Friday, 7 August, 1811
"I would have never imagined such insolence—such selfishness as you have displayed, Nephew! It is not to be borne! Your mother would be ashamed, and you disgrace the Fitzwilliam family with such behavior!"
Darcy watched his aunt's face become a deeper shade of red than he could have thought possible and found himself feeling rather detached. Perhaps it was that he had expected her anger. He could nearly predict the next words out of her mouth as she rattled off a litany of her preferred insults and epithets.
While he had never before been on the receiving end of one of Lady Catherine's tirades, he had witnessed enough of them over the years to know where she liked to hit—duty, honor, family.
He, however, could not feel the sting of her words because he did not think them true. She wanted him to marry Anne, and he and Anne did not want to marry. Neither his mother nor his father had ever told him that he should marry his cousin, and there was no reason why the marriage would benefit the family in the long run. Therefore, Darcy felt immune to whatever Lady Catherine might say.
"Nephew! Are you listening to me?"
In fact, he was not, but ever the gentleman, he replied, "Yes, Aunt."
"Why are you being so obtuse then? Do your duty and marry Anne!"
He moved away from her and stared out the window, speaking calmly. "My duty to Anne is to make sure she is safe and provided for, but marriage shall be my decision. I have no other duty than to choose a respectable woman to become mistress of Pemberley."
"And what of your duty to Georgiana?" Her voice had suddenly reduced to a respectable volume.
He whipped around to see Lady Catherine seated on a massive armchair reminiscent of a throne, sipping from a cup of tea he had not noticed before. The change in mood was jarring. While she could be domineering and invasive, he could not recall a time when she was capricious.
"My duty to Georgiana?" he asked incredulously. "She is my first priority. I have done everything in my power to ensure that she is well-educated, healthy, and moral. No one could fault my devotion to my sister."
This, however, was disingenuous. Darcy had begun to feel anxious about Georgiana in recent months. He felt a distance creeping between them where there was once only warmth. She had a restraint with him that had not previously existed, and he felt completely inept at handling her concerns these days. Richard had suggested the reason weeks ago, but he was still not ready to face the truth of it. Georgiana was becoming a woman, and in spite of all his learning and observation, he did not know how to deal with women.
He tried to convince himself that she was the same person she had always been, and she was—in essentials, at least. The nature of their relationship, however, had changed. They could no longer spend their days hiding around the nursery, and she was no longer enchanted by the stories he used to make up for her. She was more conscious of her appearance and social etiquette as her whole world turned toward her coming out. Nothing could be further from Darcy's expertise.
"Georgiana will be coming out soon, and it is your duty to ensure her success. Do you think that you will be able to do that without a wife? Do you think you will be able to see through the fortune hunters and hoydens and harpies to find a woman who will guide Georgiana's into womanhood?"
This, of course, was the heart of his troubles, and he panicked that Lady Catherine had seemed to grasp his weakness out of thin air. He puffed out his chest and starred directly into his aunt’s eyes, refusing to be cowed. "And you think Anne could do so? She never came out herself," he said icily. "If I do not marry before Georgiana comes out, my aunt Matlock can oversee her coming out."
"Lady Matlock is getting too old to keep up with Georgiana, and you cannot put off marriage forever. Where will you find a paragon that will suit you better than Anne?"
"Lady Catherine, this conversation is finished. Anne and I do not wish to marry, and that will not change." He turned on his heel and strode out the door.
"Nephew, I have not dismissed you!" Her tone shifted once again, making her sound almost desperate.
He stopped to speak with the butler outside the door. "Hodges, please have my horse saddled and my carriage readied."
"Fitzwilliam, you cannot leave yet. You are not to leave for another se'ennight! Where are you going?"
"Where I belong—with my sister."
After preparing for his travels, he stood in front of a window in the library, staring out over the park. His aunt's cold and collected behavior puzzled him. How did she know what to say to most affect him? While he had ever thought her an ill-tempered woman, he never thought of her as conniving or devious. Yet, somehow, she managed to discomfit him with the mere mentions of Georgiana and marriage.
Too many young ladies had tried to use Georgiana to get to him. They would befriend her and then ignore her or, worse, take retribution on her after Darcy's inevitable rejections.
