Thursday’s 300: Darcy Overhears, Ch. 10-11

Welcome back!

Today, I give you Chapters 10 and 11. Next 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, and the ebook is formatted. The last part will post next week. I’ll leave the entire thing up for another week or so after that, and then bring down all but the first post. If you are behind, you have a couple weeks to catch up. 🙂

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~~~***~~~

Chapter 10

“No, I have not. I had hoped it would all blow over if we did not respond to it.” Bennet shifted in his seat as he spoke and Elizabeth wondered if he was feeling discomfort at his inaction.

“Your favorite daughter was accosted by a farmer on the high street of Meryton, and you hoped it would blow over? Are you out of your mind?” Darcy’s incredulous exclamation caused Elizabeth’s father to flush and then stiffen.

Defensively, Bennet replied, “What would you have me do? Track down the stranger and call him out? It is gossip, with no basis in fact. In a week, some other scandal will have caught everyone’s attention, and this one will be forgot.”

“And in the meantime, all of your daughters are spoken of in the meanest of terms, restricted to Longbourn because no one wants them in their homes, and invitations to the residences of your neighbors are rescinded; all of this, based on an untruth, and all because you do not wish to stir from the comfort of your book room. You, sir, are a poor excuse for a father if you would not do anything to protect the ladies who should be the most precious things in the world to you.” Darcy paused long enough to take a deep breath and blow it out his nose. His voice shook with the force of his feelings as he continued. “I have half a mind to remove Elizabeth from this home right now. We could go to London and be married in a few days. I am quite certain the bishop, who is my godfather, would expedite a special license upon hearing the circumstances.”

Darcy looked at Elizabeth, raising the hand he held to his lips and bestowing a tender kiss to the fingers. He looked deeply into the fine eyes of his betrothed as he spoke again, this time more softly. “The only thing stopping me is the knowledge that the rumours will follow us to London, if they have not already made it there. Do you understand, my love? Can you bear to wait to marry?” When Elizabeth quietly replied in the affirmative, caressing his face with her free hand, he turned back to Mr. Bennet, once again speaking with conviction. “So, instead of doing as I dearly wish to do, we will stay here and fight this, Elizabeth and I. My cousin and friends will help, I am certain.” He glared at Bennet. “I will not stand for attacks against my wife, and as I have previously stated to your daughter, in my mind and heart, we are already married.”

“There has been no settlement signed, sir.”

Elizabeth turned her own thunderous frown on her father. “You cannot mean to make it difficult for us to marry now? What could be your reason?” She refrained, barely, from commenting on his parenting. She knew she could get away with much, but she was still a minor under the law, and there was no point in aggravating her father beyond what was necessary.

“The gentleman has been off gallivanting who knows where, with not a word to either you or me. Perhaps he was not serious in marrying you in the first place. I have no way of knowing.” Bennet gestured toward Darcy as he spoke, staring red-faced at Elizabeth.

“I sent letters to inform you of what I was doing. Are you saying they did not arrive?” Darcy’s features darkened even more.

“We received no letters. Well, I did not.” Elizabeth turned to her father. “Did you, Papa?”

Shaking his head, Bennet answered. “Not one. I specifically asked Hill about it. No letters in the post the last two days and no messages from Netherfield.”

“That explains why you looked so drawn and haggard, my love.” Darcy kissed Elizabeth’s hand once more. “I am so sorry; I seem to have let you down in more than one way. I believe I know what happened to those letters, and I will deal with that when I see Bingley, I promise you.”

Elizabeth did not understand his meaning, but sensed that he would tell her about it after he had sorted it out. She decided not to press him at the present time. “It is not your fault. You did your part; it was left to others to complete the task, and they failed. I trust you; I know you will find out what happened to your missives and make certain it does not happen again.”

Darcy’s lips lifted slightly. “Thank you, Elizabeth. I value your trust in me.”

Elizabeth smiled back at him, feeling much better now than she had when she arose. “I value your respect for me, which you have shown by allowing me to remain for this discussion instead of demanding that you speak to my father alone.”

Before Darcy could respond, the other ladies of the house could be heard moving around upstairs. Bennet noted, “My wife and the rest of my daughters will be down here soon, sir. We should wrap this up or move to my book room.”

