Elizabeth Elliot’s maid secured a final curl with a pin and tucked a bit of ribbon into her coiffure. “Is this what you wanted?”
Elizabeth examined her profile in the mirror and patted her hair. “Yes, yes, that is very good.”
“Will there be anything else, madam? Your wool shawl perhaps?” She tucked the shawl around Elizabeth’s shoulders.
“Yes, that will do nicely. You may go now.” She rose and stepped back until she could see her entire reflection.
Her posture was still perfect, elegant and columnar as a fashion plate. Her gown was several seasons from being the height of fashion, but the current company did not seem the type to take notice of that, especially if she wore the gown well.
Winds raged outside, but the guest room was warm and snug. Yes, it was furnished rather plainly, but plain and well-maintained had become increasingly appealing.
How Anne would laugh if she knew.
She turned this way and that. Her skirt swished, the candlelight glinting off the fabric. It looked very well in the evening light. Was it foolish to look forward to the company this evening? A dinner without pretense, without concern for being in the right company—when was the last time that had happened?
All their social engagements in Bath were about making connections, being seen with connections, being good connections. Never about being good company or enjoying good company. That concern evaporated with William Elliot’s defection with Penelope.
Lady Russell had been correct. Anne should have been enough company for her.
But Anne was dull, she did not care for company, and she was ever going on about budgets and economy. Penelope enjoyed shopping and parties, and always agreed with her. Of course she would choose her friend over her sister.
What a mistake.
Had Anne been there in Bath from the beginning, Mr. Elliot would never have met Penelope. Even if he had formed an attachment to Anne, it would have ended in their marriage. Anne would never have been set up as a mistress. While it would have been her younger sister established as mistress of Kellynch, eyebrows would be raised, but it all would have been respectable and without scandal.
She sat on the edge of the bed and dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief.
It all could have been prevented.
She knew better now. Would her vow to listen to advice, even unpleasant advice, make any difference? Would Providence approve her pledge to value mundane qualities like honesty and constancy and activity matter at all? If only she could prove her earnestness. Surely that would count in her favor, would it not?
These new acquaintances offered the perfect opportunity. They did not know her, she could be the new woman she believed herself to be—one Anne and Lady Russell might approve of—at least a little.
But Father could ruin it all with his … pompous attitudes.
There, she had said the word.
Pompous. Pretentious. Arrogant. Haughty.
Yes, he was titled, entitled to a certain amount of pride for that, but since they had been forced to leave Kellynch and retrench, his pride had transformed into something more. Something dark and poisonous that tainted every social engagement and even threatened to turn him against her. If something did not change soon, they might well find themselves entirely unwelcome in good company. Worse, he could decide she was no longer a social asset and not welcome in his home.
All the more reason not to waste the opportunity before her.
She checked the mirror one more time and left.
“Brush the coat again.” Fitzwilliam pulled off the garment and handed it back to his valet.
“As you say sir.”
Which was to say he thought it utterly unnecessary, but knew better than to speak it aloud.
That was good enough.
He checked his cravat in the mirror, unchanged from its state moments ago. Just a bit of a tug to straighten the crease. Sir Walter’s cravat might have been sketched for a valet’s guidebook. Perhaps the baronet’s man could give his own a few pointers.
“Your coat, sir.”
He shrugged the coat over his shoulders and fastened the buttons while staring in the mirror. He turned to the side and examined his profile. Still a passable figure. Not the young man who had left for the army years ago, but still respectable. Not fit for a dandy, but that was not a desirable image either.
It was enough.
It was all he had.
With a final tug to his sleeves, he left.
Liza peered out of the hall window, Darcy standing—no, hovering—behind her. Besotted, utterly besotted.
Since his marriage, he rarely permitted much distance between them, and did not appreciate it when it was enforced.
Fitzwilliam would have lost his meager fortune betting that Darcy would never be so taken by a woman. Apparently impossible things did happen, at least on occasion.
Winds howled on the other side of the glass, blowing away the tidy mounds of snow that had gathered on the mullions.
“I do not recall ever seeing snowfall like this.” Liza turned away from the window and tucked the curtain back into place. “I fear the storm is growing worse.”
“I expect we may have to impose upon Hartfield’s hospitality another day at least. I would certainly not permit guests to travel under such conditions and cannot imagine Knightley doing differently.” Darcy straightened his coat.
Fitzwilliam strode toward them. “I imagine it will be at least several days before it is safe to travel again.”
Darcy grumbled under his breath.
“I know you do not like delay, but I see little alternative.” She slipped her hand in Darcy’s crooked arm.
“Now you see the value of a broad acquaintance, eh Darcy?” He tilted his head and winked. “Without it, we could be spending the evening and the day ahead at an inn.”
“And if we had relied upon your broad acquaintance, we would be.” Darcy’s eyebrow rose.
Liza smirked under her breath. Darcy would never have made such a remark prior to meeting her. Now he was acting—or at least starting to act —like a Fitzwilliam brother. It took some getting used to.
Perhaps that was part of the reason Father liked Liza so. Even Mother conceded she had her amenable qualities.
She urged them toward the stairs.
Knightley met them in the still over-warm parlor where the Elliots and Bennet awaited. A bead of sweat trickled down the side of Sir Walter’s face.
