Thursday’s 300: Darcy Overhears, Ch. 8-9

Welcome back!

Today, I give you the rest of Chapter 8, beginning with the last full paragraph I left you with last week, and all of Chapter 9. Next week you will get Chapters 10 and 11, and the following week, you will get the rest of the story. After that, I am considering going back to the 300 or so word snippets I was doing when I first began this feature. I haven’t decided yet, so there’s no need for anyone to panic. 🙂 If you have an opinion either way, feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of this post. 🙂

This story is complete, except for an epilogue. I have utilized a different editing process, one where my editor read each day’s work or the work of a couple days at at time, and gave me feedback pretty much instantly. After reading my ending, she suggested an epilogue to better wrap up the loose ends. By the time this posts, that last bit of story will have been written.  As I said above, the last part will post in a couple weeks. I’ll leave the entire thing up for another week or so, and then bring down all but the first post. If you are behind, you have a couple weeks to catch up. 🙂

I will begin posting on DarcyandLizzy in a few days and hope to have this completed book up for preorder–a new step for me–by the end of the week. As always, it will be live on my Gumroad store first.

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~~~***~~~

“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 felt another taunt rise up in his throat, but a glance back at Colonel Fitzwilliam reminded him of the wisdom in restraining himself. He said nothing, waiting for Darcy to continue.

“It is far more important to you that you comply than it is to me.” Darcy had a sudden inspiration, and while not generally inclined to impulsiveness, decided to follow it without thought. “For, if you do not accept my proposal, I will allow my cousin to do what he will with you.”

Though Wickham tried to mask his reaction, he knew the other men had likely seen the widening of his eyes and noted his sudden stiffness. “Let us not be hasty, Darcy. What you have offered is intriguing. I might consider it for a higher sum. Say, three thousand pounds? And, the ability to withdraw it wherever and whenever I wish.”

Darcy shook his head, his clenched jaw and dark scowl still gracing his features. “I have anticipated you, Wickham. Your methods are the same as they have always been. I will not give you a penny more than a thousand pounds. Combined with your militia pay, you should be able to live quite comfortably. Why, it’s at least as much as you would have earned if you had accepted the living.” Darcy paused and looked at Wickham for a long moment, before continuing. “As far as allowing you unlimited access to the principal, the answer is no. I have not lived so long as I have and been so familiar with your proclivities to not have learned that you have a hole in the pocket of every purse and suit of clothes you own. Your options are to be all in, or to go out with Richard. Which is it to be?”

Wickham thought about it for a few minutes as Darcy and his friends watched. He has not mentioned Miss Elizabeth, he thought. Does he not know? I heard that Goulding fellow’s stories when I was in town last evening. Surely word had to have reached his friend’s estate by now. Should I say something? He looked once more in Richard’s direction and made note of the wicked, almost evil, grin on the gentleman’s face and the loving manner in which he rubbed his hand over the sword hilt. No, I do not think I should mention it. If they do not know, I can get away before they discover it. Looking at Darcy, Wickham assented. “I will accept your offer.”

“That is very wise of you,” Darcy replied, pulling the written agreement out of his pocket and laying it on the table for everyone to sign.

Chapter 9

By the time the gentlemen were finished with Wickham, the day was growing long. Once the papers had been signed, the lieutenant had gone back to his apartment to pack his belongings. He had protested the guard that was sent along with him, but Colonel Forster was adamant that he wanted Wickham gone, and he intended to make sure he got to his destination. Once he was ready to go, Wickham was introduced to his escort—four armed militia men who he had cheated at cards. With a sigh, the lieutenant gave over any thoughts of trying to escape. He could use the money Darcy was giving him, anyway, and was positive he could turn his meager pay into something far better at the gambling tables.

Darcy and Richard remained at the militia headquarters long enough to see Wickham ride off. Bingley and Hurst had gone back to Netherfield. There was a dinner they were to attend that evening, and the two gentlemen went ahead to get ready.

Darcy noticed the gathering dusk and pulled out his watch. Noting the time, he sighed.

“Something wrong?” Richard looked at his cousin with his head tilted.

