The first five days of the gentlemen's absence passed relatively unremarkably. Georgiana called on the Bennets as often as she thought she could (three out of those five days), and when pressed to stay at Netherfield with Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst, one afternoon, she managed to persuade them to invite the eldest three Bennets to tea as well - claiming that it would only make their party merrier. Colonel Fitzwilliam, of course, accompanied Georgiana, even though she had Mrs Annesley to maintain that role, fearing his cousin would have his head were he to do anything else.
And for the Colonel's part, he couldn't help but rejoice when Mr Collins had left shortly after Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley, so that he was not forced to endure that man's company - something he would readily admit he found taxing. Georgiana was simply pleased that he hadn't decided to follow her aunt's decrees blindly, but had instead removed himself without offering for any of the ladies present at all. With the absence of Mr Collins, the Colonel found even greater enjoyment from escaping to the solitude of Mr Bennet's library - a place which he was permitted to enter if he were willing to distract Mr Bennet only as much as Mr Bennet might choose to distract him.
On the morning of the sixth day, Georgiana had once again chosen call upon the Bennet's, much to everyone's pleasure - Lydia and Kitty upon her arrival determined that they should all walk out as far as Meryton. Elizabeth was sure that this was the eventual effect of them spending rather too much time away from the officers for their own happiness – she had hardly heard the militia mentioned at all - or at least, not compared to the frequency that their names were mentioned before.
Elizabeth would have accompanied them – in fact she had intended to do so – except that some correspondence from their Aunt Gardiner had arrived, and Lizzy, considering her aunt as such a close confidant hesitated for a second, her desire to be sociable crossing with her desire to know her aunts opinion on her courtship and on Mr Darcy and Georgiana and all the particulars that Elizabeth had conveyed in her last missive.
Georgiana seemed to notice her distress, for she was quick to assure Lizzy that they could just about do without her for the duration of their expedition. Elizabeth couldn't help but take the suggestion, and cheerfully bid them off.
It was not too much later, as she was sitting writing a reply to her aunt that Mrs Bennet rushed into the room, remarking upon the sudden sound of a carriage approaching, and straining to the windows to see who it might be. Had Elizabeth not been consciously trying so hard to not get her hopes up as to who it was that the carriage might bear, she wasn't sure that she wouldn't have been there in much the same way.
As it was she had merely straightened her dress and hair moments before her mother had burst into the room, but she didn't think that her mother needed to know that.
"Now sit up, Lizzy, and let us look as though we have been being productive." Mrs Bennet seemed to be quite flustered in her own way. "To be sure, I don't recognise their carriage - but perhaps they borrowed one to come here sooner... But we must be calm Lizzy, none of your frantic talking or any of that."
Elizabeth didn't have time to reply before their visitor was announced. She was pretty sure that that was a good thing though, for she didn't know if she'd have been able to contain all traces of irony from her words.
The grand Lady swept into the room with formidable hauteur, and that alone silenced Mrs Bennet's normal greetings. Elizabeth found herself stunned into silence too, for she couldn't deny that she had been hoping for a very different guest.
"You," the lady sounded intimidating, although Elizabeth couldn't be certain as to whether that was her natural voice, or something she used for their benefit. "Are Mrs Bennet, I presume."
"Indeed," Elizabeth for once admired her mother's spirit that she fought so hard to rally under such an uncomfortable beginning to an acquaintance. "And this is my second daughter – Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Will you not sit, mrs...?"
The fierce woman completely ignored the obvious request for her identity, as well as the offer for her to sit, her hawk like eyes shifting to Elizabeth instead.
"Ah," she sounded almost intrigued. "You do fit the descriptions I have gleaned. Although Mr Collins seemed to imply that you might be considered pretty. It is no surprise. He does need my guidance in all matters."
Elizabeth had been trying to stop her own reliance on her vanity – after all, it could have so easily permanently ruined all her hopes of happiness with Mr Darcy. Their guest's words however were even worse, and it was only a small part of her brain using the information for her own advantage – identifying the visitor, that kept her in check. "Lady Catherine De Bourgh, I presume?"
