And now it starts to get exciting! Here’s the third excerpt from The Price of Pride, where we see the fallout of Wickham’s visit. Thanks for all your comments – they keep me inspired!
The red-haired chambermaid came to the door of Elizabeth’s room at the inn. Elizabeth looked up from the letter she was writing, a hot blush rising in her cheeks. Did the girl know Elizabeth had seen her with Wickham? “Yes?”
The girl smirked as she bobbed a curtsy. “The young gentleman in the private parlor is asking for you, miss. Says it’s urgent, if you please.”
“Do you mean Mr. Andrew Darcy?” What could possibly be so urgent? Perhaps someone had found suitable clothing for him, and he wished to tell her he was leaving.
“Very well, I will join him shortly.”
Elizabeth closed the inkwell and cleaned her pen. She would try to keep this farewell brief, with no discussion of the embarrassing situation which had passed, and she could still finish her letter before dinner.
The maid waited for her instead of leaving. Did she think Elizabeth would become lost on the way downstairs? More likely she was hoping for a gratuity, one which would not be forthcoming.
Still, Elizabeth was grateful not to be alone when she spotted Mr. Wickham loitering in the doorway as she passed through the public dining room. His polished smile flashed as he noted her presence. She acknowledged him with a cool nod, which was more than he deserved, but she had no desire to make a scene.
At the far end of the room, the chambermaid held open the door to the private parlor. Elizabeth gave her an apologetic smile as she walked past and looked ahead into the room where Andrew Darcy lay on a sofa with its back to her, only his head visible on the armrest. “Sir, you asked to see me?”
The door clicked closed behind her.
Andrew Darcy sat up quickly on the sofa where he had been lying, clutching together the lapels of the borrowed coat he wore. Even so, it was apparent he wore nothing above his trousers. “I did not send for you,” he said sharply.
“Forgive me.” Mortified at the sight of the exposed skin on his chest and neck, Elizabeth turned her back and reached blindly for the door latch, eager to escape. But nothing happened when she pushed at the door. Even a hard shove made no difference.
How humiliating! She would have to ask him for help. “The door is stuck.” She kept her eyes on the floor.
“If you will turn your back, I will be happy to help.” He sounded as embarrassed as she felt.
She followed his instruction and walked halfway across the room for good measure. That way, if anyone discovered them together, it would not look so very bad.
He yanked at the door, muttered something angrily under his breath, then said in a reluctant voice, “Miss Bennet, I am sorry to say we appeared be locked in.”
“How could that happen? Never mind; if you will step away, I will knock at the door until someone comes to let us out.”
“I would advise against that.” His voice was tight.
“What do you mean? Everyone will understand it was an accident that we were locked in together, especially since I just walked in!”
“I do not believe it was just an accident. This is one of Wickham’s favorite tricks, creating a compromising situation. All he needs is someone to claim you have been in here some time.”
“Mr. Wickham?” Even after all she had seen of him, she could hardly believe it. He must know how damaging an episode like this could be to a lady’s reputation. It would do no more than embarrass Andrew, but it could be devastating for her. But it made too much sense, especially since it was the red-haired chambermaid who had brought her here, presumably at Wickham’s behest. How could he have done this to her? “But why?” Her words came out through gritted teeth. “What could he possibly hope to accomplish by this?”
He scowled. “Presumably to embarrass me, in return for my actions earlier. You merely have the misfortune to be caught up in his petty revenge on me. Or perhaps not – you knew him in the past, too. Does he bear a grudge against you?”
Elizabeth shook her head. “Nothing that could account for this.” Her voice trembled. Wickham, whom she had so admired for months, was deliberately trying to damage her reputation. And he might well succeed, but she would not think of that now.
Andrew Darcy must have seen her distress, for he said, “We must be cleverer than him. If we call for help, any number of people will hear and become aware of our situation. If we simply wait until someone discovers the locked door on their own, only that person will know, and it may well be someone who is inclined to believe our story, or to forget what they have seen in exchange for small sum.”
“But that could take hours, and it will look that much worse if we are alone in here for such a long time.”
“You think so? I suspect it will make no difference if it is a matter of minutes or hours,” he said heavily. “But your reputation is far more risk than mine, so I will abide by your decision.”
He was right. But to wait there helplessly as her reputation hung on a matter of chance, depending upon the person who tried the door first – why, it was intolerable! There must be another way.
Perhaps there might be another way out. She hurried to the diamond-paned window, but it overlooked the street. Even if Andrew Darcy could squeeze through the narrow opening, he would certainly be seen by passersby, and that would look even worse. There was no place in the room to hide, no handy sideboard or cupboard that he could climb into. She felt a flash of annoyance at the innkeeper for his lack of preparation for emergencies of this sort, a reaction that almost almost brought a smile to her face. How foolish to blame him for the circumstance!
