Upon arriving in London from Kent, Miss Elizabeth Bennet assumes it was an error in her behaviour that made Mr. Darcy believe she would accept his proposal. Elizabeth decides she should act more like her sister Jane from this point forward.
When the gentleman who wishes to invest in her uncle’s business makes advances, Elizabeth Bennet can do nothing but watch as the stranger who tries to rescue her is murdered. After the murderer threatens Elizabeth and her family, she escapes and goes into hiding. With no money and no way to get home, she accepts employment as a maid at a great estate.
A sweet Regency romance with suspense.
~ ~ ~ ~ Copyright 2022 Wendi Sotis ~ ~ ~ ~
~ ~ ~ ~ Cover Art by Matthew Sotis ~ ~ ~ ~
A PRECARIOUS EXCURSION
~~ Sample ~~
~London, England; Saturday, 25 April 1812
What a bad idea this was! thought Fitzwilliam Darcy as he followed the club’s waiter to his table.
The dining room was almost filled with members from the usual crowd—he recognized a couple of earls, a handful of viscounts, one baronet, and several dozen gentlemen-of-means, like himself. A few beckoned him towards their tables, or asked him to join them, but he only waved them off in response. Most would understand his gesture meant he was not in the mood for conversation, for at times they, too, had come here to be alone amongst others; in hopes a change of scenery might help them escape their own disillusionment with life.
Darcy seldom, if ever, attended his club to dine alone, but today, he simply had to get out of the house, eager as he was to divert himself from his own thoughts. He had walked all the way from his house, quite briskly, in fact, hoping the exercise would clear from his mind the vision of a pair of exceptionally fine eyes, along with the face and figure of the lady to whom they belonged—her angelic voice as she sang, her engaging conversation, her bubbling laughter—all of which had driven away almost all other thoughts since his meeting her last autumn. But it would never do. Even after the exertion, his soul still ached in such a way that confirmed she would forever be a part of him.
As a result of Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s refusal of his offer of marriage, his adoration and respect for her had increased in strength, only expanding his attraction. Any other lady he knew would have jumped at the opportunity to marry him, but this lady had her principles, from which she would never stray, no matter the inducement. He admired her integrity, although it meant he could only look forward to heartache in its wake.
He took his seat at his table, tucked away in a corner, then looked out the window next to him. All his senses perked up when he spied amongst the crowd of people on the street a woman with dark hair and a straw bonnet.
Darcy’s breath caught—was it her?
The woman stopped to examine something in a shop window. She had a wicker basket hooked over her arm, much like the one he had seen Elizabeth carry once when he came across her picking wildflowers on the grounds of Rosings Park.
A taller female with blonde hair approached. Her elder sister, perhaps?
The dark-haired woman turned to look at her companion.
His heart fell. It was not Elizabeth.
Now that he looked again, he could not fathom how he had been misled by the colour of her hair. From here, he could see the texture was not as silken as hers always had been, nor did it contain the hint of radiant chestnut which was so evident whenever Elizabeth stepped into the sunlight. This woman’s movements were not nearly so graceful as Elizabeth’s, either. Judging by the gown she wore, she was obviously a servant, not a lady.
And yet, he continued to watch the pair until they disappeared into the shop.
Why could he not rid himself of this terrible habit of imagining any woman with dark hair was Miss Elizabeth Bennet?
He sighed, knowing full well the reason—to catch a glimpse of her from a distance would be a gift from God, though wholly undeserved. In truth, he expected never to see her again, even if he lived to become a very old man.
Darcy dragged his gaze from the window and opened the small volume he had brought with him. Unless he wished to make a fool of himself, he should at least make it appear as if he was occupied with something other than his own idiocy.
He looked up into a pair of blue eyes he knew well. “Bingley.”
“May I join you?”
Biting back irritation at having his solitude broken, Darcy gestured towards the chair across from him. Perhaps it would divert his mind to have a conversation partner, after all.
Once Bingley settled in, Darcy peered more closely at him. Bingley had lost weight, for certain. His blond hair was in an appalling state, and his clothes were wrinkled so thoroughly, Darcy would guess he had slept in them. Dark smudges surrounded his eyes, and his face was pale, reminding him of how Bingley had looked whilst he was recovering from the influenza several years ago, whilst they were at school.
If Bingley had fallen ill, Mrs. Hurst or Miss Bingley certainly would have contacted him, so that could not be the cause of this. Could Bingley’s broken heart have caused such a drastic change in his appearance?
Good heavens, was Darcy himself going to look like this a few months from now, as well?
Bingley smiled, but the emotion did not reach his eyes, causing Darcy’s worry to deepen.
Should he tell Bingley what Elizabeth had told him—scolding him that Miss Bennet had genuinely cared for his friend?
But what if Miss Bennet had changed her mind about him after her disappointment? Would gaining this information do more harm than good?
“I hope you do not mind that I joined you,” said Bingley. “Louisa and Caroline were expecting visitors. They say my temperament lately is distracting to their guests, so they sent me away.” His gaze wandered to the window, but the unfocused expression about his eyes informed Darcy he did not see anything outside it.
Darcy cleared his throat.
Bingley startled and met his gaze for a moment. Chuckling, Bingley then looked down at the table and fiddled with the flower vase, spinning it this way and that. “I went for a walk and somehow found myself in front of your house, so I called upon you. The butler told me you were here.”
Suddenly, Elizabeth’s words popped into his mind: “…dividing them from each other, exposing one to the censure of the world for caprice and instability, the other to its derision for disappointed hopes, and involving them both in misery of the acutest kind.”
