Elizabeth immediately regretted her temper, but by the time she cooled enough to be rational, she was half way to Oakham Mount.
She had stormed out of Netherfield in a most unladylike manner, slamming the front door behind her, and set off down the drive and into the woods at a near run.
That woman truly was insufferable! Intolerable! Unbearable!
Elizabeth had vowed to herself that she would not rise to the bait, no matter how provoking Caroline Bingley was. It was never a good idea to speak when angry. It was more important to be able to care for poor Jane than to satisfy her own desire to give their hostess the set down she deserved. So she had swallowed her pride and restrained herself to firing the sort of witty arrows that gave some small relief to her feelings while passing so far beyond Miss Bingley's comprehension as to leave no mark on that lady.
But Elizabeth had been trapped in that house for nigh on a week, subject to daily humiliations necessitated by biting her tongue in that woman's presence. This morning had just been too much to bear, and Elizabeth's temper had snapped.
She would have to go back, of course. Perhaps she could slip in the back entrance and take the servants' corridors up to Jane's room. She need never show her face downstairs again. But no, she knew that would never do. However unfair it was, propriety demanded that she apologise to her hostess and try to make her peace.
Ha! She kicked a stone into the long grass. To apologise to that harridan! To make peace with that harpy! Impossible!
Elizabeth stomped about some more, until she had worked off her anger. The effect was somewhat diminished by the fact that she had rushed out of the house in her dress slippers, rather than changing into walking boots. Even so, she attracted the startled attention of several cows and a rabbit, though luckily no human observers had been privy to her display of pique. Her display of temper would go unremarked.
Other than by the five occupants of the Netherfield Park sitting room, that is.
She had tried. She truly had. She had left Jane sleeping, and come downstairs with her embroidery to sit quietly and avoid notice. All the residents of Netherfield had been gathered in the sitting room: Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy were discussing some new gun that Bingley hoped to purchase on his next visit to town. Mrs Hurst was reading a letter while her husband dozed quietly next to her on a sofa. Caroline Bingley had been sitting at a small desk to one side of the room, but clearly her attention had wandered from her correspondence and she was looking about in hope of something more interesting.
On Elizabeth's entry, Caroline's eyes had brightened in anticipation. She barely gave Elizabeth time to be seated and take up her needle before she addressed her. "Miss Eliza, it is good to see you practicing your stitches. A lady with few accomplishments must constantly practice those she has."
Elizabeth bit back a sharp riposte, simply bowing her head toward Miss Bingley and continuing with her work.
Caroline was dissatisfied with such a sedate response, and tried again: "It is such a shame your mother did not send you more dresses. I am sure it must be a disappointment to wear such a dowdy dress three times in five days, but I suppose you must be used to making do."
Elizabeth coloured. She was indeed wearing the same dress she had worn twice before since her arrival to care for Jane. It was hardly dowdy – it happened to be her favourite walking dress of white muslin embroidered with a cheerful pattern of yellow flowers – and it had been well laundered by the Netherfield staff. She would rather have had more gowns at her disposal, and it hurt that Caroline was right: Mrs Bennet had not bothered to send a proper selection of clothes for her least favourite daughter, (although she had sent six gowns for Jane, who had not yet managed to leave her bedroom). It was no surprise that Caroline Bingley, with her seemingly endless supply of garish, ugly, over-decorated gowns, had noticed Elizabeth wearing the same gown once more. She had fully expected to be the subject of a sneer or two, perhaps a rolling of eyes. But Elizabeth had not imagined that even Caroline would be so rude as to actually comment on the fact. It was beyond all good manners, for her to talk about another lady's wardrobe so. What could she mean by it but to humiliate her guest?
Elizabeth kept her eyes on her needlework until she had calmed her initial outrage. Eventually, she felt enough in command of herself to raise her eyes to her interlocutor and say mildly, "I thank you for your sympathy, Miss Bingley. Indeed having been invited so unexpectedly to stay and care for Jane, and not knowing how long I would be needed, I was unable to pack as I might have preferred. Still, your staff have been most helpful in ensuring I can make the best of the limited resources I have with me."
Caroline visibly relished Elizabeth's discomfort. She smiled, looking for all the world like a cat with a mouse. And like that animal, she could not resist further taunting her victim. She ostentatiously leaned a little closer and simulated a whisper, but at such a volume it could be clearly heard throughout the room: "Why Eliza, dear, you should have said something. I'm sure one of my old gowns would have served. You are so very short and rather round in places, but I am sure something could have been altered to fit you." All other conversation ceased, and five pairs of eyes were trained on Elizabeth, waiting to see her response to this provocation – four in surprised curiosity and one with malicious glee.
