Mr. Darcy’s Journey
Kitty Bennet shoved her sister Lydia to the edge of the carriage bench. “You are keeping the warm brick to yourself, and my toes are numb!”
Mrs. Bennet elbowed Kitty. “You are sitting in the middle, the warmest spot, and that should be enough for you. Why does your father not arrange to have the carriage window fixed? It lets in the cold so terribly. If I die from a chill, it shall be his fault.”
Elizabeth Bennet shook her head with amusement. True, it was an unusually cold day, even for Twelfth Night, but nothing could interfere with her pleasure today, not even squabbling sisters. Soon she would be dancing with Mr. Wickham, and she had no doubt he would be as attentive to her as always. That thought was enough to keep her warm.
She had dressed with great care to look her best for the festivities – or more particularly, for him. Ten days since she had seen him last – not that she was counting – and she had felt the lack of his amiable company. Even when he called on her last, he had seemed more interested in speaking to her aunt about Derbyshire than in talking to Elizabeth. No doubt it was because he missed his home there. And whose fault was it Mr. Wickham could not go home? Proud, disagreeable Mr. Darcy, of course!
The carriage rolled to a stop in front of Lucas Lodge, the windows already ablaze with light even though it was barely dusk. How typical! Sir William liked everyone to know how rich he was, and wasting expensive candles was a way to show it. But what did she care about candles tonight? She planned to enjoy Mr. Wickham’s company to the fullest, even if her aunt had reminded her at Christmas not to fall in love with him. Still, that was no reason she could not find pleasure in his company.
Lydia pushed her way out of the carriage first, followed by a fluttering Mrs. Bennet. Elizabeth waited until last, wanting to make a poised entry just in case a certain someone was watching for her. Unfortunately, she had no audience except the ostentatiously dressed footmen.
A crush of people filled the entry hall of Lucas Lodge. Charlotte had warned her most of the neighborhood was invited, since her father saw this also as a celebration of her upcoming wedding, his way of showing his delight at finally disposing of his eldest daughter. Of course, that meant her cousin Mr. Collins, the prospective bridegroom, would be there, but with luck Elizabeth could avoid dancing with him this time. The humiliation of their last clumsy dance at the Netherfield Ball still stung.
Elizabeth stood on tiptoe and craned her neck to see over Lydia’s shoulder. A year ago, she could have done it easily, but now her youngest sister was taller than she, and never missed a chance of pointing it out. As if height determined maturity! But none of the red-coated officers in the room had Wickham’s golden curls. He must be further inside, or not yet arrived.
Disappointed, she shouldered her way past a variety of neighbors, but of course that meant stopping to converse with some of them, since she could hardly admit she was looking for a gentleman. She was able to excuse herself from several conversations, but then she was accosted by Miss Penelope Harrington and her sister, Harriet. They greeted her extravagantly, each taking one of her arms.
What mischief were they up to? Neither were particular friends of hers, and she had not forgiven them for mocking her sister Jane for failing to secure Mr. Bingley. “You both look lovely tonight,” she said. That was inoffensive.
“As do you,” giggled Penelope. “Is that not new lace you have sewn on your dress? It looks almost like this year’s styles.”
“And new shoe roses,” added Harriet. “You do not usually go to such efforts for an occasion like this. Is there someone in particular you are trying to impress?”
As if they did not know she had been keeping company with Mr. Wickham! She had heard enough of their jealous whispers about what he could possibly see in her. “Just to give honor to Sir William and Lady Lucas for inviting us. Have you seen Charlotte? I must give her my best wishes on her engagement.” And that might let her escape them.
“Oh, she is in the sitting room with all the dull people. You should go to the dining room where the dancing is. Have you seen Miss King tonight?” Harriet placed great weight on the name.
They were definitely up to mischief. Elizabeth said, “Not yet. I have only just arrived.”
The two girls exchanged a smirk. Penelope said, “You must make a point to find her. She is in particularly good looks tonight.”
Why in the world did they want her to see Mary King? She barely knew the shy, retiring girl. “I will tell her you said so. Now, if you will be so kind as to excuse me?”
