If Elizabeth was to feel residual embarrassment over her slip, then Mr Darcy was gracious enough to leave her to feel it in private. The week following, he did not once attend Longbourn. Elizabeth might perhaps have taken this to mean that Mr Darcy had found her as wanting as he oft found her family except for one thing. If Mr Darcy was notable by his absence, then Miss Darcy more than made up for it.
Each day Miss Darcy would arrive and join the Bennet sisters as they completed the alterations to Mary's new habit. Despite their protests that as she was a visitor, they could lay off their work, Miss Darcy insisted they continue and as the week progressed, even asked if she too might aid the endeavour in any way.
In that week Elizabeth came to appreciate the occasionally biting wit of Mary and the bright optimism of Kitty.
Kitty was a revelation to Elizabeth. She laughed and giggled and updated the sisters on all the gossip that Lydia collected during the day, but with a better understanding of the subjects of the gossip, Kitty made the news interesting and relevant when combined with her own insight.
Kitty was the one who could get Miss Darcy to relax and participate in the conversation. It was not more than two days until the shy girl who had looked terrified at her first introduction to the Bennets was a thing of distant memory. As their acquaintance with her grew, Jane and Elizabeth were both invited to throw off the formal address, a boon of friendship that was readily reciprocated.
Georgiana declared that as they were now all friends, Kitty must design her a bonnet and teach her how to make over one of her own as she had no female company with which to enjoy such pursuits. Kitty to no one's surprise readily acquiesced and produced a design that was simple enough for a beginner but not so dull as to detract from Georgiana's position in society.
After the design had been agreed Elizabeth had taken the charcoal from Kitty and playfully declared the design far too dull. She took up another sketch Kitty had begun but had decided against and drew, poorly, three large feathers onto the back of the bonnet stating that any lady of station should have a hat to match. Elizabeth had stifled her giggles as Jane visibly struggled to find something nice to say. Georgiana looked somewhat horrified, while Mary readily agreed, taking the charcoal from Elizabeth and drew a lopsided bow on to the side of the bonnet asserting that she thought such a stately bow could do nothing but demonstrate discernment of the wearer. Kitty stealing the charcoal next, drew an intricate loop of pearls between the bow and crown of the bonnet to illustrate the wealth and wisdom of the wearer.
Georgiana caught on to the jest, snatched the charcoal herself and attempted to draw a cluster of flowers over the brim. The resulting bonnet looked frightful, but the ladies themselves found nothing but hilarity in it.
Mary, Kitty, and Jane were waiting in the vestibule for the Netherfield party to arrive. There was a palpable frisson of impatience about them. Mary found the idea that her new habit needed some sort of maiden outing to celebrate its completion to be a little silly, but there was something undeniably pleasurable about being the centre of attention.
Kitty and Georgian had been adamant that the habit should be shown off and Mary had agreed after much persuasion on their parts. Upon hearing of the plan, Mr Bingley had gallantly offered Jane the use of his sister's horse, which had been left behind when Miss Bingley departed for London, so both Jane and Mr Bingley would be joining them.
From a ride to show off her new habit, the idea had blossomed into an entire outing. They would ride over Longbourn's lands, then Mr Bingley would lead them over Netherfield's land and park before heading to the house for a celebratory lunch.
Mary had demurred politely but desisted when it became apparent that Mr Bingley had Jane in mind. Propriety restricted his ability to host Jane, and this group activity would allow him an acceptable way to do so.
Elizabeth came to stand with them as they waited, so she could see them off. On noticing Mary's glances, she enquired to their cause.
"Are you sure that you do not wish to join us? You have much right as everyone, I know you do not like the preceding activity, but I should not wish to deny to the pleasure of the luncheon at Netherfield," Mary asked earnestly.
"I am quite sure Mary. I have no desire to ride even if Mr Bingley could also find me a horse. I shall stay here and prevent Mama from joining you all at Netherfield. I am quite sure given the slightest provocation she will have a carriage made ready. As the weather is fine, I shall invite her to join me in walking to Aunt Phillips. By the time we return you shall all be here and able to share how generous and kind Mr Bingley is, and how well his housekeeper did at providing a luncheon. I depend on you to make a note of the dishes and their number," Elizabeth teased.
Any reply Mary was to make was lost in a burst of activity at the sound of hooves on gravel.
There was a flurry of greetings exchanged. Snapdragon and Nelly were brought around by Longbourn's stable hand, and Jane was introduced to the grey Mr Bingley had brought from Netherfield.
The grey was, to Elizabeth's eye, quite large and solid looking. Being as it was Miss Bingley's horse, she presumed the breeding was everything fashionable along with the dappled grey coat and striking black mane and tail. Having no real appreciation for horseflesh, she merely smiled and agreed with the sentiments expressed that the horse was kind, if a little lively, and underappreciated.
Once everyone was mounted and settled comfortably, they turned away leaving Elizabeth smiling and waving them off. Once they were around the corner and out of sight, she turned back towards the house. Hill indicated that her mother was still in her room, she had not wished to rouse herself early to see the party off. Elizabeth hummed as she took the stairs determined that she would play her part in distracting her mother from arriving at Netherfield without invitation.
