Part 11 -- Fitzwilliam Pays A Call
Fitzwilliam straightened his coat and brushed away some imaginary specks of dirt as he squinted at his reflection in the brass door knocker. Satisfied that he would pass the strictest inspection, he took a deep breath and rapped firmly at the door. The wait for a response seemed interminable, but it was in reality not longer than half a minute. During this measurable eternity, Fitzwilliam did his best not to fidget and to ignore the curious glances from people passing by on the street. Finally, he heard steps inside. The heavy door opened on silent hinges to reveal a butler who appeared, if possible, even more supercilious than Mr. Gregory, who presided over the Fitzwilliam townhouse.
However, the man's icy façade melted as soon as he recognized the caller, and the impassive face broke into a smile of genuine delight. "Colonel Fitzwilliam! What a pleasure to see you again, sir!"
"Good afternoon, Mr. Wilson," said Fitzwilliam, presenting his card and returning the smile. "I believe his Lordship is expecting me."
"Indeed he is, sir," Wilson answered, opening the door wider. "Won't you step inside?"
Fitzwilliam had not visited this particular townhouse for several months, but he had not forgotten the opulence of its furnishings. The Darcy and Fitzwilliam townhouses, though impressive in their own right, could hardly compare. A caller seeing this house for the first time might imagine that the owner was an affected socialite who cared for nothing but appearances, whereas Lord B-- was one of the most genuine, practical men Fitzwilliam had ever met.
The butler led Fitzwilliam to an agreeably comfortable sitting room and inquired as to whether he needed any refreshment. Receiving an answer in the negative, he departed in search of his master, and Fitzwilliam was free to contemplate his unlikely friendship with his noble patron.
Lord B-- had not been born to his title, but instead had entered the world with no appellation other than Gerald Mowbray, second son of a wealthy country gentleman. That gentleman's fortunes prospered well, and he was elevated to the knighthood and then to the peerage before his first son reached his majority. Young Gerald was of course pleased that his older brother would inherit a title to further adorn their estates, but he knew that he would be forced to shift for himself if he wished to make his mark in the world. As is the usual fate of younger sons, he needed a profession, and he happened to choose the army.
His entry into military life was rather abrupt: after only two weeks of drill and training, his unit was shipped across the Atlantic to join the forces trying to suppress the rebellion in the American colonies. At his very first battle, pitched outside of Saratoga, he was so nervous that he could not load his musket properly, and his military career might have been ended, even before it had begun, by a fierce colonist wielding a bayonet. However, the soldier who stood next to him in the skirmish line had the presence of mind to throw Mowbray a primed pistol, which allowed him to hold off the attackers for long enough to unjam his musket. The British lost the battle that day, but Mowbray never forgot the valuable lesson that a soldier should always have more than one weapon with which to defend himself. Two years later he was not so fortunate, receiving a musket shot in his shoulder, and he was forced to remain a prisoner of the American forces until the British defeat at Yorktown. After the armies exchanged prisoners, Mowbray was sent to a British colony in the West Indies to recuperate from his injuries.
After garrison duty in the West Indies, he later found himself as part of a British force quelling a native uprising in India. These years of army life proved both that he enjoyed traveling to distant lands and that he had a natural talent for military affairs. His father's assistance had extended no further than the purchase of his lieutenant's commission, but Mowbray needed little encouragement to seek ever-higher promotions. When he was given command of his first regiment, one of his junior officers was the young Lieutenant Fitzwilliam, on his first assignment after having joined the ranks for very similar reasons as Mowbray, who was by then a colonel. He immediately suspected that this lieutenant had great potential: a suspicion that was proved many times over during the next few years, both in routine barracks duties at home and in active military engagements overseas.
The unexpected death of Mowbray's older brother forced him to leave his beloved military duty and assume the responsibilities associated with his position as the new Lord B--. However, the change in the manner in which he was addressed -- from "Lieutenant-General" to "your Lordship" -- did not change his personality or his respect for the men who had served with him in His Majesty's Army. Mowbray continued to watch the careers of his favorites, including Fitzwilliam, and used the greater influence of his new title to advance them to higher ranks whenever he could.
Fitzwilliam certainly realized how lucky he was to have such a man as his friend and benefactor -- most of the noble gentlemen who held high ranks and correspondingly great influence in the army had purchased their commissions and avoided any service beyond the drawing room, and their only understanding of a battlefield came from moving markers around a map. The officers who received promotions at their hands were likely to have money of their own or family connections, rather than any genuine skill at arms. The awards from Lord B--, however, were a recognition of an officer's achievements and an expression of confidence in his future accomplishments, and Fitzwilliam was proud to receive them.
Gerald Mowbray was indeed a unique gentleman who possessed a wide knowledge of the world and a keen understanding of the people who inhabited it. Fitzwilliam fervently hoped that Mowbray would be willing to use those qualities to help him out of his current difficult situation with Wickham.
Fitzwilliam heard Mowbray approaching, since the costly rugs in the hallway could do nothing to muffle the still-vigorous stride of the former infantry officer. When the man who had been so thoroughly occupying Fitzwilliam's thoughts entered the room, Fitzwilliam snapped to attention and only just restrained himself from offering a salute -- old habits were certainly hard to break. Mowbray smiled warmly at Fitzwilliam's reaction and stepped forward to shake his hand.
"Fitzwilliam, my boy. It's good to see you."
"And you, sir," Fitzwilliam replied, returning the hearty grasp. Mowbray's mustache may have turned white with the years, but his grip was still as strong as ever.
Mowbray gestured to two armchairs by a window which overlooked the garden at the rear of the house, and seated himself in one of them. "Are you certain I can't offer you anything? A cigar? A glass of sherry?"
"No, sir. Thank you just the same, sir." Fitzwilliam made a mental note to suggest that his brother purchase a few of these chairs for the library in his own townhouse -- they were really quite comfortable.
"Was General Mattox able to find you without too much trouble? I apologize for bothering you while you are on leave, but I didn't want to miss this opportunity to speak with you."
"It was no trouble at all, sir. I met the general in the park while I was out with my nephew." Fitzwilliam smiled as he remembered his commanding officer's "inspection" of Master Robert.
"Your nephew? Of course, I recall, your brother's child. His oldest?" Mowbray lit a cigar and puffed contentedly.
"Yes, sir. Robert is eight years old now.
"And shaping up well to carry on the title of Earl of Matlock, I suppose. Splendid! But still no wife and family for you, Fitzwilliam?"
"No, sir. Not yet."
"Ah, the women of London must be heartbroken! But not as heartbroken as they'd be if you settled on only one of them."
