Part 1 -- The Doorbell Rings
Colonel Fitzwilliam leaned back in an exceedingly comfortable armchair, swung his feet up onto a well-padded ottoman, and considered the glass of brandy that was sitting on a small table within easy reach. I really shouldn't be drinking this, he thought, but of course I owe it to my brother to evaluate his latest additions to the wine cellar. With that altruistic thought in mind, he picked up the glass, took a judicious sip, and savored the silken, fiery flavor of the amber liquid before setting the glass on the table again. Looking around the room approvingly, he had to admit that his brother had done more to the family townhouse than buy a few excellent bottles of wine. The rugs underfoot and the hangings at the window were new and in exquisite taste, and the family portrait on the wall by the door was also of recent commission. How on earth had they made his nieces and nephews sit still for the many sittings that portrait must have involved? The marble mantelpiece that loomed imposingly on another wall was unblemished with soot, since the pleasantly warm weather made a fire unnecessary. In fact, some of the windows on the opposite side of the room had been opened, to take advantage of the cooler evening breezes. Sounds from the street below blurred into a dull murmur as they reached Fitzwilliam's ear, although a few individual sounds could be discerned: the rattle of a carriage wheel, or the clopping hooves of a passing horse.
Even better than his current comfortable position was the prospect of having seven more of these excellent evenings to enjoy. The ranking colonel in his regiment had been so pleased with the progress of the new major Fitzwilliam was training that he had rewarded him with an entire week's leave. The timing really could not have been more perfect, since his family were in town and there would be no end of dinners, dances, and theatrical entertainments to attend with them. With such an indication of his superior officer's favor, perhaps he could expect some advancement in the near future? Fitzwilliam felt he ought to pay another call on Lord B-- this week, to determine whether that gentleman would still support him if he sought a higher commission.
However, it was enough for the moment to be enjoying his brother's hospitality. Since his last leave had been only a few months ago, Fitzwilliam hadn't expected to be allowed to see his relations for at least another six months, if even then. For the past few years he had been the lucky officer on duty at Christmas, after all. He supposed it was because he was one of the few still-unmarried officers in the regiment, and he had no wife and children clamoring for his company during the holidays.
And I shall keep it that way for a while yet, Fitzwilliam thought. It was far more entertaining being a bachelor: moderately successful in his military career, with the promise of more achievements to come; not terribly wealthy, but brother to an earl-to-be and with enough income for a young wife and family to be comfortable; handsome enough to make most female hearts flutter, but not so much that he could be in love only with his own countenance; and possessing an informed mind and frequently charming manner. Such admirable qualities could not fail to recommend him to matchmaking busybodies wherever he went, in town or in the country. He smiled and took another sip of brandy as he imagined the many dowagers and maiden aunts who constantly pushed their young charges into his acquaintance at assemblies. It was occasionally tedious, but he usually managed to keep hold of his sense of humor and enjoy the spectacle. And it meant he never had to search for a dance partner! None of the young ladies had so far caught his attention, much to his relief and their dismay. Most of them were pretty and well-bred, but with a disappointing uniformity of thought and temper; even so, they were infinitely preferable to the squawking juvenile minxes who loitered around the barracks, hoping for a glimpse of a scarlet coat. Fitzwilliam admitted he enjoyed the flirting and feminine attention as much as the next man, but he was hardly likely to choose a child of 15 or 16 as his bride! However, he had met only one woman who had been able to make him even consider renouncing his bachelor status. Only if he met her equal would he be in danger again.
Miss Elizabeth Bennet. She was the sole representative of her sex who had been able to make Fitzwilliam feel he could possibly fall in love. He had been involved in flirtations countless times, and infatuations only a little less often, but never had he experienced an attraction pure enough to call love. And yet Miss Bennet, whom he had known for only a few weeks during a visit to his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, in Kent, had been able to inspire in him a sense of joy, affection, and exhilaration that he had never felt before. However, he had never been sure enough of his feelings to truly say he loved Miss Bennet, especially when he compared their intensity to that felt by his cousin, Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Darcy had been in love with Miss Bennet, beyond question. Once or twice during their time together in Kent, Fitzwilliam had been tempted to question his cousin's reason, since he had never seen Darcy in the grip of such a powerful emotion before. Silent and morose one moment, then feverishly talking the next, Darcy had never been so affected by a woman -- although he had had plenty of opportunity, being even more sought-after by the dowagers and maiden aunts than Fitzwilliam himself was.
Fitzwilliam had nearly proposed to Miss Bennet during that visit to Kent, and he still flattered himself that she might have accepted him. However, such a proposal became impossible once he discovered his cousin's true feelings. He and Darcy had been friends for too long for him ever to stand in the way of Darcy's happiness, and betraying his cousin so intentionally was not to be considered. Darcy would never have forgiven him if he had married Miss Bennet, and would have been utterly miserable as a result. Fitzwilliam himself felt only a small sense of regret over Miss Bennet's loss, which, he supposed, was the truest indication that he had not really been in love with her at all. He and Miss Bennet had parted friends, and he was confident of retaining her regard if ever he was so fortunate as to meet her again.
Fitzwilliam took another sip of his brother's excellent brandy. He felt a much deeper regret over a different action he had made in Kent. There had been one particular evening, only one day before their departure, when Darcy had finally confessed his love for Miss Bennet and asked for his cousin's advice about whether he should propose marriage to her. Darcy had some reservations about the match, and he was not confident that she would accept him. Fitzwilliam had made a foolish joke, thinking only to lighten his cousin's mood, saying Miss Bennet was hardly likely to refuse him once she knew what a great and respected man was in love with her, and what struggles he had undergone before he could declare himself. Darcy, unfortunately, was too distracted to realize his cousin was not being serious, and he had said something along those lines to Miss Bennet. She, being an excellently rational creature, had responded in her refusal with all the contempt that such an idea deserved.
It had been a thought unworthy of his cousin, and most unworthy of Miss Bennet. Fitzwilliam knew that she would never consider only wealth and rank in a potential husband; such shallow sensibilities belonged to the flighty, man-hunting females who swooned over Fitzwilliam, his fellow officers, and their friends at every social gathering they attended.
Darcy had told him later, as they traveled from Kent back to London, that Miss Bennet had had other objections to Darcy's proposal than that one arrogant comment. She blamed Darcy for interfering in her sister's attachment to Mr. Bingley, an old schoolfellow of Darcy's, and she had been much prejudiced against Darcy from listening to the slanderous comments of George Wickham.
Wickham! Fitzwilliam still could not think of the man without anger. Obviously he had resorted to sullying the Darcy name with lies and gossip, since he had been thwarted in his more serious scheme of ruining the family's reputation. Fitzwilliam wished for the thousandth time that Darcy had allowed him to duel Wickham when he had the chance, but Darcy had prevented any and every action that might attach unwanted scandal and attention to his family.
