Chapter 47. Apology Accepted.
Posted on 2011-11-19
Several days into the new year, Mr. Darcy was working at the estate accounts. It was an oddly busy time of year, for although the harvest was in, the spring's planting and breeding had to be planned, not to mention the taxes calculated. Replacing his pen in the inkwell, William leaned back in his chair and rubbed his face. He could remember his mother warning him that his father was likely to be irritable at this time of year, and he well understood the sentiment now that he was faced with a similar avalanche of papers.
Darcy knew that a certain amount of his bad temper resulted from his waning patience at hosting a houseful of guests. Even Charles and Jane's constant cheer had begun to grate on his nerves. Will shrugged his shoulders--the Bennets and Gardiners would be leaving in two days, which would quiet the house considerably. The Bingleys and Georgiana were always serene, undemanding guests. Even Caroline had been relatively well-behaved (an observation that vaguely worried him, but he refused to think on it).
Something else was eating at him but William couldn't quite put his finger on it. He felt as though something was missing, despite the piles of ledgers arrayed across his desk. He shifted some ledgers so that they formed a neater stack. A note from his steward regarding repairs made to the kitchens caught his eye. The household accounts! Elizabeth had taken them over as well as many of the matters related to the tenant cottages and such. In past years he always reviewed those records at the same time (there being no mistress to look after the responsibility).
Without further thought, Darcy rose from his desk and headed to his wife's study. Taking the short connecting passage (what Lizzy had come to call their "not-so-secret passage"), he tapped on her door and entered when he heard murmuring voices. The sight he was met with--his wife seated at the Mistress's desk with a ledger spread out, his sister standing at her side, looking over her shoulder-- would normally have brought him pleasure and contentment. However, in his present irritable mood, he jumped to a conclusion that he would later regret.
"Elizabeth, if you need assistance on the accounts you must simply ask. You need not run behind my back and seek Georgiana's help--she knows little about it, after all."
Elizabeth looked up at Darcy, saying nothing for some moments. She had been deeply immersed in the calculations and it took a minute to process what her husband had just said.
Georgie understood immediately and, eyes wide, she attempted to correct her brother. "But Wills…"
Before she might continue, however, Darcy interrupted her. "Not to worry, I'll get started on it immediately-- I'm sure I can sort it all out in no time." As he was speaking, he moved behind his wife and guided her up out of the chair. Seating himself with a bit of a flourish, he began shifting the papers around.
Elizabeth had taken a few steps away and was now staring at her husband. Georgiana jumped slightly when her sister-in-law dropped the pen she still held into its holder with a snap and spoke in a mild tone that belied the angry sparks shooting from her eyes. "Well. Thank you, sir, for your kind assistance. If you will excuse me, there is something I need to attend to." Bobbing a curtsey that Lady Catherine would have approved of, Mrs. Darcy left the study.
Georgiana turned to stare at her brother. Though she still looked up to him, the increased openness that he had encouraged these last months had allowed her to get to know him better as a brother rather than an omniscient father-figure. However, even with his stories of how he had acted in Hertfordshire and Kent, she had never seen him treat Elizabeth in such a high-handed, condescending manner.
"Poppet, in the future, if Elizabeth is struggling at something, you must tell me. I will do everything possible to safeguard her pride, but there are too many people depending on us to allow her to just muddle through. What was she asking you?"
"But William, she was teaching me about the household's accounts."
This tickled Darcy's conscience, as he had done little to educate his sister on the mistress' duties-- at first she had been too young and then it was just simpler to continue doing all the accounts himself. In truth, there were few questions that she could have answered. Despite these niggling doubts, he continued upon the current trajectory of his assumptions.
"Well, these ledgers certainly aren't as they should be. I showed her how they were set up in the autumn."
"Elizabeth is using the methods that she introduced at Longbourn, after helping her Uncle Gardiner with his business finances," corrected his sister softly.
Darcy had enough experience with accounting that he was rapidly coming to understand the ledger, and just as rapidly developing an ill feeling in the pit of his stomach.
"Brother?" William looked up, as his sister's tone was much more determined than he had ever heard it. "Have you no idea how arrogant you are being? Elizabeth has been doing an excellent job managing the household--ask Mrs. Reynolds if you don't believe me. After all, why would you believe me--you've never bothered to teach me any of this!"
Her own eyes now spitting sparks, Georgiana straightened to her full height, and stomped her foot in frustration, before turning to leave her alarmed brother quite alone in his wife's study. He was not alone for long, for Mrs. Reynolds entered after closing the door behind Miss Darcy.
By now, Darcy's stomach was roiling with anxiety. He felt much as he had once when, having recently taken the reins of Pemberley, he had come down hard on the steward for a perceived error in the harvest totals. He could still remember the hideous embarrassment he had felt when the steward was shown to be correct. That the current altercation included Elizabeth worsened the feeling exponentially.
William tried to swallow the anxiety he felt and turned to his ever-reliable housekeeper. "Yes, Mrs. Reynolds?"
"I was to meet with Mrs. Darcy, but she said that you would be taking her place." She did not add that she had followed the mistress to the front door and assisted her in putting on her coat and wraps. Mrs. Darcy had obviously been furious but had remained polite to the servants, even as she was jamming her feet into her winter walking boots. The unusual signs of anger on Miss Darcy's face as she passed seemed further evidence of something wrong.
Mrs. Reynolds had known the young Master since he was but four-years-old and knew him to be a good man. However, she was not blind to his faults--she too remembered the incident with the steward some months after old Mr. Darcy had passed away. She was exceedingly pleased with the liveliness that the new Mrs. Darcy had introduced to the young Master and the estate in general. The lady's intelligence and conscientiousness had deeply impressed the old housekeeper.
Mrs. Reynolds gritted her teeth. Anything that upset the equilibrium of the Darcy family would sooner or later upset the household, and that was her responsibility. She would do whatever she could to sort out the problems, and she suspected that she was facing its cause.
"Shall I review the annual accounts with you then, sir?"
Mr. Darcy sighed. "Yes, please. I see that Mrs. Darcy has changed the book keeping from what my parents used. I'm afraid that I… misspoke… before she could properly explain the modifications to me."
After some time, during which Mrs. Reynolds explained the changes, he could clearly see that the alterations that Elizabeth had made were improvements, making it easier to calculate a rough weekly check on the account balances rather than leaving it all to the end of the quarter as he had been accustomed to do.
"What is this new purchasing line in the kitchen budget?" He pointed to a column of numbers.
Mrs. Reynolds couldn't help but show her pleasure. "The mistress set that up. Whenever the tenant's wives have something to sell or barter, they can bring it up to the Pemberley kitchens on Saturday mornings." She smiled. "Those blackberry preserves you liked so much at breakfast last week came to us that way."
Darcy wasn't quite satisfied. "But why don't they just sell it on market day?"
"Mrs. Darcy's experience was that the women would be more comfortable bringing things to the big house, and we were better able to give them copper rather than barter." Mrs. Reynolds' lips thinned. "She first brought up the idea to me after spending some time with young Mr. Jones' poor wife."
Darcy understood instantly. Like his father, Mr. Jones had a life-long love of whiskey. He was a good farmer and generally met his rents, but his wife and children tended to look hungry and their clothes were more patched than most, as any extra money (and some that was not) went to quench the man's thirst.
"Whenever Mrs. Jones or the children need something she can't trade for, she comes up on Saturday and sells to us, then takes the money straight into town and makes her purchases before her husband can drink it away," Mrs. Reynolds said bluntly.
The housekeeper's pride in her new mistress shone through, making Darcy feel even more the idiot. He sighed. "That is an excellent idea." He rubbed the heels of his hands over his eyes. "And I have been an arrogant ass to my wife."
Without contradicting him, the housekeeper attempted to sooth. "You are in the habit of being in charge. It is not an easy transition to make, to share responsibilities."
"What should I do, Mrs. Reynolds?" he said softly. Only yesterday he had been congratulating himself that he and Elizabeth had not yet had any major arguments.
The older woman pursed her lips, but decided that the poor boy was in need of some motherly advice. "Apologize, admit your errors, and beg for forgiveness," she replied succinctly. "Some flowers might not hurt, either."
William was nodding even as he stood and moved around the desk. "Do you know where she is?"
"Mrs. Darcy had just left for a walk before I came here, sir." At the young man's look of concern, she reassured him, "She had her boots and wraps on and should be quite warm enough. It is a temperate day for Derbyshire in January."
Darcy paused at the door and turned back to the older woman. "Thank you Mrs. Reynolds. She is the best thing that has ever happened to me. I cannot stand the thought of her in this world and thinking poorly of me." Embarrassed by his confession, Will left quickly.
Watching him depart on his quest, Susan Reynolds thought of the boy he had been and the young man he had grown to be. "Good luck, lad," she murmured softly to the empty room. "That young lady will be the making of you."
After a quick trip to the conservatory for some narcissus that the gardener had forced into blooming early, Darcy made his way to the main hall where he donned his outerwear. Tucking the flowers in a pocket where they would be protected from the cold, Darcy stood for a moment on the front steps. Where would Elizabeth go?
The sun shone brightly in a clear blue sky, making the snowy landscape seem sparkle magically. Will noticed none of it as he looked across the gardens, hoping to catch a glimpse of his wife. After walking a short way towards the gardens, he noticed a set of footprints in the snow off the beaten path. A closer look confirmed that they were the treads of a lady's boot, of a size of his wife's and recently made. And of course, they headed toward the woods.
As he followed the trail, Darcy berated himself for his arrogant words. Why would he jump to the assumption that Elizabeth didn't know what she was doing? Others might think him a besotted fool, but he had noticed that the household was running more smoothly since he had brought the new Mrs. Darcy home. In fact, he realized that many things had improved, now that he considered it. While still perfectly well-behaved, the Pemberley servants seemed happier, less anxious.
Even the menu had benefitted from introduction of a wider variety of meals, and Elizabeth had somehow managed it so that the cook was happy to try the new recipes. Mrs. Wolseley had started as cook at Pemberley when Will was barely eleven, soon after the death of his mother. As a result, she was accustomed to having full control over the kitchens, as old Mr. Darcy had had little interest in what he ate after so much tragedy.
When Will had become master, he had made the mistake of requesting a desert that his cook in London had prepared, and the fuss that had ensued had resulted in Mrs. Wolseley threatening to quit. Somehow, Elizabeth garnered the opposite response in the older servant. Darcy would not have believed it he had not been sitting in his wife's study when Trudy Wolseley herself bustled in with several fruit tarts for his wife to try, practically giggling with glee as Elizabeth sampled each and agreed with her on the better recipe.
After this example came to mind, Darcy began to think of a dozen other changes, many small, that had enhanced his life since Elizabeth had moved to his home. Little things, such as the addition of flowers in the rooms where they spent the majority of their time.
Decorating for Christmas had never been of any particular interest to him until Elizabeth had led the way with her effervescent joy. Before he knew it, Mrs. Reynolds had helped her search the attic to discover trunks filled with old ornaments mentioned by his grandmother in her journals. Although he would never have imagined it, William had had a marvelous time going out with their guests to cut pine branches and holly and then helping to decorate the house with wreaths and ribbons. He had never seen Georgiana so transparently happy--even Caroline Bingley had been swept into the joyful, holiday atmosphere for an afternoon, and Elizabeth had managed it all.
And after all she had done, how did he thank her? By treating her as if she were one of those vain, empty-headed, poorly-educated society ladies whom he had spurned for years. As he walked, Darcy kicked at a small snowdrift and wished that it was his own backside. He had followed the trail as it entered the woods until, coming around a bend, he caught sight of his wife. She was standing on the footbridge, leaning with both elbows on the stone ledge, looking down into the stream below. As he neared, he saw that she held a pine branch in her hands and was dropping needles into the icy water, one by one.
Reaching the bridge, Will noticed that her nose and eyes were red, more likely from tears than the cold. Any elegantly phrased words of apology were instantly forgotten. "Elizabeth… I am so sorry. Except that sorry does not begin to describe my feelings… I can't imagine what prompted me to speak to you so … to treat you so…" He struggled for words and, upon stuffing his hands in his pockets, drew out a small, slightly bedraggled flower.
Lizzy turned and, still leaning on the railing, studied him for a few long minutes. Finally, she took his offering and gave him a small smile. "Apology accepted."
Darcy looked at her tired face and dropped to his knees before her. "I do not deserve it. I have hurt you…"
Any vestiges of anger that Elizabeth might have felt evaporated at the sight of such a man kneeling in the snow, unable to look above her coat buttons. Smiling, she reached out to brush some snow from his brown curls. "Truly, sir. You are forgiven, and no amount of groveling shall gain you my 'unforgivness', no matter how strongly you believe yourself deserving of it."
It took Will a moment to work out her tease, but relieved, he looked up at her full in the face. She moved closer and cupped his cheeks in her hands. "William. I love you, and no fit of mid-winter crotchetiness is going to drive me away."
Finally believing her, Darcy rose to his feet and drew her into a fervent embrace, pulling her inside his great coat. He had rarely been more relieved than when he felt her hands creep around his waist. "I love you, but I don't deserve you," he whispered softly into her hair.
Will felt rather than heard her giggle and, when she tilted her head up so that her chin rested on his chest, that teasing sparkle was back in her eyes. "Oh come now, sir. I have not the saintly serenity of Jane. It is just that I am accustomed to being housebound every winter with my mother and four sisters, not to mention my dear father whose sarcasm reaches new heights when trapped in a house with five women for days on end."
He kissed her forehead before speaking. "I've never noticed myself getting quite so irritable before; perhaps because it is usually just Georgie and myself and we are both so quiet." Seeing his wife's expression had changed to a smirk, he couldn't help but question her. "I see by your expression that you do not agree."
Deepening her voice to mimic his baritone, she attempted to control her giggles. "Do you mean to say, sir, that you would be in humour to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men?" She gave in to her need to laugh outright even as William blushed with embarrassment.
Closing his eyes, he tucked her head back under his chin. She felt his groan eventually dissolve into a chuckle. "I suppose I shall never be free from that old chestnut from the Meryton Assembly."
Smiling up at him, Lizzy brought her hands around his neck. "Well, I try not to bring it up often enough for it to become an 'old chestnut' as you call it. Surely it would lose its power if I did so."
