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Excessively Attentive - Chapter 30

August 27, 2023 01:31AM

After a morning of being fitted for her ball gown, Elizabeth felt she was perfectly within her rights to visit the Gardiners early. She and Jane brought along clothing for the evening, as they were to dine there, as well.

The servants had taken their minimal luggage upstairs while Mrs. Gardiner led the way to the nursery to visit the children. “Was it truly so bad, Lizzy?” Mrs. Gardiner queried. She thought she was concealing her frustration better than that.

“Indeed, it was not,” Jane replied as Elizabeth groaned theatrically.

“Perhaps not for you, dearest sister,” Elizabeth grumbled. “But I felt like the prize peacock being primped for display.”

Mrs. Gardiner laughed. “Well, that would not be far from the truth, either, my dear. Are you due back before dinner?”

“No,” the girls replied together.

“Mère said we were free to spend the afternoon visiting with our family,” Elizabeth expanded. “She and Anne have some legal business to review with Lord Matlock regarding Rosings.”

“Fortunate for me, for I have missed my favourite nieces,” replied Mrs. Gardiner, “but I do hope it is not too onerous a task.”

“I believe it was a routine enough task. She did not seem troubled by it,” Elizabeth shrugged.

“Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy are invited to dine tonight, are they not?” Jane asked, as they settled in with the children. Elizabeth was promptly swarmed for hugs and kisses, and a book produced for her to read.

“Yes, Mr. Bingley and his sister, and Mr. Darcy and his sister, are invited.” Mrs. Gardiner asked. “Several of our friends are expected to join us.”

“The usual suspects?” Elizabeth asked, between paragraphs being read off.

“Yes,” Mrs. Gardiner chuckled.

The afternoon was spent in pleasant conversation and minor tasks related to preparing for the dinner. Jane and Elizabeth retired to their borrowed room to prepare with the assistance of their aunt’s maid. If the maid noticed more effort on either girl’s part to prepare for one of these dinners, she kindly forbore mentioning it.

Mrs. Gardiner’s guests, including the Darcys and Bingleys, all arrived surprisingly promptly. Based on the looks Mrs. Gardiner and the girls received when their friends observed the tall form of Mr. Darcy enter with his sister, followed by the slighter Mr. Bingley and his sister, the gossip was already at work in their circle, as well.

With her guests announced, Mrs. Gardiner carried out the task of introducing the Darcys and Bingleys to their friends. Elizabeth noted with interest at how many faces carefully blanked as Miss Bingley was introduced to them. She was, on the whole, received with a brittle, icy politeness by all of the women, and distant wariness by the gentlemen. None of those present claimed a previous acquaintance, and Elizabeth wondered just how much damage Miss Bingley had caused the Bingley name. She hoped that, should Jane assume the name, it was easily resolved.

As soon as the introductions were completed, William and Georgiana gravitated to Elizabeth’s side. “Elizabeth,” Georgiana cried, as she enthusiastically hugged her. “I had anticipated you seeing at my aunt’s first.”

Elizabeth laughed. “Instead of mine, indeed,” she agreed. “Given I am at fault for Jane’s desertion of our aunt’s company this past fortnight or so, we felt it only fair she gain the temporary company of two nieces instead of one.”

William’s greeting of her was more circumspect than it had been of late, friendly and solicitous, but no more. Elizabeth felt the difference keenly, and chastised herself for it. She answered in kind, with a smile just for him. While they could not banter as they would in a family gathering, William remained near her and his sister. Mr. Gardiner and a friend of his, Mr. Rothschild, joined them, and the group chatted about their overlapping business pursuits and journeying abroad. Elizabeth listened attentively, asking questions to draw out better descriptions of places she had only read about.

Miss Bingley and Mr. Bingley stood with Jane near the pianoforte. Mrs. Gardiner joined that group, and what Elizabeth could overhear, they were discussing music. The glances being thrown in that direction were politely curious about, if Elizabeth had to guess, the friendliness of the conversation.

When dinner was announced, William offered to escort both Georgiana and Elizabeth to the table, and Elizabeth accepted his arm. Mrs. Gardiner had chosen to allow everyone to sit as they felt comfortable, and thus Elizabeth found herself seated with William on one side, an older couple of Mr. Gardiner’s acquaintance on her other, and the Bingleys, with Jane, across. Jane sat to her uncle’s side. The dinner itself was excellent, and the conversation generally jovial. Miss Bingley’s behaviour was more akin to that when she had been entertaining an ill Jane in her room at Netherfield than any time Elizabeth had ever seen her. She hoped it was less studied than it had been previously.
Between courses, Miss Bingley spoke with Elizabeth. “How often did you come to London to stay here, Miss Elizabeth?”

“Generally a few fortnights at a time, sometimes during the Season, sometimes the Little Season,” Elizabeth responded. “Given the varied contacts my aunt and uncle have, from their various pursuits, Jane and I often found as much to learn during these dinner parties as we could from books at home. We rarely stayed at the same time, though.”

“I find I miss town when I am staying in the country,” Miss Bingley said. “The society lends itself to more variation.”

