The morning after the Netherfield Ball dawned peacefully, as if in quiet solicitude of those who had attended that event. Unfortunately, nothing that happened after that dawn deserved the slightest accolade for peacefulness, solicitude, or any other mannerly quality.
Mr Collins, forsaking all sense, modesty, and propriety, applied for Elizabeth’s hand after breakfast in so insulting a manner that she was hard pressed to refuse with any grace. But Elizabeth need not have worried for his feelings, for Mr Collins’ response proved him to be as inimitable a judge of women as he was a conversationalist; the assumption that she would accept him was so fixed in his mind that no word of her insistent refusal seemed to reach him. At length she gave it up and quitted the room in search of her father, whose auxiliary refusal could be depended upon to be made in no uncertain terms, and had the benefit of being impossible to mistake for the coquetry of an elegant female.
This interview was scarcely less intolerable than the last; though Mr Bennet gratified Elizabeth’s feelings by his characteristic dismissal of the match, Mrs Bennet could not be made to respond with any equanimity, not least because her husband did not trouble himself further to intercede between his wife and daughter. He instead waited patiently by the door of his library for Lizzy’s temper to prompt her to leave the room, perfectly content in the knowledge that his indignant wife would follow on her heels when she did, and likely neither would be in any frame of mind to notice the door shut and lock behind them.
Elizabeth could not bring herself to endure more than two repetitions of her mother’s attempts to cajole, harass, or persuade her by any other means to revise her refusal of Mr Collins, and she expressed her intention to go for a walk.
‘Oh yes, go!’ Mrs Bennet cried, thoroughly overwrought. ‘Go! For I am sure I cannot bear to look on you.’
Elizabeth did not trouble herself to reply to such a comment, and removed herself from the house without another word, excluding a quick assurance to Jane that she was well as she settled a shawl around her shoulders.
The rains that had curtailed her outings from Friday through to Monday had abated briefly; she was grateful for it, though she did not think, as her mother did, that they had done so out of deference to the Netherfield Ball on Tuesday, but rather to gather their forces for another bout. She only hoped they would not drive her back inside just yet; she did not think she could tolerate another word from Mr Collins or her mother without proving herself to be quite the opposite of uniformly charming, and she felt safe enough in her father’s opinion of the match to feel sure that he would not yield to it in her absence. Instead she struck out across the damp grounds in the direction of Oakham Mount, determined to put no less than two miles between herself and her unwelcome suitor before she stopped for even a moment.
How could Mr Collins have thought that such a proposal would be successful? She had known him before to be quite the silliest man she had ever met and yet still it baffled her that any man should think a lady might be persuaded by such an insulting declaration. She wondered if it was unreasonable to publish a broadsheet outlining exactly which sentiments ought not to be represented within a proposal of marriage, and then decided that she had better not, for one must allow such men to identify themselves for the protection of the ladies they pursued.
She amused herself by considering the possibility of procuring such men little pins to wear, that one might be saved the trouble of becoming acquainted with them before dismissing them out of hand, until she reached the outskirts of the tenant farms, at which point she was obliged to turn her attention to her footing; the roads were exceedingly bad after the rains, and the stile by which she usually exited the furthest farm on her walks was almost inaccessible for the surrounding mud. Thinking that her mother’s forbearance ought not to be tested further today, she hitched her skirts over her ankles and waded through the mire, climbing the stile with one hand on the post, and dropping unceremoniously to the ground on the other side.
She felt lighter as she left her father’s lands. Elizabeth loved her family dearly but at the present moment she could cheerfully have traded them all for a good book and a day of warm weather. Walking past the gnarled form of an old oak tree, she recalled with renewed interest a childhood ambition. Similar trees in the little wilderness by the house had been summarily repurposed as ships and other features of the high seas, for the purposes of seeing her attain, at least for an afternoon or two, her desired occupation of notorious pirate. Scenes of daring naval warfare had been begrudgingly enacted by Mary and Jane, the latter being satisfied in the role of kidnapped damsel, and the former only willing to play if she might be a very good sailor of the King’s navy. Only Lizzy had been brave enough to climb the mast – a fine young beech tree – and all had been perfectly well and good until her mother came out and shrieked upon finding her young daughter twenty feet above the ground, leaning out of a fork in the branches, searching for land through her imagined telescope, at which point Lizzy fell out of the tree and the game came to a prompt and painful end.
