“Why would Sir William relay such information to you, after only just meeting you tonight?”
Darcy felt himself burying a laugh. His friend had completely ignored what he was told and only questioned why a gentleman would speak so freely.
“Sir William explained that he normally would not speak so openly to a new acquaintance, but he was aware that we would hear the gossip soon enough, so he wished to tell me the truth of the Bennets. Too many people wish to harm the family and will speak ill of them. It was surprising to me, but I am grateful for the truth. It causes me no difficulty, as I have tenants who are were from the islands. The color of one’s skin does not make the person. It is what is inside the person, their character and goodness that matters more.”
“To be honest, I have never been near someone of dark skin. What are they like?”
Darcy shook his head. “They are like anyone else. The only difference is their skin is darker. They have wants and needs like we do; they eat and drink as we do. My tenants even attend church in Kympton. The Coopers have had difficulties with shops in Lambton and elsewhere. When my father was alive, he made it clear that the Coopers were part of Pemberley and would be treated as any other tenant on the estate. If they are treated ill by anyone, my father, and now I, stepped in to resolve the matter.”
“You said that Mr Bennet’s wife is half caste?” Bingley was interested to know more.
“Her father was a white man from England. Her mother was a former slave who was freed by Mr O’Brien.” Darcy replied. “The Bennet children would likely be far lighter of skin, as they would have only one grandparent who was dark skinned. But people can be heartless in their treatment of those who are different from them. I have seen it with anyone coming from another country. We have had people from Spain who came to visit my father while we were in town. Some of Father’s friends treated them poorly, as their speech and cultures were different. People can be cruel if they are faced with unusual.”
Bingley’s expression grew to show his confusion. “Why would Sir William discuss such a delicate matter with you, after so short an acquaintance? Miss Bennet was the only member of her family who was at the assembly.”
Darcy took another sip of his port. “I met Miss Elizabeth yesterday, by accident. She was kind and intelligent. We enjoyed a pleasant chat, until I inquired if she would be attending the assembly. The lady nearly ran from the speaking with me. At the assembly, I overheard some women of the community who were threatening to do bring harm to Miss Bennet and her family. When I spotted Sir William, I decided to speak with the man. We went outside, as Sir William decided on telling me the truth rather than allowing us to believe the gossip. He counts Mr Bennet as a close friend and the gentleman wished to keep us from thinking ill of his friend.”
“A love match is unique enough, but a love match with someone who is dark skinned is unheard of in our society.”
“It happens, though it is rare. As you can see, the people are treated as if they were lepers. Their love is not some sort of illness that is contagious. It is a love that sees past the differences and find the true person inside. Slavery is abominable. Treating a person as property, as if they were livestock. My family has always been against slavery. Mrs O’Brien’s husband and his brother freed those who worked their estates. They could not tolerate owning people.”
“My family has never dealt with the situation. I doubt my parents ever met anyone dark skinned. Caroline and Louisa will be cruel when they learn about the Bennets. I cannot tolerate their behavior as it is, this news will have them in fits.”
“Then you should send them away in the morning. Your aunt will most likely accept your request for assistance. Until she is able to arrive, you will not be able to host anyone, but that will not be for long.”
“Darcy, you are wise indeed. I will discuss it with my sisters in the morning. Perhaps if I offer to purchase a gown or two, that should be incentive enough for them to return to London.”
“Very wise, my friend. Now, shall we finish our game and retire for the evening?”
After their game was over, Darcy and Bingley made their way up the stairs to their bedchambers. As they turned the corner to the hall where Darcy’s rooms were, they witnessed Caroline Bingley attempting to pick the lock of said rooms’ door. Obviously, his valet had continued to lock the doors and Miss Bingley had not been able to gain entrance to the rooms.
“Caroline, just what do you think you are doing?” Bingley was furious.
“Charles, I…I…I thought it would be wise to check on Mr Darcy, to ensure he has everything he requires.”
