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In Praise of Her Conceited Independence

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It was a fortuitous coincidence that had brought Miss Elizabeth Bennet to Ramsgate that time of year. Her Uncle Gardiner's business partner had leased a house there with his wife for a few weeks during the summer months, but due to a happy family occurrence was obliged to return home to London only a fortnight after taking it up. Since it would be a shame to allow the house to stand empty after the money had already been paid, he had offered the house to his business partner free of charge until the end of the lease. There had been some vague plans of Elizabeth traveling with her aunt and uncle to the peaks the following summer, but when presented with such a holiday opportunity at so little inconvenience or expense to themselves, it was agreed by the party that a holiday by the seaside would be quite as pleasant a substitute.

Elizabeth had never seen the sea before and was enchanted by it. She enjoyed walking along the shore, watching the endless blue expanse, and breathing in the salty smell of the air. Being a vigorous walker and having always enjoyed the feeling of solitude in nature, her walks took her far from the busy docks and the more populated beaches to rockier areas, removed from the peopled districts of the of the town.

That afternoon found her comfortably secluded in the shade of a cozy nook a few feet from the seaside, and a mile or so removed from the hustle and bustle of the crowds. Her aunt and uncle were to spend the day with an old acquaintance whom Elizabeth found rather dull. She had begged off the visit, and instead had brought with her a book and lunch and was quite comfortably settled in her little nook, enjoying the sights, the sounds, and the solitude.

Her peace, however, was not to last. An hour or so before sunset, and just as Elizabeth began concluding that it was getting rather chilly and she ought to head back once she finished her current chapter, the sound of voices nearby caught her attention.

The voices became louder as the speakers approached, and finally stopped just beside her, so that Elizabeth supposed they were only separated by the large boulder to her left, which was blocking her from view.

"George, my love," came the voice of a young woman, "I have been thinking."

"What is it, darling?" replied a masculine voice.

Elizabeth hesitated. She had no desire to eavesdrop and supposed she had best alert the couple to her presence. On the other hand, she was quite comfortably situated where she was, and did not wish to disassemble before she could read what the heroine had found in the mysterious locked chest. She concluded that since she was not familiar with any of the speakers, nor was she likely to ever know who they were, there was no harm in hearing a potentially private conversation. Thus, she decided to remain in place.

"Fitzwilliam is set to arrive in only three days," the woman spoke. "What if we waited- what if we did not leave just yet and waited for him to come?"

"Georgiana, my darling, we have discussed this already." The masculine voice sounded frustrated.

"I know. Oh, but George, I cannot stand to think of the betrayal he will feel when he hears we have gone to Gretna Green. He is my brother; I feel that he should be there on my wedding day. I know that you think he will refuse his permission, but I am certain that if you simply explained to him what you did to me, we could clear up this horrible misunderstanding."

"I told you already, Georgiana, he would not listen to me. He refused to hear what I had to say."

"Oh, but surely if I explained to him- and I think once he sees for himself how in love we are, and how happy you make me, he can no longer remain willfully blind. It will take some effort, but he is a reasonable man, and there is nothing he wishes for more than my happiness. I know if we explained it properly, he would give us his blessing!"

"I do not think-" the man began to say, but he was interrupted by the young woman.

"I cannot stand the idea of deceiving my dearest brother! I am sorry, George, I know you disagree with me, but I do not think it right to run off and elope. We must stay until Fitzwilliam arrives, explain all to him, and ask for his blessing. I know he will not refuse us."

"What if he does?" the man exclaimed. "He might very well try to prevent me from ever seeing you again! Georgiana, my life has no meaning if I cannot be with you! Being forcibly separated from you would be as bitter as death to me. I cannot- I would not-" his voice broke, pain evident in every syllable.

"Oh, George! You must not despair so. If Fitzwilliam refuses you and tries to keep us apart, I will run away with you. Mrs. Younge will help me escape, and we will flee together for Gretna Green. I would not do such a thing to my brother, though, without first trying to do it properly. Really, George, once you explain to him the foolish misunderstanding, I doubt he will remain stubborn! We will stay here until he comes and tell him everything. My mind is quite made up on the matter."

