Elizabeth was immediately told that the two gentlemen from Rosings had each called during her absence; Mr. Darcy, only for a few minutes, to take leave--but that Colonel Fitzwilliam had been sitting with them at least an hour, hoping for her return, and almost resolving to walk after her till she could be found. – Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 36
Early the next morning, Elizabeth received an express. After reading it in haste, she immediately set off for Rosings. She met with the person she needed to see near the stable.
“Mr. Darcy!” She called out to him in her calmest voice.
“Miss Bennet!” He turned and looked at her with a mixture of surprise and aloofness.
“Do you have a few moments sir?”
He frowned, nodded and gestured for her to walk towards the rose garden, at the back of the estate.
On seeing that they were entirely alone, Elizabeth drew in a deep breath and said, “I received an express this morning.”
Mr. Darcy looked at her silently, his face tight, not betraying any emotion.
“From London, from Jane. She…she…” She bit her lips and clenched her fists.
“Is your sister not well?” said the gentleman. His voice softened, and his expression finally looked less stiff.
“You said in your letter yesterday that Mr. Bingley was only your acquaintance, not the best of your friends...” said Elizabeth in a shaky voice.
“That you encouraged him to leave Netherfield, to protect my sister.”
“Yes, as I have mentioned in the letter.”
“Jane met Mr. Bingley in London three weeks ago, she wrote. Now she is…with child, and Mr. Bingley has left town.” The words tumbled out of her lips. Lowering her eyes to the ground, she was ashamed of her accusation just the day before. She thought he had separated Jane from her beau because he looked down on her family and connection. But his letter explained that Mr. Bingley was, in fact, a new gentleman with a less than stellar character.
He stared at her and then started pacing. “And?” asked him, after a few moments of silence.
“And?” She raised her eyes and gazed at him in confusion.
“Why do you tell me about this?”
Her eyes opened wide. “I hope…I wish…I beg you to find Mr. Bingley, for her.”
“And then what?”
“I hope he will take his responsibility.”
Mr. Darcy shook his head.
Tears welled in her eyes. “You refuse to help? Because I rejected your hand in marriage yesterday? Are you so vengeful?”
“I am grieved indeed,” said he in a raised voice. Muscles in his face throbbed. “Even after my letter, you still have such a low estimation of my character.”
“I believe you. But why do you refuse?”
“I am not.”
“You shook your head.”
“Mr. Bingley has his own mind. I have heard him paid off some angels before.”
Elizabeth gasped. Tears slid down her face, and she sat onto a stone bench nearby, heavily. “My dear Jane! Poor, Jane. I should not have prevailed upon her to go to London with my Aunt. We are all deceived, by Mr. Bingley’s cheerful and friendly manner.” Then she jumped up, wiped the tears away and curtseyed. “Pray excuse me. I have to prepare for my departure. I need to be with Jane.”
“What will you do?”
Elizabeth regretted telling him her family's disgrace. Even though she had never desired his good opinion, she would rather have one less person in the world to know about Jane’s misfortune. “Papa will find the scoundrel, and make him marry Jane.”
“What if he would not?”
This was very probable.
“You would have your father fight a duel with Bingley?”
Elizabeth gasped. The image of her father killed by Mr. Bingley flashed through her eyes.
“There is one solution,” said Mr. Darcy quietly.
She turned to look at him, with fresh hope and anticipation.
He gazed at her, coldly. “We can marry, post haste, and pass the babe as ours.”
The words were uttered in such a slow manner that she thought he had a problem thinking straight. But the cold glittering in his eyes sent a shiver down her spine.
She drew herself to her full height and said, “Why would you want to connect yourself with women like the Bennets? With no education, nor virtue?”
Mr. Darcy put his hands at his back and looked at the ground afar. “Since yesterday, I have overcome my admiration and love, as you had suggested. But I cannot suppress…my lust for you.”
Elizabeth’s body trembled. He gazed at her for a moment. Words then rushed out of his mouth. “The marriage will be on MY term. After one week of our wedding trip, we will send for Miss Bennet. We can tell your family you want her by your side. I shall arrange for her and a maid to stay in one of my properties in Scotland. If you are also with child by then, it shall be easy to pass her babe as a twin. If not, you will have to…pretend it. Our family doctor is most trusted. I do not see any problem in the scheme. I do not want your family to visit you in Pemberley or London, ever. I shall give your family a generous settlement. Your mother and sisters will not have to worry when your father meets his destiny. You may visit them once or twice a year, but for the rest of the time, YOU belong to me. You obey me, and you live for…my pleasure.” His last sentence was uttered with such intensity that she was almost afraid for his mind. His fierce desire to possess her was apparent in his voice and the countenance of his face.
How could she agree to such a wild scheme? And yet, how could she not? What would become of sweet Jane? If Mr. Bingley could not be prevailed upon to make good his rakish behaviour? What would happen to the Bennet women if Papa had died in a duel with Mr. Bingley? Would Mr. Darcy treat her with consideration in their marriage, knowing that she owed him her family respectability? He was not the blackguard who had separated Jane and Mr. Bingley, and he had not reduced Mr. Wickham to his present circumstances. But would her uncivil words exchanged at the parsonage the day before changed his regards for her forever? Did he really overcome his love and admiration so easily? He was thinking of her as a possession, rather than a companion in life. How could she survive in a marriage with no respect?
“I want my answer now,” said the gentleman. Mr. Darcy sounded harsh and impatient. Elizabeth was afraid for her own future. She did not want to be tied to such a person. When she opened her mouth, for a flash of a second, his eyes looked vulnerable. He was looking at something over her shoulders. Could he be telling lies? Could this coldness be just pretence? Could he still be an upright gentleman, as his letter portrayed?
Before she declined his offer a second time, she saw him swallow hard. The vein on his neck throbbed. Suddenly she felt her courage rise. Rather than leaving Jane, her father and her family in a possibly bleak future, she was willing to take her chance with Mr. Darcy. She would be strong enough to live with him, possessed by him and lay with him.
Drawing a deep breath, she replied, “if you are certain of the repercussion of connecting yourself with my family, I shall accept your…scheme.”
His shoulders squared up, and he swallowed with difficulty again, as if he was dying of thirst. Then he smiled, smugly. “Now is the time for your first lesson, in obeying your husband. Come here!”
She tilted her head, before stepping forward. When she was close enough to hear his heavy breathing, he wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her against his body. Her heart stopped. Then he lowered his head and possessed her lips, sucking, nipping and biting. He was wild and forceful. His hard torso grazed against her breasts. His hands grasped her buttocks and pressed her to his hardness. She felt faint, unable to breathe or think. All she could feel was his lips, his body, and his hands. Abruptly, he ended the kiss, pushed her away and turned his back to her.
“Pack your belonging. We depart for London and Hertfordshire in three-quarters of an hour.” He barked out the instruction in a trembling voice, as he walked back to the grand house with fast strides, leaving her standing in the garden, stunned.
Brushing her hair absently, Elizabeth looked at the elegant room in Darcy House with trepidation. It had been a week since the incidence in the rose garden. Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mr. Darcy accompanied her and a maid on horseback later that morning. The Colonel was pleasant and considerate during the change of horse in Bromley. But Mr. Darcy did not join them for tea. He scowled and frowned throughout the entire journey.
Outside London, the Colonel left for his parents' home while Mr. Darcy continued on with her to Cheapside. He did not come into her uncle’s townhouse. Elizabeth had the sole responsibility of informing Jane about the scheme. Jane was desolate, ashamed and worried for Elizabeth.
But Elizabeth told her that Mr. Darcy had proposed, before she received Jane’s news. The scheme only brought forward the wedding. He loved her, and her opinion of her had improved. All the facts were real, though she reframed from telling her elder sister of the first refusal and the coldness of his second proposal.
The following morning, the two sisters left London for Hertfordshire in Mr. Darcy’s grand carriage. He only talked to the Gardiners briefly at the door. He took the journey once again on horseback. When he asked for her father’s permission to marry Elizabeth, Mr. Bennet was stunned but gave his blessing, after Mr. Darcy explained the true nature of Mr. Wickham and Elizabeth reassured her father that her fiancé indeed loved her and she found him a good man.
Creditors in Meryton were later informed of Mr. Wickham’s cheating ways. He was sent to the debtor’s prison when he failed to honour his debt.
Mrs. Bennet was unhappy about the quick marriage, but Mr. Darcy insisted that his aunt Lady Catherine would be against the match and he wanted to protect Elizabeth.
Her ladyship showed up in Longbourn, as predicted, curling abusive and insulting words. Luckily Mr. Darcy was there to refute her and shield Elizabeth from his angry aunt.
After that, Mrs. Bennet facilitated the marriage, post haste. Throughout the short few days of ‘courtship’, Mr. Darcy was kind and amiable to her parents, sisters, neighbours, but not to her. Not that he was condescending or cruel to Elizabeth. He just did not choose to spend time with her alone. His smile and politeness were reserved for others.
The wedding day was sunny and bright. The groom was handsome and the people attending, including Miss Darcy, Colonel Fitzwilliam from his side of the family, were cheerful. Mrs. Bennet had arranged a marvelous ceremony and wedding reception, despite the lack of time. Elizabeth felt a sigh of relief after the Darcy carriage drew away from Longbourn. She could relax her face and left the fake smile behind. The carriage ride from Hertfordshire to London and the subsequent evening were awkward and silent.
When Elizabeth heard a knock on the door connecting to her husband’s room, her heart jumped out. He strode into the room, poured himself a glass of wine before settling on the chaise by the window.
She continued to brush her hair with shivering hand and look at her own reflection in the mirror, not daring to look at his imposing figure, still in his evening coat and trousers. After a long moment of silence, he said in a louder than necessary voice, “Come here!”
She bit her lips, put down the comb and rose from the chair as normal as she could. Not that it was an ordinary time. They were two persons who had not been alone for more than a few minutes since they decided to embark on this wild scheme. And now they were to engage in the most intimate and holy act in marriage. Why would he not behave normally with her? Her musing was confused as she stood in front of him.
“Take off your clothes,” said he.
Such coldness! The voice said so. But his body told another story. She was determined to be as defiant as he was.
With wide eyes and pumping heart, she undid the wrap and let it pool at her legs. She started undoing the tiny buttons of the, but her fingers felt frozen, even though she was perspiring. Darting a glance at Darcy, she noticed that he was squirming on the chair slightly and the hand that put the wine down was not steady.
When she finally pushed the garment over her shoulders and let it drop to the floor, she heard Mr. Darcy gasped. But when she looked at him, his eyes were on her body, flashing in intensity. The surprise was removed from his face. His stare made her hot and flustered.
He did not say a word, for a long minute, just letting her stand in front of him in full glory. When she started to shift the weight from one foot to another, he instructed her again. “Come here.”
Biting her lips, she walked closer to him, until their knees touched each other. Then like a hungry lion, he opened his legs and pulled her forward abruptly. His mouth latched onto her nipple while one of his hands worshiped the other peak.
Elizabeth cried out in surprise, unprepared for his action. A sensation ran from her nipples down to her apex and up her head. When he started suckling one tip and used his fingers to roll the tip of the other, she moaned out loud. Her hands tore at his hair. Her legs were weak. If not for the support of his other hand and his thighs, she would have melted onto the floor.
He continued to suck, lick and roll at her nipples. His other hand wandered to fondle her buttocks and her sex. When he thrust a finger into her wet entrance, she screamed out in ecstasy, not too soon, waves after sensual waves of tides flooded down her body.
Then she was lifted up to the air. Fluttering open her eyes which she did not know when she had shut them, she discovered that Mr. Darcy had risen from the chaise and had picked her up in his arms, without letting his mouth move away from her breasts.
He put her to sit on the bed and parted her legs wide. Panting hard, she placed her hands on the two sides to support her weight. But she felt dazed and vulnerable. Naked and open to his piercing gaze, with his tall, strong frame still fully dressed, towering over her.
Then he kneeled in front of her and pulled her nearer to the edge of the bed. A throaty moan came out of her mouth when he lowered his head and kissed her sex. He licked her secret lips, sending a shockwave in her body. When he sucked her nub, the strength of her hands gave way, and she flopped down onto the bed. As he pushed his tongue and a finger into her core, she grabbed hold of the bed sheets and screamed out loud.
He did not stop. He was persistent and masterful. Elizabeth thrashed and jerked her body as torrents after torrents of unknown pleasure burnt in her body. She reached another climax not long afterwards. Her muscles pulsed and vibrated. Her limbs and body felt like punched by a thousand needles.
Then she was lifted up again, this time onto the middle of the bed. She looked at Darcy as he lay on top of her body. His face was hot. Sweat drenched his body. She wondered why he did not take off his clothes. Her thoughts were interrupted when he wrapped her legs around his waist.
Her mouth formed an O. He had unbuttoned his trousers, and his hard member was poking at her wet entrance. The lethargy of the two climaxes dulled her senses. She lay passively and allowed him to push into her. The O of her mouth became larger, and the throaty moans returned as she felt his thick shaft stretching her muscles.
Slowly, inch by inch, he thrust into her wet core. When he broke through her barrier, she drew in a shape gasp. He stopped and looked at her. It was the first time since their decision to marry that he looked at her with a softer demeanour and a genuine smile.
He lowered his head to kiss her, and his fingers caressed her bosom, tenderly. He continued to push, right into her hilt. She was touched by his smile. She was sure that he would not keep his distance, now that they were finally man and woman. He would not be cold and silent, to her anymore.
She pulled his shirt up, pushed her hands inside and rubbed on his back. “Fitzwilliam!” murmured she.
Her cry and touch jolted him into frenzy action. He thrust in and out in quick pace, pumping, jamming and impaling her. Her inner muscles were stretched and torched. Her lips were swollen by his ardent kisses, and her nipples were rock hard, thanks to his skillful fingers. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy were both moaning, grunting and finally screaming as they reached their peaks.
But after he had spilled his seed in her, he rolled away from her body and stumbled out of her bed and her room immediately! Tears flew down Elizabeth’s eyes as she saw Mr. Darcy slam the door connecting them shut.
How could everything have gone so wrong? Lying on his bed, Darcy covered his eyes with his arm, breathing fast to calm his body and fighting hard the disgust he had of himself. He had imagined his wedding night, for many weeks since he had fallen in love with Miss Elizabeth Bennet. It was always sweet, tender, cheerful, loving and warm. He would imagine himself teaching her to touch him, to admire and worship him as he would of her. They would talk, banter and enjoy their closeness, both physically and emotionally. They would spend all night long in each other’s embrace.
But everything had gone terribly wrong. Elizabeth rejected Darcy's proposal most vehemently in Hunsford. She hated him, thought him condescending and had selfish disdain of others. Elizabeth thought him breaking her sister’s heart and reducing Wickham to poverty. She would not marry him even if he were the last man in the world.
He was angry and hurt. He was an honourable man who worked hard to provide for his tenants, staff, and family. And yet because of his reserved nature, he was branded as the worst of men. For hours after Elizabeth’s rejection, he hated her, for not understanding the real him, for being prejudiced, unjust and without discernment. He berated himself too, for lowering himself to love someone so worthless of his love, for the rakish men around him who could display the most charming manner to touch women’s hearts. He wished he could be one of them.
When Elizabeth asked for his help in the rose garden at Rosings, he yearned to behave as one of the lesser men. He craved to get what he had wanted. Darcy ached to possess her, to own her body, to make her his property and to make her pay for the injustice, for the rest of her life. He was not thinking straight. Darcy lusted to have what he could not have had, the day before. He wanted to have her install as the Mistress of Pemberley, even though she had refused it. It was like he aimed to make her do the one thing she most hated.
But after the passionate kiss in the rose garden, he could not trust himself anymore. He could not be sure he would remain cold and behave in a rakish way towards her. Despite her dire family situation and his angry words, she still remained civil to him, to his cousin and everyone throughout the week they waited for the wedding.
She was magnificent while facing the abuse of his aunt. Lady Catherine was out of control, she threw every offensive word against Elizabeth. ‘Arts and allurements’, ‘without honour’, ‘quitting her sphere’ were spitting out of the grand lady’s mouth. And yet Elizabeth responded with dignity and strength. Darcy did not have to do anything to protect his fiancée, except to throw out his loud aunt.
He was embarrassed about his own relations. What he had said about Elizabeth’s family was unjust. His aunt behaved in the crudest and vulgar manner. She used her title to delve into business, not of her own. She tried to force her opinion on others, intimidate, threaten and even attempt to bribe her way through. He was utterly ashamed of his aunt. He understood how he was wrong in his estimation of Elizabeth’s relations.
At that moment, he was in awe of his future wife. Miss Elizabeth Bennet was courageous, witty, handsome and the most loyal person in the world. She would not marry him, one of the wealthiest men in England because she found his character lacking. And yet, she did not hesitate to throw away her chance of happiness for the sake of her distressed sister and family.
She was brave to ask him for help, when she knew he would be angry with her, because of her rejection. Her courage rose even in the face of his beastly behaviour. He imposed his first kiss with the most brutal and savage way. He took and enjoyed his dominance without any regard to her feeling. He was furious with himself, all the way from Kent to London. When Richard was charming her at the Inn of Bromley, Darcy was kicking at stones and trees in the stable yard at the back. In his mind, he was kicking his boorish self.
He could not remain civil to the Gardiners. While he blamed them for allowing Miss Bennet to fall prey to Bingley’s charm, thus putting Elizabeth into this path of action, he noticed that they were of proper manner and loved their nieces. He was afraid he would confess his sin to them if he had talked to them more. Darcy fumed at himself for continuing in this scheme. He, therefore, tried to make amends by being civil to Elizabeth’s sisters, parents, and neighbours.
The only person he could not face was Elizabeth. He did not want to confess to her. He did not want her to retract from their decision to marry. He was despicably selfish again. He avoided her so that they could not discuss their future and he could have her as his wife. He was indeed the worst man in the world.
And he had treated her like a whore just now. It was supposed to be the happiest day of their married life. It was that huge demon at the back of his mind. He was sneering at him, reminding him of the humiliation he suffered at her hands during his disastrous proposal in Hunsford, talking him into being harsh, possessive and enraged.
‘She refused you, in the most uncivil manner.’ That was the voice of Darcy’s dark twin. 'Revenge can be sweet!'
Darcy was weak, so feeble that he allowed these dark forces to rule over him. Now he had taken Elizabeth in the most disgusting way, would she ever forgive him?
When he had joined with her, as husband and wife, at that moment, he honestly felt the loving connection to her. He smiled and vowed to be tender from then on. But when she uttered his name, in the most trusting voice and grabbed his back with force, he remembered all his evil thoughts. He wanted her to feel the hurt, as he did. He took his pleasure fast and quick.
Afterwards, he could not suppress his honourable soul. He ran from her, even though he could hear her sob.
What was he to do now? He knew his scheme was filled with possible danger. What if Miss Bennet gave birth early and Elizabeth late? The two babes would surely look too different to be twins. What if there were twins? He could be having quadruples. That would draw too much speculation. What if Elizabeth died of childbirth?
A chill pierced down his spine. What if God punished his rakish behaviour by taking Elizabeth away? He rose from the bed and kneeled in front of it and prayed. Darcy was a religious man. He attended church every Sunday, gave generously to the church, his tenants and those in need all the time. But he had never been this genuine in his prayer. He should have done this before he proposed in Hunsford. He should have bared his soul to God before he tried to find a solution for Elizabeth’s sister. He had been ruled by his anger and hatred for the past eight days.
Perhaps it was not too late to make amends. Darcy did not want any harm to Elizabeth. He would pay for his sin, all by himself. He would be a man, and beg for forgiveness from his wife.
Taking off his coat and waistcoat, he splashed some water to wipe away the sweat. Changing into a clean shirt, he tidied up his appearance the best he could. Then he knocked on the connecting door and went in, without waiting for Elizabeth'sreply. She might not let him in, if he remained.
When he came by the bedside, the candle was still burning, though low. Elizabeth was lying on her side, curled in a ball, with the bed sheet covering her body. She was so still that at first, he thought she was asleep.
But he could see her eyes opened, staring at the wall, not bothering to turn to look at him. He drew in a deep breath and kneeled on the floor by the bed, near the bed head, exactly the same way he did when he was praying in his own chamber and talked to the back of her head.
Closing his eyes, he gathered his courage.
“Elizabeth, I come to apologise,” he heard the slithering of the bed sheet. Perhaps she had turned to look at him. But he kept his eyes closed, or else his courage would fail. He wanted to talk to her soul. He did not dare to look at her eyes and saw any coldness.
“I was wrong, to treat you like…a whore just now. In my mind, you are my beautiful wife, the woman I love and admire. I had acted despicably when you asked me to help find Bingley. I could have done so. While I could not have prevailed upon him to marry your sister, I could have offered other suggestions, rather than forcing you to marry me, under such circumstances.
“You are correct to say that I have selfish disdain of the feelings of others. I was furious, of your rejection. I was bitter that you were not expecting my addresses and in fact, you were not in love with me. How could I have misinterpreted your feelings and inclination? How could I have gone so wrong? And I was stung by your words, that my feelings could be overcome so easily? That my love and affection could be of short duration.
“I am not a man like Bingley. He charms and falls in and out of love with women all the time. He is called a gentleman everywhere while I am considered rude and arrogant by being reserved and careful. I was indignant of your innocent defence of two rakes and your uncivil remarks of my character. I who am the true gentleman in the whole affairs, to be treated with contempt by the only woman I have loved.
“Therefore I was thirsty for revenge. I wished to behave like a rake, for once in my life. To get what I want, to possess you and humiliate you. Once you agreed to the marriage, I already understood whom I should be angry with. But I was afraid. I was worried about losing you. That was why I avoided you during our brief time in Hertfordshire, before the marriage. I fully intended to be gentlemanlike during our marriage and especially when we united as man and woman.”
“Why did you not then?” Her gentle voice made Darcy open his eyes. She was staring at him, without emotion. In fact, her eyes were only inches away from his.
He was startled.
Feeling vulnerable and ashamed, he wanted to rise and escape, or to put on his cold mask and pretend again. But Elizabeth's eyes were screaming out to him, demanding him to be honest.
Stiffening his spine, he continued his speech. Yes, he could not fail, in this final chance to redeem himself. He gazed at her. “When I was waiting to come into your room, my dark soul reminded me of all my humiliations and urged me to misbehave, like Wickham and Bingley. But I could not blame others, I was weak and insecure. Being a gentleman did not get you to marry me while being loathsome and possessive achieved my goal. For that wild moment, I chose to stick to this sinful behaviour.
“I am sorry, Elizabeth. I love you. I have not overcome my love and admiration. They are still there, deep in my heart, embedded in my flesh. This scheme which got us married is fraught with danger. I should not have treated you so disgracefully throughout the past eight days. I have journeyed to Hell, and I am utterly ashamed of what I have seen about myself. I do not want our marriage to be like this. Even you do not and cannot love me, I do not want you to hate me or think very ill of me, for the rest of your life.
“Can you forgive me, my dearest Elizabeth? I will agree to whatever you think best for the next course of action? If you decide to leave me, I shall accept. I shall make sure there will be no scandal involved.
“Or I can invent an excuse and go to America. We can declare me lost in the sea.” The last few sentences were gritted out of his teeth. His voice was shaky, but he had to do it. He would leave Pemberley, if he could gain forgiveness from his beloved.
He had never felt this tired, after his confession. Elizabeth had not said a word. She was just looking at him, with a blank expression. His heart sunk. He knew it was a mammoth task to get her to forget all the transgressions he had committed. Insulting her family, her connection, forcing her to marry him, treating her like a whore and using her for his pleasure. He was too sinful to be redeemed. But he would not back down now. He clenched his fists in front of him and waited for his fate, to be decided by her.
“Hold me.” Her voice was low, barely audible, especially for the fact that the two words were so unexpected to his ears. He feared that she would ask him to go away. That he would be the last man in the world whom she wanted to see. And yet she had bided him to hold her. He blinked his eyes a few times. He wanted to ask her to repeat. But the look in her beautiful eyes told him he had not misheard. Calmness was found in her eyes now.
So he rose from the floor.
He was not sure if she wanted him to lie under the bed sheet or on top of it. Or if she wanted him to hold her, sitting. He shifted the weight on his foot by the bedside.
She lifted the bed sheet, so he lowered himself onto the bed, without breaking eye contact with her. He held his breathing; afraid that the smallest sound would frighten her away and make her throw him out of her room.
Once he lay down on the bed, she moved near him and rested her head on his shoulder. He did not dare to breathe or talk. She remained silent as well. Soon, he could feel her breathing even. She had fallen asleep.
What did that mean? Did she forgive him or not? Could he still stay with her? As husband and wife? Or was he bound for the New World, a Mr. Darcy no more?
Soon, he was too tired as well. Wrapping his hands around Elizabeth's tender waist, he fell asleep.
Darcy felt his hair being ruffled, like what his mother used to do to him when he was young. He blinked his eyes open. It was Elizabeth. His wife. The woman whom he loved, more than anyone. She was brushing his curls from his forehead.
Suddenly, everything that had happened last night came back to his mind. His heart stopped. What had she decided? Would she forgive him? Would they have a future together?
The sunlight was shining on her hair. Darcy could not see her expression clearly. Then she laid her head on his shoulder and murmured, “It is a new day, Mr. Darcy.”
He could not believe his ears. Elizabeth still talked to him, after what had happened the night before. What a wonderful woman she was! He thanked the lord silently as tears threatened to spill from his eyes. “Yes, a wonderfully sunny day, Mrs. Darcy!” he said in a shaky voice.
She then rose and sat up, bringing the bed sheet with her and reclining by the bed head. “I have never heard you speak, for so long.”
He raised his body and leaned his weight on his elbow. Gazing at Elizabeth, he nodded. Her expression was calm but cautious.
He repeated his apology again. “I was utterly wrong, in the whole affair. Would you give me another chance? To love and respect you?”
“I was prejudiced as well, in our whole acquaintance and my rejection.”
“I hurt you with words in the Assembly, and you did not have all the information about Bingley and Wickham. Your rejection was right. My first proposal was arrogant and insulting. My second proposal was…I was ashamed to think of it. It was cold and beastly.”
She looked out of the window. “I would not be persuaded to sever my ties with my family.”
He nodded fervently, though he was not sure if she saw him. So he voiced his wrongful demand. “I was deliberately hurtful, when I spoke those words in Rosings.”
Turning to stare at him, she said sternly, “And you must leave your dark twin silent.”
“I shall endeavour to do so, with your help, my dearest, loveliest Elizabeth.” He brushed his fingers along her jaw.
“And what should we do, with this wild scheme now?”
He dropped his hand immediately. Yes, he would bear his punishment, for the rest of the year. He explained, “We should not engage in what we did last night, until we know for sure the progress of your sister’s health and if you are with child.”
“May we talk to my aunt and uncle about this?”
“If you think that will help.”
“They are the most sensible of my relations. And what happened to Jane was under my uncle’s care. I feel he should know.”
Mr. Darcy agreed and rose. He stretched his hand and helped his wife to get up.
“It is a wonderful new day, Mrs. Darcy. I shall leave you to prepare for our visit to the Gardiners.” Then he bowed and left her room.
He looked out of the window. The sun was bright. It was good to leave the darkness behind.
“I do not expect you to call on us so early.” Mrs. Gardiner greeted her favourite niece.
Elizabeth glanced at her new husband, and her body felt hot. Yes, making a family visit so soon after one’s marriage was unusual. But after the tumultuous days, she had had, Elizabeth wanted to bury her head on her aunt’s shoulder, reveal everything about her marriage and listen to her soothing advice. That would be better done without the presence of Mr. Darcy though.
She squirmed on the settee, thinking of his presence these nine days: his anger, indifference, cold and yet passionate union with her, then the lengthy confession. Right this moment, she understood him more, but his mind still puzzled her like a maze.
They had been close, skin to skin and yet their conversation skirted around almost nothing. Elizabeth and Darcy's marriage found a stable footing this morning but would it wobble with the revelation of Jane’s situation to her family? He poured her drinks at breakfast and pumped the seat on the carriage firm for her on the journey to Gracechurch Street. But would his dark twin emerge to take charge all of a sudden?
“We have some matters of importance to discuss with you, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner,” said Mr. Darcy.
Mr. Gardiner nodded, and they went to his study. Once the door was shut, Elizabeth bit her lips, pondering how to begin. Mr. Darcy placed his hand on hers and began, “Elizabeth and I married in such haste, not because of my aunt’s anger, but because Miss Bennet was with child.”
“What?!” Uncle and Aunt cried out in unison.
Mr. Darcy’s touch gave Elizabeth strength. Starting from the crush of the matter only meant they could go past the angst faster. She continued the explanation, “After Mr. Darcy asked for my hand in Kent, the next day, I received a letter from Jane, saying that she was pregnant, by Mr. Bingley who had left town and she did not know what to do. Fitzwilliam and I decided to marry in haste, to protect her reputation if required.”
“That cannot be true!” “How could that have happened?” The older couple murmured. Their eyes were wide and their faces bored with worries.
“When I returned to Meryton, Jane told me what had happened. She told me Mrs. Hurst invited her to Grosvenor Place about one week after Aunt and she paid the Bingleys a visit.”
“Yes, I remember that day,” said Aunt. “Little Tom was sick, and I told her it was fine. Do not tell me…” She tore at her handkerchief while her husband paced around.
“Mrs. Hurst was friendly and kind during the visit, apologising for the uncivil treatment Miss Bingley had towards Jane and promised that her brother would be returning home soon. She wanted Mr. Bingley and Jane to meet again.”
Mr. Darcy breathed in a deep sigh. Elizabeth squeezed his hand in return and continued with the detail which was even unknown to her husband. “Jane did not feel well a few minutes into the visit. She told me she might have caught a cold earlier. Mrs. Hurst insisted that Jane took some herb tea and rested for a few moments in a guest chamber before she took the carriage back to Cheapside.”
When Elizabeth paused for thoughts, Mrs. Gardiner asked immediately. “What happened?”
“In her haze, she knew someone…had compromised her virtue.”
The other three occupants in the study gasped. “Why did you not tell me earlier?” Mr. Darcy said. “I should have called Bingley out!”
“Mr. Bingley imposed himself on Jane?” Mrs. Gardiner exclaimed. “Why did she not say a word?”
Tears welled in Elizabeth’s eyes. “Jane woke up soon afterwards. Mr. Bingley was a bit drunk, and he apologised for the transgression. But Mr. Bingley said that he loved her and promised to come for her soon. He then hurried her into a carriage. She did not tell you, Aunt, because she was ashamed of herself. She believed in her heart, she came to London to chase after Mr. Bingley.”
“Jane always behaved within the bounds of decorum,” Mrs. Gardiner said. “It was that blackguard!”
“She thought he was a true gentleman. During their acquaintance in Hertfordshire, she found him amiable, kind and good-hearted. He was truly the best man she had known. Her heart had not been the same since the day he left Meryton. She thought it was her own doing that she threw herself to him. She was the one with the error in her judgement. She tempted fate, and now she was punished for losing her virtue. She said she would bear it for the rest of her life. She did not want Father to call Mr. Bingley out, to be harmed because of her wanton desire.”
“But Jane had done nothing wrong!” Mrs. Gardiner’s voice rose again.
“And you are friend with such a person?” Uncle glared at Mr. Darcy. The younger gentleman opened his mouth to explain, but Elizabeth beat him to it.
“The day he proposed, Fitzwilliam told me about Mr. Bingley’s way. In fact, he urged Mr. Bingley away from Hertfordshire, after seeing him falling for Jane. Fitzwilliam did not want any harm came to Jane.”
Mr. Darcy gazed at Elizabeth with such a loving expression that she had glanced away. She was still unused to his ardency.
He cleared his throat. “I should have never accepted his invitation to stay in Netherfield. I have heard of his rakish behaviour in university, but he was friendly to me at a time when I was bothered by family issues. But by staying at his estate as his only guest, people will think we are good friends. It is normal that they will think I behave similarly or condone his behaviour.”
“Stop, Fitzwilliam,” Elizabeth called out. “You cannot blame yourself for someone else behaviour.”
After a momentary hesitation, he nodded reluctantly.
“Jane is now with child, she is certain?” Mrs. Gardiner said, with tears in her eyes too.
Elizabeth nodded. “She said…her course which was normally very punctual had not arrived.”
“Edward, we have to do something for Jane!” Aunt cried out. “It was my fault. I should not have allowed her to go to the Bingleys alone. I was so selfish, only thought about my boy’s illness. Now, poor Jane has to suffer all her life. And this Mr. Bingley, can we not think of a way to bring him to justice?”
Mr. Gardiner embraced his sobbing wife and asked the younger couple, “What have you been planning? How are you going to protect Jane’s reputation?”
“We thought we could pass off Miss Bennet’s baby like ours,” confessed Mr. Darcy. “I have a property in the remote part of Scotland. I thought she can stay there until she gives birth.” Then he drew in a deep breath and hung his head. “But Elizabeth and I, I was…”
“Fitzwilliam and I became husband and wife last night,” Elizabeth helped Mr. Darcy to finish the sentence. Her face blushed right red.” We are afraid now what will happen if I am with child too and they come within longer time-lapse.”
“What a tangled mess!” Mr. Gardiner abandoned his wife and started pacing again.
“It was my fault,” said Mr. Darcy. His face turned crimson. “I should have better self-control.”
“You love me,” replied Elizabeth. “ardently.”
“It is that horrible Mr. Bingley!” cried Aunt Gardiner. “I am going to strangle him when I ever come across him.”
At that moment, someone knocked on the door.
“Yes, come in!” called out Mr. Gardiner.
“Sir, a Mr. Bingley at the door.” The servant announced.
“What?” The occupants in the room exclaimed.
“Show him in!” Uncle instructed.
The two men in the room paced about in agitation while Elizabeth went to hold hands with her aunt.
A cheerful Mr. Bingley was shown into the study. Once the door was shut, even before Mr. Bingley could open his mouth for a greeting, Fitzwilliam charged towards him and grabbed him by the lapels. “You dare to show your face?”
Mr. Gardiner followed, grabbing Mr. Bingley’s throat. “You violated my niece! I shall bring you to the magistrate.”
“I thought Jane was still here. I come to ask Miss Bennet for her hand in marriage, Sir.” Mr. Bingley choked out the words.
The other two gentlemen released him. “And that makes it right?” cried out Mr. Gardiner. “Why would I let my niece marry you? A beast who imposed on gentlewoman? What if you do the same again, after your marriage, to other women.”
“Yes, I have heard you paid off some angels before,” said Mr. Darcy.
Mrs. Gardiner gasped. “You are a disgrace!”
Mr. Bingley shifted his weight from one foot to another. “Darcy, you are mistaken! I have never imposed on gentlewomen. I fell in love with every one of them, the widows, opera singers, cash-strapped old family maidens. Every time, I loved them with my heart. But then either they fell out of love with me, or I did. They never insisted of marriage. Perhaps my wealth was not enough for them. Or they did not want to be associated with family from trade. They were happier with the money I settled for them. I can honestly say that I am not a rake. My intention was always good. I am hoping to find a wife, as any young men with some fortune do. And with Jane, Miss Bennet, it is entirely different!”
“You are sick!” said Mr. Darcy.
“Yes, I would not allow my niece to be treated like this.” Mr. Gardiner clenched his fist.
“But I am in all honesty,” cried Mr. Bingley. “I admire most passionately her beauty and her kindness. She is so sweet and understanding, truly the best woman I have ever met. When you and my sisters persuaded me to leave Hertfordshire last November, I felt sad and disappointed. I feel that Miss Bennet and I are truly made for each other. This ennui has been with me for the winter. That was why when I stumbled across her lying so sweetly in the guest chamber, I thought she was an apparition. She was God's gift for me. I had been drinking a bit earlier, so my thoughts were muddled.”
“And this made it right for you to force yourself on her?” retorted Mr. Gardiner.
“But I did not! I loved Miss Bennet, most tenderly. She responded to me too, even in her haze. You can ask her. We made love. I did not force her.”
Elizabeth did not think she could hear about Mr. Bingley’s explanation anymore. Could he be a good person? If the young man could fall in and out of love so quickly. If he could engage in such intimate union with so many women.
Jane could be under the influence of the herb tea. She did not tell Elizabeth detail of their intimacy. Of course, at the time when they talked about the event, Elizabeth would not know what to ask. Could Jane have not told her the entire event and what Mr. Bingley had spoken to her about? She needed to understand this strange man better. “Why did you send Jane away and leave town?”
“I promised to come back for your sister. I wanted to make sure this time, I would not fall out of love so easily. I needed time to sort myself out. I went North to think. I believe I am more constant in my love for Miss Bennet. I want to marry her, to raise a family with her. She is truly the kindest and generous person in the whole world. She did not blame me for taking her virtue. She said she would wait for me, for eternity. She would not love another man. She was so different from other women I have known.”
The four people in the study glanced at each other. Elizabeth did not understand how to make of such a man like Mr. Bingley. Was he rakish? Of course. How could he sleep with every angel who came his way? There was no telling he would not do so for the rest of his life. Would it be dreadful for Jane to be married to such a person? Indeed. But would Jane be even worse, by not marrying him? Would her spirit break because she would bear a natural child and denied a chance to make a future with Mr. Bingley?
“I shall write to ask Jane to come to London. Only she can decide if she wants to spend the rest of her life with someone like you,” Elizabeth said. She did not want to tell Mr. Bingley her sister was with child. It was for Jane to inform him. She also thought it better for them to decide their future here in London, rather than in Hertfordshire, under the eyes of her mother.
“Do not think of skipping town until this is sorted out,” swore Mr. Darcy. “I shall get some men to watch over your house.”
