The Poisoned Proposal (a Pride and Prejudice variation) ~ free book excerpt

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CHAPTER ONE

 

PROPOSAL-cover(SMALL)The carriage lurched and swayed as it bumped over a rut in the road. Elizabeth Bennet sighed and shifted in her seat, trying to stretch her cramped legs. The journey from Hertfordshire to Kent had been more arduous than she had anticipated. The recent rains had made the roads muddy and treacherous, and the grey skies had done little to brighten the journey. If it were not for the great affection she held for her friend, Charlotte, whose new home she was visiting, she would have sought any excuse to avoid this trip.

Particularly as she had no wish to spend any more time in the company of Charlotte’s new husband, Mr Collins. Elizabeth grimaced to herself. Mr Collins was her cousin and she should have endeavoured to harbour more charitable feelings towards him, but his pompous manner and ridiculous self-conceit were singularly unappealing. Even one such as her—who normally derived great amusement from observing the folly of others—found it difficult to be entertained in his company. Once again, Elizabeth wondered how Charlotte—so sensible and intelligent herself—could marry such a silly man! Oh, to be sure, it was a prudent match. Mr Collins’s position as the rector at Hunsford Parsonage assured a comfortable income for life and, as his wife, Charlotte would enjoy security and respectability.

But was that really enough? Elizabeth wondered despairingly. What about respect, admiration, and attraction for your partner in life? What about love? She sighed as she looked out of the window at the gloomy landscape again. Perhaps she was simply succumbing to foolish notions of romance. Charlotte had seemed satisfied with her choice, pointing out that life with Mr Collins was a practical and more pleasing alternative than life as a poor spinster. Perhaps her friend was right… and yet… Elizabeth felt that she could never contemplate sacrificing her better feelings for material gain. She would rather die an old maid than marry someone she could neither love nor respect.

“Is it much farther, Papa?”

Elizabeth glanced up at the sound of Maria Lucas’s voice. Charlotte’s younger sister was sitting next to her in the carriage and facing them was Sir William Lucas. A simple, empty-headed, but kindly man, he mopped his brow now with a large handkerchief and shifted in his seat, his paunch straining against the buttons of his waistcoat.

“No, Maria, I believe not. In fact…” He leaned over and looked out of the carriage window. “I believe those woods on our right belong to Rosings Park.”

“Rosings Park! Do you mean all of this is Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s estate?” asked Maria in awe, leaning forwards to peer at the expanse of dark forest that lined the side of the road. “Why, I don’t believe I have ever seen a property so vast!”

“Aye, your sister is fortunate to have made a clever alliance with a man under the patronage of one such as Lady Catherine de Bourgh,” said Sir William with smug satisfaction. He coloured slightly as his gaze caught Elizabeth’s and he remembered that the Bennet family had been expecting Mr Collins to offer for her. “Er… that is to say…”

Elizabeth smiled at him. “Indeed, it is a most advantageous situation for Charlotte and I am very happy for her,” she said. She meant every word. She did not begrudge her friend for stealing the match by attracting Mr Collins’s attentions and securing his proposal of marriage—indeed, she had welcomed it. Their unexpected courtship had saved her from the unpleasant prospect of having to refuse her cousin and incur her mother’s displeasure. Mrs Bennet would never have been able to sympathise with Elizabeth’s revulsion for a loveless marriage and it would have caused a great deal of unpleasantness within the family.

The carriage followed a turn in the road and the grey tiled roof of Hunsford parsonage came into view. It was a modest country house, built along severe lines, with dark green climbing ivy across the front façade which did little to relieve the austerity of the stone walls. As the carriage pulled up in front of the house, Elizabeth saw two figures come out of the front door and hurry towards them across the gravel driveway. It was Mr Collins, dressed in his habitual clergyman’s black, and Charlotte, looking very matronly in a white lace mob cap and sprigged muslin gown.

