Beginning, Section IIJump to new as of March 23, 2010
He placed it under his mattress, thinking of how well concealed it had been in Mr. Ridgeway's office, and wary of the insecurity of such an obvious hiding place. After several minutes thought yielded no ideas for another location in the sparsely furnished room, he resigned himself to it. If things went as planned, he would not be responsible for it for very long.
Bingley refused to think of how few things had gone according to plan thus far.
He slept surprisingly well that night, and was early to the breakfast table. Mrs. Hill was still giving him cross looks, but Bingley was determined to ignore her. He saw the end of all of this in sight, and it seemed little could spoil his mood that morning.
Jane Bennet was on his mind all day.
He loved her.
Well, he had fallen in love with a few women in his life. He liked women. Most of the young ladies he had met impressed him in some way or another. It did not require a great deal to catch his attention, that he would freely admit. He had fallen in love with a sweet smile, a soft laugh, a graceful walk, a kind manner, and a gentle temper. It was only that he had never fallen in love with all of those things in the same woman.
He wanted her to be his wife.
That was something very different. He had only wanted to marry one woman before Miss Bennet. Since then, he had rarely thought of marriage, and it had been only a far away thing, something to be contemplated for a vague future time. He had pictured a wife for himself, children, but it had never been more than a fanciful daydream to fill a dull carriage ride.
Miss Bennet was something far more than that.
Now every thought of matrimony that entered his head had her at its core. The thought of wife and the thought of Jane Bennet had become one and the same. He could not imagine himself with anyone else.
That he had met her under such circumstances!
He pushed that thought away. He did not even know her feelings. He thought she had, sometimes, shown regard for him, but he could not read her as he would have liked. Her mind and thoughts were entirely her own. He would have given his entire fortune to know the secrets there.
Well, perhaps not his entire fortune.
They'd never let him marry Miss Bennet without it.
And he really did despise working.
He passed her in the hall that evening, and she gave him a small smile that made him feel like he was floating. He wanted to stop her and engage her in conversation, but before he could even begin to tell himself why that was an unwise idea, Mr. Collins came and insisted she be his partner at whist.
The next day was Sunday. Matty had invited him each Sunday to take a meal at her house, insisting her family would be glad to have him. He had declined each invitation for reasons both just and selfish. He felt amiss taking hospitality from those who could ill afford to extend it, and, though he had become rather fond of Matty, he could not imagine a pleasant evening spent in the company of her family.
She was so pressing this day, however, that Bingley saw no way to decline without seeming rude, and after the Bible reading, he found himself walking toward Netherfield. His destination was not the large house with its fine furniture and well-appointed parlors, but a small home with a thatched roof and only three rooms. There was a garden in the back and a few chickens in the yard. The house had a shabby, unkempt appearance, but it was not dilapidated.
A young boy of perhaps six greeted him at the door, and three more boys sat inside. One, clearly the eldest, upon a stool, and the other two on the floor by the fire. The house was sparsely furnished, and some things looked much worn, but it was surprisingly neat. Matty had run ahead of him after he had accepted her invitation, and she must have told her mother there would be company, because the three younger boys wore the look of children everywhere who had recently been forced to wash against their will, and Mrs. Evans had the nervous, bustling look of a woman eager to show her home to best effect.
He smiled and bowed, and was taken aback when Mrs. Evans came forward to shake hands with him. She was a small woman of middle years, with hair more gray than brown tucked up under a simple cap. Her cheeks were slightly sunken from the loss of too many teeth. She greeted him with a soft "welcome."
Bingley made the appropriate greetings and comments. There was one large main room, with a fire and a sitting area and a table. A door to one side led off presumably to the bedrooms. Bingley was invited to be seated on a wooden chair by the fire. He glanced around, attempting to think of something to say.
The boys eyed him with expressions ranging from boredom to annoyance. Likely they held him responsible for their unwelcome appointment with a basin of cold water.
Mr. Evans sat close by the fire. He appeared some years older than his wife, and wore a beard that was not well trimmed. He was missing two fingers on his left hand. He greeted Bingley with a nod and returned his attention to the fire.
Bingley looked at the picture over the fire. It was a cheap print, poorly framed. There was little else of decoration in the house, but he looked around anyway, trying to think of a topic to raise. At the servants table at Longbourn he had been able to fall back on the work of the day as a subject of conversation, but here he was uncertain. Years of making himself agreeable in sitting rooms and clubs did not seem to be of use now. He doubted anyone here cared to discuss the recent performances at Drury Lane.
Matty was oddly quiet, helping her mother set the table and putting out the food.
Mr. Evans paid him very little mind on any account. The boys were soon tired of sitting politely, and began squabbling and fighting with each other. Bingley had never attended a dinner where the children were anything more than an after-dinner entertainment and was uncertain how to react, but as no one else seemed to notice them, neither did he.
The eldest boy, Philip, appeared to be about fourteen, which Bingley assumed to be an age of some rationality, but he seemed determined to behave as his father, staring into the fire and ignoring the world around him. Bingley made a few polite remarks, and was met with short answers. He soon gave up the cause entirely. Philip seemed only sullen, and determined to be disagreeable. In Mr. Evans, however, there was a certain weariness which made his reluctance to speak seem less ill-natured than his son's. Bingley looked at his slumped shoulders and tired eyes and felt guilty for intruding on the man when he very likely only wanted to be alone with his family on his one day of rest.
Two of the younger boys wrestled and fought until Mrs. Evans came forward and grabbed each one by the arm. "Quiet with you, or I'll switch you 'till you bleed!" she hissed fiercely, then looked at Bingley with an apologetic smile.
Bingley glanced at Matty, who was blushing terribly. The boys fells silent for a time, and then began to poke at each other again, but before it could escalate, they were thankfully seated at dinner. To use the vulgar phrase, it was not a spread such as would take the wrinkles out of one's belly, but Bingley was determined to be grateful for it.
He was invited by Mrs. Evans to say a prayer before the meal which, judging by the groan of one of the younger boys, was not the common practice of the house.
"Matty has told me about you," Mrs. Evans said when they had begun to eat. That drew a snort from Philip, but he only continued to shovel food into his mouth. "She says you've had learning."
He nodded. "Yes, ma'am. My uncle was a curate. He taught me to read and write, and even some Latin."
"Say something in Latin," Sam, one of the younger boys, demanded.
"Omnia praesumuntur legitime facta donec probetur in contrarium."
"What does that mean?" the youngest of them, John, asked.
"All things are presumed to be lawfully done until proven to be the reverse. Id est, I am innocent unless you can prove that I am not. I believe my uncle rued the day he taught me that phrase."
Matty laughed, and even the younger boys looked impressed.
"Omnia praesumtun...say it again."
"None of that," Mr. Evans said, not loudly, but with a force that quieted the table.
Bingley cleared his throat. "Quite right. 'tis a dangerous phrase in the hands of a boy. Mrs. Evans should be hearing it all the time when she discovered muddy tracks across her floor."
Matty gave him a grateful smile, but Mr. Evans chose not to let the matter drop.
"My boys won't never speak like them that think a little learning gives 'em the right to look down on honest folk. A man knows how to use his hands, that's all he needs to know."
"Nah. He needs to know how to use his arbor vitae too," Philip said. He laughed. "See, I knows a little Latin my own self."
Bingley looked at the women, but they appeared not to have caught the meaning, or were too accustomed to such vulgarity to react to it. Mr. Evans gave his son a cross look, but said nothing.
The subject was changed to the weather, then to local gossip. The conversation was carried on mainly between Matty and her mother, with Bingley participating when he could. He could not but marvel at how restrained Matty was among her family.
"Aye," Matty said. "The missus has a mind to marry Miss Bennet to Mr. Collins, and she's a fair chance at it, I suppose. I ain't never known Miss Bennet to do nothing to make the missus upset. I suppose the master would smile on the match too."
Bingley stared at his plate. The supremely unwelcome image of Miss Bennet at the altar with Mr. Collins came unbidden to his mind. So distracted was he, that he lost the track of the conversation until he heard Mr. Evans say, "Stop your jabbering girl. You chatter like a magpie."
Bingley looked at Matty. She was staring down at her hands, her face quite red.
"Ah, quit your blushing," Philip said, heedless of the food in his mouth. "It don't suit to put on such airs." He looked at Bingley. "She wouldn't never care but for you're here. She 'as a fancy for you."
"She's in love," Sam said, following the lead of brother. "I caught her telling mother all about you. She thinks your the handsomest man she's ever met."
Matty raised her eyes to him for just a moment. They shone brightly. He thought he saw her mother take her hand under the table. Mr. Evans did not appear to be paying attention, and was only rubbing his forehead with his hand. He seemed almost too exhausted to eat, much less pay more than occasional attention to his family.
"That is quite the compliment," Bingley said. "Especially as Matty has spent so much time in the estimable company of Mr. Collins. I am surprised that with such a specimen of the male sex in front of her daily, she even thinks of me."
No one at the table but Matty and Bingley could understand the joke, but Bingley laughed and Mrs. Evans followed his lead. Even Mr. Evans was troubled to snort. Matty did her best to laugh with them. Bingley managed to raise the subject of politics, which somehow led to a mention of the Navy, and as Sam had a great desire to go to sea, the remainder of dinner was taken up with the topic.
Fortunately he was not made to stay long after dinner. Mrs. Evans raised the idea of cards, but neither Mr. Evans nor any of the boys could abide the idea of playing, and Matty seemed worn out and would not meet his eye.
As he prepared to leave, Bingley said to Matty, "The lanes are dark, and I am not certain I know my way. Perhaps you would come out with me and direct me on which is the way to Longbourn?"
She walked out with him. When they had gotten a little ways from the house, he turned to her.
"I want you to know that you need not feel anxious or awkward around me. I do not share your feelings, but I hope we can still be friends." He held out his hand.
She took it after a pause, and pressed it gratefully. "I'm so very sorry, it ain't like I meant for that to be said. I could have killed Philip where he sat. If I'd thought in a thousand years he would have done something like that, I never would've asked you to come."
"You need not apologize. No young woman should have her heart so cruelly exposed."
It was dark, and the moon was little more than a sliver, but he thought he saw a tear on her cheek. "Thank you."
He pressed her hand, and left her. When he saw her at breakfast the next morning, she blushed and stammered a bit, but when Jeb put his hand on Tilly's shoulder during breakfast, Matty gave him a significant look, and was soon very much like herself again.
He came across Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth that morning. They were seated close by one another while Miss Elizabeth played the pianoforte and Miss Bennet turned the pages. He caught himself staring at her, examining the curl of her hair and the way her fichu lay upon her shoulders. He tried to catch her eye as he left the room, but she did not turn her attention to him. He was as likely as not going to have his own heart broken soon. There was a certain irony in that, given his conversation with Matty the night before.
He had watch of the house that night, and he wandered through it, soft on his feet. It occurred to him as he moved through the silence that he could have waited until such a night to search Mr. Ridgeway's office, but the thought of searching it by candlelight assured him that he had chosen correctly.
He wanted that packet out of his hands. He wanted done with this.
When he was freed of his duty, he slept for several hours, then walked to Meryton, the papers in his pocket. Fitzwilliam had said he would try to be in Meryton each afternoon, but Bingley saw him nowhere. He did see three of the Misses Bennet--Miss Kitty, Miss Lydia, and Miss Elizabeth--speaking to two militia officers, but he could only nod to them as he passed. Miss Elizabeth was the only one who took notice of him and inclined her head.
He wandered through town idly. He had brought some money with him, but there was little he was inclined to buy. Ducking into the tavern for a drink and a meal was tempting, but might have meant missing Fitzwilliam if he came, and he could not risk that.
He felt the now too-familiar grip of anxiety when he saw them. Mr. Gallagher was walking with a man of average build and average height. He was blandly handsome and well dressed, but not ostentatiously so. He looked the model of a country gentleman, not the picture of a future marquess. Bingley knew that Lord Walden was also exceptionally intelligent and very charming, but that was not something that was obvious on first glance. Bingley turned away as soon as he saw him, and could only pray that he had not been seen. Lord Walden was known to Bingley mainly by what Ashbourne and Fitzwilliam had told him, but they had been in company at balls and the theater in London, and though they had never been formally introduced, he could not trust that Lord Walden would not remember him.
He slipped into the tavern, where the two militia officers he had seen with the Miss Bennets were seated, talking animatedly over their beers. He managed to get himself a seat by the window, but not in front of it, so that he could see but, he hoped, not be seen.
Lord Walden was speaking with Mr. Gallagher when Fitzwilliam arrived in town. He noted with interest that Lord Walden's reaction to Fitzwilliam was much the same as Bingley's reaction had been to Lord Walden. He ducked his head and turned away, clearly not wishing to be recognized. Bingley could not tell whether Fitzwilliam had seen Lord Walden. He continued to walk, stopping occasionally to look into stores, seemingly without a care or thought, but Bingley knew how well Fitzwilliam could affect an air of unconcern. He did not trust anything at this point.
"They are pretty enough," one of the militia officers was saying behind him.
"Come now, Wickham, they're prime articles, especially the youngest."
"I am partial to the elder. Though she has not quite the catching figure of her sister, I defy you to say the younger is more handsome of face. Also, the elder has spirit. Never underestimate spirit, Denny. I cannot abide a woman without it."
Miss Bennet was not what one would call spirited. She was calm and gentle, with a sweet manner, and she always spoke to soothe, never to provoke. Bingley thought he could abide that perfectly well.
Denny laughed. "I suppose you will attempt to woo her by telling her your sad tale of woe."
"Would that it were but a sad tale," Wickham said seriously. "You know not how frustrating it can be to meet such women and know that I cannot form any serious regard for them. I ought to be free to marry as I wish, not forced into seeing women through the lens of their dowry."
"You have been terribly ill-used, Wickham, but you ought not to allow it to make you so low. Come, let me buy you another beer."
"You are too good, my friend," Wickham said, and ordered another beer and a plate of cold meat.
By the time Bingley dared to leave the tavern, Fitzwilliam, Mr. Gallagher, and Lord Walden had all gone. He returned to Longbourn by a very circuitous path, and though he tried to think only of Lord Walden, and whether he had been seen, and what he must do about it if he had, his mind was taken up with Jane Bennet.
There were matters to consider. The entail gave him pause. Very little pause, to be sure, but supporting five women--he had seen enough of Mr. Collins's character to know that the man would do little of any real use to his cousins while congratulating himself on his generosity--was not a matter to be dismissed out of hand. Still, Mr. Bennet could live many years more, and he did not doubt that most of the girls had fair prospects of making good matches, especially if he brought them to London for a season or two.
His sisters would no doubt scorn the match. Connections in trade! Brother, what are you thinking? They had long hoped that his connection to Ashbourne would lead to a brilliant match, perhaps even with Ashbourne's sister Lady Mary. Had his mind not been weighed down with so many anxieties, he would have laughed at the irony.
Yet, all of those concerns mattered not, if Jane would not even accept him, or if she accepted her cousin before he even had a chance to present his suit.
That he had met her under such circumstances!
His mind went round and round with possibilities, but settled on nothing. He finally returned to Longbourn in time for supper, and retired to his room shortly after. He expected to sleep little that night, but so exhausted was he from the intrigues and anxieties, that he was asleep nearly as soon as his head touched the pillow.
Posted on: 2010-03-13
"Do you think I should get down on one knee? I had thought to get down on one knee, but if she don't say yes, then I'm on my knee like a fool."
Bingley shook his head and turned to Jeb. "I cannot say."
"This is going to be awful, I know it. She won't never accept me. I'm a fool anyway."
"Most people are, when they are in love."
Jeb leaned against the side of the stables and stared up at the overcast autumn sky. There was a chill in the air again today. Bingley had fortunately remembered his gloves, though the wind that kicked up his hair seemed to cut through them.
Bingley jumped. Mrs. Hill was harder to hear coming on the soft ground than on the hard floors in the house.
"Ma'am. I was only--"
"Mr. Bennet would see you in his study," she said. Something in her manner gave him pause. She seemed almost pleased to send him to Mr. Bennet, which could not possibly bode well for him.
The door to Mr. Bennet's study was slightly open, and he could hear inside Mr. Gallagher's voice. "--am very sorry to trouble you. I do hope that I am wrong."
Bingley knocked softly on the frame of the door and was admitted. Mr. Bennet sat behind his desk, looking very grave.
"Close the door, Charles."
Bingley did, and stood before them both, his hands at his sides. He forced his fists to unclench.
Mr. Bennet cleared his throat. "Mr. Gallagher has discovered something missing from his house. A silver dish. He says that he has questioned all of his own servants, and searched his house, and been unable to find it. He further says that it was last seen the day you visited his house. What have you to say?"
"Am I being accused of something, sir?"
"You are being questioned," Mr. Bennet said. "That is all."
"If that is all then I will say that I have no recollection of any such dish. I took very little notice of Mr. Gallagher's house while I was there. I was only ever in the kitchen, in fact."
"What do you recall from that day?"
"I delivered the pheasants as instructed. I met Nell, Miss Cunningham's maid, who was known to me previously, and we spoke for a time."
"Have you been to his house since? Have you met with anyone from his house?"
Mr. Bennet leaned forward, placing his elbows on his desk and lacing his fingers, tapping his thumbs together as he thought. "I believe you. However, Mr. Gallagher says that one of his servants claims to have seen you briefly leave the kitchen, and has asked that your room be searched. I am inclined to allow the search. What say you to that?"
Bingley's heart beat wildly in his chest. For a moment he feared he would not be able to speak at all. If he refused, it would certainly be taken as an admission of guilt, and the room would be searched in any case. "I...I have nothing in my room that could possibly be of interest to anyone. If you would care to search it, you may."
He was allowed to be present while Mr. Ridgeway searched the room. He up sent a wild, frantic, desperate prayer that the papers would somehow fail to be discovered while he cursed himself for leaving them in his room instead of keeping it on his person. Mr. Ridgeway walked straight to the table by the bed and pulled out the drawer. He frowned deeply and seemed almost flustered when he saw what was there.
He took out Bingley's shaving kit. "This is very nice. Where did you get it?"
"A gift, sir, from my former employer."
"An unusually kind gift."
"He was nearly attacked by a rabid dog. I managed to shoot the beast before it could get to him. He was very grateful." That was in fact true, though Edgeworth had given him nothing in exchange for his help, and had only toasted him at dinner that night.
Mr. Ridgeway tore the room apart then, checking behind the pictures, under the chair and table. There were very few places that something could be hidden in the sparse room, as Bingley well knew. He tossed the blankets from the bed, and checked under the pillow. Finally, inevitably, he lifted the mattress and Bingley froze, cold sweat breaking out on his neck.
Mr. Ridgeway let the mattress drop. "Nothing."
Bingley managed not to say anything, but his mind spun frantically.
Mr. Ridgeway crossed to him. "Give me your coat."
Bingley took it off and watched while he searched the pockets. When he removed Miss Bennet's handkerchief, Mr. Bennet frowned.
"Why is my daughter's handkerchief in your pocket?"
"She gave it to me when I...hurt myself. I got blood on it and the blood would not come out. She allowed me to keep it."
Mr. Bennet shook his head and pocketed it. "She ought not to have done that."
Mr. Ridgeway was still holding his coat, but Mr. Bennet called an end to the matter before he could be asked to take off anything else, and Mr. Ridgeway thrust the garment back at him almost angrily.
"I trust you are satisfied," Mr. Bennet said to Mr. Gallagher.
Mr. Gallagher seemed somewhat confused, but only nodded and made some apologies to Mr. Bennet and to Bingley.
"May I have a few minutes to put my room back together?" Bingley asked and Mr. Bennet gave the permission.
When they had gone, Bingley sat down heavily onto the bed. His hands were shaking and he wanted to vomit. He moved mechanically while he put his room together and went through the rest of the day miserable with anxiety. He skipped supper altogether.
When he went down to his room, he saw the papers waiting for him on the pillow.
He was too overcome with relief to even try to make sense of it at that moment, but the matter occupied his mind for the whole of the next day.
Thursday came and he met Fitzwilliam outside as he and Ashbourne exited their carriage. He felt the man lift the packet from his pocket, but was certain that he had only felt it because Fitzwilliam had intended him to. He had put another note in his pocket, telling him that they needed to meet, for he needed to tell Fitzwilliam of the events of the previous day. When he checked his pocket, everything was gone, and he assumed that Fitzwilliam would communicate with him somehow after he read it.
They exchanged no greetings, and did not even look directly at one another, though he caught Ashbourne's eye as they went into the house. He looked quite low, and Bingley was concerned for more than Ashbourne. To place the man in mixed company when he was already discomposed did not bode well for anyone's evening.
Bingley had never before appreciated how much a servant could see and hear at such an event. It was no wonder the fashionable women of town turned to their abigails for the best gossip.
The evening began on an awkward note when Fitzwilliam and Ashbourne were introduced to Mr. Denny and Mr. Wickham. In Ashbourne he saw only distant recognition, but Fitzwilliam looked rather angrier than he had when he had expounded to Bingley on the dangers of telling young ladies secrets that were not his own, and that was saying a good deal. Ashbourne looked at Fitzwilliam in surprise and for perhaps the first time in their lives, Ashbourne was the one to fulfill the demands of politeness while his brother composed himself.
Mr. Wickham, for his part, turned white, and once the introduction was over, he seemed most interested in maintaining as much distance between himself and Fitzwilliam as possible. Fitzwilliam appeared to calm himself after a few minutes, and Bingley could only hope that the entire matter had gone largely unnoticed by the rest of the room.
Things got somewhat worse when Mr. Gallagher joined the party. Ashbourne managed himself admirably, no doubt he had been extensively prepared for the meeting by Fitzwilliam, and was no more than usually distant and unfriendly on making Mr. Gallagher's acquaintance. Bingley saw Gallagher examining both brothers most carefully. Though neither of them appeared to pay him much mind, Bingley did not doubt they were both very much aware of his presence.
