Thursday’s 300: Darcy Overhears, Ch. 5/6

Welcome back!

This story has undergone a renovation. If you read yesterday’s Writer’s Journal post, you know why. The first five chapters now reflect Elizabeth and Darcy already being in love. I’m not going to go back and change previous posts now, but I think you’ll like what I have here, so hopefully, that will distract you. 😉

This week, you get the rest of Chapter 5 and the beginning of 6. There’s a big chunk missing in Chapter 6 that I have to go back and fill in. Sorry about that. 🙂

Oh, and this is over 5,000 words, so grab a cup of tea or something to help you through it. 😉

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Rolling her eyes, Elizabeth made her way to Longbourn’s front door, where Jane waited with Bingley and Darcy. The four quickly walked away, headed in the direction of Meryton. As they walked, they paired up, with Bingley and Jane in the lead, and Darcy and Elizabeth bringing up the rear. As they walked, Darcy and Elizabeth struck up a conversation.

“Your mother does not seem to like me,” Darcy observed.

“No, I fear she does not. I was rather vocal in my retelling of your insult at the assembly. I am not Mama’s favorite child, but she does not take kindly to people insulting any of us. I have not taken the time to attempt to change her mind, at first because I did not want anyone to know how well I liked you, and then because I did not know how to do so without telling her about Mr. Wickham.”

“Fear not, I understand completely why she feels the way she does. I shall simply have to sway her with my charms.”

Elizabeth snickered. “Yes, you should. When you choose, you are quite amiable.”

Darcy blushed. “When I am among company that I enjoy, I am. I do think that it behooves me to be in the good graces of all of your family. It would not do to attempt to win you without their approval.”

It was Elizabeth’s turn to blush. She felt her courage rise as she spoke words that were far more forward than anything she had ever said before. “You have already won me, sir.” Her flush became deeper, her eyes no longer able to rise about his waistcoat.

Though she could not see it, Darcy grinned broadly. “Thank you, Miss Elizabeth.” Though he wished with everything in him to kiss her, he simply held out his elbow to her, and she tucked her hand in its bend. Tilting her head slightly, she peeked up at Darcy out of the corner of her eye and saw his broad smile. She lifted her head, looking up at him admiringly.

“Since you feel that way, I have a question for you before we continue our walk.” Darcy looked at Elizabeth, continuing after she nodded. “I love you. Will you marry me?”

Elizabeth’s heart soared in her chest, filling her with a warmth of feeling. She felt tears prick her eyes and her smile widen with joy. “Yes, Mr. Darcy. I would be delighted to marry you. I love you, as well.”

Darcy drew her arm closer to his side, her happiness shining out of his eyes and her smile mirrored on his face. “Thank you. You have made me the happiest of men.”

The pair continued their walk, each in quiet contemplation of their future felicity.

Once in Meryton, the gentlemen had to stop and speak to the blacksmith, because Bingley had commissioned something from him and wanted an update on its progress. Jane and Bingley stopped a few yards from the blacksmith shop on the edge of the town, and waited for Darcy and Elizabeth to catch up.

“Would you ladies like to go on ahead, and we will catch up later?” Darcy’s grip on Elizabeth’s hand where it lay on his arm told her that he did not wish to separate, but a blacksmith’s shop was no place for a lady, and she knew it.

Elizabeth looked at Jane, who nodded. Looking back at the gentlemen, Elizabeth said, “We will do that. We need to stop at the milliner’s. Will you join us there when your business is finished?”

“We will,” Bingley replied.

“We will not be long.” Darcy bowed to the ladies and followed Bingley into the building.

Down the street, George Wickham stepped out of a tobacco shop. Sticking his fingers in the pockets of his waistcoat, he looked up and down the dirt avenue and across the way. He saw two of the Bennet ladies go into a shop on the other side. Recognizing Miss Elizabeth and her elder sister, Wickham knew his chance had arrived. Looking both ways so as to avoid traffic, he darted across the dusty expanse and ducked into the store. Wickham rolled his eyes after seeing that it was a millinery shop. Feminine fripperies did not interest him, except in the case of using an item to entice a lady to his side.