Snapdragon was frisky and required Mary to pay attention to the gelding. Mary supposed that it was the company of so many new horses that had him on his toes and snorting. She didn't mind. She was comfortable on him having been riding him since she first learnt, and only thought fondly of the gelding's puffed up self-importance. She had to admit to a certain flair of jealousy at the sight of the horse Mr Bingley had brought for Jane to ride. It was an animal of superior breeding which was evident to anyone who cared to look. Well, aside from Lizzy, who had no understanding of horses at all.
Jane and Mr Bingley were leading the party while she, Kitty and Georgian were in the middle. Mr Darcy on his gelding brought up the rear. The pace had been enjoyably brisk, and they had just settled to a speed where conversation could be more easily exchanged.
Georgian and Kitty were discussing the tracks Georgian rode around Pemberley. Mary was half paying attention and half absorbing what she was startled to discover was a feeling of contentment. She examined the feeling a little closer. It was surprising to realise that she had seemingly grown as a person since September.
The fiasco with Mr Collins, the desire to join Elizabeth in helping Jane. The friendship she had with Georgiana which she had fostered on her own and was separate to the association Kitty held with Georgiana. Even the relationship she had with Kitty was better than it had been in years since Lydia had left the nursery and put both Kitty and Mary in the shade. Kitty had attached to Lydia in order to share some of the attention, but she had been content to fade into the background.
Mary had chosen to leave off her study of sermons and the Bible since that day, in favour of spending time with her sisters and reading the books she saw Jane and Lizzy reading. She practised her Pianoforte but no longer strove to play the solemn ponderous music she had been striving towards previously. Instead, her practice had been of much lighter, brighter pieces, even Mama had commented how pretty the piece she had been playing was as she passed through the room was just two days ago. Now she was unsure if she could go back to the person she was all those weeks ago even if the changes were not so significant.
"Mary?" Kitty's voice broke through the thoughts in her head.
"Yes?" Mary asked turning to her sister.
Kitty lifted her whip to point. "Is that not John Lucas?"
Mary faced the direction in which Kitty pointed and squinted. Her glasses, which she only needed for reading, were at home. While she did not require them to see distances, she found herself often squinting as if she did.
"Yes," Mary said cautiously. The rider was not clearly discernible, but the horse looked familiar. "That is his horse certainly," she offered.
"Mr Lucas?" Georgiana enquired.
"The first of the Lucas' sons," Mary replied. "He is their third child. Charlotte Lucas is the eldest and is great friends with Lizzy. Then Harriet, then John, Thomas, and Maria."
"You will not meet Harriet," Kitty supplied in a quiet voice. "She passed from influenza but three years ago. She was a year older than Jane, they were all great friends. When we were children, the Bennets could always be found in company with the Lucas'. Mama and Lady Lucas have a rivalry that spans all their acquaintance, and they have been friends since they were girls not yet out. It is quite ridiculous the lengths that they go to best each other."
Mary nodded. "It is not always seemly, but it is a comfort to them to have such a friendship I believe."
The rider came closer, and the party drew to a halt as John Lucas hailed them. Greetings were exchanged, and Mr Lucas was introduced to Miss Darcy. Once the formalities were observed John turned his horse and came up next to Mary as the party moved off again.
"Mary, I was hoping to see you; it is fortunate that I have come across your party for I should have been dismayed to have missed you at Longbourn."
"I did not know you had returned from London."
"My mother would think me a terrible son indeed if I did not return home from Christmastide. I am sure that there is at least one dance she wishes for me to attend."
"I believe I may have heard of a planned event," Mary confided with a smile.
"Just one? Excellent, Mary, I can always rely upon you. Indeed, I shall rely upon you again and solicit a dance. Any you wish. I shall ask the same of Lizzy too, she is always willing to save us, poor unfortunate souls."
"I am sure that neither Lizzy or I could deny a poor unfortunate soul as yourself, John. I shall take the second if you please," Mary replied with dry amusement.
"I thank you from the depths of my heart. You were much more tractable than I expected, might I inquire if you are also dodging your mother's choice?" John teased.
"Perhaps I have come to think, that an evening of carefully selected partners can add to an occasion. You will do your best to dance well, will you not? I shall be frightfully disappointed if you come at it half-cocked." Mary parried.
"For you Mary I shall wear wings upon my heels," John swore with feigned earnest. "Do you think I might convince Lizzy to let me have her first, then whatever delightful treasure Mother has dug up might be avoided."
"I am sure she can be appealed to."
"Might I ask after your recent health? I had heard, perhaps you had been feeling under the weather?"
The teasing lilt was not present in that question. Mary sighed. "Lydia, no doubt."
"Your sister did mention that you had recently suffered a disappointment to my sister on one her visits. This is the earliest time I have had to ascertain for myself. You are quite well, are you not?" John entreated gently.
Mary conceded to the genuine concern. John had known her too long for her to be comfortable in her success at fabricating an answer. "I cannot believe that Lydia did not share the entire tale, you need not be circumspect on my behalf. I was not disappointed. Or perhaps I was disappointed but not for the common reasons. I was not dismayed to refuse, only saddened that I found myself made unhappy by those addresses. It does not matter in any case. Our cousin has left Longbourn and God willing he shall not return."
