It was perhaps very fortuitous that none of the present company thought to wonder why he asked about Lady Darcy, as he was so disturbed that any question would have pierced his pretence at indifference. He scarcely heard the rest of the conversation, and though he accepted and held his niece for a full ten minutes, and managed to entertain her with a finger, and then a watch, he could not have, one minute after he delivered her into her father's arm, said that he had done so.
He walked slowly to his rooms, though he had said he would take a hansom cab, and all the while his mind kept going back to his words in their last meeting, and to her reaction, and finding no credible explanation. Surely, he had said worse things to her three years ago? And nonetheless, she had greeted him after that time had passed with equanimity and even the beginnings of friendship. He could find no answer. Perhaps, then, she had not been offended, and he had mistaken her. Perhaps, if they met now, nothing would be different.
Was he not thinking too much of himself, of his importance in her world, to conclude that because he had thought to perceive her acting oddly one afternoon, she had gone five counties away to escape from his presence?
He surely was.
But it was very provoking. It was not in his character to dwell on unpleasant subjects, nor to think too much about matters he could not arrange to his satisfaction, and nonetheless, at any given moment not spent in actual work or conversation, his thoughts came back to her, and to the possibility that he had offended her again.
It had been three years between his first offence and their meeting again — would he have to wait another three years?
And did he care?
Of course he did. It was — it should have been startling, but he had not fallen into caring as one falls from a horse. It was, perhaps, a very uninteresting, un-novel like way, but he had started slowly but surely on this path since he had met her again, and it was not a surprise to realize the extent of it now. It was all too natural, after his anxiety during the past eight days.
He felt he could now maturely examine his feelings with objective detachment: he found in himself friendship, attraction, and the acutest interest for her welfare, among which feelings the only novel one was perhaps the last.
It was the mixture that perturbed him; the fact that they did not present themselves in ordered, separate compartments, referred to different, safely amiable people. The fact that they combined into a need for her — for her presence, at the very least.
There was no future for such feelings. How could there be?
His family, his situation in life, his age, the way he had treated her in the past all conspired against a happy outcome, even if he had not offended her this time. Even if he had not, even if she were as charitably disposed towards him as she had been those past few months, it was unthinkable. But he knew, he had the certainty that he had offended her.
And to manage to do it, when the words he had said had been so ridiculous, so ill-thought, that he was forced to disclaim them to himself when he thought back on them not a fortnight after having spoken them! He could have had, at least, her friendship.
But then again, perhaps he had not lost that; and could he be happy with it, and no more?
The thought of her considering him forever merely the brother of her friend was horribly unsettling.
He was a fool. He was chagrined, but it was one of the few times he admitted it, even to himself. It would undoubtedly be a learning experience. At some point he would look back and laugh at it, and himself, and be able to think of Lady Darcy only with a certain fondness.
The thought was poor comfort.
He was determined not to mope, not to allow his feelings to be depressed forever. He had work to do, and friends to visit. He could not avoid thinking of Lady Darcy; very well, he would not. He would remember her with pleasure. He would not make himself miserable.
It was a good resolution — he did not fall into a decline. Not that he had truly feared it, but it was, after all, the first time he felt any thing like this. He managed to repress his feelings so well that none of his friends noticed that he was doing so.
He was glad, he told himself, that he managed not to think of her much at all. It was only when he read a new novel that he thought of what she would think of it. Or when he caught a very strange spider and found himself thinking that he should take it to Lord Darcy, and perhaps discover his mother at home. Or when Captain Bingley said something that managed to be both superior and silly, which was, it had to be allowed, very often — or when the Captain promised himself, finally, to Miss Cooper.
He found himself wanting to ask John and Charlotte about her, but not quite willing to subject himself to their well-meaning curiosity just to hear that she was well. Frustratingly, he found himself thinking of things to say to her. How had he got so used to her presence? It had not been two months since they had met again, and even during them, they had not, surely, spent a significant enough time with each other to provoke such an attachment! Was it everyone who felt like this?
