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Dueling in Earnest



 

By the time Darcy had finished making himself presentable after Trafalgar’s exuberant and unrepentant faux pas, there was little opportunity before dinner to inspect the package that had arrived for him during his valet’s ministrations. He was fairly certain what it contained, and the anticipation of what lay between the pages of the two slim volumes made his hands fairly itch. Tearing open the paper wrapper, he held the handsome morocco-bound books up to the light from the window.

Yes, just as he had hoped! The Siege of Badajoz: A Chronological Narrative of Wellesley’s Great Challenge, the title of the first volume glinted back at him in shiny gold leaf. The second, with equal glitter, proclaimed, Triumph at Fuentes de Oñoro: Impressions of a Gentleman-Soldier. He had placed his order for these immediately upon the rumor of their publication being conveyed to him by the owner of his favorite bookshop, who being well acquainted with his tastes and interests, kept him apprised of all new works. Like the rest of England, Darcy had followed Wellesley’s campaigns in the newspapers as the reports came back from Spain over the summer, but these volumes were the first complete accounts to be published after the events and by an anonymous author reputed to be one of the great man’s own general staff. Darcy had been eagerly awaiting them for months. Determinedly tucking them under his arm, he walked through his chamber doorway as Fletcher opened it, resolving to decline any distractions that might be offered him after dinner.

Fortunately, dinner was a quiet affair that evening, the only excitement occurring when Miss Elizabeth announced that her sister would take her first steps out of her sickbed and join them in the drawing room later in the evening. Miss Bingley was all delight at the news and, calling a footman, adjured him to see that the sofa in that room was drawn closer to the hearth, “so dear Jane may not suffer the slightest draft or chill.”

“And how shall we entertain her, I wonder?” she asked, turning to Darcy. “A game of whist or loo, perhaps?”

Darcy set his fork down and reached for his wineglass. “Perhaps, but that question is better answered by Miss Elizabeth, who knows her sister’s pleasures and strength. I, for one, do not wish to play this evening. Bingley,” he addressed his friend. “The narratives of the summer campaigns have arrived at last.” He motioned to a small table beside the door.

“Indeed, Darcy! May I?” At Darcy’s nod, Bingley retrieved them and settled back into his chair. Knowing well his friend’s care of his books, he wiped his hands on his napkin, gently opened the first volume, and lightly turned the pages. “Outstanding!” he breathed, coming to an engraving that depicted heroic British and Spanish forces arrayed against the ciudad. “The engravings alone are worth the price of the book! I do not wonder why cards hold no allure for you this evening. May I borrow these when you are done?”

Darcy’s smile of assent turned to apprehension as Miss Bingley snatched the second volume before her brother could lay his hand upon it. “Mr. Darcy, will you not allow me to read this while you are enjoying the other? I could not bear to wait until Charles is finished; he reads so seldom, it will be a year before he is through. And,” she added demurely, “I think it a sacred duty to acquaint oneself with the true gallantry of our brave soldiers.”

There was no alternative but to release the long-desired tome into her keeping, and Darcy did so with a clipped “Of course, Miss Bingley. A noble sentiment, indeed.” He took a slow sip of wine, wincing as he watched her lay his book down among the crumbs and stains of the tablecloth, and made a mental note to send to London for another copy. This one would undoubtedly be returned to him looking as if it had been present at the battle it chronicled.

The ladies then excused themselves and left the gentlemen to their port. Bingley handed back the book he had been examining to Darcy as the servant set the tray of liquor and glasses down on the table near the three men. “Hurst?” Bingley handed his brother-in-law a well-filled glass and then poured two more of smaller volume for himself and Darcy. Their conversation was, on the whole, inconsequential, and Darcy longed for the time when they could adjourn to the drawing room, where he could peruse his book without appearing rude. Bingley, too, seemed anxious to end the male ritual as soon as possible, his eyes straying to the doors every other minute as if he could see through them. By mutual but unspoken consent, they both rose and sauntered to the drawing room, Hurst trailing behind.

The ladies of the house were gathered around Miss Bennet in a pretty show of concern and good cheer. Miss Elizabeth sat a little apart, ostensibly working at her embroidery but watching the tableau at the fireside with a tender amusement. Bingley was, of course, before him in offering his congratulations to Miss Bennet on her recovery. Darcy then extended his with a sincerity of expression that was accepted graciously by Miss Jane but seemed to give rise to a look of surprise in her sister. Puzzled by her reaction to his correct behavior, he almost forgot the book in his hand as he watched Elizabeth’s face relax once again into those soft lines of the loving sister he had seen at first.

He turned away from her, found a chair next to a bright lamp, and opened the long-awaited account of the summer’s dearly bought victory.

“Is your chair quite comfortable, Mr. Darcy?” Miss Bingley asked.

“Quite, madam. Thank you.”

“And the lamp…it is bright enough?”

“Perfectly bright, Miss Bingley. Thank you.”

“It is not smoking? You will get the headache if it smokes.”

