A Quest for Mr Darcy

A Quest for Mr Darcy is a new story I am currently writing. Chapters are being posted twice-weekly, and below is the story blurb and the opening chapters.

What is the story about?

The story is inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

Failing to find adequate distraction in London after his rejection by Miss Elizabeth Bennet, Fitzwilliam Darcy decided to go travelling in the summer of 1812 rather than home to Derbyshire.

The story opens with Darcy’s return to England a year later, convinced he is over his foolish infatuation with Elizabeth and with a determined plan, both to protect the estate of which he is guardian and to ensure his sister’s happiness: he intends to do his duty and secure a wife at the earliest opportunity.

Duty; a path from which Darcy knows he should never have been diverted. Duty was safe and nothing would persuade him from it a second time…

But what of the Bennets? What has befallen them in the interim? Will his path cross with Elizabeth’s once more, or are they fated never to meet again?

Soon after his return, and restored to his home at Pemberley, Darcy finds keeping his mind under good regulation a greater challenge than anticipated when he finds out just what did happen to Elizabeth!

With the addition of Bingley’s mischievous twin younger sisters, mysterious letters from a stranger and a shadowy figure lurking in the grounds of Pemberley, Darcy’s carefully laid plans are soon in tatters as the rigid protection he has placed around his heart begins to falter!

~o0o~

A Quest for Mr Darcy

Copyright © Cassandra Grafton 2017

Prelude

June 1812 – Mayfair, London

Fitzwilliam Darcy dropped his pen onto the blotter and pushed himself away from the desk, leaning back in the worn leather chair that had borne his father and his grandfather’s weight before him.

The seasons had altered. Spring had tumbled full-blown into summer with a rapacious enthusiasm, and London was stifled by its unexpected intensity. The open French windows, which gave upon a charming walled garden, encouraged nothing but warm air into the room; not a breath of breeze stirred Darcy’s hair nor brushed against his cheek, and he stirred restlessly, tugging at the restraint of his neck cloth. Then, with a frustrated sigh, he sat up, his gaze drifting about his study in a futile quest for distraction.

Even now, with the time lengthening between his visit to Kent and the change of scene to one with no possible association with…her, he could not rid his mind of Elizabeth Bennet. No matter where he was or what he was doing, she would intrude.

These past weeks had proved little other than removing to Town solved naught. Knowing the Bennets had family in a distant part of London was sufficient to persuade him he might catch sight of her at any given moment. A head of chestnut curls, a glimpse of a light and pleasing figure, a lady’s laugh of genuine pleasure – all these things conspired against him, tugged at his senses, intensified the heavy weight he now bore in his chest. He seemed unable, despite her blatant aversion to him, to quench the desire to lay eyes upon her once more.

But no longer! Getting to his feet, Darcy walked over to the hearth and stared at the landscape gracing the wall above the mantel. Pemberley had called to him, but he knew heading northwards would not answer for his purpose.

Thus, he had awoken but three days ago, after yet another night of fitful sleep, with a renewed determination to shed all memory of Elizabeth Bennet and her summary rejection of his hand. He would venture abroad – leave behind the verdure of an early summer in full bloom, a season all too reminiscent of Elizabeth’s vivacity, and seek distraction elsewhere, in places where he could not possibly expect their paths to cross and there would be no reminder of her at every turn.

He had duly spent the ensuing four and twenty hours securing passage for himself, his sister, Georgiana, and her companion, on a sailing for Portugal departing in six weeks’ time.

A smile graced Darcy’s countenance for a moment. His sister had made no secret of her delight over accompanying him, a fine balm for his lowness of spirit. They had been much apart of late, with his spending part of the previous winter in Hertfordshire – he caught himself quickly as his thoughts rushed with no consideration for his heart back to that time – and then he had travelled to Kent in the spring…

Darcy shook his head, exasperated with himself, his weakness, his folly, and then he looked up at the painting again, desperate to focus upon something, anything other than Elizabeth, but then a welcome knock came upon the door, and he turned about.

Pagett, butler to the Darcy family since the present incumbent had been a young child, made his stately entrance.

“This has just arrived for you, sir,” intoned Pagett gravely with a formal bow and an equally solemn offering of the slim packet resting upon the silver salver in his gloved hands.

“Thank you, Pagett.” Picking it up and noting the mark of the shipping line with which he had secured their berths, Darcy dropped it onto his desk; he would study the documentation later.

