Chapter 7: Agitation
The vicar was a tall, heavily-set fellow, with an air that puzzled Darcy exceedingly. He seemed to be self-effacing, yet every word that poured forth from him referenced his own peculiar awareness of his good fortune.
“Mr. Darcy. My esteemed patroness – your aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh – told me I might encounter your illustrious personage while visiting my dear cousins. I assure you your aunt was in excellent health when last I saw her, so you may be at ease on that score.”
Darcy clenched his jaw against bitter words that he had for his aunt; their personal issues did not belong in open discussion. “Thank you.” He sought out his Jane, first, and saw that she was uncomfortable so he crossed the room to her side immediately. “What is it?” he murmured, sitting on the sofa next to her. Her foot was no longer elevated, but he knew that it could not yet be fully healed. “Can I get you something for your relief?”
She blushed, her eyes dropping momentarily to the needlework in her hands. He wondered, briefly, if her white work was in preparation for their wedding and the idea made him feel warm and rich, within. “Just being here is more than enough for my relief, Mr. Darcy,” she told him in her gentle way. Still, there was tension in her voice and he followed the direction of her gaze at it flitted first to her sister Elizabeth and then, to Vicar Collins.
That gentleman was fawning over Mrs. Bennet like a beagel trying to get treats from his mistress. A thought – a vastly unwelcome thought – struck Darcy with the force of a tree limb. He swallowed over a lump in his throat, one of both worry and relief, and, leaning in slightly toward his betrothed, asked, “What brings the vicar to visit?”
“He is our cousin,” Jane replied silently, her eyes widening at Darcy’s near proximity. He smiled a little to see her so affected but did not move away when he asked her to elucidate. “I overheard him speaking with Mama. He is to inherit the estate, due to an entail.” He nodded – this was information he had discovered upon arranging a settlement with his man of business immediately upon securing Jane’s hand. “He thought to make things easier for us by marrying one of us, you see, and thereby giving all of us a home, should my father be taken before we have homes of our own.”
She was stating all of this clearly, coolly, but Darcy could imagine the tension that had to be under the smooth surface she presented. His Jane was a careful woman – a quality he loved about her, along with her good nature. “I see. So he thinks Longbourn is Tattersalls, perhaps?” When Jane looked at him blankly, Darcy winced a little. “Sorry. It is a horse-traders in Town.”
“Ah.” She blushed and looked away.
Regretting the comparison, Darcy took her hand and waited for her eyes to meet his again. “I am sorry, dearest Jane,” he whispered, so as not to embarrass her with his endearment. “I meant no disrespect. I am thankful indeed that you are not in a position to have any concern on this score.” Her cheeks pinked up deliciously and he smiled. Then, still holding her hand in his, he asked, “Might I dare to presume that he is at least trying to be subtle?”
“I am afraid not. Please,” she said, half-turning in her seat so that they were all but brushing noses. Not wanting to raise eyebrows, Darcy leaned back a bit while Jane continued. “Please speak to Mr. Bingley and please ask him not to be offended or, or, concerned if my sister acts a bit more playfully than is her wont.” Deep blue eyes spoke for his beloved, using words she dared not utter out loud, but that her emphasis hinted at very well. “Elizabeth would not wish to make him uncomfortable, of course.”
“Of course,” he murmured, wishing he could kiss her. Because he wanted to, in loving appreciation for all that she was. “I am sure he will have no objection. They appear to be on excellent terms.”
His semi-private tête-a-tête was interrupted. “Mr. Darcy,” the vicar blustered, intruding into the small bit of space he and Jane had managed for themselves in the small parlor. “I have been remiss in not offering you and my cousin my congratulations.” Bowing, the fellow continued, apparently not noticing the cool stare with which Darcy fixed him, nor the uncomfortable, wrinkled brow of Miss Bennet. “I look forward to sharing this delightful news with my esteemed patroness.” He paused.
Darcy ignored the implied invitation to thank the vicar, but Jane evidently felt obliged to say, “You are too kind.” Worry flickered in her eyes as they met Darcy’s. “I confess to being a bit intimidated. Mr. Collins has had so much good to say of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mr. Darcy. I was unaware that she was a relation of yours.”
Turning from Vicar Collins, Darcy pressed her hand in both of his. “I will be writing to all my family of our upcoming wedding, as soon as we are assured of a date.” He smiled when she blushed. “I know my younger sister looks forward to meeting you.”
“Jane, dear. How is your ankle?” Mrs. Bennet called from across the crowded drawing room later that afternoon. “It’s a cool day, but I thought you and Mr. Darcy might enjoy some fresh air. I’m sure your sister Elizabeth and Mr. Bingley would not be averse to accompanying you, if you chose to take the air.”
