The Caroline Complication

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Chapter 6

The trip to Hunsford was long, and Elizabeth was glad to see the back of it. Mary came running out of the house to hug her sister. Elizabeth was shocked to see the change in the normally restrained Mary.

“Sister, it is so good of you to come. I have so much that I want to show you! Please, do come inside.”

The house was decorated sparsely, but much more tastefully than Elizabeth would have imagined. She wondered if Mary or Mr. Collins had an artistic vision that had not previously shown itself. She expressed to Mary how very beautiful the house was.

“Thank you. Being a wife – and a clergyman’s wife! – is more than I had ever imagined. I cannot express how wonderful it is to be the wife of someone as universally admired as Mr. Collins!”

That was a sentiment that Elizabeth would not contradict, if only out of a sense of sisterly obligation.

“Twice we have dined at Rosings, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh has been satisfied with my playing of the pianoforte. I am currently preparing a new piece in the event that another invitation arrives. It is so delightful to spend an evening with intellectual equals! Not that you were not a worthy conversant at home, my dear Lizzy, but my other sisters! Oh, I am so glad that you are here!”

Elizabeth smiled to see a bit of the old Mary peeking out from underneath this excited creature.

“I am so glad to be here, sister. And where is your husband?”

“Mr. Collins attends the garden. It is his great pride.”

“Well, I look forward to seeing it.”

“Yes, I want to show you everything!”

And she did.

***

The following morning Elizabeth looked out the window to see Mr. and Mrs. Collins in an animated conversation with two women in a carriage. The wind was blowing terribly, but that did not affect the smiles on their faces. After several minutes, the carriage pulled away, and the Collinses came to tell Elizabeth the news.

“Sister, you will never believe it!” exclaimed Mary.

“My patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, has invited us to dine at Rosings tomorrow night! This is such a great honor. I had thought maybe she would invite us for tea – which would be a distinction in and of itself – but for all of us to be invited to dinner. I am so delighted, my dear cousin, that you will have the opportunity to meet Lady Catherine de Bourgh and her accomplished daughter, Anne.”

“I am sure, sir, that it will be a magnificent and impressive meeting.”

“Oh, it shall. Wait until you see the grandeur of Rosings Park!”

That day and the following passed slowly, with the dinner being the undercurrent of anything that was done. Elizabeth felt less nervous than Mary and Mr. Collins, certainly – but it was less incumbent upon her that a good impression be made. She certainly had no intention of making a bad one, but all of her knowledge of Lady Catherine de Bourgh came from Mr. Collins’ fawning descriptions, and she considered those suspect to say the least.

Finally, it was time to prepare for the dinner. Mr. Collins took Elizabeth aside.

“I know, Cousin Elizabeth, that you will not have brought any clothing that feels suitably fine enough to dine at Rosings. I do not want you to concern yourself about this. Just wear whatever you brought that is best. Indeed, Lady Catherine prefers that rank be observed in dress, so she would rather have you dress as you normally do.”

Elizabeth had given not a thought to whether her clothing would impress Lady Catherine, but she thanked Mr. Collins for considering her comfort in telling her this. She dressed as she had planned to dress prior to speaking with Mr. Collins, and the party began the walk across the sprawling lawns towards Rosings.

Mr. Collins spoke quite knowledgeably about the construction of Rosings. It was clear that he had heard many stories about when Sir Lewis de Bourgh built it. Elizabeth was interested in the architecture, but much less interested in the cost of everything, which Mr. Collins always provided when pointing out a new item of interest. One thing was clear, even without Mr. Collins’ explanations – Rosings was huge and ornate, and, like many great estates, appeared to be barely lived in.

A surprise awaited all members of the Collins party when they arrived in the sitting room. Mr. Darcy was there, as was another man that Elizabeth was not familiar with. Elizabeth managed to keep her countenance while she was introduced to Lady Catherine, who looked at her with little warmth but a good deal of interest.

Lady Catherine might have been handsome once, but now she was just formidable. She was tall, with wide shoulders and a mouth did not appear to be in the habit of smiling. Elizabeth was instantly on her guard. As a rule, she did not trust people without some degree of lines around their eyes to indicate that they laughed often, and heartily.