“Sir William! Cousin Elizabeth! Miss Maria!” gushed Mr Collins as they alighted from the carriage. “It is my very great pleasure to welcome you to my humble abode!”

They were escorted with great pomp and ceremony into the house and directed by Mr Collins to admire every cornice and balustrade, every hook and shelf displayed within its interior.

“Observe this door, Cousin Elizabeth,” said Mr Collins, indicating the entry to his study. “What do you say?”

“Er…” Elizabeth stared at the plain wooden door before her, uncertain how to respond.

“Are the hinges not mounted in the most superlative manner? Lady Catherine herself supervised the fittings and ensured that the door would swing neither too slow nor too fast.”

“Uh… indeed? How comforting it must be to have a perfectly swinging door,” said Elizabeth, hiding a smile.

Mr Collins beamed. “Yes, you cannot believe the depths of Lady Catherine’s generosity. Nothing is beneath her condescension. She has cast her eye over every corner of this house and directed us in the best manner to conduct every activity. Why, she has even guided me in the clipping of my fingernails!” He held up five stumpy fingers for admiration.

Elizabeth felt Charlotte flush and cringe slightly beside her, but her friend made no comment. Instead, she led the way upstairs to show the guests to their bedchambers. Elizabeth’s room was small but cosy, with a window that gave out onto a view of the church graveyard at the back of the parsonage.

“I hope you do not mind looking out onto the graveyard,” said Charlotte.

“No, of course not,” said Elizabeth quickly. “You know I have little patience with superstitious beliefs and ghostly tales, and the proximity to the dead does not bother me.”

Nevertheless—as she walked over to look out of the window—Elizabeth had to admit that the sight of all those grave markers, stark and desolate, presented a grim prospect. A black crow sat on one tombstone and cawed harshly, then flapped its wings and flew into the copse of woods beyond the church. Elizabeth saw her friend eyeing her anxiously and hastily smiled. “I am sure the view would look very different in the sunshine.”

“This is nothing, of course, compared to the views from the windows of Rosings Park,” Mr Collins declared, coming to join Elizabeth at the window. “The vistas from Lady Catherine’s residence—of which there are several for the manor has over sixty windows—are the most remarkable you will ever see; indeed I wager they are the finest in the whole of England!” He leaned slightly to the right and pointed to the side of the window. “Behold, Cousin Elizabeth, you are also provided with a glimpse of the lane. You may be able to see Lady Catherine or her daughter, Miss Anne de Bourgh, should they drive by. My study downstairs affords me a perfect view of the road and thus I am able to demean myself to Lady Catherine each time she passes in her carriage, which I am gratified to say occurs almost daily. If you are very fortunate, you may yet experience her passing later today!”

Elizabeth wondered how to suitably express her enthusiasm for this great honour, but was thankfully spared as Mr Collins turned his attention to the bed in the centre of the room.

“Lady Catherine herself has seen to the furnishings of this room,” said Mr Collins proudly. “When she learnt that we were to have visitors, nothing would satisfy her but to come and oversee the preparation of the guestrooms herself.”

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. “She is a most attentive neighbour.”

“Indeed, she is!” Mr Collins agreed. “Her ladyship advised us on everything from the length of the candlesticks to the placement of your pillows.”

“I shall sleep much more soundly knowing that Lady Catherine has given her personal attention to the placement of my pillows,” said Elizabeth dryly.

She saw Charlotte suppress a smile, but the irony was lost on Mr Collins who turned eagerly away to show Sir William and Maria to their rooms. Elizabeth took the opportunity to follow Charlotte downstairs to the rear drawing room, which had been decorated as a comfortable parlour for her personal use. Mr Collins’s sonorous voice faded into the background and Elizabeth drew a breath of relief as they entered the peace and quiet of the pretty drawing room. She noticed, however, that there were faint lines of strain around Charlotte’s eyes and mouth.

