Chapter 7

            Dinner that evening was quite interesting to most.  When the ladies and William returned to Netherfield with Bingley, they went up to their room immediately, avoiding any contact with Miss Bingley.  Frustrated, the lady determined to make a spectacular impression on her brother’s guests.

            Knowing that she would be in the dowager countess’s company and some of the wealthiest and well-connected people in society, Caroline would prove to them that her education and good taste far outweighed the fact that she was born to a tradesman.

            Donning her newest gown in her favorite shade of burnt orange and feathers coming from the intricate hair style, Caroline felt she would impress her brother’s guests.

            She was waiting patiently for everyone to come down for supper, when her sister arrived in the drawing room.

            “Louisa, where is everyone? I have been waiting for nearly an hour and none of Charles’ guests have come down.  It is nearly time for dinner to be announced, and even our brother has not come down.”

            Louisa Hurst knew why no one had come downstairs.  She had spoken with her brother when he arrived back from the village.  Charles had informed his sister that his guests had no desire to associate with Caroline.  The Darcys and Fitzwilliams had decided they would take trays in their rooms, though it was likely they would take the trays to the sitting room attached to Lady Anne and Gerald Darcy’s rooms.

            “Caroline, our brother informed me it will only be us dining downstairs tonight.  Lady Elizabeth, the Darcys, and Miss Elizabeth are dining in their rooms, as their day of shopping left them fatigued.”

            “This cannot be. I cannot impress the Darcys and Lady Elizabeth if they do not come downstairs.  My plans are in ruin now.” Caroline fumed.

            “I told you we should not have returned.  The countess and her family are used to a more distinct lifestyle than you desire.  Charles has told us they are unlike others of the ton. They do not attend the fashionable balls and dinners in London.  All of them prefer the country life.”

            “That is ridiculous.  How could people who are so connected and wealthy decline attending the greatest of events that town has to offer?”

            “To be honest, I prefer the country life.” Louisa stated in defense of their brother’s guests.  “Not everyone has to have the latest in fashion and live in the grandest of townhouses.  Besides, with the younger Mr Darcy now engaged, he has no desire to dance with other women.”

            “Engaged? To whom could he be engaged?  I thought Charles said Mr Darcy was against his aunt’s insistence that he marry her daughter.  Everyone speaks of Lady Catherine’s desire when I was in London last year. I have seen nothing in the papers or heard anyone speaking of Mr Darcy being engaged.”

            “The gentleman has another cousin, one who has won his heart.  Our brother said it is a perfect match, as they have been close most of their lives. The engagement is recent, and they have yet to announce to the ton.”

            “The hussy that is staying here, with his family? Are you telling me they betroth my Mr Darcy to that crippled chit?”  Caroline was furious. “He could not truly love her.  No, he must feel sympathy for her and knows no other will marry her.  I will convince him he need not sacrifice for his sickly cousin.  She will have the care of a companion and an establishment of her own, preferably in a distant location.”

            “You will be unsuccessful, sister.  It is time you accepted that Mr Darcy will never be yours.  You should return to London and prepare for your marriage to Franz. He is waiting for you to join him in Austria.” Louisa knew her words would make no difference with her sister, but she at least knew she had made the attempt.  “My husband will join us shortly, then we can make our way to the dining room.”

            “I do not wish to live in Austria, as I have told you many times. Why should I have to move there? He enjoyed being in London, he can remain in England if he truly loves me. Now, all the preparation for tonight is for naught, as Charles’ guests will not be joining us.  I had this gown made specially to show my taste to Mr Darcy’s mother and grandmother.” Caroline huffed as she plopped down on the sofa.  “Where are Hurst and Charles? We need to make a quick evening of this, as I will need time to consider an alternative plan.”

            Charles Bingley was entering the room as his younger sister spoke.  “What alternative plans do you need to make Caroline?”

            “Charles, I was just speaking with our sister of the need to accommodate such a large party.  I was unaware that Mr Darcy’s cousin would be here, and with her limitations because of her health, it will be difficult to find activities in which she will take part.”

