NMT Chapters 14-15

Chapter Fourteen

The sun had passed its zenith by the time Elizabeth finally awoke, happy to find her husband pressed against her side and snoring in her ear. The child she was carrying had the oddest effect on her; she could no longer sleep for too many hours without needing to take care of certain necessities.

Her body must have cooled considerably while she was up and about, because as soon as she shimmied next to Darcy, he awoke.

“Good grief, madam, your hands are cold!”

“Oh Fitzwilliam, I am sorry. Go back to sleep.”

“What time is it?”

“After one. I should call for Marie.”

“Mrs Darcy, you will do no such thing.”

“I need to instruct the staff.”

“I spoke to both Mrs Thomas and Clayton before I retired. The servants know what to do, and we would only be in their way. I am the only person in this house who needs you now, and I strictly forbid you to leave this bed until I say that you may.”

“But…”

“Elizabeth, I will brook no arguments. You have had an exhausting three days, and it is important that you rest. If you will not do so for yourself, do so for my sake and for the child’s.”

“Very well, I relent. I hope that Clayton will not have to turn away callers.”

“Anyone foolish enough to call today deserves to be turned away. They might send their cards, but no one will come before tomorrow.”

“I must bow to your superior knowledge of London Society and will stay by your side. I hope we do not grow restless from inactivity.”

Darcy ran his finger down Elizabeth’s arm. “If you fear boredom, I can think of ample ways to pass the time.”

“You just admonished me to rest!”

“I have changed my mind.”

Elizabeth was extremely attentive to his suggestions, and each was quickly overtaken by a passion only the other could fulfil.

Lying together afterwards, Darcy expounded on his impressions of the evening. “You were magnificent, Elizabeth! You moved through the dances with style and grace. You met incivility and insincerity with honesty and integrity.” I do not know why I ever doubted her. “I was proud to present you to the assembly as my wife.”

She blushed under his praise. “You know that I wanted to please you, my husband.”

“I know,” he said before he placed a kiss upon her brow, “and once again you proved how fortunate I am to have found you. I shall always be grateful to Bingley for insisting that I come to Hertfordshire. Who knew such a treasure awaited me there?”

Elizabeth gloried in his commendation. He had never been so munificent in his praise of her, and for the first time she felt that he might, someday, be able to return her affections.

She desired to tell him how much she esteemed him, how she longed to make him perfectly content. But more than anything, Elizabeth wanted to tell him again how very much she loved him; she knew equally well that he did not wish to hear those last words falling from her lips. She poured all of her feelings into a look she prayed he understood.

<<<>>>

The next morning, Elizabeth surveyed the stack of cards that had been left since the ball. There were a prodigious number, far too many to be only from her guests of two nights ago. Darcy seemed unsurprised at the numbers and wordlessly extended his hand for the cards. He quickly placed them into three piles: one for those who had not been to the ball, one for those who had come and whose company he could tolerate, and one for those who came to the ball whom he would rather not see anytime soon. Elizabeth asked him to revisit the first group and divide that as he had done the others.

“It seems a fruitless exercise. Those with whom I wish to associate were sent invitations to the ball.”

“Humour me. It is possible that someone has called whom you know and like but who did not attend the other night.”

“As you wish, though I do not recall seeing any that fit those criteria.” Darcy nonetheless reviewed the stack of cards in question and did find two from respected acquaintances. “The Worthingtons and the Connors – I must not have been paying close attention. They are both old friends of the family. We should return their call. I am surprised that they are in Town. Neither family has been in London during the season for several years. Had I known, I would have asked them to the ball. My aunt will be interested to know they are here.”

The Darcys were still eating breakfast when Michael and Helen Arnold were announced. They had come at the specific request of his mother. Lady Victoria had guided Elizabeth through her presentation and her introductory ball; it was time for Mrs Darcy to show society some autonomy from her new aunt. Helen was experienced in the drawing rooms of London. Michael was more outgoing than his cousin Darcy, and would provide that gentleman with an ally in the expected assault of the curious and the nosy.

The callers came throughout the late morning and into the early afternoon. Some, like Mr and Mrs Marshall, who had an estate near Pemberley, came with a genuine desire to meet the new Mrs Darcy.

“How lovely to finally meet you. I had a letter from Mrs Halley recounting dinner at Pemberley,” Mrs Marshall said to Elizabeth.

“We had a wonderful evening, and I enjoyed making the Halleys’ acquaintance. The weather was not conducive to entertaining, else we would have met more of our neighbours.”

“I quite understand. I commented to Mr Marshall how cold it was in Derbyshire this year. I also believe you were not long at Pemberley. We must have you and your husband to Monksbridge Manor.”

“Mrs Darcy, Monksbridge Manor is about fifteen miles north of Pemberley,” Mr Marshall added.

“Mr Darcy has spoken of it. He tells me it is a fine estate.”

“Nothing compared to Pemberley, I am sure,” Mr Marshall laughed, “but we live comfortably enough.”

Elizabeth was soothed by the friendliness of the Marshalls and Darcy’s ease around them. This was in contrast with the next callers, the Bridens. Mrs Briden immediately brought up the subject of her planned party.

“You simply must come! It will be an opportune time to introduce you to more of our circle.”

Elizabeth was unsure how to respond. “Again, I must thank you for your invitation, but our plans are not yet settled.”

“Of course. May I ask if you play? I am in need of more ladies willing to exhibit.”

“I do play, Mrs Briden, though not as well as I would wish.”

“I take great pleasure in hearing my wife play,” Darcy said tersely. “She has devoted much time to improving on the pianoforte, and while I never thought her unaccomplished, her diligence has paid off handsomely. Mrs Darcy is being modest.”

“Wonderful!” Mrs. Briden chose to ignore Darcy’s tone. “I would dearly love to have you play at the party!”

Elizabeth knew she had no choice. If she attended, her husband evidently desired that she perform.

“I would be honoured, assuming we have no previous commitment,” Elizabeth said, resigned to her fate. Unless they did have a prior engagement, she would be performing at Mrs Briden’s party. She wondered at the woman’s persistence, knowing that she had once hoped to secure Darcy for her daughter. Elizabeth could only credit their motives as a wish to remain on good terms with the family. For what purpose, she could hardly guess.

The Bridens took their leave, content that their mission to secure at least Mrs Darcy’s attendance at next week’s event had been a success.

There were a few callers whose behaviour approached open hostility. With such people, Elizabeth was glad for the presence of the Arnolds. Lady Settleton was a particularly un-amiable caller. A friend of the two younger Fitzwilliam sisters, Lady Settleton believed that only a woman as highborn as Lady Anne Darcy was worthy of replacing that lady as Mistress of Pemberley.

“Where are you from, Mrs Darcy?” the lady asked. Her emphasis on “you” was not a friendly one.

“From Hertfordshire. My father’s estate is there.”

“What is your family’s name?”

“Bennet, ma’am.”

“Bennet? I have never heard of anyone by the name of Bennet.”

“My father prefers the country and seldom comes to Town.”

“The Bennet estate, Longbourn, is lovely. I can understand why Mr Bennet chooses to remain at home,” Helen Arnold interjected.

