Part 4: Animals, Wild and Domestic
The next day was Sunday and no contact was made between the two parties. All the young people felt it acutely. On Monday, Darcy and Bingley went to finalize the paperwork on the house Bingley intended to let for the summer. Bingley’s discreet inquiries had elicited the information that Mr. Gardiner himself would need to return to London and his business in another week, but his wife and children intended to remain for as much as a full month, depending on how quickly Edward regained strength. His two nieces had the option of returning with their uncle, or waiting with the others.
“I must write Caroline to speed up her plans,” Bingley was saying as they rode home. “The Season isn't over yet, but if Morecastle really is to become the new fashionable bathing place she says it is, she can have no objection. If Louisa and Hurst come with her, it would be perfectly proper for them to ask Ja—Miss Bennet to remain as well, as our guest, for the rest of the summer—or until we have to go to Pemberley. They’ll be delighted to have her company, I know; she was the only one they regretted not seeing any more when we left Hertfordshire, although of course they didn’t feel that they could say that. But Caroline will understand when I explain that—”
“Yes, what is it, Darcy?”
“Ah… your, ah... I fear you are being overly optimistic.”
“Why, what do you mean?”
Darcy sighed. “There’s something I feel I ought to tell you. Miss Bennet was in town over the winter.”
“Yes, I knew that.” Now Bingley just looked puzzled. “She told me. I asked her why she never wrote my sisters of it, and she said that she did write, but the letters must have gotten lost in the mail.”
Darcy sighed again. It appeared that Bingley and Miss Bennet both were so innocently trusting it was absurd, but it was not for him to expose Bingley’s sisters. Instead he said, “I knew of it.”
“What, you mean over the winter you knew?”
“I heard of it.” That was as close as would come to explaining his source of information—Bingley would have to make the inevitable deductions himself. “I chose not to tell you because I feared the information might bring you pain, or else you might decide you had to see her and… and that, too, could have caused you pain. I believed I was acting in your best interest at the time, but in light of recent events it appears singularly officious and not particularly wise.”
Bingley’s blue eyes were clouded over now, and his brows drawn low with confusion. “You… concealed something you knew I would wish to know.”
“You... disguised it?”
“You hate disguise.”
“I do, but in this case I condescended to adopt at least some slight measure of it.”
They rode on quietly. “I would never have thought it of you, Darcy.”
Darcy winced but didn’t say anything.
“You know…” Bingley was speaking softly, “You know that if I had met Miss Bennet in London a few months ago and she had appeared as glad to see me as she did here, I must have tried again. We could have been married by now—that is, presuming she would have had me.”
“I’m sorry, Bingley.”
He went on after another moment. “If I had stayed in Netherfield in the first place we could have been married even longer.”
“I’m sorry,” said Darcy again.
But Bingley shook his head. “That I cannot blame you for. I am the one who left.”
“I advised you badly.”
“Yes, but… I’m the one who left.” He felt silent again. “Really… it’s astonishing she should even speak to me. I paid her marked attentions, went off promising to return in a few days, and then never did. I treated her infamously, and that’s the truth.”
“You would have returned if it had not been for me.”
Bingley paused for a long moment. “You have always told me that I let myself be too easily persuaded by others, although I don’t suppose you meant yourself.”
“I meant persuaded without reason, while I hope I have always used reason—but in this case, my reasoning was faulty. I was wrong to claim Miss Bennet was indifferent to you on so little acquaintance.”
“And I was wrong to accept your judgment over my own, when I knew her better.”
The friends smiled ruefully at each other. “Can you forgive me?”
“Since you have been so kind as to assist me this time around, I suppose I must.”
“I may have some need of your assistance, too.”
“Why, what do you mean?” But before Darcy could explain, they arrived at the Black Horse Inn. Just at that moment, a rather large and opulent coach swept past them into the yard. “Hallo,” said Bingley. “That looks like my coach. And that for sure looks like my coachman.”
Their suspicions were confirmed a minute later when the steps were let down and Miss Caroline Bingley descended. “Charles!” she exclaimed upon seeing them. “And my dear Mr. Darcy!”
“What are you doing here, Caroline?”
“Why, I came because of your letter, of course.”
“Yes, you said you found a house.”
“We did find a house, but we can’t move into it yet. I just signed the final papers today, and it won’t be ready for two weeks at the earliest. I thought I told you that in my letter!”
“Oh.” She shrugged carelessly. “You know I can never make out half your words through all those blots. You should get Mr. Darcy to give you lessons in how he makes his pens, as I am sure yours are never trimmed properly. Either that, or it is how you hold it. Do you suppose you could teach my poor, sad brother how to hold a pen properly, Mr. Darcy?” She smiled flirtatiously at him.
“Your brother does not lack technique but patience, Miss Bingley.”
“I hope you don’t think we share that quality. I have infinite patience.”
“I have no doubt,” he muttered.
“You’ve always said that you hate staying at inns, Caroline, but you’ll have no choice now.”
“Then I shall just have to endure until the house is ready.”
“What happened to staying in London until the end of the Season?”
“Oh, London. I’m so terribly bored with it.”
“Well what about Louisa and Hurst? Are they coming too?”
“Presently, my dear Charles. Presently.” She slipped one hand in her brother’s arm and the other in Mr. Darcy’s and led them expertly on.
