I’m spending Christmas in Virginia but had some time to schedule this post (fingers crossed it goes out ok). I hope you have a wonderful and blessed holiday and enjoy the chapter!
“That went well, did it not?” Bingley asked after the Misses Bennet had boarded their carriage. He looked anxiously at Arlington and Darcy.
“Yes, Jane and Eliza are just as eager as ever to gain a rich husband,” Caroline said in disgust.
Bingley opened his mouth and Darcy immediately stiffened, but their defense came from the most surprising place. “You are quite mistaken in their characters, Miss Bingley,” said Georgiana. “They could hardly be mercenary! Lizzy even turned down a proposal from her father’s heir!”
Everyone turned shocked eyes to Georgiana, who blushed.
“I heard that rumour as well,” said Caroline. “I can hardly credit it for being true. Eliza is no fool and their mother would never allow it.”
“It was no rumour! Lizzy told me in a letter. She is quite distressed that her friend is marrying Mr. Collins on so slight an acquaintance and when she had such very good reasons for refusing him herself.”
“You correspond with Eliza Bennet!” Caroline exclaimed more than asked. Recovering herself, she smoothed her gown and then smiled sweetly at Georgiana. “You are still young, dear and are learning who to trust. A few weeks’ correspondence is nothing. You cannot truly know them.”
“I recommended the arrangement myself,” Darcy said.
“William would never suggest a false friend for me. He is always excessively careful in his associations.”
Bingley suppressed a smile to see Georgiana stand up for herself.
“I can recall a time when you believed the Bennets, Eliza in particular, to be not worth your notice, Mr. Darcy,” Caroline said.
“That was only when I first knew them,” he replied. “It has been many weeks that I have thought them, Miss Elizabeth in particular, to be exactly the sort of young ladies I would most wish for my sister to know.” He met Caroline’s eyes and for the first time Bingley began to wonder if Darcy was serious in his attentions toward Miss Elizabeth.
“But you cannot think they have much chance of a good match,” Louisa finally entered the conversation.
“They cannot raise the situation or fortune of many gentlemen, but that is only one consideration to be had in marriage. Power is fleeting and money can be lost. Affection and respect are most lasting and in that each man must answer for himself.”
“But so many are fools!” Caroline exclaimed.
“If we have established the sisters are not mercenary, then we must assume they do not intend to attract husbands by mean arts. If that be the case, then there is no fear of bewitchment. If your brother, who is your guardian and entrusted with your care, loves Miss Bennet then let that be the end of it,” Lord Arlington said.
“Hear, hear!” Hurst raised a glass in agreement.
“I am in the room,” Bingley said at last. “And I do love Miss Bennet.”
“There is no need to be hasty,” Caroline said. “You are so often in love, Charles, it would be cruel to raise her expectations even higher and then lose interest.”
Bingley narrowed his eyes. “In London you claimed Miss Bennet indifferent to me. This morning you declared she was mercenary. Now, you think her tender-hearted. I beg you to advise me no more.”
Caroline blushed and looked as though she wished to say something in her defense, but Louisa stood and suggested that the ladies dress for dinner. Caroline and Louisa quickly filed out of the room and Georgiana kissed her brother and cousin on the cheek before following. Hurst went upstairs for a nap.
“What do you think, Arlington?” Bingley asked.
“Miss Bennet did not even notice I was in the room. She had eyes and ears only for you. A mercenary woman cannot fake that sort of attachment. They are always wondering who the other men in the room are.”
“I appreciated your defense, Darcy.”
“You need not thank me for speaking the truth. I do not like your sisters’ influence upon mine.”
“All the more reason for us to call on Longbourn soon,” Arlington said with a wink at Bingley.
Darcy twisted his signet ring. “You will find the other girls too silly for your notice. Perhaps being a Viscount will sufficiently impress Mrs. Bennet into silence.”
“What had you said to Miss Bingley? Affection and respect may make up for other misfortunes in marriage. I think I could easily overlook the failures of the family for the treasures of Longbourn.”
