It’s a busy chapter this week! Collins and Wickham arrive in Meryton! Darcy makes a resolve…maybe. I’d love to read your comments and thoughts!
Elizabeth and Jane arrived home but were not greeted happily by their mother.
“You ungrateful girls! How dare you put Mr. Bingley through the trouble of sending you home in his carriage?”
“I hardly think the use of his carriage was anything compared to staying several additional days,” Elizabeth replied.
“If only you had stayed for a week complete! I am certain Jane would have won Mr. Bingley’s hand!”
Jane blushed but Elizabeth sighed. “While Jane was abed she naturally did not see Mr. Bingley. Once she was able to leave her room it was imporper to remain as uninvited overnight guests.”
“Oh! I know you pushed her to leave too quickly! She will catch cold again. Hill!” Mrs. Bennet’s shrill voice rang out. “Hill! Take Miss Bennet upstairs and prepare a warm wrap for her, lest she take ill again.”
She ceased her frantic movements long enough to turn to Elizabeth. “Lizzy, I know there was nothing for you at Netherfield, and hence why I asked you not to go at all, but if you cost Jane her chance with Mr. Bingley simply because you wished to leave early when Jane alone was no trouble at all, and so well liked by his sisters, I will never forgive you. You foolish, headstrong, selfish girl!”
Elizabeth would have shrank back at the harsh words, but she was far too used to such by now, only amazed at how long her mother could lament without drawing breath. She looked toward her father for his support, but he only shrugged his shoulders.
“I am glad you have come back, Lizzy. There was an utter lack of sense in this house without you.” He kissed her forehead and returned to his library.
Soon Elizabeth was inundated by her younger sisters telling her all about the news she had missed. By the time she went to bed that evening, she was grateful no one asked her how her time at Netherfield had been. She hardly knew how to answer. Was she actually attempting some kind of truce with Darcy?
Certainly he only intended to enjoy a flirtation with her, she reminded herself again. She was as sensible as he of all the reasons he would have against a union with her, and she dared not think most men were capable of real attachment. Knowing he now admired her pleased her vanity as he had so early dismissed her beauty. More, still, he enjoyed her wit and conversation.
She pushed the thoughts aside. She need only remain in his company so long as he was in the area and in an effort to dissuade him from discouraging Bingley towards Jane. Once they were betrothed, she could affect a sudden displeasure with Darcy or direct her attentions toward another man, and he would forget he ever liked her in the first place. This thought both pleased and displeased. His pride deserved a good humbling but the thought that it would come at the cost of him thinking less of her after she had managed to earn his good opinion left a sour taste in her mouth. She decided she was through thinking of him for the evening.
George Wickham sat at his favourite coffeehouse in London. His funds were dwindling but he refused to slink off to a dirty tavern. As long as he had the clothes of a fine gentleman, he would act the part. Unfortunately, the autumn was a slow time of year for finding wealth in London. The gentleman of quality were rusticating at their country estates and would not be bringing their purses—or their lonely wives—back to Town until January. Normally he would leave town at this time of year as well, London was too expensive for year-round living without a fortune, but he could not face the disappointment.
He had finally had the perfect plan as a means to be one of those gentlemen. He had pursued heiresses before, but none so young and naïve as Miss Darcy. On the very eve of their elopement her brother, Wickham’s former play-mate and recent enemy, appeared unannounced. The ridiculous girl could not bear to disappoint him and told him her plans. Darcy quickly put an end to the scheme; he would move heaven and earth to protect the ones he loved.
Wickham sat looking out the window. In the past he was content to only have Darcy’s money on occasion. He had hoped for more when he turned down the living which was intended for him in the old master’s will, but still had to admit Fitzwilliam Darcy was rather generous with an additional three thousand pounds. Turning him down when the living opened up, however, sparked Wickham’s ire. Growing up, Darcy had always been rather reserved in his disapproval of him. He would never confront Wickham or even inform his father of Wickham’s dissolute habits. Apparently he was saving it all for once he became Master of Pemberley.