Fitzwilliam caught the wink that Mowbray angled towards him. "And as you always taught us, sir, we must always keep the ladies happy. I think they can depend on my being a bachelor for a while longer, which gives them plenty of balls to anticipate, in which I will seek out as many lovely dance partners as I can."
Mowbray laughed outright at that, and it took him a few moments to recover himself. "You are an impudent rascal, Fitzwilliam. I'm not so sure there's a woman who would have you, after all! I think I would be less surprised to hear that your stone-faced cousin, Mr. Darcy, had found a woman to accept him. The last time I saw him at our club he looked gloomier than a churchyard at midnight -- contemplating his own bachelor future, no doubt. But enough of this. Time to get down to business."
"Before you begin, sir, if you don't mind, I'd like to discuss some business of my own. I'm involved in a rather tricky situation, and I thought you might be able to assist me."
"Of course, Fitzwilliam! I'm glad if there's anything I can do to help." He inhaled hard on his cigar and let out a blast of smoke. "What is it?"
"Sir, I need a commission."
Mowbray sat up suddenly, looking perplexed. "But that's the very reason I..."
"Please, sir, allow me to finish." Only Fitzwilliam's long military training prevented him from fidgeting nervously, and he silently wished he had a ring like Darcy's that he could twist to relieve his anxiety. Mowbray was a generous man, but Fitzwilliam wasn't sure if he would still be willing to help once he knew all the details. "Not a commission for myself, sir. I'll try to explain things."
As briefly as he could, Fitzwilliam outlined the situation. He was not afraid of mentioning Darcy's name, since Mowbray was on good terms with his cousin, but Fitzwilliam did not reveal the names of Miss Elizabeth Bennet or her sister. The scandal they faced would be great enough without spreading it beyond the circle of their immediate acquaintance.
When Fitzwilliam had finished, Mowbray was silent for a while. He seemed deep in contemplation, only rousing himself once or twice to flick the ash from the end of his cigar. He spoke only when he felt he had collected his thoughts sufficiently. "So, let me make certain I understand you. This fellow Wickham -- who sounds like an utter scoundrel, if you ask me -- rather imprudently and irresponsibly eloped with a young lady, whom he has now promised to marry. Your cousin Darcy, being acquainted with the penniless young lady in question -- I can't imagine how, but I won't ask -- has taken it upon himself to arrange the marriage settlements, and he has promised the aforementioned Wickham employment. And since this same Wickham has had experience in the militia -- although if he had been in my regiment, I would have had him flogged within an inch of his life for such behavior! -- you made it your business, as a favor to your cousin, to find a commission for him. Correct so far?"
"Yes, sir," Fitzwilliam replied.
Mowbray was momentarily silent again, then gave a sigh of apparent resignation. "Fitzwilliam, I can help you, but..." and he turned a compassionate gaze upon his guest, "you must be made aware of the price it will require."
"I'm prepared to do anything to help my cousin, sir. You know he's like a brother to me."
"I'm sure that's what I expected you would say. Good man." Mowbray sighed again. "My dear boy, I'm afraid I don't have a stack of commissions at my elbow that I can distribute hourly to every promising officer who crosses my path -- let alone having them to waste on men like Wickham! Each one takes time and trouble to obtain, and there is never any telling when I can get hold of the next. The only one I have in my gift at present is one that was meant for you: promotion to the rank of major-general and command of your own regiment. If you tell me I must change it to a commission for Wickham, that is what you must give up."
Fitzwilliam blanched. His own regiment? Major-General? Never had he imagined he might reach such an honor! And he still might never reach it, if he turned the commission over to Wickham. Fitzwilliam knew he would be a good commanding officer; in fact, he was entirely certain of it -- he performed well already with the limited command that General Mattox allowed him to have. And with the situation in France becoming more critical, having his own regiment would put him in a position where he could do some good in the fight against Napoleon. Could he let this opportunity slip away? Surely if he considered for a day or two, he could imagine another way to provide for Wickham...
But then he thought of Darcy, and he imagined the pain Darcy would feel if Elizabeth Bennet and her family came to grief and shame through the actions of the imprudent Lydia. Unless Lydia's future was secured -- and if she was to marry Wickham, then the only method was to secure his future also -- Elizabeth Bennet would never be free to be courted by a gentleman of Darcy's station, or indeed, by any respectable gentleman. Remembering Darcy's dawning happiness from the evening at Rosings when he had finally realized he was in love with Miss Bennet, Fitzwilliam knew he could not permit such a thing to happen. Taking another day for consideration was also out of the question, for if he told Darcy of what Mowbray had offered, Darcy would never allow him to make the sacrifice.
Mowbray watched intently while Fitzwilliam wrestled with the choice that had been placed so abruptly before him. The expressions on his young friend's face had shown his conflicting emotions, like the reflections of thunderclouds on an ordinarily placid lake. It was obvious when Fitzwilliam had reached his decision: when he lifted his eyes, they were clear and untroubled, and his smile shone like sunlight. Mowbray puffed again on his cigar and waited for Fitzwilliam to speak.
"Sir, how far away from London can we send him, without making him actually leave the country?"
Part 12 -- No Other Option
The time-honored custom of allowing gentlemen to retreat to the library for brandy and cigars after dinner may have initially been created because the gentlemen needed time to discuss business or politics without upsetting delicate female sensibilities, and their ladies wished to discuss family and fashion without testing the limits of male equanimity. It is also possible that the custom might have been created by some person who could not otherwise escape the company of an unsavory marriage partner. Whatever the reason, Fitzwilliam would have gladly foregone the accustomed routine on this particular evening, the better to avoid his cousin's wrath upon hearing the decision that had been reached in Lord B---'s comfortable sitting room. It was therefore unfortunate for him that the custom continued; even if it had not, any female presence that might have moderated the vehemence of Darcy's remarks was unavailable, since Fitzwilliam's brother and sister-in-law had been invited to dine with the Lancasters. Fitzwilliam was not sure which he feared worse: that his relations would somehow encourage Miss Clarissa Lancaster in her pursuit of his attentions, or that Darcy's temper would never cool.
Fitzwilliam sighed and directed his gaze at some indeterminate spot above the mantelpiece. He also resisted the urge to check his pocketwatch to see how long Darcy had been circling the room. After taking a sip of port -- which he had decided was very good, but not quite up to the usual standards of his brother's wine cellar -- he brought his attention back to his cousin to see if Darcy had changed the subject of his discourse.
He had not. "Are you mad? I should never have involved you in this horrendous affair!"