“You have seen it?”

“When Mr and Mrs Darcy married, my husband, Lady Victoria, and I travelled to Hertfordshire for the wedding.”

“At least, Mrs Darcy, your father is a gentleman.”

“As is my husband, Lady Settleton.” Elizabeth managed to keep her tone civil and calm, but the undisguised insolence of her caller was beginning to wear thin.

“Lady Catherine is a great friend of mine, Mrs Darcy, and I had the highest regard for her late sister, Lady Anne. I was very curious to meet the woman who finally filled that great lady’s place.”

“I doubt that any woman could replace Lady Anne, madam. Fortunately, my husband desired a wife, not a mother.”

Neither Darcy nor Helen Arnold could completely suppress smiles at Elizabeth’s well-worded response. In one small exchange, Elizabeth Darcy had demonstrated that she possessed the ability to defend herself against hostile encounters with grace, dignity, and a biting wit. Lady Settleton appeared to recognise that, young and country-bred though she might be, Mrs Darcy was not easily intimidated; she ceased her interrogation, falling back on acceptable small talk to fill the time before she could politely leave. No doubt to send a complete, if somewhat less than objective, report of the fateful meeting to her great friend, Lady Catherine.

When the last of the callers had left, Elizabeth leaned back, closed her eyes and massaged her temples. Feeling slightly better, she opened her eyes, and with a bemused smile addressed the Arnolds: “I cannot thank you enough for coming today. Several times, you came to our rescue. I suspect that my husband is grateful he did not have to spend four hours fending off over-talkative females and their spouses.”

“You were marvellous, Mrs Darcy. It was our pleasure to be of assistance,” Michael Arnold said. “Darcy, what say you to a drink at our club?”

Elizabeth saw that her husband was hesitant to accept. “Go, I need to rest after doing battle with the matrons of society.”

“As long as you do not object, Elizabeth. White’s in an hour, Arnold?”

“Make it two. I need to take my wife home first.”

“Now that that is all settled,” Helen Arnold announced, “we should be leaving. Please call on us tomorrow or the day after, Mrs Darcy. Lady Victoria will be eager to hear all the particulars.”

“Yes, I am sure she will.” Elizabeth laughed. “Please convey my regards, and tell her that I will try to call tomorrow.” A weary Elizabeth again thanked her cousins as they said their goodbyes. Once they had left, she needed no instructions from her husband; she simply held out her arm for him to assist her to her chambers to a well-earned rest.

<<<>>>

Michael Arnold found Darcy seated in a secluded corner of their club, two glasses of amber liquid on the table beside him.

“I took the liberty of ordering for you,” Darcy said as his cousin sat across from him.

“To Mrs Darcy,” Arnold toasted, lifting the crystal towards his companion, who nodded and returned the salute.

“I cannot tell you how grateful I am to you and Mrs Arnold for your assistance today. You know how much I detest receiving callers.”

“Ha! That, my reserved cousin, is an understatement! Still, you acquitted yourself well. You scarce spoke ten words to most of the callers, and I was more than happy to spend my time watching you squirm.”

“I did note that your participation in the conversation was quite restricted.”

“When one is held captive in a drawing room on such a fine morning, a man must preserve his right to silence. He never knows when he will be called upon to defend himself or his lady. Speaking of his lady, how long do you anticipate remaining in London before you and your bride return to Pemberley?”

“Our plans are not firmly fixed, but as of this moment, we will forego Royal Ascot and leave for the north at the end of May. That should give Mrs Darcy ample time to become known in society.”

“Before you retire to await the birth of your child?”

Darcy started. “But… how?”

“My mother. Who else? She only confided her suspicions because of her concern for Mrs Darcy.”

“Is my wife’s condition that obvious?” Darcy asked in agitation.

“Not unless you are looking for telltale signs. I would not have guessed it, but I took the time to closely examine Mrs Darcy after my mother’s comments in that direction. From my first acquaintance, I noticed her light and pleasing figure. Now she has more… a softer look to her, the same sort of look I saw when Helen was with child. The style of her dresses still hides the most compelling evidence, but as she continues to increase, she will not be able to hide her situation.”

Darcy was somewhat distressed. He had assumed that they would be able to conceal Elizabeth’s state for at least another month, to give her as much time as possible to establish herself. But now it seemed that the changes to her body would make it impossible for her to show herself in public much longer. They would have to retire to Pemberley much sooner than he planned. His broodings nearly caused him to miss his companion’s next remark.

“It is certain, absolutely certain, that she is with child?”

“All signs point to a child, but she has yet to feel it quicken. It is possible that it could happen any day, but it would be very early indeed.”

“I remember well the day I felt the movements of my unborn child for the very first time.”

Darcy did not say anything; he only stared at the remaining contents of his glass.

“When will you tell the family?”

“Mr Bennet knows, and Mr and Mrs Bingley, but so far no others — except you, that is.”

“And my mother and my wife.”

Darcy smiled. “I will tell Mrs Darcy. She will be relieved to at last share the news with Lady Victoria. As for the rest of the family, all other announcements will be delayed until the baby quickens, or we are on our way back to Pemberley. The Bennets depart for Hertfordshire in a few days, and when we return to Derbyshire, we will trace our steps through that country.”

“An excellent plan, old man. Let me be the first of your family to congratulate you and wish for a safe delivery and a healthy child.” Arnold looked pointedly at his cousin and friend. “Your life will never be the same once you become a father.”

“In a manner of speaking, I have already been a father.”

Arnold knew that Darcy referred to his late sister. “In some ways, yes. But to know that you are holding a new life that is a part of you, that you have yet to experience. Nothing can prepare you for that moment or the realization of the awesome responsibility you will carry with you until your child becomes an adult and begins a family of his own.”

There was nothing Darcy could think to say in response.

<<<>>>

The next few days were filled with responding to the cards that had been delivered since the ball. Darcy helped Elizabeth divide the senders into two categories: those to whom she could send her card with a servant and those she would deliver personally.

Elizabeth called at the Arnolds’ townhouse the next day, and addressed the issue of her situation with the ladies of the house.

“My husband tells me that he had a very interesting discussion with Mr Arnold at their club,” Elizabeth said to Helen Arnold with a raised brow.

“Elizabeth, I can hardly believe he broached the subject. It was most improper.”

“Most, but if I have learned one thing in the time I have been married to Mr Darcy, it is that the Fitzwilliam clan possesses a frankness in their speech unlike any family I have known.”

Lady Victoria ignored Elizabeth’s jest and asked, “When do you expect the baby?”

That comment earned a smile from both Elizabeth and Helen. “Around the beginning of October, I believe.”

“It is too soon for you to have felt the babe’s quickening. Are you certain?”

“As certain as I can be, and since you believed it well enough to speak of it with your son, I doubt you think it otherwise.”

“Yes, I have seen changes in your appearance since you married. However, I would not have noticed had I not helped prepare you for your curtsey at St James’s, and observed your fittings. I am so happy for you, dear. You look well, and my nephew looks as happy as I have ever seen him. That alone brings me great joy.”

