Elizabeth tossed her bonnet on the dressing table, sat on the edge of the bed, and unfastened her boots before flopping backwards. She closed her eyes and drew a slow deep breath. It did little, however, to quell her anger. Of all the horrible, rotten, high-handed, arrogant things! That man had no respect or care for anyone but himself!
She flicked off her boots, wiggled her way up to her pillow, and draped an arm across her eyes to keep out the afternoon sunlight that shone through the window. A dull pain drummed a steady rhythm behind her temples. She knew tears would relieve some of the pain, but tears would also create red eyes and a swollen nose, neither of which would aid her in her hope to retire peacefully to her room this evening instead of making the journey to Rosings and having to endure both his presence and that of his aunt. Then, once she was locked safely away from prying eyes, she would allow herself to indulge in tears for her sister.
She took another deep breath, followed by a third, a fourth, and so on until the slow rhythm lulled her from her contemplation of Jane’s sorrow into a somewhat restful slumber.
“Elizabeth,” Charlotte called softly as she slowly opened the door to Elizabeth’s room.
Elizabeth lifted her head and propped herself on her elbows.
“Oh, Lizzy, you are not ill, are you?” Charlotte latched the door quietly and scooted across the room towards her friend. Elizabeth rarely rested during the day.
“It is only a headache.” Elizabeth drew herself to a sitting position. She had not intended to fall asleep. She rubbed her temple. It was not hurting as it had been. Drat! She had no desire to be in the same room as Mr. Darcy. Perhaps if she were to dwell on him for a moment, her headache would increase, and her guilt for claiming to have one would lessen. “It is nothing serious. I am certain I will be well by morning.”
Charlotte tipped her head and skeptically studied the face of her friend, who hardly ever had any malady, including headaches.
“It was warm today, and I must have walked too far in such heat. A little rest and I will be well,” Elizabeth assured Charlotte. “I fear, however, I will be very ill company this evening. It would be best to leave me here and go on without me.”
Charlotte’s brows rose at her friend’s explanation. The day had been warm, but not overly so, and Elizabeth had not been gone so long as to have out-walked her capabilities. “You appeared well in the sitting room while the colonel visited. Are you certain it was the walk that fatigued you?”
“I do not know what else it could be,” Elizabeth hedged. Her stomach twisted at the need to prevaricate, but she really could not abide being in that man’s presence. Remaining at the parsonage was imperative, and, therefore, so was her lie.
Charlotte sat down on the bed. “It was pleasant to have Colonel Fitzwilliam call today. I dare say I shall miss his company when he leaves.”
“He is pleasant,” Elizabeth agreed as she groaned inwardly. Charlotte was smoothing the blanket on the bed and only peeking up at her. Both were actions that spoke of her friend’s desire to discover the truth behind the pain in Elizabeth’s head.
“Did you walk together long before you arrived home?”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes at what she knew was the beginning of Charlotte’s interrogation. “Not for too very long.”
“But it was long enough to have a pleasant conversation?”
Elizabeth sighed at the determined look in Charlotte’s eyes as they finally rose from examining the coverlet to Elizabeth’s face. “I do not wish to speak of it.”
“Lizzy, my dear, you know that Mr. Collins will be expecting you to attend Lady Catherine. I am more than willing to plead your illness with my husband, but I will not do so unless you tell me about your walk.” Charlotte spoke sweetly, but her look was unwavering.
Elizabeth sighed in resignation. She knew that there was nothing to be done. If she hoped to avoid going to Rosings this evening, an explanation must be given. “Very well. I will tell you about my walk. It was pleasant and solitary until I came upon Colonel Fitzwilliam. He was, as he said when he arrived, taking his annual tour of the estate before he and Mr. Darcy leave tomorrow. We walked and talked for some time. I cannot say exactly how long it was until we arrived here. My headache was starting even as we sat in the sitting room, but it was not so bad as to alter my disposition. However, it has continued to grow, and I am certain I will be very poor company for Lady Catherine.”
“And that is it? You walked; you talked; and then you developed a headache?”
“That is very strange,” muttered Charlotte. “You have never walked so far as to cause yourself to feel ill before, and you are a great walker.”
“Perhaps it is the air in Kent.” Elizabeth grimaced. It was a sorry excuse of a reason.
Charlotte chuckled softly. “Yes, fresh country air is so taxing, is it not?” She placed a hand on top of one of Elizabeth’s. “What did the Colonel say that upset you? And please, when forming your response, remember how well I know you, Elizabeth Bennet. You do not get headaches unless you are either truly ill or overwrought.”
