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Cunning and Compromise Chapters 1-2

September 09, 2017 08:23PM
Author's Note: This is my first time posting here, my first fanfic, and my first piece of non-academic writing in over a decade. I couldn't wrap my head around writing only a few chapters at a time, so I've written the whole story (10 chapters) and am uploading them in chunks because it's too long to do in one post. Feedback is welcome.

Cunning and Compromise



Summary: Mr. Darcy's world turns on its head as he discovers at the Netherfield ball that he has misjudged everyone's motives: Mr. Wickham is more honorable, Miss Bingley more conniving, and Miss Elizabeth more resentful than he'd given any of them credit for.

Note: This story is based on characters and plot from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Text quoted from Jane Austen and other authors is in purple.

Chapter 1



Meryton, 24th of November

Lieutenant George Wickham peered across the rows of products with a studied negligence. To the common observer he appeared to be a bored gentleman and officer casually browsing cravats, gloves, and stick pins. Internally he was plotting his next step. Happening upon Denny in London had been his saving grace. Since his disappointment that summer in Ramsgate, he had been surviving off of his charm alone drifting around among his friends and acquaintances as a house-guest, earning his bread with his dazzling wit in company. Friends, however, were growing scarce. Credit was growing scarcer. If he hadn't left London when he did the whole jolly farce of his life would have come crashing down on him. A lucky night at the card tables had won him enough ready cast to purchase a commission in the –--shire Militia just when Denny presented him the opportunity. At the moment the fresh line of credit granted to him by the unsuspecting merchants of Meryton gave him a cushion but he knew it wouldn't last. Credit never lasted long. The meager pay of the militia was not enough to keep him in the style of his peers. Although a commission in the regulars would have offered more ready blunt he was far happier dodging creditors in England than dodging French cannonballs on the continent. Try as he might, the solution to his problems always circled back to the same place, marriage. There was nothing for it but to procure an heiress and her fortune.

His musings were interrupted by the opening of the shop door followed by the quick pace of military trained boots on the floorboards. Blast. Lieutenant Carter. He quickly ducked behind a display of voluminous fabrics to avoid his new friend. While the gullible merchants of Meryton would not require him to settle his debts for the foreseeable future, debts of honor were another beast entirely. He had meant to keep his head last night, drink little and gamble cautiously. However, despite his best efforts he still ended the evening sorely light in the purse and with a sizable debt to his new friend Lieutenant Carter. If word spread around the barracks that he did not settle his gaming debts then this particular house of cards would fall even faster than usual. His newly begun military training suggested that the only wise option was evasion until this could be resolved.

Peering through a conveniently located swathe of sheer Organdy he saw two elaborately dressed women enter the shop. He could immediately tell they were not of the local set. Himself a fan of sartorial extravagance, he recognized that their gowns were of the first stare of fashion, undoubtedly made by a premier London modiste. The excessive trims, flounces, and jewels spoke to money. The kind of money he needed. The looks of cold disdain they shot around the shop were no doubt intended to ward off interaction, though the near-empty shop hardly warranted such measures. To his great satisfaction they regally sailed toward the back of the store where he was hidden away. "Oh Louisa!" sighed the taller woman, "I despair of finding anything in this dreadful town to tempt Mr. Darcy. He's seen all of my current gowns and I do want to make an impression at this ball." Her companion responded with a bored murmur of "too true" that implied a lifetime of complacent agreement. Wickham's interest further piqued by the mention of his former friend, he remained hidden silently observing their interaction.

"Of course, I have taken measures to ensure that he will be unable to avoid me at the ball. When he slips off the sanctuary of the library, which he is sure to do when the company becomes too demeaning for him, I shall be there to follow him."

"Oh, Caroline, you know how fastidious Mr. Darcy is! He will simply retreat
immediately!"

"Ah, but this is where my cunning comes in to play. I have rigged the lock to malfunction once the door is shut. We will be trapped in the library together. Of course you, my dear sister, will come looking for me and send up the alarm that we are quite alone. My reputation will be lamentably ruined and Mr. Darcy, being the honorable gentleman that he is, will of course offer for my hand."

"But are you sure?" Worried the shorter of the sisters as she ran a length of satin from the display through her hand. Wickham inched back as she came perilously close to unveiling his hiding spot. "A scandal of this proportion will not die easily among the ton."

