The Garden Path Steps
Elizabeth hurried to where her Uncle's carriage was waiting. She felt that she must leave at once. The mortification she felt upon running into Mr. Darcy at his home was extreme. He must be wishing her to...to...oh, who knew where, but certainly he would not want her at Pemberley!
"Elizabeth, please, do slow down. Your uncle and I are not as young as we used to be and city living is not conducive to such lively walking," called a slightly breathless Mrs. Gardiner.
"Yes, Aunt, I am sorry," Elizabeth called over her shoulder. She slowed somewhat but chafed at the speed restriction. At last, she spotted the carriage and hurried toward it, with Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner gallantly bringing up the rear.
Darcy eagerly hurried through the courtyard to catch Miss Bennet before she left. He knew he must be quick or she would be gone before he had a chance to speak with her. His footfalls rang out on the cobbled stones declaring his presence.
He saw Miss Bennet hurry toward the awaiting carriage. "Miss Bennet," he called out, "Please allow me to apologize for not receiving you properly just now. You are not leaving?"
"We were, sir, I think we must," said Elizabeth as she halted by the carriage. She turned to face Mr. Darcy.
"I hope that you are not displeased with Pemberley?" Darcy asked anxiously. Pemberley was a grand estate to be sure, but it was also his home and he loved it.
"No, not all," Elizabeth assured.
"Then you approve of it?" he asked, smiling.
"Very much so," she returned Darcy's smile. Her smile faded as she realized that Darcy might misconstrue her meaning. "But I feel that there are few who would not approve."
"But your good opinion is rarely bestowed, and therefore more worth the earning," Darcy complimented.
"Thank you," Elizabeth replied, biting her lip. His compliment perplexed her. By rights he should be demanding she leave his estate immediately, never to set foot on it again.
"Would you do me the honor of introducing me to your friends?" he asked, becoming aware of the older couple watching them.
"Certainly." Elizabeth was unprepared for this civility, but willing to comply with Mr. Darcy's request. Walking over to her relations, she thought, Let us see, Mr. Darcy, how long your civility lasts when I make known you those relations who you have earlier maligned.
Mr. and Mrs. Edward Gardiner, Mr. Darcy. Mrs. Gardiner is my aunt. My sister Jane stayed at their house in Cheapside--when she was lately in London."
"Delighted to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Gardiner, Mr. Gardiner." Elizabeth listened as Darcy fell into conversation with her aunt and uncle. His civility and good manners were matched with those of the Gardiners.
"Mr. Gardiner, do you care for fishing?" Darcy asked.
"Indeed, I do, sir, when I have the chance of it" Mr. Gardiner replied with enthusiasm.
"Then you must come and fish in my trout stream. I would be happy to supply you with rods and tackle. Come, let me show you the best spots." Darcy ordered the coachmen to meet them down by the lake, then led Mr. Gardiner across the courtyard to a landing that offered a vista of the estate.
Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner lagged behind the gentlemen. Both were keenly aware of the young gentleman in front of them.
"Is this the proud Darcy you told us of? He is all ease and friendliness, there is no false dignity at all!" Mrs. Gardiner proclaimed, much interested in the attentions Mr. Darcy was showing to her niece, her husband and herself.
"I am as astonished as you are. I cannot think what could have caused such a transformation," Elizabeth replied, unwilling to consider the suspicion that he might still care for her.
"Can you not?" Mrs. Gardiner questioned, giving Elizabeth a searching look. By this time they had crossed the courtyard and joined the gentlemen on the landing.
"And that section usually contains the best carp and tench, if you prefer. I often fish there whenever I am at Pemberley, and there has never been a time when fish was not on the menu for the evening after a day of sport," Elizabeth heard Mr. Darcy tell her uncle.
Mrs. Gardiner came to stand by her husband. Mr. Darcy stepped away from the couple and turned towards Elizabeth. "Miss Bennet," Darcy extended his arm to show her the way to the lake. As Elizabeth took a step in that direction, Mr. Darcy walked beside her.
