Elizabeth knew she should not be happy that Jane was feeling poorly. But truly a walk to Meryton became a decidedly less pleasant prospect when their Cousin, Mr. Collins, was practically assigned to chaperone them. Her father, she knew, was desperate to evict the man from his library but she resented having him foisted on herself and her sisters. Their mother had been a willing accomplice as Elizabeth suspected she had begun to see their awkward guest as an answer to her most fervent prayer – a husband for one of her daughters. Though which one was still a question which worried Elizabeth
They had all set out together, to Mrs. Bennet's enthusiastic farewells. But when they had almost completed their journey Jane, with many words of apology, gave the party to understand that she did not feel equal to continuing. Having only recently recovered from an illness of several days duration this caused understandable concern. That is to say it caused two of her sisters' concern, it caused great consternation for the youngest sisters who had been greatly anticipating the trip. They intended to seek the officers whose company they had come to desire so keenly. These wishes were proclaimed loudly while Elizabeth chastised them for their lack of concern for their sister.
"Of course Jane must return." Kitty said, not unkindly. "But Lydia and I can go on by ourselves. We will be back for dinner." She put in, probably hoping it would persuade her clearly reluctant elders sisters and placate her barely restrained younger one.
"Yes indeed, Lizzie. I would like to see how you can prevent us." Lydia declared in her typically bold fashion.
Although they were merely on the lane which led to town it was not secluded and several people had already passed in each direction. Lydia well knew her sister was loathe to make a scene while she herself was happy to provide one if it got her her own way. Elizabeth considered this against the scenes which would surely arise if Lydia and Kitty went to town unaccompanied in their current state of euphoria over the officers. She liked to think the solution she hit upon had to do only with her sisters and her family's reputation and nothing at all to do with her desire to rid herself of her supercilious cousin.
"Very well, Lydia you Kitty may continue on to Meryton. I'll not oppose the scheme. However, I would request our cousin provide you the benefit of his presence as a proper chaperone."
Lydia's expression went from triumph to dismay in a mere moment. Before she could object Mr. Collins was offering some platitude on his desire to be of use to his family and his situation as a clergyman being the perfect position to offer such assistance. This did not surprise Elizabeth at all. What did was when Mary requested that she be one of the party to continue on to town.
"If you do not need me to assist you, Jane?" She asked her eldest sister.
"No of course, Mary. Elizabeth will see to me. Your help with Lydia and Kitty would be most appreciated." Jane smiled.
Elizabeth, noting Jane really did look quite tired, bid farewell to the rest of the party and offered her sister her arm for support as they set off for their home.
"Why do you suppose Mary chose to go on to Meryton." Elizabeth asked unable to account for their usually socially reticent sister's decision.
"I am uncertain, but I suppose she may have been concerned that Mr. Collins would be overwhelmed with our sisters' behavior once they reached Meryton." Jane said with a faint blush. Both Elizabeth and Jane knew well how their youngest sisters had been when it came to the officers lately quartered at Meryton and perhaps forcing Mr. Collins to witness and attempt to bear responsibility for their behavior had not been a wise move. However, the decision could not be undone as Jane's situation required Elizabeth's immediate attention.
The sisters walked on together toward Longbourn walking slowly to accommodate Jane. Elizabeth kept Jane's mind well occupied by anything but her physical state with tales of her adventures to previous day.
"Mrs. Hale was not well pleased with me." She concluded one story.
"Well," Jane responded with a tired smile, "she must have thought you quite improper for climbing the tree yourself."
"That was not was displeased her at all." Elizabeth clarified." "Come to find out, she encourages her cats up the large oak regularly for the purpose of seeking assistance from Mr. Forsythe."
"Yes! My rescue, which I thought quite heroic, rendered his aid quite unnecessary and foiled the purpose of the scheme. She was quite put out."
Jane laughed at this, but Elizabeth perceived that she was very nearly spent. Discerning some logs up ahead at a bend in the road she led her sister to them and declared they would rest for a time.
"I really felt fine when we set out." Jane said as she acceded to Elizabeth's suggestion and sat down. "But now, as you can see, I am clearly not well. I am sorry to give so much trouble."
"Well, you should not be as you know I like nothing better than to be of use to you." Elizabeth assured her sister trying to hide her worry. Before Jane could respond, the sound of approaching horses had them turning their heads toward the road in the direction of Meryton. Two riders appeared and the sisters quickly perceived them to be Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy, their neighbors from Netherfield where Jane had recently stayed unexpectedly while recovering from the illness which was now apparently recurring.
The appearance of these particular gentlemen affected the ladies quite differently. Jane had begun to think very highly of Mr. Bingley. Although she tried not to form a serious attachment, she did not think it proper until the gentleman showed his preference more clearly, in the privacy of her own heart she admitted she was well on her way to liking him very much indeed. Elizabeth supported these private thoughts which truth be told were perhaps not as private as Jane might wish. Although Jane could conceal her feelings, thoughts and preferences from the rest of the world they were quite plain to her dear sister and best friend. Therefore, Elizabeth liked Mr. Bingley, for her sister, a great deal and believed the preference Jane felt for him was mutual. As for his friend however, there was no such good will.
