Rivals & Rascals
by Maggie (Zevin)
August 7, 1812
Georgiana Darcy did not know which was more depressing to her spirits, the excessive heat or the gloomy air in the carriage. She, her brother, and Mr. Bingley had been traveling since first light and only a handful of words had been spoken between them. The melancholic mood in the carriage was so pronounced that, try as she might to focus on the soothing sounds of Mozart, the only music that Georgiana could conjure up in her head was a dreary harpsichord piece by Couperin that she had heard played once last winter.
"At least," she thought, "we are spared the company of Mr. Bingley's insufferable sisters and that great toad, Mr. Hurst." In truth, there had only been two bright spots in the day. The first had been the moment this morning when the carriage carrying Miss Bingley and the Hursts had veered off in a northerly direction after both carriages had passed through Lambton. Georgiana had been informed by her brother the night before that they would be accompanying Mr. Bingley the next day to his estate in Hertfordshire; he had said nothing about Miss Bingley and the Hursts, and Georgiana had assumed that they would also be traveling to Hertfordshire. She had been pleasantly surprised when the Hursts' carriage had parted company with their own.
"Are your sisters not traveling to Netherfield with us, then?" she had asked Mr. Bingley, trying to conceal her pleasure at the prospect.
"My sisters have decided to visit some friends of Hurst in Scotland," Mr. Bingley had replied.
Her brother had given her a warning look, so Georgiana did not inquire further. Neither man said anything more on that subject, or any other subject, so Georgiana was left alone to ponder this new development.
The other bright spot of the day had occurred an hour within their travels. While looking out the carriage window, Georgiana had seen a huge object in the sky. She had stared at it for a moment in miscomprehension, and then realized, with a small burst of excitement, that it was the hot air balloon that brother had spoken of. Her brother had said nothing more about the hot air balloon expedition since the dinner party for Miss Bennet and her family, Lambton, and in the rush of leaving Pemberley so suddenly, Georgiana had almost forgotten about it herself. She had been about to call the attention of her brother and Mr. Bingley to this wondrous sight, but when she turned to look at them, their appearance had forestalled her. Her brother had been wearing his most formidable brooding look, as if forbidding anyone to address him; and Mr. Bingley had seemed so perilously close to tears that Georgiana had hesitated to intrude on his privacy. She had watched the large balloon's progress in silence until it disappeared from sight, torn between guilt over keeping such a marvelous sight to herself and vexation at her companions for being so self-absorbed as not to be able to increase her pleasure by sharing it with her.
She had spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon speculating as to the reason for their sudden exodus from Pemberley. She assumed that it had much to do with the recent unexpected departure of Miss Bennet and Cousin Richard, but her brother had told her nothing regarding his plans once they arrived in Hertfordshire. She hoped that he had decided to take decisive action at last and propose to Miss Bennet, but she feared that he might be too late. Cousin Richard's actions in leaving with Miss Bennet indicated that he had serious intentions towards her and he was not a man to dawdle once he had made up his mind about something.
While Georgiana was reflecting on her cousin, the man himself was resolving to take immediate action. Now that it was established that the marriage of Wickham and Lydia Bennet was the key to securing Elizabeth's hand, Colonel Fitzwilliam could not rest until Wickham and Lydia said their vows. It was still uncertain when Mrs. Gardiner would be able to resume traveling, and he could not abide the thought of an indefinite delay in pursuing his goal. Loath as he was to leave Elizabeth, he made up his mind to travel on to London immediately on horseback. He calculated that if he left within the half hour, he could be in London by noon the following day.
He broached this plan to Elizabeth as they were walking back to the inn, and was relieved that she made no objection. His chief remaining concern was that he had no way to stay in contact with her while he was in London as their engagement was not yet official and therefore, propriety prohibited them from corresponding.
"It is unlikely that I can come to Hertfordshire until your sister's marriage to Wickham is finalized, my dear; but I will come to you as soon as they are wed. In the meantime, if there is any way in which you can come to London with your aunt and uncle, that would be solve much of the problem. It would not be remarkable for me to visit your relations in London frequently to keep them apprised of my progress, and thus, if you were there, we would have the opportunity to see each other on a regular basis."
Elizabeth nodded in a distracted fashion, only half hearing him. She had been contemplating going to London herself, if Jane would agree to go with her, and if their mother's nerves would allow it. She felt sure that both she and Jane would feel more easy in London, closer to their father and, presumably to Lydia, and further away from their mother's complaints and invectives. She was inwardly debating whether it would be too much of an inconvenience to her aunt, given her condition, to have both her and Jane as guests when the colonel spoke again.
