The Question of Consent
By DJ Clawson
This is a sequel to "A Bit of Advice." Since I don't like to repeat myself, though it does follow the events of the previous story, this one has a slightly different, darker tone (and an actual plot). It follows up about 7 months after the ending of the last story, and while it still features our favorite bickering Derbyshire couples, there will be some mystery and maybe violence.
If you missed "A Bit of Advice," the Bingleys and the Darcys were married, and Elizabeth produced a son and Jane a daughter.
Chapter 1 – A Most Unexpected Visitor
For once, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy had his massive study to himself, but he did not revel in the privacy as thought he would. Since her first days at Pemberley, Elizabeth had been fascinated by this male sanctuary, and had thoroughly invaded it, even when he offered her many alternate locations for her own writing and reading, and what little financial business she had to contract with her minor personal income. He had not the will to shoo her away, and she seemed to realize it. Her goings in and out became more of a silly war of personal space, one both sides were content to occasionally win and occasionally lose (though Darcy had to admit he most often lost, but was compensated thoroughly later that night).
As it was, on this beautiful fall morning, he had the room truly to himself, because Elizabeth was five miles away, tending to her confined sister in Kirkland. His only reason for being at Pemberley at all was for this business, which he hurried to finish. Only his highest scruples would prevent him from reading the contracts before signing them, even if it meant another few hours without Lizzy and Geoffrey. In fact, his son was yet another loss in the study, because since he had learned to crawl, he spent far too long (according to Nurse) rolling around on the carpet in front of the desk. Usually when infants were brought to see their father, it was largely for show, but he was quite content to let the near-toddler have his way about the room, ruining whatever clothing he was bundled in. In fact, the servants had become quite adept at stepping around the young Master Darcy.
The servant this morning had no such worries as he entered and bowed. "Mr. Bingley, sir."
Bingley was in London. Darcy knew that as a fact. He had received a letter and had business of great import in London that could not be avoided, and with Jane still a month away, he was finally convinced by his wife to answer the call and high-tail it to Town. That was only two days ago, by Darcy's estimation, but he didn't question it and gave an approving nod.
The man who entered immediately after him was indeed Charles Bingley, still carrying his hat and looking rather weather-worn. He had clearly been riding, perhaps from Kirkland. "Please forgive – "
"What is wrong?" Darcy did not hide his concern. "Who is ill?"
"No one. I have not in fact been to Kirkland, but I did hear it and everyone is well."
Darcy frowned, and bid him to be seated, but Bingley would not. He paced by the fireplace instead as Darcy observed, "You came here directly from Town?"
"Yes. Yes, I did." He practically spit it out. "I need your advice."
"On business I assume?"
"No. Yes. Sort of. Not the business you are thinking of." As usual, Bingley was a sputtering mess, but the truth would be out soon enough, and the important thing was, Jane and Elizabeth were well and the children were well. Everything else was irrelevant and could take its time in revealing itself. "You recall I was told of pressing affairs in Town. The letter made it seem as if they were trade related." Though he rarely spoke of it, the Bingley family was still very connected to the wool trade, as it was the source of their original fortune and had potential for future fortune, but Mr. Bingley Senior had raised his son a gentlemen of leisure, so Bingley had little to do with his own business and relied on overseers and stewards to manage it almost entirely. "This was not entirely true."
Darcy simply gave him the same impatient look that said, 'Do go on, silly man who is wasting my time' that he gave to practically everybody.
"As it turns out, my sister is engaged, and was seeking my consent for her marriage to a certain minor earl. His name is Lord James Kincaid, and they are very eager to be married, but I suppose they must have imagined that I would not leave Kirkland for another month."
"And they could not come to you."
Bingley shrugged. "I suppose Caroline wanted me to meet him in the proper setting."
"So I am to understand that Miss Bingley is affianced to Scottish nobility, and you are here to ask me ... what, exactly? If you should give your consent?"
"No, not precisely." Bingley twirled around in frustration. "I dislike saying it."
"Saying what? I was not under the impression that you dislike anything in this world."
