Modesty & Mischief
Chapter Fifteen: Ardor All Around
"Twelfth Night!" cried Kitty.
It was the first of December, a little snow was on the ground, and a party of young people was playing a rousing game of charades in the sitting room of Pemberley. A great fire roared nearby as Kitty, Georgiana, Clarissa Campbell and Arthur Stirling made themselves very merry together.
"Bravo! Well done, Miss Bennet," praised Miss Campbell, resuming her seat. "Take your turn, and make it a good one."
Kitty got up before her friends and only thought a moment before holding up one finger.
"One word!" asserted Mr. Stirling.
She nodded, and patted three fingers on her upper arm.
"Three syllables- first syllable!" chimed Georgiana.
Kitty pulled her ear.
She pretended to sniff at a funny odor.
"Foul!" "Nose!" "Smell!"
Kitty nodded enthusiastically at the last, and they began to guess at words.
"Dell!" "Knell!" "It is 'well'!"
Kitty shook her head, then frantically mimed picking up a small object in her thumb and forefinger, and ringing it back and forth.
"Bell!" shouted Miss Campbell excitedly. Kitty beamed. "Third syllable- small word. All right, 'of''?"
"The!" guessed Stirling.
"A?" volunteered Georgiana. Kitty nodded vigorously. "I know! 'Belinda'?"
"Hurrah!" sighed Kitty, falling into a chair after her successful exertion.
"Beautifully done," commented Stirling. "It is up to you now, Miss Darcy. Confound us!"
"I can never think of anything to do," complained Georgiana. Mr. Stirling took the opportunity of her indecision to whisper an idea into her ear that she might use. She blushed furiously at the feeling of the whisper, his breath so close, and also at the meaning of his suggested charade.
"I say, that is unfair, Mr. Stirling," contradicted Miss Campbell lightly. "Now you shall have the advantage."
"I shall not guess! It is a ladies' competition."
"Ladies do not compete, Mr. Stirling!" said Kitty, pretending to be affronted.
"Certainly not," agreed Elizabeth, who watched the game from across the room, busying herself with sewing. "We vie."
"A ha! Well then, vie for the answer, delicate ladies."
The game began again with three words, the first word having two syllables, and the first syllable shown by Georgiana's acting out of a little rowboat. After further clues, it was quickly guessed that the answer was 'Romeo and Juliet', but as Kitty and Miss Campbell chorused their answer together, the game was declared a tie. Mr. Stirling was obliged to part with the fair ones soon after that, and they fell at once to teasing Georgiana.
"'Romeo and Juliet'? My, my," was Miss Campbell's comment.
"Very easily acted, too," said sly Kitty.
Even Elizabeth did not spare her. "An appropriate suggestion," she laughed. "From the hero to the heroine. Tell us we should not expect a tragic ending, Georgiana."
"Enough! Oh, stop!" Georgiana was pink, but smiling profusely, for Mr. Stirling did make her feel like a most romantic heroine. She looked at Kitty defiantly. "Perhaps if someone else were here, I might suggest 'Macbeth' for you!"
"The Scottish Play! Oh, I love it. It is so dramatic, and the Lady so cruel," Miss Campbell shivered. "But who would suggest such a thing? Surely you are not in league with the murderers of kings, Miss Bennet?"
Kitty made a face at Georgiana and replied regally, "She refers to our friend Mr. Douglas."
"What is Mr. Douglas? Prince or Earl?"
"Scotsman and artist," replied Georgiana. "And he has painted Kitty's miniature."
"Oh, let me see!" Kitty, blushing as much as ever Georgiana had done, retrieved it from her reticule, where she had clipped it into a little frame. "Oh, it is fine! Truly, he is very talented," admired Miss Campbell. "Where is he today? Why is he not among your little throng of callers?"
Alas, Kitty sighed, he had gone to ______shire to paint a family portrait, for he had to follow his commissions wherever they led. She had not seen him for several days at least.
"But he will come to the ball, your 'Macbeth'?"
Kitty said she hoped so, and then proceeded to turn the investigation about on the inquisitor. "And might we suggest a play for your charade, Miss Campbell?"
The lady laughed. "That play does not exist, and I doubt it will ever be written; for what good to the theatre is a sheaf of blank parchment?"
The others groaned. "So there are no young men worth your notice?" challenged Kitty.
"I do not mean to say that, for some gentlemen are very worthy- indeed, one such example has just quitted us. Will you not agree, Miss Darcy?"
"Ahem." Miss Darcy deigned not to reply.
"No, girls, my play is very short," continued Miss Campbell presently; "I do not seem to be destined for love like you young things."
"You are but two and twenty- do not pretend to be so old," scolded Kitty.
"I am old in spirit, then."
"Oh, come," called Lizzy to the star-crossed lady, "I can tell you from experience that one can never be too sure about love. It is a mysterious business. It sneaks up at odd moments."
"Then I might expect it at any time," rejoined Miss Campbell saucily. "There, I am comforted. Shall we play at cards together?"
"Together?" mused Georgiana. "Why, by your account, your only card game would be Patience." The ladies set up for a round of whist, however, Kitty naming Lizzy as her partner. They had just called hearts when their butler appeared at the door.
"Colonel Fitzwilliam is arrived, Madam."
The next man through the door was the young Colonel himself, ruddy from the cold, resplendent in his uniform, his light eyes dancing. "Mrs. Darcy! Georgiana!" Happy welcomes met the Colonel from his cousin's wife and his little charge.
"We did not expect you until dinner, Geoffrey!" Georgiana exclaimed.
"Very well; I shall go away and come back when I am wanted," he teased, pretending to leave them.
"Oh, no- stay! Meet my friends. Catherine Bennet, Clarissa Campbell, this is my other guardian, Colonel Fitzwilliam." He bowed; the ladies curtseyed.
"I remember you, Miss Bennet. Did we not meet at the Darcys' wedding?"
"I am sure we did. I am glad to see you, Colonel."
"You may take that back once we have occupied the same house for a month, but I will try to be very good," he said seriously, with a twinkle in his eyes.
"You? The chances of that are slim indeed," laughed Elizabeth.
"And Miss Campbell... the Campbell-Stocks, is it not? At Genesee Court? I know you." He peered at her closely, and Miss Campbell met his gaze with a clear look of her own.
"Those are my parents," she affirmed. "But I do not remember meeting you, Colonel."
"Yes, well, you were very young, I think." He still looked at her. "My cousin and I visited your home once when I was in Derbyshire years ago. I see it is a pity I have not been back since. I hope all your family is in health?"
Miss Campbell was not sure what she perceived in his manner, but thought she detected flirtation, and was determined to stamp it out. "They are, I thank you. And I am pleased to meet you again, since you say it is not the first time," she said wryly.
"I'm afraid I make a very weak impression."
"Do not think so- blame my bad memory. There, I have taken a note on you, and I will not forget again. But I think I must be trespassing on your reunion?" Though heartily assured she was not, Miss Campbell found occasion to leave them very soon after that, seeming mildly agitated.
"I see I am frightening off your callers already, Georgiana," sighed the Colonel, looking after their friend for a moment before turning merrily back to his young cousin. "Perhaps you will forgive me though. Would you come with me to find your brother?" Georgiana gladly agreed, and the two set off to search out William.
"Well, Kitty," said Lizzy, when they were alone together, "I am impressed. I remember a time when you would have lost your composure entirely, in the presence of a red coat."
Kitty shrugged. "I remember, too. And he is very handsome. But lately I am not..." she trailed off.
Elizabeth nodded. "Kitty, may I see your miniature? I have not ever had a good look at Mr. Douglas' artwork." Kitty procured the little portrait for her sister, who studied it thoughtfully. "He is certainly an excellent artist- very much like his master," she remarked. "He has captured you exactly." She paused and looked at her sister. "He sees how lovely you are, Kitty."
"I am sure he flatters me," faltered Kitty, unsure of what to do with this praise.
"No, dear; you are this lovely. But even if it were flattery, this is how he sees you." Elizabeth's voice was gentle. "I think you miss his company?"
"I.... I am unsure what I feel." Kitty sat and took the picture back again, looking at it with feeling. "I admit I am confused."
