A/N: This little piece popped into my head a few days ago and begged to be written. Being a weak-willed creature, I immediately succumbed to the temptation.
I am sure that the lawyers which abound this site will take exception to my interpretation of the law as it might pertain, but I shall claim artistic licence, even though there's little that's artistic involved.
Mr. Gardiner stepped down from his carriage, turned and assisted his wife to descend and then led her into the house. The mourning wreathe adorned the door and servants could be seen draping mourning cloths in the windows. He shook his head. That it should come to this!
Mr. Bennet had died the previous morning and his wife, Mr. Gardiner's sister, was in full voice as he and Mrs. Gardiner entered the house. He had expected no less. His sister was a silly woman, possessed of a very limited understanding; however, on one matter her comprehension was excellent. Her home was hers only as long as Mr. Bennet breathed. As he no longer did so, she must perforce make way for his heir upon whom the estate was entailed. Mr. Bennet had sired no sons and thus a distant cousin, with whom they were unacquainted, would inherit and most likely require Mrs. Bennet and her five daughters to find new lodgings. This was a matter of no little concern for Mr. Gardiner, for he had no doubt that the major responsibility for their future care would descend upon him. The husband of his other sister, Mr. Philips, would undoubtedly share a portion of the burden but as his means were less than those of Mr. Gardiner, his contribution would be according less.
Funeral proceedings took place in the usual manner and, several days after Mr. Bennet's passing, his wife and daughters, the Gardiners and Mrs. Philips were sequestered in the main parlour, for Mr. Philips had, that very morning, received momentous news.
"As soon as I was informed of my brother's passing," said he, "I wrote, as I am required to do, to Mr. Collins to inform him of the sad event. You might imagine my surprise when I received an express this morning apprising me that Mr. Collins had himself died some months ago." He held up his hand as Mrs. Bennet was about to make some remark. "Allow me to finish, Sister." He shuffled the papers before him. "I, of course, made immediate reference to the will which established the entail. And . . ."
"I must suppose that a search must be undertaken for another heir?" interjected Mr. Gardiner.
Mr. Philips shook his head. "No so! Mr. Bennet had instructed me, when the matter of his heir first arose some years back, to conduct a search for all possible heirs to Longbourn. Only Mr. Collins was found."
Mr. Philips afforded Mr. Gardiner a commiserating look which the latter could not understand. "The will specifying the entail is quite explicit, though I expect no one expected such a result. In the absence of a male heir, Longbourn will devolve upon the son of Mr. Bennet's oldest daughter. Should she" and he nodded at Jane, "be so unfortunate as to have no sons, it shall then fall to Elizabeth's oldest son, and so on."
"We are saved shrieked Mrs. Bennet. "Oh Jane! I knew you could not be so beautiful for nothing. I am sure you shall be married very soon."
Mr. Gardiner and Mr. Philips spoke almost as one. The former deferred to the latter.
"I believe, Sister, that the usual rules of mourning must apply. It would be the greatest disrespect towards your late husband to behave otherwise."
"And," added Mr. Gardiner, "there is no reason to be precipitous in the matter. Jane is but twenty and to wait a year before returning to society will not, I hope, be an excessive burden." He looked sternly at his sister who had sufficient understanding to realize that to press the point at this time was not in her best interests.
Mr. Philips cleared his throat. And then again, more loudly, for his first effort had proven unsuccessful in capturing everyone's attention. Satisfied at the success of his last effort, he continued.
"Mr. Bennet's will is quite explicit on how he wished matters to be handled. He has named Mr. Gardiner as trustee for Longbourn and he will retain that role until such time as Jane's son reaches his majority. Or Elizabeth's as the case may be."
This was indeed a shock to Mr. Gardiner and he was rendered silent for some moments, exchanging worried glances with his wife. Mrs. Bennet was equally surprised, for she had concluded that as Jane was to inherit, her future security was no longer in doubt. As to the running of Longbourn estate, she had not a thought, for that was a gentleman's concern. She had no thought of her allowance or budget for the house, being in jeopardy. Her brother could not be so unkind as to overset arrangements of some years duration. Her opinions were expressed with great enthusiasm and her daughters, for the most part, listened in silent acceptance. Only Elizabeth, Mr. Gardiner observed, appeared uncertain and he could see her casting questioning glances at him, though her forbearance was such as not to address him on the matter. For that he was thankful since he had no immediate answers to such questions.
Later that day, Mr. Gardiner and his wife, removed to Mr. Bennet's study to discuss a matter of great import. Mrs. Gardiner was an elegant, intelligent woman, much superior to Mrs. Bennet in understanding and breeding. She had always been sensible to the frequent improprieties of Mrs. Bennet's behaviour but could do little to correct the situation. She had, however, formed a strong relationship with the two eldest Miss Bennets, Jane and Elizabeth, who had visited her in London with some frequency over the past few years. She was not insensible as to the source of her husband's concern but what he proposed was beyond her imagination.
They remained sequestered in the study for several hours considering one proposal after another: debating the salient points of each and discarding the least attractive. It could not be undertaken without some dispute as they assessed the objections and alternatives of each, before arriving at a solution that best satisfied their needs and those of the Bennet family. That certain members of the family would not appreciate the solution was a certainty, but as those who would express the strongest objections were the ones most in need of the measures to be adopted, their complaints were accorded little weight. It should not be supposed that their discussion had gone unobserved; however, neither Mrs. Bennet nor her daughters could have conceived of how Longbourn's future would unfold.
The next morning, following breakfast, Mr. Gardiner convened a meeting of the main participants. Even Lydia, who was but thirteen and in the school room, was allowed to attend. Mr. Gardiner addressed them as follows.
"Mrs. Gardiner and I spent no little time last evening discussing how best I might discharge my responsibilities as trustee for Longbourn. If it had been a matter of a year or even two, we would have adopted a different approach; however, as it now appears that I am to be responsible for more than twenty years, any arrangement must be of a less transitory nature."
He looked about seeing only confusion on most countenances. Only Elizabeth, it appeared, nodded thoughtfully, although he doubted she could foresee his plans.