"It just occurred to me that you may wish to inform your aunt and uncle of our engagement. This would give us even more opportunities to meet if you come to London and would offer some chance of correspondence if you stay in Hertfordshire."
Elizabeth looked at him in astonishment. She was trying to find a politic way to remind the colonel that they were not yet actually engaged and to beg him to stop being so hasty in his plans, when the colonel took her hand and drew her a little ways off the road.
"Since we are to part so soon, I want to take a moment express to you how happy you have made me." He started to lean towards her, and then stopped when he heard the sounds of a cart approaching on the road. He wanted badly to kiss her. He also wanted to remove the small piece of greenery that had somehow found it's way inside the neckline of her dress and had been protruding from her cleavage in a most provocative manner. Due to their lack of privacy, he did neither. Instead, he contented himself with kissing her hand.
"I cannot believe that there is man alive who is happier than I am."
"I fear, Sir, that happiness on either of our parts is premature. So much is still unresolved. We are not yet engaged and I do not believe that we …"
The colonel interrupted her, "Elizabeth, my love, do not be anxious. Now that I am assured of your love, I am confident that I will succeed in this. Your sister's marriage will take place, and then we can plan our own. There is so much that we need to discuss, but there is little time at present. When the circumstances are better, you must tell me where you prefer to live once I retire from the military so that I can be looking for a suitable establishment. Although, if you enjoy the transient life as much as I do, I may not retire for a few years yet. I know that not every military wife wishes to follow the drum, but I believe that you, my dear, will enjoy it greatly."
Elizabeth's amazement at the colonel's assumptions was fast growing into annoyance. 'Lydia has not even been located yet,' she thought, 'and he already has us both married off, and me following the drum.' She was also dismayed at his confidence that she loved him; she had given him no such assurances, and she was not even sure herself that she felt anything more for him than affection, respect and gratitude. Not only did his taking her love for granted irritate her, it made her concerned that he expected more from their marriage than she could give him. Not having the emotional strength to discuss these issues with him at this time, however, she merely agreed that there was much to discuss. She then informed him that she was anxious to check on her aunt's condition. "This is a wretched beginning," she thought, wearily, as they approached the inn.
Fifteen minutes later, after a brief consultation with Mr. Gardiner, and one last ardent, parting look at Elizabeth, the colonel was gone. Elizabeth occupied herself by feeding some soup to her aunt who was looking much better, but still weak. After her aunt had eaten, Elizabeth went downstairs to order some dinner for herself and her uncle.
It was well into the afternoon, and Georgiana, who had felt too hot to eat anything earlier in the day, was starting to feel ravenous, as well as thirsty. Her brother, usually so solicitous of her every need, had said nothing about stopping for dinner, and it had been several hours since they had stopped briefly to change horses. Her growing hunger and her fierce desire for something cool to drink, drove her to address her brother despite his grim expression.
"Please, may we stop soon and get some refreshment. I believe that we would all benefit from having something to eat, or at least something cool to drink."
Darcy looked at his sister, and his brow furrowed in consternation as he realized how much he had been neglecting her, and Bingley as well.
"Yes. Yes, of course, we will stop directly." He leaned out and signaled to the driver, and within ten minutes the carriage pulled up beside a small but tidy looking inn. Georgiana sighed in relief.
Darcy did not like to expose his sister to the rough manners and conditions often found in common inns. Advising his sister and Bingley to remain in the carriage for a moment, he strode into the inn in order to ascertain whether it was an appropriate place for his sister to dine. He peered dubiously into the Inn's small but noisy public tavern.
When a matronly woman, presumably the innkeeper's wife, greeted him, he inquired immediately if there was a private dining room in which his party of three could dine.
"There is, Sir, but it is in use just now by a family party. There are just two of them there at the moment. Perhaps they wouldn't mind if you joined them. They are very kind people. Would you like me to inquire, Sir?"
Darcy hesitated. He loathed the idea of dining with strangers. Still the public tavern was unthinkable, and he did not know when if they would encounter another inn within the next hour. He nodded at the woman. She disappeared up the stairs and soon returned.
"As I expected, Sir, they have no objection to you joining them."
He wanted to assess the situation himself before subjecting Georgiana to the close company of complete strangers. At Darcy's request, the woman led him up the stairs and pointed out the door of the private dining room. Before he had the chance to knock on the door, it flew open. There, before him, was Elizabeth Bennet. Their eyes instantly met, and both seemed immoveable from surprise and embarrassment.
Mr. Darcy soon recovered himself. He greeted Elizabeth with perfect civility, if not with perfect composure. Elizabeth returned his compliments with equal civility and they lapsed quickly into silence. Elizabeth suddenly realized that neither had removed their gaze from the other and she lowered her eyes, blushing deeply.
