Thursday’s 300: Darcy Overhears, Ch. 6/7

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This week, you get the rest of Chapter 6 (which is just a tiny bit) and almost all of 7.  There’s a bit of drama in here, so be warned. 🙂

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Mrs. Phillips jumped up with a squeak and scurried out the door. Mr. Bennet turned to his wife. “Come to my book room, Mrs. Bennet. We have need of a conversation.

Chapter 7

Mrs. Bennet followed her husband to his book room. “You must do something about Lizzy,” she began. “I am so ashamed that one of my daughters would behave so wantonly!”

“I am ashamed that you would think such a thing of your own daughter,” exclaimed Mr. Bennet. “Lizzy is a good girl. I would sooner believe Lydia capable of such acts than to believe that Lizzy did them.” Mr. Bennet watched his wife as she clutched her handkerchief to her mouth. “When I am done speaking to you, I will bring her in here, and I will ask her about it. However, if you wish to avoid scandal, you must keep your thoughts to yourself.”

“But Mr. Bennet, we must do something, for the scandal is already all over Meryton. We must send Lizzy away to save the reputations of the rest of our girls.”

“If you restrain yourself, we may be able to stop the spread of the rumours,” Bennet spoke sharply to his wife, his words accompanied by a scowl on his face and a slashing of his arm through the air. We will worry about saving reputations later. For now, we must ascertain the roots of the rumors, and find out who began spreading them.” Mr. Bennet was uneasy. He clearly recalled the words of Mr. Darcy when that gentlemen warned him about Mr. Wickham. Mr. Bennet was an intelligent man. He could easily see how, on the heels of his talk with Darcy about a rake, that the two things could be related. In the meantime, you will stay at home. Do I make myself rightly understood?”

Mrs. Bennet’s attention had been riveted to her husband as he spoke, her handkerchief clutched to her breast and her eyes wide. She was clearly at a loss for words; she nodded her acceptance of her husband’s edict and her understanding of his meaning.

“Very well, then,” Bennet continued, waving his hand toward the door. “Send Lizzy to me and then go do whatever it is within the house you would normally be doing. It is important that we not behave any differently than we always have.”

Mrs. Bennet nodded silently before exiting the room. A few minutes later, a knock sounded on the door, and Bennet called out for the person to enter. Elizabeth entered hesitantly, brows raised and face still flushed from her earlier upset.

“Come in, my child.” Bennet gestured to the chair beside his desk that Elizabeth favored. “Sit down and talk to me.” He waited while she settled herself into the well-worn and comfortable seat and when she opened her mouth to speak, held up his hand. “Before we begin, let me say that I heard what your aunt said to you. I assure you that I do not believe for a single moment that you would behave in the wanton manner she described.”

“You heard everything?” Elizabeth had turned her eyes to her hands, clasped together in her lap, and was now studiously examining them.

“I did. Well, I heard everything from the moment you returned home. I was hiding in here before then.” Bennet’s sardonic admission was delivered with a wry twist of his lips to one side. “I heard the door close when you girls came in the house and intended to follow you into the drawing-room. I was in the hall when your aunt accused you.”

Elizabeth had raised her head to give her attention to her father when he began speaking, but at his last words, pressed her lips tightly together and looked down once more.

Tilting his head to try to see her expression, Bennet continued, “I know very well that you are a proper young lady and would never think to give your virtue away, much less sell it to anyone who asked.”

“No, I would not.” Elizabeth’s voice was low, fury and tears infusing it. She sniffed, and her father could see a single tear making its way down her cheek.

Bennet pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket and handed it to his daughter. “I would accuse you of being missish, but the situation is too serious for that. I do suggest, however, that you not waste tears on it. We need to analyze it and investigate.” Bennet sighed. “If the rumors have gone beyond tenants and servants, we will know soon enough.”

“Well, the shopkeepers seem to know. That can be the only reason I can imagine for their treatment of us this morning.” Elizabeth then shared with her father the happenings of the morning, both her own experiences and those that Kitty and Lydia had described.

Bennet observed Elizabeth carefully as she spoke, stopping her periodically to ask questions. When she finished her recital, he sat back and considered her words for a few minutes. “These are indeed very serious accusations, and the repercussions even more so.  We must determine the likely source of the rumours, do you not agree?”

“I do. I cannot imagine who would have said such things about me. I should like to confront that person and demand an explanation.” Elizabeth’s color began to rise as righteous indignation took hold once more. Her set jaw and downturned lips displayed for her father the depth of her anger.

“Hmmm,” Bennet replied, noncommittally. “Let us discover the source before you go calling someone out, shall we?” He chuckled to himself at the outraged look on Elizabeth’s face at his comment. “Now, then, have you angered anyone lately?”

Elizabeth glared at her father for a second more, but then looked out the window as she worked to gain control of her temper. When she felt able to speak civilly, she turned her attention back to the man behind the desk. “I cannot think of anyone recently. The last person I angered was Robert Goulding, when I turned down his marriage proposal, but I hardly think him capable of starting rumours like these. Why start them now, months afterwards?”

Bennet, leaning back in his chair with his clasped hands in front of him, forefingers steepled and tapping his lips, listened to his daughter and, when she had finished speaking, thought back to the time he had refused to force Elizabeth to marry Goulding. Drawing a deep breath, he let it out before he spoke. “I think you are correct. I do not know that young Goulding would be intelligent enough to design the tales that are going around. I have no doubt he is still resentful, of course. He avoids me at every turn.”

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “Me, as well. I am grateful he does, for I can do without his petulance and lack of conversation.”

Bennet chuckled again, this time aloud. “Indeed.”  He paused, bringing his hands down to rest, still entwined, over his belly. “So, we agree that Mr. Robert Goulding cannot be the person who created the rumours. It does not follow that he is not the one who spread them, do you agree?”

