Distance makes the heart grow fonder, yes?
Having, in her own estimation, narrowly borne with the resentful silence from Mr. Collins and the strange visit from Mr. Darcy—who, after a chess game with her father, sat with the ladies in the drawing room and scarcely spoke more than ten words—the day before, Elizabeth was grateful to walk with her sisters into Meryton. Until Mr. Wickham came upon them, that is.
“Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth,” he said with an elegant bow.
“Mr. Wickham,” they returned.
“You must be enjoying the fresh air after all the rain from last week.”
“Indeed,” was Elizabeth’s only reply. She had no wish to encourage his conversation. At least she could count on Jane to not encourage him either.
“Your sisters seem to be particularly enjoying it,” he nodded in their direction where Lydia and Kitty flirted with two officers. Mary trailed behind with a book in hand. “But where is your cousin?”
“He elected to stay at home.”
“He found indoor pursuits more amiable than escorting his pretty cousins into town?”
Elizabeth stifled a groan. Could there not be men of a balanced temperament and intellect? Wickham was too charming, Collins too ridiculous, Darcy too arrogant and Bingley too happy. She was growing sick of them all. Perhaps she might return to London when her aunt and uncle visited for Christmas. At least there she would have more amusements and no talk of suitors.
“Mr. Wickham!” Lydia called out and then raced toward them. “Mr. Wickham you must walk home with us. Mr. Denny has agreed to come as well, and I know Mama and Papa were particularly happy to meet you at the ball. We need some relief from Mama’s nerves ever since Lizzy refused Mr. Collins.”
Elizabeth turned her head. How she loathed it when her family’s behaviour exposed them all to ridicule! Mercifully, Mr. Wickham made no comment to Lydia’s information and, instead, only happily assented to taking tea with them. Lydia soon returned to Mr. Denny’s side and Wickham walked along with Elizabeth.
“I admire your fortitude, Miss Elizabeth,” he whispered to her.
“Many would have been tempted to contribute to their family’s security with the match you were offered. You clearly desire marriage for affection, however small the chances of such are.”
“Why must it be that I only spurned his offer of marriage out of a desire for a love match? And why must such a choice be painted as free from sense? Income is often a matter of chance in marriage, and our temperaments did not suit. How might he provide for my family any better than my own father has—who may live many more years and the concern all come to naught?”
“You do concede then to marrying for reasons other than wealth.”
“I only concede that I will act and think as I believe best for my own felicity and without interference from people so wholly unrelated to me.”
“Ah, but I might not always be so unrelated,” he said quietly.
She sent him a sharp look. “I have already stated Mr. Darcy has no interest in me nor do I seek to encourage him. Do you truly believe yourself so close to him as to have the right to meddle in his affairs? If so, how can you put up with his treatment in public, no matter what your private friendship is?”
He was saved the trouble of answering as they arrived at Longbourn. Mrs. Bennet greeted the officers with happy flutterings, but Mr. Bennet seemed unsettled and quickly invited the men into the library for a chess game. Upon returning to the drawing room, Mr. Denny soon made his excuses and Mr. Wickham turned to leave with him.
Soon after that a note from Netherfield arrived for Jane and she paled upon reading it. After a quick look to each other, the sisters returned to their room.
“My note was from Miss Bingley,” Jane began. “She says everyone has left Netherfield by now. They are convinced Mr. Bingley will be delayed by business in Town and mean to open up the Hursts’ town-house for him.”
“How strange when he will return in only a few days, even if he is delayed.”
“Miss Bingley believes he does not mean to return at all this winter.”
“Not at all? Impossible! For I can see how much he loves you.”
“Perhaps not. Miss Bingley writes to put me on my guard of her belief that her brother’s affections are turned toward Miss Darcy,” Jane said sadly.
“Let me see!” Elizabeth cried and Jane released the paper from her hands. Scanning the letter, Elizabeth saw only Miss Bingley’s designs. It was as Mr. Wickham said. Mr. Bingley’s sisters did not think highly enough of the Bennets and were attempting to detach their brother from Jane. But what of Mr. Darcy?
“Jane,” Elizabeth began calmly. “You cannot believe this. We have been corresponding with Miss Darcy, who seems everything lovely, but she is not yet out and is far too young to be wishing to marry anyone. Nor do I think her brother would allow her to marry yet.”
