Mr. Bennet sat down to breakfast and had barely lifted his fork when Robert spoke. “Father, what are your plans for this afternoon?
“I have business to attend to in my study. Why do you ask?”
“I plan to tour the outer boundaries of the estate. If you are not in need of your horse, I should like Elizabeth to accompany me.”
Mr. Bennet gave his heir a wry look. The son knew his father too well; Mr. Bennet’s business in the study was nothing more than a newly arrived book. “Very well, Elizabeth may take Nellie. I dare say my old friend needs the exercise and I am certain she prefers your light build to the weight of mine.”
Robert Bennet led his sister at an easy pace that took them near the edge of Netherfield Park’s fields. Their progress was arrested by the resonant sound of horses approaching at a gallop.
“Do you recognize the party?” Elizabeth asked her brother.
“No, Elizabeth… Wait! Yes, I do recognize one of them and I believe I know the identity of the other two riders.
Darcy was the first of his group to apprehend the presence of other riders and eased back on his horse, steadily slowing his progress until he was upon the unexpected party.
“Bennet! What a pleasant surprise. When we arrived at Netherfield, Bingley told me your estate was near. But I am forgetting my manners. Allow me to introduce my sisters. Miss Georgiana Darcy, and,” turning to the young girl of about twelve years on his other side, “Miss Elizabeth Darcy. Ladies, this is my old friend from university, Mr. Robert Bennet.”
“A pleasure to finally make your acquaintance. May I present my sister, Miss Elizabeth Bennet? Elizabeth, my friend, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy.”
“My brother has spoken of you often, sir. Welcome to Hertfordshire.”
“And I have a suspicion that I shall very much like your younger sister. How could I ever think ill of another Elizabeth!”
“I prefer Beth, Miss Bennet.”
“A fortuitous event if we are to spend much time in each other’s company.” Elizabeth guided Nellie closer to the girl. In a conspiratorial whisper she asked, “Do you enjoy exploring, Miss Beth?”
“I most certainly do!”
“Mr. Darcy, I find that I have a desire to show your sister some of the lovelier aspects of the country. May I call upon you at Netherfield and collect your sister for a tour sometime in the next few days?”
“As long as Beth has finished her studies, I see no reason why she may not accompany you. Beth, this should be adequate incentive for diligence with Mrs. Annesley.”
“Miss Darcy, you are more than welcome to join us. Hertfordshire has many beauties.”
Georgiana Darcy shared at least one trait with Caroline Bingley, a woman for whom she held no great affection. Like Caroline, Georgiana usually paid little attention to the offspring of minor landowners. But Miss Bennet’s artlessness and affability toward her sister softened her normally dismissive attitude, and she found herself unexpectedly warming to the young woman before her.
“We shall see, Miss Bennet. A tour of the country does sound appealing. If I am able, I should like to join you.”
“Excellent! No one knows the surrounding countryside better than my sister, Miss Darcy, especially on foot!”
“Robert!” Elizabeth cried in mock indignation.
“Miss Darcy, my sister is acknowledged as an excellent walker by everyone of her acquaintance.” Robert continued, ignoring Elizabeth’s interruption.
“I pray you pay my brother no mind, Miss Darcy. I would be most happy to be your guide, riding or on foot.”
“Then it is settled, Miss Bennet,” said Darcy. “My sisters and I look forward to your visit.”
“I will send word a day ahead, so that you may be prepared. I suppose I should extend the invitation to Miss Bingley as well. I do not believe she has had the opportunity to see much of the countryside. She has been most attentive to her duties as hostess.”
Such a mischievous comment convinced Georgiana that this Miss Bennet might indeed be a pleasant companion during her residence at Netherfield. They seemingly shared the same opinion of Miss Bingley. Perhaps she was too hasty in judging the woman by her connections alone.
“Darcy, Miss Darcy, Miss Beth. Elizabeth and I need to continue on our way. I am very glad to welcome you to Hertfordshire and look forward with great anticipation to improving our acquaintance.”
“Thank you, Bennet. We should be returning to Netherfield ourselves. It is good to see you again.”
After the two groups had parted, Elizabeth spoke her observations of the three Darcys. She had found herself very pleased with Beth, despite her youth. After a third comment that should have provoked a response from her brother, she touched his arm to break his evident reverie.
“Robert, have you heard a word I said?”
“I apologize, Elizabeth. My thoughts were elsewhere.”
“That is obvious. Pray tell me what has so agreeably engaged you?”
“I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow.”
“I am all astonishment, Robert, although I am fairly certain of whose fine eyes you speak.” Robert only smiled.
“Do be careful to conceal such musings from Mama! And please, dear brother, tread carefully; Miss Darcy is of a much higher social station than we. It is also surprising to find such an eligible female unmarried still. She looks to be nearing thirty.”
“Perhaps she has been waiting for just such a gentleman as I!”
“Insufferable man! Perhaps she deserves you after all!”
“I am quite handsome, sister. Mama tells me so constantly.”
“Oh, hang Mama!”
Robert laughed. “You betray yourself! Admit it, you have grown weary of her attempts to match-make on your behalf — and Jane’s.”
“You have only had to deal with such for a year.”
“A year is more than enough to wear on a man.”
“Why is it that a man is considered too young to marry until he turns five and twenty, yet a woman is said to be ‘on the shelf’ if at the same age she is unmarried still?”
“Because men like their wives young, pretty and submissive.”
“You are insufferable!”
“For shame, Elizabeth! Is this the proper respect due your elder brother?
“Then you wish me to tell Mama about the rich Miss Darcy? And that her son appears quite taken with the lovely lady after only just meeting her?”
“You would not dare!”
“Really? You are far to trusting of a younger sister, Robert.”
“Name your price.”
“A very tempting offer… I must give it some thought. But rest assured, your secret is safe with me… For now…”
Darcy brought his sisters to Longbourn on Monday. Normally he would have left Beth at Netherfield, but it was apparent to him that Miss Elizabeth took pleasure in her company. He was, in fact, a very generous brother and was always ready to do anything in his power to assure his family’s contentment.
Elizabeth was amused by Robert’s attempts to engage Miss Darcy in conversation.
“When did you arrive at Netherfield, Miss Darcy?”
“On Friday afternoon.”
“You wasted little time before going out for a ride.”
“William and I promised Beth that we would go riding if she remained quiet during the journey from London. We could not very well go back on our word, Mr. Bennet.”
“I would never dream such a thing. Your brother is honest almost to a fault. This, of course, is a reflection on you, Miss Darcy.”
“How so, sir?” Georgiana was becoming amused with the direction of the conversation.
“Why, madam. Any one who knows your brother knows he patterned himself after his esteemed elder sister!”
“Yet you say he is honest to a fault. What does this say about me?”
“Only that the fault lies with him alone, for how could one so perfect instil an imperfection in another.”
“Why, Mr. Bennet. I do believe you have me confused with someone else.”
“And who would that be?”
“A shadow, Mr. Bennet — for only a person’s shadow is incorruptible.”
“Nay, madam, I disagree! Shadow is the product of an obstruction of light. Light is symbolic of truth. The shadow cannot exist in the light.”
“Again I must disagree. Shadow is what remains after the illumination of the truth of light. It projects what we are, in essence, in the aftermath of examination.”
“Yet that image is distorted by the angle of the light. As the sun reaches it pinnacle, there is no shadow.”
“That which is, is the most true representation, for it falls closest to its originator.”
“Then when the shadow is least, it shows us to fullest advantage, unafraid of the light of truth for the revelation of our character.”
“Enough, sir! You are as difficult as my brother!”
“And you are as much of a challenge to him as my sister Elizabeth is to me. Pity the foolish man who would dare try to show a superiority of mind at her expense. He would be exposed as a great fool.”
“I believe I shall like your sister, Mr. Bennet. I know Beth was quite taken with her when we met on Friday.”
“Elizabeth has a great gift of discerning a person’s character with utmost efficiency and clarity. She liked Beth, that is enough for me.”
“Do you allow Miss Elizabeth to form all you opinions on new acquaintances?”
“No. In certain matters I need no assistance.”
At that statement both knew it was prudent to fall back into the safer forms of polite social intercourse. Their spirited conversation went unnoticed by all but two in the room. Darcy watched his sister in amazement, Elizabeth her brother in a knowing way. Robert Bennet was obviously quite taken with Georgiana Darcy. To observe such a new thing was of great interest to the one in his family who knew him best.
Later in the visit Elizabeth had the opportunity to converse with Darcy. “Mr. Darcy, thank you for bringing both your sisters today. I have enjoyed speaking again with Miss Beth. She is very precocious and reminds me much of myself at her age.”
