Today's excerpt is from my Work In Progress - The Wager.
The officers of the ___shire Militia, also in attendance, presented themselves in a favorable light with polite manners and gentlemanlike behavior. Not much time had passed before Mr. Wickham, a handsome, congenial man to whom almost every female eye was turned, asked for introductions to the ladies of Longbourn and immediately fell into an agreeable conversation with them. Elizabeth was not surprised by this request, nor when the gentleman’s attention became more focused on her eldest sister. Jane’s beauty was a beacon of light that called many to make her acquaintance, but few withstood the pointed questions the sisters had learned to ask in order to determine if a gentleman was worth their attention.
The first thing Elizabeth determined was that flattery, coupled with a winsome smile, was Mr. Wickham’s secret weapon. She surmised even the commonest, dullest, most threadbare topic might be rendered interesting by the speaker's skill.
How many young girls have fallen for your charm? she wondered. An elevated brow directed toward her eldest sister, who returned her silent query with a slight, elegant shrug of her shoulder, told Elizabeth that Jane was also leery of the officer.
Barely any time had passed before Elizabeth tired of his prattle and decided to begin what she and Jane jokingly called The Inquisition. Over the next quarter hour, they discovered his father had been a steward of a vast estate in Derbyshire, and the master of that same estate was also his godfather. What surprised them most was learning Mr. Wickham’s godfather had ensured his godson received a gentleman’s education, sending him to the best private schools, including Cambridge alongside his own son. More questioning revealed the dapper officer had, for a brief time, entertained the thought of being a barrister.
“I found the law was not to my liking,” Wickham said in a firm voice. “I am an active person and could not bear the thought of being tied to a desk for all hours of the day.”
“Forgive me for being indelicate, but given the great education you received, what enticed you to join the militia at this stage of your life?” Elizabeth asked when he paused for breath.
“It was the prospect of constant and good society which was my chief inducement,’’ he began. “I knew it to be a most respectable, agreeable corps, and my friend Denny tempted me farther by his account of their present quarters, and the very great attentions and excellent acquaintance Meryton had procured them.”
“Thank you, sir,” Jane said in her calm, serene manner. “On behalf of the citizens of Meryton, we hope you will enjoy our society, small and unvaried as it may seem.”
Elizabeth inherently knew her sister referred to Mr. Bingley’s sister’s lamentations of lack of good company in Hertfordshire.
“Society, I own, is necessary to me. A military life is not what I was intended for, but circumstances have now made it eligible. The church ought to have been my profession. I was brought up for the church, and should at this time have been in possession of a most valuable living, had it pleased the son of my deceased godfather.’’
“Yes, the late Mr. Darcy bequeathed me the next presentation of the best living in his gift. He was my godfather, and excessively attached to me. I cannot do justice to his kindness. He meant to provide for me amply, and thought he had done it; but when the living fell, it was given elsewhere.”
Both Elizabeth’s and Jane’s eyes widened at his mentioning the name of Darcy, but Mr. Wickham did not notice as his attention became riveted on some guests who entered the room. His face paled and Elizabeth turned to see who had generated such a response to find herself looking directly at Mr. Darcy, whose own face was flushed an angry red.
Wickham turned to face the sisters. His eyes flicked every which way, as though looking for an escape, his upper lip dotted with a thin sheen of perspiration.
“Pray, excuse me. I must find my friend Denny and make plans for tomorrow’s drill exercise.”
Elizabeth shot out her hand and latched onto Mr. Wickham’s left arm, forestalling his exit.
“May I assume your godfather’s son is none other than Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy?”
Wickham attempted to slither from her grip but she held firm.
“Well then, how fortuitous that we are here with you now, in front of all these guests.”
“How so?” Wickham asked, shuffling as though to hide behind her because Darcy was bearing down on them with the speed of a violent summer storm.
“We must decry your terrible treatment and have Mr. Darcy fulfill his father’s dearest wish.” Elizabeth tightened her hold. “If nothing else, he must give you the pecuniary value of the living. It is only right and just.”
“That is not necessary, Miss Elizabeth. I have learned to forgive and forget.”
By this time, Darcy had reached them. He towered over Wickham, his fists clenching and unclenching. He was – Elizabeth thought with a small frisson of awareness – quite magnificent.
“I invite you to join me outside, Wickham.”
“I am here with my compatriots, Darcy. I have no need to leave the party at this juncture.”
Elizabeth dared to engage the glowering bear.
“We are so glad you arrived when you did, Mr. Darcy,” she began.
“You are?” he asked without once removing his gaze from Wickham.
“Most assuredly, for Mr. Wickham shared with us how he was unjustly kept from receiving a living your father, his godfather, had promised to him.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes. He was very clear in most details when telling us his version of events.”
Upon hearing the inflections in Elizabeth’s voice, Darcy cut her a quick glance. She was able to wink with either eye and as one side of her face was concealed from Mr. Wickham, she used the left eye to do that very service. Mayhap it was her imagination, but she thought Mr. Darcy’s shoulders physically relaxed. By this time, the viscount and Bingley had joined them.
“Did you inform these fine ladies that in lieu of the living, you asked for and received three thousand pounds, on top of the one thousand pounds settled on you by my father at the time of his death?” Darcy asked, his voice as hard as peaks of Derbyshire.
“You arrived before I had a chance to share that part of history.”
“To be fair,” Elizabeth interjected, the imp of mischief settled firmly on her shoulders. “Mr. Wickham did inform us he had been brought up for the church and having received a Cambridge education I am certain he must have used those funds toward receiving holy orders.”
“I truly must leave. I see my fellow officers waving me over.”
Elizabeth released her hold and Wickham tugged down his new red tunic before giving all of them a polite half-bow. He turned to leave but halted midstride when Mr. Darcy spoke again.
“I shall give your regards to my cousin when I write him tonight,” Darcy said, his tone almost conversational. “Richard is most anxious to make your reacquaintance. You should know he was exceedingly upset that we had just missed you by a few days this past summer.”
Elizabeth thought Mr. Wickham was about to faint, and found it very interesting that the gentleman bypassed all his fellow officers and fled the house completely without saying farewell to anyone.