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A Question of Entail

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Chapter I.


Pemberley, 1st August, 1820.

Darcy turned his imaginary corner for what seemed like the hundredth time. He glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece for what seemed like the one thousandth. He looked once more at the open double doors which provided the exit to the corridor that led to the next room. The next room. Where his wife was located.

He clenched his fist. If someone told him the identity of the man who said that it got easier every time, he would kill him here and now in the most gruesome way imaginable. The man must not have loved his wife, else he would never had said that supposed pearl of wisdom. For Darcy knew that the pain never got better, it only got worse, every time.

He turned the corner again and glanced around the room, trying to fix on something other than the floor. It was to no avail. The room was empty, Georgiana and her husband having kept his children downstairs while they waited to make sure they were not concerned. He grimaced. He did not blame Georgiana for doing that, for his own presence at the moment would be no help to his children, the worry for their mother written clearly upon his face.

Darcy sighed and turned another corner. He swore to himself every time that he did this that he would never put her through it again, yet always she would survive in perfect health and another year or so would pass before she would announce that they were in the family way once more.

At last he heard the wail of a child and instinctively breathed a sigh of relief. He came to a halt by the opened door, waiting for the midwife to come walking through, the agreed signal long ago for him to go to her. Five minutes later she came and he nodded politely to her before walking straight past her to go the next room.

The midwife made no comment upon the lack of acknowledgment of her presence, instead she just curtseyed and let him go past her without comment. Indeed, where the Darcys were concerned, she was lucky to get one at all. It was common knowledge in Derbyshire that Mr Darcy had only eyes for his wife, in fact it had been established within a month of their arrival.

Taking a deep breath to calm himself, Darcy opened the doors to the room that was only used in these circumstances. He blinked several times as he gazed at the scene before him, trying to confirm its truth. Elizabeth was there lying in the bed, sleeping peacefully. In the cot nearby, a babe was also sleeping equally peacefully.

Darcy went straight to his wife, sitting down on the chair that was near where she lay. He reached out and clasped her hand, bringing it carefully to his lips. Slowly the reality sank in, and he found himself shaking uncontrollably. He rested his head on their hands on the bed, as he finally let go of his restraint and sobbed out his grief.

Elizabeth's sleep was broken. She opened her eyes to find her husband crying on her hand. "Will? What's wrong?"

Darcy looked up. "Will" meant she was concerned, "Fitzwilliam" meant she was fine and "Darcy" meant that she was angry with him. Fortunately he had rarely heard that name being spoken. "Its nothing," he said honestly, gazing at her, "I'm just glad you're alive. I thought I was going to lose you."

She sighed and instantly began to reassure him, for they had had this discussion every time. " You never will."

"I love you Lizzy."

"I love you," She replied, her sparkle returning. Darcy smiled back at her and she leant down to kiss him. Then she sat up, turned and slid across to the end of the bed. She returned with the child and presented it to him. "Here is our daughter."

Darcy gazed down at the babe and was entranced. Every child had had the ability to do that to him since they had had Lawrence, their first and their heir. The babe opened her eyes and stared up at him, causing him to let out a gasp of surprise. Elizabeth's eyes were staring back at him from inside the babe in her arms.

Elizabeth saw his fascination. "What shall we call her?"

"Well," he replied, "as we decided against using our own names long ago and as she is the image of her mother, I think it should be Imogen Elizabeth Darcy."

Elizabeth considered for a moment and then agreed. "Imogen it is. Although I think her father is too much of a flatterer to judge so."

Darcy chuckled. "Let me take her and you get some rest. I'll introduce Imogen to the rest of the family. I love you, Elizabeth Darcy."

Elizabeth smiled. "I love you too, Fitzwilliam Darcy."


The 35th Regiment camp, Newcastle.

In a small, poor looking, ill-kept house on the main street, another woman was struggling in her labour. And this was to be her last child, at least for awhile.

Downstairs, a family equally nervous, waited for the ordeal to end. Seven children, unnaturally silent, wished for their mother to be okay. A wife of another officer kept her eyes on them worriedly.

A knock at the front door brought them all out of their trance. The woman got up and went to answer it. A officer, a Major by the look of him, was standing outside.

"Mrs Wickham?"

"No," the woman answered, "my name is Mrs Lawford. What can I do for you?"

The officer looked uncomfortable. "My business is with Mrs Wickham alone."

"Mrs Wickham is.........." A child's wail stopped the explanation and turned it to be unneeded. The officer nodded in understanding. "How long until she is fit to see visitors?" he asked Mrs Lawford.

"Not for a few days. Why do you ask?"

"I am afraid I come with some bad news. I regret to inform you, Mrs Lawford, that Captain Wickham was murdered this morning in a duel."


Chapter II.

Pemberley, 1820.

Georgiana Blakeney looked up as the doors to the music room were opened by a footman, signalling that her brother was about to come through with the latest addition to the Darcy family. The children near her stopped playing instantly, all equally curious as to what was about to happen.

Sure enough he came through the door with boyish smile upon his face and a bundle in his arms. "Come and welcome your new niece, Georgiana."

The youngest children of the Darcys, twins Alexander and Alexandra, tried to rush up to greet their father but their elder siblings Lawrence and Heloise, held them back. They had been through this already and knew that it was wrong to disturb their father with the new baby until they were asked.

Georgiana came up to her brother and peered down at the bundle in his arms. "She's beautiful," she cried softly instantly. "What have you called her?"

"Imogen," Darcy replied as they moved to sit down on one of the sofas. He gestured for the children to come and see the child. Six children came up to the sofa and clustered around their father and, for two of them, uncle, to see what he held in his arms.

"I think I see why she was named Imogen."

Darcy looked up at his brother in law. "How is that, Michael?"

"I can tell from here that she's the image of her mother."

Darcy chuckled. "That's exactly what I first thought."

"How is Lizzy?" Georgiana asked.

"She's a little exhausted, it was a long time. She's getting some rest at the moment. I'll let her sleep in there until she wakes up."


Hunsford Parsonage, Kent.

"Thank you, Sir, for coming so far. You had a pleasant journey I trust?"

"Yes I did."

"Did Lady Catherine's............"

"Please, Mr Collins, I did not come here to listen to you talk about Lady Catherine. You wanted to see me about something to do with Longbourn. What is it?"

"I am afraid that I cannot inherit it, sir."

Mr Bennet looked at his host puzzled. "What do you mean?"

"I believe, sir, that there is a clause in your late father's will that forbade entail if the heir to that entail was not able to............. that is..........."

"Mr Collins, please get to the point."

"I cannot have children sir. That is, my wife is not able to........."

"I understand, Mr Collins," Mr Bennet replied quickly. He hated travelling, except to Derbyshire, and wanted this visit to end as quickly as possible. Now he realised, it was going to take a little longer than he had anticipated. "Er, when did you find this out?"

Mr Collins hesitated. He had no desire to confess that they had never even tried for children, let alone the real truth; that it was not Charlotte's problem but his own. "About a week ago, sir."

Mr Bennet made no comment on this, surprised as he was. Until now he had never heard of the clause that Mr Collins referred to. "Well, thank you for telling me this Mr Collins. I fear I must be leaving now."

"Will you not stay for tea? Lady Catherine, I am sure........."

"I thank you, Mr Collins, but I am afraid I must decline. I have a pressing appointment with my lawyers in town." At least now he did. This was going to need some careful investigation to find out what happened next. If it could not go to Mr Collins and it could not go to his daughters, then who could it go to?


The 35th Regiment camp, Newcastle.

In the end, Mrs Lawford was spared the unpleasant task of acquainting her friend with the news of Captain Wickham's death, for Mrs Wickham determined it herself, when her friend had been allowed to visit her.

Mrs Lawford could remember her reaction well. Indeed she had been most surprised by it. She had considered once to have many things in common with her friend Mrs Wickham. She like Mrs Lawford herself, had eloped with her husband, and until today, Mrs Lawford had let the romance of it cloud her true judgement of the state of affections between the two.

Yet now, as she looked at her friend in shock, as she listened to her reaction, Mrs Lawford began to wonder what it was in the first place which has caused the Wickhams to leave all their friends, to elope to Newcastle.

"He is dead then?" Had been the only words Mrs Wickham had uttered. It had been more a statement than a question, yet Mrs Lawford chose to treat it as the latter. She confirmed it with sad acknowledgement.

Mrs Wickham made no reply. The babe in her arms stirred but instead of looking at her, Lydia turned to the window, as tears continued to elude her features.


Chapter III.

Pemberley, 2nd August 1820.

As daylight began to invade via the sash windows the recent darkness in the north west wing of guest bedrooms, Elizabeth rolled over in her sleep and into the brilliance of the rays. Her eyes blinked open upon the immediate encounter of those rays and then instantly closed themselves again as her senses had yet to become connected to the passage of time, shrouded in sleep as they still were. A second later, however, they opened once again this time in surprise to find her husband's form sleeping opposite her.

Her surprise was not to do with the novelty of the occasion, indeed it was a rarity for her not to wake either in the arms or the presence of her husband's form. Instead its roots lay in the fact that the bedchamber they now inhabited was not the master chamber, or even what the room that was meant to be her own bedchamber, - for she had spent little of her time in that room either, the state of affections between Fitzwilliam and herself being what they were- it was one of the suite of guest rooms which lay some distance away.

Due to its convenient geography- having a small lounge scarcely a hallway away from it- it had been used as the chamber to welcome all of the Darcy children into the world. It was chamber that Elizabeth never spent much more than a week in- except when the twins had been born- and she always slept uneasily there, due to the absence of her husband. Yet now she had awoken to find him peacefully asleep beside her.

At least he had been peacefully asleep. Now he was as awake as herself and wearing a sheepish smile upon his features. "I see I have been discovered," he commented.

"Indeed you have," Elizabeth replied. "How long have you been here?"

"Since last night," he replied, shamefacedly. "I confess, Elizabeth, that I have often...... in fact every occasion it is my custom to sleep beside you until you are well."

Elizabeth smiled at the frank sweetness of the reason. It was one of the many avowals of devotion and love that he had bestowed on her constantly from the day of their engagement. Immediately she encouraged its continuance, by recollecting upon the marked difference it had made to her sleep pattern.

"The first night we spent apart after Lawrence was born," Darcy began, "I could not sleep. I finally gave up at midnight and came here. Since then I have been unable to leave your side at night." He paused, taking her hands in his to kiss them, before changing the subject slightly in order to allay fears. "Imogen is asleep in her cot."

"That I never doubted of, my caring and loving husband," Elizabeth replied, making him smile in pleasure. Her hands evaded his grip and began to trace the lines upon his which marked the divisions.

Darcy tried desperately to keep the desires which this action caused under control. This vow was not easily accomplished, for in a marriage such as theirs, the affection, devotion, adoration and love between them had increased every day of its existence. Indeed, if it was at all possible, Darcy found that he loved his wife even more than the blessed day he had been lucky enough to gain her affections.

"And how have the rest of our children coped?" Elizabeth asked, her fingers still stroking his palms.

"They struggled under the absence of their mama admirably," Darcy managed to reply, still finding her actions unbelievably distracting. In fact, if anything, the somewhat trivial nature of their conversation, coupled with the action served only to increase his desire.

"And dear Georgiana and Michael, how are they?"

"They are also well."

"That was a very economical reply, my love," Elizabeth remarked teasingly, knowing full well the reason for her husband's lack of conversation. Her fingers continued in their task. "I am sure your sister would be most distressed to hear such a reply coming from a previously beloved brother."

Darcy could bare it no longer. "All right, that's it," he declared, and abruptly pulled Elizabeth into his arms, his hands taking control of her own, stopping them in their occupation. "You know why it was a short reply only too well, my love."

Elizabeth affected innocence. "Do I?"

"Most certainly. It was the action of my wife bewitching me." Darcy now took those captured fingers up to his lips and began to lay small kisses upon them. After a few minutes he had become so ingrossed in his task that an interruption was most unwelcome.

The interruption originated from the cot that was not too far from the bed. Darcy reluctantly released his wife to let her fetch their latest child before its cries woke the other occupants of the house.


Gracechurch street, London, 3rd August 1820.

Mr Hawkins, butler to Mr Edward Gardiner, was just about to go to the kitchen to have his luncheon when the door had the annoying presumption to be knocked upon. Sighing in the same emotion he went to open it. The man standing outside waiting to come in was a familiar face to Hawkins however, and his annoyance changed to gladness as he welcomed in the arrival.

"Mr Bennet, sir, welcome."

"Thank you, Hawkins," Mr Bennet replied, distracted as he was. "Is my brother home?"

"He is indeed sir. Shall I take you to him?"

Mr Bennet nodded and allowed Hawkins to take the lead. He was still overwhelmed by the recent sequence of events to notice anything, except for perhaps a slight feeling of deja vu at experiencing the same emotions which had passed through his head here over eight years ago.

"Edmund!" Began his brother in law as soon as Mr Bennet came into the drawing room. "What brings you into London?"

"Estate business," Mr Bennet replied quickly as he waited for Hawkins to leave. When he did so, he sat down and began to explain. "Collins wrote to me about a week ago, asking to see me on an urgent matter concerning the passage of Longbourn. It turns out that he cannot have children. Which means he forfeits the right to inherit it."

"How come?" Mr Gardiner asked, puzzled.

"Well, this is what I found out this morning. Apparently there is a clause in my late father's will which states that if the estate has to be entailed away and that heir does not or cannot have children within my lifetime, it passes to a second male child of one of my daughters."

Mr Gardiner relaxed. "Is this all you came you tell me? I see no problem in this. It is obvious who it will go to."

"It is," Mr Bennet agreed. "But how does that not appear incredibly selfish to the rest of them? After all, they may have sons within my lifetime."

"I think they will just have to live with it. Or rather my sister will have to."

Mr Bennet chuckled at that. "I believe they will. It is strange however. I always imagined one day that her children would inherit Longbourn and now they will. I never wanted it to go to anyone else. If Collins had had more sense............." Mr Bennet trailed off at the thought of possible outcomes that event might have brought about.

"And if you had had another son," Mr Gardiner added. His brother in law merely nodded.

"Still, it is just as good this way. Looking back I would not change a thing."

Mr Gardiner nodded in agreement. "I presume you will be staying here? It is after all, shorter travelling time from London."

Mr Bennet thanked his brother in law for his generosity as his mind began to make plans to meet with his lawyer again in the morning. There were contracts to be drawn up.


Chapter IV.

Pearlcoombe, Cheshire. 4th August 1820.

In a neighbouring county to Derbyshire and not thirty miles from the estate of the Darcys lay Pearlcoombe, home of Mr and Mrs Charles Bingley. It was a large estate, not as large as Pemberley of course, but considerably larger than Netherfield and had the good fortune of being completely theirs, the last owners of it having regrettably passed away with no heirs not more than ten years ago. The estate had remained empty for so long that the neighbours of it were beginning to despair of its ever being filled again when one morning two riders had been seen surveying it.

"It's a fair prospect," the fair-haired gentleman had concluded first.

"Pretty enough, I grant you," his friend, the dark-haired gentleman, had replied, feeling a slight sense of deja vu as he did so.

"Oh its nothing to Pemberley I know, but I must settle somewhere," the fair-haired gentleman continued, causing his friend even more agitation.

"Bingley," he had began straight away, "do you not realise what you are saying? It is just me or have we had this conversation before?"

Bingley had chuckled outright at that, causing his friend to laugh also, breaking the intrusion of the past. "Seriously, Darcy," Bingley began, once calm had prevailed, "what is your opinion of it?"

"Do you need my opinion?"

"Well, I must confess I am already decided, but I should like to have it all the same."

Darcy paused before answering, "I think you should take it."

Bingley smiled. "That is exactly what I had decided. I shall settle it directly."

And so Pearlcoombe was once inhabited again, much to the relief of all its neighbours. The house was so beautiful, that it had been determined long among them that such a house should not be empty for long. They were most glad to welcome Mr and Mrs Bingley with their son, James, when they arrived to take up residence not more than a month later.

Now, to describe the estate. It was very much of the Classical style, built in pale stone with a considerable amount of windows, but not enough to ensure that they completely covered the house, situated in a valley, with spectacular views of the countryside and its very appearance gave such an atmosphere of tranquillity that it was only right that the family who now had ownership of it would be just as peaceful and kind.

Since that time, the Bingleys had been blessed with two more children, Elspeth and Helena, of whom the latter was just now a year old. They favoured- as their proud father was often wont to judge so- the beauty of their angelic mother and had been pronounced as angels as soon as they were born, with the dispositions of their easy parents doubled in both.

Indeed the Bingleys could count themselves as one of the happiest couples in the world. Their estate was idyllic, their children perfect, and as the situation of Pearlcoombe was too far away from Hertfordshire to incur frequent visits from Mrs Bennet- although Mr Bennet often visited while passing through on his way to Derbyshire- the family could not be more happy.

They had been most glad to get away from Netherfield. The visits of Mrs Bennet had if anything increased since the day of their marriage and it was only so long that even a couple with the sweetest dispositions could put up with the visits and the constant inquiries for balls to invite single young men to marry one or two of their sisters.

The distance of Pearlcoombe had served well, especially as Mrs Bennet was not fond of long carriage rides -although where it concerned her children that was wont to change, but her husband was most reluctant to take her for not more than a fortnight at the most- and had the additional advantage of being not thirty miles from Pemberley, incurring frequent visits from both families.

Jane delighted in visiting her sister, indeed a dinner there had been planned for a few days hence, but which now had been delayed due to the birth of Imogen. The Bingleys had been the first to be informed of this happy news by hand of a Pemberley footman not more than a day after the girl was born and had sent their congratulations.

Jane was happy for her sister and happy for herself. She loved dear Charles more each day and was thankful that he had had the chance to come back to Hertfordshire and marry her eight years ago. The wedding had been as perfect as she had once imagined it could be, although she had missed Lizzy much during the first months.

The Darcys had travelled to town two days after the wedding, then had gone to Derbyshire a few weeks after that. This distance between them caused the frequently flow of letters which helped to lessen the sorrow and they were most glad to be reunited at Christmas two months later. They had spent the first day together walking upon the grounds of the estate as Elizabeth delighted in showing her sister all the beauties of Pemberley, first just the two of them, and then later in a Phaeton with Aunt Gardiner, fulfilling a promise that Mrs Gardiner had requested of her niece a few months ago.

When they moved to Pearlcoombe a year later those visits had increased, along with the sisters happiness. Their young children became fast friends as well, along with Georgiana, whom Jane came to know better over the years. She had met Miss Darcy at the wedding and like Elizabeth had fallen in love with her at once. Together the two sisters between them managed to increase Georgiana's confidence and trust to such a degree that when Mr Michael Blakeney came her way, she did not hide away as she had previously done so.

And so we come to the fourth day of August 1820 which had so far been an ordinary day in the life of the Bingleys. The had risen early -in a house with three young children it was impossible to do otherwise- and breakfasted before separating for the rest of the morning, Charles to sort out a minor problem concerning the horses, Jane to see that the children were established in the nursery before writing a letter to Lizzy.

This business was completed by luncheon to which all the family took outside, the weather being- for England that is, and I speak from experience, dear readers- unusually fine. They took it not far the house itself, upon the grounds that were untouched by gardens. The cook did a very fine luncheon and it was often the custom in good weather to partake of it outside in the relative peace of the estate grounds. I say relative, because it was about to change and the pleasant tranquillity was soon to be done away by the unwelcome- and indeed, must unexpected- intrusion of noise.

This noise was not easily identifiable at first. Although Pearlcoombe had the happy advantage of being situated in a valley, that valley sometimes posed a problem, especially when the source of a disturbance could not be identified. It forewarned the owners that a visitor was coming, but it did not enable them to identify the visitor until it was almost too late, especially when that visitor decided to send no word of their coming, as visitors are sometimes wont to do.

And this visitor- perhaps I should say visitors, for there will be several,- was indeed of the unexpected kind. It was in the form of a carriage, the Bingleys had been able to determine that much by the noise, for it was a distinct noise. The sound of horses hooves going at full pelt, combined with the rattle of carriage wheels on the pebble road way to the estate, had a unique sound and long experience served to identify it also immediately.

It caused complete surprise of course, as unexpected carriages usually do. At first the Bingleys were of the opinion that it was Mr Bennet, but this was quickly dismissed, for that gentleman usually came by horse. No, a carriage usually denoted a lady and or children with- sometimes without- a gentleman as well.

A quick query to his wife's memory told Charles that no family was expected, for no letters had come from either the Guests- Kitty -or the Smythes- Mary -recently, and of course Mrs Bennet was out of the question for no letter had come from her either. That left the Darcys who, with the birth of Imogen were likely to be at Pemberley for quite a while. It was also not the Blakeneys as they too were staying there. The Gardiners were out as well, as Jane had had a letter from them only yesterday which revealed that they were still in town. Which left only one conclusion.

This conclusion was a great surprise, for the Bingleys had never had a visit from them in their entire married life, indeed no one had. It had not been the matter of having no desire to see them- although that was an excuse for some,- it had been more a case of the inconvenience that such a visit would create both ways. Travelling to see them would mean residence in a hotel, for the house was of too full a nature to provide them with rooms, and them travelling to see the Bingleys was often prevented by an extreme lack of funds or to the usually annual addition to the ever increasingly large family.

The Bingleys immediately packed up the remains of the previously quiet luncheon and began the short walk back to the house, as all the while the sounds of the carriage got louder and louder. They reached the front entrance of Pearlcoombe just as the carriage had come to a halt not many feet from the steps.

It was a post or hired carriage, and not a very good one, as the decrepit appearance of it showed. The horses looked haggard and worn out, like they had been driving for at least a day or more without a change. The driver had a similar look and manner, indeed he almost stumbled as he jumped down from the box in a rush to open the door and reveal his passengers.

The Bingleys meanwhile had come to a stop outside the front steps, and were watching with an extreme sense of dread to see if their suspicions were correct. Their expressions of hard come welcome were trying to make a considerable effort to look more convincing when the carriage door was open and was finally relieved of its occupants.

Jane gasped, a motion which was shortly copied by the rest of her family. She stepped forward and pronounced the name of the last person she had expected to see.

"Lydia!"


Chapter V.

Pearlcoombe, August 4th 1820.

It did not take too long for Jane to determine that her youngest sister was not her normal self. She had not done any of the usual things that she would have done eight years ago. Jane knew that eight years would be plenty of time for someone to change, it is just that she had not expected Lydia to follow this example. Jane looked closely at Lydia as she stood there, hesitant to move forward and greet herself and Charles. Almost as if she knew that her reception might not be welcoming. Her whole manner was cautious, more than cautious even, it looked scared. Her eyes were reluctant to meet any of theirs and she seemed to be in a trance as she continued to just stand still.

Jane knew that it was up to her to make the first move and so she began it directly by stepping forward and addressing her sister with, "Lydia, it is good to see you. Will you not......"

She could get no further. The sudden words of comfort spurred Lydia out of the trance that had somehow got her through the past two days. She ran crying into her sister's arms.

Jane was most surprised at this reaction, but nevertheless, she reacted quickly, putting her arms around her, murmuring words of comfort. She turned her eyes to Charles, motioning him to take care of the carriage.

Charles stepped forward and paid the coachman who until Lydia had begun to cry had looked most annoyed at not receiving gratitude for his trouble. However, he was not without heart and stayed down long enough to help Bingley with the luggage and assure the gentleman of his wish to see his sister in law- at least that was the relation he presumed it was- in happier circumstances.

Bingley meanwhile had reached the carriage door and peered inside. Then he gasped again. He knew Lydia had had a son about a year after they had married, but they had never heard of any more after that. Yet somehow there were seven children sitting in the carriage, looking at him with eyes of fear. Instantly he spoke to them, trying to assure them. "Hello, I am your uncle Charles. Will you not please come out now?"

The children silently obeyed him and with his help stepped out of the carriage. It was then that he noticed the eighth child, a bundle wrapped in a brother's arms. The lad himself was having difficulty getting out of the carriage. Charles reached out with his hands to take the child. "Let me," he began soothingly. The lad hesitated for a brief moment, as if this kindly looking gentleman was not to be trusted. However he soon realised the difficulties of his present situation and, with definite reluctance, handed over the child. He was comforted however by the way that his 'uncle Charles' cradled his sister with an almost fatherly devotion in his arms.

Mr Bingley handed the babe back as soon as the lad had got out of the carriage. He knew that their trust needed to be gained and that keeping the babe in his arms would have prevented that instantly. He glanced at his wife and saw her still occupied with a crying Lydia. He was also surprised by the appearance of Mrs Wickham. It then occurred to him that Mr Wickham was nowhere to be seen. He turned back to the lad, who was obviously the eldest, as all the others seemed to cling to him, and carefully asked, "did not your father travel with you?"

It was with some difficulty that the lad managed to reply. "Our father is dead." He said simply.

Who knew that just those four words could have so much effect. It seemed to stop the ominous silence that had previously surrounded them and prompted the carriage off into motion. It was a tired motion, and Bingley noticed that the horses were worn out. "Please," he addressed to the driver, "why do you not stay here for the night? My housekeeper would be glad to accommodate you and those horses need a break."

The coachman nodded and thanked Mr Bingley for his kindness. Bingley turned to order a passing stable hand to take the horses and carriage to the stables and then escort the coachman to the kitchens. With that done he turned back to his wife who had now managed to separate herself from Lydia and was beginning to lead her and the children inside the house. Bingley turned to the children and gestured them to follow him.

Lydia did not even glance at the beauty of the hallway as she entered, in fact, she had seemed to have returned to that trance like state which had occupied her throughout the journey here. Her children were just as silent although their eyes cast themselves about the place, as if looking for something or someone.

"Sir?"

Bingley turned to see his housekeeper standing there. "Ah, Mrs Miggins, would be so good as to take these children and give them something to eat?"

"Of course, Sir. Anything else?"

Mr Bingley was grateful for Mrs Miggins' prompt. "Yes, could you prepare rooms for them and my sister in law? And there is a coachman downstairs who will also need the same."

Mrs Miggins nodded and with a motherly gaze at the children she enclosed them in her wake in the direction of the kitchens.

Jane meanwhile had guided her sister to the drawing room where, as Bingley joined them, she and her sister were seated upon a sofa. Slowly Jane spoke. "What is wrong, Lydia? Why have you come?"

Lydia came out of her trance. She wiped her eyes and begun the tale. "George was killed in a duel two days ago."

Jane gasped along with her husband, the latter of whom, having heard of the death, had yet to hear how.

Lydia continued as if the gasp had never happened. Her voice was stilted, almost- to use a modern term- mechanical. "At first I thought we would be okay, that we could carry on as normal. But then the next day brought the bailiffs."

"The bailiffs?" Jane repeated in surprise, but again Lydia did not seem to acknowledge it.

"I knew we had very little money and I tried to help, indeed I tried most frequently, but I had to look after the children. Now it seems there was nothing I could have done. All the furniture had to be sold, including the house. We had nowhere to go. Mrs Lawford gave me some money, enough to travel to here, but no more. I packed the few things that could not be sold and left immediately." She paused and looked at her sister. "I know I am imposing upon you and so you have no fear of me staying forever. I just need to find a service."

"No," Jane began instantly, glancing at her husband as she did so. Mr Bingley nodded his permission. "You can stay here, all of you can stay here for as long as you need to."

"You are very kind," Lydia began, "but I cannot. I do not deserve such kindness."

"I insist, Lydia, you can stay here." Jane repeated before embracing her sister once more.

"Thank you," Lydia replied and then glanced hesitantly at Mr Bingley. "Where are children?"

"They are with Mrs Miggins getting some food," Bingley replied. "Would you care for some refreshment yourself? Or perhaps some sleep?"

"No, I am beyond sleep, but I would like something to eat," Lydia replied. "Thank you, Jane, thank you Mr Bingley. I am sorry........." Lydia trailed off in another set of tears.


Pemberley, August 5th 1820.

As the carriage of the Blakeneys drove away Darcy's arms tightened around his wife's waist. "Alone at last," he muttered in pleasure, kissing her neck.

Elizabeth smiled and refrained for once from reminding her husband of whose departure he was wishing. Imogen stirred in her arms. "Do not pay any attention to your papa's comments, my dearest," she whispered to her. "He will miss your aunt terribly."

They turned and followed the rest of the children inside where dinner awaited them.

A few minutes later when the main course had just been served, and Darcy had just finished announcing a toast to his wife and his new child, their peace was disturbed by the opening of the dining room door.

Heloise Darcy announced the guest before the footman could. "Uncle Charles!"

Darcy stood up instantly and inquired after his friends well being.

"I am well thank you Darce," Bingley replied. "No, no do not get up. I have eaten, thank you, just before I set off for here. I would speak with the two of you if possible." Bingley paused looking at the children who eyes and ears had been watching expression and listening to every word. "Alone."

"Of course my friend," Darcy replied, getting up, followed by Elizabeth, who, after making sure the children continued, followed them to the end of the room. "What is it, Charles?" Elizabeth asked.

"Can we talk in the study?" Bingley asked his brother in law.

Darcy nodded and the three adults quitted the room to go another two doors down. Once there Darcy turned to his friend and repeated his wife's previous inquiry.

"I have just come from Pearlcoombe where Lydia and her children are right now," Bingley began. "They came because Wickham was killed two days ago in a duel."


Chapter VI.

Rosings Park, August 7th, 1820.

Pemberley, Derbyshire
August 3rd.

Richard,

I write to you, cousin, with the best of news. On the first of this month Elizabeth gave birth to Imogen Darcy! I am overjoyed. Words cannot really do justice to my feelings when I first laid eyes on her. She is the image of Elizabeth, Rich, and I dare say will grow to be just as beautiful. Her eyes were already dark blue when she born and now they are an almost perfect copy of my wife's. I thank the day I was able to gain her love, for life has never been so good!

I dare say you are now chuckling out right at this babbling display of mine. My dignified days are long gone I think.

Once Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam of his majesty's Britannic army, now plain Mr Richard Fitzwilliam of Rosings Park, did indeed chuckle at the recently read conclusion of his cousin. Few knew better than himself how true it was. And he deserved it.

Plain Mr Fitzwilliam was also happy with his lot. Once -and still -a second son, he had made the army his career and resigned himself to bachelor hood, knowing all too well that unless he was extremely lucky, he would not meet an heiress who he could love as well. Then, about four months after the marriage of his cousin, Anne de Bough had come to stay at Pemberley.

He had been surprised at first, upon discovering the mask that Anne used to fool her mother into thinking she was an invalid so she could have a freedom she otherwise would not have enjoyed. Then as he spent more time with her, he had begun to value her more than just a cousin, but a friend as well. That friendship had quickly turned to love and they had married in the spring of 1813, just after he had resigned his commission.

Lady Catherine had been less than pleased at first. It had taken her a year to accept them and welcome them into Rosings Park, and then even longer for harmony to be restored. Angry as she was at the 'betrayal' of one nephew, another doing the same had only increased it. It had taken her a lot to eventually admit that she missed her daughter and she had actually gone to Pemberley to bring them back, if only to keep them from the influence of Elizabeth Bennet.

Indeed, Mrs Darcy had remained Elizabeth Bennet in Lady Catherine's eyes until that very day in 1815. After that, communication again ceased between Derbyshire and Kent, until three years later when a letter had come addressed to all, announcing the birth of Alexander Bennet and Alexandra Regina Darcy. It had caused Lady Catherine to soften ever so slightly as she remembered her beloved sister, the late Lady Anne Darcy. Alexandra had been her middle name and the honouring of her served as an olive branch. She wrote back to them with congratulations and begged to be forgiven.

Richard could only guess at what had occurred at Pemberley the day that letter arrived. He had been one of the few to see 'the infamous letter' from his aunt to her previously favourite nephew on the engagement of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. It had not been a letter that had remained on paper long. Darcy had had only enough control to show its contents first to Richard himself, who had been with him at the time it arrived, then to Mr Bennet, whom he had felt it was only right to do so, then to his uncle, before throwing it into the nearest Netherfield fire. Until 1818, he had never mentioned it, but when the 'congratulations letter' had arrived, he had let his anger show. Richard could understand his cousin's reaction and, had it not been for Elizabeth's persuasion, a reunion would never have been retrieved. As it was, the Darcys had spent the Christmas of 1818 at Rosings Park, and Lady Catherine had been most gracious. The breach had been mended forever.

It was therefore with no hesitation that Richard relayed the news from Darcy to his Aunt and mother in law of yet another addition to the Pemberley family.

"That is wonderful news, my love," Anne remarked as she heard the news as well. Lady Catherine also uttered a word or two on congratulations before asking, "does he send any other news, Fitzwilliam?"

"As far as I can see no," Richard replied. "But if you will give me a few minutes I will find the stopping point of his description of joys and see."

There was a pause, a rustle of pages, then Richard found an entry marked but two days later than the first. He began to read it aloud, not expecting the content to be what it was.

August 5th, late evening.

Since, writing the last Rich, news of the most unexpected nature has reached us. I shall begin to relate it as how I learned about it, in order to give you the most complete information.

One day ago Elizabeth's sister Lydia arrived at Pearlcoombe with all her children. It seemed at first that her husband had left her but Charles and Jane soon learned otherwise. You can no doubt determine by now what I am about to relate to you, but nevertheless I shall continue in my task.

Wickham it seems, managed to send himself up into debts of the highest depths, in both the Officers mess and out of it. It got to the point where he was starting to resort to blackmail. Then the regiment was recalled to France. Wickham had no desire to fight and so with a certain amount of manipulation, he managed to promote himself to the rank of Captain into the only company that was staying in camp. Things apparently righted themselves for awhile and then began a downward spiral once more. They came to a head on the last day of June this year.

An Officer by the name of Major Vaughan found out that he was to be blackmailed by Wickham. Instead of reporting it, he charged Wickham to a duel the next morning at dawn. The fight was, as far as I have been able to gather, short and sweet, and needless to say, Wickham lost. He died the same day my daughter was born.

His mistakes do not end there. The extent of his debts were as such to ensure that Lydia and her children- of which there are eight, seven girls and one boy- were thrown out of the lodgings we had set up for them, and had to auction what little remained of their valuables. They had just enough friends to be leant the money to hire a carriage for Pearlcoombe and no more.

They stay with Charles and Jane at present. As for myself I am attempting to investigate the full extent of Wickhams debts from what Army contacts I have. If you know of any, cousin, I would be most grateful for your assistance.

Lydia has changed a great deal, according to Charles. We ourselves have seen little of her, due to our situation.

That is all I can relate at present. I will write when I have more.

I remain most respectfully etc.
Fitzwilliam Darcy.

Richard laid the letter down with more than a degree of surprise. The death of a man whom the entire family of Darcys and Fitzwilliams hated with an abhorrence, had seemed to of created more problems than his life ever did.


Chapter VII.

Mr Dreyer, the best of Mr Darcy's personal couriers, had been run ragged by the past weeks work. He had previously been looking forward to spending some time with his family, when the master had rung for him late evening of the 5th. He had presented himself at the study where he had been handed three letters to deliver. The first had been to Matlock, seat of the Fitzwilliam family, where he had rested briefly before leaving at the crack of dawn to travel to Rosings Park to deliver the letter that Richard Fitzwilliam has just relayed to the floor, and now he was nearing his final destination; Longbourn.

He could only conjecture at what the letters contained. He knew of course that part of them would carry the news of the birth of the Master and Mistress' fifth child, Miss Imogen Darcy, but his mind would have been astonished if that had been the only reason for their sending. The Master always announced the news by ordinary letter, no express was ever sent. This time however Mr Dreyer had been told to waste no time in posting all, so it was therefore unlikely that the letters contained only that information. Of course, it was not in Mr Dreyer's nature to presume to speculate too much on the business of his master, indeed he had not wondered at all at the nature of the letters until this morning.

He had arrived in Hertfordshire to find that Mr Bennet was not living at Longbourn, at least not at present, for as the housekeeper had informed Mr Dreyer, her master had left for Kent some days ago after the arrival of another express addressed to him. Thus Mr Dreyer had arrived at a dilemma: who to give the letter to? His master had been most insistent that the letter passed only to the hand it was addressed to, but had failed to mention why.

At length Mr Dreyer had arrived at the conclusion of travelling to Kent at once to deliver the letter, and had been about to voice this out loud when the most unfortunate of circumstances occurred. Mrs Bennet had happened to be passing his horse and, having a good memory, recognised Mr Dreyer, who was obliged at once to dismount. Unable to come up with an excuse he had reluctantly delivered the letter to Mrs Bennet's hand and resigned himself to the sanctuary of her Housekeeper's kitchen to have a now non-deserved meal.

Thus, he and Mrs Hill had been sitting and enjoying quietly a nice lunch, spoilt only by the former's guilt at having failed his master's wishes, when the cries of Mrs Bennet could be heard loud and clear through the ceiling. He then discovered why the news was sent express.

As for Mrs Bennet, persons who are acquainted with her know only too well what reaction she brought forth upon reading the news from Derbyshire. Joy first at the birth of another grandchild. For a while nothing save a few joyful cries of "Dear Mrs Darcy" could be heard from her. The second piece of news however brought her crying out, "Oh my dear Lydia! Oh my poor girl! That scoundrel!"

Mr Darcy had not expected Mrs Bennet to be reading the letter and had therefore been most blunt in his communications of the descriptions of the Wickham's circumstances, knowing that his father in law would expect nothing less, and thus the agony of Mrs Bennet was full indeed. "Wickham, Wickham," she began to cry, bringing Mr Dreyer awake at the name, as he realised his master's actions. Then Mrs Bennet's grief became even louder as she called out "Hill, Hill," again and again.

"Hill," Mrs Bennet began upon that woman's entrance. "Where are my smelling salts? Oh, the most dreadful news! My poor Lydia, widowed in her prime! Oh my poor, poor girl! Oh, Hill, I feel my faintness coming upon me again!"


Mr Bennet would have been unable to receive the letter from Mr Dreyer whether the man had finally discovered his location or not, for he was at this present time taking a break at the Swan Inn, in the village of Kympton, not far from his son in law's estate.

He had spent the past days of time away from Longbourn mostly in town, travelling between his brother in law's house and the establishment of Messrs Averay, Bookbinder, Caudell and Sons, his solicitors. It had taken him several days to first read through his father's will, check with the appropriate parties that his understanding of the certain articles he was concerned with was correct, and then making alterations to his own will, before finally drawing up the contracts that he needed to take with him to Derbyshire.

All of these changes of course were only conditional, due to the nature of the conditions mentioned in his father's will. The line itself about the matter of entail had been most succinct and straight forward, but the actual passing of the inheritance itself concerned the consent of his daughter and son in law.

His daughter and son in law. Mr Bennet chuckled to himself as he mounted his horse for the last leg of his journey. If someone had told him nine years ago that this union would come about, he would have told them that they were devoid of sense. Yet, funnily enough, someone had indeed told him the likely-hood of it, but he had refused to listen. Now, looking back on it, as he had been often doing with all of his daughter's marriages, he was surprised at himself for not noticing the signs before. Of course, he had noticed her wistful look, when ever she looked at Jane and Charles, but had merely put it down to losing her sister. It had never even occurred to him that she might be in love. The gentleman's application had taken him so much by surprise. Consent he had indeed given, for who could refuse such a man anything, but he had been determined to make it conditional on his daughter's feelings. To hear her repeat his assurances and tell him of what the gentleman had done, Mr Bennet had eventually managed to reconcile himself to the match. He had watched her go with a heavy heart, one that was even heavier on her wedding day.

He glanced up and began to slow down his horse as he arrived on the driveway to the estate. As usual, he came briefly to a halt when the avenue of trees parted to reveal a glimpse of the house in all its glory. It truly was a beautiful estate, no more than his daughter deserved in fact. He suddenly wondered if he should have sent word of his coming. Normally he never bothered, his son in law being kind enough to give free rein on invitation, but he knew that they were expecting another child that was to arrive anytime soon, his presence might be an intrusion at this time. Well, there was no point in worrying now, he realised.

He started his horse again into a gentle canter down to the house, as another memory came to his thoughts. It was about the one time that he had been there when a grandchild of his was born. It was their second child and he could still remember to this day his son in law pacing the room where they waited with an anxious face that looked ready to kill any one who remarked that things were making progress, and practically wearing out the rug beneath his feet. The worry had been written clearly on his own face too and Mr Bennet smiled at remembering his son in law walking straight pass the midwife to his wife without even thanking her.

Mr Bennet drew the horse to a prompt halt and dismounted as a stable hand came out to take him. All thoughts about the past stopped as he walked up the steps and knocked on the front door.

Mrs Reynolds greeted him upon his entrance and instantly directed him to the music room. As he got closer Mr Bennet could hear the faint sound of a piano being played. Meanwhile Mrs Reynolds nodded to one of the footman who rapidly opened the doors.

"Papa!" Elizabeth cried upon on his entrance.

Mr Bennet took the room in at quick glance. Darcy had been sitting on the sofa that commanded the best view of the pianoforte, while the children had clustered around him, waiting for their mama to finish so they could claim her attention again.

His glance then went to Elizabeth as she embraced him. She had had the baby, that much he gathered by her thinning body and the bundle in her husband's arms. He set her back and smiled in reply to her inquiry about his journey. "I did, thank you. I hope I have not come at bad time?"

"Not at all, sir," Darcy replied as he stood up and came to see his father in law. "In fact there is a lot of news to relay."

"One of them being the arrival of my new grandchild I gather," Mr Bennet commented as Darcy began to present his bundle to Mr Bennet.

"This is Imogen, papa," Elizabeth stated with pride.

Mr Bennet took his granddaughter in his arms and like others, gathered instantly why she was called Imogen. He smiled as he remembered briefly the gratitude he felt when they had chosen to call their sons Lawrence and Alexander. He knew that they had only done it to honour his name, but he still felt the distinction was also intended for an event that Elizabeth could not possibly remember.

He handed the child back to Elizabeth as they went to sit down. Instantly his other grandchildren rushed at him. He greeted each one in turn, reserving a special token for Alexander, who had unconsciously always been his favourite. Then he began his request. "I came because there is something important that I wish to discuss with the both of you."

As if on cue, the nursery maid appeared at that moment for the children. After they had say goodnight to all, Lawrence, Heloise, Alex and Alexandra went with Mrs Campbell. Imogen stayed asleep in her mother's arms.

"What about?" Elizabeth asked when Mrs Campbell had exited.

"I received a letter from Mr Collins some days ago. He requested to see me as soon as possible. When I arrive at Hunsford he revealed to me something which until then I had no idea had ever existed. There is a clause in my late father's will that allows for the possible eventuality that the entail cannot have children."

"Charlotte and Mr Collins cannot have children?" Elizabeth asked in surprise.