With a further inclination of his head, Pagett began his deferential removal from the room and Darcy sighed. Despite endless requests, the man would not relax his formal tendencies and persisted in backing out of the room as if Darcy were royalty and not allowed to observe the man’s back.

The door closed, and he threw himself back into the chair, retrieving his abandoned pen and selecting a piece of parchment. He felt a renewed sense of purpose invade his being. It was good to be doing something, making plans, taking positive steps towards putting the past behind him. As he anticipated an absence of several months’ duration, he needed to put some of his affairs in order and, with a quick glance at the clock, he dipped his pen into the nearby ink well and began to write.

~o0o~

The Darcys set sail from Southampton one fine morning in early August, a day bathed in warm sunshine and blessed with a steady breeze. As the vessel moved away from the docks, Georgiana Darcy and her companion elected to return to their cabins, but Darcy lingered on deck as they slowly made their way out into open seas.

As the expanse of water between the ship and land widened and the dockside faded, disappearing into a blur of coastline until indistinguishable from anything else, Darcy released a long, slow breath, firmly closing his mind to any thought of Elizabeth Bennet.

Had he but known it, the lady herself was travelling, but not to foreign climes. She was part way through a tour of the Peak District with her aunt and uncle and staying but five miles from Pemberley.

As Darcy threw one last glance at England’s diminishing shores before turning away, Elizabeth seated herself by a window in the inn at Lambton and hurriedly broke the seal on the first of two letters from her sister in Hertfordshire, settling back against the cushions in happy anticipation of what news her correspondence might bring.

Chapter One

July 1813 – Port of Southampton, England

‘Where is she? Where is my niece?’

Darcy all but rolled his eyes as a familiar voice reached him above the tumult and confusion on the dockside. Barely had he stepped ashore from the small boat ferrying passengers from the ship moored in Southampton Water when his aunt, Lady Matlock, bore down upon him.

‘Darcy! What could you be thinking? Taking Georgiana on a perilous journey without so much as the civility of a by your leave!’

‘It was hardly perilous, Mother!’ Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam, Darcy’s favourite cousin and great friend, stepped forward and shook Darcy’s hand heartily. ‘Welcome home, Darce!’

Lady Matlock glared at her youngest son, then turned to her nephew. ‘A whole twelvemonth, Fitzwilliam Darcy! What have you by way of explanation?’

‘I wrote to both my uncle and Aunt Catherine before-‘

‘From the port, mere moments before you sailed! You knew full well your uncle would forbid it!’

Darcy smiled slightly. ‘You know he could not, madam. I had only to seek Georgiana’s other guardian’s permission.’

The lady’s glare returned to the Colonel as Darcy continued. ‘And did not Georgiana herself send word of our safe arrival in Portugal at the soonest opportunity?’ Darcy leaned forward and placed a kiss upon his aunt’s cheek. ‘And here we are, safely returned.’

The lady’s fierce expression softened slightly as her niece, Georgiana, was carefully handed from the boat onto the dockside, and she hurried to her side as Darcy and the Colonel exchanged an amused glance, the latter quickly concealing a yawn.

‘Forgive me; I rose at break of day.’ He gestured back towards one of two fine carriages some distance away. ‘Town is as stifling as ever this summer, and Mother has been sampling the delights of Southampton a full se’ennight. I am not so at leisure but set to as soon as word came of your ship being sighted. Georgie!’

Colonel Fitzwilliam and Georgiana exchanged warm greetings whilst he teased her over the elegant dressing of her curls and how tall she had become.

‘Yes, yes; sufficient of your tomfoolery for now, Richard!’ His mother interrupted him swiftly and drew her niece to her side. ‘Come; let us make haste before the day begins to fade. Georgiana, you will come with me. We overnight at the George in Basingstoke. Mrs Annesley,’ Lady Matlock turned to Georgiana’s companion as she joined them. ‘You have family in Hampshire, do you not?’

‘Yes, Lady Matlock. In Alton.’

‘Then come, we shall drop you there on our way. It is only just you pass a night under their roof after having been away so long.’ She threw a reprimanding look at Darcy, but Mrs Annesley looked anxious.

‘They do not expect me, ma’am; I rarely visit.’

‘Then let the surprise of your arrival be adequate recompense for your prolonged absence.’

‘Fitz?’ Georgiana Darcy looked up at her brother. ‘I am happy to travel with Aunt, and it would be pleasant for Mrs Annesley to have some time with family, would it not?’

‘Most indubitably, but such a diversion will mean longer in the carriage. I would not have you fatigued.’