<<<>>>

Only one family dinner remained before the Bennets’ departure for Longbourn. This time, Elizabeth would preside over the table, as the gathering was to be held at the Darcys’. She was slightly guilty about the relief she felt in the knowledge that her mother and younger siblings would soon be safely tucked away in Hertfordshire. She and Darcy had briefly considered announcing their news to all her family, but had decided against that for the present, at least until she felt the child move.

The day arrived, as did all the family. It soon became evident that Mrs Bennet remained overwhelmed by the splendour in which her two eldest daughters lived, and could not be prevailed upon to cease commenting upon it. Elizabeth had told Darcy of the call she had made with her mother on his aunt, the Countess. The meeting was exactly what he had expected, exactly what he had feared: the two older ladies had spent their time gossiping and rhapsodizing over the details the ball. Fortunately, neither other members of the Fitzwilliam clan nor other visitors witnessed the encounter, for which Darcy was gratefully relieved. His aunt’s title and position in society would continue to shield her from ridicule; his mother-in-law had no such protection.

Darcy grew more firm in his opinion that his original request to Elizabeth about her family had been justified. It would be unwise to invite the Bennets to stay with them until Elizabeth was firmly accepted by society. They had been in public together only once, at the ball, and although Mrs Bennet’s behaviour was restrained, her performance whilst visiting his aunt proved that such an amendment of manner was fleeting. She had said and done as she pleased for too many years for him to expect a permanent reformation of her actions and words.

His worries extended to the Bingleys as well. Bingley was only just establishing his foothold into better society, shedding the stigma of new money made from trade. Marriage to the daughter of a landed gentleman, the leasing of an estate, and his new family connection to Darcy had helped. However, if Mrs Bennet managed to secure another invitation to stay with the Bingleys too soon, Bingley was in as much danger of suffering some public humiliation as Darcy. He determined to speak with Bingley on the matter as soon as possible.

During the meal, the inane chatter of Elizabeth’s mother and two youngest sisters was a trial on Darcy’s forbearance. In an effort to curb the disgust such a display aroused in him, he focused his attention on the Gardiners. Elizabeth’s uncle was nothing like his sister, and once again, Darcy pondered how two siblings could be so different. Then he recalled that the same held true for his wife and Mrs Bingley, and their younger siblings. He had developed a respect for Mr. Gardiner despite his profession, relieved that his wife had some relations of whom they need not be ashamed. The conversation turned to the summer, and the Gardiners revealed that they were planning a trip to the Lakes.

“I am not certain my business will allow us the time necessary to make as prolonged a journey as we hope,” Mr Gardiner confessed.

“If not the Lakes, then where?” Darcy asked.

“Mrs Gardiner has hinted that an abbreviated itinerary to visit no further north than the Peaks would be acceptable. She spent many years of her youth in Derbyshire, not far from your estate, I believe. For the longest time, she has wished to return to Lambton to show me the place where she spent those happy days.”

“Lambton is but five miles from Pemberley! If you decide to travel to Derbyshire, I hope you will stay with us, providing it does not interfere with any plans you have already made.”

“That is generous of you, Mr Darcy, but as I said, our plans are not yet set. Certainly, if we do travel to Derbyshire, we would be delighted to accept your hospitality.”

“Let your enjoyment of the art of fishing be an added incentive to stay at Pemberley. The sport is excellent, and I can provide you with rod and tackle.”

“Derbyshire sounds more and more like the desired destination of our summer ramblings,” Mr Gardiner laughed. “Perhaps I should make certain that my business does not allow time to visit the Lakes!”

<<<>>>

That night, as Darcy and Elizabeth lay together in bed discussing the events of the evening, Elizabeth brought up the subject of her uncle and aunt.

“I was delighted when you invited them to Pemberley. Thank you, husband.”

“There is no need to thank me. I like your uncle. He is an intelligent man and pleasant company.”

“Much different from the rest of my family. Come now, I know that is your opinion.”

“Elizabeth…”

“Fitzwilliam, I agree with you. I love my family, but I am aware of their deficiencies. Uncle and Aunt Gardiner are wonderful people. Their home was a haven for Jane and me, as we grew to womanhood. My aunt provided an example of what a lady should be. I confess, I patterned my behaviour after hers, instead of those who lived closer.”

“The Gardiners are fine people.”

“My aunt told me they had planned to ask my sister, Mary, to accompany them, but with your offer, they are unsure that they will do so.”

“Why not?”

“Because you did not know she might be with them when you spoke to my uncle, and they were not sure you would have extended the invitation had you known.”

Darcy hesitated before responding. “I have always been polite to your sister.”

“Aye, you have, but my uncle and aunt are keen observers. They know you are uncomfortable around the Bennets, but they do not hold that against you.” Elizabeth flashed a wry smile. “Few are comfortable around the Bennets.”

“I am comfortable enough around you.”

“That is because I am a Darcy now, and carrying the Darcy heir.”

“I was comfortable before we married. But you are correct,” he nuzzled her ear, “you are a Darcy now, and I want you that way.”

Soon all conversation other than words of passion was ended as Darcy showed his lover exactly how happy he was that she now bore his family name — and his child.

<<<>>>

After much discussion, the Darcys decided that Elizabeth would attend the Bridens’ party. A note accepting the invitation was dispatched. A number of the ladies would be performing on the pianoforte, and Darcy felt this was an appropriate venue for Elizabeth to play in public for the first time since their marriage. She agreed, though not entirely happy with the choice of hosts. Like her husband, she did not particularly like or enjoy the Bridens’ society. However, she was discerning enough to know that some acquaintances were encouraged because of the mutual social benefit to all parties involved. The Bridens obviously were desirous of the continued connection, despite their failed attempt to attached Darcy to their daughter, and Elizabeth was not adverse claiming the benefits of such an association for themselves. The Bridens, while untitled, moved in the highest of circles. Mrs Briden was friends with many influential women in London society, and although Elizabeth did not desire Mrs Briden’s good opinion, she could not risk that woman’s displeasure. The party was one such occasion where both families would benefit. Mrs Briden would claim the honour of satisfying some of the curiosity of Darcy’s bride by producing the young woman at her house. Elizabeth would meet more of the ton in a neutral setting.

Mrs Briden was sensible enough to place Elizabeth’s song in the middle of the performances. As eager as she was to hear her guest play, she knew it would not do to make her unduly nervous by asking her to exhibit first. When it was time for Elizabeth to take her place at the instrument, she breathed deeply before losing herself in the music. Her playing had improved! Months of daily practice allowed her to execute the piece nearly flawlessly. Any mistakes she made were minor and were rendered inconsequential by her easy and unaffected manner. The applause seemed sincere, and Elizabeth returned to her seat gratified with the result, though she could not be prevailed upon to play again.

Once the musical portion of the gathering was over, the ladies were served refreshments. Elizabeth recognized many familiar faces but struggled to put names with most. Mrs Briden, ever the attentive hostess, was quick to congratulate Elizabeth on her playing and remained by her side for several minutes, providing the invaluable service of mentioning the names of the other ladies who approached them. One woman who Elizabeth had no problem remembering was Mrs Atkins, the particular friend of Lady Victoria.