Two months after she had gone — and it was not, he told himself, that he was counting, but would she only return to the city for the season? — he encountered Lady Constance in the street. He tipped his hat, and was surprised at realizing he had not seen her for so long — as long as Lady Darcy.
She did not quite smile, but he did not notice at first. He had stopped walking, glad that he had been acknowledged, not because it would give him a chance at flirting with her, he was angry with himself at noting, but because it would be all too natural to ask after her family if they spoke.
They exchanged the appropriate greetings, and Edward's throat was suddenly very dry, but he managed to ask clearly, 'And your family, they are all well? Mr Fitzwilliam, Lord Darcy and Lady Darcy?'
She frowned slightly, and apprised him for a moment before answering. 'The boys are very well, thank you. But I am surprised you ask about my cousin.'
He was at first so frustrated that she had said nothing about Lady Darcy (though surely, she must be well? If it were otherwise, would she not have said it first?), that he did not catch her meaning until a few moments later. He was then too disconcerted to make an intelligent reply. 'You are?'
'I did say so,' said Lady Constance, though her brow had lost most of its frown. 'I thought — but no matter, I should not have spoken.'
He had, then, offended her. So badly, in fact, that though she had not told his old offense to anyone, she had told her cousin of this. So badly, that her cousin was angry enough to mention it to him.What had he said?
He decided in a moment, and chose straightforwardness. 'I offended her, then, during our last meeting? I am sorry for it. I feared it, and hoped I could apologize, but I did not see her again before she left.' He hesitated to add that he did not know quite what he had said; it would count against him, surely, if his offense had been great. 'It was truly not my intention.'
'No, of course it was not,' she said, somewhat briskly. 'And I am sorry for having spoken of it to you — my cousin would not like it.'
Edward wanted to ask — wanted to find a way to understand what had been the matter, but could not. She was, it seemed, determined to tell him goodbye and go. It was just as well — there was no way to enquire. It was, however, he thought, all very odd. Lady Constance seemed to accept he had not meant it, and not hold it against him — she seemed, moreover, genuinely regretful to have spoken. What then, could it have been?
He thought again back to his words while he walked home, and a slight hope reasserted itself. Perhaps, he thought, he was misunderstanding everything, which was understandable given his history with the lady. Perhaps he had not offended her at all.
He had disclaimed any interest in marriage; what could she care of his feelings on the matter? Unless she had an interest in him.
It was a revelation. Half of it was the possibility in itself — the other half, the elation he felt at considering it. Where his feelings so strong, then? And could be he be sure that he was not, then, deceiving himself?
He had not, of course, been brought up to doubt his own value, or to think himself unworthy of affection, but he had had so acute an understanding of what the lady must think of him from the beginning of their acquaintance, he had never truly considered the possibility. Acute, of course, and wrong — or perhaps not, he corrected, wrong at first. But something had changed when they renewed their acquaintance.
It was a gratifying theory — so gratifying, in fact, that he could not help but doubt it. He could not act on it until he got some sort of confirmation. (And how, he thought briefly, and then discarded the thought for the present, would he act if it were true? He could not yet think about that.)
There was one other person he could ask, and now, bolstered by new intelligence, and irked at two months having passed without his preoccupation with her abating, he was finally willing to risk waking her concern.
He called without delay at the Bingleys' home and asked for Charlotte. He did not know, however, how to begin his questioning once she had received him. He had no right, after all, to ask about confidences between his sister and her closest friend.
After they greeted each other, and the child had been passed on to his lap — he had, as the first excuse to occur to him, claimed to be passing by and to want to see his niece — he was at a loss as to how to continue.
They spoke of inanities, and she related to him some of his niece's newer accomplishments, as well as the latest news from Longbourn. Mr Bennet seemed decided to go to Newmarket and Mrs Bennet had rejected an invitation to London.
There was a pause, in which Edward could think of no way to comment; he could not make himself care for any of the things she had mentioned. He smiled ruefully and played with his niece's hand — she was determined, it seemed, to gnaw on one of his fingers. 'Charlotte — I have something to ask you and I do not quite know how. I am afraid you will think me terribly improper.'
She seemed about to speak, but had an odd expression. After a moment, she simply said, 'I am sure I will not.'
