The Bennet family were still at breakfast when Mr. Darcy arrived at Longborne. This was not an unusual occurrence, but Mr. Bingley normally accompanied Mr. Darcy. A servant immediately brought tea for Mr. Darcy who refused any other refreshment, having breakfasted before leaving Netherfield. Conversation was typical - discussion of the weather, the upcoming ball (now only a day away), the harvest (which was now finished) and other minutia.
When the family retired to the morning room, Darcy seated himself beside Elizabeth in a window seat. Mrs. Bennet was all for continuing to encourage her daughters' suitors until AFTER they were married, and therefore made no complaint. She also refrained from making an obvious comment on the seating arrangements. Mrs. Bennet's continued improvement was a joy to her husband and elder daughters.
When everyone was involved in their work, Darcy looked around the room to be sure no one in the family was watching them. "I have something to show you my love." He removed the handkerchief from his pocket. "Do you recognize this?"
Elizabeth grasped the square of cloth and her eyes widened. She looked around also, then replied. "Yes, I made this some time ago for you. Jane and I both made one, actually. Mine for you, and Jane's for Charles. We started them in that little village, just before we reached London. After they were completed, in London, we realized the intimacy our trip produced was- unusual- and somewhat inappropriate and therefore decided to hold onto the gifts until we could ascertain the situation. I thought I had lost it. I have not seen it since before we left London. How did it come into your possession? I suppose you think very badly of me now?" Her eyes twinkled with both humor from her last sentence and curiosity.
"As a matter of fact, my valet presented me with it last night. He knew it was not mine, and yet and most likely been made for me. We did not know any other "FD's" it could belong to you see. I also recognized your work immediately. I noticed this intricate design on several things I have watched you make over the last few weeks. So it has been missing for so long has it?"
"Yes, where did your valet find it?"
"As a matter of fact, he did not find it." Looking up, Darcy saw several Bennet's watching them and realized the low voices and hands joined over a scrap of cloth was garnering unwanted attention. "Perhaps a stroll around the garden would be a good idea right now. I suppose it is too early for a drive?"
"You know it is too early for a drive!" Laughed Lizzy in reply. Her family did catch the last statement and all smiled also. Most were pleased to see the two so happy, all were amused at Mr. Darcy's eagerness to have Lizzy to himself (something he accomplished on an almost daily basis).
Lizzy rose. "Jane, would you like to accompany Mr. Darcy and I on a walk? We have not been on a long walk for several days and some fresh air might do us good."
Mrs. Bennet became alarmed at this idea. "Oh, no, my love! It is far to damp and cold out for a walk today. You might become ill and miss the ball tomorrow! I must insist you stay indoors today Lizzy!"
Jane gave her sister a sympathetic smile. The lack of her usual exercise was difficult for Elizabeth to bear, but she admitted (if only to herself) some validity to her mother's claim. "Mama, I do need some fresh air. Perhaps if Mr. Darcy, Jane and I take a short stroll in the garden? We may then return before we are chilled or at the first sign of threatening weather."
This did not suit Mrs. Bennet, but she knew how stubborn Lizzy could be! She therefore gave consent to Lizzy's scheme. Jane encouraged Mary to come with her, as she had not been outside recently. The four (suitably attired for the outdoors) removed themselves to the garden. Mary and Jane wandered in one direction and Mr. Darcy took Elizabeth in another. Propriety demanded that Mr. Darcy not spend time with Elizabeth unchaperoned, but the illusion of being chaperoned was one easily practiced at Longborne. Darcy shook his head as he had a brief thought. "There are advantages to a less formal household and family situation!"
Once they were sufficiently separated from Jane and Mary, Mr. Darcy stopped. He faced Elizabeth. "This is going to sound very strange to you, and I do not have all the facts at my disposal. I hope, between us, we may discover what we need to."
"You quite frighten me Mr. Darcy!" exclaimed Elizabeth. "What is the dreadful secret of the handkerchief?" She was half joking, half serious with her betrothed.
"The handkerchief was brought to my valet, Fletcher, by a member of Bingley's house staff. Fletcher did not tell me who, and I did not press him - yet. We must determine the facts of the case before we involve anyone else. It could all be a simple misunderstanding, but I have some concerns. Bingley, at the very least, and one other person may have to be involved, depending on what we decide today."
Elizabeth really did start to be alarmed. She had been exposed to Darcy's sense of humor for long enough to know he was not joking. At the same time, his manner was serious but not grave, so the matter could not be TOO dreadful. She was also heartened by the fact he was consulting HER before he talked to anyone, and made it clear she would be part of the decision. It was wonderful to feel respected and to know he would involve her in his life.
"Why don't you give me the facts, as you know them?" asked Elizabeth. Darcy related what he had been told by his valet. Elizabeth could not help but exclaim when she heard that Miss Bingley had been hording the handkerchief.
"How very strange! How could she have gotten it? I was carrying it with me in my reticule in London, but how would she have found and taken the handkerchief from it? But there is no other way - I did not have it the entire time I was in London, and she would have had no other opportunities to take something from me. Do you suppose she goes through ladies belongings on a regular basis?"
"I cannot say. So, you believe she removed it from you reticule, during a visit at Bingley's town house?" He nodded at her affirmative. "I cannot be sure how she found it or why she took it, but I have some ideas."
Elizabeth smiled at him and suggested he share those ideas. She was still so astonished that she had not thought of all the implications, other than Miss Bingley was a thief and a snoop!
