This week, you get the rest of Chapter 7 and a big part of 8.
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Darcy, Bingley, and Hurst were enjoying a mid-day game of billiards when the housekeeper knocked on the door and entered.
“Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam, sir.” Mrs. Nichols curtseyed and backed out of the room once the visitor had entered it, shutting the door again behind her.
“Cousin,” Darcy cried, leaning his stick against the wall and striding forward to greet the colonel. “You made good time! I did not expect you until later.”
“The general has no need of me today, so I set out early this morning.” The colonel bowed to Bingley and Hurst, shaking their hands. “Good to see you, Bingley. Lovely estate you have here.”
“Thank you. I am only leasing for right now, but the area is simply lovely.”
“Found any angels in the area?” Richard winked as all three gentlemen laughed at him.
“Indeed I have. She is the loveliest creature I ever beheld, though Darcy may take issue with that statement.”
Richard’s brows rose to nearly his hairline. “Darcy may?” He looked at his cousin. “You?”
Darcy rolled his eyes. “Yes, Richard, me. Is that so shocking?”
“Considering your usual stance in regards to ladies, yes.”
“Well, this one is different. She has a brain, and she is not afraid to use it, and she is forthright and refreshingly honest.”
“Well, I’ll be.” The colonel was speechless for a moment, but then recovered himself, turning serious. “We can discuss it later. I am more interested, for now, in your letter, and the reason for it.”
“As am I, frankly. Bingley?” Darcy turned to his friend.
“Oh, yes! Let us retire to my study. We will be more comfortable in there. Colonel, would you like some refreshments? I plan to ring for tea, but can request something more substantial, if you like.”
“A small meal would not go amiss. Thank you.” Richard bowed slightly, then followed Darcy out the door with Hurst bringing up the rear.
They walked down a short hallway leading to the front of the house, and to a door near the stairs. They entered the darkly-panelled room with its row of tall windows and made themselves comfortable before the fire, arranging themselves on the cozy furniture.
Bingley arrived just moments later, shutting the door behind him and taking a spot between Darcy and Hurst. “Food and tea should be here shortly.”
“Good.” Darcy nodded at his friend before filling his cousin in on what he had heard and what his betrothed’s father’s reaction was. “I asked Miss Elizabeth to marry me after this all occurred. I feel that, as her future husband, I am in a better position to protect her where her father is clearly unwilling to do so.”
“I can see why you feel that way. I am amazed at Mr. Bennet’s reaction. I cannot think of anything you could have said that would have made more of an impact.”
“Well, there is one thing,” Darcy darted a look at Bingley and Hurst, “but I do not trust Mr. Bennet with that information.”
“I would not have, either.” Richard tipped his head to let Darcy know he understood the veiled reference to Georgiana’s near-elopement in the summer.
“So then, what have you come up with?” Darcy was impatient to discover the details.
“As you know, the militia is separate from the regular army.” Richard paused, looking at the other gentlemen to see them acknowledge his words. “I was unable to prevail upon my superiors for assistance in, shall we say, relocating Mr. Wickham. However, I do have contacts in the upper echelons of the militia. There is a colonel whose unit is currently stationed in Northumberland by the name of John Porter. He is a strict Methodist and runs a tight ship, so to speak. He has no tolerance for drunkenness, gambling, or trifling with women.”
“The perfect situation, then.” Darcy chuckled, falling silent as the housekeeper entered, trailed by two maids and a footman, all delivering the repast requested by Bingley. After the servants had performed their duty and exited the room, he continued speaking. “What else?”
“It will likely cost you,” Richard continued apologetically. “Porter requires one hundred pounds for his pain and suffering at taking on such a scoundrel, and Wickham will likely demand compensation, as well.”
Though Bingley and Hurst found that information incredible, as evidenced by their gasps and outcries, Darcy was not at all surprised. “I had expected as much. I will give him something, just to be rid of him.”
“Will he not spend it all as he has his bequest from your father?” Richard looked as though he might be preparing an argument against it.
Darcy shrugged. “If we were forcing him to marry one of the girls he has ruined, he would get her dowry, and the funds would be kept in the percents. He would be required to draw from it for his income. I will do that. He gets his money, I get the knowledge that he will not be back.”
“You do not think he will go through it all and come back for more?” Hurst chose a cake off the tray and popped it into his mouth.
“I will have Wickham sign an agreement, and set it up with my attorney that the only amount that can be withdrawn each year is the four hundred pounds represented by the interest.”
“That sounds reasonable to most of us, I am convinced,” Richard observed. “How Wickham will respond to it is less certain.”
“True, that,” Hurst noted. “What will you do if he refuses to go?”
“I can make it part of the agreement that the money must be sent to his commanding officer. It sounds as though that would work well in this case.”