            “You are not acting as my hostess, Caroline, so there is no need to put yourself out for my guests. There will need not worry over activities, as Miss Fitzwilliam has much to prepare for in the coming days.  I am certain that the Darcys and Fitzwilliams will keep to themselves much of the time they are here.”

            Caroline was angry but unwilling to let down her guard.  “For what is Miss Fitzwilliam preparing? Will she be leaving to visit other family members?”

            “No, she will prepare for her wedding, planned for next month.  As Louisa can tell you, there will be much to plan.”

            “Oh, yes, our sister informed me that Miss Fitzwilliam was to marry.  Was it an arranged marriage to some earl or duke?  I cannot imagine her family allowing her to marry anyone beneath such status.”

            “Miss Fitzwilliam is to marry her cousin.  I cannot imagine my friend being happier than he is at this moment.”

            “He would be happy for his cousin to find a suitable match, especially as she is a cripple.  What man of upper society would wish for such a burden?  After she marries, Mr Darcy can search for his future wife.”

            Bingley was aware of the game his sister was playing, and he was not of a mood to tolerate her nonsense.  “You are mistaken, Caroline.  Mr Darcy is marrying his cousin, Miss Fitzwilliam.  It thrills their family with the match, as they had known for years that the pair were meant to marry.”

            “That cannot be true, Charles.  You must have heard them incorrectly.  Mr Darcy would never wish to have his life in servitude to his cousin.  It would be unnatural for such a gentleman as Mr Darcy to marry beneath him.  He is the heir to Pemberley and would require a wife who can give him an heir.”

            “Miss Fitzwilliam’s health and capabilities are not your concern, sister.  You have no right to make such determinations for the Darcys and Fitzwilliams.  If you cannot contain yourself, I will have to ask you to leave Netherfield and not welcome you back.” Bingley stood his ground, something that his sister was unaccustomed to witnessing.  “Do I make myself clear, Caroline?”

            “Y…Yes, Charles.  Forgive me.  The announcement shocked me.  It is far from unusual for those of the first circle to behave.  Perhaps it is to protect his cousin, which is admirable of him to sacrifice himself.”

            “That will be enough.  My friend is marrying for reasons known only to him, though I believe it is for love.  I will not tolerate your interfering in anything Darcy and his family are planning. Now, where is Hurst?  I wish to dine and retire early.  There is much to do tomorrow.”

            Caroline was curious.  “Just what is happening tomorrow that requires you to take to your bed early?”

            “The Darcy men and I are going to be riding the estate, overseeing some repairs are to being performed.”

            This was the news that made the younger Bingley sister pleased.  She was a proficient horse rider, and she was certain that Lizzy Fitzwilliam would not be riding with the men.  There would be an opportunity for Caroline to exert her superiority over the crippled chit who was attempting to take all that Miss Bingley desired.

                                                            ~~ ** ~~

            “Lizzy, have you decided on the gown you wish made for the wedding?” Lady Anne inquired of her niece.  Not being blessed with a daughter of her own, Lady Anne had always adored Lizzy. It had long been the mistress of Pemberley’s desire to have Lizzy and William marry, and Lady Anne looked forward to the day that they would bless her with grandchildren.

            “I was tending towards the pale lavender fabric that Mrs Kindred showed me when we were last in Lambton.  Though I do like the pattern that Mrs Brooks showed us yesterday.  She is brilliant with her designs.”

            Lady Elizabeth nodded her head.  “I agree.  If I had not known better, I would have believed we were at one of the finest modiste’s shop in London.  Mrs Brooks has quite a talent.”

            “There was one gown that I was interested in having her make for me while we are in the neighborhood.  If it meets with my approval, I will probably order more gowns before we leave.”  Lady Anne stated.

            “I wonder if she could get similar fabric as Mrs Kindred showed me.  It was truly lovely.” Lizzy smiled slyly.  Her family was well aware of her lack of enthusiasm in fashions or fabrics.

