The engagement ball for Mr. Bingley and Jane took place one week after the uncomfortable dinner. Netherfield was once again open to the people of Meryton and the surrounding estates. The general mood was one of elation. Jane was almost universally adored, and people were very fond of Mr. Bingley because of his general amiability, not to mention his habit of providing entertainments for every celebratory occasion.
Elizabeth had, once again, chosen her dress with care – a lovely pale blue. She knew that she should not torture herself this way, but she hoped to see a spark in Mr. Darcy’s eye when he looked at her. After how unpleasant Miss Bingley had been at the engagement dinner, Elizabeth was not especially inclined to consider her feelings.
Darcy did not so much as pick out his own cravat. Miss Bingley had instructed his valet how he should be dressed, and it did not seem worth the fight to choose his own clothing. He detested how she dressed him as if he was her doll. It was becoming more and more difficult to have Caroline and Elizabeth in the same room and retain his composure. He knew that the night would be a trial.
After he was dressed, he headed downstairs to the ballroom. He expected to find Caroline greeting guests with Bingley, but she was nowhere to be seen. He took advantage of her absence and looked around to see if the Bennets had arrived.
“Is your intended here?” he asked Bingley.
“I believe they just arrived,” Bingley replied. “Perhaps you would be so good as to help me welcome them.”
The men walked to the front door to see the Bennets just stepping down from the carriage. Bingley offered Jane his arm. Mrs. Bennet was escorted by Mr. Bennet, so it was only proper that Darcy escort Elizabeth. He held his arm out and she slid her arm through his. They briefly glanced at each other, and that glance was enough to show that they both felt the dangerous electricity of the moment. They needed to take care.
Darcy was delighted to have Elizabeth on his arm. She looked even more beautiful than the last time he had seen her, if that was possible. Her dress was lovely, and he wondered with a twinge of delight whether she had worn it for him. He pulled her arm closer to him in a gesture that would not be obvious to anyone looking. She gently squeezed his arm in return.
Elizabeth was equal parts elated and miserable. To walk into the ball on Darcy’s arm was a dream, but like all dreams, she knew she must awaken. Soon Caroline Bingley would arrive and unpleasantly remind everyone to whom Darcy was promised. Elizabeth closed her eyes and just for a moment imagined that it was she who was engaged to Mr. Darcy.
Their party arrived in the ballroom and Mr. Bingley said to Darcy, “I know it is not your preference, but as a favor to me, will you help Jane and I begin the dance? I fear that everyone else is waiting for us to begin” He looked around. “Where is Caroline? Probably playing that game where she arrives late so everyone has an opportunity to admire her.”
Bingley was not quite as naive as he sometimes appeared. Darcy smiled.
“Would you mind pairing with Miss Elizabeth for this dance?” Bingley asked, and Darcy could hardly say no – nor did he want to.
He walked back to Elizabeth, gave her a formal bow, and said “Might I ask for this dance, Miss Elizabeth?”
“You may, Mr. Darcy,” she said and accepted his hand.
Once it was clear that the dancing had begun, other people fell in around the couple and Darcy and Elizabeth had more of an opportunity to speak quietly to one another without being overheard.
“I am in agony,” Elizabeth whispered. “This is much more difficult than I ever could have imagined.”
“I wish it could be otherwise,” Darcy replied gently. “Can you imagine, for just a few moments, that things are different and that the end of this dance will not mean the end of our time together?”
She nodded and tried to enjoy herself. She quickly became attuned to how they moved together in the dance and it helped her put some of her sadness aside. She almost could imagine that she was dancing with her intended, instead of with Miss Bingley’s.
Darcy led her through the turns and steps of the dance, drinking in every moment he had with her, memorizing all the small details of her face. They danced two songs together before they even realized what they had done. It would be improper to dance any more than that, so their time had ended. At the end of the second song, Mr. Darcy bowed and said, “Miss Elizabeth. Thank you for the time you have given me.”
All she could do was nod mutely. She walked over to the edge of the ballroom to sit. Darcy felt terrible that he could not continue dancing with her, but at the same time, he did not think he could bear it if she danced with anyone else. To distract himself, he looked around once again for Caroline. She was still not in the ballroom. Darcy sent a servant to check with her lady’s maid and make sure that all was well.
The servant came back after several minutes to tell Mr. Darcy that he had better come speak with Miss Bingley’s lady’s maid directly. Elizabeth could tell from across the room that something was wrong. She could not just sit passively while things happened around her. She crossed the ballroom and slipped up the stairs behind Darcy and the servant.
“What do you mean that she is not here?” Darcy asked Miss Fellowes, Caroline’s lady’s maid.
“I am sorry sir. I found her room like this, and I have seen no sign of Miss Bingley for hours.”
Darcy surveyed the room. It was ransacked. Clothing and shoes were strewn about, and the large jewelry case that Caroline always kept with her was missing.
“What is going on?” he heard from behind him. He turned around to see Elizabeth staring at the mess.
“Caroline has been missing for some hours. Miss Fellowes found the room like this.” He turned to the servant. “Please send Mr. Bingley up immediately.”
Within moments, Bingley and Jane arrived at Caroline’s room.
“What is this?” cried Bingley.
“There are only two possibilities that I can imagine. Either Caroline has run away, or she has been taken.”
They all looked around. No one imagined that Caroline had left on her own, so their minds turned to the second possibility.
“We must get the constable,” said Bingley. “Which servant can ride the fastest?”
“None can ride faster than me,” said Darcy, grimly. “I will go.”