He could never resist her. Leaning over to touch his forehead to hers, he murmured. "I am forever under your power, my lady."
She gave him a quick kiss. "And I shall forever love you, no matter how much of a big, grouchy bear you become!" Her laughter rang out like silver bells across the winter landscape before Will brought his own lips down for a longer, warmer kiss. When it ended, Lizzy laid her cheek against his chest again and let out a long sigh.
"Oh Will, I am so tired of having a houseful of guests," she wailed, even as she could feel a chuckle begin deep in his chest.
"My dear, I do believe that is supposed to be my line."
Elizabeth groaned. "Even Jane is getting on my nerves with her constant serenity. Just this morning I had to leave the room before snapped at her." She paused and humphed into the warmth of his coat, then tilted her head up so she could look into his eyes. "She was trying to explain to me why she really doesn't mind having our mother visit Netherfield almost daily. Do you know Mama often brings Kitty and Mary and then acts as if she were mistress, inviting our Aunt Phillips or some of the other neighbor ladies for tea without even consulting Jane?"
"Charles mentioned something along those lines."
Lizzy grinned up at him. "I believe I must revise my previous opinion." At his raised eyebrow, she expanded, "Fifty miles of good road isn't nearly far enough." Together they laughed at her corruption of their conversation at Rosings. "I don't suppose that we could claim some tenant emergency and abscond to an inn for a day or two."
Will smiled. "Most of our guests will leave the day after tomorrow… and Pemberley is a very large house."
Lizzy very nearly wailed, "And my mother has catalogued nearly all of it!"
"Perhaps she should compare her catalogue against that of Miss Bingley. In her previous visit, Charles' sister certainly spent a great deal of time assessing the value and fashion of Pemberley's furnishings." Will was a bit concerned that he might have said too much until Lizzy began laughing.
"Oh yes! The other evening, Mother was regaling us with the changes she planned for Netherfield--no mention of Jane's wishes, mind you! She said that once she was finished with that, she would assist me with Pemberley. Can you imagine? And Caroline was sitting there, practically turning green. I'm not certain if disgust or jealousy won the day, but she left the room as soon as she could."
Darcy's thoughts had taken a new direction. "Have you noticed anything odd about Miss Bingley? She seems to spend a great deal of time in her rooms, and when she does join the party she seems more quiet than usual."
Elizabeth giggled again. "Well, I am glad that she is no longer wasting energy in her pursuit of a certain wealthy gentleman from Derbyshire." Seeing that her husband was embarrassed, she continued quickly, "I had noticed a change in her behavior, but had assumed that it was due to the absence of her sister or any society friends. Aside from Miss de Bourgh (who has no plans to marry), Caroline is the oldest single lady in the party and that cannot be good for her opinion of herself."
Though it was not terribly Christian, neither could quite control their laughter over the lady's behavior--it was Caroline Bingley, after all.
Slightly ashamed of themselves, the pair turned and began to walk in the direction of the house. Curling both hands around her husband's arm, Elizabeth rested her head against his shoulder for a moment. "I feel as though we haven't spent any time together in weeks." Her husband's heated look made her blush. "Outside of our bedchamber, sir. In the daylight, where we might talk. What do you think of books?"
Will gave her a cheeky look. "I could never speak of books at such a time." Laughing, the pair continued on the path until it led them out of the woods.
Catching sight of the stables across the lawn, Darcy was struck with an idea. "Would you like to go riding? We could have Mrs. Reynolds inform our guests that we must visit tenants in some distant part of the estate."
Seeing that his wife was considering the strategy, he continued, "You really have not spent enough time getting acquainted with your birthday present."
Elizabeth couldn't help but laugh at his eagerness. "Very well, sir. You have me convinced!"
Will's enthusiasm was contagious and the pair detoured by the stables to visit the bay mare he had chosen for Elizabeth the previous summer.
The bay mare-- named "Robin Redbreast" because of her bright reddish brown coat-- was easily coaxed to the stall door with a handful of oats and had soon delighted the lady by raising her muzzle to Elizabeth's face and blowing out a few huffs of white vapor, pricking her ears forward as if pleased by the lady's laughter.
Smiling with pleasure, Elizabeth rubbed the mare's velvety nose and patted her on the neck. "She's so fuzzy! Our horses in Hertfordshire don't grow such a thick winter coat."
Darcy smiled and rubbed the mare on the chest. "Just wait until she begins shedding in a few months. I remember coming into the house after grooming my horse as a boy-- I was covered with horse hair and my mother was horrified… there was mud as well, I suppose," he admitted sheepishly.
Luckily, his wife was much more inclined to laugh at such matters. "Well, I suppose that you might have gone in through the kitchen door, but few of us can remember to do such things as children."
Sharing a grin, the pair bid farewell to Robin Red Breast and left the stable. Elizabeth continued her line of thought, "Not only was I always finding mud puddles to jump in and trees to climb; I never remembered to check if I was dirty before letting Mama see me and Jane was always so very… clean. Truly, even when she went outdoors, not a speck of dirt ever seemed to stick to her. My love of puttering in the garden and its effects on my clothes quite appalled poor Mama."
Smiling down at his wife, Darcy pulled her close. "Ah well. I shall have to inform her that a woman unafraid of getting a little dirt under her fingernails in order to ensure the success of our gardens was just what I was looking for as a wife."
Looking into each other's eyes, both were warmed by the sense of having found a kindred spirit; a friend as well as a lover. After a lengthy kiss, during which Will left much of Lizzy's curls loosened from her hairpins, the couple moved arm in arm toward the front door. Elizabeth sighed slightly when they reached the steps.
"Courage, dearest. Only two more days," murmured Darcy.
Elizabeth grinned at him and attempted a sinister look. "What if I dosed the soup with laudanum?"
Mrs. Reynolds was relieved to see Mr. and Mrs. Darcy enter the house laughing at some private joke, clearly returned to harmony. She merely nodded when they informed her that they would be spending the remainder of the afternoon in their private rooms and were not to be disturbed unless some emergency arose.
Neither of the Darcys was aware that their actions had also been observed by a bitter woman nearing spinsterhood who had been spying from an upper window. Miss Bingley nearly rended the velvet drapes from their hangers at the sight of her former quarry displaying such unseemly affection for the detestable country nobody. He had kissed the little chit! Outdoors! In full view of anyone who cared to look! Losing sight of the couple, Caroline turned away from the window and, making a disgusted noise in her throat, returned to the letter she had been writing.
Chapter 48. The Poison Pen Campaign.
Posted on 2011-11-25
Several days after the departure of the Bennets and Gardiners from Pemberley, Charles Bingley settled himself at a writing desk in the library and began sorting through his correspondence. Despite the ribbing of his friends, he was an intelligent man and conscientious of his responsibilities to his family business.
However, he was still in a holiday mood and so, finding a letter from his elder sister Louisa tucked among the business papers, he relaxed back in his chair and read, chuckling at her use of his childhood nickname in the salutation.
I hope that you and Jane have had a wonderful Christmas. Although I miss you at such a holiday, it is good that Gilbert and I have come to Somerset. My father-in-law has improved somewhat and was able to join us for Christmas dinner. Gil is handling the estate and I have taken over running much of the household matters so that his mother may sit with Father Hurst.
Although it is an unhappy occasion that brings us here, the situation has been good for us, Charles. Mr. Hurst has always kept tight control of his business affairs and Gil is finding that he enjoys the work very much. And I, well, you've always teased me about how much happier I am when busy organizing everyone else's lives! Now I have the perfect excuse and, I admit, it gives me great pleasure.
Charles, I must apologize to you for my behavior over these last years. Being at Merehead has forced me to confront the demons that have haunted me since Gil and I were last here. I still remember the day when we received the express telling of the carriage accident that killed Papa, Mama, and Arthur. Gil and I rushed to London. Leaving our little boy with his grandparents seemed so logical; he was such a delicate baby, always fighting off a cold or cough. We believed the country air would be better for his health and let us focus on coping with the funeral and father's business affairs.
I don't know how much you know about Matthew's illness--I remember thinking that I shouldn't burden you with our misery because you had so much to do taking over father's business when he hadn't prepared you as he did our elder brother. You will remember that we left suddenly the week after the funeral--the letter from Mother Hurst said only that our little boy was ill and in need of his parents--but Gil and I both had a premonition of the worst so we left almost immediately.
And indeed, even though we reached Merehead Manor within two days of the letter being sent, Matthew was much worse. Charles, if I could give you and Jane anything in the world as a wedding gift, it would be that you never have to witness the death of your child. Our baby had not yet reached his third birthday and couldn't understand why his Mama and Papa could not take away his pain. I would have done anything to do so. After watching him, wracked with fever and coughing, wasting away for those weeks, it was almost a blessing to see him released from the misery. But when we committed his body to the Earth and soul to God, Gil and I buried something of ourselves.
We came back to London with you and Caroline, saying that we were there to help you, but really it was to escape Somerset and all the memories it held of our son. I believe that we had hoped to keep busy and thus forget… but it all seems like a haze, looking back, now. Gil began drinking to excess and I… well, I did everything I could to avoid thinking. That this meant spending so much time with Caroline and her petty gossip and desperate social climbing deeply embarrasses me in hindsight.
Our little sister was such a beautiful child, spoilt by family and servants alike. Papa hadn't much idea how to treat little girls except as pretty dolls, and Mama was so involved in redecorating the new town house and her entertaining that Caro learned to use every charm to get attention. I remember thinking that she would grow out of it at school--the girls at our seminary wouldn't put up with such an attitude, particularly from a tradesman's young daughter, however rich. When she came home and was introduced to Society, I was already betrothed to Gil and didn't pay her much attention. You were at university and Arthur was working with Papa at all hours.
You must wonder at your big sister's ramblings, and I suppose I am avoiding the true reasons for this letter. First, let me apologize for any part I had in separating you from Jane. My only excuse is that I was still mourning Matthew and wasn't paying much attention to you, Caro, or anything else going on around me. My dear brother, Jane is a sweet, lovely lady and I can't imagine a better match for you-- I have every confidence that you will be the happiest couple in England. Please apologize to Jane for me (I shall do it myself the next time I see her), and her sister as well. I let Caroline's spite, jealousy, and social ambition pull me along to cover up my own pain.
I remember when Caro's obsession with Mr. Darcy first began. She had finished her first two seasons without success--- first she pinned her hopes on marrying the Earl of Everslay but he announced his engagement to Lady Archer. Then it was Lord John Gibbons, but he left with his sick mother for Italy. And of course there were others--I believe that she worked her way through Burke's Peerage but with no success. And then you arrived home from university, escorted her to the Timbleys' Ball, and introduced her to your good friend, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. Caro decided that a bird in the hand (one with wealth and connections) was worth all the titled birds in the bush. Mr. Darcy spent so much time helping you settle Papa's estate that Caro was certain it was only a matter of time before she managed a merger between the two families-- she would marry the brother and you were to marry Miss Darcy.
Well, really, Caro wanted to marry the Darcy wealth, the connections, the estate… the position in society. She simply couldn't comprehend that he was never going to offer for her. And then we went to Hertfordshire. I've never seen anyone twist our sister up in knots so effortlessly as Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Caro simply couldn't comprehend that the most attractive thing to a man like Mr. Darcy is a lady who shows no particular reverence for him merely because of his wealth or position in society! I do not claim to know either Miss Elizabeth or Mr. Darcy well, despite all the time I've spent in his company, but at the wedding I saw their affection. The love and respect they have for each other was as clear as the sun in the sky and I know I've never seen Mr. Darcy so happy.
By now, Charles, you are probably wondering if your silly big sister has taken to sampling Gil's brandy during her letter writing--I assure you it is not so. If I had, I might have gotten to the point more rapidly. In short, it is this: I have made the unfortunate discovery that our sister has not reconciled herself to your or Mr. Darcy's marriages, but instead appears to have mounted a letter writing campaign against the former Bennet sisters even as she lives as a guest at Pemberley. Please believe that I had no inkling of her plans, and that Gil and I are prepared to do everything we can to help you, Jane, and the Darcys dismiss the gossip and punish Caroline as she deserves.
Last week, Gil needed to travel to Bath to meet with the Hurst family solicitor. Father Hurst was feeling better, and he and Mother Hurst encouraged me to accompany Gil and take a few days to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Gil and I agreed and ordered the Hursts' house in Bath to be opened. We were hoping to use it as a fresh start to our marriage, and it has done so but not quite as we had expected. The day after we arrived, we went to the Pump Room as one does, to see and be seen, and to find out what concerts and balls were scheduled. There was quite a crush--Lady Jersey and Lady Worcester are both settled here for the winter, so everyone with any desire to gain favor with Almack's "Fair Patronesses" is here as well.
We had expected a certain amount of curiosity in regard to your and Mr. Darcy's marriages, but not the level and specificity that we encountered. If I could shield you from the situation, dear brother, I would, but Gil and I agree that it is important for you to know the truth, and as soon as possible so that it can be dealt with. So, I shall endeavor to be as direct as possible. In short, you are being portrayed as so utterly besotted that you have no idea what is going on around you. Jane is said to be a pretty featherhead, controlled like a puppet by her avaricious, social-climbing sister, who is working to transfer control of both the Bingley and Darcy fortunes to her uncle, a French-sympathizing smuggler. Mr. Darcy is said to be miserable, finally realizing his mistake in marriage. I actually had someone ask if it was true that he has been driven to spend as much time away from the house as possible to avoid his new wife's mad redecorating of Pemberley.
It gives me great pain to tell you that Gil and I have traced these stories back to a single source, namely letters that Caroline sent to acquaintances--you and I both know she has little in the way of true friends. We are doing everything we can to contradict these ridiculous rumors and shall continue to gather information and forward it to you at Pemberley. Please feel free to share this letter with Jane, and the Darcys as well
Dear Charles, you are a good, kind man and have been the best of brothers to Caroline and myself. You forgave us for our interference and ill treatment of the Bennets and kept the family harmony. It is for you to decide Caroline's punishment-- Gil and I will stand by you, whatever your decision-- but for myself, I must say that she has really gone too far. If I were in your shoes, I would turn her out of my house, stop her allowance, and cut her in public. As much as it pains me, I have come to realize that money and Society are the only things Caroline truly cares about.
