Elizabeth pulled her shoulders back and lifted her chin. No one would have the satisfaction of seeing her walk with anything less than perfect dignity. Still, it was humiliating that the highest ranking woman, the baronet’s daughter, should have to follow the married women out of the room.
Mrs. Knightley seemed artless enough, not up to such subtle machinations. What was more, she had little need to lord her superiority over her guests, not when constantly plied by the obvious adoration of her husband and father.
Lady Russell warned that jealousy was unbecoming and obvious. Probably best keep that in mind.
Coffee and biscuits awaited them in the drawing room. The china service was particularly tasteful, handed down from mother to daughter, perhaps even grandmother to daughter and granddaughter. The entire room had a quaint, elegant feel, a little like tea with the Dalrymples. Somehow that was comforting.
They sat around the tea table as Mrs. Knightley served them.
“Darcy tells me you have not been married very much longer than we have.” Mrs. Darcy stirred sugar and cream into her coffee.
“We married just over a year ago, now.” Mrs. Knightley straightened her skits just a bit. “Sometimes it is still hard to believe. I never truly thought I would marry, you know. Papa would not have been able to tolerate me leaving him all alone to live at Hartfield.”
“My father does not much like change either. He does not admit it readily, but I am quite sure he misses me at home. I cannot think of another reason he would have visited Pemberley three times in the fifteen months we have been married.”
“How fortunate for you that he is willing to travel. I do not think Papa will ever go beyond Highbury again. But he is content and has many friends here. I think they would be alarmed to see him leave for any reason.”
No one could have said that about Father at Kellynch. No one had seemed melancholy to see the family depart.
“No doubt Longbourn village has been very surprised at Papa’s new habits.” Mrs. Darcy nibbled the edge of a macaroon. “Oh, these are delightful. My mother’s cook used to make some like these, but Mrs. Reynolds at Pemberley cannot seem to make them come out like this. Do you have a receipt I could copy?”
“These are my father’s favorite. They are the only biscuit he will eat without worry about his digestion. He will be only too happy for me to share the receipt with you. In fact, I believe he would insist.” Mrs. Knightley giggled.
Was this truly all they had to talk about?
“You have a very fine instrument there, would you mind if I played?” Elizabeth rose.
“Of course, please. I fear I have never been as diligent as I should in practice and my musical accomplishments are modest at best.” Mrs. Knightley gestured toward the pianoforte.
“I confess, I am relieved to hear you say that. We shall no doubt be called upon to play for the gentlemen and I am surely no proficient.” Mrs. Darcy smiled.
Lovely, one more thing the local matrons had in common. If they suddenly discovered they liked their morning chocolate with cinnamon, she might well flee back into the snow.
She ran her fingers lightly over the keys. The instrument was well tuned. That was some relief. Just sitting at the keyboard eased her tension and promised a few moments respite from everything she would rather ignore.
How many hours had she spent recently, immersed in the pages of Mozart or Beethoven, music that demanded her every entire concentration. Anne still thought it because of the ‘Elliot pride’ that she had to learn the most complex music she could. But Anne was wrong. Where else could she hide in plain sight, away from Father’s folly and the demands of the creditors? It was her refuge, her sanctuary, one that she might even carry with her, as she did now.
Her fingers danced over the keys, playing whatever first came to her. An advanced piece, but not so much so that her hostess should feel intentionally shown up.
The matrons on the couch nodded in time with the music, still caught up in the conversation. Probably trading tips on cleaning silks. How domestic. Would they not be surprised to know that rubbing with warm, dry bran cleaned them very effectively? But they would never take her word on it. What did a spinster know about such things?
They barely looked up from their conversation when she curtsied and made her excuses for retiring. At least they made that easy.
After the ladies withdrew, Knightley produced an excellent bottle of port, but no cigars. Mr. Woodhouse declared them vile things indeed.
“So you are very fond of Bath?” Bennet took a heathy draw off his glass. “My wife has on several occasions remarked upon her desire to go there herself. She has been told the waters there would do wonders for her nerves.”
“She suffers with her nerves, does she?” Woodhouse tapped the table. “My apothecary, Mr. Perry, has an excellent preparation for such things. You might acquire relief from him without the trials of traveling to Bath.”
“Do you take the waters at Bath, or perhaps partake of the hot baths?” Bennet asked.
The corner of Sir Walter’s lips curled back. “The baths are something of a mixed bag I would say. I believe they are healthful and excellent for one’s complexion. Always full of skeletal frights, ridden with some sort of disease, though. I would be inclined to indulge more often were I not forced to look upon those poor wretches.”