Twice now, Darcy had bested Wickham’s desires but Wickham knew he would try once more. On the count of the living, Darcy had the law on his side. The matter of the elopement was mere luck. Someday there would be an impenetrable scheme to get the better of Fitzwilliam Darcy. True, money he desired but also revenge; no one made a fool of George Wickham. No one who made themselves so superior to him with their haughty disdain and silence would escape unscathed. He would have Darcy plead with him.
A militia officer who looked familiar walked into the shop and made a purchase. Settling at a table near him, he asked, “Pardon me, are you done with the paper?”
In closer light, Wickham easily recognized the man. “Denny?”
“Wickham!” he returned while putting forth his hand for a friendly shake.
“How have you been, Denny?”
“Well enough. I’ve joined the Militia recently.”
“I can see. I suppose you have found the heiresses as difficult to woo as I have.”
“I do not have your luck at the tables after the lonely wives and widows leave Town to sustain me.”
Wickham grinned, “Nor do you have my charm.”
“The uniform does well enough without me having to say too much.”
“Is that so?”
Denny nodded eagerly. “Indeed. We are regimented now in Hertfordshire. There are several young ladies who are simply wild to meet officers. You should sign up, we need new recruits.”
“I would make a terrible soldier, besides, I am working on a project.”
“A new heiress has come of age? When last I saw you the plan was to seduce…what was the name? Miss Danby?”
“Darcy,” Wickham corrected and inwardly seethed.
Denny perked up. “There is a Mr. Darcy currently in Meryton.”
“The Darcy I know would hardly spend time in such a place.”
“He would not care for it?”
“Not unless there are people of fortune and rank.”
“Then it may be the same Darcy after all. I would have little cause to meet with him, but he’s all the households can talk about, and not with favour.”
Wickham could hardly hold back his smile. It did sound like Darcy, but that would simply be too good to be true.
Denny continued, “If it weren’t for his friend Mr. Bingley I think they may have driven him out with pitchforks by now.”
Wickham laughed outright. “Denny! What tidings you bring me.”
“Now, hold on. If you are thinking of a way to make money off him, I want to be in on the deal too.”
Wickham paused for a minute. He disliked sharing in his triumphs, but he could ill afford to be miserly. Besides, they were friends for years. He knew the value of that. “Of course, my friend.”
Denny grinned. “So, what has that quick mind of yours formed already?”
Wickham shook his head at the compliment and leaned in a bit closer. A few ideas came to mind but before settling on one he knew he needed to know more about Darcy’s present circumstances. Why was he in Hertfordshire at all?
Denny reported Darcy had been there for several weeks now and Wickham suspected that, unless he had severely changed his habits, the friendship of Bingley alone could not be the draw. After all, he was supposed to have been with Bingley in Town for many weeks while his sister was in Ramsgate last June.
One thing he could easily count on, though. Darcy may dislike his presence in the area but he knew Darcy was too proud to publicly shame him or show a weakness and leave merely because of him. On the other hand, Darcy may wish to return to his idyllic existence in his lavish townhouse and his pretty little sister at any moment. Wickham’s conquest would need to begin immediately.
At breakfast the next morning, Mr. Bennet announced that his cousin and heir was to arrive that afternoon and remain with them for a week. From his letter he seemed a very odd mixture of humility and conceit, and both Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet anticipated the humour of his visit. They were not disappointed. They were, however, incorrect in how long such enjoyment could last.
It was during dinner that Elizabeth already began to lose patience with the gentleman. He droned on about his parsonage, calling it a humble abode all the while talking of its superiority yet displaying his subservience to his patroness. His meekness mingled with self-importance was very evident when he spoke of Lady Catherine’s daughter, Miss de Bourgh.
“The court has been deprived its brightest ornament due to her poor health. I even tell Lady Catherine that her daughter has all the markings of elevated rank and seems destined to be a duchess. Such compliments please her ladyship exceedingly and I feel particularly bound to pay them. Indeed, as I know ladies find these delicacies very acceptable, I am happy to offer them as often as possible.”
