Thanks for all the entries to the Once Upon a December giveaway! The winner has been randomly selected.
Since tomorrow is Thanksgiving here in the US, I thought I’d post a day early. Also, I’m so thankful for my readers! You guys rock! And, of course, I’m very thankful for Jane Austen. Where would we be without her genius? I could go on and on about how thankful I am that I can read and have the ability and tools to write and publish and for a supportive husband that helps with the kids and house while I write. But let’s get on with the post, shall we?
“Briggs!” Darcy called out, entering his dressing room.
“Yes, sir?” the valet asked. He was busy packing Darcy’s trunks for the planned departure in two days.
“Forgive me for the additional work but I will not be departing as soon as I expected.”
The servant looked at him sceptically but said nothing. Darcy hastened to add, “Mr. Bingley has asked me to remain while he goes to London on some business. When he returns, we will depart. I expect it to be Saturday at the latest.”
“Very well, sir,” Briggs replied with a look of mild astonishment.
Darcy returned to his chamber. At first, Darcy was uncertain why his most trusted servant seemed so confused by his actions. Then it occurred to Darcy: he had delayed his departure twice now due to nothing more than the simple request of his friend. Was it only a week ago he debated with Elizabeth Bennet the nature of friendship and persuasion? Their debate was interrupted by Bingley’s uneasiness with arguments. And yet, Elizabeth had not deferred to his opinion. She was not so eager to please him or thought so little of her own self that she withdrew her opinion.
Thinking about the conversation reminded Darcy of her words on the topic. She had argued that in ordinary cases it was perfectly natural to change one’s mind for a friend. However, this was hardly an ordinary case. True, Darcy’s business was not pressing, nor did he need to see his sister at this very moment, but it was not as ordinary as a suggestion on whether to ride or play billiards.
Darcy felt an excessive regard for Bingley, often caring for him as a younger brother. While it often meant tolerating Bingley’s annoying sisters, he realised he had never done anything he did not wish out of sake for the friendship. Not something as trifling as dancing at the local assembly some weeks before, let alone putting off seeing to his own sister’s welfare for the sake of keeping Bingley in his county of choice.
He slumped on his bed with dawning realization. A regard stronger than friendship had influenced his decision. Separated by miles and days apart, and yet, Elizabeth was his reason for staying.
She was also his reason for desiring to leave.
Over the last few days, he had dreamt of dancing each set with her. At times even the others in the room disappeared, and they danced alone. She would laugh and tease, and he always knew the correct reply to each witty remark.
Exhausted from fighting his divided impulses and fighting off the cold that began days ago, he welcomed sleep. This time, he had new dreams. Elizabeth meeting Georgiana and Darcy’s other relatives. His uncle and aunt—the Earl and Countess of Matlock–charmed by her. A wedding ceremony, and he was saved from a marriage to his cousin Anne, Miss Bingley or some other insipid lady. The sensual dreams of kissing Elizabeth’s lips—of holding her in his arms—were nothing new, but the pervasive feeling of that being his one means to happiness was.
At last he awoke, drenched in sweat and his mind jumbled. Briggs was by his side and arranged for a bath and food. He was told he had spent nearly four days nearly senseless and abed.
As he donned a robe, he informed Briggs they would leave for London right away. Then, upon taking a step and recognizing the lingering effects of illness, he amended the declaration for Wednesday after the ball. The valet reminded him he had changed the departure date several times and just before falling ill had decided on the following Saturday.
Internally, panic gripped him. He must leave Hertfordshire. He had seen first-hand what happened when one believed themselves in love, especially to a woman of inferior birth. Many years ago his cousin, very close to him in age, had believed himself in love with the daughter of a country attorney.
Richard had visited his old tutor after finishing at Cambridge. His family wished him to enter law, but he was partial to the church and visited the tutor, now in charge of a small parish, for a taste of country life before deciding on his career. He enjoyed it immensely and soon felt attached to a local girl in the village. When she was introduced to Richard’s family, the girl soon showed her true character by attempting to seduce Richard’s elder brother, a viscount. Richard’s depressed spirits were horrifying to witness. When Britain declared war on Napoleon, Richard offered his services as an officer against all arguments from the family. They had spent the last eight years terrified of his possible demise.
Darcy was quite aware of his danger with Elizabeth. He would not allow his heart to feel attached. She had cast a spell on him with her dancing eyes and quick thoughts. She was dangerous, but he could not afford bewitchment.
He realized he agreed to stay for no logical reason, simply because he disliked the thought of leaving Hertfordshire. For a moment, he could hardly countenance knowing his own weakness. Then he recalled Wickham was in the country and at the very least Elizabeth deserved to know about his ill deeds.
