Author's Note: Glad to be back and working on this story! I finished my comprehensive exam for graduate school only to throw my back out badly. This gave me a lot of time to do nothing and I found a good direction for where I want to go next with this. Btw, "Mrs. Tilney" mentioned in Chapter 5 has been changed to "Miss Tilney."
I want to say that I *love* your reviews and comments and look forward to them so much. Already two small changes have been made to the plot because of reviewer suggestions. If you notice grammar or spelling mistakes or anachronisms, please be extremely precise so I know what I have to change. Thanks so much! Please R&R!
Elizabeth walked back to the cottage on her cousin's arm, smiling and nodding to the chattering Mr. Collins while occupied by her own thoughts. Mr. Darcy's behavior when he started playacting was so strange! She had never met a gentleman who was willing to be open and vulnerable in that way. John Lucas used to happily climb trees and play pirates with her, but after his first term at Eton he had looked at her with pity in his eyes when she suggested a race to the top of their favorite climbing tree. But Darcy had thrown himself into the part of Lord of the Manor so suddenly and with such grace. "He ought to go onto the stage", she thought, smiling at the idea of proper Mr. Darcy stooping to such a disreputable profession.
More than that, he had been – kind. Very kind. He saw the panic in her face at the idea of being denied her solitary walks, and her anger when Mr. Collins had started to criticize her father. He had used his position of power to give her freedom. It was the first true act of kindness she had ever seen from him. But would there be more acts of kindness? Was her right to walk alone a parting gift, or –
"My dear, you will scarce believe what my dear cousin has gone through today!" Mr. Collins shouted as they walked up the path to the Collins' front door.
Charlotte came calmly to the front door, wiping her hands on her apron. "Yes, my dear?"
"Cousin Elizabeth assisted Lady Catherine's dear nephew Mr. Darcy in the woods when he fell. Because of her assistance he has granted her the indiss- the indi- the permanent right to walk alone on Darcy and de Bourgh land! Is this not a wonderful tribute to our little family?" he smiled and pushed his chest out. Charlotte, confused about the need for permission to do something they had all been doing for months, looked at Elizabeth. Elizabeth smiled at her.
"Mr. Collins was concerned about my solitary walks, but Mr. Darcy laid down an edict that no one could refuse," she said, a small smile escaping. Charlotte's eyebrows raised, and she gave a small nod of understanding.
"Of course. It is an honor indeed Mr. Collins. But do come in and eat, Lizzy and I need to go and visit some neighbors."
Collins bustled ahead, eager at the thought of food, while Charlotte and Elizabeth followed.
"Is everything quite alright, Lizzy?" Charlotte asked quietly as they followed him down the hall to the dining room.
"Yes, absolutely," Elizabeth whispered, and then raised her voice before Mr. Collins noticed their private conversation. "Charlotte, who are we visiting today? I know that we planned to see Miss Tilney."
Charlotte moved around to the other side of the table to discreetly help her single maid serve. "Yes, I have the basket we prepared for Miss Tilney who is recovering from a cold. I also need to stop by and check on Mr. Vernon and his children, and Mr. Baker, and Mrs. Yates."
"Miss Tilney!" Mr. Collins shook his head and spoke through his mouthful of cottage pie. "The very idea of an unmarried lady living alone by herself. The poor dear must have some relations that could take her in."
"Miss Tilney is over five-and-sixty, Mr. Collins, with a sufficient fortune of her own. She is hardly an innocent and can well take care of herself."
"I certainly hope she is innocent!" said Mr. Collins, and then blushed bright red when Elizabeth stared at his outburst, wondering what he meant. Charlotte quickly moved the conversation to the afternoon visits.
"Elizabeth, Mr. Baker is very shy of strangers, so I perhaps you could stay at Miss Tilney's while I visit him and then we can go to Mrs. Yates together."
"Of course Charlotte," Elizabeth replied, looking carefully at Charlotte. Did she know what Elizabeth had been doing with some of her mornings? Was this her delicate way of showing approval? She knew that if her cousin found out he would be furious.
After Elizabeth and Charlotte helped Betsy clear the table, they tied on their bonnets and began walking to Mr. Vernon's cottage, each carrying two baskets of food and other supplies.
"Now Lizzy, please do tell me what Mr. Collins was going on about." Elizabeth started laughing while Charlotte looked on with a small smile at her friend's happiness. When Elizabeth finally caught her breath, she retailed the events of her morning in great detail, placing her baskets on the ground to reenact both Mr. Darcy's bow and her own court-worthy curtsey. The woods ran with the two young women's laughter as they made their way towards the cluster of de Bourgh tenant cottages.
"Mr. Vernon, are you in?" called Charlotte as she rapped at the worn wooden door almost pulling away from its frame. "This is Mrs. Collins and my friend Miss Bennet." A squeal of excitement was heard and then the two ladies could see the door being tugged but not moving.
"Hold on, lassie," a deep voice said, and the door was wrenched open. Elizabeth stepped back in alarm at the sight of the towering figure, before she noticed his kind but sad eyes.
"Mrs. Collins!" cried a small girl of no more than six years, wrapping her arms around Charlotte and burying her face in her skirt. Charlotte smiled and stroked the girl's light brown curls.
"It is good to see you May, can you show me the curtsey I taught you?"
The girl stepped back with evidence of tears on her face and made a very proper little curtsey. Charlotte curtseyed back and then said "May, this is my friend Miss Bennet."
"Miss Vernon," Elizabeth said solemnly, and she and the girl curtseyed to each other while a happy flush covered May's cheeks at being called Miss Vernon.
"Mr. Vernon, this is my dear childhood friend Miss Bennet." Elizabeth and Mr. Vernon curtseyed and bowed to each other, his bow far deeper than her curtsey, before they were all invited in.
Charlotte spoke kindly to Mr. Vernon, his silent son, and May as Elizabeth's gaze wandered around the room. The cottage was in better repair than the worst on Longbourn's estate, but not by much. Surely an estate as grand as Rosings could afford to chink the gaps in the walls and chimneys! She turned and watched Charlotte smile and speak to the children as they clustered around her, and felt a sudden pull at her own heart. Charlotte did not marry for love but she would have the chance to have children – and was perhaps even with child already.
"Did I make the right decision?" Elizabeth wondered. "If Mr. Darcy's was the last proposal I will ever receive, it was my last chance to have a family of my own." But then his hard, stern face in the Collins' parlour came back to her. She would have had to trade the Bennet family for a chance to have Darcy children who would then be raised to despise her. "No, it was the right decision," Elizabeth thought, but the memory of Darcy's behavior that morning made her internal voice a little less sure than before.
As Charlotte and Elizabeth walked away from the Vernon cottage, Charlotte explained that Mr. Vernon was a recent widower. "Oh how sad, those poor children!" Elizabeth exclaimed, thinking about Mr. Vernon's sad eyes.
"Yes, only a month ago Mrs. Vernon died and so did her babe. Mr. Vernon is an uncommonly affectionate father but the children are still desperate for a mother's love." Charlotte shook her head as they entered the small front garden of the Tilney cottage.
After a brief visit with the elderly Miss Tilney, Charlotte stood to take her leave. "Miss Tilney, I will visit Mr. Baker and return, if you would permit Miss Bennet to stay with you for a short while."
Miss Tilney raised her eyebrows in surprise, and then smiled. "Of course my dear, you do what you must. Miss Bennet and I shall have a lovely time." Charlotte took her leave and walked away from the cottage while Elizabeth, at a nod from Miss Tilney, slipped through the discreet door at the back of the main room.