“I have talked about it all that is necessary. My solicitor should be here tomorrow with a draft of Elizabeth’s settlement. I will bring him over here, and we can review it. I am certain he will bring a clerk to rewrite and copy it; we can have that signed before tea tomorrow unless it needs major changes.”

Lydia and Kitty could be heard chattering loudly as they descended the stairs and entered the dining room to break their fast. The attention of the occupants of the drawing-room was focused on the girls for a moment. Elizabeth was the first to break the silence. “Will you stay and eat with us?”

“I will,” was Darcy’s soft reply. Looking to Bennet once more, he addressed one more thing. “We need to set a date for the wedding. As far as I am concerned, it cannot come soon enough. A marriage is the surest way to quell the rumours and restore your family to respectability.”

Bennet sighed. “You are correct. Again.” He rose from his chair. “Whatever the two of you decide is acceptable to me.”

“Thank you, Papa.”

Elizabeth and Darcy, who had stood when Bennet did, watched her father leave the room. “He is anxious to escape to his sanctuary,” Elizabeth explained sadly. Looking at her betrothed, she added, “At least we have permission to marry when we wish.”

Darcy drew her once more into his arms, and Elizabeth decided that this was her favorite place to be. “How soon can we marry?” she asked.

“I sent an express this morning to my godfather. Obviously, I do not know what his reaction will be, but I cannot imagine him denying my request. I offered to reimburse him if he purchased the license for me and sent it express to Netherfield. I hope to receive it in no less than a week. We can marry the following day, if it pleases you.” Darcy kissed her nose.

Elizabeth nodded. “Yes, please. I will pack my belongings tonight, so I am ready at a moment’s notice.”

Darcy chuckled. “There is no hurry, my love. I will let you know as soon as a response arrives, even if I must deliver it myself.” Suddenly, Darcy remembered about wedding clothes. “Are you sure you wish to marry so quickly? Would you not like to buy some new gowns?”

Elizabeth’s smile disappeared. “No. I need nothing, and if I did, I would rather not purchase anything in Meryton ever again.” She hesitated, and when she looked back up at him, the same haunted expression was in her eyes that had been there when he had arrived a couple hours earlier. “Are you certain you still wish to marry me? Will your family not object, especially given my ruin?” Her eyes filled with tears as her heart filled once more with fear.

Darcy pulled her closer, lifting her chin with his hand and holding it there so he could look into her eyes. “I love you above anyone I have ever known. The only family member I am concerned about is my Aunt Catherine. The rest will be easily swayed once they see how happy you make me. Except for Catherine, they have long wished for me to marry someone who fills me with joy. I promise you, if any of them object to you, I will cut them out of our lives.”

Still worried, Elizabeth chewed her lip. She could see Darcy’s sincerity in his expression, but she hated to be the cause of a rift in his family. Still, without him she would be lost—and ruined. “Very well, then. I cannot live without you, and you are determined to have me, so we will just have to make the happiest couple in all England.” She smiled up at him.

Darcy smiled back before he kissed her again, not letting her go until they were gasping for breath. “I love you, Elizabeth.”

“And I love you.”

Darcy remained close to Elizabeth’s side during breakfast, making it clear to her mother and sisters, as well as to Elizabeth herself, that he had no intentions of jilting her. He struggled to maintain his composure in the face of their unruly and often rude behavior, but he soldiered on. It meant too much to him that Elizabeth remained certain of their upcoming marriage and the extent of his affections to allow himself to display his affront with some of the antics he witnessed.

By the time everyone was done eating, Bingley was at the door, come to visit Jane and check on Darcy. The four of them took a walk in the back gardens so they could discuss recent events in peace. They paused under a large elm, standing in a circle as Darcy shared his plans for discovering a connection between Wickham and Goulding. Eventually, the couples split up, with Bingley and Jane wandering one direction and Darcy and Elizabeth heading for the fountain.

Darcy could see that Elizabeth was exhausted. Her eyes, while less puffy than they had been early in the morning, still were circled in black, and she retained the unhealthy and uncharacteristic pallor he had noticed when he entered Longbourn’s drawing-room. Her usual wit had begun to assert itself while she ate, but remained a little dim. Darcy insisted, once inside the hermitage where the fountain was located, that they sit on one of the nearby benches. Once settled beside each other, he put his arm around her shoulders and urged her to lean against him and rest. As they sat in the quiet peacefulness, Elizabeth leaned harder against him and soon began to softly snore. Darcy grinned at the sound and kissed her head.