"Yes, that is what Mr Collins needed to tell me. I left for town the next day to consult with my lawyers. There I discovered that the condition did exist. It states that if an heir of an entail cannot have children Longbourn goes to a second son of any of my daughters."

There was a long silence when Mr Bennet finished speaking. Both Elizabeth and Darcy were unprepared for the news they had just received. The conclusion to draw from it was obvious, but they still had to hear from Mr Bennet all the same.

He obliged them. "If you wish it, Longbourn will pass to Alexander." He paused then added, "of course, I do not expect you to answer right now. I understand that this requires a lot of thought. I know the estate is not worth much by Pemberley standards, but I would dearly like it to go to Alexander if it could. It need not been the only thing he receives, either. Of course, I understand completely if you decline."

"It definitely has to go to a second son?" Darcy confirmed.

"Yes, the wording was quite specific." Mr Bennet sat back and waited, wondering idly why his son in law had asked that question.

"Papa," Elizabeth began after a while. "We will need time to think about this. Will you be able to stay for a few days?"

Mr Bennet replied that he would.


Chapter VIII.

Pemberley, 10th August 1820.

"Elizabeth?" Darcy inquired aloud in a slightly panicked voice.

"By the window, my love," her voice answered.

Relieved, Darcy got up, put on his robe and went to join her.

It was the morning after Mr Bennet's arrival. As yet they had been unable to discuss properly the news they had heard last night. Both had been concerned with coming to their own conclusion first before voicing their views with another.

"So," Darcy began after he had greeted Elizabeth with a kiss, "what is your opinion about it, my love?"

Elizabeth glanced at her husband. Their eight years of marriage had never stilted her courage in voicing her every thought to Darcy and so it was without any hesitation that she began to reply. "I am perfectly happy to let Alex have Longbourn, if it is agreeable to you."

Darcy smiled. "I had a feeling that would be your opinion, my love."

Elizabeth's look turned to puzzlement. "Is that all the reply I am to receive?" She asked, unconsciously quoting her husband from the past. She flushed as she saw Darcy flinch briefly. The 'Hunsford incident' was still a painful memory to him, even though they had been married eight years and counting. Every time he woke without her by his side, he would panic that his recent joy had all been but a dream and her voice would take a while to reassure him that it was not. "I apologise, my love. That was not supposed to come out the way that it did. What I mean is, you seem a little reluctant in agreeing with me."

"It is not reluctance, it is plain guilt," Darcy replied, wrapping his arms tightly around her from behind. "We have so much that Alex does not need to worry about being second son, and I feel that if we accept, we would be depriving the other Bennet children of something that they have equal claim to."

"Which is why you asked about the wording of the will," Elizabeth remarked. "I do agree, Fitzwilliam, they do deserve to have the choice. But I believe my father wants it settled quickly. We have the only second son at present and I think he is concerned that he may not live to see another." She shuddered as she finished the last.

"I think, Lizzy, your father wants it to go Alex purely because he is your son," Darcy replied, trying to easy her worry. He above any other- except perhaps Jane -knew that his wife was Mr Bennet's favourite daughter. It was why he had taken pains to become better acquainted with him before he married Elizabeth. Love for her had made it important to have her father's blessing as well as his consent, and he was pleased that he had that still. Mr Bennet reminded him a lot of his own father in a way and he was pleased to know him. "I asked your father about the wording because of your sister's situation."

"That would please mama," Elizabeth commented with a smile. "Her favourite daughter's eldest son inheriting Longbourn. But I do not think that would be wise. Lydia may have changed, but I have only Charles and Jane's authority on that. And they always saw the good far more than the bad. If Lydia's son was to inherit, the inheritance could suffer."

Darcy kept his own reservations about the son of George Wickham inheriting Longbourn silent. "I was also thinking about your other sisters as well. Kitty has only two children so far, and Mary four, but if ever they have a second son, their own situations would ease if Longbourn were to pass to them."

Elizabeth nodded, thinking of her sisters as she did so. "Your are right, my love, but you know as well as I do that Edmund Guest is the most arrogant man when it comes to accepting what he deems charity, which to him Longbourn would indeed be. And as for Ezekiel Smythe, well the less said about him the better."

Darcy admitted reluctantly that his wife was right about his brother in laws. Smythe was close to being a Puritan, let alone an Evangelical, and so any other estate but priesthood was blasphemy to him. Guest meanwhile was a man of means and devoted to Kitty but too proud for his own good.

"And that leaves Charles and Jane," Elizabeth added, with a sigh. "And you know what their reply will be if we express the desire to leave it to them."

"Yes, Charles is too kind for his own good," Darcy replied, smiling. "Admit it, my love, you want Alex to have Longbourn."

"Did I not say so at the beginning of this discussion?" Elizabeth questioned innocently.

"You did, but until now your conclusion seemed to have been reached by process of elimination, rather than a real wish for it."

"I do," Elizabeth confessed, "I do want Alex to inherit Longbourn, but like you I feel guilty that it should go to him above any other. However, he does seem destined to have it."

Darcy looked at his wife with nothing short of amusement. "Since when did you start believing in destiny, Elizabeth?"

Elizabeth turned into his arms so she faced him as she replied lovingly, "since I married you, my dear husband."

At this point Darcy could not refrain from kissing her passionately in reply.


Due to the liveliness of their children, the Darcys were unable to announce their acceptance to Mr Bennet's request until after lunch when the twins and Imogen were asleep, while Heloise and Lawrence were at their lessons.

"I had hoped that would be your reply," Mr Bennet remarked with good humour. He reached into his pocket and produced the contracts. "Here are all the legal papers, so we can make this official." He handed Darcy the documents.

"I'll go and find Reynolds and see if he can get Fitzgerald here tomorrow," Darcy announced before quitting the library, kissing his wife's hand on the way.

Mr Bennet turned to his daughter with a smile. "I am glad you agreed, Lizzy. It was always a wish of mine that your son would inherit Longbourn. If Mr Collins had had a modicum of sense, perhaps........."

Elizabeth reacted as he had intended, breaking into peals of laughter. "Oh papa!" She cried when she had calmed down. "I do not think that would have changed my mind."

"No," Mr Bennet agreed. "Nevertheless, I am happy you and Darcy are together. Now, is there anything else you need to tell me other than Imogen's arrival?"

Elizabeth lost her smile. "Fitzwilliam and I wanted to tell you this together, sir, but I dare say it does not matter now. Mr Wickham is dead."

Mr Bennet leaned forward in shock. "Dead?" He echoed. "How?"

"We have yet to receive the full details but........." Elizabeth began, before launching into the whole of it, at least the information that she had received from Charles who had some how managed to prize it out of a changed Lydia.

When she finished Mr Bennet was sitting back in his chair with anything but the humour that had occupied him before. "I see now why Darcy asked about the wording of the will," he remarked slowly, his hands gripping the arms of the chair in order to keep his anger in check.

It goes without saying that as Mr Bennet's opinion of Mr Darcy rose, his opinion of Mr Wickham had lowered considerably by the hour. During the few weeks before the wedding of his favourite daughter he had attempted for her sake to get to know a man that he had previously thought to be arrogant and proud. The change he had found was astonishing at first, then later he had come to respect and like the man that was taking his Lizzy away.

As his opinion of Darcy changed to approval, his opinion of Wickham changed from merely observing the foibles to regarding the man with suspicion every time a letter arrived from Newcastle. He could still remember vividly the day that he had asked his son in law for the full the story about Wickham.

Now that he had heard this news his concern about Lydia's marriage was justified. "Lydia has nothing left?" He asked his daughter to confirm.

"All Wickham left her was eight children," Elizabeth replied bitterly.

"That's not all he left her," Darcy announced abruptly as he re-entered the library a letter in his hand. "I have just received this from my contacts in Newcastle." He paused and with a disgusted voice added, "apparently Mr Wickham left debts of thousands of pounds in the officer's mess, as well as the hundreds of pounds he owes several officers, along with the rent on the house. All of which, even the auction of the furniture is not going to pay off."


Chapter IX.

Pemberley, August 11th, 1820.

Darcy rose early next morning to attack his financial estates. His decision had already been formed during the night before, now it was only a matter of making his accounts work without the usual surplus that was laid up each year. He could not help but feel a sense of deja vu, the events eight years ago fresh once more in his mind. However, he reminded himself of his own faults which had brought the situation about in the first place. He was making amends for the faults of his character eight years ago and he still felt the necessity to do so.

Elizabeth rose early likewise and soon found him in his study, checking the final details one last time. "You need not do this," she remarked as she leant over his shoulder, her fine eyes surveying the accounts.

Trying to ignore the sensations that her breath and proximity caused in him, Darcy replied, "I do," before ticking the last equation and laying down the quill. "It is my fault that this situation evolved in the first place."

"Fitzwilliam, if indeed there is any blame to yourself the debt has more than been repaid. You need not do this as well."

Darcy merely glanced at his wife in reply. The years of marriage together had created the rare talent as to be able to exchange thoughts and opinions by just a single glance. Elizabeth received that now and translated it instantly. The matter was already settled in her husband's mind and no discussion would change it's outcome.

"In that case I thank you again," she began.

"No gratitude is needed," Darcy interrupted, leaning against her and looking into her eyes. "The years spent with you, my darling, have more than repaid me, if indeed there was any need for repayment. I love you Elizabeth, and I cannot bear to see you or our family suffer because of Wickham."

"That was entirely too charming a reply," Elizabeth commented with smile. "How ever I am able to live up to such praise?"

"Are you fishing for even more compliments, my love?" Darcy asked her lightly. "At present, I have not the time to do them justice."

"No time to do them justice? One might conclude that you are unwilling to do so from that statement."

"No unwillingness in the matter, only the........" Darcy trailed off. Elizabeth's face was close to his. He titled his head and kissed her.

Somehow, despite the awkwardness of their positions, the kiss developed into a long impassioned declaration from both sides and it was quite awhile before either of them returned to reality. When they did, it was with great reluctance.

"Jane wishes us to have dinner with them tomorrow," Elizabeth began after awhile. "Do you think we will be able to?"

"As long as Imogen and you are up to the journey, I have no objections," Darcy replied, looking anxiously at her.

"Fitzwilliam Darcy, will you never cease your protective sensibility?"

"Never where my wife and children are concerned," Darcy announced grandly. Elizabeth laughed in reply.

"I wonder how Lydia will be," Elizabeth voiced aloud.

"You really think she will have changed?" Darcy asked her in surprise.

"Strangely enough I do," Elizabeth replied. "She has had eight children in eight years of marriage where the money has been scarce and the luxuries absent. I think that is enough to change even her wild disposition. Also, to my knowledge, me and Jane have only received one letter from her since her marriage and that was on the eve of ours. I expected more correspondence, if only to ask for money."

"Has your mother received any from her?" Darcy asked.

"She did once I believe, but they stopped at least two years ago if not more. You remember when they visited around the birth of the twins? She mentioned the lack of letters from Lydia then."

"I am afraid my love my memory of that time is mainly concerned with my worries for you," Darcy replied seriously. "That day was one of the longest of my life."

"And mine," Elizabeth responded with a smile, just before the door clicked. "Good morning Papa."

"Good morning," Mr Bennet replied as he crossed to join them. "Let me guess," he began as he sat down and encountered his son in law's gaze. "You are volunteering to help us with the Wickham debts?"

"Not help, pay," Darcy tentatively replied, looking anxiously at Mr Bennet, memories of a similar conversation some years ago resurfacing.

"May I ask why? Although I suspect that I already know the answer."

"I feel responsible, sir. It was my mistaken pride which..........." Darcy trailed off as he caught Mr Bennet and his wife's expressions. "Well, I also simply wish to do so. I feel it is necessary."

"Well, I have no objection to it, so you may," Mr Bennet replied, causing Darcy to inwardly utter a sigh of relief.

"Papa," Elizabeth began after awhile, "do not think me impertinent, but may I ask how long you intend to stay?"

"Truth be known, Lizzy, I had originally told Mrs Bennet that my visit would take no more than a week at the most. However, it has taken far more than that and I suppose I must reluctantly return to Longbourn before she sends a search party for me."

"Will you be able to stay for a further two days?" Elizabeth then asked. "Jane has invited us to dine at Pearlcoombe tomorrow night you see, and I am sure she would be delighted to include you. It would also give you the opportunity to see Lydia if you wished to."

"Unfortunately Lizzy, I think two more days would rather set the return journey too long for Mrs Bennet's liking. Meryton's delights can only amuse her enough not to notice my absence for more than a fortnight. Do give my best wishes to all at Pearlcoombe though. No doubt Mrs Bennet will insist upon us making another visit once she hears of two further additions to her grandchildren." Mr Bennet paused to flash his son in law a wry grin as Darcy tried once more to master his fear at the prospect. Mr Bennet he could stand, enjoy even. Mrs Bennet, however, was another matter. It was eight years and as yet he had been unable to master his emotions to poker his face. "So, if it is agreeable to you, I shall depart tomorrow morning."

"It is not agreeable for you to depart Papa, but if you must go then we shall not attempt to delay you any further."


Longbourn 11th August 1820.

It did not take long for all of Meryton to learn that Mrs Bennet was in the deepest of grief's although they had yet to determine why. Mrs Bennet had retired to her room since the day she received the letter and the village had not heard so much as a sound from her since then. The sensible quota of Meryton rejoiced at this while the rest lamented at the loss of gossip they were to lose by Mrs Bennet's confinement.

However, being a curious and determined lot, as indeed village gossips always are, they soon came up with a plan to satisfy their interest. The plan was hardly an ingenious one, indeed, where gossips are concerned, what plans were, but nevertheless it was a solution that would have instant remedy. Mrs Bennet required, in their opinion, a visit from a well-meaning friend or relative to aid her through her grief. Of these two the former was paid no consideration, as the latter was in the village and would need no excuse to visit her sister.

So Mrs Phillips paid Mrs Bennet a visit and, much to her and the village's satisfaction, she was soon acquainted with all that Mrs Bennet had to relay.

The first item was quite astonishing but Mrs Phillips soon pronounced herself in conjunction with her sister on the opinion of Mr Wickham's character.

"I was most distressed at first sister," Mrs Bennet remarked in her usual style. "Indeed who would not be upon hearing such a woeful piece of news?"

"Indeed, dear sister, indeed."

"However, I soon managed to reconcile myself to the comfort that my dear Mrs Bingley must be providing for my poor Lydia."

"As would I be sister, if I had such a delightful daughter as Mrs Bingley."

"That scoundrel, to leave my poor girl alone like that!"

"Indeed my dear sister, indeed." Mrs Phillips let in the usual customary pause that was necessary in such circumstances, before adding, "although, I had always suspected that such a man would surely come to such an end someday."

Without a moment's hesitation Mrs Bennet replied, "sister, so did I and warned Lydia accordingly when she visited us after her marriage. But would she listen? One cannot fault her though, sister Phillips. She was so much in love with the young man. And he was so delightful."

Mrs Phillips would have replied with complete agreement to this epithet had it not been for the door of the drawing room opening at that moment.

Mrs Bennet followed her sister's gaze. "Yes, Hill, what is it?"

Mrs Hill looked positively uncomfortable, almost reluctant even, to announce her reason for disturbing her mistress. She had no desire to give her news that would cause even more agitation than the recent news had. However, it was unavoidable. "A Mr Lawrence Alexander Bennet wishes to see you, ma'am."

Mrs Bennet's reaction was immediate. "Oh my dear boy! Oh sister, quick, give me my smelling salts. I feel my faintness coming upon me again!"


Chapter X.

Pearlcoombe, August 12th 1820.

So far, the lack of conversation was enough to cause rising concern and palpable tension. The atmosphere at the Bingley dinner table was charged to say the least. It made the Darcys grateful that their father had declined to join them for the evening was doubtless going to be a long one.

Mr Bennet had left as planned early the next morning, having little idea what was to await him at Longbourn and probably no desire to find out. Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam had seen him off, for the children were still in bed after a late night of being with their grandfather. After they had seen his horse disappear from sight, they had returned to the house to take the opportunity of a rare morning to themselves. The rest of the day had then been spent as usual, time with the children and time with the estate business, before retiring to their apartments to dress for the evening at Pearlcoombe.

When they had arrived Lydia was somewhat absent at first. She did not emerge in fact until the moment dinner was announced. Elizabeth had greeted with the best affection she could muster, trying to avoid expressing surprise at her altered appearance. Lydia looked a shadow of her former self. Gone was the wildness, gone was the silliness, in fact had it not been for the unchanged eyes and hair, Elizabeth would never have recognised her.

Even her face had remarkably aged more than eight years could warrant. There were dark circles around eyes which makeup could never cover and, upon her bare arms, -when Elizabeth caught glimpses of them, for they were mostly covered all night by a thick black shawl- had signs of fading red marks, the identity of which could not be mistaken.

They were scars.

During dinner the change became even more marked. Unless something was specifically directed to her, Lydia never entered into any conversation. Her lack of appetite served only to increase her sister's concern and shock. The movement of eating was done automatically, without thought to its taste or its nourishment, and the drink consumed was likewise without consideration to taste or compliment, only water. The desert was not even touched.

When the gentlemen retired to Charles' Billiard room Elizabeth had, rather optimistically, expected some improvement to her sister's appearance, even if it was only a sigh of relief. However, there was nothing. Lydia did not even seem to notice the change of scenery, from dining chamber to the music room, let alone Darcy and Bingley's departure. It seemed that Lydia at times did not even know where she was. Her body was there, but her soul was not.

Elizabeth was not the only one to notice this. It was the first thing that Darcy remarked upon when he and Bingley entered the latter's Billiard room.

"She has been like this since she told us about Wickham's death," Charles replied to his friend and brother in law's inquiry."And even that took some difficulty to obtain."

Darcy laid out his first shot. "And there has been nothing to alter her from it? Even briefly?"

"Nothing. Jane's really at the end of her tether. She was hoping Lizzy had an idea, but she seems just as at lost."

"She is," Darcy acknowledged, remembering the look of astonishment that his wife had sent him during dinner. "Were those red marks on her arms what I thought they were?"

"If you mean scars, I believe so," Bingley confirmed. "Even though we have yet to get her to admit to them being thus." Charles suddenly looked at Darcy in shock. "Wickham was capable of that?"

"Wickham was capable of anything if his mind and the drink took him to it," Darcy replied bitterly, memories of Cambridge rising into his visual mind. He laid down his cue and took another shot. "I cannot help but wonder if marrying the two of them was really the best solution."

"Darce, there was no way you could have foreseen this," Bingley cried. He had learnt of the things that Darcy had done to bring about the marriage when Darcy had returned with him to Netherfield. "You did the only thing you could have done at the time, faced with that situation. It would have been worse for Lydia had you not made them marry."

"Would it?" Darcy asked vehemently. "Would it have really been worse than what's happened in their marriage? All right she might have lost her reputation, but she would not have had the scars she has now."

"Darce, stop blaming yourself. There was no way you could have known that this was going to occur. Now, let's return to the ladies before you drown into more of a depression than you have now."

While Bingley was trying to bring his brother in law out of the self blame mode he had gotten himself into, Elizabeth and Jane were trying to keep alive a conversation that was flagging considerably. The minutes past had done nothing to alter Lydia's appearance. Her soul was still closed off to the party.

Elizabeth had very nearly had enough. When it came to her sisters her patience was never tried but now with Lydia it was waning considerably. She wanted to shake the girl into her senses, or at least to get her talking. She knew Lydia was in grief, she understood the wherefor and the why, she just wanted her to confide in her sisters. After all, why bother to come here otherwise? If she had not wished for help, she would never have taken the coach to Pearlcoombe. True, she had little where else to go, save Longbourn, but even if money had not been an object, even Lydia would know that she'd find no help there.

Elizabeth sighed, then came to a decision. It was a difficult one, in fact it might even make Lydia retreat further, but it had to be attempted. She got up, stepped forward and knelt in front of her sister. Looking up at her face, she began, "Lydia, please, talk to us. We are here to help you. It's tearing me and Jane apart, seeing you like this. Please." She paused and waited for Lydia to respond. Nothing. "Lydia, please. Even just a glance will do. It might help if you confided in us. We are your sisters, flesh and blood. We are waiting to help you. Please let us."

Jane, who had been watching Elizabeth and Lydia intently ever since the former had tried this new tactic, would swear later that she had seen a flicker of something in Lydia's eyes. What it was, she could only speculate. Recognition possibly, even perhaps acknowledgement of all that Elizabeth had said. However, no vocal communication came. At least for a whole five minutes. Then....

Lydia looked at Jane and then back at Elizabeth. Her lips began to open, as if she was trying to speak, but somehow had forgotten how to formulate the words. She slowly opened her mouth, looking at Elizabeth with eyes that screamed out for assistance.

A knock sounded upon the music room door. The spell was broken. Lydia retreated. Jane stood and called for the knocker to come in. It was one of the nursery maids.

"Please, Ma'am, Miss Louise is crying for her mother." The maid, poor soul, had the sense to realise that whatever she had interrupted had been vital. She looked most apologetic as she uttered her speech.

As for Lydia there was a slight improvement. She gestured a silent thank you to the maid, before getting up to follow her out of the room and attend to her child.

Elizabeth turned to her sister when they had gone. "Jane, if someone else had not already done the job for us, I would go and kill Wickham myself. This is not natural."

"People are all affected differently by grief, Lizzy," Jane began, trying as usual to an advocate for all parties.

"I've seen people affected by grief and I know that this is more than that. Much more. That wall, Jane, has affected Lydia longer than the death of Wickham. It's her mask, and how long it's existed is far too difficult for me to judge. But I am certain of one thing. Unless we break it soon, she will be lost to us forever."


Chapter XI.

Pemberley, 16th August 1820.

The events of the twelfth did not go quickly by. The Darcys had left Pearlcoombe late that evening with no sign of Lydia. Since the call from the nursery, they had heard nothing from her.

Elizabeth had ended the evening feeling very frustrated. Not just with Lydia, but with herself as well. The move had almost worked, she had almost spoke. If only....... Now she doubted her move, wondering if the action had drawn Lydia even further back.

It took her awhile to try and forget the blame. When they had arrived at Pemberley she had told Darcy what had happened, along with the belief that she was at fault. He had emphatically refused to believe such a possibility. He told her of Georgiana and Wickham, when he had tried to break them and the reaction his sister showed. It had been very similar apparently. It had taken him four long hard weeks, just to get her to even look at him. He, who had been her only confidant. He told her not to give up hope.

That was four days ago. Since then, Elizabeth had kept up a daily correspondence with Jane, waiting for the first sign, any sign from Lydia. They had gone back to the original plan, of waiting silently, for her to make the first move, not them. To let her know that they were there for her just by their presence alone. Darcy encouraged the correspondence, remembering well how much a comfort it had been to write to Richard when Georgiana had been the same. The letters did not contain much, indeed the only subject they mentioned was Lydia. It was a frivolous waste of paper, but they could well afford it.

At the moment however and for the first time since the twelfth, her mind was not on Lydia. Instead it was working out the difficult problem of how to slide out of her husband's embrace without him waking up. She tried once more to gently move and then the problem was taken out of her hands as he opened his eyes. She smiled and moved up to kiss him. It was only meant to be a short kiss, but Darcy quickly took control, rolling her on to the bed, his lips still locked on hers. Once he had her impaled by his arms he drew away briefly to gaze at her.

"Good morning," he uttered huskily, drawing a laugh from her.

"Do you plan to greet me this way every morning?" She asked him.

"Only when I am awake enough to do so," he replied, smiling. He laid another kiss upon her lips, before gently sliding away. He settled into a resting position beside her, his arm propping up his head. "What are you plans today?"

"Write to Jane but that's about it," Elizabeth replied. "Why?"

"I was thinking we could take advantage of the sun and have an outdoor luncheon with the children."

"Sounds perfect."

"I had a feeling it would."

"You did? Since when did I become predictable?"

"You haven't. I have just perfected at reading your thoughts." Darcy paused as he sent a loving gaze to her and then added, "between two souls entwined, there is always...."

"A complete meeting of minds," Elizabeth finished, smiling. Darcy leant down to kiss her and all thoughts of the plans for the day were forgotten.


Mr Bennet was to remark later- in half a joking manner, mind you -that he would have done well to have gotten to the bottom of the matter straight away, instead of 'indulging' -as he put it- in his wife's nervous whims. As it was, he barely had time to think, occupied as he was by his own hopes and concerns. After all, having some mysterious stranger greeting you in your own house as if the former lived there can put anyone out of their pervious good humour.

The stranger had not come into the house by illegal means, of course, but had been invited, on the authority of name alone. Mind you, where Mrs Bennet is concerned, a familiar name was all that required you- or a stranger, as it happened to be in this case -to be welcome with open arms.

When we last encountered that good woman, she was entertaining her sister with the gossip of family before a visitor was announced. This visitor's name we shall leave for the present, as he is to meet Mr Bennet very soon. He shall remain for now as the mysterious stranger who was waiting for Mr Bennet's return.

Mr Bennet left Pemberley in good time and with regular breaks along the way- one of which was a short detour to London to inform Mr Gardiner that the matter his brother in law had gone to Derbyshire for had, for the moment, been taken care of -he managed to arrive at Longbourn several days in advance of the predicted time that Mrs Bennet would have lasted before sending out a search party. At least on her side in any case, for his was preparing itself to be the recipient of many a good-natured and enthusiastic addresses on the lateness of his return.

So, while his favourite daughter and family were settling down to a delightful outdoor luncheon upon the grounds of their estate, Mr Bennet had slowed his horse to a stop and had dismounted outside Longbourn. Upon arriving he was to remember later that all he had noticed about the place was nothing out of the ordinary, which was strange in itself, for surely the arrival of a horseman would provoke a response from someone, would it not?

Nevertheless at the time Mr Bennet chose not to comment on it, instead walking up to the house and letting himself in. Upon his entrance he was greeted by the laughter of his wife, and the younger chuckle in return. Alarm bells finally began to ring at this moment. Mr Bennet was an astute judge of character, but even on this occasion the most amateur of students would not fail to determine the chuckle as male. Without further delay, Mr Bennet headed for the drawing room.

"Oh my dear Mr Bennet," began his lady the minute he appeared in the drawing room, "we have most anxiously been waiting your return!"

Mr Bennet was already on his guard, and his wife's greeting only made him even more so. Without the slightest appearance of altered composure, he both took in the occupants of the room and the reply to Mrs Bennet in the same moment.

"We?"

"Oh sir, how can you be so tiresome, do you not notice there is some one else here to welcome you home?"

Mr Bennet had, but he was not about to let his wife know that. He turned his gaze to the gentleman instead, as the mysterious stranger began to rise under his stare.

The stranger walked forward and held out his hand to Mr Bennet. The latter paid him only one comment. "And you are?"

"Why Mr Bennet, do you not recognise him?" His wife cried. "He is our dear Lawrence, returned to us at last! The Collinses will not inherit after all, with our only son and heir to stop them!"


Chapter Text

Chapter XII.

Longbourn, 16th August 1820.

"I suppose the earliest memory of mine is the day I was transferred from the orphanage to my new family," were the words with which Lawrence Alexander Bennet began his tale as soon as Mr Bennet had gotten over his surprise and was sitting down his armchair, a glass of cognac beside him for the moment untouched. As for his dearly lady wife, Mrs Bennet was fanning herself on a sofa opposite them, throwing every now and again the occasional motherly glance in Lawrence's direction.

"Although I had no recollection that I had had a family at the time. To this day I do not know who took me from here, even though I can remember this place vividly. But to resume. The family, by the name of Calverley, were not affluent, but they had enough to install for me a tutor and, when the time came, to send me to Oxford. At the end of my schooling, I decided that I could no longer go on without making them proud of me, so I joined the army. They had been kind to me, and I wished to earn that kindness by whatever means I could. Later I was to learn that my desire need not have been thought of.

"I returned to their home to find a gentleman waiting with- if you will forgive for using this term for them, for indeed they have been such for as long as I could remember -my parents. He had come to inform them apparently that his employer no longer desired to pay for my upkeep. I did not realise until then, but it turns out that control of my upbringing was in fact attended to and financed by another and one who had no wish to see me, nor continue with his support."

"This gentleman's name?" Mr Bennet asked, speaking for the first time since his arrival. The words and tone were careful, for he was still on his guard.

"I was informed that it was a Mr Alan Collins, sir," Lawrence replied. His tone was respectful, betraying no sign of deceit, or any sign that he was acquainted with the gentleman in question.

"I knew it!" Mrs Bennet cried out at that moment. "I knew that the Collinses were mixed up in this dreadful matter! Why........."

"Please, Mrs Bennet, calm yourself, you are speaking ill of the dead," Mr Bennet commanded, before gesturing to Lawrence that he could continue.

"Well, as the Calverleys had no option other than to turn me out, I shifted myself instantly to my regiment and travelled with them to France. I was involved in a few of the battles, - Vimeiro, the retreat at Corunna, the sieges of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, Salamanca, Vitoria, Toulouse and of course Waterloo -before I was discharged, whereupon I began my search to find my real parents. It was long, as I had no idea where to begin, and not all the information I could find was reliable. I must confess it was pure luck that I learnt of Meryton, sir, and when I did, I could do naught but travel immediately to here. I do hope I did the right thing, Sir." With this last Lawrence looked directly into Mr Bennet's eyes who gave a slight acknowledgement of the gesture.

As for the man himself, Mr Bennet had hardly changed his countenance throughout the entire tale. His face was composed, showing no surprise, no distrust, in fact no emotion of any kind. His mind was in deep contemplation. Slowly he asked, "what are your intentions now, Lawrence?" The words were uttered again with calmness, betraying nothing beneath them.

"As I have left the army, I hope, sir, to stay here with you and try to pick my life up. Not exactly from where I left off, but........" Lawrence trailed off, looking hopefully at Mr Bennet.

"Of course you can stay, can he not Mr Bennet? He is indeed our son, after all, this is his home," Mrs Bennet cried, before her husband could get a word in.

Mr Bennet just nodded in reply, glancing at the clock as he did so. The lateness of the hour was noticed immediately. He turned to Lawrence. "Yes of course. You will always be welcome here. Now, if you do not mind, I believe we had all better retire. I shall hear more from you tomorrow, I hope, Lawrence?"

"Of course, sir," Lawrence replied before respectfully wishing them goodnight.

Mrs Bennet departed some minutes later.

Edmund Bennet remained in his armchair, the light of the fire sufficing as his only vision guide. His mind however, was not focused at all upon the fire, or the lateness of the hour for that matter. Instead it was mulling over again and again the events of the evening. The tale he had just heard was foremost in his mind. He replayed Lawrence's words verbatim continuously in his heard, recalling each action, each reaction, every gesture, every tone, that he had displayed while telling it. There was no denying that the man was good. His every action had a purposeful intention, however insignificant. He truly believed in his tale. Mr Bennet dwelled for a while upon that story. It was a good one, like the man himself. It spoke of detailed research, careful rehearsal, and above all it actually sounded like it had occurred.

Mr Bennet sighed and finally took up his drink. He downed it in one, as his mind formed his conclusions. He would need help, if he was to succeed in his plan. Lawrence Bennet, if indeed that was the man's name, would prove a difficult foe. Of course he was lying. The only problem was how to prove he was.

Chapter XIII.

Pemberley, August 20th 1820.

When the Bingleys, Wickhams and Blakeneys sat down with the Darcys to dinner, it was obvious to all that four more days since Jane's last communication had done nothing to alter Lydia's disposition. She was still as silent, and still as self-contained since the last time they had seen her and for a while, it did not seem that the evening would bring any change to her manner.

For a time her silence threatened to inflict the whole of the sumptuous dining room, but the host soon managed to come with something suitable to compensate for it. Thus the entire meal passed agreeably enough for all parties.

The party then separated, the gentlemen to Darcy's study where their port awaited them, the ladies to the music room. This at first did not bring the hoped for altercation to Lydia's disposition. However, just as the outcome had begun to look bleak, a change took place.

At first it was not noticed by any of them, for they were too busy trying to compensate for the lack of Lydia's involvement as to rarely glance at her. Georgiana was the first to notice it. She had, by mere chance, anxious as much as her sisters were over the state of Lydia, turned to look at her with a mind to offering her sympathetic condolences, as she had not seen Lydia at all since her arrival. Although she rarely thought of her own time with Mr Wickham, she still understood the affect he could have and her heart had gone out to Lydia's ever since she had been informed of the story. She had been looking at Lydia kindly, with a view to tentatively addressing her when, without warning, Lydia returned the gaze.

Georgiana was startled and instantly she spoke to her. "Mrs Wickham, are you all right?" She asked.

Lydia's reply drew Jane and Lizzy's attention instantly. "I would prefer it if you did not address me by that name, Mrs Blakeney."

"Why, Lydia?" Elizabeth instantly asked. This was what they had been waiting for. The moment had come. Lydia was out of her shell.

"I am no longer Mrs Wickham. He is dead, I am no longer his property." Lydia looked up at Elizabeth and Jane. Suddenly tears formed in her eyes and she began to cry, pouring out her grief.

Elizabeth and Jane rushed to her side, embracing her instantly, as the gentlemen walked in. They did so silently, for they had heard the crying begin just as they reached the door to the room and, guessing the identity of the person, did not wish to disturb what might finally be a cure for Lydia's ills. They remained by the door, uncertain as to whether to remain, fearing their presence might alter things for the worse. Georgiana looked up at them kindly, inviting them to stay. They accepted and began to slowly approach the sofas.

Lydia's tears began to abate and slowly Lizzy and Jane drew back from her to give her air. Lydia took a deep breath and spoke a third time. "I am sorry, Lizzy. I'm sorry Jane. I did not mean to be like this for as long as I have. It was just difficult......." She trailed off to blow her nose and then glanced up at the gentlemen. "I apologise for my lack of propriety, Mr Darcy."

"There is no need for you to do so, Lydia," Darcy replied gently, crouching down so his head was level with hers. "We all understand your reasons for being so."

"We are just grateful that you took the courage to come to us," Elizabeth added comfortingly.

"I have treated you all abominably though," Lydia continued sadly. "Not to mention neglecting my children. I hope they have not been too much trouble, Mr Bingley?"

"Not all, Lydia, they have been angels," Charles replied reassuringly. "You raised them well."

"The only thing I have managed to do right with my life then," Lydia concluded bitterly.

"Do not be so hard on yourself," Jane uttered immediately.

Lydia would have said more, had it not been for a knock upon the music room door, interrupting the entire proceedings. Darcy stood up and walked to the door. He opened it, took the note from the footman who was waiting there and then walked back to the group. He handed the note to his wife with the words, "This express has just arrived for you."

Elizabeth thanked him and looked at the direction. She recognised the handwriting instantly. "It is from Papa! What on earth can be the matter?" She turned it over and broke the seal.

The express ran as follows.

My dear Lizzy,

I hope this letter still finds you all health. Forgive my method and abruptness in this letter, for I have little time to relay all of the story. Suffice it to say, you need to come Longbourn as soon as possible. Be not alarmed, your mother and myself are quite well. However, circumstances have changed a great deal since I saw you last.

Once more, rest assured that there is no dreadful news awaiting you, only a mystery that I need all of you to help me solve.

Mr Edmund Bennet.

"What on earth can father mean by this?" Elizabeth cried aloud. She handed the paper to her husband, who likewise after reading it became puzzled.

"What is it, Lizzy?" Jane asked.

"Papa summons us all to Longbourn," Elizabeth replied, before reading the letter aloud to the rest of the occupants of the room.

Chapter XIV.

Longbourn, August 26th 1820.

The Darcys, Bingleys, Lydia and children, were the last to arrive at Longbourn. After receiving the letter almost a week ago, they had all separated instantly to begin packing for the journey.

When Charles, Jane, Lydia and their children had returned to Pemberley, for it had been agreed that they would all travel together, the problem of accommodation was first addressed. Longbourn could not contain them all, and, presumably, there would also be the Smythes and Guests to consider. After a detailed search for a hotel or Inn which could provide a suitable number of rooms, Michael Blakeney came up with the solution.

He was acquainted with the family who now owned Netherfield. The Devereauxs, had always been owners of the place and had leased it eight years ago to Bingley with a view to selling, which was later changed when Charles and Jane quitted the place for Pearlcoombe. Between the Devereauxs and Blakeneys there had been a long history, - the main estates of both families lay with in twenty miles of each other at Richmond, -thus Michael had no concern in imposing upon them.

An express was instantly dealt to the Devereauxs, who wasted no time in replying back, offering all of them- including the Blakeneys -accommodation for as long as they needed it.

Once that problem was solved the Blakeneys travelled to their own estate to pack, and Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam began their own packing, readying to travel as soon as Georgiana and her family returned to Pemberley.

After a smooth journey they arrived at Netherfield to a warm welcome from the Devereauxs. They made sure their luggage was unloaded and their rooms sorted, before departing for Longbourn that very evening.

Thus when Elizabeth stepped out of the Darcy carriage it was with relief that she saw only the carriages of the Guests and Smythes parked on the Longbourn drive, and luggage being unloaded from both of them.

She had been married to Darcy for nearly three years when letters arrived, announcing Kitty's engagement to Mr Edmund Guest. Mr Guest was a man of modest fortune, but enough to afford him a comfortable home, and an inheritance of three thousand pounds per annum from a distant aunt awaited him. She had met him apparently, at a Meryton assembly scarcely a year ago, and their attachment, as Mrs Bennet was sure, had been there from the first. Kitty had changed a great deal since the marriage of her sisters and it was to her credit. She had at first barely noticed Mr Guest until he had asked for her hand for the last dance. She had been flattered when he confessed during it that he had all evening working up the courage to ask her. Mr Guest continued his attentions, by paying call on the family the next day. Evening upon evening of engagements attended by the both of them for a twelvemonth was enough to secure an attachment on both sides. Kitty fell in love with her gentleman and her frank confession of it one night, encouraged him to reveal his own affection. Mr Bennet's consent was applied for and granted and they married in autumn of 1815. Mr Guest gained his inheritance a year later. Since then they had had two children, Thomas, born in 1816 and Rebecca born in 1819.

Scarcely a month after the wedding of Kitty, letters arrived announcing to the Darcys the engagement of Mary to a Mr Smythe. The Rev. Smythe had recently arrived in the neighbourhood as the replacement parish priest for Meryton's neighbouring town; Ashcroft. Smythe was a respectable man with a comfortable income of four hundred pounds a year, despite his rather passionate religious nature. He was extremely devoted to his profession and this was possibly the main reason for Mary to be attracted to him in the first place. Since her sister's marriages she had become slightly more bookish- if this was indeed possible -and Mr Smythe's opinions on the disgrace of recent literature appealed to her own. They began to meet quite frequently, much to the disappointment of Mrs Bennet whose plans for her last unmarried daughter lay in quite another direction. Mr Bennet was equally surprised at the attraction of Smythe for he found the man rather infuriating at times, but nonetheless gave his consent to the match when it was called for, only an evening after Kitty's young man had come a calling. Since their marriage four children decided to grace their household; Faith, Hope, Charity and Samuel, all with a year separating them.

At this moment the former of the above Bennet girls came outside to greet her sisters. Elizabeth immediately called out in greeting.

"Lizzy! Jane! We were wondering when you were all going to arrive," Kitty Guest remarked as she embraced Elizabeth, carefully minding the sleeping babe in her arms. "And is this Imogen?" Elizabeth replied that she was. "Oh, she is so sweet!"

"Kit, what's wrong? Why have we all been called down here?" Elizabeth asked as Kitty looked at her new niece.

"Well, it is not anything bad," Kitty replied cautiously, "but it is rather complicated. I do not know the whole of it. Only Papa does, and he is not saying anything." Kitty paused and then added, "let's go inside shall we, and let the gentleman himself explain everything."

With this Kitty turned to go and after standing puzzled for a few minutes the Darcys, Bingleys and Lydia followed her. When they reached the entrance to the drawing room Elizabeth finally managed to get her sister's attention. "Kitty, what is going on?"

At that moment however, another voice saved Kitty from replying. "Oh my dear dear Lizzy, you are here are last."

"Hello Mama," Elizabeth replied resignedly as Mrs Bennet embraced her. It was a short embrace, for Mrs Bennet was anxious to do several things at once. First she exclaimed over Imogen who was, despite all odds, peacefully still asleep in her mother's arms, then she greeted Darcy, who put on a brave face and tried to greet his mother in law with the best of his manners. Then she did the same with the Bingleys before finally spotting Lydia, whereupon her cries changed. "Oh my dear Lydia!" She cried, pulling her into a comforting- and suffocating -embrace. "Oh my poor girl, what must you have gone through!"

Much to Elizabeth and Jane's surprise, Lydia managed to cope well with the ordeal of her mother's inquires to her health. She willingly submitted to all of Mrs Bennet's entreaties and if she had anything to conceal, it was kept very deep.

Mrs Bennet then turned to the other person in the room, who had judged it wise until this moment to keep silent.

"Now, you can all meet Lawrence, who has been returned to us!" She cried in happiness.

"Lawrence?" Elizabeth and Jane both cried out in puzzlement.

"Yes, your brother, my dear girls!" Mrs Bennet kindly replied as though they knew the entire history. "Lawrence, these are Jane, Elizabeth and Lydia."

The gentleman himself , who had rose upon the mention of his name now hesitantly stepped forward to greet the new arrivals who were just as astonished as the first ones had been.

Mr Bennet was in his favourite and frequently used retreat, a book in his hand, waiting for the best and most intelligent of his offspring to arrive and help him out. He had not planned on sending for all of them, that had been Mrs Bennet's doing. She, not suspecting, had decided on the arrangements even before he had been confronted with the mystery and he had been forced to accept, else risk the inquisition of his at the moment unfounded but nevertheless deeply held mistrust.

This deeply held mistrust had appeared in his mind ever since he had been confronted with the tale. If he had valid evidence, he would have confronted Lawrence immediately, but unfortunately he did not. Therefore, the occasion called for an appeal to someone he could trust with anything, someone he knew from previous experience would help him acquire the proof he needed, whether it convicted or released the gentleman that was sitting in his drawing room. It was this belief that caused him to retreat to his library until everyone had arrive, for fear of facing the rest of them.

Suddenly a knock at the door disturbed his reverie. It was no ordinary knock, for it began with two quick knocks, then a pause, then repeat, leaving no doubt as to the identity of its owner. Mr Bennet closed his book and called out, "come in, Lizzy."

Elizabeth had been at her ancestral home for half an hour now and was still no closer to understanding the surprise she had just been confronted with. As soon she had been able, she had carefully handed Imogen to Darcy, then slipped out of the room to find her father. If there was anyone that could explain it, it was he. "Hello, Papa," she began, closing the door behind her and sitting down.