For himself, Bingley could only be glad that Lord Walden had not accompanied Mr. Gallagher. Though he had his own suspicions regarding Mr. Gallagher's visit the day before, he was still easier not being in the man's presence.
Mr. Collins, when he took note of Ashbourne sitting on the chair closest to Miss Bennet, though there were two feet between them, and Ashbourne's back was turned to her, immediately crossed the room and began paying his attentions to his cousin. Ashbourne paid him no more mind than to give him a cross look when his banal chatter became excessive.
"Dear cousin, I have not yet had the opportunity to tell you all I had wished of the grandeurs of Rosings Park."
"Indeed, sir, you have told me a great deal. Though I very much appreciate your attempts to satisfy my curiosity about that fine estate, you must surely be tired of speaking of it."
"You are too good, Cousin, too good, but it is no trouble at all."
He was happily employed then in describing that grand estate, and Lady Catherine, occasionally digressing to praise his own humble abode and the improvements it was receiving. When Ashbourne finally rose to seat himself elsewhere, Mrs. Bennet came from across the room and said, "Lord Ashbourne, it is so very good to see you. And here is my eldest daughter Jane, who I am sure you remember from the assembly. You cannot remember any other young lady so well from that evening, I am sure."
Miss Bennet flushed slightly, and Ashbourne pressed his lips together, glancing slightly to the side in an expression of embarrassment that Bingley knew too well. He only bowed and, after a moment, moved away without another word. Mrs. Bennet watched him go, appearing very vexed, while Mr. Collins seemed delighted, and returned his attention to Miss Bennet.
Ashbourne crossed the room just as Mrs. Phillips asked, "And how is your niece, Mr. Gallagher? Well, I hope."
"Much the same as always, I am afraid. The doctor now believes she is consumptive. I care only for her comfort, of course. I would scarcely have left the house tonight, but she is a sweet child, and would not have anyone curtail their pleasures on her account."
Ashbourne was fortunately turned away from him as he spoke. Bingley saw the anger in his eyes, and the grimace he could not seem to suppress. Fitzwilliam was near Ashbourne, and had likely seen it as well. He turned to him and said, "Brother, I have been engaged in the most interesting conversation with Miss Elizabeth Bennet about the woods and hills near Kentridge. You are sometimes fond of a ramble, and I believe you know some of the paths even better than I. Perhaps you will join us."
Ashbourne allowed himself to be led away, and Bingley admired his forbearance.
Bingley's eye was drawn back to Miss Bennet, who stood with Mr. Collins, admitting his attentions without the slightest hint of impatience. She looked lovely. Her hair was in a more modern style tonight, with feathers and curls. No man would have blushed to walk into the most fashionable ball in London with her on his arm.
She glanced at him, meeting his eye for only a moment. Bingley turned away, embarrassed to have been caught staring.
"The walks are finer at Pemberley than at Kentridge," Ashbourne said.
"Pemberley! Do you know it?" Miss Elizabeth asked.
"It is the home of our cousin," Fitzwilliam said. He glanced across the room at Mr. Wickham, who was in conversation with Mr. Denny and had not mingled much in the room.
"Mr. Darcy is your cousin," Miss Elizabeth said.
"Do you know him?" Fitzwilliam asked.
"I only know of him," she said, her eyes very bright. She appeared to want to say more, but thought better of it.
Fitzwilliam dropped his voice and Bingley could not hear all he said, but he distinctly heard "Mr. Wickham" spoken more than once, along with "caution you" and "slander" and "the best of men". When they had finished speaking, Miss Elizabeth looked very grave, and when she saw her youngest sister speaking with Mr. Wickham, she appeared troubled.
Bingley was sent away on an errand then, and when he returned, he saw Fitzwilliam engaged in seemingly affable conversation with Mr. Gallagher, and Ashbourne clinging to a corner of the room. Miss Bennet had at last freed herself from Mr. Collins, and was speaking to Miss Lucas. Miss Mary had seated herself at the pianoforte and was playing a dull concerto, until her mother scolded her into playing something more lively, and Mr. Collins had managed to detain another poor soul. Mrs. Phillips, at least, seemed very interested in hearing all about Rosings.
Bingley had just begun to relax and think that the evening would go off well despite all, when Ashbourne pushed himself off from the wall and began to cross to where his brother was speaking to Mr. Gallagher. Bingley tensed. Fitzwilliam, on seeing Ashbourne's intentions, turned abruptly to Mr. Collins and said, "I beg your pardon, sir, but did I hear you say that you are acquainted with Lady Catherine de Bourgh of Rosings Park?"
"I am indeed. Is she one of your acquaintances? Lady Catherine is known to many of the nobility."
"She is my aunt, I am happy to say."
Mr. Collins appeared to glow, and launched into a ridiculous speech praising her ladyship and expressing his joy on such a singularly fortuitous meeting. Fitzwilliam cut him off. "I have the pleasure of seeing my aunt each year, but my brother has not that opportunity. He would be more than happy to speak of Lady Catherine, I am sure."
Bingley clenched his jaw, and tried desperately not to laugh as Mr. Collins rushed across the room and accosted the man he had only a few minutes before considered his rival for the hand of Miss Bennet. The brothers made the briefest eye contact before Fitzwilliam turned back to his conversation, and Ashbourne was forced to resign himself to his own. Bingley was very glad that he would not have to share the carriage with them on the ride home.
"Yes, I know of it. I do not care what it is worth, it is hideous," Bingley heard Ashbourne say as he passed. He managed to nudge him without attracting attention. Ashbourne glanced at him and added, "In my opinion."
And so the evening went. Mr. Wickham avoided Fitzwilliam, who largely ignored him, but once or twice gave him very unkind looks. Ashbourne was subject to the effusions of Mr. Collins, and spent the evening growing at once crosser and more embarrassed, and while he managed to restrain himself from again attempting to speak to Mr. Gallagher, it was clear to Bingley that he resented his brother's interference, even though he likely knew it had been for the best.
Bingley had never before wished for skill in wielding a pen, but he thought that it all would have made a masterful play, in the right hands.
Mr. Collins proposed to Miss Bennet the next morning. Bingley was not present when Mrs. Bennet hurried everyone from the room so that Mr. Collins could speak to Miss Bennet, but the matter was so well known throughout the house that he could not but be aware of it.
He left the house as soon as he could contrive a reason. He was worn out of anxiety, felt almost numb. He could only pray that she would not accept him.
Matty accosted him in the hall when he returned, startling him. Unlike Mrs. Hill, Matty was light on her feet, though her voice heralded her presence well enough.
"So, and you will never believe what I have to tell. Well, you will believe it, on account of you know it all so well, and you've seen it all just like us, but it is so much. Well, you know that Mr. Collins proposed to Miss Bennet this morning. And he gave such a speech I'm sure, and Miss Bennet, she listened to it all, and I hear tell that she said, all very sweet and proper, that she appreciated the offer, and was very grateful for his generosity, but believed she must decline, on account of they weren't suited. I don't know who Mr. Collins would be suited for. I wouldn't marry him for all the world, let alone to become mistress of Longbourn. So, and Mr. Collins, he said, 'I see, indeed, I do cousin. Your modesty and your goodness are much to be admired. Because you have that most admirable, most feminine quality of modesty, you feel yourself unsuited for a position that will place you in the estimable company of which I have so often spoken, and you are therefore deferring your acceptance of my offer, until such time as I can flatter you sufficiently.' And she tried her very best to tell him that it weren't modesty that kept her from accepting, but he spoke and spoke on how good she was, and how modest and how humble. And Miss Bennet, you know she can't be hard with anyone, and she was so sweet, and Mr. Collins half believes she has accepted him, for all that she keeps telling him she hasn't."
They ducked into a small closet.
"Well, and the missus, she called Miss Bennet into her room and was very severe with her. Poor Miss Bennet, she's not used to such things. Mrs. Bennet ain't hardly ever severe with her, not like she can be with Miss Elizabeth, or Miss Mary. She said that Miss Bennet ought not to be thinking of Lord Ashbourne anymore, on account of it was clear that Lord Ashbourne had no more intentions, and that it would have been a very, very fine thing indeed, if Lord Ashbourne had taken a fancy to her, but that a future earl, who would have almost 25,000 a year, could hardly be counted on to take such a fancy, even to a girl as pretty as Miss Bennet, and on any account, Lord Ashbourne was a very queer man. So, and Miss Bennet told her that she wasn't thinking of Lord Ashbourne at all on any account, and it was only that she did not want to marry Mr. Collins, which I thought was very bold of her to say. Oh, and the missus was in such a rage, flying off about her being a wicked girl, and how she had never thought that she was stubborn, not like her sister, but that she was being such a bad child, and she would see her sisters tossed out with nothing, and that if she would not marry Mr. Collins, Mrs. Bennet would never see her again.
"And I saw Miss Bennet, after, and she looked so very bad. I think Miss Elizabeth is talking to her now. I'm sure Miss Elizabeth will do what she can for her, and she would never see Miss Bennet married to such a man if she can help it, but bless me! Poor Miss Bennet. I wish it had been Miss Elizabeth he had asked. Miss Elizabeth wouldn't pay her mother no mind at all, but Miss Bennet ain't used to such treatment." She sighed.
Bingley had swung wildly through every possible emotion from fear to relief to anger throughout Matty's speech. Some small part of him dared hope that Miss Bennet had been thinking of him, but he knew it to be very unlikely.
He saw little of Miss Bennet that day, and knew from Matty that she kept to her room, though Mrs. Bennet would not permit her to stay away the whole of the day. Miss Elizabeth sat by Miss Bennet that evening, and shielded her from her mother and Mr. Collins as best as she could. He had seen Miss Elizabeth go into her father's study earlier in the day, and knew what she must have been about there, but though Mr. Bennet saw all, he said nothing to protect his daughter.
The footman at Netherfield was once again superior with him, but Bingley could hardly bring himself to notice, much less care.
Ashbourne seemed happy enough with the glossy beetles that Mr. Bennet had sent, though he set them aside as Bingley related everything that had happened.
"Lord Walden most likely did recognize you in Meryton, and concocted this to expose you without exposing himself. I imagine Mr. Ridgeway planted the dish in your room. When he found it, you would have been forced to reveal yourself as a gentleman to prevent being carted off like a common criminal. As to who took the dish after he planted it, or who hid and then returned the papers, that is indeed a mystery."
"Have you anyone else in Mr. Bennet's house?"
Fitzwilliam gave him an incredulous look over his tea. "Hardly. Do you think I have people working for me in every house in England? Could it have been your Miss Bennet?"
"She is not my Miss Bennet," Bingley said sadly. "I very much doubt it in any case. If it was her, certainly she would have said something to me, either before or after."
Fitzwilliam nodded. He did not appear outwardly upset, but Bingley could see his mind working behind his light brown eyes.
"My concern is that Lord Walden is now in the same house as Sophia," Ashbourne said.
"Try not to think on it overmuch," Fitzwilliam said with a gentleness that took Bingley by surprise. "Lord Walden is not the sort to resort to...savage methods with a young lady. He believes in his ability to charm."
"Nevertheless, that he would come at all...certainly that means that something has happened."
"If Miss Cunningham had broken her resolve and agreed to marry him, Nell would have found some way to tell us," Bingley said. "Very likely he has only come because he hopes to work on his cousin with his charms, now that he believes she is weak."
Ashbourne nodded, but did not appear comforted.
Bingley could not stay much longer. Fitzwilliam assured him that all was as it had been, and that neither Lord Walden's presence nor the mystery of Bingley's protector would materially change their plans.
Sunday came. It was the fifth Sunday he had spent working at Longbourn, but that was not an anniversary Bingley was eager to dwell upon. He went for a walk, found a comfortable spot under a tree, and thought.
As always, Miss Bennet was foremost in his mind. He wished very much to have someone he could speak to about the situation, but Ashbourne was tied up in his own problems, and he had no desire to discuss Miss Bennet with Colonel Fitzwilliam, assuming he could even find an opportunity to speak with either of them.
Mr. Collins continued his assault on his cousin, apparently oblivious to the idea that her rejections were more than the teasing of a woman in love. Mrs. Bennet attacked from the other side, well aware that Miss Bennet did not wish to marry Mr. Collins, and declaring her the wickedest girl in England for it, speaking to her all the day on entails and small dowries, her poor sisters, and her duty to her family.
He knew with a certainty that he had to say something. He would never forgive himself if she married Mr. Collins while he stood by and watched without at least trying. Yet, he was honor bound to stay in his place and see this entire matter through. He had promised himself to Ashbourne, and to Fitzwilliam.
If he were to be entirely honest with himself, he was also afraid. He had declared himself once before, when he was barely one and twenty. That lady's rejection of him had been kind, but it had been painful. She had dismissed him as a boy, though she was no older than he, and though time had lessened the sting, he had not forgotten what it was to give his heart to a woman and have it handed back with polite thanks and a gentle laugh.
When he finally roused himself, he felt stiff and awkward, his legs cramped from too long in one position.
It was still relatively early in the day, and the weather had warmed somewhat. The chill in the air no longer had such a bite. Had he not been walking so slowly, he might never have seen her. As it was, there was only a flash of dark green against the dull gray of late autumn, yet he felt certain it was her.
He padded softly across the ground, not wishing to disturb her. Another young lady in her position might have been crying, but Miss Bennet only sat on the exposed root of the large tree, her skirts carefully arranged, staring out into the distance with a melancholy expression on her face.
He called her name softly. She started and began to rise, but he begged her not to trouble herself, and asked leave to sit beside her.
They sat in companionable silence for a time, both of them lost in thoughts. He was aware of her beside him, desirous to say something, and yet entirely at a loss as to where he could possibly begin.
"You seem troubled, sir," Miss Bennet said.
"I am," Bingley said candidly. "I have discovered that the demands of the heart and the demands of duty are not always easily reconciled."
She looked at him, her expression almost suspicious. "No, they are not. One does wonder how much of oneself must be sacrificed to satisfy duty."
"Exactly so. Is a lifetime of regret to be balanced by the satisfaction of knowing that one's duty to others has been discharged?"
Her dark blue eyes had turned searching, almost desperate. She fell quiet for a time, then turned to him suddenly and said, "You told me your secret, Mr. Bingley. May I now tell you--I know it is not proper to speak of it to you, but I--"
Bingley hesitated. Just an hour ago he would have given anything to hear her secret thoughts, but the thought that she might reveal to him something that she would later regret gave him pause. "Surely your sister--"
She shook her head sadly. "No. For the first time in my life, I cannot speak to Lizzy. Lizzy is so very sure, you see. Lizzy knows precisely what I must do. I must reject Mr. Collins, and I have done that, and it was hard, it was so very hard to do, and yet it was not enough. I must continue to reject him, while he makes his advances and my mother scolds me. Lizzy does not understand, she is so strong, and so sure of herself, and she does not understand why I am driven to reconsider. She only wants me to be happy, and my mother only wants her family to be secure, and Mr. Collins only wants to do what is right regarding the entail and I cannot--" Her eyes shone, but he had no handkerchief to give her. It mattered not, the tears did not fall. "Am I to choose between forfeiting the respect of a most beloved sister and losing the affection of my own mother? Am I to choose between the security of my family and my own happiness? I cannot see any way that I would be at all happy with Mr. Collins. I have tried, I have tried to think well of him and see his best qualities and I have tried to find a way to respect him, but I cannot!" Her voice broke and she turned away.
Bingley closed his eyes. Surely he was not expected to bear this too. Surely a man must meet his limit somewhere.
Without thinking, he took her hand.
"You have spoken candidly to me, now I beg your leave to do the same. You know that I am not the man your family thinks me to be, you know that I am a man of means. I have the ability to support and provide for your family, perhaps not in the greatest luxury, but in comfort." She began to draw her hand away, but he held it tighter. "Please. I beg you to let me speak." At her nod, he continued. "I love you, and I want you to be my wife. I do not imagine that you feel for me as I feel for you, but if you think that you can, in time, come to care for me, if you feel that you will be happy with me, then will you marry me?"
She was silent for such a length of time that he felt the need to fill the space with his own chatter. "I know this is the most terrible time I could have asked, and I know the burden I am asking you to carry. We will not be able to tell your family, you can tell no one, not even the sister whom you so love, and you would still suffer under your mother and your cousin, and I cannot protect you and take you away as I would wish to, but I--oh, please say something."
"I never understood...I do...I would..." She blushed.
Bingley felt his brow wrinkle. "Was that an answer?"
"What was it?"
She laughed. "Yes! Yes, Mr. Bingley, I will marry you."
He laughed then too, and stood and pulled her up with him. He wanted very much to kiss her, but he could not bring himself to be so improper. He had not her father's consent. He had already brought her into a secret engagement; he would not bring her into any more wrongdoing. He restrained himself, and was satisfied with kissing her hand tenderly.
"I thank you, Miss Bennet. I cannot thank you--"
"It is I who must give thanks, sir. Words cannot express how very grateful I am--" He shook his head. He wanted more than gratitude from her, but that would come in time. "I beg your pardon. It is not always easy for me to express myself as I would wish. What I mean to say is that you are not--I am--I do--"
Bingley closed his eyes and dropped Jane's hand. She shook her head and moved to intercept her cousin before Bingley could be seen.
"Good day, Mr. Collins."
"Ah, Cousin Jane, there you are. I thought perhaps I might find you here. You are a great admirer of nature, I see. Lady Catherine has done much with the woods and groves at Rosings. I believe you will enjoy them very much."
Miss Bennet sighed. "I should be very happy to come as your guest and visit Rosings someday."
Mr. Collins chuckled. It was such a patronizing sound that Bingley could hardly bear to hear it. "As a guest indeed," he said, as Jane led him away so that Bingley could escape unseen.
When they were gone, he let free the joyful laugh that had been trapped in his chest. He was forced to walk the lanes for an hour more, until he had collected himself well enough that he felt fit to be seen.
Bingley watched Jane with all the attention befitting a lover. After a time, he determined that the engagement had had two somewhat opposing effects. Jane seemed easier than she had been since Mr. Collins entered the house. She smiled more often, her cheeks had more color, and her eyes were brighter. He was glad, very glad, to see it.
Yet, those same effects, those smiles, that color, those eyes, had given Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins rather more hope for their own cause than Bingley would have liked. Mr. Collins took every secret smile into her work as meant for him. Mrs. Bennet took every blush as a sign that Jane really was being too modest in rejecting Mr. Collins advances, and changed her tactics from harsh words to gentle remonstrances. She also took to leaving the supposed-lovers alone a great deal, which could not but make Bingley uneasy, though he knew Jane risked only mortification from such meetings.
After one such incident he entered a room to see Mr. Collins seated as close to Miss Bennet as propriety allowed, and perhaps a few inches closer. Jane met his eyes. She looked almost ashamed of herself. That she should suffer shame because Mr. Collins forced himself upon her was insupportable.
"Ah, Jane, there you are. I see you and Mr. Collins have found a great deal to speak on," Mrs. Bennet said on seeing them.
"Indeed you are mistaken, ma'am. We have very little to speak on."
"I have been telling dearest Jane about Lady Catherine's contributions to the poor. She is often willing to speak to even the lowliest of her tenants, and instruct them on how they might better manage their affairs."
"I beg you not to use such endearments, sir. As we are not engaged, such things are far from proper."
Mrs. Bennet looked very cross. "Dear girl, Mr. Collins is such an attentive lover, and has been very patient with your teasing, but you mustn't keep him waiting forever."
"I have been the very model of a patient lover, but I do begin to wonder if my cousin desires my attentions at all."
"Oh, Mr. Collins! Pray do not say such things! Look at the girl, see how she blushes. That is all your doing. She is simply a modest girl who is not used to such things."
"Indeed you are mistaken, ma'am. You are both very much mistaken." She set her work aside and rose to her feet. "Please excuse me."
As soon as he dared, he followed her, and found her in an empty parlor where she was pacing the floor. Her skirts rustled with each step. He closed the door softly. "Miss Bennet?"
"I am not used to such things? I have been prepared for the attentions of gentlemen since my fourteenth year. I have been taught how to sit and how to act and how to flirt without appearing to flirt. Now she says that I am modest and unused to such things and do not know my own mind, when it was she who prepared me." He smiled. She turned to him, and put her hands on her hips. "What?"
"I have never seen you angry."
She seemed to take his statement as an accusation, and a just one. Her hands left her hips and she seemed to fall into herself. "Oh, do forgive me, I do not mean to be so; I am only so very tired of all of this."
He shook his head. "Miss Bennet, you have every reason to be angry. I am glad to see it. I should hate to have to always be angry for you."
She looked down. "It is not ladylike." Her eyes rose and he saw fear in them. "Please do not think that I will be a wife who is always cross."
"I doubt very much you could be always cross if you tried. When we are married, you may be cross with whomever you like, provided it is not me."
For a moment she appeared to take his statement in all seriousness, but when she took note of his teasing smile, he saw a playful spirit rise in her and she said, "I am forbidden from ever being cross with you?"
Bingley affected an expression of serious thought. "Very well, you may be cross with me, but only if you adhere to my one rule."
"And what is that?"
"If you are cross with me, you must come to me and say 'Charles, I am very cross with you.' I do not trust you to tell me otherwise, and I would hate to be always wondering if my wife is vexed with me. You guard yourself very well, you know. You must promise to tell me." All humor left his voice. "Promise me, Jane."
"I promise you that I will tell you when I am cross with you, but I do not think it will be very often."
"I am certain it will be a very rare occurrence. In fact, because it will be so rare, I think you should practice."
"Yes, indeed! Say it. Tell me you are cross with me."
She laughed. "I am very cross with you."