Bingley frowned, and leaned on the fireplace, facing into the dark, unlit coals. "I do not favor this man."
To this, Darcy had to give pause. Considerable pause. "In our entire history, I cannot think of a single acquaintance that you did not like immensely, even when there was ample reason for the contrary. You have spoken highly even of women who have slighted you and servants who have cheated you. So I must come to the conclusion that this man is either secretly George Wickham, or he is the most disgusting, disagreeable man in Britain."
"Precisely. Only, he isn't. He's quite pleasant, and he seems ... well, Caroline is pleased with the arrangement."
"So he is wealthy."
"Not by heritage. His particular region is not very prosperous, somewhere in the lowlands. But he went to Australia and made a fortune there, and has just recently returned to settle down."
"The lowlands, you say?"
"Yes. Not so terribly far from here, so it is not a question of my not wanting the distance between us ..." Because despite the general disposition of his siblings, Charles Bingley was a model brother and loved them dearly. "To be blunt about it, I don't know what it is that bothers me about him. I can find no proper reason not to like this man, and eagerly consent to a marriage that would make Caroline happy." He paused. "And yet, here I am."
"And I am still waiting for your answer to my question. On what subject do you need advice? Surely you cannot ask me to judge the man from afar? Or for that matter, to have any real say in the matter of whom Miss Bingley marries."
"I know, but ...," he hesitated again. "I would wish a favor from you, Darcy."
"You know you do not even have to ask."
"I would ask you to go to Town. Secretly, or to accompany, I care not. But – to put it correctly – you know something of discovering people's ... connections."
"You suspect something of this man? Lord Kincaid?"
"I cannot even say that. But there is something I cannot describe that has caused me to withhold my consent. Not that Caroline could not be in the process of marrying him at this moment, as she is only my sister and has her own will, but I do not believe she would do so. Or, she wouldn't have called for me with Jane in confinement. Am I correct in my estimation?"
"She is your sister, Bingley!" Darcy said. "I am merely her brother by marriage that she spent many years previous fawning over. I have no great insight on her present disposition towards this suitor. Normally I would say, let her be married at last and be even perhaps happy! But ..." He stood up and looked out the window, his hands pursed behind his back, his own posture of deep concentration. "Tell me – what is her inheritance?"
"Fifteen thousand pounds. But – he has made a fortune in Australia!"
"If you really believed that, I do not think you would have traveled to Pemberley to chat about your sister's romantic travails."
"You are so judgmental. You always see the worst in everyone."
"Which is precisely why you called on me."
Bingley could not deny it. "Then do me this favor, please."
"Do you wish me to meet him or merely investigate him?"
"As you see fit. Though he does relish himself an accomplished fencer if that makes any difference."
Darcy did not acknowledge that it did. "You realize we will have to stop at Kirkland and tell our wives of this scheme."
"I didn't want to trouble Jane," Bingley said. "But I suppose it would look suspicious if we both suddenly return to Town."
Jane Bingley's second confinement was considerably different from her first for a hosts. While reclined at home in Kirkland, her "isolation" seemed anything but, with two toddlers, a host of nervous servants, and the prospect of her parents and sisters arriving in a few days. When Bingley was finally convinced to travel to London, more because Jane felt he needed a breather more than she did, she was very content to be alone with Elizabeth, who often held Mistress Georgiana in her arms while they watched young Geoffrey attempt to climb onto the furniture of the sitting room.
"He will not be still," Elizabeth said. "I think we've quite given up on the matter."
"From your side, surely," Jane observed, as they watched him try to stand again. He could get to his feet, but only with aid, and was not quite ready to walk. "He will be disappearing for long morning walks in no time. Oh, Lizzy, you will have to bundle him up so he doesn't catch cold!"
"Now you sound like mama."
"But you will do it all the same."
Elizabeth found she could not contradict her. As willing as she was to let Geoffrey explore the ground, she kept a very careful eye on his available territory, and many of the sharper edges of their furniture had been wrapped in blankets. She was smiling at this memory when she noticed Georgie was trying to escape her grasp and climb onto her mother's sizable belly. Every time Elizabeth experienced any anxiety that she was herself not again expectant, she merely looked at the fact that Jane had ballooned to a whale and felt a small, very selfish pang of comfort. Had they both been this before and she was merely imagining things, or was her sister even bigger this time around?
