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Upon returning to Netherfield, after the assembly had ended, Caroline’s frustration had not waned. She was tormented by having to watch as Darcy not only refused to dance with herself, but having to witness the gentleman dancing a second set with Miss Elizabeth Bennet. When their party returned to Netherfield, the men made their way to the games room to play a round of billiards before turning in for the evening. This left Caroline to make her way up the stairs alone, her anger growing with each step she took.
Reaching her rooms, Caroline was assisted with changing into her night clothes. Dismissing her maid, Caroline began brushing out her hair. She knew her maid would make her way down to spy on the men. Betsy had become invaluable to her mistress.
With each stroke of her hair brush, Caroline contemplated her actions. She had to come up with a reason to put an end to Darcy’s flirtation with the chit. After all the time and energy Caroline had put into preparing to become Mrs Fitzwilliam Darcy, she would not simply step aside and allow someone to take her place.
Perhaps she was overreacting to what she witnessed. It was unusual of Darcy to behave in such a manner. Perhaps she could write an anonymous letter to his parents, informing them that their son was making a spectacle of himself with a country nobody. She could tell them that the young lady was most likely a fortune hunter, singling Darcy out and using her womanly charms to seduce him. That would be the way to proceed.
Caroline made her way to the desk in the corner of her bedchamber. She took out the writing supplies and formulated what she would put in the letter. Trying to disguise her handwriting, she worded the letter in a way to hide her identity. Once the letter was finished, it was sanded and folded. Caroline dripped the wax to form the seal, and nearly forgot what she was doing, returned her personal stamp back on the desk and finding a plain stamp instead.
Deciding that she would have Betsy take the letter to Meryton to post it express, Caroline made her way back to the table to continue brushing out her hair, looking in the peering glass. Yes, this would be what was needed to keep that trollop from attempting to steal Darcy from her. His parents would likely demand he marry immediately, to prevent him from falling prey to another fortune hunter. Who would be better than the sister of his dearest friend?
Caroline knew she would need to remain at Netherfield for at least a week, to give the Darcys time to receive the express and make their way to the estate. It would be up to her to protect the gentleman from becoming to involved with the horrid Eliza Bennet.
Then a thought entered Caroline’s mind. When she sent Betsy to send the express, the maid could also ask around about the Bennet family. This would give Miss Bingley added information to use against the insignificant female.
With this in mind, Caroline was much happier. She began to hum as she prepared for bed. On the morrow, she would make a list of what would be needed to welcome the Darcy family to Netherfield. Once they were staying at her brother’s estate, Lady Anne would be impressed with Caroline’s abilities as hostess and would certainly wish to promote the young lady as her successor when the time came.
A knock on the door from the dressing chamber alerted her to Betsy’s return.
“Enter.” Caroline called out.
“The gentlemen have come upstairs for the evening.”
“What did you learn from them?”
“Your brother is smitten with a young lady named Miss Bennet. It appears that Mr Darcy is taken with her sister, Miss Elizabeth. Both spoke highly of the ladies. Mr Bingley said he had never seen Mr Darcy behave so with any young lady.”
“I am aware of that. What else did they say?”
“Only that they planned to call on the Bennet family in the morning. Apparently, their father owns the estate to the west of Netherfield Park.”
“We will need to find a way to keep the men from leaving the house in the morning. Can you think of anything that would keep them busy?”
“An accident of some sort could be arranged. Something slight, yet requiring the master of the house to handle.”
“Good, I will leave it to you to arrange. After you finish with that, I will need you to walk to Meryton to post an express for me. Then ask about in the village to learn more of the Bennet family.”
“Very good, Miss Bingley. Is there anything else you require tonight?”
“No, that will be all.” Caroline was already plotting what she would do with any information she was given the following day.
Little did Caroline know, down the hall, Darcy was thinking of her, though not in the way she would have wished.
“Fletcher, did you secure the spare key from the housekeeper?” Darcy inquired of his valet.
