BOOTBF Prologue – Chapter 1

Prologue

“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die;” Ecclesiastes 3:1-2a KJV

Derbyshire, 1799

George Darcy led his family, all that was now left of it, to their pew in the Pemberley Chapel for Sunday services. His expression was grim, his mind numb, still unable to grasp the fact that his Anne, his beloved Anne, was gone. Could it possibly be three days now? Three days since his world had turned upside down? His mind drifted back, yet again, to that cursed day….

*****

“Mr. Darcy, sir. Lady Anne is ready to receive you now.”

George Darcy hurried into his wife’s chambers to re-assure himself that all was well. Lady Anne beamed as her husband came into view. He could just see the top of the head of the child his wife now held in her arms. His fears were only briefly allayed; Lady Anne looked so very tired. But then he saw her smile and he allowed himself to believe that all would be well.

“Mr. Darcy, come meet your new daughter!”

He moved to her bedside to seat himself upon the bed and took the proffered child into his arms.

“We argued about boys names for naught, my dear.”

“Thank goodness for that. After you insisted we name our son ‘Fitzwilliam’, I was determined that if this were another boy he would not be burdened with such a pretentious name as was his older brother.”

Mr. Darcy smiled down on his wife. “Yes dear, but we still have not come to an agreement on a name. I think she should be named after you. For indeed she is as perfect as you are, my love.”

“George, no daughter of mine will be burdened with the name of Anne. Especially since she already has a cousin by that name.”

“It was good enough for your sister!”

“You are avoiding the subject. It would inconsiderate, George. After hearing her mother being called ‘Lady Anne’, it would seem a degradation to be only ‘Anne’.”

“But she would carry the most beautiful of names for the most beautiful of women!”

“I will relent, husband, to give her Anne as a middle name. But I absolutely refuse to allow it as her Christian name.”

Mr. Darcy signed, once again unable to refuse his wife. “It shall be as you wish, wife and mother of my children. But it leaves us no closer to her name.”

“Elizabeth.”

“Elizabeth?”

“I like Elizabeth Anne Darcy, George.”

He frowned. He had secretly hoped to name his daughter after his mother, Olivia Darcy. Olivia Anne Darcy was more than acceptable to him.

“Can I not convince you to name her after my mother?”

“George, we have been through this many times. In short, no! She wished you to marry another. I was merely the daughter of an earl, Lady Margaret was the daughter of a marquis.”

“You will never forgive her.”

“She never failed to remind me, George.” Lady Anne answered quietly.

“Very well, she will not be Olivia. But we are still no closer to a name.”

“Do you not like Elizabeth, George?”

“I…” George Darcy stopped when he saw the look of instant pain on his wife’s face.

“Mrs. Hunt! Mrs. Hunt! Summon the doctor at once!” he bellowed. Turning his attention back to his wife he noticed how white she now appeared.

“George,” she whispered through her pain. “I am sorry. I thought we were safe.” With those words, she lapsed into an unconsciousness from which she would never again awake.

*****

The next day Mr. Darcy summoned his eldest child to his study.

“Georgiana, I cannot think of any other way to say this, but…”

“I know, father. I will not be travelling to Town for new clothes.”

“Yes.”

“And I will not be presented as planned.”

“Not at the time we had agreed upon. It distresses me to say so.”

“Do not be so, Father. Please, we can revisit this later. Now is not the time to think of such things.”

“But your heart was so set…”

“My family needs me now. Here. At Pemberley. You need me here, William needs me here, and the baby needs me here. I am content, Father.”

George Darcy looked at his first born, amazed at the maturity he saw. He knew not how they had managed to raise such a worthy young woman. She was a credit to the Darcy name.

“I will not ask you to become mistress of this house, Georgiana. You will need to serve as hostess as the need arises once we come out of full mourning, but I do not wish to burden you beyond what you are able.”

Georgiana smiled at her dear father. “If Mama were still with us, I would very soon be facing the prospect of fulfilling such a role in a home of my own. Please, Father, do not trouble yourself. I am no longer a child. I will do my duty, and I will do so here, with my family. I do not look to leave you too soon, Father. My season will come. But now is the season to mourn…. Together…. Supporting each other.”

His eyes filled with unshed tears, George Darcy looked on his daughter. “So be it.” And then, in a barely audible voice added, “I am proud of you. Your mother would be so proud of you.”