“Must I tell you?”
Charlotte smiled sadly and nodded. “I fear you must. About what did you and the colonel speak that has caused your distress?”
Elizabeth gave an exasperated sigh. “Mr. Darcy and Jane.”
Charlotte’s brows furrowed. “I did not know Colonel Fitzwilliam knew Jane.”
“He does not, but Mr. Darcy does.”
This statement did nothing to lessen the confusion on Charlotte’s face.
“You know how despondent Jane has been since Mr. Bingley left Netherfield,” Elizabeth explained.
Charlotte’s brows rose in understanding. “Did Mr. Darcy actually have something to do with Mr. Bingley’s leaving?”
Elizabeth nodded. “Colonel Fitzwilliam confirmed it. He was telling me how Mr. Darcy is loyal to his friends and always watching out for them. To illustrate his point, he told me how Mr. Darcy saved his friend Mr. Bingley from an imprudent match. It seems that there were issues with the lady’s family.” Elizabeth blinked against the tears that wanted to fall. How her heart ached for her sister and burned with loathing for the man who caused such pain. “He worked to separate Jane and Mr. Bingley, Charlotte. It is Mr. Darcy who is responsible for Jane’s grief these last months. And that is what is giving me this headache.”
Charlotte rubbed the top of Elizabeth’s hand. “Oh, that is serious news, indeed, but I do not think I can hold Mr. Darcy entirely responsible.”
“Why ever not?” Elizabeth snatched her hand away from her friend and crossed her arms. How could Charlotte say such a thing! “He separated them!”
“So you say. But consider carefully. Did Mr. Darcy force Mr. Bingley to leave his estate? Has he kept him bound and unable to return?” Charlotte asked.
“No,” Elizabeth finally admitted after a full minute of silence as she attempted to think of some way she could avoid admitting that Charlotte’s points were valid.
“Then, do be reasonable, Elizabeth.”
“He hurt her.” A tear slid down Elizabeth’s cheek. Was that not reason enough to blame him?
“Yes,” Charlotte agreed, “he did, but do you honestly believe that to be his intention?” She placed a hand on Elizabeth’s knee. “Mr. Darcy could not have separated them if Mr. Bingley put greater confidence in his own judgments rather than the opinions of a friend. And what of Mr. Bingley’s sisters? Could they not have been party to this separation as well?”
Elizabeth pondered Charlotte’s questions for another silent moment. Again, there was truth in what Charlotte was saying. Mr. Bingley should not have bowed to the wishes of his friend, and Miss Bingley had proven herself a false friend once Jane had arrived in town. It was quite likely that she and Mrs. Hurst had played some role in the separation. “I will allow that you might be right.”
Charlotte released a slow breath. “I would make another point,” she said, “but I am fearful of increasing your distress.”
Elizabeth could tell by the way her friend fidgeted with a seam of the quilt that the matter was not going to be left unspoken. “You might as well share it,” Elizabeth prompted. “You know I always like to have my curiosity satisfied, and if you share it now, you will either save me the trouble of ferreting it out of you or yourself the bother from devising another way to say it later.”
Charlotte gasped indignantly, though a hint of amusement shone in her eyes. “I would do no such thing!” she cried.
Elizabeth cocked a brow at her friend’s protest. “Yes, you would,” she retorted. “Remember, I know you as well as you know me.”
Charlotte smiled and chuckled softly. “Very well, but remember I did give you the option not to hear it. I will not bear your displeasure.”
“Go on,” Elizabeth encouraged. “I shall not hold you accountable for any distress your words may bring.”
Charlotte’s look was skeptical, but she began the next necessary bit of conversation regardless of the small niggling worry that Elizabeth might indeed hold some animosity for a time against her for what she was about to say. “Do you remember how I said Jane should act more in love with Mr. Bingley than she might feel?”
Elizabeth remembered the conversation very well. It had been during an evening at Lucas Lodge, just prior to her being entreated to play and sing and before Charlotte’s father, Sir William, had attempted to make Mr. Darcy dance with her.
“Jane’s reserved manner may not have allowed her preference for Mr. Bingley to be noticed,” Charlotte continued. “Perhaps he stays away because he does not know that he would be welcomed if he returned. It is much easier to listen to a friend’s advice when you have nothing with which to refute it.”