"Mr. Douglas seems to think highly of you."
"We all noticed it- Jane, Mr. Darcy, and myself."
"What is your opinion of him, Lizzy?" Kitty's voice was small.
"I like him. He is honest and hard working, and I dare say handsome, too. But it is your opinion I am after."
"Truly, I do not know myself," admitted Kitty. "I have always felt so differently with all the soldiers, and with Lydia. I was so excited- do you remember how I used to behave in Meryton? I jumped up and down and screamed and had a marvelous time- even if it was indiscreet," she added, seeing Elizabeth's look turn wayward. "Now I feel... it is like.... it is like being sad," she concluded, not knowing how to express it any better. "I have not seen him these twelve days"- Elizabeth smiled at the accuracy of the count- "and yet he keeps himself in my thoughts. Is not that strange?"
"Not at all strange," replied Elizabeth, kissing her sister affectionately. She felt they had done enough talking on this subject at present; her sister was coming to an understanding of her own emotions, and that was very good. She went off to find the rest of the family, and left Kitty alone to contemplate her heart.
* * *
The next afternoon found all the young ladies of the neighborhood enjoying a tea party at Kirkfield Park, the cozy estate of the Morrison Family. Sir Michael and Lady Geraldine were the kind of adults who were finely attuned to the desires of their children, for they remembered the excitement of their own youths quite well. They therefore desired to provide their daughters and the rest of the girls with a whole afternoon in which the conversation could be pleasantly devoted to the ball at Pemberley, and the Miss Morrisons invited all their closest acquaintance for the revelry. Of course, there was one in their company that they would rather have done without. But Lady Morrison would not allow her daughters to purposefully ignore anyone- ("Be always a lady, no matter how painful" was her favorite maxim,) and so it was necessary to admit Felicity Newcastle into the arrangements.
Despite this social inconvenience, it was a very pleasant tea, and soon the gathering made its way to the sitting room, where everybody was settled comfortably in a circle suitable for discourse. Their discussion began with what dances were planned, and of course this made all the ladies think of what partners they would like, though no one would be the first to speak of it. That rich subject was broached by accident in a moment, however, thanks to the intrusion of one potential partner.
The young Mr. Michael broke into the room, silencing the ladies' chat with his male presence. He quickly retrieved the item he had come for, feeling very awkward that everyone was so mute. Shy Mr. Morrison hurried from the company of so many ladies without offering a word himself, and when he had gone, the first sound was an admiring sigh, emitted quietly by Miss Augusta Stamp.
"Oh, heavens!" cried Miss Sarah, poking Miss Stamp playfully. "Was that little breath for my brother?"
"Oh no," protested the curvy lady, her round cheeks coloring prettily. "I believe my corset is just a bit snug, that is all." She adjusted her dress as if to prove her story.
"Not snug enough, in my opinion," sniggered Miss Newcastle in a whisper to Kitty. Luckily, Miss Stamp did not hear this offensive remark, but Kitty blanched indignantly for her new friend. She was prevented from forming a retort, however, for Miss Stamp's unconscious confession had broken the ice, and now all the young ladies commenced to quiz each other on which were the preferred gentlemen among them.
Some ladies, however, chose to refrain from the din. Neither Georgiana, nor Kitty, nor Miss Campbell, could be prevailed upon to name any favourites.
"Oh come, Miss Darcy," coaxed Persis Radke, "I am sure you will stand up with Mr. Stirling?"
"Yes," agreed Miss Sarah, "for you seemed quite content to be his dinner partner last month. And I wager he has been to Pemberley to pay a call."
"Mr. Stirling is an attractive youth; I dare say I shall dance with him," asserted Miss Newcastle. Georgiana stiffened. "I certainly hope he is as graceful as he seems. It is so hard to be in the country! There are so few really polished men. I hate the off-season. Last spring in Bath, I was at a ball nearly every night. One ball in a whole winter seems nothing at all, to me."
"That is what makes it all the more enjoyable," observed Miss Campbell warmly to Georgiana, saving her cold stare for Miss Newcastle. "One ball in the country is an event of significance, while fifty in the city become commonplace."
Georgiana looked at her friend gratefully, but Miss Newcastle was oblivious to the meaning of this comment, and marched onward in her opinions.
"Indeed, you understand me completely, Miss Campbell. The parties become absolutely tedious after the first twenty, especially when one is solicited for every set! I declare; Felix and I never sat down the whole season! I only hope Mr. Stirling will be equal to me- or that any gentleman will, for that matter." Every girl held in a groan, but Felicity was insensible of this. "You were in London last season, Miss Campbell?"
"Then you do know what I mean. But this was your third season out, was it not?"
Miss Campbell set her teeth. "It was my fourth."
"You had best be prudent, then," advised Miss Newcastle superciliously. "My mama has made me aware of such things; young ladies out more than three seasons should catch as they can."
"Do you mean to imply," said Miss Campbell with remarkable evenness, "That another season will make me an old maid?"
"My word!" Felicity was shocked. "What a thing to accuse me of! I am merely trying to help you, to remind you that you are obliged to marry as soon as may be. We girls must always rally around one another, you know."
Kitty was reminded of her mother by this silly outburst, and it amused her to realize that Miss Newcastle was just the same sort of woman, with only a thin disguise of manners over her thoughtless character. She was dismayed, therefore, to become the next target of Miss Newcastle's presumptions.
"Well, even if Miss Bennet will not answer us, we all know which gentleman she prefers," said the lady, conspiratorially. "Miss Bennet, can you deny that you are engaged for the first two dances?"
Kitty shook her head morosely that she could not.
"Ah, fortunate girl! My brother has solicited her. He was much taken with you last you met," divulged Miss Newcastle. "You will be quite spoiled, to arrive in the neighborhood and secure the most charming man at once! You shall be the only one among us with the pleasure of a really accomplished dance partner, Miss Bennet."
"I wonder you do not stand up with your brother yourself. You seem to be the only two deserving of one another," observed the elder Miss Morrison dryly.
There was choked laugher all around, and "Oh, Josie!" cried her Miss Sarah to her sister. Miss Newcastle perceived that something in this was not quite flattering, and drew herself up haughtily.
"I would stand up with him I were any of you. But as I cannot, I suppose I shall be made to suffer at the hands of novices all evening."
No girl could hold back her laughter at this outrageous display of conceit, and the circle was all in fits of mirth. Miss Newcastle regarded them stiffly. She had a choice: either to be affronted by the mockery, or to suppose herself to have made a very clever joke. The second idea was much more agreeable, and she managed to laugh along in her false way, though she resolved to be involved no further in the conversation of such uncivilized company.
"Well done!" howled Miss Sarah, wiping her eyes. "I think we have all spoken who mean to speak. It remains to be seen whether we shall all dance with the partners we have named."
"Oh, but you have left out a gentleman," Kitty informed them.
"Have we?" "Who?" "I think we have said them all!" A murmur went all around.
Georgiana, who almost expected Kitty to daringly reveal an attachment to Mr. Douglas, was surprised to hear her say, "Colonel Geoffrey Fitzwilliam."
"A soldier! Who is he?" breathed Ivy Radke.
"He is one of my guardians," said Georgiana. "You will meet him. He is staying with us at Pemberley on his leave."
"Is he handsome?" "Will he dance?" and "How tall is he?" was Miss Morrison's question.
"Yes; yes; and he is quite tall," laughed Georgiana. "But as I am a sister to him, I can hardly describe him in the way you all would like to hear. Ask Miss Campbell for an objective account; she has met him."
Miss Campbell gave a startled look at Georgiana.
"What manner of gentleman is he, Miss Campbell?" demanded Miss Sarah. They all looked at her expectantly.
"He is..." Miss Clarissa was lost for words. "Well, what did Miss Darcy tell you? He is tall, he looks well, and he has...." She was stumped again. "I only met him for a moment," was her final reply.
"I dare say," guessed Miss Stout with a crafty smile, "that we have found her out!" Miss Campbell turned her head and would not answer as the raillery about Colonel Fitzwilliam began to rain down upon her.