The shop was a large, open room, with three or four wide tables spaced apart across the floor. Above each table hung a display—ribbons, lace, and other accoutrements. There were a half-dozen ladies in the shop, but given the layout of the room, it was easy enough for Wickham to locate his prey. He approached them with a practiced smile on his face.

“Good afternoon, ladies. What a delight to see you here.”

Elizabeth and Jane jumped at the male voice that suddenly intruded on them from behind. Spinning, Elizabeth was dismayed to see Wickham grinning down at her. Quickly schooling her features, she returned his bow with a curtsey, as did her sister beside her.

“Good afternoon.” Elizabeth smiled as graciously as she could manage given her increased heart rate and tense muscles.

When neither lady said anything else, Wickham scrambled to find a topic of conversation. Looking around him, he gestured with his right hand, “Are you thinking of buying a new hat?”

Elizabeth wanted to roll her eyes. “We may, though I am uncertain there is anything new to be had. We may instead decide to purchase some ribbons or feathers and remake an older bonnet.”

“Ah, yes. I recall Miss Lydia mentioning that as being a favored activity.”

Feeling badly that the whole of the conversation had thus far been laid on Elizabeth’s shoulders, Jane interjected, “Yes, my youngest sister has a talent for it that far outstrips ours. We do enjoy the activity, but our skills are not as good as Lydia’s.” Jane linked her arm with her sister’s, something Elizabeth very much appreciated.

Wickham nodded. Glancing around again, he saw a ribbon in a pretty shade of puce and tried to draw Elizabeth’s attention to it. “This is a lovely ribbon. It would complement the hat you are wearing quite nicely.”

Lifting the corners of her lips in a slight smile, she thanked him but did not take a step away from Jane. “It would, I concur. I am looking for something else, though. Puce would not match the gown that will go with the bonnet I want.” Please go away. I do not want you near me. Elizabeth was prepared to run out the door if Wickham persisted.

Wickham nodded, and Elizabeth heard him sigh. He attempted to entice her toward other items in the shop and away from where Jane had become immersed in a conversation with a villager, but she would not budge. When the bell above the door tinkled, Elizabeth and Wickham both looked that direction.

Elizabeth’s relief at seeing Darcy and Bingley enter was great. She closed her eyes for a moment and felt the tension drain from her body. She turned to discover Wickham’s reaction to the gentlemen’s entrance and was surprised to see that he had vanished. Her eyes roamed the store, and she finally saw him, making his way quickly to the door. Alerting Darcy and Bingley to his presence, the men turned in time to see Wickham’s back as the door closed behind him.

Immediately, Darcy turned back to the ladies, reaching his hand out to grasp Elizabeth’s once more. “Are you well?”

Elizabeth heard the urgency in Darcy’s voice. “We are. He only spoke. He never touched Jane or me.”

“What did he speak of?” Darcy’s expression was dark, and Elizabeth was grateful that she could reassure him somewhat.

“He spoke of hats and ribbons, of all things. It was rather odd, to be honest.” Elizabeth went on to explain the manner in which Wickham had pointed out ribbons and other decorations that were further and further away from where she stood.

“He was trying to draw you away from your sister,” Bingley observed.

The crease between Darcy’s brows deepened. “He tried something here, in a public place? What is wrong with him?”

“Better he sees me here than tries to accost me in a more private location.”

“True,” Darcy agreed. “I am happy, though, that he was unable to draw you away.” He pulled Elizabeth as close to his side as propriety allowed.

Elizabeth smiled tenderly then. “I am, as well. Now that I know his true nature, I can promise you never to allow myself to be alone with him!”

           ~~~***~~~

George Wickham was frustrated. He had tried repeatedly over the course of the previous two weeks to maneuver Elizabeth Bennet into a compromising position, to no avail. At every dinner, dance, and card party, she had been attended to by one or a combination of three people: her oldest sister, Charles Bingley, or Darcy. No amount of distraction would pull the chaperones away, and Wickham had tried every trick he knew.

Nor did Elizabeth walk out alone, not to Meryton, not to Oakham Mount, not to her father’s tenant houses. On every occasion, she was accompanied by a male servant, if she went at all. Wickham did not understand it. He had been assured by her sister that Elizabeth rambled the countryside every day that it didn’t rain.