They remained in that attitude for a quarter-hour, until Bingley and Jane came looking for them. Darcy could see from the joy in their features that Bingley had proposed and was accepted. Any reservations Darcy still maintained about the match had been extinguished when he saw the look of adoration that had flashed over Jane’s features when his friend had entered the room upon his arrival. Yes, he thought, she is as much in love with Bingley as he is with her.

Elizabeth awakened when she felt the rumble of her betrothed’s voice under her ear. Rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, she sent a grateful smile Darcy’s way before rising to greet her sister. Upon hearing the news of the new betrothal, all sense of tiredness fled, and Elizabeth joyfully embraced her sister and shook her soon-to-be-brother’s hand.

It was not long after that Darcy and Bingley said their goodbyes. They had things to discuss and plans to make, and that necessitated consulting Colonel Fitzwilliam and Hurst. The gentlemen kissed their ladies and mounted their horses, each wishing they did not have to leave.

~~~***~~~

On the ride back to Netherfield, Darcy told Bingley about the missing letters.

“The Bennets never received them? Are you certain?”

“I am,” Darcy confirmed. “I asked after them specifically, and Bennet replied in a like manner. Nothing from Netherfield had been seen by the housekeeper or the master. I made my own inquiry of Mrs. Hill before we left and she assured me that she had asked the servants about it after Bennet mentioned it to her. None of them were given any letters for the household from Netherfield servants.”

Bingley was quiet for a minute as he digested this news. “You think Caroline is involved?”

“I do. She does not want to remain in this area. She especially does not want you joining the Bennet family. You heard Hurst as well as I. She gleefully shared the horrible stories about Elizabeth as a way to convince us all to leave.”

“Yes, you are correct. I shudder to see her reaction to my engagement. I am certain it will be … ugly.” Bingley stared at his horse’s neck.

Darcy looked at his friend sympathetically. “I am sure it will be.” He paused. “You are my friend, Bingley. One of the best friends I have ever had. I do not wish to lose that, but there must be consequences for your sister. For one thing, tampering with someone else’s post is unlawful. For another thing, she violated my privacy, and that of Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth. She has lost any trust I had in her integrity. I do not want my affairs to be fodder for society’s amusement, and I now would not put it past Caroline to tell tales.”

Bingley sighed and looked up, squinting to see what lie ahead. “She did, and it is. I suppose the easiest way to get through to her about how serious you are, is to stop covering her excess expenditures. Money talks with Caroline.”

Darcy gazed out over Romeo’s head as he listened. “I intend to ban her from my homes, Bingley. You are always welcome, as are the Hursts, as long as Mrs. Hurst remains civil and does not attempt anything untoward, as Caroline has done. Nor will I allow her to use my name to access ton affairs. In my opinion, losing that entrée to the highest circles will do more to check her than even restricting her spending will.”

Sighing, Bingley agreed. “She will have to accept it, though you know she will fuss and scream and throw things. She wanted you, you know. Well, Pemberley, anyway. I cannot see Caroline being run away with love for anyone.”

It was Darcy’s turn to sigh. “I know she did. I told you long ago that I would not marry her.”

“You did, and I passed that information along to my sister. She, however, was certain that once you saw her in an intimate setting, you would be overcome with …” Bingley waved his hand. “Whatever … and realize that she is the perfect mistress.”

Darcy rolled his eyes but said nothing.

“Well, there is nothing for it. I apologize to you, and I will do the same to Mr. Bennet and Miss Elizabeth. She was wrong. I do not know where she gets these ideas. Certainly, our parents taught us better. We were to rise as high as we could but were to do it through honest means.” Bingley shook his head.

“It is not you who needs to apologize, it is your sister. You have done nothing wrong; your integrity is above reproach. I would not remain friends with you if it were not so.” Bingley thanked him but said nothing else, so Darcy continued. “We are almost there. Do you wish to confront your sister first, or shall we consult my cousin and your brother?”

“I would rather not have this hanging over my head; Caroline first, then our friends.”

By this time, the pair was in sight of the stables at Bingley’s leased estate. They rode directly into the building, where they dismounted and spoke to the staff for a few minutes. Then, they walked to the house and through the front door.

Handing his hat and riding crop to Mrs. Nichols, Bingley asked where the younger of his sisters could be found. Upon being told she was in her sitting room upstairs, he asked the housekeeper to inform Caroline that her presence was required in his study in three-quarters of an hour. Bingley and Darcy then ascended the stairs to wash up and change their clothes. Forty minutes later, they convened again, this time in the study. While they waited, they had a glass of port.