"I will say it would not be the first time an unmarried lady had attempted to abstract something they think belongs to me. I believe the term is "memento". I am not in the habit of leaving my belongings lying around, so other than a few books, I have not lost anything personal before. I don't know how Miss Bingley came across the handkerchief, but it was in London that she must have realized how much I preferred your company to anyone else's. If she made a habit of taking things, I'm sure word would have made it's way around - it always does. Society exists on gossip more than anything else. She may have taken advantage of an opportunity in order to find out more about you, and stumbled upon this." He brandished the cloth.
Elizabeth interrupted him. "The lemonade! We were visiting the Bingley's and she spilled lemonade on me! It did not spill on my dress, but my gloves and reticule were drenched. Miss Bingley conducted me to a guest room and stayed with me while I rinsed the gloves and went through the items in my reticule. She must have seen and taken it then!"
Now that it was mentioned, Darcy recalled the incident. "So, she has had it since August. Nothing was said to you about it?" He searched Elizabeth's eyes.
"Not a word, not a hint that I can recall." said Lizzy. She searched her memories of conversations, various arch comments and insults from Miss Bingley. None of them referred to the handkerchief in any way that she could see.
Darcy suggested the most plausible theory. "Perhaps she was jealous of what she saw as a token from me to you. I can only think she believed it was mine and wanted to deprive you of it. Perhaps she even hoped I would be upset if I found out you had "lost" my "token". I cannot think of any other reason she would have taken it and still have it."
Elizabeth agreed. "She has never looked closely at my or Jane's work, and at that time would definitely not be familiar with it. Miss Bingley would therefore not think that I might have made it and be too shy to give the handkerchief to it's clearly designated recipient. Still, I can think of another reason she kept it, after she took it."
Darcy looked surprised. "Why?"
"She wanted something of yours to sigh over. I cannot fault her taste either!" The cheeky smile showed briefly on Elizabeth's face and Darcy could hardly resist kissing it off her. He had been doing his best to remain on good behavior, but being alone with his darling Elizabeth only tempted him to behave in a most ungentlemanlike manner. When he shared that thought with Elizabeth, she started to laugh. He joined her laughter and laughed even more at her rejoinder.
"Ah, but Mr. Darcy! In you, ungentlemanlike behavior is most attractive!" He indulged, briefly, in said behavior at her implicit invitation.
Finally, after settling down a bit, he continued the handkerchief discussion. "If you are correct, she might miss the thing quite soon, or already miss it. In any case, I would like to keep it, even if you did not get a chance to present it to me. I do not think it indelicate to carry something made especially for me by my lovely fiancee. May I keep it?"
"Of course you may keep it, silly! I made it for you, and you finally have it though the path to you was a bit strange. In any case, I can see why you wanted to think about what to tell Mr. Bingley. Does he need to be told? I do not care much for Miss Bingley, but we really cannot lay anything but a bit of foolishness at her feet. Yes, it was very wrong of her to take it and keep it, but it is only a handkerchief. Also, can we prove she took it, that she kept it, that she meant anything by it? I find that very unlikely. I do not think we should even attempt it."
"So she should go unpunished for theft?" Darcy frowned.
"No, I just do not see what Charles can do about it. Why embarrass our soon-to-be brother over something so small? I do not see how was can raise the issue with Miss Bingley without getting someone in trouble. Whoever found it and brought it to Fletcher must be at risk of Miss Bingley getting her let go."
Darcy agreed that it would be unfair to harm the phantom servant. "However, I would be happy to hire the person if she were fired, or her working conditions made unpleasant. Mrs. Renyolds is always hiring new staff as our maids marry and retire."
"Why don't you just keep the handkerchief and display it prominently in front of Miss Bingley? You can watch for her reaction. That could be punishment enough, think how humiliated she will be and how she will wonder how it got into your hands - and if you know where it was before. She was also be furious if she finds out I made it and was therefore (technically) innocent at the time she took it from me."
They pondered Elizabeth's suggestion and Darcy agreed to it. He further suggested that he pull it out at a time that Elizabeth herself was present, to help him watch Miss Bingley's reaction (or, to enjoy it perhaps, though he did not state that unworthy sentiment). Elizabeth agreed and added that doing it in a group would prevent any outbursts from occurring, at least immediately. They finished their plan just in time to be rejoined by Mary and Jane. Elizabeth had been walking with her arm in Darcy's, but her sisters were getting cold. They wanted to go in, but were reluctant to pressure Lizzy. Lizzy knew what they must want and suggested that it was time to go in.
Elizabeth looked in to the mirror, well pleased with the results of the maid's work. She might never be a pretty as Jane, but she did look well tonight! Tiny silk flowers, cream ribbon and pearl pins made an intricate pattern in her curls. The cream dress was not brand-new, but had been refurbished. The result was elegant, but still appropriate for her age and unmarried (though engaged) situation.
The bustle in the family quarters of Longbourn had reached a fever pitch about a half-hour ago. As time drew near to actually leave, each sister finished her preparations and joined their father in the drawing room. When Lizzy joined her father she found Mary and Kitty waiting. Jane, having helped Mary prepare, was a little behind. Mrs. Bennet was seldom satisfied, as was Lydia so they were (predictably) going to be the last down. Soon after Lizzy went downstairs Jane also joined them. Exclamations on how well everyone looked came from the door when their mother finally graced the rest of the family with her presence. She bustled around the room telling everyone to hurry; they did not want to be late! A call for Lydia proved she had been on the stairs, ready to join the rest of the party.
