Darcy Townhouse, London
Friday, May 24, 1811
“Mr. Bingley is here to see you, sir,” Jeffries announced.
Fitzwilliam Darcy closed his eyes, hung his head, took a deep breath, and then looked up at his long-time butler. “Is he alone?”
“Yes, sir, this time he is.”
“Jeffries, I have known you my entire life. What else?” he asked.
“He looks miserable, sir. This is the first time you have actually been in the house when he called. The surprise on his face when I told him I would see if you were available was quite clear. I think you should see him.”
“It needs to be done. Show him in,” he agreed.
“Very good, sir.”
“Jeffries, wait. Please interrupt us in fifteen minutes,” Darcy instructed his butler as he handed him a random invitation from his desk. Other than a slight quirk of his mouth, the venerable butler was too well trained to show surprise at Darcy asking him to participate in a slight deception.
“Darcy, I cannot believe I was not turned away again,” Bingley said petulantly.
“I have been busy, Bingley. Believe me or not, this is the first time I have been at home when you called. You could have sent a note requesting an appointment with me,” Darcy calmly responded.
“You have time to spend with Miss Hurst. The society columns have been filled with articles about your outings. I hear she was your guest at Pemberley for five months.”
“With her brother and aunt in residence too, Bingley. Lady Matlock has taken an interest in Miss Hurst and Georgiana is good friends with her. My sister and Miss Hurst spent the winter creating a list of attractions they wanted to visit and my aunt has given me a list of events she required me to attend. My Fitzwilliam cousins and I are taking turns escorting the ladies to exhibits, parks, the menagerie, and whatever else they added to that blasted list. Lady Matlock is my aunt, I could not refuse her request to help protect Miss Hurst at the parties and balls she assigned to me.” Darcy took a deep breath before responding. “I am only going to be in London for six weeks total. I spend more waking hours at Matlock House than here.”
“Caroline is furious. She believes Miss Hurst should still be in half-mourning and wants to know why she is being allowed to take part in the season.”
“The twelve weeks propriety dictates to mourn an in-law has clearly passed. Surely you do not expect her to mourn Mrs. Hurst as a full sibling? According to Hurst, they had met no more than three times. He was shocked Miss Bingley recognized his sister.”
“I had no idea who she was, I do not know how Caroline remembered.”
“Bingley, we need to discuss what happened in the park.”
“What do you mean?”
This was going to be harder than Darcy thought. “You stood by, without saying a word, and watched as your sister loudly, viciously, and very publicly cast aspersions on the character of a respectable young lady. In front of her titled aunt and friend, no less. How have you been received in town since our last meeting?”
“We have been turned away from every visit we have tried to make. Caroline did not mean anything by what she said,” Bingley dismissed.
“Did not mean anything by it?” Darcy asked incredulously. “How can you be so oblivious to the possible consequences of what your sister did? Even if only a few people believed the vitriol she spewed, you know from your own recent experience how fast gossip spreads, true or not. All it would take is for one slighted person to start fanning the flames and Miss Hurst would have been ruined. Thankfully, Lady Dobbs and Lady Sheldon acted immediately to counteract the potential harm.”
“If anything, Miss Hurst seems to be more popular now than before.”
“Exactly my point, Bingley. What if a young lady was in the process of becoming friends with a gentleman who abandoned her and transferred his attentions to Miss Hurst? Your sister created the perfect opportunity for someone to harm Miss Hurst, even if they had to embellish what they heard and give false testimony.”
“I think Caroline is more upset that you have spent the past six months with Miss Hurst instead of her, as is her due.”
“Her due?” Darcy asked incredulously.
“Would you like it if the woman you were almost engaged to spent so much time with another man?”
“What are you talking about Bingley? Who is almost engaged?” he was afraid to ask.
“You and Caroline, of course,” Bingley answered.
“Do be serious, Bingley. I do not have a lot of time and we have more to discuss.”