"I regret the subterfuge, but needs must," said Caroline as she snapped open a fan from a nearby shelf. "Darcy has put off offering me for far too long. As the sister of his dearest friend, who has a higher claim on him than I? The only reason I agreed to this misguided foray into the wilds of Hertfordshire was to gain the intimacy of a small house party yet he has been woefully distracted by that chit Eliza Bennet. EERgh!" She threw the fan down in a fit of frustration.

"Too true," said her sister in a disinterested voice.

"Well, in the end, the ton will not dare rebuke Mrs. Darcy of Pemberly for long, Mr. Darcy is far too rich and respectable," Caroline said as they walked away. Her parting words echoed in Wickham's mind as he watched the two elegant snakes slither away. She was right of course; the names of Darcy and Pemberly had bailed him out of the worst of his scrapes for most of his life. Although he did not have the pleasure of these ladies acquaintance, they clearly must be Bingley's sisters. In fact, he had yet to meet any of the Netherfield party due to his strained relationship with Mr. Darcy.

A quick scan of the room told him that Carter had left the store while his attention was fixed on Miss Bingley's scandalous plot. As he left the store he ruminated on his history with the Darcy family. He had been raised at Pemberley. Mr. George Darcy, his namesake, had been his godfather and benefactor. His son, Fitzwilliam Darcy, had been his playmate and friend, almost a brother. But as they aged their lifestyles began to tear apart their friendship. Wickham had grown more gregarious, lively, and passionate as Fitzwilliam retreated into rigorous propriety, duty, and dullness. Wickham had tried to help socialize Fitzwilliam and get him to live his life and have fun, but his rigid morality would not bend. Wickham often wondered how any man with a pulse could live the way Fitzwilliam did, but regrettably, impulse control had never been one of Wickham's strong suits.


When his benevolent patron died, old Mr. Darcy had planned to provide for Wickham's future as a parson with a living in the village of Klimpton. Fitzwilliam had decided that a debauched parson would be no asset to the neighborhood and instead forwarded the blunt to start Wickham off in the law. At the time he had happily agreed but diligent study, again, was not one of his strong suits. His legal career fizzled out before it even began and Darcy's money burned quickly through his purse. With an empty stomach and no means of supporting himself, he rejoiced when the paper announced the death of the incumbent parson at Klimpton. Writing sermons had to be better than debtor's prison. Fitzwilliam, however, adamantly refused to give him the living.


Georgiana's heart proved to be far more tender than her brother's. In his hour of need, the sweet girl offered him salvation. The thought of a London season and the whirlwind of the ton frightened the poor girl. He proposed a mutually beneficial solution: if they married, she would be spared the throngs of society and he would be able to live the life of a gentleman off of her sizable dowry. Using his strongest assets, his wit and charm, he convinced Georgiana and her companion it was the best solution for all involved and planned to elope while she was visiting Ramsgate. Upon discovering their plan, Fitzwilliam failed to see the sensibility of the match. Without a care for Georgiana's feelings or Wickham's purse, he cruelly separated the two and cut off all ties between Wickham and the Darcy family. Since this event, his social credit had been quickly dwindling.

Of course, the account he had given the lively Miss Elizabeth Bennet of this history was a bit more bitter. He had not expected her name to factor into Caroline Bingley's machinations. He had heard that the two eldest Miss Bennets had stayed at Netherfield during Miss Bennet's convalescence. He wondered if Miss Bingley had picked up on Darcy's true attachment or if she was seeing competition merely to explain Darcy's lack of interest in herself. Despite Wickham's continued resentment of Darcy, they were raised almost as brothers and Wickham retained some latent sense of brotherly affection towards the pompous prig. Why, his knowledge of Miss Bingley's nefarious scheme may provide salvation from his current financial troubles and a means to save Darcy from an unwanted marriage. Normally, Wickham would not resort to forcing an unwilling lady's hand – especially when seduction was far more fun – but would it be so bad if the lady's own trap was set against her? Wickham had planned on being conveniently absent from the ball at Netherfield, but armed with this new information, it might be worth the risk.


Chapter 2



The Netherfield Ball, 27th of November

Caroline Bingley was making her final rounds ensuring that everything was perfect for the evening's festivities. This was her chance to dazzle Darcy with her finely honed skills as a hostess. As she sampled the food from the kitchens, inspected the plate and silver in the dining room and re-positioned the decorations in the ballroom just so, her confidence rose that Darcy may just be so impressed with her prowess as a hostess that her stratagems may not be necessary. Then again, she thought as she proceeded down the hallway to the library, it never hurts to have insurance. Her preparations in the library were no less crucial than those in the ballroom. If her and Darcy were to spend an evening here, she would make it as comfortable and cozy as possible.