“No, it is not smoking.” Darcy’s words were all politeness as he manfully restrained the impulse to grind his teeth in irritation at Miss Bingley’s persistent interruptions, but a delicate snort of suppressed amusement from Miss Elizabeth’s direction indicated that his true feelings were apparent, at least to some. Miss Bingley, it seemed, did not notice, and after a few moments of blessed silence in perusal of the book she had been so mad to read, she tossed it aside, expounding as she did in his direction on her fondness of reading and an evening so spent.

Darcy declined to respond to her gambit. Instead, he took a tighter grip on his book and sank lower into his chair in what was likely a vain hope of escaping further overtures. Cautiously, he peered over Badajoz’ s cover and saw that, miraculously, Miss Bingley had turned her attention to her brother. With relief, he plunged back into the forward positions outside the Spanish city. It was so quiet he could hear the majestic ticking of the clock against the wall opposite him.

“Miss Eliza Bennet” — the syllables rolled penetratingly off Miss Bingley’s tongue in the fashion employed by members of the ton to be heard in a crowded room — “let me persuade you to follow my example, and take a turn about the room. I assure you it is very refreshing after sitting so long in one attitude.”

Darcy’s head came up out of his book in some surprise at this invitation, and when he saw Miss Bingley cast Elizabeth a look of appeal, his curiosity overcame his caution. Unconsciously, he closed his book.

“Mr. Darcy, will you not join us, sir?” Miss Bingley invited as she encircled Elizabeth’s arm with her own. Darcy wondered what Elizabeth made of Caroline’s sudden, effusive attention. He wondered, also, what he was meant to make of it. Better to remain an observer, he decided as he lay aside the book and stretched out his legs, crossing them at the ankles. A decidedly mischievous notion then came into his head. If I am not to be left to my book in peace…

“Thank you, Miss Bingley, but I had rather remain where I am. I can imagine only two reasons for your choosing to walk up and down the room together, in either of which my joining you would certainly interfere.”

Elizabeth’s eyebrows rose at his statement, and Darcy’s lips twitched in pleasure as she struggled not to indulge her wonder at his words. Miss Bingley had no such qualms. “Mr. Darcy! What can you mean? I am dying to know your meaning!” She tugged lightly at her companion’s arm. “Miss Eliza, can you at all understand what he means?”

“Not at all,” she answered airily, having admirably mastered her curiosity. “But depend upon it, he means to be severe on us.” She looked at him with a mocking eye. “Our surest way of disappointing him will be to ask nothing about it.” Darcy returned her setdown with a roguish glint in an eye.

“Oh, that will not do, Miss Eliza!” Miss Bingley tittered. “A true lady never disappoints a gentleman. And a gentleman,” she addressed Darcy, “never disappoints a lady, especially in such an intriguing manner. Come, tell us what you mean.”

“I have not the smallest objection to explaining them,” Darcy protested. “You either choose this method of passing the evening because you are in each other’s confidence, and have secret affairs to discuss” — he paused and templed his fingers before fixing Elizabeth with his regard — “or because you are conscious that your figures appear to the greatest advantage in walking.” Elizabeth’s reaction to his bold assertion was all he could have wished. Her eyes widened, and a blush spread over her face and shoulders. “If the first,” he continued nonchalantly, “I should be completely in your way; and if the second” — he paused again delicately, allowing her time to recall his second reason — “I can admire you much better as I sit by the fire.” Feeling a bit wicked, Darcy briefly considered that he had perhaps overstepped the bounds of a countrified sense of propriety. But true to his initial expectations, the lady rallied and treated him to a classically governesque purse of her lips that contrasted wonderfully with the fire in her eyes. All in all, he was rather pleased with his foray into the unfamiliar realm of flirtation.

“Oh, shocking! I never heard anything so abominable,” cried Miss Bingley, livening to his rare exhibition. “How shall we punish him for such a speech?”

“Tease him,” Elizabeth responded decisively, her chin lifting. “Laugh at him. Intimate as you are, you must know how it is to be done.”

Laugh at me? Her words caused a frisson of pique to travel a crackling path down Darcy’s spine, and the humor he had found in their exchange evaporated. The amusement left his face, replaced by a taut wariness.

“Tease calmness of temper and presence of mind!” exclaimed Miss Bingley. “No, no; I feel he may defy us there.” The disbelief on Elizabeth’s face said plainly she would not be satisfied. Although his eyes never left her face, Darcy shifted uneasily in his chair, wondering what form her offensive would take.

“Mr. Darcy is not to be laughed at! That is an uncommon advantage.” Her eyes pierced him. “Uncommon I hope it will continue, for it would be a great loss to me to have many such acquaintance.” She turned to Miss Bingley. “I dearly love a laugh.”

All inclination for their former banter deserted him in her bald attempt to reduce him once again to an object of ridicule. Darcy’s manner reverted to those forms that had served him in the past. The cool, practiced logician replaced the drawing room beau, and he swiftly marshaled his defenses and line of attack.

“Miss Bingley has given me credit for more than can be. The wisest and the best of men — nay, the wisest and best of their actions — may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke.”

“Certainly,” Elizabeth agreed coolly, “there are such people, but I hope I am not one of them. I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can. But these, I suppose, are precisely what you are without.”