'My question, then,' said Edward, drawing some strength from the fact that he did not have to look at Charlotte, but could look, instead, at her child, 'relates to Lady Darcy. It has lately occurred to me that I may have — that she may had harbored some hope. About me.'
Charlotte was silent.
Edward raised his eyes. 'Was I mistaken?' He hesitated, and then said, 'If I am right, you need not fear that you will be betraying your friend's trust to—to someone indifferent. I am not indifferent.'
'I hope, then,' said Charlotte, a slight smile quirking her lips, 'that you will not do so poor a job at telling her so as you did just now.'
Understanding took only a moment, and he felt a violent surge of joy.
He was, he thought as he strode away to his rooms with a letter from Charlotte to her friend, as elated as he had ever felt. Almost as elated as he had been miserable before — and yes, now that there was hope, he could accept that, in his way, he had been miserable. He dared not to examine this hope too closely, lest he be besieged by doubts, but now that it existed, he knew how to act.
She had given him, he thought, a thousand and one signs that he had not been wise enough to perceive. It was somewhat bewildering, in fact, to understand them all and to know he had not done it before. He was characterized by a particular kind of willfulness, he knew, that made him unable to change his opinion even upon perceiving contradicting information.
Nevertheless, he now knew and understood her opinion of him, or at least, her opinion of him as it had been two months before. He had no doubt as to his next step: he ought to go to Derbyshire and call on her.
From Lady Darcy to Lady Constance Tilney
Northbrook, Sunday evening May 25
You must come visit very soon, and see the new blue drawing-room! We have decided it already; it is the most delightful room ever to grace a house. I was not sure at all about the print in the upholstery, but my great-aunt was right, and it looks very fine. Mr Smith thought so, too, and it is generally agreed that he is in possession of the most refined taste in Derbyshire.
Fitzwilliam has asked me to tell you that he is enormously grateful for your birthday gift; I made him write you a proper thank-you note, which is enclosed in the letter. A dog of his own, his to train and pamper! He is charmed indeed, and I feel nearly envious of the love he professes you at the moment. He named her Constance in your honour. And I, dear cousin, am very well pleased too, for he runs after her and takes her for walks every day, and if she is half as sprightly as she has shown herself to be, I will not have to worry about him getting his exercise again!
We attended a ball at the public rooms yesterday; I did not dance much (just the once with Mr Smith and again with my cousin), but I did enjoy myself a great deal. I talked with the sensible matrons, kept my great-aunt company, and made conversation with the gentlemen in the cards-room. We had a very lively discussion on land management that lasted three sets, and was much more interesting than any country dance.
I have finished Rousseau's Second Discourse at last; I think I liked his Essai sur l'origine des langues better, but I would be hard-pressed to explain why. It was much more fanciful, I daresay, and thus more entertaining. I will start Éloise next, as a couple of ladies of the neighbourhood have praised it most fervently. I am not disposed to trust their judgement indiscriminately, but I am willing to try. Oh, and I know you will laugh at me, but I have taken up Greek again. Fitzwilliam is very keen on Aesop, and I have once more fallen prey to the charms of verbal aspect. I cannot bear to learn anything half-ways, and it is very rainy outside anyway.
I did not post this letter yesterday — I forgot about my correspondence entirely. We had callers all afternoon, and a dinner party to attend in the evening. We are very busy, as everyone is home and they had not seen Lady Darcy in years.
Today we went to a picnic organized by Mrs Edwards — amazingly, it did not rain. It was charming, although probably too long. Of course Fitzwilliam did not think so, as there was a game of cricket to play and Mr Smith's youngest son, a cheerful boy named James, to teach him how. They also added a couple of butterflies and beetles to their collections. Mr Smith himself was at his most gentlemanly, and I am sincerely growing quite fond of him. My great-aunt is very excited! I do believe we can expect a proposal very soon. I am prone to be mistaken in such affairs, it is true, but I have no doubt of his regard or his intentions. I am already planning a wedding in June.
I hope to see you soon, and that your namesake will stop teething on my new furniture soon.
I am, &c.,