Calmed from his earlier panic to leave, Darcy recognized he need not fear Elizabeth succumbing to Wickham’s methods of seduction. He did fear, however, that Elizabeth might believe Wickham’s undoubted slander of himself. Losing her good opinion and respect was something the honour in him cried out against. More still, honour had nothing to do with why he felt the need to pull Elizabeth from Wickham’s side. She was to be his and no one else’s, even for a minute.
He held his head in his hands. It was a weakness—it went against every piece of logic he had been taught, against his character and reason—but his heart—traitorous thing that it was—battled with him to end its agony.
Taking a deep breath and slowly exhaling, he came to a conclusion. “I will merely get to know her better—that is all. I will attempt to see her merits as a wife without prejudice.”
He spoke the words aloud so as to consider the situation resolved. And perhaps it might have been had Briggs had not entered the room just then to lay out Darcy’s dinner attire.
“I put that piece of tatted lace from your pocket there on the table. Our Miss Georgiana is growing up rather nicely. So accomplished!”
After Briggs had left once more, Darcy turned to look and saw with a feeling of mingled resignation and appreciation. Elizabeth’s bookmark had never left his side.
Elizabeth stifled a groan. The oaf, Mr. Collins, came near her again. Sweat beaded on his forehead and Elizabeth gulped in disgust. The cold weather had not abated and it still rained. She pulled her shawl closer as she sat near the window for better light. She nodded mutely at whatever inane words he said and returned her eyes to her book.
“I see you are fond of reading, Miss Elizabeth. I have not seen you with anything but a book this entire week! Lady Catherine has a very impressive library but cautions against young ladies reading too much. I have often seen her tell her daughter and Miss de Bourgh’s governess to put down their books. She herself reads frequently, even when I call, but one of her maturity and station in life should constantly be reading so she may pass her wisdom on to others.”
Elizabeth hugged her book closer. Only a few days ago she insisted she had many interests other than reading and at the moment she was so tired of books she was near crying and would gladly take up the most boring embroidery, but books provided a shield from her cousin. At some point it had registered to even him that he ought to leave a person intent upon reading alone. She surmised Lady Catherine had similar reasons for her frequent reading in his presence. Having never met the lady, she wondered how the more experienced woman got rid of the odious man in front of her. Elizabeth had no superior position to lord over him, however flattery…
“Mr. Collins,” she said suddenly, interrupting yet more senseless prattling. “If Lady Catherine gains her wisdom via reading, I wonder if a man in your position ought not to follow suit. A knowledgeable minister must be of greatest importance to his parish.”
“Indeed! Why, before leaving I gave a sermon on—”
“Do you need to work on your next one? Will Lady Catherine not be unhappy if it appears you have neglected your duties to God and the parish for our company?”
He frowned. “I would hate to displease or disappoint her in anyway. If you will pardon me, I will just go upstairs to retrieve my notes and return.”
He spoke loudly as though to the whole room, although no one spared him a glance. Elizabeth gave him a weak smile and he quickly bowed and scurried away as fast as his large body allowed.
“Mama, I have a headache. Might I be excused to my room?” She could think of no other way to avoid Mr. Collins. Her mother had made her stay with the family this week much more than usual.
Mrs. Bennet’s eyes narrowed and searched Elizabeth’s face intently. “Very well, but I will not allow you to spend all day abed. I need you to speak with cook about dinner tomorrow.”
Elizabeth quickly agreed and took the servants’ stairs specifically to avoid Mr. Collins on her route. Once sitting in her room it occurred to her that her mother had never before asked her to look over the dinner plans. She knew how to make menus, of course, but her mother took great pride in her role as mistress of Longbourn. As suspicion that her mother was grooming her as her eventual replacement entered her mind, Elizabeth cursed the rain; it was addling her senses.
She had received a new letter from Miss Darcy earlier and had yet to read it.
Dear Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth,
I hope that my frequent replies do not become burdensome. I have never had a sister before and have always longed for one. My brother is the very best of brothers, I know, but it is not the same. My female cousins are all much older than me. At school I was too shy to make friends. Perhaps hiding behind a pen gives me courage?
Please tell me all about your family and Hertfordshire. William seldom allows me to travel. Our estate is in Derbyshire, you know, and I have been in school for many years in London but have always wanted to see more of the country. I did see the coast last summer. Somehow it was both exhilarating and disappointing at the same time.