“Make that hundred pounds bounty he is getting worthwhile.” Hurst laughed.
“Indeed.” Richard joined in the merriment. The four gentlemen enjoyed a few minutes of levity, but then got back down to business, ironing out the details.
Outside the room, Caroline Bingley paused. Pressing her ear to the door in hopes of learning what the gentlemen were saying, she was disappointed to hear only a low rumble punctuated with loud laughter.
Caroline was angry with the men living in her house; Hurst for insisting they stay at Netherfield and her brother for backing Hurst up. She was upset with Darcy because he refused her appeal to help her change her brother’s mind. Now there was a fourth gentleman here, and knowing who it was, Caroline was even more annoyed.
Colonel Fitzwilliam, while always gentlemanly, was probably Caroline’s least favorite person. She had overheard him once telling Darcy that she was unsuitable to be his wife. To remember it now made her blood boil all over again. She stomped up the stairs to her chambers, scowling and muttering all the way. “Roots in trade. Too harsh. Who does he think he is? Not charming … who says I am not charming?” She reached her door, slamming it shut behind her. “Who invited him here, anyway,” she screamed.
Caroline remained in her rooms above an hour, not descending until she had her emotions under control. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, she saw a footman, hat on his head, heading to the door. “You there! Where do you think you are going?”
The footman stopped and turned, eyes wide and a satisfying—to Caroline—look of fear on his face. “Madam?”
Caroline stepped to the floor and stared at the servant. “I asked you where you are going.”
The footman swallowed. “The master called for me and asked me to deliver this note to Longbourn.”
“I see. Give it to me.”
Hesitantly, the young man handed it over.
Caroline examined the direction on it, and, seeing it was addressed to Eliza Bennet, decided that, if her brothers and their friend would not separate themselves from the totally inappropriate family at Longbourn, then she would handle it. “I will take this. You may go.”
“But, but madam, Mr. Darcy-.”
“I said, I will take it. Go back to your duties and say nothing to anyone of this. Nothing at all, or you will find yourself looking for a new position. Do I make myself clear?”
The footman swallowed. “Yes, madam.”
“You are dismissed.” Caroline sent him off with a flick of her wrist. Without looking to see if he obeyed, she entered the drawing-room where she knew a fire would be burning. Upon reaching the fireplace, she looked once more at the missive in her hand, staring at the distinctive handwriting that was Darcy’s, and tossed the letter on the fire. Then, she turned and walked away.
The next morning, an uneasy feeling in his stomach at Elizabeth’s lack of response to his missive of the day before, Darcy decided to send another note to Longbourn. Calling for a footman, he handed it over, with the request that it be taken care of immediately. Then, Darcy finished his morning ablutions and descended the stairs.
“Good morning, Darcy. Have you taken a ride already?” Bingley was always cheerful in the morning, something Darcy could neither fathom nor manage himself.
“I did.” Darcy followed Bigley into the breakfast room, where Caroline stood, staring into the fire. Darcy wondered what she was about; her behavior was unlike anything he had seen before, though he knew she was a bit put out with everyone in the home lately.
“Did you see anyone special while you were out?” Bingley’s teasing voice drew Darcy’s attention, and he put Caroline’s odd behaviour out of his mind.
“I had hoped to, but did not. I cannot imagine what would have kept Miss Elizabeth from her walk.” Darcy was reminded of his concern over Elizabeth’s lack of response.
Bingley sipped his tea. “I hope she is well. Will we have time to visit today, do you think?”
“That depends upon how long it takes us to conclude our business.” Darcy looked toward the door. “And that depends upon my cousin making an appearance. It is unlike him to sleep in.” Darcy sipped his own tea and set the cup down.
“There he is now,” Bingley exclaimed.
Darcy looked up to see Richard stroll into the room and head for the sideboard. “About time, cousin.”
“Hush, Darcy. I may not have been out of bed at the crack of dawn, but I am here now and will be ready to deal with the menace that is Wickham as soon as I break my fast.”
Bingley laughed at Richard’s response. “Well, Darcy, I do hope we can get the problem dealt with quickly so we can get to Longbourn. I have not seen Miss Bennet in two days, and I am eager to do so.” Bingley noticed that his sister was still standing by the fireplace, though she was no longer gazing into the flames. “Come, Caroline, break your fast with us.”
Caroline, who had been watching the gentlemen and listening to their conversation, hesitated and then moved to the sideboard to fill a plate. Turning around, she looked over the places available at the table and chose one next to Darcy.
“Good morning, Miss Bingley.” Though aware of her irritation with him, Darcy’s good manners were too deeply ingrained to allow him to ignore her. “I was wondering … I thought I might have received a note from Longbourn yesterday. Do you know if anything came?” He reached for his tea cup once more, watching Caroline’s reaction. He did not miss the flicker of something in her expression, but it was gone before he could decipher it.