“Oh, we could not possibly desert you in this crush! Do let us go into the dining room. Perhaps one of the officers will ask us to dance.”
She saw no point in resisting their efforts, since she intended to go there anyway. The dining room was thronged with people. Most of the furniture had been moved out and the rugs rolled up to make room for dancing. Maria Lucas played a reel on the piano as half a dozen couples circled each other in a country dance.
There he was! Wickham’s golden hair shone in the candlelight as he danced. He was facing away from her, but once he reached the top of the set, he would turn and walk past her. Then he would give her that wonderful warm look that made her insides turn upside down.
“Oh, look!” cried Harriet. “Mary King is dancing with Mr. Wickham!”
Did she suppose Elizabeth would be jealous because Wickham was dancing with another woman? He always sought out other partners after the two sets he could properly dance with her. He would ask her teasingly for a third, but he knew as well as she that it would cause gossip. “I imagine she is enjoying it. He is a good dancer.”
“And you would know, wouldn’t you?” said Penelope archly.
Elizabeth ignored her. Wickham and Mary King had reached the top of the set and turned to proceed down the outside of the set. Her heart beat faster as he approached, a welcoming smile suffusing her face.
He did not catch her eye. In fact, he looked straight through her as he passed, as if she were not even there, though he nodded to another acquaintance further down the line.
A heavy weight settled in Elizabeth’s stomach. Why was he cutting her? Had she done something to upset him? She could not imagine what it might be, though he had been a bit cool when he called at Christmas. And why were Harriet and Penelope watching her with such avid expressions? They must have known what was coming, and attached themselves to her to gloat over her embarrassment.
Could it perhaps be a joke? Had Wickham set this up with them as a jest, or to see how she would respond? She would not give them the satisfaction of showing distress. “How much more pleasant dances are since the militia arrived in town! I think all the officers must be here,” she said coolly.
Surely Wickham would come to her when the dance ended.
But he did not. Instead, he offered his arm to Mary King and took her to the far end of the room where a few chairs lined the wall. He sat down beside her, a little closer than was proper, and turned towards her. Elizabeth could not see his face, but Mary King was gazing up at him with adoring eyes. She felt sick.
A man in a red coat approached her and bowed. “Miss Elizabeth, might I have the honor of this dance?”
In her shock, it took her a moment to recognize Mr. Chamberlayne. She pasted a smile to her face. “I would be delighted, sir.”
He led her to the head of the line, just a few feet away from Wickham and Mary King. She refused to look in their direction, but she could not avoid their voices. Wickham’s familiar tones came first “…the next dance?”
“You know we cannot, Mr. Wickham! People would talk.”
He gave a rumbly laugh. “I do not care if people know how I feel about you.” Just as he had always said to her, down to the intonations.
The room was overheated, but Elizabeth felt suddenly cold. To her everlasting gratitude, the music started. Numbly, she took the hand Mr. Chamberlayne offered her.
He leaned towards her. “Smile,” he said quietly. “People are watching. Do not give them the satisfaction.”
So he knew. Everyone knew. Everyone but her.
At least Mr. Chamberlayne was being kind, rather than glorying in her distress. Fluttering her eyelashes, she gave him the most brilliant smile she could manage. “Mr. Chamberlayne, you do say the loveliest things!”
He patted her hand proprietarily. “It is easy to pay compliments to so charming a partner.”
They took hands across with the couple beneath them, precluding any further discussion. Elizabeth kept the smile fixed to her face as they cast down the line, most especially when she had to pass Wickham and Mary King.
So Wickham had thrown her over without a word, and Mary King was her replacement. But why? They had not quarreled, and she would not have thought Mary would hold any particular attraction for him. She was far from a beauty, and could certainly not be called clever. Wickham and Mary King. The image of the two of them together seemed burned on the inside of her eyelids. It was too painful to contemplate, at least while people were watching her.
Somehow she made it through the first dance of the set. During the pause before the music began again, Mr. Chamberlayne said, “Well done. You have nothing to be ashamed of.”
