Much of the action of my Mr. Darcy’s Bargain, is based around a scam perpetrated by Mr. Wickham upon the citizens of Meryton, as well as Mr. Darcy’s attempts to thwart him. Wickham convinces many in Hertfordshire to invest in an annuity scheme. But how exactly did annuities work during the Regency?
First, if you are like me, your eyes blur over when people in other fields start tossing around the “jargon” associated with their occupations. I do not pretend to be an expert in such matters as annuities, but I will attempt to keep my description of public funds at the time as simple as possible.
First, there were Navy five percent annuities that were produced from about fifty millions of stock, partly formed out of navy bills and converted in 1784, into a stock bearing interest at five percent, whence the name.
Four percent consolidated annuities were popular at the time. They were produced from a like stock as was the Navy five percent funds. They offered a profit of 4% as the title indicated. They originally carried a higher percentage rate.
Three percent consolidate annuities were produced by above four hundred millions of stock, in part formed by the consolidation of several stocks, bearing interest at 3%. When the word “console” is indefinitely used, it is always understood to mean these annuities. Three percent Irish annuities were produced by about two millions of stock formed by loans for use of Ireland, before the union with England.
The type of annuity Wickham presents to the Meryton citizens was one of bank stock, specifically the Bank of England. Bank stock was a capital of nearly 12 millions with which the company of the bank has accommodated the government with various loans, and with which they carry on the banking business, purchase bullion, etc. The dividends on bank stock were at one time ten percent, so that the profits of the company were near twelve hundred thousand pounds per annum. This situation was the perfect scam. Who would not like to earn 10% interest.
When Elizabeth Bennet appears on his doorstep some ten months after her refusal of his hand in marriage, Darcy uses the opportunity to “bargain” for her acceptance of a renewal of his proposal in exchange for his assistance in bringing Mr. Wickham to justice. In Darcy’s absence from Hertfordshire, Wickham has practiced a scheme to defraud the citizens of Meryton of their hard-earned funds. All have invested in a Ten Percent Annuity scheme, including Mr. Bennet, and her family and friends are in dire circumstances. Elizabeth will risk everything to bring her father to health again and to save her friends from destitution, but is she willing to risk her heart? She places her trust in Darcy’s thwarting Wickham’s manipulations, but she is not aware that Darcy wishes more than her acquiescence. He desires her love. And what will happen if Darcy does not succeed in bringing Mr. Wickham to justice? Will that end their “bargain,” or will true love prevail?
Excerpt: (Mr. Gardiner has called Wickham’s bluff and demanded a stock certificate as proof of the investment. Wickham brings one to Mr. Bennet, who is recovering from a spell with his heart.)
Already apprehensive over Mr. Bingley’s news, when Mr. Wickham again appeared upon their threshold, Elizabeth was sore to keep her composure. “If it would not upset Mr. Bennet, I would prefer to present him the certificates you requested,” the lieutenant announced after they exchanged greetings.
It had been three days since his last visit. Elizabeth could not help but wonder if Lieutenant Wickham had actual certificates available. She shot a quick glance to her uncle. “Lizzy will call upon Mr. Bennet to see if my brother is awake. Doctor Doughty still provides my him with several powders. While Elizabeth tends her father, come join me in the small drawing room.”
Elizabeth reluctantly followed her uncle’s instructions. Tapping lightly upon Mr. Bennet’s door, she was gladden to observe his sitting before the window and reading a book. Such was one of her favorite memories of her father–always with a book in his hand. “Ah, Lizzy,” he called when she peeked in. “Come to keep your old papa company?”
“Anytime, sir,” she said with a true smile. “If I had known you were awake, I would have happily made an appearance.”
Her father’s cheeks claimed a bit of color. “Then join me. Surprisingly, I am in need of gossip from the lower levels of my house. With Mrs. Bennet still claiming the periodic role of invalid, unless, of course, she deems it her role to oversee Jane’s return to Mr. Bingley’s side, I possess no one to keep me abreast of the comings and goings under my roof. I feel somewhat bereft of the tattling, but do not speak a word of this to Mrs. Bennet, otherwise my lady will fill my remaining days with her chattering.”
