“Ah, Darcy, I cannot tell you how glad I am to see you,” Bingley said, taking his friend’s hand and pumping it enthusiastically. “Really, very glad.”
Darcy eyed his friend. Bingley was a man of frequent enthusiasm and constant warmth, to be sure, but there was an element of unease in his manner, even here in the sitting room of his own townhouse, to which Darcy was quite unused. “Hello, old friend, it has been quite some time.” What had happened in the months since he had last been in his Bingley’s presence? “Mrs Bingley.” He bowed to his friend’s wife, who responded with a smile as placid and good-natured as ever.
“Mr Darcy,” she said, then turned to his sister. “Miss Darcy, we are honored by your presence; I hope that your stay in Town is a pleasant one. If there is anything I may do to help, I would be glad to do so.” As ever, she was the very soul of graciousness, and her dress was fashionable but not ostentatious; removed from her terrible family, the former Miss Bennet had proved not nearly as ineligible a match for Bingley as Darcy had originally feared, and a better influence for Georgiana than many women of greater rank.
“Thank you, Mrs Bingley,” Georgiana said with a smile. “That is very kind. I have my companion of course, and my aunt the ________ of _______, but … I will be glad of your support.”
The four sat. Mrs Bingley poured tea for everyone, and Darcy listened as she enquired after Georgiana’s plans and dresses. Mrs Annesley, while an adequate guard for Georgiana's character and virtue, unfortunately lacked all sense of fashion, and Lady __________, their aunt who lived in town, was elderly and set in her ways. Young Mrs Bingley would serve as a perfectly respectable chaperon, and she had successfully navigated London's social scene without losing that kindness of character which he particularly wished Georgiana to emulate. The Ton had a way of turning women hard or sly, and he did not wish for that to be Georgiana’s fate. Now that the former Miss Bingley, a calculatingly proud beauty, was married and out of her brother’s household, Georgiana might safely be given to Mrs Bingley’s mentorship.
Bingley suddenly broke into the ladies' conversation. “I say, Jane, would you mind terribly if Darcy and I left you and Miss Darcy for a time? There is a pressing matter of business I should like to have Darcy’s advice on.”
Mrs Bingley smiled. “Of course not, Charles. I imagine the two of you must find our talk of lace and silk very dull.”
“Thank you,” Bingley said. He and Darcy stood and made their bows.
Once they were in the study with the doors closed, Bingley sighed in relief and threw himself down into one of the leather chairs by the desk.
“What is it, man?” Darcy asked in some concern. “Trouble with your steward, again?”
“No, no,” Bingley said. “Your advice was most helpful, and there have been no recurrences.”
“Then what?” Darcy asked, patiently.
“It’s,” Bingley swallowed, “it’s Jane.”
“Mrs Bingley?” Darcy frowned. She had seemed perfectly normal; it was Charles who seemed upset.
“Yes,” Bingley said. “A month ago, we came to London, and we were happy and of one mind in everything—I would have staked my life on it. Then Tuesday fortnight ago she received a letter. I did not recognize the hand, but it was not fine enough to belong to a woman—indeed, even a gentleman would have scrupled to own it. She did not disclose its contents, but that afternoon she left on an errand, though she had planned to stay at home. She has not been the same since, Darcy. She hasn’t been the same.”
“How so,” Darcy said, his frown deepening.
“When I ask her about the letter, she will not look me in the eye. She avoids the subject, and keeps her head bowed when I press, but will not speak. Her very countenance proclaims guilt. Last week, she left the house again in a furtive manner on a day I had planned to be away. If I had not returned early, I would never have known she had been gone. She’s never kept anything from me, Darcy. I’ve no idea what to do.”
“Where is the letter now?” Darcy asked. Intercepting a lady’s correspondence was a step to be taken only in the most serious of circumstances. On the other hand, Bingley was her husband and surely he would know when it was called for. Perhaps he was right to be concerned. Darcy could not imagine a legitimate reason for a woman to conceal so much from her husband. He would not have credited Jane Bingley with such deception.
“She had hidden it in a drawer,” Bingley said. He opened a ledger and removed a piece of paper, handing it over to Darcy.