Mr. Bennet’s brows flashed over his wry smile. “Fascinating observations, sir.”
“It might be wise to consider that a great number of those deformed wretches came by their injuries serving on the continent, in the service of the King against Napoleon.” Fitzwilliam gritted his teeth and clutched the edge of the table.
“Their service is noble to be sure, but what good is their inflicting their disfigurements upon the rest of us?”
Fitzwilliam dug his heels into the thin carpet. His scarred shoulder and thigh throbbed in time with his tense heartbeat. “I am quite certain what should not be inflicted upon us are the new whims of fashion—dandies in breeches so tight that they cannot pick up a dropped handkerchief. Those are the true bane of decent folk.”
Of course that was not a comment on the fit of Sir Walter’s breeches. Not at all.
Sir Walter sniffed. “So you consider yourself an expert on fashion, sir? I am surprised—”
Fitzwilliam rose before he realized he was moving. “Pray excuse me, Mr. Knightley. I find myself quite fatigued from the day. I believe I shall retire.” He bowed.
Darcy looked at him with that overprotective, overbearing Darcy look. At least he understood and would not try to stop him. He might even take the baronet to task later for his attitude. Under other circumstances, Fitzwilliam would try to discourage Darcy from it. But today, it would be welcome.
“Do you require anything for your comfort?” Knightley rose, his brow creased.
“Not at all, thank you.” Unless he could provide a head full of good sense to the stupid baronet, and considering the look on his face, he probably would have tried. “Good night.”
Darcy would probably take him to task for his rudeness later, but another minute in that fool’s presence and he would surely say something most untoward.
Mrs. Knightley had shown them a gallery not far from his chambers when she toured the house with them. Though it would not likely be lit now, it was long enough to pace and that was what he needed now. Moonlight through the windows should provide sufficient illumination for his purpose.
His boots rang against the marble echoing like a sergeant’s voice in the narrow space.
That ninnyhammer Elliot would not survive an hour in combat. He would not even survive training. Probably would have trouble staying on his own horse.
He jumped back and squinted into the shadows. Miss Elliot sat huddled in one of the hall chairs, a suspicious glisten on her cheeks.
Blast and botheration. Polite company was not what he needed now.
“Pray forgive me for startling you, Miss Elliot. Are you well? Is there something I might do for you?”
She sniffled and dabbed her face with a handkerchief wadded in her hand. “Thank you sir, but there … there is nothing I require.”
“You found the ladies’ company trying?”
“Mrs. Darcy is all that is gracious, but I often find company trying.”
“The company of married woman particularly so?” That was what Rosalind said, at least until her recent marriage.
She gasped and glared at him with eyes that blazed like rifle fire.
“Pray forgive me, I did not mean to offend.”
She jumped to her feet and stalked off.
He followed, cutting her off near the window. “Madam, I insist. Truly, I meant no offense.”
“What does it matter? I should become accustomed to it.” She turned her shoulder to him.
“You sound grievously distressed.”
“Indeed I am. But what would you care of it? It is not a matter that a man of your standing would trouble himself with.”
“My sisters often found it necessary to confide their troubles to me.”
“Indeed, what a singular notion.” Her eyes narrowed and tone sharpened to a fine edge.
He gestured toward the hall chairs near the wall. “We must have some conversation. And a substantive one is as good as any.”
“My father hardly finds it necessary.”
“Indeed.” He grunted, a sound mother warned him against in polite company.
“So he offended you—that is why you are here. Pray, do not take your offense out upon me. I am not responsible for him or his ideas any more than Mrs. Darcy and Mrs. Knightley are responsible for their fathers.”
“Worry not. I have a father of my own whose opinions I often find myself at loggerheads with.”
“I am pleased you understand.” She rewarded him with a brief glance.
“So you see I am not some ogre.”
“I concede your point.”
He held out one of the chairs for her and she sat. He pulled another chair to sit in front of her. “Are you not looking forward to visiting your cousins?”
She sucked in a deep breath and pressed her fist to her mouth. Her head twitched back and forth. “What do you know of my family, sir?”
Probably best to soften the truth.
“Like many titled gentlemen, debt is an issue. Sir Walter has removed his household to Bath to retrench and restore his affairs to rights. The heir presumptive, a William Elliot, keeps the daughter of the family solicitor under his protection and is not on good terms with the head of his family.”
She turned her face away, revealing a striking profile. “A most politic rendition of the tale to be sure. I had considered Mrs. Clay a friend.”
By all rights, Elliot would have done well to have married one of the Miss Elliots. No doubt she felt his defection to her friend bitterly.
“My father is deeply offended by Mr. Elliot’s actions, so much so he has been moved to drastic action.”