Darcy thought he might never have been so angry before. Far too irate to confine himself to a chair, he paced rapidly about the library, agitatedly picking up books and putting them down again, finally forcing himself to keep his hands clasped behind his back while glaring fiercely at his cousin. Oh, how his hands longed to close upon Fitzwilliam, so that they might shake some sense into him!
"I cannot allow you to do this. It is too much! Wickham has done too much harm to too many people for him to deserve a gift like this. You cannot -- no, must not, will not -- give up your promotion for him! I should never have let you see Lord B--- on your own. I should have known you would take some action that was utterly hare-brained, rash, impulsive, reckless, irresponsible..."
"Foolish?" Fitzwilliam suggested.
"Absolutely! Foolish, impertinent, maddening..." Darcy paused to think of a few more choice adjectives.
Fitzwilliam was relieved at the lull in his cousin's tirade -- even without consulting his watch, he thought that Darcy had surely continued for a full quarter of an hour without stopping for air! "Have you been taking lessons in monologue technique from our Aunt Catherine, Darcy? Really, I think..."
"Fitzwilliam!" Darcy exploded, spinning around to face his cousin. "This is no time for levity. How can you jest when you have just thrown away your future to rescue Wickham and Miss Lydia Bennet from their own folly? Nothing I've said has made any impression on you, has it?"
"Darcy, sit down and listen to me. Apparently nothing I've said has made any impression on you, either." Fitzwilliam waited until Darcy finally collapsed into a chair. The sullen, glowering look on Darcy's face amused him greatly -- it made Darcy look as if he was five years old and pouting because his nurse would not allow him to do something -- but he suppressed every urge to laugh at this absurd behavior. Now my cousin truly demonstrates that he is an eldest son, Fitzwilliam thought ruefully. He has been ever used to having his own way and to making all decisions himself. How it must vex him, that I have not allowed him to make this one!
Only when he was satisfied that Darcy was not going to spring up and begin pacing around the room again did he continue. "You are wasting your breath with this lecturing, Darcy. Your presence would not have changed my actions. At most, you would only have delayed my answer, because I am sure we would have had this same argument at Lord B---'s house. However, you know we cannot afford any delay if we are to resolve this situation with Wickham. He might use any hesitation to find a way to escape before we can get him married. As it is, I should prefer him kept under lock and key until the ceremony."
"But even a slight postponement of your decision might have given us time to find some other alternative." Darcy was far from convinced. "There must be another way to provide for Wickham without giving him the commission that was meant for you."
"Do you believe that I gave up my commission without any consideration at all? Do you imagine that I am entirely unaware of the consequences, or that I embraced this idea because it was the first one put before me?" Fitzwilliam cried, an anguished note sounding for the first time in his voice. Major-General! he unwillingly thought, before he could wrestle his emotions back under control. "Darcy, I assure you that although my reflection was necessarily brief, it was thorough, and I would not have done this if I had seen any other way. There is no other option."
Darcy sighed and leaned back in his chair. "No, I cannot accept that. There must be something else! Wickham showed an interest in studying the law after my father's death. If we could set him up to study for the bar again, or find a solicitor who would be willing to train a young partner..."
"Would you trust a man like Wickham to uphold our legal system? If he knows anything about the law, it is only because he has evaded it and ignored it so many times! Can't you just imagine him in court? 'Your Honor, I would recommend that the defendant be found innocent of all charges, because I have committed far more serious crimes, and if I am still a free man, then so should he be.' And anyone who hired him as a solicitor, thinking that he would faithfully guard that family's most precious legal and financial secrets, would probably be swindled out of every last shilling!"
"Very well, you have made your point. And before you continue, I agree that the clergy is also out of the question. The very idea of Wickham preaching sermons stands my hair on end! And he will not admit to having any other relatives, so we cannot know if he has connections in trade. Are there really so few options for men who do not possess their own fortunes? Strange how I never considered it before."
Darcy had lowered his voice and spoke almost to himself for this final reflection. Fitzwilliam made no answer, but his small wry smile showed the tenor of his thoughts. Why would you consider it, when you are one of the lucky few with an assured income and no need to earn your way in the world? Fitzwilliam was not envious of Darcy's inheritance, but he had often thought that a few years of working for a living would do wonders for his cousin's character.
"So let him remain in the military," Darcy continued, not noticing Fitzwilliam's look, "but why cannot we find him a commission without using yours?"
"Because we have this commission now, and the details are complete in time for your meeting with Wickham tomorrow. There may be other regiments or militia units with an open billet for a new officer, but it would take too long to find them, and the location might not be as favorable for our intent."
"Favorable?" Darcy asked, a petulant tone resurfacing. "I still see nothing 'favorable' about the arrangement at all. The only option I would consider 'favorable' is exiling Wickham to Elba, now that Bonaparte has vacated it."
Fitzwilliam's efforts to repress his mirth were not so successful after this remark, and neither could he choke back the accompanying laugh, although he managed to set down his wine glass before he spilled it. "Would Wickham allow himself to be outdone by a Frenchman? Never! If Bonaparte escaped, so would our man." After a deep breath, he judged it was safe to pick up his glass again. "You missed the advantages of my solution because you weren't listening earlier when I was trying to explain them to you. Does selective deafness always accompany your stubborn moods, Darcy? First of all, Lord B--- and I arranged the commission so that Wickham will have only the rank of Lieutenant. This ensures that he will have very little authority himself, but he will be subject to the orders of nearly every other officer in the regiment. In addition, any man of Wickham's age who is still a lieutenant will not be looked upon favorably. The other officers will think he's an incompetent wretch before he even arrives -- either for not being promoted sooner, or for not being clever enough to find a sponsor to purchase an advanced commission -- and they'll make him work twice as hard as anyone else. He will also have a devil of a time with the enlisted soldiers, since they will judge Wickham first by how many stripes he wears before they care about his charming personality. And Newcastle doesn't possess nearly as many temptations as London, so it will be more difficult for him to make trouble outside the barracks. But the real beauty of the arrangement," Fitzwilliam continued, getting a particularly evil glint in his eye, "is that I am well acquainted with the commanding officer of the Newcastle regiment. One word from me, and Wickham will be on latrine duty for the rest of his military career."
Darcy closed his eyes and smiled in spite of himself. Fitzwilliam had done it again! "Has there ever been a time when you could not create a victory out of a seeming disaster?"
"There was," Fitzwilliam replied, "but it was many years ago. Now you know why I'm such a good officer."