            “Lizzy, since the men are away, perhaps now would be a good time for us to have a discussion.” Lady Anne suggested, uncomfortable about discussing intimacies that would come from the marriage bed, the marriage bed of her son and niece.

            “If you wish to speak of what happens after a couple marries, there is no need, Aunt Anne.  Grandmamma has already spoken to me, and, well, I was already somewhat aware of what happens.” Lizzy blushed scarlet.

            Lady Anne’s eyes grew round.  “How did you know of what happens between a man and a woman?”

            “One time, Jane and I were in the barn’s loft, playing with some kittens. We heard some noises from below, in one stall.  The woman moaned as if she were in pain, so I prepared to throw a rock at the stable hand to make him stop hurting her.  Jane became embarrassed and told me to never speak of what we saw, but I could not stop thinking of how the woman cried out, so I spoke to Mamma.  She explained what happens between a man and a woman when they married and shared a bed.  Then Grandmamma answered questions I had several years later.”

            “If I know you, you visited your father’s library to find any books that described such relations.” Lady Elizabeth stated.

            This caused Lizzy to blush further, as she snuck a look at her grandmother and aunt.  “Actually, I searched Uncle Gerald’s library.  He keeps such books on the highest shelves in the far back bookcase in the room.  Fortunately, one footman was kind enough to assist me in retrieving the books, as I could not reach them.  I am also grateful that the footman cannot read, or he would never have retrieved the books.”

            “Elizabeth Fitzwilliam, you should be ashamed of yourself.” Lady Anne declared, all the while attempting to keep from bursting into laughter.  “Let me guess, it was Fred?”

            Lizzy nodded.  “He is the tallest, and he knows that I have a passion for the written word.”

            Lady Anne finally lost the battle to contain her laughter.  “I should have known you would have learned what you wished to know.” 

            “Please, do not punish Fred.  He was doing what I requested.”

            “I will do nothing to Fred.  We are grateful for his help after your injuries.  He never hesitated in being at your beck and call, helping Robbins in doing whatever was needed for you.”

            “Fred is one of the few that did not treat me like a porcelain doll that would break with the slightest touch.  He was not rough, he treated me with care and compassion.”

            Lady Elizabeth smiled.  “The young man has always been a devoted member of Pemberley’s staff.  It is not surprising, as he and Robbins are cousins. The family has been with Pemberley for decades. At one time, your grandfather attempted to entice him to come to Matlock, but Fred refused.  His family being tenants of Pemberley had some to do with his decision, but I always believed Fred to be devoted to the Darcy family.”

            “Aunt Anne, there is one thing I wish aid with before the wedding.” Lizzy looked down as she spoke.

            The mistress of Pemberley looked at her niece curiously.  “What is it, Lizzy?  You know you may ask anything.”

            Lifting her head, Lizzy looked into the eyes of her aunt.  “I wish to stand before the alter when William and I become husband and wife. Privately, I have been doing exercises with my maid.  But I need more time to work on my exercises.  William is always with me when he is in the house.”

            “You wish to surprise him?” Lady Elizabeth inquired.  She knew that her granddaughter rarely spoke of her limitations.

            Lizzy nodded her head.  “A wedding gift of sorts for William.  After all my beloved has done for me, I wish to surprise him with something especially for him.”

            Lady Anne took hold of Lizzy’s hands. “William will be overjoyed at your gift.  My son has always wished for the best that life has to offer you.”

            Tears were flowing from Lizzy’s eyes.  “I love William with all of my heart. To be his wife will be such a treasure and honor.”

Chapter 8

            “Caroline, what are you doing out here?” Charles Bingley was furious.  The men had been visiting one of the tenant homes, which was having a new roof added, only to have Miss Bingley ride up on horseback.

            “I was out for a ride and lost my way.  Fortunately, I noticed you from a distance and came to gain my bearings.”

            “The stables are in that direction.” Bingley stated as he pointed to the north.  “I am certain you can find your way from there.”

            “While I am here, I wish to see what is happening?  This is one of the tenant houses, am I correct?”

            “Now, make your way towards the house.”