“Miss Elizabeth, even it if were so, you could not have been the trial on your father as Beth is a trial to me.”
“Perhaps, but then my father only need threaten to ban me from my books and I was a perfect child again.
“You enjoy reading?”
“A great deal, Mr. Darcy — once Robert was off to Cambridge, I lost the advantage of his tutors.”
“I beg your pardon. I do not understand your meaning.”
“Papa had no plans for the extensive education of his daughters beyond what he himself could give us. However, I am told that when I was five years of age I demanded to attend lessons with Robert. My father indulged what he saw as a whim, believing that I would soon grow bored. He did not anticipate that I would be so eager to learn. When, after a few weeks I had not grown weary of the lessons, he decided there was no reason Jane and I should not avail ourselves of such a resource. From that time forward, until Robert left for Cambridge, we were taught by Robert’s tutors. Once Robert had gone off to school, my father and his books continued our education. He knew how I relished reading and used my weakness for the printed page to his advantage.”
“As a means of guaranteeing your good behaviour… Now I see. Do you still seek to improve your mind by extensive reading?”
“Yes, but I take great pleasure in many things.”
“Such as exploring Hertfordshire on a horse, or on foot?”
“Mostly on foot! We own few horses whose sole purpose is pleasure riding, Mr. Darcy. I must usually walk if I wish to escape the confines of this house.”
“What of your proposed excursion with my sisters?”
“I believe Papa would be favourably inclined to grant my request for a horse in such a case.”
“If he is not, I am certain Bingley would be happy to provide you with a mount.”
“Mr. Bingley would be more inclined to grant Jane such a boon than myself.”
Darcy looked to his friend. “He certainly is attentive to Miss Bennet.”
“Mr. Bingley is always attentive to Jane. But she is the sweetest woman, and I am delighted that they get along very well together.”
“Yes, it appears that they do,” Darcy said thoughtfully.
Georgiana and Beth made arrangements to ride the next day with Elizabeth. True to her assumption, Mr. Bennet was favourably inclined to grant Elizabeth’s petition for the use of a horse. And whilst she made her way to Netherfield, the master of that estate came to speak with the master of Longbourn.
“Mr. Bingley! Come in. To what do I owe the honour of your company? Business or pleasure, sir?”
The normally confident Bingley sat down in the proffered chair before responding, rather haltingly, “Bus… I mean pleasure sir. At least it is my fondest wish it will be so.” Mr. Bennet appraised the young man with raised brows, yet remained silent.
“Uh hmm. Yes, the purpose for my visit today. Mr. Bennet, you cannot have failed to notice the pleasure I take in the company of Miss Bennet.” Mr. Bennet remained silent, wishing to fully discomfort the gentleman before him. “I have come to petition for permission to formally court Miss Bennet.”
There, he had said it!
Mr. Bennet was in no mind to make it easy on the man. “Mr. Bingley, you are still fairly young. Do you fully understand the obligations you are taking upon yourself with this proposed step?”
“Have you spoken to Jane about this as yet?”
“No, sir. I felt it proper to first obtain your approval, sir.”
“Mr. Bennet, my family is no stranger to yours. You are a business associate and had a long-standing acquaintance with my father. I would hope this would be in my favour, to convince you of the strength of my character and the sincerity of my intentions. I believe your daughter and I would do very well together and I wish to discover if this is true. So I ask again, sir, may I have your consent to court Miss Bennet?”
Mr. Bennet could no longer repress the smile that had threatened to bloom on his face. “Mr. Bingley, have no fear. I know you are a good man and that your intentions are honourable. If Jane consents, then you have my blessing.”
Bingley released the breath that he had not realised he was holding. “Thank you, sir! I promise to be a most attentive suitor!”
“Of that I have no doubt. Now then, let us go and collect Jane. I suddenly have a great urge to walk through the hermitage.”
Elizabeth arrived at Netherfield and was surprised to find that Darcy intended to join the party.
“Mr. Darcy, are you to accompany us today? I assure you that I know this country well and you should have no fear of us becoming lost.”
“I have no doubts about your ability to navigate, Miss Bennet. I am simply too protective of my sisters to allow them to venture into the wild without an escort. Beth assured me that there must be pirates about.”
“No doubt!” A smiled tugged at the corners of her mouth. “A most generous offer; I am certain that we will be much safer with you as our champion. Very well, you may come, Mr. Darcy.”
Elizabeth led the way with Beth riding beside her.
“Would you like to know the real reason William invited himself along?”
Elizabeth drew nearer to exaggerate the intimacy of their conversation. “If you tell me, I promise to be the soul of discretion.”
Beth giggled before answering. “He was terrified of being left alone in the same house as Miss Bingley. Mr. Bingley left shortly before you arrived.”
“Did he now? Thank you, Miss Beth. And between you and me, I would be terrified to be left alone in the house with Miss Bingley, too.”
Darcy was delighted with the growing friendship between Beth and Miss Elizabeth. His one concern about bringing her to Netherfield had been exposing her to all that was Caroline Bingley and he was not happy with the prospect of putting off the lady of the house. He had wondered how he might find appropriate activities for his younger sister whilst shielding her from some of Caroline’s more insupportable manners.
Georgiana found herself increasingly disposed towards Elizabeth, who went out of her way to engage a twelve-year-old girl who was not even family, and in a way that went beyond mere deference to a member of the noble house of Darcy. Elizabeth Bennet truly enjoyed Beth’s company, had no apparent ulterior motive, and no evident designs on her brother, unlike the insufferable Miss Bingley. How could Georgiana not admire that?
Elizabeth gloried in showing her Hertfordshire to her new acquaintances. She loved her home, and the countryside surrounding it. Rarely was she given the privilege of introducing it to anyone else.
The four continued their explorations. The pairings periodically switched; with every conversation, each Darcy’s already favourable impression of Elizabeth increased. Beth was well on her way to worshipping the older woman. Miss Elizabeth was open and with no disdain of Beth’s youth, so unlike many other ladies she had met. Darcy enjoyed her wit and her love of books. They were just as apt to discuss Milton as to comment on the surrounding landscape. Georgiana was surprisingly pleased to find that Elizabeth did not look with contempt at her unmarried state at such an advanced age. It was refreshing to find a woman of sense who did not judge — or seem to care — that she was unmarried at nine and twenty. And if Elizabeth did wonder at it, she was wise enough to keep such opinions to herself, where such opinions belonged. Georgiana was confused as to why the good opinion of the daughter of a minor country gentleman was important to her, but she pushed aside such unsettling reflections. After all, she was Miss Darcy of Pemberley!
Mr. Bennet proved to be a most adept chaperone. Not ten minutes passed before he recalled a pressing matter of business that required his immediate attention. With a wink, he left the young lovers alone. Bingley and Jane wandered aimlessly until they came upon a secluded bench, and Bingley suggested they break their journey. Once seated, Bingley finally found the nerve to speak.
“Miss Bennet, I had the opportunity to speak with your father today on a matter of great importance.”
“What was that?”
“Oh!” Jane blushed most charmingly.
“I wished to speak with your father before I spoke with you. Miss Bennet, you have entranced me since the first time I was privileged with the sight of you. I find myself intrigued by everything I have learned of you and I fear that my heart might be in danger of becoming, irrevocably, yours. The accepted manner of our society for a man to formally show his attentions to a woman is courtship. I have obtained your father’s permission to court you. And now I seek yours. May I court you, Miss Bennet?”
Jane could not meet his eyes, but she could speak. “Yes, Mr. Bingley. I should like that very much.”
Bringing her hand to his lips, he whispered. “I shall be a most devoted suitor.”
Mr. Bennet cringed at Mrs. Bennet’s very public display of approval of her eldest daughter’s situation, wondering how much worse it would have been had he not taken the trouble all those years ago to improve her mind and temper. She was a silly woman still, but she was able at least to control herself on most occasions. This, however, was not most occasions. The household resigned itself to allowing the mistress her time; it would be over soon.
“When is the next assembly, Elizabeth?” her father asked that evening.
“I suppose Jane will not lack for a partner and I will have no need to go.”
“Mr. Bennet! How can you say such a thing? You know as well as I that this is an important evening for our dear Jane. I absolutely insist you attend with the rest of the family”
Mr. Bennet gave in to the inevitable. “Very well, as you wish, Mrs. Bennet.”
For this assembly ball, the Netherfield party was not fashionably late. Bingley had insisted that his sister be ready on time or, he threatened, he would leave her behind. Since Darcy and Georgiana had every intention of attending the assembly, Caroline was forced to bow to her brother’s commands. Beth would remain at Netherfield with Mrs. Annesley.
