The attention of every lady was soon caught by a young man, whom they had never seen before, of most gentlemanlike appearance, walking with another officer on the other side of the way. The officer was the very Mr. Denny concerning whose return from London Lydia came to inquire, and he bowed as they passed. All were struck with the stranger's air, all wondered who he could be; and Kitty and Lydia, determined if possible to find out, led the way across the street, under pretense of wanting something in an opposite shop, and fortunately had just gained the pavement when the two gentlemen, turning back, had reached the same spot. Mr. Denny addressed them directly, and entreated permission to introduce his friend, Mr. Wickham, who had returned with him the day before from town, and he was happy to say had accepted a commission in their corps. This was exactly as it should be; for the young man wanted only regimentals to make him completely charming. His appearance was greatly in his favour; he had all the best part of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address. The introduction was followed up on his side by a happy readiness of conversation—a readiness at the same time perfectly correct and unassuming; and the whole party were still standing and talking together very agreeably, when the sound of horses drew their notice, and Darcy and Bingley were seen riding down the street. On distinguishing the ladies of the group, the two gentlemen came directly towards them, and began the usual civilities. Bingley was the principal spokesman, and Miss Bennet the principal object. He was then, he said, on his way to Longbourn on purpose to inquire after her. Mr. Darcy corroborated it with a bow, and was beginning to determine not to fix his eyes on Elizabeth, when they were suddenly arrested by the sight of the stranger, and Elizabeth happening to see the countenance of both as they looked at each other, was all astonishment at the effect of the meeting.
"Wickham!" cried Mr. Darcy, more warmth in his voice than Elizabeth had ever heard before; and he alighted from his horse to greet the gentleman.
Mr. Wickham looked delighted. "Darcy, old boy! I did not expect to see you here. How the devil are you?"
"Very well. And yourself?"
"Not bad at all," Wickham smiled. "And how is Georgiana?"
"Much the same. At times I cannot believe she is already sixteen."
"Sixteen? Little Georgiana? My, how time flies!"
A cleared throat from Mr. Denny served to remind the two men of the other members of the party, who were watching the exchange curiously. Darcy flushed and, remembering his manners, introduced Mr. Wickham as his dear friend from childhood.
At that point, Mr. Collins felt the need to enter the fray, recognizing Mr. Darcy as the nephew of his much-admired patroness. He introduced himself with such a flurry of compliments, accompanied by the occasional bow, that the conversation between the two friends was quite put to an end, as Darcy did his best to extract himself from the uncomfortable exchange.
Before leaving, though, Mr. Darcy promised to call on Mr. Wickham soon so that they may catch up, and Elizabeth watched with incredulity as they parted warmly, having never before seen Mr. Darcy so pleasing to his company nor so willing to be pleased.
Here was yet another example of a perfectly amiable and pleasant gentleman befriending the haughty Mr. Darcy; the first being Mr. Bingley. Elizabeth found herself extremely puzzled by both friendships, and would have liked to learn more of how they came about.
Her idle wish was granted the next day during supper at the Phillipses, to which Mr. Wickham had also been invited. He sat himself next to Elizabeth during the ensuing game of cards and began merely by commenting on it being a wet night, but his skill as a conversationalist rendered even that dull topic interesting. His conversation soon moved to his pleasure in the company to be found at Meryton, whereupon he made a remark regarding his good fortune in running into Mr. Darcy and thus having the comfort of a familiar face in a new environment. This disclosure provided Elizabeth with the opening she needed to ask him about the nature of his acquaintance with Mr. Darcy.
"Darcy and I grew up together," Mr. Wickham replied, smiling. "My father was steward to his own father, and we were always in company as children. Pemberley is a beautiful estate, and it boasts quite large grounds, insufficient even for two boisterous boys to explore completely. The chief of my childhood memories take place in Pemberley and Darcy features in them as prominently as my own parents."
Elizabeth was all astonishment at this disclosure. She never would have expected Mr. Darcy to be liberal-minded enough to befriend the mere son of a steward, given how he seemed to look down his nose at the local population. Still, the acquaintance reached back to childhood, when matters such as rank were often overlooked, and concessions might be made for a relationship of such duration.
She expressed none of this to Mr. Wickham though, and merely stated her surprise at his arrival at a place so far removed from his county of origin in Derbyshire.
