Georgiana Darcy was seated with a bit of needlework in the small, cheerful parlor set aside for her in the Darcy’s London house. She was pleased to have her brother in residence if only for a few days of business before he would return to the autumn shooting party at Mr. Bingley’s estate. It would soon be time to dress for dinner, and her companion, Mrs. Annesley, was resting upstairs.
Georgiana was startled by a sudden, loud disturbance in the front hall near the door. She could hear a woman’s voice ringing out loudly, interspersed with the lower, more cultivated tones of their butler. Too well-bred to get up and peer out the door, she sat still, becoming aware that the woman was her aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Footsteps and another masculine voice informed her that Fitzwilliam had joined the discussion. Georgiana smoothed her hair before taking up her needlework again.
The door opened to reveal her brother escorting her cousin Anne. Georgiana stood immediately and held out both hands. “Anne, what a pleasant surprise! We don’t often get to see you in London.” Her brother left without a word, closing the door behind him.
The older girl sniffled into her handkerchief before replying, with a wan smile, “I’m glad to see you, Georgiana. I’m looking forward to a day or two in town before I have to return to Rosings.”
“Come and sit by the fire. I’ll ring for tea.” Georgiana’s own shyness was forgotten. If anything, her cousin was more bashful than she was. When the tea things had been brought, and Georgiana had served Anne, she took her own cup and sat nearby. “Was that my aunt’s voice I heard in the front hall?”
Anne blushed. “Yes. She has some business to discuss with Cousin Fitzwilliam.” She took a sip of tea, blushed again, and continued. “I’m afraid it is rather unpleasant business.”
“Unpleasant? In what way?”
Anne set down her tea and began twisting and wringing her handkerchief with nervous fingers. At last she ventured a look at Georgiana. “I am so mortified, Georgiana! I wish I were dead.”
“Oh, no!” Georgiana got up and put her arm around her cousin’s shoulder. “Of course you don’t, Anne! How bad or unpleasant could it be?” She reached into a pocket for her own handkerchief and handed it to her cousin. “Dry your eyes and have a sip of your tea. Then tell me about it. Perhaps I can help.”
Anne finished her tea, dried her eyes, and at last looked into her cousin’s face. “We’ve just come from Longbourn.”
“Longbourn? Do you mean Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s home?”
“Yes. Word reached my mother yesterday from Mrs. Collins, our rector’s wife, that Cousin Fitzwilliam was planning to make an offer of marriage to Miss Elizabeth Bennet.” She paused. “Do you know her?”
“Yes. We had the pleasure of entertaining her with her aunt and uncle at Pemberley this past summer. I like her very much.”
“Yes, I like her, too. She came to visit Mr. and Mrs. Collins at the parsonage in Hunsford last spring. She is a cousin of Mr. Collins, and I believe Mrs. Collins is a childhood friend. They dined with us at Rosings several times.” Anne swallowed hard and went on. “When my mother heard the news–or the rumor–about the possible offer of marriage, she set off for Longbourn, dragging me along. Mrs. Jenkinson has been left at home. I’ve–I’ve never seen my mother so angry. You can imagine how dreadful the journey was.”
“Yes, I can. And what happened when you arrived.”
“I was left to sit in the carriage while my mother went in. She came out a few moments later with Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and they walked in the garden. I could not see them, but my mother’s voice carried across the lawn. I could hear her quite plainly.” Anne shuddered. “She began by insulting Miss Bennet’s family and connections. Then she tried to ferret out the truth of any engagement between Miss Bennet and your brother, together with a promise that they never become engaged. Apparently she did not prevail, because next I heard her assert that an engagement exists between Cousin Fitzwilliam and myself.” She drew a deep breath and looked directly at Georgiana before continuing. “It is a falsehood. No such understanding ever existed. I am your senior by several years, Georgiana, and I remember your mother very well. She never dreamt of such a thing.”
“And what happened then?”
“Well, then I heard Miss Bennet’s voice for the first time announcing that she would return to the house. I saw her come out of the wilderness and begin to walk across the grass. My mother followed, shouting at the top of her voice about Miss Bennet’s sister’s infamous elopement. She ended by directing some terribly ill-bred insults at Miss Bennet and her mother, and we drove away and came immediately here. It is not a long trip in a coach-and-four.”
Georgiana stopped, replenished the tea-cups, and urged Anne to take one of the light cakes set out on the tea-tray or at least to have a slice of bread-and-butter. “You are shaking,” she observed. “My guess is that you have not eaten since breakfast, and you have had a long, exhausting day.” Once they had both been served, she sat and took up the conversation.
“This must have been terrible for you, Anne. And I feel certain my aunt is here to have much the same conversation with my brother.”
Anne nodded in mute affirmation, too embarrassed to speak.
“To begin, I would urge you not to be too concerned about my brother.” Georgiana smiled. “He is far too much his own man to heed idle threats, even by his family. If he wishes to marry Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and if he has secured her affection, he will marry her. This will not stand in his way.” She looked over at her cousin. “But what about you? I can understand why you feel as you do. This has been an insult to your sensibilities as well, Anne.”
Anne gave her a watery smile. “All I can ask is that you speak to my Cousin Fitzwilliam on my behalf. Tell him–tell him that I have regarded him as a friend from childhood, and that I do not wish my mother to meddle in that friendship. And you as well, Georgiana. You are also a friend, as I hope I am to you.”
“Of course. I will tell him just what you have told me. Certainly he won’t blame you for any of this. He knows Lady Catherine very well.”