Fitzwilliam roused from his reverie to discover that he was gripping his glass of brandy hard enough to make his knuckles go white. Carefully he made himself place the glass on the table again. With a deep sigh, he stood and moved across the room to lean against the mantelpiece. Even with this accounting of Miss Bennet's additional dislike of his cousin, Fitzwilliam could not entirely rid himself of the idea that he was in some measure to blame for her refusal. He had apologized to Darcy and had immediately tried to think of anything that might resolve the situation more happily, but without much conviction. Darcy had seemed encouraged and more positive when they parted, but his letters to Fitzwilliam had not contained any further news of Miss Bennet.
If only there was something else he could do to make Miss Bennet understand his cousin's true worth, and promote Darcy's best chance for happiness!
At that moment, Fitzwilliam heard a bell ring down the hall, followed by the click of heels across a polished floor as the butler went to open the front door. Who could possibly be calling so late in the evening? Surely there was no need for his brother to ring his own doorbell! Fitzwilliam turned to face the door as a servant entered to announce the visitor.
Part 2 -- An Unexpected Caller
"Mr. Darcy, sir."
Darcy's stride as he entered the room was so vigorous that he might have burst through the door if the servant had not hurried to open it for him. Fitzwilliam thought he looked almost wild: his hair was tousled, his clothes were wrinkled as if he had slept in them, his face was pale and drawn, and the stubble on his jaw showed he had not recently been near a razor. Despite this appearance of extreme fatigue, however, his eyes were bright and his manner did not lack for energy.
The two gentlemen spoke at almost the same instant.
"Darcy! What on earth are you doing here? Whatever is the matter?"
"Fitzwilliam! How came you to be here? I had thought to find your brother."
They both smiled a little as their greetings tumbled over each other. Darcy moved to the fireplace and shook hands with his cousin. "I am extremely glad to see you, Fitzwilliam. I came here tonight intending to request your brother's assistance in a very serious matter, thinking you would be engaged with your regiment. You are just the man I need."
"If there is any way I can help you, Darcy, I am entirely at your disposal," Fitzwilliam replied. "But first you must sit down and rest a moment before you tell me what has happened. Can I fetch you a glass of wine?"
Darcy allowed himself to be led to a chair near the window and gratefully sat down. The welcome surprise of finding his cousin had relieved some of his anxiety, but it was clear that there was still some great matter troubling him. "Thank you, Fitzwilliam. I could use something to drink."
Fitzwilliam went to the sideboard, poured a glass of wine out of the decanter resting there, and brought it to his cousin. "Now, you will finish that and refresh yourself before I will let you tell me anything."
Darcy meekly looked up at him, his mouth twitching into a smile. "I see you have not forgotten how to behave as if you were my older brother."
"Being a younger brother in my own family, I had to have someone else upon whom to inflict the brotherly 'instruction' which my brother bestowed on me. Who better than my little cousin Darcy? I admit you are not so little now, however." Fitzwilliam eyed his cousin's tall frame, which in fact had the advantage of his own by several inches. "No, say nothing. Drink that wine, and then we will talk."
Fitzwilliam watched as Darcy obediently drained the glass, and he was relieved to see some color return to his friend's face. What business could be so urgent to have brought him flying to London in such a fashion? He removed the glass when Darcy was finished and returned it to the sideboard, then sat down in the opposite chair.
Darcy took a deep breath and began. "I have come to London on urgent business regarding Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
"Miss Bennet!" Fitzwilliam exclaimed, interrupting his cousin. "What has she to do with this?"
"Be patient, and I will tell you. I see I must go farther back to explain myself." Darcy then related the following tale.
Much as I hate the delay, I must go to the beginning of these events so that you may understand them properly. Let me begin, then, Fitzwilliam, by telling you that after we parted here this spring, I was determined to follow all your advice regarding Miss Bennet. After she upbraided me so thoroughly for the arrogance and pride I had allowed to develop in my character, I resolved to change both my own behavior and, hopefully, her opinion of me. As you know, I had tried to make some reparation before I left Kent, in the form of the letter I gave her. Acting on your suggestion of correcting the mistakes I made with regard to my friend Bingley and Miss Bennet's sister was my next goal.
Waiting here in London before Bingley's arrival was almost intolerable. I am sure I tried to fulfill my usual social engagements, but I can recall none of them. My sister Georgiana can surely tell you how distracted I was. My impatience was intensified when Miss Bingley discovered some new friends in Dorset, from whom she was practically inseparable -- she who has declared such a loathing for people in the country! -- which delayed their arrival in London by nearly two weeks.
However, they arrived at last, and after a few more weeks of polite nonsense, plans were made for their visit to Derbyshire. I had decided not to tell Bingley of my actions until we reached Pemberley, since it would be easier to discuss such matters in private there, rather than in my London house. To be entirely truthful, I was also worried how Bingley would react to my revelation, and I wanted to put off the encounter until I was in more familiar territory. In addition, Miss Bingley is still laboring under the fancy that her brother will marry my sister, and I did not want her to confuse my plans. You know how difficult it is to avoid Miss Bingley's interference in the close quarters of a London town house!
It happened that I was called to Pemberley a day early, having received a letter from my steward about several affairs of the estate that required my presence. I left the Bingleys, the Hursts, and my sister to follow me. You may imagine my surprise when, upon reaching Pemberley, the first person I beheld was Miss Elizabeth Bennet! She was visiting Derbyshire with some friends and was touring the house and grounds, having been told the family were not at home. I hardly remember what I said to greet her, since I was in such an extreme state of discomposure. I believe I muttered some inquiry after the health of her family, but I am afraid I do not know precisely what I said, or what she replied. I excused myself as soon as I could and escaped into the house, where I made an effort to control myself.
After only a moment, I remembered your instructions that I should take every opportunity to prove to Miss Bennet that I was a better man than she imagined me to be. What better opportunity could have presented itself? Elizabeth Bennet at Pemberley! Instantly I resolved to find her again, and to apologize for my brusque manner and lack of welcome. Thinking that Miss Bennet and her friends must eventually return to their carriage, I rushed to the main driveway, where I found them almost ready to depart. Another few moments and I should have been too late! However, I was able to stop Miss Bennet before she took her seat in the carriage. I apologized for my behavior of a few moments before and asked to be introduced to her friends. They were Mr. and Mrs. Edward Gardiner, Miss Bennet's aunt and uncle from Gracechurch Street in London. Miss Bennet, I am sure, gave me this information to test me, since I had previously been extremely disdainful of her family's connections. I was thoroughly ashamed of my prior actions and made every attempt to make Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner welcome -- and it was no chore, since they seemed a very well-bred, intelligent couple.
Their tour of Pemberley had been cut short by my arrival, and I took it upon myself to show them some parts of the grounds which I thought they might enjoy. Mrs. Gardiner of course walked with her husband, which gave me the infinite pleasure of walking with Miss Bennet. How I wished I could have offered her my arm! However, I knew she would not accept it -- I had yet to prove my goodwill to her. She conversed with me willingly enough, and I thought her manner towards me was more open than it had formerly been. Or perhaps I only imagined that -- but anything would have been an improvement over our last conversation in Kent!
