The Importance of Being Caroline
As Caroline looked up at the hallowed halls of Almack's, she felt certain that her decision regarding the Phillips brothers had been correct. She did not have enough information to judge them, so she decided to ignore their pasts, whether real or fabricated, and rely on their treatment of her.
She took Sir Rupert's arm with some trepidation and allowed him to escort her around the perimeter of the room. The ballroom was more spacious and beautiful than she had imagined, yet was already filling rapidly with the fortunate guests who had passed the test. Caroline had not realized that it was such an ordeal to gain entrance to Almack's. She erroneously thought that wealth and position were tickets to anywhere; the past several days had proved her wrong.
Sir Rupert had arrived at Grosvenor Street a week later than expected, but in great good spirits to be back. They had spent a pleasant hour riding in his barouche as he explained his tardiness.
"We were experiencing difficulties on the estate with our herds of sheep. Part of the flock had become infected, and we had to act quickly to salvage the rest. We worked nonstop to separate the diseased sheep from the rest, and unfortunately, had to dispose of them. For a while, we were sure that we would lose the entire herd, but we eventually got the disease under control, and I am still a gentleman farmer."
"How unfortunate!" Caroline commiserated. "I hope that your losses were not too great."
"It may mean fewer journeys to Brighton, to be sure. Sheep provide much of our capital." He directed the driver to go through the park, then said with some affection, "But now I am happy to be returned and in your company, Miss Bingley."
Rupert, to her intense surprise and delight, asked if she would like to go to Almack's on Wednesday next. They would have to act soon to be assured of Caroline's acceptance, though. He had a subscription to the assemblies and dinners at the exclusive club, but Caroline did not. She would have to pass muster with Lady Sarah Jersey in order to acquire a "Stranger's Ticket."
Caroline had heard of Lady Jersey, who was also known as 'Queen Sarah' and for good reason. She and the other Patronesses of Almack's held the social life or death of their patrons in the palms of their hands. Caroline felt that Luttrec's poem described it perfectly,
"All on that magic list depends;
Fame, fortune, fashion, lovers friends;
'Tis that which qualifies or vexes
All ranks, all ages, all sexes.
If once to Almack's you belong,
Like monarchs, you can do no wrong;
But banished thence on Wednesday night,
By Jove you can do nothing right."
Since her failure to capture Darcy, Caroline's confidence had been somewhat shaken. Sir Rupert reassured her, "They will adore you, Miss Bingley. The only trait that ensures the black ball is that of being boring, so you have nothing to fear."
The interview with Lady Jersey had been thankfully brief. The woman was very different from what Caroline had come to expect. A woman in her late twenties, Queen Sarah had a figure that was well-kept, and graying hair becomingly done to suit her age. Caroline was surprised by her total lack of affectation in conversation and realized that she had been wrong about what assets assured success. It was not so much Lady Jersey's marital connections, as it was her intelligence and wit. She seemed to have a lusty enjoyment of life and loved to share a good joke.
In her position, Lady Jersey had seen many people try to advance themselves by attempting to get in her good graces. Caroline sensed that the patroness would have little time for posturing young ladies, and cringed at the thought that she had been one only the year before. She answered the woman's questions honestly and with a touch of sardonic humor aimed at herself. Lady Jersey was charmed by her refreshing openness and gave her the "Stranger's Ticket" without further ado.
And now she was here, and with one of the handsomest gentlemen in the room. Sir Rupert also turned out to be very well-informed and gave Caroline a running narrative as they walked along arm-in-arm, "That woman is Princess Lieven. Her husband is a Russian count and their ambassador to England. They are both extremely political, and it is said that she would betray her own mother for 'the cause.'"
"Why is she allowed in here among the leaders of our government?"
"She does lend an air of intrigue," Sir Rupert explained. "She will be of no threat to you, and may prove interesting to watch."
He nodded in another direction, "Ah, there is Lady Frances Webster. Lord Byron cannot be too far away."
"Lord Byron is here? Have you made his acquaintance? I should dearly love to meet him." Caroline's estimation of Sir Rupert was rising with every titled person that he mentioned. She took in the elegant chandelier, the ornately decorated walls that could have belonged at a French court, and the quantities of diamonds and other precious gems that adorned the bosoms and hair of the women. This was the destiny for which she had groomed herself. Caroline felt as though she belonged at Almack's.
"I will happily introduce you to Lord Byron," Sir Rupert agreed. "'Think'st thou I saw thy beauteous eyes, suffus'd in tears, implore to stay'"
Caroline's heart swelled at the sound of the words and added her voice to his, "'and heard unmov'd thy plenteous sighs, which said far more than words can say?'" She looked up at the man who seemed to share her spirit, "One of the Caroline poems," she smiled. "When may I meet Lord Byron?"
"Let us watch from a distance for this short while. I see a very interesting development."
"What do you mean?"
As Lord Byron stood in conversation with a small group of friends, Rupert explained that one of the women was the lord's mistress, Lady Frances Webster, though they were both being rather sly about not drawing attention to themselves. "That means that Mrs. Lamb shall not be in attendance this evening."
"Why is that?" Caroline had heard the name before, but could not make the connection.
"Mrs. Lamb is one of Lord Byron's former loves, though she regularly denies it. She says that she is only a most loyal fan of his literary efforts, but one must wonder what would induce her to dress up as a page and attempt to gain entrance to Lord Byron's house."
Sir Rupert laughed, "Caroline Lamb is known for her bold ways, Miss Bingley. It is only unfortunate that you will not see her for yourself." He pointed to another young lady who was standing across the room. "They say that she shall be Lord Byron's wife one day. I hear that he has asked and been rejected."
"Who is she?"
"Miss Annabella Millbanke."
"And she is at the same assembly as his mistress?"
"Indeed, yes." His mouth dimpled in sardonic amusement, "Though it would be difficult to attend an assembly that does not have at least one of his lady loves in attendance."
Caroline looked at Lord Byron with new eyes, and became excited as he broke from his group and made to pass nearby. Sir Rupert gave him greeting and arrested his attention for a few moments, "Lord Byron, may I present Miss Caroline Bingley."
Caroline took in the lord's curly dark hair and deep-set eyes that seemed to see all. She curtseyed, "Good evening, Lord Byron. I am an admirer of your works, Sir."
Byron gave a precise nod and said, "Thank you, Miss Bingley." He then perused her intently before adding, "But, with your permission, I shall think of you as 'Lily', for the name 'Caroline' holds no pleasure for me and does not do justice to your beauty."
He was away before Caroline had time to decide if she should be affronted or pleased. Sir Rupert lightly pressed her arm, "So, you are already a pet! I shall have you keep my eye on you and the fine lord."
Caroline laughed aloud, which caught the attention of the gentleman standing behind her. He turned and greeted Sir Rupert, "Phillips, introduce me to your charming companion."
"Miss Bingley, may I introduce you to Sir Godfrey Webster?" Rupert did not look pleased at being called upon. "Sir, I give you Miss Caroline Bingley."
"Do you, indeed!" the man countered, raking Caroline with his eyes.
Caroline greeted the gentleman briefly, intrigued by his dark good looks, but put off by his boldness. The evening was fast becoming one of the most stimulating of her life.
Sir Godfrey attempted to carry on a prolonged conversation, but Sir Rupert informed the man that they had been on the point of dancing. He swiftly escorted Caroline to the dance floor.
Sir Rupert was an engaging partner who kept a smile on her face and encouraged light conversation. "Why do I sense that you do not approve of Sir Godfrey Webster?" she challenged, lowering her eyelashes unconsciously and seductively. She felt so alive when with Sir Rupert...alive and a little daring.
