Chapter 4 Propriety and Decisions
After receiving her latest letter from Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth could barely think of anything else. It was only Lydia's incessant pleas that she be granted permission to go to Brighton that finally interrupted her reverie. Once she heard her father capitulate to her sister's demand, Elizabeth knew she had to put her own concerns aside, and attempt to intervene, if commonsense was to play any role in the governance of their household.
Elizabeth closed the door to Mr. Bennet's study in utter frustration. She had spent the previous night and the better part of the morning attempting to convince her father that it was folly to allow Lydia to go to Brighton. He seemed determined to make light of the situation in order to avoid upsetting her mother. She hated to admit it, but when he acted like this, he disappointed her. It would be one thing if she could believe that her father thought her mother sensible or Lydia capable of behaving properly while away from home. Then she could ascribe his lack of interest to a belief that such matters fell more properly within her mother's sphere of influence, but his barbed comments regarding how he thought Lydia would acquit herself in Brighton and her mother's inability to grasp what was actually involved indicated otherwise. Despite knowing the potential for disaster, her father nonetheless seemed to believe that it was no more his responsibility to intervene than that of any of their neighbors. Why could he not see that if he had no confidence in her mother's ability to properly judge the situation, then it was his domain alone to correct her? What made matters worse was that Elizabeth knew that her father had within himself both the authority and ability to curb her mother's excesses. It would just require concern, consistency, and determination on his part. Characteristic he seemed to neither esteem nor practice.
Despite Longbourn's turmoil, Elizabeth's thoughts involuntarily returned to Mr. Darcy and his latest letter. Her father's lack of willingness to involve himself in his sister's affairs contrasted sharply with Mr. Darcy's behavior. She knew from everything he had said and written about his guardianship of his sister that he took more interest in her welfare than her father took in his own daughters. Mr. Darcy had recently asked her advice on what his sister should read. Her father would never condescend to consider such a matter, even though he held the pursuit of reading closest to his heart and his involvement would have provided an outlet from which he could guide each of her sisters. Her father never took the opportunity. He did allow Elizabeth to discuss books with him, but only because their minds were of a similar disposition. He had no real patience for opinions that were either ill-informed or required nurturing.
As she concluded that Mr. Darcy had yet another attribute to recommend himself, it reminded her that the issue of Brighton was troubling to her on a more personal level as well. As she argued with her father that Lydia needed closer supervision to ensure that she followed the proprieties required of a young lady of her station, she could not help but feel hypocritical knowing that she was flouting the same social conventions by her continuing correspondence with Mr. Darcy. She knew her situation was different because she trusted Mr. Darcy, but did that really make a difference? When other women ignored what was required of them, did they not do so because they trusted the other party involved? Did it make it any less wrong? The night before, in exasperation, Elizabeth had told her father that Lydia needed to behave more appropriately for a variety of reasons, but foremost because she owed it to her other sisters. Each of their reputations reflected on their siblings' reputations no less than it did on themselves. Her father's amused query as to whether Elizabeth had been disappointed in love because of such concerns ended the discussion, but the issue lingered on in Elizabeth's mind. How could she ignore her own words when they applied equally to her behavior?
Elizabeth sat with a blank piece of paper before her debating the best course of action with a sense of confusion difficult to reconcile. Her equivocation felt so foreign. Previously, she had always been so decided about how she should act, to the point of always believing she knew best how others should act as well. It was her nature to form opinions quickly, and once decided, she hardly ever felt the need to second-guess her decisions. That had all changed since meeting Mr. Darcy. She had misjudged Mr. Wickham with horrible result and now she saw that her lack of perception concerning Mr. Darcy had also cost her as dearly, but in a very different manner. Maybe it was the coincidence of her father's decision regarding Lydia, but whether she should write Mr. Darcy suddenly took on a significance that was hard to ignore. She knew for his sisters' sake that she could not continue to write him indefinitely in the manner they had. It was conduct indefensible in a single woman and she would be embarrassed and ashamed if it became general knowledge. People would assume the worse. If she knew her behavior could not stand general scrutiny, then, by the same token, it was folly to engage in it. While it seemed unlikely that anyone would learn of their correspondence, she could not overlook the fact that they had already involved another person in the affair. While she trusted Mr. Cunningham because Mr. Darcy trusted him, his involvement simply made it more evident that they were engaged in prohibited behavior.