When Charles first proposed letting Netherfield Park she was thrilled at the opportunity it posed for her to be in close confines with Mr. Darcy. As her brother's hostess, she would have the opportunity to demonstrate her ability to manage a household to Mr. Darcy. In the wilds of Hertfordshire they would no doubt have little company or distraction. As their stay dragged on she was increasingly disillusioned of this scheme. She may enjoy playing the hostess to her brother at his rented estate but this was nothing compared to her coveted role as mistress of Pemberley, the jewel of Derbyshire. She had labored through years at one of England's finest finishing schools, bearing the taunts of her peers. She smiled placidly as the impoverished daughters of earls coolly snubbed her. Her family had far greater assets than theirs, yet because their fortune sprung from trade she was ostracized. Eventually, through her impeccable deportment, accomplishments, and wardrobe, she carved out a space within their world. Yet, despite all of this work, she was acutely aware that she was the advanced age of twenty-two, unmarried, and not invited into the highest tier of society. Sure, she'd received offers from men who were beneath her; tradesmen, solicitors, men who should have realized that her education and social standing now made her out of their reach. These men would not gain her access to the venerated drawing rooms of the ton.

Mr. Darcy of Pemberly was her ticket. Due to his close friendship with her brother, Caroline had the privilege of his company. His fortune, his home, his breeding; all were of the top order. Pemberley was the most impressive estate in England (though she certainly had her ideas on how to improve it.) She had spent years detailing out how to fashion Pemberley into her own elegant abode. She was often invited as part of his intimate family party at Pemberly just as he was now part of her family party at Netherfield. It was right, it was proper ... it was going to happen. If it hadn't been for the 'fine eyes' and impertinent jabs of Eliza Bennet, he surely would have proposed weeks ago. Miss Eliza lacked breeding, fashion, and accomplishments; her education was indifferent and her beauty minimal. She would be ill qualified to manage a household like Pemberley. Caroline's planned entrapment was merely the push he needed to do what was right. "For Pemberley" she murmured as her fingers grazed the tampered lock. Both she and Charles had made it abundantly clear to Mr. Darcy that when he grew weary of the ball (as he was sure to do) he could surely retreat to the library for some solitary respite. With a calming sigh she moved back toward the entrance to stand in the receiving line with her brother, sister, and brother in-law. She had of course personally assured Mr. Darcy that he needn't be part of the tedious receiving line; the indignity of greeting each of these ill-bred country nobodies would be beneath Darcy's dignity. She herself only endured it at Charles's insistence.

~~~


Wickham had been enjoying putting his new army training in reconnaissance to the test. He had arrived at Netherfield slightly before the other guests. With his greatcoat covering his scarlet regimentals, he had covertly walked around to the servant's entrance and snuck in. He found his way to the library and inspected the lock. Astounding! he murmured to himself. It appears Miss Bingley had broken off a part of the key into the lock in advance. Therefore when the door closes and the lock latches, the key will not fit to open it. As he was surveying the rest of the room, he heard the light footsteps of a woman in dancing slippers approaching. For the second time this week he found himself ducking beneath fabric, this time a hideous tapestry along the west wall. He valiantly fought back the urge to sneeze in the dusty void behind the tapestry. This battle won, he realized that the void was, in fact, a concealed doorway. Not wanting to give away his location quite yet, he left further investigation until he was alone. Peeping over the side of the tapestry, he spied Miss Caroline Bingley intently staring at the lock of the library door, lost in contemplation. On a soft sigh he herd her declaration of, "for Pemberley," followed by her swift departure.

Aha, just as he had suspected. Pemberley was her goal. She was interested in the position that Darcy could give her rather than Darcy as a man. Wickham was not one to judge another on this account, particularly as he had similar aspirations in marriage. He turned his attention to the door, and noticed a small key in the lock. Unlocking the door he found it opened into … darkness? Ah, another tapestry in what appeared to be a study. Fortunately for him, it was currently empty. A plan was forming in his mind. He felt it prudent to leave the door unlocked, should he find a speedy retreat from the library necessary, and pocketed the key.

He removed his greatcoat and hid it behind a chair in the library. When the din of the arriving guests began to rise, he made his way down the hallway and blended into the crowd. He slipped into a small alcove created by large urns of floral arrangements; these at least should allow some privacy for his observations. Fortunately for him, the Bennet family had just arrived. While it may be a minor embellishment to claim all eyes settled on the five pretty daughters, the one pair of eyes he wished to avoid were squarely settled on Miss Elizabeth. Interesting. Wickham had known Darcy most of his life. He had been present as Darcy developed the icy mask he wore in society and therefore knew how to see beneath it better than anyone else. That gaze held passion, love and ... contempt. Perfect. The prig can't even fall in love without being crushed by his crippling sense of pride, duty and honor. To be fair, being privy to Miss Elizabeth's feelings towards Darcy, contempt may be the only emotion the two shared for one another. Sheepishly, he admitted to himself that her dislike of Darcy was what had initially drawn him to Miss Elizabeth. In his life he'd come across few who would show preference for the son of a steward over a gentleman. When given the chance he could not resist the urge to bask in her indignation at his plight.

