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The sender's address, scrawled in a barely legible hand, read: Charles Bingley; Netherfield Park; Meryton, Hertfordshire. Reverend Fallows recognized both the address and the name, and even before he had slit open the wax seal, he had sensed what the letter involved. As if to assure himself that he had understood the contents of the note, he again scanned the brief paragraphs before rising decisively from the chair.
Pulling on the bell, he waited patiently for the housemaid to answer the summons. When the little red-haired servant opened the door, he said quietly, "Please go fetch Mr. Darcy, Rose. Tell him to come at once it is of some great importance."
"Yes, sir." Rose bobbed a curtsy and scurried away, leaving Fallows to pace restlessly about the room. He stationed himself at the open window and looked outside at the rolling Derbyshire scenery. The sun was out, the sky cloudless and a vivid blue, and a few sparrows sang from the branches of the old oak by the window. A beautiful morning too beautiful for such ill news.
The reverend shook his graying head, as if to clear it. No, no. He was being selfish. This was good news, good news for his friend. He smiled sadly. If there was anything ill about the situation, it was because he knew the loss was inevitable. He had been blessed, and now it was time for another to be granted that same blessing.
Lost in thought, Fallows almost didn't hear the gentle tap on the door that signaled the arrival of his curate.
"Come in," he said, picking up the letter from the table where he had laid it.
The paneled door opened, revealing a young gentleman standing in the doorway. At first glance, his tall, slim figure looked odd in the simple black garb of the clergy a countenance like his, finely-etched features set against sun-browned skin, seemed unfit for the constrictions of the plain fabric and white, starched stock. Black curls tumbled over his forehead, shadowing equally dark, calm brown eyes that were now regarding Fallows with polite curiosity.
At the reverend's inviting gesture, he stepped inside the library and closed the door behind him. "Yes, sir?"
Fallows turned to survey his companion. In his five-and-twenty years of ministry, he had had many different curates assisting him in church business, but never had he had one quite like young William Darcy. He had received a goodly amount of indignant comments and unsubtle hints about his choice after all, Darcy was the son of a steward, an orphan with the sole guardianship of a dependent sister. He was hardly a likely candidate for the valuable position in the church.
However, thanks to the recommendations of Mr. Wickham and his own merits, Darcy had been granted the post. Fallows's own instincts had not played him false; Darcy was a good worker, an organized caretaker, and a sincere servant of God. Life at Kympton had been much easier for the aging clergyman since the curate had come along, giving Fallows the time he had longed to have to devote himself to study and prayer. Yes, Darcy had been a blessing to Kympton and now he was to leave.
Fallows cleared his throat and motioned toward the chair before the desk. "Please sit down, Will. I have just received some news concerning you."
"Here." Fallows held out the letter.
Darcy, with a look of perplexity, took the parchment, unfolded it, and read:
To the Reverend Samuel Fallows, Kympton Parsonage, Derbyshire
I pray you will not think me too impudent to address you without any prior acquaintance, but this letter concerns your assistant curate, Mr. William Darcy, who is a long-standing school friend of mine, and who, I understand, is under your employ.
To explain why I have need of contacting you, I will lay before you a brief history. Mr. Darcy, who, as I am sure you know, was assisted in his profession by the Wickhams of Pemberley and was sent to Cambridge under the patronage of the late Mr. Wickham. My father, James Bingley, was a friend of old Mr. Wickham, and I made Mr. Darcy's acquaintance while we both were at the university. We became fast friends, and I am honest with you, sir, when I say that I have never known a finer man, nor one so well-suited to his profession.
Lately, I moved to the village of Meryton in Hertfordshire, and it came to my attention that our local rector, Dr. Lawrence an excellent man has lately lost his curate and is forced to manage the church by himself. He is a gentleman of advanced years, and the duty is too much for him. However, no one has been found to fill the vacant position. Instantly, I thought of my friend.
I spoke to Dr. Lawrence on this matter, and after hearing of Mr. Darcy's qualifications, he was eager to meet him. He is willing to have him as a guest at the parsonage until his suitability for the post can be ascertained. I am sure my friend will be able to win Dr. Lawrence's approval immediately.
If you are able to spare him, I want to offer Mr. Darcy this opportunity for advancement in his career. The income, which is a reasonable £10 a month, cannot be but pleasing, and the society, I daresay, may be somewhat more lively than that which he has to enjoy now. Also, I wish for him to relocate for purely selfish reasons, as I long to see him again. His new situation would allow us to renew the intimate friendship we had at Cambridge.
I would ask that you share this news with Mr. Darcy, for the sooner Dr. Lawrence can be assisted, the better. If this situation is undesirable or impossible for him to take, please write back at once so the rector may be able to conduct his search elsewhere.
I thank you for your indulgence, and Dr. Lawrence and myself send our best wishes to you and the Darcys.
There was a momentary quiet as Darcy lowered the parchment and looked at Fallows, who was carefully keeping all expression from his face.
"Sir?" Darcy said, unable to tolerate the silence. "What is your opinion of this letter?"
The reverend tapped the signature at the bottom of the page thoughtfully. "Does this Charles Bingley resemble his father?"
"You knew his father, sir?"
"I knew of him. He lived in Derbyshire for a short while and was said to be most generous to his fellows. Indeed, my predecessor informed me that this very parsonage itself was rebuilt with his patronage."
"He was always generous, sir, and his son is very like him: good-natured and forever pleased with everyone and everything." Darcy smiled fondly at the memory of his friend.
"You have kept in contact with him, then? After your days at Cambridge?"
"Yes and no, sir. We wrote back and forth for a few years, but both of us grew absorbed with our lives and the communication slowed and then halted." Darcy smiled again. "I can give no excuse for myself, but Bingley was always a poor correspondent."
"No. Abominable handwriting."
Fallows laughed despite himself.
The two men were silent for a moment. Looking at the letter folded before him, Darcy again asked, "What do you suggest, sir?"
Fallows replied without a moment's hesitation. "You should accept."
One dark brow rose. "Have I displeased you, sir?"
The reverend's reluctant half-smile shaped itself into a grin. "Not at all, and you know that. Besides, my opinion hardly matters. You will do as you wish."
"I should seem wrong to leave you, sir, especially at this time. There are so many things to be done yet," Darcy began, but the reverend stopped him.
"It would be unchristian of me indeed to deprive you of this opportunity," he said, adjusting his glasses. "Your friend seems eager for you to join him, and you will have more society to enjoy."
"That is hardly a reason to..."
Fallows again cut him off, albeit gently. "I appreciate all you have done for me why, the parsonage was never run half so well before you came but if Dr. Lawrence needs you more, you must go."
Seeing the mulish look in his curate's eyes, he said, quietly but firmly, "You will go. At least observe your new situation to see if it suits. Think of Miss Darcy. She would certainly benefit from a more open society."
Darcy could not quarrel with that logic. His sister, though only sixteen, was cripplingly shy; if he were ever to meet an untimely end, Georgiana would be left without any family to take her in and no way to provide for herself. He feared for her future; a little exposure to more of the world certainly would not harm her.
"Will you go, then?" Fallows asked. "I will write to Mr. Bingley directly if you have made your decision."
Darcy hesitated. Over the past five years, Kympton had become his home. Georgiana loved the peaceful cottage settled within the parsonage's walls, and he himself was, and always had been, a native of Derbyshire at heart. After their parents' death, the two Darcys had clung ever more fervently to each other and to their home. Advantages notwithstanding, how would Georgiana take the news?
She would express no outward anger or disappointment no, she was too well-mannered and complaisant to fly into a temper or flurry of tears. Not a word of reproof would cross her lips; she would grieve in silence. Her tender heart had been pained too often, and he was loath to hurt it anymore.
"Let me speak to my sister first," he heard himself say. "If she can bear our leaving, then we will go."