“Charlotte?” Elizabeth looked at her friend in concern. “Is aught the matter?” She glanced at the open door behind them, through which she could still hear her cousin’s voice drifting down from upstairs, then lowered her own voice and said, “Are you regretting your decision to marry Mr Collins?”

Charlotte gave a tired smile. “No, no, Eliza, nothing like that, I assure you. I own, it is not perhaps the easiest of unions, but I find myself quite content. And the community here at Hunsford is a pleasant one—they have mostly welcomed me very hospitably.”

“Mostly?” Elizabeth said.

Charlotte gave another weary smile. “There are a few at Rosings who perhaps resent my coming… but do not worry, all is well,” she said, seeing Elizabeth’s look. “Such social slights do not trouble me. No, it is something else…”

Elizabeth waited curiously as Charlotte hesitated and then said in an uneasy voice:

“There was an unpleasant incident at Rosings Park recently. I found it most disturbing. Lady Catherine was taken ill quite suddenly and it would appear that it was no normal sickness—indeed, it is suspected that she may have been poisoned.”

“Poisoned?” exclaimed Elizabeth. “Is it certain?”

Charlotte sighed and shook her head. “No, it is not certain, though there are strong suspicions. But the possibility has unleashed great unease within the community and cast a sinister pall over Rosings Park and even Hunsford village. Indeed, I confess I find the thought of such sly attacks far more sinister than outright attempts at murder.”

“When did the poisoning occur? Was Lady Catherine greatly affected?”

“It was the night before last. And no, thankfully, Lady Catherine appears to be of a strong constitution. She suffered some dizziness, muscle spasms, and nausea, but made a full recovery the next day.”

“It seems incredible,” said Elizabeth, shaking her head. “Poison is the realm of medieval novels and gothic legends. It has no place in such surroundings as Lady Catherine’s respectable circle.” She gave her friend a mischievous smile. “Perhaps there are those who resent her advice on how to clip their toenails.”

“’Tis no laughing matter, Eliza,” said Charlotte severely.

Elizabeth sobered. “You are right, Charlotte; I apologise. Poison is certainly no trifling affair. But I persist—are there those who may wish Lady Catherine harm? Perhaps some do not relish her interference in their lives as readily as Mr Collins.”

“She is an active magistrate in this parish,” admitted Charlotte. “And takes great pleasure in entering the homes in the village to settle disputes and quarrels, scolding her tenants into silence, if not harmony. She also spends a large portion of her time supervising the local families, looking over the men’s work and advising them to do it differently, whilst giving her opinion on every aspect of the women’s household management.”

“She sounds like a veritable busybody,” said Elizabeth, wrinkling her nose. “And too full of her own self-importance.”

“Eliza!” said Charlotte, slightly shocked. “Do not let Mr Collins hear you speak thus!”

Elizabeth laughed. “Do not fear, Charlotte. I shall preserve my peace when Mr Collins is about. But I confess, I am filled with lively curiosity now regarding your grand patroness and look forward to meeting her in person.”

“You will have that pleasure soon,” said Charlotte. “We have already been sent an invitation, which includes you and my father and sister, for dinner at Rosings Park tomorrow evening. Lady Catherine is delighted to have two of her nephews visiting and is keen to preside over a dinner party. She takes great pride in her younger relatives, particularly Mr Darcy—”

“Mr Darcy!” said Elizabeth. Her heart began to beat faster for some unaccountable reason. An image of the tall, handsome gentleman came to her mind. “Is he here?”

“Yes, he arrived yesterday,” said Charlotte, looking at Elizabeth curiously. “Lady Catherine has talked of his coming with the greatest satisfaction and seems convinced that his visit indicates a growing affection for her daughter, Miss Anne. You know, she and Mr Darcy were intended for each other from the cradle.”

“Are they betrothed?” asked Elizabeth, with a slight lurch of her heart. She knew not why she should care so much. After all, Mr Darcy’s personal affairs were none of her concern and she could certainly have no part in them. There had been a few times in the past when she had wondered about his feelings for her… but no, those were simply fanciful imaginings, Elizabeth chided herself.

