George spent two hours that second day at Pemberley ensconced in the library, reading through entries made in a much younger Mr. Thompson’s hand. The next morning he continued the task before breakfast, attended his first lessons in Mr. Carson’s tutelage, and returned to the library later that day. This pattern continued on Friday, only interrupted when Aunt Lizzy insisted the boy accompany her to Lambton for some much needed new attire. By Saturday, as the family prepared for the arrival of the Bingleys, Mr. Wilcox reported to Mr. Darcy that Midnight had yet been ridden only once by her new master. When his nephew presented himself in the breakfast parlor, Mr. Darcy tasked him with this neglect.
“Is Midnight not to your liking, George?” he asked.
“Oh no, Uncle Darcy! She is magnificent horse. I am most grateful for the consideration you showed in selecting her for me.”
Mr. Darcy glanced at his wife in confusion. “Perhaps you are unaccustomed to having such an animal of your own, but you will need to take her out more regularly. She requires the exercise, and it is now your responsibility to see she gets it and benefit from the exertion yourself. You have no lessons today and our guests will not arrive until later. Join Tom and Edmund when they go out.”
It was George’s turn to glance uncertainly down the table, catching Tom’s eye.
“If my cousin wishes to remain indoors, Edmund can ride Midnight for George today.”
“And what of Hamlet?” Mr. Darcy questioned.
“Wilcox will see he gets some exercise.”
“Your generosity on your brother’s behalf notwithstanding,” Mr. Darcy replied dryly, looking at his eldest with some chagrin, “George must not shutter himself away in library all day long. A young man needs fresh air and activity. You will ride today,” he concluded with finality, speaking directly to George.
“Yes, sir,” came the somewhat meek reply.
“I understand your enthusiasm for the library, George,” Mrs. Darcy said. “When I first came to Pemberley, I too could lose myself in it for hours on end, but that was winter. You will have ample time to hide away in the months to come.”
“I like reading in the library, too,” Maria offered, “but there are many more interesting books there than those old ledgers, Cousin George.”
“Old ledgers?” Mr. Darcy questioned.
“Edmund brought them to my attention my first morning here,” George quickly explained. “They reveal much about the workings of the estate.”
“If you wish to know more of the estate, you would do better to attend Mr. Thompson in his rounds, a task that he performs on horseback, incidentally.”
“I should like that very much, Uncle Darcy.”
“I will arrange it for next week.”
When the meal concluded and the boys headed out towards the stables, Tom questioned George on his progress.
“Have you found anything yet?”
“Well, yes, in fact, I did. There are two entries listing payments made to my father in 1808. The first was a one thousand pound legacy stipulated in your grandfather’s will. The second, more interesting payment was for three thousand pounds.”
“That is a tidy sum of money. What was that for?” Tom eagerly asked.
“I am more curious to know what happened to it,” George said with a slight hint of bitterness, “The note said ‘in lieu of Kympton,’ nothing more.”
“Well! That is something! So my father paid him the value of the living? He must have decided not to take orders, and I cannot say that I blame him. T’would be a dull life for such a man. I think he must have been far better suited to a military career.”
“Perhaps,” George concurred, looking consciously at Edmund, “but I suspect it would have been a better life for his family. Besides, my father did not join the militia for several more years, just before he met my mother. She has told me countless times that when they were first introduced he did not yet have his uniform. All he required was a redcoat to become the most dashing man of her acquaintance.”
“I bet he squandered it gambling and whoring,” Tom replied with some glee.
George had no reply. He feared his cousin was all too correct.
Soon they arrived at the stables and were met by Mr. Wilcox. “Is it true that George’s father was intended for the living at Kympton?” Tom asked with little preamble.
“Aye, and a good thing it was too that Mr. Darcy refused to give it to ‘em. A worse rector ye’d be hard pressed to find.”
“Father refused him?” Edmund asked in surprise.
“We were under the impression that my father rejected the living and was compensated in kind,” George pressed.
“Aye, that he was. But then he turns up here again, a few years later when the old rector died, pestering Mr. Darcy for what he gave up all rights to, fair and square,” he shook his head disapprovingly. “I’m not one to speak ill of the dead, but he was a bold one, yer father.”
Tom and George exchanged excited glances. “That must be when they cut ties,” the former commented. “Your father joined the militia instead and ran away with Aunt Lydia.”
George was taken aback. He had pieced the story of his parent’s betrothal together well enough, but he would never dare speak of it so openly.
“I’d told ye before, Master Tom, that the past is best left to itself. No good will come of ye pryin’ about in what don’t concern ye.”
“I have said the same, Mr. Wilcox, to no avail,” Edmund said grimly.
“Ye’d do well to heed yer brother, Master Tom,” Wilcox said ominously.
Tom laughed off the warning. Once the boys were on their way he said, “You can have some more time in the library after tea today, George.”
“But the Bingleys will be here,” Edmund protested.
“When else is he to do it? Sunday is sure to be busy with church and all the family here, and Father has made it difficult for him to sneak off in the mornings. When you ride with Mr. Thompson next week, George, be sure to press him for information. I bet he knows it all.”
“I am not sure I wish to learn anymore,” George said reluctantly. “It makes sense that he and Uncle Darcy fought over the living and explains a great deal of my Father’s grievances.”
“I think there is more to it than that. Such a mundane squabble they would have overcome years ago. Something kept our families from contact until after your father’s death. You must want to know what it was!” Tom insisted. “How could you not? It is your birthright!”
George shook his head. “I did want to know, when I was worried that Uncle Darcy would never accept me, but now that he seems to have taken a liking to me, it seems wrong to pry. Besides, he has proven himself an exceedingly thoughtful and honorable man in my few days here.” He shook his head sadly. “I do not wish to know all the tawdry details of my father’s indiscretions.”
