Steady to His Purpose
This was my first entry into JAFF. Remember that half hour Darcy and Elizabeth spent in the Netherfield library, just before the Bennet sisters returned home? What if unfounded gossip compromised Elizabeth’s reputation and they were forced to marry? Would they still have their happily-ever-after?
Below is an excerpt.
Chapter 2: Idle Chatter
Ladies maid to the butcher’s wife: “Poor Eliza Bennet was taken advantage of by that scurrilous Mr. Darcy! The poor dear!”
Butcher’s wife to the baker’s wife: “Poor Miss Lizzy had her virtue stolen by that dandy, Mr. Darcy!”
Baker’s wife to a customer, Mrs. Grace Philips: “What is to become of your dear niece?”
Baker’s wife to milliner’s wife: “Who knew that Lizzy Bennet was so fast and loose?”
Milliner’s wife to the milliner: “I always knew Miss Lizzy’s impulsive nature would get her into trouble!”
Milliner to a customer, Mrs. Long: “Mrs. Bennet never controlled those girls properly!”
Mrs. Long to the Butcher: “I shall not mourn the loss of that connection!”
Butcher to the farrier: “Mr. Darcy had his way with Lizzy Bennet right there in the library!”
After taking their leave of Mr. Wickham, the Bennet sisters walked a short distance to their Aunt’s house. Mrs. Grace Philips, the sister of Mrs. Frances Bennet, was married to Mr. Stuart Philips, an attorney by trade, who had inherited the practice from his father-in-law, the elder Mr. Gardiner. Grace Gardiner had been a lively, stunning girl with pale blue eyes and an outspoken manner. Now at the age of forty years, all efforts to hold her tongue had long since been forgotten and she considered herself a plain-spoken woman. Upon the entrance of her nieces, she rushed to embrace Elizabeth. “Oh my poor Lizzy-girl! Ruined by that rapscallion!” she cried, crushing Elizabeth into her embrace.
Elizabeth was startled by such a greeting. “What are you speaking of, Aunt?” she asked.
Aunt Grace pulled her to the side and whispered into her ear. “Well, it is all over town, my girl! That Mr. Darcy forced himself on you!” she told her niece.
Elizabeth laughed. “He did no such thing!” she advised her aunt.
“Oh, Lizzy, even if you enjoyed it, how noble of you to defend him. He is quite undeserving. No Lizzy, he must marry you!” she insisted.
Elizabeth was perplexed by her aunt’s assertions. “Marry me? What are you talking about?”
Aunt Grace pulled her down to a sofa in the corner of the room. “Were you not alone with him in the Netherfield library?” she asked.
Elizabeth thought back to that last evening that she had spent at Netherfield; Saturday he had ignored her the entire day. But yes, there was a brief period of time when it was just the two of them in the library. “Yes Aunt,” she replied.
“Then was there no chaperone?” Aunt Grace further inquired.
“No, but…,” Elizabeth began.
“There, it is true then! Now fret not, my Lizzy-girl, he may be a rapscallion but he is a rich rapscallion and you shall have many fine gowns and jewels,” her Aunt advised.
“No, Aunt! I shall have nothing of the sort! I was not compromised and I shall certainly never marry Mr. Darcy! More to the point, Mr. Darcy would never marry me!” she insisted.
Aunt Grace was unconvinced. “We shall see if your father agrees with you,” she replied.
“There has been a misunderstanding that will be set to rights. I will explain everything and make Papa understand,” Elizabeth assured her.
Later that evening when she and Jane were alone in her chamber, she was finally able to discuss the latest development in private. “What was Aunt Grace speaking of Lizzy?” Jane asked her. When Elizabeth explained their conversation, Jane reacted with astonishment: “Certainly no one believes that Mr. Darcy compromised you,” she insisted.
“The very idea is absurd,” Lizzy replied.
“Aunt Grace does love to chat with her neighbors. Perhaps one of them heard something about you and simply exaggerated the story,” Jane suggested.
“Of course it is an invented story; there is not a morsel of truth in it!” Elizabeth agreed.
“Well then, we shall not worry; all will be well,” Jane assured her sister.