Your new friend,
Jane entered the room just as Elizabeth finished reading. She shared its contents with her sister. Before they could reply, they were called to the drawing room again. Mr. Collins had gone to the library and Elizabeth sighed in relief. Mary played something gloomy on the pianoforte in the adjacent room and her youngest sisters bickered over lace, while Mrs. Bennet extolled on how admired she was in her youth and how much she looked forward to Mr. Bingley’s ball. What once would have irritated, Elizabeth now found tolerable. How quiet and empty life would be without sisters and silly parents.
Georgiana opened her newest letter from Miss Jane and Elizabeth Bennet with eagerness. She had never had friends with such uninterested motives before. By the time she entered school, the other girls were old enough to recognize the benefit of being acquainted with a Darcy. As they aged it was clear they preferred an association with Fitzwilliam Darcy rather than Georgiana. She also understood the friendship Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst displayed for her was out of preference for her brother. She had known females her whole life who desired to only use her for name.
One day last spring, shortly before she left on a holiday with her companion to Ramsgate, Miss Bingley was bemoaning a suitor who, she was certain, only cared for her dowry. Georgiana had not considered before that men could be as manipulative as women, she had only truly been in company with her brother and cousins. Yet, even with her eyes newly opened to such men she still fell prey to a fortune hunter.
George Wickham had been her friend in childhood, as much as a boy ten years her senior could be. He was her father’s godson and had once been good friends with her dearest brother. She felt no need to be on her guard when she met with him again, by chance she had thought, in Ramsgate.
With encouragement from her companion and the worries of Miss Bingley’s concerns in her mind, she felt it better to snatch up Mr. Wickham’s declaration of love while she could. It was better to marry him, although of lower birth, than a young man who needed her money only to save his impoverished family. She had not known the details of her father’s will or anything that had passed between Wickham and her brother. When he claimed to be a barrister on holiday, she quite believed him.
She had thought, too, at the time that she was in love with him.
Now, months later, it was not that she had believed herself to love him which caused her to doubt herself. The heart could be fickle and silly, she knew well enough from poetry alone. No, it was that she had thought she used logic and reason to come to the conclusion to not only accept Mr. Wickham’s proposal but even agree to an elopement. In the end, it was her heart—which could not grieve her brother—which saved her from a terrible fate.
However, she need not fear the Miss Bennets were insincere in their friendship. Her brother had selected them to correspond with her and assured her of the goodness of both ladies. She was now seeing so for herself.
Miss Elizabeth’s portion was most amusing.
“It has not ceased to rain in four days! With four sisters in the house and a nervous mother you may imagine how I feel. Then, knowing your brother, perhaps you cannot. Allow me to summarize the last half hour.
Jane, you know, is the eldest and my closest confidant. I could never break that confidence, but allow me to tell you that she is particularly looking forward to the ball on the morrow. I have never known her before to simply stare out a window and gaze at the rain. It is as if her mind—and I am certain her heart—is three miles away. Such serenity she has! While I am about to tear my hair out in frustration, she has a satisfied and even grateful smile upon her face. Grateful to the rain! Imagine that!
Mary is next to us in age. She applies herself very diligently to the pursuit of accomplishment, especially the pianoforte. You have expressed a fondness for the instrument and if you two ever meet I am certain you will have much to discuss. Perhaps you might even suggest lighter tunes to her? The ponderous and discordant notes she is fond of do nothing for the dreary atmosphere of the home. With the ball coming she is practicing very constantly. My mother will interrupt her for some instruction on her gown or hair, which vexes Mary and makes her play all the more furiously until Mama is driven upstairs in need of powders.
Kitty and Lydia can talk of nothing but officers and how many dances they expect to enjoy, which is all of them. Do not say I shock you when I confess that at the last ball we had, I sat out twice due to lack of gentlemen. My youngest sisters have no idea how to enjoy themselves without exertion and attention. At this moment they are in an intense argument over which one is most suited to a certain blue ribbon, which I believe actually belongs to Jane.
My father has stayed in his library, which is not so unusual, except for our current guest joins him there. The estate is entailed on a distant cousin’s line, and my father had quite the disagreement with the last heir before his death. His son has now arrived to make amends—I tremble in thought as to what that means to a household of five daughters—and is the most ridiculous man who has ever drawn breath. If he were only ridiculous he would be a source of amusement. Instead, he is an odd mixture of humility and conceit due to his placement at a rectory abutting his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, whom he cannot praise enough. He has little of sense to say, and says it constantly.
And now, my new friend, you may pity me. For we are all a very silly lot if a mere ball can send us on our heels. I will be sure to write after this most formidable event occurs and you may laugh at the foibles and follies of the family Bennet once more.
