Author's Note: Thanks you to all my kind reviewers and readers for bearing with me as I attempt to continue. I apologize for the long delays in chapters that has occurred: to those who have kind enough to liken me to Austen, I will only "colour" and say that the true owner of these sometimes difficult characters would surely have not found such trouble writing a single afternoon. The story is not complete, but may took even more time to finish. Thanks again for your patience, support, and reviews. They are most appreciated.
The ride was short but enjoyable, as Elizabeth was pleased to observe Kitty overcome her initial shyness to sensibly converse with Miss Darcy. She was overcome by the joy of receiving so many wonderful new relations, and was especially solicitous towards her sister, begging that they come to know each other as intimately as possible.
"I am so delighted, so happy! I am sorry for not attending you better when you called, or offering you my joy."
"There was nothing lacking, Miss Darcy. It is rather your brother's fault, and mine, since we were so secretive."
"Oh, no, it was all for my sake, I am sure, that I might not be overwhelmed by the news. He is always ever so kind, so thoughtful. I do not deserve it."
Her last words were quieter than had been the entirety of her speech before, with a trace of some serious regret that Elizabeth felt sensitive to at once, though confused as to its reason. "Well, I must defer to your superior understanding, though I am not of the same opinion personally. I can not believe Mr. Darcy would bestow his attentions on anyone who did not merit them."
When they had arrived, Elizabeth at once sought out the cariole's passenger, and was pleased to find him still in great spirits, so that he suffered the removal of his boots and coat with laughter rather than temper, and was even persuaded to cheerfully wash his face before joining the others at a setting of cake and fruit. Had there been any lingering doubts over their new cousin, the children were decided by this latest civility: they adored Georgiana, and felt her brother must be the best man of their knowledge, saving only their father. Robert perhaps was more generous in his praise of the pony than its owner, and his florid description of their ride through town was such that Elizabeth quietly asked Mr. Darcy if her cousin had been much trouble to him.
"No, not at all. He was perfectly controlled."
This statement she could not help but laugh at. "Perfectly controlled? There I am afraid I do not believe you, for surely no child could be so, when faced with such excitement as I have now heard mentioned."
"Perhaps not as some would understand. Allow me to rephrase the description: he was as well behaved as any young boy riding through town in a splendid gig could be expected."
"And are you then often in the habit of driving about with young bedraggled company, Mr. Darcy, or do you speak from personal experience?"
To this he made no comment, only looking very thoughtful. Elizabeth, fearing she had caused offence in such a teasing inquiry, attempted to turn her attention more toward the conversation started between Georgiana and Catherine, on the merits of some fashion. She was called back to her companion, though, by his eventual reply,
"The circumstance is as oft repeated as when I walk three miles in dirty weather: it requires an exemplary motive to occur."
She stared at him with some incredulity, and was only barely aware that their sisters had also looked up in some surprise at his words. His countenance was serene, his words calm, but his demure smile caused her to believe that despite all her expectations, he was teasing her. How different did their former conversations now appear! But, with that knowledge, how should she now respond?
Her brief hesitancy she set aside as the slightest trace of uncertainty crossed his features in her silence. "How unlucky that you have such a means of reproof, and with my own conduct! Now I do not dare ask further: Robert, your secrets are quite safe from me."
This pardon prompted the recipient to laugh gaily at his good fortune, causing his family to share in his humour. After a moment, even Miss Darcy's startled, fearful expression turned to a shy smile. Barely had Elizabeth observed this then her eyes were drawn to the brother's, who looked with great pleasure at his sister's felicity, and then at her with the same good expression, tinged with a feeling she thought might be gratitude; but for what cause she could not understand.
The grapes, nectarines, and peaches were soon gone, and with some danger of boredom creeping upon them, Grace found the courage to ask for her cousin to play for them. Elizabeth at once refused, saying she had not truly practised in months, and deferred in favour of their hostess. At her praises, the children turned their united efforts on poor Georgiana, who after some gentle encouragement from the others, finally agreed to a short piece. Kitty at once offered to assist in turning the pages rather than be left to the whims of lovers and children, and the two soon began a light prelude.
