A Man of Property
Darcy returned to Netherfield from his morning ride with an increased admiration for the countryside in which it nestled. The farms were neat and, with the recent harvest, appeared prosperous. The fields were bordered by wall, fence, or wood in a manner both pleasing to the eye and to the palate of even an avid hunter or horseman. The lands attached to Netherfield itself, though, were in need of attention; but Darcy had found nothing drastically wrong that careful management and an infusion of capital could not correct in due course. All in all, a tidy estate with a minimum of problems but those that would teach Bingley what it was to be a man of property. Dismounting, he gave Nelson an hearty, affectionate pat on his great neck, ending with a gentle pass down his broad forehead and a lump of sugar pressed against his soft muzzle. Neatly extracting the treat from Darcy's hand, Nelson nickered back his esteem. With a laugh, Darcy handed him over to a lad emerging from the stables.
A man of property. A soft, barely perceptible smile flitted across Darcy's face as he heard the words echo in his head, but in his father's voice. Under the careful tutelage of his father, Darcy had begun at an early age to learn what those words meant. He swore that his earliest memory was sitting astride a saddle, securely anchored in his father's lap, his boy's fingers twisted in the horse's mane as the elder Darcy rode spring inspection of the farms and holdings of Pemberley. He could have only just been out of leading strings, perhaps three years old, but the memory was vivid enough to convince even his parents that it was a true one. That ride had served as his introduction to his station in life and its attendant responsibilities, both of which he now shouldered alone and with a just satisfaction that acknowledged, without hesitation, the excellent preparation given him by his father. Often and often, Darcy had occasion to thank heaven for his sire's daily example of attention to duty and the practical experience he had gained under his guidance. It had made Pemberley the jewel that it was. He hoped he could serve his friend Bingley as well.
"Ah-hah, there you are!" boomed Bingley's voice as Darcy entered Netherfield's hall. "I suppose I dare not hope that you have waited to allow me the pleasure of taking you on tour of Netherfield's lands?" Bingley stood in mock sternness in the doorway of the morning room, his arms crossed and his brow lowered, glowering at his friend.
"No hope at all, Bingley," he responded without contrition. "It's this deuced autumn weather! It just pulls one out of doors."
"Indeed?" queried Bingley imperiously, in obvious delight with the unusual experience of having the upper hand with his friend, "I rather though it was the prospect of providing amusement for Caroline this morning that pushed you out! Lord knows, I would be off in a shot!" The hauteur Bingley had assumed was then replaced with a genuine frown as he continued. "But really, Darcy, I was very much looking forward to riding over the estate with you."
"And you shall," Darcy hastened to assure him. "I apologize for anticipating you, but I needed to see Netherfield for itself without seeing it through your eyes, as would happen on a joint tour. Well you know that you would be filling my ear with rhapsodies about this stream or that wood," Darcy paused briefly at Bingley's strangled objection to his friend's scenario, "You know I am right! Such distractions would give me no opportunity to truly be of service to you."
With a crooked smile, Bingley ruefully acknowledged the reasonableness of his excuse for setting out before him. "I know it is not, nor will it ever be, a Pemberley; but even I know it can be more than it is," he responded. "The thing of it is, I have not the slightest idea where to begin."
"You may begin with allowing me to change out of my riding clothes and joining me over some refreshment in the…" Darcy glanced about the hall for a room into which the ladies or Mr. Hurst were unlikely to wander, "…library." Seizing the opportunity he added, "Would it be possible, Charles, to have some comfortable chairs moved there? It is really quite Spartan."
"Of course, Darcy, immediately. I can't tell you…"
"Then don't, old man. Hold your gratitude until after you've heard me out." Darcy could not help but grin at the enthusiasm on Bingley's face. "After you've found yourself up to your waistcoat buttons in paper, broken quills, agricultural reports and bills and find that you still feel a compunction to thank me, I'll be glad to entertain it." He began moving toward the stairs when he checked and turned a serious countenance upon his friend, "I warn you, Bingley, if you think University was demanding, I assure you that earning a Cambridge fellowship is nothing to becoming a complete man of property. I have that on the greatest authority."
"And who, pray, might that be, oh-my-master," quipped Bingley.