"As a consequence," he continued, quelling, with a stern look, the giggles and whispers of his two youngest nieces. "Mrs. Gardiner and I and our children shall remove to live here at Longbourn. My wife shall take on the duties of mistress of this house. No! Sister! You shall hear me out. You are assured of a home here, but as I am to be in charge of the estate, it is only right and proper that my wife be head of the household." Mrs. Bennet began expressing her outrage immediately. For several minutes she would not be gainsaid, exclaiming loudly at the cruelty to a new widow, offended that her rights as mistress of the house had been abrogated, angered that it had done by her nearest relatives, asserted that Mrs. Gardiner had obviously long harboured a desire to supplant her as Mistress of Longbourn, that Mr. Bennet could not have envisioned her own brother treating her with such disrespect when he named him trustee, and that she would never be reconciled to loss of her place at Longbourn. She appealed to her own daughters for their support and was unhappy that it was afforded unstintingly by only her two youngest daughters. The lack of support from Elizabeth and Mary she considered not at all, for they had ever been her least favoured children. Their pleasure at the announcement was no surprise. But to have Jane, her eldest, the one who would bear the next heir to the estate, express her satisfaction with her brother's decision, was a betrayal of the most painful kind. Her remonstrance continued for some minutes encompassing Jane, her brother, Mrs. Gardiner, Mr. Bennet (who should have had more consideration for her nerves and remained alive.) until, at last, Mr. Gardiner forcefully demanded she cease her diatribe.
"If this situation is so unpleasant, Sister, you may remove to your sister's home. I have no doubt that she will welcome you. You shall have your jointure to support you. Your daughters, however, will remain at Longbourn and under our direction. Am I understood?"
Mrs. Bennet was reluctant to put aside her grievances, but her brother would not relent and she finally declared that she would remain at Longbourn. Mrs. Gardiner could only suppose her sister to believe that, should she leave, her loss of position would be unmistakable and, moreover, would be exposed to public view. Remaining would allow at least the semblance that she retained her status. Mrs. Gardiner had insisted, in her discussions with her husband, that she be made mistress of the estate, for she could not envision raising her own children with the fear that her authority over them might be flouted by Mrs. Bennet. Moreover, she could not raise those children to the behaviour she expected from them if ever before them were the examples of the two youngest Bennet daughters. Mrs. Gardiner knew that they required to learn proper behaviour and her sister could not instruct what she had never learned.
So over the following months, the Gardiners moved into Longbourn. Mrs. Gardiner and the children arrived before her husband, for his business in London could not so easily be left. However, he was eventually able to secure a competent manager and, as Longbourn was but four hours distant from London, felt confident that he could direct his business affairs from there and travel to London as necessary.
Assembly Hall, Meryton
He was here tonight with one object in mind – well, two actually, but one was of primary importance. Longbourn had, for the past several days, had but one topic of interest. Mr. Bingley, a single, rich gentleman had taken lease of Netherfield Park and tonight would attend the local assembly with a party he had brought from London. His attendance had been the subject of rampant rumour and speculation as to the gender and size of the party he was to bring. Mr. Gardiner alone, of all Longbourn's residents, had met and spoken with Mr. Bingley, having called on him at Netherfield and receiving his return visit in the privacy of his study. Despite this advantage he had no more information to impart on the size and composition of Mr. Bingley's party than anyone else.
His brother-in-law must have been awaiting his arrival, for he had scarcely entered the assembly room before he was greeted.
"Gardiner." Said Mr. Philips.
Gardiner nodded in reply aware that Philips was scrutinizing his party carefully. He regarded his brother's approving mien.
"I see Kitty is not attending." Said Mr. Philips.
"Did you expect that she would after her behaviour at the Gouldings?"
"Not at all." Replied Philips, "Although I doubt our sister was so sanguine on the matter."
Gardiner grunted. Mrs. Bennet's character seemed as impervious to his control and strictures now as it was two years prior.
"She is as she ever was."
"And most unhappy to also not have her favourite daughter with her."
"While I have no doubt but that Lydia would like to attend, she fully understands and accepts the restrictions that have been applied. She saw that Kitty was not out till she was seventeen and that her poor behaviour prevented her from attending tonight. She may have her mother's favour, but she has chosen to not echo her complaints."
"She is uncommonly improved and we must credit your wife with it."
Further private conversation proved impossible as an acquaintance of Mr. Philips approached and began to speak with him on matters of business. It was a not unusual occurrence and Mr. Gardiner was content to return to his wife's side with his three nieces surrounding him.
"Where is my sister?"
"She moved to speak with Lady Lucas as soon as we entered the room." Responded his wife, not at all discomposed by the loss of the least appreciated member of their party.
"I suspect we shall not be spared her company when Mr. Bingley and his friends appear." Grumbled her husband.
"I fear you are correct, Mr. Gardiner." She replied, "However, I shall endeavour to keep her under regulation, difficult though that may be."
"You may advise her that I shall remove her to the Philips if I have any cause to be annoyed at her behaviour. I will not have her behaviour reflect poorly on our nieces."
This was punishment indeed and he had recourse to it twice since becoming trustee for Longbourn. The shame experienced by his sister at such treatment had been very great. The embarrassment had been such as to make her avoid all company until allowed to return to Longbourn. The lesson had been salutary, for, upon returning, her manners were greatly improved. Unfortunately, the lesson had not been so deeply impressed to make the improvement permanent. Some months later she was once again banished to the Philips and Gardiner had no doubt, based on her recent actions, that she would soon once more be required to live with their sister. This time he was not sure that he would allow her to return to Longbourn.
The music signaling the start of the first dance could be heard and the three gentlemen who had acquired the hands of his nieces for the dances came to claim them. He was pleased to see that Mary had been approached and was joining her sisters in the activity. It had taken no small effort on the part of his wife to modify her behaviour to the point where she participated socially with success. He was not privy to all that had been required but the end result met with his approval. While never likely to be as handsome as her sisters, Mary was, nonetheless, a pretty sort of girl and her preference towards moralizing had been curbed and, if little inclined to converse on frivolous topics, she was more than willing to discuss literature and philosophy and expound on matters of public interest. Even her performance on the pianoforte had been modified to such a degree that she could now perform in public and receive sincere appreciation.
The first dance of the opening set had just been completed when he noticed a disturbance at the main door to the assembly room. It seemed that the Netherfield party had arrived. He watched with amusement as Sir William Lucas, ever the genial host, bustled over to welcome them. That he secured Mr. Bingley to stand with his daughter for the next set was only to be expected. From his limited experience with Mr. Bingley, Mr. Gardiner suspected the gentleman was too well-mannered to do otherwise.
It was some time later that his wife elbowed him discretely to make him aware that Mr. Bingley and his party were approaching them. Gossip, which had flown around the room shortly after his arrival, had made Mr. Gardiner privy to the particulars of the party. Now he was to meet them directly. Mr. Bingley had in tow his two sisters, the husband of his eldest sister and a friend.