“I am serious. Caroline assured me that you were close to announcing your engagement just before Louisa fell. We decided a man as honourable as you would wait until we were out of mourning. I know it is a few days early, but I thought we should get the formalities out of the way. You have my permission and blessing to marry my sister.”
Darcy could not believe what he was hearing. It was one thing to suspect the Bingley’s wanted the connection, but for him to announce it as fact, was another.
“Darcy? Are you alright?” Bingley asked. “Darcy! You look sick. Should I call Jeffries?”
“Are you out of your senses, Bingley? Did someone put you up to this? Did you place bets on how I would respond?”
“So, Caroline was right. Miss Hurst has turned your head?” Bingley asked with a hard look.
“Bingley,” he said slowly, trying to be patient, “did I ever ask you for permission to court your sister?”
“No, but we are such good friends, and you have been separated for so long, I am willing to overlook that step,” Bingley said confidently.
“Have I ever called on Miss Bingley?”
“Yes, you visited the townhouse frequently,” Bingley answered immediately.
“As your guest. Think back,” Darcy demanded. “Did I ever arrive at the Hurst Townhouse unexpected, give the butler my card, and ask to pay a call on Miss Bingley?”
“Not that I am aware of, but you must have.”
“Did I ever ask Miss Bingley to dance more than one set?”
“You cannot expect me to remember every set you and my sister have danced,” Bingley said dismissively.
“Did I ever ask her for the first set?” Darcy tried again.
“No, you know Caroline likes to be fashionably late. We always miss the first.”
“How many times did I escort Miss Bingley to Hyde Park?”
“I know that answer, never. She was mighty upset you were there with Miss Hurst last month.”
“How many times have I sent your sister flowers?”
When Bingley did not answer, he continued, “Let us sum this conversation, shall we? I did not ask to court Miss Bingley, nor did I call on her, dance more than one set with her, partner with her for the first, escort her on a walk or carriage ride, or send her flowers. Why, exactly, do you think I am about to propose?”
“But,” Bingley sputtered, “Caroline said you were going to. Ever since we met in the park, people have been even more dismissive of us. She has been trying to win the favour of anyone that will talk to us by telling them she has an understanding with you that will be announced after our mourning ends. Do you know they laugh at her because of the articles in the paper about you and Miss Hurst?”
“Your sister has been telling people I asked for her hand?” Darcy almost yelled. When Bingley nodded, he called, “Jeffries!”
The door opened immediately.
“Yes, sir. I was on my way to inform you Lady Matlock sent a messenger over asking you to meet her in half an hour and I have to give you this,” Jeffries said, handing the invitation back to him.
“Tell the messenger I will be there and that Aunt Olivia needs to convene the war council. She will know what it means,” he ordered abruptly.
“Very well, sir. Should I escort Mr. Bingley out? When you arrived, you told me you were only here to find some papers you need for the meeting with your solicitor later.”
“No, we need to finish our discussion. Thank you for the reminder that I need to reschedule,” Darcy said as he wrote a quick note. “Have this delivered to Stevens.”
Once his study door was closed, Darcy turned to his friend. “I am only going to say this once, Bingley, so pay attention. I WILL NEVER MARRY YOUR SISTER!,” he said forcibly. “I am neither by honour nor inclination bound to Miss Bingley. If she insists on slandering my name, I will have to speak with Stevens about filing suit. Heaven and earth, what has happened to you Bingley? You really must be out of your senses, there is no other way to explain your actions these past six months.”
Darcy stood up and started pacing behind his desk, “First, you refuse to accept Miss Bingley had any blame for her part in Mrs. Hurst’s death. Next, you hound poor Hurst trying to find out where he is because you are under some misapprehension that he is responsible for you. Then, you allow your sister to spread malicious gossip about Miss Hurst and more recently me. Finally, you have the gall to show up at my house to give me permission to marry to your sister? You are lucky Hurst cared as much about your eldest sister as he did and did not cut all ties with your family when Mrs. Hurst passed away. As it is, you are barely accepted in polite society. What do you think will happen when Hurst and I both drop your acquaintance?”