“But you do not disagree that all of Mr. Bingley’s friends and family wish him to marry elsewhere.”
Elizabeth could not reply. She was not entirely convinced Darcy believed it a great evil and yet what could be more natural than to wish his dearest friend with his beloved sister? She thought through their last interaction. Had she provoked him? She had forgotten her resolve to treat him with kindness for her sister’s sake and now he was gone. Would his friend ever come back? Or would Darcy convince him Jane was unworthy as he obviously believed Elizabeth was.
“Lizzy? You are crying,” Jane’s words interrupted her thoughts.
“I am only upset that you have been so ill-used by your friend, dearest. And for selfish motives too. I believe Miss Bingley only wishes Miss Darcy for Mr. Bingley as part of her designs to gain Mr. Darcy for herself.”
“I cannot believe that of Miss Bingley. Consider that she would be deceiving not only me and her brother, but a girl as dear and young as Miss Darcy.”
“You are too kind!” She paced around the room. Perhaps she could work on Miss Darcy; at the very least the girl should know she might be being manipulated by her friends.
“Can Miss Bingley love Mr. Darcy so much as that? And why act this way now? Does she suddenly feel her chances with him so threatened?”
Elizabeth stumbled at Jane’s words. “Love would have very little to do with Miss Bingley’s desires to marry Mr. Darcy, rather she desires the status and wealth she would gain.” She could not say that love did not lead to desperate acts, however. Nor did she wish to comment that Miss Bingley would have no cause to feel jealousy. “Come, Mother will be asking for us.”
The sisters returned to the drawing room and attempted to hide their concerns from their mother.
Wickham arrived at the tavern and took a seat at an unoccupied table. In less than five minutes, Darcy walked in.
“I was surprised to receive a note from you,” Wickham said.
Darcy raised an eyebrow as he sat. “Were you? I had thought you were rather hoping for it.”
Wickham was, of course, but would give no hint to it. “What can I do for you, old friend?”
“What makes you believe that I need anything from you?”
“You requested to meet with me.”
“There was once a time you believed that I took such an eager interest in your life, out of reverence for my father, that I would forgive any and all of your transgressions. Can I not simply wonder about my, what did you call me?” He paused a moment and said with derision, “An old friend.”
“So you would be willing to do something for me?” Wickham asked and took a swig of his ale.
Darcy leaned forward and tapped the table with his index finger. “How much will it take?”
“To leave Meryton and never return. To never see her again. To never show your face to me again.”
“My, my Darcy. You think I joined the Militia and happened to be stationed here with some kind of foul intent? And I am certain you would be the first to know if I had seen your sister again.”
Darcy’s face showed his surprise and Wickham grinned. Oh yes, the “her” Darcy mentioned could only be Elizabeth Bennet.
“I can hardly believe the Militia was your only opportunity. A whole army’s worth of rules and regulations held over you? You have always found other, easier means for money.”
“Ah, but the housing is free,” Wickham quipped. “Beware, you sound excessively paranoid. No matter your wealth, few ladies will want a mad husband.”
“Your pretence to be my friend shows you have some scheme afoot and, as usual, you seek to work your deceptions through an innocent woman to gain my money. If that is your tactic you will not succeed.”
“Because she is so sensible and loves you for yourself?”
Darcy’s face turned cold, exactly as Wickham wanted. “I seek no wife. Can I not show respect for a sensible, intelligent young lady? Any lady’s perception of me as a husband is of no value to you.”
“And if she seeks a husband?”
Darcy made no answer at first and when he did speak it was on a different subject. “You seem to be ingratiating yourself with certain families in the neighbourhood. They will not take lightly to you trifling with their daughters.”
“I would not dream of it. And it is you who needs to worry how the area perceives him.” Darcy scoffed. “How is Bingley? And his lovely sisters?”
“They are all in Town.”
“Bingley is to remain there long?”
“Of course, not. How could I remain at Netherfield if that was the case?”
“Precisely. And you certainly wish to remain, do you not?”
“I have enjoyed my holiday.”
“I wonder how Georgiana gets on without you.”
Fury filled Darcy’s eyes, but he spoke with deadly calm. “My father was always soft on you, and so have I been … so far. Must I show you what happens when my compassion is terminated?”