Approximately half an hour later, Darcy was reading in their private parlor when Miss Bingley entered. Immediately she shut the door and came close. “My dear Mr. Darcy, what an unpleasant shock! I came as soon as I heard, to assist you in any way that I can.”
He raised his brows. “Assist me? I’m afraid I do not understand.”
“Those dreadful Bennet girls! You must have been so vexed to have come across them, and at the most unlikely of times! Whatever are they doing in Morecastle, of all places? And what did they mean by imposing themselves on your notice like that? If it were possible I would suspect Jane Bennet—or perhaps Eliza, she’s the more conniving of the two—of having discovered you were to come here, and bringing her family expressly to meet with Charles again.”
“Considering that they arrived before we did, it would appear more likely that we followed them.”
She laughed a tinkling little laugh. “I did not say I actually thought it possible! No, it is only the most ill luck imaginable. You must be displeased with me for suggesting Morecastle in the first place, but truly I had no idea that one could encounter such plebian company here!”
“Miss Bingley,” said Darcy, rubbing the bridge of his nose, “I must tell you that I have decided to support your brother in his renewed pursuit of the eldest Miss Bennet.”
“But—but—” she gaped at him. “I don’t understand.”
“We were mistaken in our belief that she did not favor him. If you had seen her when we first encountered them, or in the time since, you would realize as I have that she is, in fact, most sincerely attached to him.”
“But her family! Her connections and fortune!”
“Are not ideal, I will grant you. However…” he paused. “However, there are other considerations which any man of sense must place above mere station. If your brother sincerely believes that Miss Bennet is the only woman capable of making him happy, then there is nothing for us to do but wish him success.”
Miss Bingley was trying desperately to regain her equilibrium. “You’ve always been such a loyal friend, of course. Did you… um, do you know if dear Jane has happened to mention our meeting in London to him?”
“She has not. I think her delicacy prevents her from relating events which would inevitably appear unflattering to his sisters.”
“Neither have I said anything to him about it, but I did feel obliged to relate my own knowledge of her presence in town, and it is likely that he will realize my information must have come from you. I am sorry if it causes trouble between you, but my conscience could allow me to be silent no longer. It was beneath me to conceal it in the first place.”
“Well of course it was beneath me too! Why, I would not snub or mislead a friend for the world—except out of dire necessity. My brothers’ happiness appeared to be at stake, after all. My dear Mr. Darcy, you must have endured so much over these last few days; not only Miss Jane Bennet but that impertinent shrew of a sister, and their lowly Cheapside relations!”
“Actually, I have found the Gardiners to be intelligent, well-informed and amiable. I have enjoyed their company very much. And,” he added, “the company of their delightful children.”
The lady seemed to be having some difficulty speaking. “Miss Eliza’s manners must surely have offended your fastidious taste! A more forward, unlikeable girl I have yet to meet!”
Darcy stood up abruptly. “Miss Bingley, if I offered you any encouragement to break off your acquaintance with Miss Bennet, then I am truly sorry. However, the Bennets—and their relations—appear likely to become your relations soon, so I would advise you to treat them with civility. Good morning.” He walked out of the room before he said something that he regretted.
Miss Bingley’s coming threw the gentlemen’s schemes into decided disorder. Both open and covert wooing could benefit very little from the addition of a fifth to the party. Darcy had the uneasy feeling that, once convinced she could do nothing to prevent her brother’s match with Miss Jane Bennet, Miss Bingley would expend the majority of her energies on him. His opportunities to have private conversation with Elizabeth had all but disappeared entirely.
Feeling slightly guilty, he did manage to persuade Bingley that it was his duty to take his sister to tour the new house immediately. As soon as they left, he got on his horse and made his way over to the Gardiners’ current residence. There, he found everyone except Mrs. Gardiner preparing to visit the menagerie, which reputedly housed an astounding array of exotic beasts which the children were wild to see. This expedition he joined cheerfully, no longer even amazed at his broad-mindedness. The smile Elizabeth gave him as he handed her and two of the children into his carriage sent him to quite absurd heights, and the more she blushed at his smiles, the more he found himself smiling at her, not broadly, like a fool, but in a quiet, deliberate fashion. The two children chattered on around them, listing the animals they hoped to see, but the two adults said little. Elizabeth kept her eyes mostly fixed on her cousins, with the occasional furtive glance to confirm that, yes, he was still watching her with warm, purposeful eyes, and that knowing smile.
The menagerie, it turned out, was not all that reputation claimed, and would hardly have impressed anyone who had enjoyed a trip to a proper zoological garden, such as they had in Europe. Even the children were unimpressed by the worn out lion and mangy camel, having seen better specimens of both at the Tower of London. In addition, there were several colorful birds missing some of their plumage, snakes, log-like crocodiles in fetid water, and a variety of antelope and mountain goats, all kept in close pens. The star of the show was a single aging elephant, who seemed to lack the spirit to do more than occasionally raise its trunk enough to consume a little hay.
Darcy watched Elizabeth’s face as she inspected the curious creatures. “Have you ever seen a lion before?”
“Only in pictures.” She smiled slightly. “Even my cousins have broader experience than I.”
“It’s not a very impressive lion.”
“So I gather from Maggie’s and Andrew’s rather disparaging comments. He is not, to be sure, so fearsome looking as the illustrations I have seen. Neither is the elephant.”
“I suspect, however, that you would rather see a live elephant that is like this one, boring though he may be, than one charging in full battle rage.”
She laughed. “True. Although… although I do think it would be a magnificent sight.”