Elizabeth was determined to put the whole ridiculous story behind her; the less time she spent thinking about the disagreeable man with the haunting eyes, the better she liked it. “Mr. Bingley looked quite well today, did he not?” she teased her sister. Jane agreed wholeheartedly and they diverted their attentions to a much more agreeable topic: the handsome and amiable Mr. Charles Bingley. Jane’s budding affection for the gentleman was a far better topic of conversation.
Dinner at Netherfield that evening had been a somber affair. Darcy and Bingley were morose despite Caroline and Louisa’s attempts to draw them into the conversation. The sisters had to content themselves with conversation between the two of them. After dinner, instead of joining the ladies in the drawing room, Darcy and Bingley retired to the study for the evening.
“Should we warn the Bennet sisters about Wickham?” Bingley suggested.
Darcy shook his head. “I am at a loss as to how that is to be accomplished without endangering Georgiana,” he replied with a worried brow.
Bingley nodded. “Yes, her reputation must be preserved at all costs. If there was a way to expose Wickham without implicating Georgiana, that would be the best strategy,” he suggested.
“Yes, I suppose you are correct. I should discuss it with Mr. Bennet,” Darcy gravely replied.
“Indeed, I wish no harm to come to the Bennet sisters,” Bingley said thoughtfully.
This brought a particular Bennet sister to Darcy’s mind. “That reminds me, Charles, someone in your staff is spreading gossip about Miss Elizabeth. It seems that she and I were observed in the library last week without a chaperone and the prevailing talk is that Miss Elizabeth was compromised,” he told his friend.
Bingley was startled. “Compromised? But that is absurd!” he insisted.
“As you and I are well aware, however Miss Elizabeth has been branded as ‘wanton’,” Darcy told him.
“Wanton! Who told you of this?” Bingley asked with no small amount of alarm in his voice.
He recalled his promise to the young groom. “I am not at liberty to say but I suggest you interview your staff and get to the bottom of it. Miss Elizabeth may be in danger of losing her reputation,” Darcy warned.
Bingley nodded gravely. “I shall see to it directly,” he replied confidently. Darcy retired for the evening. Bingley wasted no time and immediately began to summon his servants to his study. He began by speaking to his housekeeper. “Mrs. Nicholls, has there been any talk among the staff about Miss Elizabeth Bennet?” he asked. Mrs. Nicholls was very ill at ease with this question and hesitated with great discomfort. “Please Mrs. Nicholls, I fear that Miss Elizabeth may be in grave danger and I must discover the truth,” he pleaded with her.
“Yes Sir, Mr. Bingley I have heard such talk, but only indirectly,” she replied cautiously.
“What have you heard?” he further inquired.
She wrung her hands nervously. “There may have been a brief period of time when Miss Elizabeth was unchaperoned in the library,” she replied.
He dismissed Mrs. Nicholls and called for his valet. “Waverly, have you heard any talk among the staff regarding Miss Elizabeth Bennet?” he asked.
Waverly grimaced, clearly uncomfortable with the topic. “Yes Sir, the maid told me that Miss Elizabeth sought to force Mr. Darcy’s hand by contriving to be alone with him in the library, on Saturday last. But I told the girl I had no time for her nonsense. I take no part in gossip,” he insisted with an air of distaste.
“What maid?” Bingley inquired.
“Barbara Cyrus, the mistress’ ladies maid,” the valet replied.
He thanked the valet and dismissed him. Caroline had brought her maid with her from London; as far as Bingley could recall, the maid had been in his employ for about six months. Caroline had been through so many maids in recent years that he had thought better of this one, who had managed to stay in Caroline’s good favor. Bingley called next for a footman. “Quentin, have you heard any talk amongst the staff regarding Miss Elizabeth Bennet,” he inquired. When the footman hesitated, Bingley encouraged him to speak freely.
“Yes Sir, it was the city maid that told me that Miss Lizzy contrived to compromise Mr. Darcy. But I told her that she did no such thing! No Sir, the staff knows better than to believe the likes of that…what I mean to say Sir is that we don’t take well to idle chatter about our own local ladies who we know to be above reproach,” Quentin told his master.
Bingley next summoned a scullery maid, Marjorie who told him: “Oh that Barbara came to me spoutin’ off about our dear Miss Lizzy but I paid no heed to her, that vile creature!”
Bingley sensed a disturbing pattern. “What did she say?” he calmly inquired.
