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?"
"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."
I'd love to hear your thoughts, encouragements and constructive criticism alike. Thank you for reading!
Darcy energetically bounded up the steps leading to the house in Ramsgate. Having concluded his business in town early, he was eager to surprise his sister by showing up two days before he was expected. He had set out the day before but had been obliged to stop and spend the night at an inn once the sun had set.
He had been plagued by an inexplicable uneasiness the entire previous day, and it had taken some considerable firmness from both his valet and his coachman to convince him that it was necessary to stop for the night. Rationally, he knew it was foolish to insist that they ride on to Ramsgate through the dark, but there had been an itching under his skin that he could not ignore, and he felt eager to be on his way.
Waking up as early as was decent in the morning, Darcy had immediately set out, and was now looking forward to surprising his sister before she broke her fast. He knocked on the door and waited impatiently for it to be opened by one of the staff.
"Good morning, Mrs. Greene!" He greeted the housekeeper when she opened the door for him.
"Mr. Darcy!" She exclaimed upon seeing him. "Oh, thank goodness you've come, Sir! I am much relieved!"
Something very much like dread swooped down in his stomach. "Whatever do you mean? Has something happened?"
"Oh, Sir, I don't rightly know, but something is wrong. And it has to do with that horrid Bennet woman."
Mrs. Greene looked around, to make sure none of the other servants were nearby, and lowered her voice, so that Darcy had to lean in close to hear her.
"Yesterday, Miss Darcy went out on a walk with Mrs. Younge, and Mrs. Younge returned sometime after without her. When I asked her where Miss Darcy was, she told me the young miss had sent her back home, because she wanted to be on her own."
Darcy frowned. "Georgiana knows better than to do something like that."
"That's what I thought too, Sir!" Mrs. Greene cried passionately. Then, looking around, she lowered her voice again. "When Miss Darcy came back to the house almost an hour later, she had a young lady with her. And if you don't mind my saying Sir, she didn't look like the same quality of lady you would expect Miss Darcy to befriend. I can only judge by her clothes, Sir, but I daresay she does not run in the same circles as the Darcy family. The young lady introduced herself as Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
"Did she say how she knew my sister, or why she was accompanying her?"
Mrs. Greene shook her head. "No, Sir. And when I asked the young miss about why she had sent Mrs. Younge back without her, Miss Darcy began to say how it wasn't her who had sent Mrs. Younge back, but that Bennet woman shoved an elbow into her, and Miss Darcy simply fell silent mid-sentence. I saw it myself!"
Darcy felt something dark and heavy settling in his throat at the thought of someone threatening his sister. "Is Georgiana awake yet? I must go speak to her. And Mrs. Younge, too."
"Mrs. Younge is gone, Sir." Mrs. Greene said, "Right after they came in, she- the Bennet woman, that is, told me to call Mrs. Younge over. As if she were the mistress of the house! I wouldn't have listened, only Miss Darcy seconded her. And when I brought Mrs. Younge over, Miss Bennet fired her!"
"Miss Bennet did? But she has no authority over Mrs. Younge, surely she knew that!"
"Mrs. Younge tried telling her that, but Miss Bennet wouldn't listen. She threatened to have her arrested for trespassing if she did not leave immediately, and upon my word, I thought Miss Bennet might hit her! She is a slight thing, Sir, but she had such a look in her eyes- I own even I was frightened of her in that moment!"
"And what did Georgiana say?"
"She simply stood off to the side and let Miss Bennet dismiss Mrs. Younge. Mrs. Younge ran off to pack and was gone within the hour!"
"I must speak to my sister immediately." Darcy said tensely, trying to step around Mrs. Greene, but the housekeeper put out her hand to stop him.
"Wait, Sir. You ought to know- she is still here."
"I thought you said Mrs. Young ran off- Miss Bennet? She is still here?"
Mrs. Greene nodded emphatically. "After Mrs. Younge left, Miss Bennet and Miss Darcy went up to the Miss's bedroom, and Becky said she was passing by, and she heard the sound of Miss Darcy crying from within. A few minutes later, we were given two letters to send out. One was from Miss Darcy to you, to be sent express, and one was from Miss Bennet to her relations- a couple named Gardiner, asking them to send her things over. She spent the night with Miss Darcy."
"When you say that she spent the night with Miss Darcy, surely you do not mean-" he trailed off.
"I do indeed mean it, Sir! In Miss Darcy's room! I told her there were more than enough guest bedrooms to accommodate her, but she insisted on sharing a room with Miss Darcy! I wouldn't have obeyed, but Miss Darcy told me to do as she says."
"This is very distressing indeed, Mrs. Greene. I cannot imagine what she has done to coerce my sister, but it ends now. I shall be going to see Georgiana."
"I am so relieved, Sir! God help me, but I have been worried about the young miss."
Darcy nodded at her, and then rushed up the stairs towards Georgiana's room. Once he reached the room, he paused outside of it, and put his ear to the door. Behind the anger at Miss Bennet and the worry for Georgiana, his mind was swimming with bewilderment over the unusual situation. He hoped that by listening in he might hear something that would make some sense of the madness. All he could hear from the other side, though, was the soft breathing of sleeping persons.
Twisting the handle quietly, he tried to enter the room, only to be confronted with the fact that the door was bolted. The wench had locked his sister in with her! He raised his fist and pounded on the door, loud enough to wake whomever may have been sleeping until that point.
"Who is it?" a female voice called out, a voice that did not belong to his sister.
"The master of this house!" he roared, "I want to see my sister, now!"
"Fitzwilliam!" This time the voice was his sister's. There was a sound of fumbling at the lock, and a moment later, she was finally in his arms.
He crushed her to his chest, breathing easily for the first time since entering the house.
"Oh, Fitzwilliam," she breathed, her voice slightly muffled by his chest, "I am so relieved that you are come. I was so scared."
"I am here now, dearest." He murmured softly.
Then, when Georgiana finally let go of him, he looked her up and down, trying to determine if he could detect any damage. A noise by the bed reminded him of the presence of another in the room, and he straightened and turned to the woman who had spent the night with his sister.
"You!" he barked at her, "How dare you come here and intimidate Georgiana? Leave immediately, or I shall have you arrested for trespassing." He echoed the same threat she had uttered to Mrs. Younge vindictively, enjoying turning the tables on her.
The woman's features, which had seemed rather soft as she watched brother and sister embrace, composed themselves into a blank mask.
Georgiana began to say his name, sounding rather distressed, but Miss Bennet held up a hand to stop her, and his sister fell silent.
"Mr. Darcy," she said politely, as if she were in the middle of an assembly and not in his sister's bedroom having just been threatened by him. "I have never attempted to intimidate your sister. There is much you do not currently know. However, it is not my place to acquaint you with the story, but rather your sister's. Now that you have arrived, I shall be happy to leave, just as soon-" and here she blushed "as I am properly attired to leave the house."
Darcy suddenly realized that he had confronted the lady while she was still in her nightgown and felt his cheeks heat, but quickly reminded himself that it was only right for him to put his sister's wellbeing before propriety. He turned to his sister to see her response to Miss Bennet's speech.
She nodded softly at him. "Truly, brother, Lizzy has helped me while you were not here, and I am more grateful to her than words can say. I shall explain all, but perhaps you should now give us some privacy to make ourselves presentable."
Darcy nodded at this, though he blushed again at the reminder that Miss Bennet was in a state of dishabille. He turned to her, keeping his eyes on the ceiling and averted from her under dressed form, and said curtly: "I apologize."
Then he bowed and hurried out of the room.
He stood outside the door for a couple of minutes in quiet contemplation, and then began to pace impatiently. His impatience only increased when he heard some quiet murmurs from within the room, followed by giggling. What did they have to giggle about while he was stranded in suspense outside? How had Miss Bennet assisted Georgiana? If it had not been Miss Bennet that had frightened her, what had it been, and how did Miss Bennet enter the picture? How long had they been in there? Surely, it was more than enough time to get dressed!
He was just about to knock on the door and ask how much longer they would be when they both exited the room. Darcy eagerly hurried over to them.
Miss Bennet turned to Georgiana and held both his sister's hands in her own. "Dearest Georgiana! I must leave now, but I shall call on you later today, at a more fashionable hour, to see how you fare." Then she turned to Darcy and curtsied. "I shall see myself out, Sir. You and your sister have much to discuss."
She turned and left.
Darcy turned to his sister. "Shall we adjourn to the study? I am eager to hear your explanation." He held out his arm to her, and she took it with a sad smile and followed him to the study.
After Georgiana had explained all to him (not without twice breaking into tears during the telling and needing to be comforted by him), it was some time before Darcy thought of Miss Bennet. He was initially far too occupied with his fury at Wickham and his wicked scheme. His struggle to conceal his anger from Georgiana, so as not to distress her, took up too much of his attention for him to think about the woman who had rescued his sister.
But as the hour fashionable for calls approached, Georgiana became less occupied with apologizing for her foolishness in agreeing to an elopement, and more occupied with the anticipation of seeing her new friend again. Darcy could not be sanguine regarding the expected call. He was relieved for something to take Georgiana's mind off her distress and self-recrimination, but he did not like the idea of his sister befriending Miss Bennet.
Yes, she had saved his sister, and he was very grateful for it, but he thought that any woman who could walk into another person's home, especially a person so far above her own station, and begin to order the staff about and intimidate the help, could not be a good influence on his sister. In his opinion, her officious behavior and intimidation of Mrs. Younge were evidence of bad breeding and poor manners.
The intention to call, though, had already been stated, and his sister was eagerly anticipating the visit, so Darcy remained with her to supervise and ensure that decorum was maintained.
She entered the room wearing a dress that was probably a few seasons old and was of a lower quality than any of Georgiana's dresses. He grudgingly admitted to himself that it looked quite becoming on her, even if it was slightly faded. She politely thanked the footman who had shown her in, curtsied to himself and his sister, and sat down once invited to, making easy conversation with his usually shy sister.
Her manners were not those of the town, but they were easy and engaging. Darcy watched her suspiciously, trying to reconcile this pleasant well-bred lady with the shrew who had waltzed into the house of her superiors the day before, ordering his staff about as if she owned the place. He could not at all make out the reason for such a discrepancy.
The answer finally came to him a few minutes into the conversation. He had made an unfortunate remark and had asked Georgiana if she had yet been to some attraction available in the area, not knowing that it was where she had 'accidentally' met Wickham for the first time. At this reminder of her folly, his poor sister was overcome by sobs, and while Darcy sat there stupidly, wishing he could take back his question, Miss Bennet had already acted.
In a flash, she had left her seat and had come to sit next to Georgiana, cradling her head against her shoulder, petting her hair, and murmuring soothing nothings to her. There was such a sweet tenderness in her manner, that Darcy could not help but realize how completely he had misjudged her.
She was not an ill-mannered woman, unable to behave with decorum; rather, she was a feeling person, who had ignored propriety when she found a distressed girl in need. She knew how to behave like a lady, but she did not let social convention overcome her consideration of his sister's needs.
Darcy watched Georgiana sob into Miss Bennet's handkerchief, which was by now soaked and was staining Miss Bennet's dress with tears (and, it must be admitted, some mucus). Miss Bennet paid no attention to her abused dress, hugging Georgiana against her, and speaking to her with as much compassion and tenderness as if she were her own mother.
Abruptly, Darcy felt ashamed of himself. He had judged Miss Bennet's actions by the standards of polite society, rather than the standards of human virtue. So taken aback was he by this young nobody taking charge of his home, that he had not seen the goodness of her actions. Miss Bennet had done his sister an incredible kindness, and he had condemned her harshly for it in his thoughts simply because she was not of his strata and he felt himself to be her superior; in a place to judge her.
While Darcy had always tried to do right by those less fortunate than himself, he had done so from a position of superiority, thinking rather meanly of those beneath him. Looking now at Miss Bennet, tending to his sister in her seasons-old, faded dress, he knew which of the two of them was the superior being.
The sight of Georgiana's trembling shoulders jerked Darcy out of his reflections, and he fished in his pocket for his own handkerchief. He handed it to his sister, and stood before her awkwardly, trying to think of something comforting to do, but coming up with nothing further than putting a soothing hand on her shoulder.
Finally, after a few minutes of sobbing, Georgiana's tears subsided. Darcy exhaled in relief and gave Miss Bennet a grateful smile over his sister's head. She looked surprised for a moment, but then returned the smile tentatively.
Once Georgiana's distress had subsided, embarrassment set in, and she began to apologize most profusely to her brother and her friend for losing her composure. Both were quick to assure her that it was not unexpected given the circumstances and that she had offended neither. Miss Bennet, though, said that perhaps Georgiana would like some privacy and rest and she should end her visit. Georgiana protested initially, but after Darcy suggested that she needed cosseting and he would have chocolate brought to her in bed, the idea gained her approval, and she reluctantly bid Miss Bennet goodbye.