Georgiana moved to sit once again on her father’s lap, as she had last done as a young girl. “It is my deepest desire that she would be, Papa.”

~~~>~<~~~

The Darcys took their places in the pew. Elizabeth Anne Darcy, lay resting in her sister’s loving embrace as Georgiana took her place next to her father and her brother. George Darcy’s last gift to his wife was to name their second daughter according to her wishes.

As the service continued, Georgiana’s thoughts drifted back to her seventeenth birthday, barely a month past.

*****

“Georgiana, how do you like your new piano-forte?”

“Oh Father! It is magnificent!”

“We are pleased to see you so well satisfied with your gift, Georgiana” Lady Anne replied. “But as much as we knew that it would give you pleasure, we also felt it necessary for the time ahead. It would not do for Miss Darcy of Pemberley to play an inferior instrument when the gentlemen begin to call after you are presented!”

“Indeed,” her father added. “I would not see any daughter of mine so disgraced!”

“Thank you, Papa, and you, Mama. There is no greater gift you could bestow upon me today.”

“Now then, your father has agreed that once this child is safely delivered and the doctor has given me leave, we shall travel back to London to begin shopping for your wardrobe for the coming season. You are in need of a great many things dear. Your obligations will soon change very significantly and you will accordingly need more extensive attire than you now possess.”

“I shall look forward to it, Mama.” ‘As well as time away from my pesky little brother!’

*****

Her thoughts now back on the service, Georgiana mused, ‘My obligations have certainly changed, as well as my wardrobe. Though I am certain this was not what Mama meant when she said those words. How truly prophetic they were.’

Young Fitzwilliam Darcy, heir to Pemberley sat next to his father, desperately trying not to allow his emotions to show. Just ten years old, he wished be a man like his father. It would not be proper to show weakness now! Much was expected of him and he was determined to become a man that would make his father, and his beloved mother, proud.

Seven Years Later

Fitzwilliam Darcy led his family, all that was now left of it, to their pew in the Pemberley Chapel for Sunday services. His expression was grim, his mind numb, still unable to grasp the fact that their father, their beloved father was gone.

George Darcy had been a picture of health just one week earlier. Father and son had been riding around the estate when the unthinkable had happened. Somehow the elder Darcy’s horse had been spooked and there had been no time for the rider to properly react. In horror, the son had watched as his father was thrown from his mount, and heard the sickening thud as the elder Darcy landed awkwardly. William’s first instinct, to retrieve the now rider-less horse, was rapidly overcome by the need to attend to his father. That his father was still breathing was but momentary relief quickly turned to deep concern when William saw blood trickling down from a cut on his father’s forehead and he was unable to revive the older man. Reluctant to leave, yet unable to help, William fought a growing panic and took off at a gallop to fetch aid.

George Darcy was carefully brought back to Pemberley and placed in his bedroom whilst the doctor was sent for. After examining his patient, Mr. Johnston joined a concerned Georgiana and William in the yellow sitting room.

“I am afraid we can do nothing now but wait. Your father took a very bad fall and has seriously injured his head. I advise that he not be left alone. If a fever should arise, send for me at once. I wish to God that there were more that I could tell you, but I cannot. Science has not yet progressed to the point of treating these kinds of injuries. Prayer is your best option now. I am sorry Miss Darcy, Master William. I feel as though I have failed you yet again.”

“Do not blame yourself, Mr. Johnston. We both know there was nothing you could do to save my mother. Let us pray that the same is not true of my father,“ Georgiana replied gently.

“Please send for me if there is any change. I must go now. Miss Darcy, Master William.” Mr. Johnston bowed before turning to leave.

When they were alone, Georgiana was the first to speak. “I am very afraid, William. Do you know what is three days hence?”

“Yes, t’will be seven years since Mama died.”

“And Beth’s birthday. I now dread the next three days. But at least Henry returns tomorrow.”

William did not let his sister see the disgust threatening to spill onto his countenance. Henry Andrews, Viscount Drury, heir to the Earldom of Allenby, may be his sister’s fiancé, but that did not mean that he trusted the man. Oh yes, his father liked him, but then his father was fond of George Wickham and William knew the relative worthlessness of that man’s character. George Wickham may have presented the image of an engaging young man of pleasing manners but William, so nearly his age, could not fail to observe Wickham in unguarded moments that he was so careful to conceal from William’s father. ‘I will be here for you, Georgiana. Even if your Henry comes, too,’ William said through his eyes.

Acknowledging the unspoken pledge, Georgiana continued. “I know I shall always have your support William. You are growing into a man of which Mama would be proud. Beth and I could not have a more caring brother.” She paused again. “I will go and speak to Beth now. She will be very upset and want to see Father.”

“Yes, I will take her to him.”

“We will both take her, William. I will find her and then we all will go to Papa.”

Georgiana found her sister in the nursery. So far the staff had been successful in concealing the situation.

“Beth, I have need to speak to you. Come, sit with me.”

Elizabeth Anne Darcy was the image of her mother, in more ways than one. The Earl of Matlock had often commented that it was like seeing Lady Anne as a child once again and he never failed to tell stories of his sister’s seemingly endless stream of misadventures. And now Beth was following in her mother’s footsteps. So much so that Georgiana was somewhat amazed to find Beth in the nursery and not playing in the stables or some other unsuitable environment.

Georgiana hesitated, not knowing how to begin. “Beth, when Papa and William were out riding today Papa was thrown from his horse.”

“Was he hurt?”

“Yes, Beth. He has not awakened since the fall.”

“I must see him. Please, Georgiana! Let me see him!”

“Of course. I will take you to him now. Let us find William and go and see Father.”

The three siblings entered their father’s room. Beth rushed ahead to the bedside and took her father’s hand in hers. William and Georgiana came up to her, each laying a hand on her shoulder in support. They both knew this would be hardest on Beth. She and her father were very close; George Darcy had determined to make up for the loss of her other parent.

“Papa, are you feeling better?” Beth became frightened when he did not respond.

“Beth, dearest. Papa is in a very deep sleep now. Let us let him rest so he can get better.”

“May I stay with Papa?” Beth asked.

“You may stay as long as William or I are with you. Go with William now and you can visit again later.”

Beth leaned over her father and kissed the gash on his forehead. “That will help it heal sooner, Papa. I will come and see you later,” she whispered so as not to disturb his sleep.

The two oldest had decided to take turns holding the vigil over their father until he awoke. “Go now, William, I will stay. You need to send an express to Matlock and our uncle.”

“Yes, of course you are correct. I will see to it at once and come back in an hour. Send me word if you need me sooner.”

“Thank you. I will, William.” Darcy kissed his elder sister on the cheek, took the other by the hand, and strode out of the room.

Early the next morning the Earl and Countess of Matlock arrived, both looking very concerned. “Thank you for coming Uncle, Aunt.” Georgiana greeted them both with an uncharacteristic embrace.

“Has your father awakened yet?” Lord Matlock asked.

“No, there has been no change.”

“Has the doctor returned?”

“Yes, but he says we can only wait and see. Viscount Drury will arrive this afternoon. I do not know what to say to him if…”

“There now, Niece, do not think such thoughts. Your father will surely recover.”

“You do know what is two days hence?”

Lady Matlock responded, “Yes, Beth’s seventh birthday.”

“And seven years since my mother left us. I approach that day with dread.”

“Take us to your father now, Georgiana. Your uncle and I are most anxious to see him.”

Georgiana led them to her father’s room. Darcy rose to greet them. “Thank you for coming.”

“You and Georgiana should get some rest, William. Your aunt and I shall stay with him for now.”

“Very well, Uncle. But please send word immediately if there should be any change.”

The Earl and his wife waited until they were alone to speak.

“Georgiana was right, Hugh. I am very uneasy. George has never recovered from Anne’s death and I wonder if he has the will left to fight this.”

The Earl measured his words before he replied. “Helen, does Georgiana understand how hard it has been on her father?”

“Yes.”

Once again Lord Matlock thought long and hard before answering. “I am afraid I must agree with you and our niece. We must prepare ourselves for what may lie ahead. I will send an express to Richard, asking him to come here at once. Are we still agreed on this?”

“Yes, he is the best one for this.”

“Then I will leave you with George. Talk to him, Helen. Tell him not to give up.”

Viscount Drury, arrived late that afternoon. With no knowledge of the events consuming the Darcy household, he was annoyed at the lack of welcome he received from the staff. He set about looking for his fiancée, and found her in the music room entertaining her sister.

“Georgiana, Miss Beth. What a pleasant surprise to see you together. I thought you had your lessons at this time of the day, Miss Beth.”

He was astonished when the younger occupant ran crying from the room. Georgiana rose to follow her. As she moved to pass him he suddenly reached out and grabbed her by the arm.

“What is the meaning of this, Georgiana?”

“Let go of my arm, you are hurting me. I need to see to Beth!”

“Will you please tell me what is going on?”

“Papa was injured yesterday and has not awakened yet. Please, Henry, let me see to Beth!” Still he would not let her go. “Henry, I need to attend my sister!” Georgiana was almost shouting now.

Finally, he came to his senses and released her. “I am sorry, dear. See to your sister and return to me when you are finished.”

Rubbing her arm where he had been restraining her, Georgiana replied, “Mrs. Reynolds will see to you shortly, Henry. We will discuss this later.”

Fortunately, an alert servant had followed the young girl and was able to inform her mistress where the child had gone saving Georgiana a considerable amount of grief and sparing her fiancé of her further wrath.

All but Lady Matlock convened at dinner that evening. Beth would normally have eaten earlier in the nursery, but considering the circumstances, her family felt it wise to include her in the comfort of the family party. Lord Matlock had another motive: It would keep the talk of Mr. Darcy’s condition to a minimum. So, with a false air of ease, the party turned its conversation to the birthday preparations for the youngest Darcy.

“There now, Miss Elizabeth, what does my favourite niece desire for her birthday this year?”

“I should like a new doll and a pony of my own. Papa says I am nearly ready to learn to ride.”

“Those are two impressive requests Miss Elizabeth. Have you been a good enough girl to warrant such gifts?”

“Oh yes, Uncle. I have done all of my studies and my governess, Miss Ross, is very pleased with my progress. I can add all my numbers up to ten now!”

“Very impressive, Miss Elizabeth. Tell me, how is your reading?”

“I am finished with all of the childish picture books in the nursery. Papa has promised me more books with fewer pictures and more words.”

“Excellent! Tell me now, have you climbed any more trees?”

Unable to resist her uncle’s charm, Beth replied, “Oh yes, Uncle. Why just the other day I was in the lovely tree by the lower pond and…” Suddenly she remembered she was not supposed to climb any trees. “You will not tell Papa!” she cried out in horror. Pictures of a pony being led away flooded her mind and she despaired of receiving her most desired of gifts.

“No, Beth, I would not dream of that now.”

After Beth had gone to bed, the adults gathered in the drawing room.

“Will someone now please tell me what has happen?” Viscount Drury demanded. Georgiana related all that had occurred the past two days. “And the doctor can give you no prognosis?”

“No,” his intended answered.

“Idiot!” All eyes were now upon him. “Forgive me, I spoke too harshly. I am sure Mr. Johnston is a fine physician.”

“He is the finest in the country, Drury.” Lord Matlock answered in a clearly annoyed tone. The Viscount knew better than to respond.

“Georgiana, William. Your Uncle and I will stay as long as is needed. We have sent an express to Richard to ask him to come as well.”

“Colonel Fitzwilliam? Why is he needed?” Drury asked.

“It is my wish that he come. That should be good enough reason for you, Drury.”

“Yes, Milord. Forgive my impertinence. I am not myself this evening. The news of Mr. Darcy’s condition has thrown me out of sorts. I shall retire early then. May I have a private word with Georgiana first?”

Lord Matlock nodded.

“Yes, Henry?” Georgiana asked, once they were alone in the hall.

“If this is a bad time, I will leave.”

“No, I need you here with me now more than ever.”

“But I have barely seen you today,” he said petulantly.

“I have my duties, Henry. You of all people should understand that.”

“I have just been selfish. I came to be with you, dearest.”

“I know, but my family needs me now. Oh Henry, I am so afraid!”

Viscount Drury drew his fiancée into his embrace. “There, there. Your father will recover and we will be wed in two months’ time.”

“But what…”

“Shh! Do not think of such things now. Mr. Darcy will be well again and this will all be a memory.”

“I can only hope it is as you say.”

The next day progressed much the same as the day before. Mr. Darcy was still unresponsive and showed no visible sign of recovery. William, Georgiana, and Lord and Lady Matlock each took turns staying with him. They passed the time reading and remembering stories of their times together.

Finally, it was Beth’s birthday. Again there was little sign of change in the patient. Beth came in to thank her father for the doll and the new pony. She held his hand and described all that she could remember of the new animal to her father.

Mrs. Reynolds had prepared a special luncheon to be served by the lake. The Matlocks, Darcy siblings and Viscount Drury enjoyed a peaceful meal outdoors. Shortly after the food was cleared, a servant came to fetch Lord Matlock. With an effort not to alarm Beth, the rest of the party decided to return to the house as well. When a sombre Earl returned, from Mr. Darcy’s bedside, all knew that something was terribly wrong. On the Earl’s instructions, Beth’s governess Miss Ross came to take her charge to the stables to visit her new pony. When they were gone, he was at last free to speak.

“The doctor has been summoned. George has developed a fever.” Both William and Georgiana knew to what this portended.

“Do not tell Beth.”

“Why not, Georgiana?” asked her aunt.

“Beth has enough sorrow associated with this day. We need not add to her troubles.”

“My sister is right,” said William. “Say nothing to Beth. She has already seen Papa today. We will tell her he needs to rest to regain his strength.”

“You would lie to her?” Lady Matlock asked.

“Disguise of any sort is an abhorrence to me.” Darcy said, and looked straight into the eyes of his future brother-in-law. “What I said is indeed the truth. He needs rest if he is to fight this.”

“So be it.”

Again, the family took turns at Mr. Darcy’s bedside, first Lord Matlock, then Lady Matlock, who sat with him through supper. After tucking in their sister and sensing the need to go together, William and Georgiana both attended to their father in Lady Matlock’s stead.

Thus they remained until shortly before ten o’clock. Mr. Darcy’s fever grew worse and he became very agitated. It was his first movements in days. He began to utter unrecognisable phrases until at last he moaned his beloved wife’s name.

“Anne. Anne, I am coming.”

Then his movement subsided and his breathing became shallow. His two children knew not what to expect. Both came near and sat on the edge of the bed, each holding one of their father’s hands. George Darcy opened his eyes, looked at his children and smiled, weakly squeezing their hands. He closed his eyes and his grip slackened. He took two small breaths. Then he was gone.

Georgiana began to sob silently and William reached over to hold her. Together they held a vigil over their beloved father’s body. When Mrs. Reynolds came to check on them, she quickly ascertained the inalterable truth. Without a word and without disturbing them, she went to inform the Earl. George Darcy was dead and Fitzwilliam Darcy was the new master of Pemberley.