However, in all of his years of friendship or animosity with Darcy, this was the first time he had seen him pay this level of attention to any woman save Georgiana, and this was clearly not brotherly affection. The weight of his upbringing fell on his back like a ton of bricks. He couldn't be the means of ruining the young master of Pemberley's happiness, even if Darcy was intent on ruining it himself. Alas, there was nothing for it but to undeceive Miss Elizabeth. It was a shame, really for he quite liked her. More importantly he liked her admiration. As neither of them had a feather to fly with, he knew from the start that marriage was out of the question but he fancied that he had at least made a small hole in her heart. As the young lady was just now turning her brilliant smile and flashing eyes in his direction, it seemed the opportunity to disillusion her may come sooner than expected.

As Miss Elizabeth approached him, he glanced again at Darcy. Upon recognizing Wickham not only among the guests but actively sought out by the lively Miss Bennet, Darcy's face now reflected indignation, rage, and a tinge of hurt beneath his stony mask. A survey of the room indicated that he was not the only one observing Darcy's countenance. Caroline Bingley was occupied with watching Darcy watch Miss Elizabeth's progression through the room with a calculating glint in her eye.

"Miss Elizabeth, How lovely you look tonight!" Wickham greeted her with a flourishing bow.

She curtsied and responded, "Mr Wickham, there had been speculation as to whether you would attend tonight. I am glad that the embarrassment of a certain gentleman did not drive you away from the amusement." They both looked towards Darcy, who quickly looked away, Wickham noticed however that he had merely re-focused his attention to a mirror where he could instead observe their reflections.

"I have yet to test my mettle and approach my old friend, but he has not yet scared
me away. Luckily for me, I have endured many years worth of Darcy's disapproval; the ball should survive our mutual presence."

"Old friend? Come Mr. Wickham, how can you say such a thing when we both know the
hardships he has cast at your feet."

He sheepishly looked at his feet, but as he saw no hardships physically manifest there he steeled himself to the necessary task. "Alas Miss Bennet, I must confess I gave you only a portion of the truth. While Mr. Darcy did deny me the living promised by his father when it came available, I previously neglected to mention the compensation he had given me three years prior in lieu of the living. The present animosity between us arose from his contempt at my subsequent endeavor to make my fortune ... through an advantageous marriage ..." He would leave her to further interpret that statement.

"Oh, so the 'great man' thought he could buy you out of your rightful position with some meager compensation. What did he give you, thirty pounds? Then he took offense at your seeking out an heiress to make up for his deficiencies? Hateful Man!" Miss Elizabeth replied, clinging to her indignation.

"It was closer to," he paused and winced as he divulged the information, "three thousand."

"So much!" Miss Elizabeth was visibly startled.

"I do maintain that the sum provided was not sufficient to survive upon in the style I was raised, not sufficient to replace the stable income, and that Mr. Darcy could have done more to see to my future as his father intended." He reasoned, though the arguments now seemed hollow even to his own ears.

"Why, that is three times my own inheritance!" Miss Elizabeth said, her color rising and eyes flashing, her earlier anger at Mr. Darcy redirected now at himself. "This does shed a different light on the incident. I might ask why you chose to first spin these falsehoods only to recant at a later date." She cast an apprehensive glare in his direction. "This says nothing good for your constancy or reliability, Mr. Wickham!"

"I do beg your pardon, Miss Elizabeth," he said, dramatically posed with his hand over his heart, "but having grown up in the shadow of the great family at Pemberly, the novelty of a young lady who might prefer the son of the steward to the heir was too tempting to resist." At this her face softened to allow a trace of pity. Nonetheless he needed to forge ahead. "I felt the need to recant the story when I arrived here tonight and saw Darcy's interest in you."

"Interest do you call it?" She laughed, "he is constantly staring at me to find fault. I can find no other explanation than that he somehow finds more fault in me than the rest of the company," she stated with a shrug.

Wickham could not repress the laugh that bubbled out of him. "My dear Miss Elizabeth, I have known Darcy since we were both in leading strings. I have seen his scorn for those beneath him in rank, I have witnessed his responses to those inferior in wit or breeding or manner or morality. I am adept at interpreting the feelings behind his social facade and I can assure you his response to you is new. Yes, I'd say interest is putting it mildly."

The delicious look of bewilderment tinged with horror that met this assertion almost made the painful confession worth it. Her discomposure at the possibility that Darcy liked her was a stark contrast to her nonchalance at her insistence that he despised her. Alas, the moment was broken by the approach of her obsequious cousin, Mr. Collins. "Good evening Mr. Wickham," he said as he bowed far less solicitously than he would to nearly any other gentleman present. He then turned to Miss Elizabeth and said in a sickly-sweet voice, "my dear cousin, the music is about to begin. I do believe we are engaged for the first two dances."