“When?” Bingley squeaked out.
“The way things have been devolving, yes, when,” Darcy said while pinching the bridge of his nose. “Bingley, have you accepted that, even though Mrs. Hurst’s death was ruled accidental by the coroner’s inquest, Miss Bingley is culpable?”
“It was an accident, Darcy. Louisa fell.”
“Bingley, you are infuriating in your blind devotion to your sister! Think about it this way, what if you were married to the angel you are always looking for. Say she went on a morning call with her sister. Your sister-in-law pushed past your angel, causing her to fall. Would you consider that an accident?” Darcy was pleased to see Bingley’s brow furrow as he thought through the scenario from the other side.
“Take it one step further. What if your brother-in-law refused to blame his sister and went so far as to harass you so he could live with you for free?”
“I say, Darcy, that is not true,” Bingley yelled at him.
“Out of everything I have said, that is what upset you? If you do not want to live with Hurst to save money, why are you so determined to live with him?” he asked, clearly frustrated.
“Louisa and Hurst cared for us, it was their job. When Louisa died, it became Hurst’s sole responsibility.”
“I do not understand your question.”
“Why was it Mrs. Hurst’s job to care for you? Your father’s will made you the head of the family with your uncle assigned to help watch over things until you reached your majority. Why did you abdicate that responsibility to your sister and brother? Why not your uncle?”
“Because Louisa is the eldest,” Bigley responded.
“We are going in circles. I cannot do this any longer, Bingley,” Darcy said with a sigh. “You are either purposefully being difficult or you really are an idiot. I am sorry to be so harsh, but there it is. Your actions are making it clear to me that our friendship is in jeopardy and was never as deep as I thought. I must inform you I have arranged for my own lodgings in Meryton.” At Bingley’s confused look, he clarified. “Meryton is the closest village to Netherfield Park. I did accept your invitation to spend the autumn with you in Meryton, but Georgie and I will not stay under your roof. I have invited Hurst, Lady Dobbs, and Miss Hurst to stay with us and they have accepted.”
Bingley was staring at him with wide eyes. “You have a lot of thinking to do over the next four months until we see each other in Meryton. I am going to make a suggestion, you can either listen to me or not, I no longer care. You need to leave London. Go visit your family in Scarborough or take a trip to the continent. Better yet, send your sister to your uncle in the north and cross the channel by yourself. Whether you realize it or not, your life is at a crossroads, our continued friendship is questionable at best, and your acceptance in society as a gentleman is in peril. You need to decide what you really want out of your life,” Darcy stated.
“I need to attend to my aunt, but I will leave you with this question to think about. What will happen if, when you find your angel, she does not want Miss Bingley to live with you? Would you marry your angel anyway and create an establishment for your sister or walk away from a wife, possible children, and happy life?”
Darcy opened the door and turned back. “Jeffries will escort you out, but one last thing, Bingley. I would leave London soon, maybe even today. This time, your sister has cast aspersions on my name and honour. If I let this attempt to force me into an unwanted marriage go unchallenged, I will not be able to leave the house without a guard to protect me from compromise attempts. I had to work together with my uncle to convince Lady Matlock not to interfere when Miss Hurst’s honour was attacked. Now, my uncle will be as upset as his wife and with his support, I do not want to envision how my aunt, or more worrisome the Viscount, will proceed. How do you think the Matlock’s will respond to this attack on their family?”
Saturday, May 25, 1811
“Reginald, how do you feel about attending Lady Matlock’s ball next week?” his Aunt Phoebe asked him.
“Honestly, I am not sure, Aunt Phoebe. Part of me is excited, but a larger part is afraid to officially re-enter the marriage mart,” he responded.
“We all know society would not have condemned a childless widower, who is the heir to his family’s estate, for ignoring propriety and remarrying right away. I do not think I have told you how much I appreciate that you mourned a full six months to honour Louisa. You have always been a fine young man, but your friendship with Mr. Darcy has matured you in ways I never thought possible.”