"Yes, it did take a rather roundabout route to bring me here," Mr. Wickham conceded. "I was originally brought up for the church, in fact. Darcy's family was in possession of a valuable living in a nearby village called Kympton, that his father wished should go to me. The poor man was too blinded by his fondness for me to see that I would have made a very poor parson indeed. The fact of the matter is that, if passing by a group of men drinking and gambling, I am far more likely to be tempted into joining them than I am to sermonize them into mending their behavior."
It was an indelicate speech, but it was spoken with such easy self-deprecation that Elizabeth could not help but laugh at such a picture.
"Darcy, being my contemporary, was more aware than his father that I was the wrong man for the job," Wickham continued. "After his father's death, it was agreed between us that I should be given a handsome sum in lieu of the living, and should use it to study the law, thus gaining a profitable profession as old Mr. Darcy had wished for me, but in a field more suited to my temperament."
"I cannot help but notice that you are not now a barrister," Elizabeth prompted. "It was my understanding from Mr. Denny that you had accepted a commission in the militia."
Here Mr. Wickham gained a slightly sheepish look. "I found, very soon after beginning my studies, that the law was not the correct profession for me. No, that is untrue. I found that the need to work hard, after accustoming myself to the idleness which the patronage of the Darcys had until then allowed, was not for me. There, now I have been perfectly honest and you may think of me as you will.
"I dropped my studies soon after beginning them, and lived on the money Darcy had given me. I made some vague efforts gain a new profession, but all were quickly abandoned; the blame I consistently placed wholly on my former employer or the unpleasant nature of the profession, and never on myself. Eventually, though, I came to accept that I was wasting my life and needed to change my ways.
"I have heard it said that service in the army makes men out of boys and teaches discipline. Wishing to commit fully this time, I invested all the remaining money left from Darcy in long-term endeavors, so that I may not fall back on it as I have in the past. I accepted a commission in the militia as Denny told you, and this time I intend to stick with it even when I find it difficult."
"That is very commendable, I am sure," Elizabeth replied, rather taken aback by such a personal disclosure.
Mr. Wickham laughed. "A commendable resolution, certainly. Let us hope that the execution will be as commendable. I have taken to telling as many people as possible of my decision so that I should have more than myself to answer to should I fail."
"I can attest to the efficacy of such methods," Elizabeth replied, smiling at the familiarity of such a tactic. "Whenever Jane purchases a large amount of sweets and wishes to keep from overindulging, she has me hide them for her. That way, she must ask me for them if she wishes to eat more. I always give them to her when she asks, but just by virtue of being accountable to more than herself she hesitates to ask for them too frequently, and they last far longer."
"Precisely!" Wickham exclaimed. "And if I ever express an intention to you of giving up my commission you must perform a similar service for myself, and berate me most harshly until I am cowed into continued good behavior."
"Very well, Mr. Wickham, you have my word. I must ask you, though- why did you not simply ask Mr. Darcy for employment at Pemberley? Surely he could have found an occupation for his old childhood friend, and then you would have been in familiar environments, and worked in a place which was dear to you."
Mr. Wickham shook his head. "I do not think it would do me good to be back in a place where I spent so many years of idleness. I would find it easier there, I think, to fall back into bad habits. No, better to start afresh in a new place, though I will not pretend that I am not glad to have met Darcy here now that I have arrived."
Lydia, who had just lost her last fish and therefore abandoned the game in favor of listening in on their conversation, leaned forward. "Lord, are you still speaking of Mr. Darcy?" she asked. "I do not understand how you could be such friends with the man, Mr. Wickham, for you are so amiable, and he is a bore."
Mr. Wickham's brow wrinkled.
"Lydia!" Elizabeth scolded harshly, feeling her face go red. "How can you speak so?"
"What did I say that was wrong? You cannot scold me, Lizzy, when you hate him more than anyone else, for he said you were not handsome enough to tempt him!"
"I would never say so to a friend of his!" Elizabeth hissed, shooting an apologetic glance at Mr. Wickham.
Lydia rolled her eyes and left in a huff.
"I apologize most sincerely, Mr. Wickham," Elizabeth said in a small voice. "I know that you have quite a close friendship with Mr. Darcy, and never would have wished you to feel uncomfortable simply over the silly little tiff I have with him."
"Did he truly say you were not handsome enough to tempt him?" Mr. Wickham asked, frowning.