“Mama!” Jane whispered, clearly embarrassed. Mrs. Bennet’s machinations were all too clear, and Darcy winced in sympathy for his beloved’s discomfiture. “I’m fine, thank you, but –”
Miss Elizabeth spoke up and Darcy blessed her for it. “It’s a fine brisk day for some air, Mama. I am sure Mr. Bingley would appreciate the opportunity.” Darcy held in a chuckle at the widening of the vicar’s round eyes. “For fresh air.” Even Bingley seemed to acquire a bit of color at Miss Bennet’s teasing.
Mrs. Bennet appeared to nearly come out of her skin in anticipation. Darcy considered that it might behoove him, as a gentleman, to give a hint to his betrothed as to a possibly compromising situation that might arise if her younger sister were not more careful.
It turned out that he didn’t need to say anything. He and Bingley were treated to a very quiet conversation held just within earshot.
Jane, still favoring her ankle, had her arm twined through her sister’s as the carriage was brought ’round. “Lizzie. You’ll have our mother shopping for wedding clothes for you before the week is out. Is that what you wish?”
With a quick glance past Jane, Miss Elizabeth colored underneath her olive complexion. “No, of course not. He understands me, though, Jane, You needn’t –”
Jane sighed and patted her sister’s arm. “If you’re sure. I daresay getting out of the house is not a bad thing this afternoon.”
Darcy and Bingley exchanged a look before helping the sisters into the Bennet’s small carriage. It was a bit crowded, but as it turned out, the seating worked best if he sat on Jane’s left and Miss Elizabeth sat across from her sister, holding the still-wrapped ankle in her lap.
Darcy could not complain at all about the close confines of the carriage. It suited him far too well.
“So, you’re abandoning us again, are you?” Bingley inquired with a far-too-knowing grin. “I had hoped to go shooting with you.” Bingley’s eyes perused Darcy’s frock coat and breeches. “You are clearly not hoping for the same thing.”
Darcy smiled, thinking of the pleasure of spending the day with Jane. “I rather doubt we are.”
“You are welcome to invite her – and one of her sisters, of course – to spend the day with us. Perhaps Georgiana might be persuaded to journey from London as well?”
Surprised, Darcy put down his toast. “Bingley! Capital idea. I shall write to my sister directly.”
Before leaving for Longbourne, Darcy penned a quick invitation to his sister. At the writing desk in his chamber, he saw the much-creased, intrusive letter he had recently received from Lady Catherine, as well. He needed to answer his mother’s sister.
After a couple of abandoned starts, Darcy decided to put off answering Lady Catherine and focused instead upon writing to his sister.
My Dear Georgiana,
It is with the certain knowledge of your approbation that I write to inform you of my betrothal to Miss Jane Bennet of Hertfordshire…
Having extended Bingley’s invitation to her – though it might not have been entirely perfect form, they were long-standing friends all the way around and much could be overlooked – Darcy readied himself to take his own carriage to Longbourne. It was vastly more comfortable than the Bennets’ and would more comfortably accommodate another Bennet sister if necessary.
Upon arriving and leaving his gloves and hat with Hill, the butler, that fellow touched a finger to the side of his broad nose. “Mr. Darcy. I believe the young ladies and Mr. Collins will be –”
“Hill! Has Mr. Darcy arrived?”
Mrs. Bennet’s strident call brought a wince to Darcy’s countenance, but Hill was clearly accustomed to it. Wordlessly, Darcy requested the return of his possessions and Hill obliged before turning to meet Mrs. Bennet’s flustered form at the top of the stairs.
“Mrs. Bennet. Mr. Darcy has only now just arrived.”
That good woman’s voice settled itself at least an octave. “Oh, good. Well then, have him settled in with Miss Bennet in the drawing room.”
“Very good, ma’am.”
“Miss Mary,” Vicar Collins was heard to say from the upper floor. “Will you be joining us on our walk to Meryton?”
Hat and gloves still very much in hand, Darcy was more than relieved to leave whatever rudimentary courtship endeavors the vicar engaged in behind him. Perhaps Miss Mary Bennet might distract the portly fellow enough so that reporting to Lady Catherine would be forgotten. One could hope.
Since they were properly betrothed and would be joined by her sisters and cousin eventually, Darcy was able to take his Jane to the small village of Meryton, where they had met, without chaperonage. Darcy relaxed into the upholstered leather seat and faced his lady, who faced forward.