Bingley strode into his second Meryton ball with the confidence of a man comfortable in his surroundings. He immediately sought the Bennets, eager to claim the first of his reserved dances with Jane. Caroline Bingley cringed inwardly at the noise and tediousness that yet another night in such unrefined company promised. Georgiana’s sentiments were not very different, but she was a guest. To decline Bingley’s energetic insistence on their attendance would have been ungracious, and a Darcy was never ungracious. The night did have redeeming value — time spent with her brother, Bingley, and the Bennet siblings. She had come to enjoy Robert Bennet’s company nearly as much as she enjoyed Elizabeth’s, though for an entirely different reason. He was proving to be one of the most amiable men of her acquaintance, and if not for his low connections and inferior breeding, she would have felt herself in danger despite all her resolve to act in the best interests of her siblings — and the Darcy name.
As the musicians began to play, Bingley proudly escorted Jane to a place in the set. Robert Bennet led out his sister Mary, and Darcy offered to dance with his own sister. But Georgiana was not yet inclined to dance and asked instead to wait for the next. He turned to the only unclaimed Bennet daughter and asked Elizabeth for the honour. When they had taken their places, both noticed that the eyes of every person in the room were upon them.
“Mr. Darcy, perhaps you should have waited for your sister to be your first partner. I believe we are now the centre of attention.”
“Cannot a man ask a friend to dance?”
“Not in the country, where the actions at a dance can incite more interest than the movements of armies — and give rise to unwanted speculation.”
“You cut me, madam. Am I such an undesirable ogre?”
Elizabeth smiled at his playfulness. “Sir, we both know you are far too young to be seeking a wife.”
“And you are far too impertinent to be seeking a husband!”
“Exactly! I am relieved we are of the same mind. Perhaps now we can meet as the common and indifferent acquaintances that we are.”
“Nay! Is that any way to describe time spent with a friend?”
“No indeed, sir. Then we may meet with the sincere pleasure one has when in the company of a friend.”
“That would please me as well.”
“I would be honoured to be listed as your friend, as long as you do not insist that I call you Darcy.”
Darcy laughed at her cheeky response. “No, I insist that all my beautiful female friends call me Mr. Darcy, otherwise I might forget to differentiate between them and my male friends.”
“And why is that such an unpleasant prospect?”
“Because I may forget my place and ask them to come shoot with me.”
“But what if the lady in question enjoys shooting?”
Darcy looked at her in amazement. “Shooting is not something a woman does.”
“You have much to learn about women in the wilds of Hertfordshire.”
Darcy was afraid to discover if Elizabeth was suggesting that she could handle a gun. Of course, Elizabeth could do no such thing, but she did enjoy seeing the discomfort on his face.
“Never fear, Mr. Darcy, I do not shoot nor do I know any woman who does.”
Visibly relieved, Darcy retorted, “Do you always make such sport of your friends, Miss Elizabeth?”
“Is that not a sign of friendship?” They both smiled at the jest. “Tell me, Mr. Darcy, how many female friends do you have?”
“I see. Since I am your only one, I must take great pains not to ruin your opinion of my sex for the benefit of the women in your future.”
“I believe that opinion is in good hands.”
“Will you dance often this evening?”
“I will dance with the members of my party and your sisters.”
“But sir, surely you have noticed a surfeit of ladies this evening. You must be gallant and rescue those ladies who for want of a partner are forced to sit and observe. Do not look so mortified. I promise, as your friend, to introduce you to those incapable of insipid conversation.”
“Very well, if you reserve the last dance for me.”
“A small price to pay. Thank you, Mr. Darcy, I will reserve the last for you.”
When the dance was complete, Darcy led Elizabeth back to her party and claimed his sister for the next.
“You appear to have enjoyed the previous dance, William.”
“Miss Elizabeth is a fine dancer and an excellent conversationalist.”
“Be careful that you do not give rise to hopes that can never be fulfilled.”
“Georgiana, you need not be concerned on my account. I am only two and twenty, not of an age to look for a wife. Miss Elizabeth is the sister of my friend, and it is already settled it between the two of us that we desire to be friends only.”
“She is a beautiful woman. Any concerned sister would be a fool not to notice the ease of your address to her.”
“Your fears are misplaced.” Georgiana answered only with an arch expression. Darcy continued. “Do you believe it impossible for a man and a woman to seek only friendship?”
“Never mind, William. Do not let the musings of an old woman dampen your enjoyment of the evening.”
Darcy let the matter drop, but he could not help but think that his sister had never fully regained her trust in men after her broken engagement to Viscount Drury. He wondered if she would be able to trust men again.
After many dances, Darcy noticed his sister standing alone along the edge of the room.
“Georgiana, I have only seen you dance two dances besides our own. I also noticed a few men begin to make their way over to you only to stop before soliciting a dance.”
“Accept just any man, in an assembly such as this? William, you know I only dance with men with whom I am acquainted.”
“Bingley thinks very highly of several men here, let me ask him to introduce one to you. I hate to see you standing by yourself so stupidly.”
“Mr. Bingley and Mr. Robert Bennet are engaged at present and I refuse to stand up with you again. There is a shortage of gentlemen tonight; my lack of desire to dance will be of benefit to ladies who would otherwise be slighted. Do your duty to the unfortunate ladies who do not have partners. Not dancing here is of no great loss.”
Unwilling to further vex his irritable sister, Darcy went in search of his next partner.
The intimacy between the two households continued to increase. The Bennets were now weekly guests for dinner at Netherfield and the Netherfield party was received regularly at Longbourn. All were exceedingly pleased with the happy turn of events, with the exception of Caroline Bingley. She had long hoped that her brother would choose a wife from the highest circles, perhaps even Miss Darcy. That neither seemed inclined to the other was beside the point; that the social circle to which Caroline aspired would not welcome a connection to one whose fortune came from trade was ignored. She thought too well of herself to acknowledge the mirrored hypocrisy.
Whilst Bingley openly courted Jane, another, unacknowledged, attachment was being formed. Bingley’s lovemaking often threw the inhabitants of the two households together; Darcy, Robert Bennet, Georgiana, and Elizabeth frequently found themselves as chaperones for the courting couple. The natural pairing of the older siblings meant that Robert and Georgiana spent more and more time together. Robert found himself becoming very attached to Georgiana and began to look for signs that she reciprocated his regard. For her part, Georgiana knew the danger in paying too much attention to a gentleman of such inferior connections and birth, yet she would not deny herself the pleasure of his company. She took pains to keep her attraction to herself and each time she left Longbourn for the safety of Netherfield, she felt relief — for she was attracted to Robert Bennet more than she liked.
Word soon spread that the War Department had seen fit to send a regiment of Militia to quarter in the area for the winter. Mrs. Bennet was the only lady in Longbourn who met the news without indifference. Since she was a young girl, she had held a fondness for a red coat that she had never outgrown. Memories of a certain Colonel Millar’s regiment became her favourite topic of discussion, after Bingley’s attachment to Jane that is. But the addition of the officers did provide a welcome addition to local society, and a most welcome increase in the number of eligible bachelors. Whenever there was a large social gathering, Colonel Forster and his officers were sure to be in attendance. There was even talk that the Colonel would host a ball and such discussions sparked a similar thought in Bingley. Where better than a ball at Netherfield to announce his much desired betrothal!
One day, when the gentlemen had made plans for a shooting party, the sisters decided that a walk into Meryton would be a welcome diversion. They soon encountered a group of officers, and amongst them Elizabeth noticed an unfamiliar face. The new officer was introduced.
“May I present Captain Wickham?”
“A pleasure, Captain.”
“Thank you, Miss Bennet. I know a gentleman from my Cambridge days, whom I believe lives in Hertfordshire. Are you perchance related to Robert Bennet?”
“Robert is our brother.”
“Indeed! I must greet him.”
At that moment the gentleman in question rode up with Bingley and Darcy. Elizabeth was surprised to see an odd expression fly across Capt. Wickham’s face after claiming a prior acquaintance with Robert, and was startled by the cool response from each of the gentlemen on horseback. ‘An odd greeting between old schoolmates,’ she thought.
“Robert, we thought you were spending the day shooting.”
“The sport was uncommonly abundant and we bagged our fill of birds quickly. We were on the way to Longbourn when we saw you. Wickham, it has been several years. I see you are in the militia now.”
“As you see.”
“We will not detain you then. Jane, may we escort you and my sisters back to Longbourn now?”
“Of course, Robert.” Bingley was immediately off his horse, offering his arm to Jane. Darcy and Robert were left to attend to Mary and Elizabeth. Elizabeth had many questions, but that would need to wait until she was alone with her brother.