Darcy longed to tell her that he would take her anywhere in world, to see anything, but it was too soon, of course. The proposal he had never yet made ached within him, but the memory of Elizabeth’s scathing words in the boat was near too. They had come a long way, he knew, in the days since, further than during their entire previous acquaintance, but she wasn’t ready to receive his addresses just yet. “Should we ever encounter a charging elephant,” he managed to say, “I will be certain to retire and leave you the best view in the house.”
She shook her head. “Mr. Darcy, I begin to suspect you of teasing. It is a skill I had not known you possessed.”
“One, perhaps, I am learning from you.” He met her eyes. “You have taught me many lessons which I am endeavoring to learn.”
At that her eyes grew very wide. He was just casting around in his mind for some further expression of regard which would not be too forward when a voice sounded from across the room. “Yoo-hoo!” Mr. and Miss Bingley had arrived.
“My dear Mr. Darcy!” cried Miss Bingley as she hurried close. “The moment we returned to the hotel and found out you had gone to call at the Gardiners’ we felt we absolutely must do the same, and then when Mrs. Gardiner told us you had all come here, why, of course we followed!” She latched onto his free arm. “What a nasty, smelly place! I can’t think why anyone should ever want to go look at a bunch of wild beasts, but of course it was so good of you to indulge the others.” She gave Elizabeth a condescending glance. “Miss Eliza.”
Elizabeth began to quietly withdraw her hand from Darcy’s arm, but he pressed it against his side with his elbow and gave her a beseeching look. Again she colored faintly, but made no further attempt to leave. “Miss Bingley. How surprised I was to hear from Mr. Darcy that you had arrived, and just this morning, too! Are you not fatigued from your trip?”
“Not at all, I assure you. And you may imagine my surprise when I learned that you and your… er, delightful relatives are staying here in Morecastle, of all places!”
“Indeed. It’s a remarkable coincidence, is it not?”
Darcy rolled his eyes in Bingley’s direction to find him predictably preoccupied with his Miss Bennet. The children were all clustered around their father, pointing at a bedraggled-tailed ostrich, but then Andrew turned and came their way. “Do come look, Mr. Darcy,” he begged. “And you too, Lizzy. It’s the biggest bird I ever saw and they say it lays eggs as big as my head!”
“Well, perhaps not quite that large,” answered Darcy, willingly leading (or in Miss Bingley’s case, nearly dragging) the ladies in that direction. “Ostrich eggs are certainly large though, and very tough. I have some at Pemberley. Perhaps you’ll get a chance to see them some day.” Miss Bingley started quite noticeably at this hint, and Elizabeth almost did the same.
In looking distastefully away from the ungainly bird, Miss Bingley got her first truly good look at Elizabeth’s face. “Why, Miss Elizabeth!” she exclaimed with malicious pleasure. “My dear, what happened to your face? You must be so mortified to appear in public like that!”
“To tell the truth I mostly forget about it. My companions, after all, do not mind, and what does it matter what anyone else thinks?”
Miss Bingley looked honestly shocked at such a view, but Darcy smiled and said, “You told me once, I believe, that your courage rises in the face of threatened intimidation.”
“Indeed it does. My walking in public with bruises on my face is one more proof of my general brazenness, I suppose.”
Miss Bingley opened her mouth to agree as to Miss Elizabeth’s brazenness, but Darcy spoke before her. “Not at all. You are not brazen, but sensible, and lacking in that superficial vanity which so many women allow to control their every action.”
Elizabeth looked at him a moment with a curious little smile around her lips. “Well,” she replied slowly, “I was only tolerable to begin with.”
This time when Mr. Darcy opened his mouth, Miss Bingley cut him off. “I wish you would take me to see the lion, Mr. Darcy! I do adore lions! Such magnificent beasts of prey!”
“You won’t adore this one,” said Darcy.
“Do you find you have a special affinity for beasts of prey, Miss Bingley?” asked Elizabeth.
“Affinity?” repeated that lady, as Darcy strove to hide a smile. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, Eliza.”
“My mistake… Caro.”
At this point Darcy felt it wise to seek conversation with the larger group.
The trip to the menagerie proceeded along rather comical lines for Elizabeth, as she watched Miss Bingley attempt to anticipate Mr. Darcy’s opinion on each of the animals they viewed. The lady could scarcely contain her natural disgust, but would immediately wax eloquent on their beauty or strength or grace if she thought it might earn his agreement. If he went on to disagree with her, she reversed herself without the slightest blush, forgetting her past opinions as effortlessly as she discarded them. As tenaciously as Miss Bingley clung to Darcy’s arm, so he clung to Elizabeth’s. If Bingley’s sister was determined to make her preference known, then so was he.
The afternoon ended with eating ices at a local confectioner’s shop. There, conversation went merrily and Darcy continued to direct his attentions pointedly at Elizabeth. Even Mr. Bingley was beginning to wake up to the nature of his friend’s interest in Miss Bennet’s sister, and Elizabeth found herself blushing rosily at all the knowing and amazed looks directed their way. Yet she began to realize that she was jealous for his attention, and whenever he was drawn into conversation with someone else she had to fight the impulse to interject, just to bring his eyes back on her. How such a complete reversal of sentiment had been effected in such a short time she couldn’t tell, but the more Miss Bingley attempted to dig her polished fingernails into his arm and his heart, the more determined she became to assert her own claims. Miss Bingley, she thought, did not know at all how to do it. She was too obvious and flattering. Mr. Darcy did not like flattery, he liked an honest challenge, a quick wit, an original opinion. He liked to be laughed at—something Miss Bingley seemed to regard as sacrilege—provided it was done cleverly, and did not wish anyone to offer him dishonest praise.