After they had stood before each for several moments without saying a word, Mr. Gardiner, who had been watching the couple with some bemusement from his seat in the dining, came forward and stood beside his niece.
"Good day to you, Mr. Darcy. I am delighted but, I must add, surprised to see you here. What brings you to these parts?"
Mr. Darcy explained, in what he hoped was a nonchalant manner, that he and his sister were accompanying Mr. Bingley to his estate in Herefordshire. Elizabeth was overpowered by astonishment at this statement and its implications. What could it mean? Was Mr. Bingley planning to resume his courtship of Jane, after all? And was Mr. Darcy actually supporting in this? Or could it be that Mr. Darcy was traveling to Hertfordshire for her sake? Did he wish to court her despite Lydia's deplorable behavior? 'But of course,' Elizabeth realized, recalling that she had specifically asked the colonel to say nothing except urgent business called them home, 'Mr. Darcy knows nothing of Lydia's disgrace.'
Elizabeth was grateful that her uncle continued to converse with Mr. Darcy. "I believe you said, Sir, that you were traveling with your sister and Mr. Bingley. Are they with you now?"
Darcy blushed almost as red a shade as Elizabeth. He had, in fact, all but forgotten the existence of his traveling companions. "They are waiting in carriage for me to ascertain if there was an available dining room. I was informed by the innkeeper that you would be agreeable to us joining you for dinner, being as this is the only dining room in the establishment. Please tell me if this is imposition and we will make other arrangements." He looked anxiously at Elizabeth, who was looking unusually pale now that the blush had faded from her cheeks. He noticed with concern that there were dark shadows under her eyes.
"It is no imposition at all, Sir. Quite the contrary; we had no objection to dining with perfect strangers, but now that we know that it is you who are to dine with us, we are pleased and honored indeed, is that not so, my dear?"
Mr. Gardiner looked sideways at his niece as he spoke. He knew she was not in the most sociable of moods, but he felt that the distraction of pleasant company might do her some good, and in any event, civility demanded that they welcome Mr. Darcy and his party.
"Yes, we would be delighted for you to join us." she said, although Mr. Darcy, watching her closely, was not convinced that her sentiment entirely matched her words. She did not seem adverse to their company either, so he thanked them both and departed to collect the others.
As soon as Mr. Darcy had gone down stairs, Mr. Gardiner turned to his niece.
"Now, Lizzy, this is a fortunate circumstance. I know you are anxious to get home, and although Mrs. Gardiner is much better this afternoon, I am inclined to take the rest of the journey in very slow stages, especially if the heat holds up. I have been worried about causing you so much delay but now there is no need for worry. You can travel home with the Darcys, assuming they intend to go directly to Hertfordshire."
"But Uncle, I could not impose on them. They have not asked me to join their party."
"I have no doubt but that they will, Lizzy. They are kind people, you must admit." 'And it's my opinion that Mr. Darcy would not refuse you anything,' Mr. Gardiner added, to himself.
"Yes, but Uncle, you know the situation. I cannot tell them what has happened and I can scarcely travel all that way with them and refuse to discuss them why we left Lambton so suddenly, after we had accepted an engagement for an outing with them, too?" Elizabeth thought of Mr. Bingley and his propensity to ask questions about her family. Surely, it would be insupportable to be interrogated by Mr. Bingley, however kindly, about her family's affairs in the presence of Mr. Darcy.
"Perhaps, you should consider telling Mr. Darcy what has occurred, my dear; he seems to be a man who can counted upon to be discreet, and his council in this may be helpful. You told his cousin, after all, and he has proved to be most helpful. Mr. Darcy must know Mr. Wickham at least as well as his cousin does. And I would imagine that he has even more resources at his disposal with which to deal with that scoundrel, if he chose to, than Colonel Fitzwilliam. However, if you choose not to inform him, you could simply say that you are not comfortable discussing the situation. I am sure he would understand. In any event, you would be home much quicker this way."
Noise was heard on the stairs and soon, Mr. Bingley burst into the room followed by Mr. and Miss Darcy.
"I cannot tell you, Miss Bennet, how relieved I am to see you. We have been concerned for your welfare ever since we heard that you had troubling news from home." He stopped suddenly, and then started again. "I must… forgive me, but I must enquire. Has any harm come to your family?"
Elizabeth and Mr. Gardiner exchanged a brief look. "No one in my family has suffered physical harm or illness, Sir, although a matter has occurred that concerns us all and demands my presence at home immediately. I am sorry but I can speak no further of the matter at present, for many reasons. I hope you will all forgive me for my reticence and also, for not keeping my engagement with you this morning."
