Curiosity and Correspondence

Chapter 2 Judging a Book's Cover

As Elizabeth followed Jane into the entryway of Netherfield, she reflected, once again, on how much had changed since her return to Hertfordshire. Upon her arrival, she had confided to Jane the details of Mr. Darcy's proposal and his letter, leaving out any reference to his influence in keeping his friend in London. After the sisters spent two nights discussing the ramifications of all that had transpired in Kent, their lives resumed their previous course, with the exception that Elizabeth no longer permitted Mr. Wickham any opportunity to treat her as a favorite.

It was a few weeks thereafter that her Aunt Philips breathlessly announced that Netherfield was to be opened once again. Within a few days, Mr. Bingley called on Longbourn in general and then on Jane in particular. Their initial reunion was awkward, but was soon replaced with a comfortable ease, that quickly grew to its former companionship.

Mr. Bingley's return to Hertfordshire could not help but remind Elizabeth of Mr. Darcy. She found herself speculating as to Mr. Darcy's reaction to her letter and whether Mr. Bingley's unexpected arrival in the neighborhood was at his urging -- given what she had told him of Jane's regard for his friend. In order to confirm her suspicions, on his first visit, Elizabeth pointedly asked after Mr. Darcy to Mr. Bingley. He indicated that Mr. Darcy was in good health when he had seen him immediately before traveling to Netherfield. Mr. Bingley's response was somewhat cryptic, but his shy smile seemed to convey that he knew something of Elizabeth's past with his friend. It made her color and she was momentarily relieved when her mother's interruption made further inquiry impossible. When Jane eventually agreed to marry Mr. Bingley, Elizabeth frequently contemplated Mr. Darcy's part in its orchestration. As much as she regretted most of the events that had transpired in Kent, in the end, she felt that it had all been worth it, if they had helped secure Jane's happiness. Her mind, however continued to dwell on the events leading to it and the seemingly contradictory actions of the gentleman from Derbyshire.

Elizabeth had come to Netherfield today to help Jane review the house and decide upon any changes that she wanted made before the wedding. Given Miss Bingley's presence, Elizabeth found the task far harder than it needed to be. It was with some relief that they finally finished their tour and Mr. Bingley joined them in the library. After exchanging pleasantries, Mr. Bingley turned to Elizabeth. "Miss Bennet, I glad you are here. I was charged with a task that I have repeatedly forgotten to perform. Now that you and the book are in the same room, I must carry out my duty before it once again slips my mind. When I saw Mr. Darcy before I came to Hertfordshire, he asked me to return a book that you lent him in Kent. I am sorry to have not done so before this. Let me get it for you now."

Elizabeth hoped that her cheeks were not as red as they felt, but feared the worse.

The mention of Mr. Darcy's name immediately engaged Miss Bingley's attention and in response, she turned to Elizabeth and asked in a voice more shrill than she intended, "You were in Kent with Mr. Darcy?"

"Yes, when I was visiting Mrs. Collins and my cousin, he was staying at his aunt's, Lady Catherine De Bourgh. The parsonage borders the estate."

"Truly, I had heard nothing of it from either Charles or Mr. Darcy."

"Caroline," Mr. Bingley calmly replied, "that is most likely due to the fact that we only saw Mr. Darcy once since his return from his aunt's and then only for a few minutes."

"Yes, Charles, I suppose." Caroline replied, clearly displeased. "How peculiar, though. Mr. Darcy has such a grand library at Pemberley, I cannot imagine him in want of a book."

Before Miss Bingely could continue, Mr. Bingley cheerfully exclaimed, "Here it is. I had set it aside for you upon my return, but I never found the opportunity to give it to you. Please forgive the delay. I know it is unpardonable." He then looked to Jane and added, "My only excuse is that I have been distracted with recent events."

"Well, if that be the case," Elizabeth smilingly replied, "then I could never condemn you for it."

"For that I am ever grateful, but I am not sure that Mr. Darcy would agree," Mr. Bingley smiled easily. "He specifically asked that I return it to you as soon as possible."