Georgiana smiled widely. ‘I am well rested, Brother, and I shall have such pleasant company.’

‘Then so be it. We will await you at the inn.’

Georgiana hurried to her companion’s side as a servant bearing the Matlock livery went past bearing their trunks on a handcart.

‘Come then, Georgiana.’ Lady Matlock turned towards the waiting carriages and the other ladies fell into step behind her, followed by Darcy and the Colonel.

‘It is well Aunt Catherine knows not of your making use of two carriages, Mother. She would not approve of such extravagance.’

‘There are many things it is wise my sister knows little or nothing of.’ Lady Matlock smiled as they reached the first carriage. ‘Besides, the horses need exercise far oftener than they get it whilst in Town. I sent orders for the second for their benefit, no one else’s.’ Lady Matlock’s affinity for her steeds was well known. Indeed, it was often said below stairs she would keep to the stables over her husband’s bed given the opportunity.

The gentlemen helped the ladies settle into their carriage, then stepped back as it began to turn about, Lady Matlock continuing to address them through the open window.

‘I shall take Georgiana home with me on the morrow, Darcy, and shall restore her to you only if I am convinced of her having come to no harm!’

With that, she closed the window with a snap, and the carriage rolled away from them across the cobbles.

Darcy pulled out his watch and stared at it. They had been but ten minutes on English soil! ‘Precisely what just happened?’

The Colonel shrugged. ‘She insisted on taking charge, old man! Little I could do about it other than join her.’

They turned towards the second, smaller carriage. ‘She is as forceful as her sister,’ Darcy grinned at his cousin. ‘But pleasanter in her execution.’

Within but a short while, both gentlemen were suitably installed in their conveyance and on their way likewise, and Darcy eyed his cousin with amusement as he released the catch on the window and raised his head to catch the breeze.

‘Are you quite well?’

Colonel Fitzwilliam grimaced as they left the dock behind and wrinkled his nose before letting out a bark of laughter. How Darcy had missed that laugh!

‘The blasted smells of the shoreline, Darce! They turn one’s stomach, hence my somewhat ambivalent acquaintance with the sea! It is fortunate I was not obliged to pursue the life of a naval man!’

‘Indeed!’

Refastening his window, the Colonel settled back into the corner of his seat. ‘Your steward is in Town.’

Darcy frowned. ‘Rivers? Is aught amiss at Pemberley?’

‘My understanding from Father is it pertains to a boundary matter. Rivers has handled it in pertinent fashion, but legal papers were required – hence consulting Father in your absence.’ The Colonel stifled a yawn. ‘He has been given word of your imminent return and shall doubtless report to you directly.’

‘It will be gratifying to hear more of Pemberley. I long to return.’

For a time, they discussed the estate and family, but after an hour’s passing, the Colonel professed the need to close his eyes and promptly did so. He slept sporadically, and Darcy tried to do likewise, but instead found himself watching the scenery pass, too alert to the newness of being returned to England. Relishing the lush greenness of the hedgerows, the fields of crops, the thickets and woodland, he began to appreciate how much he had missed his homeland.

Slowly, the light began to fade, but Darcy continued to stare out, his thoughts under tight regulation, his mind not venturing towards the reasons behind his exile but fixedly on the plans he had made during his absence.

‘Do we arrive?’

Darcy blinked, then glanced at his cousin, now awake and peering out of his own window into the falling dusk.

‘We have but three miles go to.’

‘Forgive me for succumbing.’ The Colonel concealed a wide yawn behind his hand. ‘I have leave of but eight and forty hours, and my early rising followed a late night of duty.’

Affection rose in Darcy’s breast. ‘I am flattered you chose to spend it in such a way, Cousin!’

The Colonel assumed an uncharacteristically solemn air and countenance. ‘You have been missed, sorely so; your infrequent correspondence was insufficient to satisfy the loss of your presence.’ He sat forward, his elbows on his knees and fixed Darcy with a firm stare. ‘Nor did it convince me you had shed your melancholy from when last we were in company.’

Prepared for some mention of his low spirits between leaving Kent in the spring of the year 12 and when he and Georgiana’s ship had sailed in early August of that year, Darcy shrugged lightly.

‘My time was well occupied with Georgiana. When I decided upon taking such action, I had high expectations of the alteration in location, and the pleasure of being with my sister, bringing the necessary relief.’ He met his cousin’s eye, then smiled ruefully. ‘And our charge is growing up and was as well taken with the delicate Portuguese lace as the fine works of art!’