Darcy unfolded it. The paper was creased and smudged, and of a poor quality such as a tradesman might use for an invoice. Certainly, it was nothing a lady would use, and no governess or schoolmistress would ever tolerate such handwriting from a pupil. “‘Jane, I’m in London for the next few weeks on a matter of business and hope to have the pleasure of your company. EB’” There was no seal or watermark, nothing to indicate origin. He looked up. “EB—I suppose B could stand for Bennet. It could be a relation.”
“But then why would she not say?” Bingley asked. “She knows I would not keep her from family.”
“Indeed,” Darcy said, even though given her horrid mother and sisters, Bingley would have been justified in reducing contact, at least. The only reason Darcy could imagine for such secrecy would be an attachment to a man other than her husband, or blackmail; but he could hardly believe either of the sweet Mrs Bingley.
“What do I do?” Bingley asked plaintively.
Darcy frowned. The obvious next step would be to follow Mrs Bingley if she attempted to meet her mysterious correspondent again, but Bingley would probably rather fret than stoop to it. Also, if it were an indiscretion of some sort, it would break Bingley’s heart to witness it. Darcy would prefer to spare his friend the heartache. “I will look into it,” he said. “I am sure it is nothing. Do not trouble yourself further.”
“Thank you, Darcy!” Bingley said. “I know my fancy has been running away from me—Jane would never do anything wrong, the matter must be something innocent.”
Darcy listened to his friend speak on as the conversation turned to happier matters, satisfied to hear him restored to his usual humour.
Two days later Darcy sat in his carriage a few houses down the street from Bingley’s townhouse and waited patiently, book in hand. It was a cold, rainy day typical of the season, but he was warmly dressed, with a lap blanket and a hot brick wrapped in flannel for his feet. Bingley had just left and Darcy knew that he would be gone for hours. Now Darcy would see if Mrs Bingley was bent on another mysterious outing.
His vigil was not long. A carriage drew up to the front of the house, as if it had been called for shortly after Bingley’s departure. Mrs Bingley, bundled against the weather, was ushered into it. Darcy leaned forward and rapped on the roof of his carriage with the head of his cane. His driver had his instructions.
They followed Mrs Bingley’s carriage from the fashionable part of town, to a neighborhood that had been barely respectable before the war started and was now a den of iniquity. It was the part of London that was adjacent to the London Covert, the landing ground for dragons in the city. A decade earlier the covert had been seldom-used, as the beasts were rarely allowed near people, and there had been talk in Parliament of putting the land—such a great piece of open space, in the middle of London—to more profitable use. Now, with the country locked in a struggle with that damned Napoleon, dragons seemed to be everywhere, terrorizing decent folk as much as they helped the war effort. The London covert was now a hive of activity both human and draconic, and those who lived near it who could leave, had. What on earth could a respectable woman like Mrs Bingley want here?
It was some small relief to see Mrs Bingley’s carriage stop at the gates of the covert itself, though not much; the aviators were only barely better than the refuse that surrounded their walls. Darcy had never met any, but although he gave no credit to the wilder rumours that surrounded them, they were no fit company for gentlemen or ladies.
Darcy tapped on the carriage roof again, and the driver obediently stopped. He watched as Mrs Bingley descended from her carriage—of course one could not take horses into a covert; they would go mad with fear—and knocked on the postern gate. It opened, and she stepped through, vanishing from his sight.
Darcy got out of his carriage. “Wait here,” he said to the driver, then turned to the covert. The old stone walls were sturdily made, and the gates were tightly closed. It took but a short time to reach them, though rather more than Darcy preferred in such weather. He rapped on the wood as Mrs Darcy had done, and an aviator opened it for him. He stepped through; the man did not ask his business, merely went on about his way; it was terribly sloppy and did not speak well of the quality of their servants, though Darcy supposed that given the presence of dragons they were not much troubled by unwanted visitors.
Inside the covert, the rain poured just as unpleasantly. There was a tang in the air that Darcy was unfamiliar with; slightly musty, but with a hint of some foreign spice. Was it the smell of wet dragon, or something else? Darcy walked forward, hoping to look as if he had business here as he took in his surroundings.
Brick pavilions thronged the open space, most inhabited by dragons of various sizes, with aviators moving among them. Darcy’s whole body clenched to see the dragons, lacking harness or any means of control, and prayed he need not come closer to them. A few buildings stood by the walls, and a few aviators walked purposefully between them, clad in oilskin coats instead of their distinctive bottle-green uniforms. Reminding himself of his mission, Darcy scanned the area for Mrs Bingley, and spotted her just as she turned a corner. He hurried after her, hoping to finish this distasteful task as soon as possible.