“I wonder you have never sought a seat in Parliament, Mr. Darcy. I would feel so much better about the future of our nation if I knew it was in your hands.”
“I don’t care for speech making, ma'am.”
“I am sure your speeches would be superlatively excellent!”
“Though filled with four-syllable words, if his friend is to be believed. You don’t suppose it would try the intelligence of our MPs to decipher them, do you?”
“Try the intelligence of our MPs indeed, Eliza! Why, the most brilliant minds in the nation are in Parliament. Just because you would struggle to understand Mr. Darcy does not mean that they would.”
“Actually, Miss Bingley,” said Darcy, but looking at Elizabeth, “I think the case is in the reverse—I think Miss Bennet understands me perfectly well. It is I who must struggle to keep up with her.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Perhaps you’re the one who should run for Parliament.”
Miss Bingley turned an unattractive shade of red and gave a slightly hysterical laugh. “Women run for parliament? Mr. Darcy, you’re only funning!”
“I’m sure he is,” agreed Elizabeth, her eyes still locked with his. “Astonishing, isn’t it?”
With such exchanges as these, it’s not surprising that Miss Bingley did not enjoy the stay in the confectionery shop as much as the others. It further infuriated her to see Miss Maggie Gardiner treat Mr. Darcy with such familiarity and occupy his attention for a full five minutes on the subject of which flavor of ice was the best, an exchange which ended in the most ridiculous fashion, with Mr. Darcy ordering a whole round of fresh ices in every flavor so that they could taste them all! Mr. Gardiner shook his head at such extravagance but allowed it, and the whole table participated in the tasting except Miss Bingley; what did she care about ices when Darcy was paying attention to everyone but her?
“Well, Mr. Darcy,” concluded Elizabeth, as she sat back with a sigh, “you are right.”
His brows shot up. “I am?”
She laughed at his surprised tone. “Yes. Strawberry is definitely the best.”
“Ah. Well, it is a comfort to be right in something, I suppose.”
“Mr. Darcy is always right! How can you insinuate that he is not always right, Eliza?”
“I insinuated nothing.”
“No man may be always right, Miss Bingley.”
“Well, you are right as often as it is possible for any man to be!” she declared. “Any time you are wrong, it is not your fault at all, I am sure.”
“I need not ask you if you agree with Miss Bingley’s assessment of my rightness,” he said, addressing Elizabeth.
She blushed a little. “I do not believe my opinion on that subject is worth seeking.”
“Because it is constantly changing. Indeed,” she almost whispered, looking into his eyes, “I know not what to think from one moment to the next.”
Darcy smiled, looking well satisfied.
Miss Bingley jerked her hand up suddenly, knocking one small bowl, with its remaining puddle of cherry red liquid, right into the front of Elizabeth’s dress. “Oh, Eliza, I am so sorry!”
Elizabeth jumped a little bit, and pressed a napkin fruitlessly against the brilliant stain. “Oh dear, Lizzy,” said Jane sympathetically. Bingley reproached his sister for her carelessness, and Darcy just glared.
Miss Bingley apologized profusely and charmingly offered to accompany her back to her house to change her attire. Darcy insisted on escorting them, then Mr. Gardiner decided it was time for the children to go home, and soon enough everyone was piling back into the carriages. There was little Elizabeth could do about her immediate appearance; although she had been wearing a spencer, the sticky juice had landed just below it. It was somewhat mortifying and rather uncomfortable. She did not know if Miss Bingley had done it on purpose, but it was impossible not to feel that her clumsiness must have been in proportion to her jealousy.
The whole way back Miss Bingley chattered brightly to Mr. Darcy, who answered only in monosyllables. Upon arrival, she followed Elizabeth up the stairs and into her bedchamber, despite her insistence that she required no assistance.
“No, really, my dear,” she said, “I simply must help you. I can’t think how I came to be so clumsy. You must have been absolutely humiliated—especially when you consider the state of your face. Why, I would have died of shame!”
“Miss Bingley,” said Elizabeth, reaching the end of her endurance, “women die from many causes, but not, I think, from shame! While I am aware that you think me shameless, there are certain things which I would personally feel far more ashamed of than an appearance which has become marred through no fault of my own—if,” she glared at her, “you take my meaning!”
Miss Bingley narrowed her eyes. “I haven’t the slightest idea.”
“I think you do. Now if you please, I require privacy!” And before she knew what was happening, Miss Bingley found herself alone in the hallway.
She went back downstairs, where she found Mr. Darcy standing about in the hall. He scowled at the sight of her. “That Eliza Bennet,” she sniffed, “has no concept of forgiveness. I said I was sorry, but she practically shut the door in my face!”
He stalked away, even as a bevy of children and adults erupted through the front the door. The entire time that the four Gardiner children were being ushered upstairs by their nanny and Jane, and Charles and Mr. Gardiner, both talking rapidly, took off their coats and repaired to the parlor, Mr. Darcy retained a firm and forbidding demeanor. Miss Bingley tried making a few remarks which she fancied were particularly Eliza-like in their sprightliness, but he did not respond. In the end, he left her alone and joined the others.