“I suspect you are correct that it is wiser to wait,” she said reluctantly. “I will sit here by the window and watch in case my uncle and aunt return early. If I can call out to them, they will let us out with no one the wiser.” It would also allow her to keep her back to him.
“An excellent idea.” There was clear anger underlying his calm words.
They lapsed into silence. Elizabeth’s thoughts were unhappy ones. In truth, this should matter little to her in the long run, even if there were scandal from this event; after all, apart from her aunt and uncle, no one from Meryton knew anyone here, and she could trust the Gardiners not to gossip. No shame would follow her home. But her aunt still had friends here, connections she had been so happy to restore on this visit, and any damage to Elizabeth’s reputation, especially when she was supposed be under her aunt’s care, would rebound upon Mrs. Gardiner. Her friends might have to sever contact with her, and that would hurt her aunt.
With sudden fury at Mr. Wickham, she wished Andrew Darcy had struck him back. Hard. Or that Fitzwilliam Darcy had exposed Wickham’s true behavior years ago, so he would not have been in a position to create this mischief.
If only…If only she had not slipped in the mud and had to return to the inn. If only she had let her uncle walk her to the room. If only she had not tried to hide from Wickham. If only she had not believed the red-haired chambermaid. But all the if-onlys in the world could not change the position she was in, where her only real hope was the Gardiners returning early.
Of course, the Gardiners were too late. By that time, Elizabeth was back in her room and physically safe, but she could not say the same for her reputation nor her spirits. Anger warred with humiliation as she related the events to Mrs. Gardiner, who had heard only the barest outline from a quietly furious Andrew Darcy before hurrying to her niece’s side.
“An hour? You were locked in for over an hour? What happened then?” Mrs. Gardiner asked, her lips thinned.
“It was horrid.” Elizabeth shivered at the memory. “A man pounded at the door and demanded that we open it, but of course we could not. He went for the innkeeper, who could not find the key, so they sent for the locksmith. By the time he came and opened it, there was a crowd of people including the magistrate and the mayor. The innkeeper’s wife started shrieking about immorality under her roof. Wickham must have worked hard to stir up such an audience,” she said bitterly.
“He seemed such a charming fellow when I met him at Christmas,” said Mrs. Gardiner. “I should know better than to trust my first impression.”
“He fooled me, too.” Elizabeth dabbed at her eyes. “I have never been so humiliated my life.” She tried not think of the horrid names some of the drunken men had hissed at her.
Mrs. Gardiner bit her lip. “I hate to ask you this, my dear, but did anything happen behind that locked door?”
“Nothing at all. Mr. Andrew Darcy was even more mortified by the circumstances than I was, and he would not even look at me.”
Her aunt let out a breath. “Good. I am glad he, at least, did not disappoint us.”
“It was my fault he went out there and confronted Wickham.” The words rushed out of her. “Had I not asked his help, he would not been injured, and would not had to wait while his bloody clothes were being cleaned, and none of this would have happened. And he will have to live with the rumors, long after I have gone home and left them behind me.”
“He does not seem to blame you. He said that if Wickham wanted revenge on him, he would get it one way or another.”
“I cannot be so philosophical.”
Her aunt raised her eyebrows. “Why, Lizzy, has young Mr. Darcy engaged your tender feelings?”
Elizabeth’s cheeks grew hot. “Not at all. I simply dislike the unfairness of it.”
“Are you certain? Because when he spoke to your uncle, he said that marriage to you would be no hardship. I think he may be taken with you. In fact, I know he is.”
“Aunt, you can know no such thing!” The last thing she needed was matchmaking from Mrs. Gardiner.
“Can I not? How, then, do you explain his asking me privately when we last visited the parsonage if you had any admirers at home?” Mrs. Gardiner wore a look of puckish pleasure.
Elizabeth forced a breath out between her teeth. Not again! First Fitzwilliam Darcy, now Andrew Darcy. Why was it that the only gentlemen who showed interest in her were the ones she wished to avoid? Had she once again allowed her playful manners to mislead a man? She had tried to keep her distance because of his connection to her Mr. Darcy, or rather to the Mr. Darcy who is not hers. “Pray do not make this into a romance. He is only trying to do the proper thing. I have no interest in him in that way.”
A knock came at the door. “It is I,” said her uncle.
“Come in,” said Elizabeth wearily.
Mr. Gardiner’s brow was furrowed. “I hope you are not too shaken by all this nonsense, Lizzy. Darcy has requested that you join us briefly.”
For a horrifying moment, Elizabeth thought he was referring to Mr. Darcy of Pemberley, as she had made such a point of thinking of the young clergyman as Andrew Darcy, but then good sense prevailed. “Very well.” She would much rather crawl into bed.
Mrs. Gardiner insisted on fussing with Elizabeth’s hair a little, as if even the finest hairstyle could make her look anything other than weary and angry, but it was easier to permit her to do it than to fight about it. “Now pinch your cheeks to put a little color in them.”