"My father," replied Darcy quietly as he turned and started up the stairs, "He did both."
Gaining his room, Darcy carefully removed his sister's letter from his coat pocket and read again the first part, his eyes lingering on the first page's last line, "…I am mending, under her care, into a stronger vessel." Tenderly, he refolded the letter and pressed it to his lips. "Please God, it is so," he murmured, placing it in his secretary, then pulled the bell that would summon Fletcher, his valet, and what he required for a day spent at the country estate of his friend.
Ensconced companionably in the library amid the threatened blizzard of papers and broken pens, the remainder of the morning passed quickly for Darcy and Bingley. When Stevenson tapped at the door to announce that an afternoon repast was available and that the ladies desired their company, the two rose from their labours well satisfied with the progress that had been made and ready for a diversion.
"Whatever have you been doing all morning, Charles? Caroline and I could find you nowhere about!" complained Mrs. Hurst as she poured tea for the gentlemen and her sister. "Mr. Hurst particularly desired to see the coveys and discuss plans for a shooting party this morning, did you not, my dear?" She paused for an instant to look vaguely over at her husband who, at that moment, appeared more interested in hunting the victuals set before him than those less-sure ones out of doors. Darcy and Bingley accepted their cups, quickly setting them down at the opposite end of the dining table.
"I spent the morning most satisfactorily, Louisa. Darcy has consented to offer suggestions on how I might improve Netherfield, make it more…"
"More like Pemberley!" cried Miss Bingley as she fixed on Darcy a look of entreaty. "Oh, Mr. Darcy, can it be done?
"Caroline, you mistake me," Bingley looked at her with annoyance. "You must see that Netherfield can never be Pemberley, for Hertfordshire can not be Derbyshire! Nevertheless, I believe, and Darcy agrees, that Netherfield possesses interesting possibilities that time and patience will reveal. "Now," Bingley continued hurriedly, "what communication have we received from our neighbours? I would expect quite a few cards to have been sent after last night."
"Yes, I suppose one could say a few," sniffed Miss Bingley as she flicked her fingers at the pile of correspondence in the tray before her. "There are one dozen letters of welcome, seven invitations to dinner, four for tea, and three notices of assemblies or private evenings of musical entertainments. Really, Charles, what does one do for society in such a place?"
"Society?" Bingley responded. "Enjoy it, I say! The assembly last night for example. I am sure I have rarely had a more pleasant evening. Yes, it is true! Do not frown so, Caroline! The music was lively, the people received us most warmly, and the young ladies...!"
"Charles, you are too undiscriminating," interrupted Miss Bingley. "I have never met people with less conversation and fashion or more conceit. As for the young ladies, they were certainly young but…"
"Come, Caroline, I can not allow you to speak so of at least one young lady," Bingley interrupted. He turned to Darcy who had just risen from the table, cup and saucer in hand. "Darcy, support me in this! Was not Jane Bennet as lovely a girl as could be dreamt of?"
Darcy strolled over to a window while sipping at his tea and looked out onto a greensward hedged by boxwood and a gravel walk. The lack of accord between Bingley and his sisters was one of long-standing and had manifested itself in innumerable ways since his acquaintance with the family. Generally, Darcy's sympathy lay with Bingley in these unpleasant exchanges, but today the turn of the conversation reminded him of the resolve he had formed the previous evening to caution his friend.
Without turning he replied, "Lovely? I believe I called her handsome. If she is lovely, I bow to your superior judgment, as you danced with her. I did not."
"But, you do have eyes, man!" Bingley responded energetically.
"Which I employed, at your insistence, you may recall." Darcy shifted his stance, his focus remaining on the scenery beyond the window. He sipped again at his tea. "She smiles too much."
"Smiles too much…" Bingley repeated in disbelief.
"A man must wonder at such a profusion of smiles. What may be their cause?" Darcy turned then and fixed Bingley with a penetrating look as if to infuse him with the force of his disapprobation. "'Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain,' if I may be so bold to quote. Think, man! Do these smiles indicate a happy, even disposition or are they a practiced pose, a charade of good nature designed to entrap or to cover an absence of real intellect?" Darcy paused, his words stirring up such memories within him of another whose smiles and flattery had masked a vile, corrupted nature that he could not trust that his emotions would not betray him and turned abruptly back to the window.