Caroline breezed into the room as though she had somewhere more important to be. “What do you need, Charles? Why, Mr. Darcy!” A simpering smirk tipped her lips up. “You were missed in the breakfast room this morning.”

Darcy bowed to Caroline. “I was at Longbourn to break my fast. There was an urgent matter that had to be attended to.” Darcy’s countenance was dark, his brows drawn together and his jaw clenched. Caroline’s entry into this room was typical of every interaction he had had with her. She disdained the feelings of others and was more concerned with her wants and comforts than that of anyone else, including her family members.

“Longbourn! You must not have heard; the residents of that estate are embroiled in a terrible scandal.” Caroline despite all claims to the contrary, was not on intimate enough terms with Darcy to recognize his ire at her words, and so she plunged heedlessly ahead with her narrative. “Eliza has compromised herself, thoroughly and completely, with several men in the area. I heard it myself from my maid. Everyone in Meryton knows, and the entire Bennet family is quite ruined. I am certain that if you had known, you would have avoided the place entirely. I am sorry I did not catch you early enough to warn you.”

Darcy heard the triumph in her voice, and it added to his upset. He remained silent for three long minutes as he struggled to maintain a hold on his temper. It was one thing to lambaste Mr. Bennet; it was quite another to berate a lady, especially the sister of a friend. When he thought he could speak without lashing out, Darcy opened his mouth. “Miss Bingley,” a sense of satisfaction poured into his soul at the sight of Caroline startling at his formal address. “I will have you know that any rumours of wanton behavior on the part of Miss Elizabeth are untrue. They were spread by someone who was angry with the Bennets, with the intent to ruin her reputation. I assure you,” Darcy stepped forward, his glare burning into her. “I assure you that Miss Elizabeth is as pure today as she was the day she was born.”

Bingley interceded, seeing the signs that his friend was about to unleash his formidable temper. “Caroline, Darcy sent notes to the Bennets via two of our servants, and neither note made it to Longbourn. What can you tell me about that?”

Chapter 11

Caroline blinked and pulled her head back, as though she were taken aback by the question. “I know nothing about it. What makes you think I would?”

“Do not be coy with me, Sister. Darcy and I have spoken to the servants in question, and both swear you demanded they hand over notes to Longbourn.” Bingley took a step towards Caroline, a frown marring his normally good-humored countenance.

“You believe the word of a servant over that of your own sister?” Caroline laid her hand over her chest, appearing shocked at his words, but Darcy noticed the unease that had flashed over her features.

“Oh, please. Hurst told me of your desperate attempt to remove us all from Netherfield, and how you shared those same salacious stories about Miss Elizabeth with him and Louisa, hoping to convince them to leave. Then, you begged Darcy to separate me from Jane. You have been rude to every gentleman in this home for days.” Bingley had grown redder and redder as he numerated his sister’s sins. He took another step closer, stopping only inches from her and speaking with more force than either Caroline or Darcy had ever heard. “Stealing mail is a crime, and if you were a servant, I would call the magistrate and have you arrested. If this was anyone else’s home, gentlewoman or no, the same would have happened, though it would have been the master of that house to do it, rather than me. Admit it, Caroline. You took those letters from the servants and did something with them.”

Caroline’s eyes had grown larger in her face the longer her brother spoke. She first stepped back, but her retreat was soon stopped by the back of a chair behind her. As Bingley had moved closer, following her, she began to cower before him. Suddenly, she snapped at him, much as a cornered animal might do. “Very well, you want a confession, I will give you one. I did take those notes. I burned them.” Caroline’s fear seemed to diminish as she spoke, her own anger at being called to account for her behaviour overtaking her. “None of us need an association with the likes of Eliza Bennet and her wild family. She is a trollop; an uneducated, unrefined country chit with an inflated sense of self-importance. She is beneath the notice of any respectable family, ours included. You and Mr. Darcy are blinded by her wiles and that of her sister. I am trying to save us all from being social outcasts. You should appreciate my efforts instead of berating me for them!”

“That is enough!” The roar of Darcy’s deep voice echoed through the room. “You have no idea what you are talking about, and I will thank you not to speak of my betrothed and her family in such a way, ever again.” Gesturing to Bingley, he continued, “I have already informed your brother of my intended censure of you. You will not be welcomed into my homes from this day forward. I will inform all my acquaintance that they are not to allow you into their events based on your ‘relationship’ to me. I value trust in my closest companions, and you, Miss Bingley, have violated it most grievously.” Darcy turned to his friend. “I apologize for interrupting. I have said my piece and will leave you now.” Bowing, he turned and stalked out of the room, shutting the door firmly behind him.

