Content Harry Potter Jane Austen by Pamela St Vines
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Chapter Four - Crime and Punishment


Vanity working on a weak head, produces every sort of mischief.
Jane Austen, Emma, Chapter 8


Unfortunately Mr. Watson, the Meryton clergyman, was not given to gossip and his wife was away for several days visiting her mother. Therefore, the local populace remained ignorant of the impending marriage until the following day. Happily for those who delight in such tidings, one of the Netherfield servants journeyed into Meryton early the next morning taking Mr. Bingley's horse to the blacksmith. While waiting for the horse to be shod, the man could not resist whispering the news to a friend, and by midday the entire community knew of Miss Elizabeth's engagement to Mr. Darcy. There were the skeptical few who privately wondered if she might be marrying the man for his fortune; however, none would dare to actually speak such a slander. The Bennets were well liked in Meryton and Miss Elizabeth was a particular favorite.

It was soon generally agreed that Mr. Darcy must be very much in love with the young lady to secure her so quickly, and those who had witnessed the pair at the Assembly encouraged this view. Their testimony also supported the theory that the gentleman's regard was returned in equal measure. The inhabitants of Meryton cheerfully rejoiced in their neighbors' good fortune and thought Mr. Darcy must be a very fine gentleman indeed. It was highly gratifying to have a man of quality agree with their assessment of Miss Elizabeth's merits and so quickly, too.

To everyone's surprise Caroline Bingley deigned to grace the Netherfield breakfast room the following morning and was unexpectedly cheerful. Although she continued in her failure to congratulate Mr. Darcy upon his engagement, Caroline did refrain from criticizing his intended. Darcy was grateful for the opportunity to eat his breakfast in relative peace but gave this material change in Caroline's attitude little consideration, as he was much preoccupied with thoughts of Elizabeth. Bingley and Louisa, on the other hand, not only lacked Darcy's present happy preoccupation, but had also lived with Caroline their entire lives. Although grateful that she had not spoilt everyone's breakfast, Caroline's brother and sister watched her with suspicion and a steadily growing sense of uneasiness.

Louisa, having been Caroline's confidante until quite recently, was rapidly becoming alarmed by the slight gleam of satisfaction she observed in her sister's eyes. Caroline had been thoroughly enraged when Louisa escorted her upstairs the previous evening, and Caroline was not known for quickly recovering from such a state. Although Louisa managed to maintain her usual cheerful air, she was already considering how to best discover exactly what Caroline was scheming, for only a plot for revenge could account for the sudden change in Caroline's demeanor.

As soon as she knew Darcy had departed for Longbourn, Louisa went in search of her brother. She found Bingley in his study. He was deep in thought but it was quite apparent that he was not thinking of the correspondence that sat before him. The door to the room was open as if he were expecting company and Louisa quietly stepped inside and closed the door behind her before speaking.

"Charles," she began, "I know you saw it too--how strangely Caroline was behaving this morning."

"Yes, I did," Bingley said with a sigh. "I am relieved to know that whatever mischief Caroline is plotting, you are not a party to it."

Louisa could not help blushing as she recalled how often she had been a willing party to Caroline's schemes and intrigues.

"I have no excuse for my past actions, Charles," she said, "but I am determined that I will no longer allow Caroline to rule me as she has all our lives. It has taken far too long, but my eyes are open at last to her cruelty and her folly. We have behaved very badly in so many ways, and I apologize for my part in it. You have been very patient with both of us."

"Your apology is accepted," Bingley said with an encouraging smile, "and I heartily endorse your resolve, Louisa. I am also grateful for your assistance, as I am uncertain how to proceed. However, I fear that if we do not act quickly, Caroline will ruin the family name and destroy my friendship with Darcy."

"I am convinced that we will garner nothing useful from confronting Caroline directly," Louisa replied, "at least not until we have some idea of her plans. However, the servants might be able to assist us."

"The servants?" Bingley asked naively.

"Yes, the servants," Louisa answered with a slight smile. "I am certain there is little that escapes their notice, and I would warrant that Caroline is not a favorite with the staff."

A short while later Mrs. White, the Netherfield housekeeper, knocked on the study door. Bingley's summons had surprised her, as he had heretofore shown little interest in the day-to-day matters of running the household. Having expected Bingley's unmarried sister to be present, Mrs. White was surprised and pleased to find Mrs. Hurst at his side instead.

