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The next three days blurred together in an endless sequence of warm baths, cooling teas, meals of gruel and roasted apples. Miss de Bourgh would not eat until Elizabeth coaxed her. Afterwards, Elizabeth read novels until her voice was nearly too hoarse to cajole her patient to drink her medicines. They played cards when Miss de Bourgh was strong enough. At times when she was not, Elizabeth just sat at her bedside and held her hand.
Papa came and went, but Elizabeth stayed constantly. If she left for even a few moments, Miss de Bourgh called and cried for her like a lost child, confused and even delirious in her fevers.
Sometime in the early morning of the fourth day, Miss de Bourgh’s fever finally broke and she slept peacefully. Utterly spent, Elizabeth dragged herself to her room and collapsed on the bed, fully dressed, asleep before she even considered a night dress.
She awoke, startled and disoriented, dressed in night clothes, hair braided down her back. Mid-morning sun shone through the windows. How had she gotten here?
But when had the maid come in to help her change? She squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her temples. The shadows had been long then—it must have been late in the afternoon.
Her stomach grumbled and pinched. Had she slept through the entire day and night? It was entirely possible.
She threw her head back into the soft pillows and groaned. Someone would surely be displeased with her for sleeping so long. That was not new. Someone was always upset with her.
No, that was uncharitable and most probably unfair. Was it wrong to be a bit ungracious after such an ordeal? Probably.
She sat up. A tray of food sat on the small table near the window. Bless whomever thought to send it. Surely she would be more agreeable with something in her stomach.
She drew on her dressing gown and stretched her aching muscles. Definitely too many hours abed. She was not made for so much idleness.
Cheese and cold meat, compote, good bread and scones. Quite a tolerable meal. She sat down.
Her door creaked open.
“Papa?” She started to rise, but he waved her down.
“I am pleased to see you have finally awoken. I was beginning to worry you might be taking ill yourself.”
“I do not think so. Come sit with me and tell me of Miss de Bourgh.”
He sat, pulled off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. His face was lined, his cheeks sunken. No doubt he had eaten and slept little himself.
“I am pleased to say her improvement continues. Her fever has not returned but neither has her strength. She will be many weeks recovering, I think.”
“That she will recover at all is a very good thing.”
He nodded and replaced his glasses.
“I shall impose upon your mother’s hospitality for some time longer though. I would keep Mr. Bingley and Mr. Wickham away from here at least a fortnight full.”
“Do you think that–”
“I am of no mind to take any risks. Your mother does not seem to mind the company—” he removed a letter from his pocket “—as she most eloquently informed me.” He opened the note to reveal another folded within. “I believe this is from Jane, for you.”
She took the paper. It was indeed Jane’s handwriting. A perfect sweet course with which to finish her meal. “What of Mrs. Jenkins?”
“Her putrid sore throat has not yet abated. She has been removed to the parsonage to recover.”
“Removed?” she gasped. “I have every faith in Charlotte’s ability to care for her, but—”
He lifted his open hand and shook his head. “Every precaution, Lizzy. How can I allow her to remain in the same house as Miss de Bourgh when Mr. Bingley and Mr. Wickham have been removed? It seems Miss de Bourgh draws those drafts to herself and I believe keeping as much distance between her and disease the safest course.”
“So every servant who sneezes will be dismissed?”
“It is possible.”
She rolled her eyes. “Surely you would not support so drastic a measure? Think of what suffering this would cause among the staff.”
“They are not my primary concern.”
Papa grunted. That sound that always presaged a stern conversation.
She sighed and looked down to her plate. “Scones, Papa?”
“Thank you.” He picked one up and bit into it. “In Mrs. Jenkins absence, Miss de Bourgh has requested you stay here as companion to her.”
“Her companion, Papa?”
“No complaining now, Lizzy. Lady Catherine wills it as well. It seems, despite your penchant for impertinence …” he peered over his glasses.
Why must he use that unsympathetic glare?
“… her ladyship is comforted by your presence as well.”
Elizabeth held her breath. She might well do herself an injury biting her tongue and not rolling her eyes. “Does not Mama require me at home?”