Wickham grinned. “I promise to be the absolute, perfect gentleman. Nor will I allow our dispute to colour my time in the area.”
Darcy looked at him for a long time. “Your word means nothing. I know you are attempting something.”
“You need not worry about me. I have no need to threaten you or need of your money. These country gentlemen are terrible at the tables.”
“In the past, any affluence of yours has only been transitory. I think I would suggest not running up debts. I still hold yours from Lambton and quite a few in London as well. Combined it would bemore than enough to remove you from society for a considerable period, should you exploit their good will.”
“Warning heeded,” Wickham replied.
They regarded each other in silence and Darcy remained only a moment longer. Wickham left a few minutes later. He was rather certain that he held the superior cards in the game against Fitzwilliam Darcy for the first time in his life.
That night the Lucases held a dinner and Wickham was unsurprised to notice Darcy’s absence. He had likely left for London and to check on Georgiana immediately after speaking with Wickham. He was surprised, however, to hear from Miss Lydia that the entire Netherfield Party reportedly left the day before. It was clear they did not know Darcy had stayed behind. Eventually, he was free of the youngest Bennet and made his way to the second.
“Good evening, Miss Elizabeth,” he began.
“Good evening, Mr. Wickham,” Elizabeth returned.
“You seem out of spirits.”
“Not at all. I am only tired.”
“Your eldest sister certainly seems lonely. I have heard Netherfield is quite empty now.”
Elizabeth looked at him with hope in her eyes. “Did your friend call on you before leaving?”
Did she ask for her sake or her sister’s, he wondered. “No, I have not seen Darcy.”
“He once told me that he can resent a person if constantly offended. Do you think it very easy to do?”
So, Darcy had talked to her about him. She seemed to think it could be true for her too. “I have only known him to be so offended with one person, who quite deserved it. Surely nothing you have said or done could be such a thing.”
She gave a wry smile. “This may surprise you, Mr. Wickham, but I do not have the easiest temperament. I may have spoken too freely to Mr. Darcy in a moment of exasperation.”
“I think you do my friend an injustice if you think you may have offended him, and then he selfishly suggest that Mr. Bingley stay in town.”
“Mr. Bingley? Oh, yes. Of course, that was my fear. Thank you for putting me at ease.”
“I would think Darcy only missed his sister. I would not be surprised if he returned soon.”
“Do you really think…that is, I know Miss Darcy certainly misses him.”
She must be corresponding with Miss Darcy; yet more evidence! If Darcy returned with Georgiana in tow, Wickham’s plan would be infallible.
Sensing her unease, he changed the subject. “Your cousin seems quite taken with your friend, Miss Lucas. I would almost think he intends to offer for her.”
Elizabeth laughed. “I fear he would meet with another sad answer. It has crossed my mind he is partial to her, and ridiculous enough to propose marriage on so slight an acquaintance, but I know Charlotte is too sensible to accept him.”
He allowed it to be so, although truthfully he wondered if Miss Lucas would refuse him. All ladies had a price and he was rather certain he also knew Elizabeth’s. He did not remain too long at her side. Her initial dislike and hesitance were thawing, but he did not wish to push it too far. The time for that would be later.
“William!” Georgiana called in surprise as Darcy entered the drawing room of his London House. He took in her smile and leant down to kiss the top of her head.
“How are you?” he asked anxiously. Wickham’s words echoed in his head his entire way to London. He had been unable to begin a conversation with Mr. Bennet on the subject during his call. The other gentleman was quieter than usual and intent on their chess match. Darcy had intended to remain at Netherfield while Bingley was away and determined he could meet with Mr. Bennet another time, but then Wickham threatened Georgiana and he had to leave for London immediately.
“I am entirely well. I am surprised to see you, though!”
“Bingley came to Town on business the other day and luck would have it that I received a notice of my own just yesterday.”
Georgiana frowned. “Oh.”
“You are unhappy to see me? Here I thought I was your favourite brother.”
“You are my only brother and, therefore, I have no choice but to be fond of you,” she teased back. They smiled at each other. “I was hoping I might be invited to Netherfield. I would like to meet Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth.”
He could not retain his grin. “You like them then?”
“Very much! Only now I will never get to meet them.”
“Why do you think that?”
