Story I – An Uninterrupted Visit
Posted on 2009-07-08
Summary: In this Pride & Prejudice variation, Lydia does not go to Brighton.
Elizabeth had been disappointed a good deal in not finding a letter from Jane on their first arrival at Lambton. This disappointment had been renewed on each of the following mornings that had now been spent there, but on the third, her repining was over, and her sister justified with the receipt of two letters from her at once. One of the letters had been delayed by being delivered elsewhere in error. Elizabeth was not surprised at it, as Jane had written the direction remarkably ill.
They had just been preparing to walk as the letters came in, and her uncle and aunt, leaving her to enjoy them in quiet, set off by themselves. The one misdirected must be first attended to, since it had been written five days ago. The beginning contained an account of all their little parties and engagements, with such news as the country afforded, but the latter half, which was dated a day later and written in evident agitation, gave more important intelligence.
"…Since writing the above, dearest Lizzy, something has occurred of a most unexpected and serious nature; but I am afraid of alarming you--"
Mr. Darcy appeared at that moment, announced by the maid. Elizabeth looked up in surprise, her fist jammed against her mouth.
Her pale face and impetuous manner made Darcy start, and before he could recover himself enough to speak sensibly, he exclaimed with more feeling than civility, "Good God! What is the matter?" Then, recollecting himself, he continued. "Let me call your maid. Is there nothing you could take to give you present relief? A glass of wine--shall I get you one? You are very ill."
At that, Elizabeth could no long restrain herself and let out a most unladylike howl of laughter. Darcy, in wretched suspense, could only say mutter his concern and observe her in compassionate silence as tears of mirth rolled her pretty cheeks. After several moments thus engaged, Elizabeth took pity on the poor man.
"I thank you for your concern, Mr. Darcy, but let me assure you that I am quite well. It is only that I have received some surprising news from home."
Darcy sat down with no little relief. "I trust your family is well?"
"They are, I thank you, sir. My aunt and uncle are visiting the church, and everyone at Longbourn is in excellent health. No -- the news is from Brighton. I would not spread gossip, but this is news that I believe in which you would have some interest. It seems Mrs. Forster -- young Harriet Forster, wife of the unfortunate colonel of the ----shire militia -- was caught in a compromising situation with a gentleman of our mutual acquaintance." Elizabeth's eyes danced merrily.
Her companion sat back, considering this disclosure. "Mutual acquaintance? In Brighton? Oh!" Darcy's eyes lit in recognition. "You don't mean to say…?"
Elizabeth laughed again. "It seems Lt. Wickham is under arrest, facing several charges, and his commanding officer is not of a mind to show leniency!" She watched Darcy in expectation of his delightful dimples, which surely would be in evidence given this inducement. However, to her great surprise, Darcy's face fell. He stood and walked to the window, hands behind his back. Elizabeth, taken aback at this behavior, could only sit in intense curiosity. Her conscience began to hurt – had she offended the man with her amusement at the Forsters' expense?
She stood. "Mr. Darcy, I must apologize--"
The gentleman raised his hand. "No, Miss Elizabeth. You have nothing to apologize for. The fault is mine."
Elizabeth was flabbergasted. "You, sir?" she exclaimed.
Darcy kept his face to the window. "Yes. If only I had revealed Wickham's true character to the world, this sad turn of events would not have happened."
"Mr. Darcy, you take too much upon yourself!" The gentleman turned to her as she continued. "I think the proper place for blame must reside with the parties involved!"
"But…I knew of Wickham's ways--"
"Indeed you did, and I thank you most heartily that you trusted me with that information. Because you put your trust in me, I was able to convince my father not to allow my sister, Lydia, to accompany the Fosters to Brighton." At his alarmed look, she added, "Do not fear, Mr. Darcy. I said nothing of…of Ramsgate."
Darcy was silent as Elizabeth began to pace the room. "We both know the kind of man Mr. Wickham is. I have made the acquaintance of Mrs. Forster, and a sillier girl has never been born. She married the colonel for his money and status, so she was easy prey for the first rake to cross her path. Had it not been Mr. Wickham, it would have been someone else. She is a married woman; she must have known what she was about.
"And her husband -- what of him? Taking for his bride a young, foolish child almost half his age! What kind of wife could she be to him?" She glanced at her companion, only to see him hide a grin. A picture of Harriet Foster's pretty face and well-formed figure came into her innocent mind, and in a flash, Elizabeth knew exactly what had attracted the colonel. Realization of what she had said mortified her, and she blushed red.
Darcy crossed to her. "Do not distress yourself, Miss Elizabeth. I comprehend your meaning."
Elizabeth hid her face in her hands. "Oh, what must you think of me?"
Speaking very low, Darcy responded, "Of all people, you know most certainly what I think of you, and your defense of my actions – or inactions – have only increased those feelings."
Elizabeth was confused. Before coming to Pemberley, she was certain that Darcy despised her for her stupid and intemperate words in Kent. But the gentleman's kind and open friendliness to her and her relations at Pemberley and Lambton had given rise to improbable hopes. Might he still love her? What did his words mean? She looked at him, the question plainly in her eyes.
Darcy seemed suddenly to realize that they were alone in a closed room. "Miss Bennet, might I tempt you to a stroll about the gardens of the inn until your relations return?" Elizabeth agreed to the scheme, and upon notifying the maid, the pair set off directly. When they reached their destination, Darcy offered his arm to the lady, who demurely took it.
Walking beside a rosebush, Elizabeth said, "You have been very kind to my aunt and uncle, sir."
"Say nothing of that. While I enjoy meeting such excellent people as Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, my first thought was to take to heart a hard lesson taught to me by a very kind lady and take the trouble of practicing more the art of gentlemanly behavior."
"Oh!" she cried, "pray do not repeat what I then said. I assure you that I have long been most heartily ashamed of it."
Darcy looked at her with a small, ironic smile. "What did you say of me that I did not deserve? For, though your accusations were ill-founded, formed on mistaken premises, my behavior to you at the time merited the severest reproof. It was unpardonable. I cannot think of it without abhorrence."
"We will not quarrel for the greater share of blame annexed to that evening," said Elizabeth, shaking her head. "The conduct of neither of us, if strictly examined, would be irreproachable. But since then, we have both, I hope, improved in civility."
"For you, I will make no such claim. You have always treated me in a manner that I most richly deserve, a service for which I thank you. But I cannot be so easily reconciled to myself. The recollection of what I then said -- of my conduct, my manners, my expressions during the whole of it -- is now, and has been many months, inexpressibly painful to me. Your reproof, so well applied! I shall never forget: 'Had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner.' Those were your words. You know not, you can scarcely conceive, how they have tortured me, though, it was some time, I confess, before I was reasonable enough to allow their justice."
"I was certainly very far from expecting them to make so strong an impression. I had not the smallest idea of their being ever felt in such a way."
"I can easily believe it. You thought me then devoid of every proper feeling. I am sure you did."
"Had anyone had such thoughts in the past," she prevaricated, "please know that they would be completed overthrown by any causal study of your character. I can assure you that for many months, I have considered you one of the most admirable men of my acquaintance." Elizabeth stopped. She had not planned to go so far, but after a moment, she added, "Sir, you really should learn some of my philosophy. Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure."
She chanced a look at her companion and saw that her words had left their mark. His dark eyes burned in a manner she had seen before in Hertfordshire and Kent. Then, she thought he only looked upon her to find fault. Now she knew better. A frisson of nervousness, anticipation, and trepidation flowed through her body.
"I cannot give you credit for any philosophy of the kind. Your retrospections must be so totally void of reproach, that the contentment arising from them is not of philosophy, but, what is much better, of ignorance. But with me, it is not so. Painful recollections will intrude, which cannot, which ought not, to be repelled. I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child, I was taught what was right; but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately, an only son (for many years an only child), I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves (my father particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable), allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing -- to care for none beyond my own family circle, to think meanly of all the rest of the world, to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, from eight to eight-and-twenty; and such I might still have been but for you!"
Elizabeth thought she would faint.
"What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you I was properly humbled. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased."
The couple stopped, and in a low earnest tone, Mr. Darcy said, "You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged; but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever."
"But," he continued, "if you would give me one more, underserved chance, I swear you will not be sorry for it. Allow me to court you--properly, openly, as you deserve."
Elizabeth had not known how much she wanted Mr. Darcy to renew his addresses until she heard his words. She knew that there was no man on earth that so suited her, in manner and disposition! If anyone could make her happy, it was he, and she was sure she brought some small level of joy into his life--
Jane! Her mind screamed that one issue unresolved between them. Darcy seemed to see the confusion on her face, for he spoke again.
"You are uncertain. I am sorry to declare myself so forcefully, when you are unprepared. Forgive my selfishness--"
"No, Mr. Darcy! I…I must admit I receive the assurances of your continued regard with nothing but pleasure, but we must have some conversation before I answer you."
"Of course, of course! Shall we sit down?" A bench suited their purposes, one that offered some privacy, but was not too hidden to cause scandal.
Elizabeth could not look at her suitor. "Mr. Darcy, there are two issues I must raise with you. One is the matter of my sister and your friend."
"I expected this conversation. I had already decided to speak to Bingley as soon as practical about returning to Netherfield, where, I hope, he may judge for himself the level of your sister's attachment." At Elizabeth's perplexed look, he said, "I am done with match-making and match-breaking. As I said before, disguise of any sort is my abhorrence. You see how it has ill-served me. Bingley must see to himself. Should Miss Bennet return his affections, I will confess all to him."
"You are very good, sir." Elizabeth then smiled impishly. "Of course, Mr. Bingley's return to Hertfordshire suits your purposes, if you intend to carry out your courtship of a certain lady there!"
At first, Elizabeth thought she had gone too far, as Darcy's face blushed. But he saw the twinkle in her eye and barked out a relived laugh. "I suppose you are correct, as always, Miss Elizabeth!" Lizzy's heart beat wildly at the sight of his dimples. Heavens! Had he smiled like that at Netherfield, how things might be different! "But, now for your second question."