~~~


Darcy watched the discussion between Wickham and Elizabeth – Miss Elizabeth – with increasing alarm. He had been aware that Bingley had invited the whole regiment to the ball, but he scarcely thought that bounder would have the effrontery to attend after what he attempted to do to Georgiana the previous summer. First he targets my dear sister, he thought as he watched Wickham deliver one of those dandified bows that women swooned over, and now he's going after my Elizabeth! When they both turned in his direction he quickly averted his eyes, shifting to face the mirror. He was happy for the support of the mantle as he glared at their reflections, overcome by unaccustomed emotions. The easy smile she gave that scoundrel pierced his heart. He may not be able to marry Elizabeth himself, but he would be damned if he could let her fall prey to an adventurer! When her eyes suddenly flashed at Wickham in the same way they often flashed when bantering with Darcy himself he could scarcely bear the stab of hurt and jealousy that wracked him. He had struggled to contain the emotions that Miss Bennet's presence in his life evoked, but to see the woman he loved targeted by a reprobate was insupportable. Love. That word ricocheted through his brain. Love was not intended to be part of the marital equation. He was a gentleman. Marriage should be about finding a suitable woman of good family, good fortune, and good connections. The razor wit and dazzling eyes of Miss Elizabeth Bennet could not make up for her lack in those essential criteria. And yet his heart would not let her go.