“Mrs Darcy, may I congratulate you on your performance. It was lovely.”

“Thank you, ma’am. You are very kind.”

Mrs Atkins leaned in closer so only Elizabeth could hear her. “Lady Victoria told me you had been practicing most diligently since your marriage.”

“Mr Darcy has a fondness for music.”

A woman unknown to Elizabeth approached. “Mrs Kenney, how wonderful to see you today. Have you been introduced to Mrs Darcy?” Mrs Atkins asked.

With that simple act, Elizabeth had her champion for the evening. There were women who did not know what to make of the new Mrs Darcy. Their sense of superiority predisposed them to think ill of the upstart. Elizabeth Darcy had no prior connections to recommend her, so it was rumoured, and she did not show any particular deference to her social superiors. Elizabeth could feel the scrutiny she was under and did her best to not offend. She understood the situation in which she found herself, and although thankful for the tacit support of Lady Victoria in the form of her friend Mrs Atkins, she was glad that Darcy’s aunt was not in attendance. Sooner or later, Elizabeth knew she must face the ton alone, and she believed that Mrs Briden’s party was the perfect place to start. Here, no one could accuse her of hiding behind her influential new relative.

In the Darcy coach returning from the party, Elizabeth reflected on the outing. Everything had gone well. Her playing was up to the standard she had set for herself. She met many new ladies and had not embarrassed herself or shamed her husband. He would be pleased when she recounted the events.

<<<>>>

Now that Elizabeth had made several public appearances, the Darcys fell headlong into a full social calendar. They attended balls and dinners, plays and operas. They hosted dinner parties at their house. Darcy kept a close eye on his wife. He knew from their intimate times that her body continued to change and increase; he doubted they would be able to finish out the season in London, as he had hoped. Her condition would soon be apparent, and it would not do for her to be seen in polite society while obviously with child. Until then, they picked their outings to accrue the greatest social benefit in the time they had remaining. Darcy watched carefully and waited patiently for the final confirmation of her state.

That happy event happened, fortuitously, on an evening they had chosen to remain at home. Elizabeth was sitting close to the fire reading a book when she let out a small gasp.

“Elizabeth, are you well?” Darcy immediately asked, concerned. She closed her eyes and seemed not to hear him. He reached over to touch her. “Are you well?” She opened her eyes.

“I think I just felt the babe move.” Her eyes were shining.

“Truly?”

“Yes, I felt a fluttering here.” Elizabeth laid her hand on her expanded stomach.

“Do you still feel anything?”

“No, it was only for a moment. I was waiting to see if it would reoccur, but it has not.”

“This is wonderful! Had you not thought that it would happen soon? It must be the child!”

Elizabeth smiled at his enthusiasm. He really was a dear man. He would not say so, but she knew he cared deeply for her. She was convinced he would be a doting father, and she thought with amusement how he struggled not to be overprotective of her in her expectant state. Suddenly, she could not wait to feel the new life within her move again. She could not wait until the child was large enough for Darcy to feel it kick and move within her. She could not wait to give him the heir he so desperately deserved.

Much to her husband’s surprise, Elizabeth stood and pulled him to his feet.

“I think this is cause for a celebration,” Elizabeth said in a voice he could not misunderstand. She snaked her arms around his neck and pulled his head down for a kiss. “Take me to bed, Fitzwilliam,” she whispered against his lips.

His reaction was immediate. She felt his manhood press against her stomach as their kiss deepened. Moments later, he swept her into his arms and carried her to her chamber. When the door slammed shut, the household knew better than to disturb the master and his mistress.

<<<>>>

The quickening of his heir convinced Darcy that their stay in London was over. It was time to return to Derbyshire; his child would be born where it ought to be, at Pemberley. Darcy had gradually reduced the number of engagements that he and Elizabeth accepted, and none further out than a week or so at a time. The one or two to which they were committed could easily be missed. Regrets were sent and plans were made to leave the following week.

On the journey, they would stop in Hertfordshire to discharge one last duty – to inform Mrs Bennet that she was to be a grandmother. They had a standing invitation to stay at Netherfield whenever they called at Longbourn – whether the Bingleys were in residence or not. Darcy appreciated his friend’s hospitality, knowing full well how insupportable it would be to stay at Longbourn. His nerves could not handle that stress.

To Hertfordshire they went, determined to stay only one night before continuing the trek northward. The Bingleys returned to Netherfield at the same time; Jane desired one last evening with her sister before they would be separated for the many months.

Once installed at Netherfield, the Bingleys and the Darcys together made the pilgrimage to the Bennet ancestral home. Mrs Bennet was all aflutter as Hill ushered them into the drawing room.

“My dear Mrs Darcy and Mrs Bingley! What an unexpected surprise. You did not tell us you would be in Hertfordshire so soon. It is always such a pleasure to see my two oldest girls and your handsome husbands.”

Bingley accepted Mrs Bennet’s words good-naturedly and greeted his sisters and father-in-law. Darcy was more taciturn, something Mr Bennet did not miss. He rather suspected he knew the reason for his two daughters’ removal from Town. Surely Elizabeth was ready to tell her mother about the baby.

Mrs Bennet thought nothing of the sudden call. Instead, she asked both couples what parties they had attended, what plays they had seen, and what new people they had met in London in the weeks since the Bennets had returned to Hertfordshire. Her curiosity eventually satisfied on that score, she then demanded that her daughters tell her about the latest fashions, but before either could answer, she startled her visitors with her own pronouncement.

“It matters little here, now that the regiment has moved to Brighton. At least Lydia is enjoying herself.”

“Pardon, Madam? What do you mean about Lydia?” Darcy asked, immediately interested. He had noticed the youngest Bennet’s absence. The relative tranquillity of the household made it impossible not to notice.

“Did I not write to either of you? I was certain I did. Lydia was asked by Mrs Forster to go to Brighton as her particular friend. They left a fortnight ago.”

Darcy turned to Mr Bennet. “You gave your consent?”

“After Lydia’s disappointment over not attending your wife’s ball, I would have had no peace at Longbourn unless I consented. Colonel Forster is a sensible man and will see to it that Lydia stays out of trouble.”

“I hope, sir,” Darcy said a few minutes later in a quieter voice so Mrs Bennet would not hear, “that you spoke most forcefully to the Forsters. Lydia may not have a large dowry, but her connections have vastly improved with her sisters’ marriages, and I fear she could be easy prey to a fortune hunter.”

“I did speak with him most strenuously on the matter. I also cautioned Lydia. She appeared to understand the sincerity of my concern for her well-being and promised to act responsibly.”

Darcy looked at Mr Bennet sceptically. He doubted Lydia bothered to listen to anyone who said anything she did not wish to hear. Perhaps it would behove him to send a trusted servant to Brighton to keep an eye on her. He would confer with Elizabeth and make a decision later.

“With Mary travelling with my brother and sister to visit you, only Kitty will be home to attend me,” Elizabeth’s mother continued.

“It was bound to happen sooner or later, Mrs Bennet,” Mr Bennet answered. “What else would you expect when you finally marry off the last of your daughters?”

“It is all so sudden, that is all. This time last year, all five girls were at Longbourn.”

