The sun was just stretching its fingers above the horizon, poking them into windows, waggling them under noses and across eyes, stirring the occupants within when Elizabeth stretched and yawned as she rose. Her sleep had not been sound, and her body wished for her to pull the blankets up to ward off the advances of the day continue its repose. However, Elizabeth could not indulge in such luxuries if she wished to have a cup of tea before her walk. If she lounged in bed for too long, she would doubtlessly meet with either Charlotte or Mr. Collins, and she felt prepared to meet neither this morning. The information contained within the letter under her pillow still weighed heavily upon her mind, and she wished for some fresh air in which to think before she met with the colonel and Mr. Darcy.
She paused in her morning rituals and ran a hand over the book of verse that sat on her dressing table. She flipped it open to the place that was held by a length of material stitched with several small flowers and a heart. At the bottom of the bookmark was a single elegant G. It was obviously made for him by his sister.
She read the poem on the marked page and wondered again at Mr. Darcy’s having given the book to her before he had even finished reading it. She knew he had not completed it, not only because of the marker but also because this was a book they had discussed wishing to read when at Netherfield but at that time neither of them owned it.
She closed the book and hurried through the rest of her preparations, slipping into a green day dress and styling her hair simply. Then, she tucked his letter into her pocket and, taking up her bonnet and his book, slipped out of the room and down the stairs.
She was just finishing her tea when Charlotte arrived in the morning room. “Good morning,” Elizabeth greeted as she rose to leave. “I was just on my way for a walk.”
“Are you planning to spend some time reading?” asked Charlotte, noting the book Elizabeth carried.
“Yes, it is a book I have not yet read.”
Charlotte raised a questioning brow.
“Mr. Darcy loaned it to me,” Elizabeth explained, “and I would like to return it to him before he leaves for town.”
Charlotte’s eyes grew wide. “Is he not leaving today? I know you read quickly, but surely even you could not be finished in time to return it to him before he departs.”
Elizabeth sighed and stood impatiently at the door. She did not wish to answer questions. She wished to be outdoors alone with her thoughts. “Colonel Fitzwilliam said they may not leave until tomorrow or Monday.”
“Interesting,” said Charlotte, the corners of her mouth turning up ever so slightly. “It seems their departure will coincide with yours. I wonder…” her voice trailed off as Elizabeth gave an exasperated sigh.
Elizabeth did not wish to hear Charlotte’s theories on Mr. Darcy’s actions, for Elizabeth was no longer certain how to interpret that gentleman. She had thought she knew him, but after having read that letter — the letter that shared all the details Mr. Wickham had neatly left out of his tales, the letter that told how Mr. Darcy’s sister had fallen prey to the schemes of Mr. Wickham –, she knew that whatever she had thought Mr. Darcy to be was completely and utterly wrong.
Seeing that her friend was not going to provide any further information or argument, Charlotte sighed in resignation. “Very well,” she said, “I shall wonder on my own until you return.”
Elizabeth nearly flew out of the room and the house, desperate to be away and alone for the time it would take her to walk to the grove and meet the gentlemen.
Darcy and Richard were waiting on a bench under a large tree in the grove. As Elizabeth approached, they both rose to greet her and then joined her. Together, they walked in silence for a short distance. Elizabeth knew what must be done, but an admission of errors was never easy. Eventually, she spoke.
“I must apologize, Mr. Darcy” she began the small speech she had practiced. “I should not have listened to Mr. Wickham, and I should not have been so critical of your behaviour when you were in Hertfordshire.” She drew a quick breath and hurried on, hoping that haste would make the shame of her previous actions more bearable. “You may find it interesting to know that Jane told me not to listen to Mr. Wickham. She also scolded me about my criticism of you and insisted there must be a reason for your behaviour, for a gentleman could not be friends with Mr. Bingley and be anything less than perfect in her eyes. However, I chose not to listen and allowed my pride rule my actions. For that, I am truly sorry.” She studied the ground in front of her. Her cheeks burned, and tears stung her eyes.
