The blurb for this story can be found here.
Shepherding Bingley into action took far longer than Darcy had foreseen, and they had barely reached Hertfordshire before dusk fell. They passed what remained of the evening in a small sitting room, having been served a hastily prepared dish of soup by one of two custodian servants, their conversation touching on many things pertaining to the house and the twins, but not on the family who lived but three miles across the parkland.
The following morning dawned clear and bright, and Darcy took the opportunity to walk out into the grounds of Netherfield Park. The air was fresh and the prospect pleasing as he approached the area of woodland forming the boundary between the park and the lane as it wound its way to Meryton.
Reaching the far wall, Darcy leaned on the stone stile and stared thoughtfully into the distance. The spectre of Elizabeth hovered in the air, taunting and tantalising – out of reach yet ever present. It was something he had not anticipated here at Netherfield, and though he did not welcome it, he had no power to expunge it. He stood even now at the very spot where he had met her on the morning she sought news of her sister’s health, ankles deep in mud, eyes sparkling from her walk across the fields.
She appeared before him as clearly as though it were yesterday, and Darcy blew out a frustrated breath.
‘Be gone,’ he muttered, turning away from the boundary wall. He needed to concentrate on their reason for being there, and to ensure their departure today was timely.
Darcy started to walk back across the parkland, his mind and eye now fixed upon the house. It had a pleasing aspect and was in excellent condition for a property leased out since it had been built but five and twenty years ago. Should Bingley retain it; purchase it, even, and make a much needed home for himself and his younger sisters, or should he give it up?
This morning would perhaps bring a solution. They had agreed to ride out and tour the park and the remainder of the estate once they had broken their fast and, determined to hasten a decision so he could remove himself swiftly from the memories curling around him like ever thickening wisps of smoke, Darcy picked up his pace and returned to the house.
Some hours later, Darcy and Bingley turned their mounts away from the furthest boundary of the estate and began to ride back towards the house. Their tour of the land had been somewhat circuitous and any foray in the direction of the Bennets’ home had been neatly achieved.
Yet, as they made their way along the lane and neared Netherfield once more, Darcy realised they were perilously close to Longbourn.
‘I say, Darcy,’ Bingley hailed his friend as they neared the junction in the road which would determine their course.
Darcy turned in the saddle. ‘You wish to make a call.’
He knew Bingley would attribute the disinclination in his voice to an entirely inaccurate cause. It suited his purpose; his reluctance to truly test his mettle in Elizabeth’s company was his concern alone.
Bingley drew his mount to a halt next to Darcy. ‘You will not accompany me. I understand. Yet I wish to call and pay my respects. When I went away in the year eleven, I took no proper leave of the family. I do not intend to make Miss Bennet-’ he hesitated. ‘Should Miss Bennet remain at home, I have no desire to make her uncomfortable, but I do feel duty – and honour – bound to do what I could not back then.’
Darcy shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. ‘As you wish. You have my support if you so desire, but if you would prefer to attend alone…’ he hesitated. ‘I was never particularly well received by any of the family.’
Bingley threw him an unreadable glance. ‘I think it was fairly reciprocal, old man.’
With a rueful smile, Darcy acknowledged the hit. ‘Then if you will excuse me, I shall continue on to Netherfield and await your return.’
With a touch of his hat, Bingley kicked his horse into touch, branching left at the junction and setting off at a canter towards the gates to Longbourn, just visible on the corner as the road bore left towards Meryton.
For a moment, Darcy watched his friend, struggling to suppress a sudden and irrational urge to follow him. Then, he turned his mount to the right. This was no time for self-indulgence. Staying away would clearly answer for Elizabeth and her family having an easier time of it during Bingley’s visit. His friend had the right of it; he, Darcy, had displayed no inclination for the company of the family in the past, and they none for his, and the sentiment was unlikely to have undergone any alteration in his absence.
Darcy returned to the house quite out of countenance but reluctant to own it. He had no intention of permitting a resurgence of memories to undermine the newly found peace he had acquired; yet he could feel himself weakening and was gaining a devil of an ache in his brow for attempting to prevent it. The sooner Bingley returned and they headed back to Town the better! Any qualms he suffered over what news his friend might bring of Elizabeth and her present marital status he rigidly silenced.
Barely had he set foot in the entrance hall, having returned to the house through the boot room, when he came face to face with a middle-aged woman who let out a shriek.
‘Oh, my dear sir! Such a fright did you give me!’
‘Forgive me, madam.’ Recognising the woman as Bingley’s former housekeeper, Darcy racked his memory for a name, but nothing came forth. He could not recall exchanging a single word with her during his earlier stay – he had left such pleasures to his friend and his sisters.
‘Mr Bingley wished to visit the house for a brief period. We will be returning to Town directly, and thus he felt no need to recall the household servants.’
The woman before him looked disapproving. ‘All the same, sir, I would have appreciated the opportunity to ensure the provision of adequate meals and a warm fireplace by which to sit. The house is cold from lack of use.’
Darcy sighed, wishing she would leave him in peace to indulge his aching head. ‘Mr Bingley will be here directly; perhaps you could address your concerns to him on his return from Longbourn.’
The woman paled visibly, a hand shooting to her throat. ‘Oh dear! Oh dear me!’
