“Missed, damn it!” Bingley handed his musket to the loader without a second glance.
Fitzwilliam Darcy eyed him. “Bingley, is anything the matter? You do not seem yourself.”
“I missed the damned bird, that is the matter!” Bingley scowled. Darcy had seen little of Bingley’s habitual smiles since his friend had arrived at Pemberley.
“There is no shortage of birds to shoot at.” Darcy accepted the intricately decorated rifle from his loader and waited while the handler shooed the spaniel into the brush. A brace of partridge rose obligingly from the trees. He sighted down the barrel and shot. One of the birds plummeted to the ground, and the dog crashed through the brush to retrieve it. “I was surprised your sisters did not accompany you on this visit.” It was his only guess as to what might be troubling Bingley.
“I do not care if I ever see them again.”
So it was something his sisters had done. Certainly they could be aggravating, but it surprised Darcy that they would affect Bingley enough to cause this uncharacteristic fit of ill-humour. “Have you quarreled, then?”
Bingley took another shot, hardly bothering to aim, but said nothing until Darcy had his rifle to his shoulder again. “Do you remember Miss Elizabeth Bennet?”
Darcy’s finger tightened involuntarily on the trigger before he had braced himself. The rifle’s recoil knocked him back a step and his shot went wide. “I remember her, yes,” he said brusquely.
“I saw her at Kew Gardens. Did you know she is living in London now?”
Darcy rubbed his shoulder where the rifle had kicked him, trying to still his racing pulse. Of all the names of mutual acquaintances Bingley could have raised, why did it have to be that one? He had almost put her behind him after his last Easter visit to Rosings when he discovered Mr. Collins had left his aunt’s employment, thus terminating his only potential source of intelligence about Elizabeth. “No, I had not heard.”
“Her father died last autumn, and the estate was entailed away from the family. That idiot cousin of theirs, your aunt’s clergyman, inherited. Mrs. Bennet and her daughters moved in with her sister in Meryton, but there was not enough room for all of them, so Miss Elizabeth came to live with her aunt and uncle in Cheapside. She helps them with their children.”
“I had not realized there was an entailment.” Yet another reason it was fortunate that Elizabeth had returned home from Rosings the previous year to care for her ailing father before Darcy had time to act on his impulse to ask her to marry him. Still, the idea of Elizabeth without a home of her own gave him a tinge of discomfort. He had always imagined her comfortably ensconced at Longbourn. And unmarried. His imagination refused to consider the possibility she might marry another. He watched absently as the handler took the dead partridge from the dog’s mouth and dropped it into the game bag.
“She seemed to think I might know about it, and said her sister Jane had written to Caroline and told her the news, but never received a reply. I asked her if Jane was in London as well, and do you know what she told me?”
“I have no idea.” He was certain from Bingley’s savage tone that it was nothing good.
“A week before their father’s death, Miss Bennet accepted an offer of marriage from one of her admirers in Meryton, one who had been thought beneath her consideration, but this way Jane could be in a position to provide for her mother in her old age. My Jane, married to a shopkeeper old enough to be her father.” Bingley practically spat the words out.
Darcy shook his head. Bingley should be thanking his lucky stars for his narrow escape, and instead he was still pining over the girl two years later. “I hope it will work out well for her.”
“Miss Elizabeth told me she had tried to convince Jane not to do it, because Jane always wanted to marry for love. But she said she could never marry the only man she would ever love, so it mattered little whom she did marry. I could not help but ask what happened to the man she loved. Miss Elizabeth looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘He left one day without explanation and never returned.’”
Darcy could picture it all too easily. Elizabeth had never hesitated to speak her mind, and if her sister had truly loved his friend, despite her appearance of indifference, Elizabeth would no doubt resent Bingley for his abandonment. “I am sorry to hear it.”
“Not as sorry as I am. Then she asked me if I happened to see her sister when she had been in London the winter before their father died. Apparently Jane had called on Caroline and Louisa, who never saw fit to mention it to me. Caroline claims she did it to protect me.” Bingley’s bitterness was obvious.
It was just as well Bingley had no clue as to his own interference in the matter. Darcy was not sure he would trust his friend with the information while he had a gun in his hand.