"I knew that when you arrived you would come and seek me out," Mr Bennet replied, making an effort to sound more happy than he was. "It was really only you and the Bingleys that I wanted the news to be released to first." He paused, and Elizabeth waited it out, wanting him to explain in his own way. She knew her father well, and to interrupt him now might prevent half the story.

"Before I go any further, let me make one thing clear. Longbourn is still for Alex, whether this succeeds or not."

Despite her resolution, Lizzy could do naught but ask a question now. "Papa, what is all of this about?"

Mr Bennet leant back in his chair and......... was about to begin his story when another knock sounded upon his door. "Come in!" He called out rather curtly.

Darcy came in carefully, looking sheepishly at his father in law. Suddenly he felt like he was a child again facing his father's wrath. "Sorry to disturb, but Imogen is waking up and I thought it would be best to bring her to her mama, before others interceded."

"I do apologise Darcy," Mr Bennet began when the poor man had stopped explaining, "I thought it would be someone else. You might as well stay, actually, I need all the clear heads I can get hold to sort this out."

Darcy thanked him with a look, before handing his daughter to his wife and sitting down in a nearby chair. Elizabeth hushed her daughter back to sleep, waiting for her father to begin again.

Chapter XV.

Longbourn, August 26th 1820.

"Do you remember Lizzy, eight years ago when you came down from telling your mother about the discovery of Lydia?" Mr Bennet asked her.

"Yes," Elizabeth replied, puzzled as to why her father would start his explanation by alluding to that scene of all scenes.

"Do you remember what I said?"

"Of course I do, but........"

"No, you obviously do not," Mr Bennet incurred before Elizabeth could finish. "You remember, I am sure, me ridiculing myself for not having the foresight to lay aside...... or rather as I put it then, "a certain sum". I then went on to say the following;" Mr Bennet paused here and when he began again, he tried to put his voice and tone how it was then, so Elizabeth might remember the slip he made and had afterwards hoped she would not pick it up. " "But of course I hoped to father another son. That son would inherit the estate, no part of which would be entailed away, so providing for my widow and any other children. But when Lydia was born and all hope of a second son was lost, it seemed a little late to begin saving."" With this Mr Bennet paused once more, waiting for Lizzy to pick up his line.

"Papa," she began , "I really do not see........." Elizabeth trailed off and glanced at her husband who had seemed to notice it as well. "Did you say "another son"?"

"I did as it happens," Mr Bennet replied, leaning back in his chair to begin the story once more. "At the time you were, I hoped, too overwhelmed with Lydia's situation to pick up my little slip, for I had no intention of telling anyone, including you, that part of my life. At least then I did not.

"Before you or Jane were born I did have the good fortune to father a son. I named him Lawrence Alexander Bennet," Mr Bennet paused at this moment to look at his daughter and son in law with a smile, "yes, that was why I was so glad you had the foresight to name your sons by those names, although I know that was not the reason that you did it. But to resume.

"Nothing of great consequence happened until Lawrence was five, when Jane was born. It was about a day after that event when he asked me if he could go outside and play. I had no intention of refusing him, it was a perfectly normal request. But after that question, I never saw him again." Mr Bennet paused here to take a drink of his wine. Elizabeth and Darcy waited for him to continue. "At first I thought he had just gotten lost, or that he had decided to play a trick on me. But, as the days increased, I began to lose hope. Not completely, but by degrees. It was like a part of me was closing itself forever from the rest of me. I never intended for that part to be opened again. And then, six days ago, I returned home to see the gentleman you have just been introduced as a sibling. And, despite all present evidence to the contrary, I find this Lawrence Bennet extremely easy to distrust." With that, Mr Bennet went on to explain verbatim, the tale Lawrence had told him that evening.

Needless to say, Elizabeth and Darcy were both stunned by the tale they had just received. For the former it explained the lot. Firstly, the rift between the Collinses and themselves, that had been until Mr Collins married Charlotte. If Alan Collins had indeed kidnapped her brother, it would have changed considerably the relationship between cousins. Secondly, it accounted for her father's rather cynical out look on life, which she had acquired as well, although to a lesser degree. It could also explain her mother's nerves, if indeed anything could. Slowly, she looked up at her father and spoke. "Have you considered, Papa, how strangely this tale as you call it, fits in?"

"I have considered it, Lizzy," her father replied, "in fact it was the first that entered my mind. Which is why I distrust it. It is too good to be true. However, I have no evidence to disprove or to improve the story. And you, Darcy," Mr Bennet added, looking at his son in law, whose face appeared to be in great concentration of thought. "What is your opinion on this as a rational objective man?"

"It is as you say sir, rather too good to be true, but the evidence does seem to be of good authority."

Elizabeth nodded and looked down at Imogen as she asked, "what, do you intend to do then?"

"I intend to find out some certain proof to this gentleman," Mr Bennet replied slowly, looking at the both of them. "And I greatly need your help."

Elizabeth glanced at Darcy before complying to her father's wish. "Who else is to know that you suspect him?"

"Jane and Bingley may know, but no one else," replied Mr Bennet, "if the story is true, I have no desire to make Lawrence feel uneasy, for it will provide more of a hindrance than an assistance to our task." Mr Bennet paused to finish his drink, before adding with relief, "thank you, Lizzy."

Thank us when this over, Darcy replied silently, then aloud he assured his father in law that he need have no concern about Alex's future in regards to Longbourn.

"No," Mr Bennet replied, "that is not effecting me, in fact it has only made me see this more clearly. There are two questions though that I would dearly like to have answered when all of this is over. The first is how he acquired all this information about our family and lastly, if this is true, why he waited until now to spring this upon us."

Chapter XVI.

Oakham Mount, August 27th 1820.

For Elizabeth, early morning walks had the custom of clearing her mind of everything but the problem she needed to solve. She had slipped out of the bedchamber that she and Darcy shared at Netherfield early this morning with this single thought in her mind.

Now, as she came to the top of Oakham Mount, she realised, reluctantly, that her original plan was about to go completely out of her head. Sighing, but determined, she took the initiative and called out to the silhouette figure that had taken her place on the stump of the old oak tree that signified the summit. "Lawrence!"

The figure stood up and bowed instantly upon the announcement of his name. "Mrs..... I mean......." he paused, chuckling. "I apologise. I have no idea how to address you. You are my sister and yet, for years I have been an only child."

"It is strange," Elizabeth acknowledged, offering her hand. Lawrence took it and raised it to his lips as she replied, "but, please, do not distress yourself. Call me Lizzy, or Elizabeth, and all will be well between us."

"Elizabeth then," Lawrence began as she took a seat on the stump and he followed suit on a patch of dry grass nearby. "I did not realise early morning walks was a Bennet family trait."

"We are an energetic family, but it is usually only me and Jane that tend to walk in the morning, although Papa has been known to do so as well. I find it clears my head and allows me to see things objectively."

"Yes, it is refreshing," Lawrence concurred. He glanced at her as he added, almost wistfully, "I wish that somehow I had been able to sort out all of this earlier."

"Why did you not?" Elizabeth asked.

"Well, when I was first confronted with it, my regiment was called back to go to France. Then, when I finally managed to cashier myself out, it took a long while just to find any link at all."

Elizabeth nodded, at the same time though she wondered if there was something wrong as her father had ascertained. If there was some weakness to exploit, then this five year absence from the Battle of Waterloo to the present was it.

"But it is done now," Lawrence continued, using a foible of Mr Bennet, "and it cannot be undone. I will just have to use the time I have to the best advantage." Elizabeth wondered at the choice of words here but chose not to comment on it. Instead she returned her gaze to the direction of the mount that viewed Netherfield. Lawrence meanwhile lapsed into silence, his own mind equally thoughtful. He had not even entailed a thought about how difficult this could turn out to be. All that had mattered to him was sorting it out, before time prevented him from doing so. He had a debt to pay for not following his heart all those years ago when he had first found out about all of this. The only thing that bothered him was the fear in his mind that it was too late to do anything.

Elizabeth, seeing that Lawrence was thinking, - strangely enough, in a manner similar to her husband -returned her thoughts to the original plan that had occupied her this morning. She, like her father, had been immediately suspicious of Lawrence Bennet when they had been introduced yesterday evening, yet now, sitting with him upon the summit of Oakham Mount, overlooking the grounds of Netherfield, she caught herself several times looking for similarities between him and their immediate family in every gesture, mannerism, word, or tone of voice. And in general she found them.

But maybe, that was due to her purposefully looking for them in the first place. As though she wanted a brother in her life, even if he was still a mystery to them all. Yet, as she realised this, Elizabeth reminded herself of the other things she had noticed which had made her agree to her father's request. There was one feature in particular that had fixed the decision in her mind. It was still there this morning. As an observer of people's characters, she had first detected this habit last night, albeit after her father had told her the whole story. Which had been why she had distrusted it, until this morning. Lawrence, she was sure of it, was not telling them the whole story. There was something he was keeping back, and that something obviously mattered a great deal to him, for she was only able to notice instances of it.

That only gave her two conclusions; one, he had a shameful past that he did not want to reveal, or two, that he was not Lawrence Bennet at all, but instead playing a deliberate part. Both these conclusions fitted, however, to Elizabeth's mind, the latter was missing one thing. As yet she had been unable to think of a motive as to why he would deceive them all. Longbourn estate, although comfortable, was by no means a profitable inheritance, he would do better to pretend he was heir to the Devereauxs, whose fortunes had increased tenfold since their last visit to Netherfield. That left personal vendetta, which did not even seem realistic, since the gentleman was far too young to be carrying an avenging burden on his shoulders.

No, it was altogether too puzzling a situation, Elizabeth concluded as Lawrence finally turned to her, asking her if she had any plans for the day.

"I am not entirely sure," Elizabeth replied. "I really should spend time with Lady Devereaux I suppose as she is playing hostess to us, but beyond that my plans are uncertain." She paused, and then smiled as an idea came to her. "Lord Devereaux has invited my husband and brother in laws to do some shooting this morning. I am sure they would not mind an addition to the party, and then you could join us for luncheon."

"That sounds fine, I would be honoured," Lawrence replied.

When Elizabeth arrived back at Netherfield she encountered the most pleasing sight. That was her husband quietly talking to their latest daughter, who lay in his arms in their bedroom. He looked up at her entrance. "Good morning, Mrs Darcy."

"Good morning," Elizabeth returned to the both of them.

"Did you know that this is the same chamber that I slept in when I was here over eight years ago? It took the sight of this beautiful one to make me realise that I had not just dreamt us."

Elizabeth smiled as she leant to kiss him, before remarking, "my dearest Will, you really worry far too much. We have been married for nearly nine years now. This, I assure you, is not a dream."

Darcy smiled a smile which she cherished. "I love it when you call me that." He paused, turning to Imogen who was looking up at the two of them with wide eyes. "One day soon my pet," he whispered softly, "you are going to realise just how wonderful your mother is."

Imogen just blinked in reply, before closing her eyes to sleep once more. Elizabeth took the opportunity to ask her husband a favour. "Fitzwilliam, could you do something for me today?"

"Anything, my love," was the reply.

"Lawrence Bennet is joining the shooting party today. I would like you to keep an eye on him if you could."

"Of course, but why do you ask?"

"I saw him this morning while I was walking. We had a conversation and...... there is just something about him that does not sit well with me. He's hiding something, Will."

"I understand," Darcy replied sympathetically as stifled cry came from his lap. "Oh, I think little one is ready for breakfast."

Elizabeth took Imogen in her arms. "Thank you Fitzwilliam. I hope this stay improves your memories of this place."

"It already has, my love."

Chapter XVII.

Netherfield, 27th August 1820.

It is a truth not necessarily universally acknowledged that in times when shooting was one of the only accepted landowner sports, it becomes an event that calls those gentlemen early from their beds.

So, when Mr Darcy ended up joining the party rather late, it brought a lot of questions from the others, in particular his host, who inquired after the lateness of his guest with more than a passing curiosity.

Darcy's reply was........ well you can hear it yourselves and judge it as you choose. "I am afraid I was unavoidably detained by my distracting wife, sir."

Lord Devereaux, a very respectable man, also had the advantage of a loving marriage, and chuckled at his guest's reply. "I am well aware of those temptations and so shall forgive your lateness."

It should be noted here that Lord Devereaux should be considered as the most affluent gentleman of the assembled party. His fortune doubled Darcy's by a clear thousand or two and three well proportioned states accompanied it, Netherfield being only one of them. He was married to an heiress, -who had brought with her hand the third- and had an heir who was as yet unmarried. Added to this was his three nearly married daughters, of which, all bar one were presently engaged while the other was indeed of the attached state. He was a man of amiable features, and equally amiable manners, with a sardonic quip that kept him in Mr Bennet's good company, and thus had been pleased to let the majority of the Netherfield rooms to that gentleman's extended family.

Darcy had replied to Devereaux's response with a slight acknowledgement and then turned to look at his brother in laws Bingley and Blakeney, before finally coming to a rest on Mr Lawrence Bennet. It was time, his mind had decided, to take stock of the gentleman and see if his own judgement of him agreed with his wife's and his father in law's. Having decided himself upon such a task, his mind set to immediately.

The first thing he took in was appearance. After all, if Lawrence was Mr Bennet's son, then logic dictated that some resemblance must remain in their features. After a detailed and discreet examination, Darcy concluded that there was a similarity, by way of the manners and features of the mien, and he could see that the dark hair of Lawrence could have once been Mr Bennet's own.

All this judgement had been ascertained without attracting Lawrence's suspicions, for Darcy, although less reserved since his marriage, still had the habit of something resembling a spy when he could be called into it. The next judgement he made however, did meditate an awareness, for it was completely unexpected.

Lawrence had at that moment fired a shot, which no one could deny was of remarkably good aim. It spoke of rather decidedly a military origin, which Darcy, from his long history with his cousin, had had a great deal of experience of observing, and one that had been in long standing. Of course, Darcy knew from Mr Bennet that Lawrence had claimed- this word should be noted- to have served under Wellington, but it was a claim anyone could make, providing they never had to prove it. This shot however, not only told Darcy that it was true, but also required him to remark on it. He inquired in the general way, as if the inquiry had no special preference.

"Yes, I did serve," Lawrence replied. "How did you notice?"

"My cousin is in the profession," Darcy returned with the same degree of normality. "May I ask which regiment you served in?"

"I had the honour to serve in the Oxfordshire 52nd Foot as an Ensign and eventually a Captain," Lawrence informed him before returning to address the young Mr Devereaux with a remark.

Darcy however paid no attention to it. All his attention to the party had ceased in fact, when he heard Lawrence's reply. The regiment had chosen well, it served a lot in the fields of Spain and if it did not have awakened a connection in his mind, Darcy would not have put too much thought on it. However, the 52nd was known to him only too well. It was the first regiment his cousin had joined, then a lieutenant, before moving into the intelligence section of Wellington's staff.

It was therefore with great rapidity that after the shooting party had retired to the house, that Darcy set down to write his cousin a letter which contained the following request:

....... Rich, I am sure after reading all of this you will not hesitate in lending your assistance to this matter, so I shall ask what I want without delay. Did Lawrence Bennet by any chance, serve when you served in the 52nd? I know this is going out on a limb as it were, but I think your reply will prove invaluable to all of us as a sign of proof or disproof to the validity of this man's assertions.

I remain, etc.
Fitzwilliam Darcy.

Chapter XVIII.

Netherfield, August 28th 1820.

The rest of the twenty-seventh passed without nothing of significance taking place, save what I have already mentioned. Darcy informed his wife of what had occurred that morning, along with his intention- for only intention it indeed was at that time -to write to his cousin. Elizabeth agreed wholeheartedly with his plan.

Thus, nothing to do with Lawrence Bennet could be done until a reply arrived, so the Netherfield occupants occupied themselves with the other equally pressing matter that concerned them all. That matter was of course, Lydia's situation, for it was determined that something had to be decided now, as they might not have another opportunity to conference together as it were.

Accordingly, Mr Bennet arrived early the next day to have a conference with his eldest daughters and family in the Netherfield Library. He too was grateful to have another matter occupy his mind other than the one that had been there for days, without any sign of marked improvement. Since the marriage of his daughters he had tried to be a better father as far as he could with the two that remained, but until now, the one that he had most heartily wished he had taken the time to improve, had been too far out of his reach from him to do so.

It was determined early on that Lydia could not, within all reality, stay at Pearlcoombe for the rest of her and her children's lives, as much as Jane and Charles tried to assure Mr Bennet that it would be no hardship to them.

"No Jane, on this I am quite resolved," were Mr Bennet's final words on that matter. "Lydia, if she has that sense, will soon come to look on it as charity."

"Then, if I may suggest," Darcy voiced, "a house on my estate has recently........"

"No, Fitzwilliam," Elizabeth interrupted. "If Lydia regards Pearlcoombe as charity, then a living on Pemberley she will also. Besides, you have already done far too much." She turned to her father. "But the same cannot be said for Longbourn."

Mr Bennet looked at his favourite daughter solemnly. "Lizzy, I wish it could be that easy. But you know your mother only too well. Lydia and her children would be spoilt utterly, if they remained here."

"Then, father," Jane asked tentatively, "what can you suggest? All reasonable offers, save giving Lydia money enough to afford a living, have been rejected."

Mr Bennet could only sigh. "I believe you are right my dear." He paused then added, "Now, before Darcy offers that very thing, I venture the thought that until we come up with something else, the only solutions are those of a short term nature. She may as well stay at Pearlcoombe."

It can only be supposed that naturally, while this discussion was taking place, what occupied Lydia's own thoughts was connected to this. And indeed those who supposed that would be correct.

Lydia was seated in a drawing room of Netherfield, with her youngest child Louise asleep in her arms. Her mind however was as far away from that room as it possibly could be. She was contemplating what her future would be. It was not a pleasant prospect. She could see nothing reasonable other than being a burden to her family. She did not wish to impose herself on Jane and Mr Bingley forever. Nor did she wish to do the same to Elizabeth and Mr Darcy, as kind as the latter had been these past few days. She also did not wish to live at Longbourn. Eight years of marriage had been enough to make her realise where the faults of her upbringing lay, that is with herself and her mother. She did not wish her children to suffer such a fate. Marriage, the only other option bar one -that of servitude- was also out of the question. For indeed, who would even consider a widow of four and twenty with eight children?

So, like the rest of her family had come to realise, her situation was a complicated one indeed. She wished she knew a solution to it. Now, she could only dwell on it in all its distressing glory.

The sound of the drawing room door opening broke those thoughts. Lydia looked up, expecting it to be Lady Devereaux, or one of the Miss Devereauxs, or one of her sisters. Indeed anyone but the one person that it was.

"I am most sorry for disturbing you," Lawrence Bennet replied as he came in, closing the door. "I had no idea anyone was in here."

"Please, do not trouble yourself," Lydia replied distractedly, her self esteem at its lowest ebb.

Perhaps it was that reply, or perhaps Lawrence noticed the distressed and lonely heart inside her. Whatever it was, he walked to the sofa and seated himself beside her, took her free hand in his, and remarked with words of the greatest tenderness, "be assured, that whatever is troubling you, if you choose to confide in me, I will not give it away to anyone. Indeed, I will do my utmost to help you."

Lydia looked up at him in surprise, then glanced away, back to Louise. "I wish you could help."

Lawrence waited silently for her to continue.

"I made something of a scandal in this family by eloping," Lydia began after a short pause, "I married a man I knew absolutely nothing about and what I learnt later gave me much to regret by it."

"Surely you loved him though if you were willing to do that," Lawrence tried reassure her.

"At the time I thought I did, but I realise now that I was far too young to know what love was. Anyway, that has no relevance now. My actions before my marriage do though."

"Why?"

At this point Lydia looked up and gazed at his face. "Why do you care?" She asked frankly, her piercing eyes burrowing into his soul.

Lawrence did not buckle under their gaze. "For a number of reasons, most of which are not important right now," he replied after a pause. "But first and foremost, you are my sister, and what ever troubles you, troubles me."

"Thank you," Lydia replied. "I am grateful to know that someone cares for me."

"I am sure your other siblings feel the same."

"I rather think not." Lydia paused "I am outsider in this family, Lawrence. And not just because of the man I married, although I am sure that made matters worse. I have always been regarded as one who is beyond hope of a change."

"Do you have any idea why you feel this way?"

"That's just it, I do not."

Chapter XIX.

Netherfield.

Lawrence would have done a great disservice to Lydia if he had not acted as he did so after hearing this information. For indeed, who could keep silent after hearing such a tale of woe? As soon as he could he sought out the members of his family that were staying at Netherfield, determined to get to the bottom of the matter. He soon discovered their whereabouts.

"Ah, Lawrence," Mr Bennet began when the gentleman had entered. "What do you do here?"

"I have just had a most troubling conversation with Mrs Wickham," Lawrence replied, noticing as he had suspected to do so, a change of composure on the faces of several people in the room the moment he pronounced the name. He voiced this observation instantly. "Now," he added, vehemently, "would someone favour me with the reason why that name inspires dread in almost all of you?"

After awhile the silence in the room began to turn oppressive, so Lawrence tried again in the same tone. "Look, Lydia is distressed enough as it is. Feeling like an outsider as well cannot help."

The word outsider triggered a response. "Why does she feel like that?" Jane asked.

"I think it has something to with the matter of who she married," Lawrence returned. "Now, please would someone tell me? Believe me, I have probably heard worse, serving for as long as I did in the army. What is Wickham to you?"

Elizabeth turned to her husband whose face remained impassive. "Will, what harm can it do? Everyone concerned in the matter has recovered from it, including you." At her husband's apparent hesitation she persisted thus, "if you are unsure, you need only ask her permission. And if Lydia's behaviour these past few days is anything to judge by,........ surely her very manner tells you she has changed? She needs to recover, Fitzwilliam, and I for one think that a knowledge of her late husband's past would help her right now." Elizabeth stopped for breath and took her beloved's hands in hers as she uttered her final words. "It might even provoke her to confiding in us."

Darcy's eyes had remained with his wife's from the beginning of this speech and it was through them that Elizabeth had learnt to understand his soul. It was a soul she had come to value highly, treasure even, and now as she looked into his eyes she saw the beginnings of an acceptance to her plea. The tragedy of Georgiana and Wickham he had related to few people, not trusting their discretion enough to do so. Even when he had been negotiating with Mr Gardiner all those years ago, the true circumstances he had never revealed. Until Elizabeth, no one had known, and after Elizabeth he had by degrees, let others into the circle; namely Mr Bennet and his brother in law and friend; Charles Bingley. Was it now time to let Lydia learn of the past dealings between him and Wickham? Also, was he wise to trust Lawrence with the information, being as he was, as yet, a unproved relation to the family? These were the doubts that haunted Darcy and his wife's plea had managed to temper them enough to make Darcy consider the gravity of the present situation. It was then with this in mind that he stepped forward and slowly related the entire story to Lawrence Bennet.

And what can be said of Lawrence's reaction while he listened to Darcy's story? Well, firstly, it must be noted that not once did he choose to interrupt the story, nor did he voice aloud an guessed inference or opinion on anything that Darcy said. Instead, he remained silent until the end, his gaze never leaving the glances of his present company. His thoughts however, constantly drifted. They first drifted to Lydia, and indeed she remained a factor throughout the entire tale. His thoughts drifted then to imagining what Wickham must have been like as Darcy's tale went from the accepted to the scandalous events in their Cambridge days. Finally, they came to rest on his sister in law, Georgiana Blakeney.

Lawrence had not yet the time to make her familiar acquaintance, as he had only dined with the Netherfield family once. Yet he had already determined her to be as sweet and as kind as his eldest sister Jane. To know that a man like Wickham had tried for her and failed, due to her brother's interference, was not only a proof that Wickham was not someone who could never be recovered from, but also a testament in his eyes to the assumption that he had previously determined, that if one girl was capable of suffering nothing from an experience with Wickham, then so was another. He looked at his brother in law and when Darcy had finished the story he calmly replied with this last thought in mind. "I thank you for telling me. I promise you on my honour that it will go further. However, after hearing this, I think it wise that you at least tell Lydia the story, or let your sister tell her. The knowledge that she is not alone in this will be beneficial to her, and, I believe, will go a long way in prompting her to recover."

Darcy looked at his immediate family, then at Lawrence. Then he decided.

Chapter XX.

Netherfield, 29th August 1820.

After the conference of yesterday, dinner had been announced, leaving any possibility of talking with Lydia alone unlikely. The Bennets had left soon afterwards for Longbourn with every intention of returning on the morrow. Lawrence had made the Darcys aware of his promise to Lydia and they had agreed that it would be best if he was present to explain his reasons for not keeping silent.

They duly met the next day in the drawing room where Lydia happened to be alone. Lawrence went to her immediately upon his entrance. He sat down next to her as Darcy and Elizabeth seated themselves opposite.

"Lydia, in doing this I am about to break my promise to you that I would keep whatever you told me secret," Lawrence began, looking very shamefaced. "But, after hearing what I did, realised that you needed help. I heard this story yesterday and I think you ought to hear it as well. Please listen to what your brother in law has to say."

Lawrence's well chosen words had certainly got Lydia intrigued. She looked to her sister and then Mr Darcy, waiting for him to begin.

Darcy took a deep breath and met her eyes. Elizabeth took his hand in hers as he began the story once more. It remained in her comfort throughout.

Lydia's reaction to the story was one of a mixed nature. At first she was shocked. Insensible as she had been eight years ago, she had no idea that Wickham had even known Mr Darcy until he had come upon them at the time of her elopement. Now, she learnt of their long acquaintance, she began to understand and interpret many of the things that had occurred during the negotiations of her marriage. That Wickham had never loved her, a suspicion which she had ascertained a few months after the wedding, she now knew for absolute certainty. In a way, she realised, it made things somewhat easier in her mind. However, it also made things a lot harder. Then, as Darcy reached the story of Ramsgate, her shock increased. She had never really gained Georgiana's acquaintance, for she had missed both weddings of her sisters. To learn that she, Darcy's sister, had been sought after by Wickham for purely financial reasons..... well, it was, to the say the least, shocking. Her heart went out to Mrs Blakeney, as her own self blame increased. She realised now more than ever, why Elizabeth had been insistent that she did not go to Brighton and rather wished that she had obeyed that advice.

When Darcy came to the end of his story Lydia needed several minutes to recover before she began her own tale. She knew now, that it had to be told. "Thank you, Mr Darcy," she began, when she had gathered her thoughts, "I am most grateful that you told me this. Lawrence, please do not distress yourself. You did not betray me, in fact I think I needed to hear that. It gives me the courage to tell you what I have been longing to tell someone; that is the true history of my marriage to Mr Wickham.

"It began well, mainly because of my own self delusion that I was suffering under. I thought Wickham loved me. I realised not long after the birth of Henry, that he did not. Indeed he as much confessed it once. But to resume.

"Wickham began to gamble away our income as soon as he could. I tried to keep him from spending all of it, but his debts at the mess soon turned him to drink. Naturally, his tendency to drink shortened his temper. I tried to avoid him as much as I could, but that soon it became impossible. I soon realised after a while that as his wife I had to submit to his desires." At this point Lydia stopped. She turned to Darcy and added, "please, Mr Darcy, do not blame yourself for making us marry. I was as much if not more to blame for my actions. I should never have gone to Brighton."

Darcy reluctantly acknowledged Lydia's plea, keeping his face impassive. His own thoughts at the moment were providing swift competition to counteract any cure the plea could have given him. He should have told the neighbourhood from the beginning. He should have made Wickham's true character known. But, due to his mistaken pride, he had declined and now Lydia was suffering for it. He felt his hand being squeezed and turned to see Elizabeth looking at him with eyes that carried the message of her own opinions, which would be voiced later. She was determined that her husband would not slide into despondency concerning who was and who was not to blame for Wickham's involvement with her family.

Meanwhile Lydia's story continued. "I soon learnt that providing I submitted quickly, he tended to leave me alone. I took advantage of this, and made sure I had friends who could be relied upon as excuses to call us out to dinners. One of these was Mrs Lawford, a woman a year or two older than me and unfortunately, had also eloped with her husband. Although hers was much more a case of affection. She saw my marriage as the same, indeed that was how Wickham presented it in public and I, enjoying her company, wished never to dissuade her from that delusion.

"Thankfully, Mrs Lawford had experience of managing money and between her and I, the little money I had was managed well enough to provide my increasing family and myself for several years. I realise I could have wrote to all of you, but I had no desire to let Wickham know I was doing that. Also I did not wish to appear greedy and wild, like I had once been.

"When the regiment was recalled to France, I hoped at first that we would stay behind for I feared for the children's safety. I soon began to regret this desire as Wickham blackmailed his way up to a captaincy. His referee was Major Vaughan, whose name might be familiar to you all. At the time I had no idea it was blackmail, for the Major was far too scared that his scandal would be made known to fight back.

"The captaincy gave him more freedom to gamble. As I carefully made sure he never had all of our income, he soon ran out of cash and turned to blackmail once more, after I refused to give him any more, despite all his persistence. That drove him to the most profitable of his blackmails; Major Vaughan. Needless to say the Major soon became tired of Wickham's pressure and called him out. It was the day I gave birth to Louise. And god forgive me, I so relieved when I learnt the Major had been successful." It was with this last that Lydia finished the tale. For their own sakes, she had left most of the details out, for she had no desire to make any of them feel more guilty than they already did. As far as she was concerned, when it came down to her, they were all blameless.

As for Lawrence, he had remained silent throughout the entire tale, and when Lydia had come to the end he had carefully taken her hand in his, offering support. He would realise later that it was today which would eventually change his life forever.
Chapter XXI.

Netherfield 31st August 1820.

Rosings.
29th August 1820.

Darce,

I am afraid to inform you that during the time I served in the 52nd, a Lawrence Bennet was never in the ranks of Ensign, Lieutenant or Captain. Of course, if you recollect, I did not stay long in the Oxfordshire, as Wellington soon spotted me at the siege of Ciudad Rodrigo and enlisted me on his intelligence staff. So he could have joined after that.

I must say Darce, that this story of yours intrigues me, so I will seek out a few old army friends of mine and see if they can help you.

With regards, etc.
Richard Fitzwilliam.

This was the short reply which Darcy received this day from his cousin. It confirmed all he had expected instantly. His cousin's memory was one that could never be doubted on, even when you wanted it to be- I refer here to some rather embarrassing stories of Darcy's youth which he swore and did pay Fitzwilliam back tenfold on his bachelor night. These are of course, another story -and as such Darcy took the information as certain. He was now faced with the unhappy task of informing his wife of Lawrence's first mistake.

He accordingly and reluctantly did so after breakfast when he joined her in their bedroom, attending to Imogen's needs. "Elizabeth," he began cautiously, "I received Richard's reply this morning."

Elizabeth looked up from Imogen and saw in her husband's face the nature of the news he feared to relay. "Judging by your face, Fitzwilliam, I presume it does not confirm what Lawrence told you?"

"I am afraid that is the case, m'dear," her husband replied. "Are you disappointed?"

"I am glad we learn now, rather than later," Elizabeth remarked, "however, I fear my father's response. I know, despite his denials, that he secretly wished Lawrence is who he says to be. As far as I am concerned, I hope the gentleman's real story is not too shameful."

"I confess that is what I hope, my darling," Darcy replied. Against his better judgement he had grown to like Lawrence Bennet, especially since his assistance with Lydia had achieved so much. It was only two days gone past Lydia's story and she had improved much the better for it. She never returned to her trances and the mention of Wickham had not once caused her to shudder.

"I like him as well, Will," Elizabeth replied, interpreting her husband's enigmatic glances once more. "What else did Richard say?"

"Only that the story intrigued him enough to seek out some of his army contacts to see if he can find anything out. Comes from being an intelligence officer for far too long I think."

"It is just as well we have his assistance, Fitzwilliam. He might find the damning proof we need to credit or discredit Lawrence Bennet's assertions."

Darcy acknowledged as he had intended to, that Elizabeth was right. The information that Lawrence had not served in the 52nd when his cousin had, did nothing really to prove the falsity of his story one way or another.
Elizabeth went early in the afternoon to Longbourn in order to tell her father the news. She did not announce her arrival, wishing to avoid her mother's pleasantries and the company of Lawrence until her father allowed them to confront him.

She found her father for once walking in the grounds rather than his study. He spotted her arrival instantly.

"Lizzy, my dear, what brings you here?"

"Papa, you remember some days ago me telling you that Fitzwilliam had written to Richard at Rosings for some information about his military days?"

"I remember well. What was his reply?"

"That he does not recollect a Lawrence Bennet ever serving in the 52nd during his time in the regiment."

"Is his authority good?"

"The 52nd was the first regiment he served in. He left after Ciudad Rodrigo. Lawrence has claimed to have served both before and after that siege."

"I see," Mr Bennet replied in his usual abrupt way. His own thoughts sang with relief that his suspicions had been justified.

"Are we to confront him with this information?" Elizabeth asked.

"Yes," Mr Bennet replied after a pause. "But we are to do it with discretion. If he does have something to hide I have no desire to alarm the gentleman just yet. Not until we have definitive proof." He turned to his daughter and took her hand in his. "Thank you, Lizzy, for telling me. You did right in doing so. Do not fear, I am glad you did. It gives me relief for having my suspicions."

Chapter XXII.

1st September 1820.

One can hardly suppose that in such a neighbourhood as Meryton the events at Netherfield and Longbourn would not remain in those locations only. And indeed, they would be right in their suspicions.

After Mrs Phillips had been treated to the chance introduction of Lawrence Bennet, the news that the long lost son of the Bennets of Longbourn had returned to the family fold, had spread around the village in lighting speed. Of course, they had all heard of the history, and they had all been most saddened for Mr Bennet's loss all those years ago. Then, when the marriages of the eldest daughters had come about, the neighbourhood had secretly rejoiced that the majority of them had the one thing that Mrs Bennet lacked to make her life complete. It was not that they did not like Mrs Bennet, indeed she was a great source of gossip and news from time to time, but her incessant talk of Mrs Darcy and Mrs Bingley in the recent years had become...... well, somewhat tiring. So, while they grieved for poor Mr Bennet,- such a nice, if rather eccentric gentleman, which was high praise according to them,- they consoled themselves with the knowledge of Lawrence Bennet's disappearance when Mrs Bennet proved to be too taxing. The village at times tended to have a malicious streak when the occasion called for it.

But to resume. Mrs Phillips had barely begun to rejoice with her sister- hoping that this show of emotion might entice her sister to let her see the man himself- when Mrs Bennet sent her away, her excuse being that until she had greeted Mr Bennet with "the darling child", no one else was to meet him. Mrs Phillips reluctantly left, and the servants who escorted her to the door, swore later that many a number of mutterings under breath had accompanied the woman's departure. Needless to say, Mrs Phillips was not very happy at only being able to spread the news of Lawrence Bennet's return, and not what the gentleman looked like. However, spread the news she did and by the time the Darcys had arrived at Netherfield, Meryton was alive with gossip.

As the days went on with no sign of an invitation from the family to any of the citizens of Meryton to see the fabled- and hopefully single, as there were still some unmarried daughters of Meryton,- Lawrence Bennet, there was a natural inclination to come up with some form of an invitation themselves. After all, Mr Lawrence Bennet could not, absolutely could not remain incognito for any longer. It was unthinkable to a village such as Meryton. At first there was some difficulty in procuring a reasonable excuse for sending such an invite, particularly to Netherfield, as the Devereauxs were in residence, and to refuse them, while asking their guests was impossible. This meant that it could be no ordinary assembly, but a quiet evening at the next highest residence.

So, it was with mixed reactions that the occupants of Netherfield and Longbourn received invitations for an evening at the Lucas Lodge an evening hence. The latter commented upon it their normal way; Mrs Bennet rejoicing at the chance to show her dear Lawrence off, Mrs Kitty Guest looking forward to seeing Maria Wexford nee Lucas once more, her husband having not the heart to refuse their acceptance, the Smythes deploring at the probable lack of Christian civility to be had during the evening, and Mr Bennet retreating to his study and a nice bottle of his best brandy. His thoughts about it concerned whether or not he should introduce Lawrence as his son, when he was not sure he was himself. It might help Lawrence to relax his guard, if indeed he had anything to hide, but on the other hand it had the possibility of making the search for the truth altogether harder. He had yet to confront the man yet with the mistake he had made in choosing the 52nd Regiment, an situation which Mr Bennet found himself dreading, all the more he thought about it.

After all, the man must have had a reason to put his history with the military, and his son in law Darcy had assured him that Lawrence was definitely of that ilk. Mr Bennet had come to trust his son in law's opinions and judge of character much of late; although Darcy always tried to insist that Mr Bennet's opinions were often more sound than his own. Mr Bennet however, had become convinced that they had a cynical edge to them and recently he tended to seek Bingley and Darcy's opinions about someone before making a final judgement. The son in laws of course, always returned the favour.

So, it was with the surest trust that Mr Bennet placed in Darcy's opinion that Lawrence had had, at some point in his life, military training. As a man who once had a Colonel for a cousin, his authority could not be doubted. Thus, while Mr Bennet knew that Lawrence had lied about the Oxfordshire, he had not lied about the army roots.

Naturally, this conclusion, brought to Mr Bennet some discomfort. If Lawrence had to lie about that, who knew what else he had lied about. It also brought up the question of why. Why would a man lie about something like that? What reasons could he possibly have? It was these questions which Mr Bennet had been troubling himself over the past few day since he had received Lizzy's news and the longer he dwelt upon them, the more he dreaded to confront the man. Despite all his distrust Mr Bennet had come to like the gentleman who was pretending to be his son, so much so that sometimes he had to remind himself that Lawrence was indeed pretending.

The Netherfield occupants meanwhile greeted the invitation with slight discomfort, the expectation of being sociable for an entire evening in the company of Sir William Lucas, was more often than not a prospect to be endured rather than enjoyed.

The Devereauxs felt themselves unable to escape the invite; there was nothing that could possibly send them to town by chance on the same day that would delay their attendance, nor was there anything wrong with the other estates that they held. How much they wished right now to be at those estates, either would do, the Richmond one and the one in Norfolk being so very far from Netherfield as to prevent them attending an evening at Lucas Lodge.

The Darcys were also greeting the invitation with mixed feelings. Elizabeth was worried about the children as they rarely left them alone. Imogen in particular was far too young to go anywhere and would it not be better if they stayed with her? As much as Elizabeth and Darcy desired to do this they found they could not refuse Sir William, even if it meant leaving Imogen with the Devereaux nursery maid all evening.

Fitzwilliam was of the same opinion, although his thoughts mingled with memories of previous evenings there, most of all the one which had occurred before his character change. It had been an evening which at first he had looked on with joy, as it had been the first occasion he realised his attraction for Elizabeth. Recently though these feelings had turned to regret at the conduct of himself that evening and many events after it.

Despite trying to learn Elizabeth's philosophy- think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure- Darcy often found himself reflecting a lot upon the past mistakes of his life, which had impeded his courtship of Elizabeth. Their constant reminder did have one benefit for the good, it helped him to refrain from making the mistakes again, yet they did have a habit of depressing his often jovial nature, as they were doing so now. It drove Darcy to seek a respite and just as he was about to do so, in it came; in the form of his wife and youngest child.

Elizabeth had had the suspicion that her husband would indeed be thinking such thoughts when she received news of their impending engagements. It had been her first mission to find him, before she informed the Bingleys, who memories of that evening eight years ago would prove to be more pleasurable. Now, as she came to seat herself by him, she instantly began to try and cure her husband of his reproachful tendency.

"My dear," she began, "I beg you to refrain from remembering a certain evening at Lucas Lodge which has less happy memories for yourself."

Darcy looked at his wife in awe. She always seemed to know what he was thinking. "I do try, my love, but it is difficult to do so."

"Have not eight years been enough to fade them?"

"Eight years have certainly decreased them, Elizabeth, but some are still vivid. However," he added, as he placed a hand on her cheek, caressing her softly, "there is but one aspect of that evening which I can never forget."

Elizabeth tried to answer in the same light tone, none withstanding the feeling that his touch had produced and mindful that Imogen was in her arms. "What aspect was that, pray?"

"It was the evening when I confessed to myself and to someone else that my thoughts had become occupied with the meditation upon the pleasure that a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow."

The inference was unmistakable. Elizabeth blushed. "Who did you say this to?"

Darcy's features had a wicked tint to them. "Caroline."

Elizabeth smiled, then, at the same time as her husband, burst into peals of laughter.
Chapter XXIII.

Lucas Lodge, 2nd September 1820.

It was with mixed reactions that Lawrence Bennet met the neighbourhood of Meryton, that night at Lucas Lodge. He had been introduced as Mr Bennet's long lost son, a title for which he was grateful to have acknowledged at last.

The delay in its announcement had left him feeling unsettled, even now he still felt a little uneasy in the role. Of course he had anticipated a little reluctance, suspicion even, from the family as well as the village, but he had not desired this much delay in his acceptance. However, his adjustment to this delay had not taken too long; his mind putting his surprise down to spending too many years on the continent.

Now, as Lawrence looked around the room, his trained eyes taking in every person that was there, he saw that the delay had not done anything to alter the nature of his plans. His quest, judging by the lack of other newcomers in this social evening, was yet to begin. Lawrence sighed and took another sip of his wine. He rather wished something had occurred, he would like to have this finished quickly, before he grew an attachment.

Elizabeth watched her new brother taking in the occupants of the room and smiled to herself. His manner was almost a copy of their father's. If indeed they had the same father........ no, this was ridiculous. Why did she have to keep reminding herself of that? She turned back to the fascinating- and it must be noted that Elizabeth used that term in the most sarcastic sense -conversation which Sir William Lucas was holding.

"Capital, capital. Do you not agree, Mr Darcy?"

Darcy tried to restrain the first comment that came into his head. "Quite," he replied, desperately wondering why he would ever think that this evening would resemble any of the others that he had been to. Sir William was always slightly more........., no, Lizzy must forgive him for saying this, but there was only one word to describe him; annoying. He felt a hand brush his arm and he turned to see his wife standing next to him, her eyes sparkling. She knew what he was thinking, for she was of the same mind. The evening would be over soon. At least he hoped it would.

Surprisingly, the evening had gone remarkably well so far for all those intended. The hosts had not been too annoying, and the introduction of Lawrence Bennet had passed without too much notice been taken. In fact it must be said that most welcomed him like someone would welcome an old friend. Lawrence Bennet had been accepted quickly and warmly.

Of course, the gentleman had many assets with which to assure such a reception. He was a pleasant, well-mannered, young, with a pleasing countenance and a handsome mien. He was to inherit Longbourn, saving Meryton from the future presence of Mr Collins, -for which they were all eternally grateful for- and best of all, he was single. He was to the entire population of Meryton, most pleasingly available in every respect and they could not wait for the next assembly in order to show him their unmarried daughters.