Bennet had that look he wore around Collins. Did he find Sir Walter as amusing—or as annoying—as Collins? Either was equally possible. Could there be two such ridiculous men in England?
“Mrs. Knightley has already taken her father into the dining room, shall we follow?” Knightley gestured toward the door.
Mr. Woodhouse sat comfortably at the foot of the table, a loin of pork nearby. Mrs. Knightley presided at the head of the table, and acquainted her guests with the various dishes as they sat down.
Her staff deserved praise for pulling together a worthy menu in spite of the short notice and weather which must have prevented garnering additional supplies. How much credit was due the housekeeper and how much Mrs. Knightley? Despite her youth, perhaps there was more to her than first glance would suggest.
Even Sir Walter did not turn up his nose at the courses before him. What greater praise might there be?
Mr. Woodhouse shaved an irregular slice off the pork, his hand shaking so much it was a wonder that the meat was the only thing he cut. He handed Knightley the cutlery. Mrs. Knightly breathed a sigh of relief.
So did Liza.
A footman brought a plate of gruel and placed it before Mr. Woodhouse.
He leaned back a bit and smiled. “Would anyone else like a plate? Mr. Bennet, Sir Walter, perhaps? My cook makes a most tolerable gruel.”
“Gruel, sir?” Sir Walter asked.
“Indeed, most healthful for the digestion you know. I do not at all understand the appeal of so large a meal so late in the day.”
“Your concern for our health is most gracious.” Bennet took several slices of pork. “I imagine, Sir Walter, you do not indulge in a great deal of gruel.”
The footman brought the platter of pork to Sir Walter. “By no means, I think it only appropriate for the sick room.”
Miss Elliot gasped and colored. She sipped her wine, probably to hide her face.
“I imagine it provides a soothing respite from the taxing variety of rich menus.” How did Bennet keep a straight face saying such a thing?
“It does indeed, sir.” Woodhouse lifted a spoon with a shaky hand.
“Whilst that might be so,” Fitzwilliam caught Miss Elliot’s eye and gestured to the nearby platters. She nodded, and he served her dainty portions of each. “I am still of a mind and appetite to prefer heartier victuals.”
“Young men usually are,” Woodhouse murmured over his spoon.
“I suppose your refined connections influence your tastes.” Bennet lifted his wineglass toward Fitzwilliam.
“More likely his stays in His Majesty’s army.” Knightley tipped his head. “I have heard officers enjoy very sophisticated tastes.”
Fitzwilliam snorted and rolled his eyes.
Best refrain from further comment.
“Now you have an estate will you continue in the army?” Miss Elliot asked.
“I had thought to stay in until I became a general—it is so much finer a title than colonel.”
Liza and Darcy exchanged creased-brow glances. Perhaps that level of sarcasm was not necessary.
“In my opinion, colonel is quite as fine a rank as a naval captain. Quite as acceptable. My daughter is married to a Captain Wentworth, brother to Admiral Croft you know. Excellent connections, both of them.”
But then again, in the baronet’s company, perhaps a healthy dose of sarcasm was essential. “I am pleased you approve of my rank, but I doubt I will retain it much longer. I expect I will have to sell out soon to manage Listingbrook.”
“Will you miss the army?” Was Miss Elliot trying to antagonize him? Her expression seemed very sincere but…
“I think not.” Enough said.
Sir Walter drained his wineglass and piled more pork on is plate. “I should think a young man like yourself would miss the rigors of military life.”
“But it is so dangerous. How could a sensible man relish that?” Woodhouse’s spoon clattered against his plate.
“Do you miss the quiet of country life now you are in the smart society of Bath?” Bless Bennet for distracting the conversation.
“Not at all.” Sir Walter sniffed.
Of course after being forced to retrench, he could hardly admit dissatisfaction, could he?
“At times I do.” Miss Elliot looked away.
Sir Walter’s eyes bulged and his face flushed. He did that a great deal. Perhaps he should consult an apothecary about that.
“So much society can be exhausting at times. Sometimes one longs for the quietude of one’s own home.” Miss Elliot pushed bits of potato around her plate.
She dared disagree with her father in company. Singular indeed.
“Is that what brings you here to the quiet of our fine countryside?” Knightley gestured for the footman to refill the wineglasses.
Sir Walter pulled himself up a little straighter, his nose in the air. “We are on our way to visit our cousins the Dalrymples at their home. The Dowager Lady and her daughter.”
Miss Elliot wrinkled her nose and sipped her wine. Her father might not have seen the gesture, but Fitzwilliam did.
He had little affection for the Dalrymples. They had no sense of humor to note. What did Miss Elliot dislike about them?
Mr. Woodhouse dabbed his chin with his napkin. “I do not think much of traveling to see people. Travel occasions all manner of danger from highwaymen and accidents. Oh, I read of the most dreadful accident involving a post coach, recently.”
“I believe I read the same account. Entirely shocking. You might be surprised to hear I do not favor travel myself. It is only that my son Darcy is so persuasive that I am here at all.” Bennet winked at Liza.
“Please do not mistake my father’s reticence for travel to suggest you are in any way unwelcome. We do enjoy entertaining guests so very much.” Mrs. Knightley. “Shall we ladies repair to the drawing room and allow the men their port?” She rose and led the ladies out.
Miss Elliot trailed half a step behind, shoulders straight and chin up. She really did have an elegant figure.