"You sent for me, sir?"

"Yes, Mrs. White, thank you for coming so promptly," Bingley began. "Please sit down."

The housekeeper raised an eyebrow at this unexpected and, therefore, suspicious courtesy. However, she complied after a moment's hesitation. There was an awkward pause, as Bingley was uncertain of how to proceed.

Observing his consternation, Louisa quietly said, "Charles, would you like for me to explain our concerns to Mrs. White?"

Bingley's relief was palpable as he murmured, "Yes, please, Louisa. You will know how to express it properly."

Bingley had no notion of how one properly asked one's staff to spy on one's sister, but he hoped that Louisa would be able to manage it. It would not do to stir up more trouble by alienating the housekeeper. Mrs. White had been firmly fixed at Netherfield for many years and had the confidence and respect of the entire staff.

Knowing that Caroline had treated the woman abominably, Louisa wisely began with an apology. "I would like to express my personal regret for what may have been a difficult transition for you and the entire household staff."

Mrs. White nodded her head slightly as she answered with dignity, "Thank you, Mrs. Hurst, for your concern, but it is expected of those of us in service to weather such upsets. I trust the staff's performance has met your expectations."

Sensing a slight thaw in the woman's manner, Louisa smiled in relief as she said, "Certainly, I think it safe to say that you and your staff have exceeded my brother's expectations. Although I am merely a guest here I have also been impressed by your ability to adapt to unexpected changes. I fear my sister's demands are sometimes unreasonably excessive and I would hope to overcome any misunderstandings that may have arisen from her assumption that she would be in charge of our brother's household."

Charles had to admire his sister's finesse, as the housekeeper visibly relaxed at this indication that Caroline would not be supervising the operation of his household. Realizing he would only be able to curtail Caroline's folly by limiting her influence and freedom of action, Charles hastened to reinforce this point.

"Yes, Mrs. White," Bingley said, "I am afraid Miss Bingley has assumed she would be in charge of my household here as I am unmarried at present. However, I find our opinions on many issues are too dissimilar for her to effectively act on my behalf. I have relied on my sisters in such matters in the past so I fear you may have to bear with me as I learn what sort of direction and assistance you require from me to keep the household running smoothly."

"That will not be a problem, sir," the housekeeper said with no little satisfaction. "I would be happy to explain how things have been done at Netherfield prior to your occupancy and show you the household accounts. Then you may decide what changes you wish to implement and how active a role you would like to assume in day to day matters."

"That is an excellent suggestion, Mrs. White," Bingley answered with a smile, "and I shall look forward to it. As I am somewhat occupied at present with learning more about the farming of the estate, I would like for you to continue managing the household in your usual excellent manner. Please consult me directly if you feel that there are any matters which require my attention. We will be having additional houseguests soon for Mr. Darcy's wedding. Mrs. Hurst will advise you in matters relating to our guests and any special entertainments or arrangements required."

"Yes, sir," Mrs. White murmured as she offered up a silent prayer of thanks for being delivered from the officious interference of Caroline Bingley. The housekeeper was quite pleased, as she had not only been delivered from Caroline's whims and tempers, but Mr. Bingley had also given her a free hand to run the house as she saw fit.

"There is one other matter upon which we would like to consult with you," Louisa said. "It is a matter of the utmost delicacy."

"You may assured of my discretion," the housekeeper replied calmly even as she was inwardly struggling to restrain her great curiosity.

"Our sister is behaving in a manner that is most peculiar," Louisa explained, "and we are somewhat fearful that she may not be quite herself at this time. It is very embarrassing to discuss, but my brother and I fear that Caroline may be acting in a manner that is detrimental to her own prospects and to our family's reputation."

The housekeeper was not certain what was suspected, but she was eager to protect the family's reputation as the Bingleys were now tied to Netherfield.

"I do not wish to pry," Mrs. White responded, "but it would be helpful if I had a more specific line of inquiry to pursue. We do not want to start rumors among the staff by asking too many questions."

Louisa was pleased to see that the housekeeper had not only understood her, but was also willing to be of assistance. She looked to Charles and at his approving nod, Louisa continued.

"I do not think my sister is a physical danger to herself or anyone else," she said reassuringly, "and Caroline has very little acquaintance here in the neighborhood. However, I am concerned about her letters. It would not do to have her corresponding with anyone outside the family when she is not herself."