“I would have liked to visit Miss Elizabeth today. As I said this morning, I am concerned by the lack of response to my note yesterday.” Darcy grew quiet for a moment as he remembered the events in the breakfast room earlier in the day. “You were preparing yourself a plate and did not see it, but when I asked Caroline about the post, she got a strange look on her face. Twice, actually. The first time it was gone before I could make it out, but the second time seemed like … I do not know … triumph or smugness or something.”

Richard’s brows rose. “Do you suspect her of taking your mail? Do you think you did receive a note, and Miss Bingley confiscated it?”

“It would not surprise me in the least.” A young soldier brought their horses to them, and Darcy paused speaking so he could mount up. “She is very angry at all the gentlemen of the house. Hurst would not allow her to leave after she heard some gossip, Bingley refuses to give up Miss Bennet, and I informed her of my intention to support her brothers. You, she has never liked anyway, so you may not have noticed her altered personality, since she is treating you as she always does.” Darcy’s lips lifted into a small smile.

Richard threw his head back and laughed as they urged their horses into a trot. “You are correct; I never noticed.” He shrugged. “I care not that Bingley’s sister dislikes me. She is not the kind of woman I wish to grace my household every day for the rest of my life.”

“She comes with a nice dowry,” Darcy reminded him.

“I have sufficient income from my father’s allowance, and I have made some wise investments with the inheritance my grandfather left me. I can live quite comfortably on what I have, plus I have the added knowledge that my family is willing to host me for however long I wish to reside in their homes. I can be choosy in regards to a wife, to a point.”

Darcy nodded. “You are correct. Forgive me for pushing.”

“I take it as a signal that you care about what happens to me, and I cannot resent that. No forgiveness is required,” Richard replied as seriously as Darcy had ever known him to do.

“Well, then, shall we race back?” Before his cousin could reply, Darcy spurred his mount into a gallop, laughing as he heard Richard’s yell.

A quarter hour later, Darcy was joining the rest of the Netherfield party in his coach for the trip to dine at the home of a local family. He still had not received replies to either of his notes, and he was becoming increasingly concerned. The more he thought about it, the more certain he was that Bingley’s sister had either taken his notes from the servants assigned to deliver them, and destroyed them, or had done the same to the replies he had received. He was torn about what to do. He did not wish to insult his very good friend by accusing the man’s sister of something so terrible, but neither did he want to worry about his betrothed. We have not had time to announce our engagement to the world. I wonder if Caroline would behave differently if she had that information? Thinking it over some more, Darcy realized that, no, it likely would not change her behaviour and might, in fact, make it worse. Shrugging, he realized he could not change what had already happened. Hopefully, he would see Elizabeth tonight at this dinner. Regardless of whether he did or not, he intended to be at Longbourn as early as possible tomorrow morning. Two days without seeing her was two days too long.

When none of the Bennets appeared at the home of the Longs, where the dinner was being hosted, Darcy’s concern deepened. It was not until the ladies left the gentlemen to their cigars and port that his worries grew larger.

As usual when ladies were not present, the gentlemen in the room lit up cigars and enjoyed a few glasses of port. They chatted with those around them, alternately telling jokes and discussing the news of the day. The table was a long one, and Darcy found himself seated near Bingley and Richard, as well as some of the younger local men. Conversation had quieted for a minute or two as one topic of conversation had wound down and no one had yet introduced a new one. Seated across from Darcy and two seats down from Bingley, a young gentleman leaned forward and spoke in a low tone that Darcy might have missed, had he not been paying attention.

“Sad about the Bennets, is it not?”

Immediately, the ears of Darcy, Bingley, Hurst, and Colonel Fitzwilliam perked up.

“What do you mean, Mr. Long,” James Goulding asked.

“Have you not heard?” Harold Long’s brows rose in surprise. “My valet heard it, and if the servants have, the gentry have.”

“I have not heard a thing. I am quite certain there are others who do not know. Perhaps you should enlighten us.” Goulding was an older gentleman and rather brusque. He gestured to his son, who blushed a deep red. “You are as bad as my son. Robert came home deeply in his cups a night or two ago, spouting a bunch of nonsense. The ale had such a grip on him that we could not make heads or tails of his words.”