Intrigued despite himself, Darcy stared at her. ‘What is it? What ails you – here, perhaps you should be seated.’
He waved the housekeeper onto a nearby settle but he could sense her reluctance as she all but fell onto it.
‘Oh, Mr Darcy, sir!’ Clearly, she had a better recall of names than he. ‘This is no way for the Master to find out.’
An icy hand sneaked its way around Darcy’s insides. ‘Find out what, madam?’
The housekeeper having left to prepare some tea, Darcy removed to the library but he had barely raised a hand to open the shutters when Bingley came rushing through the door. His face was flushed from his hurry, and he walked rapidly over to where Darcy stood near one of the full-length windows, his air and countenance a mixture of confusion and sadness.
‘They are gone, Darcy! The Bennets! They reside no longer at Longbourn!’
‘Yes – yes, so I understand.’
‘You know of it? How could-’
‘Your former housekeeper was here.’
Bingley sank into a nearby chair. ‘Mrs Preston was here?’
Preston! Yes, that was her name, damn it. ‘She heard from the retained servants of your return and came to check upon it.’
‘She was a good soul, was she not? So – tell me; what intelligence did she bring?’
Darcy fastened the open shutters in place, before turning to his friend; then he shrugged, attempting nonchalance to mask his own concern. ‘I cannot answer. Your housekeeper told me only what you have yourself discovered, and then she took herself off to prepare some tea, seeming desirous of awaiting your return.’
A sharp rap came upon the door, which opened to reveal Mrs Preston bearing a hastily prepared tray.
‘There you are, sir!’ she exclaimed to Bingley as she came into the room. ‘’Tis a chill wind blowing out there today, despite the sun; you must partake of some nourishment.’
‘Mrs Preston, good day to you.’ Bingley got to his feet. ‘You are too kind.’
‘Not at all, sir. I only wish I had been forewarned of your visit, but I understand from Mr Darcy you intended only to remain the one night.’
‘Yes, we must return today,’ Bingley nodded emphatically, and Darcy took the offered cup from the lady and walked over to stand by one of the tall windows. ‘But before we depart, Mrs Preston, I would be grateful for some understanding of what led the Bennet family to move away from Longbourn?’
The housekeeper’s countenance hardened, but then she nodded.
‘Of course, sir. I will share all I know – though ‘tis little enough and no more or less than anyone in the district could tell.’
Bingley returned to his own seat, his cup in hand. ‘Do go on, Mrs Preston. As a former neighbour and acquaintance, I am anxious to understand what has happened, and I know I can trust to your discretion.’
The woman positively preened under such encouragement, and Darcy rolled his eyes.
‘Well now, sir, ‘twas back in the late summer of last year – one of the daughters ran off, eloped with a Militia man. Whether a marriage took place, no one seemed certain but the suspicion of it not being so was sufficient to bring disgrace upon the family, who were universally shunned.’
She proceeded to express her opinion on women of loose morals and parents who encouraged them, but Darcy was not listening. He had gone quite cold and turned quickly to stare out of the window. Elopement and the name of one he associated with it, a man whom he knew to belong to the Militia billeted in Meryton at the time, were sufficient for a wealth of emotions to flood his senses, and there was naught he could do to stem the flow.
Was this too much of a coincidence? Could it have been Wickham? But surely Elizabeth would never consent to an elopement, to cast off all her friends and, moreover, her family? Yet had he not feared the worst, of her being quite taken in by the scoundrel, her affections engaged, even? Had she not championed him, shown favour towards him, during their one and only dance at the Netherfield ball and then – later – so fiercely when rejecting him? He had to know, he must know.
Turning swiftly, he could see Mrs Preston topping up Bingley’s cup as though she had been talking of things as mundane as the weather. His friend was staring at her as though in a trance and clearly had not the wit about him to silence her, but Darcy strode across the room clear in his purpose.
‘Which daughter?’ he bit out. ‘Which of the Bennet daughters eloped?’
Mrs Preston raised a brow at Darcy’s tone; if she refused to speak, the temptation to take her by her righteous shoulders and shake the name from her would be unstoppable. He was beginning to feel almost sick with trepidation.
The lady turned away to address her master again. ‘It was not the young lady who took ill here at Netherfield.’ She did not seem to notice the relief flooding Bingley’s features. ‘Now there was a young lady who knew how to comport herself.’ She paused, clearly thinking, and Darcy could feel his shoulders tightening in suspense. ‘No, I do not recall her given name; I knew her by sight only, one of the younger girls, though markedly the tallest.’ The housekeeper’s countenance assumed a disdainful expression as Darcy dropped into a nearby chair. ‘Always hanging around the officers in Meryton, they were. A complete discredit to the family.’ She sniffed and raised her chin. ‘Mark my words, I said to my husband, it will all come to no good.’
Darcy released a taut breath as she continued. He could recall the younger Bennets from the last time he had seen them, cavorting noisily and with little decorum at the Netherfield Ball, hanging constantly upon the arm of one Red Coat or another.
‘And I was right.’ Mrs Preston declared with an air of triumph. ‘Met her end, did she not? As did the mother. Both dead and gone nigh on a twelve-month.’
Chapter Five can be found here!
Copyright © Cassandra Grafton 2016