Gil has read all that I have written and asks that I say he agrees, and that you can count on his support, for what it is worth.
Your loving sister,
Charles Bingley slumped back in his chair and shut his eyes, stunned. When he finally opened them again, it seemed amazing that he was still sitting in the Pemberley library. He was still trying to work his way through all that his sister's letter had conveyed when there was a quiet knock on the door and the butler entered.
"Excuse my interruption sir, but an express just arrived for you," said the servant, proffering a silver tray with a small packet on it.
With a jolt of energy, Bingley stood and took the letter, immediately recognizing his eldest sister's handwriting. "Thank you, Allen. Thank you very much." Bingley stood staring at the letter in his hand, barely noticing the servant's sedate bow and retreat until he was at the door.
"Oh! Allen--would you be so good as to find Mrs. Bingley and ask her to join me?"
Although Bingley had controlled his tone, Jared Allen was an intelligent man and an experienced servant. He recognized the barely suppressed anxiety and moved to complete his task as rapidly as possible. A footman pointed him in the direction of the conservatory where he found Mrs. Bingley working on her embroidery while Georgiana painted.
"Mrs. Bingley; Mr. Bingley has asked if you might join him in the library, ma'am."
Jane was still a new enough bride to blush at the appellation. Smiling softly, she excused herself from her companion and followed the servant to the library.
Quietly entering the room, she looked to her husband and immediately saw his disturbance. "Charles? What is it? What has happened?"
Bingley put the letters down and moved to embrace his wife. "No one is ill, my dear. Just some worrisome news from the Hursts that I wished to share with you." He paused, thinking quickly. "Jane, do you know where Caroline is?"
Jane moved back so that she could look her husband in the eye. "Still in her rooms--you know as well as I that she rarely emerges before luncheon. But Charles, what did the Hursts say?"
Charles sighed, checked his pocket watch (barely eleven o'clock), and then picked up the letter from Louisa. "I think it would be best if you read Louisa's words for yourself, and then there is more in the express I just received from her. Please sit, my dear. It's a long letter and… well, not an easy one." He led her to a sofa by the fire, then moved back to the table, pulling out a scrap of paper to pen a note.
Darce-- I've just received some troublesome information from the Hursts that I believe is important to share with you and Lizzy, privately. Jane and I are in the library. At your convenience, Bingley
He had just directed a footman to deliver the note and closed the library door when his wife exclaimed, "Oh, Charles, can this be possible?" Retrieving the express, he moved sit beside her, wishing rather than believing that it was not going to further undermine Jane's innate belief in the goodness of all humanity.
The Master of Pemberley was a happy man. Over the course of the morning, he had met with his steward, finished checking the account ledgers for the previous year's wool sales, and had just signed the last of the letters prepared by his secretary. Replacing the papers in their leather binder and moving it to a neat pile on the side of his desk, Fitzwilliam Darcy allowed himself a minute to lean back in his chair and smile.
Since his marriage, it seemed that the weight upon his shoulders had lightened to feathers. Certainly he spent significantly less time doing paperwork and dealing with business matters. Logically, he knew that this was in part the direct result of having a partner with which to share his duties. Elizabeth had easily stepped into her role as Pemberley's mistress, running the household, handling most of their social correspondence, and most recently was beginning to review the Darcy family's charitable contributions. Her intelligence, friendly manner, and practical attitude seemed to have affected the entire estate.
To himself, Darcy admitted that he was far more efficient in completing his work now that he had the reward of spending time with his dearest, loveliest wife. Considering his options, he decided to convince Elizabeth to go riding with him and was just standing when a footman knocked on the study door and handed him a note.
Scanning it quickly (Bingley's handwriting was remarkably clear, for once), William unhappily dismissed thoughts of absconding with his wife. Tucking the note in a pocket, he moved behind the desk to a door camouflaged by bookcases while asking, "Is Mrs. Darcy still in her study, John?"
At the servant's nod, William dismissed him and ducking through the door. It was not quite a secret passage, although he had loved to imagine just that as a boy, dreaming that he was exploring some Arthurian castle. Most of the servants knew of it, and many of his extended family. It was the shortest route between the master and mistress' studies, as well as a superb way to avoid meeting any demanding guests when he really only wanted to see his beloved wife.
Pausing to look through the peep hole to see if Elizabeth was alone, he entered just as she turned around in her chair at the sound of his steps. Her smile sent his heart racing.
"Ah, my brave knight! Are you here to rescue me from the clutches of this evil monster called 'Society'? I fear that it is trying hard to consume me!" With her dancing eyes and happy laughter, Lizzy waved at the mountain of correspondence that was building on her desk as London's High Season drew ever nearer.
Darcy grimaced, then moved behind her to kiss the top of her head. "I am glad you weren't aware of how much chaff there is to separate from the wheat before you married me--you might have left me at the altar had you known the truth."
She shot him an amused look and assumed a long-suffering tone. "Ah well, it is just one more of the burdens which I must bear in this tedious role as your wife…"
William could not resist kissing her teasing mouth and for a long moment considered dismissing Bingley's request and spiriting his wife upstairs to their rooms. He was about to unpin her long dark curls then and there when his wife's quick mind returned to his appearance in her study.
"But Will, you looked so serious when you came in. Was something wrong?"
Darcy sighed deeply at the interruption but dutifully removed Bingley's note from his pocket. Standing behind her as she read, he couldn't help wrapping his arms around her waist and nuzzling the sensitive spot just beneath her ear, inhaling the wonderful scent of lavender, of Elizabeth.
After reading the note, Lizzy closed her eyes for a moment to enjoy her husband's attentions, then turned her head and rewarded him with a warm kiss. When their lips parted, she laughed lightly and rested her cheek on his shoulder while rubbing her hand lightly on the lapel of his coat.
"Oh, my love, as much as I would prefer to continue this, I fear we should find Charles and see what has him so upset."
Darcy was even less inclined to be dutiful than before. "It is Bingley. He probably just found out that the Hursts' puppy stubbed its toe," he grumbled, caressing his wife in such a way as to encourage her to forget about any other men, particularly her brother-in-law.
Elizabeth rewarded him with a quick kiss, but stepped away to remove a few papers from her desk to a drawer before turning back with a smile. Holding out a hand to him, her eyes twinkled warmly. "Come, Mr. Darcy. Let us go find out what troubles Mr. Bingley, and then, if we have time, I was thinking we could go for a ride in the snow this afternoon. I would, of course, need your assistance in choosing the appropriate riding habit for this weather." She had discovered that her husband derived an inordinate amount of pleasure from watching her (and often assisting her) undress.
Darcy attempted a serious look but the passion in his eyes warmed Lizzy deep in her core. "Your wish is my command, madam," he retorted with a quick kiss on her hand, moving to the door.
The Darcy's happy mood lasted only a few steps into the library. Jane's wide eyes and Bingley's slumped shoulders immediately alerted them that something was quite wrong.
"Jane? Charles? What is it? What has happened?" asked Elizabeth as Darcy paused to instruct the footman to keep anyone from disturbing them without good reason before carefully shutting the door.
Charles rose from his seat beside Jane, but kept her hand secure in his own. With an apologetic smile, he gestured to the sofa across from them. "Elizabeth, Darcy. Thank you for coming so quickly. I've received some rather surprising news this morning from Louisa. He glanced at Jane who nodded faintly and held the papers out. "It might be best if you read the letters themselves. They explain some of the Hursts' manner over this last year, as well as some more recent… events that I'm afraid you need to know about."
Bingley passed Louisa's first letter to Lizzy as the Darcys settled side by side and began to read. He returned to his place beside Jane and reached his arm around his wife's shoulders, tucking her head against his chest.
Jane's head was still spinning by this fresh evidence of Caroline's spite. Comforted by Charles' solidity and the sound of his beating heart, she smiled and reached to squeeze his hand in reassurance. Together, the Bingleys sat and watched the range of emotions passing across the faces of the couple opposite.
After a minute, Elizabeth glanced up with a look of sadness. "I had no idea that the Hursts had lost a child. I cannot even begin to imagine the pain they have been through."
Darcy added quietly, "And so soon after the loss of both her parents and elder brother. My own father never recovered from the death of my mother when I was ten; he could barely look at Georgiana or myself for months. In hindsight I understand it was because we reminded him of all that he had lost. He seemed to bury himself in estate matters, but when I took over and reviewed the books, it was clear that he did little but muddle through for years."
Oddly, Jane had brightened slightly at their words. "Yes, it explains a great deal of Mr. and Mrs. Hurst's behavior this past year. I look forward to spending more time with my new sister when we return to London. So much pain she has endured! But Caroline…" She hesitated.
Charles smiled grimly and patted his wife's hand. "Yes, angel. I look forward to seeing Louisa and Gil again, too. I have been completely wrapped up in my own affairs and gave no real consideration to what they were going through. But even the loss of her parents does not excuse Caroline's current activity." At the Darcys' questioning looks, he nodded toward the paper still in their hands. "Read on. Read it aloud," he said, "for I hardly know myself what it is about."
The couple returned to the letter and continued reading it to the end, by which time Elizabeth's eyes were flashing with anger and a veritable storm cloud had built on Darcy's brow.
"I am grieved, indeed," cried Darcy; "grieved--shocked. But is it certain, absolutely certain?"
Bingley nodded disgustedly, handing across the express he had received that morning from his sister. "After sending the letter you've just read, Louisa was able to call upon her friend, Mrs. Nesbitt--they've been acquainted since school and Mrs. Nesbitt's younger sister was at seminary with Caroline. Because this sister married a cousin of Lady Jersey's and is becoming quite the society hostess in Bath, Louisa and Gil suspected that it might be just the sort of acquaintance to whom Caro would write with such nonsense."
Bingley sighed. "I am sorry to say that they were correct. Luckily, Lady Bettencourt remembered Caroline and had enough sense to laugh off her letter as the bitter ramblings of a jealous, disappointed woman. She gave the letter to Louisa, who forwarded it to me express, believing that it would be better to confront Caroline with her own words rather than secondhand reports of gossip."
Charles slumped back and ran his hand through his hair. "I admit that I would not have thought her capable of writing such things if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes." Jane just nodded and patted his hand, taking comfort in this, their new family circle.
It was obvious the moment that Darcy finished Caroline's vitriolic letter. He sprang up and paced around the room before moving to the fireplace and using a convenient poker to take out some of his anger on the burning logs. "Bingley… This is in no way your fault… but… Bloody Hell, Charles! I don't even know what to say! She is a guest in our house, and yet she writes this poisonous nonsense. This is beyond the pale, even for your sister." He turned back to the fire and began to break the charcoal into even smaller pieces in order to keep himself from expanding his tirade.
Having rarely heard his friend curse so unabashedly and never in mixed company, Bingley could do little but slump back further in the cushions. Jane tried to think of something encouraging to say, but could not.
Into this tense atmosphere intruded the oddest sound.
Darcy turned back and looked at his wife carefully. Lizzy had gone back to reread the first page of the letter which he had been tempted to rip to shreds and burn. The sound came again and he observed that, although his wife was attempting to cover her mouth with one hand, she was most definitely biting her lip… which was certainly a sign that…
"Elizabeth, are you actually able to laugh at that drivel?" he demanded with disbelief. Both Bingleys' eyes were as wide as their mouths.
Glancing from her husband to the cartoonish expressions on the couple across from her, Lizzy could no longer control her giggles and dissolved into hearty laughter. When she was finally able to take a breath, she exclaimed to her astonished audience, "Oh, come now, Will! Surely you see that she has succeeded only in making herself ridiculous? Anyone with any sense will see it for what it is… I am sorry, Charles, but you phrased it well--the bitter ramblings of a jealous, disappointed woman.
"Forgive my vanity, but I find it difficult to believe that anyone who meets me… really us," she motioned to include the four of them, "would take any of this seriously. And if some of the less intelligent among Society should do so, I am certain that we have enough friends," she looked pointedly at William, reminding him of the Earl and Countess of Matlock's clear and public approbation of their nephew's bride, "to set them straight."
Darcy stared at her for a moment before cautiously replacing the poker and moving back to his seat. Glancing at his friend as he took Miss Bingley's letter from his wife and prepared to reread it, he muttered, "Do close your mouth, Bingley, or you will surely catch a fly."
Elizabeth collapsed into giggles again, and even Jane recovered enough to manage a small smile when her husband snapped his jaw shut.
When the Mistress of Pemberley was finally able to catch her breath, she gestured to the letter. "But really, didn't you notice that all her accusations are really just versions of what she herself desired? Control of the Darcy and Bingley wealth? Running you all like marionettes and herself the puppeteer? Oh, and the re-decorating! Jane, surely you remember just yesterday, Georgiana was telling us of how Caroline had counseled her to redecorate her private sitting room in orange? She just happened to have brought fabric swatches with her… Georgie was astounded by a pattern of the most brilliant orange, with a green and purple design. I hesitate to speak ill of our sex, but it was truly horrid."
Jane had finally relaxed enough to respond to her sister's light-hearted words. "It might have done for trimming a pillow…"
"A very small pillow…"
Jane couldn't help but giggle. "A very small pillow, indeed. But she was pressing Georgiana to use it as wall coverings and matching fabric for drapes and upholstery."
"For quiet, shy little Georgiana!"
"She really could not have been thinking straight." Jane paused and chewed her lip in a manner reminiscent of her sister. "Charles, do you think that Caroline is quite well? I mean, might some sort of illness make her act in such an… irrational manner?"
Charles was disagreeing even before Elizabeth and William had begun to shake their heads. "Jane, at any other time I might tell you to believe that if it brings you comfort, but on this occasion I fear we must face the truth, ugly as it is. We have evidence of my sister's actions here in her own hand. There isn't even any question that she wrote it but didn't intend for it to be sent, as Louisa and Hurst have traced the presence of several other letters sent to other people."
Darcy stood suddenly and went to the door, speaking quietly to the footman outside before shutting the door and returning to his place.
Bingley glanced at his friend curiously but continued, "In this, I must agree with Louisa. After Caroline's actions last year, I made it absolutely clear to her that her continued place in my household was dependent on first, her apologizing to myself and Jane, and second, on her behaving in a respectful if not friendly manner to Jane, Lizzy, and all the Bennet family."