On rounding the corner, Darcy jerked to a stop, jaw dropping. Mrs Bingley was wrapped in the arms of an aviator! “Mrs Bingley,” he snapped, “what is the meaning of this?”
Mrs Bingley and her paramour drew apart. “Mr Darcy!” she exclaimed. “Whatever are you doing here?”
The aviator stepped forward. “Did you follow her, as if she were a criminal? What an odious thing to do! What gave you the right?”
“I am her husband’s best friend, sir,” Darcy said hotly, hoping to spark some stirring of conscience in the cad; there was something odd about the aviator’s voice, and he paused. It sounded familiar. Could they have met? Darcy did not know anyone who kept company with aviators. He frowned at the man: hair drawn back in an old-fashioned queue, dark eyes, fine cheekbones that had yet to be covered with a beard; a boy? He did not seem young—
Darcy’s jaw dropped, and he wished for a chair to sit upon. Although he had on occasion seen fine ladies faint, never had he thought he might follow their example, but a shock of this magnitude could not simply be brushed aside. “Miss Bennet?”
Miss Bennet closed her eyes, briefly. “Yes, that is all that was lacking.” She shook her head, but there was no shame in her gesture. No shame—to be found in men’s clothing, without escort or protector, among aviators—she must be the most brazen hussy ever to disgrace her sex.
“Wadsworth, get Admiral Portland,” she snapped. “If he is not available, Captain Berkley.”
Darcy realized that they had drawn an audience. Aviators stood around them, with their enormous beasts peering over their heads. Darcy took a short step towards Mrs Bingley, though how he should protect her if the aviators turned hostile—or worse, if the dragons did—he knew not. One of the aviators detached himself from his fellows and took off at a run. Why they should allow a woman—and such a woman, at that—to order them around, Darcy could not fathom. Still, he felt relieved as he could not imagine even Elizabeth Bennet abandoning her sister in a time of distress.
“Now, Mr Darcy,” Miss Bennet said. He turned to face her again. “We have much to discuss. I, for one, would prefer to do it someplace dryer and with more privacy.”
"As you wish," Darcy said coldly.
Miss Bennet nodded and turned on her heel, evidently expecting him to follow. Darcy offered his arm to Mrs Bingley, who took it politely. That shred of normalcy helped steady his nerves. They were led inside, into a sitting room with table and chairs that were rough and worn, but comfortable. No servant was about, so Miss Bennet removed her own oilskin cloak and hat and hung them from pegs on the wall to dry, revealing an aviator’s uniform beneath. Darcy followed her example, though even in his shock he helped Mrs Bingley with her cloak first.
Miss Bennet flung herself into a chair by the fire, with all the abandon of a schoolboy; Mrs Bingley took a seat of her own, rather more demurely. A servant poked his head through the door. “Will you be needing anything, Lieutenant?” He stared at Darcy with unabashed curiosity, not even pretending to hide it as a decent servant should.
Miss Bennet waved a hand. “No, thank you, Meaddows. See that we’re not disturbed.” As Meaddows withdrew, she fixed Darcy with a stern gaze. “Come. Sit.”
He followed her instructions partly out of shock. Lieutenant? He should have sooner believed the moon was made of green cheese. A woman as an officer? And she presumed to order him? “What is the meaning of this?” he cried.
“What is the meaning of this?” she said. “The meaning, Mr Darcy, is that you are a sneaking bastard with no consideration or trust, and if your spying found something you do not care for, it is your own damned fault.”
“I am trying to spare Bingley and put his mind at ease,” Darcy said, flushing at her language and accusations. “Mrs Bingley’s secretive behavior of late has given him much alarm. I wished to solve the matter and handle any … unpleasantness.”
“Ah, so you believe both him and Jane to be incapable of handling their own affairs,” Miss Bennet said. “And you believe that by marrying your friend, my sister gave up all rights to any privacy or her own concerns.”
“Privacy is one thing,” Darcy said. “Deceiving her husband is quite another.”
“Not when any attempt at privacy is charged against her as deception,” Miss Bennet said.
“Please, will you stop fighting?” Mrs Bingley said.
Miss Bennet took her sister’s hand. “I am sorry, Jane, I know how much you dislike confrontations. I am willing to be reasonable if he is. But you know we must have this out now; it would be much worse to wait.”