Kitty and Georgiana glanced at each other. This was an interesting thing! They had not counted on this accidental discovery, and were both inclined to fan the fire of it; however, Miss Campbell needed their assistance. Kitty defended her from further commentary, making it known that "truly, the meeting between the Colonel and Miss Campbell lasted but a moment," while Georgiana declared that her guardian was "a decided old bachelor" who defied flirtations.
Miss Morrison finally reined them in. "All right; no more teasing my guests," she admonished. "After all, I would prefer it if the Colonel remained unattached, especially if he is of a good height!" Everyone laughed, and Miss Campbell was let off the hook as the party disbanded.
But Georgiana and Kitty had an idea that it might be very nice to take up matchmaking. Their ride home was spent in going over the events of the evening, openly despising the Newcastles, and attempting to devise schemes that could bring the Colonel together with Miss Campbell.
Chapter Sixteen: A Sudden Divide
Having very little practice in the art of making couples, Kitty and Georgiana were unsure of how to proceed with their latest enterprise. They resolved to pay a call to Miss Campbell in the morning, to see if they could discover anything further about her feelings for the Colonel, imagining that such a visit would inspire all manner of very good plans. After breakfasting, they spent an hour in music together, and were just coming out to leave for Genesee Court at eleven o'clock, when Colonel Fitzwilliam arrested them.
"And just where do you think you are off to?" he asked them, affecting a paternal tone and blocking their path into the hall.
"We are going calling," replied Georgiana, nimbly side-stepping him.
"To see Miss Campbell," added Kitty pointedly. "Perhaps you would like to come, Colonel?"
"I would, at that," replied Fitzwilliam warmly, and the girls felt that their scheme would be much simpler than they had anticipated. "However," he continued, "I think your plans for the morning have been thwarted."
"Thwarted?" repeated Georgiana guiltily, for she thought he must have guessed their intentions.
"You ladies have been too slow on the uptake. There are already callers upon you. Ah, the difficulties of being so admired!" he teased them.
"Who is here, Geoffrey?"
"I shall describe them, and you must guess. First, there is a gentleman who desires to see you, cousin."
Georgiana lowered her eyes, and Kitty made a face. "I think we may safely guess who that is."
"Not so fast, Miss Bennet, for there is a lad inquiring madly after you, as well."
Now it was Kitty's turn to be bashful. Mr. Douglas! He must have returned!
"Finally, there is a lady who demands to see you both. Now then, have you guessed?"
The girls knew it must be Miss Campbell, and they raised eyebrows at each other. It did not signify whether they came to her, or she to them; it would all serve the same merry purpose. They rushed to greet their callers in the drawing room, already imagining all the pleasures the day held in store for them.
Imagine their dismay when they were met with only one person out of three whom they had anticipated. Mr. Stirling was there, of course, and greeted them both with the friendly affection he had earned. The other two callers in the group dampened the enthusiasm of the ladies' responses, however. Mr. Newcastle was the gentleman who inquired after Kitty; and his sister was the lady who had been demanding to see them.
This would only have been a momentary irritation, if Kitty had not been so looking forward to the return of Mr. Douglas. When she had thought for a moment that the dear gentleman might be there, a flush of happiness had run from her head to her toes. And for this to be the realization of that expectation? It tore her spirits down miserably. To have to endure Felix Newcastle's attentions would take all her new stamina as a lady. She was not sure whether it could be borne, and clenched her fists behind her back.
Georgiana looked at her friend with deep compassion. The pleasure she felt in the company of Mr. Stirling only increased her sympathy, for Miss Darcy was the kind of person who could not feel a happiness without wishing it for her friends as well. She knew that Kitty would be thinking of Mr. Douglas and wishing he were here in place of Mr. Newcastle; indeed, Georgiana herself wished for that substitution. She also saw that her sister was pained, and that she was taking prodigious care not to reveal it.
"Dear Miss Bennet!" effused Miss Newcastle, embracing the lady with zeal as the young people greeted one another. "How lovely you look this morning. Brother, does not that plum color set off her cheeks? I declare, you must have expected us, to have dressed up in such a charming way!"
"Not at all," Kitty objected, wishing Miss Newcastle would shut up and go home. Mr. Newcastle would be much more simply handled without his sister present. She did not want their compliments, and moved to prevent any further; "We were planning to make a call, and dressed for that occasion only."
"A call? Well we have beat you to it. But you shall come to us another time. Yes; I dare say you shall spend a great many hours in our house, Miss Bennet," said Miss Newcastle suggestively.
"I say, speaking of spending too many hours inside of houses, what do you all say to a walk?" asked Mr. Stirling brightly.
"I'd love a walk." Kitty gave Mr. Stirling a look of appreciation.
"How lovely," agreed Georgiana. "Let us wrap up and go outside."
"Outside?" protested Mr. Newcastle in disbelief. "But there is snow on the ground! Surely you ladies do not mean to go out walking in this freezing air."
"It is beautiful! Crisp and cold!" was Kitty's decided opinion.
"Cold and tedious," was the young man's reply, looking out the window in distaste.
"I cannot wish it either. No, we shall stay in and devise some comfortable entertainment," decided Miss Newcastle, looking at her slippers and thinking how ill suited they were for snow, and how she hated to don her boots with this particular gown.
Georgiana was distressed. She could not refuse her callers if they truly were set against the outdoors. It was purely bad manners to force them on a walk if they desired not to go. However, she thought, was it not impolite for them to impose their needs so ungraciously, without considering the others? Besides, the others made up the majority; it was three against two. Georgiana made a brave decision, and when she spoke, there was sparkle in her tone.
"Oh, I think you will love it once we are outside in the fresh air. Kitty and I quite depended on being out this morning, and we shall not be gainsaid. I shall give you boots if you need them, Miss Newcastle. And to be fair, when we return from the exercise, we shall find, as you put it, a more 'comfortable entertainment'." Georgiana felt her heart beating strangely. She had been so used to accommodating people that this was a foreign kind of behavior. But it felt absolutely brilliant! She made up her mind to try it again soon.
Mr. Stirling looked at her admiringly. "Now we shall have to go, for we cannot deny our hostess! Go and get your wraps, ladies, and then we shall brave the day together."
Happily, the sisters went to find their coats and shawls. Unhappily, Miss Newcastle retrieved her boots from the carriage and put them on. When they were all one, the party set off through the park of Pemberley for a long ramble, and immediately upon walking out, the Newcastles flanked Kitty. Georgiana would have prevented this if there were any way of doing so without being openly rude, but Felix and Felicity were entirely unaware of the hints she made about walking all together, and she was soon forced to give up. With a concerned glance at Kitty's glum countenance, Georgiana fell back on the path with Mr. Stirling, hoping her friend could keep her temper, and deciding she would not blame her at all, if she could not.
"Are you all prepared for the ball, Miss Bennet?" was Miss Newcastle's opening question. "Have you your gown, and has everything been arranged?"
"Everything is coming together very nicely; thank you for asking."
"I imagine the first dance will be a minuet?"
"That is the usual order of things." Kitty looked impatiently backward at Georgiana, but her friend was engaged in a serious talk with Mr. Stirling.
"I happen to be quite inspired at dancing the minuet," Mr. Newcastle informed her. "We shall lead them all off in style!"
"I believe we will be second; Georgiana will certainly lead out, for she is the hostess."
"Yes; dear Miss Darcy. Is this her first ball? For I thought she was out since last Spring, but I know she did not go to London or to Bath this season. Poor, shy little thing." Miss Newcastle tutted her tongue. "Well, some girls are not suited for being with people. I dare say someone or other shall marry her though, for she has enough money."
Kitty was outraged. "Georgiana has a hundred qualities that would secure her the love of a good man without any dowry at all."
"Oh, Miss Bennet, that is very nice! You are so sweet to your friends. But I think you are a bit romantic; after all, the dowry is equally important to everything else, if not more so. We are all very lucky ladies, to have this valuable charm in addition to all our others." Miss Newcastle tucked her arm into Kitty's inextricably.
Kitty regarded her sharply. Did the Newcastles believe her to be well moneyed? Was this the impression under which Mr. Newcastle labored? No wonder he had paid such attention to her. She determined not to scream, but a sound escaped her lips that was something between and laugh and a strangle.
