The most pressing issue before the two men was what to do about Lydia. Mr. Gardiner wanted to bring her to his home, but Darcy disagreed. Someone needed to go to Longbourn to deliver the news, and it had to be Mr. Gardiner. He started to argue, but his protest died on his lips. Darcy was correct; there was no one else. Such bad tidings should be conveyed in person, and Mr. Gardiner ought to be the one to tell his sister she was a widow. But that left no place for Lydia to stay in London. She could not go back to Hertfordshire.
They discussed Darcy’s London home, and the idea was quickly discarded. He was a single man and while he trusted his servants, the chance for scandal was too great, and Mr. Gardiner was adamant that it should not be risked. Darcy’s uncle, the Earl of Perryton, and his wife had already left Town for their estate in Lincolnshire. Perhaps Lydia could go there until they discovered if there were to be more consequences to Lydia’s failed elopement. In the interim, she needed someplace else to stay.
“I could take her to stay with one of my partners,” Mr. Gardiner thought aloud. “Peters could take her in. He and his wife live alone now. Their children have all married and moved away.”
Darcy immediately agreed to this plan. Once the constable had finished his inquiries, they would take Lydia back to Gracechurch Street while they awaited word from the Peters.
Fortunately, Lydia had awakened by the time the constable arrived. He questioned Lydia, Darcy, Mr. Gardiner and the innkeeper. Mrs. Younge had slipped away during the commotion of finding Lydia. It was obvious to the men who was responsible for Mr. Bennet’s death. Wickham’s actions were not those of an innocent man. Lydia’s discovery that the necklace her father had given her for her twelfth birthday was missing led to a search of the lodgings. The absence of Lydia’s other valuables and her money was only exceeded by the realization that Mr. Bennet’s person had been pilfered for more than a pair of boots. Mr. Bennet never went anywhere without his watch, and that too was gone.
The conclusion was inescapable – Wickham had taken everything of value and fled. Unfortunately, it had been over sixteen hours since he had left the inn, ostensibly to go to Hertfordshire, though no one believed he was headed there. He had a large lead on his pursuers.
“I would bet money that he went to the docks. Tide’s been out and in now. If he boarded a ship getting ready to depart, he will be impossible to catch,” the constable stated.
“Will you send men to see if you can find a trace of him?” Darcy asked.
“Aye, though I cannot promise they will find anything.”
Darcy hesitated only a moment. “Would a likeness of him help in the search?”
“Yes it would! Though I have never heard of such a thing before. How is it that you have one?”
“George Wickham was the son of my father’s steward. My father was fond of him and had his portrait done about seven years ago. When I came to London to search for him and Miss Lydia, I brought it with me. I, uhm, took the liberty of asking my housekeeper to have copies drawn.” Darcy pulled out several sheets of paper, all depicting the same face.
“This is amazing,” the constable said in a moment of awe. “I will give these to my men. It should aid them immensely.”
“Perhaps that damned portrait will finally do some good.” Darcy replied angrily.
They collected Lydia, who had earlier been taken to the proprietor’s personal rooms to wait, and left for the Gardiners’ residence. Word had already been sent to the Peters asking for their help and a response was received shortly after they arrived. Mr. Gardiner delivered Lydia to them himself, and Darcy used the time waiting for his host’s return to pen several missives. He would not return to his own home until he had seen Mr. Gardiner off to Longbourn.
Darcy assured the older man that he would take care of all the arrangements to return Mr. Bennet’s body immediately to Hertfordshire.
“Thank you. It relieves one worry from my mind. Will you accompany him to Longbourn?”
“I have not decided.”
Mr. Gardiner was surprised. “I thought that you would attend the funeral. As his heir, I would have thought …”
“Presumed heir,” he corrected, “but yes, I should at least attend the funeral.” Darcy paused, “Mr. Gardiner, may I be frank?” When the older gentleman nodded, Darcy forged ahead. “I am not sure this is the best time for me to meet the family. I … I do not wish for them to know my position yet.”