“May I ask when I am to be made a happy man, dear Jane?” he inquired, the question having been burning in his mind for fully two days. The banns had not yet been read, since they hadn’t a date set it hadn’t been necessary. He was hoping for Christmas, but didn’t wish to put any further pressure on Jane; he was well aware of the changes in her life that she had to be contemplating.
Her color rose. “I confess to being a little overwhelmed, Darcy.”
“Who?” he teased.
“Fitzwilliam.” Her smile was shy but he believed it was loving, too. “I have so much to do…”
Leaning forward, he took one of her hands in both of his. “Jane. I have an idea. My sister has been invited to join us at Netherfield. I propose you and your family spend Christmas with my family at Pemberley.” Not that he looked forward to having Mrs. Bennet within hearing distance for a fortnight, but he hoped to persuade Jane to marry from Pemberley and then he wouldn’t have to let her leave his side. “You could become accustomed to the house and then, perhaps, we could set an official date.”
“Oh! Dar – Fitzwilliam!” Her lips parted and he was hard put not to close the distance between them and kiss her thoroughly. He refrained, and was rather proud of himself for maintaining his gentlemanlike manner. His betrothed pressed her free hand on their clasped ones and smiled so brightly that he thought he could die content, right at that moment. “I will have to ask permission,” she said at last, “but I cannot see any real objections. I would be most pleased to join you and your sister at Pemberley.”
“And a date?” he prompted.
“We could have the banns read, then, if that suits you?”
“Oh, Jane,” he whispered, sliding one of his hands out from hers to cup her cheek. “It suits me well.”
Once in Meryton proper, he was pleased to have his coachmen take the carriage off while he slowly escorted Jane to what might be called the shops of the village. Privately, he resolved to see her able to shop in a manner much more appropriate for his fiancée.
“Mr. Darcy, I imagine this cannot be interesting for you,” she murmured at the milliner’s.
Abashed, Darcy resolved to appear more engaged in the business of choosing a bonnet. “Indeed, learning what pleases you, pleases me,” he said. At her questioning look, he felt his lips slant in a smile. “Truly.”
Jane smiled self-consciously. “We could perhaps venture to the bookshop, sir. It might be more to your taste?”
He drew her hand through his arm. “You are entirely perfect.”
Her soft laughter heartened him considerably.
“Oh, look. There’s Lizzy,” Jane said as they emerged into the daylight.
Up the street, under a pale autumn sun, Miss Elizabeth was walking alone in front of Miss Mary and Vicar Collins, who were apparently amiably conversing. About the educational practices for females, perhaps. Collins was a pedant of the worst kind, in Darcy’s opinion. This opinion had been settled firmly over the course of tea and one family dinner.
It was more than sufficient.
“Shall we,” Darcy offered, nodding briefly at Miss Elizabeth.
“Colonel Denny!” shouted one of the ill-bred younger sisters. Inwardly, Darcy winced, but he maintained his decorum for the sake of his blushing bride-to-be. Who was truly pink-cheeked in likely embarrassment, as she would not glance at him as they paced to meet Miss Elizabeth. The two younger girls, even after a hasty set-down from Miss Elizabeth and a quieter urging to better behavior from Jane, continued to beckon to the scarlet coats and shined boots across the road.
“Mr. Darcy,” Vicar Collins said, bowing so low that his back was nearly parallel to his shoes, “a pleasure to see you again. I received a letter today from my most esteemed patroness and –”
“Ladies!” interrupted a jovial male voice. “I have someone for you to meet. He will shortly be joining the regiment. I have at last managed to convince him, I believe. Let me introduce you to George Wickham.”
Darcy’s fist clenched, his jaw tightened against a regrettable wish to dress the son of the prior Pemberley steward down to his very marrow. All the pain that man had been the cause of, only a few months before, and he dared to show his face again?
“Mr. Darcy?” Jane’s voice brought him under a more certain command of himself.
He barely nodded at Wickham, who paled noticeably. “Wickham.”
“Miss Bennet,” Darcy whispered, half-turning from the new-acquaintance conversations amongst the others. “I believe I would like to return to Netherfield, to make arrangements for the Christmas holidays at Pemberley. Would you care to join me? I will meet the coachmen at the inn, as we had earlier arranged, and can return for you directly.” At her slight hesitation and worried glance at her sisters and the officers, Darcy urged her to accept, reminding her of her prior injury. She consented and he only barely managed not to offer Wickham the cut direct as he made his farewells.
Wickham. What was he going to do about the man? He could not be allowed to impose upon the innocents of Meryton.
Especially not any of the young ladies of Longbourne.