When Waltham finally closed the book he's been perusing and looked up and saw Darcy standing there his surprise and delight matched Darcy's. "Good grief," he cried, "how long has it been?"
"Not since the ball at Matlock" replied Darcy, vigorously shaking Waltham's hand. At least a year. How are you? I'm still waiting for a reply to my last letter. I began to think you'd stepped off the earth."
Waltham laughed, "Old friend, there have been times in the past year when I rather hoped I could step off the earth. I thought Cambridge was rough. Learning to run an estate without going bankrupt presents an entirely different set of problems."
"It might have been easier if you'd started learning sooner," Darcy said, with a smile.
"No doubt, but not nearly so much fun."
The two old friends grinned knowingly at each other easily falling into the old comradery of their school days. Together they left the shop and headed for a near-by coffeehouse.
Moments later they were seated comfortably at a table still eying each other with affection. They'd been introduced three years earlier by Darcy's cousin Richard Fitzwilliam who had roomed with Waltham for three years. When Richard graduated he naturally recommended Darcy as his replacement for Waltham's final year. Darcy had never been to a formal school; his education had been solely with master tutors, the finest England could provide. Darcy proved to be a most diligent student wanting to please his father as well as himself.
The experience had mixed results. He had become one of the smartest and cleverest young men in England. Unfortunately, being deprived of the company of other young men had left Darcy with few social skills. He knew all the rules that society demanded of a polite young man and applied them assiduously but with little heart. He realized that his demeanor appeared cold and aloof but could do nothing about it. At the age of eighteen he had become painfully shy and introverted, and with the exception of his cousin Richard had no close friends. All that changed when he met the man sitting across the table from him.
"So, Waltham, I'm here in London picking up supplies to send up to Cambridge. What's your excuse? The season is long over."
"That's a long story and I'll get to it in a minute. But first, tell me how you are, Darce. You certainly look great and I swear you've grown another foot in the last year."
Darcy laughed, "I think I've finally stopped growing; at least my tailor hasn't had to let the sleeves out lately."
Darcy ordered a torte and coffee and watched with amusement as Waltham struggled with a menu which contained a large and varied assortments of rich desserts. Finally, Waltham chose coffee and a tart with extra creamthen turned his attention to his companion.
"So, Darce", Guy said, "You'll be starting your final year in a couple of weeks. Looking forward to it?"
"In some ways."
"Oh dear. Melancholia setting in so soon? Most students don't become depressed until final exams are over. You start before class has even begun."
Darcy laughed at his friend's exaggeration. "I am not depressed, Waltham. Far from it. And don't tell me you didn't feel some nostalgia during your last year."
"I still miss the old place, admitted Waltham. "Still go to the QR on Fridays?"
"Does the sun still rise in the east?"
Waltham sighed. "We did have fun, didn't we? Strange, but as the years go by the more I remember the good times and forget the bad times when we struggled to cram all that information into our thick skulls. Sometimes I think it was all a waste of time. None of my tenants are philosophers; and if any of them speak Latin or Classical Greek I haven't heard it."
Darcy smiled. "But you are an educated Englishman, a gentleman, our country's future."
Waltham rolled his eyes, "speaking of gentlemen and our country's future, how fares Wickham? According to Richard, George Wickham has grown to be as morally reprehensible as any blackguard in England.
Darcy shrugged, "Wickham no longer concerns me. He won't be sharing my rooms this year."
"Good Grief, Darce! You finally kicked him out?"
With a wry smile Darcy shook his head. "No, as a matter of fact it was all his brilliant idea. During last week's ceremony of breaking bread together he announced to my father and me that he had engaged other lodgings for the coming year. How he plans to pay for this added expense is anyone's guess. During the two years I endured his company he never paid me a penny. And as you know, though father has paid his tuition, his allowance comes from his own father, our steward. I know for a fact that this allowance has never been sufficient. He's into me for nearly two hundred pounds, and of course, I look upon these debts as lost money."
"So, Darce, what did you say once you picked yourself off the floor?"
"I maintained my demeanor of cool indifference and boredom."
"Not even an Irish jig around the dining room table?"
Darcy suppressed a smile. "You know how I dislike the amusement."
Waltham shook his head in amazement. "Surely you showed some reaction at this defection by your father's favorite. Perhaps the famous and feared glare of disapproval? A supercilious raise of the brow?"
"What I did, Waltham," Darcy replied, "was to wait for my father to offer Wickham the money to pay for his lodging. But it never came. Moments later my father stood up and wished us good evening then went to his library." What Darcy didn't say was that lately, this practice had become the norm; but it was the first time he'd left the table while still entertaining a guest.
