Darcy noted how Elizabeth’s posture became noticeably more rigid and knew that the topic he had introduced was one that was, as he had feared it might be, fraught with unpleasant emotions. However, it could not be helped. The subject must be broached. His guilt in having committed a grievous wrong must be either confirmed, as he very much suspected it would be, and felt more fully or denied and, therefore, allayed.
“My sister, much like yours, is not herself at the moment, I am afraid.” Elizabeth gave him a tight smile.
Scenes of the tears of anguish that he had witnessed from his sister upon her first discovering of Wickham’s perfidy and the sorrow that followed and still played with his sister’s heart rose unbidden in Darcy’s mind, and he steeled himself before continuing. That he could be the cause of such suffering was not easily faced, but it was necessary that it was, for there could be no correction of an error if the wrongdoing was not first recognized. “Is this due to the defection of Bingley from Netherfield?”
“Yes,” was her only response.
Darcy waited to see if she would say anything further on the subject, but after a minute or two of listening only to their footfalls on the path, he pushed on.
“Why has Bingley’s departure affected her so?” It was a rather forward and prying question he knew, and he attempted to ask it as gently as he could. However, he needed to know how much damage his actions might have caused.
“Because she is heartbroken, sir,” Elizabeth’s reply was barely above a whisper, and though the thought of her sister’s unhappiness pierced her heart, to Elizabeth’s surprise, she felt no anger.
“So she had formed an attachment to my friend?” It was as Bingley had claimed, and Darcy had refused to accept. Silently, he rebuked himself for his arrogant assumption that Bingley was merely caught in a moment of infatuation and thus unable to see the situation for what it was.
Elizabeth nodded. “A deep one, I fear, though she has not admitted such. My sister, you see, does not show her feelings openly. There are many times that not even I know what they are. However, at present, she is incapable of concealing her hurt, and that is why she is in London. In town, she may grieve without question.”
Darcy shook his head. How excruciatingly wrong he had been! “I did not know. If I had known, I would have never…” His voice trailed off, and he looked away.
“Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth laid a hand lightly on his arm, “I am justifying whatever part you have played in my sister’s present sorrow. However, I can understand it, for I am fairly confident I would have done the same thing if I suspected that Jane or some other friend was in danger of being hurt.”
“You are not angry?” Darcy asked in bewilderment.
“You seemed angry yesterday,” said Richard.
Elizabeth laughed. “I was angry.” She looked at him sheepishly. “You did not truly believe I had developed a headache from overexertion, did you?”
“No,” Richard admitted. “I suspected it was what I had said about Darcy’s friend that overset you, but I did not know why.”
“I am a terrible liar,” said Elizabeth. “I am also deplorable at holding my tongue when put out, so I thank you for not pressing me for the truth yesterday.”
“Why are you not angry now?” asked Darcy. He had not known many females who did not cling tightly to an offense. Richard’s sister would grumble on and on for days about some slight or another, and then, months or even years later, it would be dragged out again for a renewed evaluation. Miss Bingley was much the same, as was Mrs. Hurst. Georgiana was less given to such bitterness of spirit, but then she was more gentle in nature than many, and she was yet a girl. Even he, himself, was given to resentment when injured by another. Consequently, the fact that Elizabeth could speak of the harm he had done to her sister with such composure so soon after learning of the injurious act was startling to him.
“Colonel, you may wish to teach your cousin not to poke the hornet’s nest,” Elizabeth replied, causing Richard to chuckle. She turned towards Darcy. “Well, Mr. Darcy, my cousin, as odious and obnoxious as he can be, married a very wise woman, who happens to be my dear friend. After allowing me to wallow in my emotions privately in my room yesterday — which consisted mostly of tears and cursing you –, she made me talk to her about it — not that I wished to do so. However, Charlotte is persistent, and I knew she would not stop until she had the full story. So, I told her how evil you were to separate my beloved sister from the object of her affection and how arrogant you were to criticize my family. She made me admit that I would have done the same thing to protect a friend. Then, she made me realize that your criticism of my family only made me angry because it was true. They are ridiculous at times. They even embarrass me — especially my mother and Lydia, but they are my family, and I love them. What family does not have its share of embarrassing relatives?” Elizabeth raised an eyebrow and gave him a significant look. Then she laughed lightly. “Perhaps that is where my wealth lies — in having an abundance of silly relatives.” Turning serious again, she said, “I am still not happy about the situation, but I am no longer angry.”
Darcy felt his shame and did nothing to conceal it from her. “I was wrong. I should not have spoken so.”
“No, you should not have,” Elizabeth agreed. “However, you are forgiven.”
The three had turned back toward the parsonage, and for a few moments, their conversation lapsed once again into silence. It was not, however, a strained silence but rather one of respite, giving each time to contemplate all that had occurred. It was Darcy who spoke first.
“Miss Elizabeth, you travel to London the day after next, do you not?”
“Yes, Maria and I will be meeting her father in London on Monday. She will proceed to Hertfordshire straightaway, and I will remain with Jane at my aunt and uncle’s home for a fortnight before returning home.”
“I was wondering if perhaps you and Miss Lucas would allow Colonel Fitzwilliam and me the privilege of escorting you back to town so that you do not need to ride post.”
“That is an excellent offer, Mr. Darcy, but my uncle will be sending servants to accompany us, and I do not wish for him to do so without cause.”
“An express can be sent today,” Darcy argued. “It would arrive in time to forestall the departure of his servants.”
“Please, Miss Bennett, riding in Darcy’s carriage would be much more pleasant if I had more company than just him. Take pity on an old soldier and say you will join us,” pleaded Richard.
“You, sir, are not old, nor do I suspect you are truly poor,” Elizabeth said with a laugh, “but, if the servants’ departure can be prevented, I will take pity on you and not decline the offer.”
“It is settled then,” said Darcy. “I will return to Rosings directly and dispatch an express. Do you wish to include anything with it? I can have the rider stop by the parsonage on his way.”
“That is very thoughtful.” Indeed this offer surprised her. “I am certain my uncle would be happy to hear from me. The directions for the express are 18 Gracechurch Street.” She observed his face carefully as she gave the address to a residence in the trade district of London. If she had expected him to raise a critical brow or curl his lips in disgust, she was to be disappointed.
“18 Gracechurch Street,” he repeated, committing it to memory. “I know that district well. I do business with some men in that area. I will send the rider to you in about half an hour, would that be long enough.”
“Yes, that should be plenty of time.” She looked at Darcy with some bewilderment as he and the colonel took their leave of her. She had expected a more critical response, not the praise that he gave. He continued to surprise her at every turn, and she wondered anew if she had correctly interpreted anything about his character. She shook her head and tucked these thoughts away to dwell on later, for, at this moment, she had some missives to write — one to her sister and a second to her aunt and uncle. After that, she had some information about a particular scoundrel to share with her friend. She sighed. And she would also likely have some speculations to endure from Charlotte once she told her about the new travel arrangements. But it could not be helped. Riding in a carriage with the surprising Mr. Darcy was a far superior prospect than travelling post –and not merely for the comfort it would afford but in a greater measure for the company it would provide.