~~~>~<~~~

Richard Fitzwilliam, younger son of the Earl of Matlock and a colonel in the King’s Horseguards arrived the day after his uncle had passed away. He was of invaluable service to his father and mother and to his cousin Darcy. After the funeral, his father asked to speak with him privately in the study. Upon approaching the door he overheard his father speaking.

“Thank you, Wickham, I am very much relieved to know that Pemberley will remain under the care of such an excellent steward.” The Earl noted the entrance of his son. “Ah, Richard! Mr. Wickham and I were just finishing.” Lord Matlock turned his attention back to the steward. “I will speak to you again in the morning. Please give my best wishes to your wife and son. And please tell George that I will send for him in a few days to discuss his future.”

“Very good, sir. I will see that your instructions are carried out. Lord Matlock, Colonel Fitzwilliam.”

Once Mr. Wickham had left, Lord Matlock turned his full attention to his son. “Richard I have called you here to speak to you of your Uncle George’s will. As you may have guessed, I am the executor of the will and am already familiar with its contents. Without revealing too much I can tell you that I have also been named guardian of William and Beth as well as trustee of Pemberley until William comes of age. As are you.”

“What?”

“You are a co-guardian and trustee, Richard.”

“Me! Why me?”

“When George changed his will two years ago, he discussed his intentions and wishes with me. We both agreed that your brother had too many other responsibilities without the added potential burden of this.”

“And I do not?”

“Calm down, Richard. Your uncle and I were not insensible to the position this would be for you and me. His will stipulates that the estate will make up the difference between the wages that you receive as a colonel when you sell off your commission and what you would have received as a General. In addition, during the years you oversee William, you will receive the yearly pay of a general as well as the retirement pay you would be entitled at such a rank. There is also as an immediate legacy of £15,000.”

Fitzwilliam was stunned. “That is a great deal of money, father. Where…”

“Does the name Archibald Bingley ring a bell?”

“No. Should it?”

“Yes, he is a man of trade in _____”

“I still do not recognize the name.”

“You will soon enough. George met Bingley at Cambridge. About twenty years ago, Bingley came to him with an investment opportunity. It was risky, but your Uncle trusted his old friend and went ahead with it, along with several other wise men. That investment has paid off more than ten-fold. The Pemberley estate alone yields some £10,000 a year. This is not an issue of finances, but one of responsibility. It is your choice, Richard. You can refuse. The legacy would still be yours.”

With only the slightest of pauses, he answered his father. “I am a man of honour, father, I will do my duty to my family. The Crown will understand.”

“Thank you, my son. I knew you would so choose. I am as proud of you today as when you first put on the King’s uniform. The will is to be read as soon as all pertinent parties arrive. Until then, let us keep this to ourselves.”

Lord Matlock next turned his attentions to his nephew. In many ways he knew that William Darcy would be his most difficult challenge for the next eight years until he fully came into his inheritance. The boy was intelligent, self-motivated, honourable, extremely mature for his age, and headstrong. These qualities would one day make him a fine master of his great estate, but the Earl suspected moulding him into such a man would tax the Earl to the limits of his wisdom.

“You wished to see me Uncle?” Darcy asked as he entered into the study. Too many times to count, his father had summoned him to this very room and Darcy felt ill at ease entering it again, as such.

“Yes, William. We have much to discuss.” Darcy nodded his head in comprehension. “But we will leave much of that for another time. I wish to talk to you about the events of the next few weeks. Let me begin by saying that I have informed your tutors that you will be taking the next several weeks off from your studies.” Darcy looked a bit irritated at this. “William, you will have many distractions this next fortnight and you do not need to be concerned about finishing assignments. Your masters understand this and they also understand that you cannot bear to be idle. Therefore, I have asked each of them to draw up a list of suggested study that is more leisurely than educational. It will make little difference if you choose to explore their recommendations or not. It will purely be for creative stimulation and enjoyment. The library here holds many such literary excursions if you but only seek them out. If you mind is unable to be so agreeably engaged, it will be of little matter. Your regular lessons will resume in three weeks time.”

Darcy still was not convinced on the wisdom of this course of action but he would obey the wishes of his uncle.