“I would not,” Mr. Bingley said. “I shall wait eagerly for Miss Bennet’s arrival.”
Then he left Gracechurch Street with a similarly cheerful mood as he had arrived. After the express was dispatched to Jane, the four of them discussed some more.
“I do not think it is a good idea for Jane to marry to such a person,” said Mrs. Gardiner. “How can we trust his constancy?”
“I know. But Jane is with his child. It is the simplest solution,” said her husband. “What do you know of this Mr. Bingley, Darcy. Tell us everything.”
Darcy sighed. “I first knew of Bingley in university. His family was in carriage making business. His father amassed a lot of money and intended to buy a property and be a gentleman. But he died before he could do that. Mrs. Hurst married quite young. Hurst is old money, hence the townhouse in Grosvenor Place. Bingley is well known to be a friendly fellow. He had a lot of jolly friends there. His marks in university were passable, I believe. He did not drink to excess. Thinking back now, I think the angels I heard him paid off were not extremely good women. They were beautiful but liked to flirt around. Perhaps there are some truths with what Bingley had said. That he believed himself to be in love every time. I cannot understand it. But perhaps that is possible for some men. To fall in and out of love so easily.”
“Yes, that is always possible,” nodded Mrs. Gardiner. “But what a life for Jane! And what if he gets worse in future, after they marry? What if he brings women into the house, fall in and out of love, in front of Jane?”
Elizabeth gasped. “The children! It would be worse for the children to witness their parents in this kind of relationship.”
“Jane is such a sweet girl, and yet she will have a difficult decision to make,” murmured Mr. Gardiner. “I fail her. She was under my protection when this happened.”
Their discussion did not yield much more information or decision. The younger couple took their leave. Darcy and Elizabeth decided to return home, as they were tired from their emotional evening and the confrontation earlier.
Elizabeth would have liked to stay to talk with her aunt. But she could see that Mrs. Gardiner was drained from the revelation of Jane’s situation. Her eyes looked tired. Her aunt would need her husband’s comfort. Elizabeth did not want to be a burden.
The ride from Cheapside back to Darcy House was quiet. Mr. Darcy gazed at Elizabeth but did not try to engage her to talk.
She glanced at him from time to time but mostly looked at the passing scenes outside of the carriage. Their grand carriage attracted the eyes of the people on the streets. She did not notice that during the journey to her family. She was too pre-occupied then. But now, she could see people eyeing her with expressions of admiration, curiosity or sneer. Perhaps they knew she was the new Mrs. Darcy who came from nowhere.
She did not need their approval, but she did not want their censure either. She entered into this marriage for the benefit of Mr. Darcy’s wealth and protection. He offered a possible solution to solve Jane’s situation. Elizabeth felt mercenary, taking advantage of his love.
She did not love Mr. Darcy, and yet she allowed him to make her his wife, in a real way. She did not protest his wild and passionate union with her. And she forgave him rather easily. Was she too lenient to him? All because he was wealthy? Or because he said he would treat her well? Could she trust his words?
He might be a good landlord and a good brother, and he had not reduced Wickham to poverty, what did Elizabeth know about him? What did he like or dislike? What values did he most treasure in life?
Mr. Darcy found Elizabeth’s family wanting. From this whole affair with Mr. Bingley, and with Mr. Wickham, they were indeed lack of judgement. Elizabeth was guilty of prejudice too. They were all charmed by the cheerful gentlemen and threw caution to the wind. Would Mr. Darcy regret marrying her one day, when he thought her not discerning? Her upbringing not stellar?
Her head felt heavy with different thoughts whirling around. She needed her rest. He bided her goodbye outside of her door.
He brushed some unruly curls back behind her ear and whispered, “Sleep well, Elizabeth. You and your family are very dear to me now. I shall protect them and you.”
His face was honest and his voice sincere. Elizabeth was touched by them and stepped closer towards him. She did not know why. She wanted the warmth from his body.
She wanted him to come in, to hold her until she slept.
She did not know why she wanted that. Perhaps she felt Darcy was the only person in the whole of London whom she could talk to right now, about her confusion and concern. But she did not cross the last step, into his embrace. She just nodded, slipped into her room and into her sleep soon afterwards.
The sun dawned bright. Darcy waited for Elizabeth at the breakfast room with uncertainty. Would the day bring them closer together? He prayed in his mind for chances to show her his devotion and character.
When Elizabeth arrived, she looked more handsome than the day before, if that could be possible. Her eyes shone like the afternoon sun on a quiet lake. She dressed in a new gown he had never seen before. It was emerald in colour, simple and yet accentuated her curves. He remembered having a hard time before their marriage to persuade her to allow him to pay for her trousseau. He insisted on her ordering from his sister’s London modiste a range of clothes befitting the status of Mrs. Darcy. He had resorted to hinting words to Mrs. Bennet before Elizabeth agreed to three dresses from London for the time beginning. Her eyes were feisty with a glint then, when she argued that she would not want any expenses on her, without her active involvement in how the money was used.
From the cut and fabric of the gown, her new gown today was from one of the new collections. If they were not waiting for Miss Bennet’s arrival and that their relationship still fragile, Darcy would whisk Elizabeth off to the modiste and buy her the entire shop. He scolded himself for calling her not handsome enough before. He was attracted to her lively and witty personality after the first Assembly and then found her feature and figure very pretty not a few days afterwards. Now with the further enhancement of more elegant clothes, she was undoubtedly the most handsome woman he had seen.
“Good morning, Mr. Darcy.”
Her voice startled him from his dazed admiration. He rose, bowed and pulled out the seat for her, before the servant could do that. “Good morning, Mrs. Darcy.”
He was rewarded with a weak smile, which calmed his troubled mind. With the presence of the servants, he had taken to the formal greeting.
“It is a new day.”
She uttered the same words as the morning before. Darcy gazed at her, noticing the slight curve of her teasing lips. Now he was content. He replied with a smile. She would continue to be generous to him. He thanked God for that. “It is bright and sunny.”
“Could we go for a walk afterwards?”
“We most certainly can,” he nodded. “Did you sleep well?”
Seeing her blush, he wanted to smack himself on the head for the question. Of course, she did, you dole! You were not there to impose on her. He squirmed on his seat and lowered his eyes on the bread.
“I slept well, thank you.”
He sighed. Would they be destined to such politeness for the rest of their marriage? He did not want that. He wanted a life of bantering, teasing, companionship, and passion. He felt his mood drop. He racked his brain to think of some topics to bring out her lively self, but his tongue was tight.
“Excuse me, sir, an express for Mrs. Darcy.”
The servant’s interruption was a god sent. He received the express and handed it to his wife. She read it with an increasing frown and shared the news with him with a flustered face. “Jane would be here in six days’ time. Mama insisted that my sister gave me a week of…privacy before intruding on our new…marriage.”
Darcy’s lips tightened. He was surprised by Mrs. Bennet’s thoughtfulness but another week of delay would mean more danger of exposing Miss Bennet’s delicate condition. The way Elizabeth shifted on the chair could only mean there was more to the express.
“What did your father say?”
She bit her lips and lowered her eyes.
“We will go to the study, after we break our fast.” His words seemed to lift her spirit. She nodded, and they took their meal in silence quickly. He hoped she would trust him enough to share the detail of the express. He was her closest family now. He wanted to take care and protect her.
Once they were seated in the study, he asked again, “Is there no way for Miss Bennet to arrive earlier?’
She sighed and then squared up her shoulders. “Mama was difficult. She asked Jane to ask me to invite Lydia as well. Mama said Jane had her chances to secure a beau while she was in London during the winter. She did not take her chances then. She should not waste another one, especially this time it would be residing in your grand home.”
Her voice quivered towards the end of the rush speech. Her eyes turned to focus on the carpet. He did not know if tears threatened to drop from her eyes, but he hated seeing her in distress.
He rose from his chair and sat by her side on the chaise. Taking her hand and squeezed it. Her small hand was warm, but he could feel her trembling. “Your mother gave Miss Bennet a few days to persuade you to change the invitation?”
She raised her eyes and looked at him bravely. There were no tear but a dim bleakness. She nodded. “How very true you have been of regarding my family as misbehaving. You should have never tied yourself to me.”
He winced, hoping he had never uttered those words in Hunsford or that she would not remember them so precisely. “Please Elizabeth. Every family has some interesting members. I have my own, in the form of Lady Catherine de Bourgh.”
She smiled, though rather tightly. Darcy was encouraged. “Could I write to your mother? To appeal to her that you need Miss Bennet only and right now? I can be quite forceful in my demand.”
His face turned a shade of pink when he was reminded of his own unreasonable demands recently.
She shook her head. “Mother would not relent, and Father did not want to interfere. Jane is most wretched. She said Mother’s words reminded her of her sin. I fear for her state of my mind. I wish I could be with her, right now.”
“Then we shall go today, to fetch Miss Bennet in person.” He raised her hand to kiss it. She did not pull away but drew in a deep breath. “Can we?”
“Indeed. It will just be a few hours journey, to and from Hertfordshire.”
“No, we cannot.”
“Mama would think there is something wrong with us, for us to visit and whisk away Jane in such manner. Father will be suspicious too.”
“In that case, we will have to tell Mr. Bennet the entire matter, regarding your sister. He is your father. He deserves to know it too. We could tell him in person.”
Elizabeth bit her lips again, thought for a minute and shook her head. “Our return will cause a stir. Mother would throw a fit if she sensed anything untoward with Jane or our marriage. I think we should ask Uncle Gardiner to take the trouble of the trip, to inform Father and fetch Jane here.”
Darcy pondered for a moment. “That is a wise move. Do you want to write a note to your uncle or should I do it?”
“I shall do it.”
“I shall inform Bingley of the possible delay.”
“You can use the desk here.” He pointed to the smaller desk near the other side of the room. He had instructed the servants by post for it to be placed there a few days before his marriage, hoping that they would spend some time together during the day when they were handing correspondence.
He moved to sit behind his desk, quickly wrote his note, to have more time to admire her while she penned the note. He hoped the paper and pen were to her liking. The way the sun shone on her hair and silhouetted her profile while she wrote engraved the image in his mind. He thanked the Lord for giving him a second chance. He vowed to love and admire her for the next 50 or more years.
Once the notes were sent, he wanted to distract her from her turbulent thoughts. He suggested a tour of the house, and she agreed, as she had not done so correctly on the day she arrived.
“Where would you like to start?”
“Perhaps from below stairs.”
He raised his eyebrows. Elizabeth was like no other women of his acquaintance. He would expect most women wanting to explore the grandeur of Darcy House, starting from the grand ballroom, the spacious dining room to the fine portrait gallery. But she chose the tour from below stairs first. Perhaps she wanted to familiarise herself with the servants.
“I know Mrs. Watson can introduce the servants to me later on,” she said, confirming his thoughts. “But they have been very welcoming on the day I arrived. I would like to thank them personally and get to know them a bit better.”
He nodded with a proud smile, rose and extended his arm for her. She was indeed a wonderful woman. When they walked on, his pride surged on. She was warm, dignified and understanding when she was introduced to each servant. She tried to learn their names and duties, asking after their well being. The staff answered awkwardly at first, but soon her ease had made them feel more comfortable to express their views, even though his own imposing self was ever present by her side.
When they arrived at the kitchen, the servants were busy packing some cookies, cake and some plants.
“What are you preparing?” Elizabeth asked one of the elderly maids.
“Mistress, Mr. Darcy gives out food packages to six orphanages in London regularly. We are preparing a special one in celebration of his marriage with you, Ma’am.”
Elizabeth turned to look at him, with a clear look of surprise and respect. His face turned a shade of red. He hoped she did not believe him to be a mean-spirited gentleman. He had followed and expanded the effort of his parents and grandparents, supporting the poor houses and orphanages in London and Derbyshire.
“Why are the seedlings included in the package?”
“The Master wants to encourage them to grow some of them, wherever they can do so, for their own food.”
Elizabeth nodded. Her hand which was rested on his arm squeezed it. Ellen, the maid, continued, “The Master has asked the under-gardener to set up some beds for the growing of vegetables and herbs in some of the charity places, where it was suitable to grow, so they have less need to buy food.”
“That is a wonderful idea,” Elizabeth exclaimed.
“Yes, Mr. Darcy is the best of landlord, and he always has great schemes to help the poor.”
“Thank you, Ellen,” Mr. Darcy said, shifting his weight uncomfortably. It was better not to let Elizabeth think of any scheme. He steered his wife away from the kitchen and continued the tour. Finally, they finished the areas below the stairs. The entire morning was gone. After they had a quick meal, he proposed a visit to a museum or a bookshop.
“Your library is very well stocked. I think I would like to explore it this afternoon,” Elizabeth said and then added, “If you have business with the steward or want to go to the club, I am perfectly happy to be on my own.”
Darcy’s lips tightened. She did not desire my company! Or did she not want to be seen with me? Anger rose in his chest. He wanted to yell and demand that she did as he requested. But the troubles displayed in her eyes told the story and pierced through his furious skulk. Of course, she would not like to go out, with her beloved sister’s future so undecided and possibly bleak. How could she, someone with such compassion and caring nature, want to enjoy herself? His admiration for Elizabeth went up another notch. He suppressed his dark mood and said tenderly, “I am quite at leisure. May I accompany you to the library?”
She nodded her head and rose from the chair with eager. Her eyes sparkled as she gazed at him. This smoothed his inner beast. He told himself to be patient. His wife was like no other women he had met in his life. Elizabeth had a mind of her own. His wealth, the grandiose of his house or his ‘master of the manor’ attitude would not impress her. He needed to behave like a gentleman, every minute of the day and to every person, he came across.
When they arrived at the library, he let her browse around the shelves and rang for some refreshment. Once she retrieved a book and sat down by the window, Darcy could not help himself and act like Miss Bingley in Netherfield. He walked near her and spied her reading.
“What have you picked?” He said, sat down by her side and feigned interest in his own book, a dry text about crop planting.
“Measure for Measure,” she replied. “I have a mind for a comedy.”
“I see it less as a comedy but more about mercy and justice.”
Elizabeth cranked her head, gazed at him and shook her head. “I do not agree. Many of our laws were made by royalty and noblemen. I find them favour the makers, rather than the people. And how can you not see it as comical? Angelo did not even know that he had bedded Mariana, instead of Isabella. His lust blinded him, literally.”
Darcy stared at her with amazement. Did she chastise him, in a round about way? “You do not regard lust highly, I presume?”
“Do you?” Her eyes sparkled with a challenge. “I assume your pastor does preach against it.” She paused and bit her lips. “When you said you admire and love me ardently, against your will, against your reason, and even against your character, I did consider you were in lust and had mistaken it as love.” Her face turned bright red after the speech.
He opened his mouth to argue and then clamped it shut. He felt hurt that Elizabeth dismissed his feeling so easily. His face turned dark and his voice coarse when he uttered his reply, “if I were only in lust, I would not have offered for your hand in marriage.”
Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “You have considered, asking me to be your mistress?”
“Of course not!” Darcy cried out. “I am an honourable man. I have not kept a mistress in the past, and I do not intend to, in future.”
“I am sorry to have mistaken your feeling,” her voice softened. “but I cannot see that how someone like myself can attract your attention and make you fall in love with me.”
“You are one of the handsomest women in my acquaintance.”
She laughed out, with a healthy blush on her face. “I cannot imagine how you come to this conclusion. You can pick a few of women walking down the streets right now who look prettier than I.”
“Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. When you traipsed three miles of muddy lanes to Netherfield to take care of your sister, I could not look away from you.”
The crimson colour on her face continued to flourish. She darted Darcy a glance that bothered on flirting and said, “thank you for exaggerating my goodness.”
His heart pumped faster on seeing the teasing curl of her lips. He reached over and held her hand. “I shall use the rest of my life to prove to you how ardently I love you, my dearest and beautiful Elizabeth.”
Some hours later, Mr. Gardiner arrived with Mr. Bennet, Miss Bennet and unexpectedly Miss Mary. Elizabeth exclaimed in relief and delight when she saw her family, sans her mother.
“Papa! Jane, Mary, and Uncle,” she said, “I hope you made a good journey.”
Mr. Bennet waved his hands in dismissal. “Lizzy, not a word. Gentlemen we will retire to the library, if you have one. Darcy, you send a note to Bing.. to that man.” He then glared at Jane for a second, making her hung her head in guilt.
“Please follow the servant, Mr. Bennet,” Darcy said. “I shall pen the note in the study.” He walked near Elizabeth and whispered to her. “My dear, please take your sisters up to the guest rooms for a rest. I shall persuade your father to let Miss Bennet meet Bingley and decide her own future.” He then squeezed her hand.
Elizabeth nodded her head, happy that her husband understood her view and did not dismiss her participation as her father. She hurried her sisters upstairs. Luckily she had asked the housekeeper to prepare three bedchambers, if her mother and Lydia could not be dissuaded.
She and Jane helped Mary settle in her room and then the two eldest sisters went to Jane’s room together.
“Jane!” Elizabeth said softly and embraced her sister, after the door had been closed.
“I am sorry.” Jane placed her head on her shoulders and burst into tears.
Elizabeth patted her sister, until her sobs subsided. “Come, let me help you change out of the traveling clothes.” Jane let her help. Afterwards, Elizabeth urged her to rest on the chaise.
“Are you well?” Elizabeth said.
Jane nodded her head.
Jane nodded her head again.
“Was the meeting horrible?”
Jane lowered her eyes, and her voice trembled. “Uncle arrived in the morning. Father and he have shut in his study for nearly half an hour. Mother has been fluttering and running around, saying that she could not imagine why Uncle would be here and not greeted her first. Then Father called me into the room. After one look at his stunned and dark face, I knew he had known about my transgression. I wanted to die then.”
Elizabeth squeezed her hands. “Father will forgive you. You have the kindest heart, and you are the mildest temper daughter.”
“But I fail him, and I hid a secret from him.”
“You told me you were imposed upon. It is not your fault.”
She looked up at Elizabeth. “I had woken up in the middle of...I could have been firmer in refusing Charles.”
“You have refused him?” Elizabeth’s eyes flashed with anger.
“Only when my mind had become clearer. But by then we…we had been kissing for a few seconds…or minutes. He smelled of wine.”
“Then it is that blackguard’s fault! He should have stopped. No amount of alcohol can excuse his behaviour.”
“Please do not call Charles a blackguard,” Jane’s eyes turned tearful again. “He whispered sweet words to me…throughout the whole time. He said he loves me. He has never forgotten me. He did not want to listen to Mr. Darcy’s advice. He wanted to come back to Hertfordshire for me. He really is the most amiable gentleman I have ever known. I had only written to you because I had found out I am with child. I could have waited in silence, for him, forever.” Her voice rose, almost like she was yelling her declaration.
Elizabeth bit her lips, not sure if she agreed with Jane and her reasoning. Did it make it right if Mr. Bingley had been tender when he had taken Jane’s virtue? He had still overcome Jane’s objection. Elizabeth compared him to her husband. Mr. Bingley fell in and out of love all the time, and he had taken women to his bed so very easily. And on the day he had come to see Uncle, Mr. Bingley was so cheerful that he did not seem to think he had done something wrong.
Fitzwilliam fell in love so rarely, and he behaved very proper during their acquaintance. He had been rough with her on their wedding night, but he had confessed his demon and apologized to her profusely, even offering to leave Pemberley and England. She could see that he was genuinely remorseful. Her Mr. Darcy was a better man than Mr. Bingley. She felt that she could trust Mr. Darcy with her future. Her heart jumped a beat faster, on recognising this fact. She was so lucky, to have married to him.
From herself, she looked to Jane. Although Jane had said she was well, she did not look like it. Her eyes were swollen. Her shoulders stiff and the translucent colour of her skin had faded. Her eldest sister did not look her pretty self. The worries and anxiety of the past few weeks had been hard on her.
“So Charles has come for me?” Jane’s voice startled Elizabeth from her reverie.
“Yes, yesterday, at Gracechurch Street.”
Jane’s expression lit up, and she looked at Elizabeth with wide eyes. “Has he asked for my hand in marriage?”
“Then all shall be fine,” she sighed with a small smile. “I hope Father will forget about the whole thing soon.”
Elizabeth opened her mouth and wanted to ask Jane if all really would be fine. Did Jane ever wonder why Fitzwilliam had advised Mr. Bingley away from Netherfield? Did she ever think of why Mr. Bingley could not behave like a gentleman, under the influence of wine? But looking at her sister’s serene countenance, Elizabeth had decided not to raise the questions. When Fitzwilliam asked them to attend the meeting downstairs, she was sure Papa would become very stern with Mr. Bingley. It would upset Jane then. Elizabeth instead chose to change the topic.
“And how did Mary come to travel with Papa and you?”
“Mother had wanted Lydia to come to London, in my place, when your letter came yesterday. She thought Lydia should have a chance to be in ‘the path of rich men’.”
“Yes, I know,” Elizabeth said, rolling her eyes. “Mama has sent me an express. She thought I had asked you to come to London for no reason.”
“Mother is kept in the dark. We cannot blame her. Papa has invented an excuse, said he missed you already so he would be coming with me. Mother has relaunched into her reasons, why Lydia should come or else the whole family should come here. Papa has jested with her that Mr. Darcy would surely abandon you, if our whole family would descend onto his house just a few days after your marriage.”
Elizabeth clenched her fist tight. She was angry that Fitzwilliam had been jested about by her family. He had been such a good man, to help them with this difficult situation.
Jane continued, “and he continued that if Mama wanted to throw another of her daughters to the hands of rich men, it should be Mary’s turn, by the mere fact she is the second in line.”
Elizabeth shook her head. Her father was so careless with his words. No wonder Lydia was wild at your age and mother spoke without proprietary. Although his words had been effective in preventing Mother and Lydia from coming to London, Elizabeth was not happy about the entire situation. The night of the Netherfield ball when her family had decided to embarrass themselves in front of Fitzwilliam and the Bingleys had come back to daunt on her.
Luckily, Fitzwilliam had sent a servant to ask for the two ladies downstairs and prevented Elizabeth from her depressing thoughts. When they entered the study, Mr. Bingley jumped up from his seat. “Jane!” He would have dashed forward to greet Miss Bennet had Mr. Bennet not stepped in front of him.
“Stop being melodramatic! And no calling my daughter Jane. You are not in the position to do so yet.” Mr. Bennet glared at him.
“Yes, Sir.” Mr. Bingley retracted and sat back down in his chair. But he was smiling.
“Lizzy, I do not like this, but your Mr. Darcy insisted that I should ask for Jane and you. If it was left to me, I would have just sent this man here to apply for the marriage licence tomorrow, had the thing done with and retired to your husband’s wonderful library now.”
Elizabeth’s face turned red. She did not understand how her father could have made fun of the whole situation. It was his daughter’s entire life in the future. Fitzwilliam came to her aid and took her hand and guided her to sit down. She felt touched and blessed by his caring. She mouthed a thank you to him, and he took the seat by her side.
“Mr. Bennet,” Fitzwilliam said, “now that the ladies are present, should we ask Mr. Bingley to explain his piece?”
Her father sat down and waved his hands to Mr. Bingley. “Go on.”
Mr. Bingley grinned and pulled his waistcoat. “Miss Bennet, I have come, as promised. Would you do me the honour of becoming my wife?”
Elizabeth did not like Mr. Bingley’s speech or countenance at all. He treated the whole thing as a joke, and his proposal did not mention his guilt, his transgression or his promise. Although he had to propose in front of a roomful of people, Elizabeth felt that he could have said more. Fitzwilliam’s hand was tight on hers too. She darted a look at her husband and knew that he was not happy either.
“Yes! Yes!” Jane replied. Her eyes sparkled, and her smile was broad.
“That is wonderful!” Mr. Bingley cried out.
“Not so hasty, Jane!” Mr. Bennet said. “Did you forget to tell him something?”
“Oh, do I have to?” she said in a low voice.
Elizabeth groaned. Where had the good sense of her sister gone to? How could she think that she could hide something as important as that from the man who wanted to marry her?
“Of course!” Mr. Bennet exclaimed. “I do not want him to send you back, after the marriage.”
Her father’s cruel and crude words pierced into Elizabeth’s heart. She closed her eyes for a second until Fitzwilliam fingers rubbed her palm in a circular motion and distracted her to open her eyes and looked at her husband. He had a warm and tender expression on his face. She felt less embarrassed by her family and pulled more to her husband.
Jane’s eyes turned tearful again, and her lips trembled. “I…I…”
Mr. Bingley looked from Mr. Bennet to Jane in puzzlement. His grin had dimmed slightly, but he did not say anything to help Jane. Man! Jane will be your wife soon. Ask her what is wrong. Overrule Papa’s ire and come over to hold her. Elizabeth bit her teeth as she thought.
“Should I know something?” Mr. Bingley said. Again, it was all about him!
“My daughter is with child, your child! What did you have to say, scoundrel?”
“Please Papa,” Jane exclaimed. “Mr. Bingley is not a scoundrel.”
“How can you defend him? He has taken your virtue. What have I done wrong? What have I taught you throughout the years?” Mr. Bennet yelled.
Elizabeth did not pay attention to her family’s argument. She was keenly looking at Mr. Bingley’s response to the news that Jane was with child. He looked surprised, not too happy but not angry either. He frowned and then shrugged his shoulders, not paying attention that Jane was being reprimanded by her father for defending him. Elizabeth did not like what she saw. It looked as if Mr. Bingley did not care about Jane that much. She looked at Fitzwilliam and her uncle. Both of them had their lips pursed.
“That is unexpected,” Mr. Bingley murmured.
“Unexpected!” Mr. Bennet exclaimed. “What do you expect every time you lower your trousers to bed women?”
Jane and Elizabeth’s face turned bright red. Mr. Bingley rubbed his jaw with his fingers. “I was not thinking…”
“Clearly!” Mr. Bennet snickered.
“I will try to get a marriage licence, and we can marry soon enough. Caroline will not be happy…”
Elizabeth’s bosom heaved. She wanted to hit Mr. Bingley on the head. How could he not say one word about the baby and Jane? “And what did Miss Bingley have to do with the whole thing?” she burst out, not able to hold her anger.
Mr. Bingley loosened his cravat. “Nothing. We wanted a big wedding.”
“We?” Elizabeth continued. “You discussed offering for Jane with Miss Bingley? And the only concern for the two of you was about how grand the wedding is going to be?”
“Hmm, Caroline lives with me. She will be affected by whom I marry.” So your sister is more important than Jane or the baby! And Miss Bingley wants a grand wedding for you? Why?
“So Miss Bingley approves of Jane?” Elizabeth could not hide the scorn in her voice. Or else you do not dare to come here? This sentence was left hanging in the air. The three gentlemen were breathing heavily as well. But Jane did not seem to be affected by the turn of the conversation. She just gazed at Mr. Bingley with admiring eyes.
“Indeed she asked…,” He paused. “…no matter. Mr. Darcy, can you help me apply for a marriage licence tomorrow? I do not know where to go and how much it will cost?”
“Jane, so you have decided to take this man?” Mr. Bennet said.
Elizabeth frowned. There was more to Mr. Bingley’s offer, and Miss Bingley had been involved. Why did Papa not ask further? She was sure Jane could not depend on Mr. Bingley. What would her life be like, to be tied to such a weak man and his manipulative sister?
“Indeed, Father,” Jane said sweetly. “I will be honoured to become Mr. Bingley’s wife.”
“Capital!” Mr. Bingley rose. “Mr. Darcy?” He looked at Fitzwilliam eagerly.
“Mr. Bennet,” Fitzwilliam said. “what about Mr. Bingley’s settlement paper?”
“Edward,” Mr. Bennet said to Uncle Gardiner. “can you discuss it for me? I am tired from the journey, and I think I will retire to the library.”
Elizabeth’s mouth gaped open. She wanted to tell her father to stay and demand a better display of behaviour by Mr. Bingley and Jane. But her father had already risen and left the study. Without her father here and Jane bent on marrying Mr. Bingley, what could Uncle and Fitzwilliam do?
“Sit down, Mr. Bingley,” Uncle instructed sternly.
The younger man sat down. Uncle turned to look at Fitzwilliam, and he nodded his head.
Uncle started, “Before we discuss the settlement paper, I want to know more about your sisters’ involvement in the whole affairs.”
Mr. Bingley shifted in the seat. “Nothing, really. I only told Caroline I would be asking for Jane’s hand in marriage.” He turned his eyes to look at Jane, like he was besotted but Elizabeth had a feeling he was trying to avoid the other two gentlemen’s piercing gaze.
“And when did you tell Miss Bingley?” Fitzwilliam asked.
“A few weeks ago,” Mr. Bingley said. “and why the Spanish Inquisition? I have already offered for Jane.” He wanted to marry Jane some weeks ago. But why did he not come back for her earlier? If he is not lying, I would not have to ask Fitzwilliam for help. Mr. Bingley is hiding something.
“Yes, Uncle,” Jane interrupted. “surely there is no need to ask more questions. Now that Father has agreed to our engagement.”
“My dear,” Uncle said. “we just want to make sure he will treat you well in future. That he will not let his sisters dictate his action.”
“Come on, Mr. Gardiner,” Bingley cried out. “I am not a rake. I was only drunk, and I do love Jane. Caroline and Louisa are nice persons. You will know that when you know them longer. They just want what is best for me.” Elizabeth looked at her husband who shook his head. He knew something was not right either.
Uncle Gardiner pursed his lips and asked again, “Where do you intend to live, after you marry?”
“In Hurst’s townhouse,” Mr. Bingley said, then looking at Uncle’s dark expression, he added quickly, “I will, I am looking to buy a townhouse myself.”
“Why do you not go back to Netherfield?” Fitzwilliam said.
“Caroline…,” Mr. Bingley paused and then said, “…I think being a landlord is not something I like. I have asked my solicitor to request an early release from the lease.”
“That is not a satisfactory situation,” Uncle Gardiner said. “to start a family under another household.”
“Truly Uncle, I do not mind to stay with the Hursts,” Jane said.
Uncle thought for a second. “No, Jane, your father asked me to negotiate the settlement paper. Mr. Bingley is rich enough. I insist that he rents a townhouse in London and buys one within the year. It shall be given to you, in the event of any possible separation of the two of you.”
“Uncle, I do not expect to be separated from Charles at all!”
Uncle walked to sit by Jane side and took her hand. “Jane, you must trust me. I fail you when you stayed at my place and were imposed upon by this young man. I must demand the best for you. I do not want to see you unhappy in the future.”
Jane opened her mouth to argue, but Elizabeth interrupted her. “Jane, Uncle is right. Please let him negotiate for you. You have to think of the baby too.” Jane put her hand on her abdomen, then looked at her family and nodded her head.
“What say you, Mr. Bingley?” Uncle said.
“It is expensive…,” Bingley started the sentence and paused, after seeing Uncle and Fitzwilliam’s face. “…but for my lovely Jane, I shall do it. But with the baby coming, it is urgent that we marry at once. I will go look for a townhouse to rent after the wedding.”
“No, I prefer the rental to be settled first,” Uncle Gardiner said. He clearly did not trust Mr. Bingley. “your solicitor must be resourceful. You just have to be firm with him with your instruction.”
“I know of Captain Linton’s house about two blocks from Hurst’s townhouse. It is of excellent condition.” Fitzwilliam said. “The family is in India for a year, and they want to rent it out. It has just been vacant for about two weeks.”
“Good,” Uncle Gardiner said. “Darcy, can you pen a note to the Linton’s solicitor? Mr. Bingley, Jane and I will look at the place tomorrow, if it is convenient to the Linton.”
“Caroline…” Bingley said and then stopped, “May I ask my sister to come along? As she will live there with us too.”
“No, Mr. Bingley.” Uncle Gardiner said. “It is time you put my niece’s needs ahead of anyone else.”
“Uncle, it is fine for Miss Bingley to come along,” Jane said, apparently not wanting to cause a rift in the Bingley family.
“No, I insist,” Uncle Gardiner said. “this is your home, Jane. I will not be gainsaid on this.”
“Yes, sir,” Bingley murmured. “Is that all? Should we go get the marriage licence tomorrow, Darcy?”
After Mr. Bingley had left, the occupants in Darcy House had a quiet dinner and retired early. Darcy looked at Elizabeth longingly as she went with her sisters to their guest chambers. He felt abandoned but berated himself immediately for having such a thought. You were first attracted to Elizabeth because of her devotion to her loved ones. How could you wish that she put your needs before her family? She did not marry you for love.
He dragged his legs to his room. His valet readied him for bed.
Soon, Darcy lay down on top of the counterpane with his hands under his head and tried to think of how to help Elizabeth’s family. Actually, he was spending the time thinking about his wife. How beautiful and feisty she was for her sister!
He jumped up from the bed as the sound of knocking came from the door leading to the mistress chamber. His heart raced. Could Elizabeth want to spend the night with him? Calming his voice, he called out, “Come in.”
Elizabeth opened the door as he was grabbing a dressing gown to cover his nightshirt. His heart beat faster still, on seeing her lovely vision. Her curly mane cascaded down over her shoulders. She was wearing a white cotton gown, apparently an old garment from her days in Longbourn. She frowned and did not seem to see him with mouth gaped open or hear his loud beating heart.
“Fitzwilliam, I need to talk to you.” She marched past him and sat on the chaise near the windows, without noticing him shifting his weight from one leg to another as his eyes followed her alluring body deep into his room. Her use of his Christian name made him giddy too.
He bowed formally and said, “Yes, Elizabeth.”
She raised her head and looked at him, like for the first time. “You are too tall.”
Darcy didn’t know how to respond to such a comment. She patted the space beside her and continued, “Pray sit down. I do not want you to tower over me.”
He would do anything to be near her. His legs jerked into action immediately, and he dropped down right next to her like a flash of lightning. The lavender fragrance spread from her body to his nose. He felt the blood in his vein cruising and drew in a deep breath to calm his nerve.
“Yes, Elizabeth?” Like an imbecile, he repeated the words and hoped that she would take the lead in the conversation. His head was muddled by her nearness.
“Do you believe in Mr. Bingley?” Her flashing fine eyes pierced into his.
Drowning in the depth of her dark eyes, he felt excited that she chose to seek his opinion of crucial matters. Their relationship seemed to be on the mend. He wished to win her love one day and that day would be coming soon. “About his love for your sister?”
She nodded. “And about his sister’s involvement.”
“It is possible that Mr. Bingley loves Miss Bennet in a way. But I think he is hiding something about Miss Bingley.”
“In a way? How can love be in a way?” Her voice rose, and her hands gestured heatedly. She seemed to be talking to herself, as she continued immediately. “How can he fall in love so easily? And when faced with rejection from a woman or for some weak reasons, he falls out of love and moves onto another quickly? Why did he not fight for any of his past angels? If Jane wasn’t at Hurst’s townhouse on that day, if they hadn’t breached proprietary, would he have forgotten Jane too?”
Darcy understood her concern, but there were men like this in the world. “That could be possible.”
“So there are men whose hearts are not constant?”
“Unfortunately yes. There are women with similar hearts too.”
“But that is most frustrating. What if Jane and Mr. Bingley have an argument and he meets another angel a day afterwards? Will he just choose not to reconcile with Jane and falls in love with another? There is something not right about Mr. Bingley, if he acts like this!”
Seeing her agitation, he continued. “I believe love is as much an endeavour as an emotion. Two persons may love at first sight. But if they do not ‘work’ towards making love work and last, love can flounder. After all, time can heal, as well as make an emotion fade away. If they encourage and nurture the emotion, their love will be strong, everlasting and constant.” Like my own, he added in his mind.
Elizabeth crooked her head to one side and gazed at him. “Why? If they love each other, why will they choose to let their love frizzle away?”
“Work is hard. Some people tend to choose the easy way out, by letting emotion run its course. The man can be busy with his business, she with her children. If they do not talk and share their lives, they will one day find out that they think so differently, that they cannot find common ground.”
She nodded her head. “Yes, like my parents. And by the same logic, if a man loves a woman more and she shies away, he will be so discouraged that love will die one day.”
Darcy’s heart seized for a moment. He hoped she was not predicting their future.
She sighed loudly. “If Jane is happy with this kind of shaky love, I shall not discourage her from marrying him. But did you see his entire interaction with Father?”
“Yes, he did not think of Miss Bennet’s needs that much.”
Her voice rose again. Darcy wanted to cradle her and smooth away the worries in her chest.
“He cares more about Miss Bingley than Jane,” she added.
Darcy nodded his head. “He said he told Miss Bingley his wish to marry Miss Bennet several weeks ago. It did not feel right.”
Elizabeth frowned. “I agree. But why is that important to know?”
“You said on the 11th of April that Miss Bennet had met Mr. Bingley about three weeks prior.”
“That means Miss Bennet visited the Hursts alone around the 22nd of March,” Darcy said. “Today is the 21st of April. Bingley said he had told Miss Bingley ‘several’ weeks ago that he wanted to marry Miss Bennet. I will not use the word ‘several’ unless it is over three weeks ago. But Bingley said he had gone away in the North to think. Could he have decided to marry your sister after just one week away? He then informed Miss Bingley, most probably by letter immediately afterwards. If that was the case, why did he wait until yesterday to come to your uncle’s house?”
Elizabeth frowned and thought for a second. “If your estimation is correct, he might have written to ask Miss Bingley’s permission to marry Jane. That snooty woman refused at first but only agreed recently. That did not bide well with me.” Her eyes widened after a few seconds. “That can only mean that Miss Bingley allowed her brother to ask Jane for her hand after they knew of our marriage!”
Darcy admired his wife’s quick wit. He had thought of that possibility earlier but didn’t want to sound too prideful, about his position and connection in society. He had to learn about being humble. “Yes, it is entirely possible, or he could be telling a lie.”