Darcy showed Miss Bennet out, bowing to her quite deeply and trying in his manner to make up for any initial coldness he might have shown her. After she left, he went upstairs to visit his sister in her room. She was already comfortably ensconced in her bed with a novel and hot chocolate, and she smiled at him as he came in and sat at the foot of the bed.
He waved off her offer of sharing her chocolate and came straight to the point which he had been pondering. "Dearest, I have been thinking of cutting this visit short. This house has been leased for two weeks more, but under the present circumstances I thought perhaps it would be better if we were to depart early to Pemberley or to London. Please do not think I mean this as a punishment; but given your earlier reaction to simply being reminded of the place where you saw- well- him, I thought perhaps staying in an area where you would be constantly reminded of- of what happened would distress you. Not to mention how it would be if you accidentally happened to see him. I thought that perhaps you might prefer to go home."
Georgiana's lips trembled slightly at the reminder, but thankfully she did not cry. She simply nodded softly and agreed with her brother that it would be for the best to be away from Ramsgate, as there was no more pleasure to be found for her there. He hugged her softly, kissed her head, and left her to her novel.
As he went to make preparations for their departure the next day, he mused to himself that the only thing left to repine by leaving Ramsgate would be the untimely severing of his sister's relationship with Miss Bennet. She had not only done his sister a very great service, she had also by example, with her simple, artless, kindness, taught Darcy a lesson he was unlikely ever to forget.
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It was far too early in the morning to be making calls, but Darcy was a man on a mission. He was set to leave Ramsgate with his sister in an hour and had been fully prepared to depart, when Georgiana suddenly remembered that Miss Bennet did not know she would be going. Worse, she and Miss Bennet had not exchanged contact information and would not be able to correspond should they leave Ramsgate now.
Darcy was quick to suggest a solution. The night Miss Bennet had stayed with Georgiana in her room, she had sent a note to her aunt and uncle to explain where she was staying so that they would not worry. The servant who had delivered the message would know where Miss Bennet was residing, and Georgiana could hurry over to bid her friend goodbye and give her the address of her establishment in London.
The next problem to arise was brought up by Georgiana: Wanting to protect Georgiana’s privacy, Miss Bennet had not given her aunt and uncle the true explanation behind her decision to stay the night. Miss Bennet’s relations had been given to think that the reason for Miss Bennet spending the night away was that Miss Darcy, whom she had befriended at the beach, had taken ill just as her companion had been called away on urgent family business. As Miss Darcy would be alone until the next day, Miss Bennet felt it necessary to stay with her and nurse her until her brother arrived. Given this explanation, it would seem strange for Miss Darcy to arrive at the Gardiner residence looking the picture of health.
Since Georgiana could not call upon Miss Bennet personally, it fell to Darcy, the ever-dutiful brother, to go out as Georgiana’s emissary and pass the message on to Miss Elizabeth in her stead.
He felt decidedly ill at ease to be calling on strangers at such an impolite hour, but with his sister being so low in spirits, he was pleased to have something to do in her service, and so swallowed his nerves and knocked on the door of the house to which the servant had led him.
If the Gardiners were surprised to be called upon so suddenly by one they did not know, they showed it not, and were everything that was welcoming. Mrs. Gardiner enquired most solicitously after his sister’s health, and the couple expressed warmly their pleasure upon being told that she was much improved and, feeling well enough to travel, had decided to go to London and recover fully in the comfort of her own home.
Feeling slightly more at ease at this warm reception, Darcy explained his mission and inquired after Miss Bennet, who was not present at the breakfast table.
“Lizzy is already gone, Mr. Darcy,” Mrs. Gardiner replied, “she often takes walks in the morning. You are more than welcome to join us for breakfast, though, if you should wish to wait for her to return.”
There was a warmth and ease about her that reminded Darcy of her niece, and as stiff as he usually felt among strangers, he sensed that his presence was not seen as an imposition and the welcome was genuine. He surprised himself with the desire to remain for breakfast with the family, unable though he was to take them up on the invitation.
“I have a few remaining matters to attend to at the house before we leave; I fear I do not have the time. I thank you for the offer, though. Please send Miss Bennet my regards as well as my gratitude for her kind care of my sister.”
He left them with a piece of paper containing Georgiana’s address, and a puzzling feeling somewhat like regret.
Soon, however, his thoughts were torn from Miss Bennet and the Gardiners by the most surprising visitors. No sooner had he arrived at the house, when a knock at the door sounded, and a few moments later, Mrs. Greene approached him, trailed by two constables.
He showed them in and bid them to sit with all the courtesy he could offer, but was unable, perhaps, to conceal his discomfort and worry. “What can I do for you gentlemen?” he asked, attempting to sound calm.
“Mr. Darcy, we apologize very much for intruding, but an unfortunate incident has occurred here in Ramsgate, and we are obligated to follow every lead we have. Are you familiar, perhaps, with a Mr. Wickham?” asked the older constable. The younger one seemed very much in awe of Darcy’s wealth, and was avoiding meeting his eyes.
Darcy felt himself stiffen further, but tried to affect an air of nonchalance. “I have known Mr. Wickham since my childhood,” he replied haughtily, “but I have not seen him in several years.”
“He is here in Ramsgate,” the older constable explained, “and has been the victim of a most shocking crime. Two days ago, he was beset by bandits, who brutally assaulted him and robbed him of all his money.”
“Has he?” Darcy asked drily.
“This is a very serious matter, Mr. Darcy,” the constable said, stone-faced. “Mr. Wickham was grievously injured. While one of the bandits held him down, the other beat him with a plank. The plank had a nail sticking out of it, that has done him most serious damage. It hit him in such an angle as to pierce his eye, and it appears that he has lost his sight in that eye as a result.”
As much as he hated Wickham, Darcy could not help but wince at that.
“We have found it difficult to track the bandits,” the constable continued. “There have been no other reports of such attacks in this area, and we have very little to go on. We thought to ask Mr. Wickham if he had any enemies who might wish him ill, and he named you.” Here the man had the grace to blush. “He had seen your sister in this town and had thought that you might be here as well.”
“Mr. Wickham has been given three thousand pounds by me for the purpose of studying the law, and has squandered all the money in a most irresponsible manner; I have a very low opinion of the man. However, I would hardly wish him the kind of harm you have described, nor have I any need for what change he had in his pockets,” Darcy replied coldly. He knew it was not wise to mention the attempt on his sister.
The younger constable jumped in, in an attempt to soothe his temper. “We apologize deeply for the indignity we may be causing you, Mr. Darcy, but you must understand our difficult position. Mr. Wickham has been robbed of all his money, leaving him unable to pay some substantial bills in his place of lodging and several other businesses. We have quite a few people relying on us to retrieve the missing money. Would you please beg our pardon, and tell us where you were on the night before last?”
Darcy did not bother telling them that Wickham had never had the money and was simply using his injury as a way to avoid paying those bills. The less contempt he showed for Wickham, the less chance of them seriously investigating him or his sister. “I arrived in Ramsgate only yesterday,” he told the men. “My household staff can confirm the date of my arrival, and my steward and coachman can vouch for my whereabouts on the night before.”
They asked for permission to interview the witnesses he had named, but it was clear from their demeanor that they had no expectations of their efforts bearing fruit.
After they left, Darcy wondered if he should somehow contact Miss Bennet with this new information but decided immediately that the notion was foolish. There was no reason for her to be suspected, and it would merely draw unnecessary attention to her.
Besides, she was the daughter of a gentleman with a no doubt delicate constitution (though rather more mettle than most ladies he knew). It would do no good to distress her with the knowledge that her brave actions had had such a gory result.
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Chapter 4: Chapter 4
The prospect of attending the ball at Meryton, the village by which Bingley's new residence stood, held little appeal for Darcy. Still, it would be rude and unsociable not to attend, and he had no better plans for the evening. Stepping into the assembly hall with Bingley, his two sisters, and his brother Hurst, Darcy prepared himself for an uncomfortable evening of awkward small-talk with strangers, and the unavoidable sense that he was being gossiped about behind his back.
His relief was great then, as well as his surprise, when he spotted almost immediately a familiar face among the attendants.
"Miss Bennet," he said, bowing to the lady politely. "What an unexpected pleasure."
"Mr. Darcy!" she cried, her puzzlement giving way to recognition after a moment. "Georgiana had said something in her last letter, of you visiting with a friend in Hertfordshire, but I hardly expected to run into you here, in Meryton."
"You know Georgiana?" Miss Bingley exclaimed, intruding on the conversation at the same time that a handsome older woman who had been standing behind Miss Bennet cried: "Lizzy! You know this gentleman?"
Miss Bennet turned laughing dark eyes from one woman to the other. "I befriended Georgiana, Mr. Darcy's sister, during my visit to Ramsgate this past summer. My acquaintance with Mr. Darcy is more brief, Mama. However, I am pleased to see you again, Sir."
He would have liked to talk to her more, but the combined scrutiny of Miss Bingley and Mrs. Bennet made him uncomfortable, so after introductions were made and short pleasantries were exchanged, he wandered off to talk to Bingley.
Darcy disliked conversing with strangers and would have happily spent the evening in Bingley's company, but unfortunately, Bingley wished to dance. When left to his own devices, Darcy naturally gravitated towards whichever member of his party was nearest or towards Miss Elizabeth, whom he knew at least a little and admired quite a lot.
It occurred to him, upon observing her, that the previous occasions he had met with her had been quite atypical and had not given him a good understanding of her character. Without the severity of the events that had brought them into each other's acquaintance casting a cloud, she was a different being. He had thought of her before as kindhearted and caring but serious. He now saw that in her natural state she was a happy person, with high spirits and a teasing manner.
Seeing Miss Elizabeth laugh gaily at something her friend said, struck Darcy with the notion that it would be quite pleasant to share a dance with her, despite how seldom he enjoyed such an activity. He therefore approached her before the next dance began, and, after a moment's hesitation (he hardly knew the reason for the sudden nervousness that beset him) he asked for the honour of her hand during the next dance. Miss Elizabeth quickly agreed, and they shared a pleasant cotillion.
Their conversation had begun with talk of Georgiana, but soon moved on to other subjects, and they were both so absorbed in their discussion that at the culmination of the dance they sat against the wall and continued to talk. They were interrupted, unfortunately, rather soon, by a Mrs. Long. She had approached Miss Elizabeth with the obvious hope of being introduced to the interesting new stranger in their midst, and upon having her health inquired after politely, launched into a long recital of all the illnesses and aches that were currently plaguing the members of her household.
In such a situation, Darcy would usually give curt, laconic answers in order to hint to his conversational partner that he was uninterested in the conversation without being so rude as to say it outright. Miss Elizabeth, however, was kinder than him. She smiled her merry smile at Mrs. Long, asked her questions, made noises of interest at her answers, and not once did she sigh impatiently.
Darcy tried to follow her example, and asked Mrs. Long an utterly insipid question regarding her opinion on what the weather would be like tomorrow and how it would affect her housekeeper's cold. This subject was, unbelievably, of considerable interest to Mrs. Long, and as she began to detail her complex analysis of the topic, Miss Elizabeth caught his eye and gave him a sympathetic little grin.
At that moment, Darcy no longer felt as if his conversation with Miss Elizabeth had been interrupted. Rather, they had continued their conversation silently, as Mrs. Long rambled obliviously on.
Darcy enjoyed the social outings in the following weeks far more than his usual wont. The secret to such a change was spending as much of the evening as possible with Miss Elizabeth, and when music was available, asking for a dance.
He knew that his unusual behavior had been noted by the members of his party, who were not used to the gregariousness he displayed with Miss Elizabeth. Doubtless, the people of Meryton had noticed his unusual attention as well. She was, after all, the only woman outside his party whom he had asked to dance. He also held a suspicion that Miss Elizabeth's own mother was the source of much of the gossip surrounding him.
He was, perhaps, being indiscreet, he acknowledged to himself, but what did it truly matter? There was no shame in liking a person of intelligence, kindness and courage. When his little sister was safe and Miss Elizabeth was the dear person who had kept her that way, and when speaking to her was so easy, he could not bring himself to care about the whispers and speculative glances from the people surrounding him.
At a gathering in Lucas Lodge, the home of Miss Elizabeth's best friend Charlotte, Darcy was once again forced to stand alone for a while, as Miss Elizabeth had been prevailed upon to perform on the pianoforte. It was then that he was approached by the master of the house, a Sir William Lucas, who mistakenly sought to fulfill his duty as host by providing conversation where it was supremely unwanted.