“And lamenting your fate should I die before any one them married. As you can see, your concern was for naught. Your two daughters have made fine matches, and their husbands, who stand before you, are honourable men. You have no cause to repine.”

That speech was followed by silence. Elizabeth caught Darcy’s eye. He nodded, and she addressed the entire room.

“The reason Mr Darcy and I have stopped on our journey to Derbyshire is to inform you … that I am with child. The baby should be born around the beginning of October.”

When she finished speaking, she, Darcy, the Bingleys and Mr Bennet braced themselves for the reaction. Everyone was surprised when Mary rushed over to embrace Elizabeth before anyone spoke.

“Oh Lizzy! I am going to be an aunt!” Mary squealed in delight. Elizabeth laughed, hugged her sister, then turned to embrace Kitty, who had joined them.

“Mama?” Mrs Bennet sat dead still, a look of disbelief on her face. “Mama?”

Mrs Bennet began to shudder, then flew to Elizabeth’s arms. “My dear Lizzy! A child! And so soon! For once, you listened to me! Of course, it must be a boy. Mr Darcy must have a son!”

Elizabeth laughed at her mother’s continuing effusions. The gathering broke up soon afterwards, Mrs Bennet insisting that Elizabeth return to Netherfield to rest. There should be no chances taken with her first grandson. The Netherfield party returned to that house for a quiet evening. Early the next morning, not long after first light, Elizabeth and her husband bade their hosts goodbye and settled into their spacious carriage to begin the rest of the journey back to Pemberley. It was time for the Darcys to take up residence in their family’s ancient abode to await the arrival of the next generation.

Chapter Fifteen

The Darcys arrived at Pemberley two days after leaving Longbourn. There was much to be done in preparation for the baby who would arrive in four months. Everyone, from the master to the scullery maids, looked forward to the day when the sound of a child would once again fill the halls of the estate.

In the first week of August, the Gardiners made their long-awaited appearance. Elizabeth was overjoyed to see her aunt and uncle again, all the more so since they had brought Mary to her as well. Derbyshire was lovely, but she missed her family. The letters between Pemberley, Longbourn, and Netherfield managed to placate only temporarily her desire to be with those whom she loved and who openly loved her in return.

Elizabeth had also come to both understand and appreciate her husband’s pride in his estate and heritage. His was an old family, long respected in Derbyshire. Even the house was a testament to the centuries of influence and vast wealth of the Darcys. She knew that Darcy was still uncomfortable with her relatives, and that the greatest obstacle he had overcome in asking for her hand was the impropriety and unseemly behaviour of some of her family members. That was another reason she was so happy to host her uncle and aunt; they were, at least, relations Elizabeth had never been ashamed to call her own.

Mrs Gardiner was the first to greet Elizabeth.

“Oh my stars, Elizabeth. It is so good to see you again!”

“Welcome to Pemberley, Aunt.”

The other travellers came to join them. “Mary, Uncle, welcome to Pemberley.”

Mary stared at the building before her and whispered, “Lizzy, this place is enormous!”

“It is only a house, Mary. Come, Mr Darcy is meeting with his steward about a pressing estate matter, but is eager to welcome you when they finish. I have refreshments readied for us, unless you would rather rest from your journey first. In that case, I will take you directly to your rooms.”

“I would like to wash away the dust of the road,” Mrs Gardiner admitted.

“As would I,” said Mary.

“I think that is your cue to show us to our rooms,” Mr Gardiner laughed.

“You were always so astute, Uncle. Right this way. The servants will bring your belongings.”

Elizabeth led them up the great staircase and to the family quarters. They came to Mary’s room first. Her sister was astonished when she entered.

“Lizzy, this is the grandest room in which I have ever stayed.”

“Quite different from our bedrooms in Longbourn, I agree. Does it meet with your satisfaction? If not, I can have you placed in another room.”

Mary saw that she was being teased. “I suppose I can endure it, although it is not at all what I am accustomed to,” she said with a perfectly straight face, then burst out laughing.

Elizabeth smiled at this less serious Mary. “When you are ready, ring for the servant to bring you to me. It is not difficult to become disoriented in this house.

Next, Elizabeth escorted the Gardiners to their rooms.

“These are for your use. I hope they meet with your approval.”

Mrs Gardiner walked around a moment, then linked her arm with Elizabeth. “What a lovely room! Thank you, my dear.”

“You truly like it?”

“There are few who would not.”

Elizabeth smiled. “Your good opinion is important to me.”

“I am still struggling with the realisation that my little Elizabeth is mistress of all this and will soon give birth to the heir of Pemberley.”

Elizabeth kissed her aunt on the cheek. “I have missed you. Refresh yourself, then come downstairs. My husband and I will await you there.”

<<<>>>

Darcy had joined Elizabeth in one of the sitting rooms by the time their guests returned downstairs.

“Mr Gardiner, perhaps tomorrow you will join me in a quest for trout?”

“I would be delighted, sir.”

Elizabeth thanked her husband with a radiant smile. The ladies made plans for a tour of the park.

<<<>>>

After the tour of the park the next day, Mary wished to explore the shelves of the library. The men were still out fishing, giving Elizabeth some much-appreciated time alone with her aunt. The ladies chose to walk through one of the gardens near the house.

“Elizabeth, I do not believe I have ever seen you so happy, or so beautiful.”

“I am happy, Aunt. Though how you can say I am beautiful with this,” she put her hand on her swollen belly, “to carry, I do not know.”

Mrs Gardiner stopped and took Elizabeth’s hands in her own.

“My dear, there is nothing more glorious than a woman growing heavy with child and a look of contentment in her eyes. You are stunning.”

“I feel huge!”

Mrs Gardiner laughed, “I will not attempt to deny that you are increased in size. I will only say that you are lovely, no matter what you may think. I have birthed four children, and I am very aware of the feelings you possess.”

“Thank you, Aunt.”

Mrs Gardiner squeezed Elizabeth’s hands, then let them go; they resumed their leisurely ramble.

“When I was a girl growing up in Lambton, never did I think I would know anyone who lived in this grand house. And now my niece is wife to the Master of Pemberley! How are you adjusting to being mistress all of this?” she swept her hand. “Do you feel comfortable in your position?”

“I confess that it has been, at times, overwhelming. When Fitzwilliam asked me to marry him, we talked about many things. We both understood that although I am a gentleman’s daughter, Longbourn is not Pemberley. He was more confident in my aptitude than I. Pemberley is far grander than I imagined, and I had little appreciation of the intricacies of life amongst the haute monde. Thus, I have spent the seven months since my marriage doing everything in my power not to disappoint his belief in me.”

“From all that I have seen, he must be pleased.”

“Yes, so far.”

“You do not sound like the confident Lizzy I know.”

Elizabeth took her time replying. “I am not certain I am that woman any more. Sometimes when I am alone, I ponder all the changes that have taken place in my life since last November. My life was much simpler then – in many ways, I was just a carefree girl.” Again Elizabeth paused, but her aunt sensed she was not finished and held her tongue. “Now, too many people are dependant on me to live such a selfish life. Pemberley deserves a responsible mistress. The people are accustomed to it. Did you know that most of the servants have spent their entire lives in service to the Darcys? Many of their parents served at Pemberley before them, and in some cases, their grandparents.”