“Your father’s will shall be read when all of the pertinent parties have arrived. I expect that it will occur next week. Before then, you should know that your cousin Richard and I have been named guardians of you and Beth and as co-trustees of Pemberley. Georgiana, of course, is of age. Richard will resign his commission in the army and come to Pemberley to live with you until you gain full control of the estate. I believe you were already aware that your father had stipulated that Pemberley would continue to be held in trust from the time you reach majority until you turn five and twenty in the event of his demise, William. I will, of course, be a frequent visitor and will continue your education in the management of the estate. Your Aunt and I also expect frequent visits to Matlock by you and your sisters. I want you to know that I will always do my utmost to see to your happiness and to see you fit to assume your inheritance when that day comes.” Hugh Fitzwilliam moved to put his hand on his nephew’s shoulder. Looking him straight in the eye he said, “One day you will make a fine Master of Pemberley. Of this I am certain. I cannot take the place of your father, but I am more than willing to become your mentor, William. I only wish that it were not necessary.”

~~~>~<~~~

“My mother will be saddened by the passing of your father, Georgiana. He was a great favourite of hers,” Viscount Drury said to his fiancée as they walked through the gardens the next day.

“Yes, he spoke well of Lady Allenby. I dare say they would have married if it had not been for the entrance of my mother.”

“The legend of the courtship of Lady Anne Fitzwilliam and George Darcy is still well known. Who knew their child would one day marry the son of the lady’s rival?”

“Henry, about the wedding. We must postpone it until next year.”

“But, Georgiana, we have already waited a year for your sister’s sake. Besides, your brother will need a man to run this estate whilst he is away at school and until he reaches majority.”

Georgiana was shocked that Henry would be so willing to go against propriety. But not so shocked that she missed the avarice in his face as he talked of ‘helping’ her brother. A cold foreboding seized her and she stiffened with horror as she began to understand the true character of her intended. Quickly disengaging her arm from the Viscount, she excused herself and nearly ran to the house with a growing sense of mortification. She burst through the doors and demanded to know where her to find uncle. The alert butler quickly sent the nearest footman to summon the Earl. Lord Matlock entered into the study to find his eldest niece in tears.

“Georgiana, Whatever is the matter? Is your father’s death so heavy on your heart?”

“No, ‘tis Henry, Uncle.”

Years of dealing with all manner of men had made the Earl cautious with dealing with any man, especially one of the nobility. With foreboding he asked, “Has he said something to upset you?”

“Yes, both in words and countenance.” Lord Matlock waited. “He does not respect me enough to see that a failure to postpone the wedding a full year would be shameful to me. And when he spoke of staying at Pemberley to assist William…”

“I see. What would you have me do about it?”

“Speak to him for me. Ask him to leave. If he truly loves me, you will know by his reaction.”

“Very well, I will go to him now. Stay here, Georgiana, I will give orders that you are not to be disturbed.”

“Thank you, please come and tell me of your meeting.”

“I shall.”

Lord Matlock wasted no time in searching out Viscount Drury.

“Drury.”

“Lord Matlock.”

“I have just come from my niece. She is very upset that you would not consent to delay your wedding for the proper time required.” The younger man’s face betrayed no emotion. “I am astounded that you would not concede immediately to her request and to the dictates of propriety.”

The Viscount began to pace. “Sir, I have already waited a year longer than necessary so that Georgiana could see her sister through her seventh birthday. If she had acceded to my wishes we would have been married months ago. How long is a man to wait, sir!”

“As long as is necessary. I would have though you knew that. Georgiana has asked that you leave Pemberley for the time being. Emotions are running high. She has only just lost her father. Give her the time she needs.”

By now Henry Andrews, Viscount Drury, was becoming very agitated. With a look of pure frustration he addressed the Earl. “Very well sir, I will do as she wishes, but I feel she would be better served if I were to remain by her side. I will leave first thing in the morning. Good day, sir.”

Lord Matlock watched the younger man stalk away with a great sense of relief. He had never trusted the Viscount and was quite reluctant, as head of the family, to offer his blessing to his niece’s engagement after her father had passed. Now, there was no longer a need. Georgiana had seen the true man behind the pleasing manners at last, before it was too late.

Cambridge, One Year Later

“Is that he, Bingley?”

“Yes, Fitzwilliam Darcy, heir of Pemberley.”

“He is certainly a tall man, and very graceful too! I am glad I will not be his next opponent!”

Charles Bingley and Robert Bennet watched the fencing match with much admiration. Darcy may have been the newcomer, but he was obviously no novice when it came to fencing.

“Does Darcy know who I am?”

“No, Bennet. He has no idea. Oh, he knows there are several other investors in father’s business but he does not know who any of them are.”

“Then let us leave it that way. My father asked me only to watch out for him. Father knows well how difficult your first year here can be.”

“As does my own father. He asked for me to do the same. But Darcy and I have known each other most of our lives so he would never be suspicious of my help. He is a good man and I am honoured to call him my friend.”

“Then you should introduce us when the match is over … which it now is. Come, introduce me to my future business partner!”

“I say old man, that was well done!”

“Bingley!” Darcy vigorously shook the proffered hand.

“Darcy!” Bingley grinned back. “Let me introduce my friend. Fitzwilliam Darcy, Robert Bennet. Bennet, here, is in my year. Many a class we have laboured through together.”

“Darcy, Bingley tells me you are from the north of England as he is.”

“Yes, Derbyshire. My estate, Pemberley is located there.”

“Pemberley, hmm. Is that anywhere near Lambton?”

“It is not five miles from Lambton.”

“I thought it sounded familiar. My aunt spent many years in Lambton and never tires of proclaiming upon the many beauties of Derbyshire!”

“Then your aunt must be a very sensible woman!”

“That she is indeed!”

“From where do you hail, Bennet?”

“Hertfordshire. My family’s estate, Longbourn, is but a mile from the village of Meryton.”

“Longbourn? That name rings familiar as well. I seem to recall hearing it recently.” Darcy concentrated, trying desperately to remember. “I know, it was when I was last visiting my Aunt in Kent. Her new clergyman was somehow associated with an estate called Longbourn. He never passed on the opportunity to pray for the continued well-being of its owner. Though I rather suspected that he wished him quite the opposite.”

“Was the man’s name William Collins?”

“Yes, yes it was.”

“You have met the heir-presumptive! Pity you.” Robert Bennet cast a sardonic eye to his friend. “Bingley and I were forced to tolerate his unique brand of adoration our first year here once he discovered I was his cousin and rival for the estate. I was ever so glad when he completed his studies. But it now appears that you will be forced to suffer a prolonged fate with your every visit to Kent.”

Darcy looked incomprehensively on the man before him.

“Longbourn is an entailed estate, Darcy. Thankfully, that will end the day I take possession. But until then, Mr. Collins is next in line after me for inheritance. I have no brothers, only three sisters. So the lot falls on me to survive my father or bear a male heir before I depart. Otherwise, Collins will become the master of Longbourn.” None of the three men seemed thrilled at the idea.

“So, have you lived all your life in Hertfordshire?” Darcy asked.

“No, only the past twelve years. Before then we lived in London. My father was in trade before he took possession of Longbourn upon the demise of my grandfather.“

Darcy was again perplexed why his father would have been in trade in London when he was set to inherit an estate.

“Darcy, my father is the only one of the four brothers to survive with issue. His eldest brother died in an epidemic before he could marry. My next uncle was in the army and killed in battle. My third uncle died at sea in the navy. So my father, the youngest of four brothers, raised to believe he would need a profession, became the sole heir at the age of three and twenty.”

“I see.” Bennet looked intently at Darcy to see if he could detect any trace of disgust at these pronouncements. But the man’s face betrayed no such feeling.

“What was his line of trade?”

“He owns several warehouses. My Uncle Gardiner now oversees them. My father was very grateful to be able to turn over the management of the business to his brother-in-law. They are full partners now. Uncle has continued to build the business and expand into other areas. But enough of that. I shall tell you my life’s story at this rate! Bingley and I will let you clean up and then I will buy you a drink. But then again, from what Bingley tells me, perhaps you should be the one buying! Then you can tell us how you are settling in and about your course of study.”

Darcy smiled at the happy manners of the man before him. Any friend of Bingley’s would be a welcome acquaintance. Robert Bennet appeared to be a man worthy of his notice, even if he did have an uncle in trade. After all, Bingley’s father was in trade and had been his own father’s, and now his, business partner.

When they were seated at table, Darcy asked, “Have you seen Wickham lately, Bingley?”

Bingley scowled, “No, nor do I wish to.”

“How do you know George Wickham, Darcy?” Bennet asked.

“His father is the steward of Pemberley. My father provided for his education in his will as well as help for starting in a profession.”

“You do not appear to approve of him.” Bennet said.

“Do you?”

“No, I can not say that I do. But others find him charming. Especially the ladies.”

Darcy did not immediately respond. He took a drink and looked intently into the liquid in his glass. “George Wickham possesses the happy manners that allow him to easily make friends. Whether he is capable of keeping them is another story. Both my Uncle and his father have asked me to keep an eye on him.” Darcy took another drink. “It is not a task I welcome.”

Deciding it was time to change the subject Bingley asked, “How are your classes, Darcy?”

Relieved, Darcy began to tell his friend his impressions of his first days at Cambridge.

Chapter One

London, 1811

“Bingley! So good to see you again. How are you?”

“I am well, Bennet.”

Satisfied with the affable expression his friend once again wore, Robert Bennet wasted little time filling him in on the events of the fifteen months since they had last seen each other.

“I was very worried the last time I saw you, Bingley. It could not have been more than a month after your father’s funeral. He was a good man, and he is missed.”

“Thank you, Bennet. I do miss him still. Since father’s death, I have become very involved with the business and this last year has been a lively time for me.” Bingley confided that he had at first felt unsure of his ability to manage the family’s myriad business interests. The late Mr. Bingley had been highly regarded in financial circles. He had combined skill and experience with shrewd judgment, and an uncanny ability to uncover profitable opportunities. Many of the gentry, including Bennet’s own father, owed their current prosperity to old Mr. Bingley’s astute management of their investments.

Bingley was now, however, at ease with his new responsibilities and secure in his own abilities, he told his friend. “Your Uncle Gardiner has been of immense assistance. He is both wise and perceptive and I value his judgment. I wish that I could have persuaded him to take over management of the firm, but he was adamant in his refusal. I believe he is very content with his life and would not wish to sacrifice more time away from his beloved family.”

“That is likely the true reason behind his decision.”

“I agree. I am fortunate to have a number of excellent men, several hired on your uncle’s recommendation, to whom I have entrusted the day-to-day business activities. I must still approve major decisions, of course, but I find myself once again much at leisure.”

“And how might Charles Bingley, Esquire, now occupy his time?”

“Bennet, you are looking at a man who is about to become a country squire. I am looking for an estate to lease.”

“Lease an estate?”

“Yes. My father always meant to buy an estate, but that task has been left to me. I know next to nothing about estate management. I would rather learn with a leased property, then buy when I better understand what I want.”

“Bingley, you astonish me! For such an affable man you have a surprising amount of good sense!” Bennet pondered his next suggestion, and then decided to forge ahead. “Do you remember my mention of Netherfield Park near Longbourn?”

“Yes, once or twice. There was, I believe, much speculation as to its disposition after the owner’s death shortly before we left Cambridge.”

“Correct. After Sir Harris died, the estate was divided among his three daughters. They are all married, and none chose to live there. The house now sits nearly empty. They prefer to lease the property rather than sell it at this time. I think Netherfield would suit your purposes admirably. I would enjoy your company and my father has often spoken of his wish to see you again. We would make very charming neighbours … At least some of us.” Bingley looked perplexed at this comment. “You have yet to meet my mother.”

“If she is anything like you, she must be charming.”

“Mama is convinced that something dreadful will happen before I inherit Longbourn and end the entail. So until I am safely married and have produced an heir, Mama is certain that she and my sisters will end up destitute and without a home. I distress her greatly by remaining single, although I am just five and twenty and, I might add, disinclined to take a wife just yet.”

“A match-making mama?”

“I also have three unmarried sisters.”

Bingley laughed. “I am not afraid of your mother, Bennet. She cannot be any worse than London mothers! I must admit that Netherfield Park sounds intriguing. I will ask my solicitor to investigate and travel into Hertfordshire if I am satisfied with his report.”

“Then you must stay with us at Longbourn!”

“What about your mother?”

“You just told me you could handle her kind!”

“Touché!”

“I will write when I know my plans. You do realize that if I take Netherfield, Caroline will be living there as well.” Bingley watched in amusement as his friend shuddered. “Who has the greater burden to bear now my friend?” Slapping Bennet’s shoulder he continued, “Let us see to finding a place to have dinner!”

Two Weeks Later, Longbourn

Mr. Thomas Bennet surveyed his family, gathered round the table for breakfast as was their custom. On his right sat Robert, his firstborn and heir; on his left was Jane, his eldest daughter. Next to Robert sat Elizabeth, and across from her was Mary, the youngest.

Mrs. Bennet sat as far from Mr. Bennet as was possible. The experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand her husband’s character. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

When they first met, Mr. Bennet had been a studious youth of twenty and Frances Gardiner was just fifteen. She was already handsome — for Thomas Bennet, she was the most beautiful creature in the world. Three years later, when he suddenly found himself the heir to his father’s estate, his thoughts turned to marriage, and there was but one woman for him. He had never ceased to think of Fanny Gardiner’s beauty, even when he had little more to offer than his admiration. Thomas Bennet wasted little time. Within six months they were married and within the year she was with child. But all too soon, he became painfully aware that his wife’s beauty had blinded him to her shortcomings. Despite the frequent urge to flee to the blessed solitude of his study, he set as his task the improvement of her mind. He patiently and gently instructed her on all manner of subjects. Although mean of understanding, she improved by bits until at last Mr. Bennet felt he could do no more. She was inherently silly, but it could have been so much worse.

In one particular area, however, Mr. Bennet felt he had failed utterly. Mrs. Bennet was an incorrigible matchmaker — and the prime victims of her efforts were her own unfortunate children. For the past year, since Robert Bennet had turned four and twenty, his mother had sought to unite him with every eligible woman who crossed her path. Indeed, Robert had become quite adept at circumventing his mother’s rather obvious plots, and had become quite deaf to her tiresome diatribes on his unmarried state. His sisters had fared even worse. From the time each had turned sixteen, their mother had made it her raison d’être to throw them into the company of every marriageable man in the country. Robert did what he could to shield them from the aspirations and machinations of their mother. As for himself, he was still a young man, determined that when he did marry, it would be as much for wit and intelligence as love and beauty.

His sisters, however, did not enjoy the freedom accorded their brother. He could go to university. He could go to London whenever he chose. But his sisters were constrained by custom and propriety, obliged to remain at home, their social circle limited to Longbourn and neighbouring Meryton. Very early on, Elizabeth had discovered the joys of the outdoors as a means of escape. She loved to ramble about the countryside, on horse or on foot. Jane had her sewing, Mary had her books.

As the meal concluded, Robert announced that he had received a letter from an old college friend. At first Mrs. Bennet paid him no heed. However, when he mentioned that his friend was coming to stay with them whilst he looked into the suitability of leasing Netherfield Park, her attention was immediately riveted.

“Your friend must be a gentleman of means. What a fine thing for our girls!”

The entire table knew what was coming next. Mr. Bennet took the plunge. “How so Mrs. Bennet? How could this affect them?”

“If he is a friend of Robert’s he must be of good character. I was thinking he would do very well for one of our girls.”

“For a single man of fortune must be in want of a wife.” Elizabeth whispered to her brother. But not quietly enough.

“Exactly, Lizzy! I was thinking that he might very well fall in love with one of you. Now if we could only get your brother married and have an heir, my maternal comfort would be assured!”

“Thank you very much, Lizzy! I will remember your treachery.” Robert whisper more quietly in his sister’s ear, assuring that his mother would not hear.

“How long will Mr. Bingley be in the neighbourhood, Robert?” his father asked.

“No more than three days. He has other business to attend to in the north.”

“And when may we expect the gentleman?” Mrs. Bennet asked, unable – or unwilling – to mask her excitement.

“Wednesday next, Mama.”

“Plenty of time to get a bit of fish then. Your friend will be very welcome here.” No one missed Mrs. Bennet’s look of expectation, her eyes fixed upon her eldest daughter.

Sensing his sister’s unease, Robert changed the subject. “Father, have you seen the northern fences lately? When I last inspected the fields, I noticed that the fences may need some repair.”

Father and son discussed possible solutions and made plans to ride out that afternoon.

That evening, Robert wrote to Bingley to confirm the arrangements for his visit.

Longbourn, Hertfordshire

__June 1811,

Bingley,

It was with great pleasure that I read your letter with the news that you have finally accepted my offer to stay with my family when you come to inspect Netherfield. At least, that is what I believe you said. One can never be sure after having to decode your abominable hand, devise your absent words, and decipher your blotted sentences. Really, Charles, if you ever decide to propose to a girl, do not do so by letter. She would grow old past childbearing years whilst trying to read it through.

I shall meet you at Netherfield Park at one o’clock, as suggested. We can have your things sent to Longbourn whilst we tour the house and grounds. The next morning, after your horses are rested, I will take you through the attached properties as well as show you the neighbourhood so as to acquaint you more thoroughly with the situation.

If these arrangements do not meet with your favour, you can always stay in London. Perhaps you are not hardy enough to brave the savages in the country.

Yours. Etc.
Robert Bennet

At long last came the day of their expected guest’s arrival. Mrs. Bennet insisted that each girl dress with particular care and was most displeased when Elizabeth declared her intention to indulge in her daily constitutional.

“Elizabeth, your hair will look absolutely wild when you return, not to mention your petticoats! What if Mr. Bingley comes whilst you are away? What manner of impression will you make in such a state?

“Mama, Robert will be meeting him after breakfast and they will not arrive together at Longbourn until much later in the afternoon. I will return before breakfast. There is no need to be distressed.” Elizabeth, anxious to flee from her mother, quickly excused herself and made her way outside, determined to extend her walk just to further exasperate Mrs. Bennet.

Charles Bingley, Esq. arrived in Hertfordshire disposed to be pleased with everything and everyone in it. His inquiries had come back very favourably. Netherfield, he was told, was large, but not overly grand and, after several years of neglect by its previous owner, had been recently repaired and improved by the heirs. The Estate was profitable, though Bingley had been assured that more astute management and new farming methods would add greatly to its return. There was an experienced, faithful steward who, Bingley came to discover, had a reputation for honesty, integrity and diligence. Yes, it was a very good situation. Bingley counted himself fortunate to have advance knowledge of its forthcoming availability. Netherfield would be an attractive property, especially for someone seeking an estate at such an easy distance from Town.

There was one additional item in Netherfield’s allure for Bingley – its proximity to Longbourn and Robert Bennet. They had not seen much of each other since Cambridge, but had maintained a steady correspondence. Bennet always complained that Bingley’s letters were unintelligible. In truth, Charles Bingley was quite capable of very correct letters. It was only for the benefit, nay the pleasure, of annoyance that Bingley chose to continue this charade with a few trusted friends. Bingley secretly enjoyed crafting his blotted, seemingly rushed missives to Robert Bennet, William Darcy, and a few other unknowing souls.

Residing only three miles from such a good friend – let alone major investor in his company – predisposed Bingley to favouring Netherfield. He was certain, baring some unforeseen, that he would soon be taking up residence in that little part of England called Hertfordshire.

Bingley arrived from London in late morning. He had arranged an initial meeting with the gentleman acting as the agent for the owners. He gave Bingley a brief summary of the proposed terms as they ate in the breakfast room of the house. The remainder of the house had been left closed, only this room and the library being fully opened for the gentleman. There would be time for further exhibiting later, once Bennet arrived to join his friend.

Upon Bennet’s arrival, punctual as usual, the main tour began. Though much of the furniture remained under protective coverings, Bingley was delighted to learn that he would not be responsible for furnishing an entire house. The styles were out of current fashion, but more than serviceable for a one-year term. Nothing Bingley saw came into his disfavour. Indeed, his good friend could sense Bingley’s growing excitement with each new room they were shown.

At last the party made its way into the gardens attached to the house. They were neat, well maintained and remained true to their original design. Their character was unaltered, their effect delightful. No one had felt the need to meddle with them, to make them merely more fashionable as dictated by the ever-changing whims of what was considered good taste. They were, on the whole, unspoilt. Bingley was delighted. He could discern the sense of place it gave to the estate; another link in the chain that bound each generation of inhabitants to the house … and to the land. The gardens were, as they should be on any noble estate great or small, the anchor and foundation that brought the past, present and future unmistakably together. Bingley felt it, Robert did too. Charles Bingley was home.