Before him, he could see Bingley was in a wretched state, for certain. According to Elizabeth, Miss Bennet was suffering in a similar manner.
If there was the slightest hope his friend’s life could end up happier, he would have to admit he was wrong.
“Bingley, I—” He stopped, huffing out a breath. How was he to say this? “As I believe I told you when we last met, I recently visited Lady Catherine, my aunt. In Kent.”
Bingley continued to fidget with the vase, waiting for him to say more.
“Do you remember meeting Mr. Collins last November?”
A spark ignited within Bingley’s eyes but was quickly extinguished. He nodded.
“You may remember that Mr. Collins is my aunt’s clergyman.” He took a breath. “He is married now… in fact, we met his wife whilst in Hertfordshire.”
Bingley startled, knocking over the vase. Water spilled, and Darcy moved to blot it with his napkin. He looked up since Bingley had not tried to help. Now he could see why—fear had paralyzed his friend.
Oh, bother. He was making a mess of this confession—of course his mentioning Mr. Collins had married would lead Bingley to conclude the oaf might have wed Jane Bennet.
Darcy promptly added, “You remember Miss Charlotte Lucas?”
Bingley only blinked.
“She is now Mrs. Collins.”
Relief washed over Bingley’s entire being. “Yes – yes, of course.”
Good heavens. If he did not spit out the entirety of his confession more quickly, Bingley would end up in a state of apoplexy.
“The Collins’s had guests staying with them… Sir William, Miss Maria Lucas, and, eh—” Darcy inhaled deeply, preparing himself. “…and Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
There! He was almost proud of his ability to voice her name aloud.
He continued, “Miss Elizabeth told me—and please do not ask me how the subject came up—but Bingley, I must tell you, I was wrong.” He shook his head. “Due to Mrs. Bennet’s behaviour, I assumed all her daughters would be mercenary, but the truth is that Miss Bennet is not like her mother at all.”
Bingley tensed, staring at him with wide eyes.
Darcy once again cleared his throat. “In fact, I have it on good authority that Miss Bennet has been miserable since you closed up Netherfield.”
Bingley stood so fast, his chair toppled to the floor. He bolted in the direction of the door.
“Bingley!” Darcy rose and rushed after him. “Where are you going?”
“To Longbourn, of course,” Bingley exclaimed.
When a group of men laughed, Darcy looked about. All eyes were on them. Bingley’s chair falling must have made such a racket, it had attracted the attention of everyone in the dining room.
Darcy followed Bingley to the lobby then grabbed hold of his arm, bringing him to a stop. “You must not go to Longbourn.”
Bingley turned and said, “Truly, I must, Darcy. I love her. I cannot go on without her. I had already been contemplating returning—even if she was mercenary—but now… Oh, I must beg her to forgive me for abandoning her. I must.” He pulled his arm from Darcy’s grasp, seized his topcoat from the footman’s hands, and dashed out into the street.
Darcy took hold of his own coat, as well, and jammed his hat on his head. Snatching Bingley’s hat from the footman, which he had left behind, he pushed through the door. He looked both ways—Bingley was halfway down the block to the right. Darcy practically ran after him.
When he got close enough for his friend to hear him, he shouted, “Bingley… Bingley, wait!”
Bingley slowed his steps, allowing for Darcy to catch up.
“Miss Bennet is not at Longbourn,” Darcy blurted out.
Bingley halted immediately and turned.
Darcy said, “She is in London, at her uncle’s home.”
“Gracechurch Street,” Bingley murmured and began walking once again. His sisters had said it often enough, but with ridicule instead of the reverence Bingley attributed to the word.
Darcy caught up. “Listen to reason, man. It is too late for you to go there this evening. Think of the impression it would give if you showed up as they are sitting down to supper.”
“I would look exactly like what I am: desperately in love and fully aware that I have been a complete fool for having allowed others to convince me I should walk away from the woman of my dreams, no matter what their intentions were for doing so,” Bingley snapped.
“Charles… I must be blunt. You must do something about your appearance before you see Miss Bennet again.”
Bingley halted. Running a hand through his hair, he coloured and said, “You are correct. I have not been well.”
“Believe me when I say I understand.” Darcy clapped his shoulder. “Tomorrow is Sunday. Perhaps Monday would be better.”
Bingley pulled in a deep, trembling breath. “But how will I survive until Monday?”
“Come home with me. We will have a note delivered to Mr. Hurst’s residence asking them to send clothes for you. Meanwhile, you look like you need several good meals and some sleep. We shall play billiards this evening. My man would be happy to assist you tomorrow—for example, you are in desperate need to have your hair cut. With some preparation, you can make a much more acceptable impression on Monday.”
“Will you come along with me to Gracechurch Street, Darcy?”
Darcy did the math, although truly, he did not need to. He had been hanging onto Elizabeth’s every word whilst in Kent, and he overheard her tell his cousin how long she would be there. She was to leave Hunsford Cottage and arrive in London this very day. She had also mentioned she would spend several days with her aunt and uncle before returning to Hertfordshire. He well knew Elizabeth was most likely at Gracechurch Street at this exact moment, which was why he had been anticipating catching a glimpse of her any time he turned a corner in London.
Yes, if Bingley were to marry Miss Bennet, there would come a time when Darcy would be forced to be in the same room with Elizabeth again. He would eventually have to come to terms with that fact. But he was not sure his wounded soul could handle seeing her again so soon after her refusal.
“I am sorry, Bingley, I have much to accomplish before I leave for Pemberley.”
Darcy hailed a hackney. As they waited for it to pull up, he smiled and added, “Besides, I would probably only be in your way.”