"I am glad that you are well and that you are not suffering. I should dislike that notion entirely." John looked forward, for a moment then turned back to her with a renewed teasing smile. "Shall I ride to Kent at once and demand satisfaction? I shall play knight errant for you, Mary."
"You shall not," Mary replied with a smile of her own. "I shall not have Lady Lucas disappointed that you missed spending the festive season with her on my behalf."
"You wound me! To think that you, who ought to be my ardent supporter, should think I should do anything as unseemly as loose! Do you believe me foolish Mary? For I should not call Mr Collins out for a duel of weapons, he is a man of God is he not? It would be ungentlemanly of me to force him into a situation where he is obligated to act against his calling. No, indeed I shall call him out to a duel of wits."
Mary laughed. "Indeed, and this is fair is it? I fear John that you underestimate Mr Collins. He shall come to a duel of wits as unarmed as if you had demanded satisfaction with pistols."
John joined in her laughter then reached over grasping her elbow firmly. Surprised Mary looked over at him her brow raising in question.
"I am glad you are well."
Mary only nodded and fought to keep her equanimity. She was recovered, but she had been blindsided by the feelings that Mr Collins had roused in her more than once, and it took a moment to wrestle them into submission again. John's concern had threatened to lose them once more, and Mary was determined that she would not become weepy. Mr Collins was best off forgotten. She fixed her eyes firmly on Snapdragon's ears and only met Johns concerned look once she could deliver a genuine if small smile.
John released her elbow with a slight squeeze. "Now, where is Lizzy? Has she set off to meet you at some far-flung spot?"
"She has remained at Longbourn," Mary replied.
"Good lord, has she broken a foot?"
"Nothing so dire, she wished to remain and accompany Mama to our Aunt's. They will take tea then return to Longbourn. I should think that our party will return before them. If you wish to petition Lizzy, you may have to wait until tomorrow. Unless you can call upon Papa and persuade him to allow you to stay for dinner."
"Invite myself to dine? Why Mary you must think I am quite savage." John's expression was fixed in a poor imitation of shock causing Mary to laugh lightly.
"Perhaps the foundation upon which my knowledge is based is skewed in that direction, but my intimacies with your character are from your own hand. You cannot complain when you dislike the result."
"I confess I am an enviable rouge." John declared with an incorrigible smirk.
"I do not envy you, sir. Are you quite sure you have it right?" Mary queried with a puzzled air, a smile playing at the corner of her lips.
"You, Mary, are no good what so ever for a man's ego. You prick me, and I deflate under your stern eye. How shall I ever woo you, Mary?" John laid a hand upon his heart and gave her a beseeching look.
Mary gave in and laughed. "Perhaps you should try your charms upon those of the fairer sex that do not know you so well. I should warn you that Georgiana will not succumb to you, as no doubt Kitty has been telling her everything she knows about you."
"Well, that's dashedly unfair. I suppose I shall have to travel to far-flung places where I shall dazzle the young ladies with my wit and daring."
"I suppose if you can find any young ladies who could believe such stories, then you shall do very well."
"I do not think that was as complimentary as it sounded," John replied wryly
Mary smiled at John. "I am sure that it was not uncomplimentary, and I should be distressed indeed if you should take offence."
"You could not offend me, Mary, every word drips like honey from your lips, your beauty is without compare and…"
Mary cut John off with a genuine laugh. "You shall get a well-deserved reputation as a rogue if that is the way you speak to ladies of your aquaintance. I do hope sir, that you have put your time at Cambridge to better use than learning flowery words of insincere praise. Such opportunities should not be squandered for those pleasures which are much shorter lived in duration."
John smiled. "I confess that my studies have precluded me from making use of such turn of phrase. My dorm mate, however, assures me that they work to great effect at the dinners he attends. He practises them with as much diligence as he applies to his lessons, to wit, I have the envious position of playing Juliet to his Romeo."
Mary remained in conversation with John until the turn on to Netherfield's lands where he excused himself. Mr Bingley genieally offered an invitation to join the party and return to Netherfield Park with them. John politely declined, citing other business, and with one last look and smile towards Mary rode away from the party.
Their party turned onto the lane which allowed only for riders to be two abreast. Kitty and Georgian were waved forward by Mary who to her surprise was joined by Mr Darcy.
"You have known Mr Lucas for some time? You seem to be on good terms, his remarks…" Mr Darcy tailed off.
Mary thought she understood. Her conversation with John had been freer than it had been in a long time. Perhaps more informal than was expected and perhaps acceptable. "Yes, the Lucases are our closest neighbours. We have spent much of our childhoods together. John and Lizzy are very like-minded and I am fortunate to have his friendship."
Mr Darcy said nothing but remained thoughtful as they continued their excursion. Mary while overcome of her initial shyness and fear of Mr Darcy was not equal to opening another avenue of conversation, and so they rode in silence until the path widened again and she was able to rejoin Kitty and Georgiana.