Her eyes rolled. “You mean Mr. Bingley only told his sister recently, not several weeks ago?”
He nodded his head.
“Then it is even more possible that he did so, encouraged by Miss Bingley, for a connection to your family. I cannot think of a difference in Jane’s situation recently to induce Mr. Bingley to change his mind. He did not know Jane is with child…unless he only figures out he wants to marry Jane now.”
“Elizabeth, you are a Darcy now,” he reminded her softly.
She blushed. “What can they gain from us then? Although not as wealthy as you, Mr. Bingley is quite rich himself,” she murmured. “Maybe Miss Bingley is vying for an introduction to the Almack’s or hoping to put her brother Mr. Hurst to the House of Lords through your uncle.”
Darcy nearly choked on her remarks. “I do not think Hurst is material for the House of Lords. But now that Miss Bingley is disappointed in her ambition to become the Mistress of Pemberley, she may want to cast her net to other rich gentlemen via my connection.”
Elizabeth bit her lips. “Indeed. Miss Bingley has made her interest in you very blatantly while we were at Netherfield. How long have you known her?”
“I have known Bingley as an acquaintance since Cambridge and the Hursts slightly afterwards,” he frowned. “They said Miss Bingley was away in a seminary and then in the continent. I have only been introduced to her two years ago.”
“In the continent? Did she have a grand tour too? During such a turbulent time? That is most singular, for a single young lady with fortune.”
“I think Hurst said Miss Bingley was learning to paint in Italy.” Now that Elizabeth raised the issues, Darcy remembered his thoughts were similar to Elizabeth's at that time when Hurst mentioned it. “Indeed, there is something odd here.”
“In what way?”
“I have never seen Miss Bingley paint or heard her mention about painting during our acquaintance.”
Elizabeth’s eyes flashed brightly. “For someone devoted to learning painting away from England, it does seem odd. Could she be hiding away overseas?”
They stared at each other, both not ready to speculate the reason for Miss Bingley’s absence in England for the past years. Darcy's mind was racing in miles. Could the socially aspiring Miss Bingley be with child and was sent overseas to prevent a scandal? It was a line of enquiry worth pursuing. How was it relevant to Bingley’s return to offering for Miss Bennet? Would knowing it to be beneficial to Miss Bennet in ensuring the happiness of her marriage?
“Do you find Mr. Bingley bowing to her commands?” Elizabeth’s voice started him from his thought.
Darcy pondered for a second. “Yes, most of the time, Bingley is too affable to go against his older sisters’ demands.”
“And Miss Bingley has been in hot pursuit of you?”
He smiled at her term. “Ever since we met.”
Elizabeth crinkled her nose. “I do not like this, not one tiny bit. Even if Uncle gets Mr. Bingley to settle a townhouse to Jane, how can she escape Miss Bingley’s interference? Jane is kind, obliging and innocent. I have a doomed feeling about her marriage already, even before she begins it.”
“Perhaps Miss Bingley will marry soon.” Darcy considered the situation again. If he found out Miss Bingley’s real reason to be away from England, he might be able to demand Bingley to ask his sister to live somewhere else. Then the interference to Miss Bennet would be less. Could he be that ruthless? Surely for Elizabeth’s peace of mind, Darcy would do it.
“Yes, perhaps your connection is needed, after all, to help Miss Bingley find a rich husband, fast.” She paused. “I am so sorry, Fitzwilliam.” She sighed.
She moved closer to him and laid her head on his shoulders. He froze stiff, wanting to wrap his hand around her shoulders but was afraid that she would bolt. Her hair smelt of fresh flowers. Their soft curly texture smoothed over his muscles. Heat radiated from there all over his body. Every breath she took sent a tingle on his nerve. She murmured, “I took advantage of your affection and forced you to marry me to save Jane.”
She cut him short and continued, “Father is neglectful and hurtful to my sisters. He could only talk about your library. Now, it seems Mr. Bingley could only be induced to marry Jane because of your connection.”
Her voice trembled and Darcy couldn’t bear to see her hurt anymore. He rubbed his hands around her shoulders. Even through the cotton fabric, he could feel the softness of her body, the smoothness of her skin and the smallness of her bones. His palms were ablaze, spreading raw fire to his groin. But rather than thinking of his carnal needs, he wanted to lessen her anxiety. “There is no need to apologise. I vow to take care of you, in whatever way.” She shivered, and he could feel the coldness in her palms as she wrapped her hands around his waist.
“You are cold, let me stir the fire or take you back to your bed.” He was reluctant to let her go, but he must put her needs before his.
She nodded. Darcy wasn’t sure what she wanted but since her hands didn’t relinquish his waist to let him stand up. He decided to scoop her up and take her to her bed. She gasped as he picked her up but continued to rest her head on his shoulders. Her hands shifted to place around his neck. He felt happy that she trusted him now and didn’t find him repulsive. It was significant progress since his transgression on the wedding night.
He strolled across the room, past the door, and into Elizabeth’s chamber. How he wished the walk would last forever? He wanted her warmth and trust in his hands till eternity. But it was just a short walk. When he lowered her gently onto the bed, she didn’t let go of him. She didn’t say a word. He would feel ungentlemanly to grasp her hands to push her away and extract himself.
He paused and let her take the lead.
She remained still.
The beating of his heart was so loud that he felt it echo in the quiet room. Elizabeth didn’t comment about it so he assumed only he could hear it. Gingerly, he lay down next to her and pulled the blanket to cover both of them. He held his breath, afraid that any slight movement, even as little as drawing a breath, would cause her to move away from him. His hands on his side and his eyes looked out of the window, not daring to look at her.
Only when she moved to rest her head on his shoulder again and her hands around his waist did he dare to put his hands over her back. He marveled at her soft curve, pressing lightly against his hard body, tantalising his muscles and nerve. All too soon her even breathing told him she had found peace sleeping by his sides. That gave him a smile on his face. What a wonderful day? Elizabeth came to him willingly. They shared their worries and views like a loving couple. She wouldn’t let him go. She trusted him enough to sleep in his arms. He got to hold her, breathed with her, and embraced her. He thanked the Lord and vowed to show her his love and devotion, every day, every minute of their lives together. She was the best of women, most worthy of his affection. For her, he would make himself a better man. Finally, he fell asleep, drifted off to a deep and peaceful sleep.
The bright sunlight shone through the windows and the curtains. Darcy’s eyes fluttered open. What a gorgeous summer day and the warmth in the bedroom made him want to kick away the blanket and dip into a cold bath. Yet, the scent in the room lured him to relax and savour the silence of the morning. The air mixed with morning freshness and a fragrance that spoke of femininity. How could that be?
He wanted to stretch his arms above his head and explored the source of the sensual perfume, but the movement of his body was restricted. He rubbed his eyes, scanned the surrounding for a second and discovered where he was. He was in the mistress chambers, with Elizabeth lying by his side. Her even breathing brushed his jaw. She had one arm on his waist and a leg over his. The closeness of her lush, soft body made his skin ablaze.
He raised his upper body gingerly, careful not to wake her. After he had moved sufficiently away, enough to observe her, he feasted his eyes on her lovely shape. Her dark curly mane framed her oval face. Even though her fine eyes were closed, he could still feel the wittiness radiating from her face. As his eyes lowered, he devoured the creamy curves of her neck, porcelain white shoulders and the swell of her breasts. His heart beat faster, and his body trembled with needs. Dragging his eyes from her enticing cherry tips, somewhat visible under a thin layer of fabric; he continued the path down her body. The undulating slope of her hips and the supple thighs proved to be an even stronger temptation.
He ached to sniff and lick every part of Elizabeth’s bewitching body. He wanted to hear her groan and moan when he suckled her nipples. He craved to feel her tremble and shiver when he rubbed her sex. He yearned to sense her grasp and grip his hips when he thrust into her body slowly. On the wedding night, he was so driven by his anger and lust that he reached his peak within seconds. He had shamefully taken his pleasure without giving her any.
Next time, when they joined as husband and wife, he vowed to let Elizabeth relish in the intimacy of the union. Every inch of her body would be cherished and admired. He would bring her to new heights again and again before satiating his own needs. She deserved to be loved and worshiped, for putting up with his boorish behaviour before and at the wedding.
But right now, he would allow her to take control as to when they would join together again. He would respect her decision. He wanted to win her heart and ultimately her love. Only by treating her as his equal could they become a true partner in life. He would put his lust on hold and court her with his intelligence and integrity.
Lazing in bed and savouring the aroma and image of her charming figure would not help his course.
Think! Darcy urged himself to think of something more mundane than the gorgeous body of his wife.
As if responding to his mental call, Elizabeth moved, slightly closer to him. Her breasts pressed against his torso tightly as she rubbed her face against his neck.
He paused, swallowed hard and prayed for his desire to go away. He did not want to frighten Elizabeth away with his urges, after the most “friendly” night they had shared.
“Fitzwilliam?” She raised her head and asked him in a groggy voice. Her eyes flickered open slowly. He wanted desperately to kiss the long eyelashes that framed her lively eyes.
“Yes, Elizabeth.” He replied in a similar husky tone. Just be able to call her by her first name elated him. It portrayed an intimacy that tied them together. He didn’t dare to touch her skin, for fear that the lusty blood in his body would lead him astray. He would be happy as her friend for the moment. He would take time to advance their friendship later on, until she could trust him more.
“How did you come to sleep here?” Her question stopped his heart for a second. Did it lace with the accusation? Darcy was fearful to glance at her eyes. He didn’t want to see any censure on her face. That could mean a step backward from their fragile understanding. He opened his mouth to explain about the night before, but she murmured, “Oh I remember. I came to talk to you, and I must have fallen asleep. But were we not in your chamber…”
Her voice slowed, and he picked up the sentence, “Yes, you did, and I carried you back here.”
“You wouldn’t let go…”
Her face turned crimson. “I am sorry.” She turned her head slightly, away from his gaze.
On impulse, he raised his fingers to push some unruly strands curls behind her ears. “There is no need to apologise. I enjoyed…I mean I like talking and sharing the night…with you.”
She bit her lips before arching her mouth into a small smile. The shade of pink still adorned her face. She raised her hand to touch her cheek. After an audible sigh, she raised and moved back away from his body. He felt an instant chilling in his heart. How he loved to embrace her, for eternity!
“Perhaps we should rise. We have a lot to do this morning.” She said in a low voice, pleasant but rather formal.
He nodded his head and followed her action reluctantly. Before he left her bed, she grasped his hand and gave it a squeeze. His heart pulsed, faster. He felt encouraged by her friendly gesture. As he gawked at their hands, then her face, she gave him a reassuring smile. He responded with a shy curl of his lips. Much to his surprise, she pulled him close to her and pressed a kiss on his cheek.
He drew in a deep breath and uttered a loud thank you. His legs finally found their rhythm. He marched back to his bedchamber, head higher, steps lighter and with a much larger grin, ready to face the day, with her seal of friendship.
Breakfast was a quiet affair.
Mr. Bennet and Miss Mary were persons of a little conversation. They would not join the rest of the party to inspect the Linton townhouse.
With murmurs of “browsing some rare books” and “practicing on the fine pianoforte”, father and daughter left the breakfast room eagerly.
Darcy heard Elizabeth sighed loudly. Her face turned bright red as she lowered her head to focus on the bread on her plate. He itched to abandon his seat and rushed to her side, reassuring her that he would not be hurt by her family’s eccentric behaviour. She was a woman worthy of his regards, she and she alone.
But proprietary and the presence of Miss Bennet at the breakfast table prevented his action. He cleared his throat and asked, “Is your room to your satisfaction, Miss Bennet?”
“Yes, Mr. Darcy, it is very comfortable,” Jane replied with a sweet disposition.
“And are you feeling well,” Elizabeth found her voice as well. “after the journey yesterday?”
“It was not tiring. The carriage Mr. Darcy sent for us was most comfortable.”
There was nothing more to add. Elizabeth and her eldest sister both lost deep in their thoughts. Darcy himself did not know what topic to start. Soon, the three of them went to Linton’s residence to meet the Gardiners and Bingley.
Bingley’s manner remained cheerful and pleasant. He asked after Jane’s health and escorted her inside the house, behaving very much like an eager suitor. Darcy observed their interaction with keen interest. He could feel Elizabeth’s hands tightened on his arm as she walked beside him. He patted her fingers and turned to study her.
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows and gestured Darcy to continue his surveillance of Bingley’s action. He nodded his head and turned his attention back to the young gentleman.
“It seems as large as Hurst’s townhouse,” Bingley said, as they walked into the dining room. Linton’s solicitor, Mr. Ellis stayed in the front parlour after admitting them into the house.
Darcy agreed and added, “Captain Linton is the second son of Earl of Barrow. He inherited this townhouse from his maternal grandmother, the Countess of Berwick.” Linton’s fortune was slightly larger than Bingley’s.
“Hmm, I wonder if we need such a large place…” Bingley’s voice trailed as he talked to Miss Bennet who nodded her head obediently. Mr. Gardiner’s countenance turned dark. Elizabeth’s fingers applied more pressure on Darcy’s arm.
“Jane, did Miss Bingley not comment on our visit in January that Mr. Hurst’s residence is on the small side, for four people?” Mrs. Gardiner said in a clipped voice. She was still furious with what Bingley had done to Jane, and she didn’t hesitate to remind him of his arrogant sister’s poor manner.
Jane blushed and said, “I cannot remember.” She clearly desired to keep everyone at peace.
“Did Caroline say so?” Bingley murmured with an innocent expression.
Mr. Gardiner said, “Thank you, Magdalene, for reminding us about Miss Bingley’s preference. If she finds Mr. Hurst’s house too small, Mr. Bingley, you should find this one adequate. My niece comes from a small estate. I can assure you her character is most modest. She does not marry you for the money, but since she is expecting and your sister will be living here with you for the moment, I do not see how this will be too large for four persons.”
“Uncle,” Jane said in a timid voice. “We are to start a family soon, if Charles feels that we should save the money…”
“No, no,” Bingley denied quickly. “Money is no objection, for you, my lovely Jane.”
Darcy’s patience was wearing thin. He found Bingley’s devoted expression not genuine at all. He turned to look at Elizabeth. She rolled her eyes at such blatant appearance of flattery in Bingley’s part as well. That drew a small smile on Darcy’s face.
“Good, if money is no objection, it is decided that the house is not too big.” Mrs. Gardiner said. “Let us move on to inspect the bedchambers.”
As the party strolled along the corridor and rooms upstairs, Bingley often came up with some negative comments about the house. Darcy thought they went against Bingley’s typical obliging behaviour.
“Hmm, the windows seem rather large, we will need more wood in the winter,” he commented. Miss Bennet agreed quietly.
Mrs. Gardiner then retorted, “It seems similar in size as the ones in Mr. Hurst’s townhouse.” Her eldest niece concurred, in a way as well.
Bingley then moved onto another area, “Ah, is that not a damp patch on the ceiling? I fear the roof may need some work.”
“That should be the work of the landlord,” Mr. Gardiner said impatiently.
Darcy followed the other two couples, listening to their comments with a frown. Why was Bingley unwilling to set up another household from the Hursts? The rent was quite reasonable and the house in good order. The location was near to the Hursts. With the lease of Netherfield to be terminated soon, Bingley could afford the rent of this townhouse very comfortably. Darcy made a mental note to investigate further into Bingley’s finance. Was there something amiss in that quarter? Miss Bennet had to marry Bingley now. It was her wish as well. There was nothing Elizabeth, and he could have done. Darcy hoped he would not unearth any dirt about Bingley. If he did, at least Miss Bennet could be protected, as early as possible. He knew Elizabeth would not be happy, unless her sister were safe and well.
When the party returned downstairs and moved to the East parlour, a commotion was heard at the door. Mr. Ellis came into the East parlour, bringing with him two elegant ladies.
“Caroline! What are you doing here? And Victoria! You are here too.” Bingley’s face turned a shade of red. His surprise at seeing his sister seemed genuine enough. Still, that did not make the Gardiners happier. After all, Mr. Gardiner expressly told Bingley not to have his sister come for the inspection.
Darcy bid the solicitor away.
Miss Bingley spoke up immediately. “I happened to walk by with Victoria and saw Mr. Darcy’s carriage outside,” She stared at her brother with an accusing look for a second. “Of course I have to enquire after his wife’s and his health. But that atrocious man! Who does he think he is? A mere solicitor! Baring my entrance and not willing to pass on my message. But I prevail! Enough of that, Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, how are you? You both look exceptionally well.” Her face turned bright and cheery within second, and she smiled at Elizabeth. Darcy was astonished by Miss Bingley’s newfound countenance. Her usual snide expression towards Elizabeth during the time they stayed in Hertfordshire was erased without a trace. She seemed determined to become Elizabeth’s best friend.
“Thank you, Miss Bingley,” Elizabeth replied in a cold voice but her squeeze on Darcy’s arm told another different story. He could tell that his wife was angry with the sudden appearance of Miss Bingley. “Mr. Darcy and I are in good health.”
“You must allow me to congratulate you on your marriage,” Miss Bingley cooed. “It was the talk of the town. How was your gown like? Was it made by Madame Girard?”
Elizabeth murmured another “thank you” and answered the questions about the wedding quickly before taking her to the task. “And you remember my sister Jane and my aunt, Mrs. Gardiner. They called on you early this year. And this is my uncle, Mr. Gardiner.”
Miss Bingley finally acknowledged their presence. “Indeed!” Then she let go of her friend’s arm and dashed to embrace Miss Bennet. “Jane, what wonderful news! Charles told me yesterday you are to be married. I am so excited to have a new sister,” Then she lowered her voice, “And what good news about the baby. I cannot believe I am to be an aunt soon.”
Her voice was not low but loud enough for everyone at the party to hear her. Elizabeth gasped out loud. Darcy squeezed her fingers, to give her comfort.
Bingley should be tanned! How could he share this information! And Miss Bingley didn’t seem to bother to hide the news from her friend. Was Miss Bennet’s reputation mean so little to Bingley?
“You are so kind, Caroline.” Miss Bennet murmured, still with a smile.
Darcy pondered Miss Bingley’s manner. She seemed to smile genuinely. But a movement out of the corner of his eyes caught his attention. Miss Bingley’s friend, Victoria, brushed the sleeves of her dress, rather loudly. When Darcy looked at her, she smiled too. There were no arts and allurements in her smile and yet Darcy didn’t like it at all. He could not find a reason for his dislike yet, so he stared at her again.
The lady looked to be of similar age as Mrs. Gardiner, or slightly younger, around six and thirty. She had a thick mane of dark hair, much darker than Elizabeth’s. She was as tall as Miss Bingley, but didn’t wear feathers or turban-like her friend. The colourful day dress she wore complimented her skin tone. She was fashionable and handsome, with much more taste than Miss Bingley. Why did she have such a smug expression? Her eyes focused on Miss Bennet and her friend.
Elizabeth must have sensed Darcy’s change of attention. She asked Miss Bingley to introduce her friend.
“Oh, where is my manner?” Miss Bingley cried out and flew back to her friend, like a bee dashing around some honeypots. She crocked her arms around Victoria’s. “This is Mrs. Romano, my dear friend from Middlesbrough.”
After everyone was introduced, Miss Bingley said, “Charles, that rude lawyer said you are inspecting this house to rent? Why did you not say so yesterday? What is wrong with Hurst’s place? I am sure Jane can settle in there very happily.”
Bingley shifted his weight from one foot to another, “Oh...Hmm…I must have forgotten.”
“You are such a scatterbrain!” Caroline exclaimed. “Is he not, Victoria? He even forgot that you are coming for a visit this week.”
“Well, Charles is a typical man,” Mrs. Romano smiled, “His mind can only concentrate on one thing at a time. What can you expect, my dear Caroline?”
Bingley’s face looked like a ripe tomato. Darcy could not fathom that Bingley would only tell his sister about Jane being with child but not about today’s appointment at Linton’s. The fact that Miss Bingley found her way here told Darcy that she knew about Bingley being forced to set up a new household when he married Miss Bennet. What were the siblings playing at?
“How did you find the house?” Miss Bingley said as she started to walk out of the parlour with her friend. “It looks rather dreary, do you not agree, Victoria? The wallpaper is at least three seasons old. How much is that solicitor asking, Charles? I wouldn't give him the full price but half if I were you. Is there a ballroom here?”
Bingley answered as he followed the two women out of the parlour, “It does look…” Then he stopped, seeing that the Darcys and the Gardiners still stood inside the room, unmoved.
“Hmm, Caroline has gone up the stairs…” Bingley commented, his legs moving again.
“I think I am quite happy with the house,” Gardiner replied curtly. “Darcy, I am satisfied with the place for Jane, for a year.”
“Good,” Darcy said, unwilling to be led around by the Bingleys for another tour. “Let us return to my townhouse. I shall ask Mr. Ellis to come by with the paper tomorrow. Bingley, pray ask your solicitor to come to my place at 10 in the morning to discuss it.”
“Oh, what about Caroline?”
“Indeed! What about Miss Bingley?” Elizabeth added, “I am sure Mr. Ellis will be most happy to wait for your sister and her friend finish their tour of the house. Aunt, I am sure you have to return to your children now.”
“You are right,” Mrs. Gardiner replied.
“I shall wait for her and Victoria then.” Bingley darted his eyes up the stairs from time to time. He was no longer looking at Miss Bennet. The devoted suitor seemed to have disappeared.
“I thought you were eager to get the marriage licence,” Darcy commented.
“Oh yes!” Bingley said. “Indeed! Forgive me. I am such a scatterbrain. I shall go with you. That is most important or Caroline will…Caroline can walk back to Hurst’s house herself, and with Victoria.”
Before Darcy leaving with Mr. Bingley to obtain the marriage licence, Elizabeth pulled her husband aside for a quick word in the hallway.
“I am extremely displeased about Mr. Bingley!” She muttered.
Darcy squeezed her hands, lowered his head and whispered to her, “I feel the same. I shall get someone to investigate Bingley’s finances.”
Her eyes widened. “Do you consider that as the crush of the matter?”
“I know not at this moment, but it is worth considering.”
Elizabeth nodded her head. “May I visit my aunt while you take care of business with Mr. Bingley?”
“Of course,” he replied, “should I fetch you from Gracechurch Street afterwards?”
Fitzwilliam gazed at her with such intensity that she felt quite flustered. His closeness made her forget the rest of the people in the room and that he would be by her side, whatever happened.
She responded with a shy smile. “I wonder if you can send for Miss Darcy too.”
He glanced at her for a moment. “Why do you want that?”
“Now that my family is here, I do not see a need for her to stay away, to give us privacy.”
“I hope you are not dreading being alone with me,” Darcy said casually. But Elizabeth could sense the tremble in his hands and understood the insecurity behind his words. She arched her eyebrows and replied in an equally light-hearted tone, “Why should I fear you?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Why indeed?”
Slightly annoyed by him, she retorted, “I challenge you to spend some time with me every night before we retire.”
His eyes widened at her demand. “Alone? In your chamber?”
“Indeed!” She could not suppress her annoyance. “Do you trust my words so little?”
He swallowed hard and raised her hands for a kiss. “I accept your challenge, but I may stay longer…”
Elizabeth felt the heat from his wet lips and exclaimed, “Oh!”
He smiled. “Oh indeed.”
Drawing a deep breath, she calmed her nerve and batted her eyes to tease him. “My courage always rises against every provocation.”
“Since you are brave, my dearest Elizabeth,” Darcy said, “what say you to go and visit Georgiana together this afternoon and invite her back tomorrow?”
“Ah, my dear husband is determined to provoke me at every opportunity,” she smoothed her hands over the gown. “Is this dress elegant enough for a visit to His Lordship?”
“Whatever you wear, you are always the handsomest woman in my eyes.” She could drown in the depth of his voice.
“Ah, what a sweet picture,” The sharp voice of Miss Bingley broke the poignancy of the atmosphere between the Darcys. Darcy put Elizabeth’s hand on his arm and turned to Miss Bingley and her friend who had just reached the bottom of the stairs.
He bowed curtly and said, “Goodbye Miss Bingley, Mrs. Romano.” They walked out quickly. When Darcy handed Elizabeth into the carriage, he reminded her that they would go directly from Gracechurch Street to Lord Matlock's house. Jane had gone ahead with Mrs. Gardiner earlier because her aunt wanted to talk to Jane.
Elizabeth stared out of the carriage, observing Bingley talking to his sister and her friend while Fitzwilliam walked away quickly. Her husband had no patience for the Bingleys, she smiled. She did not want Fitzwilliam to spend a moment longer in the company of the two women either.
When she arrived at her aunt’s place, she visited the children. Mrs. Gardiner was still talking to Jane. Soon Jane claimed fatigue and was entreated to rest in the guest chamber upstairs.
“What do you make of all this?” Mrs. Gardiner sighed.
“Fitzwilliam is going to ask someone to investigate Mr. Bingley’s finances.”
“Your uncle told me the same. He will talk to a few merchants discreetly.”
“I know I should not speak harshly about Father, but I am utterly disappointed by his behaviour. How could he not look out for Jane’s welfare? It is fortunate that Uncle steps in.”
“Lizzy, Edward and I will forever blame ourselves. We will not let Jane down in the future.”
“You are too harsh on yourselves!”
“At least I take the comfort that you are happy in your marriage. I can see that Mr. Darcy has improved upon acquaintance.”
Elizabeth blushed. “Fitzwilliam is a good man.”
“But you professed such a strong dislike of him during Christmas last year. Then you married him so suddenly after Easter. Edward and I were worried about you. Now that we know the real reason behind all this haste, we should be even more worried. But we talked about it last night. We can see that Mr. Darcy loves you.”
Elizabeth felt touched. Her aunt and uncle loved her dearly. In a way, she was happy that they had not attended the wedding due to Mr. Gardiner’s business. They had not seen her husband’s distant manner then. “Yes, Fitzwilliam has told me how ardently he loves me.”
“Ah, is that his word? Ardently…Cambridge teaches him well. I approve of his use of words. I wager he writes the finest love letters.”
Elizabeth chuckled. “I shall relate to him of your approval.” She was not going to tell her aunt that Mr. Darcy had not written any love letter to her yet.
Mrs. Gardiner patted Elizabeth’s hands. “Are you truly happy? I heard about the disgrace of Wickham. I hope besides rescuing Jane, you did not marry Mr. Darcy because of your disappointment with the other gentleman.”
“Heaven forbid! My heart is not touched by that scoundrel.”
“I am relieved. Does Mr. Darcy make you happy then?” Mrs. Gardiner persisted.
Elizabeth bit her lips. Under the close scrutiny of her aunt, she wanted to reveal the entire history of how the marriage came about. But Elizabeth did not want Mrs. Gardiner to think ill of Fitzwilliam. She did not want to lie either. “I did feel quite anxious from the time Fitzwilliam proposed. I was mostly worried about Jane.”
Mrs. Gardiner nodded her head. “That will dampen your happiness. And the wedding night? I hope your mother prepared you well as I did not have the chance to talk to you before.”
Elizabeth’s face turned crimson. “Fitzwilliam treated me well. He still does.”
“You understand that there is enjoyment in the marriage bed and that you do not need to shy away from it or treat it like a mean to procure an heir only?”
“I…I do want to ask you about this. I…Should I let Fitzwilliam decide when to visit me or may I go to him? He will not think me wanton…Mother said…”
Mrs. Gardiner rolled her eyes. “I know. I know. Your mother always professes that the marriage bed is a chore and that women who enjoy it are wanton. Do you think me wanton?”
“Of course not.”
“Then there is nothing wrong with you going to your husband. But why is Mr. Darcy not pounding on your door, if he loves you ardently?”
“It is all because of our ill-fated scheme. I fear he does not know if he should come to me or not. What if Jane’s marriage did not come about soon enough?”
“Now that Jane will marry and fast, there is no need for the two of you to pretend or abstain yourselves.”
Elizabeth nodded her head absently. Did she really want Mr. Darcy to join with her again? Elizabeth surprised herself with the turn of conversation and the questions she had asked. Perhaps the challenge she had thrown at her husband disarmed her. She enjoyed their discussion the night before, even though the topic itself was not tasteful. Did she expect that they would move from talking to lying down in bed again? He had taken her roughly on the wedding night. He was angry then, and she did not find it repulsive. She had pleasure from it. Did it make her a less respectable woman, enjoying the rough ministration of her husband?
“Are there many ways of a union?” Elizabeth blurted out the words.
Mrs. Gardiner stared at her for a second before replying, “Of course. Men are men. They are not dead things. The way they express themselves in bed will reflect their emotions. Has Mr. Darcy been very…traditional?”
Elizabeth put her hands to cover her red-hot cheeks. “I am sure Fitzwilliam does not like me discussing in detail with anyone.”
“Forgive me. That is right. Let me put the question like this: A lady often complains that her husband only asks her to lie still and that he will be gone within a moment.”
“Mother!” Elizabeth uttered suddenly and then covered her mouth.
Mrs. Gardiner smiled. “Another lady complains that her husband likes her on all fours.”
Elizabeth’s eyes popped out. “Is that possible?”
Mrs. Gardiner’s smile grew wider. “Anything is possible in a marriage bed. Some are good. Some are bad.”
“There is nothing repulsive about that?”
“If the couple enjoys it and no harm comes to either of them, it is perfectly fine and may add to each other’s enjoyment.”
“Is there a book I can read more about this?” Elizabeth covered her mouth again.
Her aunt laughed out loud. “There is a book for every topic. But men and fathers do not think them suitable for young women. I do know…”
“No, I do not need such a book.”
“I agree heartily. Let your husband guide you. If you like what he is doing, tell him, ask for more.” Elizabeth doubted if she would be vocal or demanding with her husband.
Mrs. Gardiner continued, “If you do not like it, tell him honestly. Mr. Darcy is a respectful man. He will not disregard your pleasure and requests.”
“He has been very solicitous,” Elizabeth mumbled. Her thoughts turned to Mr. Darcy’s ‘dark twin’ who had urged him to misbehave before. Should she trust him to put the dark twin firmly to a corner?
Her talk with Mrs. Gardiner was soon interrupted by lunch. After that, Elizabeth sent Jane back to Darcy House while she made herself useful to the children. Soon, Darcy arrived to collect Elizabeth.
“Should I change before visiting your aunt?” Elizabeth shifted on her seat inside the carriage.
“You look absolutely lovely. There is no need to fret.”
“But it is my first visit. What if I left a bad impression?”
“Aunt Laura is very different from Lady Catherine.”
“It is a relief to hear about this. I know next to nothing about Lady Matlock’s family.”
“It is not your fault. I was not communicative before our marriage.”
“I fear to ask. Did your relatives object to our marriage?”
“They are close to me. They were displeased with the haste,” A shade of pink crept up Darcy’s face. “Uncle might have hinted I have compromised you.”
Elizabeth groaned. “No doubt my arts and allurements were discussed.”
“I disabused them about that. I was rather fierce in those days, and they took my displeasure of their accusation seriously.”
“Ah, they do not only think of us as depraving of proprietary, they now think that you are not happy about marrying me.”
He shook his head. “They were puzzled by my foul temper, at a time I should be bursting with joy. But I am always a serious and quiet person. We can prove to them that our marriage is well today. I hope, I mean our marriage is better now, is it not?”
Elizabeth gave him a weak smile which she hoped was reassuring enough. But she was a bundle of nerve, to face his formidable relations. Why did she suggest to send for Miss Darcy? She should shut herself in her bedchambers for as long as she could!
When they arrived, both Lady and Lord Matlock were present to receive them.
“You look better, Darcy!” Lord Matlock’s brisk statement made the younger couple look at each other and break out into a smile.
“Thank you, Sir!” Darcy said.
Faced with such a short answer, his Uncle continued, “Does this have anything to do with you, young lady?”
Elizabeth's smile broadened. She liked Lord Matlock’s no-nonsense style of conversation. It was better than Lady Catherine’s monologue. “Should I ask Lady Matlock if she has anything to do with your dashing inquisition?”
Lord Matlock laughed out loud.
Lady Matlock smiled too. “I solemnly declare Henry’s temper has nothing to do with me. It has a mind of its own.”
“Fine, Mrs. Darcy,” Lord Matlock suppressed his mirth and asked again, “does that mean that you also take no responsibility of Darcy’s dark mood when he came to announce his hasty marriage to us?”
“Uncle!” Darcy protested.
“Let your wife reply. She seems the hearty type, ready for a challenge, not the normal, simpering and witless women who drool over you all the time.”
“Lord Matlock, thank you for depicting such an interesting picture to me. I do not know how dark Fitzwilliam’s countenance was when he visited you. But it must be those drooling women who flared up his temper. They must have heard about him leaving the marriage mart soon. All became even more desperate. Did any of their drool soil your boots, my dear?” She turned her eyes to Darcy. Her husband stared at her with almost a pouting mouth.
Lord Matlock exchanged a glance with his wife before continuing, “Do not think you can evade my questions just with witty comments. I shall closely observe your behaviour. If you make my nephew unhappy…”
“Uncle!” Darcy scowled. “There is no need…”
“I see every need!” His Lordship stopped Darcy's words. “I never buy Catherine’s nonsense about your mother promising you to Anne. But I take Georgiana's and your happiness very seriously. I will not let anyone off lightly if they make your lives miserable.” Lord Matlock stared at Elizabeth sternly when he delivered the statement.
“We are of the same mind then, Lord Matlock,” Elizabeth replied solemnly. “Now that I have become a Darcy, I shall make sure Miss Darcy and my husband are happy.” Darcy took her hands and squeezed it.
“That is all we want to hear and see,” Lady Matlock added. “Should I send for Georgiana now?” She looked at her husband. “Have you finished interrogating your new niece?”
Lord Matlock snorted at his wife’s teasing. When Miss Darcy came in, introductions were made. Georgiana was very young and ill at ease. She was not as handsome as her brother but fashionably dressed.
“Are you well?” Darcy asked his sister.
“Yes.” Her eyes fixed on the floor.
“How is your study?”
“Good.” Her hands firmed on her laps.
“There is no problem with the French verbs or the Italian nouns?”
“No.” Her shoulders were as rigid as the window frames.
Darcy stared at his sister and then turned to look at his Aunt and Uncle. They shook their heads, clearly baffled by Georgiana's curt answers.
Elizabeth interrupted, “With your Aunt's and Uncle's permission, Fitzwilliam and I would like you to move back to Darcy House tomorrow. How do you find that?”
Georgiana raised her eyes and gawked at Elizabeth with mouth opened. Elizabeth reckoned that Lady Matlock had not informed Miss Darcy about this or that Darcy had not told his aunt.
“I would love that,” Miss Darcy answered and then added quickly, “if you would have me.”
“Elizabeth requested you to come home early,” Darcy commented.
“Thank you, Mrs. Darcy.” Georgiana’s timid countenance was still evident.
“My two sisters and father are here for a few days. I hope you do not mind the house being a bit nosier than usual.”
“Father likes to hide in Fitzwilliam’s big library and Mary, my younger sister, likes to practice on the pianoforte in the ballroom,” Elizabeth smiled and added, “If you want to avoid them, you know where not to go.”
“Oh no, I would not want to avoid your family. I am just not used to talking to strangers. I do not mean they are strangers, but I do not know them…”
“I know you will behave much better than your brother. Do you know that he is famous for hiding away behind Mr. Bingley?”
“Brother, hiding away? I do not understand.”
Elizabeth was happy to get a reaction from Georgiana. She flashed Darcy a quick look. Her husband pretended to be offended. “I shall shock you by exposing his offensive behaviour among strangers when you return home tomorrow. To give you a taste of it, I think someone called him ‘a fly’ once.”
“A fly!” Lord Matlock interrupted. “I would love to hear about that.”
“Perhaps they can all come back for dinner on Friday,” Lady Matlock said. “Your family too, Mrs. Darcy.”
“Thank you, Aunt,” Darcy said. “We will send you a reply after we confer with Mr. Bennet. It is getting late, Georgiana, I shall come and fetch you tomorrow after midday.”
“Thank you,” Georgiana said her goodbye.
Before Darcy and Elizabeth took their leave, Lord Matlock mentioned casually, “Talking about this Bingley character, I happened upon that Italian widow near Bond Street yesterday.”
Darcy darted a glance at Elizabeth before asking, “Who are you referring?”
“Mrs. Rumo or…”
“Mrs. Romano,” Lady Matlock added. “That woman has made quite an impression on your Uncle.”
“Nonsense!” Lord Matlock said. “There is no need to pout, Laura. You know why I talked to her.”
“What do you know of Mrs. Romano, Sir?” Darcy said.
“Do not tell me she has made an impression on you too, Fitzwilliam?” Lady Matlock stared at her nephew.
“We were introduced to her briefly today, through Miss Bingley,” Elizabeth said. “But we do not know much about her.”
Lord Matlock said, “I think she grew up in the North. Romano, her husband, was a fallen Italian Count. He made do with painting for Lord Alley before he died a few years ago.”
Elizabeth looked at her husband and pondered about this new piece of information. Italy and painting! Did the fallen Count have anything to do with the finances of Mr. Bingley? Did Miss Bingley study art under the Count’s tutelage?
Darcy fidgeted with his ring and then knocked on the door of the Mistress’s chambers. Dinner was a quiet affair again. Mr. Bennet and Miss Mary were persons with few words. Miss Bennet smiled and lost in her own world, perhaps preoccupied with the upcoming nuptials. He and Elizabeth carried a lukewarm and loose conversation. He hoped his wife’s challenge for them to spend a few minutes in each other’s company every night would go a long way to bring them closer together.