Before Elizabeth could suggest otherwise, Mr. Bennet began praising Mr. Collins for his manner.
“It is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with such delicacy. May I ask whether these words proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are they the result of study?”
“They arise chiefly from what is passing at the time. Even when I plan elegant compliments which can be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.”
Elizabeth withheld her sigh at her father’s clear amusement. Mr. Collins was absurd but she longed to give her opinion on the matter of insincere flattery, especially under the guise of ladies’ intelligence being insufficient to perceive the truth. She knew, however, her thoughts would be unwelcome. Mrs. Bennet would openly chastise her and Mr. Bennet would offer no defence as he preferred a good joke to nearly anything else.
Her sisters rapidly lost patience with their civility when Mr. Collins refused to read a novel and instead favoured them with Fordyce’s Sermons. Although he claimed he was not offended when the younger girls started giggling together, he quickly turned to play backgammon with Mr. Bennet.
By the next day Mr. Bennet was eager to send the gentleman, who had taken up residence in his library, on a walk with his daughters.
When Mr. Collins had arrived he alluded to the desire to take a wife and as he walked exclusively next to Elizabeth, regardless of how she modified her pace, she was swiftly coming to the conclusion that he had decided Elizabeth met his needs. She cringed at the thought. At last they arrived in Meryton. Lydia and Kitty saw the officer they had been eager to meet with and ran headlong toward him. Jane and Elizabeth sighed and followed them at a slower pace. Mr. Collins attempted to keep up.
Upon reaching her sisters’ sides, Elizabeth could not help but smile. The officer had a very handsome friend with him. Instantly Elizabeth saw evidence of his good breeding and manners. He was easily the handsomest man Elizabeth had ever seen. He also looked and behaved every bit the gentleman. Upon introductions he entered into conversation readily. Many minutes passed in enjoyable conversation when the sound of horses drew their notice.
It was Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy and they drew near the ladies immediately. Elizabeth smiled as she saw Bingley’s eagerness to speak with Jane. She had just turned her eyes upon Mr. Darcy, sensible she should not exclude him, and was startled to see Darcy and Wickham staring at each other. Wickham had turned pale and Darcy red, but neither spoke.
Wishing to ease the moment, Elizabeth introduced them, not caring that she did not proceed properly. “Mr. Darcy, this is Mr. Wickham. We are told he has recently taken a commission in the Militia quartered here and is a friend to Mr. Denny. Mr. Wickham, this is Mr. Darcy, he is visiting his friend, Mr. Bingley, the one talking to my eldest sister.”
Mr. Wickham made to bow but Mr. Darcy spoke before the other man finished, “We are acquainted.” His jaw was tight for a moment and then he dismounted. “Miss Elizabeth, I had wanted to query you about the subject we spoke of on Saturday.”
Elizabeth blushed. He wished to speak of love? He extended his arm and she was surprised she was not unwilling to go when, belatedly, her mind realized he must have meant her correspondence with Miss Darcy.
“Oh, are you certain we should not speak with my sister as well, then?”
He gave her an unreadable look. “I have the lady’s reply here.”
“Oh! Very well.”
She finally took his arm and could feel the tension in it. His reaction to Mr. Wickham was most peculiar and it was impossible for her to not wonder at it.
Mr. Darcy was silent and Elizabeth’s own mind was preoccupied but at last she realized they must speak or look too peculiar, silently together on the street.
“Was the direction on my letter unclear in some way?”
“Miss Darcy sent her reply to you instead of to Longbourn.” Indeed, she could not understand how he had a reply so quickly. Miss Darcy would not have received her letter until the final post on Saturday at the earliest and no mail went on Sundays.
“Oh, she returned it express this morning but did not wish to alarm anyone at Longbourn so she sent it to Netherfield.” Darcy smiled.
Elizabeth returned the smile. How curious! Elizabeth was rather concerned that the young lady was so excited by their correspondence when she could know nothing of Elizabeth but from her own letter. Then, she was so concerned about giving offence she chose to send it to Netherfield instead. And most unusual of all, she was sister to Mr. Darcy, who Elizabeth could hardly fathom considering someone’s feelings in such a way. But then, Elizabeth had to admit, siblings may be vastly different.