Elizabeth had stabbed her finger with her needle, such was her anger. She hardly knew which part of Miss Bingley's speech to most resent – that she was offered that lady's hand-me-downs, that she would consider dressing in any of the tasteless, gaudy confections that woman chose to wear, that she was short and dumpy, that wearing her own, perfectly presentable dress a third time was evidence of poverty, or that all of this had been drawn to the attention of everyone in the room. She drew several deep breaths and counted to ten. Then she counted to ten again. Her temper still simmering, she managed to say, "You are all kindness, Miss Bingley. I see you are a model of good manners in a hostess. But I must decline your generous offer. I have sufficient gowns for my needs, and will soon be returning to Longbourne, I am sure. There is no need to put your staff out with altering any of your remarkable dresses."
Caroline narrowed her eyes. She was certain this reply bordered on insolent, but she could not quite put her finger on how. Intent on gaining the upper hand in the conversation, she shifted ground to say, "If you prefer the same gowns day after day, then I suppose I must humour you. I must say, though, Eliza, as one friend to another, that you look very ill indeed. You must be working yourself to the bone in caring for dear Jane. You really should let the servants perform their office, my dear. It is not seemly to be playing the part of nursemaid at all hours of the day and night."
And that was when Elizabeth had finally lost her temper. For Caroline to needle her was unpleasant, but she had always been able to laugh such taunts off eventually. But to suggest that it was improper for her to care for Jane – that was going too far. How could anyone begrudge the work of caring for a most beloved sister? How could showing tender care for Jane in her time of need be in any way improper? To say that Elizabeth should abandon her post and leave her sister to the indifferent care of servants was outrageous. It was not to be borne!
Elizabeth had put down her embroidery and risen to her feet. Although Caroline Bingley was several inches the taller, Elizabeth's rage lent her stature and she glared at her tormentor as though she was a full head higher. "Miss Bingley, let me be plain. A true gentlewoman would never hesitate to nurse anyone in her household who was taken ill. Since no woman in your family would extend such care to my sister, I came to perform the office myself. It is no burden. It is my joy to bring her comfort and affection during her affliction. Your suggestion that I abandon her to the care of servants merely to save myself from the unpleasantness of the sick room confirms my opinion that you are the most selfish, arrogant, heartless woman of my acquaintance!"
As she heard the words spill from her mouth, Elizabeth knew that she had burnt all her bridges with the Netherfield party, probably destroying Jane's chances with Mr Bingley in the process. Appalled at her own lack of control, she glanced around the room to see Mr Bingley shocked into silence, Louisa Hurst flushed red and staring at her, and the usually inscrutable Mr Darcy eyeing the scene with undisguised anger. Hurst had not stirred.
Elizabeth's anger now turned on herself. To have behaved so in front of her host and his guests – to have demonstrated to the proud Mr Darcy just how far beneath him she really was – to have allowed Caroline Bingley the satisfaction of provoking her to anger… Oh! It was all too much. With a final glare at Miss Bingley, Elizabeth had turned on her heel and stalked from the room and the house without a further word.
And now here she was, on the verge of tears, wondering how she could ever face any of them again. Mr Bingley, of course, would be his usual gracious self and would probably pretend nothing had happened. Miss Bingley would be intolerably smug and superior. And Mr Darcy would stare at her disdainfully, confirmed in all his beliefs of her inadequacy. Not only was Elizabeth not handsome enough to tempt that gentleman to dance, she was now proved to be a shrew and a termagant, who could not behave with proper decorum any more than her wild younger sisters.
Her humiliation was complete.
But Elizabeth Bennet had a stubbornness about her that could not bear to be frightened at the will of others. Her courage rose at every attempt to intimidate her. Even now, when her embarrassment was entirely attributable to her own actions, she would not let the thought of Miss Bingley's triumph or Mr Darcy's disgust keep her from doing what was right. She must return to the house.
But not immediately.
Elizabeth turned her steps towards the gardens. She would walk a little longer on those calming paths before trusting her temper to another encounter with the lady of the house. Perhaps quiet contemplation would help her frame a passingly sincere apology? She could only hope so.
She had only passed a few minutes indulging in the peace of the rose garden when her attention was caught by the sound of voices from behind a hedge. She might have stolen away, her slippers silent on the grassy path, had she not been arrested by Mr Darcy's deep tones: "Really Charles, it is intolerable. You are master here. You must take action. Such rudeness is not acceptable from a gentlewoman. You cannot continue to allow her to live under your roof while she behaves so!"