When Elizabeth bid him to enter, he found her sitting on the settee by the windows, with her hair down and a book on her lap. She was wearing a burgundy nightgown. Her gorgeous figure was enchanting. Heat rose in his body instantly as he devoured with his eyes the alluring picture she depicted.
“Elizabeth,” he murmured, shifting his weight by the door.
She patted on the space beside her. Darcy moved nearer to her eagerly but sat gingerly down. He was close enough to breathe in her sweet fragrance. It was a mixture of lavender and wildflowers, totally refreshing. So busy was he to take in her presence that he did not know he had not uttered another word since he had stepped into the room.
“We must have some conversation, sir.” Her lips curled up teasingly, as she repeated the words she had said during their dance in Netherfield.
He smiled. “I shall be happy to talk about anything you want to discuss.”
She arched her eyebrows. “I am not satisfied with such an answer. It is a blatant disguise of flattery. I demand you think of a topic that will advance our understanding. After all, that is my challenge.”
“I protest! I abhor any disguise. I am genuinely happy to talk to you, on any topic. Books, the weather, the food, your hair…”
“What is wrong with my hair?” she smoothed her hands consciously over her curls as she asked.
“There is nothing wrong at all. The curls are long and most alluring. I would love to wrap my fingers around them and toy with each one of them,” he swallowed hard as he saw a shade of pink crept up Elizabeth’s face. He wished he could gather her into an embrace. As he would not dare, he continued to babble on. “And I love the smell of it. It reminds me of the lavender garden in Pemberley. Mother loved it very much and often ordered for small vases of the flower to be put in different corners of the rooms.”
“Your mother took excellent care of all of you.” She said. Her expression was tender, making his heart melt. Darcy did not trust his voice and nodded his head only.
“Can you tell me more about your parents?”
He stared out of the windows, into the darkness. “Father and Uncle Henry were best friends in Cambridge. It was natural that he came to know Mother and court her.”
She waited for him to continue. When he did not, she said, “as natural as you come to know Miss Bingley and want to court her.”
Darcy swirled his head back to look at her again. An impatient expression adorned her face. He exclaimed, “Indeed not. I do not consider Bingley, my best friend.”
“True, then you could not declare that your Father courted your Mother just because she was a sister to his best friend. I am sure there was nothing just ordinary about your Father’s choice. Did he ever talk about your mother’s character or features which attracted him most?”
He thought for another second and shook his head. “Men do not talk a lot.”
“I do not know many men. But I know enough that they do not talk a lot to women. But they converse freely when they are away from us.” She stomped her right foot slightly on the floor. He found that gesture endearing and wished to see more of her ‘frustration’. And the exasperation lit up her eyes. Darcy couldn’t help but smile at her statement about ‘understanding about men’. “You know enough…and yet, how did you get it so wrong?”
“What do you mean by that? What did I get wrong?”
Darcy couldn’t believe himself. How could he accuse her of being wrong with this affair of the heart? Was his arrogance emerging again? Was his dark twin trying to escape again? He was the one in the wrong, imagining her affection and desire when there was none.
“Hmm, silent again,” Elizabeth murmured. A frown gathered in her forehead. Before he could think of another topic to distract her, she continued, “You meant how I did not know that you love me.”
Heat rose in his face, this time due to embarrassment. It was treachery to discuss this when he had only gained small grounds in winning her trust these two days. Darcy latched onto the first idea that came to his mind, “Did you know that I used to braid Georgiana’s hair every night when she was younger? She wanted different ways of braiding every day, and it was quite a challenge.”
He forced a smile as he reminiscensed on older days when his mother was alive, and his sister was a child. Those were a happy time. He would have Elizabeth talk about their future, rather than think about what went wrong in the past.
“You depicted quite a homely picture of domesticity,” Elizabeth said softly. Then she frowned.
Darcy raised his fingers and smoothed them over her forehead. “You should not frown. It will etch lines here and spoil your lovely face.”
She grasped his hand and held it. “Miss Bingley came to my mind, again.”
He scowled and commented, “That lady can sour anyone’s demeanor.”
“Do you think she visited Italy with Mrs. Romano’s husband?” Elizabeth said. “Oh, forgive me, I should not continue with such distasteful subject.”
“You are worried about your sister. It is understandable. But I believe the fallen Count was dead during the time Miss Bingley was in Italy.”
“What did you learn about Mr. Bingley today?”
“I have asked someone to check on him. I would not hear more until later. But today when we went to procure the marriage licence, I did find it strange for a moment.”
“He seemed rather nervous and eager for it to be completed quickly, like he could not be gone fast enough from the office.”
“It is good, is that not?” Elizabeth bit her lip. “He seems eager to marry Jane. His affection must be great indeed.”
Darcy shrugged his shoulders. “Perhaps.”
Her face clouded up again. He did not like to discuss the Bingleys at all. He was racking his brain for another topic to talk.
“This love business is quite vexing,” she stated.
“I meant about us too, not just Jane and Mr. Bingley. I genuinely was not aware of your preference. After all, you did not find me handsome enough.”
Darcy groaned. He wished she would not return to this topic. Glancing at the determination on her face, he sighed. “I always thought that you willfully misunderstood me. I was the one who mistook your meaning.”
“Did you not remember? Our first meeting at Meryton Assembly. You told Mr. Bingley ‘she is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.’”
His eyes widened. Then he hung his head and covered his eyes with his hands. “You heard that!”
“Loud and clear. How can you expect me to jump from that remark into believing that you find me handsome enough, to be your wife?”
“I hate attending assemblies, where I know nearly no one.” He raised his head and pleaded to her with his eyes. “I had not even really looked at you when I uttered those words.”
She folded her arms. “I must repeat, why is a man of sense and education, and who has lived in the world, is ill qualified to recommend himself to strangers?”
Elizabeth believed him to be of sense and education, Darcy thought. It was reassuring. But he must be senseless to have considered her not handsome, at the beginning of their acquaintance. “Nearly all the women with whom I was introduced to dance agreed to what I said.”
“Ah, those drooling and fawning ladies your Uncle talked about. You are scared of and bored by them and thus refuse to be even introduced to more of them. But that was not the only hint I had from you. At the gathering in Lucas Lodge, I could see your disapproving expression when you chatted with Sir William. You deplored the ways Kitty and Lydia behaved. How could I believe that you would want them to be your sisters one day?”
Scowling, Darcy thought hard at his state of mind then. He remembered vaguely he was in silent indignation at their mode of passing an evening. He had wished for more intelligent conversation among the guests and better manner of the younger ladies. Their wild behaviour reminded him too much of Georgiana’s near disaster. “They are just young. But did you not notice that I listened to your conversation?”
“I did. But I thought you wanted to find faults in me,” she exclaimed. “You meant you found me ‘interesting’ by then already?”
He nodded his head. He remembered finding her with good features in her face, beautiful dark eyes and light, and pleasing figure then but should he tell her all of this. He seldom confided his thoughts to anyone, and he did not know if he should start now.
“Silent again?” Elizabeth uttered. “I cannot carry a one-sided conversation!”
“I danced with you at Netherfield ball.”
“I could see the neighbours’ surprise.”
“Surely you would have thought of my preference then.”
She widened her eyes. “Surely you jest. It was just a dance.”
“Dancing is a compliment which I never pay to any place if I can avoid it.”
She was silent for a second, before continuing. “So that was not just a dance. Then I am guilty, of misunderstanding your intention.” After another second, she shook her head. “No, I could not have misunderstood. The entire party left Netherfield. If I were not invited by Charlotte, our path would have never crossed again. You might find me interesting, but my situation deterred your pursuit. How could I have known your intention?”
She knew of his reservation about the match. There was no need to drag it up and made her remember his horrible proposal again. And yet, he wanted to have her understood his viewpoint. He had thought that she wished for and expected his address and proposal. “You took care to inform me that path at Rosings was a favourite haunt of yours.”
Her mouth gaped open for a while before she said. “I said that to deter you, from meeting me by chance.”
“I thought you invited and wished for me to join you, by design.”
Her face turned bright red. She raised her hands to touch the cheeks. “Talking about misunderstanding! Did you think of me as a flirt?”
“Indeed not. But I had thought you wanted me to address you about my intention.”
She sighed, loudly.
“Perhaps we should talk about other things instead. How about the weather?”
She stared at him with big eyes and more indignation. “I shall not be dissuaded, into talking about an inconsequential topic.” She paused for a moment and continued, “You have yet to answer my question.”
“About your parents?”
He ruffled his hair with his fingers. “Father never talked about what he loved about Mother.”
“Men and their silence! What did he usually praise her about?”
“Oh, that. A lot. Mother’s soft voice, her kindness to the tenants, her care of us, even her light steps when she danced.”
“Your parents had a love match then. It was not arranged or a marriage of convenience.”
Darcy shook his head. “No, my father was his own master and did not have any interfering older relatives who would dictate his choice.”
“What was their opinion about your match in the future?”
He winced as he understood the meaning behind her question. She wanted to know why he had berated her connection during his proposal. How could he make her understanding that his hesitation in proposing to her was due more to the lack of proprietary of her relations? No, he should not go to that direction either. Too many angry words were exchanged on that. “Father only said I needed to find a woman worthy of our family.”
Elizabeth sighed again. “I do not know if your father would approve of me. I bring nothing to the family.”
“He was not thinking of money and wealth. Honor, integrity and respect were character traits he talked about when he discussed how the Darcys had behaved themselves in the past generations.”
“I am saddened that we started our marriage on the wrong footing then. It was under anger, pretence, and fear.”
Her sad voice touched his heart. He held out his hand to take hers and squeezed it. “It was my fault.”
She shook her head. “We should not think of the past that did not give us pleasure. I think we are back onto the right road now. We have been honest with each.”
Darcy nodded his head in agreement. “And I respect you. You always put your loved ones before your need.” He raised his hand and brushed a wayward strand of hair behind her ear. How he wanted to be one of her loved ones! Elizabeth shivered and closed her eyes.
“Are you cold, my dear?”
“I think I am tired.” She murmured, without opening her eyes.
“Forgive me for tiring you,” Darcy said, but he was unwilling to let go of the intimacy. When he felt her head rest on his shoulder, his heart soared. “Let me carry you to the bed.” He said, so softly that he hoped she would not hear it. Then she would not protest or demand him to go away.
When no objection was voiced, he wrapped his hands around her waist and legs and scooped her up. Her exquisite scent burst through his senses. The softness in her body touched the hardness in his, creating intense sensations in his body. He wished the walk from the settee to the bed would last forever. He would be happy to carry her in his embrace, forever.
Soon, he lowered Elizabeth onto the bed. Reluctantly he pulled his hands from beneath her body. After he had covered her with the duvet, he decided to lie down beside her. He knew he was dishonest, taking advantage of her generosity and trusting nature without asking for permission. But he just could not stay away. She was a siren, calling out to him. Her sultry mouth, the delicate small hands, the soft breasts, the supple buttocks; they were tempting him and destroying his self-control. He needed to sleep beside her, from this day onwards. It was as natural as the plant required the sun or the fish needed water. If she ordered him away, he would go. But if she did not say a word, he would pretend that he fell asleep, naturally, too tired to move back to his own chambers. He would explain it tomorrow. For now, he would enjoy the proximity of being near her.
One minute. Two minutes. Three minutes.
As the sound of protest did not reach his ears, Darcy relaxed his mind, rested his hands on Elizabeth’s gorgeous curves and fell into a beautiful dream with a smile on his face.
Tomorrow would be a better day again.
Elizabeth was startled from her sleep by the sudden movement of the person lying next to her.
“I am not arrogant, not selfish…”
Her eyes gaped open as she observed her husband murmur the words. Fitzwilliam must be in a tumulus dream. Did her harsh words during his proposal torment him to such level? She breathed out a deep sigh. How she wanted to take back those words! After their wedding night, Mr. Darcy had proven to be a good man, and she felt lucky to be his wife, to be loved and treasured by him, especially comparing him to her father and Mr. Bingley. She smoothed her hands lightly over his forehead.
She looked out of the curtain. Dim light streamed in through the windows, indicating the early hours. It was the third night her husband had slept in her bed, after their new ritual of talking in her bedchambers. She felt closer to him day by day and yet with so many people in the house and so many issues occupying their mind, she was discontent that they had not reached better intimacy. But she felt happy that she would wake up the next day with Mr. Darcy by her side. She did not care how she came to be in bed or how her husband stayed with her. It was a relief to start the day, knowing someone would be there for her.
The first morning he had his hands on her chest and buttock, making her skin fluster. Once he had awoken, he murmured an apology and dashed from her room like a man chased by a demon, before she could greet him properly. She regretted on the opportunity lost. The day before, she leapt from her bed and escaped their shared intimacy when she discovered she had been kissing Fitzwilliam’s masculine chest in her sleep. They started both days in each other’s awkward company, she handling her family and welcoming Miss Darcy back home while he shut in his study on a matter of business. Luckily by nightfall, they would return to a certain degree of normality and eager to continue their discussion in her room.
Fitzwilliam had calmed down in his dream, and his hands crept up on her body again, making her heart jumped. As she enjoyed the caress of his strong hand over her nipple, her mind tried to shut off from the duty for today: the modiste and the meeting with the private investigator.
Mrs. Gardiner would be taking Jane to the modiste. She and Mary would accompany them. Miss Darcy declined the invitation as she had lessons to attend. Somehow Miss Bingley heard about the scheme from her brother and invited her friend and herself to come along. Mr. Bennet had decided that the later his wife knew about the wedding, the more peace he would have, in enjoying the books from Fitzwilliam’s library. Mr. Bennet decided that he would only allow Mr. Darcy to send his carriage to Hertfordshire to collect Mrs. Bennet and the younger daughters for the wedding two days before the ceremony. Blessed Fitzwilliam soul, he had volunteered to host the entire Bennet clan for three days in the townhouse. Elizabeth dreaded that day, have the whole family here, with them behaving in a highly inappropriate manner. Would that lessen Mr. Darcy’s affection for her? Would that remind him of how unsuitable she was to be Mrs. Darcy?
Elizabeth thought about initiating a union with her husband in an attempt to secure an heir, lest he would throw her out of his house after three days with her family in residence. This line of thought chilled her own mind. Was she contemplating using her arts and allurements, as Lady Catherine had accused her of, to trap Mr. Darcy to stay in the marriage? How could she think about getting with a child as a tool, to prevent Fitzwilliam from leaving her? This was not the marriage of love that she had hoped for in her life.
She berated herself for the muddled mind. If she threw herself to her husband now, she acted no better than those fawning women of the ton. Or the scheming nature of her mother. She must resist the urge to bed Fitzwilliam, at least after this matter with Jane was resolved. Drawing a deep breath, she decided to rise and prepare for the day, quietly avoiding the magical hands of her husband.
By the time she was in the carriage with her aunt and her sisters, Elizabeth felt a certain regret and longing for leaving her husband. Mr. Darcy had acted like a besotted new husband, sending his carriage for her use, pulling her aside to tell her to buy anything from the Bond Street shops the family had an account with, anything befitting to the family of Mrs. Darcy. She sensed that he would have come along with the shopping if she had uttered a word of encouragement.
“Lizzy, you seem very preoccupied,” Mrs. Gardiner said.
Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders. “I am just not eager to spend the time with Miss Bingley.”
“Lizzy, I thank you for everything you have done for me,” Jane said. “But Miss Bingley is going to be my sister soon. Can you not find it in your heart to treat her nicer?”
Elizabeth wanted to remind her sister about Miss Bingley cold treatment of her in January. How the woman had only returned Jane’s call after some weeks. She thought better of raising it as Jane seemed determined to forget about all the transgression involving the Bingleys. “You know she is the one with a sharp tongue who provokes me.”
“We should not treat others in the mean manner they treat us,” Mary said. “That is not God’s teaching.”
“This Mrs. Romano seems very close to Miss Bingley,” Mrs. Gardiner addressed Jane. “Did you hear of Miss Bingley talking about her during her stay in Netherfield?”
Jane thought for a minute and shook her head. “Caroline did talk about some of her London acquaintance, usually about where they purchased the latest feather, turban or silk. But she has never mentioned her friends from the North.”
Elizabeth exchanged a glance with Mrs. Gardiner. She should concentrate on deciphering the mystery about the Bingley family, rather than thinking about Fitzwilliam. “Now that you mention it, Jane, I think Miss Bingley was not that close to Mrs. Hurst in Netherfield.”
“Louisa is a married woman. It is natural that she would concentrate on her husband, instead of her sister.”
Perhaps she should do the same, Elizabeth thought. Finally, they arrived at Madam Maurice’s shop. Miss Bingley and Mrs. Romano were already there. They were chatting with another woman.
“Lady Annabelle, may I present Mrs. Darcy?” Miss Bingley singled out Elizabeth in the introduction to the fashionable lady talking with her. “We are soon to be sisters, as Miss Bennet here, her eldest sister, is going to marry Charles in a week’s time. Mrs. Darcy, Lady Annabelle of Tadcaster. Charles is a good friend of her younger brother.”
Her Ladyship in all her finery scanned Elizabeth’s person from head to toe, frowning for a second at Miss Bingley’s emphasis on the word good friend. Once she took in the quality of Elizabeth’s gown, Lady Annabelle’s countenance seemed to have softened a bit, although a frown creased her forehead when she turned her eyes to assess Elizabeth’s family.
Ah, Miss Bingley was eager for the connection with the Darcys, to ensnare Lady Annabelle’s brother, Elizabeth thought. Should she introduced her aunt and emphasized her residence? No, she would not sink so low as Miss Bingley. She presented her family and added, “Have you known Miss Bingley and Mrs. Romano for long, Your Ladyship?”
“Frederick, my brother, has known Charles from the races a few years ago. I believe they usually meet once or twice a year. But Miss Bingley was away at first, in Florence, I believe it was said, am I right?”
Just an acquaintance! Elizabeth was right.
“Yes, your ladyship.” Miss Bingley nodded, not even bothering to blush at Her Ladyship’s rebuttal about her brother’s friendship with Frederick.
“Is that where your late husband came from,” Mrs. Gardiner jumped in, taking Miss Bingley by surprise, “Mrs. Romano.”
“No, Romano originated from Roma,” Mrs. Romano’s lips thinned. “I am certain Her Ladyship is not interested about him.” Turning to Lady Annabelle with a sly smile, Mrs. Romano continued, “Will Lord Harry and your ladyship join Charles’s wedding breakfast at Darcy House?” She grabbed Miss Bingley’s hand and patted her with a reassuring nod. Miss Bingley smiled with a not so genuine demureness that did not suit her persona.
Elizabeth grounded her teeth at the action of the women. The arrangement was that Jane would marry from the Gardiner’s London church, since she knew the vicar there since her teenage years. Mr. Darcy had urged Elizabeth to host the wedding breakfast in the townhouse, seeing that most of her family would be residing there during the time. Mr. and Mrs. Bingley would spend a week in the seaside town of Broadstairs before traveling to Longbourn and let Mrs. Bennet show off her latest son for a week. They would move in Captain Linton’s townhouse four weeks from today, giving the new mistress and her new sister Miss Bingley enough time to furnish the place to their satisfaction.
Mr. Bingley was given 20 spaces for him to invite his guests to the wedding breakfast. The Bingleys must be determined to welcome all the grand people from London society which they claimed a slight acquaintance. Was that the reason why they insisted on joining the shopping trip today? To be seen with Elizabeth by the right people? Elizabeth wished she had not agreed to host the wedding breakfast in Darcy House. And there was something in Miss Bingley and Mrs. Romanoe’s behaviour nagging her. Mrs. Romano seemed to promote Miss Bingley to forward herself to Lady Annabelle. Did Miss Bingley finally accept that Mr. Darcy was out of her reach now that he was married to Elizabeth, and her friend thus promoted her to consider other suitable suitors? But a Lord who seemed to have plenty of money in the family to dress his sister well? Miss Bingley sure knew how to aim high in the material sense.
“Mrs. Darcy is all politeness, to host the wedding breakfast in such short notice. I believe you only wed a few days ago. Your mother must be beside herself with happiness, to have two daughters settled so fast and without needing to do much.”
Elizabeth’s back stiffened. What a snob, this Lady Annabelle! She replied sweetly, “Mr. Darcy is devoted to my family. With an army of competent servants, the wedding breakfast does not need a lot of time to organise. He dreads conversing with strangers though, especially those who are only eager to meet him for other reasons than his friendliness.”
“Indeed,” Her Ladyship thrust her chin up. “There is so much money, and position in our society can withstand. An imprudent marriage,” she paused and cast her eyes at Elizabeth’s family and Miss Bingley before continuing. “Can make the most handsome men less appealing. I shall discuss with Frederick and reply to your brother’s invitation, Miss Bingley.”
Go, go, go! I shall clap my hands if you decline to come, Elizabeth thought. How dare this Lady Annabelle look down on my Fitzwilliam, just because he is married to me! Elizabeth had no use of such a person in her home or as her acquaintance. And she did not care that Miss Bingley’s and her friend’s face had a green hue on them. In fact, it might get them to shorten their stay with the Bennet sisters during the shopping!
As Elizabeth had predicted, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Romano did not stay more than half an hour with them. There were a few more fashionable women came into Madam Maurice shop. They did introduce Mrs. Darcy to them but did not have the same eagerness as to Lady Annabelle. Perhaps Lord Harry was their prime target. Elizabeth could only relax to assist Jane after the two women were gone. She then concentrated on persuading her aunt and two sisters to let her pay for everything.
“Lizzy, your father, told me he would pay for anything Jane chooses,” Mrs. Gardiner whispered. “And it is nonsense for I to buy a new gown too, with your pin money.”
Elizabeth replied in a low voice too, “Dear aunt, I told Fitzwilliam how you have been hosting Jane and me in the past years in London, spending your time on teaching me how to become the woman I am now. He insisted on buying you a few gifts to thank uncle and you. I told him you would not accept yet if they are to come from him. So we come up with this idea. After all, as Mama said, I have plenty of pin money. Can you not let me present you with a gift this time? And Jane and all my other sisters will each receive their gowns from me. I want every one of them to sparkle in my home.” Her teasing finally made her aunt agree. Elizabeth also ordered a new gown for herself in colour she knew Mr. Darcy would love to see her in. She vowed to not spend a farthing in the next few months, after her extravagant spending today. She still found it hard the amount of pin money Fitzwilliam had settled on her and did not feel comfortable spending them on herself. She would find some charity causes to donate some of the pin money.
The shopping trip was long but successful. After a quick lunch, Elizabeth joined her husband in his study. He kissed her hands affectionately and let her sit down. “Did you enjoy shopping with your family?”
“It is very tiring, but Jane has ordered the most amazing gown for the wedding. I am surprised at how many nearly finished gowns Madam Maurice have. Does she anticipate her clients to need a gown within a day or two?”
“That is why she is so successful. But I am more interested in your new gown. Did you order one as I requested?”
“Yes! I do not understand why I need another new gown.”
“It is the first gathering you host. I want you to look magnificent.”
“Are you implying I look small now?”
“You know you are the handsomest woman of my acquaintance. I just want you to sparkle on my arm.” His voice turned husky and his gaze deepened.
“I should have bought some gold dust to sprinkle on my existing gown. That will surely do the trick.”
Mr. Darcy leaned down to kiss her lips, gently at first. He was reluctant to release her mouth when a knock was heard on the door. Giving himself some time, he moved back to sit behind the desk. After Elizabeth had smoothed her hair, he bid the private investigator to enter.
“Mr. Darcy,” the man bowed.
“Irving, this is my wife.”
“Delighted to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Darcy.”
Elizabeth smiled and replied, “Mr. Irving, good day.”
“Would you like a drink?” Darcy asked.
“No, thank you. I don’t drink while I work, if I can help it.”
“What news do you have?”
Mr. Irving did not seem to find it odd that Elizabeth should be present at the meeting. “Mr. Bingley’s finances seem to be in order. Bills to merchants are paid as usual in the past years. There is no huge amount of gambling or other debt unpaid for. His father’s investment seems to be with the same bank as before.”
“So there is no reason why he should not have the means to rent Captain Linton’s townhouse.” Darcy continued.
“Not from those quarters.”
“But from other quarters?”
Irving glanced at Elizabeth for a second before continuing. “In the past three years since Mr. Bingley came of age, he paid off a fair amount to eight women: actresses, widows and fallen gentlewomen. But that was not unusual of other young men of means. I do not believe that would have made a big dent into his money.”
Elizabeth’s lips thinned. So many! What will Jane’s life be in the future? And yet Mr. Irving said it was somewhat common. She glanced over at her husband. Should she ask him tonight about his pursuit of women before his marriage?
“Besides falling in and out of love with unsuitable women, is there anything I should be aware of about Mr. Bingley?” Darcy said.
Irving shook his head. “Not yet. Miss Bingley is a mystery though.”
Darcy sat up. “How so?”
“She did not finish her study at the Seminary of Virgin Mary. The Easter holiday before she was due back to finish her school, she left for Italy.”
Hmm, did Miss Bingley have to go away because of some indiscretion? “To Florence?” Elizabeth interrupted.
“At first, I believe. But Miss Bingley returned through Rome, if my source is right.”
“Mrs. Romano said her late husband came from Rome.” Elizabeth murmured. “She referred it as Roma, like she is not English…”
Irving tapped his fingers.
“What did Miss Bingley do in Italy?” Darcy who had been writing down the key points of Irving’s findings noted down Elizabeth’s comment.
“I am waiting to hear from my contacts in Italy.”
Elizabeth’s eyes rounded. Fitzwilliam was not sparing any expenses to investigate the Bingleys.
“Any other mysteries about Miss Bingley?” Darcy continued.
“Her dark hair takes on a much lighter shade now.”
“As compared to?”
“Portrait of her younger years,” Irving commented. “And according to one of her best friends from the Seminary.”
Elizabeth was astounded. “People talked to you about all this?”
Irving curled up his lips. “I have a female associate who works with me. She is very skilled in conversation.”
“What is your conclusion?” Darcy frowned.
Irving shrugged his shoulders. “It is too early to draw a conclusion.”
“But your speculation?”
Irving tapped his fingers again. “Miss Bingley came back from Italy, another person.”
Both Darcy and Elizabeth gasped.
Irving shook his head. “Her activities since does not suggest that.”
“What has her activities been since?” Darcy frowned.
“Finding a rich husband.”
Elizabeth chuckled as she sent her husband a knowing glance.
Darcy shook his head. “And Mrs. Romano?”
“She is the youngest daughter of Lord Whitehaven. She married Romano two years after the Lord has lost his fortune on gambling.”
“How did she live before her marriage? After the Lord lost his home?”
“Governess, companion to elderly ladies.”
“Did she meet Romano in Italy?”
“I believe so, when she accompanied one of the elderly ladies who went there for the sun.”
“How did Miss Bingley and Mrs. Romano know each other?” Elizabeth asked. “Did you not say, Fitzwilliam, that Miss Bingley was in Italy after Mr. Romano died? They could not have met in Italy.”
“Through Mr. Hurst,” Irving commented. “Hurst family was acquainted with Romano’s patron.”
It was getting more complicated, Elizabeth thought. What had Jane gotten herself into?
“Fitzwilliam!” Elizabeth’s mad dash into Darcy’s room came to a halt.
Darcy’s valet stopped tidying the collar of his master’s shirt, bowed and left the room immediately.
“Yes, Elizabeth,” he nodded his head and motioned for her to proceed.
Now that Elizabeth was inside Fitzwilliam’s room, she nearly forgot what she rushed there for. She was arrested by the sight of her husband. He was in his shirtsleeves and trousers, with the former hanging loosely from the latter. His hair was ruffled, like how he had looked like in the morning, while sleeping in her bed. His chest was rising up and down at a fast rate, thrusting his muscular torso to her attention. Perhaps it was wiser for her to wait for him to come for their nightly chat. Ah, she remembered now.
“I was eager for our nightly chat,” she murmured.
He smiled ever so slightly and then motioned for her to sit on the chaise by the windows. He had his windows opened, and the curtain drew open. The bright moonlight and the candles made the room masculine and with a touch of mystery. The chaise by the windows did not seem very comfortable tonight. And the wind drifted in, making it feel rather cold, even though it was in the summer.
“You have the windows open,” she murmured again.
Darcy raised his eyes slightly and went to close the windows. By the time he turned back his body, Elizabeth had decided that the bed and its bedding were more welcoming.
“Should I stay here?” He commented with his hand pointing to the chaise, but his eyes stared wide at her, sitting under the quilt, on his bed.
“You will be cold,” she whispered. “Come to join me. It is your bed after all.”
He swallowed hard, drew in a deep breath and then marched toward the bed and sat beside her even before she could blink her eyes. Elizabeth was amazed by his agility and felt that this room with deep green furnishing suited him. He moved like a quiet lion, inside his jungle. She giggled at the image sprung to her mind.
“Would you like to share the humour with me?” Darcy arched his eyebrow with a curious expression.
“You look like a lion in the jungle,” she laughed.
“In the candlelight, your room looks like a jungle. And you moved so fast, just now.”
“You said it was cold,” he shrugged his shoulders. “Does that comment mean that you are interested in redecorating this room, and the house?”
“Not at all!” she exclaimed. “The room suits you, a lot.”
“And is the image of a lion pouncing about in a jungle a pleasant one?” Darcy smoothed his hands aimlessly on the quilt. “I hope there is not prey in sight.”
Suddenly an image of a magnificent lion licking the neck of a lioness came to her mind. The intimate and playful gestures of the two animals gave her a shiver. She could also see two cubs playing by their sides. A family! How very pleasant!
“You are cold,” Fitzwilliam said. “Lie down.”
Elizabeth did as he said, although she felt more on fire, by the closeness and the intoxicating musky smell of his body. He gazed at her as he pulled the quilt all the way up to her chin.
“Are you warm enough?”
She nodded. Darcy maintained his sitting position. His body turned to give her full attention.
“Oh,” Elizabeth dragged her eyes from his heaving chest to his broad shoulders, trying to remember what she wanted to talk to him about. “I hardly remember.”
“Was that about Mr. Irving’s discovery?”
“Oh, Mr. Bingley’s women!” she cried out at her indignation.
“What about them?”
“Eight in three years! What kind of man is he?”
“He is young and with means.”
She crinkled her nose. “You are young and richer. Have you had these many women before?”
Darcy shook his head. “I am different. I have the responsibility of an estate even before I came of age. My father had been ill for a long time, before he died when I was twenty-three.”
Elizabeth breathed out a sigh of relief and then berated herself for being selfish, to rejoice in her husband’s “purity” because of his father’s health. “It must be difficult for you, Fitzwilliam, to take care of your father, sister and all the servants and tenants at such a young age. But surely it was not a responsibility which made you stay away from the temptation.”
“I am gratified that you understand that. Perhaps I am more religious than many young men of my age.”
“You believe in the sanctity of marriage?”
“Very much so. My father taught me at a very young age to be grateful to God for our heritage and blessing. He told me cases of too many excesses in drinking, women, gambling that have led to the downfall of great families. He said that no matter what form of God we believed in, there was somehow a God out there, blessing us with our good deeds.”
“Your father was a wise man, and he raised you well.”
Fitzwilliam turned his head and looked out the windows. “But I made the mistake of being arrogant and selfish.”
Elizabeth took his left hand and gave him a squeeze. “We both made mistakes. Let us look to the future, rather than the past.” She would rather talk about their future, than her sister’s. But unfortunately, she loved her sister very much too. “I fear Mr. Bingley will not be constant for Jane.”
“We can never predict the future. All we can do is try our best to make it work. Your sister seems to love Bingley deeply. And it may be cruel to her to prevent the marriage from happening now.”
“I have the same feeling too. No matter what we have learned or will learn, Jane is determined to have Mr. Bingley and gives her unborn child the right to know its father. I hope that her love is enough to make him not to stray to other women.”
“We can only help, by eliminating the unnecessary burden to them.”
“You mean Miss Bingley and her friend?” Elizabeth yawned as she tried not to think about the ladies.
“Not their persons. I mean any mystery or scandal that may rock the future domestic felicity of your sister.”
Fitzwilliam’s words about domestic felicity urged her to snuggle against the side of her husband and closed her eyes.
Darcy woke up in the warm embrace of his gorgeous and lovely wife. In the past, he usually fantasised loving her in the mistress chambers. He had some apprehension about her room since after the wedding night. It reminded him of his beastly action that night. Now that she had stayed in his bed, he enjoyed her presence there. He wished he could find a way to get her into his bed every night. Elizabeth could be his lioness in his jungle. He could think of biting and rolling around with her, not to mention howling and nuzzling against each other. They just needed a few little cubs to complete the picture.
Thinking about their children gave him a smile. Would they have her fine soulful eyes and her teasing smile? He hoped they would not inherit his brooding countenance. He secretly hoped that Elizabeth would be with child by now, though it might complicate the matter with regards to Miss Bennet.
The thought of his new sister made him sigh. He wished he could forget about Elizabeth’s family and whisked her back to Pemberley and locked their rooms, at least for a year. But that could not be so.
He extracted himself from the fascinating figure of his wife and prepared for the day. He would be meeting with Irving in the morning again, away from home. The investigator murmured his request discreetly to Darcy before he left Darcy House. Darcy believed Irving had more information, not suitable for Elizabeth’s ears. He had agreed to meet up with the private investigator, knowing that the ladies would be busy preparing for the dinner at the Matlocks tonight.
By the time he had changed into clothes more befitting his valet, broke his fast and arrived at a boarding house in Whitechapel, it was two hours later. Irving met Darcy at the door.
“My associate found a servant who had worked in Hurst’s townhouse before the summer Miss Bingley went away to Italy,” Irving said.
“What information did the servant have?”
“I have not interrogated her yet, but my associate thought it was useful for me, with your presence, to do so.”
Darcy nodded, and they went inside one of the rooms Irving had secured. A woman was slurping tea. She bit one more mouthful into the cake before standing up and curtsying to the men. Clearly, she recognised Darcy as a man of more importance.
“Mrs. Miller, this is my patron.”
Irving started. “What do you do for a living?”
“I am a cook at Captain Morris of Newington.”
“My patron here would like to hear what you have to say about the Hursts,” Irving said. Darcy nodded his head.
“When did you work with the Hursts?” Irving continued.
She gulped down the tea again before answering. “I worked as a chambermaid in the townhouse of Mr. Hurst at Grosvenor Square for two years.”
“In which year?”
“From 1802 to 1804.”
“How was the household like then?”
“Master John was a fashionable man and had married Mrs. Hurst two years previous.”
“How old was Mrs. John Hurst then?”
“Nineteen, sir, I believe. Her husband was ten years her senior.”
“Was it a marriage of convenience or a love match?”
“The advantage of the marriage was arranged by the fathers, I heard.”
“Were they good employers?”
Mrs. Miller shrugged her shoulders. “Old Mr. and Mrs. Hurst were nice people, but they spoilt their son. They usually stayed in the country. Master John liked to stay in London. Mrs. Hurst was too young and inexperienced to know how to manage a household.”
“What did the Hursts like to do?”
“Balls, races, dinners, card games, Sir, the usual.”
“Did you see Miss Bingley a lot?”
“She usually came to stay during the holidays. Her mother wanted Master John to throw her into the path of wealthy gentlemen.
Darcy thought of the words of Mrs. Bennet. How very ironical that the late Mrs. Bingley had similar aspiration as Elizabeth’s mother!
“How old was Miss Bingley then?
“She was two years younger than Mrs. Hurst and one year older than her brother, I think.”
“Seventeen years of age,” Irving nodded his head. “It was the right time for Mrs. Bingley to think of her daughter’s future. Did Mr. Bingley stay too, during the holidays?”
“No, the mistress said her father liked to keep Master Charles near to him.”
“It sounded quite an ordinary household in town. Was there anything out of the ordinary?”
“At the beginning of the summer of 1804, the entire rank of lower servants was dismissed.”
“What date was it?” Irving tapped his fingers.
“Oh, I remember it clearly. It was 8 July, a Sunday no less! One day, I had a job and a roof over my head. The next day, I was thrown out, fending for myself.”
“What did Mrs. Hurst say?”
“You know the rich people. They don’t need to explain anything. We were given the references, but still, that is it.”
“What were the rumours downstairs?”
“Something happened the night before, during a small intimate party Mr. Hurst threw, at the insistence of Mrs. Bingley, to introduce her daughter to Master John’s eligible friends.”
“Was Mrs. Bingley not there?”
“Some business called her husband and her away. She brought Master Charles with her.”
“According to the rumour, there were several friends of Master John present. Mrs. Bingley returned to the townhouse the next morning. Then all of the lower servants were dismissed. She helped Mrs. Hurst hire new ones in the weeks following. Then four weeks afterwards, I heard from the cook’s niece whom I still kept in touch that Miss Bingley was shipped off to Italy.”
Darcy felt sick in the stomach. Although he had no patience with Miss Bingley and her fawning way, he did not like what he had heard so far. He wanted to be clear about this rumour. “What was the exact rumour of that ‘something’ that had happened?”
Mrs. Miller gestured with her hands. “One rumour was that the six gentlemen got the six ladies drunk and had different ways with them throughout the night.”
Darcy drew in a deep breath. “And the other rumour?”
“Miss Bingley challenged the gentlemen for a dancing competition, in all their glory.”
“And?” Irving asked.
“And the winner got her for the night.”
“Who was the winner?” Irving continued.
Mrs. Miller shrugged her shoulders.
Darcy narrowed his eyes at the woman. She had not finished with what she wanted to say. “Is there a third rumour?”
She turned her head before continuing, “Master John has an appetite for every piece of muslin that comes his way, and he likes them in abundance all at the same time.”
“And you believed this was closer to the truth?” Darcy said.
Irving added, “That Mr. Hurst had his way with Miss Bingley, and possibly with his wife there together.”