“It shows a remarkable loyalty to the family and that they have been treated fairly.”

“Exactly my point! I have developed an enormous respect for the burdens and responsibilities that my husband shoulders. I manage only the household. He was given the entire estate at roughly my same age.”

“I suspect he felt as overwhelmed then as you do now,” Mrs Gardiner suggested.

“I suppose so.”

“Have you and he spoken of this?”

“We have, at times. He tries to reassure me, and I do believe that he is pleased. Yet for him it was different; he was born to this life. He was raised to be the Master of Pemberley. I was raised to be the wife of a man with, at best, a small estate, of a rank equal to that of my father’s, assuming I were fortunate enough to secure such a match. Now look at me. A gentleman’s daughter and a gentleman’s wife I may be, but there is a greater distance between the two situations than I ever thought possible. How have I come to such a place?”

“Elizabeth, listen to me. Yes, you made a splendid match, greater than any of us could have imagined. You have had so many challenges put before you since you married. Of course you feel a stranger to the woman you were before you married. That, my dear niece, is as it should be.”

“I do not understand.”

“Child, do you honestly think I am the same girl who married your uncle? When you become someone’s wife, you leave your old life behind. You create a new family and you learn that your new family is unique to the two of you – no matter how you came into the union. You have changed because you are now truly a woman. And Elizabeth, your husband will have changed too, even if you cannot yet recognise it. It is the natural way of things and if he had not, I doubt you would be so in love with him.”

Elizabeth blushed. “He has become very dear to me.”

“There is nothing wrong with loving your spouse, especially when he loves you in return.”

They continued to walk along, Elizabeth pondering her aunt’s observations and hoping that she had seen too little, rather than that her aunt had fancied too much.

<<<>>>

Late in the afternoon, they all sat talking together in a drawing room when an express arrived for Darcy.

“It is from Bingley,” he told the others and hastened to open it. Inside was another letter, addressed to Elizabeth, which he handed to her as he deciphered the contents of his own missive. The look of concentration on his face intensified and quickly turned to something more ominous. Elizabeth held her unopened letter, captivated by her husband. He broke his reverie and looked at his wife.

“I think you should read your letter.”

Elizabeth hurriedly broke the seal; she was shocked by what she read.

“Bingley’s news is the same?”

“Yes.”

“What has happened? Are the children safe?” Mrs Gardiner asked anxiously.

“Yours are, Mrs Gardiner,” came Darcy’s cryptic reply. He handed his letter to Mr Gardiner. “Perhaps you should read it aloud. It concerns us all.” Elizabeth wished that her husband would come to her and take her hand. He did not.

Darcy,

I write to you with the most extraordinary and disturbing news. Two nights ago, an express arrived at Longbourn. The news it contained was shocking. It was from Colonel Forster, commanding officer of the regiment that recently decamped from Meryton to Brighton, who had invited our sister Lydia to join him as his wife’s particular friend. What no one knew was that Lydia had formed an affection for one of the officers of the regiment, and on Saturday night, she eloped with the man. She left a note for Mrs Forster telling her that she and the officer, Mr Wickham, were bound for Gretna Green.

Colonel Foster immediately set out to follow them. However, he found no trace of them on the other side of Town. We must conclude that the couple is in hiding somewhere in London.

I must ask you now to do that which will bring you no pleasure. Please come to London and help Mr Bennet and me search for Lydia and Wickham. Mr Gardiner’s presence would also be greatly appreciated. I wish to God there was some other way. Come quickly.

Your brother,
C. Bingley

They sat mute, too shaken to feel anything but Lydia’s shame.

Darcy spoke first, and in a clipped manner: “I will leave at first light for London. Will you join me Mr Gardiner?”

That gentleman looked at his wife before he answered.

“Thank you for the offer… ”

“Uncle,” Elizabeth interrupted, “Jane has written as well, and requested that you and Aunt come first to Hertfordshire. She and Kitty have the added responsibility of the children, and Mamá cannot be left alone.”

“I doubt that your mother is much help with the children.” Mr Gardiner turned to his wife. “We should return to Hertfordshire for Jane and Kitty’s sake.”

“I agree.”

“Mr Darcy, thank you for your generous offer, but I must decline. I will take my wife and niece, I am sorry Mary, back to Longbourn and then join you in Town as soon as I can.”

“Cannot Mary remain with Elizabeth?” Mrs. Gardiner asked.

“Jane will need her more than I will, Aunt.”

“But the child?”

“I am not friendless here. Uncle is right. Mary must return to Hertfordshire with you.”

Darcy spoke again. “Please excuse me. I must give instructions for the servants to prepare for an early departure. Mrs Darcy, may I have a private word?”

She followed him to a far corner of the room.

“I do not want to leave you alone, but you cannot travel in your condition. I am concerned for your health and the safety of the child.”

“I know,” she said, resigned to be the one left behind to wait.

“Please see to our guests. I shall return shortly.”

<<<>>>

Everyone retired early in preparation for the journey the next day. Darcy prepared for bed and came into Elizabeth’s room. Silently, he slipped under the covers and embraced Elizabeth. Neither spoke for several minutes. Darcy knew she was awake, but he could not, for the life of him, think of anything to say.

“What will you do?” he at last heard her say.

“I will do everything in my power to prevent a scandal.”

“They must marry.”

Darcy did not reply.

“If Lydia does not return to Hertfordshire a married woman, she will be ruined and her shame complete.”

“I know. I have a vested interest in this, too.”

“I did not mean to imply that we are not involved, only a simpleton could fail to understand this. I … I fear for Mary and Kitty.”

“Shhh, rest. We both need our sleep for the days ahead.”

“Promise me that you will be careful.”

“I have no intention of being lured into a situation where my honour or my safety is jeopardised.”

Elizabeth looked at him for a moment as tears filled her eyes. When she again spoke, her voice was full of emotion.

“I am mortified at what has happened. I am deeply embarrassed by the reckless actions of my youngest sister. The thought of bringing shame to your name and your house is almost too much to bear. You were right in all your concerns about my family. I cannot apologize or ask for your forgiveness enough for what you must now do. I know you will do everything in your power to protect us from scandal. And Fitzwilliam, I know you do not like for me to say this to you, but I must before you leave. I love you and I will miss you terribly whilst we are apart.”

<<<>>>

By dawn the next morning, Darcy had readied himself for his journey. Before departing, he re-entered Elizabeth’s room, softly kissed her, and placed his hand gently against her swollen belly. At the doorway, he turned and took one long last look at his still slumbering wife.

The two days’ journey to London gave Darcy a great deal of time to analyse the situation as his coach sped ever onward. He was certain that Wickham never intended to go to Scotland; he believed the man’s motivation was entirely mercenary and that the family would soon hear from him, undoubtedly demanding a large payment in exchange for marriage to Lydia. Otherwise, Wickham had no reason to take the girl to London or to disappear so completely amongst the mass of humanity living in the capital.