Elizabeth could hardly disagree with Mr Darcy's sentiments, but even so, she was mortified to hear herself so described. Unlike his earlier insult toward her, this time he was entirely right. She felt tears prick her eyes.
She had reconciled herself to the evidence that he thought himself above the people of her neighborhood. She had even accustomed herself to the fact that Mr Darcy did not think her handsome. But until hearing him condemn her character in such unequivocal terms, and on such just grounds, she had not realized quite how much she wished that gentleman thought better of her than he did.
"I know it is bad, Darcy, but what am I to do? I can hardly throw her out with nowhere to go!" Bingley sounded plaintive.
That was a bit melodramatic, even for Bingley. If he threw her out, it would be a public humiliation indeed, but she would simply return to Longbourne. Why ever would he describe her as having nowhere to go?
Darcy sighed, "I care not a whit where she might go, Charles. Your sister has crossed the line this time. You have endured her rudeness for years, but I have never seen such unbecoming conduct as her display this morning."
Elizabeth reeled. Mr Darcy spoke of Charles's sister, not of her. His anger was directed at Caroline Bingley! No doubt he thought quite as badly of her – after all, she had allowed herself to be dragged down to Caroline's level and had responded in kind. Even in the midst of her own humiliation, however, Elizabeth was not above taking some small pleasure in knowing that Caroline had blotted her copybook with the rich gentleman from Derbyshire.
Darcy continued, and Elizabeth pictured him pacing angrily before his friend, "I have told you for years, Charles, that you needed to curb Caroline's conduct. But she surpassed herself with her rudeness today." Elizabeth might have behaved like a guttersnipe in the sitting room, but she was too much of a lady to feel comfortable eavesdropping any further on the gentlemen's conversation. She had just resolved to tiptoe away when once again her attention was fixed by the mention of her own name: "Miss Elizabeth is everything ladylike. She has carried herself with grace and dignity under almost constant provocation from your sister, has endured Caroline's daily attacks for the sake of Miss Bennet, and has maintained wit and good humour in the face of petty spitefulness. I cannot imagine how she managed to keep her temper so long. I have nothing but admiration for her, and am grieved that we allowed things to go so far that she could bear it no longer."
This was too much. Mr Darcy expressing admiration and sympathy for her? Not for her looks, obviously. He had made his view about that clear at the assembly. But he admired her character! To say that she was astounded could not begin to express her surprise. Now quite rooted to the spot, Elizabeth listened on.
Bingley answered in depressed tones, "It was not your responsibility, Darcy. She is my sister, and I was a cad not to call her to order sooner. How will Miss Elizabeth ever forgive me?"
"If you hope to have any luck with her sister, Charles, you must make Caroline apologise and ensure she ceases her campaign against the Bennet sisters."
"Campaign against the Bennet sisters! Whatever do you mean?" Mr Bingley was clearly shocked at the idea. "I know she has taken some stupid dislike to Miss Elizabeth, but Caroline has said nothing against Miss Bennet. I am sure she thinks of her as a dear friend."
"Wake up, man. Did you not hear her mention that neither Miss Bennet nor Miss Elizabeth could hope to marry men of any consideration in the world? Have you not heard her rail against their family and connections? Has she not reminded us of their relatives in Cheapside more often than you can count? Her protestations of an excessive regard for Jane Bennet are always tempered with words designed to discourage you from any serious consideration of her. Her pretense of friendship merely allows her to control your contact with Miss Bennet. Think, man, what day did she choose to invite Miss Bennet for tea? The day you would be dining out. Don't be more of a fool than you need to be. I know it is a hard thing to mistrust your sister, but she is not being honest with you, Charles." Here Darcy took another deep breath, apparently reining himself in, and returned to the issue at hand. "In any case, you must agree her behavior towards Miss Elizabeth was unconscionable. You are the master of the house and the head of your family. Your guest has been badly treated by your sister. We all heard Caroline say things which no gentlewoman should ever say to a guest, let alone to a friend, and we stood by, too shocked to do anything but watch until Miss Elizabeth left the room. You are responsible for fixing this. I can offer advice, but you must act. If it was my sister, she'd be shipped off to Pemberley before the day was out."
"If I threatened Caroline with Pemberley, she'd hardly see it as punishment!" Mr Bingley laughed nervously. "But I take your point. Perhaps a sojourn with our relatives in Scarborough would be beneficial. Hurst and Louisa could go with her. Good riddance to the lot of them!"