Seeing Darcy shift uncomfortably and look down toward his feet, Jane spoke up kindly. "William, you have no cause to feel guilty. You made an honest mistake in an effort to protect your friend, and we have both forgiven you."
Although he raised his eyes, Elizabeth took his hand in comfort, knowing better than any that her husband still harbored a great deal of guilt over his aid in separating her sister from his friend.
Charles nodded vigorously. "Yes, Darce-- you have apologized repeatedly and from the heart, in addition to repairing your actions when you became aware that they were based on incorrect assumptions." Bingley glanced toward Elizabeth and both smiled the memory of their meeting in Derwent House the previous spring.
"I accepted Caroline's apology, but it was obviously insincere and she has demonstrated no true contrition. I am sorry to say it, but I can no longer forgive her behavior," said Charles decisively, before turning to look at his wife for support.
Jane sighed for a moment but then took a long glance at the letter in Mr. Darcy's hands. Squaring her shoulders she nodded to her husband. "I suppose that I must agree. Caroline's behavior has been dreadful, and I cannot say that she has shown any true indications that she wishes reform."
Charles exhaled in relief. "Good, excellent. Her birthday is in February, and she will no longer be allowed to live with us after that. From Louisa's letter, I believe it unlikely that the Hursts will take her in, either." He turned to the other couple. "And of course, none of my family will take offence if you haul her from her bed and eject her from Pemberley this very morning and never invite her back. I will perhaps offer her a carriage, although I am tempted to give her far less… perhaps a donkey?"
Everyone chuckled at Charles' clear enjoyment at such a mode of punishment for his sister. Even Darcy smirked and added, "I am unsure if Pemberley can spare a donkey, Bingley, but I am certain that we could arrange for a sheep."
"Would she prefer an ewe or a ram, do you think? Sheared or unsheared?" added Elizabeth, delighted with the image.
Darcy's laughter quieted first (he felt slightly uncomfortable laughing at a lady, though he had no respect and little sympathy left for Miss Bingley). He cleared his throat and spoke in a more serious tone. "Charles, may I suggest that we collect more information and formulate a plan before speaking of this outside our present company? I have asked for Allen to come so that we can ascertain precisely how many letters Miss Bingley has posted."
Lizzy's expression became more serious and she nodded, understanding immediately what her husband was thinking. Before either of the Bingleys could question him, there was a knock at the door followed by the distinguished butler's entrance.
Darcy turned his attention to the servant who had served his family for much of his life. "Mr. Allen, thank you for coming so quickly. A rather sensitive problem has arisen regarding some letters that Miss Bingley has been sending, and we would appreciate your assistance," he said carefully, assured that the man would pick up on the subtext.
"First, any correspondence that she readies for the post should be henceforth turned over to her brother, Mr. Bingley. Second, we would appreciate your assistance in determining just how many letters Miss Bingley has mailed since she arrived at Pemberley, and where they were directed, if possible. It would be preferable if the lady remained unaware that either activity is occurring, for now."
Mr. Allen was deeply loyal to the Darcy family and, although he would never admit it (even to himself), he harbored a tiny crush on the new Mrs. Darcy, in the way of a shy older man for a bright, beautiful young lady. Like all the servants, he had no use for the demanding Miss Bingley and was quite pleased to see that her brother appeared to be finally taking her in hand.
"Certainly, sir. Billy has not yet taken today's post to Lambton, so I can bring that to you immediately. Shall I retrieve the franking ledger, as well?"
"Yes, that would be excellent. Do you know if Miss Bingley has used any other avenues to post her letters? Perhaps her ladies' maid or some such? I do not expect her to be clandestine, but we have discovered that she has been acting irrationally recently and it might be best to check."
"I don't believe so, sir. With all the snow on the ground this past month, no one has traveled to Lambton or Kympton without a good reason or else it would be noticed. I'm afraid that Miss Bingley's maid isn't much liked--she either turns up her nose at all the country girls, as she calls them, or tries to pump them for gossip about the family which, of course, no one here will tolerate. However, I will check around, sir." Seeing the look on Darcy's face, the butler added, "with all subtlety, of course, sir." which earned him one of the master's rare smiles.
As the man moved to depart and begin his inquiries, Mrs. Darcy called after him. "Mr. Allen? Would you also have some tea and biscuits sent up for the four of us? I believe we could all use a bit of a treat."
After the servant bowed his acknowledgement and departed, shutting the door behind him, Darcy turned to his wife and rolled his eyes. After smirking back at him, Lizzy turned to catch matching puzzled expressions on the Bingley's faces. She gestured at the door and whispered, "Mr. Darcy believes that Pemberley's very serious elderly butler has a crush on me. Now, shall we return to the subject at hand?"
In the end, a strategy was decided upon which gave little satisfaction to any involved, but appeared the only adequate solution. The Bingleys were saddened to cut their visit at Pemberley short, but both agreed that it was quite impossible to ask the Darcys to continue hosting Caroline. Although Charles would gladly have sent his sister to inhabit his London house alone until her birthday freed him of all legal responsibility, they rightly feared that Caroline might use the opportunities available to her in Town to create more trouble.
A servant was sent to bring Miss Bingley to her brother, and, although the Darcys offered to excuse themselves and allow the family privacy, Charles requested that they remain. "For some time now, I have considered the two of you to be family, and Caroline increasingly less so. She herself has involved you in this particular mess, and I believe it only right that you be present when she is held accountable for her activities."
Miss Bingley was quite irritated by her brother's summons, but then reasoned to herself that perhaps he had reconsidered her suggestion that they go to Bath rather than Netherfield for the remainder of the winter. Surely even Charles could recognize that there was no society worthy of the name in that Hertordforshire wasteland. In Bath, however…
Caroline had just begun to mentally enumerate what enhancements would be necessary to her wardrobe as she entered Pemberley's library. She was not at all pleased to discern Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, for she was becoming increasingly aware that her brother and sister-in-law were much more easily manipulated when away from their presence.
"Charles, the servant said that you desired to speak with me even when I can't imagine why it could not wait until a more convenient time. Whatever can be so urgent?" She vaguely noted that Jane would not meet her eye and that Mr. Darcy was glaring at her with something verging on contempt.
Bingley merely pushed several papers across the table. "Can you not imagine, sister?" The words were spoken with such sarcasm that Caroline had never before heard from her brother.
Miss Bingley might have dismissed him at once had she not recognized the handwriting on several of the pages as familiar--namely that of her sister, and herself. "Charles! That is my private correspondence! How dare you!" shrieked Miss Bingley. She reached out as if to take them, but her brother was too quick for her and withdrew them out of reach.
"How dare I?!? How dare you, Caroline!!! Until this day I held out hope that the bonds of sisterly affection would bring you to act correctly, if not pleasantly, to my new family." He gestured toward Jane and the other couple. "Certainly my own brotherly affections have caused me to look the other way or else excuse you in exchange for the most trifling and insincere of apologies… yet you continue to willfully injure me and those whom I love."
"But Charles…" For once in her life, Miss Bingley was at a loss for words. All her cunningly formulated excuses for the rumors she had started had never considered that her brother might see them written in her own hand. She had planned to lay the blame on others, insinuating that jealousy had prompted them to twist her innocent words into innuendos and gossip.
Indeed, her poorly considered plan had been that these very rumors would prompt the Bingleys to go to Bath so as to dispatch the gossip in person. Once there, Caroline planned to call upon every last acquaintance in order to procure a ticket to Almack's. Despite her years in Society, Miss Bingley had never yet gained access to those hallowed halls and had somehow concluded that this omission was the reason for her failure on the marriage mart.
"Charles… I can explain…"
Bingley cut her off furiously. "Don't even bother trying, Caroline, for there is nothing you could say that I will believe."
His fury spent, Charles sat down beside Jane and received her hand in his with an appreciative look. Turning resolutely back to his sister, he spoke coldly; "I have called you here not for an explanation, but to inform you of those plans we have made that affect you.
"First, we shall be leaving Pemberley tomorrow. If you are not prepared to depart promptly at eight, then you will be brought to the carriage if I have to carry you myself, and believe me when I say that I could care less if you are still in your night clothes."
Miss Bingley opened her mouth to protest, but the look on her brother's face caused her to pause long enough that he continued in his distant manner before she might speak a single word.
"Second, we shall be spending the remainder of the winter at Netherfield."
This time, Caroline managed an indignant, "But Charles!" before her brother spoke over her in the same cold tone.
"At the end of February, we shall celebrate your birthday by going to Town. There, we shall visit the family solicitors and arrange for you to have full access to your inheritance."
What joy Miss Bingley felt at that pronouncement was erased by his next words.
"Jane and I shall give you until the first of April to remove yourself from our household. As the Hursts have indicated a similar disinclination to host you, I suggest that you use the time at Netherfield to consider your options."
"Charles! Whatever can you mean?!?" Caroline truly had never considered that her brother and sister might refuse her the right to live with them.
"You have two options that I can see," continued Bingley relentlessly. "First, you may use your inheritance to set up your own establishment in London, or Bath, or I care not where. Or, you might save your money and go to stay with our relations in Yorkshire. Jane and I are planning to visit them in March, and we are willing for you to accompany us on the trip north so that you do not have to travel so far by yourself."
At this point, Miss Bingley flew apart and directed such a vicious rant at her brother (though not excluding his wife or the Darcys) that even Jane was affronted. Although temper made many of her words incoherent, the meaning was obvious. Eventually, it was Mr. Darcy who stood and, towering over the lady who had irked him for so long, bellowed the single word, "Silence!!!"
His tone was such that Miss Bingley immediately obeyed, staring at her host with not a little alarm.
Charles took the opportunity to stand. "Thank you. Now, I believe you have said quite enough, Caroline. Jane and I shall see you to your room and direct the servants to begin packing." He took a breath and turned to the other couple. "Elizabeth, Darcy--we shall see you for dinner. My sister shall be supping in her rooms until we depart."
When the library door clicked shut and Mr. and Mrs. Darcy were left alone, Elizabeth slumped back and exclaimed, "Well!"
After a final glare in the direction of Miss Bingley's departure, William joined her on the sofa. "Indeed!"
The couple sat in the same position for some minutes, recovering from the shock of Caroline's venomous diatribe. "I would never have guessed that Miss Bingley had such a… broad vocabulary!"
The corner of William's mouth twitched and he turned to draw Elizabeth into the crook of his arm. "Well, I suppose she always did consider the mastery of all the modern languages to be a mark of an accomplished woman."
The Darcys' laughter filled the library.
Chapter 49. Finding One's Place in the World.
Posted on 2011-12-16
Subsequent to the Bingleys' departure, the Darcys spent a quiet but thoroughly enjoyable winter at Pemberley. Whenever the weather was particularly fine, Elizabeth and William went walking, and Georgiana often joined them riding around the park. When she could not venture out of doors, Lizzy discovered that a few hours in the conservatory soothed her longing for nature, and a brisk walk in the gallery satisfied her need for exercise.
The latter was rarely necessary, for all three Darcys were regularly exerting themselves in quite another manner entirely; all was in place for Georgiana's debut the coming spring, and it was absolutely imperative that she practice the various dance steps which she might be called upon to perform until they were second nature.
"For one must have some conversation while dancing, you know," said Elizabeth to her new sister, while directing a teasing look at Darcy. "It would be very strange otherwise, for a lady with sense and education must be able to manage both a gavotte and a tête-à-tête to be really considered accomplished."
William found himself partnering his sister almost daily while Elizabeth played, although he was occasionally allowed to dance with his wife when the ladies determined that a demonstration of the steps was necessary for Georgiana's edification. For a time, they attempted to include Mr. Tucker (so as to have two gentlemen and two ladies) but the curate proved himself to be so far from nimble that he was soon allowed to return to his preferred occupations.
Darcy was surprised to find that he dreaded the activity less with practice (an admission which prompted no little teasing from his wife). Also, the hours spent in laughter over forgotten steps or missed turns caused his relationship with Georgiana to become more like a brother and friend, and less like the distant father figure of years past. Georgiana learned to tease him a little and he learned to laugh at his mistakes in her presence.
On days when William could not attend them, Lizzy and Georgiana practiced walking and curtsying in the stiff, formal gowns that they would be required to wear during their presentation at court. When Elizabeth's first attempt at backing away from the large potted plant that was standing in as the monarch resulted in her tripping over her train and toppling over, feathers askew, both she and her newest sister dissolved into giggles.
A similarly light-hearted manner was applied to their study of Burke's Peerage so as to comprehend the connections of such personages whom they were likely to meet. For information on the peers' personalities, the pair interrogated William (much to his dismay). Georgiana also kept up a steady correspondence with her Aunt Eleanor, and the Countess was quite pleased with her niece's descriptions of the various activities being undertaken by the party at Pemberley.
"I found myself conflicted," admitted Lady Eleanor to her husband. "For, although Darcy dearly wished to have his sister with him at Pemberley, I honestly believed that she would do much better spending the winter at Matlock so that I might prepare her for her debut. However, I am not too proud to admit that I appear to be wrong, for by her letters it is obvious that our niece is blossoming."
The Earl had read some parts of his niece's note and could not help but agree. "Elizabeth seems to be doing an excellent job of it. I must say that over Christmas, both Georgiana and William appeared happier and more outgoing than I have ever seen them."
As a result, the Countess' tutelage continued via post, her letters full of amusing anecdotes on this gentleman or that lady, all sketched so as to make her niece feel better acquainted with their personalities (for better or worse). In this way, Lady Eleanor succeeded in exciting Miss Darcy's curiosity such that it began to overcome her innate shyness.
Mr. Darcy was somewhat dismayed by his aunt's gossipy communications, but once Elizabeth explained the strategy to him, he had to admit to its success, for his sister was fairly bubbling with excitement for the High Season. Indeed, Georgiana's increasing enthusiasm at the prospect of returning to Town left him so perturbed that on more than one occasion a great deal of attention from his wife was necessary to sooth his nerves.
One night after they had retired, William held Lizzy in his arms and admitted, "I know that Georgie should come out this spring… She is eighteen, after all. But I would not have minded if she wished to delay it for another year."
