“Oh, Mr. Darcy, thank you so much for your kindness toward my dear daughters. Jane is such a good girl. She never complains, but I know she suffers so with her injury. Elizabeth is so brave and competent, but I am sure she appreciated your assistance in getting home.”
When Mrs. Bennet finally had to pause for breath, Darcy was able to respond. “It was my pleasure, Mrs. Bennet.” Internally, he was cringing. Jane truly was a lady born out of place – this family did not suit her in the least. How she grew into such a calm, delightfully restful and intelligent woman was a miracle.
He had seated himself across from her in his carriage, so that she could sit with her sister. Jane’s ankle and foot had been wrapped in sturdy cloth to keep it as motionless as possible. Her dress had slid just a bit up her leg…
Of course, he did not take advantage of the increased visibility. He was a gentleman.
But he did take advantage of Frederick, the second footman, stumbling on the gravel walk in front of Netherfield. When the younger man lost his footing, Darcy was more than happy to whisk Jane into his own arms and deposit her in his carriage. Even now, as Mrs. Bennet railed on and Mr. Bennet adopted a mien of tolerance that Darcy supposed he had cultivated over the past twenty years, Darcy recollected the singular pleasure he had had for just a few, brief moments.
. . .
“Mr. Darcy,” his Jane – Miss Bennet – had whispered, her eyes widening, their blue depths tempting him to fall and swim indefinitely. “Sir, really, there is no need.”
“There is every need,” he insisted softly, memorizing the gentle weight of her in his arms, wishing they were entirely alone. “And more, it is my pleasure. To be of service to you.”
Jane had darted a quick glance to her sister, who was suppressing a smile that Darcy knew would be far too knowing, far too broad. “Then I thank you. You’re very kind.”
Miss Elizabeth climbed into the carriage, handed up likely by a grinning Bingley, and helped to ease her elder sister onto the plush seat. “Here you go, Jane. Look, Mr. Darcy has had a cushion brought in for you.”
“Mr. Darcy is all consideration,” Jane murmured, eyes lowered as she made herself comfortable.
He felt her weight transfer to the seat and its loss made him lightly melancholy. He searched for words to say at such a parting but found none other than meaningless words of social acceptability. Still, they were what he had. “I am happy to be of any service to you. May I call upon you, to see how you fare?”
“That would be – very kind.” Her words, too, were social gloss. But he could see the warmth in her cheeks again and felt it in her gaze. “I would enjoy continuing our conversations.”
Preparing himself for a brief farewell, then, he was altogether discomfited when Bingley nudged him forward. “You can’t send her off alone there, old fellow.”
Heat hit his own face. “I thought you –”
Bingley had never shown himself to be quite the mischief-maker as he had since they had met the Bennets. “I’ll ride. You go in.”
. . .
Now, they were distributing the rather irritating weight of Mrs. Bennet’s gratitude betwixt them. She caught his gaze, her own carrying a soft, warm, rueful apology. Immediately, he was soothed and smiled a little back at her.
The curve of her lip was ample compensation for listening to her mother. “Truly, Mrs. Bennet, it is my pleasure to be of service to your daughters.” He offered her a slight bow and stepped to stand next to the armchair where Jane had been comfortably situated. “I will leave you to the care of your family,” he murmured, not without some idea of the humor of the situation.
To his delight, Jane covered her lips with her hand so that he focused on her dancing eyes. “You’re too kind,” she replied, her voice sounding choked. It had to be on a chuckle – a chuckle she was too gently bred to free from the confines of her mouth.
Oh, that mouth…
He dwelt upon the perfections of Miss Jane Bennet during the carriage ride back to Netherfield. Bingley was riding ahead, no doubt planning some mischief with Miss Elizabeth Bennet. The two of them were like schoolchildren, heads bent toward one another before the mutual leave-taking.
“Oh, Mr. Bingley. Mr. Darcy. Do join us for a family dinner? It is the very least I can do to repay you for your compassion and kindness.”
As host, it was Bingley’s call whether or not they would attend – not that Darcy had any doubt. “Thank you, Mrs Bennet. We’d be delighted.”
“Charming!” the older woman gushed, the laces of her day cap fluttering with her agitated joy. “Is Friday evening free for you?”
“That would be splendid,” Bingley said, with a grin at Miss Elizabeth that made Darcy think they had agreed betwixt the two of them that this would be happening. Thick as thieves, really. If not for Bingley’s prior assurance that there was no mutual attachment there, Darcy would believe his friend to be in danger.