The other acquaintance that had took Meryton by surprise was Mrs Wickham, or Miss Lydia Bennet as she preferred to be called. They had least expected her to arrive, especially widowed and with, -it was rumoured- eight children. They had not seen her since she had returned from London with that dreadful Mr Wickham, whom they now all detested, even if he had stayed loyal to the poor girl.

Indeed they felt quite sorry for Lydia. To have been married to such a man and in such a situation! With an increasing number of children as well! It must have been quite dreadful. They had all determined to offer their most heartfelt wishes and condolences to Lydia, as soon and as frequently as they could.

Lydia herself was at this moment wishing herself far away from Lucas Lodge. Anywhere would do, as long as it was as far from here as it possibly could be. She was not enjoying the evening. From the minute she had arrived, she had had not one instance of peace.

Everyone wanted to offer their condolences and their judgement on the situation. No doubt they wished for gossip........ a gossip which she used to indulge in herself. How she wished she could go back and change her behaviour then! It was her fault and her fault alone. Her character had been beyond correction, beyond alteration. She had been left to learn that herself through Wickham's......... treatment.

Lydia inwardly shuddered as she thought of the man- for gentle he was never -who had been her only companion for eight years. There had been rare glimpses of kindness in the early years, followed by a desire and need to avoid him as much as possible in the months that followed. He had tired quickly of her, if indeed he had ever wanted her in the first place.

Lydia was now quite sure that he had only seen her as something to take along for the ride. A bit of comfort, while he escaped from his debts. His debts........ the ones which both times Mr Darcy had taken care of, was still taking care of. She felt so guilty and so incapable of the gratitude that she wanted to bestow on him. He was too good a man.

She wondered how long he had been in love with her sister. Had he loved Elizabeth that night she had caught him gazing up at the window of their lodgings? Was that why he had come to find them? Why he had succeeded where her uncle and father had failed? It was exactly the sort of romance she had craved for herself all those years ago.

Eight years, nearly nine. It seemed like an eternity. She thought she would achieve that love with Wickham, but no, she never did. Even when it was the happy years, there had always been something missing. Lydia now knew what that was. She had never loved Wickham. He was a fancy, not a feeling. She may have thought she loved him, but at sixteen she had no idea of what love could truly be like. All she had then was a misguided idealisation taken from any novel she could have laid her hands on, aided by the romantic notion of elopement.

She had yet to fall in love. It was something Lydia now realised that she could not do without. The loneliness which lay deep down inside her, which had been there since the beginning of her marriage and before, was one that not even the children could heal. It was eating away at her, not with a great deal of speed, which might have been easier, but slowly, gradually, day by day, she felt a piece of herself being destroyed. It was tortuous, terrifying, and right now it seemed impossible to rectify.

At first it had hidden itself from her, or perhaps she had been deceived by her imagination into not noticing it until her life had become unbearable. She had developed a method to avoid trying to dwell on it for too long in the day. She had to survive for the children's sake, and, when it came down to it, her own as well.

If she was to ever have any idea of what love could be like, she had to survive each day with the loneliness inside her, eating away at her, until there was no need for her to be in the world any longer. She would care for the children, tailor to their every need, give them every bit of love she held for them, until they were beyond the need for a mother's love, whereupon her life would be over. It was an alarming prospect, but at the moment, it was all Lydia could foresee.

For Mr Bennet the evening at Lucas Lodge had begun with a hope and ended with a prayer. The hope was that Lawrence would make some mistake, would know too much of one person, thereby proving that he could not possibly be his son. All evening he had been looking for a sign, however small, however seemingly insignificant, that might enable him to label Lawrence Alexander Bennet an impostor.

Yet there had been none. Mr Bennet had trained so much on this hope that he had begun to wonder if the fact that there had been no sign was indeed a sign. Certain he was that Lawrence was not, nor never could be, his son, he was now beginning to become impatient of waiting for the evidence to prove so. Indeed he had begun to worry if they ever would find any evidence. True, he had lied about his past, his military background, but that was circumstantial. It did not prove either way. It required something more, and that something was slow in its coming.

Mr Bennet could not explain why he trusted the thought in his mind that told him that Lawrence was not his son, when every instance disproved it. He just felt so certain in it, that with every increasing sign of resemblance, he put more faith in it.

Chapter Text

Chapter XXIV.

Longbourn, 4th September 1820.

Now that the visit to Lucas Lodge was over, Mr Bennet felt that a visit to his sister in law, Mrs Phillips, could no longer be avoided, despite having seen the woman two nights ago. If he delayed it any further, his darling wife would begin to pester him.

One might conclude from this last remark that Mr Bennet was in a foul mood. Well, he was, but not due the prospect of an evening at the Phillips. He had simply slept badly and woken far too early for comfort. Now, as he remained seated at the breakfast table, waiting for his wife, daughters, son and son in laws and children- those of Mary and Kitty that is, the house only having room enough for them- to arrive, his mind was trying to make him not look upon the outlook of the evening without a deepening of his foul mood. He had no one but himself to rebuke, for the visit had to be paid.

At this resolve of thought Mr Bennet detected a slight rustle of noise and glanced up to see his 'son' -or Lawrence as he really should call him in his thoughts now, for the sake of continuing his plans- entering the breakfast room. "Good morning, Lawrence," he tried to begin cheerfully.

Lawrence replied with what can only be determined as a distracted one.

Mr Bennet smiled. "I gather you did not sleep well last night either."

"I slept well, thank you, its just, despite my years serving the country, I still cannot seem to find the energy to appear agreeable some mornings," Lawrence explained as he sat down to a cup of coffee which he greeted with a relieved smile.

"Well, that's certainly not a character trait you've inherited from me," Mr Bennet mused, with a careful eye to see the gentleman's reaction to the comment. Indeed, if Lawrence did react to the comment, he could not detect it.

Whatever Lawrence was to return with it was cut off, by the arrival of the Guests and the Smythes and Mrs Bennet. Her husband carefully put down his glass as he prepared to control his emotions for the daily repentance of Rev. Smythe's so-called 'grace'. The words were so like Mr Collins that Mr Bennet often had to restrain himself from laughing. He had never been a religious man and, thankfully, only one of his daughters had decided to marry one.

"Thank you, dear lord, for what we are about to receive. May we be truly thankful. And, which perhaps I should have said first, bless my dear patron, Mr Longworthy."

Mr Bennet inwardly sighed with relief as the prayer finished quickly. This was why he escaped to Netherfield whenever he could. Smythe was far too much like Collins for comfort. He sometimes wondered if this resemblance was why Mary had married him. He had detected her......... fascination for Collins when he had visited and Mr Bennet had been disappointed to see Charlotte Lucas agree to him. But, rather her than Lizzy. He looked down to see his wife gazing back hopefully. He sighed and began. "I have it in mind, Mrs Bennet, that we should visit the Phillipses this evening. Would that be agreeable?"

"Mr Bennet, how can you be so tiresome?! Of course it would be wonderful to see dear Mrs Phillips after so long. I daresay Mrs Darcy and Mrs Bingley would be glad to see her as well."

I daresay they would not. "M'dear, I do wish you would refrain from referring to your two eldest by their married names. They are still Lizzy and Jane. And I was to visit them this morning to invite them." Which he had to, despite his reluctance. If he did not, he would never hear the last of it.

Lawrence accepted the prospect with his usual calmness. His army background tended to conceal any emotion of a private nature, Mr Bennet had observed.

"Sir, would you mind greatly if I accompanied you to Netherfield?" That gentleman asked at that moment.

"Mind? Not, at all, Lawrence. I'm sure they would be happy to see you."

"You know Mr Bennet, I think I shall go with you as well," Mrs Bennet remarked.

Dear god, no. "My dear, you will see them tonight," Mr Bennet quickly replied. "There can be no occasion for you to see them today."

"Yes perhaps you are right. I will spend today with you, my dears," Mrs Bennet decided with a look to each of her daughters, who were trying to control their reactions to this revelation. Mr Bennet meanwhile breathed a sigh of relief.


Lawrence and Mr Bennet departed Longbourn by horse to arrive at Netherfield just before the hour struck for nuncheon. They found the owners to be at home, the Bingleys, Blakeneys and Lydia's clan likewise, but the Darcys were out on their daily walk, and would not be back for another hour.

While Mr Bennet spent his time with the Bingleys and Blakeneys, Lawrence went outside to seek Lydia and her children. Ever since the day she had confided in him he had felt a connection to her more than anyone else. Only being able to imagine- if he wished to do so- what she must have endured, his heart went out to her, along with a desire, a wish, to help restore her faith in the kindness of the world.

So far she had been the only Bennet whom Lawrence felt did not regard him with an underlying suspicion of his character and motives. Like him, Lydia was something of an outsider, desperately trying to fit in. As he admitted this revelation to himself, his mind began to question his motives, along the wonderment of whether either of them would eventually find their place in the world.

As soon as Lawrence had begun to ponder this question the person in question appeared in front of him, as he turned the corner of the path that bordered the house into the formal gardens at the back. She was seated on a rug with her youngest while the rest amused themselves in the Devereaux's box trees.

"Good morrow, Lydia," he greeted her with.

"Lawrence! What brings you to Netherfield?" Lydia asked, as she gestured with her hand from him to seat himself on the rug.

"Well, father brought me along," Lawrence began, the word father in connection with Mr Bennet coming for the first time from his lips. Even to him it sounded strange. Perhaps I should not be doing this. "While he came to invite our family to the Phillipses."

"Oh no, not another outing?" Lydia questioned rhetorically in despair. "Last night's event was bad enough," she muttered.

"I must confess when I looked at you that evening, you did not seem to be at ease."

"You surmised correctly, I was not." Lydia sighed and looked up from Louise to Lawrence. "I began last night to come to a conclusion on many things."

"Such as?" Lawrence inquired. Receiving hesitation, he added, "I apologise, I have no desire to force a confidence from you."

"No apology is necessary," Lydia assured him. "I rather wish to talk to someone. I have been used to relying on my own judgement far too much recently." She paused and then softly began. "Is love a fancy or a feeling? I have had that line wondering through my thoughts ever since I came to the realisation that I never loved Wickham. I just fancied I did. I was so much caught up in the idea of being in love, that I neglected to realise what my sisters had the caution to. That was to learn to value a man's character before excepting his love. I only saw the excitement, the romance of an elopement. Wickham however, saw me only as a bit of fun I believe." Lydia brushed away Lawrence's attempt to object. "I still remember the night when I saw Mr Darcy staring up at our window at Mrs Younge's. Wickham's reaction revealed all then, only I was too blind to see it until now."

"I hate to interrupt, but I must confess that I have yet to learn the full details of the courtship of you and Wickham," Lawrence interred with a puzzled look in his eyes. Lydia obligingly explained the whole of the history, up until the night that they were discovered.

"Part of me wishes that I had let Mr Darcy talk me out of marrying Wickham that night," Lydia continued. "I love my children dearly, but the fact that Wickham is their father, keeps me reminded of the many mistakes I made when I was sixteen. I think that is my main regret. That I never got to learn what love really was, or what it felt like to be in love. And now," she added with a sigh of resignation, "I never will."

"What makes you say that?" Lawrence asked. "Lydia, you are still very young. You have years ahead of you to find someone."

"I may be only four and twenty, but with eight children. That is too much baggage for any man," Lydia replied calmly.

"I'm sure you're wrong," Lawrence remarked determinedly. "In fact," he added, with a hint of a wicked smile, "I guarantee you that within one year you will be eating those words you confess to me just now."


"What about yellow?"

"Yellow?" Elizabeth looked at her husband in puzzlement. "Fitzwilliam, what on earth are you talking about?"

"Yes, yellow would do perfectly," Darcy concluded before attuning to the fact that his wife had asked him a question a few seconds ago. "I apologise, my love. I was thinking what colour you would look nice in for your portrait."

"My portrait is what you dragged me out of the house for this morning?"

"I thought you enjoyed morning walks with me?"

"I do, just I hate to leave Imogen alone."

"So do I, my darling," Darcy returned, putting an arm around her. "However, you and I have been married for eight years now and a likeness of you has yet to be added to the family gallery. So, would yellow be agreeable to you?"

"I thought it was your reluctance to let an artist gaze at me that was the reason for the delay?"

"That and the suspicion that no one would be of the skill to do your fine eyes justice," Darcy remarked good-humouredly. "However, I have recently learnt of someone who might be able to cater for my high standards."

"Who?" Elizabeth questioned eagerly as her husband bestowed a kiss upon the hand that was enclosed in one of his own.

"I do not think I shall tell you," Darcy concluded.

Elizabeth stopped walking. She separated from his hands and stood in front of her husband, with demanding eyes.

Darcy simply smiled, stepped a pace closer, and kissed her lips. After a split second of hesitancy, Elizabeth surrendered, all thoughts of the painting disappearing under the power of her much loved husband's kiss.


The figure stopped watching the two young lovers who had occupied his attention for the last ten minutes or so. It was time for him to move, to find his way into town. He had no time for distractions or idle fancies. He had a mission to complete. Time was running out. Indeed, he might already be too late. With a sudden burst of adrenaline he rapidly mounted his steed. It was not the moment for thinking like that. Optimism had to be his driving force, if he was to survive the next few days. One second of pessimism might change everything, preventing him from success.

He held his steed's rein ready to motion it into action before deciding against it. He did not know when he would next encounter a village that could offer him accommodation, and the evening was rapidly approaching. If possible, he should forget the night's sleep completely, for the coast was now so near.

Yet, even in the light of his mission, he was considerate of his horse and the fact that he had not rested since leaving London some days ago. Both him and the steed needed a rest before he continued. After all, his information might be wrong. And yet........ the source he had obtained it from had never given him a reason to doubt before. The nature of the news he had to convey however, seemed rather fantastical at first sight.

Normally, such a feeling like this would convince him not risk his situation here to travel in person. But the news had that certain allure to it, a certain suspicious bouquet if you will. Added to this was something else that he could no longer deny. He had established it for certain a day ago and it had assured him his information was no longer to be taken lightly. He was being followed. By how many he was not sure, but they had been travelling behind him for awhile now, and their skill at it had shown them to mean business, whoever they were.

Now he commanded the horse to move and in a gentle canter it began to take him to the village, where he hoped to find some peace for awhile. His followers would be content to wait for awhile, as, sooner or later, they would have to report to a superior. If he could confront them then......... no, that was impossible. He had no idea how many there were and who their superior would be. If they meant to kill him, they could have done it the first night that they had followed him. The darkness would have hidden them, and no one would have noticed the body until morning. No, they wanted him alive.

For some reason, that realisation bothered him far more than the alternative.


Chapter XXV.

Somewhere on the outskirts of Meryton, 6th September 1820.

Lawrence got up from his crouching position and practically ran back to the path which led him to Longbourn. Once there he dusted himself off and began to walk with a more sedate pace, however much his mind was in contradiction to this change. What he had just seen could not be denied. Things were about to get complicated.

He reached Longbourn without any degree of mishap, trying desperately to look like he had just been out for an ordinary walk, praying that no one of his acquaintance had his sudden change of direction from the path to the undergrowth.

If anyone had noticed Lawrence's rather unusual behaviour, they kept their own counsel, for the majority of Longbourn was too much involved with trying to avoid Mrs Bennet's requests to go into town.

One would think that a woman like Mrs Bennet, with all her girls happily married- barring Lydia, but she was still in mourning, as far as her mother was concerned- would stop searching for handsome young men about town. Well, you would be wrong, for since the evening at the Phillipses, Mrs Bennet had been unable to stop talking about the newest addition to the neighbourhood; a Mr Alastair Jeremone. True, he was only staying a few days, but the opportunity was not to be missed. Make his acquaintance she must, find out more about him, she had to. After all, he might have a sister suitable for Lawrence........

Mr Jeremone had the features to look to be a man who was a good four years on the wrong side of thirty, blond hair and grey-blue eyes. He had not spoken much to anyone on the night at the Phillipses, indeed how he had got an invite to that occasion was at present beyond anyone's reckoning. Yet he seemed to be a pleasant, well-mannered gentleman, so much so that the whole of Meryton had decided to try and delay his departure for as long as they could. And by all means necessary.

The evening at the Phillipses had gone remarkably well for all concerned. Their hosts had been all that was affable, the gossip about Lawrence having been already obtained from the Lucas visit. The family had stayed not too long, as most had young children to attend to and the hosts had let them go without an ounce of struggle. The evening had not been one that served memorable motion, but it had served well enough to drop all of Mrs Bennet's hints about the neglect of relatives.

However, only that good lady herself was reflecting on the evening. The others wished to forget it and concentrate on something more worthwhile. And indeed, that was exactly what Mr Bennet was now waiting to do.

He had decided last night, to introduce a new ploy to flushing Lawrence out. This ploy was now about to be attended to, as he caught sight of the latter walking past his study. "Lawrence my son, come in here a moment will you?"

Lawrence obeyed, closing the door and seating himself in front of his father's desk, upon which they lay a number of papers, all covered with writing.

"I have decided that since I have officially announced you now as my son," Mr Bennet began, with a keen eye to Lawrence's reaction, "to recognise you as the eventual heir to all of my estate. There are a few contracts needed to be drawn up, documents to sign and such forth, but I am of the opinion that they must be done soon before events interfere. Would you care to begin?"

As Mr Bennet finished his speech, he was rewarded by the silence which existed for a short awhile after it. Lawrence had indeed reacted to the ploy that was being played, for Mr Bennet had no desire whatsoever to attend to this business at yet. He was looking at his 'father' with nothing short of surprise, shock even. Clearly, he had not expected this to arise so soon.

To say that Mr Bennet was correct would not be an understatement. Lawrence was indeed shocked and surprised at the sudden rapidity of events. Until now he had thought Mr Bennet to be still unsure of him, therefore unwilling to change such documents as the Will, labelling him as heir incumbent of all of Longbourn. So, influenced by the events of this morning as well, it was with this that he replied to Mr Bennet's request. "Sir, although I do agree that the contracts must be drawn up at some point, I beg leave for a delay for that event. This all still very unsettling for me," he concluded rather lamely.

Mr Bennet accepted the answer well enough. "Very well, I suppose a delay is fine. I have no desire to hurry you, Lawrence. Now, what set you out of here so early in the morning?"

Lawrence rapidly tried to come up with a reply that would satisfy Mr Bennet's curiosity. He had hoped that no one had noticed his dawn departure to do some........ reconnoitering. Mr Bennet however soon saved him the trouble. "Do not worry my lad, I know how you feel. Mrs Bennet's chatter this morning was enough to convince everyone to go out on a walk."

As Mr Bennet watch the gentleman eagerly nod to his response and part from the room, he could not refrain from smiling inwardly at the partial success he had just achieved. Now, clearly there was some encouragement for his mistrust. Lawrence had hesitated and delayed the matters of law, and had, to Mr Bennet's mind, lied about his reason for quitting the house this morning. For what and why he had no idea as yet. The important thing was that at last he had something with which to remind himself of when instances tried to convince him to contrary. The objective part of himself would of course try to argue in Lawrence's favour, as his excuse was perfectly reasonable. It did not disagree with any of the impressions that he had received so far, nor did it seem out of character.

Yet Mr Bennet could not help but believe in his initial judgement of the situation and the conclusions he had just obtained. Lawrence was not his son, he was still sure of that hunch, and until he had something more tangible than the mere fact of their apparent resemblance, Mr Bennet was not to be persuaded from this conclusion.


Chapter XXVI.

Longbourn, 7th September 1820.

 

Longbourn
7th September.

My dear brother,

Since our last meeting, matters regarding the inheritance of Longbourn have changed considerably. Until now I had hoped to delay in my relating the matter to you, but if I continue to do so, Mrs Bennet will decide to pick up her pen. I sure you would appreciate my more sensible version of the past days than hers.

When I returned to Longbourn some days ago I was greeted by............

As one may have gathered from the opening of the letter above, Mr Bennet had determined to seek help from more quarters. His night of wakefulness over the conclusions that only last afternoon he had been so sure of, had left him impatient for something else to strengthen his resolve. Mr Bennet you see was now quite determined in his opinion that Lawrence was not his son, however, the deception had yet show itself, except in circumstantial evidence. Something had to be done, to prove it one way or the other.

Mr Bennet however, could think of nothing that had not already been tried. He appealed to Mr Gardiner therefore, as soon as the dawn broke, giving him a release from his hot bedchamber. The weather had been increasingly fine lately, and even though it was Autumn, it not seem to contain any sign of lessening. Although this had given the opportunity for many agreeable long walks, it had not helped Mr Bennet to find any escape from his present difficulties at night.

But to resume, on regarding Mr Bennet's reasons for writing to his brother in law. Notwithstanding those already mentioned, he also felt that a fresh perspective on the situation was needed. It had to come from someone he could trust absolutely to tell him honestly their opinion on the subject and whether they agreed with his conclusions. Naturally it could not be a friend of his, for Mr Bennet had very few people whom he regarded as proper friends outside of his relatives.

Mr Gardiner therefore, fitted the bill. He was sensible, capable of being objective, and he was only to learn of the events from the letter that Mr Bennet was to send today. He, along with his wife would provide Mr Bennet with two entirely different yet sound, fresh perspectives on his concerns and would no doubt be able to verify for certain if Lawrence had been in town, for the Gardiners were sociable people, always attending the theatre and St James Court whenever the opportunity afforded them.

Mrs Gardiner in particular had a memory which thrived on faces, and could be easily relied upon to recognise Lawrence if she had seen him before. Mr Gardiner's business in trade, also provided a useful source of information for it could be relied upon to produce a variety of customers, from various circles of society, popular as it was. He also knew that the Gardiners would be anxious to see their favourite nieces, Lizzy and Jane, whom they had always remained on the best of terms with. They had not seem them since March to Mr Bennet's knowledge, and he knew that they would welcome a visit on both sides to exchange news, views and ideas.

Retelling the story from the beginning via the use of pen and paper also gave Mr Bennet a chance to review the facts. To reflect on his impressions and to try and determine if any more resolves, actions, or conclusions could be gathered from the previous events that he held in his memory. It gave him a fresh perspective in itself, by simply allowing Mr Bennet to write only the facts, uninfluenced by any of his, or others opinions.

Although he disliked letter writing in general- which was why he always delayed correspondence with anyone but Elizabeth -Mr Bennet found it to be on this occasion a pleasant and somewhat relieving experience. Consumed as he had been the past few days with many conflicting thoughts, it was good to get some of them out into the open, giving his mind a break and a chance to dwell on the other ones with more than just a passing glimpse.

It was thus with the feeling of relief that passed through Mr Bennet's mind as he laid down his pen after detailing the last part of the direction to the front of the now folded and sealed letter. His story had been set down to his brother in law, and whatever he chose to conclude from it was out of his hands.


The gentleman who readers will previously have witnessed as a rider on the outskirts of Meryton and as a observer of a recent romantic scene between the Darcys, was at present trying to enjoy a drink at the local Inn at that same village. His mind was much distracted, as he had not expected to stay in Meryton for long. However, the possibility of a fresh horse had been declared absolutely impossible for some days hence, requiring him to spend more than one night in the sparse lodgings that "The Cunning Fish" -the somewhat unusual name of this aforementioned Inn- offered than he had previously expected, or indeed planned.

The fact that Meryton had turned out in his opinion to be only living up to the name of village rather than town had also proved a hiccup to his plans. For it had meant his general arrival becoming widely known within minutes of his presenting himself at the Inn. The village had also proved to contain the usual inquisitive characters that every village had without fail- although Meryton in his opinion had double the usual amount- which meant his receiving an invitation to the evening soiree and without a method to refuse it either.

In the long run though a entire night spent at being sociable had turned up some rather interesting news. The first that the persons of that party had no idea that something quite dreadful was occurring right under their noses. Secondly, no one had even detected his quite untrustworthy nature, seeming to take his good looks and name purely as a simple acquaintance. Well, not quite simple. Naturally, as he had arrived alone, the conclusion that he was single had been drawn and as a result he had been obliged to suffer many an inquiry from matchmaking mothers or companions and the constant introductions or references to their single daughters. Age it seemed had not been a consideration on both sides. He had taken it in quite good humour of course, indeed he would have created even more discussion about himself if he had done otherwise and it was not in his nature to desire this. Nor did his mission command him to do so.

Thirdly he had concluded that his 'shadows' superior was somewhere within the vicinity of this village, for he had not been followed or observed for some time now. Not since his arrival in fact. However a hopeful conclusion this was though, he had learnt not to trust it for the observance of his actions had immediately resumed on the conclusion of the nuncheon hour. Either he was right and his followers had gone to consult their chief, or he was wrong and they had simply chosen not to make themselves obvious to his ever increasing watchful nature.

Nevertheless whatever had happened to his shadows the afternoon and night before this meditation over a drink at The Cunning Fish, he now resolved to pay it no mind, for to concentrate on it at all would surely cause an error in judgement. No matter how small, this error had to be avoided for no doubt some day it would prove significant. For now he would continue to focus on his future travel plans which had been put on hold indefinitely, until matters enabled him to procure his horse back to full fitness.

Little was he to realise now that this delay would prove costly. And fatal.


Chapter XXVII.

Netherfield, 8th September 1820.

The one acquaintance that Georgiana had yet to make concerning her relatives, even though her brother had been married to Elizabeth for so long, was that of Lydia Wickham, now Bennet amongst family by personal request. Of course, the main reason that had posed the barrier was related to that young woman's former name and the links and references that that name brought to Georgiana's mind.

To suppose that Georgiana was still unsettled by Wickham and any reference to him after all these years, was to be in error however, for she had already begun to recover under watching her brother's actions at Pemberley in 1812, in the eventual hope that she would soon have a sister to confide in wholeheartedly. She may have had and indeed still had a wonderful brother in Fitzwilliam Darcy, but the bond between sisters was always much closer than the bond between brother and sister (at least, the author supposes this to be the case, for she has not Georgiana's benefit, being an only child herself).

When she did finally receive a sister Georgiana was even further encouraged to fulfil her plans of confiding, particularly when Elizabeth took the plunge one day by admitting to her an acquaintance, connection and deception at the hands of the same man that her new sister in law still regarded with fear.

It came as an absolute relief to Georgiana to know that she was not the only one to be deceived by Wickham's apparent gentle-manlike manner, and the effect it produced to her character was of such a rapid nature, that even her brother was surprised at the change his wife had encouraged in his sister. Even the fact that Wickham was now a brother in law by her brother's own actions had not been the slightest cause of concern to her.

It was because of this change and the outcomes that had resulted from it, that Georgiana resolved on seeking out Lydia's friendship as soon as an opportunity presented itself. Not only did she believe that both parties would benefit from such an acquaintance, but she also believed that such a meeting should have been performed long ago. The reasons for its prevention Georgiana was not unaware of, indeed she perfectly understood why her brother and sister were so anxious that such an acquaintance should be avoided, for fear of what effect might result from it. In fact she could not deny to herself that such a meeting, particularly while she had still been unmarried, would not have left her feeling entirely unaffected.

All this changed however when she met Michael Blakeney, three years to the day. She had not expected to meet with anyone whom would fill all her ideals of perfection, modified as it had been due to her summer in Ramsgate. Nor had she expected to find such a man so close to her own home. The Blakeney family had previously been closely acquainted with the Darcys, in particular the late Mr Darcy and Lady Anne, but due to their sense of duty, had been abroad quite frequently for some years. As a result, Michael Blakeney, heir to one of the richest estates in the kingdom, had spent most of his life in Europe and very few friends close to his own age.

When the Blakeneys returned to their estate in the North, it had been some years since they had heard from the Darcys. They naturally inquired after them as a result, not expecting to find only the children alive. Nevertheless pay their respects they did and it was then that Georgiana and Michael had the rare pleasure which few couples have of meeting and falling in love with each at first sight.

Such a romance started on so secure a footing rapidly progressed into both parties declaring themselves wholeheartedly devoted to the other within a matter of months. The little distance that parted them as a result of the boundaries of the estates- some twenty miles -was of no hindrance whatsoever, leaving everything between them to be sorted so quickly, that Darcy was taken quite unawares when only two months later he received Michael Blakeney's petition for the hand of his sister.

Since then Georgiana had enjoyed the privilege of a very loving and devoted marriage, one which she was sure of as being as blissful as her brother's. It was because of this marriage that Georgiana had resolved on forming a friendship with the sister that was so near her own age. For it proved that if one woman could escape Wickham's deception to recover and find a love of more equal footing, then so could another. Mrs Blakeney not only wished to put this wish in Lydia's mind, she also desired to encourage her, so that her recovery might be hastened.

Thus on the afternoon of this anniversary Georgiana took her children to meet her youngest sister in law and their cousins. Annette and Matthew Blakeney were the same age as the other set of twins in the Darcy family, Alexander and Alexandra, who were at moment spending their time with their parents, who could rarely be prepared to be parted from any of their children. The day had originally been quite fine out, but the afternoon had brought some rain, leaving Lydia and her restless children in the summer parlour, watching the droplets slide down the window panes.

Lydia herself was glad of some interruption, for her thoughts had once again been concerned with her hopeless future, firstly as a means of strengthening her resolve to care for her children, only to end up reducing her in further depression. However, she was surprised when she saw only Mrs Blakeney and two children come inside the room.

"Mrs Blakeney," Lydia began on her entrance, with a considerable effort to try to sound happier than she felt, "how agreeable to see you."

"Georgiana please, Lydia. We are sisters after all and I see no need to be this formal," Georgiana replied kindly as Annette and Matthew looked around the room and at the other children with interest. Their mother smiled and bent down to their height, "my dears, why don't go and introduce yourselves to your cousins? I'm sure they would be most happy to have new playmates."

The twins, who already seemed to have that secret communication that twins usually display already set up, looked at each other, nodded, and then walked cautiously to the children that were over by the window. Their mother meanwhile, after a slight hesitation, seated herself on the sofa beside Lydia and began her mission in earnest. "I sought you out, because I felt it was time you and I became acquainted with each other. It has been long over due, so without any further delay I shall begin it." Smiling, Georgiana held out her hand. "Georgiana Blakeney."

Lydia, struck by the simple, frank introduction, smiled back and took Georgiana's hand in hers. "Lydia Bennet. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Georgiana."

The shaking of hands seemed to relieve the awkwardness of both parties and made them realise the humour in their situation. They laughed quietly, breaking the tension.

"I believe we are friends already," Georgiana remarked after the laughter had ceased.

"I understand you are fond of music," Lydia started, seeing the smile lit up Mrs Blakeney's face.

"I see my reputation is already known to you. Yes, I am very fond of music, although I have neglected it of late, due to the children. I do try however to practice at least one a week. Can you play?"

"I am afraid not, but I have often wished to of late. I never took the trouble to learn. My mind was always on other, less important things."

"Well, you could still learn. It is an easy thing to accomplish, providing the right teacher is found and the right amount of practice is regularly kept."

"Would you be able to teach me?" Lydia asked tentatively.

"It would give me great pleasure, although I daresay I am not that talented enough." Georgiana paused, and then inspiration came to her. "But I will accept, only if you let me give you what I honestly believe is some hope for the future." She paused once more. "I daresay my brother has made known to you my past history with Mr Wickham?"

Lydia nodded, knowing instinctively what was coming.

"It took me a long while after Ramsgate to even talk to William, and he was the closest to me. Even when I met Elizabeth I was still affected. One word however slight, would do it and I would be lost. I blamed myself beyond anyone else.

"I know you have probably heard this before, by countless of others who have no real idea what he can do. But let me assure you, with all the experience of I have of him, that there is hope. I managed to recover, even though it took a long time. I know you will as well. You may not think it now, you may have resolved only to live for your children, but trust me, Lydia, that is a half life and it will never fulfil you. I resolved only to live for my brother's sake and it did me no good at all. It took your sister to help me realise that my life was not over. And now I want you to try and realise it. I know it will be a long time before you can even grasp it, but you will recover. And I want to be there to help you."

All through this conversation Lydia had watched Georgiana carefully, her already reflex walls of self defence rising up in her emotions. But then the genuine honesty of the young woman who was only a year older than her, coupled with the earnest desire to help captured in her eyes, soon broke them down into nothing as she realised that she did indeed need help.

Georgiana was right. Her resolve to stay alive for her children had rapidly slid her into depression. She was so used to relying only on herself that she had forgotten what a relief it was to have someone offer their understanding and help. Slowly she looked up at her friend and murmured words of gratitude before sliding into a sisterly embrace.


Chapter XXVIII.

Netherfield Grounds, 9th September 1820.

"Do you realise Fitzwilliam, that we have had the information regarding Lawrence Bennet's mistake concerning his past for almost ten days, without mentioning a syllable of our proof to the gentleman himself?"

The Darcys were taking advantage of the brief hour that they would have to themselves before Imogen awoke, by enjoying a pleasure that Elizabeth had only acquired since her marriage; riding. Mrs Darcy had not been much of a horsewoman before her acquaintance with Fitzwilliam, due to her preference for walking.

For her husband however, riding had been much of a necessity primarily, a pleasure second, one that he had come to regard as such only later, when he came the master of it. He had taken a great deal delight as a result in teaching his wife to ride- both the ladylike and the 'unladylike' methods -during their period as newlyweds in the wilds of blissful isolation at Pemberley.

After a few mistakes, some amusing to both parties, some not, Elizabeth had become as proficient as her husband, although her fondness for the romantic side of riding ensconced in her husband's arms and the effects of what that proximity often led to, shortened the activity quite often.

"I am, my love. However, I was under the impression that we were to wait until your father had brought the subject to air."

"That impression is correct, but Papa seems to have a reluctance to bring it to air. Either that or he has come to other conclusions that has prevented the matter being an importance."

"Your father has been rather quiet on the subject of late. But the information that Richard has given us, needs more than its authority alone to justify us confronting Lawrence with it."

"That has been Papa's intention for delaying as he has. I am convinced though that he is beginning to question his hesitation. As far as Meryton is concerned, Lawrence Bennet is who he claims to be, courtesy of that evening at Lucas Lodge. The longer we delay in revealing our suspicion to try and dislodge him, or find out what it is exactly that he does not wish us to know, the harder it will be to convince everyone that we are justified in having our suspicions in the first place."

"You are perhaps thinking that this information from Richard might prompt Lawrence Bennet into revealing something more to make him err in our eyes?"

"I will not attempt to deny that the thought has crossed my mind, but I realise the impossibility of such an occurrence. However, it is so far the only information we have. I am hesitant of losing our advantage, but at the same time I am conscious of what a little advantage it is."

"I feel the same, my love. The mistake is such of a nature as to be easily misconstrued into something more damaging than it is."

"Exactly. If Lawrence is as cautious as he seems to be, this one piece of doubt that we have, might preclude him forever from trusting us, if he does truly turn out to be a Bennet."

Darcy nodded silently as he considered all of this and then remarked on something that had just occurred to him. "The party at Longbourn join us for dinner tonight, do they not?"

Elizabeth acknowledged that they did. "You think we should bring up the question this evening, then?"

"Providing your father does not object to it, I foresee little harm in doing so."

"We must air it with caution though I think," Elizabeth commented as the neared the completion of their ride, by coming to the ground which lay near the stables. "We can mention it in company, as it has the benefit of laying no significance on the inquiry, but we must not at the same time make it a general topic of the entire room."

"A sort of quiet tête-à-tête then, after or during dinner, between ourselves, Mr Bennet and Lawrence himself then?" Her husband suggested.


Accordingly, the plan just aired was set to Mr Bennet as soon as he arrived with his wife, 'son' and the daughters and grandchildren that were staying with him. It was broached most discreetly, after he had paid his respects to Lord Devereaux, in a chance moment that he and the Darcys happened to be alone in the entrance, having chosen to linger behind the others in order to convey their proposal. Mr Bennet had not forgotten the error that his son in law's cousin had alerted them to, and readily agreed to his children's plan of bringing it up during the evening.

The occasion itself was to be an informal one, leaving the children free to enjoy the company of their elders, and causing Mrs Bennet to be much occupied in spreading her comments of praise and affection for them liberally around for the entire evening. Thus, the one and only hiccup which had been anticipated, was done away with in the work of an instant, for Mrs Bennet's conversation was likely to engross all of the remaining guests there, including the hosts, allowing for the plan to go ahead without fear of any interruption, or a fuss being made of what was, after all, a seemingly innocent inquiry into the past.

No opportunity arose before dinner, for Mrs Bennet was insistent that her 'dear Mrs Darcy' acquaint her first with the activities of her children. Elizabeth and Darcy happily complied however, for it meant one lesser topic that must include their participation during dinner, leaving them they hoped free to address Lawrence Bennet. Despite this appearance of design, the conversation was glowing in praise and love of the young Darcys, whom were doted on by their parents and who did much to prove the justice of the praise by remaining on their best behaviour throughout the evening, not complaining a syllable when required to depart to their bedchambers.

In due course the party was soon summoned into dinner, just as Mrs Bennet moved on to talking of her eldest daughter's issues, and Lord Devereaux, who previously had only talked with Mr Bennet, found himself being drawn into the 'interesting'- and let it be noted that he uses that word in its loosest sense -topic of religion and its history by Rev. Smythe. All signs for approaching Lawrence with the question now, seemed positive.

Yet, they were to be impeded once more, by the seating arrangements, which had the unlucky foresight to place Mr Bennet the younger away from his father and the Darcys and near to Mr Devereaux, who being of an similar age to the former and having a desire to learn much of the gentleman's travels, for he had had none. Thus the topic was left unattended to.

When the gentleman separated for drinks in Lord Devereaux's study there was a further delay, brought on by a general reluctance in all bar two to rejoin the ladies, who would no doubt be still involved- whether by their own choice or no -in Mrs Bennet's inexhaustible conversation.

Fortunately there is a limit on how long the subjects of politics and sport can be discussed without neither one flagging and it was with considerable relief that Darcy noticed how much time they still had left before the Longbourn party had to leave.

Upon entering Darcy and his father in law both made their way immediately over to Elizabeth, who had already set things in hand by procuring Lawrence's company upon the moment of his entrance.

After seating themselves and with a seemingly general glance to both his wife and Mr Bennet, Darcy took a deep breath and, with all the skill of a master chess player, casually began to turn the topic of converse to the subject of the army. When the matter had established itself, he then brought up his checkmate.

"Do you," he remarked to Lawrence, "by any chance happened to be acquainted still with members of your old regiment?"

"I have tried to keep in touch with most of them that reside amongst my intimate acquaintance," Lawrence answered.

"Are you perhaps acquainted with my cousin, who like you started his career in the Oxfordshire before gaining a promotion. The once Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam?"


Chapter XXIX.

Netherfield, 9th September 1820.

"Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam?" Lawrence repeated. "Why yes of course. I am not closely acquainted with him, but I have heard of him by reputation. I had no idea he began in the same regiment as myself. Pray, how does he fare, now out of the army?"

Needless to say, his questioners had not expected to receive this as their answer. Mr Bennet was shocked into silence, although he had the sense to conceal it. Elizabeth was similarly surprised, while her husband tried to compensate for both of them by giving a concise description of the Colonel's life since the army. To his increasing surprise Lawrence responded with further inquires and inferences on the general aspects of both life outside and the military.

Thus Darcy found himself entering into a discussion that he had neither looked for or expected, with the task of trying to both conceal and compensate the lack of intervention from both his father in law and his wife, who had since retreated into their thoughts.

Mr Bennet, after getting over his initial surprise, began to see the logic of Lawrence's calm deflection by turning the conversation into an inquiry about Darcy's cousin. He should have known, the man was quite clearly not devoid of intellect. What puzzled him more was whether or not Lawrence had seen this question coming. If so, what his motive was for deflecting it, and why had he not tried to avoid it in the first place?

He must have done some research into his 'siblings' lives, surely, if he had planned so carefully so far on the accuracy of his personal past. Of course it was reasonable to suppose that his supposed past being connected with any of his family was unlikely in his mind and therefore he had chosen to forgo knowing too much, because it would fit his story more. On the other hand, this would put him at a distinct disadvantage, especially if, as now, a part of his supposed past joined with his family's.

It is pointless to state that his daughter's thoughts were not along the same vein. Elizabeth was very surprised, even though she had expected Lawrence would reply like this. She had also expected however that her dislike of him would arise due to this. Yet it did not. Elizabeth was most distressed with herself. This gentleman had, if their suspicions were to be trusted, deceived her entire family with his lies and was persisting in them no matter what.

By all these motives and more she should hate him irrevocably, but she could not. Despite all of this he had appeared to all of them a most amiable and charming young man. His unstinting kindness and support of her sister Lydia was another ally to this cause. Whenever Elizabeth tried to think of Lawrence as someone who was playing a deception on all of them, she could do naught but reproach herself, because of all that he had done for Lydia.

Since their acquaintance she had come out of her shelf. The walls that had previously barred her from any attempts by friends and family to help her, had been completely done away thanks to Lawrence.Lydia would never be the wild, happy sixteen year old she once was, but already she had a light in her eyes and, although prone to despondency on occasion, an attitude to life that none of her family had ever hoped to establish this soon.

No, I will not hate him yet, Elizabeth silently resolved in her head. Not until he does something more that just deflection of a conversation.

While his wife and father in law were sorting out all of these thoughts, Darcy you could well imagine was floundering considerably in his attempts to keep the present topic of conversation alive without assistance from either of his co-conspirators. Every opportunity that had arisen concerning Lawrence's past in the Oxfordshire he had tried to use, and had been thwarted in every single attempt. Finally, to his utmost relief, Elizabeth interjected with a question.

"How exactly did you hear of my cousin in law?"

"When Wellington gave him his promotion to Major I believe it was," Lawrence replied thoughtfully. "It was on the battlefield and I remember myself wondering at it, for it was a rare occurrence. But I believe you have the better authority of me on that subject."

"Richard rarely talks of his time in Spain in anything but humorous tones," Elizabeth cleverly responded with, for her husband well knew that she had been told of this event by Colonel Fitzwilliam the Christmas of 1818 when his wife had inferred about it. Their cousin had been reluctant to divulge circumstances in detail, but in the end surrendered to their persuasions. "He tends to be rather modest about his achievements."

"I think that's an ability that officers tend to learn," Lawrence replied with confidence, as Mr Edmund Bennet, as if by his daughter's voice, came out of his thoughts and began to take in the conversation, at which point the evening began to draw to a close.


Chapter XXX.

Longbourn, 10th September 1820.

Mr Bennet chuckled as his favourite daughter walked into his study, her youngest in her arms. For some time, he seemed not to notice her presence. Then, having seated herself, just as she was about to speak, he pre-empted her.

"Without fail he always makes me laugh."

"Who?" Elizabeth asked, puzzled extremely.