On the other hand, she knew that deep down she wanted to write back, but her certainty in this regard made her feel all the more troubled. When she had thought that her correspondence with Mr. Darcy was at an end, she felt a sense of loss. When she met Mr. Cunningham and realized his purpose, her first reaction, after shock, was a flash of happiness that Mr. Darcy had gone to the trouble to continue to write her. But it was the strength of that emotion that also made her realize the implications of what she was doing. Their correspondence had always been improper, but as she argued to her father that a women's reputation was all she had, the impropriety of the conduct that she was engaging in became all the more apparent. It was one thing to write in order to rectify the misunderstandings that Wickham's lies had caused -- and she could even convince herself that their subsequent letters were justified in order to erase some of the harsh words they had exchanged --but if she continued to write, it could only be in the hope of eliciting his approbation. It was that realization that gave her both pleasure and pain.
Despite all this, she knew she could not leave their correspondence without responding in some manner. Maybe she could just write one more letter and in it somehow make it clear to him that she had started to change her mind about him --that she would not mind seeing him again in the context of Jane's wedding. But when she attempted to put pen to paper, she could not accomplish it. She thought of herself as somewhat of a free spirit, but the rules of society that had been drilled into her since she was a girl were not so easy to ignore. How could she be candid, ladylike, proper, and still retain her dignity. It was simply not possible in the confines of a letter. She knew what she needed to do; she was simply reluctant to do it. She vowed to pen a reply before any more time had passed and she lost her nerve. She would return to Netherfield before sunset and put her letter in Mr. Cunningham's hand.
Thank you for your last letter. Once again, you have anticipated my reaction. I was, in fact, concerned in meeting Mr. Cunningham. I do appreciate your reassurance as to his trustworthiness and I understand that you have put a great deal of effort into securing that our correspondence remains private. Nonetheless, while your assurances have convinced me that this is the best manner in which to undertake such an endeavor, it begs the question of whether we should be continuing to exchange letters at all. I believe we both began to write in order to correct the misconceptions that we both held against each other. That endeavor, however, now seems complete. For my part, I thereafter enjoyed getting to know you better. But I cannot continue to ignore the lack of propriety that our writing in this unchaperoned fashion entails. I appreciate the implicit compliment you have given me in seeking my opinion as to both your sister's education and the value of von Schelling's work. While I believe I would enjoy discussing politics with you, your question regarding your sister brings me back to my original concern. I believe I have sufficiently acquainted myself with your character to know that you would not sanction such behavior from your sister. Consequently, I feel obligated to bow to the weight of propriety and familial responsibility and point out how improper our continuing correspondence would be considered. I do wish you God's grace, good health, and a safe journey to Derbyshire.
After delivering her letter, Elizabeth thought she would at least feel a sense of relief at having done her duty. But five days later, she still felt only regret. Despite having made the supreme, albeit private, sacrifice of ending her correspondence with Mr. Darcy, nothing had changed for the better. Lydia was still being allowed to go to Brighton and Jane's marriage would soon deprive Elizabeth of her most beloved sister. The prospect of being at Longbourn without the benefit of Jane's companionship left her feeling slightly desperate. While Elizabeth had known for some time that this was to happen, she had not really dwelt on it because she mainly had been engaged in trying to sketch Mr. Darcy's true character. She was startled to recognize how preoccupied she had been with thoughts of him since she had left Kent. Now without a continuing connection to him, the reality of her situation was clear and she felt the loss. She wondered how she would occupy her mind. In such a state, even Mr. Darcy's books did not serve to divert her attention.
