Elizabeth was at a loss what to do with Miss Darcy’s letter.
It had occurred to her, after reading it the third or fourth time over, that it might best be destroyed: she was not likely to forget a word of its contents, and might agonize over their consequences without reference to the object itself. And she might have done that, if it had not been for the shame that weighed on her every time her eye fell on the pages lying folded on her writing-table. This was a many-flavored humiliation, from the reproach to her family’s behavior—however merited!—to the exposure of her own prejudices, through which she had allowed herself to be so taken in by Mr. Wickham’s indelicate and, she was now convinced, inaccurate confidences; to the most agitating sensation of all, the disruption of her thoughts and sensibilities that had occurred the moment she heard Miss Darcy’s offer, and first began to consider what it might mean.
Burning the thing might do much for her peace of mind, but it seemed to her it would be a superficial victory and a cowardly one, and would do nothing to address her true concerns. So when the time came to leave Rosings, it was secreted between the folds of a good muslin gown, and her first action when she reached her room at Longbourn was to remove it. She kept most of her letters in a little inlaid box—the ones from Charlotte since she had been married, and from Jane when she had been in London, and those from Mrs. Gardiner stretching back to the first time Elizabeth herself had learnt to put pen to paper. But Miss Darcy’s disturbing missive seemed poor company for these, so it took up residence at the bottom of the least-used drawer of the dressing case she shared with Jane, to whom it would never occur to read a letter addressed to someone else. As spring turned to summer it accumulated a cheerful layer of daily detritus that hid it mostly from view, if not entirely from recollection. When her aunt and uncle collected her for the Lake District, she left with every intention of putting it from her mind.
In the event, matters progressed rather differently.
Still off-balance from Miss Darcy’s unlooked-for appearance at Pemberley, Elizabeth listened most attentively as the conversation turned to fishing; Miss Darcy showed herself unusually well-informed on the subject for one of her sex, and even invited Mr. Gardiner, with the greatest civility, to make himself free of Pemberley’s streams and even the fishing tackle. Elizabeth wondered at the largesse she showed with a property that was no longer her own, and she wondered far more at the sudden change in attitude; there was no haughtiness here, and such openness and generosity, that she was both pleased and disconcerted, to realize the compliment must be all for herself.
They fell in together as the group turned back toward the house, and when her aunt hung back to take her husband's arm Elizabeth seized the opportunity to tell Miss Darcy their party had been assured of her absence, “For it was my understanding you meant to set up a household in town; and the housekeeper here said the family was not immediately expected in the country.”
“I intend to set up household wherever is most convenient to my sister, and to whatever companions we choose,” said Miss Darcy, and though the mention of companions fell heavily on Elizabeth’s ear Miss Darcy herself betrayed no deeper meaning by it. “And it is true that my uncle will not arrive for another week or more, but since my father’s death he has been very generous in his invitations to those who have always called Pemberley home.” It seemed there had been some necessary business with the steward, and Mr. Darcy had deputized his niece to discharge it.
This went some way to explaining the proprietary attitude she still took toward the the place; and Elizabeth inquired whether there was a Mrs. Darcy, or whether the new master of the house employed his niece as a hostess to fill that gap. She did not ask, whether Miss Darcy chafed at her new position. Only today she had begun to consider what it would mean for a woman brought up in a place like this, entrusted in all practical senses with the running of the estate and the guardianship of her younger sister during the years of her father’s declining health, to find herself without a guaranteed place after his recent death. It cast Miss Darcy's arrival at Netherfield, and companionship with the Misses Bingley in entirely a different light.
As though Miss Darcy had followed the direction of her thoughts, she added that speaking to the steward had brought her some hours ahead of the party with which she had been traveling. “They will join me early to-morrow,” she continued, “and among them are some who will claim an acquaintance with you—Mr. Bingley and his sisters.”
Elizabeth answered only by a slight bow. Her thoughts were instantly driven back to the time when that name had been the last mentioned between them; and, if she might judge by Miss Darcy’s complexion, her mind was not very differently engaged. “If I wanted Charles Bingley as you suppose, I might have married him half a dozen times over by now.” Well! She had put paid to that suggestion in no uncertain terms, and even now Elizabeth reflected that an admission of frustrated affection would have been easier to hear than her declared reasons for separating him from Jane. But, upon being invited to visit when the rest of the party had arrived, Elizabeth was curious to observe Miss Darcy again in company with Mr. Bingley, in the certain knowledge that no such match was intended.
