Hope that wherever this month finds you dear readers that you are keeping cool!
The end of July, Pemberley
As she walked across the lawn towards the river, Elizabeth turned back to look again at Pemberley, and while she contemplated it, the owner of it himself suddenly came forward from the road, which led behind it to the stables. They were within twenty yards of each other, and so abrupt was his appearance, that it was impossible to avoid his sight. Their eyes instantly met, and the cheeks of each were overspread with the deepest blush. He absolutely started, and for a moment seemed immoveable from surprise; but shortly recovering himself, advanced towards the party, and spoke to Elizabeth if not in terms of perfect composure, at least of perfect civility.
She had instinctively turned away; but, stopping on his approach, received his compliments with an embarrassment impossible to be overcome. She was astonished and confused, scarcely dared lift her eyes to his face, and knew not what answer she returned to his civil enquiries after her family. Nor did he seem much more at ease; when he spoke, his accent had none of its usual sedateness; and he repeated his enquiries as to the time of her having left Longbourn and of her arrival in Derbyshire so often, and in so hurried a way, as plainly spoke the distraction of his thoughts.
At length, every idea seemed to fail him; and, after standing a few moments without saying a word, he suddenly recollected himself.
“Tell me, do you like to swim?”
“I have myself often found that a sojourn in the river can be quite invigorating on such a day as this one.” He gave a little shrug. “I was thinking, just now, that I should like a swim. Shall you join me?”
Elizabeth’s jaw fell agape while, unbidden, images of Mr. Darcy frolicking in the river, rose in her mind. Her imagination, while excellent, could not extend itself to picturing herself splashing alongside him. “Join you? You do not suggest that I… that we…?”
“The weather is exceedingly hot,” he said by way of apology. “And you seem rather…”
She had waited several seconds before it was apparent he did not intend to complete the sentence. “I seem rather what?”
He gave a half grimace then admitted, “Sweaty.”
“Sweaty,” he confirmed.
Ah, but she could not deny that. The days of travelling the countryside in an open carriage had left her positively withered and Pemberley, even in all its beauty, was marked by several areas of direct, beating sunshine. Still! That Mr. Darcy should notice her dishevelment! — she knew not if she should laugh or become enraged. “It is rather ungallant of you to notice, sir, but yes, I shall admit, in the habit of any living person subjected to such a heat as this, I do, indeed, sweat.”
As if to agree with her, a rivulet of sweat moved slowly down her back. Her spencer felt as if it was glued to her body; ah, but it would be rather sublime to feel the icy cold of a Derbyshire river sluicing over her skin!
He took a small step closer. “At times even wetting your feet can be invigorating.”
“My feet?” She was suddenly very aware of her feet within her boots. They were swollen to a miserable state, nearly pulsing with their desire to be free of their leather prison. How delightful it sounded, this notion of removing her shoes and her stockings, and plunging her feet—maybe even her ankles— into cool, watery relief. She could almost feel it, even now.
“Come,” he said. “I will turn my back while you take off your shoes.”
She wondered if the heat had made her go mad even while she bent down, untying the boots and kicking them off. She watched him carefully while she raised her skirts, peeling her stockings from her moist calves and tossing them to the side.
Mr. Darcy never tried to sneak a look, keeping his back towards her. “Go towards the river,” he said. “There is a rock there where you can sit and put your feet in. I shall join you directly.”
She did as he said and only when she gave him the signal did he come and join her. She did not look when she heard him fumbling about with his own boots, and she kept her eyes on the water as he sank onto the rock beside her. Once his feet were in, she could not help but notice how sizable they were. Her aunt Philips had always had a saying: big hands, big heart. Big feet, big… Elizabeth blushed at the wantonness of both her thoughts and her aunt.
“Is not this nice?” Mr. Darcy asked his gaze out over his land and his river, oblivious to the turn her thoughts had taken.
“Splendid,” she said. “I feel much better already.”
They sat then in a short silence until both spoken again at once.