Darcy knew he was checked. Who could claim to behave always in the most wise and circumspect manner? Checked…but not mated yet!

“Perhaps that is not possible for anyone.” He gave her the point but then fixed upon her steadily. “But it has been the study of my life to avoid those weaknesses which often expose a strong understanding to ridicule.”

“Such as vanity and pride,” she drolly suggested.

So, we are returned to the assembly in Meryton! Darcy seized upon her ulterior motivation, too tempted by the prospect of victory to heed the small voice that warned of battles won but wars lost.

“Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride — where there is a real superiority of mind — pride will be always under good regulation.”

She turned away at his words, whether in defeat or anger he could not tell. Confound it, man; you have been too harsh! He bit his lip and tried to discover from the attitude of her shoulders what she was thinking, but with no success.

“Your examination of Mr. Darcy is over, I presume,” Miss Bingley queried. “Pray what is the result?” She cast Darcy a commiserating grimace.

“I am perfectly convinced by it that Mr. Darcy has no defects.” Elizabeth rounded on him. “He owns it himself without disguise.”

Down, but not defeated! Darcy shook his head, not sure whether to be amused or affronted by this new attack. “No, I have made no such pretension,” he replied evenly. Deciding to try another tack, he continued in a voice subdued in its sincerity, “I have faults enough, but they are not, I hope, of understanding. My temper I dare not vouch for. It is, I believe, too little yielding, certainly too little for the convenience of the world. It would, perhaps, be called resentful. My good opinion once lost is lost forever.”

That is a failing, indeed!” cried Elizabeth. “You have chosen your fault well. Implacable resentment is a fault at which I cannot laugh.” She put her hands out before him in a show of surrender. “You are safe from me.”

Darcy stared at her, his lips compressed in indecision as to the best response to such a wild accusation, and concluded he could only continue to press his point home. “There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil, a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome.”

“And your defect is a propensity to hate everybody.” Elizabeth countered him smugly. The accusation was so absurd that Darcy could not help but smile at the frustration that must have given it voice. However, he vowed that he would leave the field, if not in triumph, at least in good order. Let her be served her own medicine! He rose from his chair and, smiling down into her flushed, defiant countenance, replied quietly, “And yours, madam, is willfully to misunderstand them.” He offered her a respectful bow, reached for his book, and bid the room good night.

Once back in his chambers, he shrugged off his coat and threw it onto one of the chairs. His waistcoat and neckcloth soon followed, forming a negligent heap. Fletcher’s discreet knock caused him to whirl about, but Darcy declined his assistance, setting him free for the remainder of the evening but with orders to have his riding gear at the ready by seven the next morning. Running a hand distractedly through his hair, he sat down on the bed and set about removing his boots. That finished, he lay back and stretched his frame, working his muscles from the tips of his fingers down to his toes until the tension of the evening faded. He pulled himself up then and strode over to the window, looking out into the night.

A more forward, opinionated little baggage I defy anyone to find! Such cheek and impertinence! So ready to do battle on the slightest pretense. He paused a moment, his conscience demanding an examination of his mental outburst for bias. Darcy heaved a reluctant sigh. Ready to do battle with himself, to be sure. It was only he who seemed to call forth this rash barrage of penetrating wit. Perhaps he even encouraged it in some way, for she was certainly most amiable and genuine in her tenderness with those she loved. Her face…when she looked on those others…such warm affection…

Why, then, do you continue to attend to her? his inner voice interrupted in demand. Darcy left the window and threw himself onto the bed. Suddenly, before thought could mitigate its power, the answer thrummed through his whole body. Because she is both — mind and heart — and what you have always desired. For some time it was impossible to ignore the thrill and terror of his confession, but he had been prepared from birth for his station in life and what was due his family. As he turned onto his side and grasped a pillow firmly against his cheek, the resolution was already forming that, for both of their sakes, no sign of admiration should escape him from henceforth. The rapid thudding of his heart finally quieted, but try as he might, sleep eluded him until the early watches of morning.

 

Despite his lack of sleep, Darcy awoke at his habitual six o’clock. He made no move to rise at the sound of the clock but lay entangled in the dreams of a restless night and watched the earliest feeble rays of the sun push through the stark tree branches. His first desire was to wander back into the dream, but he felt a strange tightness take hold of his chest on the attempt. The resolutions of the evening then thrust themselves to the fore, banishing the wistful sweetness that yet lingered, and convinced him to delay no longer in rising. Better to seek the distracting power of a punishing gallop before the mists of the morning were burnt away. Wiser still to avoid her entirely today, he instructed himself as he threw back the counterpane and rose, pulling off his nightshirt and ringing for Fletcher.

A steaming copper kettle of water carried by a kitchen lad heralded his valet’s arrival. Darcy sat down and closed his eyes as Fletcher arranged his tools and began stropping the razor’s blade in sweeping strokes. The rhythmic slap and scrape nearly put Darcy back to sleep, but he came suddenly awake when the warm blade made its first pass, causing Fletcher to nick him.