"That did not count. 'twas the sweetest thing I ever heard. You must try again."
She attempted to restrain her smile. "I am very cross with you."
He stepped closer. "Perhaps you should pretend I am your mother. Shall I scold you, and insist you marry Mr. Collins? Would that make it easier?" He affected a falsetto voice. "'Do not be so sly, Jane. Come sit by Mr. Collins, Jane. Jane, how can you think of no one but yourself?'"
"I am very cross with you!" she shouted, then slapped her hand over her mouth.
Bingley stared at her in shock. He wondered how long she had wanted to say that.
They could neither of them speak before Mrs. Hill opened the door. "Is there a problem, ma'am?"
"Indeed there is," Bingley said. "Miss Bennet told me to go to Meryton to purchase a book for her yesterday and I entirely forgot. Tristram Shandy, I believe it was, and I will go right this minute, begging the young lady's pardon."
Mrs. Hill scolded him terribly, saying that she had never before seen a servant so incompetent as to stir Miss Bennet's temper, but the words flew past Bingley unheeded. He had determined that Mrs. Hill disliked him simply for existing. There was nothing he could do to please the woman, so he did not bother to try. Miss Bennet seemed lighter and happier when she walked past him in the hall, and that was more than enough reward to balance any scolding he received.
Posted on: 2010-03-17
"Well, that might be to put to strong a word on it, but I do think they're at odds, for all that I'd never have thought I'd say that to anyone. It is very hard to know anything that happens with them, they are so quiet, and so careful to shoo us out of the room afore they talk about anything of interest, and you can never tell what Miss Bennet is thinking on any account, but I thought they looked very uncomfortable this morning, and they hardly talked at all at breakfast. I do so hope they haven't, on account of they're so good to each other, and poor Miss Bennet, her mother is still cross with her. Mr. Collins has begun to declare that he won't have her at all, and I hear tell that this morning, she went to Mr. Bennet, to have him insist on her marrying Mr. Collins, but he would do nothing of the kind. And now the missus is terrible angry with everyone, and Mr. Collins has gone off. Miss Elizabeth asked Miss Lucas to invite him to Lucas Lodge, and he's gone off there, and they can have him."
Bingley tried not to worry overmuch about Matty's speculations, but when he saw Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth later, he began to suspect that she might be right. The sisters were seated at their work, speaking only occasionally, and though they said and did nothing to give any appearance of a lack of congenial feeling, the usual great warmth between them did seem to be missing. He could not but imagine that whatever had passed between them was in some way connected to him.
The day afforded him few opportunities to speak to Miss Bennet and none to speak to her out of the company of others. He watched her when he could. She was not pale, she was not low, but she did not smile into her work as she had. No blush came to her cheek unbidden. With all the confidence of a lover, he felt certain he could have returned her to such a state, but for a lack of any opportunity to try.
Mr. Collins announced his engagement to Miss Lucas the very next day. Miss Bennet took the news philosophically and Miss Elizabeth took it poorly. Whatever passed between the two on the subject of Miss Lucas and Mr. Collins, Bingley could not know, but Miss Elizabeth went for a walk soon after. Bingley, seeing Jane alone, stole a chance to speak with her.
She stood by the window, her back turned to him. She wore a green gown that day and her curls tumbled down her back.
"Have you and your sister been at odds?"
"We could hardly be at odds about you when she knows nothing of you." He examined her words and her tone for reproach or anger, but he found none.
"I am the cause," Bingley said.
She turned to him. Her arms were wrapped across her belly. "Yes. She knows I am hiding something. She is not angry with me, she is hurt. And I am the one who is hurting her."
She looked so vulnerable and so unsure of herself that he crossed the room in three quick strides and pulled her into a rough embrace. She smelled like orange flowers and ambergrease. He felt her relax against him, her head resting against his shoulder, when she stiffened and pulled away.
"Forgive me. I ought not to have done that."
She shook her head. "Miss Lucas will be married to Mr. Collins."
"I did hear."
"I hope they will be very happy together."
"Do you think it likely?" He did not know Miss Lucas well enough to judge. Perhaps if the woman was as foolish as her betrothed, she might have a hope.
"Charlotte wants only a comfortable house, and to be mistress of her own affairs, a situation which Mr. Collins can provide."
"How much of her own mistress can she be, with Lady Catherine to direct her in all things?"
"She is seven and twenty, and this is the first eligible offer she has ever received. She will not be dependent upon her family, and Mr. Collins will have a sensible wife. Not everyone can hope for romantic love in their marriage, and variety in disposition must be taken into account. I hope they will be very happy together."
She had not answered his question, but if she wanted to believe that Miss Lucas would not come to regret her choice, it was likely that the more closely she examined the matter, the more difficult that would become. He would not press her.
"You, I suppose, would hope for romantic love in your marriage."
She smiled. "It is always preferable."
"I do love you, romantically and rather passionately." Her color rose. "Should I not say it so very often? I know that you do not feel as strongly as I do."
"No! Pray, do not think that. I am only not accustomed to such things, but I hope to become accustomed to them. It is hard for me...it is hard for me to..."
They were interrupted by Miss Mary, who came into the room with a book. Bingley left before she could think of something about which to moralize.
Mrs. Bennet was in a very foul mood that evening, and spoke at length about artful Lucases and stubborn, strong-willed girls who would not abide their mothers. She had a few words for Miss Elizabeth as well, who, she felt certain, had influenced her sister to such disobedience. Mr. Bennet did finally silence her with several sharp words and strong looks, and then she was forced to be satisfied with expressing her disapproval in the unkind expressions that she bestowed upon her two eldest children.
Miss Elizabeth and Miss Bennet seemed to have reached some sort of accord, for there was not the distance between them that there had been earlier, but Bingley could not but be pricked with guilt still that he had in any way come between them.
He went to bed that night thinking of Jane, of the scent of her hair and the feel of her in his arms, and he fell into a peaceful and restful sleep. That sleep was abruptly interrupted in the early hours of the morning. He woke with a hand over his mouth and a strong arm holding him pinned to the bed.
"Do not shout."
Bingley nodded and the hand was removed. Fitzwilliam let him sit up, and lit the taper by the side of the bed. Bingley swung his legs out of bed and stared at the man. A dozen questions ran through his mind, but foremost was, "Is it your intention to kill me of fright?"
"Lower your voice."
"How did you get in here? No, allow me to guess. You bribed George."
"No. I did bring money, but he was asleep."
"Of course. And what is so vitally important that you must needs accost me in my sleep?"
"Things have taken an unexpected turn. Dorset has come."
"My voice, yes. Why has Dorset come?"
"Very likely because he strongly suspects that I have proof of his acts of treason, and intends to flee to France. He has come for his son and, I do not doubt, also for Miss Audley. Dorset is far too controlling to allow her to remain in England after she has defied him for so long."
"What of Gallagher and Ridgeway?"
"He will leave them to face the consequences of their involvement alone. If I am correct, our advantage lies with them. He cannot reveal that his activities have been discovered to either of them and so cannot act with as much haste as he might wish. Yet, I cannot depend upon his remaining in England for more than a day. Miss Audley's removal from Mr. Gallagher's house must take place very soon."
"Tomorrow night, do you mean?" Fitzwilliam shook his head. "During the light of day? That is madness."
Fitzwilliam shrugged. "The advantage of a mad plan is that it is rarely prepared for. I have forged a note in Mr. Bennet's hand which will bring Gallagher here tomorrow."
"The note involves me, I suppose."
"Yes. It seems Mr. Bennet has discovered a silver dish in his house which he believes may be the one you were alleged to have stolen. The ruse will not hold for very long. I hope the mystery of the forgery will be sufficient to keep him here, but if you believe he is to leave, do try to come up with a distraction. Lord Dorset and his son I intend to draw to Netherfield."
"Forgive me, but I would rather not tell you more than you need to know lest you feel the urge to share the knowledge with the next pretty face you see."
The scant allusion, derisive though it was, was enough for Bingley. "Miss Bennet has agreed to marry me."
Fitzwilliam snorted. "You have been making love to your master's daughter? I am all astonishment."
"And you will steal into the house and remove Miss Audley, I suppose."
"Something like that. Do not concern yourself with the details. Only do your utmost to keep Gallagher here tomorrow for as long as you can."
Bingley nodded and Fitzwilliam went to leave. He paused at the door. "I offer my congratulations on your engagement. How do you intend to tell the young lady's family?"
"I haven't the first idea," Bingley said.
"It may prove...trying," Fitzwilliam said, and left.
It very likely would. Bingley was trying not to think about it.
He rose the next morning, washed, shaved, and dressed with a certain graveness that he had not felt before. He went to breakfast only because it was expected of him, and ate as little as he dared, sipping his ale thoughtfully while Matty talked and Tilly listened politely while trying to occasionally interject her own thoughts.
The anticipation of what was coming ate at him all morning. Mr. Collins had returned to Longbourn to gather his things. He was to leave for Rosings that afternoon, to speak well of his choice before Lady Catherine. Bingley had a vision of the man entering the inner sanctum of Rosings, and making supplications and prostrations like an ancient heathen at the temple of their patron god.
Through design or chance--he was not willing to examine the matter closely enough to determine which--Bingley was able to hear most of what Mr. Collins said to Miss Bennet that morning.
"Dear cousin, I wish you to know that I bear you no ill will. Though it was my hope to mitigate the injury caused to you and your lovely sisters by the entail which prevents your father's estate from being entirely his own, I am secure in having discharged my own duty. As to your choice, while I do not pretend to understand why you have rejected such an eligible and magnanimous offer, I grant you that it is a woman's prerogative to accept or reject a proposal as she sees fit."
He paused, and though Bingley could not see him, he could very well imagine him standing up straighter and gripping his coat like an MP before the lower house. "I wish to take this opportunity to caution you, however. You are no doubt aware that you are a very handsome young lady, and while I would never accuse you of something so base and vulgar as vanity, I think that in my position, as your cousin, and as a clergyman, it behooves me to admonish you to not place too much weight on the outward appearance. There are things of far more weight than beauty. The fair sex is warned not to adorn themselves with the plaiting of the hair and the wearing of gold, but with a meek and quiet spirit. If therefore you are privileged to receive another eligible offer, you would do well to remember that bloom will fade, and that you cannot rely on such gifts carrying you even through the dawn of your life, so much less so the twilight. Miss de Bourgh, the daughter of my esteemed patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, though not a great beauty--but I should not wish you to think her plain, for her features are very regular, and there is an air about her, which only exceptional breeding can lend--yet she is also of that same quiet, mild spirit I spoke on earlier, though she has a great deal to offer both in superior connections and material wealth. I speak only out of concern, you understand."
Jane thanked him for this speech, though how she managed Bingley could not fathom. She slipped from the house soon after. Her step was heavy, and Bingley could not stop himself from following.
He found her in a secluded part of the garden, seated on a stone bench. He glanced at the tall hedges shielding them from any casual gaze, and sat next to her.
"I hope you are not taking any of Mr. Collin's speech to heart." She did not reply, only smoothed her skirts out in what he had begun to recognize as a nervous gesture. "No one has a meeker or quieter spirit than you. And as to vanity--"
"I know that I am not vain," Jane said quietly. "I never have been. Sometimes I..."
She smoothed her skirts. Bingley did not sigh, but he very much wanted to. It was so terribly frustrating to love a woman who revealed herself in brief glimpses of feeling before retreating behind a veil of perfect calm.
"You will think me very silly," Jane said, after a silence so long he had been about to leave her to herself.
"I may," Bingley said, and perhaps some of his frustration was present in his voice. "But I love you, and all of your thoughts are dear to me, silly or not."
She fell quiet again, but this time he waited.
"I do not know if I can even express what I mean. My mother speaks so often of my appearance, you see, I wonder sometimes if she cares for me at all, but for how I look. I have often wondered if there is anything more that anyone values in me. Mr. Collins is right, whatever beauty I may have will fade. What of value will I have to offer then?"
"Your sister loves you for your goodness, Jane, I have seen that, and I know you know it. And I love you for your goodness too."
"I knew you would think me silly. I am being silly, indeed, I--"
"No! I do not think you silly, do not misunderstand me, that is not--I do understand. I have never told anyone this, but I do..." He realized now that he had been unfair to her earlier. There were some things which were hard to speak of, even to someone dearly loved, and Jane had not even those tender feelings to carry her forward.
"My father's will was quite badly written, you see. No, that is incorrect. It was not badly written, it was only too ignorant of those occasional perversities of fortune that sometimes befall us. My father left the custody of his children to my mother, and specified that she would be fit to name a guardian in case of her death. My mother died a scant few weeks after my father. It is said that her grief at my father's passing left her ill-equipped to face the rigors of the child bed. She never had time to name a guardian. My grandmother claimed that my mother named her to take us as she was dying. My uncle said that an earlier will had named him as the guardian of my father's children and that he had the greater claim. The first nine years of my life were spent being sent between my grandmother and my uncle, as the matter of our custody, as well as other issues of management of the estate, went through the courts. It was then my grandmother died and put an end to the matter."
He jumped when she placed her hand on top of his. It was the first time she had initiated such a touch. She began to pull away, but he turned his hand so their palms were touching, and she let her hand rest lightly in his. He could feel the warmth of her skin through their gloves.
"The thing of it, the reason I bring it up at all, is that my father's will also specified that the guardian of his children would receive one thousand pounds a year from his estate, in addition to the money used to care for us. Do not think that I was not loved. We were dearly loved, all of us, by my grandmother and my uncle. It is only that my father's family is genteel but poor. He made his fortune in trade, and they scorned him for it, but they did not scorn his money. I have often wondered what we would have been to them if we had not come with an income."
"You are worth far more than your fortune, sir."
"And you are worth far more than your figure, lovely though it is."
She smiled radiantly, and not for the first time, Bingley longed to kiss her.
It was fortunate that the gravel paths in the small garden advertised the approach of Mrs. Hill. Bingley slipped away and met her several minutes later in the kitchen, where he was helping Rose. She seemed vexed to find him at his work.
Near noon, Mr. Gallagher arrived, and within minutes, he was in Mr. Bennet's office, examining a passable but far from perfect forgery of that man's handwriting.
"And you know nothing of this?" Mr. Bennet asked.
"Nothing, sir," Bingley said. He wondered when lies had begun to slip from his tongue so easily.
Mr. Bennet sighed. "I don't suppose you would care to search the man's room again?"
"I am only...confused," Mr. Gallagher said. Bingley could see fear in his eyes. He knew something was amiss. Mr. Gallagher was studying him intently. Bingley forced his expression to a neutral, almost blank stare. Mr. Bennet was studying him as well. He sighed and removed a small silver dish from his drawer.
"Mr. Ridgeway brought this to me this morning," Mr. Bennet said. "He claims he found it in the cellar near your room. I had intended to write to Mr. Gallagher, but it seems someone has taken the initiative to do it for me. I confess that I am very vexed by all of this."
Bingley eyed the dish. "I have never seen that before in my life, sir."
"I am not certain what is going on here, but...you seem to have brought disruption to my house, Charles. Mrs. Hill does not at all care for you, my daughter Mary came to me with concerns about your morals, and I...there is something about you, something that I cannot quite place, but...I think well of you, I think that you have a great deal of potential, if only you would apply yourself to finding applications for your talents."
Bingley almost laughed. He felt fifteen again, seated in the sitting room before his uncle, staring at the Hogarth print above the fire while his uncle asked him why he did not apply himself more. Did he not wish to be a great politician, or a diplomat? (He categorically did not.)
"I do not think you fit here, Charles."
Bingley forced himself to make some defense, because he felt he must. How had he offended Mr. Bennet? Could he not find a way to make up for his errors? He hoped that he would not be dismissed without references. &c.
Mr. Bennet held up his hand. "We will speak later. I must talk for a moment with Mr. Gallagher."
Bingley bowed and left. He hoped that Mr. Bennet would detain Mr. Gallagher for a time, for he could not think of a distraction that would keep him at Longbourn.
He found Miss Bennet once again alone in the sitting room, at her work. She was the most still of all her sisters. Even Miss Mary with her books could not match her calm contentment.
"I believe, Miss Bennet, that by the end of the day I may find myself lacking employment."
She raised her eyes to him. "I trust your prospects will not be materially damaged, sir."
"Our prospects remain quite good, yes."
She paused in her work, her needle suspended in the air for a moment, then she set her work aside. "Mr. Bingley, may I speak with you a moment?"
There was a certain gravity in her voice that made him tense. The engagement was still secret. Now that her cousin was no longer a threat, perhaps she had reconsidered.
"If you like," he said, endeavoring to keep the fear from his voice. He crossed the room and sat down beside her.
She took a breath. "When you made your offer you said that you did not expect that I felt as you did, but that you hoped I would, in time."
"I am prepared to give you as much time as you need, I do not expect that you will--"
She stopped him with her hand on his. "Please, let me finish." He nodded. "I know I am not always a very demonstrative person. It has never been in my nature to force my emotions on others. I only wish you to know that..." She drew a deep breath. "I do love you. I have loved you for some time. You interested me from nearly the first time I spoke to you and I am very glad, very grateful, very pleased, and very honored that you have asked me to be your wife. I love you. I wanted you to know."
He laughed, a laugh of perfect joy, and kissed her hand.
"Do you? Have you? I thought perhaps you had regard, but I dared not let myself hope that you loved me."
"I have had regard since before I knew who you truly were and...what I felt for you, I could not stop myself from feeling it, though I feared that nothing could ever be between us."
"Could you have loved me as your father's servant?"
"I could have loved you, but I could never have married you. Whatever my mother says, I do feel my duty to my family. Yet, I would sometimes indulge myself by thinking that perhaps you might find better employment. Had you worked for my uncle, or been able to raise yourself somehow, perhaps..." She shook her head. "It does not signify now."
"No, it does not."
He took her hand in his, running his thumb back and forth over her wrist. "My love." It was the first time he had used such an endearment, and he took delight in the blush it brought to her cheeks. An urge struck him and he was too giddy to deny it. "May I have a lock of your hair, Jane?"
She looked down. "I do not think that would be entirely proper. The engagement is still secret."
"Yet we are engaged. Surely a lover who has pledged his heart to a woman may ask such a token, even if his love must be kept secret."
She raised her eyes, and he saw such reluctance that he was prepared to withdraw the request, but then she nodded shyly, and reached into her work bag for a pair of scissors. He took them with a hand that trembled as she turned so that her back was to him. Her curls fell about her shoulders. He lifted one section of hair, deliberately brushing against her neck and delighting in the gasp it drew from her. He felt the soft strands between his fingers. She gave him a short length of ribbon over her shoulder. He tied a section of hair and carefully cut a few inches of her dark blonde curls.
He leaned forward, closed his eyes, and smelled the scent of orange flowers. He was so close to her that had he but turned, he would have brushed his lips against her neck. "I will treasure this."
She had no chance to reply before the door was abruptly thrown open and Mrs. Bennet walked in, followed by Mr. Collins.
Mrs. Bennet screamed. Bingley came to his feet, the scissors falling to the floor unheeded. Jane rose beside him. She had gone white, her lips quivered slightly, but no sound emerged from her. She looked ready to faint dead away. Bingley had never hated himself as he did at that moment.
She did not faint. She instead linked her arm with his. Her face was set, her mouth was in a determined line.
Mr. Collins lifted himself up, puffed up with self-righteous pride and indignation.
"Madam, I beg your leave to explain," Bingley said, but he doubted very much that Mrs. Bennet had heard him. She screamed for her husband and her salts, she fanned herself, and she fell backward into a chair.
"Wicked, horrible, foolish child! You have ruined us all!"
Mr. Bennet entered then. Bingley tried again to speak, but Mrs. Bennet's shrieks and cries made it difficult to be heard.
"Oh Mr. Bennet! Oh, we are ruined! She has disgraced us all! With the servant! What are we to do? No one will see us! The girls, they will all die old maids! Wicked girl! You care nothing for your family!"
"Please, Papa, let me explain."
"What is there to explain?" Mr. Collins asked. "I have only to be grateful that my kindnesses were rejected and that I now can take solace with a wife of moral uprightness, which is far more valuable than any outward beauty. To think that I risked being wed to a fallen woman, that I would have brought her into company with Lady Catherine de Bourgh herself! She is little better than a common--"
Mr. Collins was of a tall stature, and heavy. He had a full inch and at least two dozen pounds on Bingley. Yet as Bingley came across the room in a rage and Mr. Collins shrank back from him, it seemed almost the reverse.
"Do not you dare finish that sentence!"
Mr. Collins recovered himself. "I am not to be ordered about by a common servant. Mr. Bennet, will you not restrain your man? How could such a thing have taken place under your very own roof? It is nearly too much to know myself forever linked with such wickedness, to know that I was nearly drawn in by this--this strumpet's machinations."
"Were you not Jane's cousin..."
"A ruffian and a brawler and a savage! He threatens me!"
"Mr. Collins, you will be quiet!" Mr. Bennet shouted.
The room fell silent but for the sound of Mrs. Bennet sobbing and wailing and bemoaning herself.
Bingley saw Miss Elizabeth at the door. She looked greatly distressed, but she had kept command of herself. The younger girls were behind her, attempting to peek into the room. Miss Elizabeth sent them away in a tone that not even Miss Lydia dared to disregard.
Bingley looked at Jane. She appeared to be upright only by sheer force of will. He walked back to her and took her arm, leading her to the sofa, and speaking to her softly, telling her to sit. Miss Elizabeth flew to her sister as soon as he had released her, holding her hand and stroking her cheek. In that moment, Bingley loved her as well as he had ever loved his own sisters, though the look she gave him was very unkind.
"I see that I have done myself and my family a grave disservice by disregarding the cautions of Mrs. Hill, the fretting of my own daughter, even my own suspicions."
"You have every right to be angry with me," Bingley said.