“As far as I am aware, nothing at all has come from there.” Caroline put a forkful of eggs in her mouth.
“Hmmm. Well, I have sent another missive to her. Hopefully, I get a response today.” Just as he turned his head back to his plate, he caught another expression that she quickly masked. This time, he was able to recognize it as triumph.
The morning after her upsetting visit to Meryton, Elizabeth decided against walking out, despite her desperate need for the exercise. Instead, she entreated Mrs. Hill to allow a maid to accompany her around the gardens near the house.
“Certainly, Miss Elizabeth,” the motherly housekeeper said. “I will send Meg out from the kitchens. Cook was telling me only this morning that the girl was wan from her recent illness. It will do Meg some good.” She started to turn towards the kitchen but stopped and looked at Elizabeth again. “I know it is none of my business what goes on above stairs, Miss, but we servants hear things. I want you to know that none of us believe the rumours going around.”
Elizabeth’s lips lifted in a small smile. “Thank you, Hill. Please let the staff know that I appreciate their support.” She reached a hand out to the woman who had been a rock to her and her sisters over the years, and taking it, Hill squeezed gently before letting it go.
A few minutes later, the pale maid appeared in the entry hall, ready to walk.
“Are you certain you are up to this, Meg? Mrs. Hill said that you have been ill?”
“Oh, yes, ma’am, I was, but I am much better now. Just a little tired, is all. I can keep up if all we are doing is walking the gardens.”
Elizabeth smiled gently, her concern for the maid relieved. “I promise to keep to the gardens, and you must promise to tell me if you need to go back to the house.” Seeing Meg’s head nod and hearing her assent, Elizabeth placed her bonnet on her head, tied the ribbons, and headed out the door.
Hours later, the Bennet ladies gathered in the parlor for tea. Mrs. Bennet had seemingly taken her husband’s words of the day before to heart, because, to Elizabeth’s unending surprise, she said not a word to or about her second daughter for the full hour they were gathered.
Elizabeth had planted herself at the small table in front of the window that overlooked the paddock after her walk, hoping to catch a glimpse of her betrothed before anyone else did. Now, after almost an entire day had passed, she still clung to the hope that he would not abandon her. Try as she might to keep her hands and mind employed in productive ways, neither her sewing nor a book could keep her attention for more than a few seconds. Her sisters took turns sitting with her, Kitty and even Lydia being surprisingly sympathetic. They did their best to distract her and lift her spirits.
“Lizzy, can you help me with this ribbon? I cannot get it to stay where I want it on this bonnet.” Lydia dropped said headwear on the table in front of Elizabeth and pulled the other chair around closer to her sister and plopped into it.
Picking up the bonnet with its dangling ribbon, Elizabeth examined it. “Here is the reason, Lyddie; you do not have enough stitches holding the ribbon to the bonnet.” She tipped the article over, pointing out to her sister where the problem lay. “You will have to add a couple here,” she pointed, “and here. Then, it should stay very well.”
“Thank you, Lizzy. I do not know why I did not think of that myself.” In a rare show of affection, Lydia kissed her elder sister’s cheek before bouncing back to the other side of the room, where her materials lay.
Elizabeth followed her youngest sister’s progress across the room, lifting her lips in a small smile, before turning her attention back to the window and her vigil.
As the day drew to a close, Elizabeth’s heart grew sorrowful. Darcy had not come, and had not sent a note. Her hope dwindled further with each minute that the paddock grew darker. When she could no longer see, she swallowed back tears.
“Lizzy?” Jane approached with a candle. Setting it on the table, she sat next to her sister and reached for her hand. “Are you well?”
Elizabeth did not reply. She simply looked at Jane and then dropped her head in an attempt to hide the tears in her eyes. When her sister squeezed her hand, Elizabeth returned the gesture.
“He may have been delayed. Perhaps his horse threw a shoe, or they had unexpected guests. So many things could have prevented him from coming today.” Jane leaned her head down to try to see Elizabeth’s face, but it was impossible. “I know your heart is broken that he did not attend you today, but I beg you not to give up.”
Elizabeth sniffed. She clung to Jane’s hand as she tried to find words that would appease her sister and still hide the depth of her pain. In the end, she simply nodded, and Jane helped her to rise, guiding her upstairs to her room and once again helping her prepare for bed.
Darcy, Bingley, Hurst, and Colonel Fitzwilliam were ushered into the office of the colonel in charge of the militia stationed in Meryton. Colonel Forster was a genial man and offered the gentlemen refreshments before getting down to business.
“You have a man under your command named Wickham, I understand?” Colonel Fitzwilliam spoke, under agreement with his cousin and the others. They felt the situation would be better served if a fellow military man appeared to be in charge.