“It is not an official betrothal,” said Charlotte. “Merely the wishes of their mothers, who were affectionate sisters. But it is certainly Lady Catherine’s expectation that Mr Darcy should be destined for his cousin and you know she is not a lady to be gainsaid.”

Elizabeth did not reply, but she wondered at Mr Darcy’s compliance in the matter. She had spent enough time in his company back in Hertfordshire to know that here was a man who did not let anyone decide his destiny. She noticed that Charlotte was still watching her shrewdly and she hoped her friend was not indulging in romantic speculation. Where her feelings for Mr Darcy were concerned, she was hardly ready to face them herself—she was not even sure what they were. She was certainly not ready to discuss them with anyone else. She turned briskly away and changed the topic of conversation.

“If you do not mind, my dear Charlotte, I think I may take the opportunity to have a short walk before dinner. The journey in the carriage was long and I would welcome the chance to stretch my legs.”

“Certainly,” said Charlotte. “And if I may suggest, you would do well to cross the lane into Rosings Park and follow the line of trees to the east until you come to an open grove which edges that side of the park. There is a nice sheltered path there, with a pleasant prospect of the house and surrounding countryside.”

“It sounds delightful,” said Elizabeth with enthusiasm. “I shall take your suggestion and go there directly.”

 

Twilight was starting to fall as Elizabeth made her way along the grove, but there was still ample illumination to light her way. The leaves on the trees and bushes were wet from recent rain and dripped moisture on her as she walked between them, causing her to shiver slightly. But despite this, she enjoyed the peace and solitude. She breathed deeply of the forest air, savouring the scent of pine needles and damp earth. Ah, it was wonderful to take some exercise after the long carriage journey! Even back home in Longbourn, Elizabeth had always treasured her solitary walks around the countryside. They provided an escape from the drama and hysterics that often surrounded her mother and younger sisters, and also a chance to enjoy the country scenery. Elizabeth had always been a great walker and, aside from reading, there was no other activity that gave her greater pleasure.

As she reached the side of a particularly large beech, she heard a sound behind her and turned curiously. Hoof beats. She looked around the side of the tree trunk, back along the grove and towards a small glade visible through the trees in the distance.

A rider came into view. A tall man astride a glossy black stallion. Elizabeth’s heart skipped a beat as she recognised that handsome countenance.

It was Mr Darcy.


 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Elizabeth jerked back and pressed herself against the tree trunk, feeling its rough bark dig into her skin. She was almost certain that Darcy had not seen her—she was far enough away and well sheltered by the surrounding foliage—but she did not want to take any chances.

Carefully, she edged out again until she could peer around the side of the trunk. Darcy had brought his horse to a halt. The big stallion wheeled in a circle, champing at its bit and pacing nervously, as Darcy tightened the reins and looked around the glade. He had the air of someone waiting for something—and a moment later, Elizabeth saw a figure appear out of the woods and approach him.

From the powdered wig and formal uniform, she could see that it was a footman—and the lavish indigo-and-gold livery he wore suggested that he belonged to a household of formidable consequence. Darcy swung down from his mount and approached him. Elizabeth was too far away to hear what they were saying and she bit her lip in frustration. On an impulse, she turned and darted back along the grove, using the line of trees for cover as she attempted to approach the glade without being seen. Her kid boots made no sound on the soft forest floor as she carefully threaded her way between the bushes and finally came to a stop behind a tree, a few yards from Darcy’s horse.

She was now able to make out the faint sound of their voices, but to her vexation, she was as yet unable to discern exactly what they were saying. They seemed to be taking great pains to keep their voices low and, from the furtive looks the footman kept sending behind him, there was no doubt that this meeting was a clandestine one.