"Sir," she hesitated. This argument was far weaker than it had been only minutes before. How was it that Darcy could so overthrow her thoughts? "Sir, please know I do receive your assurances with pleasure--a great deal of pleasure. However, my character demands that I be open with you. You should know that while there has been a warming of my regard, I cannot say my feelings are equal to yours."
Darcy sighed. "I could not hope that they were. Thus, my intention to court you. To give you time to know me and allow me the opportunity to convince you to accept me."
"You are not concerned?"
"Elizabeth, I have loved you for a very long time. I can be patient if I have hope."
Elizabeth's heart turned over at Darcy's use of her name; his voice was a caress. She knew she must answer him, but her innate fear of totally surrendering to him was hard to overcome.
"Your name is Fitzwilliam, I believe?" She hoped her answer would serve for now. It did--his dimples made their reappearance as he nodded. "Fitzwilliam, you may speak to my father."
"And your uncle here in Lambton?"
Elizabeth laughed. "I see you are most determined!"
Darcy took her hand. "Have you just realized that? Do you not know I will do whatever I must? Are you uncertain of me?"
"No," she breathed. "It is just…that this...is all so new to me."
"For me, as well." He kissed her hand. "Elizabeth?"
"May I seal our agreement with a kiss?"
Elizabeth grew lightheaded, but she managed to say, "I believe, Fitzwilliam, it is a requirement."
As his lips approached hers, he whispered, "I believe you are right again, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth!"The End
Posted on 2009-07-12
Summary: In this Pride & Prejudice variation, things are not what they seem, especially in Ramsgate.
Fitzwilliam Darcy, an erstwhile knight errant, walked the evening streets of a most disreputable section of London, looking for a particular boarding house. With him were two burley footmen, for once not dressed in Darcy livery. At a corner, he checked the slip of paper in his hand again. The few words scribbled upon it in Mrs. Younge's crabbed hand had cost him a gold sovereign. Satisfied that the directions were complete, he waved his men on. The three entered a run-down public house and strode directly to the barkeep.
"My man," Darcy said without preamble, "I am looking for George Wickham. He should be with a young woman. I have reason to know that he is here. Which room is he in?"
The man, wiping a glass with a filthy towel, scowled at the well-dressed gentleman. "Be your name Darcy, guv'nor?"
Darcy hid his astonishment at being recognized. "I am Mr. Darcy," he replied in a frosty tone.
The barkeep returned to his task. "Room six, at the top o' th'stairs."
Darcy placed a shilling on the bar and the small group ascended the stairs. Darcy quickly found the room and rapped on it with the head of his cane--a cane that concealed a thin sword.
"Wickham! Wickham! Open up, I say!"
The two footmen crowded close to the door as they heard noises from within. Suddenly, the door opened.
"Darcy! You finally got here!" cried George Wickham.
Having ordered his footmen to stand guard outside, Darcy entered the small room at Wickham's invitation. Stepping over an empty wine bottle and some discarded clothing, Darcy eased himself into the rather rickety chair. "All right, Wickham," he began, "I will not mince words. I have come for Miss Lydia Bennet. Produce her immediately."
"Here--who are you to order me about?" Wickham cried. "My wife is no concern of yours."
"Wickham, I warn you--I beg your pardon? Did you say wife?"
"You are married?"
"To Miss Lydia Bennet?"
Wickham grinned. "I'll say!"
Darcy thought for a moment, then scowled. "It cannot be a real wedding. You had not the time for the bans to be read or to go to Scotland, and you don't have the money to purchase a special license!"
Wickham looked abashed. "Well…that's true. But it's not because of lack of trying! Lydia's my wife, and there's an end to it!"
"What did you do?"
"You see, there's this gent I know near the Thames. Captain of a riverboat…"
"Wickham! A riverboat captain cannot perform a marriage!"
"Why not? A ship's captain can! We rowed right offshore--did it right. Damn near capsized, we did!"
Darcy put a hand to his face. "Wickham, it is not the same."
"Well, maybe not in a strictly legal parlance--"
"That is the only parlance that counts!"
"Well, what else could we do? Denny took all my money!"
"I really was trying to do things right this time, Darcy. No more drinkin' or gamblin. I was saving my money so's we could get married, proper-like."
"Wickham, why are you speaking in that Cockney manner? You are not an East Ender, you're from Derbyshire."
"Oh! Ha! I suppose I have been around the docks too much lately. You know my ear for accents. I will attempt to refrain from offending your sensibilities, Darcy. To continue, Denny found out and threatened to write to Mr. Bennet. I had to pay him off."
Darcy shook his head in confusion. "Perhaps you should start at the beginning."
"Very well. You see, Lydia and I…"
"Hold on, Wickham. Where is Miss Lydia?"
"That's Mrs. Wickham to you, sir!"
Wickham sighed. "She out delivering hats to a shop a couple of streets away."
"Bonnets, actually. She's very good, and we need the money. She should be back within the hour."
"Are you saying Miss L… urr, she's making bonnets for sale?"
"Yes. The first ones she made were old ones fixed up with scraps of cloth from an old dress. We took the money from them to buy more cheap plain bonnets and cloth."
"Our inventory and raw materials are in the closet there. Care for a look?"
"That's all right. I believe you."
"It is no trouble. You ought to see this blue pattern we found. Very sharp – it should fetch a pretty penny."
"Wickham, let us get back to the story."
"Oh, very well. I had not been long in Hertfordshire before I found I fancied Miss Lydia Bennet above any other lady of my acquaintance. But me, a poor lieutenant of militia--how could I afford to marry her? There was no way Mr. Bennet would approve. I thought things were hopeless."
"Wait. You liked Miss Lydia? Then how do you explain your attentions to Mary King?"
"That little freckled thing? That was only about the money. But after a while, even her ten thousand was not anywhere near enough for me to put up with her any more. But she was fixated on me, so I had to extract myself."
"How did you do that?"
"Who do you think wrote to her uncle? Worked like a dream."
Darcy grew grim. "I see. Ten thousand was not enough, but thirty thousand--"
Wickham hung his head sheepishly. "Uhh, Darce, it was not quite like that…"
"What do you mean?"
"Really, I had very little to do with all that--"
"Do not lie to me!" Darcy thundered. "You tried to seduce my sister!"
"Darcy, keep your voice down!" Wickham cried. "Do you want to ruin Georgie's reputation?"
"That is fine, coming from you," Darcy responded, but in a quieter voice.
"Darce, you do not understand. That was all Mrs. Younge's idea. And…you are not going to like this…"
"I'm telling the truth…"
"Georgie was in on it."
"WHAT!?" Darcy leapt to his feet, almost overturning the table between them.
"DON'T HIT ME! LET ME EXPLAIN! Sit down, please!"
"I will NOT ALLOW you to defame my sister!"
Wickham was begging. "Just listen to me first! If you do not believe me, you can have the first punch."
Darcy, his face dark, sat back down.
"The whole idea was Mrs. Younge's. She wanted to get her hands on Georgiana's money, and figured I would be the tool to extract it. She convinced Georgie that I was destitute and that the way to get you to give me money was to pretend to run away with me. But what Younge really had in mind was a real marriage. That way she would control Georgie's money through me."
"Wickham, that makes no sense! How would she control the money through you?"
"She was to be my mistress."
Darcy thought about that. "Oh God, you were sleeping with Mrs. Younge?" Wickham nodded guiltily. "So you were going to have both of them?"
This time, Wickham leapt to his feet. "YOU TAKE THAT BACK!"
"You take back that part about Georgie and me! That is just sick!"
"You…you were not after Georgiana?"
"You sick SOB! She is like a sister to me! Ugh!"
"Then…then why did you say that you were?"
"Because it was part of the plan to get some money from you. We did not know until the last moment that Younge had her own game going."
"How can I believe you?"
"Who do you think wrote to you about traveling to Ramsgate?"
"You…you know about that? No one knows about that note!"
"Except the person that wrote it."
"Then…then why was Georgie so upset?"
"You were so angry, and Mrs. Younge proved to be so wicked. Is there any wonder she took the blame onto herself? You are not the only Darcy with an over-developed sense of honor!"
Darcy simply sat there, absorbing all that he had learned. "So, you say you were not trying to seduce Georgie."
"But you were trying to get more money from me."
"Yes…Oh, come on, Darce! I was hungry!"
"That is no excuse."
Wickham shrugged. "Younge was worse."
Darcy sighed. "Let us return to Lydia. Why did you blacken my name in Meryton?"
"Well, I thought that if everybody felt sorry for me, it would ease my way into Meryton society. You must admit you did not do yourself any favors during your time in the neighborhood. If you would have danced with a few of the local girls, you would have been the toast of the village! I would not have had a chance!"
Darcy winced. That was too close for comfort to what Miss Elizabeth had said back in Hunsford.
"So, all the time you were in Meryton, you were pining for Miss Lydia?"
"That's so. But I thought I had no chance. But Providence smiled me when Mrs. Forster invited Lydia to travel to Brighton with us! For a month I courted her, meeting secretly and in public, often right underneath Mrs. Forster's nose. All the while I was trying to raise the funds to be able to ask Mr. Bennet for Lydia. Then everything went wrong."
Wickham nodded. "Yes, he was part of it. But the main difficulty was Mrs. Forster."
"Why? Did she discover you?"
"No. She wanted me for herself."
Darcy groaned, "Oh, good lord!"
Wickham raised his hand helplessly. "I cannot be held responsible for that! Women throw themselves at me. You remember what it was like at university."
"You could have said no."
"Sure, I could," Wickham said dismissively.
Wickham gave his old childhood friend a sideways glance. "Humph. I'll bet you're gay."
Wickham narrowed his eyes. "You are not as upset as I thought you would be--me questioning your sexuality. Are you getting some?"
Darcy started. "Wickham!"
"Sweet on someone, then. Who? Let me think."
"Wickham--" Darcy said dangerously.