The question was not asked. Instead, Jane's lady maid entered and interrupted them. "Master Bingley and Mr. Darcy."
Elizabeth made a quick dive for her son, lest he be stepped on by either gentlemen as their husbands strode into the room. As she took him into her arms she nearly crashed into her husband, who as usual strode so confidently into the room that he needed his athletic agility to prevent himself from colliding with whatever was in his path. He made a brief bowish nod to Jane as he took Geoffrey from Elizabeth's arms. "Mrs. Bingley."
"Mr. Darcy. Charles! How was Town?" Jane said as her own husband quickly joined her by her side and gave her a sitting hug, certainly not requiring her to rise in his presence. "You settled your business I assume?"
"Actually, no," he said. "It seems I must return, if you would permit it."
"If I would permit it?"
"I mean, considering – "
"Charles," she said patiently, "I am a month away. Are you planning to go to the Continent or something?"
"No. No, of course not. The matter is ...," he hesitated. "Darcy, do you want to explain it?"
Darcy looked positively infuriated that all eyes were suddenly on him, which made him uncomfortable, even in the most comfortable of social situations. "Why should I explain it? She's your sister!"
"Explain what?" Elizabeth said.
"She's your sister too!"
"Only by marriage!"
"Are we talking about Miss Bingley?" Jane interrupted.
"Bingley, this is your problem and you must explain it!"
"You should not phrase it like that!"
"Then tell me precisely how I am to phrase it!" Darcy said with as much stature as he could muster with a cooing infant tugging at his cravat.
"Someone had better phrase whatever it is you mean to say correctly and soon," Elizabeth said with her hands on her hips. "Mr. Darcy."
Darcy looked in terror at his wife, and then at Bingley, who finally spit it out. "It seems Caroline is to be affianced to a Scottish earl. She ... requested my return to Town to give my consent. She failed to mention that that was the pressing 'matter of business' in the letter."
Caroline Bingley did not, actually, need his consent, but no one felt compelled to mention that. Charles Bingley, Jr, was now the master of the Bingley family and estate upon his father's death, and had further elevated his status by getting married and settling on in a sizable manor in the country. Just being a man, despite a younger brother, gave him social status over his sisters, and that Miss Bingley had seen fit to ask for his opinion on the matter was a quiet nod to this.
"...And?" Jane finally saw fit to ask.
"Did you give your consent?"
Bingley frowned and looked at Darcy. "No. Not yet."
"And what grounds did you find him so objectionable?"
"Yes," Elizabeth said, backing her sister up. "If I may be so bold, if Miss Bingley has found nothing wanting in him as a potential husband, then I am having trouble imagining your objection."
"Does he have excessive warts or something?" Jane asked.
"Is he a fortune hunter?
"Is he Mr. Wickham in disguise?"
Bingley sighed and slumped into the couch by his wife's side. "He is none of those things. He is the most eligible bachelor, in fact, and a man of some fortune as well as minor royalty. And my sister has given every indication of finding him as dashing and handsome as anyone who lives in Derbyshire and owns Pemberley."
"I heard that," Darcy said.
"So your objection was?" Jane pressed, now thoroughly confused as she balanced Georgie on her stomach.
"...I have no idea."
This was met with considerable silence, broken first by the young Master Darcy suddenly and incoherently babbling, something that had increased considerably as of late. Real words were sure to follow.
"Exactly," Darcy said, as if his son made perfect since. "Well, we must be off to Town. Good-bye, darling."
"Yes, uhm, I've uh, asked Darcy to come and ...," Bingley played with his hands. "Well... perhaps Darcy should explain."
"As I have little idea as to why I am to accompany you and am going along because you asked so politely, please, Bingley, do explain. For everyone," Darcy replied.
Jane laughed. "Yes, I can safely say we are all thoroughly confused."