~~~***~~~

A quarter hour later, the four gentlemen in residence at Netherfield convened in the library. As Hurst poured a round of drinks for each of them, Bingley asked Darcy if he was well. Before Darcy could respond, Colonel Fitzwilliam interrupted.

“I say, Bingley, the question is, are you well? I could hear the commotion in your study from the upstairs hallway. I never would have expected you and your sister to even disagree, but you both sounded angry enough for fisticuffs.”

Bingley rolled his eyes, nodding his thanks to Hurst as he accepted a glass of port. “I am well, thank you.” Seeing three pairs of eyes boring into him, he sighed and then shared the rest. “Caroline has … broken trust with at least two people. Four, if you count anyone from Longbourn. She has been reproved and did not appreciate it, or the news of my betrothal.” Bingley turned to Darcy. “I am glad I waited for you to leave before I broke that news. It was every bit as bad as I expected.”

“I am happy to have avoided it. I thank you.” Darcy lifted his glass in salute to his friend and then brought it to his mouth and drank from it.

“What did she do now?” Hurst asked. “She was wailing and gnashing her teeth at Louisa when I came down here, but I could not make heads or tails of what she was saying.”

Bingley gave a brief description of Caroline’s offenses and the consequences he had given her. “I am considering forming an establishment for her in London and hiring a companion. I will not ask Jane to accept someone into her household who holds her in such contempt. Many of Caroline’s friends are set up that way and seem perfectly content.”

Hurst tilted his head as he watched Bingley clearly wrestling with the idea. “I would like her out of my own home, that is for certain, but be sure about this step before you take it. Caroline is not a follower, and I do not fear her falling into trouble because she has gone along with the actions of  her friends, but she is also obstinate and prone to doing what she thinks is correct to get what she wants.”

“Do you fear she would cause some scandal of her own?” Darcy was curious about Hurst’s line of reasoning.

Hurst shrugged. “It is possible. If she is burning your correspondence, she is clearly underhanded, at the least. What is to say she will not try that with someone else? Granted, it would only be her companion and servants living with her, but she will surely attend house parties and the like. Can you imagine what would happen if she burned anyone else’s letters?”

“This is true.” Bingley sighed. “Well, I am not going to solve this problem today. Who knows, she may find a husband this season and then no longer be my responsibility.” He played with the empty glass in his hand. “At any rate, I am more disappointed in her at this point than anything else; and that is something that I must deal with on my own.”

The rest of the gentlemen nodded, and after a moment of silence, Darcy brought up the issue that was biggest in his mind. “I believe, and Mr. Bennet seems to agree, that a local gentleman, a Mr. Robert Goulding, is the source of the rumours going around about Elizabeth. I strongly suspect that George Wickham and his silver tongue are the impetus behind the spread of them.”

“You did not take care of him soon enough, then.” Richard shook his head and looked at the floor with a scowl. “I apologize; I should have gotten here sooner.”

“He did, though.” Hurst spoke up in defense of Darcy. “The next day, he went to Longbourn to give a warning and spoke to the merchants in the town. I do not know that he considered Wickham doing what he did.”

“No,” Darcy admitted. “I expected him to try something more physical, and I expected him to do it himself. It never occurred to me that he would use a proxy to do his dirty work.”