"He is a notorious womanizer and is one of Mrs. Lamb's past conquests."
Caroline was thoughtful as she perused the crowd. It seemed as though a majority of the people had affairs with either Lord Byron or Mrs. Lamb. This high society did not pretend to take the marriage vows very seriously, but why should they when the Prince-Regent himself was such a poor example of marital bliss? Caroline wondered what Sir Rupert's views would be on marriage.
The lively dances soon had the gentlemen clamoring for refreshments for their ladies. Caroline drank her weak lemonade and ate the stale bread and butter with some disappointment.
Sir Rupert explained, "One comes here to be seen, Miss Bingley. For the ambiance of the place. Almack's is not known for their food."
Caroline had been watching the people pass by and was comparing herself to the women. As the room grew warmer, and the bodies perspired, Caroline realized that a few of the women had nothing on beneath their dresses.
Sir Rupert noticed his partner's reddening cheeks. "A fashion imported from France, and one that most gentlemen do not seem to mind. Look over there..."
Caroline turned her head and was dumbstruck. Two women were walking her way, and their dresses were clinging to them in a manner which left very little to the imagination.
"They wet the material down with water," Sir Rupert told her. He was amused by her naivetˇ.
Caroline averted her face. Almack's was certainly different from any other assembly that she had attended. She realized that she had led a very sheltered life. Her own set had their share of scandalous behavior, but nothing so blatant as what she had witnessed this night.
"Miss Bingley, the artists portray the human body in all its splendor. This is no different," Sir Rupert said softly, looking at her closely.
Caroline turned to look boldly into his eyes, "I doubt that the artists share their motives!" she said tartly.
Sir Rupert smiled, "Touchˇ!" Then he begged to excuse himself for a few moments.
Caroline watched with admiration as he walked away. He was accosted by a young man who seemed to be a particular friend of his. The distance was too great for Caroline to hear their words, but she noticed their frequent glances in her direction.
"I did not think that you would settle for such a milk-and-water miss," said Julian Smythe.
Sir Rupert arched his brow, "Miss Bingley has more than enough assets to make up for her being a bit green."
"20,000, from what I hear," Julian remarked dryly.
Rupert clapped his friend on the back, "Shall I find a wealthy young miss for you, too?"
"I will bet you one gold guinea that she does not marry you, Phillips."
"Low stakes do not say much for your convictions, Smythe. Care to make them higher?"
"No, I think not. Taking even more money from you would make me feel like a thief."
"Done!" Rupert said, and shook hands with his friend.
Sir Rupert began to call at the Hurst home daily, and as Louisa's health improved, he was able to spirit Caroline away for several outings.
During their weekly visits to Almack's, Caroline began to develop relationships with some of the other patrons. She did not think that she approved of Julian Smythe, who appeared cynical at the best of times, but she had made a particular friend of the wife of the Austrian ambassador. Princess Esterhazy was a round, dark woman who spoke with some animation and had a reputation for being spiteful. She took Caroline under her wing and, through her caustic observations, helped her protegee see beneath the surface of the glittering society. She represented Almack's as a den of intrigue, both personal and political, and warned her repeatedly to never turn her back.
Caroline still found ways to enjoy their excursions, despite a growing cynicism of her own toward that august society, for Sir Rupert was a delightful companion. He could be counted upon to know of a dozen ways to spend an evening, and was congenial to all. Regular gifts of candy and fruit endeared him to Mrs. Hurst, and a few 'family evenings' at cards recommended him to Mr. Hurst. He furthered his cause by never being deficient in giving compliments, and it was not long before he was considered almost family.
Rupert had even befriended Charles when that gentleman was in London for a few days on business, and it had not taken long for their acquaintances at Almack's to consider them as a couple. So, it was infinitely pleasing, but not terribly surprising, when one Wednesday evening before they left for Almack's, Sir Rupert presented Caroline with a lined mahogany jewelry box.
As the contents were revealed, Caroline gasped, for before her eyes was an exquisitely worked Georgian demi-parure. The yellow gold created a choker from which hung three sizeable teardrop pendants encrusted with glittering emeralds.
"This center pendant may be removed," Rupert explained with some animation. He knew that his gift was an overwhelming success. "It may be worn on a chain by itself or pinned as a brooch."
Caroline could not draw her eyes away from the necklace for several moments. She gingerly touched it, and marvelled at the depth of color of the precious stones. She finally raised her eyes to his, "Is this beautiful piece of jewelry a family heirloom?"
"It is destined to be, Miss Bingley. It was worn by my mother."
Caroline faltered, "It...it is quite breathtaking, Sir Rupert, but I cannot accept such a gift."
Rupert set his gift on the table, aware that Caroline was staring at it with no small regret. He clasped both of her hands ardently to his chest and said softly, "You may, if you consent to be my wife."
Caroline hesitated for only a moment. The gold necklace symbolize everything she had ever wanted in life. "Yes! Yes, Sir Rupert, I will consent to marry you."
Rupert's smile widened and he leaned forward to give a chaste kiss to his beloved.
Her first kiss! Caroline marvelled at the warm touch of his lips on hers, and wondered as she regretted its brevity. She remembered happening upon her brother and Jane on more than one occasion, and their kisses had seemed more enveloping. 'Perhaps that comes with time,' she decided, 'when we have both become used to the idea.'
Rupert had taken the necklace out of the box and was now gently placing it around Caroline's throat. She thrilled at the feel of his fingers against her neck. Her fingers came up to touch the pendants, and she shivered with pleasure. "Oh, Sir Rupert, it is divine!"
"My dear, sweet Caroline. I am Rupert to you now."
Caroline turned to face her betrothed. "I am the happiest of women!" she exclaimed.
Sir Rupert grinned at her childlike excitement and gave her another quick kiss. "Our carriage awaits," he reminded her.
Later in the evening, when Julian Smythe caught sight of the necklace adorning Caroline Bingley's neck, he realized that Sir Rupert had taken the first step toward winning the bet.
"I believe that you owe me one gold guinea," his friend whispered.
"You are not at the altar yet, Phillips."
"It is only a matter of time, Smythe. Be a good sport," Sir Rupert laughingly encouraged him. But the gentleman declined to pay his debt of honor...yet.
Caroline could not bear to be parted from her engagement present for an instant. It was the most magnificent piece of jewelry that she had ever owned. She regretfully detached the center pendant from the rest and positioned it on her bosom. As she fingered it tenderly, she laughed at herself for not being able to keep her hands from it.
At mid-morning, when Caroline was in the breakfast-parlour, Dr. Phillips was announced.
"Send him in," Caroline instructed the servant. "Perhaps the good doctor would like some refreshment."
Henry entered the room to find Caroline alone. She had never looked so lovely, and there was a new air of confidence about her.
"Dr. Phillips, would you care for some tea or coffee? Breakfast, as well, is on the sideboard if you have not yet broken your fast," Caroline suggested magnanimously.
"Thank you, Miss Bingley. Coffee would be appreciated."
Caroline gestured to a chair near her own. "Louisa is quite well, but tends to sleep late in the morning now that she is no longer plagued with an uncertain digestion, and Mr. Hurst is gone for the day. I shall welcome your company while I finish my breakfast."
His silence caused Caroline to study the doctor more closely. Henry's face was ashen, and if she had not known better, she would have thought that he was seized by a fatal attack. She could see that his eyes were rivetted on the pendant from Sir Rupert. 'Of course, he would recognize it,' Caroline realized.