“Aunt Phoebe is right, brother. Before I left Whitemeadow, I had letters from school acquaintances probing for information about you. The worst of them came right out and said she was a widow who wanted to marry again and asked when you would shed your mourning armband,” Grace informed them. “I know growing up we did not spend a lot of time together, and it has only gotten worse since your marriage because mother was so upset, but when I arrived at Pemberley, you had been there less than three weeks and I could see there was already a significant improvement in your behaviour, and your waistline.”
“Thank you both,” he said, with feeling. “I know Mr. and Mrs. Mayes appreciate the education I received at Pemberley. The household has never run smoother and the food costs for the three of us are less than when it was just me and Louisa. I was able to give everyone a raise on the savings from spirits alone,” he added with a smirk.
“Can you believe Miss Bingley did not recognize you as the man who was escorting Georgie in Hyde Park? We must make sure you do not see either of the Bingley’s before we leave London. I cannot wait to see their faces when they meet us in Meryton. We must be sure the first time they see you is in public,” Grace said with a devilish grin.
“Grace,” Aunt Phoebe started admonishing his sister.
“Lord and Lady Dobbs are here to see The Dowager Lady Dobbs,” Mayes announced.
Hurst looked at his aunt in surprise as she stood up and said, “Show them in, Mayes.”
“Alfred and Cynthia, welcome.”
“Mother, I see you are playing hostess for my cousin. Grace will have to take the role over when you return home,” his cousin announced.
“We are doing well, thank you for asking,” Grace broke in with a scowl. “How are you?”
“Alfred, as I told you when I left, I will not be returning to Surrey. In a week, we are leaving to spend the summer in the country,” Aunt Phoebe said.
“Do not be obtuse, mother. Of course you are returning, it is expected. We were able to deflect the neighbours’ and tenants’ questions because you were in deep mourning. In two weeks, you must resume tenant visits and your other charity works in the neighbourhood,” Alfred responded. “Where is Reginald? If Grace is accepting a call from a gentleman, he should be here.”
“I know we do not see each other often, cousin, but I am rather insulted,” he said.
“Reginald? How... Who... What happened to you?” his cousin asked with wide eyes.
“Colonel The Honourable Richard Fitzwilliam,” Mayes announced.
“Colonel, what an unexpected surprise. You could not wait an hour to see us at dinner?” Aunt Phoebe asked with a smirk.
“My Lady,” the Colonel said while performing a deep bow. “You know I relish every opportunity to spend time in your exhilarating company.”
With a roll of her eyes, his aunt answered, “Even worse than the last time, you scamp. How are you this evening?”
“I am well, thank you. I come bearing a note for Miss Hurst from Georgie. I walked by as she was asking Jeffries to arrange delivery and I needed to talk to Hurst about our most recent investment anyway,” the Colonel answered as he handed Grace a piece of paper.
“And, since we are attending the same dinner party, you could ride with us?” Hurst asked with a scowl. The honorific Richard Fitzwilliam was entitled to was actually earned in his case. The Colonel was one of the most honourable men he knew, but he still did not like the attention he paid his only sister.
“Since you offered, I accept,” the Colonel responded with a smirk. “Lady Dobbs, mother asked me to give you her thanks. The flowers you suggested for the centre-pieces were inspiring, or so I tried not to hear.”
“Thank you, Colonel. Grace, what does Georgie have to say?” Aunt Phoebe asked his sister.
“It is an answer to my note regarding her dress for tonight. Clara and I did not want to risk all three of us wearing the same colour. At tea one day, Lady Sheldon and her friends told us a story about a disastrous dinner they attended when they were younger.”
“Hurst, we will need to leave soon if you plan to arrive at Sheldon House on time for dinner. Shall we retire to your study for our discussion?” the Colonel asked.
“Are you going to introduce us first?” his Cousin Alfred asked peevishly.