“You pick the lock on the door to gain access to ensure my friend has all he needs? Last I checked, polite society would expect you to knock on the door. If no answer, then you go about your way. Nowhere in polite society do you pick the lock to enter the bedchamber of a man who is not your husband.”
“Nor will he ever be your husband, no matter what you do to compromise him.” Darcy added. “I have told your brother many times that I will never be induced to marry you. Perhaps it would be best if I were to remove to London.”
Caroline was too foolish to accept the words that declared Darcy would not marry her. Instead, all she could think of was Darcy saying he should return to London. “Oh, yes, Mr Darcy. We should all return to London and forget we ever came here.”
“Miss Bingley, I will not be returning to London with you. You are the reason I am considering removing from here. Can you not see that your behavior is far from acceptable? Are you so daft as to believe you have a chance to become my wife? You are everything I detest in society. Nothing could compel me to marry you, as I refuse to marry except for the deepest love. Now, if you would excuse me, I wish to retire for the evening.”
Bingley took his sister by her arm and marched her towards the sitting room attached to his own bedchamber.
“How could you shame me as you have, Caroline? Do you understand the damage you have done to my friendship? Your cravings to be part of the upper circles of society may have destroyed by your foolishness. Darcy has told me he will never marry you. Nothing could induce him to become your husband, nothing at all. In his mind, you are everything he abhors in society. This is possibly the final strike against you. Do not expect invitations to all the events you covet. The only reason we were invited over the years was due to Mr Darcy’s generosity. My friend wished to aid me, not you. You, Caroline, included yourself in all our plans. No more. You will be returning to London, where you can stay at Hurst’s townhouse.”
“But I am your hostess. You need me to remain to aid you.” Caroline was grasping at any possible excuse to remain close to Darcy.
“I decided to send for Aunt Rose to come. She has been living in Sussex with her sister in law and I am certain she would welcome a visit to act as my hostess. If you do not leave here with Louisa and Hurst, I will have you packed off to Scarborough to live with Aunt Agatha.”
Miss Bingley’s eyes grew round. “You would not dare. Aunt Agatha is hateful and cruel.”
“You control your future. Either leave early in the morning for London for the Hurst townhouse or for Aunt Agatha’s home. It matters not to me, only that you leave my home. I will not have you attempting to ruin our family.”
Caroline Bingley was furious. How had all her plans come to naught? She was desperate, unable to accept that Darcy was outside her grasp, she did not know what to do. “But Mr Darcy, you must see that I would be the perfect wife for you. Please, you cannot allow my brother to send me away. How can I prove myself to you if I am forced to leave? You would not regret having me as your wife, mistress of your homes, mother of your children.”
A visual shudder coursed through Darcy. “I would never find you a proper wife and there is nothing you have done has made me believe you would care for my home, servants, and tenants as they deserve to be treated. Your taste is appalling, choosing gaudy over practical. Having wealth does not make you a good person. How many maids have you had over the last five years? If memory serves me correctly, you have had two and ten maids in that time. My mother had one maid her entire life. Your failure to treat people with the simplest of kindness is against all I hold dear.”
His words caused Caroline tremendous pain. Quickly turning, she hurried towards her rooms, slamming the door behind her as she entered her bedchamber.
Bingley could not find the words to express his disapproval of his sister’s behavior. “Darcy, I…I…”
“There is no need to speak. You have done all you can to make Miss Bingley see the truth. The fact that she refused to do so is her burden to bear. We should try to sleep, as tomorrow has the potential of being a very trying day.”
“I should speak with Louisa and Hurst, so they are aware of the situation. Good night, Darcy.” Bingley walked down the hall to the door of his eldest sister’s bedchamber.
Darcy entered his bedchamber to find his valet prepared. “I suppose you heard what was going on outside this door.”
Perkins nodded his head. “Would you care for a brandy?”