Elizabeth blushed. "He did not say it to me. It was in a crowded ballroom, and I overheard him speaking to his friend, Mr. Bingley."
"Then I must admit you are justified in disliking him. And Miss Lydia? Does she dislike him too simply for your sake, or is there something more?"
Elizabeth desperately wished he would abandon such a line of inquiry, but answered the question truthfully. "Mr. Darcy has given the general impression of thinking himself above the society in Meryton, and it has not garnered him much goodwill."
Mr. Wickham sighed. "I am sorry to hear it. However, I am not entirely surprised. Darcy is the very best of men, but he can be horribly high in the instep, especially among strangers. To those of us who know and love him well, such a flaw pales in comparison to his many virtues, but in a society such as this, where he appears to have given much offense, I can see how the general opinion of him would be negative. You must believe me though, when I tell you that he is one of the best people I have ever known."
Elizabeth smiled at him politely, but he must have seen the skepticism in her face, for he continued to press his point. "Truly, Miss Elizabeth, you will not find a more loyal friend or a more generous heart anywhere in England. He gives much to charity, and is beloved by all the staff at Pemberley. Why, once, when Mrs. Reynolds, the housekeeper, was worried over her son who had gone to the navy and had not written to her for some time, he rode all the way to London to make inquiries after the ship in which Paul was stationed. He spoke to such connexions of his that had knowledge of the matter until he could assure Reynolds that her son was safe. And when my own father was ailing before his death, he sent his best carriage to London to fetch me back, so that I may arrive quickly. And he visited my father every day until he died to read to him and to cheer my own spirits when they were down. He may not have shown his best face to you, but you must not to be hasty in judging him. He is my dearest friend in the world, different though our temperaments may be."
"I cannot help but take to heart such a rousing defense," Elizabeth replied, finding herself rather touched by such a warm account from Mr. Darcy's friend, especially as she could see that he had been made emotional by his own recounting. "He is obviously a very good sort of man, if not an amiable one. I shall certainly think of him more kindly henceforth."
"I thank you most sincerely, Miss Elizabeth, for giving me the benefit of the doubt," Mr. Wickham replied, shaking his head as if to rid it of unpleasant notions. "And now, we must really switch to a dull, emotionless topic such as economics, for the conversation has gotten rather too heavy."
Elizabeth most heartily concurred, and they spent the rest of the visit speaking of lighter subjects.
Elizabeth next saw Mr. Wickham at the ball in Netherfield, where he approached her soon after her arrival to ask for a dance. She was very sorry indeed to inform him that the first set had already been claimed by Mr. Collins, but he was not at all discouraged, merely asking for the next set of dances, which she gladly granted.
After Elizabeth's painful and mortifying dances with Mr. Collins, she had gone aside to speak to Charlotte, and Mr. Darcy had just been about to approach her when Mr. Wickham preempted him and led Elizabeth to the dance floor. Darcy watched the ensuing encounter between his friend and Miss Elizabeth with a most severe look on his face, and his frown deepened with every smile or laugh that she saw fit to bestow upon Wickham during the dance.
After the dance, a happy but flushed from the exertion Elizabeth went to seek out her sister and avoid Mr. Collins, while a smiling Wickham was approached by his oldest friend.
"You cannot afford to marry her," Darcy informed his friend coldly.
"What the deuce are you talking about, man?" asked a befuddled Wickham.
"I am speaking of Miss Elizabeth Bennet. She has no fortune of her own. With your own finances in their present state, it would be quite foolish to contemplate matrimony."
"Matrimony?" Wickham exclaimed incredulously. "Who the devil said anything about matrimony? I only met the girl a few days ago."
"You seemed to be getting along quite well," Darcy replied stiffly. "I merely wished to remind you that forming an attachment would be foolish."
"Really, Darcy, you are being most peculiar. Simply because I am having a good time with a pleasant lady does not mean I have designs on her. I have ever spoken to ladies in a lively manner, but I believe I have never crossed the line between harmless flirtation to the raising of expectations. I am no cad. If I have acted in a manner you found objectionable before now, you have never said anything."
"You have not acted in an objectionable manner," Darcy conceded. "I merely wished to prevent you from future hurt or heartbreak."
"Did you?" Wickham asked, narrowing his eyes suspiciously at Darcy.