            “Mr Darcy, what a pleasure to see you and your father are here to assist my brother.  He has been at a loss, not knowing the proper manner to run an estate.  Having such a kind and devoted friend come to Charles’ is truly a blessing.” Caroline dismounted her horse, stepping closer to the younger Darcy gentleman. When Miss Bingley moved to take hold of William’s arm, the gentleman thwarted her goal by moving towards his father.

            “Miss Bingley, it is a pleasure to assist my friend and enjoy this lovely estate.  If your brother purchases Netherfield, he will have a fine place to call home.” William refused to look at his friend’s sister as he spoke.

            “Obviously, you have attended none of the so-called social events in the area.  They are laughable, and Charles would do better to look elsewhere for an appropriate estate.  If you had met the Bennet family, you would agree, and the neighbors consider them the highest ranking family in the community.”

            As Charles opened his mouth to respond to his sister’s vulgarity, his friend gave him a look that spoke silently of William’s desire to handle the situation.  Bingley gave a slight nod in agreement.

            “The Bennets of Longbourn are kind and helpful in the short time we have been acquainted. Just yesterday, Mrs Bennet assisted us at the dressmaker’s shop.  The ladies in my family were grateful for the lady’s kindness.”

            Caroline was too foolish to know when to remain silent.  “Your mother and the dower countess could not possibly find anything worthy to wear from such a backwards dressmaker.  Mrs Bennet is a fool for introducing them to a seamstress of no consequence.”

            “On the contrary, my mother, grandmother, and my betrothed have most of their clothing made by dressmakers near our country estates.  They have found exceptional talent in such ladies.”

            “But your family must require the latest fashions. Surely they would make most of their purchases from one of the finest modistes in London.”

            “As my family prefers to refrain from London society as much as possible, the ladies prefer comfort over the latest fashions.  Now, if you do not mind, my father and I would like to finish with this task so we might return to our ladies.  Bingley, as I was saying. The rest of the cottage seems secure.  There does not seem to be any damage to the walls or the flooring, so catching the problem quickly is a top priority.  If you wait, you will only have more repairs to pay for.”

            Foolishness had taken over Caroline Bingley.  “But why should my brother make repairs?  That should be for the tenants to maintain their homes.  Perhaps then, they will take better care and there would be no need for great expenses.”

            Gerald Darcy decided he had had enough.  “Miss Bingley, as you are unfamiliar with running an estate, perhaps you should return to the main house.  We would not wish for our discussion on matters are well outside your knowledge to bore you.”

            “Very well, Mr Darcy. I will see all of you at dinner tonight, will I not?” Caroline wished to impress them with her skills as a hostess and how her abilities to set a fine table.

            “No, I believe we will have trays in our rooms again.” William announced.  “My grandmother retires early, as does my betrothed.  My mother prefers to keep watch over her mother, and we gentlemen follow their lead.”

            “But…I have requested a fine meal served, with four courses. It is in honor of your family visiting us.” Miss Bingley could not allow her brother’s guests to avoid dining with her.  “I have planned to perform on the pianoforte after dinner.”

            “Thank you, Miss Bingley, but you need not make such elaborate plans on our behalf.  Besides, when in the country, our family rise early, so we also retire early in the evening.”

            Furious at being thwarted once again, Caroline bid farewell to the men and made her way back to the stables, throwing the reins of her horse to one of the stable hands, before stomping off to the house. 

            Once inside, Caroline made her way to her bedchambers, throwing herself across the bed.  She would achieve her goal.  She would be the next Mrs Darcy, no matter what she had to do to secure her desires.  No one would ever look down on her again, they would all forget her wealth came from trade.  Caroline Darcy, that would keep people from thinking she was not worthy of being part of the first circle of society.

            But the biggest obstacle was showing the ladies she was far superior to the worthless chit who was engaged to Fitzwilliam Darcy.  There had to be a way to show the crippled tramp was an inappropriate choice for the young man to marry. 