“With four other girls in the house, your mother can very well spare you, make no mistake. With all the favor Lady Catherine has to offer, it would be folly not to take full advantage of your situation here and oblige her small request.”
“Yes, Papa.” What choice did she have? In truth, Lady Catherine was little worse than Mama and the library at Rosings was far better than Papa’s. It might be not entirely disagreeable.
“Whilst you are here, I have a task for you.”
She swallowed hard. “What is that, Papa?”
“I had an unusual conversation with Col. Fitzwilliam and Mr. Darcy. They mentioned a case for which they wish my consult, after Miss de Bourgh’s recovery. They refused to offer me any further details, though. In the course of your time here, I want you to talk with them. See if you can encourage them to reveal any details about the case. I want to prepare as much as possible for whatever they might ask of me. You know the colonel is the son of the Earl of Matlock. Connections to that family would be most beneficial to us all.”
Elizabeth grimaced. “But, Papa, I—”
“Do not become missish, Lizzy. I am not demanding you flirt or otherwise conduct yourself improperly. Simply, in the course of conversation—”
He would not be pleased if she sprang up and ran, but, oh it was tempting. “I believe those questions entirely too personal for the course of normal conversation.”
“You are a clever girl and a most observant one. I have every faith in your ability to find a way to accomplish this little favor for me.”
“You do not understand—”
“No more protests, dear.” He rose. “I need you to do this, not just for me, but for your mother and sisters as well. Remember, you have three younger sisters in need of husbands. Think of the kinds of young men a peer might be able to put your sisters in a way to meet. You could help Mary do much better than a mere steward.”
“But…but what of—”
“Do not be only thinking of yourself, Lizzy. Though I am sure they might introduce you as well, they will have heard of your refusal of Mr. Collins and Mr. Wickham from Lady Catherine and may very well decide you too particular for your own good.”
“You believe I should have accepted Mr. Collins? I thought you yourself said—”
“No, I do not think you should have accepted him.”
“And Mr. Wickham? Mr. Darcy has told me—”
“That is not the point, Elizabeth! You must do this service for your sisters. None of you have the luxury of a large dowry. If any of you fail to make a match, you may have to depend upon one another’s charity for your future. It is in all your best interest to see each other well settled.”
She bit her tongue hard. What he said was true, but—
“Take your time this morning. No one will be expecting you until dinner.”
She nodded. Best she not speak just now.
“There is a good girl. I am glad I brought you with me, Lizzy. You are truly a comfort to your Papa.” He kissed the top of her head and left.
The door shut. She rose, fists clenched and trembling with the effort. It was good she had practice holding her tongue or she would certainly scream. Why did he choose now to be so much like Mama?
How could she obey when Lady Catherine forbade her—what was she thinking? Of course, she would to talk to Mr. Darcy if the opportunity ever came. Her stubbornness always rose when asked to do something, even if she wanted to do it. Mama called her contrary for a reason.
Still, she did not favor this whole means of obtaining information. She rubbed her hands along her arms and paced the room, finally coming to rest on the window seat. Jane’s letter called to her.
It has been very odd at home without you. Mama’s spirits have been very high of late—
So Mama was flitting and fluttering and silly without Elizabeth to dampen her spirits. How comforting to know. No, that was unfair. Jane would never suggest such a thing.
I miss your company very much, but our guests have offered some consolation. Mr. Bingley’s company is quite agreeable. Had it not cost me your company, I would call it one of the pleasantest things to have occurred all year. Mama encourages us to keep in company, though she might perhaps stop us if she realized that I do like him.
That was ungracious of me. Please forgive me. I suppose it is the lack of your influence upon me.
Mr. Wickham has taken it upon himself to entertain all of our younger sisters. You might not think a single man could be up to such a daunting task, but he manages tolerably well. He endures his captivity with great equanimity.