Miss Darcy had other motives. “There is also one other person in the party,” she continued after a pause, “who more particularly wishes to be known to you. Will you allow me, or do I ask too much, to introduce my sister to your acquaintance?”
Elizabeth was more than commonly nervous in anticipation of this introduction, and worried the younger Miss Darcy might have heard far more in her favor than was deserved; at the same time she felt keenly the ridiculousness of being overset at meeting a girl so much her junior, whose opinion could not materially affect her for good or for ill.
As it transpired she need not have worried. If anything their positions were reversed, and Elizabeth must exert herself to put Miss Georgiana at ease. Her gentle, unassuming manner was nothing like her sister’s, and could not entirely hide the eager anxiety with which she accepted the introduction. Elizabeth pressed her hand with a warm and reassuring smile, wondering as she did so what it would have meant to be a companion to the elder Miss Darcy; might she have found friendship, a new kind of sisterhood, with the younger? It struck her as strange that the idea should hold any appeal. But the young lady was appealing, if shyly so; a little taller than Elizabeth as Miss Darcy had once said, and her figure fuller in much the manner of her sister’s, though without quite the same claim to beauty. Elizabeth realized with some embarrassment that she had been giving rather more consideration to Miss Darcy’s figure than it deserved, even in terms of sheer comparative interest, and that her eyes had lingered unaccountably on the hint of décolletage at the neck of that lady’s very correct visiting gown. She raised them to the gracefully-curved chin and full mouth that lay above them, the latter tucked back a little in wry acknowledgment of Mr. Gardiner’s witticisms; very suddenly she found it safer not to look that way at all, and returned to what ought to have been her most pressing concern. That was, Mr. Bingley, whose words betrayed little especial interest in Jane’s doings but whose manner seemed, to the interested observer, to convey far more.
Retiring to her room that night she acknowledged that, had she either burnt the letter or brought it with her, that would not have rendered her current reflections any less bewildering. If the lady’s words had perturbed her, her presence banished all Elizabeth’s pretensions at tranquility.
She set a firm programme for her thoughts and intentions while they remained there, and embarked upon it with alacrity: to determine whether Mr. Bingley retained the affection for her sister that Elizabeth would once have sworn to, and if so what might be done to address it; and to determine what her own feelings for Miss Darcy—that was to say, her feelings upon the subject of Miss Darcy—now were. She was quite certain hatred no longer entered into them, nor even resentment. A long-ago comment on Elizabeth’s appearance, that was nothing; her disdain at the behavior of Elizabeth’s family, that was easily understood, however offensively it might have been expressed; her efforts to ruin Jane’s happiness? Even here she had begun to feel, if not precisely sympathy, at least a sense that such behavior might be pardoned, stemming as it seemed to from a truly disinterested regard for a friend’s welfare and a misapprehension of Jane’s feelings.
But what to do with her professions of regard, and offer of companionship? She had, as promised in that vexing letter, made no effort to renew them, but her graciousness to Elizabeth and the Gardiners now—the pointedness of all her attentions—so worked on Elizabeth’s mind that she could hardly determine, not only what was meant by them, but what Elizabeth herself wished to be meant.
Elizabeth had come no closer to a full understanding of her own sentiments, when another letter fell into her path, this addressed in Jane’s hasty and near-illegible hand.
Miss Darcy’s twin sheets of close handwriting remained in their place through the agonies and astonishments of the next month and more; and it was only after the happier announcement of a second Miss Bennet’s engagement, and the visits that had produced it, that Elizabeth felt herself equal to retrieving them. She read over that letter one afternoon while Jane and her mother were closeted with wedding talk, and wondered at the change a few short months had wrought. The words that had been a source of shame and confusion now only caused regret, and a painful uncertainty made more acute by Miss Darcy’s grave indifference each time she visited. Yet she had visited. And why? Only, by her presence, to give her silent approval to Mr. Bingley’s choice?—and if so, was that message intended for her friend, or for Elizabeth? And more than this, so much more, she had acted in Lydia’s interests—for refuse though Colonel Fitzwilliam might to admit why he was present at that hasty wedding in town, or on whose behalf he had undertaken to find Wickham and prevail upon him to marry her sister, the truth of it was as plain to Elizabeth as if Miss Darcy had attended the ceremony herself.
Her relief and gratification may easily be imagined, when the occasion of a walk with the happy couple finally allowed her the chance for a confidential word. Elizabeth’s natural walking pace being somewhat faster than Jane’s, and the distraction of love-dazed murmurings between Mr. Bingley and his intended, made it a simple matter to draw a little ahead; and Elizabeth seized the long-awaited moment to pour out all the gratitude she could express.