“I fear I shall not deliver the latest news of Mr. Hill’s carbuncle with the same enthusiasm as does Mrs. Bennet, but I am certain I can present you with the abbreviated version,” she said with bemusement.
“Come sit with me,” her father instructed.
Elizabeth bit her bottom lips in indecision. “Actually, sir, Lieutenant Wickham has called and has asked to speak to you. When the gentleman last called upon Longbourn, uncle inquired of stock certificates. Mr. Wickham says he would prefer to present yours to you personally.”
Her father’s expression hardened in disapproval. “Gardiner has kept me informed of the latest developments. I wish you were not so deeply involved in this madness.”
“I am no longer a little girl upon your knee,” she argued.
“And more is the pity,” her father countered. “I would prefer the adoring eyes of my dearest Lizzy rather than the assessing gaze of Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
“Are you well enough to speak to Lieutenant Wickham? If you are too tired, I will ask Uncle Gardiner to continue to act in your stead,” she asked in concern.
Her father sighed deeply. “I have avoided this chaos my foolishness has created long enough. See Mr. Wickham up.”
Elizabeth was not happy with this choice, but she nodded her acceptance. “I shall return in a few moments, sir.”
Her father reached for her hand as she turned to go. “Elizabeth, leave the door to my dressing room open so Mr. Gardiner may hear my conversation with Lieutenant Wickham. I wish I possessed Gardiner’s aplomb in business. I will require his advice after Mr. Wickham’s departure. I would also prefer that you remain in the room. Mayhap your presence will remind me of all I will lose if Gardiner and Darcy cannot catch Mr. Wickham in the act of fraud.”
“I shall tell the gentleman I mean to record some of what he says to assist your memory.”
On her way downstairs she called upon her aunt’s room to explain, “Lieutenant Wickham is below. He wishes to speak to Mr. Bennet. Father requests that Uncle Edward secret himself away in Mr. Bennet’s dressing room to listen to the conversation. Could you relay the message while I see Mr. Wickham to father’s quarters?”
Aunt Gardiner agreed to use the servants’ stairs so as not to draw Mr. Wickham’s interest. Within a few minutes, Elizabeth directed the lieutenant into the small sitting room attached to her father’s bedchamber. In her absence, Mr. Bennet had moved his chair to face the open dressing room door with an empty chair backing the door behind which Mr. Gardiner would hide. He had placed a blanket across his lap and mussed his hair. He appeared less robust than previously.
“You will forgive me, Wickham,” her father said jovially, “for not rising. I fear struggling to my feet is still quite tedious.”
“I understand, sir,” Wickham repeated in practiced respect. “I shan’t keep you long.” He glanced to Elizabeth. “I am assuming your daughter has explained the purpose of my call.”
“She did,” her father acknowledged. “I asked Elizabeth to remain. I pray you hold no objections. My grip on a pen is not what it once was. Nor is my memory as sharp.” Her father demonstrated the tremble of his hand. The realization of his infirmity shook Elizabeth to her core. Tears rushed to her eyes. Had she missed that infirmity somehow?
“No objection, sir.” Mr. Wickham’s “show” of agreement opened her eyes further to how well the man could perform to his audience. The idea that the lieutenant saw her as insignificant crossed her mind. Whereas Wickham looked upon her as a conquest, Mr. Darcy valued her intelligence. He would seek her opinions, as her father often did. The acknowledgment only proved how her earlier judgments of the man were faulty.
Once seated, Mr. Wickham reached into a leather satchel to remove a rolled document. “I have brought you the official certificate of annuities.”
“Annuities?” her father asked. “I thought we discussed investing in canals in both Surrey and Lancashire or shipping fleets to the West Indies.”
Wickham’s obsession with lint upon his uniform had returned. “We did, sir,” he confessed with an easy smile, “but after conferring with Kiernaugh, it was decided that the funds would do better in an annuity. I would have discussed the change with you, but with your illness, I did not have the heart to disturb you further. Moreover, I spoke to Sir William and several others within the neighborhood, and each assured me you would hold no objections. I pray I did not err in securing your investment, sir.”