"Not that Bingley witch…I know! Miss Elizabeth Bennet!"
"Wickham, stop it!"
"Now it makes sense why you have shown so much interest in the Bennets. I thought there was something there. Good choice, old boy!"
Darcy pounded the table with a fist. "Wickham, I will not stand for you making untoward statements about--what was that?"
"Let me tell you, old chum, when it comes to pleasure, if Miss Elizabeth is anything like her sister, well…let us just say you have a happy life before you!"
Darcy was both offended and intrigued by Wickham's words. Curiosity won out. "I do not understand your meaning."
"Are you sure you're not gay?"
"Damnit Wickham! Tell me what you mean!"
"Darcy, I am no stranger to a woman's bed. But I have NEVER been with anyone like my Lydie!"
"Yes. So many curves where a man might find comfort. Always ready for a romp. A quick learner, and able to come up with some interesting ideas of her own! And that mouth of hers! Good for something other than talking, if you catch my meaning."
"I am…not sure…"
Wickham sat back, disgusted. "Ah, you should have gone to the brothels while at Cambridge, like I told you!"
Darcy got it. "Wickham, you are no gentleman."
"Yes, I'm well aware of that. Fortunately, Lydie's no gentle-lady in the boudoir, thank goodness! I'm in love!"
"In love!" Darcy repeated derisively. Catching Wickham's look, he grew amazed. "Are you in earnest?"
"Yes! I know, I know! I can hardly believe it myself. But it is true. Lydie's a female version of me!"
At that moment, the door to the room opened, and in bounced a short, buxom girl in a dress that had seen better days. "Wicky!" she cried. "Wicky! Guess how much--Mr. Darcy! What a surprise!"
Darcy got to his feet and gave the girl a short bow. "Good evening, Miss Lydia."
She presented her hand with a smile. "No, Mr. Darcy. I am Mrs. Wickham, now! Wicky, have you not told him?"
Wickham gave his bride a discreet peck on the cheek. "I did, my pet, but my old friend did not believe me."
Lydia tried to give Darcy a stern look, but her giggles spoiled her performance. "Dear Wickham and I married almost a fortnight ago, Mr. Darcy. We have the certificate, if you would care to see it."
Darcy gave in to the girl's delusion. "Forgive me, Mrs. Wickham. Your husband indeed gave me details of your…wedding."
"It is too bad you could not be there, but the boat was so small! That is why I could not invite my sisters. Wicky, did you not offer Mr. Darcy any refreshments?" She turned to Darcy. "Forgive us, sir. I will be right back!" To her husband, she said, "Here is the money from the shop, dear."
Wickham laughed as he took the shelf of notes. "Twenty pounds! You're a wonder!"
"There is more where that came from, but we will have to get to work!" Lydia advised him. "I will be just a moment, Mr. Darcy." With that, Lydia went into a back room. Meanwhile, her common-law husband put the money in a lockbox near the table.
"Twenty pounds just for bonnets?" Darcy asked in wonder.
"Hah! You have not priced ladies goods lately, have you?" Wickham smiled. "The secret is good materials and a French name. Chapeau du Mme. Minou – ladies will pay extra for something French, you know."
"'Hats by Miss Pussycat?'"
"You know that, and I know that. But they do not know that, or they do not care!"
A headache was starting just behind Darcy's right eye when Lydia returned with a tray. "Here. It is not much, but I hope you will like it." She put the tray of biscuits on the table. "I will pop down for the tea. Won't be a minute!" She blew a kiss to Wickham and left through the main door.
Wickham grinned. "Try some o' this, old boy!" he said as he handed a biscuit to Darcy. Never had Darcy put something so delicious in his mouth. His obvious pleasure drew a laugh from his companion. "Not bad, eh? Now do you understand? She's wonderful in the kitchen and the bedroom, and she makes more money than she spends! What more can you ask from a wife, eh?"
Darcy cleared his throat. "Intelligent conversation?"
"Overrated in my opinion, especially since Lydie has other talents her tongue is better suited for, like--"
"I really DO NOT need to know, Wickham!" Darcy collected himself. "The point remains that you are not legally married!"
"Yes, I know. But that is where you come in. You can help us--front the cash so we can get a special license. Maybe be a silent investor in Chapeau du Mme. Minou. We certainly can use the capital."
"You expect me to help?"
"Darcy, come on. Help a fellow out. Besides, we will give you part ownership in the business. You will make a tidy profit, you'll see."
"You really think this venture will make enough to support both of you?"
"Well, we hope so. If we can expand the market, we might be able to gross two hundred a month."
Darcy's business mind mulled over the figures. "That is not net. You will need outside income to cover your living expenses. What will you do?"
Wickham sighed. "It is a shame about the militia. I rather fancied the military life. The discipline was good for me, and the red coat really got Lydie's juices going--"
"Too much information, Wickham! All right, here is my offer--I will pay for your special license, get you a commission in the regulars, pay off any debts you have left, and make an investment in the business. I will cover a year's worth of fabrics from Lydia's uncle, Mr. Gardiner. How's that?"
"Splendid! Umm, do you think you can get us in a regiment some distance from Hertfordshire? Mrs. Bennet is a bad influence on Lydia."
I have gone insane, Darcy thought. "I can make no promises. Colonel Fitzwilliam might be able to help."
"Excellent!" Wickham reached into the lockbox and removed a bottle of brandy. "Been saving this for a celebration, and this is as good a reason as any!" He got two rather clean glasses and filled them. Handing one to Darcy, he said, "You know, if you get off your high horse and marry Lizzy, we will finally be brothers! Here's to the Bennet ladies!"
Darcy returned the toast and threw back the drink. "Ow, but that is good stuff!" He leaned forward. "Now, before your wife gets back, what's that about the Bennet girls being talented?"The End
Summary: In this Pride & Prejudice variation, due to illness in the family, the Gardiners do not go on their trip to Derbyshire and the Peaks. Therefore, Elizabeth is home in Hertfordshire.
"Darcy, I am thinking about giving up Netherfield."
Darcy looked up in surprise at his guest. "Indeed, Charles? What makes you consider that now?"
Bingley paced the length of Darcy's Pemberley study. "It is been on my mind these many weeks. Why should I lease a house and property that I do not intend to inhabit? It is not that good an investment. No, I believe I should leave." He glanced at his great friend. "What is your opinion?"
Darcy shifted uncomfortably in his chair as he set down his glass of brandy. Since Kent, he knew he would have to talk to Bingley about what he had learned of Miss Bennet. With Bingley and his sisters at Scarborough these few months, his friend's summer visit to Pemberley with Georgiana was the first opportunity for this conversation -- a dreaded one, he had to admit to himself.
"Bingley," he began cautiously, "as I said before, Netherfield shows great promise, given close and attentive management. The lease was very reasonable, and the price under contract, should you buy the place, is a good one. It is a fine opportunity. I cannot say you will find its like again soon. You should consider this carefully."
"I have thought it over, most constantly. You said it needs my close attention, and you are right. But I…I have no desire to live in Hertfordshire. It would be too painful."
Darcy took a sip of his drink. "I understand, Charles." Better than you think! "But, this is a momentous decision. You should not commit yourself until you can see for yourself that things are beyond repair -- both at the estate and…elsewhere."
"What do you mean?"
Darcy picked his words with great care. "Charles, I too have been thinking of Hertfordshire. I believe I might have been deceived about…certain aspects and opinions of some of the inhabitants. Further study is warranted -- nay, required."
"I fail to understand your meaning."
"It is possible I may have been mistaken about Miss Bennet."
"What?" Bingley stared at him. "Why do you think this?"
The last thing Darcy wanted to do was confess his actions in Hunsford. "Since we last spoke of this matter, I have reflected on my considerations and conclusions. I must admit I am dissatisfied with them and with my advice to you. Some things I spoke of were beneath me." He looked at Bingley with regret. "I apologize. I should never have interfered."
"Do you say you were wrong?"
"I think I might have been, yes."
Bingley just stood, blinking, an action that increased Darcy's unease.
"Charles, I am so very sorry!"
"No, it not that," Bingley said in a voice of wonder. "It is just you have never admitted to being in the wrong to me -- not in all the years I have known you."
Bingley could not know how those words caused pain to his friend. He started to pace again. "So, you think I should return to Netherfield?"
"Yes, to get a proper feel for the 'lay of the land,' as it were."
"I take it we are speaking of more than the estate."
Darcy watched as a glow of excitement grew in his friend's face, only to see it vanish in a trice. "No, it is impossible! I cannot hope. It is unsupportable!"
"No, Darcy. I appreciate your encouragement, but I must be realistic about Miss Bennet." He slumped into an armchair across from Darcy. "She cannot hold me in any particular regard. I must accept that. Else, she would have written to Caroline whist we were in Town." He dropped his face into his hands.
Darcy groaned inwardly. The time had come for a very uncomfortable conversation. He had intended to postpone this discussion until it was certain that not only Miss Elizabeth had been proven correct about her sister's feelings, but that Miss Jane still harbored those sensibilities. But Darcy had reckoned without taking into account Bingley's insecurities. There was only one thing to be done -- a full confession. He took a full breath, steeled himself, and began.
"Charles, you do Miss Bennet an injustice. She did write your sister."
Bingley looked up. "What? She did?" At Darcy's nod, he continued. "How do you know?"
"Caroline told me."
An astonished Bingley gasped. "Caroline received a letter from Miss Bennett, and you all hid it from me?"
"Charles, there is more. Caroline and Mrs. Hurst visited Miss Bennet at her relations in Town --"
"Miss Bennet was in LONDON?"
"-- and waited upon her at Bingley House."
Bingley jumped to his feet. "You…you…oh!" Darcy watched as his best friend wrestled with his emotions.
"Charles, I certainly deserve any name you wish to call me. I seriously doubt it will be something other than I have named myself these last months."
"Really? That remains to be seen!" He stared hard at his host. "Why, Darcy? I thought you my friend!"
"Friendship was my motivation."
"Damning me to misery was an act of friendship?"
