A quick question for you readers. Do you like the illustrations in these posts or would it be just as well to leave them out? I’m kind of divided about that and would love your input–and your comments on the chapters too!
Elizabeth sat at the dressing table. Jane had already gone downstairs, but she was procrastinating. How it annoyed Papa when she did that, but it was not likely to change. Would that she could beg off dinner tonight entirely, but that was unlikely. She could not be so rude to her host or to the guest he had invited to join them tonight.
Her hopes that Derbyshire might be different than London lay shattered on the floor around her, mixed with not a few tears. Better to have found out now. At least Colonel Fitzwilliam had been gracious, but he was a military man like Papa. Of course he would be different. Well, there was nothing to be done for it but to rebuild her mask of respectability and never let it fall again. Mr. Darcy did not seem the type to gossip, so perhaps this whole incident might make its rounds around Lambton. That would be a blessing.
A soft rap at the door broke through her reverie. She grimaced. “Come in.”
“Miss Elizabeth?” Georgiana peeked in. “Are you ready to come down for dinner?”
No, she was definitely not ready and might never be, little that it mattered. “I just need another pin or two in my hair.”
Georgiana joined her at the dressing table. “Did the maid not do a satisfactory job with it?”
“No, no, she was fine. It was my fault entirely. I have the worst habit of fiddling with my hair once the maid had finished.” Elizabeth struggled to tuck errant strands into place.
Georgiana took the pin from her hand and expertly twisted the stray locks into place. “We must work on finding you and Miss Bennet a proper lady’s maid soon.”
“Much as I would enjoy that, I think there are a few other positions more important to fill first.” She rose and shook out her skirts. They were of the latest style and color, yet they offered little protection against a thousand insecurities. “I am ready—shall we go?”
Elizabeth lingered on the stairs, but they finally arrived at the parlor where the rest of their party awaited them.
Darcy rose as soon as they stepped through the doorway. “Miss Elizabeth.” He bowed, his gaze fixed upon her. “Georgiana.”
Elizabeth nearly stumbled back with the intensity of his gaze.
“Miss Elizabeth, may I present Mr. Wickham.” He gestured toward an unfamiliar gentleman who sat in the far corner of the room, between Colonel Fitzwilliam and her father.
Wickham rose. “Pleased to make you acquaintance, madam.” He held her eyes for a few seconds too long. The corner of his right eye twitched and bowed.
She curtsied and tried to ignore the odd prickling along the back of her neck. Fleeing back to her room held great appeal, but she held her ground. She definitely was not herself tonight and it was not fair to judge this newcomer by her general ill ease.
Georgiana offered her hand and Mr. Wickham bowed over it. “You are much grown since I have last seen you.”
Georgiana smiled thinly. “It has been what, nearly a year, since you have visited us.”
“It is above eighteen months, I believe. Your sense of time is still so optimistic. We can never rely upon you to know when things have occurred.” Wickham held her hand a moment longer.
Elizabeth’s arm twitched. Lady Ellen would have pinched her for such a statement.
Georgiana laughed as did her brother and cousin, still Elizabeth was certain the pink stain spreading across Georgiana’s face was not pleasure and the brightness in her eyes was not gladness. But perhaps she was projecting her own mood upon Georgiana.
Georgiana drew her hand back. “I…I…I am glad you have chosen to visit up now.” She slipped toward the settee with Jane and Lady Catherine.
“I was only too happy to accept your brother’s kind offer.” He turned his eyes back to Elizabeth.
Darcy rose. “And we are only too happy to have you. Shall we to dinner now?” He strode to Elizabeth and offered her his arm.
She started and stared at him.
He met her eyes, no hardness in his expression. The corners of his mouth turned up and he cocked his head.
She slipped her hand in the crook of his arm and allowed him to lead her to the dining room. The others followed. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Jane on Colonel Fitzwilliam’s arm and he looked decidedly pleased about it.
Elizabeth swallowed back the lump in her throat. It would not be long before Jane left her, if not with Colonel Fitzwilliam, then with some good man. Even here in the wilds of Derbyshire, Jane’s beauty would not go unnoticed long. But Elizabeth did not need to marry, and having her fill of the London marriage mart, had sworn off the practice. Papa and her brothers would be enough.
Darcy directed her to the chair beside his at the head of the table. Lady Catherine sat at the foot of the table, Admiral Bennet on her right. The rest distributed themselves along the well-dressed dining table. Tempting smells wafted through the room. The candlelight sparkled off all the polished surfaces, dancing a welcome to them. Darcy pulled the platter a little closer to carve the joint.