“I did not expect to see Darcy in Hertfordshire,” Wickham told Denny over a drink at the inn. “I did recall that Bennet lived in the neighbourhood, but seeing Bingley and Darcy was a surprise.”
“Mr. Bingley took residence in near by Netherfield in August and the Darcys are currently his guests,” said Denny. “Oh yes, and Mr. Bingley is courting Miss Bennet and the entire area is expecting an engagement before too long.”
“Miss Bennet is a beautiful woman. Bingley is a fortunate man.”
“You are obviously acquainted with the three gentlemen. Cambridge?”
“Yes, but I have known Darcy most of my life. We grew up together in Derbyshire, at his estate. My father was steward there until his death. Old Mr. Darcy was my godfather and loved me like a son. It was he who provided for my education and my commission.”
“But, the gentleman did not receive you with any warmth.”
“No, I am too poor to deserve any notice from them.”
“Poor devil, let me buy you another drink.”
“Thank you, Denny, you are a good man. Do you have any other news about the Netherfield party?”
“Only that Darcy and Miss Darcy appear on the most intimate of terms with Bennet and Miss Elizabeth?”
“Really, Georgiana Darcy? I had thought her heart was made of ice.”
“Oh she tries to disguise her regard, but whenever they are seen in public, she has a difficult time keeping her eyes off Bennet, who does the same as well.”
“And what of Darcy?”
“He certainly enjoys Miss Elizabeth’s company, but there appears to be little affection on his part, unless he disguises it well.”
Wickham could not help himself. “Disguise of any sort.”
“I was just recalling a long ago conversation. Never mind. You are a fount of information, Denny. I salute you!”
One Week Later, London
The butler announced Captain Wickham as he opened the doors to the drawing room. Wickham strode in confidently until he realized just who the sole inhabitant of that room was. A moment of distress was quickly replaced by a familiar charming smile.
“Milady! Forgive me, I was told your son was here and you were still in the country.”
“Viscount Drury was called away on business. He is with my husband at one of our estates. They shall return the day after tomorrow.”
“It is always a pleasure to be in your company, Lady Allenby.”
“You have been away from London.”
“I was transferred to a regiment stationed in Hertfordshire. You would be most interested to know who I chanced upon.”
“Darcy? Are his sisters there as well?”
“There is more you are not telling.”
“Actually, I found my meeting with Darcy, and the information I received in its aftermath, very interesting.”
“What do you know, Captain?”
“Georgiana has an admirer.”
“That is not surprising.”
“True, but that she appears to favour the gentleman, is.”
“Have you met him?”
“Oh yes. I knew him at Cambridge. His name is Robert Bennet.”
“Thank you for this news, Captain. I am very much obliged.” Wickham rose to take his bow, but Lady Allenby was not quite finished with him. “Come to me tonight, George.”
Wickham took Lady Allenby’s hand and kissed it. “As you wish, Lady Margaret.”
George Wickham was no fool. He played the part of devoted lover well and had been well rewarded for it; Lady Allenby discreetly, but lavishly, bestowed many gifts on him. He had dallied in Town as long as he could, but eventually joined Colonel Forster’s regiment and departed for Hertfordshire little knowing that it would set in motion momentous events.
He left the lady early in the morning under cloak of darkness, troubled by her parting instructions. It was time to repay her favour but what she had asked — no, demanded — of him was a difficult thing indeed.
Wickham returned the next day to Hertfordshire a man on a mission, and not for king or country. His task? To prevent Georgiana Darcy from an alliance with Robert Bennet. Thoughts of the previous night played in his mind.
“I care not how you do it, George,” Lady Allenby said as they lay together in her chambers. “Just see to it that she does not.”
“But how? The Bennets are a respectable family. Robert Bennet is himself a well-respected man.”
“Then find a way to bring shame onto him. And if you cannot ruin him, see to it that the family is humiliated. Dear Georgiana would drop him without a second thought.”
“I will try, but I will not risk my career, nor my life.”
“My dear boy. You know full well that I can break you if I choose. I shall tire of you soon enough. Do not accelerate the process, it will only bring your ruin.”
Wickham had entered the affair with his eyes wide open to its dangers, but for the first time he realized that he had underestimated his vulnerability. Appease Lady Allenby, or face ruination. It was not a difficult choice.
“So it begins.”
“Catherine, she is a beautiful child.”
“Thank you, Margaret. I am relieved to see her safely delivered. But I wanted a male heir.”
“Rosings is not entailed. Anne is the heir you, or rather, your husband needed.”
“True. But daughters are never of much use to their fathers.”
“Yes, but what does that signify? You have produced an heir, I should think that is all that matters.” Lady Allenby gave her friend a pointed look.
“As long as Sir Lewis does not insist on a spare, you are perfectly correct.”
The two women continued to talk about the private matters of their lives, sharing confidences that should not, in polite society, be shared.
Their friendship, while unremarkable within their social circle, had an unlikely beginning, but they had more in common than noble titles. Lady Catherine Fitzwilliam had once entertained hopes that a certain George Darcy, the handsome heir to the great estate of Pemberley, would find her as attractive as she found his wealth and social position. But once he began to court Lady Margaret ________, Lady Catherine set her cap on Sir Lewis de Bourgh, who, while significantly less dashing than George Darcy, offered the consolation of a title. Then — for reasons she was, to her everlasting annoyance, never able to ascertain — George had suddenly ceased his attentions to Lady Margaret. Her hopes rekindled, Lady Catherine had been shocked when George began to woo her own sister, Lady Anne; she had been most profoundly mortified when they married. From the disappointment of unrequited avarice was a friendship fashioned; Lady Catherine and Lady Margaret found comfort in their common loss of Mr. Darcy, and of Pemberley.
The two women took surprisingly well to each other. Each recognized in the other a determined desire for dominance; a mutual respect of sorts formed. They knew the other’s tendency towards insincerity, but each flattered herself that she could tell the difference.
“Catherine, I have the most delicious idea.”
Lady Catherine recognized the look of cunning on her ally’s face. She was most definitely up to something. “Yes, Margaret?”
“I believe we may be of service to each other, and to our children.”
“I am listening.”
“I believe your nephew is now two years old.”
“William Darcy? Yes.”
“It occurs to me that it would be the most natural thing in the world for your daughter Anne and your nephew William to unite Rosings and Pemberley.”
‘There, let Catherine think on that.’
Lady Catherine thought on that, and then carefully answered, “That would be best for my family. But how would this assist your son Henry?”
“I had thought your niece Georgiana would be a good match for him. She is the granddaughter of an earl.”
“If you ‘assist’ in a match between Henry and Georgiana, I will assist in a match between your daughter and William Darcy.”
Neither made any effort to hide rapacious smiles. “I think it is a marvellous idea!”
“I thought you might. Now, I have given Anne’s situation some thought, and this is what I think we should do…”
Lady Catherine was impressed.
“I do believe that if we succeed, one set of connections will lead to another?”
“Why, Catherine, that never crossed my mind!” Both women laughed, knowing full well that nothing was further from the truth.
Charles Bingley decided that it was time to end his courtship of Miss Jane Bennet; he was ready to propose! He wanted the world to know of his devotion to his dearest Jane. He wanted everyone to see her on his arm as his future wife. But how? When? And then it came to him — he would host a ball at Netherfield and announce his engagement. Perfect! The preparations would occupy Caroline for weeks, and was she not always complaining about the lack of entertainment in the country? He was exceedingly glad that she had left him to his own devices. After he announced his intended courtship, Caroline had made little effort to hide her disappointment. She had all but stopped calling on Longbourn, although she prided herself that she was well bred enough to receive the inhabitants of that estate at Netherfield, albeit with false sincerity.
“Caroline, I would like you to prepare for a ball here at Netherfield. We should show our appreciation for the warm welcome our neighbours have bestowed upon us.”
“Your mind is made up on the matter?”
“Very well. When shall this event take place?”
“I think the 19th of November is perfect.”
“But that is less than three weeks away!”
“Caroline, you are justly proud of your ability as a hostess. Cook assures me that three weeks is ample time to prepare. And no expense need be spared, within reason.”
“I see there is no use attempting to change your mind. How many guests should we expect?”
“All the appropriate people from the neighbourhood, including the officers, as well as my friends from town. Make a list and include anyone you wish. We can consult on it tomorrow.”
“Thank you for consulting my feelings on the matter.”
“But I have, Caroline. Consider this an opportunity to put yourself on display. You may not always be mistress of my homes.”
Even Caroline could understand the implied message. Her brother expected to take a wife, a wife who would take her place, and not as far in the future as she had hoped. Very well. Let the world witness her talents and charms. It was time to make Darcy jealous of all her other admirers.