After several moments of uncomfortable silence, Caroline ventured to say, "I hope that you shall be pleased to call me sister, Sir, for I shall be proud to call you brother."
Henry scoffed, "You will not be allowed to act on those sentiments, Miss Bingley."
Caroline was taken aback by the doctor's bitter response. "I am hopeful that, over time, you and your brother will be reconciled,' she said encouragingly.
Henry turned away in a fit of agitation. "Your brother is a good man," Caroline asserted.
The rude snort caused her to bristle; she felt compelled to defend her betrothed, "Rupert is amiable to everyone he meets --- except for you --- and he is a caring master of his people and his estate."
Henry threw her a very dark look of denial.
"He is!" Caroline insisted. "Just this past spring, Rupert told me about the long hours he worked, alongside his men, to save the herd when a disease infected some of the sheep. He was gone for several days..."
"Is this what my brother told you?" the doctor interrupted sharply.
"Yes, Dr. Phillips," Caroline put her chin up, affronted by the man's continued ill-humor towards Sir Rupert. "I do not understand your..."
"You do not love him," Henry interrupted bluntly. He had come to stand before her, and his glare dared her to deny his statement.
Caroline shook with anger. Through clenched teeth, she said, "You must not say that again, or we shall cease to be friends."
"Friends!" Henry spat out. "Friends!" he exclaimed even more emphatically. In the past few minutes he had gone beyond caring what kind of fool he made of himself. His emotions were raw. Through-out his tired, overworked days, the thought of Caroline Bingley had been a beacon of light. He suddenly realized that, although he considered his suit to be utterly hopeless, he had never told her of his feelings. He was willing to risk anything, everything in an effort to stop her from making a disastrous mistake.
Henry pulled the chair closer to her and sat down, taking her hands in his. At first, he could not speak; the words would not come.
Caroline was frightened by his proximity and the ardent, almost wild, look in his eyes. She tried to pull her hands away, but Henry would not release them. 'Should I call for a servant?' she wondered desperately.
"Miss Bingley," Henry finally said. He looked from her face to the pendant and back again. "I esteem you greatly. I have for many months. My brother may have what you want..." He looked again at the piece of jewelry nestled on her bosom. "But I have what you need. Caroline, I love you!"
Caroline's face reddened at the implication that she was marrying his brother for material reasons. She did not heed the rest of his words. A cold fury took control of her body, and her pupils narrowed dangerously. Caroline took one long, scathing look at Dr. Phillips, from head to toe. "Do you...?" she challenged coolly.
Several hours passed before Caroline could calm down enough to recall the rest of Dr. Phillips' words. 'I need him? The impudence of the man!' she cried angrily. But then she remembered his last three words: 'I love you.' Caroline felt her face grow hot. 'Love.' Rupert had not used that word, but then, neither had she.
Caroline thought about the events of the past year and her attempts to impress Mr. Darcy. Even with him, it had not been a question of love, but esteem. Her mind brought up images of the various married couples that she knew. She was aware of the background of many of them and felt sure that love had nothing to do with many of their matches, just as in the case of the Hursts.
She fondly turned her thoughts to Charles and Jane. They were so obviously in love that sometimes friends felt like intruders. But they were both so sweet and amiable, of course they would find love! Visions of the Darcys were also conjured up. No one could call them sweet nor amiable, yet they, too, had fallen in love...and it was having a softening effect on both of them.
Caroline knew that she had to bestir herself to prepare for a late afternoon house party at the home of Lady Cowper, for Rupert would be at her door within the hour. 'Love is not always practical,' she decided, 'and elusive to many. Rupert and I are the best of friends and enjoy each other's company. Many couples cannot say that!'
"Lady Cowper has a lovely garden," Princess Esterhazy commented to her companion. "It's fame is widespread."
Caroline nodded distractedly and ran her fingers through the lavender as they walked along the path. They were at Panshanger, the Cowper estate. Her fiance was within, watching gentlemen play at Hazard. It was rumored that the stakes were high this evening. Suddenly, Caroline heard shouts of anger and rumblings of movement coming from the house. She began to walk quickly toward the door to find Rupert.
"Miss Bingley! Caroline!" the princess called after her, "There is nothing to fear. Lady Cowper is a reknown diplomat."
Caroline returned to her friend. "What do you think has happened?"
"I know what has happened, my dear. Some young fool has been naive enough to bet against our friend, Baron Alvaney. The Baron now undoubtedly holds the deed to his opponent's estate, or something of equal value."
"No one would be senseless enough to risk losing their own home!" Caroline said in disbelief.
"Their home, their horses, their land --- gambling fever can be fatal."
Rupert appeared at the door, spied the two women, and came to join them.
"Well?" the princess asked, her eyebrows arched expectantly.
"Sylvester Shaw has lost half of his holdings," Rupert informed her. "If he can find no way to reverse his losses, he will be in danger of losing the entire estate before the year is out."
"Isn't Mr. Shaw the very young fellow whom we met as we arrived?" Caroline asked.
"Indeed he is, Caroline."
"How can he be held accountable when everyone knows it shall ruin him?"
"A debt of honor must be paid. It is a sacred vow."
"And if he does not?"
"Then Mr. Shaw will have to move to new lodgings, either on the Continent or in the ground," Rupert explained matter-of-factly.
"No! Cannot the winner compromise? Accept a lesser prize?"
"Absolutely not!" Princess Esterhazy cut in, "The Baron is within his rights."
'What idiocy!' Caroline fumed. 'Grown men playing with lives.'
"Good evening, Mrs. Burrell, Mr. Burrell..." said Rupert as he bowed to an approaching couple.
Caroline quickly stifled a giggle as she looked from one to the other. Mrs. Burrell was attired in a seemly and modest fashion, but she was accompanied by a peacock of a gentleman. Mr. Burrell had taken every fashion innovation and carried it to excess. His stock was higher and more crisp than any other; his coat, though fashionably black for the evening, was a flurry of buttons, and his manners were studied and precise. A dandy. After introductions, the couple continued blissfully on their way.
"The rooster and the hen personified," Rupert whispered impertinently.
Princess Esterhazy snickered, "The man fairly shouts 'Cockadoodledoo.'"
From their vantage point, the trio were able to heed any new carriages. At the crunch of wheels and clipclop of horses, they turned to face the drive.
"Ah, just the gentleman to follow a meeting with Burrell," Rupert observed, "Unfortunate that Burrell is not present to take notes."
"'The Arbiter of Fashion', Miss Bingley," the princess explained, "Mr. Beau Brummell."
Caroline was all eagerness as she watched the impeccable Mr. Brummell step down. He was exceedingly fair, a man in his mid-thirties.
"I have heard Mr. Brummell say, that if a man is noticed for his dress, then he is dressed inappropriately," Rupert quoted. The cut of Brummell's suit was precise, the color and material exactly correct for the occasion. He was the perfect model of a gentleman, and in stark contrast to Mr. Burrell.
Caroline felt something wet on her arm and realized that it was beginning to rain.
"We shall have to take our party indoors, it seems," Rupert observed, offering an arm to each lady.
Lady Cowper's mansion was spacious, but her guests were wont to collect in one room. It soon became overcrowded and stuffy. Rupert led Caroline over to a window that was open just enough to allow a flow of air.
"I shall go in search of refreshments," he offered, but his leave-taking was interrupted by a cheerful gentleman somewhat older than himself
"Rupert, I have yet to be introduced to this charming young woman. I understand that she is your fiance." He bowed to Caroline. "You are a fortunate man," he told his friend as he captured her eyes with his own.
