But why Mr. Darcy came so often to the Parsonage it was more difficult to understand. It could not be for society, as he frequently sat there ten minutes together without opening his lips; and when he did speak, it seemed the effect of necessity rather than of choice — a sacrifice to propriety, not a pleasure to himself. He seldom appeared really animated. Mrs. Collins knew not what to make of him. ~ P&P Chapter 32
“Was that Mr. Darcy’s voice I heard?” said Maria as they entered the parsonage, taking off her bonnet.
Charlotte had not been paying attention, as she was thinking how best to inform Mr. Collins about something she had heard in the village. One of the tenants had complained that Lady Catherine had not sent a thatcher to repair a leaking roof as she had promised. Charlotte knew her husband would take offense at any suggestion of negligence on the part of his patroness. However, Charlotte believed it was his duty to remind Lady Catherine of anything to do with the parishioners’ welfare. She had to find a way to suggest a gentle reminder would be appropriate without provoking a long lecture about Lady Catherine’s generosity.
Maria’s words, however, gave her pause. She listened intently but did not hear a man’s voice. It was apparent that they did have visitors, as Elizabeth was not in the habit of talking to herself.
“I wonder what should bring Mr. Darcy to the parsonage. Perhaps Lady Catherine has sent him with an invitation to dinner at Rosings.”
Charlotte hurried towards the parlor, worried that Mr. Darcy would impatient waiting for her and fearing that her absence may have caused offense. If she had learned anything from her association with Lady Catherine, it was that these fine folk were likely to take offense at the slightest thing, and that being around them was like walking on eggshells. It required a considerable amount of tact and patience.
As they approached, they could hear Lizzy talking. Charlotte smiled at Lizzy’s tone of voice. She knew what it signified. They had known each other since childhood. It was the tone Lizzy used when she was trying to be polite even if she did not find the conversation very appealing.
“I enjoy walking amongst the apple trees,” she was saying, with a smile on her lips, “but I am rather disappointed in Kent as it seems much like Hertfordshire. I had thought the “orchard of England” would have a great many more orchards than I have seen so far.”
As soon as she stepped through the doorway, Charlotte halted, struck by the tableau in front of her. Mr. Darcy was seated in a chair opposite Lizzy. Intent on what she was saying, he had not noted Charlotte’s and Maria’s entrance. His gaze was glued to Lizzy’s lips and he was listening as closely as if her words were divine intervention rather than humdrum polite conversation.
Ah. So that is the way the wind blows, she thought.
Just then Elizabeth turned to greet her. Mr. Darcy, registering Charlotte and her sister’s presence, started and jumped up, his face losing all expression.
“Mr. Darcy, I am sorry to have kept you waiting,” said Charlotte, hurrying to greet him. “I trust you left Lady Catherine in good health.”
“Yes, thank you,” said Mr. Darcy. “I—I was told the ladies were inside or I would never have intruded so on Miss Bennet.”
“My sister and I were out walking,” said Charlotte, feeling a need to explain herself, though more out of awkwardness than to impart information.
They all sat down, with Mr. Darcy taking a seat in the corner as far from Elizabeth as possible. He appeared more uncomfortable than usual. Charlotte hastened to set him at ease.
“You plan to stay with your aunt for some time, Mr. Darcy?”
“I have not yet determined the date of my departure,” said Darcy.
“Is the colonel enjoying his stay in Kent?” she said.
“Very much so,” he replied.
A brief silence descended on the room in which the clock could be heard ticking. A crow cawed loudly outside the window. The four of them watched it as it spread its large wings and flew away.
“Did Miss Bennet offer you refreshments, Mr. Darcy?” said Charlotte, by and by.
“I require none. I will be leaving shortly,” replied Darcy.
Silence settled over the small room once again. Darcy sat in the corner and contemplated the wall. Maria shifted her shawl and rearranged it around her shoulders. Lizzy began to drum her fingers against the arm of her chair. Mr. Darcy’s gaze was immediately drawn to the movement. Lizzy, conscious of the scrutiny, stopped her drumming, throwing Charlotte a look of entreaty. Charlotte, accustomed to smoothing ruffled feathers around her husband, searched quickly for another topic of conversation.
“Miss de Bourgh appears to be in better spirits, now that she has so many people to keep her amused. It was very quiet at Rosings before everyone arrived.”
“My cousin is accustomed to a quiet life,” remarked Darcy.
Charlotte waited for him to elaborate, but he did not seem inclined to do so.
“But surely she is pleased to have company,” said Elizabeth. “I cannot imagine she would prefer to be alone.”
“My cousin, Miss Bennet, is sickly and does not care to exert herself too much,” he said, giving Elizabeth a long glance. “Not everyone enjoys a lively temperament such as yours.”
The words were spoken in such a manner it was impossible to tell if they were a compliment or a reproach, leaving Charlotte uncertain what to make of them.