Mr. Collins cleared his throat. "Though I myself gave in to anger earlier, as is only just when faced with wanton and immoral conduct--"
Mr. Bennet turned to him. "Sir, this matter does not involve you. Please absent yourself from this room."
Mr. Collins looked for a moment flustered, but he bowed and muttered something that no one paid any mind to. As he left, Bingley saw Mr. Gallagher in the hall. He wondered if this had been what Fitzwilliam had hoped for when he had asked for a distraction.
"Elizabeth, take your mother out of here."
"Jane has thrown off her family, it seems. She has no more right to your affections than a stranger walking past."
"You cannot mean that. I will not leave her."
"Do as I say!" Mr. Bennet snapped.
Jane removed her sister's hand from her cheek. "Please Lizzy, take Mama upstairs. She should rest."
Miss Elizabeth finally nodded and rose. Mrs. Bennet had stopped all of her shouting and was only sobbing uncontrollably.
"Oh Lizzy!" she cried when her daughter helped her to her feet. "Oh Lizzy, what are we to do?"
When they had gone, Jane let free one choked sob. She had the back of her hand pressed against her mouth, her head bent. "I am sorry, Papa. You were not meant to find out this way."
"How was I to find out then?" He turned to Bingley. "Did you think to walk into my study and ask me for my daughter's hand?"
Yes, though perhaps with some explanations first. "Not precisely."
Mr. Bennet shook his head in disgust. "You have given him your handkerchief and your hair."
"Mr. Bingley and I are to be married," Jane said.
"Mr. Bingley is it? And have you allowed Mr. Bingley to compromise you? Have you lost your virtue as well as your senses?"
"No!" Bingley said. Jane seemed unable to speak at all.
Mr. Bennet shook his head again, pacing the room. Before Bingley could speak again, he stopped, seemingly at a decision. "Charles, you will leave this house at once and you will never return. You may gather your things, but I expect that you will be gone within the half of the hour. Jane, you are free to stay or go with him as you choose. If you go with him, you will never enter this house again as my daughter, and I am quite well stocked for maids."
"Sir--" Bingley began.
Mr. Bennet disregarded him. "If you choose to stay, Jane, I will trust that this affair is entirely at an end. If I learn that it is not, I will put you from my house. Do you understand me?"
"Sir, please allow me to explain--"
"I have a wife in hysterics, four daughters to attend to, and a fool of a parson who will no doubt assault me with his dubious wisdom the moment I leave this room. This scandal will be spread throughout the county by day's end, and my family's reputation will be tarnished regardless of Jane's choice. I cannot conceive of an explanation that would satisfy." He paused in this angry speech and rubbed his forehead. With a sigh he added, "You are, however, welcome to try."
Bingley, who had not actually expected such an opportunity, was now struck somewhat dumb. He could not in good conscience reveal everything, and Fitzwilliam would string him up by his thumbs if he dared.
"I--I am--my name is Charles Bingley."
"I did know that," Mr. Bennet said dryly.
"Yes, sir. I currently reside on Grosvenor Street, in London, in the Mayfair district. Some of what I have told you about myself is a lie. I was educated by my uncle, who was a curate. However, I was sent to Eton when I was seven, and later attended Oxford."
Mr. Bennet's eyebrows rose. He seated himself in a wing chair. A good deal of the anger had drained from his expression and he was regarding Bingley as though he were the afternoon's entertainment. "And, ah, your rank?"
Mr. Bennet narrowed his eyes. "I hope you are not about to tell me you gambled your fortune away."
"No sir. I doubt there is a man alive that has not one vice, but if you were to search for mine, you would not discover it at the gaming tables. I...I..."
"Mister Bingley lost a bet, Papa."
Bingley turned to her. Jane shrugged almost imperceptibly.
"I did!" Bingley cried. "Lord Ashbourne and I have been friends for nearly two years, and we very often play billiards in the evenings." Once the story had been planted in his head, he had no trouble embellishing it. "We are terribly competitive, I am sorry to say, and one late evening after very many matches and the number of games won tied at six to six, and, to own the truth, after a great many spirits had been imbibed, money no longer seemed a sufficient wager to place on the game. Two months work as a servant in the house of a country gentleman was deemed a good deal more...motivating. A good deal more likely to hold the interest of both parties. I lost."
"I see. I trust Lord Ashbourne will confirm your tale."
Bingley cleared his throat. "Yes, sir." He hoped. "I had no designs when I came here but to serve my sentence in peace. The entire affair has been mortifying, and for the first several weeks it was my intention to return to London without anyone ever knowing about any of this, however--" He looked at Jane. "If I did not love your daughter with all my heart, I would not have...even after I knew I loved her, I had planned to wait, but then Mr. Collins came and...I could not risk losing her. I could not."
"Jane is far too sensible to have accepted that man," Mr. Bennet said. "I would have been sorry to see her consigned to such a fate, in any case."
Jane looked down at her hands. Bingley wanted to tell Mr. Bennet that he vastly underestimated his daughter's desire to please everyone in her life, and that as her father he had a responsibility to protect her, but now was not the time to comment on the man's choices as a parent. Bingley said only, "I could not risk it."
"And so you chose to make love to her under the guise of a servant."
"Miss Bennet has known who I am for several weeks. She accepted a gentleman of means, not a servant. Jane--Miss Bennet is not at fault."
"Jane is very much at fault for failing to tell me what she knew."
"Was worth more than my daughter's honor? Do you think your generation is the first to be absurd? Do you think I have not known young men in my life who have done things just as foolish? I would have kept you employed if I had known. I would have kept your secret and laughed at it the entire time. Jane should have told me."
"I am sorry, sir," Jane said.
Mr. Bennet shook his head. "Do you really want to marry this man, Jane?"
"I do, sir."
Mr. Bennet looked him over. "I am going to be magnanimous and assume that there is more to him than I have thus far seen."
"He is kind and gentle and we have a great deal in common. He is exceptionally loyal, and very good to his friends. He is good to everyone! When I talk to him, I feel as though I could tell him anything. He is exactly what a young man should be, and I--"
Mr. Bennet held up his hand. "Yes, yes, save it for your letters. I have no doubt an engagement will raise my paper costs considerably."
"Have we your blessing, then?"
"Do you love her?"
"She is everything to me."
"Will you take care of her?"
"I am hardly in a position to deny you. The rumors have no doubt already spread. Dependent upon Lord Ashbourne confirming your story, you have my blessing. Marry him, Jane. I like him well enough despite everything. If nothing else, he will prove a diverting sort of son in law."
Bingley could have collapsed with relief. "Thank you, sir."
"I will write to Lord Ashbourne. You and Jane will stay here, in the company of Elizabeth, while I do so. She, I trust, will be able to manage you."
"Thank you," Bingley said again.
"Hmm. How much do you have?"
"Ah. About five thousand a year. Three thousand five hundred pounds comes from the Navy Fives. The rest depends upon my investments, domestic and overseas. They were doing well when I left, and my solicitor had orders to contact me if any serious matters arose, so I assume all continues to be well. There is a plantation in India that I am especially hopeful will yield a good return." He was rambling, but at least he was rambling about something he knew.
"Yes, yes. Well, you may not thank me later. I will charge you with telling my wife. You may find her approval more trying than her disapprobation." He paused. "Though, when you have done that, I will also give you the pleasure of telling Mr. Collins. That, I trust, you will enjoy."
Bingley tried not to smile, but he suspected he would.
Miss Elizabeth was called down to sit with them, and informed of the supposed truth while Mr. Bennet retired to his study to write to Lord Ashbourne. She took the news much as her father had, first with something akin to anger, and then with resigned amusement.
After she had satisfied herself that her sister was well, she seemed content to leave the lovers to themselves, and seated herself on the far side of the room with a book.
Bingley, though curious about what had become of Mr. Gallagher, Fitzwilliam and Miss Audley, saw no way to inquire after them without compromising himself. To own the truth, he was far too happy to be allowed to play the proper and attentive lover to Jane to concern himself overmuch with things he could not know.
They were free to talk at their leisure, and though their conversation had at first a few false starts, they soon hit a comfortable stride.
"I saw George Cooke as Othello last year, and he impressed me very much. Oh, and you must see Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth. I know you do not care for tragedy, but it is not a performance to be missed."
"Do you live on Drury Lane, Mr. Bingley?" Miss Elizabeth asked, looking at him over the top of her book.
"It sometimes seems so," Bingley said with a laugh. He looked at Jane who was regarding him with a small smile. "What?"
"It is badly in need of a trim."
"Yes, but I like it very much."
"It is red. I would previously darken it at times with a lead comb, but a friend of mine who has studied physic tells me that will eventually poison me. He feels that living with red hair is preferable to being poisoned, but I will note that he does not have red hair."
Jane shook her head. "I like it very much just as it is."
He touched her hand. "Then I like it better than I ever have before."
She glanced at her sister and lowered her voice. "When shall I take my own lock of hair?"
They were interrupted by Mr. Bennet entering the room with Colonel Fitzwilliam. Fitzwilliam was smiling slightly, and did not appear troubled, but Bingley thought he detected a tension around his eyes.
He greeted all in the room politely and said, "I regret that my brother is not at present available to speak for Mr. Bingley, but as I am entirely acquainted with the terms of the bet, I believe I can vouch for the gentleman."
Given the events of the day, Bingley suspected that Ashbourne's absence was news to be celebrated, but he followed Fitzwilliam's lead and kept his face neutral.
"Sir, I do hope that this has not caused undue hardship for you. Bingley can be impulsive and somewhat foolish at times, but he is a good man." He favored Bingley with a nod, and Bingley nodded back, suspecting that "impulsive and somewhat foolish" was a very restrained account of Fitzwilliam's opinion of him.
Bingley was then made to fulfill his bargain with Mr. Bennet, and inform Mrs. Bennet of the truth, such as it was. Mrs. Bennet's effusions were indeed far more trying than her hysterics, and she repeated his income so many times, he was soon very tired of hearing it.
"Five thousand a year! A house in London! Good heavens! Oh, Jane! Dear Jane! I knew your beauty would bring good fortune! Such a sweet child, is she not, Mr. Bingley? She has always been a darling girl. There is not a better natured young lady in all England. Five thousand a year! My word! And good friends with Lord Ashbourne, I understand. Well! Lord Ashbourne is welcome here at any time. I have four other girls, you see. Five thousand a year!"
Bingley caught Fitzwilliam's eye. The other man looked less amused than annoyed, and Bingley perceived that he wished very much to be gone from the house. He declined, therefore, the pleasure of informing Mr. Collins of his actual rank, and of seeing Mrs. Hill. After Fitzwilliam explained that Lord Ashbourne was very desirous of seeing Bingley, and after Bingley parted with Jane with all the reluctance befitting a lover, they were in the carriage headed to Netherfield.
"I suppose I will be shortly wishing your brother joy," Bingley said as soon as he heard the coachman drive the horses forward.
"No," Fitzwilliam said.
"Were you unable to effect the escape of Miss Audley?"
"Miss Audley is well, and free."
Fitzwilliam's smile was genuine. "Miss Cunningham has recently left the house of Mr. Gallagher, along with her maid, in the company of her brother." Seeing Bingley's confused look, he continued. "Her brother arrived this morning to take the young lady to London, so that she might have the benefit of superior medical care. It was an odd, quick business to be sure, and some did think it better that her departure be delayed until the return of Mr. Gallagher, but none of the servants dared question the matter as both Nell and Miss Cunningham herself vouched to the identity of the man, and Miss Cunningham was most eager to leave. The affair might have been further complicated by the heavy door and secure lock which held Miss Cunningham to her room, but fortunately the friend of Miss Cunningham's brother has some experience opening locks even when he is not in possession of a proper key, and can do so with such haste that a casual observer, distracted by conversation, might be excused from failing to notice the lack of such a key."
Bingley grinned. "I suppose Ashbourne was the brother you speak of."
"No, Edgeworth. I wrote to him yesterday, express. I could not risk Ashbourne being recognized and, frankly, I did not trust my brother to keep his head with his paramour so near." He shook his head. "'tis fortunate that Gallagher was always so secretive about his 'niece'. Had anyone known the first thing about her, the ruse never would have worked."
"And have they not gone? Are they not for Scotland?"
"No," Fitzwilliam said. "Miss Audley is at present in the company of Mr. Edgeworth and her maid, at Netherfield."
"Where is Ashbourne?"
Fitzwilliam grimaced. "I seem to have misplaced my brother."
"Ashbourne was to meet with Lord Dorset and Lord Walden at Netherfield under the ruse of trading the documents you obtained from Mr. Ridgeway for the freedom to marry Miss Audley. They had only just arrived when I left. When I returned, they were gone. I questioned the servants, and they said that Ashbourne had left with the two men."
"That seems a dangerous thing, to leave Ashbourne alone with such men."
"I hardly had much of a choice," Fitzwilliam said.
"Surely you could have thought of some way--"
"Could I have?" Fitzwilliam demanded. "Do you think I wanted to put my brother in danger? I had less than a day to come up with a way to free Miss Audley. Someone betrayed my plans to Dorset, and I have had to scramble to keep ahead of him. It is not as though I have been at liberty to devote my whole mind to the matter. I have had to deal with my brother's eccentricities for weeks. The man is trial enough when he is in his right mind, do you have any idea what he is like when he is out of his mind with worry and fretting like a woman? I did the best I bloody could under the circumstances, and I will thank you to keep your judgements of my competence to yourself until we have found Andrew!"
Bingley said nothing, and only waited.
Fitzwilliam scrubbed at his eyes. "I beg your pardon."
"I could strangle the life out of the man most of the time, but he is my brother. I could never face my mother if he were--" He shook his head.
"We will discover him."
Fitzwilliam was silent for the remainder of the ride. The footman who had always been superior with him opened the door to them, and gave him a very confused look as he walked in next to Fitzwilliam. Edgeworth met them in the hall. He had a bulky, but not portly, build, slightly on the taller side of average. He was a handsome sort of man, but though he was only seven and twenty, his hair had largely gone.
"I took the liberty of writing to your valet and having your trunk sent from London shortly after I arrived," Fitzwilliam said. "It is waiting for you in the blue room. Go to the top of the stairs and turn left. It will be the first door you see. I hope you do not mind my being so forward." Bingley certainly did not.
"When you have changed, you are free to join us in the parlor," Edgeworth said. "I am sure you will be eager to have the privilege of meeting Miss Audley."
The emphasis did not go unnoticed by Bingley, but he was too keen to put on his own clothing to be attentive to it just then. He found his room easily, and was happy to see that it had been prepared for him, with his trunk set out, though not properly unpacked.
He dressed simply in dark tan trousers and put a double-breasted waistcoat of a similar color over his white frilled shirt. He arranged his cravat in an Irish tie before putting on his blue coat. His coat was almost too tight in the arms. He had put on muscle, it seemed.
When he felt fit to be seen in genteel company, he found his way to the parlor. Though the house was large and the parlors many, he had no trouble finding Edgeworth and the others. He needed only follow the shouting.
"I will not calm myself! Such incompetence is not to be borne. How can you possibly have lost him?"
Bingley entered the parlor to see Edgeworth seated by the fire, his face hidden behind his newspaper. Fitzwilliam stood in what could only be called confrontation with the lady that Bingley assumed was Miss Audley.
She turned to him when he entered. Had he been of a mind to be objective, he might have thought Miss Audley was the equal to Miss Bennet in beauty, but as he was not of such a mind, he thought her only a very pretty girl. She was not showing her beauty to best effect, however. Her light blue eyes flashed dangerously and her mouth was twisted in an expression of derision while her hair, clearly pinned up in haste, seemed in constant danger of falling free of its arrangement.
"Who are you?" she demanded, as he entered.
"Mr. Charles Bingley, ma'am."
"Are you as incompetent as your friends?"
"Yes," Bingley said agreeably. "And infinitely more so."
Fitzwilliam snorted at that. Miss Audley only glared at him before turning back to Fitzwilliam. That man appeared to be regretting his part in freeing her, and perhaps even to be contemplating whether he could lock her in one of the upstairs bedrooms.
Before anyone else could speak, a footman entered and gave a calling card to Fitzwilliam. Fitzwilliam stared at it in shock, but nodded. A few minutes later, a man entered the room while the footman announced, "Lord Walden."
Posted on: 2010-03-23
The first person to break the silence was Miss Audley, who crossed the room in a rage and, Bingley imagined, was prepared to strike Lord Walden before she appeared to think better of it and only exclaimed, "You scoundrel! I shall see you hung! I shall see you drawn and quartered!"
Lord Walden paled at that. "I would like to make it very clear that I never, in all my wildest imaginings, considered that my father might commit treason. I had no part in what he has done, and I disclaim all association with the man."
"Where is my brother?" Fitzwilliam asked, as Miss Audley demanded, "Where is Lord Ashbourne?"
"I shall tell you all I know, in proper order." Lord Walden cast a glance around the room. "There are a great many people in this room," he said. "Perhaps it would be best if Miss Audley were to go to her room to rest."
Miss Audley glared at him with such intensity that Bingley was surprised that Lord Walden did not burst into flames. "I will not be sent away."
"The lady has a right to be here," Fitzwilliam said, sounding rather unhappy that it was the case. "I trust Edgeworth, and I intend to keep Mr. Bingley away from all pretty women until I have recovered my brother."
Lord Walden's mouth twisted into a pained frown, but he nodded and asked only a glass of brandy before beginning his story.
He moved to seat himself by the fire, but Miss Audley was too quick for him and took the seat for herself. It seemed entirely an act of spite, for she had a warm shawl about her shoulders and Lord Walden's clothing was wet from a misting rain that had covered the countryside. Lord Walden shook his head and took another chair. He drank liberally from his glass before beginning.
"I do not doubt that you all bear me a certain amount of ill will for my part in the--yes, I will say it--the unjust imprisonment of my cousin. Though I doubt the lady will admit it, I was never her principal jailer. To own the truth, I never wished to marry Miss Audley. We are no good friends, she and I." He gave her a tight smile, and she narrowed her eyes at him. "I resisted my father's plans, but there was little I could do, unless I wished to be tossed penniless into the streets to wait until he died."
"You lie very well," Miss Audley said. "Your mother left you ten thousand pounds and an estate in Shropshire."
"Eight hundred a year and that drafty old house? You expect me to live on that?"
"Better that I should live in one room?"
Fitzwilliam cleared his throat. He seemed to have perfected the art; it brought an instant return to the business of the day.
"I tried to convince my father to give up his plans of uniting our estates, but he insisted that the fortunes must be joined. I then tried to reason with my cousin. A marriage need not have been entirely miserable for either of us. I would not have held her to her vows anymore than I intended to keep mine. She could have done as she wished. She would not see reason."
"I would not see wickedness and adultery as acceptable."
"When I discovered the intended elopement between Miss Audley and Lord Ashbourne, I was elated." Miss Audley stared at him in indignant shock. "Yes, I discovered it. You were far too happy, too content that week. You have always been a miserable thing, I knew something was afoot. I searched your room and found his letter. You should have burned it."
Miss Audley gave the impression of a fish who had found itself inconveniently out of the water. She gaped at him, her mouth opening and closing, before blurting out, "I tried to burn it! It was the first time he had ever signed his Christian name!"
"It seemed the solution to my troubles, and I was very anxious that all would proceed without delay. Unfortunately, I mentioned my anxieties to a man that I thought was a friend, and he, in an attempt to ingratiate himself with an even more powerful ally, told my father, though he kept my name out of the matter. Miss Audley was renamed Miss Cunningham and shipped off to Hertfordshire, and I was left to regret that she was not Lady Ashbourne and consequently no longer my concern."
He drank the last of his brandy and got up to refill his cup. "After six months I came to Hertfordshire without my father's knowledge. My plan was to end this one way or another. Either I would convince my cousin to marry me, or I would aid her in eloping with her intended. I found her even less rational than I had last left her." He gestured to two parallel scratch marks on his cheek. "Courtesy of Miss Audley."
"You had designs on my person."
"I had no such thing. You have wanted my blood since you were seven years old!"
"You tormented me! You have hated me since I came into your house."
"I never hated you. You are the closest thing I have to a sister." He paused, apparently wondering at his own words. "No wonder the thought of marrying you turned my stomach."
He seated himself again. "Shortly after I arrived, I saw Mr. Bingley in Meryton. I could not be certain, but I thought I knew him from elsewhere. I asked Mr. Gallagher about him, careful not to reveal too much--Mr. Gallagher knows very little of my family's affairs, and I would prefer that it remain so. Mr. Gallagher told me that he was Mr. Bennet's new man. When I learned that Lord Ashbourne had taken Netherfield, I began to suspect that the two were related, though I could not quite ascertain what plan to free Miss Audley would involve placing Mr. Bingley as a servant in Mr. Bennet's house, or why Lord Ashbourne could not simply bribe a servant already in the house."
Bingley slumped down in his seat, glad he was positioned away from the general focus of the room. If he left Hertfordshire with any semblance of dignity intact, he would never again do anything that even hinted at intrigue.
"Did you have the dish planted to test your theory?" Fitzwilliam asked. "You wished to know whether Bingley was in fact a gentleman?"
"No, I simply wanted him gone. What Lord Ashbourne's plan was, or what Mr. Bingley had to do with it was of no concern to me. It served my interests to remove the man from his place, so I did, or attempted to do so. Mr. Gallagher said that Mr. Ridgeway was the sort of man who would do most anything for enough coin, so I paid him ten guineas to plant the dish."
"You did not know Mr. Ridgeway was an associate of your father?"
"I did not. Neither did Mr. Gallagher. What my father was plotting with Mr. Ridgeway was his business and his alone. I knew nothing of it," he said the last with an almost frantic intensity before recovering himself. "I know not why the plan to remove Mr. Bingley from Longbourn failed." He looked to Bingley. "How did you know the dish had been planted? How did you hide it before your room was searched?"