Darcy nodded, but avoided Wickham's gaze.
"I am beginning to believe you were trying to prevent yourself from heartbreak, because you are in love with Miss Bennet," Wickham said shrewdly, depending upon Darcy's reaction to either confirm or disprove his accusation.
Darcy spluttered. "Don't be ridiculous!"
Wickham raised an eyebrow. "Are you saying that you are not in love with the girl?"
"Her mother is awful!"
"But are you in love with her?"
"Her younger sisters are silly flirts!"
"That does not answer my question."
"She has relations in Cheapside!"
"Ah, I see clearly how it is," Wickham said quietly, glancing at the corner of the room where Elizabeth was speaking with her friend Miss Lucas, a happy smile on her face. "You know, Darcy, you really make it difficult not to hate you sometimes."
Darcy scowled. "That is rich, coming from a man who squandered the fortune I gave him on idle amusements."
"There is no need to get defensive," Wickham replied coldly. "I admit readily to my mistakes, acknowledge my many flaws, and am attempting to better myself."
"I know," Darcy sighed. "I apologize, Wickham. I am aware of the steps you have taken. It was unfair of me to throw the past in your face when you are attempting to correct it."
"Apology accepted," Wickham replied magnanimously.
There was a brief pause of a few seconds, during which Darcy looked at his friend expectantly, until he finally said: "I suppose it would be futile to wait for a reciprocal apology from you?"
"Quite futile," Wickham said with an impish grin. "For I completely stand by what I said before. You do make it difficult sometimes not to hate you. Why, not five minutes ago we were discussing my need to look for fortune while marrying. I might not allow myself to feel freely, and let my inclinations lead me where they may. Most people share my curse; but you, Darcy, have sufficient fortune to marry where you wish. And yet, when your heart is touched for the first time in your eight-and-twenty years, by a woman who is sweet, charming and clever, you discard your chance at felicity like it was so much rubbish. And over what? A few annoying relations who live a three days' ride away and you would not see more than twice a year?"
"It is not that simple," Darcy replied, frowning deeply. "I have a duty to my family name. My connexions being what they are, and her own being what I have told you, it would be an utter degradation to marry the two."
Wickham sighed. "Allow me to offer you a piece of advice, Darcy, as a man far more familiar with vice and sin than yourself. Of all the deadly sins, pride is truly the stupidest of the lot. It does not give one any of the pleasure that lust and gluttony do, and it requires far more effort than sloth ever will. You had much better dispense with it; you will find yourself happier for having done so."
"I wish to believe that it is as you say," Darcy answered softly. "That the only thing standing in my way is damnable pride, and that once I swallow it my road to happiness will be clear. I worry, though, that I find your words so convincing because they are what I want to hear and not because they are true. Do I not also have a duty to Georgiana? What if my unequal marriage harms her chances of finding a husband?"
Wickham snorted. "Darcy, if Miss Elizabeth's inferior relations are not enough to keep you from falling in love with her, do you really think that the inferior relations of a brother's wife will pose a problem for Georgiana? Especially considering her generous dowry and elevated relations, which your own beloved lacks."
"You make a good point," Darcy conceded. "Could it really be that easy?"
"Yes!" laughed Wickham.
Darcy nodded, taking on a look of decisiveness. "You are right. Tomorrow morning I will call on her, and ask her to marry me."
"Marry you?" squawked Wickham, loudly enough to cause those around them to look towards the sound with interest, and Miss Bingley, who had been standing at some distance, to wish she had heard the preceding conversation.
Wickham looked around apologetically and lowered his voice. "Do you not think you are being too hasty? You have only now decided that you wish to pursue Miss Elizabeth. To her, you are still the man who has made it clear he thinks himself above his company, and who has declared her not handsome enough to tempt him."
Darcy paled. "How do you know about that?"
"Darcy, all of Meryton knows about that. It is my understanding that you were not taking any particular care to be quiet."
Darcy groaned, and only barely resisted the urge to bring his hands to his face. "Why would you do this to me?"
"What did I do?" Wickham asked indignantly.
"You taught me to hope as I have never hoped before. You made me believe that there were no more obstacles in my way to marrying Miss Elizabeth, the whole time knowing that there is no chance of her accepting me. If she knows what I said that night, she must hate me. I can have no hope of winning her heart."