Elizabeth Bennet leaned against the wall, watching with amusement as Charles Bingley again led her elder sister out onto the dance floor. She noted the pleasure glowing on Jane's face, and she smiled.
The young gentleman, newly moved into the neighborhood, was clearly enamored with Jane and who could blame him? Elizabeth was certain that there was no countenance so lovely nor no heart as sweet as Jane's. Mr. Bingley was a likeable man, with happy manners and a lively disposition, and though Elizabeth would admit to a slight prejudice in her sister's favor, she believed there was no other girl in England who would suit Mr. Bingley better.
Although, it was apparent that Mr. Bingley's own sisters did not agree with that particular surmise. Elizabeth found her eyes drawn toward the two in question, who stood apart from the other guests by the terrace, looking down their noses at everyone and whispering behind their fans.
No, she spared no love for either Caroline Bingley or Louisa Hurst it was amazing that so amiable a man could have two such arrogant, gossipy sisters. Besides, Caroline had disliked her from the start, and for a very good reason: Elizabeth had refused to display the proper amount of envy when Miss Bingley had announced that she was lately engaged to Lord Burquist, a very wealthy lord from Shropshire.
Indeed, when Caroline had been waxing eloquent on how the poor earl was pining away for her, Elizabeth had been unable to repress a little snort. The gesture had not endeared her to Miss Bingley, who, from then on, took time from her busy social agenda to give Elizabeth an extra slight or two when she could.
Yes, the days since Mr. Bingley's arrival in Hertfordshire had been alive with activity and romance. In truth, all five of the Bennet girls had been paid much court in the past month, and it was all due to a matter of chance and a death in the family.
Mr. Bennet had an older, wealthy cousin, Mr. John Thurston, who had lived his entire life in Jamaica. He made his living selling native oddities to the more eccentric of the English rich and had but rarely returned to his homeland. He never married and had died of a heart seizure, just five months past, with no heir to his fortune. Therefore, his money, all £45,000 of it, had gone to Mr. Bennet, the eldest of his late aunt's children.
Mr. Bennet's surprise upon learning he was the recipient of this unexpected but welcome portion, though considerable, was nothing to his wife's reaction. Mrs. Bennet, who had long bemoaned her daughters' paltry inheritance of less than £1000 each after their father's death, had required a fortnight's rest in bed and three cases of smelling salts to recover from the joy the news had brought. Never mind that Mr. Thurston was dead her daughters would have fortunes of their own to catch husbands!
Mr. Bennet, though he was loath to agree with his wife, decided to put the lot of it in an account for his daughters. Upon their marriage, they would receive an equal portion of the money; a sum, the interest included, which would amount to £9000. Added to their original dowries, the girls would each have about £10,000 of their own.
Elizabeth's life and that of Jane, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia had changed far more drastically than she had supposed. Local men who had long admired her pretty face and witty tongue but not her scanty dowry now swarmed about her. She had tolerated the attention well at first, laughing it off with Jane and her father, but the constant flattery was beginning to wear on her.
Mrs. Bennet, predictably, did not help matters any. She had never been frugal with her husband's money, and now the bills to the mantua-makers and the millinery were becoming rather alarming. She justified the extra spending by insisting that her girls were wealthy women and needed clothes that reflected their station in life.
No matter how Mr. Bennet or Jane and Elizabeth tried to explain that their social stature had not changed in essence, Mrs. Bennet would not listen. She was content in buying her dear Lydia new bonnets every other week and visiting her sister Mrs. Philips to gloat over her daughters' good luck and speculate as to which girl would be married first.
Oh, it was frustrating, to be sure. Elizabeth had never liked her mother's matrimonial speeches, and their frequency had only increased of late.
"Lizzy! Lizzy, dearest, why are you not dancing?" Jane, cheeks flushed and blonde curls tossed about her face, appeared at Elizabeth's side. She was glowing with the exercise, fanning herself vigorously.
Elizabeth adopted a look of wounded dignity. "Because you are dancing with the only handsome man in the room."
Jane blushed and smiled, and Elizabeth, delighting in teasing her sister, said slyly, "He is quite a good figure of a man. Snap him up just as soon as you can before Kitty and Lydia can get at him. Or Mary, perhaps. He may like a pious mind and dull conversation."
"Lizzy!" Jane tried to look shocked.
"I mean no insult to Mary," Elizabeth assured her, doing her best to keep her countenance. "She cannot help it, after all."
"Yes, yes, Jane, I know. I know that I am horribly unkind, and I shall cease at once...for the time being." She took her sister's arm. "Now come and help me rescue poor Charlotte she's been cornered by Mama again."
Charlotte Lucas, one of Elizabeth's dearest friends, was standing in the corner with Mrs. Bennet, patiently listening to the elder woman's prattling. Upon seeing Elizabeth and Jane approaching, Mrs. Bennet, in a horror, realized that Mr. Bingley had been left unattended, and she hastened to drag Jane back toward him, the blushing girl protesting softly all the way.
Elizabeth surveyed her mortified sister with pity, while Charlotte merely shook her head. "Poor Jane."
"Poor Jane, indeed." Elizabeth turned to look at her friend. "Thank you for keeping Mama occupied. How do you do it?"
Charlotte plucked a flute of wine from the table, downed half of it, and gave her friend a significant look.
Elizabeth smirked and took a glass herself. "At least Mr. Bingley does not mind Mama's pushing Jane at him."
"Most fortunate circumstance; it is also just as fortunate that Jane likes him."
"She certainly could do much worse," Elizabeth said dryly, watching Mrs. Bennet display Jane like a prize pony before the gentleman. "At least he does not resemble Mr. Maybolt. Do you remember him?"
Charlotte laughed. "Twenty years older than Jane and three times as wide. But he was quite thick in the pocket, if I remember correctly."
"And equally thick in the head." Elizabeth smiled. "Don't forget Mr. Somerby, from Dorset."
"The blond one who always wore mauve and wrote Jane those horrid verses?"
"The exact one. And Mr. Beverton?"
She nodded. "He was the one with the leer."
"And Mr. Wrightworth."
"Yes, the one who..." Charlotte paused. "Actually, I cannot remember what was wrong with him."
"Who has warts?" Lydia Bennet, followed by her sister Kitty, came up to stand next to them, waving her fan about spasmodically. "I hope Mr. Bingley does not have warts, for he is the best-looking man to come here to Meryton ever." She giggled. "If Jane does not want him, I should be happy to take him instead."
"I thought you had your eye on a redcoat, Lyddy," Elizabeth said, a twinkle in her eye, "and as you see, Mr. Bingley is wearing blue. You are rather incompatible, I think."
"Lizzy, you are so strange sometimes," Lydia said impatiently. "Why should I care what color coat Mr. Bingley is wearing? He's rich. He could buy himself an entire cabinet full of red coats if he wished."
"I think he would look quite dashing in a red coat," Kitty piped up. "Perhaps if Jane becomes engaged to him, she may get him to join the militia."
"If Jane becomes engaged to Mr. Bingley, I don't think she'll want him going off to war, Kitty," Charlotte said, a smile lurking around her mouth.
"I suppose not," Kitty said with a frown.
"La, of course not," Lydia added, "Jane wouldn't want him to get killed before he can marry her, after all."
"Yes, that would be most unfortunate," Elizabeth said amiably. "For what use would a dead fiancι be to her?"
Charlotte snorted into her wineglass.
Lydia scowled. "Well, I shall not stay here if you are to be that way. I swear, Lizzy, you are just like Papa always spouting nonsense that nobody can understand." Her eyes flicked over to the window-seat and her face suddenly glowed. She grabbed Kitty's arm. "Look! It's Captain Denny. Come, Kitty, before that nasty Mary King can get to him!"
The two girls flounced off to capture the unfortunate officer. Charlotte watched them leave before turning to look at her friend and saying, half in jest, half in truth, "Honestly, Eliza, you are so sharp sometimes."