"Better than damning you to an unhappy marriage."
"That again!" Bingley paced about the room, muttering curses, still fighting his anger. With a sinking feeling, Darcy knew he was losing his best friend. For several terrible minutes, he watched Bingley prowl the room.
Finally, he turned to Darcy. "Why are you telling me this now? What has changed?"
Time for the final shoe to drop. "When I was last in Kent, I received information that made me question my belief in Miss Bennet's indifference."
"Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
Bingley's jaw dropped. "What did she say?"
Darcy could not stop himself from gulping. "That her sister was unhappy over your departure. I believe the words she used were 'ruined forever the happiness of her sister.' Apparently, Miss Elizabeth learned of my involvement in separating you."
"My God!" Bingley pulled at his hair. "You mean Jane cares?"
"That you must determine for yourself."
"How? How can I do that?"
"By returning to Hertfordshire."
"All this time…eight months! Oh, Darcy! She must think I have abandoned her. She will never forgive me."
"Charles, Charles, listen to me, if but for the last time. If you truly care for Miss Bennet, then your path is clear. You should return to Hertfordshire and judge for yourself the state of Miss Bennet's feelings. If she was sincerely attached, you must do right by her."
"What? You now say I should just barge into Longbourn and propose?"
"No, of course not! But, you must give Miss Bennet the opportunity to see that you will do the honorable thing if she so desires it."
"And if she no longer wants me?"
"Then you must withdraw, taking upon yourself all of the mortification of disappointed hopes as a gentleman should."
Bingley sat back, anger, fear, and uncertainty clear on his face. Darcy sighed and stood. "I am certain you have long desired my absence. I will leave you now. Whatever you decide, I want you to know that I have valued our friendship." Darcy's voice broke. "Goodnight, Charles."
"Wait!" cried Bingley. "Where are you going?"
"I…I thought you wanted privacy."
"No! No, I need you! Or rather, I need two things of you!"
"I am at your disposal, Charles."
"I must send an express to Netherfield -- tonight!"
Darcy's eyebrows rose. "Very well. I will arrange for a rider immediately."
"Good, good. And I need a coach."
Darcy nodded. "If you wish. But I thought you would rather ride."
"Ride?" Bingley looked at his friend in confusion. "You would rather ride all the way to Hertfordshire?"
"I? You want me to accompany you?"
"Good lord, man, of course I do! You got me into this predicament, and you will damn well help me out of it!" He rose and extended his hand. "After all, what are friends for?"
Darcy shook it, and the two men stared at each other. "Charles," Darcy began, "you are too good --"
"Ah, enough of that! We have planning to do! Can you leave at first light?"
"Charles, I do need at least a day to settle my affairs here."
"All right. One day, but not an hour more! My angel awaits!"
An anxious Charles Bingley sat in the comfort of Darcy's coach, watching the green fields of Hertfordshire pass by the window. He glanced at his companion sitting across from him, his nose in a book, perfectly at ease. Not for the first time, Bingley envied Darcy's ability to focus upon the task at hand. He never seemed to be nervous or uncertain. Unlike me, he thought.
Since their confrontation three days ago, Bingley's thoughts had been in a state of extreme flux. While Darcy calmly explained to Georgiana that unexpected business had called the two of them to the south, Bingley had been a nervous wreck. At one moment, he wanted to make for Longbourn with all possible speed. A moment later, he was all but certain that his quest was hopeless. He avoided Caroline as much as he could, for he doubted he could restrain his temper in her presence. Bingley had yet to confront either of his sisters over their deceit, but the day of reckoning had been merely delayed. The extent of his revenge would depend upon the state of Jane Bennet's feelings.
Jane! Her pain -- her feelings -- were the one constant in Bingley's brain. If he could do anything for her happiness, it would be done. If the price of her affection was the tossing off of his relations, Bingley would do it without a moment's hesitation.
As the miles dragged on during their journey, Bingley began to consider how Darcy received his intelligence about Jane. The source was very surprising. Bingley had no idea that Darcy had met Miss Elizabeth in Kent. He was also intently curious to learn how on earth the subject of himself and Jane had ever come up between them, given Miss Elizabeth's barely concealed hostility towards Darcy.
It is a shame, he thought. Darcy showed great interest in Miss Elizabeth. Of course, only one who knows Darcy as well as I do could see his interest. Did Jane I and I discuss the matter? I believe we did. But recalling Miss Elizabeth's attitude towards Darcy, I do not believe she thinks very highly of my friend. I wonder if she did overhear Darcy's ridiculous refusal to dance with her when we first met at that assembly. She did seem to take an immediate dislike of him. So why would she share such information of a personal nature about her sister?
He looked over at Darcy. No help there. Darcy can be as stubborn as a mule when he puts his mind to it. No amount of wheedling with get him to talk. I have tried and tried, but he will not speak of it. Something happened, and he is not at all happy about it.
A signpost came into view. "Darcy! We are almost there," he informed his friend.
The butler met the two gentlemen outside the front door of Netherfield while the groomsmen rushed out to assist the coachman and to care for the horses.
"Welcome back, Mr. Bingley. Welcome, Mr. Darcy. Sir, everything has been arranged as you requested in your message."
"Thank you, Perkins. Any news of the neighborhood?" Bingley inquired off-handily, as he removed his traveling coat.
"No, sir," said the butler, "Meryton is very quiet."
One of the young grooms managing the couch, remarked, "Nothin' new, sir? Nothin' besides the scandal at Longbourn, that is."
"Henry Dunn!" cried Perkins. "For shame!"
Both Bingley and Darcy froze. "What scandal?" Bingley demanded.
The groom looked between the irate butler and agitated master, sighed, and the stepped forward. "Beggin' your pardon, sir, I thought you knew. Why, it's all over Meryton that one of the Bennet girls run off and left her family. Took off with one of them officers from the militia a fortnight ago, it seems. Some say they went to Scotland, but others…well, the whole village is in an uproar."
Bingley was in shock. "Perkins! What do you know about this?"
Perkins flinched at the unlikely show of temper from his employer. "I am afraid the unpleasantness is common knowledge, sir. It is known that Mr. Bennet is in Town, and the rest of the family has withdrawn to Longbourn."
Bingley did not want to ask -- it could not be Jane -- but the words escaped his lips. "Do you know who the gossip is about?"
Henry shook his head. "Not sure, sir," earning a gasp from Darcy, "but I have seen Miss Bennet at the green grocer's just two days ago. Mrs. Goulding gave her the cut direct, right there in the middle of the street! Such a shame how she was treated! And her being such a fine lady."
"Good God! How dare she --!" At that moment, Bingley felt Darcy's hand on his arm, tugging him towards the front door of the house.
"It is to be expected, Charles," he said in a low, angry voice.
"What are we to do?" Bingley asked.
"Every man must do as he must," Darcy growled as he turned to Henry. In a calm voice that would brook no opposition, he said, "You! Prepare a horse for me, this instant."
It took a moment for Bingley to determine Darcy's purpose. "Yes! Two horses, if you please. Hurry, man!"
A half-hour later, the two men rode up the lane to Longbourn. During the ride, neither had spoken, which was just as well for Bingley. He was relieved that Jane was not the Bennet girl involved, but he was angry and concerned for her. He knew that he would do anything to relieve her pain and had vowed to tell her so as soon as her could. A boy, surprise clearly written on his face, came to take the mounts as Bingley and Darcy made for the door. The astonishment was redoubled in the expression of Mrs. Hill, but she showed the gentlemen to the parlor. They waited an agonizing five minutes before Miss Bennet made her appearance.
"Mr. Bingley, Mr. Darcy, welcome to Longbourn," a flustered Jane Bennet said. Bingley could see the circles under her eyes, and his heart ached for her. "Please be seated. I shall send for tea."
"Thank you, Miss Bennet. You are too kind." Jane spoke to Mrs. Hill, then moved to an armchair, and the gentlemen took their seats.
"Thank you for calling on us. I did not know you had returned to Netherfield."
Bingley could see that Jane would not look him in the eye. "We only arrived this afternoon, Miss Bennet, and hurried to pay our respects."
"Oh! Then you…" Jane caught herself, and her expression changed from uncertain delight to despair. "I must thank you, but I am afraid there is some news you do not --"
Bingley cut in. "Miss Bennet, please do not trouble yourself. We have been apprised of your family's misfortune, and we are here to offer our friendship, support, and services." He glanced at the still silent, grave Darcy. "I speak for both of us."
An extraordinary occurrence then took place. Jane Bennet broke down in tears. Before he could stop himself, Bingley was on his knees at her side, holding one of her hands.
"Miss Bennet, please!" he cried with more feeling than politeness. "Let me call your maid. Is there nothing you could take, to give you present relief? A glass of wine -- shall I get you one? You are very ill."
"No, I thank you," said she, her eyes shining wet with tears. "Please accept my apology for my behavior. You are so…so kind. You are too good."
"If I were a good man, I would have never left Netherfield." Bingley could not stop the words that had so filled his heart from flowing from his lips. "You have nothing to apologize for, while I -- I doubt a lifetime will be enough to show my repentance."
"Mr. Bingley?" Jane looked at him in confusion.
Darcy finally roused himself to speak. He crossed over, placed his hand on Bingley's shoulder, and said, "Charles, now is not the time or the place." He turned his eyes to Jane. "Miss Bennet, Bingley and I are eager to offer our services. It would be a kindness if you would allow us to be of use to you at this time."
Bingley moved to a chair next to Jane. He had not released her hand, however. "Whatever you ask of us shall be done."
"I…I do not know what to say. My father is not here, but on his behalf, I thank you with all my heart."
Darcy smiled slightly then became grave again. "Miss Bennet, I would not pain you at this time if I could help it, but we need information if we are to be of assistance. Can you tell us what you know of this matter?"
Jane hesitated, looked closely at Darcy and Bingley, then relaxed. "It cannot be concealed in any case. My youngest sister has left all her friends -- has eloped -- has thrown herself into the power of --"
"Youngest sister?" Darcy asked in a tone that to Bingley's ears sounded almost of relief.