"Caroline, this sly gentleman is Baron Alvaney. Sir, this beautiful woman is indeed my betrothed, Miss Caroline Bingley. I shall trust you to entertain the lady, for I am on an errand for my love."
"So, it is like that already, is it?" the Baron chortled. "Miss Bingley does not look to be a harsh taskmaster." Rupert disappeared into the crowd, and Baron Alvaney returned his attention to the woman at his side."Are you, my dear?"
Caroline was not particularly amused by his attempt at humor, nor impressed with his title for it did not take her long to realize that this was the gentleman who had ruined poor Mr. Shaw's life. Mr. Darcy, who was still her yardstick on many occasions, would never have committed such an heinous act. She finally responded to his address, "I assume that many people are congratulating you on your winnings, Baron Alvaney."
"I gather that you will not. In fact," he asked with a twinkle, "is it possible that you dislike me?"
"I do not know you well enough to dislike you, Sir, but I can feel compassion for a young man who has lost his inheritance."
"What would you have me do? I did not force the boy to play against me, nor did I encourage him to stake his property against the throw of the die."
"The key word here is 'young', Sir. You have the advantage of experience."
"So, you would wish for me to make wagers against only people who are equal to the task?" he asked lightly.
"Yes, Baron, in the name of all that is fair," Caroline insisted.
Baron Alvaney's eyebrows switched in amusement. Who was this chit of a girl to stand up to him in this manner? He grinned broadly, for he liked a girl who showed spirit. "Have you ever engaged in a wager, Miss Bingley? There is a certain thrill to it. It makes one's blood race and one's soul feel alive."
"No, Sir, nor do I intend to," Caroline replied tartly.
"Come now, just a small wager. There can be no harm in that..."
"What do you mean, Baron Alvaney?"
The gentleman perused the room, then turned, and his eyes lit on the panes of glass, dappled with raindrops. "An innocent wager, Miss Bingley." He beckoned her closer and encouraged her to watch the raindrops slide down the window and onto the sill. "We shall find two such raindrops and bet on whose will reach the sill first," he suggested.
"This is silly!" Caroline muttered.
"Are you not curious as to the stakes? That is what makes the game more interesting."
"I do not find this amusing at all, Sir, but I can see that you are determined to tell me."
The Baron laughed a deep, throaty laugh. He was finding much entertainment in quizzing Miss Bingley --- she was so determined. "My lady," he suggested, "if I win, you shall bestow upon me one kiss."
Caroline's facial expression left no doubt as to whether she considered him mad. "And if I win?" she asked haughtily.
"Then I shall gladly pay you one kiss."
Caroline snorted at the ridiculousness of it all. With his back to the room, Baron Alvaney leaned toward the young woman, and was soon much closer than Caroline realized as she looked out of the window. She turned back and was surprised to find their noses just inches apart. The element of surprise was his.
"Regardless, the outcome shall be the same," he whispered, and suddenly bestowed upon Caroline's lips a kiss of some feeling.
Fear and astonishment threatened to overcome her, but anger won out. Caroline gave the man's chest a hard shove, and her right hand made contact with his left cheek with a resounding smack, just as Rupert reappeared with beverages for all.
The Baron only smiled enigmatically and gave Caroline a congratulatory nod of the head.
Rupert could see the imprint of his fiance's hand on the man's cheek. "Whatever has happened?" he asked, looking from one person to the other.
"I was paying off a debt," Baron Alvaney said wryly.
"It seems that the lady did not find much pleasure in it, Sir."
"Indeed, I did not!" Caroline exclaimed with much agitation. "This man is no gentleman, and if I were a man, too, I would demand satisfaction!" she spat out.
"If you were a man," the Baron countered cheerfully, "there would have been no kiss."
"Darling, Baron Alvaney is having his joke. I am certain that he meant no harm," Rupert said, trying to restore peace. "Besides, it looks as though you have bested him."
"If you refuse to stand up for me, then I shall have no choice but to leave this place immediately," Caroline threatened. She glared at Rupert until the smile finally faded from his lips. She was determined to call for the carriage, whether her fiance escorted her or not.
"Why, the little rabbit!" the Baron observed at their departure. His laugher could still be heard as they quitted the room.
Once in the carriage, Rupert took Caroline's hand in his, but the motion was rebuffed. "I assure you, Caroline, that the Baron will not approach you in that manner again." His fiance sat in stony silence for many minutes, determinedly facing the window.
Caroline finally turned around, her angry features showing that she was still in high temper. "If Baron Alvaney is counted among your friends, then you choose them ill, Sir!" she accused.
"He may have been indiscreet," Rupert admitted, "but after our several evenings at Almack's you must realize..."
"That its illustrious patrons hold themselves above any laws of decency? Yes, I have been made aware of that. The lack of decorum...manners..." she stammered, "the absence of true ladies and gentlemen. The Baron would not have been so free with Lady Jersey."
"But Caroline, she is a patroness and older than you are, a matron."
"So, it is admissable to prey upon the young and naive such as myself and Mr. Shaw?"
Rupert sighed, "I am not excusing the man's behavior. I am asking you to understand it. Baron Alvaney is a wealthy and powerful man. Many women would have wished to be in your position."
Caroline's chin was determinedly set. Rupert leaned toward her to brush her cheek with his lips. "You are not harmed," he pointed out softly. "My darling, I would not allow anyone to truly harm you, not even the Baron. Your pride is injured, but I must counsel you that, if you do not make light of it, you will be the one ridiculed, not Baron Alvaney." Rupert slipped an arm around her and held her close. "Dear Caroline, let us go away from here --- to Gretna Green, so that we may marry as soon as possible."
"We have just begun the selection of my clothing," Caroline protested. "They will not be in readiness for some months."
Rupert nuzzled her neck, sending unexpected shivers down to her toes. "All a bride truly needs is the bridegroom," he responded pointedly.
Caroline attempted to see into his eyes in the dim light filtering into the carriage. "Rupert, do you love me?" she asked.
"I have asked you to be my wife," he replied. "That is the highest honor I can bestow on any woman."
'No,' Caroline's mind whispered. 'The highest honor would be to receive your love.'
The final evening at Almack's was upon them. Caroline was surprised to find that she was looking forward to the end of the season. 'I had thought that I could never tire of society,' she sighed, 'but it holds little charm for me these days. It is so different from what I had come to expect. I knew that there would be a few unscrupulous fellows, but I felt certain that there would be an equal number of noble persons. Why should I have expected more from those who have fortune, fame, and a formidable education to recommend them?' She thoughts she could understand why Mr. Darcy chose to avoid London as much as possible.
As she entered Almack's, Caroline thrust her chin up --- no one would ridicule her! The main reception room was thick with guests, but she could only see Baron Alvaney and his entourage. As usual, the man was in high spirits which brought appreciative chuckles from his friends.
As she and Rupert made to pass by, the Baron gave her a sardonic nod of the head. Caroline unexpectedly turned to face him. "Good evening, Baron Alvaney," she greeted him coldly, not bothering to curtsey. "I apologise for my recent behavior, but I had mistaken you for a gentleman."
There were guffaws and rib-poking among the Baron's friends. "I am equally to blame, Miss Bingley," he was quick to reply, "for I had mistaken you for a woman."
A hushed silence fell as the people surrounding them awaited Caroline's response. Her rosy cheeks were the only indication of her distress as she replied, "It takes a man to recognize a woman, and a gentleman to recognize a lady. So, you see, Sir, there were too many obstacles to your assessing the situation clearly." She gave a curt nod and continued on her way.