"Hold a moment, friend. If you send the Hursts packing too, you will have no hostess. How do you propose to further your acquaintance with the eldest Miss Bennet if you cannot invite them to Netherfield?"
Elizabeth had heard enough. As the men's voices faded into the distance, she sank to a nearby bench to consider all she had learned.
Astoundingly, her display of temper was not held in scorn by Mr Darcy or Mr Bingley. Instead, they had commended her forbearance in enduring as much as she had. The relief was considerable.
And all her suspicions about Mr Bingley's interest in Jane had been confirmed. There had been no mention of a definite intention on that gentleman's part, but certainly there was a most pleasing inclination. Now he had been alerted to the likely interference of his sisters against the match, he would go so far as to exile Miss Bingley to protect herself and Jane. Elizabeth was pleased indeed, and resolved to keep Jane at Netherfield Park a day or two longer should it be at all possible without outright lying about her state of recovery. No sooner had this plan formed in her mind than she rolled her eyes at her own thoughts: perhaps she was turning into her mother! Well, chastening as that idea was, it did not dissuade her from doing whatever she could in the service of Jane, for she knew her sister truly admired Mr Bingley. They should have a chance to know each other better. There could be no harm in that.
As for Mr Darcy's comments about Elizabeth, they were far more confusing. She had earlier thought his anger all directed at herself, but clearly she had been wrong. It was Miss Bingley alone who had raised his ire. Her conduct had been despicable, but Elizabeth had been far from expecting Mr Darcy to see it that way. From the very first, he had looked at Elizabeth with an intense stare that she could only presume meant he was studying her with the hope of finding fault. But now, in light of her discovery that he found her admirable, she had to revise that conclusion. If it was not a look of disdain, then what did it portend? What could that gentleman mean by gazing at her in such a fixed manner? She could not make it out.
Elizabeth turned these questions over in her mind for near half an hour, getting no closer to an answer. Eventually, she roused herself. There was nothing for it but to return to the house. She would extend her apology to Miss Bingley: little as that woman deserved it, it was the proper thing to do. Caroline Bingley was apparently about to suffer a reprimand at her brother's hand. Perhaps an example of how a lady ought to rise above adversity might help her learn how to act in future. Elizabeth snorted in disbelief. She could not imagine Caroline Bingley accepting that anyone called Bennet could teach her anything. Elizabeth would tender her apology, Caroline would be everything cold and insincere, and they would continue to cordially despise each other.
She did, after all, steal in the back way. She visited Jane, who was still sleeping peacefully, changed her now-damp slippers for a fresh pair, and made her way back to the sitting room. She paused in the corridor to take a fortifying breath, before nodding to the footman to open the door. She managed to enter calmly, as though everything was normal. Bingley and Darcy had returned before her, and there was an artificial quiet as she entered.
It was like walking on stage in a play where she did not know the lines. Had Bingley already spoken to his sister? Had Caroline been warned to improve her behavior? If so, would she control herself, or choose to defy her brother? Did Hurst and Louisa have any idea what was going on? What role would Mr Darcy play? He was only a guest, but one who apparently had plenty to say while he and Bingley were off-stage!
She might not have a script, but Elizabeth knew the first lines must be hers. She turned to Caroline Bingley and nodded her head slightly. That lady did not deign to acknowledge the gesture, but Elizabeth said what she ought, however little it was appreciated. "Miss Bingley, I apologise for my words earlier. I should not have lost my temper, and I should not have spoken so rudely to my hostess. I hope you will forgive me."
Caroline Bingley finally turned her gaze to Elizabeth. Her eyes were red-rimmed and it was clear she had been crying. "Miss Elizabeth Bennet," she said quietly, "Your apology is accepted. In return, I hope you will forgive me for speaking to you as I did. I meant no harm." At this prevarication, her brother loudly cleared his throat from across the room, and Caroline's eyes darted to his stern visage before she looked back to Elizabeth and added, "I should not have been rude to a guest, and I do apologise most sincerely."
Elizabeth doubted the apology came from any true contrition, but it was an apology. Elizabeth would not sink to Caroline's level by reveling in her embarrassment. With another polite nod, she replied: "It is forgotten." Saying nothing more, she returned to the seat she had abandoned so precipitously not an hour before, and took up her embroidery again.