That earned Darcy an appraising look. “If I may be equally forthright, I can understand your desire to avoid my sister and her pleadings right now, but you cannot remain anonymous forever.”
“On the contrary, I can, if I so chose.”
Mr. Gardiner continued to stare at the man across from him, trying to make him out. It seemed incredible to him that Darcy should choose to distance himself when he had specifically come to London to help.
“I am at a loss for words, sir. Would you put my sister out of Longbourn without ever seeing the place?”
“It is not my intent that Mrs. Bennet should ever leave.” Darcy said it so quietly that Mr. Gardiner thought he misunderstood him.
Mr. Gardiner sat up straight. “Did you just say she should never leave Longbourn?”
“But why? I know you to be a generous man, but this is incredible!”
Darcy could not stand to face Mr. Gardiner any longer. The guilt he felt was crushing him. He stood and walked over to the window and leaned his hand against the sash.
“I cannot help but think that had I done what I ought on more than one occasion, Mr. Bennet would be alive today. I kept my silence in Hertfordshire, not exposing Wickham’s true nature and allowing him to ingratiate himself into the militia, the neighborhood, and, most damning of all, into the Bennets’ good graces. Even before that, I hid his faults from my father, and concealed his misdeeds. I paid his debts at school and later in Lambton. I almost let him …” Darcy swallowed. “And had I not delayed my return to London one day so as not to chance meeting you and your family on the road, I would have found them before Mr. Bennet. I, I am to blame. It is as if my own hands took your brother’s life.” Darcy turned to face Mr. Gardiner. “Tell me, what else would you have me do to make amends?”
Mr. Gardiner saw the pain and guilt in his companion’s eyes. While he understood Darcy’s sense of responsibility, he felt perturbed that the man once again took too much on himself. Someone needed to take him in hand, and since Mr. Gardiner was the only one in the room, he knew it must be him.
“The only person truly culpable is Mr. Wickham himself; may his soul rot in hell for the evil he has done my family. No, sir, I will not stand here in silence and let you claim responsibility for that reprobate’s sins. You are only perpetuating what you said you did before by paying his debts and hiding his misdeeds from your father. Be a man, Mr. Darcy!”
Darcy bristled at the reproof, but only for a moment. His shoulders slumped in resignation.
Mr. Gardiner continued in a more compassionate tone. “However, I will accede to your request to remain silent on your status as heir presumptive. I will spare you my sister for now, as long as you give me your word that you will bring my brother home to his final resting place. Leave it to me to explain your presence. I think I can leave out enough of the tale to form a credible excuse.”
Darcy nodded. Not wishing to belabor the point, Mr. Gardiner left him to check on the status of preparations for his trip back to Hertfordshire. He had left Longbourn just the morning before, and yet it seemed like a lifetime of events had passed since then.
“One more word before you leave?” Darcy asked when Mr. Gardiner told him all was ready. He had recovered somewhat from Mr. Gardiner’s reprimand. “Would you please inform Mr. Philips of my wish to remain unknown as the heir, for the time being, and that I will call on him to discuss Longbourn when I arrive?”
“I will do so when I deliver the news. He not only is … was Mr. Bennet’s attorney, he is our brother-in-law as well.”
“Thank you, and Godspeed, Mr. Gardiner. I will come to Longbourn as soon as I can. I depend on you to prepare the way.”
Mr. Gardiner smiled sadly. “How I wish it were a under different circumstances. Until then, sir.” He tipped his hat and entered his carriage.
Darcy did not think any carriage ride could be as bleak as the one when he returned Georgiana to Pemberley from Ramsgate. He now knew he was wrong; the one back to his townhouse felt infinitely worse.
One of the notes Darcy had written while he waited at Mr. Gardiner’s was to his cousin, Colonel Andrew Fitzwilliam, asking him to meet him at Darcy House. Fitzwilliam would give him the full tongue-lashing he still felt he deserved. Unlike Mr. Gardiner, Darcy’s cousin knew the full extent Darcy’s error.