"Yes, sir -- Lydia has eloped with Mr. Wickham."
"Wickham?" Darcy cried in anguish.
"I am afraid so. I do not wonder at your outburst. From what my sister, Elizabeth, has said, you know him too well to doubt the rest. Lydia has no money, no connections, nothing that can tempt him to…to…"
"I understand," said a miserable Darcy.
"We are afraid she is lost forever. Oh! When I consider," she added, in a yet more agitated voice, "that I might have prevented it! I, who was told what he was. Had I but explained some part of it only -- some part of what I learnt -- to my own family! Had his character been known, this could not have happened. But it is all…all too late now."
Darcy reeled as though he had been struck. Bingley took it upon himself to comfort Miss Bennet.
"Now, now, Miss Bennet. I know something of Mr. Wickham's character. From what I have been told, he is a charlatan. Such men are very well-versed in deceiving people. You must not blame yourself."
"Thank you, but I knew of his character! Had I spoken, Lydia never would have gone to Brighton!"
"I am sure you had your reasons for not speaking."
Jane's eyes flew to a distressed Darcy. "I…I did. You are right."
Bingley was curious at the exchange, but set it aside. "So, all this happened in Brighton?"
"Yes. The ----shire militia was moved to Brighton for the summer, and my unfortunate sister was invited as the guest of the colonel and his wife. There, I suppose, Mr. Wickham carried out his…his…"
Seduction, Bingley's mind finished her statement. "I am grieved, indeed. Grieved -- shocked. But is it certain, absolutely certain?'"
"Oh yes! They left Brighton together a fortnight ago and were traced almost to London, but not beyond. They are certainly not gone to Scotland."
Darcy spoke up. "And what has been done, what has been attempted, to recover her?"
"My father is gone to London and has my uncle's assistance. But nothing can be done -- I know very well that nothing can be done. How is such a man to be worked on? How are they even to be discovered? We have not the smallest hope. It is every way horrible!"
Bingley knelt, trying to find something to say. "Your family -- are they bearing up, at all?" He winced at his stupid words.
"My mother is tolerably well, I trust, though her spirits are greatly shaken. She is upstairs and will have great satisfaction in knowing of your visit. She does not yet leave her dressing-room. Mary and Kitty are quite well."
"And Miss Elizabeth, is she well?" Darcy blurted out.
Again, Jane wore an unreadable expression as she answered him. "She is, but a sudden headache keeps her above stairs."
Bingley saw that this intelligence, rather than giving comfort, pained his friend anew. Darcy paced a moment, pale and trembling, before he begged to be excused and quitted the house.
Bingley struggled to apologize for his companion's extraordinary behavior, but Jane placed a hand on his arm, silencing him. "Sir, do not trouble yourself. I am not offended. Indeed, I believe Mr. Darcy is very upset. Please, I cannot say more."
Bingley grew more confused than ever. Knowing he had to see to Darcy, he excused himself, assuring Miss Bennet of his swift return, and went after his friend. He found him near the stable, his horse's bridle in hand.
"Darcy! Surely you are not leaving?"
Darcy would not look Bingley in the eye. "I think I must. Pray give my regards to the Bennets."
"Darcy, this is badly done! It will look as if you are leaving them because of their shame."
Darcy's head jerked up. "No! Never! Believe me, the Bennet family has my highest regard." He flushed and put a hand over his eyes. "I must leave to go to Town. I have business that cannot wait. Please, ask no more."
Bingley made sure the stableman was out of earshot. "I am afraid I cannot oblige you, Darce. What is the nature of this 'business?' You will tell me, or I shall think the less of you."
Darcy stared out into the distance.
"Tell me," Bingley demanded. "You owe me at least this."
Darcy looked hard at him. "You will tell no one. Swear it!"
"I will hear what you say first."
"I go to set things to rights. I must find Wickham."
"You? But how? Do you know where he is?"
"I know his ways, Charles. I can find him. I have done so before."
"Why do you not want anyone to know?"
"It would seem I do this to earn the gratitude of… of the Bennets. I would not have my motivations misunderstood. I am proud to do this for them. I do not desire thanks for doing my duty."
Charles clapped his friend on the shoulder. "Then, I shall join you. We will do it together."
"No. The fault is mine and so must the remedy be. I go alone."
"Your fault? How is this? How are you at fault for something Wickham has done?"
Darcy hung his head. "This is not the first time he has done something like this. If I had exposed his character before the world, none of this would have happened."
Bingley gripped his arm. "That is what Miss Bennet said! What the devil is going on? You will tell me now!"
Darcy shook free. "Bingley, leave off."
"Darcy, if you do not tell me, I will announce your intentions to Miss Bennet."
Darcy was furious with Bingley, but the gentleman stood patiently. He had left his friend with no choice.
"In Kent, I warned Miss Elizabeth about Wickham, but asked that she keep the information to herself. Apparently, she followed my wishes, save for sharing what she knew with her sister, which is perfectly reasonable. Had I not restricted her, surely, the whole family would have been told."
To Bingley, this made little sense. "Darcy, I think you take too much upon yourself. But I know you are intent on your purpose. I will make your excuses, but I do advise you return to Netherfield and leave at first light tomorrow. Surely a few hours will make no difference one way or the other."
"But Miss Lydia --"
"Darcy, must I be blunt?" He whispered, "Do you think Wickham has not had his way with her by now? It has been two weeks."
Bingley heard Darcy grind his teeth. "You are right," he managed in a calm voice. "I will leave tomorrow."
"We will talk more when I return to the house. Agreed?"
Darcy jerked a nod, mounted his horse, and with a short wave, set off for Netherfield. Bingley turned back to the house. On his way back in, he thought he saw a movement in an upstairs window. A moment later, he rejoined Jane in the parlor.
"Miss Bennet, I do not mean to impose myself on you at this time, but I would be happy to take tea with you, if you wish company." As she hesitated, he added, "I have not had the opportunity to talk with you since the twenty-sixth of November, since I was ignorant of your visit to Town."
Jane's eyes grew wide, and Bingley held her attention with his open countenance. "I…I do not understand."
"In short, I was misled. Miss Bennet, believe me, I am very happy to be here."
Jane gasped and turned to the window. Bingley thought he heard her murmur, "Lizzy was right." When she turned again, she had collected herself.
"Mr. Bingley, I am glad you are here for tea. Allow me to inform my sisters of your visit. We all will be happy for the company." She paused. "I, most especially."
Bingley's grin almost split his face.
Jane had a becoming blush on her cheeks as she moved to the doorway. "I will only be a moment, sir."
"I am at my leisure, Miss Bennet."
An hour later, Bingley returned to Netherfield, where true to his word, Darcy awaited him. Bingley ordered a cold supper for two be served in the study. Once the sliced meat, cheese, and bread had been served and the servants had withdrawn, the Master of Netherfield spoke to his guest.
"I must say I had a most enjoyable visit with the Miss Bennets, given the present circumstances. I thank you for obliging me by conveying me to Hertfordshire."
"I am happy to have been of service to you, Charles," Darcy said to his plate.
Bingley said nothing and waited. Finally, Darcy raised his head. "And how are Miss Bennet's sisters? Miss Bennet herself seems well."
"She is, and I shall tell you that I will do what I should have done eight months ago. At the appropriate time, I will make my intentions clear, and if Miss Bennet will have me, then I will consider myself the most fortunate man alive."
Darcy snorted. "Knowing you, that time will not be far off." Darcy chewed a bit of cheese. "I must call myself a fool, Charles. No one with eyes in his head could mistake Miss Bennet's feelings. I hope one day you can forgive my interference."
"Oh, I suppose I have forgiven you already, old boy."
"Thank you, Charles. Now, I believe we were speaking of Miss Bennet's sisters?"
Bingley hid a smile, his suspicions proving to be correct. "Miss Mary and Miss Kitty were very gracious, and Miss Kitty especially happy for the company. They have not had callers, except for their Aunt Philips, for some time." He allowed Darcy to twist in his chair before adding, "Oh, and Miss Elizabeth came to see me off."
Darcy froze, and Bingley knew he had hit his mark. "She is well, Darcy, but like the rest of the family, she feels the weight of their troubles most acutely."
His reaction was far more than Bingley had foreseen. Darcy rose quickly, his chair falling back with a crash, and he strode directly over to the window. Bingley, knowing he had gone too far, hurried to follow, professing his apologies. "Darce -- Darce -- I am sorry! I should not tease you so!"
Darcy did not hear him. "Oh God, what have I done?"
"Darcy, listen to me." Bingley pulled Darcy about by one arm and was taken aback my the despair he saw in his eyes. "Miss Elizabeth asked about you most particularly. She insisted I give you her regards."
"Yes, she did." He paused. "There is much you have not told me about your dealings with Miss Elizabeth. Do you not think it is time you told me of them?"
"You admire her, do you not?"
Darcy was silent for a moment. "I do. But we did not part well in Kent."
"It seems she has forgiven you."
"She cannot…not after this."
"I do not understand. What could have happened that this business with Wickham could affect?"
"We…we misunderstood each other. Wickham was a part of it." He looked at Bingley. "Miss Bennet was part of it, too. Miss Elizabeth knows of my interference."
"Good lord." The absurdity of the situation overcame Bingley, and he could not stop a chuckle. "What did you not talk of? This is a strange manner of courting, Darcy."
"You have no idea, Charles." Darcy turned back to the window. "So, you see that I must set this to rights, but at the same time, I have no hope for myself. It is too much."
"Darcy, you are wrong."
"Maybe, maybe. Time will tell."
"Well, come back and eat, and tell me of your plans." Bingley was able to coax Darcy back to table. After some more prodding, Darcy gave him a brief outline of his intentions.
"This will not be inexpensive, Darcy. Are you sure I cannot help?"
"I will bear the weight of this and no one else."
"And I must stay here," Bingley grumbled. "What good can I do?"