His sympathy threatened her composure. Lightly she said, “Mr. Wickham does not owe me anything. If he prefers the company of Miss King, it is nothing to me.”
He smiled as if he understood and said in her ear, “I believe it is not so much her company he prefers as her fortune.”
“Her fortune? You must be mistaken. She has no particular prospects.”
“Have you not heard? She recently inherited ten thousand pounds. He is not the only officer to have suddenly noticed her appeal, but he got there first. Wickham has many debts of honor.”
Suddenly it was less painful to swallow. To be thrown over for money was more tolerable than if he had done it out of preference for Mary King; still painful but not as personal. “No, I had not heard. Thank you for enlightening me. It explains a great many things.” But she still had no desire to watch him pay court to another woman while he ignored her.
It was going to be a very long evening.
Lydia rushed into the sitting room. “Lord, I cannot stand one more minute in this house! The rain has finally stopped, and I am going to Meryton. Who is with me?” She swung her gaze to encompass Kitty, Mary, and Elizabeth.
“Oh, yes,” cried Kitty. “I hope there will be officers. It has been so long since I had the chance to flirt with them. And the milliners should have received the new shoe roses from London by now.”
Mary did not even look up from her book. “Such frivolity has little interest for me. Lizzy can go with you.”
Elizabeth straightened. “I will do nothing of the sort,” she snapped. Lydia was right about one thing: they had all been cooped up in the house too long.
Lydia smirked. “Afraid of what people will say? Perhaps you should have tried harder to snare Mr. Wickham.”
Mary snapped her book closed and rose to her feet. “Have you nothing better to do than to harp on that? I am sick of hearing about it. First Bingley, now Wickham! There are more valuable accomplishments for a lady then her ability to attract gentlemen.” She stomped out of the room.
Lydia called after her. “You only say that because it is beyond your powers!”
Kitty giggled. “Mary is so silly. But it is such a novelty to be able to tease you, Lizzy! Usually it is the other way about.”
“I am glad to provide you with such a fine source of entertainment,” Elizabeth said evenly. Allowing Lydia to see she had hit a nerve would only encourage her. “I imagine you will be even better entertained by the officers and Meryton. I daresay they will all be out and about now that the weather has improved.”
“Do you think so?” asked Kitty. “I must wear my new bonnet!”
“I was planning to wear that! You know it goes better with my dress than yours!” cried Lydia.
“No, it is mine!”
Perhaps Mary had the right idea. Elizabeth dropped her sewing into her basket. “Enjoy your walk,” she said.
“Shall we give your regards to Mr. Wickham?” Lydia taunted.
Elizabeth ignored her as she left the room. Where could she go that they would not follow? The still room, perhaps? The dried flowers there made Lydia sneeze, so she avoided it whenever possible.
The tiny room was empty and cold, of course. The lavender stems Jane had been drying before her departure were still scattered across the worktable. Taking a deep breath of the fragrant air, Elizabeth slowly began to gather the stalks of lavender into a bundle.
Lucky Jane, to have escaped to London! Lydia and Kitty had taunted her as well over losing Mr. Bingley, and even worse, their mother had not been able to stop mourning the loss of his five thousand pounds a year. Now Elizabeth understood why Jane had become so quiet when in company. Little jabs made by their acquaintances hurt Jane the most, but for Elizabeth, it was the pitying looks and the false sympathies offered her until she wanted to rage and strike out. Jane had just grown more withdrawn and out of spirits until Mrs. Gardiner had taken note of it and offered to take her back to London where no one would know of her disappointment.
She cut a piece of twine and tied together several stems of lavender, then hung the bundle from one of the hooks in the low ceiling. At least her mother did not keep reminding her about Wickham; after all, he had never been a particularly good marital prospect, unlike Bingley. But now, like Jane, Elizabeth disliked going into company where so many people seemed to glory in the knowledge that the two most admired Bennet sisters had been jilted. Why did so many people take pleasure in their pain?
The door squeaked open and Mr. Bennet peered in. “So this is where you have been hiding! I have received a letter from your aunt which concerns you.”
Odd – why would Mrs. Gardiner write to her father about her? “What does she say?”