Darcy’s jaw tightened and he said in a rough voice. “Arlington, I will not tolerate your antics here. How can you protect Georgiana from Wickham if your behaviour is so similar?”
“Nonsense, Darcy! I would not be interested in a lady’s dowry.”
“Yes, I know what interests you there.”
“Do you? Mother has been after me to marry. I will not take one of her simpering London debutantes, though.”
Bingley watched Darcy’s grip on his glass tighten. “Then I wish you luck with Miss Bingley, for there is no one else we are associated with for you to court or flirt with in Hertfordshire.”
“Drink your port, Cousin, your health is failing again. Either you cannot count or your memory is failing. Miss Elizabeth is perfectly lovely and charming. Knowing she would refuse her father’s heir makes her quite…enticing.”
Darcy slammed his drink down and stood. “Elizabeth deserves far more than you!”
“Ah, and you are the worthy man who will win her hand?” Arlington said coolly and again winked at Bingley.
“I…” Darcy ran a hand through his hair. “Your imagination is very rapid.”
“Darcy, everyone in the room saw your admiration,” Bingley said.
“Everyone but Miss Bennet saw it,” Arlington amended.
“Admiration need not lead to love.”
“You as good as declared love should lead to matrimony,” Arlington said. “I did not know you had changed your opinion.”
“Bingley’s situation is not the same as mine.”
“Bingley’s lady is not the same as yours. Be careful, Darcy. Men will see encouragement where they wish it. It sounds as though one stupid sot already screwed up enough courage to propose marriage to her. You never know when another may come along,” Arlington said. “I am here because your charming nemesis is here as well. Either protect her with your name or leave her alone.”
Darcy sat back heavily in his chair. “And how does a man know if he sees encouragement only where he wishes it?”
“Are you asking for me to discover her interest?”
Darcy mutely nodded.
“You certainly made quick work of discovering Jane’s!” Bingley cried cheerfully before standing. “We should dress for dinner. Perhaps this evening we can consider more plans on how to facilitate our courtships.”
Georgiana hovered near her door before dinner. She could hardly believe she had the nerve to stand up to Miss Bingley. She had desired to do so many times before but always feared the repercussions. She knew her brother would never allow a person to speak to her as unkindly as she has spoken to Miss Bingley and she would have hated to be the cause of strain between her beloved brother and his dearest friend. Yet, that had always been her flaw. She was too eager to seek approval from everyone, including George—that is Mr. Wickham.
She had known for some time it was not love between them. She had even accepted that he hunted her merely for her dowry and a sort of rivalry between him and her brother. In fact, the minute she disclosed her plans to her brother and broke Wickham’s confidence, she understood she did not love the other man. She was grateful her brother put a stop to the elopement, but that Wickham never cared for her at all and was so callous about her feelings wounded her deeply.
For many months, she was afraid to make new acquaintances and wary of the old ones. Mrs. Annesley alone had made any headway with her and Georgiana trusted her only because her brother did. Mrs. Annesley was the widow of the old Kympton Rector and William knew her his entire life. Now, she felt as though she could trust her own abilities again.
As she waited for her brother to arrive to escort her to the dining room, she considered her new friends. Jane was clearly in love with Mr. Bingley. Her eyes scarcely left the gentleman, although if anything she was more reserved in his company. It was exactly as her cousin had said. She noticed only Mr. Bingley nearly to the exclusion of everyone else.
Elizabeth was harder to make out. She was certainly friendly, but she seemed more anxious to please in general than it be directed at one person in particular. She also attended to Jane and Bingley’s conversation as often as possible, while giving the air of paying attention to those around her. Could she love Mr. Bingley as well?