Marjorie was indignant. “Oh she made up some foolish story that Miss Lizzy forced Mr. Darcy’s hand by sendin’ her chaperone away! She even said Miss Lizzy is the most connivin’ girl she ever met but I known Miss Lizzy for years and there ain’t no finer lady than her! No Sir!” the young girl told her master.
Next Bingley summoned a groom from the stable. “It was that city maid what told me, Sir. She said that Mr. Darcy compromised Miss Lizzy in the library, Saturday last. I didn’t want t’ believe her but she said she saw ‘em with her own eyes. That he done the deed and left her without a second thought. I didn’t believe her but I heard the same story in town from the farrier,” the young groom told him, casting his eyes down to the floor.
“How would the farrier know what happened in the Netherfield library?” Bingley asked incredulously.
The boy looked up at Bingley with sad eyes. “I’m sure I don’t know, Sir, but I truly hope the scoundrel will marry Miss Lizzy; she’s a gentle born lady and she don’t deserve…”
Bingley interrupted: “No, no – no such thing has happened, I assure you but it seems that the talk cannot be quelled,” he concluded.
Finally, Bingley summoned Caroline’s maid to his study. “Barbara, as you may know, the discretion of my staff is of utmost importance to me and my sisters,” he suggested.
Barbara nodded her head enthusiastically. “Oh yes Sir, when Miss Bingley hired me she told me that I must never discuss her personal business, and I never have, Sir,” she said with a curtsy,
“Of course Caroline took measures to protect her own privacy,” Bingley thought. “Indeed,” he replied. “As you know, the Miss Bennets were recently guests in this house. I wonder what you know of them,” he inquired.
“Oh Miss Bennet is a darling girl but Miss Bingley told me about the other one,” Barbara suggested.
“Miss Elizabeth?” he prompted.
She nodded. “Miss Bingley told me how vulgar she is and how she was always making paltry attempts to win the attentions of Mr. Darcy. She told me that it should be most unfortunate for him if she were to succeed. ‘Tis shameful, if you ask me, Sir. No lady should behave in such a manner,” she insisted in a haughty tone that reminded Bingley of his sister.
Bingley dismissed the maid; he finally had the information that he had sought: the maid had repeated what she had heard from Caroline and further enhanced the story with speculation. Her vile discourse had spread throughout the town and now threatened to ruin the sister of the woman he admired. Miss Jane Bennet, with her angelic countenance and pleasing manners, had captured his attentions and he had hopes of pursuing her. He had only known her for a short time but he was certain that he had never met anyone as well matched to him in his life. She was the most beautiful creature he had ever beheld; she was modest and shy with a pleasing demeanor. Her angelic sweetness and optimism appealed to him greatly; having lived his entire life with his critical and outspoken sisters, he longed for a match with a woman closer to his own temperament and he could not imagine a more perfect woman than Miss Jane Bennet. He had been planning and organizing a ball to be held at Netherfield for the sole purpose of dancing with his ‘angel’. For the last week he had thought of little else but holding her hand and gazing into her eyes as they danced.
But now, by his own sister’s design, Miss Elizabeth was in jeopardy, which placed Miss Bennet and her other sisters in jeopardy. He paced the floor of his study overcome with worry: “What is to be done?” he wondered.
While he was dressing for bed that evening, Darcy asked Hobbs, his valet, what he knew of Miss Elizabeth. “My impression from the local staff is that Miss Elizabeth is highly regarded in the community and is considered one of the jewels of the county,” Hobbs told his master.
Later, while reading in his chamber, Darcy found that he could not concentrate on the printed page; his thoughts lingered on Miss Elizabeth. She was indeed a precious jewel. Her lively mind, her sharp wit, her charming laugh, her pleasing smile, her sparkling eyes, her supple form; he was enchanted by her. He recalled the brief time they had spent together with fondness; without the interference of her family, her bright personality had been fully revealed. How could such a woman come from such a family?-he wondered. Where they are crass, she is tactful; where they are boisterous, she is poised; where they are silly, she is witty; where they are outlandish, she is charming. But how could he entertain thoughts of a woman with such an inadequate family? Certainly such an alliance would be disastrous! He abandoned his book and snuffed out the candle. He resolved to think no more of the Bennets tonight; things are always more clear in the morning.
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