Thursday’s 300: Darcy Overhears, Part 7

This week, I have the rest of Chapter 2 for you! It has been run through the grammar checker, but not listened to.  Please forgive the errors. It picks up where last week’s post left off. 

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“I will have to be careful around Mr. Wickham,” Elizabeth murmured to herself, stopping her forward motion to sway slightly, the toes of one foot dug deeply into the dirt to anchor her. She leaned her cheek against her right hand where it wrapped around the rope and stared at a tuft of grass a few feet away, her brow furrowed. “I do not know what he is capable of, and I would not wish to be caught unaware. My father is clearly unwilling to entertain the possibilities, but that does not mean that I must follow suit.”

A few more minutes of contemplation led Elizabeth around to the realization that it was Mr. Darcy who brought word of this threat to Longbourn. Why would he do that, she asked herself. He doesn’t like me. He refused to dance with me at the assembly and then stared at me in disgust the entire time I was at Netherfield with Jane. The more she thought about the gentleman, the more insistent the quiet little voice inside her became, and the more convinced Elizabeth was that she might have misread him. “Surely,” she said to the air, “a gentleman who disliked me as much as Mr. Darcy appeared to have would not concern himself with the reputation of a lady he found so disgusting, no matter how gallant the act might seem. Is it possible that he likes me well enough to be concerned about my well-being?”