When Elizabeth came back downstairs attired in a fresh gown, Mr. Darcy was lounging in a chair listening to the other men’s conversation. Upon her entrance he stood quickly to his feet, and went to inquire after her wellbeing and escort her to a seat near him. Neither Mr. nor Miss Bingley had ever observed him pay any woman other than his sister such attention, and Mr. Bingley was so surprised that he stopped talking mid-sentence and sat with his mouth open—that is, until the other Miss Bennet appeared behind her, at which event he also sprang up and went to attend her. Miss Bingley screwed up her mouth like it had a bad taste in it.
Elizabeth was also very conscious of the deliberate and pointed attentions that were being paid her by the tall and usually taciturn gentleman. A day ago they would have still flustered her, but today she could only feel happiness. “Well, my attire is fixed even if my face isn’t,” she said lightly.
He smiled at her, a warm look in his eyes. “Your face will heal soon enough. I think you must fear it looks much worse than it does.” He leaned forward a little. “It is still a source of distress to me that such a thing happened when you were under my care. I assure you,” he paused, “I make it a point to be very attentive to those under my care. They usually have no cause for complaint.”
“I am sure you do, Mr. Darcy,” she murmured. “I do not hold you responsible for what occurred.”
“You are generous.”
“Sometimes. Other times,” she looked into his eyes seriously, “I have been known to be very ungenerous—even without cause.”
He swallowed. “I am sure you would always have cause, Miss Elizabeth.”
“So, Miss Eliza,” interjected Miss Bingley in an overloud voice at that precise moment. She sat down as close to them as she could get. “I understand you have been from home for quite some time!”
“Not as long as my sister, Miss Bingley. But then, I’m sure you know that.”
“Tell me, is the regiment still at Meryton?”
“Yes,” said Elizabeth carelessly, “but they are to remove to Brighton shortly, so I expect they shall be gone by the time we return.”
“How sorry your family will be, to be sure! You don’t suppose your sisters will utterly break their hearts over it, do you?” Miss Bingley dearly wanted to mention Mr. Wickham, but dared not do so in Darcy’s presence.
“I imagine every young girl thinks herself heartbroken at some point, but it is a form of heartbreak that rarely lasts.”
“Have you?” asked Darcy suddenly.
“Have you ever thought yourself heartbroken?”
“Well…” she pondered this. “There was that one shopkeeper’s son…” she saw Darcy attempt to conceal his dismay and laughed. “He was all of five and twenty and I was only ten, but he was terribly handsome and romantic looking. I was thoroughly smitten with him, and when I heard he had married the butcher's daughter I was as heartbroken as you please, for a week at least. I believe these days he is running a shop of his own in the next town over, with his wife and several children; the last time I saw him, he had lost three of his front teeth, and was sporting a truly impressive and ever increasing girth. My escape was fortunate indeed.”
“Is that truly all?” he asked. “Are the squires in Hertfordshire so slow that not one of them has courted your interest?”
She studied her hands for a moment. “I believe it is more that they are so poor that not one of them could afford to court my interest.”
“Such a pity for you,” said Miss Bingley. Elizabeth flushed—she had momentarily forgotten the other woman’s proximity. “I feel sorry for your situation, I really do.”
Elizabeth did not reply, mortified, and Darcy looked angry. Miss Bingley attempted not to smirk.
“Miss Bennet,” said Darcy unexpectedly, “I wonder if you would be interested in visiting the Lorreys with me this afternoon.”
She perked up. “This very afternoon?”
“Yes. If your uncle agrees I could take you—with a maid to accompany you, of course—to check on the welfare of his sister. Your assistance would be invaluable in talking with Mrs. Lorrey and determining the family’s needs.”
“Why, Mr. Darcy,” said Miss Bingley, “surely I would be the appropriate woman to accompany you! After all, I a much longer and more intimate acquaintance than Miss Bennet.”
“Thank you, but Miss Bennet is already aware of the particulars of the situation, and I believe her unique conversational gifts and charm may be just what is required.”
“I would be honored,” affirmed Elizabeth.
An hour later they were setting out. The carriage took them through the middle-class part of town, towards the docks. Gradually the homes grew smaller, the buildings dingier, the air more acrid. Elizabeth shivered slightly.
“There is nothing to alarm you.” Mr. Darcy spoke softly.
“I am not alarmed for myself, but for the people who live here—the children especially.”
He sighed. “I will not tell you that the misery of the lower classes is not real, for of course it is, and it is a shame on our society that it is allowed to continue. But they are not all miserable. Contentment is often relative to what a person is accustomed to. What might be miserable living conditions for you, as a gentlewoman, can appear comfortable and even pleasing to someone raised differently.”
She was silent for a little. “Somehow I think that reflects better on them than on us.”
He smiled. “I am sure you are right.”
The pulled up eventually in a narrow street, before a house with one door and one window, and another window set directly above. Mr. Darcy instructed his coachman to return in half an hour, and rapped on the door.
It was opened almost immediately by small Tom. “Ma!” he yelled. “It’s Mr. Darcy and a lady!”
Elizabeth glanced at Darcy, wondering if he would be offended at such a greeting, but he did not appear to be. “How is your sister, Tom?” he asked, removing his hat and stooping to enter.
“The man wi’ the potions came yesterday, and Ma said she slept good.”
“I’m glad to hear it.”