Next to Lady Catherine sat a slight thing that must be Miss Anne de Bourgh, whom Mary had told her was sickly as a rule. She was very thin and pale, and she was fussed over continually by another woman that Elizabeth learned was her nurse, Mrs. Jenkinson. She certainly did seem to be as poorly as Mary had said, and she seemed to be entirely overwhelmed by her mother (but then again, who would not be overwhelmed by a woman such as Lady Catherine?).

The man who stood next to Darcy was introduced as his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam. Fitzwilliam was quite different in countenance from the other people in the room,. He smiled readily at Elizabeth and bowed deeply, and she was happy to see those laugh lines missing from the others in the room. He made her feel comfortable, and, even if she had to dine with Mr. Darcy, she assured herself that she could make the best of it by finding time to speak with Colonel Fitzwilliam.

Elizabeth’s supposition that the dinner would be awkward was correct, but the source of this awkwardness was not the one that she presumed it would be. Lady Catherine peppered her with questions that would only be considered appropriate due to Lady Catherine’s rank. As Elizabeth was generally not impressed by the rank that a person was born into, these questions seemed to be impertinent indeed.

“Do you play the pianoforte, Miss Bennet?”

“Only occasionally, and very poorly. Mary is really the only person in our house that has shown the slightest musical aptitude.”

“Yes, she has played for us on prior occasions. I have told her that she may practice on the pianoforte here at Rosings. I believe that it is the case that practice is the best thing to improvement, although natural inclination cannot be entirely disregarded. Anne and I have never learned to play, but I am confident that we would be accomplished at it if we had.”

“Then your ladyship is superior to me in that regard; I do not have any natural inclinations towards music.”

“Well, that is a shame. It is so important that girls such as yourself have accomplishments if you care to marry well.”

Elizabeth resisted the urge to glance at Mr. Darcy. Miss Bingley, she knew, was accomplished, but far from being the sort of person with whom Elizabeth wanted to interact.

Instead of responding with her true thoughts, she nodded and said “yes, madam,” in an attempt to move the conversation onto steadier ground.

“And Mary tells me that all five of you were out at the same time! Five!”

“Yes, that is also true.”

“I cannot imagine having five girls out at once. However did your parents manage? How long did they retain governesses?”

“We had no governesses, Lady Catherine.”

“My goodness, however did your mother manage? She must have been quite a slave to your education.”

Elizabeth thought of the silliness of her two youngest sisters and wisely chose to stay quiet. She was hoping that Mary would offer some assistance, but she seemed far more interested in her soup than she was in the conversation. It was probably the case that she had already received this sort interrogation and had no desire to involve herself in it again.

Colonel Fitzwilliam could see that Elizabeth was struggling, so he entered the conversation to ask what her opinion of Mr. Darcy had been upon their first meeting.

Elizabeth smiled, but answered honestly. “He spent all of his evening standing about, even when there were young ladies who did not have partners. Tell me, Colonel Fitzwilliam, what would your opinion have been of such a man?”

“Well,” interjected Mr. Collins, “if the man had the distinguished mien of Mr. Darcy, I would imagine that my opinion of him would be positive, even just by viewing him from across the room.”

Mr. Darcy looked a bit embarrassed, but Lady Catherine nodded. “Yes, Mr. Collins, I believe that you are correct. Good breeding always shines through.”

Colonel Fitzwilliam caught Elizabeth’s eye from across the table and gave her a ghost of a smile. She smiled back, happy to find one person at this party who seemed to understand her.

***

After dinner, Lady Catherine requested that Elizabeth play.

“My lady, I beseech you to allow Mary to play instead of me, for the sake of all our poor ears.”

Lady Catherine did not look pleased, but she acquiesced to Mary playing. Mary was glowing as she took the piano stool and prepared to play the piece that she had worked so hard on. Elizabeth was pleased, for Mary’s sake, to hear that the piece was well-practiced and well-played. She took a chair as far away from Lady Catherine as she could. As luck would have it, Lady Catherine was deep in conversation with her daughter and Mr. Collins, so Elizabeth was safe, at least for a short while.