The Colonel grinned. ‘Her air has more confidence; of that I was certain the moment I saw her.’ Then, he stared keenly at Darcy. ‘And did you benefit similarly? What of you?’

Darcy resumed his study out of the window, though he saw little other than the faint outline of his reflection now. ‘What of me? I am perfectly content.’

The Colonel let out a short laugh. ‘Yes, I can see you have yourself under good regulation. Yet that was not my meaning. Do you recall Perdita?’

Darcy turned to stare at his cousin. ‘Of course.’

‘A damn fine filly, was she not – and when your father first brought her from the stables, you were instantly taken with her wilful, spirited nature; quite smitten in fact.’

‘She was the best-looking mare I ever saw – and the most ungovernable. What is your point?’

‘Do you recall the outcome?’ Darcy refused to be drawn; he knew full well where his cousin was headed. ‘You failed to tame her; she out-willed you, rejected your overtures on every level, and you were quite broken over it all.’

Darcy blew out a breath, rueing – and not for the first time – his confiding in first his sister and then his cousin the reason behind his desire to travel abroad. ‘You liken Miss Elizabeth Bennet to a horse?’ He was surprised at the ease with which her name fell from his lips after so long, but the Colonel chuckled.

‘Your quick mind made such a connection, did it not? Now – how long did it take you to fully out-wit your sorrow and move forward?’

‘I did not wallow for long. I was-’

‘You were quickly distracted by a young stallion.’

Darcy choked on a laugh. ‘You are suggesting I alter my proclivities?’

‘Heaven forbid! Pemberley is in need of an heir. I am merely reminding you of the tried and tested cure for a broken heart: finding something – or someone – else to draw your passion.’

‘My heart is not broken; I was – unhappy for a while, but I am perfectly well.’

‘Truly? Well this is good, for Miss Bennet’s position in society was decidedly beneath you and the rest of our family would have become quite irrational about it all!’

Well did Darcy know it; but he had no desire to reflect on what was done and in the past. He had wallowed too long, wasted precious months in bitterness and despair before coming to his senses and taking positive steps to effect a recovery. This past year had been a more than adequate cure; never again would he allow a woman to touch his heart, and…

‘Whoa!’ The coach lurched as it slowed and passed under the arch into the courtyard at the rear of the George Inn in Basingstoke, and the Colonel grabbed his hat as a servant hurried to lower the step and open the door.

‘Come, let us arrange accommodations before our aunt arrives.’

‘And ascertain the quality of the provisions before we commit to them!’

The Colonel laughed as Darcy joined him on the cobbles. ‘You need have no anxiety for the quality of the ale or wine, that is for certain! We are on the London turnpike, and I defy even your refined stomach to complain after the savagery of supplies you must have endured on board ship!’

Chapter Two

Waking early on his first morning back in London, Darcy found himself quite disorientated. Having been travelling for so long, it felt strange to be in his own chamber, his own bed, the first rays of sunshine slipping softly through the gap in the shutters, and for a moment he lay on his back staring at the canopy, reflecting upon the benefit or otherwise of his absence from English soil.

He felt strangely calm, as though he had laid the past to rest, and if his mind did occasionally drift towards it, he did not hold himself to account, but waited for the moment to pass, as he knew it would.

The sounds of movement from his dressing room were sufficient to draw him from this introspection and, tossing the sheets aside, Darcy sat up and ran a hand through his tousled hair. His cousin would be departing soon after first light, and he was keen to see him before he left.

By the time the Colonel set off for his regiment, bidding both his cousins a fond farewell and with a promise to return as soon as his duties permitted, and Darcy had kept company with Georgiana whilst she broke her fast, the morning was well progressed.

‘I had best repair to my study, Georgie. I expect Rivers to call again at any moment.’

He got to his feet as he drained his cup, and Georgiana looked up at him. ‘Will you be at your instrument later?’

‘Indeed, for I am sorely in need of practise!’

Darcy smiled, squeezing her shoulder affectionately as he passed her on his way to the door. ‘Then I shall seek you out directly!’

~o0o~

‘Mr Rivers is arrived, sir.’

Darcy leaned back in his chair and stretched his arms. ‘Show him in. Oh, and Pagett? Please could you ask Mrs Wainwright to send up some tea?’

With Pagett on his way, Darcy moved aside a small pile of letters. He had barely made a beginning, but as they were so out of date, a few hours more would matter little.