"Yes, fortune is a vital virtue," agreed Mr. Newcastle. "But there are others of equal weight."
"Such as?" asked Kitty sarcastically. But she wished she had not asked the question at all, for he looked at her very meaningfully.
"Such as a pretty face, a feminine mind, and good family connections," he said, implying by his gaze that he believed she had all three in abundance.
"What of an intelligent mind?" she challenged, "or a happy nature? What of shared interests- a real integrity of character? Do not these issues apply when one is looking for a partner in life?"
Mr. Newcastle took her passionate outburst to mean that this was Kitty's opinion of himself, and he beamed, quite agreeing that he was indeed the possessor of all said qualities. "I think we understand each other," was his significant reply.
"It is very good that we are becoming friends, Miss Bennet," whispered Miss Newcastle into Kitty's ear. "It will be beneficial in the future, will it not?" She squeezed Kitty's arm, and Kitty took the opportunity to squeeze back- very hard. "Ow!" cried Miss Newcastle. "You are so excitable!"
Kitty had been desperate for some relief, and she forgave herself this transgression, but knew she must quickly escape this horrible conversation. It was apparent to her that Mr. Newcastle meant to propose marriage, and even more apparent that both siblings expected her to accept. Mr. Newcastle, as her husband! She could not even think it. It was totally out the question. Especially considering how shocked he would be to find out that she was not settled with any kind of inheritance; for being the companion of Georgiana Darcy, and the sister of the mistress of Pemberley, did not increase her own material value. She was Kitty Bennet of Longbourn, and she was worth exactly five hundred pounds. It occurred to her that she might spare herself any further courtship with Mr. Newcastle by revealing this bit of information. But it must be done artfully, to spare them all awkwardness, and Kitty knew not how. Therefore, she concluded within herself to speak with Lizzy on the matter, and to bear out the rest of this walk as well as she could; for certainly he would not propose to her yet- not with his sister present. She felt she was safe for the moment.
Kitty was wrong. Mr. Newcastle had every intention of taking her aside and demanding her hand in marriage that very afternoon. He saw no reason to wait- indeed, she was all things he thought necessary: attractive, girlish, and socially positioned. It would be a fine thing, and she would say yes, of course, for what girl would not? He knew himself to be handsome, charming, witty, and rich. (He was right on two counts.) What more could any woman hope for? Mr. Newcastle had earlier apprised his sister of his intentions, and he raised his eyebrows at her now quite dramatically. She accordingly dropped out of the conversation at once.
"Miss Bennet, I believe I have been allowing you to monopolize me dreadfully," said Miss Newcastle with an impatient giggle, and a knowing look for her brother. "I must give equal attention to Miss Darcy, or it will be unfair. Will you excuse me?"
Kitty was actually relieved to be rid of her, though she would not have been, had she known the situation. She was tired of the insinuations of that lady, and wanted her far away. At least Mr. Newcastle was not always embarrassing her. She could much more easily withstand an hour of self-absorbed prattle than she could five more minutes of intimate hinting from Miss Newcastle.
They walked on alone in silence, however, and Kitty wondered what it could mean. Why did he not have anything to tell her? Surely he had done something interesting that morning- brushed his hair, perhaps, or eaten a fascinating breakfast? She was amazed that he did not give her all the details. But Mr. Newcastle's mind was, for once, on something other than himself. He looked at her quickly.
"Miss Bennet, there is a little path here- where does it lead?"
Kitty had not memorized all the paths of Pemberley, and she said she did not know where this one went.
"I should like to find out. It looks pleasing."
"I thought you did not like walking?" she queried.
"Yes. Well." Mr. Newcastle guided her away down the path to where it almost joined with another main avenue of the estate. The rest of the party were now barely within hearing, and Kitty felt it was imprudent to be thus secluded with a gentleman.
"Mr. Newcastle, I think we must rejoin our friends."
"Ah- we shall. And when we do, you shall be an altered creature."
Kitty did not understand him at all for a moment- then it hit her. Oh, no! He would not- he could not! She looked about her frantically, and wondered if it were too late to lift her skirts and run.
"Miss Bennet, I would have you sit down, but there is snow on the bench. And I would kneel, but as you see, the ground is quite wet, and these breeches are easily stained." Breeches, at such a moment! Through her terror, Kitty was able to laugh.
"Whatever would you mean by kneeling? Surely that would be an odd thing to do. Come, Mr. Newcastle, I feel strange- surely we should not be so far from the rest of the party." Kitty tried to turn and walk away, but was halted when he took her hand.
"My dear Miss Bennet," he said in a low voice. "Stay put." There was no escape. She shut her eyes and prepared to endure his proposal, which she knew this must be. "Since we met at the Campbell's," he began, "I have been taken with you."
"This is only our second meeting," Kitty reminded him quickly, snatching back her hand. "You do not know me at all."
"I know all I need to. And I know you favor me in return."
This, Kitty must contradict. "Sir, I have never given you reason"- she began.
"My sister told me," he interrupted, "that at the party yesterday, you ladies all mentioned gentlemen who were your favorites?" Kitty stared at him, aghast. This was a horrible thing for Miss Newcastle to do! She should never have betrayed the confidence of all the other girls. Kitty was obliged to defend them.
"I am sure she exaggerated the conversation, Mr. Newcastle. We only teased each other about dance partners."
"I know you confessed your engagement to dance with me. My sister said you blushed like an angel."
"If I did, it was only self-consciousness. I do not like to be put on the spot."
"I knew you would banter with me. Young ladies seem to be in the habit of prolonging such moments as this with protestations, and little coquettish remarks," he replied, nodding wisely.
"Have you had many such moments as this one, that you can claim to be a master of ladies' habits in them?" she retorted.
He smiled, a little thinly. "Come, Miss Bennet. Be still a moment. Give me room to ask you a very serious question."
Kitty longed to oppose his wish, but there was nothing to distract them further. Oh, where was Georgiana? Miss Newcastle must be holding her back on the path, or Kitty knew her friend would have long since interrupted this inappropriate t'te-›-t'te. The moment was acutely uncomfortable, and her voice failed her. It seemed she must allow him to proceed. Therefore, with a nod, Kitty acquiesced to her companion, determined to bear it and have it over with.
Delighted, Mr. Newcastle began his speech. "I am sure you will be glad to know my wish. It will make you a very happy woman. I intend to see that you are quite well provided for, and I am sure you will be happy with my situation and your new life. Therefore, Miss Bennet, all that remains is to ask you this:"- here he paused for dramatic effect. It is a very good thing he did, too, for it was in that dreadful, ominous pause that Kitty had her salvation; first, the beating of horse's hooves on the avenue adjacent to the path, and then the sound of a voice too long unheard;
"Miss Bennet, is that you I see in there?" Mr. Douglas jumped down from his horse, and came down through the trees that lined the avenue to greet her.
"Mr. Douglas!" Kitty's voice was restored to her; a clear, ringing sound that mingled her joy with her relief. "You are returned!"
"I am! And came here straightaway to call. What a surprise to find you out in the cold!"
"I love the cold!" cried Kitty, feeling she would love anything, anything at all that gave her Mr. Douglas, and made no effort to contain her happiness. "How glad I am to see you!"
"Miss Bennet, do you know this man?" Mr. Newcastle's voice was cold with displeasure.
"I do, sir. He is Mr. Stirling's friend, and lately has become Georgiana's and mine as well."
"How fortunate for him."
"Aye, it is. Glad to meet ya again, Mr. Newcastle," said Mr. Douglas, bowing to the gentleman carefully. It struck his eye that this encounter he had discovered was one of a private nature. Mr. Newcastle made him feel as though his intrusion was very ill timed, but he was in no hurry to leave them. If he had interrupted something, he was glad of it, for it pained him to see Miss Bennet standing with Mr. Newcastle in such an intimate way. "I hope you and your sister are still satisfied with your portrait?"
"It is acceptable," was his ungenerous reply. "I did not realize you were still in Derbyshire. Is this to be your regular residence now?" He received no answer from the preoccupied painter. Mr. Douglas was looking intently at Kitty; she looked longingly back at him, and furious Mr. Newcastle threw an insult at his new rival. "But of course you have no residence. I suppose you cannot keep in one place for long, for affording a regular home must be beyond your means." He hoped to disconcert and embarrass the simple artist with this reference to his financial straits, but Mr. Douglas had been poor too long to let these things affect his spirit.