Colonel Fitzwilliam came over and sat next to her. Darcy kept his distance.

“Do not be so rough on my poor cousin, Miss Bennet.”

She did not audibly snort at the idea of poor Mr. Darcy, but it took some willpower.

Colonel Fitzwilliam continued. “He is difficult to become well acquainted with, but he will do anything for the people who are dear to him. Why, only recently did he save his closest friend from an imprudent marriage.”

This caught Elizabeth’s attention. “What was the man’s name?”

“That I do not recall, but I know that he was close to attaching him to a young lady who esteemed him less than he esteemed her. Apparently her family was also uncouth and unbearable.”

Elizabeth knew exactly to whom Mr. Darcy referred. She mostly managed to keep the anger off her face as she continued to speak with Colonel Fitzwilliam. They continued to talk of light things. At one point Darcy began to walk over, but the look on Elizabeth’s face made him reconsider. For his part, he looked miserable. She was delighted to have any part in causing him pain after what he had done to Jane.

***

It was hard for Elizabeth to forget what Colonel Fitzwilliam had told her. It colored the remainder of her trip. She would find herself thinking of how deeply injured Jane was, and all because Mr. Darcy decided it was his role to interfere. Not for a single moment did she believe that he doubted Jane’s affection; certainly, she was not as demonstrative as Mr. Bingley, but her actions should have been more that satisfactory to assuage the doubts of any reasonable person. She had to remind herself of whom she was thinking. Certainly, it would be a mistake to consider Mr. Darcy reasonable.

Elizabeth indulged herself in many long walks while she remained at Hunsford. They did not completely calm her, but they gave her a measure of peace that nothing else had managed to do. During one of these walks, she was shocked to see the object of her disdain walking towards her.

“Mr. Darcy,” she said coolly.

“Miss Bennet,” he replied.

“What a coincidence to meet you out here.”

“Not actually; I came to find you.”

“I cannot imagine what you could possibly need with me.”

Darcy flinched at these words. If only she knew.

“I noticed,” he said, “that you became very upset whenever your gaze strayed to me at dinner the other night.”

So she had not been as good at hiding her feelings as she had believed.

“I had just received some disturbing news. How dare you break apart a couple that was in love?”​

“I did what I thought was best for my friend. It was clear that your sister did not have the depth of affection that Bingley did.”

“And how would you know that? My sister is reserved even with those of us who know her best. Mr. Bingley’s departure has brought her more pain than you can imagine.”

“If that is indeed true, I am sorry. I only hoped to save my friend from an unfortunate situation.”

“Of course you would consider Jane an ‘unfortunate situation’. She may not have as much money as your Miss Bingley, but I assure you that you will not find a kinder, better person anywhere on this earth!”

“Miss Bennet, it was not my goal to upset you.”

“Not your goal?” Elizabeth cried, astonished. “Ever since we were first introduced you have made it clear how much you detest being in the same room as me!”

And for just a single moment, Darcy lost the control that he always maintained over his face, and his hurt and anguish showed through. He quickly rearranged his face into a neutral look, but not quickly enough for Elizabeth to miss what had just happened.

“How dare you look injured when you been the one who has made it abundantly clear how inferior I, and every member of my family, is to you! Is this a game to you?”

He laughed humorlessly. “A game? Do you have any idea whatsoever how hard I have tried to regulate my feelings?”

“Obviously not hard enough, as you have made obvious every time we are in a room together.”

“Have you given the slightest thought to the idea that the emotion is not hatred, but instead the exact opposite?”

Elizabeth stared at him, stunned, as he realized the words his traitorous mouth had just spoken without approval from the brain.

“This is a game to you! There is no way that a man who is engaged to another woman would say such a thing, unless he was an irredeemable cad. I will give you the benefit of the doubt that you are merely toying with me for sport.”

Darcy did not utter another word. He bowed, spun on his heel, and walked away.

***

Elizabeth found it difficult to catch her breath after Mr. Darcy’s exit. How dare he? The audacity of even insinuating that there was a possible romantic connection between the two of them. Was he so wealthy that he felt he could buy people and use them as he wished? Was this a way to see if Elizabeth was amenable to such a situation? She would never have guessed that under the cold exterior of Mr. Darcy lay such – perversion!