“Come to think of it, I have not seen Lydia alone, either.” Wickham mused. The thought entered his head that the two things might be related, but pushed it to the side, choosing instead to focus his attention on solving the problem at hand. “In what other manner may I accomplish this,” he asked himself. He looked around from his perch on a boulder part way up the hill that was Oakham Mount, seeking inspiration. Finding none, he began walking down to where he had hidden his horse, in a thicket of trees at the bottom.

It was not until hours later that Lieutenant Wickham came up with a method to achieve his goal with Elizabeth.

With his plan in mind, Wickham began to pay more attention to the gossip in and around Meryton, as opposed to allowing his attention to wander when people were talking. He quickly determined that, despite its outward serenity, the village was a seething hotbed of viciousness, especially toward the leading families in the area, those being the Lucas, Bennet, Long, and Goulding families.  Even between the families, there was an undercurrent of strife, as evidenced by comments he had heard during visits with all of them.

Once Wickham discovered the lack of loyalty and friendship that existed between the families, it became a simple matter of choosing which person to choose to carry out his plan. He evaluated each person who had spoken badly about the Bennets, especially about Elizabeth, narrowing down the list of possibilities by eliminating those who appeared to have more wit. Then, he engaged each of the people who remained in conversation, intent on discovering who disliked Elizabeth Bennet the most.

After enduring a dozen inane conversations with just as many insipid ladies and gentlemen, Wickham found the perfect pawn for his game.

Robert Goulding was the eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. Long of Haye Park. The family had leased the estate for at least the last decade, and were very happy there. Robert had been to University, where he studied law. He generally lived in London, where he was a clerk under one of the most successful attorneys in town, but made frequent visits to his parents.

That young Mr. Goulding made it through his university years was a surprise to Wickham. The gentleman clearly had a mean understanding of the world, and a low opinion of anyone of a lesser social standing than himself. However, he did fit Wickham’s requirements in that he very much disliked the Bennets in general and Elizabeth in particular.

Wickham spent hours over the course of a week or so, cultivating a relationship with Goulding. When he felt he had gained the gentleman’s confidence, he inquired as to the reason for his hatred of the Bennet family.

“Oh, I have plenty of reasons, I assure you. So many that I am uncertain where to begin.” Goulding’s heavy eyebrows dipped, making his face look as much of a bull as his body did.

Wickham’s own brows rose. “When did you first begin to dislike them?”

“I am uncertain there was a specified date.” Goulding took a swig of ale out of his tankard, setting it firmly on the table in front of him in the inn where Wickham had invited him for a meal and a pint. “From the beginning of our lease, I suppose. I recall hearing Mrs. Bennet commenting that we were beneath her notice because our estate was only leased, while Longbourn has been in Bennet’s hands for years.”

Wickham winced. “Yes, I see where that would be upsetting.”

“Upsetting nothing,” Goulding boomed. “She did it every time, the mopsy harridan! For years she stuck her nose in the air every time one of us entered a room she was in, including at Longbourn.” Though his voice had quieted a bit, Goulding was still red-faced, with his mouth twisted into a grimace.

“Was it only Mrs. Bennet who behaved this way?”

“I did not know the younger three girls well enough to know. Still do not, as I avoid them as often as I can manage. The older two were always polite, and Mr. Bennet always left me with the sense that he was laughing at me, though he never spoke a word against us. I would have forgiven, like we are told to at church, but that second Bennet girl, Miss Lizzy, she put the nail in that coffin.”

Wickham’s ears perked up at this. “How so? She is not terribly old, is she? Perhaps nineteen or twenty?”

“Aye, she should be about twenty now. Close to one and twenty, I should think.”

“I thought so.” Wickham tried to rein in his impatience, but it was difficult. He wanted—no, needed—to know why this man disliked Elizabeth Bennet so much. “What did she do to raise your ire?”

Goulding took another swig of ale, this time out of a new pint his new friend had ordered. “Two years ago, I was refused by that impertinent, ungrateful chit.

“I came home for a visit after University and saw how well she looked. I knew her portion was small, but mine from my father is adequate, and once I reach the bar, my gifts will increase. I will have plenty of funds to support a wife.