"I knew nothing of it. I still do not know who protected me that day."
Fitzwilliam frowned. Clearly he was unhappy that the mystery had not yet been solved.
Lord Walden continued his tale. "I had little time to come up with a new plan for removing Mr. Bingley from his place before my father arrived. My father was very surprised to find me in Hertfordshire, and less than pleased. We quarreled, and having been privileged to spend a great deal of time in my cousin's company for several days, I informed him in no uncertain terms that I would not marry the young lady under any circumstances. I was surprised when he seemed unconcerned with this statement. He seemed rather distracted, in fact. Lord Ashbourne's note arrived the next morning. The note was vague. I could not fathom what documents Lord Ashbourne was referring to, and my father's agitation was extreme. When we arrived, my first thought was to tell Lord Ashbourne that Miss Audley was entirely his, if he wanted her, though I would have advised him against it."
"I would advice against marrying you," Miss Audley muttered darkly. The entire room looked at her. She huffed. "I have been locked up for months. My wit is out of practice."
Lord Walden rolled his eyes. "However, as I thought Lord Ashbourne in possession of some important business documents, I was determined not to harm my father materially. If I had known--" He shook his head and turned to Fitzwilliam. "Your brother has not the disposition for such a...negotiation as the one he attempted that morning. My father was in such a state of agitation and Lord Ashbourne dealt badly with the confrontation. He completely shut down and said hardly anything, which did nothing to calm my father, who finally became enraged and took a pistol from his pocket. He demanded to know if you had the papers in question and when Lord Ashbourne said that you did, my father...I cannot know exactly his train of thought at that moment, but what I do know is that he took your brother as his prisoner, and walked out of the house with him, holding his pistol to his side."
He stopped and rubbed his forehead. "Had I been of a steadier mind at that moment, I might have done something to put a stop to it. Locking up his own ward is nothing, but kidnapping the son of Lord Buxton--your father is not a man one crosses lightly."
"No, he is not," Fitzwilliam said softly.
"I was not of a steady mind, and I simply followed. It was not until we were in the carriage that I demanded an explanation." He laughed then, a sort of hysterical laugh that Bingley was too familiar with. "It seems I have a bastard brother in France. A few years ago he murdered a whore, and he was sentenced to die for it. Instead of doing what any sane man would do, and leaving the fool to his fate, my father made a deal with a French judge. A bit of bribery was all it was on that occasion. My brother later murdered another woman, the mistress of a powerful politician. Bribery was not enough this time, but he succeeded in making another deal, in time. He stole secret documents and--" He laughed again. "He agreed to turn them over in exchange for my brother's life."
Lord Walden fell silent then, and stared into his empty brandy cup.
"What happened to my brother?" Fitzwilliam asked, when the silence stretched too long.
"I...I confess I was rather...the argument left me somewhat discomposed. There were things that were said that I... My father has a small shooting box about an hour from here. He had taken us all there and I left. I left when my father was distracted."
"And you left my brother to his fate? You left my brother with a man who, the more I hear of him, I begin to think seems slightly mad."
"I was not then in full possession of my faculties. I took a horse and I rode. I had hardly a destination in mind, but as I came back to myself, I thought of my responsibilities to my country, and I came here. I had had some time to think by then, and I realized that you must have known something of my father's activities. It was the only explanation that made any sense."
The grave silence that descended the room was broken by Miss Audley.
"What do we do now?"
Fitzwilliam regarded her. "You have been through a great deal, and I believe you are in need of rest."
"I will not be--"
"Yes, you will," Fitzwilliam said. "There are things to discuss, things that are not fit for the ears of a lady. I have let you stay thus far because you are my brother's intended, and you have a right to know his situation, but now you will leave me to handle this."
He spoke not unkindly, but firmly. She glared at him with great anger, but obeyed, though she slammed the door as she left.
"Bingley, perhaps you should see to the young lady."
Bingley knew a dismissal when he was presented with one. He supposed he ought to have been insulted to be dismissed along with the woman, but he was only relieved. He was tired of intrigue, and secrets, and he was glad to leave it to those who were better suited to such things.
He found Miss Audley stomping her way up and down the length of an empty sitting room. Her anger was so different from Jane's quiet fretting that he smiled. Unfortunately, she saw his smile and turned to him.
"What do you want?"
Bingley blinked. "Nothing whatsoever," he said, and went upstairs to attempt to formulate a letter to his sisters.
Fitzwilliam knocked on his door later that night. Bingley, who had been staring at a blank sheet of paper for nearly an hour, was glad of the interruption.
"We have formulated a plan," Fitzwilliam said.
"Please do not tell me what it is," Bingley said, in all earnestness.
Fitzwilliam smiled. "I had not planned to. But I do need one thing from you. The packet of papers you planted in Mr. Ridgeway's office. I need them returned to me."
"I do not see how I can possibly make my way to his office unnoticed, not now."
"You cannot, but surely there must be one among the servants whom you can trust with the task."
Matty came into his mind immediately. "There is."
"By tomorrow, then?"
"I will do my best."
Fitzwilliam nodded absently, but made no move to leave.
"Did you need something else?"
Bingley smiled. "She is not what I expected."
"No," Fitzwilliam said with a rueful smile. "I wonder if she is what my brother expected. People are sometimes very different on paper."
Bingley offered him a seat by the fire, and Fitzwilliam took it. The curtains were open, but the daylight had gone; the room was illuminated by the fire and several candles. Bingley had perhaps lit more than he strictly needed, but he had never before appreciated the simple luxury of having as many candles as he liked--and candles of wax that burned with a clean scent rather than filling the air with the odor of tallow.
"I think we ought not to be too hard on Miss Audley. She has been through a great deal. Her anger is born out of concern for Ashbourne. She is spirited, certainly, but some men do prefer that."
"Does Ashbourne, do you think?" Fitzwilliam asked. Bingley's surprise must have registered because he said, "You are perhaps my brother's closest friend. You understand him better than I ever could."
Bingley gave the question all the thought it was due. "I do not know what he wants, or what caused him to fall in love with Miss Audley. I have never before seen Ashbourne show any real interest in a woman. He has always been so uncomfortable around them. I know he has wanted to be more forward at times, but it is hard for him and when he is in unfamiliar company he becomes so..."
"Yes. My concern is that Miss Audley does not understand him. It would be a very bad thing if she were to demand more from him than he can give."
Fitzwilliam rubbed his forehead. "It never has been a matter of desire, has it?"
"Of what do you speak?"
"My brother and what we all so politely call his eccentricities. I have always been frustrated with him; he is so perfectly normal in private, and yet in company he is rude and says the most impolite things, or he says nothing and stands against the wall looking disagreeable. Do you know my cousin, Mr. Darcy?"
"I was introduced to him by Ashbourne and have seen him a little in society."
"Darcy also prefers the company he knows. He can make himself agreeable in a ballroom, if he wants to, but he rarely puts forth the effort. That is a choice. I begin to doubt that Ashbourne can do anything other than what he does."
Bingley opened his mouth to speak, and then thought better of it, but Fitzwilliam caught the expression. He did not ask, only said, "I want very much to understand my brother."
Bingley hesitated. "I do not know if he would appreciate me speaking to you of it."
"I will not press you, but if there is anything you feel you can in good conscience share with me, I would appreciate it."
"You are correct; it is not a matter of desire. I have seen how much he wants to make himself agreeable, but it is not in his nature." He paused, trying to think of a way to explain without betraying confidence. He would not speak of how distressed Ashbourne was at times. He would not tell the secret of the times when they had returned from this ball or that dinner and Ashbourne had once again taken refuge in Bingley's house, how he sat berating himself for all his failures that evening, real and supposed, while Bingley tried to reason him down from his irrationality. He certainly would not tell about the time that Ashbourne paid an actress to flirt with him, thinking that if he practiced where he felt safe, he might well do better when he dealt with women in the public sphere. That had not ended well. "Have you ever seen the exhibitions of electricity?"
"I have always been fascinated by it, and I want to understand it. I have asked many people to explain it to me, and they have, in many different ways. I cannot tell you the first thing about the current theories of how electricity works. I am still fascinated by it, but it is beyond my ability to understand."
"Being polite in society is not electricity. It does not take a scientific mind to understand it."
"No, it does not, but it takes a mind unlike that which your brother possesses."
Fitzwilliam was silent for a long time. "Surely you are not suggesting that he should not even try."
"I am not. He does try. Perhaps sometimes the harder he tries, the less he succeeds, which must be..."
"More so than either of us can imagine."
Fitzwilliam fell silent again. At length, he rose and said, "You are the most abysmal agent of espionage I have ever met with. You are, however, also the best friend my brother could possibly have." He held out his hand. "I hope I can count you among my friends as well."
Bingley shook his hand. "Of course."
Fitzwilliam moved to leave, but stopped and looked back. "Regarding the papers tomorrow..."
He sighed. "Try not to bungle it too badly."
Bingley smiled. "I shall do my best."
Fitzwilliam grimaced, but left him without another word. Bingley supposed that, like Ashbourne's attempts at politeness, sometimes his best left a great deal to be desired.
The scrape of metal on coal roused him. He cast off the blankets and slipped from the bed. The maid knelt by the fire, and he quickly tossed on his dressing gown before she turned.
The maid startled when she saw that he had risen. "Begging your pardon, sir. I do hope I didn't wake you."
"No. Do not concern yourself, I was already awake."
She finished her task then, and rose to leave, but Bingley called her back.
"What is your name?"
"Sarah Smith, sir."
"You know Rose, who works at Longbourn."
She looked vastly uncomfortable, and Bingley could not have said why he had begun the conversation. "Have some tea sent up to my room."
"Yes, sir," Sarah said. She appeared quite relieved to have the exchange returned to the familiar.
Bingley went through his trunk. Frederick had sent him several suits of clothing, his pocket watch, his toothpick, and, fortunately, his spare razor and grooming kit. He had left his other kit at Longbourn, and could not conceive of asking for it to be returned to him.
Dressed, he went downstairs and found the house bereft of all but the servants. He had risen earlier than anyone, it seemed. A few of the servants paid him notice, some giving him very odd looks. He checked the time and found it was not much past seven o'clock. A passing footman told him breakfast was served at half past ten, which seemed terribly late, though at his house in London they rarely breakfasted before eleven, and during the season nearer to noon.
With nothing more to do with his time, he ordered himself a light breakfast and sat in the sitting room, pouring over nearly six weeks of neglected correspondence. Ashbourne had had the foresight to have his mail forwarded to Netherfield through Edgeworth's estate in Durham.
He dealt with business first. Presented with letters containing nothing but figures and numbers, and factual comments about plantations and mines, he felt himself on solid ground for the first time in weeks. He collected all of the newspapers he had missed and skimmed each one, looking for any news that might affect his investments, then answered the letters that needed to be answered. Most of his replies were even legible.
The personal letters took longer. To begin, there were a great many of them, and though Bingley had no reputation as a superior correspondent, it seemed his absence had been long enough that a great deal of his acquaintances had a great deal to say to him. Some people had written two or three times. He had not thought his temporary withdraw from society would be so noticed. He answered nearly all of them, in varying degrees of completeness and legibility, and had only just left off from the task when Fitzwilliam entered the room shortly before ten.
"I did not think you an early riser," Fitzwilliam said.
"I am not, by habit. My uncle would have an apoplexy if he were to see me."
The rest of the party came down shortly after. As Bingley knew nothing of the plan to rescue Ashbourne, he mostly ignored the glances shared by Lord Walden, Edgeworth, and Fitzwilliam. Miss Audley was calmer than she had been the previous night, and said little until the footman entered with her pug.
"Lord Ashbourne left very explicit orders that he should be brought down from London once you arrived, ma'am."
She gathered the dog up in her arms and cuddled the creature to her chest. Orville was quite old, and Bingley had never seen him do very much more than lug himself from one side of the room to the other, but he seemed not to have forgotten his former mistress, for he squirmed happily and licked her cheek.
"Oh, my darling Orville, I have missed you. Lord Ashbourne has cared for you all this time, and now I have you again." She started to cry and Fitzwilliam hastily dismissed the footman before she could reveal anything in front of him. "He is the best of men." She hastily wiped her cheeks and looked at Lord Walden. "If he is not brought back to me safe and whole, I will torment you for the rest of my life."
Lord Walden did not appear to take the threat lightly.
She sat down again at the table, setting the dog on her lap, and feeding it bits of food from the table. Bingley glanced at Fitzwilliam, but he did not appear of a mind to challenge Miss Audley on the matter, and Bingley, who was unfortunately seated next to her, only moved his plate slightly to the left.
Bingley had planned to send a note to Longbourn, but one arrived begging the pleasure of his company before he had an opportunity. He sighed when he saw it. Edgeworth found this amusing, for he smirked into his coffee. Edgeworth, however, had not spent six weeks enduring the indignity of working as a servant. Nothing in the world but Jane could have induced him to return to Longbourn that morning.
As Ashbourne presently had no need of him, he employed Quinn, Ashbourne's valet, for the day. Borrowing another man's valet was as uncomfortable as borrowing another man's shoes, but they did tolerably well together. Quinn gave him a haircut--too short, but neat--and a close shave. Dressing was a drawn out affair.
Bingley first chose a pair of tight buckskin breeches, but decided that they made him look too much like a dandy, and opted for a more loose-fitting pair of light gray which he paired with a white and yellow striped waistcoat and, after much deliberation, his dark green coat. He and Quinn came to some disagreement about the tie of the neck cloth, but Bingley was eventually convinced that an Oriental tie served him best.
He shook out his ruffles and pulled on his white calfskin gloves, regarding himself in the mirror.
"It is not overdone, is it?"
"I do not want it underdone either."
"It is neither over nor under done, sir. It is simply done," Quinn said with some exasperation. Ashbourne had to be among the easiest of men to dress. He wore whatever his valet put in front of him and never had an opinion about it. Bingley missed Frederick.
He donned his hat and regarded himself again. "I am not certain the hat quite goes, but Frederick only sent the one. If I were to change the waistcoat...but then I believe I should wear the blue coat and..."
They were interrupted by a sharp knock at the door. Fitzwilliam, on being let in, leaned against the frame of the door.
"I understand that you are in an awkward spot, but I believe my brother's situation is somewhat more to be pitied. I need those papers returned to me. It is not going to become less mortifying the longer you stand in front of the mirror."
No, it was not.
Thus he found himself in the carriage on the way to Longbourn, fidgeting nervously. Jane would be there. No place could be entirely awful if Jane were to be there.
The carriage pulled to a stop. Bingley closed his eyes. This was going to be dreadful.
Mrs. Hill answered the door, much as she had the day he had arrived at Netherfield. They stared at each other in awkward silence until Bingley fumbled with his card. He was led to the sitting room, where he was presented with everyone. The entire family, including Mrs. Phillips, stared at him as Mrs. Hill announced him.
He caught Jane's eye and saw the apology written on her face. He did his best to appear unconcerned as he made all the polite greetings, and Mrs. Phillips blatantly looked over his suit of clothes, no doubt tallying its worth in her head.
The first several minutes that passed were among the most uncomfortable of his life. He was seated by Jane, which helped immensely, but she was quiet, and Bingley could not think of the first thing to say.
It was Mrs. Bennet who finally broke the silence. "Is Lord Ashbourne not with you?"
"No, Lord Ashbourne has been called away on family business. I believe it may have something to do with the arrival of his cousin, Miss Audley. She came to Netherfield yesterday with her companion."
"I am sorry that he could not accompany you. He has such a high opinion of my girls."
Bingley managed a polite smile. He longed to say something of the engagement of Miss Audley and Lord Ashbourne, but it seemed too early to speak of it publicly.
"Do you really have five thousand a year?" Lydia asked.
Jane blushed. Bingley only nodded.
"And a house in London?" Kitty asked.
"When you and Jane are married, can we go to stay with you in London?"
"Aunt and Uncle Gardiner always invite Jane and Lizzy to stay with them in London, but they never invite us."
Bingley thought that said a great deal about the sense of Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, but he said, "Jane will be free to invite whomever she likes. It will be her house, and I will welcome her family as often as she wishes to have them with us."
Jane glanced at Elizabeth, who would no doubt be the main recipient of their hospitality.
"Has Mr. Collins returned to Rosings?" Bingley asked with what he thought was admirable nonchalance.
Jane smiled, and Elizabeth appeared to be trying not to laugh.
"He has," Mr. Bennet said, looking rather amused himself, though Mary looked quite put out.
After a few awkward moments, Mary said, "I think wagers are very foolish things."
Nearly everyone in the room, excepting only Jane and Bingley themselves, glared at her. He suspected that the tacit agreement was to pretend that the previous six weeks had not happened at all, and that Bingley had appeared today for the first time, fully formed as Jane's betrothed, like Athena burst from the forehead of Zeus.
"I quite agree with you," Bingley said. "I doubt I shall ever make such a one again."
He looked through the window at the winding paths outside. He longed to be alone with Jane, and was just beginning to doubt he would ever be allowed the chance when Elizabeth said, "Mama, Jane had hoped to take Mr. Bingley to see Okham Mount today."
This was declared to be a capital idea, and at first Elizabeth, Kitty, and Lydia were all to accompany them, but with some effort, the group was pared down to only himself, Jane, and Elizabeth, which was far preferable.
Shortly after, they were left to themselves for a time, and Bingley was about to ask Jane if she could contrive some way of his speaking to Matty, when Matty herself entered the room and put an end to the matter.
She curtsied, not meeting his eye, and said, "Mrs. Bennet sent me to see if you should care for some tea."
Bingley rose. "You are the very person I need to see."
She raised her eyes for only a moment. "Sir?"
Bingley frowned, struck by the change in her behavior. "I need a very great favor from you."
"I do not see what favors I could do for a man of your importance, sir, but I am happy to be of service."
"This is more than service, Matty, and it will be...rewarded thusly."
"I am happy to be of service," she said.
"I need a packet of papers from--"
"The ones you tucked into the chair in Mr. Ridgeway's office?"
Bingley blinked. "How did you know?"
"I saw you do it," Matty said. "I see most things that happen in this house. No one ever notices me when I'm not talking. I'll get your papers, sir, and I can bring them to you this evening, if Miss Bennet will send me to Netherfield."
Jane nodded and said she would send a note that evening.
Matty curtsied and left, and Bingley was left to wonder at her behavior.
"Oh, sister!" he heard Mrs. Phillips exclaim as he seated himself next to Jane, her voice only slightly muffled by the door. "His suit must have cost twenty pounds at least. Did you see his watch?"
They fortunately left for Okham Mount shortly after.
The walk was long, but not arduous, and Jane and Elizabeth were excellent company. He discovered from Elizabeth the reason for the amusement after his inquiry about Mr. Collins.
"It was Jane that told him. My mother was still recovering from the shock and most of the house had no idea what had happened. After you left with Colonel Fitzwilliam, Mr. Collins came in and asked if he had come to take you into custody for some offense."
"Jane said, 'Indeed not, sir. Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mr. Bingley are good friends.' She told him the whole story then, and the poor man looked like he was about to faint."
"I felt very sorry for him," Jane said.
"He raced from the house. I believe he has gone to Rosings, to prostrate himself before Lady Catherine before any unkind reports can reach her from her nephew."
Bingley was sorry he had missed it, but Jane looked genuinely concerned for the man, so he held his tongue.
They reached Okham Mount then. The view was very nice, though he had seen grander landscapes from certain high points on the Kentridge estate. He did not say anything of the sort to Jane or Elizabeth, of course, only mentioned that he very much wanted to show Jane the Lake District.
"Oh," Jane said. "I should like that very much. I am fond of a lovely view, but I fear those who have a true appreciation for the landscape would find my lack of sensibility appalling."
"What Jane means is that she does not quote poetry at the first glimpse of a dead tree, nor wax philosophical over a bit of rock in a field. It is a trait of her character that all who know her very much appreciate," Elizabeth said.
Bingley smiled at Jane. For the first time since they had begun their walk, he wished that one of the younger girls had joined them. It would have been far easier to pull Jane off to the side had they been two groups of two rather than one group of three. Elizabeth, however, could be sly. He saw a look pass between the sisters; Elizabeth found that the lace of her boot needed fixing, and begged that they would continue their exploration without her.
They found seclusion on the far side of a tree.
"I have something for you," Bingley said, taking from his pocket a lock of his own hair that he had had Quinn save and wrap in a bit of paper. "I would have preferred to allow you to take it yourself, but I thought it more important that I appear properly groomed this morning."
She smiled brilliantly when she saw what he had given her.
"I intend to have yours set in amber and made into a ring. It is very dear to me, though I shall never forgive myself for pressing you--"
"Pray, do not think of it. It is done, and I--" She blushed, but met his eyes boldly. "Despite all that came after, that was one of the best--the most exciting moments of my entire life." She blushed even more deeply and started to turn her head away, but Bingley caught her cheek in his gloved hand. He could not take his eyes from her lips. So close, he could see that they were not quite perfect. The lower was not quite plump enough, and the upper was a hair too thin, to be the ideal of feminine beauty. It did not matter, they were her lips, and he wanted none other.
She sighed and he felt her breath on his cheek.
He let his hand fall from her face and placed it on her upper back. She licked her lips and he bent his head to kiss her.
"Sir William!" Elizabeth cried. "How very good it is to see you."
Jane jerked away from him, and by the time they were in the sight of Sir William Lucas, the unschooled observer would have thought them perfectly at their ease and engaged in nothing more exciting than amiable conversation. Bingley was far from being at his ease, but he confined any outward appearance of annoyance to tossing his walking stick from one hand to the other while he enjoyed a pleasurable moment of daydreaming about bashing Sir William on the head with it.