Elizabeth was taken aback. Her eyes grew large as she realized that her father was correct. “I do. But, who would have thought them up? Everyone knows me; well, not all the tenants, but the merchants in Meryton and all of the four and twenty families in the area. They should all know I would never do any of those things.”

“What one knows and what one believes are often two separate things, my dear.” Bennet once again lost himself in thought as he considered and discarded neighbors one by one. His lips pursed as the words of Mr. Darcy once again ran through his mind. The more he tried to discard the words of warning about Mr. Wickham, the more certain Bennet became that the lieutenant was the source of the stories being spread about Elizabeth. Reluctantly, he told his daughter his fears.

Elizabeth, with her resentment over her father’s handling of that information still strong, did her best to respond calmly and without rancor. Keeping her face smooth took a great effort, but she was certain she had managed it when her father did not respond negatively to her words. “I know that ruining me was Mr. Wickham’s goal. It seems that he might have succeeded.”

Ignoring Elizabeth’s words, Bennet began speaking his next thoughts out loud. “We need to find a connection between Lieutenant Wickham and Robert Goulding, if one does indeed exist. Someone will have seen them speaking to each other at some point, I should think.” By this time, Bennet’s affront at the accusations had receded, and his natural tendency toward indolence took over. Glancing out the window at the late afternoon sun, he remarked that it was too late to make enquiries today.

Elizabeth was stunned. She stared at her father, her mouth hanging open. This is my reputation, she thought, and he cannot be bothered to investigate today? Knowing that her father was best handled carefully at this point, Elizabeth closed her mouth and took a minute to gather her thoughts, then spoke slowly. “Would it not be best to look into it this afternoon? Do we not need information sooner rather than later if we wish to refute the charges against me and restore our family to the good graces of the townsfolk and our neighbors?”

“None of us plan to go into town this evening. There are no events scheduled, just a simple night at home. It will not hurt anything to wait until a proper hour for visiting, not with the distance the rumours have travelled to this point.” Bennet poured himself a fresh glass of port from the decanter on the table at his elbow and took up the book he had discarded when his attention was caught by his wife’s cries. “You may go; we will discuss this again tomorrow, and decide upon a plan of action.”

Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed and her jaw clenched in anger. She took a deep breath and stood, curtseying to her parent and then spinning on her heel and stalking out the door.

~~~***~~~

Elizabeth headed straight to her room after leaving her father’s book room. She closed and locked the door, grabbed her journal and writing desk off the table, and plopped down in the window seat. She pulled out her ink bottle and quill and set about mending her pen while she silently fumed over Mr. Bennet’s lackadaisical attitude. Finally ready to write, she dipped the quill into the ink and began describing her day. Writing it all down calmed much of her anger, but it also brought questions to her mind, questions for which she had no answer. She was just finishing up when a knock sounded on her door.

“Lizzy, it is Jane. May I come in?”

Elizabeth sighed. While she really wished to be alone, she knew that Jane would want to know what happened during her conversation with her father, and would be able to help her gain some perspective on it all. And I certainly could use her advice! “Just a moment,” she called out.

Putting away her supplies, Elizabeth rose and hurried across the room, dropping her desk and journal off in their places on the table. Unlocking the door, she reached out and pulled her elder sister into her room, then shut and relocked the door.

“Are you well, Lizzy?”

“No, Jane, I am not,” Elizabeth sighed as she dropped onto the bed. She moved over to make room and leaned against the headboard, kicking off her slippers. “Papa is so frustrating! At first, I thought he was going to make this … situation … a priority, but at the end, he decided it was too late today to do anything and put it off for tomorrow.”

Jane settled beside Elizabeth, taking her hand to comfort her. “I am sorry. It is rather late in the day to be making calls. I am certain that, come tomorrow morning, he will have his stallion saddled before breakfast and will be vigourously defending you.”

“Perhaps.” Elizabeth turned her head away from Jane, trying to swallow down her frustration once more. Looking next at her hand where it joined her sister’s, Elizabeth described the entire conversation, ending with, “The situation needs to be investigated to determine who fed Robert those lies. I hope you are correct and that Papa goes out tomorrow and looks into it.” She looked at Jane again. “If he does not, or if he cannot prove the stories wrong, my reputation and that of all my sisters will be ruined.” Tears filled Elizabeth’s eyes and her breath hitched with her next words. “What will Mr. Darcy say? What will he do? Surely he does not want a wife tainted with a scandal of this magnitude. He would not want his sister exposed to ridicule, and she surely would be if he goes ahead and marries me.” Elizabeth buried her face in her hands as she started to cry. She felt Jane’s arm slide around her shoulders and allowed herself to be drawn to her sister’s shoulder, where she sobbed out her worries and pain.

“I cannot imagine your Mr. Darcy leaving you, Lizzy,” Jane whispered into Elizabeth’s hair. “He is as besotted with you as you are with him. I am certain he will ride into the paddock as soon as he hears the news. He will not be able to keep from declaring his love.”

Elizabeth’s sobs lessened as her sister continued to encourage and comfort her. When she finally lifted her head, she accepted the handkerchief Jane offered her, and blew her nose. “I hope with all my heart that you are correct about Mr. Darcy.” She swallowed, pushing down the fear that tried to rise within her. Suddenly, a sense of lethargy overwhelmed her. She yawned and, though it was barely dark outside, decided to go to bed. Jane helped her change into a nightdress, and then tucked her in, kissing her cheek and assuring her that Mama everything would look better in the morning. Elizabeth lifted her lips in a wan smile as Jane softly closed the door behind her. “I hope so,” she murmured before the events of the day caught up with her and she drifted off to sleep.

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