“Miss Lizzy is too high and mighty to marry a mere attorney, though. Just like her mother, that one. Went on and on about how she did not love me and did not even like me. I told her love does not matter in marriage, that she would likely never get another offer, and that she should grasp this one with both hands, because no one else would be willing to take on her sow of a mother. She got angry-like and told me she would not marry me if I were the last man in the world. Well, I promptly withdrew my application for her hand, gave her what-for, and walked away. From that day forward, I have not spoken to any of the Bennets.”

Wickham whistled, long and low. “I daresay I would not, either. Did you apply to the father at all?”

“I did. Saw him on my way out. The whole lot of them were standing around the corner from the garden, staring. Bennet inquired after my business with his daughter, I told him I came to propose, and would he grant permission, and he said he would not go against his daughter’s wishes. Laughed in my face when I suggested his daughters needed to learn their place, and that they would get no husbands without a more submissive attitude. He called me a cretin, he did.” Goulding snorted. “It is all I can do to be civil at dinner parties and not cause a scene. Of course, I was correct. It has been more than two years, and she still has not married. None of them have.” Goulding’s nose was in the air, his nostrils flaring.

“My word,” Wickham declared, “that was rather insulting. I imagine since it has been so long, you have got your revenge already.”

“Revenge?” Goulding took another swig of ale, splashing it onto his face, where it dripped onto his cravat and down his waistcoat. “Blast,” he swore, “I was certain there was only a mouthful left.” He grabbed a napkin off the table and wiped his clothing. When he was done, he took another draft of ale, this time sipping it slowly. “Where were we?”

Keeping his expression neutral, though he longed to roll his eyes, Wickham reminded him. “You were telling me about the revenge you took on Miss Elizabeth.”

“Oh, that is correct.” Goulding paused for a moment. “I took no revenge. I have not yet, anyway. I suppose I should have by now.”

“Do you want to? I mean, she demeaned you. She besmirched your masculinity. There should be retribution for that.” Wickham did roll his eyes now. What an idiot, he thought.

“She did, the ugly wench!”

Wickham spent the following quarter-hour building up a sense of anger in Robert Goulding, keeping his tankard topped with ale. It was ridiculously easy, in Wickham’s opinion, to stir the gentleman into a righteous rage, then spin tales of Miss Elizabeth being free with her favors. By the end of the evening, he had Goulding sitting at the bar, making up tales of his own about the woman who had scorned him.

Chapter 6

Darcy and Elizabeth were once again wandering the gardens at Longbourn. Darcy had spoken to Mr. Bennet and received his permission to marry Elizabeth, and the pair, with Jane and Bingley as chaperones, were discussing that conversation.

“He did not mock you too much, did he?” Elizabeth had been uneasy about her father’s reaction, given that he had thrown Darcy and his friends out of Longbourn less than a fortnight ago.

“Well,” Darcy replied, his brows raised, “he did, but it was not unexpected. I think he is still too angry with me to treat me with much respect.”

“That may be true, but to be honest, he would have mocked you regardless.” Elizabeth’s tone displayed her discomfort, as did the manner in which she focused on Darcy’s sleeve and picked at imaginary lint.

“Elizabeth.” Darcy spoke quietly, and when she did not raise her eyes, used the fingers of his free hand to lift her chin so that she was forced to look at him. “All is well. We have his permission and a date that is not too far off to have the ceremony.

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Netherfield

Caroline Bingley wore a triumphant smile as she descended the stairs. She had spent a profitable thirty minutes listening to her maid relaying the latest gossip spreading around the area, and knew she now had the ammunition she needed to separate her brother from the local girl he was infatuated with. At the same time, I can rescue Mr. Darcy from his equally inappropriate obsession, she thought. Caroline sneered as the image of Miss Elizabeth Bennet floated through her mind.

Reaching the first floor, Caroline glided across the floor to the drawing-room, where her sister and brother-in-law were, seated side-by-side on a settee.

“What has made you so happy, Caro?” Louisa Hurst asked, her eyes narrowed.

“Can a lady not simply be happy to be alive?” Gracefully, Caroline lowered herself to perch on the edge of a chair next to the sofa on which her sister sat.

Mr. Hurst snorted, then slid down in his seat to rest his head on the back of the furniture.