Miss Bingley approached and attempted to draw him into a conversation about vulgar country manners and fashions on display, but his attention would not waiver. Her venom towards her guests and her platitudes for himself washed to the background as he watched Miss Elizabeth sally a witty remark with a shrug toward Wickham. The bounder's response transformed her smiling countenance to a look of shocked disbelief. A short portly fellow approached and led Elizabeth away. Darcy was immediately on the move. Whatever that reprobate had in mind for his Elizabeth would not stand. He abruptly disappeared into the crowd and made his way toward Wickham, leaving a stunned Miss Bingley gaping after him.

~~~


As soon as she departed, Wickham looked again for Darcy, but he had relinquished his post at the mantle. Miss Bingley, however, was staring just past his right shoulder, a solicitous look on her face. That could mean only one thing.

"Wickham!"

Twisting around he came face to face with an irate Darcy. How odd, When Darcy had discovered his plot to elope with Georgiana he had maintained his stony facade while coldly scolding and berating him for his behavior. True, Wickham had seen the anger and betrayal teeming in his eyes, but a casual observer would detect no display of emotion in the icy sermon he had read him. However, after only a brief conversation with Miss Elizabeth Bennet in a crowded ballroom Darcy's face contorted with rage.

"Good evening Darcy," Wickham stated with a formal bow.

"If you think for one moment that I will stand by and allow you to harm Eliz... Miss Bennet in any way you are sorely mistaken!" Darcy hissed in a low voice. "I know who you are, I know what you are capable of, and I will not stand for it!"

"Come now Darcy, I do believe that this is the first time in our long acquaintance that I've been the cooler head in an argument. I haven't seen this much emotion on your face since we were seven and I broke your favorite fishing rod. We wouldn't want to draw a crowd now, would we?"

The anger in his eyes intensified, but Darcy's mask of indifference slipped back into place. "I must ask what your intentions toward Miss Bennet are."

"Well, we both know that as you are neither her father nor her brother. You can not claim that right," Wickham retorted. "Unless, of course, I should wish you joy?" He grinned at Darcy's sputtered denial, "do not worry Darcy. As you well know, Miss Elizabeth is not a woman I can afford to pursue; she has nothing to fear from me."

"Ah yes, as to marriage you prefer vulnerable heiresses, but we all know there are other propositions that could produce the shocked expression I saw on Miss Elizabeth's face."

"Honestly, Darcy! That genteel hypocrisy is as grating as ever. Because I was not born the heir to an estate I do require a bride with a fortune in order to make my way as the gentleman your father raised me to be. While this may make me mercenary, I am not a cad. I would not insult Miss Bennet with any proposal less than marriage. And yet, because you were born the heir to an estate, you undoubtedly will talk yourself out of pursuing Miss Elizabeth because she has no dowry and low connections, even if you do love her and you have enough funds and connections for the both of you."

"My feelings are irrelevant to this discussion."

"Spoken as a true cold, English gentleman." Wickham responded sardonically. "However, your feelings are entirely relevant to Miss Elizabeth's expression. She was under the impression that you despised her, I merely informed her that your stare was one of interest, not derision."

"What!" Shouted Darcy in shock. Glancing at the looks of interest from the surrounding guests he took a calming breath and modulated his volume. "She thought I despised her? Why? What do you know about my feelings anyway?"

"It would seem that staring from across the room with a reproachful glare can give a woman the wrong impression. Who would have thought!" Chided Wickham. "As to your feelings, as your oldest friend" (here Darcy gave a quelling glance) "I am rather acquainted with that disdainful mask you wear in public, yet if you know what to look for, your eyes can be rather telling. Who would have thought that the stoic Mr. Darcy of Pemberley would ever fall in love … with an unsuitable woman at that!"

"Miss Bennet is not unsuitable! Her father is a gentleman, she is witty, beautiful, caring, and is an accomplished musician!" At this juncture his eyes sought out the lady in question as she danced. She somehow managed to remain graceful even while dancing with a cumbersome oaf.

"Yes, but do try to make that argument to Lady Catherine! Or the Earl of Matlock for that matter! And have you met her mother?" Judging by the pained expression in his companion's eyes, Wickham knew that particular arrow hit home. "My point is, your elimination of Miss Bennet as a suitable wife because of her low connections is as unfair and biased as my necessity for an heiress. At least I can admit that."

"Refusing to elevate the hopes of a young woman I cannot marry does not reach the same level of villainy as abducting a vulnerable young girl for her dowry!"

"Oh please, we both know Georgiana's temperament," Wickham said in an even lower voice. "Her shyness and anxiety in crowds leads her to dread participating in the season. She will detest all of the trials you will put her through to find a suitable husband: Having to be presented at court, being put on display at Almacks, parading through Hyde Park, singing and playing in front of crowds at musical evenings. I offered her an alternative. Yes, her dowry was my main incentive, but I care for Georgiana and would not have hurt her."

"Your altruism knows no bounds," retorted Darcy derisively.

"I swear Fitzwilliam, I had no worse intentions than any second son or impoverished earl who seeks to marry a fortune."

"Then how do you account for Georgiana's dampened spirits since Ramsgate! She's been crying that she can't face the pressure of the season ever since."

"Have you considered what your own assumptions have done to her spirits? You are her only brother and you assumed the worst of both her and me. She was already terrified of the season and now you have convinced her that her character is stained."

"I was only trying to do my best to protect her and help her through a difficult time," Darcy said with an exaggerated look of concern and pity.

"Christ, Darcy! No wonder she's been depressed if you've been looking at her with that expression!"

"What would you have me do?"

"Have you even asked her what happened at Ramsgate?"

"She maintains that nothing untoward happened, that you were a perfect gentleman and had her best interests at heart. Basically painting you as a blasted hero who rode in on a white horse and swept her off of her feet. With those sentiments could you blame me for assuming that you'd seduced her?"

"Well, I rode in post because I couldn't afford a horse," he quipped attempting to lighten the mood. "If I was her hero its because I was saving her from the season. Perhaps if you had listened to her last winter when she repeatedly told you she didn't want a season, or listened to her after Ramsgate when she explained what happened, or any time she's ever tried to tell you anything important, her spirits wouldn't be so low."

"I just want what's best for her!"

"And of course, you always know what's best."

"Typically yes."

At this, Wickham gave him an extreme eye roll. "Oh please! Remember that time …" He then proceeded to dredge up a great number of examples from their childhood and university days when Darcy's own judgment had been lacking. Before too long they were bantering the way that any siblings with conflicting memories of the past are wont to do. The discussion was heated, but the rage that had roiled moments before had give, way to lighthearted childish arguments.

After quite some time, Darcy admitted, "alright George, I'll allow you that one. Miss Aldridge did not want my help, I should not have pressed it even if it was the proper thing to do."

Noting the waning strains of the second dance, and seeing their approaching company weaving through the crowd, Wickham abruptly re-focused the conversation to the present. "Fitzwilliam Darcy concedes that he is fallible at last! And in that spirit I would give you two pieces of advice for the present. First, this dance is almost finished. As Miss Elizabeth will soon be freed from her fawning cousin, I suggest you ask her to dance. Perhaps you can even manage to convince her you do not hate her. Second, be wary of the snake approaching behind you, she'd love nothing more than to snatch you up and have her way," he winked.

"Must you always be so vulgar?"

"Yes," he gave him a smug smile. "I'd also very much appreciate an introduction to the lady."

"You just warned me that she was a snake!"

"She is, and she would make you miserable."

"Agreed, so why would you want an introduction?"

"You forget that I'm a snake too." He winked again just as Miss Bingley approached and slithered her hand through Darcy's arm.