But no more than Darcy was himself.
Upon reaching Netherfield, Bingley having gone ’round to the stables himself to see to the care of his horse – of which Darcy wholeheartedly approved, though his own coachmen took care of his with ample skill – Darcy retired to his room to write a letter to Georgiana.
“Ah, Mr. Darcy. A letter from dear Georgiana,” Caroline Bingley said in her languid way.
It was Friday morning and, not having seen Miss Bennet since Wednesday, Darcy found himself in a state of restless anticipation regarding the intimate dinner with the Bennet family. He was considering going over early, to see if Jane wished to take the air in his carriage, with perhaps her maid to accompany them. (Much as he enjoyed Miss Elizabeth’s vivacity on occasion, she was rather too sharp-eyed as a chaperon for a gentleman intent upon pursuit.) He shook himself out of his foolish daydreams and regarded the sealed letter in Caroline’s fingers.
“Thank you. I shall answer her and be down later. I am going to ride over to Longbourn this afternoon, to see how Miss Bennet has fared.”
Caroline lifted one brow slowly into her fashionably pale forehead. “Of course you are.” She exchanged a satiric look with Mrs. Hurst before adding, “my brother will bring us at the appointed hour.”
He decided not to allow her to tease him further and merely bowed before leaving the drawing room. Once in his chambers, he broke the seal to his sister’s epistle and settled himself in a comfortable chair to read.
And promptly gaped at the darkly-written sheet of paper that seemed to shout at him – not at all Georgiana’s style.
My Dear Nephew,
“Aunt Catherine,” Darcy spat, glaring at the inserted letter that intruded upon what he considered to be tantamount to a private visit with his sister. He flung his aunt’s letter aside and tried to calm himself for the letter he had wished to read in the first place.
Greetings from London. It is damp and cold, here, but the fires are warm and Mrs. Annesley is very agreeable. I have been studying my painting with the master you selected, Herr Dorner, who is quite gifted with painting light. I have much I can learn from him. And indeed, I think this is a good position for him at present. He has been quite ill. Nothing contagious, Brother. He just seems to lack energy. And you know I am not attempting to be a portraitist, so it is a good learning experience for me and a good employment for him. Mrs. Annesley finds him amusing. Herr Dorner is also helping me with my German.
Thank you for telling me about life in Hertfordshire, my brother. I especially[she added, with several underlinings] have enjoyed what you have told me about Miss Jane Bennet. She sounds like an intelligent, elegant female and – if I may be so bold – would not be adverse to knowing more of her. You may consider it a hint if you wish. I know that you have pressures and duties that I am very thankful I am unburdened with, since I am not the Master of Pemberley. She sounds like she enjoys the country. So do we. Do you think it might be too forward if I suggested
– Here, there was a quick change in ink texture, as well as writing style. It was clear to Darcy that his sister was writing without her usual care. Even though it was a day later and miles distant, his hackles rose.
My aunt, Lady Catherine, has just arrived, Fitzwilliam. Claiming to have the right to know my nearest concerns, she read the letter I was writing. I am sorry I didn’t hide it sooner! Forgive me. Hope to see you soon in London.
Your fond sister,
“She did what?” Darcy sprang to his feet, Georgiana’s letter crumpling between his tense, angry fingers. Spying Lady Catherine’s unasked-for note, he bent to where he had tossed it and snatched it up.
My Dear Nephew,
Your cousin Anne and I have been traveling and were hoping to meet you in London. It would suit me if you came immediately. You clearly are ready to fulfill the promise your dear mother and I had dreamt of a long time ago.
I believe you should hire a music master for Georgiana. She needs to practice more, and with someone other than her companion. Her art master is not at all good Ton. Why did you not hire an English landscape artist? Germans are too mathematical. And why did you not seek my help in finding your sister a new companion. Mrs. Annesley is a genteel sort, but not at all what I would have hoped for. Just say the word and I shall see to it directly.
We can discuss these matters when you visit.
Your Affectionate Aunt,
Lady Catherine de Bourgh
Darcy had been raised to be a gentleman. He had lived all of his twenty-seven years as such and had every intention of keeping true to the values his father instilled in him as a youth. But the words that tumbled from his lips at this juncture were those he heard in the stables, before the grooms noticed him.
“No. I am not going to marry my cousin Anne. And how dare she read Georgiana’s letter? How dare she?”
He paced his suite of rooms for quite some time, regaining control over himself and deciding, with a degree of defiance he had not known he possessed, exactly what he wanted.