"What was Wickham's reaction?"
"He was shocked and for a moment I thought he would follow him. But he changed his mind. If he hadn't, I would have stopped him and I think he knew it. I was eying him with the famous and feared Darcy glare."
Waltham laughed and signaled for more coffee. "so, you're without a roommate. Is that right?"
Darcy studied his friend for a moment. "And I plan to keep it that way," he said.
"Well," Waltham responded, "I can see that my appeal to your better nature would fall on deaf ears"
Darcy groaned, "Out with it, Waltham!
"I need a favor, Darce. Or to be more precise, my father needs a favor."
"Well, Waltham began, "several years ago my father became acquainted with a tradesman in Shrewsbury. He thought so highly of his business acumen that he made a small investment in the man's business and made a handsome profit. The man's name was Harold Bingley."
"He died last year. Just dropped dead over his Christmas pudding."
Waltham shrugged, "It happens.
"How did your father take it?"
"Well, of course he was shocked. But Darcy, don't misunderstand...they were never close personal friends. They lunched together two or three times a year when father ventured into Shrewsbury. Father admired the man for his strong work principles and he found him to be an affable luncheon companion. And, on several occasions he met Mr. Bingley's son Charles."
Here, Waltham stopped his recital and simply looked at Darcy.
Darcy looked back in silence. There was little that Darcy would not do for GuyWaltham. He'd treated Darcy so kindly during his first year away from home; he'd got him through admission's week, showed him the best shops and cafes, advised him of the best clubs to join and introduced him to his friends. As the first weeks passed Darcy's confidence began to grow and he soon realized that he was actually enjoying the experience. He knew that he owed a debt of gratitude he could never repay. Or maybe not. He suspected that it was payback time.
Darcy sighed. "So tell me about Charles Bingley."
Waltham appeared to choose his words carefully. At last he said, "I've only met him twice. The first time he was about fifteen years of age and I was a grown-up one and twenty attending Cambridge. We had little to say to each other. I do remember him as a pleasant sort, his manners above reproach. The second time was at his father's funeral and we had even less to say to each other. After the internment I made myself scarce while father and young Bingley spoke for about twenty minutes. When I returned father was just shaking Bingley's hand and wishing him well. We were invited back to the Bingley home to partake of refreshments and to meet his two elder sisters but father refused , citing the long ride ahead of us."
Waltham took a last sip of coffee then pushed the cup away and leaned back in his chair. "On the ride back to our estate father gave me a few more facts. It seems that before his untimely death Mr. Bingley sold his business and had made a fortune. In the weeks before his death he had looked at several estates with the intention of purchasing one. Upon his death his two daughters were each left a dowry of twenty thousand pounds and his son a clear five thousand pounds a year. It was also his fervent wish that Charles would be the first in his family to attend and graduate from Cambridge.
Darcy was impressed. "He must have been quite a man."
"My father thought so."
"What about the mother?"
"Carriage accident years ago."
"So how did my name come up?"
Waltham shrugged, "It didn't," he said. "A couple of months ago father received a letter from Bingley announcing that he had been admitted to King's College and asked if he could recommend lodgings he might apply to. Father then applied to me for help. You and Joshua Smith are the only ones I know who are still at school so I came to London hoping you were in town, but I honestly thought you were probably still in Derbyshire. I planned to ride up to Cambridge in the morning and see if I could catch Joshua. You can imagine how startled I was to look up and see you standing there. And then to hear you say that you had some rooms to rent...spooky!"
"For someone you don't know, you're going to a lot of trouble," Darcy said.
"I'm doing it mostly for my father. But truth be told, I feel sorry for the kid. He was so damned brave during the burial of his father. His face was chalk white and he was shaking with the cold and the shock of what was taking place but he held himself upright and behaved with great dignity. He's barely eighteen, has lost both his parents and he's determined to honor the memory of his father by graduating from Cambridge and then purchasing an estate. I admire him, Darcy, and it seems a small thing to do for him. Besides," he added with a grin, "it gave me an excuse to leave my duties for a week."
Darcy remembered the internment in the Pemberley mausoleum of his mother. Her death was not unexpected but when it happened he was in a state of disbelief for weeks. His father still mourned her and in recent months it had gotten worse.
Darcy reached into his vest pocket and removed a card. On the back of it he printed out his address at Cambridge. He pushed the card across the table. "Tell him to arrive on the thirteenth of next month. That will give him nine days to get squared away. And the next time I see you I'll duck into the nearest doorway til you pass."
Waltham threw back his head and laughed hardily.
The sound was so infectious that Darcy joined him with a more subdued laughter. Guy Waltham was the best of men and Darcy felt privileged to count him as a friend.