"More than you think. By being a visible presence with the Bennet family, you restore their standing."
"By Jove, you are right!"
"Bingley, take care."
"What! Surely you do not think that --"
"I think that you must be very careful not to act impulsively, but rather thoughtfully. You must do everything in the proper and correct manner."
Bingley sat back, abashed. "Oh, of course." He thought. "I shall write to Mr. Bennet tonight, offering my support and asking his permission to call on his family."
"Much better. I would only request you keep my intentions to yourself."
"I do not comprehend your reasons, but I will do as you say."
"Thank you, Charles."
"I still say you do Miss Elizabeth an injustice. She does not think ill of you."
"Charles, please, do not tempt me! I cannot be that fortunate. Let us enjoy our meal before I retire. Tomorrow will be a long day."
On a mild December day, Elizabeth Bennet sat on a large stone and tried to force her anxious mind to be soothed by her favorite sight, the view from Oakham Mount. But it was all for naught, for he was coming today.
Oh, how she dreaded and longed for this meeting! Not since Hunsford had she laid eyes on him.
No, that is not so. I saw him outside Longbourn and was too cowardly to greet him as I should. Oh, what does he think of me?
Every word, every movement, every emotion of that ill-fated interview in the Collins' parlor Elizabeth could recall with perfect clarity. His horrible and wonderful letter she knew by heart. The day she discovered the colossal extent of his deeds in service to her family would be forever etched in her mind. The moment that she realized that she loved him -- that he was the only man in the world that could make her happy -- was the most delightful and heart-wrenching of her life.
Oh, where can he be?
For almost four months she had wrestled with the meaning of Darcy's actions. Her heart said he had done it for her. Her mind screamed that it was impossible. She, however, could produce no other motivation, and yet…and yet... Wickham and Lydia had been in the north county since Michaelmas, and now Christmas was nigh…and yet…he had not come.
If, in spite of everything, he still loves me, why does he stay away?
Now, with Bingley and Jane's wedding in a week's time, Darcy was coming to Netherfield with his sister and cousin to stand up with his friend.
Does he only come to honor his friend? Does he feel nothing for me? Is the thought of my family's permanent attachment to the name Wickham so abhorrent to him? Of course, it must be! For his poor sister's sake he had put all tender feeling aside. And what could I expect, after my hateful words in Kent?
Yet, he comes to Herefordshire now and brings his sister. He could have stayed away. Oh, what is he thinking even now?
Teasing, teasing man! I shall think of him no more!
Resolved for the final time to dismiss the Master of Pemberley, Elizabeth gathered up her bonnet, stood and straightened her spenser, turned -- and gasped.
"Good afternoon, Miss Bennet." The tall, serious man bowed to her.
"Mr. Darcy! You quite startled me!"
"My apologies. I had not known my horse to be so quiet."
Elizabeth remembered her manners and made her curtsy. "It would do well to have it make more noise, sir, unless it is your intent to frighten young ladies!" Her eyebrow rose. "I cannot see how that would suit your purpose, unless perhaps you have turned highwayman?"
A sudden smile broke out on his grave continence. "Have you never heard of Darcy the Dastardly?" he asked with a sweeping bow.
Elizabeth giggled, her hands over her mouth, delighted and surprised at the gentleman's teasing. "So that is the source of your ten thousand a year, sir?"
He put his hand to his forehead. "Alas, I am discovered! I have no secrets from you, Miss Elizabeth."
Elizabeth blushed. "You are very welcome to Hertfordshire, Mr. Darcy. Is your sister with you?"
"She is resting at Netherfield. I hurried to pay my respects to your family."
Elizabeth experienced a not unpleasant rolling of her insides. "And the shortest route from Netherfield to Longbourn was by way of Oakham Mount?"
Darcy grinned. "Your sister, Miss Bennet, was good enough to let me know your destination."
The knowledge that he had been looking for her was very pleasing, yet it would not do to smile too much, until she knew his feelings.
"This is a beautiful sight," he said.
"Yes, I enjoy it very much, but I should return home."
"May I accompany you?" He extended his arm.
"Of course, but your horse?"
"He is a good-natured beast. The rein is long enough that he may follow without disturbing us, I think." Taking his arm, Elizabeth and Darcy set off for Longbourn.
They had only gone a short distance in companionate silence before Elizabeth said, "Mr. Darcy, I am a very selfish creature, and for the sake of giving relief to my own feelings, care not how much I may wound yours. I can no longer delay thanking you for your unexampled kindness to my poor sister. Ever since I have known it, I have been most anxious to acknowledge to you how gratefully I feel it. Were it known to the rest of my family, I should not have merely my own gratitude to express."
"I am sorry, exceedingly sorry," replied Darcy, in a tone of surprise and emotion, "that you have ever been informed of what may, in a mistaken light, have given you uneasiness. I did not think Bingley was so little to be trusted."
"You must not blame your friend. Lydia's thoughtlessness first betrayed to me that you had been concerned in the matter, and of course, I could not rest until I knew the particulars from my aunt and Mr. Bingley." She smiled. "Of course, the first person to betray you was yourself."
Darcy turned to her, astonished.
"I saw you from my window when last you were at Longbourn, having an intense conversation with Mr. Bingley. When I finally came down to talk to him, he said, 'Miss Elizabeth, Darcy sends his regards. Do not trouble yourself over this matter. We will stand by you, both Darcy and myself, and will do whatever we can in service for your family.' So you see, I was not as surprised as you might imagine when Lydia let it be known you were at her wedding!" She turned to him. "Let me thank you again and again, in the name of all my family, for that generous compassion which induced you to take so much trouble and bear so many mortifications for the sake of discovering them."
"If you will thank me," he replied, "let it be for yourself alone. That the wish of giving happiness to you might add force to the other inducements which led me on, I shall not attempt to deny. But your family owes me nothing. Much as I respect them, I believe I thought only of you."
Elizabeth was too much embarrassed to say a word. After a short pause, her companion added, "You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject forever."
Elizabeth, feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances.
The happiness which this reply produced was such as Darcy had never felt before, and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do. Had Elizabeth been able to encounter his eyes, she might have seen how well the expression of heartfelt delight diffused over his face became him. Though she could not look, she could listen, and he told her of feelings which, in proving of what importance she was to him, made his affection every moment more valuable.
They walked on, without knowing in what direction. There was too much to be thought and felt and said for attention to any other objects. She soon learnt that they were indebted for their present good understanding to the efforts of her sister, Jane, of all people. To Elizabeth's astonishment, it happened that Bingley and Jane had been in a conspiracy to bring their friends together.
Jane had enclosed a note to Darcy, secreted in Bingley's invitation to stand up with him. The note explained that Elizabeth's spirits had been very low since the spring and that Jane had learned the cause was the absence of a certain gentleman from Derbyshire, whom Elizabeth had once despised but now felt altogether differently, even before the events arising from Brighton. His return to Hertfordshire was earnestly requested.
"It taught me to hope," said he, "as I had scarcely ever allowed myself to hope before. I knew enough of your disposition to be certain, that had you been absolutely, irrevocably decided against me, you would have acknowledged it to your sister, frankly and openly."
Elizabeth colored and laughed as she replied, "Yes, you know enough of my frankness to believe me capable of that. After abusing you so abominably to your face, I could have no scruple in abusing you to all my relations."
"What did you say of me that I did not deserve? For, though your accusations were ill-founded, formed on mistaken premises, my behavior to you at the time had merited the severest reproof. It was unpardonable. I cannot think of it without abhorrence."
"We will not quarrel for the greater share of blame annexed to that evening," said Elizabeth. "The conduct of neither, if strictly examined, will be irreproachable. But since then we have both, I hope, improved in civility."
The two spoke of many things -- their interactions in Kent, how they both learned from them, how grief and bitterness soon turned to more positive feelings, how both endeavored to improve. Elizabeth's spirits soon rising to playfulness again, she wanted Mr. Darcy to account for having ever fallen in love with her.
"How could you begin?" said she. "I can comprehend going on charmingly when you had once made a beginning, but what could set you off in the first place?"
"I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun."
"My beauty you had early withstood, and as for my manners -- my behavior to you was at least always bordering on the uncivil, and I never spoke to you without rather wishing to give you pain than not. Now, be sincere, did you admire me for my impertinence?"
"For the liveliness of your mind, I did."
"You may as well call it impertinence at once. It was very little less. The fact is that you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention. You were disgusted with the women who always spoke and looked and thought for your approbation alone. I roused and interested you, because I was so unlike them. Had you not been amiable, you would have hated me for it, but in spite of the pains you took to disguise yourself, your feelings were always noble and just, and in your heart, you thoroughly despised the persons who so assiduously courted you. There, I have saved you the trouble of accounting for it, and all things considered, I begin to think it perfectly reasonable. To be sure, you knew no actual good of me -- but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love."
Darcy stopped upon that word dropping from Elizabeth's lips. "Dearest, loveliest Elizabeth, may I kiss you?"
She could say nothing, but raised her chin as she closed her eyes. She felt the pressure of his mouth on hers -- so light, so sweet -- she wished it would never end.
"How…lovely," she whispered after he drew away.
He ran a finger along her jaw. "To hear that you love me -- I cannot say what joy that brings to me, my dearest!"
"If it is but a shade of what I feel, then it must be overwhelming, Mr. Dar…. Fitzwilliam," she corrected herself. She smiled at his delight. "Yes, Fitzwilliam -- the name suits you, sir." Her fingers stroked his cheek. "My own Fitzwilliam! How I love you!"
There was but one answer to that.
A week later, Mr. Bennet had the melancholy task of toasting his new son-in-law and announcing the engagement of his second daughter. He soon turned his mind to the positive aspects of the union between Longbourn and Pemberley. After all, not only was he gaining a potently amusing son, but vast libraries in London and Derbyshire would soon be at his disposal.
The Bennet carriage would have to be re-sprung, he thought. Fifty miles may be nothing to Mr. Darcy, but I would not regard it so!The End
Posted on 2009-08-04
Summary: In this Mansfield Park variation, Sir Thomas Bertram looks back on his life.