With preparations for the ball underway, Bingley set his mind to finding an opportunity to declare himself to Jane. He decided to enlist Darcy to aid in his endeavour. The two would call on Longbourn and suggest a walk in the fine autumn weather, and Darcy would see to it that Bingley and Jane were accorded some privacy. He had no doubt that Miss Elizabeth could be recruited as an ally. If need be, Darcy would tell her that his friend desired a private moment with her sister.
The next day dawned bright and clear, and Bingley was eager to take matters in hand. Darcy persuaded Georgiana to remain at Netherfield, and the two men made for Longbourn as early as permissible for a morning call. Bingley’s plan proceeded apace; Darcy, Bingley, and the two eldest Miss Bennets were soon out walking along the paths surrounding Longbourn. Bingley and Jane walked ahead; when they came to a diverging path, Darcy gently led Elizabeth away from the other couple. Before she could protest, Darcy smiled, held his finger to his lips in a plea for silence, and motioned for her to allow the others to proceed without them. Finally, when a sufficient distance had been achieved, Darcy quietly spoke.
“Miss Elizabeth, Mr. Bingley wishes to speak to your sister privately.” Elizabeth understood the full import of his words. She allowed Darcy to lead her further away from her sister.
“My Darcy, you are a useful friend.”
Darcy bowed gallantly. “Thank you, Miss Elizabeth.”
“When shall we rejoin them?”
“Miss Elizabeth, I think that we should continue back towards the house. They will return when they are ready.”
“A very useful friend and a very negligent chaperone!”
“I suspect that Bingley, and perhaps your sister, will not mind in the least.”
At first, Jane did not notice that Elizabeth and Darcy were no longer walking behind. Jane and Bingley had wandered alone for some minutes before Jane halted their progress.
“I wonder where Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy have gone?”
“I daresay Miss Elizabeth knows her way around and will see to it that they return to Longbourn in good time.”
“They must have taken the alternate path. I wonder at her choice.”
“Darcy must have wanted to be of service.”
“I am sorry, I do not understand.”
Bingley turned to face Jane, taking her hands in his, and slowly dropped to one knee, his eyes fixed upon hers.
“Miss Bennet. Jane. Once before, when I came to you with a very important question, I told you that you entranced me from the first moment that I saw you, and that I feared my heart was in danger of becoming irrevocably yours. Jane, these weeks spent courting have proven my fears correct. You have completely captured my heart, to my unending joy. You are the most graceful and elegant woman I have ever known. Your character is above reproach. You are good, kind, and worthy of the highest praise. You grow more beautiful each time I see you. Your fragrance intoxicates me, and your very presence overpowers me with a longing to be ever by your side. You see before you a man who is without hope unless you consent to become my wife, for only you can complete me. My dearest, beloved Jane, I love you with every part of me; with every beat of my heart, with every breath that I take, I become more and more yours. Death would be preferable to a lifetime spent without you. You are my love and my life. Dearest Jane, will you marry me?”
Tears welled in Jane’s eyes as she gazed at the man before her. Her heart was so full and she was so overcome with emotion that words were impossible. She gently took his face in her hands and drew him to her, until her lips lightly brushed his. Slowly, as she pulled her head away, she smiled, a shy, beguiling smile.
“I love you, Charles. It is my greatest desire to be your wife. Yes, I will marry you.” This time it was Bingley who began the kiss, but Jane surprised them both by meeting him half way. He rose to his feet and pulled her into a tight embrace.
“My beloved,” he murmured as his lips traced a trail down her jaw to her neck and behind her ear. Jane revelled in the each new sensation; her joy overflowing as their passion increased. Bingley kissed her lips once again, then tucked her head against his chest.
“You cannot fathom my joy, beloved Jane. How can a man be so happy?”
She looked up at him and smiled. “I do understand, for I feel the same joy.” They became lost in each other’s eyes, neither wanting the moment to end.
At last they realized they needed to separate. “Do you wish to return to Longbourn now?”
“No, I am not ready to share you with anyone else. Let us walk, and then I will speak to your father.”
Bingley and Jane spent the next two hours wandering about the countryside, and spoke of many things: their love for each other and how they would be the happiest creatures on earth, disagreeing just a little as to who was the least deserving of the other before returning to mutual admiration. Finally they recalled that they should return to Longbourn. As the lovers approached, they saw Elizabeth and Darcy awaiting them, sitting on a bench just outside view from the house. Jane could not withhold her pleasure from her dearest Elizabeth and embraced her with affection.
“Oh Lizzy, we are to be married!”
“My dearest Jane, I am overjoyed with such marvellous news.” Stepping back she addressed the other half of the pair. “Mr. Bingley, may I offer you the good wishes and affections of a sister?”
“Thank you, Miss Elizabeth. I am exceedingly happy to be in a position to receive them.”
“Congratulations Bingley, Miss Bennet. I wish you every joy in your union. And Bingley, I never thought the day would arrive when you could manage a smile even larger than normal. But today I have, and with good reason. You are a very fortunate man.”
“That I am, Darcy.”
Darcy noted how both Jane and Bingley fairly glowed with happiness.
“If you will excuse me, I believe I need to speak with Mr. Bennet.”
“By all means, Mr. Bingley. We will await you here.”
Bingley was relieved when he was able to reach the sanctuary of Mr. Bennet’s study without encountering the lady of the house. He was not quite ready to face Mrs. Bennet. If Mr. Bennet was surprised by the appearance of his daughter’s suitor, he hid it well.
“Mr. Bingley, may I be of service?”
Taken aback, Bingley paused before beginning. ”No, sir, I mean yes, sir. I have a most serious matter I wish to discuss with you.”
“I am at your disposal.”
“Yes, well … Mr. Bennet, it was many weeks ago that I asked for your consent to court Miss Bennet.”
“I remember that conference with astonishing clarity.”
“As do I, sir, as do I. I have spent these many weeks since becoming better acquainted with your daughter, and I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing I want more than to marry her. I come before you now to ask your consent and blessing to do so, sir.”
“Have you, as with your last petition, sought my consent first?”
“No, sir, this time I spoke with Miss Bennet first.”
“Then I must conclude that she has given a favourable answer?”
With a satisfied expression Bingley answered, “Beyond all that I could hope or dream.”
Mr. Bennet eyed the gentleman, vaguely suspicious, before continuing. “If Jane will have you, and by the lovesick look on your face I know that she does, then you have my consent and my blessing. Welcome to the family, my boy, I will be proud to call you my son-in-law.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Another business venture!”
“Yes, and the object of inestimable value and worth.” Mr. Bennet smiled at Bingley’s adoration of Jane.
“I will ask my brother-in-law, Mr. Phillips, to prepare the documents pertaining to Jane’s dowry. You are aware that much of it is due to the business relationship I have had with your father and with you.”
“Yes, and I am also aware that no one in the area seems to know your true worth. I must say that has puzzled me. I would think it would severely hamper your daughters’ ability to find suitable husbands.”
“Perhaps, but Jane has secured you.” Both men laughed. “To own the truth, I have always been concerned about fortune hunters. I feared that if the local populace knew the full extend of the girls’ dowries, my daughters would become desirable to men whom I did not find desirable. Even my wife does not know the true size of my daughters’ dowries.”
“But surely she knew you were profiting from your business ventures? Mr. Gardiner lives comfortably.”
“True. I told Mrs. Bennet that the money I earned in trade was being kept in reserve for the future.”
“Both a wise course of action … and the truth.”
“I do not believe that economy will ever be an issue with Jane. She has too much good sense to exceed her income, though I may tease her about the opposite.” A twinkle in Mr. Bennet’s eye alerted Bingley to the sport his soon to be father-in-law intended. “But until you arrived and became so smitten with Jane, I intended to send Jane and Elizabeth with Robert to Town after the New Year. Jane may be older than most on their being introduced to the London society, but I had no fear of her failing to attract worthy gentlemen; she is far too beautiful and good to be unnoticed. Elizabeth likewise would not have suffered – I believe the extra time I have allowed her to further mature has been prudent; she now has an intelligent idea of what to look for in a prospective mate. I believe the kind of man who would please Lizzy would not wish for a stupid wife. She is now of age to show her true worth to a man of good sense. I have not told Robert, but I will send Elizabeth with him to London.”
“I am most grateful that I came to Hertfordshire before the men of Town had a chance to become acquainted with Miss Bennet. I flatter myself that I would still have been her choice, but I would not wish for more competition for her affections.” Mr. Bennet was pleased; such an honest confession revealed Bingley’s lack of conceit.
