While Georgiana settled at Darcy House, he had another unpleasant errand. He had not told Bingley about Jane Bennet’s feelings because Elizabeth had not empowered him to do so. Darcy would not hint at continued affection if there were the possibility she had moved on. Still, he knew he had wounded Jane, and owed her an apology. Having sent a servant around Cheapside the day he spoke to Bingley, Darcy learned Mr. Gardiner owned a fabric warehouse and resided at Number Nine, Gracechurch Street.
After being shown in by the butler—which Darcy was surprised they had—he was taken to a comfortable and elegant looking drawing room. The outside of the house looked very neat and well-kept, as did the entire street. True, less terrific accommodations were mere streets away, but in London, the poor were everywhere. The city would grow and build new houses, and in a few decades, they became worn-looking and over-crowded. The rich would move on and build in another empty spot. In doing so, each neighbourhood was surrounded by their lessers and their betters.
Miss Bennet looked as complacent as always, but Mrs. Gardiner was a mix of curious and surprised to see him. She rather reminded Darcy of Elizabeth in comportment although there was no blood kinship.
“Darcy?” a familiar voice cried.
He looked over and saw Charles Bingley sitting in a chair next to the ladies.
“What are you doing here?”
Darcy did not hear the disappointment and malice from yesterday, only confusion. “I came to call on Miss Bennet and pass on greetings from her sister.”
“Oh, how thoughtful of you,” Miss Bennet smiled. “Thank you.”
“Forgive me for coming when you already have company. I shall leave you,” Darcy began a hasty bow but was interrupted by Mrs. Gardiner.
“There is no occasion to rush away. Mr. Bingley had just explained how kind you were to inform him of my niece’s presence in town. It seems his sisters did not.”
Bingley flushed a little, and Darcy felt heat creep up his neck as well.
“I know they will be grieved at their oversight,” Bingley said. “You all were very great friends when last we were at Netherfield.”
“That was many months ago,” Mrs. Gardiner said and paused long enough to allow the meaning to sink in. “How have you occupied your time since then?”
She ended with a bright smile. Oh, yes. This was the woman after whom Elizabeth modelled herself. Darcy took a moment to take in more of the room and the lady. Mrs. Gardiner dressed fashionably and was perhaps as little as only ten years older than her niece. While she clearly meant to protect Jane and scold the gentlemen, she did not do so with meanness or in an improper way. She could not be more different than her sister-in-law, Mrs. Bennet. The room had stylish new furnishings as well as a few older pieces proving they had a heritage worth remembering. During Darcy’s silence, Bingley had managed to acquit himself of his unintentional insult rather well, and Miss Bennet seemed to relax.
“And you, Mr. Darcy?” Mrs. Gardiner now turned her attention to him as Bingley and Jane chatted. “I confess I will admit to jealousy if you have been to Pemberley. Spring is my favourite time of year to be in Derbyshire.”
“You have been to Derbyshire?” Darcy asked. “Have you visited Pemberley?”
“I never had that honour, but I did live in Lambton for many years of my youth.”
“That is but five miles from Pemberley.”
“Indeed,” Mrs. Gardiner grinned. “I was sorry to hear of your father’s passing. He was a very great man.”
“He was,” Darcy nodded and twisted his signet ring.
“My husband and I plan on taking a tour of the lakes in the summer and will be spending some time in Derbyshire and Lambton along the way.”
“You must visit Pemberley then. If Mr. Gardiner fishes, I would be pleased to offer him bait and tackle, it is the best time of year for the sport.”
“How generous,” Mrs. Gardiner smiled. “He would enjoy that.”
“Mrs. Reynolds always handles the tours and is particularly delighted when the visitor is known to me.” Darcy shook his head. “She will thrill you with tales of my wayward youth.”
“Oh my,” the woman put a hand to her heart and laughed.
“Yes, I learned the consequences of pilfering biscuits and leading ponies around by the nose quite proficiently.” Darcy chuckled, and Mrs. Gardiner joined him. “If we are in residence then, of course, you must sit with us.”
A twinkle entered Mrs. Gardiner’s eye. “What a kind invitation. I am certain my niece Elizabeth will appreciate it as well.”
At the mention of her name, Darcy attempted to keep his face neutral. “I know Miss Elizabeth greatly enjoys walking. The grounds at Pemberley are beautiful in the summer.”
A shiver went down his spine as he recalled his dream and the visceral emotions which followed at thoughts of her death. He had never held her in his arms and yet, they still ached with the memory of holding her lifeless form.
“Darcy,” Bingley called.
Jolting from his thoughts, Darcy noticed Bingley standing and near the door. “Pardon me.”