It was a far politer version of what she had once opined in the parlour at Netherfield, and without Mrs. Bennet to interrupt, Elizabeth felt better able to respond. “I recall you saying as much previously, yes. I still stand by my comment that, as people change and grow, the individuals themselves allow for much variation, albeit perhaps on a slower timeframe. But even in town, society is only part of the charms of a given location. Here, there are plays and museums, and gardens beyond compare. I have spent many hours in them, whenever my aunt or uncle could spare the time themselves, experiencing these.”

“To be sure,” Miss Bingley laughed. “There are many fashionable places to be seen at in London.”

Elizabeth shook her head and smiled. “The whims of fashion have rarely held my attention. The world is simply too fascinating for me to ignore.”

Miss Bingley raised an eyebrow. “I once thought you were the sort to run off with gypsies. But perhaps you would be more tempted by the bluestockings.”

Elizabeth grinned in self-depreciation. “My mother often claimed that, although I only recall one incident where I tried to go with the gypsies.”

“Twice,” Jane replied, her expression suddenly clouded. “It was twice, as I recall, and you were insisting they had to help you find something.” Elizabeth noted Mrs. Gardiner’s expression flicker in surprise and then concern, even as William stiffened at her side.

She glanced at him, and he met her eyes, dark eyes worried. “It is nothing,” he said in an undertone, and she nodded. Nothing for the dinner table, at least. Miss Bingley looked uncomfortable and lapsed into silence. Georgiana, giving curious glances at her brother and Jane, asked her about the music piece she had been working on when last they saw her. Elizabeth understood how much effort that took on Georgiana’s part, and gave the younger girl an encouraging smile.

After the minor discomfort, the rest of the dinner passed peacefully and unremarkably. A delectable dessert followed the excellent spread, and before long, the dinner ended. The gentlemen broke off to her uncle’s study, and she and the other ladies returned to the parlour. The separation was brief, and Mrs. Gardiner set out a few games for those interested.

William and Mr. Rothschild continued what seemed to be a potentially profitable conversation while they played a game of whist with Elizabeth and Georgiana until the latter gentleman regretfully announced he was needed at home. That gentleman’s exit prompted the remaining guests, barring the Bingleys and Darcys, to depart.

Once the last uninvolved, even peripherally, party left, Elizabeth sought her aunt’s attention. “What about gypsies, Aunt? Jane’s comment made you think of something.”

Mrs. Gardiner gave her a long look. “It was more than twice, although I am unsurprised neither of you remember that. The last time you tried to slip off with the gypsies, you were six or seven, actually, and you couldn’t remember why you wanted to go with them.”

Elizabeth frowned. “I just remember some urgency, that I had lost something and they knew where it might be.”

Mrs. Gardiner nodded, looking thoughtful.

“Ma’am?” William asked, drawing Mrs. Gardiner’s attention. “Do you have any ideas why that may be?”

The lady sighed. “The same thought I had a week ago, and lost in my surprise at an unexpected visit.” Elizabeth noticed she did not quite glance in the Bingleys’ direction. “There are several tinkers who assist with the orphanage as they can. All of them pass through briefly, but they keep tabs on their ... favourites, insofar as possible. One in particular always asks after Lizzy. I know that he lived primarily in London for a few years after Lizzy came to us, rather than traveling. He would not speak of why he did not rejoin his family. I believe he found another group to travel with, eventually, and now he typically only stops by in late August.”

“You believe he may have more information?” Elizabeth asked.

“It certainly seems likely,” William replied. “How soon could you ask him?” he queried.

“August,” Mrs. Gardiner answered firmly. “I do not know his accustomed routes or where he may be otherwise. Even if I am traveling, I can leave correspondence for him at the orphanage. The head will ensure he gets it. He is learned enough to assist, however briefly, with the children’s letters, so I have no qualms on that score. Whether he is willing to answer is another story altogether.”

William nodded and Elizabeth sighed. “If he does, however, it seems unlikely he is a threat,” she said. “So there is at least little to fret about in that regard.”

“That does not remove the possibility,” Mr. Gardiner cautioned, “that there are not others who wished, and may still wish, you harm.”

“True,” Elizabeth grudgingly agreed.

“Rather than end this lovely evening on a sour note,” Mrs. Gardiner said, “we have three talented musicians in this room. Shall we not hear each of you perform?” Miss Bingley and Elizabeth agreed easily; Georgiana required coaxing from Elizabeth, Jane, and her brother.
It was not until they had joined William and Georgiana in the Darcy carriage to return to Matlock House that the topic came back up. “If the gypsies found me, why would they not simply return me for the reward?” Elizabeth asked.

“Fear, perhaps,” William said quietly. “Fear they would be accused of things they had not done. Or perhaps they simply did not know where you had come from, and could not find anyone missing a child near where you were found. So they kept you until ... whatever happened that prompted them to take you to London.”

“You do not ascribe malicious intent, then?” Elizabeth asked.