After a few minutes, Mr Bingley crossed the room to ask after Jane's health. She was able to give a positive report: her sister was sleeping calmly and seemed to be past the worst of her illness. His pleasure at this news was transparent, and he expressed his best wishes for her recovery with a warmth and enthusiasm that could only further endear him to Elizabeth. When his inquiries were followed by those of his friend, Elizabeth managed to reply with commendable composure that yes, her sister was on the mend. When Mr Darcy followed up with an earnest "And I hope you are well, Miss Elizabeth," she granted him a smile unalloyed by the sarcasm that had marked her previous interactions with the gentleman and acknowledged that she was indeed quite well. Mr Darcy realised, although she did not, that this was the first genuine smile she had ever directed toward him. He retreated to his corner looking a little flustered, and resumed his habit of watching Miss Elizabeth Bennet from afar.
Conversation gradually returned to the room. Caroline and Louisa spoke of travel arrangements, and it soon emerged that Miss Bingley had decided to visit an elderly aunt in Yorkshire. She planned to depart the next morning, so eager was she for the journey. Elizabeth said all that was proper in the way of hopes for fine weather and good roads but could not bring herself to express regret at losing the lady's company so soon.
Once Caroline left the room – to begin packing, she said – Louisa Hurst exerted herself to converse with Elizabeth. She had nothing of interest to say – she spoke of fashion, weather, and the balls she had attended last season – but her attempt to offer an olive branch appeared sincere. Elizabeth managed to turn the conversation to matters she found a little more interesting by asking about Mr Hurst's estate (near Leicester: it had some pretty sheep, although Louisa could not say what breed, and the neighboring villages offered little in the way of shopping) and Louisa's tastes in music (which turned out to be a subject she could talk on with a modicum of sense for quite some time). After a half hour of listening to Mrs Hurst expound on the relative merits of Herrs Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, Elizabeth was glad to excuse herself to check on Jane. She was a little surprised, but not displeased, when Louisa offered to accompany her. While she would never choose Louisa Hurst for a particular friend, she was not above making an effort to know the woman who might yet be Jane's sister. Far better to endure Louisa's insipid conversation than to suffer Caroline's condescending scorn.
Jane was indeed feeling much better and was enthusiastic about joining the assembled company for dinner. Louisa watched the cheerful banter between Jane and Elizabeth as the latter helped her sister rise and ready herself for the evening. Mrs Hurst had never experienced such ease with her own sister, and would not have thought to help Caroline don her gown or dress her hair. Yet these Bennet sisters thought nothing of it! They were daughters of a gentleman, born to a higher station than Louisa and her sister, and in the sitting room today she had seen how Miss Elizabeth maintained her dignity under one attack after another, before eventually giving Caroline the set-down she deserved. It had been obvious which of them was the true lady. Louisa began to think that her life might improve to have such sisters in it.
Jane, unaware of the drama that had played out downstairs, was pleased to see the increased ease between the two. Elizabeth's animosity toward Mr Bingley's sisters had concerned her, for she could not relish a future in which her dearest sister was always at odds with her husband's family. She blushed slightly to catch herself thinking of Mr Bingley in such terms, but after all, while confined to her sickbed she had had little to do but daydream about the handsome gentleman in whose house she was lying ill. If she did harbor a tendre for him, she was too much the gentlewoman to embarrass either of them with an open display of her affection. She would wait for him to make his interest clear before revealing her own heart.
But she very much looked forward to renewing her acquaintance with him and seeing if he measured up to the image she had been entertaining through her feverish nights and listless days.
When the three women entered the sitting room, Mr Bingley immediately attended Miss Bennet, ushering her to a warm seat near the fire and urging her to take a little wine. He settled in the nearest chair, his focus entirely on her comfort. Elizabeth smiled to see his negligent manners toward herself and Mrs Hurst: she had never seen a more promising inclination. Louisa joined her husband and began to speak quietly to him. Unoffended by the lack of a formal welcome from Bingley, Elizabeth moved toward a sofa near the window. Mr Darcy quickly crossed from his post at the side of the room to greet her and ask after her sister's health.
"She is as you see, sir. Still a little delicate, perhaps, but definitely on the mend. Jane has such a gentle nature that she makes an ideal patient, but even she was impatient to leave the confines of the sickroom, and I could not deny her the pleasure of some better company than her impertinent sister."
"I am glad to see her so improved. It must be a relief to you." The gentleman then lowered his voice to speak for her ears only. "Miss Elizabeth, I apologise for failing to intervene earlier today when Miss Bingley was behaving so rudely. I was at first too amazed by her blatant insults to know how to act, and by the time I had gathered my wits, I did not wish to embarrass you further by showing that her insults had been overheard. But that was cowardice. I should have done something to stop her. Forgive me for my inaction."