“Indeed, and she guaranteed that Miss Bingley did not have a copy of the key for this particular set of rooms. It seems that Miss Bingley’s maid has been attempting to locate a copy of the key, as she stated her mistress required a key for all the rooms in the manor house. The housekeeper, Mrs Nichols, is intelligent and has already taken Miss Bingley’s measure, only to find it lacking. As Mr Bingley has already stated his aunt would be taking over the running of the house for him, Mrs Nichols decided Miss Bingley did not have a genuine reason to have the key.”
“The thought of that woman having access to my room at all hours of the day and night terrifies me.”
“Have no fear. When neither of us are in the rooms, I keep the doors locked. By the way, here is the extra key for your use. Would you prefer for me to sleep in the dressing chambers?”
“I know it is not very comfortable, but would you mind?”
“Of course not, Mr Darcy. On the chance you would prefer me to do so, I had a cot brought up for me to use. I will leave open the door between the dressing chamber and the bedchamber.”
“You will not be forgotten, Fletcher.”
The men slept soundly that night.
Darcy was an early riser, waking just before sunrise. He sent word to the stable to have his horse, Apollo, readied, while he dressed for an early morning ride. As was his habit when at home, Darcy would give his favorite mount a brisk ride over the land.
A long ride had always cleared his mind and allowed him to focus on what would be happening that day. He would be meeting with the steward for Netherfield in the afternoon, riding out with the man and Bingley, to learn more of the estate. What he had seen of the estate had been impressive, as the owner had insured the tenant homes and the manor house were kept in good condition. Many owners neglect the repairs, as they did not live there. It was obvious that Netherfield was cared for properly.
The first thing that Darcy had planned for the day was to join Bingley in paying a call at Longbourn. Meeting the young ladies the previous night was one of the most unusual, yet splendid, events Darcy could have imagined. He had actually enjoyed the assembly, something he had never been able to claim before.
It was all due to one young lady who had managed to coax him from behind what his family referred to as his mask of indifference. Darcy felt as if he had known Miss Elizabeth Bennet his entire life.
Never had he known a young lady to be so intelligent, well read, and so completely uncaring about fashion or gossip. Miss Elizabeth was refreshing, challenging, and kind. She did not wish to pretend to agree with his ideas, she spoke her own opinions and defended them.
Most of all, Miss Elizabeth had been uncommonly kind. Not the sort of kindness that was given to receive a favor in return. No, she was kind just to be kind.
On the way to Netherfield from the assembly, Caroline Bingley did not speak. This was unusual, and though it was pleasant, Darcy knew enough of the woman to be aware that a silent Miss Bingley could be a dangerous Miss Bingley. She was not to be trusted under normal circumstances, but a plotting woman was far more unpredictable.
If the men were to escape from Netherfield to pay a call on the Bennet family, they would need to be quick and maneuver around Caroline. Darcy returned to his rooms, quickly cleaning up from his ride, and made his way to his friend’s chambers. Bingley had been hurrying, as he was of the same opinion as Darcy, they needed to leave Netherfield before Caroline could find a reason to stop them. Or even worse, that she might wish to join the men to pay a call on the Bennets.
The men knew that if Caroline were to join them, she would do anything she could to belittle Miss Elizabeth. Miss Bingley had a caustic tongue, and when she felt challenged by another young lady, that tongue could slash others more effectively than a sword.
Fortunately, Caroline Bingley was notorious for sleeping late in the morning. If they left the house immediately after breaking their fast, they would be able to escape from her.
Gulping down their food, the men were pleased to have their horses prepared and waiting for them as they exited the manor house. Just as they mounted their horses, they heard the voice they both dreaded.
“Charles, where are you and Mr Darcy off to so early?” Caroline was hurrying towards them.
“We are going to take a ride around the estate before I need to return to welcome Aunt Ethel.”
“You are not planning to visit any of our neighbors, are you?”
“Caroline, I do not answer to you for what I do. As I am the master of the estate, I am at liberty to do as I please.”