“Mr. Darcy, sir! If you would be so kind as not to move. I will need to apply sticking plaster, and we know how you dislike that.” Darcy grunted at him and winced as the plaster was applied. “There now, sir. All should be well before the ladies must be faced.”

“The only one who will see me this morning will be Nelson, and I doubt he will be shocked,” he retorted, causing Fletcher to chuckle softly. A knock on the door forestalled the valet’s ministrations. Stepping over to open it, he admitted another lad carrying a covered tray.

“I took the liberty of ordering you breakfast, Mr. Darcy. Just a little something before your ride, sir.” Darcy nodded his approval, and the tray was placed on a table and a chair brought up. Fletcher dismissed the boy with all the imperiousness of his position and swiftly finished shaving his master, leaving him warm towels with which to complete his morning ablutions.

In short order, Darcy finished and presented himself in his dressing room, where Fletcher carefully outfitted him for his morning ride. Darcy donned the clothes mechanically, his mind curiously hazy. Murmuring his thanks, he returned to his chamber and lifted the lid from the breakfast tray. The strong aroma of coffee and a perfectly prepared bit of beef gently roused him out of his torpor, and after a few bites, he began to feel more himself. The chamber clock chimed seven; Darcy rose, picking up his gloves, hat, and crop, and quietly went out to meet the morning.

 

Stationed at the bottom of the carriage stairs, Nelson shook his head, stepping forward, then back, and generally intimidating the Netherfield grooms. His ears pricked at the opening of the door, and he swung his great head toward the sound. Upon beholding his master, he made a great show of stamping a hoof perilously close to the groom’s foot and gave an indignant snort, sending trails of vapor into the cold morning air.

“G’morning, sir,” the groom panted, making no attempt to disguise the relief on his face. “He’s a bit high in the instep this morning, sir.”

“So it would appear! He’s been giving you trouble again?” Darcy frowned into Nelson’s face, but the animal merely shrugged off the reprimand, tossed his head, and sent another flume of breath into the air. “You do look the veritable dragon this morning, old man.” He took the reins and, declining a leg up from the beleaguered groom, vaulted into the saddle. Nelson took advantage of the lull in control as Darcy attended to the stirrups to execute a jolting dance, reminding his rider that, in the world of horseflesh, he was just as well connected as Darcy. “Oh, so that is how it is! So puffed up in your own conceit that you disdain to practice the manners of a gentleman.” Darcy gathered the reins and drew them back until contact with Nelson’s mouth was firmly established and then nodded at the groom to let go his head.

The horse’s excitement as Darcy allowed him to break into a stiff-legged trot was palpable, confirming his rider’s suspicion that this morning’s outing would be a test of wills. Strangely, the prospect was not unwelcome. The rigors of such an exercise would surely distract or perhaps banish entirely the constriction that still hovered under his heart. “Evidently, we both need the blue devils ridden out of us!” Darcy whispered. Nelson’s ears flicked back at his voice, and his snort assured his master of his complete agreement.

Darcy signaled the advance to a canter as they approached the fence that girdled the wide field east of the hall and set his jaw as he felt Nelson gather speed for the fence. In a matter of moments, it loomed before them, wavering in the morning mists. They thundered forward; the entire world was become only those sounds of pounding hooves and the creaking leather, and the brutal fact of the fence before them. Suddenly, the fence disappeared as Nelson’s forelegs came up. His back arched, and in a silence outside of time, he carried his rider over the fence. He landed with a jolt that forced a grunt from his great lungs, but his hindquarters were already gathered for the long gallop across the field. Impulsively, Darcy gave him his head, man and beast throwing caution to the wind, flying as if chased by the Devil’s own hounds.

Horse and rider returned several hours later, thoroughly exhausted but in complete charity with each other. Darcy slid his tired frame from Nelson’s back and pulled the reins over the animal’s head as the stable boys hurried over to guide their fearsome charge back to his stall. Mellowed by the exercise, Nelson allowed them to approach, eschewing his usual show of temper toward underlings and confining himself to giving his master a shove and a demanding whicker. Laughing wearily, Darcy reached into his pocket and extracted some sugar lumps, then waved them before Nelson’s attentive face. Too tired to put up with such foolishness for long, the horse dove straight into Darcy’s chest, requiring his treat. Grunting under the force of the blow, Darcy opened his hand and Nelson neatly lipped the lumps. Darcy rubbed at his chest as his horse crunched on the sugar and then, with a last firm pat, handed the reins over to the waiting lads. But before he would move, Nelson nosed gently over his master’s chest and face and, by way of apology, blew lightly into his ear.

“Accepted! Unprincipled brute! Now off with you, and mind, you be civil to those lads.” With feigned meekness, Nelson followed his young keepers into the stable yard, and Darcy turned to the hall. He was very late for breakfast now and, he noted with grim satisfaction, very dirty. It would be impossible to appear at table for quite another hour, long past a reasonable time for them to wait for him. Spying Stevenson in the hall, he commissioned him to deliver his regrets to his hosts and then headed for the soothing tub of hot water Fletcher would soon have ready for him.

He was no more than halfway up the stairs when a door below opened.