"I don't have much," he agreed, smiling in an amused way that irked Mr. Stirling greatly. "I'll probably never have a proper home in Derbyshire, and I'll have to come and go as my commissions allow. But I manage to work and stay happy. That's all I ask of life." He looked at Kitty. "Of course, everyone is different," he said soberly, and there was disappointment in his eyes as he looked from the young lady to Mr. Newcastle, and back again.
Kitty was confused at this. Why would he aim such a remark at her? Did he think her different? Could he possibly believe her to be interested in fortune? Oh, good heavens! He thinks I am standing here with Mr. Newcastle on purpose! Indeed, he must have thought so, for she had not been protesting against Mr. Newcastle in any open way. And it would make sense that Mr. Douglas would think her attached to the gentleman- they were alone, in the middle of a wood, standing close together- it all spoke of a serious courtship. Kitty's heart beat like a little bird against a cage and she hurried to her own defense.
"I am just like you, Mr. Douglas," she said rapidly. "I only want to be happy."
"Everybody's got a different interpretation of happiness, Miss Bennet, and everybody's got to have different things in order to achieve it."
Mr. Newcastle was not bright enough to be caught up on this new turn in the conversation, so he offered the only comment he could understand. "That is true. My own happiness, for example, depends on things that must be very unlike your own standards, Mr. Douglas. For indeed, work is not my idea of pleasure, I am made very comfortable and happy by my estate, and will be made still happier by my choice of wife." He stepped very close to Kitty. "To each his own."
Kitty was miserable. He made it sound as if all had been decided! "Mr. Douglas," she began, "you must not think"- but she was not allowed to continue, for Georgiana was almost running down the path toward her, with Mr. Stirling and Miss Newcastle in tow.
"Kitty, Kitty! Oh, we have been trying to come and find you this half-hour! I have been beside myself!" cried Georgiana. "Are you lost?"
"I told you they were not lost," said a very irritable Miss Newcastle, out of breath.
"Why Douglas!" exclaimed Mr. Stirling. "What a surprise! Did you find Miss Bennet for us? How grateful we are."
"I have been with her all this time, and there has been no danger," barked Mr. Newcastle. "Good God, you are all in a fuss over nothing. How ridiculous." He stalked out of the group, back toward the path they had come from. "It is high time we were back inside. Felicity, dear, come take my arm. You look tired, and I will not have you make yourself ill with all this nonsense."
Felicity joined her brother in a moment, and leaned heavily on him, making a display of her exhaustion. "Oh, Miss Bennet, come take my other arm. I truly need support," she whined. Kitty was at a loss. She looked at Mr. Douglas, who was inclined to gaze off in another direction, and then at Georgiana, who was obviously still frightened; for Miss Newcastle had kept them distracted, and neither she nor Mr. Stirling had seen the direction in which Kitty had gone. She had been down a half dozen paths already, in search of her friend, and all the time in a horror of what Mr. Newcastle might be doing.
"It is all right, Georgiana," said Kitty quietly. "Make yourself easy. Let us go back to the house." Not knowing what else to do, and still unable to catch the eye of stubborn Mr. Douglas, Kitty resignedly went to Miss Newcastle, and allowed herself to be leaned upon as they walked back home. Her spirit was aching within her. She had to speak to Mr. Douglas, to make him understand that she would never attach herself to someone like Mr. Newcastle. This entire day, save the first few moments she had seen Mr. Douglas, had been a ruin. Kitty could not wait to get inside, throw off the horrid siblings, and clear her name with her friend.
However, when the party came back up to the house, Kitty's hopes for vindication were dashed. Mr. Darcy was waiting for them outside. His look was quite serious as he strode forward to meet them, and he carried a letter in his hand, which he passed to Mr. Stirling. His eyes were troubled, and he put a hand on young Arthur's shoulder. "Let us go aside a moment," he said gravely.
Startled, Mr. Stirling allowed Mr. Darcy to steer him away from his friends, and he opened the note with no little apprehension. When he had read it, he was glad for Darcy's grip on his arm, for he thought he would fall to the ground. Instead, he spoke urgently in low tones that none of the party could hear. Mr. Darcy presently nodded, and called a servant for the gentleman's horse as Stirling himself went back to his comrades.
"My father is ill," he managed to tell them. He looked at Georgiana. "I must return to Sussex at once."
"Oh, no," breathed Kitty. "I am sorry." Georgiana was mute, but her eyes were already filled with tears. Having lost her own father a little over six years before, she was quick to feel Mr. Stirling's suffering, and this empathy was multiplied by the fact that by this time, she truly cared for him. Neither of the Newcastles had any condolence to offer.
"I'll go with you, Artie," offered Mr. Douglas, for in their fellowship as student and teacher, the two young men had become very close.
"No, I won't hear of it; you have only just returned yourself. You must stay here," protested Stirling weakly. But Mr. Douglas had not yet handed over his own horse to the valet, and so he mounted at once, to prove his intention.
"I'd like to see myself. You're not makin' a long journey alone under these circumstances, Stirling." His tone was irrefutable, and Mr. Stirling did not want to contradict him anyway. Soon he had his horse as well, and with a parting look at Georgiana, he and his friend rode off at a gallop toward Stirling Manor.
"Well! So Mr. Douglas is to escort him? I must say he behaves like a lackey, attending his friend all over the countryside," scoffed Mr. Newcastle. He had spoken at the wrong moment, however, and in the company of the wrong lady. Kitty turned on him, pale, her eyes glittering, and made her preference clear.
"John Douglas is a loyal friend and a good man. Do not ever speak ill of him to me again."
"Mr. Newcastle," said a new voice in the conversation. The voice was stern.
"How do you do, Mr. Darcy?" Newcastle bowed. "Cold day, isn't it? I must get my sister inside at once."
"I am sorry to be inhospitable, but I must claim my sisters back from you again. I am most obliged to you for escorting them through the park and returning them safely home, but this latest news requires us to have a family discussion. You will forgive us." Darcy bowed to the young gentleman and his sister. The quite-put-out Newcastles had no choice but to depart, Mr. Newcastle taking care to leave Kitty with a long, even look of intention. Kitty looked determinedly at the ground until he had quite gone, and then Mr. Darcy guided the young ladies back into the house.
Chapter Seventeen: Solace and Subterfuge
The 'family discussion' was brief. Mr. Darcy was simply sensible of Georgiana's sorrow for Mr. Stirling, and wanted to rescue her from having to play hostess under such duress. He had also overheard both Mr. Newcastle's arrogant remark, and Kitty's frank denouncement of it, and felt it prudent to separate the young people before any further comments could be made. For once, Mr. Darcy was inclined to think that Kitty had said precisely the right thing. He did not know Mr. Newcastle well, but the young man had revealed his character unwisely, and Darcy was disgusted by it. He agreed with Kitty that Mr. Douglas was a good man for assisting his fried, and was secretly pleased she had defended him. Therefore, after escorting the young ladies into the upstairs sitting room, Darcy gave his sister a consoling kiss on her forehead and left her to cry on Kitty's shoulder, which of course she did.
Kitty was as inconsolable as Georgiana, but did not want to add to her friend's unhappiness by disclosing the events of that afternoon. She resolved to wait until things had grown quieter in both their hearts before she confessed everything. It was a difficult decision, but Kitty felt it was the right one. So she sighed and put away her feelings as best she could, determining to find a way to be of service to her companion. Kitty was not so sorrowful, however, that she did not hear Mr. Darcy refer to them both as 'my sisters' when he dismissed the Newcastles. It was a great comfort to her to have this sign of acceptance from her brother in law, and she rejoiced that he had given her a place of such consequence in his address.
Poor Georgiana wept for three reasons. The first: Mr. Stirling was suffering; the second: Mr. Stirling had gone away; the third: Mr. Stirling would now be unable to dance with her at the ball. She was surprised at herself, that she could even consider such petty nonsense when her beloved Arthur was in danger of losing his father. But we cannot help our hearts' desires, and so Georgiana continued to be grieved about the dancing, whether she wished to or not.