Before we parted for the afternoon, I had secured Miss Bennet's permission to introduce my sister Georgiana to her. My excitement at this was so great that Georgiana and I were on our way to Lambton almost as soon as she arrived from London. No doubt she was surprised at my haste, and she was somewhat shy of meeting strangers, but she obliged me when I told her how much I should like the introduction to be made. Bingley also came with us: as soon as I told him that Miss Bennet was in the neighborhood, nothing could stop him from immediately paying his respects.
I am delighted to say that Miss Bennet and Georgiana seemed to enjoy meeting each other, and I was amused to watch Bingley stumble over himself as he inquired whether all of Miss Bennet's sisters were still in Hertfordshire. I am now even more sure that I misjudged his affection for Miss Jane Bennet; it is a situation I must remedy as soon as this present business is completed. In any case, Georgiana -- with only a little prompting from me -- invited Miss Bennet and Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner to Pemberley for tea the next day. Miss Bennet accepted the invitation at once, and I wish I could have said it was because she wished to see me again. I knew she would be pleased to have another opportunity to talk with Bingley and to develop her acquaintance with my sister, and I was curious to see how she would react to seeing Miss Bingley and the Hursts again.
Although I expected Miss Bennet to remorselessly exercise her wit upon Miss Bingley, she instead showed immense grace and tact by eluding every verbal dart with which Miss Bingley had hoped to pierce her composure. Not one comment about Gracechurch Street or the --shire militia could ruffle her temper. Miss Bingley, on the other hand, became more and more out of sorts as every attack of hers failed! The only person she nearly wounded was Georgiana, who was somewhat distressed when Miss Bingley mentioned George Wickham. It was unintentional on Miss Bingley's part, since she knows nothing of Wickham's involvement with my family, and she is ordinarily kindness itself to Georgiana, thinking that her affection for my sister will miraculously recommend her to me. However, Miss Bennet smoothly changed the subject and turned all of Miss Bingley's attention towards herself, so that no one but myself noticed any awkwardness. Georgiana recovered quickly, and now I believe she views Miss Bennet quite as her heroine!
After our guests had left, Miss Bingley continued to make spiteful remarks about Miss Bennet's manners and appearance. I could see that Bingley wished to defend Miss Bennet, but he could not get a word in edgewise to interrupt his sister's tirade. She went beyond even my endurance when she repeated a stupid remark I had made in Hertfordshire: that I should as soon call Miss Bennet's mother a wit, as call Miss Bennet herself a beauty. It was as much in anger at myself for having made such an ignorant remark, as towards Miss Bingley for repeating it, that I responded that Miss Bennet had been for many months among the most handsome women of my acquaintance. I was ashamed of myself again when I saw the look on Miss Bingley's face. Abrasive as she is, I do not like to cause her pain. However, perhaps she is now finally convinced that my affections will never be hers.
The evening passed so well, and Miss Bennet's manner to me seemed so changed from what it was in Kent, that I determined to ride to Lambton as early as politeness allowed the next morning. At first I told myself I only wanted to enjoy her company and conversation again, but I knew that with the smallest encouragement I would be on my knees before her, begging her to forgive my former appalling behavior, to believe I had taken her reproofs to heart, and to marry me.
These happy expectations vanished in a moment when I was shown into the parlor at the inn where Miss Bennet and the Gardiners were staying. I discovered Miss Bennet in a state of most extreme agitation and distress. I sent one of the servants to fetch Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, since Miss Bennet was in no fit state to look for them herself, and did my best to try to calm her and find out what was the matter. She informed me that she had just received some dreadful news from home: her youngest sister had run off from Brighton and eloped with George Wickham! It was certain they had not gone to Gretna Green, since they had been traced to London but not beyond. Miss Bennet's sister had written to implore her uncle's immediate assistance, but Miss Bennet was afraid nothing could be done. She even blamed herself for the situation, since she had known of Wickham's infamous character but had not informed her family.
This accusation cut me to the quick. For who should truly have taken the responsibility for publishing Wickham's true nature, if not myself? If I had been less concerned about having the smallest shred of scandal attached to my family, he would have been known for the scoundrel he is, and he would never have been in a position to threaten Miss Bennet's happiness. Since I had failed to take the proper action before, I knew I must do it now. At once I formulated a plan to come to London and search for Wickham. I remained at Lambton only long enough to see Miss Bennet in the care of her aunt and uncle, then returned to Pemberley and made my excuses to my friends there, and was on the road to London soon thereafter.
I came here first, hoping to secure your brother's assistance, Fitzwilliam, but yours would be even more welcome. My mission is to discover where Wickham has hidden himself, and somehow convince him to marry Miss Bennet's sister -- for the situation has become too much for any other remedy.
And if you can offer any advice on how I am to achieve these ends, I would be greatly obliged to you.
Part 3 -- The Effect Of A Good Night's Sleep
Fitzwilliam's emotions had taken him on a whirlwind ride as he listened to his cousin's story: elation when he heard of Miss Bennet's favorable behavior, amusement as he imagined Bingley's stammering questions, affection and concern for his quiet cousin Georgiana, annoyance towards the scheming of Miss Bingley, dismay at the reckless actions of Miss Bennet's sister, and again anger towards George Wickham. When Darcy finished, Fitzwilliam remained silent for a moment to collect his thoughts.
"My first advice to you is to get some rest," he said finally. "I will have them prepare a room for you here, since your own house cannot be ready for you. The footman can carry in whatever luggage you brought."
"Fitzwilliam, I cannot impose on your brother's hospitality at such short notice. It will be extremely inconvenient for him."
"Nonsense," Fitzwilliam replied. "There are plenty of rooms here, and the livery stable can keep your carriage and horses. In any case, he'd have my head if I didn't make you welcome. I will allow no objections."
"Very well." Darcy only protested out of politeness. It was really quite a relief to know he would not have to go out again tonight.
"So, after a good night's sleep and an excellent breakfast -- did I mention my brother has a new cook? He's quite good -- we can begin making inquiries for Wickham's whereabouts."
"Have you any idea where we can start?"
"I was just coming to that." Fitzwilliam pondered a moment. "Is it likely Miss Bennet's uncle would come to London to conduct his own search?"
"Yes, that was his intention, but I do not believe he will arrive until tomorrow or the day after. He would have had to stop in Hertfordshire, at Miss Bennet's home, before he could proceed." Darcy wished he could have gone to Hertfordshire himself to comfort Miss Bennet, but that was not his place -- yet.
"Very well, then you shall call on him at the earliest opportunity, so that you may coordinate our efforts with his."
"And what explanation shall I give him to account for my involvement in the affair?"
Fitzwilliam thought some more. "May one assume he knows nothing of your affection for his niece?" Darcy nodded. "In that case, you only need tell him what you told me only a moment ago: that you feel some responsibility for not making Wickham's character known to the world before this. But enough for now. You are nearly asleep where you sit, and we will both think more clearly in the morning."
Darcy had not expected he would be able to rest at all, but the stress of the previous day's excitement and travel had taken its toll. He was asleep almost as soon as he lay down on the bed. While his body was quiet, his mind continued to work at unraveling the intricate knot of his feelings.