Elizabeth sighed and smiled ruefully at her friend. "It is part of my nature, I suppose. Jane has often scolded me most harshly about my cruelty."
"Jane?" Charlotte laughed. "I cannot imagine Jane scolding anyone, much less you."
"Dear Jane," she said softly, turning her eyes to her sister, who was once again in quiet and Mrs. Bennet-less conversation with Mr. Bingley. "I am very happy for her."
Charlotte turned surprised eyes on her. "So she is in love already?"
"She does not say, but she likes him very much, I think. It should not be long before she is in love." Elizabeth shrugged, the impish sparkle returning to her eye. "After all, he has many merits...Five thousand of them in all."
Darcy glanced over the top of his book to look at his sister, who was sitting opposite him in the rickety post-chaise. Her golden head was bent over her stitching, and she was humming softly to herself. In short, she looked the picture of a content young woman...but he knew it was not so. He had seen her tears as they pulled away from the parsonage, no matter how she had tried to hide them from him. The image of the pallor on her face as Reverend Fallows and the cottage disappeared from view had stayed with him all morning.
She seemed recovered now, but if she was feeling the same anxious apprehension he was, then he knew all was not well. Unfortunately, it was all too late for regrets. The letter had been sent, and Dr. Lawrence was expecting them at his supper table this very evening.
Darcy studied his sister's downcast face with worried eyes. Had he done the right thing? For her? For him?
Darcy set down his book and turned to the third occupant in the carriage: a small, loud, and very impertinent duck.
"Have you something to say, Sir Francis?" Darcy asked politely, removing one of his gloves from the mallard's bill. "Considering you have been making those hideous noises directly in my ear for the past twenty miles, I gather that you wish to share something of import."
Georgiana giggled, and Sir Francis, wiggling his tail-feathers, snatched up Darcy's other glove from its resting place on the seat.
"He only wants some attention," Georgiana said, reaching over to take the handwear and scratch his jewel-green head in his favorite spot. "Don't you, Sir Francis?"
Her answer was a satisfied, "Quack!"
Darcy sighed. "All the other village girls have kittens or pups, but no, not you. You had to have a duck."
Georgiana merely smiled to herself; despite his bluster, her brother was as fond of her pet as she was. Sir Francis, also secure in the knowledge that he would never, no matter what his master presumed to say, be sentenced to the soup pot, settled down comfortably in the girl's lap.
She rubbed the mallard's head fondly. "I wonder what Dr. Lawrence will think of Sir Francis. I hope he will not mind if he stays in the house."
"I imagine he will think we are all mad," Darcy said dryly. "And Sir Francis, baronet though he may be, will probably have to accustom himself to the outdoors."
The mallard perked his head up and stared at Darcy with a look remarkably like horror.
"Of course." Georgiana's voice became subdued. "I would never wish to offend him. After all, I suppose we must be grateful for what he has done."
Darcy straightened and focused his full attention on her. "What do you mean?" These were the first words that had communicated even the faintest inkling of uneasiness.
She colored and lowered her eyes to the bird in her lap. "I did not mean to sound so ungracious."
"Georgiana," he said gently. "Will you not speak to me? You have always told me what troubles you; I know that something is."
Her face was now scarlet. "Nothing is amiss, Will. I am only speaking nonsense."
Darcy let the matter drop. There was plenty of time to come to the bottom of this issue later. For now, the two of them needed to adjust to their new situation. And adjusting it would take...he felt a little queasy at the thought. Though most of his natural reticence had been dispelled by necessity a clergyman, to be a true benefit to his flock, has to learn to relate and listen to others he was still, for lack of a better word, somewhat shy when faced with a new and unfamiliar group of people.
By forcing himself to socialize, he had managed to overcome the worst of his awkwardness, but his sister, unfortunately, had not had the advantage of that training. He blamed himself for not being more firm; he had often allowed her to stay at home during neighborhood gatherings and assemblies, not wishing to pressure her. As she grew older, she only withdrew further into herself, allowing her true personality to be seen only by Reverend Fallows and her brother.
And now Darcy, who had advised countless people and provided guidance for so many others, was at a loss for what to do.
A sharp tap on the chaise's side startled both Darcys from their respective musings. Darcy slid the partially-broken window open cautiously and looked outside. No sign of an accident or a band of thieves could be seen, and he called up to the coachman, "What is it, Mr. Slater? Has something happened?"
The driver's gruff voice hollered back, "We's approachin' Meryton. Just thought ye'd like ter know."
Darcy thanked him, drew his head back inside, and shut the window. Georgiana's face had turned white again, and her hands tightened around Sir Francis, who squawked in protest.
Darcy reached out to gently pry her fingers from the bird. "Please, dearest, don't worry yourself." He pulled up the tattered screen from the other window. "Come and have a look. I think I see the village from here."
Curiosity triumphed over fear, and she moved next to him to look through the dirty glass. Just over a knoll, they could see the faint wings of thatched roofs, arranged in neat little rows below the hillside.
The two watched the village loom closer and closer, until at last the chaise lumbered over the bridge into Meryton itself. Georgiana reached for her brother's hand and leaned closer to the window to see.
The buildings were crammed together like currant buns cooling on a window ledge, creating a sense of cozy closeness. The main street was cobbled and lined with shops, their various wares displayed in the windows.
The streets were alive with activity. Many people milled around a fountain that bubbled with water in the center of the village. Horses nickered as their riders splashed them with the water from a trough, and a troop of children played with puppies in the shelter of a doorway nearby. The smell of fresh bread wafted out from a small store, where Georgiana could see loaves of bread and rolls sitting on the counter inside. As they passed the butcher's, she watched as a round, florid-faced man tossed out some scraps into the back alley, where a few scruffy dogs began to fight over the bones. The square was filled with laughter and talk, dogs yipping, the children shouting, and horses whinnying.
It was altogether a terrifying sight. The quiet, somewhat somber serenity of Kympton village was nothing like this wild, noisy place.
Another rap sounded on the chaise roof. "Where do I take ye?" the driver called.
Darcy stuck his head out the window again. "The parsonage, please."
There was a grunt of agreement from the man, and the chaise turned off the main road. The Darcys sat in silence, Darcy unsure of what to say to relieve his sister's anxiety, Georgiana experiencing such sickening flutters in her stomach that she was simply afraid to open her mouth. Sir Francis even seemed to sense the tension in his companions and kept quiet, ruffling his feathers uneasily.
Within minutes, the chaise rolled into the fenced churchyard, which was drastically different than the lively streets just a mile away. The church itself, of classical design with a bell-tower jutting from its middle, seemed completely deserted. Darcy's keen eyes quickly noted the overgrown weeds in the lawn, the peeling paint on the church's outer walls, and the two broken fenceposts by the door.
The driver, however, didn't stop. The coach turned the corner, and a large, two-story cottage of gray stone came into view. The building was nearly hidden by a patch of trees, and Georgiana seemed to calm upon seeing how secluded and peaceful the area was.
A single window glowed with light, and as the chaise stopped in front of the house, another light flickered to life in the window nearest the door. Darcy gave Georgiana one last reassuring hand-squeeze before opening the door and coming to his feet.
He suppressed a groan as he straightened. His backside ached from sitting on the worn cushions, which had been about as comfortable to sit on as slabs of marble. Wishing for the hundredth time that they had been able to get a nicer conveyance, he stepped out onto the drive and turned to help his sister down.
The coachman and his footman didn't bother to climb down from their perch. "Yer bags are in the back," the former said, drawing out his pipe.
After checking that nothing had been left in the coach, Darcy went to the rear compartment and hauled out their luggage. Depositing the bags by the walk, he withdrew the payment for their transportation and gave it to the driver.