Elizabeth took the book and then attempted to hide her confusion. Upon examination, she realized that the book was not the same volume that she had given to Mr. Darcy's groom. How strange. Why would he return a different book? She checked the nameplate to see if Mr. Bingley had confused it with one of his own books. The nameplate was made of a fine thick paper, but was inscribed with only a date: June 2, 1812, and no name. She then impetuously leafed through the book to see if there might be a letter hidden within the pages in the same manner that she had employed to send him a letter. She was surprised by the level of her disappointment when she realized there was no concealed message. She wondered at her reaction. Did she actually want another letter from Mr. Darcy? What was possibly left for either of them to say about what had happened at Hunsford? Despite understanding the truth of that proposition, she still felt an odd melancholy.

She was also disappointed by the fact that Mr. Darcy had returned the wrong book. It troubled her to realize that their exchange of letters had not held enough significance for Mr. Darcy to have correctly remembered the title of the book she had given him. But if he did not really recall which book she sent him, why had he bothered to go to the trouble of returning a book at all? Despite her preoccupation, she realized that she needed to begin to converse coherently or arouse suspicion as to her distraction. Given Caroline Bingley's already contentious mood, she did not need to give her something further upon which to harp.

It was with some relief that Elizabeth eventually returned to Longbourn and the comfort of her room. As she sat on her bed, she once again examined the book. It was collection of poems, like the volume she had given him, but featuring a different author. She checked to see if any particular entry was marked. None was, so she doubted that there was any specific reason that this book had been selected, if in fact it was a conscious replacement. She read the title again. At least the entire affair was not a total loss. The book was a collection that she had wanted to read, but would probably not be able to until it was in wider circulation. She would at least enjoy exploring the text regardless of how she had acquired it. She looked again at the date on the bookplate. She could not be sure, but she thought it was written in Mr. Darcy's hand. If that were true, it would at least eliminate the possibility that Mr. Bingley had given her the wrong book. She then wondered at the date. It was a week or two after she had left Kent, so the book was newly acquired if this was the original bookplate. That thought gave her an idea. Maybe this bookplate had been placed over the original to obscure its true owner in order to continue the ruse that the book was hers. She began to closely examine the thick paper and soon realized that there was indeed something under it. Before she could think better of it, she peeled back the paper to reveal not only an older bookplate containing the Darcy crest, but a letter addressed to her.

She could not help but look nervously around her empty room before continuing. She found a long letter addressed to her from Mr. Darcy written at the beginning of June. Her emotions on finding it were in turmoil. There was the natural curiosity that finding such a letter must engender, and the excitement that came with being part of something that society in general would frown upon. There was also apprehension as to what it could possibly contain. A love letter from a man she could not love would only bring them both pain and a letter filled with his disapprobation would hurt her more than she cared to understand. Attempting to quiet her jittery nerves, she began to read.

Miss Bennet,

When you recently wrote to me, you said you were moved to do so because my letter to you seem to require a reply. Despite the temptation, I cannot pretend that my motive in writing this is similarly justified. That is not to say that I do not think that I owe you an acknowledgment for you very generous apology. You had no need to offer one. Mr. Wickham succeeds by preying on the sensibilities of women whose dispositions are such that suspecting his nefarious motives would not readily occur. Your trusting nature and sympathetic heart are attributes for which no one should apologizes. To hold you or, for that matter, my sister accountable for accepting him at face value would unfairly shift the blame from where it actually belongs -- on Mr. Wickham's shoulders, and, in your case, to a lesser degree, on my own. I am not so insensitive or ignorant to how I was received in Hertfordshire not to understand that you felt free to accept Mr. Wickham's account of my behavior because I had never given you the opportunity to see anything of my character that would contradict his assertions. While I believe your apology was unnecessary, I nonetheless wish to thank you for the sentiment behind it and to let you know how relieved I am to hear that Mr. Wickham will be unable to abuse your trust in the future.