"What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy! There is nothing like dancing after all. I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished society."
Darcy's first inclination was to reply with a biting comeback, but the memory of Miss Elizabeth smiling at him as he listened patiently to Mrs. Long held him back. There was no reason to put down the man when he was only attempting to be kind and welcoming (even if Darcy did find his observation rather foolish).
"The amusement is not only for young people," he replied instead. "Surely, Sir, you are not too old to dance? Look, Miss Elizabeth is now finished preforming and is without a partner. You cannot, I am sure, refuse to dance, when so much beauty is before you. I have danced with her myself and can assure you that she is a most agreeable partner."
Sir William laughed, but insisted that he was too old to dance, and lacked the agility of his youth, gesturing down at his considerable girth. His proposed solution was, of course, that Mr. Darcy be the one to provide Miss Elizabeth with a partner, a suggestion Darcy had no objection to. Sir William called her over and presented her hand to Mr. Darcy amidst a flurry of compliments, and Darcy was only too happy to lead her to the floor.
"I do hope, Mr. Darcy," Miss Elizabeth said as the dance began, "that you did not feel obligated to dance with me against your inclinations, simply because Sir William entreated you to."
"To the contrary, he was aiding me with his request. I had just mentioned to him what a pleasant dance partner you were."
Miss Elizabeth laughed, but there was a gratifying amount of pleasure in her countenance at the compliment. "Dear me, I am now feeling the pressure of performing well enough to be worthy of such praise. I must weigh my every word and speak only when I have something to say that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the éclat of a proverb."
"You must do no such thing, Miss Elizabeth," he protested. "Your usual conversation- ah, but I suspect you are teasing me, and have expressed your intentions with no expectation of following through."
She laughed brightly. "You have caught me out, Mr. Darcy. You must learn, sooner or later, that not everything I say should be taken with the utmost seriousness. But, look! -I have made you smile, and thus cemented my position as a pleasant dance partner."
The conversation flowed easily from there, and when the dance ended, they both parted with a sense of reluctance.
He was approached soon after the dance by Mrs. Bennet, who was looking very happy indeed. "I saw that you were dancing with my Lizzy, just now, Mr. Darcy. She is a very good dancer, is she not?"
"She is indeed."
"She is very clever, too. I have always said that a clever wife is the greatest secret to a happy marriage. And of course, after Jane, she is my prettiest daughter."
Darcy frowned at that. From across the room, he saw Miss Elizabeth glance in his direction and then move to look at her mother, and an expression of panic cross her face. He could not help but chuckle. "Exceptionally pretty."
Mrs. Bennet beamed at the compliment. She was disposed to think kindly of any man who appreciated her daughters, even if it was the daughter she could not for the life of her understand. Especially if the man happened to have ten thousand a year and was single.
"Mr. Darcy!" Miss Elizabeth gasped, appearing before them looking red in the face and harassed. She had obviously rushed over the second she had seen her mother in conversation with him. "You must be thirsty, Sir. Allow me to show you the refreshments table."
The refreshments table was a large table at the back of the room with a crowd of people milling about it; Darcy had no need to be shown where it was. Still, he allowed her to lead him away from the conversation with Mrs. Bennet. He could not but be amused at the embarrassed and anxious looks she was sending in his direction. As if her mother could say anything that would make him think less of Miss Elizabeth!
"Mr. Darcy," she said quietly. "I feel I must apologize if my mother has made you uncomfortable in any way."
"Please, do not apologize, Miss Elizabeth, I will not hear it."
"You may not hear it, but I see that you have not denied my mother has caused you discomfort. Your expression just now was as good as an admission. Please, allow me only to say this: My mother has allowed her worries to make her rather, well, enthusiastic at the notion of a prospective match, and is not aware of how her actions are perceived. I hope very much that her tendency towards matchmaking will not be allowed to inhibit our friendship."
"It most certainly will not," he replied firmly. "But, forgive me for asking, you mentioned your mother's worries. What concerns her?"
He had long since realized that Miss Elizabeth was not as poor as he had thought upon first meeting her. While Mr. Bennet's income was a fraction of his own, the Bennets lived quite comfortably and were one of the principal families in the Meryton area.
The lack of fashion in her manner of dress when he had first met her, and which he had attributed to a lack of income, he could now more rightly attribute to a lack of need to impress when visiting a slightly timid young friend. Miss Elizabeth had not been visiting Ramsgate with the object of seeing and being seen, but rather of enjoying the nature, and had been dressed appropriately for a casual walk down a sandy beach, and not an assembly. He had been forced to admit to himself his unarticulated assumption that all who called upon one of his superior wealth and connexions undoubtedly wished to impress him. Furthermore, he had had to acknowledge, with a mixture of ruefulness and admiration, that this assumption was certainly incorrect when it came to Miss Elizabeth.
However, given that there was no distress in her situation, Darcy could not account for the kind of worries that would fuel a desperation such as Mrs. Bennet's to see her daughters married.
"Longbourn is entailed to the male line," Miss Elizabeth explained. "And my mother has borne only daughters. She feels most strongly the precariousness of our position."
"And you do not?" he asked.
She laughed. "I am still young, and in the manner of young people everywhere, am unable to contemplate the notion that any ill might befall me." Then, more seriously: "You need not fear, Mr. Darcy, that my design in pursuing a friendship with you is mercenary."
"I never suspected it for a moment!" he protested. "You are needlessly distressing yourself, Miss Elizabeth. My family is a very small one, you see. Though there are some more distanced relations, my intimate family is comprised only of myself and my sister. It is a very different family from yours, but it the most precious thing in the world to me. Having found it so close to disaster this past summer has served to remind me of what is truly important. The role you yourself played in preventing that disaster has marked you as a true friend. Any slight embarrassment or indignation I may experience are so very negligible in the face of those things, I cannot see how they would affect our friendship. You blush- I do not wish to embarrass you, I only wish you feel no mortification at such silly matters. You must know I esteem you greatly, matchmaking relations or not."
"You are kindness itself, Sir. Very well. We shall speak no more of the matter."
Darcy's attentions to Miss Elizabeth had not escaped Miss Bingley's sharp eyes, and, unfortunately, seemed to have earned her the ire of that gentlewoman. Darcy was not oblivious to Caroline Bingley's hopes regarding his person (not to mention his estate), and the acrimony she displayed towards Miss Elizabeth did nothing to endear her to him.
Still, Miss Bingley could not quite help herself. Especially when Miss Elizabeth provided such fodder for criticism upon arriving to Netherfield with the purpose of visiting her sick sister looking quite disheveled.
Darcy was doing his best not to listen to the tirade, for fear of losing his temper, but Miss Bingley's words could not quite escape him. "...six inches deep in the mud; and the gown which had been let down to hide it not doing its office. And her hair! So untidy, so blowsy!"
Well, Darcy mused, it was hardly the most disheveled he had ever seen Miss Elizabeth. His mind went back to their first meeting in Georgiana's bedroom. At the time, he had been apoplectic with rage and worry and had threatened to have her arrested, but time and subsequent interactions between them had softened the memory.
"...Do you not agree, Mr. Darcy? Mr. Darcy?"
"Eh? What was that?" asked Darcy, who had been trying very hard not to think of the fact that he had once seen Miss Elizabeth in only her nightgown, and as a result had completely lost track of the conversation.
Miss Bingley pursed her lips. "I was speaking of the Bennets' relations. Jane Bennet told me that they have an uncle and aunt that live in Cheapside."
"Ah yes," replied Darcy absentmindedly. "The Gardiners. Lovely couple."
Miss Bingley huffed. "Lovely as they may be, there is reason to fear that such common company has had a bad influence on her. I cannot imagine any other woman of her circle would walk four or five or however many miles, above her ankles in dirt, and completely unaccompanied. It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence."
"She does indeed possess an unusual amount of confidence and independence," Darcy replied, thinking of her protection of his sister, and how she had taken charge and dismissed Mrs. Younge. "But in a woman of her good sense and kind nature, I cannot see how any harm would come of such traits."
Miss Bingley gritted her teeth; but made no reply.
Miss Elizabeth looked tired when she finally descended to the dining room the next evening, but not too tired to offer Mr. Bingley a fond smile for his warm solicitations after her sister's health.
Upon hearing an unfavorable reply regarding Jane Bennet's recovery, Bingley's sisters expressed much dismay and shock, and spent the necessary amount of time bemoaning poor Jane's discomfort, before dropping the subject entirely and returning to their discussion of fashion.
Bingley lingered on the topic for a while longer, but upon saying everything that could be said on the matter, and offering four or five times any service or assistance that was in his power to provide, he abandoned his monopolization of Miss Elizabeth in favor of staring contemplatively at his cards, but playing his hand quite ill indeed. Miss Elizabeth was then free to sit down on the couch and pick up a book that had been lying on it, abandoned.
Darcy wished to go up and speak to her himself, but as he had been blatantly ignoring Miss Bingley for the past quarter hour in favor of writing his letter, he felt it would be too rude to show such an obvious preference for Miss Elizabeth's company.
Caroline Bingley must have noticed him lifting his eyes from the paper for a moment and taken it as an invitation to speak, for she resumed her mission of attempting to cajole a conversation out of him.
"Pray tell, Mr. Darcy, who are you writing such a charming long letter to?"
He wished to tell her that the letter would never get to be long if she continued to interrupt him incessantly while he wrote it, but resisted the temptation, knowing it would be cruel.
"The letter is for my sister, though whether it is charming is for her to decide," he replied instead.
"Dear Georgiana, do send her my regards!" exclaimed Miss Elizabeth warmly from the couch at the exact same moment that Miss Bingley said it from over his shoulder.
The mutual look of horror on their faces upon realizing that they had said the same thing simultaneously was so humorous, that Darcy had to turn his eyes back to the letter to keep from bursting out laughing and offending them both. Once he had control over himself again, he resumed his writing.
What say you, dearest, to surprising your friend Elizabeth by coming to visit? Knowing Bingley, you can have no doubt that he would be delighted to host an additional party member, and I think Miss Elizabeth would quite like to see you again. As to your own brother missing you, I have no need to elaborate, as you doubtlessly know already just how much your presence would please me.
He shot a look at Miss Elizabeth, who was once again absorbed in his book, and smiled to himself. Georgiana would be thrilled with the invitation, he knew it.
Chapter 5: Chapter 5
The pleasure Elizabeth had experienced, despite her worry for Jane, in the charming company at Netherfield was a direct contrast to the painful social interactions she had been subjected to upon returning home.
A day after Jane and Elizabeth returned to Longbourn in Mr. Bingley's carriage, much to the consternation of Mrs. Bennet who had wished them to stay at Netherfield a full week, their mother saw an even more unwelcome arrival to her household in the form of a cousin by the name of Mr. Collins. Mr. Collins was the heir to Longbourn and was a dull, pompous man whose company they all found trying in very short order.
Elizabeth had hoped to escape his presence that day by going to visit her aunt and uncle Phillips in Meryton but was foiled by her own father who desired to have Mr. Collins as removed from his company as possible for the duration of the visit and had thus invited the man to accompany his daughters into town.
Mr. Collins had been paying particularly pointed attentions to Mary, presumably at Mrs. Bennet's direction, but as Mary had declined to join the rest of her sisters on their walk, Mr. Collins now directed the chief of his conversational efforts in Elizabeth's direction.
Being a foolish, but extremely talkative man, Mr. Collins tried her nerves to the extreme, and only iron self-control and the desire not to be hurtful had kept her from being very rude to him indeed. Still, while she was not pleased that he was accompanying herself and her sisters on their walk to Meryton, there was relief in leaving the house and enjoying the cool breeze. A few unsubtle hints about Lydia's (nonexistent) interest in theology were finally enough to encourage Mr. Collins into attempting conversation with Kitty and Lydia, and Elizabeth was left blissfully alone to enjoy the walk in silence. She let out a happy sigh, feeling more at peace than she had been since returning to Longbourn.
The matter of why she had been feeling out of sorts since leaving Netherfield and the company therein was best not lingered over for too long, or even thought about at all. That way led only to vulnerability and mortification.
Upon arriving in Meryton, Lydia and Kitty gave up all pretense of civility towards their cousin and ignored him completely in favour of searching for officers of the militia. Their objective was soon met in the form of a soldier by the name of Mr. Denny who was accompanied by a man of good looks, whose heroic demeanor was complimented by a roguish-looking eye-patch over his left eye.
Elizabeth was, perhaps, less excited at the prospect of meeting a handsome new gentleman than she would have been before Mr. Darcy had shown up in Hertfordshire; but was still pleased at being introduced to a man with every appearance of charm and bonhomie. Her pleasure turned quickly to horror, however, upon hearing the man introduced as Mr. Wickham. She knew, of course, that there could be more than one man by the name of Wickham in the country, but his height and colouring seemed to match the brief glimpse she had had of the man assaulting Georgiana, and a sinking feeling in her chest told her that this man could very well be the villain she had heard so much about.