The footman reached into his jacket and withdrew a small, slim package. He handed it to Darcy who took it and secreted it within a pocket in his own riding jacket. Then he directed a quick question at the footman, who shook his head vigorously.

Elizabeth strained her ears again, but still could not make out the words. In desperation, she took a step forwards. A twig snapped beneath her foot and the sound was as loud as a pistol shot in the quiet of the woods.

CRACK!

The horse whinnied nervously, shaking its head and blowing through its nostrils. Darcy jerked his head in her direction.

Elizabeth froze.

Had he seen her?

The light was fading rapidly now and the forest was in deep twilight. She could only hope that in the dusky gloom, he would be unable to discern her form. Her breath came fast as she saw his gaze pierce the distance between them, but after a moment Darcy turned back to the footman and continued his previous conversation.

Elizabeth let out her breath and slowly eased herself back against the tree trunk again. She could not risk going any closer, no matter how much she wanted to hear the exchange. A moment later, Darcy stepped away from the footman and swung himself back onto his stallion. Elizabeth heard his deep voice carry across the clearing.

“… and not a word of this to anyone, do you understand?”

The footman nodded curtly, then turned and melted back through the trees. Darcy swung his horse around and Elizabeth barely had time to drop down into the undergrowth before he came trotting past. She felt the rush of wind as the great animal moved past, then they were gone into the gloom of the forest.

Slowly, Elizabeth rose to her feet and stepped out from her hiding place. Darcy was out of sight now and the only clue of his recent presence was the foliage which still swayed in his wake.

What was the meaning of such a furtive encounter? What was in the package the footman had given to Darcy, and why the need for secrecy?

Her head full of questions, Elizabeth turned and started back towards the parsonage. She was greeted upon her return by relief and exclamations of concern.

“Eliza! Where have you been? We had begun to fear for your safety!” cried Charlotte as she met Elizabeth in the front hall.

“I may have walked farther than I intended,” said Elizabeth apologetically. “I’m as yet unfamiliar with the paths in Rosings Park and did not realise how long the route would take to return.”

Charlotte smiled. “’Tis of little consequence. Dinner is just being served and you have not missed a course.” She turned to lead the way into the dining room.

“By the by, Charlotte…” Elizabeth said casually. “What are the livery colours for the house De Bourgh?”

“They are a deep indigo, with gold trim,” said Charlotte. She glanced at Elizabeth curiously. “Why do you ask?”

“Oh… no particular reason,” said Elizabeth quickly, seating herself at the table. “I was merely curious. I imagine someone of Lady Catherine’s superior taste would have chosen a particularly impressive design for her livery.”

Mr Collins looked up from his place at the head of the table and beamed. He said, with his mouth full, “Indeed, Cousin Elizabeth, Lady Catherine is a lady of impeccable taste in all things! The décor and furnishings at Rosings are a testament to her ladyship’s fine discernment and she has not only…”

Elizabeth nodded and smiled, and tuned her cousin’s voice out as she began helping herself to the dishes at the table. It was a long time, however, before she could stop mulling over the encounter she had witnessed in Rosings Park.

 

 

The next morning brought a happy surprise for Elizabeth: a letter from London from Jane. It had originally been sent to her at Longbourn, but had been forwarded on by her family. Elizabeth seized the letter eagerly and retreated as soon as she could after breakfast to peruse its contents in the privacy of her bedroom.

 

My dearest Lizzy,

Things continue most pleasantly here in Gracechurch Street. My aunt and uncle are all that is amiable and kind towards me and have been making a great effort to cheer my spirits. As part of their attempts, we have been going out in society more frequently, so as to provide me with distractions and the opportunity to make new acquaintances. It is very generous of them as I understand they do not normally follow such a hectic lifestyle, particularly with three young children to tend to, and I am exceedingly grateful.