“You keep the finest table I know.” Wickham tucked his napkin into his collar.
“You would know, for all the times you have eaten here.” Colonel Fitzwilliam laughed and slid a slice of meat on Jane’s plate. “Seems as though you were here more than at your mother’s table.”
“Given the choice, where would you have dined?” Wickham’s brows flashed up as he piled potatoes on his plate.
Colonel Fitzwilliam served Georgiana ragout. “And Uncle Darcy always gave you the choice.”
Wickham shrugged, one side of his mouth twitching upward.
“So you have known each other a longtime?” Papa looked at Mr. Wickham. “You must have been on very easy terms with the family to dine here so regularly.”
“Mr. Wickham is the son of the late Mr. Darcy’s steward.” Lady Catherine kept her eyes on her plate as she cut her meat and took a dainty bite.
Papa’s brows shot up and he looked at Colonel Fitzwilliam who nodded.
“Too true, Lady Catherine. I have been in the shadows of Pemberley all my life.” He glanced at Darcy.
“Indeed, indeed.” Darcy dabbed his chin with a crisp white napkin.
Elizabeth looked from Darcy to Wickham and back again. Darcy dodged Wickham’s gaze several times as Wickham attempted to make eye contact. He resettled himself in his chair and sighed. “I am grateful he has been.”
“It sounds like there is a tale to be told there.” Papa winked at Elizabeth. Few people enjoyed a good story more than he.
Wickham bowed his head. “You must petition Darcy for the story. I would be ungentlemanly of me to tell it.”
Elizabeth could barely tell, but was certain Lady Catherine rolled her eyes.
“Go on, Darcy, tell them.” Colonel Fitzwilliam snickered behind his hand.
Georgiana glanced up quickly, then back down. “He saved my brother’s life.”
Jane gasped and covered her mouth with her hand. “My gracious, what happened?”
“It was very long ago, when we were boys.” Darcy pushed a pile of cabbage leaves around his plate. “Not much older than my sons are now.”
Elizabeth chewed her lower lip. No wonder he had gone after the boys with such vehemence this afternoon. What must he have imagined was happening to them? Could it be that there was more on his mind that her impropriety?
Wickham leaned his elbow on the table and placed his chin in his hand, eyes fixed on Darcy.
Darcy looked at the ceiling. “We were playing on the far side of the estate, in some caves we discovered there. We snuck off to explore them, as prepared as two young boys might be with a torch and a rope. Wickham stayed at the mouth of the cave, holding the rope I wore around my waist so I would not get lost.”
“That was excellent forethought for so young a man.” Elizabeth watched him carefully.
He squeezed his eyes closed and sucked in a deep breath. “It was not enough, though. A sudden storm came through. There was a rockslide.”
Elizabeth drew in a sharp breath. “Were you injured?”
“Only scratched and bruised, but I was trapped inside the cave. Wickham suffered a broken arm and a badly sprained ankle. Despite his injuries, he tried to dig me out, without success. He made his way back to the house on foot to send rescuers.”
“He spent two days in that cave with neither food nor water!” Georgiana wrung her napkin tightly in her hands.
“I never saw Uncle Darcy so undone as during those days.” Fitzwilliam took a deep draw from his glass.
“It was less than a year after we lost my dear sister and he was still in mourning for her.” Lady Catherine added, looking up from her plate. “He could not have borne another loss.”
“How ever did you make it all the way back with your injuries?” Jane asked, her brows drawn together.
Wickham shrugged. “One does what one must in the service of a friend. I found a sturdy stick to act as a crutch and bound the arm to my side with my belt.”
“I imagine Mr. Darcy’s father was very grateful for the service you rendered his son.” Elizabeth struggled not to look at Darcy. She could feel his eyes on her, but did not want to answer them.
“That he was madam and most generous in his gratitude. For that I am forever grateful.” Wickham blinked and dipped his head. His right eye twitched again.
“Uncle Darcy saw to his schooling—sent him to Cambridge with Darcy.” Fitzwilliam said.
“A very fine establishment that.” Papa mumbled. “I mean to see Francis and Philip there when they are of age.”
“I believe Francis fancies himself more of a Navy man like you.” Elizabeth leaned toward Papa, a smile dancing across her lips.
“He may fancy himself whatever he likes, but I have other plans for them both.” Papa scowled. “So what was your course of study, Mr. Wickham?”
“It was the law, sir.” Wickham waved a servant over to refill his wine.
“You are a solicitor?” Elizabeth asked. “Where is your practice?”