"Of course." said Mr. Darcy, "We are glad to hear that no one is ill or injured. We will intrude no further on your privacy in this matter." He said, as he gave a quelling look to Mr. Bingley.
Georgiana stepped forward and Elizabeth instantly stretched her hand out to Georgiana who took it eagerly. After they had exchanged courtesies, Elizabeth beckoned Georgiana and the others to the table. "Please come and have a seat and I will pour out some lemonade, we have just received a fresh pitcher." Elizabeth busied herself pouring first Georgina, and then everyone a glass of lemonade.
Georgiana asked after Mrs. Gardiner and was told that she was resting.
"Is she ill?" asked Georgiana with concern."
"It is nothing serious, thank goodness," replied Elizabeth, "but she has not been feeling her best and has been resting all afternoon.
Mr. Gardiner took up the reins of conversation once more.
"I would like to join my niece in apologizing for not keeping our engagement with you to view the air balloon launch. Did you have the opportunity to observe it before you left this morning?"
Darcy looked greatly discomforted. "I am afraid not. There will be other opportunities, however, I am sure." He stole at his sister who looked quite remorseful. "She minds missing it more than I guessed," he thought, promising himself that he would do everything possible to make up it up to her.
Two maids arrived with trays groaning with food. After everyone had been served with the hearty looking fare, the question that had obsessed Darcy since he encountered Elizabeth today returned to the forefront of his mind. He thought that this was as opportune a time as any to raise it.
"I understand that my cousin was traveling with you. Is he not joining you for dinner?"
Mr. Gardiner glanced at his niece whose eyes were focused on her plate. "He left shortly before you arrived. He had important business in town. Since my wife, as Elizabeth explained has been feeling a bit ill, we had to interrupt our travels indefinitely and he could not delay his business. I am sorry for the delay since my niece is anxious to get home to her family."
Darcy could scarcely believe what he was hearing. He had been sure that Fitzwilliam would take advantage of the situation to spend as much time as possible with Elizabeth. Darcy could not imagine what business Fitzwilliam could possibly have in London that would take him away from Elizabeth. "Perhaps, they had become engaged before he left and the colonel had gone onto London to secure a special license," he thought with dismay approaching horror. It did not seem likely however, that his cousin would propose to Elizabeth now when she was so obviously greatly fatigued and distressed. "Perhaps, she refused him, as she did me, and her distress is due, at least in part, to the fact that he did not take it well," Darcy speculated. If that was the case, he could almost feel sorry for his cousin, having first hand knowledge of the anguish caused by a rejection from Elizabeth. Then a compelling thought pierced his speculations. Elizabeth was anxious to get home, and he was traveling to Hertfordshire.
"Miss Bennet, it would be my pleasure to offer you a ride to Longbourn. We are traveling directly to Hertfordshire, so if you care to join us, you could be home in tomorrow in the early afternoon."
Elizabeth hesitated. She felt that her uncle had been too obvious in his hints, leaving Mr. Darcy no choice but to make the invitation. The real reason for her hesitation, however, was the rush of emotions that overcrowded her when Mr. Darcy had made the invitation. An image flashed though her mind of him sitting directly across from her in that carriage, gazing at her with that soft, almost melting look he had sometimes had in Pemberley, and her chest constricted first with excitement, and then with distress as she recollected the entirety of her situation.
Elizabeth soon realized that Miss Darcy had joined her brother in the invitation to accompany them and everyone was waiting for her to respond.
She was tempted to say no, but thoughts of her family drove her to acquiesce. Upon her acceptance of the offer, Darcy smiled so broadly for an instant that his whole countenance lit up. Elizabeth gazed at him for a moment and then looked away. "I will try to avoid Mr. Darcy as much as possible on the journey," she thought to herself.
As soon as dinner was over, Lizzy made a quick visit to her aunt to assure herself that her aunt could spare her for the remainder of the journey. Aunt Gardiner assured her that she would be fine without Lizzy's ministrations and, in fact, she would rest much easier knowing that Lizzy would be home quickly.
"And you must admit it will be no hardship to ride in the Darcy's carriage," said her aunt, "remember when we rode in it to Pemberley, how luxurious we found it." Elizabeth murmured a reply, thinking that her aunt could possibly have no conception of what a hardship it would be to travel for hours and hours in a close carriage in Mr. Darcy's close company, knowing that there was no hope for anything beyond friendship between them, even if they both should desire otherwise. "Even friendship with Mr. Darcy and his sister will be impossible now, once they learn the whole truth," she reasoned, sadly.
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