Miss Elizabeth Bennet softly nudged the shoulder of the young lady seated beside her as the coach turned into Gracechurch Street. “Maria?”
Maria Lucas groaned.
Elizabeth chuckled and smiled at her aunt’s maid sitting across from her. Over the years, her good friend Charlotte Lucas, now Mrs. Collins, had teased her younger sister Maria about being almost impossible to awaken. Over the course of their six-week visit in Kent, Elizabeth had certainly found the taunt to be well-earned.
“Maria, it is time to wake up.”
No reaction what-so-ever.
Poor Maria had worn herself out from her constant chatter, beginning the moment their coach had first pulled away from Hunsford Cottage, detailing all they had experienced during their visit to her sister’s new home, and describing everything they had seen. Her excuse had been that she did not want to forget any aspect of the visit, for she would be required to impart every morsel of information to her parents and brothers. However, about half-way to London, Maria’s enthusiasm had run out, and she had fallen into a deep slumber.
The silence on the second part of their journey was a relief for only about five minutes, after which it had done Elizabeth no good, for her mind refused to concentrate on anything other than the events and knowledge she had gained in Kent—specifically all she, personally, would be forced to conceal.
Elizabeth shook Maria gently. When nothing happened, she did so again, but a bit more firmly.
The younger lady finally opened her eyes.
“We shall arrive momentarily,” Elizabeth told her. “This is my aunt and uncle’s road.”
Maria sat up straight, rapidly blinking the sleep from her eyes.
Elizabeth moved to the edge of her seat and, mindful of her bonnet, craned her neck in an attempt to see further down the London street than the constraints of the window allowed.
After being away from home for six weeks, it would be a true comfort to return to some sort of normalcy. The Gardiners’ house might not be Longbourn, but it was the next best thing, especially considering her elder sister and closest confidant, Jane, had been residing there since the new year began.
Poor Maria would have to wait three more days to experience a similar reprieve when the ladies, along with Jane, returned to Hertfordshire, but then visiting Charlotte’s new home had not caused the same stress for Maria as it had for Elizabeth.
Although Charlotte had been Elizabeth’s particular friend before she became Mrs. Collins, and it had been a pleasure to see her again, it was a bit of a disappointment to see how Charlotte’s responsibilities as mistress of her own home, wife to a clergyman, and supplicant to her husband’s demanding patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, had changed her. While Charlotte had done what she could to make Elizabeth feel at ease, her efforts were not entirely successful. For the better part of six-weeks, whilst Maria was on the receiving end of compliments from her brother-in-law, Mr. Collins, Elizabeth had been besieged with daily, admonishing lectures from the man, who felt he had every right to do so since he was also her cousin. In addition, Elizabeth had to muddle through the assault of intermittent exposure to the pride and haughtiness of the inhabitants at nearby Rosings Park whilst Maria had been nothing but impressed by it all. Though it was true the conversation of Colonel Fitzwilliams had proven to be an entertaining diversion from the rest, it had not been enough for Elizabeth to declare the visit a pleasant time had by all.
The Gardiners’ handsome, four-story, brick townhouse finally came into sight, complete with cheerful freesias and bluebells overflowing from the window-boxes.
“There, I see it,” Elizabeth exclaimed.
As the coach rattled to a stop before the townhouse, Jane rushed down the stairs, their uncle’s stunned footman following close behind her.
Elizabeth did not wait upon ceremony, either. Flinging open the door herself, she stepped down and into Jane’s arms. The sisters embraced and cried out each other’s names as the footman properly handed down Maria from the coach.
The little group was promptly ushered into the house. Aunt Madeline greeted them enthusiastically in the entryway, and Uncle Edward joined them with a cheerful smile. Once they were separated from their outerwear, the group moved into the parlour for a light meal. Before long, the three Gardiner children swept into the room like a whirlwind, more animated than usual given the current temporary reprieve from their lessons. In their every utterance, delight was heard to meet again with their cousin Lizzy and their cousins’ friend, Miss Lucas, with whom they were quite familiar.
Elizabeth sighed with pleasure. There was nothing like being surrounded by the unconditional affection of one’s own family again.
Though naturally timid, Maria was much more comfortable here than she had been at any time they had called at Rosings Park. When Aunt Madeline enquired about their visit, the young lady was soon repeating much of what she had reviewed in the coach when they had first left Kent.
With the initial excitement surrounding their arrival, Elizabeth had been distracted, but now, since she only had to nod every so often in agreement with Maria, Elizabeth took the opportunity to observe Jane. The concern she had already felt for her sister grew. Jane was much too pale, the results of her disappointment with Mr. Bingley obvious for the world to see. In Elizabeth’s opinion, Jane had always been a bit too thin, but now she seemed nearly emaciated. Though a polite smile rested on her elder sister’s lips, the sentiment did not reach her eyes.
Poor, poor Jane.
If only Mr. Darcy were here. She suspected he doubted Elizabeth’s description of Jane’s state-of-heart after Mr. Bingley’s rejection, but surely, he would understand fully if he saw her in person.
Oh, she had done it again.
Ever since Mr. Darcy had left Kent, thoughts of him crept up on her when she least expected it. She had put a great deal of effort into trying to purge him from her mind, but without fail, her reflections turned to him again and again. It was disturbing to her, to say the least. Shocking, really.
She smoothed her skirt as an excuse for making certain his letter was still in the pocket of her gown. Whilst the explanation the missive contained proved she had cruelly misjudged him, it was also true that she still disliked him, was it not? She had refused his proposal of marriage, and for good reason.
So why could she not stop thinking of him?
Perhaps she felt guilty?
