"Were they gypsies?" Richard demanded.
"No, they — "
"They must have been French, then," said Ella decidedly.
"No, I — "
"Were they madmen escaped from Bedlam?" Henry burst out. "Or — "
"Be quiet and let him talk," snapped Edward, at seventeen their undisputed leader. Fitzwilliam took a deep breath.
"It was just a gentleman and his wife. There wasn't anything special about them, and I was looking for Alfred anyway. I didn't pay much attention."
The other five waited.
"I only noticed them at all because the lady's voice was so loud. She said something about being nervous, I think, and how unfair tails are." He shrugged, perplexed. "I don't know. It didn't make any sense. I turned to look at her — I didn't look at him at all."
Richard leaned forward. "What did she look like? Was she as ugly as a witch?"
"I don't know, I didn't see her very well." Stung by the disappointment in his cousins' faces, he concentrated as hard as he could, and managed to dredge up a vague picture. "She was pretty — not as pretty as Mama," he added loyally, "but her eyes were big and brown. She was tallish, taller than Lady Milton, but not as tall as Aunt Catherine, and her cheeks were pink."
Edward looked at him intently. "Do you think you'd know her again?"
Fitzwilliam hesitated, biting his lip. "Maybe," he said. "If she looked the same."
"Perhaps you'll see her soon," Richard put in hopefully.
"That's not very likely," said James, "is it?"
Fitzwilliam Darcy was in a spectacularly poor mood before he so much as set foot in the assembly hall. His toleration for Miss Bingley's antics was growing thin, Mrs Hurst's shrill laughter grated on his ears, Hurst was already intoxicated, and even Bingley's unconquerable good cheer wore on his nerves. Were it not for Bingley, he would never have come to this Godforsaken place anyway, certainly would not have left Georgiana.
Georgiana. Meaningless social niceties were trying enough in the best of times, but since the summer, he had found them positively maddening. He sighed. No doubt Fitzwilliam was right, he could hardly drag her off to a strange and likely vulgar new neighbourhood, but that didn't keep him from imagining everything that could go wrong in his absence, or detesting the sheer triviality of social discourse.
It also didn't help that the only thing he disliked more than dancing with strange women was being gawked at by a crowd of vulgar fortune-hunting sycophants.
He easily made out fragments of conversation.
"Four or five thousand — "
"— his sisters and brother-in-law, and a friend — "
"Ten thousand, I heard — "
"Stand up straight, Jane!"
He stiffened. The shrill, high-pitched voice was at least as disagreeable as Mrs Hurst's, and he glanced over in mild curiosity at its source. She was a tall, plump woman, about forty, with grey-streaked brown curls and large bovine eyes. Her face was not familiar, though he had formed a half-expectation that it would be; something tugged at his memory, but he could not recall, and it did not seem important in any case. For a moment he gazed at her with icy contempt, the intensity of his loathing surprising even him, but he shrugged it, and her, off.
Then his eyes fell on her companion, and all the blood drained out of his face.
He returned to sanity almost immediately; she was too young, younger than he was, and looked as his mother must have in her own girlhood, years before this girl's birth. Besides, she had fair hair, while Lady Anne's, like all the Fitzwilliams', had been coal-black. Yet it was his mother's face, her eyes and features beneath the golden curls. Something niggled at his brain; there was something he should know, should remember.
His eyes jerked back to her mother, and he just caught Sir William Something-or-other's cheerful blather - principal family in the village, four pretty girls, his own Charlotte and Miss Eliza as thick as thieves -
"Who is that?" Darcy said abruptly, his eyes fixed on Mrs Bennet's wildly gesticulating hands. "The young lady with the light hair."
After wending his way through the appropriate compliments, Sir William smirked and replied, "That, sir, is the eldest Miss Bennet - our local beauty, as I am sure you observe. Her husband will be a very happy man."
The knight had all the subtlety, grace and efficacy of a glass sledgehammer, but it was not his ill-bred manners which sent Darcy's gut hurtling towards his throat. She was a beautiful, elegant woman, and the very idea of - anything - had him desperately trying to keep his last meal down.
Muttering his excuses, he fled across the room, pacing here and there until he had regained something of his usual sedateness. At some point he talked to Bingley, who apparently felt that everybody had to enjoy dancing and flirtation because he did, and would not leave until Darcy snapped at him. Vaguely, Darcy thought a particular girl had been involved in the conversation, but he could not remember her and, in any case, was far too preoccupied with his own concerns to care.