There were snickers of laugher and the sounds of back-slapping, but Caroline did not look back. "Very charmingly said," Rupert whispered. He had met the eyes of the Baron before turning to follow Caroline. Fortunately, the gentleman had not taken offense.
Caroline let out a sigh as she reached the far wall. "This verbal fencing is not so hard to learn, but I take no pleasure in it. It is a waste of time."
"I would not agree," Rupert countered. "Many of these people have much influence over which opportunities and obstacles are presented to us."
"I agree that they wield much power, but to what good? I have only seen posturing and play-acting. I would rename Almack's to 'Opportunities Lost.'"
"'All the world is a stage...'" Rupert quoted.
"Then the roles in power have been miscast."
"You are harsh upon our fellow patrons, Caroline. Would you denounce them all?"
"Without exception," she asserted.
Rupert nodded his head in a particular direction. "Dr. Phillips!" Caroline exclaimed.
"A fellow reprobate, so it seems."
"What can he be doing here?"
"My earnest brother is probably stumping for his favorite cause."
Caroline realized the undoubted truth of Rupert's answer. She watched the doctor as he exchanged words with the gentlemen around him. Their expressions, for the most part, reflected a warm welcome for the man.
She was startled when Henry's eyes suddenly darted to hers, as though he knew that she had been watching him from afar. He gave a deep bow in her direction, his countenance all seriousness, but otherwise unreadable. Caroline nodded in return, embarrassment coloring her cheeks.
The music commenced, but the dance was unlike anything Caroline had ever seen. Each gentleman held his partner at the waist, and supported one of her hands with his. Her other hand rested lightly upon his shoulder, and her skirts swayed beautifully in time to the music.
"What is this?" she asked.
"The 'waltz.' Mrs. Lamb is particularly fond of the dance, and so, I would not be surprised if she were here this evening." He bowed before Caroline, "Shall we join them?"
"I do not know how to do this 'waltz,'" she protested.
Rupert smiled encouragingly, "You will learn easily, for you are a proficient dancer." He led her out onto the floor and they took up their positions. Rupert whispered instructions, and they began to count 1,2,3 as the music swelled around them. Their feet soon followed, and Caroline felt herself being swept around the room in the arms of her handsome beau. The intimate, sure touch of his hand at her back, and the exhilerating turns, soon had her smiling in delight.
As they swirled around, Caroline heard laughter and caught sight of an animated young woman in the arms of a much young man and enjoying herself thoroughly. She danced with such abandon that Caroline envied her.
"Mrs. Caroline Lamb," Rupert informed her. Caroline could understand why some men might find her intriguing.
At eleven o'clock, the trays of food were organzied for their traditional repast. Caroline and Rupert had just found their seats when there was a small commotion at the door. One of the elegant butlers approached Lady Jersey, then bowed and returned to the entrance.
"What has happened?" Caroline whispered.
The rumor soon arrived at their end of the table, "Wellington, himself, has been denied admittance!"
"What? Lady Jersey would refuse a national hero?"
"It is after eleven," Rupert reminded her. "He knows the rules."
Caroline found it hard to believe that such an important personage would be rejected for being seven minutes late.
"Equality for all," Rupert explained. "Wellington will understand."
They gave their attentions to the many and varied refreshments until there was a sound of broken glass at another table. A woman's voice rose over the murmurings of the crowd. Caroline could not hear the words distinctly, only something about 'Childe Harold' which she recognized as a series of poems by Lord Byron. She craned her neck in an attempt to see the source of the disturbance, but gentlemen were beginning to rise from their seats. Caroline stood up, also, and was shocked by the sight of Caroline Lamb attempting to slash at her arms and wrists with her broken glass. The bright red blood was beginning to spill down her arms.
Blood! Caroline's one weakness was the sight of too much blood. She swooned and fell silently to the floor.
"Caroline! Darling!" Rupert attempted to bring her to her senses by rubbing her wrists and calling to her.
She soon revived, but suffered from some nausea and asked to be taken home.
The house was dark and very quiet. Louisa had undoubtedly retired for the evening, and Caroline was not sure if Mr. Hurst had returned from his club. She took a seat on the couch, Rupert at her side. Peter lit candles around the room and brought refreshments before retiring for the evening.
"Caroline, I was so frightened when I saw you fall. If anything would ever happen to you..." Rupert said with no little feeling.
"I am almost fully recovered," Caroline reassured him, grateful for his concern. She laid one hand over his in a gesture of regard.
Rupert moved nearer and enveloped her in his arms, "I do not want you out of my sight," he declared. "Dearest Caroline, let us be married immediately!" he beseeched her.
Caroline was surprised by his sudden ardor. "Oh Rupert, the time will pass quickly. We shall have our wedding day and it will be glorious. We shall remember it for the rest of our lives."
"I care nothing for fine weddings," Rupert urged, "I want you!" He began to kiss Caroline's hand, the palm, the wrist. His lips travelled slowly up her arm as Caroline looked on in fascination. "Marry me now!" he demanded.
Caroline's breath was coming in small gasps as she experienced his lovemaking, but she gave him a tender smile of denial. "September is not so long to wait," she said lightly.
"It is an eternity to me!" he cried out. "It shall be my doing!" Rupert found her lips with his and kissed her in a very different manner from all the times before... bruising, demanding.
Caroline pressed her hands gently against his chest to ward him off.
"Caroline, marry me!" he repeated huskily.
Caroline was quickly becoming alarmed. Love was not supposed to be like this, was it? The fragile fabric of her bodice was giving way under Rupert's insistent hands. She gave out a shriek, a cry for help, but her sounds were muffled as his mouth found hers once more.
"Stand down!" The crisp order was given in a booming voice. It cut through Rupert's consciousness, and effectively arrested his actions.
Henry came swiftly around the couch and tried to pull Caroline to safety. Rupert would not have it, but a quick left hook changed his mind. Henry helped Caroline to her feet and moved her to stand behind him.
Rupert stood to confront his brother. "You come between a man and his wife, Sir!" he accused.
"You are not yet wed, and your behavior is abominable no matter what the circumstances," Henry said evenly.
"It is only a matter of paperwork," Rupert sneered.
Caroline's face diffused with color at the implication. "It is not true!" she protested.
Rupert ignored her outburst. "I knew that we would fight over her some day, brother. Your interest is what attracted me in the first place. But she is my betrothed, and I demand satisfaction."
"You will get no satisfaction from me, brother. Your undoing will be at your own hand, not mine."
"Still spineless, Henry? You refuse to fight for your lovely lady?" He laughed mirthlessly, "Some things never change, do they?"
"In your case, Rupert, there is an exception. You have ever been wild and willfull, but never evil...until this night."
"Did you hear him, Caroline? He will not defend your honor. Henry is indeed half a man," Rupert taunted.
"Let us go, Caroline," Henry urged. He turned to escort the young lady to the door, and was felled by Rupert, who attacked him from behind.
Rupert dropped down on top of his brother and wrapped one arm around his neck. Henry twisted and writhed until he was able to grasp his opponent's arms and pull them away. Rupert was caught unawares when Henry suddenly butted him in the nose with his head. The pain was excruciating. Rupert fell back heavily against the bench near the fireplace, with a sickening crack to the head. He lost consciousness.
Henry willed himself to rise to his knees, and then his feet. He stumbled over to his brother and checked his pulse. He turned Rupert on his side so that the bleeding from the broken nose would not flow down his throat. "He shall have a headache, and will not thank me for the surgery on his nose, but he shall live," Henry said. Caroline was backed against the wall in terror and would not look.