Bingley regarded his friend with some astonishment while his sisters sagely nodded their heads in agreement with Darcy's opinion. "Mr. Darcy is quite perceptive, as always, Charles," Miss Bingley came to his support. "Miss Bennet seems to be a sweet girl, but what can she mean with a smile continually about her? I must say, I could never find so much to amuse or please me to keep me forever smiling. It is undignified and shows a want of good breeding. What say you, Louisa?"
"I quite agree, Caroline. Miss Bennet appears a sweet, charming thing, and I wish her every bit of good fortune she deserves. I can not like the rest of her family, though. It is a wonder that they are received, except for Miss Bennet's smiles."
Darcy only half-attended as the sisters proceeded to shred the persons of their new neighbours. The sudden surge of anger he had experienced while dissuading his friend had surprised him, and he hardly knew how to settle his emotions in drawing room company. He walked down the room to the far window, as if intent on a different perspective of the greensward. What he needed was exercise-violent, physical exercise-to banish his personal demon.
Wickham! Had he not vowed to put Wickham and his infamy behind him, promised himself not to allow his actions, his betrayal, to intrude on his composure? Yet, the innocent smiles of a pretty stranger had again excited the rage and helplessness he felt...still felt. Darcy leaned one arm against the window's frame, his face a grim, white mask reflected back to him in the glass. Enough! Wickham's poisonous sway had to stop. It must stop, or every time Georgiana looked at him she would see it, and he would not have her crushed again, especially now that she had found strength to face the world.
Darcy let a slow, measured sigh quietly escape him as he set his mind to calm his thoughts. His body, he found, was not as obliging. What he would not give for a good sword and a worthy opponent at this moment! He almost laughed. He dared not ask Bingley to oppose him, not after that little performance! Instead, he recalled himself to his purpose, which had been to rein in Bingley's galloping admiration of Miss Bennet, not to encourage him into a disgust of his neighbours. He acknowledged that he may have been harsh, but it was for the best. It would not do for Bingley to leg-shackle himself so young and to a mere local miss. Nevertheless, the neighbours must be rescued from the tender attentions of Bingley's sisters.
"… her sisters, all four of them!" Miss Bingley's disdainful laugh abruptly reinstated him into the conversation. "Mr. Darcy, you can not be amused by the immodest behaviour of Miss Bennet's sisters? You would not wish your sister to act so." Darcy favoured Miss Bingley with a bow in silent agreement. "But the local militia do not seem to take such antics into aversion," continued Miss Bingley. "They are in agreement with you on that head, Charles. The Bennet girls all are favourites. Not only Miss Bennet, but the next younger, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, was also accounted a beauty! Mr. Darcy, what say you to that? Is Miss Elizabeth Bennet a beauty?"
Darcy's hand involuntarily convulsed around the delicate china cup. Elizabeth! Yes, that would be her name, the name of a queen-so directly did she regard him! A beauty? An intriguing woman…a maddening woman, likely, with such a bold air. But, a beauty?
His emotions now engaged on an altogether different object, he maintained his gaze out the window, his back to the room, even when Bingley addressed him with more than a hint of exasperation in his voice, "Well, Darcy?
Without turning, Darcy gathered himself to deflect Miss Bingley's barb and discipline his own unruly thoughts. "She, a beauty?" he replied, his diction precise and clipped, "I would as soon call her mother a wit."
The light mists of the autumn morning rose gracefully around Netherfield, whispering invitations to field and wood that Darcy was hard pressed to decline. This was especially so as he did not anticipate the morning's activities with any expectation of enjoyment. Reluctantly, he turned from the library window and his contemplation of the enticements that creation was unveiling to consider the ordeal before him. That it would be an ordeal rather than a pleasure, he was in no doubt. Indeed, Morning In was that sort of social ritual which he could very well do without, but the present circumstance and its very nature made it a necessary evil.
Darcy picked up the book he had been intent upon reading before being drawn to the beauty of the morning and sank into one of the large, wing-backed chairs that now graced the library. In this next step in Bingley's venture into the life of the landed gentry, Darcy knew himself to be of little help and questionable ability. There was no question but that Bingley must needs establish himself in his new neighbourhood, and that meant receiving its prominent residents. Although they were not in the first circle of London society, the Bingley family was of considerable social stature and would certainly assume leadership in the society of Meryton and its environs. Such expectations required a Morning In. It could not be avoided. His brow furrowed, Darcy fingered the pages of his book, absently turning them as he contemplated the morning in front of him.