“Thank you again for visiting and bringing news of my niece,” Mrs. Gardiner said as Darcy bowed to her. “I expect to see you again when Mr. Bingley calls. We will have you both to dinner sometime. My husband would enjoy meeting you.”
“I would be honoured,” Darcy said as he bowed to Jane. “It was a pleasure seeing you, Miss Bennet. I am happy to see you in good health. I know your sister had worried.”
“Did she?” Jane said in surprise.
“Yes, and I fear I fuelled the cause. I hope there have been no lasting effects?”
“No, I am perfectly well,” she snuck a glance at Bingley and blushed.
“I apologise all the same.” It was as close as he could get to an apology in this setting.
Jane curtsied, and Darcy followed Bingley outside. They walked in silent tandem toward their carriages. Once on the street, Bingley fiddled with his hat.
“I am sorry, Darcy.”
Nodding in sorrow, Darcy turned to his carriage. Bingley could not forgive him.
“I am sorry I would not listen to you,” Bingley called after him and followed his voice with his boots. “You meant well, I know it.” He reached and gripped Darcy’s shoulder.
“I did,” Darcy nodded. “My reasoning was flawed and my methods awful, but my motive was to protect you.” Darcy sighed. “I know you do not need it. However, I love you like a brother and cannot help having a lively interest in your welfare.”
“Me too,” Bingley grinned as Darcy clapped Bingley on the shoulder.
“Care to dine at Darcy House tonight? Georgiana is there, and we could have music afterwards.”
“Is everything well with Miss Darcy?”
“Utterly well,” Darcy reassured his friend. “We merely decided it was time for our family to be together.”
“Speaking of family, my own is quite angry with me. I accept your invitation and beg for more for the foreseeable future.”
Darcy and Bingley shared a laugh then departed for their coaches.
A few days later, Darcy called on the Gardiners with Bingley and was invited to stay for dinner. The ladies talked now and then of Elizabeth, and there he saw enough similarities in Jane and Mrs. Gardiner to have her always on his mind. She had not left his heart in November when he fled from all memories and references of her and Darcy knew she never would. Nor did he seek to remove her. Finding the Gardiners amiable and just the sort of acquaintances he liked only further proved the justness of her reproofs.
“Did my wife tell you the real reason for our tour of the Lakes?” Mr. Gardiner asked Darcy when the ladies had separated.
“No,” Darcy shook his head. “I had no suspicion there was an ulterior motive.”
“There is, and I confess you might be an excellent source of information. Raising five children in London is quite the expense.”
Darcy raised his eyebrows in silent question, for only four children had been introduced to him. Gardiner grinned in reply.
“It is a man’s blessing to be able to provide for a growing family, is it not?”
“Indeed, sir. My congratulations.” He had thought Mrs. Gardiner an exceptionally pretty woman for having four children, but he had also heard pregnant ladies had a special glow about them.
“Thank you. It will be you two before long.” Gardiner winked at Darcy and Bingley. “I am looking for a country home. Not necessarily an estate with tenants, although I have the funds for a small one. Margaret fancies Derbyshire, of course.”
“And will you be retiring from business or returning to London while your family remains behind? Either way, I would certainly welcome you as a neighbour.”
“Darcy is an excellent neighbour and teacher in the gentleman’s trade if you wish for instruction,” Bingley added.
“I would be pleased to aid you in your search,” Darcy nodded, “and in the transition to estate management if you wish it.”
“I will think on it,” Gardiner said. “If you hear of anything available, even to rent, between now and July, please inform me.”
“I certainly will,” Darcy agreed.
Gardiner’s smile faltered for a moment. “I fear I must owe you an apology, sir.”
“I cannot imagine how.”
“I heard tales about you this past Christmas from some officer in the Militia encamped at Meryton.” Gardiner nodded, “I see you know of whom I speak. My wife and I thought nothing of listening to his complaints, and I condemned you without even knowing you. Forgive me.”
Ice gripped Darcy’s heart. “It is of no consequence. However, do I understand you correctly? This man was speaking openly against me?”
“Indeed. I believe he had told his story to the entire town by then.”
This was far worse than Darcy had expected. He had envisioned Wickham confiding only in Elizabeth. Perhaps her natural curiosity had led her to inquire about their mutual past. Or, if he wished to torment himself, Darcy imagined Wickham offering a story of woe to win her affections. Given her words to Darcy, he had not relinquished fear that she had held the rogue in high regard. Worse than this, if Wickham talked so openly against him the possibility of him one day revealing too much could have catastrophic results.
“May I ask the nature of this communication?”
“I do not remember all of the particulars. You may ask my wife or niece to be certain. I believe Elizabeth well-versed in them, actually.”