Yes, that must be it, for Mr. Darcy’s surprise at her refusal had been obvious. He truly had believed she returned his affections. Somehow, she had unwittingly misled him to think she would welcome his offer of marriage. Her high spirits—perhaps her very character—was at fault. She would have to alter her manner of behaviour from this point forward.
The sigh that escaped her this time was born of frustration.
Jane met her gaze, her brow furrowed.
Had her exhalation been loud enough that Jane heard it from across the room?
Elizabeth smiled at her sister and glanced at the ceiling, in an attempt to indicate they would speak later, when they could find a bit of privacy. Jane’s troubled expression smoothed.
The question of how much she should disclose to Jane recurred to her. On the journey here, Elizabeth had decided not to tell her sister of how Mr. Darcy’s meddling had led to Mr. Bingley’s departure from Hertfordshire. Part of her knew that, if she left out this news, she was not telling Jane the full truth, but she did not wish to bring more pain to her sister.
The most important question was: should she tell Jane about Mr. Darcy’s offer of marriage?
Naturally, reflecting upon the subject of his proposal would lead to thoughts of his explanatory letter, presented to her the day after her refusal. Mr. Darcy had warned Elizabeth about Mr. Wickham, who could present a danger to their youngest sisters, since both Kitty and Lydia had been paying him a great deal of attention.
Elizabeth felt her face warm as she thought about the partiality that she, too, had shewn for the lieutenant. Her preference must have been obvious, for everyone in her family had teased her about it, and even Charlotte had commented upon it. In fact, Mr. Darcy had noticed, too. Why else would he have taken the time to write several pages-worth of warnings about the man, even though he had not seen them together but for a moment.
How had she been deceived by Mr. Wickham so easily? And why had she been so obvious about her preference for him?
She tried to puzzle it out for a moment, but then decided not to dwell on it now.
Once she told Jane most of what Mr. Darcy had confided in her, her elder sister would assist her in keeping Mr. Wickham away from their family. She knew for certain Jane would never betray Miss Darcy’s secret.
Elizabeth was ready to burst at keeping Mr. Darcy’s proposal to herself. She had to tell someone at least part of what he had said. Besides, she could never keep such monumental news as this from her dearest sister, Jane.
Furthermore, if she did not admit to his offer, what other excuse could she give for having a letter from Mr. Darcy in her possession? After all, it was the source of her knowledge of Mr. Wickham’s misconduct.
Jane cleared her throat, making Elizabeth look up from the carpet.
Had she been staring off into nothingness as she ruminated?
Once more, concern was plainly visible upon Jane’s features.
Elizabeth bit her lip and again looked at the ceiling.
Jane’s eyebrows rose, an expression she understood all too well; she was asking whether that much happened on her visit with Charlotte.
Elizabeth nodded and wiggled her eyebrows.
When there was a pause in Maria’s speech, Aunt Madeline spoke up, “After all the excitement you have experienced during your stay in Kent, and then your journey here today, I hope you are not too fatigued, for we have a guest coming this evening. You both should have time to rest before his coming, but if you are not feeling up to company, your uncle will send a note and reschedule.”
Could it be Mr. Bingley?
She looked to Jane, who seemed miserable.
Not Mr. Bingley, then.
Jane paled further. She must have news to share, as well.
Jane widened her eyes slightly and glanced at their aunt, redirecting Elizabeth’s attention, and making her aware she had not yet answered the question posed to her.
“I am quite willing to welcome your guest, Aunt,” Elizabeth said. “Maria, are you too tired after our journey?”
Already smiling, Maria shook her head. “I will be fine after a bit of rest. Please do not reschedule on my account.”
Elizabeth met her aunt’s gaze and raised an eyebrow. “Who shall we expect to meet?”
Her uncle answered, “Mr. Evan Curtis, the fifth son of the Earl of Millsend. His father has been my best customer since he inherited his title along with quite a few properties. After spending the past year or so helping his father refurnish and update most of his newly acquired houses, Curtis is now contemplating whether to invest in the expansion of my business.” His eyes shined with eagerness.
“Expand? In what way?” Elizabeth asked.
“Mr. Curtis is thinking of providing the funding so I may purchase a ship strictly for my use.”
“Oh, that is a considerable opportunity,” Elizabeth said with excitement. Uncle Edward was good at persuading ship owners to allow space for his goods on vessels heading to England, but this sounded so much better. Perhaps he could charge others for space, as well, helping to fund the voyages. “I hope he decides in your favour.”
Elizabeth looked at her aunt, who caught her eye and discreetly, though meaningfully, glanced at Jane.
Ah, so Mr. Curtis was vying for Jane’s attention, was he? She was so beautiful and sweet in temperament; his interest did not surprise her.
It suddenly occurred to her that if Aunt had written to their parents of Mr. Curtis’s attentions, their mother would be ecstatic that the son of an earl was attracted to her daughter, even if he were fifth in line to inherit the title.
As if reading her thoughts, Aunt Madeline said, “Lizzy, I have heard from your mother. Instead of your father sending his coach for you in three days, we have agreed Jane and you should remain with us for a few additional weeks. She sent a list of items she needs from London retailers and asks we do the shopping for her.”
A glance at Jane proved her sister was not at all pleased with the prospect.
After noticing Maria’s disappointed expression, Aunt Madeline added, “Miss Lucas, your father will come to Town on Monday to escort you home.”
Maria’s face lit up. At least one young lady in this room would be getting exactly what she wanted.
Aunt Madeline turned to Jane. “Will you bring the children up and show Miss Lucas her room, dear? I would like to discuss with Lizzy the list of shopping from your mother.”
“Yes, Aunt,” Jane answered, obediently.