Louisa looked at him and rolled her eyes, then turned back to Caroline, looking her directly in the eyes. “If it were any other lady than you, I would say she could indeed be so. However, this is you we are speaking of, and you hate this house, the landscape, and everything and everyone in the area. So, no, you cannot simply be happy to be alive.”

Caroline sniffed, looking down and using her hands to smooth her gown over her legs. “That may be so in the normal order of things, but today is no ordinary day, and I have discovered information that will enable me—I mean, us—to get what we want.”

Louisa lifted an eyebrow and cast an assessing gaze over her sister. “And, what is it that we want?”

“Why, to leave this backwards and uncultured place and return to town, of course!”

Louisa’s brows had now drawn down, and a furrow appeared between them. She extended her hand to lay it on her husband’s thigh for a moment before withdrawing it as she asked Caroline her next question. “Whyever would we want to do that? You know how happy Charles is here, and it is his house.”

Caroline sneered at the way her sister touched her husband, taking it for an affectionate and inappropriate pat. “Charles is happy everywhere he goes. It matters not where he is, and what I learned today will cause the ruin of our entire family if we do not remove him as soon as possible.”

“Seriously, Caroline, your complaints about this house and the surrounding area grow old. What have you heard now?”

With a smug smirk, Caroline relayed her news. “Miss Elizabeth Bennet is loose with her favors. All that running around the countryside had a purpose, it seems, and that is to share her favors with gentlemen, out in the woods.” Caroline ignored her sister’s gasp, speaking over it. “My maid says that she has lain with tradesmen, as well. Perhaps that is what her uncle in Cheapside does, procuring women for the pleasure of men. She is a common hussy, and has no business showing her face the way she does. We need to pack up the house and remove to town immediately, and force Charles to come with us.”

“I cannot believe that. Miss Lydia, maybe; she is unchecked and flirtatious, but Miss Elizabeth?” Louisa shook her head. “No, I do not believe it is true.”

“I do believe it, but even if it is not true, that family is ruined. If Charles continues his involvement, we will be ruined, as well. And poor Mr. Darcy! He has trailed along with Charles on these visits. He will be just as tainted as we will! I am going right now to call for the housekeeper and have the house packed up. We can be gone by tea.” She rose and turned to reach for the cord.

Suddenly, Hurst sat up. “Belay that,” he ordered, in a tone Caroline had never heard before. She turned around once more.

“What do you mean? You are not in charge here.”

“Not of you, perhaps, but I am in charge of my wife.” He turned to Louisa. “We are not leaving.” Seeing his spouse nod, Hurst turned back to Caroline. “There are things afoot that you are not aware of, Caroline, and I can tell you now that your brother will not bend to your will in this. If you wish to leave, I am certain he will allow it, but Louisa and I will remain to support him and Darcy, and the Bennets.”

“We will be ruined! Surely your parents will not appreciate their name being dragged through the mud.”

“My parents are eminently sensible, and far less class-conscious than you are. When the situation has been explained to them, they will understand. Once the truth has come out, it will not be the Bennets whose reputation is ruined.”

“What do you know, Reginald?” Louisa’s eyes were large in her face.

Hurst took his wife’s hand and squeezed it. “I cannot tell you just yet, and not here.” He glanced at his sister before returning his eyes to Louisa. “You must trust me in this. Will you do that?”

Louisa looked into her husband’s eyes. “I do trust you, and when you can tell me what is going on, I will be glad to hear it.”

Hurst patted Louisa’s hand and then hefted himself off the settee. Bowing to Caroline, he reminded her of his words, and then turned and walked out of the drawing-room.

Caroline watched him leave. “I thought he was asleep,” she declared in disgust. “What could he possibly know that could make this situation better?”

“I do not know, but he has never steered me wrong in the past. Reginald is far more observant than he lets on.”

Caroline snorted. “I do not know how he could observe anything with the amount of time he spends asleep.”

Louisa grew red and her manner stiff. “That is my husband, and you will be respectful of him. He is a far better man than you give him credit for being, and if you do not watch your mouth, you may find yourself swallowing my fist one day.” With those terse words, Louisa lifted her chin and strode from the room, leaving her sister gaping at her.