"I understand you now, ma'am," the housekeeper said, "but I fear it may be too late. Miss Bingley sent a letter to the express office first thing this morning. She tried to do it in secret, too, having her maid take it directly to one of the stable boys along with the coin to pay for it."

Seeing the look of dismay that passed between Mr. Bingley and his sister, the older woman quickly continued her explanation. "Eddie is a good lad though and he came to me straightaway. He knows that I frank the letters from Netherfield and that I need to know when someone goes to town just in case I have more business for them there. I'm sorry, but I had no reason to question Miss Bingley's instructions, so I sent Eddie on to town after I made the entries in the ledger."

"Entries?" Bingley inquired.

"Yes, sir," Mrs. White explained, "I added the sum the maid had slipped him to the household income and then I entered the charge for franking the letter. The letter is gone, but I always notate the address when we send a letter express. Would that information be helpful?"

"Yes, it would be very helpful," Louisa said.

It seemed an eternity to Charles and Louisa, but in fact the housekeeper returned rather quickly. Mrs. White had hurried as fast as she dared without occasioning curiosity and gossip among the staff.

Appreciating the need for discretion the housekeeper carefully closed the door behind her before she said, "The letter, sir, was to a Lady Catherine de Bourgh of Rosings Park in Kent."

Charles' face blanched and Louisa gasped. This was far worse than they had suspected. As Caroline had not been introduced to Lady Catherine, no benign explanation for such a letter was possible. Seeing their reactions, Mrs. White felt sorry for the Bingleys. Obviously their sister was far worse than she had feared. Murmuring her assurances that she would be sure to inform them of any other post before it left for town, Mrs. White quietly left the room and shut the door.

Charles and Louisa sat in silence for a full five minutes. Whatever the outcome of Caroline's machinations, her actions were unforgivable. Louisa was wracking her brain for a solution, and Charles was initially consumed by thoughts of how in the world he would break this news to Darcy. However, he soon remembered that as the head of the family he was responsible for Caroline.

"Aunt Bridget," he finally said with another deep sigh. "Removing Caroline to Ireland will ensure that she can do no further harm to Darcy and Miss Bennet, and perhaps our aunt will be able to do Caroline some good."

Louisa nodded, seeing the wisdom of it immediately. Bridget Wexler was the widow of their mother's brother. As the Wexlers had no children, they had taken a particular interest in the young Bingleys and the families had been very close for a time. Bridget Wexler had returned to Ireland after her husband's death, and she now lived in the quiet hamlet where she had grown up. Based upon her letters, Charles guessed it to be about half the size of Meryton. Although their uncle's profession had not garnered him the same degree of wealth their father had amassed, Uncle Wexler had been a very successful attorney and had left his widow well provided for. Aunt Bridget was a kindly woman, and Charles did not doubt she would take Caroline in for a time.

"I think you are right, Charles," Louisa agreed. "It will limit Caroline's ability to cause further mischief and time with Aunt Bridget may help her to change. Aunt Bridget will treat Caroline kindly, but she will not encourage her selfishness."

Charles wished it were possible to send Caroline on her way before Darcy returned from Longbourn. Unfortunately, they would need to secure a companion for her journey. As an unmarried woman she simply could not travel all that way alone. Charles and Louisa decided to confront Caroline and confine her to her room, but not to mention her imminent Irish journey until they had found a proper traveling companion.

Darcy enjoyed a very pleasant day at Longbourn, its only detraction being his introduction to Elizabeth's Aunt Phillips. Mrs. Phillips had heard the rumors of their engagement and rushed to Longbourn intent upon confirming that it was indeed fact and then chastising her sister for not informing her directly. Aunt Phillips was a well known and famous busy body in the environs of Meryton and it irritated her excessively to hear such news about her own niece from someone not at all connected with their family.

Elizabeth was not excessively fond of her aunt. In truth, she thought Aunt Phillips a vulgar, unintelligent woman who exerted far too much influence over Mrs. Bennet. While Elizabeth harbored no illusions regarding her mother's abilities, she appreciated her general good will and high spirits, for such was Mrs. Bennet's nature when she was not specifically vexed over something. Aunt Phillips not only lacked this liveliness, but she was also somewhat malicious. While Mrs. Bennet might sometimes be resentful and slow to forgive, she was not generally mean spirited. Elizabeth had often speculated what their mother might have been like if she had not been continually subjected to the influence of her older sister, but sadly, Aunt Phillips was a very real presence in their lives and Elizabeth dreaded exposing Darcy to her least favored relation.