“Such impatience, Lizzy! Will you not even guess? Or are you still nursing your broken heart? I thought all young ladies delighted in such things. After all, Wickham jilted you quite credibly, much better than that runaway Bingley.”
She gave a hollow laugh, since he clearly expected one. “The letter?” she asked pointedly.
Mr. Bennet sighed. “Well, if you must be a spoilsport, she wishes for you to travel to London as soon as possible. Apparently Jane is ill with some trifling cold and Mrs. Gardiner could use your assistance in nursing her. Just think, you and Jane may enjoy your heartbreak together!”
“To the Gardiners? May I go?” The idea of leaving Meryton and her annoying younger sisters sounded like heaven. “My aunt would not ask for my help unless she truly needed it.”
Mr. Bennet fiddled with his spectacles, drawing out the tension. “I suppose so, especially as she enclosed fare for the stage.”
“She did? May I go tomorrow, then?”
“So eager to flee your poor Papa and leave him with no one who can speak a word of sense! Such cruelty! But I suppose you could leave tomorrow if one of the maids can be spared to travel with you. You must speak to Hill about that.”
“I shall do that straight away.” Elizabeth quickly tied up the last bit of lavender, her spirits suddenly bright. Bless Mrs. Gardiner!
It did not occur to her until later that it was unlike her aunt to ask for help because someone had a trifling cold.
Darcy sat back in his chair once Lady Matlock signaled the footmen to begin the first remove of dinner dishes. At least he assumed she had signaled them. He and Richard had tried for years to determine what signal she used, but it remained a mystery. In that, like so many things, Lady Matlock had proven too subtle for them. Tonight he could not even be bothered to try.
“Darcy, my dear,” her ladyship said, “are you quite well? You seem out of sorts tonight.”
He straightened. “Quite well, I thank you.” Relatively speaking, it was true. His fortnightly dinner with the Matlocks was actually distracting him from thoughts of Elizabeth Bennet. He had dreamt of her the previous night, and resultantly had been half-watching all day for her to miraculously appear somewhere. “Has there been any word yet from Richard regarding his leave?”
“He should be here in February,” she said. “In other words, in plenty of time to accompany you to Rosings Park to face the dragon.”
Lord Matlock harrumphed. “Do not tease the poor boy, my dear. All of us, with the exception of you, prefer to keep our distance from Catherine.”
The young man across from Darcy speared a piece of beef from a new dish before the footman had even placed it on the table. “I would not go to Rosings for love nor money,” said Jasper, the youngest and most outrageous of the Fitzwilliam sons. “Well, not for love, in any case.”
Darcy heard an odd choking sound to his left. Turning to his cousin Frederica, he said in an undertone, “Is something the matter?”
She shook her head, but did not look at him or respond. That was enough of an answer from Frederica, who, like the rest of her family, rarely lacked for words. Still, she would not appreciate an expression of concern from him. Frederica preferred to take care of her own problems, and she already had three overbearing brothers to deal with.
But apparently there were undercurrents he was unaware of, since at the end of the evening, Lady Matlock pointedly informed him she would be at home the following day. That was as good as a royal command, and he knew it. She did not sound as if she were upset with him; but then again, she never did.
Sometimes Darcy wondered which of his aunts was more troublesome to deal with. Lady Catherine de Bourgh was annoying and demanding, but he could ignore her easily enough. Lady Matlock was the exact opposite: gentle, pleasant and thoughtful. But no matter what Darcy desired or believed, somehow he ended up doing exactly what she wished, asking himself all the while why in heaven’s name he had agreed to her latest scheme. So it was with substantial apprehension that he approached Matlock House the next day.
She appeared to be delighted to see him, even though it had not been a full day since he left her presence. Taking his hands in hers, she turned her cheek for his kiss. “Darcy, how lovely to see you! Nothing could have made this day complete for me so much as a visit from my favorite nephew.”
He laid his lips lightly on her rouged cheek. “Madam, I am your only nephew.”
“Had I three dozen nephews, you would still be my favorite!” she said warmly. “Come, may I pour you some tea?”