“You mean to tell me he was in Hertfordshire, and you did not tell me?” the colonel asked angrily as they sat in Darcy’s study. “I could have prevented this had you shared that little bit of information.”
“And risked you hunting him down and killing him? Georgiana and everyone else in the family, for that matter, would never have forgiven me had I enabled you to send yourself to the gallows for murder.”
“I would have been more careful than that.”
“And in the end, no better than the man you loathed – a murderer.”
The colonel scoffed, still furious with his cousin. “We will never know now what I would have done. I probably would have just taught him a lesson. Never mind. You did not summon me only to inform me of his newest crime, what would you have me do?”
“The war office should be informed that one of their militia officers not only deserted but likely is responsible for killing a gentleman. Their involvement in the search would be a tremendous help.”
“I do not know how far out of their way they will go to find Wickham, but they will want to see him punished. It is an affront to king and country. However, I doubt it will do any good. My money is on the cur finding a ship last night and setting sail down the Thames and away to safety.”
“I tend to agree with you, but we must try.”
For a moment Darcy considered revealing the entail of Longbourn to Fitzwilliam, but decided no to do so. That was a secret he was not willing to share at that moment, even with his cousin. They shared a drink, and Darcy gave him more details on his discovery of the elopement and his time in London. He hoped Fitzwilliam would attribute his desire to help the Bennets to his sense of responsibility for not revealing Wickham’s misdeeds when he had the chance last autumn. Darcy’s true motivation was another subject he did not wish to discuss.
The Colonel did not stay long. He had his commission from his cousin to complete, and he knew Darcy had his own set of tasks. There was too much to be done to sit around and reflect on what might have been. Instead, they must face what was, God help them all.
Kitty was the first to spy her Uncle Gardiner’s coach coming up the drive. The others in the sitting room flocked to the window in curiosity. The wait for news, good or bad, had been draining on them, and they welcomed any hope for a resolution, rather than wait in uncertainty.
Mrs. Gardiner recognized the family’s carriage. She knew then that whatever news her husband brought was bad and went to the nursery to see that her children would not intrude.
Elizabeth, Mary, and Kitty welcomed their uncle into the drawing room. Jane was upstairs with her mother.
Elizabeth spoke first. “What news, Uncle? Where is Father? Have you found Lydia?”
“Let us wait for your aunt to join us, and then we can tell everyone at once. Please ask me no more,” he replied wearily,
No one knew how to interpret such a remark.
“Tell me, how your mother is faring?” he asked, trying to break the silence.
Elizabeth answered. “How else would she fare? She remains in her room. My sisters and aunt have taken turns sitting with her. Jane is with her now.”
That was the end of conversation until Mrs. Gardiner appeared. Mr. Gardiner asked them to go with him to the mistress’ chambers. He motioned for the girls to go before him and then leaned and whispered something into his wife’s ear. Elizabeth noticed, but did not see any reaction on her aunt’s face other than a nod of acknowledgement. She then watched as Mrs. Gardiner called the housekeeper to her and whispered to her. Hill nodded, curtsied and hurried away. Whatever the message, her uncle must have wanted something done before he spoke to her mother.
Predictably, Mrs. Bennet became very agitated at the appearance of her brother. He pulled up a chair and sat next to her, not attempting to stop her torrent of worries. He grabbed her hand and held it tenderly. This would be the second time that day he would deliver the same awful message.
“Harriet, I come with news of George. He is gone.”
“Gone? Gone where?”
“He passed on sometime yesterday evening. I am sorry to tell you. George is dead.”
A collective gasp filled the room, followed by sounds of anguish. Hill entered the room immediately with some spirits for Mrs. Bennet.
“Dead? How has this happened? Did he find Wickahm? Was there a duel? Oh, what is to become of us?” Mrs. Bennet cried. “And Lydia? Any news of my dear girl.”
At least on this Mr. Gardiner could bring them some relief.