Before long, her uncle excused himself and the room emptied, leaving Elizabeth alone with Aunt Madeline. Her aunt crossed to a writing desk, pulled out a letter, and handed it to her.
Elizabeth recognized her mother’s handwriting, but she could pay it no mind. Instead, she expressed her fears. “Jane is not well, Aunt.”
“She is not, and my efforts to divert her have not succeeded, I’m afraid.” Aunt Madeline shook her head. “Mr. Curtis had first come to see your uncle two weeks ago. Since your uncle was not here, I invited him for tea with your sister and me. He seemed entranced by Jane, and though I knew Jane would not be so fickle, I hoped having an admirer hanging about might be a distraction from her disappointment, at least. Also, I have never known Mr. Curtis to be serious about any woman and did not think he would be harmed by the endeavour. But his attentions have made things worse for Jane and cause her a great deal of worry. She has shown him absolutely no encouragement, of course, but still, he calls nearly every day.”
“It is early yet in the Season,” Elizabeth offered. “Perhaps his friends have not yet come to Town, and he is wearied by being unoccupied. His visits here might be his only source of entertainment.” She hesitated, wishing to cover more ground on Jane’s situation before she had to go above stairs. “Jane wrote to me saying Miss Bingley called?”
Aunt Madeline nodded. “Three weeks ago. My astonishment at Miss Bingley’s behaviour towards your sister is still fresh; it is as if it happened only yesterday. To think that Jane considered the woman a friend and had long anticipated her call, refusing to leave the house in case Miss Bingley would come. Meanwhile, Miss Bingley acted as if Jane were an acquaintance of the worst sort, and she never once allowed her scowl to wane. I tell you, Lizzy, it was the longest fifteen minutes of my life, for she could not be induced into conversation in any way. Poor Jane has not been the same since that horrid experience. She is the last person in the world to deserve such treatment.”
Elizabeth pressed her lips together. “I appreciate the warning, Aunt. It will be most helpful to know what I am up against. I will do my best to divert her attention.” She looked over the list her mother had sent since it was the excuse her aunt had used to keep her downstairs. “Almost all these items come from different shops.”
Aunt Madeline smiled. “Your mother was creative in her request, was she not? It would take quite a while to complete all this shopping.”
Elizabeth ran a finger down the page. “I can tell you my father would be terribly angry if Jane and I actually came home with all of this.” She would have to write to Papa and ask him about setting a limit on what they could spend.
“I believe your mother’s object was not truly to have you girls purchase it all—though I am certain she would not be upset if you did—but to have you remain in London longer.”
Elizabeth responded quickly, “Yes; I have already anticipated her motive was to give Mr. Curtis the chance to fall in love with Jane and make a proposal of marriage.” She paused. As Elizabeth had discussed with Colonel Fitzwilliam at Rosings Park just the other day, the younger son of an earl has a need to marry a lady with a fortune, for they are used to living in the grand elegance of the peerage but would not have the income to support such a lifestyle. Since the Misses Bennet had a dowry of only one thousand pounds each, Mr. Curtis could not be seriously considering Jane. Elizabeth hoped the situation would not cause yet another disappointment for her sister. Elizabeth continued, “Nothing can come of it.”
“No, you and I live in the real world, Elizabeth; it cannot end the way your mother wishes. Even if circumstances were different, while Jane has never spoken to me specifically of Mr. Bingley, it is obvious she thinks of him quite often. Sometimes, she becomes so lost in thought that she pays us no mind at all. I do not believe Mr. Curtis would have any chance with her, especially not so soon.”
“My mind is made up. Though I am not half as beautiful as Jane, if you agree Mr. Curtis is only seeking entertainment, perhaps my conversation can amuse him, at least. That way, we may satisfy my mother by remaining longer, I will have time to visit with you all, and Jane will be relieved of the duty of occupying the attention of Mr. Curtis.”
“I knew you would see it as I do.” Aunt Madeline’s relief smoothed her features. “Now, perhaps you should go up and rest for a while.”
Elizabeth hugged her aunt and headed up the stairs to the room she always shared with Jane whenever they came to visit.
Later that evening, Elizabeth observed Mr. Curtis was a handsome gentleman of perhaps seven- or eight-and-twenty. He was a bit shorter than Mr. Darcy, owned a mop of straight blond hair a shade darker than Jane’s, and blue eyes, eerily similar in colour to Mr. Bingley’s, which, Elizabeth assumed, caused interaction with him to be more difficult for Jane. After meeting Colonel Fitzwilliam so recently, Mr. Curtis reminded her of him in a way, for she could see the influence of being a younger son of an earl upon him. His speech was refined, and his clothing was of the best quality, as if his tastes were of a man of a much higher income than he probably had himself.
The good news was he did not look upon Jane with any particular feeling other than an appreciation for her beauty, and his attention was easily distracted away from her—unlike the way Mr. Bingley’s gaze had always returned to her sister, even when he was deep in conversation with someone else. Therefore, Elizabeth determined Mr. Curtis truly had no serious designs upon Jane.
Mr. Curtis was seated as her own dinner partner, and it worked out wonderfully. Now that she better understood the nuances of the situation to which her aunt had been referring, Elizabeth kept the gentleman occupied with conversation for a good portion of his visit. When her uncle held his attention for a while, Jane directed a look of thanks her way.
Excellent! Earlier, when Elizabeth had gone above stairs, Jane had been with their cousins, and the sisters had not had a chance to speak in private, so she was not certain whether Jane would be disturbed by her behaviour.
She hoped they would find time to have a discussion later this evening.