Exiting the carriage at Netherfield, the first thing Elizabeth saw was Mr. Darcy, peering out a window at her and smiling. She gave him a small wave and knew he would be waiting as soon as they entered. It was as she expected. The receiving line of Mr. Bingley, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst (Mr. Hurst was hiding out near the wine decanters) was busy when they entered. Mr. Bingley greatly enjoyed calling his wife-to-be by her Christian name (a small impropriety that was not missed by his sisters) and greeting his in-laws to be. As they passed down the receiving line, Caroline mouthed polite nothings and looked to see if anyone of interest was arriving yet.
As the Bennets finished with the receiving line, Mr. Darcy and Miss Darcy joined the group. Jane put a restraining hand on Lydia when she attempted to head straight for the militia officers nearby.
"Lydia, wait with us for a few minutes. I am sure the officers will notice our arrival soon and will join us. A lady does not attempt to garner attention."
"But I want to dance with Denny and Sanderson!" Lydia almost whined. As her voice rose, Mary shushed her with a small motion. Lydia abruptly dropped her voice, but continued. "If I don't go see them, all the other girls will get the best dances and I may have to sit a dance out!"
"Never fear Lydia! I have no doubt your dance card will be filled in very little time." laughed Lizzy. "We need to move further in to make room for more arrivals, but that does not mean we need to go straight to the officers. Look, there is room over by Charlotte." The path Lizzy mentioned would take the group right past the officers. Lydia looked pleased until Miss King and Mrs. Long's nieces sauntered over to the group of men.
Before Lydia could complain, Mr. Darcy offered an arm to Elizabeth and another to Georgiana. He led the way over to the spot indicated, allowing the rest of his family-to-be to follow - or not - as they liked. Mr. Bennet wandered over with the group both to keep an eye on his wife and to watch how the officers reacted to his bevy of females. As opportunities to laugh at his family decreased, he found even more pleasure at watching for the follies in those outside his family circle.
Elizabeth greeted her friend and struck up a conversation with Charlotte. Kitty, Georgiana and Maria Lucas attempted to converse, while watching the growing crowd. As expected, several officers (who had noticed the Bennet Beauties as soon at they had entered the room) untangled themselves from the lesser ladies and made their way over to beg for dances. Jane and Elizabeth were both engaged for the first and second and the dinner dances (Bingley had learned his lesson), but a few dances with an officer or two was certainly welcome. Soon, the crowd grew around the Bennets and their friends, as more gentlemen and officers joined the group seeking dance partners for the evening.
Darcy and Bingley had resigned themselves to the fact that their lovely fiancée's would be busy for the evening, and had planned accordingly. Both had been gentlemen enough to engage their sisters-to-be for a dance each as well. Neither would have much time left over for dancing with anyone else, once Georgiana, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst and Miss Lucas were also accounted for. However busy Mr. Darcy and Bingley were going to be that evening, the officers apparently were eager to out-do them. Before the ball was ready to open, even Mary only had a few dances left open. There was little doubt that none of the sisters would have to sit out a dance if they chose not to.
Sir William's cries of "Capital! Capital" and other familiar noises greeted the end of the first dance. Mr. Darcy had hardly been aware of the noise during the dance - eyes (and ears) devoted to his darling Elizabeth. Bingley, who could not contain his joy at opening his first ball (that he had thrown) at his own estate (even if it was only leased) with his angelic Jane, was completely unaware. He had to be prodded to trade partners with Darcy.
The second dance allowed the four to pay a little more attention to their surroundings. All the Bennet sisters were dancing, as was Miss Bingley. Mrs. Hurst was gossiping with a few other married ladies. The ball seemed to be going well, from the amount of laughter and smiles to be seen. Time passed quickly, heralding the final dance before supper.
Darcy finished a dance with Georgiana, then turned her over to Mr. Bennet. He felt that Mr. Bennet would keep an eye on her. He knew they actually enjoyed one another's company, so Darcy could then turn all his attention to the dinner dance with Elizabeth.
He joyfully claimed Elizabeth from a group of friends relaxing together until the next dance. When looking over the line, it was clear that Bingley had been even faster - he and Jane were further up from them. Elizabeth enjoyed a good laugh at Darcy's expense as he completely missed bits of conversation. He was too busy being captivated by Lizzy's "fine eyes". His explanation for his abstracted air was accepted, but Elizabeth scolded him into a proper sense of location. "You may be dazzled by my beauty when we are alone, but in company you must attempt to be aware of your surroundings! Imagine what could happen if you were run down by a wrong turn!" Darcy smiled at her high spirits and admitted that he could attend her words for the evening instead of merely admiring her fine looks.
Elsewhere in the room...
Miss Bingley was having a dreadful evening. Several of the officers had the impertinence to ask her for a dance! She had no choice but to accept in several cases, as she wanted to claim her dance with Mr. Darcy after supper. Still, the nerve of them! They were all fortune hunters, that much was clear! On top of having to deal with officers (who were most likely younger sons after all...), she had to deal with the self-important nothings who considered themselves the elite of Hertfordshire. How dreadfully dull! Watching her brother cooing over Jane Bennet just made things worse. She had not dared look at Mr. Darcy and Eliza, fearing her composure would not stand up to such a strain upon it. Supper was a welcome relief from the tedium.
The seating arrangements for supper had been left to Miss Bingley, as the lady of the house. She had done the seating according to the rules of society and was very displeased, upon seating herself, to see that SOMEONE had taken it upon themselves to rearrange some of the tables!