“You were delivered safe and unharmed to an orphanage that, by your aunt’s description, is one of the better run, and safer orphanages in Town, with sufficient support that the children are fed and clothed regularly. That does not speak of malicious intent to me,” he replied, then smiled ruefully. “Such arguments will be made to our uncle and your mother, as well, to soothe their fears.”

* * *

“To ensure I am not misunderstanding: Elizabeth has no recollection of the incident, a gypsy knows to ask after her specifically, and she repeatedly attempted to leave with gypsies for the first few years she lived with the Bennets?” Lord Matlock queried as he leaned back in his chair.

“That appears to be the case,” Darcy confirmed.

Matlock continued. “Meanwhile, the orphanage has no significant documents of her arrival, other than a date and reason. The documents themselves indicate she was a foundling for the person who delivered her to the orphanage.”

“According to Mrs. Gardiner, who has offered to bring the records for us to review,” Darcy agreed.

“Fragments and titbits,” Matlock sighed in frustration.

“More than we had, and nothing to suggest she is in danger,” Darcy replied.

“True,” Matlock agreed. “Which is good, I suppose. Sarah would be quite put out if we had to remove Elizabeth from London before the introduction ball.”

“Both of my aunts would be most seriously displeased,” Darcy laughed.

“So there is little more to be done, then, until Mrs. Gardiner receives a response from this gypsy character, if she does. August or September is a long time.”

“Not compared to seventeen years, Uncle. If he has asked after my cousin for nearly two decades, I can only imagine he would be relieved to know she found her family at long last,” Darcy replied. “Sharing what he knows can only be a relief. I will, however, ensure that Mrs. Gardiner is aware of enough of that night’s events to convey that we know he and his kin are not responsible for my cousin’s disappearance and my uncle’s death. That alone may be enough to gain the story from him.”

“Is he literate enough to reply to a letter?” Matlock asked.

“I would assume so, if he assists in teaching children at the orphanage. Mrs. Gardiner indicated she would direct him to the Lambton inn if he preferred to communicate in person.”

Matlock sighed. “Well, there is little enough we can do until that information is acquired. Thank you for letting me know. I presume you will share this conversation with Bennet when you return to your house?”

“That is my plan,” Darcy confirmed. “Is the plan for the Bennets to return here tomorrow to visit, or if I should plan on guests?”

“We should check with your aunts,” Matlock replied, rising from his seat. He gestured at the study door. “Let us do that now.”

* * *

“I will be interviewing a few governesses with Mr. Bennet tomorrow,” Lady Matlock replied to the question of locations. “One may be suitable for assisting the girls with their musical studies, among other studies, for Miss Kitty and Miss Lydia. Otherwise, we will be looking for a music tutor for Miss Mary in particular.”

“So the Bennets will be in attendance here?” Matlock attempted to clarify.

“Mr. Bennet, at least, yes, and return to Darcy’s later. I believe Georgiana had expressed a desire to take Miss Kitty shopping with her, pending your approval, William.”

“Kitty and Georgiana?” Elizabeth asked. “I would not be opposed to joining their party if it may possibly wander past a bookshop.”

William chuckled. “I will make that a conditional requirement, then. Perhaps the carriage that brings Mr. Bennet here will convey you to Darcy House for the day, then?”

Elizabeth glanced at Lady Catherine, who nodded approval. “Jane? Anne?”

Jane and Anne glanced at each other, and seemed to hold a quick, but silent conversation. Jane demurred, as did Anne. Elizabeth raised an eyebrow, but shrugging slightly, replied to William, “It seems it will be up to me alone to ensure you are not bored to tears while your sister and mine shop.”

“Then I shall be well-entertained indeed,” William smiled.

“As will most of High Street,” Elizabeth could swear she heard Anne mutter, but when she gave Anne a sharp glance, Anne returned a look of pure innocence.

Jane gave no appearance of having heard Anne. “I do believe I would enjoy dining with Mama, Papa, and our sisters, tomorrow, if it would not be too much trouble. I could travel with Papa after his business here, and return with Elizabeth.”

“That sounds perfect,” Elizabeth replied. William concurred. With it settled that Elizabeth would spend most of the day at Darcy House with Georgiana and her sisters, and Jane attending for dinner, William departed to his home to share the plans, and news.

"Some prices are just too high, no matter how much you may want the prize. The one thing you can't trade for your heart's desire is your heart." -- Miles Vorkosigan, "Memory", Lois McMaster Bujold

Excessively Attentive - Chapter 30

JessicaSAugust 27, 2023 01:31AM

Re: Excessively Attentive - Chapter 30

LisaYSeptember 15, 2023 05:26PM

Re: Excessively Attentive - Chapter 30

cfwSeptember 09, 2023 05:53AM

Re: Excessively Attentive - Chapter 30

Steph DavisSeptember 04, 2023 09:09PM

Re: Excessively Attentive - Chapter 30

me livingAugust 27, 2023 10:27PM

Re: Excessively Attentive - Chapter 30

me livingAugust 27, 2023 10:27PM

Re: Excessively Attentive - Chapter 30

HarveyAugust 27, 2023 03:56PM


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