“…very kind, Mr. Bingley, but it must be so. She will be quite well by then, and we have trespassed on your hospitality long enough.” Elizabeth’s clear voice drifted up to him.

“Trespassed, Miss Elizabeth! I hope you will not think of it so, for we do not. I would not have Miss Bennet’s health imperiled for the world, certainly not for some mistaken notion of overstaying your welcome. We are, after all, neighbors, and must…uh…care for each other as we would ourselves.”

Darcy heard Elizabeth’s delightful laugh in her reply that “you have not quoted Scripture precisely, Mr. Bingley, but with your application of last Sunday’s sermon, I can find no fault. Such diligent attention makes one all anticipation what will be the result of tomorrow’s.” Darcy pressed his fingers to his mouth, smothering the chuckle that threatened to escape and reveal his presence. When the danger was over, his hand dropped but unconsciously began to rub again at his chest, the tightness once more afflicting him.

“Then you are determined to leave tomorrow?” Darcy recognized the wheedle in Bingley’s voice, a sign that his persuasive powers had reached an end.

“Oh, fie, Mr. Bingley! You would cause me to feel a complete ingrate, but you must know I am immune to such machinations. You forget that I have three younger sisters who regularly employ similar tones. I am well versed, sir, in resisting wheedles.”

Bingley’s rueful laugh echoed in the hall. “You know me too well already, Miss Elizabeth.”

“Too well to believe that you do not know how sincerely you are thanked and how gratefully you are regarded by your Bennet neighbors,” she replied softly. “Truly, you have been most kind to my beloved Jane and to me.” She paused for a moment, then added, “Now, I must go up to Jane, and if she continues well, we will both be down later this morning. Mr. Bingley.”

As stealthily as possible, Darcy leapt up the remaining steps and, with quick strides, rounded the corner to the passage that led to his suite of rooms. Once through the door, he closed it carefully, making no sound, and let out the breath he’d been holding. She leaves tomorrow then. His eyes swept the chamber as if in search of something, he knew not what. Then, with a groan, he pulled the bell rope, sat down heavily in the large wingback chair, and worked at the buttons on his coat. A godsend, really. She has been here long enough! The buttons loosened, he attacked his neckcloth, pulling fiercely at the ends and yanking at the knots. And you like her more than you should… He paused in his struggle with the yard of linen and let his hands drop. Like her! Poor fool, you cannot even be honest with yourself! He rose and paced the length of his chamber, opened the dressing room door, and, finding no activity within, marched back to the bell rope and pulled at it again. He had no more than flung himself back into the chair when Fletcher opened the dressing room door.

“Mr. Darcy, your —”

“Time and more that you should have made an appearance! Is my bath ready, or must I carry the water up myself?” he bellowed at his valet. The look on Fletcher’s face smote Darcy to the core, and for a space of a few breaths, master and servant beheld each other in frozen silence.

“Fletcher, would you be so kind as to forgive me my lamentable manners and totally unjust words? You have served me well and faithfully these seven years and do not deserve my bad temper.” The valet’s shoulders relaxed ever so slightly, and he bowed his glad compliance. “Good man,” Darcy responded gratefully, and got up from the chair. He walked past the valet into the dressing room, where the first buckets of hot water were being lowered into the bath. Fletcher reached over and carefully pulled his master’s coat off his shoulders and down his arms. The offending neckcloth was gently removed. Darcy sat down while a kitchen lad worked on his boots and his valet arranged his kit.

“That will do nicely, Fletcher. Give me, say, twenty minutes.”

“Very good, sir. Nothing else I can get for you, sir?” Darcy shook his head wearily. “I did hear a bit of news, sir.”

“Indeed? And what is your ‘bit of news,’ Fletcher?”

“The Misses Bennet will depart for their home tomorrow after Sunday services.” Fletcher opened the servants’ door to the dressing room. “But perhaps you already have heard.” Darcy looked up sharply at his valet, but Fletcher was already safely on the other side of the door.

 

The walls of Badajoz yet stood after a day of incessant artillery bombardment, and the command to withdraw had just been dispatched to the company commanders when Darcy heard the library door click open. He had come downstairs to find the public rooms empty of both the Bingleys and their guests. “Taking the air up at the folly, sir” had been a footman’s answer to his query of their whereabouts. So, with the house wonderfully serene, he had taken his book to the library and settled in for an hour of “following the drum” until his host returned.

The door was directly behind him, so at the sound he called over his shoulder, “Charles, this is indeed incredible! You must let me read it to —” A flash of yellow sprigged muslin at the corner of his eye immediately informed him that it was not Bingley with whom he shared the room. Darcy looked up to see a vision of loveliness before him, the sunlight glancing through the library window causing her gown to glow softly and highlight the auburn of her hair. He swallowed hard. Steady on…not the slightest sign!

“Miss Elizabeth,” he said tonelessly as he rose from his chair. His perfunctory bow was answered with a curtsy its equal.

“Mr. Darcy, pray do not let me disturb you.”