The coachman frowned at the coins in his hands. "There's only two fares here. What about the duck? I didn't transport no wild critter fer free." He jabbed his finger at Sir Francis, who promptly snapped his bill. The man pulled back hastily.
Darcy sighed inwardly, but handed over an extra sixpence. The driver snatched it, keeping his eye warily on Sir Francis.
"Come, Georgiana," Darcy said, gently moving his sister toward the walk and reaching for their luggage.
Belatedly, the footman asked, "Need any help, sir?"
"No, thank you." Darcy smiled, hoisted Sir Francis into one arm, took the bags with the other, and set off toward the cottage, Georgiana trailing nervously after him.
The coachman watched them go, and then turned to his companion, shaking his head. "Queer folk, them two. Queer folk."
The parsonage was in a sad state of disrepair. Following the housekeeper a plump, smiling woman of indeterminate years named Martha to the bedchambers, Darcy could not help but notice the hairline cracks in the plaster walls, the squeaking stairs, and the chill in the air which the blazing fireplace in the lower floor couldn't dispel. He mused that Bingley had been very right in saying that the rector needed assistance urgently.
Georgiana looked very uncomfortable, but Martha had no such unease. She chattered happily as they climbed the stairs, switching from subject to subject with nary a pause for breath. The woman had not even been fazed by the sight of Sir Francis; she had given him a pat, cooed over him for a bit, and then put him in the warm kitchen with a bowl of corn mash for him to eat.
"You'll find the room to your liking, I wager," she said, puffing as she reached the landing. "If I can make it up the stairs to show you, that is!" She laughed uproariously at her own jest, and Darcy grinned, amused by her liveliness.
She stopped in front of the first door in the hallway. "This will be your room, Mr. D," she said cheerfully. "Step inside and see if you like it as soon as I get it unlocked."
"How long have you been here with Dr. Lawrence?" he asked as the housekeeper fiddled with the ring of keys around her belt.
"Nearly twenty years," she said, "for no one else would put up with him!" She saw Georgiana's shocked look and boomed, "Bless me, did I frighten you, miss? There's no need to be afraid of me I don't bite...that often." She laughed again, and Georgiana looked over at her brother with huge eyes.
Darcy bit back a smile and reached down to propel his sister up the remaining stairs. Martha soon found the appropriate key, unlocked the door, and swung it open.
Darcy stepped inside. The first thing he noticed was that it was cold terribly cold. He suppressed a shiver and took a few more steps forward. The grate was empty, the windows shut tightly against the autumn night. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw a four-poster bed in the corner, flanked on either side by a bureau and a small escritoire. Another door by the desk undoubtedly led to a water closet, and a worn rug that matched the blue walls almost spanned the entire floor.
Though the room seemed a little musty from disuse, it was spotlessly clean, not a speck of dust or a cobweb in sight.
"It doesn't seem like much," Martha said, the first hint of anxiety he'd heard clearly audible in her voice, "but I hope it will do for you, Mr. D."
"It's perfect, Martha, thank you," he said honestly. All the room needed was a nice fire, and it would be more than comfortable.
The housekeeper visibly relaxed. "Wonderful! I'll have Bessie she's our housemaid, by the way light up a fire for you while you sup. Miss D, let me show you your chambers now. John the manservant here should have already brought your valise up."
She walked over to the door right across from Darcy's, repeated the key-searching procedure, and showed them inside.
Georgiana's chamber was slightly smaller and consequently warmer. The furniture was similar, but the room was done in more feminine shades of peach and pink instead of blue. She shyly expressed her approval of the room, and Martha, content in having done her duty well, led them back down the stairs to the parlor.
"Dr. L will be here in a few minutes," she said, making sure they were settled down in front of the fire. "I'll go and fetch him, and supper will be on the table in a half-hour."
She bustled out of the room, closing the door behind her. The two siblings merely looked at each other for a minute before Georgiana began to giggle.
Darcy beamed at her. With a sparkle in her eye that he had not seen for some time, she finally murmured, "Oh, my."
He laughed. "Oh, my, indeed. Do you feel like you've just been bowled over by a very enthusiastic whirlwind too?"
She giggled again. "Yes."
"What did you think of her?"
"She is...she is...different, but I think I will like her very much. Do you like her?"
The two talked comfortably until the sound of footsteps in the hall signaled them to rise. The nervousness that had been wiped away by Martha came back tenfold to both of them as the door creaked open.
Darcy stepped forward to greet his new employer, only to have the words stick in his throat when the man hobbled forward into the firelight.
"Good evening, Mr. Darcy, Miss Darcy," the rector said cordially. "Please, be seated. There is no need to stand on ceremony."
Darcy recovered himself and bowed, Georgiana quickly dropping into a curtsy. "A pleasure to meet you, sir."
The three sat down around the fire, and the rector inquired about their journey, but they all were more engrossed in surveying each other curiously than attending to any conversation.
Dr. Peter Lawrence was a reedy, wizened old fellow of seventy-one years. Wisps of flyaway white hair stuck up at odd angles, his skin was as wrinkled as a bloodhound's, and a pair of thick wire-rimmed spectacles magnified his eyes to at least twice their original size. Frankly, the rector presented the perfect picture of an elderly and possibly mad country theologian.
Studying his guests, Dr. Lawrence was pleasantly surprised. Miss Darcy seemed a timid little thing, but her face was kind. Mr. Darcy himself, for whom the rector had such high hopes, did not disappoint at first glance. Though a strapping fellow, he did not appear aware of his own good-looks, nor did make any effort to draw undue attention to himself. His speech was sincere and not ostentatious, his manner not condescending. The rector smiled to himself and invited his guests into the dining room, eager to further unravel the mysteries of the curate's character.
As soon as they were seated at the chipped table, Martha swooped in with three bowls heaped with stew, a jug of cider, and a tray of bread and cheese. "Eat hearty," the woman said cheerfully, setting the food before them, "for I will be disappointed if any comes back to the kitchen. It may be simple, but if it has passed Dr. L's culinary inspection, I daresay it will do." She exchanged a laughing glance with her employer, curtsied, and then hurried out of the room.
Dr. Lawrence, offering the platter of cheese to Georgiana, explained, "My palate is notoriously uncultured, I fear, and Martha loves to make certain that everyone knows it." The twinkle in his eye took the sharpness from his words.
The fare was indeed simple, but very good. Darcy and Georgiana both allowed their plates to be filled a second time, hungry from a long trip broken only by a cheap luncheon along the way.
The conversation at the table was relaxed and genial. Though he but rarely smiled, Dr. Lawrence was a master at putting people at ease without either sibling knowing it, he had drawn both of them out to the point that he was able to discern their true feelings by responses they gave to the most inane of questions.
This comfortable atmosphere was momentarily disrupted midway through tea by a demanding quack from the doorway. The occupants of the dining room looked around to see Sir Francis waddle into the room, Martha running up behind him. "Sorry, Mr. D," she panted, sagging against the doorframe. "I opened the door and off he went! I reckon he must have heard your voice. Quick as a whip, the little fellow is."
Darcy, mortified, came to his feet to take the miscreant in hand, but Sir Francis had other ideas. He took flight and landed directly in Dr. Lawrence's lap. Man and duck silently regarded each other until a grin, the first one that had showed itself all night, spread across the rector's face. "I assume this creature belongs to you?"
"Yes, he does," Darcy said tightly, "and I'm very sorry, sir. He was supposed to stay in the kitchen. I never thought..."
"Never you mind," he said, giving the bird a pat on the head before depositing it into Georgiana's waiting arms. "Does he have a name?"
"Sir Francis," Georgiana said.
Dr. Lawrence's brow rose.
"Sir Francis Drake," she added tremulously.