            “Perhaps I could invite the ladies to the music room to listen as I practice on the pianoforte.  I cannot imagine Miss Fitzwilliam has any musical talents, as she must be too sickly to have learned such a talent.  She is likely so frail that she cannot even stitch or paint screens.  Mr Darcy deserves a wife who can treat him as a husband should be, especially in the marriage bed.  No, he will be grateful for me showing him the error of his way with his cousin.”  Caroline had risen from her bed and was pacing the floor as she spoke.  “I must pick out some of my more intricate pieces to play before the ladies.”

            Once she had sorted through the sheet music she had brought, Caroline inquired from a maid as to the location of the ladies.  Having learned the ladies were in the sitting room near Lady Elizabeth’s bedchamber, Miss Bingley made her way to the room.

            Caroline could hear light laughter coming from the sitting room, and she stopped as she reached the door.  Taking a deep breath to steady her nerves, the young lady lifted her hand and knocked on the door.

            Lady Anne opened the door.  Bingley’s sister had met none of the ladies, but it was simple enough to guess which was which.  “Forgive me for interrupting your conversation, but I thought it would be perfect timing to introduce myself to you and invite you to the music room.  I planned to practice some new pieces and would love to have the opinion of such fine ladies as you. My name is Miss Caroline Bingley, the second sister of Mr Charles Bingley.”

            “It is… a pleasure to meet you, Miss Bingley.  I am Lady Anne Darcy, and these ladies are my mother, Lady Elizabeth Fitzwilliam, the Dowager Countess of Matlock, and my soon to be daughter-in-law, Miss Elizabeth Fitzwilliam.  We have been busy with preparations for the wedding, so I hope you can forgive us for declining your invitation. There is so much we need to accomplish in such a short time.”

            “I had heard your son was to marry, though I had not known it would be soon.  When is the blessed event to occur?”

            “Soon. Please understand, we are keeping the details within the family for now.  There are some who would do what they could to thwart the wedding.  Many matchmaking mammas and their unwed daughters would do anything to capture my son, no matter what extremes they must go to achieve such a match.  As his mother, I will allow no one to ruin his future by some foolishness of being forced to marry another because of a compromise.  His match with my niece is for love and has been of long standing.”

            Miss Bingley was seething on the inside, while keeping a smile on her face.  How dare the lady speak in such a manner?  Did she not realize there was a better lady for her son to marry, someone standing in front of her?  To know the lady was closed minded infuriated Caroline.  But her determination was to show the ladies she was the better choice for Fitzwilliam Darcy’s wife.

            “If there is anything, I can do to be of help to you, please do not hesitate to ask.  Please excuse me, I forgot sI needed to speak with my sister about dinner this evening.  You will join us, will you not?”

            “Again, forgive me.  We are used to retiring early and usually prefer a small repast before finding our beds.  My mother prefers a quiet repast, as she is still in mourning from the loss of my father.  She would have remained at home, rather than make the journey with us, but she wishes to aid in the preparations for the wedding.”

            “Your absence will sadden us deeply, as my family wished to know all of you better.  My brother has always spoken of you with the highest regard.  Having met your son once before, he impressed me with his kindness and all he has done for Charles.”

            “William is the perfect son; you will receive no argument from me.  That is why it is so important to me to see his wedding is perfect.”

            “Of course.  I must speak with my sister.” Caroline turned and hustled towards the family wing.  She was furious and needed to release her anger immediately.  Louisa was the one person Caroline had always trusted with her feelings, and the younger sister needed the support of the elder.

            Entering the room where Louisa was located, Caroline closed the door. “Yesterday, I could have sworn that the housekeeper stated that Lady Elizabeth was to stay in the green guest room, next to her granddaughter. I just discovered she is in the gold room, across the hall from the chit.”

            “Perhaps there was some confusion with Mrs Norris. The younger Mr Darcy is in the green guest room.” Louisa said, realizing too late that her sister was about to rage.

            Her eyes bulged as Caroline released her anger. “Mr Darcy is in rooms connected to those of his cousin? How could that be? It is improper for a young man to be in rooms that connect to a young lady’s, as they have not married. Charles must have made a monumental blunder in deciding where to place everyone. We should have been here when the Darcys arrived. What must they think of us, with our brother being such a fool?”

