For four days, Darcy House sat empty of its master. For four days, the Gardiner’s sitting room was occupied for an hour each day by Mr. Bingley. For four days, Darcy and Richard made calls and paid debts, and for four days, Elizabeth sat by Lydia’s side reading her poems while she improved and gained strength.
Hours ticked past. The sun set and the moon rose, and Mr. Bennet’s opinion began to soften. Whether this was due to the arguments presented to him by Mr. Gardiner, who through his wife’s intelligence had learned of Mr. Darcy’s proposal, or whether it was due to Mrs. Bennet’s constant laments over her second daughter never marrying and how delightful it would be to have Elizabeth marry Mr. Bingley’s friend with ten thousand a year, or whether it was simply due to time and seeing his youngest daughter becoming well, one cannot say. But no matter the cause of his waning displeasure with Mr. Darcy, the results were such that on the morning of the fifth day, he was in a humor to be amenable to a call such as Colonel Fitzwilliam intended to make.
“Colonel Fitzwilliam,” Mr. Bennet greeted as Richard entered Mr. Gardiner’s study.
Richard would have been happy to meet in the sitting room, had it not been filled with females, but it was, and what he needed to discuss with Mr. Bennet needed no audience larger than Mr. Gardiner, who was seated across a chess board from Mr. Bennet.
“Mr. Bennet, Mr. Gardiner,” Richard nodded to each man. He motioned to a chair and waited for Mr. Gardiner’s permission to take it. “How is Miss Lydia?”
“She is improving each day,” replied Mr. Gardiner. “I should think within a week, she will be well enough to travel.”
“That is excellent news.” He had one week to make Mr. Bennet see reason if today’s meeting did not do the trick. “My cousin and I have just returned from travelling ourselves.”
“Was it a pleasant trip?” Mr. Gardiner asked.
“The results were positive, but the trip itself was not one of pleasure.” He drew a folded document from his pocket. “Five days ago, I was made aware of some debts that Mr. Wickham had left unpaid when he left Hertfordshire.” He unfolded the paper he held as he spoke. “I made my cousin aware of these numbers and together, we have seen each account settled. More accurately, Darcy has seen these settled. I am, after all, merely a colonel and do not have the deep pockets of my cousin — not that he would have allowed me to pay a shilling toward any of these anyway.” He held Mr. Bennet’s gaze. “Darcy does not take responsibility lightly and would never defer duty to another when he could see to it himself.” He handed the paper he held to Mr. Bennet. “You may wish to see the damage Mr. Wickham did in such a short time while in Hertfordshire.”
“But those debts,” said Mr. Gardiner, motioning to the paper Mr. Bennet was accepting, “were not Mr. Darcy’s.”
Richard shook his head. “No, they were not his, but it was implied that they were his fault due to his neglect in warning the inhabitants of Hertfordshire that Mr. Wickham was untrustworthy. So, they became his.”
“He paid all these?” Mr. Bennet’s eyes were wide as he scanned the page a second time.
“Every one of them.” Richard shifted. “We did not only travel to Hertfordshire to settle accounts. I said I would see to Mr. Wickham, and, with Darcy’s help and the approval of Colonel Forrester, I have. Wickham has taken a commission in the regulars and will sail to Canada in a fortnight. He will remain under strict supervision until he can no longer see land.”
“Mr. Darcy paid these and purchased Mr. Wickham a commission?” Mr. Bennet stared at the sheet in front of him as if incapable of comprehension.
“Again, it was implied that Mr. Wickham’s actions were Darcy’s fault.” Richard allowed his voice to carry in its tone a morsel of the anger he felt at his cousin being accused of such a thing. “I believe our business is now at an end, Mr. Bennet. I will continue to inquire after Miss Lydia for my own and Darcy’s sake until I know that she is well.” He blew out a breath. “There is, however, one thing about which I must speak before we part ways.”
He put his hand in his pocket and drew something out but kept it concealed. “As you are aware, Georgiana’s care since her father’s death has been shared by Darcy and myself. We have done our best for her, but we have not always done the best for her. We have erred many times. Caring for a young lady is not an easy task.”
Mr. Bennet muttered his agreement.
“She was foolish — naive — caught up in her sensibilities rather than her sense, and we nearly lost her.” He paused a moment and then place the rock he held in his hand on the table next to the chess board. “We are not unlike. We have both nearly lost those we loved due to our own errors.” He stood and tapped the rock. “A story from the Good Book,” he said in reply to the unasked question he could see on Mr. Bennet’s face. “I know I am not worthy to cast the first stone.” He lifted his finger and moved to leave. “The question remains,” he said as he reached the door, “are you?” And with that and a good day, he left.
For two days, Mr. Bennet carried that rock in his pocket, running his fingers over it as he thought, weighing it from hand to hand as he considered all that had happened. Finally, on the third day after Colonel Fitzwilliam had called, he could no longer deny that he had been wrong, and after another two hours of attempting to avoid doing what he knew he must, he called for the carriage and made his way to Darcy House, where he shifted from foot to foot as he waited in the entry for the butler to inquire after whether his master was home to callers or not.
Thankfully, or perhaps not, Mr. Bennet could not decide, Mr. Darcy was at home for such a call.
“Please, have a seat.” Darcy motioned to the chair not occupied by Richard as, and Mr. Bennet sat — but only just. He did not fill the chair completely nor did he relax his posture in any way. Clearly, the man was a ball of nerves. Darcy tipped his head and propped his chin on steepled fingers as he waited for Elizabeth’s father to speak.
