Unable to sleep, Elizabeth spent the evening perusing her brother’s old letters. Upon compiling a list of the towns Sam and Will had stayed in and possibly posted mail from, she had her father send the missive to Netherfield at dawn. Even if Will sent an express rider to each location, it would still be weeks before they had answers from each post office.
Mrs. Bennet and her daughters spent the morning overseeing the efforts to display Longbourn to its greatest advantage for Mr. Collins’ arrival. Fanny Bennet may have never born a son but that the entail was broken she counted as a personal triumph and she had all the intentions of showing the interloper and would-be heir what he missed.
By the time Charlotte Lucas arrived in mid-morning, Elizabeth practically grabbed her friend’s hand and dragged her to the garden to escape the madness within the house.
“Have you been well?” Elizabeth asked once they were walking about. She thought she perceived signs of illness around her friend’s eyes, but perhaps it was only fatigue.
“I am well,” Charlotte answered. “I called yesterday, and was told you were at Netherfield.”
“Papa was injured, and they gave him shelter. He requested I come and refused Mr. Jones.”
“And Mr. Darcy had nothing to do with your desire to be there?”
“I do not know what you mean,” Elizabeth attempted to keep her features neutral.
“You are not the only clever one,” Charlotte raised her brows. “I had suspected you took a liking to Mr. Darcy when you returned from London. Yesterday, Mrs. Bennet confirmed it.”
Elizabeth let go of her friend’s arm. Sighing, she ran her fingers over the low still-green bushes that wrapped the perimeter of the garden. “Mama is not sensible, you know that. Where she has a worry, she imagines the worst. She thinks Mr. Darcy only toying with me simply because he is so rich and prestigious.” She shook her head and looked back at Charlotte. “It is naught but prejudice.”
“No.” Charlotte cast her eyes about. “Might we sit. I will tell you the sort of man Mr. Darcy really is.”
Elizabeth agreed to hear her friend but could hardly imagine she would have anything like proof until she withdrew a letter in Sam’s writing from her pocket.
“Read it,” Charlotte urged. “Its contents no longer upset me.”
I can no longer do you the disservice to keep you deceived about me. Your letters to me have made it plain that you no longer trust me and question my fidelity. I wish I could claim you are wrong to do so, but you were always too intelligent for that.
I am a cad of the most dishonourable sort. I can no longer honour our engagement. In a few days’ time, you will hear from my family about the news of my elopement.
I would wish a thousand times over that I could be the man you believe me to be and deserve. Please do not imagine you are inadequate in some fashion. The liaison which has led to the necessity of my unsanctioned marriage is due entirely to my failures. I will remember the years of our youth and innocence fondly.
I know you will wonder what changed between us or what set me on my present course. I have asked it of myself in recent weeks and have no clear answer. I am convinced, however, that we would not have long been happy together. I know your desires for a quiet, country life and have discovered that I crave the thrilling variety of London, expensive as it is. We would always argue over money and where to spend our time.
My wish for you would be to find a good gentleman who can care for you and give you everything you want in life. I cannot be that man.
Elizabeth read and reread her brother’s words. It grieved her heart to read her brother’s cold words. He was breaking off his engagement with Charlotte and hinted at not only another woman but a reason for it. If she were a gentlewoman perhaps it would be a compromise, but they would not elope then. No, the woman Elizabeth had seen with Sam all those years ago was not of genteel family. She could think of only thing that would make Sam feel required to marry a woman he would not otherwise offer for. A child. What happened to this woman after Sam’s death? And what did any of this have to do with Will?
“You see,” Charlotte pointed at a line, “he blames London life for his ways. His head was turned by some pretty thing that he never would have met if it had not been for your Mr. Darcy.”
Elizabeth wanted to refute Charlotte’s word, but it was based on fact. If Sam had never met Will, he would have had little opportunity to spend so much time in Town. “It does not mean Will approves of Sam’s choices.”
“Has your father ever had a mistress? Would he ever treat a woman thusly? No! Sam learned this from his rich and important friends. You have been in his house. Even Mr. Bingley and his family try to emulate their wealth and pomp. You must see how different their life is from ours.”
“It does not follow that their values are so different,” Elizabeth said.
“But they are,” Charlotte nodded. “Sam told me about Mr. Darcy’s other friend—a Mr. Wickham. He said he fell into trouble, chased skirts, and gambled. Sam and the others all knew it, but old Darcy would not accept it. It was as though he had no quarrel with the actions at all. I am sure Mr. Darcy has a mistress, the papers report on his activities with regularity.”