Mr. Bingley made the necessary introductions to his own party and Mr. Gardiner returned the favour. Jane was favoured at once by Mr. Bingley seeking her hand for the next set; however, the other single gentleman of the Netherfield party, Mr. Darcy, appeared disinclined to dance. Mrs. Gardiner, learning he was from Derbyshire was eager to discuss the beauties of that county, a topic which she had exhausted at Longbourn. As Mr. Darcy was not averse to such a discussion, they were happily engaged for several minutes. The remainder of the Netherfield party, after a few pleasantries, chose to remove to where refreshments were available. Mr. Darcy at last turned his attention to Mr. Gardiner.
"My friend,' he said, "was very much impressed with your estate. He has been told that you have, in the few years of ownership, effected many improvements."
Mr. Gardiner smiled and shook his head. "One must not place too great a trust on local gossip, Mr. Darcy. It invariably contains a small portion of truth to leaven its misinformation."
At Mr. Darcy's obvious confusion, he continued. "I do not own Longbourn, sir. I am simply its trustee pending the appearance of its heir. My service will, however, be of some duration as the gentleman has yet to be born."
Mr. Darcy's civility triumphed over his curiosity – for it had taken no great discernment to understand that the eldest Miss Bennet's son would most likely inherit Longbourn - and he readily accepted Mr. Gardiner's change of subject to one involving such improvements as he might have undertaken at Pemberley.
"I have," said Mr. Gardiner, "changed the rotation of crops to reflect that espoused in Norfolk. Have you experience with this improvement, Mr. Darcy? Does it materially improve yields? My steward certainly speaks of it with great enthusiasm."
Mr. Darcy spoke warmly in praise of the process, his father having introduced it to Pemberley some ten years prior.
"I wonder, sir, if you have considered expanding your holdings?" Darcy inquired.
"Indeed I have, sir, however, most landowners adjacent to Longbourn have an inflated sense of what their property is worth. Crop prices and land values have been driven beyond reason by the war. However," and a small, rather sly smile crossed Mr. Gardiner's features. "Netherfield has recently sold me a small parcel which has been untended for a number of years and which, Lizzie assures me, once was very profitable. I hope to restore it to its former condition."
"Excuse me. I speak of Elizabeth, my second eldest niece. She was very much in her father's confidence in regards to the management of Longbourn. Between her and Mr. Mitchell, my steward, I have ample assistance in managing the estate."
The end of the current dance signaled the end of their discussion, for all three of Mr. Gardiner's nieces were returned to his side. Mr. Darcy bowed and moved away and Mr. Gardiner occasionally observed him seemingly patrolling the circumference of the room without deigning to speak with anyone. For himself, Mr. Gardiner was content to converse with his neighbours, dance a set with his wife (and did so without being importuned), and keep a careful watch on his nieces. Though there was a shortage of gentlemen attending the assembly, they were rarely required to sit out a dance and he could not but be pleased at their popularity.
Later that night, after Longbourn's residents had settled down in their respective beds, Mr. Gardiner was to learn from his wife that his two eldest nieces had very different experiences at the assembly.
"Did you notice the particular attention Mr. Bingley paid to Jane tonight?" she asked.
Mr. Gardiner confessed he had not and was promptly informed that while Mr. Bingley had danced with several young ladies, only Jane was asked for a second set.
"it was a singular preference, Edward, and one we would do well to attend. I would not have him trifle with Jane's affections."
"That is well, to be sure. She can hardly have formed an attachment in one evening?"
Mrs. Gardiner looked at him with a degree of amusement.
"I dare say it is not too pronounced as yet, but I have never before heard her speak so warmly of a young man. We know so very little of his character which is reason enough for caution."
Mr. Gardiner agreed that it was and wondered if he should investigate Mr. Bingley. He had sufficient acquaintances in town and surely one or two might know of the man. Further consideration, however, led him to think that he might wait and observe Mr. Bingley's behaviour before taking action. It would not do to be precipitous. He was about to turn over and seek sleep when his wife brought another matter to his attention.
"Lizzy," said she, "had a less pleasant experience with Mr. Bingley's friend."
Mrs. Gardiner nodded. "She apparently overheard a conversation between Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley. Mr. Bingley was exhorting his friend to dance and Mr. Darcy made his reluctance to do so very clear. In the process Mr. Bingley suggested he dance with Elizabeth who was sitting near enough to overhear. Mr. Darcy declined the introduction, saying she was tolerable but not sufficiently attractive to entice him to dance. There was also some nonsense about not wishing to lend his consequence to young ladies unable to entice other men to dance with them."
Mr. Gardiner wore a pained look. He knew his niece's wit and love of laughing at people's foibles.
"I am surprised," said he, "that she did not mention this during our return from the assembly."
"She has mentioned it to only Charlotte and myself. I have asked them both to not relate it to anyone else, for, after our conversation with Mr. Darcy, I find it difficult to believe he could be so uncivil."
"Well, it was a private conversation, was it not? It may have been an opinion that he would not have wished anyone else to hear. One made, perhaps, without thinking about it overmuch." He paused briefly and grinned, "You mayhap might remind Lizzy of all the witticisms she has uttered and inquire whether she would appreciate having them overheard by the person of whom she was speaking. What's sauce for the goose, and all, hmm?"
His wife laughed and plumped her pillow. "Blow out the candle, my dear."
Mr. Gardiner was so fully involved in estate matters and certain pressing concerns of his own business in London, that he could not pay particular attention to the doings of his nieces in the days that followed. He had attended several dinners, observed Mr. Bingley's attentions to Jane, but as his wife remained sanguine about the matter, he saw no reason to worry himself over it. Several weeks passed in this manner; however, he had returned rather late one day, having visited and inspected several tenant homes and buildings in need of repair. He had the misfortune of being caught in a downpour about a quarter hour before he reached Longbourn and entered the house cold and thoroughly soaked. While a warm bath and a change of clothing began to improve his disposition, that happy state was of a short duration. His sister, taking advantage of his absence and that of his wife who had gone to visit the Lucas family and was not to return for a while yet, had sent Jane off to Netherfield, choosing to have her travel on horseback instead of in a carriage. The latter was available but Mrs. Bennet, recognizing the possibility of rain, wished to ensure that her daughter would be required to spend the night at Netherfield. To advance her daughter's suit with Mr. Bingley was without question his sister's object. Laudable as the object might be, her methods were deplorable and she knew that had either of the Gardiners been home, they would not have allowed it. Her protestations were many and fulsome but Mr. Gardiner, perhaps made more irritable by having to endure his own discomforts that day, would not relent. To the Philipses Mrs. Bennet must go. An honest error he would overlook, but knowingly infringe decorum by the exercise of such improper stratagems he would not.