Sir William laughed. "Oh dear, I do hope that I haven't interrupted anything." He winked at Bingley, and Jane stepped a few paces away, looking out at the view from the mount. "You must excuse my interruption, but I have been commanded by Mr. Jones to take a long walk each day. Ah, but I see by the lady's blush that I have interrupted, well, I hope that you will not be too cross with me, Mr. Bingley." He laughed again. "You have been very sly with us, pretending to be a servant, but you young men are all the same, nothing but the outrageous will satisfy you. I suppose you will have quite the tale to tell, and I daresay you got far more reward than you bargained for." He looked again at Jane and said, "Oh dear, you must be quite the thing to raise such a blush."
Bingley had never been more protective of anything than he was of Jane's modesty in that moment. Since bashing Sir William on the head was unfortunately out of the question, he engaged him in civil conversation as they walked back, leaving Jane and Elizabeth to their own tête-à-tête.
"I do not find Sir William entirely agreeable," Jane said when he had left them.
Elizabeth stared at her in shock, but Bingley only took her arm and, when he saw Elizabeth had walked a few paces ahead and was not attending them, whispered, "I shall have my kiss the next time I see you, Jane. You may count that as a promise."
He declined to dine at Longbourn, citing letters of business and prior engagements at Netherfield. He met Mrs. Hill again in the hall as he was leaving. He had many times fantasized about such a meeting, largely when he had been smarting from some scolding or some unpleasant task she had set him to. The poor woman looked so anxious and miserable, however, likely imagining that he would use his influence with the Bennets to see her dismissed, that, when he saw they were alone, he said, "We were never friends, you and I."
"I do not think that a housekeeper can be friends with those below her."
"I bear you no ill will, I assure you. I only think that perhaps you should remember that those below you are in fact human, and that their existence encompasses more than their employment."
That she wanted very much to say something in reply was clear, but it seemed that Bingley was now above being made to hear what she thought on any matter, and he could not bring himself to ask. She opened the door for him. "Good day, sir."
"Good day," he said, and got into the waiting carriage.
None of the gentlemen were at home when he returned to Netherfield, but he found Miss Audley seated on a sofa, Orville asleep on her lap. Papers were scattered on either side of her. She was gazing thoughtfully out of the window, and did not look at him when he came in. He was about to leave the room when she said, "This is every letter I ever wrote to him. Fitzwilliam found them and gave them to me. I could keep none of his, of course. Every one, burned up, even those I dearly wished to keep."
"I am very sorry."
She gestured to the chair across from her and Bingley took it.
Lifting one of the letters, she hummed thoughtfully and stroked Orville's head with her free hand. "Have you ever noticed that his lordship makes his 'g's with a peculiar little flourish?
"I confess I have not," Bingley said with a barely restrained laugh.
She narrowed her eyes and harrumphed with a gravity befitting one twice her age. "His father's stance on the slave trade hurts him deeply, but he is too afraid to say anything in front of him. And he cannot abide his collars being overly starched." She looked at him with an expression he could not read. It seemed almost defiant, or daring, or even superior. Bingley, who on most occasions could read people very well, could not quite make her out.
"You know a great deal about him," Bingley said, keeping his voice carefully neutral.
She sighed and her countenance shifted to one of uncertainty. "But I do not know his person. I do not know his nervous habits or his gestures or his smile or his laugh."
"There will be time to learn all of that."
"Yes, there will," she said in a quiet, determined voice. She pounded the couch in emphasis, or frustration, causing Orville to raise his head and look around in a way that reminded Bingley of nothing more than his grandmother waking suddenly from one of her frequent naps. She removed the dog from her lap and settled him on the couch, gathered her letters and left with a short, "Good day."
Bingley sat a while in his chair, thinking about Ashbourne and Miss Audley, about Jane, and about marriage. He had not yet risen from that spot when Matty arrived. As soon as the footman had left them, she handed him a letter from Jane, and the packet of papers.
"Is there anything else, sir?"
Bingley took five guineas from his pocket and gave them to her. "I did say that you would be rewarded."
She pocketed the coins and went to leave. Bingley called out to her.
"Matty, have I done something to lose your friendship?"
"I do not believe you."
"We weren't never friends, sir."
"I thought we were."
"So did I."
She seemed prepared to leave again, but Bingley offered her a seat, and, after some hesitation, she took it.
"I am sorry I lied to you."
"You're still lying. There wasn't never any wager. If it was a wager, you wouldn't have paid me to get those papers, and Mr. Ridgeway wouldn't have planted that dish in your room."
"You know of that?"
"Who do you think took it out? Those papers too."
Bingley blinked rapidly. "Why?"
"I liked you. I never liked Mr. Ridgeway none. If you and he was having intrigues, I'd as lief protect you as him."
"Matty, I owe you a great deal. More people than you know owe you a great deal."
"Will you not tell me what I have done to offend you?"
"You said we could still be friends."
"I meant that."
She laughed, and Bingley realized she was right. They could not be friends. He could not place her at his table and he had no place at hers. He could not even promise to write to her when he left. He doubted she had the means to pay the postage, and could not read his words even if she had.
"I did mean it, at the time."
"I am sorry. I do wish that things were different."
"Yes, sir. Is there anything more you need from me, sir?"
He nearly winced. "No, nothing more. Thank you."
She left him without another word.
Posted on: 2010-03-29
He sat at his desk for a time, attempting to draft a letter to his sisters, but still nothing came to him. He had to tell them of the engagement before the news reached them by some other means. Though he felt very much sheltered and isolated here, Hertfordshire was not so far from London, and gossip did travel.
Nell sat at work. Miss Audley's hurried escape meant she had left with only the clothing on her back and a small portmanteau, and the length of her uncle's tyranny meant her gowns were all two or three years out of fashion, and intended for a girl not yet out, not a young woman perhaps about to be a bride. Nell was attempting to turn one of her worn and dated gowns into something fit to be seen.
The rain eased slightly around noon, but continued steady against the windows. He asked about the books in the house and was directed to a small collection which included no Fielding but did have the most recent work by Mrs. Radcliffe.
Miss Audley scoffed when she saw what he was reading.
"The bookplate is that of your intended," Bingley said without raising his eyes.
She might have replied, but there was a commotion in the hall then. Bingley rose, and directed the ladies to stay where they were. He went out into the entranceway and was vastly surprised to see Ashbourne, mud six inches up his stockings, drenched and shivering, but perfectly whole and alive.
"Bingley," he replied between chattering teeth.
"Where are Fitzwilliam and Edgeworth and Lord Walden? Did they not think to bring you a coat?"
"I have not seen them."
There would be time to sort everything later. "Upstairs with you. You will catch a chill."
"My lord!" Miss Audley stood at the door to the sitting room, her hand over her mouth. For a moment, Bingley feared she would fling herself into his arms, but she remained as she was, only staring at him with wide eyes.
Ashbourne, still shivering, pressed his lips together and managed a curt, "Miss Audley."
She looked hurt, and Bingley knew he had to get Ashbourne upstairs directly. Fortunately, Nell collected Miss Audley and took her back to the sitting room, and Bingley was able to get Ashbourne upstairs and into his chambers.
Quinn helped to undress him, and they seated him in his dressing gown before the fire, gave him tea, and waited for him to stop shivering. He swore he was in no need of physic. Bingley thought he should have been bled, at least, but doubted he was in urgent need of care, and let the matter rest.
"How?" Bingley asked.
Ashbourne didn't reply. He stood abruptly, and told Quinn to lay out a suit for him. He ran his hands through his still-wet, dark curly hair and frowned into the mirror.
"Please tell Miss Audley that I will be down to see her shortly."
Bingley had never seen Ashbourne quite so determined. He bowed and left him to his man.
Miss Audley was still seated in the sitting room where she had been left. Orville napped beside her. She came to her feet when he entered the room.
"Where is Lord Ashbourne?"
"He will be down to see you directly," Bingley said.
Miss Audley sat, stood, and sat again, finally crossing her arms over her chest and staring at the door as if willing it to open.
Bingley may have overstated the case when he had said the man would be down directly. They made strained conversation for ten minutes, but eventually Bingley returned to his book and Miss Audley to playing with Orville. Finally, the door did open, and Ashbourne came in, dressed and groomed with more care than Bingley had previously seen him use on any occasion, save perhaps court functions.
Miss Audley stood. "My lord," she said, and curtsied.
"Miss Audley," Ashbourne said with a bow. "Please forgive me for not properly receiving you earlier, I was..."
"Pray, do not concern yourself, sir."
He had gone stiff and distant, but instead of crossing to the other side of the room and looking out the window as he usually would have done, he asked leave to sit beside her on the couch. Had it been any other pair, Bingley would have felt compelled to leave, but he suspected that the last thing Ashbourne wanted was to be left alone. He returned his attention to his book and Nell returned to her work, and Ashbourne and Miss Audley sat side by side, unspeaking.
When the silence had stretched for so long that he could hardly take it, Bingley said, "Do you intend to tell us of your dashing heroics or are you hoping the suspense will enlarge your feat to legendary proportions?"
Ashbourne, clearly not in any position to puzzle out sarcastic statements, looked at him as if he were mad.
"How did you escape?" Bingley clarified.
"I...ah..." He looked at Miss Audley, and then stared at the painting on the wall. "I shot Lord Dorset."
Miss Audley's hand flew to her mouth. "You shot my uncle?" she asked in a hushed whisper.
Ashbourne paled and nodded.
"Is he dead?"
"That is the kindest thing anyone has ever done for me."
Had Bingley had a drink, he would have choked on it. Ashbourne only blinked, and Nell smiled. He supposed they knew more of what she had suffered than Bingley could hope to.
"What happened precisely?"
Ashbourne shrugged. "After a day I decided I no longer wanted to wait to be rescued, so I attempted to escape when Lord Dorset had fallen asleep. I was caught, and he threatened to shoot me. I knew I was his only means of bargaining with my brother, and since Mr. Pitt has the documents, and the evidence of treason on his part, he has--had no hope of returning to his former life. I told him he was welcome to attempt to shoot me, but that I was leaving regardless of his desires. He attacked me, we struggled, and the gun went off."
It was possibly the longest speech Ashbourne had ever uttered in the presence of a woman.
"I did not think you had such heroics in you," Bingley said honestly. Miss Audley glared at him for having the audacity to say such a thing, but Ashbourne showed no evidence of being offended.
"It was hardly heroic," he said quietly.
"Well," Miss Audley said. "I am sorry that I will not be able to witness his execution, but I am glad he is dead." She looked at Ashbourne. "I am very glad you are safe."
Ashbourne looked away. Miss Audley sighed and looked at Nell. She must have communicated something, for Nell looked at Bingley and tipped her head toward the door. Bingley was not quite prepared to leave him, but Ashbourne gave him a barely perceptible nod, and Bingley reluctantly followed Nell out.
"Oh, honestly, Andrew," he heard Miss Audley say as he was closing the door. "I am going to sit in this chair and read this abysmal book. Kindly inform me when you are prepared to have a conversation."
"She's an odd one," Nell said when they were in the hall, "but so is he. I think they'll do quite well together."
Bingley glanced at the closed door. "I have a letter to write," he said, and went upstairs with the resolution of not rising from his desk until he had formulated a note to his sisters.
He was folding the letter when the carriage pulled up outside. The rain had tapered off, and only left the day cold and soggy and utterly uninviting.
He went downstairs in time to hear Fitzwilliam say to the footman who was assisting him, "My brother is here then?"
Fitzwilliam caught sight of Nell. If he hadn't, Bingley did not doubt he would have used the kind of language that only a military man could truly use without sounding affected.
Lord Walden--or rather, upon the death of his father, the Third Marquess of Dorset--entered behind him with Edgeworth. He looked so much at ease that Bingley at first thought he did not know what had happened. He was, in fact, puzzling over how to greet him when Fitzwilliam addressed him as Lord Dorset and informed him that Ashbourne was safe.
"Excellent," Lord Dorset replied as he made for the stairs.
Bingley looked at Fitzwilliam, who said, "I will explain everything later. Where is he?"
Before Bingley could answer, Fitzwilliam opened the door to the nearest sitting room, which happened to be where Ashbourne and Miss Audley were together.
"--am going to do this properly," Ashbourne was saying. Miss Audley stood by the couch and Ashbourne was kneeling before her.
"Out!" Miss Audley cried. She grabbed the nearest pillow and hurled it at Fitzwilliam's head, but Fitzwilliam managed to slam the door shut before it could reach him. Bingley, who had suffered more interrupted moments of late than he thought entirely fair, could sympathize.
"Is soon to be your sister."
Fitzwilliam looked down at his wet clothing. "I am going to my room. I shall see you at dinner."
Dinner was an odd affair. Ashbourne, somewhat unexpectedly, enjoyed ceremony and rigid etiquette, but only, of course, when he was in familiar society. A formal dinner seemed very strange, given the odd collection of people involved, but a formal dinner it was to be, and Bingley came to the table in breeches, white stockings, and an elaborately tied cravat.
Earlier, Fitzwilliam had come to him and informed him of the unfortunate death of the Second Marquess of Dorset.
"Lord Dorset died in an accident at his shooting box in Hertfordshire this morning. He was cleaning his gun when it went off accidentally."
Bingley's brows had risen.
"Utterly unrelated to that, Mr. Ridgeway, the steward of Longbourn, has been called away on sudden family business. He...may not return for some time."
"I doubt he will return at all," Bingley had said. Fitzwilliam had not replied but for a slight upturn in the corner of his mouth.
Bingley had been quiet for a time, puzzling over the matter. "I assume the treason of Lord Dorset--I should say the treason of Lord Dorset's father--will remain concealed. Likely part of the deal you made with the former Lord Walden. A bill of attainder would have been his ruin."
Fitzwilliam had not replied. His expression had not even changed.
"Was Ashbourne's decision to rescue himself terribly inconvenient for you?"
Fitzwilliam had smiled freely. "I have recently discovered that my brother can pass a test of his mettle. I am...proud of him, inconvenient though it may have been at the time."
"I suppose the documents--which are no doubt highly erroneous--are with the French now, or on their way to France. And I suppose you have left everything very...tidy in your wake."
Receiving no reply of substance, Bingley had sighed. "Will you at least tell me what was in that packet that I nearly died of fright retrieving for you?"
"Perhaps," Fitzwilliam had said, "on your death bed, if the illness is very far along and has left you unable to speak."
Bingley had rolled his eyes then, and shooed Fitzwilliam from his chambers so that he could dress for dinner.
So he sat, pretending nothing of consequence had happened this day. Ashbourne was at the head of the table, and the foot of the table left bare as there was no mistress of the house. Miss Audley sat at his right and Lord Dorset had been given the honor of being seated at his left. Nell had been given a seat at the table, in deference to her sudden and unexpected promotion from abigail to companion, a necessity given Miss Audley's presence in a house full of men, but it was still a small party and not at all what one would expect to find at such a formal dinner.
Miss Audley looked quite lovely. Nell had done as good a job as could be done on her gown, and she had arranged her hair in a very becoming style. She was, moreover, smiling, which suited her far better than a scowl. Ashbourne looked happier than Bingley had ever seen him, and seemed quite taken with his intended.
"I have an announcement," Ashbourne said, when there was a lull in the conversation, shortly before the ladies would remove themselves to the drawing room. "Miss Audley and I are to be married."
It was hardly news, but congratulations were offered all around. "Lord...Dorset has inherited the guardianship of Miss Audley along with the title, and he has kindly agreed to grant me permission to marry his cousin."
"By kindly agreed to grant permission, I suppose you mean he offered to throw in a pair of prize grays if you would take me off his hands," Miss Audley said, with a saucy smile at her cousin.
Everyone but Fitzwilliam laughed, as Lord Dorset gave her a tight smile in return.
"Given the unfortunate accident which has befallen Lord Dorset's father and Miss Audley's uncle, it is only proper that we postpone the wedding to allow some time for mourning. However, since we plan a very simple ceremony, six weeks seems adequate."
"I return to London tomorrow. The news about my father is obviously very distressing and I will have a great deal of business to attend to. There is a...a funeral to arrange." Lord Dorset's voice nearly broke as he said the last, and Bingley doubted very much that it was affected for the sake of the servants.
"Will you and Miss Audley be returning to London as well?" Bingley asked. It would be awkward for him if they did, for he could hardly stay at Netherfield on his own when it had been taken by Ashbourne. His home in London could hold no pleasure for him if Jane were here.
Ashbourne appeared nonplussed as he said, "No, we will stay here until the wedding."
Fitzwilliam frowned. "If Miss Audley is to stay here for six weeks, the house must have a female presence. Nell is too well known as her lady's maid to truly pass for a proper companion, there is too much that is exceptional in the situation."
Miss Audley gave him a small smile, and Ashbourne said, "I did think of that. I have written to...to a lady who I hope will agree to come and stay here until the wedding."
"Colonel Fitzwilliam," Miss Audley interrupted, "your brother has told me so much about your exploits against the French in the West Indies. Were you not scared to go into battle?"
Fitzwilliam narrowed his eyes, but went along with this conversational diversion, and he did not ask again about the lady to whom Ashbourne had written, at least not in Bingley's presence.
The next several days passed pleasantly. Bingley received a response from Caroline regarding his engagement. The news had gone over as well as he could have hoped. He'd known all along that his sisters' response to his exploits would depend upon Society's response to them. Since Society--or, the portion of Society which cared what a person surnamed Bingley did, which was not quite the same as the whole of Society no matter what Caroline might think--had deemed the whole thing an amusing, somewhat ridiculous antic by a spirited young man, Caroline did not waste three pages denouncing him, expressing her mortification, and declaring she had no choice but to flee the country in shame. She did, however, express her serious reservations about his engagement, and he was not looking forward to introducing both her and Louisa to the Bennets.
Bingley spent much of his time at Longbourn. His initial embarrassment had passed, but there was something very strange about being served by people he had eaten and laughed with over very bad meals, and who now curtsied or bowed and called him "sir". He saw little of Matty, and when she did see him, she would scarcely look at him. Knowing her feelings for him, and the odd sort of friendship they had struck, he supposed she had more reason to feel betrayed than any of the others. No one else appeared to notice her behavior, and he was glad for that. He doubted not that, had they seen, Matty would have been disciplined for her rudeness, and no one would have given a thought to the feelings that had predicated it.
Mr. Bennet commented in an off-hand way about Mr. Ridgeway being called away on urgent family business, and watched Bingley closely as he said it. Bingley, with a calm innocence he was rather proud of, said he hoped it was nothing too serious.
Mrs. Bennet took the news of Ashbourne's engagement about as well as he expected.
"Engaged! All this time! Well, and he was so complimentary of my girls. I suppose she is very high born."
"She is the granddaughter and only surviving descendant of the late Duke of Leicester, and the cousin of the Marquess of Dorset. She is also a cousin of Lord Ashbourne himself, but I believe that is a more distant relationship."
"That is high born," Elizabeth said dryly.
"She has close to fourteen thousand--"
"That is not so very much."
"Fourteen thousand a year!" Kitty exclaimed.
"His Grace left her almost his entire fortune, an estate, a house in London, and a great deal of money. It has been in trust for her since she was nine years old."
"And Lord Ashbourne will have twenty five thousand a year."
"When his father dies, yes. It will perhaps be a little less than that, but he will be an...extraordinarily wealthy man."
Tilly fumbled with the tea tray and almost dropped it. Bingley, whose reflexes were quite good when he was not feverish and exhausted, and who was standing at the time, caught the edge of the tray and prevented the whole of it from spilling onto the floor. Tilly went white, and Bingley saw Mrs. Bennet's brows come together in anger.
"I beg your pardon," Bingley said. "I was not attending, and I nearly knocked you down."
Mrs. Bennet's face smoothed, and Tilly gave him a very grateful smile, but he saw that the edges of her eyes were red as if she had been crying.
Caroline, and Mr. and Mrs. Hurst arrived at Netherfield that afternoon, and Jane received a very cordial invitation to visit them the very next morning. She arrived in the carriage, alone; he had not thought Mrs. Bennet would expand the specifically worded invitation to include any of her other daughters, but given that there were two other eligible gentlemen at Netherfield, he had not been able to rest easy until he saw for himself that it was so. He was very relieved that his sisters' first impression of the Bennets would be from Jane and Jane alone.
He greeted her at the carriage, and was proud of the way she boldly offered him her hand.
Caroline had followed him out, and he made the introduction there in the drive. He saw some of the apprehension drain from her face as she discerned that Jane was not vulgar.
"That's a rum nab," Jeb said, standing next to the carriage.
Bingley grinned and unconsciously touched the brim of his beaver hat. His sister was fortunately too far away to hear a mere servant speaking so freely to Mister Bingley. "Far better than my last," Bingley said.
"Can I have it?" Jeb asked, as Caroline led Jane into the house. "Your old hat, I mean. I'm figurin' you don't need it, being..." He looked at Netherfield and looked again at Bingley's hat.
"You can have everything in my room," Bingley said.
"Take it all, the grooming kit, the coin in the purse, all of it," Bingley said. "Use it, sell it, I care not. It is entirely yours."
"Much obliged, sir."
Bingley started to go inside, but stopped and turned back. "How is Tilly?"
"Well, sir." Seeing Bingley's concern, he clarified, "Well enough."
"Did you ask?"
"I did. She...she turned me down, but at least I didn't get down on my knee." He sighed. "She said I ain't got prospects, and she ain't gonna raise a family with a man with no prospects."
"I am sorry."
Jeb shrugged. "She is sweet on me, you know. She would have done it if it hadn't been for Phoebe. She don't wanna leave Longbourn while Phoebe is working there, and I can't take on a half grown girl and a wife, not all at once."
Bingley nodded. "If I hear of any more lucrative work that I think will suit you, I will see what I can do."
"Very much obliged to you again, sir."