Thus it was that Darcy, who was seated beside her, heard Elizabeth sigh deeply when her aunt's voice resounded from the hallway. Darcy did not know who was about to burst in upon them, but he gently squeezed Elizabeth's hand in silent reassurance as they rose to greet this noisy guest. Elizabeth was thankful that Mrs. Hill ushered her aunt into the parlor quickly so that she might see Darcy was present before she embarrassed them thoroughly with her loud exclamations.

Elizabeth had just completed the introductions when her father entered the parlor, and she silently blessed Mrs. Hill for fetching him before she went upstairs for Mrs. Bennet. Mrs. Phillips was somewhat cowed by the combined presence of Mr. Bennet and Mr. Darcy, and she sat silently gaping at Darcy as Jane rang for tea. Mr. Bennet shared Elizabeth's opinion of her aunt and generally avoided her company whenever possible. However, knowing what anxiety this introduction might occasion for his daughter he was determined to offer any possible assistance.

Mrs. Bennet soon joined them and happily received her sister's congratulations. When Mrs. Phillips began to chide her sister for not hastening to inform her of the news or at least sending word by Lydia, Mr. Bennet actually intervened. He knew that Mrs. Phillips favored Lydia above the other girls and he was not anxious to encourage that partiality as he thought it an ill influence upon his already silly youngest daughter.

"While your concern for all our girls is very much appreciated," Mr. Bennet stated, "you must understand that we have all been quite busy with the wedding arrangements. And as for Lydia coming into Meryton on her own, I am afraid that is out of the question. She is not yet of sufficient maturity to venture into society on her own. Therefore, I intend to be very cautious of Lydia until I deem that she is ready to make wise decisions and to conduct herself properly in company. She will not be leaving home for the foreseeable future without her mother or one of our two older daughters as chaperone."

"But surely Lydia should be out by now," Aunt Phillips unwisely protested. "She is almost a head taller--"

"I was not speaking of her stature," Mr. Bennet interrupted her in a tone that brooked no further protest, "but of Lydia's manners and judgment."

Lydia had not entirely escaped Darcy's notice at the Assembly and he was pleased by Mr. Bennet's declaration. In fact, he thought it a wise course of action both for Lydia's future and her family's honor. Seeing Mrs. Bennet's anxious glance between her husband and her sister, Darcy decided he would speak his mind.

"As guardian to my younger sister, I have some experience with such decisions," Darcy said, "and I think you are very wise to protect your daughter until she is truly ready for the pressures of a broader society. My sister is very reserved, and although Georgiana is of an age when many young women have already come out, I have determined that she needs time to become more confident before she is expected to act as an adult among other adults."

Mrs. Bennet smiled. The seeds of doubt raised by her sister's protest were banished by Mr. Darcy's ready agreement with Mr. Bennet. If they agreed, it must be the correct opinion. Seeing Elizabeth's grave expression and fearing Mrs. Phillips could not contain her silliness much longer, Mr. Bennet suggested a walk outside.

"You are a bit pale this afternoon, Lizzy. Perhaps you have stayed indoors too long," he said. "Let us take a walk outside. Would you care for a breath of fresh air, Mr. Darcy?"

Mr. Darcy allowed that he would enjoy taking a stroll in the garden and soon the three of them had made their escape. When they were beyond the hearing of the ladies in the sitting room, Mr. Bennet surprised Darcy further by saying, "There, there, Lizzy, do not let that very silly woman distress you. When you are married and gone from here, you need hardly ever see her."

Elizabeth gave her father a small smile and he in turned smiled at Darcy as he patted Elizabeth's hand.

"Would you be kind enough to escort Lizzy outside, Mr. Darcy? I believe the fresh air in the east garden will do her good, and if you will confine yourselves to that area, I can chaperone you from the comfort of my library. I shall expect you to join me in half an hour's time."

Darcy managed to restrain himself to a proper nod and smile of thanks. The east garden was in full view of the library so Mr. Bennet was not leaving them completely unchaperoned, but Darcy knew that he would never have been allowed such a liberty if he did not have Mr. Bennet's full confidence. As Darcy was eager to understand Elizabeth's sudden quiet, he very much appreciated Mr. Bennet's arranging an opportunity for them to speak privately.

