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 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 knows not 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 what Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy are used to — women of the ton who use all matter of arts and allurements to secure a wealthy husband. They are constantly surrounded by insincere women — look at Miss Bingley, for example. I doubt 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 judgment of Mr. Darcy, he may find it even harder to discern the sincere from the insincere.”
Charlotte’s argument was plausible so Elizabeth could not refute it. She had no doubt that women in town were much more insincere in their actions if Miss Bingley was any example. Still, she could not entirely believe that Mr. Bingley did not recognize some of Jane’s preference. However, it would do no good to argue that point since the only person who could substantiate or deny such a claim was not present. “I will allow that it is a possibility. But what of Mr. Darcy’s concerns about Jane’s family? Colonel Fitzwilliam mentioned nothing of a lack of attachment. He specifically said 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. “It is not easy to hear, nor to say, but we both have mothers who are looking out for good matches for their children. My mother is less vocal, 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 they not at times embarrass you? I know mine do.”
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 if your friend were to fall for someone with such connections, and you were not certain of that person’s feelings for your friend, what would you do?”
Oh, that one stung. Elizabeth nodded. She knew 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 that was ridiculous, but 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 as justified in her anger as she had imagined herself to be. Indeed, it was impossible to just put it aside completely at the moment. “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 — for now. But I dare say they may in the future. I may be mistaken, but I believe, Mr. Darcy likes you, if he is not already half in love with you.”
“He is not!” Elizabeth protested firmly.
Charlotte laughed. “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 dare say it has not been a happy coincidence but rather a planned meeting.” 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 only for 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.