His steward’s presence in Town had been fortuitous, and Darcy had welcomed his call the prior evening. Rivers had been working to resolve a dispute between two tenant farmers near Baslow and had, following advice from the Earl of Matlock, been to an attorney to ensure all the legalities were answered for. His purpose in calling before beginning the journey northwards was to acquire Darcy’s signature to the papers and to discuss a few other less urgent matters arising in his absence.

Welcoming the need to focus upon his estate after so long an absence, Darcy stood up as the door opened and his steward entered.

‘Good morning, sir.’

‘Good morning, Rivers. You are prompt; I trust it to be indicative of all being well?’

The young man nodded. ‘All is settled, sir. If you would be so good as to sign.’ Rivers withdrew a sheaf of paper from his leather case and placed them before Darcy. ‘Here, sir – and again, here.’ He pointed to the document, and Darcy took his time to read it through before finally picking up his pen and dipping it into the ink.

‘A timely intervention.’ Darcy signed his name, blotted it and then took the wax Rivers had been holding over a nearby candle. Pressing his seal onto the paper, he then sat back in his chair as his steward put the document aside to dry. ‘You did well to step in, and made a wise decision in bringing it to the Earl’s attention so swiftly.’

The young man blushed with pride. Rivers was in his fourth year of service at Pemberley, and he had previously received a good apprenticeship at the Matlock estate under the guidance of an excellent man who had served Darcy’s uncle for more than twenty summers. He had hopes of serving the Darcy family for at least as long.

‘Let us deal with these other matters, that you may be on your way.’

Rivers laid before Darcy some documents he had intended to show the Earl and talked expeditiously through a few other estate matters, pausing as Mrs Wainwright appeared bearing a tray of tea. In her position as housekeeper, she had no need of carrying trays, but she took a personal pride in waiting upon Darcy, something he understood and therefore never questioned.

Once she had left the room, both men served with tea and a biscuit, Darcy picked up the estate ledger.

He cast an experienced eye down the first page and turned to the second, nodding as Rivers ventured an occasional comment by way of explanation of any alteration since his master last perused it. Turning to the final page, however, Darcy’s eye was caught by a name: Bennet.

‘We have a new tenant on the Estate?’

‘Ah, yes, sir. Mr Bennet is well settled at The Grange having taken up the tenancy last winter from old Mr Thackeray who is gone to live with his son in Buxton.’

‘And this Bennet,’ Darcy hesitated. Why was he even indulging such curiosity? ‘What do you know of the family? Did he come to you recommended?’

Rivers nodded as he closed the ledger and tucked it under his arm. ‘Indeed he did, sir. Squire Lockwood himself introduced Mr Bennet to me; said he was a widower, a relative of an old acquaintance and recommended him and his two daughters highly.’

Darcy almost laughed aloud at his foolishness. There must be any number of families named Bennet in the country. Besides, the Mr Bennet of his acquaintance was a gentleman in possession of his own Hertfordshire estate – he would hardly be resident in Derbyshire and beholden to a landlord!

He turned to accompany Rivers who had picked up his case once more as he prepared to depart, chastising himself for his spark of interest. He needed activity, something to do, and as he saw his steward on his way, he glanced up at the blue sky. He would persuade Georgiana to walk with him to the National Gallery and then to tea at her favourite establishment.

~o0o~

Darcy and Georgiana passed a pleasant afternoon together. There happened by coincidence to be a small exhibition of Portuguese paintings at the gallery where they happily spent the afternoon before heading to Gunters in Berkeley Square, Darcy to drink tea and Georgiana to indulge in the delicate pastries.

An enjoyable hour or so later, they began their walk home, and Darcy offered his sister his arm, turning their steps towards the top of the Square.

‘Shall you be obliged to attend Aunt Catherine directly, Brother?’

Darcy cast Georgiana a quick glance. ‘I had not given it much thought, though I suspect an invitation – if one could call it that – will be issued before long.’ It was impossible not to recall the last visit he had made there and the consequences and, despite his best efforts, an old familiar ache briefly filled his breast. Then, he felt the squeeze of his arm.

Georgiana eyed him anxiously. ‘I did not mean to – forgive me; assume the question unasked. Let us talk of other things.’

Darcy shook his head, relieved the sensation had swiftly receded. ‘There is nothing to forgive, Georgie! It is a perfectly valid question. Besides, with Richard wriggling out of waiting upon her last Easter, he may also be obliged to attend!’ They halted on the pavement edge, waiting for an opportunity to cross. ‘Would you – do you think you might like to join us?’

Georgiana’s eyes widened. ‘Truly? You are certain you have not had sufficient of my company?’