The two girls were sunk in spirits, and their earlier hope to join Miss Campbell with Colonel Fitzwilliam was forgotten. Even when that young lady called upon them the next morning, the girls did nothing to facilitate contact between their friends. Fate, however, is often inclined to take a hand in things when human nature fails to assist, and thus it was that Miss Campbell found herself joined by the Colonel that afternoon, in her attempts to rally the morale of the Misses Darcy and Bennet.
"Perhaps we should play music," suggested Miss Campbell. "I understand you have been practising duets?" But the ladies protested this, for the duets had been promised to the absent gentlemen, and they had not the heart to sing them.
"Cards then," decided the Colonel. "A game of Speculation."
"Do you think I am foolish enough to enter into a game of strategy with a Colonel?" replied Miss Campbell. "There; you win. We do not even have to play."
Fitzwilliam smiled. "Vingt-et-un, perhaps? That is more a game of chance. We shall be equals."
"Very well," agreed Miss Campbell. "But I shall be dealer." She dealt to a round to each of them. Kitty and Georgiana regarded their cards listlessly. "Who would like another?"
"I will take one," said Kitty, without feeling.
"I will stay," was Georgiana's quiet reply.
"Hit me!" commanded the Colonel, with energy.
Miss Campbell laughed at him, and dealt them each one more, save Georgiana. "Lay out your cards; let us see the winner!"
Georgiana's hand was a perfect twenty-one. "Vingt-et-un," she said, dispassionately.
"I say, that will never do, Miss Darcy. You must cry it out when you are the winner!" And Miss Campbell gave the example with a flourish which raised an obligatory half-smile from her friend, but otherwise accomplished nothing.
Colonel Fitzwilliam perceived that his young charge was deeply unhappy, and as no entertainment seemed to penetrate her distress, he took pity on it. "Well, cousin," he said gently, "I am very glad to be a friend of yours. I should like to know, if I were suffering, that someone would be so upset for me."
"I imagine," said Miss Campbell wryly, "that you must have 'someone' to think of such things for you, Colonel, besides your cousin."
"Your imagination is kind, but incorrect." He met her playful gaze with interest. "But tell me, now we are on the subject, if you do not have some friend or other that has a claim on your sympathy?"
Miss Campbell laughed. "I am not half so good as Miss Darcy, I am afraid. Though I feel for my comrades' pains, I do not invest myself so wholly in them."
"I think you do yourself a disservice. It is my observation that lively, intelligent women are generally those quickest to feel things deeply. They are all sensitivity beneath the surface of their wit."
"You must know many such woman to be capable of making such an observation."
"Many? No, I am not so fortunate. I know one lady, however, who fits my description."
"Is that so? Are you sure that you think her lively and intelligent?"
"Do not forget sensitive."
"And how do you know that she feels so deeply as you think?"
"Because I have seen her set herself about the entertainment of her friends who are low in spirits, displaying concern for their unhappiness. Does this not speak of some depth of emotion?"
"Not at all, for she might have ulterior motives. But I cannot give an informed opinion; I know none of the particulars of the lady."
"Then I shall describe her further. She is the type who jests with her companions to conceal her heart. But I am sure it is there all the same."
"You may assume too much of this lady on such little information as you seem to have. However, I grant you, she sounds very nice. I would like to meet her, one day."
"I would be happy to make the introduction."
Throughout this exchange, Georgiana and Kitty had both picked up their heads and begun to listen closely: Georgiana with astonishment, Kitty with delight. For a moment, both girls forgot their own troubles, and concentrated on the witty battle before them."
"I know a gentleman," said Miss Campbell, grinning, "who is very like the lady you describe."
"Yes; he is quite interested in the welfare of his friends, but disposed to banter with them instead of expressing his feelings bluntly."
"I like him already," chuckled the Colonel.
"Oh, he would agree with you there. He likes himself quite a bit, you see."
"Ah, a confident man!"
"Confident is one adjective; a better would be smug."
"The lady I told you of is quite similar; she also has a high opinion of herself."
"Good for her! Too many ladies are over-humble, I think. I like to meet people who know their strengths."
"So do I." Fitzwilliam looked full at her, and Miss Campbell faltered for a moment in her reply. "In fact," he continued, "it sounds to me that we ought to acquaint our friends with one another."
Kitty almost clapped her hands at this excellent maneuver, and Georgiana, whose initial shock over the thinly veiled forwardness of the conversation had turned to excitement, held her breath for the answer.
"How is such an introduction to be attempted?" queried Miss Campbell after she had recovered her wits. "I cannot speak for the gentleman's schedule."
"Nor I for the lady's. But perhaps you will allow me to call on you in a few days, that we might discuss the details?"
Kitty and Georgiana grabbed hands under the table.
"It may be imprudent for us to undertake that kind of arrangement," protested Miss Campbell quickly. "After all, we do not know that our friends will take to each other."
"I am certain," rejoined the Colonel, "that they will." He flashed her an engaging smile. However, she would not admit defeat easily, and feigned reluctance over his proposed call.
"Very well then, I suppose I must accept." She sighed ruefully. "But I knew I should never have attempted to out-maneuver a soldier."
Colonel Fitzwilliam laughed heartily at this, and slapped his hand on the table victoriously. "Well then, I shall see you on the morrow, if that suits." She nodded, not looking at him. Suddenly Miss Campbell's bravado failed her, and she realized the outrageous flirtation that had just taken place in the presence of her friends. She hastily redirected the subject of the conversation, pinning the focus on Kitty and Georgiana.
"Look, sir," she said, gesturing to the two young ladies, "while we have been so rudely prattling away, something has happened to cheer up these friends of ours!"
"They are both looking much improved," agreed Fitzwilliam. "I cannot imagine why."
Indeed they were, both of them biting back their laugher, their eyes dancing from the entertainment.
"Nor I," replied Miss Campbell. "We must have missed something. Tell us, ladies, what is the secret of your amusement?" But the girls could not respond without losing their composure. Soon after, feeling she had accomplished her aim in the visit to her friends, and wanting to put space between herself and the Colonel in order to think over what had happened, Miss Campbell excused herself and returned home. When Fitzwilliam had quitted them as well, Kitty and Georgiana finally burst into laughter.
"Imagine!" cried Kitty. "We thought we would have to assist them! Why, they seem made for each other. That was so droll!"
"They are each to clever for their own good," was Georgiana's opinion. "But if they ever stop teasing long enough to really talk, I am sure they will be friends."
Kitty made a sly remark on the many natures of friendship, which caused Georgiana to giggle, and the two of them spent a much more tolerable day after that, comforted that at least some good people were finding happiness in the world.
* * *
For Mr. Bennet, life held very few comforts at present. He had been more or less forced to host Mrs. Wickham at Longbourn for over two weeks, and his patience was running very thin. To be sure, he shut himself up in his study as often as possible, but he could not escape meal times, and he was tired of the idle prattle that Lydia had re-introduced to the family table. His wife had been a much quieter person when there were no children to share in her nonsense, but with Lydia home again, Mrs. Bennet had opened the floodgates of her absurdity to her like-minded daughter. Between the two of them, they had driven poor Mr. Bennet nearly to despair, and certainly to drink a little extra port. We cannot blame him therefore, that he took every opportunity to harangue the ladies who were causing him such mental misery. And so, that evening at supper, when Lydia and her mother were deep in a gossip about the cruelty of Jane's sudden relocation to Nottinghamshire, Mr. Bennet found a sufficient opening in which to provoke one of them.
"Yes, indeed," Mrs. Bennet was saying, "Jane had us all fooled. Always such an obliging, trustworthy girl! But in the end she has abandoned her poor mother. Well, I always knew she was cunning, underneath it all."
"Lord, yes! She must be," Lydia sniggered. "Jane is too good all the time. No one can really be so nice as all that."
"No, they cannot! I dare say she is all selfishness, going away to be near Lizzy. It is very hard on my poor nerves, for who am I to visit now? Oh!" Mrs. Bennet gave an injured wail.