“She is safe. I have left her under the care of friends of mine in London.”
“Lydia is well? She must return home to be with me – with her family.”
“No! No, she will remain in London for now. Lydia cannot return to Longbourn, perhaps not ever. Harriet,” and here the pause was most chilling, “her lover murdered her father.”
Even Mary was too shocked to say anything. The room was strangely quiet as Mr. Gardiner recounted what he knew to his audience. Elizabeth and his wife were the only ones who asked him questions. He answered as well as he could while keeping his promise to Mr. Darcy. That man’s name, however, had to be mentioned eventually.
“And so, this friend who helped you find Papa, you say he is to bring him home?”
“He should arrive tomorrow morning. I must go see the rector and our Brother Philips yet tonight.”
“Do we know this man, so we may thank him?” Elizabeth asked innocently.
“Yes, you have all met him. It is Mr. Darcy.”
Elizabeth paled. “But he was in Derbyshire. He followed us to London?”
“He is a good man, Elizabeth. He would not stand idly by when a friend is in need.”
“A friend?” Mrs. Bennet said in disbelief, finding her voice again. “He slighted Lizzy and treated Wickham most abom …” She stopped mid-sentence as the implications began to dawn.
“Yes, Sister, even in that, we were grossly deceived.”
Elizabeth was quick to defend Darcy. “My uncle speaks the truth. We met Mr. Darcy in Derbyshire before Jane’s letters arrived. He was able to give quite a different accounting of his dealings with Mr. Wickham, along with offering a very credible witness.”
Jane’s eyes grew wide at Elizabeth’s speech. It was not a meeting in Derbyshire to which she alluded.
“And events of the past week have born out the truth of Mr. Darcy’s innocence. He has agreed to return my brother’s remains and will stay for the burial,” Mr. Gardiner said in affirmation.
That ended the discussion, and Mr. Gardiner excused himself before his sister could begin again to voice her every thought and worry that came to mind. He spoke to the rector of Longbourn Church and then rode into Meryton to see Mr. Philips and to deliver the news – and Mr. Darcy’s message.
Leaving London at first light, Darcy arrived in Hertfordshire just after breakfast. He brought with him a woman to prepare the body for the mourners who would call at Longbourn later that day. The families of the neighborhood as well as Longbourn’s tenants came to pay their last respects.
In the afternoon the funeral service was held and then Mr. Bennet’s body was laid to rest with his ancestors. Mr. Darcy, to the surprise of all but two, served as one of the pallbearers.
Elizabeth’s regret was complete. She, who had rejected Mr. Darcy, instead listening to the lies of a scoundrel, allowing her mind to be poisoned against the one man of her acquaintance that was perfectly suited for her. And now she owed him a debt of gratitude, for he had been a true friend in their time of need. To come to their aid yet again was asking too much of any man so previously scorned.
With Longbourn entailed to another, what would become of her and her family? At least Mr. Collins would not be the one to throw them out in the hedgerows, as her mother so often predicted.
Darcy returned to London the day after Mr. Bennet was laid to rest. Before he left Hertfordshire, he had met with Mr. Philips and made his desires for the maintenance of the estate – and his continued anonymity – known.
He was not quite sure how he had managed to avoid a difficult conversation with Elizabeth. He had first entered Longbourn accompanying the body, but fortunately he was able to leave very shortly after his arrival to secure a room at the inn in Meryton. After that, he had called on the family along with others who had come to offer their last respects. He and Elizabeth were never alone, and neither could bring themselves to look directly at the other. The women could not attend the funeral and after the burial Darcy retreated to the inn. Perhaps someday they would meet again and questions would be asked, but that was for later.
His time in Town would be short; he needed to return to Pemberley. Darcy met with his solicitor and his bankers to inform them of his obligations toward the upkeep of Longbourn as well as a few other unrelated matters. He also interviewed several men for the position of steward of Longbourn, finally choosing a young man who had spent several years working as an assistant to the steward of a trusted friend.