"You would be a brilliant officer as a major-general with your own regiment," Darcy shot back. He opened his eyes again and sat forward in the chair, resting his elbows on his knees and directing a serious gaze at his cousin. "Are you entirely, absolutely certain that there is nothing I can say or do to make you change your mind in this matter?"
Fitzwilliam returned the look steadily, though an observer who knew him well might still detect a trace of pain in his eyes. "Yes, I'm certain. Darcy, this really is the only way."
A last fragment of stubborn glare remained on Darcy's face as his barely-contained annoyance drove him to his feet again. His hands refused to stay still, and he restlessly smacked a fist into his open palm. "But why should this be the only way? Why should you be the one to make the sacrifice that will save Miss Bennet?"
"Ah, now we come to the heart of your resentment." Fitzwilliam took another sip of his wine as he considered his cousin's words. "Do you still want all the glory of this adventure for yourself, so that one day you may claim Miss Bennet's gratitude? I thought that gratitude and obligation were the last feelings you wanted from her. Cousin, master your pride for long enough to accept my help -- which you asked for, and which I readily gave, out of affection for you -- and recognize that your presence here is sacrifice enough. Be content that Wickham's employment is settled, and he can have no further objection to marrying Miss Bennet's sister. Soon, he will be off to Newcastle, and he will go out of our lives at last."
The view from the townhouse's window suddenly lost Darcy's interest, as a surprised expression crossed his face. He realized he had succumbed to his usual habit of staring out of any convenient window whenever he encountered a situation he did not like. "You are right, and I apologize. Will I ever be able to keep my pride under more strict regulation, do you think?" Darcy sighed. "In any case, if future events go as I would wish, Wickham is not likely to go out of my life at all."
Fitzwilliam knew immediately what was meant by this rather cryptic statement. "You mean that, if we are successful, and if you can return to Hertfordshire to make another proposal to Miss Bennet, and if she accepts you -- then Wickham would become your brother-in-law."
Darcy sank back into his chair and buried his head in his hands, showing his frustration by the white knuckles knotted in his hair. "My friends and relations will say I am doubly damned, both for marrying into the Bennet family, who have no wealth, position, or connections, and for still doing it when they are related to such an infamous scoundrel as Wickham."
"But you must see her again, no matter the situation."
"You, of all people, know I must."
"And their lack of 'wealth, position, and connections' no longer has any importance to you? You thought very differently, only a few months ago." Fitzwilliam knew what his cousin would reply, but he knew that both of them would prefer to hear it.
"Pray, do not remind me of what I did before! You know what happened between myself and Miss Bennet in Kent, and I also think you know how deeply I regret it. That is yet another instance in which my pride interfered, and I am utterly ashamed of my behavior. I did my best to convince Miss Bennet of this when I saw her again at Pemberley, but my work cannot end there. I have yet to repair the errors I made when I separated Bingley from her sister."
"You are now convinced that you were in error?"
"Almost certainly. I have never seen Bingley so downcast over an attachment before, nor have I known him to cherish an affection for so long without any loss of the original feeling. Did I tell you that I concealed from Bingley the knowledge that Miss Bennet's sister was in town last winter? That was very wrong of me, and I do hope he will forgive me."
"Bingley is not the sort of man to hold a grudge. No doubt, he will be so elated when you tell him that Miss Bennet's sister returns his affection, that he will have plenty of goodwill to encompass your absolution."
Darcy smiled at this image of Charles Bingley, which was very near the mark. "Yes, he is a good fellow, and I am very lucky to consider him a friend." But then he sighed again. "As for Miss Bennet herself, I cannot let matters between us stand as they were when I left Derbyshire. I must tell her that, try as I might, I could not stop loving her, and once and for all I must discover what her feelings are. If they are favorable, why then I will ask her to marry me, Wickham or no Wickham."
"If you are still so much in love with Miss Bennet, even after all that has happened, then that does seem to be your only option." Fitzwilliam looked out the window for a moment as he thought. The late-summer sunset was just past, and although the sun was gone, a few clouds remaining in the sky were lit to fiery hues by the last of the light. Such natural beauties never failed to restore his spirit -- and his sense of humor. "Bother-in-law to Wickham! Darcy, I think yours may be the greater sacrifice, after all!"
Part 13 - The suspicion of a clever woman
The weather was so fine on this summer day that Fitzwilliam decided to walk the final distance to his barracks. A few brief instructions for his brother's coachman sufficed to arrange for his small trunk to be delivered to his lodgings, and soon enough he was free to stroll lazily along the London pavement, enjoying the warm afternoon sun. Also, he reflected, he ought to enjoy these last few hours of solitude and contemplation, because neither was easily obtained when one was surrounded by one's rather boisterous fellow officers - and perhaps this was the reason that none of those officers would credit the idea that Fitzwilliam occasionally enjoyed having time to himself. He would be immersed in an ocean of masculine camaraderie by supper time, and now might be his only opportunity to reflect upon the events of the past week.
Fitzwilliam and his cousin Darcy had exchanged their farewells that morning, before Darcy had to leave for yet another meeting with his solicitor and Mr. Gardiner. Lydia Bennet was safely ensconced in the Gardiner townhouse, where she was reported to be chafing at everything that delayed her marriage, especially since she understood none of the reasons why the date for her union with her "darling George" was being deferred. This was a change for Lydia, since she had made no complaint when it was Wickham himself who had put off the wedding; however, since he had personally experienced her state of sublime ignorance, Fitzwilliam felt no surprise at the youngest Miss Bennet's behavior. The lucky groom was not under house arrest (as Fitzwilliam would have preferred), but his movements were under discreet observation by two grooms from Darcy's townhouse. Since the fellows had enough muscle to control Darcy's notoriously high-spirited horses, their current charge was not likely to give them any trouble. Darcy expected that the prospect of having his debts erased would be enough to keep Wickham from trying to escape, but Fitzwilliam was glad they were taking no chances.
The financial arrangements were taking rather longer to complete than anyone had expected, since Darcy was being exceedingly careful about how his money could be used. He was determined that the marriage articles would include a comfortable settlement for Lydia Bennet - an amount giving her an income of one hundred pounds per year was agreed to be a reasonable sum - and he was equally determined that there should be no legal way these funds could ever fall into Wickham's hands. Despite her soon-to-be-husband's propensity to live well beyond his means, this arrangement should guarantee that Lydia would never be left destitute.
Fitzwilliam thought his cousin was being rather overly generous to the pair, for although one had caused such trouble only through her own folly, the other had coldly calculated the best way to inflict ruin on many people, including Darcy himself. That he had not entirely succeeded was due to the fact that his ambition far exceeded his cunning and intellect.