Longbourn

As the group of young people approached the house, they could hear Mrs. Bennet wailing. They stopped, casting concerned glances at the building.

“I wonder what is wrong?” Elizabeth hated that Darcy and Bingley were exposed to her mother’s nerves in such a way.

Jane had tilted her head to listen, but immediately upon hearing her sister’s question, looked at Elizabeth. “I do not know. Her words are not clear. In any case,” Jane paused, glancing at first one gentleman and then the next. “It is probably best if Lizzy and I enter alone.”

Bingley nodded. “I believe you are correct. I would not wish to cause Mrs. Bennet any more anxiety.”

Darcy laid his hand over Elizabeth’s where it rested on his arm. “You will send word to Netherfield? Tell us what is happening?” His intense gaze settled on her, brows drawn close together.

“I will, I promise.” Elizabeth squeezed the arm under her hand and lifted her lips in a small smile. Her gaze focused on his lips for a heartbeat or two, wishing he would kiss her, but then she blushed at her forwardness.

Darcy chuckled to see the redness overtaking her features. He leaned down to her ear and whispered, “I love you.”

Eyes sparkling, Elizabeth looked up and grinned. “I love you, as well.” With a final squeeze of his arm, she let go and joined Jane in her walk to the front door. She looked back to see Darcy watching her. He blew her a kiss, one that she caught with her hand and held to her heart. Then, she entered the house behind her sister.

Inside, the house was in chaos. The housekeeper and maids ran to and fro, Kitty and Lydia raced out of the drawing-room, hands over their mouths to hold in giggles, with Mary following spouting pronouncements about the loss of virtue in a female. Looking at each other, Elizabeth and Jane shrugged and walked into the room their sisters had just exited.

“There she is! She is ruined, the ungrateful child. What were you thinking?” Mrs. Bennet’s screech was enough to hurt Elizabeth’s ears, and she cringed, lifting her hands to cover them.

“I have not the pleasure of understanding you, Mama. What are you talking about?”

“Oh, my nerves,” Mrs. Bennet moaned. She waved her handkerchief at her sister, Mrs. Phillips, who sat nearby. “You tell her, Emma. I cannot bear to think of it.” Mrs. Bennet subsided into the chaise on which she was laying.

Elizabeth and Jane both turned their attention to their aunt, who beckoned them closer. They sat on the nearby settee, their eyes darting back and forth from mother to aunt and their brows drawn together.

Mrs. Phillips leaned closer. “Lizzy, there are reports circulating around Meryton that you have been engaging in … marital relations with several of the gentlemen in the area.”

Elizabeth’s mouth dropped open and she gasped. She drew back, her eyes large in her face. “What?” She turned to Jane, whose hand was over her mouth. Turning back to her aunt, Elizabeth demanded to know where she had heard such an untruth.

“Is it untrue, Lizzy? You are well-known for walking about for hours, all over the countryside.”

Another gasp came from Elizabeth before she could stop it. “You are my aunt; how can you even ask me such a thing! Of course, it is not true. I am not that kind of girl.” Elizabeth stood up, rage turning her face red, her hands clenched at her sides, and her jaw clenched. “Where did you hear these lies? Who is saying such horrible things about me? Tell me!”

Mr. Bennet appeared in the doorway behind his daughters, and stepped into the conversation. “What is going on in here? Mrs. Bennet, cease your caterwauling this instant.”

At her husband’s unprecedentedly firm command, Mrs. Bennet immediately quieted but with seconds was pouring out to him the gossip about his favorite daughter that had been brought to her.

Bennet listened without comment until his spouse ran out of breath. He turned to his sister and asked her confirmation of the tales.

“Oh, yes, Brother. It is all over town. Mr. Phillips would not share with me all of the stories he has heard. He said they were not for the ears of delicate ladies.”

“And yet,” Bennet began, his voice full of irony, “you hastened your steps to my door, to pollute my wife and daughters with them. How kind of you. But then, I should not be surprised, given that you just condemned Lizzy outright, and to her face.” He pulled himself up to his full height and allowed his anger to show. He was secretly pleased to see Mrs. Phillips shrink back from him. “You will leave this instant, Sister, and do not come back until you can be a support to the nieces you claim to love as your own.”

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