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Authors: Pamela Aidan

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Literary, #General, #Romance

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The morning following the Meryton assembly found Darcy alone at table in Netherfield’s sunny breakfast room nursing a cup of black coffee as he perused a letter from his sister. The Bingleys and Hursts were not yet down, recovering, as it were, from the previous evening’s events. Discerning no reason to break his habit of rising early, he had come down to find he had the breakfast room to himself and an eagerly anticipated letter from his sister, Georgiana, awaiting his attention on the sideboard. He had poured a cup of the steaming brew, tucked the letter under his arm, and looked about him for a comfortable place to enjoy both. If he had been at either his London home or his estate, Pemberley, he would have headed for his library. This, however, was not Pemberley but Netherfield. And as the house was lately rented by his friend, its library was sadly neglected and quite the most uncomfortable room in the place. He would have to settle for the more public breakfast room and hope that his hosts would indulge in enough sleep to allow him the privacy his letter deserved.

As the rich coffee aroma wafted around him, Darcy broke the seal on a more substantial letter than he was used to receiving from his sister. Lately, since the incident with George Wickham, her letters had consisted of a few lines merely: reports on her lessons, her progress at the pianoforte, names of visitors, and the like. The gentle glow that had heretofore characterized Georgiana had receded to gray ash in her heart — wrenching retreat from the world. Darcy prayed that the glow was banked only for the moment and that her exposure to such evil had not permanently damaged her ability to take her place in Society. He unfolded the fine pressed sheets and read:

18 October
Dearest Brother,
I pray this letter finds you well and happy in your sojourn with Mr. Bingley and his family. How do you find Netherfield? Does it please, as Mr. Bingley promised?

How did he find Netherfield? The manor was pleasant enough, except for the library. It was certainly enough for Bingley to handle at this point in his life. Yes, it would do…if only the society…He returned to the letter.

I received your letter of the —— th on Wednesday last and meant to respond immediately to your kind solicitude but found that, at the time, I had too little to warrant the trouble of sending a letter to Hertfordshire. That has now materially changed, and I doubt that I can express myself in a way that will adequately convey my present feelings.

Darcy sat up a little straighter as a tingle of concern sped down his back. He reached for his coffee and took a large sip.

I know that you have been greatly concerned about me since the events of last summer and, frankly, dearest brother, I have been very uneasy. I could not find it possible to trust anyone, excepting yourself, or accept the merest commonplace without suspicion. I desired no social intercourse and took no joy in anything save my music, which, I must confess, also took on a melancholy air. This did not go unnoticed by the new companion you sent me. Mrs. Annesley, wise woman that she is, forbore to tease me with it or offer bracing reproofs. She did, however, insist on taking extended walks about Pemberley, claiming that only I could truly show her its beauties and, of course, my favorite views. She also encouraged me to take up what Mother had to lay aside so long ago: visiting the families of our tenants. After considering her proposal, I found that I desired to make these visits; indeed, that I should have done so long ago.
I know not how, precisely, it came about, Brother, but I find myself no longer cast down about the past. It will always affect me, but now I know it will not rule me. Mrs. Annesley’s gentle counsel and quiet self-possession have been a soothing balm and a worthy model. You have chosen well, dear brother, and I am mending under her care into a stronger vessel.

The letter fell gently onto the table as Darcy’s tension evaporated with a sigh he could not repress. The remainder contained the usual reports of educational and musical progress, albeit with a more lively tone than he had received from Georgiana in some months. He closed his eyes briefly.
She will be well,
he silently assured himself.

Hearing footsteps, Darcy quickly folded the letter, slid it into his coat pocket, and rose from his chair. Miss Bingley swept into the breakfast room, checking only for a moment upon seeing that he was alone at the table. Motioning to a servant to abandon his post at the door to serve as waiter, she nodded in response to Darcy’s bow and allowed him to select a chair for her.

“Mr. Darcy, you are a model for us all.” Miss Bingley looked up at him as he assisted her in sitting down. “Up so early — before dawn, I daresay — after such a fatiguing evening in such fatiguing company. I wonder at your fortitude, sir!”

Darcy retrieved his coffee and resumed his seat at the far end of the table. “I cannot lay claim to such merit, Miss Bingley. Merely habit, I assure you.”

“A well-considered habit, Mr. Darcy, I am convinced. But your coffee must have gone cold! Let Stevenson pour you fresh. There can be little more disagreeable than cold coffee! I cannot abide it.” Miss Bingley shuddered prettily. Darcy hid the twitch of an incipient grimace behind his cup as he took another sip. It had gone tepid, but he would not give Caroline Bingley encouragement to play out the cozy domestic scene she was creating in yet another unwelcome bid for his personal interest. Snapping his cup down upon the saucer, he began to rise when she surprised him with a question about his letter.