~~~>~<~~~

On the way to Longbourn, Bingley adroitly turned the conversation to what he should expect upon his arrival.

“I was curious as to why you did not ask me to stop at Longbourn before continuing on to Netherfield?”

Bennet laughed at his friend before he answered, “I did not wish to see you distracted yet again by another pretty face. I know you, Bingley. You cannot resist the allure of a beautiful woman.”

Bingley smiled back at his friend. Memories of a Miss Wrightfield called from the recesses of his mind. “Not Miss Wrightfield again? I was but eighteen then!”

“Not only Miss Wrightfield, but Miss Chalmers, Miss Hutchington, Miss Saunders…”

“Enough! I concede the point. I am a man known to be habitually in and out of love. But what has this to do with Longbourn?”

“Bingley, you astonish me! Have you forgotten that I have three unmarried sisters?”

“Are they pretty?”

Bennet threw his hands in the air in mock displeasure. “You are asking me? They are my sisters, for heaven’s sake. Whether they be pretty is not for me to judge.”

“Then I suggest you leave that office to me.” Bennet grinned at his friend’s cheek. “Now you must tell me something of them.”

“Oh no! You shall have to discover that yourself! I must again warn you of my mother’s appetite for matchmaking. I am afraid that she will look at you as the most eligible match in the country. I council you to be prepared for some rather diverting attempts on behalf of my sisters.”

“It cannot be that bad.” Bennet gave him the look that said ‘You will mark my words.’ Bingley hesitated then added, “At least I will be staying at Longbourn for only two nights.”

“More than enough time to fix you clearly in her sights, old man!”

In truth, Robert Bennet was very interested in seeing his friend’s reaction to his eldest sister, the lovely Jane. His sister she may be, but her effect upon other men confirmed that he was not simply biased. Actually, Robert was rather worried for Jane, and Elizabeth, too, for that matter. He had often heard them declare that nothing but the deepest love could induce either into matrimony. They often spoke in jest, to thwart their mother’s unending hints that they must marry or die as poor, old maids. But he could not fail to see that behind his sisters’ mirth was a determination to marry for love, not settling for a marriage of convenience.