“You are here now and Aunt Eleanor will drag you away to all kinds of parties and events on the quest of finding you a wife. You will not have time to return to Hertfordshire above a twelvemonth, and I daresay Mr. Bingley will not be too keen to leave London either. I have already had notes from Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst telling me how happy they are to be back in Town and lamenting the country.”
She paused a moment and added, “William, why is it such a prize to have a country estate if all you want to do is spend your time in Town?”
He sighed. His little sister was rapidly growing up and had just made some very correct assessments. “I suppose it is all about status. Too many believe that we are to enjoy our income from the land but not enjoy living there.”
“But we do enjoy living there! Do you not grow tired of performing to the demands of society?”
Darcy only nodded his head before inquiring, “Do you really fear Aunt Eleanor will have me in the parson’s noose?”
“Lud! What a terrible way to describe marriage!”
He smiled again. He was only teasing like this in his own home. Georgiana was the one most likely to see it, although Bingley and his male cousins knew it as well.
She did not wait for his answer. “And yes, I do. Most men who are the masters of their estates would have married years ago. She has been beyond patient and at least she has not pushed Anne on you like Aunt Catherine does.”
He disliked this marriage talk. He would not be forced by anyone. “I will take a bride of my own choosing, and in my own time.” He said it with finality, but the imp did not hear.
Georgiana patted his cheek and said in a placating tone, “Of course, dear brother. You always do what is expected of you.” She began with gusto but then her hand fell to her lap and shame flooded her eyes before she looked away. “Unlike me.”
Uncaring that Mrs. Annesley sat in the corner of the room, Darcy pulled his sister into an embrace. “No, dearest. I am very proud of you. Few would have the fortitude to confess to their scheme or recognize it as wrong afterwards. You should not criticize yourself so. We are so fortunate. You were saved.”
“I know you are right, but it is hard to believe he is so terrible.”
Darcy paused for a minute. “I know it is, he was my friend for many years as we grew up. And I think perhaps he could have been no worse than many men as your husband, but you know I want so much more for you than a man of questionable character marrying you only for your fortune.”
She sniffed in his arms. “There are times I wish we had no money at all!”
He could entirely understand the sentiment. If he had no fortune and family name to think of then, he would not feel so guilty for longing to have Elizabeth Bennet as his wife.
“Come, let us have no more tears. I shall refresh myself and change for dinner and then, if you ladies would allow me to escort you, I would be most pleased.”
Georgiana released him and managed a small smile. After a silly and sloppy bow, designed to make her laugh, he exited for his chambers.
Dinner was a quiet affair. He still felt the effects of his cold, and he was looking forward to retiring early when his aunt and uncle called during coffee. Georgiana sent him a knowing look.
“You simply must come with us tonight,” his aunt began.
“I am truly tired from my travels.”
“Nonsense! Now, James has canceled and cannot come and Lady Crenshaw will be so put out. I had wanted James to meet with Lady Belinda, but you will do just as nicely.”
Darcy closed his eyes in frustration. “My lady, my presence cannot be missed if they do not know I have returned.”
“But they do! Miss Bingley announced to everyone she met with in the park yesterday.”
“I only chose to come today!”
His uncle waded in at last. “Come, my boy. It is expected and it is only gentlemanly to please the ladies.”
Darcy narrowed his eyes. “Why is Arlington not attending? Who else has been invited?”
“He recalled a previous engagement at the theatre,” Lady Matlock sniffed.
Darcy rolled his eyes. Yes, Arlington was quite fond of certain aspects of the theatre, never more so than when his mother attempted to match him with a proper lady of society.
“Lady Belinda is very lovely,” his aunt put forward. “She is sweet tempered too.”
“Tell him about her twenty thousand pounds and her uncle is the Earl of Oxford. That will be what really interests him.”
Darcy resented it all. This was the sort of wife he should take to please society. A cold, heartless, mathematical decision. No wonder his sister believed herself in love with the steward’s son. No wonder he was attracted to a penniless country lady.
“I will come, but only because Arlington has cried off. Do not think you can bend my arm into this sort of thing more than once either. I am my own master and I keep my own schedule.”
And it was true. He kept his world exactly as he liked it, not even allowing the intrusion of his aunt and uncle—an earl and countess-=to think otherwise.