Having already resolved to call at Netherfield as early as was acceptable, his wife's anxiety was increased by a note from Jane to the effect that she was now well and that the local apothecary had been to visit her. While Mr. Gardiner wished to accompany his wife to ascertain Jane's state of health, the more pressing business of removing his sister from Longbourn was a task only he could undertake. Thus, only Mrs. Gardiner, accompanied by Elizabeth, were to go.
Mrs. Philips was, as always, pleased to have her sister stay with her. Having no children of her own and a predilection for gossip, a failing she shared with Mrs. Bennet, they were kindred spirits and he had no doubt they spent a goodly portion of their hours castigating him for his cruelty and lack of consideration for the delicacy of Mrs. Bennet's nerves.
"Jane is quite ill indeed, though Mr. Jones believes it no worse than a violent cold." He was informed by his wife when she returned, "I have left Lizzy to take care of her, for I sense that Mr. Bingley's sisters will be most unhappy should that chore fall to them."
"Can Jane not be brought home where we can provide much better care?"
"Mr. Jones does not think it advisable."
Mr. Gardiner grunted in annoyance. What must the Netherfield party think of such imprudent behaviour? – Sending a young woman on horseback instead of a carriage when it was surely about to rain! His wife must have discerned his thoughts.
"I suggest you might wish to check on her yourself tomorrow, Edward. That will afford you the opportunity to speak with Mr. Bingley. I suspect you will not find him overly distressed excepting only that Jane is unwell."
Mr. Gardiner called at Netherfield the next day, spent a few minutes with Jane and Elizabeth and then, accompanied by the latter, spoke to Mr. Bingley and the other members of his party. It was a singular conversation. His initial impression of Bingley's sisters suffered no alteration. They thought altogether too well of themselves and too meanly of others of lesser perceived consequence. Of Mr. Darcy he was puzzled, for he experienced the greatest difficulty in sketching his character. The civility with which they discoursed at the assembly appeared to have been replaced by a more distant manner. He was not disagreeable as much as he made no particular attempt to be agreeable. A private word with Elizabeth as his horse was brought to him gave him to understand that she found the company at Netherfield wanting, excepting only that of Mr. Bingley. His sisters were supercilious, his friend, unpleasant, and Mr. Hurst, a bore. He smiled and assured her that she should, as soon as Jane was well enough to travel, send for the coach.
Over the next few days, the absence of Jane and Elizabeth's sensible conversation was more than once remarked upon by the members of his household. They were, therefore, welcomed home with considerable pleasure and frequent expressions of delight at their return.
"Our nieces have been invited to the Philipses for supper and cards tomorrow evening, Edward."
Mr. Gardiner nodded and then noted the worried expression her features wore. As he considered the matter further, he comprehended her concern.
"Shall we attend them to protect them from their mother?"
"I have no fears for any of them except Lydia. I can hardly not allow her to attend however."
"Shall one of us accompany them?"
Mr. Gardiner was almost certain that he would be required to sacrifice his evening, for their youngest had been slightly ill all day and he knew his wife would not wish to be separated from him at such a time.
"I fear you must." She said, her tones apologetic. "However, it should not be too much of a trial for your sister has invited some of the officers to the party."
Mr. Gardiner grimaced. Most of those gentlemen were young and greatly in want of society. He could imagine little pleasure from their company.
"Perhaps," he mused, with a hopeful look to his wife, "Colonel Forster is to attend?"
She shrugged and shook her head, stating that she had not spoken to their sister on her plans.
As it was to happen, Colonel Forster had declined the invitation, although allowing his officers to attend. If Mr. Philips had been less inclined to enjoy his port, he might have provided some company. Any satisfaction from the evening arose from two very disparate sources. The first was that his sister, Mrs. Bennet, remained unhappy at being removed to the Philipses and chose to express her ire by avoiding his company altogether. As it also spared him her complaints, he did not repine being so rejected. Unfortunately for her, she could find no company willing to listen to her misfortunes for more than a few minutes, for the card tables had been placed and everyone wished to play. Everyone, that is, except Mr. Gardiner who was quite content to sit and watch.
The second source of satisfaction arose from observing Lydia's behaviour. Perhaps his presence had made her more conscious of the proprieties, or it may have been she was finally absorbing his wife's instruction. Whatever the cause, he was glad to see that her manners and comportment while lively, did not impinge on propriety. On several instances, he watched as her mother spoke to her, saw Lydia nodded agreeably, and continue to behave as she had before. In each instance, his sister walked away with a most dissatisfied expression. He resolved to compliment Lydia when they travelled home. And later, as they bounced along the road towards Longbourn, he did exactly that. To his surprise, Mary echoed his praise, saying how pleasant it was to have her company that evening. He had not noticed it but Mary had remained close to her sister all evening to provide assistance and guidance should such be required. If it was too dark to apprehend Lydia's response to such commendation, her mumbled words of appreciation were more than sufficient.
He noted that Elizabeth was uncommonly quiet but, as she appeared unwilling to speak on what bothered her, he chose to not pursue the matter. All became clear the next morning. She approached him following breakfast as he attended his business correspondence.
"Uncle," said she, after being admitted to his study, "might I impose on you on a matter which has been brought to my attention?"
He gave his assurance, pushing aside his letters to more readily focus on her.
"I spoke last evening with a Mr. Wickham." Gardiner tried to recollect being introduced to a gentleman of that name but could not and said as much to his niece. She gave a brief description of him, noting that he had only lately joined the _shire militia which had were quartered in Meryton for the winter. From her sketch he supposed her to have been attracted to the gentleman and his attention became more pronounced. While Elizabeth would not inherit Longbourn, any suitor might reasonably expect some assistance should an attachment be formed. If her prospects were insufficient to attract the more egregious of suitors, a militia officer with a small income of his own might well be interested, anticipating that his wife's portion would provide modest comfort for a family.
"And your concern?"
Elizabeth began a recital of all that Mr. Wickham had spoken of last night. It was a tale that spoke poorly of Mr. Darcy and made Mr. Wickham a figure of suffering rectitude. Elizabeth finished the tale by stating, "I might once have accepted this story without reservation, but you and my aunt have taught me to be more cautious in forming my opinions. I well remember your advice in regards to Mr. Clarkson."