They heard voices in the hall, and both girls stood. “Wait,” said Georgiana. “Before we go out there, I think we should write to each other more frequently. Let me know how you are getting on. I promise to write back.”
“But nothing my mother could not read until I find some dependable way of receiving your letters. Mrs. Jenkinson is decidedly not a friend or confidante. She is very much in my mother’s employ.”
“As you wish.”
The two girls left the parlor, finding Lady Catherine and Mr. Darcy by the front door. Georgiana dropped a curtsey to her aunt and murmured a greeting, which was returned only with a reptilian stare. She stood next to Fitzwilliam until the carriage was announced. With a face of stone, he escorted his aunt and cousin to the waiting carriage. Lady Catherine declined to be handed up, going so far as to push away his offered hand, but he assisted his cousin before closing the door and standing with arms folded until the carriage drove away.
Georgiana waited for him in the hall. “I must dress, Fitzwilliam. Will you mind terribly if I ask them to hold dinner for a half-hour? Mrs. Annesley is having a tray in her room. She feels a cold coming on.”
Her brother smiled down at her. “I have a better idea. Let us dine in our morning clothes. Since we have no guests, no one will know but the two of us. And the butler. And the footmen. And the under-footmen. And —”
“We will just let them talk about our dreadful manners.”
“Believe me,” said Fitzwilliam. “There are manners that are far more dreadful than ours.”
Dinner was announced as they stood talking, and they went in together.
During dinner, they chatted about inconsequential things: a letter from Pemberley announcing the birth of Juno’s new litter of pups, a visit to Mrs. Annesley’s dear little grandnephew, Fitzwilliam’s plans to add a new hunter to the stables, Georgiana’s attempts to learn to dance the quadrille. When it was time for Georgiana to leave the table, her brother detained her. “Stay here, please, Georgiana.” he said. “There are some things I would like to discuss with you.”
The table was cleared, and the butler brought in the port and a glass for Fitzwilliam, a glass of lemonade for Georgiana, and a bowl of apples and nuts, which he placed between them.
Fitzwilliam was quiet for a few moments before beginning. “I can well imagine your conversation with your cousin Anne was unpleasant. Is there anything about it you wish to confide?”
Georgiana leaned forward on her elbows, thought the better of it, saw that her brother was leaning on his, and leaned forward again. “It was most unpleasant, and I imagine you heard much the same thing from Lady Catherine. Poor Anne overheard the entire dreadful tirade at Longbourn from her place in the carriage. Lady Catherine’s voice carried all the way across the lawn. It was dreadful. She was unable to hear Miss Elizabeth’s voice, but it must have been dreadful for her as well.”
Fitzwilliam gave her a wry smile. “Unpleasant indeed, but Miss Elizabeth held her own. Still, it is unfortunate that Lady Catherine chose to act in such an ill-bred manner.”
“Anne particularly wanted me to tell you that she had nothing to do with her mother’s assertions, particularly as they related to the so-called engagement. She referred to that as a falsehood. It has caused her a great deal of embarrassment. She has pleasant memories of the times we all spent together in childhood, and she would be sorry to lose your friendship.” Georgiana finished her lemonade. “We have agreed to write to each other more often.”
“When you do write, please tell her that I am perfectly aware that she can have had nothing to do with this. She is truly in her mother’s power, and there is little we can do to extricate her from it. But I recall our childhood visits with great affection.”
Georgiana shook her head sadly. “She has no one to confide in. Mrs. Jenkinson seems to be a sort of spy.”
“Not surprising.” Fitzwilliam took a sip of his port, sat back, and looked at his sister. “But something else is troubling you.”
Georgiana looked down before continuing. “Anne told me that her mother said something about one of Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s sisters and an ‘infamous elopement,’ as she called it.”
“And she said no more than that?”
Georgiana shook her head.
Darcy looked at her for a long moment before continuing. “I would never wish to cause you pain, Georgiana. But if you remain in ignorance of this, your discomfiture could be far greater in the future. It is best you know now.” He drew a breath, considering, then continued. “The youngest Miss Bennet, Miss Lydia Bennet, is about your age. She was persuaded to leave the protection of a home where she was staying in Brighton. She was lured away by a false promise of marriage. The man who did this was George Wickham.”
Georgiana placed her chin on her folded hands, looked at her brother, and said, simply, “Go on.”
“There is not much more to tell. They were found in London and a proper marriage took place. They are now gone to Newcastle to join his regiment there.”
“I am very glad you have told me this, Fitzwilliam. I should not allow myself to become distressed by the mere mention of his name as I was this past summer. He is not worth that. I only hope that his marriage will enable him to rebuild his character.”
“We all hope for that.” Her brother took the last sip of his port. “Before we go in for coffee, there is one more thing I should like to tell you.”
Georgiana smiled mischievously. “You are going to tell me that you have concluded your business in London and will be returning to Netherfield immediately.”
“You know me too well, Georgiana.”
As they rose from the table, Georgiana observed, “Now I know what you gentlemen do when the ladies withdraw. You drink port and sit with your elbows on the table.”
“You are right. In direct contravention of every precept instilled in us by our honored parents, we do indeed sit with our elbows on the table.” He leaned down and said in a conspiratorial tone, “Sometimes we even smoke cigars. But you must promise never to betray our secrets.”
“My lips are sealed.” She gave him another mischievous smile. “If you will promise to write to me with all your news from Netherfield.”