Lizzy smiled indulgently and ran her hand through his dark curls. "You, sir, would be perfectly content if she never made her debut and remained here at Pemberley, permanently locked in time as your baby sister."
William could not argue with that, and released a great sigh. "I cannot decide if I should hope that she falls in love with some acceptable fellow right away so that I may remove her from the melee, or that her heart remains untouched throughout the season, in which case we will be obliged to repeat the endeavor in its entirety next year."
Elizabeth giggled. "Not all of it, my love--I for one am immeasurably grateful that we only have to be presented at court once."
"But I had thought you enjoyed wearing feathers in your hair?" teased her husband, well aware that the opposite was true.
However, the mention of St. James' Court had somehow turned Lizzy's thoughts from his sister to her own. "Did I tell you that I received a letter from Jane? 'Tis an amazing epistle, for she very nearly complains about the situation at Netherfield. Apparently Mama continues her daily visits and it is enough to try even the Bingleys' saintly patience."
"Well, they shall take possession of Holloway Manor in June."
The Bingleys had visited several estates for sale while in Derbyshire, and after consulting with Mr. Darcy, Charles had made an offer on one with a lovely, modern, red brick manor house situated less than thirty miles from Pemberley. Although the park was on the small side, it was prettily landscaped and the surrounding fields were in good condition and promised excellent yields. Needless to say, both sisters and friends were pleased by the arrangement.
"The situation is amusing, I suppose, but I can not say that I blame them for not informing either my mother or Miss Bingley about the purchase, yet."
Although in principle he abhorred deceit, William had to agree. He could easily imagine the ruckus Mrs. Bennet would cause when informed that her eldest daughter would be moving beyond her immediate reach, and he was quite certain that Miss Bingley did not deserve to be informed of her brother and sister's plans.
His consideration of Bingley's unfortunate living arrangement was interrupted when Elizabeth continued, "Kitty's letter leads me to believe that Mama is a bit lonely, having only one daughter left at Longbourn. It is all quite ridiculous; she would do much better to focus her attention on showing Mrs. Collins every courtesy, but it is clear from Kitty's description and the generally melancholic tone of Charlotte's communication that my mother is doing all she can to offend the Lucases."
After Mrs. Bennet's intemperate words to Elizabeth at Christmas, Darcy had little sympathy for the woman, so rather than respond he set about distracting his wife from any happenings in Hertfordshire. His success was such that within a few minutes, anything beyond the confines of their own bed curtains was deemed entirely inconsequential.
At the end of March, the Darcys left Pemberley for London with only a modicum of angst. Although William had little expectation of enjoying the myriad balls that had begun to fill their calendar, Elizabeth had already begun planning several dinner parties reminiscent of those she had attended at the Gardiners' home. Though he would not want to spend the entire year in such a manner, William had to admit that the promise of some friendly gatherings full of intelligent conversation made the prospect of London not unattractive.
The Darcys broke their travel at Matlock and departed the next morning with the welcome company of the Earl and his wife, as well as Miss de Bourgh. The increased size of their party allowed the ladies to banish the gentlemen to a separate carriage for an afternoon of feminine communion. Later that night when the Darcys had retired to their room at the inn, William inquired as to their topics of conversation.
Elizabeth only laughed at him. "Come now, sir--will you not allow us to keep any secrets? Our gender must have some confidences, or where would we be? Is it not our aura of mystery that attracts men to know us better?" Before Will could form a response, she kissed him so warmly that he decided to drop the subject.
In truth, the ladies had canvassed many topics, but the greatest energy had been devoted to Miss Bingley and her unpleasant letters. If William pressed her, Lizzy was quite willing to tell her husband all of the details, but she rather thought that the sort of social justice which Lady Eleanor was planning to mete out might be more smoothly delivered without awakening Mr. Darcy's gentlemanly instincts.
After their arrival, the Darcys spent a busy week in London. Although they did not socialize beyond their most intimate family party, the ladies' time was full of dress fittings, searches for just the right matching hair ribbons and slipper roses, and final arrangements for the grand ball to celebrate Miss Darcy's debut.
In the beginning of April, William and Elizabeth accompanied Miss de Bourgh and the Gardiners to Rosings for Easter. Just as Mr. Darcy had once predicted, Lizzy found herself staying at Rosings this year. She did gain a greater familiarity with the house, although much of that knowledge resulted from her assistance to Mrs. Gardiner in deciding which rooms were to be closed up and what furnishings were to be packed away.
One afternoon, Elizabeth encouraged Miss de Bourgh to walk with her in the topiary garden. Anne had been even quieter than usual since arriving at Rosings and, when her own attempts at drawing the lady out had proven ineffective, Mrs. Gardiner asked her niece to discover her new cousin's feelings.
After trying several topics without success, Lizzy decided to be direct. "Anne, please pardon my forwardness; I realize that we are relatively new acquaintances (and even newer relations) but you seem very unhappy. Do you regret your decision to leave Rosings? We would all understand if you changed your mind and desired to stay; it is your childhood home, after all."
Miss de Bourgh blinked several times before a look of shock spread across her usually expressionless face. "No-- oh no, not at all."
"So, you do not wish to stay at Rosings?" prompted Elizabeth.
Anne was quiet for a long minute before whispering, "I wish I did not have to come back at all. It feels like a cage… I would be very happy to never see the house again."
Rather than voice any astonishment, Lizzy merely nodded. "Would you like to live in Derbyshire permanently? We would be glad to have you at Pemberley, or I know that the Fitzwilliams would be overjoyed to keep you at Matlock."
The other lady shook her head slightly. "It is so cold in the north… and the land is so very… wild."
This time Elizabeth did smile, although she did not reveal to Miss de Bourgh that it was that very wildness which Mrs. Darcy loved about her new home county. Instead, careful questioning allowed her to decipher that Anne considered London to be too noisy, Essex too dirty, but that the girl appeared to think wistfully of Bath.
Later, Lizzy related these revelations to Darcy. "I suppose that it might be a solution," he responded thoughtfully. "Bath is close enough to London that her family could visit easily, and there are always houses available for lease or purchase. And society is not so strict there--a wealthy lady may live alone with a companion or female relation and not be considered unusual at all."
The arrangements proved surprisingly easy to make. The Darcys had already planned to attend Lord Michael Trevor's marriage to Miss Lilly Davenport on the following week. Before the Viscount and his happy bride departed on their wedding trip, Lord Hampden was pleased to arrange for the Darcys and Miss de Bourgh to look over his house in Bath, to be leased or purchased, as she and her family decided.
The Viscount's own mother had recovered from the illness that had kept her recuperating in the seaside resort for the past year and the elderly lady was happy to be returning to the family estate near Shropshire. Lady Augusta had no intention of testing her poor constitution by managing the household, but was perfectly happy to advise her charming, new daughter-in-law as that young lady settled into her new role as mistress.
Colonel Fitzwilliam accompanied the Darcys to Bath and approved Anne's new residence. The house was a well-appointed, modern affair on a quiet street at the edge of the fashionable district. Mrs. Jenkinson gladly agreed to move with her charge, providing the necessary companion to maintain Miss de Bourgh's respectability.
Unfortunately, when the gentlemen began talking about hiring servants, setting up accounts for the kitchens and washing, and all the other tasks necessary for running a household, it rapidly became clear that neither of the Rosings females had the capacity to attend those duties without assistance.
Elizabeth solved this final obstacle (with a small smile at Colonel Fitzwilliam) by suggesting that she invite Mrs. Collins to stay with the ladies for as many months as necessary. Charlotte was entirely capable of setting up the household and would almost certainly welcome an excuse to leave Meryton for a time.
Miss de Bourgh agreed after a little thought. She had always rather liked Mrs. Collins; the parson's widow seemed quietly capable but respectful enough not to recreate the oppressive atmosphere of Rosings. Anne was not at all certain about having the widow's young son in the same house, having had absolutely no experience with babies. However, Mrs. Jenkinson found the idea delightful and quickly reassured her charge that it would be no imposition at all.
Later, when they were alone, Lizzy admitted to her husband that it had also occurred to her that such an arrangement would make it easier for Richard to visit her friend during her mourning without causing a scandal, for who would question the Colonel's right to visit his spinster cousin's household?
William only chuckled and kissed her, taking pleasure in his wife's obvious enjoyment at match making.
By the end of the week, the weather had turned wet and muddy so it was with some relief that the Darcys returned to London and settled in at Derwent House. There was little time to relax, however, for the Season was rapidly gaining momentum. Only two days after their return, Elizabeth and Georgiana retired soon after luncheon, placing themselves under the care of a small army of maids to be washed, dressed, coiffed, and generally fussed over until it was finally time to be carefully loaded into the carriage and transported to Matlock House, where they were to be weighed and measured by Almack's patronesses.
In truth, Elizabeth was not so worried about the interview; Georgiana was just the sort of ladylike young heiress whom Lady Jersey and her compatriots desired, and they were unlikely to refuse a voucher to the new bride of Miss Darcy's guardian, unless she did something too egregious to ignore.
The muddy weather made the carriage a necessity although the Fitzwilliams lived only a few steps across the Square. Seeing the younger lady's nervous demeanor, however, Lizzy teased gently, "Shall we walk to your aunt's, Georgiana? If our petticoats get dirty, we can just let down our skirts once we arrive."
Elizabeth spoke with such nonchalance that it took her sister several moments to realize that she was not in earnest. Miss Darcy's look of horror was such that Lizzy nearly collapsed in a fit of giggles. By the time they entered Lady Matlock's drawing room, Georgiana was relaxed enough to reply to the introductions with, if not perfect equanimity, then at least coherently and with a small smile on her face.
After little more than an hour, the two ladies were back in the carriage and retracing their route back to Derwent House.
Mr. Darcy had spent most of the intervening time pacing in his study, awaiting their return. Although he and Colonel Fitzwilliam were almost certain that they had kept Georgiana's near elopement quiet, her admission to Almack's would be proof of their success. Although her dowry and connections ensured her future to some extent, a voucher to that venue would greatly improve her chances of marrying a gentleman of stature.
William entered Elizabeth's sitting room uncertain as to what he would find. If pressed, he probably would have admitted to expecting tears, having heard stories of the emotional wreckage often produced by the brutal honesty of Almack's fair arbiters. As a result, he was delighted (and not a little relieved) to find his two most beloved ladies reclined on the sofas, nibbling cakes and giggling over the ridiculousness of it all.
"Ah, and here is your brother--shall we tell him about our afternoon, or force him to wait for Lady Eleanor's official report?" teased Lizzy even as she held out a hand to him.
Georgiana giggled as William settled beside his wife.
"Would you like more hot chocolate, Georgie?" asked Elizabeth. "It is gloriously decadent, is it not?" After the girl accepted another cup, Lizzy turned to her husband and noted that his impatience was only barely controlled.
Suddenly realizing just how concerned he had been, she squeezed his hand and assured him, "It went perfectly well, William. After less than ten minutes of conversation, Lady Castlereagh deemed your sister to be a 'dear, sweet girl' and Lady Cowper had thought of at least five marital prospects for her." She laughed when the pleased look prompted by the first statement was turned grim by the second, and even Georgiana giggled a little at her brother's dismayed look.
Although Darcy's immediate thought was to demand the gentlemen's' names and have them investigated, he knew that such a response would not help his shy sister become more comfortable in society. Trying to moderate his tone, he only inquired, "So, it went well, then?"
That was enough encouragement for Georgiana to begin a rather jumbled but obviously enthusiastic account of what ladies had attended her aunt's tea with details about what each had worn and said. Will began to believe that he might actually be forced to protest when his sister began describing the lace on Lady Jersey's gown, but was saved when Elizabeth inquired gently, "Shall you write to your Cousin Lucy with all the details from this afternoon? I remember that you promised her you would do so when we left Matlock."
Georgiana's eyes brightened and she sprang up from her seat. "Oh yes, I shall do so right away, while it is all still fresh in my mind! May I be excused, Wills?"
Darcy had barely agreed before his sister was skipping out the door. Shaking his head over the changes that a few months had wrought, he turned back to Elizabeth with a raised eyebrow. She only smiled and cuddled up against his chest.
"Truly, William, it all went exceptionally well; Georgiana comported herself perfectly. She was reserved, but no more than one would expect of a modest young lady unaccustomed to Society, and her performance on the pianoforte was flawless. You should be very proud," she added softly.
"I am proud, but it is all to her own credit, and to yours, I am sure."
She studied him sternly. "Now it is you who is being overly modest. Georgiana has looked up to you all her life; her character was formed through observation of your own. I may not have always appreciated it, but she could not have had a better model."
William's cheeks had coloured slightly at her praise. However, before he might begin to protest, Lizzy returned her head to his shoulder and said, "Please, my love, don't argue--I have not the energy for it after the day I've had."
He looked at her with concern. "Did they mistreat you? I cannot imagine that my aunt would allow…"
"No, no, not at all. I was merely referring to all the time spent worrying and preparing for what, in the end, was a rather short conference." She fiddled with his cravat pin before recalling herself to the present. "Actually, I had an extremely interesting conversation with Princess von Lieven about the death penalty."
Although Elizabeth looked at him expectantly, William could not make out why she would think such a topic to be significant. When he responded only with a mystified expression, she studied him for a moment before deciding that their commitment to honesty with one another was more important than the concern her disclosure might cause him.
"We discussed our mutual dislike of such a final measure, given the imperfections of our respective legal systems--she had some truly chilling stories about judicial blunders in her homeland. However, that is neither here nor there. You will be interested that she informed me that, although she does not approve of the death penalty, she is not certain if the Russian practice of deporting criminals to Siberia is any better… for it is just as dangerous as the British transporting our own to Australia."
Darcy drew a sharp breath. "And you believe that she was speaking of Wickham?"
Elizabeth nodded seriously. "She subsequently guided our conversation to the punishment of blackmailers, and we spent several minutes discussing whether it was possible to prevent a repeat offender from returning to his evil ways as soon as he is free from incarceration."
She was silent for a few moments before continuing, "Now that I have time to consider her words carefully, I believe it unlikely that she knows Georgiana was one of those unfortunate victims. I think that she is somehow cognizant of Mr. Wickham's nefarious activities and your role in providing evidence at his trial… and probably that you used your influence to have him deported rather than hung, as well."
