The next morning a note arrived at Longbourn from the ladies of Netherfield inviting Jane to dine with them as the gentlemen were dining with the officers. Jane was delighted at the prospect of spending some time with her new friends, but her mother would not be satisfied with her going to Netherfield without seeing Mr. Bingley. Consequently, she forced Mr. Bennett to declare the carriage could not be spared. Therefore, Jane would have to go on horseback. Jane, who loved to ride, did not object except that she felt sure it looked like rain. Her mother would not be dissuaded and in the end Jane set off on Nellie hoping she would make it before the rain began.
Jane was in fact caught in the rain as the skies nearly opened up only one mile in to her three-mile journey. Perhaps she could have quickly recovered from this soaking had she been properly cared for upon her arrival, but this was not to be. Despite the clear evidence that she was soaked through and thoroughly chilled Miss. Bingley had Jane escorted in to the dining room after she was divested of her things. Jane was never one to call attention to herself or demand considerations and so she trusted her hostess to know what was best and assumed her growing discomfort would pass once she sat and ate for a while. This also was not to be. Halfway through what felt very much like an interrogation on her family's estate and relations Jane nearly collapsed in to her soup. It was only at this point that Miss. Bingley determined her guest required some degree of assistance. Which assistance she immediately called a servant to provide. Jane was installed in a guest room and given dry clothes. After she rested for several hours she was found, by the maid who checked on her, to be quite feverish. The local apothecary was sent for and Jane begged to be allowed to pen a note to Elizabeth so her family would not worry when word inevitably spread that Mr. Jones was attending her at Netherfield.
When Elizabeth read Jane's note she was furious with her mother. She communicated the news to the family and after some discussion between her parents told them of her plan to leave immediately to attend Jane. Her father explained that the carriage really was unavailable now as the horses were being used on the farm so Lizzy declared her intention of walking. Mrs. Bennett was quite unsupportive of the scheme.
"How can you be so silly as to think of such a thing, in all this dirt? You will not be fit to be seen when you get there."
"I shall be fit to see Jane – which is all I want." Lizzy responded.
After a bit more conversation Lizzy got her way and Kitty offered herself and Lydia as her companions as far as Meryton. The journey after that was quite muddy and wet. She arrived with sore ankles, dirty stockings and a face glowing from the exertion.
Although she wanted nothing more than to request that the servant who escorted her inside bring her directly to Jane's room she knew this was not acceptable. She had to be received by her hosts and pay them her respects. She tried to wipe the dirt from the bottom of her shoes and restore her gown and overcoat to some sort of respectable order before being led to the breakfast room.
The occupants of the room all reacted quite differently to her arrival. It was clear that Miss. Bingley and her sister were nearly incredulous at her walking three miles through dirt and mud. Miss. Bingley seemed more shocked by this than Mrs. Hurst but they both treated her with condescending civility. Mr. Bingley's welcome was more than civil, it made her feel truly welcome. Elizabeth would not have thought Mr. Hurst at all aware of her presence had he not risen to his feet upon her entering the room. He returned to his seat quickly and seemed unaffected by any of the events or conversations going on around him. Mr. Darcy was clearly as surprised by her arrival and disheveled state as were Bingley's sisters, but he seemed more interested than appalled.
Although he wondered at the necessity of such a course of action Mr. Darcy appreciated the way the exercise had animated Elizabeth's fine eyes and admired the devotion to her sister which he was certain inspired the journey in the first place.
These assessments took only a matter of moments. Elizabeth immediately inquired after her sister and was told that she was awake but feverish. Anxious to see Jane and to care for her in whatever way she could Elizabeth was grateful when Miss. Bingley rose and took her to Jane's room. Once they were alone together Jane expressed her gratitude to Elizabeth and her delight at having her sister by her side when she was feeling so poorly. Elizabeth would not allow these expressions to go for too long as it was clear Jane was not equal to even this small exertion. Moping her brow with a cloth she wet in the basin by the door she assured her sister there was no place she would rather be. Since childhood Jane and Elizabeth had been the best of friends and near constant companions. As a consequence, they had accumulated many habits and rituals for the various situations in which they found themselves. One such habit was that on the rare occasions Jane was ill Elizabeth would entertain her with songs and stories she made up for her sister's amusement. Therefore, once Jane was settled and Elizabeth had gotten her to eat some of the food Miss. Bingley had sent up Elizabeth began a story to entertain her sister and added in songs to punctuate the important moments.
Sometime later when Mr. Darcy went to his room to retrieve a letter from his cousin he heard a vaguely familiar intensely pleasant sound emanating from one of the guest rooms. Looking up and down the hall to be sure no servants were about he made his way toward the sound. After only a few steps he was certain it was Elizabeth he was hearing. He did not recognize the melody nor the words when he was close enough to discern them. It seemed to be a song about she and Jane and some events of their childhood. So entranced was he that he didn't notice when the song had stopped. Nor did he immediately hear the footsteps nearing the closed door. However, the turning of the door knob was enough to startle him out of his reverie. Mr. Darcy jumped back and made what he hoped was a good impression of having just walked by the room on his way to his own.
"Mr. Darcy." Elizabeth said with some surprise as she almost walked in to him.
"Miss. Elizabeth, I apologize." Mr. Darcy said, sincerely sorry to have violated her privacy by eavesdropping on her song which he presumed had been sung to her sick sister.
"Not to worry, Mr. Darcy." Elizabeth assured him. "I have just been singing my sister to sleep and hope to quickly fetch a book from Mr. Bingley's library to amuse myself while she rests."