The woman in question gave her a glance which seemed to suggest that Elizabeth had to be the most foolish girl in the county to have not recognised that fact earlier.
"Miss Bennet, there seemed to be a prettyish kind of a little wilderness on one side of your lawn. I should be glad to take a turn in it, if you will favour me with your company."
Mrs Bennet stared somewhat wide eyed at the pair, her face beginning to flush. Elizabeth couldn't help but fear what her mother might begin to say if she was left in the Lady's presence for too long. So she agreed, running as soon as she was out of sight of their guest in the hopes that she might be back before anything catastrophic occurred. Mrs Bennet, it appeared, had been unsuccessful in her attempts to make their guest take refreshments of any kind, for the woman in question stood somewhat impatiently beyond the front door. Elizabeth joined her with a great deal of relief, still too stunned by everything to try to discern what could have possibly caused the visit to occur in the first place.
"You are one of five daughters I hear, Miss Bennet?"
"Yes," Elizabeth spoke tersely. She was trying to hold in her ire – to be civil at least – she had to didn't she? This was Mr Darcy's aunt.
"And this estate is entailed to Mr Collins - a pity for you I dare say, although, for his sake I suppose I am glad for it." Elizabeth could only nod mutely in agreement wondering what she had done to deserve such supercilious and rude behaviour. Was she this way to everyone? It was strange to think that Elizabeth had considered Mr Darcy to be rude when she had first met him. He had been an angel in comparison. "Do you draw?"
"No, not at all."
Although Lydia and Kitty had both begun to show an inclination towards the same - Lydia had upended a conversation only three days before by sitting among them and suddenly, demanding an accounting of everything that Miss Bingley was not good at. It had seemed like an odd request, but Colonel Fitzwilliam, who had still been sitting with them at that point, had seemed amused enough to reply in some way. Lydia seemed to have latched onto the fact that although the woman in question could play exceptionally, she could not draw so well and rarely read. Lydia had almost immediately begun to try her hand at art – making a vague declaration that she would prove Miss Bingley wrong. Elizabeth had tried to discover what had caused that response, but her sister had been remarkably unforthcoming.
That said, the following days she had devoted a surprising amount of time to the pursuit of the skill - Kitty had had to resort to reading to keep herself entertained at one point - or at least, Kitty had decided to pick up a book she managed to persuade their father to recommend. Elizabeth could hardly hope that either would keep the practice up, but she did find it curious nonetheless. If they could find it within themselves to do so, Mr Bennet might finally pay them some notice instead of believing them to be the silliest girls in England. One could only hope.
"And do you play or sing?" The aristocratic voice pulled her from her thoughts most unpleasantly.
"A little." Elizabeth considered extending her answers, knowing her terseness to be rude, but somehow she didn't think that Lady Catherine de Bourgh would appreciate that any more. The woman didn't seem to be the kind of women who was used to having anyone do anything but agree with her.
"And your sisters, do any of them play or sing?"
"One of them does." Mary's playing was already showing signs of improvement with the time she had spent practicing alongside Georgiana, Jane had asked Lizzy if they should ask Mr Bennet if Mary might stay with the Gardiners in London for a time so that she might make use of the masters in town. They hadn't brought that up yet though, having decided that they should wait until an appropriate moment - or at least a week or two.
"Why did you not all learn?" That seemed to be rhetorical, so Elizabeth hazarded against not replying. Her suspicions were confirmed only a moment or two later as the woman continued. "And has your governess left you?"
"We had no governess."
Lady Catherine de Bourgh waxed quite eloquently on her surprise at that. When she seemed to have dispersed of all her horror with that she found a new topic with ease. "Are any of your younger sisters out?"
Elizabeth admitted to them all being so.
She should have realised that this would have only induced another moment of panic in Mr Collin's great patroness. She seemed to find this to be yet another failing in them, and a part of Elizabeth's mind couldn't help but be slightly unsettled by this fact. After all, this was one of Mr Darcy's nearest relations. Surely it could not bode well if she seemed so unwilling to accept Elizabeth's upbringing? But the interrogation was not to end. "Pray what is your age?"
