I haven’t done a giveaway for Once Upon a December yet, so I thought I would. Everyone who comments on this chapter will be entered to win a free ebook of Once Upon a December. Giveaway ends 11:59 pm EST on Tuesday, November, 24. I want to get the winner drawn and book sent out before the American holiday of Thanksgiving.
In case you missed a chapter or want to read from the beginning:
Chapter One and Chapter Two (double post)
The following day passed in tedious hours until Elizabeth could be in Mr. Wickham’s company again. She could hardly wait to discover the meaning behind his meeting with Mr. Darcy. When they arrived at the Phillipses’ residence, the men were still separated from the ladies. In due time they returned, and Elizabeth could barely contain her satisfaction when Mr. Wickham was her partner at a game of lottery tickets. At first he only conversed on the weather, although Elizabeth had to admit how well he could keep her interest even on that.
At last Mr. Wickham brought up the subject Elizabeth longed to know more of: his history with Mr. Darcy.
“How far away is Netherfield from Meryton?”
“Nearly three miles.”
“And how long has Mr. Darcy been in the area?”
“About a month.” She paused a moment and added, “I understand he is a man of very large property from Derbyshire.”
“Yes,” he gave her a calculating look. “His estate yields a clear ten thousand pounds per annum. You could not have met with an individual more capable of giving you details in that quarter. I have been connected with his family since my infancy.”
Elizabeth could not contain her look of surprise.
“You may well be surprised given our manner of greeting but, I assure you, we were both simply sorry to remember our last meeting. We had a bit of an argument and have been too busy to see each other since, so I am certain we were both merely embarrassed. Not to worry, it was trivial, really.”
Elizabeth gave him a slight smile, not at all sure his words explained what she saw.
He lowered his voice, “Actually, he was involved in my attempts to woo a lady. Alas, it did not end well, but I should like to return the favour to him.”
“I do not take your meaning, sir.” She felt her cheeks redden.
“I could see my friend admires you,”
“You are mistaken, sir. We were merely discussing his sister.”
Wickham’s eyes widened but he quickly recovered. “He protects her with his life. If he has asked you to become acquainted with her that is a very great sign indeed. I think I will soon be wishing you joy.”
Lydia’s head bobbed up from her cards and she crinkled her brow.
“Please sir!” Elizabeth hissed at Wickham. “Lower your voice and moderate your claims.”
“Very well, I will cease my teasing. I suppose you must be very well acquainted with him, then.”
“I would not say that at all. We have only seen each other in passing company these many weeks until just last week, when my sister took ill while visiting Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst. She could not leave and I went to help nurse her.”
“I have heard of Miss Bingley. An insipid, mercenary London miss who forgets she comes from trade and believes herself nearly equal with most peers.” Elizabeth felt her lips twitch. “Darcy must have been very pleased with your company instead. I am certain Miss Bingley must be jealous with all the attention he undoubtedly gave you.”
“Nay sir, and I certainly do not desire to gain his notice. Nor would I say he has given it. Everyone is disgusted with his pride. He would never offer for me.”
“Poor Darcy. His manners mistakenly give offence and he cannot appear as he would wish; as he should. He was raised by such excellent parents who taught him very well. His familial pride has led him to be liberal and generous, to give his money freely, to display hospitality, to assist his tenants and to relieve the poor. Not to appear to disgrace his family, to degenerate from those popular qualities, nor lose the influence of the Pemberley House, is a powerful motive. He has also brotherly affection, which makes him a very kind and careful guardian of his sister, and you will hear him generally cried up as the most attentive and best of brothers.”
Attempting to turn his course of conversation, she fixated on gaining information of Miss Darcy. Elizabeth enjoyed her first letter from her new friend. It was easy to tell the young lady was shy but eager for the friendship. “What is Miss Darcy like?”
“Very much like her brother. But then I can never see a fault in a Darcy. His father was the greatest of men. My father had been a successful solicitor and then became Mr. Darcy’s steward. Mr. Darcy was my godfather and excessively attached to me. I can hardly do justice to him. He provided for me amply in his will. I owe my career to the younger Darcy.”
Elizabeth furrowed her brows. Was this what Mr. Darcy and his family were like? A man with ten thousand pounds per annum was considered generous for supplying as a bequest only the cost of a commission in the Militia? Mr. Wickham’s very countenance proved his amiability. He was too kind to understand he owed Mr. Darcy no great allegiance.
The thought put to mind another amiable friend of his. Elizabeth was even more certain she should find every means to attend to Jane and Mr. Bingley’s courtship. If Mr. Darcy got it in his head to leave Netherfield, or that Jane was unsuitable, then that would be the end of Jane’s happiness. She had all the more reason to ensure Mr. Darcy felt appreciated and, if that meant not spurning his sentiments for the time being, she would have to bear with it.
“You do not look convinced, Miss Bennet. Come, I must put in a good word for my friend as I know he is very taken with you. Do you not see any good in him at all?”
“To be a friend to a gentleman as amiable as Mr. Bingley and you, must much be in his favour. And I have seen nothing which would appear he is unprincipled or immoral.”
