“He had a certain frankness and generosity, qualities indeed which turn to a man’s ruin, unless tempered with discretion.”
— Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, Roman senator and historian
Friday, May 1, 1812: Hertfordshire
Darcy delayed luncheon until Richard came downstairs, freshly scrubbed and clad in a clean uniform from his saddlebags, then he introduced him around.
“Richard, you may remember my friend Bingley,” he said.
“I do remember him, but it was more than a year ago if I remember correctly,” Richard said. “Thank you for hosting us today.”
“You are more than welcome, Colonel. It was good of you to come so far to join us.”
“I would not miss it,” Richard said, his white teeth gleaming in his tanned face. “But I must leave directly after the ceremony. Trying to get the regiment trained, you know.”
“And Richard, this is Miss Caroline Bingley. Miss Bingley, Colonel the Honourable Richard Fitzwilliam, my cousin.”
Darcy watched Caroline Bingley closely to see whether his introduction inspired any interest, and the narrowing of her eyes made him believe Richard had definitely caught her eye.
“Charmed, Miss Bingley,” Richard said, giving her a fashionable but less flamboyant bow than the one with which he favoured Elizabeth.
“Colonel Fitzwilliam, it is such an honour to meet you! Mr. Darcy has spoken of you so often!” she said, and Darcy hoped his face was under control and his aversion to Caroline’s usual cooing attentiveness not visible.
“And this is Bingley’s other sister, Mrs. Hurst, and her husband, Mr. Hurst” Darcy said. “Mrs. Hurst, Mr. Hurst, my cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam.”
Mrs. Hurst was obviously impressed to meet the son of an earl but not overly so, since she had already met Lord and Lady Matlock. And Mr. Hurst looked to be more interested in luncheon than the nobility.
Satisfied with this first step, Darcy went still further and arranged the seating so that Richard sat by Caroline Bingley at the foot of the table while he sat Elizabeth by his side.
It worked out well in London, he remembered with amusement. Caroline is a handsome young lady—if she would just learn to stem her pretensions!
During the meal, he kept an eye on the couple, and Richard was his usual self, making jests and spinning stories involving much waving of hands that elicited giggles and even peals of laughter from his attentive dinner companion. And whenever Richard paused, Caroline was as excessively attentive as always, completely capable of carrying both sides of the conversation. But Darcy knew Richard well, and he could easily perceive that this conversation was not at all similar to the mutually enraptured exchange that his brother held with Jane Bennet when they first met. Darcy was certain Caroline had no hint that her attentions were not being received as she hoped since Richard was too much the gentleman to display his dislike for such servile attentions openly. Towards the end of the meal, Caroline was chattering on quite happily, with Richard only having to offer an occasional comment. When everyone stood at the end of the meal, he made the usual courtesies, bending over her hand and telling her that he desired some private conversation with his parents. Darcy could tell that Caroline was well pleased with this first meeting and clearly expected there would be others with this eligible son of the nobility.
Oh, well, I would wager she is destined to be a bit disappointed, Darcy thought regretfully. Perhaps this was not really a good idea after all. Richard may look outwardly as if his character is not at all like mine, but that would be an error—we are more alike than most would assume. He values intelligent conversation and an agreeable disposition as much as I—neither of which Caroline Bingley displays.
But, though Darcy was now ready to abandon his experiment, his companion noticed something he missed.
I know what William tried to do, but just putting two people in proximity is seldom going to have the result as it did with Jane and the captain, she thought, contemplating the two people at the end of the table. What William is overlooking is Richard’s assessment of her when he sat down. That was a look of admiration—admiration for her handsome features, for her figure, for her womanly appearance. A woman understands that look where William probably does not, and I am certain Caroline recognized it also. But she appears to have little idea of how to truly inspire an interest in a man such as the Colonel. I think it will require something momentous to bring those two together—not a mischance, actually, as in my case, but perhaps a plan by outside agents.
She hid her smile as she completed her thought: I shall speak with William after the meal. That will, of course, necessitate my staying through the evening meal!
In reality, Elizabeth had desired to spend the whole day at Netherfield, but now her conscience was clear…or almost so at any rate.
Thus it was, after a long, private conversation with Elizabeth, that Darcy manoeuvred his aunt and uncle and their son into Bingley’s study and closed the door.
“Now, before we start, would anyone care for a small libation?” Darcy asked.
“Start what, Darce?” asked Richard cheerfully, but Darcy ignored him and turned to his aunt.
“There is some passable sherry here, Aunt. Perhaps a glass while we consider matters of monumental importance?”
“Are you growing a sense of humour, Darcy?” asked his aunt suspiciously. “Looked at in a certain way, you are displaying definite similarities to your bride rather than to the overly serious nephew to whom we are accustomed. And, yes, I would love a glass of sherry.”
“I shall take another glass of that excellent brandy,” his uncle said.
“And I,” Richard said.
“You get port, Cousin, as do I, for you are the subject of this conversation, and the two of us need to keep a clear head.” Darcy poured glasses and passed them out.
Richard looked at Darcy sharply as he accepted his glass, but he said nothing as Darcy seated himself.
“Now, to begin, I wish to speak of my beloved cousin, the good Colonel. Being about to join the matrimonial state and considering its many advantages, I wish to offer the suggestion that it is past time he takes a wife and settles down.”