Mr. Bennet carefully placed the rock that had kept him company for two days on the desk. He turned and gave Colonel Fitzwilliam a small smile. “I find I have no need for this, Colonel.” And then he turned toward Darcy. “And I pray that you will not either.”
Darcy’s brows furrowed as he reached for the rock and looked at his cousin, who gave a small nod of his head. So this was the rock about which Richard had told him — the one that he had left with Mr. Bennet at his last meeting with the gentleman.
“I do not know why I should need a rock,” he said, turning the stone over in his hands.
“Because my words and actions were grievously in error,” offered Mr. Bennet. “I allowed my good sense to be overcome by my fear for my daughter. I expected from you what I would have never done myself.”
Darcy noted how, though Mr. Bennet’s hands were clasped in his lap, the gentleman kept rubbing his thumb and how Mr. Bennet’s chest rose and fell as if breathing were a thing about which one must think and not just do. A small thought about putting the gentleman at ease scurried through Darcy’s mind, but it did not stop long enough to be acted upon. It was necessary, Darcy surmised, that Elizabeth’s father feel the weight of his error, so that the impression of it would be long lasting and of greater effect. It was how he had often dealt with workers who had not met his expectations and how he was learning to deal with Georgiana. It was not an easy thing to do, but it was necessary.
Richard saw the clenching of Darcy’s jaw and rose to procure a bit of refreshment for them all as Mr. Bennet continued.
“I would not return to Hertfordshire and spread Lydia’s story among my neighbors even though they are friends. Should Mr. Wickham be able to return to the area, I would cut off my friendship with him, but I would be hard pressed to discuss the reason for it, save perhaps with my nearest and dearest friend, Sir William. And then, it would only be done because he is already privy to the details of Lydia’s ordeal.”
Richard placed a glass of port on the desk in front of Mr. Bennet before giving a glass to Darcy and then taking his own and returning to his seat.
Mr. Bennet thanked Richard and took a large gulp of the liquid before continuing. “I was wrong. I have not done my duty by my daughters as I should. It is not you who poses a danger to them but me.” He took another swallow from his glass. “And so I have come to ask your forgiveness.” He placed his glass on the desk. “You have every right to throw that stone at me. You have been noble in your actions while I have been callous and nonsensical. You have provided your physician for Lydia’s care, and you have dealt generously with Mr. Wickham. I am ever indebted to you both.” He looked at Richard. “I thank you for helping me to see reason.”
Richard inclined his head in acceptance. He had no doubt that all of what Mr. Bennet had just said had cost the man dearly in terms of pride.
Mr. Bennet drew his handkerchief across his brow. “I should be happy to receive either of you in the future, though I do understand that it is very unlikely in the light of my behaviour.” He was just beginning to rise and wish them a good day when Darcy halted him by asking him to remain seated.
“I should like to know you more,” Darcy said. “It is not every man who would admit his faults as you have. Many would just allow time to pass and never attempt to set things right.” He put the rock in the middle of his desk. “I have no more right to hurl that than you do. We are none of us perfect, and I believe the scripture says that only the man without sin may cast the first stone.” He smiled at Mr. Bennet’s shocked expression.
“You are too good,” mumbled Mr. Bennet.
“No, I am not that,” Darcy said, holding his glass out to Richard for it to be refilled. “In fact, I might this once be being somewhat calculating in offering my pardon so freely. There is part of me that wishes to cut all ties with you out of spite, but then,” he took his glass from Richard and sipped its contents, “there is a part of me that loves your daughter and would like to see her as my wife.”
Mr. Bennet’s eyes grew wide, and he blinked. “My daughter?”
“Miss Elizabeth,” Darcy clarified.
“Lizzy?” Mr. Bennet reached once again for his glass. “I had noticed she seemed friendlier to you when she arrived at the Gardiners’ than she had been when you were in Hertfordshire in the autumn, but” he looked from Darcy to Richard and back, “has her opinion swayed so far?”
“I believe it has,” said Richard with a smile.
“Has she given you reason to hope she would accept such an offer?” Mr. Bennet asked Darcy.
For the first time since arriving, Mr. Bennet leaned back in his chair. “My Lizzy?”
“Yes,” Darcy said once again.
Mr. Bennet blew out a breath and then chuckled. “Well, I would have never dreamt it, but my wife will be pleased.”
“But will you be pleased? Do I have your permission to marry your daughter if she will have me?” Darcy’s breath caught as he waited for Mr. Bennet’s reply.
Mr. Bennet shook his head and chuckled. “My Lizzy.” He smiled and nodded. “There is no gentleman of my acquaintance with a finer character and to whom I would rather give her. You have my permission to offer.” He held out his hand to Darcy. “You do know you are taking us all on when you take her?”
Darcy smiled and gave Mr. Bennet’s hand a firm shake as he acknowledged he knew exactly what he would be taking on.
“Well,” said Mr. Bennet, pushing up out of his chair, “this meeting has gone better than expected, and now, perhaps my wife will return to drawing Mr. Bingley along instead of bending my ear about you.” He chuckled at the look of surprise on Darcy’s face. “I have listened to her sing your praises every day for the past se’enight.” And then with a bow and a word of parting, which included wishing to see Mr. Darcy on the morrow at Gracechurch Street, he departed.