She nodded her head.
“Why did late Mrs. Bingley allow that?” Darcy asked.
“How could she have known what went on behind that man’s mind? She thought her eldest daughter made a good match, with a house in the fashionable part of town. She wanted her next daughter to have an even better match, a titled gentleman perhaps. Mrs. Bingley thought Mr. Hurst would be the right person to help her achieve that goal. How could she have known that by putting her young daughter in the house, she would be doing her more harm than good?”
“And what happened when Miss Bingley returned from Italy,” Irving said. “if you still keep in touch with the servants at Hurst’s townhouse?”
“Molly, the cook’s niece, said Miss Bingley looked quite different.”
“Taller, smarter, more witty and elegant.”
“If she has learned anything in Italy, it’s not surprising.”
“But she paints the ugliest ducks. She was supposed to be learning painting in Italy.”
Irving chuckled. “Continue.”
“She seems to shun her sister but is as thick as thieves with that Mrs. Romano. Molly said her aunt swears that Miss Bingley is another person because she likes to eat peanut now. She used to have a reaction with peanuts and couldn’t eat any before she went to Italy. Even her hair looks lighter!”
Darcy exchanged a look with Irving.
Irving said, “So you think this Miss Bingley is not the Miss Bingley who left in the summer of 1804?”
“I will not start such a rumour.”
“But why do Mr. Bingley and Mrs. Hurst not say a word about it?” Darcy murmured.
“Oh, they won’t dare to breathe a word if Mr. Hurst had sired a child with the original Miss Bingley.”
“But where are the original Miss Bingley and the child?” Irving tapped his fingers.
Mrs. Miller shrugged her shoulders again.
Darcy started pacing the floor, wondering how he should handle this information. Should he tell Elizabeth’s uncle and father? Perhaps it was better to stop Miss Bennet’s marriage after all. Otherwise, she might be in danger too. And it could bring a scandal to Elizabeth and his name. What if this Miss Bingley was an imposter and a murderer?
“Miss Bingley does not act like a criminal,” Irving murmured. “What about Mrs. Romano?”
“Oh, she likes to boss people around, Molly said, demanding the cook to make this and that, like she is the real mistress in the townhouse.”
Irving’s eyes narrowed. “Was she a bit of muslin on Mr. Hurst’s side too?”
“He has his sight on her, I believe, but she proves to be quite a challenge.”
“She knows how to pile him with drinks and other decadent stuff to take his mind off her. In fact, Cook has a theory…”
“Mrs. Romano is quite affectionate with Mr. Bingley, instead of Mr. Hurst.”
Darcy stopped pacing.
Irving asked, “Affectionate as in…?”
“Like he's her little brother. She will ruffle his hair, straighten his lapels and so on.”
“Mrs. Romano and Mr. Bingley are not sleeping together...” Darcy had to ask.
Mrs. Miller shook her head. “Not that the servants know of, in Hurst townhouse, anyway.”
Darcy concluded the meeting at Whitechapel with a heavy heart. He did not think that Mr. Bennet would take action on what he had found out about Bingley and his family. The older gentleman would probably laugh it off and snickered that Mrs. Miller had excessive imagination.
Should Darcy discuss this with his wife? He did not wish to go over the shameful detail of Hurst household with Elizabeth. He did not want to pollute her mind. After thinking for a few more minutes, he directed the unmarked carriage toward Gardiner’s warehouse. Cheapside was less than a mile from Whitechapel. Not a few yards from the warehouse, he noticed Mr. Gardiner dashing out of the door, towards the direction of his own residence in quick steps. Darcy called the carriage to a stop, stepped out and hurried after the older man.
Mr. Gardiner turned and looked at Darcy. He scanned Darcy’s ‘tradesman’ attire and said in a low voice: “What are you doing here, dressed like this?”
“I have some information,” Darcy replied, in similar low voice. “about the Bingleys.”
The expression on Darcy’s face was enough to make Mr. Gardiner stopped. “Me too. I was going to talk to Magdalene before deciding if we should call on Lizzy and you.”
“Should we take my carriage, to your house?” Darcy offered.
Gardiner looked at the unmarked vehicle and nodded his head. Soon the two men were transported to Gardiner’s townhouse. In the study, sipping a glass of brandy and with Mrs. Gardiner present, Darcy recounted what he had learned from Irving these two days.
“I debated if I should tell Mr. Bennet and ask him to demand Bingley to reveal the secret about his sister.”
“My brother is not the most responsible parent, as you can see from the past few days,” Gardiner murmured. “I think it is up to us to force Bingley’s hands. You have every right to do so as any scandal will affect the Darcys name, when he marries Jane.”
“Should we ask Lizzy to join us to discuss?” Mrs. Gardiner jumped in. “She will be most displeased if she is left out of our plan.”
Darcy grimaced. “But the unsavoury detail of Hurst…”
“You said Lizzy already knew about Bingley’s past women. Lizzy is a married woman now. Her sensibility should be more immune, and you do not want to create another misunderstanding between yourselves.”
Mrs. Gardiner’s emphasis on the word “another” made Darcy realise that his wife had confided the history of their ‘courtship’ to her aunt. How much of the history, he was not sure, but Mrs. Gardiner’s words were wise. He did not want Elizabeth to get angry with him and banish him from her bedroom.
With the Gardiners’ permission, Darcy penned a note to send for Elizabeth. Elizabeth arrived at Gracechurch Street within the hour. She raised her eyes at the ‘very ordinary’ attire of her husband but did not say a word. Once the four settled in Gardiner’s study, Darcy filled his wife in about what he had found out that morning.
“And you went there without a word to me?” Her voice raised up a notch.
The nerve on Darcy’s neck throbbed. “I did not know what Irving wanted exactly. And it was not an area suitable for gentlewomen. I did not want to thread on your sensibility.”
Elizabeth gasped out loud and then drew in a few deep breathes. She bit her lips. With blazing eyes, she turned abruptly from her husband to her uncle. “And what do you want to reveal to us, Uncle?”
Darcy thanked the Lord that his wife managed to hold on to her temper and did not lecture him in front of the Gardiners. He wanted to maintain his dignity, without begging for her mercy in such a manner. When they returned to the privacy of their own bedchambers later on in the day, he would do anything, to ask for her forgiveness. Judging from the displeasure of her countenance and the way her eyes were flashing angrily, he would be in for a big set down.
Mr. Gardiner launched into the heart of the matter immediately: “The Bingleys seem to have been paying off Mrs. Romano for the past three years.”
The ladies gasped and held onto each other’s hands. Darcy looked at his wife longingly, wishing she would turn to him for comfort. Seeing that he was in Elizabeth’s black books right now, he endeavoured to redeem himself by asking the relevant questions to Mr. Gardiner. “How did you find out about it, Uncle?”
“As you know, I have asked a few merchants discreetly about the finances of the Bingleys, such as, have they owed any money for long, any bills for food or wood not yet paid and so on.”
Darcy nodded his head. “But you said that nothing seems to be out of the ordinary on those fronts. Irving’s report confirms that too.”
“Indeed,” Mr. Gardiner said. “But today, Mrs. Baker, the assistant of Madame Girard came to my warehouse to check on the new fabric just shipped in from the Orient.”
“Madame Girard?” Elizabeth scowled. “The name sounds familiar…”
Darcy pondered for a second and offered: “Miss Bingley had asked if your wedding gown was made by this Madame Girard when we toured Captain Linton’s townhouse.”
Elizabeth smiled at Darcy’s good memory but then screwed her face to a grim expression again immediately. She should be angry with her husband, not smiling at him!
“Pray continue, Uncle,” Darcy knew he had to work hard to placate Elizabeth’s temper. He turned to the matter at hand and urged Mr. Gardiner.
“Mrs. Baker was fawning all over the latest fabric and murmured that Miss Bingley wanted a new gown made urgently, for her brother’s wedding. My interest was piqued. I didn’t tell her Bingley would be marrying my niece but that he has some business with me. I invited her into my office, poured her a cup of my finest tea and asked if she had known the Bingleys for long.”
“Oh, that will sure loosen her tongue more,” Mrs. Gardiner rolled her eyes at her husband.
“She told me Miss Bingley has frequented Madam Girard’s shop since her return from Rome two years ago.”
“Rome…” Darcy said.
“Yes, she said Miss Bingley let it slip once about leaving the city. But more significantly, it was Mrs. Romano who introduced Miss Bingley to Madam Girard’s shop.”
“What is the significance of that?” Mrs. Gardiner frowned.
“Mrs. Baker’s exact words were, ‘Mrs. Romano has an account with us for three long years, thanks to the late Mr. Bingley.’ Though she covered her mouth immediately and begged me not to tell anyone. Or else she would get into trouble with Madam Girard.”
Darcy exchanged a look of bewilderment with his wife. “Is Mrs. Romano the mistress of late Mr. Bingley’s?”
“I posed that question too,” Mr. Gardiner said. “in a more round about way, after I reassured Mrs. Baker, I would keep her confidence. But she said she would not know. After that, she babbled on and on that Mrs. Romano usually buys at least seven new gowns from Madam Girard twice a year. For the past three years without fail. Mrs. Romano may not have been in town that much during those times, but wherever she is, she will order the gowns and have the shop send to her, with bills settled by the Bingleys.”
“That is a lot of money!” Mrs. Gardiner commented.
Her husband nodded his head. “We were talking only about the gowns. There will be matching shoes, fans, stockings and so on, I reckon. Assuming Mrs. Romano spent five pounds per ensemble at Madam Girard, we are talking about at least 70 pounds per year from just one shop for the past three years. I think the arrangement may extend to other merchants.”
“Why would Bingley still pay for her dresses, if she was his father’s mistress?” Darcy murmured. “He could easily terminate the arrangement after his father’s death.”
“That was what I could not figure out earlier either,” Gardiner said. “But now that you mentioned Mrs. Romano treating Bingley affectionately…”
“Surely Mrs. Romano is too young to mother, Mr. Bingley!” Elizabeth uttered, after darting her eyes from her uncle to her husband.
Darcy nodded his head. “I agree with Elizabeth. Mrs. Romano looks to be in her mid-thirties and Bingley is four and twenty already.”
Mrs. Gardiner crinkled her nose and commented: “It is entirely possible for a young Mrs. Romano of eleven or twelve to fall into the clutches of late Mr. Bingley. But she looks to be in her forties to me.”
Gardiner concurred with his wife’s estimation. Darcy considered for a second. “This is easy to confirm. I shall ask Irving to check on the birth record. If she was only twelve in the year Charles Bingley was born, I do not see how Lord Whitehaven would allow his young daughter to be taken advantage by late Mr. Bingley.”
“When did Lord Whitehaven lose his fortune?” Elizabeth asked.
Darcy frowned. “I do not think Irving mentioned the exact year yesterday. I shall ask him to send me his report in writing, with all the dates in detail.”
“Did Mrs. Baker have any more gossip to add to the speculation?” Mrs. Gardiner asked.
“No, but I intend to ask merchants who supply to Mrs. Romano too.”
Darcy nodded. “I will tell Irving to check this as well.”
“But what are we to do?” Elizabeth said breathlessly. “Should we tell Jane so she can ask Mr. Bingley? Should she reconsider about marrying him? What will happen to her babe? Should we tell Papa about it? Jane has not been feeling well since she arrives in London. I fear for her welfare if Mr. Bingley proves to be an unworthy gentleman.”
Darcy could not let his wife fret. He moved to sit next to Elizabeth and wrapped his arms around her shoulders. She stiffened at first and tried to pull away. When she raised her eyes to stare at him, he gazed back at her tenderly. Their eyes focused on each other for a second before Elizabeth let go of her hold of Mrs. Gardiner’s hand, finally relaxed her body and buried her head in Darcy’s neck. Darcy breathed out a sigh of relief and took in Elizabeth’s sweet lavender smell. He was happy that she let him comfort her.
“Lizzy is right,” Mrs. Gardiner said. “Jane fares poorly. But it is her life and her future. She has a right to know.”
“Perhaps we should summon Bingley here and get the truth out of him first,” Darcy said with a forceful voice. He would not let that man, and his dubious family threatened the wellbeing of Elizabeth and her family!
The others agreed, and it was decided that Darcy would write the note. Darcy urged his wife to rest while they waited for Bingley but she declined. “I am well. I am not of weak constitution. I think I shall go and play with my cousins.”
Darcy followed his wife to the parlour while the Gardiners excused themselves to handle some household matter, after entrusting the children to Elizabeth. The Gardiner’s children, Margaret, Rebecca, and Jack were overjoyed with the attention of their cousin.
Four-year-old Jack laid his head on Elizabeth’s lap, raised a chubby finger and pointed at Darcy. “Who’s he?”
“Did you not remember?” Elizabeth ruffled Jack’s hair. “I introduced Mr. Darcy to your sisters and you the other day. He is my husband.”
“Mr. Darcy? Can I ask him questions?”
Darcy sat next to Elizabeth and nodded his head. “Most certainly.”
Jack stuck his tongue out at his older sister. “Smart men ask a lot of questions, Papa said.”
“Lizzy, don’t mind Jack,” Rebecca, at six, was always in competition with her younger brother for the attention of adults. “Let’s play Fox and Geese. Come, Margaret!” She ran to get the white game board, pushing Jack away from Elizabeth’s lap and commended her elder sister for coming near.
“Rebecca!” Elizabeth chastised her and tried to steady Jack.
“I don’t play with girls!” Jack puffed and moved to climb up Darcy’s lap instead.
“Good,” Rebecca smiled snugly. “I do not play with boys either!”
“Where do you coming from?” Jack asked loudly, drowning Rebecca’s voice. He started playing with the buttons of Darcy’s waistcoat. Elizabeth allowed Rebecca to draw her into the game, but her eyes were on her husband.
She had never seen Mr. Darcy with children before. There were no such occasions in Hertfordshire or Kent. Yes, she had introduced him to her young cousins after their marriage, but he was rather polite and stiff in his manner then. She remembered she had a frown on her face when she thought he might not like children. Due to the circumstances of their marriage, Elizabeth had felt that she might need to focus her love on their children if she did not have a happy marriage with him. It would not do if he did not like children as that would mean they might lead a separate life.
Now that they had somehow grown closer together, she would want their children to be conceived out of their love. Love? When did it come into her thought? She should be angry with him, for going to Whitechapel all by himself! But right this moment, he had a smile on his face and cuddled Jack as he listened to the young lad’s chatter. He seemed very at ease, like a loving father, enjoying his time with a young son.
“I come from Derbyshire.” Darcy's voice was warm and relaxed as he replied. He treated Jack’s question very seriously.
“But Mama came from Derbyshire too!”
“Yes, I have heard.”
“From the town of lambs!”
“I have not heard of a town of lambs in Derbyshire.”
“Lambton!” Rebecca jumped in.
“Jack can’t remember, so Mama makes it easier for him to remember Lambton,” Margaret explained.
“Yes, Lambton is just five miles from Pemberley, your cousin Lizzy and my estate.”
“What is an estate?”
Jack crinkled his nose. “Cousin Lizzy lives in Long Born, not Pan Alley?”
“Pemberley.” Darcy pronounced the name slowly for Jack. “Your cousin Lizzy and I are married. She no longer lives in Longbourn.”
“Do you like Pan Belly?” Jack turned to ask Elizabeth, chuckling loudly as his hands rubbed on Darcy’s belly.
Rebecca laughed out loud, at her brother’s deliberate misuse of the name. She forgot her game pieces and listened to Jack more intently. Elizabeth had a hard time suppressing her mirth, especially seeing Jack kneading her husband’s abdomen. Darcy raised his eyebrow at her.
“Pemberley.” Elizabeth made Jack repeat after her. “I have not seen it yet.”
“It’s not smart to agree to live there, without seeing it.” Jack shook his head at Elizabeth. “We need to know…detail before we agree to anything. Detail is very important, Papa always said!”
It was Darcy’s turn to suppress his laughter. Elizabeth arched her eyebrow and gave him a stare. She commented to Jack: “You are a wise man, for one so young.”
“Are you a wise man too, Mr. Darcy?” Jack said.
Darcy thought of his folly during his “courtship” with Elizabeth. He winced when he remembered his disastrous proposal. He could learn more from Mr. Gardiner and his family. He replied: “I hope to get wiser, every day.”
“Are you young too, Mr. Darcy?”
“Not old, not old at all.”
“Are you too young to marry cousin Lizzy?”
“Not too young.”
“Are you really too young or too old to marry Lizzy?” Jack puzzled. “I want to marry Maria tomorrow.”
Rebecca giggled. “Silly Jack! You are way too young to get married.”
Margaret explained: “Maria is the Italian girl living a block away from us. Jack likes her very much since meeting her in the candy shop a few weeks ago.”
“I am not silly!” Jack protested. “Cousin Lizzy said I am wise. I can marry like Mr. Darcy, as I am wiser than him. He said he wants to get wiser, tomorrow.” He pointed his chubby fingers at Elizabeth, Darcy and himself successively to make his point.
Elizabeth and Darcy looked at each other with a look of wonder. They desperately wanted to burst out laughing and yet did not want to hurt Jack’s feeling. They were not sure how to explain to Jack about his faulty logical conclusion or that it would be years before he should think about the question of marriage.
“And Maria is prettier than you!” Jack stuck his tongue out at Rebecca. Rebecca shoved him on his shoulders. Jack retaliated, accidentally knocking the board game from Elizabeth’s lap onto the floor.
“I hate you!” Rebecca yelled, stomped her feet and dashed out of the room.
“Troublesome girls!” Jack stated and climbed down from Darcy’s lap. “Come, let me show you, my soldiers!” He tried to pull Darcy to stand up.
“Whatever is the matter?” The Gardiners came into the parlour, with a tearful Rebecca in tow. Soon, the parents listened to the statements from the two arguing siblings and ruled that both of them had not been behaving properly. They were sent to the nursery to think of their mistakes, under the supervision of their eldest sister. Elizabeth and Darcy looked at each other and breathed out a sigh of relief. Elizabeth thought she had a long way to be ready to be a mother. The occupation required wit, diplomacy, and patience.
Soon, Darcy’s man returned, but only with a note from Miss Bingley.
“Miss Bingley said her brother has gone North to inform their aunt of his impending marriage. Bingley will not be back in town until a day before the wedding.”
The Darcys left Gracechurch Street soon afterwards. As Mr. Bingley had done a disappearing act again, there was nothing they could do right now but to wait for more reports from Irving and Mr. Gardiner’s enquiry.
Inside the carriage, Elizabeth rebutted her husband’s attempt in conversation and replied in monosyllabic words. Anger brewed in her chest as she refused to look at her husband.
She was upset with Mr. Darcy. He told her he would treat her as a partner in life and respect her. She thought they had made some good progress in the past few days. How could he have gone to Whitechapel without telling her? Despite the time of the day, it was still a rough area. Even though Irving went with him, the investigator looked too lanky to offer any protection for Mr. Darcy, she thought. What if something happened to Mr. Darcy? People could easily see the wealth from the noble mien he exulted, even though he had not worn his gentleman clothes. He could be pulled inside a dark alley, robbed and bashed to death! She did not want to be a widow so soon! And with no heir yet. The Darcy’s name would die with him. How could she bear with such a thought? Tears were threatening to fall, but she was determined not to let her husband see them.
“Elizabeth,” Darcy moved to sit next to her and reached for her hand. “I know you are upset…”
She withdrew her hand and squirmed away as far away from him as possible. “You have no idea how upset I am!” Her voice trembled.
“It is not the right place for gentlewomen…”
“Exactly, for gentlemen either! That was why I wanted to be told. I wish to be given a choice! To decide what I wanted to do.”
“There was nothing for you to do!”
“How would you know?” She finally turned to stare at him. Her eyes flashed with anger, and she folded her arms across her chest. “Perhaps I could pack a dagger for you to strap to your leg.”
His eyes widened, and he frowned.
“Did you arm yourself?” Darcy did not reply. “No?!”
“It was in the morning, and Irving was with me.”
“What if you decided to have a walk all by yourself after you heard what Mr. Irving had to say.”
“I would not be so careless…”
“You were careless, going to Whitechapel, an area known for criminal activities without telling anyone about the appointment nor arm yourself.”
“But the driver was…”
“He could have been killed too, together with you!”
“I have been my own master for years,” He breathed heavily. His voice rose.
“Yes, you have disregarded others for years! Your selfish disdain of people…”
He gasped and stared at her for a second. Then with his lips thinned, he removed himself to the opposite end of the carriage. Turning to look out of the window, he breathed heavily and remained silent.
Elizabeth clamped her mouth shut, as soon as she uttered the words ‘selfish disdain’. She darted a glance at her husband. His dark countenance stirred her emotion. On the one hand, she felt guilty to drag up the harsh words she had used during his disastrous proposal. On the other hand, she could not berate herself for chastising him. He indeed had no respect for her. He did not consider for one moment her dismay if he were hurt. If he was furious about her concern, she was bitter with his lack of it.
The atmosphere in the carriage was heavy and tense. Both Darcy and Elizabeth held onto their rage for the rest of the journey.
When the unmarked carriage pulled into the servant entrance of Darcy House, Darcy got off and offered his hand to Elizabeth, with a stormy face. His eyes stared at the interior of the carriage, anywhere but Elizabeth. She ignored his hand and jumped down.
“I shall retire before I dress for dinner at the Matlocks.” She told no one in particular as she marched towards the servant stairs.
Once she arrived at her bedchamber, Elizabeth changed into something more comfortable quickly, ordered her maid tersely to wake her up two hours before the dinner and dismissed her. Then she threw herself onto the bed and covered her head with the duvet and burst into tears. Was that too much to ask Mr. Darcy to tell her where he went? It was a dangerous place, this Whitechapel. Even for someone who lived in the country for most of her life, Elizabeth had read in newspapers that terrible crimes happened there.
She had forgiven his domineering way during the wedding night. She thought he would treat her as his faithful partner after his vow for forgiveness. She was wrong! If he treated her as his equal, he would have told her of his plan. She would not have asked to go with him, if he explained to her. But she would feel better, to be able to alert the right person should he not returned on time. He put her in the dark. Similar to Mr. Bennet’s action to his wife, Mr. Darcy chose to shut Elizabeth out. She would not settle for such a marriage, such a life, and such a future. And he took the choice out of her hand, by not informing her of his whereabouts. Like with the marriage, she had not had the opportunity either. He forced her to marry him, to save Jane and her family’s reputation. He was no gentleman! He did not love her, honestly. If he did, he would have helped her in whatever way, without demanding anything from her. She wanted to yell at him.
Her tears flowed, on and on.
The silent tears turned into loud sobs.
Did she have a good cry since she discovered Jane was with child? She could not remember. She felt all the pent-up pressure building up in her chest: Her worries for her beloved sister; her fear for her own future when Mr. Darcy demanded marriage in exchange for help; her despair when he showed the tiny displeasure or silence towards her family before the wedding, his brutish verbal demand for her obedience to every one of his wishes; the guilt she had when vowing in front of the vicar and God, to love and to behold to Mr. Darcy whom she had no affection, except gratitude at that time; the absolute nothingness when he made her his wife, without tender regard beforehand.
Why was Elizabeth always the one to pay for the price? The hurtful things her mother had said about her throughout the years bubbled up in her bosom. She might not be as pretty as Jane, but why could her mother not praise her for her wit? Why was she to be the sacrificial lamb for the odious Mr. Collins? Why did her mother spare Jane from such a fate of becoming Mrs. Collins, for Mr. Bingley, who turned out to be an unsteady young man with a questionable family? Did her mother ever say anything good to Elizabeth about her engagement to Mr. Darcy, except to demand balls, lace and new gowns for her sisters? Elizabeth felt like a whore in her mother’s eyes, to be sold off for their material gain, in particular for silly and misbehaved Lydia. And what of her father? He had not questioned Mr. Darcy’s affection before giving his consent. He was so easily placated by Elizabeth’s flimsy excuse and blessed their union. The neglect and cruelty her father displayed since he learned of Jane’s predicament were unbelievable. She felt utterly disappointed in her favourite parent. What about Jane? Did she care about her own future? Did she not see the capricious nature of Mr. Bingley? Did she not know the danger of aligning herself with someone like Mr. Bingley? Did Jane consider the possible scandal that might cause to Mr. Darcy whom Elizabeth now belonged to?
From Mr. Darcy, to her family and back to her husband, her violent thoughts finally dissipated as her tears dried up. She closed her eyes and willed herself to sleep.
In the Master bedchamber, Darcy paced around. He wanted to scream out. But it was ungentlemanly to display his frustration, even in the confine of his own room. Did Elizabeth not recognise that he had been trying his best to help her family? Her loathsome and improper family? Did she not appreciate the effort he had made so far?
He housed her relatives, let his sister expose to some of the inappropriate manner exhibited by her family. Did Elizabeth not know that he was trying to improve his behaviour to people different from his circle? He used his contact to get Captain Linton’s townhouse for Miss Bennet and Bingley. He went to great length and expense to engage Irving to investigate Bingley’s family. Were these not enough to show his commitment to her welfare?
Did he not make sure Mr. Bennet talk to Bingley with his daughters’ presence? How could she think that he did not respect her? Or not include her?
He had been master of Pemberley for five years. Even before his father had died, Darcy had been handling the estate affairs for some years due to his father’s ill health. He made the decision for hundreds of people every day for the past years. Was Darcy not well qualified to decide what was right for Elizabeth? He had traveled to the continent, Scotland, Ireland and many times from town to Derbyshire, under some of the most dangerous conditions. Darcy had always been careful, because he knew of the responsibility he had to his people. If he perished, the Darcy name would die. He knew his duty to his family. Why would he need her to be angry with him, just for going out in London, in broad daylight? Was he disdainful to her just because he wanted to protect her?
She was entirely unfair to him!
She was utterly unreasonable, like so many women he disliked.
And she still had not forgotten what he had said in the proposal. On the surface, she might have forgiven him, look to him for help or respect him as her husband. Deep down, she still hated him. She again trampled his love and threw it back to his face.
Darcy bit his lips, flopped onto the chair and folded his arm. Whitechapel was definitely not the right area for her to go to, even in disguise. He was in the right. She did not know better. He acted soundly, for her own good. And if Elizabeth would not appreciate the effort he had taken to assist her family, he would not bother anymore.
Breathing deeply, he rebelled against all the polite and solicitous gestures he had resorted to engaging in since the night of confession to Elizabeth. Darcy would act like Wickham or Bingley, to act according to his own wish and for his own enjoyment. His wife was too hard to please and her family too troublesome!
Yes, gentlemanlike manner was over-praised.
Lust was a sin he would have no scruple to commit.
With that in mind, he pulled off his jacket and waistcoat and marched into his wife’s room, without bothering to knock on the door.
Elizabeth was drawn into the most glorious dreams.
In this white and bright room, there was only Fitzwilliam and herself. She was lying provocatively, with a smile on her face and a hand caressing her breasts. Her legs opened and closed in a rhythm harmony with her caress.
Fitzwilliam was standing a few feet away from her. He was dressed in an implacable dark green coat, with the most intricate necktie and handsome silk waistcoat. His broad shoulders filled the jacket tightly. The form-fitting tight breeches accentuated the virility of his thighs. His curly hair was brushed and shiny.
Elizabeth was drawn to his dark eyes and his intense expression. He was swallowing hard, and a flush of pink adorned his cheeks, as if he was drunk, by the sight of her wanton body.
“Fitzwilliam,” she whispered and raised one of her hands to beckon him to come near.
“It is time, my love,” he said.
“Yes, it is time,” she smiled seductively, jutting out her lower lip and cupping her breasts as an offering. “to make me yours again.”
His breathing became louder. So loud that Elizabeth could believe it was not a dream. Every gasp of air by him sent a tremor to her ears, down her spine.
But he still did not move forward, she raised her eyes and smoothed one side of her nightgown down the left shoulder, exposing her nipple to his intense gaze. “Come!”
“Are you sure?” Darcy stepped forward.
He sat gingerly on the edge of the bed. His hands held in a tight fist. Elizabeth was impatient for his inaction. Grabbing his hand and unclenching his fingers, she pulled his big strong hand onto her bosom. Like a hot plate of metal, his palm scorched her nipple.
He gasped loudly, and she smiled smugly. Elizabeth was determined to make him lose control. He was too severe and uptight for his own good.
She moved his hand to caress her hot upper body while her other hand edged onto his thigh. His muscle vibrated. His shiver felt so real that she pulsed with him. His musky scent attacked her other sense, drawing her nose close to his hip. She rubbed her face against it, feeling the heat of his flesh, radiating through the fabric of his trousers.
Like a spring wrung too tight, Darcy burst into action. Lowering his body over hers, he grabbed her hands and raised them above her head. She panted, her breasts heaving in and out, pushing his muscular torso up and down. They breathed in unison. Every inch of their body seemed to be touching each other.
The feel was so real that she blinked her eyes several times. Darcy was still there, on top of her, his hands still holding hers above her head. But he was not wearing any coat or cravat. She itched to brush her hands over his chiseled chest and back, but she was not free to do so. The urge to feel the form of his body overcame her, and she wiggled her bosom, waist, and hips against him. The rubbing sparked a fire in her body, burning the tips of her nipples, the centre of her navel and the hair in her apex. With a loud moan, Elizabeth wrapped her legs around his, squeezing his body down to hers.
He let out an animal like scream and released her hands.
“Am I dreaming, Fitzwilliam?”
“You are my dream, Lizzy!”
She raised her mouth to kiss him. Her hands pulled his shirt from the confine of his breeches. Her legs continued to rub against his. Every contact between their bodies sent blood soaring in her body. She was so hot that she had no objection to his tearing off her nightgown.
When his hands roamed around her breasts, kneading and pinching, his kiss became more passionate. His tongue invaded her mouth, thrusting in and out. She felt faint by his ardour. Elizabeth needed to do something, take control of her own. So her hands moved between their bodies and undid the buttons on his breeches. Darcy’s raging arousal sprung free and poked at her thigh. She palmed the hard shaft and stroked his velvety length.
His mouth tore away from hers, and he let out another loud groan.
Her body felt the loss immediately. Elizabeth wanted him, to fill her senses and body. She raised her body, trying to capture his mouth with her lips and pull his rod to warm her core.
“Mrs. Darcy, it is time!” The pitched voice of a woman startled Elizabeth out of her haze.
“I beg your pardon, Madam…and Sir!” It was her maid, who withdrew into the servant door as quickly as she had appeared to wake her mistress for dinner.
It was not a dream! Elizabeth’s body froze. Mr. Darcy was in her bed, on top of her! She was squeezing his manhood and his hot mouth on her neck.
“I beg your pardon, Madam!” Her husband uttered the same words as the maid, loudly like a clap of thunder. Then he scrambled away from her and limped out of the room in a flash.
Elizabeth had never felt so unloved and unfulfilled in her life before.
Darcy felt the heat on his face when he saw his wife descending the stairs. The incident before they dressed still fresh in his mind, as well as their argument earlier in the day. He was both frustrated and embarrassed. He did not want to pay her attention, yet his eyes widened at her alluring form, molded by the lovely emerald silk evening gown. He could not take his eyes off. He noticed the defying tilt of her head and the slight biting of her lower lip. She was still displeased with him.
Resentment brewed in his chest again.
When he returned to his bedchamber after the incident, he fell back onto his old habit and wished to be an honourable and caring husband again. He berated himself for even thinking for one second to place his lust above his promise to her. But now that he saw her defying countenance, he wanted to act similarly.
With a tightening of his lips, he bowed curtly, turned to walk ahead without speaking a word. He could feel Elizabeth heated stare at his back, her short breathing as she followed him out. The atmosphere in the carriage was frosty. While Elizabeth attempted to converse with Georgiana, she did not include Darcy in the conversation. He wished he had the Bennets in this carriage while he rode on horseback outside. Then he would not need to bear the cold treatment of his wife. But arriving on his uncle’s house for dinner with dust on his body would sure cause an uproar from his aunt.
Once the party arrived at Matlock’s residence, Elizabeth’s frosty attitude towards him seemed to thaw slightly, probably for appearance sake. His aunt had kindly added Bingley to the guest list, once they knew about Miss Bennet’s attendance and the imminent prenuptial.
But Darcy was surprised that the Hursts, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Romano were also in attendance. He raised a questioning look at his uncle who just shrugged his shoulders. After the initial concern, Darcy thought this was an excellent opportunity to observe the entire guest party, given the information he learned recently.
He had never noticed any enmity or great affection between Miss Bingley and Mr. Hurst before. Perhaps he was not observant in the past as he was annoyed by Miss Bingley’s fawning manner and tried to avoid looking at her most of the time. As for the Hursts, they often behaved like two strangers, rather than a couple. Darcy never thought any of it before as it was typical behaviour for people married for the sake of augmenting their wealth. He would look for any resentment on Mrs. Hurst’s part tonight. And what about Mrs. Romano and Bingley? Would they act like siblings as per the gossip below stairs?
Darcy darted a glance at Elizabeth. If only they were not still affronted with each other, he would have liked to share his observation with her. For now, that could not be. He sighed and took his seat. It was going to be a long evening.
Earlier the evening, at a townhouse in London
“Are you happy now?” he asked, looking at the woman, sitting in front of the mirror, fiddling with several necklaces.
She raised her eyes and looked at him through the mirror. She smiled and curled her lips. “Slightly.”
He raised his eyebrows, sipped his glass of wine and motioned her to continue.
She turned around and stares at him, “It has taken too long. And there is still a long road ahead.”
“You are too hard to please,” He took another drink of the wine. “I kind of like my life now, sort of, if I get to, more often, you know...” He raised his eyebrows, suggestively this time.
Her face tightened, “Stop thinking with your cock! We are meant so much more!”
“Calm down, my dear! Come.” He opened his arm and gestured her to come to him.
She drew in a deep breath, shook her head and turned back to scrutinize herself in front of the mirror. “You should leave.” She said, as she finally decided on the emerald necklace.
After the first course was served and the servant retreated, Lord Matlock started the conversation. “How did you find Darcy House, Mr. Bennet?”
“It has the most excellent library. Pity, it is in town.”
“Ah, you should visit Pemberley then,” His Lordship smiled. “It has the largest library in the whole of northern England and happens to be in the country.”
“I must congratulate Lizzy for marrying Mr. Darcy then, if for nothing else, just for the sake of his library.” Mr. Bennet smirked.
“If you have a garden and a library you have everything you need,” Mary commented.
“Quite right, my girl,” Mr. Bennet said. “When did you throw away Fordyce's Sermons and extend your reading to a Roman philosopher?”
“I have not thrown away my favourite sermons!” Mary protested, with a red face.
Darcy saw Elizabeth’s face turned crimson too. She opened her mouth, and was about to intervene and stop her father from making a jest of her younger sister when someone else commented.
“Ah, Cicero, his forehead!” Hurst murmured. The voice was low, but as Darcy sat one seat away from him, he had heard it.
Darcy scanned across the table to see if anyone else had heard Hurst’s utterance. It seemed the Bingleys, and Mrs. Romano were engaged in some other conversation and missed that. But from the startled look on Elizabeth’s face and that she had stopped speaking, Darcy was sure that his wife had heard it as well.
Lord Matlock didn’t seem to have heard it. He continued, “Ah from Roman philosopher, it leads me to remember the beauty of Italy. Mrs. Romano,” he spoke louder to draw the attention of the woman. “Did you still have any of your husband’s paintings in your procession? I adored his mastery of ancient historical figures and would not mind to part with some money for his masterpieces.”
Mrs. Romano frowned. She looked displeased but replied politely, “I am afraid not, My Lord. My husband painted exclusively for his patron only. All his paintings are now in Lord Allen’s possession.”
“Pity,” Lord Matlock shook his head. “It is damn inconvenient that Bonney is occupying Italy and all of you young bucks have not had a chance to go on to the grand tour.”
“Henry,” Lady Matlock chastised her husband. “Let us not bring the war to our dining table.”
“I stand corrected, my lady,” His Lordship smiled. “But I can still talk about Italy, can I not? I had such a marvellous time during my grand tour. The mellow and seductive life of Paris did not compare to the exotic and vibrant sights of Venice. I missed them from time to time. Truly, Mrs. Romano and Miss Bingley, you must agree with me. After all, I heard that you spent some time there. How many years were you there?”
“I could not get out of that dreadful place early enough,” Miss Bingley replied all too quickly. Mrs. Romano sent her a strange look. Miss Bingley thus added, slowly, “for I missed my lovely family and friends in England, most decidedly.”
“That is quite interesting differences in perception,” Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed as she observed the interplay between Miss Bingley and Mrs. Romano. Even though Darcy should be still fuming with Elizabeth, he felt proud of his wife’s intelligence. The undercurrent of the conversation seemed to have gone unnoticed by her sisters.
Elizabeth continued, “While His Lordship remembered Italy with fond memory. Miss Bingley found the place terrible. I wonder if Miss Bingley somehow has suffered some misfortune there.”
Miss Bingley opened her mouth to retort, judging from the countenance of her face, but Mrs. Romano took it upon herself to do so for her friend. Her breath was short, and anger flashed in her eyes. “She was young and alone when she was left there. Her mother had no choice. It was lucky that she managed to come to England safely afterwards. Was it not, my dear?”
Darcy’s thought deepened, on hearing Mrs. Romano’s defence of Miss Bingley.
Miss Bingley closed her mouth, nodded her head and then returned her attention on cutting the ham on her plate with vigour.
Elizabeth paused for a second and then continued her inquisition. She must have thought that she would trip up the two guests if she kept on the topic about Italy. Bravo, my love, Darcy thought and couldn’t stop his smile. “Miss Bingley was left there? Oh, poor thing. When was that? In 1800?” Elizabeth knew from the information from Whitechapel’s visit that Miss Bingley only went to Italy in 1804. She was determined to make the other lady to reveal her true self. Darcy sipped the wine and admired his wife. He sat back and watched her in action.