Elizabeth’s mouth twisted into a frown. “Do you really think so?” It was a thought that had poked its way into Elizabeth’s mind and been summarily dismissed several times over the past few months. ” I saw how she looked at him and he, at her. Surely, he must have known.”
“Not all men are so astute as to be able to infer true feelings. Remember to what Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy are accustomed. I am told women of the ton use all matter of arts and allurements to secure a wealthy husband. If this is true, then Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy are constantly surrounded by insincere women. And I do believe what I have heard about the ladies of the ton is true. Look at Miss Bingley, for example. I doubt very much that there is a sincere bone in her body. And if Mr. Bingley, for all his charm and ease is not confident in his own judgment but relies on the opinion of Mr. Darcy, he may find it even harder to discern the sincere from the insincere.”
Charlotte’s argument was frustratingly sound. Still, she could not entirely believe that Mr. Bingley had not recognized some of Jane’s preference. However, seeing that the only person who could substantiate or deny such a claim was not present, it would do no good to argue such a claim.
“I will allow that it is a possibility,” Elizabeth said. “But what of Mr. Darcy’s concerns about Jane’s family? Colonel Fitzwilliam mentioned nothing of a lack of attachment. He specifically stated that there were issues with the lady’s family. How does that not heap the whole sorry business on Mr. Darcy’s head?”
Charlotte shook her head as she pulled in a deep breath and released it. “It is not easy to hear, nor to say, but we both have mothers who are looking out for suitable matches for their children. My mother is less vocal than yours, but she is insistent nonetheless. And our fathers…what do they know of fashionable society? I do not doubt we all appeared a bit backward. And our sisters.” She sighed. “We love them, but do not yours at times embarrass you? I know mine does.”
Elizabeth’s shoulders drooped under the weight of the truth her friend spoke and was about to tell her friend that she was correct, but Charlotte was not yet done making her points.
“You will not like me for asking this, but it must be said.” She paused and waited until Elizabeth gave a small nod of her head, indicating she was willing to hear the unpleasantness. “If your friend were to become enamored with someone who possessed such connections, and you were not certain of that person’s feelings for your friend, what would you do?”
Oh, that one stung! Elizabeth knew, without a moment’s hesitation, that she would attempt to prevent such a match. Had she not wished to separate Charlotte from Mr. Collins for similar reasons? True it was not his family but he himself who was ridiculous; however, it had been enough for her to worry about her friend’s happiness.
“If you would do the same, how can you be angry with Mr. Darcy for his actions?” Charlotte asked.
Elizabeth shrugged. It was rather disappointing to not be so justified in her anger as she had imagined herself to be. Indeed, it was impossible to just put her displeasure with Mr. Darcy aside completely at the moment. It still remained that he had spoken ill of her family and harmed her sister, no matter if that was his intent or not. “I cannot be, I suppose. However, that does not mean I have to like his actions — or him, for that matter.”
Charlotte sighed. “Very well. No one will ask you to like him at present. However, I believe Mr. Darcy likes you very much — if he is not already half in love with you.”
“He is not!” Elizabeth protested firmly.
Charlotte laughed. “I could be wrong, but I see how he looks at you and how he finds time to be in your presence. Has he not found you each morning on your walks? I would venture to say that those meetings have not been happy coincidences but rather planned meetings.” She patted Elizabeth’s leg. “You would do well to at least be aware of it, for if he proceeds as he has been, I would not be surprised if he were to ask you to do more than merely like him at some point.”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. Charlotte was as much of a matchmaker as Lady Lucas or Sir William. She was always going on about the business of understanding gentleman and marrying well. A small worrisome thought crossed Elizabeth’s mind as she considered how very often she was wrong and Charlotte was right.
“I shall consider myself warned. However, I will also assure you that he looks at me only to find more reasons to judge my family. It is nothing more.” Surely, Charlotte could not be correct regarding Mr. Darcy.
Charlotte wore a knowing smile and patted Elizabeth’s leg once again in a cajoling fashion. “I will say no more on that front.” Her lips twitched with laughter. “Now, I must know how I am to proceed. Will I make your excuses to Mr. Collins, or are you going to come with us to Rosings?”
Elizabeth groaned. “Must I go?”
“It is up to you, my dear.”
Charlotte’s tone and look were the sorts that said Elizabeth’s choice, should it be the wrong one, would not be without some degree of unpleasantness. Therefore, with a great sigh, Elizabeth resigned herself to the idea that she would have to endure an evening at Rosings rather than face the censure of Mr. Collins for having disappointed Lady Catherine.