“Mrs. Bennet had designed to keep the two Netherfield gentlemen to supper; but their carriage was unluckily ordered before any of the others, and she had no opportunity of detaining them.”
Saturday, 29 September 1812
Darcy entered the carriage and glanced back at Longbourn while he waited for Bingley to join him. The outside of the house was quiet—as quiet as Elizabeth was when he called at Longbourn. Why had she been so distant? So aloof? Such qualities were simply not a part of her nature.
When he and Bingley called after their first arrival in Hertforshire, he could not procure a seat near her—a mishap that prevented him from any sort of attempt at a private discourse. Not that one could have much of a private discussion with Mrs. Bennet in the room. That woman was on a mission and not even the presence of someone she disliked so vehemently would dissuade her. Mr. Bingley would wed Jane Bennet if she had to lock them in a room and hide the key!
God help Bingley should he purchase an estate near Meryton!
Bingley bounded into the equipage, and rapped his walking stick upon the ceiling.
Darcy pivoted and stared at the house. Perhaps Elizabeth would stand at the window—something, anything to give him some hope. Alas, she was not there. His chest constricted and prevented him from inhaling a deep breath.
Why had she been so quiet? During their initial call, Elizabeth appeared discomfited when they were shown into the room, but once they were seated, she concentrated so on her embroidery to the exclusion of most of the room. Even when he inquired of the Gardiners, she gave such a succinct answer. A trait he would never have ascribed to the Elizabeth Bennet with whom he was familiar.
“They were very well when we last heard from them, Mr. Darcy.”
The words echoed in his mind and his stomach clenched.
She could have elaborated, could she not? He would have been pleased to speak of her aunt and uncle, any subject that might induce a conversation. But, she never responded with any more than what was polite before glancing at Bingley and Jane or returning to her needlework.
Elizabeth had even asked about Georgiana, but again, after he had responded, she bit her bottom lip, nodded, and returned to her sewing. Nothing further.
He started and looked at Bingley, whose head was tilted forward and amusement radiated from his features.
“Have you not heard a word I have said?”
He swallowed a frustrated exhale. “No. I apologise.”
“Miss Bennet appeared well, do you not think?”
He pressed his lips together hard, holding back the growl that threatened to escape. He needed to consider Elizabeth’s behaviour and not her elder sister! Could Bingley not make a decision for himself just this once!
“She appeared very well and pleased to see you.”
Bingley’s countenance brightened. “Do you think so?”
“Mrs. Bennet was certainly welcoming.”
He bit back a snort. That woman would admit a complete stranger into her home if she discovered he was eligible.
She had not been comfortable in their company just now. That much was evident in her mannerisms during dinner. She shifted in her seat a number of times, her eyes widened in response to several of her mother’s effusions, and she had difficulty maintaining eye contact with him—a problem she had never had in the past.
When the men had returned to the drawing room after dinner, Elizabeth had been pouring coffee with Miss Bennet. He could not have approached her then as the ladies had crowded around the table. She had not a single vacancy near her, and one lady had shifted particularly close for no reason he could fathom.
His head whipped around to where Bingley stared at him with his eyebrows knit together.
“Have you not heard a word I have said?”
Darcy exhaled. “My mind is elsewhere. Again, I apologise, but I have a great deal of work awaiting me. I am afraid it has dominated my thoughts since we departed Longbourn.”
“You are always busy.” Bingley shook his head as he faced forward. “You must remain at Netherfield for some shooting. After all, Mrs. Bennet offered the best of Mr. Bennet’s covies when we have killed all of our own.” Bingley wore a wide grin. “Very hospitable of him, is it not?”
Darcy’s lips quirked upwards. “Quite neighbourly.”
Elizabeth had turned a brilliant shade of red when her mother made that statement. Her feelings towards her mother were clearer than her feelings towards him. How could he proceed without such knowledge? Another rejected proposal was more than he could tolerate. His heart could not be rent in two once again!
A footman stood at the open door of the carriage, and he looked out to find they had arrived at Netherfield.
“What has you at sixes and sevens? You are never so distracted.”
“I would rather not speak of it at present, Bingley. I do hope you understand.”
His friend’s forehead was creased and his eyes narrowed. Bingley’s concern did him credit, but Darcy would not reveal his heart so soon.
Bingley continued to gnatter on as they ascended the steps and entered, but other than hearing the noise, Darcy did not make out the words. As his valet helped him refresh himself and change, he replayed both visits to Longbourn.
When he took a seat at the desk in the library, he gave a heavy sigh. He had to have been mistaken at Pemberley. Elizabeth could not return his feelings and be so quiet in his company. She was never reserved. The only conclusion could be that she did not wish for his presence.
His chest pained him as he picked up the nearest piece of blank paper and his pen. He would return to London on the morrow. There was nothing left for him in Hertfordshire—not if Elizabeth lacked the tender feelings required for her to accept the offer of his hand.
He placed his pen to the paper and paused as an image of Elizabeth seated beside Georgiana at the pianoforte came to mind. Was he doomed to love her for the rest of his life while she carried on with her own, as she married and had children.
A wetness touched his finger and he flinched. A blot worthy of one of Bingley’s missives stained the letter he had yet to pen. With a groan, he crumpled the page and tossed it into the grate.
This time he would write the correspondence. No more images of Elizabeth. He had to leave Hertfordshire. He could not remain and face the torture of another call where she was so grave and silent. He had to leave his beloved Elizabeth behind.