"Miss Bennet," he said at last. "I hope you enjoyed your visit here today."
"Yes, very much. I have been so pleased to make your sister's acquaintance."
"She feels much the same about you, I gather." He paused now, for a long time. "I do hope that Miss Bingley--"
"I am well aware that I am the object of Miss Bingley's barbs."
"Are you aware of the reason?" Now he did look at her, and there seemed to be more to the question than was first apparent.She did not know how to answer. Was not Mr. Darcy the reason? How could she respond without entering into the area she thought they had silently agreed to avoid.
"She does not approve of me or my family."
"You do not seem to care if people approve of you or your family. You certainly didn't give it much thought when I did not."
When? Elizabeth's steps stuttered, and he tightened his grip, ever so modestly, on her arm. Did he mean to inform her that he no longer thought ill of her family and their low connections? Perhaps in spending time with the Gardiners, he realized that whatever his previous opinions of people of their status, Elizabeth had no cause to be embarrassed by her relations. Perhaps he meant to communicate even more.
She gathered herself together and spoke. "You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy. I cared a great deal. But I hold my own opinions as to my worth, and my family's respectability, too. I am not inclined to give much weight to the feelings of others so wholly unconnected to me. So in a case such as this, I will stand by my previous judgment, and not be persuaded to think ill of myself or my family based on the opinions of those for whom I hold little regard."
"Little regard," he repeated, absentmindedly.
Elizabeth's head jerked up. She had been speaking of Miss Bingley. Hurriedly, before she had even thought it through, she said, "Sir, do you remember once telling me that your good opinion, once lost, is lost forever?"
"I do." He gave her a curious look.
"I recall, at the time," she said, "describing such implacable resentment as a decided fault in a person."
"I remember that part of our conversation as well."
They had reached the carriage now, and as he took her hand to help her inside, she gave him a tiny curtsy and said, "It is not, I am fortunate to report, one of my faults."
She settled herself in her seat, scarcely believing her own forwardness, and when she was strong enough to meet his eyes, she caught a look that could be described as nothing but revelation upon his face.
He had taken her meaning, then. She was not one who could not change her opinion of a man, if reason enough had been given. And his letter to her, the information they'd received at Pemberley, and all of his behavior to her and her family since their arrival here--was that not reason aplenty?
"Good evening, Mr. Darcy," she said.
The Gardiners were nearly upon them. They had only seconds remaining.
"Miss Bennet"--all in a rush--"may I call on you tomorrow?" Mr. Darcy's eyes held a hint of something like a plea. "Alone?"
Elizabeth had time only to nod, before her aunt and uncle arrived.As they drove away from the house, Elizabeth glanced back and saw Mr. Darcy standing and watching the carriage go, as far as he could see until it turned the abrupt corner and headed out of the park.
She sat back in her seat, still astonished at her own words. They had been rash, and encouraging, and she'd done it all before she had fully thought through the ramifications.He was still the man who had separated Mr. Bingley and Jane. He was still the one who had imperiously informed her he could never rejoice in joining a family whose condition in life was so decidedly below his own.She'd once told him he was the last man in the world she could ever be prevailed upon to marry.
Had she just told him he was welcome to try again?