She knew that inevitably there would be new social occasions in Meryton to keep her busy, but when she considered the guests who undoubtedly would be included; they held no real interest for her. She passed the time on several occasions by watching Jane and Mr. Bingley interact. Their happiness always brought a smile to her face, but it also reminded her of how fragile matters of the heart could be. A few months before, they were both heartbroken. Only a series of precipitous events had reunited them. It made her wonder how her own life would turn out. She often joked that she would be the governess of Jane's children, but suddenly that image was too painful to contemplate.
While entertaining such somber reflections, Hill came in with a communication from Netherfield for Jane. Jane explained that it was a note from Charles. He would be unable to call until the following morning, because he needed to spend the rest of the day with his steward attempting to set estate matters to right before their wedding. Jane had seen Mr. Bingley that morning at church and she recognized that his delay was likely, but Elizabeth knew that Jane would still be disappointed by the slight separation.
"I suppose, Jane, that it will just be the two of us then. I know I am a poor substitute, but I hope you will endure the deprivation."
"Lizzy, you know I like nothing better than spending time with you."\par
Laughing Elizabeth asked, "Even more than Mr. Bingley? I should think not."
Smiling, Jane replied, "Lizzy, I will always love you. My marriage will not change that. I think, though, that our mother will insist that I accompany her to Mrs. Long's. She had asked that I would, if Charles was not to call."
"Ah, I shall be alone again," Elizabeth laughed. "But tell me, how does Mr. Bingley get on in the management of his estate? Being something a new endeavor for him, does he find it a challenge?"
"I think he does somewhat," Jane replied, "but I believe his steward and Mr. Darcy's steward have done much to smooth out any difficulties. He hopes that this will be the last day before the wedding that he will need to be so occupied. I must say that when I think about all of the details that are required to run an estate of that size, I find it daunting. I worry that I may not be up to the challenge of being mistress to such a large estate."
"Mr. Darcy's steward," Elizabeth stammered, "is he still at Netherfield? His name is Mr. Cunningham, is it not? -- is he still helping Mr. Bingley? I thought he might have left for Derbyshire. I mean to say, that I assumed that his master would have needed him at some point and that he would have left. But you say he is still at Netherfield?"
Jane looked at Elizabeth quizzically. She could fathom neither her interest nor her odd reaction. "Yes, I saw both Mr. Corbet and Mr. Cunningham yesterday at Netherfield. I am not sure when Mr. Darcy will summon Mr. Cunningham to Derbyshire, but he has only been in Hertfordshire for a short while. I did not think his departure was imminent."
"Yes, yes. You are quite right, Jane. I did not think of it that way. Jane, would you excuse me. I think I shall take a walk since you are to be off to Meryton soon. I will just go to my room to get my shawl."
Elizabeth walked into her room with a resolve she had not felt since before she had received Mr. Darcy's letter. In her mind, once she had given Mr. Cunningham her letter, her correspondence with Mr. Darcy was at an end. She thought that because Mr. Cunningham had come to Hertfordshire to serve as go between for her and Mr. Darcy, he would depart as soon as his services were no longer needed. But, of course, he had other responsibilities and, in any regard, it was probably too soon for him to have received any instruction from Mr. Darcy. That gentleman might not have even received her letter yet or taken note of it.