They exchanged smiles. Some six months before, a Mr. Clarkson had attended the local assembly, appeared much taken with Jane, had courted her for several weeks. His prospects were supposedly very good and Mrs. Bennet had been vociferous in her approval and Elizabeth no less so, for his manner had been agreeable to everyone. Mr. Gardiner had seen no objection to him, however, as his attentions to Jane continued, he thought it wise to investigate Mr. Clarkson's circumstances. While the gentleman owned a modest estate, it was heavily laden with debt. His character was further lowered by suspicions of rakish behaviour which bode poorly for Jane's future happiness. Confronted with these findings, Mr. Clarkson had decamped quickly. Mrs. Bennet decried his loss for several weeks but Elizabeth could find no comfort on her failure to comprehend Mr. Clarkson's character. Solace was to be found only in Jane's response. Her heart had not become engaged. Mr. Gardiner had only suggested that Elizabeth might wish, in future, to not be too precipitous in forming opinions about anyone. That a poor first opinion might be improved upon subsequent observation, and that a good impression might well be equally misleading.
"Ah!" said Mr. Gardiner, "and to what effect have you considered Mr. Wickham's tale?"
"I would wish for your opinion, Uncle."
Mr. Gardiner shook his head, "I can hardly form a valid opinion of Mr. Wickham without having first met him. If you have brought this to my attention, it can only be that you doubt the story, in part or in whole. Else why would you be worried?"
"I was not at first. I came from my aunt's believing Mr. Wickham implicitly." She flushed in irritation at her uncle's smirk. "Oh, very well! He has a most winning manner and charm. It seemed inconceivable that he could not be telling the absolute truth. It was written in his looks. At least it was until I spoke with Jane. Then I began to question what I had been told. She simply could not credit that Mr. Darcy could be so dishonourable and then I recollected that, until Mr. Wickham had spun his story, I also would not have thought him so very bad. Disagreeable, to be sure. But dishonourable? No!"
"Is there anything in particular which disturbs you about Mr. Wickham?"
Elizabeth shook her head.
"How long have you known him?"
A few moments of reflection were sufficient as understanding flooded her countenance and she flushed once more, this time in embarrassment.
"It was, "she declared, "quite improper of him to speak so openly to a complete stranger?"
"Indeed it was! And, I might add, rather perverse, was it not, to be so explicit while averring that he would not expose Mr. Darcy? How was he to know that you would not spread the tale to one and all? Perhaps he even hoped that you would?"
"He has played me for a gullible fool."
Mr. Gardiner could see his niece's temper rising. "Perhaps, but your good sense quickly reasserted itself."
"What shall I do? What can be done?"
"I see no reason to do anything. The story shall not be spread any further and you no longer credit Mr. Wickham's honesty. He has, therefore, failed in whatever was his object. I must advise you to allow the matter to rest."
Mr. Gardiner could see that inaction did not suit his niece's temper but he doubted she would act in opposition to his advice. She was a sensible girl, after all.
"Can you not do something?"
Perhaps not quite so practical, after all. Mr. Gardiner spent no few minutes convincing her that while he might, in fact, "do something", he was far from convinced of the necessity of taking any action.
"I cannot see, at this point, what benefit will accrue from doing so. What is Mr. Wickham to me? I shall adjure your sisters to have nothing to do with him and shall also bar officers from Longbourn, but what else might I do on such a flimsy pretext? We have nothing explicit with which to charge him and we would risk censure or worse to warn our neighbours against him. And I doubt the wisdom of tainting all the officers due to Mr. Wickham's poor character. I believe that would raise questions I would not wish to answer."
And while Elizabeth wished to have her uncle do something, anything, to redress her error in regards to Mr. Wickham, she could form no arguments she thought sufficiently compelling to persuade him to do so. Indeed, she was uncertain why she even thought it necessary.
The following day, Mr. Bingley and his sister called at Longbourn to deliver personally an invitation to the ball to be held at Netherfield the Tuesday next. It was a singular honour, for the usual custom was to have the invitations delivered by a footman. The Gardiners were not insensible of the honour which they rightfully attributed to Mr. Bingley's esteem for their eldest niece. It was accepted with pleasure and every semblance of decorum. If Mr. Bingley chose to honour their niece, they would not discomfort him by any obvious recognition of his having done so.
The departure saw a flurry of activity at Longbourn that consumed the attentions of the ladies completely for those days leading up to the ball: there were dresses to be remade so as to appear new and more fashionable; there was much talk of whom they might dance with; and, as Kitty was to attend, the Netherfield ball would mark her "coming out" into society. Even Lydia, who could not attend, found sufficient pleasure in her sisters' preparations as to render her own exclusion slightly less painful. The succession of rain which lasted until the day of the ball meant that such excited spirits were largely confined within the walls of Longbourn and Mr. Gardiner, the sole male surrounded by six women intensely interested in the upcoming ball, felt himself, perhaps for the first time, in sympathy with Mr. Bennet's predilection of seeking refuge in his study. As it was, he was not displeased that his business affairs gave him valid reason to seclude himself there.
"Jane is to dance the first set with Mr. Bingley!"
His wife's excited whisper was rather superfluous, for he could see that gentleman leading his niece to the head of the line. Miss Bingley had apparently suborned Mr. Darcy to show her the same preference and Mr. Gardiner thought her evident satisfaction stood in an interesting contradiction to the absence of a similar expression on the gentleman's mien.
His other nieces were also be led unto the floor by their respective partners and he could take pleasure in their appearance and the eagerness with which they were sought out. As the evening progressed, however, Mr. Bingley's attentions to Jane became so marked – he had danced the supper dance with her - that Mr. Gardiner felt it incumbent to speak with him. Thus, after the supper, he approached Mr. Bingley, requesting a moment to speak with him privately.
"A ball-room is hardly appropriate for private discourse. Perhaps we might avail ourselves of your study?"
Mr. Bingley readily agreed, although greatly astonished at being approached by Mr. Gardiner. They proceeded directly towards the study, Mr. Bingley leading and wearing a concerned expression. Mr. Gardiner could see his host, several times casting a glance in his direction, obviously pondering the reasons for such a meeting.
Mr. Gardiner swept the study with a discerning eye as he moved to stand before the fireplace. It was a fine room, but not one, he thought subject to much use. The bookshelves were mostly empty and while he would hardly have expected the large desk ensconced in front of the window to be littered with paper, there was nothing to suggest that it was in use at all.