Hurst made the introductions and saw his Cousin Cynthia’s eyes light up at the confirmation the Colonel was the son of an earl.
“To answer your question from a few minutes ago, Lord Dobbs, Darcy and I took Hurst to Pemberley and helped him slim down. Hurst and I really must have a discussion before we leave. Have a nice evening,” the Colonel said dismissively.
“Oh, but as residents of the household we will be joining the dinner party at Sheldon House,” his cousin’s wife spoke for the first time. “We will stay in London long enough to attend the ball we read your parents are throwing for Grace and do some shopping.”
“Cynthia, I would never show up at a Lady Sheldon’s for dinner with uninvited guests and you are unknown to Lady Matlock, thus you are not invited to her ball. Besides, we do not have a guest room available right now. Reginald asked me and Grace to redecorate his townhouse and see to some minor renovations. We had the labourers start working before we left, in case they needed immediate answers to questions that may have arisen as they began. Had you given us warning, we could have tried to arrange something,” Aunt Phoebe stated.
“Then we will retire to your townhouse after dinner,” Cousin Cynthia countered.
Hurst could not believe the audacity of his cousin’s wife.
“I am rather surprised you claim an acquaintance with the Trotters, let alone being close enough with them to show up out of the blue asking them to arrange lodgings for you,” said the Colonel drolly.
“Who are the Trotters?” Cousin Alfred asked.
“Mr. Trotter is the tradesman who is leasing Aunt Phoebe’s townhouse,” Grace answered with a smirk.
“Alfred, what is going on? You show up, unannounced and uninvited, and are trying to force Aunt Phoebe to return to Surrey. Then, you say nothing as your wife decides you are attending a dinner and ball you were not invited to?” he asked.
“I can answer that, Reginald,” came a voice from the door. “With my brother and his wife, it is all about appearance and status. How could father only have been a Viscount? My brother deserved to inherit an Earldom, if not a Dukedom. Mother left shortly after father passed away, he is worried people will assume she was forced to leave or that the estate cannot afford to pay for her upkeep. I am sure Cynthia feels visiting tenants is beneath her and is demanding Alfred make mother resume the duties. Lest we forget, everyone in Surrey must be reading the same papers I did on my journey here and are talking about all the titled people my mother and cousins have befriended in London. They are here to ingratiate themselves into your new set of acquaintances.”
“Harold! What happened to your arm? What are you doing here?” Aunt Phoebe said before walking to her younger son and carefully hugging him.
“I am fine, mother. We encountered a storm just outside Portsmouth and I was injured while trying to untangle a fellow officer.”
“I am sure he stopped at Matlock House first and was told I was here. Lieutenant Dobbs, it is good to see you, you are earlier than expected. Did you want to wait until I could introduce you or did you leave your trunk at my parents’ townhouse?” the Colonel asked in a tone of voice Hurst had never heard.
Hurst noticed the look of surprise that briefly crossed his cousin’s face.
“No, Colonel, I would not feel right showing up at a townhouse asking for a room when I was not expected,” Harold answered innocently. “My trunks are still on the hired hackney.”
Aunt Phoebe must have caught her sons look of surprise because she asked, “It was kind of Colonel Fitzwilliam to arrange lodgings for you at Matlock House, Harold. As I was telling your brother, Reginald’s townhouse is being renovated so we do not have any rooms available and my townhouse has been leased for the season.”
“If we are going to deliver the Lieutenant’s trunks to Matlock House before dinner, we must leave now,” the Colonel said.
“But where are we to stay? The housekeeper will simply have to prepare a room while we are at dinner,” Alfred stated.