He worried for Georgiana, and he worried for himself. He could not, on principle, marry a woman who was artful or manipulative. He had more than enough manipulation from his family already. He needed to trust his wife, and he was beginning to believe that there was no woman he could trust with his home, his name, and—most importantly—his family.
He turned his head to see Anne joining him by the window and sighed.
"I take it you heard my conversation with my aunt," he said, turning back to stare out the window.
"I doubt there was a single soul between here and the village who did not hear her.”
One side of Darcy’s mouth curled up in amusement. In these quiet moments, he felt that he and Anne could have had a marriage of friendship, but they had similar strengths and flaws. She could be witty and open in private, but, like him, she felt paralyzed in the presence of strangers. They might enjoy each other’s company but only in a fraternal sense. He had known Anne his entire life, and at this point, he doubted he could feel anything other than brotherly affection for her. Anne herself had told him years ago that she never wanted to marry, and he could hardly argue given what he knew of her parents’ marriage. Though he knew only a little, he remembered Sir Lewis de Bourgh to be a first-class philanderer, gambler, and cheat—not that Lady Catherine would ever speak a word about it.
“Perhaps, but the good folk of Hunsford should be accustomed to such racket by now.” Anne let out a breath of laughter. He allowed himself a half smile before becoming serious again. “I suppose, then, if you heard our argument, you know that I am leaving.”
She nodded morosely, and he suddenly felt a stab of contrition.
“I am sorry that I am leaving you alone to manage your mother, but you understand I must see Georgie—for her sake as well as mine.”
She put a thin hand on his arm. “Worry not. There is no way to win an argument against a boulder, so ‘tis best to find a new path. If you remained, the fighting would only worsen. This way, I shall only have to listen to complaints about your supposed ingratitude and lack of honor for a fortnight or so before she moves on to the next victim of her displeasure.”
A deep chuckle escaped him, and he took her hand to bow over it. “Thank you, Cousin. Please write and remember that you are welcome at Darcy House or Pemberley if you need a reprieve anytime.”
She withdrew her hand and smirked. “I thank you for your offer, but I am fond of Rosings in my own way and cannot imagine leaving, even to escape my mother.”
He nodded and moved to leave but she stopped him. “One more thing, Cousin! In spite of my mother’s claims, have no shame in your conduct regarding Georgie. You have been a far better guardian than many others would have in your place.”
He gave her a half-hearted smile and left the room. If only I could believe that myself, he thought.
“So, Lizzy, did you enjoy our sojourn to the Cathedral today?” Mr. Gardiner asked with a twinkle in his eye.
Lizzy put her hand under her chin, feigning deep contemplation. “Well, the Cathedral was undoubtedly beautiful. Certainly, the crown jewel of Canterbury!”
“Undoubtedly. But?” he prompted. “You do not seem to be much convinced of your answer.”
“Perhaps,” she said with a sly grin. “To be quite honest, I was disappointed.”
“With the Cathedral? I thought you said it was the ‘crown jewel of Canterbury.’”
“Oh, yes, Uncle. But, you see, for all its beauty and splendor, I was more fascinated in studying the characters who came on pilgrimage! Yet, much to my dismay, there was no Wife of Bath or Miller, conveniently displaying their flaws for my amusement! I feel rather cheated by Chaucer, having set my expectations for the trip so high,” she said with mock irritation.
Mr. Gardiner laughed heartily at her words as his wife came to join them at their table. “What is so amusing, you two?”
“Lizzy, here, is disappointed in the lack of entertaining characters to study at the Cathedral this afternoon!”
Mrs. Gardiner shot her niece an amused expression. “Do you suppose you can wait for another interesting character until we return you to Hertfordshire?”
“Of course, Aunt, but there is still time to meet interesting characters here. Do not forget the interesting characters we encountered in the inns in Ramsgate and Margate!”
“Ah, yes, you certainly had fun with the Misses Bates and old Mr. Wilson. Well, I shall leave you to it while I bathe,” she gestured wryly to the virtually empty common room of the inn. “Once I am finished, I will send the maid to your room to help you with whatever you need,” she patted Lizzy’s hand and took her husband’s arm to ascend the stairs.