They took a turn around the garden in silence and then Darcy led Elizabeth to a bench. He was careful to choose a seat in plain view of the library window, and when they were seated he gently took her hand.

"Will you not tell me what has you so dispirited, Elizabeth?" Darcy asked. "Is it something to do with your aunt's visit?"

Elizabeth blushed and then turned away as she answered, "I know it must be mortifying to know that you will soon be connected with such people. I fear that you will have regrets--"

"Do you think me such a snob?" Darcy asked with concern.

"No, certainly not," Elizabeth replied as she turned to face him. "When I spoke of regretting my connections, I was not referring to my aunt's station, but to her character. We cannot help the circumstances of our births, but each of us is responsible for our choices and actions. My mother's brother is not a gentleman's son, but in his deportment and character Uncle Gardiner is as fine a man, as you will ever know. However, my Aunt Phillips is--"

Elizabeth broke off. There was no delicate and proper way to say what she truly thought of her aunt's behavior. However, she felt she must finish what she had begun lest Darcy misunderstand her.

"If I, who am related to them by blood, find my aunt's conduct mortifying--and sometimes my mother's and my younger sisters'--it would be irrational for me to expect more forbearance of their incorrect behavior from you. If you were to have regrets later, then I would wish we had not married."

Darcy clasped both of Elizabeth's hands as he sought to reassure her.

"Elizabeth, I am eight-and-twenty and I have never cared for a woman as I care for you."

Elizabeth started to speak, but a look from Darcy stopped her.

"No, dearest," he continued, "I need to tell you everything. I have never loved anyone outside my family until I met you. Although I am capable of admiring a pretty face, I have never been even remotely interested in another woman. I have always hated assemblies and balls, because I am by nature shy and awkward with strangers. I never know what to say to new acquaintances, but when I met you it was as if the sun had suddenly come out from behind a cloud. My shyness was overcome by my overwhelming need to know you, and the melancholy that has haunted me since my father's passing is gone. I am now happy in a way I never expected--because of you, Elizabeth--because you have agreed to be my wife. Please do not speak of my having regrets again."

Elizabeth found it impossible to speak at all at that moment, but her heart was in her eyes as she gazed up at him.

"I love you, Lizzy," Darcy whispered, "and I always will."

Elizabeth boldly raised his gloved hand to her lips and gently kissed it.

"Thank you, Fitzwilliam," she whispered.

Darcy in turn lifted Elizabeth's hand to his lips, but instead of kissing the back of her gloved hand, he daringly turned her hand and kissed the bare skin on the inside of her wrist.

"Forever, Lizzy," he whispered.

By unspoken agreement, Darcy and Elizabeth began to speak of inconsequential things as their half hour was almost over and they must soon return to Elizabeth's father. For his part Mr. Bennet had observed them more carefully than either realized. In fact, though he sat holding a book as if he were reading it, not a page was turned until he saw the young couple rise and walk toward the house.

Mr. Bennet was pleased. He had observed the return of happiness to his daughter's face and he was himself relieved to know that Darcy's regard for his daughter did not seem at all lessened by her less than desirable relations. Soon Elizabeth and Darcy were at the library door and the three of them enjoyed a lively discussion of modern poetry until it was time for dinner.

It was a very satisfied Darcy that returned to Netherfield later that evening. He smiled to himself as he remembered Elizabeth's tentative kiss of his hand and Darcy's smile broadened as he recalled the softness of her skin when he had dared to kiss her wrist. However, Darcy's smile quickly faded when he entered the Netherfield library and saw the grave countenances of Bingley and Hurst.

Louisa had confided all in her husband that afternoon and even ventured to apologize for allowing Caroline to interfere in their marriage. Hurst was not surprised by the depths of Caroline's selfishness, but he was most appreciative of his wife's including him in something meaningful at last--even if it was a family crisis. He quickly accepted her apology for past wrongs and firmly pledged his support to Bingley and Louisa as they sought to rectify Caroline's wrongs as best they could. Bingley had always thought of Hurst as a rather indolent fellow, but seeing him assert himself to raise his wife's spirits during the afternoon, Bingley decided that he had underestimated the man. In another surprising move, Hurst had insisted upon being with Bingley when he told Darcy about Caroline's letter.