He handed the letter to Elizabeth and his expression looked as though he were bestowing her with the greatest gift. Did he think so much of his sister?
“Do you and your sisters often walk to Meryton?”
“Yes, we do.” She glanced over her shoulder at the group. Mr. Wickham was watching them with peculiar interest. “We sometimes make new acquaintances, as you see.” She did not mean to bait Mr. Darcy, yet an expression of hauteur overtook his features.
“I would warn you about happy manners.” They had been walking around the shops but he stopped to face her. “I boasted the other night that I take care to not expose my character to weakness and ridicule but I confess I have a particular failing. I can be resentful and my good opinion once lost is lost forever. And this will make me seem worthy of ridicule, but we must all have some natural defect.”
“I thought yours was to hate everybody.” She clapped her hand over her mouth realizing what she said.
“And is yours to wilfully misunderstand then?”
She frowned. The words were not said in sharpness but she hated that someone could mistake that in her character. “You think I misunderstand your own? You are speaking in riddles.”
“Forgive me, I am not at leave to say much more.”
She sighed. Why must the man be so complicated? “You are careful in the creation of your implacable resentment?”
“You are not blinded by prejudice?”
“I hope not.”
“If you never change your opinion then you must judge properly.”
“I do not hate upon sight. One may earn my good opinion or, through constantly showing a vicious and inferior character, will earn my poor opinion.”
“Then I see not how this can expose you to ridicule.”
“Some may tell a different story of me.”
He gave the briefest glance to where his friend still talked with Jane, and Elizabeth immediately knew he meant Mr. Wickham. Of course, she had only known Mr. Darcy a month and her impression was not very favourable. Without hearing Mr. Wickham’s words it would be difficult to know if Mr. Darcy deserved censure.
Lydia called out to them. She was eager to visit their Aunt Phillips. Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth returned to the group. When Mr. Denny and Mr. Wickham offered to walk with the ladies, Mr. Darcy excused himself and Mr. Bingley followed. Upon their leave, Mr. Wickham glanced to the letter Elizabeth still held in her hand and she hastily stuffed it in her reticule.
Mrs. Phillips invited the gentlemen inside but they declined. The sisters were soon to learn that Mrs. Phillips had invited several officers to dine the following evening and planned to invite Mr. Wickham as well. The Longbourn party promised to attend for cards later in the evening.
“Darcy!” Bingley called to his friend, but Darcy continued to push his mount too fiercely over the fields toward Netherfield.
“Darcy! You’ll break your neck!”
For a moment Darcy wondered if that might be best for everyone but he reined in his feelings and eased the horse into a trot.
“Did you have another argument with Miss Elizabeth?”
“What? God no!”
“Then what was that about? I saw how you looked at the Miss Bennets before we left. You barely held yourself together and then seemed to have a death wish.”
Darcy exhaled. “Forgive me. I hoped to never see that man again.”
“The one with Mr. Denny. George Wickham.”
Bingley furrowed his brow. “Was he not the one who gave you trouble after your father’s death?”
“You have no idea.”
“Tell me,” Bingley said with genuine concern.
“I am sorry but some things…”
“You do not trust me!”
“It is not that. It is done and settled, the harm is done by my own fault. There is no need to dredge it up again.”
“When have you ever caused harm? You think every decision through too much to even accidentally pain someone.”
Darcy shook his head to silence his friend. Bingley had far too much faith in him, as Elizabeth had said. If either one of them knew how he failed his sister, they would never respect him again. Now the very man who had nearly ruined his sister’s reputation and broke her heart had stood before him with Elizabeth next to his side.
The two approached Netherfield in silence. They were informed by the butler that Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst had taken to their rooms with colds. Bingley invited him to a game of billiards but Darcy made his excuses. He needed time to think.