“Mother sent Caroline to Italy,” the amiable and helpful Bingley seemed momentarily distracted from his sole preoccupation with Miss Bennet and was drawn into the conversation as well, “in 1804. I remember quite clearly. I was sixteen years old then, and I thought mother was quite out of her mind. Why would she send Caroline to Sicily, all on her own? Even though the island is protected by England, Bonney is just across the water.”
“Mother had her reasons,” Mrs. Hurst jumped in to comment, her voice trembling.
Miss Bingley was never in Florence? Darcy frowned. So Irving’s investigation was wrong on that score.
“Lady Matlock, your cook made the most delicious ragout.” This time Mr. Hurst joined in, apparently wanting to steer the conversation away from Italy and Miss Bingley. Did he want to prevent Miss Bingley from revealing anything that would expose his dissolution? Darcy stared at him. With a full beard, a plump face and a round body, Hurst looked like a harmless gentleman who indulgent in leisure than work. His manner was lazy but almost kind. Could he be hiding his rakish behaviour under this pretence? Darcy glanced at the other people in the Bingley party. Mrs. Romano and Miss Bingley were exasperated or even outraged by the conversation, but there was no indication that they hated Mr. Hurst or thankful for his change of subject. Mrs. Hurst picked up her wine glass with visibly shaking hand. Bingley returned his attention to Miss Bennet.
Lady Matlock nodded her head and replied with a simple thank you. Then she added, “Miss Bingley never stayed at Florence? Lady Annabelle must have gotten it wrong when she mentioned it.” She turned to speak to Darcy, “She came to congratulate your marriage, and your acquaintance with the Bingley family was discussed briefly. She mentioned that her brother had received the invitation from Mr. Bingley for the wedding breakfast.”
Darcy understood now why the entire Bingley household was invited and why his uncle steered the conversation to Italy. Although his aunt and uncle had given their blessing to Elizabeth and thus her family, they were concerned about these new relations of the Bingleys. But by inviting them to their dining table, would it not let the Bingleys boast about the connection with the Matlocks? Darcy glanced at his uncle to see if he showed any sign of concern, but His Lordship seemed to relax.
Elizabeth stoked the fire again. “Was that why, Miss Bingley, your pursuit of painting unsuccessful? There are fewer painting masters in Sicily than in Florence, one must presume.”
“Oh, you were sent to study painting in Sicily!” Lord Matlock exclaimed, with interest. “Miss Bingley, you must share with us your insight.”
“Her studies were interrupted,” Mrs. Romano said on behalf of her friend again. “Your flower decoration looks magnificent, Lady Matlock.”
Lady Matlock smiled and said, “Thank you.” She did not comment further.
“How many years were you in Sicily?” His Lordship was still very keen about the subject of Italy. Darcy congratulated his uncle’s perseverance. He observed the body language of Mrs. Romano and Miss Bingley with keen interest. Their shoulders were stiff and their bodies uptight.
“Six years, Your Lordship.” Miss Bingley spoke. Her face looked sour.
“Which school have you been to?”
“A seminary.” One in sicily???
“I have never been to Sicily,” His Lordship murmured. “But Florence, Venice, and Rome. They are wonderful cities.”
“A savage place,” Miss Bingley said. “I wouldn’t want to live there for a day longer…” She seemed to have a lot more to say about Sicily but then thought better of it. “This orange lily is truly gorgeous, Lady Matlock. I think we should procure some too, do you not think so, Victoria?”
“Yes, it is quite the fashion to decorate the dining table with fresh exotic flowers,” her faithful friend replied.
They then turned the conversation to fashion at their end of the table. Lord Matlock let them be this time, while he talked to Mr. Bennet about some rare books. Soon the separation of sexes took place. When Darcy pulled the chair for Elizabeth to stand up, he could not help himself but murmured, “Bravo for your Spanish Inquisition!” She arched her teasing eyes and gave him a charming smile. How could he stay angry with her? He must try his best to remain displeased.
When Darcy arrived at the study, he declined the cigar but accepted a glass of whisky.
“You seem awfully keen to talk about Italy with the ladies,” Mr. Bennet commented to Lord Matlock.
“Who would not? It is exotic, vibrant and full of life.”
“I hope you are not implying that England lacks any of that,” Darcy said.
“I am happy to spend all my life in England,” Bingley exclaimed. “I saw a lot of beauty and liveliness in English roses.”
“I am sure you are not talking about the flowers on Her Ladyship’s table,” Hurst smiled as he gulped down the wine.
“Tell me, Bingley,” Lord Matlock said. “What did your father say about sending your sister to Sicily? I could not get my head around it. Six years is a long time and in a place so close to war.”
Bingley shrugged his shoulders. “Father was busy with business. His opinion was that daughters are to be seen, but not to bother with. He had me with him all the time, too often, if I may say so. I did not spend a lot of time with my sisters then. And I could only escape from my father and frolick with my friends once or twice in a while. In any case, the mother had full rein of the household.”
“Did she return when your parents past away?” Darcy added.
“And why sent her there in the first place?” Lord Matlock continued. “England has many great painting masters.”
“People only go to the Continent for two reasons,” Mr. Bennet commented.
“What are they?” His Lordship asked.
“To be known or to hide away.”
“Surely those are not your sister’s reasons,” Lord Matlock directed the comment to Bingley.
“Of course not!” Bingley replied immediately. “Caroline was sent there to learn painting, as my mother wanted her to get a nice husband.”
“It is damn tedious to talk about the past,” Hurst murmured, “when such excellent port is to be had. I would much rather talk about food and wine.”
Bingley grinned. “I know, Hurst. They are your favourite topics.”
Lord Matlock scanned from Hurst to Bingley, seeming to allow them to change the topic, “Let’s not forget about women. Georgiana reminds me of my sister more and more. She looks angelic. Mrs. Darcy looked striking in her emerald gown. Miss Bingley was impressive in her tangerine creation…”
“No lace please,” Mr. Bennet protested. “I have had enough of fashion discussed for a night.”
“Sir, you cannot deny that we have some gorgeous women gracing our table tonight,” Darcy spoke to Mr. Bennet, but he watched Hurst closely. The latter sipped his port and rubbed his belly, without a hint of being excited about the talk of women.
“Do not tell me you have roving eyes,” Mr. Bennet smirked. “Should I warn Lizzy about that?”
“Miss Bennet is the greatest beauty I have ever met,” Bingley exclaimed. “Of course, her sisters are beautiful too.” He added pleasantly. “I dare say it is normal for Darcy to take in all the beauty around the table.”
“You can be sure of my nephew’s devotion to your daughter, Mr. Bennet,” His Lordship said. “Darcy has been greeted and flirted by the greatest of all beauty in the whole of England since he became the Master of Pemberley. If he had roving eyes, his rakish deeds would have been reported in the gossip papers long ago.”
“Ah, the life of living famously,” Hurst muttered, while indulging in another mouthful of the port.
“As if you know that!” Bingley chuckled. “I have not seen you go out of your townhouse for ages. You and Louisa have not even visited your parents up north for some years.”
Finally, an irritable countenance appeared on Hurst's face. “I have all I want in the townhouse. I do not understand your urge to wander here and there.”
“If I had not gone about places, I would not have met my angel!”
“Yes, your fate will be sealed soon,” Hurst’s eyes were suddenly full of intensity as he said the words slowly. Bingley shrugged his shoulders, as if nothing in the world could rock his peace.
In the parlour, the ladies waited for the gentlemen to return with stilted conversation. Elizabeth would have liked to interrogate the ladies from the Bingley household, but they chose to sit on another sofa away from her.
Her mind drifted off to her husband, as Mary, who sat by her, did not incline to speak. Heat rose to her cheek immediately, as she thought about the incident in her bedchamber before they departed for dinner. Would Mr. Darcy believe that she was wanton, as she begged him to take her? Would that matter what he thought? She knew Darcy found her form attractive. She suspected that he invented the reasons of love because of his lust. It was lust that drove him to propose the outrageous scheme and treated her like his possession during the wedding night anyway.
Were men all like this? Her husband, who had travelled and seen the world, with sense and education, was ruled by his carnal needs. Mr. Bingley and Mr. Hurst seemed to be equally governed by lasciviousness, if the investigator was to be believed? Was she wrong to align Mr. Darcy with the likes of Mr. Bingley and his brother-in-law? How could she make sure Mr. Darcy really love her instead? She did not want to live a life like her mother, who seemed to serve no purpose to her father, but to be made fun and sport of, after the lure of her beauty faded with years.
How could Elizabeth prevent such a fate in her own marriage? Would staying away from her husband in bed achieve that? She was not certain. But by doing that, at least she would not feed his lust and make him neglect to grow his affection towards her. She swore that she would not lay with her husband again, until she was sure that his heart was pure in this love business.
But what could she do, with this argument she had with Mr. Darcy? She was not made for being angry for long, and she did not want to spend every day in acrimony. She felt entirely alone in the large household. She had expressed her disapproval and concerns about his decision to go to Whitechapel alone. Perhaps she should disregard her displeasure and attempt a truce with him, while making sure that she would not welcome him in her bed yet. She longed to discuss with Mr. Darcy about what was disclosed tonight.
Thinking about her husband and her effort at the dinner table to gather more intelligence about Miss Bingley, she could not stop from smiling. They were quite a team. She felt happy that their thoughts ran on a similar line. As if the mere thought would conjecture the person, Mr. Darcy and the rest of the gentlemen walked into the room. She froze her smile for a second, not wanting her husband to see it, and thus acting as if she was the one first surrendering to their earlier argument.
Her eyes met his, across the great length of the room. Those dark brown pools turned a shade darker. The intensity of his gaze and the seriousness of his expression reminded her of the night of his first proposal in Hunsford. In spite of everything, Mr. Darcy was constant, from the time of Netherfield to now. She occupied his thoughts and affected his actions these many months. Mr. Darcy’s constancy, compared to the capriciousness of Mr. Bingley, made her husband stand taller among others. She felt again the excitement and happiness of being valued by such a man. The smile on her face softened.
He stopped in his track abruptly and then, as if encouraged by her smile, marched to sit by her side on the sofa. Mary, seemed to be scared of his presence, moved to sit with Jane instead. “How did the after dinner conversation among the ladies go?” He whispered, unbelievable close to her ears, even though she was sure no one would hear him. His hot breath brushed over her ears, sending a shiver down her body.
Elizabeth flustered on smelling the fresh soap and manly scent on his body, which she seemed to have tuned out earlier in the evening. She would not be intimidated by his presence. It was time to negotiate the truce. Drawing a deep breath, she turned her head and replied in a low voice, close to his ears as well. “As you can see, no one seems to be interested in talking to your wife.” Her eyes focused on his distracting earlobe and she felt the room getting incredible hot suddenly.
“I could not imagine why,” Darcy turned his head in her direction again. “Mrs. Darcy is the handsomest and most interesting woman in the room.”
Elizabeth’s heart beat faster, on hearing his flattery. He had not flirted with her openly for many occasions. She glanced at his lips which were only inches away from her face. Wanton thoughts invaded her mind again. She remembered the magic his lips had weaved on her body before and had an urge to beg him to do it again, soon, despite the presence of a roomful of people. That could not do. She cleared her throat and said, “Are those flattering words a request for a truce?”
A flash of irritation clouded his face for a second, and he retorted, “I saw a smile across the room. Someone beckons me. Perhaps I was wrong.”
“Ah, what a dutiful husband!”
He executed a slight nod of his head. “I was taught not to neglect a lady’s request.”
“I shall hold you to that. In the meantime, what do you make of the conversations so far?”
With a slight curl of his mouth, showing a satisfied air, he continued in a low voice, “I found it odd that Mr. Hurst commented about Cicero's forehead. I saw that you had heard that remark too.”
“Indeed I did.”
“Can he be a connoisseur of paintings?”
“But in Netherfield, he cared for nothing, but food and drinks.”
“True. We shall ponder about Mr. Hurst more.”
“And Mr. Irving, he makes an error about Miss Bingley.”
“Of her in Florence?”
“Yes. And yet I distinctly remember Miss Bingley confirmed it with Lady Annabelle, at the modiste. Mr. Bingley now contradicts it. Sent to Sicily! This inconsistency is highly vexing.”
Mr. Darcy held her hand and stroked her fingers. “Indeed! There is something-something entirely not right, when Mrs. Romano had spoken for Miss Bingley. I could not quite make sense of it yet.”
Sensation sparked at Elizabeth’s fingertips. She darted an eye to observe the other occupants in the room. None of them settled their eyes on her husband. She resisted the urge to withdraw her hand and replied: “'Miss Bingley’s mother had no choice', Mrs. Romano claimed. Is that utterance which bothers you?”
“Hmm, you are right. Why 'no choice'? Hardly! Surely she can learn painting anywhere.”
“Indeed, you are right too…” Elizabeth paused. A thought came to her mind. Her eyes widened. “…Mrs. Romano stressed that her friend ‘did not manage to come to England’!”
Mr. Darcy stopped his caress and stared at her. “‘Come to England?’, not ‘come back to England’? Do you mean…”
Elizabeth nodded her head. “Yes, I mean…”
They turned to observe Miss Bingley for a second. Mr. Darcy then lowered his voice to her ears again. “That this impostor is an Italian, who finds Italy a dreadful and savage place.”
Elizabeth gasped and whispered back to him. “Impossible! I could hardly get around the idea of an impostor – and you are now advocating that Miss B, or whatever her name - is a foreigner entirely? Surely Mr. Bingley and Mrs. Hurst will be objecting to it. I shall, if someone replaces my sister Mary with a French lady from Bedlam! They live with Miss Bingley. That is not impossible! The lady is not so sly that she can hide her manner or accent every day. And I do not observe any mannerism of her that spoke of an Italian origin, when I was in Netherfield.”
Mr. Darcy frowned. “I did not either, during my visit at Hertfordshire. But six year was a long time. Miss Bingley could have used the excuse of maturity to disguise any changes in her appearance or form. And we have no prior idea of the former Miss Bingley to compare. Mr. Bingley and Mrs. Hurst have. Why do they not breathe a word about it? I cannot think of a reason yet.”
"How can we expose the impostor?" Elizabeth murmured.
"I am afraid we have to wait for Mr. Irving’s information from Italy.”
"But that may take weeks! Jane will be married by then, and there will be no turning back for her."
"But we cannot come out to ask them openly. I doubt Miss Bingley will tell us anyway, or confess."
"Poor Jane! Do you think we should share our suspicion with her?"
"Will she listen without any supporting evidence? You said before she finds goodness in all. What if she asks Mr. Bingley instead?"
"Oh!” Elizabeth raised her hand to cover her mouth. “We do not know if Miss Bingley is dangerous. What if she did away with Jane, for asking too much?"
“Do not let your imagination overrun you,” Mr. Darcy patted her hand. “Remember what Mr. Irving had said. Miss Bingley does not seem to be a spy. She is only keen on getting a rich husband.”
Elizabeth squeezed her husband’s hand absently as she thought about the mystery about the Bingleys still. "Did you notice the reaction of Mrs. Hurst earlier?"
"She was pretty shaken, when you pursued the Spanish Inquisition. I do not understand why."
" Me either. Mrs. Hurt's husband and Miss Bingley were annoyed by our conversation. Their reaction was all too vexing!"
"Could it be possible - Mrs. Hurst is being threatened?"
Elizabeth’s eyes widened, and she stared at her husband. “You spring up the most…unexpected speculation! Threatened of what? Mr. Hurst shall forbid her from buying more trinkets?”
A dimple settled on Mr. Darcy’s cheek. She felt her heart lightened at the jest. It was good they talked again. She continued, “Did Mr. Bingley reveal anything…interesting during the conversations in your uncle’s study?”
"Only that his father kept him close."
"Then he did not see his sister often. Do you think he knows about the truth, if Miss Bingley is a foreign impostor?"
"Hard to tell. But judging from Mrs. Hurst’s reaction, she must know, at least she senses something is not right."
Elizabeth nodded her head in agreement. "For sure, she is much older. Should we get her alone and interrogate her?"
"Ah, my great detective! That is an excellent idea. How can we achieve that?"
"I can ask Jane to invite Mrs. Hurst to come to visit us on her own tomorrow."
"On what pretext?" Mr. Darcy paused. "And one more thing, Mr. Hurst also talked about living famously. There is a sense of longing in his voice.” He shook his head. “Perhaps I am wrong. It was not longing. He was like, remembering the past.”
"Mr. Hurst, someone of famous existence? I cannot imagine how."
"He does dress quite fashionably."
"He is a gentleman who takes an interest in food and wine only. The fashion is wasted."
Mr. Darcy squeezed her hand this time. "How very true! Bingley teased his brother-in-law for not returning to the north, for some years. Hurst hides in his townhouse."
Elizabeth frowned. "Hiding from his own family? What is he hiding from?"
"I do not have any speculation at the moment. Will Mr. Hurst's parents attend your sister’s wedding?"
"We shall know soon, when the Bingleys give us their guest list."
"Mr. Darcy, you have been speaking privately with your wife for quite a long time," Miss Bingley interrupted. "I hope it is not any family matter of urgent nature."
"Caroline, it is impertinent to interrupt the newlywed." Mrs. Romano said.
Elizabeth was happy for the interruption. She took the chance to try to unravel the mystery immediately. "Mr. Darcy and I were discussing Mrs. Hurst…” She paused for effect.
The lady in question gasped and looked down at her hands.
“…I would like to invite Mrs. Hurst to come to Darcy House to discuss your guests for the wedding and the arrangement of the reception. We have no time to lose."
"Perhaps Charles and I can come..." Mrs. Romano replied before Mrs. Hurst could.
Elizabeth stopped the interfering outsider mid-sentence. “Mr. Bingley will be bored with the discussion of menus, I am certain. As for you, Mrs. Romano, we do not wish to intrude upon your shopping with Miss Bingley. She talked about finding the perfect pair of shoes for the occasion at the modiste."
Mr. Darcy added, "It is easier to reach a conclusion and steps for action with fewer people involved anyway. I agree with Mrs. Darcy’s arrangement for tomorrow." He looked at Mrs. Hurst pointedly, daring her to turn down his wife’s invitation. "Would it be convenient for you, Mrs. Hurst, to visit Darcy House at 10 o'clock in the morning?"
Mrs. Hurst looked to her husband and then Mrs. Romano before she agreed. Why did Mrs. Romano matter? Elizabeth thought.
Soon the party ended. On the way home, the carriage ride was very quiet. Mary rode with the Darcys. She had closed her eyes to rest. Elizabeth felt the gaze of her husband from time to time. His expression changed from passionate and content to sceptical, worried and angry, one moment to another. She could not understand him. He was a complex man, very different from any other persons she had met in her life. Would her marriage be this confusing all the time? Or she might understand him in future one day. She hoped that day would come soon. She found the presence of uncertainty trying and wanted to be in control of her emotion.
After they arrived and bided the Bennets goodbye, Elizabeth and Darcy walked up the stairs to their bedroom.
Right outside Elizabeth’s room. Mr. Darcy murmured, "Do you need any...of course; your maid will be waiting for you.”
Unsure what he wanted to express, she replied politely, “Thank you, Mr. Darcy. I had a good time, even though we spent most of the evening on solving the mystery.”
“I had a good time too, especially we are talking again.” He sighed.
“It is fine, Elizabeth. I apologise again for not informing you of my trip to Whitechapel.”
She did not know what to say, to prolong their time together. Or should she? “And I apologise for yelling at you and demanding…”
“It only shows you care.”
“I did, and I do.” On a moment hesitation, she added, “You are now the most important person in my life.”
He drew in a deep breath. “I am happy to know that. But I hope it is not out of necessity that you find me very important to you.”
She blushed, thinking of what she had pondered earlier, of not having someone to talk to in London.
Seeing that she did not confirm his suspicion one way or another, he continued, “Do you need my presence tomorrow morning?”
“Perhaps you can stay in your study. If there is any particular trying matter, I shall call upon your assistance."
“Perhaps we should discuss, if you are not too tired, about how you may question Mrs. Hurst?"
Oh, Mr. Darcy wanted to resume their nightly discussion. Elizabeth hesitated for a moment. " I do not..."
Mr. Darcy’s face tightened immediately, on hearing her negative words. " I completely understand that you do not welcome..."
"Sir, you jumped to the wrong conclusion, too quickly. I was going to say…I am not tired and welcome your suggestions about tomorrow meeting."
He smiled immediately and bowed. " Should I return in an hour?"
"Half an hour will be enough,” Elizabeth said breathlessly. “I do not want to keep... the maid waiting."
"You are most considerate, Mrs. Darcy," he said. "See you soon."
Mr. Darcy raised her hand for a kiss, and waited for her to enter her bedroom. Elizabeth closed the door and leaned against it, listening quietly to his footsteps. They were talking again. I hope I shall not regret agreeing to this! She thought and called for her maid with her heart pulsing.
Darcy knocked on the door of the mistress chamber.
“Come in,” Elizabeth spoke in a soft voice.
When Darcy entered, he saw that she was standing, by the windows, looking out at the garden at the back of the house. She was in her green dressing gown and robe, with her hair down. The robe was in superb material and accentuated her form. The candlelight flickered, enveloping her in an air of mysterious enticement.
He walked and stood by her side, breathing in her sweet lavender scent and waited for her to speak.
“I am worried about Jane,” she sighed.
He wanted to scoop her up and take her to bed, to smooth away her worries and comfort her to sleep. But the way she uttered the words made him wait for her to express more. He chose to take her hand and squeezed it.
“I wish all of them, the Bingleys, the Hursts, even Father, Mary and Jane, would go away, back to the North or Hertfordshire, and leave us alone. Am I the most wicked person to think so?”
Darcy welcomed such a situation as well, he thought. He could then spend at least a month of solitude to court and build up a better relationship with Elizabeth. However, that could not be. “I wish to spend our times as a normal couple as much as you.”
“But, just like any problem, if we do not face and resolve it sooner, it may get even bigger.”
Elizabeth sighed again. “I know. I have enough indolent example from Father, in his daily dealing of the estate.” She squared her shoulders and turned her head to look at him. “I shall be strong. May I apologize to you again, Fitzwilliam?”
“I apologize as well.”
“No, I think I owe you a bigger apology.”
“I do not think we can measure the size of an apology.”
“I mean I should never have used the horrible words I had uttered at Hunsford to yell at you. You have proven to me that you are not what I thought who you were. You are considerate to me, my dreadful family, and everyone in your employ. You are so much better than Mr. Bingley, my Father and many men I have known.”
“I should have told you I was going to Whitechapel and the reason.”
“I want to be your true partner in life.”
“I would love that as well. Elizabeth, I promise you I will always respect you and consult you as often as possible on all related issues. Pray remind me should I forget that.”
Elizabeth’s lips curled up slightly. “I have your permission to yell at you at any time?”
“Maybe not in front of others.”
“I shall remember that.”
“And not using the words at Hunsford.”
“Any more conditions, my dear husband?”
Darcy pretended to think hard for a moment and then shook his head. “Those are my conditions for your screeching.”
“I do not know how to screech!”
“Not at all. Shrieking is Mother’s specialty. I only chastise my forgetful husband.”
“I am still in the prime of my health and have a vivid memory, especially with everything concerning my wonderful wife.”
“Your wife is tired now, Mr. Prime Darcy.”
“No nickname please, Elizabeth. I cannot abide them. Should we sit?”
Elizabeth turned to look at him for a long moment, as if debating a grave issue in her mind. “Am I too bold, to suggest we rest, on your bed?” She whispered.
Darcy’s heart raced. He would have wanted to pick her up and dash to his room like a flash of lightning. But as a gentleman should, he bowed slightly and gestured his wife to lead the way. Elizabeth had another idea. She stepped forward and took his hand; and walked them back to his chamber, hands in hands. When they reached his bed, she let go of his hand, took off her robe and slid under the bedcover, so fast that he could not admire her tempting form for more than a few seconds. Following her actions, he got into the bed and blew out the candle quickly.
With darkness surrounding him, Darcy could shed the gentleman’s mask away, shuffle as close to Elizabeth as possible. She drew in a deep breath and allowed him to wrap his arm around her shoulders. She rested her head on his chest.
“I would have liked to talk about us. But we have business to discuss.”
Darcy caressed her arm. He was happy that they were talking and miraculously in bed together again. He did not mind the delay in discussing themselves, now that he knew they could be well again, as a couple. “You want to talk about the meeting with Mrs. Hurst tomorrow?”
“Yes, but before we do that, did Mr. Bingley mention, during the separation of sexes after the dinner, why the trip to the North was cancelled?”
“He said one of the carriage’s wheels was damaged a few miles out of London.”
“Oh, did he say when it would be repaired? He and the Hursts may do a disappearing act again?”
“I am not entirely sure. There was some tension between Bingley and Hurst for a little while towards the end when we had whiskey. I had pulled Bingley aside before we came back to join you the ladies and told him your uncle and I want to talk to him about some business regarding Miss Bennet and if he could be available at Gracechurch Street tomorrow morning. He just said he would let me know.”
“He is not very respectful!”
“I had the same feeling, but as the other gentlemen were present and moving along, I did not want to create a scene and demand that he gave me a more definite answer.”
“At least Mrs. Hurst agreed to the meeting tomorrow.”
“There is no guarantee that she would come alone.”
“I agree. Mrs. Romano and Miss Bingley may come along.”
“Should I stay to distract them? Then you can interrogate Mrs. Hurst alone? I was thinking of visiting Bingley if he would not agree to go to your uncle’s place tomorrow.”
“That is too dangerous, for you to visit Mr. Bingley alone.”
“Pray do not let your imagination run wild. I have visited Bingley at Hurst’s townhouse before. I was never in danger.”
“But that was before they become desperate. And I am not thinking about Mr. Hurst or Mr. Bingley harming you.”
“What could they do to me, if not that?”
“Whatever for? I am already married.”
“To extort money from you, perhaps. The Hursts could give you the dubious herb tea, as they have done so to Jane and then put you and Mrs. Romano or Miss Bingley together, if she is not coming here with Mrs. Hurst. They could accuse you of imposing on her while you were drunk. Promise me, you will not go to Mr. Hurst and Mr. Bingley alone, especially not in Hurst’s townhouse.”
She raised her head. Even in the dark, Darcy could see that she was staring at him with concern. He felt warm. He already said he would respect her wishes. It was thus easy for him to say so: “I promise.” The proximity of her face to his made his heart pound loud. He was sure she could hear it. But she did not make any comment and continued to watch him. He raised himself a fraction higher and touched her lips with his.
She tasted sweet and warm. Seductive. Alluring. And addictive. From touching, Darcy changed to sucking her supple lips. Her loud gasp was music to his ears. Darcy loved to give her pleasure, surprise her and made her moan, even though at the back of his mind, he knew he should not. From sucking, he turned to thrust his tongue into her mouth. Her wetness and softness gave him a tremendous sensation. He felt his head burst, his body heated and his arousal sprung up.
She adjusted her body, climbing on top of him. Her breasts pressed against his chest. Her thighs rubbed against his body. This time, it was him who had to abandon her mouth, stopped and gasped for air. When her hands wandered down his torso and stroke his nipples, he jerked. In one swift movement, he turned her around and pressed her against the bed, with him on top. His kisses became frantic, from her neck down to her chest. Her beautiful dressing gown was in the way. He nearly tore it apart. Luckily the buttons were large and loose. He made fast work on them and latched his mouth on her right peak, laving and shaping it; while his hand squeezed the creamy mound on the left. She was silky, smooth and yet velvety to touch.
Elizabeth was withering underneath him. Her hands stroke his hips, buttocks, and back, briskly, vigorously and madly. Darcy saw stars. He left her bosom unwillingly, travelled down her body and explored her sex. Her scent was intoxicating. He buried his nose in her bush, taking a few deep breaths. Then he parted her hair and touched her secret lips with his tongue.
“Fitzwilliam!” Her hoarse cry spurred Darcy on. From touching, he switched to sucking. Her body bumped up, shivering and trembling. Her hands let go of the bedsheet and grabbed his hair. He pushed her thighs wider and pressed his hands to hold them still, before thrusting his tongue into her wet entrance.
Elizabeth moaned in a deep glutaral sound. She tore at his hair. Darcy kept plunging his tongue into her warm wet core. Her legs jolted, until her whole body jerked from the bed. She let out a loud scream before she went limp, her juice flowed out, wetting his tongue. He returned to sucking and lapping up her essence, for a few moments. Then he left her sex reluctantly and traced the path up again.
Her abdomen sparkled with a shin of sweat. Her nipples stood hard, and her bosom heaved up and down. Darcy raised his eyes and looked at her face. Elizabeth had her eyes closed. Her hair fanned the pillow. Her forehead damped with some unruly curls sticking on her forehead. Her mouth was open, and she was breathing hard. The picture of her satisfied body made his arousal harder. He ached to join with Elizabeth again but cautious of her reaction. “May I?” He asked tentatively, with his mouth close to her ears. His hands fondling her breasts, then his fingers playing with her tight nipples. His manhood rubbed against her wet sex.
Elizabeth did not reply at first, and Darcy focussed on savouring the triple sensation of her three sensory points. As if revived from death, she suddenly clutched his butt chins hard and said, “Take me!”
Darcy did not need another invitation. He was thankful that they had moved past the disagreement about his outing to Whitechapel. And now, it seemed they would be sharing their bed together in the real sense. Darcy would make sure Elizabeth had her pleasure and vowed to protect her. Rather than frantic with his action, he inched his hard shaft into her wet entrance slowly, gazing at the ever-changing expression on Elizabeth’s face and puckering her nipples as he moved.
She arched her body up. Her hoarse moans filled Darcy's ears as he pushed deeper and deeper into her. She was hot. Tight. And bewitching. When he reached her tilt, her muscle wrapped around his manhood tightly, his body solidly linked with hers, he felt like he flew to the clouds.
But Elizabeth wanted more. She writhed, raised her legs to wrap around his hips. He could not lie still then. He slowly pulled out and in. Gently. Gradually. Until she protested in low groans. Then he picked up his pace, plunging, pounding and shoving into her, hard, fast and loudly. On and on, again and again, he rode her in a mad gallop. When she once again reached her peak and screamed out loud, he thrust deeper, allowing her to engulf him. Her shudders pushed him to his climax. He pulled out from her warm depth and spilled his seeds on the bed, before collapsing on her.
“What happened?” Elizabeth asked, groggily. Darcy turned to lie on the bed, not wanting to hurt her with his weight.
“We made love.”
“But you did not…”
“I reached my peak.”
“But you did not…”
“It is a method, to prevent getting you with child.”
“Oh… but did you…enjoy…like…”
“I love it,” Darcy said, reassuring her. “and I love you.” He brushed the damp hair from her forehead. “You are so beautiful.”
“You are very handsome too, my dear.”
Darcy was disappointed that she did not return his love. But he understood it completely. She still needed time to trust him completely. “Let us sleep in your bed. Winston can deal with the bed tomorrow.”
Elizabeth blushed bright red, but allowed Darcy to pick her up and take her back to the mistress chamber. They slept in each other embrace, almost immediately. He felt a sense of peace and comfort that he had not to have for a long while.
Darcy’s peace was interrupted the next morning. Irving came to relate that the men he sent to watch over the Hurst’s townhouse reported that everyone had decamped, except Mrs. Romano. They were in a carriage, with a spare horse tie to the back, heading out of town, very early in the morning. Two of his men were following the Hursts and the Bingleys and would report back if they observed anything out of the ordinary and where they were heading.
“It does not make sense,” Elizabeth commented, agitatedly, after Irving had left.
“Indeed not,” Darcy agreed. “There is no need for the four of them to go and inform or fetch Bingley’s aunt together in Ipswich. If Bingley were to go by his horse, he could probably make it in one day of a hard gallop. With a carriage, it will take them three days round trip to and from his relative in Ipswich, if they travel tomorrow on Sunday too. That will only leave them one day in the North. I think we should be getting a letter each from Bingley and Mrs. Hurst soon. Let us see what their excuses are.”
About half an hour later, two letters, for Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, were brought in.
“Would you like to read yours first, Elizabeth?” She nodded her head and read out the letter from Mrs. Hurst loud.
Dear Mrs. Darcy
Thank you for your kind invitation to discuss Charles’s wedding breakfast at your townhouse today. Unfortunately, we received some bad tidings last night and need to leave town today. I apologize for not being able to make the appointment. Caroline genuinely expressed her sisterly concerns and decided to accompany us in this time of distress. Pray contact Mrs. Romano if there are any issues about the reception. She understands our wishes. We will hopefully return in time for my brother’s joyous event with Miss Bennet.
Until then, your humble friend,
Mrs. Herbert Hurst.
“Does that mean that the three of them would not be back for the wedding? Where is Mr. Hurst’s home in the North?” Elizabeth asked.
“I think Bingley mentioned before that Hurst comes from Peterborough, which is about 100 miles north of London.”
“There is no way they would be back for the wedding then. It would take at least two days to go there and two days to come back. I do not understand it at all. Miss Bingley was so eager, at the modiste, to secure the good opinion of Lady Annabelle and her brother’s attendance at the reception. Why would she not attend it? What did Mr. Bingley’s letter say?”
Darcy’s mind swirled with different speculations. He read out Bingley’s letter to Elizabeth.
Hurst and Louisa need to leave town today. Caroline decided to assist. Luckily the carriage’s wheel is repaired. I shall ride to Ipswich alone, hopefully, be back with my aunt a day before the wedding. Pray convey to my angel my love and devotion.
“Urgh! It is so frustrating!” Elizabeth cried out.
“There are some things not right here.” Darcy murmured as he paced around.
“Both letters did not tell us where the Hursts and Miss Bingley are going.”
“You think they may not be heading to Mr. Hurst’s estate in Peterborough?”
“Ipswich is on the northeast of London while Peterborough in the north. They should be more efficient by travel on different roads, not together.”
“And why did they not say what distressing news they had received?”
“It is as if they are skipping town, to avoid us.”
“Exactly, and leave Mrs. Romano to hold the fort and answer our enquiries, if we still want to interrogate her.”
“They must know that we would not want to talk to Mrs. Romano, as she is not a family member of the Hursts and Bingleys.”
“And then as you said about Miss Bingley, why did she choose to go and risk not attending the wedding? She is not close to Mrs. Hurst most of the time.”
“If she is really an imposter, she could be fleeing, afraid that we would expose her.”
“And Mr. and Mrs. Hurst are assisting her, instead. I guess we will have to wait till we hear from Irving’s men again.”
“It is only three days from the wedding!” Elizabeth uttered agitatedly. “We shall not hear from Mr. Irving’s contacts in Italy in time. And now, these people are gone. I am afraid Jane shall be married to Mr. Bingley before we could find out anything!”
Darcy stood and paced around the study. He needed to think of something, to help Elizabeth. He could not see her in such an anxious state. Round and round his mind whirled, until his eyes came upon the drawing of Pemberley hung in the study. It depicted the house in the distance, still magnificent, as a backdrop of the lake and Folly. He particularly liked this drawing because he had spent a lot of hours in his boyhood to fish and swim at the lake and ran around the Folly. He was often with Wickham then, but also with his cousins. He and Richard had played soldiers and staged many mischiefs there.
“Richard!” Suddenly, Darcy remembered something and exclaimed.
“Colonel Fitzwilliam? What about him?”
“I remember him telling me during our ride to Rosings in Easter that he has some friends who stationed in Sicily under Lieutenant-General Bentinck. I think Richard mentioned that some of them were injured in training or whatever and returned to England earlier this year. I shall see if he can ask discreetly if any of them know anything.”
“That is a great idea, but I read that Sicily is a rich kingdom with over a million people, even more than that of London, nothing as savage as Miss Bingley had complained. Although it is under British protection right now, do you think Colonel Fitzwilliam’s friends would have heard of Miss Bingley? It could be one out of a million chance.”
Darcy admired Elizabeth’s unusual ‘taste’ in reading. She was even well versed in history and news about the Continent. “I am not betting on them knowing Miss Bingley personally, but more about the social scenes or the education of wealthy British women on the island. Anything that may put a hole in the story spun out by Miss Bingley would help us when we get the chance to interrogate the Bingleys.”
Elizabeth nodded her head. “Yes, there is something entirely not right that Miss Bingley was sent so far away, all by herself, and for so long.”
“Let me pen a note.” Darcy did as he said. They then had breakfast with the guests from Longbourn. Shortly after breakfast, news arrived. Elizabeth entrusted the arrangement of the wedding reception to Jane and the housekeeper, with Mary assisting, when she joined her husband in the study. Colonel Fitzwilliam had arrived with another officer.
“Mrs. Darcy, Darcy, Congratulations on your recent marriage! I am sorry I had missed the wedding and last night’s dinner at Father’s. I was unable to take leave.”
“Thank you, Colonel Fitzwilliam. There is no need to apologize. We understand you are busy, especially in your duties.” Elizabeth replied.
“Indeed, Richard. I did not expect you to come, and so quickly.”
“Oh, the General was quite intrigued when I asked for a few hours' leave to help my family with some questions about Sicily. Before I continue, may I present Captain Easswin, my friend who had just returned from the island this January.”
The Darcys returned the greetings. As they settled down, Darcy could see that Captain Easswin was injured in the right leg. The soldier had a more profound limp than Darcy first believed. The waiting for the Darcys and standing for the greetings must be hurting Captain Easswin.
“Darcy, I have known Easswin many years. He can be trusted in secrecy in whatever you have to ask. He was stationed on various parts of Sicily, on and off, for about five years.”