With a laugh, Darcy steered Georgiana across the street. ‘Are you certain you wish to pass a fortnight with our aunt and your cousin? It is many a year since you spent any significant time in their company.’

‘Aunt Catherine will always intimidate me, Brother!’ Georgiana laughed too as they turned their steps north, soon bordering the palings in Grosvenor Square. ‘But with you and Richard there, I am certain I shall weather it well. Besides,’ she shrugged lightly, ‘Anne is my only female cousin. Though she is much older than I, she is the closest thing I have to a sister, and I believe I have sorely neglected this.’

Darcy patted Georgiana’s hand on his arm but he frowned. He had sorely neglected it too. Perhaps he should consider making the visit without delay?

And that was not all he must do. From what Richard had told him on their journey yesterday, Lady Matlock had plans, in the absence of Darcy taking a wife, to take charge of bringing Georgiana out the following summer.

Little did she know, however, Darcy had plans of his own. He was staring thirty in the face; he had thought long and hard during his exile from England about the future – more particularly his custodianship of Pemberley, his guardianship of his sister. Both had equal claim upon him, and he felt all the responsibility for the security of the former and the happiness of the latter. It rested firmly on his shoulders; he would not fail them, whatever his own hopes and desires had once been.

Darcy’s first priority was to secure a wife. If he had distaste for the task, he bore Georgiana in mind. Resolutely, he clamped down on the slither of regret attempting to remind him how perfect a sister Elizabeth may have been for his own.

‘What was that?’ Georgiana’s grip on his arm tightened as she came to a halt, staring towards the railings bordering the park in the centre of the Square. ‘I thought I saw something move, a shadow…’

Darcy peered into the gloom of the shrubberies bordering the garden. He could see nothing but motionless shapes, indistinguishable from one another.

‘Perhaps it is a bird, or a squirrel. I see naught of concern.’

As he was about to turn away, however, there came a sudden fierce rustling of leaves, and Georgiana let out a small shriek as a face suddenly appeared up against the railings.

‘Good heavens! Darcy – is that you?’

Darcy blew out a long breath, then grinned. ‘Bingley! What on earth are you doing skulking around in the undergrowth?’ He could feel Georgiana’s grip on his arm easing as he glanced at her now smiling countenance.

There was a further rustling of foliage, a few quick steps on the metalled path, and then Darcy’s good friend, Charles Bingley, came bounding out of the nearest gateway, a wide smile overspreading his genial features as he greeted them with enthusiasm.

‘I thought I heard your voice, but believed my ears deceived me!’ He pumped Darcy’s arm up and down vigorously and turned to bow to Georgiana. ‘You both look in exceptional health! When did you return? It is jolly good to see you, for you have been sorely missed, my friend.’

‘But Mr Bingley,’ Georgiana interjected with a puzzled brow. ‘What were you doing just now in the gardens?’

Bingley laughed, though he looked a little sheepish. ‘Pay my behaviour no particular mind, Miss Darcy. I merely delay going to the Hursts. Forgive my saying, but I am heartily sick of their company!’

Darcy frowned. ‘Have you been staying all this time in Grosvenor Street? I thought you had been at your usual hotel.’

‘It may be on the cards, my friend, for Louisa is expecting an onslaught of visitors and my room may well be required.’

Darcy raised an enquiring brow, and Bingley sighed.

‘My younger sisters are to make a stay of some weeks’ duration, and Louisa is quite out of countenance over it.’

All your younger sisters, Mr Bingley?’ interjected Georgiana with a smile. ‘I have heard much about them, but does this mean I shall finally make their acquaintance?’

Bingley smiled too. ‘Indeed! My poor cousin who, as you know, has raised them since our parents’ passing, is experiencing some ill health and is in need of rest. Hopefully, some peace and quiet and the restorative sea air in Scarborough will set her to rights.’

Darcy indicated they walk on, and Bingley fell into step beside him.

‘I say, Darcy, this imminent arrival – of the twins in particular – makes your return rather opportune.’

‘How so?’

‘There is something I have long wished to discuss with you, and my sisters’ coming to Town bears an impact on it. Would you perchance be at home in the morning? I would value your counsel.’

Loath though he was to offer advice to his friend after his last attempts, Darcy nodded quickly. ‘Of course. Call as soon as it conveniences you.’

They had reached the corner of the Square, and here they parted company, and Darcy watched Bingley walk along Grosvenor Street towards the Hursts’ house, a renewed spring to his step, before turning to reclaim his sister’s arm upon his and direct their own steps homeward.