His dreams at first were jumbled images which did not remain distinct long enough to imprint themselves on his memory. However, the scenes at last resolved into well-known surroundings: a green copse on the boundary of Rosings, his aunt's estate. He found himself walking up and down along the path, impatiently waiting for a person who refused to appear. Darcy stood still, took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. She must come! After what seemed like an eternity, he opened his eyes and turned around, to behold a familiar figure.
"Mr. Darcy. I had hoped to find you here." She smiled.
"Miss Bennet." Darcy quickly removed his hat and bowed, in answer to her curtsey. "I am pleased to see you again."
She laughed. Darcy thought it was the most silvery, sparkling sound he had ever heard. "That surprises me, considering how abominably I have treated you in the past. Can you forgive how I insulted you after your proposal? After reading your letter and realizing my many errors of judgment, I am so ashamed for being so blind to your true character."
"There is nothing to forgive. You are the one who must excuse my arrogance. I had no right to approach you in such an insufferable manner."
She smiled again, and indicated a moss-covered log where they might sit more comfortably. "We will each forgive the other, then, and consider the matter settled. Now I must tell you how much I enjoyed my time at Pemberley. Your kind reception of myself and my aunt and uncle proved to me that there is indeed a warm-hearted, friendly gentleman behind that mask of pride and aloofness you often wear."
"My only thought was to convince you that the reproofs you delivered in Kent were taken seriously. I have been a proud, conceited fool, but with your guidance I am sure to become a better man." Darcy spoke his last words rather more warmly than he intended, causing Miss Bennet to blush slightly and look away.
"I am sure you can find better instructors. Mr. Bingley, and your sister Miss Darcy, for instance."
Darcy allowed her evasion, realizing that he had best not reveal his feelings too soon. "You are perfectly right, Miss Bennet. However, I doubt I will ever be able to match Bingley's even temper, and my sister is usually too shy to correct her older brother."
"I imagine she would be. Miss Darcy is a lovely young lady, however. And she is very lucky to have such a kind brother and guardian. I hope I may have the pleasure of seeing her again." With the return to polite formalities, Miss Bennet was able to compose herself enough to look at Darcy again.
Darcy, on the other hand, found himself extremely discomposed when his eyes met hers. In only a moment he felt he could be lost in the depths of her gaze, and it became his turn to look away. "I know my sister would look forward to that as well. She would be happy to receive you, either at Pemberley, or at our house in town."
"Yes, but I know not when I shall be in Derbyshire or London again." Miss Bennet suddenly seemed more serious. "And your business in town is likely to keep you engaged for some time."
"My business in town, Miss Bennet?"
"Your pursuit of my unfortunate sister Lydia, Mr. Darcy. You have only begun looking, and who knows how long it will take to discover her? However, I have every confidence that you will find her and Mr. Wickham, and make them marry. It is a sad situation, but there is no other possibility."
How the devil did she know what he was doing in London? "You may be assured I will make every effort to find your sister. After seeing you in such distress at Lambton, how could I not do all in my power to aid you? I have thought only of you since the moment I left Derbyshire."
She looked at him again, and Darcy could withstand the impact of her glance no longer. His self-control vanished, and he seized her hand. "I would do anything for you, my dear: find your sister, face Wickham, travel to the ends of the earth, if you so desire. Only tell me that my reward will be the hope of gaining your affection."
She smiled again, but sadly, and gently disengaged her hand from his grasp. "Mr. Darcy, I am afraid that is impossible."
"Impossible? But why? You must tell me!"
"It is impossible, Mr. Darcy, because your hope of such a reward shows that you are not thinking of me at all. You are thinking only of yourself and what advantage you may gain from an unpleasant situation. You must resolve this situation with Wickham not because it may make me think well of you, but because it is right. I am disappointed in you: I see you have not overcome your selfishness, after all."
With these words, Miss Bennet vanished. Darcy remained sitting, his head in his hands, astounded at his own presumption. And he had considered his plan to be so noble! Miss Bennet had seen that his motives were entirely transparent. His actions would place her under an enormous obligation. Was she to sell herself in marriage to settle such a debt? And even if he did win her, he might go through the rest of his life never knowing if she truly loved him, or if she had only accepted him out of a sense of gratitude.
One thought remained in his mind as he awoke: Miss Bennet must never know of his involvement in her sister's rescue.
Fitzwilliam lay on his bed, but he left a single candle burning on the night table. Sleep was impossible! He could only imagine the anguish that Miss Bennet must be feeling. So much depended on finding Wickham! If Wickham was successful in this escapade, not only would the reputation of Miss Bennet's sister be ruined, but also the reputation of her entire family. All of the Bennet daughters would lose every chance of marrying well. No respectable gentlemen would associate themselves with women whose sister had been ravished and discarded. Fitzwilliam would do everything in his power to keep Miss Bennet and her family from that fate.
The thoughts racing through his mind recalled memories that he would prefer to forget. Fitzwilliam was glad to do anything to help his cousin, but he was amazed to find himself in such a situation a second time. He remembered how Darcy had come to him when Wickham's attempted elopement with Georgiana was discovered. He had come storming into Fitzwilliam's room at his barracks, in much the same disheveled way he had just appeared in the library.
Fitzwilliam only needed one look at his cousin's face. "Darcy! Good God! What is the matter?"
"Georgiana." Darcy collapsed into a chair.
"Is she ill? I thought she was at Ramsgate with Mrs. Younge."
"She was. She is now at Pemberley, and Mrs. Younge is no longer in my employ." Darcy sighed and briefly told his cousin what had happened. He had gone to Ramsgate, meaning to surprise his sister, and had just thwarted Wickham's plan to elope with her. Georgiana was safe and unharmed, although understandably upset at the deception Wickham had practiced on her. Being young and naturally affectionate, she had believed she was in love with Wickham, and that he loved her in return. Her heartache would take some little time to heal.
"And what of Wickham? Where has he gone?" Fitzwilliam inquired.
"He and I had words before I sent him away from Ramsgate, and I am afraid I quite lost my temper with him. He asserted the most scandalous lies about my sister: that Mrs. Younge had encouraged the attachment and smuggled him into the house at most improper hours, that Georgiana had allowed his attentions, that he had already seduced her, and that no one would want anything to do with her once his story was told."
"Good Lord, the man is a lunatic as well as a blackguard!" Fitzwilliam exploded. "If he says one word against my cousin, I swear I'll --"
"Calm yourself, Fitzwilliam. Did I not say before that I lost my temper with him? I called him out, and we agreed to meet tomorrow morning. I have come to ask you to be my second."
An hour after sunrise the next morning, Darcy and Fitzwilliam found themselves in a deserted park with Wickham, his second, and a doctor (who, however, remained in his carriage a discreet distance away). Wickham had been given the choice of weapons, and his second carried a brace of pistols. Darcy selected one, but he addressed a few words to Wickham before he took up his position.
"We may yet resolve this without bloodshed."