"Pray continue," offered Darcy on the bottom of the stairs, but Elizabeth lost her voice. Instead, she shook her head as stepped onto the first of the terraced steps.
The First Plateau--Elizabeth's thoughts
Elizabeth's thoughts were as tangled as her emotions. At first she had been overpowered by shame and vexation that Mr. Darcy had caught her at Pemberley. Added into that mix was an emotion totally alien to Elizabeth that struck her when she observed Mr. Darcy in his clinging wet shirt. The sensation needed further deliberation, but not now.
She bit her lip and glanced at Darcy from underneath her bonnet rim. Elizabeth immediately turned her eyes back to the path when he returned her glance. She longed to know what was passing in his mind. What did he think of her? Did he believe that she was purposely throwing herself in his path again? Abominable thought! Did he feel pleasure or pain at seeing her again? Did he still harbor some affection for her? She could not tell from his features, and his earlier agitation when they met could have only been a reflection of his discomfort in being caught in such informal attire.
Was he only being civil because he was at ease at home? That Darcy had behaved with such civility to herself and her relations gratified Elizabeth. She was feeling pleased and triumphant that Mr. Darcy could meet the Gardiners without the need to blush. The conversation between Mr. Darcy and her relations had been marked with intelligence and good manners.
The wind blew the ribbons of her bonnet so they fluttered flirtatiously against Mr. Darcy coat sleeve. She caught them in her hands and began to twist the silk ribbons. She thought she caught a glimpse of Mr. Darcy smiling. Was he smiling at her? Because of her? Could all his civility be a compliment to her? No, she decided ruthlessly, pulling the ribbons tight in her hands. It cannot be for my sake that his manners are softened. My reproofs at Hunsford could not work such a change. It is impossible that he should still love me!
Darcy watched as Elizabeth untangled the silk ribbons from her hands. She seemed uncertain what to do with her hands. He wished he had the courage to take one in his, but only squeezed his hand tighter behind his back.
Elizabeth's steps faltered.
"Miss Bennet, are you all right," Darcy asked, looking at her with concern.
Elizabeth swallowed. "Just a stone, I believe." He offered her hand to help her up the next step, but when she was safely on the step he clasped his hands and began to fidget with his ring. Elizabeth prudently placed her hands behind her.
Second Plateau--Darcy's Thoughts
"Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth began, breaking the silence between them though she carefully avoided looking directly at him, "I just wanted to say again how sorry I am to disturb you. If we had known you would be home, we never would have dreamed of invading your privacy. The housekeeper assured us that you would not be here until tomorrow."
"Pray do not make yourself uneasy. I had business with my steward, so I rode on ahead of the party without informing anyone."
And Darcy could only be grateful that he done so. He had been surprised to find Elizabeth in the garden. Surprise, he thought, beginning to fidget with his ring, was a term to mild to do his feelings justice. He had startled to the point of immovability. He had felt the heat rise to his cheeks, remembering how he appeared before her in such disarray. Surely such ungentlemanly behavior would only serve to increase her poor opinion of him?
"There are those in the party who are known to you," Darcy offered by way of conversation, finally looking directly at Elizabeth. She returned his gaze with curiosity. "Mr. Bingley and his sisters," Darcy answered her unspoken question.
"Oh." Elizabeth said, looking away from Mr. Darcy. Her thoughts were instantly driven back to the time when Mr. Bingley's name had been last mentioned between them; and if she might judge from his complexion, as she sent a quick glance his way, his mind was not very differently engaged.
Her reply was less than enthusiastic. Why did I mention Bingley? I should have known it would remind her of our last meeting.Darcy thought. He had been trying to show her that the reproofs she had listed that day had been attended to. Had his civility been noted? he wondered. Not that it was a hardship to civil to Elizabeth's Aunt and Uncle, for they seemed to be very pleasant and genteel company.