Earlier this week, we attended a music recital and I was at first discomfited to see Mr Bingley and his sister, Caroline Bingley, in the audience. I would have taken great pains to avoid them had not Mr Bingley himself approached us during the intermission. Miss Bingley came with him, but I must confess, I was greatly taken aback by her cold manner towards me. I am ashamed to say that I have been completely deceived in her affection for me. She made it clear that she took no pleasure in my company and felt the stain of scandal in my presence. She has obviously not forgotten the events of the Netherfield ball. I do not blame her for such sentiments—indeed, I pity her for I understand that it is anxiety for her brother that is the cause of her hostility towards me.

Mr Bingley, however, was very different. At first, he spoke but little—and yet with every passing minute, he seemed to give me more of his attention. I fancied I saw an expression of embarrassment on his face when he spoke of the Netherfield ball—he apologised for ever doubting my innocence and begged my forgiveness for his lack of chivalry during that event. It was a great shock at the time, he said, and he was not himself.

I was gratified by his apology, but I was determined not to repeat my previous mistake of trusting his declarations too implicitly. I was anxious that he should not find me too eager for his attentions and thus I took care to maintain a tranquil composure. I am pleased to say that I believe I achieved my purpose. It was publicly seen that on both sides, we met only as common, indifferent acquaintances. I returned to my aunt and uncle’s feeling easy—now that the first meeting was over, I felt that I knew my own strength and I should never be embarrassed by meeting him again, though I did not imagine that there would be much opportunity for our paths to cross.

You can imagine my surprise when—not two days later—Mr Bingley called upon my uncle here in Gracechurch Street. They were some time in my uncle’s study and though I glimpsed him but briefly in the hall, his look was one of such warmth that I began to doubt my own resolve. He had come to invite us to dine at his townhouse and thence we went the next evening. Despite Miss Bingley’s cold reception, it was a delightful evening and I was surprised to find Mr Bingley most marked in his attentions towards me. In his every word and glance, there was a warmth which called to mind his previous behaviour to me in Hertfordshire.

I must confess to still finding him the most amiable gentleman of my acquaintance and I know you will not blame me, Lizzy, for saying that I received his attentions with pleasure. I do not know whether to dare let myself hope that he may as yet care for me.

Mr Bingley has learned that my aunt and I frequently walk in Hyde Park in the mornings and he has asked my uncle’s permission to escort us on the morrow. I am looking forward to the engagement and to further interactions with him, but I am attempting to be cautious with my feelings. I have seen evidence of his rapid defection during the events of the Netherfield ball and I do not wish to repeat such a humiliation. However, one accepts that a person may make mistakes and seek atonement—and I find within me a great desire to forgive Mr Bingley.

Let me hear from you very soon and give me your interpretation of these recent events. I know I can always depend upon you, Lizzy, for an honest opinion, however blunt! I hope your journey to Hunsford was a pleasant one and that you are enjoying your visit with Charlotte Lucas. I shall write again as soon as I have further news to recount—and your address in Hunsford.

Your affectionate sister,

Jane

 

Elizabeth put down the letter and smiled. Though she was not as ready as Jane to forgive Bingley for his desertion of her sister during the events of the Netherfield ball, she was pleased to see him making amends. In her view, there was no doubt that he was attempting to win back her sister’s affections. Jane had never ceased to love Bingley and Elizabeth knew that there was no other man who could make her sister happy. Therefore, if there was any chance that they could be restored to their previous understanding, she would welcome such a development.

Mr Bingley was an amiable man, but he possessed a compliant temperament that was easily swayed by others—Elizabeth hoped that his supercilious sisters would not prevail upon him to reject Jane once again. If they did, then perhaps he did not deserve Jane! Any man who could not see the goodness of her sister was certainly not worthy of her affection.

Elizabeth picked up the letter again, preparing to answer it immediately, but before she could sit down at her dressing table, she was interrupted by Maria Lucas bursting into her room.

“Eliza! Come quick! There is such a sight to be seen!”