Lizzy sat at the table and opened her copy of The Canterbury Tales, smiling to herself. In spite of her cheeky words, she had enjoyed every moment of her trip throughout Kent, particularly visiting the seaside for the first time. She closed her eyes for a moment and leaned back in her chair.
“Love will not be constrain'd by mastery.” She opened her eyes at the sound of a deep, masculine voice. To her surprise, a handsome man was standing on the other side of the table, looking at her. “When mast'ry comes, the god of love anon beateth his wings, and, farewell, he is gone. Love is a thing as any spirit free.”
She could not speak for a moment before she gathered her wits. “I assume you have read this book before, Sir, if you are able to quote it so beautifully.”
He casually tapped the back of the chair with his hands and smiled disarmingly at her. “Indeed! I read it many a time at Cambridge. I must say ‘tis a favorite of mine, but as a lover of literature, that means very little. I have many favorites.”
It took her a moment to realize the impropriety of the situation. His manner was so easy and casual that it was difficult to summon any indignation at the fact that they had not been introduced. She had, after all, just decried the lack of interesting characters. It really would be rather ungrateful to send the man away when he had said no more than a few passing words!
“Sir, you should be lucky that you are a lover of literature, else I would surely chide you for your lack of propriety!” she said archly.
“What lack of propriety? This is an inn, Miss, not a drawing room or an assembly. The same rules should not apply.” He boldly sat in the chair across from her.
“Wickham,” he drawled. “Mr. George Wickham.”
“Well, Mr. Wickham, as you are clearly a well-read gentleman, I shall not look askance at our shockingly improper introduction—even if we are in an inn—but—”
A woman Lizzy guessed was approximately five and thirty stood in the doorway with crossed arms and a cross expression to match.
Wickham leaned over and spoke with a secretive smile, “My sister. She is of a cheery disposition as you see.”
Lizzy smirked. “Ah, yes. I have four sisters myself, you see, and I can well understand the feeling of sisterly irritation. ‘Tis for the best you go with her.”
“Four sisters, you say?” He stood up and leaned over the table, only several inches from her face. “Are they all as lovely as you?”
Lizzy scoffed, feeling a little ill-at-ease at his proximity yet not wanting to show herself intimidated. “You certainly have a talent for impertinence, Mr. Wickham. Now, have mercy on your poor sister and leave me to retire.”
“As the lady wishes,” replied Wickham, bowing low. As he turned toward his sister, she saw his face contort into a scowl, and she felt vaguely pleased at the thought that he was disappointed to be leaving her.
It was for the best, though, she supposed. Nothing could come from a rather improper encounter in some unknown inn in Canterbury. It was better to think back on a witty conversation with a handsome man with pleasure in later years as a diverting youthful indiscretion than a case of disappointed hopes.
With a tired sigh, she made her way up to her room, nearly bumping into a woman outside her door. “My apologies! I clearly was not paying heed to my surroundings,” she said nervously.
Once the woman stepped back, Lizzy saw that she was more of a girl than woman. Though she was tall and well-formed, she still had a girlish face and an aura of diffidence that made her seem not entirely at ease with adulthood. Lizzy found herself instantly endeared to the girl who reminded her of a younger version of her sister Jane with her golden hair and sweet shyness.
“Please, do not worry yourself! I am well-known as the clumsiest of my sisters, so I assure you ‘twas far likelier my fault than yours.”
The girl smiled appreciatively at Lizzy and took two steps away before stopping and turning back. “Is this your room?” she murmured, gesturing to Lizzy’s room.
Lizzy nodded, and the girl continued, not making eye contact, “My room is right next to yours.” She paused and glanced up shyly, seeming reluctant to take her leave. “Have you been in Canterbury for some days? I did not see you yesterday, and there are very few people staying at this inn, I have noticed.”
“I have been here only two days with my aunt and uncle while we are on a tour of Kent and the seaside. We recently came from Ramsgate and Margate.”