“Madam.” Darcy bowed again and resumed his seat. Fumbling awkwardly, he opened his book to the passage he had been about to offer Bingley and stared hard at the page, all his senses on edge until she should either find her book and sit down or, please Heaven, quit the room. He forced himself to look no farther than his paragraph, but the soft tread of her slippers, the rustle of her gown, and the faint scent of lavender teased his resolve and kept him more aware than he wished of where she was in the room.

Finally, she chose a book. Darcy willed himself not to look up but instead, with slow deliberation, turned the page. The print danced before his eyes, forcing him to blink several times and draw the book closer. She floated past him then, her skirts brushing his shoes, and sat in the chair to his right, separated from him only by a small table that supported a brass lamp. Silence now reigned in the room, punctuated only by the sound of pages being turned and an occasional sigh from the recesses of the chair on his right.

Darcy commanded his body to relax into his chair, and when a sufficient obedience had been achieved, he returned his attention to his book, only to find that not a word from the previous page had registered in his brain. Annoyed with himself, he turned back to read it again. A delicate yawn followed by more distracting sighs arrested him in midpage, and it was some moments before he could recall himself to his study. His whole being was alive to her every action, requiring every ounce of his will to appear indifferent to her presence. He could quit the library, of course, take his book to any one of innumerable places, but an irascible stubbornness forbade him to retreat from this, his habitual refuge from the world, and surrender it into her keeping! He fixed his eyes on the top of the page again and forced himself to pay strict attention to each word. There, now! He turned the well-thumbed leaf.

Elizabeth rose from the chair and replaced her book on the shelf, but to Darcy’s agitation, rather than leaving, she commenced to search for another one. The agonies caused him by her first search repeated themselves with no less intensity. He was seriously considering retreat as his best option when a knock on the door startled both of them.

“Enter,” Darcy voiced hoarsely.

“Excuse me, sir…madam. Miss Elizabeth, ma’am. Miss Bennet has awakened and is asking for you,” Stevenson quietly informed her.

“Oh! Thank you, Stevenson. I shall be right up,” she responded, and, turning to Darcy, swept him a careless curtsy and hurried out of the room.

With the click of the heavy oak door once more reverberating through the room, Darcy let his book drop to his lap and closed his eyes, his fingers working strongly on the bridge between them. This is intolerable! Finding no relief for his jangled sensibilities, he sprang from the chair and proceeded to pace the length of the fine Aubusson carpet Bingley had laid down the day before.

Thank God she leaves tomorrow, before I am turned into the most pitiable mooncalf who ever pined for a lady’s favor! And for what do I daily become more the fool? She has caused a rift between Bingley and myself, set Miss Bingley’s tongue like a cat among the chickens, found fault with all I say, insulted me to my face, and while being thoroughly indifferent to my presence, cuts up my peace entirely! His right shoe made contact with something as he paced, sending it skittering across the floor. He looked down to see Badajoz flying toward the shelves.

“No!” he shouted uselessly as it came to rest with a thump against the wall. Darcy strode over and picked up the prized volume, turning it over and over. No damage that a little oil would not set right. As he rubbed the leather cover against his trousers, he noticed a volume on the shelf before him that was not quite in line with its neighbors. Tucking his own book under his arm, he reached over to nudge it back but then stopped, recognizing it as the book Elizabeth had been sighing over. His hand fell to the shelf, his fingers tapping on it as he looked at the book’s spine. What had she been reading? His animus was quickly overpowered by his accursed fascination with her. What kind of book does she enjoy? He stood there in indecision, arguing against an invasion of her privacy on the one hand and for the satisfaction of his compelling curiosity on the other.

It is sure to be mere drivel, he assured himself finally, and with a seeming will of its own, his hand closed swiftly on the book, drew it out, and flipped it open to the title page. The title, Paradise Lost, stared back into his astonished face. His eyes scanned down the page. “Being the work of John Milton.” Further examination revealed a bookmark composed of several embroidery threads marking the place where she had last read. Darcy turned there briefly. Then, closing the book carefully, he slowly replaced it on the shelf, his mind awhirl with questions as he examined the brightly colored threads lying in the palm of his hand.

Milton, of all poets, and Paradise Lost of all the dreary man’s works! What is she about, reading such ponderous verse nearly a century and a half old? It is certainly not fashionable today. Good heavens, no one reads Milton! No sooner had that last thought been silently uttered than a chill shook Darcy’s frame, and he remembered clearly the last time he had seen Milton’s work. Paradise Regained, bound in lovingly worn calfskin, had held an honored place among the books on the table beside his father’s bed during the last months of his life. Darcy’s brow furrowed darkly as a fierce stab of pain shook him at the remembrance of those days. He brought the hand cradling Elizabeth’s bookmark up to his chest and pressed it there, willing the pain away.

Voices and the sound of boots in the hall alerted Darcy that Bingley and his party had returned from the folly. Pocketing the threads, he quickly moved away from the bookshelf, his composure, or something like, reasserting itself, and was nearly to the library door when it opened to reveal Bingley’s flushed countenance.