 

CHAPTER THREE

 

Elizabeth dropped the letter on her bed and followed Maria out of her room, down the staircase, and into Mr Collins’s study, which had a large window that gave onto a view of the lane next to the parsonage. She had been expecting some disastrous sight—perhaps a fallen tree which had damaged the parsonage gardens or even a particularly magnificent specimen of deer which had wandered in from Rosings Park. Instead, all she saw were two ladies in a low phaeton that had stopped by the main parsonage gates.

“Is that all?” said Elizabeth in disappointment. “What a to-do and it is nothing but Lady Catherine and her daughter.”

“Oh no!” said Maria, shaking her head vehemently. “That is certainly not Lady Catherine. The older lady is Mrs Jenkinson, who is a lady’s companion, and the younger lady is Lady Catherine’s daughter, Miss Anne de Bourgh.”

Elizabeth peered through the windowpane. “Why does she not come in? It is abominably rude of her to keep Charlotte out of doors in all this wind.”

“Charlotte says she hardly ever does. It is a great honour if Miss de Bourgh comes in.”

“She sounds as conceited a creature as her mother,” said Elizabeth.

Maria gasped, shocked at Elizabeth’s outspokenness. At that moment, Charlotte turned and spied them through the window. She beckoned with a hand. Elizabeth hesitated—she had no wish to wait upon a spoilt young madam, though she did want to support her friend. Making no great effort to hurry, she exited the parsonage and approached the gate.

“Miss de Bourgh, Mrs Jenkinson, may I present my friend, Miss Elizabeth Bennet,” said Charlotte.

Elizabeth dropped a brief curtsy as she eyed the occupants of the phaeton curiously. Mrs Jenkinson was a thin, elderly woman with a beaked nose and bloodless lips that seemed perpetually pressed together in displeasure. She wore wire spectacles through which she peered at Elizabeth, looking her up and down with great condescension. Elizabeth was surprised at the companion’s haughty manner—perhaps the association with one so grand as Lady Catherine de Bourgh transferred self-importance to those in her employ as well!

Elizabeth turned towards the other occupant of the phaeton, expecting to see a similarly arrogant countenance, and was surprised instead to see a young lady, not much older than herself, who seem to be swathed in a mountain of blankets despite the mild spring weather. Her face, which peeked out from beneath a large fur-trimmed bonnet, was pretty but pale, and as she looked at Elizabeth shyly, she attempted a small smile. Elizabeth found herself smiling back. This was not the Anne de Bourgh she had expected and she felt an instant liking for the girl.

“I am very pleased to make your acquaintance,” said Anne, her voice so faint that Elizabeth had to strain her ears to hear. “I have heard much about you from Mrs Collins. She is fortunate to have so good a friend come to visit. I wish I had such friends as companions…” She looked wistful.

Mrs Jenkinson bristled next to her. “Do I not provide you with loyal companionship, Miss Anne?”

Anne turned swiftly towards her and laid a placating hand on her arm. “Oh, I meant no criticism, Mrs Jenkinson. Of course I have cherished your company these many years. But it would be nice to have the companionship of someone my own age.”

“Do you not have friends from your childhood?” asked Elizabeth. “Perhaps another young lady from a local family who shared your education or play times?”

Anne shook her head sadly. “My mother did not deem the children from the nearby families of an acceptable standard for me to mix with. I had private tutors and was rarely permitted to leave Rosings Park. Indeed, I have very few acquaintances my own age. Edwin… I mean, Mr Hargreaves, who is staying with us at present, is the only friend I have known from childhood. It has been lovely having him here, to have someone to discuss books and such with…” She blushed slightly. “But he is a gentleman and it is not the same as female company.”

Elizabeth felt a stab of pity for the girl. What was it like to grow up in the shadow of a mother such as Lady Catherine de Bourgh?

“Well, it is never too late to make new friends,” said Elizabeth impulsively, stepping forwards. “I shall be pleased to offer my services,” she added with a teasing smile. “We may find some areas of common interest, though I warn you, I am not the most accomplished of young ladies.”