Its bright tempo and style tempted the youngest children to clap and move about the instrument, and they were greatly confused when both Bennet sisters implored them to stop. Elizabeth particularly was dismayed as they raised the objection that she should play, and surely then they could dance like they were accustomed to at home. Glancing with some chagrin at their host, she saw him turned away, and murmured an apology for the interruption. Mr. Darcy at once looked back, lips pursed, but appeared unable to form a reply.
Before either could speak, though, Susan strongly ordered her sister and brothers to not behave in such a silly way. "It is not at all a dancing song, and you are not doing it right. Besides, there is not a proper line to form, for Grace and Robert should have to be partners, and then I would have to stand up with Joseph, who is really too little, and neither of the boys have shoes on!" Not distracted by the pained insolence of those she chastised or the pointed looks of her cousins, she marched in righteous anger to the sole champion to be found in the room. "You are a gentleman, Mister Darcy, please show them the right way to do it."
Her pleas did not provide the exact model of decorum she might have wished, for they provoked a deep, rich laughter from Darcy, whose struggles to curtail this display had been overcome by the most singular invitation to dance ever extended him. Elizabeth smiled herself, but quickly attempted to excuse him, by explaining that he was not very fond of dancing.
"But why?" Grace asked, and her sister appeared equally mystified by such an uncharacteristic flaw in a gentleman.
"I am afraid Miss Elizabeth may be recalling certain facts of our acquaintance which are not entirely satisfactory on my part." This rather long statement was quite beyond the girls, though Elizabeth caught the allusion with some discomfort at her own conduct then, and began to blush in earnest as he looked up in amusement to say, "I would be honoured to ask for your hand, Miss Gardiner, were your father here to offer his permission. As it is, would your cousin do in your place?"
"Oh, yes!" Both girls exclaimed at this romantic suggestion, and saw to the choosing of the correct score, and the arrangement of their disreputable brothers on the settee, with great energy. They then took seats themselves, and the couple were allowed to begin at a word from Susan to start the music.
Their first turn was met with generous applause from their audience, and much mirth as Elizabeth finished out the step with an invisible dancer to her right. As the space was limited, the partners returned to each other quickly, and were forced to wait some beats before beginning the next turn. She was enjoying herself more than she could have anticipated, and he looked very well as pleased. "Do you now find dancing a better pastime than previously?" Elizabeth asked as they took up hands again.
"More that the duty is not so unwelcome with a good partner," said he, smiling.
"I suppose a good lady would feel all the compliment of the suggestion, and agree prettily, but I can not. Surely it is not too onerous a duty: I have always dearly loved an assembly, even with partners I could not admire."
"Such as dragons and ogres?" he asked after a pause, and where Elizabeth had nearly coloured anew with shame at her words and the memories they might evoke, she now laughed.
"No, I can not recall ever dancing with either such personages, and I would surely remember if I had. Come, this subject will not do, and I am tired of your always having the advantage of me. You must tell me something about yourself, something I do not know and could never guess."
They were separated then by the dance, but Elizabeth was no longer interested in pretending other partners, and was impatient to hear the actual one's answer. "I am the only heir in four generations without a brother," he said as they rejoined.
Elizabeth shook her head. "I already knew of your lack, and am unimpressed by the severity of it. You have not answered me at all."
"At Pemberley there is a saloon about this large, but it faces the lake and is much pleasanter," he tried again with some confusion, but she would not allow him to finish, and grasped his hand tighter as they turned, saying:
"I am sure it is, and your family as great, but that is not where my interest currently lies. I am asking of you, Mr. Darcy. What are your secrets?"
