"Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy," Hill announced as the gentlemen stepped through the drawing room door.
Mr. Bingley's smile brightened noticeable as he greeted his intended. Mr. Darcy's countenance, however, revealed nothing as he bowed in greeting to Elizabeth. Her face revealed no more than his did. For an instant they each searched the face of the other for the smallest hint of emotion, the smallest clue to what feelings truly existed.
Questions flooded Elizabeth's mind. "Does he know of Lady Catherine's visit? Does he know of my behavior during the conversation? Does he believe my remarks to be due to my feelings FOR him or AGAINST the interference of Lady Catherine? How will I ever find out the answers to these and all the other questions I have?"
These same questions had been dismissed from her mind as impossible in the days following the visit. Now HE was here and no rational thoughts on these topics would stay. Only proper behavior and a desire not to offend kept her in check.
Darcy's mind was no more settled. "Has Lady Catherine's visit changed Elizabeth's opinion of me, the way her family's behavior had once affected mine?" This question had haunted him frequently since Lady Catherine's unexpected visit to him. He had always been able to assure himself that she would be unaffected. She, of all people, knew the difficulties that arise from relations who could not be checked. Her continued regard for Mr. Bingley evidenced her ability to distinguish person from family.
The reserved, mask-like look on her face, so unusual for her, caused his previous assurances to be swept away as the late November breeze brushes away the last brown leaves of fall. He had been so wrong about her before. Could he be wrong again? He was so changed since the spring. His trip to Kent seemed a lifetime ago. His head was sure he could not be wrong again. His heart, however, could not withstand another blow from Miss Elizabeth Bennet.
"It is such a beautiful day. Let us all walk toward Meryton," suggested Mr. Bingley.
A small sense of relief came to both Elizabeth and Darcy. A walk would remove them from the company of Mrs. Bennet. While Darcy had learned to ignore her barbs, each one pierced Elizabeth's heart, for she was sure they also pierced the heart she so dearly loved.
There was another advantage to the walk. While Mr. Bingley's design was to have time alone with Jane, it was possible, both Elizabeth and Darcy supposed, that they might be given an opportunity to share a few moments of privacy. Maybe. Let us hope.
As they walked, neither seemed to be able to form the words necessary to carry on a conversation. In his mind, Mr. Darcy had been planning what we would say should they be afforded an opportunity to be alone together. While he had weighed many options, including mentioning Lady Catherine's visit and his previous proposal in Huntsford in the spring, he decided that he would let Elizabeth lead the conversation. Her countenance upon his greeting was so unusual, so unlike his beloved, that he felt she must have something weighing very heavily on her mind. He was sure that her nature would not permit her silence, if they were left alone.
Elizabeth, however, had already determined her plan. Her feelings, her desires, her questions would have to wait. She knew that the dictates of proper behavior demanded that the family express their gratitude for Mr. Darcy's assistance in the matter of Lydia's marriage. Since she was the only one to know of his assistance, she felt it was her duty to perform.
She remembered back to her visit to Derbyshire. She remembered how she felt when she realized that she truly loved him. The kindness and graciousness that had been so missing previously were there in earnest and when she needed them most. She remembered his look of concern upon finding her so distressed. She hadn't realized that she loved him until that day, the same day she lost him.
She hoped to judge if this situation had done the irreparable damage that she assumed it had. She was sure when he left her at the Lambton Inn that he would never see her again. Yet, he was the one who sacrificed himself, his wealth and more importantly his dignity, to bring this to the best conclusion that could be had. Was it out of respect for her or to make up for his failure to expose Wickham's character sooner? Regardless of the story he told her aunt and uncle, this same argument had been debated in her mind on more long nights that she cared to count. Now, perhaps, she would be able to quell the demons that had haunted her for so long. Only after a judgment had been made regarding Darcy's regard for her would she consider acknowledging her feelings to him.
"Lizzy, do you mind if I run down the lane here to call on Maria Lucas?" asked Kitty.
"No, not at all," replied Lizzy, feeling a tightness in her chest.
As Kitty started away from them, Elizabeth took a deep breath, knowing that she must carry out her plan. Courage was all she needed. Her love for Darcy, coupled with her desire for him to see her as he had at Pemberley, provided all the courage necessary for her to break the silence.
"Mr. Darcy, I am a very selfish creature; and, for the sake of giving relief to my own feelings, care not how much I may be wounding yours. I can no longer help thanking you for your unexampled kindness to my poor sister. Ever since I have known it, I have been most anxious to acknowledge to you how gratefully I feel it. Were it known to the rest of the family, I should not have merely my own gratitude to express."
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