What, the neighborhood inquired of each other what could possibly require that combination of local authority?
Eagerly they awaited the next part of the story and they were not disappointed.
Not a single member of the jury was required to pay for his own drinks in the pub that night. The state of Miss Elizabeth’s dress was described and exclaimed over in kitchens and dining rooms across the county.
And in Netherfield, Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy returned in silence, avoided Bingley’s sisters and brother in law in order to retreat to the study for a moment of private discussion.
Bingley poured out two healthy portions of brandy.
“Dear heaven, what a dreadful day!”
“You are entirely correct!” Darcy accepted the glass then walked away to stare blankly out of the window. By some coincidence it was the one facing toward Longbourne. At this distance nothing could be seen, but it could be felt. Oh, yes, it could be felt.
“I must say, Darcy, I am astonished at you.”
Darcy raised an eyebrow. “How so?”
“I have never in the course of my life heard so many words from you.”
“Strange, is it not,” said Darcy. “Indeed. Only think what my tutors would have said at such eloquence. Instead of being hesitant and uncertain of my words they seemed to flow from me.” But, he added in the privacy of his own thoughts, perhaps, I have not until this time had adequate inspiration and need.
“It is a shame you are not heir to your uncle, the earl. I can see you rising to give your speeches before the House of Lords.”
“I shall be forever grateful for my two cousins. That thought is quite beyond my ambition. I cannot imagine anything worse…” And then Darcy’s countenance grew shadowed. “Except what has befallen the Bennet family.”
“Yes. Poor Miss Elizabeth.”
“Mr. Collins was a fool indeed to think he deserved her.”
“That Collins was an idiot,” observed Bingley, “but what an embarrassing way to die!”
“No family is without their embarrassing relatives,” said Darcy, softly.
“True,” said Bingley with a quirk of his lip. “There is a reason you have not been introduced to my aunts, old fellow. I want to remain your friend.”
“I have an aunt of my own whose manners and conversation does not bear close examination,” said Darcy to the window.
“I met the redoubtable Lady Catherine a few years ago in London and you have my sympathy, Darcy, but I would put meeting both our aunts into the scale against what our poor Miss Elizabeth has suffered and give all my pity to Miss Elizabeth. That Collins, what an idiot!” Bingley shuddered. “When can we pay our condolence visit? Of course, condolences seem to lack something when one is aware that none will truly grieve for his passing. What can one say to eulogize a fat embarrassing fool who was avoided when alive, and so much trouble with the manner of his dying?”
At this point Bingley realized that he was conducting the majority of the conversation.
“Darcy? Are you listening?”
His friend turned. “Yes.”
“Shall you come with me to pay a call tomorrow?”
“On the Bennets, of course.”
“We are not family,” said Darcy. “Condolence under these circumstances, as you have pointed out, is insufferable. The family will not welcome our presence to remind them of our part in today’s events.”
“Despite everything, the man was their cousin,” said Bingley. “Some notice must be made. And we have been guests in their house many times and owe them condolence.”
“We shall attend the funeral. No doubt it shall be in a day or so.”
“But the ladies, they shall not be there.”
“Of course not. At least, not at the graveside.”
“Then what is to be done? If I wait until the wake to speak to her there will be other visitors demanding her attention. And then the family go into mourning. My Jane shall look very well in blacks but am I to be prevented from seeking her company under the circumstances? When shall I be permitted to seek her out?”
“Collins might not be sincerely mourned but the conventions must be observed. Since Collins is a mere cousin they will not be required to put on blacks for more than a month. In that time there shall be no socializing, in the common way.”
“I do not want to think that it shall be a month before I might see Miss Jane again and we have not yet reached an understanding whereby I might explain my absence in a letter.”
“I sympathize Bingley, but Miss Bennet will be much occupied with her sister at this time. Miss Elizabeth will need her.”
“Yes, poor Miss Elizabeth. I have never seen her so shocked and pale. One is accustomed to seeing a smile on her face. To see her cast down is heartbreaking.”
Darcy could agree with that. At least he had the comfort of seeing her rally, of giving her what little advice would aid her. She was admirable and now, fallen completely out of his reach. The horror of the day’s events clenched his breath in his throat.
“One month,” Bingley considered. “He hardly seems worthy.”
“Society has its rules and cares not for what sort of person you are.”
“I do not want Miss Bennet to think I have abandoned her.”
“But, sadly my friend, I suspect you shall have to.”
Darcy pressed a hand against his chest. Sad did not adequately express the pain he felt. With his place in society to consider, with his sister’s own fragile position, he could not see Elizabeth again. It was impossible.
It was, of everything, horrible.
And his duty was not yet done. It was necessary to explain to his otherwise oblivious friend why he must cast off his current flirt!
Fortunately Bingley was prone to falling in and out of love. He would recover. Darcy was not so certain of his own fate. He had never been in love. Never desired a woman the way he desired Elizabeth Bennet. When he had described his ideal woman each word had been chosen to describe some aspect of her heart, her spirit, her form. She was a constant delight to him and he had let his opportunities to know her better slip away. Now she, herself, had slipped. When the news became common knowledge… he closed his eyes against the pain.
“What? What do you mean?” pressed Bingley.
“Bingley, my friend, consider what has happened today. How it will be perceived. Your own position in society is but recently won. Your father was in trade. You are the first of your family to graduate from university and begin the climb to gentry. You have achieved much, and yet, not enough. It is, you tell me, your father’s ambition that you should take a place in society. To do so you must hold yourself separate from scandal and marry well.”
“I would have thought that by taking the daughter of a gentleman I would have achieved that aim. Mr. Bennet is an established gentleman. The family has held Longbourne for two hundred years.”
“Granted, although their own connections are not the best, the Bennet’s are gentry and not too far above you that you could not aspire … until now.” Darcy’s voice faded away.
The dining bell echoed through the house. Bingley startled.
“Luncheon and we are still standing about in all our dirt,” said Bingley. “We must prepare to dine. If you would go me a favor, Darcy, please do not discuss today’s events with my sisters.”
Darcy said nothing.
“And I shall have an explanation out of you,” continued Bingley. “You shall not put that eloquence of yours away until you have satisfied my curiosity!”