Elizabeth hardly knew how to answer him. She was pleased by his consideration, but uneasy about canvassing such a topic, especially here where they might be overheard by Miss Bingley's family. Nevertheless, some response was necessary. Now that she knew the gentleman did not despise her, she would not reject such an overture of friendship. She quietly replied, "There is nothing to forgive, sir. Miss Bingley is not your responsibility. I only regret that I allowed her to needle me. I should not have lost my composure. To deride my hostess, no matter how much she provoked it, was not the action of a gentlewoman. My temper can be too unyielding, I fear. I deeply regret my outburst. I am not usually so intemperate. Impertinent, I may be, and my mother is fond of calling me wild, but I do know how to comport myself in public better than my conduct today might lead you to believe."
Darcy smiled at her self-deprecation. "Surely you are too hard on yourself. You displayed remarkable composure today in the face of extreme provocation. I would have lost my temper in half the time, and would doubtless have repaid her ill manners by saying something far more regrettable than you did. What did you say of her that she did not deserve? I believe it will do Miss Bingley some good to learn how little her manners are suited to polite society. Many have tried to correct her in more subtle ways, and she has never taken the hint. I think, on reflection, that we must all be thankful to you, Miss Elizabeth, for having the fortitude to speak to her so plainly."
Elizabeth laughed lightly. "What will be the moral if I am to be commended for behaving badly, sir? You must allow me to regret my outburst. Whether this particular storm cloud will turn out to have a silver lining or not, only time will tell. For the moment you must forgive me if I think more on the rain and thunder it has brought than any possible future benefit."
Darcy nodded in acquiescence, but she could see that he was about to defend her conduct again, so she spoke quickly to forestall him: "It is said anger is a short madness. I suffered from such madness this afternoon, Mr Darcy, and I blame none but myself for the lapse. I hope I am now sufficiently recovered to be permitted in company again without the risk of being consigned to Bedlam. Please do me the kindness of speaking no further on the subject, and I will know you have forgiven me."
Darcy, delighted to see that Elizabeth had recovered her arch humour, gallantly ceded the argument to the lady. "I am sure you are right, Miss Elizabeth. I would not suspend any pleasure of yours, even if it takes the form of insisting on your right to chastise yourself. Indeed, you are the last person I would think merited Bedlam." He was reluctant for their conversation to end, so cast around for another topic of conversation. "Tell me, do you often quote Horace?"
This time, Elizabeth laughed freely. "You have caught me, sir. I admit to a much greater familiarity with the classics than any proper young lady should have. I must also tell you that I have wasted my youth on studying mathematics and history – subjects which can be of no use to a lady. I had much better have spent the time honing my accomplishments. This accounts for my lack of skill in drawing and the netting of purses, but I own I do not regret the hours spent in my father's library, where I was given free rein to read whatever I chose. My poor mother despairs of my ever catching a husband, but at least I will be able to teach my sisters' children to read Greek and Latin!"
This was an image that confused Darcy: he found it both disturbing and beguiling. The thought of Elizabeth surrounded by children was a charming one, but the idea of her as a spinster aunt did not sit well with him. Shaking off his distraction, he attempted to maintain the light-hearted tone she had striven for. "Those are unusual accomplishments indeed, Miss Elizabeth. It may come as a surprise to your mother, however, to learn that some gentlemen are much more likely to be caught by intelligent conversation than by a well-netted purse! I do not think you need resign yourself to the role of maiden aunt just yet."
Elizabeth was delighted with Mr Darcy's manner. She had not thought him capable of such banter. She replied in kind, "If you know any such gentlemen, Mr Darcy, please do send them to Hertfordshire. I assure you they are thin on the ground in these parts."
Darcy's face clouded at her remark, and she worried that he thought her comment smacked of mercenary motives. She hurried to assure him, "I speak in jest, sir, and would by no means embarrass you or your friends with such an improper request."
Darcy realised her misapprehension – his expression had given rise to unnecessary anxiety on her part. He was quick to clarify the true reason for his frown, in order to put her mind at rest: "Do not distress yourself. One such gentleman is already here in Hertfordshire. If I looked unhappy, it was only at the thought of any other gentlemen discovering what a treasure you are and stealing you away before you have the chance to know me better."
The words were spoken before he realised that they were as good as a declaration of his intentions. As soon as they had left his lips, Darcy blushed brightly. He had not meant to speak so plainly but he could not regret it. If he had implied an interest in Miss Elizabeth Bennet, it was no more than the truth. He blushed for the timing and manner of his declaration, but not for its content. He would not retract his words.
His anticipation for the lady's response was keen.