The rector was quiet for a moment, and then abruptly, he laughed, a short but surprisingly merry sound. He turned to look at Martha, who was watching the scene with interest. "It seems, Martha, that Mr. Bingley's recommendation may just be the finest thing that has happened to this musty old place in a decade." He then added, by way of explanation, "It has been some time since this church has seen any liveliness. It will be good for the community to have some new blood in the ministry."
Darcy breathed an involuntary sigh of relief. Dr. Lawrence gave Sir Francis one more pat before rising from his chair. "Martha, will you take Miss Darcy into the parlor for some tea and cake? I think it is about time for Mr. Darcy and I to resolve our matter of business."
Darcy left his sister to the housekeeper's care and followed Dr. Lawrence down the hall to the cramped study. The room was warm and inviting, smelling of ink and old books.
Dr. Lawrence invited him to sit down, waited a moment, and then launched into his interrogation. "What is your full name?"
Darcy blinked. "William George Darcy, sir."
"How old are you?"
"How long have you been in the ministry?"
"Almost five years, sir."
"Where did you go to university?"
"Are you well-versed in the Classics? Hebrew? Greek?"
"I can read and write passable Greek, and I know a little Hebrew."
"Do you speak any other languages?"
"Did you learn rhetoric? Can you speak well to a crowd?"
"I took numerous debate and speech courses, sir. I can speak if I am called to do so."
"Do you gamble?"
"Do you drink?"
"Nothing stronger than wine."
"Do you smoke?"
"Have you ever broken the vow of chastity until marriage?"
Darcy blushed. "No."
Dr. Lawrence's lips twitched a little, but he went on, coolly as ever, "Are you involved in business speculation?"
"Do you believe in God?"
Darcy blinked again. "Of course."
The rector frowned. "Anyone can say they believe in God without truly doing so empty words, Mr. Darcy, empty words. I ask, do you know God?"
Darcy's thoughts immediately flew to a cold winter many years before, when all had seemed so hopeless, spirit lost and joy barren, and then then that faint ray of light, that beautiful light that pierced through the sorrow and promised so much... "Yes," he said firmly. "Yes, sir, I do know God."
Dr. Lawrence smiled then, and it was like a sunburst shining from a gray sky. He reached out and shook Darcy's hand with surprising strength. "Very well, Mr. Darcy. You'll do just fine. I'll give you a week to settle in before you start assisting with the Sunday services."
Darcy's head reeled. "I I'm hired, sir?"
"Yes, indeed." There was an impish look in the old man's eyes again. "Hired if for no other reason than your tolerance for my impertinent questioning. It is difficult, I'm afraid, for curmudgeons to find decent help anymore, so you have come at a very opportune time."
"Yes, Bingley told me of your troubles. I hope I will do right by you, sir."
"I'm sure you shall. This church needs all the help it can come by."
Darcy frowned. "No one has come forward to assist you? Not even the principal families in the area?"
"Not a soul," he said cheerfully.
Darcy could only shake his head in wonder. "And your former curate?"
"Ah, sad business, that," Dr. Lawrence said, beginning to put to order the papers on the desk. "It was a blow to us all to see him go. Poor Bailey. Twas so sudden. In an instant, it seemed, he was lost."
"To sickness, sir?" Darcy inquired with quiet respect.
"No, lad," the rector returned gravely. "To marriage."
Saturday breakfast was served late at Longbourn, as the mistress of the house did not care to rise before half-past ten, and the girls would not begin to stir until nine except Elizabeth. Any given morning would find the second eldest Bennet strolling through the garden or down the lane around seven or eight o'clock, or even occasionally at sunrise.
Nature was Elizabeth's only true and constant love. Had she been able to, she would have been content to spend most of her time out of doors, basking in the sun and soaking up the beauty around her. No flower or stone was unworthy of her interest, no corner of the little wood by Longbourn unexplored. She found more to admire in nature than in humanity it had always been thus, and she expected that it would continue to be so for all her life.
Her father and Jane respected her love for the wild, but neither of them truly understood it. Elizabeth had discovered there was little she could do to explain her need for the solitude, or the peace that she found among the trees and streams.
Mrs. Bennet in particular had little patience for her daughter's behavior. A fine lady, she often said, did not cavort around in the grass like a savage besides, the dirt soiled one's hems most dreadfully. She repeatedly chastised Elizabeth for coming home with muddied slippers and a torn petticoat, urging her to be more like Jane, who, sweet as she was, would no sooner climb a tree than she would curse in company.
So, weary of the battles with her mother, Elizabeth had made it her habit to rise especially early and take her walks before Mrs. Bennet awoke. She enjoyed the coolness of the dawn, and usually had at least two hours to ramble before she returned home. It gave her time to collect her thoughts, prepare herself for the trials of the day, and indulge in the beneficial exercise. Unfortunately, it also made her vulnerable to introspection and these days, marriage was her prime concern.
In her twenty years on earth, Elizabeth had never fallen in love, nor found someone she believed herself capable of loving. Hertfordshire society was limited; the only available men of marrying age were old childhood friends, fortune-hunters, or had already engaged their affections elsewhere.
Her sincere admiration was given only to those dearest to her; she did not suffer fools gladly, nor was she inclined to excuse the foibles of those around her with the ease that Jane did. Elizabeth was a studier of character, like her father, and as she grew older, she became less and less satisfied with what she saw in the personalities of her neighbors and friends.
Additionally, the occasionally heartless behavior of her father toward her mother whom he had married "for love" had given her a somewhat cynical view of marriage based on affection. She and Jane had always declared that they would not marry but for the deepest regard, but as the years passed and Elizabeth found no one to please her exacting standards, she grew doubtful that such happiness as was in the fairy tales and novelettes was indeed possible to find in this age of arranged matches.
Thus, it was not at all a surprise that Elizabeth had prepared herself for the chance that she might, at some point in the future, be married to a man who was not her ideal for a husband. She was an heiress of sorts. She had a responsibility to her family. So, with some pain, she had left her girlish thoughts of sweeping romance behind.
Pulling off her bonnet, Elizabeth let the ribbons trail behind her as she turned down the path that would lead her back to Longbourn. The sun was beginning to rise, and undoubtedly the rest of the family would be down in the breakfast room soon.
The dew-sprinkled grass crinkled under her slippers as she approached the house. Longbourn was a handsome manor, rustic compared to the grandeur of Netherfield Park but still a sight to be seen in the early morning light.
As she neared, however, her mother's voice blasted through the silence, calling for the housekeeper, Mrs. Hill. Elizabeth smiled to herself as she opened the door and let herself in, starting down the hallway to the breakfast parlor. The library door creaked open as she passed, and from it issued a softly-spoken, "Lizzy?"
Cheerfully, Elizabeth went to the door to give her father a kiss. "Good morning, Papa. You are up early today."
"Your sisters woke me," said he, "with their quibbling. Apparently an unattended bonnet was the source of the disturbance. I expect they should return any moment."
The word bonnet' was all Elizabeth needed hear to identify the pair. "Did Kitty and Lydia go to the village? I've never seen them up before nine."
Mr. Bennet shrugged. "I suspect the millinery might have something to do with it. In any case, I was given an extra hour of peace." He tapped the book in his hand. Elizabeth glanced at the title The Prince. He saw her expression and smiled. "Nothing like Machiavelli to enliven one's morning."
Her reply was cut off by the pounding of footsteps on the staircase. Father and daughter turned to see Mrs. Bennet hastening toward them, clearly in the throes of a nervous fit, with Jane trailing placidly behind her, and a not-so-placid Hill bringing up the rear of the strange procession.
Mr. Bennet's brow rose, and with a pat and a murmured, "God bless you, child," he shut himself securely in the library and left Elizabeth to the mercy of her mother.
"Such a commotion, my dear Lizzy!" Mrs. Bennet cried, fluttering her handkerchief wildly. "There is such an uproar in the village my nerves can scarce take it! Oh, I knew that my Jane could not be so beautiful for nothing! Our prayers are answered!"