Chapter Three

Once he had broken his fast the following morning, Darcy repaired to his study where he found it difficult to settle, eyeing the small pile of still unopened post on his blotter unenthusiastically. Arriving as it had before word of his departure reached some ears, he toyed with relegating it to the hearth. He knew it was an approach favoured by his cousin, most particularly in relation to any letter bearing their Aunt Catherine’s hand!

His gaze drifted to the silver salver beside the post. He had been back little more than four and twenty hours before calling cards were being handed in by those acquaintance anxious to reinstate their connection with him. Lifting the card on the top, he studied the embossed name thoughtfully, then turned it over to read the few words penned on the reverse.

Latimer was keen to see him, and Darcy suspected the purpose behind his prompt presentation of his card: his daughter must remain unshackled. Then, he released a huff of breath. What did is signify? Was this not precisely what he sought?

Richard had the right of it. He was a single man in want of a wife. Miss Latimer would suffice as well as any other – was she not well educated, of impeccable lineage and with naught but the common civilities to say for herself? She would suit him very well.

Pushing aside the distaste he felt for himself, Darcy dropped Latimer’s card onto the desk and began sifting through the post to determine if aught might warrant his attention. A letter from his aforementioned aunt soon came to light, and Darcy almost laughed out loud. He could have predicted it; his letter advising his aunt of his proposed itinerary had told her pointedly that personal letters would not be forwarded. How like Lady Catherine to ignore such an edict! He cast a regretful glance towards the empty hearth before breaking the seal, but just then a quick rap came on the door as Bingley’s head peered around it, and Darcy happily tossed the letter aside and got to his feet.

‘Good morning, Darcy! I cannot tell you how splendid it was to see you returned last night!’ Bingley walked across the room and shook the proffered hand, beaming widely. ‘Pagett will berate me, I am certain, for in my eagerness to see you, I dodged around his stately progress!’

Darcy laughed, waving his friend into a seat. ‘You look in fine spirits. Are you well?’

Bingley leaned back in his seat, crossing his legs at the ankles. ‘I shall not complain; though I would berate the length of your absence! You were missed beyond measure, and it is not only I who delights in your return. It was merely a spark of ingenuity which permitted my escape from Hurst’s house without Caroline attached to my coat tails!’

So Miss Bingley remained at home. Darcy almost shrugged. Though he had forsaken love, he was not quite so desperate!

‘We have much to catch up on, Bingley. Will you join us, take up your usual rooms?’

There was silence for a moment and then, to Darcy’s surprise, his friend leapt from his seat and walked over to the window.

He frowned. ‘There is no obligation – do not feel under duress.’

Bingley swung around. ‘No – no, it is nothing of the sort. I am merely-‘ he ran a hand through his unruly hair.

‘You wished to speak to me – you are troubled?’

Bingley stared at Darcy for a second, his air unusually serious. ‘I have long reflected in your absence on the correct direction to follow – yet always I desired your counsel, and thus my deliberations have come to naught.’ He waved a hand at the painting of Pemberley above the mantel as he walked back across the room. ‘I have been considering my estate. I am a poor tenant of it. Should I give it up?’

‘And what then? You were determined to purchase and not leave it to the next generation, were you not?’

‘Indeed.’ Bingley sighed as he sank back into his chair. ‘I did like Netherfield, very much. But I do wonder if its attraction became enhanced by the local populace.’

Darcy swallowed uncomfortably. He had long owned his responsibility in separating his friend from Elizabeth’s sister, though he had shared it with no one. ‘Then, perhaps,’ he hesitated, unsure of his motive. ‘Should you not relinquish the lease, seek an establishment elsewhere?’

‘Well, there is the rub of it.’ Bingley ran a hand through his hair again. ‘I must now consider my sisters’ needs; all my sisters’ needs. I have deliberated long and hard, yet I have failed to reach a conclusion which delivers satisfaction for all.’

Darcy leaned back in his seat and studied his friend’s conflicted countenance. ‘Perhaps you should air your dilemma – oft, one finds speaking of something encourages a solution to present itself?’

‘If only it were so simple,’ Bingley grimaced. ‘But I value your suggestion; indeed, I cannot tell you how comforting it is to have you sat behind your desk once more! Well, here it is: the twins have completed their formal education under their governess and are presently awaiting entrance into the same seminary Louisa and Caroline attended in London, where they will duly receive the finishing touches to their accomplishments.’ Bingley laughed ruefully. ‘Though I believe they will present a greater challenge to their tutors than my other sisters!’