“No, I believe I will sleep well enough.” Darcy stated as Perkins assisted him in changing out of his clothing and into his night shirt. “I plan to ride early in the morning.”
“Very good, sir.” Perkins replied as he gathered the clothing and left the room with them, entering the dressing room.
As Darcy drifted off to sleep, the vision of a dark haired young lady, with dancing brown eyes, played in his mind.
Elizabeth was seated on her favorite log on top of Oakham Mount, enjoying a warm bun while reading from a new book her father had received from London. She loved her uncle, as he was faithful in his finding books that he knew would interest Elizabeth and her father. Edward Gardiner had similar tastes in reading materials and kept an eye out for any unique and hard to find tomes. Many of the first editions that Mr Bennet had on his bookshelves were products of Mr Gardiner’s constant search.
Hearing a sound from the path, Elizabeth frowned. Who could be imposing on her sanctuary?
When Darcy appeared, he wore a smile. “Miss Elizabeth, good morning. How are you on this fine day?”
“I am well, Mr Darcy. After a night of dancing at the assembly, I would have thought you to be still sleeping.”
“My usual habit is to rise early. When I am at my estate, I rise early and ride about, making an inspection. Then I have information for when I meet with my steward. No matter how long I am in London, I cannot change my habit of rising early.”
“This would make you a rarity amongst your peers. They seem to keep late hours from what I have noticed when reading the papers from town.” Elizabeth said cautiously. What was it about the man that made her feel so comfortable? Normally she was cautious and reserved when it came to strangers.
“Miss Elizabeth, as we have had an unusual beginning, would you allow me to speak openly?”
The look on her face showed her leery. “Of what could you have to say that requires me to grant you such?”
“I spoke with Sir William Lucas last night, at the assembly. After meeting you, and then overhearing some ladies at the assembly, I desired to know more about you and your family.”
“So, you know of our disrespectful family and all of our taint? We are a loving family, not some circus with freaks.” Elizabeth relied on her defenses whenever someone discussed her family. There were very few people who were kind to the Bennets, which led Elizabeth to believe the worst from everyone.
“Please, allow me to state that I have no difficulty in your mother’s skin color. You have nothing to fear from me. My parents taught me to look at the person for who they are, not their appearance. It would be my honor to know you and your family better.”
Never had Elizabeth met someone like Mr Darcy. Could she trust what he was saying or was he planning to mock her family after he met them? “Why would you wish to know them? Have you ever seen someone with dark skin? Is this an attempt to see if my family is disfigured and hideous? We have had people behave as if my mother and brothers are an exhibit of the unusual.”
“You do not know me well, so I can understand your reluctance to trust me. On my honor as a gentleman, I swear to you that I offer friendship. Unlike most of the people in this community, I have been around people of color for nearly all my life. We have a family who came from the Caribbean, who are tenants of my estate in Derbyshire. The husband saved my uncle’s life and my father offered the cottage and a farm to work on our estate. They are a kind and caring family, always doing what they can to help others. The people of Pemberley, my estate, have accepted the Coopers, even protect them. One of the shops in a nearby village refused to serve the Coopers, and one of the other tenants went to the shop, purchased the items for the Coopers, then gave the shopkeeper a piece of their mind.”
Elizabeth was shocked at the gentleman’s attitude. Could he truly be as caring as he portrayed himself to be?
Continuing, Darcy added. “My grandfather, the late Lord Jerome Fitzwilliam, Earl of Matlock, was close friends with Lord William Murray, the Earl of Mansfield. He agreed with Lord William’s view on slavery and on the Zong Massacre. No one should own another human, slavery is a barbaric practice and should be stopped completely, all over the world. From what Sir William told me last night, your great aunt’s family freed those who worked on their estate. That is to be commended. I am certain there was some difficulties with other landowners.”