Elizabeth hardly knew how she maintained her countenance, but she was deeply afraid of the man, and was aware of the need to keep out of his notice. She smiled as best she was able, and examined his features carefully for any sign of recognition as the woman who had foiled his plans regarding Georgiana.
He paid her no particular notice above her sisters, giving no indication that her face was familiar to him, but Elizabeth had already enough knowledge of Mr. Wickham to be sure of his excellent acting skills, and could not be easy. It was a relief when Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley turned up, riding down the street, and moved in their direction to exchange the usual civilities.
The moment Mr. Darcy laid eyes on Mr. Wickham, however, his face reddened with anger, while the other turned white. Immediately after, Mr. Darcy darted a glance at Elizabeth, but thankfully seemed to realize her need to avoid Wickham's notice. He followed her example of feigned indifference, and rode away after Mr. Bingley, shooting only one last look behind him.
The interaction between the two men confirmed to Elizabeth her suspicions that this was indeed the same Wickham who had tried so hard to hurt the Darcy family. It was all she could do to remain calm as she stared at Mr. Darcy's retreating back while he rode away.
They were escorted to the house of their uncle and aunt by Mr. Denny and Mr. Wickham, and while Elizabeth had enough control to keep from exhibiting the fear and disgust she felt towards their new acquaintance, she was not in command enough of herself to maintain her usual teasing manner and light-hearted conversation.
Her uncharacteristic silence was noted by her sisters, and once they parted from the soldiers and entered the house of their relations, Elizabeth was subjected to much teasing by Lydia. "Why, Lizzy, you were so taken by the handsome Mr. Wickham you were positively struck dumb! I have never heard you silent for that long before, not even around Mr. Darcy, and he is excessively handsome!"
Elizabeth was in such a state of confusion, that she could only stutter and gape at such an accusation, which seemed to confirm the opinions of the others that she had taken a fancy to the dashing young man.
An argument was begun between Lydia and Kitty over whether the eye-patch added or detracted from Mr. Wickham's looks, and many sly glances were thrown Elizabeth's way, but she was too out of sorts to put a stop to their speculation. The hour that was passed in the house of their aunt and uncle seemed interminably long, and it was with great relief that Elizabeth got up when they finally took their leave and began to head back to Longbourn.
She was entirely insensible to Mr. Collins' conversation on the walk back home, but the man seemed to need no encouragement. Indeed, beyond an occasional nod or noise of assent, Elizabeth said not a word, while Mr. Collins spoke continuously of the generosity and kindness of Mr. and Mrs. Phillips. This state of affairs suited them both perfectly.
As they approached the road leading to Longbourn, Elizabeth announced that she had not yet had her fill of walking and would continue down the road in another direction. Mr. Collins offered to accompany her, but was told quite firmly that his company was unnecessary. As the parson was unused to the type of vigorous exercise their walk had provided and was quite weary, he capitulated with no further protest.
Elizabeth herself was beginning to tire of walking as well, but she felt it necessary to talk to Mr. Darcy as soon as possible, and so was resolved to walk to Netherfield. It was with much relief then, that upon having walked for no more than one minute in the direction of Netherfield, she came across Mr. Darcy, standing by the side of the road, and obviously waiting for her.
Elizabeth felt something coiled tight within her unwind at the sight of his familiar figure turned towards her. Dear, steady, reliable Mr. Darcy. She had never before been able to rely on another for help with her problems. Her mother was out of the question, her father too prone to indolence and with a tendency to laugh at her troubles, Jane too given to naivety and sweet complacence, her aunt Gardiner too far away.
Mr. Darcy, though, had probably been waiting for at least an hour, and stood, ready to shoulder her burden. She felt that she ought to have known he would be there, patiently waiting for her to come and discuss the problem of Wickham, and she felt the sudden urge to continue walking towards him until they were toe to toe and rest her head on his broad chest for only a minute.
She did not, though. She was too well bred for such a thing. She walked until they stood at a polite distance, curtsied, and said "Mr. Darcy, I am very relieved to see you. Have you been waiting here this whole time?"
He bowed. "Not this whole time, no. Immediately after seeing Wickham I knew I needed to speak to you, but did not wish to call his attention to you or to our association by initiating a conversation in his presence. I sent Bingley back to Netherfield ahead of me, and lingered in town on the pretext of visiting some shops until I espied you and your sisters exiting the house you had entered. I rode ahead, and have been waiting here for a few minutes, in order to give you time to overtake me and return to Longbourn. I would have then called upon you at home and spoken to you under the pretext of conveying a message from Georgiana. It appears my plans were unnecessary, though, as you obviously wished to speak to me as well."
"I thank you for your attention," Elizabeth replied. To her horror, she heard her voice waver a little, as the fear she had suppressed earlier caught up with her.
Mr. Darcy frowned and examined her features carefully. "Are you well, Miss Elizabeth?"
"No ill has befallen me," Elizabeth answered, "but I cannot pretend that I am not shaken. I was so worried that he would recognize me as the woman who kept Georgiana away from him. I know too well what he is capable of, and what he might seek to do in retribution. You do not think he recognized me, do you? He could only have seen me for a split second before that plank came flying at his face."
"I am confident that he did not recognize you," Mr. Darcy assured her. "He would not be able to hide it if he did. You saw how pale his face became when he laid eyes on me. It has always been so. He may be able to control his features, but his blushes give him away. It is the reason he is constantly losing at card games. Well, that and he does not well handle his liquor. One or two drinks, and he loses all inhibitions."
Suddenly he stopped, and reddened. "I hope you will pardon me for my indelicate speech just now. We have spoken of personal matters before, and I have become accustomed to speaking honestly when in your presence. I should not have said anything regarding Wickham's habits of drinking or gambling."
Elizabeth waved him off. "Never mind that now, Mr. Darcy. He is a scoundrel of the worst sort. Better to speak of indelicate matters now than to be witness to them first hand in his company."
"Then there is another matter you may find shocking that I wish to disclose to you. I dearly hope that it will not cause you undue distress, but I feel it necessary to tell you now, so that if the subject may come up you will not be caught flat-footed." He then proceeded to tell her about the visit of the constables to his house the day he and Georgiana departed from Ramsgate.
If he had expected her to faint, or indeed show any signs of distress over the gruesome violence she had inadvertently done to the man, his expectations were disappointed. She merely remarked evenly that if that had been what prevented Wickham from chasing after herself and Georgiana she could not be sorry for inflicting such an injury. Darcy was once again reminded that she had more steel in her spine than most men he knew. She had, after all, come to his sister's rescue with no weapon more than a rotting plank against a man twice her size.
The problem that was next addressed was the fact that Mrs. Phillips had promised to invite Mr. Wickham along with the other officers to the supper she would host the next evening accompanied by a game of lottery tickets. "I do not trust myself to maintain an appearance of ease around Mr. Wickham for a full evening," Elizabeth explained. "I would beg off attending the dinner, but I fear even more leaving my sisters alone in his company. They are used to the safe and confined society of Meryton and would not even think of the need to be cautious."
"I doubt Wickham would try anything in a room full of people," Mr. Darcy replied, after considering this. "And, begging your pardon, Miss Elizabeth, but your sisters' fortunes are not significant enough to make them targets for his schemes. If you, quite justifiably, feel uncomfortable at the prospect of going to the gathering, you ought not go. No harm can befall your sisters there in your absence."
Elizabeth breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you, Mr. Darcy, for your advice. I had not wished to attend, and your words have eased my mind on the matter."
"I am glad to be of some help," he bowed. "And, in return, I must ask for your own advice. I am quite at a loss. I might as well tell you, though it was meant to be a surprise, that I have invited Georgiana to join me here in Netherfield so that two friends as good as you might reunite. It seemed a wonderful idea when I issued the invitation only a few days ago, but Wickham's presence here changes everything. I am now deeply worried about the prospect of bringing Georgiana to where she might meet Wickham, and think it might be best to have her remain in London. The only thing which gives me hesitation is the fact that she will be very disappointed to miss the opportunity to see you, and the fear of how much the news of his nearby presence might distress her. What is your opinion on the matter?"
Elizabeth considered for a moment before replying. "While I will admit that the prospect of again seeing Georgiana is all things lovely, I would never wish to bring my friend into a distressing situation simply for the pleasure of seeing her a bit sooner than I might otherwise have. Still, I do believe you may be borrowing trouble prematurely. Mr. Wickham might yet decide to leave town, now that he knows you are here. He must be aware of the fact that you have the ability to expose him for what he really is. Would it not be wisest for him to forgo the danger and seek his fortunes elsewhere?"
"You would be surprised by the impudence of that man," Mr. Darcy said darkly. "He might leave, but it is very possible he will not, and I do not wish to take the risk."
"We will take no risk, Mr. Darcy. I will ask Lydia to find out tomorrow night if Mr. Wickham intends to quit the neighborhood or stay. If there is gossip to be had, Lydia will know it. You may wait one day to act until you have information regarding his plans."
"Very well," Mr. Darcy conceded. "Will you meet me here the morning after next, and tell me what you have learned? Or, rather, it is probably best for you to avoid walking about alone while Wickham is in the area. Perhaps I might wait for you outside of Longbourn instead?"
"I should prefer that, I thank you," she replied. "Shall we meet at eight?"
"We shall," he replied, bowing. "Until then, Miss Elizabeth."
She curtsied, and he watched her walk away until she had rounded the bend and was out of sight.
Lydia's mistaken conception that Elizabeth admired Mr. Wickham worked in Elizabeth's favour. Upon her older sister begging off attending supper at the Phillipses, citing a headache, Lydia was not in the least bit surprised to be asked by Elizabeth to try and find out whether Mr. Wickham intended to stay in Meryton for long. She merely giggled, and promised to investigate and tell all upon her return.
The rest of the sisters left, thankfully taking Mr. Collins with them, and Elizabeth remained to await their return with the intelligence she sought. She bore the wait with such impatience, that Mrs. Bennet scolded her for fidgeting, and accused Elizabeth of trying her wrought nerves.
It was a relief when the sisters finally returned, and Lydia had hardly walked through the door before Elizabeth pulled her aside to interrogate her over what she had learned.
"Ooh, Lizzy! It is all juicier than I had ever dared to hope!" Lydia exclaimed with relish, when questioned by Elizabeth about her evening. "Wait until you hear what I learned about Mr. Darcy!"
"Mr. Darcy?" Elizabeth asked. "What has he to do with anything?"
"Mr. Wickham has told me everything. I sat down next to him, you know, for the whist, so that I might be able to ask him about his plans."
Elizabeth sighed. Since her sister was lacking in all subtlety, perhaps it was not surprising that she chose to ask the man directly about his plans, forward though it was. She only wished Lydia had not drawn his attention towards herself. Now was not the time for a lecture, though, and she allowed her sister to continue in her narrative.
"Well, I was just about to ask him about his plans for staying in the neighborhood, when he began the conversation first, and asked me if I know Mr. Darcy very well."
This did not surprise Elizabeth. "What did you say?"
"That I have seen him in gatherings and such but did not speak to him at all, for the only people he speaks to are the members of his own party and yourself. I said that I do not like him much, as he does not care to dance, and I bet none of the other girls like him either. I did tell Wickham that Mr. Darcy is sweet on you, but that I do not think you return his regard, since you asked specifically about him- Wickham that is."
"What makes you think that Mr. Darcy is sweet on me?" asked Elizabeth, not quite succeeding in sounding casual.
Lydia gave her a look that said how little she thought of Elizabeth's intelligence.
"I've seen the way he looks at you, Lizzy. If I had a man who looked at me that way, I would swoon right into his arms! Ooh!" She fainted dramatically onto the sofa.
"Lydia, focus!" snapped Elizabeth, trying to pretend that she was not blushing. "Did Mr. Wickham say anything after that?"
"He looked very grave, and said that he needs to warn you about Mr. Darcy. He told me all about it!"
"Warn me?" asked Elizabeth sharply.
"It is really the most scandalous thing!" Lydia exclaimed. "Apparently, Mr. Wickham's father was the steward of old Mr. Darcy- the father of the current Mr. Darcy, that is. Well, he was ever so fond of Wickham, he liked him even better than his own son- your Mr. Darcy. Old Mr. Darcy wanted to make sure Wickham was taken care of after his death, and said in his will that he should be given a living in the church. Mr. Darcy was very bitter, though, that his own father liked Wickham better, and refused to obey his father's wishes and give Wickham the living. I cannot be sorry, for he will look ever so much better in regimentals than in a parson's garb, but I am shocked by the wickedness of Mr. Darcy. I always knew he was a cold-hearted man, for he does not care to dance, but I had never imagined him to be this evil!"