William considered the information for several minutes before admitting that there did not appear to be any reason to panic. Elizabeth agreed, adding, "It may be that the princess is personally acquainted with someone whom Mr. Wickham hurt, herself." She turned to look her husband in the eye. "And that could be how she knows of your involvement, for did you not take it upon yourself to return all the letters and valuables that were recovered to his victims?"
Darcy agreed to the logic of her explanation but, uncomfortable with praise for aiding Wickham's victims (an effort which he considered to be nothing more than his duty), he quickly turned their conversation back to some new legislation parliament was considering with regard to the treatment of prisoners.
Elizabeth gave him a bemused look that told him she was entirely aware of his maneuver but she allowed it and they spent the remaining time until dinner discussing such current issues and reading the broadsheets. Although William's thoughts returned to her revelations several times and he would eventually discuss the situation with Colonel Fitzwilliam, nothing further ever came of the matter.
Over the next week, Elizabeth and Georgiana were honoured with (or subjected to, depending on one's point of view) the privileges that every fashionable young lady dreamt of, namely, admission to Almack's and presentation at court. Writing to her father, Lizzy admitted to being somewhat disappointed by the latter.
For, after a great deal of pomp and even more polite waiting (during which time we were not allowed to talk, much less twiddle our thumbs) we were eventually admitted to the royal reception hall. I spent my time admiring the other ladies' feathers, for, as a required part of our ensemble, you understand, there was an impressive variety. I concluded that our church ladies should take up knitting small coats for all the birds, for I am quite certain that the vast majority must have been plucked naked. Of course, officially, the Court is in mourning for Queen Charlotte and the Prince Regent's daughter (although His wife is still abroad), so it was more subdued than in years past (or so I am told). However, the Prince of Wales and several of His royal brothers and sisters were present, in addition to such a multitude of magnificent ladies and gentlemen that I might have been intimidated, had you not gifted me with your satirical eye.
In contrast, Almack's was something of a pleasant surprise to the former Miss Bennet. Although the rooms were full, it was nothing like the crush she had regularly experienced at many public assemblies in Hertfordshire. Good manners were the order of the day and the absence of any alcohol in the punch boded well for the continuation of such behavior as the evening wore on.
Elizabeth had no doubt that the usual gossips and scandalmongers were present, but the sharpest tongues appeared to be kept sheathed. When she said as much to Lady Matlock, however, that woman only smiled. "It is early days yet, my dear. Give the debutantes a few weeks to form their cliques and for those ladies who have been out for a season or two to become desperate. Then it will become a veritable fencing match."
"With more than one reputation left in bloody tatters," added the elderly Lady Trowbridge, who was standing with them.
Georgiana's appearance was successful enough to establish her position in Society without alarming her guardians. Between her innate shyness and her brother's threatening glare, Miss Darcy danced only a few dances with gentlemen who were not related to her. Elizabeth prodded her husband very gently to sweeten his demeanor, but decided to let it be for the present. Her sister did not appear unhappy with the situation and indeed spent much of her time catching up with several young ladies with whom she had attended school.
Although some guardians might have been disappointed not to see their charge immediately attain the very pinnacle of popularity, Mr. Darcy was thoroughly relieved and, as a result, was observed to dance not just once but several times with his lovely bride. No less of a judge than Princess von Lieven nodded her approval when the Darcys performed her beloved waltz.
The subsequent days passed in such a whirl of teas, dinners, and soirées that in hindsight it would be difficult to differentiate one from another. Despite this, Elizabeth had not forgotten her commitment to expose Mary to a broader transect of society while her sister was staying with the Gardiners. Mr. Tucker had proven to be a dependable suitor during Miss Bennet's time in London and, during a private conference with her aunt, Mary had demonstrated that her enthusiasm for the man and his mission had not diminished.
Indeed, Mary's inclusion in the Gardiners' usual company of dinner parties appeared to have merely brought her a greater degree of self-awareness.
One afternoon as they rode in the carriage to a tea at Lady Trowbridge's home, Mary gathered herself to make a request of her sister. "Lizzy," she said softly. "Please don't ask me to play or sing today."
Normally, Elizabeth would have been relieved that Mary did not wish to expose her weak voice and pedantic style in company. However, the request was made in such a subdued tone that her concern for her sister outweighed any relief over the potential social embarrassment. "I will not press you to do anything you dislike, Mary, but may I ask why? You have always seemed to enjoy it so."
Miss Bennet studied her sister's face for some moments before deciding that Elizabeth was not teasing. (Although their father had improved his manner in the last year, a lifetime of enduring his sarcastic critiques could not be overcome by a few months of more gentle attentions, and to her, Lizzy's personality was too much like Mr. Bennet's for Mary to easily dismiss the suspicion that her sister was making fun of her.)
Deciding that Elizabeth was honestly interested, Mary shrugged one shoulder. "I still enjoy practicing; I believe that such application is valuable exercise for building character. However, I no longer fool myself that my performance is anything out of the ordinary; and indeed, I now understand it is considered to be quite inferior by many."
Mary smiled sardonically at the surprise that bloomed on her sister's face. "You needn't act so shocked, Lizzy. You and Jane have always been very kind to me. Since coming to London, however, I have received a more honest appraisal."
Elizabeth became immediately indignant. "Has someone been cruel to you, Mary? Have you told our aunt? I cannot believe that the Gardiners would allow any of their guests to treat you poorly!"
The younger girl's expression became more friendly. "Do not worry, Lizzy; no one has been unkind--merely honest." Seeing that her sister required more information, she studied her gloved hands for a moment before sighing. "A week after we arrived in London, Aunt Madeleine hosted a dinner party. It was like nothing I had ever attended; the conversation was intelligent and well-informed, and there was none of the useless gossip such as we are subjected to at Longbourn."
Mrs. Darcy was struck by the guilty realization of just how much she herself had benefitted from her exposure to the Gardiners household, and wondered if she had been greedy of their company to the detriment of her younger sister. "Oh Mary…"
For once, Mary Bennet comprehended exactly what Elizabeth was feeling. "Do not feel guilty, sister. I do not think I was prepared to appreciate what they had to offer before this winter." She was silent for a moment before continuing. "Anyway, it was nothing very dreadful. You know Mr. Modestini?"
"The pianist?" asked Elizabeth. When her sister responded affirmatively, she replied, "Yes, we saw him perform last autumn. Georgiana studied under him several years ago, I believe, although not for long. Barely a month, if I remember correctly." She studied Mary for a moment before adding, "Although neither she nor Mr. Darcy have ever said as much, I got the impression that he was an extremely demanding task master and rather… short-tempered with anything less than perfection."
The sisters exchanged a smile before Mary admitted, "He is an elderly gentleman, incredibly talented, but with the sort of bluntness that often comes with such age and genius." She paused before admitting, "I sat beside him at dinner and we discussed music, so when he asked me to play and sing, I was certain that I would impress him…"
Guessing what was to come, Lizzy reached out for her sister's hand. "Oh Mary..."
Miss Bennet shrugged. "As you have guessed, he listened to barely a movement before calling upon me to cease, and then he spent the next hour lecturing me on how it should be played. I fear that I was not a very satisfactory student."
Again Elizabeth attempted to comfort her sister, but Mary would have none of it. She might have cried into her pillow on the evening in question, but subsequent consideration had convinced her that it had been a valuable lesson. In private, her playing was an act of self-improvement, but in public it had become an expression of misplaced vanity.
Noting that the carriage was approaching their destination, Elizabeth heaved a sigh; "Well, I still believe that we should invite Mr. Modestini for dinner and then criticize his own performance incessantly. However, regardless of anyone's desires, I doubt that there shall be the opportunity for any such entertainment this afternoon. Lady Trowbridge hopes to accomplish a great deal today."
"But Lizzy, I thought that it was only to be a tea?"
Elizabeth had just enough time to explain that the elderly countess was well known not only for her financial philanthropy but also for dedicating her own time to the organization of various charities. Today's meeting was to focus on expanding the number of so-called ragged schools for the poor children in the city.
Once they had descended from the carriage, the sisters were admitted to the house and efficiently relieved of their outerwear before being ushered into the drawing room. While Lizzy exchanged cheek kisses with their hostess, Mary surveyed the room. It was not at all the ostentatious design she would have expected of a countess. Rather, it was a warm, comfortable room; its furnishings were obviously expensive but not uselessly fine. The decorations appeared to be memorabilia of a long life, well-lived, rather than the useless clutter that was currently in fashion.
Mary's attention snapped back when Lady Alexandra turned to her. "And you must be Miss Mary Bennet; I am very glad to meet another of dear Madeleine's nieces. Come, come; we have quite an excellent turnout!" The Countess drew the pair further into the room and introduced them to several guests before being called away to greet some new arrivals.
While Mrs. Darcy eagerly entered into discussion with several other ladies, Mary found herself sitting beside an earnest-looking young man who had been introduced as Mr. Dodd. They exchanged some comments about the weather and then drifted into silence until, after clearing his throat, he began diffidently; "I fear that this is my first time attending one of Lady Trowbridge's gatherings, Miss Bennet. Would you be so kind as to acquaint me with what I may expect?"
Mary found herself smiling at the gentleman, for she had been wondering much the same. "Unfortunately, I am not the one to ask, sir, as I have only just met her today. I am here with my sister, Mrs. Darcy."
"Ah, well; would you despise me very much if I admitted that I am glad? You see, I have heard so many remarkable things about the Countess that I am quite intimidated by her."
Miss Bennet assured him that she did not despise him at all and their conversation turned to how he had become interested in doing more than just donating funds for the charity.
Blushing slightly, Mr. Dodd admitted, "My own father passed away two years ago, and I am doing my best to take my responsibilities seriously; my mother and two younger sisters are dependent upon me, you see?"
After Mary expressed her sympathies, he continued. "We have an excellent steward for our estate in Bedfordshire, so there really isn't much for me to do with running the place. And I want to do something more meaningful than just sitting around, counting my rents and going to useless parties, you see?"
By the end of his little speech, the young man had shed his timorous demeanor and fairly quivered with eagerness. A few questions from his companion elicited more details on his hopes to establish a school for his tenants'' children, and perhaps another in the nearest village.
Mary could not help but be impressed. "My new brother, Mr. Darcy, has such schools for his tenants and villagers, just as you propose, and when I visited over Christmas, I observed that his people appeared prosperous and content."
Mr. Dodd nodded with satisfaction. "I cannot comprehend why so many in our circle are against the education of the lower classes. Even if we only teach someone their letters and numbers, such opportunities open up to them! Imagine, not to be able to read a sign, or check that your tab at the grocer's has been reckoned correctly!"
"Or take comfort from a favorite passage in the bible…" added Mary softly.
Mr. Dodd looked at her with appreciation. "Precisely! I cannot tell you how much pleasure it gives me to meet someone such as yourself; someone who cares about what is truly important!"
"You give me too much credit, sir. I fear that I have long been in the habit of lecturing others on what virtues they should strive for, rather than being particular admirable, myself." In a moment of perfect clarity, Mary added; "Really, much of my life has been devoted to the abstinence of any immoral behaviors, rather than the active devotion of my time to such virtuous pursuits as will make a difference in the world." She looked at him shyly. "I have not been bad, but I have not done anything particularly good, do you understand?"
The light in Mr. Dodd's eyes reassured her that he did not condemn her at all. "There are not many who come to see the difference, particularly at such a young age. May I ask what drew you to such a significant self-revelation?"
Though she was not usually given to exposing her private affairs to strangers, Mary found Mr. Dodd to be such a sympathetic listener that she was soon telling him all about meeting Mr. Tucker and the mission in Africa.
After listening carefully and asking not a few questions, Mr. Dodd eventually leaned back in his seat and stared off into space for a minute. "My God, that's a thing, is it not!?! There's a chance to make a difference in the world!" He looked at his companion with new respect. "My rambling on about schools in the English countryside must seem very small to you, I fear."
"Not at all!" Mary was quick to reassure him. "I agree with everything you have said; even the smallest amount of education can open such opportunities to a person! Imagine what genius is being wasted because a man was born the son of a farmer or servant and has no means to record his thoughts!"
Mary could tell that the young gentleman was only partially convinced, but she did not have a chance to utter any more reassurances as Lady Trowbridge was calling for everyone's attention.
The meeting turned out to be everything that Miss Bennet had been lead to expect; the ladies and gentlemen were genuinely determined to assist those less fortunate than themselves, and the Countess organized them with the zeal of a general dispatching her army. Mary noted that Mrs. Darcy eagerly contributed to the plans and that her suggestions were well received.
Mary spent some minutes considering why this observation surprised her, and came to the unsettling realization that, although she certainly loved Lizzy as a sister, that emotion was laced with jealousy and a desire to find fault. For the first time in her life, she began to reflect upon the impact that the tensions swirling around the Bennet household had had on the interactions among its daughters.
Mary's introspection continued after their departure from Lady Trowbridge's home and aroused her sister's curiosity, though Elizabeth guessed wrongly at its cause. "Mr. Dodd appeared to be an interesting gentleman. What did the two of you talk about for so long?"
For a moment, Mary merely stared at her, blinking in confusion, for she had quite honestly forgotten the beginning of the afternoon. "I beg your pardon, Lizzy; I fear that I was somewhat preoccupied."
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows inquisitively. "Mr. Dodd?"
Mary smiled but did not blush. "Oh yes, Mr. Dodd was quite agreeable. He has some very interesting plans for setting up a school near his estate."
"At the risk of sounding like our mother, he would be an excellent match for you, Mary."
This time Miss Bennet looked at her sister and rolled her eyes. Lizzy laughed, "Oh, very well; that was entirely too much like Mama. I only wished… I wanted… to be sure that you should not feel that such a gentleman is not…"
"Too good for me?" asked Mary softly.
Elizabeth pursed her lips for a moment before speaking. "You are a thoughtful, intelligent, and pretty young lady, Mary. I only want to be sure that you know you have options… if you truly love Mr. Tucker and desire to go with him to Africa, I will do everything I can to help... but if it is only a way to escape Longbourn, then I hope you will tell me so that we may find some other way that is not so dangerous."