Feeling less like an intruder for her having shared with him what he already knew Mr. Darcy found himself somewhat at ease in her company. Not entirely at ease though for her fine eyes and figure made that unlikely.
"May I show you the way?" He asked offering her his arm.
"Thank you," she said placing her hand on his arm.
"How is Miss. Bennet?"
"Resting now, but I am afraid she is truly unwell." Elizabeth answered softy. "Jane has always been hearty. It is one of the few things she and I have in common. Therefore, illness with either of us feels serious and ominous I suppose. I know it is not anything too dire but I cannot seem to shake the feeling of dread I feel seeing her so pale and sickly."
"Is there anything more that can be done for her?" Mr. Darcy asked wanting to eliminate the worry etched on Elizabeth's face. "I know Mr. Bingley would do whatever is necessary to assure you sister's comfort."
"I believe that is true." Elizabeth responded and Darcy was pleased to see a slight sparkle in her eyes as she said this. "But no, thank you I am sure she will be well after some rest."
Mr. Darcy stepped back and indicated the door to the library for Elizabeth to enter. Inside she was surprised and he chagrined to find Miss. Bingley. That lady's alert eyes quickly looked between the two newcomers noting how Elizabeth's hand rested on Darcy's arm and the slight smile on his lips as he had looked down at her before they noted her presence.
"I am so sorry." She said rising and grabbing the book she had noticed Darcy reading the previous evening. "I was reading and lost track of time. If you needed something Miss. Eliza you needn't have bothered Mr. Darcy. A servant could have seen to your needs or directed you to me. I realize you are not used to having so many available to attend to your needs."
Before Elizabeth could respond Mr. Darcy spoke up.
"You are mistaken, Miss. Bingley. I encountered Miss. Elizabeth in the hall and offered to escort her to the library so that she might select a book to read while her sister sleeps." This was said with enough of the Darcy disdain injected into his voice that Elizabeth was taken aback at how quickly he shifted from a pleasant even affable friend to a haughty stranger. In this case, she was almost grateful as his annoyance seemed to be on her behalf. However; he did not know her at all if he supposed she needed his assistance in dealing with the likes of Caroline Bingley.
"Je ne savais pas que vous étiez fluent en Francais ? Vous aimez Rosseau?"
"Excuse me? Miss. Bingley responded.
"You are reading a copy of Rosseau's Social Contract in the original French. I assumed that you must speak the language if you read it well enough to wade through that text." Elizabeth explained.
"Oh I . . ." Miss Bingley began a response as she held her book out to examine it.
"No matter Miss. Bingley." Elizabeth responded feeling somewhat petty for exposing her hostess. She was simply a mean-spirited woman whose attacks were predictable and unimaginative. Elizabeth knew she should ignore her rather than rise to the bait. "I will only disturb you for a moment while I select a book for myself from your brother's collection."
With that Elizabeth turned from both Miss. Bingley and Mr. Darcy to peruse the sparsely populated shelves on the other side of the room. Miss. Bingley proceeded to address Mr. Darcy in hushed tones and Elizabeth gave herself over to her book search. Eventually she found a few texts on a desk. One of them was a book of poetry. She took the volume placed it under her arm and turned to go.
"I will be returning to my sister." She told the others.
"Are you a fan of Wordsworth?" Mr. Darcy asked stepping away from Miss. Bingley who very discreetly slid in the same direction thereby maintaining the very slight distance between them.
"I confess I have not read this work yet, but I had heard much of it and was curious. I greatly enjoyed The Prelude and Poems in Two Volumes, but found them so melancholy I was happy to learn that his latest work was less focused on loss and hardship as perhaps the poet's life has less of these things of late. I had heard it was to be published soon but did not realize it was already available. I am impressed with your brother's library, Miss. Bingley."
"I am afraid you will find that volume does not belong to Mr. Bingley." Mr. Darcy interjected. Elizabeth opened the book and saw the author himself had inscribed the book and it was not addressed to Mr. Bingley, but Mr. Darcy.
"I apologize, Mr. Darcy." Elizabeth said reluctantly handing to book to him while seemingly unable to tear her eyes from the handwritten inscription.
"I did not mean you were not welcome to the book, Miss. Elizabeth." He said quickly pushing it gently back in to her hands. "I think if you are a Wordsworth enthusiast you will greatly enjoy this volume and I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours."
Tired of a conversation in which she could not take part Miss Bingley reminded Miss. Elizabeth that her sister might need her.
"Indeed you are correct, Miss. Bingley." Elizabeth responded. "If you will excuse me Mr. Wordsworth and I will look after, Jane. " She curtseyed and turned to leave, but added. "Thank you for loaning this to me, Mr. Darcy. I will take great care of it."
"You are sincerely welcome, Miss. Elizabeth." He responded with one of those rare smiles that nearly took her breath away. She had not been gone more than a minute before Miss. Bingley began to lament the presence of "such people" under her roof. Mr. Darcy appeared to be paying perfect attention and indeed did catch the occasional reference to their small estate, their mother's manners or sisters' behavior, but for the most part Miss. Bingley's invectives did not penetrate the happy malaise he seemed to experience after each encounter with Miss. Elizabeth Bennet. If not for her inferior connections, he believed he would be in real danger. He was grateful that he and Mr. Bingley were planning to tour the estate at any moment as he felt any more time with the lovely Miss. Elizabeth Bennett would only disconcert him more.