But his blunder had left him speechless. He could vaguely remember speaking to her in his shock. He had been incoherent. No doubt when he could recall the events more clearly he would realize that he had made a fool of himself. Every idea of conversation had seemed to fail him and he was experiencing the same sensation now.
When he had taken his leave of Elizabeth he had rushed to change. Wet clothes were scattered across the room as he hurried to dress. He had not known that task could be so quickly accomplished. Darcy surprised even himself as he ran from the bedroom buttoning his waistcoat on the stairs. He buttoned his coat crossing the hallway. He almost trampled a footman in his eagerness to be out the door.
And now he was walking beside Elizabeth. Darcy abandoned his search for a suitable topic of conversation and took pleasure in her nearness. He could detect traces of her perfume on the wind, he caught glimpses of her beautiful eyes. He could feel her presence beside him. This was joy and torture and he wanted it to last forever.
Third plateau--Mr. & Mrs. Gardiner's thoughts
Mr. & Mrs. Gardiner watched the couple in front of them. Their observations on Mr. Darcy now began.
"My dear, what do you make of this turn of events? Mr. Darcy seems most pleasant," remarked Mr. Gardiner. "He is perfectly well behaved, polite, and unassuming.''
"He is infinitely superior to any thing I had expected. But you, my dear Edward, would find any man who enjoys fishing to be pleasant," replied Mrs. Gardiner.
"Indeed I would, for it shows a man who knows the proper priorities in life," teased Mr. Gardiner.
"And exactly where does fishing rank in those priorities?" his wife returned .
"Well, if one is after kingfish, then I suppose it ranks very high, indeed," replied Mr. Gardiner, with a sly glance at his wife. Mrs. Gardiner was amused but determined not to show it. "But for the rest of us anglers, I would rank it no higher than a baron, I assure you."
Mrs. Gardiner smiled, but her attention was focused on the couple ahead. "There is something a little stately in him to be sure,'' stated Mrs. Gardiner after a moment's pause, "but it is confined to his air, and is not unbecoming. I can now say with the housekeeper, that though some people may call him proud, I have seen nothing of it.''
"I was never more surprised than by his behavior to us. It was more than civil; it was really," Mr. Gardiner paused, searching for the right word, "attentive; and there was no necessity for such attention. His acquaintance with Elizabeth is very trifling.''
"Is it, my dear? I am beginning to wonder if perhaps we are wrong in believing that. To be sure,'' said her aunt, "he is not so handsome as Wickham; or rather he has not Wickham's countenance, for his features are perfectly good. I do believe that many women would consider it very fine. But how came Elizabeth told us that he was so disagreeable?"
"But perhaps he may be a little whimsical in his civilities," replied Mr. Gardiner. "Your great men often are; and therefore I shall not take him at his word about fishing, as he might change his mind another day, and warn me off his grounds."
"And you would find that a great tragedy, I know. Yet, from what we have seen of him,'' continued Mrs. Gardiner, ``I really do not have think that he could behaved in so cruel a way to any body, despite what we know of his behavior to Mr. Wickham."
"And how do you know that?"
"He has not an ill-natured look. On the contrary, there is something pleasing about his mouth when he speaks. And there is something of dignity in his countenance that would not give one an unfavorable idea of his heart.
"Then you do not believe that he is whimsical in nature?"
"No. Elizabeth did mention that we may have been wrong in our estimation of Mr. Wickham's character. To be sure, the good lady who showed us the house did give Mr. Darcy a most flaming character! I could hardly help laughing aloud sometimes. But he is a liberal master, I suppose, and that in the eye of a servant comprehends every virtue."
"Then I shall hope that Mr. Darcy is as liberal with his trout as he is with servants."
At the top
Georgiana! Darcy thought as he and Elizabeth climbed the final steps that led to the wooded path. Darcy had related a little of his experience with Elizabeth to his sister and Georgiana had expressed an interest in meeting Miss Bennet if she should ever get the chance. Perhaps here was an opportunity for her to do so.