Darcy attempted to not fidget under the man’s gaze as he mentioned Elizabeth and referenced Wickham in the same sentence. “Did he mention a specific event or action? I know a well-placed lie has the aura of truth and I would enlighten you if I could.”
“It had something to do with a living and your father’s will, I believe,” Mr. Gardiner shrugged.
“Ah, the usual,” Bingley said. “That rumour has plagued Darcy for many years. Of course, at University it was all manner of things, wasn’t it?”
Darcy nodded. “My father left him an annuity and recommended I give him a living when he came of age. However, he gave it up himself, and I compensated him three thousand pounds. A few years later, when it fell vacant, he came demanding his right to it.”
“I see,” Gardiner nodded. “He’s not much of a gentleman, that’s for sure. You sound entirely blameless.”
“I wish I were,” Darcy said while staring at his hands. “The truth is that my father over-indulged him and I followed likewise for many years. By the time I resolved to cease rewarding his bad ways, it was too late for him to learn the lesson, I fear.”
“You speak as though he has done much worse than merely slander your name.”
“He has but nothing else is pertinent.” Darcy flushed under the curious gazes of both Gardiner and Bingley. “However, he is not known for paying his debts and has left behind many in Lambton and London. I think I should ask the Meryton shopkeepers about his accounts.”
“I am certain no one would expect you to settle his payments,” Gardiner said.
“I ought to have warned them before I left the area.”
Gardiner stared at him for a long moment. “Sir, I told you Lizzy believed Wickham’s lies. Are you always so stubborn? For I can see no other reason for her to have disliked you enough to believe the man.”
Before Darcy could speak, Bingley began to chuckle.
“Oh, he is, but I think it might be the constant arguing he did with her.” Bingley held up a finger. “Or perhaps his incessant staring and lurking.” A second finger joined the first. “However, I would lay a bet it began when he refused to dance with her.”
Gardiner smirked as Bingley raised a third finger. “She does love a dance.”
“I—I asked her to dance several times afterward,” Darcy attempted to defend himself.
“But there is more!” Bingley’s little finger popped up. “He called her not handsome enough to tempt him within her hearing. I know Caroline would never forgive such a remark.”
“She heard that?” Darcy whipped his head from friend to Elizabeth’s uncle.
“Young man,” Gardiner said in a sombre tone. “Either you are blind or intolerably stupid.”
Darcy gulped. “The latter, I assure you. However, I am intelligent enough to recognise my error and live to roost the day.”
“Indeed?” Gardiner raised a brow.
Darcy met the man’s eyes, understanding his unasked question. “She was less than amenable to accepting my apology…or admiration.”
“Admiration?” Bingley asked, furrowed his brow. “I thought you did not like her! I thought you believed her beneath you!”
Darcy’s face heated. “You have heard the phrase “protesteth too much”? I apologise, sir.” He directed his words to Gardiner, who waved it off with a laugh.
“I still do not understand,” Bingley said.
“Allow me to illustrate it for you,” Gardiner smiled. “If a young man is always near a lady and trying to insert himself in her conversation, even if it is to little or no effect, all the while ignoring everyone else, what would you think of him?”
“He must be in love with her,” Bingley shrugged then smiled. “I can barely manage one coherent sentence near Jane. Whenever she is in the room, I see and hear no one else, I am desperate to be near her.” Sitting up, with sudden insight, Bingley’s eyes grew wide. “Did I offend others with all the attention I paid her?”
Darcy and Gardiner enjoyed a laugh at Bingley’s expense.
“Yes, my niece Elizabeth described you, Mr. Bingley, thusly when she told of how you loved Jane. And no, I do not believe any other lady was offended. Now, can you think of anyone else who you say stayed near a lady and had little to say while ignoring others?”
“Darcy?” Bingley rubbed the back of his neck. “Darcy,” he shook his head. “I never saw it, old boy.”
“I meant to conceal it to everyone even myself,” Darcy said with a sheepish smile. “According to her, I achieved it too well for she had no idea.”
“Do not worry overmuch about that,” Gardiner said. “Little is more irresistible to a woman than knowing a man is in love with her.”
“I am afraid I think very differently about Miss Elizabeth’s estimation of her feelings than you,” Darcy said and downed his drink. “She has very definite feelings about me regarding my character and with good reason. She will not be modifying them, and I will not ask her to do so.”
“Mr. Darcy,” Gardiner began, “surely she will see—”
Darcy stood. “Should we not rejoin the ladies?”
Gardiner and Bingley shared a look then stood. After returning to the drawing room, Darcy stayed for only a few minutes more. His nerves were too raw, and a part of his old reserve felt mortified for allowing others to know his pain and rejection. However, he was endeavouring to embrace a more open disposition. Now that both knew, they would understand when he absented himself from visits when Elizabeth arrived.