Mr. Gardiner felt all the awkwardness of his situation and prefaced his remarks with the usual disclaimers of not intending to give offense.
"However," he continued, "I am concerned that your attentions to my niece may have given rise to expectations of which you are unaware. Your preference for Jane is particularly marked this evening and, for obvious reasons, I must be concerned. If you are not intending to forward that interest in the usual manner, then I must insist you desist. I trust that you are an honourable man, sir, and expect you to act accordingly."
Bingley was clearly taken aback and more than slightly offended at the implication that he might act in a dishonourable manner. Before he could frame a response, however, the study door opened and Mr. Darcy strode through. That he had known of their presence was made clear at once.
"I apologize for the intrusion, gentlemen, but when I observed you moving in this direction with the obvious intent of a private conversation, I thought to be of assistance to my friend."
Mr. Bingley looked relieved and made his preference known. Mr. Gardiner, however, thought Darcy to be presumptuous though, as Bingley made no demurs and the subject bore on him directly, felt he had no grounds for complaint. That did not preclude the exercise of sarcasm.
"I had not thought you so deficient in understanding, Mr. Bingley, as to require unrequested assistance, nor that Mr. Darcy would intrude on a private conversation. I appears I was wrong on both counts." Both gentlemen were affronted and Darcy stiffened at being so rebuked. His haughty demeanour spoke more loudly than anything he could have said. Mr. Gardiner was not bothered at all.
"However," he continued, "as you are now here and as there is nothing I have said to Mr. Bingley that you may not hear should he wish it so, I shall repeat, for your benefit, my . . . caution to him. I have informed Mr. Bingley that his behaviour towards my eldest niece has given rise to expectations of which he might be unaware. I do not question Mr. Bingley's honour but must insist he either pay his addresses to her in a formal manner or, in future, behave towards her as though they were indifferent acquaintances. I leave it to him to decide but should he not chose the latter, I shall expect him to call on me at his earliest convenience." He paused briefly, and pinning Bingley with his gaze, added, "Am I rightly understood, Mr. Bingley?"
Bingley nodded weakly and looked to his friend for assistance. Mr. Gardiner was not blind to the young man's apparent reliance on the older, more experienced Mr. Darcy.
Mr. Bingley found his voice.
"I assure you, Mr. Gardiner, that I fully intend . . . that I have every intention of furthering my interest in Miss Bennet. I cannot comprehend how you could believe otherwise."
"Our acquaintance is of such a short duration, sir, that I have yet to own a full understanding of your character. It is not unknown for a young man to come into the country, pay particular attention to a young lady and then leave never to think of her again. If I were to base my opinion of you on the attitudes expressed by your sisters and," here Mr. Gardiner looked directly at Darcy, "your friend, I might well arrive at such an judgement."
"I do not have the pleasure of understanding you." Snapped Darcy.
"Do you not? Neither Mr. Bingley's sisters nor you have made any effort to further an acquaintance with the local families. You all have been welcomed into our homes and yet only Mr. Bingley has responded with more than the barest of civilities. If you, Mr. Darcy, or Mr. Bingley's sisters find pleasure in our society, it is not obvious to any of us." Mr. Gardiner shrugged and return his focus to Bingley, "But that is neither here nor there. I will not presume to dictate to you, sir; however, should you choose not to further your attachment to my niece, I must insist, as I have already said, that you henceforth treat her as an indifferent acquaintance."
"Might I inquire as to Miss Bennet's feelings towards me?"
"You may not. I shall certainly not betray my niece's privacy."
"I have not observed that she holds you in any particular affection, Bingley." Declared Darcy, whose temper had not been improved by Mr. Gardiner's apparent disregard of his consequence.
"And who, sir, are you to judge my niece's feelings and thoughts? Has she spoken with you? I dare say not! I doubt you have exchanged a dozen words in the weeks you have resided here." Mr. Gardiner's tone was stern.
"I must," explained Bingley, wishing o direct the conversation to less fraught matters, "travel to town on a matter of business. I shall be gone for several days, perhaps a se'nnight."
Mr. Gardiner nodded, "That should allow you the opportunity to consider your future actions, Mr. Bingley. I hope you shall call on your return, but should you chose otherwise, do not fear that we shall be affronted."
Mr. Bingley responded, apparently relieved at the moderation of Mr. Gardiner's tone, and checking his watch informed the others that he was required to dance next with Miss Lucas. Making his excuses he hurried from the room. Darcy made as to follow but was halted at Mr. Gardiner's request for a word.
"My niece made a new acquaintance the week past, Mr. Darcy, and one who claims an acquaintance with you."
Darcy's features assumed a deeper shade of haughter. "Miss Elizabeth apprised me of the acquaintance whilst we danced earlier this evening."
Mr. Gardiner's surprise could not be masked and it was all he could do not to exclaim, "You danced with Lizzy?" Instead he uttered a strangled, "Indeed?"
Darcy nodded, "I shall repeat what I informed Miss Elizabeth. Mr. Wickham as such happy manners as to assure him of gaining friends. Whether he is able to retain them is another matter altogether."
Mr. Gardiner smiled thinly, "He is not to be trusted then? Much as we thought."
Darcy looked as though he wished to inquire further into the matter, but chose instead to sketch a brief bow and left the room. Mr. Gardiner remained, considering Darcy's words for some minutes. He wondered if the gentleman had been more forthcoming with Elizabeth. Imagine him asking her to dance? What a singular occurrence.
He had no wish to discuss the matter with her that evening, since his only wish, once they reached Longbourn, was for the warmth and comfort of his bed with his wife lying peacefully at his side.
The following day proceeded quietly as everyone, excepting Lydia and the Gardiner's children, was fatigued by the prior night's activity and quite content to sleep late and enjoy more subdued, contemplative endeavours. On the morrow, after breakfast, the girls walked into Meryton to speak with their aunt and mother. As they made their way through the town they were joined by Mr. Wickham whose absence from the ball at Netherfield had been commented on by several people. One of his fellow officers had extend Mr. Wickham's apologies for his absence, claiming a matter of business required his presence in London. At the time, Elizabeth had wondered if it were more to do with Mr. Darcy's presence and not all Mr. Wickham's charm and pleasing address could now shake that conviction. To claim he had avoided attending to spare possible embarrassment to Mr. Bingley was sophistry of the worst sort. To the surprise of her sisters, who had been given no reason to think poorly of Mr. Wickham, Elizabeth did not greeted this explanation with apparent sympathy and when pressed to support their desire for Mr. Wickham to accompany them back to Longbourn, did so with no appreciable enthusiasm. Nonetheless, he chose to walk with them and Elizabeth found some comfort in his introduction to her aunt and uncle and the coolness with which they received him. After a concerted and unsuccessful effort to win their approval, Mr. Wickham chose to make his departure. When he had done so, Mr. Gardiner had instructed all his nieces to avoid Mr. Wickham in the future, for they had reason to suspect his character. Mr. Gardiner would not be explicit but, as his warnings were echoed by Elizabeth and Jane, their complaints were of short duration. There were, after all, more than enough officers to enjoy to make tolerable the loss of one, no matter how handsome and agreeable he might be.