“Oh!” Her eyes lit up, “I was just in Ramsgate on holiday with my companion! We are on our way to London now.” She paused and blushed before continuing, “You see, I encountered an old friend of the family there, and we became engaged. He is going to apply to my brother for permission when we arrive.”
Lizzy raised her eyebrows in surprise. The girl must have noticed because she flushed deeply and stepped back, covering her face with her hands. “I apologize. I was too forward. I should not have shared—”
“Darcy. Georgiana Darcy,” the girl said, slowly removing her hands from her face.
“As elegant of a name as I’ve heard,” she remarked with a smile. “Well, Miss Darcy, I am Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and I will have you know that no amount of forwardness or impropriety you are capable of me would shock me. So, please do not apologize to me.”
This seemed to put the girl slightly at ease, so Lizzy continued, “And, let me offer my congratulations on your engagement. I trust you will be very happy together. I doubt there is any place better for a proposal than the seaside. As I have always said, why propose if you are not going to do so in a romantic setting? We ladies have very few things to hang our hats on but, I daresay, a tale of a romantic proposal is one.”
Miss Darcy began to giggle and then she sighed. “Miss Bennet, if my forwardness will not shock you, might I ask if you are going to London as well?”
“Unfortunately, my aunt and uncle are returning me to my father’s estate in Hertfordshire tomorrow. We will be passing through London but only briefly.”
“Oh, I am sorry to hear it,” Miss Darcy replied before reddening once again. “I did not mean I am sorry you are going home. ‘Tis that I’ve been in my room all day, and I have only spoken with my companion. I believe I am a bit starved for company.”
Lizzy looked Miss Darcy over, curious as to her situation. The cut and fabric of her dress were exquisite and most certainly expensive, and it seemed rather strange that a wealthy girl perhaps no more than sixteen would be staying with a companion and her intended at a second-rate inn with little to amuse her. Propriety and sensitivity won out over curiosity, and Lizzy decided to let the girl be.
“Then, I am honored that you were willing to take my poor company as consolation,” she said teasingly, making Miss Darcy smile softly. “I was about to prepare for bed, but my family and I will be taking breakfast in the common dining room tomorrow morning around eight o’ clock. If you find yourself there and your companion approves, I am certain you would be welcome to join us.”
Miss Darcy beamed and enthusiastically accepted, and Lizzy nodded to her once before retreating to her room to bathe.
Lizzy awoke with a start, having fallen asleep on the settee in front of the fireplace in her bedroom. The fire had reduced to its embers, and she sleepily shifted to a sitting position and winced as the corner of her book pierced her hip. She laughed at herself for falling asleep in such a position and stood up to stoke the fire.
She had just slipped her robe on when she heard a muffled cry from the room next door. She froze for a brief moment, realizing that the sound must have come from Miss Darcy’s room. She padded over to the wall, held her breath, and pressed her ear against the wall. She heard a thump and another muffled cry.
Her heart pounded against her ribcage, and she rushed to the door before stopping. She had no idea what to do. She could not be sure whether Miss Darcy had fallen ill or was hurt and debated the propriety in looking in on her.
After a mere moment of deliberation, she decided that Miss Darcy was not the type of girl to worry herself if a friendly face sought to ensure her safety. She would knock on Georgiana’s door only to assuage herself and return in a moment.
She tied her dressing gown around her waist and walked into the hallway. She knocked lightly on the door. “Miss Darcy?”
She heard a creak from inside the room and then silence. She waited for a moment before trying again. “Miss Darcy, are you there?”
A hoarse voice responded. “Miss Darcy requires no service.”
Lizzy heard a yelp that she thought sounded like Miss Darcy. Impulsively, she rapped on the door repeatedly, crying out in a hushed tone. “Miss Darcy! It is urgent! I pray you open up.”
After a breathless moment of trying to discern what was happening behind the door, it opened slightly to reveal the livid face of Mr. Wickham.
“You!” Lizzy gasped, not quite believing that this venomous looking monster was the same amiable gentleman that evening.
“I said Miss Darcy is not here! Leave—” His head suddenly fell back unnaturally, and Miss Darcy came flying out of the room.