Several days later, Darcy had not yet determined whether to send for his sister; there might be no positive malice here, but there was a mean-spirited vulgarity which he found difficult enough to endure, let alone Georgiana. He could protect her from men easily enough, but not the likes of Lady Lucas, Mrs Long, and that detestable Bennet woman.
Thanks to Sir William, he had finally been introduced to them all, and their large broods of girls. The Miss Longs were almost as plain as they were insipid, the Miss Lucases little more than a mass of faces and appropriate appendages, and the younger Miss Bennets as dim-witted as their mother.
Their elder sisters, however, were another matter. He had sought an acquaintance with Miss Bennet, which Bingley's infatuation made easy. She proved the perfectly amiable, pleasing young woman he had thought her, her manners cheerful and engaging with but a faint touch of reserve, and at close quarters, her face bore only a strong resemblance to Lady Anne's.
Bingley subjected him to a fierce and jealous inquisition on the lady, and Darcy found that his visceral revulsion had not faded in the slightest. He actually recoiled, turned faintly green, and swallowed the bile which seemed prepared to take up permanent residence in his mouth. Bingley, well acquainted with his friend's utter inability to act, was satisfied.
As it happened, Darcy's inclinations had already settled on an entirely different object - specifically, on Miss Elizabeth Bennet. When Sir William first pointed her out as a great beauty, Darcy could scarcely believe his ears. Yet he found himself constantly studying her, unable to look away - studying her flaws, admittedly, but after only a short time in her company, they had somehow turned into virtues. Though by no means a beauty, her face was certainly pretty, her figure light and pleasing. More over, she had a vivacity fully equal to Bingley's or Fitzwilliam's, and rather superior understanding; they were by no means deficient, but Elizabeth was clever.
He liked her - and for him, this was rather more unsettling than mere attraction or admiration. He was not in the habit of liking people, and certainly not attractive young women. Within what seemed a very short time, he realised that, were it not for her lamentably inferior connections, he might well be in danger of falling in love with her.
However, there was no doing away with the low relatives, so instead he amused himself at Caroline Bingley's expence. He talked about Elizabeth's fine dark eyes, the quickness of her wit and elasticity of her walk, provoking Miss Bingley into such pretentious, obsequious displays of nonsense that he almost laughed outright. It was not, perhaps, the sort of enjoyment most men would have found in the situation, but Darcy had long ago reached the satisfying conclusion that he was nothing like most men.
It was a matter of happenstance which, improbably, succeeded in driving Elizabeth Bennet right out of his mind. While he and Bingley dined with the officers, Mrs Hurst and Miss Bingley maintained some modicum of peace by inviting Jane Bennet to join them. The invitation was accordingly accepted, and Miss Bennet - for reasons known only to herself, or as Darcy thought more than likely, her mother - rode to Netherfield in pouring rain. Naturally, she fell ill with a cold, and before any of the Bingley party quite knew what had happened, Miss Elizabeth had arrived to care for her sister.
Within three days' time, Darcy was determined to never again share the same dwelling as Caroline Bingley while Elizabeth Bennet resided there. At every possible turn, she vented her envy in criticisms of Elizabeth's looks, dress, speech, while teasing Darcy in a manner she undoubtedly thought flirtatious. At the same time, he knew he was partly at fault. He had shown his preference too openly; provoking Miss Bingley was one thing, but to encourage, nay, create vain hopes in a blameless lady was the kind of thoughtless, dishonourable cruelty he despised in lesser men.
The next day, Miss Bennet had recovered enough to come downstairs. She was still pale and wan, perspiration dotting her forehead. Something stirred in Darcy's memory; he had seen her before, not the elegant Miss Bennet of parlours and assemblies, but like this, sickly and feverish, damp hair clinging to her face and neck.
"How are you, Miss Bennet?" said Darcy, banally, and looked directly into her dark blue eyes, the size, shape, colour - everything - identical to his own. She stared back, brows furrowing into the same perplexed frown she always wore in his presence.
"I - much improved, sir, but - may I ask you a question?"
She had been a frail child, he thought wildly, just like Anne, just like him, always falling ill.
Searching his eyes, Miss Bennet said, "Please forgive my impertinence, Mr Darcy, but I am convinced we have met before. Am I mistaken?"