And they would not have to do so. Robert knew, as his sisters — and mother— did not, that Mr. Bennet had set aside large portions for each of his daughters, to endow sizeable dowries or a substantial living should they never marry.

Their father had always insisted that the family live within its income of £2,000 a year, the annual proceeds from the estate. But there had long been considerable additional income. Investments with Bingley’s father and the business partnership with his brother-in-law Gardiner were both exceptionally profitable. Instead of using these funds to enlarge his annual household budgets, Mr. Bennet wisely chose to assure the future security of his children and his wife. As a result, the three Bennet daughters would have substantial dowries, and Mrs. Bennet would be well provided for after her husband’s demise. Robert, of course, would inherit the Longbourn estate.

Mr. Bennet had hidden the true extent of his wealth, and his daughters’ marriage portions, for fear that his girls would become the prey of fortune hunters. Only his brother-in-law, his son, and his solicitor were privy to all the details. To the insular world of Meryton, the Bennet daughters had little to recommend them but their wit and beauty, with small expectations in the way of dowry, perhaps £2,000 each.

The greatest obstacle in the search for suitable mates was a lack of prospects. The Bennets dined with four and twenty families; that offered little opportunity to meet eligible men not already judged as unsuitable by his sisters, if not their mother. Jane was the greater concern. Two and twenty, gentle, kind, and everything good, Robert feared that her heart would be too easily touched. Jane was inclined to see goodness in everyone; Robert, who had seen more of the world, knew that not every man deserved that approbation. His eldest sister deserved a man who would value her special qualities and could draw from the deep waters so well disguised by her serene countenance. Elizabeth was still fairly young, only twenty, with a sharp wit and keen intellect. It would take a remarkable man to win her heart, a man she could truly respect and admire. Was there such a man to be found in Hertfordshire? Robert often pondered counselling that his father introduce his sisters to London society. Surely such men would be found there for his sisters. If nothing came about for Jane in the next year, Robert would offer to escort his sisters himself. Although Mary was now out as well, her prospects did not seem as urgent as the other two, but he knew that she would not settle for just any marriage partner either. Perhaps Bingley would do.

With these thoughts he again surveyed his friend. What would be his reaction to his family, to his sisters? ‘This,’ he thought, ‘will be interesting.’

When they arrived at Longbourn Robert took Bingley to call on his father. Mr. Bennet, long-time investor in Archibald Bingley’s business, had been acquainted with Charles Bingley for many years. He had been very pleased when Robert and Charles became friends and had encouraged his son to continue the association after the two young men left Cambridge. Charles Bingley’s intelligence and good sense in the management of his late father’s business had only increased Mr. Bennet’s good opinion of the young man.

After the gentlemen had exchanged pleasantries, Mr. Bennet offered to accompany Bingley for his introduction to the ladies of the house.

“Moral support, sir!” Mr. Bennet jested. “Three unmarried females, all of marriageable age.”

Upon entering the room, Bingley’s attention was first garnered by the older woman who rose to greet them. Frances Bennet was still a very handsome woman. She was delighted to make his acquaintance and the entire Bennet family held their collective breaths to wait her reaction. Fortunately, she had decided that this was a time to display her more refined manners to impress upon the young gentleman before her of the suitability of all her family.

Then came the Miss Bennets. As he turned to make his bows, Bingley’s sight was arrested by the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. ‘Oh my heavens’ was the last thought he was capable of for many moments. Fortunately, his years of engrained easy manners came to the rescue and he was able to perform the necessary greetings with some modicum of composure. But from the instant he saw her — and he had no desire to deny it — Charles Bingley’s heart was lost.

His angel? None other than the eldest Miss Bennet!

~~~>~<~~~

Robert Bennet was not too surprised by the reaction of his friend. Robert saw Bingley start in surprise and obvious admiration upon his first sight of Jane. Robert would have to keep very close tabs on his friend. It would not do for him Bingley to indulge in another of his passing fancies. This was Robert’s beloved sister Jane that was the object of his admiration.

As the family gathered for dinner, Bingley was torn. He had been placed across from his friend and next to Mr. Bennet. On the one hand, Bingley was disappointed not to be seated across from Jane so he could gaze upon her lovely face. On the other hand, he was sitting next to her. He could almost touch her and no one would be the wiser if he “accidently” acted upon his impulse to do so.

Charles Bingley was smitten, a fact observed with great amusement by Mr. Bennet, Robert and Elizabeth. Mary, seated next to Jane was blissfully unaware of the drama and Mrs. Bennet was too busy showing her approval of the man to notice. Jane, being Jane, never comprehended the power she held over the fancy of any man.

“How did you find Netherfield, Mr. Bingley?” Mrs. Bennet asked.

“What I have seen so far has quite exceeded my expectations,” he replied. “I am looking forward to tomorrow with great anticipation when your son and I will inspect the extended property and surrounding neighbourhood.”

“And do you intend to take the property, sir?”

“I have yet to come to a decision, madam. It would be unwise to commit to such a course of action before I see the whole of the situation.” Bingley paused to glance at Jane before returning his attention to her mother. “However, I find myself disposed to take the property, if all goes well tomorrow. I find that I quite like Hertfordshire, at least the parts I have seen.” No one but Mary was insensible to the fact that he was speaking of the vision seated beside him.

“Will you still leave the day after tomorrow?” Mr. Bennet inquired, partly to draw the young man’s gaze towards the other end of the table.

“Yes, sir. I have business in the north that cannot be delayed.”

“Then when might we expect your return?” Mrs. Bennet interjected.

“I am not certain. But, if I do take Netherfield Park, I hope to be in residence before the end of next month.”

“Even if you do not take Netherfield, you will always be welcome at Longbourn.”

Bingley bowed his head in acknowledgement. “Thank you, Mrs. Bennet, for your generous offer. I shall always keep it in mind.”

~~~>~<~~~

Much of the following day was spent in the saddle touring Netherfield and the immediate neighbourhood. Robert Bennet took great pains showing his friend the differences between Netherfield Park and the surrounding estates. This only confirmed in Bingley’s mind that, with better management, Netherfield could indeed return a better sum than it did currently. Satisfied, the men sought out the owner’s agent to arrange for the legal documents. Bingley would take possession of Netherfield in one month’s time. He would not be responsible for bringing in this year’s harvest, but would have full control over the following year’s production. The lease would commence at the beginning of August and terminate on Michaelmas, the year following. It was an unusual length of time for a lease, but as Bingley wished to fully learn how to manage an estate, he believed that observing two harvests would be in his best interest. Michaelmas seemed the most logical termination date, since it would allow him the experience of a full season, from planting to fruition.

The mood that evening at Longbourn was celebratory. Bingley pleased each member of the family with his announcement that he would be returning as the newest resident of the neighbourhood. That night after they had retired for bed, Elizabeth went to her sister.

“You seemed quite pleased that Mr. Bingley has decided to take Netherfield, Jane.”

“I believe Mr. Bingley and his sister will make quite charming neighbours.”

“Yes, I believe Mr. Bingley will be so. As for his sister, we shall have to wait and see.”

“I am sure you are wrong about her.”

Elizabeth did not wish to contradict Jane, though she and Robert had discussed the infamous Miss Caroline Bingley. Just that night he had confided to Elizabeth.

“The only reservation I have in Bingley taking Netherfield is that he will surely bring his sister to be his hostess.”

“Is there a reason why this is such a unwelcome development?”

“Caroline Bingley is… she has a repu… a gentleman does not wish for a woman to forever be fawning over him, agreeing with everything he says or does, looking only for his approbation, no matter how sincere her feelings may be.”

“Ah, I see. And I take it Miss Bingley excels in the execution of such arts?

“In a word, yes. I am always happy to meet with her in the company of richer men. But poor Darcy, she never leaves the man alone.”

“Darcy? Your friend from Cambridge? Does she so single him out?”

“I cannot comprehend how his manners survive it.”

“Then your friend must be very rich indeed to garner such devotion.”

“Yes, Darcy has a vast estate in Derbyshire, from what Bingley tells me. He is a good and honourable man. It is only his politeness that keeps him from rudely dismissing Miss Bingley’s attentions. I should like to see the look on Caroline Bingley’s face when she learns he is to marry another.”

“Is the gentleman engaged?”

“No, Lizzy, not that I have heard. I meant that there would come a day when Darcy decides to wed and Miss Bingley will be heartbroken if she is not to be his bride.”

“Your portrait of the fair couple leaves me with the desire to see their non-courtship first hand. I believe it would be very diverting.”

“You may get the chance, and sooner than you think. Darcy is one of Bingley’s closest friends and I doubt Bingley will waste any time before extending an invitation.”

~~~>~<~~~

It was a reluctant Bingley who bid the Bennets farewell the next morning. Yet there was much to do: preparations to take possession of Netherfield as well as important business in the north that he could no longer delay. Knowing that he would soon return to Hertfordshire, this time as the master of Netherfield Park, Bingley hastened northward.

Bingley wrote to his sister, informing her of his decision and asking her to join him in his new home. He knew that Caroline would only submit to the ‘savages of the country’ if she knew she would be mistress of one of the most prominent of Estates, and one that was also an easy distance to town. Bingley had already begun dreaming of the possibility of installing another as mistress of Netherfield, but that dream would have to wait until he better knew the feelings of that woman.

Bingley threw himself fully into his business interest in the north, and soon found himself on the road back to London. He would spend the next days preparing for his new life as the master of a country manor. Bingley felt, rather than knew, that this was to be a new beginning when the day finally came for him to travel, once again, into Hertfordshire.