Mr Bennet held up a letter. "This, my dear girl, is the latest missive from our cousin Mr Collins, to whom the news of Lawrence has finally reached. I have been expecting this for some time."

"You called me over to hear Mr Collins' thoughts on Lawrence?"

"That, and to give you this," Mr Bennet drew another letter towards his daughter. "From his wife. She would have sent it to Pemberley, but for Mr Fitzwilliam informing her that you were here. That's according to her husband."

Elizabeth took the letter with eagerness, for it had been too long since Charlotte had written to her.

"Listen to this," Mr Bennet said presently, the first letter still in his hand. " "I was most pleased to hear of your recent good fortune, sir." Of course you were. "I had no idea that my late honoured father could be capable of such duplicity. I am quite sure that there lies a misunderstanding here, for, as my good patroness so eminently says, character is always inherited, and since I know of no such fault in myself, although one cannot always rely on one's own judgement to certify.""

Elizabeth joined her father in a laugh. "But how did he learn it is his father, Papa? Richard is the only one who knows the full details and I doubt if he has related the entire story to Lady Catherine, let alone Mr Collins."

"Oh, I wrote him a quick note, saying that I was most displeased to learn of his father's latest deception. The rest is merely a product of his overactive imagination. But he continues however with, "I am sure that the full truth will soon arise and when it does, there shall be no occasion for uneasiness concerning our relations. Lady Catherine joins me in this opinion, along with a caution that this gentleman may have ulterior motives in mind. I do not wish to lay suspicion upon my new cousin or indeed anyone else for that matter, but it does seem most surprising to me that this situation has arisen so very suddenly." You have dug yourself a deep hole there Mr Collins."

Mr Bennet folded the letter. "The rest is just plain grovelling. Now, Lizzy, I also called you over, because of what happened last night. I have come to a reluctant, but perhaps prudent decision. What ever his motives, Lawrence intends to keep his past from us. If this is because he is not my son, of which I still have no doubt, or if it is another reason altogether, I think we must wait for him to make the first move."

"Or until we have more definitive proof," Elizabeth remarked in answer.

"Exactly. In three days Mr and Mrs Gardiner arrive. Hopefully, they have something, else we will just have to wait."

Elizabeth took this as a signal to go and went to kiss her father on the cheek before she left. Mr Bennet kept her by him for a second longer. "Lizzy," he said softly. "I fear the mystery of Lawrence Bennet will take a long time to be revealed."

"So do I, papa."


Elizabeth returned to Netherfield with much on her mind, least of all Charlotte's letter. It had been a long time since Mrs Collins had sent a letter to her. Indeed, if she remembered correctly, it had not been since Elizabeth announced she was expecting Imogen. She now understood why and felt almost ashamed of writing that piece of news to her in first place.

Finding a quiet seat in the Library- which had been updated since Mr Bingley left the place -Elizabeth carefully lay Imogen next to her on the sofa and took out her letter. It contained the following:

 

Hunsford
7th September

My dear Lizzy,

My apologies for not replying to your last letter. Truth be known, I was too upset to write. Your news was welcome but it only served to remind me of my own inability. Little did I realise then that it was not my fault.

I have kept many things from you, my friend. Since my marriage we have drifted apart, partly because of our disagreement over my choice in partner. I do not wish to lose our friendship, Lizzy, for it is the only part of my life which makes me truly happy. I told you once I was not romantic, but with the influence of the happy match which is your cousins every day, I begin to realise just what I have been missing.

I do not regret my decision, it had to be made. My life with Mr Collins has been one which I am content to had lived and I do not think I would desire to change it. I had to marry, Lizzy. My family needed me to. I had not your youth and what I did have was fading. I could not wait in the hope of a happier situation.

The burden of no children has made it sometimes distressing however. Lady Catherine in particular has......... no, I do not wish to break the branch that has so recently been mended.

I dearly wish you every happiness, Lizzy. I cannot wait to see Imogen, for tales of her beauty have spread like wildfire, since your husband's letter to Mr Fitzwilliam. Do come to visit soon, my friend. That is if you can. Things can so much be discussed better face to face than pen to paper. At least that is what I find.

I understand all of distrust over Lawrence,- which I heard from your cousins, who have asked me to keep in confidence -it does seem rather too good to be true. I have not my husband's motives for it to be a falsehood, I am quite satisfied in not becoming mistress of Longbourn. I heartily approve of little Alex inheriting, if indeed he does.

My letter also brings with it an update from your cousin. He is sorry to report that as yet he has no further information for you, or evidence with which to confront Lawrence with. He is however determined not to give up and will continue to make enquiries, using whatever contacts he has left.

Until your reply, my regards,
Charlotte Collins.

As one would understand this letter left Elizabeth in much occupation of thought. She could clearly see behind the lines that all was not well with her friend and wished she could relieve at least some part of her distress. They had not seen each other since the Christmas of 1818, two years ago.

Imogen stirred from her place upon the sofa. Elizabeth turned both her eyes upon her newest daughter and smiled. Without fail her children had the ability to make her happy and content. Elizabeth scooped her up into her arms.

A knock on the door sounded and her husband walked in followed by the rest of their children. Lawrence Darcy, their eldest and heir to Pemberley, who was now eight years old, had inherited the features of his father and was already showing signs of his mother's wit. He was a happy and well mannered young boy. Heloise Darcy, their eldest daughter at six years old, was already showing signs of inheriting her mother's dark hair beauty and displaying some tomboy qualities, had rapidly become her father's favourite, even though Darcy loved all his children equally.

The twins Alex and Alexandra were three years old and to the surprise of their parents, a complete contrast in looks. Alex had the blond hair and blue eyes of his grandfather George Darcy, while Alexandra had inherited her grandmother's features of dark hair with an auburn tinge and dark blue eyes.

Their fondness for doing everything together was an endearing quality to all their relatives, even if Mrs Bennet wished for 'dear Alexa' to grow out of her tomboy ways (Mrs Bennet quite despaired of 'dear Mrs Darcy's' girls, for she was convinced that they would never grow up enough to attract handsome men of good fortune to marry them).

Darcy came to sit down beside his wife as the children, glad to be with their parents, busied themselves with exploring the room and trying to read the titles of the volumes that they could reach from their small height.

"How is your father?" He asked Elizabeth.

Elizabeth related the tales of the letter from Mr Collins, causing her husband to chuckle and then both of them as Imogen tried in vain to imitate the gesture. "He also had a letter from Charlotte to give to me."

"How is she?"

"She claims to be well but I think the news of the impossibility of having children has upset her more that she is willing to admit. Do you think that after this business with Lawrence Bennet is over, we can go and visit?"

"That sounds like an excellent plan, my love. However I fear the business will take longer than us have any idea."

"For my father's sake, I hope not, Fitzwilliam. I think his patience is wearing thin."


Chapter XXXI.

An evening at Longbourn, 13th September 1820.

"Lizzy, I understand your hesitation to accept Lawrence, but what I do not understand is why you trust the gentleman if you suspect him of this deception."

It was late evening and the Gardiners had been at Longbourn since early afternoon. The Darcys had come over to greet them, and Lizzy had rapidly secured her Aunt for conversation. After exchanging news on her young cousins and on her own children, Elizabeth finally related to her Aunt the whole story from her own viewpoint.

Now Elizabeth regarded her Aunt strangely as she replied, "I am not sure. I think however, it is because of what he has done for Lydia since our arrival. She has come out of herself and for that I am grateful to him. But I still think he is lying."

Mrs Gardiner cast a subtle eye over the gentleman as she expressed her opinion to her niece. "I do agree with you on that. There are just too many questions unanswered. Why now, and not before? Why withhold the detail and show an error? Why deceive a man who has very little in both connections and fortune when compared to others?"

Elizabeth nodded. "That question has been bothering me the most. Why us? He could have chosen any other family. We cannot be the only family in the country who has lost a child."

"It defies reasoning certainly. And I am sorry that I have no good news or hope to bring, Lizzy. Your father hoped my facility with faces would bring some recognition of seeing him before, but I am afraid to say that I cannot remembering seeing him before now. He certainly looked at me without prior knowledge."

"Do not worry, Aunt. I am sure Papa is glad of your presence all the same. This decision to wait for Lawrence to make his move first, although being made only three days ago, has put considerable strain on him."

"I can imagine," Mrs Gardiner replied with an eye to the library door from which her husband and brother in law had yet to vacate. "However, the decision is a prudent one."

"Oh, that I have no doubt of," Elizabeth assured her Aunt, as her own husband caught her eye. He was seated with the man in question, but his mind was only half on the conversation, while the rest was concerned with his beautiful wife. Temporarily, Elizabeth allowed herself to be lost in the gaze, rewarded by Darcy's smile as his eyes clouded with love.

Madeline Gardiner smiled at her niece's happiness. Certain as she had been of the love that Mr Darcy had had for her niece when they have visited Pemberley all those years ago, she had not realised just how much their future marriage would prove to be a source of contentment for both.

Now, as she witnessed the look between them, she was reminded of that visit when a similar gaze between both parties had been watched by her, as one stood by a piano and the other sat by the fire in the best view that the room commanded. It was almost the same gaze, except her niece's level of affection shown in hers had grown and become more assured. Mrs Gardiner could almost hear the strains of Beethoven's Andante Favori playing in her mind.

Elizabeth turned back to her Aunt, reluctantly breaking gaze before anyone else noticed. She valued her relationship with Mrs Gardiner. Since the visit to Derbyshire united her and Darcy, she had remained on close acquaintance with her Aunt and Uncle, inviting them over whenever they could. To her husband and herself they were a part of the family with whom they could relax and be themselves without hindrance or worry.

"You are well contented, Lizzy?" Her Aunt mused aloud.

Elizabeth nodded, for indeed she most assuredly was.


"I wish I had anything to give you, Edmund, but I am afraid that I am as much puzzled by these circumstances as you yourself are."

"Well, I appreciate your presence here, Edward," Mr Bennet replied to his brother in law. "My sons in law, -well, two of them, at least- have been very helpful in their advice and support, but nothing helps me more than to have someone closer to my own age to help me in this affair. Now," he added in a different tone, one which was striving to be of a more buoyant nature, relaxing back into the armchair, "what advice have you to offer?"

"To try and concentrate your energies on something else. Something that has signs of success."

Mr Bennet looked at his brother in law with interest, waiting for more.

"Lydia," Mr Gardiner stated simply.

"Lydia?" Mr Bennet repeated in surprise.

"Edmund, I have only been here today, but I have heard things from Elizabeth and William that lead me to understand that Lydia has changed. Is this true?"

"It is," Mr Bennet admitted. "She is more silent, more thoughtful. Her liveliness has disappeared."

"Suffice it to say, she is not what she once was, correct?"

His brother in law nodded. "What are you suggesting?"

"To get to know Lydia. I am sorry to say but your relationship with your youngest daughter may have been one of the causes for her fall."

"Do not be sorry, Edward, I am not ashamed to admit that my fatherhood concentrated on Jane and Lizzy alone. And you are right. I need to get to know her."

Edward smiled and reach up his glass of port in toast. "To fatherhood, with all its joys and despairs."

Mr Bennet could not help but comply in agreement.


Over the next few days Mr Bennet heeded his brother in law's advice and tried to get to know his youngest daughter. At first there was reluctance of Lydia's side, an in-built fear that her father still disapproved of her. But his persistence soon reversed the fear and turned it into affection as Lydia found herself coming to like her father.

Her children already adored him, but then he had always been considerate over all his grandchildren. Gradually, through Mr Bennet and Lawrence's help, she found herself having less time to dwell on the implications of eight children and the prospect of her future. Finally, she allowed herself to let go of the past and enjoy the pleasure of the present.

Georgiana Blakeney was also instrumental in helping Lydia to become more positive about her life. From the day she had walked into a drawing room at Netherfield to introduce herself, the two had formed an close friendship. Having the commonality of not only age but circumstances gone by, they had found even more things they agreed upon. Of course, there were some things that they did not, but Lydia often found Georgie's opinion to be more objective and clear sighted than her own when it came to those, and did not hesitate in rejecting her own judgement.

The teaching of music also helped, for Lydia found within the first day that it gave her something to occupy her mind with, and stop it dwelling on her past. Mrs Blakeney advised her to practise daily, even when circumstances prevented her from joining in the lesson, and Lydia found it most beneficial, even after only one day.

True, she had not the natural talent for music, but she was quick to learn the means to play, along with an ability to conceal the mechanical nature that her sister Mary often displayed. This, along with almost daily visits from Lawrence, were all helping to amend her retrospection.

By degrees she had come to learn that there was a level of distrust between most of the family over Lawrence. She herself had not been acquainted fully with the details, but through visits when both her father and brother were present, Lydia could sense the carefully disguised mistrust that the former held for the latter.

At first she could not see what was the problem. To her mind Lawrence was her brother. He acted in a brotherly way, and indeed as far as his attentions to her had been concerned, she had found nothing with which to suspect him of having an ulterior motive. But later as their acquaintance furthered, she began to see that Lawrence often held himself within a wall that relied on the gap of some twenty years and more.

She could not understand why he chose to hide behind this wall, and her disappointment at his not total honesty with her when she had been vice versa was hard to get over. When she learnt that others also suspected him of falsehood, but were waiting for him to commit the error first, she was able to approach him once again with the same degree of friendship as before. However, the undeniable fact that things had changed between them was sometimes so apparent to her that Lydia could not help but wonder if Lawrence saw it.

One day, when the Gardiners had been at Longbourn for three days, Lydia took the courage to bring it to Lawrence's notice. She knew that in doing so she was taking a great risk, that if she did not succeed, he would most likely retreat with everyone. Yet somehow, and with no possible logic to it, she was confident that he would confide in her, if he had anything with which to do so, that is.

Lawrence had come to Netherfield as usual and sought her company. Once his stay had been firmly established by Lydia, she tentatively began the subject.

"Lawrence, is there something that you are not telling us?"

He appeared to be completely surprised by her question. "No. Why do you ask?"

"Some times there seems to be a wall when you talk to us."

Lawrence looked at her as he replied, "I have always been honest to you, Lydia."

"Even I cannot let the implication of that escape. If you are honest with me, why not with others? No, Lawrence, I can be as stubborn as my sisters when the occasion calls for it. There is something that you have kept from us. I am quite sure of it."

Lawrence sighed audibly and looked away from her to the ground. Lydia watched his every move. He seemed to be thinking things over for a long time, before finally, and with was unmistakably a sigh of resignation, he came to a decision. He looked up and returned her gaze. It was with a look that Lydia had never received before. It seemed to reach into the very depths of her soul. It was testing her, she decided, to see if she could take the truth. Well, Lawrence, you need not be afraid. I can take whatever is thrown at me.

"Perhaps you are right, Lydia. There is a wall that I put up between myself and my family. I think it is because I do not know you long enough to..........." he abruptly trailed off then, as if he had already seen the dissatisfaction with that explanation in her eyes. Sighing again, he decided to hell with it.

"Indeed, I should have known you would not insensible to it, Lydia. I have not allowed you to confide in me for nothing. Have no fear, I will not betray any of it. I hope that this assurance will grant me the privilege of the same confidence in your secrecy, when I tell you that it is this wall which you have detected that has kept me from............."

At this point, just as things got interesting, and much to Lydia's annoyance, they were disturbed by the announcement that it was time for afternoon tea and the look upon the servant's face was such as to imply that refusal would not be appreciated. Before Lydia could gather her courage to attempt it, her children jumped up at the words, leaving no room for argument by their reluctant mother.

As for Lawrence he retreated back into the mask, rose, and with a hand to her, escorted Lydia into tea, thereby preventing all further tries at conversation.


Chapter XXXII.

17th-20th September, 1820.

It was to Elizabeth's regret that only four days after her Aunt and Uncle's arrival in Hertfordshire that she had to quit the county.

Darcy had finally and reluctantly admitted to her on the morning of the 17th that the estate business which he had been putting off due to their situation, had now gone past the point of delay. In fact circumstances were of such an extent that it was required of him to return to Pemberley.

"It would not be for much more than a fortnight at the most," Darcy began in a vein effort to reassure Elizabeth that morning as she attended to Imogen.

His wife now turned to him with a look that left him no doubt as to her opinion. They had rarely been separated due to business since their marriage, and even before Darcy was not often inclined to spend a day at his estates when he could be in his fiancee's company. "Very well, what do you say to only thirteen days?"

Elizabeth came up close to him. "Ten."

He took her hands, stroking the soft skin. "Twelve."

Elizabeth surrendered, and he kissed her in thanks. "But Fitzwilliam, that is not the main reason for my objection."

"My dear, I thought you would want to stay here."

"I do and I do not. I hate this waiting around. You know I was never good at patience."

"I know." He smiled and delivered another kiss to her lips. "What about a compromise?"

Elizabeth looked him with a hint of a smile. "I'm listening."

"You expressed a wish to see Charlotte. Why don't we all travel to Rosings and you can stay there while I continue to Derbyshire. That way you and Charlotte can spend some time together. What's more, with Richard's active part in our investigations, you can get his latest information and perhaps even direct him into more fruitful ground."

Elizabeth pretended to think for a while, then kissed him. "I think that sounds a wonderful solution, my love."

Darcy smiled and kissed her lips gently. "I'm glad you approve."

"And what if I had not?" Elizabeth remarked archly.

"Then I would attempt to use other methods of persuasion."

"Would you care to demonstrate such methods, sir?"

Darcy happily obliged and began to kiss her passionately.


When the Darcys finally came down for breakfast, they announced their departure to their hosts and family that would still be staying there. All expressed their regret and Lord Devereaux made to assure them that upon the completion of the business their return to Netherfield would be most welcome.

They were soon not the only ones to leave. Bingley requested to join them on their journey, confessing that Pearlcoombe was in need of his attention, although Jane elected to remain behind with their children at Netherfield.

Elizabeth spent the rest of the day making her goodbyes to her family, calling at Longbourn last, having expected it to take the longest in farewells. Her mother as usual exclaimed over her going, disagreed with her decision that she could cope with her husband's departure better in Kent, complained at the desire to see Mrs Collins, whom she saw no reason to pay call on, now that Longbourn was no longer entailed.

Elizabeth however, was firm in her resolution, deeming it impossible for her to remain in Hertfordshire while her husband was miles away. The move to Kent she maintained, was purely to lessen the degree of absence, as it would shorten her husband's return to her by two days. Mrs Bennet was at last forced to relent.

The farewell to the Smythes and Guests when much easier, along with the goodbye to Lawrence, which Elizabeth made sure did not convey any feelings of distrust or suspicion about him. He in turn was ever the dutiful brother, not expressing any concern over the event that they were to visit a certain Mr Richard Fitzwilliam among others.

Her last farewell was to her father, who as usual, she found ensconced in his Library. Upon her entrance, he looked up from the leather bound volume in his hands and uttered a familiar phrase. "Pleasure bent again, my dear Lizzy? And never a thought to what your poor father will suffer in your absence."

Elizabeth chuckled as she closed the door behind her and came to sit in front of Mr Bennet. "Unlike the last Papa, it is not a pleasure I could well forgo. I will however, be delighted to see Charlotte again."

Mr Bennet smiled. "Ah, how much has changed since I last said those words. I never even imagined that the famous Lady Catherine de Bough would become a relative."

"At the time, neither did I."

"Well, I shall miss you, my dear girl. Your family has been a wonderful maxim of support these past weeks. I shall expect your return to be prompt."

"Indeed it shall be," Elizabeth assured him. "I may also have some news to bring back, if Richard has found anything out from his Military contacts."

"Even if he does not, there is still hope I believe, Lizzy. If Lawrence is indeed deceiving us, his deception cannot last for much longer." Mr Bennet paused at this moment to glance at his favourite daughter. He did still miss the closeness they once had, when she was not married and still his little girl.

Still, his eventual blessing of her wish to be Mrs Darcy had done away some part of the grief in losing the daughter that he loved the most. The frequent visits to Derbyshire were always a source of joy to him, not just to check that his son in law was treating Elizabeth right. He already had firm evidence that he did, within the first months of their marriage.

Mr Bennet pulled himself out of his reverie then, by saying, "I suppose my next comment should be something along the lines of that until you return I shall not hear two words of sense spoken together, but as it is, there are still some family members here who possess that modicum of intellect I need."

Elizabeth laughed, as he had intended her to. "I shall miss you too, Papa."


The party departed that afternoon and spent the next two days an a half travelling through the countryside to Rosings Park. The company of five children proved not a burden, as all had inherited both their mother's liveliness but also their father's self restraint and thus managed to behave despite all the troubles that a journey by coach could entail. Imogen was also an angel by sleeping for the majority of each ride, causing many a proud smile to be exchanged between both parents.

Charles Bingley was his usual cheerful self, though the absence of his wife did allow a certain wistfulness in his tone which became noticeable on more than one occasion. He was however continually grateful not be travelling to Pearlcoombe alone and his friend and brother in law had made sure to obey Mrs Bingley's word that he would look after her husband and make sure he did not return until all matters had been attended to. Their contrasting personalities and long friendship would keep the both of them from doing too much thinking, although Darcy did still not yet know how he was to spend twelve days alone in the Master Bedchamber at Pemberley.

As if obeying Lady Catherine's usual wishes, they changed horses at Bromley, and managed to arrive at the home of that formidable woman upon the afternoon of the 20th. The Fitzwilliams were standing outside to greet them.

"Darce, Charles, how good to see you!" Richard cried out as they descended from the carriage. After friendly slaps on the back from all quarters, Darcy turned back to help his children and wife descend.

"My dear Mrs Darcy, how wonderful to see you," Richard added, gallantly bestowing a kiss upon her hand before looking at Imogen. "And is this my newest little cousin?" He pretend to survey her with a critical eye. "Well, I can see no sign of her father, fortunate girl."

"Richard!" Anne admonished as his cousin sent him a look of exasperation in reply. She came up then to greet the laughing Elizabeth who smiled at her mortified husband. "Good to see you again, Anne."

"Well," Darcy finally remarked when he had greeted Mrs Fitzwilliam. "I suppose we can no longer afford to keep Aunt Catherine waiting."

"No indeed," Anne replied she led them into the house. "Mama has been impatient for you to arrive. She is anxious to see her new great niece."

"I never thought Lady Catherine would be one for children," Elizabeth commented as they entered the Hall. "I am pleased to see I was wrong."

"Well, children have ways of stealing into all hearts," Richard replied as he scooped Alexandra Darcy into his arms. Alexandra shrieked delightfully and it was a somewhat noisy party that went in to greet the once formidable Lady Catherine de Bough.


Chapter XXXIII.

Rosings Park, 21st September, 1820.

"Well, as I told you in my letter I have spent the last weeks investigating, aided by what contacts I still have left in the Military."

Darcy leaned forward in his seat. "Has anything turned up?"

Richard grimaced. "Not much. I have found out that there were a number of serving officers with the name Bennet, including some soldiers as well. However, there is as yet no way to prove that any one of them is this Lawrence Bennet that has taken up residence as your brother in law. Speaking of which; how has he performed that task?"

It was exactly one day after the Darcys arrival at Rosings Park with Mr Bingley. Following dinner, the entire party had exchanged news with Lady Catherine and the Fitzwilliams before retiring for the night. Now, the next morning, Darcy had decided to postpone his and Charles' departure in order to ask his cousin if he had found anything fresh to give them hope.

Darcy leaned back into the confines of one of the many black leather chairs that the Library contained. "Perfectly well. Almost too perfect in fact, which might be the reason why most of us still retain our suspicions. He also has a habit of keeping his distance with nearly all of us."

Richard followed suit. "If he is concealing something, that would certainly fit. Who does he keep company with the most?"

"Would you be surprised if I told you it is Lydia?"

"Lydia? Now that is interesting."

Darcy shrugged. "Not that interesting. Lydia was wretched when she turned up at Pearlcoombe in August. No one could break her out of the fortress she had surrounded herself with. We tried everything. Georgiana was the first to make her talk. She called her Mrs Wickham to which Lydia replied with a request to be called Bennet once more."

"What has Lawrence got to do with all of this?"

"To cut a long story short, when we arrived at Longbourn, he was instrumental not only in identifying her problem, but the possible solution to it as well. He has visited her daily, and along with Georgiana's offer of friendship, has managed to bring Lydia out of her shell. She's still not as wild as she once was, but she is learning to regard things with a positive perspective."

"And apart from Lydia he has been distant?" Richard checked. "Hmm."

His cousin looked at him. "What?"

"If I was a gambling man, cousin, I would say that this Lawrence fellow, might have been in the intelligence staff."

"But?"

"But his actions with Lydia seem to imply the opposite. One thing we learnt was to never attach ourselves to anyone while we were out there."

"Also, would not you know him, if he was an intelligence officer?" Darcy queried.

"I might," Richard admitted. "But there were a lot of them. Besides, he would begin to suspect something if I turned up for no apparent reason. Has he heard of me?"

"Yes, he witnessed your battlefield promotion."

"Well, that confirms part of his story concerning the battles he served in. Be that as it may, it brings us no closer to finding out who he is."

Darcy sighed once more. "How many sources of information have you yet to use?"

"I'm afraid not many. Horseguards will be my last port of call, but then they are always difficult when it comes to finding serving or retired officers. I have a couple of contacts who are up north which have not replied to me, and I've yet to locate the former Colonel of the Oxfordshire, as he has recently brought himself out." Richard paused as the clock started to sound the hour. "I'm sorry I haven't been of much use, Darce."

"Its all right, Rich, I was not expecting much anyway. This has got us all puzzled." Darcy paused, then suddenly asked, "What if Lawrence was an intelligence officer and his purpose was not to do with Longbourn and the Bennets, but with Lydia?"

Richard now looked truly puzzled. "Lydia? Darce, I've heard many theories from you in my time, but this has to be the most implausible. What possible reason could the Military have to spy on Lydia?"

"I did not mean Lydia herself. I meant her recently departed husband."

"He wasn't capable of treasonous deception, Darce!, You're becoming far too paranoid," was his cousin's emphatic reply.

"I must be," Darcy commented, looking at his cousin.

"Honestly, Fitz, you knew Wickham better than I did. Do you really think his intellect knew enough to do something so underhand that the military thought it prudent to investigate his wife after his death?"

His cousin sighed as he realised the implausibility of his previous suspicion. "You're right, Rich. Maybe I am becoming too paranoid. You know the present political situation more than I do, with your connections."

"Yes and I wish daily that I did not, Fitz. There are things which I am heartily glad that you do not know."

It was only later that Darcy paused to think on this phrase. For the present, the two cousins rose from their chairs to walk into the Dining Room for Luncheon, which the clock hour had signalled only a few minutes ago.


The above gentlemen spent the remainder of the day with their families, the latter in particular being anxious not to lose any more time he had left with his wife and children before he and his brother in law had to leave the next day. It might be interesting to note that the aforementioned brother in law spent much of the day writing a letter to his own significant other. Then again it might not.

Lady Catherine welcomed the chance to spend some time with her grand nieces and nephews, as well as their mother and father, although she would only be able to see Darcy for more than evenings or dining when he arrived back from Derbyshire. It must be said that she had altered much for the good since her reconciliation with the Darcys.

Her authoritative nature had softened, and if one acquaintance accidentally forgot to follow her advice on a occasion, it mattered not. Now and again she was prone to a insistent tone if the advice was not obeyed the second time, however. Her relations with Mrs Elizabeth Darcy, were by degrees improving, as the constant easy distance of the Reverend Collins was sometimes more of a hindrance than a help.

The Darcys had last visited Rosings Park in the Christmas of 1818, but had spent time together after that date in the summer of 1819 at an estate of the Earl of Matlock which was just in the midway of the distance between Derbyshire and Kent.

It had been a time when the entire Fitzwilliam family had joined together and an event which without Mrs Darcy's persuasion would never have happened quite as soon as it did. Aside from these two visits, the Kent branch of the Fitzwilliams had kept in touch by the usual means of letter writing, often from Richard to his cousin and friend, regularly from Anne to Elizabeth and sporadically from Lady Catherine to the Darcys in general.

Communication with the Collinses at Hunsford had been less than frequent when compared with Rosings. The Reverend could always be counted upon to send a monthly missive to every part of his relatives, no matter how remote, but this letter could hardly be expected to contain any thing further than his thoughts on the latest sermons for church.

His wife wrote only to Mrs Darcy and at times even less than a month. Elizabeth had felt the loss of Charlotte's closeness keenly, even though their thoughts had differed completely on the choice that the latter had made. Now, she hoped with this visit, the breach would be healed and they could have time to renew acquaintances once more.

The rest of the 21st passed quietly, although far too quickly for some. The guests retired late and the Darcys closed their eyes on each other with a heavy heart, wishing the morning to be one twelve days hence.


Chapter XXXIV.

Rosings Park, 22nd September, 1820.

It was the day which Elizabeth dreaded. For the first time since her marriage, she would be parted from her husband for more than a day. They were rarely parted from each other, and never for a distance as great as this. She and Darcy had risen early both with a heavy heart and had been unusually silent at breakfast, despite all Lady Catherine's attempts.

All too soon the horses were announced to be ready and everyone had reluctantly made the move to assemble outside. Mr Bingley made his farewells short and sat waiting on his steed for his friend and brother in law to finish his.

Darcy made his farewell with his wife the last. He stood silently in front of Elizabeth, looking steadily into her fine brown eyes, trying not to flinch at seeing the same sorrow which was contained in his. She gazed back at him with the same control. The rest of the world disappeared for both of them and they felt as if they were alone.

He took her hands in his, cradling them as if they were things of wonder. "I will write to you every day." He bestowed a kiss on each palm. "And get Dreyer to deliver them."

Elizabeth returned the kisses. "I'll send you a reply to every one."

He put his hands to her face, caressing her cheeks. "Give the children a kiss from me every night."

She nodded, tears forming in her eyes, reflected in his own. Slowly he let his arms go around her waist and up to her hair, letting his fingers wrap themselves in the curly tendrils. Finally he let his lips capture hers. At that moment both wanted it to be eternal. Every second was like a facet of each and every kiss that they had ever shared, from the first during their engagement, to the one in the carriage on their wedding day and beyond. It was a kiss to last a life time; encompassing all emotions at once; passion, amour, tenderness, adoration, reverence, ardour, fervour, and most importantly, love.

He withdrew slowly, his eyes never leaving hers as he mounted his steed. With a last final glance of his feelings; he turned to follow his friend out of the estate. Elizabeth watched until his figure faded into the distance and even beyond.


Hunsford Parsonage.

At first Elizabeth had been reluctant to take Imogen with her while she saw Charlotte. She knew that the undeniable presence of her could have the ability to make her friend not confide in her completely. But she was also hesitant about leaving her at Rosings for any length of time, especially as she had no idea how this talk was to take.

Imogen was only nearly two months old and to leave alone, even in the company of relatives, Elizabeth could not yet contemplate doing for very long, even if she was near by. Her absences from the babe at Netherfield had never been more than an hour at most, and even then she had kept to the grounds. So, with a nervous heart as to what reaction her friend might have, Elizabeth took her youngest in her arms, said farewell to the rest, and went off to Hunsford.

She arrived in good time, Charlotte greeting her at the door. "Elizabeth, it is good to see you," Mrs Collins remarked with genuine joy.

"I am happy to see you as well, Charlotte. I hope you are not busy?"

"Oh, no. Mr Collins is out visiting a parishioner. You find me all alone, Lizzy."

"Excellent."

Charlotte led her to the Parlour. Together they sat down on a sofa, as Mrs Collins noticed Imogen for the first time.

"Oh, Elizabeth, she is adorable."

Mrs Darcy smiled with all the pride of a mother. "Indeed she is. Her father was besotted with her from the first moment he laid eyes upon her. She is a perfect angel. I must confess I was unsure as to whether to bring her with me."

Charlotte understood instantly. "You need not worry, Lizzy. Did I not express in my letter my desire to see her? I am perfectly ready to talk to you fully and completely. We have so much to air."

"That we do," Elizabeth agreed emphatically. "Firstly, when did you realise Mr Collins could not......."

Charlotte blushed momentarily before answering her friend. "Let me just say that the consequence of spending the wedding night at Lucas Lodge did not put relations between us on a good footing. And you saw my behaviour towards him when you visited, Lizzy. I avoided him as much as I could. It was only when......." Abruptly she trailed off.

Elizabeth looked at her friend. "Charlotte, if Lady Catherine is involved in any of this, it will not surprise me. The branch will still be healed, whether you tell me or not."

Mrs Collins sighed. "Lady Catherine was indeed the catalyst. She lectured Mr Collins one day on the importance of having children. He returned with the words imprinted firmly in his mind and I was forced to obey their logic, as it were."

At this Charlotte paused, but seeing her friend's face rapidly darken, added, "I was resigned to that long ago, Lizzy. It was my duty, as a married woman to honour and obey my husband. Afterwards, I waited patiently for it to happen. But nothing ever did. At first I thought it was me, and as I let that thought sink in, Lizzy, I felt as if my heart would break. I never realised, Lizzy, how much I wanted children until I found out that Mr Collins could never have them."

Elizabeth sat, looking at her friend with remorseful eyes. "Oh Charlotte. I feel positively dreadful now for every letter I sent that mentioned mine."

"You need not," Charlotte replied reassuringly. "I welcomed hearing of your children, Elizabeth. As much as I resented the knowledge that I could never know what it was that you felt about them. It did me good to know that you were happy. Whatever initial feelings I felt, they were washed away whenever I read that you were happy."

"You are far too good, Charlotte," Elizabeth replied, sadness in her eyes for the second time that day. "At this rate you will pass Jane."

Charlotte smiled for the first time since their greeting. "I do not think I could ever encompass the generosity of Jane. Are you upset that I did not tell you all of this before, Lizzy?"

"No, I completely understand your hesitancy. I would have done exactly the same, although I must confess myself terrified of the thought. As much as Fitzwilliam often protested the contrary, Pemberley needed someone to carry on the family name. Both of us would have missed having children." Grasping her friend's hand, Elizabeth added feelingly, "I hope you get the chance Charlotte."

"I do not think it likely, Elizabeth."

Her friend smiled. "I once thought it unlikely that I would marry Mr Darcy. I have since learnt, that anything is possible."

Charlotte chuckled. "I remember telling you once that he loved you, never for a moment being serious about it. I did not imagine that we would be sitting here eight years later with you married to him."

"I do not think anyone did, Charlotte. That proves my theory."

"I hope you are right, Lizzy. Although I highly doubt it. Now," Charlotte began in a lighter tone. "How is Lydia?"

"A completely different woman. I think that her wild spirit has gone forever."

"Has she really altered so much?"

"Yes. Wickham did a lot that left to be desired. Eight children can also put an end a lot, I imagine."

Charlotte laughed with her friend, the present troubles for once far away from her mind. Elizabeth, with a trait picked up from her husband, watched her through her own. She hoped to see more occasions when her friend could laugh. She would need it, if she was to survive this.


Late evening, Oakham Mount, Meryton.

"Lawrence, I demand to know where you are taking me!"

"Patience, you'll soon see!"

"Are you sure Louise will be all right?"

"Positive. Henry will look after her perfectly well."

"Henry is only eight!"

"And has the makings of an excellent brother already!"

"And with no cause to offend, you are hardly a judge."

"Did I promised you not this would not take long? Do you not trust me?"

Lydia looked back at him sceptically.

Lawrence smiled and took her hand once more.

Lydia sighed and relented.

A moment later they were there. "Oakham Mount?" She queried, puzzled.

"I know you grew up here, but did you ever see it like this?" Lawrence asked her, standing beside her, her hand still in his.

Just then, the sun began to set in the sky. Lydia stopped questioning. The darkening light cast a different aspect upon the land which she had only view in daylight for all of her life. He was right, it is truly beautiful. "You were correct. I have never seen it like this before. I was too concerned about other things to notice the beauty. I must make sure I do in the years to come. This is truly beautiful."

"Beautiful indeed," Lawrence echoed, Although if his mind was on the Mount, I'll leave for your minds to determine. It was too dark to notice.


Chapter XXXV.

The grounds of Rosings Park, 23rd September 1820.

 


My Darling Elizabeth,

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense,1 as I sit down to write this to you. The occasion should be momentous, for this our first love letter, yet I cannot help but feel an almost overwhelming sense of loneliness. It is ironic; I once thought myself to possess self control, yet I find it crumbling when I am parted from you.

Part of me tells me I should keep this from you, yet some how I feel you will understand and feel the same. Our love, our marriage has always one where we seem to know each other's thoughts before we know them ourselves.

Already, we rest at ________, some hours earlier than both of us had planned. As I sit here writing to you, my brother sits writing to his own love, though I have the advantage of him, for I will see you two days before he sees his. It matters not. It is still like an eternity.

My heart and mind wonders if you are well, it hopes you cradle just as I do your image in the latter, so even though I am far away, I feel like I am still with you, when I close my eyes.

If I could write the beauty of your eyes, and in fresh numbers number all your graces, the age to come would say 'this poet lies; such heavenly touches ne'er touched earthly faces.2 I have not a poet's skill, but I know these words are true of you. I await to return with every anxious thought and send you all the love I can, knowing you will send the same in return.

Ever mine, ever thine, ever for each other.3
Fitzwilliam Darcy.

Elizabeth felt sympathy for every female heroine that had the tendency to swoon when they read the words of their lover. She could almost hear Fitzwilliam's voice speaking the lines. Already her mind was contemplating the reply she was to send, for Darcy's personal courier was waiting for it in the Rosings kitchen. She determined to let Mr Dreyer enjoy his brief break for awhile longer, as the man would no doubt be worn out with the constant trips he would taking during these twelve days.

Silently she stroked the words of his parting one last time. He had those words inscribed on their engagement and wedding rings, and it had always assured Elizabeth that she was blessed to have him as her husband. The words were formal but intimate at the same time. Carefully refolding the letter, she placed it in a pocket of her dress and returned with a slow pace to the house, composing her reply in her mind.


Longbourn.

On the same day, but slightly later in the afternoon, the occupants of Longbourn were about to occupy themselves with tea, when Mrs Hill entered the room. In her hands she carried an express for Lawrence. The whole company was surprised by arrival of such a note, including Lydia- who had arrived there with an intent to talk to her brother and so far had failed in that mission -and most importantly, Lawrence himself.

Nevertheless, the latter was a perfect gentleman. He thanked Mrs Hill most cordially, then casually asked if the messenger was waiting for a response. Mrs Hill replied no, and then quietly excused herself. Lawrence then turned the letter over to read the seal, without a shift in countenance. After mulling over the seal for a few minutes, he tucked the letter in his jacket pocket and returned to the conversation he had been in with Smythe, Guest and his father without further comment.

Lydia, who had watched this entire event, was greatly puzzled by it. Her attempts since the thirteenth to get Lawrence to confide in her had been entirely unsuccessful. Every occasion had been used, every opportunity abused, and still she had rarely been able to get him alone. Even the night of the twenty-second had failed for she had completely forgotten her plan, in the wake of witnessing the beautiful sunset. Lawrence had been correct in supposing that she had never fully taken the time to enjoy Oakham Mount, even she had seen it all her life.

The night had taught her a valuable lesson, even though it had made her forget her plan. She still wondered about what it was that Lawrence wanted to tell her, as he had quite clearly indicated that he had a secret to hide. A part of her had deliberated whether or not she should tell her father about this part confession of Lawrence, but then she realised that her father might choose to tell her his suspicions of her brother and that she was not quite ready for. Lawrence was her closest friend in her family- if he was of her family -and if she was to find out she had been deceived by him, Lydia was sure she would not be able to bear it.


Later that day, when the sun had set over Oakham Mount long ago, and the grounds of Longbourn lay shrouded in darkness, Lawrence walked to the lone figure that had been waiting for him to emerge from the house since the arrival of the letter.

"When did you learn of this?" He asked the figure instantly.

"Not until this morning."

"Have you confirmed it?" Lawrence asked anxiously.

The figure nodded in reply.

Lawrence uttered a sigh in frustration. Gripping the hand of the figure he exclaimed in tones of the same, "find him! I don't care whether it is by fair means or foul, find the man and bring back here. Delay him here as long as you possibly can!"

"But how......" the figure interjected.

"By fair means or foul!" Lawrence cut him off. "If I leave to trail him now, this whole plan could disintegrate before us. We did not spend years on this only to abandon it on the first sign of trouble. You were assigned to help me and by god, you are going to help me! You found out he was missing, you are to bring him back. Is that clear?"

The figure, visibly shaken by both tone and appearance- the latter of which was hard to judge of course, because it was dark, but it was evident by the urgent tone within the voice -stood straight and acknowledged the order with obedience and it must be said a degree of trepidation.

Lawrence watched the figure disappear into the night, confident that everything would work out fine in the end. This was only one little setback and they had the means to accomplish the solution. He turned to go back in the house. Suddenly, he hesitated, looking carefully at the window to the Library. Shaking his head in silent rebuke at his feelings of fear, he walked back inside.

Mr Bennet, from his view point in the Library, sat quietly back down in his chair. The conversation he had just witnessed, had proved most satisfactory to him, terms of the conclusions that could be yielded from it. Lawrence was most certainly hiding something, that was undeniable now.

What he could almost prove also beyond the shadow of a doubt that the man who had just returned to the house claiming to be Lawrence Alexander Bennet was false. All that remained now, was to try and confront him.

By fair means or foul.


1: Ode To A Nightingale. John Keats (1795-1821).

2: Sonnet XVII: William Shakespeare. (1564-1616)

3: The words of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) to his 'Immortal Beloved' in certain letters, discovered after his death, but when I read the words, I couldn't resist. They just seem made for the Darcys.


Chapter Text

Chapter XXXVI.

Rosings Park, 24th September 1820.

While Elizabeth was waiting for a reply to her letter from her husband,- even though she knew that it could not possibly arrive until late afternoon, she still expected it every minute- she spent her time with her children and her cousin in law, Anne Fitzwilliam.

The latter she had grown to know only since her marriage, when she had persuaded Darcy to invite Anne to Pemberley. In a contrast to her mother, Anne had written a loving letter of congratulations to her cousin and his bride, thus assuring the Darcys of her constant support, despite all Lady Catherine's recriminations.

A year later Anne was with them at Pemberley. What had begun as merely a short stay there, turned into a long one as she found herself in love with her cousin Richard. The romance had an uncertain beginning, as many tend to do, but once both parties had started out upon it, progressed smoothly.

Marriage soon followed and after the event a letter was sent to Kent, informing them of the event. Anne had feared to do so before, concerned that mother had the power to prevent the marriage. The letter produced the circumstances which led to the reconciliation between the Darcys and their Aunt.