Georgiana could hardly fathom it. Elizabeth was far too devoted to Jane to interfere there. It followed then that her interest was simply out of concern for Jane, but surely she had no reason to worry. Mr. Bingley as good as declared himself before dinner. On the other hand, Mr. Bingley had left Netherfield and stayed away for nearly a fortnight and was not known for his constancy. She did not doubt his feelings, but she knew first-hand how the chances of one day may doom a fledgling relationship. The same concern must be what weighed on Elizabeth’s mind.
Georgiana chuckled. If she were entirely honest with herself, her interest in Jane was out of interest in Elizabeth. If she were willing to give as much help as she could to Jane and Bingley, she was willing to outright match make for William and Elizabeth. She tapped her fingers on her lips in thought. She would need an ally. An experienced ally. James was just the person to be her partner. She laughed again. William would be furious…until he realized just how perfect for him Elizabeth was.
“What are you laughing about?” James asked through the crack in the door, causing Georgiana to jump.
“Oh! You startled me!”
“Now I know you were up to something naughty.”
Georgiana raised an eyebrow. “How can you know that?”
He gave a lopsided grin. “I am often up to no good and can spot it in others.”
She grabbed his hand and pulled him inside her room. “It is exactly your experience I wish to speak to you about!”
“Pardon?” James turned red and began to choke. “Georgie…I know about your little foray this summer and perhaps it has made you curious, but there will be no speaking about my level of experience!”
“What? Oh— you had thought I wanted to-to-to talk about that!” She swatted at his arm. “No, no, no. I would never—”
“Georgie, what did you want to talk to me about?”
She had intended to speak rationally, but after their earlier misunderstanding the words gushed out of her. “I think Mr. Bingley and Miss Bennet would make a very handsome couple!”
James chuckled. “Is that so?”
“And they must need your assistance somehow?”
“Sometimes couples need some moments alone to settle matters. That seems to be your specialty.”
“Georgie,” James said in a warning tone.
“And other couples may be entirely unaware of their feelings.”
“Now that I know nothing of at all.”
“Oh, yes, I am sure in your imagination every lady that meets you immediately swoons over your handsomeness and charm.”
“I would not put it that way, but…”
“Miss Bingley is entirely immune to your charms.”
“Miss Bingley is more intelligent than most ladies.”
“Ha! Craftier, you mean. She believes she has a better chance of wearing down William’s resistance than actually capturing you long enough to meet with a parson.”
James pinched the bridge of his nose. “You know we spoil you far too much. Out with it. What do you desire my assistance with?”
“A walk. We will call on Longbourn and go for a walk. I shall distract William and you can wander off with Lizzy. If they seem discontent with our company alone, then we shall know if we will succeed.”
Georgiana held her breath as James stroke his jaw in thought. “We can offer to go for a walk, but will need to plan it so the Bingleys and the rest of Miss Elizabeth’s family do not come as well,” he said at last.
“Splendid! I knew I could count on you!” she kissed his cheek.
“What trouble are you helping my sister with?” William walked up just then.
“I daresay I do not understand it myself,” James said with a wink to Georgiana.
William rolled his eyes. “Well, if you are done with your little bit of fun, we must face our punishment now. Randolph said Miss Bingley ordered three courses tonight.”
“Oh no, ‘tis not I who displeased the mistress of the home. That belongs to the siblings Darcy.”
William scowled. “You think you are so clever?”
James stood up straighter. “It must be the title and superior breeding which gives me the intelligence to know you do not anger the woman who orders your meals.”
Georgiana looped her arms through both men as they descended the stairs. “I think you should both shower her with favour. She will exhaust herself attempting to impress you both and take to her bed.”
The gentlemen both laughed, but James nodded his head. “You know, I think that may be a good idea after all.”
Georgiana hardly knew if her cousin was serious, she did know that William would never give Miss Bingley false expectations, but what would be the harm in a pretend flirtation between James and Caroline? As James said earlier, Caroline would certainly know better.
“You are certain this shall work?” Denny asked Wickham.
“It is rather late to question me now,” he replied. “Go.”