"So, here you are!" Bingley's voice pierced the silence before the sound of his steps reached Darcy's ears. "I'll warrant you've been here since before breakfast." He quickly surveyed the room. "Yes, I see your coffee on the desk, so I am sure I am right. I knew you were either here or you were gone a-riding." He cocked an eye at Darcy as he took the other chair, "Fortifying yourself for the onslaught?" he leaned forward and lowered his voice, "or planning a strategic retreat?"
"The former, tiresome whelp," Darcy replied with reluctant humour. "Although, the latter would be more to my liking, as you well know."
"Oh, it will not be so very bad, Darcy," Bingley replied, leaning back into his chair and stretching out his legs to briefly inspect the shine on his boots. "We will have met most of them before, either at the assembly last Friday or at church yesterday. I am quite looking forward to receiving." He glanced at Darcy's face and then returned to a study of his boots. "That is, some of them. Looking forward, I mean, to seeing…" His voice trailed off.
Darcy rued the breach that had opened up between them since his warning concerning Miss Bennet and hated that Bingley felt uncomfortable with him. He knew he had better repair it before time made it a chasm. "I imagine there will be some members of certain families who will make an appearance this morning, Charles." He was rewarded with a cautious smile, so he continued quietly, "I hope, for your sake, Mrs. Bennet does not bring all her daughters with her, else you will have to divide your attentions as thinly as you did yesterday."
Bingley laughed aloud then, "I accept your well wishes, however difficult it was for you to extend them, and heartily concur. I had no idea what a sensation we would cause merely by attending church." He shook his head in disbelief, "You saw how it was! I could not finish one sentence before being inundated with five more questions or invitations."
"Miss Bennet, as I recall, was not one of the throng," Darcy pointed out to him.
"No, nor her sister, Miss Elizabeth Bennet," came Bingley's pensive reply. Darcy elected to ignore this last observation. "They, both of them, were engaged the entire time in a protracted conversation with the vicar and his wife."
"No smiles?" asked Darcy, then wished he had refrained from the jibe.
"As a matter of record, yes," replied Bingley evenly, not entirely sure of the intent of his question but, evidently, determined not to be intimidated. "I was able to catch her eye before Caroline hurried us into the carriage." He paused and assumed a dramatic pose with one hand pressed to his heart, "I was rewarded with a smile that has nourished my hopes for almost- can it be?- twenty-four hours." He and Darcy both laughed then, as much at Bingley's drama as with relief to be again on intimate terms.
When they regained control, Bingley rose. "It is almost time, you know. I was coming to tell you that a lad from the stable had run up with news of a carriage about a mile from the gate." He paused, took a deep breath and, looking Darcy straight on, he continued, "I know how you dislike these things and count myself well blessed that you have consented to stand by me through it. I can not think how I would…"
"There is no need, Bingley," Darcy interrupted, turning slightly away. "Your friendship is reason and reward enough for whatever service I can render you." He strode quickly over to a small table supporting a decanter. "Now, let us complete our preparation for the morning. What say you to a small glass of fortitude before we face the dragons of Meryton?" Anticipating a positive response, he removed the crystal stopper and poured the amber liquid into the awaiting glasses. Bingley appropriated one and, lifting it, saluted him. Darcy solemnly returned the gesture.
Moments after replacing their glasses, a sharp rap was heard on the library door, which then opened to admit Miss Bingley. Almost before she rose from her curtsey, she extended her hand to her brother and fixed both gentlemen with a determinedly bright smile. "Charles, Mr. Darcy, our first guests are even now descending from their carriage, and I am told, another has been sighted not far behind. We shall have a full morning, I am in no doubt."
"And you will preside over it beautifully, Caroline," Bingley said, looking down into his sister's face. "You will be reigning over Meryton society in no time."