"I see that it is." answered the man pensively. "Very well, my dear, you leave me no choice. Mrs. Younge, leave us."

"Yes, Mr. Wickham." replied a third voice that Elizabeth had not yet heard.

"What?" The young woman sounded worried. "I do not- I do not think it necessary. It would be quite inappropriate. Mrs. Younge? Where are you going? Come back please! I do not understand. George, she is not listening to me."

"I am sorry, darling, but she and I are longtime friends, you know. It is only natural that her loyalty to me should overcome her duty to you."
"I do not understand why you sent her away." The girl sounded petulant. "Did you think I was only saying what I was because she was there? I feel no need to put her off our trail, I am confident that she would not expose our plan to my brother; she has always been most supportive of our love. I said what I did because I truly meant it. If you only talk to Fitzwilliam, you will not find him unreasonable."

The man chuckled. "I did not think you were only performing for her. It was quite obvious that you meant what you said. No, I simply sent her away because I required some privacy."

"What for? George? George, what are you doing?!"

There was a ripping sound. Elizabeth sprang to her feet in alarm.

"My dress!" the girl cried, "Why would you do that?" She sounded like she was on the verge of tears.

"I apologize, dear Georgiana; it is quite a lovely dress, and it is a shame to ruin it. I am afraid, though, that I cannot risk you telling your brother of our plans prematurely. Now, Mrs. Younge will doubtless take the carriage back to town, leaving us to walk back together. Of course, once we return together from unchaperoned seclusion, you with your dress torn, it will not take long for conclusions to be reached or for rumors to fly. Darcy will be forced to make us marry, whether he wishes to or not."

The girl gave a little shriek and began sobbing.

"Now, don't cry, Georgiana, it is quite unattractive. And you are generally such a pretty girl. In fact, if the whole world is to think you are compromised, I might as well-"

At that moment Elizabeth's hands found what she had been looking for- an old half-rotted plank which was lying on the ground and must have once belonged to a ship. It wasn't much by way of a weapon, but it was the best thing on hand. She circled around the boulder that had been hiding her to find a tall, broad-shouldered man gripping the arms of a struggling girl.

"You!" she shouted. The man turned around in alarm, and Elizabeth swung the plank into his face with all her might. He let go of his hold on the girl with a pained shout. He was clutching at his eye, and Elizabeth hoped he had gotten a clump of sand in it off the plank. She had no plans to remain long enough to confirm it.

"Run!" shouted Elizabeth to the girl. She tugged on the girl's sleeve and began to sprint towards civilization as fast as her legs could carry her, looking aside to ensure that the girl was with her.

The girl was lagging slightly behind her, and, hearing a shout of rage behind them, Elizabeth grabbed the girl's wrist and began pulling her along, increasing her speed.

In a few minutes, the girl pulled back. "Stop," she panted, clutching at her chest. "I can't- run- any- longer."

"He will catch up to us!" Elizabeth cried.

The girl shook her head. "He's not-" she stopped to take a deep breath. "He is not following us."

Elizabeth looked behind her and saw the truth of the statement. The dark-haired man was no longer in sight. "He must have realized his plan would come to nothing once a witness was there." she mused.

The girl burst into tears. "It will not- It will not come to nothing! My dress is torn! The moment I am seen, my reputation will be ruined! Oh, what a fool I have been!"

"Oh, sweetheart!" said Elizabeth, her heart going out to the distressed young girl, "He will achieve no such victory! Here-" she took off her spencer. "Wear this. The tear will not be visible underneath it."

The girl took a shuddering breath. "You will not be cold?" she asked hesitantly.

"Your modesty is of far greater consequence than a chilly breeze!" said Elizabeth. "Come, put it on. And then we should hurry back to the docks, just in case he does come after us. We need not run, though, if you cannot."

The girl gulped but put the spencer on without further protest. They began walking together.

"Thank you." the girl said hesitantly, after a few minutes of silence. "If you had not come- Oh, it does not bear contemplation!"