Elizabeth studied her father’s customarily animated features. The fact she could read none of his thoughts in his expression worried her.
“I should learn more of these annuities before I comment,” Mr. Bennet said evenly. He folded his hands upon his lap, a sign that indicated his displeasure. Needless to say, Mr. Wickham did not understand her father’s unconscious gesture.
Wickham cleared his throat in importance. “I do not pretend expertise in the matter, but I have learned much of government annuities of late. Over the years under King George’s rule, for example, we have seen stocks created by loans to Germany and Ireland before the union. Some of the annuities are called consols, or consolidated, from the stock having been informed by the consolidation of several debts of government.”
Elizabeth scratched out notes of which she hoped her uncle could make sense.
Wickham continued, “Consolidated annuities are formed by the consolidation of several stocks bearing the same interest. In the past there have been three, four, and five percent stocks.”
Mr. Bennet observed, “I doubt there are many ten percent consolidated annuities.”
Lieutenant Wickham returned to the invisible lint, and Elizabeth bit her bottom lip to hide her smile. “Not as many as we would like, but there are a few.” His voice sounded stiff with what was likely false pride for he did not expect her father to question his actions. “What we have chosen as investments are a form of bank stocks with which the bank has accommodated the government with various loans and with which to conduct banking business, such as purchasing bullions. The dividends on the bank stock are now ten percent, which could easily prove twelve hundred pounds per annum for the steady investor.”
Her father asked, “And this is the Bank of England of which you speak?”
“Most assuredly,” Wickham declared. “I think I should point out that India stock, which forms the trading capital of the East India Company, produces an annual dividend of more than ten percent.”
Mr. Bennet had yet to express his favor or disapproval. “I suppose I should see this certificate.” Lieutenant Wickham passed the rolled paper to her father. “Come here, Lizzy,” he instructed. “I will require your steady hand and your clear eyes.”
Elizabeth knelt beside her father, unrolled the paper, and held it where he could study it.
“Read it for me, Lizzy,” Mr. Bennet said with what sounded of exhaustion. She shot him a look of concern, but she did as he asked.
Swallowing back her tears, she read aloud, “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Ten Per Cent Annuities. Received this 26th day of January of 1813, of Thomas Bennet the sum of one thousand pounds being the consideration for one thousand pounds. Interest or share in the capital of joint stock of the Ten Per Cent Annuities, (erected by an Act of Parliament of the 53rd year of the reign of His Majesty King George III Entitled, and all for granting annuities to satisfy certain Navy, Victualling and transportation bills, and ordnance debentures, and by other subsequent acts) transferable at the Bank of England, together with the proportional annuity attending the same, by Jasper Kiernaugh this day transferred to the said Thomas Bennet. There are also the names of the witnesses, as well as when dividends are paid, etcetera.”
Her father winked at her, and Elizabeth breathed easier. She had not known until that moment that he pretended to be an invalid. To Wickham he said, “Everything appears in order. Needless to say, I should have my solicitor look at this.”
“I assure you Mr. Philips approves of the investment,” Wickham said in confidence.
Her father motioned her to roll the certificate again and place it on the table. “I am pleased to hear that Philips has examined the document.” He coughed heavily and then rested his head against the cushion of the chair back. “If you will pardon me, Lieutenant,” he said breathlessly. “I find my energies are thin. Lizzy, ring for Mrs. Hill to show Mr. Wickham out. I will require your assistance, child.”
“Certainly, sir,” Wickham said as he rose. “If you have additional questions, do not hesitate to send word. I remain your servant, sir.”
Mr. Bennet nodded genially, but as Wickham made his way to the door, her father said nonchalantly, “I am surprised that Kiernaugh chose a loan to the English government. I thought the man an American. Are we not at war with the country?” He had not raised his head from the cushioned back.
Mr. Wickham stumbled to a halt as his expression betrayed how his mind raced to form a response. “I must have misspoke,” he said in what sounded of earnestness. “Kiernaugh has been in America for the better part of ten years, but his loyalties remain with England, as do all who serve His Majesty.”
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