"Perhaps he felt that Mr. Wickham would not be suited to serve as a man of God," suggested Elizabeth coldly.
"Oh, but I have not yet told you the worst of it! Just after Wickham asked Mr. Darcy for the living and was refused, he was set upon by a group of thugs who beat him so hard he lost use of his eye- that is why he wears the eye-patch. He fought them off bravely, even though there were three of them and he was just one person, but they did enough damage that the eye could not be saved."
Elizabeth resisted the urge to snort. Instead she asked- "What has that to do with Mr. Darcy?"
"Well, they never found the people who did it, but Mr. Wickham suspects that they were sent by Mr. Darcy. He says that it was probably a threat from Mr. Darcy to warn him away from trying to pursue legal redress over the living. Is that not the most horrid thing you have ever heard?"
"It is indeed horrid," Elizabeth replied, shocked by the nerve of that man. "But surely if Mr. Wickham believes Mr. Darcy capable of such evil, he would not wish to stay in Meryton, where his very life might be in danger?"
"I asked him about that myself, but Mr. Wickham is far braver than we gave him credit for! He had declared that he will not let Mr. Darcy intimidate him, and if his presence causes Mr. Darcy discomfort by plaguing his conscience, then it is Mr. Darcy who must leave!"
Elizabeth was almost shaking with rage when she related the conversation to Mr. Darcy the following morning.
"How dare he slander you so?" she demanded, upon concluding her tale. "Such vicious, pernicious lies, told so shamelessly; it defies belief!"
"When you have known Wickham for as long as I have, Miss Elizabeth," he replied, "you will find that no action of his can defy your belief. I am aggrieved to hear this account, but not surprised."
"Has he no fear of you?" Elizabeth demanded. "Surely he has the sense to know that you can expose him for the scoundrel that he is!"
"I had not before now," Mr. Darcy admitted. "Out of respect for his faithful father, I did not expose his sins when they consisted only of dissipation and unpaid debts. How he can think that I retain even a sliver of sympathy for him after what he has attempted to do to my sister is beyond me. Perhaps it is best that he has decided to remain here. Here, I can warn the community of his habits and put them on their guard. Were he to move on, he would simply target a new and unsuspecting population."
Elizabeth sighed. "It is still possible that he will do just that. If the society in Meryton were to turn against him, he may simply decide to try his luck elsewhere. If he were to do so, there would be nothing to be done on the matter, short of following him around for the rest of his life, warning people everywhere he goes."
Mr. Darcy gave an amused huff. "If only it were possible to permanently mar his reputation as you have marred his looks, so that all who look at him may know that he is not to be trusted. I wish I had not subtracted the amount I had used to pay off his debts in Lambton from the sum I gave him in lieu of the living. If I had not, I could have made a case to have him thrown into debtor's prison."
Elizabeth considered this for a moment. "You may not be able to have him thrown into debtor's prison, Mr. Darcy," she finally said, "but the idea of having him locked up is too good to give up on. After all, think of all the innocent people to whom harm might be prevented by such a step. Perhaps, then, we can go about it a different way. Consider this: A man convinced that he is being persecuted by a childhood friend and an upstanding member of society who has no reason to harm him might be the victim of paranoid delusions. Perhaps a case might be made that he must be locked up in a madhouse for his own good."
Mr. Darcy considered this for a moment. "I do like the idea of having him hoisted by his own petard," he admitted, "but I am not sure it is possible to have someone committed on the basis of spreading ridiculous rumors. Admittedly, I know very little about the process."
"There could be no harm in trying," Elizabeth pointed out, and Mr. Darcy nodded and conceded that that was true.
Chapter 6: Chapter 6
"Mr. Darcy, what a pleasure to see you!" announced Sir William Lucas as Darcy stepped into his study. "Please, do have a seat. Can I offer you a drink?"
He sat down, but declined the drink, citing the early hour.
"What can I do for you?" Sir William asked, helping himself to a generous glass of brandy.
"I have heard some concerning rumors, lately," Darcy replied, "and wished to discuss them with you. I understand that you are the local magistrate?"
"Indeed I am. I promise you, Mr. Darcy, that I shall do everything within my ability to help. Will you tell me what concerns you?"
"It is an old friend of mine from childhood by the name of Wickham. It appears that he has accepted a commission in the militia here. I am given to understand that he has been accusing me to the local population of some truly shocking actions."
Sir William nodded. "I have heard such rumors as well. Never believed them for a minute, of course! I was just telling Lady Lucas last night- 'Who is this Mr. Wickham whom we know nothing of, that he expects us to believe such slanderous stories about an upstanding man such as Mr. Darcy, who is well-known about the neighborhood as a genial and respectable gentleman?'"
"I thank you for your trust," Darcy said, bowing his head.
"Not at all, not at all! Any person of sense would think the same thing. Lady Lucas agrees with me completely, I assure you, and she is not the only one. My Maria told me that when Lucille Long told her mother about it, Mrs. Long very near boxed her ears for spreading such vicious gossip."
"I have not been in the neighborhood long, Sir William, and so I do not take your defense of me for granted. I came here to assure you that I pose no danger to the people of this town."
"Completely unnecessary, my dear fellow, though I do appreciate your concern. I will admit that, as in any town, there may be a few embittered biddies here who take delight in thinking ill of their neighbors. And perhaps a girl or two who took umbrage at your refusal to dance with anyone but Eliza Bennet, and are now resolved to think you ill humored. Ridiculous nonsense, of course! It is only natural that when a fellow is enamored with a lovely woman, he should have eyes for no other. No need to blush, Sir, I've seen the way you look at her! In any event, you need not worry about anyone important hereabouts thinking ill of you."
"Nevertheless," Darcy continued, trying to ignore Sir William's wink, "If there are some people whose minds still need to be set at ease, I should wish to give my own account of my dealings with Mr. Wickham."
Sir William protested that it was unnecessary, but Darcy could see the ill-concealed curiosity on his face, and so continued.
"Mr. Wickham is the son of a man who served for many years as my father's steward. As children we were close friends, though we have since lost touch. Mr. Wickham's claims that there was a living intended for him should he chuse to take orders are true. After my father's death, however, he wrote to me saying that he did not wish to take orders, and felt that his talents would be better suited to studying the law. Knowing his disposition and habits I agreed with him, and so gave him a sum of three thousand pounds in lieu of the living. This was some four years ago. I can, of course, provide documentation of this transaction."
Sir William again hurried to assure him that no such proof was necessary.
"I would not be able to provide it now in any case, but I can bring it from London if you feel it would be helpful to you," Darcy continued. "Now, if I may address the second allegation Wickham leveled at me- of my being responsible for the crime that cost him his eye. This is not the first time he has accused me so. On the days following his injury I was approached by the constables who were investigating the crime and had been pointed my way by him. As I had been nowhere in the vicinity when it occurred and could provide the names of several persons who could attest to such, the matter was dropped. That is how I know, however, that the timing of the injury, which occurred last summer, coincided in no way with our dealings in Derbyshire regarding the living. One of the constables mentioned that Mr. Wickham had been robbed after being attacked, which I believe constitutes sufficient motive for the crime. If you wish to confirm these facts, you may write to the relevant officials at Ramsgate."
Darcy then had to brace himself to do something distasteful. Thoughts of his sister, though, and other innocent girls like her steeled his resolve, and he persisted.
Adopting a sorrowful tone of voice, and lowering his head in a show of regret, he continued: "I am ashamed to admit, Sir William, that my first thoughts upon hearing his accusations were that my old friend wished to extort money out of me somehow with these allegations. It pains me to confess that I thought the worst of him. Months have passed, though, since he first accused me, and I have received no threat or appeal for money from him. Then, when I happened upon him in Meryton the other day, and you can imagine my greeting to him was much cooler than it would have been a few months ago, he paled with fright at the sight of me. Fear can be feigned, of course, but I do not know that a change of color can.
"I began to think that perhaps Wickham truly believes his own accusations. Whatever delusions he has relayed to the constables at Ramsgate and the local populace may, in fact, be very real to him in his paranoia. In my worry over my old friend's sanity, I find myself wishing that he was simply a villain trying to extort money out of me, for that thought would be less painful."
"A very disturbing notion indeed, Mr. Darcy," agreed Sir William with some excitement. "To think- a madman in our midst! Or, a potential madman. We must not yet rule out the notion of villainy with some other ulterior motive. Spreading nasty gossip is hardly proof of madness, after all, or half of society would need to be locked up, haha!"
Darcy inclined his head. "I understand, Sir. I merely ask that you keep an eye on him. It would give me great comfort to know that this delicate situation was being monitored by the magistrate of the district."
Sir William puffed up and gave him a great many assurances that he would keep an eye on Wickham, but Darcy left the house feeling defeated.
"Well?" Elizabeth asked excitedly when he re-met her on the road a short way from Lucas Lodge.
Darcy shook his head. "It was a fine idea, Miss Elizabeth, but I am afraid that even the genial Sir William is not obliging enough to condemn a man as mad based only on my word." He proceeded to tell her the entirety of the conversation he had had with Sir William.
He could hear the abject defeat in his voice when he reached the conclusion, but Elizabeth did not seem to share the sentiment. She merely nodded seriously and agreed that the outcome was unsurprising, though it had been worth the try. "I have been thinking, while you were in Lucas Lodge, over what ought to be done if we proved unsuccessful," she said. "I believe you should go to London and bring back the documentation regarding the money you gave Wickham. Sir William may not require it, but it could do no harm. If you provide solid evidence to back your side of the story, your own proper behavior will be juxtaposed with Wickham's baseless allegations and malicious slander. It would serve to alert people to the fact that he is not to be trusted, and is a man to be treated with suspicion and caution. All in all, it could prove helpful."
"There is certainly truth to that. The people of Meryton ought to be alerted to the fact that he is a liar if nothing else. I believe I will go to retrieve the documents. Bingley was planning to attend to some errands in town on the day following the ball, it would prove quite convenient to accompany him to London.
"I now must consider what I ought to do regarding Georgiana. Wickham plans to remain in Meryton, and I have yesterday received a reply from my sister telling me to expect her on Monday next. If I wish to tell her not to come I must do so now, and decide on what reason to give her for such instructions. I believe telling her the real reason would prove too distressing for her."
"I must disagree with you, Mr. Darcy. I believe that you ought to inform Georgiana of Mr. Wickham's presence in the vicinity of Netherfield and allow her to decide for herself whether she wishes to take the risk of encountering him. She is the one best positioned to make such a decision."
Elizabeth saw that Darcy had opened his mouth to protest and quickly continued. "I am aware that the last time I spoke to her, Georgiana burst into tears at the mere mention of his name, but her pain was very fresh then. A few months have passed since, and I believe she is capable of hearing him mentioned without becoming incapacitated."
"And if she is not? Would it not be better to keep information from her which would upset her?"
"If you believe that Georgiana has not spent much time thinking of Mr. Wickham simply because you have not mentioned his name to her, you are mistaken. The ordeal she underwent is not easily forgotten, and I assure you she thinks of it even without possessing any information regarding his location. We have discussed it in our letters, though in very vague and general terms. I believe that your sister is capable of deciding for herself whether she wishes to risk seeing Mr. Wickham by coming to Hertfordshire. Besides, if she wishes to come, it will take very little foresight and planning to prevent a meeting from occurring. After all, I reside in a house with some of the finest gossips our country has to offer. As the man in question is a handsome officer, I will know in advance exactly which assemblies and gatherings he will be expected to attend, and we can plan accordingly."
"I know that you would not treat Georgiana's feelings with callousness. I believe too, that she finds it easier to confide in you than in myself, so I must trust your assessment of the matter. I will go fetch the documentation from London and, if my sister wishes, I will fetch her back as well. I think I ought to go now, before the ball, so that I may be able to speak to her of Wickham face to face. I do not wish to communicate this information through letter, when she might need comforting upon being told of it."
"You are the best of brothers, Sir," Elizabeth replied. "I am sure that Georgiana will appreciate your support as well as your candor."
Darcy smiled. "I certainly hope so. I suppose I must depart as soon as possible. It ought to be the work of a moment to convince Bingley to accompany me earlier than he had initially planned. You have yourself heard him attest to his easy nature in such situations."
"I have," Elizabeth laughed. "I believe I recall him protesting our disagreement when we began to debate the merits of such a character. Well, it will certainly work in your favour in this instance. I wish you luck."
"Thank you, Miss Elizabeth. We Darcys are fortunate to have you to support and advise us."