A pair of handsome ladies passing by, whose presence required him to tip his hat and smile cordially (which effort was rewarded by slight blushes and timid smiles from both, quickly hidden behind expressions of demure composure), roused him from his reverie and made him aware of his surroundings. Across the cobbles on the far side of the street was a church with an imposing facade of marble and granite. This massive edifice reminded Fitzwilliam that the announcement for the wedding was finally written, although it would not be submitted to the newspapers until the joyous event had actually taken place. Mr. Gardiner, who had come to the Fitzwilliam townhouse for dinner the previous evening, had commented with the sardonic quip that his sister, Mrs. Bennet, would likely disapprove heartily of the form and wording - but at least it was done.
Mrs. Gardiner had accompanied her husband, finally giving Fitzwilliam the opportunity to make her acquaintance. He was very pleased to learn that his cousin's reports of her intelligence and elegance had not been exaggerated, and he was flirtatious enough to tell the lady so. She responded in the same vein, being well able to withstand the effects of a red coat and a pair of roguish eyes. Fitzwilliam remembered the evening with pleasure, since the ladies of his acquaintance usually knew very little of the art of conversation, no matter what other accomplishments they possessed.
When dinner was over and the company adjourned to the drawing room for coffee, Fitzwilliam had hastened to continue his conversation with Mrs. Gardiner. "It is very seldom, madam," he said, taking the seat next to hers on the sofa, "that I find the tales of a lady's wit, charm, and beauty match the reality of her person. You would seem to be the exception, because not only have I heard tremendous praise of you from my cousin - whom you must know is a very difficult gentleman to impress - but I also find myself, after only one evening in your company, agreeing with his every word."
She smiled as she answered. "You are very kind, sir. I must confess I have also heard tales from your cousin, concerning your talent for outrageous flattery. However, in your case, I believe the reality far exceeds the report."
This reply, uttered in the mildest of tones, produced a hearty laugh from its target. Fitzwilliam settled himself more comfortably on the sofa and rallied himself for a lively riposte. "How can it be flattery, when such a speech proves my argument? Mrs. Gardiner, your words only increase my estimation of your character. Not one lady in a hundred could so easily turn a compliment into a reproof for the gentleman who tried to deliver it! On second thought, however, I might be able to name another lady who could do it," Fitzwilliam said, looking over towards Darcy. "Perhaps it is a familial talent?"
Mrs. Gardiner persisted in her assertion that she was not unlike other women. "I am not so far out of the common way, and I believe I can explain the reason for this seeming exception, because as you say, no one can ever entirely equal what is told of them by others, for good or bad. Your mistake, Colonel, must lie in taking only the word of your cousin to form your picture of me. It is likely my husband would have illustrated my character very differently."
Noting the conspiratorial glance that passed between the Gardiners with these words, Fitzwilliam proclaimed, "Certainly not! As your husband, Mr. Gardiner must be understandably prejudiced in your favor, and I would expect him to describe you in only the most glowing terms."
"And even if I were tempted otherwise," Mr. Gardiner interjected, "who knows in what fiendish manner she would take her revenge upon me? One wrong word, and I might have to endure cold suppers for a month!"
"That is the danger of being wed to a clever woman, sir," the Colonel answered, noting the sparkle that her husband's remark had produced in Mrs. Gardiner's eyes. "Although in my opinion, the additional effort to stay in such a lady's good graces is well repaid by the vibrancy and happiness she must bring to one's marriage."
"I cannot disagree with you there, sir. The phrase 'the happiest of men' has become rather overworn by gentlemen who take a wife, but in my case it could not be more true." And on these words Mr. Gardiner approached his wife and gallantly kissed her hand, making her blush as all of Colonel Fitzwilliam's blandishments could not.
It took Mrs. Gardiner only a moment to recover herself, as she watched her husband walk across the room to join Darcy. Seeing that the two gentlemen immediately fell into a discussion of the final details of Lydia's marriage settlement, she once more turned her attention to the Colonel. "For an apparently confirmed bachelor, sir, you speak very wisely about the married state. How is it that you have not put your observations into practice?"
"It is for want of an adequate partner, madam," was the reply.
Such a short answer was hardly enough to dissuade Mrs. Gardiner from her teasing on this subject. "Come now, Colonel, there must be many women who would suit you, if all you wanted was an 'adequate' marriage partner. I suspect you are rather more particular than you admit."
Fitzwilliam had not expected she would let the matter drop so easily, and indeed he had calculated that the brevity of his response would draw his companion farther into the current subject, which promised to be a source of much entertainment, rather than induce her to choose a new topic, which might prove to be the state of the London streets, or something equally dull. Additionally, there was something that he very much wanted to discuss with Mrs. Gardiner, but he was content to wait until an opportunity presented itself in the normal flow of conversation.
In the meantime, since Fitzwilliam was used to having the members of his family prod him for the reasons he still remained single, answering Mrs. Gardiner's statement was not in the least difficult. "You are quite right, madam. If all I wanted in a wife was a little beauty and some degree of breeding, accompanied by a modest fortune, there are any number of ladies who would do. However, I am looking for a lady who also possesses intelligence, kindness, humor, strength - and who has, I hope, some affection for me. If she had these rarer qualities, I could be persuaded to do without the more usual characteristics of an eligible maiden - even the fortune, which is usually of extreme importance. For what good is it to satisfy the needs of my purse - for as you know, all soldiers have extraordinarily profligate and extravagant habits - if my partner is not my one true love?"
"Your observations of the majority of London society should show you that there are many who put the demands of their creditors before the demands of their hearts, and yet such people are content with their lot in marriage, even if they are not perfectly happy. There are ladies who have those rare qualities you describe, although they may be outnumbered by those who are merely 'adequate.' If you can be patient a little longer, I am sure you will find such an one." Mrs. Gardiner was greatly amused to see this unsuspected romantic side of the gentleman - it was not a personality trait she normally associated with those in the military life. The thought, however, led to another observation. "I would imagine that your profession might make it more difficult to find a wife, as well."
The Colonel looked thoughtful. "There are few who would agree with you, since wherever officers go, they are invariably followed by a crowd of young ladies. As for the kind of lady I seek, my unmarried state must prove that they do not often care for men in the Army."
"Their mothers must warn them away from you, thinking the rigors of being a soldier's wife are too difficult." Mrs. Gardiner smiled a little, although she was glad that she herself had not married a soldier or a sailor - separation from her husband in time of war would be nearly impossible to endure. "So, you have reached your present age without meeting one lady who matches your description?"