"I am very grateful that I was able to be of service." said Elizabeth solemnly. Then, because the girl looked so miserable, she said in jest: "It is rather novel- playing the role of knight in shining armor rather than fair maiden."

The girl could bring herself to do no more that give a faint smile that did not reach her eyes.

Silence descended once again, and Elizabeth struggled for a subject to distract the girl from her misery.

"I heard him call you Georgiana. Is that your name? I quite like it."

The girl groaned. "It is a man's name, with an 'ana' tacked on to make it feminine! I very much resent it. What is your name?"

"I am Elizabeth."

"A proper feminine name!" Georgiana exclaimed warmly.

"Yes, I do believe my mother abides by your philosophy regarding names for girls. My sisters are Jane, Mary, Catherine, and Lydia."

"You are five sisters?" Georgiana asked, sounding awed by the magnitude of the number.

"Yes, and not a single brother."

"I have only one brother," Georgiana replied. "And no sisters at all. I have always wished to have one, though."

"You are welcome to one or two of mine." said Elizabeth, "I have an excess."

Georgiana chuckled slightly and seemed to relax, and the rest of their walk was spent in pleasant conversation.

Once they reached the town both paused for a minute. "Georgiana," Elizabeth said, "I am sure you are safe from here, but I would like to walk you back to your home. I will not be comfortable until I see you safely returned."

"I was hoping you would say that!" replied Georgiana. "I do not fancy being alone just yet. Besides, I need to return your spencer."

"Of course," said Elizabeth, who had quite forgotten about her spencer, but was now becoming aware of the chill. "Lead the way."

She walked with Georgiana to a part of town that was a fair bit nicer than where she was residing with her aunt and uncle. The big house they stopped in front of confirmed what Georgiana's top-quality clothes had hinted at. She was very wealthy.

As they entered the house, a middle-aged woman, obviously the housekeeper, rushed towards them. "Miss Darcy! Where have you been? I was so very concerned when Mrs. Younge returned without you, but she said you sent her away."

"I did not send her away!" cried Georgiana indignantly, "It was-"

Elizabeth jabbed Georgiana sharply with her elbow. There was no need for the staff to know that she had been left alone with Wickham.

Georgiana met her eyes and seemed to understand what Elizabeth was trying to convey, because she blushed and fell silent, leaving the rest of her sentence hanging.

Elizabeth's gesture caught the housekeeper's eyes, and she turned them suspiciously on Elizabeth. "I see you have a guest."

"Oh, yes!" said Georgiana, "Forgive me. Mrs. Greene, this is Elizabeth ah-" She hesitated. They had never introduced themselves to each other properly.

"Miss Elizabeth Bennet." Elizabeth said smoothly, nodding at the housekeeper. Mrs. Greene bobbed in response but continued to eye her suspiciously.

"Shall I tell Mrs. Younge that you have returned?" asked Mrs. Greene.

Georgiana turned terrified eyes to Elizabeth. Elizabeth nodded firmly. "Yes, please."

It wasn't her place to command Georgiana's staff, but the girl herself was obviously still reeling from her experience and was in no shape to make decisions.

The housekeeper looked to Georgiana for confirmation, and when the girl gave a timid nod, she curtsied, and left to find Mrs. Younge.

Once she was gone, Georgiana turned wide scared eyes to Elizabeth. "Mrs. Younge left me alone with George! Do you think she-"

Elizabeth nodded. "Yes, I have no doubt she was a willing participant in the plot. Doubtless she was promised a share of your dowry. I assume it is not- ah- insignificant?"

Georgiana shook her head. "Thirty thousand pounds."

Elizabeth resisted the urge to whistle at the vast sum. "I imagine Wickham did not find it hard to convince her to collude with him, with such an inducement."

"What should I do?" Georgiana asked desperately, but Mrs. Greene was already returning, accompanied by a younger woman. "Mrs. Younge." she said, bowing.

"Miss Darcy!" cried Mrs. Younge upon seeing her, sounding ruffled.