Mr. and Miss Darcy were supposed to be with her, but instead Darcy brought Miss Elizabeth with him. Georgiana, who Darcy had ALWAYS refused to be separated from when they were away from home, was sitting down with a group of Bennets and a local squire! A quick look indicated that several other tables had similar, minor changes! Who had switched the cards? (Fletcher and Alice would never tell ;-)
Darcy greeted Miss Bingley politely enough as he seated Elizabeth next to himself. He took his seat between the ladies and applied himself to the excellent food provided. Elizabeth chatted cheerfully enough to the group, though she mostly avoided Miss Bingley's darts. About three-quarters of the way through the meal, she gave Darcy a sidelong glance and waved her napkin briefly. He seemed to smile briefly back to her. While smiling, he accidentally tipped his glass of wine. A little spilled out. His napkin and Elizabeth's were employed to prevent the mess from spreading.
Profuse apologies ensured the entire table was now looking on. Mr. Darcy (always the gentleman) immediately pulled out his handkerchief and offered it to Elizabeth in place of her napkin. Several ladies sighed at Mr. Darcy's chivalry. Elizabeth accepted it, after admiring the beautiful pattern on it. Miss Bingley grew pale as she recognized the item. It was exactly the same as the one that had resided in her desk since her arrival at Netherfield - and was now missing from her possession! Was it the same handkerchief?
The general conversation washed over her, as Caroline considered the implications of Mr. Darcy having regained the handkerchief. Neither he, nor Miss Elizabeth, seemed aware of her interest. Darcy acted in no way as though it was significant - Elizabeth as though she had never seen it before. THAT made Caroline more suspicious. The silly thing had been in Eliza's reticule! If she cared enough to carry it around, she must be aware of what it looked like! Besides that - who had returned it to Darcy, and what story did they tell him?
She dithered for the rest of the evening. Her dance with Mr. Darcy was completely spoiled. He confessed to being tired and made little conversation. Normally, Caroline would have taken the opportunity to be sparkling and witty, buy she couldn't do it this time. Instead, she agreed that it had been a long night and she was tired also. They completed the dance and went their own ways, Caroline to a chair, Darcy straight to Elizabeth (after he had seated Caroline and enquired if she wanted a drink).
Fortunately, the crowd soon started to thin (this being the country). Caroline was back in the hall, standing with her brother, to say good-bye to their guests. Naturally, the Bennets were there until the end, with Bingley chatting to Jane in between farewells to other guests.
Finally, Caroline was alone in her room. Bed had never been more welcome! Caroline was still preoccupied with the handkerchief incident. It was clear her attempts to get Darcy upset had failed. Caroline had never seen him so at ease in company - and among such people! He had conversed with high and low, danced nearly every dance and yet he paid no real attention to any lady but Elizabeth all evening. She, in turn, had danced and chatted with many gentlemen, but always returned her focus to Mr. Darcy. Their actions over dinner spoke of an accord and premeditation. She did not want to believe it, but it was obvious that Mr. Darcy, at the very least, knew where his handkerchief had resided for the past two months. The charade over the napkins had clearly been a chance to send her a message. Caroline was not stupid - the message had been received, however reluctantly. She would make no more attempts on Darcy or to discredit Miss Elizabeth.
As she lay there, Caroline reflected bitterly on her failure. There was nothing to do but cut her losses. She would remain friendly to Georgiana, and pay every courtesy to Jane and Elizabeth. Otherwise, she might find herself cut out of society she craved.
It took most of the local gentry a day or two to recover from the Netherfield Ball. It was a small consolation to Miss Bingley to be heralded as the engineer of the finest event of the season (locally speaking).
The neighbourhood soon returned to what passed for normal daily routine. Netherfield and Longbourn went on with the plans for a simple, yet lovely, double wedding. Col. Fitzwilliam (Darcy's cousin) appeared with instructions from his family to give them a full description of Darcy's bride and her family. Lady Catherine did not appear, but a thoroughly unpleasant letter did. Mr. Bennet laughed with the family over the letter he received from Mr. Collins and cheered the gossipy nature of the Lucas'. Darcy was not amused.
The day he received his aunt's letter (two days after the ball), he arrived at Longbourn and begged a walk with Elizabeth. Darcy, furious over his aunt's behavior, wanted to cut the connection with his aunt. Elizabeth's objected, worried that he would later regret the estrangement.
"You do not know her as I do. I will allow you to make decisions regarding your own family, but permit me to make decisions on mine based on my own experience. My aunt has long held the fond delusion that I would eventually be nagged into marrying my cousin Anne. Now that she is sure that I will not, her temper is beyond imagining. I have never been fond of Aunt Catherine. Her idea of an ideal marriage is one that brings together property and ancient names. She has absolutely no concern for whether the parties involved in the marriage actually care for one another, or are suited, at all. Quite honestly, Georgiana could not be more pleased than if Aunt Catherine never speaks to EITHER of us again. She has always terrified and dictated to Georgy.
"Yes, well, I gathered as much from our cousin, Mr. Collins. Did you know he is the clergyman for Lady Catherine's parish?"
"That fact has not escaped my notice. I am quite aware as to my Aunt's source of information. I cannot imagine that you are sorry that he will most likely be told to have nothing to do with you or your family in the future. After all, is it not he that sent you stumbling into my arms?" Darcy's anger was dissipating, as it always did in Elizabeth's presence. The smile he gave Elizabeth was genuine.
She had to laugh, remembering the scene at the coaching inn, his arms around her, protecting her from the crowd of disorderly men. "Yes, he did indeed. I'm not sure I dare share that piece of information. Your aunt would have the bother of hiring a new clergyman, as the one she had died of an apoplexy! I'm sure Mr. Collins really believed it when he told us we would regret our failure to appreciate him, as we would have few if any further chances at marriage!"
Darcy could hardly believe this and started laughing. "You must be joking. He could not have said such a thing to your face!"