Miss Bingley acknowledged her brother's compliment with a tightening of her smile, "We shall see, Brother," and then turned toward Darcy with an altogether different expression. "Mr. Darcy, I must thank you again for sharing your prayer book with me yesterday. I can not imagine how I came to lose mine. It is so vexing! I am sure I will find it soon. I am never without it, you know." During this extraordinary speech, Bingley had looked questioningly at his sister, but at her last statement, he started visibly, then looked to Darcy for his reaction to Caroline's newest cast for his approval.
It took all Darcy's self-control to prevent the telltale twitch of his lips as, with a solemnity worthy of a bishop, he assured Miss Bingley of his confidence in the success of her search. "Although," he concluded, "such constancy in the perusal of its lines must make its loss almost immaterial, for you will surely know much of it by heart." Miss Bingley was saved the necessity of a reply by the announcement of the arrival of guests. With a deep curtsey and swish of skirts, she quickly left the library.
Bingley was able to contain himself only long enough for his sister to be safely away. "What," he managed between gasps for breath, "is all this about her prayer book?" Darcy's look of innocence did not deter him for an instant. "Come, you must tell me! Caroline never looked at her prayer book since she left finishing school nor paid attention to a sermon. When you came down to breakfast yesterday prepared to attend services, I thought my sisters' eyes would drop out of their heads! I'm sure I should slip their maids a guinea each for the uproar they endured waiting upon Caroline and Louisa a second time in one morning."
"Why should they be astonished at my attending church?" Darcy replied, "They have seen me do so regularly in Derbyshire and surely are aware that I have a pew in St. -'s in London that Georgiana and I rarely fail to attend."
"I am not sure. Perhaps because we are not in Derbyshire or London." At Darcy's puzzled expression, Bingley plunged on, "I believe they think you do so only to be seen." He hastened to explain, "They attend only if they hear that some influential personage is planning to be there. Your more frequent attendance is excused, I gather, on the grounds that you must feel obliged to set an example to your tenants and sister and that your position requires you to put in an appearance to maintain certain connections." Bingley lapsed into an embarrassed silence.
Darcy's left eyebrow had risen quite decidedly during Bingley's recital, and at its end, he took a step backwards and slowly circled the chair, drawing Bingley's attention to the book he had intended to begin, the first volume of The Collected Sermons of the Reverend George Whitefield. Bingley coloured and then laughed shakily, "Of course, did they know you as I do. Such silly ideas…"
Darcy leaned over the chair back, picked up the volume, and with a wry smile, tossed it to Bingley whose face immediately flooded with relief. "They may not be that far off in their estimation, Charles. I cannot deny that duty has been more often my motivation than anything approaching real devotion." He nodded toward the book in Bingley's hands. "At least, that would be Reverend Whitefield's assessment." Bingley quickly put the book on the desk as if it had suddenly become too hot to hold.
"But you wish to discover the meaning of her prayer book," Darcy gave a short laugh. "It is quite simple, really. You remember, of course, that we were late arriving at Meryton Church due to your sisters' change of costume. When we had finally found seats and opened our hymnbooks, my attention was most decidedly caught by a feminine voice coming from behind us. Such a sure, rich soprano I had never heard outside of a London choir, and against my better judgment, I turned slightly to see who it might be."
"Miss Elizabeth Bennet was it not, Darcy?" At his nod, he continued, "Yes, I heard her also and was vastly pleased to listen to her. Her voice drowned out the caterwauling that Louisa calls singing."
"I will not comment on your sister's ability, but about Miss Elizabeth Bennet's, I do concur." Darcy paused, attempting to recall the moment. "It was an unexpected pleasure to hear hymns sung with such feeling and beauty. I confess, they are what inspired me to attempt Whitefield again after avoiding him for some time now." He gave himself a slight shake. "Regardless, Miss Bingley noticed my distraction and its source. Shortly thereafter, she discovered the loss of her prayer book and, as was only correct, I offered to share mine. I hardly needed it, as I do know the most common ones by heart. This fact, I believe, she noticed as well, and putting the incidents of the morning together, we arrive at the reason for the conversation of a few moments ago."
Bingley shook his head, a show of consternation on his face as he opened the library door. "You bear up under it very well, Darcy, I must say." He then peered down the hall outside and turning with a twinkle in his rarely clouded eyes exclaimed, "All clear!" and started down the corridor to the drawing room.
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