"Stuff and nonsense!" Wickham exclaimed. "Really, Darcy, it is unlike you to go about feeling sorry for yourself. If she knew you she would undoubtedly love you; you must simply give her the chance to see your better side. I flatter myself that I have done you a great service in that direction already, for I quite sang your praises to her the other day. I think I detected a softening of her attitude towards you by the end of it, and it will not take much more to completely alter her opinion of you. Take heart, man!"
Darcy straightened his shoulders, gaining a look of determination. "What should I do?" he asked his friend, who had always been popular with the ladies, and who possessed a smoothness that he himself did not.
"Ask her to dance," Wickham replied cheerfully. "And if I may make a suggestion: when you speak to her, instead of thinking of all the ways in which marriage to her would be a degradation to your family name, think of all the reasons you admire her. The result will be more charming, I assure you."
Darcy nodded resolutely. "I will ask her once this dance ends. Thank you, Wickham."
Darcy cleared his throat awkwardly. "What you said earlier- about not being able to marry where you wish- I wish to tell you that if your heart is ever touched by a woman whose prospects do not allow you to marry, I would be happy to purchase for you a more valuable commission in the regulars."
Wickham smiled at him. "Thank you, old friend, but I have lived off the charity of the Darcys for too long. It is time for me to stand on my own two feet."
Darcy frowned. "I am not sure if that is a commendable resolution or merely an exhibition of the same pride for which you chided me not ten minutes ago."
Wickham considered that for a minute. "I am not sure either," he finally admitted. "It matters little now, in any case, since no such woman has caught my eye. I promise you, though, that if such a situation does arise, I will think on it carefully before making a decision."
They shook hands on it, and Darcy departed to seek out Miss Elizabeth and ask her for a dance.
Elizabeth accepted Mr. Darcy's request to dance, though whether she had done so out of mere politeness or out of a new desire to better understand him was a question neither knew the answer to.
Whichever it was, Elizabeth did not intend to make matters easy for him, and watched Mr. Darcy open his mouth multiple times before closing it again in indecision without assisting him in beginning the conversation.
Finally, Darcy thought of a line that struck him as quite Wickham-like in its charm and elegance, and made a compliment to her regarding how her already considerable beauty was enhanced by the sparkling of her eyes.
To his dismay, she laughed heartily at his speech, and though she thanked him very prettily she did not seem to believe that he meant it in any serious manner.
He then asked her for her thoughts on books, but she again deflected this opening, claiming she could not speak of such a subject in a ballroom. While Mr. Wickham's disclosures had softened her opinion of him, she still felt no inclination to help him along in his attempts at conversation.
Finally, Darcy brought up the subject of Wickham, hoping she would be reminded of the praises of himself that his friend had supposedly sung.
"He seems very easy in making friends," Elizabeth replied. "Though I have not known him long at all, I already feel that we are on our way to becoming good friends."
"He is indeed," Darcy replied, smiling. "Though how successful he is in keeping them is a different matter. He is a most neglectful correspondent, you see. Between his lackadaisical approach to answering his mail, and Bingley's tendency to blot whatever he writes, it is a wonder I know anything about what happens in my friends' lives."
"How fortunate for you, then, that you are currently in company with both."
"I am very lucky in all my company. For example, I can hardly believe that I have been fortunate enough to secure your hand in this dance when you have already rejected me twice before."
"When did I reject you?" Elizabeth asked, wrinkling her brow in genuine puzzlement.
"The first time was at the assembly in Lucas Lodge," Darcy replied.
"But you had only asked because Sir William urged you to in such a way that you could not refuse without being horribly rude. I thought I was doing you a kindness by rejecting your request!"
"While it was Sir William who first suggested we dance, it does not follow that the prospect was unpleasant to me. I was sincere in my request for your hand."
"I see. And the second time?"
"Why, it was here at Netherfield, of course. Do you not recall? Miss Bingley was playing a very charming Scottish air, and I asked you if you were inclined to dance a reel." Upon seeing the startled look she wore at such a disclosure, he sighed. "When you professed the opinion that I was simply asking you so that I may despise you taste, I thought that you were merely teazing me, not that you genuinely believed it. I do not, in general, speak to people for the pleasure of being able to despise them, you know."
Elizabeth blushed at such a frank acknowledgement of her poor opinion of him. "I am still attempting to sketch your character, Mr. Darcy. You must forgive me if, before the picture is complete, I occasionally misdraw a line in my haste that I must go back and correct."