“Pray, tell me what your dear sister writes. I long to know how she gets on with her new companion. Does she complain of her, or is it too soon for that? I do wish she could have come with us to Netherfield.” She sighed pettishly. “What a relief her company would be from the local country squires and their ‘worthy’ dames.” Miss Bingley rearranged the food on her plate as she contemplated her new neighbors. “Charles insists that we make calls. I am sure, Mr. Darcy, you will agree that it will hardly be a pleasure. No more so than last night’s assembly. I ask you, sir, was last night not trying to your sensibilities?”

Darcy cast about for remembrances of the previous evening. Trying to his sensibilities? An echo of the distaste he had felt reverberated through his body. Yes, most trying. Officious bores, simpering young women, and forward older ones. All of them measuring, weighing, their eyes following every move…Suddenly he remembered eyes with expressive brows arched in challenge at him, intriguing eyes alight with secrets and amusement. He must have dwelt on the memory for some little time, for the loud clink of a spoon vigorously stirred against the sides of a cup recalled him to the presence of his questioner. Miss Bingley’s smile barely covered the pique she was obviously feeling at his inattention, for her eyes were narrowed as she waited for him to answer her question.

“Trying, Miss Bingley? Perhaps to those gentlemen like myself who find no great pleasure in dancing. But surely you were the recipient of much kind attention and admiration?” Darcy’s smile was smug. She could not deny the obvious solicitude that had enveloped her at the assembly. Disdain of that solicitude would be unbecoming while acknowledgment of success in such restricted society was nothing with which to feather her cap, especially in his company.

“You will excuse me, Miss Bingley,” he continued, claiming rather than requesting his release. With an uncertain smile, she could do no more than nod as he rose to take his leave. As he strode toward the door and the stables beyond, the picture of a quite different young woman, her eyes lifted to the night sky, formed in his mind, catching him in midstride. Shaking his head, he resumed his way to the stables.
To horse, sir! It is the fields and fences you’ve come to explore, not the local nurseries!

He entered the stable yard, gratified to see Nelson ready at the mounting block and eager for a good run. Swinging into the saddle, he brought his thoughts into line with the desires of his mount and made for a beckoning countryside awash in the rays of a glorious autumn morning.

Chapter 2
A Man of Property

D
arcy returned to Netherfield from his morning ride with an increased admiration for the countryside in which it nestled. The farms were neat and, with the recent harvest, appeared prosperous. The fields were bordered by wall, fence, or wood in a manner pleasing both to the eye and to the palate of even an avid hunter or horseman. The lands attached to Netherfield itself were in need of attention, but Darcy had found nothing drastically wrong that careful management and an infusion of capital could not correct in due course. All in all, a tidy estate with a minimum of problems but those that would teach Bingley what it was to be a man of property. Dismounting, he gave Nelson a hearty, affectionate pat on his great neck, ending with a gentle pass down his broad forehead and a lump of sugar pressed against his soft muzzle. Neatly extracting the treat from Darcy’s hand, Nelson nickered back his esteem. With a laugh, Darcy handed him over to a lad emerging from the stables.

A man of property.
A soft, barely perceptible smile flitted across Darcy’s face as he heard the words echo in his head, but in his father’s voice. Under the careful tutelage of his father, Darcy had begun at an early age to learn what those words meant. He swore that his earliest memory was sitting astride a saddle, securely anchored in his father’s lap, his fingers twisted in the horse’s mane as the elder Darcy rode spring inspection of the farms and holdings of Pemberley. He could have only just been out of leading strings, perhaps three years old, but the memory was vivid enough to convince even his parents that it was a true one. That ride had served as his introduction to his station in life and its attendant responsibilities, both of which he now shouldered alone and with a just satisfaction that acknowledged, without hesitation, the excellent preparation given him by his father. Often and often, Darcy had occasion to thank Heaven for his father’s daily example of attention to duty and the practical experience he had gained under his guidance. It had made Pemberley the jewel that it was. He hoped he could serve his friend Bingley as well.

“Aha, there you are!” Bingley’s voice boomed as Darcy entered Netherfield’s hall. “I suppose I dare not hope that you have waited to allow me the pleasure of taking you on a tour of Netherfield’s lands?” Bingley stood in mock sternness in the doorway of the morning room, his arms crossed and his brow lowered, glowering at his friend.

“No hope at all, Bingley,” he responded without contrition. “It’s this deuced autumn weather! It just pulls one out-of-doors.”