“What I am trying to tell you is that Miss Elizabeth Bennet is sharing her favors while she is out on those walks of hers.” Long looked into each gentleman’s face to make certain his words sank in. “Rumour has it, she only does so with gentlemen, but I am quite certain she cannot have limited it to those of a higher social rank. Anyone who flirts as much as she does cannot have the self-control to turn down any offer. And you know that what one sister does, they all likely do. They had to have learned it from that mother of theirs.”

Darcy had heard enough. He slammed his fist on the table and stood. “That is a lie. Who are you to be repeating such salacious gossip about one of the finest ladies I have ever met?”

Harold Long did not reply for a full minute. He swallowed loudly, his eyes large in his head. “I said I heard it from my valet. It must be true, for they are not here tonight.” He looked to his father, seated at the head of the table.

“It is true they are not here. Mrs. Long heard the news, as well, and sent a note ‘round to Longbourn, asking them not to attend. Shame this had to be exposed in such a manner, but we cannot be having loose women around our sons.” Bradford Long looked down his nose as he spoke, lips pinched.

Darcy had grown more and more red as the other gentlemen spoke, his fists clenched tightly and his lips compressed into a tight line. Richard and Bingley recognized the danger and stood, trying to gain Darcy’s attention, but could not. Darcy was incensed at the disparagement of his betrothed, who he knew full well would never do something as heinous as what had been described to him.

“I do not know who started such horrible rumours, but I can tell you that they are lies. Miss Elizabeth Bennet is an honourable woman. She is virtuous and kind. She is also my betrothed, and I would be well within my rights to call you out, Mr. Long.” Darcy glared at the younger man. Feeling someone grab his arm, Darcy glanced to his side to see his cousin. Shaking Richard off, Darcy looked up and down the table. “And when I marry her, I am taking her away from this miserable, benighted, back of nowhere town. How all of you, who have known her your entire lives, could think such a thing of my Elizabeth I will never understand. I had wondered why none of the gentlemen in the area had snatched her up already. Now I know. None of you deserve a woman like her.

“I am going to look into this, I promise you. I will find out the source of the rumours and when I do, woe to that man. Or woman, for that matter.” With a final look of contempt, Darcy turned from the table and stalked out of the room, not stopping until he was outside.

There he paced until the rest of his party followed him out and the carriage came around. Stepping back to allow the ladies to be handed up by Bingley and Hurst, Darcy grit his teeth at the sound of Caroline’s non-stop commentary as she berated her brother.

“I apologize, Darcy. She was in the midst of spreading her own gossip about Miss Elizabeth when I arrived at the drawing-room door. I spoke out against it and was rather sharp in my tone of voice. She feels I have embarrassed her in front of people she views as inferior.”

“I appreciate that you defended my betrothed, and by extension, me.” Darcy glanced at the carriage. “I will bear it, but please forgive me for not speaking as we travel back to Netherfield.” He began to turn and enter the equipage, but then turned back. “There is something I wish to speak to you about on the morrow. It concerns your sister.”

Bingley’s brows rose in surprise. “Very well. I shall make time for you whenever you are ready.”