"But Mama," insisted Mary, breaking into the conversation with her pious air, "you must remember that 'a man shall leave his mother and father, and shall cleave to his wife', and so Jane and Mr. Bingley are not wrong in departing from home."
"Oh, be quiet, girl! You vex me!" Mary gave a spiritually superior little sniff, and decided her mother was not worth any further moral instruction.
"Well do not complain to me, Mama. I am sure you won't have my sympathy," retorted ever-compassionate Lydia. "At least you are going to Pemberley in another two weeks. And Papa is so unfair that he will not let me come!"
"Why, Lydia!" Mr. Bennet brightened, finally seeing his chance to torment his daughter, "Speaking of Pemberley; I am sure you must have had a letter back from Lizzy by now, inviting you to come along and make yourself at home. Where is it?" He grinned, knowing there would be no such letter.
Lydia glared at her father, and stabbed her mutton with vengeance. "I decided not to write her. What do I care about Pemberley? If she does not want me, I am sure there are plenty of parties in London. I shall join my husband and have a very merry Christmas! I wrote him instead, and told him I would come on the eighteenth, since you are going to turn me out on my ear."
"I confess I am," returned Mr. Bennet gaily. "Though I am very sorry you will not be coming along." It was clear that he was not sorry in the least. "And tell me, has your husband replied to you? For surely he must be aching to have you with him, though I do not recall seeing his letter come through the post."
"Wickham does not care if I come early. He does not have to say I may. I am his wife; I shall go whenever I want."
"How glad I am," chortled Mr. Bennet, "to see how very attentive a husband you have procured for yourself, my dear."
Lydia made no reply. Her father could amuse himself at her expense all he chose, but she would be the one with the best laugh of all when her plan worked out. Oh, yes, Mrs. Wickham had it all arranged in her head, and there was nothing so easy as what she intended to do. Lydia had decided to oblige her father on the eighteenth, and leave Longbourn with no further resistance. She would say she headed to London, but in truth would take the stage-coach to Derbyshire, and put herself up for two days in the Inn at Lambton, with the rest of the money Lizzy had recently spared her. And then, to pay her sister back for that generosity, Lydia intended to arrive, unbidden, at the ball, and give a good shock to everybody! They certainly deserved it for leaving her out so meanly. And she knew Mr. Darcy would not dare cause a scene at his own party, so she would be free to make herself as merry as she pleased.
She had, in truth, written to her husband in London, but only to apprise him of her plans. She knew Wickham would get a good laugh out of the whole idea, for he resented the Darcys greatly for 'holding him back' in life, and would love to see them made uncomfortable. She had told him all about Lizzy's offensive comments that she had discovered in the letter to Kitty, and was certain that Wickham would be game for a little revenge. Not that Lydia cared if he approved- she would do just as she liked- it only made it all the more fun to have someone with whom to share the joke!
With all this in her mind, Lydia was more than able to bear her father's mockery; she comforted herself with the knowledge that she had him fooled, and let him continue to harass her, which he did with relish.
"Well, Lydia," he continued, "I may be wrong about my son-in-law. Perhaps Mr. Wickham has written you after all. I have not gone through today's letters yet; I am sure it is there, for your surely fine husband would never neglect you. I shall see to it after supper." He waited for Lydia to come back at him, but she seemed not to care about his sport, and so he soon gave it up. Mr. Bennet lapsed back into silence as his wife, her thoughts now all turned to Pemberley, began to worry Mary about submitting to a new gown for the ball. Mary, adamant against such frivolity, would not yield, and so they argued vainly over the point until the last dish had been cleared.
After supper, when he was again safely ensconced in his study, Mr. Bennet did indeed go through the day's post. What a surprise it was to find a letter there from Lydia's husband, after all! Yes, this was the 'W' of his son-in-law, and the insincere penmanship of the same. He had to laugh; he supposed he deserved this little irony for abusing his daughter so mercilessly. Lydia should have her fair reprisal. When Mr. Bennet went to put the note into his daughter's hand, her look was at least as triumphant as he could have expected. She gloated over her father as long as he remained in the room, laughing at his stupidity and preening over the little paper until he shook his head and returned to his books. Satisfied that she had been the smarter, Lydia ripped open the seal and read what her husband had to say about everything.
"December 1, 18___
My dear wife,
You are more than welcome to do as you please, which I know you will certainly do in any case. I only wish I could be there, but as you know, the family you plan to visit has always treated me contemptibly. I refuse to subject myself to the unparalleled rudeness I am sure to encounter in that house.
However, you must allow me my share in the celebrations. Therefore, I am sending a friend of mine to meet you in Lambton on the 19th. I think no one of the party will recognize him; you may pass him off as your travel chaperone. His name is Robert Weldon, and he is more than happy to escort you to the ball, for I have described to him the nature of the ladies he will probably find there. I imagine he will add some liveliness to the party- he is just the kind of person you appreciate.
Enjoy yourself, and I will see you again after all your endeavors are over. You have to find your own way to me at Mrs. Younge's, though, for I cannot send you any money (but there is a promising occupation ahead of me in the New Year, which without a doubt will set me up.) You are resourceful; I know you will get here. Perhaps your rich sister will send you- she owes you that much after abusing you behind your back.
p.s. Tear up this letter. You have seen how much damage these things can do when stupid people leave them lying around.
What could be more marvelous, to Mrs. Wickham's hedonistic sensibilities, than such a mate in life? This wonderful news settled everything for Lydia. So her husband was neglectful of her? She thought of her father's words and snorted with contempt. Wickham provided for her very well. She could not have wanted for more than this, except riches, of course. Lord, what fun it would be to show up so unexpectedly- with a strange young man, at that! And surely poor Kitty, who must have been suffering all this time from the tedium of having her disposition so restricted by the Darcys, would enjoy the joke immensely. It would be grand to be with Kitty again! Lydia rubbed her hands together, and remembered she was to tear up the letter that was still in them. She did so exuberantly, unable to contain her excitement. She wished that she were on her way to Derbyshire already, and imagined all the pleasures she would soon indulge herself in at the ball. The eighteenth of December could not come quickly enough! Lydia impatiently threw the little shreds of Wickham's intelligence into the fire, laughing her anticipation as they burned to cinders.
Chapter Eighteen: Safeguarding Kitty
The next afternoon, when Colonel Fitzwilliam returned from his call at Genesee Court, Georgiana could not help but see that he was very pleased with whatever had transpired between himself and Miss Campbell. He would only tell his cousin that he and the lady had been a walk and had enjoyed a good conversation, but his boyish smile betrayed that the visit had been more than satisfactory. Georgiana shared this news with Kitty, who was glad to hear it, and both of them tried to concentrate on the happiness of their friends, rather than their own sad preoccupations.
On the following day, Mr. Darcy paid a call to Stirling Manor, in order to see if the aged Stirlings required his assistance concerning the illness of their son. They reported they had received a letter from Arthur that very morning, which eased their fears a little. The illness was great, but Mr. Stirling believed his father to be out of mortal danger. However he did not intend to come back before the New Year at least, for he would not leave his mother to bear the trouble alone, and he imagined it would be another month before they were completely satisfied of his father's recovery.
When Georgiana heard this news, her feelings were a little mixed. Some small corner of her heart persisted in feeling disappointment that Arthur would not be at the ball, though she considered herself a monster for even thinking about such a thing. But she was not as selfish as she imagined herself to be- the far greater part of her emotion was relief for Mr. Stirling. Knowing that his father was likely to survive his sickness lightened her spirit considerably. She was also glad to see that Arthur attended his parents so faithfully, for his commitment to them made him all the more desirable to her.
Kitty was also thankful that Mr. Stirling should no longer fear for his father's life, and happy that Georgiana could let go most of her sorrow. With the lifting of her companion's anxieties, Kitty finally felt that she was free to share all that had transpired in the secluded wood with Mr. Newcastle. She unburdened herself of every detail in a rush, for she had barely managed to keep it to herself for the eternity of four days.
Georgiana was stunned at the tale Kitty lay before her. She had not imagined that Mr. Newcastle would propose! At least, not so quickly. The whole situation horrified her.
"Was he quite serious?" she cried, after the situation had been revealed.
"Do you think he is truly only interested in your dowry?"