Relations had been strained at first, but now some years later, they were flourishing, assisted by the influence of the younger generation. To everyone's surprise Lady Catherine had fallen in love with the Darcy children. It had changed her as a result, so much so that she had been known to remark to her brother on more than one occasion that Mrs Darcy had done 'much good' for her nephew.

Coming from her, this was praise indeed.

Now, as the days were in the first flush of winter, proving decidedly cold to all those of youthful age, the children of the Darcys and Fitzwilliams, along with the mothers of both broods, were doing their best to keep them occupied in the enjoyment that was to be had inside the rooms of Rosings Park.

Of the latter family, there were only three children, Michael, Juliet and Charlotte, all of varying ages and character. At the present moment, all were happily engaged in a game, not caring that their parents were involved in a more serious activity of words and conversation.

"He certainly seems most mysterious, this supposed brother of yours, Lizzy," Anne commented to her cousin in law. Mrs Darcy had just related all the events of the past months to her and Mrs Fitzwilliam was intrigued by the tale.

"That is putting it lightly," Elizabeth replied, glancing idly at the clock on the mantle, which despite all her prayers and desires, had yet to pass beyond another five minutes of the hour. Inwardly sighing, she turned back to Anne, who was regarding her with an amused smile.

Elizabeth chuckled. "I should be ashamed of myself, should I not?"

"Quite," Anne replied laughingly. "One should not be this dependent on one's husband. I am very displeased with you my friend."

"As am I," Elizabeth returned in the same teasing tone. "How did we ever survive without them?" She asked rhetorically.

"Doubtless there is a philosopher somewhere pondering that very question," Anne prophesied solemnly, before causing both Elizabeth and herself to break into laughter. When they had recovered, Elizabeth reluctantly forced herself to avoid the clock. "My father's plan now is to wait him out."

"Using the old adage that wait long enough he will make a mistake?"

"Precisely. Whether that will work or not, is something that neither of us will find out until William and I return to Longbourn."

"How long do you plan to stay after he has come back here?" Anne asked.

"Possibly only a day at most. I must confess as to being anxious about missing anything. A lot can happen in twelve days."

"Indeed, a lot can," her friend agreed.


The Cunning Fish, Meryton.

Foiled. Utterly and completely foiled. The plan could not have gone more wrong if he had contrived it to do so. And now he was stuck here.

The figure mentioned some ten chapters ago was once again sitting in the same pub he had frequented then, only this time in a much more agitated and irritated mood. One night ago he had managed to procure- by foul not fair means, it must be noted -a horse of good energy and had ridden for all his might for the coast. Only to be stopped, beaten up, struck unconscious, disarmed of both money and animal, and returned to this place.

He had awoken to find himself back in the quarters he had rented, as if it had all been a dream. Only the bruises and the sense of exhaustion had confirmed the night before was reality. A through search of the room- once he had gained the energy to conduct one -had proved his worse fears. He had no money, no papers, no authority of any sort that would permit him to travel as far as he needed to go.

To sum up, he was stuck in Meryton for good.

And he liked not one bit of that fact. Timing was precious in his mission. The slightest delay could cause consequences unforeseeable until they actually occurred. An enforced stay at anywhere foretold a deadly future. This was why he was sitting in the bar of the The Cunning Fish feeling very irritated, considerably agitated and extremely angry.

He knew who to blame for this enforced prison- and a somewhat twisted sense of torture, he thought -but had not the means to prove it. Indeed, it was entirely too obvious, which was why he was slightly distrusted of the previously well thought out conclusion. Never put faith in the most likeliest of possibilities, he had learned, as they nearly always turn out to be entirely false.

Also, he could not identify the men- for he was convinced that there was more than one -who had prevented his escape from Meryton, as the night had been its usual damned annoying dark self. The men, whoever they were, had probably been the same ones that followed him so successfully across most of London and beyond.

The reliable shadows. Who had most likely paid off the landlord of the pub to keep him in the building while they reported to their chief, as the man was doing not a very masterful job of spying on him at this very moment.

The stranger sighed aloud in frustration, causing the landlord to pretend to look away for a few seconds. This idle speculation did his mission no good whatsoever. He could no longer dwell in his anger at being foiled by one or more shadows.

He had two options now. Firstly, to continue with his mission, hoping that he can escape his enemies, secure transport and forge papers. Or he could choose the second. Staying here and finding his adversary, do away with him and pray that the delay did not turn out to prove costly and fatal.

It was a difficult decision to make. It would need objective, rational, sound and logical deductive reasoning. Trouble was that his emotions and loyalties were too firmly bound up in both choices. The consequences of choosing either as well, were as yet mostly unfathomable to his increasingly frustrated mind, which was more concerned in blaming himself, rather than anyone else for last night's failure.

For truth be known, no one but himself could really be held accountable for the fracas of last night. He had unwittingly initiated it, by stealing a horse and riding away without bothering first to check if anyone was keeping watch. Travelling at night had not been a particularly intelligent idea either, for it simply invited attack. All in all, his decision to grab the opportunity the moment it appeared looked to him in hindsight to be a wholly idiotic thought and one that he was not, under any circumstances, to repeat.

No, his next attempt required careful thought. It was not a task to be undertaken lightly. Nor was it to be in any way impetuous. In short, he would need a plan which was almost foolproof, because no plan was ever completely perfect. Like a murderer, the planner was always certain, no matter how careful and cunning, to make a mistake and this mistake, however slight, would ultimately spell that person's fate.

So, as long as he was aware of the mistake that he made, everything would be all right, would it not?


Late evening. Oakham Mount.

Lawrence peered uncertainly into the gloom of the rapidly darkening evening that was settling on Oakham Mount. Its late, he thought inwardly. He should be here by now.

Suddenly a rustle of sound came out of nowhere, disturbing the silence. Lawrence turned, and finally caught sight of the figure he had been waiting for. "What took you so long?"

"We had to secure someone to watch him."

"Is this person reliable?"

"He's bribery-able, if that is what you mean. He's trapped for now."

"Good." Lawrence turned back to face the view.

"So," began the figure tentatively, "what is our next move?"

Lawrence sighed. "I'm not sure. I think we are supposed to wait."

"Wait for what?"

"Until they send word," Lawrence replied turning back to face the figure. "You better go back and keep an eye on him. I'll let you know."

The figure nodded and retreated into the darkness, leaving Lawrence alone. Instead of leaving as well, he turned back to the view, even though he could barely make anything out of the night that now surrounded him completely. He could not return to Longbourn yet. He needed to think. Events were moving quickly. Far too quickly, to his mind. He had thought they had time and it was beginning to look like they did not. Not anymore. He felt angry suddenly, and almost wished his nemesis was standing in front of him now, so he could end the entire thing without anyone finding out.

The anger however, was more directed at himself. For getting himself too closely involved. He was meant to keep his distance, not to bury himself wholeheartedly into the role. Which, and he had to realise this, was what it was. A role. A part he had to play. Not for himself, but for the good of his country. He was not meant to distract himself from that fact, at any cost. Even if it meant sacrificing his happiness.

Yet somehow, his mind could not shut out the emotions. Every fibre in his body was telling him, almost commanding him to remain, to confess. But even as he realised this, he knew he could not. Why did it have to be this way? Lawrence asked himself rhetorically. It was not meant to happen like this. It should not take only a day. Life was not like that. That sort of thing was only supposed to happen in novels.

Lawrence sighed and turned away from the invisible view. He walked slowly back to the path that led him to Longbourn. His mind should have been contemplating an excuse, but instead it was dwelling on the frustration he felt at his present situation. He knew full well he had no one to blame but himself. It was him and him alone that had got himself into the situation in the first place and there was little that he could do about it now. He could only hope that eventually, when events came to a head, that what he had planned to do then was right for all of them, least of all himself.


Chapter XXXVII.

Rosings Park, 25th September 1820.

When Richard visited Rosings Park in the year 1812 he had not expected to encounter a woman that would fit his idea of perfection. He was most surprised then when he was introduced to Miss Elizabeth Bennet.

Having established his inclination after only an and afternoon and an evening of acquaintance, he had not expected to find any faults. But find them he did and there were three. Firstly, Miss Bennet saw him as merely a pleasing acquaintance, perhaps a good friend, but nothing more, that much he had been certain of. Secondly, she had no dowry, or indeed any hope of one coming to her.

Inclined as he was to feel an attraction to her, Richard could not ignore this barrier. His position in life as the younger son of an Earl, with only his reputation as a Colonel of the army to his name, would seriously prevent any idea of marriage between himself and a lady of no financial fortune.

However cold and mercenary this might sound to the conscience, it had been a fact which Richard had been resigned to all his life, thus one he could not go back on now. In these times a marriage of pure love was rare and it was the general opinion that nothing came of such a match.

Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, his cousin was already in love with her.

Richard had come to this conclusion rather rapidly, although it had taken quite a lot from his cousin to actually admit to being so. To be confronted with the information that the Rev. Collins had married, to witness Darcy's somewhat puzzling and rather fleeting flicker of horror, only then to hear the actual name of the new mistress at the parsonage, and see his cousin utter a quiet sigh of relief upon hearing that, was somewhat mysterious in itself to begin with, as to his knowledge, neither of them had even met their Aunt's new curate.

When their Aunt then announced five minutes later that they had guests at the parsonage, the wife's friend and sister, the former of which being rather impertinent to Lady Catherine's mind, Richard had not expected Darcy to casually suggest that they went to pay their respects at the parsonage that instance.

After returning from this rather revealing visit, Richard had arrived at his three previously mentioned conclusions. Desiring only some proof to make certain the third, he took the liberty of trapping his cousin in the library, the one room that he could be sure that Lady Catherine never frequented. Once this task was accomplished and Richard had received the satisfactory confirmation of his cousin's regard; he decided to encourage him in his affections, not realising at the time that the lady in question had a strong dislike of his cousin.

Richard had also decided to try and help Darcy as much as he could. Knowing his cousin's reserved nature in company at Rosings he attempted as much as possible to draw Miss Bennet into conversation, hoping that Darcy would eventually become a third party in their talks.

When he actually did do this, the occasions were unfortunately so few and often put to an end by their ever controlling Aunt. After despairing over this, and with the lady's day of departure drawing ever closer, Richard had decided to make his cousin declare his intentions before all possibility of doing so disappeared forever. Little did he realise what trouble would come of it, even if it proved significant in the long run.

Thus, after helping his cousin through all of this, Richard came to the conclusion through his reflection of it, that he had never really fallen for Elizabeth Bennet at all. Confronted as he had been with his idea of perfection at the same time his cousin having an affection for her, he had never really had a chance to look on her as anything more than a future cousin in law, as the next Mrs Darcy. All that had resulted from their acquaintance, was a long friendship, which was to remain between the both of them for the rest of their future years.

It was this friendship, that induced Richard Fitzwilliam to seek his cousin in law out one afternoon during her stay at Rosings Park, in order to speak to her about the mystery that had encompassed all of his extended family.

"My dear Mrs Darcy," he began upon encountering her in the grounds.

"Mr Fitzwilliam," Elizabeth returned formally, her eyes twinkling in amusement. Her cousin was rarely formal, yet they had always greeted each other like this before proceeding with a conversation. This remark proved no exception.

"I have received some news from my army contacts and thought it best to make the details known to you," Richard began as Elizabeth fell into step with his stride.

"I think I can gather from you tone that this news is not good," Elizabeth commented, looking at him.

Richard nodded. "Unfortunately, I am afraid that is the case. I had hoped to have found something worthy of note for you to grasp hope from, but I fear this will only bring up more questions."

Elizabeth quickly reassured him; "it does not matter, Richard, I was half expecting your news to do so. Please, tell what you have learned."

"Well, it seems that no Lawrence Alexander Bennet existed in the ranks of both battalions of the Oxfordshire. Of course, he has told that he was an officer anyway, but I needed to be sure on that point before proceeding any further. However I could not find him on the list of the officers of the 52nd either."

Elizabeth looked at Richard in surprise. "But why would he be so specific about that regiment if he did not serve in it?"

"That is why I thought, so I have asked them to check again. My hope is that they have made a mistake. But if they have not........"

"If they have not," Elizabeth repeated, "we are no closer to finding out Lawrence's secret than we were before."

A paused passed between the two for a while as each considered the information they had received and the probable consequences of such information. Elizabeth then suddenly raised a question. "William spoke confidently when he told me that Lawrence's aim during shooting was of army origin. He must be a military man, correct?"

"Correct. Darce and I spent many a time together on the hunt and my aim was always slightly better because of my army background. Darcy would be able to tell the difference. Why, what concerns you?"

"I'm not sure. But we cannot just simply dismiss the military background to be a lie."

"I am not dismissing it," Richard reassured her. "The list at the 52nd's headquarters is. Of course if he was............" he trailed off, wondering if his cousin had mentioned his suspicions to his wife.

Elizabeth did not miss the hesitation. "If he was what, Rich?"

"Did Darce tell you my opinion of the case from my conversation with before he left for Derbyshire?"

"That you suspected Lawrence to be a military spy?"

"Yes. Well, if he was, his records at 52nd might have been erased. Then again, I have yet to receive a reply from Horseguards, so this could all just be idle speculation."

"What about the Colonel of the 52nd?"

"Has yet to contact me as well," Richard replied, with a grimace. "Although I have found out his address, which brings me closer than I was a few days ago."

"Could he have served in another regiment?"

"Of course, but that would have defeated the whole object of telling us which one he supposedly served in the first place. And to search the entire army for the name Bennet would take months." Richard paused in his ramblings to recollect on his thoughts. "Have you received anything in the nature of news from Longbourn?"

"No, at least not yet," Elizabeth replied. "My father rarely writes to any one as it is, being not fond of the habit, and Jane usually waits for a letter from me before she sends one herself. However, I do not think anything has occurred to warrant alerting us as yet."


Longbourn.

Elizabeth was right in some respects. Nothing had officially occurred. To Mr Bennet's mind however, something had, but as yet he was uncertain as to whether he should reveal it to the rest of his family. At least, to the intelligent quota of his family. After all, what he had witnessed two nights ago could not really prove to anyone, including Lawrence, that they had an impostor in their midst. All he had seen was two men, one of which claimed to be his son, in conversation in the middle of the night. That was unusual in itself, but then what Mr Bennet had seen could hardly be described as simply a conversation. True, the dark had made it difficult to accurately make out the actions of the figures, but he had not missed Lawrence gripping the other man by his cuffs in clear anger.

It had only been then that the words passed between the two gentlemen became audible to him. Find him! I don't care whether it is by fair means or foul, find the man and bring back here. Delay him here as long as you possibly can, Lawrence had said to the man. Find who? Who was it they needed to delay from leaving the village? Why did they need to delay him in the first place?

Mr Bennet had become even more puzzled when he heard the next. By fair means or foul! If I leave to trail him now, this whole plan could disintegrate before us. We did not spend years on this only to abandon it on the first sign of trouble. You were assigned to help me and by god, you are going to help me! You found out he was missing, you are to bring him back. Is that clear?

This part of the conversation was by far the most incriminating, yet for Mr Bennet it only created more questions, in of answering any that had occurred to him before. Lawrence had come to Meryton with an ulterior motive, that much was obvious. This motive, he had now discovered, concerned another person who was also in Meryton, and was preparing to leave, but was prevented by the actions of his 'son'.

Mr Bennet had followed Lawrence the next night after spying him seeking out of the via his bedchamber window. He had listened carefully to the conversation which Lawrence had held with the same gentleman of the previous night. This second overheard conversation had answered one query of his wondering, that the gentleman they did not want to leave had been brought back to Meryton and was being kept under watch. The identity of this gentleman, however, and his importance to Lawrence, Mr Bennet had yet to learn.

Since that night there had been little disturbance in Longbourn. Lawrence had been his normal self, and Edmund Bennet had felt reluctant to query any of what he had witnessed because of this. He still felt that there was not enough evidence to confront Lawrence with. He needed something else, some proof that could not be denied. That proof was not going to be drawn from two conversation. He needed something tangible.

And that, he was about to find.


Chapter XXXVIII.

28th September 1820.

Letter to Mrs Elizabeth Darcy at Rosings Park, Kent.

 

Netherfield
26th September

My dear Lizzy,

Events here have been of little interest I am afraid.

Concerning Lawrence, nothing has occurred. Aside from his daily visits to us, he has been displaying the same behaviour that we have all witnessed before. He spends his time with Lydia mostly, who is improving a great deal under his and Georgiana's kind and unfaltering care.

She is not the wild person that she once was, but she is a great deal more lively than when she came Charles and myself a month ago. Her children have been absolute angels, and little Henry regularly supports his mother in caring for his sisters. I do sometimes worry that they will not get to enjoy their childhood, but I am sure things will turn out for the good later on.

Charles has written a great deal to me and I have faithfully replied to each one, even though there is little to report. I hear from him that William has done the same for you. I hope those letter have been as much a comfort to you as mine own have been to myself.

It is astonishing to find that I eagerly wait for Charles to send his reply and wonder constantly if he find my letters a consolation. A contrast to both of us so many years ago that we cannot cope without a letter from our husbands who are only three days travel away.

Our father regularly visits here still whenever he can get a chance. He has been greatly consumed lately with writing to his solicitors concerning our cousin Mr Alan Collins' past among other things in the hope that they will reveal what we have yet to find out.

He sends his regards and apologises for not writing himself. However, as we both know his dislike for letter writing, I am sure you will understand. He also sends his regards to your cousin Richard. His information and copies of letter from his contacts from the Military that were enclosed with your last letter to him have been most helpful.

Our mother has not paid call of late, although she also sends her regards to you all. She has been occupied with Kitty, Mary and our Aunt Phillips in keeping in touch with the latest news from Meryton.

Aunt Gardiner also sends her regards and she hopes to write to you soon. She and our Uncle have been considering to travel back to town as his business requires his presence. They assure me however, that they will aim to return to Meryton in time for your own return.

At this point Lizzy, I fear must close this letter, as the children have been wanting me for quite some time. I am sorry that I have little to report, but I am sure that the old adage of no news is good news applies.

I hope to see you all soon. My regards to Charlotte and our cousin Mr Collins and to all others at Rosings.

Yours
Jane Bingley.

Letter to Mr Edmund Bennet of Longbourn, Meryton, Hertfordshire.

 

Messrs Averay, Bookbinder,
Caudell and Sons, Solicitors
to the Gentry.
__________ Lane, London.

26th September.

Dear sir,

Regarding your last enquiry in request for assistance from our firm concerning your late cousin's Mr Alan Collins past, we are happy to report that substantial evidence has been found to support the theory that the aforesaid Mr Collins was involved in business dealings of an illegal nature.

While it is unfortunately beyond our means to relay the specifics of this evidence- owning to our regard for the privacy of our late and present clients -we can assure you that none of the illegal dealings were in any way connected to your estate and your inheritance from your late father, Mr Nicholas Bennet.

Also, regarding your second request for assistance from our firm concerning the whereabouts of the family Calverley in relation to aforementioned Mr Alan Collins, we are glad to report that the information sir received attesting to their employment by Mr Alan Collins, is of a truthful nature and can be confirmed by the various records of our firm. Again, we are sorry to report that we cannot provide a copy of these said records for the same reasons as above.

Furthermore, regarding your third request for possible confirmation of any issue left by the aforementioned Calverley family, we are sorry to report that our firm can find no records pertaining to any son of the above family, either by the names Lawrence, Alexander, or any other.

Nor can we confirm that the Calverleys adopted a child in the years sir mentioned. If the aforesaid Mr Alan Collins put a child under their care, the information regarding such a case has not been made available to our firm.

We hope that this information has been of use to sir and it is also our further hope that sir will continue to employ our services concerning sir's estate and any other business of both financial and personal natures that sir has both now and in the future. We can assure sir that any further requests will always be dealt by our firm to the best of your interests.

We remain, etc.
Fitzmichael Averay.

Letter to Richard Fitzwilliam of Rosings Park, Kent.

 

Egloshayle, Cornwall.
23rd September.

Dear Sir,

I must say I was pleased to hear from an old Oxfordshire and especially one as famous as yourself. I was very fond of the regiment and was quite sorry to retire my commission at the end of 1815, due to ill health.

In reference to your request concerning information my memory might have on a Lawrence Alexander Bennet serving at any time in my officers, I am happy to report that someone under this name did in the years you desired. He brought an Ensign's commission in the year 1808, just before Vimeiro, if I recollect correctly, and served with our regiment for all the battles that you mention, bar the last.

This is where sir my information contradicts yours. Whether this is by common error or an unreliable memory, I am uncertain. I am certain however, that Lawrence Bennet was promoted to Captain and tragically died within only a year of gaining this rank in the chaos that was Quatre Bra. His body was recovered and buried with full honours on the Battlefield and the appropriate information regarding him was sent to Horseguards. They should be able to confirm this.

I hope my information has been of some use to you sir.

Walter Palmerston-Rivers.


1. Quartre Bra was a crossroads near Waterloo which the Duke of Wellington and his army were called on to defend in order to keep a free path for the Prussians to come to his assistance to defeat Napoleon.


Chapter XXXIX.

Longbourn, 28th September 1820.

Lawrence rounded the corner of the front of Longbourn for what must have been the fifth time that morning. And for almost as many times he asked himself once again what he was doing. Experience should have taught him by now that waiting outside a house that he was trying to deceive for a letter that nobody was supposed to know about was not very wise at the best of times.

Still however, he was beginning his sixth walk around the estate. The express he was expecting could not fall into anyone's hands but his own, which the sole reason why he had been touring Longbourn since the early hours of the morning. Breakfast had been the only thing to stop his wandering and luncheon was soon to do the same.

And now, he was beginning to wonder at the flimsiness of the aforementioned reason. For it was stupid to suppose that anyone would try to read the letter. He should have simply trusted a servant to deliver the letter to him without alerting any one else to its arrival. However, past events had taught Lawrence that servants were always loyal to the owner of the household before any other. This was why he was waiting himself.

For he had discovered that Mr Bennet was suspicious of him.

This revelation he had learnt last night. Chance discovery of a letter from a certain Richard Fitzwilliam of Rosings Park to Mr Edmund Bennet had brought forth the inevitable conclusion. How long Mr Bennet had retained these suspicions and exactly what suspicions he had was uncertain. Possibly since his arrival in the neighbourhood.

The knowledge had given Lawrence mixed emotions. Anger, both at himself and at Mr Bennet, the former for not convincing everyone well enough, the latter for seeing through his disguise. Relief, strangely enough, was another. In a way he was glad that he had been found out and Mr Bennet had chosen to keep it silent.

Doubt was the third. Concern that his trail was either hidden too well or was not hidden enough. He had left few clues to his origins in his tale of his past, and Lawrence feared now that these clues were about to cost him dearly. In fact, fear was by far the most underlying emotion in his mind. Fear what discovery would do to him, both in the short and long term. What it could cost him. What he could lose.

This realisation came upon Lawrence just as he began his seventh circuit of the house. Only to be forced to push this thought to the back of his head as Mr Bennet came to meet him, with a cheerful "good morning," forcing Lawrence to reply in kind.

"Good morning, sir," he returned, desperately hoping that Mr Bennet would not delay him too long.

"I came to ask what on earth it is you are doing out here? I have seen you pass my window at least four times."

"Merely thinking, sir. I did not realise I was walking in circles. My mind was obviously too wrapped up to notice the surroundings."

If the reader thinks Mr Bennet was convinced by this statement, then they would be very wrong. He knew exactly why Lawrence was constantly passing the front of the house, although he had no idea whatsoever what the letter could contain to worry the man so much as try and pretend it had never come. Nor was he concerned in trying to find out, for he knew well that such a task would be impossible.

His purpose in meeting him was this; pure fascination to see how he dealt with it. And so far, Lawrence had dealt with it well. His tone did not display frustration or concern. His manner was portraying a calmed personality, without any subtle hinting for Mr Bennet to go away. Here in front of him was a well accomplished actor.

"Well," he remarked after awhile, "if you are concerned in your thoughts I shall bother you no longer. Unless of course you need someone to share them with?"

Lawrence shook his head and Mr Bennet walked away. As soon as he had disappeared, he heaved a sigh of relief. The return of his fears however soon put pay to that relief. What he could lose. Despite their initial mistrust he had gained some friends here, friends that he would assuredly lose as soon as his deception was revealed. He could no longer ignore that, however much he wished to do so.

One of those friends in particular, that he had come to consider as more than a friend....... Resolutely he tried to push that thought away, in fear of the trail of thoughts and emotions that it led to. He began his eight circuit of the path, trying in vain to think of something else to occupy his mind with. It was useless worrying himself on what might have been, for it was unlikely to ever happen. What's meant to be will be, Lawrence reminded his rebellious mind, there is nothing accomplish in trying to change it by sheer will power alone. It is pointless dwelling on it.

For once it was relief that he felt as he came in sight of Mrs Bennet. She was just the person to distract his thoughts.

"Ah my dear boy," Mrs Bennet began in her enthusiastic tones. Glad that her prodigal son had returned at last, and what's more, had returned single, she had fully engaged herself in the task she was best suited to. Matchmaking. "The Goldings are having a little evening dinner two nights hence and you are invited. And they have two unmarried daughters, either of whom would be perfect for you. Of course, they are not the best match one can have, but seeing as there is very little else in the neighbourhood............."

Lawrence by now was beginning to regret actually wanting some distraction from his thoughts. Usually Mrs Bennet would talk about the gossip of the village, giving him both a welcome insight and a chance to escape his over active imagination. This time however, she was unwittingly talking about a subject that happened to be not far from the thoughts he had wanted to escape from.

Added to this her talk was only making those thoughts even worse. Lawrence had not spent too much time with his 'mother' but he knew her character well. When his deception was revealed, any dreams of his might as well be quitted now, because she would put them all on hold forever. Inwardly sighing, he looked up at Mrs Bennet and tried to appear interested, praying that she would depart soon.

And, although it would turn out to be a mixed blessing, she did. "Well, I think I have exalted them enough for you to be able to choose which one you like two nights from now. Oh, do not look so worried my dear boy. You will thank me in the end." Thus, with this parting- actually Lawrence was not entirely sure how to interpret it -Mrs Bennet left him alone as he reached the front door of Longbourn for the eleventh time.

Only to meet the form of another person he did not want to see right now.

Lydia.

"Lawrence," She cried in joy as he came to a stop in front of her, gentleman sense overriding his fear. "I was hoping to see you."

"You were, why?" He tried to ask collectedly, but instinctively feeling that he had failed rather abysmally.

He had. "For this very reason. You've been avoiding me for days. What's wrong?"

When all else fails, play stupid. "Nothing's wrong."

"Lawrence, I am not that blind. And even though you might not think it, I'll wager I can take what ever it that is bothering you. Just tell me."

Lawrence stood still and looked at her. His mouth opened, ready to tell her his traditional response. That nothing was wrong. Everything was fine and he had not been avoiding her at all. He was merely waiting for a letter from an old friend. Nothing to worry about. This time however, his mind took over, closing his mouth and causing him to commit the one mistake that could eventually be his undoing.

He hesitated. Actually hesitated. All his reasons, all his reluctance to actually tell anyone, suddenly came crashing down in his mind. In that one blinding, yet, strangely, blissful, all encompassing moment, he did not care. Not about the possibilities, or the consequences, or her reaction, in fact not any of their reactions, all he cared about was...............

And then suddenly as the revelation came to be voiced aloud in his mind, it was gone and he found himself back in the harsh reality. Unconsciously, his shoulders drooped, and his head hung as he replied to Lydia's question. With a complete and utter lie. "Everything's fine. I'm sorry if it feels like I have been avoiding you. Its just hard to get away from here some times."

"Indeed it is," Lydia agreed, her mind not believing a word of it for one second. She let him walk away, too tired to even try to force it out of him. What's wrong, Lawrence, she asked silently, wishing he could hear her and knowing it to be impossible at the same time. What is this thing that you feel is too big for me to know? Don't you trust me?

Lydia had this running through her mind as she turned back to Netherfield. It did not matter that Lawrence could not answer, her own insecurities overriding any need for him to reply. All the days spent trying to repair her fragile self esteem were now seeming failures as she tried to confront the reasons why Lawrence would hide anything from her.

No anger accompanied the thoughts, only disappointment and despair. That he did not trust her. That he feared to tell her. She who had trusted him with every single part of her past and her present. She who expected him to respect her as much as she respected him. She, who, out of the entire family, saw him not as someone to distrust, but as merely himself. Not Lawrence Alexander Bennet, but simply a man. A man had treated her as an equal. A man whom she was only just beginning to realise the extent of, that she cared about.


Chapter XL.

Rosings Park, 29th September 1820.

Richard announced his rather unexpected departure that morning over breakfast to entire company as a whole.

"I need to go to London for a few days," he began simply, not adding why.

The response was surprise and enquiry from all, prompting him to remember that he had yet to explain his reasons to them all.

"Horseguards will not accept a simple letter, no matter how much I dress it up. They will delay and then most likely present me with the bare facts, not details. I will try not to be too long." This last Richard directed at his wife, knowing her concerns.

"I do not mind my dear," Anne replied placing her hand on his as her mother looked at them disapprovingly. It was not that Lady Catherine objected to her daughter's marriage, she just disliked the display of public affection at the breakfast table. Or indeed any table, for that matter. Anne kept the gesture short as she added, "I understand your desire to help."

Elizabeth looked at the two of them with guilt. "Cousin, you do not need to go to all this trouble. I am sure we might be able to find the solution without......."

Richard cut her off. "That is just the reason why I am going, Lizzy. I do not think you will find the solution without some tangible assumptions to back it up. I did not want to tell you this before, but I think I must, for it complicates everything even more than this whole mystery was before. I received a letter two days ago from the Colonel of the Oxfordshire. He was convinced that Lawrence Bennet was dead."

Elizabeth looked at her cousin in law in shock. "What?"

"According to him, Lawrence died just before Waterloo. This is why I need to go. If we confronted him with this piece of evidence, he could easily dismiss it as a mistake on his Colonel's part. Horseguards however, can confirm this for certain. They can also point the way to his real identity, whatever that is." Richard paused and looked at Mrs Darcy carefully. "Please, Lizzy, do not tell anyone of this rather startling piece of news just yet. As I said, it can be easily disproved. We still need some more incriminating than Colonel Palmerston-Rivers assurances."

Elizabeth nodded, concealing the frustration inside. Richard did not to hear it right now. Nor did he deserve to. It was him after all that had got them this close. She just needed to be patient for a little while longer. "Thank you Richard," she uttered instead. "For everything."

"Don't thank me yet, Lizzy. We have awhile to wait before this ends."


Indeed they did.

Richard spent the rest of the morning with his wife and children, as the occupants of Rosings made an effort to give them time alone before they had to say their goodbyes. They renewed their vows of devotion to each other and discussed what plans he had for his return. By midday he was reluctantly ready to leave.

His farewell to his wife was almost the same as his cousin's to his only a few days ago. Promises to write as soon as there was news to relay, if he could not write every day. She promised not to reply as he gave assurance that his absence would only be as long as was necessary. His lips touched hers, the world disappeared for a few blissful seconds, and then he mounted his horse and galloped away.

Anne turned to Elizabeth who offered her a comforting arm as they returned to the house behind Lady Catherine. Both remained silent, each hoping that the mystery would soon be unravelled. And that Richard would return with the proof that they desperately needed.


Oakham Mount, late evening.

Lawrence waited impatiently for the figure that he had met some days ago. The express had arrived finally at the midnight hour of the day he had made his countless walks around the Longbourn estate. It had given him the order he had expected, thus causing no surprise to his already conflicted state of mind. However, it still proved damaging to his equilibrium, for it turned his imaginings into the cold hard and future reality, which he could not escape.

"You sent for me?" A voice suddenly asked, startling him out of his thoughts.

"I did. I received word yesterday."

"What are we to do with him then?"

"We wait. They are undecided as yet on how they want to deal with him. Keep your watch on him, make sure he does not learn who you are. Move him from the 'Fish' to some where less crowded. Perhaps that abandoned farm on the outskirts of Meryton. Make sure he does not know his location. The last thing we want is for him to escape."

The figure nodded and departed from the mount, leaving Lawrence alone to his thoughts once more. He had just lied for the second time in as many days and it left him feeling just as wretched as when he had committed the first. He was not meant to wait. They had already decided what they wanted to do with man that he had held in his custody for almost a week. It was just him that was hesitating.

Again.

He knew the reason why, even though he wished he did not. It was fear, pure and simple. Fear that he was not up to the task they wanted him to perform. Fear of what it would turn him into, that it would make him different some how, despite all his similar actions in the past. Fear that, no matter how careful he was, no matter how much he planned, it would be spotted by someone. Fear of who would, or rather could, witness his part in it. Fear that they would not understand, nor want to do so. Or, worse still, that they did.

Certainty that they would change their opinion forever about him because of it. That he would never be able to return to any of them without them remembering what he did and holding him accountable for it. There were some things that could be forgiven, but Lawrence knew already that, whatever the future still held for him, this one action that he had to take would change the perception forever of everyone who regarded as a friend, or, ultimately, as a gentleman. He would be shunned for eternity.

All this because of this one simple act.

He also knew that he could not avoid it, as much as he wanted to. That if he tried to, it would haunt him until the end of his days upon this earth and beyond. That more, so much more, was riding on him completing this task than how the people he cared about regarded him, or how he regarded himself. That, inevitably, it depended on him to set things in motion, without thought for whom he could possibly hurt.

This destiny had been written for him before he had even arrived in Meryton, and there was no point in trying to escape it now. He had to think of the important things, not the ones that matter to him, but the things that mattered to the people that were depending on him to accomplish this task. That believed him capable of the mission. That were counting on him to perform as they expected him to do. These people's perception were the ones that mattered at the end of the day, not the ones that barely knew him. Those that only saw him as Lawrence, not as his real self.

Yet still he hesitated. Still he wished for divine intervention to swoop down and change things so he could accomplish his mission and return to the life he was living without any drastic consequences. So he would not lose the one thing, the one person that he had come to care for the most.


Chapter XLI.

Rosings Park, 2nd October 1820.

 

Pemberley
Sept 29th.

My Darling Elizabeth,

Relief soars through me as I write this letter to you, assured in the knowledge that you will read these words with as much joy as I write them, when I announce that my brother in law and I will arrive at Rosings on October 5th. The estate has been well looked after by Mr & Mrs Reynolds, ensuring my early return to you, my love, and to our children.

I hope that this has eased your concerns as to what is happening in Longbourn, as we will soon learn all that we can when we return to there. Would the 10th as our arrival date be agreeable to you? It will give us all time for a respite and myself a chance to see if Richard has anything left to tell me, that is if he has returned before we leave. It will also give you and I a chance of some time alone and with our children before the rigours of Meryton are set upon us.

My heart and thoughts are with you and I know that I can entrust them to your safekeeping until I return. It is my fondest wish that this year we shall spend December in Derbyshire, providing of course that the mystery of Lawrence Bennet is solved by then. It has been far too long since we have celebrated Christmas at Pemberley.

Ever mine, ever thine, ever for each other,

Fitzwilliam Darcy.

Indeed, it would be hard to imagine that Elizabeth read these words with any other emotion than joy or happiness. In a marriage such as theirs where the affection and devotion was frequent and the separation was rare, this absence had been reluctantly undertaken and she was most heartily glad that it ended where it did. She looked forward to receiving her husband in three days time.

Already her mind was anticipating the loving welcome that she would give to Fitzwilliam and the one she would receive in return. Her mind was relieved of the concerns she had had over the lack of news from her father about Lawrence, as the date of their departure arose to be not far away.


In the relative silence of a wood panelled room of a old stately building, an ancient mantle clock began to sound out the hour. Other clocks in the building followed suit, their mechanisms moving in time to the dull echo of each chime that signalled when to stop and start again.

This sudden noise seemed like a starting pistol as it woke the rest of the building into existence. Muffled conversing could now be heard in what was previously thought empty rooms. Outside meanwhile the sounds of horses accompanied by the shouts of their drivers, awoke the occupants of this building to the normal hubbub that served to identify the busy streets of Britain's capital city.

It was in this same panelled room in of the many chairs that graced the walls which signified the confines of the room, that Richard Fitzwilliam sat. The gentleman in question was at this very moment attempting to fight the opposing force of tiredness, having only just arrived to this city, thanks to the speed of his horses. He was waiting for the office that contained his contact to empty and admit him in.

Certainly to the impartial observer the building of Horseguards seemed to be very busy on this the last day of September. In this waiting room apart from Mr Fitzwilliam there sat many persons engaged in a similar occupation to our friend and one extremely harassed secretary. His desk was, unhappily for him, placed in the centre of the room, an ideal position for many of the other waiting persons to reach. Upon his desk lay many papers and books, all of varying size and composition, but all troublesome and time consuming.

These two factors together resulted in a long and engrossing day for the secretary. These were not his only problems however, for the man that he worked for was of a disposition that inclined to encourage lengthy conversation with his visitors- regularly on his side, rarely on theirs -resulting in him being often behind with his appointments, forcing the secretary to excuse his actions to every irate and impatient occupant of the room.

For our friend Richard Fitzwilliam though, this was not his disposition. He was quite content to wait out the delays as his mind was fast losing the battle to stay awake. We shall leave him now, as his eyes close and his ears shut out the bustle and hustle that is London.


Netherfield.

Georgiana Blakeney finally gave up her lonely occupancy of the Netherfield Music room and went in search of the person that should have joined her there some three hours ago. This person had become a close friend of hers since their acquaintance in August. Her unusual lateness was causing Georgiana some concern for those very reasons.

A search of the house proved fruitless and it was only when she stepped outside that Mrs Blakeney found the friend she was looking for. The lady in question was sitting by herself on a bench at the boundary of the wilderness.

"Lydia," Georgiana began as she reached the widowed Miss Bennet, who seemed at first perfectly well. However, as soon as Mrs Blakeney faced her friend she found the opposite the case. "Lydia, why are you crying? What is the matter?"

Lydia looked up at her friend, the tears in her eyes clouding her vision. "Oh, Georgie," she began, in a vain attempt to sound normal. "I am so so sorry. I had no idea it was so late. Forgive me, I shall be with you in a moment."

Georgiana looked at her friend tenderly. "Lydia, I know you are not well. Please tell me what distresses you so?"

"It is nothing, really," she replied, wiping her eyes with the handkerchief in her hands.

"It must be more than nothing to cause you such grief." Georgiana sat down beside her friend and took hold on her hands. "Lydia, you and I have been friends for not very long, but you know my once deepest fears and I would like it if you bestowed the same confidence in me by telling me why you are crying."

Lydia took a deep breath and gazed up into her friend's eyes. "I feel so stupid for working myself up about this, but I cannot seem to help it. It is about Lawrence."

"About Mr Lawrence Bennet?" Georgiana questioned, puzzled. "What has he to do with this?"

"For some days now I have had this feeling that he has been hiding something from me. He even as much admitted it to me once. But he has not told me what it is. And since I asked, I feel like he has been avoiding me. When I confronted him about two days ago he hesitated and then pretended it was nothing." Lydia paused to sniff and then added, "I do not see why he does not trust me. I have trusted him with almost all of my grief's and he refuses to even confide one in me."

Georgiana was at a loss. She had not seen Lawrence for several days, as his visits to Netherfield had decreased somewhat. What his sole purpose to avoid Lydia? Georgiana could not believe it. Yet it had caused her such distress. Yet, given her friend's fragile state, one which without the help of Lawrence in the first place would never have been repaired, it seemed a possibility. "Do you want me to talk to him?"

"Oh no, I am sure it is just me. I shall be fine Georgie, just give me a few minutes and I shall be myself."

Mrs Blakeney could see yet without spectacles and so she knew that Lydia would not be herself after only a few minutes. Allowing her that time however, she stood up and with a comforting farewell to her friend and the assurance that she would take some respite, Georgiana parted from her and went off in search of the only person who could solve Lydia's grief.


Chapter XLII.

Longbourn, 2nd October 1820.

Upon arriving at Longbourn only minutes after consoling and talking to Lydia, Lawrence was, rather conveniently, nowhere to be found. Georgiana decided instantly upon discovering this that to ask anyone of his location would prove fruitless, and ultimately bring up too many questions. So it was with some trepidation that she carefully crept into the house, hoping not to encounter Mrs Bennet during her short journey from the front door to the library.

Mr Bennet was seated in an armchair in this very sanctum, wrapped up in a satirical volume, but agreeable to being disturbed, as long as it was not by his lively- and I do not use this term in its mildest sense -wife. He quite surprised though when Mrs Blakeney asked for admittance.

"Mrs Blakeney, what brings you to Longbourn?" He instantly remarked in a friendly tone.

"Oh, Georgiana please, I feel positively ancient when anyone calls me that," Georgiana replied as she took the seat that Mr Bennet gestured. "I came because I am concerned about Lydia. As you know myself and your son have undertaken the task to try and help her recover."

"Yes, and I am most grateful that you have. What has changed?"

"Well, I went to find her today after she neglected to meet me for piano lessons. I found her crying in the Netherfield grounds." Georgiana paused and looked up at Mr Bennet as she delivered her point. "I think Lydia needs to be made aware of our suspicions about Lawrence for she is convinced that he is hiding something from her. She is distressed that he does not trust her. I would confront your son myself but I fear it will only complicate matters even further."

Yes, indeed it would. Mr Bennet had grown silent upon hearing this news. He had hoped not tell Lydia the suspicions that the majority of the family held about the mystery that was Lawrence until it was solved, but now it seemed as if his hand on that score was about to be forced. "Very well, I'll see what I can do."

Georgiana nodded, thanked him and then departed, feeling calmed by Mr Bennet's assurance. The latter himself though, was less than confident on his ability to solve the matter that she had brought to his attention.

Edmund had been putting off confronting Lawrence, despite his impatience to see the matter put to rest. Now however due to Lydia, the situation had left him with two choices. And neither of them were anything to be optimistic about. The first and by far the hardest, was to throw caution to the winds and confront Lawrence in the vain hope that he could bluff his way into convincing him that the truth- instead of discretion -was the better part of valour.

By those standards alone the plan was clearly lacking in merits. Mr Bennet doubted much in the way of its probable success. All it required to be thwarted was for Lawrence to simply deny it at every turn. And even if he did not, Edmund was not sure if he had enough with which to bluff with in the first place.

By comparison the second choice was much more appealing. That was to try and tell Lydia their suspicions. Yet this in itself would also equally be hard. Lawrence had been a very good friend to his daughter until now. If Lydia was made aware of his possible deception, however uncertain they were of it at present, her trust in him could be destroyed forever.

He and Georgiana had been the only two of the extended Bennet family that she had placed her loyalty with completely. Mr Bennet was afraid that she would never recover from this and that they would lose all the ground they had made in the previous months. If there was the slightest chance of this outcome not occurring, it depended on Lydia being stronger than she was, or having more close friends in their family.

