Some weeks earlier . . .
It was early morning, and the sun was resplendent, its rays coloring the budding floral displays and grasslands that appointed the gardens of Rosings. Elizabeth Bennet delighted in the patches of warm sunlight on her skin. It was the edge of summer, the end of spring and the weather was at its best: not too hot or cold, but warmth touching the earth and encouraging the flowers to bloom.
“Your husband speaks incessantly of Lady Catherine’s nephew and his impending arrival.” Elizabeth said as she walked with her friend Charlotte. Miss Maria Lucas, Charlotte’s sister, had chosen to stay close to home that afternoon, pleading a headache though Elizabeth suspected the young woman preferred to stay closer to the parsonage with her paints and small canvasses. Maria Lucas enjoyed drawing and painting and was talented at both.
Charlotte sighed. “Yes, William waxes poetic at the prospect of seeing Mr. Darcy, does he not? One might assume a long acquaintanceship from his words, but knowing William as I do, I am assured the praise is due wholly to Mr. Darcy’s relation to the great Lady Catherine de Bourgh.”
“Everything your husband praises has ties to Lady Catherine’s thoughts, thus her good opinion gives him cause to dictate elegies of Mr. Darcy’s abundant virtues. As he does.” Elizabeth could talk to Charlotte freely. They both knew her husband’s nature. “Have you met Mr. Darcy?”
“No,” Charlotte responded. “However, my husband has spoken elegies on Mr. Darcy’s behalf. He finds him more than simply praiseworthy, but looks upon him with a level of adoration that I find hard to believe.”
“Anyone who warrants that much approbation from your husband, who is only that fulsome in his praise of Lady Catherine, gives me pause.”
“In what way, Lizzy?” Charlotte asked as they turned onto another path.
“I feel that too much praise of one person limits the reality of that person with faults, as we all have, and that person might think too much of themselves if no one gives them a realistic assessment.”
“I would not prejudge,” Charlotte responded.
“It is not a prejudgment, just my observation of human nature. Given nothing but praise, a person can believe themselves more than what they are, and their actions become reflective of that belief,”
“My husband can exaggerate a person’s good qualities, and this opinion is coming from Lady Catherine.”
“Yes, and Lady Catherine is not a person to overrate anyone who comes into her orbit.”
Both women laughed at the thought of Lady Catherine finding anyone more than just tolerable.
Elizabeth continued, “The idea that Lady Catherine speaks so highly of Mr. Darcy would lead one to believe that he is exemplary in all that he does. Perfection comes with pride, and that can lead to being aloof and condescending with people.”
“I do not believe that to be the case. And, even if I did, dear Lizzy, I would prefer to give Mr. Darcy the chance to prove his worldview before making any judgment.”
“I am not prejudging him but merely stating precedent based upon my limited human observation.”
“At least meet the man before deciding him aloof boor, too full of himself by half to live in the world.”
Both women laughed continuing to walk together in the meadow. “Dear Heavens, Charlotte, I will not be rude with the man. I will give him a chance, but do not be surprised if he turns out to be a self-absorbed lout not worth the time we give him.”
“Do not prejudge,” Charlotte insisted again.
“I am not. For heaven’s sake, I have not laid eyes on the man, just heard your husband prattle on. He waited by the roadside and bowed as Mr. Darcy’s carriage passed?”
Charlotte giggled. “Well, that is why we are out walking. I had to stop you chortling in his presence. How long do you think it would take for him to figure out you were laughing at and not with him? William sometimes takes things a bit far.”
“On that point, I will not argue with you.”
Their conversation was interrupted by the sound of horse hooves.
Confusion gave way to curiosity as two men on horseback rode perilously close, across the meadow and down the path.
Elizabeth backed away, stumbling.
“Lizzy!” Charlotte grabbed her arm.
The horses slowed.
“Miss, are you well?” A fair-haired man dismounted, releasing the reins of his horse and jogging to Elizabeth’s side. He had a muscular build and bright, blue eyes.
“Well. I am well.” Elizabeth took a breath, steadying herself.
The second man, dark-haired with a slimmer mien, dismounted. “Richard, we have disturbed these ladies enough.”
“Hardly a disturbance,” Charlotte said with a smile.
Annoyance flashed over the dark-haired man’s expression before he schooled it to rigid formality. Both men bowed.
The fair-haired man said, “I am Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam, and this is my cousin and a great friend, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy.”
Mr. Darcy bowed straight from the waist which brought an involuntary smile to Elizabeth’s lips. Stiff and aloof as expected.