What held his attention most though, was the progress of the search for George Wickham. As expected, no trace of him had been found at any of the coaching stops out of London. The search of the dock proved more fruitful. A young lad was found who admitted seeing Wickham on the night of the murder, and that Wickham had asked about the ships departing with that evening’s tide. The boy had not, however, seen which ship he may have boarded. No one else remembered seeing the man from the sketches the investigators carried. All that could be done now was to take down the names and destinations of the ships that had left that night. As those vessels returned to London, Darcy would see to it that each crew was questioned. If Wickham had fled England on one of them, Darcy would discover it. He could then extend his search to that location.
Darcy had a response from his uncle and aunt regarding Lydia. While they questioned his participation in such a scheme, they would not turn the girl away. Lydia would stay with one of their tenant families for the next two to three months until something more permanent could be found. Lady Perryton made it very clear that she expected a fuller accounting from him soon.
Thus, one week after he had arrived in London to search for the missing couple, he was on the road back to Derbyshire. The pace of his return journey was much slower, but Darcy did not object; there were some people at Pemberley he was in no hurry to see again. However, the one member of the party that Darcy had missed dearly was there to greet him when he arrived.
Georgiana stood waiting on the steps to the house as the carriage pulled to a stop and her brother climbed out. When he reached her, he pulled her into his embrace and held her for several moments.
“Please forgive me for abandoning you.”
“You would not have left had it not been important,” she answered.
“Thank you.” Upon her pardon, they walked into the house.
When Darcy made his first appearance to his guests, they were all assembled and waiting for dinner to be served.
Caroline Bingley was effusive in her greetings.
“How we have missed you, Mr. Darcy! I was just telling your sister how different the house feels now that your commanding presence has been restored to it.”
“Yes. I am … relieved the business that called me away so suddenly is resolved enough to allow me to rejoin you,” Darcy managed to answer.
“Might you be leaving us again?” Bingley questioned.
“I do not think so. I was able to install measures that should stabilize the situation. I doubt I will have to journey to Town until after you depart for Scarborough.”
“So soon, Brother?”
Darcy turned and addressed his sister in a tender voice. “It is possible, my dear, but not certain. Do not worry about that now. Our guests will be with us for several more weeks. Let us enjoy each other’s company.”
Mrs. Reynolds’ call to the dinner table shortly after that was a welcome reprieve.
Late that evening, after everyone else had retired, Darcy and Bingley sat in the library. Bingley noted his friend’s low mood and tried to lift his spirits.
“Good heavens, Darcy. You look like someone has died.” Seeing Darcy blanch, Bingley’s laughter stalled upon his lips. “My God, someone has died. I am sorry, old friend. My attempts at levity are ill timed.
“Did I know this person?”
Darcy closed his eyes to fortify himself knowing the time had come for him to make some overdue confessions.
“Yes, you did.”
“Will you tell me who?”
Darcy retrieved the decanter and refreshed their drinks. “This may take awhile,” he said in explanation. Instead of returning the decanter to its normal location, he set it down on the table nearest them.
“Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s father died.”
Bingley gasped. “Is that why they left so quickly?”
“He was alive when they left … I must ask that you do not divulge what I am about to share with you, especially to your sisters.”
Darcy spent nearly an hour telling him about the events of the last two weeks. He also told him about the entail. Bingley was shocked, but he let his friend continue to unburden himself. However, Darcy did not betray Georgiana’s secret, or his own botched marriage proposal.
“I have another confession to make. During all of this … I found that I had given you some rather poor advice last autumn. Bingley, I have discovered that last November Miss Bennet’s heart had been touched. She mourned your departure for many months. I … I misjudged her calm demeanor for indifference. I was completely wrong about her.”
“You, wrong? I thank you for ack … ack… saying that.” Bingley’s voice dripped with accusation.
Darcy tried to defend himself. “Completely wrong. But I swear on my honor that I was only trying to perform my duty to you as your friend. You deserve affection in your marriage. I did not want you trapped in one without it.”