The loader held out a musket to Bingley, but he pushed it away. “I have lost my taste for shooting.”
* * *
Darcy had promised himself he would not do this. Not a day had passed since he learned of Elizabeth’s presence in London when he had not imagined seeing her somehow, but he knew it was foolishness. Their paths were unlikely to cross, and even if by some chance they did, the degradation of such a marriage would be even worse now than it had been when he had first considered it, that night at Rosings as he listened to her playing the pianoforte and jousted verbally with her.
Yet here he was, not a fortnight after his return to London, riding down Gracechurch Street, attempting an air of unconcern as if he were paying no attention to his surroundings. It was not truly an attempt to see her; no, he had decided that his preoccupation stemmed from a concern as to Elizabeth’s circumstances. If he could see for himself that she was part of a respectable household, he would be able to stop thinking of her constantly.
The street itself did not appear disreputable, despite the warehouses visible just beyond the houses. There were no more than the usual number of beggars and shifty-looking characters. He wondered which house was hers. Was she there, behind one of the windows? Did she ever think of him?
He shook himself out of his reverie, spurring his mount to a faster pace. He had learned what he needed, and now he should go. But instead he stopped at a small flower shop near Bishopsgate. Georgiana would like some flowers.
A street urchin appeared at his side as he dismounted. “Hold your ’orse, sir?”
Darcy handed him the reins. The small, disreputable boy with a smudge of soot on his face no doubt had the privilege of seeing Elizabeth in the neighbourhood, a status forbidden to Darcy. Without much thought he selected a bouquet from the flower girl. Returning to the boy, he fished a coin from his pocket and dropped it in his outstretched hand.
The boy pulled at the edge of his ragged cap. “Thank yer, sir.”
“Do you know the house of Mr. Gardiner?”
“Course I do.” The boy pointed unhesitatingly up the street to a smallish house with painted shutters and well-tended flower-boxes by the windows.
It was as if he could not help himself. “There is a young woman who lives there, a Miss Bennet.”
The boy screwed up his face in thought. “Pretty bird, wiv dark hair?”
The description could have fit half the young ladies of London, but it brought only one image to Darcy’s mind. “Do you know anything of her?”
“No, sir, but I know the cook’s boy. I could find out somefin’, if yer wanted me to, sir.”
With a certain misgiving, Darcy handed the boy another coin. “Can you meet me here tomorrow? There will be another one of those for you if you can tell me about her.”
“For sure, sir. What would yer be wantin’ to know about ’er?”
Darcy hesitated. “Whether she is treated well, if she is happy, if she is… engaged or has a young man.” He could barely bring himself to say it. “But not a word to anyone that someone has been asking.”
“Course not, sir. Yer can count on me!”
* * *
“I found out what you wanted, sir.” The boy, looking even more disreputable than the day before, barely paused for breath. “She has lots o’ sisters at home, and her father’s dead. Her ma had five thousand quid in the funds, but she’s already spending it, so there’s none for Miss Bennet, and no room, neither, so she came to live here. She been here about a year, and didn’t go home but once. She writes lots o’ letters, but Freddie don’t know who to.”
Apparently he had picked a very competent spy. “Do the Gardiners treat her well?”
“Seems like. She ’elps wiv the children, gives them lessons and such. No young man she favours, but Freddie says there’s one as would like to be, a friend of her uncle’s, and Mr. Gardiner favours him for ’er.”
Darcy developed a sudden dislike for the unknown Mr. Gardiner. But that was unfair. He should be happy that Elizabeth had the prospect of something better than unpaid employment in her uncle’s house, but he could not bring himself to appreciate it. “Anything else?” he asked brusquely.
A knowing grin split the urchin’s face. “She rises early and goes walkin’ most mornin’s in Moorsfield.”
Darcy caught his breath. “By herself?”
“By ’erself, sir.” The boy was clearly pleased with his initiative.
“Well done.” He pulled out a handful of coins, more than the boy deserved.
The boy examined his earnings with wide eyes. “Thank yer, sir! Any time yer need somefin’, yer just ask for Charlie. Any time.”