The scattered impressions, memories, and sensations all fell together. He was eight years old again, sitting with his cousins and desperately trying to turn the pictures in his head into words, and just as desperately trying not to think that he had been there, right there, while it happened. His sister's name had been a litany in his frightened brain.
Jane Bennet was not merely another Jane, a Jane with golden hair and his eyes and an uncanny resemblance to his (their) mother - she was the same Jane, stolen by people who did not even bother to give her another name. Apparently he had lost her to the most incompetent kidnappers in existence.
Darcy felt a brief impulse to confront them - to rush to Longbourn and demand an explanation of Mr Bennet - and just as quickly discarded it. "No," he said, "no, I do not believe you are. I think we were both at Houghton, many years ago."
"Houghton?" said Jane, almost scowling in concentration.
"Houghton Park, in Yorkshire - it is the Earl of Ancaster's seat. You were very young, so you may not remember much of it. There was a folly you liked to play in, even though the steps were too tall for you."
"I tore my skirt!" she cried, her eyes flying open. "It was a new dress - almost everyone laughed at me for being so proud of it, and then I tore it when I fell down the stairs. I was terribly upset; Edward insisted I must have twisted my ankle, I carried on so."
Darcy caught his breath. "You do remember, then."
"Only a little," Jane admitted. "That is perfectly clear, only - I know Edward was worried that I might have hurt myself, but I don't know who he was! - a neighbour, I suppose? I do know that Mama and Papa lived in Yorkshire for a time, before my grandfather Bennet died."
"He is o - my cousin, Edward Fitzwilliam. He was about seventeen then."
"Yes, of course," she said, and suddenly grinned. "He used to walk with a girl under that enormous oak, and you convinced us all to climb up, wait for them to pass, and throw acorns at their heads! You and I laughed so much, we almost fell out of the tree."
"It was very amusing," said Darcy in his primmest voice, and smiled at his sister.
Elizabeth had never in her life been so relieved to return home; indeed, she usually felt nothing more than resignation at the prospect. On this occasion, however, she would have gladly fled to the ends of the earth to escape the Netherfield party.
Miss Bingley had progressed from disagreeable to intolerable, her sister and brother-in-law cheerfully following her lead, while Mr Darcy - for all his deficiencies indisputably well-bred - was a still greater irritant. Apparently, he did not feel that icy civility adequately communicated his disdain of the company, so to the general repulsiveness of his manners he added a habit of censuring everyone around him. Nobody was exempt, not even his own friend, and certainly not Elizabeth, who he seemed to take a perverse pleasure in quarrelling with.
To make matters worse, his gaze was now as frequently directed at Jane as at Elizabeth herself, and she saw them engaged in conversation more than once, their faces earnest and animated as they talked. She did not imagine that even her sister could be an object of interest to so great a man, but Mr Bingley was undoubtedly ignorant of such mean considerations. With his sweet and amiable temper, would he not be discouraged by his friend's pursuit? She could only comfort herself with the thought that he was unlikely to see it as such - Darcy's cordiality, unusual as it seemed from him, was nothing to Bingley's own attentions.
Besides, she could do nothing about it. Elizabeth put such inchoate difficulties out of her mind and amused herself at Miss Bingley's expence until they could escape back to Longbourn.
Once home, however, she found herself in the midst of new difficulties, far more distressing - and definite - than those at Netherfield.
Mr Bennet was ill. He had no fever, no cough, nothing to interest his wife and younger daughters - only an inability to breathe without wheezing, or move without gasping for air. Several times he became so dizzy that only their quick action prevented him from falling to the floor; Elizabeth stayed with him as much as she could, but since he slept even longer hours than Lydia, she had in fact very little to do.
In the midst of this, they were favoured with the presence of their cousin, Mr Collins. At another juncture, Elizabeth might have enjoyed him heartily, for his character combined obsequiousness and vanity to a point of rare absurdity. As it was, she laughed with Mr Bennet and tried to ignore Mr Collins' acquisitive glances at his cousin's home, silver, and daughters. She found herself escaping the house while her father slept, wandering far beyond her usual circuit as she tried to make sense of it all.
One day not long after Mr Collins' arrival, she returned to find Mr Bennet not only awake and alert, but conducting business of some kind in his study.
"The gentleman came - oh, over an hour ago now," Mrs Hill told her.
A peculiar look crossed the housekeeper's face. "No, ma'am - the one from Netherfield. Mr Darcy."