Just then a slight woman, tired looking but still young, came down the steps. “Oh Mr. Darcy, sir, it’s so very kind of you to come callin' on us again.” She bobbed a curtsey.
“May I introduce Mrs. Lorrey to you?” He said to Elizabeth. “Mrs. Lorrey, this is Miss Bennet, who came with me today.”
“Madam.” She bobbed another curtsey.
“Please tell me, how is your daughter?” asked Elizabeth.
“A little better since we got the medicine.” She rang her hands nervously. “I would offer you some tea if I had any, but I’m afraid—”
“Please, no!” Lizzy laughed lightly. “I have drunk all the tea I can hold today. But I did bring some things from our kitchen, for the children, if you do not object—?” She held up the basket she was carrying.
Mrs. Lorrey assured her that she did not, and together they unpacked the basket, which held a variety of fresh fruit, some meat pies, a bottle of milk, and a few pastries for the children to enjoy. Tom immediately demanded one and was scolded for his impoliteness, but received it anyway and promptly ran outside with it. His mother looked apologetically at her visitors. “He’s a bit rough in his manners, but he’s a good boy.”
“I know that he is,” said Elizabeth. Dredging her mind for information about illnesses, she inquired after the girls’ symptoms, listened to a list of them, and eventually was invited upstairs to visit the invalid herself. She was very glad to do this, and found the girl looking pale and listless and a little feverish under her thin blanket. “Do you need another blanket?” she asked the mother.
It was a bit difficult to get Mrs. Lorrey to admit that what their needs were, or to agree to accept further assistance, but Elizabeth held firm and eventually prevailed. She appealed constantly to the wellbeing of her children, and also got her to talk about Tom, and what he liked and was good at. Then little Nancy woke up and required some assistance with her intimate needs, and Elizabeth went back downstairs on her own.
She expected to find Mr. Darcy waiting in the room below, looking magnificently out of place, but instead, there was a strange and rather large man. He was untidily dressed and helping himself to the food that had so recently been put away in the cupboard.
“What are you doing?” exclaimed Elizabeth without thinking. “That is not for you!”
He turned around, and his eyebrows rose. “Well, lookee there,” he drawled.
He had a red, unshaven face, and a belligerent look about him. Elizabeth’s heart rate increased, but she spoke firmly. “I do not know who you are what you are doing in this house, but those groceries are for Mrs. Lorrey and her two children.”
Ignoring her words, he came closer, still holding a half-eaten apple in one fist. “You must be the finest and prettiest young lady I’ve ever seen ‘round ‘ere. Wot’s yor name?”
“That is none of your concern,” she said coldly. “Where is Mr. Darcy?”
“Mister who?” He came closer still, until Elizabeth felt the need to retreat a step. She could smell the liquor on him.
“Mr. Darcy, the gentleman who was here. What have you done with him?”
“I ain’t done nothin.’ Why don’t ya come a little closer, lovely?” He put the hand with the apple, which was attached to a meaty arm, on the wooden rail and leaned into her. Elizabeth turned to run back up the stairs, but he caught her roughly by the wrist. “Do ya know what I think?” he asked, as she struggled to free herself. “I think this mister wotever isn’t real. I think yor here all byaselves.”
It would have been an excellent time to scream, but Elizabeth didn’t think of that. “Unhand me, you cur!” she hissed at him.
He curled his fat lip. “Cur I am, eh! You’ll be singin’ a different tune soon enuff!”
He set his foot on the step next to Elizabeth’s. She promptly stomped on it, as hard as she could, but her soft shoes made no impression on his cracked boots and he laughed. He tried to put an arm around her and she slapped him, again as hard as she could. That replaced his laugh with an ugly scowl and a curse. He pulled her in and Elizabeth, still fighting, braced to scream as loudly as she could.
Mr. Darcy had been outside in the street, interviewing Tom about his education and interests, trying to determine what trade he might be best fit for. His manner was clipped and direct and Tom answered with wide eyes, but at the end the severe gentleman unbent, smiled at him, and gave him some pennies to buy a further treat at the bakery some time. After this Darcy stood surveying the street with a critical eye, his landlord’s mind chronicling the various repairs and improvements it required but would never receive, until finally he turned with a sigh to reenter the house.
It wasn’t until he was pushing on the door that he realized there were strange sounds within. It swung open and to his horror, he perceived a strange hulking figure of a man standing on the stairs with Elizabeth in his grasp. He could not see her very well, but she appeared to be struggling, but was hopelessly outmatched. It took him a few seconds to absorb was he was seeing, then he reached for the handle of his walking stick with a hand that shook just slightly, twisted it, and pulled out the blade within. In a few steps he was across the room, and he pressed the tip of the blade into the man’s ribs. “Unhand her, you cur!” he forced through his teeth.
The ruffian glanced over his shoulder and let Elizabeth go so abruptly that she stumbled back and nearly fell. “Now, now then,” said the man, putting his hands up and backing away. “I didin mean no ‘arm.”
Darcy didn’t even deign to answer that, just maneuvered the man back against the table Unconsciously, he raised an arm behind him, taking on a fencing stance. “Do you have any idea,” he asked harshly, “what would be done to you if you despoiled a gentlewoman?”
“I jus’ wanted a kiss,” the other protested.
“You assaulted the daughter of a gentleman,” he insisted, applying a little more pressure.
“I didin mean no ‘arm,” he repeated.
Just then there was a small shriek from the top of the stairs, where Mrs. Lorrey had finally appeared. “Joseph!” she cried. “What have you done?”