“I am reasonable, Miss Bennet,” Darcy said stiffly.
“It is Lieutenant Bennet,” she replied. “And the other is a matter of opinion.”
Darcy was saved by the necessity of answering by the door opening. A middle-aged man strode in, an aviator with much decoration on his uniform, though Darcy could not read the rank. Aviators were often vulgar in their ostentation.
“Admiral Portland,” said Mrs Bingley’s sister, climbing to her feet. “May I introduce my sister, Mrs Charles Bingley?”
Admiral Portland nodded. “How d’you do, ma’am.” He turned his gaze on Darcy.
“This is Mr Darcy, a friend of Mr Bingley,” Miss Bennet said. “He followed Jane here, caused a row, and recognized me.”
“I see,” Portland said heavily. He pursed his lips, and Darcy flushed under his examination. “Well, out with it,” he said.
“I cannot fathom what the Aerial Corps is thinking, allowing women in its coverts, much less in its ranks! Miss Bennet claims to be a Lieutenant.” Darcy spat the word out, in hopes the Admiral would contradict her assertion.
“I will thank you to keep your nose out of matters that don’t concern you and about which you have no knowledge,” Portland said. “I must have your word, sir, before you leave, that you will not divulge to anyone what you have seen.”
“But it is an insult, both to the fair sex and to those who should be their protectors,” Darcy said.
“Would you prefer to be under Boney’s yoke?” Portland said angrily. “The Longwings are the backbone of England’s defense. We would have fallen without them many, many times. And they will only accept female handlers. You groundlings have no understanding of us, and I’ll thank you not to pass judgment where you’ve nothing but lies and rumours to go on. I will have your word, sir! As a gentleman and a loyal Englishman.”
Nothing but lies and rumours indeed—Darcy knew several women very well, and he could not bear to contemplate what his dear Georgiana might have been forced to endure in the Bennet woman’s place. Georgiana was such a timid girl, and he shuddered to think how the affair with Wickham would have gone had he not been there to prevent it. Women were such vulnerable creatures; it was the duty of every gentleman to see the weaker sex protected from the harsh realities of a world filled with those who would prey upon them. That the Bennet family should abandon a daughter to make her own way was even greater proof that they were lost to all propriety and decency.
Darcy swallowed. This should be known—the depravity of the Aerial Corps could not be remedied until it were more generally known, he could see that—but he could see no way clear of making the vow. He felt adrift, at sea, as if all his prior certainties had been swept away. But who would believe him? He had heard such rumours himself (for as the affairs and influence of the Aerial Corps had grown in recent years, so too had the tales told about them), and refused them credit. And Aviators were known for their casual disregard of rank and personage and all decency, as this revelation had so dramatically shown. Within these walls, all his position and wealth counted for nothing. And if Portland were right, and women aviators were crucial to England’s survival, well, there would be time, after the war was over, to raise the issue. “Very well,” he said ungraciously. “You have my word. I will not speak of this to those who do not already know.”
“Good,” Portland said with a sharp nod.
“But still, surely some other solution might be found, something preferable to exposing ladies to the harshness of military discipline, much less combat,” Darcy said, unable to let the subject go. He could not imagine Georgiana exposed without protection to the licentiousness of the Army, or the cruelty of combat. Perhaps the Longwings could be kept in a separate encampment with their feminine handlers, and then come to the main covert to pick up their fighting crew before battle? “Miss—Lieutenant—Bennet is, I am sure, a tolerable officer,” for certainly she was mannish enough, Darcy thought, “but—”
“Tolerable!” the woman said with a snort. “I’m a damn good officer. And you needn’t worry about me, I can take care of myself.”
“But you shouldn’t have to!”
“I’ve served alongside many female officers, and each one a credit to the Corps,” Admiral Portland said. “We cater enough to your damned provincial prejudices about women’s character and fitness by keeping the whole thing secret outside the Corps. It is a shame and a poor reward for all their contributions to the safety of this kingdom, not to mention how it interferes with the war effort. ‘Tis small-minded men who force us into it, but it cannot be avoided and it is the greatest compromise I or the Corps is willing to make.” He stared down at Darcy imperiously. “I don’t expect to hear from you again, Darcy. Now that’s settled, I have work to do.” He turned to Mrs Bingley. “A pleasure to meet you, ma’am, I only wish it had been under different circumstances. Lieutenant, I trust you can handle the remaining details?”