“Miss Elizabeth,” said Mr. Curtis, distracting her from her ponderings. “I have been attempting to entice your sister to take a ride in my new gig, but she has not been available to do so. Perhaps, you would enjoy an excursion to the park one morning next week?”
Morning? Did not London gentlemen usually take ladies for rides in the afternoon?
Mayhap that was the point of going earlier than the fashionable hours, which was after four o’clock, when everyone who was anyone would also be riding or walking in the park. He wanted to be occupied but did not wish for society to get the wrong idea when they were seen together.
She glanced at her uncle, who nodded his permission.
An outing to the park was certainly welcome. If Mr. Curtis did not have serious intentions towards Jane, surely, he would not have any towards herself. Additionally, the only problem Elizabeth had with London was that, after being brought up in the country, she was used to being outdoors for a good portion of the day: her daily morning ramble, strolls with her family to make visits, and ambles to the shops in the village. Whilst staying in London, other than taking her young cousins to the tiny park in the churchyard further down Gracechurch Street to feed the birds, she did not go out except to tag along with her aunt for visits and shopping, which were all indoors. She was always becoming restless whilst in Town.
“Yes, I would be happy to go. Which Park shall we visit?”
His eyes widened with shock, and he raised his chin. “Hyde Park, of course.”
Whilst she was sure Hyde Park was close to Mr. Curtis’s home in Mayfair, it was quite a distance from Gracechurch Street, so she had assumed they would go elsewhere. She had only visited Hyde Park twice in all the years she had been coming to London. However, his tone communicated quite clearly that, as the son of an earl, it would be scandalous to ride through a different park, even if it was at an unpopular hour.
She nodded and smiled.
If they were going across town to Hyde Park, they would be out together for several hours, which made her nervous. After all, she had only just met the gentleman. Although it had been a bit warmer than usual this spring, she wondered if it would be too cold for such a long outing.
Elizabeth again looked at her uncle. He smiled encouragingly, as did her aunt.
Well, if they approved the man well enough to have him over to the house, and her uncle was discussing a business partnership with the gentleman, she would fret no longer. Her aunt and uncle would never allow her to go with him if they thought it inappropriate.
Therefore, it was arranged. Mr. Curtis would come for her on Monday morning, if the weather cooperated. They would stop for tea before returning to the Gardiners’ house. Privately, she noted that at least if she were cold, that would give her an opportunity to warm herself.
Mr. Curtis was pleased with the prospect, and as he was leaving, he indicated he would see them for a visit on the morrow.
After the door closed behind him, Aunt Madeline reminded the ladies that Mr. Curtis had been coming almost every day. Looking between her nieces and then Maria, she said, “And now he has three times the incentive.”
Once the sisters were dressed for bed, Jane was going through the well-practiced motions of braiding Elizabeth’s hair, though, quite out of character for Jane, her expression was completely blank.
Was this what Aunt Madeline referred to as Jane becoming lost in her own thoughts?
They switched places, and Elizabeth began working on Jane’s plait.
When she was half-way through, Elizabeth could stand the silence no longer. She cleared her throat. “I must speak to you, Jane.”
Jane blinked hard, then met Elizabeth’s gaze in the mirror on the table before her. “What is it, Lizzy?”
Elizabeth took a deep breath. “From my letters, you must know Mr. Darcy was visiting at Rosings Park whilst I was at Hunsford, but there is more to it than that. My manners towards him must have been faulty, for he… well, he proposed.”
“Mr. Darcy made a proposal of marriage? To you?” Jane was as confused as Elizabeth had felt when he first made his offer.
Elizabeth nodded. “He began in a romantic manner, by telling me he loved me, which, as you can imagine, left me in a state of complete astonishment. As he continued, he became more himself, making some points that were rather insulting. I tried to be as succinct as possible while rejecting his suit. For a moment, he looked at me as if I should be committed to Bedlam. In fact, his jaw actually dropped open, and he gaped at me like a fish out of water. It was the most extraordinary sight to see.” She chuckled. “But then… well, once he recovered his senses, he pressed me for an explanation for my refusal, in such a way that caused me to forget myself.” Feeling her skin heat, she placed a hand on her cheek. “Jane, I said some things I now regret, but his response—oh, how I wish I had never heard his response, since holding my tongue after hearing what he had to say became impossible. But now… now, I am ashamed of myself.”
“Poor Mr. Darcy.”
Jane was so good! It was exactly like her to feel sympathy for Mr. Darcy after Elizabeth had refused him. Perhaps if she knew what part he played in convincing Mr. Bingley to stay away from Netherfield, she would feel differently, but telling Jane about that portion of their argument would only cause her pain.
“The next morning, while I was out walking the estate, he came upon me and handed me a letter which explained away some of the allegations I had made against him the previous evening.” Elizabeth took it out of her pocket and held it up. “It is exceptionally long; he must have been writing all night. I have read through it several times, and I must say, while there are some points that still irk me, I was wrong about many aspects of his disposition. I wish I had been given an opportunity to ask his forgiveness for attacking his character so emphatically. At one point, I insisted he was not truly a gentleman.”
Jane gasped and turned in her chair to face Elizabeth, the braid fell to her back, abandoned. Jane sat, all attention, waiting for more.
Elizabeth took half a step backwards and sat on the bed, satisfying her sister’s wish with, “There is one fact in his letter about which I should like your advice. It concerns Mr. Wickham. You know the story that man himself told us… of how Mr. Darcy mistreated him and ignored his father’s last wishes to bequeath Mr. Wickham a living?”
Jane nodded. “I always thought there must have been some sort of misunderstanding, for I am certain a man who would deliberately act in such a spiteful manner would never be acknowledged as a particular friend by Mr. Bingley.”