The response was all she could have hoped: I believe I thought only of you. She could not look at Miss Darcy as she heard this, and averting her gaze imagined a sheet of letter-paper crossed by these words, in a hand that was by now as familiar as any other. She did not know how to reply, or what words could be said here in the open; she knew however that she had many of them to say, and wanted only the assurance of perfect privacy to do it. When she looked again at her companion, and offered in lieu of what she would have given a smile that she hoped would convey some measure of her true feelings, she found Miss Darcy’s arm extended—a friendly and common gesture, which might in safety be accepted. Or at least, in safety from prying eyes, for Elizabeth found that having tucked that arm in hers, and feeling its warmth pressed to her ribs through only a few layers of cotton and muslin, she trembled on the precipice of a very great danger; and wanted only the right opportunity, to fling herself off the edge.
That opportunity presented itself the next morning, when a note arrived from Netherfield to say Miss Darcy found she had business in the town of ——, in Hertfordshire; and as Miss Elizabeth Bennet had declared her intention of driving there to meet Mr. and Mrs. Collins, who were paying a brief visit to their respective families, it would be as well to travel together in Miss Darcy’s carriage. Ignoring Jane’s quick look of astonishment, Elizabeth accepted at once; for she could not conceive what business Miss Darcy would find in ——, however pressing, that could render Mr. Collins’ company palatable.
When she had been taken up into that carriage, and expressed this opinion in somewhat more diplomatic terms, Miss Darcy confessed very readily: “It was not any business in the town that prompted my suggestion, but rather some business that might be conducted on the way into town. Though now we are here, it occurs to me I have put you in a difficult position, confined and secluded as we are to be for the next hour or more. I beg you will tell me at once if you would not reopen subjects I have already declared closed. I shall of course respect your wishes in this, as in everything else.”
Confined and secluded they were indeed; the windowpanes were pulled shut, though it was a bright and pleasant day, and spacious as the carriage was Elizabeth was supremely conscious that her knee rested only inches from Miss Darcy’s. Feeling the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of the other woman’s position, she hastened to reply—conscious, too, of the clumsiness and inadequacy of her own words as she did so. “If the subject to which you refer is the offer you made me last April, then I should be very glad indeed to reopen it.” The look she received then, of cautious but heartfelt delight, induced the most extraordinary pang in her breast; and she found she could not continue.
“Very well,” said Miss Darcy after a pause. “I do not think I earned the opportunity, at that time, of laying before you the full terms of what I would suggest. Perhaps I might do that now. I expect they are somewhat beyond the bounds of your experience and prior expectation.”
“Beyond my experience, certainly; not, I trust, beyond my imagination. Once I thought that if my undoubted charms were insufficient inducement for a worthy gentleman to marry me, I might set up house with a dear friend—of course at the time I meant Charlotte Lucas, and you know very well how that has come out.” But it was not the time to reproach Charlotte for what Elizabeth must still admit had been a prudent decision, whatever it had done to her own unspoken expectations. “But if I understand you: you wish not to be subject to the demands of a husband, nor to depend on the goodness of your uncle who now holds your family estate; you would like to be mistress of a home of your own, an establishment where your sister could be happy and protected and where your own independence would be secured. And you require a companion in this.”
“That is a clear and cogent summary of the matter, though it misses the most salient point: that I may require a companion in this, but the companion I desire is you.” Into the silence she added: “It would of course be an informal arrangement, and not perhaps what you would wish.”
“Not like a marriage,” said Elizabeth; the comparison had occurred to her already, and she thought it as well to meet it head-on, as Miss Darcy seemed loathe to suggest it herself.
Though once the word had been used, she adopted it readily enough. “No, not exactly like; but in some respects it would not be dissimilar from that state. You would have security while I lived and a place to call home, and companionship when you wished it. And it would not be greatly remarked upon if I were to remember a life’s companion in my will; you would be well provided-for after my death. Though you would of necessity rely upon my word for this, rather than a binding legal agreement, and it would be very natural if you found that insufficient when more official and conventional opportunities are available to you.”
Elizabeth colored slightly. “Having once questioned your honesty in matters of this nature, and having had my doubts amply disproven—and since then, having seen irrefutable proof of your concern for my interests—I am not likely to question your word again.”
“Your family has none of your reasons for that trust.”