"With three younger sisters grown up," Elizabeth felt none of the mirth such a reply might afford her. "Your ladyship can hardly expect me to own it."
The reply seemed to have not served – because the lady appeared most astonished and paused for a second, taking in an affronted gasp of air.
"Now, I must get to the point." The woman had stopped walking and now looked at her with undisguised sternness. "My character has ever been celebrated for its sincerity and frankness and, in such a moment as this, I find that it is best that I do not part from it. You of course should have no confusion for my appearance."
"No, I cannot account for the honour at all." Elizabeth was fairly sure that she hid her sarcasm upon her mention of it being an honour – but she could not entirely tell.
"Do you mean to tell me that you have not used you arts and allurements" (here she fairly sneered at her opinion of these) "to engross my nephew making him forget what he owes to his family and to himself? For such reports have reached me, and I must admit that I cannot allow it. It will not happen."
"If I had, I should not tell you." Elizabeth only barely held in her remarks demanding to know what right this woman had to determine what Mr Darcy was or was not to do. Was he not his own person? They were on the tip of her tongue – but Lady Catherine de Bourgh continued instead.
"Miss Bennet, do you not know who I am?" Her words had now become outraged instead of merely seething. "I am his nearest relative, and he is engaged to be married to my daughter. Now what have you to say?"
"Only that if that is true, you cannot believe him to have formed an attachment to me." It took only Elizabeth as long to say those words before she wondered at them. Mr Darcy was not the kind of man who she would think would throw aside such a commitment, were it to exist. But then, what else could explain that she had heard of this before? Admittedly Mr Wickham was not entirely to be believed but...
"The engagement between them is of a peculiar kind. From their infancy they have been intended for one another. Now, I am not in the habit of brooking disappointment; my nephew and my daughter are formed for each other. You can imagine their wealths and positions in society well enough, I'm sure. And yet you would have them separated - an upstart pretension of a woman without family, connection or fortunes. And worse, because of the manner of woman that you are. Is this to be endured? That you, who has less to recommend you than that awful self righteous sister of Bingley – when her family comes from trade – for she, at least, could make a mistress of Pemberley. She knows of her own inferiority and is sensible of the due course of society. You may be a gentleman's daughter, but do not imagine me ignorant of your uncles and aunts."
Elizabeth was, for a moment, too shocked by the sudden vitriol that she struggled for response
"And yet surely, if they mean nothing to your nephew then they can mean nothing to you. It is the mistress of his house that he chooses, and the sister of his sister."
"Do you mean to say that you are engaged to him? Tell me, once and for all, is it true? You would truly pollute the shades of Pemberley in such a way?"
Elizabeth wished she could find a way to not reply to the woman, but there was no polite way to do so. She wished at that moment, more than anything to spite the vicious lady - to make her regret ever choosing to come here to see her. But she could not in honestly admit to anything but the truth.
"I am not."
Lady Catherine heaved a sigh of relief. "And can you promise to never enter into such an agreement?"
Elizabeth's response was stolen from her tongue by the sudden voice nearby.
"Aunt Catherine? Elizabeth?" Georgiana's pleasing lilt rang through the gardens to them, moments before she came into view. Elizabeth couldn't help but note how the old ladies features softened at her niece's voice. Whatever else might be true of the insufferable woman, she clearly cared deeply for her relations. That only made it worse.
"Lady Catherine," Elizabeth spoke quietly, her anger only barely leashed. "Were it not for you niece I would beg you to leave, for you have insulted me in every possible way." Elizabeth took in a deep breath, noting Georgiana's unconcerned cheerful grin. It would only take a moment or two, Elizabeth was sure, before the younger girl realised the tension. "As it is, I will only make my departure."
She didn't make any compliments or false wishes of goodwill to the woman. She didn't think she could stand it.
Instead, she pushed away passed her friend begging her leave and hoped that Georgiana might forgive her her unusual terseness. Because Elizabeth couldn't stand to be around anyone at that moment.
Moments later she was out on the many paths out of Longbourn - taking the longest ramble about the grounds she had in a very long while.