I know that much has been said between us and much said that should never have been attempted. Having acknowledged your apology, I should accept your last letter as a gracious end to -- as you termed it in your letter -- our acquaintance, but I find that I cannot quit this missive so easily. One would surmise that I wish to further explain myself, or opportune you as to some of your opinions that are at odds with my own. Your letter, however, seemed to make clear that the divisions that I created between us -- both knowingly and inadvertently -- cannot be explained away, and I will not embarrass either of us by seeking any more clarification of your sentiments when your opinions are so firmly held. I feel, nevertheless, oddly compelled to inquire as to a separate matter. I recognize that I should not take such a liberty, but I feel the opportunity will not present itself again and my curiosity seems to have gotten the better of me. Perhaps knowing that you might never find this letter makes writing it easier and allows me to express myself in a manner that I would not normally undertake. Given the somewhat extraordinary events that precipitated our unusual correspondence, I hope that you can forgive my impertinence and overlook the impropriety.

I must confess that since receiving your letter, and coming to terms with its contents, I have often found myself thinking about the vessel in which the letter was delivered. I am not sure why, but I wonder at the selection of the volume of poetry that you sent. Why I should be fixated on such a triviality, given all that has transpired between us, I cannot explain. Perhaps I feel cheated out of a discussion of books, since you would not allow it in the ballroom at Netherfield and I never subsequently had the forethought to initiate such a conversation in your company. I hope that there can be no specific objection to such a discourse in the context of a letter. Some of my curiosity, I know, stems from my previous impression that you did not favor poetry, and yet the bookplate indicates that the collection of verse is your own copy. At first, I thought that the book must not be one that you held in high regard, because by giving it to my groom, you must have known that you were risking its return. I then thought the better of it. The date on the bookplate indicates that you acquired it before you came to Kent. Therefore, you must have liked it enough to bring it with you. Even without noting the date, I knew that it could not have been borrowed from Mr. Collins' library. If you will excuse me for saying so, it is far too interesting of a title. His acquisitions contain only those works approved by my Aunt and her collection narrowly encompasses only those books that could be considered a classic without giving offense to anyone and, therefore, can only be of interest to someone whose literary knowledge is either newly acquired or pretense. You might wonder, in turn, at my familiarity with Mr. Collins' collection. I have found that one cannot spend as much time as I do walking about in an effort to avoid conversation without becoming intimately familiar with other people's libraries. Even if my natural reserve did not impel me to such employment, I have always taken an active interest in what works of literature other people esteem. A person's literary likes and dislikes are obviously a reflection of their disposition and it sometimes gives insight into the parts of one's character not held out for general scrutiny. Perhaps I am often drawn to the subject, because I am less comfortable initiating the sort of conversation that might otherwise reveal such intimacies.

Given this, I was somewhat surprised to find that you possessed this particular volume, not only be because it was a work of poetry, but because it appears somewhat ill-suited to your temperament. I was familiar with the volume before you sent it to me and re-read it closely after receiving it. It has much to recommend itself, but its general melancholy tone seems at odds with what I have observed of your optimistic nature. The author's tone reminded me of Viscount Chateaubriand's novellas, "Atala" and "Rene," two long time favorites of mine. But then again, as you said in your letter, no one can ever be sure of the heart of another without being privy to his or her confidence. As we both know, I would be a fool to think I have any real insight into your more private thoughts. After re-reading the book, however, I did see how you might be drawn to the trilogy of verse on the passage of the seasons. Its allusions to the intricacies of the interrelatedness of the natural world reminded me of something that you once said about the streams of Rosings' park taking effortless precedence over the fabricated walkways -- that man's attempts to design natural splendor can never rival nature's seemingly random effect. I now wonder if that poem had been in your mind when you shared that thought with me. I was also impressed with the breadth of the author's word choice. His style reminded me of Samuel Johnson, another favorite of mine. I think the critics of both authors often miss the irony of their subject matter and the depth of their prose.