The leader in Richard took over, and he began in his mind to formulate a plan of action. “We need proof of this, proof of a connection between the two men.” He looked at Darcy. “Do you intend to confront this Goulding fellow?”

“I do.” At his cousin’s raised brow, Darcy shook his head. “I will not call him out, but I will confront him. I also intend to speak to his father, because from what I saw at dinner last night, his father will demand that he make it right.”

“Will he be able to?” Hurst sounded doubtful.

“The elder Goulding seemed rather straight-laced to me last night,” Bingley said. “He was definitely disgusted with his son for coming home in his altitudes.”

“It matters not. I will demand that he publicly recant his claims.” Darcy slammed his fist on the table beside him. “I can do nothing to force him or I would. Nothing legal, at any rate.”

Richard downed the last of his port as a knock sounded on the door. “Before you do anything, we must find proof of a connection. I suspect it will serve you better to have it than not when you visit Goulding.”

The door opened and a footman stepped inside and bowed. “Mrs. Nichols asked me to inform you that the ladies have requested trays to be taken to them. Would you gentlemen prefer to eat in the dining room or in here?”

Bingley glanced at his friends. “In here, I think, Thompson.”

The footman nodded, bowed once more, and then exited the room.

“I will go into Meryton tomorrow and see what I can discover,” Darcy said. “Cousin, would you accompany me? I believe your presence will lead them to talk faster than mine will.”

“Of course. I will be up with the larks,” Richard smirked.

“Mmmhmm,” was all Darcy would say.

~~~***~~~

The gentlemen did not head out as early as Richard implied they might. Knowing that taverns are generally open until the wee hours of the morning, and that neither Goulding nor Wickham was likely to have been there much before mid-afternoon, they indulged in some shooting for a couple hours just after dawn, and made a visit to Longbourn for a few more hours after breaking their fast. Silent looks were passed around the table when it was announced that Caroline had again requested a tray brought to her room, but no one actually spoke of the relief they all felt.

The day passed rather quickly, and soon, Darcy and his cousin were riding into Meryton. Stopping outside their destination, they dismounted, tying the reins to a post and tossing a small boy a coin with directions to keep an eye on the beasts. They entered the inn, ducking through the doorway that led to the main dining room. They assessed the customers with a sharp eye as they walked to the bar.

“Goulding is not here tonight.” Darcy spoke in a low voice.

“Perhaps his father has influenced him to stay away.”

Darcy rolled his eyes, causing Richard to chuckle. Just then the innkeeper noticed their presence.

“What can I get ya?”

Darcy laid a coin on the bar. “Two pints.”

The man took the coin, dropping it into his apron, and drew two tankards of ale from a keg behind him. As he set them down, Darcy laid another coin on the top of the bar. “We are looking for information.”

The innkeeper looked both gentlemen up and down, noting the expensive clothing on one and the uniform on the other, and brought his eyes back to Darcy. “What about?”

“Was Robert Goulding in here drinking with another man recently? An officer with the militia?”

The innkeeper’s eyebrows rose nearly to his hairline. “That he was. Four, maybe five, nights ago. Officer kept plying him with pints. Jenny was servin’ that night and commented that she hoped the gentleman made it home and that he couldna’ stand straight.”

The officer, do you know his name?

“Not sure I do. He hadna’ been in town long; couple weeks maybe.” The innkeeper paused. “Wait. I remember you comin’ in here before and warnin’ me about a man. Wickham was his name, was it not?”

“It was.”

“I think it was him that Goulding was drinkin’ with. I remember keeping a close eye on his tab, because ye had warned me.”

“Might we speak to the maid? Jenny, I think you called her?” Richard asked.

“Certainly.” The innkeeper stepped to the kitchen door, located just behind the bar to the left, and hollered for Jenny. When she came out, wiping her hands on her apron, he said, “These gentlemen want to talk to ya about a customer.”

Slowly Jenny nodded. “Of course.” She stepped over and eyed them up and down, and apparently liking what she saw, she leaned over the bar, displaying her assets for both gentlemen to see.

Darcy cleared his throat. “Jenny, I am Fitzwilliam Darcy and this is my cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam. We have some questions for you.”

Richard leaned his forearm on the bar as Darcy was speaking and gave the maid his most charming smile. “Forgive my cousin. He can be a bit stuffy.”

Jenny giggled. “Very well,” she purred. “What can I get for you?” She drew her finger down Richard’s arm and fluttered her lashes when he winked.

Darcy rolled his eyes, clearing his throat again. “Your employer told us that Lieutenant Wickham was here a few nights ago, buying drinks for Robert Goulding. Do you remember serving them?”

Jenny looked at Darcy suspiciously, but then Richard leaned over and whispered in her ear, making her giggle a second time. She took the coin Richard offered her and answered Darcy’s question.

“I see. Did you happen to hear any of their conversation?”

Jenny looked back at Richard, who pressed another coin into her hand. “Some of it, but not much. Mr. Goulding was angry about a woman who turned him down, and the lieutenant seemed to be encouraging him. Later, they separated, but Mr. Goulding was in his cups, like.”

“What did he do after they separated?” Darcy sensed this was the evidence he needed, and was eager to hear what Jenny had to say.

Jenny thought for a moment with her brows drawn together but then then her features cleared. “If I recall rightly, he visited nearly every table in the place. He was still talking about the woman, I think.” She paused, tapping the top of the bar. “And you know, I think it wasna’ long before every man in the room was talking about her. I remember wondering who she was. I only caught part of her name, though. “Lizzybeth or some such thing.”

With a triumphant look at Richard, Darcy thanked Jenny, pressing another coin into her palm. “You have done me a great service today. Thank you.”

With a curtsey, an inviting look at the winking Richard, and a final giggle, Jenny sashayed back into the kitchen.

The gentlemen briefly discussed canvassing the customers currently making use of the room, but given the anger Darcy held toward the people of the town, and the fact that he would be more inclined to beat anyone who spoke against Elizabeth than deal with it rationally, they decided to return to Netherfield. Both were certain they had more than enough evidence to back up their claims.