They rode in silence for a moment, Elizabeth worrying that she had been too direct and Mary trying to find the words to respond. Finally the younger lady spoke softly. "I do care for Mr. Tucker… Very much… and my feelings for him are quite intertwined with his goals in life."
The conversation paused when the carriage pulled up before the Gardiners' house, but Lizzy wished to hear more and suggested that they take a turn in the park across the street.
After several minutes, Mary spoke; "I know you have thought me odd, always reading religious tracts and quoting proverbs, but I truly do desire to make a difference in the world. In my heart, I believe that I have been called to bring the word of God to those ignorant savages. I admit that part of my attraction for the mission is to leave all that my life has been before and go somewhere no one knows me... somewhere that I may reinvent myself. It is… difficult to do so at Longbourn."
Elizabeth linked her arm through that of her sister. "I can understand that very easily, as I have felt the same on occasion. I love our parents, but it is very difficult to escape from the pigeon-holes that our family has assigned each of us."
Mary stopped and stared at her with surprise; "I had no idea that you felt that way as well!"
"Indeed." Lizzy mentioned the similar conversations that she had had with Lydia and even Jane. "Perhaps it is a part of growing up; we feel that we must break free of the mold that has formed us as children. It is odd that our society expects and even encourages such rebellion from young gentlemen, but such opportunities are few and far between for ladies. We cannot go away to university or spend a few years exploring the continent."
"So you understand me, then?"
Elizabeth nodded to her sister; "Though I desperately wish you did not want to go quite so far away from us, I do understand."
"Then you will help me? To convince Mama and Papa? And prepare for the trip?" asked Mary eagerly.
Lizzy smiled, happy to see her usually sedate sister so animated. "Of course, Mary. I will always support you in what you desire; I only wanted to be certain that you know what you are doing."
"Thank you, sister."
"Yes, well; if you survived the fearsome Mr. Modestino, what are a few lions and tigers?"
Mary attempted an innocent tone, "Oh, Elizabeth, I leave you to tame the wild cats of Society. My path is much safer."
Both were smiling when they returned to Gracechurch Street.
Later, when she was alone with her husband, Elizabeth admitted to feeling as if she knew very little about her own sister. "Growing up, we all attended services on Sunday, of course. Certainly Mary was more serious about it all than the rest of us, I suppose, but it never occurred to me that she was so devout as to pledge her life to the church…"
"You make it sound as if she were entering a nunnery," responded William wryly.
Elizabeth tipped her head so that it rested against his shoulder. "I might prefer that… Can you imagine? My little sister, going to Africa? I don't know whether to be jealous or wish my father would forbid it."
Will traced his hand down her shoulder. After a moment, he said quietly, "Do you wish you could?"
Distracted by his touch, she responded with only a "hmmmm?"
William felt a bit of male pride stir at her response, but forced himself to focus on what he wanted to say; "Do you wish to travel? We could, you know."
Elizabeth took her time responding and as she considered, she traced a finger along his collar. Finally, she looked up so that he could see the warm look in her eyes. "You would do that for me, wouldn't you? Leave behind your sister and your beloved Pemberley and carry my bags all across the world, wherever I wanted to go; all for me."
His arm tightened around her. "Of course, if that is what you desire." William did his best to sound more enthusiastic than he felt.
Lizzy laughed a little and then drew herself up so that she might kiss him lightly. Arms around his neck, she said softly, "You, Fitzwilliam Darcy, are a dear man. Perhaps someday, we might… but for now, my place … our place is here. And all my desires can be met with an occasional trip to the British Museum or the Dulwich Picture Gallery."
Will studied her seriously for a long minute until he was reassured by what he saw in her face. He bent to kiss her tenderly, then touched his forehead to her own. "Thank God…"
Rolling onto her back, Elizabeth burst into peals of laughter. "And this the man who once called fifty miles of good road an easy distance! I believe that the thought of anything beyond the Scottish border puts your stomach into knots!"
Feeling a bit self conscious, William muttered, "One never knows what sort of food or lodging will be available when traveling to far off places."
"Oh my poor darling, do tell me--have you ever been forced to drink the common cider and sleep on a straw tick?"
William decided it was high time to distract his wife from her teasing. "I simply prefer…" He leaned over her, smoothing her dark curls back from her forehead. "…to have a proper mattress…" He began trailing kisses down her collar bone. "…available, in case all my wife's desires…" A hand moved to cup her breast. "…are not satisfied at the museum…"
That night, Mrs. Darcy found herself to be entirely satisfied with her place in the world.
Chapter 50. Sisters Leaving Home.
Posted on 2012-01-26
Less than a week after Mary attended Lady Trowbridge's tea with her sister, Mr. Tucker rode to Longbourn and received Mr. Bennet's consent to marry his third daughter. It was determined that the happy couple would wed in Meryton on the last day of April and then depart the next morning for the port where they were to join the other missionaries with whom they were traveling.
Once Elizabeth was convinced that her sister's happiness was indeed linked with Mr. Tucker, she was determined to do all she could to help Mary prepare for her voyage. Between them, the Darcys and Bingleys agreed that their wedding present to the Tuckers would to outfit the couple for their travels (and travails) in Africa. Mr. Bennet was happy to contribute to this venture, well aware that the sort of trousseau that Mary's mother desired to assemble was entirely unsuitable.
Concluding that the little she knew about the so-called 'dark continent' was likely to be so inaccurate as to be useless, Elizabeth consulted Lady Alexandra; the elderly countess was delighted to assist. "My daughter and son-in-law have come down to visit me, and I'm certain that they would be happy to talk to your sister," said Lady Trowbridge enthusiastically.
A decade before, Lady Rose Hardwick (the Earl of Trowbridge's only daughter) had raised eyebrows in polite society by refusing to marry any but a brilliant young Oxford archaeology student whom she had met at the British Reading Room. Since then, Mrs. Smithson had accompanied her husband on all his expeditions in Egypt and, on the occasion that they returned to England, preferred Oxford to London. Society tskked over the couple, but the Smithsons paid no attention and remained excessively happy.
"Why don't you come for dinner? We expect the Bingleys to return from Yorkshire today, so would Monday evening be convenient?" replied Elizabeth, thinking aloud.
"Perfect, my dear! I would offer to host you all in Bloomsbury but I fear I would feel obliged to invite John and Jane, and you know what bores they are."
Since the death of Lady Alexandra's husband many years before, the new Lord and Lady Trowbridge had built a large, fashionable house in Mayfair, leaving the old place in Bloomsbury to the dowager, who had claimed herself to be too old and set in her ways to change neighborhoods. Upon her death, the property would go to the Smithsons, an arrangement which suited that couple because of the close proximity of the property to various museums and reading rooms. (Lord John and Lady Jane were equally relieved to have some physical separation from their eccentric relations.)
Having had been acquainted with Lady Alexandra since she was a girl and being well aware of the Hardwick family dynamics, Elizabeth only smiled.
The grand ball celebrating Miss Darcy's debut was only a week away, but all of Elizabeth's planning during the winter meant that there was little work left for the mistress to do (unless she desired to assist Cook preparing the white soup or the maids polishing the silver). Perhaps guessing this, Mrs. Wilkins was rather glad when Mrs. Darcy informed the housekeeper that they would be hosting a small dinner party in several days time.
After services the next morning, William and Elizabeth dismissed the carriage in favor of a stroll in the park. Georgiana had departed from church with her Aunt and Uncle to spend the day with her Fitzwilliam relations at Matlock House.
Both were looking forward to a quiet dinner at the Bingleys. It was just over a month since the Darcys had seen her sister and his friend and they were looking forward to catching up with the other couple.
When the Darcys returned to Derwent House, there was a note waiting from Jane. "Oh dear-- I hope nothing has happened!" exclaimed Lizzy as she broke the seal. They continued walking to the family dining room as she read the note.
Circumstances make it difficult for us to host you and William tonight. I realize that this comes at the last minute, but is there any possibility we might sup at your home instead? Do not be concerned--Charles and I are both well. We will explain when we see you.
Your loving sister,
Elizabeth turned to her husband. "How odd. What do you think of that?"
Darcy took the note from her hand and read it himself. "Odd indeed. Is there any problem having them here?"
"None that I can think of. Do you mind waiting just a moment while I run down and check with Cook?"
William quirked an eyebrow. "Not at all," which earned him a kiss. Watching his wife whisk out of the room on her errand, he sighed with contentment before picking up the newspaper off the sideboard. Seating himself and shaking it open, he noticed Jane's note on the table where Elizabeth had left it. Out of curiosity, he picked it up and read the brief message again but it provided no new clues as to what "circumstances" were occurring at the Bingley home. He considered it for a moment but decided no conclusions could be drawn without more information and turned his attention back to news of the peace negotiations in Europe.
Some minutes later, Elizabeth swept back in and moved to the table after handing a sealed note to the footman with directions for it to be delivered immediately to the Bingleys. She smiled at her husband when he stood and pulled out the chair to his right and he couldn't resist kissing her exposed neck. Moving back to his own seat, he inquired, "All is well, then?"
Lizzy motioned to the footman to serve the soup. "Yes, all is well. Mrs. Davies is a marvel! Not only was she not upset to be serving supper on four hours notice, she appeared sincerely disappointed that there are only to be four of us!"
Sipping his soup, William smiled with amusement. "She is deliriously happy that you are here. I rarely entertained before we married and when I did have guests, they were usually friends from university or business acquaintances. She would say that gentlemen might appreciate the taste and volume of her dishes, but ladies were necessary to appreciate the presentation."
"Well, I expect to appreciate both this evening. She was talking about roasts, spring greens, and apple tarts when I left." Lizzy smirked at her husband; "So save your appetite, if you can!"
William looked down at his empty bowl and groaned in mock misery. "And there is nothing better than Mrs. Davies' apple tart!" After they finished chuckling, he asked, "You sent a note to the Bingleys?"
"Yes; I asked them for supper at seven but encouraged them to come by as early as they wished to visit. I admit to being curious. Jane sounded serious in a way she rarely is--serene, yes, but not so serious. But she said that all was well. Did you have any thoughts?"
"Not a one. I suppose we shall just have to wait and find out." He was forced to chuckle when Elizabeth rolled her eyes over his droll response.
Over the winter, the Darcys had formed a habit of spending Sunday afternoons in front of the library's fire, reading snippets from newspapers or books to each other and discussing events of the past week or the days to come. With spring beginning to warm, they decided to forego the fire in the library and move to a small family sitting room at the rear of the house where they could (and did) open a set of French doors onto the rear garden where bulbs were beginning to bloom. The room was decorated in light green with cream and yellow accents, and Elizabeth had arranged some daffodils in a vase. Both settled happily on the sofa.
Around five o'clock, the butler showed the Bingleys into this relaxed setting. Their distress was immediately obvious when Jane threw herself into Lizzy's arms and nearly wailed, "Oh Lizzy, it is so good to see you; I am so glad." Charles moved to shake Darcy's hand vigorously and seemed very close to repeating his wife's actions.
Once the Darcys had guided their friends to sit, William asked, "You seem upset. Can we get you something before you tell us? Tea, or perhaps a glass of wine?"
Charles looked to his wife who was sitting on the sofa beside her sister, still gripping Elizabeth's hand tightly. "Normally I would refrain on a Sunday, but I believe that we could both do with a brandy. Thank you, Darce."
William moved to the sideboard with alacrity and poured two glasses. After both Bingleys had taken a sip, Jane squared her shoulders and began softly, "Our trip to Yorkshire went smoothly--Charles' relations are lovely."
"They all adore Jane, just as I predicted," added Charles with obvious pride.
"We arrived back at the townhouse on Saturday mid-day. You know that, of course--I sent you the note inviting you to dinner." Jane took another sip of brandy.
Elizabeth nodded and squeezed her sister's hand, encouraging her to continue.
"Well, I was in my rooms as the maids were unpacking my trunk… and I checked my jewelry box… the one I leave on my vanity in my dressing room. I had… well… you remember that lovely necklace that Charles gave me for Christmas? The sapphires and diamonds?" At Lizzy's encouraging smile, Jane continued, "Well, I'd left it locked in my jewelry box. I know I should have given it to Charles to lock in the safe before we left, but we were in such a rush that I quite forgot. And really, we trust all the servants so I couldn't imagine there would be any problems."
Elizabeth caught her husband's eye and could not stop herself from quirking an eyebrow. Both remembered Mr. Bennet's favorite summary of the other couple, "You are each of you so complying, that nothing will ever be resolved on; so easy, that every servant will cheat you; and so generous, that you will always exceed your income."
However, when Lizzy turned back to her sister her face showed her genuine concern. "What happened? Were they stolen, Janey?"
"Oh Lizzy. The sapphires weren't in my jewelry box. I thought perhaps I might have misremembered, so I asked Charles and we checked the safe, but they weren't there either, so we talked to the housekeeper. And she… well… she suggested that we inquire with Caroline's new French maid."
This surprised both Darcys and they spoke simultaneously. "Caroline!" and "But hasn't she moved into her own establishment?"
Charles looked more frustrated than Elizabeth had ever seen when he jumped up and began pacing. "After her behavior at Christmas… Well, you know as well as I what we told her. While we were at Netherfield, she alternated between sulking, arguing, and pretending that nothing was wrong. Perhaps she convinced herself that we would not follow through with it."
The Bingleys exchanged a glance and Jane admitted, "That may be my fault; I fear that it was such a relief when she returned to her former manner that I preferred to believe she had made her peace with it."
Jane tucked her chin until Charles stepped to her side and gently touched her hair. "Angel, we've discussed this; it is no more your fault than it is mine." She looked up and met his eyes; it was still a few moments before she nodded and the guilt in her eyes softened into acceptance.
Charles continued the story in a tired voice. "When we came to London at the end of February, we had the Hursts over to celebrate Caro's birthday." He did not bother to hide his sarcasm. "They are not willing to take Caroline in either, so the next day Hurst and I visited the solicitor in charge of Caroline's trust and explained the situation. He drew up the necessary paperwork to release her inheritance and the three of us met with my sister two days later."
Bingley paused to take another sip of brandy and then sighed. "I expected her to throw another tantrum, but she behaved as the perfect lady… just bobbed her head and signed where we told her to sign. To be honest, it made me rather nervous."