“Oh, that would not signify,” said Anne, her face flushing with pleasure. “I should be honoured to make a friend of you.”

“Perhaps you would like to come in for tea, Miss de Bourgh?” asked Charlotte.

“Oh! I should like that above all else—” Anne shifted eagerly, attempting to lift the blankets around her.

“Certainly not!” said Mrs Jenkinson, frowning. “You have already expended your energies today with this morning’s visit to Hunsford village and the apothecary. You know that over-exertion could be disastrous for your health. You must not forget how frail you are, Miss Anne. Besides…” She looked at the parsonage and sniffed. “Such surroundings are hardly suitable for a lady of your rank.”

Elizabeth felt a flash of irritation. It was on the tip of her tongue to say that if a lady of Miss de Bourgh’s consequence had no objection, her companion should hardly complain, but she restrained herself. She did not want to embarrass Charlotte by causing a scene.

Anne looked crestfallen. “Oh… but surely a short visit is—”

“Out of the question.”

“Do not trouble yourself, Miss de Bourgh,” said Charlotte hastily. “We shall see each other tonight, for your mother has kindly invited us to her dinner party. I’m sure you and Miss Bennet will have ample opportunity to converse then.”

Anne brightened. “Yes, I shall look forward to that.” She smiled shyly again at Elizabeth. “And I hope the offer of friendship may still be open then?”

Elizabeth was pleased to catch the teasing tone in the other girl’s voice. “It certainly shall.” She stood back from the gate with Charlotte as the phaeton moved on.

“You have achieved something remarkable, Eliza,” Charlotte commented as they watched the phaeton turn into the entrance of Rosings Park.

“What do you mean?” asked Elizabeth.

“That is the most animated I have seen Miss de Bourgh in all the time since I moved to Hunsford. Why, I have never seen her smile with such pleasure or so much colour suffuse her cheeks. And for her to even attempt some teasing and banter!”

“She is not what I expected,” admitted Elizabeth. “I had thought her to be a haughty replica of her mother, but she seems a sweet girl.”

“Oh, she is not conceited in the least,” said Charlotte. “Indeed, she is nothing like her mother. She has always been most kind and civil to me—perhaps a bit too civil for propriety, for Mrs Jenkinson is constantly reminding her of her rank compared to my position. I fancy Miss de Bourgh would call more often and even come in to partake of refreshment, were she not with her companion.”

“I could well believe it,” said Elizabeth darkly. “What a dragon! I did not like her condescending manner towards you at all. It is hard enough to suffer it from one of Lady Catherine’s consequence, but Mrs Jenkinson is nothing more than a companion and in no position to speak to you thus.”

Charlotte laughed and put a hand on Elizabeth’s arm. “Do not fly into the boughs for me, Eliza. I have not your fiery temperament, nor your appetite for indignation. Such social slights do not vex me. I have a comfortable home, with much to entertain and please me, and that is all I ask. A few churlish words from a silly woman is hardly worth my fretting over.”

Elizabeth looked at her friend with new admiration. She had always known Charlotte to be a reasonable and intelligent woman, but here was a new example of her good sense. There was much wisdom in her words and Elizabeth knew that she should strive harder to mimic Charlotte’s complacency, to not let things rile her temper. Her impatience with others and her tendency to judge on first impressions had brought her to grief more than once already.

For some reason, her thoughts flew to Mr Darcy. Her opinion of that gentleman had certainly undergone a radical change from when she had first met him. She no longer considered him simply an arrogant, disagreeable man, full of disdainful pride. Admittedly, there was an aloof, reserved side to him, but she was beginning to realise that there was far more to Darcy than what society saw of him. He was a man of great depth and contradictions, and no other man intrigued her like he did.

He will be at the dinner party tonight, Elizabeth thought and she felt her heartbeat quicken in anticipation.

 

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