“Do you know this man?” asked Darcy, his brows furrowed and his lips drawn tight in concentration.
“He’s my brother,” she admitted, wringing her hands. “I told him not to come around no more. He’s a terrible bad influence on Tom.” She saw Elizabeth, standing with one hand cradled in the other. “Oh miss, he’s never gone and hurt you, has he?”
“I am well,” said Elizabeth. Her voice was steady.
Mrs. Lorrey marched down and faced her brother angrily. “Why do you always have to be bringing trouble on our house?” she demanded bitterly. “Mr. Darcy, sir, my family’s always been decent, respectable folks, all except him. He about killed our mither with his ways.”
“That’s not true!” protested Joseph hotly.
“It is and you know it!” She turned to Mr. Darcy. “He’s brought shame on me all my life. Ever since he was a boy he’s been gettin' in trouble, and nothin' has taught him a lesson yet.”
Darcy’s eyes had strayed to her face as she spoke, and all at once the large man leapt at him, knocking the swordstick across the room. He was hopelessly outweighed but grappled with him, aware for a few moments of nothing more than his large hands and Mrs. Lorrey’s scream. Then, as swiftly as it began, it was over. Joseph crumpled into a heap at his feet and he looked up to see Elizabeth, eyes blazing like a vengeful amazon, brandishing a heavy iron poker. His mouth dropped open.
“Oh, well done, Miss Bennet!” cried Mrs. Lorrey. “I’ve often wanted to do the same thing,” she assured them.
Darcy shut his mouth with a snap. “Why in the blazes didn’t you scream?”
Elizabeth looked at him in astonishment. “I beg your pardon?”
He took the poker from her almost roughly. “Did it even occur to you to call for help—to raise your voice at all? Or were you simply going to let him have his way with you while I never even knew you were in distress?”
“I didn’t know where you were.”
“Did you seriously think that I would have gone far? I was right out there”—he pointed with the poker—“talking to Tom.”
She seemed confused. “But—how did he get in then?”
“They do have a back door.” He gestured sweepingly.
Looking to her right, Elizabeth saw that, indeed, there appeared to be a back door to the small house, leading undoubtedly to an alley. She turned her eyes back to Darcy, who was still looking like a thundercloud. “I was about to scream,” she said weakly.
“Oh, really? How—”
“Mr. Darcy?” asked Mrs. Lorrey.
He glanced at her impatiently.
“He’s beginning to stir.” Sure enough, Joseph twitched and groaned.
“Oh, good heavens!” said Darcy. “I’m not going to hit him with this again, if that’s what you’re hoping.” He set the poker down and retrieved his sword from the corner. “We had best decide what to do with him.”
Elizabeth looked dubiously at the body of her attacker. "He was drunk."
"A poor excuse." He turned to Mrs. Lorrey. "Since he is your brother, and it is you who must live either with or without him, I will give you the choice. If you wish, I will have him taken before the magistrate and prosecuted. Or, he can be left in the goal overnight to sober, and be released in the morning."
The lady didn't answer for some time. "They would 'ang him, wouldn't they?"
"He would either be hanged, deported, or set free."
"I can't say." She wrung her hands. "I can't say what should be done. He's a mean drunkard, and that's the truth, but he's my brother. I can't tell you to have my brother 'anged!"
"Of course you can't!" cried Elizabeth. "Surely, Mr. Darcy, there is another option!"
"There is deportation, as I mentioned. He would live, but his life would not be an easy one. Or I could try to have him prosecuted on a lesser charge. That would get him a whipping, or the stocks."
"He's 'ad those before, and they didn't do no good."
"Then it must be deportation or nothing." Seeing her struggle, he spoke gently. "No one shall blame you, either way. He is, as you say, your brother, and childhood bonds can lead one to overlook a great deal."
Suddenly she straightened her back. "No. No, he's been given one chance after another, all his life, and he's done nothin' but take advantage. He's not learned better, and I can't have him comin' around and corruptin' Tom—nor doing 'to arm others." She looked at Miss Bennet. "You're not the first, Miss. None of the others could afford to take him to court."
Darcy's look had grown distinctly respectful. "I will take care of it, Mrs. Lorrey. Is there any way to get a constable here quickly?”
“I’ll send Tom,” she said, and went to call him. The lad had heard nothing of the rumpus within, and his eyes grew wide with excitement at the sight of his uncle on the floor.
“Is that a real sword? Cor!”
“Tom, I would like you to—”
“You laid ‘im out real good, Mr. Darcy!”
“Actually, it was Miss Bennet who had that honor. Now, we need—”
“Miss Bennet?” Tom looked at her with new respect. “Did you really?”
“Yes,” said Elizabeth, unaccountably blushing.
“Wait 'til I tell the boys!” He turned as if to run off.
“Tom!” said Darcy commandingly. He halted. “Tom, we need you to fetch a constable for us. Now. Do you know where to go?”
“Yessir. There’s one that alwas patrols down the street over there, and the lock-up’s just some blocks t’other way. I knows cause I watch ‘im take them in all—”
“For heaven’s sake, Tom,” said his mother. “Stop jabbering and listen to the gentleman. Your uncle’ll be awake before you know it, and then where will we be?”
“Will Mr. Darcy hold his sword on ‘im again?” he asked hopefully.
Darcy drew himself up to his full and imposing height. “Tom. The constable. Now!”
