Lady Catherine said, “What are the two of you discussing, Darcy?”
He cleared his throat. “Nothing of consequence, I assure you, Lady Catherine.”
“Nonsense. Did I hear you mention that wild George Wickham’s name? Tell me at once, for I insist upon having my share in the conversation.”
Darcy pretended not to hear his aunt, which only encouraged Elizabeth. “Mr. Darcy and I were discussing my having made Mr. Wickham’s acquaintance in Hertfordshire. He is most agreeable—would you not say so as well, Charlotte?”
Charlotte, a plain-spoken woman, stiffened a little as though being drawn into such a contentious debate was the last thing she wanted, but as Elizabeth was her guest, she could not reasonably hold her tongue. She dabbed her crisp linen napkin at her lips before speaking. Her voice measured, she said, “Mr. Wickham made quite an unforgettable impression upon all of us when we made his acquaintance last autumn.”
Lady Catherine said, “I find it entirely insupportable that such a man should be received by any decent family—regardless of their standing in society.” She looked at Elizabeth pointedly. “You are aware, young lady, that his father was the late Mr. Darcy’s steward, are you not?”
Elizabeth shrugged. “Having just made Mr. Darcy’s acquaintance, I can rightly say I did not know that before now, but I do not know what any of that signifies. What can his father’s occupation have to do with Mr. Wickham’s reception into the homes of decent people, your ladyship? He is, after all, an officer, which must surely open doors that might otherwise be closed to him.” Here, Elizabeth looked at the colonel. Along the course of the evening, she had discerned that he was the son of the Earl of Matlock—Lady Catherine’s brother. The second son.
“I will only say that such a man is not to be trusted,” Lady Catherine affirmed. “I know not the particulars, but that ungrateful young man used my nephew Darcy very ill. Is that not true, Nephew?”
“I will say, despite our being raised together at Pemberley as though we were of the same blood, what with his being my own father’s godson, that gentleman and I suffered an irreconcilable parting of the ways.”
Elizabeth saw him toss a furtive glance at his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam, who was now rather silent. Darcy continued, “And that is all I will say on the matter.”
Her ladyship seemed content with her nephew’s strong stance and thus chose to further instruct Elizabeth on how she ought to act. “You must write to your father and tell him that George Wickham is never to be received in his home ever again, for his daughters’ sake as well as his own. Do I correctly recall that you are the second eldest of five siblings—all daughters?”
“Indeed,” Elizabeth answered, lowering her eyes, feigning greater interest in her dish than was called for.
“The same must be said of all your family. They are not to receive George Wickham. You have two uncles I believe I heard Mr. Collins say.”
“Indeed, your ladyship. I have one uncle who lives in Meryton and another who resides in town.”
“An uncle who resides in town? Yes—I suppose he keeps a house in town as most gentlemen are wont to do.”
“Actually, my uncle lives in Cheapside near his warehouses.”
Lady Catherine’s countenance tightened with dismay. “Cheapside? Do you mean to say you have relations who earn their living by trade?”
Pretending to take no notice of the disturbance her declaration had incited in the air, Elizabeth nodded. “Yes, your ladyship.”
Jerking her head in the vicar’s direction, the proud lady declared, “Mr. Collins, when you spoke of having made the Bennets’ acquaintance in Hertfordshire, you said nothing of this to me.”
Collins tugged at his collar. “I beg your pardon, your ladyship,” said he, his complexion turning a deep shade of red.
Lady Catherine went silent for a moment, no doubt to digest this troubling tidbit. She tasted her food and seemed pleased to find it to her liking. After another moment or two, she declared, “I do not suppose everyone can claim the privilege of leisure—unfortunately for you, Miss Bennet.”
“How so?” Elizabeth exclaimed with energy. Remembering herself, she continued, “If I may ask.”
“Why, being burdened by such relations must necessarily diminish the chances of you and your sisters attracting men of consequence as husbands.”
Keenly feeling the sting of such an impertinent remark, Elizabeth formed her lips to respond in kind. Heeding a pleading look from her friend Charlotte, Elizabeth held her tongue.
If such is to be the nature of the conversation, it will surely be a long evening after all.
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