“I do. He is a lieutenant; just bought his commission a few weeks ago.” Forster leaned back in his chair, elbows on the arms, and fingers laced together.
“We have information that you will probably want to hear.” Richard laid out Wickham’s character and history with the Fitzwilliam and Darcy families, and the lieutenant’s recent actions. The longer he spoke, the straighter Forster sat and the more grave his appearance.
“I am sorry to hear that one of my officers has behaved in such a manner,” Forster replied, then pressed his lips together once more. He took a deep breath, unclenched his jaw, and continued. “I assume you have something in mind for Mr. Wickham, else it would have been Mr. Darcy alone who made this visit.”
“We do.” Richard explained the plan he and Darcy had devised.
Forster’s head began to nod as he listened. When he had heard all that Richard had to say, he thanked the gentlemen. “Wickham is better off in the other unit. Perhaps he will learn something. You wish to speak to him privately?”
“We do.” Richard stood when Forster did and bowed. “Thank you, Colonel.”
“No, thank you. ‘Tis a difficult enough task to keep townspeople happy with a unit such as ours stationed in their towns. Misbehavior of the kind this man is capable of will lead to nothing but trouble for all of us.” Forster strode to the door and, opening it, gestured to the ensign who sat at the desk in the other room. He spoke quietly to the man, then returned to his visitors. “Wickham should be here within a few minutes, if he is where he should be at this time of the day.” The five men spent a few minutes finishing their tea and discussing the situation on the continent while they waited, but when the ensign brought Wickham to the room, Colonel Forster bowed to the group and left the room, shutting the door behind him with a snap.
Wickham had been cleaning his rifle after a morning of firing practice when Ensign Barton had come to fetch him. He wondered at first at the summons, but then shrugged his shoulders and followed the ensign to the colonel’s office. It was not unusual for one of the officers to be asked to relay messages to London and elsewhere. Wickham put on his most charming smile as he greeted his superior, not immediately noticing the others in the room. He was surprised when Forster brushed past him with barely a nod, and he looked after him, brows creased, wondering what on earth was the matter. A voice he recognized snapped Wickham’s attention back, and his eyes grew wide for a moment to see Colonel Fitzwilliam standing in front of him.
“Wickham,” Richard murmured. “How good of you to come.”
Wickham returned the greeting, eyes darting from Richard to Darcy and back. Drawing himself up, he reminded himself not show weakness, no matter the fact that the colonel was the one man Wickham actually feared. “What is this about, gentlemen?” Wickham swaggered past Richard, intending to claim a seat when Richard stopped him cold.
“You, Lieutenant, were not given permission to move.” Richard’s voice was cold, his scowl menacing. Wickham stopped immediately, sensing the anger that filled the room. He nearly sagged in relief when Darcy spoke sharply to Richard, and the colonel retreated to his own chair.
“I-, we-,” Darcy gestured to his friends, one of whom Wickham recognized from their encounter in Meryton nearly a fortnight ago. “Have a proposition for you.”
Darcy was not nearly as frightening as his cousin, and Wickham knew that if Darcy was involved, there was a good chance he would be offering Wickham money to stay quiet about something, possibly his sister. Turning on the charm, he smirked at his childhood friend. “What sort of a proposition?”
Darcy, whose lips had been tightly closed and whose face wore a familiar scowl, spoke in a tone cold enough to freeze the room, explaining his offering to Wickham.
Listening intently, the lieutenant thought it was worth the effort to try and squeeze more funds out of Darcy, especially given where they wanted him to go. “How important is it to you that I join this other regiment?”
Darcy’s eyes flicked up and down Wickham’s person before settling once more on his face. “It is important, I assure you. However, it is not for you to know the relative value it has to me. I simply want you gone, and the only other alternative is to see you dead. Given my father’s favor for you, I could not in good conscience do that.”
Wickham sneered. “Too cowardly for that.” He was brought up short when Richard rose from his seat, face dark and menacing and hand on his sword. “Darcy’s conscience may be bothered by seeing you dead, but I assure you, mine is not. Watch your words, Lieutenant.”
Wickham, eyes large in his face and his mouth dry, took a step back and swallowed before stammering, “I will! I will!”
“See to it that you do.” Richard caressed the hilt of his sword once more, his serious gaze boring into Wickham’s eyes. Then, he gracefully reseated himself, and left his hand resting on his weapon.
Wickham swallowed again as he turned his attention back to Darcy. “So now you want to honor your father’s wishes. A little too late, do you not think?”
“You were compensated for that living, and you signed away your right to it. I do not want to hear any more on the subject, from you or anyone else.” Darcy’s eyes blazed.
Wickham smirked; he had once again made the stoic master of Pemberley lose control.
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