Continuing her rapturous monologue, she disappeared into the breakfast room, Hill scurrying in after her, smelling salts at the ready. Jane drew Elizabeth aside. "Mr. Bingley is holding a ball in a fortnight," she said, coloring faintly, "and Mama has just received the invitation."
Elizabeth gazed at her sister knowingly, causing Jane to turn positively pink. "Do not look at me so, Lizzy," she protested. "Mr. Bingley has given us no greater attention than bestowing an invitation early, despite what Mama says. He is simply being kind and ...and... ...neighborly."
"If you say so, Jane." With that, she linked her arm through her sister's and the two followed Mrs. Bennet into the room. Upon seeing her girls, Mrs. Bennet immediately began her joyous celebration anew, praising Jane's beauty and goodness. Her magnanimity expanded to include her other daughters, Mr. Bingley, Mr. Bingley's sisters, and other villagers she even spared a kind word for that scheming Mrs. Long and her grasping nieces.
Unable to settle down long enough to eat a bite, Mrs. Bennet soon retired to her rooms with a pot of tea and two phials of salts. Jane and Elizabeth were left in blessed peace, and they talked quietly until Mr. Bennet came in for some toast and a bit of intelligent conversation.
Their father had not been five minutes at the table before the two youngest Bennets made their dramatic entrance. Contrary to Mr. Bennet's surmise, Kitty and Lydia did not carry any hat-boxes. However, they did come bearing some delicious news.
After five minutes of garbled explanation amid numerous interruptions, giggles, and snorts the story emerged. It seemed that the two girls, upon crossing the main road to the draper's, had spied a young gentleman unknown in the neighborhood and of more than common good looks.
"Lord, but he is ever so handsome," Kitty giggled, having recovered her wits enough to speak coherently.
"He has dark hair and is astonishingly tall," Lydia added, "and Lizzy, he has the most beautiful brown eyes!"
Kitty made a squealing sound that undoubtedly indicated her agreement, and presumably would have said something on the subject had not Mr. Bennet felt it time to intervene.
"It would seem, Lizzy," he said dryly, "that your sisters have fixed upon marrying this young man, though I rather wonder how he is to accomplish it, given that there are, indeed, two of them. Perhaps bigamy is all the fashion in the north now. In fact, now that I think of it, if he is to take off with Lydia and Kitty, he may as well marry the rest of you too and have done with it."
Elizabeth bit back a smile.
The door squeaked as Mary came into the room and settled down at the table, filling her plate and taking a prayer book from her pocket.
"Oh, Mary, did you hear about our new neighbor!" Kitty shrilled, happy to share the news with anyone. "Lydia and I saw the most charming man in the village, with great brown eyes and black hair and..."
"Mr. Darcy, I presume?" Mary asked, not looking up from her book.
There was a momentary silence. "Mr. Darcy?" Lydia exclaimed. "La, Mary, how should you know who he was? Did you see him?"
"Yes. I met him."
"You met him!" Lydia and Kitty chorused, neither one attempting to conceal their astonishment.
The others waited for her continue, but she dipped her head back to the book and absorbed herself in the text.
She jerked up to look at her sister in bewilderment. "What?"
"Tell us, mutton-head," Lydia snapped. "Where did you meet Mr. Darcy? Who is he?"
Mary scowled and adjusted her spectacles impatiently. "I met him when I went to visit Dr. Lawrence at the parsonage yesterday morning. He was very civil."
"The parsonage?" Lydia sounded appalled. "Why would he be at the parsonage?"
"He's the new curate, of course."
"The curate?" the two girls cried.
"Good lord, the curate," Mr. Bennet repeated dryly. "My poor girls; such disillusionment is not healthy for young minds. Perhaps you ought not to think overmuch in the next few days you may strain yourselves."
Lydia ignored her father. "Is he truly a curate, Mary? Are you sure he wasn't just visiting that boring old Dr. So-and-so? Oh, but such a man can't be a clergyman!" She threw her fork down in disgust.
Mary lifted her nose. "He is a curate, Lydia he told me so himself. He held a position at a parish in Derbyshire, but received an offer from Dr. Lawrence after Mr. Bailey married Miss Stephens and moved to Bath. Besides," she went on, "physical appearance is not the godly way to judge. Beauty is no less fragile than the petals of a spring flower when the winter of age blows in, the flower of youth and attraction must also wither and die."
There was a brief silence.
"Thank you, Mary," Mr. Bennet murmured, shooting Elizabeth a glance from behind his newspaper.
Face awash with delight, Charles Bingley took the parsonage steps three at a time to eagerly grasp his old friend's hand. Darcy laughed aloud and drew Bingley into a warm embrace before pulling back to study him. The years hadn't changed Bingley one jot; he still looked like an overgrown schoolboy with his curly blond hair, round blue eyes, and cheery smile.
"Charles, it's wonderful to see you again," he said at last. "You haven't altered at all."
"And you have," Bingley said with an air of indignance. "Dash it if you haven't grown another six inches at least. At this rate I shall never catch up."
The two grinned at each other. The difference in their heights had long been a source of amusement to any who chanced to see them walking together Darcy loomed at least a head and a half above his companion, who had oft bemoaned the disadvantage of being but barely of medium height.
"Charles, must I sit here while you blither, or will you introduce me?" A woman's sharp voice, coming from the carriage on the drive, cut into the friends' reunion. Bingley, apologizing profusely, helped the lady out of the conveyance and introduced her as his sister, Caroline.
Darcy bowed politely over her hand, silently taking her measure. Miss Bingley was a very handsome woman, with a Grecian profile and golden hair done up in a sophisticated coronet of curls. Her clothes, of the finest burgundy silk and ivory lace, were styled in the latest fashion and seemed oddly out of the place next to the dilapidated parsonage.
But however pretty her face, her manners did not please. Darcy saw her blue eyes, cold rather than bright like her brother's, pass over his face and plain clothes with a look of contempt, and she bestowed upon the cottage and grounds equal disdain.
"A pleasure, Mr. Darcy," she said with no conviction.
"How do you find Hertfordshire, madam?" Darcy asked. "I hope you and your brother are enjoying yourselves."
Miss Bingley made a sound that had it come from one less elegant would have been called a snort. "I find, sir, that Charles and I are certainly a long way from Grosvenor Square. As to enjoying ourselves, I cannot say."
"And where is Georgiana?" Bingley said suddenly, covering up the awkward pause. "I have not seen your sister since she was...what was it? Eight or nine? I would wager she has become as beautiful and gracious as your mother was."
"She is both," Darcy said, unable to keep the hint of pride from his voice, "but unfortunately she has gone for a walk this morning. We were not expecting visitors, or she certainly would have stayed to greet you."
"It is of no importance," Bingley said easily, "for I'm sure we shall meet her at our ball. Won't we, Caroline?"
Miss Bingley's head shot up at this, and a look of horror overcame her indifferent countenance. "Pardon me, Charles?"
"Oh, did I forget to mention it?" Bingley shook his head. "You'll forgive me, Will, but I swear my mind is in a whirl. Was I always this forgetful? What I meant to tell you is that Caroline and I are giving a ball in a fortnight, and you and your sister are invited, of course."
Miss Bingley looked as though she longed to protest, but good breeding or perhaps pride kept her mouth closed.
"Come now, Will," Bingley cajoled, seeing his friend's uncertain expression. "I know you love to dance. Besides, it will be a wonderful opportunity to meet all your parishioners. Everyone is at their best in a ballroom."
"Thank you, Charles," Darcy said, knowing from experience that as biddable as he seemed Bingley would not give up a point if he was determined. "I will speak to Georgiana about it as soon as she returns." Opening the door wider, he added, "Will you come in? I'll have Martha put on some tea."
Miss Bingley set one foot in the door and stopped, crinkling her nose. "What is that smell?"