"What dowry? I have none but five hundred pounds. But that does not signify; he assumes I am rich because I am related to the right people. He and his sister made it quite clear to me that my supposed fortune is of uppermost importance." Kitty sighed. "It would serve him right if I accepted his proposal, and let him discover the truth too late."
"Oh, no! You mustn't!" Georgiana was mortified.
"Do not be alarmed. It would be too much a punishment for me to have to be his wife. The little pleasure of fooling him would hardly be worth that pain." Kitty sighed again. "I cannot help considering that Mr. Newcastle's proposal is probably the most eligible offer of marriage I shall ever receive. Not that I care about money- I would much rather marry for love, but that will never happen. Especially now that Mr. Douglas"- she cut herself off abruptly, and turned her face away.
"Kitty, I am sure that you are mistaken. Mr. Douglas cannot think ill of you."
"He does; I know he does. He thinks I am willingly receiving Mr. Newcastle's attentions. He thinks I am attached to that wretched, conceited, horrible fool. No, Georgiana. Mr. Douglas is not going to come back to Derbyshire. At least, not for me." Kitty's voice was choked as she said this last, and Georgiana did not know how to comfort her. "If only he would come back!" Kitty continued. "If only I could explain myself! Oh! I hate Mr. Newcastle!"
In vain did Georgiana try to calm Kitty's distress. The only consolation she could think of was that at least Mr. Newcastle would not likely renew his addresses. After all, Kitty had left him in no doubt of her heart when she had so warmly defended Mr. Douglas at their last meeting. Kitty agreed it was improbable that even Mr. Newcastle could be so arrogant as to misconstrue such an obvious declaration of her preference, and it did give her some solace to believe that she would no longer be in danger of his unwelcome attentions.
Two days later, however, Mr. Newcastle came to call. This event was so totally unexpected that Kitty flew into a state of utter confusion, and refused to come down the stairs. She clung to Georgiana in the upstairs sitting room, begging her friend to go down and say she was too ill to see anyone.
"Who is ill? What is the matter?" Mr. Darcy had come to the door to see why the ladies remained upstairs. "Miss Bennet, are you not coming to receive your guest?"
At that moment, Kitty's loathing of another encounter with Mr. Newcastle eclipsed her wish to be a lady, and she cried out at Darcy through her rising tears. "No, no, no!"
Mr. Darcy perceived that there was no point in forcing her to go, and he did not want to at that. "Very well; I see you are ill." he said. "I shall go down and make your excuses." He disappeared as quickly as he had come, and Kitty exhaled brokenly. She did look sick as she sank down in the sofa cushions, all pale from worry and trembling with anger. How could Mr. Newcastle solicit her now? Was he totally without feelings?
A moment later, Mr. Darcy returned, and Elizabeth came with him.
"Kitty, are you quite all right? Do you need something?" Without waiting for a reply, Lizzy sent for a glass of Madeira, then sat and held her sister's hand. Kitty took the offered wine gratefully. In a moment, it had soothed her anxiety considerably, and she breathed quite normally again. Once recovered, however, she remembered her exclamations to Mr. Darcy and immediately felt ashamed of herself. She looked at him quickly, and saw that he was regarding her intently, which she imagined was probably due to some objection to her behavior.
"I am well, Lizzy," she said, after a moment. "But I need to go to bed. I am sorry for all this fuss."
"Can you not tell us what the matter is?" prodded her sister, gently.
Kitty glanced uneasily in the direction of Mr. Darcy once more. "No, it is nothing," she replied.
Georgiana could not contain herself at this. "Oh, Kitty," she pled, forgetting propriety in her eagerness to promote openness in her friend, "you mustn't fear my brother. Truly, he will only help you. You must tell him what has happened!"
Kitty was now thoroughly embarrassed, and even less inclined to talk about her troubles, until Mr. Darcy himself came and sat directly in front of her. "Miss Bennet- or rather, Catherine," he said carefully, "I hope that you will trust me. Indeed, Georgiana is right, I am only here to help. I feel it is my duty to stand in the place of your father, since you are away from home."
Kitty looked at Lizzy for some kind of encouragement. Elizabeth squeezed her hand. "Tell us why you must avoid Mr. Newcastle, Kitty," she said firmly.
Looking at her sister, and not Mr. Darcy, Kitty managed to enlighten them both of the failed proposal that had taken place in the woods. She told of dowries, breeches, and the welcome interruption of Mr. Douglas, all in a voice that sounded to her to be very far away. She felt extremely strange, telling her secrets with her brother-in-law standing by, and wondered what he would think of her for getting herself into such a situation.
"And you think he means to propose again?" asked Mr. Darcy presently.
"I am afraid he will."
"And you are certain your answer is no?"
"Perfectly certain." Unsure of what she perceived in his question, Kitty went on to defend her decision. "I know that it is a good match for me in every material way, but I just cannot accept him!"
"No one thinks ill of you, Kitty," said Elizabeth. "We none of us, in this room at least, subscribe to the dictums of convenient marriage." She shot a look at her husband, and they exchanged barely perceptible smiles. "If Mr. Newcastle asks you again, you must say 'No,' and be done with it."
"Or," said Mr. Darcy dryly, "ask your sister Elizabeth for other methods of rejection. She can teach you some very handsome speeches for the occasion."
"He is speaking Greek, I think," said Elizabeth amusedly to the young ladies. "I cannot understand him at all." Indeed, neither could her sisters, who were evidently confused by the current repartee.
Mr. Darcy sobered at once when he looked at Kitty, who was evidently still agitated on the subject of Mr. Newcastle. His natural sympathy, which had always attended Georgiana, was awakened for her. It was clear to him that Kitty had never had a male influence in whom to put her faith, and that she could not believe he would help her. Pitying the young girl that she had not been raised up at home with such protection, Darcy resolved to make her feel secure at once.
"As your present guardian," he promised, "I will not consent to give Mr. Newcastle your hand in marriage, even if you are somehow persuaded to accept him. I already told him you would be indisposed for another week, and that he should put off calling as long as possible. If he does come back, I will see that you are not left alone together. I will tell you frankly that I do not approve of him at all. Does that make you feel easier?"
It did indeed. Kitty finally managed a tiny smile at the intimidating gentleman. He smiled back affectionately, and pressed her hand. She was surprised, but very glad to feel the attention. How unexpected! In light of these developments, it no longer seemed outlandish to Kitty that Georgiana had such a deep love for her brother. It was extremely nice to feel guarded from harm by such a powerful sort of person. And he was kind after all; why had she never seen it? She smiled at him again, and this time her heart was in it.
"Thank you," she said simply. She looked to Georgiana, who was beaming happily at the sight of her friend and her brother coming to such an understanding, and both girls felt more than ever that they were truly sisters.
At the same time, Darcy looked to Elizabeth, who met his eyes with such a grateful, ardent expression that he was unable to sit still. He and his wife quickly left the room together after further assurances to the girls that all would be quite well, and when they had established their privacy, Elizabeth kissed him soulfully.
"You are very good," she said softly. "My sister needs exactly that kind of sheltering, and she has never had it."
Darcy looked at her with the intensity only he possessed. "I will learn to do anything for your sake, Elizabeth. Protect your sisters, let go of Georgiana, laugh at my mistakes- anything at all. Provided you are with me through the doing of it, I can achieve the impossible." He kissed her with the full strength his passion.
When she could speak again, Elizabeth put her finger under his chin, and looked into his eyes. "I am glad to hear it," she said, "for I have something to tell you, and you have just given me your approval on it."
"Anything," he replied recklessly.
"Well then." Elizabeth's eyes sparkled, and she backed away from her husband toward the door, as if she were preparing to dart out of the room. "I have received a letter of late. It is a reply from my family, concerning the ball. Mama, Papa, Mary, and our neighbor Maria Lucas will be with us from the eighteenth to the twenty-second! Learn to love it!" Before he could speak, Elizabeth did indeed run from the room, and her breathless laughter echoed back to him from down the hallway.
"Oh, dear God," was all Darcy could say. So he repeated it. "Oh, dear God." And then he laughed as though his sides would split.
Continued in Part 5© 2000 Copyright held by author