~~~***~~~

The next day, Bingley and Hurst accompanied Richard and Darcy to the Gouldings’. Knocking on the door, they were invited into the entry hall and asked to wait while the servant—Darcy guessed she was the housekeeper—went to see if the master of the house would see them. Within a few minutes, she was back, asking them to follow her.

As Darcy followed the woman into the master’s study, he took a moment to examine James Goulding. The contrast between this gentleman and his future father-in-law was stark. Darcy hoped this meant the interview would proceed in a better fashion than any had so far with Bennet. He bowed to his host and chose a seat when it was offered.

“I am surprised to see you gentlemen today, though perhaps I should not be, given the meal we shared two nights ago.”

“To be honest, sir, we are not here for a social call. Rather, we wish to discuss the rumours that were bandied about your table the other night.”

Goulding shifted in his seat. “I apologize about that. You know how these young men are, especially the first sons.”

“Indeed,” Darcy said, doing his best not to roll his eyes.

Richard took over the conversation at this point. “We have been to the tavern and spoken to the innkeeper and the girl who was serving your son the night he got foxed.” He paused, taking in Goulding’s flushed face and his tight grip on the arms of his chair. “Robert was talking about a girl, one who spurned him, with an officer of the militia.”

Goulding closed his eyes and groaned, and Darcy knew the gentleman understood where the rumours came from. “You know the lady of whom he was speaking?”

“Yes,” Goulding sighed. “Miss Elizabeth Bennet. He was outraged when she turned down his proposal of marriage. I tried to talk to him about it, but he could not see past his affront. To this day, he speaks disparagingly about her and her family.”

“If it helps,” Richard softly added, “he was spurred on four nights ago by the officer, a Lieutenant Wickham. This officer had been heard several nights previously threatening to ruin Miss Elizabeth.”

“And he found the perfect foil in my son.” Goulding hung his head and took a deep breath. Looking up once more, he asked, “Is this lieutenant responsible for getting my son drunk?”

“He is.” Richard glanced at Darcy before turning his eyes to his host again. “If it helps, Wickham has an overabundance of charm that he is well-versed in using. Your son is not the first person to fall for Wickham’s methods.”

“It does help, yes, but … I must confess to you that my Robert is not always the most,” Goulding paused, “astute young man. I fear my wife and I spoiled him most dreadfully. It does not surprise me that he is the cause of the Bennet’s troubles, but it does anger me.” He stood. “Let me call him in here to give an accounting of himself.”

~~~***~~~

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