Darcy nodded, then stepped up and into the carriage, not acknowledging the ladies and Hurst. When Bingley followed and tapped the roof, the driver spoke to the horses and with a lurch, they were off.

~~~***~~~

The next morning, Darcy was up at dawn. He paced the room like a caged animal while he waited for hot water to bathe. Dark circles under his eyes and a haggard mien spoke to his lack of sleep. Darcy had tossed and turned all night, turning the gossip he had heard over in his mind. Hurst had told him of the rumours that Caroline had tried to use to get them all to leave Netherfield, but Darcy had dismissed it as the ramblings of an unhappy and interfering female who would use whatever method available to destroy a relationship. If I had understood the severity, had known that it was not all in Caroline’s mind, I would have delayed dealing with Wickham and instead gone to Elizabeth’s side. How she must worry that I have abandoned her! Darcy’s stomach turned at the idea that he had hurt the woman he loved above all else, and thoughts of Wickham led him to speculation about who could have spread the rumours in the first place, and why.

Darcy allowed his mind to list everything he knew, all the facts he had in his possession. He listed the tales he had heard the previous night, and considered all that he had seen. He remembered the elder Goulding’s words, and the red face of the younger. He recalled the glee with which Harold Long shared the vicious tales and the disdain in Bradford Long’s expression. Then, at the edges of his conscious, intruded the image of George Wickham and the sound of his enemy’s voice declaring he intended to ruin Elizabeth. Can it be? Darcy knew in an instant that Wickham was at the root of the scandal.

“Sir, your bath is ready.” Darcy’s valet, Smith, stood quietly beside the dressing room door, his eyes averted downward.

Straightening, Darcy put away his thoughts for the time being, vowing to discuss his findings with his cousin and friends. After he saw Elizabeth and assured her of his fidelity.

Within an hour, Darcy was dressed and ready to leave. He had debated holding off his visit to Longbourn, so that he could talk to Richard, Bingley, and Hurst. However, he sensed that Elizabeth needed him more than he required answers, and so chose his betrothed. He walked to the stables, ordered his stallion saddled, and paced impatiently while he waited for the boy to bring Romeo around. Soon, though, he was mounted and riding away, towards Longbourn and his love.

~~~***~~~

After a long, sleepless night spent crying into her pillow, Elizabeth rose from her bed with the sun. She did not walk out; had she thought it a good idea, she had no desire for the activity. Walking slowly down the stairs, she made her way to the dining room and poured herself a cup of coffee. She sat in her accustomed seat at the table, to her father’s right. There, she remained, elbows on the table and cup in her hand, sipping the bitter brew and staring out the window. Her thoughts wandered to her betrothed and wondered if she would see him this day. A small hope within her refused to die out, but a louder voice cried that she had been abandoned. Elizabeth sniffed, struggling to hold in her tears. She sipped her coffee, paying no attention to the time, until she heard her father come down the stairs and enter his book room. With a sigh, she set aside her now-cold cup and wandered into the drawing-room, taking up the same position she had the day before—at the small table in front of the window.

She had just settled herself onto the hard chair when there came a knock on the door. Listlessly, Elizabeth wondered who it could be at such an early hour. She opened her book. Suddenly, the door opened, and Hill entered.

“Mr. Darcy to see you, ma’am.” The housekeeper curtseyed and backed out of the room, closing the door behind her.

With a gasp, Elizabeth stood. She could feel her mouth moving and wanted to say something, but no words would come. She saw him begin to move toward her with his hand outstretched, and heard his deep voice.

“My love.”

Before she knew what she was about, she reached for that hand and was swept into Darcy’s arms. As he held her closely, she sobbed into his coat.

“Shhh, my love, shhh,” Darcy whispered into her hair. “I am so sorry I was not here sooner.” He squeezed her tighter, one arm around her shoulders, the other around her waist, so that her entire body was pressed against his. He kissed the top of her head then rested his cheek on her hair and swayed with her, the action soothing them both.

Elizabeth was aware of nothing but the fact that Darcy had returned to her, called her his love, and was now holding her as she had been wishing for the entirety of the last two days. Though she had thought she had no more tears inside, a river of them now soaked his coat, and she could not bring herself to care. She allowed him to comfort her, and after a while, the crying slowed. Elizabeth became more aware of her surroundings, and concerned that her mother or one of her sisters might come upon them unexpectedly. She lifted her head to look at her betrothed and was met with a tender kiss.

“I love you, Elizabeth. I am so sorry that you have had to face these ugly rumors alone.” Darcy kissed her again, not allowing her to speak just yet. “I know you were here with your family, but you needed me, I know you did.”

“I did,” Elizabeth whispered. “I was so frightened that you would abandon me.”

“Never.” Darcy kissed her again, this time more deeply.

When he pulled back, Elizabeth spoke softly once more. “They are saying that I-, that I-.” She sobbed. “That I gave away my virtue out in the woods, and to everyone I came upon.  I would never …”

“Shh.” Darcy laid his finger over her lips. “I know that you would not. It is all scurrilous lies, told in an attempt to ruin your reputation and prevent us from marrying.”

