“Thank you for allowing me to come,” Georgiana said in the carriage and squeezed Darcy’s hand.
Darcy smiled but scrutinised her face for signs of over-enjoyment. In his nightmare, she had never recovered from the heartbreak of Wickham. She never learned to trust herself again. More than that, Darcy felt the wounds twenty years later enough to have it affect rearing his children. It had been twenty years since losing his mother, so perhaps some scars took decades to heal but he ought to have wondered why Georgiana did not improve upon meeting Elizabeth. At least in that, the reality was better than he could imagine.
The others had talked excitedly about this play. Darcy did not enjoy performances. He could not catch the nuances of the emotion of all the characters and never seemed to enjoy them the way others did. To him, it was a waste of time.
Arriving at the entry, Darcy was greeted by many who expressed interest in his guests for the evening. They looked Jane and Elizabeth over with degrees of approval or dislike. Darcy shrugged it off, there was no understanding some people. Given how Miss Bingley shot daggers from her eyes at Elizabeth, the others were likely jealous as well. Darcy vowed to speak with Bingley. He could not bear this.
Eventually, they made their way to his box, and the performance on stage began. So did one in his box. Marshall had connived to sit next to Elizabeth and played the solicitous gentleman. He offered his opera glasses, they whispered about various moments and shared in laughter. More than once, Darcy saw Marshall’s eyes light up when he looked over at Elizabeth. Already radiant in a gown with crimson overlay and her glossy curls arranged around her face, laughter transformed her to goddess-like. Marshall looked on the outside, as Darcy felt on the inside around Elizabeth.
During the intermission*, the young people chose to retrieve refreshments. Mrs. Gardiner looked tired but insisted on staying for the entire appearance. Darcy had just managed to shoo a persistent lord and his young daughter away when Elizabeth appeared unexpectedly at his side.
“Are you enjoying the performance, Mr. Darcy?”
“It seems very fine.”
Elizabeth crinkled her brow. “You are not an aficionado of the theatre, are you?”
“There are a great many things about London that I do not profess to enjoy or understand.” His words sounded awkward even to his own ears.
“Do you always do that?”
“Answer in a way that almost hides how you feel but seems to give the answer you think the other desires?”
“I try to be civil even if my opinion differs.”
Elizabeth shook her head. Her curls brushed against his coat, and Darcy wished he could capture them and bring them to his lips. Her lavender water wafted to his nostrils. There was some other scent too. Something he could only describe as Elizabeth-like.
“When you speak in that fashion, it sounds arrogant.”
“I assure you, I mean no insult. It is only my inadequacy—”
“I understand, now,” Elizabeth hastened to say. “Simply state your feelings while validating the other person’s feelings.”
“I…I do not know how to do that,” Darcy admitted and expected her to laugh.
Instead, Elizabeth nodded encouragingly. “It is never too late to learn. Try it this way, ‘I applaud those that find enjoyment at such outings. I find my interests are in different quarters.’ This way you do not sound critical or falsely humble.”
“Thank you,” Darcy said in genuine appreciation.
Elizabeth leaned closer and whispered conspiratorially. “I quite agree. There, now we have exchanged another set of secrets.”
At that moment, Marshall approached. “Here is your lemonade, Miss Elizabeth and I have one for your aunt as well.”
“I am sure she will revive with the beverage,” Elizabeth smiled up at the man. “Thank you for being so thoughtful.”
Marshall extended an elbow for Elizabeth to take and looked down adoringly at her. A lump formed in Darcy’s throat as he watched them return to his box. He sensed Elizabeth tried to find a way for them to be friends and navigate the complicated waters before them. He could be thankful for how forgiving she was. She deserved the best. She deserved Marshall.
The following morning, Bingley called on Darcy. “I miss the days when Caroline was too angry to speak to me.” He squeezed the bridge of his nose. “She was impossible last night asking me about the evening afterward.”
Darcy raised his brows. “I had thought it was the other way around.”
“Well, that too,” Bingley smiled for a moment and then it fell. “How are you given…the developments.”