Lady Matlock glanced aside at her son and smiled with amusement at the look of discomfort now apparent on his face as he comprehended Darcy’s intent.
“I must agree with you, Darcy,” Lord Matlock said. “The boy has been too long with his regiment and needs a feminine touch to prepare him for gentle society. In fact, having seen the marvellous results so recently exhibited by his older brother, Jessica and I have given some thought to finding a suitable match for him.”
“Someone with at least a modicum of fortune, of course,” Darcy said.
“Darce, have a heart!” Richard said with a groan. “If you encourage Mother in this, I shan’t hear the end of it!”
“Of course, he has waited so long that many of the most suitable young ladies of my acquaintance have already married.” Lady Matlock affected an expression of doleful resignation. “I have been at my wits end thinking how best to go about this task.”
“There is always the upcoming Season,” Darcy said, manfully suppressing his smile.
“Darce!” Richard said desperately.
“A thought,” Lord Matlock said. “A definite thought. After all, being an earl’s son has advantages even if he is a penniless younger son. Now, his brother George has accumulated a tidy fortune in prize money, so he did not present the same challenge as Richard.”
“I am not penniless!” Richard protested. “I have some thousands invested in the Funds!”
“How many thousands?” queried Darcy, his expression one of complete innocence.
“Well…some thousands. A little more than five,” admitted Richard.
“We should have made the lad enter the Navy,” Lord Matlock said. “But he held out for the cavalry and would not follow my advice. There’s simply no money to be made in the Army.”
“The boy does get seasick, you know,” his mother said. “Remember when we visited George’s ship at Plymouth? Richard was deathly ill, and George said the day was uncommonly calm.”
“Mother, please!” objected Richard.
“Do not distress yourself, son,” Lady Matlock said with a comforting smile. “We are only having a little fun at your expense.”
“Just a repayment of the times you scared your mother and me out of more years of our life than we can spare,” his father said roughly, giving Richard a solid clap on the back. “You really must learn to duck, son.”
Richard shrugged uncomfortably, knowing his father was referring to the wound he took at Bussaco two years previously. He knew he was fortunate he had not bled to death and was even luckier not to lose the leg. Even so, he limped for a year, and the leg still hurt occasionally.
“To return to the subject at hand,” Darcy said quietly, “we were discussing how to solve Richard’s marital lack. And I have a possible solution to offer.”
“It cannot be another Bennet daughter,” Richard said quickly, recovering from his introspection, “for you will marry the last sensible one.”
“True, true, and they would not solve your problem, for they have no fortune,” Darcy said. “But the young lady I have in mind does have a tidy fortune and is also quite handsome. Though I admit she will need…ah, instruction in a number of areas.”
“A challenge, then,” Lord Matlock said, smiling slightly.
“Ah, but not an insurmountable problem to a dashing young officer who boasted on many occasions he never met a horse he could not gentle,” responded Darcy.
“A young lady is not a horse, Darcy!” Richard retorted. “I would not know how to deal with a wife who needs instruction. No, you need to locate a suitable young lady with the disposition and sense of either Miss Bennet or Mrs. Commodore Fitzwilliam to make this work.”
The Colonel looked suspiciously at his cousin’s benign demeanour and said sharply, “Just who are you suggesting if I may ask?”
“It is only a suggestion, Richard, but you have met her: the unattached sister of our host, Miss Caroline Bingley.”
“Darce!” Richard said, sitting up sharply in surprise. “I just met her, and she was just as you described: fawning, inane, and sycophantic! And she never stopped talking!”
“True, but it is not every day that you find handsome young ladies who are both eligible and possess a fortune of twenty thousand pounds.”
Richard was about to continue his argument, but Darcy’s statement stunned him. Twenty thousand pounds was indeed a prodigious fortune…but she was so…so…
“And she is very handsome, Richard,” Lady Matlock said. “More handsome than many young ladies who at least drew your interest.”
“But I did not actually pursue any of those ladies, Mother. And I really have no desire for my wife and me to be so distant that we live our lives in different spheres as so often happens.”
“Darcy is making a suggestion, which you might give some consideration, son,” his father said. “I noticed nothing untoward about the young lady other than her excessive civility and deference.”
“You might also remember, Richard, that wives promise to love, cherish, and obey, while husbands promise to love and cherish,” Lady Matlock said quietly. “Those promises are sometimes abused by unworthy husbands, but that does not change our vows. Your father does not often command me, but on those occasions, I know I have no choice but to obey his orders. You might have to exert yourself to break her bad habits, but it could be done.”
“It is only a suggestion,” Darcy said mildly. “I saw that you did not get on at luncheon, so I wanted you to give the matter some thought rather than dismissing it out of hand”
Richard looked quite unconvinced, looking carefully at each of the others before finally saying, “I am not sure about this matter, so all I will say is that I will think on it. That is as far as I will go.”
“It is farther than you have gone before, lad,” his father said cheerfully, ignoring the look from his wife. “I believe your mother and I may as well start planning the wedding breakfast!”
Not if I can get back to the Peninsula and the French first, Richard thought sourly. But his vow was somewhat disturbed by his memory of Caroline Bingley’s graceful walk when she was not trying to put on airs.
Definitely a comely lady, he thought idly. I wonder whether she could be gentled to the marriage bed…