“Darcy, at last! You have managed to elude us all morning, sir, and I simply won’t have you skulking about the library on a day such as today. We have visited the folly — a marvelous structure, by the by — and find ourselves in sore need of sustenance. I’ve ordered some refreshments in the conservatory so Miss Bennet may enjoy some of the sunshine, and I insist that you join us,” Bingley said. Darcy bowed his compliance. Bingley paused and then in an apologetic tone continued, “Ah, Darcy, good fellow, I know this is dashed impertinent of me, but would it be possible to, well…could you refrain from wrangling with Miss Bennet’s sister today? You may have heard they will be leaving tomorrow. I would not wish her to be overset.”

“Wrangle with Miss Elizabeth! My dear Charles, I do not ‘wrangle’ with her or with anyone!”

“Debate, then. Darcy” — he paused and looked at his friend beseechingly — “I am exceedingly sorry that you and Miss Elizabeth do not get on, but —”

“Have no fear, Bingley. I believe I know how to behave in company,” Darcy cut him off, unable to quell an impulse to sarcasm. Bingley colored at his tone, causing Darcy to condemn his hasty words for an unprecedented second time in one day.

“Charles, I beg that you will overlook my graceless words and deplorable manners. I have not felt myself lately, a disagreeable sensation, I assure you, and have been so impolitic as to cause others to feel the effects of it. For the embarrassment this has caused you, I am heartily sorry.”

“Embarrassment…caused me ?” Bingley sputtered. He threw back his head and laughed in his friend’s puzzled face. “Darcy, when I think of the situations from which you have rescued me, due entirely to my own stupidity! Well, I despaired of ever making it up to you. Paying me back in the same coin is not what I would have expected, and the installment is minute compared with my great balance.” He paused and swept Darcy a regal bow. “It is forgotten, sir, with pleasure. Now come along and rejoin the human race. We are really not such a bad lot, after all.”

Darcy smiled broadly in the face of such easy good nature and thanked God that He had provided him such a friend. Setting his book down on the desk, he followed Bingley out the door.

Although his words to Bingley had warranted his ability to conduct himself in company as a gentleman, Darcy did not view the gathering in the conservatory with equanimity. That any topic remotely interesting or entertaining enough to distract him from his awareness of Elizabeth would arise in the conversation was highly doubtful. Hurst, he dismissed immediately. Bingley would be dancing attendance upon Miss Jane Bennet. Miss Bingley, abetted by her sister, would in turn fawn upon him or attempt to confound the lady she so clearly regarded as her rival. The only hope of any lively discourse was centered in the very person to whom the danger of his paying attention was beyond calculation. If he was to be successful in crushing any suggestion that Elizabeth Bennet held the slightest material influence over his felicity, his behavior toward her now would either confirm or deny it.

The ladies and Hurst were before them, engaged in desultory admiration of the specimens of flora that still boasted blossoms. As Darcy anticipated, Bingley broke from him and strode over to the Bennet sisters, exclaiming as he did on how well Jane Bennet was looking. A delicate smile teased her lips at his salutation, and she serenely nodded her acceptance of the offer of his arm for her support. Her sister happily relinquished the lady’s arm into Bingley’s keeping and stepped away from them with a graciousness that Darcy would have liked to admire but resolutely denied to himself. Instead, he turned away from the gathering and examined the room.

Netherfield’s conservatory was a small one and stood in need of the services of an expert gardener, but the suggestion of wildness given by its unkempt appearance lent it some piquancy. Evidently, a previous inhabitant had indulged in a passion for the exotica of the plant kingdom, for rather than the staid groupings of most gardens under glass, this one pulsed with the energy of rampant, twining vines and lush foliage. The moist, earthy scent of the air reminded him of his own extensive gardens and the pleasures of the conservatory at Pemberley.

The appearance of servants laden with the tea tray and dishes of sweets and cakes drew the company to the wrought-iron table in the center of the room. The last to accept his cup, Bingley paused at Darcy’s side and motioned with a quirk of his chin to the vacant seats next to Elizabeth and her sister. Even as he silently declined the invitation, Darcy could not prevent or deny the bittersweet pull on his senses the opportunity presented. Determinedly, he took up a position somewhat apart from the others, from which he could safely bide his time.

As it was, the conversation was consumed with the ball that Bingley had promised. Since the others were well aware of his aversion to the scheme, Darcy’s opinions were not solicited, even by Miss Bingley, and he was left to his silent contemplation. Relieved that he would not have to take part in a conversation fraught with traps that would militate against his plan, Darcy breathed in the tangy scents of earth and vegetation. Suddenly there swept over him an acute longing. Pemberley! For a few moments he forgot all around him, his mind’s eye roving hungrily over the geography of his beloved home.