Thus, to accomplish all of this, Mr Bennet needed the one thing he was rapidly running out of.

Time.


Horseguards, London.

The ancient mantle clock in that wood panelled room had struck two more hours since Richard Fitzwilliam had been called into see his contact, not to mention the further two hours that he had spent waiting- and sleeping -in order to meet the man in the first place. A great deal however had changed in that little amount of time.

A great deal and none of it expected.

Richard had left the office stunned. And that was putting it mildly. He had not even expected his friend to tell him all, let alone admit that there was actually a farce to begin with. In fact, before entering the office, during the sleeping two hours wait, he had been questioning his authority to demand such a confidence in the first place.

After all, his resignation from the intelligence staff of the army had taken place two years ago, effectively closing all avenues of communication to any normal decommissioned officer. His own contacts had only been kept open to him by pure luck more than anything else. To learn all of this had been taking place in just two years was enough to cause everyone shock.

Of course, he had known that something was afoot, indeed who could not have deduced it to be so. But what that thing had been was anyone's guess. No doubt when the matter came to the light of the public eye- if indeed it ever did -no one could ever even try to claim that they had foreseen this. Certainly he had not. If someone had told him of it when it first went into motion, Richard would had told them they were in need of visiting the nearest bedlam.

The whole thing seemed in theory so preposterous. Yet it was reality, that was undeniable now. There was also the matter that it was unethical in the extreme. The motives for it however, were surprisingly justifiable. After all, the first tried and tested removal had failed in only a year after being put into action. The chances of the same thing working for longer, were thus considerably unlikely. It seemed wiser then, in the best interests of security, to make the second plan have a rather more permanent end. And this end without a doubt was certainly permanent.

How had they ever managed to accomplish such a thing? Richard could not help but wonder. The objective of the plan alone seemed far too liable of discovery. There were also far too many loopholes. The slightest wrong detail could throw the entire thing out into the open, and worsen matters far more than they would have turned out, had they left it alone altogether. It required too many people to be trusted with the knowledge of it, especially of those that they had previously no reason to trust before. It would only take one, just one of them to be found out or betray them, and the entire plan would fail again.

And obviously, someone had. Otherwise Richard would not be here at Horseguards hearing this story in the first place. To provide a back up was also risky, for it opened the original plan to failure without even attempting that very plan beforehand. It depended ultimately on trusting one man to do a thing that could land him in jail in any other circumstances. It also counted on them finding enough creditable evidence in order to have the justification in the place.

Furthermore, they had to trust the man they sent out to commit the task smoothly, quietly, discreetly, and, above all, as quickly as possible. The slightest delay could prove to be his error and, incidentally, his end. And the authority that he would depend upon to protect him would drop him at the first sign of such a mistake. Preferring to save themselves before saving him.

In conclusion it required their best man. And Richard knew that they already had him.


Chapter XLIII.

Longbourn 3rd October 1820.

It was the coward's way out. There was no point denying it. What Mr Bennet had elected to do was a clear display of just how much he feared confronting Lawrence. But, he had questioned, was it really wise confronting someone with only the evidence of a retired Military Lieutenant Colonel to support the ascertain that his supposed son was dead? Mr Bennet thought not, and it was this conclusion that had propelled him to travel to Netherfield the next morning to see what he could do to help Lydia.

He found her at first impressions in a more collected state of mind than that which Georgiana Blakeney had presented to him yesterday. However, when he sat down opposite her and observed more closely, the contrast was profound. Dark circles, paled by makeup but still visible to the naked eye, showing a clear lack of needed sleep, lay upon her face. The eyes themselves looked wearied, by grief as well as tiredness.

She greeted him with a decided distracted manner that wished to be anywhere but here. Even Lydia's children had noticed their mother's distress and were strangely quiet, every now and again glancing anxiously at the two adults in the room, wishing they could help and yet uncertain as to how.

After sitting with her a minute or two in silence, Edmund Bennet finally roused enough courage to speak. "Well, my dear girl," he began, "what would you have me say?"

Lydia looked up at her father. His initial start surprised her in both its unusualness and its acuteness. Before this she had given her father up as an enigma never to be understood by her, let alone anyone else besides Elizabeth. Now, she had found to have much in common with him. "I wish I knew what I wanted to hear," Lydia replied. "Mostly I am too much ashamed of myself to wish for any comfort."

"Ashamed of yourself?" Mr Bennet repeated, concerned and puzzled at his youngest's use of the phrase. "My dear, it is myself who is at fault, not you. I should have informed the entire family, not just the selected few I thought could be trusted. Despite all this though, I have hopes that the matter will resolve itself for the good. My only worry is what it does to you."

"Have no fear for me, sir," Lydia tried to reassure him. "It is only a feeling; it will soon pass, probably more quickly than it should."

Mr Bennet inwardly shuddered at his daughter's unconscious repetition of a phrase that he had used eight years ago. And look where that led, he reminded himself. Getting up from his seat, Mr Bennet took the space by her and, taking her hand, he began earnestly, "Lydia, listen to me. You have nothing to blame yourself for. Nothing. What ever Lawrence's past actions, I am certain that his attentions to you have been undertaken out of a genuine concern for you. He never meant to hurt you. Do not fall into the same trap that I did. Arise out of this and look at the positive things you have. There is one great certainty in life, my dear. That what ever happens, your family will always welcome and love you."


Later, as he walked back to Longbourn, Edmund Bennet thought over all that he had said to Lydia and all that had she had replied with, noting the comparisons, and checking his surety on the tone. He had the horrible feeling that the little he had said, had done nothing to change her state of mind.

Too late, he mused, one thinks of things they should have said. Resolutely he shied away from dwelling on that point. His time was running out. Lawrence needed to be confronted, regardless of the consequences. At least, if not about his suspicions, he had to realise what he had done to Lydia. She had not the strength of most of his daughters. It had all been used to survive her first marriage.

At the conclusion of that thought, Mr Bennet again shivered. And it was not due to the increasing signs of winter. He was completely used to blaming himself on Lydia's first marriage, for he had all but pushed her into it. He knew all too well by now that if he could go back and change things he would.

As the years increased he had found he had much to be ashamed of, least of all how he had raised his children.

As he arrived at his front door, his housekeeper was waiting outside for him. Slowly Mr Bennet shook himself out of his depression and tried to appear jovial. "And what can I do for you, Mrs Hill? Is Mrs Bennet wanting me?"

"No, sir. I thought it best to keep this until you returned. It is an express for you from London, sir." And with that, Hill handed over the letter she held in her hands.

Mr Bennet thanked her and walked inside, heading straight for his study. After locking the door he sat down and instantly turned the express over. The seal identified the sender at once. Immediately, he opened it.

The express ran as follows;

 

Matlock House
London.

Sir,

I felt it best to inform you of this right away, as matters are fast falling out of my control.

As I made you aware by my last missive, I have recently travelled to town in order call upon a old friend of mine at Horseguards, Lord ______. Needless to say, I hardly expected him to even admit that something was a foot, let alone tell me the entire story.

Nevertheless, this is was he has in fact done. At first I was mystified and certain that it was a falsehood, but his evidence checked out. The story, or rather the truth as I should call it now, is undeniably sound.

And remarkably cunning.

But to resume. I must warn you that greater forces at work here than just the question of entail. You must not, confront Lawrence yet, whatever occurs. I have a few more things to check out, and then I will travel down to you myself and we will confront him together. His truth is one of the utmost secrecy, and cannot revealled to all and sundry.

Although you may hear from me or of me later, I cannot tell you all until a certain date has passed and my contact writes to me, giving me permission to do so. Matters are of such a delicate nature right now as to make the story he has to tell is quite likely the one thing to put him in danger.

Lastly, it is my suspicion that his real identity is familiar to me, which is why his recollection of me was accurate.

Until then, my regards.
Good luck.

Richard Fitzwilliam.



Chapter
XLIV.

Rosings Park, 4th October 1820.

Richard Fitzwilliam surprised his entire family by returning to Rosings a day before the expected arrival of his cousins, when he had assured them all that he had not planned to be in Kent at all for quite some time.

Needless to say, his greeting to his wife was everything that was due to her, complete with loving embrace and kisses exchanged, before announcing that he could not stay long and in fact, must be off as soon as the next day arose its head.

Of course this information produced great consternation for all occupants of Rosings, least of all Richard's immediate family. Objections from Anne soon flooded the rooms up to the one where her mother and cousin in law resided, clearly heard by both.

Mrs Darcy chose not to remark upon it, knowing that her opinion to try and be peacemaker could only worsen the situation. Lady Catherine however, had no compunction to remain silent. As soon as Richard was through the door her wrath was assailed upon him.

"Richard Arundel Fitzwilliam," She began in a tone that must be familiar to all who knew her, one that caused several occupants of the Drawing Room to a strong desire to remain unnoticed by the Mistress of Rosings Park, or better still, be as far away from her Ladyship as was humanly possible. "I demand an explanation."

Richard inwardly shuddered, a response repeated by all. His wife instantly quieted and sat down in the nearest chair, casting her eye about the room in an effort to find something with which to occupy herself with. At last, she fixed upon a piece of unfinished lace and set about working on it. "For what Aunt?" Her husband replied, and then wished the words unsaid.

"You know very well what for," Lady Catherine angrily responded. "How dare you presume that you can arrive and depart whenever you wish. You must remember that you are still a guest in my house and shall remain so for quite some time."

Elizabeth looked up at the last part at her Aunt and then quickly looked back down at her book again. She could have sworn that Lady Catherine had an amused glint in her eyes.

Unfortunately, Richard did not notice this and fell right into the trap. "Aunt, you know that I am very much caught up in..........."

"Enough, I do not want to hear excuses," Lady Catherine interrupted. "You are my son in law now and as such you will treat my wishes as requests." It must be noted here that the word request bore a startling resemblance to order right now. "So if I request you to stay with us for longer than a mere twelve hours, then you will do so." She paused and then added in a strident tone, "have I made myself clear?"

"Yes Aunt," Richard replied meekly, as his wife, who had seen through her Aunt's ploy as well now, tried to hide her smile.

"Good," Lady Catherine concluded and motioned to her nephew that he could sit down. "Then you shall stay until Darcy returns."

Richard inwardly sighed and stupidly, tried to convince his Aunt for reprieve. "But Aunt Catherine......"

"No, I will not brook refusal. My daughter has missed your presence much and I can no longer stand the constant display of grief at the dinner table."

Richard gazed at Anne in surprise whereupon Elizabeth could contain her amusement no longer. She closed her book and excused herself from the room, pausing to whisper in Lady Catherine's ear on her way. "Very well played."

Her Aunt, once enemy now friend, smiled at her in reply, causing Richard to groan as he suddenly realised he had been played.


Later, as Elizabeth set her children to bed, her cousin in law joined her. "Elizabeth, I need to warn you."

"What about, Richard?" Mrs Darcy asked, instantly concerned.

"When you return to Longbourn, please make sure your father has not confronted Lawrence Bennet. I have already requested that he does not, but I fear I did not make my point clear enough. I was in a rush to return."

"Of course, I will make sure but why this sudden concern?" Elizabeth asked, looking at Mr Fitzwilliam worriedly.

"Because I have discovered what exactly the truth is and at the moment, nothing can be done. We have to wait until I receive permission from my contact before anyone tries to confront the man."

" But..."

"Please, cousin Elizabeth, trust me. You do not want to ask this question yet. I rather wish that I myself had not done so either."

"Very well, I shall make sure we wait."

"Thank you," Richard replied, relieved. "I am sorry to be so mysterious, but it is out of my hands to be anything else."


Chapter XLV.

Rosings Park, 5th October 1820.

It was unmistakable. The sound was quite distinct. It could be nothing else. Two horses, in the process of slowing down from a gallop to a trot, were definitely pounding upon the gravel of the front drive.

The entire company of Lady Catherine, including the venerable lady herself, had thrown all thought of Luncheon aside the minute they had identified the sounds to assemble outside the house and were now waiting for the noise to acquire the flesh of visibility.

Sure enough the two horses complete with riders were soon to be seen cantering up towards the welcoming committee that awaited their presence. Darcy was the first to arrive. He brought his horse to controlled halt beside his wife and was dismounted from it in an instant, his arms wrapping Elizabeth in an embrace only seconds later. He was hot, exhausted, dirty and he was sure he smelt of horse, but neither could give a damn. His lips rapidly met hers and the world disappeared.

For a time the remaining occupants of the gravelled drive, Bingley included, were content to let the couple stay in that tender reunion. However it soon became clear that neither one of them would be willing to part from each other very soon. Indeed if anything the kiss had intensified and both had seemed to forget that there were others with them. The company took a look at each other and mutually- and silently -decided to leave them alone. Quietly, they retreated to the warmth of the house.

At last, as the need to breathe overwhelmed them, Darcy reluctantly broke from his wife, his arms still wrapped around her. "I have missed you, Elizabeth," he uttered huskily, speaking her name like it was an elixir.

"And I you, Fitzwilliam," she returned the compliment. Darcy pressed his forehead to hers, and closed his eyes, revelling in the nearness of her after too many days spent in separation. However did I manage without her? He pondered rhetorically, not really caring to know or even contemplate the answer. He leant to kiss her lips once more, before taking her hand and leading her away to the more private grounds.

As they walked in comfortable silence in quest of a private sanctuary, Darcy found himself revelling the company of only his wife, a event which in recent times was rare indeed. His mind contemplated the wonder of holding her hand, the richness of the sparkle in her eyes, the way that she walked and the hold that she had upon him, which he frequently and quite happily surrendered to.

Before they had married he had freely admitted to himself that he was a man bewitched, yet now that term was fast becoming an understatement. Her eyes still fascinated him, her mind still hypnotised his own and her love and loyalty to him was always awe-inspiring. That she could love him so much after all their misunderstandings and the rather troublesome beginning to their courtship was both wonderful and humbling. His own devotion to her was as equally as powerful, assured by knowledge that it had hers in return for eternity. He valued every moment with her, and would trade everything he possessed for just one more minute spent with her in is arms.

Elizabeth was also revelling this reunion. These past days and night without her husband by her side had caused her much heartache. She dearly wished that they were at their home now and truly alone. However, this privacy of Rosings' grounds far away from the house and thus all of civilisation was a satisfying compromise. Her love for Darcy had grown so much over these past years of blissful marriage.

Time and time again did she find her mind marvelling over the extent and display of his devotion to her and to their children above all else that occupied his life. To her it was just as awe-inspiring to witness his willingness to put aside business in order spend more time with her as it was for him in witnessing her loyalty. There was nothing that he would not do for her.

Indeed she knew within a month of their marriage that she would not find a more loving nor more romantic husband. His absence from her would always result in the giving of a token or keepsake of his affection, from a dozen red roses exchanged always in February, to the drop pearl necklace that he had brought from London the time she had been too great with child to accompany him. His devotion was equally lavished upon their children, carefully dealt as it was to avoid spoilt behaviour.

At last they chanced upon a grove that was deserted of all but wildlife and picturesque countryside. Unconsciously both breathed a sigh of relief before turning to each other for another embrace. This time however it was of a much shorter duration. Darcy let his face stay close to hers, his fingers entwining themselves in her brown locks. "I am so happy to see you, my beloved," he whispered huskily.

Elizabeth acknowledged the endearment and returned with one of her own- which I will leave your imaginations to supply -before they reluctantly broke apart to sit beside each other on a overturned tree trunk that lay nearby. Slipping into the comfort that his arm around her shoulders afforded her, and the sensations that were left by his frequent touch of his lips to her forehead, she slowly began to tell him the things that she had not relayed in her letters. These, although seeming to be of a inconsequential nature, were nonetheless important to both them.

Most were of their children, their little mannerisms which she had found impossible to relay in the time that it would take to describe them. In turn, he relayed similar matters, such as the frequent comments of his housekeeper that he seemed to be always distracted. And how he had not managed to tolerate the emptiness of the bed that he had slept in only fitfully. Such comments naturally caused returned avowals or displays of affection and thus served to provide these tales with twice the amount of time likely needed to relay them.

Naturally, this did not matter to either of them.

The idyllic isolation, however hypnotically pleasurable, could not occupy them entirely. Reality, albeit unwelcome silently invade the pleasant countryside that they inhabited. Reluctantly Elizabeth and Darcy parted, returning hand in hand to Rosings Park.


After Luncheon had briefly reunited the occupants of the house all quitted the dining room till the evening. The Darcy family en masse retired outside, the children anxious to be in the company of both their parents once more.

Darcy was equally glad to see them. Rarely apart from his wife, likewise separation from his children was just as intolerable. Now as much as ever, he could no longer understand how he had managed for so many years being alone at Pemberley. True, he had not been completely alone, but the household was always quiet whenever he was there and Georgiana had always been at her lessons in town, a place he had tried to avoid as much as possible when he was still a bachelor. This recent visit to his home, it had struck him for the first time how empty the building had felt without his wife or children inhabiting some part of it.

Even when he could not see them, the mere knowledge of their presence was enough to keep this revelation away. During the past days however, the distance between them and himself had weighed heavily on his mind. Pemberley had seemed so empty, even more so, now that he had the ability to imagine it filled with his family. This thought had caused him much distraction during his work and it had taken the kind intervention of Mr and Mrs Reynolds to speeding up the process so he could return to Kent as quickly as possible.

Both knew all too well how much their master had needed a wife and children and they were more than pleased with the new mistress and heirs to the Darcy name. Thus, he valued this afternoon and was determined to make the most of it, before other things intervene. For the moment he purposefully forgot that there was troubling events in Hertfordshire, that they were in Kent for a reason, and that his cousin needed to speak with him before they returned to Longbourn. All he wanted to remember was that he was alone with his wife and children, and would be for quite some time.

The fates decided to be generous and complied with his wish for the entire afternoon until nature took over for a brief while and darkened the sky in recognition of the winter month. As the family retired back inside the perfect afternoon stayed in their minds, managing to conquer any disappointment over in its end that night serve to wipe their happiness away and replace it with concern over what could be happening at Longbourn in their absence. That would be dealt with tomorrow.


Chapter XLVI.

Hunsford Parsonage, 6th October 1820.

The events at Longbourn invaded into their lives all too soon. The next morning, straight after breakfast, Richard dragged his cousin away for a discussion that would turn out to take the best part of the day, leaving Elizabeth at loss as to what to do with that time, as their children were at their lessons.

It was this that made her decision and found her wrapping Imogen and herself up against the cold and making her way to Hunsford Parsonage. To her delight, Mr Collins was conveniently busy visiting his parishioners, leaving her the prospect of her idea; spending an agreeable day with Charlotte.

The lady in question was happy to comply with this. Despite having spent several days in Kent, the two friends had had little time to spend them together. And, as Elizabeth expected to depart tomorrow, today was only chance they would get for a while.

Charlotte seems happier than when I saw her last, Elizabeth thought as her friend greeted her with a smile and enquiry to her health and that of everyone at Rosings. She exclaimed over the weather, expressed the hope that her friend and Imogen were not too cold and declared gratitude to Lady Catherine for ordering that she come across in a carriage instead of on foot. The smile stayed as she ushered Elizabeth inside and into the warmth of her favourite room in the house. Elizabeth resolved to never let it slip throughout the day.

Mrs Collins also had a resolution. That was to keep the subject of events at Longbourn and Netherfield from entering the conversation as it was pointless to contemplate the probabilities that would in all likelihood turn out to be false when the Darcys arrived at Netherfield in a few days time. Any reference to them would cause her friend unnecessary anxiety, a thing which Charlotte was determined not to let occur.

Both resolutions seemed fine in theory but in practice they were liable to become unravelled. A conversation about the weather can only last for so long. Likewise of the events that had occupied them both during the past days, however finally detailed they were. The one issue that could remain a focus for the day was one that Elizabeth was determined not to mention, as it would only served to remind her friend of what she lacked. No, her children would not be mentioned, Mrs Darcy decided, allowing only Imogen to be an exception to this rule as her presence could not be ignored.

There was yet another resolution that needed to be added to their private lists, and, unlike the other three, it was one that Elizabeth doubted herself capable of keeping even for five minutes. That was to keep herself from worrying over what it was that Richard had dragged her husband away for. Could it be that matter her cousin in law had only referred to slightly on his return to Kent a few days ago? And if so, why could he not tell her but tell Fitzwilliam? If indeed, he was going to tell him anything.


Richard was at this very moment pondering that same thought as he delayed talking to his cousin over a game of Billiards. What exactly could he say that would on the one hand satisfy Darcy that his trip to London had been a complete success while preventing him from asking any questions on the other? Even the slightest hint to what he had found out would alert his cousin to situation that was afoot. And his cousin was no idiot.

No explanation had the ability to accomplish exactly the same thing, therefore placing him in difficult position as to why he had even dragged his cousin away from his wife in first place. Richard looked to his friend at that moment. Darcy was still patiently waiting for him to make his break, even though he had been standing over it for a good five minutes without uttering a word.

While this was an event in itself, Richard knew all too well that he could not put off the conversation for much longer. Reluctantly he gathered himself and leant down to make his shot. He then faced his cousin. "Darce, I confess I am now at a loss as to why I asked to talk with you this morning. Even though I resolved on doing so last night."

"I assume your visit to Horseguards went well then?" Darcy inquired as he took his turn. Unlike his cousin his preoccupation with his thoughts showed no effect on his skill at the game.

"It did," Richard admitted, "but it also placed me under an obligation that never crossed my mind until after the event."

"What sort of obligation?"

"One of absolute secrecy until such a time has past as to make that concealment unnecessary."

That got his cousin's attention. "You're serious?" He asked, as his shot went wide, leaving Richard to pick up the game.

"Regrettably so. There is one thing I can assure you of though. Lawrence Bennet is a man that can be trusted absolutely. The present deception was not one of his own making."

"Then you can confirm that he has deceived us?"

Damn! Richard's mind silently exclaimed before he replied to his cousin's sharp inquiry. "Yes, but that is all I can say. The rest needs his consent in order to be told."

"His consent?"

"Not only his, but also several others. Until then, please Darce, respect my silence. And trust me when I say that Lawrence is an honourable man."


Longbourn.

Mr Edmund Bennet laid aside Richard Fitzwilliam's express for the twenty-fourth time since he had first received it. Still the same questions occupied his mind, most particularly of all, whether or not he should heed the advice given. He had long been a stubborn man when it came to forming his own opinions and a change of habit now was likely to prove costly in its upkeep. What was so important that he waited for him before confronting the impostor? What was the matter that was 'greater than a question of entail' and could not be told to 'all and sundry?'

Mr Bennet was not sure if he could wait that long to find out. Particularly if he was just meant to leave the matter be at present. Suspicion was gathering in the daughters who had not been informed of his mistrust as to why he had yet to sort out the necessary papers and establish Lawrence as his rightful heir. Not to mention the fact that his wife had launched herself into the task of finding a wife for their 'dear son' as soon as propriety could allow.

The further the truth was delayed, the deeper would Lawrence be tied into not only the Bennet family but the neighbourhood as well. Already his position as the heir to Longbourn had firmly rooted itself in the minds of their gossiping neighbours. His cousin Mr Collins could likewise be relied upon to spread the matter around Kent as well, leaving few in their immediate acquaintance who knew the real situation at hand.

The was also the problem of Lydia. Since his last conversation with her Mr Bennet had received reports from Mrs Blakeney that she had seemed to have recovered, although was slightly more quiet than she had been since her initial improvement. Lawrence had taken to visiting her again but with less frequency and shorter duration each time.

Mr Bennet could only surmise as to why and the conclusions he had come up with were even more unsettling. Not only that, but they had the effect of making his desire to reveal the impostor all the more pressing. They also provided him with a well founded reason if he choose to act upon such desires.

But Mr Bennet did not feel comfortable in using his suspicion just to bring something to light that would be revealed soon enough anyway. And his involvement in such a matter he was sure would have the ability to harm that matter far more than concealing it ever would.

Such a supposition in itself should be sufficient for him to confront Lawrence still, but at this moment, it was having the opposite effect. You see, for all his deception, Mr Bennet could not help but like the man that was posing as his son and if his suspicion had the slightest element of truth in it, he was not about to go and ruin until he knew for certain that it might be required of him to do so.

With this conclusion in mind, Mr Bennet reluctantly realised, he was back to square one.


Chapter Text

Chapter XLVII.

From Rosings to Longbourn, 7th-10th October 1820.

The Darcys and Mr Bingley set off early from Rosings Park the next morning. Theirs was not the first departure, Richard Fitzwilliam had been before them, quitting for London late evening, despite the advice of his mother in law to wait until the morrow as 'the roads are apt to be most disagreeable when travelling at night'.

He was in no mood to be persuaded by such advice however. His reasoning was left unexplained to everyone but himself. He wished to try and dissuade his contact from the delay that he had put upon the truth being released, at least to the Bennet family.

Lady Catherine was thus a little out of humour when the Darcys announced their departure the next morning. "I have barely seen you nephew," she argued to Darcy. "Surely you can be spared a few days longer."

Darcy was firm in his refusal. "I am afraid not Aunt. This visit was pure spur of the moment as you know. News from Longbourn or Netherfield has been absent of late, unnerving both of us. Charles is anxious to see his wife, and we are anxious for news."

"Well, it is a most disagreeable business," her ladyship finally remarked by way of consent, however reluctant such consent was. "Now, you will change horses at Bromley?" She added, with only a slight twinkle in her eye to indicate it a joke and not an order as her voice betrayed otherwise.

The conversation drifted then into the various aspects that travel could entail. The conditions of the roads for example, are apt to be troublesome in the winter months and reliable horses can often be affected by the sharp frosts, as her Ladyship was wont to point out.

Thankfully for the rest of her company the eminent- and the author means this in its most ironic sense -Mr Collins was not there to add his vigorous assent to the conversation,- although he and his 'dear Charlotte' had been invited to spend the afternoon at Rosings -to which his patroness contributed the most.

Elizabeth and Darcy helped to keep it going, as Bingley was impatient to be on the road and see his beloved wife and children, and Anne's thoughts were too much full of Richard's fond farewell to contribute to the conversation.

Morning repast was soon pushed aside and preparations to get under way were begun in earnest. Servants were sent to assist the Darcys in clearing their apartments, footman to collect the strongboxes from storage. Stable hands to ready the carriage and four that were to convey them as far as Bromley before being changed for the original four that escorted them from Netherfield almost twenty days ago.

Elizabeth in particular was most astonished to realise that many days had past since she had last seen her family. True, a part of that length had been spent upon the road, especially by her husband, but to not realise that twenty days had past until now was most unlike her as she was only too aware. She opened once more the last correspondence from Netherfield, dated nearly eight days ago. It was from Jane and ran as follows;

 

Netherfield
Hertfordshire
29th Sept

My Dear Lizzy,

Since my last to you, circumstances here have changed drastically. Do not worry, nothing is wrong with Lawrence, or indeed the rest of our family, save Lydia.

Two days after my last letter Lydia came back from Longbourn in tears. She shut herself in her apartments and requested to have dinner in her room. The next day, aside from being very withdrawn, nothing could be seen to be wrong. We all tried to prise the cause from her but without success. Not one of us, even Georgiana, would she confide in.

For days nothing could be done. Then Georgiana finally managed to get her to confirm what was already a suspicion of mine. It was Lawrence. Apparently for some time she had gleamed from their frequent conversations that he was concealing something from her. Yet the nature of it he would never disclose.

Eventually on the 28th she asked him outright. And he lied. Since her return to Netherfield he has not paid call. Even now, that this is relatively over, his visits have declined and are of short duration. Lydia herself, seems somewhat better, but we are all concerned that her outward appearance is just a mask, and her disappointment over Lawrence's deception runs deeper still.

If I felt for certain that you could help, I would ask for it, but I fear it is beyond all of us, save perhaps the culprit who first caused it. Father is beginning to lose patience with him. His movements restrict themselves more and more to his study, venturing out only when the occasion calls for it.

If it were not for Mr Fitzwilliam's request for delay, he would have confronted him days ago. I wish we knew why he urges this. What possible motive could Lawrence have that makes him an honourable man and yet allows him to deceive us?

I feel dreadful for writing to you with only sad news to relay, as I know you cannot return for several days. My hope is that this matter between Lawrence and Lydia is merely minor misunderstanding which will resolve itself in time. Lydia's emotions have been strained a great deal since her return to us. Perhaps this is just an excuse to release some withheld frustration. Things will right themselves and this worry will all be for nothing.

Yet, I know you, Lizzy. If you were with me now your thoughts would all be in opposition. I have always been disposed to think well of everybody have I not? You would tell me this and that Lydia's grief is probably greatly concealed. Well, I shall try to follow your counsel over the next few days and see if Lydia chooses to confide in us.

With wishes to all at Rosings and my brother in law.
Yours,
Jane Bingley.

Elizabeth folded the letter with the same amount of dissatisfaction as when she had first done so. Jane was right. She would oppose all views of optimism. Lydia may have been disposed to sadness lately, but she had displayed great strength in holding up for her children, indicating that whatever her quarrel was with Lawrence, it was something far worse than a simple misunderstanding.

Had Fitzwilliam been with her upon the first reading she would have urged him that they returned to Netherfield instantly. But as she read a second time her thoughts became more rational. Lydia would not allow her to help unless she felt she needed it and any attempt without that consent would be ineffectual. No, it was something that, like Jane, she would just have to hope was resolved by the time they had planned to return to Hertfordshire.

This hope was to occupy all the adults of the travelling party throughout their journey, regardless of any others that might want to intrude.


Longbourn, 9th October 1820.

If only Lizzy had known what was to occur, she would have obeyed that first impulsive decision. For matters during their absence were about to rapidly escalate. Only on the outside would nothing be seen to have taken place and there was one person who was determined to keep it that way.

Mr Bennet was not that person, but his subsequent actions would draw him in as an unnecessary and unwilling accomplice. For several days he had been contemplating a course of action that was, in all probability, to have many unforeseen consequences. However, at this precise moment, not one of those mattered. As far as he was concerned, they all paled in comparison to his present state of mind. For his patience had finally run out. He could no long wait for the delay that Richard Fitzwilliam seemed to think was required. He had to confront this impostor now.

Of course, such a confrontation had to be planned before being carried out. The questions needed to be ones that could not allow for any avoidance of answer and every outcome and response had to be considered. Timing also had to be taken into account. The morning would not be wise as his family would doubtless hinder it. Likewise the afternoon was eliminated. The evening after dinner when the rest of the family had retired thus, was chosen to set things in motion.

Finally he also had to have a reason for wishing to speak to the impostor. That reason had to be a deception within itself, as the truth would no doubt served to prevent the meeting and the trap would fail before it had even been attempted. It also could not be due to estate business as he had successfully avoided such meetings in the past.

Mr Bennet was beginning to concede that nothing could be thought of to bring the impostor to confessional, however contrived. Then, fate, that inconsequential controller of all things, came to be of assistance. Just as all plans seemed to be in vain, a knock on his study door sounded loud and true.

"Ah Lawrence," Mr Bennet remarked as the door was opened. "You are just the person I wanted to see. Sit down, we have much to discuss."



Chapter
XLVIII.

Netherfield, 10th October 1820.

A carriage carrying many people and bearing the Darcy crest arrived upon the front drive of Netherfield just in time for a late luncheon on the date above. All were greeted with the greatest of enthusiasm by the occupants of the house, conveyed in and treated to the finest meal that could be had upon short notice. They were also provided with the thing they had wanted the most; news.

Indeed, many things happened during the course of their absence. The situation with Lydia could not be discussed, as she was in the room with them, but the news that was of a more general nature could be, such as an gossip of events in Meryton which had occurred in their absence, along what news there was from London that they had not heard. The majority of it was provided by their kind hosts and the Blakeneys, as Bingley could not tare himself away from his wife and Jane was in a similar position.

After the meal Elizabeth took the opportunity to walk to Longbourn, knowing her father would be grateful to see her the day she arrived. She also wanted to deliver an assurance that she had been given by Richard Fitzwilliam before he left. That Lawrence was someone they could trust.

The man himself arrived at Netherfield to visit his youngest sister just as she was about to leave and greeted her most heartily, seeming to be his usual self. Elizabeth attempted to greet him with the same emotions, carefully hiding the suspicion that she still held. She trusted her cousin. If he said Lawrence was an honourable man, then he was. The only thing that concerned her now was the secret that had led him to this deception.

Lydia was outwardly happy to receive her once more normal daily visits from her eldest sibling. Inwardly however, she was still conflicted, in both thoughts and emotions. Lawrence was someone she had come to care a great deal for, but this new certainty that he was deceiving not just her, but her whole family at large had done considerable damage to that affection. It had not eliminated it, indeed it was perhaps too deep for that to occur, but it had put a strain upon her, making her struggle to appear contented every day for her children and immediate family.

Her long and hard marriage with Wickham had taught how to maintain the upkeep of such a mask, but the upheaval of his death and her first removal to Derbyshire, combined with the steady support and friendship of her father, Georgiana, Elizabeth and Jane, had served to create cracks in that once formidable veneer. She had begun to let people in, to learn to trust and confide, when previously she had been afraid to trust anyone.

And Lawrence had been one of those people to which she reserved that privilege. Now that he had failed in his loyalty, Lydia could only begin to wonder if the others would eventually fail as well. Was she being too particular, were there some things that people could not voice aloud? Or, worse still were they keeping things from deliberately, concerned that she might be able to handle the truth?


Mr Bennet was infinitely glad of Elizabeth's decision to visit him upon her return to the neighbourhood. He had been left alone with his thoughts far too long.

"My dear girl," he began in a tone betraying all his relief as she sat in arm chair opposite him by the window that looked upon the drive of his estate. "It is good to see you at last. Your mother's attentions are in need of a respite."

"Indeed I am most glad to see you as well, papa," Elizabeth replied, noting her father, despite his relief at her arrival, seemed more contented than when she saw him last. "Has anything occurred during my absence?"

"Oh, nothing of great importance," Mr Bennet answered, perhaps a little too quickly. Thankfully his daughter seemed not to notice the mistake. "Jane has told you of Lydia's brief collapse?"

"She has," Elizabeth replied, her face losing its smile. "And after seeing her today, I'm not so sure that its over."

"Neither am I," Mr Bennet agreed, allowing his mood to dampen also. "She has not recovered, despite all of mine and your sister in law's attempts. Lawrence has started visiting her again, but I do not think they are as close as they once were. I cannot think of any solution, save the one your cousin has ordered me not even try."

Elizabeth noted the frustrated tone of the last part and inwardly sighed. She knew all too well that her father disliked being 'ordered' to do anything. She could only hope that this stubborn nature had not led him to anything rash.

Edmund detected his daughter's inward sigh and privately breathed a sigh of relief. So far the part that, as of last night, he now had to play, was going well. He did not like deceiving his daughter, but he knew that it was necessary in order to keep alive a deception he was now a willing participant in.


The Cunning Fish, Meryton.

He had failed. Failed.

The stranger that reader last heard of ten chapters ago had not done anything since that time to change his situation. This choice had by no means been of his own volition. Indeed, if the opportunity to escape had arisen, he would have taken it instantly. But, much to his frustration, it never had.

His Watch were the most vigilant in their duties. They worked in twos in shifts of night and day, always outside the door to his room. His meals were brought up his room and water was the only beverage provided. A guard always stayed outside while they were being delivered, preventing any attempt to overwhelm them with a fist. His windows were locked and of too great a distance from the ground to be attempted jumping from. There were also no pipes or trellis of any sort to assist him in a climb to safety. And nothing in his room to help him in that way either.

Thus, on his seventeenth day of incarceration, the stranger had reluctantly come to one disappointing decision. He was stuck here for good. His mission had to be given up as a failure. It had gone past the point of prevention and now he to accept defeat.

He had failed. Failed. The word was like a sword thrust to his heart. He had never failed before. Never. That was why he had been trusted with this great task, a task which he had assured his superiors he could be relied upon to achieve quickly and successfully. And he had failed on both terms.

He knew what was to come, no matter how everything ended. Either side would be, for once, in complete agreement about his fate. As yet however, he could not even think the word, let alone utter it allowed. It was inevitable and unavoidable though. Impossible to prevent or to attempt to fake. He was watched during all his meals. He could not do it himself. He must wait for someone else to do it for him.

And by then, he had to accept it readily. He could not attempt escape then, for his honour would be the price to forfeit. No, a far greater honour would be achieved by facing it with willingness and dignity. And he would also gain the satisfaction by learning at last the identity of the man that had foiled his plans.

That was providing that it was his enemy who did it to him first.


Chapter XLIX.

Netherfield & Longbourn, 12th-15th October 1820.

The first morning that welcomed their return was taken up by a breakfast discussion that for once did not refer to the situation at Longbourn in any way. Instead it was a topic of a much more frivolous nature.

Lord Devereaux had been persuaded by his wife that the time had come to hold a ball. Their duration of time in the neighbourhood absolutely prohibited them from holding it off any longer. This was not a sudden decision on his part,- indeed the gentleman in question rarely made a decision, sudden or otherwise -but had been reached by a long debate on the part of his wife and in even greater degrees, his children.

After all, it was- and perhaps still is -rarely in a gentleman's nature to propose a ball, particularly if the gentleman considers himself past the age to enjoy all the activities that such an event entails. This is often seen as a selfish notion of the gentleman's part, but be assured that it is not. For the gentleman knows perfectly well that his peers and friends who meet his age- or indeed are past it already -will not be inclined to hold a ball either, let alone attend one.

For more less strenuous activities required their fascination and kept their interest, such as shooting, hunting, fishing and the like- the author shall refrain from mentioning more in fear of either boring the readers to death, or insulting some gentlemen who might be reading this work, and because she is of the opinion that her point has been achieved and the inclusion of any other examples shall result in a drift from the main subject of this day in the lives of her characters - of which all gentlemen are known to enjoy.

A ball holds no such fascination as it often requires conversation on politics, the state of the roads, the weather and dancing with gentleman's significant others, all of which will also press the gentlemen to stand and listen to their discussions- although whether the gentlemen fulfils the latter part of these duties is another matter and best left to the gentleman in question to answer.

In the case of the gentlemen that have children of an age old enough to attend a ball- again such gentlemen are often inclined to think that there is no age when their children are old enough to attend such a function, particularly their daughters, unless chaperoned at all times, with perspective partners being either distant relatives or persons the gentlemen has known for such a time as to be of a trustworthy nature -the requirements on them to make necessary introductions, prepare dance cards, supervise dancing, etc. are liable to cause much of a strain on the gentleman's mind- again the author means no slight on a gentlemen's character whatsoever.

To resume. The announcement that such a function was to be held caused varying reactions by their house guests, particularly when the date for the event was declared. It was to be, by extraordinary coincidence- and of no design on the author's part whatsoever, -on the evening of the twenty-sixth of November.

The Bingleys were naturally overjoyed by such a happy coincidence, as that night happened to signal one of the happiest nights of their entire life. The Darcys were likewise pleasantly surprised and pleased for it gave a chance on their part to make the night a far more enjoyable occasion for themselves. The Blakeneys, having no history with the date in question, chose to treat it with nothing more than usual pleasure.

Thus the rest of breakfast was taken up by many happy- and some less happy -recollections of the same night nearly nine years ago. Requests for certain pieces of music which had been played then to be executed once more were put forward and granted- a certain maggot in particular, the identity of which most here undoubtedly know was also planned as a dance for the evening -incurring more reminiscing and explanation as to why they had a predilection for the piece in question.

Lord Devereaux quickly left the breakfast room as soon as propriety allowed, calling most of the gentlemen with him for some shooting- whether these gentlemen left willingly or were obliged to depart is for the reader to decide -leaving the rest with a grant to join as soon as they wished. The ladies quitted the room half an a hour later, still discussing the arrangements needed to be made, the relative invitations to be sent and those which might be safely discarded by accidentally being sent to the wrong address, or having written so ill as to be redirected several times.

Jane, Lizzy and Georgiana were reluctantly left by their husbands- who felt themselves obliged to join their host -to seat themselves in a comfortable drawing room and discuss their memories of the last ball. Georgiana listened with great interest to the topic, laughing in surprise when she heard the contrary nature of her brother that night and the antics of a certain Miss Bingley- who, for the interests of the reader, has married twice since last seen, first to the elderly but wealthy Baronet of Longsford who died a year later, leaving no heirs and her as the only recipient of his fortune, and then, most surprisingly, to the handsome, younger son of the Earl of Batchworth, who is still alive and is said to be besotted with his wife, and she likewise with him -and Mrs Hurst.

The embarrassments of Kitty and Lydia were also mentioned, but with less concern this time of a repetition of such behaviour. A fervent and silent prayer was expressed on the part of Mrs Darcy for her mother to be more restrained than she was last and for Mary to either refrain from singing or to be much improved if nothing could prevent her from doing so.

Just before luncheon an envelope from Longbourn arrived, carrying inside a invitation for the Darcys, the Blakeneys, Lydia and the Bingleys to join the rest of their extended family for an evening meal the following eve. Elizabeth happily sent back their acceptance, grateful such a thing was required on her part, for she was most anxious to talk with her father over the events concerning Lawrence Bennet which could have occurred during her absence at Rosings.

Her father's neglect to write any letters to her during that time, had, at first, been put down to stress and lack of freedom with which to accomplish such a task. But when the delay ceased leave to be awarded such a title, Elizabeth had become to be very concerned, knowing well her father's stubborn nature and often reluctance to heed warnings from others who suggested patience was the better part of valour. Added to this was his apparent lack of concern about Lawrence during her visit yesterday, the suspicions of which he had avoided to discuss altogether.

Her rationale tried to dismiss this concern, especially when careful discussion with Jane and Georgiana revealed that nothing of significance had occurred, but it soon returned when she realised that if something had indeed happened, her father would prefer to debate his actions with herself first, before announcing to his family then the neighbourhood at large his justification and any evidence that could not be discounted to prove its truth. Yesterday's visit had been short, entirely too short to even try and approach her father on the subject, especially when her mother had entered the room before she could begin to comment on his use of the word 'ordered'.

Thus the remaining hours that were left until their departure the next day, were divided between concern over the above circumstances and an effort to distract herself from dwelling on such concerns until it was considered necessary to do so.


Longbourn, late evening, 13th October 1820.

The soft light of many candles emanating from the front windows of the estate were the only evidence of habitation that night at Longbourn. Darkness had settled early upon the outside world, causing many a person to seek the comfort of their home fires.

Main course was in the process of being eaten, accompanied with the hushed tones of conversation. The main contributors were Mrs Bennet, Lawrence, Mr Bingley, Mrs Darcy, Mr Darcy and Mr Bennet- in that order. The latter tended to confine his comments to his favourite daughter and her husband, only raising his voice to mildly rebuke his wife when she became too insistent in having her point achieved.