"If Darcy requests to continue the conversation with you privately," Hurst said, "I will, of course, honor his request. However, this is not an instance where you have personally wronged him. We are striving as a family to make amends for Caroline's transgression. Therefore, I must be at your side."

And so it was that a very happy Darcy found Bingley and Hurst, nursing their brandies and looking for all the world as if someone had died. Darcy found Bingley's gravity particularly alarming as Bingley always smiled.

"Good God, gentleman," Darcy began, "please tell me no one died today."

That drew a small smile from Bingley, but then he abruptly rose and crossed to the brandy decanter without a word. Darcy did not find this comforting and so looked questioningly at Hurst.

Hurst gave him a weak smile and said, "Sit, Darcy. No one is dead that we know of, but this may take some time and you will definitely want the brandy."

Knowing the extent of Bingley's distress, Hurst took it upon himself to enlighten Darcy as gently as he could.

"I am afraid Caroline has done something to cause you and Miss Bennet harm, Darcy. Bingley and Louisa were both very alarmed by her rapid acceptance of your engagement, as we all know Caroline's sulks tend to go on for days. They suspected her of mischief and through a discreet discussion with the housekeeper they discovered that Caroline sent an express this morning to your aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh."

"What?" Darcy sputtered as he nearly choked on his brandy.

Bingley could not face his dearest friend for shame, but Hurst immediately moved to Darcy's side and pounded on his back as he caught his breath.

"I wish it were a bad joke, but it is not," Hurst continued. "Caroline has not yet divulged the exact contents of her letter, but we are all confident that it would not have cast your engagement in a flattering light. Perhaps we should have summoned you from Longbourn, but we did not want to stir up the local gossips and we could not think what was to be done today."

Darcy nodded. In truth, he would not have willingly foregone his private interview with Elizabeth, particularly since the letter was already on its way and there was no way to avert all associated unpleasantness.

"I will be happy to leave at first light and carry any message you wish to your aunt, Darcy," Hurst offered.

"And I am most willing to write a letter explaining my sister's unreliable mental state, if you wish it," Bingley added, having finally found his voice.

Darcy sat there silent and unmoving as he considered the best remedy to such a situation. When he finally raised his eyes to address his companions, Darcy's eyes were dark with anger.

"And what of Caroline?" he asked.

"For now she is confined to her quarters," Bingley answered. "However, I have written to our aunt in Ireland and Caroline will be sent to her as soon as I can arrange a suitable traveling companion. I have already made up my mind that Caroline will remain with our aunt for at least a year if she wants my continued support and protection. If she refuses, then she will be irrefutably cast off and on her own."

Darcy nodded. Although Caroline was a woman of independent fortune, he knew that she could not live in the style she craved on her own income. That degree of comfort required Bingley's financial support. Caroline was also far too consumed with social standing and public opinion to choose being cast off by her family. The ensuing scandal would render her a social outcast and make her virtually unmarriageable. With those as her only choices, Caroline would definitely be on her way to Ireland soon.

"Perhaps, I might be of assistance in speeding Miss Bingley on her way," Darcy said after quietly contemplating the situation. "Georgiana's companion is a very respectable woman, the widow of a clergyman. I believe Mrs. Annesley would be willing to accompany Miss Bingley to Ireland, as she has family there and it would allow her the opportunity to visit them. If you would not mind Georgiana joining us in a few days, then Mrs. Annesley could accompany her to Netherfield and then journey on with your sister."

Bingley's relief was palpable as he responded, "That would be wonderful, Darcy. I did not want Caroline traveling with someone who might be malleable to her schemes and opinions."

"Then Mrs. Annesley should do very well. Not only is she is the widow of a clergyman, but she is also a very upright woman of strong convictions. I shall write to her tonight."

Hurst hated to reintroduce the topic of Darcy's aunt, but knew he would be remiss if he did not attempt once more to assist in the matter.

"And what of your aunt?" he inquired. "Is there some way that we might be of use in that situation?"

"Thank you," Darcy said with the ghost of a smile, "but I think it would only lend credence to any allegations Miss Bingley might have made if I were to take any precipitous action--particularly since we do not know exactly what she wrote to my aunt. Fortunately I myself sent letters to town at first light for all my family. Therefore, Miss Bingley's letter will not be the only intelligence that Lady Catherine receives of my plans. It would be ridiculous for her to put any credence in a letter from someone so wholly unconnected with her when she has my letter for comparison.

