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“Well deserved criticism,” Darcy assured him, causing the gentleman’s eyebrows to raise.
Darcy nodded. “I have made my full confession of folly to your wife.”
“As have I,” Bingley added.
“And was your folly forgiven?” Gardiner’s eyes shifted from Bingley to Darcy and back.
“Yes,” Bingley replied with a grin.
“By your wife and Miss Bennet,” Darcy added. “And I hope, eventually, to be forgiven by Miss Elizabeth as well.”
“Hmm,” Gardiner muttered as he nodded his head in a pleased fashion. “I am certain my wife will apprise me of the details when I return home this evening.”
“I am certain she will,” Darcy agreed.
“So you do not dislike our Lizzy, then?”
The smile he wore told Darcy he knew the answer to that question, but Darcy answered anyway. “I like her very much.”
Gardiner chuckled and turned to Bingley. “And I assume you like Jane?”
Bingley’s cheeks grew noticeably red. It was one of the hazards of having a fair complexion. “I love her,” Bingley answered, “and I would like to have permission to court her.”
“Done,” Gardiner said with a sharp nod of his head.
“Done?” Bingley repeated. “Do you not wish to ask me my intentions or about why I have not called before now or … or … or … something?”
Gardiner chuckled and shook his head. “My niece is not foolish. I trust her judgment and that of my wife. You would not be here if you had not gotten past Addie and been sent to me; therefore, you have passed the only test I require.”
“But what of my wealth and standing?” Bingley questioned.
“You have five thousand a year, your father was in trade ─ something that does not concern me in the least –, and you are planning to purchase an estate eventually ─ although might I caution you not to consider Netherfield. Is there anything else I should know?”
Bingley shook his head. “No, I believe that covers the high points. Why should I not consider Netherfield?”
“You have met my sister, have you not?”
Gardiner nodded. “In my experience, she does not improve with acquaintance, but then, she is my sister. However, I know she will be on your doorstep every second day at least.” He grimaced. “I was not blessed with sensible sisters.”
“Neither was I, ” Bingley commiserated.
Gardiner shifted forward in his chair. “It is best to see them married and well-settled as soon as possible and at a distance that allows them to grow dear to you.” He winked. “A half-day’s journey is the least I would recommend. Now, was there anything else I could do for you, gentlemen?”
“There was a matter of some delicacy that we had hoped to discuss with you at some point,” Darcy said.
Mr. Gardiner pulled his watch from his pocket and after giving it a quick glance, said, “I have an hour before I have to be anywhere, and I would welcome the diversion from my books.”
“Have you heard of Mr. Wickham?” Darcy asked.
Mr. Gardiner nodded. “Elizabeth has mentioned him in her letters, and Jane has told us some about him.”
“He is not what he appears,” Darcy began, “but in revealing his nature, I will have to expose some things that are very personal and which I would not reveal for any other reason than to see Miss Elizabeth and her sisters safe.”
Mr. Gardiner’s features grew grave. “He is so bad?”
Darcy nodded. “I am afraid he is.”
For the next half hour, Darcy related to Elizabeth’s uncle all the details of Wickham’s dissipated predilections, his refusal of the living at Kympton, the squandering of his fortune, and finally, his scheme to elope with Darcy’s sister.
“This is very serious indeed,” Gardiner said at the end of Darcy’s narration. “You think he has singled Elizabeth out to befriend because of you?”
“At the risk of sounding arrogant, I do,” Darcy replied. “I do not deny he might have selected her for her beauty and wit, but I fear that I might be an added reason for his preference.”
Gardiner’s head bobbed up and down slowly as he thought. “I am not certain how I can help.”
“Mr. Bennet seems a sensible sort of man,” Darcy began, “perhaps a few words of caution regarding Wickham’s tendency to acquire debt might set him on guard.”
Gardiner shrugged. “It is worth an attempt. I shall find a way to mention it.” He paused. “Might I hint that Mr. Wickham is a seducer? I would not mention your sister, of course.”
Darcy nodded. “It is a general fact.”
Gardiner blew out a breath. “And this is the man that has captured Elizabeth’s attention?” He shook his head. “She is usually discerning.”
“He is very practised. It is no fault of hers.”
Gardiner shook his head. “Practiced he may be, but there is some fault on her part. She has chosen to listen. I blame my sisters for that. They are the worst gossips ─ always listening for some tantalizing tale to share and then imparting their stories with great embellishment. A child should not be subjected to such a demonstration from their mother.” He rose from his chair. “I have cautioned Bennet about that on more than one occasion. Even the brightest will be influenced to err on occasion.” He took his great coat from a hook on the wall and smiled reassuringly at Darcy. “Do not fear, Elizabeth is not like her mother. She has just forgotten her good sense in her dislike of you.” He held the door open. “Not that she actually dislikes you, according to Addie.”
“So I have been told,” Darcy replied.
Gardiner clapped him on the back. “Do not be discouraged. The female mind it is a delicate and complex thing. It is my belief that we gentlemen could study it all our lives and still only feign an understanding.”
Darcy and Bingley added their agreement as they accompanied Mr. Gardiner out to the street.