When he had gone at last, Darcy looked at the ladies. “I wish you both to go upstairs until he is taken away.”
“But—” protested Elizabeth.
“He could regain consciousness at any time I do not wish to worry about your safety.”
“What about your safety?”
“I have a weapon. I can handle him.”
“Like you handled him last time?” She put her hands on her hips. “May I remind you that it was I who rescued you?”
“After I rescued you.”
“Which suggests that it is unwise for either of us to be alone with him.”
“That was before he was injured. He will be disoriented and likely have a headache of terrific proportions, while I will be calm and prepared. Your presence could only be a distraction.”
“I have no intention of distracting you.”
Darcy looked at her for a moment. “You always distract me, Miss Bennet,” he said softly.
He found it rather gratifying that this sentiment discomposed her so much that she agreed to go upstairs without further argument.
It seemed an eternity before young Tom returned with a broad shouldered constable in tow. Joseph came slowly and blearily to consciousness, but the sight of Darcy’s gleaming blade and grim face seemed enough to subdue him now. Then Darcy’s carriage arrived, and his horrified servants came hastily to his aid—all but the young maid, who threatened hysterics. By the time the ruffian had been carted off—in Darcy’s carriage—Mrs. Lorrey had taken the girl upstairs, if only to remove her from Darcy’s annoyed notice.
When Darcy came back in from watching the carriage roll off, Elizabeth was alone, and sitting at the table. She looked vulnerable and young, and all the anxiety and stress of the last hour sent emotions rushing through him in uncontrollable waves. He opened his mouth and, "As for you, Miss Bennet," he began, prepared to bitterly castigate her on the subject of girls who accosted strange men while alone—to say absolutely anything that would prevent her from ever doing such a dangerous thing again—but broke off abruptly. For the first time he had noticed her hands on the table, fingers curled protectively around one wrist. In another instant he was by her side, peeling them back with a very gentle touch. When he saw the finger-shaped bruises, he swallowed hard.
Elizabeth eyed him uncertainly. Was he still angry with her? She realized that he had some reason.
For some moments he stood completely still then, with a sudden motion, covered his face with his hand. He was fighting for composure, she realized, and without thinking, turned her hand on the table into his, and clasped it. They remained like that for some moments, then Darcy lifted his head. “And to think that earlier I was boasting about my ability to take care of you!” he said bitterly. “Now I think that for your own safety you ought to stay as far away from me as you can!”
She sighed. “What happened was not your fault.”
“You said that before, yet how is it, then, that I take you on a carriage ride, and the axel breaks, you are thrown to ground and suffer a cut and bruised face—and then I take you to visit a widow and her two children, and you are attacked and have your wrist brutalized?” His mouth twisted and he looked away. “Your uncle will certainly never let me near you again.”
“You were right when you said I should have screamed. The only reason I can say that I did not was that I did not really believe that he would harm me—and I truly was preparing to scream when you came in.”
“If I had remained in the house you would not have had to suffer such an indignity at all. It was unpardonable of me to leave you alone like that.”
“You had no reason to believe me in danger.”
He shook his head emphatically, as his early anger at her turned quickly on himself. He looked down at the bruised limb, turning it over again, more touched than he could say that she was allowing him that liberty. “Does this hurt?” he asked, sitting down and moving her hand gently.
“A very little.”
“You may have a mild sprain. It would not be surprising.” He sighed again.
Elizabeth reached as if to touch his face, stopping herself just in time. Seeming to recognize the gesture, he quickly caught her free hand and kissed the fingers. “I am well, truly,” she said.
“How are you are not weeping or having hysterics? Any other woman would require a week at least to recover from such an ordeal, yet you sit here calmly.”
She smiled faintly. “Perhaps it is further proof of my lack of refinement.”
“Or your courage and strength of spirit.”
Suddenly her smile deepened, and she raised an eyebrow provocatively. “Or perhaps it is just that I am still in a state of astonishment over your having a sword.”
He flushed red. “My cousin the colonel gave it to me some years ago,” he said. “Though I fear my performance was sadly lacking in comparison to yours.” His gaze moved pointedly to the hearth. “I almost thought Hippolyta herself had appeared to defend me.”
Now it was her turn to redden, though she looked pleased. “A woman does what she must.”
“No, an ordinary woman does what she must. You, my dear Miss Bennet, do so much more.”
She grinned back at him, and somehow their hands met again, and clasped. “I am so deeply sorry that this happened to you,” he said with earnestness.
“I shall recover, I believe. I only wish you would not blame yourself too much.”
“I fear that is a futile wish—the blame ought to be mine—but I will try not to distress you by constantly bemoaning my guilt, as some do.”
“Yes, that would be considerate of you.”
He had to smile, but it did not last long. "Mrs. Lorrey has put me to shame today, I think."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that she had the courage and clarity to do what I never have."
Elizabeth frowned, studying his face. "I don't understand."
"Wickham." He spoke the word softly. "He has no doubt done more harm than Joseph ever did, though with greater finesse. And I, who had the power to stop him, have rather chosen to pay his debts and keep his viciousness secret, for the sake of guarding my own privacy... and because I still remember when we were friends."
He looked so very vulnerable then, so handsome and sad and unexpectedly young, that Elizabeth would surely have done something bold and surprising which would have resulted in it all being settled right then, but Mrs. Lorrey came back downstairs with Hannah, and the carriage returned, so there were no more confidences that day.