That she was surprised was obvious. Her blush matched his and she knew not where to look. Her words, when they came, gave him pause: "Indeed, it seems I do not know you at all, Mr Darcy. You are not at all as I had come to expect. I thought you arrogant and rude, but today you have been quite the opposite."
Darcy's eyes widened at this appraisal, but the lady had not finished: "Forgive me for speaking so bluntly, sir. I seem destined to flout all the rules of propriety today. I would be pleased for the opportunity to know you better, but do not want to lead you to expect more than might come to pass. I am determined that I will only marry if it is a marriage of true affection. How can either of us expect such a thing on such a slight acquaintance? We really know so little of each other. Much as I respect you, I had not had the least thought of you in that way. And you know no actual good of me: you may find my impertinence wearing after the novelty passes. On closer acquaintance, you may be happy to cede the field to those other gentlemen after all. Let us agree to spend some time improving our understanding of each other before either says anything we may later come to regret."
Darcy was half enchanted, half amused by this prosaic response to his rash words. She was the first woman he had met who did not rush to flatter him. He could not imagine Caroline Bingley or any of her ilk responding to such a declaration with anything less than triumphant glee – after all, his hand was a much-sought-after prize. But Elizabeth Bennet answered with rational caution.
It was something of a blow to discover that she had not considered him "in that way", and had thought him rude and arrogant. To his chagrin, he realised that, even as he fell further under her spell he had held himself back from engaging with her and simply watched her with intense concentration. Fearing to give rise to expectations, he had presented an inscrutable mask. Far from perceiving his internal struggle against a growing attraction, she had thought him arrogant and rude! Her reservations, while unexpected, were perfectly reasonable.
She had spoken with such an open and disarming manner that he could not take offense. In fact, he found he respected her more for her honesty, and for the fact that she had not set her cap for him. He resolved to work harder to win her regard, for Elizabeth Bennet was truly a prize he would be a fool to pass up.
He bowed in acknowledgment of her decree – she deserved the opportunity to know him better before he asked her to consider his suit – but he could not concede her argument that his interest might waver if he knew her better. "Is there not good in your affectionate care for Miss Bennet while she has been ill? Is there not good in your wit and charm, and the grace with which you have withstood ill-mannered behavior? Is there not good in the strength with which you defended your honour against unfair attack? Miss Elizabeth, the more I see of your character, the more I desire to know you. There is no chance that my regard could fade. I realise that I have not given you the opportunity to understand me in turn. I am perhaps a little shy, but that does not excuse my curmudgeonly conduct of late. I apologise, and promise to be more open in future. I can only hope your opinion of me might improve on better acquaintance."
By now even Bingley had noticed that their intense tête-a-tête had lasted an unusual time. They were standing with their heads close together and speaking in a near whisper, seemingly oblivious to the rest of the room. Although far less domineering than Darcy's aunt, Catherine de Bourgh, Bingley was a social being who hated to miss out on a good conversation. He called out across the room, "What is that you are saying, Darcy? What is it you and Miss Elizabeth are talking of?"
Darcy rolled his eyes at his friend's interruption. "We are speaking of character," said he, "and what an unsociable chap I can be at times."
"Oh, well, then I must have my share in the conversation. Miss Elizabeth, I assure you I do not know a more awful object than Darcy, on particular occasions, and in particular places; at his own house especially, and of a Sunday evening, when he has nothing to do. But don't let his gruff exterior fool you. He is an excellent fellow and a most considerate friend."
Darcy smiled, but Elizabeth thought she could perceive that he was rather disappointed to have their private exchange interrupted. She refrained from laughing at this portrait of Darcy, instead asking Mr Bingley how he was enjoying his foray into the role of landed gentleman. He responded heartily, making a show of bemoaning the voluminous responsibilities involved. "I had rather thought it was all shooting parties and bucolic afternoons, but I do not want to be one of those gentlemen who know nothing about the management of their estates and rely entirely on their steward. Darcy here has been invaluable in helping me learn the ropes, but there is still much that I find challenging."
"That is small surprise, sir," she said. "If you are determined to be a proper manager for your estate, you must reconcile yourself to a lifetime of challenges. The theory might be grasped in a relatively short time – although there will always be new developments in agricultural techniques – but the land itself, and the tenants, are constantly changing. It is hard work, but if done well, brings great satisfaction."
Darcy found it difficult to disguise his grin. Elizabeth's views on estate management matched his own. He waited to hear his friend's answer, eager to know what the lighthearted Bingley would make of such sober advice from such an unexpected source. He was not disappointed.