Bingley turned away from his sister and the men rode off, leaving an angry Miss Bingley stomping back up the stairs and inside the house.
“You realize we will suffer her displeasure upon our return.”
With a smile, Bingley nodded his head. “You speak the truth, though it is worth it to stand up to my sister. Visiting the Bennets will make up for any fury Caroline may hurl towards me.”
Mrs Hill had been the housekeeper of Longbourn for over twenty years, caring for the Bennet family since the wedding of Thomas and Fanny Bennet. She was devoted to the family, treating them as if they were related.
When she knocked on the drawing room door, Mrs Gardiner looked up from her sewing. “Yes, Hill.”
“Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy have come to pay call on the family.”
“Do send them in, and have refreshments prepared.”
Hill nodded her head and returned shortly with the two young men.
“Welcome, Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy. It is a pleasure to see you again.” Mrs Gardiner stated. “You met my granddaughters, Jane and Elizabeth, at the assembly. Their brother and sister were not there last night, as they are not yet six and ten.”
“It was a pleasure to meet the young ladies. Forgive me, Mrs Gardiner, it was a pleasure to meet all of you last night. I meant no slight to you.” Bingley was fumbling his words.
Mrs Gardiner chuckled lightly. “Have no fear, Mr Bingley, I take no offense. My granddaughters are beautiful and should garner more attention than an old widow.”
“Grandmamma, you are not old, and you are beautiful.” Elizabeth smiled at her grandmother.
“You are too kind Lizzy. Ah, here comes Hill with refreshments. Might I offer you gentlemen a cup of tea?”
The men nodded their heads and were each handed a cup when it was prepared. Bingley took the seat next to Jane on the sofa, while Darcy took the chair closest to the one in which Elizabeth sat.
“Mr Darcy, I understand you are from the north.” Mrs Gardiner said as she brought her cup to her lips.
“Yes, my father’s estate is Pemberley, in Derbyshire. As I told Miss Elizabeth, it is a mere five miles from Lambton, from where she stated her aunt comes.”
“Helen, my daughter in law, is indeed from Lambton. Her father owns the inn in Lambton, and Helen’s sister and her husband assist their father running the Rose and Thorn.”
“Mr Downey is her father? I neglected to inquire of Miss Elizabeth last night. I know the Downey family well. They own the tea shop next to the inn. My sister and brother insist on visiting the tea shop whenever our parents take them to the village.”
“Edwin and Helen will be making the journey to Lambton this coming summer. Lizzy will be joining them, while Jane and I spoil my other grandchildren. I do not spend as much time with my son’s children, as they live in London, and I detest being there, especially in the summer. Fortunately, Edwin enjoys coming to Longbourn to spend some time with Thomas fishing in the pond, so their family visit often.”
“Do you have other children, Mrs Gardiner?” Bingley inquired.
“I have one daughter who lives in Meryton with her husband, Mr Phillips, who is a solicitor. She and Edwin are my only surviving children. Fanny, the late Mrs Bennet, and her elder sister Amelia are with my beloved husband. When Fanny died, I came to live with Mr Bennet and the children.”
“You have my deepest sympathies, Mrs Gardiner.” Darcy exclaimed.
“My thanks to you, Mr Darcy. It is difficult to lose one’s child, and to lose two of my girls was difficult. Amelia died nearly twenty years ago, and Fanny near five and ten years. Your family, do you have siblings?”
“I do. My parents, Gerald and Lady Anne Darcy, nee Fitzwilliam, were blessed with three children. I am the heir, then I have a younger sister, Georgiana, and a younger brother, Matthew.”
“Fitzwilliam, that name is familiar.”
“The Earl of Matlock, Lord Henry Fitzwilliam, is my uncle.”
“Of course. He has been in the papers of late due to his views in the House of Lords. Lord Matlock is not one to shy away from a challenge.”
Darcy chuckled. “No, he digs his claws in for a fight. My grandmother used to refer to my uncle as a lion, much like the barbery lion we saw in the menagerie when I was a boy.”