Elizabeth felt a giddy surge of excitement. She knew that despite her elation nothing had really changed. Yet, the fact that she still could convey a message to Mr. Darcy opened a world of possibility. Propriety still forbade her from continuing to write, but spending almost a week alone with her regret had also taught her that she did not want their correspondence to end as it had --leaving her with only the hope that she might someday see him in conjunction with a visit to Mr. Bingley. In hindsight, she had realized that while Mr. Darcy was flawed, he was also the most admirable man she had ever met. Their relationship had been tumultuous and fraught with misunderstanding, yet it had also always been compelling. While other suitors she had known might have been more pleasing socially, Mr. Darcy, even when she disliked him, had been absorbing. Even when they had fought and had completely misunderstood each other, there was a depth of feeling there that she had never before experienced. His subsequent letters had shown her his more private self and she could not help but be impressed by his thoughtfulness, intelligence, and by the charity of spirit he had shown her. It was a connection she did not want to lose and that realization made her wonder what would have developed between them had she been willing to understand his true character when he had wanted her to accept his suit. She also could not shake the thought of how well he seemed to know her. She had had other admirers but their interest in her always had been based on polite parlor talk and her appearance. That Mr. Darcy was still interested in her advice on his sister's upbringing after he had seen her at her worst, made her understand that their connection went deeper. Maybe she had read too much into his letters, but she would not let the opportunity pass without giving him at least some encouragement to initiate contact again. In the end, if their reunion did not turn out well, she might regret her behavior, but at least she would not regret her inaction and always wonder what might have been. Society did not often allow a woman to shape her own destiny and faced with the opportunity, she could not ignore it. She grabbed her shawl and a book from her father's library and walked to Netherfield.
As she approached the steps, she hoped that Mr. Bingley's sisters were not at home. On the walk, some of her resolve had dissipated. She wanted to find Mr. Cunningham, seek his cooperation, and leave. She did not feel up to the challenge of inventing an explanation for her actions to anyone else. She was not sure she completely understood herself. She only knew that she had to find a middle ground between what propriety required and what she felt drawn to do.
She was so unsettled that she did not remember exactly what she had told Mr. Bingley's butler when he answered the door. It must have been plausibly coherent because he took the book that Elizabeth said she had brought for Mr. Cunningham and asked her to wait while he determined if Mr. Cunningham was available. When the butler finally did reemerge, he asked her to follow him into a drawing room. She thought to protest. She did not really have anything more to say to the steward other than to ask him to return the book she had brought to his master, but she thought her recalcitrance would look more suspicious. As she looked into the room hoping to find Mr. Cunningham without Mr. Bingley, she gasped when she realized who actually occupied the parlor. He bowed and said in a low but somewhat breathless voice, "Miss Bennet, it is a pleasure to see you again."
They stared at each other for more than was appropriate, until Elizabeth looked away in embarrassment. He gathered himself and said in a softer voice than she had heard before, "My steward said you had a book to return to me and I thought I might take the liberty of seeing you myself. I see that you were not expecting me. I hope I have not startled you. I simply wanted to . . . ." His voice trailed off as they both looked at each other again. He cleared his throat, looked briefly about the room, and then returned his gaze to her as he spoke again. "I hope you are well?"
Blushing, she replied, "Yes, very. Thank you."
"And, your family? I hope they are all well?"
"Yes, yes. They are all . . . well."
They stood in awkward silence again. Looking down at the book in his hand, he finally asked, "Mr. Cunningham said you wanted to return this book."
"Yes, . . . I thought he would send it on to you. I did not realize. . . I thought you were in Derbyshire. Your last letter indicated . . .You had said you were removing to there."
"Yes, that was my intention, but I changed my mind and arrived here this morning. I had planned to come to Longbourn directly to . . . give my regards."
Unsuccessfully hiding her confusion, she stammered, "Oh. . . . Yes, well. My sister will appreciate your thoughtfulness. She had hoped you would be here for their wedding. She knows how much your company will please Mr. Bingley."
With his brow furrowed, he looked away and then at her again. He slowly replied, "Yes, well, my congratulations are long overdue. Please tell your sister I hope to offer them in person soon." Darcy looked at her and then at the book in his hand. After an uncomfortable silence, he read the title aloud. "Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare." He looked at her and noticed her blushing. She quickly looked away. "Miss Bennet, while I appreciate your thoughtfulness in sending me this book. I have already read it, many times."
She lightly cleared her throat and replied, "Yes, l believe it is a favorite of many." She frowned at the banality of her comment.