“Thank you, Mr. Bennet, I will send word to my solicitor to prepare a settlement draft. Perhaps this is as good a time as any to discuss it?”
“I am at your leisure, sir.”
The two gentlemen quickly came to a consensus and Bingley was shortly on his way to rejoin the party waiting for him outside.
“Your father has given his consent, my love,” Bingley said as he bowed over Jane’s hand.
“I am truly happy for you both.” Elizabeth extended her hand to Bingley and gave her sister an affectionate hug.
“Thank you, Lizzy. Would the three of you continue to wait in the garden? I would like to speak to Mama now.”
Elizabeth smiled knowingly at her sister. “Of course, Jane. Come and find us there when you are finished.”
Needless to say, Mrs. Bennet was overjoyed with her daughter’s announcement. She had watched Jane and Mr. Bingley for many weeks now and had been silently urging him to declare himself for more than a fortnight. Mrs. Bennet was deeply gratified. A daughter married! Mistress of Netherfield! What a triumph for the Bennets! Soon enough she would turn her attention to her two as yet unmarried daughters. But this was Jane’s time, and Mrs. Bennet was determined to enjoy it to the fullest.
Needless to say, Caroline Bingley was less than overjoyed with her brother’s announcement. She knew that he was honour-bound to offer himself once he began to formally court Jane; she had, nevertheless, held out hope that nothing would come of it. All too soon Netherfield would have a new Mistress, and as distasteful as that would be, it was nothing to the fact that all her efforts to become Pemberley’s new mistress appeared ineffective. Darcy hardly spoke a word to her unless politeness demanded it; mute admiration was all well and good, but it was time the man declared himself. Perhaps she had gone about it in the wrong way. Perhaps she needed to show him what he was in danger of losing. Yes, provoking jealously would be her latest tactic in the pursuit of Fitzwilliam Darcy. The most logical place to start was the upcoming ball. If Darcy saw how much she was admired by other men, if he were forced to watch her dance with others, then surely he would come to his senses. He would finally realize how desirable she was — and how much he desired her. She threw herself all the more into the preparations, pleased that Charles had given her what amounted to carte blanche for the evening.
The happy situation of the Longbourn family could not be long a secret. In the days after the engagement, Mrs. Bennet insisted that Jane make calls with her around the neighbourhood. The Bennets were speedily pronounced to be the luckiest family in the world. Miss Bingley’s congratulations were all that was affectionate and insincere; the Darcys’ were rather more heartfelt. It was a time of bliss and joy for the young lovers. Bingley was often at Longbourn and would have spent every waking minute of every single day with his betrothed, had typical English weather not interrupted his lovemaking. The roads were made impassable by two days of rain.
Once the skies and roads had cleared, Bingley hurried to see his angel. Robert and Darcy had left their moonstruck companion and ridden out without him. The ground was muddy, but not overly so. The two men sat astride their horses overlooking a rain-swollen stream running along the southern boundary of the Longbourn estate.
“Normally this is a quiet stream, but the rain has greatly increased its size and swiftness.”
“So I see. Tell me of your plans for the fields we just passed. Do you intend them to remain as pasture land?”
Both men turned to look back. “It is yet to be decided but…”
Robert stopped mid-sentence as he noticed a movement at the edge of his vision. Darcy’s horse, unexpectedly skittish, faltered in the wet, slippery footing. Suddenly, both horse and rider went sliding down the slope and into the water below. Robert, unconcerned for the safety of his friend — Darcy was an excellent swimmer if he was unable to stay in the saddle — began to laugh, knowing that his friend would curse this cold and unplanned soaking; but he had not seen the awkward way horse and rider fell, nor the branch that struck Darcy’s head. Then he saw the horse swim to the other side of the engorged stream without its rider. He scanned the water’s surface, and what he saw made him start in horror. Darcy was being swept away by the churning waters of the rain-bloated stream, and was making no effort to save himself.
Now realizing that his friend was in mortal peril, Robert turned his horse and raced downstream. Urging his horse into the water, Robert was able to take hold of Darcy. He then guided his horse ashore and laid his unconscious friend on the ground. Robert was frantic. He rolled Darcy on his stomach, stripped off his sodden cloak, and was about to wrap him in his own when Darcy began to cough up a fair amount of water. It was several minutes before Darcy could catch his breath, and, slowly, become aware of his situation.
“Bennet?” he coughed.
“Do not speak, my friend. Can you sit up?” Robert helped Darcy to do so.
“Bennet? What … what happened?”
“You must have struck your head on something when you hit the water. You were unconscious for more than a minute.”
“Darcy, you are shivering. We must get you out of those wet clothes and dried off as soon as possible. I am afraid we need to share my horse; yours ended up on the wrong side of the water. Here, put on my cloak.”
“You shall become chilled as well.”
“My friend, I will survive a short time without a cloak. You must stay as warm as possible until we get to Longbourn. Come now, I insist.”
Darcy had enough sense to accept without further protest. Within fifteen minutes, they were at Longbourn, where Darcy changed into dry clothes borrowed from Robert, then, comfortably seated by the library fire, he warmed himself with a glass of Mr. Bennet’s excellent brandy. He had said little during the journey and even less after they arrived. He knew that his friend had very likely saved his life, and he vowed to find a way, somehow, to repay the debt.
At last the night of the Netherfield ball arrived. Caroline had outdone herself; Bingley was pleased with all the arrangements and excited to be celebrating his engagement. He was eager to see Jane, and as each guest was announced, he glanced up in anticipation, wishing that it were the Bennet party, and when that family finally arrived, a buzz went through the gathering. Jane blushed in pleasure at the look of joy that overspread her Mr. Bingley’s face when he caught sight of her. Tonight was for her, for them. Netherfield shone unlike it had for a very long time, as if the house was proudly showing itself off to its mistress-to-be. Caroline graciously accepted as her due all the praises lavished upon her by the many guests; the ball was a success. As the musicians began the prelude for the first dance, Bingley strode confidently to Jane to claim her hand; they would open the ball. Darcy did his duty to his friend and claimed the first with Caroline. Caroline, for her part, was cognizant of Darcy’s adherence to proprieties, but was still very pleased to be opening the ball with him for the rest to see.
Robert had leapt at the opportunity to dance the first with Georgiana. He approached his partner, nervous but elated, his admiration overflowing.
“Miss Darcy, your beauty outshines all others this evening.”
“Even your sisters, Mr. Bennet?”
“They are my sisters, they do not count.”
“Ah, I see. I thank you, sir.”
“I have been anticipating this dance all day.”
“I hope that I shall not disappoint you.”
“I doubt very much that you could ever disappoint me, Miss Darcy.” Robert realized he had said too much, he had shown too much of what was in his heart. They lapsed into an awkward silence, but he could not keep the look of deep admiration from his face. Each touch of the hand affected them both. A brush of the shoulder brought new blushes. Robert was filled with hope. Could she care for him?
Georgiana Darcy knew she was in love. She had stopped denying it for some time now. The thought made her smile, and then blush in wonder. Robert Bennet was charming, intelligent, handsome, and attentive; he treated her with admiration and respect. His character was everything a woman could hope for in a husband. But his low connections! His lack of fortune! She did not believe he was attentive because she had what he lacked — social position and wealth. No, she would not think so poorly of him; she knew that he genuinely cared for her. Yet despite Robert Bennet’s many qualities, he was unsuitable. She knew her duty to her family, her duty to marry an equal, and that duty did not allow fantasy; her judgement and good sense would not be overruled, no matter the wishes of her heart.
Georgiana broke the silence. “Your sister and Mr. Bingley look well pleased with each other.”
“Yes, they are both all smiles these days.”
“They seem well matched.”
“I have never seen two people more so. They are the most amiable people I know. They will get on very well together.”
“It is a most advantageous match for her.”
The implication was clear; Robert was not at all sure that he liked it, or what it might say of Georgiana’s character. The magic of the dance seemed suddenly lost.
“It is advantageous for both, Miss Darcy. They each bring something of value into the match, most importantly an abundance of affection and respect for the other.”
“Yes, but I was given to understand that your sister has a small dowry. She is fortunate in having secured a man who may marry where he chooses and does not suffer a want of money. We both know how difficult it can be for a woman of little dowry to make a good match.”
“Miss Darcy, I assure you that if any of my sisters do not marry, she will be well provided for. They are determined to marry only for love, and are able to do so.”
“I am certain that you would take prodigiously good care of your sisters, but Longbourn is not a large estate. You have your own future family to consider.”
“My sisters, and my mother, are my family. They are well provided for, I assure you.”