Even if he had not been engaged, to think that she would have romantic inclinations towards him – of all people! He who separated Mr. Bingley and Jane, he who denied Mr. Wickham his living. The situation was too much for Elizabeth and she burst into angry tears, relieved that no one was near to see her outpouring of emotion.

Darcy knew the magnitude of the mistake that he had made. What sort of man insinuates his admiration for one woman while being engaged to another? Even if it were not for Caroline, Elizabeth Bennet would never give him the time of day again. He had never had a problem holding his tongue before. What was it about her that left him off his guard, that made him act in such an uncharacteristic way? Her statement that he hated her had triggered something in him. Certainly, it was the attitude that he should hope she had towards him. It was safest that way. But he could not stand and look into the eyes of the woman that he loved while she believed such a thing of him.

This caught him off guard. Love? He had not thought of her in terms of that emotion before, but he realized that it accurately described his feelings towards her. He loved her, deeply and completely. And he would never have her. He dropped his head into his hands in frustration. What would it take for him to forget this woman?

***

The household at Hunsford heard the hammering of hooves outside the following day. Mary looked out the window and announced that it was Mr. Darcy, and he appeared to be pushing his horse as fast as it could go.

“I wonder at him not staying longer with his aunt,” said Mr. Collins. “One would think that he would want to spend as much time as possible in her presence. Certainly, if I had an aunt as gracious, I would be in no hurry to rush off.”

“He has always been reserved and kept to himself,” remarked Mary. “Has he not, Lizzy?”

“I always thought so,” Elizabeth mumbled under her breath, before giving Mary a smile and a nod of affirmation to her question.

Things were quieter for the remainder of Elizabeth’s visit. Mr. Collins spent time in his garden, Mary spent time learning news from home and passing judgment on those who she felt were not behaving properly. Elizabeth knew that this activity gave Mary great joy, so she indulged her with any bits of gossip that she could remember.

Soon, it was time for Elizabeth to return home. Just as she had been grateful to leave Longbourn at the start of this journey, she was now grateful to return. She hoped that her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner would be at the house, having returned Jane from London. Writing letters was a pale imitation of actually being able to speak with her sister, and Elizabeth had so much to tell her. She thought about it on her trip home and decided that she would not mention Mr. Darcy’s strange words to Jane. She did not know what he meant of them, and she knew that it would upset Jane greatly to learn that his character was so lacking. Even without that, though, she was bursting with stories (and a tolerable impression of Lady Catherine de Bourgh) that she could not wait to share with Jane.

Luck favored Elizabeth and Jane was home when she arrived. They flung themselves into each other’s arms, shrieking. Tears were shed on both sides, and reassurances that the person they missed most in the world was their sister. They were not to have long to talk, though. Uncle and Aunt Gardiner were leaving the following week to go to Derbyshire, and they asked Elizabeth to accompany them. She knew that a trip with her Aunt and Uncle would be soothing and in good company, so she agreed to go. That gave the two sisters several days to catch up.

“I am really very much over him, Lizzy,” said Jane that evening. “I doubt I would recognize him if I passed him on the street.”

“I know you better than that, dear Jane,” said Elizabeth. “And I am so offended at the way you were treated.”

“He had made me no promises. He owed me nothing.”

“No one who saw the two of you dancing together would feel that he owes you nothing. However, I am glad to hear that you are healing.”

“There is only one person whom I have come out of this experience with a diminished opinion of.”

This was something new. Jane never had a diminished opinion of anyone, that Elizabeth could recall.”

“Caroline Bingley pretended to be my friend the entire time that the Bingleys stayed at Netherfield. Certainly she did not treat me with the respect due to a friend when I saw her in London.”

“Jane, I love it! I cannot imagine a better person for you to think less of, unless perhaps it is Miss Bingley’s intended.”

The girls giggled long into the night as they shared their stories with one another. Elizabeth fell asleep thinking that there is no greater gift in the world than a sympathetic sister.

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Next: Chapter 7

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