Hurst could not believe his cousin’s audacity. He wondered if there was more going on or if Harold was correct and it was all about the neighbourhood thinking he made his mother leave, Cynthia not having to perform tenant visits, and increasing their connections through his new friends. “Alfred, Aunt Phoebe already told you we are not going to show up at the Earl of Sheldon’s townhouse with uninvited guests. All of the bedrooms in my townhouse that are not currently in use are all being redecorated. In fact, the furniture dealer emptied them this morning to sell the over-decorated pieces in his store. Unless you want to sleep on the floor, I suggest you return home or stay at a hotel. Mayes,” he called. When his butler entered the room he continued, “Escort my cousins out, please, and call for my carriage.”
“Very good, sir. My Lord and Lady, if you will follow me.”
The Colonel walked to the writing desk as Hurst’s elder cousin and his wife followed the butler still complaining.
“Hurst, I need someone to quickly deliver two notes. One to my mother, who is used to having my fellow officers as guests with little notice, and the other to Lady Sheldon, who has a cousin in the military service and will not hesitate to extend an invitation on such short notice. And before you or the Lieutenant complain, I know for a fact mother keeps a guest room ready to be used at all times.”
“He speaks the truth, Harold,” Aunt Phoebe confirmed. “Lady Matlock and I have talked previously about the Colonel’s habit of inviting military guests who have no place to stay.”
“I asked Lady Sheldon to direct her response to Matlock House. I will ride in the hackney with the Lieutenant to drop off his luggage. Hurst, would you like to follow us or meet at Sheldon House?” the Colonel asked.
“We will follow you to Matlock House. If your parents have already left, Harold will need to ride in our carriage,” Hurst answered. He heard Harold chuckle quietly and noticed his sister was gazing at the Colonel with a look that seemed too close to adoration for his comfort.
Friday, May 31, 1811
Elizabeth Bennet watched the carriage containing her sister approach with apprehension. She trusted Mrs. Tucker, but she also knew her youngest sister. Lydia was a very devious person. She would just have to keep a close eye on her sister and judge whether or not she was changed for herself.
Her parents allowed Lydia and Mrs. Tucker to greet everyone before they spoke.
“Jane, take your sisters up to Lydia’s room. All five of you will sort through everything looking for items that do not belong to her. Once the room is done, you will unpack her trunks and do the same thing. Lydia, the first time you are found with something that does not belong to you, it will be back to Scotland,” mama said sternly.
“Your mother is correct, young lady. Things will be different in this house from now on. We will no longer tolerate indecorous behaviour from you,” papa said. “If you cannot act your age, you will be returned to the nursery.”
“I understand and Matilda already told me I would be returning the items I took from Kitty,” Lydia responded.
The sisters entered Lydia’s room and Mary spoke up.
“We should have a plan. Do we want to work together or break up into teams?”
Surprisingly, Kitty answered first. “We should work together starting with the closet.”
The sisters worked diligently while catching Lydia up on the happenings of Meryton. When they were done with the room, they started unloading the trunks.
“Lydia, how was your time in Scotland?” Jane asked.
“Informative,” Lydia answered succinctly.
“Informative?” she asked. “That is quite vague. What is the single most important thing you learned?”
“To be cautious, Lizzy,” Lydia answered, sitting on her bed. “Jane, I know it will pain you to hear, but I must tell you what happened when I arrived.”
Elizabeth listed to her sister, frowning when she told of brushing up against Sims. She was shocked to hear Mrs. Douglas’ story, but they had a problem with a tenant once so the situation was not completely unknown to her. Jane on the other hand, was sobbing.
“Jane, I am sorry for upsetting you, but Matilda, Mrs. Douglas, and Lara made me realize a handsome face and charming manner can hide a black heart. As women, we have to be careful what situations we put ourselves into and who we agree to marry. I have written to Aunt Jane, and she was very understanding and helpful. Perhaps we could ask her to visit?”
“Lydia,” Jane answered with a sniffle, “I would enjoy seeing Aunt Jane. She did give me a warning when I came out in London, but she was not as direct as you were.”
“Who is Lara,” Elizabeth asked.
The sisters spent the rest of the afternoon talking about Lydia’s time in Scotland. Elizabeth was encouraged, maybe her sister’s reformation was sincere. Time would tell.