Mansfield Park, October 1808
Sir Thomas Bertram sat behind the ornate desk in his beloved study, listening to his namesake and heir give his report on the family plantations on Antigua. Tom Bertram's face bore the tanned skin common among those who had been to the West Indies.
"So," the tall young man of twenty-five said, "the situation was not as bad as we feared. Once I replaced the overseer and brought in a new man, one who would actually feed the workers, all problems seemed to be solved." He sat down, an unreadable expression on his face.
Sir Thomas leaned forward. "You've done well, Tom. I doubt if I could have done better. No, you have done exactly what I would have done, had I gone with you. I am proud of you." Tom waved off the praise. "What ails you, Son?"
"Father," he hesitated and then looked hard at the older man, "must we own slaves?"
The question surprised Sir Thomas. "How else can we manage our plantations? Who will harvest the sugar cane?"
"You were not there. I must say it turned my stomach to see how the men were treated. Whipped, starved--"
"Surely not on our lands?"
"No, not after I replaced the overseer. But our neighbors are not so humane. The women -- some were for the use of the owners. It…it troubles me, Father. As honest Christians, can we not pay the workers?"
Sir Thomas bit back his rejoinder, for he could see that this was a serious question. "I have been to Antigua, and I will admit I do not like it either. I do not like it at all. But, if we free our slaves and pay them, our costs go up. Who will buy our sugar when the others can undercut our price? How will the workers or their families get food then? That is assuming, of course, the other landowners will let us free our slaves. There is nothing we can do. It is the way things are done there. We must treat our people better than the others."
"Father, I am sorry to disagree with you, but I am of the opinion that owning other men is evil. No amount of money can justify it. If we cannot change things there, should we be in Antigua at all?"
"You are saying I should sell our plantations?"
Tom looked down. "If it were up to me, yes, I would sell."
Sir Thomas could see that his son's whole heart was in this. Tom has changed. He is a man, now, and I must treat his advice as I would that from any other man.
"You have given me much to think about. What you ask for is no small thing. I promise I will give it my full consideration."
"I know you will, Father. I am sorry to trouble you about this."
"Say nothing of that." He rose from his chair. "I raised you to learn this business, to be prepared to be the master of Mansfield. I will not begrudge you your honest opinions." He crossed in front of the desk and embraced Tom. "I say again, I am exceedingly proud of you."
Tom smiled, but there was the ghost of pain in his eyes, pain Sir Thomas had seen before. It haunts him still.
"Thank you, Father. I should go to my mother, now. It is almost tea, and Fanny can use the rest. Will you join us?"
Sir Thomas glanced at his desk. "No, I have a few other letters to write. Make my excuses, and I shall see you at dinner." Tom took his leave and left the room, Sir Thomas' eyes following him out.
Tom had not always been the hard-working, dependable man he was now. His university years were ones of drinking and carousing. Debts from gambling, especially at the horse track, had hurt the family finances terribly. It reached a crescendo at about the time of his Uncle Norris's death, and instead of having a friend hold the Mansfield living until Edmund was ready for it, Sir Thomas was forced to make a different arrangement, and Dr. Grant was now the rector.
"I blush for you, Tom," Sir Thomas had berated him then, in his most dignified manner. "You have robbed Edmund for ten, twenty, thirty years, perhaps for life, of more than half the income which ought to be his. It may hereafter be in my power, or in yours--I hope it will--to procure him better preferment. But it must not be forgotten that no benefit of that sort would have been beyond his natural claims on us, and that nothing can, in fact, be an equivalent for the certain advantage which he is now obliged to forego through the urgency of your debts."
The effect of his words had been immediate. The pain of guilt had driven Tom to mend his ways and be useful to his family. Edmund had forgiven him -- Edmund would forgive anyone, thought Sir Thomas -- but Tom had not forgotten. Sir Thomas was happy and feared for his eldest. Guilt can gnaw away at a man's soul just as well as hard living.
"Father?" Sir Thomas glanced up to see his eldest daughter, Maria, peeking in the room. "Are you not joining us for tea?"
"No, my dear. As you see, I still have much work to do."
"Oh," she said as she walked in, dark and lovely, in full bloom at twenty-one. "Have you a moment?"
"Of course, my dear." He indicated a chair and sat next to her. "What is it?"
"I do not believe I thanked you, as I should, for your assistance with the matter over Mr. Rushworth."
Sir Thomas said nothing, only nodded thoughtfully.
"You were right. I do not believe we were well-suited. I…I did not feel for him as I ought."
Sir Thomas watched with kindly eyes. No, my dear. You, and your Aunt Norris, only saw Sotherton Court and a house in Town and twelve thousand a year. I am glad you see clearly now. I cannot say the same for your aunt.
"I only hope his disappointment is of short duration," she added.
"I pray that be the case. To be fair, you offered him little encouragement."
Maria hung her head. "I should have offered him none as Fanny advised."
Sir Thomas patted her hand. "There, there. I shall tell you that my interview with Mr. Rushworth, while uncomfortable, was not devastating. Whatever pain he is feeling will be soon overcome with other thoughts."
A small smile appeared at Maria's lips. "Perhaps there will be new statuary at Sotherton?"
Sir Thomas should have scolded her for her impertinence, but said instead, "I should not be surprised. Now, dear, surely this melancholy stems from another source?"
Maria sighed and turned her head to the windows. "Father, was it necessary for Mr. Crawford to be sent away?"
Sir Thomas took a deep breath, thankful again for Fanny's intelligence. "I am afraid so, dear. Mr. Crawford is a very charming man with much to recommend him. A good estate and a good income. Excellent conversation. He can easily make any girl fall in love with him. But to attempt to charm all three of my girls, all at the same time? It shows a want of propriety, even a deficiency of morals. It certainly is a danger to sisterly affection."
Maria blushed. Sir Thomas saw it as a reminder of the rows she had had with Julia and even Fanny. "It…it is just that he was the most agreeable man I have ever met."
"I know. How did the Bard put it? 'One may smile and smile, and be a villain.'"
"I do not believe him as bad as that!"
"Perhaps. Perhaps it is the fact that my girls are so lovely, he could not make up his mind."
Maria blushed again, this time pleased. He took her hand.
"Please try not to let this matter trouble you. We shall go to Town for the Season. There will be balls and parties and proper gentlemen aplenty for all my girls!"
It served, and a small smile graced Maria's pretty lips. She was a child born for the hustle and bustle of London, Bath and the society of the ton. "As long as they are agreeable!"
With mock seriousness Sir Thomas said, "They will be, or your brothers will run them off!" Maria laughed. "Now, dear, off you go to tea, while I finish my correspondence before dinner."
Maria jumped to her feet. "Oh, Father! How thoughtless of me to prattle on when you have business to conduct."
"None of that! Have I not told you my door is open to you at all times?" He gave her a small hug. "Nothing is more important to me than you and your sisters and your brothers."
"Thank you," she said as she gave him a peck on his cheek, and then she went away.
Sir Thomas stood in the middle of the room, thinking over the conversation and recalling the twin disasters he had avoided. His thoughts came back to the reason he had been able to protect his family.
He recalled the conversation he had with Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris eight years ago in his wife's parlor. Lady Bertram had suggested bringing her sister Price's eldest daughter to Mansfield to give relief to the Price family, already with nine children.
He had hesitated, for the responsibility was great, and to some sanctimonious words from Mrs. Norris, he had said, "There will be some difficulty in our way, Mrs. Norris, as to the distinction proper to be made between the girls as they grow up. How to preserve in the minds of my daughters the consciousness of what they are, without making them think too lowly of their cousin. And how, without depressing her spirits too far, to make her remember that she is not a Miss Bertram. I should wish to see them very good friends, and would, on no account, authorize in my girls the smallest degree of arrogance towards their relation; but still they cannot be equals. Their rank, fortune, rights, and expectations will always be different. It is a point of great delicacy, and you must assist us in our endeavors to choose exactly the right line of conduct."
Sir Thomas grimaced in pain. How could he say such words about anyone, but especially about his beloved Fanny?
But he was not the man then that he was now. He had affection for his wife, Maria, Lady Bertram, and he dearly loved his children, Tom, Edmund, Maria, and Julia. He was also a man of great responsibilities, a baronet and MP with land in Northampton and Antigua. His task had been to care for their properties and interests, while it fell to Lady Bertram to raise the children.
Unfortunately, Lady Bertram proved to be a neglectful mother. In the years after Julia's birth, she had become lethargic and withdrawn, interested only in her comfort and her pug dogs. It was left to Miss Lee, the governess, to raise the children with the guidance of Mrs. Norris. When nine-year-old Fanny came to Mansfield in the summer of 1801, Sir Thomas had little to do with her.
How all that changed on Easter of 1803! Sir Thomas had always considered himself liberal and generous, and when he learned that Fanny did not ride, he provided her with a horse. To his surprise, she was very reluctant to learn. At first, he thought it might be stubbornness or stupidity, but after a word with Edmund, he approached the girl.
"Fanny," he had asked, "do you not wish to learn to ride?"
"Oh, yes, sir. It is just that…that they are so big!"
"Are you frightened, child?"
Fanny looked down, obviously ashamed. "Yes, sir."
"Fanny, we will stop this foolishness. The horse is very gentle, and you will learn to ride. Do we understand each other?"
Her lip quivered. "Yes, sir."
Sir Thomas would never know what possessed him to say the next words. "And I will teach you."
The girl looked up in wonder and apprehension, and Sir Thomas' heart was struck. Why, the girl is frightened of me! He smiled a kind smile and said, "Come, my dear. Change into your habit, and we will have our first lesson."