Mama encourages Lydia, in particular, to make the most of her time with Mr. Wickham. I do hope you will not be distressed, but I believe Mr. Wickham prefers Lydia. I know Lady Catherine intended him for you—
She tossed the letter aside. Gah! Papa still did not know of Mr. Darcy’s intelligence regarding Mr. Wickham. He would surely not believe her now. A dull throbbing began at the base of her head. Perhaps this should wait until the headache subsided. She climbed back into bed and slept until the next morning.
Darcy swung up into his saddle despite the daunting weather. So much more the reason to get out and ride now while the rest of Rosings Park still slept. This might well be the only opportunity to have some moments of quiet and repose.
Bingley’s dreadful sister had barely left his side, prattling on about one inanity after another. Even when she chanced upon something intelligent to say, it managed to sound like pure drivel when it left her mouth. Even Georgiana was at the end of her patience with Miss Bingley. Mrs. Hurst was little better, though she had the decided advantage of having very little opportunity to speak in the presence of her sister. Darcy cringed. What might that woman utter if given the opportunity, considering the ill-informed opinions of her husband?
Darcy rubbed his eyes. In the interest of protecting Georgiana’s delicate sensibilities, he had sent his own valet to speak to Hurst’s regarding the cut of the gentleman’s breeches. Whilst the garment should be flattering, some things were certainly not complimented by excessive constriction. The corner of his lips drifted up. What would Miss Elizabeth have to say of it?
She was the only one of their company who might have relieved his suffering, but she remained absent from their presence. She should have joined them for dinner last night, but a headache kept her abed. But was it truly a headache, or had Aunt Catherine’s tirade dissuaded her from keeping company? Dreadful meddling—
How was he to make it clear he would not marry Anne? As if the expectation of a short life might make the prospect any more enticing. His stomach churned. He would not degrade the sacrament of marriage that way. The very idea showed how little Aunt Catherine knew him.
But then, did anyone? Bingley came close, but—he huffed. Not everyone could have a relationship like George and Anne Darcy. Perhaps he had set his standards impossibly high. Still, to have a woman know him, understand him—as his mother did his father— and to be able to do the same for her in return, that was his notion of a marriage.
Yes, one more impossible Darcy family ideal to add to the rest that Aunt Catherine failed to understand. Why become inconsistent now? He urged his horse around a gentle curve in the garden path.
What was that? A solitary figure in a pale gown and shawl walked along the garden wall. It was not Georgiana and the Bingley sisters would never rise at this hour. But the garb was a gentlewoman’s. Miss Bennet?
His horse, ever perceptive, increased his pace, but Darcy slowed him back to a walk. It would not do to startle her.
She looked up and acknowledged him before he was too close.
He dismounted and led his horse to her. “Good morning, Miss Elizabeth.”
“Good morning.” She smiled—oh, that smile!
How could the same expression appear so affected on Miss Bingley and so utterly delightful on Miss Elizabeth?
“You are an early riser by habit, sir?”
“I am and always have been. I have always thought the countryside most appealing by the light of sunrise. You are as well, I see.”
She chuckled. “With four other sisters in the house, I find it is the only way I have time for contemplation.”
“Am I interrupting? I can go.” He had no desire to, but would abide by her wishes, if asked. Please, let her not ask.
“Not at all, sir. I have had such limited company for so many days now, I should very much enjoy a conversation.”
He gestured for her to continue her walk.
“You are very generous, sir.” Her cheeks flushed just enough to give her a nearly irresistible glow.
What Miss Bingley would give to look so well with so little effort. But no, that was certainly not a fitting topic of conversation. “Your father says Anne’s condition has improved.”
“And you wish to know the extent to which that is said to please your aunt and the degree of concern you should have for your sister keeping company with Miss de Bourgh?”
His heart skipped a beat, and he nearly stumbled. “How do you come by that conclusion?”
She turned her head, gave him a brief, sidelong glance, blinked, and looked away. “If you have spoken to my father, why would you ask me, except for information that you could not rightly expect to get from my father?”
“You surely could not ask him if his prognosis was for his patron’s benefit. That would be insulting and you are not a man who would conduct himself in that manner. Similarly, you would know Papa would be reluctant to openly say he feared for those keeping company with Miss de Bourgh.”