"I assure you, he did! Unfortunately, my mother agreed with him, making things very uncomfortable here at home. Our father supported Jane and I, and so we left for our visit with our aunt and uncle in London. I am sure we told you of this, in the coach!"
"Oh, you did! I think you did not share quite the same level of detail, however. After all, we had only met Elizabeth!"
"True. When I think back to that trip, I can only wonder that you were not terribly shocked at my dreadful behavior!"
"Fascinated, perhaps, by a lady who stood up for her convictions. That is a rare commodity in this day and age, I assure you."
"What, convictions or ladies who have them?" was Lizzy's arch comment.
"Both! Enough of this, you have blunted my anger with my aunt. I will reply, but do not take it amiss when she cuts the connection Elizabeth. It is no great loss, I assure you. My cousin Richard Fitzwilliam is a fine judge of character and I can tell he likes you. He will pass on a favorable description to his parents and older brother. My aunt and uncle Mattock are not overly fond of Lady Catherine either, and will not let her dictate to them whom to like or admit into the family circle. In no way is my choice of bride is up to them. Uncle has been twitting me for several years to get married, so he should be pleased - even more so when he actually meets you! No one with sense could fail to appreciate your many fine qualities, my love."
Elizabeth could not help but be reassured by this support. She was a little nervous that his family would object to the match. Whatever worth she had was intangible, and Elizabeth knew that for most families it would matter a great deal that she came without a dowry. She was fond of her own family and would hate to be the cause of problems with Darcy's.
The date for the wedding had been set. A double wedding in the Longbourn chapel on the 3rd Wednesday of December, the week before Christmas. Mrs. Bennet continued to cause complications for the couples, always with the best of intentions.
Mrs. Bennet had been determined that Darcy should get a special license to marry Elizabeth with. It took Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth together to convince her that it was a bad idea. "But my dear, he is so rich! As good as a lord! Of course you should be married by special license!"
"Mama, Mr. Darcy is considerably BETTER than a lord, because he loves me! It is not a slight to me that we want to post the banns, Mama."
Mr. Bennet gave Lizzy the 'let me deal with this' look. "Mrs. Bennet, there are normally only two reasons one would use a special license. The first is to hurry a wedding along, the second to make an unnecessary fuss. Gossip will explore both reasons, neither of which is a credit to our daughter or her young man. Let them post the banns, as Jane and Bingley are doing. As they want a double wedding, it makes sense. They do want to overshadow their friend and sister. I do not want to give ill-natured gossip any more fodder. This is my decision, madam." He gave his wife one more look.
"If it must be. But is all very annoying!" she capitulated. Mrs. Bennet never remained subdued for long. Soon she was discussing the annoying problem of flowers for a December wedding.
Elizabeth had enough for one morning. She gathered her sisters for a walk to Meryton. A walk in the woods might be more to her taste, but there was no reason to refuse her younger sisters all their fun. Aunt Phillips was always eager to see her nieces, and with the weddings coming up she was actually useful in giving bits of advice in planning. She could also, with some subtle influence by Jane or Lizzy, be brought to their opinion on various matters. This was of great assistance in convincing Mrs. Bennet on several minor issues that had almost become contentious.
Lydia bounced and chattered the whole way to Meryton. Lizzy and Jane exchanged grins and let her. The family had decided that to get the best results with Lydia (who was after all, not yet sixteen), it was necessary to allow her some time to be boisterous and silly. She was young, after all. The best way to manage her was a combination of allowing her some time to be wild (such as during a walk where she could be noisy, jump about, etc.) balanced with time devoted to clearly rewarded improvements.
As they neared the town, Lydia settled down somewhat. Lizzy was pleased that Lydia did not have to be reminded this time. They were walking down the main street when Lydia and Kitty's attention was devoted to the window displays'. The group of officers across the street helped pull them away. The officers crossed the street to join the ladies and give them greetings. With them was an unfamiliar man, not in uniform. He was quite handsome, but without a uniform he could not compete with Denny or the other officers. He was introduced as Mr. Wickham.
The group engaged in agreeable conversation where it was revealed that Mr. Wickham was an acquaintance of Denny's from London. While discussing the pleasing possibility of Mr. Wickham joining the regiment, Jane's attention was pulled away. Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy were riding into Meryton and had spotted the Bennet sisters. They drew up to the group, ready to dismount and make their greetings.
Elizabeth could not help but notice brief spurt of fear that played over Mr. Wickham's face, or the anger that suffused Mr. Darcy's. Wickham blanched when Mr. Darcy was mentioned as being Miss Elizabeth's fiancée. He shortly after made excuses and left the group. The other officers followed. Elizabeth wanted to be discreet, but it was clear Darcy was furious. She pulled him aside.
"What is the matter. You obviously know Mr. Wickham..."
"He is the lowest scoundrel that exists and I cannot bear the sight of him. I do not want you talking to him, and for heaven's sake, keep any decent young woman away from him! He is a bounder and a cad - the worst sort you can imagine."
The intense voice (if not the words) and Elizabeth's shocked expression drew the rest of the party to them. "Lizzy! What is the matter?" Jane asked, taking hold of her sister's arm.
Elizabeth turned to her family and suggested that they should walk home. This was surprising, as they had just come. Mary, Kitty and Lydia went on to their Aunt Phillips, while Bingley and Darcy escorted Jane and Lizzy home. They left their horses with the local livery stable.