While I know that you sent me the book as a means to an end, I want to thank you for its selection. I enjoyed reacquainting myself with its text. I am always amazed at the ability of literature to show its reader a different facet each time it is examined. It is that phenomenon that I imagine might have motivated you to bring this particular book with you to Kent. The bookplate indicates that you owned the book for more than a year before you visited Mrs. Collins, and having observed your eager interest in literature in general, I assume that you brought the book to the parsonage because you want to re-read it. When I decided to write you, I thought that I would return the favor and send my letter in a book that I thought you might enjoy reading. Because I have never been privy to your father's library, I am not sure what books you have at your disposal. Consequently, I have tried to select a book that would be worthy of re-examination in case you are already familiar with it. The task of selecting such a work has made me realize that what is sometimes immediately appealing is not often worth deeper study. I have selected the enclosed book on that premise. There are parts of it that I find insightful, such as its analogy of time to water. I have found that particular imagery quite apropos as in hindsight, for me, the passage of the last year has seemed a voyage on a unexplored river with varying and sometimes uncontrollable currents. There are other parts of the book that I have not always appreciated, but it has always challenged me to continue. Perhaps that is its attraction -- it has stayed in my mind far longer than even I would have wished it. While I hardly expect that my selection will become a favorite of yours, I hope that you will at least come to enjoy it over time. Perhaps that is all anything can aspire to. If you cannot have instant allure or likeability, perhaps the best that one can hope for is to inspire a slow grudging respect that might someday turn into admiration.

I will end this letter as you began yours; with an apology. I hope that Mr. Bingley's attempt to return "your" book has not caused any discomfort or embarrassment. I also hope that this letter has not taxed your patience too long and I apologize in advance for my presumption.

Fitzwilliam Darcy

Elizabeth finished the letter and sat in stunned silence. That Mr. Darcy would write to her was odd in itself, but to do so in this manner seemed inexplicable. She could understand him sending the first paragraph, but the subsequent discussion of literature, and obliquely their relationship, was more than surprising. Most men would hardly have acknowledged her after her unfounded accusations and her refusal of his offer, but Mr. Darcy seemed to have moved beyond it. What sort of man would ignore all that had transpired between them and write as if they were correspondents? But that was not accurate. In his letter, he somehow managed to acknowledge what had happened between them while still keeping a cordial tone and his own dignity. But to what end? He was truly an enigma. She reread the letter several more times, before she finally put it away with his other missive. While his letter said quite a lot, it did not answer the more fundamental question of why he would continue to write to her. Instead, she turned to the only thing that she could do. She would read his book.

It was almost two weeks later when Elizabeth finished reading for the second time the book that Mr. Darcy had sent her. It was indeed a book worthy of study and she had enjoyed herself as she devoted more and more time to its inspection. Even Jane had commented on her distraction. She often took it with her for long ambles in the surrounding lanes and its perusal could not help but bring its owner to her mind. It had compelled her to inquire to Mr. Bingley as to whether Mr. Darcy intended to visit. Mr. Bingley replied that while they had written to each other several times, and Mr. Darcy had sent his congratulations on his engagement, his friend had no immediate plan to return to the area. Elizabeth was not sure how this made her feel. Reading his letter and enjoying the book he had sent was one thing, but it was not the same as seeing him face to face. She knew that there were things that she wanted to say in reply to his letter and she often found herself wanting to tell him what she thought of his book. But she knew that even after Jane married Mr. Bingley and he eventually visited, she could not imagine that they would ever be on the sort of footing that would make such a discourse either comfortable or appropriate.

As she read the last page of the book again, she noticed something she had not the first time through. The inside back cover of the book also contained a bookplate made of the same fine, thick paper. Nothing, however, was written upon it. The discovery made her heart race. She could not help but smile to herself as she realized its purpose and began to peel back the paper to see if it contained another concealed letter. Several competing emotions vied for control as she found an envelope under the bookplate. When she examined it, however, she found that the envelope was empty and not yet sealed. She furrowed her brow in confusion as she looked to the front of the envelope. Understanding slowly dawned. It was addressed to Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy at an address that had to be his townhouse in London. The return address listed a "Mr. James Cunningham" as the sender and indicated an address nearby. A slow smile came to her lips. He had, in essence, thrown down a gauntlet. He wanted her to write him back and had given her a way to do so without detection. He had not, however, directly asked her to do so.

She briefly wondered if it was arrogance on his part to assume she would write, but she quickly realized that there was nothing in his letter that seemed to mirror his prior behavior and everything about his tone that bespoke humility, albeit with a slight flourish of irony. It was not that he was assuming she would write him. Far from it. He was leaving the decision to her, without comment or pressure. For better of worse, she would have to decide the next move herself.

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