On the other hand, she should be careful what she wished for. Did she truly want another proposal? It would only make sense if she planned to give him a different response from the previous proposal. Would she?
Elizabeth pictured Mr. Darcy making another offer, and she imagined herself opening her mouth to respond with…
Here, her imagination failed her. She did not know her response. I suppose it is fortunate he has not asked the question.
When he had first proposed, Elizabeth had believed he could not possibly have made a worse choice for his wife. Now she realized they were far better suited than she had initially understood. Perhaps he had been right about their compatibility in marriage as well.
Elizabeth passed much of the afternoon staring out of the window and accomplished very little of her embroidery. The two sisters shared a dinner of cold meat alone. Lydia’s conversation primarily consisted of laments over Mrs. Forster’s continued absence and their confinement within the house. Since Lydia remained unaware of the heightened sense of danger, the restrictions had chafed even more for her. Elizabeth contributed little to the conversation as she was caught up in musings about French spies and a certain man from Derbyshire.
Mr. Darcy called at half past eight; by then Elizabeth was prepared to fling herself into his arms if he would only take her from the house. After a long day of inactivity, even Lydia was happy to see someone “so horribly dull.” At about nine o’clock, Mr. Darcy extended an offer to take Elizabeth for a walk through the town. By now Mr. Wickham and his cohorts would be on their way to the cliffside cave, so they would present no danger.
Elizabeth accepted eagerly and held her breath as Mr. Darcy politely extended the offer to Lydia, but she wrinkled her nose and declined. Apparently, she had a limited tolerance for Mr. Darcy’s company. Elizabeth could not feign disappointment as she was happy to escape Lydia’s complaints for a while.
The sun set late at this time of year, and it was still quite light when they departed from the house. Warm and humid, the air moved sluggishly, so Elizabeth suggested they make their way to the beach, which always enjoyed a good breeze.
They first strolled along St. James Street, a grand promenade that ran parallel to the beach. Only a single row of houses and shops separated the lane from the beach, and several cross streets led directly to the sand. A popular site for after-dinner perambulations, the lane was a place to see the “right” sort of people—and to be seen in turn.
Mr. Darcy seemed content to allow Elizabeth to lead the way. She admired the silk displayed in one shop window and examined ribbons at another, but Mr. Darcy’s company was far more interesting than the wares in any shop.
Soon weary of being jostled by the crowds, Elizabeth found herself yearning for a little more privacy to enjoy Mr. Darcy’s company. “Might we walk on the beach?” she asked him. “If it is not too much trouble.” She knew that many people did not enjoy such excursions, particularly when they got sand in their shoes.
“Of course.” He smiled. “The beach is one of my favorite places.” This made Elizabeth smile in return. “If we turn right at the next corner, we will arrive at the beach directly.”
However, before they reached the next corner, they became aware of a commotion ahead of them on St. James Street. The crowds had ceased moving as people gawked at a small group moving slowly in their direction. As the group grew closer, Elizabeth discerned two men leading the way in elaborate livery, carrying both swords and pistols. She squinted, trying to make out the design of the livery, and then gasped.
“It seems the prince regent will be gracing us with his presence,” Darcy murmured in her ear.
Elizabeth’s stomach fluttered. The prince regent’s presence in Brighton had been the subject of many dinner table conversations at the colonel’s house, but all had agreed that they were unlikely to glimpse him except as a face in a passing carriage. Accounts about the prince were numerous and often contradicted each other; Elizabeth was eager to learn the truth for herself.
Now she could glimpse the figure of the prince behind the guards. Having seen engravings and reproductions of portraits of the prince, Elizabeth had thought he was not a particularly handsome man. Now she knew that the artists had been generous.
He was…well, no other word could describe his gait except waddling. She believed she had never seen such a…rotund personage. He wore a suit of light blue silk and an enormous number of jewels—both on his fingers and around his neck—that somehow magnified his size. His eyes protruded slightly, and his jowls flapped with every step. With a red face and perspiration dripping into the neck of his cravat, he seemed to veer precariously close to the edge of an apoplectic fit. Obviously, years of a self-indulgent lifestyle had taken a toll on the man’s health.
He leaned on a jewel-encrusted walking stick in one hand while a well-dressed, bosomy lady held his other arm. She appeared to be propping him up rather than using his arm to steady herself. This must be Mrs. Fitzherbert; she had been the prince’s mistress for many years.
Two liveried servants followed behind the prince, anxiously scrutinizing his every step. Perhaps their job was to catch him in case he should fall, although they hardly appeared equal to the task. Two additional guards made up the rear of the procession.
The prince regent appeared to be every inch the indolent and dissolute man described by rumors and broadsides—a man who had earned his subjects’ disrespect and scorn. As he passed, many people bowed or curtsied—and many did not—but he took no notice either way.
As the procession grew closer, Elizabeth tried to recall what she had learned about court manners. The presence of royalty required a special kind of curtsey, but she did not remember the precise form—or indeed if anyone had taught it to her. She had never anticipated having a need for it.
However, all the prince’s efforts were focused on walking in the heat; he was unlikely to notice if she curtsied incorrectly. With his head held high, his eyes touched the crowd only briefly, and he made no effort to interact with the bystanders.
In her mind, Elizabeth rehearsed the curtsey she believed to be the correct one and prepared to make it. But as the entourage neared them, the prince called a halt. “Darcy? Is that you? Darcy?”
Mr. Darcy took a deep breath, stepped forward, and made a low bow. Behind him, Elizabeth quickly made her curtsey. When Mr. Darcy straightened, he spoke in a solemn, even tone. “Your Highness, you look well.” Ah, thought Elizabeth, he does know how to lie.
“Thank you, but Brighton is deuced hot this time of year!” the prince grumbled as a servant handed him a handkerchief to mop his brow. “I would have remained in the Pavilion, but Maria did so long for a walk.” He absently patted the woman’s hand where it rested on his arm.
“It is a nice evening for a walk,” Mr. Darcy said.
“I did not know you were in Brighton.” The prince’s tone was almost peevish, as though Mr. Darcy was obligated to keep him informed of his whereabouts. “Where are you staying?”
“The Crescent, Your Highness.”
“Not a bad place. You should come to dine at the Pavilion.” The prince made a grand, expansive gesture. “I am contemplating more renovations to the place. As you know, Moghul and Indian designs are the very height of fashion. My architect—Nash is his name—has designed an addition with these wonderful turrets and domes. I could show you the plans!”