He murmured his agreement and then looked again to the book. She waited for him to speak, but instead he simply stared at her. It reminded her of his demeanor when he had first come to Hertfordshire. In the awkwardness, she eventually spoke. "Mr. Darcy, I do not mean to interrupt your visit with Mr. Bingley, especially since you have just arrived. I should be returning and I sure Mr. Bingley will be expecting you as well. I do hope you have a pleasant stay in Hertfordshire . . ."
Alarmed, he replied more forcefully that he meant, "Miss Bennet, Please, I would wish to speak to you." Collecting himself he added, "Please excuse me, but may I have a moment or two more of your time."
She bit her lip, nodded, and moved to the settee. He sat too and then impulsively stood. He paced a moment and then abruptly stopped, absent-mindedly twisting his signet ring and stood before her. As she realized what this reminded her of, she felt her face turn scarlet. He seemed to realize his actions as well. He took a deep breath to calm himself, sat, and then slowly smiled. "When I envisioned this, it was very different."
Astonished, she simply nodded. He seemed to relax slightly and then spoke. "Miss Bennet, may I ask you a personal question?"
Unsure what he was about, she replied, "Yes, I suppose so."
"Do you think it is usually this difficult for a man to talk to a woman or is it just me, or more precisely, is it just me when I attempt to talk to you?"
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows in surprise and then replied in what she hoped was a calm tone, "Sir, I am not sure I understand you."
He smiled exposing his dimples. "Yes, I think that is for certain."
She had never seen him so engaging and the tension in the air seemed to diminish. She hardly knew what to respond, but decided to take a risk. "I was somewhat surprised to learn that you do not seem to have a similar problem when you write."
"No, you are correct, but that is because I have more time to clearly think out what I want to say and how to do it. Perhaps that is the problem, I am too slow for you, or perhaps you are too complicated."
She could not help but smile. "Too complicated? I do not think I have ever been called such a thing. I am not sure it is charitable."
"It is not meant that way, I assure you. You might be surprised to learn that some people actually think me quick witted. It is just around you that I find myself in need of time for extra contemplation. I believe it is because your actions are not usually what one would typically expect and, as such, I find that I must think on their ramifications before I act. As we know, I have misread you in the past and I am trying not to repeat that mistake. As a result, I hesitate more than most." He looked to her for some reassurance. He saw she was listening attentively and was perhaps a little nervous. He wished he could tell what she was thinking, but decided it would have to be enough. "For instances, since Mr. Cunningham gave me your book, I have been trying to understand what it means. Rest assured that in the minutes before you were announced, I searched diligently for a letter but was unable to locate one. I was not surprised that there was none, though. After having received your last letter, I knew you would not write again and thought that you would not contact me. That is why this last book seems so intriguing."
She interrupted him to ask, "You have already received my last letter then?"
"Yes, that is why I am here. I gave Mr. Cunningham strict instructions to send anything he received from you to me by express. Unfortunately, I had already departed for Pemberley, so I did not receive it until after I was underway, but once I did, I changed my plans."
She could feel her heart beating faster as she replied, "And may I ask, Sir, why you felt the need to come."
His eyes took on a slightly mischievous look and he responded slowly, "Yes, you may, and in due time I will explain, but we were discussing your book, were we not? It seems too interesting a subject to drop without some resolution." He waited for a reaction, but she simply nodded her assent. "Yes, well, as I was saying, once I realized there was no letter, I tried to understand why you would want to send me this volume. That thought has been preoccupying my mind since you entered and why I think describing you as complicated in not inappropriate."
She could not help but smile back at him at this, but all she said was "I see."
"I could perhaps ask you what you meant by it, but I think I might do better to try to figure it out myself." Holding the book up to look at it, he said, "I cannot believe the selection of this title could have any specific underlying meaning or if there is one, I am at a loss. Unless, of course, you see an analogy between me and the failed Roman dictator and I would rather think that you do not. But what does that leave?" He paused to search her face, but was rewarded with only a small, embarrassed smile. "I also imagine that you would have known that I have read the text before and that I would have my own volume as well. It is that fact that intrigues me the most. My volume is part of a complete set of the Bard's works, as I believe is this copy. As such, it would be missed if you gave it to me indefinitely. The set would be incomplete without it. Consequently, I think that what it may mean is that this volume, unlike the other books we have exchanged, is meant to be returned or at least I hope that is what it means."