Once again they lapsed into silence, this more strained than the last. Robert was troubled by Georgiana’s words. Could she possibly be that proud? Did she truly judge a person’s worth, his suitability as a marriage partner, only by the size of his fortune? What must she think of him, then? He was shaken from his thoughts by his partner.
“You are most pensive, Mr. Bennet.”
“Please forgive me, my mind wandered.”
“Evidently. What is your impression of the ball?”
“Miss Bingley has outdone herself. It is a wonderful evening.”
They retreated into the safety of polite discourse, neither daring to speak of anything of consequence lest unpleasant sensations return.
The first set completed, Robert and Darcy changed partners. Robert did his duty to his friend and host, claiming Miss Bingley for the next.
“Miss Bingley, allow me to compliment your excellent arrangements. Netherfield is enchanting tonight.”
“I thank you, Mr. Bennet. Charles was insistent that Netherfield be shown in its full glory.”
“You have succeeded. I have never seen it look better, though I have heard stories of grand parties in days gone by. You are to be commended for restoring it to the place of pre-eminence it deserves.”
‘And just in time for your sister to take over as its mistress,’ Caroline thought, but to her partner said only, “Again, I thank you.”
Further up the line of the dance, Darcy was enjoying teasing his sister. “Miss Darcy, you look remarkably well this evening.”
“Thank you, William. Or should I say, ‘Mr. Darcy’?”
“Whichever you wish, Madam. I hope, Georgiana, that you will allow yourself to enjoy the evening. You will dance more?”
“I have promised the next to Mr. Bingley. Beyond that, I am not engaged.”
“You would have more partners if you at least made an effort to be more agreeable.”
“Am I not agreeable?”
“You are to your acquaintances, but your manner can frighten off those who do not know you.”
“If a man is put off by my manners, he is not worthy of my notice.”
“Georgiana, I relent. But do try and enjoy yourself this evening.”
“As you wish, Brother. For you, tonight I will try to be agreeable to everyone.”
Elizabeth was not long in want of a partner. She was a favourite of many in Hertfordshire, particularly for her lively conversations, and her dance card was soon full. When not dancing, she stood with Mary, hoping to encourage the gentlemen to ask her sister to dance as well. Mary, not long out, was somewhat intimidated; this was the largest and grandest ball she had attended.
When Captain Wickham came to claim her for their set, Elizabeth noticed the cool looks he received from her brother. This intrigued her; Robert had never told her why he disapproved of the captain. A little unsettled by it all, she was nevertheless determined to enjoy her dance. Robert did not like him, but she could take pleasure in his charming manners for the course of one dance set.
“Captain, you dance uncommonly well.”
“Thank you, I was preparing to say the same of you.”
“I thank you as well. How do you find Hertfordshire?”
“It is a pleasant place, very different from Town.”
“You will find that Meryton and London have nothing in common.”
“Nay! There is one very important similarity.”
“And that is?”
“Both are full of beautiful women.”
“Those are very pretty words, sir.”
“I speak nothing but the truth, madam.”
Elizabeth smiled at his gallantry and enjoyed the rest of their dance. Wickham, on the other hand, was attracted to his partner, and began to regret what he must do.
Several times during the evening, Elizabeth had noticed the youngest Darcy peering around the doors. This time, when she spied her, she excused herself and walked over to the girl.
“Miss Elizabeth Darcy, I see that you did not succeed in your petitions and moreover you are banned from this evening’s event.”
“I am not allowed inside, but they did say I could observe from afar, until it is time for me to retire for the evening.”
Elizabeth moved into the hallway. “Tell me your impressions.”
“The ladies all look so elegant, and the gentlemen are all very handsome.”
Elizabeth laughed. “Yes, we are all turned out in our best finery. Fortunately, we do not have to do so every night. I spent much too much time on my toilette, I am afraid.”
Beth giggled. “Miss Elizabeth, you are beautiful. And I am certain you spent much less time than Miss Bingley. She spent HOURS on hers.”
“It will not be long before you are out and enjoying a night like this. You must be diligent in all of your studies. An accomplished woman is highly regarded, especially when she is as well dowered as you undoubtedly are.”
Young Beth blushed. “I do my best. It is just that I would rather be doing something else.”
“Self discipline is very important to learn. Your lessons will end soon enough. Patience my young friend.”
“Georgiana says the same thing.”
“Your sister is wise. Now then, as recompense for missing the ball tonight, shall I call on you tomorrow? We can take a long walk, if you like.”
“Yes, please do! I promise to be finished with my lessons!”
“I believe you will! Very well, as long as the weather does not prevent me, I will call on you tomorrow afternoon. Your brother and sister will just have to do without you for a few hours.”
“Thank you, Miss Elizabeth! But you should return to the ball now. I believe a new set is about to begin and I do not wish to deprive a gentleman of your company.”
Elizabeth laughed, “Actually, I believe I owe your brother this dance. I shall return lest he come and find me with you. Goodnight, Miss Elizabeth!”
“Goodnight to you, Miss Elizabeth.”
“Now that the two Miss Elizabeths have said goodnight, I believe this is our dance, Miss Elizabeth Bennet,” said Darcy as he came upon them.
“I was telling Miss Elizabeth that she needed to return the ball.”
“Thank you, Beth. And now I believe it is time for you to return to your chambers and prepare for bed.”
“Yes, William. Goodnight.”
Darcy led Elizabeth back into the ballroom as the next set began.
“Thank you for taking the time to speak with Beth. She was very disappointed to be denied the pleasures of the ball tonight.”
“I gathered as much. But there is no need to thank me, Beth is a sweet girl and I like her very much. In many ways she reminds me of myself at that age.”
“Though I doubt very much you needed encouragement to be diligent in your studies.”
“This is true.”
“But then I take it that you enjoyed the same kind of unladylike pursuits that she does.”
“Why, Mr. Darcy, whatever could you mean?”
Smiling at her impertinence, he replied, “I believe that you and my sister share a fascination with pirates?”
“How could I not be? Hertfordshire is home to many notorious pirates, Mr. Darcy.”
They continued with the same light and teasing conversation until, their dance concluded, Darcy brought Elizabeth back to her family party. He realized that he had never before enjoyed a dance as much as the one he had just finished. He smiled to himself. ‘Then again, I have never before danced with a friend. What a pleasant change.’
At the end of the meal, Mr. Bennet stood to address the assembly.
“I wish to begin by commending our hosts on a splendid evening. The music is superb, the food bountiful, and the wine flowing. I stand here before you because tonight we celebrate the betrothal of my eldest daughter, Jane, to our host, Mr. Charles Bingley — although I doubt any of you were in ignorance of that fact by now.”
There was cheerful laughter and applause as friends and neighbours moved to offer congratulations and best wishes to the couple and their families. Soon enough, the music recommenced and the dancing resumed.
Too soon for some, not soon enough for others, the final dance was announced and the ball came to an end. The company were effusive in their praise; the carriages came, collected them, and returned them to their own dwellings. To Bingley’s satisfaction, the Bennets were the last to leave, and he took advantage of the situation to have a private word with Jane.
“Next time, my love,” Bingley place a kiss on her hand, “you will be the one who presides over the ball.” Jane smiled at the thought.
“I had a wonderful time this evening.”
“As did I, Jane. I will call on you tomorrow.”
“In the afternoon.”
“Yes, of course. Now, go home and dream of the next dance we share here at Netherfield, for it will be as man and wife.” Jane nodded, and blushed most prettily. It had been a glorious evening.
Caroline Bingley was most seriously displeased. She had prepared meticulously for the ball: she had taken particular care with her toilette, she had worn a new gown of the latest fashion, she had adorned herself with her most opulent jewellery; she had done everything in her power to be alluring. Yet none of it made any impression on the one man she had intended to dazzle.
Darcy had made polite comments about her appearance, but otherwise seemed little affected. She had danced with the most eligible men in attendance, hoping to secure a second dance with him, but he showed no inclination to ask. He praised her most excellent arrangements for the evening, but betrayed no hint of particular admiration. Would the man never acknowledge his feelings?
As Jane prepared for bed, the expected knock came. “Come in, Lizzy.”
“Oh, Jane. What a marvellous evening.”
“That it was, Lizzy.”
“You were most pleased with your dancing partner to open the ball.”
“If I were not, you would have thought me insane.”
“True.” They both laughed. “I do believe you were more beautiful this evening than I have ever seen you. You glowed all evening. If this is what it means to be in love, I have much to wish for.”
“Mr. Bingley is an excellent man, Lizzy, the most amiable of my acquaintance.”
“Handsome too, as every bridegroom ought to be.”
“If only there were such a man for you.”
