucking it back into place. Her mouth opened soundlessly in disbelief as the proud, staid Master of Pemberley toyed with her hair.

“Good day, Miss Bennet.” The gentleman’s voice was barely recognisable in its hoarseness.

By the time she composed herself enough to turn around, he had left the room.

She had been mistaken. Charlotte, and even Mr. Collins, had been nearer the truth. Elizabeth could deny it no longer, despite her anger. Whether Mr. Darcy’s behaviour was born of an ardent love or merely of the impulse of the moment she could not say with any certainty, but in no possible way could she interpret his actions as stemming from dislike.

~☆☽♭♮♯




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