Dutifully, Fanny showed up at the appointed place in full riding habit. Now aware of the child's fears, Sir Thomas gently introduced her to the horse. After spending no little time becoming acquainted, Sir Thomas carefully lifted the girl onto the beast's back. In soothing tones for both the horse's sensibilities as well as for hers, he instructed Fanny about the basic skills of riding. Slowly, both horse and rider relaxed, and as they moved about the paddock at a leisurely pace, Sir Thomas saw Fanny's spirits rise. Lesson over for the day, he reached up to bring the girl down from the saddle. To his surprise, Fanny threw her arms about his neck and hugged him tightly.
"Oh! Oh, Uncle!" she cried. "Thank you, thank you so much!" He could feel her tears of joy on his neck. Touched beyond belief, he found himself hugging the child to his chest.
"Shall…shall we…" Fanny's voice died out.
"What is it, child?"
"Shall we do it again tomorrow?"
Such a simple request! How could he refuse? "Of course we shall, Fanny." He impulsively kissed her cheek, which resulted in a renewal of her loving hug.
Sir Thomas felt a tear of remembrance run down his check. He could not know at the time how his world had changed that day. Mrs. Norris had learned of the riding lesson and, in her usual unpleasant manner, congratulated Sir Thomas on his unnecessary condescension for his unworthy niece. His response was to have Maria and Julia ride along with him and Fanny on the morrow, for he had begun to see the evil of treating Fanny differently from her cousins.
The next day, the five of them set off -- for Edmund had joined them -- on a short tour of the estate. Sir Thomas reveled in having the attention of the children. How pleasant it was! When Maria complained of the pace, Sir Thomas gently reprimanded her, pointing out that Fanny was just beginning to learn. Maria started to make a comment about Fanny's stupidity, and her father lost his temper.
"Maria! How dare you speak so of your cousin! Do you think you were such an accomplished rider when you first learned? I want to hear your complete apology to Fanny -- quick now!"
The young people were shocked at the outburst. While they all respected -- and not a little feared -- Sir Thomas, it was rare that he raised his voice, and he had never before done so to his daughters. Maria mumbled the required words to Fanny, and Sir Thomas had to be satisfied with it. A worrisome thought had entered his mind. My sister-in-law has surely spoiled my daughters. This needs to be corrected as soon as may be, for Maria will be out soon and hopeless of remedy.
"Maria, Julia, Edmund, I wish to make something clear. Fanny is not only your cousin, but she lives here. She has left her family to join ours. As she is part of our family, I expect her to be treated as such. There will no more such talk. I will not tolerate it."
From that moment, Sir Thomas began to take an intense interest in the children. When he discovered that Mrs. Norris had left instructions that Fanny's little sitting room be left with no fire in the grate, he made sure that the room was warm at all times. A talk to Miss Lee ensured that Fanny would receive no less instruction than the other girls would, and he made clear to his daughters that he expected them to show greater kindness to their poor cousin.
Fanny was not the only recipient of his attention. As Tom was already away at school, Sir Thomas would ride and shoot with Edmund constantly. He took great interest in his daughters' accomplishments, praised them when deserved, and kindly encouraged their improvement if necessary.
More importantly, he worked hard to gain the children's trust. He encouraged them to come to him whenever they desired, to talk of things, to show off their triumphs, or to have a kindly ear hear their troubles. The last was the hardest to achieve, but by his constancy, he won them over.
Many would wonder if this did not take him away from his duties. If fact, Sir Thomas briefly wondered if there were enough hours in the day to do everything that needed to be done. Yet, he found that by entrusting his steward with the day-to-day details of running the estate and making fewer speeches on the floor of the House of Commons, his world did not come crashing down around his ears, and his days were, for the most part, far more enjoyable.
When Mrs. Norris protested, seeing her territory being usurped, Sir Thomas had been quick to put her in her place.
"Not see my children? What nonsense is this? Who should be the children's confidant if not their father?"
"Well, sir, that is very kind of you -- indeed, very liberal -- but you have many duties, besides, and there are others who have less demands upon them. Surely, this burden can be lifted from your shoulders. Ah, I see you agree with me! Leave everything to me, sir, and--"
"Mrs. Norris, I beg to differ! I most certainly do NOT agree with you. These are my children, I shall do as I wish, and I will thank you not to interfere!"
She cowered. "Oh, sir, I would not think of it! You misunderstand me, Sir Thomas. I only wish for your peace of mind. I shall carry news of your condescension to dear Edmund, Maria, and Julia -- depend upon it!"
"That will not be necessary. The children already know of my wishes. Your services are not required, for not only would they be repetitious, they would be incomplete."
"Indeed. Have you forgotten Fanny?"
"Fanny! Certainly, you do not mean Fanny! You cannot mean Fanny!"
"I most certainly do, madam."
"But, she is not your daughter!"
"You are correct. But MY NIECE is under my protection. I remind you that you are not my wife and can have no power here. Be good enough NEVER to correct me again."
As the years flowed by, Sir Thomas saw, to his intense pleasure, that his daughters took pains to befriend and finally love their cousin. The benefits to all were apparent. Maria and Julia grew less self-adsorbed while Fanny became more lively. More often than not, Sir Thomas would observe the three of them walking the grounds of Mansfield, arms linked, thick as thieves, and laughing over secrets. Most importantly, Fanny's innate strong moral foundation was not weakened by the constant presence of her two cousins. No -- rather, it was they who were reminded to do good so as not to shame themselves before their younger friend.
Sir Thomas could not think when the sea change happened--when Fanny stopped being his niece and the children's cousin and became daughter and sister. It came about so slowly and consistently that it was engrained in their minds before they realized it. Of course, Mrs. Norris was outraged over the change, and in the aftermath of her husband's death in 1806, tried to reassert herself. But it was too late -- the damage had been done. The girls would give up Aunt Norris's spoiling in favor of Fanny's agreeable company.
With Miss Lee leaving that same year, Sir Thomas resolved to spend even more time with his children, especially with the return of the now-contrite Tom. Tom threw himself into the study of estate management with the same enthusiasm he had once shown for far more idle pastimes. By the spring of '07, there was such an improvement in Tom that it was decided, reluctantly on Sir Thomas's part, that Tom should sail to the West Indies to inspect the family's properties and report back to his father. At the time, the baronet had been concerned, but as it turned out, it was a very good thing he remained at Mansfield, for in the winter of 1808, Mr. Rushworth came to court Maria, and in the spring the Crawfords arrived.
The Crawfords! Sir Thomas still shuddered at the thought of those two. Relations of the Grants, who had been established at Mansfield Parsonage, the brother and sister had constant access to the estate. Edmund was immediately smitten by the sister, Mary Crawford, and Sir Thomas could not fault him for it. Beautiful, witty, clever, talented, and with a good fortune, Miss Crawford was a good match for Edmund. She befriended all the Bertram girls and Fanny too.
But -- there was a worldliness, an unconscious cruelty in her manner that occasionally seemed to make itself apparent. Only a word or two, and then she was extremely agreeable again. Edmund was mostly blind to it, but Sir Thomas and Fanny saw it.
One other observation troubled Sir Thomas. Edmund had been, by education and personality, destined for the church. Thorton Lacy was his once he took his vows. However, on more than one occasion, Miss Crawford spoke of the church as being a waste of Edmund's talents. She seemed bent on persuading him to forgo preaching and go into the law or some other fashionable occupation. Sir Thomas did not interfere, for he was determined that Edmund should live his own life.
At first appearance, Henry Crawford was also a very agreeable guest. Sir Thomas could see that Maria liked him better than Mr. Rushworth. This was not a concern, for while the newcomer's fortune was less, it was not lacking, and he made up for his relative want of money with an overabundance of wit and charm, something Mr. Rushworth was sorely lacking.
But as the weeks went by, it was apparent that Crawford was flirting with Julia, as well. When Fanny reported the same behavior towards herself, Sir Thomas knew he had to act. It was at that moment that Mr. Rushworth chose to declare himself. It was a busy day indeed for the baronet, as he had to disappoint one suitor and banish another.
It was a shame, he thought. Crawford had some of the makings of a good man. He might have been happy to part with any of his girls into his hands, but his indiscriminate attentions to all three at once showed there was something amiss with the man. No fortune was enough for Sir Thomas to entrust the happiness of Maria, Julia, or Fanny to such a rake.
Crawford's departure led to another. Miss Crawford asked for forgiveness for her brother. When that was refused, she begged and then insisted on pardon for her wayward relation. An astonished Edmund was witness to it, and his amazement doubled when the lady demanded that he choose between her and his family. His refusal led to an irrevocable breach. The Crawfords departed from Mansfield directly, leaving in their wake mortified relations, two disappointed ladies, and one broken-hearted gentleman.
Edmund had yet to recover, Sir Thomas knew, although he rallied upon his brother's return from Antigua. He spent most of his time otherwise preparing to take orders and walking the grounds with Fanny. An afternoon in her company seemed to improve his spirits, Sir Thomas noticed.
A movement in the gardens caught Sir Thomas's attention. Sure enough, there were Edmund and Fanny walking about the roses, probably discussing scripture. Sir Thomas smiled at the sight, a plan that had begun to germinate a few weeks ago developing strong roots.
It had been some time since Sir Thomas had considered Fanny as his youngest daughter. Over the years he had toyed with the idea of making that position official -- of adopting the girl. It was done all the time. No one would remark about it, save Mrs. Norris.
But now, Sir Thomas was glad he had not acted on his thoughts. For a better way now lay before him. Would not Fanny be even more delightful as a daughter-in-law? He had suspected for some time that Edmund was the girl's most particular friend and cousin. How deep did that admiration go? Did she love him? Could she love him enough to marry? In temperament and talents she was perfect for Edmund.
What were Edmund's thoughts on the matter? Knowing his son, he had probably never given it any passing consideration. Yet, it was Fanny's company he sought. It was always Fanny's opinions he valued. It would not take much to turn such naked respect and admiration into something deeper, the baronet thought.
Time, Sir Thomas smiled. All it takes is time. Let Edmund go take orders and return. Fanny will be waiting for him. Then everything will run its natural course. But a new pretty dress for dear Fanny would not be out of place for Edmund's welcome home party, would it?
No, it would not.The End