Mary had never been in trouble before that, and Lizzy thought perhaps that had been the moment which persuaded her she wanted nothing more to do with her older sisters. She eyed the tree with fond consideration, and then decided she had better not; it had been years since she had applied herself to the pursuit of climbing trees, and she did not think it wise to turn her hand to it now. Sighing, she marched on towards Oakham Mount, forgoing the path for it was scarcely less dirty than the fields, and doing her best to put out of her mind the reason for her flight.
The wind picked up as she approached the rise, blowing her hair into her face in such a way that Lizzy found herself in the unusual position of wishing for the restriction of a bonnet. As it was, she could feel the first drops of rain against the back of her neck and though she spared a moment to mourn the results of poor Sarah’s efforts with the hair tongs, she would not be persuaded to return to Longbourn just yet. The rain could not last overlong, and she would be sheltered when she reached the line of trees at the base of Oakham Mount; she would wait out the worst of the rain and then return, and if she caught cold so much the better for then she would not be obliged to come downstairs and see Mr Collins. She only wished she’d thought to wear her coat instead of the light shawl she had selected for a morning spent indoors. But it could not be helped, she reasoned, and so made her way onwards with an undiminished sense of good cheer.
It was only as she began to ascend the hill that she thought perhaps she had underestimated the coming storm, for she could no longer dispute that a storm was what would follow this first, tentative rainfall. The clouds were thick above her when she turned her face up to the rain and that strange half-darkness of bad weather in the middle of the day had begun to fall. Sighing, she continued up the slope, thinking of the hollow in a particular tree near the top, in which she had passed many a happy hour when she was younger, ensconced therein with a book, some candles, and perhaps an apple, safely hidden from any person who should pass by the graceful sweep of the branches of that great tree. She would have to take shelter there now, for there was not a single house in the vicinity that was less than a mile and a half’s walk from the mount. The thought did not trouble her unduly, but she regretted again her lack of a coat and the inadequacy of muslin in repelling water.
As she came into sight of her intended target, she had cause to regret the state of her shoes too, for the soles made no appreciable difference to the speed of her descent when the sleeting rain dislodged a patch of mud beneath her feet. She slipped, fell, put her hands out to stop her fall, and was at the bottom of Oakham Mount staring in astonishment at the unprecedented quantity of blood that welled up from her hand and wrist – which she was confused to discover she could no longer move – within the space of a minute. She blinked, became aware of a horrid pain in her head, and, for the first time in her life, swooned.
Despite their professed intention of leaving Netherfield that very day, Darcy insisted on taking his usual ride after breakfast. He told Bingley that he thought it best to make a last survey of the property, that they might leave any necessary instructions with the steward before they left; and he told himself the same thing, for he refused to admit that he was fleeing the possibility of another morning spent enduring Caroline’s insufferable musings on the merits of fine eyes. The Netherfield Ball had been, to his mind, the final push necessary to put paid to any idea of offering for Miss Elizabeth. He had not thought her family capable of further indiscretion, but they had risen to the occasion with terrifying proficiency; he did not think he could bear to hear Miss Bingley describe how very merry they would all be when his future wife’s family descended on Pemberley at Christmastimes, as surely they must. A small voice in his head offered up a different picture of the season, which involved rather less involvement with either her family or his, or in fact any other people at all; and such thoughts might have been enough to make him reconsider his determination, had not the idea of allowing Mrs Bennet anywhere near his resultant sons or daughters quickly cemented it.
A ride was most definitely in order, he thought, and left immediately for that purpose, scandalising the stableboy who found him saddling his own horse, having not the patience to wait for Achilles to be brought around to the house. He was off within the quarter hour, and he revelled in the briskness of the day. It would likely start to rain again before it came time for the Netherfield party to depart for London, but he would take a thorough drenching over four hours in a carriage with Bingley’s sisters any day.