A sense of wonder and delight passed over his features, though it was quickly schooled to a small smile, so that had she not been paying close attention, Elizabeth might have missed the look completely. This whisper of his esteem she found more dear and precious than had it been loudly exclaimed, and she doubted now that he could ever appear haughty to her again, no matter his attempts.
The emotion in his words was as his manner. "I had dreamed of dancing with you again, but it never ended so beautifully as now."
Elizabeth was barely aware of the final cord struck, and only curtsied out of habit, for his words had startled her beyond anything since his proposal. Of course, then he had spoken of the heart, had detailed his struggles with as much expression of the reasons against as for, and later had only seemed serenely happy rather than violently in love. She was sensible of the compliment that favour alone accorded, and believed herself capable of matching it, but now felt herself completely unworthy of the feelings being shewn her. She was mortified, flattered, and, as never before in her life, amazed at her own ignorance. Having placed a great value on her abilities and sophistication, scorning Jane's generous candour, Elizabeth had thought herself quite prepared for any and all attentions granted her, carefully laughing away any affectation of interest. She had never before counted on inspiring love of any great value to anyone.
She discovered, as she stared in mute astonishment, that she was quite terrified by the prospect.
A servant entered with the boys' freshly cleaned shoes, and the visit was soon brought to a close. Catherine and Georgiana appeared as distressed by the parting as any of the others, and an invitation was extended for any of the Bennet sisters to join her in shopping with Mrs. Annesley. The children all exclaimed loud goodbyes, the girls offering very correct curtsies, and the boys bowing quite formally in a manner Elizabeth thought very much a copy of Darcy's own courtesy . There was much talk as they went out to the carriage, and she was unsurprised, though no less apprehensive, when he remained close to her side just behind the main party.
"I thank you, Miss Elizabeth, for the pleasure of your company today," said he.
"No, we must be thankful to you, it was perfectly generous," she quickly corrected, anxious to please as she not been since a child.
His smile was more brittle than warm. "I believe it was really perfectly selfish. It prevented me having to find the will to call myself, as I should have done to speak to your uncle." His reply was somewhat grave, but that no longer signified anything to her, for it was simply part of who he was. She could not imagine him greatly different than he had been today, and found she did not wish to. "His words have given me much to consider."
"It was not his intention to be difficult. He is only so impressed with the duty he feels for us now, he is grown more sombre by it than usual."
"He was not difficult at all; it is more that I had not a doubt as to how he would react prior to receiving him, any more than I had of your acceptance. To find that one's vanity is so able to confuse matters is more than slightly humbling." Darcy's tone was polite but detached, and his countenance betrayed an agitation behind its gravity.
"My sister tells me that pride and vanity are not the same," she answered, frightened but sincere, "and if that is so, it is I who must be first to beg forgiveness, for I have enjoyed more than my share of the latter than is prudent for any thinking person, and so injured more than my share of the former."
"Yes. With your greater experience and understanding, you can not be insensible to how I have behaved, however much I would wish it otherwise now. I am grown heartily ashamed of myself."
The children had already climbed into the carriage in impatience with their betters' tardiness, and their two younger sisters stood by the door in conversation, so that Elizabeth and Darcy were almost quite alone. With a brief glance at these proceedings, he reached forward slightly and took her hand, and she was pleased to stop the gasp that threatened to override his speech as he said, "I am afraid my own behaviour has not been above reproach, and was justly censured by some of that which you claim the fault in."
She coloured and smiled in despair at his deference. "Oh, I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression of my blame, I am not good enough for that. You are really far too kind to say otherwise."
"You can not truly believe that."
The firm confidence and trace of humour she detected in his expression prevented any serious reply, and she gratefully found her good spirits returning as she said, "Then let us not quarrel for the greater position of modesty. I don't believe it is the right way to begin an engagement."
"No indeed; the right way would be for me to call on your family, rather than expecting you to always find errands in the park."
"Certainly, it is quite the proper thing to do," she agreed cheerfully. "But I do not believe good manners ought to preclude errands in the park. I find them most instructive."