He went inside and made further introductions as they were needed. Miss Audley, so long denied company of any kind, and especially of ladies her own age, looked quite content. Caroline was, unsurprisingly, paying court to her, but she was not ignoring Jane in order to do so, and given Miss Audley's rank in comparisons to Jane's, that was the most Bingley could hope for.
Miss Audley herself was everything charming and cordial. She smiled at all the jokes and covered over Ashbourne's occasional blunders with an ease that suggested far more practice than she actually had. Bingley wanted most of all a few moments alone with Jane, but his wants could not take precedence. He therefore made polite conversation with all in the room, and watched with pleasure as his sisters warmed to Jane. That Miss Audley was clearly taken with her was a great help to the cause.
Fortunately, this was not a mere fifteen minute social call; Jane was to stay much of the day, and after nuncheon, Bingley saw his chance. Jane could not leave without seeing Ashbourne's beetle collection, after all. When Ashbourne leapt to his feet, eager to tell her all about it, Fitzwilliam shook his head. Caroline gave him the sort of look that she had given him shortly after their first meeting, when she had decided that no amount of money was worth putting up with a husband like Ashbourne. Miss Audley calmly asked him to sit with her and look at the fashion plates Mrs. Hurst had brought from London. While Ashbourne was trying to explain that Miss Bennet wanted to see his collection, Bingley absconded with Jane, thinking that a properly engaged man, who had already started the process of drafting settlement papers, should not have to be so roundabout in his efforts to have a few minutes alone with his intended.
Ashbourne's beetles, like his other collections, were extremely well cared for. At his home in London, large, custom made chests with many drawers kept everything safe and organized, but here the wooden cases were simply set out on a table, some of their glass lids open.
Jane reached out to touch one of the beetles in an open case, but Bingley caught her hand and shook his head.
"They are quite...lovely," Jane said.
"They are dead beetles," Bingley said. "They are dead beetles from the four corners of the earth, they are very expensive dead beetles, but they are still dead beetles."
"Yes," Jane said with a small laugh. Her lip caught between her teeth and Bingley, who had not dropped her hand, drew her away from the table and toward the window, out of the line of sight of someone passing by the half-open door.
"I believe I have a promise to keep," Bingley said. Before they could be interrupted by an errant maid or Ashbourne came to tell about how he had come to acquire his Japanese beetles, he kissed her.
It was a slight brush of lips against lips, yet the intensity shocked him. His hand tightened on her back, and he pulled her closer to him. Jane's hand gripped his coat. When he pulled back, he saw Jane looking at him. He was too close to her to see her entire face, but the brightness in her eyes was enough to tell him that she was smiling.
He could not take liberties, but he could press kisses to her temple, her forehead, and her cheek before returning to her lips. He did not dare give attention to her neck, lest his inclinations lead him even lower against his better judgement, but her jaw was too tempting to ignore as was the patch of skin behind her ear.
When he pulled away again, Jane was flushed pink, but was very far from objecting to his attentions. Indeed, she darted forward and pressed a kiss against his cheek.
He brought his hand up to the back of her neck, running his thumb along her hairline. Jane rested her head on his shoulder. He took her hand in his and interlaced their fingers. They stayed like that for a time, unspeaking, both of them catching their breath.
When she lifted her head, he kissed her again, and dropped his hands to her waist. He was intending to draw her even closer, when he heard what seemed to be deliberately heavy footsteps outside the door, and reluctantly released her.
"Yes?" Bingley asked the footman with forced calmness.
"Lord Ashbourne has asked to see you in the study, sir." He glanced at Jane. "At, ah, your earliest convenience."
Jane murmured something about returning to the party downstairs, and brushed past him, avoiding both his gaze and the footman's. Bingley sighed. The wedding, and the day he would be able to close and lock the door between them and the rest of the world, could not come soon enough.
Warnings for potentially triggering racial language and possible othering of non-white characteristics.
"What is the matter?" Bingley asked, wondering what could have possibly happened in the space of time since he and Jane had gone upstairs.
Ashbourne nodded to a letter on the desk. "That came by express just now. I need you to read it for me."
"Because I cannot bring myself to--to read it myself."
Bingley picked up the letter. The direction was not known to him, but the name seemed familiar. "Where have I heard of Lady Bellamy?"
"She is my mother," Ashbourne said. He had stopped pacing and had seated himself in a chair. "I--I cannot..."
"A week ago you all but dared a man to shoot you, and today you cannot read a letter from your own mother?"
"There is a certain irony in that, I admit."
Bingley turned the letter over in his hands. It was still sealed. "Ashbourne, this is from your mother. It is personal. I cannot read it."
"I know myself, it will take me hours to get to the point where I can open that seal and I--please, read it."
"Perhaps you would be more at ease if your brother--"
Ashbourne laughed. On reflection, that was a rather silly suggestion.
"You are certain?"
Bingley broke the seal. It was as uncomfortably personal a letter as he had feared, but he cleared his throat and read it aloud.
"My dearest, dearest child,
There are not enough words in English or le français que je parlais comme une fille to express my happiness upon receiving your letter. I fear I put Sir Edgar in quite a fright, for I was struck dumb when I saw the direction, and it was not until some moments after I had finished reading that I could speak with any coherence. I have dreamed, hoped, thought many times of receiving some word or note from you, but I never--but, I shall say nothing more of that. I shall leave the past as past. Your news is more gladdening than I can say, and de tout mon coeur I wish you the greatest of joy. I am au comble de la joie at the thought of meeting your Miss Audley. You love her. It is enough. I will love her. I will love her comme une mère, if she will have me. Your invitation is accepted with the fullest thanks possible. Do forgive my poor penmanship, it is only that my hand shakes at the thought of seeing you again. Sir Edgar sends his thanks as well, and accepts your gracious invitation, though he will be several days delayed behind me, as we await the return of Mignon from seminary. Young Edgar and Ashley will not be joining us, for they are away at Eton, but Charlotte and Mignon will travel with him. I will leave tomorrow morning, and expect to arrive by the afternoon of the 16th.
I sign myself your most devoted and loving mother,
Ashbourne took the letter from him with a shaking hand.
"Your mother is coming."
"Does your brother know?"
"I have not told him directly, but I believe he suspects."
"You should tell him. It should not come as a shock when she arrives."
"Yes, he must know. Could you--"
Ashbourne sighed. "Yes. Yes, you are right, I must tell him." He looked at the letter. "I think that I--I will be out shortly."
Bingley left him still seated, the letter clutched tightly in his hands.
Ashbourne rejoined the party after nearly three quarters of an hour. He was somewhat distant for the rest of the day, but given his usual behavior, few noticed.
Jane left them after a relatively early dinner. Both of his sisters referred to her by her Christian name as she took her leave of them. Jane looked radiant with happiness when he handed her up into the carriage.
When she had gone, and the party had largely broken up into small groups throughout the house, Caroline said, "Well, you could have done better, but you could have done far worse. Her manners are good, she is a very pretty girl, and Miss Audley seems charmed with her, which bodes well for her success in society. She is not very accomplished; she does not play or sing or draw, but I suppose once one has a husband, one has fewer need of accomplishments. And she will need a certain...polish, of course."
"I suppose you will provide the polish and I will provide the coin to fund it," Bingley said wryly.
Caroline smiled. "You did choose her. There are a great many sweet, pretty girls in Town who need no such polish. I hear rumblings that Miss Darcy will come out next season. She is Lord Ashbourne's cousin, and you would do well to cement that connection."
Bingley crossed his arms and leaned against the wall. "Would you have me simply abandon Jane after I have given her my word?"
Caroline frowned. "I did not say it was possible now. I am only saying that I wish you had considered all of your options."
"She is a sweet girl," Louisa said thoughtfully. "Her father is a respectable gentleman, I understand."
"He is. The Bennets have been at Longbourn for five or six generations at least."
"The Bennets will not remain at Longbourn beyond this generation," Caroline said. "The estate is entailed upon some clergyman cousin."
"Still," Louisa said. "The daughter of a country squire, though her fortune may be paltry, is a perfectly adequate match. It is the mother's family that concerns me. Connections in trade? Brother, what were you thinking?"
Bingley bit his lip to avoid laughing. "Dare I remind both of you that our father made his fortune in trade?"
Caroline waved her hand. "We are descended from noble families on both sides. The Gardiners are nobodies."
"I understand Mr. Gardiner is a very successful merchant."
"Living somewhere near Cheapside," Louisa said derisively.
"I would not care if she had uncles enough to fill all of Cheapside."
Louisa threw up her hands in disgust and looked at Caroline.
At length, Caroline said, "She is a sweet girl. I will like her well enough as a sister. I presume the rest of her family is equally polite and well bred."
Bingley examined his nails.
"You will have opportunity to meet Miss Elizabeth Bennet tomorrow," Bingley said, before pleading exhaustion and fleeing the room.
The next day saw the arrival of the two eldest Bennet sisters. The ladies got on tolerably well, though Elizabeth had the misfortune of receiving one too many compliments from Edgeworth, which caused Caroline to narrow her eyes. Bingley wanted to say something, but she would be irrational when she had set her cap at a man, and many years of sometimes painful experience had taught him that there was nothing he could do but ride it out. He therefore calmly listened that evening to Elizabeth derided as an impertinent little thing who was far too witty for her own good. He had known that Lizzy's manners had too much of the country in them to be entirely pleasing to his sisters, but Caroline now had a dislike rooted in jealousy, and that boded well for no one.
The following day was the arrival of Lady Bellamy, which precluded any further social engagements until she had been settled at Netherfield. Bingley was somewhat ashamed of himself for being so relieved to postpone the additional introductions between his sisters and the Bennets, but he supposed that any man in his situation would feel the same.
In the early afternoon the carriage was heard in the drive, and Bingley came down to meet Lady Bellamy in the entryway, at Ashbourne's specific request. Miss Audley was also there, but Mr. and Mrs. Hurst, and Caroline, had been asked to refrain from greeting her right away, for she was likely to be exhausted from her travels, and too many introductions might strain her nerves. Everyone knew that it was not Lady Bellamy's nerves, but Ashbourne's which needed protecting, but no one would say such a thing aloud.
Bingley and Miss Audley waited impatiently to be joined by Fitzwilliam and Ashbourne, as the carriage pulled to a stop.
Lady Bellamy was preceded by her trunks. Bingley watched with awe, and rather more sympathy than he once would have had, as the footmen took several heavy looking trunks, bandboxes, and portmanteaus and whisked them upstairs. This procession was followed by Lady Bellamy's abigail, who curtsied politely to all of them, then scurried upstairs after her lady's things.
Bingley cast a concerned look at the stairs; Lady Bellamy's welcoming party was still lacking Lady Bellamy's sons.
The lady herself finally entered, and Bingley hoped that none of his surprise registered on his face when he saw that she was mulatto. Miss Audley stepped forward and introduced herself and Bingley, and fortunately by the time these introductions had taken place, Fitzwilliam was coming down the stairs.
"My dear mother, I beg your forgiveness for making you wait. I trust your journey was as comfortable as possible." He took her hands in his.
"My journey was very comfortable, thank you," Lady Bellamy said. She spoke with slight French accent. "There was some light snow yesterday, but it did not delay us."
"I am glad to hear it," Fitzwilliam said. "It is wonderful to see you."
Lady Bellamy did not respond, and was looking past him toward the stairs. Fitzwilliam took her arm in his and pressed a kiss to her cheek. Bingley saw him whisper something in her ear, which made her sigh, and nod sadly. He conducted them to a small sitting room and, after seating his mother with Miss Audley, he said quietly to Bingley, "Go upstairs and retrieve my brother before I drag him down here by his neck cloth."
Bingley found Ashbourne in his room, sitting so forcibly still that he appeared to be trembling from the effort. Bingley called his name.
"I cannot," was all Ashbourne said.
Bingley drew up a chair. "You cannot go down looking like a Christian martyr about to face the lions, I agree."
That actually drew a tiny smile. "I have not felt like this since I was to be presented at court."
"How did you cope with that?"
"Opium. A great deal of opium."
"Did that work?"
"I recollect nothing from the day, but I am told the king thought I was a pleasant, agreeable sort of young man."
Bingley smiled, but sobered quickly. "I do not think opium is the solution today."
"No," Ashbourne said sadly.
Bingley rubbed his forehead. "May I ask what it is precisely that you are afraid of?"
"She will hate me."
"Oh, indeed. She spent three days in a cold carriage and brought, by the looks of it, at least half of her wardrobe so that she could home here, tell you she hates you, and then...what? Return home? Or spend the next six weeks glaring at you? Which is it?"
Ashbourne had no answer, and stared down at the carpet. It was likely to become more difficult to get Ashbourne into his mother's presence the longer he delayed, so Bingley pressed on, despite the twinge of guilt he felt, for he must surely be causing his friend pain.
"Do you intend to spend the time until your wedding locked up in here? Because I must tell you that, as exceptional as the situation with Miss Audley is, no one is going to let her into your bedchamber before you are married. So you will deny yourself both your mother's company, and that of Miss Audley."
Ashbourne still did not reply.
"Or do you simply intend to send your mother away as soon as she has come without seeing her?"
That, finally, brought a pained noise, but Bingley was suddenly, somewhat surprisingly, too genuinely angry to attend.
"Have you any idea what I would give for five minutes with my mother? You have six weeks and very likely more, and you are prepared to throw that away because of fear?"
Ashbourne looked at him. "I may vomit."
"Then aim away from your mother," Bingley said. He stood and offered Ashbourne his hand. After some hesitation, Ashbourne took it, and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet.
"At this moment, I despise you," Ashbourne said as they went downstairs. Bingley placed his hand on Ashbourne's upper back for support, or to prevent him from running, or perhaps both. He could feel Ashbourne shaking slightly.
"I know," Bingley said with no small amount of empathy, and opened the door to the sitting room.
Lady Bellamy had been in mid-sentence, but she stopped abruptly and came to her feet as Bingley half-guided, half-shoved Ashbourne through the door.
Ashbourne looked down at his hands. He had begun to wring them together. "Mama, I--" He looked at her. "I am so very sorry--"
She crossed the room, and pulled him into her arms. Ashbourne's choked sob as he buried his face in her shoulder was the cue for everyone else to quit the room.
Outside, Fitzwilliam leaned against the closed door. He wiped roughly at the corner of his eye. "I am going riding," he announced to no one in particular, and headed off for the stables without another word.
"Did you know Lady Bellamy is mulatto?" Bingley asked Caroline. They were in her room, and he had managed to clear a place for himself to sit, despite the contents of her trunks having exploded over everything.
"Everyone knows that," Caroline said. "She is actually half-mulatto, I believe." She picked up a gown and frowned at it.
"I did not know."
Caroline looked at him sideways. "I hope you did not stare."
"Of course not. But I will own myself surprised. Her children have no appearance of it."
"No, her children are only a bit tan," Caroline said. She held up two gowns before him. "Does Mr. Edgeworth have any objection to bold colors on women?"
Bingley could not stop himself from chuckling. "It has never come up."
Caroline pressed her lips into a pensive moue. "Miss Eliza will not be joining us for dinner, will she?"
"She will not."
Bingley managed to escape when Caroline called in Louisa for a consultation regarding wardrobe. The house was dull and scattered, and there was no good company to be had. The door to the sitting room was still firmly closed, but as he walked past he thought he heard Lady Bellamy laugh. He played piquet for a time with Hurst, losing a guinea and gaining the gossip of town in the process.
He went up to dress an hour before dinner. Frederick had arrived with his sisters, and Bingley, who had nearly forgotten the luxury of having a valet, and having a valet who knew his preferences, was surprised at how quickly and efficiently he was dressed.
He still had some time, so he sat reading the newspaper until a knock at the door roused him.
It was Ashbourne, also dressed for dinner, who stood at the door a trifle nervously before entering. "I no longer despise you."
Bingley, who neither wanted nor thought he was owned any sort of apology, only smiled. "How is your mother?"
"She loves me," Ashbourne said. "I do not know why, but..."
"She is your mother," Bingley said, folding his newspaper and setting it aside. "I do not believe they can help themselves."
"She would not even hear my apology. Every time I tried, she only said, 'There is nothing to forgive.' We talked a great deal. She is happy, she is very happy with Sir Edgar and their children. He is a good man."
He would have to be, to marry his lover. Bingley did not know all of the details, but he must have paid several thousand pounds at least when Lord Buxton sued for seduction, and by marrying her after the divorce, he had taken on a wife who would cost him dearly in connections. Few people wished to place themselves in outright opposition to Lord Buxton.
"They have lived in Wales, all of this time?"
"No, shortly after they married they went to Jamaica. Sir Edgar received a diplomatic posting, and they wished to be away from England. They were there for nearly six years and all of their children were born there, but for Mignon, who was born on the ship, for my mother had miscalculated, and thought they would reach Jamaica before her lying in. There are three others, two boys, Edgar and Ashley, and a girl, Charlotte, who is only thirteen. But they have been in Wales since they returned. My mother has not been to town in eighteen years. Forgive me, I am rambling."
"Entirely understandable," Bingley said. He glanced at his watch. "Shall we go down to dinner? I believe my sister intends to start her offensive on Edgeworth tonight. It should prove amusing, if nothing else."
Caroline's pursuit of Edgeworth was not as amusing as he had hoped. Edgeworth appeared to know what she was about, but whether he was flattered, or annoyed, or even interested, was known to him alone. Bingley turned to Lady Bellamy. She was naturally paying the most attention to her sons, and to Miss Audley, but she was too well-bred to ignore the rest of the table. She was not handsome in the classical sense, but her large, light brown eyes were striking and intelligent, and her conversation was captivating.
The next day he and his sisters dined at Longbourn, and they had opportunity to meet the rest of his future family. The ride home was much as he had feared it would be.
"All five girls, out at once. The youngest two should be with a governess in the school room, not running wild. Jane did say they had had no governess, which I thought was exceptional, but I assumed the mother had undertaken the task of educating them. I hardly imagined that they had been left to act as they would, no manners, no accomplishments, no grace. Honestly, Charles, how can you look at a woman like Miss Audley or Lady Bellamy and then align yourself with that family?"
Bingley, who had been staring hard out of the window, asked calmly, "Would you blush to place Jane in company with Miss Audley or Lady Bellamy?"
"I am not speaking of Jane, Charles. We have all acknowledged that Jane is a sweet girl, but her family! Why did you not simply pick one of the Bennets' maids? I am sure there was a sweet girl among them too."
"Several," Bingley said absently.
"Mrs. Bennet sets a good table," Mr. Hurst said, earning himself a glare from his wife.
"Mrs. Bennet's guests eat very well," Bingley agreed. The same could not be said for her servants, but perhaps his tastes were simply too nice. He had gotten only queer looks on the few occasions that he had commented on the quality of the food at the servants' table. Jeb had said that he ate better at Longbourn than he ever had at home.
"Hurst, is there by chance anyone of your acquaintance in need of a groomsman?"
"Someone is always in need of something."
"If you hear of a position, please tell me."
"Charles, can we please return to the matter at hand?" Louisa said.
"Dear sister, the matter at hand seems to be that you do not approve of the family of my intended. I am very sorry to hear that, but as I have no intention of giving up Jane, I do not see how further discussion will bear any fruit beyond giving me a headache."
They were both aware that when they became "dear sister", their brother's temper was beginning to fray. The matter was dropped, and as they were then pulling into the drive at Netherfield, no topic replaced it.
Posted on: 2010-04-03
The eldest of the girls was about seventeen, and rather pretty. She had her mother's dark complexion and expressive eyes, as well as a brilliant smile all her own. Bingley thought her quite handsome. Her figure was womanly, though her plain dress and the style of her hair marked her as being not yet out. The younger girl was perhaps thirteen, barely removed from the nursery, and still spent most of her time under the strict watch of a governess.
They flocked to their mother when they saw her. Miss Bellamy and Miss Charlotte greeted Fitzwilliam with sisterly affection, but they were less at ease with Ashbourne. Sir Edgar also had a certain reserve around Ashbourne, though seeing his wife in good spirits appeared to do much for his good opinion of him.
It was a crowded house full of lively, witty and spirited company, with scarcely an hour in the day that was not occupied. Jane came almost every day, and often one or two of her sisters with her. It was Bingley's ideal, and a moment of reflection warned him that it was very likely torture for Ashbourne.
He knocked on the door of Ashbourne's bedchamber before breakfast the next morning. Ashbourne opened the door still in his dressing gown.
"Get dressed, and quickly. We are going shooting today," Bingley said brightly.
Ashbourne's expression was that of a person resigned to some painful but necessary medical procedure. "Are all of the gentlemen going?"
"No, only us."
He brightened. "Only the two of us?"
"Yes, but you must dress quickly. Frederick has prepared a light meal and we, my friend, are departing this house without so much as a by your leave from anyone. Your Miss Audley is my partner in this crime, and has promised to deflect all questions of our whereabouts until we are safely away from the house."
Ashbourne was dressed and ready to go in short order, and they were outside before the morning fog had lifted.
Shooting with Ashbourne involved more talking than shooting, and more silence than talking. Nearly an hour passed with few words until Ashbourne finally said, "I am giving a ball."
"It is perhaps more accurate to say that Sophia and my mother are giving a ball, but it will be my cards that are sent."
Bingley smiled. "It is only fitting that one be given. There is the engagement, of course, and Miss Audley has never truly been brought out. This will serve to introduce her to society, and prepare her for some of the scrutiny she will face in town."
Frederick had prepared some rolls and hard cheese and cold meat for them, and as they had gone alone, without even the gamekeeper, Bingley carried the provisions. They rested for a time under a tree and ate.
"I offered to release her from the engagement," Ashbourne said.
"I thought...what you said earlier, about her not having ever been brought out. She has so little knowledge of society, and I thought, now that her uncle is dead, and her cousin does not care who she marries as long as it is not him, I thought perhaps she might decide...she can do far better than me."