“Of course, sir,” she said, standing until he was gone.
Portland left, and Darcy stared after him, feeling more at sea than he could remember ever feeling before. Unwillingly, he turned back to the Bennet woman and Mrs Bingley. And he had thought her mother and sisters at home were bad! “You have arranged it all very nicely,” he said as she retook her seat. He was unable to keep a sour edge out of his voice. “I salute you.”
“What do you intend to tell Charles?” Mrs Bingley said, and the harridan seemed content to let her speak.
Darcy shrugged. “What can I? Fortunately, no lies will be necessary; he does not know I am here. I did not wish to give him cause to worry.” He ignored the sardonic look on the aviatrix’s face. “You shall have to deal with your husband, madam; I wash my hands of the matter. However, my first responsibility is to my own sister; I will not have her exposed to yours, not for any reason. Do I make myself clear?”
“Easy enough to promise, since I seldom go into society and you will not be welcome here again,” Miss Bennet declared. “And I doubt you would have brought her in any case. Is there anything else you require, Mr Darcy?”
It was not a subtle hint. Darcy paused, torn between the morbid desire to know how such … things had come to pass, and the urge to flee back to the world he knew, where everyone was rational and decent. “No.” He paused; he could not leave a friend’s wife alone and without escort in such a place. “Will you be joining me, Mrs Bingley?”
“No, Mr Darcy,” she said. “For I have not completed my call.” Her face and voice were the very model of genteel pleasantry; but how had he ever thought her placid and pliable?
“She’ll be safe here,” the aviatrix said. “And I’ll see her back to her carriage when we are finished. I shall summon a servant to see you out.” She rang the bell, and a servant answered so promptly that he must have been lurking just outside the door. Darcy could see others behind him, presumably to hear their conversation.
Once back in the carriage, Darcy sat for a few moments to collect himself before giving instructions to the driver. He had an urge to break his word and tell Bingley all he knew; for surely, the man had a right to know what kind of family he had married into. But he had given his word, and at this late date, what could his friend do?
“Take me to my club,” he instructed the driver at last. Yes. A brandy to settle his nerves would be most welcome.
“William, are you all right?” Georgiana asked him anxiously. “You have not said three words together this evening, and you have scarcely touched your food.”
Darcy looked down at his plate; Georgiana was quite correct. “I am quite well, do not trouble yourself.” What, after all, could he tell her? More troublingly, what could he possibly tell Bingley of his wife’s secret? What excuse could he possibly give Bingley for limiting Georgiana’s contact with Mrs Bingley? Even if Mrs Bingley never allowed contact between their two sisters, this day’s events had shaken his opinion of her—breeding would tell, after all. But no, no excuse was possible, not without breaking his word. If only he had a wife, who might serve as a guide and model for Georgiana. Darcy dreaded the Season, and the way ladies and their mothers schemed to ensnare him. That was no small part of the reason he was unmarried still.
But as Georgiana’s guardian he would be required to mix more in society; perhaps this year, he would find a bride. If he were to meet a suitable lady early on, arranging for her and Georgiana to be better acquainted would be an ample excuse for fewer visits with the Bingleys. And if Georgiana were to marry after her first season—and why not, as she was an attractive, pleasant girl of good fortune and excellent connections—he could see to it that Georgiana and the Bingleys never visited Pemberly at the same time. With the speed at which things happened during the Season, it might only be a few months before matters were settled. This reflection raised his spirits enough that the food in front of him began to seem attractive. He took a bite. It was excellent, as usual. Their cook really was a treasure; in that one area, at least, Lady Catherine’s judgment was sound. That cheered him, as well, for if he married his aunt would at last be forced to give up all schemes for his marriage to Anne de Bourgh. If any woman were to be an aviatrix, perhaps it should have been Lady Catherine, for she was certainly enough of a dragon herself to connect with her beast. If she had had the running of the war, no doubt it would be over by now.
His sister still watched him, a slight frown on her face. He did not wish to alarm her further, and so he smiled at her. “I am sorry for my inattentiveness, Georgiana. How was your day?”
"Oh, it was a very fine day," Georgiana said, launching into a description of fabric and lace and pattern that sustained their conversation through the rest of the meal. Darcy was comforted by the return to normal concerns.