“I should be furious with you, Darcy.” Bingley nearly yelled. His own loud tone startled him. “Who’s here?”
“Just us. You were shouting at me.”
“Damn right I was shouting at you. You inter… inter… you told me my Angel did not love me. If I were sober right now I would probably be livid and I would probably try to plant a facer on you.
“I am livid. Maybe I should.” Bingley tried to stand up, but fell back, sulking. “You are fortunate I cannot get out of this damned chair!”
Darcy exhaled in relief. A drunk Bingley was a harmless Bingley, but when his friend attempted to pour himself another round, Darcy stopped him.
“You have had enough for one night.”
“Probably for two or shree” Bingley agreed, and attempted to take another drink from his empty glass. He turned it upside down just above his eye, shrugged, and set it on the table. “Should I return for her, Darce?” Bingley asked, suddenly pensive, in a voice that bespoke great longing.
Darcy thought of all sorts of things Bingley should do, however, at that moment it was best to get him to bed. Darcy stood.
“I think you should wait to make any decisions about a return to Netherfield until you are no longer in your cups. We can discuss this tomorrow after we have both have had a good night’s rest.”
“I still have not forgiven you. And I should still give you that facer,” Bingley drawled.
“I know. Here, let me give you a hand up.”
Darcy pulled his inebriated friend to his feet and saw him safely to his rooms where Bingley’s man waited. He was glad at least one of them would sleep well.
Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner spent a week lending their calming presence to Longbourn’s inhabitants. Repeatedly, they reassured Mrs. Bennet that neither they nor the Philips would abandon them if or when the time came that they must leave Longbourn.
Mrs. Gardiner helped the girls choose which of their dresses to dye black and made arrangements with the dressmaker in Meryton to provide whatever else they and their mother needed.
Mrs. Gardiner also provided a willing ear to Elizabeth, who, much like a certain gentleman from Derbyshire, was besieged with guilt. She felt she should have done more to convince her father to keep Lydia at home. Her self-reproach for not exposing Mr. Wickham’s deceptions when she had had the chance was extreme.
In their discussions, Elizabeth finally confided all of her dealings with Mr. Darcy to her aunt, including showing her his letter. While Elizabeth’s aunt had previously suspected there was more to her niece’s history with Mr. Darcy, the fact that he had proposed, and been rebuffed, was beyond her imagination. The couple’s interactions in Derbyshire suddenly made much more sense. Concerning the matter, she had little counsel to offer Elizabeth other than that time heals many wounds.
The Gardiners were also cognizant that the family had actually lost two members for they might never see Lydia again. This was made all the more painful by the fact that they really could not mourn her loss because of the harsh reality that Lydia’s actions might soon cost them their home. This combustive mixture of anger and grief was difficult and wore on everyone. Each time her name was mentioned, words of resentment were not far behind.
In the midst of such familial turmoil, Mr. Philips called at Longbourn in his capacity as executor of Mr. Bennet’s will. The terms were fairly simple; what did not belong to the estate went to his wife, with a few items in particular left to each of his daughters.
The main purpose of his call was to inform the family of what would happen to Longbourn.
“Given the uncertainty regarding the conveyance of the estate, Longbourn will be held in trust until such time as the rightful heir may claim it.
“As you already know, Harriet, after the death of Mr. Collins, your husband engaged me to search for any other heirs. A few weeks ago the man next in line was verified and contacted. This gentleman has also been informed of George’s demise. Because of his position as heir presumptive to Longbourn, I have asked him to act with me as its trustee, and he has agreed. From this point forward, all income generated by the estate will be controlled by the trust. Should Mrs. Collins have a son, the estate will remain in trust until the child comes of age. If the babe is a girl, Loungbourn shall pass into the ownership of the other trustee and heir. I have already informed Sir William and Mrs. Collins of the situation.”
Mrs. Bennet began to speak but her Brother Philips stayed her by raising his hand.