"He belongs in prison!" she cried out. "We must call for assistance!"
Henry came to stand before her and gently wrapped his cape around her shoulders. "He has more to fear than prison, Miss Bingley," he said sadly. "All of Sir Rupert's hens have come home to roost."
Peter appeared at the door, and Henry gave him a series of orders, "Young man, awaken one of more of your friends and stand guard over Sir Rupert. If he has not regained consciousness within the half hour, awaken him and show him to the door."
Peter glanced at Caroline, and after her nod of the head, said "Yes, Sir!" and went to awaken the other men in the house.
"We must be away, Miss Bingley," Henry urged. "I do not think he will try to look for you, but if he does, I want you to be in a safe place. Come, now..."
"Where are we going? I must tell Louisa..."
"Time is of the essence. You may write a letter of explanation to your sister after I am assured of your safety. We shall go to the Center. There are students about at all hours of the day and night. If Rupert comes, he shall not find us alone and defenseless." Henry ushered Caroline out to his carriage and soon was seated across from her.
Caroline leaned back against the cushions in exhaustion. Her thoughts were in a turmoil: first, Rupert's rough treatment of her, and then, Dr. Phillips' refusal to fight for her. Apparently the love she had spurned no longer existed. They travelled in silence for some minutes, until Caroline felt compelled to ask, "How did you come to be at my house?"
Henry was sorry that the dim light did not afford a good look at her face, but then decided that it was just as well. They may both be too embarrassed to meet by the light of day. "I saw you swoon at the sight of Mrs. Lamb's blood," he explained. "After I offered my services to that lady, I looked for you but was told that you were unwell and had been taken home. As your doctor, I felt it my responsibility to call upon you and assure myself of your well-being."
"Thank you," Caroline whispered shakily. She would not allow herself to weep, though all of her old hopes and aspirations were crumbled at her feet. Miss Caroline Bingley would never have believed that her person could be attacked, but it had happened. She desperately wanted to avenge herself on Sir Rupert, but felt that she owed Dr. Phillips at least her trust. He said that Rupert would be the instrument of his own destruction. So be it. But, the thought of Rupert rotting in some dank and dark cell would have been so gratifying...
Caroline felt the weight of the gold necklace against her skin. She raised both hands to grasp the choker and pulled until it came apart in her hands. "Here," she said, "This is not mine."
Henry's gloved hand touched hers in the darkness. She turned it over and dropped the necklace into his palm, then curled his fingers securely over it. "I am sorry, Dr. Phillips. I should not have broken the clasp...since it was your mother's."
Henry's free hand found hers and held it protectively, but Caroline pulled away. 'I do not want his pity,' she swore to herself.
Henry could understand her reluctance to be touched after such trauma. He settled back in the carriage and they rode the rest of the way in silence.
There were, indeed, lights illuminating from the Center, and as they entered, they were meet with greetings and curious looks. Henry led Caroline to a small room which had a cot. "It is the best I can do," he apologised. "In the morning, we shall collect your clothes, and I will accompany you to your brother's house in Netherfield. In the desk, you will find writing materials. When you finish your letter, I will have it delievered to Mrs. Hurst."
"Thank you, Dr. Phillips," Caroline whispered, still avoiding the look of pity in his eyes. Over an hour passed before Caroline finished the letter and felt equal to facing Dr. Phillips. 'He has been a friend, if not a gentleman,' she decided. With letter in hand, she went in search of him. He was not in the main room, so she began to knock on the doors that lined the perimeter.
Finally, a muffled, "Come in," let her know that she had found him. The door swung open to reveal a Dr. Phillips in some state of undress. His jacket was flung over a chair; his shirt, without cravat, was opened at the neck and untucked. Caroline's eyes took in his informal attire in an instant, from his tousled hair to his bare feet, for Henry was in the process of soaking his wounded ankle and foot in a deep basin.
Henry sat upright with a start, perplexed as to what he should cover up first. "I was not expecting you at this late hour, Miss Bingley..." he stammered.
"Please do not stop what you are doing on my account, Dr. Phillips. I am sorry to disturb you, but I have my letter for Louisa..." She stepped into the room to set it upon his desk.
"It shall be sent immediately," Henry promised.
She could not help but notice his leg, bare from the knee, and soaking in the warm water. "Does it hurt very much?" She glanced up at Henry who seemed to be scowling. "I am sorry, Sir. If my presence is too disruptive..."
Henry was indeed disturbed by her presence but shrugged his shoulders and said, "I do not mind your questions, Miss Bingley." He drew his foot out of the water and indicated an area from heel to lower calf. The skin was puckered with scar tissue. "It is more stiff than sore," he explained. "This muscle can no longer lift the back of my foot as I walk and it creates a strain on the rest of the area."
Caroline shuddered, "It looks quite gruesome, but at least, you still have your leg."
"We can be thankful for that," he smiled wryly. "Do you know, it would not have damaged such a large area if they had not been using shot. But then again, a single ball may have shattered the bone. I suppose that I should count myself fortunate."
"It would not have happened if you had not acted so quickly to save Colonel Fitzwilliam."
"I would give my life for that man," Henry declared emphatically.
'But not for me,' Caroline thought glumly. She suddenly gained the door, "I should leave you to your privacy, Sir. Good night."
"Good night, Miss Bingley. I am very glad that you have suffered no lasting injuries."
'Yes, I have,' she whispered to herself as she walked back to the little room.
Early the following morning, Henry rented a coach and four and they stopped by the Hurst home to collect her clothing and other essentials. Louisa was beside herself with worry for her younger sister. She had slept through the entire episode, and had not even risen before Sir Rupert had left. No one knew where he had gone.
As they turned onto the post road, the sun came out to give them a bright and glorious June day, in direct contrast to Caroline's inner thoughts and feelings. She was weary from the events of the past several hours and only wished to be gone from London and to leave those terrible memories behind.
Henry seemed to be preoccupied with his own thoughts and did not attempt to draw her out. Occasionally, he allowed himself a glimpse of her profile, creating memories for the days ahead.
The roofline of Netherfield came into view and Caroline showed more signs of life. Charles was just exiting the house, and was astonished by the sudden appearance of the coach rolling up before him. He was even more perplexed by the appearance of Caroline's face at a window.
Caroline barely waited for assistance before ascending from the conveyance, and threw herself into her brother's arms, finally allowing her tears to surface.
Charles held her tightly, and looked over her head to Dr. Phillips. He would be anxious to hear their story.
A week later
Caroline walked the lawns of Netherfield whenever the weather would allow, wishing that she were alone, but usually accompanied by Kitty who was staying with Charles and Jane for the rest of the month. Kitty had decided that Caroline was the most elegant lady she had ever met, and became her shadow. Much to the Bingleys' surprise, Caroline allowed it.
"It must have been grand!" Kitty sighed. "The beautiful dresses and the handsome gentlemen. I should so love a season in London. Did you really meet Lord Byron?"
Caroline allowed the girl to prattle on. 'Who am I to gainsay her hopes and dream?' Caroline reflected sadly. Finally, she turned to Kitty and said, "Your family will always be more important than a roomful of patrons at Almack's, and all of the glittering diamonds adorning all of the beautiful necks are not equal to one true friend. Remember that, Kitty, when you have your fine adventure in London."
The girl did not know what to make of Caroline's admonition --- how could it not be simply glorious? --- and soon left to find Jane. Perhaps she could talk her sister into going into the village today.