“Indeed?” queried Bingley imperiously, in obvious delight at the unusual experience of having the upper hand with his friend. “I rather thought it was the prospect of having to provide amusement for Caroline this morning that pushed you out! Lord knows, I would be off in a shot!” The hauteur Bingley had assumed was then replaced with a genuine frown as he continued. “But really, Darcy, I was very much looking forward to riding over the estate with you.”

“And you shall,” Darcy hastened to assure him. “I apologize for anticipating you, but I needed to encounter Netherfield for itself without seeing it through your eyes, as would happen on a joint tour. Well you know that you would be filling my ear with rhapsodies about this stream or that wood.” Darcy paused briefly at Bingley’s strangled objection to his scenario. “You know I am right! Such distractions would give me no opportunity truly to be of service to you.”

With a crooked smile, Bingley ruefully acknowledged the reasonableness of his friend’s excuse. “I know it is not, nor will it ever be, a Pemberley. But even I know it can be more than it is,” he responded. “The thing of it is, I have not the slightest idea where to begin.”

“You may begin with allowing me to change out of my riding clothes and joining me over some refreshment in the” — Darcy glanced about the hall for a room into which the ladies or Mr. Hurst were unlikely to wander — “library.” Seizing the opportunity, he added, “Would it be possible, Charles, to have some comfortable chairs moved there? It is really quite spartan.”

“Of course, Darcy, immediately. I can’t tell you —”

“Then don’t, old man. Hold your gratitude until after you’ve heard me out.” Darcy could not help but grin at the enthusiasm on Bingley’s face. “After you’ve found yourself up to your waistcoat buttons in paper, broken quills, agricultural reports, and bills, and feel that you still feel a compunction to thank me, I’ll be glad to entertain it.” He began moving toward the stairs, then checked and turned a serious countenance upon his friend. “I warn you, Bingley, earning a Cambridge fellowship is nothing to becoming a complete man of property. I have that on the greatest authority.”

“And who, pray, might that be, O my master,” quipped Bingley.

“My father,” replied Darcy quietly as he turned and started up the stairs. “He did both.”

Gaining his room, Darcy carefully removed his sister’s letter from his coat pocket and read again the first part, his eyes lingering on the first page’s last line, “I am mending under her care into a stronger vessel.” Tenderly, he refolded the letter and pressed it to his lips. “Please God, it is so,” he murmured, placing it in his secretary, then pulled the bell that would summon Fletcher, his valet, and what he required for a day spent at the country estate of his friend.

Ensconced as they were companionably in the library amid the threatened blizzard of papers and broken pens, the remainder of the morning passed quickly for Darcy and Bingley. When Stevenson tapped at the door to announce that an afternoon repast was available and that the ladies desired their company, the two rose from their labors well satisfied with the progress that had been made and ready for a diversion.

“Whatever have you been doing all morning, Charles? Caroline and I could find you nowhere about!” complained Mrs. Hurst as she poured tea for the gentlemen and her sister. “Mr. Hurst particularly desired to see the coveys and discuss plans for a shooting party this morning, did you not, my dear?” She paused for an instant to look vaguely over at her husband, who at that moment appeared interested more in hunting the victuals set before him than those less sure ones out-of-doors. Darcy and Bingley accepted their cups, quickly setting them down at the opposite end of the dining table.

“I spent the morning most satisfactorily, Louisa. Darcy has consented to offer suggestions on how I might improve Netherfield, make it more —”

“More like Pemberley!” cried Miss Bingley as she fixed on Darcy a look of entreaty. “Oh, Mr. Darcy, can it be done?”

“Caroline, you mistake me.” Bingley looked at her with annoyance. “You must see that Netherfield can never be Pemberley, for Hertfordshire cannot be Derbyshire! Nevertheless, I believe, and Darcy agrees, that Netherfield possesses interesting possibilities that time and patience will reveal. Now,” he continued hurriedly, “what communication have we received from our neighbors? I would expect quite a few cards to have been sent after last night.”

“Yes, I suppose one could say a few.” Miss Bingley sniffed as she flicked her fingers at the pile of correspondence in the tray before her. “There are one dozen letters of welcome, seven invitations to dinner, four for tea, and three notices of assemblies or private evenings of musical entertainments. Really, Charles, what does one do for society in such a place?”

“Society?” Bingley responded. “Enjoy it, I say! The assembly last night, for example. I am sure I have rarely had a more pleasant evening. Yes, it is true! Do not frown so, Caroline! The music was lively, the people received us most warmly, and the young ladies —”

“Charles, you are too undiscriminating,” interrupted Miss Bingley. “I have never met people with less conversation and fashion or more conceit. As for the young ladies, they were certainly young but —”

“Come, Caroline, I cannot allow you to speak so of at least one young lady,” Bingley interrupted. He turned to Darcy, who had just risen from the table, cup and saucer in hand. “Darcy, support me in this! Was not Jane Bennet as lovely a girl as could be dreamt of?”