"He said it was urgent that he speak with my master, and as Mr Bennet was looking so well, I didn't see any harm in it. I thought he'd just get rid of him if he had any trouble, like he always does."
Elizabeth sighed. "Has there been any trouble, Hill?"
"No, ma'am - that is, I did hear raised voices, at first, but not long, and nothing since. Even then, I couldn't make it out, except something about Mr Darcy's sister. That Sally might have heard more." Mrs Hill looked reproachful. "You know I'm not one to listen at doors, Miss Elizabeth."
"Of course not," said Elizabeth absently, her mind racing. She barely took time to greet Jane before whisking her father's tea away. The study was not quite silent, but nearly so - she caught only the murmur of male voices.
She hesitated, then pressed her ear against the door.
"I must speak with my wife first," said Mr Bennet. "She is quite mad, as I am sure you realise - " Elizabeth almost dropped the teatray - "but I shall be able to get the truth from her. I daresay I shall rather enjoy it. Then I will tell them; you have my word, little though that means to you. However, I do require a favour."
Darcy's expression must have spoken more eloquently than words. Mr Bennet, after a deep, rattling breath, hurried on. "You and your family will undoubtedly wish to reclaim them immediately. I ask that you do not. I ask that you do not breathe a word of what you have discovered, not to them, not to the Fitzwilliams, not to anyone."
"I have hated you for eighteen years," Darcy said thoughtfully, "and I do not blindly accept requests even from people I like. Why should I do you any favour, Mr Bennet - let alone this one?"
"For your sister's sake," said Mr Bennet. "This will be a great shock to them both, but particularly, I think, to her. I need to prepare them for this. I need time."
When he spoke, Darcy's voice was tinged by compassion. "How much time do you have, sir?"
"Unfortunately, young man, you shall not have the pleasure of immediately dancing on my grave," said Mr Bennet dryly. "I expect to live another few weeks, at least. Would you care to place a wager on the twenty-sixth of November?"
Elizabeth jerked away. The rest had seemed unreal, somehow, perhaps a dream. She could easily imagine Darcy hating someone for that length of time, and rather liked the idea, but reason said otherwise. He was young, only about twenty-five - eighteen years ago, he would have been a little boy, and certainly unknown to her father. The rest was equally ludicrous. What had Mr Darcy's sister to do with anything? Silliness did not a madwoman make. Her father was not dying.
Then he made a joke of his own death, and it was exactly what he would do, if . . . if, and she knew it was all real, even the nonsense, and she still hadn't brought the tea.
Elizabeth lifted her chin and rapped on the door. "Papa?" she called. "I have your tea."
She opened the door to a flurry of motion. Darcy, without thought, sprang to his feet and steadied Mr Bennet over a chessboard.
"I must consider it, sir. - Checkmate," he said quietly, then turned to Elizabeth. "Miss Bennet. I hope you are well?"
"Very well, thank you," said Elizabeth, handing Mr Bennet his cup. "Would you like some tea?"
"Yes, please. And your . . . your sister? She is quite recovered?"
"Oh, yes. Papa, while we are speaking of health - "
"Not so poor as to merit comment. Set up the board, Lizzy," said Mr Bennet crossly. "Mr Darcy, you will undoubtedly have to rescue me from my daughter's clutches. I am no strategist."
Elizabeth's lips thinned, but she obediently moved to the chessboard and moved the pieces back to their original places. She only glanced up once, meeting Darcy's eyes over her father's head. She expected censure - she always did, from him - but even she could not perceive anything in his expression but sympathy. She flushed, dropping her gaze to the board.
After the palpable awkwardness of the game, Darcy said something about Bingley and business, and Elizabeth accompanied him to the door. He paused, waiting for Mrs Hill to vanish, then said,
"I am sorry about your father, Miss - Bennet."
So am I, she thought helplessly. "Thank you, Mr Darcy."
"My mother had a weak heart," he said. "Garlic helped, she said, before she . . . she always said it helped with the pain."
Startled, Elizabeth looked up, directly into his haughty face, and felt furious that his eyes were kind. He was the man who did not think her handsome enough to dance with - she had refused to see anything else in him, and had enjoyed doing so. She wanted to dislike him, to repay him for disliking her, and now, he had taken away even that pleasure. How dare he show all the compassion and sensibility of a real person?
Then she caught her own folly, and was disconcerted - and finally, she felt only gratitude that someone who did not share her grief cared about it.
"Thank you," she said again.