Elizabeth Elliot snuck a glance at her father. His forehead was creased and his lips pressed into a very distinct expression that only meant one thing: disgust. Proximity to the old and infirm brought it out and he no longer bothered to hide it. He used to, before they took residence in Bath. But there he encountered so many ‘unfortunates’ that the expression took up long term residence, much as they had.
Was Mr. Knightley merely ignoring it, or could it really have escaped his attention? Best assume the former. His hospitality was too generous to risk offending. The question was how to avoid it now that Father had begun along that path? If only she knew him well enough—or at all really—to be able to appeal to his vanity or ego. Perhaps a few compliments to his wife. Considering the looks he gave her—that might be his weakness.
The girl looked barely old enough to be married. Did she understand her good fortune, to have a husband at all, much less one who looked at her as Knightley did?
Oh, that sounded far too close to jealousy for comfort. Best focus on something else.
Mrs. Darcy did not seem a typical society matron—no that line of thinking would not end well either. Mr. Darcy gazed at her the way Knightley did at his wife.
He was a well looking man. A bit weather beaten for sure. If not guided away from it, Father would remark upon that. He did so freely enough in Bath. But tours of duty on the continent did that to a man. It was only to be expected.
She had heard from those who knew that Fitzwilliam had seen battle against Napoleon. Few, if any, of the officers she knew could claim that. He never spoke of it though, never spoke of his service at all. It made one curious.
Still, he was the son of an earl and his manners showed it. Refined and polished every time they met. Perhaps he might prove agreeable company for the duration of their visit. If she was not confined to the company of the two resident matrons.
There was little worse than to be in the exclusive company of married women when one was unmarried. Dreadful, truly dreadful.
A shiver coursed down her spine and she pulled her shawl a little tighter.
If it became too uncomfortable, she could always claim a headache and keep to her rooms. No one would be surprised if any of their number took colds from being out in the weather.
Perhaps it would be a good idea to simply avoid the inevitable now and ask to be excused.
Mrs. Knightly beckoned them into the parlor. Her smile held such warmth and enthusiasm—it would be most ungrateful to try to withdraw now. Surely this company could not be any worse than what she had experienced in Bath. Such generous and ready hospitality deserved equal efforts on her part.
A blazing fire crackled in the fireplace of the old style parlor. With heavy drapes drawn against the chills and pillows and blankets heaped upon the furniture, the room could hardly be more snug. Fitzwilliam rubbed his hand together. Under other circumstances, the room would have been far too hot, but now, it seemed entirely, perfectly warm.
Mrs. Knightley seated her father in a large leather chair very near the fire and tucked a lap blanket across his knees. He leaned back and briefly closed his eyes, as though entirely content with the world. She kissed his cheek.
What a fortunate man to have someone so devoted to his comfort.
“Pray, be comfortable. I shall see to tea and your rooms.” Mrs. Knightley curtsied and hurried out.
Fitzwilliam edged back to let the others seat themselves. People always revealed themselves in such moments. In such unfamiliar surroundings, information was … comforting.
No, he was not facing battle. He was not even in hostile territory, but still, whatever would calm his restless spirit was worth seeking.
Darcy sat beside Liza on a plump settee just far enough from the fireplace to be comfortably warm, leaving the closer seating for Bennet and the baronet who both seemed to particularly feel the cold. Not that the man would ever admit to feeling something so common as cold, that would be far too base for him to acknowledge.
Miss Elliot hovered near a wall. Was she hesitant choosing a seat? The distance she kept between herself and her father suggested that she did not wish to be too near her father, probably enough of that in the carriage. But she vacillated between the sofa and a single overstuffed chair, as though she did not know whether or not to sit too close to anyone else.
His sister Rosalind did that often enough when she was not certain of the quality of the company and unwilling to encourage closer contact with someone who might not be of suitable quality.
The expression Miss Elliot wore was not nearly as confident as Rosalind’s, though. More like Darcy’s when confronted with unfamiliar company.