The Monday following the ball at Netherfield saw the return of Mr. Bingley and the day after found him being shown into Mr. Gardiner's study.
"I am pleased to see you, Mr. Bingley. I will confess to no small uncertainty about such a visit." Declared Mr. Gardiner. "How might I be of service?"
Mr. Gardiner had an excellent idea of what his visitor would request, but saw no reason to ease his path unduly.
"I would like your consent to speak privately with Miss Bennet, sir."
Mr. Gardiner's features creased in a warm smile. "I had rather thought that to be the case; however, I must caution you that I shall not approve an engagement at this time. I would wish you both to come to a better understanding of the other's character before taking such a step. Is this agreeable to you, Mr. Bingley?"
Mr. Bingley nodded, slightly unhappy at such a restriction.
"You had been uncertain as to my return?" said he.
"Indeed! Your sisters and friend do not approve of the match."
"You mistake Darcy badly. He did not disapprove so much as to caution me to be certain of my wishes. He could see no affection from Miss Bennet commensurate with my own."
"And your sisters?'
"While they profess a great admiration for Miss Bennet, they also were uncertain as to her feelings and believed that she might well accept my attentions in order to secure her future."
"You are being uncommonly honest, Mr. Bingley. I wonder how they can profess admiration and yet hold such a poor opinion of my niece's character. Jane has no need to be mercenary, I assure you."
Bingley assured him he had entertained no such suspicions. "Darcy quite refuted any such assertions when I spoke with him later."
Mr. Gardiner's eyebrows rose and Bingley hurriedly explained that his friend had enlightened him on Miss Bennet's status. Gardiner regarded him thoughtfully for several long moments before deciding that the subject of Jane's inheritance could await a formal proposal.
"I shall have Jane attend you shortly."
Within five minutes of Jane speaking with Mr. Bingley the happy couple were able to announce a formal courtship. Mr. Bingley was a regular visitor to Longbourn thereafter, coming early and frequently staying late and dining with the family. Early in the new year, he sought permission to propose and, as Mr. Gardiner had found nothing in Bingley's character which might seriously concern him, assent was readily provided. Mr. Gardiner was not altogether satisfied with the ductility of Bingley's character but hoped that, with Jane's support and some direction from himself, that an amiable character would eventually be made more resolute. Bingley had, after all, stood against his sister's importuning. Whether he could withstanding that of Mrs. Bennet was another question. Gardiner knew he could not quit Longbourn until assured that her influence would be restrained.
The wedding, anticipated by Mrs. Bennet when she first learned of Mr. Bingley's arrival in Hertfordshire, took place towards the end of February. As Mrs. Gardiner allowed her sister the full responsibility of organizing the event, subject only to the financial constraints imposed by Mr. Gardiner, it was as lavish and ostentatious as that lady could manage. Mrs. Bennet was in her full glory, speaking frequently and fondly of her prospective son-in-law. Her effusions of pleasure continued unabated until she learned that Bingley, having spoken to Mr. Gardiner, chose not to invite his new mother to live with them at Netherfield. As his lease there was not to end for almost a half year, he and Jane had decided to begin married life in that house. The company of Mrs. Bennet would not be propitious for the development of their union. Their stay at Netherfield would also allow time for appropriate improvements to their suite of rooms at Longbourn.
Elizabeth was to stand as Jane's witness and Bingley had received word that Darcy would stand with him. Darcy arrived a fortnight before the wedding and, to the surprise of very few, Miss Bingley and the Hursts joined their brother a few days later.
Mrs. Bennet would no shortage of occasions in which to display her daughter and her betrothed. Their neighbours were complicit in her schemes, and scarce an evening passed that a dinner or an amusement of a similar ilk must be attended. Darcy was required to be much in Elizabeth's company and, if the circumstance was displeasing, he hid it very well.
To all of these activities, there was one person who was a stranger. Mr. Wickham had no scruples in sinking Darcy's character once he believed him to have left the area. Darcy's return and the probability of the truth being made known were circumstances that caused him to adjust his plans and, thinking it best to remove himself from the situation, he resigned his commission and departed as quietly and expeditiously as possible. Of his future doings, nothing more is known.
Elizabeth's opinion of Darcy gradually improved as he made a concerted effort to win her regard. His actions, because of the attention directed to the betrothed couple, passed unnoticed by everyone with the exception of Mrs. Gardiner and it was possible even she might have overlooked his quiet courtship had he not asked Elizabeth to dance at Lucas Lodge. The singularity of this event and the expressions on the features of her niece and Mr. Darcy caused her to keep a closer watch on their behaviour. Within a day she was convinced of Darcy's regard for her niece. Of the latter's feelings, she was less certain.
"Lizzy," she asked later that same night when she found her niece alone, "it appears to me that your opinion of Mr. Darcy, once so unfavourable, has improved a very great deal."
Elizabeth agreed cautiously that it had.
"Has it improved to the point where you might accept an offer from him?"
This question was greeted with a silence that lasted for more than a minute. Mrs. Gardiner did not press the point, for she could see her niece was contemplating her answer. Finally, it was forthcoming.
"I believe I could, should he ask. Which I am not certain he will do. There is a great difference in our stations, is there not?"
Mrs. Gardiner chose to ignore the last question.
"Do you feel a regard for him sufficient to marry him and be happy in that marriage? If not, I would urge you not to accept an offer. He is wealthy, to be sure, but material possessions will be a poor consolation for an otherwise unhappy life."
"I do not fear that. I have come to understand that he is a very good man: careful, considerate, generous. We've spoken of his sister. Did you know he has been her guardian for the past five years? She's only Lydia's age and he hopes to bring her to Netherfield soon. Could a man who is so protective of a sister be anything less to a wife and children? I know he's also more than a little arrogant but I have never required perfection in a husband. I certainly have faults enough of my own."