Richard gave Darcy a surprised look which was returned in kind. An apology was not at all what either gentleman had expected. However, it was a fortuitous advance in their position for which Richard was glad. However, he also did not want Miss Bennet thinking herself unworthy of a man such as Darcy and once self-depreciation began, some individuals fell prey to its destruction more quickly than others. He did not know if Miss Bennet was one of those sorts of people, but he was not willing to accept the risk.
“Do not regret listening to Wickham,” Richard said in an attempt to mitigate the damage over-blown guilt might wreak. “You must remember he is a practiced liar of the worst sort. Many, many people have fallen victim to his lies.”
“I appreciate your words, Colonel Fitzwilliam, but the fact that Mr. Wickham is a practiced deceiver does not negate the fact that I failed to listen to sound reason and chose to disparage your cousin because of my wounded pride. I will not so quickly place my responsibility beside the road. It is mine to own.”
“As you wish, Miss Bennett,” conceded Richard. He had heard similar comments all his life from Darcy and knew that argument was useless. “Do you have any questions regarding what you read last night?”
She shrugged. “The letter was so very thorough and clear that I do not find I have any issues with the content. I do, however, wish to ask you how you feel I should use this information to protect myself as well as my friends and family from Mr. Wickham.” She attempted to brush a wayward tear away unnoticed. However, she was not successful and soon found herself in possession of Mr. Darcy’s handkerchief. It was difficult in and of itself to consider the way in which she had been fooled, and how foolishly she had acted without her emotions being stirred, but when one added to that the knowledge of how perilously close Miss Darcy had come to ruin, the task became insurmountable.
“His tales are convincing. They contain just enough truth to be believed.” Darcy smiled at her, hoping she understood that he did not blame her for being drawn in by Wickham. “Sharing the information regarding the living at Kympton, and the money that was given and squandered should do some good in discrediting Mr. Wickham.” He paused. “As to my sister. Her ordeal may be spoken of in generalities — a young lady of means was deceived, he sought not her heart but her fortune, that sort of thing. Your father must know of any danger Wickham might pose to your sisters.”
Elizabeth stopped and looked up at him. Could she trust another with such information about one of her sisters as he was willingly placing in her hand? He must think very highly of her to do so. The small furrow between his eyes and the set of his mouth spoke let her know that it was not easily done. It was a decision to trust — a decision he needed to know had not been made in error. “I will share what I know of Mr. Wickham’s true nature,” she said, “but please know that I will protect your sister.”
“Thank you, Miss Elizabeth.”
His reply was little more than a whisper, and she was startled by the glistening she saw in his eyes before he quickly looked away. How he must have suffered!
“Was there anything else you wished to know?” Richard asked. Elizabeth was as fine a lady as he had met. Her willingness to admit her wrong and to not excuse it when given a chance as well as the fierceness with which she pledged to protect Georgiana stood as a testament to that fact. Darcy would do very well with this woman at his side.
Elizabeth’s brows furrowed as she thought. “No,” she said slowly drawing out the word as her head began shaking from side to side and then stopped, “actually, yes. There is one thing I would like to ask.”
“Go on,” Richard encouraged.
“How is Miss Darcy?”
Her question touched the hearts of both men, one perhaps more than the other. Richard was able to speak first, “She is not quite herself yet. She is making improvements, but the process is slow.”
They walked in silence for a while before Elizabeth spoke again. “She will never be herself again, you know. Every experience changes us to some extent, and the greater the emotional drain, whether happy or sad, the greater the change. When she recovers, for how can she not with such good guardians, she will be stronger, but she will not be the young girl she was before the incident. And, you gentlemen will no doubt experience a period of mourning as a result. Have you prepared yourself for that?”
“I had not thought of it in such a way,” Darcy admitted, looking at Richard.
“Nor had I,” Richard agreed, “although it makes perfect sense.”
“It does take a woman to make sense of things, you know,” teased Elizabeth in an attempt to lighten the mood. Thankfully, it worked, and both men chuckled.
“While we are on the topic of sisters,” Darcy’s heart beat a loud rhythm in his chest. He hoped that the discussion he was about to begin would not end in disaster. “Might I inquire as to how your eldest sister fares?”
(I know, not fair, leaving you hanging like that, but I wanted you to know these three will be completing their discussion next week. 🙂 There is a little over 1000 words of this stroll through the grove left.)