“I am not one and twenty, Jane, there is still hope for me. But you must take me with you to London, for I do not believe such a man exists in Hertfordshire now that you have secured the affections of your excellent Mr. Bingley.”
The entire family slept in much later than usual the next morning. During breakfast, Elizabeth told the family of her intention to call on Beth Darcy. Jane declined an offer to accompany her, saying that Bingley planned to call at Longbourn that afternoon. Robert quickly offered to escort his sister to Netherfield; in truth, he hoped to see Miss Darcy.
Beth was pleased when Elizabeth and Robert arrived. She happily told Elizabeth that she had finished her lessons and that Mrs. Annesley had excused her for the day.
“Where would you like to go today, Miss Beth?”
Beth whispered to her friend, “I should dearly like to see the place you told me of, where the pirates encamped.”
“That is a very secret place. I will be happy to show you, but you must swear an oath on your honour never to reveal its location.” Beth solemnly put her hand on her heart and promised never to tell. “Very well. I shall inform my brother where we are going, and then we will be off. Do not look worried, it is he who first showed it to me.”
As the two left for their walk, Robert turned to Miss Darcy. “Perhaps some air and sunshine will do us good as well. Would you take a turn in the gardens with me, Miss Darcy?”
“I would be delighted. Let me get my things, I shall return shortly.”
Miss Bingley came into the room whilst Robert waited for Georgiana.
“Mr. Bennet, I knew your sister was to call, but I did not expect you, sir.”
“I am here as Elizabeth’s escort. Miss Darcy and I were about to take a turn in the garden. Will you join us?”
“As delightful as that sounds, I must decline. There is still much to be done after last evening. Another time, perhaps.”
Robert was not convinced; he remembered that Darcy planned to spend the day in the study with his papers, and he guessed that Miss Bingley was in hopes of a private tête-à-tête. It would suit her to have Robert and Georgiana outside and out of the way.
They walked through the gardens, speaking of trivial things, yet Robert was very aware of the woman beside him. He had been drawn to her since their first meeting. His heart filled with a love he could barely contain, and the realization that he could no longer deny it brought him to a halt.
“Shall we sit?” He pointed to a nearby bench. His senses were heightened: he could hear her breathing; he saw the wind playing with a curl of hair that had escaped her bonnet; he smelled the hint of roses in her fragrance; he felt her pulse where her arm touched his. He was consumed by her presence and knew he always would be; his heart was hers, forever.
They sat beside each other. Robert reflected on the pleasure she seemed to take from his company, how she would smile at him. His memory of their dance suddenly burned into his consciousness: their touches, their blushes. What had gone wrong later in their dance? He remembered not. All he knew was her, there, at this moment. Any doubts created by her words of the night before suddenly became insignificant, forgotten, now that he was once again in her presence. Her essence filled him until he could no longer repress the deepest desire of his heart. He would not let this chance pass him by.
Robert turned to face Georgiana, taking her hand in his. He took in a deep breath of the crisp autumn air, then, with a tenderness Georgiana had never before seen on his face, he began.
“Miss Darcy, in vain I have struggled, it will not do. My feelings can no longer be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you. We have known each other but a short time, yet almost from the first moment I saw you, I have been enchanted.”
Georgiana was astonished; she could not look at him, she could not speak. Robert considered her silence sufficient encouragement, and the avowal of all that he felt and had long felt for her immediately followed.
There was within her a good will that could not be denied: it was gratitude, gratitude for loving her; for to love, ardent love, must the warmth of his looks and expression be attributed. Yet she was in agony, caught between her joy at a declaration from the one man in the world that she loved, and the hideous pain of knowing that she could not marry him. Robert, unaware of the storm raging within her, continued.
“Miss Darcy, Georgiana, I know I am a younger man, and do not possess an estate as great as Pemberley. But I sense in you a kindred spirit, a soul linked to mine. I believe neither of us could be happy without the other. Georgiana, will you make me the happiest of men and consent to be my wife?”
There! He had said the words. He waited patiently for her answer; but then, a little disconcerted by the variety of emotions playing across her face, he was suddenly anxious and unsure.
Georgiana struggled against the desires of her heart, struggled against the desolation she knew full well her answer would bring, struggled to regain her composure. She looked at him, and her resolved momentarily crumbled. But as her eyes moved from his, she happened to glance at the small ring on her finger, the signet ring with the Darcy crest that she always wore. She remembered who she was — and at last she was ready to speak.
“In such cases as this, it is the established mode for the woman to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, but I cannot. I have never purposely sought your attentions. I am sorry to give you pain, but it was unconsciously done and I hope it will be of short duration.” She dropped her eyes again, no longer able to look at him.
Robert stared at her in disbelief as he struggled for the appearance of composure. “Is this all the reply I am to expect? May ask why I am rejected?” Disappointment etched on his countenance; his voice dropped to a whisper. “I was under the impression that you enjoyed my company.”
“Rob… Mr. Bennet. The Darcy name carries with it both duty and obligation. I am descended from a noble line on my maternal side, and an honourable and ancient line on my father’s. I will marry well, or I will not marry at all. I cannot forget what I owe to myself and to all my family.” In agitation she bit her lower lip. ‘Oh Robert, can you not see how this is rending my soul!’ She did love him. She longed to say ‘yes!’
“I am a gentleman, the son of a gentleman, as was your own father!”
“But what of your mother, your uncle in trade? You have no useful connections. I cannot marry so far beneath me for William and Beth’s sake!”
“But what of your heart? I know it has been touched. I have seen the way you look at me, the longing in your eyes is present even now. Longbourn may not yet be mine to posses, but as husband and wife we would have such sources of happiness that you would have no cause to repine!”
“I cannot accept you; honour, decorum, prudence, nay, interest, forbid it. Yes, interest, for we would not be noticed by my family or by society if I wilfully act against the dictates and interests of all. We will be censured, slighted, and despised by everyone. Our alliance would be a disgrace; your name would never even be mentioned by any of them.”
Her brutal words made him flinch, but he grew resentful of her pride. He began to pace, until, exasperated, he spun to face her. “And this is your opinion? This is what you think of me, of my prospects and circumstances? That I would bring censure and disgrace on you and your family?” He paused to collect himself, but he could not prevent the next words from escaping his lips. “You have insulted me and my family in every possible way. I see now that I will never be good enough for you. Your family should arrange a marriage to a Peer. Then you would fulfil your duty.” He spat the words out bitterly and began pacing once again.
Angry at his mocking tone, she retorted, “How DARE you suggest that I would accept a marriage of convenience without regard for my heart! I could have been Lady Drury if I had so chosen, but I did not.”
After a few moments’ pause she quietly added, “Just as I now choose to forsake my heart.” There was a wistful resignation in her voice, much different from the beginning of her speech.
Robert was incredulous. “Georgiana, you admit that you love me, yet you will not accept me?” He studied the woman before him. His face fell; he knew. “You have said enough. I perfectly comprehend your feelings. Forgive me for failing to fully understand them earlier. Please accept my wishes for your good health and my hope that someday you will find happiness.” He bowed over her hand, bestowed a kiss on her fingers, turned, and left, pausing only momentarily when he heard Georgiana’s sobs before fleeing broken-hearted, nearly in tears himself.
“William, I know we planned to stay a fortnight more, but I would like to go to Town sooner. I have many preparations to make for Christmas, things I need to buy in London. I do not believe the few days you have planned for us there before we depart for Pemberley will be sufficient.”
Darcy eyed his sister carefully, she had been out of spirits for several days now. Though at loss for an explanation, he believed it somehow had to do with Robert Bennet, whom Georgiana seemed to be avoiding of late. Something must have occurred between them, but he knew not what.
“If you believe more time in London is necessary, then you should go. When would you like to leave?”
“If I went to Town on Wednesday, I should be able to finish my preparations by the time you intend to leave for Pemberley.” She wanted to leave Netherfield on the morrow, but Georgiana knew that Darcy would question her motives if she made such a request.
“Very well, I will make the arrangements for your journey. You will have several days to make the appropriate farewells in the neighbourhood. Do you want Beth and Mrs. Annesley to travel with you, or do you wish them to remain with me?”
“I think it best if they remain here. Beth would be disappointed to leave early.”
“I believe you are correct. It shall be as you wish.”
“Thank you, William. I will write to Richard myself to tell him that I will be in Town sooner than anticipated.”
Deciding to chance her disapprobation, Darcy gently asked, “Georgiana, what weighs so heavily on your heart?”
“Not now, William. I… I will tell you when I am ready. Do not ask me again.”
Darcy knew that his sister had just given him an order, by virtue of the one privilege she had been granted; for by order of their births, she would always be the first-born.