Darcy also comprehended that his boyhood playmate’s envy and resentment — that an accident of birth had denied him a life of wealth and status — knew no bounds. Being denied the living at Kympton was the least of it. Wickham wanted revenge and recompense — for all the things he believed himself entitled, as if he were a true son of Pemberley. Wickham’s acts of contrition in Hertfordshire were nothing but a ruse, as false as the man himself.

Darcy knew that he must be prepared, and he needed help if scandal were to be averted. With that in mind, when they arrived on the outskirts of the city around dinnertime of the second day, he instructed his driver to travel to his cousin’s lodgings.

Colonel Fitzwilliam was as startled by Darcy’s grave demeanour as he was by his cousin’s unexpected arrival. “Darcy! I thought you were at Pemberley. What brings you to London?”

“I need your help.”

“What has happened?”

“It is a complicated story, and it involves George Wickham.”

The Colonel grew angrier with each passing minute as Darcy told him the news; he was more than willing to help execute the plan Darcy had formulated.

“I know the perfect man for the job. I will send a note to him immediately.”

It was not long before Colonel Walter Hall arrived. A half-hour later, the three men shook hands, and Darcy left to call on Michael Arnold.

“Darcy, what the devil are you doing here and at this time of night?”

“Forgive me for disturbing you so late in the evening. I have a grave problem.”

“Is it Elizabeth, or the child?”

“No, but her youngest sister has done something very foolish.”

Darcy spent the next two hours briefing his cousin on Lydia’s situation and his plans to resolve the crisis.

“Will you help me find the man?”

“I will do what I can. You are correct, it affects us all. Mother will not be pleased if we do not succeed.”

“Many people will be displeased if I fail.”

“Stay the night here, Fitzwilliam. Wickham may have your house watched in anticipation of your arrival. Even one day might make a difference.”

“Thank you, Michael. I am sorry to bring this upon you.”

“We are family. Say nothing more about it.”

<<<>>>

Darcy called on his brother-in-law the next morning.

“Darcy, I cannot tell you how glad I am to see you,” Bingley said.

“I came as quickly as I could. Is Mr Bennet here?”

“Yes, he should join us shortly. Frankly, I am concerned about him. This has been a mighty blow, and he seems to have aged since this nightmare began.”

“Perhaps we should try to convince him to return to Longbourn and leave Lydia to us?”

“Lydia, no matter how foolish, is still my daughter, Darcy,” Mr Bennet said as he came into the room.

“Sir, I am not questioning your authority or responsibility for Lydia. I meant only to indicate my willingness to represent you in this affair.”

“We need to find the pair first,” Bingley said, trying to turn the conversation to a less confrontational path.

“I know Wickham, Mr Bennet; he grew up on my estate – as you might recall from our discussion last November at the ball at Netherfield.” Darcy then reviewed his history with man and gave his opinions on the bounder’s motives. “You are wasting your time searching for them,” Darcy said. “Wickham wants to be found and will, therefore, present himself to us before long. I suggest we would be better served preparing for that eventuality.”

“I concur, Darcy,” Mr. Bennet replied. “What are your thoughts on the matter?”

“Your daughter must be married,” Darcy stated flatly.

“To gain such a son-in-law! From what you have told me, he will demand more than I can ever pay.”

“I have no intention of George Wickham becoming my brother.”

“But Darcy, you just said…” Bingley said in confusion.

“Bingley, what I meant is that Lydia must be wed… to some man. There is more than one way to resolve the matter.”

Mr Bennet caught his meaning instantly. “You are going to pay another man to marry her.”

Darcy answered with a slight nod.

“How shall we find her, let alone convince her to come away from Wickham?” Bingley asked.

“You must trust me to accomplish it. This is another reason why I should be the one who faces Wickham. I know him; I can goad him into making a mistake, giving us the time we need to find Lydia. Once she is discovered, it will be up to you, Mr Bennet, to bring her back to her family.”

“Very well, Darcy, I give you leave to act in my stead with Wickham. I will await my part with Lydia. You may still want Bingley to go with you.”

“As long as you follow my lead,” Darcy said and looked into Bingley’s eyes, “I welcome your company.”

Bingley agreed and Darcy laid out his scheme. Mr Bennet was surprised at the detail his son-in-law had taken in mapping out his strategy and readily agreed to the plan. Darcy then returned to his home to wait for Wickham’s next move.

Returning the next day to Bingley’s house, Darcy was unsurprised that a note had just arrived.


I will be at the Peacock on Gray’s Inn Lane today at one o’clock. I will remain for one hour.

GW

“He did not give us much time,” Bingley said, glancing at the clock. It read half-past eleven.

“He wanted to ensure his advantage. Do you still wish to come, Bingley?” Darcy asked.

“Yes. I may help divide his attention.”

“We will take my carriage and footmen from both our houses. He will be expecting a show of force. Today, I am more than happy to allow the illusion that we will act rashly. George never appreciated the subtly of well executed misdirection.”

<<<>>>

The Peacock was located in a somewhat reputable part of town. Once inside, it took several moments for their eyes to adjust to the light in the room, the contrast between the bright sunlight and the shadows disorientating at first. Soon enough, Darcy saw the man they had come to see staring at them from a table in the far corner. Darcy told his men to wait by the door while he and Bingley met with Mr Wickham.

“Darcy, Bingley! What a pleasant surprise to see you here.”

“You knew full well that we would come,” Darcy answered.

“Yes, and somehow I also knew that Mr Bennet would not be with you.”

“Let us dispense with the preliminaries, Wickham. Has the wedding taken place?”

“Darcy, you were never one to mince words. Therefore, I will answer you in kind. No, it has not.”

“When, then?”

“That is entirely dependant upon you. As soon as I am satisfied with the wedding settlements, I shall be ready to go to the church.”

“You rotten…” Bingley started to speak, but Darcy stayed him.

“Charles, now is not the time.” Darcy might have sounded harsh and slightly panicked, but inwardly he was pleased with his brother-in-law’s outburst. It would help create the illusion that they were desperate.

“What do you want?”

Wickham smirked as he opened negotiations.

“Fifteen thousand pounds.”

“Fifteen thousand!” Bingley cried.

“Keep your voice down,” Darcy warned before turning his attention back to his adversary. “Impossible.”

“Then we have nothing further to discuss at this time. I will send word to you each day where I might be found. When you are ready, we can continue. Meanwhile, Miss Lydia awaits her, uh, most attentive suitor.” Wickham pushed back his chair and started to stand.

“Wait, I was not finished,” Darcy hastily added. Wickham settled back into his former repose. “Mr Bennet does not have that amount of money to settle on his daughter. Her dowry is one thousand pounds, the same as her sisters.”

“Oh, I was not referring to her dowry. I spoke of the settlement that I want from the two of you. Fifteen thousand and I marry the girl and stop a scandal from blackening your names. Come now Darcy, I know you have the money. I could have asked for twice as much. Georgiana’s dowry was thirty thousand, was it not? I am not so greedy as to ask for it all. I think fifteen thousand is very reasonable under the circumstances. So far, I have done my best to keep the situation hidden. Now it is up to you to see that it remains as such.”

“I want to speak with Bingley in private first.”

