From Chapter 9: Elizabeth passed the chief of the night in her sister’s room, and n the morning had the pleasure of being able to send a tolerable answer to the inquiries which she very early received from Mr. Bingley by a housemaid, and some time afterwards from the two elegant ladies who waited on his sisters.
This scene takes place at dawn, before any inquiries have been received. When Elizabeth sees that Jane has finally fallen asleep after a restless night, she decides to step out for a brief walk about the grounds.
November 14, 1811
Elizabeth gazed out the window in her sister’s room at Netherfield. The sun was just peeking up above the tops of the trees, and a light breeze was pushing the few clouds, tinted with pinks, yellows, and oranges, across the deep blue sky. She took in a deep breath and then turned back to look at Jane, who was finally sleeping peacefully after a restless night.
Despite being rather fatigued herself, she looked forward to exploring the grounds about the manor. Yesterday she had been too concerned about her sister and intent upon reaching her that she paid little attention as she walked from Longbourn. In addition, she had been making an attempt – albeit a futile one – to avoid stepping in the mud. She was well aware that when she had arrived, her disheveled and soiled appearance had not gone unnoticed.
She was grateful that the rain had moved on. A light drizzle the previous evening had prompted disappointment during the evening meal. The men had hoped to go hunting, and even Mr. Bingley’s sisters despaired of the dreariness of weather, although they attempted to reassure the men that they would find some diversion indoors if the rain kept them from going out. Elizabeth believed Miss Bingley secretly hoped for rain so she would be able to spend more time with Mr. Darcy.
For most of the remainder of the day and last night Jane had been so uncomfortable Elizabeth had not wished to leave her side. She had gone downstairs briefly while Jane slept, but did not remain long. She never went to the room that had been prepared for her, but instead stayed with her sister. She may have fallen asleep at some point in a chair next to Jane’s bed, but she doubted she slept more than an hour or two.
Elizabeth pressed her lips together as she contemplated stepping out briefly for some fresh air and exercise. Certainly she could leave her sister alone for a short while. She stole another glance at Jane and was reassured that she would be all right, as she was sleeping soundly.
Elizabeth picked up her shawl and draped it over her shoulders. She looked in the mirror and pinned up some loose strands of her hair and put on her bonnet, tying it loosely under her chin. She walked quietly to the door, opening it, and then closing it carefully so she would not awaken Jane. She tiptoed down the hallway hopig not to disturb anyone else still asleep in their rooms.
When she came to the top of the stairs, she paused as she recollected a squeaky step somewhere near the middle. She could not remember which one it was, so she decided to descend lightly the whole way down.
When her foot came down on the noisy culprit, despite treading cautiously, she felt as though the whole household must have heard it. She remained motionless for a moment holding her breath, as if that might take away the sound, although she knew it did not. After a short pause, she quickly took the remaining steps down and walked to the door.
She stepped outside and breathed in deeply. She loved the fresh air after a rain. There were still puddles, to be sure, but she felt she ought to be able to walk around them. She recalled that the path to her left, one she had walked many years ago, wound around and came back to the house on the south side.
As she walked, she began humming a tune, enjoying as she did, the harmony from the birds chirping their delight at the rays of sun peering at them through the leaves of the trees. She stretched out her hand and her fingers ran along the wet leaves. She laughed as she shook off the water that had collected.
The path curved around, and Elizabeth smiled, grateful that she remembered correctly. At length, she was heading back towards Netherfield, which was good, because she wished to get back to Jane. She began to walk quickly, although she was still able to take in everything around her. The air warmed as the sun rose higher in the sky, a few drops of moisture fell upon her as a cool breeze rustled the water laden leaves, and she watched a startled doe as it darted off away from the path.
Ahead she saw Netherfield and she quickened her steps as the path made another turn, but she came to a sudden stop when she saw a rather large expanse of water blocking the way. It was several inches deep and at least three feet wide. She pursed her lips as she considered it ought to be easy enough to cross, but she hated to think of arriving back at Netherfield a second time with mud on her feet and the hem of her dress.
She let out a huff and turned to look back, debating whether she ought to return the way she had come. She braced her hands on her hips and turned again to look at the path ahead. She took in a startled breath when she saw Mr. Darcy now standing on the other side of the water. She felt herself tense and she grumbled silently.
“Do you find yourself in a dilemma, Miss Bennet?” he asked, a rather haughty smile appearing.
At least Elizabeth thought it was a haughty smile. With a single brow raised and a tilt of his head, she felt he was likely expecting her to continue on through the water without giving any thought to muddying herself, as she had the day before.