"There is also one other person in the party," he began hesitantly, "who more particularly wishes to be known to you," Darcy's fingers unknowingly sought his ring, "Will you allow me, or do I ask too much, to introduce my sister to your acquaintance during your stay at Lambton?"
The surprise of such an application was great indeed; it was too great for her to know in what manner she acceded to it. "I shall be delighted to make her acquaintance."
Elizabeth felt that whatever desire Miss Darcy might have of being acquainted with her must be the work of her brother, and without questioning her feelings to deeply, she felt satisfaction; it was gratifying to know that his resentment had not made him think really ill of her.
They now walked on in silence; each of them deep in thought. Elizabeth was not comfortable; that was impossible; but she was flattered and pleased. His wish of introducing his sister to her was a compliment of the highest kind. They soon outstripped the others, and when they had reached the carriage, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner were half a quarter of a mile behind.
There was a small garden temple near where the carriage was waiting, which offered a bench for quiet contemplation. "Would you care to go inside? It will be cooler and you may rest in comfort."
"Thank you, no," Elizabeth said with a slight shake of her head," I am not at all fatigued and the warmth of the sun is a pleasure I enjoy."
They stood together on the lawn. Physically there was not a great distance between them. However, both were aware that they were alone for a time, and that much might be said, and that the silence was very awkward. However, neither spoke.
Elizabeth wanted to talk, but there seemed an embargo on every subject. Mr. Bingley, Miss Bingley, Jane, her sisters, his sister, Pemberley, Longbourn, Meryton, Rosings, Lady Catherine and the Collinses would all bring forth their last meeting and Elizabeth wanted to avoid any distressing subject between her and Mr. Darcy at this time. She wanted to preserve the hesitant harmony that reigned during their walk.
At last she recollected that she had been travelling. "I find Derbyshire to be a most beautiful county."
"Have you traveled much this summer?" Darcy asked, grateful the new topic.
"Yes, on our way from Hertfordshire we have visited a great many places. Blenheim Palace, Oxford, Warwick, the ruined castle of Kenilworth, and Birmingham."
"And which places did you enjoy the most?" Darcy asked.
"Blenheim Palace is very beautiful--but very large. I found the gardens most delightful."
"As you probably know 'Capability' Brown designed the gardens at Blenheim. He also worked on the grounds at Pemberley around the same time he was working on Chatsworth."
"When we first came upon Pemberley, I thought that I had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where the natural beauty had been so little counteracted."
"Thank you," Mr. Darcy smiled in delight.
"We visited Kenilworth on a cloudy, overcast day. Will you think I am too imaginative if I said that I felt as if I was stepping into one of Mrs. Radcliffe's novels. Such a delightful atmosphere for a ghost or two."
"Would you not be frightened at seeing a ghost?"
"No, for I have yet to encounter one. I think it would be a meeting of grave delight."
"Then you must try to visit Peveril Castle when you are here in Derbyshire. It is said to be haunted. Or visit Longdendale Valley at the Peaks. It is famous for the ghostly Roman troops that still march there."
"We have visited the Peaks, but did not encounter any Centurians. But it is unbelievably lovely country."
"Where else have you visited in Derbyshire?" Darcy asked.
"We have visited Bakewell, Chatsworth, Matlock, and Dove Dale."
Darcy did not have the chance to question Elizabeth further for Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner had finally caught up with them.
"Please, return to the house and partake of some refreshment; surely some wine or lemonade would be welcome after your walk," Darcy invited.
"Thank you, Mr. Darcy. But I fear we must be leaving," declined Mr. Gardiner.
"Then good day, Mr. Gardiner, Mrs. Gardiner." Mr. Darcy handed the ladies into the carriage, "Good day, Miss Bennet. I hope we shall meet again very soon."
When it drove off, Elizabeth saw him watching the carriage before tuning to walk slowly towards the house.
*************** Information about Derbyshire ghosts from the Legends of Longdendale website: www.ndirect.co.uk/~fair/longdendale/legends.htm
© 1999 Copyright held by author