Darcy strolled over to a window while sipping at his tea and looked out onto a greensward hedged by boxwood and a gravel walk. The lack of accord between Bingley and his sisters was of long standing and had manifested itself in innumerable ways since his acquaintance with the family. Generally, Darcy’s sympathy lay with Bingley in these unpleasant exchanges, but today the turn of the conversation reminded him of the resolve he had formed the previous evening to caution his friend.

Without turning he replied, “Lovely? I believe I called her handsome. If she is lovely, I bow to your superior judgment, as you danced with her. I did not.”

“But you do have eyes, man!” Bingley responded energetically.

“Which I employed, at your insistence, you may recall.” Darcy shifted his stance, his focus remaining on the scenery beyond the window. He sipped again at his tea. “She smiles too much.”

“Smiles too much,” Bingley repeated in disbelief.

“A man must wonder at such a profusion of smiles. What may be their cause?” Darcy turned then and fixed Bingley with a penetrating look, as if to infuse him with the force of his disapprobation. “ ‘Favor is deceitful, and beauty is vain,’ if I may be so bold as to quote. Think, man! Do these smiles indicate a happy, even disposition, or are they a practiced pose, a charade of good nature designed to entrap or to cover an absence of real intellect?” Darcy paused, his words stirring up violent memories within him of George Wickham, whose smiles and flattery, both man and boy, had masked a vile, corrupted nature. Unable to trust that his emotions would not betray him, he turned abruptly back to the window.

Bingley regarded his friend with some astonishment while his sisters sagely nodded their heads in agreement with Darcy’s opinion. “Mr. Darcy is quite perceptive, as always, Charles,” Miss Bingley concurred. “Miss Bennet seems to be a sweet girl, but what can she mean with a smile continually about her? I must say, I could never find so much to amuse or please me to keep me forever smiling. It is undignified and shows a want of good breeding. What say you, Louisa?”

“I quite agree, Caroline. Miss Bennet appears a sweet, charming thing, and I wish her every bit of good fortune she deserves. I cannot like the rest of her family, though. It is a wonder that they are received, except for Miss Bennet’s smiles.”

Darcy only half-attended as the sisters proceeded to shred the characters of their new neighbors. The sudden surge of anger he had experienced while dissuading his friend had surprised him, and he hardly knew how to settle his emotions in drawing room company. He walked down the room to the far window, as if intent on a different perspective of the greensward. What he needed was exercise — violent physical exercise — to banish his personal demons.

Wickham!
Had he not vowed to put Wickham and his infamy behind him, promised himself not to allow the man’s actions, his betrayal, to intrude on his composure? Yet the innocent smiles of a pretty stranger had again excited the rage and helplessness he felt — still felt. Darcy leaned one arm against the window’s frame, his face a grim, white mask reflected back to him in the glass.
Enough!
Wickham’s poisonous sway had to stop. It must stop, or every time Georgiana looked at him she would see it, and he would not have her crushed again, especially now that she had found strength to face the world.

Darcy let a slow, measured sigh escape him as he set his mind to calm his thoughts. His body, he found, was not as obliging. What he would not give for a good sword and a worthy opponent at this moment! He almost laughed. Instead, he recalled himself to his purpose, which had been to rein in Bingley’s galloping admiration of Miss Bennet, not to encourage him into a disgust of his neighbors. He acknowledged that he may have been harsh, but it was for the best. It would not do for Bingley to leg-shackle himself so young and to a mere local miss. Nevertheless, the neighbors should be rescued from the tender attentions of Bingley’s sisters.

“…her sisters, all four of them!” Miss Bingley’s disdainful laugh abruptly reinstated him into the conversation. “Mr. Darcy, you cannot be amused by the immodest behavior of Miss Bennet’s sisters? You would not wish your sister to act so.” Darcy favored Miss Bingley with a bow in silent agreement. “But the local militia do not seem to take such antics into aversion,” she continued. “They are in agreement with you on that head, Charles. The Bennet girls all are favorites. Not only Miss Bennet but the next younger, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, was also accounted a beauty! Mr. Darcy, what say you to that? Is Miss Elizabeth Bennet a beauty?”

Darcy’s hand involuntarily convulsed around the delicate china cup. Elizabeth! Yes, that would be her name, the name of a queen — so directly did she regard him! A beauty? An intriguing woman, a maddening woman, likely, with such a bold air. But a beauty? His emotions now engaged on an altogether different object, he maintained his gaze out the window, his back to the room, even when Bingley addressed him with more than a hint of exasperation in his voice. “Well, Darcy?”

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