Fitzwilliam had met the Elliots regularly in Bath, keeping much of the same society. She was a fair card player, though she did not play for more than pennies—wise considering her father’s circumstances. On the dancefloor she was graceful and skilled. Given her propensity to attend the same concerts as he, her taste in music seemed very like his. Why had they not spoken more?
He sat on the sofa and caught her eye, gesturing subtly next to himself. She dipped her head almost imperceptibly and sat beside him, the corner of her lips lifting just a mite. She did not look at him, though. But why would she when propriety would declare it far too bold an act?
Knightley pulled a chair closer to his father-in-law and sat, elbows on knees. “Pray forgive me if it is too familiar a question, Darcy, but how did you come to be traveling in this most disagreeable weather?”
Darcy shifted slightly in his seat. He was not talkative at the best of times, and now, after the strain of traveling under such dangerous conditions, conversation would be positively vexing for him
Fitzwilliam cleared his throat. “I fear I am to blame for our journey. I have just received news of the unexpected death of my mother’s cousin. Unbeknownst to me, he made me his heir. It would appear, I am now the master of a modest estate not far from here. Darcy and Bennet have graciously consented to view the property with me and offer their opinions.”
Darcy coughed and Liza pressed her foot to the top of his. No doubt she was warning him not to mention Bennet was there to learn as much as Fitzwilliam himself.
Their covert communications were jolly good fun pick out. Did Knightley and his wife communicate that way as well?
“Do you by chance speak of Listingbrook?” Knightley laced his hands together and sat up a little straighter.
That was a very good sign.
“Do you know it?”
“I do indeed. A very pretty place. Markham’s death came as a real surprise. The whole parish has been at sixes and sevens waiting for the new master to arrive.”
“So the estate was managed well?” Darcy leaned forward, eyes fixed on Knightley.
Of course, land management would draw him into the conversation.
Miss Elliot’s attention pricked up as well. Odd, why would she be interested?
“Well-managed and innovative. He was forever searching out the latest information in farming and applying it to his land. Spent many an hour in my study discussing his ideas. Mind you, not all his farmers appreciated his interference, but those who did not fight him tooth and nail have shown strong returns. They credit him for it. He will be missed for certain at spring plantin.”
Darcy glanced at Fitzwilliam with raised eyebrows.
Did he have to gloat?
“That is very promising indeed.” Darcy steepled his hands and tapped them against his chin.
Bennet snorted. “Save your lecture, Darcy, now is not the time. I have been studying everything you have sent me, though I remain unconvinced.” He turned toward Mr. Woodhouse and Sir Walter. “What think you gentlemen of the new farming methods these young men are trying to foist upon us?”
Sir Walter’s nose wrinkled. “I leave such matters in the hands of my steward, though I am suspicious of these ‘scientific’ methods. It is his business to understand such things.”
“Are you pleased with your harvests?” Knightley leaned back and cocked his head.
Sir Walter looked baffled, and a not a little affronted.
Miss Elliot gaze dropped her lap and covered her mouth with her hand.
“I have no particular farmland to be concerned with. All the farm land here is in Knightley’s hands. From what I hear, he does it very well. His friend farmer Martin seeks his advice regularly.” Woodhouse worried the edge of the blanket with thumb and forefinger. “But is this not an unusual conversation for mixed company? I cannot image the ladies to be very pleased with it.”
“Of course you are correct, Mr. Woodhouse.” Liza smiled at the old man exactly as Mrs. Knightley did. “What do you wish to discuss?”
Woodhouse blinked. “I … I do not know. I usually leave such things to Emma. She is so good at making people feel comfortable.” He glanced over his shoulder, looking a little lost, painfully forlorn.
Prickly, itchy silence expanded in the room.
“Do you enjoy the theater, Mr. Knightley?” Miss Elliot glanced at Fitzwilliam.
She had very fine eyes.
“I confess, we are home bodies, much like the Darcys. We rarely go into town or even much beyond Highbury. There are occasionally concerts or productions at our local assembly rooms. Our friends the Coles enjoy home theatricals and often invite us to watch.”
Fitzwilliam bit his tongue. Home theatricals? They might be all the rage, but Mother deemed them positively boorish. Darcy would no sooner perform to strangers in his home than he would in a public place.