"My good friend is in Scotland," Caroline sighed as she looked north. "At least, I hope that we shall always be friends." A small voice told her that was highly unlikely since the doctor would be preoccupied with the Center. She had almost thought that he still had feelings for her, since he had troubled himself to take her to her brother, but then she discovered that he had already planned the trip to Scotland, and that Netherfield was just a stop along the way.
Caroline recalled her conversation with Charles and Jane after dinner on the day that she and Henry had arrived so unexpectedly from London. Charles had been understandably upset and was determined to meet with Sir Rupert. It had taken the combined efforts of both Jane and Caroline to keep him from riding off at dawn.
"Dr. Phillips has said that Sir Rupert will be responsible for his own downfall, Charles. Let him answer for the kind of life he has led," Caroline suggested.
"Are you satisfied with that, Caroline? I will make him pay for his injuries to you, if you but say the word."
"I know that you would, brother. But let us have faith in the doctor's words, that Rupert will punish himself."
"Dr. Phillips is the man's brother," Charles protested. "He would protect him."
"The doctor is also my friend. He will not play us false."
Charles watched his sister closely. Caroline was not usually one to back down, nor forget. He wondered about her relationship with the doctor...
Caroline could easily read the thoughts flitting around her brother's mind, for his face reflected them all. "I tell you, Charles, that the doctor is just a friend." Another matter concerned her and she presented it to him, "I must return to London soon. I will not leave Louisa so long alone."
"You have been through so much, Caroline. Please consider staying with us until you truly feel like yourself again," Jane prompted. "Surely Mr. Hurst is a fine companion for his wife. Louisa will not really need you until the last few months, will she?
Caroline looked meaningfully at her brother. "A woman can offer more understanding, I believe."
Charles nodded, "I will be sorry to see you go, Caroline, but I understand." He gave her a smile of encouragement...and pride.
The end of the following week found Caroline and Charles in his study. "Your doctor has been proved correct," Charles began.
"How do you mean, Charles?"
"Sir Rupert had run up a gambling debt so large that he could not possibly pay it off without signing over the deed to his estate. I understand that it took place earlier this week."
"The lands, the sheep, the manor house...everything?" Caroline asked. Her brother nodded. 'Rupert has lost the family estate,' Caroline thought with much regret. 'Now I understand why Dr. Phillips discouraged his father from leaving it all to Rupert. He must have known what the outcome must be...' She looked up at Charles, "The doctor may have been proved correct, but he will not be celebrating. I am sure that this news will hurt him deeply."
"He may have had some intimation of it. Perhaps this explains his statements concerning Rupert's downfall."
Caroline remembered something Rupert had said to her...that night. 'It will be my undoing!' It became clear to her why Rupert was so eager to marry --- he needed her money to save his lands. 'The actions of a desperate man, but I cannot say that I feel sorry for him," she decided. She realized that Charles had spoken. "What? What did you say?"
"I said that I heard there was attempt on the man's life and that he has fled to Italy."
"Who would do such a thing?"
"As Sir Rupert sank more deeply into debt, he may have borrowed money from more unscrupulous sources. When he could not repay...well, they have their own methods of dealing with that."
"But how could he have incurred such a large debt?" Caroline asked.
"It is my belief that he borrowed money against your good name, against your impending marriage."
"Do you know who acquired the estate?"
"But, of course!" Caroline exclaimed, "That explains why Rupert did not protect me from the Baron's improper behavior... and why the Baron thought he had the right."
"Do I have another gentleman to confront?" Charles asked, raising his eyebrows with concern.
Caroline laughed and said, "No, I took care of the Baron myself."
"I was preparing to call upon Colonel Fitzwilliam for assistance," Charles said, half-teasing. "What did you do to the man, Caroline?"
"For one thing, I implied that he was not 'man' enough to recognize a woman when he saw one...and that he was not a gentleman, either."
Charles chuckled. "What else have you learned in Town these past months?" he exclaimed, feigning shock.
Caroline grew sober, "Many things, brother. I hope that I will be able to show you and Jane what I have learned. Right now, I must count myself fortunate that Rupert and I had not formed a permanent attachment before his deeds came to light."
"Again, I feel that I must take some of the blame, Caroline. I should have made inquiries instead of accepting the man at face-value. I should have sensed that he was being ingratiating and overly amiable."
"Oh, Charles, you are the most 'overly amiable' man I know," Caroline teased. She did not want him to dwell on his own guillability in the matter. "What dark motives are you hiding?"
Charles smiled at her attempt to make him feel better, "I am too slow-witted to fool anyone, Caroline. I would never be able to remember what I said to whom."
Caroline gave her big brother a squeeze and said, "And that is why I love you, Charles. You cannot be anyone but who you are."
Charles was exceedingly surprised to be so addressed, especially by Caroline. 'She has changed somehow...'
In the privacy of their bedroom, Charles shared his thoughts with Jane, "I know what it is!" he exclaimed. Jane looked confused at first, and then smiled as he elaborated, "Caroline has not raised her voice once since she has come!"
"There are other changes, too, Charles. Caroline has been more than patient with little Kitty. I know the girl's incessant questions must get on her nerves."
"Yes, I have seen that she allows Kitty to follow her around... I suppose that change is natural in light of all she has been through."
Jane nodded, "To think that someone loves you...and then betrays your trust. She must feel the hurt very deeply."
"She will not discuss it," Charles said.
"She has not talked about it with me either. Poor girl, I hope that she will confide in Louisa. Perhaps it is well that she returns soon."
"I have heard from Colonel Fitzwilliam. He will come in two days; he is on his way back to London. Perhaps he could escort Caroline...?"
Three days later
"Thank you for accompanying me, Colonel Fitzwilliam."
"I can always be counted upon when there is a pretty girl involved," the Colonel said mischievously. He enjoyed the returning smile in Caroline's eyes. He did not know the full story of the events leading to her visit to Netherfield, but he had noticed that she seemed more somber now. 'Darcy would be surprised to see how little she talks about herself,' the Colonel thought amusedly. 'I think I shall write to him. There is much to tell...' He turned to his travelling companion, "I saw a mutual friend of ours, Miss Bingley."
"Who would that be, Colonel Fitzwilliam?"
"Dr. Phillips. I was in Scotland... Edinburgh, actually, and so was the good doctor. He had come to a convention of sorts. I happened to see him on the street one day."
"Is he well?" Caroline asked, anxious for word of her friend. "Has he heard about...about his brother?"
Colonel Fitzwilliam noticed the sudden animation in the young woman's face at the mention of Phillips. 'The doctor is a fool,' he thought, 'if he really doubts this girl's regard for him.' "Yes, Miss Bingley, he has. He is saddened by the loss of the family estates, and worried about the future of his brother...though I do not know why he would waste those sentiments on such a scoundrel. But, he seemed to expect it. I think he knew what was in the wind when Sir Rupert suddenly sold off some of the sheep in the spring."
"He sold off sheep in the spring?" Caroline asked with a catch in her throat. She remembered how Dr. Phillips had responded to the news of the virus affecting the herd. 'There was no virus! Rupert was already in trouble, even then.' she realized.
"Yes, that is the way I understand it."
"The Phillips family seems to have experienced more than their share of misfortune," Caroline observed. "First Dr. Phillips and then..."
"Dr. Phillips? What has happened to Dr. Phillips?"
Caroline blushed. 'Does the Colonel not know? Have I revealed a family secret?' she wondered. "Well, the unfortunate incident in Vienna..." she mumbled.
The Colonel looked at her in surprise and then let out a loud guffaw, "Phillips told you about that?" he asked incredulously.