“I will be certain to report back,” Denny said then took his leave. He was going to Longbourn with several other officers.
During his wait, Wickham consulted his calendar. He knew Bingley and Darcy had returned to Netherfield earlier in the week. Information was less forthcoming as to other members of the party. Likely, Georgiana traveled with Darcy. That he returned bode well for Wickham. He took it as a sign of his interest in Miss Elizabeth, although it may be nothing more than concern for Bingley’s attachment to the eldest Miss Bennet. He could use that too, if necessary. Darcy would not want his dearest friend associated with a ruined family.
Wickham would never admit it to Denny, but he was beginning to feel a bit in over his head. Life had seemed black and white. He wanted money and had the patronage of the Darcy family. The son was jealous of the attention his father gave Wickham and was dull and self-righteous. Wickham was certain the younger Darcy must have convinced his father to offer only one thousand pounds in his will and the promise, eventually, of a living. He was brought up nearly like a second son—sent to school alongside the heir, and while the church was a fine profession for many lesser sons, the Darcys were rich enough with homes and estates aplenty. As he was continually thwarted by his old playmate, Wickham’s animosity grew. Eloping with Georgiana would have brought both riches and dealt a devastating blow to Darcy. Now, Wickham found himself conflicted.
The surest way to extract money from Darcy was to go after Georgiana, but Darcy had learned to not leave her unattended for long. The plan with the strongest likelihood of succeeding would be to blackmail the Bennet family reputation once Mr. Bingley proposed to or married Jane Bennet. However, Wickham did not know Bingley very well; he always seemed inconstant in the past. Additionally, it brought no pain to Darcy. Seducing a Bennet daughter if Darcy were married to Elizabeth, would bring a great personal blow to Darcy and also ensure constant income. Darcy would hate for a relative of his to be in the poorhouse. The greatest humiliation of all, however, would be to steal the affections of Darcy’s lady. A very attractive possibility, indeed. Still, a man needed something to live on.
Mr. Bennet was an intelligent man and had eagerly gambled the night of the Netherfield ball. Wickham heard the Bennet ladies had little fortune and knew the estate was entailed away. To Darcy, and perhaps even Bingley, the ladies’ dowries would seem insufficient, but might be quite adequate for his own needs. Mr. Collins would never have proposed if there was not enough to offset his salary as a country parson to the miserly Lady Catherine de Bourgh. He rubbed a hand over his face. What was he considering? A year ago he might have boasted Georgiana’s thirty thousand pounds was insufficient and now he was considering a Bennet lady. No, not just any Bennet lady. Why would he connect himself with Lydia or Kitty for a lifetime while Darcy enjoyed Elizabeth?
It was not merely her beauty which pleased him. She was the only lady he had met who did not dismiss him instantly due to his rank but neither did she fall prey to his charm. She was a woman you could speak to, not just bed. Finding himself no closer to a conclusion, Wickham was relieved when Denny returned.
“So?” he asked his associate.
“Jane and Eliza visited Netherfield yesterday. Miss Darcy was there, but her brother is keeping her under lock and key with his cousin standing watch whenever Darcy stirs from the house.”
“Cousin?” Wickham had no desire to be run through by the hot headed colonel.
“The Viscount. Mrs. Bennet and the younger girls were all aflutter about it. Sounds like he’s taken a shine to Eliza.”
Wickham wondered if there was a hot blooded man who did not. However, Darcy and his cousin battling over her would hardly serve his purposes. “Does she return the attachment?”
“Hard to say. They only met once and she would be a simpleton to fall for Arlington’s roguish charms. They are expected to call on the Bennets soon.”
“I hope you made my excuses. I cannot arrive while Darcy is there.”
“Of course. But what will you do if you meet with him on the street? You must continue to court the family’s good opinion of you.”
“It is of no concern. Darcy did nothing last time and never will. His extreme ethics will be his downfall. Thus far I have done nothing criminal and Darcy will never abuse his power to be rid of me through unscrupulous means.”