Colonel Fitzwilliam continued, smiling: “And, to whom do we have the pleasure of meeting?” Elizabeth found him attractive, the shock of blond hair and blue eyes that seemed to twinkle in the sun. His partner said nothing, his dark gaze unreadable. Reserved might be a better term. You are prejudging, Lizzy.
Charlotte made introductions in return, making clear her married and Elizabeth’s unmarried state, thus emphasizing her role as chaperone. Propriety maintained, each of them smiled awkwardly, waiting for someone to continue the conversation. Charlotte leaped into the pregnant pause, “I believe we will have dinner with you gentlemen this evening at your aunt’s request.”
“I see,” Colonel Fitzwilliam replied. “That will be most pleasant, and we can get to know each other better.”
“Yes, I am looking forward to spending another evening with your aunt.” Colonel Fitzwilliam laughed, and Elizabeth noted with curiosity, Mr. Darcy’s reaction. It was subtle, but there was a quirk in his lips that reached his eyes. Humor? She thought him distant, that touch of mirth tugged at her consciousness.
“Miss Bennet, I am glad you will grace us with your presence. It will make evening that much merrier, I suspect.” He offered his hand which Elizabeth took and started walking. Mr. Darcy and Charlotte fell in behind, leading the horses alongside.
“I am sure I cannot wait for that occasion. I so enjoyed having dinner with her a week past. It was indeed memorable.” Elizabeth smiled as she spoke. In actuality, it had been quite trying with Lady Catherine giving unwanted advice from the price of livestock to the marrying within your class. Each of these missives had been delivered with Mr. Collins agreeing on every point.
Miss Maria Lucas had barely spoken three words and seemed like to hide herself under the table as she focused on her meal with grim determination.
“Your sister is very modest,” Lady Catherine said. “A fine trait in any lady, and Mr. Collins has shown me some of her sketches. Very emotive. The style is still lacking, but with more practice and a dedicated tutor, Miss Maria may, perhaps gain some accomplishment.”
“I find her drawings very fine,” Elizabeth said.
“Yes, you certainly would. Miss Lucas, I will give Mr. Collins the addresses of some fine tutors. I was once proclaimed quite talented, though my eyesight has begun to fail.”
“Oh, Lady Catherine, do not jest!” Mr. Collins interjected. “Why, your eyes are as young as a spring bird’s, just cracked from its shell. Why, you noted the uneven curtains on our second floor as you passed by our parsonage just last month, and explained not only the nature of the problem but offered many excellent solutions, is that not right, Charlotte?”
“Very right,” Charlotte said, spearing meat with her fork. “We took every suggestion to heart, as always.”
“As you ought! Miss Maria, you will be pleased for lessons three times weekly, will that suffice?”
Miss Maria looked up, her face pink. “Umm…as you wish, Lady Catherine,” she mumbled.
“Yes, very modest, indeed,” Lady Catherine said. Her gaze flitted to Elizabeth and narrowed.
The entire affair had given Elizabeth a headache and a jaw ache from smiling so much. At least, the food was well-prepared and the wine refreshing. Elizabeth could better take all the advice with a bit of wine to offset the delivery.
“We are looking forward to an evening with our aunt, are we not, Darcy?” Colonel Fitzwilliam turned in his friend’s direction slowing his pace.
“Yes, it is something I look forward to with every visit.”
“She thinks the world of Mr. Darcy, and tells us always that he is both a paragon of virtue, a white knight and the most intelligent gentleman in all of Derbyshire.”
“And what of you, Colonel Fitzwilliam? Surely, Lady Catherine thinks just as highly of you.” Elizabeth replied looking at him squarely. “A military man of your rank and status, she must have wonderful things to say.”
“I am but a poor relation compared to Mr. Darcy. I am, however, the more congenial of the two of us. My dear friend, Mr. Darcy, judges everyone from that pedestal he lives on.”
Pedestal? Maybe, she had not prejudged him after all.
“You jest, dear Richard.” Darcy replied quietly. “I do not live on a pedestal, at least not a very large one. And, only my aunt thinks I’m a paragon of virtue.”
Everyone looked at Mr. Darcy for a moment, then broke into laughter. “Good one, Darcy.” Colonel Fitzwilliam replied. “We are best of friends, you know.”
“I can see,” Charlotte smiled.
“So, would you say then that your angel wings are singed about the edges?” It fell out of Elizabeth’s mouth before she thought about the implications of her statement. It was at the very best an inappropriate remark.
“Maybe, singed is too strong a term.” Darcy replied. Elizabeth looked back at him but could read nothing in his face. She took a chance and looked in his eyes, his dark gaze capturing hers with words unspoken. Her cheeks pinked, and she looked away back at the safer environs of Colonel Fitzwilliam. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach. Now what brought that on?