Elizabeth swallowed the pain that always came at the thought of Will with other women. She had read those same articles and he had never refuted them. She had come to believe whatever Will had done in the past she would leave there. Should she make mention of it to him?
“Has Mr. Darcy ever confessed to you about his practices? Has he sworn fidelity to you alone?”
Elizabeth began to tremble as she considered the direction of Charlotte’s words. “No,” she answered in a small voice.
“Men like him have no respect for women. They collect them. If he even means to marry you at all, it is only to have an heir for his estate and you are young and healthy. Remember that he is an only son and there was many, many years between him and his sister. It does not sound like his father taught him to be faithful to his wife.”
“No!” Elizabeth gasped and doubled over. For a terrible moment, it felt as though her heart stopped pumping. Air would not come to her lungs and blackness clouded her vision.
“No!” she exclaimed again.
Will would not do such a thing to her. She had not imagined the love they shared. Surely, he had enough respect for her and understanding of the meaning of love that he could not continue with mistresses. She had spoken of him needing to prove himself and he said that he would.
He praised her intelligence. Her father knew of their betrothal. When her mother refused him access to the house, he was disappointed and angry. If she were nothing but a means to a legitimate heir, would he go through all the effort? Would he have waited all these years for her? Would he cling to her as he so often did?
Her heart whispered the truth. She need only have the courage to believe it. Will had never, even when he did not come to her, claim that he did not love her. He did not say the words very often, but he showed her in look and deed. He had believed she did not love him. Would he care so much if he did not love her? Would he care if he meant only to use her?
For that matter, could she claim to love Will so much and not trust him? Love was not something to be earned. It could only be given. She wanted to love Will with her whole heart. Supposing the worst about him was a contradiction of that.
“He is not to be trusted,” Charlotte hissed in Elizabeth’s ear. “Sam destroyed my heart without a care all because of Mr. Darcy but I would not see the same happen to you. Be reasonable!”
Was it reasonable to believe hearsay and conjecture? She had never asked Will directly. The truth was, she could never force herself to ask it because she knew it would hurt him to know she thought so little of him. It had hurt her when he had presumed she cast him aside in favour of other men.
Doubt was such a strong weed. It could grow where no sun shone and no refreshing rain fell. Love, though, needed nurture and care. She would be foolish to entertain ideas which could strangle her love for Will. In the end, it all rested on her insecurity. Was she enough for him? The sixteen-year-old her had doubted it. Their separation and subsequent reunion had proved otherwise. The very fact that Charlotte hoped to dissuade Elizabeth from her feelings proved why she should not give in. He loved her because she alone was worthy of his notice and that had not waned.
“You must have too much self-respect to marry a man who would only make a fool of you.”
Indeed, Elizabeth did have too much self-respect for that. She also had too much self-respect to continue to listen Charlotte’s arguments.
Elizabeth wiped her tears, then held up a hand. “Charlotte, this does you no credit. You do not know what was said. I doubt even Sam was present. You base your beliefs based on hearsay and—as much as it hurts me to say this—the words of a gentleman who has proved dishonourable. You give him too much credit.”
“Very well,” Charlotte pulled her letter from Elizabeth’s hands and folded it up. Standing, she shoved it in her pocket. “You have made your choice, Eliza. If you only wanted to marry him for his money, it would be well enough, but I know you. You must love him. I only hope you do not come to regret it as I did. You ought to learn from my mistakes. Mr. Darcy is not to be trusted.”
Charlotte stormed off, and Elizabeth watched her go as she chewed her bottom lip.
Elizabeth was called back to the house. Mr. Collins would be arriving soon, and Mrs. Bennet needed her. Unease bubbled in Elizabeth. She had found his letter so odd. He especially wished to meet Mr. Bennet’s eldest daughters. Meanwhile, Mrs. Bennet had not ceased to extol the virtues of marrying a clergyman to Elizabeth.
Will sat in Netherfield’s library reviewing his latest correspondence with his steward when there was a knock at the door.
“Enter,” he called out.
Charles stuck his head in the room. “I do not mean to disturb you, but an express rider just arrived with this for you.” He held out a letter.
“Thank you,” Will reached for it when Charles came near enough.
Elizabeth had sent her a list of inns and towns that she had found from Sam’s letters this morning. However, Will had sent a rider out last night to London and a few of the surrounding areas. They always took the same route to Pemberley, and upon leaving London, they had stopped there first.