“You can do that here.”

“Yes, but I refuse to negotiate in this place any longer.” Darcy made a show of looking at his men. “We could continue elsewhere.”

“I prefer neutral ground.”

“Are you convinced that I do not have the advantage in numbers? Bingley and I outnumber you.”

Wickham smiled. “You assume I came here alone.”

“No, I assumed you would have men at your disposal. However, until Bingley and I have a chance to consider your demands, I have nothing more to say to you.”

The three men stared at each other. Wickham broke the silence.

“Very well. I will send word tomorrow where we will meet. No tricks, or the game is over and I abandon Lydia on a street corner like a common whore.”

Incensed, Darcy stood up, looming menacingly over the seated Wickham. Surprised by Darcy’s sudden move, Wickham flinched, then hastily tried to cover it with a sneer. He was too late; Darcy saw.

“Remember who you are dealing with before you make such threats.” Darcy shot his opponent one final contemptuous glare, then walked away, Bingley at his side.

Once back in the carriage, Bingley was the first to speak.

“Fifteen thousand pounds!”

“He is a fool to marry her for much less than ten thousand. His first offer was to be expected. He bid high.” Darcy did not seem at all upset.

“Did the encounter meet with your expectations?”

“Exceeded them! His power lies in a threat of scandal. As it stands now, if we get Lydia back, and can get our hands on him away from the prying eyes of the public, he will have lost the gamble; it will be our word against his, and I have the power and the information to damage his credibility beyond all repair. If my man did his job, tomorrow will see Lydia with her family. Then we can deal with the cur.”

“You assume she will leave him.”

“She will have little choice.”

<<<>>>

George Wickham waited for Darcy and Bingley to leave, then finished his drink. He looked around him. No one seemed to be giving him any notice, other than the men in his employ. Nonetheless, he would be careful. He paid for another round of drinks for his men, then went outside to hire a cab to take him home.

He did not notice the boy leaning against the wall on the opposite corner, who straightened up and walked across the street, reaching the other side just before a cab turned into the lane and stopped at the tavern. A man climbed out and tossed a coin to the driver. Wickham was delighted to find a conveyance so soon. He would not have climbed into any hackney coach just waiting on the street – that was too much of a risk.

“Where to Gov’ner?”

Still cautious, Wickham replied, “In the direction of ___________”

“Aye, sir. Walk on Berty,” the driver commanded his horse.

The gentleman who had vacated Wickham’s cab went inside the Peacock, sat in an unobtrusive corner, and ordered a pint. An hour later, satisfied that he would remember the faces of the men in the room, he left the building and began walking in the same direction as the boy had wandered earlier. Several blocks away, he found the young lookout and slipped him a coin.

“Well done. Has the driver returned yet?”

“No sir, but give ’em time. ’Arry knows where to find us.”

“Lead the way.”

Twenty minutes later, the cabbie found the two of them at another inn. “He’s staying at ________.”

The man placed a few more coins on the table and pushed them towards driver.

“Care for a drink?” he said, fingering another coin.

“Do’n mind if I do, but later. Did ya want me to take ya there?”

“Only past the house.”

“Right, I can’ na leave my rig be any longer.”

The man stood and shook the hand of the boy who had remained silent through the exchange, pressing yet another coin in the lad’s hand. “Pleasure doing business with you, Tim. Stay out of trouble and take this to your mum.”

“I will, sir, and thankee.”

<<<>>>

Around midnight, a gentleman slipped in the servant’s entrance at the Darcy townhouse. He was immediately shown into the study.

“Good evening, Colonel Hall. Were you successful?”

“Yes sir. Here is the address. I was also able to take lodgings – the last room available, mind you. I passed Wickham in the hall. He, of course, had no recollection of me. Amazing what a change of clothing can do.”

“Did you see the lady?”

“Not directly, but I did see him enter his room and heard the voice of a young woman. I must assume it was she. The proprietess told me they were the only couple on that floor.”

“Excellent work. If all goes well, her uncle and father will collect her tomorrow when Wickham is away meeting with me. I will send word of the time of our meeting. Until then, return to the inn. Watch to make sure they do not leave.”

“I doubt they are in any position to flee. Wickham obviously had a few pints in him and, well, the walls are thin.”

Darcy grew sombre at that last pronouncement.

<<<>>>

The next day, Darcy and Bingley met Wickham at a different tavern in a different quarter of the city. Wickham made a show of ordering drinks for the three of them before he set about the task of securing his fortune. Once the server left, he could barely disguise his avarice.

“I am at your disposal, gentlemen.”

“Bingley and I have discussed your …offer. You are severely mistaken if you think we would agree to such a sum.”

“Ah, I thought you might think that. I am prepared to be reasonable.” Pleased to be in a position of power, he hesitated for effect. “Twelve thousand pounds.”

Bingley’s jaw dropped, Darcy’s set. Neither bothered to respond.

Darcy was ready with his own offer. “Five thousand pounds.”

“From each of you?”

Bingley snorted.

“No. Total,” Darcy clarified.

“Not good enough,” Wickham countered.

And so began an hour’s worth of give and take. Darcy would in no way come to any agreement. His intent was to draw out the negotiations as long as possible, to promise nothing other than to wait for Wickham to contact him for the location of their next meeting.

At one point, Wickham became so annoyed at his lack of progress with Darcy that he directly addressed Bingley.

“What is your opinion, Mr Bingley? Do you have a solution?”

“Darcy speaks for Lydia’s family.”

“Then why are you here?”

“For your protection,” Bingley said with meaning. Wickham’s face dropped as he registered the import of the man’s words.

After another fruitless few minutes, Wickham decided to change tactics. He put on a cheery façade and asked, “How about another drink?”

Darcy did not even try to hide the contempt in his voice. “Not today. Bingley, it is time to leave.”

Wickham leaned back in his chair as the gentlemen started to walk away.

“Leaving so soon? I thought we were finally getting somewhere!” he goaded. “Ah well, until tomorrow then. I have a Bennet woman of my own waiting for me. Oh yes, yours are in the country. Pity, they certainly know how to please a man.” Wickham knew he had hit a nerve. He tipped his head when they looked back at him, hatred in both Bingley’s and Darcy’s eyes. “Always a pleasure, gentlemen.”

“It has been many years since I would associate that particular word to my dealings with you. Goodbye.”

Wickham watched his two future brothers leave, taking their lackeys with them. He finished his drink, ordered another, and thought of how he would spend his evening. He had discovered that Lydia possessed one unexpected charm. She might have come into his bed without sophistication, but she proved to be a willing and eager student, naïve yet passionate. Yes, an unexpected windfall.

Oh, Lydia Bennet was a silly woman, but that would have its uses. It would not take much effort to hide his other activities, not that she would believe him to be anything but honourable. And if she ever did catch him out, he would seduce her again and she would forgive him. She would also gain him access into three estates and two houses in Town. With any luck, he would not have to pay for lodgings most of the year.

Before leaving the pub, Wickham walked over to a man sitting at the far end of the room.

“Same time, same place tomorrow morning,” Wickham said.

The man nodded, and Wickham left to bed his future bride.

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