~~~>~<~~~

On the first day of August, Charles Bingley returned to Netherfield Park and installed his younger sister as its mistress. Caroline Bingley was a very fine lady; elegant, haughty, dark-haired, and handsome, in possession of all the attributes of an accomplished woman, not the least of which was a dowry of £20,000. She was therefore in every respect entitled to think well of herself, and meanly of others.

Her mother had died when she was a young girl and her father had spoiled her unable to refuse her anything and determined that his only daughter be given nothing but the best of everything. Her clothing was at the height of fashion, her teachers were masters and she had been sent to the most prestigious of schools. Caroline grew to be a pampered, spoilt, fastidious woman. She was not deficient in good humour when she was pleased, nor in the power of being agreeable where she chose it; but proud and conceited. She was in the habit of associating with people of rank and cared not for those she deemed socially inferior, conveniently overlooking the inconvenient fact that her own fortune came from trade. She sought the approval only of the rich, the titled, and those of the highest social circles.

During her first season three years before, she had pompously slighted any suitor who did not fit her own estimation of a brilliant match. Unsurprising to all but Caroline herself, the stream of suitors slowed to a trickle, until now, three years later, there were none at all. Large dowry or not, Miss Caroline Bingley was not worth the effort. Perhaps, in a few more years, when she grew desperate for a match, men would again begin to call, more confident of success, if more mercenary in manner. After all, she would be nearly ‘on the shelf’ by then and a desire to escape spinsterhood would certainly quell many reservations she might still harbour over the acceptability of her potential marriage partner.

When old Mr. Bingley died, leaving Charles Bingley his inheritance, he also left him the care of Caroline. Bingley always cringed whenever his sister fawned over his rich friends, especially Fitzwilliam Darcy. Bingley knew that any effort to curb this behaviour was a waste of breath. Caroline refused to listen to any criticism of her manner or her behaviour. Many times Bingley had secretly cursed the monster of a sister his father had created. But it was too late to change her now; she was set in her high opinion of herself. Bingley had enough distractions in the year and a half since his father died. Indeed, he found living in London had given him an unexpected respite. For whilst in town, Caroline had much with which to occupy herself and Bingley was given a reprieve from spending much time in her company. Now that he had come to Hertfordshire that had changed. He had no option but to bring Caroline with him. She had no head for economy and without supervision would have spent them into bankruptcy in short order. So, Caroline Bingley was to be his hostess.

Normally, Bingley would have given his sister little thought. But this was not a normal situation. He knew that Caroline would become very restless in Hertfordshire. He was concerned that she would not be settled unless she believed herself to be the most influential woman in the neighbourhood. And he was most apprehensive about his plans to pursue the lovely Miss Jane Bennet and Caroline’s reaction to her and the entire Bennet family. Of course she knew Robert Bennet, who had often visited him in London before Mr. Bingley death. Caroline had often embarrassed him by fawning over Robert before she came out into society. He was equally mortified by her condescending attitude once she had come out. She had made it very plain that Robert Bennet was not worth her time when other, richer men were available. Whereas Robert was relieved that he was no longer an object of Caroline’s machinations, Bingley was ashamed by such displays of ill breeding by his sister.

Still, she was his sister and there were not many places she could go. Aunt Blackwell’s home in Lincoln was an option, as was their uncle’s house near Scarborough. But he thought too well of his family to impose Caroline on them without good reason. No, it was expected that she, as his sister would be his hostess. He would not shame her by not acknowledging her as such. He would just have to abide her company in Hertfordshire.

Upon their arrival, Bingley sent word to Longbourn with a promise to call in the next two or three days. Bingley knew his sister would be much occupied in setting the house to rights. He knew well enough to stay out of her way. For all her faults, Caroline was an excellent manager; she would not rest until she was satisfied with the house, the servants and, most importantly, the cook.

But before the Bingleys could visit Longbourn, Robert Bennet paid an unexpected visit to Netherfield.

“Bennet! I dare say you are the only gentleman in the neighbourhood that is allowed admittance to my home at present.”

The men warmly shook hands, each pleased to see the other.

“Thank you, Bingley. I very happy to see you established in the neighbourhood. I have come with an invitation to dinner on Monday. This will only be a family dinner, save for you and your sister.”

“We had intended to call on you by then. Very well, I can answer for Caroline. We have no fixed engagements and would be delighted to accept.”

“Excellent! My entire family looks forward with pleasure to the evening. I shall not tarry. We both have many duties to occupy our time. Will we see you in church on Sunday?”

“Of course, my friend! We will be attending and I can introduce my sister to the rest of your family then.”

~

~~~>~<~~~
~

With a mixture of anticipation and dread, Bingley brought Caroline to Longbourn on Monday. Caroline awoke resigned to her fate. Robert Bennet was a gentleman and her brother’s friend. She need not distinguish him in any way, but at least he would be a familiar face.

To assure the most pleasant possible evening, Bingley decided to discuss his expectations for Caroline’s behaviour whilst in the carriage.

“Caroline, this is a very important evening for us.”

“How so, Charles? This is only a country dinner.”

“Yes, but it is also so much more. The Bennets are one of the leading families in the neighbourhood. And as such, their approbation is critical to how we are accepted.”

“Charles, you worry needlessly about the most unimportant things. We are the principal family now, from what I have learned. The neighbourhood will be looking to gain our favour.”

“Be that as it may, I desire that you find favour with Mrs. Bennet. She has the ability to make our situation uncomfortable. I ask that you behave civilly and with condescension, especially towards Robert Bennet.”

“Robert Bennet? Why should I notice him? I thought I had made it very clear to him that I have no regard for his attentions, no matter how much he has for me!”

“I did not suggest that you show any preference for his company. I wish you to treat him with the deference owed to a respected member of this community, to our host, and to the future master of the estate where we are to dine this evening. He is my friend, as well as an investor in my business. Do I make myself clear?”

“Certainly, Charles. I know how to act without encouraging unwanted attentions.”

“Thank you, that is all that I ask.”

Once again, Bingley was struck by the hubris of his sister. To believe that Robert Bennet had any tender feelings towards her was sheer lunacy. Caroline seemed not only to believe it, but also obviously expected it, as a given attitude by any man towards her. ‘Poor Darcy, how he suffers when in her company. My sister is too vain to realize she has never been an object of my friend’s attentions. And he too polite to put her in her place.’

They arrived at Longbourn, and as they greeted the family, Bingley’s eyes immediately sought out Jane. He had seen her only briefly since his return, whilst introducing his sister on Sunday after services. It had only increased his desire to be in her company. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and her serene countenance only added to her elegance. Bingley was disappointed when Caroline decided to single out Jane as the recipient of her attention, an honour he had hoped to secure for himself. He was left to the pleasant company of Robert and Elizabeth. He found the conversation both pleasing and challenging. Miss Elizabeth and her brother obviously were used to debating a vast array of topics with great spirit. Though a university educated gentleman, Bingley struggled at times to keep pace with the rapid turns in the reasoning of the siblings. Bingley was awed by the intelligence and learning of the woman before him. He found himself wondering if the eldest Miss Bennet was as intimidating as her younger sister, suddenly dreading the possibility.

Neither Elizabeth nor Robert was insensitive to their guest’s unease. They had grown quite accustomed to such a reaction, the inevitable by-product of the game they were playing. Robert enjoyed showing off his younger sister’s intellect, even to the extent he knew would be unsettling to anyone unfamiliar with her. They rarely spoke with such animation with anyone other than their father, who was an active participant in such exchanges. But in the presence of a relative stranger to the family, they could not resist, especially if the guest had shown signs of admiration for their dear Jane. It had come to be a sort of test. If a gentleman was not cowered by the prospect of aligning himself with such a potentially well-informed woman as Elizabeth Bennet, then he was deemed worthy of an attempt to attach himself to Jane. Jane Bennet herself was not deficient in understanding in any way. She was, thankfully, not at all like her mother, yet would never have dreamed of comparing herself to her younger, more gifted sister. She was just Jane; quiet, intelligent, caring, kind and ravishingly beautiful.

The evening progressed to the satisfaction of all. Bingley was relieved by the relative civility of his sister, who had apparently taken much pleasure in her new association with Jane. Caroline quickly ascertained that Jane Bennet, at least, would provide a diversion from the decided lack of fashion of the country. At first Bingley was surprised that Jane was not repulsed by the obvious superficiality of his sister’s civility. But then he detected a total lack of cynical attitudes in Jane and was even more delighted with her. What a breath of fresh air after London’s pretentious eligible females.

~

~~~>~<~~~
~

“Caroline, I wish to thank you for a wonderful evening. You seem well pleased with Miss Bennet.”

“She is a dear, sweet girl. But her mother, Charles!”

“Mrs. Bennet loves her children and only desires the best for them, She may not be the most sensible woman, but she is a gracious hostess, most anxious to please her guests.”

“I concede the point. But she is not one with whom I would wish to spend an afternoon alone.”

“Granted, Caroline. Just remember that the Bennets are one of the prominent families in the neighbourhood and we shall be together in company often.”