Scanning the paper, it proved just as Will had begun to suspect. A London clerk admitted to an impropriety occurring. Some years ago, an employee had been discovered taking a bribe for mishandling letters. This clerk could not say for certain, but he did recall a gentleman fitting Wickham’s description lingering at the post office on the day of the day of their departure, as well as several weeks later. Both events were irregular, and so the clerk recalled them well. The latter date coincided with when Will knew Wickham had arrived in London after Mr. Darcy’s death.
Will could decipher no motive for Wickham stealing his letters to Elizabeth. Nor had he any reason to suspect that Wickham had taken all of his mail. Wickham obviously only targeted the letters which would have gone to Elizabeth. Why?
“By the terrible frown you are wearing,” Charles said, “I suspect it does not contain good news.” He wordlessly offered Will a drink.
“It confirms what I had begun to suspect and want. Elizabeth was clever enough to deduce before I did. Not conclusive proof,” Will let out a hollow laugh. “It never is with him; however, there is every reason to believe Wickham stole my letters to Elizabeth.”
“Why would he do such a thing?”
“I am uncertain,” Will replied. “Perhaps he wished to blackmail me.”
“He must have bribed the clerks, but how did he have the funds?”
Will shook his head as annoyance and self-reproach filled him. “As always, I am the source of his schemes. I had given him money in exchange for an agreement to leave the holiday early and not return to Darcy House or Pemberley again. Do you recall at that time I feared for Mrs. Annesley’s safety?”
Charles nodded. “Forgive me for speaking ill of your father, but it was growing excessively difficult to stand all his excuses for Wickham.”
“Are we any better?” Will sighed. “You know Sam got into debt with Harcourt. You also know of his affair with Lucy and of the child. I still do not understand why she disappeared when Sam had every intention of providing for her.”
“There is no sense in worrying over the long ago past. If she desired help from Sam or his family, she would have contacted them. You take too much on yourself. Few others would have searched for the mistress of their friend.” Charles briefly looked over shoulder to confirm the door was shut, before continuing. “It opened you up to meeting unsavory characters and much gossip which still has not subsided.”
“Indeed,” Will rubbed his temples. “Elizabeth has read the papers.”
Charles said nothing, but his eyebrows flew to his hairline.
“She has not asked me directly, but I can sense she is uncertain and feels insecure about what might have passed during our separation.”
“Miss Elizabeth is wise in the ways of the world and intelligent enough to hazard some guesses, Will. Few women would presume a man at your age and with your means would still be an innocent. Caroline would not care at all. Indeed, she would be relieved that her husband had a mistress. Miss Elizabeth is only concerned because you have just reunited and she loves you. Continue to prove your constancy and her fears will subside.”
“They may subside, but it will only open further anxiety on my part if she is as expecting me to be experienced as you claim.” Will knew his views on chastity for men were unusual.
“I think I must tell her everything. However, Mr. Bennet does not want me to explain about Sam, and it is not my business to tell. I think, though, Miss Lucas must know something. Her father told me she did not cry at all upon news of Sam’s demise and she glares at you and me with hatred in a way only a scorned woman could have.”
Charles thought for a moment. “Is it possible Sam wrote to Miss Lucas about Lucy?”
“I do not know. He kept his own counsel in those days. I had tried to loan him money so he might pay back Harcourt but he refused. I know that he intended to take care of Lucy and their child. From the way he spoke, I believed he would end the engagement to Miss Lucas. I had supposed he was waiting to do so in person. Or perhaps he waited to see if something else was possible to work out with Lucy. If he did marry Miss Lucas, I think he would have to explain where part of their money went.”
Charles focused on his drink for several minutes before speaking again. “What of your carriage? You believe Wickham stole your letters, whether to pain you or to blackmail you later you are uncertain. The greater concern is that someone could potentially wish to hurt—possibly kill—you, now.”
“I have not kept up on Wickham’s whereabouts in the past. However, I have sent an express to my cousin Richard and directed him to hire Bow Street Runners. I have a few ideas of where Wickham might be in London as well as where his most recent associates are.”
Will had never told Charles about Georgiana’s near elopement and did not wish to do so now. He stood, and Charles did so as well. “Now, I had wanted to call on Elizabeth at Longbourn. This cousin of theirs makes me curious. He is connected to my aunt, Lady Catherine.”
“Has she ever given up the idea that you should marry her daughter?”
“No, unfortunately not. If any good has come from these years of separation from Elizabeth, it is that those who would argue against our union are no longer of any threat. Lady Catherine may storm about in Kent, but she cannot force me to do a thing. I am much more willing to have an entire breach with her that I was a few years ago.” The gentlemen walked to the door, and Will acknowledged, “Perhaps with you present, Mrs. Bennet will allow me to enter the house.”