As they removed from town, Darcy took a few steadying breaths. He then gave much of the story of his previous acquaintance with Wickham. He left out the attempt on his sister, confining himself to knowledge of Wickham's attempt to elope with a young woman of fortune and his unrepentant behavior when stopped. His imprudent behavior at and after school, his demands for money. His absolute refusal to accept a living with the church and his financial arrangements made in lieu of. The others gasped and murmured, but did not interrupt. At the end of the shocking discourse, Elizabeth was quite sure of one more thing - Wickham was the man who had tried to elope with Georgiana and had hurt her so badly. No wonder Darcy was upset!
"Should you inform Col. Forrester?" Jane asked. She did not want to damage someone without cause, but she respected Darcy too much to doubt his story. "We do not want him to misrepresent himself!"
Darcy hesitated. Elizabeth was quite sure why he did so and decided to help him. "I think not. He knows Mr. Darcy is in the neighborhood and could inform all of us of Mr. Wickham's true nature. If he has any sense of self-preservation, he will leave and look to join another regiment if he wants to be part of the military."
Darcy looked relieved and agreed to wait a few days and see if Wickham lingered or left the neighborhood. As soon as they arrived with the ladies at Longbourn, Darcy declared he had forgotten some business at home. He borrowed a horse from the Bennets and went straight back to Netherfield. If nothing else, he was going to be sure that Georgiana was warned to stay home for a few days!
As Darcy expected, Georgiana became upset and withdrawn when hearing of Wickham's appearance in the neighborhood. She worried that her reputation would be destroyed, that her brother would be forced to defend her honor, that Lizzy might find out and despise her. All her brother's reassurances did little to help. She retired to her room with a "headache" and Darcy had to deal with the heartache her depression gave him.
The next day was better, for a multitude of reasons. Lydia, Kitty and Mary had returned from Meryton with the news that Denny had appeared just after they left their aunt's. He had informed them that Wickham had decided against joining the regiment after hearing about the cost of a commission. He would be leaving the neighborhood on the morrow.
Elizabeth could do nothing about it that night, but she decided an early call at Netherfield was appropriate the next day. With Jane as company, she set off immediately after an early breakfast.
"Heavens, is it not enough that we see them every day, but that they must come here before breakfast!" Louisa muttered to her sister as the Bennets were shown in.
Bingley greeted them quite warmly and informed his beloved and sister-to-be that Darcy would be down shortly. Jane was a little embarrassed at arriving before the household had eaten, so the sisters asked to sit in the drawing room until the party had breakfasted. Bingley had no choice but to agree or upset his angel.
Darcy had heard a little of the commotion and asked a servant on his way down what had happened. On hearing that Elizabeth was in the drawing room, he detoured on his way to breakfast. Lizzy lost no time in giving him the good news.
"Will, we have good news! Mr. Wickham declined to join the militia, citing lack of funds for the commission. He is to leave the area today."
"Are you sure?" Darcy asked. He felt a great weight lifted off his chest. He was so worried about Georgiana, and now he would not have to!
Jane answered in her composed fashion. "Our sisters brought us the news when they returned from our aunt's. It was too late to let you know yesterday. Lieutenant Denny told them himself."
They sisters heard Darcy's sigh of relief. Elizabeth squeezed his hand in a show of support then suggested he go have some breakfast.
"In a moment." He disappeared upstairs. Jane was rather surprised, but his behavior only confirmed Elizabeth's suspicion as to Wickham's former (attempted) relationship with Georgiana. To quiet any ideas Jane might have she sat down and started discussing some of the more difficult issues with their mother over the wedding. A possible trip to London for dresses and other necessities was under discussion when the Bingley's joined them. The rest of the Netherfield party (with the exception of Mr. Hurst who was still in bed) joined them soon after.
Tired of spending time with the Bennets, Caroline Bingley eagerly supported a move to town, even a short term one. "Indeed, Charles! It is most desirable! There is nothing to do here, and so many things we need before the wedding. Louisa and I need new dresses, and Dear Jane of course must have wedding clothes. You should have a new suit made, and I am sure no one in Meryton can compare to your London tailor!"
As long as it was understood that he was going to continue to see Jane daily, Bingley was agreeable. Darcy, who could foresee some unwelcome interruptions to their now-daily visits if they were in London decided to keep quiet. He did have some shopping to do before the wedding. It was also important that Elizabeth have everything she needed. Besides, he was looking forward to meeting the Gardiner family again.
When approached, Mrs. Bennet was quite enthusiastic about the nebulous plan. A visit to London! All the best shops! A chance to show off her soon-to-be sons to her brother and sister-in-law! There was a serious threat of undoing nearly all the hard work of weeks, but sense (and Mr. Bennet) soon stepped in.
"Mrs. Bennet, a SMALL shopping trip and visit to the Gardiners is a fine idea. I do not see the need to drag the entire family to town, however. Jane and Lizzy can go together. I see no need for you to accompany them." It was difficult for Mr. Bennet to keep his promise to himself - he could not help but tease his wife when she got into a tizzy.
"MR. BENNET! How could you suggest such a thing! They cannot go to London on their own! What would people think?!? Besides, I need to be with them to choose their wedding clothes. They are only girls - they do not know where the best warehouses are, or understand their coming needs as wives and the mistress of fine estates! Someone must be there to help them!"
"And I'm sure our sister Gardiner would be more than happy to do so. You have quite enough to do here with plans for the wedding. They have already gone to London on their own - by post no less!" There were clear signs that Mrs. Bennet was preparing to explode. "Do not worry my dear. I am only teasing you. I would not allow the girls to go to London on their own."
Mrs. Bennet sighed in relief and once again started to make plans. Mr. Bennet interrupted. "Mrs. Bennet, you might wish to consult me before you finish making your plans. I have some information that might be of use to you."