"There have been a few who had one or two of the qualities I would like in a wife, but until now there has been only one who even came close to answering all of my requirements."
"And who is this paragon of womanhood? Why is she not here beside you, being introduced to us as Mrs. Fitzwilliam, the Colonel's wife?" Mrs. Gardiner's humor increased, since she was expecting for a reply some fanciful tale of unrequited love, which Fitzwilliam's next words appeared to confirm.
"Because there is another gentleman who is in love with her."
"And do you quail before a rival? For shame, Colonel! Surely a little competition only adds spice to courtship. I would not have imagined you were so faint-hearted."
"The case is not so straightforward, madam. Had this other gentleman been a person completely unknown to me, I would likely have continued in my attempt to gain the lady's affections, for she would be well worth winning. However, the gentleman is one of my truest friends, whom I would never injure if it is in my power to prevent."
"That would certainly complicate the situation. May one inquire how you came to know the state of this gentleman's affections for the lady?" Mrs. Gardiner thought it wise to probe for a few more details, since she was suddenly aware that the Colonel had some purpose for turning the conversation in this direction. There must be something he wanted to tell her, but for the moment she could not determine what it was.
"I must confess, it was a surprise to us both. I was considering making a proposal of marriage to the lady, and when I asked his opinion of the matter, he responded with a jealousy I would never have believed him to possess. The only reason I could imagine for such behavior was that he was in love with the lady himself, and when I challenged him, he was forced - after some little consideration - to admit it was so."
"He had not believed himself in love before then?"
"He had told me he admired the lady, but nothing more. However, my friend is one of those gentlemen who does not readily show strong emotions, being unsure of whether they would meet with the approval of the world at large. In this case, the emotion was so unusual that he had hidden his feelings even from himself."
Mrs. Gardiner gave an understanding nod. "My niece Jane has been known to behave in a similar manner. For those who do not know her well, her feelings are obscured by an appearance of calm and serenity. I imagine a gentleman such as you describe would affect a reserved demeanor - 'serene' being an adjective that applies only rarely to the male sex."
The Colonel felt that Mrs. Gardiner was beginning to take his meaning. "Madam, you are quite correct in your observation. My friend keeps himself under strict control, and as a result he has often been mistakenly condemned for being reserved, haughty, and proud. However, for someone who has known him as long as I have, the slightest word or gesture is enough to make his feelings apparent. I have never seen him so affected by anyone as he is by this lady."
This was enough to make Mrs. Gardiner keep silence for a few moments, as she considered that there was only one man of whom the Colonel could be speaking. It must be Mr. Darcy. She pondered what the Colonel had said and rapidly matched it to her own observations of his cousin's behavior, both in London and when she had seen him at Pemberley. But could the lady in question really be the one whom she believed it to be? It did not seem likely that the Colonel could be mistaken about the situation, and his thoughts agreed with some recent speculations of her own. Mrs. Gardiner considered for another silent moment as she again looked at the two gentlemen on the other side of the room. This time, however, the object of her scrutiny was not her husband.
Fitzwilliam waited anxiously for his companion to speak again. He took a sip of his coffee, only to discover that it had become quite cold during the course of the conversation, without his realizing it. He turned to set the cup aside on the table next to the sofa, and when he turned again, he found Mrs. Gardiner ready to continue their discussion.
"It is difficult for me to offer an opinion in the case, for it is notoriously hard to diagnose any definite symptoms of love in these kinds of quiet, self-contained gentlemen. Without superior knowledge of his character, such as you possess, one might suspect that he felt an inclination towards a certain young lady - but one could never be quite sure."
"I must protest, Mrs. Gardiner," Fitzwilliam answered with a chuckle. "The suspicion of a lady with your intelligence and keen insight would be nearly five times as reliable as a certainty offered by most of the population."
"That may well be so, Colonel, but I would not like to hazard the happiness of this excellent gentleman on the basis of a suspicion alone. You say that your friend has admitted his love to you, so I will ask a more important question: has he not declared his suit to the lady?"
Mrs. Gardiner turned a remarkably penetrating gaze on Fitzwilliam as she asked this, but he did his best to ignore it as he thought how to reply. He was approaching a point where he would be dangerously close to breaking the promise of secrecy he had made to his cousin - that he was having this conversation with Mrs. Gardiner meant it was rather bent already. He dared not mention any further particulars, especially since he did not know whether Miss Bennet would have informed her relations that Darcy had proposed and been refused in Kent. Fitzwilliam could only hope that Mrs. Gardiner would allow him to escape with a generalization.
"I believe the lady is aware of the sentiments the gentleman has for her."
Mrs. Gardiner considered this a highly unsatisfactory response, but she had noticed the Colonel's discomfort and decided not to press him. "And does she return his regard?"
"There was a time when she most emphatically did not - however, my friend has told me that her feelings may have become more favorable in recent months."
"And has your friend undertaken any action which might continue to improve this lady's opinion of him?"
This came close enough to the truth that Fitzwilliam knew not what to say. As he was mentally denouncing himself for an overconfident fool who never knew when to stop interfering in his cousin's concerns, even if his motives were benevolent, Mrs. Gardiner took pity on him and continued the conversation herself.
"I have learned, Colonel, through years of observation, that young men are sometimes even more likely than young ladies to wish to keep the affairs of their hearts private. Would I be right to think that the gentleman of whom we are speaking is such a man, but that you - as his particular friend - have been allowed into his confidence?"
Fitzwilliam gave her a look of undisguised gratitude. "You would, madam."
"In that case, Colonel, I will not require any more details. I can see you are a man of scrupulous honor, and I would not wish you to feel you have betrayed the trust your friend has placed in you. However, I will tell you what...suspicions I have formed, based on what you have told me and on my own thoughts of the matter, without requiring you to tell me if they are correct."
"Very well, Mrs. Gardiner. You have my entire attention."
Mrs. Gardiner finished her coffee and set it aside as she gathered her thoughts for her summation. She performed the action with such an air that Fitzwilliam wondered if she had a father or a brother who was an attorney. "I have no reason to doubt your assertion that your friend is truly in love with this lady, however much I might like to see more definite proof of it with my own eyes. I would surmise that this gentleman is one of those who does not succumb to frequent flirtations or infatuations, so this attachment must have surprised him with its strength - a fact which would account for your friend's difficulty in admitting it to himself.
"If the gentleman's feelings are so strong, even if he is of a relatively taciturn disposition, then I would imagine it is highly unlikely that the lady could be entirely unaware of the depth of his regard. In such a case, any action your friend might take, with the hope of further recommending himself to this lady, could not but succeed.