He stared at her with such intensity she could not look away. It took her a moment to find her voice and then said, "That would be a fair estimation."
He held his breath and then said, "Then you would not have minded if I came back to Hertfordshire to return it?"
She wetted her lips before speaking and almost whispered her answer. "No, I would not."
He smiled at her for a long moment and said, "Then I am very glad I came now."
His intensity made her look away, but she could not let the opportunity pass. "Then may I ask again why you came?"
Enthralled with looking at her, he said, "Yes," and nothing more.
After staring back at her for a moment, she raised her brows in a questioning manner. He smiled and said, "Oh, yes. Why am I here. Well, it is simple enough, I suppose. When I received your last letter, I was disappointed that you thought we should not write each other further." He saw her slight frown and added. "I want you to know, though, that I understood your reasons for doing so. There were quite correct. I never meant any disrespect by writing to you and I never meant to place you in an uncomfortable situation -- and I apologize if I did." He hesitated, searching for the right words. "I . . . When I found your first letter and wrote back to you, I was mindful that we had parted with a great deal of acrimony between us. I did not want to assume that you would welcome any further contact . . . I thought sending you a letter in the manner I did would allow you to decide . . . . When you were willing to write back, I was . . . immensely pleased. I thought the more we could communicate in this manner, the more you might be able to see that I had taken your reproofs to heart and that I could behave in a manner more befitting a gentlemen. Your reply was more than I had hoped. You seemed to have forgiven my boorish conduct and even appeared somewhat willing to consider me a friend. I supposed as time went on, I did not want to jeopardize that by asking anything further -- by seeking to see you. I was unsure of my reception and I did not want to force you into a situation you would not welcome. Continuing to write offered, I suppose, a safe alternative."
He could feel his heart beating as he watched her for a reaction. "But when I received your last letter, I knew you were correct. Our correspondence was improper and while I believed that my hesitancy in seeing you was also for your benefit, I knew it was more cowardice on my part than not." He looked at her intensely and then said, "It made me understand that I needed to face you, and perhaps further rejection, if I am ever to have any hope of finding my happiness. So, I have come to let you know, and anyone else you cares to know, that my wishes and feeling regarding you have not changed since last April. There was a time when the idea of publically displaying my feelings would have been enough to give me pause, but now I know such a cost would be insignificant in exchange for gaining your approbation. So, . . . I came to return a book to you."
As he looked to her for a reaction, she realized that she had been holding her breath. She suddenly understood his need for time to contemplate what had been said before speaking. She could barely organize her thoughts let alone express them. She wanted to say so much, but only manage to squeak out, "you have brought me a book?"
"Yes," he smiled at her, "quite a coincidence is it not." He felt compelled to rise and stand closer to her. "I have brought you back the original book of poetry you sent me. It has . . . come to mean something to me --to represent something to me. Hope, I suppose. But, I know the book does not really belong to me. The manner in which it was given does not match what it has come to symbolize. So, I wanted to return it and in exchange ask you if you would let me court you -- properly. Not in secret, through written words where I can ascribe meanings that may not be meant. I would rather risk everything, including the hope that book represents, in exchange for the reality of your smile, even if it is not mine to have."
She knew that she had let her lips part in astonishment. He was staring at her with such intensity. She began to smile and then to loose herself in his eyes. As he smiled in return, and his eyes softened, she felt the connection between them become tangible. He held out his hand and she took it as she rose to meet him. He stared down at her hoping to see in her eyes, his acceptance. She, in turned, searched his face, trying to understand all that he was. It brought a sweet smile to her face. "I think, Sir, I now see the description of "complicated" in a much kinder light and would say that it also describes you."
His smile exposed his dimples and made his eyes sparkle. "Is that charitable?"
"Yes, I believe you know it is."