"Our housekeeper was making soap this morning," Darcy said. "I'm afraid the strong scent is simply an unfortunate result."
Miss Bingley waved her brother and his friend away. "I'm going to fetch my scented handkerchief, Charles. Go on without me." And without another word, she turned heel and went back down the stairs.
Bingley looked rather dismayed at his sister's behavior. Darcy gave him a reassuring smile and led him down the hallway to the parlor. Before they arrived in the room, however, Sir Francis approached to greet the new visitor.
Bingley looked a bit startled to find a duck standing calmly before his feet, but in a moment he grinned. "A pet and not your dinner, I hope?"
"Sir Francis Drake," Darcy said with a smile.
Bingley laughed, reaching down to scratch Sir Francis's head like he would one of his hounds. Sir Francis made a sound not unlike a purr. "Well, he seems friendly! Where in the world did you find him?"
"Georgiana found him in the hedgerow last year. He was just hatched and very small, apparently left behind by his mother. Georgiana brought him inside to keep him warm and took care of him." He shrugged, the affection in his voice belying his indifferent manner. "I suppose he decided the outdoors didn't suit him; he's been with us ever since."
Sir Francis, glorying in the attention, quacked again and waddled into the parlor. The two men were about to follow when Martha approached, wiping her hands on her apron. The introductions were quickly made.
"Would it be too much trouble to have some refreshment, Martha?" Darcy asked. "Some tea, and maybe a few of those excellent biscuits you made yesterday."
Miss Bingley returned just at that moment, clutching a delicate scrap of silk to her nose. She spotted the odd group and frowned. Martha came forward with an open hand and a smile to welcome her, but Miss Bingley, after eyeing the rough-hewn palm and stained apron, glided past the servant and into the parlor.
Martha looked not the least bit perturbed. "Would you like some sweet rolls too, Mr. Bingley?"
"I wager you would most gents have a sweet tooth."
"Thank you, Martha," Darcy said, "but take your time. You're already busy enough."
"Nonsense, Mr. D! I'll put the kettle on and it will be done in a trice."
As the woman bustled out, Bingley turned to look at his friend quizzically. "Mr. D?"
"My sister is Miss D," Darcy said dryly, "and even Sir Francis is Sir F."
Bingley's lips twitched. "Is she incapable of saying full names or just inordinately fond of the alphabet?"
Both men started at Miss Bingley's exclamation from the parlor. "Is something wrong, Caroline?"
Miss Bingley was standing in the corner, backed against the cabinet. At the sight of her brother, she jabbed her finger in the direction of the chaise. Sir Francis sat comfortably on a cushion, watching Miss Bingley with an air of disinterest.
"Mercy's sake, Caroline, it's only a duck." Bingley withdrew his head and started to step away when his sister angrily retorted, "Oh, yes, how silly of me! Everyone has a duck in their drawing room. What was I thinking?" She made a little shooing motion with one hand. "Charles, chase it outside this instant!"
"Miss Bingley, I assure you that he will do you no harm. He is quite tame." Nonetheless, Darcy came into the room ushered Sir Francis off to the corner by the fireplace.
The lady looked a bit mollified by the duck's banishment, and her spirits were soon sufficiently recovered to allow her to resume her inspection of the premises. Her eyes drifted over the discolored fabric on the chairs and the scuffed wood floors, and she made her displeasure with her surroundings abundantly clear.
Bingley, oblivious to his sister's silent rudeness, immediately launched into conversation with his friend, inquiring after Reverend Fallows and the parsonage at Kympton. Miss Bingley seemed to perk up at the mention of Pemberley.
"You are acquainted with the Wickhams of Pemberley?" Her eyes, suddenly alight with a look that Darcy could not like, surveyed him as she might a particularly fine piece of horseflesh. "Do you associate often with Mr. Wickham?"
Darcy was quick to put down any false expectations. "We have not spoken for many years, madam."
Upon hearing this, Miss Bingley had nothing further to say. Bored with the gentlemen's conversation, she rose and took a turn about the room, amusing herself by comparing the parsonage to Netherfield's opulence. She had paused before the looking-glass over the mantle to admire her reflection when she felt something tugging on the back of her dress.
Miss Bingley looked down, and, to her horror, found that the duck was standing insolently on her train. With a shriek she jerked the fabric out from under the muddy webbed feet, knocking the poor creature over.
In a frenzy she batted at her gown, smeared with dirt. "Filthy, repulsive animal! Charles! Charles, help me!"
Darcy and Bingley came running, the former scooping up Sir Francis, who, in a state of true outrage, was now attempting to bite Caroline's ankles. Bingley, seeing that no true harm had come to his sister, directed her to a chair, and when she continued to fuss, he said impatiently, "For heaven's sake, Caroline, there's no reason to be so overwrought. He didn't do anything to you."
"My gown is ruined!" she wailed, showing him the smudged silk.
Darcy, after tossing a protesting Sir Francis out of the room, approached to survey the damage. "I do apologize, Miss Bingley. I am certain that Martha will easily be able to clean the stain. It is only mud."
"Only mud?" She whirled on him angrily. "This dress was made by Madame Brusseau; I paid more money for it than you earn in a year!"
"Caroline!" Bingley shot Darcy an apologetic look.
Darcy shook his head to assure his friend that no offense had been taken. "Come, Miss Bingley. At least allow Martha to see to it before the stain settles it is the least I can do."
"No!" She flew up from her seat. "You have done more than enough. Charles, take me home."
Bingley gave Darcy another look of abject mortification but seemed powerless to refuse his sister. "Very well, Caroline. Get in the chaise and I'll be out directly."
The lady lifted her head and swept from the room, ignoring her host's cordial farewell. The front door slammed, rattling the cloak-stand by the wall. "I am terribly sorry, Darcy. Caroline can be...well, she can be a bit unpleasant at times. I apologize for any insult she may have given you or your housekeeper."
"There is no need to apologize it certainly isn't the first time such a thing has happened, nor do I expect it will be the last. Think nothing of it."
"Generous as ever," Bingley said in relief. "Will you come to dinner tomorrow night? I've been waiting to reminisce about Cambridge with you all week. You will come, won't you?"
"Of course." The two men shook hands, and Bingley, recalling that his sister was waiting impatiently in the coach, said his goodbyes and hastened out the door. Darcy waited until the sound of wheels crunching over the gravel faded before slumping down into a chair with a sigh.
A few seconds later, Martha bustled into the room with a fully laden tea tray. She stopped in surprise upon viewing the deserted room. "Why, where are all your guests, sir?"
Darcy rose and relieved the housekeeper of her burden. "Miss Bingley found the parsonage not to her liking, I fear." He poured some tea and handed it to her. "She may not be back for some time."
"Pity." Martha accepted the cup and a few biscuits. "This isn't St. James's, but it's nothing if not comfortable. I suppose grand ladies like her are used to fancy houses and expensive furnishings."
"I think, Martha," Darcy said easily, "that it had little to do with the furnishings and much more to do with the wildlife."
A seemingly never-ending string of rainy days had kept Elizabeth and her sisters at home, left with nothing to do but cater to their mother's whims, which was never a pleasing task even without the unsavory weather.
When at last the sun showed its face on the fourth morning, Elizabeth broke out from her enforced confinement and walked with Jane down the road to Meryton. Though the lure of the militia camp was great, Kitty and Lydia had opted to stay at home and re-trim a few gowns, and Mary, after tartly informing her elder sisters that afternoons should be devoted to study and prayer, had sent them along with a request for a book from the lending library.
Jane, though not a great walker herself, had grasped eagerly at the chance to escape the house. Even a girl with her sweetness of temper could not tolerate Mrs. Bennet's complaints without some respite. Thus, the two set off down the marshy road, taking care to watch out for mud puddles.
For a few moments they walked in silence until Jane, with some hesitation, said, "You remember how Mama...enthused...over the invitation from Netherfield?"