"I have no objection to your attempt to illustrate my character. I must wonder, though, at your rejection of my attempt to talk of books. Surely there is no better way to know a person, than to investigate their literary tastes?"
Elizabeth shook her head. "Not so. For I have observed that most people, when asked, will immediately begin to speak of the densest and most intellectually edifying book they have ever read. If it is written in a foreign language, all the better. None will admit if their main fare consists almost entirely of Mrs. Radcliffe, though her works are far more popular than the works of Rousseau, and they have only read him out of obligation during their university education. No, Mr. Darcy, if you wish me to illustrate your character, you must submit to my own unique method of interrogation. Now, allow me to ask you: What is your favorite animal, what is your greatest fear, and would you rather be a fool who is always happy or a man of intelligence who is always miserable?"
Mr. Darcy laughed, but was very cooperative in answering all of her questions.
"You are being ridiculous!" Elizabeth exclaimed.
"And you are being stubborn," Darcy retorted, smiling at her.
"What is this, now?" Wickham asked, sliding into the seat beside Elizabeth at the table. He had noticed them speaking heatedly during their dance (so heatedly, in fact, that Sir William Lucas, who had approached them looking for conversation, had reconsidered, turned tail and run), and they had not ceased the conversation yet, continuing it now as the party sat down for supper.
Elizabeth nodded in Darcy's direction, a look of utter exasperation on her face, a hint of a smile just barely peeking through. "He believes that it would be better to have the ability to be invisible than the ability to fly! I have tried explaining to him all the reasons he is wrong, but he will not change his mind."
"I would find the ability to be invisible more useful," said Darcy.
Elizabeth made a sound that was suspiciously reminiscent of a snort. "What for? Eavesdropping? Flying would allow you to travel great distances in a fraction of the time, it is far more useful. It would also have the benefit of providing beautiful views, and being most thrilling."
"It would be cold and uncomfortable. Besides, I am perfectly pleased with my carriage and my horse," Darcy replied. "I have no need for quicker transportation. The ability to avoid unwanted conversation, on the other hand..."
"How often do you feel the need to avoid unwanted conversation?" Elizabeth asked incredulously. Suddenly, she paled. "Quick!" she hissed. "Lean forward! No, back a little, perfect."
"Why am I leaning forward?" Darcy asked, while obliging her.
"Mr. Collins was looking this way. I believe he was searching for me. If you would simply remain in that position, he will not see me from where he stands."
"Ah," Darcy smiled. "Do you not now wish you had the ability to turn invisible?"
Elizabeth sniffed. "An unfortunate coincidence, but still an outlier. What I find more fascinating, Mr. Darcy, is that you teazed me just now. I never would have expected the austere Mr. Darcy to engage in such frivolousness!" She gave him a delighted smile.
"Perhaps this will take less time than I anticipated," Wickham murmured to himself, staring at the two.
"What was that?" Miss Elizabeth asked, turning towards him.
Wickham merely smiled, though, and shook his head, allowing them to return to their conversation.
A few weeks later, Wickham walked into the parlor at Longbourne, where he had been invited to dinner along with a few of the other officers, to see Darcy and Miss Elizabeth sitting to the side, speaking with animation. Miss Elizabeth was waving her hands for emphasis as she made her point, and Darcy was watching her with a lovesick expression, that nevertheless did not prevent him from arguing his own side of the debate with fervor.
It had become such a common sight in recent weeks, that no one paid it the slightest bit of attention any longer. Wickham, though, still held the instinct, long ingrained from childhood, to annoy Darcy at every opportunity. Therefore, he wasted no time in stepping up to the intent couple and sitting down in between them, thus interrupting their conversation.
They both ceased speaking and looked at him.
"Oh, I do apologize, am I interrupting?" he asked with sickly sweet concern.
"Yes," said Darcy shortly, scowling at him.
Miss Elizabeth cast Darcy a chiding glance. "Not at all, Mr. Wickham, you are most welcome. We were not speaking of anything of importance. Tell me, how go the preparations for your departure?"
"Very nearly complete," Wickham replied. "I have packed almost all but the necessities I will require for the coming day."
Miss Elizabeth sighed. "You will be very missed. Will he not, Mr. Darcy?"