“Indeed, Sir,” Easswin nodded his head, with a seriousness that Darcy approved. Darcy always preferred a man of few words, with the exception of Richard. He did not like someone such as Wickham who loved to rattle away and charm with his tongue. Darcy decided to trust Richard’s friend with as much relevant detail as possible.
“My wife’s sister, Miss Bennet, is going to be married soon, to a Mr. Bingley.”
The Colonel raised his eyes at Darcy. Darcy had told Richard before that he was not extremely friendly with Bingley. During their Easter visit to Rosings, Darcy mentioned that he had warned off Bingley, to leave some virtuous maiden in Hertfordshire.
“We learned that Mr. Bingley’s older sister Miss Caroline Bingley had studied painting in Sicily, alone, without her family, from 1804 to 1810. We would like to know more about the social scenes and education of English young ladies in Sicily during this time of British protection and occupation.”
“Did you not tell me that Bingley was only three and twenty?” The Colonel said. “Miss Bingley is not much older than him?” He frowned before continuing, “That was awfully young for her to go there, all by herself.”
“She was seventeen at that time, we believe,” Elizabeth added.
Captain Easswin nodded his head to indicate that he understood the meaning behind the question. He thus explained what he knew about the society there. “There are British troops on the island, with them, some of their wives and daughters. And then there are English merchants, their relatives, and even friends. Of course, there are convent schools and Catholic academies available for women, but there is no seminary like what we have in England. Many of the young English ladies who come from families of means are taught by tutors privately.”
Elizabeth and Darcy exchanged a look of concern. They distinctly remembered Miss Bingley said during the dinner that she had studied in a seminary in Sicily. One lie was confirmed!
“As for painting, was Miss Bingley studying under the English Academy?”
The Darcys were unable to answer that, but they said they did not believe so.
“There is no famous native artist in Palermo, the capital. The Royal collection of pictures is mainly housed in the palace. Students from the English Academy are encouraged to go there to draw, with a master to direct them.”
“Do you know of a Miss Caroline Bingley on the island?” Elizabeth asked.
Easswin shook his head. “I do not. However, the island has over a million people. Wealthy merchants and their families or friends may move around. And she might not have lived in Palermo but in Catania or other locations instead.”
“How about the social scenes in Sicily?” Darcy asked.
“The rich, British or Italian, enjoy similar pursuits like the people of rank in London. They go to operas, plays, concerts, dinners, they walk and so on.”
“What about the Italian counts?” Elizabeth asked.
Easswin and Richard raised their eyes at such a question, but they did not fire back with a question of why Darcy’s wife was interested in Italian noblemen.
“There are an awful a lot of counts and lords in Sicilia, fled from various parts of the mainland. Many of them are not as moneyed as they were, for many reasons. But many indulge in gambling, even more so than the dandies of London.”
“Oh, I thought counts in Italy had fallen hard due to the war, that the French had seized their lands and fortune,” Elizabeth commented.
“In the mainland, like Roma, Napoli, Venezia, that may be true. To certain degrees, in Sicilia as well. Counts and noblemen fall from grace, also because of gaming, and other rakish deeds. In Sicilia, card games are everywhere. You can even see men gathering outside churches to play cards. Many lost their estates, fortune, and even food on the table, from gambling debts. I have seen an Italian count setting upon an English traveller just for a piece of bread, because he had lost all his money on the cards.”
“Do you know of an Italian count named Romano?” Darcy asked. He agreed with Elizabeth’s line of questioning. Easswin seemed to be quite knowledgeable about Sicily. Perhaps the Captain had heard of Mrs. Romano’s husband. “He seemed to have made quite a name in painting, at least while he was in England. Even your Father, Richard, knows about him.”
“Count Marco Romano?” Captain Easswin said.
“We were not told of Mr. Romano’s first name,” Darcy said.
“I have heard of a Count from Roma who had his family fortune seized and his family rounded up by the French. He managed to escape the French troops with his son’s family, but died in Palermo once he arrived in 1800. His son became Count Marco Romano on the death of his father. Romano’s paintings were quite admired, at the time, in Italy.”
“What made you remember Count Marco Romano’s story, Easswin? It was well before your time in Sicily.” Colonel Fitzwilliam jumped in.
“You remember I told you I undertook some investigative work for my commander when I first arrived in Sicilia,” Easswin replied and Richard nodded his head.
“One of the tasks was to locate Count Romano’s family and his paintings. We were told that Lord Allen was his patron when Romano moved to England and Lord Allen’s family is a friend of my first commander in Sicilia.”
“Locate Count Romano’s family?” Darcy frowned. “Do you mean the older Count who had died in Sicily or, the younger Count who moved to England?”
“Both. The old Count had four sons and two daughters. Only Marco Romano, the eldest son, managed to escape with his father. Marco Romano was married to an English lady, Victoria, the daughter of Lord Whitehaven. They have two daughters, Rosa and Carlotta. Both of them were separated from the family during their journey from Roma to Palermo.”
Darcy exchanged another look of concern with Elizabeth. He was not aware of the story behind Mrs. Romano before she was involved with the Bingleys. She had also never talked about her children.
“What was the result of the investigation, if you are allowed to disclose it to us?” Darcy asked.
Easswin thought for a moment. “My first commander did not label this task as classified. In fact, he said he was only doing a flavour for a family friend during our quiet time and was quite casual about the whole thing. I do not see any harm in telling you about the findings. We were able to confirm, sadly, Marco Romano’s siblings were all killed by the French on their flee from Roma. But we were unable to locate Signorina Rosa and Signorina Carlotta. Count Romano's paintings had fallen into the hands of the French.”
“Were Rosa and Carlotta also killed by the French?” Richard asked.
“Count Romano’s siblings fled from Roma in different directions, as per their father’s instruction. The elderly count thought that it would give them a greater chance of survival, by staying apart. Unfortunately, none of them made it to safety. Marco Romano, his English wife, two daughters, and his father set off towards Sicilia. They got separated from the children at Reggio Calabria, at the southern tip of Italy mainland, right before they crossed to Sicilia.”
“My god!” Elizabeth exclaimed. “The girls must be quite young. Did the Romanos go back to the mainland to search for them?”
“They were 15 and 13 then. The old Count had fallen ill almost immediately after the family had arrived at Palermo. He was worried about the continuation of the family line, if Marco stayed in Sicilia and Napoleon’s army arrived. He insisted that Marco and his wife left Italy for England and told his son that he would stage a search for Rosa and Carlotta. But he had died a few months afterwards.”
“What a sad business!” Elizabeth said. “For Mrs. Romano to not know of the whereabouts of her daughters.”
“Indeed.” Easswin agreed. “But Mrs. Romano had returned to Sicily once, in 1808. That is also the reason why I remember the Romano so well.”
Darcy looked at Elizabeth. What a development!
“What did she do then?” Darcy asked.
“It would appear that Count Marco Romano had died about a month previous and Mrs. Romano returned to Sicilia in search of her two daughters.”
“How long did Mrs. Romano stay? Was she successful?”
“Mrs. Romano visited the Garrison with a letter of introduction from our first commander. I was asked to recount our investigation in detail to Mrs. Romano. She then left Palermo for Catania shortly afterwards. I heard that she left Silicia, without any success, after about a month.”
“What is your impression of Mrs. Romano?” Darcy asked.
“She is quite polite and intelligent, a typical gentlewoman.”
“Nothing flirtatious, like Italian women?” The Colonel jumped in.
“You are painting every Italian woman with the same brush, Richard,” Easswin said. “And Mrs. Romano is English by birth.”
“Did Mrs. Romano travel alone?” Elizabeth asked.
“No, she came with a family friend, a Mr. Coleman.”
“Can you describe Mr. Coleman?” Elizabeth continued. Darcy frowned for a moment. He did not understand the significance of Elizabeth’s question yet.
“Mrs. Romano did not come to the Garrison with Mr. Coleman. She only mentioned him in passing. I only saw them from afar at the marina. They seemed close. He was on the heavy side, with a beard and dressed in a fine suit, a man of means, I assume.”
“Would it be possible, Mr. Darcy, to ask someone to draw a likeness of Mr. Coleman, with Captain Easswin’s help?” Elizabeth said. Then she turned to the Captain. “And Sir, would you have time to stay a while longer and assist us with this task?”
Richard raised his eyes at such a request. But Darcy would do everything his wife asked, to advance this investigation of the Bingleys and Romanos. Captain Easswin said he was at their disposal.
“Then we must summon Georgiana!” Richard said. “Is she still at Father’s townhouse?”
“No, she is back here, with us,” Darcy replied. “and you are right, Richard. Georgiana is my younger sister, a gifted artist, more talented than her skill on the pianoforte. She can draw from memory.” He explained to Elizabeth and Captain Easswin.
Darcy suddenly thought of another possibility. “Were you given the likeness of the Romanos family when you were tasked to investigate their fates?”
“Yes. Count Marco Romano sent us his drawings, of his brothers and sisters and his two daughters.”
“Would you remember them, if you saw the likenesses of any of them now?” Darcy continued.
Easswin thought for a minute. “I am not very confident. It has been five years after all. But I can try.”
Darcy excused himself and Elizabeth. They went outside of the study.
“What were you thinking, my dear, when you talked about the likeness of the Romano family?” Elizabeth said.
“I am not entirely sure, I am basing this on a gut feeling. It may be too fanciful. But why are you so interested in this Coleman’s character?”
“I think he might be the late Mr. Bingley,” Elizabeth murmured.
Darcy’s eyes widened. “For a hundred years, I would not understand how your mind works.”
“Remember, late Mr. Bingley paid for Mrs. Romano’s dresses for some years. If she was his mistress, it is possible that he had accompanied her to search for her daughters.”
“You are absolutely right, my dear Elizabeth, and he had the best excuse.”
“To do business with the troops in Sicily.”
“I thought the Bingleys were in carriage making business.”
“Old Mr. Bingley could tell his family he was expanding in other forms of vehicles and accompanied his mistress to Sicily. That was a marvellous idea of drawing a likeness of Mr. Coleman. I will go and fetch Georgiana.”
Darcy found Georgiana in the music room. He quickly explained his request. Georgiana agreed immediately, especially she would get to see Richard in the process. When the sibling returned, they found Elizabeth pacing in the corridor. Before they went back into the study, Elizabeth whispered to Darcy. “This note came from Mr. Irving.”
Darcy nodded. Georgiana and the Colonel exchanged warm greetings. Darcy then introduced Captain Easswin. After that, he left the three to carry out their task and asked Elizabeth to accompany him to the library.
“What is the news from Mr. Irving?”
Darcy opened the note.
“It seems Bingley split with the Hursts and Miss Bingley at Epping and turned northeast towards Ipswich. The other three travellers did not head north for Peterborough but to the west. They stopped at an estate of a family friend of Lord Allen at Cheshunt. And Mrs. Hurst seemed to have eaten something not right at the Inn at Epping. A doctor has been sent for.”
“Oh, no!” Elizabeth cried out. “I hope they are not going to harm Mrs. Hurts, because they feel she is the weakest link and may reveal their secret to us.”
Darcy grabbed her hand and squeezed it. “Be calm, my dear. Remember, there is nothing murderous we have discovered so far. We only suspect that Mr. Hurst imposed on Miss Bingley and caused her to be sent to Italy.”
“Who was then be replaced by an imposter! They may have done away the real Miss Bingley.”
“I am not thinking to this extreme yet.”
“Oh, I understand now!”
“What did you understand?”
“You want Georgiana to draw Miss Bingley, from memory, for Captain Easswin, to see if Miss Bingley we all now know is Miss Rosa or Miss Carlotta! You suspect Mrs. Romano uses her daughter to pose as Mr. Bingley’s sister!”
“Your mind is so brilliant,” Darcy murmured and squeezed Elizabeth’s hand. She replied a thank you. Elizabeth felt the intensity of his gaze. She felt lucky that her husband included her in discussion with the Colonel and the Captain and did not resent her quick mind. Elizabeth would feel stifled if she was married to someone who did not respect her intelligence. One thing came of this whole sad business with Jane was that she sought Mr. Darcy’s help and ended up married to him. He was nothing like Elizabeth had initially thought. He was the best man she had known. Her heart beat faster, and she had an urge to lean over to kiss him on the mouth. Elizabeth blushed about having such unruly thoughts. Rather than examining her feeling, she darted her eyes to look at the books in the library and tried to think about Jane. Mr. Bennet was out visiting bookshops, or they would not have the library to themselves. Elizabeth’s eyes landed on a map of England hanging on one of the walls.
“Do you think we can stage an accidental meeting to come across the Hursts at Cheshunt?” She asked.
“You want to interrogate Mrs. Hurst there?” Mr. Darcy sounded surprised.
Elizabeth turned her head back to him and said, “as you said, you do not think they have murderous intent on us. I would like to know more about Miss Bingley as quickly as possible. We could bring one or two footmen, to guard us.”
Her husband pondered for a few minutes. “That is possible, my dear, provided Mr. Hurst and Miss Bingley venture out of the estate of Lord Allen’s friend. Cheshunt is about 17 miles from London. We could be there with a fast team of horse slightly over two hours. If we are delayed in returning, we can stay for a night in one of the good Inn on the way back. I shall need to ask Georgiana be hostess for your family.”
“Georgiana is still quite shy and uncomfortable among my family. If you and your sister have no objection, I can ask Jane to step in.”
“I do not have any objection, as long as Miss Bennet does not invite Mrs. Romano or Bingley to the townhouse.”
“Yes, we do not want Mrs. Romano here, in case she does anything untoward, with Georgiana’s presence. I shall ask Jane to promise not to invite or let Mr. Bingley into the townhouse either.”
“He is still in the North, I do not think he can be back to town so quickly. But I shall instruct the staff not to let Mrs. Romano or Mr. Bingley in. If your sister wants to meet either of them somewhere else, that is fine by me.”
“Oh, not me. I am more fearful than you, about these characters. I shall persuade Jane not to do so,” Elizabeth said. She thought that it would be difficult to persuade Jane to be cautious. Perhaps she needed to get her aunt to come over at the townhouse, at least during the day, when she and Mr. Darcy went north in search of the Hursts. Yes, that would be the best. “Could I invite Aunt Gardiner here to assist Jane, during the day?”
“Good, I rest more assured of Georgiana if your sensible aunt is here to keep an eye on things too, besides our housekeeper Mrs. Bell.”
“What excuse can we give to go to Cheshunt?”
“That is the easy bit,” Darcy smiled and caressed Elizabeth’s hand, giving her a thrilling sensation. “I am going to spend some time alone with my new wife, to visit a place of the significance of her namesake.”
“Oh,” Elizabeth’s face felt hot again. “of course, Queen Elizabeth lived in Cheshunt when she was a Princess.”
“You are so very well read, my dear,” Mr. Darcy said in a deep voice, then leaned his head towards Elizabeth. She closed her eyes to await the pleasure of his mouth, but at that moment a knock was heard at the door.
It was a footman, conveying a request from the Colonel that Darcy and Elizabeth returned to the study. When Georgiana showed them the likeness of Mr. Coleman, it was not someone who looked like young Mr. Bingley.
But that was Mr. Hurst! Elizabeth almost exclaimed aloud.
Mr. Darcy thanked Georgiana, who had a confused look. The Colonel seemed to understand something was amiss but did not ask about it. Instead, he turned to the Captain, “Easswin, did not know this lady before?” He pointed to the other drawing, of Miss Bingley, that Mr. Darcy had requested Georgiana to do earlier when they were in the music room, after she finished sketching Mr. Coleman. He had asked Georgiana not to tell Richard or the Captain that she would be drawing the likeness of Miss Bingley from memory.
The Captain explained. “I gathered, Mr. Darcy, you want me to see this lady, whoever she is, if she looks like Miss Rosa or Miss Carlotta Romano.”
“Yes.” Mr. Darcy said, without further explanation.
“I am not sure, because while Count Romano’s daughters would have been two and twenty and 18-year-old at the time of his request for help to locate them,” Captain Easswin explained. “The pictures drawn by Count Romano were that of a 15 and 13-year-old, from his memory of him last laid eyes on his daughters. They were also dressed like most Italian girls would. The lady in this picture looks to be a very sophisticated English lady, with a pinched and sharp look. I cannot confirm that she is one of the girls.”
Darcy thanked the Captain and Georgiana again. The Colonel decided to stay, once the other two left the room.
“Who is this Coleman?” The Colonel asked. “I can see that both of you recognise him from Easswin’s description to Georgiana.”
“Mr. Coleman seems to be a younger Mr. Hurst.” Mr. Darcy replied.
“Bingley’s brother-in-law? Why would he need to use a different name when he visited Sicily with Mrs. Romano. Was he married then?”
“Indeed,” Darcy nodded his head. With Elizabeth’s permission, he explained the background to Richard. “Elizabeth at first thought that it was the late Mr. Bingley who had accompanied his mistress to Palermo. But it seems Mrs. Romano was and still is Mr. Hurst’s mistress.”
“How can Mrs. Hurst tolerate Mrs. Romano to stay in the same house? A friend! I would have scratched the woman’s eyes out, if she were…” Elizabeth muttered, without finishing the sentence, that she would have done Mrs. Romano’s harm if she were Mr. Darcy’s mistress and he insisted that Mrs. Romano stayed in the same house as Elizabeth.
Darcy and Richard looked at each other. From their look, Elizabeth understood that it was not impossible for husbands to bring mistresses to live in the same household as the wives. She remembered reading about this sort of situation before, especially in wealthy families, where the couples married for convenience sake. Elizabeth was disgusted by such practice and Mr. Hurst. In the past, she thought that he was lazy and gluttonous but harmless. But it seemed Mr. Hurst was much worse than that. He might have imposed on the young Miss Bingley, and now he was forcing his wife to be polite to his mistress. No wonder Mrs. Hurst looked so absent-minded and empty in her mind when Elizabeth had stayed in Netherfield before.
“But that did not explain why Mr. Bingley, the late and the present ones, pay for Mrs. Romano’s dresses. Did Mr. Hurst have some kind of hold over the Bingleys, that he made them pay for Mr. Hurst’s mistress?”
“True,” Mr. Darcy agreed. “We need to dig deeper about this.”
“And who is this woman?” The Colonel pointed at the other picture.
“Miss Bingley,” Mr. Darcy said.
“What? What makes you suspect Miss Bingley was, in fact, Miss Rosa or Miss Carlotta Romano.”
Mr. Darcy explained the information he had from Irving’s investigation about Miss Bingley.
“The idea is a bit fancy,” Richard commented. “Miss Bingley spent her formative years in Sicily. It is no surprise that she would look taller and more sophisticated. The hair colour could change a shade lighter due to the long exposure in the sun. The lack of interest in painting art could attribute to her laziness. And perhaps she overcame her dislike of peanut due to the change in food in Italy. I am not convinced that the issues of the Bingleys and Hursts relate to something as drastic as an imposter. I am actually more concerned about Miss Bennet being fed a tea that contained drug or sleeping draught. That points to malicious intent on Mrs. Hurst’s part. Were Bingley really drunk or was he fed a concoction as well? Why did Mrs. Hurst want her brother to impose on Miss Bennet?”
“You are right,” Elizabeth said. “If Mr. Bingley told the truth, that he was really drunk, then Mrs. Hurst’s intention of drugging Jane is very sinister. I had not thought of that. I always focus on Mr. Bingley’s rakish behaviour.”
“What are you going to do?” The Colonel asked.
“Elizabeth and I plan to visit Cheshunt today.”
“I shall accompany you.”
“Is that necessary?” Mr. Darcy said. “We are a newlywed couple.” Elizabeth blushed.
“I am not saying we leave together,” The Colonel said. “I can meet your carriage at the road outside London. But I think you should be more cautious about these people.”
“Why, not because of Mrs. Hurst? She is ill, due to food poisoning. As I told Elizabeth, I have been in their company before and came to no harm.”
“But the stake seems to be higher now. In the past, the Bingleys were hoping to get Miss Bingley to marry you. Your slight friendship with Bingley did not allow them a lot of chance to so. The only opportunity they had was when you stayed at Netherfield Park. They could have compromised you. But you told me Winston, and you were on guard all the time for such eventuality. Now that they saw a good way to link their dubious family to your name, via Miss Bennet’s marriage, they would not want to let it slip from their fingers again. Also, they seemed to have the sense that you and Mrs. Darcy suspect something amiss with them. Otherwise, they would not have skipped down so suddenly, even at the risk of not attending the wedding in three days.”
“And you agree with Elizabeth about Mrs. Hurst’s sickness?”
“Yes, it is too convenient for her to have food poisoning. I think Mr. Hurst and Miss Bingley could have something to do with it, to prevent her from talking. But they do not want to kill her, to put Bingley into mourning and risk the wedding not proceeding.”
“For me to take Elizabeth on a short trip away from London and accidentally ‘meet’ with the Hurst’s party is more plausible. But for my cousin to tag along seems stretching the truth.”
“I would not interrupt your alone time together,” Richard said. “When we approach Cheshunt, we can behave like we do not know each other. I am a Colonel on official business there.”
“Or you could act as our coachman,” Elizabeth blurted out.
The Colonel raised his eyes while Darcy chuckled. “I would like that very much.” Mr. Darcy said.
“Sorry to injure your sensibility, Colonel Fitzwilliam,” Elizabeth said. “I just thought that it would be easier that way. From the discussion earlier, it seems Mr. and Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley do not know you. By pretending to be our coachman, you can travel with us as the same party and stay in the same inn.”
“In the servant quarters,” Mr. Darcy added.
“Well, I have stayed in worse places,” The Colonel commented. “That is an excellent suggestion, Mrs. Darcy. I feel better to be able to protect Darcy and you that way. I shall pen a note to my General to ask for a few more days leave of absence to pursue this Italian intrigue.”
Elizabeth excused from the gentleman and went in search of Jane. She found her in the east parlour, all alone.
“All is well?” Jane asked.
“Yes, Mr. Darcy had some visitors, and he wanted me to meet them as well. Now I have a request, and I hope you can be of assistance.”
“Of course I shall, if it is within my ability.”
“Now that Mrs. Hurst is not available to come here to discuss the wedding reception, Mr. Darcy would like to take this opportunity to take me for a short trip to the country,” Elizabeth said with the eagerness a newly married bride should. “We shall only stay a night. As Georgiana is quite young and shy, I wonder if you agree to act as the hostess during my absence, if you feel well enough. Mr. Darcy will explain to Georgiana later, once I obtain your agreement.”
“I am quite well. Of course, I will help. There is only Miss Darcy, Father, and Mary here. I will not have much to do as a hostess.”
“That is great. I think I would like to invite Aunt Gardiner here to assist you during the day.”
“Surely our Aunt is needed at home. I am certain I can handle everything.”
“I think the servants will be quite busy to make sure every corner of the townhouse is in top shape for your wedding reception. Mrs. Bell may need to ask for some instruction from time to time. I do not want her and the servants to overwhelm you.”
“In that case, I would love to have Aunt Gardiner here to keep me company. Mary is quiet, either in the music room or reading her religious books silently. Father is always in the library, if he is not out visiting bookshops. Your house is so large. Without Mama, Kitty and Lydia, it is too quiet.”
Elizabeth smiled. “I know. Living here is very different from living in Longbourn. I have just another request for you, before I go and pack for my trip.”
“I am all ears.”
“Should the Bingleys, Hursts or Mrs. Romano come to visit, can I ask that you do not invite them in?” Elizabeth would not tell Jane that all of them had left town, except for Mrs. Romano. In his note, Mr. Bingley only asked Mr. Darcy to tell Jane he was away. Mr. Bingley did not directly tell Elizabeth to do so.
Jane was startled. “Why? And how can I refuse them?”
“Mr. Darcy is still very angry with Mr. Bingley for imposing on you…”
“But Charles did not…”
“Please, Jane. I know you said that Mr. Bingley told you he loved you when he made you his, but he still overcame your initial refusal. When you said no, he should have stopped.”
“But Charles was drunk.”
“It is still no excuse. What if Mr. Bingley is drunk next time and come upon a maid…”
“Charles is not like that,” Jane frowned. “I did not know that Mr. Darcy feels so strongly against Charles. Perhaps we should not marry in London and have the reception here. I do not want to make your husband unhappy.”
Elizabeth squeezed Jane’s hand. “Mr. Darcy is your brother now. He is very protective of his family. He wants you to be happy. He is still angry with Mr. Bingley, but Mr. Bingley is the man you love, we will do everything we can for you. We are fine to host the reception here. But Mr. Darcy does not want you to be alone with Mr. Bingley before the wedding.”
“But what about the Hursts and Mrs. Romano?”
“Did you not think that the Hursts is partly to blame?”
“How did Mr. Bingley know you are resting in a certain guest bedchamber in Hurst’s townhouse? Why was Mrs. Hurst or Miss Bingley not accompanied Mr. Bingley when he wanted to visit you?”
For the first time, Jane paused and thought. “Perhaps Louisa and Caroline were busy, or Charles did not tell them he wanted to visit me, when they told him I was visiting Grosvenor Square.”
“You think too good of everyone.”
“But we should not think everyone has bad motivation. It is not healthy in mind.”
“True, but I still have to agree with Mr. Darcy, to be cautious. He did say that if you want to go out and visit them, he will be fine. But he does not want them here with Georgiana around.”
Jane had a hurt expression on her face. “It pains me to think that Mr. Darcy would think Charles could be a danger to his sister.”
Elizabeth could not be blunter about her request. She agreed with Mr. Darcy wholeheartedly. “Mr. Darcy is cautious. Pray, do not count that as personal to your Mr. Bingley.”
Jane nodded her head reluctantly. “I guess you requested Aunt Gardiner here, truly to make sure I obey Mr. Darcy’s instruction.”
Elizabeth felt frustrated with her beloved sister. Jane seemed to be back to her sensible self with her wit together if she could see through Elizabeth’s excuse. But how could Jane not understand the evil deeds by Mr. Bingley and the Hursts?
“And I must paint Mrs. Romano with the same brush as Caroline.” Jane murmured disgruntledly.
“You know that I never like Miss Bingley, even during her time at Hertfordshire. She looked down her nose at us and liked to speak to me condescendingly. By the same token, I do not think I find Mrs. Romano a great deal of improvement over Miss Bingley.”
“I remember you protested against Mr. Darcy quite enthusiastically then too. If you have forgiven Mr. Darcy well enough to marry him, can you not put it in your heart to forgive Caroline? She has been so much friendlier now.”
Elizabeth wanted to scream at Jane. How could she compare Miss Bingley with Fitzwilliam! But Elizabeth did not want to argue with Jane and reveal any suspicion Elizabeth had of the Bingleys. She drew in a deep breath and said, “I understand Mr. Darcy much better now. Until I have the chance to learn more about Miss Bingley, I must agree with Mr. Darcy that Miss Bingley’s friend should not be allowed into our townhouse. I think you can plead not feeling well to turn them away.”
Elizabeth stood abruptly, bid her sister goodbye and went in search of her husband. Jane did not even ask where Mr. Darcy and I were going, Elizabeth thought angrily!
During the first part of the journey to Cheshunt, Elizabeth recounted her frustration about Jane to Darcy. Darcy could not think of anything to comment that would not be criticising Miss Bennet. He clamped his mouth shut but squeezed Elizabeth’s hands to give her strength. Finally, his wife finished venting her anger and asked him. “How can we lure Mr. Hurst and Miss Bingley out of the Errington estate?”
“Richard and I discussed it while you were talking to your sister. We came up with a plan and have sent a footman to ask Irving to prepare for it. We shall meet Irving at Epping Forest to learn more about the layout and the servants at Errington.”
“I hope the Colonel and you are not engaging in anything that is illegal.”
Darcy raised his eyes and gave Elizabeth a look of indignation. “Mrs. Darcy, I am an upstanding member of the society. I shall not involve in anything illegal.” Darcy was happy that his attempt at jesting drew a small smile from his wife. He gazed at her cheerful feature and wished they were back at their own chambers, instead of a fast trotting carriage. He decided to distract his wife from her worries by talking to her about the latest poem of Wordsworth he had been reading. For another hour, they passed in good humour, debating what they liked and did not like about poetry.
Finally, when the carriage drew to a halt shortly after they had past Epping. Richard came to open the door for Darcy. Richard looked quite funny because the coachman clothes were entirely too short for him. The housekeeper at Darcy’s townhouse was unable to find a change of clothes befitting the Colonel’s new status as Darcy’s coachman and fitted his large frame. A small part of his hands and legs were exposed. If Richard were really his coachman, Darcy would be embarrassed by his attire. It reflected poorly on him as a master. But for now, that would have to do. The Colonel wanted to step forward to hand Elizabeth down from the carriage, but Darcy would have none of that. Darcy elbowed Richard away and took Elizabeth’s hand eagerly to assist her to step down.
Irving came forward and bowed to Elizabeth and Darcy. Irving had two wagons stopped about a hundred yards away and three other men standing by the carts. On each one, there were four heavy barrels on it. He dressed differently today, more like a tradesman than a non-descriptive investigator.
“Your men are trustworthy, Irving?” The Colonel asked.
Irving looked a bit annoyed with such a question, but he answered politely. “Yes, Colonel, they have worked with our firm for more than five years.”
“They would be careful with the horses and themselves,” Darcy said. “I do not want anyone injured by the action.”
“You do not need to worry, Sir,” Irving said. “We have done more dangerous act with our carriages and wagons in the past. We have ample opportunity to practise driving erratically. We will be careful and to those footmen at Errington too.”
“What is the stench?” Elizabeth whispered to Darcy, with a handkerchief holding over her nose.
“A lot of herrings, other smelly fish and not so fresh water,” Darcy replied in a low voice. Elizabeth stared at him, as if he spoke a foreign language. Darcy turned to ask Irving. “What do you know about the layout at Errington?”
“It is a small country estate, made of stone, two levels, with seven bedrooms. The carriageway from the main road to the side of the house is about less than three-quarters of a mile. It slopes at a small angle, towards the house.”
“That is quite similar to the layout of Longbourn,” Elizabeth commented. “Except we are on level ground. I could not imagine Miss Bingley happy staying in such a small estate.”
“Quite a step down from Netherfield but it suits our scheme most favourably,” Richard smiled. “Whoever built the house did not consider the heavy rain and flooding. It was most neglectful to set the house at a lower point than the main road.”
“And the servants?” Darcy asked.
“They have two female servants, a cook, a housekeeper, two footmen, and a pair of horses.”
“Haha, good on them for being so frugal!” Richard said.
“The estate has been vacant for half a year. Lord Allen’s friend and family are in India, thus a small number of servants.” Irving nodded.
“Great,” Darcy said. “Richard, I leave you to discuss with Irving about the implementation of the plan. Elizabeth and I will wait in the carriage. Remember your safety precaution too.”
Colonel nodded his head and then walked with Irving back to his men.
Once Darcy handed Elizabeth’s back to the carriage, he showed her some padded straps on the seat. “What are these?”
“My parents once had a carriage accident near Pemberley. One of the horses was spooked by a rabbit. It lurched and jostled and threw their head coachman from his seat. It took nearly half a mile before the young coachman managed to control the horse and slow the carriage.”
“Oh, my dear, I hope your parents and the head coachman were not seriously injured.”
“Mother had a broken arm when she was thrown forward. The head coachman broke his leg and dislocated his shoulder. It took him about six months to recover. Since then, Father had tried to find a way to make sure the servants and us would not be thrown if the carriage was in danger speed or if the roads were bad. The head coachman and Father came up with these padded straps that could hold us by the waist and shoulders.”
“But I have not seen them in your carriage before.”
“In London, there is less a chance of the carriage driving in speed, so I have not asked them to be prepared.”
“But we have been driving for nearly two hours, and we have not used the straps.”
“Richard knows the road well, and we are not really trotting at high speed. But for the last leg of our journey, we will do so in more haste.”
Darcy sat by Elizabeth and helped her with the straps, before he strapped up himself. The carriage then started to move, still at an average speed, until they exited the forest.
Then with a loud shout, “What an idiot!” The Colonel pushed the horses at higher speed. “You cannot get away by such devilish deeds!”
Elizabeth turned to look at Darcy. He wrapped her shoulders and pressed her to him. “All will be good.” He said.
Inside the carriage, they could hear Irving yelling back from afar, in indignation. “I am in a hurry to deliver my catch, and you are blocking my way!”
Back and forth, Richard and Irving exchanged colourful insult for about a minute.
“That is not happening!”
“What are you doing?”
“Don’t lose it!”
The loud, angry voices of many men, not just that of Irving and Richard could be heard from outside the carriage. Inside, Darcy and Elizabeth held onto each other as the carriage jerked from side to side as it slowed down.
Darcy’s carriage came to a complete stop. He heard the coachmen jumping down, and Richard was yelling, “If you want to meet the Maker, you go alone. Do not involve my master and us!”
“See what you have done?” Irving shouted back. “My catch! My wagons are wrecked. You have to pay for them! If any of my lovely fish die of this accident, you will have to pay double.”
Darcy unstrapped Elizabeth and himself. He stepped down from the carriage and commanded. “Desist!”
Irving was holding Richard’s shirtfront. His men were surrounding the Colonel, while Darcy’s second coachman looked on with worries.
“I said desist!” Darcy repeated.
Darcy looked at the carnage and could not be more happy with Irving and the Colonel’s performance. He kept his expression stern. Darcy’s carriage had swung into the carriageway of a small estate, presumably Errington. Irving’s wagons were both let loose from the horses, due to the ‘near’ brushed with Darcy’s carriage. The eight barrels of herrings, smelly fish and foul water ran wild downslope. Two split opened at the stable yard. Two hit the side of the house. The remaining four hit the front of the house. While none of the barrels broke the windows, water and fish escaped from the barrels when they split open. Darcy could see a few fish landed inside the house, where windows on the ground level were opened.
The servants of the house came out to investigate. They had their mouth gaped open, similar to Elizabeth’s expression. Darcy strolled down to the house to an old woman standing at the door, who looked to be the housekeeper.
“I am sorry about this,” Darcy said.
Irving had followed him. “Your coachman caused this! You are going to pay for my wagon and fish!”
Darcy stared down at Irving. “I shall get to the bottom of this.” Then he turned to the housekeeper, hoping to ask to see the master of the house.
“Mr. Darcy!” Miss Bingley cried out. She walked out of the house from the front door. She was holding her nose as she gingerly navigated around the puddles of jumping fish and bad water on the front yard.
“Miss Bingley!” Darcy hoped he sounded genuinely surprised. “I thought you and your sister had gone to visit Mr. Hurst’s estate in Peterborough.”
“Oh no, we never meant to go…”
“What are all these noises and shouts?” Hurst walked out from the house. He was holding a glass of wine, clearly tipsy.
“Watch out!” Elizabeth called out.
Darcy saw with disbelief as Mr. Hurst stepped on a slippery herring and crashed onto Miss Bingley. Both of them landed with a loud thud, sitting on the puddle, ruining their beautiful morning dresses and trousers.
“I am so sorry,” The housekeeper cried out.
“Do not run,” Darcy said. “What is your name?”
“Mrs. Thompson, housekeeper of Errington.”
“Do you have any barrels available? Perhaps you should ask the servants to gather the herrings from the floor and mop up the water first.”
“Carl!” Darcy called out to the Colonel, using Richard’s middle name. “Please assist Mr. Hurst and Miss Bingley back to the house. And be careful!”
“Yes, Sir!” Richard went to assist Mr. Hurst first and then Miss Bingley.
“What about me?” Irving continued to badger Darcy. “Do not think you can hide that ruffian of yours inside the house and not pay me!”
“What is your name?” Darcy asked Irving, pretending not to know him.
“Ian Ward of Cornhill. And you owe me…”
“Desist!” Darcy drew some coins from his pocket. “Now assist Mrs. Thompson to clear away your fish.”
“But my wagons are broken, how can I transport them north?”
“Mrs. Thompson, what is the nearest town from here, where this man can hire two wagons?”
“Epping is not far from here. They would have the right equipage for Mr. Ward.”
“Would you be able to spare one of your men, Mrs. Thompson, to ride to Epping and get Mr. Ward two wagons?”
“I can go myself, if you pay me double.” Irving jumped in.
“I am tired of your haggling. My coachman Carl is very experienced. I am sure you and your men should bear some of the faults for the accident. I shall not trust you not to ask for more money.”
“Indeed, Mr. Darcy,” Mrs. Thompson stared at Irving with distaste. “I can spare both of my men to go to town.”
“Great!” Darcy took out some coins for Mrs. Thompson. “Would this be enough?”
“More than enough. I shall go organise that,” the housekeeper replied. “Now Mr. Ward, please follow me and wait at the stable yard.”
“What kind of courtesy is that? Why am I not invited into the house?” Irving mumbled.
“Our estate only welcomes gentlemen and women,” Mrs. Thompson said sternly. “Mr. Darcy and, I assume, that is your wife, Mrs. Darcy, would you like to wait here while I show Mr. Ward to his place or would you prefer to go into the house now, seeing that you know Mr. Hurst and his family?”
“Mrs. Darcy and I can wait here, seeing that the front door area is still quite wet.”
“Oh, indeed, but you can walk with us. I can show you the way inside through the library. The door there is open and not messed up by this man’s fish.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Thompson,” Elizabeth said. “You have been most thoughtful.”
Elizabeth placed her hand on Darcy’s arm, with a smile on her face. Darcy must say that everyone seemed to have acted according to plan. Richard and Irving would stay at the estate for a little while. Darcy had even won over the trust of Errington’s housekeeper.
When Elizabeth and Darcy were shown into the library, they were startled by finding Mrs. Hurst sitting there, staring into empty space.