Drastic action often meant a duel, but the baronet did not seem the type. “How so?”
“He means to get himself a son and heir.”
“I suppose that would indeed be effective revenge against the heir presumptive.” It was a wonder he had not attempted to do so sooner.
“He means to make the dowager Lady Dalrymple’s daughter, Miss Carteret, an offer of marriage.”
Marrying a cousin was always a convenient solution. “You believe he will be accepted?’
“I think it quite likely. She has youth and a handsome fortune, and he a title. They are each in want of what the other possesses.”
If would not be the first or the last such match to be made. The gossip pages would hardly notice. “You do not relish the thought?”
She snorted. “Miss Carteret is younger than I! My sister Anne’s age if not younger. Have you any idea of how humiliating it will be to have my place as mistress of my father’s house usurped by so young a woman?”
“I have some very good idea of it.”
“A bachelor is respectable in all company, but a spinster is a blight on society.” She rose and paced along a strip of moonlight.
In the silvery light, her mask of hauteur fell revealing a handsome woman with elegant bearing and refined features. Her figure was no longer a girl’s, but a woman’s, one refined under society’s fires.
“Forgive me, but your father’s attitudes seem a far greater blight to society.”
“Then I am doubly cursed.”
“That is not what I meant at all to say.”
She spun to face him, looking him full in the eye.
Her eyes were deep grey and quite fine.
“Then what did you mean to say?” she whispered.
“I am far more offended by your father’s diatribes on the offensiveness of ugliness than a woman…”
“You can say it, on the shelf.”
He dragged his hand down his face. “Why do you assume I mean to insult you?’
“Why should I expect anything else? My father, my sisters, even our friend Lady Russell do not hesitate to point out my flaws, however gently they try to accomplish it. I have lost my bloom. I am arrogant. I have expectations set too high—forgive me I should not speak so.” She turned her back.
“What do you expect?”
“Not as much as my father used to insist I expect. A companionable man. One with enough rank in society to understand where I have come from. One with enough that he can be patient in the payment of my dowry but not so much he would look down upon me for my father’s situation.”
“And what have you to offer such a man? You must agree a dowry which may never be paid is a strong disincentive.”
“I am well aware of that. But I fancy I can be some asset to a husband beyond just that. I am an accomplished woman by society’s standards. Since I have taken over the management of my father’s household, I can attest to being able to run quite a fashionable household with unexpected economy.”
He strode to look her face to face. “That is indeed a useful accomplishment.”
“I am pleased to have your approval.”
“You think a bachelor’s life far more comfortable? I assure you, if spinsters are leading apes into hell, they will find the bachelors already have a place carved out for them there.”
“That is a singular philosophy.”
“We single men do not proclaim it loudly, but it is entirely true that a woman’s hand is what makes a house home. That is why I dread taking this estate despite the fact I should be overjoyed now I have true means of my own.”
“You have no sister, no aunt, no cousin to run your home for you?”
“None. My last remaining sister recently married and the only spinster aunts I have are not in health enough to keep house. I loathe the notion of being there alone and subject to the match-making machinations of the village matrons and the vicar’s wife.”
“But did you not say—”
“I do not wish to be some project, some plaything for someone to crow over. I had enough of that in the army. I do not wish to be a pawn in anyone’s games anymore.”
“It seems we share a common dilemma, sir.” She lifted her chin as if daring rebuke.
“I had come to the same conclusion. I am not one to turn away from what well may be the hand of Providence.”
“The hand of Providence?” Her eyebrow rose.
“Perhaps. Since the weather looks like we will be here several more days at least, it seems wise to see if we have the basis for the sort of friendship a married couple should have.”
“You are quite the romantic, are you not?
“Not anymore and perhaps not ever. If that is something you expect or require, then that is the answer enough to ensure we should never begin.”
She sighed. “At one time, I may have felt that way, but I have no taste for the fancies of romance. I want a home of my own with someone whom I can like and respect.”
“So then have we a plan?”
“I suppose so, but…”
He took her hand and raised it to his lips. “Yes, we have violated every ground of propriety in being here and having this conversation at all. So then, why stop? Tell me of your last season in Bath, the entertainments you sought, the society you kept.” He led her back to the pair of hall chairs. “We have little enough time to become acquainted with one another. Let us not waste it.”
The conversation was awkward at first, but soon she revealed many pleasing opinions and a wicked sense of humor. To be sure, traces of the much-gossiped ‘Elliot Pride’ remained, but it was not far different from the ‘Fitzwilliam pride’ with which he was very familiar and even comfortable, especially from a handsome articulate woman.