Monday, June 3, 1811
“Harold, are you sure you should be riding? Would you feel more comfortable in the carriage with Aunt Phoebe and Mrs. Annesley?” Hurst asked his cousin.
“I am fine, Reginald, my arm is almost completely healed.”
“I know that, but I was referring to you riding a horse for four hours.”
“Hurst, Richard and I have taken Dobbs on as many rides in Hyde Park as the weather would allow. He is fine and knows when to join the ladies in the carriage,” Darcy said.
“Miss Darcy and Miss Hurst look so happy to be riding,” Alfie said.
“They convinced Angus to ride in front of the carriage with them to lessen the amount of dust on their clothes,” Darcy said with a grin. “It was a rather ingenious idea. I could hardly say no.”
“I want to be sure I have this straight,” Harold said. “Alfie is the grandson of your housekeeper and was sent to a school to learn to be a body-guard for the ladies and the footman, Angus, will be helping him?”
“Angus’ main responsibility will be visibly escorting the ladies when they leave the house and Alfie’s will be their protection,” Darcy clarified. “I know it seems like the same thing, but Angus is the immediate deterrent while Alfie looks for more sinister dangers.”
“Both ladies or specifically Miss Darcy?” Alfie asked.
“Both of them, of course,” he responded.
“Reginald, he has a valid question,” Harold interrupted. “He cannot guard two people at the same time. What if he had to make a choice? He needs to know who his primary responsibility is.”
“I think I understand,” he said thoughtfully. “Miss Darcy must be your first concern. Perhaps I should find someone for Grace?”
“With the amount of your sister’s inheritance, that would be a good idea, Hurst, even if it is a footman specifically tasked to her safety while you search for someone more suitable. I would write Richard. He may know of a trustworthy former soldier who is looking for work. Alfie, I need to add a caveat to your instructions,” Darcy said. “Georgie is your primary responsibility, however, if, for whatever reason, she is too far away and you would not be able to help her, you will protect Miss Hurst instead.”
“I agree, that is a smart thing to make clear ahead of time,” Harold said. “I have been charged with a few escort duties during my service to the crown and have never encountered such a situation, but the Captain of my last ship told me about an assignment where he lost an Ambassador and his wife when he probably could have saved the wife.”
“How does it feel to be Mr. Dobbs now, Harold? Are you glad Aunt Phoebe made you resign your commission?” he asked his cousin.
“In a way, yes, however, after eight years living on a ship, it is odd to be on land for almost two weeks. I did enjoy visiting different countries and having time to read in my cabin, but I appreciate having an estate and being able to start a family.”
“Fortunately for you, Hurst has agreed to train Georgie and Miss Hurst on running an estate. What do you say, Hurst? Would you like to train Dobbs and Alfie at the same time?” Darcy asked.
“Me?” Alfie asked, surprised.
“Yes,” Darcy answered sternly. “You refused my offer of a university education, but I insist you do this. Besides, you will be nearby guarding Georgie anyway, you might as well participate. How would you support yourself and a family if you were injured and could no longer ride long distances? I know you do not want a job that confines you to four walls, but stewards spend quite a bit of time checking on issues on the grounds, mediating tenant disputes, and planting and harvesting crops, especially on a large estate. Also, what if something were to happen to me and Mr. Ward? I need to know someone I have complete trust in is able to advise Georgie, or my future wife, at a moment’s notice.”
“Will Alfie still be your messenger?” he asked.
“No, Hurst, since we are unfamiliar with the personalities of the inhabitants, I want him to concentrate fully on our sisters while we are in Meryton. One of his cousins will take over as messenger temporarily. I have asked Richard to start looking for a suitable permanent replacement. There are many soldiers discharged for injuries that would still allow them to perform the duties of a messenger,” Darcy said.
“Like my arm. At first, the doctor was not sure if I would make a full recovery. To a naval man, arm strength is vital, but to a messenger, it would not matter if he had a weak arm. I should be able to fence in a few weeks. It is horrid having my arm strapped to my body, I cannot wait to practice,” Harold said.