Georgiana sent Elizabeth a beseeching look, and she smoothly stepped in. "Miss Darcy will no longer be requiring your services, Mrs. Younge. Please pack your bags and leave."

The woman gave her a glare. "Who are you? You are not-"

Elizabeth swelled with anger. The fact that this despicable woman had betrayed the trust of her sweet young charge and left her at the mercy of such a villain made her feel a loathing she had never before experienced in her life. Her eyes narrowed, and she raised her voice. "Allow me to reiterate. Your mistress no longer requires your services. You will be gone within the next hour, or I shall see you arrested for trespassing."

The woman gave a small squeak and scampered off.

Georgiana released a great breath. Elizabeth turned to Mrs. Greene and ignored the wide-eyed look the woman was giving her. "Miss Darcy requires a change of clothes," she told her.

Mrs. Greene nodded, and rushed off, shooting one last look behind her back. Georgiana quietly led Elizabeth up to her room.

Once they entered her room and closed the door behind them, Elizabeth turned to Georgiana. "Geor- That is, Miss Darcy-"

"Oh no, do call me Georgiana!" the girl exclaimed. "After the past hour formality seems superfluous."

"It does, does it not?" Elizabeth grinned. "And you must call me Elizabeth or Lizzy, if you like."

"I shall call you Lizzy." Georgiana replied, "Like your sisters do. I am very sorry, though, I interrupted you. What were you going to say?"

"I wanted to apologize." Elizabeth replied. "For being so officious as to dismiss your companion without consulting you. Only, I thought it best she was out of the house. We know she cannot be trusted."

"Oh, I am quite grateful you did!" exclaimed Georgiana. "I would never have had the nerve to dismiss her myself, but I am relieved that she is gone!"

At that point a maid appeared, and Elizabeth excused herself from the room to allow Georgiana to change out of her torn dress into a new one.

A few minutes later, the maid exited the room looking alarmed, and shot Elizabeth a curious look. Elizabeth reentered the room. Her spencer was lying on the bed, and she picked it up and put it back on. Her reason for remaining with Georgiana now addressed, she made to leave.

"I must go back to my aunt and uncle now, dearest, but please- if you have any need of me do not hesitate-"

"Please don't go!" Georgiana blurted out.

Startled by the interruption, Elizabeth paused in her speech. Georgiana blushed and looked down, but repeated herself: "Please do not go, Lizzy. I cannot bear to spend the night here all alone. I trusted Mrs. Younge and she left me alone to George's mercies, and I cannot help but fear- what if she was not the only one on the staff that has been bought by him? What if some maid were to let him into the house, or into my room to- to compromise me? I don't rightly know who I can trust other than you. Oh! I am so frightened." And she began to sob loudly.

Elizabeth quickly ran over to embrace her. "Dearest Georgiana! Of course I will stay with you. I am ashamed of myself for not thinking of it until now! Shh Georgiana, all will be well."

But it was as if a dam had burst. Finally assured of her safety, Georgiana was now capable of contemplating the events of the day and the terrible betrayal she had suffered, and the tears would not cease. Elizabeth sat her on the bed, and stroked her hair, murmuring comforting words to the justifiably distraught girl for many minutes until the well of tears finally dried.

Elizabeth gave Georgiana her handkerchief and allowed her to make a complete mess of it, before speaking again.

"Fetch us some writing material, now. I will pen a letter to my aunt and uncle, telling them I will not be returning home tonight and not to worry. Meanwhile, you must write a letter to your brother, bidding him to come over immediately, and send it express. Where is he currently residing?"

"London."

"Good, that is not too far. If you send the express now, he will arrive tomorrow. I shall spend the intervening night with you here in your room."

"Thank you, Lizzy," Georgiana replied with feeling.

"Oh, it will be my pleasure." Elizabeth replied cheerfully. "Being the only girl in your family, you do not yet know how it shall be: We will stay up late into the night, exchanging confidences, and then when it is finally time to sleep, one of us will steal the whole blanket, and the other will be cold, and sleep very ill as a result. If we are very lucky indeed, there will be no accidental kicking in the middle of the night to wake either of us up."


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