            “Charles stated that the younger Mr Darcy requested to be in the rooms next to Miss Fitzwilliam’s. As they are engaged, and their family is here as chaperones, our brother saw no need to stand on formality.”

            “You are a fool, Louisa. Thankfully, we are a small enough party, so word will not reach London. Once they break the engagement, I would not want any gossip of my fiancé and his cousin being spread about society.”

            Louisa shook her head. She was concerned about her sister’s behavior. Caroline had always been strong willed and thought herself better than everyone. Her sister had gone from accepting Viscount Taaffe’s proposal to pursuing Fitzwilliam Darcy in the simple reading of their brother’s letter.  Why could her sister not be happy with the arrangement she had secured?

            “Caroline, you need to return to your preparations for your own wedding. There is much needed finishing before we sail to the continent.”

            “Why do you not understand my desire to remain in England? How could I marry the viscount when I could have Mr Darcy? The only problem is I need time with the gentleman so he can see how perfect I am for the position.” Caroline’s mind was working on ways she could be with the man she desired.

            “If you do not listen to Charles, he will send you packing. Do you wish for our brother to ban you from his home? He will be furious if you do anything to cause problems for the Darcys.”

            “Nonsense. It will thrill Charles to call his dearest friend his brother. Our brother has not thought everything through, or he would understand what he would gain.”

            “Please, Caroline, you must not pursue Mr Darcy. Our brother will be furious if you cause any difficulties for his friend. You are to be a viscountess. Mr Darcy has no title. Marrying Franz will be far better for you. Then, when you visit London, you will be the talk of the ton. Imagine having access to the finest modistes on the continent.”

            “You do not understand. Franz is poor. His father is living off money from the duke, as he lost most of their fortune gambling. The estate we would live at is one left to him by his mother’s uncle, and it is worth less than Netherfield.”

            “But he has doted on you since meeting you. He has always carried himself as if he is wealthy.”

            “He desires my dowry more than he desires me, Louisa. All I am to him is a business arrangement, and not a good one for me. If I am always overspending my quarterly income, how would it be if I married Franz? Charles would expect us to live off Franz’s income, which is a pittance to our brother. That is why we would live in Austria; he cannot afford the lifestyle of London society.”

            The news was unexpected. Louisa could not believe what she was learning. “Still, it would be better if you did not make Mr Darcy and his relations uncomfortable. Our brother has already informed me he is thrilled for his friend. If you were to cause trouble, Charles will do as he promised you.”

            “Such nonsense, Louisa. Charles might anger with me temporarily, but he will come around to my way of thinking. We must convince him to move from this estate. Perhaps he could find an estate closer to Pemberley. Then we could have a proper place for Mr Darcy to come while he is courting me.”

            “The gentleman is engaged, Sister, as are you. You will only incur our brother’s wrath if you continue with this plot. This is my final warning, Caroline. If you do not listen to me, I wash my hands of you.”

            Caroline’s fury grew. “Then consider yourself banished from ever visiting my future home.”

            Marching to the door, Caroline left the room for her bedchambers. She had plans to prepare for ensnaring her future husband, and no one, not even her sister, would stop her from her goal.

            Caroline made her way across the room and into the dressing chamber. Her fingers caressed the silk gowns hanging along one side of the room, as she made her way to the table at the far end. Sitting down, Caroline looked into the peer glass, staring at her reflection.

            “I will have what I want. Mother told me I was her perfect child. Beautiful, intelligent, accomplished; everything that a young lady should be. Mr Darcy will come to see the truth, he will desire to marry me before long. How am I to have time with him and his family if they are always in their rooms? The family must believe Miss Fitzwilliam cannot dine as the rest of them. Perhaps they pity her, that is the reason they remain with her. Well, they will soon learn that she is not worth throwing away Mr Darcy’s future. They will come to love me and what I will bring to the family. If only I knew of a man who could marry the chit, so to release Mr Darcy from his commitment. There must be a man who would compromise her.”