A twinge of pain crossed Jane’s features after she mentioned that gentleman’s name.
So much heartache.
Yes, Elizabeth had been right to keep the other information she had learned to herself… that Mr. Darcy had helped Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst convince their brother to abandon Netherfield Park.
Elizabeth forced her attention back to the subject of Mr. Wickham.
“You were correct about that situation, at least. It turns out, upon the elder Mr. Darcy’s death, his son did offer the living to Mr. Wickham, but Mr. Wickham informed him he had no intention of becoming a clergyman and asked to be paid off instead. Where he had originally been bequeathed one thousand pounds along with the living should he take orders, Mr. Darcy provided him with a generous additional compensation of three thousand pounds in place of the living. Mr. Darcy also informed me that he was relieved because, after growing up with Mr. Wickham and attending university with him, he knew firsthand Mr. Wickham’s temperament was not appropriate for the occupation of a cleric.
“But then—and I warn you, this is where the story becomes appalling—when the living did become available three years later, Mr. Wickham presented himself again to Mr. Darcy. He had gone through all the money he had been given and demanded to claim the living, after all.
“He went through four thousand pounds in three years?” Jane exclaimed, grasping the back of the chair she was sitting upon. “How is that possible?”
Elizabeth nodded and shrugged. “Of course, Mr. Darcy turned him down. Then—Oh, Jane! Now you must truly brace yourself. You are going to be terribly upset by what Mr. Wickham did next.”
Elizabeth hesitated a moment as Jane swallowed hard, then nodded.
“To avenge himself upon Mr. Darcy for refusing him the living, which for some reason Mr. Wickham still felt he was owed, last summer, Mr. Wickham preyed upon Miss Darcy’s fortune of thirty thousand pounds, convinced her he was in love with her, and pressed her into an elopement to Gretna Green. She was only fifteen, Jane.”
Jane was suitably horrified.
“I cannot doubt this story,” Elizabeth continued, “for we know firsthand how charming and convincing Mr. Wickham can be, and Mr. Darcy would not have invented a tale as bad as this involving his own sister. It must be true. He also suggested I speak to Colonel Fitzwilliam if I did not believe him, for his cousin was aware of all the details. I can only thank the good Lord that Mr. Darcy found out about Mr. Wickham’s plans in time and stopped his sister from leaving Ramsgate. If Mr. Darcy had been delayed, even by a few hours, Miss Darcy would have been ruined. Unfortunately, as a result of learning Mr. Wickham’s true motives, Miss Darcy was truly heartbroken.”
“Poor Miss Darcy!” Jane hesitated. Covering her mouth with one hand, she whispered, “And poor Mr. Wickham.”
Elizabeth gasped. “Jane, how can you feel sympathy for Mr. Wickham after hearing this tale?”
“Well, think of it, Lizzy. He has since joined the militia, and whilst in company with us, he always seemed like such a kind-hearted man. Perhaps he is trying to mend his ways?”
Elizabeth frowned at her sister. “You are too good, Jane. You wish to explain away everyone’s intentions as if they would be as virtuous as your own, but I fear this is not the case with Mr. Wickham. I cannot believe it of him. Why else would he slander Mr. Darcy to the entire neighbourhood, but only after Mr. Darcy had returned to London and was unable to defend himself? Remember, he had only spoken of it to me before that time.”
Jane’s eyes widened. She nodded. “Yes! I had not recalled, but you are correct.”
“I must say, there certainly must have been some great mismanagement in the education of those two young men. One has got all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it.”
“I never thought Mr. Darcy was lacking in the appearance of goodness, as you used to do,” Jane said softly then tilted her head. “But I suspect that opinion has now changed.”
Elizabeth nodded. “Learning all this has made me extremely uncomfortable and unsure of my own judgement. I have been so prejudiced towards Mr. Darcy that I am not certain of any of my suppositions. You know, perhaps better than I, that I have always prided myself on the accuracy of my first impressions and considered the talent my greatest asset. If I could be so wrong about these two men, I must question whether I could have been right in any of my other appraisals.”
“Oh, no, Lizzy!” Jane reached out and took Elizabeth’s hand. “You have been correct many times in the past.”
“But… was it simply chance my assessments were close to reality, causing me to become arrogant? I believed I had a knack for observing the truth of other people’s characters immediately upon meeting them.” Elizabeth shook her head. “I find I am now doubting everything about myself, of which I was formerly so certain.” Elizabeth squeezed her sister’s hand. “Oh, how I have missed you these past weeks. Of all this, I could speak to no one before now.”
Jane rose from her chair and embraced her. “I have missed you, as well.”
Elizabeth pulled away. “We need to discuss whether we should share what we know of Mr. Wickham’s character with our father, or perhaps with our general acquaintance?”
“I do not think we should. What if he is trying to better himself? Exposing his past mistakes may have unforeseen consequences.”
“I agree, but not for the same reasons, for after all the things Mr. Wickham said to me, I have no hope that he wishes to redeem himself. It is just… I am not authorized to share publicly anything concerning Miss Darcy’s ordeal. Even if I were, I would not feel comfortable disclosing this information to anyone except you, and perhaps Papa. Without that, I do not think anyone would believe Mr. Wickham’s character is as bad as it has proven to be.” She huffed out a deep breath. “No, the regiment will soon move to Brighton, and Wickham will go with it. We will not have to worry about him for much longer.”
Jane nodded and sat upon the bed next to Elizabeth.
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. “Now, Jane. Please tell me… how are you?”
Jane tried to smile. “I am well, Lizzy.”
Elizabeth pressed her lips together and lowered her chin, expressing her doubts.