Later, Lizzy would not be able to precisely articulate what she had done or why she had done it, but she could only be grateful for whatever she did. In less than a minute, the door to Georgiana’s room was closed, and Lizzy had managed to usher the sobbing girl into her room and lock the door. She put her arms around Miss Darcy’s shoulder and brought her over to the fire.
She tried to pull back slightly to inspect the girl’s face, but Miss Darcy just held on to her tighter and proceeded to sink on to her lap, sobbing violently. Lizzy just held her and stroked her hair, coming to the horrifying realization that Mr. Wickham was likely a practiced seducer. Had he invaded Miss Darcy’s chamber to compromise her? Did he even know that it was Miss Darcy whose room he was entering? She shivered. She had always imagined that the type of man who would pose the greatest threat would be evident to her, and it was terrifying to think that monsters could lurk under the skin of charming, well-read gentlemen.
Suddenly, there was a thump from outside the room, and Miss Darcy whimpered. From the hall, Lizzy heard the hushed voice of Mr. Wickham speaking to someone else just outside the door, “I do not know where she went. There was a woman who knew whom she was! How could you let this happen? You were supposed to watch her.”
Grateful the fire had nearly died, Lizzy held Miss Darcy tighter in the darkness and whispered, “Don’t say a word, Georgiana. He could not have seen which door we entered. Just stay quiet for he will not want to make a scene. You are safe here with me.”
After several minutes of no sound but the quiet creak of footsteps in the hall, she heard a woman’s voice in the hall whisper, “All the lights are out in the rest of the rooms in this hall. I believe she went downstairs.” The creaking became louder as it approached the door before getting quieter and going toward what Lizzy presumed to be the stairs.
“I think he’s gone for the moment,” Lizzy murmured. “Shall we move to the bed so you can lie down and I can stoke the fire?”
Lizzy moved to stand up, but Georgiana’s hand darted out to prevent her from moving. A small broken voice came from her. “I would prefer to stay right here.”
“Yes, of course,” Lizzy said softly, brushing the hair away from her face to reveal Georgiana’s red eyes and tear-stained cheeks hidden by shadows. “Hold my hand while I stoke the fire.”
With one hand, Lizzy gripped Georgiana’s while she grabbed the poker and moved a log so that the room became slightly brighter. Once she was seated again, she gently asked, “Might I bring your companion here? Or I could bring my aunt?”
Another sob escaped Georgiana, and she shook her head. She roughly swiped her hands in front of her eyes and cleared her throat. It was at that moment that Lizzy realized that she was only wearing a chemise that was ripped at the neckline and suddenly felt sick. Wordlessly, she took off her robe and draped in around Georgiana’s shoulders.
“That man...George—Mr. Wickham...we are engaged...” She collapsed into tears again, and Lizzy brought her hand to Georgiana’s back.
Georgiana attempted to speak again, but her voice was muffled by Lizzy’s shoulder. Lizzy pulled away, “What was that?”
“My companion is a relation of his. She encouraged the match—though I had known him my entire life in away. I do not think she would believe me if I told her…” Her voice trailed off and she succumbed to more tears.
When she had composed herself more, she spoke, “I—I—I told her this afternoon that I was having doubts about marrying him. You see, I do not think that my brother would approve of our hasty courtship, and she told me that I had to remain in my room for the rest of the day before I made a decision that would break George’s heart. I did not want to hurt anyone, I just—”
Lizzy hushed her as a new wave of tears began. She did not need to hear anymore. Putting together the confusing pieces of the evening together, she began to think that Mr. Wickham’s supposed sister was in all likelihood Georgiana’s companion who had been employed to help Wickham compromise her. She sighed, feeling completely out of her depth. The sooner she could get to her aunt and uncle for help, the better.
“Shh, Georgiana. You did naught wrong. I believe you. We shall not speak of it anymore tonight.”
Darcy pulled his horse into the stables, muttering a curse under his breath. His horse had cast its shoe more than two miles back, and he had to walk it through the dark for over an hour before he managed to find an inn. He estimated that he was still a couple of hours from Ramsgate but decided that he would rest for the night and see Georgiana in the morning. He doubted a night would make much difference to his sister whom he assumed was not sparing a thought for her brother during her seaside holiday.