"Has your courage failed you, Darcy?" Wickham sneered. "Now we see who is the better man, indeed."
Darcy refused to rise to the gibe. "I have courage in plenty, as you will discover if you insist on testing me. However, the time since our last meeting has allowed my blood to cool, and I am willing to offer you an alternative: one that will settle your present difficulties more pleasantly than death would."
Wickham was interested in spite of himself. "Pray, continue."
"You accepted the sum of three thousand pounds when you gave up your claim to the living at Kympton, which my father had promised you. I am prepared to double that amount. However, you must give me your word as a gentleman that you will never tell a soul what has occurred." In addition, Darcy was counting on Wickham's mercenary tendencies and inflated pride to keep him silent: while he coveted the money, he would never wish it known that he had backed out of a duel.
It took a few moments of laborious thought, but Wickham did not disappoint. "Very well, I accept. You have my word -- as a gentleman, of course." He chuckled and gave an impertinent half-bow. "And may I have the pleasure of calling on you tomorrow morning to collect my cheque?"
Darcy gave a terse nod. "Very well." He turned and walked back towards his cousin.
"What could you be discussing with that scoundrel? This is a duel, not a debate!" A frown marred Fitzwilliam's usually genial features.
"There will be no duel. I offered Wickham a settlement, which he has accepted, along with my condition that he never reveal what happened between himself and my sister."
Fitzwilliam was astonished. "Darcy, are you mad? Knowing what he is, you cannot trust him to keep such a promise! There is only one way this can end!" Without another word, he snatched the pistol from his cousin's hand, and ran towards Wickham, whose second was helping him straighten his coat. "Turn and defend yourself, mongrel!"
Wickham turned, amazed, and with admirable presence of mind seized the other pistol. However, his actions would have come too late had not Darcy come flying across the clearing, knocking his cousin to the ground. The impact caused Fitzwilliam's shot to go wild, the ball hitting a tree some distance away. Everyone present listened to it strike, knowing it could have lodged in human flesh instead.
Wickham calmly put his pistol away as Darcy stood and brushed himself off. "I apologize for my cousin's behavior, Mr. Wickham. Major Fitzwilliam and I had a slight -- ahem -- difference of opinion. I trust I may still expect you tomorrow morning?"
Fitzwilliam lay where he had fallen, and he did not move until Wickham and his second had gotten into their carriage and driven away. The doctor had vanished as soon as he realized his services would not be required. Finally, Fitzwilliam slowly sat up and looked at his cousin in disbelief. "Darcy, why did you stop me? I could have ended all your troubles in an instant."
Darcy extended a hand and helped Fitzwilliam to his feet. "And you would have uncovered a new nest of troubles for me, as well. If I had killed Wickham, my reputation and Georgiana's would still have been tainted. And can you imagine how my sister would react when she heard? As much as Wickham has injured her, she is far too tender-hearted to wish him harm. She would never forgive me. Nor would she have forgiven you, if I had allowed you to complete such a reckless action."
Fitzwilliam sighed and tried to brush some of the mud off his coat. "You are right. I was not thinking clearly."
"Allow me to finish. And what about your reputation? You would be thrown out of your regiment as soon as it was known you were in a duel. That would be unfortunate, since I have heard rumors of your upcoming promotion. No, the best thing is for me to pay off Wickham and hope he has the sense to hold his tongue."
"Promotion?" Fitzwilliam's attention had been caught by that single word, which rendered him oblivious to Darcy's final comment.
Darcy laughed at his friend's expression. "Yes, Lord B-- let the secret out when I met him at our club last week. How shall you like it, Colonel Fitzwilliam?"
Fitzwilliam sighed, and awareness of his present surroundings returned. The candle on the night table had burnt almost down to its socket, and the guttering flame threw fantastic shadows on the walls. Darcy had been right to stop him, but he still wished that the duel could have ended differently. If it had, Wickham's elopement with Miss Bennet's sister would never have happened!
He reached over and snuffed the candle, then lay back and pulled the covers up to his chin. Here was a second chance to help his cousin, and this time there would be a better ending. And if, by aiding Darcy, Fitzwilliam could provide a service to Miss Elizabeth Bennet, so much the better. However, it would be best if Darcy were convinced to take credit for everything. Fitzwilliam wanted only Miss Bennet's friendship, not her gratitude. Darcy had already endured enough of Fitzwilliam's competition for her attention in Kent: there was no need to divide her thanks between them as well. Surely such an heroic act would raise her opinion of his cousin? Perhaps it might even be the final event which would convince her of the sincerity and depth of Darcy's feelings for her.
One thought remained in his mind as he finally fell asleep: Miss Bennet must never know of his involvement in her sister's rescue.
Part 4 -- An Unavoidable Delay
Darcy came late to the breakfast table, only appearing as Fitzwilliam was finishing a last cup of tea. His appearance was much improved over the previous evening: coat neatly brushed, cravat impeccably knotted, and jaw once again clean-shaven. Revealing his difficult situation to Fitzwilliam -- or else the change of linen -- had improved his temper immensely and also done wonders for his appetite, if the manner in which he attacked his plate of food was any indication.
"Good morning, Darcy," his cousin said, saluting him with his teacup. "I trust you are feeling refreshed? I see you agree with my opinion of my brother's new cook."
Darcy, caught in the middle of a mouthful, had to take a moment to chew and swallow before he answered. He directed a mock glare at his cousin. "Before one can formulate an opinion, one must sample the results of the cook's endeavors, in which case one would think one's saucy cousin would refrain from interrupting one's enjoyment of the meal by expecting one to engage in morning pleasantries before one has finished eating."
"I am properly reproved, indeed! I had forgotten how prickly you can be when your stomach is empty." Fitzwilliam laughed and rolled his eyes. "Only you, Darcy, could concoct a statement like that so early in the day. You must be feeling better, to summon such pomposity."
Darcy rather pointedly ignored his friend and calmly continued eating, his eyes innocently directed at the rapidly disappearing contents of his plate. Fitzwilliam smiled again, but although he was sorely tempted, he forbore to make any additional comments until a footman removed the dishes and brought Darcy a fresh cup of tea. Darcy helped himself to lemon, further testing Fitzwilliam's patience, before he finally spoke.
"Yes, your brother's new cook is excellent. And where is your brother? Have I missed him? I had hoped to explain my sudden arrival."
"My brother and all his family are already up and gone this morning, but he asked that I deliver his greetings. Since I wanted to eat my breakfast before all of Cook's delicious creations had gone cold" -- he looked sidelong at Darcy, whose only response was to raise his eyebrows, smile slightly, and continue drinking his tea "I arrived in plenty of time to wish them good morning. My brother bids you welcome and says you may stay as long as you like."
Darcy replaced his teacup in its saucer without even the faintest rattle of porcelain. "Excellent. I hope my visit will not be too long. The sooner this mess is settled, the better."
"I am afraid there will be one delay we cannot avoid. The errand which claimed my brother and his wife so early was a call on the Hutchings family, to express how eagerly they are anticipating the ball the Hutchings are hosting this evening. I am included in the invitation, as I am sure you will be when my brother tells them of your arrival."