~~~


The ball was progressing smoothly and she was a social success as its hostess. Yet Caroline was not happy with the evening's events thus far. As soon as the Bennet party had arrived, her brother Charles had abandoned her in the receiving line to escort the simpering Miss Jane Bennet into the ball. After suffering the odious greetings of their guests in the receiving line, she surveyed the room. Mr. Darcy was standing on the opposite side of the room from her staring intently into the throng of people. As she followed his gaze she was enraged to find that it was fixed on none other than Miss Eliza Bennet. For a moment she could do nothing but glare. She wished Miss Eliza a hundred miles off. Better still, she wished that Charles had never let this house in this unfashionable country.

Once she had composed herself, she made her way to Mr. Darcy. Her first wish was to solicit an offer to dance. When he did not oblige her, she attempted to display her sardonic wit with a critique of the guests at the ball, but all of her charm fell on deaf ears. He ignored her and continued to stare at the mirror with his back to the room. She was in the middle of a scathing critique of the youngest Bennet girls and their propensity to flirt with officers when Mr. Darcy left without warning or taking leave. Her gaze followed as he made his way through the crowd. Her first fear was that he was going to ask Miss Eliza Bennet to dance, but she was moving toward the dance floor with her toady cousin. Charles, unfortunately was about to open the ball dancing with Miss Jane Bennet. Something must be done about that, she was sure Mr. Darcy would agree.

As her eyes returned to their original target, she watched in shock as the typically stoic Mr. Darcy approached a rather handsome officer in a fit of rage. Caroline had yet to be introduced to the officer, but she assumed it was Mr. Wickham. She had heard reports of this new officer in the militia who had done Mr. Darcy some mysterious bad turn; she assumed this was he. Mr. Darcy had not given any particulars of the affair to them, but she was certain that Mr. Darcy must be in the right. What a pity that the handsomest and most genteel officer of the bunch was Mr. Darcy's nemesis. She began sedately making her way through the crowd to Mr. Darcy, but was waylaid by Sir William Lucas and his ridiculous platitudes.

Finally detaching herself from Sir William, she made her way to Darcy's side, seductively slipped her arm through his and purred, "Oh Mr. Darcy, you must rescue me. I've just been ambushed by the 'height' of Hertfordshire society and am in desperate need of sensible companionship." She stared seductively up at him and batted her eyes to ensure that he understood she meant that his was the only suitable company in attendance. Astonishingly, he merely rolled his eyes at her statement. Annoyed at this dismissive response she snapped, "pray do introduce me to your friend," in a peevish tone.

"Miss Caroline Bingley, allow me to introduce Mr. George Wickham." Darcy tersely made the introduction.

"Miss Bingley, your servant," Wickham said as he took her hand, cut a luxurious bow and lingered long enough to cast her a wicked smile. Goodness, but he was a man after her own heart. After years of such charming overtures to Mr. Darcy on her part he had never even smiled at her. Alas, she was quite sure that this roguish officer did not come with ten thousand pounds per annum and an estate such as Pemberley.