Jane sighed. “Perhaps I am not as well as I could be, but I am improving. Do not worry over me. It will take a little time. I will be well again.”
Elizabeth could not do more than hope Jane was correct in her assertion. “When you are ready to speak more of it, you have a willing audience right here, in me.” She hesitated to ask the next question, though she thought she already knew the answer. “Has Mr. Curtis’s interest diverted you at all?”
“Only to make me embarrassed. I – I am not in the right mindset to receive any special attentions, Lizzy. I appreciated your distracting him tonight. Even listening carefully to his conversation is exhausting right now.”
“Then I will continue doing so. Anything to make you more comfortable, dearest.”
Elizabeth moved around to Jane’s back and finished plaiting her hair, then they settled into bed. It was nice having Jane next to her again. Before long, she could tell by the pattern of Jane’s breathing that she had fallen asleep, but Elizabeth’s mind would not allow her to rest.
There was something about Mr. Curtis she did not like, but what if her appraisal of this situation was wrong, too?
Her behaviour towards Mr. Darcy must have been faulty if he had been so shocked at her refusal of his proposal. She certainly did not need to lead yet another gentleman to misunderstand her conversation or actions.
It would be a terrible disappointment for her uncle if she offended this man without realizing it. What if he lost interest in becoming involved with her uncle’s business as a result?
Jane would never do such a thing as mislead a gentleman, intentionally or not.
Mayhap it would be best if she did not behave like Elizabeth Bennet, at all. No! At every juncture, she would have to think of what Jane Bennet would do, and then she would follow that path.
With such a remedy at hand, Elizabeth finally slipped into a restless sleep.
~Monday, 27 April 1812
Monday dawned. Before rising, Elizabeth listened closely to the sounds that reached her from outdoors. Usually, she would be disappointed if she heard rain, but today, a torrential downpour was what she longed for most. However, she heard nothing but birdsong and carriage wheels clacking in the street.
Sally, her aunt’s maid, entered the room. With a sense of foreboding, Elizabeth waited for her to pull aside the drapes and fasten the sash. Elizabeth blinked at the bright sunlight and clear, blue sky that greeted her through the window.
Oh, well. She might as well get this excursion over with.
Sally turned towards the bed. “Mornin’ miss. Mrs. Gardiner sent me to ’elp you dress since you’re havin’ an outing today.” She smiled. “It’s a lovely day. ’Tisn’t normal to be this warm this time ’o year.”
Sally pulled up the window a few inches and a breeze blew across Elizabeth’s face. It certainly was warmer than usual. Though she dreaded going on such a long ride with Mr. Curtis, she would be happy to give up her pelisse for a spencer.
She sighed and got out of bed, noticing it was now empty. Elizabeth had always been the earlier riser or the two sisters, so this caused her unease to rise another notch. Was her elder sister not sleeping well?
Bless her, Sally had brought a tray with her so she could eat as the maid helped her prepare.
At the arranged time, soon after Elizabeth was ready, Mr. Curtis came to call, his smiles just a little bit too wide for her comfort.
She would make the best of it. Without any pomp and circumstance, he eagerly hurried her out the door.
Mr. Curtis’s gig looked brand new, with a black leather high-backed bench and gleaming lacquered wood, pulled by a beautiful mahogany-coloured horse. The top was folded into the back of the seat, which was fine with her, though most ladies would probably balk at being left to sit in the sun for such a long ride. There was no small platform on the back of it, which was odd since it was her understanding that usually a groom would accompany the driver and passenger.
She looked back at the house and spied Aunt Gardiner at a window, waving farewell.
Stifling a sigh, she guessed her aunt still approved the situation. There was no turning back now.
Mr. Curtis carefully steered his horse into traffic. It was slow going at first as the streets in this part of Town were so crowded at this time of morning. Once they cleared the business section, the traffic emptied out. Elizabeth smiled to herself; most of the upper classes were still abed.
Obviously, Mr. Curtis took the empty streets as his cue to quicken his pace, too fast for conversation, or any other type of enjoyment for that matter. Elizabeth held her bonnet with one hand and kept a firm grip on the rail next to her with the other. She imagined her younger sister Lydia would giggle and hoot at the reckless pace Mr. Curtis had set, but to Elizabeth, the speed was terrifying. Other drivers yelled and shook their fists at Mr. Curtis as they passed, as did a few pedestrians who he almost ran down when they dared to try to cross the street.
Meanwhile, Mr. Curtis laughed loudly.
Elizabeth liked him even less than before.
A while later, they turned into Brook Street, and he shouted that he would show her his family’s home in Grosvenor Square.
This being Mayfair, there were many tastefully ornamented houses along the way, and she hoped his home was one of them. Alas, he pointed his whip at the largest, most elaborate townhouse she had ever seen. The building had many gargoyles resting on the gables, numerous enough to decorate an entire, sprawling country estate mansion, but they looked ridiculous crammed in the eves of a townhouse in London, even though it was sizeable. Upon the small swath of lawn before the building sat an enormous fountain, which certainly would block the view from the large, ground floor windows on the left side of the house. Something about the style reminded her of Rosings Park—Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s estate, the aunt of Mr. Darcy.
While she had anticipated Mr. Curtis would reduce his speed in order to show off his home more thoroughly, he did not.
This gentleman made absolutely no sense at all.
After passing the house, he whipped his horse to gain additional speed and laughed manically as he directed it to make the turn around the square.
Elizabeth shrieked as the gig took the turn on only one wheel. Thank heavens it righted itself.
She was beginning to suspect Mr. Curtis was a madman. Oh, why had she not made some excuse to remain at home today?
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