Would Jane know her sister’s feelings regarding Marshall? Would she have shared them with Bingley? Darcy could ask…no, he internally shook himself. It would be an underhanded way to learn her heart, and she had made her preference obvious enough, had she not?
“It matters not how I feel. It is in Elizabeth’s best interest for me to limit my contact with her. However, I do not want to limit Georgiana’s friendship.”
“Ah, you need someone else to escort Miss Darcy. Lest the world wonder about two unattached people.”
“Three…” Darcy mumbled under his breath. Marshall showed no signs of ceding the field.
“Or we could increase the numbers. Caroline and Louisa should spend more time with Jane.”
“Have you made it official?”
“No,” Bingley laughed. “First, I think I need to grovel more and display my constancy. Secondly, if I propose, her mother will demand her home, and I envision the woman would not allow us a peaceful courtship.”
“No,” Darcy shook his head. “Nor a peaceful marriage if you stay at Netherfield.”
“Gardiner has the right idea, looking for a house near Pemberley.”
Darcy shrugged. “I certainly like the area and admit the convenience of having friends nearby. When I am an old man, I will not need to stir far from my fire to have some company.”
“You will surely have a wife and children by then.”
“No,” Darcy said firmly. Elizabeth was the only one for him. Regardless of what Anne said, he could find no other. He could not merely force his heart to attach to another.
“Darcy—” Bingley began but was interrupted by the arrival of the butler.
“Mr. Marshall,” Lewis announced.
“Splendid!” Marshall cried as he sat in Darcy’s study. “Bingley is here too. We can all go to Gracechurch Street together.”
Bingley swung his eyes to Darcy. They had not finished their plans on how he would limit his calls. “I regret I have other plans.”
“Oh, really?” Marshall and Bingley asked in unison.
“Yes, I have been on the board for the Foundling Hospital for some years but rarely visit. I have determined to remedy that.”
“The Foundling Hospital?” Marshall asked in obvious doubt. “Since when do you care about orphans or the unwanted?”
“Do you not think it a worthy cause?”
“Undoubtedly,” Marshall tapped the arms to his chair. “However, it is the stuff that old, stuffy men support. If you do not want to go with us, you are better to go to your club or find some other cause. Any number of charities might be better.”
“Better for who?” Darcy asked. “I can think of few needier than helpless newborns.”
“Darcy,” Marshall said slowly as he approached Darcy who still sat behind his desk. “Do you have a guilty conscience?”
“No.” He was affronted at the mere suggestion.
“I meant no insult,” Marshall explained. “The man I knew you to be a few years ago would have no need to go to the Hospital, but mistakes happen.”
“That part of my character is unchanged.”
“Good,” Marshall said. “However, you also would have had no interest in it.”
Darcy affected a shrug. “I was younger and new to my responsibilities. I have more time and seek to return some of my energy, not just my money, to the innocent and marginalised.”
“When put that way, you make it impossible for us to remain behind.”
Bingley’s face fell into a noticeable frown. “I have to make calls with Caroline later. If I go with Darcy, I will have no time to see Miss Bennet.”
“Go,” Darcy said. “The Hospital will be there should you wish to come another time. You too, Marshall.”
Marshall gave Darcy a curious look. “If you are certain? Your company will be missed and not just by Bingley and me.”
“I will go another time with Georgiana,” Darcy busied himself with arranging papers. He did not like Marshall’s probing or hinting.
“Well, let’s not leave the lovely ladies to wait!” Marshall grinned at Bingley.
Darcy bade them farewell and then prepared to leave. His words were only partially impulsive. He had given the idea consideration and was about to propose it to Bingley when Marshall arrived. Given what might have happened to him if George Darcy had not allowed him to remain with his mother, he very well could have ended up in the Hospital. Darcy knew enough that merely having physical needs met did not fulfil a child. His money could never replace his time at such a place.
Arriving at the Foundling Hospital, Darcy was greeted by the administrator and taken to his study.
“Frankly,” Mr. Evans said, “I am surprised to see you here, Mr. Darcy. We do not often get gentleman volunteers.”
Darcy stiffened. Had he misunderstood some social cue again? “I admit I may not have much to offer the very young children but perhaps the older boys…”
“Boys over fourteen are apprenticed out. Should you desire one for your staff, we may arrange it.”