She squared her shoulders and met his gaze without flinching. “Oh, fear not, Mr. Darcy. This is not really a serious dilemma. I am merely trying to decide whether to take my shoes off before I jump across.”
Darcy’s brows lowered and his eyes darkened, although it seemed a smile touched them. “I assume you took the path to the left when you started out.”
Elizabeth nodded. “I did.”
She watched Darcy look from one side of the path to the other. She followed his gaze, but could readily see the steep, rather muddy incline on both sides. After examining both sides of the path several times, he turned back to her. “Wait here.”
He disappeared into the shrubbery to one side. Elizabeth felt slightly perturbed, not knowing what he was doing, but more than that, she wondered why he was doing it. And what was he thinking? Was he concerned that she would appear at Netherfield again in an untidy state? She did not care what he thought – or anyone thought – of her getting a little dirty.
She winced, however, when she looked at the pooling water. If she attempted to jump across, she may end up falling flat on her face.
As Elizabeth was contemplating this, she heard the rustle of leaves and breaking branches. She turned to see Darcy coming towards her through the bushes on her side of the water. He appeared to be perfectly dry, although a bit disheveled. She stifled a smile, however, when he almost slipped just before he reached the bottom.
“Come this way, Miss Bennet,” he said, extending his hand in the direction from which he just came. “I believe with a little help, you can make it back to your sister without getting wet.”
Was that a smile? Elizabeth shook her head slightly as if in answer to her question.
He extended his other arm for her to take, and for a brief moment she considered refusing his assistance. She could certainly climb the incline through the bushes without his help. But she thought better of it and slipped her fingers lightly about his arm.
He briefly looked down at it and then looked up. “Take care, as it is a little slippery and steep.”
“Fear not, Mr. Darcy. I shall manage.”
Mr. Darcy pushed aside the foliage so she could pass through, but when she took just a few steps, both her feet began to slide down. As she began to flail her arms, Darcy grasped her arm firmly with his free hand and the arm she had been holding went about her back, holding her tightly and keeping her upright.
He said nothing, acting as though it was the most normal thing to do. Elizabeth, however, felt anything but that. She did not know whether she was more furious with him or herself, but she kept silent as he jostled her up, around, and through the brush, finally coming down onto the path on the other side of the expanse of water.
He released her slowly and then stepped back. Another partial smile appeared and he reached out and pulled a twig out from her hair where her bonnet should have been. It had slipped off and was resting on the back of her shoulders, still tied in place under her chin. He handed the twig to her.
“Thank you,” she said as she took it from him. She quickly shook her head. “I mean, thank you for helping me, not for the twig.” Elizabeth inwardly chided herself for suddenly feeling as though she could not say anything proper, and she threw the twig down. He must think her foolish, and that haughty smile that appeared again spoke a great deal more about his feelings than any words would.
“May I escort you back to the house?” he suddenly asked.
“I…” She paused, knowing he most likely wished to do anything but that. Well, if he could make an attempt to be polite, she could. “Yes, thank you.”
He extended his arm and she again took it reluctantly. They walked back to the house in silence, other than Mr. Darcy inquiring how her sister was faring.
She replied that Jane had not slept well for a good portion of the night, but was now resting peacefully. Elizabeth was quite certain this encounter cemented his opinion of her. She overheard him saying when they first met that he found her only tolerable; now he certainly must consider her to be completely objectionable.
She glanced down at her feet. At least only the bottoms of her shoes were muddy. When she noticed Mr. Darcy’s boots, however, she winced at how much mud covered them.
As they walked towards the manor, he nudged her away from the front door. She looked up at him questioningly.
“We can enter through this side door and hopefully not be noticed.”
Just before they reached the door, Darcy stopped and turned to Elizabeth. “I would not mention this to anyone. I do not believe anyone saw us, and I would not want certain parties to mistake what happened out here.”
Elizabeth knew his meaning and his reasoning precisely. “You have nothing to fear from me on that end, Mr. Darcy. I shall never speak of this again.”
Mr. Darcy stepped up and opened the door for her. When they came inside, he said “If you take this passageway to the right, you will reach the set of stairs that will take you to your room. I am going to remove my boots as they are far too muddy to walk through the house.”
“Thank you,” Elizabeth said and then turned to walk in the direction he indicated to her. She suddenly stopped and turned to look back at him, thinking she ought to apologize for the inconvenience she caused him.
She saw him leaning over to remove his boots, but quickly realized he was, surprisingly, not doing that. His forehead was cradled in his hand, it appeared as though his eyes were closed, and he was fiercely shaking his head. She decided that nothing she could say would make any difference in his opinion of her. She turned back quickly, eager to get to Jane’s side.