“I am not yet so fortunate as to have one.” He sagged into his chair. “I had hoped to purchase one from my employer, Mr. Locke, where I have clerked these last several years. But, alas, it was not to be.”
Silence, thick as an itchy wool blanket embraced the diners. Jane sipped her wine and kept her eyes down. Georgiana cut her meat slowly, making nary a clink against the china. Lady Catherine exchanged a brief look with Papa whose intent Elizabeth could not discern. The silence lasted ten slow breaths.
“Since I am in the company of friends, I will tell you the whole of it.” Wickham leaned back and cleared his throat.
Lady Catherine folded her hands on the table and looked anywhere but at Mr. Wickham.
“When I came on with him, I was his favorite, you see. He often invited me to sup at his table and I devoted hours to the amusement of his children, two dear girls who reminded me much of Miss Georgiana.” Wickham flashed her a smile. “His nephew and I both became clerks for him in the same month. At first we were very good friends, he and I. But later, I believe he became quite jealous of the favor shown to me by his uncle. He began speaking ill of me, first to the children, then to Mrs. Locke. By the time he spoke to Mr. Locke, his family had already filled his ears with lies against me and he was quite prepared to believe all sorts of calumny against me. It ended with my dismissal.”
“How awful for you.” Jane rubbed her knuckles along her chin.
“Not so very terrible, really, for it drove me to Derbyshire to cheer myself with the best company I know.” He raised his glass. “To good friends and good time, may both abound”
The others raised their glasses to join the toast.
“And to better times ahead.” Darcy listed his glass to many voices of assent.
After the final course was finished, the ladies withdrew, leaving the men to their port, cigars and serious conversation.
“So how go your efforts to settle into Alston Hall? I believe that is the name of your estate, is it not?” Wickham asked, leaning back in his chair.
Bennet swirled his glass and took a long sip. “A fine vintage you have brought out tonight, Mr. Darcy, very fine—as to settling in, that is another matter entirely. The whole process is far too slow.”
“Things move much faster when all you need do is give the order and watch your juniors carry it out, eh?” Fitzwilliam leaned in to elbow Bennet’s shoulder.
“It does make me miss the sea t times.” Bennet raked his hair. “My Lizzy makes excellent progress with the household staff. She already has them at the house working to ready it to move in. It still cannot be soon enough for me.”
“One cannot underestimate the advantages of being at home.” Darcy laced his fingers and rested his chin atop them. “And it is to that very point that I invited Mr. Wickham to join us tonight. I do not wish to imply any desire to see and you family depart—”
“George and David will be crushed at that eventuality as it is.” Fitzwilliam chuckled.
“True enough,” Darcy and Bennet exchanged glances and rolled their eyes.
“Those scamps have become inseparable, have they not?” Bennet shook his head.
“As we were as youths?” Wickham asked.
“It would seem.” Darcy smiled. “Be that as it may, I have no doubt you would prefer your own home even to mine. But you need a staff in place for that to happen. I believe Wickham can fill your need for a steward quite admirably. Between his experience as a law clerk and what he learned at his father’s knee about managing Pemberley, I am certain you will find not better candidate for the position.”
“You are far too kind, my friend.” Wickham mopped his brow with a napkin. “I am sure though, Admiral, that you will find my lack of references far too great an obstacle to overcome.” He sighed, shoulder’s drooping. “I take no offense, I quite understand—”
Bennet lifted his hand. “No wait.”
Wickham looked up.
“I have seen it enough times in the Navy. I know the power one man can have to make or break the careers of those beneath him. My own man was one who had it happen. He got on the wrong side of a powerful man. All it took was an unfortunate hand at cards and Piper’s career was marked forever.” Bennet threw his napkin down on the table. “His former Captain lost a rather contentious hand of cards to him and the entire situation disintegrated after that. He was transferred to my ship with a reputation as a troublemaker. But I never saw that in him. I owe that man my life and know him very differently from his reputation. I am sure you have seen it yourself, Colonel.” Bennet turned to Fitzwilliam.
Fitzwilliam leaned his elbows on the table. “I admit to having known men who did not deserve the reputation they carried, but—”
“So you understand.” Wickham rubbed his eyes. “You are very kind.”
“I am willing to take Darcy at his word and give you a fair go. Tomorrow we will go out to the estate and you can show me your merits. What say you of that?”
Wickham swallowed hard and blinked several times. “Thank you very much, sir. I only hope I might prove myself equal to my friend’s confidence in my worth.”
Bennet rose and extended his hand. “I expect you will.”
Wickham shook his hand hard.