“Certainly,” Darcy nodded. “I can speak with my housekeepers, and my estates are large enough that upon completion I can find a position for them.” He cleared his throat. “However, I came under the impression I could offer friendship.”
Mr. Evans sat back in his chair, confusion crossing his face. “You wish to be friends with the foundlings?”
“Surely there is something I can do while showing them a positive example—something where I have no authority over them as a master or teacher would.”
Mr. Evans stroked his chin. “They have teachers and tutors. They do have free time to play after their chores here.”
Darcy had rarely had boys to play with at that age. George Wickham had been his only friend at Pemberley. “I believe I can handle that. Are there some who do not join in the games?”
“Yes, you will easily spot them. Some others are quite unruly. Follow me,” Mr. Evans stood and directed Darcy through several corridors to a back door where a large lawn was, and several groups of boys played. Evans left him to his own devices.
Darcy scanned the grass. The oldest looking group of boys played cricket and the youngest set marbles and played with hoops. The third group of middling aged boys played football. Darcy had enjoyed the game at Eton and decided to approach. They played rougher than he ever had and before he met them, fisticuffs broke out.
A small lad stood toe to toe with a boy who towered over him. Darcy could hear the shouts. The smaller one was easily the fastest on the field and had kicked the ball into the goal. The large boy had missed defending it but rather than accept it, thought he could intimidate the other child. Soon, fists replaced words. A few others joined in before Darcy could reach them. He pulled over five boys off the little one, curled in a ball at the bottom of the heap.
“Oi! I had them!” He yelled at Darcy when he realised he had been rescued.
Darcy looked at the boy who sported a few days old bruises and had new ones already turning purple. He likely would not be open to his eye soon. “Yes, you certainly had the upper hand.”
“Don’t matter what it looked like,” he replied, fearless even though Darcy clearly looked like a social superior. “I’m clever. See?” He tapped the side of his head. “And I’m quick. Only one or two more needed to join in before a few would be trampled down and I could crawl out. Freddie wouldn’t have noticed I got away as long as his fist smashed someone.”
Darcy looked over his shoulder at the giant boy, glowering at the one he talked with. “Is that Freddie?”
The boy nodded. “And I’m Tom. Who you?”
Darcy fervently hoped the other boys had better manners, or they would never find successful employment. However, as they had resorted to a fight for entertainment’s sake, he thought it unlikely. Darcy turned to speak to all the assembled boys. “I am Mr. Darcy. Mr. Evans sent me to enforce structure to your game. There are rules to play by.”
“Who needs rules?” one shouted.
“I ain’t listening to you!” another called from the back.
“Either you listen to me, or you lose your privilege to play,” Darcy said firmly. It was a bluff, he had no real authority over that although he suspected the administrator would do anything he asked.
Tom looked Darcy over then shrugged. “You can try, but you won’t tame us.” Several cheered at his words.
Freddie stepped forward and folded his arms over his chest. “Stuff it, Tom. I don’t sit all day in Old Oak Tree’s class to not get play time. We’re listening.”
Tom lunged forward, but Darcy caught him by the collar. Ignoring the laughter and cries for a fight, Darcy began instructing the children on the basics of the game. Rules they had either neglected to use or had never learned. Nevertheless, a fight broke out before too long. As Darcy pulled Freddie off Tom, a fist missed its target and slammed into his eye. For such young boys, they really had quite a bit of strength. Darcy knew he would be sporting a black eye and sore muscles on the morrow.
Enforcing strict adherence to the rules, Darcy sent the boys to their rooms and with instructions to double their chores. The others behaved well after seeing the repercussions and even a few straggling, shy children joined in the game once it was no longer chaos. After about two hours, Darcy challenged a few to one on one matches against him. The children cheered each other on, and a few genuinely did best him. When he slipped in mud defending his goal they broke out in peals of laughter. Darcy laughed as well, realising it was the first time in his life he had ever laughed at himself and relishing in the lightness he felt on the occasion.
Returning to his comfortable house with a grin on his face, Darcy had to admit it was the first time he had fun in many, many years. He could not wait to do it again and again.