Mr. Bingley had the unenviable job of informing his guests that the ball would be ending early. At first, the small group that knew of Caroline’s disappearance wondered if discretion would not be the best approach to take, but the thought of searching Netherfield with so many other people around seemed overwhelming. Bingley did not give specifics, but told his guests that an unexpected situation necessitated the early end of the ball. The gossip began almost immediately. Some people whispered that Mr. Bingley and Miss Bennet had a fight, but few people truly believed that such an amiable couple would have a disagreement of the magnitude that would necessitate the canceling of a ball. Several people had seen the speed with which Mr. Darcy rode off, so most of the rumors centered around him.
Jane and Elizabeth, who knew the truth of the situation, had no intention of leaving. Mr. Bingley offered the entire Bennet family lodging for the night and ensured that Mr. Bennet, Mrs. Bennet, and Kitty were made comfortable in guest rooms. By that time, Darcy had arrived back with the constable.
The constable surveyed the room and asked many questions – was there anyone with whom Miss Bingley had quarreled ? Had she seemed nervous over the past few days? Was there anything they could think of that was unusual?
They were genuinely perplexed. There had been the unpleasantness at the engagement dinner, but no one thought that rose to the occasion of causing Miss Bingley to leave of her own will.
Darcy rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I hope that it is not the case that a person who holds animosity towards me has directed his ire at Caroline as a way to injure me.”
Elizabeth looked at Jane nervously. Certainly she did not like Miss Bingley, but that did not mean she hoped her to come to harm.
A search of the house was undertaken. Servants were interviewed, as were Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy. As the sun rose, they were no closer to discovering what happened to Caroline. Jane and Elizabeth finally agreed to get some sleep, although they knew it would be fitful. Mr. Darcy himself took watch outside their bedroom door to see that they were safe. It helped a little, knowing that Darcy was there, but Elizabeth could not find sleep with one thought echoing in her head. Where was Caroline Bingley?
“Send Mrs. Fellowes to me,” commanded Darcy from his station outside the Bennets’ room. She was quickly retrieved.
“I know that you feel you have an obligation to keep Miss Bingley’s confidence, but her life may be in danger. If there is any information, no matter how small, that you think could assist us in this, it is imperative that you share it.”
Mrs. Fellowes promptly burst into tears. Darcy handed her his handkerchief and waited.
“Oh, sir, it is too terrible to even say,” she whispered.
“Mrs. Fellowes, you must tell me, no matter how terrible,” said Darcy, his heart beating quickly.
“Miss Bingley is … with child.”
She could have stunned him no less had she slapped him across the face.
“With child?” he whispered. “But how could that be? Certainly I never -”
The implication of what she had told him finally became clear.
“Who is the father?”
Mrs. Fellowes continued to look frightened. “I am so sorry, sir. I felt that my obligation was to my mistress.”
“You have nothing to fear, Mrs. Fellowes. Please. Tell me anything that could help us find her.”
“It was an officer of the militia, sir. I believe his name was Mr. Wickham.”
Darcy could finally see the plot clearly. He should have known that Wickham would do anything in his power to ruin Darcy. And what would ruin him more than defiling his fiancee? If the situation was not so dire, he would have laughed. Little did Wickham know that stealing Caroline’s affections was not a way to damage Darcy. He was thankful that no one knew of his feelings for Elizabeth, who slumbered safely at Netherfield. However, that did not change the fact that Caroline was missing. She had to be located.
Darcy had Bingley sent to him.
“I am afraid I have some shocking news to share with you,” he said.
Bingley’s eyes got wide. “Please tell me that Caroline has not been hurt,” he whispered.
“Not physically, but I fear her reputation has been shattered beyond repair. She is with child. It is George Wickham’s.”
Bingley gasped and leaned against the wall. “It cannot be true.”
“Do you know of any reason that Miss Fellowes would lie about such a thing?”
“Certainly I cannot think of a reason for her to lie. She certainly will have more difficulty obtaining another position if it is known that her former mistress was disgraced in such a way. I do not think she would say such a thing if it was not true. Darcy, what are we to do?”
“Mrs. Fellowes has a suspicion of where they are heading. She believes them on their way to Gretna Green.”
Such a statement pointed to the fact that Wickham and Caroline might be trying to marry quickly in Scotland and avoid the marriage banns that needed to be read in England.
“Are we to stop them or encourage them?” asked Bingley faintly. “Their marriage would be a travesty, but to have them unmarried would be far worse. How could Caroline bring such shame to our family?”
“I suspect the idea did not arise with her,” said Darcy. “George Wickham is using Caroline to exact revenge on me. I am sorry that I have brought such dishonor to your family.”
“If Caroline has allowed herself to be seduced, it is not you who has dishonored me,” said Bingley firmly.
“We should hasten to Gretna Green. I do not know how this situation will resolve itself, but we should speak to Caroline before she makes any decisions that might further damage her future.”
“It is a credit to you, Darcy, that you continue to consider her wellbeing after the way that she has betrayed you.”
“There is time to deal with that later. Let us ride,” replied Darcy.
When Jane and Elizabeth finally awoke from their fitful sleep, Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley had already left. Mr. Bingley had written Jane a letter to inform her of what was happening.
My dearest Jane –
While you slept, Darcy discovered news about Caroline. Be warned that what follows is shocking, and please burn this letter after you have read it.
It appears that Caroline is carrying George Wickham’s child. We do not know how such a terrible thing has come to pass, but we must find Caroline as quickly as we can. Her lady’s maid believes that they head to Gretna Green. By the time you read this, Darcy and I will be in pursuit of the couple.
Know that I am now, and shall always be, yours.
Jane and Elizabeth shared a worried look. Who knew what villainy a blackguard like Wickham could sow? The sisters began the arduous task of waiting to hear news.