Darcy shrugged indifferently. "As much as an unpleasant odor is missed when it is gone."
Miss Elizabeth laughed. "Come now, Mr. Darcy, tell the truth! I thought you abhorred deceit."
"Very well," his old friend smiled at her, before turning back to Wickham. "I will indeed miss you, annoying devil that you are. Please try to write more often than once a decade, will you?"
"You are asking a leopard to change his spots, but I will make the attempt," Wickham replied.
"And do look after Lydia while in Brighton," Miss Elizabeth added. "I worry for her, with only Mrs. Forster as a chaperone."
"Miss Lydia is a force of nature that is not easily controlled," Wickham replied ruefully, glancing towards where the girl stood, rather close to Captain Carter, giggling loudly at something he said. "However, I will be sure to chase away from her any rakes or cads who would see in her an easy target. She will doubtless hate me for it," he concluded cheerfully.
"But I will thank you for it," said Miss Elizabeth with sincerity.
"Then you have my word," Wickham reassured her. "Your sister will be safe."
Miss Elizabeth beamed, and Darcy gave him a thankful nod as well, darting a glance at her happy countenance.
"And now," Wickham said, changing the subject, "You must tell me what you were arguing over before I interrupted you."
"We were not arguing," Miss Elizabeth protested. "We were merely disagreeing."
"Ah, so you admit that he interrupted us?" Darcy smiled triumphantly.
Elizabeth pursed her lips and looked away, but she made no reply.
"To your question, Wickham," Darcy said. "We were disagreeing over whether it is better to have boys or girls. Miss Elizabeth has allowed the entail on Longbourne to prejudice her into thinking that boys would be better."
Elizabeth gaped. "I have grown up with four sisters, and you accuse the entail of prejudicing me? It is my life experience that has given me this opinion, Mr. Darcy. I know too well that for every Jane there is a Lydia and a Kitty. I assure you that girls are the more difficult charges by far."
"You only say that because you have not yet met my sister Georgiana. I have been her guardian for near a decade, and I can assure you that girls are the easiest charges imaginable. I will grant, though, that any daughter of yours will likely pose far more of a challenge than my sister has."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Very well!" Wickham declared, interrupting them before the disagreement could turn into a true argument. "There is a very simple way to resolve this dilemma, and determine which of the two of you is right."
"And what is that?" Darcy asked.
"It is quite clear," Wickham replied, smiling smugly. "You must marry each other, and have yourselves a son and a daughter. Wait for two decades or so, and then compare the experiences."
"I believe that to be a wise solution," Darcy said quickly. "It seems like a most fair way to adjudicate the disagreement."
Elizabeth spluttered. "Surely you cannot be serious, Mr. Darcy!"
"I am perfectly serious," he replied, meeting her eyes. "I can conceive of no objection to such a scheme. Unless, that is, you are worried that such a test will prove me right?" He raised a challenging eyebrow at her.
"I am worried of no such thing!" she replied indignantly. "I merely wonder over the scientific reliability of such a test. Surely having only one child each is not statistically sound? After all, anomalies and outliers such as Jane and your own sister are a possibility. No, if we truly wish to put the matter to the test properly, we must have three of each."
"Agreed," said Darcy. "Three of each at the very least."
"Very well," Elizabeth gave a determined nod. Then- "Where are you going?" Darcy had stood up.
"To ask you father for permission before you change your mind," he replied, striding away.
"I will not change my mind. If anyone would wish to change their mind, it would be you for fear that you would be proven wrong," she called after him.
"Not likely!" he called back, before exiting the room.
"Well, Mr. Wickham," said Miss Elizabeth placidly, settling back in her chair. "I must thank you for proposing such a satisfactory solution to our conundrum."
"It was my pleasure," he replied gallantly, failing to hide his amusement. "I must admit that such an outcome is better than I had dared to hope. When one of the aforementioned sons does come along, will you please remember this moment and keep in mind what a nice name George is?"
"If my mother's experience has taught me anything, it is that there is no guarantee regarding the sex of a child. I will assure you, however, that regardless of it being a boy or a girl, if the opportunity does arise, I would be honored to have you as godfather to our child."
"What, a scoundrel like me?" he asked, with barely disguised delight.
"No scoundrel less would do, Mr. Wickham." she replied fondly. "And I am sure Mr. Darcy would agree."