Caroline frowned, "It is hardly a laughing matter, Sir."
Colonel Fitzwilliam tried to compose himself. "I suppose it would not be amusing to a fine lady such as yourself, Miss Bingley, but his comrades and I got quite a chuckle out of it when he told us. During war, Miss, there is great need for laughter."
Caroline was truly perplexed. "How can it be amusing for a gentleman to squander his entire inheritance?"
The Colonel sat up straight, "What? Phillips did not lose his inheritance. Perhaps you misunderstood, Miss Bingley."
"But his father had to send him money...to pay off his debts," Caroline faltered.
"Who told you this?"
"Actually, Sir Rupert told me...about his wild ways, his terrible debts. But Dr. Phillips corroborated it," Caroline asserted.
"Oh, Phillips," the Colonel said, rolling his eyes. "Sometimes that man is a little too determined not to defend himself. I gather that he allowed you to draw your own conclusions?"
"He lied to me?"
"Oh no, I am sure that everything he said was the absolute truth, but it was not necessarily the whole truth."
"What is the truth, Colonel Fitzwilliam?"
The Colonel smiled at her kindly, "I would have Phillips tell you himself, but I am sure that he would botch it up again." He leaned back. "Phillips was in Vienna, young, impressionable, a youth brought up on the farm. It did not take long for some rather unscrupulous fellows to take advantage of our good doctor. They got him drunk and took all of his money. He was stranded in Vienna with empty pockets. That gentleman who is his partner at the center, I forgot his name... he took Phillips in until his father could send him the money to get home."
"Then Dr. Phillips did not lose his inheritance?"
"Not at all. In fact, with sound investments over the years, he has become one of the wealthiest young men I know."
"He is a man of substance?" Caroline asked, not believing her ears.
The Colonel laughed, "Yes, Miss Bingley. Dr. Phillips is a man of substance, as you put it."
"But, what of Mrs. Wiggington? I thought she was his patroness..."
"She is, for the center. She chairs the fundraisers for it. Henry does not want to rely too heavily on his own funds, because eventually he would like to go into research and will need to support himself, unless he can find a college to back him."
Caroline was overwhelmed by everything she had just learned...and a little angry. 'He purposely allowed me to think all of those terrible things about him!' She hoped that she would see him in London so that she could tell him what she thought of him.
"How are you this morning, Mary?" Caroline asked as the girl patted her hair into place.
"How am I?" Mary did not remember Miss Bingley ever saying that before. "I am quite well, Miss."
"I am happy to hear it." She gave the girl a smile, "Excellent job, Mary. That will be all."
Caroline stared at her reflection. Did she look any different? She supposed that she must. She shook her head at the realization that the mirror had been her best friend for many years."I have been such a fool..." she murmured. "No wonder Mr. Darcy could not think of me."
She had decided to wear the blue dress today. "More subdued," she reasoned, "for a visit to the center. I do not want to draw attention to myself in case...Dr. Phillips does not wish to see me." She had heard from Louisa that the doctor was returned. In fact, he had come to check on her the morning before Caroline arrived back on Grosvenor Street. "But he does not know that I have returned, unless Colonel Fitzwilliam told him..." She was determined to corner Dr. Phillips and have the truth from him.
Caroline alighted from the barouche at the corner of the street. There were too many carriages congesting the area closer to the main door. She was walking toward the building when she saw Dr. Phillips emerge. He did not look in her direction, but seemed to be in a hurry to cross the street.
"Dr. Phillips!" Caroline called.
The doctor halted and turned his head in her direction. Suddenly a trap whipped past him. The carriages had hidden its progress from the doctor. If he had taken one more step, he would have been injured, perhaps seriously.
Caroline screamed and ran over to Henry, who had fallen back in surprise. He was gingerly picking himself back up when Caroline reached his side. "Are you okay? Doctor, are you hurt?"
Henry dusted himself off and gave her a wry grin, "You know what this means, Miss Bingley...you have saved my life."
Caroline, agitated by her fears for his well-being, did not understand.
Henry led her away from the street and against the protection of the building. "You have saved me. My life is in your hands from this day forward," he explained.
Caroline grew pink. "I suppose that is true..." she said softly.
"So, Miss Bingley, are you still angry with me for refusing to fight for your honor?" Henry asked cautiously.
Caroline frowned, "I trust that you had your reasons, Doctor."
Henry"s eyes glowed and he dared to take her hands into his, "You love me!" he exclaimed.
"I did not say that," Caroline objected.
"I have known you long enough to realize that there are very few people that you do trust. I have been allowed into your inner circle, therefore, you do love me, Caroline Bingley."
"That is not for you to say," Caroline answered primly.
"Well then, say it, my dear sweet Caroline! Say, "I love you, Henry.""
And she did, with all her heart.
An hour later
Caroline watched Henry as he gave instructions to a serious younger man, a future doctor. They were sitting in his office at the center. "My Henry," she thought proudly. Her heart skipped a beat at the thought. "When did he become my Henry?" she wondered. She thought back through their relationship and realized that Henry had usually been around to see her at her worst. The young man left the room, and Caroline said, "When did you come to love me, Henry? I have been unbearable to you..."
Henry came over to his beloved Caroline and took her into his arms, "Kiss me while I consider my answer," he ordered. In a few moments they parted, and he said, "I think I first loved you, Caroline, when you were bent over the chamber pot, having made yourself ill on pennyroyal."
"Oh Henry!" Caroline said, trying to sound angry. She looked up into his face, "I think I loved you when you told me that you were responsible for my life, but I was too blind to see it until much, much later. I had a few lessons to learn."
"What have you learned, my dear?" He kissed her nose, "By the way, I think you are lovely in this shade of blue, but I also like all of those brighter colors you wear. I hope that you don't think a doctor's wife must look too severe."
"Thank you, dear Henry. I shall remember your words when I select the material for my wedding dress," she teased, then grew serious. "I have learned that, to ensure my own happiness, I need to surround myself with people who have similar beliefs to mine."
"I decided long ago that the only rules I would follow are God's rules," Henry explained.
"Is that why you would not fight your brother?"
"Yes. If he had actually threatened your life, I would have killed him without hesitation. But after my father's death, I swore to learn how to save lives. I could not save him, and I had seen enough of death during the war."
"Is that what you meant by 'vice of ignorance'?" Caroline asked gently.
Henry bowed his head. It still hurt, that he could not help his father. "My father caught a disease that was circulating among the herd. I made the connection because they each exhibited some of the same symptoms, but I did not know what to do for him. I had to stand by helplessly and watch him die."
Caroline held Henry in her arms, "It is not your fault, Henry. How could you know...?"
His face contorted in anger, "I should have known!" he exclaimed. "Not even a year later, I was learning about new methods, about sanitary practices, and their success in the treatment of certain illnesses. If it had happened on year later, he would have lived!"
"Oh Henry, I am so sorry..."
The doctor composed himself, gave Caroline a sweet kiss, and sat back down.
Caroline was looking around the room, curious about some of the instruments she saw, and amazed at the number of periodicals he had on hand. "How did you like the convention in Scotland?" she asked.
Henry's face took on life, "Caroline, it was so enlightening! They are working on a device to greatly enhance the sound of the heartbeat. It will be very helpful in determining the patient's state of health. I have told them to send it to me as soon as possible."
Caroline smiled at his boyish enthusiasm, but felt that they had to get one thing straight, "You know, Henry...you cannot expect me to work at this center of yours."
Henry nodded solemnly, "Of course not, my dear. A gentlewoman would volunteer."
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