Even with the consideration of Anne’s situation, Elizabeth felt more refreshed after her walk. She certainly felt that she was more prepared to interact, once more, with Lady Catherine. After a brief rest she dressed for lunch. As she left her room, she encountered Darcy in the hallway.
“Did you and Colonel Fitzwilliam have a pleasant morning?” she asked, standing on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek. He backed away and she stumbled a bit. He put his hand on her elbow to steady her, but then took a definite step back and away from her.
“It was very enjoyable. Thank you for asking,” he said, somewhat stiffly.
Elizabeth was immediately on her guard. He had been behaving differently since they had arrived—less relaxed and much more likely to take offense, though this had not yet been directed towards her. Elizabeth had assumed that it was simply due to him falling into those old patterns that most families had, or to the strain of Lady Catherine’s presence. However, this felt different, almost as if he was intentionally trying to put a distance between them. She made a note to herself to see if it continued, and asked him further questions about his morning.
It was clear that he was agitated about something, but Elizabeth could not imagine what it was. He was behaving more like the Darcy that she had met at the dance in Meryton, and less like the man that she had gotten to know over the previous months. Elizabeth was quite unsettled by the time they arrived for lunch.
Darcy pointedly pulled out a chair for her next to Anne, and away from where he was sitting. One glance at the triumphant look on Lady Catherine’s face gave Elizabeth all the information that she needed about who was to blame for the sudden tension. Of course this was Lady Catherine’s doing! What could she have said to Darcy that would cause him to behave in this way?
Elizabeth settled into her seat next to Anne. She had had a thought when she was walking about something that might brighten Anne’s spirits, but she suspected that Lady Catherine would not approve. However, considering that Lady Catherine felt it appropriate to interfere in other people’s relationships, Elizabeth did not feel one bit guilty about passing her own idea on to Anne.
Elizabeth leaned over and whispered discreetly to Anne, “Do you read, Miss de Bourgh?”
Anne looked a bit startled. “Well, yes,” she said. “I read scripture, sermons, poetry…”
Elizabeth knew that what she was about to suggest was, in the minds of some people, improper. She planned to do it anyway.
“What about novels?” she asked.
Anne looked at her, her eyebrows raised. “Well, no,” she said. “Mother does not approve of such foolishness.”
“It is not foolishness,” Elizabeth said, working to keep the passion in her voice from making her louder than her intended whisper. “Through novels, you can live a hundred other lives and go places that you could not even imagine.”
Anne smiled. “That does sound like an enjoyable diversion,” she said.
“Can Mrs. Jenkinson’s discretion be trusted?” Elizabeth asked.
“Well, not always, but she has always kept my confidences when I have asked her to,” said Anne.
“Would you ask her to do so in this instance?”
Anne reached out and gently squeezed Elizabeth’s hand. “Of course,” she said.
“I have brought with me two novels. I have finished one, and it will be easy for me to replace the other. Let me leave them with you. I think you will find them diverting.”
Anne smiled genuinely at Elizabeth. “Thank you,” she said. “So often people behave as though I am just another piece of the furniture at Rosings. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.”
Elizabeth smiled back. At that moment, Lady Catherine realized that a conversation was happening of which she was not a party, and demanded to be apprised of the discussion.
Anne smoothly told the story of how they had met each other earlier that afternoon. Elizabeth was relieved there was no mention made of her bouncing down the hill. Lady Catherine seemed disinterested in the topic and turned to make conversation with Darcy instead.
Anne and Elizabeth shared one more covert look, and Elizabeth nearly forgot about Darcy’s strange behavior. But not entirely. After dinner, he was going to give her an explanation, regardless of whether he wanted to or not.
When Elizabeth retired for the night, Darcy followed her. Instead of allowing her to return to her own suite, he guided her into his and dismissed his valet. She allowed this; it did not matter where the discussion was had, only that they had it.
Darcy pulled her close, longing for the connection that they had been denied since he spoke with his aunt. He bent down to kiss her, only to have her nimbly step away from his embrace.
“What is the matter?” he asked, confused.
“I should be asking you the same question,” said Elizabeth. “You have barely spoken to me since lunch, and now you have amorous intentions towards me?”
“Well, to be fair, I always have amorous intentions towards you,” he said, attempting to lighten the mood and failing miserably. The storm in her eyes became even more turbulent.
“On our way to lunch, you made it clear that you did not want me to touch you,” she said. “Am I only good enough for the bedroom? Are you ashamed of me in front of your family?”
Darcy looked mortified. “I would never be ashamed of you,” he said.
“It certainly felt as if you were,” she said. “Did this change in behavior have anything to do with your aunt?
He looked at her abashedly. How could she read him so very easily? One afternoon and evening of observing him, and the plan he had formed for her protection was exposed.
“She expressed her concern about the amount of affection that we show to one another,” he said. “And if my aunt finds fault with it, I can assure you that many of her friends will as well. I had hoped to preserve your reputation.”