After speaking with the stable master, he entered the inn, deciding that while it was not ideal, it would serve him well enough for the night. He approached the innkeeper. “Good evening. I would like a private room for the night.”
The man nodded, “Certainly, we got many free tonight.”
“Excellent, give me your finest available room,” he said, handing him a small pouch of coins he was certain would cover the cost.
“’Course, Sir,” the man said, bowing eagerly. “Righ’ away, Sir.”
Having procured his room, Darcy looked around the empty room before his eye caught that of his sister’s companion, speaking angrily with a man in a dark corner of the common room. What the devil is she doing here? He took a step to approach her before she ran in the opposite direction in alarm. He instinctively moved to follow her before the man turned around to reveal George Wickham.
Wickham attempted to flee, but Darcy grabbed his arm and held him in place. “What are you doing here, you vile scrub? Why were you with that woman?”
Wickham just smiled, though he could not quite manage nonchalance. His eyes shifted about wildly, and his voice was not steady. “What are you talking about, Fitz? I was just talking to a lady.
You have lectured me about that too often to find such behavior uncharacteristic.”
Wickham attempted to pull away, but Darcy twisted Wickham’s arm to prevent him from leaving. The leech spluttered, “I know nothing! I swear!”
The innkeeper returned downstairs and cried, “What in blazes is going on here?”
Darcy turned his head to the man without loosening his hold. “Sir, was there a woman—brown hair and about five and thirty—travelling with this man?”
The innkeeper looked at the two of them dubiously, but Darcy glared intensely at the man which seemed to erode his desire for discretion. The man nodded, “Aye, and a young lady—his intended, I think. Very pretty young thing and finer than most we see come through here.”
“His intended?” As comprehension dawned on Darcy, he turned to face Wickham and tightened his grip. “What in God’s name have you done with her?” he whispered hoarsely.
“I do not know what that man is speaking of. You know me, Fitz. I could never—”
Darcy dug his fingers into Wickham’s arm and grabbed the other one. “Where is she?” he spat at Wickham. “If you lie to me, I swear on my life that I will have you hanged before the sun goes down tomorrow.”
He felt the moment his threat sunk in. Wickham’s body became limp, and he shivered. “She is upstairs. She went into some woman’s room.”
Darcy attempted to move him toward the innkeeper, but Wickham used the moment to bolt. Darcy looked at the innkeeper for help, but the man was standing behind a table, trying to avoid involvement in a gentleman’s dispute. Darcy clenched his fists, barely maintaining control of himself, and decided that it was better to find Georgiana and deal with lech later.
He ran up the steps to the guest rooms, taking them two at a time. “Georgiana?” he called, trying in vain to keep his voice steady. He heard the innkeeper shout at him to keep his voice down, but he was beyond the point of caring. His confusion upon first seeing Mrs. Younge and Wickham together had been replaced by a petrifying fear for Georgiana’s safety.
A woman down the hall opened her door and told him to quiet down. He could not heed her words. He called out again, “Georgiana?”
Suddenly, a muffled voice called through his panic. “Fitzwilliam?”
He could recognize the sweet voice of his sister anywhere and moved blindly toward the voice. “Georgiana!”
A young woman in a nightgown appeared in the doorway of a room a few feet away from him, fiercely clutching a shawl around her shoulders. Her voice was strong and assertive. “Are you Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy?”
He nodded, unable to do anything else, and stepped toward her. “I am Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Your sister is with me, but I pray you be very gentle with her and do not ask too many questions. Do I have your agreement on this?”
He could not find it in himself to be indignant at this unknown woman giving him orders. He only managed a quick nod before Miss Bennet stepped aside to let him into the room.
His heart broke when he saw Georgiana on the settee with puffy eyes and a red face. “Fitzwilliam, I am so sorry. I am so sorry,” she cried.
He shook his head and rushed over to embrace her. “Oh, my dearest Georgie, worry not. I am here, and you are safe.”
He continued to cradle her head against his chest as he whispered words of comfort into her hair. As his panic-stricken mind began to process what had happened and how he had failed his dearest sister, he began to cry as he had not done since the death of his father.