“My aunt Gardiner has some, you know; and Jane has others. And I am convinced that, if I settle on a course of action likeliest to ensure my future happiness, I can reconcile them to it, however unconventional and informal it may be.” Miss Darcy’s eyes, which had rested intently on her through the whole of this exchange, widened momentarily at that phrase, likeliest to ensure my future happiness—and Elizabeth was not displeased at the surprise she saw there, nor at the quick flaring of hope. And she was not displeased, but herself surprised, at her own reaction to the vulnerability it showed, the sudden wave of tenderness and delight that struck her and the urgency with which she wanted to reassure. “But enough of my family; they are not my chief concern.”
“No,” said Miss Darcy, a little faintly. “Enough of your family. I wondered, the last time we spoke of this, whether you considered my offer to be solely one of companionship, and the freedom of movement and independence two gentlewoman may have with one another, that they may not apart. Or if you read what I intended in it: an offer of friendship—and a friendship of particular intimacy, in short the intention to build a life together—”
“Yes, that was perfectly clear. What was not clear, and what I think—you will forgive me for saying so—you deliberately obscured, was the nature of that intimacy, ” Her throat was suddenly dry. “And I should like more clarity on that subject, before I give you my answer.”
Miss Darcy’s lashes swept down over those clear eyes, which dropped for the first time to her own hands. “That is wise of you. If you have some notion of what I may have meant, and are willing to discuss it now, then I trust the suggestion does not entirely disgust you, as I concluded from your first reply.”
“What disgust I expressed in that reply, was entirely due to other aspects of our conversation, which I hope we have addressed adequately between us and need not revisit now!”
“Then I will endeavor to supply the clarity you request. Though I confess I know not how to approach it; there is no established form, or none of which I am aware. Elizabeth. Regardless of whether you decide for or against me—the nature of that friendship would be yours to define. I would not ask anything of you, would not even suggest anything, which could possibly cause you annoyance or discomfort.”
“Well, then we are at an impasse! For I cannot know whether it would cause me annoyance or discomfort, if you will not even suggest it.” Miss Darcy smiled at this, though very slightly, and would not meet Elizabeth’s eye. “I think the solution, then, is that I must do the asking. Though I will not undertake never to cause you any annoyance.”
“You are too generous to trifle with me,” said Miss Darcy, her color very high. “Ask what you will, or warn me away. My affections and wishes are decided, but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever.”
“Very well,” said Elizabeth, while her courage too was high. “Then I will ask if I can kiss you.”
Having received an answer in the affirmative, she suited action to thought, and followed these opening sallies by further attentions to wrist and throat, which surprised her in the delight they produced in herself, and delighted her in the gratitude and pleasure with which they were received. And she had begun to explore more interesting regions as well, and discovered what could be done within the confines of a bodice, when she was reminded forcibly that an hour on the road was not so very long a time; and that they must present themselves very soon in perfect order.
The minor frustration led to other, less cheerful thoughts. “What will you tell Georgiana?” asked Elizabeth, watching Miss Darcy rearrange her hair.
“Nothing,” said she, rather shortly. And then, realizing she might have given offense: “That is, nothing for the moment, save what I would tell anyone else. Whether she will assume more, I do not know; I hope—” Elizabeth found it necessary to take her hand. “I hope some-day I may be confident, in being more open with her. I should not like her to think of you as one might think of a hired companion. And indeed, I do not think she will. But it would please me to know she understood how I value you.”
Elizabeth raised the hand to her lips, and was satisfied to see the troubled lines smooth from that fine brow. To complete the remedy, she said, “I must consider what I am to tell my own family! I will not ask you to be present; I think it is news best delivered in private, with copious applications of hartshorn.”
“Nonsense,” said Miss Darcy crisply. “Your mother will be easily reconciled. Only tell her that my companionship cannot but throw you in the way of any number of rich men, and she can have no possible objection!”
They drew up then at the inn, and must postpone any further conversation. Elizabeth considered with regret that they were unlikely to have another such opportunity for private speech in the near future, and on sitting down to tea as they waited for the arrival of the coach she watched with unusual attention as Miss Darcy removed her gloves, observing a small ink-stain on the side of her index finger that her lady’s maid had unaccountably failed to remove. She began as they fell into more ordinary conversation to consider what she might say, when next she had occasion to write to Netherfield; and what glancing references to that hand, and the other objects of her newfound fascination, she might drop in the lines of that correspondence.
For it was high time, she considered, for Miss Darcy to be plagued by a letter of hers.