Sir Walter looked as though he shared similar opinions.
Miss Elliot wrung her hands in her lap. “We enjoyed the most brilliant concert in Bath just last month.”
“Was it by chance the trio from Italy?” Fitzwilliam caught her gaze briefly.
The creases beside her eyes eased a bit. “Indeed it was. I do not recall seeing you that evening. Were you there?”
“We were a bit late arriving that day and sat at the back. I saw you and your father at the front of the room.”
Sir Walter sat up a little straighter. “Ah yes, I remember, we attended with our cousins, Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple, and her daughter, the Honorable Miss Carteret.”
“Were those the ladies I saw you escorting at the Pump Room?”
“Indeed it was.” Sir Walter thumbed his lapels. “A fine place to take the waters.”
“And to be seen, I suppose.” Fitzwilliam shrugged.
Sir Walter’s eyes narrowed and his look turned dark.
Liza glared at him with a similar expression. She looked just like Mother when she did that.
“I do believe I have seen you in the Pump Room, in the company of your sisters, I assume.” Sir Walter harrumphed under his breath.
“Quite true. What use is a younger brother, but as an escort of last resort? I do tire of that sport though, parading about like gamebirds of sorts.”
Sir Walter’s eyes bulged.
Oh, this was far too easy! Liza did not approve of him indulging in such low-hanging amusements. But truly, the pompous man deserved it.
Miss Elliot’s brows drew together and the corners of her mouth drooped. “It can be an exhausting show.”
“How can you say that?” Sir Walter’s chest puffed a bit. “What is more significant than being seen in the right company, by the right company?”
Fitzwilliam rolled his eyes. Father was apt to intimate the same sentiments.
Did Miss Elliot just roll her eyes, too? “Of course, Father.”
Liza pressed her lips together and snuck a glance at Bennet.
Bennet’s lips twitched with his efforts to be somber, but clearly he was enjoying himself far too much. “All that preening and parading is very well, I suppose when one has unmarried daughters to match off to young dandies equally fond of the parade, eh Lizzy?”
“Papa, do not tease so, I pray you. You must forgive him. My last sister is lately married. We have just finished celebrating her wedding.”
“You mean your youngest sister?” Sir Walter asked.
“No, sir, my youngest sister was the first among us to marry.” Liza glanced narrowly at her father.
It was still difficult for Darcy to reconcile being related to Wickham. That he was as gracious to Bennet as he was revealed the depth of his character. Not one in ten men could boast of the forbearance Darcy had.
“Mine was, too.” Miss Elliot muttered with a similar stare at Sir Walter.
Sir Walter grunted and looked away.
Interesting, very interesting.
“I am entirely finished with all manner of matchmaking and courtship and shall be happy now to keep to my bookroom.” Bennet brushed his palms together and folded his arms over his chest.
“It was a sad day when my Isabella married and moved away with John Knightley. But my Emma did not leave me when she married.” Mr. Woodhouse’s rheumy eyes shimmered.
Pray let him not begin to weep!
“Of course I did not, Papa.” Mrs. Knightley ushered in the maid bearing the tea service. “How could I ever leave you?” She kissed his cheek.
The maid arranged the tea service on the low table.
“Your rooms will be ready after tea. It seems, though, I have missed some interesting conversation. Pray do not let me interrupt.”
“You were about to tell us your opinions on the Italian trio we heard in Bath, Colonel.” Miss Elliot looked directly at him, her eyes a mixture of polite and pleading.
Funny how a little storytelling allowed him to portion off part of his consciousness to observe his audience. The Darcys and Knightleys listened with polite interest. Bennet watched Sir Walter, probably looking for more fuel for his acerbic wit. Woodhouse seemed to be nodding off.
Miss Elliot though, she regarded him with rapt attention, as though truly interested in what he had to say. Better still, she offered questions and her own opinions, which pleasingly differed just enough from his to provide for a lively discussion.
What a surprisingly diverting conversation.
A gust of wind rattled the windows. Perhaps, if he were fortunate, this storm would last several days, days that might be spent in further agreeable conversation, and getting to know a very intriguing baronet’s daughter.