"What is it, Mr. Bennet? I need to hurry with these plans - we really should leave for London as soon as possible! We will need time for dresses to be made up and to be home again at least a week before the wedding."
"Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley are taking their carriages to London. They have offered me two places in their carriages for our daughters, if we choose to take them."
Mrs. Bennet started to gush, but stopped when her husband raised his hand. "This does not mean you may take along the rest of our daughters, or even go to London yourself - this time. I am serious in thinking Mrs. Gardiner can help our daughters with their shopping. There is a great deal to be done, and I do not see how you can do everything, my dear. Make a list of things to be bought in London and send it with me. I promise to have Edward and Madeleine help me with the purchases. That will leave you free to concentrate on the meal, decorations, seating plans, musicians and entertainment's here. I can go to London to meet with lawyers and finish the agreements with Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley. You can involve Mary, Kitty and Lydia in the wedding plans - teach them how to create one of your excellent events. They have had very little training from you in that, as you know. Jane and Lizzy have almost exclusively helped you in the past. They will not be with us much longer, and the younger girls need to feel involved."
Mrs. Bennet protested the plan at first, but by that evening she had come around. Lizzy was particularly amused at her mother's way of seeing things. Mrs. Bennet alternated between congratulating herself for creation of such a sensible plan (one that allowed the most amount of work to be done in the limited time before the double wedding) and praising Mr. Bennet for being such a devoted and kind father. He was so concerned over her own workload, he was willing to travel (and they all knew how he hated to leave home) to make the settlements on his daughters, he was kind and thoughtful in all ways!
Mr. Bennet wrote to the Gardiners' that night and sent the letter off early the next morning. He wanted to be sure they did not arrive unexpectedly.
Lizzy and Jane communicated with the Netherfield party the next day. Their father would be taking them to London in two days time. They would be staying with the Gardiners, as before. They expected to spend no more than two weeks in London.
"Perfect! That fits in perfectly with my schedule!" Bingley chortled when he read the note.
"It should, Bingley. You are creating your schedule to fit the Bennets!" agreed Darcy.
"Yes, well, you don't want to spend all that time without Jane and Elizabeth I'm sure!"
"No, I do not. Please do not forget that we have a great deal to do. Most of our time will be taken up with business. Seeing lawyers, getting fitted for new clothes, picking out presents for our ladies... we will not have much time for socializing."
"Our evenings will be free! We can get tickets to the opera or perhaps a play. I'm sure the Bennets and Gardiners would be happy to go with us! There are plenty of amusements in London at this time of year."
"Yes, there are. I will be bringing Georgiana with me, however, and that limits the events we can attend. She can go to the theatre, an art gallery, maybe the opera. Nothing questionable, no balls or large assemblies." Darcy kept in mind Bingley's social nature. Both men always received a large number of invitations as soon as they arrived in London - even if Darcy tried to keep his presence quiet.
"Who wants to go to large, crowed balls and assemblies? We would end up spending the time introducing our ladies and watching other men dance with them! At least here in the country, you may dance a few more times with your lady and spend a little time together without interfering busybodies. Do you really want to sit in the Gardiner's parlour every evening under our esteemed father-in-law-to-be's gimlet eyes? Or would you rather take the ladies out for some amusement and hopefully distract him a little bit?"
Darcy sighed his capitulation. "Oh all right." He grinned at his friend in sudden realization. "You have become quite the strategist since meeting Miss Bennet. Who knew love would have such an improving effect? If only you could turn that mind to the problem of Napoleon!"
Bingley laughed and agreed that Miss Bennet had a most improving effect on him. "Perhaps in any good match it is natural, even inevitable that one become improved. Jane is an angel and deserves only the best. Since she is willing to settle for me, I must strive to become more than I am."
Darcy turned serious. "She is also most fortunate, Charles. You are a fine person..." Bingley attempted to modestly interrupt, but Darcy waved it away. "Anyone with your good nature and happy disposition is a great find to a young woman. I have no doubt you will be very happy together - as will Elizabeth and I!"
The sincere smile that Charles turned on his friend was answer enough. Bingley appreciated the support his best friend gave him. "Still, you are correct in thinking that our ladies are the finest ever! We owe it to them to be the best husbands we may be - or become. Indeed, you are right in thinking that we should strive to ever improve. With Elizabeth at my side, I doubt I will have any other choice. Nor will you if Jane Bennet continues with her lovely example!"
They both laughed and finished discussing what amusements were available in London. Darcy insisted on having his secretary order tickets for various events that they agreed upon.
The results of the strategy session were communicated privately to Jane and Lizzy the next day. Both assured their gentlemen that they would go prepared for any and all events the men could think up.
Mr. Bennet studied his eldest daughters as they traveled towards London on Monday morning. They had risen early and left before the rest of the household was awake, so the girls had done without extended grooming - a waste of time when one was travelling in any case. Even with the simplest of hairstyles and plain gowns meant for travelling, they were beautiful. It reminded Mr. Bennet of how lovely Mrs. Bennet had been in her youth.
Jane had her mother's paler coloring and the good humor of her youth. Mrs. Bennet's milder behavior of late and the decrease of petulant whining had improved Mr. Bennet's feelings about her. Seeing Jane sitting there with a sleepy expression reminded him what his wife had once been like. He regretted his lack of attention more than ever. With a sigh, and a promise to do better, he pulled his thoughts back to the work at hand.
"We will be in London for a late luncheon. I doubt any of us will be up to extended work today after we have eaten." Mr. Bennet announced.