Darcy groaned. "I had forgotten the unceasing demands of the social season in town. Now I recall why I always spend this time at Pemberley! I suppose it must be endured. However, that leaves us with this morning to begin our search. Have you considered what is best to be done?"
"Upon further reflection, I believe we should not yet alert Mr. Gardiner to our presence. It would be better to postpone your visit until we have some news to report. Do you agree?"
"Yes, I had thought of that as well. I would not wish to raise Mr. Gardiner's hopes unduly, since we have not the smallest piece of information regarding his niece and Mr. Wickham."
"Actually, Darcy, we do have one possibility. You mentioned it yourself, last night." Fitzwilliam said.
Darcy looked confused. "Then I must have been more tired when I arrived than I supposed, because I cannot recall anything of the kind."
"There is a connection to Wickham through my cousin's former companion, Mrs. Younge." Fitzwilliam watched revelation dawn on Darcy's face. "I will be charitable and attribute your momentary oversight to tiredness, as you suggest, since your brain usually works much more rapidly."
"Of course! My dear cousin, what would I do without you? Yes, I believe Mrs. Younge returned to London after I dismissed her at Ramsgate, and if I can locate her, she may point the way to our man." Darcy looked ready to leap out of his chair on the instant, so eager was he to begin the pursuit. "And what will you try while I am in town looking for her?"
Fitzwilliam replied, "I have one or two friends in Derbyshire who were acquainted with George Wickham. I will write to them, and perhaps they can give us some clues to his whereabouts -- other friends or relatives who might assist him, or favorite haunts where we might find him."
With these words, and a wish of good luck from each to the other, the two gentlemen separated: Fitzwilliam to his writing-desk, and Darcy to call his carriage.
Fitzwilliam wrote his letters and posted them, but he was prevented from taking any further action by the return of his family. Fitzwilliam's young nephew, a precocious boy of about eight years, immediately pounced on his "Uncle Fitz" and demanded a detailed recounting of the Colonel's adventures in the Indies. One of the boy's schoolfellows had proudly announced that his uncle had fought off a tiger single-handed, and young Master Fitzwilliam was not about to be outdone. The promise of a strawberry tart waiting in the nursery finally induced the boy to relinquish his uncle's company, but not before Fitzwilliam had solemnly recounted a greater exploit: that he -- grievously wounded, weary, starving, alone, and surrounded by ravenous jungle beasts, of course -- had subdued an entire village of savage natives, while armed with only a penknife.
When Darcy returned, he reported that his morning had been less colorful and, unfortunately, no more productive. Several people with whom he spoke remembered Mrs. Younge, but not one could say with any certainty whether she was still in London. One person thought she might even have taken a position in Ireland. Darcy had spent the remaining time at his own townhouse, letting his housekeeper know he was in town, making sure there had been no troubles in his absence, and collecting some clothes for the ball, since he had left Derbyshire with a wardrobe entirely unsuited for formal social engagements.
The two cousins had time for a light luncheon before it was time to prepare for the evening's festivities. Fitzwilliam was slightly discouraged that their search had gotten off to such a slow start, but his naturally optimistic disposition forbade him to dwell on the subject when the prospect of a pleasant evening was before him. He wanted only rest and a good meal to be ready to enjoy any amount of music and dancing, and perhaps even a few rounds of cards. In addition, a ball allowed him yet another opportunity to fence with the many society matrons who were determined to foist their marriageable daughters upon him, and the jab and parry of conversational wit was a skill that required at least as much practice as the same exercise with a foil, which required less of an edge and more of a point.
Fitzwilliam was also aware that his cousin would not take such a light view of their lack of progress. Darcy seemed particularly frustrated by the thought that Mrs. Younge might have left the country. It was high time to have some conversation, or else Darcy would brood over his unspoken thoughts all night.
"I suppose we must find you a white horse for your eventual return to your fair lady in Hertfordshire. To be a proper hero, you should have the shining armor as well, but it is rather hard to come by these days, and one would imagine it is rather uncomfortable."
Darcy smiled at the image of himself in armor, clattering up the drive at Longbourn. "And it had better be a draught horse, if it is to support the weight! It is a pretty fancy, Fitzwilliam, but even if you found the horse and the armor, it would not come to pass. I am no champion, setting off on a quest with a damsel's favor tied to my helm. I am simply a man who is trying to make amends for a mistake gone too long uncorrected."
"Wickham is not your mistake, Darcy." Fitzwilliam leaned forward and earnestly looked his cousin in the face. "He bears the responsibility for his own actions."
"Yes, but they are actions he would not have been able to make, if I had not been blinded by selfish concern for my reputation and that of my family."
"On the contrary, your concern was not selfish. You were thinking of Georgiana, who is your charge and responsibility, and you did what you thought was best to protect her. You must not dwell on what is past, since you cannot change it. Think of the future instead, and what happiness you will give Miss Bennet when her sister is restored to respectability -- somewhat tarnished, I admit, but better than anyone may have hoped -- and she knows that you are the author of it! I said before that you only needed to prove your affection to Miss Bennet, and what could be better proof than this?"
"Proof! What good is proof, when I am in no way sure of Miss Bennet's feelings? Am I to attempt the labors of Hercules for Miss Bennet's sake, and hope for her love as a reward? Reuniting her sister and my friend Bingley is one thing -- in that case, she might look on me kindly. However, if I arrive in Hertfordshire and announce myself as her sister's savior, she would likely think it was an unparalleled interference on my part, in which case she would feel gratitude, at best. At worst, she might believe I had done it on purpose to put her family under an enormous obligation and gloat over their misfortune." Darcy scowled into his wine glass.
"Darcy, you are overtired, and you are being ridiculous. The labors of Hercules, indeed!" Fitzwilliam smiled at this seldom-seen indication of his cousin's sense of melodrama. "Miss Bennet is a remarkably perceptive woman, and having heard your declaration of love once, she will realize the proper motive for your actions."
Darcy sighed and lifted a hand to rub a tense spot on his forehead. "Wickham as Cerberus or the Hydra is even more fanciful an image than myself in armor on a white horse, I suppose. Still, Fitzwilliam, I cannot take the chance that she might misunderstand my reasons and resent me because of that. Consider: I am here without Miss Bennet's request or consent, so how can I possibly explain my part in her sister's recovery? I have begun in secrecy, so I shall continue, and so I shall finish." Darcy looked sternly at his cousin. "I do not intend Miss Bennet to know anything of my part in her sister's recovery, and I must have your word that you will not betray my secret. I mean for Mr. Gardiner to take credit for the whole business."
"If you insist, of course you have my word," Fitzwilliam replied. "But if your efforts are to be concealed, then so will mine. And you must also promise that, even if Miss Bennet discovers your involvement, you will convince her that you acted alone. I will take my satisfaction from the pleasure of being of service to you and to her, and your thanks are enough for me."