“There was. One of the landowners even attempted to burn out the O’Brien estates. It was a horrible situation, from what Mamma has told me. Even after the repairs were made from the arson, Mamma described areas that still showed the damage from the flames. Her father and uncle were unique in their views for their estates.” Elizabeth’s tension began to ease slightly.
“They should be praised for their views. Running an estate is difficult, though I admit that I never had to contend with anything as owning humans. The thought of it revolts me.”
“Mamma knew many who were not as fortunate as her grandparents. They were taken from their homes, forced into chains and loaded on a ship, barely any room for them, hardly enough food and water for them. There were times they woke to find the person next to them had died. Mamma was proud of her father. He not only set the slaves on his lands free, he took her mother as his wife, making my uncle his heir. It is rare for anyone of color to own property.”
“Would you be willing to have me call at your home today? I would like to meet your entire family.” Darcy was sincere.
Elizabeth thought for a few moments before answering. “If you truly mean what you have said, you would be welcome to visit.”
“Mr Bingley, who is your new neighbor, would likely join me. We both met your sister last night and Bingley found her charming.”
“My sister is by far the most beautiful lady in the area.” Elizabeth smiled. “Many find her charming, though unfortunately, the neighbors always enlighten the men of our family. The only way my sister will ever find a man who loves her is if she was away from here. Somewhere that she can show who she is, fall in love with her for the wonderful lady she is, not judge her because of our family.”
Darcy knew that Elizabeth was telling the truth. He was grateful to Sir William for speaking to him openly and honestly. Between having met Miss Elizabeth first, then learning the truth from Sir William, Darcy knew his decision to know Elizabeth better was because he found her interesting. She was unlike any other lady of his acquaintance.
Taking hold of Elizabeth’s hand, he raised it to his lips, allowing him to place a gentle kiss on the back of it. “I will take my leave of you for now and look forward to meeting your family later this morning. Hopefully I will bring Bingley with me.”
Feeling flushed from his gesture, Elizabeth nodded her head. As he began to walk away, she called after him. “Mr Darcy, I wish to thank you. It has been difficult to trust people after years of being treated as if we were lepers. Thank you for taking the time to know who we are rather than making assumptions.”
“There is nothing to thank me for, Miss Elizabeth. I look forward to seeing you again.” There was a dimple in his cheek from his smile. The sight nearly took her breath away.
Elizabeth stood and looked around at the land she knew like the back of her hand. Ever since she was a young girl, Elizabeth had wandered her father’s lands until she was familiar with every bush and tree.
Looking towards where her home was, Elizabeth’s heart nearly stopped. A large plume of smoke was rising from the house and flames were seen coming from the rooms she knew were parlor. Running as fast as she could, Elizabeth nearly knocked Darcy over near the bottom of Oakham Mount.
“Miss Elizabeth, what has happened?” Darcy could see she was nearly hysterical.
“Fire, at my home. Everyone is still asleep.”
“Ride with me, it will be quicker.” Darcy mounted Apollo and reached down to aid the young lady.
Only a moment of hesitation delayed her from accepting his assistance. The pair raced towards Longbourn, each thinking of what they would do when they arrived.
When they came to the front of the house, men from the stable came rushing towards them.
“Miss Lizzy, where are the rest of your family?” One of the men asked as he hurried towards them.
“Most likely still in their rooms. Cook and the Hills should be awake, in the back of the house.” She cried out as she jumped down from the horse. Not missing a step, as soon as her feet touched the ground, the young lady was running into her home.
Darcy took command of the men who were hurrying towards the manor house. “We need buckets of water. Wrap something around your nose and mouth to keep out the smoke. If you go inside, douse yourself in water before entering.”
The men hurried in retrieving buckets of water and set up a relay. The man who had spoken with Elizabeth, Mr Johnson, entered the house with Darcy close behind him. They entered the parlor and began battling the flames. Pulling down the drapes, the pair stomped on the flames while others brought water.
After what felt like hours, but was truly only a quarter of an hour, the flames were extinguished.