"What was her reaction to your suggestion?"
"She threw a pillow at me. She seems to enjoy throwing things."
"As long as they remain soft things without points..."
Ashbourne laughed. "She would not hear of ending the engagement. She would not even hear of postponing it, until she has had a Season or two in town. It seems she truly wants to marry me, even now that she has met me."
"You are surprised?"
"Yes! I had assumed...I told myself that I was preferable to being locked in a room, or being forced to marry her cousin, but even as I planned to elope with her, a part of me felt rather sorry for her. Why on Earth would she want me for a husband?"
"Perhaps she loves you."
"What possible reason could she have for loving me? I am surprised anyone even likes me. Why do you like me?"
Bingley laughed. Had it been anyone else, he would have thought them fishing for compliments, or wallowing in excessive self-pity, but Ashbourne was doing neither. He was not secretly smug, and he was not pathetic, he was simply bewildered.
"Who can say why anyone likes anyone? You are...unique. You are not stupid, you are not dull. You consistently allow yourself to be talked into buying coats in bright colors and then give them to me when you decide to take refuge in your habitual brown. Truly, what is there that is not to like?"
Ashbourne sighed and they tossed the remains of their meal to the dogs before setting out again. The guns and the dogs were likely to get little use today, and Bingley's favorite bitch gave him sad looks, begging to know when she would be allowed to do her duty and retrieve a bird for him.
Bingley tossed a stick for her while they walked.
"Do you want to marry Miss Audley?"
"Of course!" Ashbourne exclaimed. Bingley searched his expression, and Ashbourne, seeing the examination, said, "I do want to marry her. I enjoy being in her company very much. She does not try my nerves as many do. She does not yell."
Bingley raised his eyebrows at that, but as he thought on it, he realized it was true. She made no attempt at hiding her displeasure, when she was displeased, but even her most intensely unhappy tone of voice was not especially loud or shrill, nor did her voice pitch high when she was excited.
Cleopatra came back with the stick in her mouth and dropped it at Bingley's feet, her tail wagging frantically. Ashbourne's dog had run off a short distance and was sniffing the ground.
"My sisters cannot abide Jane's family."
"Yes, I heard Miss Bingley the other evening. And the evening before that. And yesterday morning."
"Caroline is...trying my temper."
"Is that possible?"
Bingley did not answer.
"Some of her concerns are valid."
"The Bennets are not so very bad."
"The mother and the two youngest girls are vulgar. The very youngest is a scandal about to happen."
"Lydia is excessively spirited, I grant you."
"Miss Lydia is wild. You would do well to speak to Mr. Bennet."
"A very pleasant conversation that would be." He frowned and changed the subject. "Did your father respond to your letter?"
Bingley waited, but when no further elaboration came, he pressed, "What did he say?"
"He will not come to my wedding if my mother will be in attendance."
They walked a distance more and Ashbourne said, "His actual letter contained a great many words I shall not repeat, but that was the general meaning."
"I hope you are not--"
"I am fine," Ashbourne said. "I am glad that he wrote what he did. It will fortify me for when we meet."
They turned toward home without having fired their guns once. Bingley was sure Cleopatra was giving him looks of outraged disbelief and finally killed a bird simply to appease her, deciding to send it to Matty's family as a present.
"Do you by chance know of anyone in need of a groomsman? It must be someone who pays well enough for a man to raise a family."
As it turned out, Ashbourne did, and Bingley wrote a letter as soon as they returned to the house.
He had gone to the library to write, and was coming out letter in hand when he saw Jane standing by the door, waiting while her carriage was prepared.
"Jane! I had not thought you would come today."
"Caroline invited me for tea," Jane said.
He held out his hand to her, but she did not take it, turning away with a blush. He stepped closer and could see she had been crying. "Whatever is the matter?"
She shook her head. "Nothing of consequence, I assure you."
"Have you been crying?"
"I am very silly," Jane said. "Truly, you must not concern yourself with me."
He stepped closer to her and lowered his voice. "Of course I must concern myself with you; you are the most important person in the world to me."
Her eyes teared up again and she covered her mouth with her gloved hand. "I..."
"The carriage is ready, ma'am."
"I really must go. I promised my mother I would not stay away for very long today."
He kissed her hand. "I will be at Longbourn tomorrow."
She smiled, but seemed eager to go, and he did not detain her.
He found his sisters with Miss Bellamy, looking over fashion plates and examining ribbons.
"I like that one very much," Miss Bellamy said.
"It would look better in another color," Caroline said. "Perhaps blue."
"I rather like the orange."
"Orange is a dreadful color," Caroline said. "I never wear it." She examined Miss Bellamy critically. "With your coloring, I think purple would suit best." She lifted a deep hued purple ribbon and held it next to Miss Bellamy's face.
Miss Bellamy laughed. "I would never be allowed to wear such a color, certainly not in such a style, not before I am out."
"You will be out in little over a year, Miss Bellamy. It is never too early to start planning your wardrobe."
"Miss Bellamy," Bingley interrupted. "I must speak for a moment with my sisters. Privately."
"It was very rude of you to dismiss her like that," Caroline said, after Miss Bellamy had gone.
"What did you do?"
"I beg your pardon," Caroline said.
"What did you do to Jane?"
"What on Earth are you talking of?" Louisa asked.
"She was crying when she left."
Caroline and Louisa looked at each other, and Louisa's brows rose.
"Was she?" Caroline asked with affected nonchalance.
"Yes. I know Jane. She hardly ever cries, so what did you do, or say, to make her cry?"
Caroline put her elbow on the arm of the sofa and rested her chin in her hand. "What makes you think that I am responsible?"
Bingley crossed his arms over his chest and looked down at her. "You disapprove of my marriage to Jane. Do you deny it?"
"Certainly not. I think she was a poor, impulsive choice on your part, one that you will regret when you are saddled with four ungrateful, vulgar old maids and a horror of a mother-in-law, or when Miss Lydia or Miss Kitty causes a scandal, whichever comes first."
"Yet she is my choice."
"So she is," Caroline said. "And I have accepted that there is nothing I can do about it."
"So why would you deliberately hurt her?" Bingley demanded, struggling to keep his voice low. The house was full of people and noise did carry.
Louisa said, "Brother, you have this entirely--"
Caroline cut her off. "No, Louisa, I want to hear what he thinks of me. Tell me, Charles, do." She smiled in that infuriatingly smug way she sometimes had. "Please, do not hold back."
Bingley unclenched his jaw. "Do not tempt me. I do not understand why you persist in speaking ill of Jane, why you would hurt her, when you know that I will marry her."
Caroline came to her feet. "One day you will realize that no matter how sweet Jane Bennet is, she is not worth putting up with her family."
Bingley snapped. "You're pathetic, Caroline. How many seasons have you been out? How many years have you been chasing after one or another of my friends while we all laugh at you behind your back? How does it feel to realize that your little brother is getting married while you're practically on the shelf? Someday sooner than you think you're going to be very grateful that my wife is a sweet woman who treats you kindly even though you're just her husband's spinster sister!"
It was harsh, too harsh, and he started to apologize almost as soon as he had said it, but Caroline cut him off.
"When you realize how wrong you have been, I expect there will be groveling," Caroline said, and left the room with her head held high. Louisa gave him a very unkind look before following her out.
He saw Edgeworth standing not far from the door. He must have heard much of what was said. Bingley gave him a rueful smile, but Edgeworth only shook his head in disapproval, whether at Caroline or at Bingley, Bingley could not know.
He went early to Longbourn the next morning, as early as he could without being utterly unsociable. He sat with Mr. Bennet for a time, while he waited for Jane to come down. Once or twice Bingley tried to think of some way to bring up the topic of his two youngest daughter's behavior, but ultimately they talked about nothing but politics, and the recent start of another Maroon War.
The day was warm enough to allow a brief trip out of doors, and as Bingley and Jane limited themselves to the garden at Longbourn, there was no need of a formal chaperon. They sat together on a stone bench, the very one, hidden from view, that they had sometimes sought refuge on when the engagement was secret.
She did not appear upset, indeed she looked brighter and happier than she had been the last few times he had seen her, but he still took her hand in his and asked, "Will you not tell me what was troubling you yesterday?"
"Troubling? Oh! I blush to even talk about it, I was so ridiculous."
"You were crying, Jane. I was very worried."
"Were you? Oh, dear, now I am very sorry I did not say anything. It was nothing you needed to be worried about. It was only that yesterday, when I woke, it seemed to strike me all at once, this matter of being married. It seemed so frightening to leave home, knowing I would never return but as a guest. To be separated from everyone..."
"Lizzy will come with us to London, that has already been settled."
"I know, and I knew then that I was being silly, but my mother wanted to talk of nothing but my trousseau and my sisters were giggling at me all morning, and it seemed overwhelming at the time. I suppose I was in a state already, when I went to Netherfield, and then when Caroline--"
"If she did something..."
"She gave me this," Jane gestured to the locket around her neck. Bingley had noticed it, and had thought it looked oddly familiar, but had not been able to place it. She took it from around her neck and opened it, and he saw a miniature of himself, at about five years old.
"This was Caroline's," Bingley said. "My grandmother had them done, one of each of us. Caroline took this one when she went away to school."
"It was so kind of her to give it to me, and I felt so...so ungrateful, to have been thinking in terms of leaving my family when your sisters have been so welcoming to me, and I will have not less, but more. It was all so much that it made me cry. Now you see how silly I am."
Bingley blinked and refastened the locket around her neck. "Not at all." He looked away. "Would you like to go to Meryton today? I find that I must buy my sister something very expensive."
"Does this count as groveling?" Bingley asked as he presented Caroline with an assortment of ribbons.
Caroline looked at his offering over the top of her book. "I suppose it is a start."
"I am very sorry, Caroline, but I would not have thought what I did had not your behavior of late been so very rude."
"Have I been rude to Jane?"
"No," Bingley admitted.
"I have been everything kind to Jane."
"You have, I appreciate that."
"No, you do not," she said, closing her book with a snap. "Had I been able to do something to stop you from proposing to Jane Bennet, I would have done it, but it is done and I must live with it. I am neither so unfeeling nor so stupid as to deliberately cause pain to the future Mrs. Bingley, no matter how much I may wish she were no such thing."
Bingley settled on the couch next to her and put his head on her shoulder in a gesture he hadn't used since he was a boy begging her to play with him.
"I love Jane. I know her family leaves something to be desired, but all families do. We will be in London after the wedding, and you will only have to endure Lizzy then."
"Is that supposed to comfort me?"
"Lizzy is not vulgar, even you must admit that."
Caroline would do no such thing, but her face spoke to the fact that she knew it to be the truth.
"I love Jane. She makes me feel...I cannot even tell you how she makes me feel, I do not have the words. Be happy for me?"
He stuck his bottom lip out in an exaggerated pout. Caroline shoved his head from her shoulder and got up.
"Does that mean you are happy for me?"
"No! It means I think you are a fool."
"Of course I am. I am in love."
Caroline threw up her hands and left, but she restrained herself to only complaining about the Bennets to Louisa from then on, and Bingley was grateful for it.
The Netherfield Ball was, of course, the talk of the neighborhood. It was the talk of Netherfield as well. Bingley was always fond of a ball, and was happy to discuss one, which was a very good thing, because at Longbourn Kitty, Lydia, and Mrs. Bennet spoke of nothing else, and at Netherfield, all of the ladies as well as Edgeworth and Fitzwilliam seemed to have lost interest in everything but the preparations.
Fortunately for Ashbourne, Bingley was willing to spend a few hours each night playing billiards or cards while talking of things that had nothing to do with balls.
He received a positive reply to his letter, and wasted no time in presenting the opportunity to Jeb when next he saw him.
"It is called Pemberley, and is in Derbyshire. It is a very fine estate. You would be an under-groom, but you would be paid quite well, and Mr. Darcy is prepared to offer you a small house on the estate at very reasonable terms, and is even willing to give you some consideration on the rent for your first two years, in deference to your caring for Tilly's sister. He says that once Phoebe is eleven, if she wants employment, she will be considered for the scullery."
Jeb shifted uncomfortably. "I am very much obliged to you, sir, I really am, but I ain't really looking to go up north. In any case, last Saturday I walked to Hemel Hempstead, to see my cousin, who owns an inn, and he's prepared to give me work, where I'd be paid every week, and make almost fifty pounds a year. My cousin's old lady, she knows Tilly, from when she was a girl, and she's awful fond of her, and, well, sir, they're willing to help us, while we get set. Tilly's already agreed, and the banns will be read soon enough. But I am very much obliged to you for writing to, uh, to the gentleman in Derbyshire for me. I hope it wasn't too much bother."
Bingley blinked. "No, no bother at all," he said quickly, somewhat put out that he had taken the time to write to a man he hardly knew for nothing, and would have to write to him again to retract the request. He smiled. "I wish you and Tilly the greatest happiness."
"Thank you, sir. Much obliged to you." Jeb bowed to him and returned his attention to the Bennet's carriage while Bingley led Jane inside.
"Yes, everything is done," Bingley said. "I was surprised. Such things usually take much longer." He broke off from speaking before he added that the reason the settlement had been drafted so quickly was that Jane had a very small dowry, and was taking no estates or annuities or any other complicated finances into the marriage.
Jane and Bingley were walking through the garden paths at Netherfield. Inside there was a lively party, and outside it was a dull gray afternoon, but they both preferred the garden. Jane's parents had accompanied her, at the invitation of Sir Edgar and Lady Bellamy, and the party was such that they could barely find time to sit beside one another for more than a few moments. When Bingley had seen an opportunity to escape with Jane unheeded, he had seized it.
"We need to set a date," Bingley said. "I was thinking perhaps early in the year. How do you like the fifteenth of January?"
"Very well," Jane said.
"We might go to London before then. I should very much like to meet the Gardiners, and show you your new home."
Jane smiled. Bingley brushed a stray wisp of hair from her face and kissed her forehead. Jane was becoming rather bold of late, for when he started to pull away, she turned her face up and kissed him soundly on the mouth. He could not stop himself from kissing her back, pulling her tightly to him. When they finally broke apart, they were both breathless.
Bingley looked around at the empty garden. "Perhaps we should return to the house."
He was surprised to see the footmen carrying several trunks upstairs when they entered. The house was not precisely full, but Netherfield was hardly Kentridge; it could only hold so many.
"Bingley!" Fitzwilliam called. "You recall my cousin, Mr. Darcy."
When the greetings and introductions were complete, they joined the rest of the party. Mr. Darcy called over a young lady, dark haired but very fair skinned, and introduced her as his sister, Georgiana. She was shy, and Bingley did not force her to converse for very long before allowing her to return to the corner of the room, where she was quietly watching Miss Bellamy sketch.
"I hope, sir, that my letters were no great inconvenience to you," Bingley said when he and Darcy sat down to talk, after Jane had gone to sit with her mother.
Darcy shook his head. "Not at all. I am glad things worked out for the man."
"I did not think you would be joining us. Ashbourne thought it unlikely you would come."
"If I know my cousin, he came at least in part because my father told him not to," Fitzwilliam said with a smile. He sat down beside his cousin.
"Actually it was Lady Catherine who wrote to me," Darcy said in a measured, even voice. He dropped his voice and added. "She was rather...unkind toward your mother."
"I am well aware of her feelings toward my mother," Fitzwilliam said, lowering his voice almost to a whisper, "though she does not speak of them to my face."
They both looked at Bingley, and changed the subject.
"Miss Audley is...she seems..."
"Miss Audley is soon to be Lady Ashbourne," Fitzwilliam said with resignation. "Also, my brother is quite in love with her." He shrugged.
"They will marry two weeks after the ball, I understand."
"Yes. Lord Dorset has granted his permission, and my brother has applied for a special license."
"A special license!" Mrs. Bennet cried, though she was halfway across the not small room, and they had not been speaking loudly. "Oh, how wonderful. Jane, would it not be grand if you were to be married by special license?"
Mr. Bennet, who had been in conversation with Sir Edgar, said dryly, "Grand indeed, Mrs. Bennet, though perhaps a bit inconvenient for Jane to have to wait to marry until after Mr. Bingley found a way to be granted a peerage. Jane, would you prefer that?"
"Indeed, sir, I would not. I am happy to marry in a church."
Mr. Darcy watched the exchange with raised eyebrows, and Bingley forced down the urge to apologize, or, worse, attempt to distance himself from Mrs. Bennet. Fortunately at that moment, Ashbourne entered with Miss Audley on his arm and kissed her hand before releasing her to sit by his mother, and that drew Mr. Darcy's attention from Bingley's less than ideal future relations.
"Mr. Bingley intends to begin looking for an estate," Fitzwilliam said after Ashbourne had greeted Mr. Darcy.
"Will you purchase, or let?" Mr. Darcy asked him.
"I will let a place at first, but I shall purchase eventually."
"There is an estate perhaps ten miles from Pemberley that will be let soon. The owner has had to retrench. He may be prepared to sell, if you find you like the place, and the terms are good."
Bingley nodded eagerly, and thanked him.
"Your ladyship, have you any other sons?" Mrs. Bennet asked, so loudly and eagerly that the room quieted for a moment, and Bingley nearly winced.
"Yes. They are fifteen and sixteen at present, and away at Eton."
"I see," Mrs. Bennet said, vastly disappointed.
Fitzwilliam smirked. "Or you could simply take Netherfield, after Ashbourne has gone."
Bingley thought it unwise to say anything in the crowded room, but he trusted his expression conveyed the unlikelihood of such a thing happening.
"Oh, Papa!" Miss Bellamy cried suddenly, after a footman came in and said something quietly to her.
Sir Edgar looked up. "Yes, my child?"
Miss Bellamy walked over to him and put her hand on his shoulder, her face a picture of innocent sweetness that Bingley had seen many times on the faces of his sisters. She wanted something.
"Papa, there is someone I would like you to meet."
Sir Edgar exchanged a look with Lady Bellamy and followed his daughter out of the room with a sigh.
Bingley turned his attention to his small group. Ashbourne was called away to join the conversation with Miss Audley and Jane. Mr. Darcy and Fitzwilliam proved to be good company, and their discussion roamed across various topics, but settled on business and economics. It was not a topic with which Fitzwilliam had great familiarity, but Darcy knew much of such matters. Bingley, who often found himself explaining theories of economics to his associates, enjoyed the opportunity to simply discuss them.
After a time, Bingley left the parlor to retrieve something from his room, and saw Sir Edgar and Miss Bellamy. Matty was with them.
"Please Papa? You said I could have my own abigail when I turned seventeen. Lucy is always with my mother, and attending to her things, and fixing her hair, and she never has time for me."
"You are not yet seventeen."
"Three weeks! Charlotte and I met her when we were out walking and--"
"Yes, you have told me the story. Twice." He looked Matty over. "You know that Wales is a long way away."
"I know, sir."
"Will your father object?"
"Can you read?"
"Not really, sir, but I can recognize a few words, and I could learn a bit more, if I had to."
Sir Edgar sighed. "Very well."
Miss Bellamy clapped her hands and hugged him. "Thank you, Papa! Thank you!"
Sir Edgar held up his hand. "Conditional upon your mother meeting her and approving of her, and conditional upon my receiving a good report of her from the Bennets."
"Yes, of course!" She hugged him again. "Thank you, Papa!"
Sir Edgar put his hands on her shoulders and kissed her forehead. "Remember this when I am old."
"You are already old," Miss Bellamy said, teasingly. She clapped her hands again and bounced. "Oh, I must go tell Charlotte. She will be so jealous."
Sir Edgar shook his head as he watched her race up the stairs. When he saw Bingley, he said, "Prepare yourself for this, Mr. Bingley. Your children will wrap you around their finger and you will love them all the more for it."
Bingley smiled. "I look forward to it." He glanced at Matty. "And I can...Matty is a very capable young woman. She has cared for all of the Misses Bennet for several years, and does a fine job."
Sir Edgar only nodded, and went to rejoin the party.
"Are you certain this is what you want?" Bingley asked when he was gone. "Wales is very far away."
Matty's lips curved into a secret sort of smile. "It'll be a bit of an adventure, won't it?"
"I suppose so," Bingley said.
"Miss Bellamy seems the nice sort. I'll make better wages, and I'll go with her wherever she goes. I suppose I'll end up caring for both of 'em, whatever Miss Bellamy might think about having me all to herself, but two girls will be easier than five."
Bingley nodded. "Matty, if you ever need anything, are in any sort of trouble, you must only find a way to get word to me."
"Thank you, sir," she said softly. She started to turn away, then turned back abruptly and hugged him.
Bingley was so surprised that by the time he had recovered himself, she had pulled away and was fastening her cloak to go.
"Good day to you, sir."
"Good day, Matty."
Bingley stood in the ballroom at Netherfield, watching with some amusement as Ashbourne finally escaped from the duty of greeting his guests, only to realize that he now had to open the ball.
"Poor man," Jane said.
Bingley laughed. "He will survive. He has claimed Miss Audley for every dance."
"Not every dance, surely."
"Perhaps it is better to say that he has claimed her for every dance that he will dance. The opening dance, the dance before supper, the dance before tea... He will sit and stare at the wall whenever she is led onto the floor by someone else."
"I think he is relieved that this is the last time he will be expected to dance at a ball. From now on, he will be a married man, and can escape to the card room without being judged."
"You have claimed me for a great many dances," Jane said.
"Only four," Bingley said. "Hardly a great many, considering we have never danced."
"No, we have not," Jane said, with some surprise in her voice.
The couples began to assemble on the dance floor. Bingley turned to Jane.
"Miss Bennet, will you do me the honor of giving me your hand and joining me for this dance?"
"Indeed I will, sir," Jane said, and he led her onto the floor.