“Because you are singularly protective of your sister and her care and comfort appear uppermost in your mind.”
A shiver coursed down his spine. She was intrusive, presumptuous and right—the latter being the most disconcerting.
“Forgive me, sir. I have been far too forward. Please excuse me.” She ducked her head and stepped away from his side.
“No! wait,” he grabbed her arm and pulled her back. Blast! That was entirely improper, but he could not allow her to go. He tucked her hand into the crook of his arm. “Please, Miss Elizabeth.”
“No, no, you were entirely correct.”
“I should not have spoken so.”
“There was nothing improper in what you said. It is only that I am not accustomed to…” he licked his lips, “…to being so quickly understood, by anyone—”
“Particularly impudent young ladies who usually look at you in terms of what you have to offer.” She sucked in a breath and pressed her hand to her mouth. “Forgive me. I do not know what has come over me.”
“Whatever it is, I hope you do not stop.”
She paused mid-step and stared at him.
“Your honesty and openness is—”
“Refreshing and intriguing.”
“Your taste in company is quite astonishing.”
“Your company is quite remarkable.” What was that, a blush on her cheeks? “Would you be willing to grant me an answer to my original question?”
“The one you voiced or the ones you intended?” The gentle tease in her voice had returned.
“Both, if you do not object.” Now, if only he could attend to her answers despite the utterly distracting pressure of her small hand in his arm.
“Miss de Bourgh is improving, though this attack has left her very weak. There is reason to hope for a good recovery, but it is unlikely that she will return to her full former strength.”
“And that is to be the way of things? Each attack leaving her increasingly weak and vulnerable?”
“I am not a doctor, so I cannot say, and my father has said no such thing in my presence.”
“But you think it likely?”
“I do. I have seen her through several of these episodes and each one has left her weaker, in both body and mind. On good days, it is difficult for her to even climb the stairs without pausing for breath at the landing. But mine is an untutored opinion…”
“Fear not, I shall not share it with anyone.”
There was something so vulnerable, so exposed, in those words that every fiber of his being jumped to defend her—but from what? Whom?
“As to your sister,” she ran her hand along the top of a large blossom, “my father believes there is no danger to those who would keep company with Miss de Bourgh.”
“And do you agree?”
“Not that it signifies, but yes, I do.” She bowed her head.
How unfair her lovely face should be hidden by her bonnet.
“I know you have already been much imposed upon by my aunt and cousin, but I wondered if I might ask a favor of you?”
She stiffened, just a little, beside him. Gads! She had been greatly imposed upon. Blast it all!
“Certainly, sir. What may I do for you?”
“In truth, it is for my sister.”
“She is a very dear girl.”
“I am glad you agree. She is painfully shy, though, and lonely. She has no fitting companion here.”
She removed her hand from his arm. “You wish me to be her companion?”
Something in the way she spoke the word ‘companion’ gnawed at him. Oh No! She could not think— “I fear you may have misunderstood me. I was not at all offering you employ as her companion. Please forgive me.”
Her shoulders lost a little of their tension. “What then did you mean?”
He chewed his lip. If he did not speak carefully now, she might be hopelessly offended. “A friend, Miss Bennet. My sister needs a friend. She is melancholy and I know something troubles her.”
“You wish me to be your spy?” Dainty eyebrows arched high.
Was she teasing?
“Then you do.”
“No. She needs a friend—one with good character and sound judgment. I hope you might be willing to spend time with her. Help her as only another woman might.”
“And you cannot.”
He nodded and pinched his temples. “She has passed the age where she desires me to be privy to all her thoughts.”
“And you do not expect me to report all her secrets to you?”
“Not unless you feel she is in some sort of danger. Then I insist.”
“Of course. That is entirely proper. I will be happy to be her friend.” She bit her lower lip.
Was she aware of how enticing an expression that was? Especially when combined with the tiny hint of a smile on her lips and in her eyes. She had especially fine eyes—
“I have one concern, though. Do you fear Lady Catherine will object?”
She cleared her throat. Her expression might well wither the surrounding roses.