"You would do just fine on your own without me, I am sure," she replied, feeling her cheeks heat.
"I can think of at least one instance in which your help was essential and invaluable," he replied solemnly, meeting her eyes. "There can be no words to express my gratitude for your actions that day."
"I am very glad I was able to help on that occasion," replied Elizabeth, feeling thoroughly embarrassed. She was quite unused to being so blatantly appreciated. Her father was probably her greatest admirer, and the highest praise he would give her was that she was marginally less silly than her sisters. Jane, while always very generous with her compliments, said nothing of Elizabeth that she would not say of a complete stranger. Given such a history, Mr. Darcy's frank esteem was as disconcerting as it was thrilling.
"I suppose I ought to leave now," Mr. Darcy said reluctantly. "To prepare for my departure."
"I have an errand to run in Meryton myself," she admitted with equal reluctance. "Whether or not she chuses to come, please send Georgiana my warmest regards."
Mr. Darcy promised to do so and took his leave, and Elizabeth was left to contemplate her next course of action. The thought of Wickham remaining in Meryton disturbed her, and she was determined to do something about it.
After Mr. Darcy was out of sight, Elizabeth headed to Lucas Lodge for the purpose of prevailing upon Charlotte to accompany her into Meryton. She was greeted upon entering by Sir William, who informed her that she had just missed Mr. Darcy. Then, with a wink, he commented that Mr. Darcy would undoubtedly be very sorry to hear that he had missed her.
Thankfully, she was saved from the conversation by Charlotte, whom she had not seen in a full week. Charlotte took very little persuading in order to agree to go to Meryton with Elizabeth, and on their walk there, Elizabeth regaled her with the story of her unplanned stay in Netherfield last week, as well as the arrival of Mr. Collins to Longbourn.
Charlotte had already had the misfortune of meeting Mr. Collins since, as she reminded Elizabeth, she had attended the supper at the Phillipses that Elizabeth herself had begged off of. From there the conversation moved to the scandalous bit of gossip Mr. Wickham had revealed to Lydia and which had subsequently spread like wildfire throughout the neighborhood before the evening was over.
Charlotte asked Elizabeth what she knew of the affair, knowing of her friendship with Georgiana Darcy. Elizabeth was very firm in stating that there was absolutely no truth at all in Wickham's accusations, which Charlotte did not find surprising. The impropriety of a stranger to all coming to the neighborhood and immediately maligning another had not escaped her.
Elizabeth did not go into the details of how she knew that Wickham was a liar, citing the Darcy family's privacy, and Charlotte did not attempt to pry. Elizabeth furthermore did not reveal her purpose in going to Meryton, knowing that Charlotte would no doubt disapprove.
Their first destination upon arriving in the town was the home of her aunt Phillips. Knowing the woman's habit of watching the passersby through her window, Elizabeth supposed that she was the person most likely to know where Mr. Wickham could be found.
Mrs. Phillips expressed much joy upon seeing Elizabeth, speaking at length of her concern over her niece's health and her regret that she could not attend supper the night before. Elizabeth was just trying to decide upon a casual way of bringing up Mr. Wickham when her efforts were rendered moot by the very gentleman passing by under the window with some fellow officers.
Mrs. Phillips called out a greeting and an invitation to come up and dine with them, and the men accepted gladly, happy in the manner of soldiers everywhere to be offered a homecooked meal.
Soon after entering, Mr. Wickham maneuvered himself so as to be sat next to Elizabeth, and he began by very warmly expressing his regrets over her absence the previous evening. Elizabeth swallowed her bile and smiled back at him, telling him sweetly that she was happy now to reclaim the missed opportunity to get to know him better.
He was all things charming throughout the meal, and if Elizabeth had not known better, she might have been utterly taken in by his easy manner and witty conversation. She noted the particular regard he paid her and, knowing that she had no fortune with which to tempt him, gathered that she had Lydia's mistaken claim that Mr. Darcy was sweet on her to thank for such attentions.
Lydia's probably mistaken claim, that was. Was Lydia mistaken? Elizabeth reminded herself very firmly of Mr. Darcy's great wealth and consequence and concluded that Lydia must have been wrong.
It mattered not, in any case. The important thing was that the belief she meant something to Mr. Darcy had caused Mr. Wickham to focus his attention on her, which was exactly where she wanted it.
She soon mentioned that she had heard a most disturbing report from Lydia regarding Mr. Darcy, and then allowed Mr. Wickham to repeat the story she had already heard, maligning the gentleman. She made expressions of outrage and sympathy in all the right places, and tried to give the appearance of hanging upon his every word, unused as she was to deception.
"I hope," she said, after concluding her condemnation of Mr. Darcy in the harshest terms she knew, "that your plans in favour of the -shire will not be affected by Mr. Darcy's presence in the neighborhood."
Mr. Wickham was quick to assure her that he would not let himself be intimidated or threatened by Mr. Darcy and had no plans of quitting the neighborhood in the near future.
"In that case, I hope we may have the pleasure of seeing you at the ball in Netherfield next Tuesday." Elizabeth gave him what she hoped was a flirtatious look through her eyelashes. "I have heard a rumor that all the officers were invited."
Mr. Wickham frowned gently. "It might be better to avoid a meeting with Mr. Darcy at the ball," he replied, shamelessly contradicting his previous statement. "I understand Mr. Bingley to be a fine fellow, and for his sake would not wish to mar the gathering with such unpleasant scenes as may arise should we be made to spend some hours together in the same room."
"Such a sentiment is quite noble and does you credit. However, you must not avoid such a pleasant evening of entertainment for the sake of Mr. Darcy when it is not at all certain that he will even attend the ball. I do recall Miss Bingley saying last week that Mr. Darcy would not care for a ball to be hosted at Netherfield. Mr. Bingley replied that Mr. Darcy may chuse to go to bed before it began if that was the case. Besides, I have heard that he is to leave for London today, if he has not left already. Surely, he would not depart so soon before a ball if he intended to be there. I believe it would be safe to conclude, based on such evidence, that Mr. Darcy will not be in attendance on Tuesday. Please, do say you will come!"
Mr. Wickham gave her an unctuous smirk. "I cannot refuse such a passionate appeal, especially when you have approached the matter so logically. Very well, Miss Elizabeth, I will come, for I cannot resist the temptation of such charming company as is sure to be had. It is doubtless to hope in vain that you have not yet a partner for the first set, and yet I must enquire."
"I am not engaged for those dances," Elizabeth replied, gifting Wickham with a small smile.
"In that case, may I be the lucky man to claim them?"
Having achieved the purpose of her visit to Meryton by securing Mr. Wickham for a set at the ball, Elizabeth was eager to be gone. She was aware, however, of the need to appear pleased with her company, and remained civil and engaging until she was rescued by Charlotte who declared that it looked as though it would soon rain, and they had better be on their way.
If Elizabeth expected to be interrogated by Charlotte over her puzzling warmth towards Mr. Wickham, given the opinions she had expressed of him earlier that day, she was disappointed.
Charlotte only gave her a wry look and said: "I do hope, Eliza, that you know what you are about."
Elizabeth assured her that she did, but begged not to be questioned any more on the matter.
Charlotte obliged, and the rest of the walk was spent in discussion of Mr. Collins' attentions towards Mary until the beginning of a drizzle obliged them to discontinue the conversation and run the rest of the way home before it began to rain in earnest.
The days leading up to the ball were dismal. It rained so continuously that they were prevented from walking to Meryton, and even the shoe-roses for the ball had to be got by proxy.
Elizabeth, tense already with the prospect of the upcoming ball and the expected interactions with Mr. Wickham, felt that her nerves, for the first time in her life, rivaled her mother’s. She had trouble sleeping for imagining in her mind all the ways in which her plan could go wrong.
Her dread and yet anticipation of having the ordeal over with were not conducive to making the time pass quicker, and neither was being confined to the house with four restless sisters and a talkative Mr. Collins.
It was only the memory of how often Elizabeth was vexed when her mother exhibited such behavior, that prevented her from taking out her nerves and frustrations on the other members of the household.
Once, she found herself on the verge of chastising Kitty for coughing, and thereafter resolved to spend the remaining time until the ball holed up in her room with a book in order to avoid the danger of making herself quite disagreeable to her family.
The arrival of Tuesday was a relief to them all, and the fact that the rain had abated just in time for the ball seemed like a good omen. Elizabeth’s pleasure was completed when, after breakfast, a very fine carriage stopped outside of the house, and her friend emerged from it.
“Georgiana!” cried Elizabeth, and rushed to hug the dear girl. Georgiana was no less enthusiastic in her greeting, and as they embraced, Elizabeth espied Mr. Darcy emerging from the carriage after her, staring at them with a benevolent smile on his face.
Elizabeth escorted brother and sister inside, and introduced Georgiana to the curious stares of her mother and sisters. She was greeted warmly and in a friendly manner by all, but Elizabeth could see the attention was causing her shy friend some strain.
When Mr. Collins entered the melee and began speaking pompously of Miss Darcy’s venerable aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Georgiana was positively taken aback, and Elizabeth felt obliged to rescue her, citing a bonnet she had upstairs which she thought would look quite fetching on Georgiana.
Once alone in Elizabeth’s room, they spoke with all the warmth and intimacy of their previous acquaintance. Georgiana expressed her pleasure in seeing Elizabeth again, as well as her anticipation of spending some time in her presence. She did not plan on attending the ball, though, as the thought of meeting so many new strangers was too intimidating for her. Elizabeth was relieved to hear it, knowing that Wickham’s presence at the ball had been assured by her own hand.
They spoke briefly of Wickham’s arrival in Meryton, and Elizabeth expressed with much warmth her confidence in Georgiana, and her pride at her courage, in not allowing herself to be driven away by the scoundrel. To this she added assurances that both herself and Mr. Darcy would do all in their power to ensure that a meeting between Wickham and Georgiana would not take place.
This sort of talk was exactly what Georgiana had been wishing to hear, and she took much comfort in Elizabeth’s encouragement. Presently, though, it was felt that it would be rude to remain sequestered upstairs any longer, and they rejoined the company.
It felt like far too soon when the hour became late and Georgiana was obliged to leave and Elizabeth to begin preparing for the evening. She promised, however, to come and call on Netherfield the next morning, and tell her friend all about the events of the ball.
Having spent most of the visit speaking with Georgiana, aware as she was of her friend’s shy nature and attentive to her discomfort, Elizabeth did not find the time to speak with Mr. Darcy. Thus, she had not had the opportunity to warn him that she would dance the opening set with Mr. Wickham. She did not even know if she wished to warn him; she was not sure if he would approve of her plan or think her foolish. It was better, perhaps, that he remain in the dark.
Still, Elizabeth could not help but nervously wonder what he would think when he saw her dancing and flirting with Mr. Wickham.
She was thankful when they arrived at the ball and she did not see Mr. Darcy immediately upon entering. Putting him out of her mind as best she could, Elizabeth accompanied her younger sisters inside, knowing they would inevitably end up in the area containing the densest concentration of officers, and therefore where she was most likely to find her target.
Once Elizabeth laid her eyes on Mr. Wickham and ascertained that he had seen her, she abandoned her sisters in favor of the refreshments table, where she was joined soon after by the gentleman.
“Would you like a drink, Mr. Wickham?” she asked, gesturing at the table. “I was just soothing my thirst with some punch but am finding it to be quite sweet. Perhaps you would like some of the wine, though? I have heard very good things about this one, though I think it too strong for my tastes.”
Mr. Wickham accepted the generous glass she poured for him, and gallantly complimented her on her looks that evening. Elizabeth was incapable of blushing on command, but expressed verbally her pleasure and thanks for the compliment.
They stood there, making pleasant conversation, and Elizabeth felt herself relax. Villain that he was, Mr. Wickham acted like any pleasant and well-mannered gentleman, something she ought to have expected but did not. It was therefore not too difficult to fall into her usual teasing patterns of speech and treat Mr. Wickham like any charming man of her acquaintance.
When the dance began, Elizabeth was pleased to find that he was a good dance partner- graceful, and light on his feet. It made her enjoyment of the dance easier to feign. She laughed at his jokes, made witty observations that made him laugh in turn, and tried very hard not to look around to see if Mr. Darcy was there.
After the dance, Elizabeth claimed to be parched, and Mr. Wickham accompanied her back to the refreshments table, where she cajoled him into having another glass of wine, claiming she did not wish to be drinking alone.
He accepted with ease, and stood by the wall next to the table, leaning against it casually as he spoke to her. At that moment, Elizabeth finally espied Mr. Darcy. He was a few feet away from Wickham, and making his way towards them, a grim expression on his face.