“Mr. and Mrs. Darcy!”
“How did you come to be at Errington?”
Elizabeth and Darcy exchanged a glance. It might take Mr. Hurst and Miss Bingley several minutes to change into dry clothes. And if they were hurt during the fall, they might not even come down to meet them until they saw a doctor. It would be perfect timing to interrogate Mrs. Hurst, seeing that she was all alone. And she did not seem to have food poisoning. Why was a doctor sent for, according Irving’s previous report?
Elizabeth took up the explanation, about their short trip away to see Cheshunt, the accident on the road and so on. Darcy had moved to stand near the door to the house, appearing to give the women some privacy to talk but in fact to stand guard in case Mr. Hurst or Miss Bingley came in. He could hear clearly of what Elizabeth and Mrs. Hurst were talking.
“I hope you and Mr. Hurst have resolved the bad tidings you received that forced you to leave town.”
“Umh, yes, it is nothing.”
“Mrs. Hurst, we are to be a family soon. If you have any particular problem, pray let me know, and perhaps we can help you.”
“Umh, no, really. There is no problem. All is well.”
“There is one thing I have wanted to ask you, but have not found the chance to do so before. Seeing that we are both married women, I would not try to be subtle about it. It has bothered me since Jane had told me about it. Why did you drug her when she visited you?”
“No, no, I have not drugged Miss Bennet.” Mrs. Hurst answered shakily. She was twisting her handkerchief.
“No? She said you gave her the herb tea.”
“I did not know that there was drug in it.”
“But you knew that now? Who put the drug in it?”
“Caroline…” Mrs. Hurst then covered her mouth with the handkerchief.
“Why did Caroline want to drug Jane?”
“No, no, you do not understand.”
“Then make me understand.”
“Caroline is not…” Mrs. Hurst drew in a deep breath. “I promised Father and Mother.”
“What did your parents have to do with it? They are dead and had not even known my sister.”
“I am to protect them, and I fail, so miserably.” Mrs. Hurst murmured, and then burst into tears.
“You are to protect your younger sister and brother?”
“Yes,” Mrs. Hurst nodded.
“But your parents sent Miss Bingley to Italy, not you. How could you protect your sister when she was so far away.”
“If I had not married Hurst, none of this would have happened.”
“You meant the incident that caused your parents to send Miss Bingley away to Sicily?”
Mrs. Hurst gasped and stared at Elizabeth. “How did you know?”
“We are to be linked together by marriage soon. Of course, we would investigate if your family has any scandal in the past.”
“You knew?” Mrs. Hurst cried out. “Pray take Miss Bennet away. Pray, do not let her marry Charles.”
Darcy was astonished. What was their secret? Why did Mrs. Hurst worry about Miss Bennet marrying to Bingley?
“I do not know all,” Elizabeth said. “Tell me what happened to Miss Bingley in Italy.”
“I cannot! I promise.” Mrs. Hurst said.
“What about Mr. Bingley?”
“Charles is a good brother.”
“Then why should Jane not marry him? She is with his child.”
“He..has a good heart… but he is impulsive…he did something…something he should not..have done…when he was young.”
“What was it?”
“Pray do not force me to tell you.”
“Did it have anything to do with your Father and now your brother paying for Mrs. Romano?”
“You knew that already. Then you know all.”
“No, I did not know it all. I only thought that your Father was Mrs. Romano’s lover.”
“What? No! Father was the most upstanding person in the whole world. It was all Mother’s fault?”
“How? Make me understand.”
“She spoiled Caroline and Charles. She dotted on Caroline because the year she was born, Father had made a lot of money. She said Caroline brought wealth to the family.”
“And Mr. Bingley?”
“Charles is the heir to Bingley fortune. Mother was so proud of him. He would make the Bingley name known in the whole of England, by becoming a landed gentry, buying one estate after another, expanding our fortune and name.”
“But Miss Bingley was disgraced, by your husband?”
“Elizabeth!” Darcy called to his wife as he heard approaching footsteps.
Elizabeth immediately moved away from Mrs. Hurst, took up a book and sat by Darcy’s side.
When Mr. Hurst and Miss Bingley knocked on the door and walked into the library, Mrs. Hurst had dried her tears and sat silently with the same empty looking expression as Elizabeth and Darcy had found her early.
“Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, sorry for not receiving you properly earlier,” Miss Bingley said with a forced smile. “I hope Louisa proves to be a good host.”
“Oh, I am such a scatterbrain. I forgot to ring for refreshment.” Mrs. Hurst said.
“The servants are helping with cleaning up the front door and the parlour. They would not have heard you anyway,” Mr. Hurst walked to sit by his wife. He took her hand and squeezed it. Darcy could see Mrs. Hurst flinched from the contact.
“I offer them to read any books in the library, while they wait,” Mrs. Hurst murmured.
“Indeed,” Elizabeth spoke cheerfully. “Errington has quite an impressive library. Miss Bingley, how did the Hursts and you come to be staying here? What providence! If our accident happened in another estate, I am sure the owner would not be so calm to receive us.”
Darcy had to applaud to Elizabeth. She was never intimidated. She continued to interrogate even though Mr. Hurst was present and with a scowl on his face.
“Oh, Victoria, Mrs. Romano’s husband has been a friend of Lord Allen for many years. This place is one of the friends of Lord Allen.” Miss Bingley replied.
“And the bad tidings, Mrs. Hurst had mentioned in her message, that required your removal from town? I trust all is well now.” Elizabeth asked.
“It is sorted out,” Mr. Hurst interrupted.
“Yes,” Miss Bingley said. “Perhaps we should return to the parlour, Mr. and Mrs. Darcy.”
“And I hope your carriage is ready for you soon.” Hurst continued, apparently hoping to get rid of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth. As the party moved to the front parlour, Elizabeth was desperately trying to think of a way to delay their departure and had another chance to talk to Mrs. Hurst alone.
Before they could enter the front parlour, Mrs. Thompson was waiting there, with a message. “Sir, your head coachman said that one of the wheels of the carriage looked to be a bit loose, after the run-in with the herring tradesman. He is working on repairing it. He believes another hour is required. He asked whether you would prefer his assistant to ride to the nearest town to hire a hackney for the Mistress and you to continue on the journey?”
Elizabeth nearly exclaimed in joy at Colonel Fitzwilliam’s delaying tactics. But she schooled her expression to that of vexation. Now, let see if the Hursts and Miss Bingley would kick them out of Errington or be a decent friend and ask them to stay for tea.
“Perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Darcy would care to stay for tea, while you wait for the carriage to be repaired,” Mrs. Hurst offered. Elizabeth could see that Mr. Hurst frowned at the invitation while Miss Bingley just shrugged her shoulders.
“We could not dream of intruding on you,” Elizabeth replied. “Mr. Darcy, should we send our coachman to Epping or Cheshunt?”
“It is really not an intrusion,” Mrs. Hurst said. She drew in a deep breath and continued. “Mrs. Darcy, would you like to freshen up in the guest chamber before we have tea in a quarter of an hour?”
Fitzwilliam stared at Elizabeth with a concerned look. Surely he was not worried that she would be harmed in the guest chamber, like Jane had been when she visited the Hursts at Grosvenor Square. With her husband, Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mr. Irving all in the estate, Elizabeth felt emboldened to take the chance Mrs. Hurst had handed her. For the sake of Jane’s future, she would seize this opportunity to ask Mrs. Hurst more, if she could get her alone.
“I would like that very much, Mrs. Hurst,” Elizabeth said. She wanted to ask Mrs. Hurst to show her to the guest chamber but could not do that without being seen as demanding and unreasonable. Thus she waited to see if Mrs. Hurst would do that herself or call on the housekeeper to do so.
“I shall show you to the guest chamber,” Miss Bingley said abruptly, before Mrs. Hurst could utter the word.
“And you, Mr. Darcy?” Mrs. Hurst stood rigidly, frowning at her sister’s interruption. “Would you like to refresh yourself too, at another chamber?”
Elizabeth gave her husband a look, hoping he would understand her. “I do not think so. I could do with a glass of port. Hurst, would you mind entertaining me, while the ladies are away?”
Elizabeth wanted to clap her hands and kissed Fitzwilliam for his cleverness. She felt much more courageous with her knowing that Mr. Hurst would be closely watched by her husband. She believed she could deal with Miss Bingley and still question Mrs. Hurst.
Hurst mumbled a reluctant yes. He seemed to be making some weird eye contact with Miss Bingley.
“Great,” Mrs. Hurst said. “I shall keep you company, Mrs. Darcy.” She walked out of the bottom of the stairs purposefully, waiting for Elizabeth and Miss Bingley to follow her. The two men went inside the parlour.
“This place reminds me of Longbourn,” Elizabeth said to no one in particular, when she followed the Bingley sisters up the stairs.
Miss Bingley scrunched her nose as she turned to look at Elizabeth and did not reply. Mrs. Hurst, however, tried to appear more friendly, than she ever was when they were in Netherfield. “Yes, the estate has seven bedchambers.”
“We have eight bedrooms in Longbourn. How does it compare to Mr. Hurst’s townhouse in town?”
“We have six bedrooms at Grosvenor Square,” Mrs. Hurst said.
“I believe Miss Bingley, you prefer town than the country,” Elizabeth said, hoping to provoke the snobbish woman to spill some secrets. “This estate, so much smaller than Netherfield, must not be ideal for your stay.”
“It has its uses.” Miss Bingley said.
“Indeed?” Elizabeth raised her eyes. They arrived at the guest chamber. She was hoping Miss Bingley would leave, seeing she clearly did not like Elizabeth’s presence. But the young woman sat on a chair by the bed. A maid had followed the trio into the room, laid out a pitcher of warm water, a set of comb and poured some water for Elizabeth to refresh herself in front of the mirror. Mrs. Hurst chose to sit on the bed. When Miss Bingley did not elaborate, Elizabeth probed once more, after the maid had left the room. “What was the use of Errington estate to you, Miss Bingley?”
Miss Bingley clearly did not foresee Elizabeth to be this rude, intrusive and asked the question so openly and bluntly. She blurted out, “Victoria wanted me to leave town.”
“Why?” Why did Mrs. Romano have such power over the party?
Miss Bingley clamped her mouth shut, knowing that she had revealed something she should not have said. She turned her body to look out of the windows. When Miss Bingley did not add anything further, Elizabeth turned to Mrs. Hurst.
Mrs. Hurst stared at her sister, seeing that Miss Bingley had her body turned away from them. Mrs. Hurst said in a low voice, “Mrs. Romano was not happy with Caroline’s performance during the dinner party at Lord Matlock’s house.”
Performance! What could Mrs. Hurst mean by that? Was this imposter an actress?
“I heard you, dimwit! You keep your mouth shut!” Miss Bingley hissed, as she shifted her body back to face the room. Her usual sophisticated and gentlewoman manner deserted her. Her eyes bulged out, flashing angrily, her nostrils flared, and her mouth stretched open uglily while she drew in a shallow breath. Her fists gathered tight on her sides.
“Why should I? Savaged Italian chit!” Mrs. Hurst stood and growled back at Miss Bingley. Her right hand gripped the bedpost tight while her left hand balled together. Elizabeth’s eyes widened. Did Mrs. Hurst have had enough pressure from her husband or did she try to get a reaction from Miss Bingley by retorting in such antagonistic manner? Elizabeth decided to let the Bingley sisters yell at each other and see what she could learn from their brawl.
“I am a savage? Your husband was a pretentious English pervert! You drove him to into it.”
Was? Mr. Hurst was downstairs. Why did Miss Bingley use the past tense to refer to Mr. Hurst? And Miss Bingley’s vehement against that Englishman seemed to confirm that she was a foreigner by birth. Could she be Rosa or Carlotta Romano?
“I have had enough…” Before Mrs. Hurst could reveal more of the secret, Miss Bingley lunged from near the windows and threw herself at her sister, grabbing her by the throat.
“What are you doing?” Elizabeth exclaimed. She immediately dashed to the two sisters, trying to pull Miss Bingley’s hand away from Mrs. Hurst’s throat. But Miss Bingley was taller and stronger than Elizabeth. The attacker’s hand was solid and hard. Elizabeth could not even pull Miss Bingley’s away from Mrs. Hurst for an inch.
“You interfere too much, country nobody!” Miss Bingley turned her head, never relaxing her hold of Mrs. Hurst’s throat, while she threw her weight sideward against Elizabeth, bumping Elizabeth away. Elizabeth stumbled back and crashed onto the wardrobe. She felt pain on her shoulder. Mrs. Hurst, however, took advantage of Miss Bingley’s quick attack on Elizabeth and scratched Miss Bingley on the arm.
Miss Bingley screamed in pain. She let go of Mrs. Hurst’s throat but used the back of her hand to slap her sister across the face. The strike must be powerful. Mrs. Hurst faltered backward, hit her head on the bedpost and landed heavily on the bed, out cold, lying there motionless.
Miss Bingley was like a woman possessed. She quickly turned to Elizabeth and then pointed her fingers at Elizabeth. Her face was like an angry cat ready to pounce on its prey, and her hair stood up wildly. “You! You stole Mr. Darcy away from me! You destroyed my years of hard work! You made Victoria so angry with me that she sent me away! I am going to stay in another hellhole again, just because of you, ill-mannered, impertinent and gold-digging English chit!” She cursed Elizabeth with colourful language that rivalled a drunken sailor would have said and grabbed Elizabeth by the throat. Elizabeth saw stars. She felt Miss Bingley tightening her hands, squeezing her neck, her long thin fingers dug into Elizabeth’s skin. The crazy woman was shaking Elizabeth and banging Elizabeth's head back against the door of the wardrobe. The stars became more hued, then darker and suddenly, they all burst apart.
“Elizabeth, my dear, are you well?” The urgent plea by Fitzwilliam pulled Elizabeth back from the land of darkness, from the heavy pressure that had been weighing down on her head, from the tightness of space and absence of air. She blinked open her eyes. Or were her eyes always opened when she was held tight by Miss Bingley? She squinted her eyes. The light hurt. Everything hurt. She could see Fitzwilliam looking at her with concern. The enraged, murderous face of Miss Bingley was no longer staring straight at her. The lioness had withdrawn the attack. Elizabeth choked, spluttered and coughed. She felt relieved she was in Fitzwilliam’s arms again. His arms were strong and tender. His heat was heart-warming, and his gaze was reassuring. He smoothed his hands over her body. “Are you hurt, my dear?”
“My head,” Elizabeth whispered huskily. Her throat felt burnt. Her shoulder felt crushed, and her back ached.
Fitzwilliam touched her head. “Oh, there is blood. Mrs. Thompson, is there another bedroom I can take my wife to rest?”
“No, I do not want to stay here,” Elizabeth whimpered. She wanted to leave Errington immediately. She did not want to be near the mad Caroline Bingley.
“Let me take you to wait in the parlour. Mr. Ward has secured Miss Bingley.” Fitzwilliam continued the pretence by calling Irving Mr. Ward.
“And Mrs. Hurst?” Elizabeth finally turned her head away from her husband and took in the situation inside the guest chamber. Miss Bingley was restrained on the chair with her mouth gagged. Irving and one of his men were standing by her side. The maid who had brought the water into the guest chamber earlier was tending to Mrs. Hurst.
“She is unconscious, but she has not lost a lot of blood. She may come round any minute.” Darcy said. “Mrs. Thompson, can you ask our second coachman to go to Epping to get a doctor and a magistrate to come immediately?”
“And Mr. Hurst?” Elizabeth asked.
“I heard the scream and ran up the stairs. I did not notice him not following. Mr. Ward, did you see where Mr. Hurst is?”
Irving shook his head. “I came from the other side of the house, where my men and I were collecting our catch and helping to mope up the water from the spill.”
“I saw Mr. Hurst and your head coachman talking,” Mrs. Thompson commented. “before I rushed upstairs.”
Elizabeth felt relieved that Colonel Fitzwilliam would be guarding Mr. Hurst. But right that moment, there were loud noises, and gunshots heard from downstairs. She held tight onto her husband’s arm.
“I must go downstairs to investigate,” Fitzwilliam said.
“NO!” Elizabeth cried out. She could not lose her husband. Her hands dug into Fitzwilliam’s arms. She could not let loose her grip. Mr. Darcy who was arrogant and condescending when they had first met in Hertfordshire. Mr. Darcy who behaved strange and absent-minded when he had attempted to court her in Kent. Mr. Darcy who agreed to her marriage proposal with coldness. Mr. Darcy who mistreated her when they joined together as husband and wife. Mr. Darcy who respected and loved her since their marriage, despite the trouble brought on by her family. “Please do not go.”
“Let my man and I go and assess the situation,” Irving said.
Darcy nodded his head. “Be careful.”
“Should we close the door, Sir?” Mrs. Thompson asked anxiously. She stood by Miss Bingley, who was mumbling and struggling against the ropes, rattling the chair.
Darcy nodded to the housekeeper and picked up Elizabeth and put her on the bed, besides Mrs. Hurst. “Please tend to Mrs. Darcy’s head wound,” Darcy said to the maid.
“Yes, Sir.” The maid replied, and went to collect another piece of cloth from the wardrobe and dipped it into the bowl of water by the windows.
“Please do not go.” Elizabeth was still reluctant to let go of her husband. She pleaded.
Mr. Darcy leaned forward and whispered to her. “No, I would not leave you, my love. I am just going to stand guard by the door. I have my pistol.”
“Be careful, Fitzwilliam, I cannot lose you. I love you.” Elizabeth whispered back.
Mr. Darcy’s eyes shone with emotion. His mouth opened, as if he wanted to shout to the world that he had Elizabeth’s love. For a long moment, he just stared at her, passionately and ardently. Then he leaned forward and pressed his forehead against hers, letting Elizabeth feel his warmth, love and presence. Finally, he squeezed her hand one last time and stood up.
Elizabeth kept her eyes trained on her husband, even when the maid pressed the clothe to her head to wash the wound, making her winced with pain. The physical ache would be nothing to compare to the agony she would have if she were to lose Fitzwilliam. Elizabeth did not know when she felt love for this complex man, but now that she knew, she would not see him harmed. Elizabeth kept her ears listened to the commotion downstairs. The gunshots had actually stopped before Irving went downstairs with his man. But the shouting and noises continued. Elizabeth thought she had heard the sound of horses but she might be hallucinating. Since Irving had gone down, she could hear some yelling but she could not make out what they were. After like an eternity of waiting, loud footsteps were heard. She could see Fitzwilliam tensed up. He drew a pistol from under this waistcoat. He stood with his body close to the wall and in fact slowly opening the door, peering out. He must be hoping to meet whoever coming near, outside the room, to spare the women inside. Elizabeth wanted to scream a loud No. But the silence inside the room was deafening. Both Mrs. Thompson and the maid gasped out loud, with their hands covering their mouth.
“Mr. Darcy, it is my man and me,” Irving called out. “can you step out for a minute?” Darcy relaxed slightly and lowered the gun.
Elizabeth cried out immediately, “No, please. Mr. Ward, pray come in!” She was not going to let her husband out of her sight, even though Irving reassured the people in the room that all seemed to be well. What if whoever fired downstairs came back or was holding Irving hostage instead and forced the investigator to say what he had said just now?
Fitzwilliam was hesitant for a minute. He probably did not want any criminal to follow Irving into the room where five women, without arms, were inside. But Irving called out again. “Yes, Madam.”
Then the door was pushed open. Only Irving and his man were there. They did not have their guns drawn, not wanting to alarm Errington’s housekeeper and maid. Elizabeth was relieved that the criminals had fled and did not follow them.
“What happened downstairs?” Mr. Darcy asked.
Irving looked at the estate servants for a second seriously, before deciding to say something. “Three strangers and your coachmen exchanged fire. When we went downstairs, they had dragged Mr. Hurst and your head coachman onto two spare horses and rode away.”
Elizabeth gasped. The criminal did not flee. They kidnapped Colonel Fitzwilliam! She felt air squeezed out of her. She felt responsible, for suggesting that Richard disguised as their servant. Now he was in grave danger. What if Richard was killed? Her husband would never forgive her.
“Are there any other injury?” Mr. Darcy said grimly.
“Nothing serious, just a graze here and there for your second coachman and the cook.”
“We should leave immediately for Epping, as it is nearer.” Darcy said. Irving nodded his head. “We need two carriages. Mrs. Thompson, would you prefer to stay here or close the house and leave with us to Epping? I can pay for your staff and you a week’s stay there at an inn, while you contact your master’s agent. I think the magistrate at Epping would need to come to assess the crime scene.”
Mrs. Thompson thanked Mr. Darcy and said she felt safer staying in an inn, as she did not know if the gunmen would return.
With the help of Irving and his men, Errington’s servants, Mrs. Hurst, Mrs. Darcy were assisted up to the Darcy carriage. Miss Bingley was loaded up Irving’s cart, still tied up and gagged, with the servants. The barrels of herring were left at Errington.
“I am sorry, Fitzwilliam,” Elizabeth said shakily, in a low voice.
“Whatever for?” Her husband stared at her.
Fitzwilliam put his finger on her lips. He leaned forward and whispered to Elizabeth’s ears. “Pray do not worry. He is strong and Irving pulled me aside just now, before we came onboard the carriage, that they have everything in hand.”
Elizabeth felt slightly more reassured by Fitzwilliam’s words and his closeness. She hoped the Colonel would really come to no harm.
Not too soon, the party left for Epping. Darcy had sent one of Irving’s men ahead to Epping to secure private rooms at a good inn. Mrs. Thompson and the other maid handling Miss Bingley were asked to make sure the woman’s face would be hidden under the cloak. They were to assist Miss Bingley to a room as normally as possible, without revealing that she was being tied up. Darcy did not want any unrelated people in the inn to know that the party had a prisoner among them. With all the wedding invitations of Bingley and Miss Bennet already sent out, Darcy would not want gossip to swirl about the Bingleys harming the Darcys. The scandal would hurt Elizabeth’s position in society as the new Mrs. Darcy, even though the wedding would now need to be cancelled. The magistrate would need to be called because Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mr. Hurst were kidnapped, but Darcy would make sure that Miss Bingley would not be taken away for a trial, at least until he could consult his uncle and aunt how to stem the tide of gossip first.
By the time the party had settled at Epping Black Dog Inn, a doctor was called for. He examined the injured. Mrs. Hurst was still unconscious, which was worrying. Magistrate Bates interviewed Elizabeth, the servants from Errington and Irving’s party separately. Finally, it came to the interview of Miss Bingley. Darcy requested to be present, with Mrs. Thompson assisting.
Magistrate Bates warned the prisoner that she was not to scream or cause too much noise when they untied her gag. Otherwise, she would be taken to the magistrate’s facility to be questioned. Miss Bingley nodded her head fiercely to agree, and Mrs. Thompson was instructed to untie Miss Bingley’s gag.
“Miss Caroline Bingley, according to the accounts by the eyewitnesses, you were seen attacking your sister Mrs. Herbert Hurst and then Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy at the guest chamber of Errington at around four in the afternoon today. What do you have to say about it?”
Miss Bingley started sobbing. “Pray forgive me. I did not intend to hurt my dear sister and dear Mrs. Darcy. It must be the herb tea. It made me do some crazy things.”
The magistrate motioned for Mrs. Thompson to dap dry Miss Bingley’s eyes, as the prisoner’s hands were still tied to the chair.
“What herb tea? Who prepared it for you?”
Darcy had a feeling what Miss Bingley would say.
“My sister, Louisa, prepared the tea, right before Mr. Darcy’s party had an accident outside Errington estate. My sister, her husband and I were having tea. Louisa poured it.”
“Mrs. Thompson, can you confirm that?” The magistrate asked.
“Yes, the temporary master and mistress and Miss Bingley were having tea at that time.”
Darcy noticed a tiny smile on Miss Bingley’s face when Magistrate Bates turned to talk to Mrs. Thompson. Almost immediately, the prisoner schooled her face to that of an innocent victim.
“And this special tea makes you do strange things?”
“It must be. I would not normally act that crazy. My sister has been consulting many apothecaries for some years. You see, she has been trying to be with child. I warn her that the latest one is most irregular. She acted very strangely in the past few months. Sometimes angry, sometimes sad, sometimes laughing, sometimes murmuring to herself. It must be the herb tea that she takes. Her husband and I asked her not to take it, but she refused.”
“If you are aware of such a danger, why did you take the tea?”
“I saw Louisa prepare it. I thought it was for herself. She must have switched her cup with mine. I would never have taken it willingly!”
Darcy’s lips tightened. This Miss Bingley’s performance was compelling. She was laying all the blame on her sister who was conveniently made unconscious by her.
Magistrate Bates nodded his head. “We will make sure to check the tea service at the parlour when we go to Errington to investigate tomorrow.”
Miss Bingley lowered her head, apparently to hide her smile. Mrs. Thompson, however, related the reason why Miss Bingley was happy about the situation. “Sir, but the tea service had been cleared right after Mr. Darcy arrived at the estate.”
The magistrate frowned. To give him due, he took his responsibility seriously. He persisted in other areas.
“According to the witness, Mrs. Hurst called you a ‘savaged Italian chit’. Why did she say so?”
“As I said, sir, Louisa has been taking this harmful herb tea for many months. She is getting delusional. I have lived in Italy for some years, away from the family. She must be jealous of my travel and opportunity to attain accomplishment. Imagine, I took the herb tea one time, and I acted so violently. How can we be sure about the effect it has on Louisa. She seems obsessed about Italy.”
Magistrate Bates wrote down the information and continued, “You were heard saying ‘Mr. Hurst was a pretentious English pervert’. Why did you refer to Mr. Hurst as if he was dead?”
“Did I? I cannot remember. The herb tea makes my head ache. I have been in Italy for so many years that my English must have deserted me, in time of great distress. I cannot remember what I have said.”
“And you cannot tell us why your drug infused mind labelled Mr. Hurst as a pretentious pervert.”
“Indeed not, my sister’s husband is a dear. He eats and drinks too much. But a pervert, definitely no!” Miss Bingley exclaimed sweetly. “Ah, but I remember, there may be a reason. We were discussing Dante’s Inferno. There were some nasty people described in the epic poem. Oh, how my mind was temporarily damaged by the herb tea!”
“But you have still injured two persons.” Magistrate Bates commented.
Miss Bingley squeezed some tear out again. “I hope, sir, you would not charge me for the incident. I was clearly not of the right mind, under the influence of a drug, accidentally offered by my sister.”
“Should we commit you to an asylum instead?” Magistrate Bates retorted.
A look of panic finally appeared on Miss Bingley’s face. “But I was only mad for that few moments this afternoon. You can see I am back to my normal self already.”
“We cannot let evildoers unpunished when they claim they have a hallucination. I shall see if Mr. and Mrs. Darcy would like to press charges against you and if Mrs. Hurst would recover.”
“Please, Mr. Darcy, please explain to dear Mrs. Darcy that Louisa must have offered me some tea with the drug. I would never harm her if I am of the right mind.”
Darcy’s lips tightened. He was sure Miss Bingley was not drugged, but an imposter not ready to make a confession. But he did not want to explain the situation to the magistrate.
Darcy asked Magistrate Bates to go outside and told him that he preferred not to charge Miss Bingley for the moment and requested Bates to let him take her to London. He would hand her over to be guarded by Magistrate Appleby of London, who was a good friend of Lord Matlock.
After some further discussion, Magistrate Bates agreed to the arrangement, provided that he could send his assistant along to see to the matter. Bates would write a letter to Appleby to summarise his interview findings and request Appleby to keep him informed. In the meantime, Darcy asked the magistrate to keep him updated of the search of Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mr. Hurst, which had been organised even before they arrived at Epping, as related by the man sent by Darcy ahead of the party.
Darcy returned to his chamber where Elizabeth was resting. She had been given a sleeping draught to ease her pain on the head and help her sleep. One of the maids from Errington was engaged to look after her while Darcy was dealing with Bates.
On seeing his lovely Elizabeth, Darcy felt a deep sense of contentment. He quietly retired by her side, and embraced her in his arms. Elizabeth loved him. Finally, Darcy won her trust. Despite his worry about Richard, he could find sleep easily, knowing that the one he loved most was securely in his embrace.
He woke early next morning, when Elizabeth stirred.
“My dear, how are you feeling?” Darcy asked.
“Better,” Elizabeth replied, but with a grimace when she tried to raise her body.
“Your head hurt?”
“Not really, it is the shoulder.”
“Did the doctor bandage it last night?”
“No, he said the shoulder is not dislocated, but bruised. He gave me some herbal ointment to spread over it.”
“Should I call for the maid to help you with the ointment again?”
“No, the doctor said I should only do it once a day. How did the interrogation with Miss Bingley go?”
“She said Mrs. Hurst gave her some herb tea, that made her lose her mind.”
“Yes, she is very glibly.”
“What are we to do?”
“I want to leave for London, as early as possible, are you up for the journey?”
“It is not too long. I should be fine. But what about Mrs. Hurst?”
“She has not regained consciousness. I am not sure if we should take her with us or leave Irving here with one of Errington’s maid to look after her.”
“If the doctor allows it,” Elizabeth said. “I think it is better to take Mrs. Hurst with us. We do not want her to be in danger, by revealing the Bingley’s secret to us.”
Elizabeth’s reasoning was sound.
“Is there any news from Colonel Fitzwilliam?”
Darcy shook his head.
“What did Irving say that reassure you of his safety?”
“He found Richard’s handkerchief in the hall, after he had chased up the three intruders who took Richard and Hurst away. Irving gave me the handkerchief last evening.” Darcy went to fetch it and showed it to Elizabeth. There were some words, hastily written in red.
“Darce, Easswin and others have mattered in hand. All is well. RF.” Elizabeth read it out. “I thought Captain Easswin has left and returned to the War Office. Did he follow us to Errington?”
“I thought so as well. I did not know that Captain Easswin comes following us. Richard must have enlisted Easswin’s help when he agreed to disguise as our coachman. He may think that an additional layer of protection is needed, even though I have Irving with me.”
“But why would the Colonel willingly go with the kidnapper? It is so dangerous and I worry for him, despite his reassurance. And the writing, they look to be done by blood. He is injured.” Elizabeth said in an anxious tone.
Darcy squeezed her hand. “Do not be overly worried about this. Richard had done something like this when we were young boys. He liked to pick his finger to get a little bit of blood to write his heroic declaration.”
Elizabeth smiled shakily. Darcy cradled her face in his hands and said, “My love, all will be well.” He pressed his lips against her cheek.
“I could not forgive myself if the Colonel’s life is in danger, all because of my family.” Tears welled in her eyes. Darcy reassured her once again and embraced her tightly for another moment. Then he rose and went to arrange for their departure, as discreetly as possible, with one prisoner still tied in ropes and one victim still unconscious. The doctor allowed Mrs. Hurst to be moved as long as Darcy promised that the journey to London would be taken in a slower pace and that someone would make sure Mrs. Hurst was not jostled too much during the carriage ride.
About three hours later, the party arrived at Lord Matlock’s townhouse. Darcy sent an express last night to his uncle. He thought that it would be better to go there, instead of his townhouse. Darcy did not want any dangerous people associated with Mrs. Romano to learn of their return, especially with Miss Bingley in custody. He would also need to recount the events leading up to Richard’s kidnap to his uncle. He had already told Lord Matlock Richard’s message in the express, in order not to over-alarm his uncle.
When the party arrived in London, Miss Bingley was locked up in a room in the servant quarter. Mrs. Hurst was taken to a guest chamber to rest. Lord Matlock had called for a doctor to wait for Darcy’s party, as he learned of two injuries among them. Elizabeth was first to be examined. She was declared to be on the mend. The head wound was properly tended to. The bruises on the shoulders would heal soon. Darcy was present when the doctor examined Elizabeth. He wanted to kill Miss Bingley himself when he saw the extensive bruising on Elizabeth’s shoulder.
As for Mrs. Hurst, the doctor worried about her. The bump on her head was not significant and she should have awoken. After Darcy told the doctor about the herbal tea mentioned by Miss Bingley during the interrogation, the doctor thought that Mrs. Hurst should be fed broth and water on a regular interval. They might counteract the effect of any drug on Mrs. Hurst.
After the doctor had left, Darcy helped Elizabeth downstairs to meet with his uncle and aunt. They were surprised to see another soldier waiting for them in the study.
“Darcy and Mrs. Darcy, this is Captain Woodhouse. He works with Richard and comes to relate some news to us.”
“Have you heard from the Colonel? I hope he is not harmed.” Darcy said.
“We believe he is not harmed.”
“What can you tell us about the situation?”
“Mr. Darcy, when you requested Colonel Fitzwilliam to go with you to Cheshunt under disguise, he sent a note back to the War Office and requested Captain Easswin and a team of officers to follow him.”
“We guess that. Did the Colonel explain the reason?”
“I have been given permission by General Greenhorn to relate the matter to you.” Captain Woodhouse then looked at the women in the room.
Lord Matlock waved a dismissive hand. “My wife and niece are intelligent and discreet. You can speak plainly.”
“We shall keep everything we hear today confidential.” Lady Matlock and Elizabeth confirmed.
Captain Woodhouse nodded his head. “General Greenhorn is keen to have Colonel Fitzwilliam to assist you when you asked about the situation in Sicily because the General has been requested by the current commander on the island to look out for some criminals who appear to be in England and responsible for crimes happening there.”
“What kind of crimes?”
“Mainly smuggling of produces, extortion of money from some Italian noblemen living in Sicily and other minor offences. Captain Easswin, although really injured in training, his injury was not as severe as requiring a return to England. He was sent back to help the investigation in England.”
“When Captain Easswin returned to the office from your townhouse, sir, he reported to the General about your enquiry about Count Marco Romano. The General is concerned that his widow, Victoria Romano, the daughter of Lord Whitehaven, may be one of the criminals our Sicilian commander is after. Therefore when Colonel Fitzwilliam sent a note to request further leave, the General agreed on the condition that he sent Captain Easswin and a team to follow you.”
“And have you heard from Captain Easswin about the kidnappers?”
“Captain Easswin sent one of his team back to report to the General late yesterday evening. It seems the kidnappers arrived at Errington via the road from the North. The bandit of three was heard during the exchange of fire speaking in English and Italian. Captain Easswin and his men were nearby at all time. Should the Colonel was in danger, they would intervene. They could see that the Colonel continued to act like a coachman. He fired a few shots back at the bandit but purposely aimed to miss.”
Darcy nodded his head and explained it to Elizabeth. “Richard is one of the best shots in his regiment.”
“Indeed, sir!” Captain Woodhouse confirmed. “Therefore Captain Easswin believes the Colonel would like to see what the bandit wants to do. They therefore allowed the kidnappers to take Mr. Hurst and the Colonel away, with bags over their head, but followed the kidnappers in the distance.”
“Where are they now?” Lord Matlock asked anxiously.
“Sir, the bandit has not gone far. They spent the night at an abandoned cottage outside Abbots Roding, about 12 miles northeast of Epping.”
“And is there any news today?” Darcy asked.
“The General has sent a new team of staff to assist Captain Easswin. We got a report back that the gamekeeper from Lord Allen estate met with the kidnappers.”
“Damnation!” Lord Matlock swore.
“Henry! Your language.” Lard Matlock chastised her husband.
“But did you not see it, my dear? Richard could be in danger. Lord Allen’s men know Richard because I have taken the boys to visit Allen. If the gamekeeper unties the bag and checks on the victims, he will not that Richard is no coachman!”
“How did your team know that the man who met up with the kidnappers is Lord Allen’s gamekeeper.” Darcy asked.
“The General is aware that the fallen count has been under the protection of Lord Allen. Therefore, he selected the team who knows about His Lordship to assist Easswin.”
“Is His Lordship a person of interest to the General?” Lord Matlock asked. “We are not the greatest of friends but Allen seems a good man to me. He supported me a few times in parliament before.”
“Yes, sir, Lord Allen and some others have been on the General’s persons of interest list.”
“A few others! I hope I am not among them,” Lord Matlock murmured.
“I am sure that is purely because of Richard’s words that I am not a criminal. Damnation! You military men have no respect for us politicians.”
Captain Woodhouse did not reply but turned to Darcy. However, Elizabeth jumped in first. “I do not understand, Captain. Why did the bandit kidnap a coachman in the first place? Surely, if their aim is money, they will be happy just by kidnapping Mr. Hurst for money.”
“Madam, criminals looking for ransom do not attack an estate in broad daylight.”
Elizabeth gasped. Darcy said, “You meant the bandit took them, knowing that Richard is no ordinary coachman? How could they know?” Darcy frowned.
“Could the two servants sent out by the housekeeper to get some transport for Irving’s herring are responsible for this?” Elizabeth said immediately.
“That is what the General believes, Mr. and Mrs. Darcy. As Lord Allen’s friend is in India, when the Hursts stayed at his friend’s place, it is possible that Lord Allen spare some of his servants to staff the house. And as Lord Matlock said, the Colonel has visited Lord Allen before and might have been known to his servants.”
“Oh, I hope Mrs. Thompson and the maids are not from that Lord Allen’s household,” Elizabeth exclaimed. While Mrs. Thompson remained in Epping, the two maids from Errington were engaged to travel with Darcy’s party to London, to tend to the ladies during the travel. They were in fact in Lord Matlock’s house right now.
“You do not have to worry, Mrs. Darcy,” Captain Woodhouse said. “Our third team has interviewed Mrs. Thompson in Epping. She did not know Lord Allen and has always been the housekeeper at Errington, since before the estate was bought by Lord Allen’s friend. The two maids and the cook came from local hire. Only the two men-servants were from Lord Allen’s household.”
“Why did the bandit or Lord Allen’s men want to kidnap Richard?” Lady Matlock asked, with worries edged on her face.