“I am not finished. In regard to your continued residence, you are welcome to remain at Longbourn at least for the next six months, irrespective of the sex of Mrs. Collins’ child. She wishes to remain with her family through the birth and several months afterwards at the minimum, should she have a boy. If not, then her living arrangements are no longer a concern of the estate.
“The other heir has agreed to give you an allowance to cover your living expenses while you remain at Longbourn. It is enough for your maintenance and a very little extra, Harriet. The estate will pay the servants. There is not enough to entertain on your former scale, but that should not be an issue since you shall be in mourning during the time of the allowance.
“At the end of six months, your situation will be reviewed. At that time the heir can chose to continue his support, or he may withdraw it.”
“You keep saying ‘the heir’, Uncle. Does he not have a name?” Elizabeth asked a bit bewildered.
“The gentleman in question desires to remain anonymous. Any requests you have of him will be made through me.
“I should also clarify that the carriage is still available to you under the same conditions as before. If the horses are needed in the fields, then you must wait until they are available, or walk.
“Also, a steward has been hired. Mr. Grainger will arrive in the next few days. He and I will administer your allowance.
“Of course, you also have the interest from the money your father settled on you at your marriage, Harriet. However, I would strongly advise you not to spend any of that while you are in mourning. You have enough in the allowance to meet your present needs.
“The money spent on your mourning clothes will not come from your allowance. Out of respect for your husband and in honor of his memory, the heir has very generously offered to pay for those as well. He is a very liberal man, Sister.”
Indeed he was, whoever this mystery man could be. Jane and Elizabeth spent a great deal of time that evening discussing their good fortune. It could be ever so much worse for them. However, they had six months to make plans for their future. Five women could survive on two hundred pounds a year, but at nowhere near the same level of luxury to which they had been accustomed. Yes, their uncles had pledged their assistance, but they could only afford so much. They and their sisters needed to marry, or eventually they would be forced to find respectable employment. If not, they would spend the rest of their lives on the threshold of genteel poverty. Such a realization made Elizabeth regret her spurning of Mr. Darcy even more. Had she accepted him, they would not be in this predicament. She would not make such a selfish choice again.
It was no surprise to Darcy that he did not see his friend at breakfast. He had not meant to get him so drunk, but Darcy had not stopped it either. When Bingley finally appeared for the day, Darcy had just finished with his steward.
“I should strike you twice.” Bingley muttered as he took a chair across from Darcy.
“Then the pain in your hand would match that in your head.”
“Did you do that to me on purpose?”
“Not really, but I did let it happen. I am sorry, I had meant it more for me.”
“So kind of you to share. Oh well, I am the one who kept imbibing. When should I return to Netherfield?”
“You are straight to the point today.”
“I am sober now, and I have wasted too much time as it is. To be honest, I am of a mind to send Caroline with the Hursts to Scarborough and go to Netherfield alone. Unless you want to join me?” he asked hopefully.
“Bingley, I think you should not change your plans to visit your relations.”
“But you said …”
“Hear me out,” Darcy interrupted. “Miss Bennet is just entering into mourning now. If you show up at Netherfield, you will not be able to court her properly. You may just embarrass her. Think. Her father has been murdered, the soil on his grave is still freshly turned, and now you come to claim her? No, you must wait.”
“I do not know if I can. What will happen if she is forced to leave Longbourn?”
“She will not be, I have seen to their needs for the next six months. Wait, go north as planned, and then in two months return to Herftfordshire. Re-establish yourself in the neighborhood and call on the Bennets.
“Give her time to grieve for her father. Have you forgotten so quickly how it feels to lose a parent?”
Bingley cringed at the subtle rebuke. “No, I have not. What of you, when will you return for your Miss Bennet?”
“I do not know if she can ever forgive me.”
“You will try?”
“I do not know.”