"Well, uhm." Charles managed to buy himself some time by taking Georgie into his arms and balancing her on his knee. "I do hate to think ill of anyone, but there is something about this man – his name is James Kinkaid – that, well, bothers me. But I can't rightly put my finger on it. Perhaps I am just being overprotective of my last sister, but ... I have asked Darcy to help ... check his credentials. And judge his character." He added, "Besides, he is uncommonly good at talking Bingleys out of marr –"
"Bingley, I see we must prepare for our journey, before your foot it more firmly inserted into your mouth," Darcy said, before anyone could even start to be mad at him. "Elizabeth, I will be only a few days – " But when he turned to her, she was giving him eyes of fury anyway. "What? He said it!"
"So you are just going to high-tail to London, then," Elizabeth said, taking Geoffrey from him. "Leaving the women and children behind."
"I assumed that you would not wish to leave Kirkland at the present time. Did I assume incorrectly?"
"Lizzy," Jane said kindly, "do not assume that just because I am an temporarily rendered an invalid-"
"Darling, you are not an invalid," Bingley said.
"Did something happen to your eyesight in Town?" she said, and turned back to her sister. "I am serious, Lizzy. You are not bound my side. You know our family will be here within the week and between them and the servants I will hardly get enough rest as it is. You need not worry for me. You need only worry for Charles, who will find himself suffering a horrible accident if he ever renders me this way again." She rolled her head over to him, but gave no indication if she meant it or not.
"Perhaps we should give them a moment," Darcy said quietly, and his wife agreed, and they took to the hallway and closed the door behind them. "Lizzy, to be serious, you may accompany me to Town if you wish, but it is hardly necessary and I would think you more inclined to remain with your sister."
After a moment, she answered, "You are correct in your assumptions. I am simply taken by surprise by the whole matter."
"I do not properly understand it either," he readily admitted. "Perhaps he thinks I will see some flaw he does not. Perhaps he does not have confidence in his perceptions."
"So? Surely this 'Lord Kincaid' may have some flaw, but if Miss Bingley is willing enough to marry him, it must be of no consequence. I am inclined to let a woman trust her instincts."
"As am I. But Elizabeth – this is the first time I have ever heard Bingley object to anyone. Ever. Surely there is something here that he cannot express, or if not, then he shall see it out and they will be happily married. But I cannot so easily dismiss his fears without seeing to the matter myself, and he has asked – practically begged – me to do so. Should I not be obliging?"
She patted his arm affectionately. "My darling husband. Always the sentinel for all people good and just. Even, apparently, Miss Bingley."
He said with a smirk, "Yes, apparently. Obviously, this matter must be concluded quickly, if she is so intent to marry him, so I will be gone but a few days, perhaps a week. And I will write."
"And you will miss my mother's visit, or part of it."
"That loss I will have to suffer," he said, and kissed her, then his son of the cheek. "You are not to speak until I return, for I promised myself to hear your first words."
"Baa!" said Geoffrey, and flailed his arms at his father.
"Someone is overdue for a nap," Elizabeth said, and fortunately for timing, Bingley emerged from the parlor.
"Should we off, then?" he said, donning his hat. "I must try to be in Town by nightfall."
"I ... may have not told my sisters I was going all the way to Derbyshire," he admitted, and bowed. "Mrs. Darcy. We will return with great haste, I assure you."
"I am assured," she said, and received another good-bye kiss from her husband before they both disappeared out the front doors. She returned quickly to Jane, who was handing little Georgiana off to a Nurse. "It seems we are to be barefoot and pregnant wives indeed."
"I will not be barefoot," Jane said. Her feet were on a foot stand, clothed in slippers. "My feet are cold enough as they are." This gave them both into giggling, as Elizabeth rejoined her sister in her usual position beside her. "So was Mr. Darcy particularly revelatory about their trip?"
"I think he is as flummoxed at we are. And Mr. Bingley is. No one can account for this conspiracy to save Miss Bingley from the horrible state of marriage. Though I do take comfort in the amusing irony."
"I will take any comfort that is offered me," Jane said. "And when my husband returns, if I have grown any larger, I will take great comfort in wringing his neck."