Another silence fell on the group. Charlotte searched about for something to say but she had exhausted the possibilities. Fortunately, among the English there is always one topic that can be counted upon to draw everyone’s attention and that is the weather. Charlotte fell back on that last resort.
“We are fortunate to have warm weather for Easter, are we not?” she said.
“Very fortunate,” said Darcy.
There was a short pause. Elizabeth was looking down at her hands, her mouth curled in amusement. Charlotte hoped that Lizzy was not going to start laughing.
As if sensing the possibility, Darcy rose abruptly to his feet and the ladies followed.
“I must take my leave. My aunt…” said Darcy.
“Yes,” said Charlotte. “I am certain she will be asking for you.”
He turned to Lizzy and bowed stiffly. “Miss Bennet. I suppose I shall see you at church on Sunday.”
Lizzy curtsied. “You shall indeed, Mr. Darcy. I would not miss it for the world.” She gave one of her mischievous smiles. Charlotte could not be certain, but she thought his color deepened.
“Mrs. Collins. Miss Lucas.” He bowed and walked stiffly away.
As the door shut behind him. Lizzy gave a sigh of relief and sank into her seat.
“I thought he would never leave.”
“What can be the meaning of this?” said Charlotte, sitting down as well. “My dear Lizzy, he must be in love with you, or he would not have called on us in this familiar way.”
“That is quite absurd, Charlotte, as you know very well. If I had listened to you, I would have believed that half the men in Meryton were in love with me,” said Elizabeth.
“That is hardly true, Lizzy. I have never led you astray when it comes to such matters.”
“Really?” said Elizabeth. “And what about the case of Mr. Hawker? Remember how you convinced me he cared about me when all along he was planning to marry Miss Kendall?”
“I still believe he cared nothing for Miss Kendall,” said Charlotte. “He married her for her fortune.”
“Let us suppose for a moment you are right, what evidence do you have? If Mr. Darcy has any regard for me, he has chosen a most peculiar way of expressing it. Before you entered, I was trying most desperately to maintain a civil conversation, yet all the while he stared at me in such a haughty manner I felt his goal must be to find fault with me. I am convinced he despises me.”
“If, as you say, he despises you,” said Charlotte, “then why seek out your company?”
“It was not my company he was after, it was ours. I do believe he comes here to escape from Rosings. I do not know how he can endure Lady Catherine’s company for hours at a time.”
Charlotte shook her head. She could not forget the expression on his face when she had first entered. He had seemed – she sought for a word – completely entranced.
“I believe you mistake the matter, my dear friend. I am certain he has formed an attachment.”
Elizabeth laughed. “If you had been in the room with us earlier you would have realized how mistaken you are. He was far from happy when he found me here alone and his manner was so cold it was obvious that only civility prevented him from turning tail and leaving as soon as he arrived.”
Charlotte thought this over. Could she have been mistaken? Had his rapt expression been nothing but a trick of the light?
“But are you certain, Lizzy? Could he not have been embarrassed rather than displeased to catch you alone?”
“Embarrassed?” said Lizzy. “I would as soon call Lady Catherine shy! Have you not seen enough evidence of his arrogance and conceit, Charlotte? Have you forgotten Wickham’s testimony regarding his character? You need only ask our neighbors in Meryton and they will all be in agreement in mentioning his pride and disregard for others. Tell me, Charlotte, since you are determined to redeem him, why he did not call on Jane in London to inquire about me if he is attached to me.” Elizabeth came and sat next to Charlotte and took her hand. “I see what is happening, Charlotte. You are forced to live in close quarters with Lady Catherine as your patroness and so you are compelled to find the good in her. Now you wish to find the good in her nephew, too. There is a perfectly simple explanation, as you can see.”
Charlotte reflected on this. It was true that she had found herself trying hard to justify Lady Catherine’s often high handed behavior. The Collins’ were dependent on her for their livelihood and it was far easier to fall in with her husband’s perception of their benefactress than to retain a critical attitude towards her. Elizabeth was right. She was now trying to do the same with the nephew.
She smiled at her own folly. “You know me too well, Elizabeth. I would like to believe the whole family kind and amiable.”
“That is because you want to see the good in people, Charlotte, which is just as well or you would never have had me as a friend.”
“I am not as blind as that,” said Charlotte. “I know you are far from perfect. But you are my dearest friend and I would not have anyone say otherwise, including Mr. Darcy.”
“You cannot truly wish Mr. Darcy upon me, Charlotte. Just think of his aunt. Think of the uproar there would be if he declared he wished to marry me! Supposing Lady Catherine were to take it in her head that it was your fault because you brought me to his attention?”
Charlotte shuddered and began to laugh as well. “Very well, Lizzy, you have cured me of such thoughts once and for all. Let us hope than nothing like this will ever come to pass!”