"The second set is drawing to a close, Mr. Darcy. Tedious as it may be in such a crowd, as hostess I fear I must dance." She hinted, brushing against his arm as she stared into his eyes. However little gallantry Mr. Darcy portrayed, he could scarcely refuse such an open request, it would be un-gentlemanlike to leave a lady without a partner.

"Miss Bingley, would you do me the great honor of sharing the next dance?" Mr. Wickham crooned, one hand covering his heart, the other outstretched in entreaty. Oh dear. She must accept or forgo dancing for the remainder of the evening.

"It would be my pleasure," she responded with a sigh and a brittle smile that clearly indicated her displeasure.

To her great dismay, Darcy disentangled her arm from his and coolly said, "If you'll excuse me," with a curt bow. He turned and walked off leaving her without even soliciting her hand for a later dance.

~~~


Miss Elizabeth Bennet was perplexed. Typically, she required some conversation of her dance partner, but as Mr. Collins stomped around her she could not draw herself out of her own thoughts and replied to his solicitudes with only the merest of automatic replies. Her conversation with Mr. Wickham had not gone as she had expected. She had prepared for the evening with more than usual care, looking forward to dancing and conversing, flirting even, with the charming officer. He was handsome and witty and had shown a marked preference for at her Aunt Phillips's card party and in his subsequent visits to Longbourn. His ease of manner and openness while he told the story of his plight had at once impressed her with his goodness and Mr. Darcy's villainy. This new information, however, left her questioning her initial impressions of both men.

By Wickham's own account he was a liar. While there was a grain of truth to his initial report, it was highly skewed. To cast him as the heroic victim and Mr. Darcy as the cold hearted aristocrat with no feelings for those below his notice. To some extent Elizabeth could understand his motives. Growing up as a playmate to a wealthy lad, constantly together and yet never equal, must take its toll on a young man's self importance. He was clearly raised by education and connections to be above the expectations of a mere steward, yet his consequence was constantly less than his closest companions. She must admit, her frankness about her own dislike for Mr. Darcy must have spurred him to take advantage of a rare sympathetic ear. After Mr. Darcy's mix of cold civility, disdain, and constant surveillance to find fault in her, she was ready to think the worst of him.


But then Wickham had disabused her of that long-held belief. He insisted that Mr. Darcy's glowering stares were due to interest rather than scorn. The silky way that he said interest left no doubt that he meant attraction. Unlike his falsehoods against Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth could find no motive for Wickham to lie. Why would he wish her to believe that Mr. Darcy felt more for her than he did? For Elizabeth knew that gentleman's opinion of her, she would never forget his hateful words at the Meryton assembly when he thought she could not hear. "She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men." Why should she trust Wickham's interpretation over her own observations? She was, after all an excellent judge of character. Then again, if she had been deceived in Wickham's character, could she have been deceived in Darcy as well? Her thoughts were briefly interrupted by the sharp pain of Mr. Collins trampling her foot. Again. Espying her friend across the room, Elizabeth recalled that Charlotte had also interpreted Mr. Darcy's continual stare at Lucas Lodge as a sign of attraction. To own the truth, it did seem more probable that a man would stare at a woman out of attraction rather than contempt, but this logic applied to the standard sort of men with hearts and blood and feelings. Mr. Darcy was more like the automated figurines she had seen in London, following rigidly prescribed actions without deviation.

The first two dances of the ball thus proceeded with Elizabeth distractedly going through the motions with Mr. Collins while preoccupied with thoughts of Wickham, Darcy, and her apparent failure as a student of human character. When the dance ended, Mr. Collins left her to solicit a dance from one of his other fair cousins. Elizabeth, feeling the pressing need to consult on these new developments, sought out Charlotte Lucas. She was concluding her tale and expounding on the character of Mr. Darcy – "He is above his company, he refuses to interact with the local population, disdains our manners, and refuses to dance with anybody outside of his own party. Proud, insufferable man! He's the last man on earth that I could be prevailed upon to ..." – when Charlotte's face dropped and she motioned for Elizabeth to look behind her. As if conjured by her own spite and confusion, Mr. Darcy was standing before her, his countenance customarily grim.
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Cunning and Compromise Chapters 1-2

MorganASeptember 09, 2017 08:23PM

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Maria VSeptember 09, 2017 09:55PM

Re: Cunning and Compromise Chapters 1-2

MorganASeptember 09, 2017 09:58PM

Excellent!

Elizabeth A.September 10, 2017 08:31PM

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