“Of that I am perfectly aware.” She sighed before continuing, “At least Miss Bennet will provide a diversion whilst I am here.”

Bingley debated the merits of praising Miss Bennet to his sister. However, discretion prevailed and he decided it was not the time to display any partiality. His sister would discover it soon enough, and he preferred to extend the calm before the inevitable storm a while longer yet.

“I for one will enjoy the company of Bennet again. I missed the days constantly spent together at Cambridge.”

“Have you given thought to inviting any of your other friends to Netherfield. I believe I will be ready to receive guests in three or four weeks time.”

“Do you have anyone particular in mind Caroline?” A needless question. He knew EXACTLY whom she meant.

“As you are so enjoying Bennet’s companionship again, I thought you could invite the Darcys. Darcy and Bennet are good friends as well, are they not? And certainly Miss Darcy would accompany her brother.”

‘Ah, Miss Darcy again!’ Bingley said to himself. ‘When will Caroline ever give that up? Miss Darcy would never consider an offer of marriage from the son of a tradesman like me… even if I were at all inclined in that direction.’

“Caroline, I think that is a marvellous idea. However, if Darcy does accept, I would not expect them until the end of September. This is a very busy time for him. I am only observing the harvesting activities here; he is supervising them at Pemberley for the first time. He has many responsibilities and duties to attend. He will soon gain complete control of his estate and even though he has been an active participant in its management lately, that impending added responsibility weighs heavily upon him. He will not wish to disappoint those dependant on the integrity of his care for Pemberley.”

“Yes, of course, Charles,” said Caroline, and seemingly dismissing her brother’s words, she added, “when will you write to him?”

Bingley sighed to himself once again, resigned to his fate, “I will write a letter to Darcy directly.”

~

~~~>~<~~~
~


Netherfield Park, Hertfordshire

__August, 1811

Darcy,

I must say that we are settling in at Netherfield. I have taken Caroline and called on Longbourn. Bennet is well and would send his regards, if he knew I was writing this letter.

It has been most enlightening watching all to the preparations to bring in the harvest, not only here at Netherfield, but the surrounding estates as well. I will be touring the activities at Longbourn with Bennet next week. I find that he is well informed and very knowledgeable about all of his family’s estate business. I become more and more pleased with my decision to lease Netherfield. It is a good place for me to begin my journey into becoming a landed gentleman. And I must say that I find the quiet country atmosphere a welcome change living always in the city. There is only so much noise and humanity one can take without becoming despondent. I wish I could stay in the country forever. Now there, my friend, I see you shaking your head at such pronouncements. You know me too well. But I am well please to be where I am at this time.

And so I come to that which precipitated this missive. I would like to invite you and both your sisters to join me at Netherfield. I am fully aware that your duties at Pemberley preclude such a visit at this time. Would you be inclined to come at the end of next month when the demands of the estate are less burdensome? I am more than willing to write to your cousin to demand that he release you, for Pemberley has held you hostage long enough.

Please come. It would be as it was back at Cambridge with Bennet. We shall just have to leave the women at home and head outdoors for solitude!

Yours, Etc.
C. Bingley

Of course, Bingley took great care to write as illegibly as possible. The replies to these nearly incomprehensible missives was always highly entertaining, especially from Darcy! His friend was always so careful to couch his replies in an approach unlikely to offend, but with a cautious interpretation.

Bingley spent much of the next month with the steward of Netherfield or at Longbourn. He justified many of his visits to observing the workings of the estate. Whilst that always remained his professed motivation, Bingley was never satisfied with a visit that did not include a few minutes spent in the presence of Jane.

Caroline also often came to call. She had, as yet, failed to identify any woman in her country acquaintance other than Miss Bennet whom she believed was well bred enough to be admitted into her company.

One evening, after such a call, Elizabeth visited Jane’s bedchamber as her sister prepared for bed. Elizabeth stood behind her seated sister, brushing out her hair.

“Dear Jane, it appears that you have many admirers in the Bingley family. Mr. Bingley never visits Robert or Papa without seeking an audience with you.”

“Lizzy!”

“And Miss Bingley has decided, for reasons known only to her, to make you her particular friend. Well done! You have managed to make yourself indispensable to two members of the Netherfield household. However do you do it?”

Elizabeth smiled at the embarrassed blush of her sister. “But since you are five times as pretty as Mary or me, I should not be surprised about Mr. Bingley. Miss Bingley is another matter all together.”

“You delight in teasing me.”

“That is because you are as perfect a woman as I have ever seen. If I did not tease you, I would be quite cross to be in your shadow.”

“You are teasing me again. You are much prettier than I and I could never match you intellect or your wit.”

“Perhaps we should allow Mr. Bingley to be the judge of that. Are you pleased with his attentions, Jane?”

Jane dropped her gaze to her lap before answering. “He is the most amiable man of my acquaintance. Yes, I am pleased that he has taken notice of me.”

“He would be a fool not to notice the most beautiful woman in the country! You must take extra care in your preparations for the assembly ball on Saturday. I believe a certain gentleman will be satisfied with nothing less than two dances!”

Saturday evening found the ladies of Longbourn eagerly awaiting a delightful evening of conversation and dancing. Mary had just come out into society, and was anticipating an evening away from the confines of Longbourn, and her mother. Elizabeth, always impertinent, looked forward to many dances with the many young men sure to be in attendance. No man of her acquaintance had yet caught her fancy. Indeed, she was of the opinion that no such man currently resided in Hertfordshire, save Mr. Bingley. But that gentleman was enamoured with her older sister, and in any case, she had never had any tender feelings towards him.

The Bennets were among the first families to arrive, much to the siblings’ consternation, for none of them wanted to appear as eager as their mother. The Bingleys arrived fashionably late, of course. All eyes turned toward them as they made their entrance. Caroline disappointed no one with her gown of the very latest fashion, the women commenting amongst themselves on the length of her sleeves.

Bingley spied his friend and led his sister over to greet the Bennets. He wasted little time in securing Miss Bennet for the next set.

“Mr. Bingley, I am afraid you have disappointed many tonight.”

Looking slightly alarmed, he asked, “How so Miss Elizabeth?”

“A report was circulating through the neighbourhood that you would be bringing a large party of friends from town; twelve ladies and seven gentlemen. But I knew it must be a scandalous falsehood.”

Bingley responded with a warm smile. “I am relieved that you seem to be such a good judge of my character.”

“Nay, sir! I knew enough of you to be absolutely certain that you would never bring so many more ladies than gentlemen. It would have been ungenerous of you.”

“Elizabeth! Have pity on my friend. It is too early to make such sport of him!” her brother mockingly chided.

“I must insist on a dance as remuneration for such officious slander of my character, Miss Elizabeth!”

“Very well, Mr. Bingley. Though you know it would bring me little pleasure.” The laughter in Elizabeth eyes betrayed her pleasant anticipation of their upcoming dance. Bingley was spared further jesting by the resumption of the music.

“Miss Bennet, I must escape your brother and younger sister while my dignity is intact. Shall we join the dance?” He held out his hand, and Jane responded with a sublime smile that signalled her delight with her partner.

Robert then went to collect Miss Bingley for the same set. The dance brought little pleasure to either, but each knew that they had a duty to fulfil for Bingley’s sake, though their motivations could not be further removed — Robert for respect for his friend, Caroline for the continuance of her allowance.

~~~>~<~~~

The Bennet family returned home full of joy after a most pleasant evening. Mary, afraid of sitting on the edges of the room, had danced most of the dances. Elizabeth was rarely in want of a partner and Jane, Jane was admired by all, but most especially by Mr. Bingley. Bennet himself had rarely had as enjoyable an evening, no doubt added by the presence of his youngest sister and his old friend.

“Mr. Bennet, I so wish you had accompanied us.”

“Mrs. Bennet, I passed to Robert the responsibility of escorting our family on such occasions with sheer joy. You would have thought me ready for Bedlam if I suddenly took an interest in such a gathering.”

“Robert was the perfect gentleman, as always. I dare say he danced with every eligible woman in attendance.”

“Including my sisters.”

“Robert! But Mr. Bennet, Jane was so admired, especially by Mr. Bingley. And Miss Bingley! Such an elegant woman! The lace on her gown…”

“No lace, Mrs. Bennet! I beg of you!”

From that evening on, Bingley no longer took pains to hide his admiration for Jane Bennet. He called often with the express interest of being in her presence. Anticipation was growing throughout the neighbourhood of an expressed attachment in the near future. Such was the situation when Bingley received a reply to his letter.


Pemberley, Derbyshire
__September, 1811

Bingley,

It is with much pleasure that I write to inform you of my acceptance off your offered hospitality. I have discussed this with my uncle and my cousin and we are all in agreement that this is an excellent time to visit. The harvest is bountiful and I am very pleased with how I have acquitted myself this first year it has been totally under my supervision. I am ready for a rest and a diversion. Georgiana, Beth and I will be travelling to London and thence to Netherfield. You may expect us on the 27th. Beth is particularly anticipating new territories to explore. You have been warned. Any pirates you may provide would be much appreciated.

Please express my pleasure to Bennet at the prospect of renewing our acquaintance. And please remind him he still owes me three shillings! I won that race outright.

Yours, Etc.
F. Darcy

PS. It would be most ungenerous of me to point out that it is possible for a gentleman to write a letter without a single inkblot to mar the page. FD

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