Even while the Bingleys remained at Pemberley, Darcy grew restless. Once his guests departed for Scarborough, his restlessness became more than he could bear. He had to go south, to be closer to her. He could not go to Longbourn, not yet, but he could go to London. There he would be less than a half-day’s ride from her. Now that the harvest was in, nothing was keeping him in Derbyshire.
Before he could leave Pemberley though, he needed to speak with his sister, and to ask her if she wished to come with him.
“Of course I do. Poor Miss Bennet.”
“You do understand that we may not even travel to visit Longbourn while we are in London.”
“It does not matter. I can tell you need to go. Whilst in Town, I can see my music masters, and Mrs. Annesley and I will find plenty of other things to amuse us. You may even join us if you have time.”
“I would like that.”
Darcy marveled at the young woman his sister was becoming. She had taken the news of Wickham’s treachery with poise, though he had seen how much it had distressed her. Her shy invitation for his company on outings was new as well.
They discussed his plans, about when he wished to leave, and he promised to introduce her to the Gardiners. Darcy knew that over the next several months he would be a frequent visitor to Mr. Gardiner. Though he had only met Mrs. Gardiner twice briefly in Derbyshire, he had every faith that his impressions of her were accurate. He had grown to like Mr. Gardiner and did not believe a man of his good sense would have married a woman who was anything like his sister, Mrs. Bennet.
Once settled in London, Darcy did not wait a day to call at Gracechurch Street. He had been in constant contact with Mr. Philips, and through him the steward he had hired. He knew that the women of Longbourn were living quietly and within their allowance, but he longed for more personal details, especially those concerning the woman he still loved.
Weeks ago, Mrs. Gardiner had confirmed her husband’s suspicions that Darcy had taken an interest in their niece Elizabeth, and so Mr. Gardiner was sympathetic towards the younger man’s yearning for any news of the family. However, they first needed to discuss Lydia, and Darcy was the one with that information.
“It is almost certain that she is with child? Lydia has not written to anyone.” Mr. Gardiner queried after Darcy shared the content of Lady Perryton’s letters.
“My aunt says all the symptoms point to it. You might know more about such things, having gone through the experience in your own marriage, but she says it is certain that Lydia has not shown she is not with child. We need to decide where she will go either way. She cannot stay more than a month in Lincolnshire.”
“I have no family to send her to, but my wife does. I think we can pass her off as the wife of an army officer who is away to the Peninsula. It is not too much of an exaggeration, especially since the father was a soldier.”
“He was hardly that, but it is a good plan nonetheless. Where is your wife’s family from?”
“She lived part of her childhood in Lambton, if you recall, but her family is from Lancashire. Mrs. Gardiner has written her brother and it has been agreed that he and his wife will take the girl in.”
“That is good news, if you can call it such. Let me know what I can do to help.”
“You have done more than enough.”
“I cannot agree.” But neither was willing to debate the subject. “Can you tell me if you have news from the rest of the family?”
“My nieces’ letters tell us that they remain mostly at home. Elizabeth does call on her friend Mrs. Collins, who cannot return the favor any longer as her confinement is near.”
“The day of reckoning.”
“You must wish for a girl child. Longbourn is not large, but it is an estate free from debt.”
“It would simplify things for the Bennets, yet it would be a great disappointment for Mrs. Collins. She has both more to gain and to lose than I.”
Mr. Gardiner silently agreed.
“You mean to allow my sister to stay at Longbourn indefinitely should you inherit?”
“My intentions have not changed. They will be safe there.”
Mr. Gardiner took a hard look at the man sitting before him. Mr. Darcy was prepared to be the benefactor of the Bennets, most likely without ever letting them know it was he. He knew one of Mr. Darcy’s reasons was the guilt he still unquestionably felt. Yet, Mr. Gardiner also knew it was something more, something deep and profound. He debated about whether or not to suggest the idea, but in the end he decided that something good should come out of this tragedy. Mr. Gardiner cleared his throat.
“I was thinking, Mr. Darcy. There is another way to insure the Bennets are provided for, independent of the final ownership of Longbourn.”