“How do you know this?” Elizabeth’s eyes were large, her brows raised well above her eyes.

“I do not, yet. I mean, I do have evidence that causes me to suspect such a thing, but I have no proof. That is what I need.” Darcy looked intently into Elizabeth’s eyes. “That is what I will get. You are already my wife in my heart, and I do not allow disparagement of Mrs. Darcy. I will protect you at all costs.”

Elizabeth’s lips tilted up a tiny bit at the corners. “Thank you. I love you.” She stretched up to kiss him.

A clearing throat alerted the pair that they were no longer alone. Though they broke the kiss, Darcy would not let go of Elizabeth.

“Well, Mr. Darcy, it is good of you to finally make an appearance. As you can clearly see from my daughter’s appearance, she has had a difficult few days while you were doing whatever it is that rich young men do.”

“Papa-.”

“No, Elizabeth, I will take care of this.” Darcy spoke softly to her, squeezing her once more. Looking to his future father-in-law, Darcy continued. “I spent the last two days dealing with Mr. Wickham. He has been sent to a unit in the north of England, a permanent transfer, and with incentives in place to make him stay there.”

Elizabeth sagged in relief. “Thank you.”

Darcy smiled down at his betrothed before looking back up at Bennet. “I did not know of the rumors when I called upon Wickham. Well,” he amended, “I had heard something of them but dismissed them as the rantings of a disappointed woman. It was not until last night that I learned the truth.”

Bennet moved further into the drawing-room, giving Darcy a pointed look and seating himself in a chair. Darcy took the hint and loosened his hold upon Elizabeth, but drew her to a settee where they could sit together. Once seated, he wrapped one of her hands in both of his. Elizabeth gripped his hands tightly, feeling as though he were her lifeline.

“Now that you are comfortable, perhaps you care to enlighten me further.” Bennet’s sardonic prompt made his daughter frown, but she said nothing. Instead, she looked up at Darcy as he related the events of the previous day, and the gossip he had heard at the Long’s.

Elizabeth gasped when she heard about Robert Goulding’s red face and his father’s comments. “I turned down a marriage proposal from Robert Goulding. He was very angry when he went away.” She looked at her father.

Bennet nodded. “That he was. Elizabeth and I have already spoken of this. I would venture to say that someone got young Goulding drunk and fed his anger with her refusal. Then, that person sent Goulding off to spout off nonsense about Lizzy.”

“You think that person is Wickham?” Darcy thought he knew the answer to that question but asked anyway.

“I do.”

Darcy’s shoulders sagged a little. “I am relieved that you have drawn the same conclusion that I have.”

“There is no proof, and Wickham is gone, if what you have told me us correct.”

“It is correct, sir, and he is gone, I promise you. We no longer have access to Wickham, but I fully intend to interrogate this Goulding fellow. I will also ask around at the tavern. If the two were drinking together there, surely someone will remember it.”

“Will the villagers speak to you about it? You are an outsider here.” A crease appeared between Elizabeth’s brows and the corners of her lips, so recently turned up by Darcy’s arrival and his words of love, were now turned down into a concerned frown.

“They may or they may not,” Darcy replied with a shrug. “I plan to ask my cousin to join me. Often, his air of authority and his uniform will induce people to speak when nothing else will. The tradesmen were willing to speak with me about Wickham, so perhaps the men in the tavern will be, as well.”

“I hope so,” Elizabeth’s soft voice conveyed her desire for it to be so. She looked down. “What will we do about my reputation?”

Darcy glanced at Bennet. “What have you and your father discussed?”

“Very little, even after I told him what happened to us in Meryton the other day.”

Darcy’s gaze honed in on Elizabeth’s face. “What happened in Meryton?” He listened intently as she shared every detail. Elizabeth knew his ire had been raised once more by the way he so tightly gripped her hand. The longer she spoke, the tighter his grip and the grimmer his expression. When she finished speaking, she watched with bated breath as her betrothed breathed deeply and let it out slowly, clearly fighting for control of his anger. Finally, after a few tense minutes, Darcy’s head turned toward Elizabeth’s father.

“Have you looked into this at all, sir?”

~~~***~~~

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