She met his eyes, and desperately made a small shaking movement with her head, hoping he would understand the hint and stay his approach. He paused hesitantly, just as Mr. Wickham glanced back to see what she was staring at.
Elizabeth feared that Mr. Wickham would now attempt to leave, having indicated before that he would not wish to attend the ball if Mr. Darcy were there. Drink, however, had obviously made him bold, because rather than leaving he turned around and gave Darcy a look that, though Elizabeth couldn’t see, caused Mr. Darcy’s countenance to become positively angry. Despite that, Mr. Darcy adhered to the desperate shakes of Elizabeth’s head and the aborting motion of her hand she made, taking advantage of Mr. Wickham’s turned back, and he moved in a different direction, leaving them alone.
“Oh, how unfortunate that Mr. Darcy has returned from London!” Elizabeth cried, once Wickham turned back to her, looking smug. “I do wish that awful man would leave!”
“He will not approach while I am here,” Wickham replied reassuringly. “See how he has turned away? He obviously fears that I will expose him for what he is.”
Elizabeth could not help but notice that though Mr. Darcy had moved away, he was still in the room, slightly behind and to the right of Wickham, and keeping them in his line of sight. She took a moment to gather her nerves before smiling at Wickham. “That reminds me, I have heard from Lydia that in that terrible fight with the men he sent after you, the one that lost you your eye, you managed to fight them all off single-handed. You must tell me all about it!”
"Would it not be too much for your delicate nerves, Miss Elizabeth? I warn you; it is not a pretty tale.”
“Then I shall have to have a glass of wine to bolster my courage, for I am determined to hear it. Here, have one yourself, I see your glass is empty.”
“Very well then,” he replied. And he proceeded to tell her the most fantastical tale of bravery and daring that Elizabeth had ever heard. Apparently, the number of men who had attacked him had now graduated up to five, and Elizabeth was pleased to see his gestures become wilder and his speech more slurred the emptier his glass became.
“Oh my,” Elizabeth exclaimed, once the story concluded dramatically with the thugs running away, as Wickham slowly sank to the ground, the world darkening around him as he succumbed to his injuries and fainted. “I do wonder if Georgiana Darcy knows of her brother’s heinous actions. Given what a sweet, gentle girl she is, I doubt she would allow such a thing to happen if she knew.”
“You know Miss Darcy?” Wickham asked, sounding slightly surprised but mostly indifferent.
“Oh yes, we met during the last summer. It is a rather interesting story- how we met. I was walking along the beach in Ramsgate, where I had been holidaying.”
Wickham’s eyes, which had been lingering lazily on her décolletage, snapped up at the mention of Ramsgate. Elizabeth pretended not to notice.
“And I came across dear Georgiana being assaulted by a brute, who was trying to compromise her. It was rather too isolated a spot to call for help, so I took an old wooden plank that had washed up on the shore, and I hit the scoundrel with it in the face. I was later given to understand that there had been a nail in the plank.”
The next moment, she couldn’t breathe, as Wickham’s strong hands wrapped around her throat. “YOU BITCH!” he howled, shaking her, “YOU STABBED ME IN THE EYE!”
His hate-filled eyes stared into hers, and the smell of spirits on his breath burned her nose.
Then there was the sound of flesh hitting flesh, and Elizabeth could breathe again. Mr. Darcy had been her savior, and his punch had been strong enough to send Wickham flying to the floor. In another moment, he was on Wickham, restraining the man’s arms behind his back, his knee pressing into Wickham’s spine.
“Let me go!” Wickham shrieked. “Let me go, I’ll kill her! She’s the reason I don’t have an eye! That-” and he proceeded to call Elizabeth some very shocking words.
“Oh my!” Sir William Lucas had arrived on the scene, and was listening with astonishment to Wickham’s accusations against Elizabeth as well as his death threats towards her and Mr. Darcy. “I see Mr. Darcy was quite right. Madness... Paranoia...” he shook his head sadly. “Come, gentlemen!” he gestured towards some of the officers who had gathered around along with the rest of the guests to observe the scene. “Relieve Mr. Darcy of his burden and see to it that Mr. Wickham is locked up for tonight. He is obviously a danger to both himself and others.”
Mr. Chamberlayne and another member of the regiment whom Elizabeth did not know, knelt by Wickham and gripped him each by an arm, easily resisting his struggles. Mr. Darcy stood up and, ignoring the gawking and exclaiming crowd, turned to Elizabeth.
“Miss Elizabeth, I hope you are unharmed.” he said solemnly, his gaze earnest.
Suddenly, Elizabeth felt her knees go weak, as the fright with the situation caught up to her. She looked around for a chair, but before she could find one, she found herself scooped up by Mr. Darcy with one of his arms behind her back, and the other supporting her at the knees.
“Miss Elizabeth has had quite a shock.” he announced to the party guests who were all staring at the spectacle with barely disguised interest. “She should be allowed to rest and recover her spirits in a quiet room upstairs, away from the noise of the ball.”
He began walking with her, carrying her towards the staircase that she knew led to the upstairs bedrooms. To Elizabeth’s relief, the crowd began to disperse, and conversation picked up again, though at a louder pitch than before.
“Mr. Darcy,” she whispered to him, “I assure you this is quite unnecessary. I had a bit of a fright and felt the need to sit down, but I was hardly about to swoon, and am quite capable of walking on my own.”
He merely smiled at her, and held her closer to his body.
Elizabeth felt a thrill of hope go through her, and quite forgot to subdue it by reminding herself of the disparities in their wealth, connexions, and circumstances.
The sound of her mother’s shrieks in another room reached Elizabeth’s ears, and she felt Mr. Darcy increase his pace. He was as desperate as she was to reach the safety of the upstairs before they would be forced to confront her mother. They had finally reached the staircase when they were stopped by her father.
“Wait just a minute, Sir.” He said firmly, halting Mr. Darcy in his tracks. “If you think I shall allow you to carry my daughter, unchaperoned, up to one of the quiet and darkened bedrooms upstairs to ‘allow her to rest’, there is a rude awakening ahead of you. I’ve seen the way you look at her.”
Elizabeth was charmed to see Mr. Darcy blush.
“Sir, we will not be alone. My sister is residing upstairs at the moment. She is young and shy, and elected not to enjoy the party, but she is very fond of your daughter, and I am sure would be eager to see her and offer whatever comfort she can.”
“I will accompany you,” Mr. Bennet said firmly.
“It is late, and my sister is probably already prepared for bed.” Mr. Darcy replied. “She may not be fit to be seen by company. Perhaps Miss Bennet could accompany us, to avoid any appearance of impropriety?”
This seemed to placate Elizabeth’s father, and he gestured Jane over. Jane had been heading their way even before, and now ran to Elizabeth’s side.
“Lizzy, what is wrong? Mama was just shouting- something about Mr. Wickham trying to kill you. She was too overset by her nerves to make much sense. Are you well?”
“I shall be quite well just as soon as I can have some peace and privacy.” Elizabeth replied firmly, feeling as if a dozen eyes were watching her. Mr. Darcy took the hint, and proceeded up the stairs with alacrity, accompanied by Jane.
He led them to one of the rooms down the hallway, and had Jane knock, as his arms were occupied. Georgiana opened the door, and exclaimed in shock at the sight of her. Much was made over Elizabeth by Jane and Georgiana as she was placed gently on a settee by Mr. Darcy.
“Miss Elizabeth, I am going to fetch you a glass of wine and will be right back. I shall leave it to you to explain the events of the evening to our sisters.” And with a bow, he abandoned her.
Vexing man! Leaving her alone to maneuver Jane’s concern, Georgiana’s feelings, and the truth without revealing too much in the presence of Jane, who did not know of Georgiana’s past experience with Wickham.
She managed to improvise an explanation regarding a soldier (she was careful not to mention his name) getting too drunk, trying to attack her, and being stopped by Mr. Darcy.
“My mind is too muddled now,” she told them both apologetically, “to give you a more detailed account of the events that occurred. I beg you to excuse me.”
She was made to promise Jane that she would explain what had happened in more detail once her nerves had settled, and assured Georgiana that she would call on her the next day to tell her the whole story if her own brother did not perform the office first.
Just then, Mr. Darcy returned with a glass of wine. Georgiana and Jane moved out of the way for him, and began talking quietly amongst themselves, sending Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy the occasional glance.
“Are you quite recovered, Miss Elizabeth?” he asked her solicitously.
“From the need to explain simultaneously to both Jane and Georgiana what had happened without distressing Georgiana or revealing her personal history to Jane? It shall be a while before I recover from the betrayal of being left to fend for myself on that front. As for my ordeal downstairs, I assure you that I was recovered within five seconds of it ending.”
Mr. Darcy apologized very solemnly for his betrayal, but the corners of his mouth twitched.
“Shall you also apologize for carrying me up the stairs like an invalid, making it seem as if I were far more distressed than I actually was? It was very badly done, Mr. Darcy. Now I shall be expected to lie up here in the dark for the rest of the night, instead of participating in the ball.”
“I do not believe any such thing is necessary,” he protested. “The good people downstairs all know of your strong constitution well enough to believe that a short rest and a glass of wine were all that were required for you to recover your spirits. No one will be surprised to see you back downstairs and participating in the celebration within one half hour.”
“I suppose you are right,” Elizabeth replied, mollified.
He smiled. “I promise you that I would not have taken such a step had I thought it would in any way jeopardize my chances of dancing with you this evening.”
“Dancing?” She asked redundantly, surprised at the turn the conversation had taken.
“In your delight over reuniting with Georgiana yesterday, you quite allowed her to monopolize your attentions; I did not have the opportunity to ask, but I hope you will dance with me this evening. Are there any vacancies in your dance card?”
Her cousin Collins had mentioned his intention of soliciting a dance from her at some time during the evening, but as no particular one had been specified, she felt comfortable with assuring Mr. Darcy that her card was vacant.
“None of the remaining dances have been claimed. My attentions to Wickham this evening discouraged all other men from asking for a dance. I was completely focused on my plan.”
“And you performed admirably,” Mr. Darcy said with some warmth. “I had no notion of what you were about until the matter came to a head. I thought that you were merely attempting to keep Wickham close by so that you would be assured he was nowhere near Georgiana. It was only when he began shouting that I realized I had not given your ability to plan enough credit. You went about it quite cleverly, but I wish that you had not placed yourself in harm’s way in order to accomplish your goal.”
“I assure you that I had no expectation of being attacked by Mr. Wickham. I merely hoped that if I revealed my role in his injury while he was in an uninhibited state, he might speak of it unguardedly to enough people to support your claims of paranoid delusions. I had not anticipated the entire affair turning out as successfully as it did.”
“While I am gratified to hear that you do not make a habit of deliberately putting yourself in danger, I believe our definitions of success differ. I cannot define anything as a success that culminated in you being physically assaulted. And all for the sake of such a scoundrel!
“Not for his sake,” Elizabeth corrected. “But for the sake of all the future victims he would have no doubt accumulated. You may rest assured, though, Mr. Darcy, that I intend to spend the rest of the evening in far more wholesome company.”
“Am I to understand from this that I may have a dance with the cunning strategist and defeater or villains? Or am I, perhaps, being presumptuous in assuming my company could be considered wholesome?”
Elizabeth laughed. “In comparison to Mr. Wickham your company is very wholesome, in addition to quite a few other pleasant adjectives.”
“That is hardly high praise, Miss Elizabeth; the same could doubtless be said of a rotted turnip or a coughed-up hairball.”
“Well, I value your company over that of a rotted turnip,” she conceded playfully, “but you will not succeed in fishing any more compliments from me than that. The dance, however, I will gladly grant you.”
The rest of the evening passed in a blur for Elizabeth. She vaguely noted the loud murmuring of the crowd as she descended from the stairs with her sister and her mother’s loud exclamations, first shocked and distressed with worry, and then delighted and triumphant when she began to dance with Mr. Darcy. She noticed the frequent stares sent her way by those around her, but could not bring herself to keep her mind on them for more than a second.
Mr. Darcy spent their dance by turns admiring her cleverness and scolding her for putting herself in such close proximity to Wickham. There was such fondness in his looks, though, that Elizabeth was not capable of taking his admonishments to heart.
By the time the evening ended, Mrs. Bennet was crowing loudly over the prospect of soon having three daughters engaged to be married, and Elizabeth had begun to suspect herself that she may not be entirely wrong.
A conversation with Jane that night revealed that her mother was not alone in her thoughts. Jane, too, thought that Mr. Darcy had serious intentions towards her person, and she was not the only one to believe so. Apparently, while Elizabeth had been having her conversation with Mr. Darcy in Georgiana’s room, Georgiana and Jane had been having their own conversation, consisting mainly of speculation, based on their most recent observations, of an upcoming happy event.