"How could I forget?"
Jane colored and looked faintly vexed. "Lizzy, please! I wish to speak seriously very seriously and I beg that you do not tease me."
She immediately sobered, struck by the anxiety in her sister's voice. "I am sorry, Jane. What troubles you?"
"I plead with you to answer me honestly. Do not spare my feelings, Lizzy, nor make light of them. I ask you to give your true opinion." Jane could not look Elizabeth in the eye, but her manner was determined. "Do you believe that Mr. Bingley...do you think that it is possible... likely...that Mr. Bingley is...has an interest...in me?"
To say that Elizabeth was surprised by this application would be a broad understatement she was well-nigh astonished. On the subjects of love and emotion Jane was maddeningly reticent. During the previous two months, she had said naught of Mr. Bingley but to mention his kindness and praise him as the most amiable man of her acquaintance. Not a hint of any deeper feelings had been conveyed in word or action.
"I see you are shocked by my daring," Jane said, almost to herself, "and Lizzy, I would never be so presumptuous to assume he had any affection for me had not Mama seemed so fixed upon the point..."
"Jane, dearest, you misapprehend me. You are the most modest of creatures, and I know it. Have no fear. As to your question..." Elizabeth paused and gave herself a moment to think. Mr. Bingley displayed all the classic symptoms of infatuation it was glaringly apparent to anyone with eyes that his face verily lit up when he saw Jane. He hovered around her when she was in his company and moped about if she was not. He fetched her drinks and attended her like a personal servant. He hung onto her every word and always had something to say in return. If that was not interest, then Elizabeth didn't know what was. "I will be blunt, Jane. I believe that Mr. Bingley intends to offer you marriage. It would be a very great shock indeed if he did not ask for your hand by the end of this year."
Rather than relief, Jane's lovely face contorted into an expression of misery. Alarmed, Elizabeth reached out to steady her. "Jane?"
She fumbled for her handkerchief. "Oh, Lizzy, that is what I feared!"
For the second time, Elizabeth was dumbstruck at her sister's words. "But Jane! Fearful of marriage to Mr. Bingley? I thought you liked him."
Elizabeth gently drew her sister to the step of a fence-stile and made her sit down. She knelt next to her and took her hands. "You find me at a loss. You say you like Mr. Bingley, but you are afraid of him? Has he done something to you? Said something?"
Jane sniffled a little. "I am not afraid of him, Lizzy. He is very gentlemanly I do not believe him capable of willful cruelty."
"Then what is wrong?"
"You have seen with your own eyes how eager Mama is for a union between us," she said slowly, looking out unseeingly at the fields. "She says she believes that he will ask me to be his wife at the Netherfield Ball. If Mr. Bingley should propose, Mama has made it clear that she expects me to accept. There will be no argument on the subject."
Jane shook her head. "I am a coward, I know, but..." She looked at her clenched hands, and tears filled her eyes. "I am frightened, Lizzy. I believe I like Mr. Bingley more than any other man I have known, but I...I am not ready for marriage! How can I accept him if he is to ask me when I know so little of his heart?"
Elizabeth immediately reached out to embrace her, and Jane gladly accepted the offered commiseration. "My dear, you are not a coward," she assured her. "You are only uncertain. There is no shame in that."
For all her brave words, Elizabeth had no clearer idea of what to do than her sister. She merely gave Jane what reassurance she could, until inspiration struck with sudden clarity. Aunt Gardiner! She would write a letter to Aunt Gardiner! She would know exactly what to do; she always did.
"I will write this very night to our aunt," Elizabeth declared, squeezing Jane's delicate fingers comfortingly. "She will be sure to give us very sage advice, and then you may quit fretting! Mama is no fortune-teller, Jane it is not a fixed truth that Mr. Bingley will propose after two months of acquaintance. He will wait for a three-month at least."
Jane chuckled weakly. "You always make me feel better, Lizzy."
"I consider it my duty," Elizabeth said grandly, taking Jane's handkerchief to wipe away a few stray tears. "Now, take a few deep breaths, lest I have to wield my salts."
Giving Elizabeth a watery smile, Jane did as she was bid. After a brief period, she was composed enough to continue to Meryton, and the two headed down the lane. They did not speak again of Mr. Bingley, their mother, or the upcoming ball. Elizabeth instead entertained her sister with idle chit-chat. Nothing substantial was said, which suited Jane perfectly. It gave her extra time to arrange her thoughts, and by the time they had reached the village, she was nearly her old self again.
The girls stopped first in the mantuamaker's to overlook the new shipment of fabric. In the window was a lovely bolt of indigo silk that looked very well against Jane's pale skin, and they amused themselves by finding complimentary bits of cloth that could serve as trim.
They were soon joined by Maria Lucas, Charlotte's younger sister, who came in search of some ribbon. Maria, who was both prettier and considerably dimmer than Charlotte, was always cheerful, and Elizabeth was grateful for the distraction their neighbor's company would give her downcast sister.
"Mama says that you are to have a gentleman visitor next month," Maria said eagerly, coming over to pick through a pile of lace scraps. "Well, Lizzy? Who is he?"
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "Our cousin, Mr. Collins."
Maria's eyes widened. "Oh!"
Jane sighed a little, and Elizabeth shook her head. The visit was anticipated by no one. Mr. Collins, it just so happened, was to inherit Longbourn upon Mr. Bennet's demise. The estate had long been entailed away from the female line, and the gentleman, who was a rector in Kent, was the closest male cousin the Bennets had.
It was doubly fortunate that John Thurston had left his wealth to Mr. Bennet, for had the girls not received the extra funds, all five of them would have been in dire straits. Though the estate would eventually belong to another, the money belonged solely to the girls and Mrs. Bennet, and there was more than enough of it to rent out a comfortable home.
Mr. Collins himself was another matter entirely. Mr. Bennet had never before seen his cousin, but his wordy letters were a great source of amusement to the old gentleman. He had often remarked to Elizabeth that Mr. Collins appeared to him to be a perfect picture of ridiculousness, promising endless diversion.
Mr. Collins, who was under the patronage of a certain Lady Catherine de Bourgh (of whom he seemed unable to accolade with enough adulatory, alliterative adjectives), had written to say he would arrive early the next month and stay for a se'nnight.
Mr. Bennet had confessed a keen curiosity to view this peculiar parson for himself, but Mrs. Bennet was decidedly less anxious for his journey. She was plagued with a deep sense of bitterness and ill-use when she was put in mind of Mr. Collins, whom she considered a thief of the worst sort. Legalities and entailments meant nothing to her. She only knew that this ungrateful man would eventually take Longbourn from its rightful owners -- namely, her girls.
Mrs. Bennet's sole consolation was that Mr. Collins would not arrive in time for the Netherfield Ball. She threw herself into a tizzy with plans for the much-anticipated party, which allowed her to keep her mind off the more distasteful subject of their cousin.
The girls' browsing in the shop was soon finished with the purchase of some of the blue silk for gown hems. Determined to lift Jane's spirits yet further, Elizabeth sent her off to look over some satin trimmings with Maria while she made a furtive visit to the confectioner's. The shop stocked Jane's favorite candied almonds, and Elizabeth purchased a box, planning to slip it in her sister's room as a surprise.
Tucking the package in her reticule, she dropped into the lending library before returning for Jane. She found Mary's books and selected a few romances for Jane and a volume of poetry for herself. After making arrangements to have them delivered to Longbourn later as they were too heavy for her to carry herself she left the shop. The sun was already mid-sky, and Elizabeth knew that Mrs. Bennet was undoubtedly awaiting their return with great impatience. She quickened her pace and set off in pursuit of her sister.
Turning the corner, Elizabeth took a step and walked into something hard and unyielding. She felt herself slipping, frantically grabbed fistfuls of air, and promptly toppled over.