“With Alfie joining us, we will be able to alternate pairs,” Darcy added.
“You taught one of your servants to fence?” his cousin asked Darcy incredulously.
“Of course I did. I saw him and some of the boys on my estate practicing with small tree branches and he was already pretty good. I will admit, it was more for my benefit than his. Unless I needed him to deliver an important letter, I had a sparring partner at Pemberley,” Darcy said with a grin.
“You must be the most liberal estate owner I have ever met.”
“Wait until you visit Pemberley, Harold. When you meet Alfie’s grandmother, you will understand,” he said with a laugh.
“The majority of my senior staff have known me since I was born. It is hard to be detached,” Darcy admitted while blushing.
“Grams think of Mr. Darcy as another one of her sons,” Alfie confirmed with a grin.
“Speaking of senior staff, the ones at Cherry Grove are paid by the estate but the tenants brought in some of their own servants. I will ask the Colonel for multiple recommendations. One man specifically designed to protect Grace and a few to be footmen and work in the stables. We do need to decide on whether or not to renew Cherry Grove’s lease. When the tenants, who have resided there for ten years, signed their current lease, Cousin Horace informed them the heir would meet the requirements to inherit before it ended and he did not know if it would be renewed again. Grace and I are uncertain if she wants to lease it out again or not.”
“This is going to earn me a scowl,” Darcy said with a grin, “but I would suggest it not be renewed. Setting aside the fact that Miss Hurst seems to want to be an involved owner, what if she marries within the next year?”
Hurst heard Harold and Alfie snicker. “It does seem to be inevitable,” he agreed reluctantly. “Perhaps I will mention it briefly in my letter to the Colonel to see if he offers any unsolicited advice.”
“Sir, we are just outside Meryton. That tree right there has become the unofficial marker,” Alfie said while pointing at a tree that was split down the middle.
“You are right, it looks like it was struck by lightning. Let Wiggins know, Alfie,” Darcy said.
“Yes, sir, then I will ride ahead to Mr. Phillip’s office,” Alfie added before kicking his horse to a gallop.
“I am glad you let Sally and Reggie join Wiggins, Darcy,” he said. “It would be hard for a father to be away from his family for so long.”
“Who is Reggie?” Harold asked.
Darcy laughed and explained the history for the remainder of their ride into Meryton.
When the town came into view, they rode ahead to join the ladies. As they rode into town, they saw Alfie standing in front of a building with an older gentleman.
After Alfie performed the introductions, he said, “Mr. Phillips will be escorting us to Haye Park and introducing you to the butler and housekeeper, sir.”
“What a large party you have brought with you,” Mr. Phillips said. “I imagine Miss Darcy is too young to be out.”
“That is correct Mr. Phillips, my sister will be fifteen shortly,” Darcy answered.
“Meryton is a bit more informal than town,” Mr. Phillips told them. “We have a monthly assembly in a fortnight and there will be at least three other young ladies her age present who are also not yet out. With proper chaperonage, we allow them to start mingling in society, safely, and dance with their fathers, brothers, and uncles.”
“That is a good idea,” Aunt Phoebe said. “A gradual, safe, entrance into society should make them better qualified to understand the dangers of a misstep.”
“My mother-in-law started the tradition for that purpose, my Lady. One of her younger sisters was compromised at her first ball because she decided to look for the retiring room, alone, and innocently took a wrong turn, found herself in the card room with only one gentleman, and unfortunately two of the biggest gossips saw her walking out. She was fortunate that the gentleman was honourable and they grew to love each other, but it certainly opened my mother-in-law’s eyes to how vital it was to fully prepare young ladies,” Mr. Phillips explained.
“Ladies being compromised at their first ball is a tale as old as time, sir,” Aunt Phoebe said shaking her head.
“Enough talk about unpleasantness. Shall we go to Haye Park?” Mr. Phillips asked.