The conservatory had been a favorite place of his when he was a child and youth. There, until her death, his mother had reigned as a benevolent tyrant, taking personal care of her roses and coaxing the exotic slips imported for her by her husband to thrive and blossom. Among the family and household, it had never been “the Conservatory,” for early in his marriage his father had one day gaily dubbed his wife’s efforts there “an Eden.” And Eden it had remained. As his own death approached, his father had insisted upon being carried down to Eden each day for a few hours of the companionship and solace of his late wife’s flowers. Often Darcy would join him there after a harrowing day wrestling with the responsibilities his sire’s weakening health had thrust upon him. Sometimes they would talk of the past, sometimes of the difficult days ahead, but more commonly they would sit in a shared silence deeper than words. For three years following his father’s passing, during which all his energy and thought had centered on Pemberley and the completion of his father’s designs for it, Eden had been a painful reminder of his loss, and he had rarely set foot into it until Georgiana one day expressed a desire for “a little garden.” Together they had chosen a space in Eden to be cleared for her use, and he had become a regular visitor there again, now to praise his sister’s efforts.

Darcy reached out and fingered the blossom of an unknown vine, then gently tucked its drooping head back into the greenery, that its interior glories might better be seen. The sound of a soft step behind him caused him to drop his hand quickly and turn, blocking his handiwork from view. Elizabeth approached him slowly, a look of puzzlement on her face, and then, rather than stopping, she moved past him to examine his rearrangement of the flower.

“A lovely flower, Mr. Darcy, and now displayed to advantage. But do you not think that the admiration it will attract will be detrimental to its character?”

Darcy looked down into her teasing eyes but would not be drawn into battle. “Do you garden, Miss Elizabeth?”

“Since girlhood. A little plot, but it gives me pleasure. And do you, sir, garden?”

“An ardent admirer only.”

“So I see.” She nodded toward the flower, then stopped and cast up at him a searching glance. Caught by the question in her eyes, he could not look away. He bit at his lower lip. Could another meaning for his words have occurred to her?

“Or rather, a perfectionist in this, as in all things?” she dared him. Darcy merely smiled and offered her a bow, experiencing an indecent gratification with the dissatisfaction his reticence had caused to be mirrored in her face. Leaving her to puzzle through his meaning, he moved past her to remind Bingley of their engagement in the billiards room.

After he and Bingley had exhausted the lure of the billiard table, Darcy kept himself employed in one activity or another for the rest of the day. He read; he played several rubbers of whist with Bingley’s sisters and Hurst. At dinner he spoke only to Bingley and Hurst on the subject of a day of shooting. Afterward, he wrote letters to any relation or friend he could think of who might reasonably be expecting communication from him. Finally, the evening drew to a close and he could in good conscience retreat to his rooms. Closing the door, he rang for Fletcher and congratulated himself on keeping to his purpose, but on wearily slumping down into a chair, he found that the effort had fatigued him all out of proportion to its intended effect.

Do not think about it, he adjured himself, closing his eyes and yawning. You are much too tired to parse it all out. He stretched his legs and settled back into the chair to await the arrival of his valet.

“Ahem.

“Mr. Darcy, sir.

“Ahem!”

Darcy’s eyes opened slowly, but upon resting them on Fletcher, he sat up with a jolt. “Fletcher! I must have fallen asleep!”

“Yes, sir. You were quite caught in Hypnos’s thrall. Do you require anything more than the usual tonight, sir?”

“No, no.” Darcy shook his head and yawned. “I just wish to continue what I started here in this chair and as soon as it may be possible.”

“Certainly, sir. May I inquire as to which coat and waistcoat you wish readied for Services tomorrow?” Fletcher asked as he swiftly divested his master of coat and cravat. Darcy sighed; the energy needed to wrap his mind around his valet’s question seemed unavailable to him.

“Perhaps the green, sir, with the gold and gray striped waistcoat?”

Darcy managed a wry grin as he looked down at Fletcher. “Yes, I suppose. Rather grand for a little country church, though, wouldn’t you say?”

“Grand, sir? Memorable, certainly, sir, but grand? No sir,” Fletcher assured him as he set about preparing his master’s nightclothes.

Darcy peered narrowly at his valet. “Memorable, eh? And why should I want to style myself in a ‘memorable’ fashion tomorrow?”

The regard Fletcher turned to him at his question was a portrait of professionalism piqued. “Mr. Darcy, sir! I have a reputation to maintain!”

“In Hertfordshire?”

“In whatevershire you happen to be, sir. It is my duty, sir, to see you turned out in a manner in keeping with your station and the occasion.” Fletcher continued with his preparations, investing them with an increased dignity.

“And services at a country church require a ‘memorable’ turnout?” Darcy probed, his suspicions aroused by Fletcher’s protestations.

“Pardon me, sir, but I was under the apprehension that the Lord was equally present at a ‘country church’ as he is in London at Saint ——— ’s.”

“Humph,” Darcy snorted. “I am not entirely convinced that your sincerity in this is as good as your theology, but I am too fatigued to discuss it further. The green it shall be.”

“And the gold and gray waistcoat, sir?”

“The gold and gray,” Darcy acquiesced. “Although why I should appear ‘memorable’ tomorrow I still do not fathom.”

“Very good, sir. Good night, Mr. Darcy.” The smile on Fletcher’s face as he left gave Darcy pause, but the previous night’s lack of sleep, the morning’s brutal ride, and the joyless struggle with his attraction to Elizabeth Bennet had taken their toll. In a matter of moments, he was deep in a dreamless slumber.

 

Chapter 8