"Knowing Lady Catherine, I am certain there will be some unpleasantness as a result of this, but we will answer her objections or questions when they are raised. While I do not enjoy the same type of relationship with Lady Catherine that I have with Lord Carlisle and his family, we are still family. I shall be very disappointed in her if she takes the word of a stranger over that of her nephew."

"Well, if you change your mind after sleeping on it," Hurst said, "please let me know. I have no scruples regarding Sunday travel in such a circumstance and I would be happy to be of use."

Darcy lay awake for some time that night. He finally drifted off thinking that a possible altercation with Lady Catherine might be well worthwhile to secured the absence of Caroline Bingley whom he had found increasingly difficult to tolerate. It would also now be understood and expected that she was not included in his invitations to Bingley. Darcy had never considered Lady Catherine to be particularly acute, but surely she would see through the machinations of such a fortune hunter.


****


It gratified all of Meryton to see the grand Mr. Darcy anxious walking up and down outside the church the following morning as he eagerly awaited the Bennets' arrival for services. Darcy had ridden on ahead of his friends in his impatience to see Elizabeth. He greeted the entire Bennet family politely but Darcy's gaze was firmly fixed on his bride whose blush only enhanced her loveliness in his opinion. There were many smiles directed at the young couple as Darcy escorted Elizabeth down the aisle and into the Bennets' family pew. Elizabeth's color deepened, but Darcy decided he did not care if the whole world smiled at his happiness.

Bingley and the Hursts arrived just before the services began. There were whispered wonderings at Caroline Bingley's absence, but there was no great concern. After all, Caroline had made it very plain that she cared little for anyone in Hertfordshire. Mr. Darcy left with the Bennets soon after the service was concluded, but the rest of the Netherfield party lingered for some time. Acknowledging Caroline's selfishness, had forced Louisa to reconsider her own life and she had decided she was in great need of improvement. Louisa's first and most important step in correcting her faults was her apology to Mr. Hurst and a newly formulated resolve to treat him with the respect he was due as her husband. Louisa had also realized that with Caroline's encouragement, she had become a silly snob. The Bingleys were not of exalted lineage. Their father had been a very successful tradesman. Regretting her past foolishness, Louisa had decided to exert herself to make friends in Meryton. She moved determinedly through the crowd acknowledging those whom she had met and seeking introductions to new acquaintances. The surprised populace received her efforts kindly and immediately began to reformulate their opinion of Mrs. Hurst; attributing her former coldness to her much reviled sister's influence.

Meanwhile Caroline was still confined to her quarters. Her prevailing emotional state had progressed from fury to fear, and even while the rest of the family was at prayer, Caroline sat pondering her fate. She knew Charles could not keep her locked in this room indefinitely, but Caroline sensed her punishment would be of some duration. She had never known Charles to be outraged and she now felt torn. Caroline still wanted revenge and would be delighted if Lady Catherine came storming into Hertfordshire to take Eliza Bennet down a peg, but the saner portion of Caroline's mind was beginning to hope that absolutely nothing would come of her letter to Lady Catherine. If nothing happened, Charles would be far more likely to relent and allow things to return to normal.

Caroline had tried to assert her authority as mistress of the house that morning by summoning the housekeeper. However, Mrs. White had not come. Instead she sent Caroline's maid Monique back to her with a note.


Dear Miss Bingley,
Please forgive me for failing to appear in answer to your summons. Mr. Bingley has left strict orders that no one other than Monique is to enter your chambers without his express permission. I shall be happy to fulfill any request in my power; however, you will need to make such requests through Monique.
Sincerely,
S. White


Caroline had crumpled the note in anger and tossed it into the fire, but as she watched the flames consume it, her fears began to gnaw at her. She knew Charles was not capable of cruelty, but what if he allowed Darcy to decide her punishment. For all her determined pursuit of the man, Caroline had never really considered his character, but she did so now for her fate might be in his hands. She found herself fearful of a certain uprightness in Darcy's nature. While Caroline would have said her brother was a very good man, she realized that Charles was far less fixed in his principles than Darcy was. Darcy lived by a very demanding moral code and he expected no less from the rest of the world. What would he judge fit punishment for deceit, cruelty and petty revenge? The very question made Caroline shiver and draw closer to the fire.


Copyright 2007 Pamela St Vines
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