"But sometimes when you want to hear something so badly, you need it explained clearly before you can believe it."
It was in this heightened state that they heard Miss Bingley and Mr. Bingley approaching. Their presence seemed to change the very air in the room and they stepped apart in reluctance. Elizabeth lamented both the awkward situation they found themselves and that they had been interrupted before all that needed to be said could be said.
"Mr. Darcy," Miss Bingley exclaimed, "My brother just told me of your return. This is such an unexpected pleasure. I am sorry that I was not notified of your arrival so that I could have greeted you properly. Welcome, Sir." She walked to him and held out her hand. He took it and bowed perfunctorily. For a moment, she basked in his attention and then turned to Elizabeth. "Miss Bennet, I was not told of your presence at all. To what do we owe this honor?"
Darcy answered for her. "Miss Bennet and I have been discussing books. She was kind enough to lend me two volumes and I was just about to return them to her." As he held out Elizabeth's copy of Julius Cesar, he tried to convey his regret at the interruption and said, "Miss Bennet, thank you again. I enjoyed receiving this more than I can say. I will just need a few minutes to retrieve the other book from my belongings. If you would like to wait, I will see to it directly."
Elizabeth rose and took a step towards him to accept the book. While they both held it, she spoke. "Thank you, Sir. But, I think, though, that you are mistaken. I believe that if you consider it carefully, you will see that the volume of poetry you mentioned is indeed your own copy. You needn't have brought it all this way. It belongs to you, and as such should remain with you. l simply did not realize it before now." She gave him a dazzling smile. He bowed his acknowledgement without breaking her gaze. She hesitated for a moment, transfixed, and then turned to address the others. "Miss Bingley, Charles, it is a pleasure to see you again but I fear I am missed at home."
Hiding her dismay at Elizabeth's presence, Miss Bingley dismissed her with a nod. She then attempted to move into Darcy's line of sight as he tried to watch Elizabeth. Hoping to gain his attention, Miss Bingley began a monologue. "Sir, I am so glad you have arrived. It has been dreadfully too long. I had told Charles to insist that you come. I hope that he did and that he told you how much you were missed. He said you might not be able to come for the wedding, but I knew you would not desert us and now here you are."
As Elizabeth collected her shawl and waited to take her leave, Darcy spoke. "Thank you, Miss Bingley, Charles did, in fact, send your regards and I am sorry that I could not commit to a specific visit before now. I would be delighted to stay for the wedding as I have other business in the area as well?"
Miss Bingley raised her eyebrow to convey her incredulity, "Really, Sir, I cannot imagine what could hold your interest in this neighborhood, but as it is to our benefit, I will be grateful for the fortuity of the coincidence."
Darcy, absently murmured his acknowledgement and then addressed Elizabeth. "Miss Bennet did you walk here? Could I not return you to home in my carriage? Or if you prefer to walk, I could accompany you."
Elizabeth blushed. She would like nothing more than the privacy a walk would provide them. They still had so much they needed to say to one another and she did not relish the fact that they would soon be surrounded by her family with little hope of privacy, but before she could formulate an answer, Miss Bingley spoke. "Mr. Darcy, I cannot believe you would wish to walk through our muddy fields. I know Eliza does not seem to mind, but I am sure it is because she likes the solitude. In any case, if she needs an escort, I am sure Charles is going to Longbourn. He can take her."
Looking oddly at Darcy, Bingley spoke up. "Actually, Caroline, Jane is not expecting me today. I am meeting with my steward, but if Miss Elizabeth needs an escort. . ."
"I have already offered her one," Darcy replied in a definitive tone. All eyes turned to him and then to Elizabeth. She suppressed a smile and then replied, "Thank you, Sir. I would welcome your company."
Panicking, Miss Bingley interrupted, "Mr. Darcy, if you feel obligated to go, so be it, but it looks very overcast, you should call the carriage. You would not want to be caught in the rain. I will hold lunch for you, as I am sure you must be famished and after having completed such a strenuous journey this morning, you will need your rest, Sir."