Lizzy smiled at her father. "No, father, I think we will speak with our aunt as to our needs. We can them plan our shopping in the most efficient way possible. I think tomorrow will be fine for our actual shopping."
The smile of Jane's face grew as she watched her father and sister plan their visit. Lizzy had dismissed any further discussion of wedding-things and was busy discussing the cultural opportunities in London. Art galleries, opera and theatre, bookshops and other such amusements filled their discussion. No firm plans were made, but Jane knew both of them well. Given the opportunity they would use all free time in London for intellectual pastimes. Well, perhaps Mr. Bennet would. Lizzy would make sure the book shopping and art gallery viewing included her Mr. Darcy...
Time passed quickly. After a few short stops they reached London in the early afternoon. Stiff from the ride and chilled through all were happy to see Mrs. Gardiner when they arrived at Gracechurch Street. After a brief stop in their rooms to wash and change, the family gathered over hot tea and food. As predicted, Madeleine Gardiner had many useful ideas for what the girls needed and where they might find the items. Mr. Bennet relaxed, knowing he would have to face lawyers and bankers the next day. He remembered Shakespeare's quote "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers". It was a sentiment he heartily agreed with.
Still, sensible conversation with his brother-in-law after dinner reconciled Mr. Bennet to his duty. Going over his accounts at home, Mr. Bennet had earmarked funds for his daughters' purchases over the next few days. He would also make arrangements to sign over the money that belonged to the girls on their marriages and their parents' deaths (as little as it was). After that, Mr. Bennet knew he would have little to do but amuse himself until Jane and Lizzy had finished their shopping. They should be ready to head home within two weeks, with any luck.
The Bingley party left a little later in the morning. Getting Mr. Hurst moving early (unless shooting was involved) was never easy. Out of courtesy, Charles felt he had to accompany his sisters and brother-in-law, so he waited and traveled with them. Even with short rest stops and a meal, the trip seemed to last forever. Charles, soul of kindness that he was, could not stop himself from wishing he had left earlier with Mr. Darcy and Georgiana. They had risen early and would go with minimal stops directly to their townhouse in London.
At least Caroline and Louisa were in a good mood. The conversation, primarily concerned with fashion, dressmakers and who might be in town held little interest for Charles Bingley. It was still a huge improvement over sullen silence or nasty remarks.
Darcy and Georgiana enjoyed the trip back to London. "You must be so tired of travelling." Georgiana said to her brother.
"Not at all, when my company is so congenial." was his charming reply. He proceeded to use the time to catch up on personal opinions with her. Darcy had a great deal of respect for his little sister and realized that she would develop a better understanding of people if given the opportunity to meet a variety of people. If she was respected and spoken to as a thinking person, she would learn to develop her own opinions and ideas. After spending time with Elizabeth Bennet, Darcy would not have it any other way.
Brother and sister enjoyed their time together, but both were still grateful to reach London. What was left of the day was spent in resting, eating and preparing for the next day.
As planned, Mr. Bennet met Mr. Darcy at his solicitors first thing the next morning. Mr. Darcy had written to Mr. Goldberg, so all the paperwork was ready. The two men read through all the papers and discussed anything they needed to. Mr. Bennet protested, just once, the generosity Mr. Darcy was showing. He gave in quickly when Mr. Darcy pointed out that Mr. Bennet was the one who would be the poorer for loosing his daughter. Mr. Bennet could only agree, and soon signed the papers.
They adjourned to lunch at Darcy's club, where Mr. Bingley joined them. After a hearty lunch, Darcy returned home while Mr. Bingley and Mr. Bennet discussed the settlements on Jane.
The Bennet sisters spent an enjoyable morning shopping with their aunt. She was sympathetic to their needs. Mrs. Bennet had fine taste - all her girls had to admit they were normally well attired. The problem was, they were changing their status. What an unmarried gentleman's daughter might wear and what a wealthy man's wife would wear were quite different. Mrs. Gardiner would supply the taste, while remembering that Jane and Lizzy would not be interested in showing off their new wealth. Mrs. Bennet would have encouraged them to buy the most expensive gowns, without thought of what they actually needed (or what they could afford from what their father had provided).
Mrs. Gardiner had also started supplying some information on the duties of a married woman that did not encompass housekeeping. She was delicate, knowing her nieces would be embarrassed; but Madeleine Gardiner knew she could not depend on her sister-in-law to inform Jane and Lizzy in a coherent fashion what to expect from marriage. Neither girl was stupid - they had to have an idea. It remained that a general idea (from their mother) versus a few specific pieces of necessary information (from their much younger aunt) were very different.
The ladies arrived home at Gracechurch Street to find tea, Mr. Bennet and a couple of notes. Tea was very welcome, Mr. Bennets amused comments on their shopping somewhat less so. The notes were the most welcome of all - one came from Mr. Darcy inviting the Gardiners and Bennets to the opera in two nights, the other from Mr. Bingley, asking them to dinner the next night. Mrs. Gardiner assured her nieces that both invitations were delightful and informed her husband of their commitments as soon as he arrived home.
"Ah me!" sighed Mr. Bennet. "It seems I am forced to survive the whirl of gaiety that London extrudes. I don't suppose we will have any time for a game of chess?" he appealed to his brother-in-law.
"Of course I will have time for chess with you!" was the amused reply. "We will have a game or two tonight, and there will be plenty of time over the next few days, I am sure. We can play while the ladies are preparing for the opera or for dinner, for example."
Mr. Bennet perked up, realizing that the ladies in question would NOT be creating an uproar while getting ready, therefore making the possibility of a game more likely.