“My, you are conservative with your praise.”
She chewed her bottom lip. “I choose to know an acquaintance well before assessing them. Equally, I reserve such assessments from those with whom I am not well acquainted. ”
“Very sensible, I am sure.”
Keeping her latest words in her mind she pushed aside the niggle of doubt she had over some of Mr. Wickham’s words and supper soon put an end to their conversation. She watched Mr. Wickham for the remainder of the evening. Everything he said and did was graceful and she went away with her head full of him and his words. She could think of nothing but of Mr. Wickham, and of what he had told her, all the way home; but there was not time for her even to mention his name as they went. Lydia and Mr. Collins spoke incessantly of the games they had played. Mr. Collins added copious commentary on the civility of Mr. and Mrs. Phillips and the dishes at supper. At last they reached Longbourn.
Elizabeth soon related to Jane all that passed between her and Mr. Wickham. Elizabeth expressed it all with a mixture of incredulity and amusement, but Jane was far from agreeing.
“Why should it be so difficult to believe that Mr. Darcy admires you?”
“Because upon first sight he declared me not handsome enough to tempt him!”
“What does that signify?”
“I certainly dressed with more care than usual that evening. My best was not good enough.”
Jane understood Elizabeth’s feelings. Their mother was forever telling Elizabeth her beauty was nothing to Jane’s. She squeezed her sister’s hand. “You know you are lovely. You laughed at his absurd words at first. We do not know what addled his senses that evening but it seems he has finally found them. Besides, it is better that he admires you in your ordinary appearance than for a ball.”
Elizabeth gave a small smile. “There is some sense in that.” Then she exhaled. “Which is precisely why I cannot trust it. Mr. Darcy is the sort with such standards that he must always be surrounded by the best of everything.”
“Lizzy, you cannot argue that you are inferior and also superior at the same time.”
“Oh, no! I am not so silly as that. It is only that his taste is ridiculous.”
“What makes you think so, beyond the words at the ball? He engages you in conversation, he has asked you to dance twice now. He attended you at the pianoforte and has encouraged a friendship with his sister.”
Elizabeth furrowed her brow. “He cannot mean anything by his admiration then. I have nothing to tempt him to…” she looked very uncomfortable as she finished her words, “matrimony.”
“I cannot agree with that at all. He surely sees by now you are lively, witty and kind. You are the most wonderful of sisters.”
“Yes, but I am without fortune and connection. Our family lacks restraint. It must repulse him.”
“Do you imagine he is so proud or that it is only the prudence of his position in society?”
“Both, I daresay.”
Jane cast her eyes down. “I do hope you are wrong. For if the latter is the case then I have been very foolish with Mr. Bingley.”
“Dear Jane! You are so much better than me! Your qualities must be enough for any sensible man who cared for his happiness in life to see how deserving you are.”
“Is that what you believe Mr. Bingley thinks?” She fervently wished for that to be the case.
“I think he has from the first moment he spoke with you,” Elizabeth smiled and squeezed her sister’s hands.
Jane returned the smile. “Then I do so very much hope his friend can see the same in you. Imagine if we married the best of friends!”
Elizabeth laughed. “Your imagination is far too rapid! I am uncertain if Mr. Darcy even admires me at all, but I am certain I do not desire his notice. I cannot return any sentiments he may have for me.”
“You do not still think he is so proud, do you? I must think him very sensible and amiable if for no other reason but his opinion of you. He is friends with Mr. Bingley who we know to be very amiable, and now we know Mr. Wickham who is no less gentlemanly.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “I feel as though I have seen such differing aspects of him. I cannot make him out at all.”
Jane smiled slyly and leant forward. “Then you must speak with him more. My imagination may be too rapid, but some attachments begin slowly.”
Elizabeth shook her head again and lightly laughed. “You are too much of a romantic, dear. Now, I do want to talk to you seriously for a moment. I was very concerned when Mr. Wickham explained that Mr. Darcy had been exceedingly kind to him when, in fact, all he has gained is his career is as a lieutenant in the militia.”
“But it must be more than he had ever hoped to attain as the son of a steward. Consider, one must have a letter of recommendation from a gentleman.”
“Yes, but Mr. Darcy could do so much more for Mr. Wickham. Do you not feel as though he takes advantage of his friendships?”
“How can that be when he has so much more to offer them?”
Elizabeth frowned. “I suppose that is true. I only feared that he attached himself to amiable young men who could not bear to see his flaws.”
“You believe Mr. Bingley imposed upon? Is it not easier to believe that Mr. Darcy has superior qualities? Or that he has no deficiencies which would earn the ending of a friendship?”
“I speak as I find. As I said I have seen too many sides to his character to be sure of anything.”
Jane was silent before replying. “I do hope you are wrong. Mr. Bingley would suffer greatly if that is the case.”
Their conversation was brought to an end by the arrival of the formal invitation to the ball at Netherfield. It was planned for the following Tuesday.
As Jane considered how the evening might pass in the company of her two friends, and with the attentions of their brother, she was surprised to overhear Mr. Collins ask Elizabeth for the first set. She agreed with some reserve, which Jane attributed to believing Elizabeth had desired to be engaged with Mr. Darcy during those very dances. Their mother was very pleased and, most curious of all, Mr. Bennet seemed to be as well.
