Mr. Darcy was invited into Gardiner’s house by a surprised maid which he thought odd as he had informed Mr. Gardiner last evening that he would be calling on him this morning. He was not prepared for the shock on Mrs. Gardiner’s or Jane’s countenances either. It was clear they had not expected him, with a sitting room full of young children and toys.
He turned back into the hall, but no Mr. Gardiner appeared. Mr. Darcy scowled. “I had informed Mr. Gardiner that I would call on him this morning. We were going to discuss and finalize the marriage contract.” He did not like the twin looks of shock that faced him. He had thought better of Mr. Gardiner than this. “Mr. Gardiner is not here, is he? And you did not know I was arriving, nor that Miss Elizabeth would be engaged to me?”
Mrs. Gardiner raised a hand to her forehead, then finally walked into the hall and asked the maid to close the sitting-room door. “Mr. Darcy, I — Mr. Gardiner — I must apologize.” She took a deep breath. “I do not know what my husband thought, but as you have noticed he did not make us aware of your visit this morning.”
Mr. Darcy shifted his stance as he rubbed his thumb against his hand. He should have known better. Where Elizabeth Bennet was concerned, nothing went according to plan.
“Mr. Gardiner will be –,” she swallowed and raised her hand to her forehead again, “He is not here right now but should be here shortly. Would you like to wait for him in his study?”
He frowned at the nervous woman. “May I speak to Miss Elizabeth?”
Elizabeth’s aunt wrung her hands together.
Mr. Darcy narrowed his eyes. Damn that woman! Had she run away again, so horrified at the thought of marrying him? So determined to refute her ruined reputation and willing to tarnish everyone around her?
“I see.” He stiffly bowed then turned for the door.
“No, please do not leave! Please stay. Mr. Gardiner needs to speak with you. I am sure–“
The main door of the home opened in front of him, admitting Mr. Gardiner. They stood staring at each other. One with a pale visage and the other reddened.
Mr. Gardiner closed the door and bowed. “Mr. Darcy! Please, come into my study.”
He paused then turned and followed the man at a slower pace. Mr. Gardiner closed the door then crossed the room to his desk. “Would you like a drink?”
“I do not believe I will be here long, Mr. Gardiner. Where is Miss Elizabeth Bennet? And why was your wife and Miss Bennet surprised at my appearance?”
Mr. Gardiner sighed deeply while looking down at the large desk. “It is my fault that she is not here.” He swallowed then looked up.
Mr. Darcy was struck by the man’s countenance. To have undergone such a change… “Is she well?” He walked to stand in front of the desk. “What has happened to her?”
Elizabeth’s uncle shook his head, then sat heavily in his chair. “No, do not worry, she is well. Nothing has happened to her. I admit — After several peers refused to accept their orders, canceled any pending orders with my business this morning and stated the reason to be my niece’s, Elizabeth’s reputation, well…I did not expect you to arrive this morning.”
He stood staring down at a man miserable with the choices he had had to make. “Your business was suffering, the health and safety of your family depend solely upon that business. I expect you did what you had to.”
Mr. Gardiner looked down. “You are too kind, sir. I made a mistake. For those rumors to have reached so many of the peerage, so quickly — I did not expect you to keep your promise.” He looked up at Mr. Darcy. “Indeed, no one would have faulted you. The marriage contract had not even been signed. Many would say you had a lucky escape.”
Mr. Darcy turned and sat in the chair in front of Mr. Gardiner’s desk. He took his beaver hat off and rested it on his knee. “I am curious as to what rumors reached those families. What were their names?”
Mr. Gardiner mentioned six family names. Mr. Darcy stilled. Those names were familiar to him. He turned his head to the side as he thought of how he recognized those last names. “Does Gordon have a daughter, unmarried, near my age?”
“He does, but she recently wed.”
Mr. Darcy narrowed his eyes but had to confirm his suspicion. “And the others?”
“Yes, except for Allen, they have no children. You think they heard the rumor at the ball last evening?”
Mr. Darcy shook his head and turned to face Elizabeth’s uncle. “No, not all of them could have attended the ball and spoke to their fathers early, quite early this morning. Those peers would also not have made business decisions based on an on dit overheard at a ball. No, for them to have put that much stock in the story they must have had or seen strong proof…”
Such as a letter from someone fudging that they had heard the Earl of Coventry state said on dit. And then sent the letters to all their friends and acquaintances long before the sun had risen.
Mr. Darcy stood abruptly. “I must leave. I have errands that cannot wait.” He placed the beaver hat on his head. “Where is Miss Elizabeth? Is she traveling to Meryton?”
Mr. Gardiner stood and walked around his desk. “You are a quite perceptive man, yes she is on the mail coach and will reside with my sisters in Meryton.”
Mr. Darcy paused to stare at the man. “Mrs. Bennet is your sister?”
A small smile graced the man’s visage. “She is.”
The strength of will and character for the man with Mrs. Bennet as a sister, to have turned out so well. He did not know the other sister in Meryton, but she must be quite similar to Elizabeth’s mother. What a trial growing up in that household must have been.
Mr. Darcy quit the Gardiners and instructed his driver to depart for the Bingley townhouse in Mayfair. He flattened his lips at the suspected temerity of that woman. It would take time to clean up the mess she had caused before he could depart for Hertfordshire. But he had not invested this much into improving Elizabeth’s reputation only for it to be ruined by the spiteful pen of a woman scorned.