After Great Deliberation
A more beautiful spring afternoon one could not have hoped for. The sun shone brilliantly down on the park with its impeccably maintained gardens and hedges.
Darcy, gazing from a second floor window toward the lane adjoining Hunsford cottage, narrowed his eyes as he discerned two figures slowly walking through the gate. They paused near the break in the hedgerows separating the laneway from the neighboring property. The taller figure was Colonel Fitzwilliam, his cousin. The other he knew he would have recognized even with his eyes closed; Miss Elizabeth Bennet. His heart gave a leap and his pulse quickened at the mere thought of her name.
Darcy watched as the two spoke a few minutes longer. Fitzwilliam appeared to take her arm as if to escort her through, but Miss Bennet shook her head, and, with a polite bow and curtsy on each side, they parted company. She disappeared from sight behind the shrubbery, but Fitzwilliam's step was quick and light as he made his way back to the great house.
Darcy continued to stare from his window, though his mind was far from the view before him. A new, intolerable thought had intruded upon his mind, concerning his cousin and Miss Bennet.
"No," he spoke aloud. "No, it cannot be. I will not permit it."
He had struggled for months to get Elizabeth Bennet out of his mind, and flattered himself on having achieved some measure of success. That is, until he and the Colonel had arrived at Rosings Park only to discover that bewitching woman staying in the house next door! Not only that, but his aunt had invited, and continued to invite, her parson and his guests, including Miss Bennet, to frequently dine and spend the evenings at Rosings. For Darcy there had been no escape from her enticing smile, nor from drowning in the depths of those fine, beautiful, brown eyes.
Darcy closed his own and shuddered in delicious recollection of the evenings spent by the piano listening to her performance and gazing upon her beauty, and her charms.
He was caught, he knew. Irrevocably trapped, and there was but one option for him. Darcy knew that he could not postpone any longer his departure for London. His business there could not be put off yet again. He and Colonel Fitzwilliam would have to leave Saturday. But there was simply no way that Darcy could leave Miss Elizabeth Bennet behind in Kent without coming to an understanding. He wished no repeat of the last four months; without Elizabeth, and without any hope of seeing her or hearing her voice again.
Rolling his shoulders back and turning away from the window, the Master of Pemberley quickly made his way downstairs to seek out his cousin. He found the Colonel in the drawing room, thankfully alone. Pausing in the doorway, attempting to collect his thoughts, Darcy realized he had no idea what he would say. What could he say? You are not to see Miss Bennet again, Fitzwilliam, for I'm hopelessly in love with her and she's going to be my wife! What impropriety am I thinking? How am I to handle this? Confusion overcame him once more, and his breathing became harsh in his distress.
Colonel Fitzwilliam looked up. "Are you quite all right, Darcy? You appear unwell."
Gaining control of himself, Darcy leveled a steady gaze at his cousin. "I am quite well," he said unconvincingly. "Did you enjoy your walk? "
Fitzwilliam smiled. "Oh, yes. I met with Miss Bennet and we had a lovely, or should I say lively conversation. I've never met anyone like her, Darcy. She is delightful. She will certainly make someone an excellent wife!" he said, pointedly looking at his companion. If you only knew how plainly your feelings are written upon your face at this moment! Fitzwilliam laughed to himself. These last few days in Miss Bennet's company had afforded him a rare view of Darcy. The man had positively sought her out time and time again, and his silent awkwardness in her presence was terribly amusing to behold. Now his misery was evident. They were to leave Kent, and Miss Bennet, in two days time. The Colonel decided to relieve some weight from Darcy's tortured mind. "I fear, however, not for me. I am not as free to marry where I like, as some men are." He was rewarded with seeing Darcy's color deepen, and looked back to his book to spare him further embarrassment.
It was some moments before Darcy would allow himself to speak.
"That is, of course, unfortunate for you." Changing the subject slightly, he added, "I believe Aunt Catherine has invited the Collinses and their guests for dinner this evening."
"Yes. Probably the last time before we leave." Fitzwilliam could not resist a look at Darcy, but his face was only thoughtful.
"If you will excuse me, Fitzwilliam, I think I shall take advantage of the fine weather and take a ride before dinner." And so saying, Darcy turned and left the room.
Having ridden down every path where he had previously encountered Miss Bennet, serving only to emphasize the disturbance of his thoughts, Darcy now urged his horse into a breakneck gallop across the upper meadow. Having seen the young lady out earlier, he felt safe that he would not meet up with her today, though he had felt an overwhelming need to visit her favorite haunts.
Reining in his horse at the far end of the field, he turned to survey the land behind him. The great house of Rosings was visible above the treetops, and, although not seen, Darcy knew that the smaller Hunsford Cottage was just to the right. It was in this direction that his eyes were drawn. A small wisp of smoke from the chimney wafted over the trees and dissipated in the breeze. He had only to close his eyes and Miss Bennet's face was before him, with her teasing smile and a mischievous glint in her eyes.
Darcy heaved a great sigh and frowned. He had been out for nearly two hours, and still his mind was in turmoil.
"Come to a decision, man!" he upbraided himself. He looked heavenward as if expecting some sign of counsel.
Frustrated, Darcy whirled his horse about and set off in the direction of home. He had missed tea, and now had left himself barely enough time to bathe and dress for dinner. This evening he would not waste one minute of Elizabeth's visit. He must make up his mind tonight, for he knew his last day at Rosings was unlikely to afford him much opportunity to see her alone.
It was with great anxiety of heart, then, that Darcy learned upon the arrival of Mr. And Mrs. Collins an hour and a half later that Miss Elizabeth Bennet would not be joining them that evening. Annoyed with his aunt's indignation at this news, he was hard pressed to school his own thoughts into order. He inquired of Mrs. Collins, and obtained the answer that Elizabeth was suffering from an acute headache, and felt that rest and solitude were the best remedy.
Absently, Darcy nodded his agreement, though his thoughts were racing wildly through his head. It was settled. There was no question now, but that he must ask for her hand. The pain he'd felt upon seeing her absence was too keen to bear repeating. Darcy resolved to find some excuse to leave his aunt's company, that he might pay a visit to Hunsford Cottage and make his wishes known.
Less than an hour later he managed to extricate himself from the party and found himself on the gravel path leading to the neighboring house. He paused just before the door. His confidence was high, but his emotions even more so. As a result, he felt an unaccustomed level of apprehension at what he was about to do.
Drawing in a deep breath, and with it all of his courage, Darcy raised his hand to the bell.
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