The warm, dry weather they had been experiencing finally ended that evening, and with the return of colder air came a torrent of rain lasting until the morning of the ball. The women of the household were at odds with each other, and their father in hardly a more agreeable state. Even the shoe-roses had to be delivered by proxy. Jane frequently wondered how the inhabitants of Netherfield fared. She missed her friends and could not hide the truth from any of her family that she felt impatient to see Mr. Bingley again. She allowed herself to wonder, even to almost hope, that an offer would soon be made, perhaps even the night of the ball. If distance made the heart fonder, she would not repine even the rain.
Glaring at the missive in his hands, Charles Bingley crumpled it. An important meeting was called for the following Wednesday, the day after the ball, and he could not miss it. His annoyance came from the dislike of having anything to think about in the hours between now and the ball. It was critical the evening went as planned, for he hoped to make Jane Bennet an offer of marriage.
Now, instead of anticipating such a joyous event, he had to consider this business in London.. Bingley poured over his previous correspondence and notes for hours before coming to the conclusion that he must ask for Darcy’s assistance. Yet Darcy was still abed, having retired early the previous evening, and Bingley suspected he was coming down with the same cold as his sisters.
Just then, Bingley heard a step outside the door. Only Darcy would come down this wing to the library. Leaving his study, he quickly found his old friend.
“Darcy, are you well?”
Darcy stood staring blankly at a chair. Bingley walked-up and touched him gently on the shoulder. The man startled and jerked his head.
“Just like you to frighten me, Bingley!”
“I called to you when I entered the room.”
Darcy’s eyes again returned to the chair.
“I do not believe you are well. You should return to your room. My sister would never forgive me if you caught your death from a cold. She has such big plans for you.”
Darcy quickly turned to Bingley, then stumbled and touched his head.
“Now, I have done it. You had better sit.” Bingley guided Darcy to the settee across from the inexplicably fascinating chair. “I shall call Mrs. Parker to attend you.”
“No, I am well. The fever has broken.”
“You are far from well. How Caroline will recover from the heartache of hosting a ball and not dancing with you, I know not.”
“I have no plans to take a wife.”
Bingley looked at his friend in confusion. It was a strange wording, even if he only meant he would never marry Caroline, which they both well-understood. Believing it simply a matter of illness, he did not address it. “I am glad to speak with you before the ball. I have had an express from my solicitor. I will need to leave for London on Wednesday morning.”
“You should have no plans to take a wife either!” Darcy said rather forcefully.
Bingley sat back, prepared to do battle. “My wealth may only be half of your reported income but it is quite sufficient.”
“Yes, but your children may not find it quite so sufficient if you marry a woman with no standing or income.”
Bingley shook his head. “I have heard all your arguments before. Spare me. I will act how my conscience dictates.”
“You are blinded by love,” he said with disdain.
“I am not like you. I wish to marry for love and be loved in return.”
Darcy pinched the bridge of his nose before meeting his eyes. “That is exactly your problem. There is no way to know for certain a woman loves you, with all the money you have. Consider the pain you will feel when you discover it was all a lie.”
Bingley could find no reply. There was much he did not know of his friend’s past, much he did not understand. Darcy had always been wary of sentimental attachments. Bingley knew Darcy’s parents had an arranged marriage, and yet the marriage was not bad. If it were, then it would hardly make sense that Darcy should wish to marry in a similar fashion. Yet he had never been so vehement in his argument before; worse still, Bingley had to face the reality that he could offer no assurances.
Darcy checked his watch and then stood before breaking the silence. “It is nearly time for dinner. I must dress, but I would be happy to ride to London with you. If you will recall, before you requested my assistance at this ball, my intent was to leave this week.”
Bingley winced. “I actually was going to ask if you would stay on while I am away. I do not think my sisters and brother will remain otherwise.”
“London does have more diversions, even at this time of year.”
“Please, Darcy. What would it look like if the whole party left the area directly after the ball?”
“Very well, but I wish to see my sister before next week is out.”
“You are welcome to return any time and my sisters would be delighted to host Miss Darcy.”
“Yes, I am sure,” Darcy said with a rueful smile before leaving.
Bingley sat and exhaled. Could he really be so uncertain of Jane’s feelings for him? He had not considered, before, that her attachment did not equal his own. Nor could he consider how to address the issue with the lady in question. He knew her to be too kind to intentionally trifle with his feelings, too sweet to use subterfuge. If he asked, she would answer. Amiable as he was, his stomach turned at the thought of suffering a rejection, not of his hand, but of his offer of love. As the ladies of his household were sick he had not visited her in person to give the invitation to the ball, as he had wished. Thus he had no opportunity to secure sets with her. If she saved a space for him on her card, he would take it as clear encouragement.
The thought did not sit well with him. Darcy did not attend dinner. Instead, word came that he was ill. As the evening progressed it became clear Bingley had caught the same cold afflicting the others, and so he determined his previous unsettled feelings were simply due to being ill.