Darcy smiled, but did not interrupt. He had heard sufficient tales from Bingley of the twins’ exploits to understand he made no exaggeration.

‘So,’ his friend continued, ‘they will be here in Town whilst being tutored and thus residing in Grosvenor Street. The former is what feeds my disquiet; the latter does likewise to my sisters.’

‘How so?’

Bingley sighed. ‘I am reluctant to place Olivia and Viola in an establishment renowned for turning young girls into what my other sisters have become. I cannot bear to think of their merry natures being crushed or their joy of life constrained into oppressive formality, though I suppose it is almost inevitable.’

With Bingley’s countenance expressive of his concern, Darcy knew not what to say by way of comfort.

‘But can you imagine, Darcy, how the thought of having the twins in their home for any duration is being received by the Hursts and Caroline, let alone my younger sisters themselves?’

‘And Netherfield? Should you return, take up residence, it is conveniently situated from Town and the perfect home for the girls when not being prepared for the demands of formal society. But what of Julia? She is full young yet, is she not?’

‘Indeed.’ Bingley nodded. ‘She will return to Scarborough to complete her formal education at home, by which time I am certain Cousin Margaret will be well once more. As for Netherfield… though it would serve the twins well when they are not under tuition, Caroline would, as a consequence, have to return to run the household. I am certain you can imagine how they all feel on such a matter!’

Darcy sighed. He fully comprehended his friend’s difficulty. Though he had rarely been in company with the twins, Miss Bingley had made no secret of her dislike of her younger half-sisters when they had made a brief appearance at Netherfield, and she frequently complained of them to her brother in Darcy’s presence. As for Miss Bingley’s liking or otherwise for Hertfordshire, he doubted it had undergone much alteration since she left with such obvious satisfaction in the year eleven.

‘It would seem the stability of a home with you at Netherfield must be preferable for the younger girls, and being cooped up in a town house in London is unlikely to satisfy any of the family. In Hertfordshire there are ample opportunities to partake of the country pursuits. Would not the size of the property secure Miss Bingley some solitude?’

Bingley threw his friend a keen glance. ‘Caroline could allocate a part of the house to the twins and keep to as many other rooms as she wished, you mean?’

Precisely. Darcy shook his head. ‘Not at all.’

Bingley sat up slowly in his seat. ‘I do not know if it will answer, but it does offer a more palatable solution than we have at present. Besides, I do wonder…’ he met Darcy’s gaze. ‘I do think I ought to pay a visit… to Netherfield.’ He fixed his friend with a determined stare. ‘I can avoid it no longer; I must speak of it. You recall the Bennet family and my… tendresse for the eldest daughter?’

Reluctantly, Darcy nodded, trying to ignore the tension seeping into his shoulders. He had suspected the matter may resurface once returned to Bingley’s company; he would not let it affect him.

‘Well, then. I will own I fear bringing unease upon the lady. You said Miss Bennet was indifferent to me. My removing myself from the neighbourhood must have brought considerable relief at the time. If I now return, will she fear I might renew my attentions? I would not wish that upon her.’

Darcy stirred uncomfortably in his seat. ‘You assume she remains at home, Bingley. It is nigh on two years since your brief sojourn in Hertfordshire. The lady may well have found an establishment.’

Bingley slumped back in his seat, his skin paling. Was it as Darcy had feared? Did his friend still remain affected, even after all this time?

Yet he, Darcy, had recovered from his foolish admiration for the lady’s sister, had he not, and had sworn to think on her no more? Thus, the sooner his friend made a decision on the property, the better for all.

‘Then shall we not go directly?’

Bingley looked up, startled. ‘Now? This very day?’

“Why ever not?’ Darcy glanced at the clock on the mantel. ‘It is a ride of but a few hours and the weather holds fair. We could stay overnight, assess the estate on the morrow, and be gone from the neighbourhood within four and twenty hours. If you are at leisure?’

With a rueful smile, Bingley got to his feet. ‘I am at leisure all too often, my friend; all too often!’

Returning to Hertfordshire had never been part of Darcy’s expectation, least of all so soon after his return! With determination, however, he got to his feet. The sooner the visit was paid, the better, and what finer evidence could there be to reassure himself his distance this past year had been the effective cure for putting the past firmly where it belonged?

Chapter Four

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.

~o0o~

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.

~o0o~

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?’

~o0o~

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.’

~o0o~

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © Cassandra Grafton 2017