The party proved tedious, and not only due to the scratching feeling in his throat. Lady Belinda had about as much depth as a piece of paper. Everything felt so very choreographed. At supper, they were seated next to each other. While he was seldom enchanted, even for an evening, with a lady, he had to admit she was one of the most beautiful ladies he had ever seen. He looked at her as though she were a painting. Her features perfectly formed and spaced. Her countenance the perfect complexion Society desired. Her eyes were large and clear, her hair shiny and artfully arranged. Her gown was the latest style and made to her advantage. However, through all this observation, he remained unmoved. It was as though she were nothing more than a piece of art. Or rather, as Elizabeth had put it, made to be an ornament on some man’s arm.
Her conversation proved no better. She was not deficient by any means and she performed on the pianoforte with precision and sang with grace. She was passably witty, but her thoughts seemed to hold no true expression. It felt like an over-rehearsed play. It occurred to him he was overly-critical. He always was with the prospect of a lady. Certainly, he had told himself, Elizabeth Bennet was unimpressive at first.
He sighed to himself as he sipped his wine. Of course, he had only told himself that. The truth was he had thought her pretty before Bingley even pointed her out, and hence his reason to look, but he would not bend to Bingley’s will. He never danced with ladies he was unacquainted with, their imaginations were too rapid. Yet, throughout his time in Hertfordshire he struggled with containing his admiration.
“You are all alone over here, Mr. Darcy,” Lady Belinda whispered to him and he nearly jumped.
“Forgive me, I only just arrived in London this afternoon. I am rather fatigued.”
She looked at him for a moment. “You do look tired. I hope you will not take ill from the exertion.”
Her kindness surprised him. When she approached him alone, he thought she had unscrupulous intents. “Thank you.”
She let out a sigh. “Men are so lucky to come and go as they please! Your aunt was just telling us you had spent several weeks in Hertfordshire.”
“I tire of London. I long for home, near the seaside in Essex. I do not think I could ever live away from the sea.”
She said it so pointedly, Darcy began to think she had another motive for speaking to him. He was uncertain how to reply. “I, too, prefer my estate over Town.”
She cast her eyes about the room. “That is a shame, Mr. Darcy. I cannot think of a single lady in this room, or even in all of London who would make such a confession, unbidden at least.”
And yet, she just had.
“There are jewels to be found even in the country, I find.”
“I am sure it is true.”
“I do not know of anyone who would pass up a jewel when they see it, though.”
He took a sip of wine before replying. “Perhaps it is cursed pirate gold.”
“Oh, not even then! For how else would we have the tales of cursed jewels if people did not take them anyway.”
“Fools,” he said. The conversation was intriguing. Not on a romantic level, but something compelled him to continue.
“It is not the jewel’s fault, either, sir. And to my mind the ones that take it, knowing the legends and the risks, seem to find their own joy in it.”
“You do not find a man who is willing to risk his health and happiness, and the security of a great many people, simply for a stake at one jewel, or even many, to be the worse kind of mercenary and foolish?”
“No, sir. For the man knows the value of the treasure. No, I call a man who marries a wife for nothing more than twenty thousand pounds mercenary and foolish.”
She looked at him boldly, not accusingly but as though seeing through him just the same. Sorrow filled her eyes and then she fled his side. He made his excuses soon thereafter.
Georgiana was still awake upon his return home. “How was Lady Belinda?”
“We had the most peculiar conversation.”
“There is talk that she is, well…peculiar lately. You were in Hertfordshire and did not hear. She was attached to a young naval captain who visited near her estate last year. Her parents did not favour the match. He was sent off to sea, but she has refused several offers. The news came just after Michaelmas that her beau was killed in action. She is unable to mourn him as they were not engaged and her parents continually push her in the path of others.” Georgiana blew her nose into a handkerchief. “I know now I never really loved Mr. Wickham, or he me, but could you imagine being kept apart from the one you love because of your parents’ expectations?”
He meditated on Georgiana’s and Lady Belinda’s words before falling into a restless slumber that night. He awoke late the next morning to a re-emerging cold. This time, he welcomed his dreams of Elizabeth Bennet’s bright eyes and pert remarks. He was unsure how to arrange things with Georgiana, he was loathed to leave her behind after Wickham’s threat and yet disliked the idea of them meeting as well, but he knew he would be returning to Hertfordshire whether he had to drag Bingley with him or not.