True to his word, he set out towards the perimeter of the estate, with half a mind to see about the drainage system by the Woodmans’ farm; he had marked it out for further attention when they first arrived but the weather had been good, and it had been put off in favour of more urgent repairs. He set a steady pace, stopping once or twice to enquire about the state of the tenants rooves – there were one or two that he suspected of leaking – and resolved to tell Bingley that he must send for a tradesman before he left; the necessity of their strategic retreat from the Bennets’ society was no excuse to neglect the welfare of one’s tenants.
The skies made their first exploratory attempt at rain as he examined the groundwork at the edge of Bingley’s lands. He straightened and glanced up at the gathering clouds. The storm would come sooner than he had thought; worse, the outdated drainage system was in no state for further abuse, and they would not have time to see to it before the weather turned. Darcy grimaced and remounted his horse. He would have to tell Woodman to clear the pastures closest to the stream in case of flooding and then ride up to ensure that his neighbours did the same; the tenants ought to know not to keep any stock on them, but that was no guarantee of their being empty.
Having passed this information along to Woodman and his sons, he turned up the collar of his greatcoat against the wind and rain and steered his horse away from the Woodman’s house towards the two or three farms that occupied the lands on the other side of the stream, regretting more and more the necessity of his errand as the chill of an oncoming storm settled around him. Why on earth had he not at least bullied Bingley into accompanying him?
He put this uncharitable thought out of his mind; he knew very well that of the two of them, Bingley was by far the worse off, being trapped in the house, supposedly to oversee its closure, but most likely doing little more than getting underfoot and being evicted from every room by his sisters in their newly discovered industriousness. The Johnstons and Grahams were receptive to his instruction, but neither had the benefit of John Woodman’s three burly sons, and Darcy, prompted by the increasing deluge, pitched in to clear the grounds nearest the rapidly swelling stream.
The weather had well and truly reached the level of intensity that might be termed a downpour and was making marked progress towards acquiring a stronger title by the time they had finished. Nodding a brusque farewell to the tenant farmers, Darcy returned to fetch Achilles from where he had tethered him on a fence post behind the Graham cottage. He pulled the end of the reins back through the knot and cast his gaze around for a suitable place to mount. Sighting a convenient milestone on the path behind the farmland, he led Achilles through the gate, closing it behind him, and towards the squat grey stone. Ahead of him he could see the little woodland that marked out Oakham Mount; even from this distance he could not help but notice how the whole seemed alive with movement and he grimaced to think how violent the wind must be to shake the boughs of those old trees.
It was as he swung himself up onto his mount that he saw it: the slightest glimmer of white amongst the trees. He craned his head to see it again to no avail. But he had not imagined it, he was sure; the colour was decidedly out of place in the darkening landscape of greys and greens. He knew he ought to return to the house before the storm worsened, but instead he found himself hesitating, his eyes straining for another glimpse of that strange, incongruous colour. It was no use.
With a silent curse at his own inability to ignore the unexplained, he turned Achilles towards Oakham Mount and set off. As he approached the line of trees, he dismounted again and led Achilles slowly up the path, his boots sinking into the mud as he walked. He reached the top without incident and turned slowly, squinting against the rain as he searched fruitlessly for evidence of what he had seen, a task made decidedly harder by the fact that he did not have the slightest clue of what that thing had been. Berating himself for riding up in such weather for no good reason at all, he led Achilles back down the slope. Halfway down, Achilles shied away as a bird swooped out of a nearby tree and Darcy had to stop to calm him. Smoothing his hand over the horse’s nose and murmuring soothingly, he looked past Achilles’ ears, one of which was perked upright in distress, and there it was: an unmistakeable sliver of white amongst the foliage. He let go of Achilles’ reins – he was too well trained to wander far – and left the path to investigate.
Stepping down around a wide oak tree, taking care to step over the exposed roots, he looked up and came immediately to a halt.
‘Good God,’ he breathed, and then he was in motion. Heedless of his surroundings, he skidded down the remaining distance, steadying himself only long enough to get his feet beneath him before he dropped to his knees in the dirt before the motionless figure of Miss Elizabeth Bennet.