Indeed, Georgiana did not laugh at them. It was refreshing to befriend someone who could laugh at themselves and their loved ones. Her own upbringing was much more serious and something she frequently condemned herself for having taken little heed of it in the face of her near elopement with Wickham. It was reassuring to see that censoring yourself and your family was not first nature to all the world. That as much as she knew she pained her brother for not thinking of the Darcy legacy, it was not exactly natural for it to be of the utmost concern to her either. Her brother encouraged her to write to the ladies, Miss Elizabeth in particular, but Georgiana needed no such advice. Dipping her pen in ink, she eagerly began her reply.
George Wickham grinned as he grabbed his purse and stuffed it in this coat pocket. The rain of the last several days had loosened his fellow officers’ lips and purse strings. He was having an unprecedented stream of good luck at the tables.
The scheme he began with his old friend Denny, which was only that Darcy was in Meryton and he could try to profit from him somehow, was developing very nicely. He was rather certain Darcy was entangled with the country miss he had met.
“Wickham! There’s space over here, we are just beginning.” Carter called to him.
As he sat, Denny sent him a sly wink.
“What do you think of this ball tomorrow?” Denny began.
“Bingley is a good chap. His sisters believe they are superior to the area so the food and drink will likely be excellent.” Carter answered.
“And the company?” Wickham asked with a roguish grin.
Carter smiled, “Those Bennet sisters are stunning. The youngest two are incorrigible flirts, eager for the attention of any man. But their mother is too marriage-minded for my taste. Best to stay clear.”
“It’s not just her scheming, it’s her voice. Mr. Bennet is a saint to put up with it,” Saunderson shuddered.
“He declares he has a fondness for fine port,” Carter grinned.
“What do you think, like mother like daughter?” Wickham asked.
“You are thinking to saddle yourself with one of them?” Carter asked.
Wickham frowned. “They have no fortune, I have heard. It would be imprudent, but then when is love prudent?” He needed to sound believable.
Saunderson leaned toward Wickham. “We saw you looking quite cosy with Miss Elizabeth at her aunt’s house.”
“I found her as intelligent as she was beautiful,” he said and shocked himself at his own sincerity.
“Now, the beauty is Bingley’s,” said Carter.
“Maybe with all that sense she won’t be as shrill as her mother. It’s the younger two you ought to stay clear of,” Denny added.
“Have you seen Miss Elizabeth smile? A man could lose his head. Does it seem like any of them have?” Wickham asked cautiously.
Saunderson laughed. “Checking out the competition? That cousin is supposed to inherit the estate. I heard him tell Mrs. Phillips he came looking for a wife. My money is on Mrs. Bennet pushing him on Miss Elizabeth.”
“She will not have him,” Carter interjected. “I heard she walked five miles in the mud to Netherfield to nurse her sister. She is too strong-willed to succumb to her mother’s schemes, and too intelligent to desire such a dolt for herself.”
“Maybe she is scheming too. Mr. Darcy was there as well,” Denny put out.
“Ha! Have you heard them complain about him? When we last dined at Longbourn the whole family was disgusted with him. Miss Elizabeth could scarcely talk of anything else. Seems he insulted her looks on first sight.” Carter shook his head as he laid down a card.
Wickham tried to not show his surprise. She was very closed-mouthed with him. He wondered what caused the change: was she unimpressed by his charm, or naturally coy; had she recognised an opportunity for a very prudent attachment or even, god forbid, had she warmed to Darcy. The idea that she had begun to truly care for Darcy during her time at Netherfield ought to please him, instead it left only a sour taste in his mouth. Why should Darcy gain such a lady?
Still, Elizabeth Bennet was the key to his plan. Despite her protestations, he saw Darcy handing her a letter. He saw the concern in Darcy’s eye as he realized Wickham was conversing with the lady. He would wager Darcy had not even realized there were other ladies in the group, such was his focus on Elizabeth.
He was uncertain how deep Darcy’s feelings ran. It was clear he admired her, and Wickham had seldom known Darcy to feel that affliction. But she had low connections and no money. Worse still, he heard the family behaved poorly and Darcy was very protective of his family image. Still if such an attachment could be forwarded, it would expose Darcy and make him vulnerable.
So, Wickham would appoint himself match-maker and, by seeking Elizabeth’s good opinion, draw Darcy out while also promoting Darcy’s cause. If Elizabeth encouraged Darcy’s admiration he may be persuaded to set aside his pride and marry her. There were two possibilities for his scheme. He would rather have Darcy’s money but could keep just as pleasantly warm with Darcy’s woman.