"My family's wealth comes from the cotton trade, Miss Elizabeth," he said. "It would be easy enough to rely on the mill master, the ship's captain and the warehouse factor to manage my affairs. But that has never been my way. If I am to enjoy the spoils, I must take my share of the work. I have not found that managing an estate is so very different. There are skilled men I rely on for advice and for much of the day-to-day decision-making, but as master, I ought to be the master in reality, not just for appearances' sake. I surely have much to learn, but I am quite enjoying it. I just hope I do not make too many mistakes before I have learnt my way. So many good people depend on me managing well."
Elizabeth applauded Bingley's sentiments. She had worried that he was too much consumed by frivolous enjoyments to take on the responsibility required to be a good estate manager. But the gentleman of leisure had displayed an underlying discipline that spoke well for his character. If the mutual interest obvious between Bingley and Jane developed into something more permanent, her sister would have a partner in life who was more steady and determined than he had appeared on first acquaintance.
She was unaware how closely her pleasure matched that of the tall gentleman standing beside her. Darcy recognized a growing maturity in his friend that he welcomed. Whether the catalyst for Bingley taking a more active interest in his responsibilities was Darcy's example, Bingley's own natural development, or his contemplation of matrimony, Darcy could not say. Whatever the cause, he welcomed the prospect of Bingley stepping out from the shadow of his domineering sisters. With a grin, he declared "There's hope for you, yet, Bingley!"
A footman entered to announce dinner, and Darcy quickly offered his arm to Elizabeth to lead her into the dining room. Bingley had moved with equal rapidity to secure Jane's company for that short walk, leaving Louisa Hurst to take her husband's arm. Without Caroline's insistence on a formal seating arrangement, the party arrayed themselves as they wished at the table: with the pleasing result for each gentleman that he found himself seated beside his lady of choice. Bingley announced that Caroline had expressed the desire to dine in her room so that she could continue to supervise her packing, and therefore that they need not await her before commencing the meal. He signaled to the waiting footman, and the first courses were promptly served.
The convivial company and lively conversation were in sharp contrast to the strained meals they had endured while subject to Caroline Bingley's pointed disdain for Elizabeth and shameless flattery of Darcy. Louisa Hurst felt a little disloyal to her sister to be enjoying the company so much, but only a little: never inclined much to introspection, she was content to appreciate the improved mood rather than dwell upon her sister's self-imposed isolation from it.
After dinner, the Bennet sisters retired early. Jane was tired and needed her rest and Elizabeth welcomed the chance for some solitary reflection. After helping Jane ready for bed and ensuring she was resting comfortably, she sought her own room.
What a remarkable and confusing day this had been.
And how much more so tomorrow promised to be: Caroline Bingley would leave for Scarborough. Louisa Hurst had abandoned her haughty manner and begun to conduct herself as a graceful hostess. Elizabeth now knew for certain that Charles Bingley cared for Jane, which was hardly surprising, but nevertheless was reassuring. More surprising and less reassuring was the news that Fitzwilliam Darcy cared for her!
She was not ready to abandon all her dislike of that gentleman – he had many incivilities to account for, after all. But his conduct today had overthrown all her prior certainties about him. He had been honorable, courteous, apologetic, and even witty. She had even seen him smile, and noted how it transformed his usually stern countenance. Nothing in his manner today had fit the sketch of his character that she had so confidently drawn.
Clearly, she was not so good at sketching character as she had thought. Darcy, Bingley and Louisa Hurst had all surprised her, revealing things she had not suspected them capable of. How could she have been so mistaken? Was it her vanity that had led her to judge them all so quickly and so harshly? Had Mr Darcy's ill-judged words at the assembly, and the Bingley sisters' haughty disdain at the same event, so pricked her pride that she had rushed to judge them all for their worst characteristics, turning a blind eye to any evidence of their better selves? She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. She could not think of her prior views without feeling she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.
"How despicably I have acted!" she cried. "I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! Who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet how just a humiliation! I could not have been more wretchedly blind! Offended by the neglect of a gentleman on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance and driven reason away where he was concerned. 'Til this moment, I never knew myself."
With these thoughts, Elizabeth came to a firm resolution. She might not return Mr Darcy's affections, but was that because she had not taken the trouble to know his true character? From tomorrow, she would give the gentleman the benefit of the doubt. He wished to give her the opportunity to know him better. She would discard all her preconceptions and take that opportunity with an open mind.
Tomorrow, she would start her acquaintance with Mr Darcy afresh.
"Anger is a short madness." – Horace
Jane Austen's words borrowed with respect and love.