"In addition, Colonel, there are few women in my position who can resist encouraging a developing tenderness between two young people, so if - purely theoretically, of course - I had a chance to tell the lady how pleased I was that such a worthy gentleman had given up his heart to her, I surely would not miss the opportunity."
This interesting conversation was forced to end almost as soon as Mrs. Gardiner finished speaking, for her husband approached to remind her that the hour was growing late and to suggest that they should take their leave. She exchanged a warm handshake with Fitzwilliam and he and Darcy escorted the Gardiners to the carriage, and Fitzwilliam's mood was considerably lightened by the knowledge that he had made a staunch ally in his campaign to find the happiest possible resolution for his cousin and Mrs. Gardiner's niece.
After the door had closed behind their guests and the two gentlemen had returned to the drawing room for a final glass of port before retiring to their beds, Darcy turned to Fitzwilliam with a questioning look in his eyes.
"What could you and Mrs. Gardiner be talking of so long, Fitzwilliam? It must have been terribly fascinating, judging by the attention you spent on the exchange."
"What? Oh, no, we were speaking of generalities only - nothing in particular."
However, as he walked upstairs, Darcy did not entirely trust the smile he had seen over the rim of Fitzwilliam's wine glass.
These memories were enough to carry Fitzwilliam into the training yard of his barracks, where he was enthusiastically greeted by no fewer than six of his fellow officers. With a small sigh, he put the events of the past week behind him and turned his mind once again to his military duties.
Part 14 Returning hope
Darcy settled himself into his carriage, waiting while his coachman closed the door and then leapt up onto the box, where he gave his whip a snap and chirruped to the horses. There was a slight jerk as the vehicle started, but in moments they were moving smoothly through the London streets. The carriage was well sprung, and Darcy felt only a gentle lurch and sway, which he hardly attended, as the wheels rattled over the cobblestones.
The last two days had been very busy, but it was finally accomplished: Lydia Bennet and George Wickham were married.
Only the innate gentility of Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner prevented them from saying how thankful they were to have Wickham and Lydia off their hands; their patience and composure had been stretched to the limit as they had lectured the one and endured the platitudes of the other of the pair during the past fortnight. Wickham had been allowed to call at the Gardiner townhouse as often as he pleased, although he was never allowed to see his fiancée alone, nor were they permitted to go out into the town together. Mrs. Gardiner reported that Wickham had behaved always in his most bland and pleasing manner, even playing games with the Gardiner children. Mrs. Gardiner went so far as to say that, had she not known his true character, she might almost have been moved to sympathize with him. However, Darcy thought, for a lady who could so easily withstand the charms of his cousin Fitzwilliam, it would require very little effort to perceive how shallow was Wickham's facade.
The wedding ceremony was a simple affair, conducted at St. Clement's church, since that was the closest to the parish in which the Gardiners lived. The Gardiners brought Lydia, who was rather sorely put out that none of her sisters were in attendance. However, her spirits improved as soon as she caught sight of her darling Wickham, while she was walking up the aisle on her uncle's arm. Mrs. Gardiner, observing the proceedings from one of the front pews, thought she heard Lydia happily sigh something about a blue coat as the minister asked the bride and groom to step up to the communion rail, but she was not certain she had heard correctly.
Bringing Wickham to the church had fallen to Darcy's lot - and to his credit, Wickham had appeared with punctuality, if not with excitement usually exhibited by grooms on the occasion of their weddings, when Darcy's carriage rolled up to the front door of his lodging house. Apparently the amount of the financial settlement and the knowledge that his creditors would be satisfied were enough to make him swallow the indignity of being trapped by his own folly and to make him fulfill his part of the bargain. The two gentlemen had no conversation beyond the state of the weather during the ride to St. Clement's, which was mercifully short, and Wickham wisely did not expect to receive any congratulations or wishes of good luck as he prepared to begin his nuptial penance. On the church steps he took a moment to straighten his cravat; his mouth quirked into a small self-deprecatory smile; and then he removed his hat and calmly walked inside. However, as he had not lost his talent for conjuring the proper behavior in every situation, Wickham was the very picture of tender consideration as he escorted his bride out of the church after the service. It was not apparent whether Lydia noticed his gallantry; as the wedding party returned to the Gardiner townhouse, she was far too busy holding her left hand out the carriage window and bowing at the passersby to notice her husband.
The newly wedded pair were now on their way northward. Their travel plans had been altered slightly by the arrival of an invitation to stop at Longbourn before they journeyed on to Newcastle, and for thence they had departed almost immediately after the ceremony was completed.
The Gardiners, at whose house Darcy had dined the previous evening, had been somewhat surprised to receive the letter from Mr. Bennet which contained the invitation, since that gentleman had most emphatically stated in his earlier correspondence that he had no wish to see his daughter or her new husband, nor could they expect to find a welcome if they were so bold as to appear in Hertfordshire without being asked. However, the reason for Mr. Bennet's change of heart could be readily perceived in a postscript to the formally worded note which reluctantly granted Mr. and Mrs. Wickham permission to visit their relatives. Mrs. Bennet's effusive scrawl was nearly illegible, but her rapturous anticipation of seeing her darling daughter and her incomparable son-in-law filled the remainder of the page which Mr. Bennet's two lines would have left blank.
The Wickhams would be at Longbourn now, and Darcy wondered what would be the reaction of the two eldest Bennet daughters. No doubt there would be indignation at the behavior which had led their sister so near her ruin, but it would be swiftly followed by relief at her rescue, which they would attribute to their uncle Gardiner. Darcy still regretted that such a deception was necessary, no matter how kindly meant - but he was still afraid that, without it, Miss Elizabeth Bennet's improved opinion of him might be blighted by an insurmountable sense of obligation before her feelings could grow into a true regard and affection for him.
For now he could allow himself to hope, as he had not done since he left Miss Bennet in Lambton, that this transmutation of her feelings was possible. Surely if her behavior towards him had altered so much between Rosings and Pemberley, a further change for the good might still occur? The barest contemplation of the happiness resulting from such a change was enough to take Darcy's breath away.
However, he had one more task to complete before he could permit himself to pursue his own happiness: he had made a promise that he would repair the mistake made when he impudently removed Bingley from Hertfordshire. Darcy was determined that they should both return to Netherfield; and since common politeness would require a visit to Longbourn, he would have the opportunity to observe his friend and Miss Jane Bennet together. If her sentiments were as unchanged as Bingley's seemed to be, then Darcy was prepared to confess everything to his friend and apologize for his unwarranted interference. The price of his presumption would be the risk that Bingley might not easily forgive him.