"Should I have your uncle speak with him?"
Elizabeth flushed deeply, for Mr. Gardiner had told both Jane and herself of his conversation with Mr. Bingley the night of the ball at Netherfield.
"I do not think that necessary, Aunt. Mr. Darcy's attentions had not been so obvious as to excite any notice. Even my mother is oblivious to it."
The two shared a quiet chuckle, for Mrs. Bennet rarely overlooked any attentions, no matter how small or fleeting, to any of her daughters.
Mrs. Gardiner did however speak to her husband, apprising him of her observations and her talk with their niece. His surprise was beyond question and while he did not doubt the accuracy of his wife's perception, he was resolved to confirm it by his own observation. This he did a day before the wedding and, though he wished to address Darcy on the matter, he bowed to the wishes of his niece. Having spoken about his expectations to Bingley in Darcy's presence, he could not doubt but the man would act appropriately. From what he saw, the only question that existed was when he would be approached for his consent.
While he had the pleasure and privilege of leading Jane down the aisle at her wedding, his thoughts never wandered too far from his second eldest niece. Thus, after the ceremony, when he observed Elizabeth and Darcy walking together in the general direction of a shrubbery which would afford them some privacy, he stationed himself so as to be able to greet them when they returned. Some time later he watched them reappear and from their respective demeanour and the manner in which Elizabeth grasped Darcy's arm, concluded that matters had been resolved to their satisfaction – and his. He stepped forward.
"I believe, Mr. Darcy, that you have a question for me."
The first true, unrestrained smile he had ever seen on Darcy's countenance greeted his words. Elizabeth laughed.
"How long, Uncle, have you been awaiting us?"
"Only as long as you hid yourselves in the shrubbery. I fear had you not emerged when you did, I might have had to seek you out." He turned to Darcy. "I await your response, sir."
Darcy looked down at Elizabeth and laid his hand over hers which clasped his arm. "Miss Eliza . . . no, it is Miss Bennet now who has done me the great honour of accepting my offer of marriage. We would ask for your consent and blessing, Mr. Gardiner."
Gardiner assured him that it was given. "Although," he confessed, "I was only given to understand that an attachment had grown between you by my wife and that only yesterday. However, Lizzy's face tells its own tale and I could never deny her any happiness. It appears that her happiness is tied up very much with you, Mr. Darcy."
Later that day, after all the guests had departed and Mr. and Mrs. Bingley had departed on their wedding trip, Mr. Gardiner invited Darcy into his study. Passing him a glass of port, he observed:
"Miss Bingley will not be pleased when she learns of your engagement to Lizzy."
Darcy snorted in derision. "She will not but she can have cause to complain, for I have never accorded any more attention to her than I have for any sister of one of my friends."
"This raises a question which I hope will not offend."
Darcy looked interested.
"I wonder at your courting Elizabeth. There is a great difference in your respective stations in society. When you left Netherfield last autumn, I thought never to see you again, for, as I said at the time, your disdain for our small society was poorly hidden."
"Elizabeth and I have spoken of this. My behaviour, my manners then are not something I now can view with satisfaction. I am afraid I did view most of the people with disdain. Not Elizabeth, for a certainty. Nor yourself or Mrs. Gardiner." He paused to collect his thoughts.
"It was," he said, "partially your discussion with Bingley that caused me to reconsider how I had acted. As well, I had developed an attraction to Elizabeth but convinced myself of her unsuitability. She had no fortune, no connections which I had come to believe essential in the woman I would marry. I was certain then that any affection I harboured for her was solely an infatuation and would disappear once I removed from her company."
He smiled wryly. "It did not. Quite the reverse actually, for I found myself unwittingly comparing her to each and every lady brought forward for my consideration. The comparison was never in their favour. Once Bingley invited me to stand with him, well . . . the die was cast when I agreed to do so. Elizabeth's lack of fortne and connections were of little significance when compared to her worth. I knew however, that I had no small task to convince Elizabeth to accept me. I was prepared to remain at Netherfield until she either did so or sent me away."
"Have you and she decided on a date to marry?"
"We would wish to marry as soon as Bingley and his wife return. I shall obtain a Common License which will allow us to marry without a reading of the bans."
"My sister would, I am convinced, be overjoyed should you marry with a Special License."
Darcy grimaced, "It is difficult but not impossible to obtain one, however, the Archbishop prefers to issue them only under special circumstances. A Common License will suffice I am sure."
"It will certainly suffice for me and I doubt Lizzy is concerned about the matter at all."
Mr. Gardiner looked with satisfaction as the heavy, awkward carts trundled their way down the road to Longbourn, bearing the furnishings removed from Netherfield to their new home in the wing of rooms that Bingley had caused to be built. The Bingleys, all three of them, including the heir to the property, were returning to their home. It had taken no small amount of planning and much persuasion on the part of Charles Bingley. A man known for his amiable disposition had proven strangely firm in his resolve that the Gardiners should remain at Longbourn as long as Mr. Gardiner's business could be managed from there. As his wife and children much preferred to live in the country, he had at last agreed to the proposal. Bingley, once that agreement had been obtained, moved quickly to expand Longbourn with the addition of a wing increasing the number of bedchambers and public rooms. As well, Bingley had acquired from the owners of Netherfield, several parcels of land adjacent to the Longbourn estate and, if his plans bore fruit, the income of Longbourn would increase markedly.
Gardiner turned to his companion, whose gaze was on his wife and young daughter who were strolling hand-in-hand through Longbourn's gardens – or, in the case of little Miss Darcy, staggering unevenly and attempting to free herself from her mother's firm grip to explore the mud puddle before her.
"Lizzy appears to be feeling better."
"Aye, she is not so ill in the mornings now."
"Your daughter seems to appreciate a puddle as much as once did her mother."
Darcy chuckled and shook his head, "I am not convinced that my wife has outgrown her appreciation, although she has grown a little more circumspect."
He turned to face Mr. Gardiner.
"Elizabeth and I have never expressed our appreciation for the sacrifice and effort you and Mrs. Gardiner expended after Mr. Bennet's passing. Elizabeth has spoken of the changes that you both brought about and I suspect that neither Elizabeth nor Jane would be so happily situated had not you stepped in. We, and all Elizabeth's sisters, owe you and your wife a great debt of gratitude."
"I thank you both for myself and my wife; however, you must understand that I was simply fulfilling Mr. Bennet's trust and wishes. As trustee, my wife and I could do nothing else. The alternatives were not to be thought of."
~ Finis ~