"Such sacrifice is as foreign to your nature, Fitzwilliam, as it is to mine. Of course Miss Bennet would want to know of your assistance! I am sure she would consider it as invaluable as I do. You cannot have the same reasons for wishing to hide your actions." Darcy looked thoughtful. "Fitzwilliam, were you entirely truthful when you told me you were not in love with Miss Bennet?
"I assure you, I was in earnest. I hold Miss Bennet in the highest esteem, and I admire her more than any other woman I have ever met. However, I remain convinced that you are a better partner for her, and I shall be enormously happy for you both when you tell me she is to be my cousin. On second thought, I will modify that request: you may tell her of my involvement after you are married."
Darcy laughed. "Very well! I see you are have no doubts regarding the outcome of our endeavors, and I only hope your optimism is not misguided."
With that, the two gentlemen shook hands on their bargain, and went to their respective chambers to change.
Part 5 -- Words And Music
"Buck up, Darcy! It's a receiving line, not a firing squad!" Fitzwilliam elbowed his cousin in the ribs to recapture his attention. "You only have to be sociable for a few hours."
"I think I would prefer the firing squad. At least then I would be offered a blindfold and could expect shortly to be put out of my misery," Darcy replied, under his breath. Fitzwilliam was forced to stifle a laugh as he bowed over the elegantly gloved hand of Mrs. Hutchings, their hostess for the evening.
"Ah, Colonel Fitzwilliam! So pleased to see you! And you brought your cousin after all, I see. Mr. Darcy, how are you?" Mrs. Hutchings' excitement at having one of the wealthiest and most eligible bachelors in the country at her ball was betrayed only by the swift flutter of her fan.
"I am quite well, madam. It is very kind of you to include me at such short notice." Darcy's face remained impassive as he bowed to his hostess, but he groaned inwardly as he noticed how her fluttering became more rapid. The familiar social hunt was off again, and Darcy suspected his cousin of bringing him to this ball just so the matchmakers would have more than one target. Tally ho, he thought.
They made their way through the rest of the receiving line without incident, and moved into the main assembly rooms. If most respected families in town cared only for seeing and being seen at social gatherings, the Hutchings family held the former as their highest goal, and they had made sure to invite everyone who preferred the latter. Although the hour was still early, the rooms were becoming crowded, and the atmosphere already gave a hint of the stifling pitch it would achieve later. Fitzwilliam's brother and sister-in-law melted easily into the crowd, exchanging polite greetings with all their acquaintance. Fitzwilliam himself found an unoccupied two square inches of floor and took a moment to survey the gathering.
Candlelight sparkled on diamond necklaces and golden watch chains. The musicians tuning their instruments in the ballroom were barely heard over the constant rumble of laughter and conversation. The vast ocean of guests could hardly be divided into individual persons, appearing instead as a jumble of silk gowns, ostrich plumes, and satin waistcoats that, at first glance, confused the keenest eye. However, an observer used to such scenes could note certain occurrences, if his eyes lingered in one spot for a long enough time: two gentlemen happily renewing a friendship with a firm handshake; a pretty girl flirting energetically with her male companion, but on the lookout for any more handsome face; two other young ladies, obviously disgusted with each other, if the angry speed of their fans was any indication; or a pale thin gentleman sighing for love over an equally pale beauty who returned his eloquent look, but who could not escape the watchful eye of her mamma.
With some relief, Fitzwilliam noticed the cluster of scarlet coats on one side of the room. At least his fellow officers would provide camouflage if he needed a respite from the social fray! He had also spied an agreeable quantity of pretty female faces in the room; he made a mental note of dances and introductions to be requested later. Finished with his inspection, he spared a glance for Darcy, who looked ready to bolt at any moment.
"Gods above, but I will be thankful when this evening is through," Darcy muttered.
"There is at least one thing for which to be thankful before the evening has even started," Fitzwilliam replied, with a wicked look in his eye. "Miss Caroline Bingley will not be in attendance."
Darcy laughed outright at that, and seemed to relax a little. "Let me count my blessings while I may! In that case, I should always spend my summers in town, since Miss Bingley thinks it hardly proper to leave the country before the end of the shooting season. Fitzwilliam, I will find you later -- I see Mr. Edgerton across the room, and I must pay my respects."
"I will only let you go on the condition that you dance more than four dances tonight, to make up for your behavior at a certain assembly in Hertfordshire!" Fitzwilliam called after his cousin's disappearing figure.
In such a large gathering, it was hardly to be expected that the arrival of one person would be remarked more than another. However, there are always people who make it their business to be noticed, and one of these was Miss Clarissa Lancaster. Perhaps her reception by Mr. and Mrs. Hutchings was a touch more effusive than it was for the other guests; perhaps Miss Lancaster snapped open her fan at precisely the right moment as she entered the assembly rooms; whatever the reason, she was satisfied that she became the focus of almost everyone's attention, if only for a moment. Some people watched her for more than a moment, but for very different reasons indeed.
A number of women in the room dissected of the details of her costume: the cost of her gown; its color, which was only a few shades paler than the fresh violets at her shoulder; its drape and style, possibly the creation of a French dressmaker; and the quality of the amethysts she wore at her throat and wrist. (Miss Henrietta Wilkins-Leighton was heard to whisper rather loudly to her dearest friend and companion, Miss Constance Robson, that the stones were probably only glass. However, the eavesdroppers put her remarks down to pure spite, since Miss Lancaster had been unmercifully snubbing Miss Wilkins-Leighton all season, ever since that lady had made the unfortunate remark that white roses were prettier than red. In any case, Miss Lancaster's fortune of well over twenty thousand pounds guaranteed that all of her jewels were genuine.) The only thing that could be considered an imperfection in her appearance was her hair: it was a striking red, and therefore significantly unfashionable, much to her mamma's distress. However, Miss Lancaster simply used it to her advantage as another way of standing out in a crowd. Tonight it was twined upon her head with black velvet ribbons, with one long lock artlessly cascading across her shoulder.
The young unmarried gentlemen in the hall (and some who were neither) had no interest in how much Miss Lancaster's family had spent for her attire, but instead admired the way the silk rippled about her tall, slender figure as she moved. Her necklace might be amethyst, garnet, or glass, for all the gentlemen cared, since it could in no way compete with the brilliance of her smile or the sparkle of her bewitching blue eyes. And to be sure, her hair was very red, but it only served to emphasize the flawlessness of her complexion.
Though many eyes were upon Miss Lancaster as she entered, her eyes sought only one person -- and found him, resplendent in his regimentals, laughing at something his friend had just said. Decidedly closing her fan, and trailing her mamma in her wake like a wagon behind a runaway horse, Miss Lancaster began to work her way through the crowd to where Colonel Fitzwilliam was standing.