Elizabeth reciprocated by giving Jane all manner of encouragement regarding Mr. Bingley’s feelings towards her, but secretly wished the topic to return to Mr. Darcy, so she could hear more of Jane’s opinion regarding how likely Mr. Darcy was to pursue her.
She went to sleep that night with her head full of Mr. Darcy, and her heart even fuller.
Well, I hope you found this chapter satisfying :). Leave a comment to let me know what you thought (or to congratulate me for finishing my BSc yesterday :D).
The next morning, Lizzy headed over to see Georgiana as promised. She decided to walk, as the day was beautiful and warm- likely one of the last of its kind before winter came.
She had not got far into the Netherfield grounds when she came across Mr. Darcy, riding on his horse. He alighted upon seeing her, bowed, and proceeded to tender an offer to escort her to Netherfield, which she accepted with pleasure.
"Georgiana will be very happy to see you, Miss Elizabeth," he said, as they began walking in the correct direction, his horse trailing behind them. "She has woken early today in anticipation of your visit, and has already visited the kitchens to ensure that your favorite scones would be made for you when you arrived."
Elizabeth smiled warmly. "I would expect nothing less of sweet Georgiana. Darcys truly are the dearest creatures in the entire world!"
The moment the words left her lips, Elizabeth blushed. She had inadvertently revealed more than she had intended to.
"They are, are they?" Darcy asked. Elizabeth was too embarrassed to look at him, but she thought she heard a smile in his voice. She nodded mutely in answer to his question.
"Well then," she felt him take her hand in his, "How would you like to become one of them?"
"Mr. Darcy?" she asked, barely daring to believe what she was being asked.
"Elizabeth, for some time now I have begun to entertain hopes of expanding the little family I share with Georgiana to include yourself. I wish to be your husband, and for you to be my wife. Will you turn our family of two into one of three, with the hopes of increasing it further? Will you give me your hand and take my name in return?"
Her heart was beating so fast, she was sure he could feel her pulse in his hand where he was holding hers. "I would be honored, Sir."
"My dearest Elizabeth!" And he pulled her into his arms.
"You have made me so very happy." he murmured into her hair. She finally found the courage to look up at him, and smiled at his delighted countenance.
"The depth of my feelings for you exceed my ability to express them, I believe," he said ruefully, "but let me only say with the utmost sincerity, how much I love and admire you."
"I can muster no better words for the occasion than you yourself have," she responded fondly. "I love you too, you dear, dear, wonderful man."
"More than you love Georgiana?" he asked, suddenly impish.
"I love you as a woman can only love a man," she replied, smiling indulgently.
"That answer will have to suffice," he said. "She will be very happy, you know, to welcome you into the family."
"We must go and tell her now!" exclaimed Elizabeth, suddenly overcome with excitement to see her friend and share the news with her. She began to walk towards Netherfield, but was pulled back by Mr. Darcy, who still held a grip on her hand.
"Perhaps," he requested, "Before reentering society and spreading the news of our felicity to all, we might remain here in seclusion long enough for me to ask for a kiss?"
"We might," Elizabeth replied, delighted with such daring. "And I have it on good authority that if you should indeed ask, you may very well receive a favorable reply."
Georgiana's glee upon being told of the engagement was expressed by emitting such a loud shriek of excitement that it caused Elizabeth to rub her ears vigorously, and Darcy to gape at her with a look of dumb incredulity. He had never before heard his sister speak at a pitch louder than 'adequately audible' and had not conceived of her being capable of producing such a sound.
Her joy, once expressed in slightly more intelligible terms, was everything that her brother and Elizabeth could have hoped for. The only fly in Darcy's ointment was Georgiana's excited speculation over how often Elizabeth could sleep over with her once she resided in Pemberley. He wished to nip that notion in the bud immediately, but did not know how without being indelicate.
Thankfully, Elizabeth possessed more tact than he himself did, and merely replied that she was sure to be lonely whenever Darcy was away from home and would doubtless seek Georgiana out on those nights for company. Georgiana's eyes widened for a moment, but then she nodded her understanding, blushing.
Mr. Bingley was the next person to hear the happy news, and he congratulated them most vigorously, repeatedly speaking of how he had been expecting such an outcome and how felicitous he was sure their marriage would be.
If he seemed a little concerned as well, Elizabeth put it out of her mind, until a while later when he was able to take her aside and ask her, looking quite worried, if she would be offended by a man offering marriage to her sister on the very same day that she had become engaged. Elizabeth had to suppress her own high-pitched squeal at such a question, and assured Mr. Bingley most sincerely that she did not feel such an event would eclipse her own happy news, but rather add to her felicity.
Mr. Bingely's happy congratulations were not very quiet or subtle, and upon Caroline Bingley entering the room, it did not take long for her to enquire about the source of such merriment. Thus, Miss Bingley became the next person to hear the news, as well as earn the distinction of providing the least pleasant of all the well-wishes they had received. She congratulated Elizabeth most enthusiastically for her bravery in quitting her own sphere for one so far above her own, and one in which she was destined to never be accepted or recognized. "I could never be half so brave as you, Eliza," she concluded. "For I cannot bear to be despised by my social superiors as you will no doubt be."
Mr. Darcy reddened with anger, but Elizabeth could only laugh. Such a paltry attack could hardly mar her joy on such an occasion, and she did not even bother to come up with a biting reply to such rudeness, feeling that her uncaring happiness was response enough.
Darcy, however, refused to leave such insolence unanswered. He had just opened his mouth to deliver what would have been a no-doubt scathing retort, when Georgiana preempted him by delivering one herself.
"I cannot see how all who know Lizzy could fail to love her. However, if she does meet with disapproval from others, I will take comfort in the fact that it is only a consequence self-important nonsense based on nothing more than connexions. She can never be despised for her character."
Miss Bingley was wise enough to comprehend what Georgiana was implying, and after muttering another polite congratulation, left the room, looking as if she had sucked a lemon.
Georgiana blushed slightly at the hasty departure, but there was a stubborn jut to her jaw that said she did not regret her words. Darcy felt his chest puff up with pride in his sister, and as soon as he found the opportunity to speak without being overheard, he whispered to Georgiana how proud he was of her.
She beamed at him and, if he was not mistaken, her back seemed to straighten at the praise. He knew that Georgiana of a year ago would not have had the confidence to deliver such a rebuke, and he sent a fond glance at the woman who he suspected was the source of Georgiana's courage.
Elizabeth must have sensed his gaze, because she turned around and, upon espying him looking at her, batted her eyes at him flirtatiously. He was overcome by the urge to respond in a way that would have been entirely improper, and was only saved by Bingley's timely proposal that they all share a toast in honor of the happy couple.
Soon after, it occurred to Elizabeth that they had been rather hasty with spreading the news of their joy before obtaining permission from her father. She had no concern of Mr. Bennet refusing them, but felt it was better that he should not hear news of the engagement from a different source before being approached by Mr. Darcy. Mr. Darcy concurred, and therefore to Longbourn the couple made haste in Mr. Bingley's carriage. They were accompanied there by Mr. Bingley who professed a wish to see the whole family. He blushed deeply while saying it, though, and fooled no-one.
They arrived to find Longbourn in a state of complete chaos. Mrs. Bennet was shrieking something loudly, and Elizabeth could not discern whether it was in joy or distress. The sound of Lydia and Kitty's raucous giggles could be heard amidst the exclamations of Mrs. Bennet, and Elizabeth hastened to question them over what had caused the fuss, depositing Darcy into Mr. Hill's capable hands, and instructing him to show Mr. Darcy the way to Mr. Bennet's study.
Darcy arrived at the door to the study to find Mr. Collins on the verge of entering.
"Mr. Darcy!" Mr. Collins exclaimed upon seeing him, bowing deeply. "An honor; a privilege to see you once again! You must forgive me now, for although I value your venerable presence most highly, the conversation I am to undertake with Mr. Bennet is of a private nature. Thus, I must bid you adieu for now. Adieu, adieu! A pleasure to speak with you, sir."
Then he went in and shut the door in Darcy's face.
Darcy stood in front of the door for a few moments, scowling at this unexpected obstacle, and then began to pace impatiently. A few minutes later, there was again a loud shriek from Mrs. Bennet that sounded suspiciously like: "Five thousand a year!", and Bingley walked up to the study soon after, pausing in confusion upon seeing Darcy standing there.
"Hullo, Darcy! Aren't you gone in to speak to Mr. Bennet?"
"Mr. Collins beat me to it," Darcy replied gruffly. "He is in the study talking to him now. I will see Mr. Bennet once he leaves. You-" he pointed at Bingley emphatically, "- must wait your turn."
Bingley accepted the news placidly, and leaned against the wall to wait. Darcy, bored with pacing, leaned against the wall next to him, taking care to place himself closer to the door than Bingley so as to mark his rightful place in line.
Soon after, Mr. Collins exited the study looking slightly befuddled, and Mr. Darcy hurried in to take his place.
"Another visitor?" Mr. Bennet raised his eyebrows upon seeing Darcy entering, and then sighed. "It used to be that this was a place of peace and solitude. It does not do, though, to yearn for better, simpler times, they never do come back. What can I do for you, Mr. Darcy?"
"Mr. Bennet, I have asked your daughter Elizabeth to marry me this morning."
"A rather fine show of good sense on your part; I commend you."
"Miss Elizabeth has accepter my offer."
"Whether that is a show of good sense on her part remains to be seen. I know no ill of you yet, however, and my Lizzy is a clever girl. Let us for now give her the benefit of the doubt."
Darcy resisted the urge to sigh at such a reception and persevered. "I have come now for your permission to take your daughter's hand in marriage."
"Oh, very well. If you are to take her hand, though, you might as well take the rest of her. You have my permission. As for me, I have the comfort of knowing that I will have at least one son who is not as stupid as Mr. Collins."
Darcy supposed that that was as warm a reception as he was likely to receive and thanked Mr. Bennet solemnly before departing with a sigh of relief. Bingley entered the study as he left, and Darcy heard Mr. Bennet exclaim from within: "Another! What now? Oh, Mr. Bingley; I presume you are here to ask for Jane's hand. Well, well, I suppose it is best to get it all over with at once. Have a seat."
Happy was the day on which Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two eldest daughters. Georgiana cried, Mrs. Bennet exulted, Mr. Hurst snored, and the two couples smiled throughout.
Their marriages were very happy, and though Elizabeth and Darcy's was not as peaceful a relationship as Jane and Bingley's, they rather liked it that way.
Mary and Mr. Collins, who had married some weeks earlier, also enjoyed a felicitous marriage. They spent the chief of their time together with Mr. Collins speaking incessantly of Lady Catherine, Mary quoting incessantly from Fordyce, and neither paying what the other said the slightest bit of attention. It was an arrangement that suited them particularly well, though it severely tried their relations when they came to visit.
The wedding of Mr. Collins and Mary was officiated by the priest who had first recommended Mr. Collins to Lady Catherine's attention. Mr. Chester was a patient and fatherly man, who had done much to guide Mr. Collins during his studies, and Charlotte Lucas took an immediate shine to him.
All it took was a kind offer by Charlotte to show him the way from the church to Longbourne, where the wedding breakfast would be held, to bring her into Mr. Chester's attention, and a few subtle inquiries on both sides assured each that the other was unattached. From there things moved quickly, and precisely a month later, Mr. Chester again attended a wedding in that very church, but this time in the role of groom. Charlotte and Elizabeth remained good friends, and the couple could often be found visiting Pemberley.
As for Mr. Wickham, he did not at all have a good time of it at the madhouse, in which conditions were quite poor. He had had the misfortune of being placed upon arrival next to a man who was convinced that he was Napoleon. Upon seeing Wickham, the madman immediately declared him to be Marie Antoinette, and would speak to Wickham only in French. He spent the majority of his waking hours elaborating on his jumbled political theories, and berating Wickham for his failings as a ruler. Amidst the hunger, sleep deprivation, and constant loud noise, Wickham soon began to believe that he was, in fact, Marie Antoinette, and spent the rest of his short life loudly bemoaning his cruel and unjust fate in broken French. He died a few years later of a disease that swept through the facility.
Georgiana had the pleasure of having a wonderful and loving relationship with her relations through marriage, both in her brother's marriage to Elizabeth, and in her husband's family once she married some years later.
With the Gardiners, they were always on the most intimate terms. Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them; and they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing Elizabeth into Ramsgate, had been the means of saving Georgiana and uniting them.
(Of course, the author never got any of the credit for being the means of uniting them, but it is always so. Those who do not complain are never pitied. Nobody knows what I suffer!)
Thank you so so much for reading the story! I really hope you enjoyed it, and I would love to know your thoughts.