Chewing her lip, Elizabeth recalled his reaction at her refusal to dance with him that evening at Mr. Bingley’s home, and how surprised she had been then that he had not taken offense at her words. She was amazed now to understand that he reacted as he did because his feelings toward her were the opposite of what she had previously believed them to be. “Well, this puts everything in a new light!”

~~~***~~~

Later that evening, the Bennet family joined their neighbors at the home of Mrs. Bennet’s sister, Mrs. Phillips, for a dinner party. In attendance were many of the officers from the nearby camp, Mr. Wickham among them. The rooms were crowded, and Elizabeth hoped to remain at a distance from all of the officers, if at all possible. Unfortunately, before the night was out, she found herself approached by Mr. Wickham. Desperately, she searched the room with her eyes, looking for an escape. Finding none, she plastered an indifferent look on her face, and resigned herself to being in his company. At least the room is full of people. There is not much he could do to me here.

“Miss Elizabeth, how delightful to see you again!” Mr. Wickham’s greeting was all that was insincere in his hearer’s ears.

The corners of Elizabeth’s lips barely lifted in acknowledgement of his words. “You, as well.” She hated telling an untruth and it was all she could do to stay where she was, but the pressure of propriety and the niggling fear of provoking him kept her from saying what she really wished to.

Wickham apparently had no such constraints on his conversation, and proceeded to flatter and flirt and inflate Elizabeth’s sense of self-admiration. With great effort, she refrained from rolling her eyes at him.

“I have heard it bandied about Meryton that the Bennet ladies are all beautiful; I am delighted to discover the gossip to be true!”

“Thank you, sir, but Jane is the beauty of the family. The rest of us pale in comparison.” Elizabeth’s reply was almost a monotone, holding none of the archness she was noted for. She could hear the flatness of her answer but was unable to adjust it. She was too uncomfortable for that.

“You are too modest by half,” Wickham cried. “Miss Bennet has the classic looks of an English rose, but your appeal is just as powerful, I assure you.”

Giving her unwanted companion a weak smile, Elizabeth said nothing for a moment. Please, someone come rescue me from this rogue. Finally, feeling her internal temperature rise along with her discomfort, she swallowed her unease and said, “There are many beautiful ladies in Meryton. My friend Charlotte, for example.” Elizabeth gestured to the piano, where said friend was currently playing for the enjoyment of the guests. “She has the bluest eyes of anyone I have ever seen. Far superior to my own muddy brown ones. And her hair is a rich brown color, where mine is almost red, especially in the sun. I should not like you to focus on myself and my sisters when there is an entire town of beauty before you.”

“Ah,” Wickham replied, “you are modest, also. I fear I have embarrassed you with my effusions. Forgive me, Miss Elizabeth.” He bowed to her. “Allow me to change the subject.”

“Thank you, sir. That would be deeply appreciated.”

Wickham smiled again, then launched into another conversation that was doomed to make Elizabeth uncomfortable. “I see Mr. Darcy and his party are not in attendance this evening. Has he been long in Meryton?”

Instantly alert, Elizabeth replied with caution. “About a month.”

Wickham dipped his head. “I am certain you noticed our cold greeting this morning,” he half-asked and half-stated.

Elizabeth paused, uncertain how to respond. She could not deny it, however, and so she admitted that yes, she had noticed a lack of warmth between the two gentlemen.

Wickham then began a tale that Elizabeth was certain was designed to make Mr. Darcy look bad.

“Mr. Darcy’s father was my godfather. We grew up together, Darcy and I.”

Despite herself, Elizabeth was intrigued. To see the two gentlemen together this morning, one would not have gathered that their acquaintance was so close. She hesitated, still desiring him gone despite her interest in his story. “I am surprised. You and he did not greet each other as friends.”

Wickham pasted a sad look on his face. “We are not friends any longer.”

“Oh, I am sorry. I would not wish to pain you. We should find something else to discuss.”

“No, no, it is well. I have got over most of the painful feelings. I can tell the tale with nothing more than a bit of regret.”

Elizabeth continued to waver between her curiosity and her desire to be far away from this man. She bit her lip again, looking around once more, vainly searching for a sister or friend who needed her. Even her mother would do at this point, but Mrs. Bennet was well-occupied with Lady Lucas and Mrs. Goulding. Sighing at the distinct lack of a rescue, Elizabeth turned her eyes once more to Mr. Wickham. “I do not wish to be the cause of relived pain. I do not think we should speak of it.”

“I insist. It truly is no hardship.” Wickham’s words were kind, but his tone suddenly had an edge to it that increased his listener’s unease.

Elizabeth swallowed, not liking the sudden hardness that had overtaken her unwanted companion’s countenance. She instantly felt the danger of being near him more strongly as every muscle in her body stiffened and her heart began to pound. She wished to flee, but her strong sense of decorum kept her in place. She did not want to make a scene and give the neighbors reason to gossip about her. Since escape was not possible, Elizabeth thought to use the situation to her advantage. She would listen to Wickham’s tale and at the least, have more evidence to present to her father that Mr. Darcy was correct. Keeping her mien as indifferent as she could manage, Elizabeth nodded once. “Very well, then.”

“As I said, Darcy and I grew up together. I was his father’s favorite, and Darcy did not like it. We were sent to university together, and I was given a living in the elder Darcy’s will. My godfather passed away four years ago, and his son refused to give me the living that was my due. I have been encouraged by friends to expose him to the world for the cheat he is, but out of respect for his father, I will not.” Wickham had reverted to his pleasant demeanour to tell his tale, and now Elizabeth could see that he watched her closely.

“Did he have a reason for his interference in the wishes of his father?” Elizabeth could not imagine a son who loved his father doing such a thing, but perhaps there was an underlying cause.

With Elizabeth’s question, Wickham appeared to relax. “He hates me. I told you, I was his father’s favorite.”

“Oh,” Elizabeth said, drawing the word out. “I see. He offered you no recompense for the position? Simply cut you out of it, so to speak?”

“No recompense was offered,” Wickham confirmed decisively. “He simply laughed at me and escorted me to the door.”

“I am sorry that happened to you. I have no idea what Mr. Darcy could have been thinking, to cut off the friendship of a lifetime because his father loved you as a son.”

Before Wickham could reply, Maria Lucas pulled Elizabeth away at Charlotte’s behest, to play a duet. Elizabeth had never been so glad to be interrupted in her life. She tucked away the things she had heard into the back of her mind, to be brought out in the quiet of her room and analyzed.

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