With so much yet to accomplish, Darcy had time for only one call this morning, before he saw to the arrangements for his return to Derbyshire: a visit to his cousin Fitzwilliam.
Fitzwilliam's first weeks back on duty had passed in a blur of marching drills, fencing lessons, musket practice, and now he had only to tackle the swamp of administrative documents that had accumulated in his absence. He was sitting behind the desk in his barracks office, quill in hand, mentally grumbling that he should have been a cavalry officer, when an aide knocked at his door and announced a visitor. A familiar tall figure was not far behind.
"Darcy, come in! It is good to see you!" Fitzwilliam extended a hand which bore enough ink smudges to make his cousin laugh.
"Are they now teaching His Majesty's fighting forces that the pen is mightier than the sword, bayonet, and cannon?" There was a mischievous gleam in Darcy's dark eyes.
"Never - although, I grant you, this particular pen is tremendously stubborn, and lately it has seemed mightier than any weapon I could have chosen. The figures I write with it never seem to balance, and the material I am asked to requisition with it never seems necessary. However, it did cooperate with me long enough to deny a petition from the fifth company that their rum ration should be increased!" Fitzwilliam tossed the offending implement aside with an air of disgust, only to make a mad grab for it before it could drip ink on several official dispatches. With a sigh he carefully placed it in its proper holder. "You see how it outwits me at every turn? I knew I was never meant to be a clerk."
Darcy laughed as his cousin collapsed back in his chair. "At least you are spared the distraction of an overly solicitous lady hovering at your elbow, commenting on the evenness of your writing and offering to mend your pen!"
Fitzwilliam gave an answering smile, remembering Darcy's description of a particular evening he had spent at Netherfield. "I believe I am safe from such an interruption, since Miss Bingley once told me how little regard she has for any man in a red coat - a sentiment for which several officers in my regiment are thankful, I might add."
Darcy was amused. "And when did Miss Bingley communicate this interesting opinion, may I ask? I did not think you were so well acquainted with the lady."
"I briefly met Miss Bingley and her brother at an otherwise unremarkable party last season, which you did not attend; I suppose you must have been at Pemberley, or otherwise occupied with business. I found Mr. Bingley exactly as you had reported him - a pleasant, gentleman like fellow who was doubly pleased to make my acquaintance once I told him who I was. I must say, he has a marvelous sense of humor. I could hardly make him stop laughing after I told him about that trick you played on my mother's friend, Lady Hamilton."
"Fitz, you didn't!" Darcy let out a groan.
"Indeed, I did. After all, it was your idea to step in when her maid fell ill, just before the banquet was to begin. And it was devilish hard to find a dress that would fit you, on such short notice."
"Fitz..." There was a warning note in Darcy's tone, which Fitzwilliam blithely ignored.
"There were some who were calling it an attempted seduction, except that you were only fourteen - any older, and your looks wouldn't have been pretty enough to go with that lace cap - and Lady Hamilton was close to sixty - any younger, and her eyesight would have been good enough to spot the trick the moment you walked into her dressing room. The disguise might have lasted longer, if you were more skilled at arranging a lady's hair." Fitzwilliam was now grinning in earnest, watching his cousin's reaction.
Darcy wanted to be angry at Fitzwilliam for telling such an embarrassing childhood tale to a friend whose good opinion meant so much - especially when that good opinion might be lost in the very near future - but his own memories of the occasion were too comical for him to do anything but share his cousin's merriment. "After the third time I had stabbed her with a hair pin, she turned around to demand why I had become such a graceless chit, and when she finally got a good look at me, she let out the most astonishing screech..." He could not continue, having dissolved in laughter. He collected himself with an effort, and took a moment to fish in the pocket of his coat for a handkerchief to wipe some tears from his eyes. "Well, at least now I know why Bingley has found such singular diversion in asking my opinion of ladies' dress and hair styles these last few months."
"You will be pleased to know I did not tell Mr. Bingley just how many weeks it was until you could sit down comfortably, after my father had administered what he considered adequate punishment."
"Thank you for leaving me a few secrets. But you have changed the subject - what of your meeting with Miss Bingley?"
Fitzwilliam rolled his eyes and did his best to look aggrieved. "After I had thus firmly established myself in Mr. Bingley's good graces, he of course introduced me to his sister. Miss Bingley was graciousness itself while her brother was in attendance, but as soon as he left us, she made it abundantly clear that she endured my presence only because I am your relation. However, in spite of this declaration she kept reappearing throughout the evening to engage me in conversation, most of which consisted of an enumeration of my faults in comparison to your virtues! In this odd manner I must assume she hoped to recommend herself to you through me. In self-defense, I had to call in a few favors, and Major Peters and Captain Wallace may never forgive me for convincing them to dance with her!"
"But you avoided dancing with her yourself? Lucky man - while she is graceful enough, her words do not improve much for having some music to accompany them."
"No, I would not call myself lucky," Fitzwilliam answered, emphatically shaking his head, "for that particular evening included another fateful meeting. At one point when Miss Bingley was being uncommonly persistent, out of desperation to escape her I turned around and requested a dance from the first young lady I saw. It happened to be Miss Clarissa Lancaster."
Darcy's laughter in response to this remark was loud enough to startle a junior officer who was passing in the outer hallway. The Colonel seems to be in very high spirits today, he thought. Perhaps the fifth company's petition will be granted after all!
Eventually the cousins' mirth subsided, and they conversed for some little while longer, as Darcy described the events of the previous day. Fitzwilliam shared his relief that the wedding was accomplished at last. He also expressed his approval of Darcy's plan to bring Mr. Bingley back to Netherfield, and he extracted a promise that his cousin should write minutely of the details of the visit to Longbourn, as soon as it took place.
The gentlemen made their farewells, for it was past time for Fitzwilliam to return to his duties, and Darcy was eager to begin his journey back to Pemberley - he imagined that by now his sister Georgiana might have reached the end of her tolerance for the solicitous attentions of Miss Bingley, and he had promised her that he would return as soon as his business in town was completed. Fitzwilliam asked to be remembered to his young cousin, and then added another request.
"Yes, Fitzwilliam?" Darcy turned where he stood at the doorway, hat in hand.
"Don't make the engagement too long, will you? December would be a perfect time for me to take some family leave, so I don't have to be on duty at Christmas this year."
Darcy made no answer to this, but only tipped his hat and smiled broadly as he went out the door.
Continued in Part 4
© 1998 Copyright held by author