“I wonder if—”
“Alas, it is also true that—”
Both chuckled, and Mr Darcy nodded to her that she should proceed.
“I only thought that though my feet have grown considerably cooler, alas it seems to have made me more conscious of the overheated state of the rest of me.”
“Perhaps,” said he, “you would like to remove your bonnet.”
Elizabeth hesitated, but the reasoned it was very silly to do so. Had not Mr Darcy seen her without a bonnet before? And without a spencer too, so she decided to remove that as well.
Mr. Darcy watched with some amazement as she removed the superfluous articles and tossed them behind her on the bank. She gave him an embarrassed smile.
“Forgive me; I seem to be reverting to my natural state of inelegance.”
He continued looking at her, still seeming astonished and so she moved to stand, to retrieve that which she had discarded. “No, wait.” He laid one hand atop hers while the other fumbled with his cravat.
Eventually, she could not abide watching his struggle. Pushing his hand aside, she made quick work of releasing him from the strictures of his neckcloth. He watched with excessive attentiveness while she tossed it in the general direction of her bonnet, her spencer and their commingled stockings and shoes. Moving slowly, lest she should object, he removed then his coat, giving it the same direction as his cravat.
As if in a trance, she reached out, touching his shirt, a fine lawn made nearly transparent by dampness. “Seems you are rather sweaty yourself, sir.”
He chuckled. “Yes, it seems we both remain in our state of overheated inelegance. So shall I invite you again: shall we swim?”
“Oh… but… well, my aunt and uncle—”
“Are being kept well-occupied by the gardener,” said Mr. Darcy, “who is under strict instructions to keep them as far from this part of the river as possible.”
Elizabeth deliberated only a brief time. England had not often seen the sort of heat which plagued them this particular summer; it was inescapable, and at times she felt it would overcome her. She had wished to find Derbyshire more pleasant than Hertfordshire in that regard, but they had proven to be mostly the same.
“If we swim,” she said, “how will we return to the house with no one the wiser? Our clothes will give us away.”
“That would be an inelegant state indeed,” said Mr. Darcy. “But I can think of only one remedy for it.”
“That our clothes should be set to rest on the bank while we enjoy the coolness of the river.”
Elizabeth’s mouth dropped. Never, ever could she have imagined the staid, proper Mr. Darcy to suggest such a thing as he just had. She wondered if she should slap him for being impertinent or…
One look at the smile on his face made her realise she would do no such thing. “One may as well hang for a sheep as a lamb,” she murmured.
He was gentlemanly enough to turn away from her as she removed her gown, and she did him likewise while he removed all but his breeches. When they were finished, Elizabeth laughed, feeling all the awkwardness of being nearly unclothed outdoors at Pemberley and wondering at her boldness. “This is absolute madness,” said she. “Indeed it is the least sensible thing I can imagine doing right now.”
“Sensible? Perhaps not,” said Mr. Darcy. “I can only be as sensible as a man violently in love is wont to be.”
He reached for her hand and took it in his own, caressing it lightly with his thumb as he told her, “You must know, my dearest, loveliest Elizabeth, that my affections and wishes remain unchanged.”
Her laughter turned into a warm smile as she took their joined hands and laid them on her stomach, her large, swollen stomach which was as much as a source of her discomfort as the hot weather was. “I should hope not given this bit I have gotten from you.”
That made him laugh. “It was a surprise to see you. You are a day early.”
“But the surprise is not unwelcome I hope?” She gave him a teasing smile.
“Unwelcome? Of course not. But of course, they needed you at Netherfield. I only regretted I could not join you.”
“The Bingleys are no longer a couple and now a lovely family,” said Elizabeth. “Our new nephew is doing very well and wants only for fewer people to fuss about him. So I returned a day early.”
“I am obliged to the Gardiners, as always, for bringing you.”
Beneath their joined hands, their baby kicked wildly, seemingly impatient with their delay. “Come, Mrs. Darcy,” said Mr. Darcy, “I believe our child would like to have that swim now.”