Growing up, Wickham was always present as son of the steward and his father’s godson. They even were sent to school together. Wickham’s true nature came out during that time. He was unscrupulous and an opportunist with a vicious, immoral streak. He turned down a living left for him in his godfather’s will for which Darcy fairly compensated him. Then two years later he appeared asking for the placement. Wickham was unhappy when Darcy refused and the way Wickham slandered Darcy’s name was no less than he expected.
Darcy did not anticipate Wickham to develop designs on his sister. Yet aside from her wealth to fund his dissolute lifestyle, Darcy was certain Wickham wished for complete revenge on him by having absolute power over his beloved sister. That Wickham could scheme so efficiently should not have surprised Darcy. At school Wickham showed a very capable mind, was shrewd and had a charm only diplomats could rival.
He would not be caught unawares again. Somehow Wickham knew of Darcy’s presence in Meryton and meant to profit from it. Darcy considered that Wickham may blackmail him over Georgiana’s reputation. Or simply beg for money again. Darcy would not stand for that again. He would meet with Colonel Forster and tell him…
A dispute over a will did not make Wickham a criminal and any greater proof he had of Wickham being unfit would involve exposing his sister. He could not pain her just to bring peace of mind to himself. Resolved, he pulled the bell and informed his valet they would be leaving on the morrow. Bingley could host the ball on his own. Darcy needed assurance his sister was well and had no desire to be in Wickham’s company once more. He dressed for dinner and felt only a twinge of guilt for letting down his friend. He waited until after the meal was over to make his plans known.
“Bingley, I know you wished for me to stay for the ball, but I simply cannot with George Wickham about.”
Bingley furrowed his brow. “There is no need to leave. I already sent a message to Colonel Forster explaining that while I had invited all of the militia, you and Wickham have a dispute, and if he could find an excuse to see Wickham detained I would be most happy. He replied with an agreement.”
“You really got him to agree to that without saying a thing?”
“Not everyone is like you. Some will make decisions based on friendship alone, or mere acquaintance in this case,” he grinned. Darcy raised his eyebrows in reply and finally Bingley shook his head. “Very well, I also sent over one of my best bottles of port. The Colonel was much obliged.”
“Very well, I can stay for the ball only.”
“I will need your support that evening, friend.”
A strange look passed Bingley’s face but Darcy could not fathom the reason for it. They lapsed into silence. Now that he had calmed he considered again his feelings when seeing Elizabeth next to Wickham. His attraction to her, his desire to possess her good opinion and admiration, had nothing to do with his feelings when he saw Wickham speaking with her. His protective instincts leapt to the fore and he had to suppress the need to haul her away from the cad. He would not call himself oblivious to the concerns of others, but he was ever careful to not become officious- like his aunt and other relatives- unless someone was clearly in his care. His urge to meddle in Elizabeth’s life shocked him.
He could now do her the justice of knowing she would not fall for Wickham’s usual lies…or tactics of seduction. However, recognizing the fact that he realized he felt Elizabeth was in his care made him face realities. He desired to know more of her. Yet it would be difficult to understand her character better without being obvious in his attentions. He would not allow anyone to force his hand. When he proposed to a lady it would be for sensible reasons and not because his honour had somehow become bound to her.
Bingley seemed to be developing an attachment to the eldest Bennet daughter. Usually he would impress on Bingley all the reasons such an attachment would be imprudent. Bingley’s position in Society was more tenuous than his own. Darcy could more easily withstand any censure he received for marrying so below him, and without regards to fortune or connection. But, there was little reason to think that Bingley had more serious intentions toward Miss Bennet than any other lady in the past. Therefore, Darcy could suppress his usual arguments and, as Bingley’s guest, enjoy visits at Longbourn, where he could meet more often with Elizabeth. Perhaps they could all call on Thursday.
As they sat in a far-too-quiet drawing room afterwards he noticed the clouds rolling in. If he was not mistaken, they were due a storm as a cold snap followed all the warm weather they had been having. Hopefully it would pass soon. He had calls to make on Elizabeth, and Wickham. For now, he wrote his sister a letter and another to his butler ensuring she was well protected. As the evening wore on he felt a scratching in his throat.