“Good for him. We need strong men who will work on behalf of the British Empire rather than simply attempting to line their pockets with all the wealth they can make from their position.” Mrs Gardiner held out a plate of biscuits to their guests.
“Is Mr Bennet home today?” Darcy inquired.
“He is with his steward at the moment. If you are available, perhaps you young men could join us for supper tomorrow. Your sister is welcome to come as well.”
“My sister will be leaving tomorrow morning, though my aunt, who arrives today, will be remaining in the area to act as my hostess.” Bingley stated.
“Then bring your aunt with you. We would love to make her acquaintance.”
“I will inform her of the invitation when she arrives. Aunt Ethel is my mother’s sister, and she has always been dear to me. She was widowed and has no children of her own, so she always treated me as if I were her son.”
“She sounds lovely. What a blessing that she will be able to spend time with you and you will have her to act as your hostess. A perfect solution for both of you.”
“It will be wonderful to have her here.”
The men enjoyed the visit, which was over far sooner than they would have liked. It was determined that the following morning, they would visit once again, taking a stroll in the park surrounding the manor house.
Upon their arrival at Netherfield, they heard female voices raised in anger.
“There is no need for you to have come. I am more than capable to act as hostess for my brother.”
“Your brother requested me, and I will not leave unless he wishes such of me. I do not take orders from you.”
“Charles will send you away as soon as he returns. He knows that it would be best for me to remain here to assist him.”
“I have returned, Caroline, and I have no intention to send our aunt away. Aunt Ethel, it is a pleasure to have you here. Thank you for coming at my request.”
Ethel Jorgenson stepped closer to her nephew, placing a motherly kiss on his cheek. “My dear boy, I am grateful you requested my assistance.”
“Do you remember my friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy?”
“How could I forget Mr Darcy? It is a pleasure to see you again.” Ethel curtsied to the gentleman.
“A pleasure to see you as well, Mrs Jorgenson.”
“Our aunt must leave, as there is no need for her to remain here. I have told her that I will act as your hostess for the short time you are visiting the area.”
Darcy frowned at Caroline’s words. He was proud of his friend finally standing up to his sister.
“Caro, you have already been informed that you will either make your way to Hurst’s townhouse in town or you will journey to Scarborough to stay at Aunt Agatha’s home. You will be leaving tomorrow, and if you do not make a choice, I will do so for you.” Bingley had pulled himself up to his full height.
“I cannot stay at the townhouse, as Louisa had it shut when we left for Hurst’s estate. Besides, you would not force me to stay there by myself. If I go to the townhouse, I will require you to join me.”
“Allow me to clarify the situation, you have to choose between the townhouse, alone, or travel to Aunt Agatha’s house. If you do not cooperate, I will make the decision for you.”
“Please, Charles, you are embarrassing me in front of Mr Darcy. Please, keep your voice calm.”
“Miss Bingley, as you were told yesterday, I have no intention to ever make an offer to you and am not your friend. Do not concern yourself with anything to do with me. If you are embarrassed, it is by your behavior, not mine. You must act according to your brother’s decision, with no concern for me, other than my disapproval of your behavior.”
“You could not possibly have meant what you said. You would not dare to cut me, the sister of your dearest friend, as you know the harm it will do to Charles’ reputation.”
“It is you who will not survive me giving you the cut direct. Charles might suffer for a little while, but he can survive the gossip with me standing beside him. As for what I said yesterday, I meant each and every word I said. There is nothing that can bring me to make you an offer of my hand. I would never even consider an offer if you were seen throwing yourself in my arms wearing nothing. Nothing could bring me to consider a connection with you. Charles, perhaps it would be best if you sent for a physician to determine if your sister should be placed in an asylum. She is not in her right mind.”
Caroline shrieked as she ran from the room. Her entire path up the stairs and to her rooms was heard by those in the drawing room, where the others still stood in shock.
“Charles, perhaps your friend is correct. Caroline is not in her right mind.” Ethel stated as she placed a hand gently on her nephew’s arm.