"Miss Bingley, thank you for your thoughtfulness, but that will not be necessary. I am quite content and if Mr. Bennet is at home to visitors, I would like to call on him. As such, I am not sure when I will return. But thank you for your consideration." He extended his arm to Elizabeth and escorted her out of the room, while both of the Bingley siblings looked on in astonishment.
As they waited on the steps for the carriage to be delivered, Darcy furtively glanced at Elizabeth. She seemed so quiet. He could not tell what she was thinking and he worried that he had been too impulsive. He then asked, "Miss Bennet, I hope I was not too forward inside or that I embarrassed you by saying I wished to meet with your father. As I said before, I would like to court you and I do not care who knows of my intent, but I do not want to put you in an awkward situation and I do not want you to feel obligated. I realize that you hardly expected to see me today and that I have now forced my company upon you. If you need more time to think about . . . all I have said, you need only tell me. I will wait."
She looked down for a moment smiling to herself. She then looked about to be verify that no one could hear them. She then gathered her courage and turned to look at him. "No, that will not be necessary. Do not interpret my silence as either disapproval or uncertainty. I was actually just thinking about the weather." He furrowed his brow for a moment and she continued to speak. "As to what you have said, I find that I do not need any more time. I suspect that perhaps you have already been courting me for quite sometime through your letters. It was actually that realization, and the fact that I wanted it to continue, that made me see that it was improper. It seems odd that I should feel that I know you, when we have so often misunderstood one another, but I feel I do. You may speak to my father. I have no reservations."
As he took in her words, he stared down at her with all his intensity, and then whispered, "Elizabeth," as one would a caress. She gasped ever so slightly and returned his gaze with an equal strength of feeling. He then said, "You have made me so very happy."
After a moment, he whispered again. "I wish I could touch you. To hold even your hand, so that I could be sure that I am not dreaming."
She glanced around nervously, and leaned towards him. "You would think me wanton if you knew how much I would like the same." His reaction could only been seen in his face, as his eyes darkened and his lips parted. Before he could act on his desire, they heard the sounds of the carriage being readied. She stood a little straighter and attempted to take a deep breath. She knew their position was precarious and tried to regain her control. She said, in what she hoped was an unaffected tone, "At such a moment, I find it odd that Miss Bingley should be in my thoughts, but I must admit to it being so and that I feel both gratitude and scorn."
He smiled at her, amazed that she had so quickly brought them back from the impropriety he had almost committed and to have done so without any obvious disapprobation towards him. He thought her a jewel among women in every regard. His every impulse was to kiss her, to let her feel the passion he could barely contain, but to attempt such a thing on the steps of Netherfield with servants only few feet away was beyond foolish and he would not compromise her reputation in such a reckless manner. As his thoughts returned to the situation at hand, he contemplated what she had just said and asked, "I can generally understand scorn, but your gratitude seem harder to ascertain."
Elizabeth smiled mischievously. "My gratitude is because Miss Bingley's presence inside made me realizes something. I had begun to understand how much my feelings for you had changed when I decided to come today to give Mr. Cunningham that book, but it was only when she interrupted us and was attempting to monopolize your attention that I realized that I did not mind who else knew of your interest in me and my interest in you."
"Then I shall be forever grateful for Miss Bingley." They stared at each other with mutual warmth as the carriage arrived. He then spoke. "And may I inquire as to why you would feel scorn? You must know that I have never held her in special regard."
"Yes, that is probably the very first accurate insight I ever had into your character. My resentment stems from her own insightfulness. There is not a cloud in the sky and I will never forgive her for insisting that you take me home in your carriage, when we could have walked. I have never desired the solitude, as Miss Bingley calls it, that a walk would have afforded us, as much as I do right now." He looked momentarily incredulous and a then produced a languid smile, that made her blush at her own forwardness. As he helped her into the carriage, he whispered, "I think dearest, loveliest Elizabeth, you might be surprised at the privacy a carriage can afford on even a trip of such short duration."
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