Elizabeth laughed. “I am quite certain of the security of my reputation,” she said. “I suspect your aunt’s friends have little to do other than gossip about such things. If it was not our affection towards one another, I’m sure my hair or the way I dance would equally offend them. And if I were to open my mouth—well, it would give them enough gossip provisions to last for months!”
He began to defend his aunt’s intentions, but then he realized that Elizabeth was correct. If the proper ladies of the ton wanted to judge Elizabeth, they would find something about which to judge her. The only thing that he could do was show her unfailing support, which was something that he failed to do when he spoke with his aunt earlier.
He took her face in his hands and kissed her. “Then let everyone know of my love for my wife,” he said. “And let me show the lady herself right now.”
Elizabeth allowed him.
The next morning, Darcy escorted Elizabeth to breakfast. She pressed against him once again, and, true to his word, he seemed happy to have her there. Elizabeth thought that Lady Catherine’s eyebrows might rise to meet her hairline, such was her surprise at them walking into the dining room as a couple. Elizabeth had to make a conscious effort to compose herself and not laugh at the idea of Lady Catherine’s forehead entirely disappearing in a fit of consternation.
Elizabeth spent her time at breakfast speaking with everyone except Lady Catherine. Lady Catherine, of course, made it a point to insert herself into every conversation regardless. Elizabeth allowed her to in a way that felt, to Elizabeth at least, very gracious; after all, Elizabeth knew that she had won. It would not do to gloat; at least not very much.
Anne cleared her throat and the room quieted. It was unusual for Anne to speak to the entire table at a meal; Anne normally followed the conversation without contributing. Everyone curiously waited for what she had to say.
“I am so very sorry that you will be leaving us tomorrow,” she said, looking around to include all their guests in her statement. “Will you not stay a bit longer? I am certain my gracious mother would be nothing short of delighted if you were to extend your stay with us.”
Lady Catherine sat with her lips pursed, but she did not say anything to contradict her daughter.
“Your offer is very kind, cousin, but I am expected back,” Colonel Fitzwilliam told her with a warm smile.
“We, too, are unable to continue our visit,” said Darcy, and Elizabeth released the breath she did not even realize she was holding. She longed to return to the peace and privacy of Pemberley.
“Oh, what a shame,” said Anne. “It has been so nice to have your company.” She looked directly at Elizabeth and smiled as she said this.
“Now, Anne,” Lady Catherine said, finally finding her voice. “Do not make our guests feel guilty for being unable to remain with us. As I always say, being a gracious hostess is the mark of good breeding.”
Anne looked at her mother dubiously, as if she had never heard her say it before. “As you say, Mother,” she said. With that, she leaned back in her chair and Mrs. Jenkinson immediately began her fussing routine, ensuring that Anne was as comfortable as she could be.
Elizabeth smiled across the table at Anne. It was the closest that she had seen Anne come to standing up to her mother, and she knew how difficult it must be to say anything contrary to a mother like Lady Catherine. Why, being at Rosings had made her own mother appear nearly saintly in comparison! That was certainly an idea that Elizabeth had never thought would cross her mind. She was learning all sorts of things on this trip.
The following morning the Darcys departed Rosings for home. Elizabeth did not recall a time when she had been more relieved to leave a place. Although Colonel Fitzwilliam and Anne were wonderful, Lady Catherine cast a pall over the visit. Even when she was not in the room, her presence remained like an extremely judgmental ghost.
Georgiana seemed relieved as well. She leaned back against the carriage bench, adopting as informal a pose as Elizabeth had ever seen her take, and let out a breath.
“And thus our duty is done, at least for a few months,” she said.
Darcy’s mood seemed lighter as well, evidenced by the fact that he did not chastise Georgiana for this remark.
“Well, now the excitement of this trip is behind us, we must plan our next diversion,” said Georgiana.
“Life is not jumping from one diversion to another,” said Darcy mildly, in a tone that indicated he was not correcting her from anything other than habit.
“Your wedding has not been properly celebrated,” said Georgiana. “What if we were to throw a ball in Elizabeth’s honor?”
Elizabeth felt her cheeks reddening. “I do not know that I want to be the cause of a ball,” she said.
Georgiana smiled at her and said, “You are not the cause. You are the excuse. Just think of it, we could invite all our friends, and your family could come visit!”
Elizabeth was certain that it was unfamiliarity with her family (aside from Jane) that led Georgiana to believe this would make a compelling argument.
“I see no reason that we should not have a ball to celebrate our marriage,” Darcy said. He pretended to ignore the look on Elizabeth’s face. “And it would be an excellent opportunity for your family to visit Pemberley.”
Elizabeth sighed. “I feel as if the two of you are united against me,” she said. “But if you think it is a good idea, then we have a ball to plan.”
They spent much of the remaining trip back to Pemberley discussing everything that needed to be done. Elizabeth began to consider that if she had known how much work had to be done to prepare a ball, she should not have agreed in the first place. However, there was no dissuading Georgiana, so Elizabeth realized that she would just have to make the best of it.