Edmund nodded. “Some information we are better off without.”
“So you are both content to let sleeping dogs lie,” Tom said grimly, surveying his two companions. “Well, so be it, then. Know that I think you both chicken-hearted.”
George felt the injustice of Tom’s words but yet was reluctant to stand up for himself against the domineering heir, even as his cousin’s brittle temperament cast a dark shadow on otherwise rosy prospects. Holding his tongue, he tried to forget his hurt in observation of the landscape, but before this salve had a chance to absorb Tom resumed his censure.
“I understand why you are afraid of what you might learn, George” he taunted. “Certainly you hoped your father was innocent all along and not the dastard we all know him to have been.”
“Badly done, Tom!” Edmund cried in outrage.
He shrugged. “I only speak the truth. Who would not wish to redeem their father’s sullied reputation, no matter how well deserved?”
“No matter the sins of my father,” George spoke in a terse, controlled voice, “they do not give you leave to besmirch his memory so. I shall have your apology.”
“Will you now?” Tom sneered. “And if I refuse, what will you do? Challenge me?”
The suddenly belligerent look in George’s eye suggested it was exactly that course of action he had in mind.
“Tom,” Edmund intervened, “apologize to my cousin. You must.”
“Very well,” Tom relented, adopting an affected manner and bowing dramatically. “I am sorry if Mr. Wickham’s honor was offended. Do accept my humble apology and be assured I shall never so trespass again.”
“Do be serious,” Edmund chided.
“I am serious!” Tom exclaimed. “Do you accept my apology, Cousin?”
George paused before conceding. “Yes.”
“There you have it! Everyone is satisfied,” and Tom turned the subject to what fun they would have once the Bingleys arrived.
All the family living at Pemberley and Mrs. Norton gathered on the steps of the house to greet the guests. Mrs. Darcy presented George to Mrs. Bingley with pride, and she quickly took the boy into her warm embrace, exclaiming on what she insisted was his uncanny resemblance to Lydia. Mr. Bingley shook his friend’s hand before likewise embracing George, asking about his horse, and generally endearing himself into the boy’s heart. Nearby a seemingly endless stream of Bingley cousins poured out of the three carriages required to transport them all. Tom, delighting in his reunion with Mark, was in great humor, and conducted George through the mass, making introductions with aplomb. A host of attendants soon had the unwieldy crew bustled indoors, and with remarkable efficiency attended to all the various needs and wants of the travelers. George was in awe of their skill, wondering if the assistance Mr. Darcy was sending to his mother would be equally competent. It would mean a vast improvement in the comfort of her household.
The eldest Bingley, Charles, and his next sister, Fanny, were content to sit and take tea with the adults, but all the rest of the youngsters except the very smallest, who had been dispatched to the nursery, were soon again outdoors. Games were organized, and George found himself a valued member of his new social group, proving his skill in both hiding, seeking, and cracking the whip. After having exhausted himself in such pursuits, George retreated from the others to lean against a nearby oak and rest. As his breathing quieted, he became aware of his name being called in a whisper from a nearby shrubbery. Following the sound, he found Tom and Mark hiding behind the foliage.
“Come with us, George!” Tom said. “Aunt Norton just left for Kympton on foot. Mama always offers her the use of a carriage, but she always declines even as she complains about the distance all the while.”
“’I think nothing of the inconvenience to myself,’” Mark mimicked in a high falsetto nothing like their aunt’s voice but no less hilarious to the three boys for its lack of resemblance.
“I am going to give her a fright that will make her think twice about walking alone from now on and spare us all her griping.”
“What do you plan to do?” George asked, and Tom held up a sling shot in response.
“I won’t hurt her. My aim is excellent. It will just unnerve her a bit. You have not yet seen my aunt in high hysterics. It is excellent sport,” Tom said as Mark nodded his concurrence.
“Let us go now before anyone sees us,” he said, leading the way off into the woods. Tom grabbed George by the wrist and pulled him along before he could register any further objection.
The boys forged a trail through the trees in order to cut off the path to Kympton. Soon after they concealed themselves behind a convenient boulder, they perceived the sounds of Mrs. Norton’s approach.
Tom rose from his concealment and took aim, firing his shot just in front of Aunt Norton’s nose and missing her by only a hair. The pebble ricocheted off a nearby tree with a loud bang and the lady screamed, promptly turning on her heels and fleeing back in the direction she came, tripping over her skirts as she went. Tom and Mark smothered their laughter as she ran, but George could find no amusement in the sight. She might have been severely injured, even killed, but when pressed by the others, he forced a smile. Tom and Mark were anxious to return to Pemberley and witness the fallout from their prank. George followed them, a sense of foreboding descending upon him with each step.
At Pemberley they found the house in uproar and the air pungent with the scent of the burnt feathers that Mrs. Bingley waved beneath Mrs. Norton’s nose, who was swooning upon an ornamental chair near the entryway. All the children were gathered around, eagerly ignoring the minders who futilely sought to remove them from the scene. A great deal of the staff had also assembled. Only Edmund saw the three stragglers enter. He approach them and said to Tom in an harsh whisper, “Where were you?”
His brother evaded replying as Mrs. Reynolds arrived and began ordering her underlings to either assist Mrs. Bingley, go fetch a doctor, or return to their duties. Soon Mrs. Norton was being lifted by a footman and carried into the drawing room, followed by a parade of her many nieces and nephews, all of whom suddenly found their dull aunt irresistibly fascinating.
Come back tomorrow to read Part Eight!
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