The other three smiled and Charles rolled his eyes before continuing in a slightly lighter tone. "Caro indicated that she desired to remain in London, so we agreed that Hurst and I would help her find an appropriate apartment while Louisa and Jane would assist her in hiring a companion and setting up her own household."
Seeing how upset her husband was becoming, Jane moved to sit by him. Charles took her hand and kissed it before continuing; "Her primary interest appeared to be in understanding how much of her account she could spend immediately on her wardrobe."
Jane squeezed his hand and added, "But she appeared to accept it all. Charles and Mr. Hurst found her a lovely apartment, and Louisa and I went with Caroline to see what needed to be done to decorate them according to her taste. Caroline seemed quite excited about the decorating," she trailed off mournfully.
Charles offered his wine and Jane sipped glumly while he took up the saga. "So that was the situation before we left for Yorkshire. The apartments were let. She was to interview prospective companions, hire one, and move out of her suite in our townhouse while we were away. Indeed, that was her excuse for not coming along to visit with her Bingley relations. I even gifted her two hundred pounds to use in redecorating the place." Charles slumped back into his chair and rubbed his face vigorously as if hoping to wake from a dream.
Elizabeth could not suppress her curiosity. "So she was still at your house when you returned from Yorkshire?"
Jane pinched her lips in a tight line while Charles threw his hands up in frustration. "Oh, she wasn't in the house--off at some party." He humphed. "When Mrs. Barton suggested that we ask Caroline's new maid about Jane's sapphires, naturally we were confused. What had happened to her old abigail, and how could she afford a French maid? And, of course, we were disappointed that she was not moved out. So, Mademoiselle Monique was summoned, in addition to Caroline's lady's maid."
Lizzy couldn't help but gasp. "You mean…"
Jane nodded. "Yes. She didn't hire a companion, but a new French maid."
Charles nodded and rolling his eyes. "Oh, but that was just the beginning. Monique informed us that she believed her mistress did have sapphires among her jewels. So, we went up to Caroline's suite. First, mind you, there was absolutely no evidence that she had begun packing. Then, we found Jane's necklace in Caro's vanity, along with some other jewelry that she had not yet noticed were missing."
"And my dresses," added Jane dolefully. At her sister's questioning look, she explained, "Do you remember that blue silk evening gown I ordered, to go with Charles' sapphires? Well, that and a few other dresses I'd ordered hadn't been finished before we left for Yorkshire, so I asked that they be delivered to the Waverley Street house when they were completed. Oh Lizzy… Caroline had her seamstress take them in--you know she has quite a different figure than I, so they can never be remade. And she added all sorts of lace and… Oh Lizzy, she had orange feathers embroidered on my beautiful blue ball gown." A few tears leaked out of Jane's eyes at the memory.
Darcy turned to his brother-in-law and demanded, "So what has been done? Have you confronted her?"
Jane gave a weak laugh even as Charles replied, "Oh yes. We had quite the row last night when she returned to the house. At first she was furious that I had reclaimed Jane's jewels--apparently Caro was planning to wear the sapphires with Jane's gown to some ball tomorrow. When we tried to discuss it with her, she acted as though she had done nothing wrong. Actually, she accused us of misinterpreting her own actions… she honestly believes that we were in the wrong."
Bingley sighed before continuing; just remembering the argument made him tired. "Somehow, in her warped logic, she had decided that I couldn't possibly intend for her to move out of the townhouse, and thus the funds I'd left for setting up her household could be used to buy herself a splendid new wardrobe for the Season. My dear sister has been swanning about enjoying herself… Oh, and did I mention that she has been using invitations addressed to Jane and myself?"
By this point, both Bingleys were slouched back on the sofa, quite exhausted and staring rather vacantly into space. The Darcys looked to each other; Lizzy shook her head in disbelief while William smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
Thinking quickly, Elizabeth checked her watch and, seeing that it was nearing seven, turned to the other couple. "Well, it seems to me that what the two of you need is a good meal--Mrs. Davies has promised a roast and apple tart, among other delicacies--and then, if you wish, perhaps the four of us can put our minds together and form a plan?"
Charles cocked his head and showed the first hint of pleasure all day. "Mrs. Davies' apple tart?" Finally laughing, the four good friends made their way to the family dining room.
Conversation was light and easy as they worked their way through a satisfying Sunday dinner. The Bingleys described their trip and the Darcys shared bits of news. When the famed apple tart was served, Elizabeth brought up the engagement of Mary to Mr. Tucker.
"Did you receive the invitation for our dinner party Monday? It would give you a chance to see the Gardiners, as well as get to know Mr. Tucker better. Do say you can come," pleaded Lizzy.
Jane looked to her husband and Charles nodded slightly. "It sounds lovely, Lizzy. I didn't see the invitation, but there's such a lot of correspondence piled up, and what with the other things going on, I haven't had much of a chance to go through it carefully."
Conversation continued until every last crumb of the apple tart was quite gone. The gentlemen declined to separate from their ladies so all four moved to the drawing room, where William provided the ladies with glasses of wine, while pouring port for Charles and himself. There was a moment of silence as everyone settled and appreciated their first sip.
Elizabeth spoke first. "Well! So what is to be the plan of attack for Operation Caroline?"
"Oh Lizzy… for everything she's done, I don't want to attack her," remonstrated Jane, although she could not help smiling a little.
"Very well, Jane. Even after what she did to your blue gown?" Lizzy smirked and her sister's expression showed a bit more fire. It had been a lovely gown, after all. Lizzy continued, "Perhaps an 'evacuation plan' would be more appropriate to the situation?"
They all smiled and agreed.
Darcy began with a practical question; "Exactly how much has she spent? Can she still be moved into the apartments without you providing more capital?"
Charles responded thoughtfully, "I checked with my secretary on that. Between her purchases and hiring Monique, she spent nearly all the 200 pounds I gifted her to set up her household. Luckily, I had arranged with the banker for Caro to have access to only the interest of her inheritance until she turns thirty or marries. Thanks to your advice," he nodded to Darcy, "I arranged for the apartments to be on an annual lease, paid directly out of her account. When she comes into her full inheritance, she has first option to buy them outright."
"So, in essence, the rent has been paid, but she has spent out her decorating fund without doing anything to make the apartments livable," queried Darcy.
Elizabeth had been thinking carefully. "It seems to me that Caroline is acting like a spoiled child who does not believe it when her parents tell her 'no', if you will forgive the analogy."
Jane turned to her eagerly. "Yes Lizzy, that's it exactly. Louisa told me some stories of their childhood when we were discussing the situation in February."
Charles sighed. "Yes, I might have been the younger sibling but, because I was a boy, I was disciplined. Caro was a beautiful baby, and then a beautiful little girl. She was coddled by everyone and smart enough to learn quickly how to manipulate us all."
"Well, it is late, but perhaps it is time for Caroline to learn that 'no' means 'no,'" suggested Elizabeth. "Has she spent out her own allowance for this quarter--the interest from her inheritance, I mean?" When Charles shook his head, she continued;" Would it be possible to pay all of these new expenses she has accumulated from her allowance instead of the household fund you set up?"
Charles looked to Darcy who nodded, understanding what his wife was thinking. "Certainly. It should simply be a matter of transferring money between the accounts."
Getting into the spirit of the plan, Jane added. "I noticed that she had several new porcelain figurines--she collects them, you know. It should be possible to return them. I understand they are worth quite a lot."
Charles nodded in agreement.
"Very good," Elizabeth continued, thinking through the situation. "What state is the apartment in? How much work actually needs to be done?"
Jane answered with a bit of excitement showing in her eyes. "Actually, the rooms are quite lovely. The lady who owned them was a widow--she lived there with an aunt for three years before marrying again. I thought the colors were delightful, but Caroline seemed to think them bland." She caught her sister's eye and they couldn't help but giggle. Caroline's vibrant color choices had become a running joke between the sisters.
"Well, she has had her chance to redecorate before moving in, so now she will simply learn to live with it," declared Lizzy decisively. "What of the furnishings? Drapes and such?"
Charles handled this question. "Mrs. Macintyre left all the window dressings and some furniture that she hadn't need for in her new house. They are in quite good condition, for all that my sister proclaimed that they were of inferior quality and would have to be replaced." He rolled his eyes.
"Are you allowing her to take any furniture at your house?" asked Lizzy.
Charles sighed and looked to Jane, who nodded. "Yes. In truth, the style she has decorated her rooms in is quite… different… from our own taste. I don't know what we would do with the furniture if she left it."
Lizzy smiled and tried not to imagine what sort of style was so extreme that even the normally placid Binglys could not live with it. "Very good. Why don't Jane and I visit the apartments tomorrow with a few of our brawnier footmen and maid or two. We will see that the place is clean and furniture arranged. Caroline can change it later, as she wishes. I'd suggest that we empty the main bedroom, dressing room, and sitting room and move the furnishings from her current suite in their entirety. It might be comforting to her for the rooms to be familiarly furnished."
Jane and Charles were nodding and showing more enthusiasm than either had felt in hours.
Darcy added his own thoughts. "That is an excellent plan, and I suggest you set an official moving day--perhaps a week from yesterday? And inform Miss Bingley--do not give her any option of objecting. The other issue is personnel. She cannot, of course, move into the apartment alone and maintain her respectability."
Charles replied immediately, "There were several excellent women who answered my advertisement for a companion. Caroline was to select one while we were gone, but our housekeeper said that she met with none of the appointments."
Jane's resolve was strengthening. "Charles, if you will give me the details, I could contact them and arrange for interviews. Louisa will return tomorrow, so I will see if she could be there. Lizzy--would you help me if she cannot?"
"Yes, of course. Although our Aunt Gardiner might be more helpful; She has more experience hiring senior servants, particularly after the nurses and governess for the children."
Darcy said thoughtfully. "Actually, I would suggest that Charles and Mrs. Hurst conduct the interviews. Miss Bingley has shown a great deal of spite towards the Bennets and" --here he smiled--"former Bennets. I suspect that any choice of yours would be rejected by her, and she is perfectly capable of making the poor woman's life a misery even if you make certain that her wages are paid. Also, what is to be done with the new maid?"
"You are right there, Darce." Charles looked to his wife. "Jane? If you will schedule the interviews for Tuesday, I will send an express to Louisa asking them to return in time. It is not as it should be, but I hope that Caroline has at least a small amount of respect for her own siblings. To be honest, I fear that if you and Lizzy were to be seen handling the arrangements, Caro might vent her spleen by spreading more unpleasant gossip about you."
The others considered the false rumours that Miss Bingley had already started and silently agreed. After a moment, Charles continued; "I'm not certain what to do about the new maid. I suppose we shall have to talk to her and Caroline's abigail, explain the situation, and inquire as to their preferences."
Jane spoke up thoughtfully; "Actually, I suspect that Monique would not be displeased to have an easy reason to look for another situation. When we spoke yesterday, she hinted to me that if I were interested, she would be willing to leave Caroline. She seems excellent, but I am quite happy with Marie."
Lizzy turned to her husband. "Perhaps we should ask Georgiana if she would wish to interview her? Penny's arthritis is getting worse, and Georgie should really have a proper ladies' maid with her debut. We were talking and she said that Penny started to put her hair in braids the other day. Georgie doesn't want to complain, but she asked if I could help with some more 'womanly' coifs."
Amid the chuckles and smiles, Darcy agreed. "If Georgie is pleased with her, that would be an excellent solution. We could tell Penny that we are promoting her to supervise the other ladies maids for now, and use the opportunity to lay out her pension and retirement options." He smiled. "Penny has looked after Georgie for nearly two decades, after all, so she may wish for a break from the Darcys!"
Smiling, Elizabeth turned back to the Bingley's. I shall talk to Georgiana tomorrow morning and send word immediately with her response."
Charles grinned back with pleasure at a plan well formed. "Capital! We shall discuss the situation with Monique and, if she agrees, we shall arrange to have Miss Darcy interview her."
The couples discussed a few remaining details, but it was not long before the Bingleys stood to depart. As the Darcys accompanied them to the door, Jane turned to hug her sister and brother-in-law. "I can't thank you enough. We were at our wits' end."
Charles added, "And now we have an Evacuation Plan! Thank you both. We shall be in touch-- with updates!"
"And none of this shall affect our attendance at your dinner party, Monday." Jane smiled hopefully; "With any luck, it shall be over by then!"
Once the Bingley's were safely in their carriage and headed for home, Elizabeth turned and threaded her hand through her husband's arm. As they walked toward the stairs, she rested her head on his shoulder. "Have I ever thanked you for having such a sane sister?"
Darcy's deep laugh warmed them both. "No, but it was the least I could do given that I also brought Ashbourne into the family." Lord Edward Fitzwilliam had been behaving in an increasingly scandalous manner that spring.
"Hmmm… yes. I suppose he quite balances out Mama and Lydia."
Reaching their suite, Darcy held the door before following his wife into their private sitting room. "Elizabeth, before I forget, something occurred to me." His wife shot him an inquiring look at his serious tone. "Given what Charles said about Miss Bingley going through his mail and using the invitations… I believe it would be wise for us to speak to Mrs. Wilkins and Mr. Holmes, to put them on their guard for the ball."
Elizabeth looked at her husband with wide eyes. "Oh my, yes. I can just see Caroline flouncing in as if she owned the place and doing everything she can to cause trouble! I shall speak to them tomorrow. They both know Caroline, correct?"
William made a sound that was half groan, half laugh, before dropping his coat on a chair and leaning back against it. As he began loosening his cravat, he elaborated, "Oh yes, they know her. Probably better than you or I. She used to call on Georgiana regularly, except that her visits were thinly disguised excuses to ingratiate herself into my household. Of course, her approach was to order the servants around and act the mistress presumptive. I should think that all the staff shall be more than pleased to help ensure Caroline Bingley does not crash our party."
Lizzy nodded in satisfaction, but was more interested in the sight of her husband's bare neck being revealed by the untied cravat. Moving to him, she slipped her hands under his shirt, prompting a deep kiss and the loss of most of her hairpins. All thoughts of Caroline Bingley were forgotten as they removed to their bedchamber and dismissed the servants for the night.Continued In Next Section