“Thank you.” Darcy dropped into a chair and extended his legs in front of him.
Naturally, she knew precisely how he took his tea without having to ask. Did she memorize the preferences of all her hundreds of acquaintances, or was it simply for family?
It was too much to hope that she would come directly to the point, so he responded to her questions about Georgiana’s well-being and made the appropriate inquiries into the health of her family. Lord Matlock and her three sons all received glowing reports, which was something of a surprise. Usually her requests for his presence were in response to some mischief into which her youngest son had fallen, since Jasper had been known on occasion to actually listen to Darcy. So he settled back to wait for her to reveal the real cause of his visit.
After half an hour of pleasantries in which his aunt said nothing of import, he decided to drop a hint. “I have not heard of Jasper being in any difficulties of late.”
“In fact,” said Lady Matlock, “I am relatively satisfied with Jasper’s recent behavior. As for Frederica…” She gave a delicate sigh.
“No,” said Darcy instantly.
She blinked at him in ladylike confusion. “Whatever do you mean?”
“No, I cannot help you with Frederica. The minds of young ladies are a complete mystery to me, as has been more than evident in the last few years. Nothing I say or do could possibly influence her. And if she needs someone to defend her honor, you already have three sons who would only be too delighted to attend to the matter – that is, if they all survived the fight over which one of them most deserved the pleasure.” He crossed his arms with finality.
She leaned towards him in a confidential manner. “And that, my dear boy, is precisely my problem. I do not dare to speak to any of them about this. That would simply make matters worse.”
“How could defending her honor make things worse? And why does her honor need defending in the first place?”
“It does not need defending, my dear boy, at least not according to Frederica or to me. Her brothers would likely feel differently, but as you know, they are exceedingly quick to see slights to the family honor.”
He could not argue the point, given that most of the slights his cousins saw did not exist in the first place. “As I am unaware of the difficulty, I cannot say how they might react.” Had someone behaved inappropriately? He could not imagine any gentlemen taking liberties with Frederica, not when everyone knew that to do so was to risk facing one or all of the Fitzwilliam brothers.
Lady Matlock cleared her throat delicately. “There was a man who was most attentive to Freddie. A very suitable gentleman who did not make any effort to disguise his interest, but never formally asked to court her. Freddie became quite fond of him and believed they had an understanding. She was expecting him to approach her father for permission, but he did not do so as planned. When she saw him several days later and confronted him about it, he told her his circumstances had changed and marriage was no longer a possibility. However, he refused to explain what those changes were, and the only difference we can ascertain is that he immediately leaves any room she enters.”
Caddish, but it could be much worse. “How has Frederica handled his defection?”
“She says nothing, but the true problem is too many people were aware of his attentions to her, and thus know she has been jilted. Her female friends avoid her and spread gossip, and the gentlemen will not ask her to dance.”
“I am sorry to hear it, but I do not see how I can be of assistance. The fashionable set will not listen to me.”
“Perhaps not, but marriage-minded young ladies will do almost anything for the opportunity to dance with you. If you were to go to Almack’s with Frederica a few times, and make a point of only dancing with young ladies Freddie presents to you, they will forget all this nonsense about excluding her. And if you are seen to be attentive to her, that may incite the interest of other gentlemen.”
Darcy’s face tightened. “Must it be Almack’s?” He tried valiantly to keep a plaintive note from his voice.
“I have always wondered why it is men would rather risk their lives in battle than put on a pair of knee breeches and go to Almack’s. Yes, it must be Almack’s, because that is where those who decide on social fashions are found. I do recognize how much you detest attending these marriage mart affairs and having to dance with mercenary girls whose eyes are set on Pemberley. I would not ask it of you were it not so important to re-establish Frederica in society.”
Sometimes he hated his duty to his family. It did not matter how unpleasant it would be. He could see her difficulty, and it was his duty to help his cousin. And if he had to go to Almack’s, at least Frederica would provide good company. If only he could keep himself from comparing all those husband-hunters to Elizabeth Bennet! But that was even less likely than enjoying himself at Almack’s.