“Oh, yes, ah…” His hand wandered up to tug at his collar, but he forced it back down.
She nodded and turned aside.
“My aunt has no say over matters concerning Georgiana. Fitzwilliam and I are her guardians. I shall inform her that you are—”
“You inform Lady Catherine?”
He laughed. “I suppose that sounds rather ridiculous.”
“Do you know, she has asked me to be companion to Anne until Mrs. Jenkins recovers.”
“No, I did not.” How had Aunt Catherine requested her assistance? Not requested – she ordered it, to be sure, and her father probably insisted. No wonder she had her back up. “I shall not repine your presence here though and it shall put you and Georgiana together often.”
She looked up at him. Her gaze penetrating, alluring and sad. How was it she could say so little and speak so profoundly?
“I know what my aunt said to you and I apologize.”
Could she not see his face and know? “Because it was on all accounts rude and thoughtless. She likes to direct the lives of those around her, even those not hers to direct.”
“You are not under her direction?”
“Hardly. I probably should not say, but Fitzwilliam and I come each spring to ensure the estate is in order and to direct her affairs.”
“I appreciate your willingness to care for my cousin, but I hardly expect that you would be obedient to all my aunt’s desires.”
He extended his arm and she slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow once more. Exactly where it should be. Yes, exactly as it should be. “My aunt is not at liberty to direct my conversation.”
“And you do not fear it would trouble Miss de Bourgh for you to…converse freely with anyone of your choosing?”
He waited until he held her gaze securely. “No. She is not at liberty to direct my actions either. In that she is—and will remain—wholly unconnected to me.”
Miss Bennet’s eyebrow arched high into what was fast becoming a most favorite expression.
“May I ask a favor of you? I know our acquaintance brief for such a thing, but –”
“Think nothing of it. How may I be of assistance to you?” Please, let it be as least as substantial a request as he had asked of her.
“As you know, Mr. Wickham is staying at our house until the fear of contagion is past.”
“At your house! I had not realized. I knew your family hosted Bingley, but Wickham should never have been foisted upon them. Aunt Catherine took the notion that he was to be a barrister and I have not been entirely able to disabuse her of it. He should never have been introduced among her guests. Forgive me. I should have carried the point with her. I must speak to your father.”
She smiled. Whatever he had done to earn that gaze, he would easily do a hundred times over.
“That is exactly the favor I had hoped to ask of you. I think Papa will hear the intelligence much better from you than me.”
“He has not—”
“Jane wrote to say Mr. Wickham was keeping my younger sisters well entertained.”
He squeezed his eyes shut. Why, of all things, did she have to ask him to remedy an oversight of his own making? “I will speak to him as soon as possible.”
“Thank you. You need not look so entirely troubled though. My sister is much pleased with Mr. Bingley’s company—despite the fact that Lady Catherine says she should be.”
His brows raised and he guffawed.
“Forgive me. I fear my sense of humor rather impudent.”
“And utterly delightful.”
“I mean no disrespect to your aunt.”
“Only to make sport with her as you do of everyone else.”
She blushed darker red. “It seems I have a notable reputation.”
“Only in the best possible sense. You are well respected for your kind heart and ready assistance to all.”
“You flatter me.”
“You do not believe me? Disguise is my abhorrence, you know.” Besides only a fool would attempt to lie to Miss Elizabeth.
“I shall keep that in mind. Of what else have you such decided opinions, sir?”
Thank heavens, her smile had returned!
They walked and talked through a full circuit along the bridle path, finally sating his longing for stimulating conversation.
How well read she was, with well-informed and argued opinions, and on topics not generally regarded as proper for female education. She was all together an enchanting companion. Better still, she agreed to meet him again to walk in the early hours.
All together this was the most satisfying day spent at Rosings, ever. Not that the pleasure would last. He and Fitzwilliam were to meet with the steward and tour some of the cottages said to be in dire need of repair. Wickham should accompany them—yes, that would be most appropriate. The sooner he managed that business, the sooner another morning would come and allow him to walk once again.
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