Elizabeth sighed, but obeyed. “Pray let us get this over and done,” she said. Trying to lighten the moment, she added, “Uncle, I promise that I will never again refuse your escort to my room!”
She was relieved to discover Andrew Darcy was waiting for them in the small sitting area in the Gardiners’ room. At least that meant she did not have to go downstairs into the public areas of the inn again. His black eye was more prominent now and his cheek was swollen, but he was fully dressed.
He rose with a slight wince and bowed to her. “Thank you for seeing me, Miss Bennet. I wish to express my regret over the scene you were exposed to earlier.”
“I thank you for your concern, though the fault was not yours. And I must apologize again for dragging you into this entire mess. If I had simply not said anything to you about what I had overheard, none of this would have happened.”
“You were correct to tell me about it. I would not have wished Wickham’s behavior to go unchecked, even if I paid a price for it.
Elizabeth bit her lip. “I am very sorry if his petty revenge causes anyone to think ill of you. I hope people will believe you when you tell them the truth.”
The corners of his mouth turned down. “It may not be that simple. He is well-liked here, though he does not deserve it. But that is my problem, not yours, and I am more concerned about a stain on your reputation. Even if this episode was not my fault, it would never have happened had I not accepted your aunt’s generous help. But before I say more, I must ask you a question which you may find very odd and seemingly quite unrelated to this matter.”
Taken aback by his serious expression, Elizabeth pulled her shawl around her more tightly. “What is that?”
He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “What are your views on the slave trade?”
Elizabeth goggled at him. “The slave trade? You wish to discuss politics now?” she asked in disbelief.
“I told you it would seem unrelated, but I beg of you to have patience with me,” he said evenly.
“Oh, very well,” she said crossly. “I believe it is wrong to buy and sell human beings, and the slave trade has been a stain on England’s good name.”
“I thank you.” He rubbed his forehead. “In that case, I propose we amend this slight to your honor with marriage.”
Had she not had enough shocks for one day already? “Good God, there is no reason to consider marriage as a remedy! I am leaving here next week, and as long as my aunt and uncle say nothing, no one in my life will be any the wiser that anything has happened. And I fail to see what slavery has to do with it!” Oh, bother her temper! The man was trying to do the decent thing by offering for her, even if it was unnecessary, and he was not to blame for any of this. “Forgive me; I am distraught. Your offer is most generous, but unnecessary.”
He exhaled slowly. “Slavery is important because I have dedicated myself to the cause of abolitionism, so much so that I spent several years in my youth working for the great abolitionist Mr. Wilberforce. I would be honor bound to offer for you even if you supported slavery, but in that case, my offer would have been for marriage in name only, since anything more would make us both bitterly unhappy.” He held his chin high, as if expecting a disagreement. “I hope you are correct that word will not reach your home, but Wickham has been known to cause mischief for mischief’s sake, and I assume he knows people there.”
Mrs. Gardiner protested, “But why would he do that? He was a frequent visitor at Lizzy’s family’s house.”
The young clergyman sighed. “I do not trust Wickham, but perhaps I am worrying about nothing.”
Mrs. Gardiner said briskly, “I suspect that is the case, and that we will hear no more from him. Mr. Darcy, I will make a point of telling everyone I know here that my niece absolves you of any inappropriate behavior.”
“I thank you.” He bowed, looking relieved. “I will leave you now. Miss Bennet, pray accept my most sincere apologies for this unfortunate occurrence, and should any difficulties arise from it, I remain prepared to make amends.”
Elizabeth tried to sound dignified, as if she still had any dignity left. “I thank you, sir.”
After he left the room, her aunt heaved a sigh. “My poor Lizzy! I am so sorry this happened. I must say young Mr. Darcy handled himself very well, though. He seems an upright young man, and I do not say that only because I am an abolitionist myself.”
Elizabeth’s breathing slowed as the world seemed to shift back to normal. “He is clearly a man of strong beliefs, and a definite improvement over the last clergyman who proposed to me.” She managed to put on a teasing intonation. “He is a little too serious for my taste, though. What a pity it was not my sister Mary in my place! They would have suited each other admirably.”
“Mary? Not at all! He is an idealist, not a sermonizer. He does not moralize, nor does he wear his piety on his sleeve as she does. You have no reason to feel obligated to marry him, but were it to become necessary, I think you could make a good match of it. But let us hope it does not come to that.”
“It will not,” said Elizabeth with absolute certainty. Mr. Andrew Darcy might be a good match, but she had no intention of having any connection to the Darcy family. Just imagine if her Mr. Darcy came home to Pemberley and found her married to his cousin! She would rather have a ruined reputation.
Screams of protest? Seems like a few of you saw this coming, and I hope you’ll now acquit me of having Elizabeth fall for Drew Darcy. 😉
Thank you for reading! I’ve been finding your comments encouraging and helpful in clarifying what works and what needs some more fine tuning in the text, so many thanks to all who have commented! The next chapter will come in two weeks, and the book is due to release on December 2. Let me know what you think!