That gentleman had noticed Miss Lancaster's entrance, but he studiously behaved as if he had not. Alarm bells of every variety might be resounding in his head, interspersed with thoughts along the theme of "Oh, Lord, not again," but he continued to speak animatedly with his friends. In Fitzwilliam's battle to maintain his bachelor status, here was his most implacable adversary: Miss Lancaster had pursued him relentlessly through most of this season and the previous one. If Fitzwilliam had aspired to no ambition beyond becoming a kept husband, he might have been in some danger, since Miss Lancaster was beautiful, wealthy, and occasionally charming. However, Fitzwilliam was unreasonable enough to expect affection, humor, and intelligence as the least of the qualities of the yet-unknown woman who could entirely capture his heart; therefore, Miss Lancaster had few attractions for him, except as a sparring partner when his wit needed exercise.
Miss Lancaster swept to his side with a rustle of silk skirt. "Colonel Fitzwilliam, I am so pleased to see you here tonight." She extended her hand to him, obviously expecting to enjoy the press of his lips against it.
"Miss Lancaster. Good evening." Fitzwilliam turned to her and bowed slightly, allowing himself a smile as she realized that this was the only greeting she was to receive. She masked every hint of discomfiture, seamlessly changing the motion of her arm to raise her fan so that she could casually inspect its carved ebony sticks. Fitzwilliam tried to turn back to his friends, but the lady was determined to prolong the encounter.
"I hope you have come prepared to enjoy yourself, Colonel."
Fitzwilliam gave a nearly inaudible sigh and excused himself from his friends, who seemed amused by his dilemma but knew that he was fully capable of extricating himself. "Indeed I have, Miss Lancaster. A ball has endless possibilities for enjoyment."
"Do you mean to dance tonight, Colonel? You are such an excellent dancer, and it is a pleasure to see." She smiled at him coyly yet meaningfully from under her eyelashes.
A broad grin overspread Fitzwilliam's features. "Ah, Miss Lancaster, thank you for reminding me! I have been inexcusably remiss and have not yet claimed my partner for the first dance. You are extremely kind to save me from making such an unpardonable slight, since I hear the music just starting." He bowed again, with an elegant flourish, which provided a dramatic pause before his next words. "Please excuse me, since it would be terribly rude to keep Miss Bryant waiting."
Fitzwilliam's meaning struck Miss Lancaster just as she was preparing to sink into a perfect curtsey and, in her most enchanting manner, accept his invitation to dance. She was too surprised to make a perfect recovery, and she staggered with unaccustomed gracelessness as she fought for balance. White with indignation, she watched as Fitzwilliam approached Miss Sylvia Bryant -- a little nobody with no looks and less breeding! -- bowed, and led her to their place in the set. The girl was obviously overwhelmed by her good fortune in getting such an attractive dance partner, and one could almost see the calculations of Fitzwilliam's income racing through her chaperone's head.
However, in the few moments that it took for another man to come forward and ask if she would care to dance, Miss Lancaster had more than enough time to regain control of her features. She bestowed a dazzling smile on the fortunate gentleman and accepted graciously, but as she was led into the dance, her thoughts were entirely focused on her next meeting with the Colonel.
Darcy was across the room from his cousin, calmly drinking punch with some business acquaintances who made no demands that he be merry, witty, or otherwise entertaining. He had observed the skirmish between Miss Lancaster and Fitzwilliam, smiling to himself when the victor became apparent. He had viewed many such scenes during the previous season, ever since he and Fitzwilliam had been introduced to Miss Lancaster. One had to admire her persistence! He continued to watch as his cousin went down the dance, noticing that Miss Lancaster's attention never wavered from him, no matter how rude it made her appear to her partner. Fitzwilliam, on the other hand, seemed perfectly unconcerned by her presence and devoted himself to amusing Miss Bryant, who was soon smiling and laughing. Fitzwilliam was indeed an excellent dancer, but Darcy envied him more for his natural skills of conversation and entertainment, which made him well received in any company or situation.
When the set ended, Miss Lancaster once again moved toward her quarry. Darcy saw that his cousin, having escorted Miss Bryant back to her chair, was momentarily trapped by her mamma -- an exceptionally imposing matron whose turban added an additional six inches to her height -- and was unprepared for another attack. Fitzwilliam freed himself and turned around just in time to see Darcy step forward, directly into the huntress's path.
"Miss Lancaster, would you honor me with the dance after next?" He carefully did not look at Fitzwilliam as he bowed, knowing he would never be able to keep a straight face if he saw his cousin's expression.
His interruption had the desired effect: Miss Lancaster was so thunderstruck to have the opportunity to dance with Mr. Darcy -- ten thousand a year and ever so handsome! -- that all thought of Fitzwilliam was temporarily driven from her mind. She was just capable of nodding her assent, and then she went with almost indecorous haste to a knot of her friends, to communicate the wonderful news. Her mamma, who had witnessed the whole thing, was in raptures and looked as if she might burst her stays with excitement.
"This had better be worth at least four dances," Darcy hissed to his cousin. "Is my obligation discharged?" He winced as a piercing giggle came from the direction of Miss Lancaster and her friends.
Fitzwilliam could barely contain his mirth. "Six dances," he said, also whispering. "Darcy, I owe you my life for this!"
All too soon, it was time for Darcy to claim his partner and lead her to the dance floor. Miss Lancaster had regained her composure, and she became more self-complacent with every step. By the time she joined the set and curtseyed to her unexpected partner, she was positively preening. Everyone would be watching, she thought happily. What a feather in her cap this would be! She could easily survive on this triumph for the rest of the season. Now, if only she could convince dear Darcy (as she thought of him already) to spend more time in town, since Derbyshire was really too far north to be fashionable.
Eventually she noticed that the object of her imaginings had not spoken an word since the set began. This would never do! She smiled brightly at him and tried some conversation. "You dance exceedingly well, Mr. Darcy."
A pause as they were separated by the dance, then, "I thank you, madam."
This short reply did nothing to discourage Miss Lancaster, and she was ready with another sally by the time she had moved to her next position. "I have found that true gentlemen such as yourself are generally better dancers than, say, officers."
This remark earned a hint of a smile from Darcy, as he readily perceived the reason behind it. "Many officers are also gentlemen, madam."
She tossed her head impatiently. "By birth, perhaps, but hardly by behavior. Why, one of my dearest friends was just dancing with an officer who told her --" Her remarks were cut short as she had to circle around another couple in the set. Darcy was amused in spite of himself, which was just as well, since she continued talking when they rejoined, allowing him no opportunity for a reply. "He told her that he had just been talking to another officer, over where the card tables are set, who had spoken of yet a third officer who had seduced a young girl of no more than sixteen, who had been a guest of his colonel's wife! And this third officer was boasting about bringing the poor girl to London, without having married her! Now, Mr. Darcy, you cannot tell me that that is proper behavior for a gentleman."
The dance ended as Miss Lancaster finished speaking, and she curtseyed deeply, confident that she looked graceful and demure, and expecting her rightful share of admiration. When she finally looked up at her partner, she was surprised to see that he was not paying the slightest attention to her. Darcy's face had gone pale and that his lips were pressed together almost angrily. "No, Miss Lancaster," he said at last, "that is certainly not proper behavior for a gentleman. Pray excuse me."
And with no more words, he bowed stiffly, turned on his heel, and stalked off in search of his cousin.
Continued in Part 2
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