“And your other sisters?” he asked hesitantly.
She sighed. “Mary, like myself, was able to find employment. She is a governess to a very large and respectable family, and feels herself quite fortunate in her position. Kitty lives as a companion to my Aunt Gardiner, whose husband died some years ago. And Jane,” she looked at him for the first time since beginning her account, “married my Uncle Phillips’ clerk. When he died, she moved in with his sister’s family along with her two children. We are lucky they could take her in, but is not the life I would have wished for her. I often feel she is the most unfortunate of my living sisters, but her children are an enormous source of comfort. The eldest, Charles,” she said significantly, “has recently begun the pursuit of a naval career. She misses him terribly.”
“Charles?” he asked, his voice hollow.
“It was always a favorite name of hers.”
“Eliz - I’m sorry - Mrs. Bennet, but I must tell you I tried to get Mr. Bingley to return to Netherfield. I could not hide from him the … incident with Miss Lydia, and in light of that circumstance, he did not feel he could return to Hertfordshire.” He noted the tears welling in her eyes, but by some amazing act of self-command, not a single one fell. “If it is any consolation, I do believe he loved her. Perhaps he still does … ”
After a moment of thoughtful silence, she asked, “What became of Mr. Bingley?”
“He married a friend of his sister’s and settled in Surrey. His wife died giving birth to his eighth child, I believe. That was already many years ago. I have not seen or heard from him in quite sometime, but when last I hear, he had assumed direct control over his family’s business.”
“I see,” she replied, and silence reigned again. Eventually Elizabeth summoned the courage to say, “I was so sorry to hear of Miss Darcy’s death.”
He didn’t speak for a moment, struggling to master himself before saying, “She did not deserve to meet such an end.”
“I know it’s little consolation, but Dr. Wilson and I are contriving to keep Lady Saunders from giving you any further grief regarding her death again. The incident, unfortunately, happens to be a particular fascination of hers, but we conquered the obsession once and will do so again. Indeed, it is half the reason for this outing today. We hoped to redirect her attention.”
Through his pain a smile, most unaccustomed to his drawn face, broke slightly through. “Is that also the reason behind your maneuvers with Mrs. Frogmore this morning?”
She looked at him in amazement. “How did you know?”
“You forget, Mrs. Bennet, how very observant I am when it comes to you.”
She didn’t say anything, and with a hint of desperation he continued, “What a pair we make! Beaten down by the events of our past! Life could have been so different …”
She forced a smiled. “You must learn some of my philosophy, Mr. Darcy. Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure,” a bitter laugh escaped her. “I admit I think of the past very seldom, and I think I have done so enough for one day.” She consulted the ever-present pocket watch. “It is time to be heading back to Ramsey House, Mr. Darcy. Please follow me.”
She walked before him all the way back to where the carriages awaited, and he watched her the entire way. The back might have been that of an entirely different lady - so brisk and business like - but when he saw her face and looked into those remarkably unchanged eyes, he knew that despite her trials, she was still the same Elizabeth. He studied her hair, secured in a tidy bun at the nap of her neck. No, he would not dwell on the past at all, not anymore. She could not have returned to his life for no reason, and he resolved to not lose any last opportunity for happiness, no matter how desperate, that came his way. It was then that he realized he failed to mention the papers he had found within the secret compartment of the window box that morning.
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