Mr. Darcy had impressed the neighborhood, almost from his first moments entering it, with his conceit and his very evident belief in his own superiority. Normally a handsome wealthy gentleman with reputed connections to the nobility will be well liked despite a little rudeness and aloofness but Mr. Darcy was more than a little anything and perhaps more significantly he had maligned Elizabeth prior to even being introduced to her by declaring her merely tolerable and not handsome enough to tempt him to a dance. As an admired beauty and beloved member of Hertfordshire society this insult was felt by almost everyone and Mr. Darcy was universally disliked for it. Not that the gentleman seemed to either know or care. None but Jane seemed inclined to think well of him and she merely as one with a kind heart and predisposed to like any friend of Mr. Bingley's cautioned judgment against one about whom so little was known.
Although Elizabeth disliked one of the approaching gentleman quite decidedly her regard for the other combined with her concern for her sister made her really glad to see them.
"Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth," Mr. Bingley said as soon as her could discern the ladies. He quickly dismounted and made his way to them. Elizabeth rose to greet them but bid Jane to remain where she was. "We were just on our way to Longbourn to inquire after your recovery." This was said with a look of inquire at Jane, still seated now some distance behind. Elizabeth had come to stand on the road where the gentleman had stopped with their horses.
"We thank you, Mr. Bingley and but an hour ago when we set off toward Meryton we would have reported that my sister had fully recovered, but I am afraid that sometime during our journey she became aware of being fatigued and so we turned round. The walk has proved taxing and so we have stopped to rest."
Mr. Bingley looked truly stricken at this news and at first did not know what to say. Elizabeth was afraid Mr. Darcy would suspect she and Jane of some manipulation to gain his friend's attention. He needed no further reasons to look down on the Bennet family as he had made his disdain perfectly clear during her stay at Netherfield to tend Jane. But how could they have known the gentlemen would be on this road and one look at Jane must confirm her story. Indeed, both did look at her sister and when they turned back to her what she from them was nothing but concern. Although more open from Mr. Bingley she could still clearly see it on Mr. Darcy's face as well. It relieved her not to be suspected because to be fair her mother had manipulated Jane into the original horseback ride in the rain which caused the illness in the first place. However, such thoughts were of no use now. All that mattered was getting Jane home.
"Miss Elizabeth, might we offer some assistance?" Mr. Darcy asked in a gentler voice than she was used to hearing from him.
"Yes, please we must be of some use." Bingley seconded.
"I am certain Jane would benefit from a stronger arm than mine for the remaining walk to Longbourn." Elizabeth offered though she wished there was more that could be done as she was not certain Jane was equal to the task of walking anymore.
"I would be happy to escort Miss Bennet." Bingley moved toward Jane who had remained perched on her log. He greeted her and they began to speak.
"Miss Elizabeth, I know it might not be the most comfortable solution but might your sister not ride back on Mr. Bingley's horse? He could then ride Zeus, my horse, and lead his getting them home swiftly."
Elizabeth had not considered that. Although not saddled properly for Jane to ride it was not as if she had never ridden side-saddle without the proper equipment and if Bingley led the horse and she simply held the pommel she would be perfectly situated for the remaining distance to Longbourn.
"If Jane is amenable I think your solution a good one."
As it happened Jane was amenable and she and Mr. Bingley departed quickly. Elizabeth had not foreseen that this resolution would result in her being in Mr. Darcy's company for the better part of a half hour. Assuming he would prefer silence, as he had ignored her entirely for the last half hour they spent alone together at Netherfield, Elizabeth did not bother to give him any attention and focused on the road and getting home to tend Jane.
"Miss Elizabeth," Mr. Darcy said with a look of some concern or exasperation. He was already a ways behind her. Indeed, he seemed to have not moved at all. Elizabeth turned and noticed he held his arm to her. She moved back to where he stood.
"I am sorry I did not realize you were speaking." She said quickly and then, because what choice did she have, took his arm.
"So it would seem. It took three tries."
"Three tries, Sir?"
"I said your name three times before you answered me." He clarified.
"That is quite a few." She smiled in embarrassment. "You must have begun to wonder if you had gotten the wrong Bennet sister."
He looked at her for a long moment before answering.
"Not at all, Miss Elizabeth." He laughed a little, a sound she had not heard before. "I would never mistake you for anyone else. I have never met anyone like you in all my travels. No one could ever mistake Elizabeth Bennet for someone else. At least I could not."
Elizabeth, knowing of Mr. Darcy's contempt for her knew this to be an insult of the severest order so she turned to scold him. How dare he be so bold with his mockery, did he think she was a simpleton who could not understand him? But when she looked up at him what she saw in his eyes was not contempt, scorn or derision. It was desire, admiration and respect.