Elizabeth had much to be astonished about over the evening, although she did much to keep this emotion from becoming apparent. There was only one thing which produced it, but it was of such a major significance that it caused to be multiplied in her mind. She observed the interaction between her father and Lawrence with this emotion. For their relationship seemed radically altered since her last visit to Longbourn. It flowed more smoothly and had none of the underlying tones of sarcasm, caution, attack or suspicion.

Her father was no longer watching his every move, in fact he seemed to be avoiding it altogether. Likewise Lawrence's conversation also went unobserved. His manner was more relaxed than it had been in the last dinner occasion. Elizabeth did not know what to make of it. She was not only puzzled, but also concerned, for her mind could not help but wonder if her father had gone against Richard's wishes and confronted Lawrence. If so, what possible reason had procured so a calm reaction? Elizabeth knew her father, his response to a deception would not be like this.

Supposing this to all be true, would Lawrence really be deceiving them? Would he instead turn out to be her brother? As soon as this supposition expressed itself in her mind, Mrs Darcy discounted the possibility at once. The one certainty her father had assured her from the beginning that this Lawrence was not his son. How could he be doubted? Yet, he was human, capable of making mistakes. Perhaps the gentleman was his son. But why this change of manner now, if only to hide such a fact? She knew not what to think.

And she was not the only one. Lydia also had her suspicions. She attempted to keep her manner as close to normalcy as possible, but could not deny herself a great deal of contemplation over it. She found her father to be observing her most of the evening. At first she put this down to his natural concern over her recent behaviour, but when she observed more closely, she realised that this could not be wholly the case.

For he seemed to be watching her interactions with Lawrence only. This puzzled her greatly for she had done everything to assure that her actions towards him had not altered since their minor misunderstanding, and that they continued to be as they had always been, those of a sister and friend to her brother.

Lawrence's manner also seemed altered, again particularly concerning herself. Before this dinner his time spent with her had been of shorter duration than usual. They did not talk as they had used to do so. Personal subjects were avoided, almost discouraged, in favour of more general ones, a change to which she had attributed herself as the one to blame, for her stupidity in presuming he could confide in her.

Tonight however had produced a marked alteration. He seemed to be concerned in only talking to her, finding out only her opinion. Normally such a reversal would have made her happy, but she found herself continually growing suspicious of it, especially as her father was observing at its every turn.

Despite her ignorance of the full nature of her family's suspicions concerning Lawrence, Lydia was fully aware that her father was not allowed to confront him just yet. But if tonight's behaviour was anything to go by, he seemed to have disobeyed that order.

Like Elizabeth, Lydia found herself puzzled by this. Why would her father be so calm? He had been anything but calm when she had deceived him eight years ago after marrying Wickham. Either he was restraining himself or he had not confronted Lawrence at all, although this latter explanation brought her back to square one. Lydia sighed. Like her elder sister she knew not what to think.

When dinner had at last drawn to a conclusion, Elizabeth managed to secure a moment alone with her father. She asked him instantly what had happened.

His explanation was this: "No, I have not confronted him, Lizzy. I am merely giving him space. The continued surveillance has not prompted him to confess or commit an error, so I have decided on a new form of attack."

Elizabeth found herself unable to discount this excuse for it completely answered all the questions her mind had produced. Later though she was to ponder on it a little more, due to the events that were to come.


Netherfield, 14th October 1820.

Lydia met Georgiana eagerly the next morning for her now regular piano lessons. True to Mrs Blakeney's advice, she had grown fond of the pastime, no longer finding it a tedious bore as she had done in the days of youth. At this she chuckled, remembering that she was only three and twenty, hardly ancient by any comparison. She found that she could lose herself in the music, forget her troubles, her past and think of nothing but the next note or scale which needed to be performed. She left each lesson happier than she had ever truly been, with the confidence to face her troubles, not avoid them.

Despite the short duration of this confidence, she found herself still pleased by the effect the pursuit had on her. She was also grateful of the company and friendship that Georgiana offered her, not because they had both experienced discomfort at the hands of the same gentleman, but because they had much in common and dispositions designed to compliment the other. Georgiana taught Lydia to find the ability to laugh once more and in turn Lydia was able to offer advice on children and married life, which Georgie found wonderfully useful as she was sometimes too nervous to ask Elizabeth.

The lesson passed without incident, and afterwards the two retired to the window seat and began to compare their observations of last night's dinner party.

"Did you see the marked alteration between Lawrence and my father?" Lydia asked after a while. She choose her moment carefully, taking care to make it known that there was to be no significance attached to the question.

"I did," Georgiana confessed, watching her friend carefully. Since her discovery of Lydia in tears some days ago, Mrs Blakeney had done everything in her power to see that such a reaction to Lawrence did not repeat itself. To do so discreetly she had been obliged to take up her brother's habit of observing, mixing it with her sister in law's, in order to achieve what she hoped would be a sound conclusion. Last night she had watched Lydia carefully, and by default, Lawrence as well. "His manner did seem much easier than when I saw them together last. What do you think produced such a change?"

"I know not," Lydia replied. "I can only speculate that father has perhaps confronted him and found the truth to not be what he expected."

Georgiana looked at her friend in surprise. "You mean that Lawrence might really be your brother?"

"No, I do not mean that. I mean that the truth is perhaps something that none of us have imagined it could be. That Lawrence is not my brother, but not an impostor either. That his reason for being in Meryton is something else entirely."

"What you do think it is?"

"Your cousin confirmed that he is a military man. Perhaps he is investigating some military matters down here. Matters that are of such a grave nature that it forces him to adopt a cover story."

Georgiana looked at her friend carefully. She did not like where this train of thought was going. She feared that she already knew its destination. "Lydia, you do not mean that he is here to investigate you?"

"It is not so improbable," Lydia argued, "it would explain why he visits me all the time and why he is so interested in me. What other reasons could he have?"

"Several," Georgie insisted. "He could be concerned because of your past. He could desire to restore your faith in people. He could be in love with you."

Lydia chuckled, much to her friend's relief. And distress. "In love with me? Really, Georgie, whatever possessed you to think that? No, I am of the opinion that he has confided in my father and procured his assistance to the plan."

"Lydia, if what you believe is the case, I do not believe that your father would assist him in any way. Whatever his feelings were towards your late husband, he would support you. You are his daughter. Has he not tried to improve his relationship with you?"

She sighed and took her friend's hand. "Lydia, please have faith. Whatever his past mistakes, your father truly loves you. As do the rest of your family. They want nothing more than for you to regain your confidence and trust. There is not some secret mission to investigate you because of your husband. Wickham, had not the talent for espionage, or indeed for anything but raking up dates. And I am sorry if that pains you."

"Oh, Georgie," Lydia began, ashamed. "I do not mean to bring you distress by speaking of him. I am completely of the same opinion of him."

"The only distress you have cause is by being so cruel to yourself, when you have no reason do thus."

"You are probably, right Georgie," Lydia finally agreed. "I am worrying myself over nothing."

With that the conversation came to an end but it left both wondering whether either had been really truthful throughout it. Only later were they to discover what was the truth and what was to be false.


Somewhere on the countryside surrounding Oakham Mount, 15th October.

"Sir?"

"What is it, Sergeant?"

The man shifted his feet uncertainly. He was reluctant to voice his thoughts, even though he had just begun the task. The man standing before him was not a man to disagree with. His reputation spoke for itself. Yet this task. Something was not quite right. Not that the sergeant was a man to second guess his superior. No, he followed orders without question. Usually. And this situation was anything but usual. "I was just wondering, sir, as to when we will carry out our orders."

His superior turned to survey the prospect. To the sergeant he appeared reluctant too. And preoccupied. Not that the sergeant was study of character, but any one can recognise the usual signs. "And do you know our orders at this moment, sergeant?"

The sergeant should have recognised the warning signs. However, perhaps due to his preoccupation, he ignored them. "Well, yes, sir. You told us....."

With lightning speed his superior turned round, put himself face to face. Speaking in a harsh stage whisper, the anger within him was clear to be heard. "Listen to me. You follow my orders. If I tell you to wait, you wait. If I tell you to watch him, you watch him. If I tell you to let him go, you let him go. And the one thing you do not do, the one thing that you never do, is question me." He grabbed the sergeant by his cravat. "If you do this again, I shall see to it that you never set a foot alive again. Do I make myself clear?"

Choking, the sergeant could only nod. His superior released him, pushing away, dismissing him. He went without a fuss. He knew when not to question.

Lawrence Alexander Bennet sighed as the surrounding countryside became quiet again. There were times when he hated his occupation. Times when he had regretted ever accepting this task that lay before him. The task that now only needed one word from him to be finished.

He wished to heaven that it did not. That there was someone else who could complete it for him. But there was no one. He had known that from the beginning. At the time he had thought, believed, that it would be easy. That he could accomplish it smoothly. He had no idea that it would turn out to be this hard. That this one task would turn out to be the one thing that would change his life forever. That he would meet.....

Resolutely, he shook the last thought away. He could not think about that. It was no longer probable. In fact, it had never been, at least not beyond the realms of his imagination. Instead, he reflected on the evening that his father- for lack of a better word -had called him into his study. He had been expecting such a call for quite some time.

Nonetheless, it had been a surprise, as he had been led to believe that they were waiting for someone else to come before confronting him. He had also expected more than just his father to be present. Perhaps this was why he had forgone his usual plan of denial. Why instead he had confessed everything. Everything. Not just the deception, not just his task. But other things as well.

To his surprise, his father had taken the confession well. Not one part of it had varied from what he had suspected, at least, that was what he had said. He had been pleased in fact at how well it had all gone. He had expected an outburst. Shouting at the most. But instead he had been met with calm silence and logical, rational questions. And willingness to not only keep what he had been told to himself, but to assist in any way he could.

In both matters. Lawrence had never expected that. The first was absolutely necessary, but the second was something that, recently, he had become to realise that he did not deserve to even contemplate. Yet his father approved. Approved and was willing to help him in achieving it.

He had been trying to restrain himself. To accept the fact that it could never happen. Until that night. Now though, doubts had begun to invade once again. What right did he have to even try for it? Lawrence was convinced that he had none. The moment he came clean, the moment he revealed himself, it would be impossible. The bond would be broken. He had told his father that much that night.

"Maybe it will be," Mr Bennet had replied. "But there will also be a chance to build a new one. A stronger one."


Chapter L.

Netherfield, 16th October, 1820.

When the next day dawned Lawrence left Longbourn soon after breakfast with only one intention in mind. To heal the breach between himself and Lydia. Mr Bennet had given him the courage to try, now it was up to him to follow it through. He had to show her that despite all that was about to come, he was not deceitful.

His arrival was certainly a surprise to Lydia when a footman announced him to her. Laying aside her book, she cast a glance at herself as the footman departed to let her visitor in. What on earth can he want? Did we not talk enough two nights ago?

"I hope I'm not disturbing you?" Lawrence asked as soon as the door had closed behind him, leaving the two of them alone.

"Not at all," Lydia replied, managing to keep her puzzlement out of her voice. "What can I do for you?"

If you only knew. "I actually came to apologise for my recent behaviour concerning you," Lawrence began, seating himself on the sofa opposite her. "I know that ever since you asked me a particular question, you feel that I have been avoiding you. This is not an opinion I am disputing. I have been avoiding you, and I am sorry for it."

"I do not need your apology," Lydia rejoined. "All I require is an explanation." To what I thought had been a completely innocent question. Since I had no difficulty in confiding in you, why could you not do the same for me?

"Which is what I am about to give you," Lawrence assured her. And himself. At least, part of an explanation anyway. What I am doing? "I could say that due to my upbringing I am not used to confiding in people, but I am not fond of making excuses for my actions. I always strive to be honest with the people I regard as friends," what irony that emotion is right now, "and I regard you as such." If you only knew how much and more how I do regard you.

Lawrence sighed. "I wish I could tell you everything, Lydia. But most of it is out of my hands. Yes, there is something I have been concealing. Not just from you, but from everybody. Such concealment has been necessary. There is something here, a task that I have to do. This task has to be kept secret from everyone. What I can tell you though, is that it has nothing to do with you or your late husband. It is something different entirely.

"And it until it has been completed, I can tell nobody of it. Nothing. Not even the fears, or the doubts that I constantly have about it, myself and my ability to go through with it. And the harsh knowledge that once it has become clear, everyone here will look at me in a different light. And they will not see my real self, all they'll see is a monster.

" I do not deny them that right, I know it is to be expected. It is because of this that I hold myself back, hoping to somehow lesson the blow that I know I will receive, and the one that I will deliver to everyone. I have no desire to hurt anyone," you most of all, "yet I know that I will."

Lydia listened to this impassioned speech with mixed emotions. At first she could feel nothing but anger at him, for treating her no different from everyone else, when they were meant to be friends. Then, as she heard him speak of the task that he could tell no one of, one that would drove people to regard him as a monster, she felt she could listen no more. "Lawrence, I may not have any knowledge of this task that you seem certain will damage your character in this neighbourhood forever, but I can reassure of one thing."

At least I hope I can. "You could never be a monster. I, more than anyone who lives here, knows what a monster is and that is something you could never be. Whatever your task, whatever your deceptions, I for one will not think that of you. These past few days since I have come to know you, convince me so. You are too kind, too thoughtful to be a monster. Once this is over, you will still have my friendship. This I promise you."

Lawrence took her hand in his, smiling at her in relief. "Thank you," he replied. "You have no idea how much your assurances mean to me. My only hope is that, once this is over, you still feel the same way." Indeed, if you do, I shall be lost forever.


Netherfield, 17th October 1820.

The next day brought a thick bundle of mail to Netherfield Hall. The majority of it was nothing more than acceptances to the invites that had been sent out some days ago for the ball in just a month's time. Mr Blakeney's parents were among this number, adding the promise to arrive a day or so before, if the fates allowed. The rest of the mail were replies from various correspondences to the occupants of the house.

One of these was for Mrs Darcy, from her dear friend Mrs Collins. It ran as follows;

 

Hunsford Parsonage
Kent
Oct. 14th

My Dear Lizzy,

Events here at Kent have been of little consequence since your return to Meryton. I miss your company daily, but cope as best as I can with the return to the normal life I now must lead. Mr Collins remains convinced my wish for solitude is due to the knowledge that we have no longer his inheritance to look for to, but you know me better than that.

He is much the same as he was when you saw him last, if somewhat less discontent with his situation in life. I myself am more than content that things will remain the same. Alex is a far more worthy recipient of Longbourn.

But to resume with my original purpose. Mr Fitzwilliam is still in London and is not expected back for some time. His reasons according to Anne are that he is securing permission for the full story concerning Lawrence Bennet to be revealed earlier than planned to your family.

What this story is however, is something that none of us here are clear on. Mr Fitzwilliam refuses to tell us, however much it distresses him. The news must be of a very serious nature to affect him so. Forgive me, I have no desire to distress you, merely to inform you of what is happening.

I thank you for the invitation to the ball. I wish we could come, but Mr Collins has several important functions to perform in the day, that he cannot leave in the hands of anyone but himself. I know however that you will enjoy it far more than the one that graced the same date almost nine years ago.

Lady Catherine sends her regards. And her regrets as well. She fears that due to the conditions of the roads and estate business that she must go over with her steward, she will not be able to attend either.

She does however send Anne and her husband in her place, if they have an invitation of course, and providing Mr Fitzwilliam has, and I quote, 'the power to deign himself a return to our presence.'

I am sure her presence will be greatly missed!

I cannot help but imagine what could have occurred had she been present nine years ago. Can you, Lizzy? Would it have changed anything do you think?

At this juncture, I must leave you.

My regards to you and all at Netherfield and Longbourn

Charlotte Collins.

Elizabeth chuckled as she contemplated the possible future that might of been, had Lady Catherine de Bourgh graced the Netherfield ball. Certainly her presence would have overshadowed the antics of her sisters then, as well as her mother's actions. Her husband might not have been able to ask her to dance, but then neither would have Caroline Bingley. It was certainly an intriguing prospect.

She folded the letter away and turned back to her husband children, whose presence she would not change for the world.


Longbourn, 18th October 1820.

Lydia left Netherfield the next day for a visit that she felt was long overdue. She and Kitty had been friends for so long before and briefly after her elopement that to not confide in her now would be insulting and hurtful to her sister.

She entered the drawing room with her children in tow to find her sister surrounded by her own and- much to her disappointment -their mother. Lawrence was also there.

"Lydia," Mrs Bennet cried joyfully. "It is so good to see you. And my grandchildren," she added, as the children in question looked upon their grandmother with nothing short of bewilderment and fear. Eagerly they attended to the entreaties of their cousins and sat down to play.

Lydia seated herself next to Kitty, offering her a smile of compassion. Her sister returned it with fervour. "And how are you, mama?"

"Oh, I am well," Mrs Bennet replied. "But your father still continues to vex me daily. He refuses to tell me if he has made dear Lawrence official inheritor of this estate. And you my son, do exactly the same," she added, looking expressly at Lawrence. "And if he does not do it soon, he might die before it and then what are we to do? Mr Collins will throw us out on to the street and if my daughters do not help me, I..........."

At that moment Mr Bennet came in, saving his 'son' and daughters from their mother's peals of worry. "Lawrence, could I speak to you for a few minutes?" He inquired.

"Of course sir," Lawrence answered eagerly. With a smile of sympathy to Lydia and Kitty, he bowed to Mrs Bennet and left the room.

"And now he deprives me of his company," Mrs Bennet exclaimed dismayed. "Where is your husband, Kitty dear? We must have some male company."

"He is attending to his business letters," Kitty replied gently. "And Mary and her husband are at Ashcroft for a few days so he can deliver his service for All Hallows and All Saints Day to his parishioners."

"Well it is all extremely vexing," Mrs Bennet concluded sadly. She glanced at the timepiece on the wall above them. "Gracious me, why has not Hill come yet? I am meant to be discussing today's menu with her. Excuse me girls, I shan't be long."

Kitty breathed a sigh of relief as soon as the lady of the house had quitted the room. "She has been like this ever since our arrival," she remarked to Lydia.

"I am sorry, I have not been able to relieve you of it," Lydia replied. "I have not meant to forget or ignore you, Kitty. I have no excuse for it. Other than perhaps my own fears. I thought you might not wish for my company."

"Not at all," Kitty exclaimed. "I know we have barely kept in touch these past years, but you are still my sister. And my friend. I feel guilty myself for not being able to help you."

"There was nothing you could have done," Lydia assured her sadly. "There was nothing anybody could have done. I know it is wretched to say this, but the only person who could help was Major Vaughan." Lydia smiled. "You can help me now, Kit, by being the person that you always are, my friend. I want to know my sister."

"And you will," Kitty replied earnestly.


Longbourn, late evening.

Lawrence joined his sisters not more than a hour before dinner was announced. He seemed distracted at first, but soon managed to pull himself out of it.

After the dinner when Lydia and her children had returned to Netherfield, he made his own departure for Meryton, seen off only by Mr Bennet.

Edmund himself had not called Lawrence into his study to confront him. Indeed, it was only to learn of what progress he was making and relay in return the news he had received from London from Elizabeth's cousin in law, Richard Fitzwilliam.

Apparently, the man had just received permission to deliver the real story of Lawrence Alexander Bennet on the night of the Netherfield ball, by which time any impediment would be powerless to prevent the success of the mission. Lawrence had been grateful for the information, thanking his 'father' before they moved on to other matters.

When he left, Mr Bennet had leant back in his chair and contemplated the state of affairs before him. If things went as hoped, he would soon have the power to sort out his estate, as well as a few other things. All however, depended on how Lawrence was regarded when the entire story was revealed to the neighbourhood at large. Or rather, the Bennet family.

If his reputation, ignoring the act that would add to it, remained unaltered in the eyes of his family, all would work out well. If his act could not be ignored though, circumstances would be uncertain. Mr Bennet had examined all worst case scenarios for the latter and none seemed to contain even a glimmer of hope regarding the one matter that Lawrence cared the most about.

That matter. It had surprised Edmund most completely when Lawrence confessed it to him after he had finished telling his story. What had surprised Edmund most of all though, was that he was not displeased by it. Quite the contrary, in fact. He approved. Despite all, he liked the man, even though he was required to do so harsh a mission.

Due to his fondness for character study, Mr Bennet had also been able to view the matter from an outsider's perspective and, as a result, was able to reassure Lawrence and himself that the matter was not entirely impossible, and had much to gain from becoming reality. True, a bond would be destroyed, but, as he had said to Lawrence, there was a chance to build a new and much stronger one. And Mr Bennet wished him luck with it.


A Deserted farmhouse, outside Meryton. 19th October.

The prisoner sighed and turned away from the opening held by four iron bars that sufficed as a window. He had been trapped in this deserted farmhouse for almost four days. They had moved him from The Cunning Fish and placed him here in the middle of night. He knew only too well the reason why.

His time had now run out. All possibility of escape had long disappeared from his mind, along with the hope that his mission had not been in vain, and that someone else would be able to carry the news back. But that was impossible now. The number of bodyguards had increased upon his arrival here. They worked in shifts, assuring that they would be alert if he tried to escape, and by default, convincing him that such an escape was impossible in the first place.

It was official now. He could no longer deny it to himself. He was doomed. All that awaited him now, was the one thing that he, that no one, could escape.

Death.


Chapter LI.

Rosings Park, 20th October.

Richard Fitzwilliam paced the grounds of Rosings Park with little care for the damage he was doing to the grass with every angry thrust of his boots. He had arrived home from London late three nights ago in a frustrated mood. It was a mood that he really had no need for, as he had achieved the task he had set himself; to be allowed to let the Bennet family learn the truth of Lawrence before the rest of the nation could.

Yet the delay in telling them which had been imposed on him, had been unexpected, and thus caused this mood to come upon him. It was a delay that, as a military man, he could see the logic of, but it angered him nonetheless, because, metaphorically speaking, it tied his hands. Until the day arrived when he could tell, he was powerless to do anything save wait.

And he hated waiting. In the army he had been taught the value of patience, to wait for orders before going into battle, but the battle or the command had always come soon, rapidly drifting into silence as it became a matter of every man for himself. Any comparison to this present state of affairs was as pointless as a broken pencil.

Anne Fitzwilliam watched her husband from the windows of her mother's library. A place rarely frequented by her ladyship, always by her late father, hence she suspected her husband's preference for the particular piece of ground which it overlooked. Anne knew Richard all too well, especially when something was bothering his peace of mind, thus she had come upon him soon after his first arrival in the grounds outside.

What it was that was bothering him she had no knowledge of, for he had refused to tell her any of it when he had first returned to Rosings some three days ago. But she could grasp at the essentials. He knew now the reality behind Lawrence Bennet, but was prevented by his superiors from dashing to Longbourn and revealing the whole.

Anne could also see that it was a delay with which her husband's mind agreed with, thus the reason for his obvious frustration. Thirty years spent annually in his company and seven years of marriage to him, had taught her what he did whenever he needed to resolve his troubled mind.

A day of pacing outside in some idyllic countryside always served as his time-honoured solace. Until now. Three days he had been at it, and still no sign that he had found peace. She rose up from her chair and walked to the doors.

Richard came to a halt the moment he heard the click of the lock. Schooling his features into an agreeable mask, he greeted her. "Anne, forgive me. I had not noticed the time. Has Lady Catherine been looking for us?"

"Richard," Anne rebuked, coming to stand before him, "I know you too well for such a mien to succeed. It is pointless dwelling upon a delay that has not been imposed by you and one that you can do nothing about."

Her husband smiled, his first real smile of three days. "How did you know I was doing exactly that?"

"I know you," Anne answered simply.

Richard clasped his wife's outstretched hand, bringing it to his lips. "Very well, my dearest, I am all yours. What do you require of me?"

"An easy task. Your company. Michael, Juliet and Charlotte are missing their father."

"Ah, a woman's usual trick. Emotional blackmail." Richard grinned wickedly.

"Blackmail? Just for that, Richard Fitzwilliam, I shall tell my mother what you have done to her formal gardens."

"Do, do," he replied, catching her in his arms. "She has not a had a good debate in months. She must be missing them."

Anne laughed with him as he brought her face level with his own. Their lips touched and the world for a brief moment slipped away.

It was broke all too soon. A servant appeared before them at the entrance of the Library, a square piece of paper in his hands. "An invitation has just arrived from Lord Devereaux, sir and ma'am. Shall I leave it with you?"


Netherfield, 21st October 1820.

"I do not see why you place such interest in this. Surely two people are entitled to a walk now and then?"

Jane Bingley turned in her window seat to face her husband. "Charles, have you forgotten how we began?"

"We, are a different case. They, are brother and sister," Bingley pointed out.

"Could be brother and sister. Neither of us believe that as well you know." Jane turned to the window again. "There is something there, or at least the potential for something, I am certain of it."

Bingley joined his wife at the window. Silently he followed her gaze to observe the couple again. "Even if there is," he allowed, "I do not think it will be easily achieved if it turns out that he has deceived us."

"He will have a hard time of it," Jane acknowledged, "but I think it will be the end result. It will just need patience."

Both turned away as the couple outside came to face the house once more. "It will certainly surprise your father if it does come pass," Bingley commented.

Jane chuckled. "Yes indeed it will. I do not imagine that there will be anyone who will not be more surprised."

"Except perhaps the couple themselves."

Jane shook her head. "No. Lawrence I think, already knows, and as for Lydia, she will learn of it through his actions."

"Do you think she will accept it though?" Charles queried. "She has had so much sadness in her life. Do you really believe she will want to risk herself again?"

"Coming to us after Wickham's death has already put herself at risk. Realising Lawrence's feelings will be easier. It is herself and her situation that she has to reconcile with more than anything. She needs to see that just because she has eight children her life is not over." Jane sighed. "She is only four and twenty. That is too young to face a life of solitude."

Charles drew his wife into his arms. "I worry about her too, my love. And you are right. It is herself that needs to realise the possibilities instead of the harsh reality that tends to consume her." He paused to kiss her hair. "What does Georgiana think of it?"

"Georgiana is concerned that Lydia thinks too much about how she appears to the world. She tries to distract her, but she fears how long she can succeed in doing so. And if she is even succeeding at all."

"Perhaps Lawrence will help in that," Was her husband's last words upon the subject.


22nd October.

"Are you busy, m'dear?"

Georgiana looked up from her seat where she had been helping her daughter and son on a puzzling piece of dissected map to find her husband's head had appeared by one of the doors. "Not for you. What is it?"

Michael Blakeney stepped inside, and abruptly halted as his children rushed from their mother's side to ambush him. Once they were satisfied that he had acknowledged their presence, they returned to their map, while he walked to seat himself by his wife. He held up the thick bundle of small paper in his hand. "I have just had my father's confirmation that they will come to the ball. He also hopes that we will return to Richmond with them afterwards."

"That would be wonderful," Georgiana consented happily. "For how long?"

"As long as we wish," Michael continued. "Father knows of our plans to spend Christmas with the Matlocks and is agreeable that that week will be our leaving date." He looked at his children who had returned to playing before them. "Of course we might only be going alone. You know what my parents are like with those two."

"Indeed I do." Georgiana leant back into his arms, letting a comfortable silence settle over both of them. Idly she wished for some material with which to sketch the scene before her. Her water-colours had been rare of late due to the demands of Matthew and Annette, something she knew had to rectify before teaching either of them the accomplishment. With a smile she quietly spoke of her thought to her husband.

"I was thinking exactly the same," Michael replied, stroking her hair. "Though I daresay my skill is far from your excellence."

"I love your sketching," Georgiana replied, remembering well that a mutual love of art and music had begun their courtship.

"Much to the astonishment of my parents," Michael added. "Father always asserted that drawing and music were not the ways to woo a woman."

"That was only because he had used the more traditional way. I remember one evening when we did a duet. His eyes were always upon us."

"Your brother was surprised as well," Blakeney pointed out.

"His reason for it was different. His talent for them had always been pushed away by our relatives, for fear he would neglect the estate. Elizabeth tells me he has returned to them though, to amuse their children." Georgiana smiled as she recalled one instance that she had discovered herself; when Heloise and Lawrence were young.

She had found him teaching them a song their mother had loved in the early hours of the morning while Elizabeth had to consult with Mrs Reynolds on the daily menu. That memory brought to her mind another reminder and she realised it was the perfect time. "Of course, if Matthew and Annette decide to stay with their grandparents, we will not be alone on our journey to Matlock."

Michael turned to find his wife looking back at him with a significant smile. Pausing all thought to marvel at her beauty, he almost forgot her unusual choice of words that had made him turn in the first place. Then his found his hand moved by hers to rest upon her waist. His immediate joy was enough to call the attention of their children as he embraced her.


23rd October.

Fitzwilliam Darcy entered his wife's rooms to find a most pleasing sight. Pausing at the door, he watched with admiration as Mrs Darcy described the view from the windows to their attentive youngest child, who watched her mother and the prospect with rapt fascination.

To a man who found himself falling more and more in love with his wife by the hour the scene was too lovely to interrupt, let alone even disturb by his presence. He forgot the reason he needed her, remaining in this position until she noticed him standing there, some five minutes later.

At her look, Darcy joined her quietly, coming to a halt just in front of the window seat where she and Imogen knelt. Bestowing a kiss upon his daughter, he gazed intensely at his wife, his eyes conveying all the depth of emotion that words only cover so far. She met his gaze, returning the devotion as the world tried to slip away. Imogen shook her hand, and her parents came back to the scene before them. "What is it?" Elizabeth asked.

Darcy paused for a full five minutes as his mind rapidly tried to recollect what it was that had brought him back to his wife, other than a need to simply be in her company. "The Matlocks confirm the plans for Christmas. I have just received their reply. A poor excuse to see you, my love, but I must try to think of some for appearance's sake."

Elizabeth eyes sparkled with humour. "Yes indeed you must. Are they well?"

"Very well," Darcy replied, setting himself opposite her. "Uncle is considering handing over part control of the estate fully to Martin in the new year. Actually considering is not the right word. His physician is insistent upon it."

"Is there any worry for his health?"

"Worry certainly, but you know my Uncle. He hates winter. Lack of activity ails him rather than the reverse. I think Dr Mitchell will change his mind as soon as some sun appears in the county." He paused as his wife seemed distracted. "What is it, Elizabeth?" He added, unconsciously speaking her name with reverence, as he always did.

"I am concerned that this matter with Lawrence will not be over before we leave for Matlock," She confessed.

"We have had nothing from your cousin bar his acceptance for the ball and father seems to have lost his enthusiasm for confronting Lawrence altogether. Unless of course he already has and is under orders not to say anything to us until Richard's arrival."

"I fear you might be right m'dear," her husband replied. "In both respects. Though I hope for all our sakes that the former is proved wrong soon."


Chapter LII.

The Countryside of Meryton, 24th October.

Lydia smiled as she gazed at the view before her. It was the first smile of contentment that she had had for quite some time. Why, she knew not, and at present did not possess the care to wonder about it. Instead she just allowed the beauty of the view to wash over her, like a soothing balm, wiping her troubles away.

Lawrence observed her out of the corner of his eye. He too felt some contentment. Since that almost fateful day when he had come to her with his part confession, hoping she would forgive him and ignore the fact that he still had yet to tell her what she had asked for in the first place, he had thought that they would never feel at ease with each other again. Yet here they were, eight days later. It was a remarkable achievement.

There was a part of him however, that could not help but worry about what was to come. He should have left Meryton weeks ago. His delay was costing him everything, no matter how much his mind seemed not to care. There was really now only one thing keeping him here, the one thing that, had he been able to think rationally, would not be something he should even attempt. But his feelings would not allow him to stop, to accept defeat and turn away. He would always be wondering if he did.

Lydia felt her companion's introspection and silently sighed. She respected Lawrence's apparent wish for reticence, yet she also wished he would choose to confide in her as well. It was obvious that his thoughts were troubled by some thing. She longed to ask him about it, but at the same time she knew what would be the outcome if she did. He would hide from her again. Gone would be the ease that was between them now, leaving in its place the silence that had existed between them eight days ago. And she had hated that silence.

So she kept silent, waiting for the time when it would all come out. She feared that time. She had assured him that she would never think him a monster, but later her mind had begun to wonder why he was convinced that image would be the result. What task could there be that would make him appear thus?

Lydia was almost afraid to think about it, for fear that she would break her promise to him. Yet the question would still bother her, whispering away at her mind. Like it was doing so now. Resolutely she pushed it away and turned to her companion. "I think it is time for us to go back."

Lawrence came out of his reverie. He drew out his time piece. "Yes, you are right."

Lydia took his proffered arm and together they walked back down Oakham Mount, each trying to think of something that would distract their minds the entirety of the journey back to Netherfield.

Some one however, did that for them, though to the opposite of what they were hoping. He came upon them suddenly, just as they had reached the path. Lawrence looked up and immediately paled. What was he doing here?

"Sir, I must speak with you," the stranger began, coming to a halt in front of Lawrence.

Lydia glanced at her companion, whose pale face had begun to cause her concern. He seemed to be struggling to keep his emotions in check. Anger flickered briefly over him, then he turned to her. "Lydia, would you go on? I will join you in a few moments."

She obeyed. It was the only thing she could do.

As soon as she was out of sight, Lawrence grabbed the man by his cravat. "Never do that again, do you hear me?" He let him back down. "I thought I told you we were to never meet in day light."

The man stood, struggling to catch back his breath. From her hiding place Lydia gasped. Doubts began to form in her mind. Fearing to see anymore she slipped away.


Netherfield Grounds, 25th October.

Lydia found herself still haunted by the image the following day. She had never seen Lawrence angry before. A part of her had doubted that he was capable of it. Until last afternoon. Seeing him almost strangle a man had brought back memories, memories that she did not like. Times when Wickham had been angry. Did all men possess such an emotion? Was she to be forever haunted by it?

And they will not see my real self, all they'll see is a monster. Lawrence's words made sense now. What was even more terrifying was that until now, Lydia had never thought he would be right. If only she had not remained behind. Not seen him do what he did. I have no desire to hurt anyone, he had said, yet I know that I will. Why could he not? What task forced him to go against his nature? Could she trust him, knowing that he was capable of such an emotion?

Lydia wished she knew. She wanted to trust him, but the event that she had witnessed was hard to ignore. She could not help but think that he could become angry at her. Wickham had never been angry at her until she knew him better. Would Lawrence do the same? Was there something about her that caused men to become angry? That last thought had scared her, driving her away from the house, hoping a change of scenery would push it away from her mind.

It had yet to depart.

"Lydia," a voice suddenly called.

She looked up to find Lawrence walking towards her. She came to a halt and tried to give an appearance of content. "Lawrence," she began as soon as he had reached her. "How nice to see you again. Is there some thing you wanted of me?"

Lots of things, Lawrence's mind silently replied, before he roused himself to notice her manner. Something was wrong. "Just your company. Is there anything the matter?"

"Am I allowed to ask who that gentleman was that came across us yesterday?"

"Of course you're allowed," he began jovially, trying to give the appearance that there was nothing to be concerned over. "He thought he had seen me before. I set him straight then came to find you. Where did you go?"

"Oh, I had begun my walk when Henry came up to me," Lydia replied, hoping her son would forgive her lying about his whereabouts. "Beth had fallen over and was calling for me. I spent the rest of the day with them, cheering them up."

Lawrence accepted her excuse. "Give her my best hopes for a speedy recovery. I also wanted to ask you something. I know we are brother and sister, but I was wondering if you would be willing to overlook that and agree to dance the first set with me at the ball?"

"I would love to," Lydia replied, forgetting her worries for a moment. It had been a long time since someone had asked her to dance with them. She smiled happily at him.

Lawrence rejoiced to see it. He wished he deserved it.


26th October.

Good news travels fast, as the saying goes, and the Blakeneys were happy for it to do so, at least as far as their immediate family. This in mind they went to seek them out.

The Darcys were in the library, a room that had been much improved since its last tenant gave up the place six years ago. Ensconced together upon a sofa, Darcy was quietly reading aloud to his wife and youngest child, taking every turn of a page as an excuse to kiss the former's hair.

Upon finding this scene the Blakeney's had little desire to disturb it. However the interruption was now out of their control. The door behind them closed loudly, and Fitzwilliam looked up to find his sister before them.

"Georgie," he began in surprise. "Is something the matter?"

"Oh no," Georgiana assured them quickly. "We just have some news, but it can wait. We'll leave you in peace."

"There's no need," Elizabeth remarked. "What is it?"

The Blakeneys sat down, Michael taking his wife's hand in his. "In the spring of next year, Imogen will have another cousin to play with," he uttered simply.

The Darcys looked at each other and smiled. "Congratulations," Fitzwilliam said to his sister, who smiled happily in reply.

"We wanted you two to be the first to know," Georgiana began. "And to tell everyone else when I start to show. Would you mind keeping this to yourselves for now?"

"Not at all," Elizabeth replied.

Georgiana thanked them and then departed the room with her husband. Her brother turned to his wife when the door had close. He saw her troubled face instantly. "What's wrong, Elizabeth?"

"It nothing," she replied, gazing down at Imogen thoughtfully.

Darcy persisted. "Yes it is. Tell me."

Elizabeth turned to face her husband, still hesitating. Darcy's face betrayed concern however, making her decision, knowing that if she did not, he would jump to the worse possible conclusion. "I want Imogen to be my last child."

"Why?" Darcy began gently, puzzled.

"I see the worry upon your face every time I tell you I am with child. I worry myself that there will come a time when I won't be able to survive. I love them dearly, but I fear the day that I will lose them." She paused to gaze him mutely. "Are you angry?"

Darcy put an arm around her, carrying her into an embrace. "Elizabeth, my darling, I could never be angry with you. I love it when you tell me I am to be a father again, but I also worry about it. I never told you this, but my mother became very ill after I was born. Before Georgiana, there were at least two times that I am aware of where she miscarried.

"She died giving birth to another sister two years later. The babe was stillborn. That's what I fear. Seeing that happen to you. I could not bear to lose you like that. I made a vow that I would not the day Imogen was born." He leant forward and kissed her tenderly. "Now, my love, is that all, that is troubling you?"

"You know me too well," Elizabeth mused, leaning back into his arms. "I do not want this to mean that we sleep in separate rooms or that we no longer........" she trailed off, blushing.

"I did not think I could make you blush any more," Darcy commented. "And with regards to that, let assure you that there are ways and means." He dealt another kiss to hair. "And I will happily show them you later. For now I think Imogen wants us to continue with this," he finished, picking up the book he had lain aside, glancing at their very much awake young daughter. "I love you, Elizabeth," he uttered reverently.

Mrs Darcy happily replied the same, leaning back into his loving embrace.


Chapter LIII.

Longbourn, Meryton, Netherfield, and Rosings,
1st November - 25th November 1820.

All Saint's Day dawned, signalling five and twenty days before the Netherfield ball. It seemed to call to time, urging that thief of moments to quicken the days. And quicken them it did, for all parties concerned.

As the days settled into a pattern, conversations became less important and more routine, as each of the houses prepared themselves for the first ball hosted by the Devereauxs in years. The fine autumnal weather dissolved into the beginning of a mild winter, the calm before the storm it seemed.

Lawrence was one of the few who dreaded the fast arrival of the ball. Its date signalled to him a far more deadly task than preparing to socialise with Meryton's finest. His time was almost up. His men were getting restless, as the untimely intrusion while he was with Lydia showed. If he hesitated any longer, he could have a rebellion upon his hands. And the matter would fall out of his control, a state of affairs which, no matter how much he dreaded taking up the solution, he could not live with.

Lydia. For a brief moment Lawrence allowed himself to dwell on his chances. He knew all too well that it would be a miracle if his hopes were granted when he finally confessed the truth. But no matter how he tried to prepare himself to look upon that almost inevitable eventuality, he found he could not. A part of him still hoped all would turn out well, even though it faced a continuous attack from his other more realistic half to allow the possibility that it would not.

He feared not just Lydia's reaction. The Bennets he had come to learn were loyal to a fault when it came to their family. If by some chance he managed to achieve his dreams, would it be accepted by the rest of the family? Mr Bennet's approval he had, but the others still remained unaware. What would their reaction to be? He feared being shunned by all, even though it was the most likely outcome. Their views would no doubt sway Lydia and he would be forced to attempt to pick up his life elsewhere, a task that he knew that he deserved, but dreaded to face all the same.


 

At Rosings Park the household rapidly began to prepare for the departure of the Fitzwilliams, or Miss Anne and Master Richard as they were affectionately referred. Even though the couple were not to leave until two days before the ball, Lady Catherine insisted that everything must be prepared the morning of All Saints, and as you know, she is not a woman to trifle with.

Anne was happy to see her husband calm down as the days hastened. His restlessness had not completely disappeared after we saw him last, but instead slowly lessened until his adrenaline awoke in preparation for the announcement he was to make.

Mrs Fitzwilliam looked forward to the ball, for such occasions were considered rare events by her, as she had not attended her first until some months after the Darcys' wedding. Since then she had only been to six, a figure which would have been rapidly reduced if her mother had had any say in the matter. Instead she had been forced to surrender to her brother the Earl's requests until she saw for herself how much good they did her only child.

Her husband was of the same mind, despite his task that was before him. Before his marriage, balls had also been a thing to avoid, although he had dodged them by choice rather than by health. One might think that as a second son he had no need to fear matchmaking mothers or Aunts, but indeed he did, due to his handsome red coat and impressive active rank. This rank was often a saving grace, for it enabled him to be abroad when the London Season was usually in full flow. And on the occasions that it was not, he often cancelled his leave accordingly. The Balls he did attend were only those held by his family, the Duchess of Richmond's in 1815 being a notable exception, and one which he was most grateful that it ended when it did, though it had been a damned nuisance that it was due to a battle rather than anything else.

They had agreed to stay a few days afterwards and help deal with the repercussions that would occur when Richard made his announcement. Mr Fitzwilliam had debating the best time and the best words since the moment he had learnt he was allowed to make it. Especially as he knew the man he was to denounce. A man that even now he still held a great respect and admiration, for possessing the courage to carry out a task even himself would have had difficulty in agreeing to. Richard also feared his families' reaction to this man. He knew his cousins would come to accept it, along with the Bingleys, but the rest were an unknown quantity, whom he had had little contact with since their marriages.

Above all, Richard hated to do this to a man he called a friend, but the man would soon no longer be a friend if he continued to deceive his extended family.


 

As preparations for the ball were begun in earnest, plans for the departure of the Bingleys, Darcys and the Blakeneys soon afterwards were also put in motion. The three families were to say until the end of the month, whereupon the Blakeneys would depart to Richmond, the Darcys to Pemberley and the Bingleys to Pearlcoombe.

Only Lydia knew not of her plans. She feared to impose on anybody, even her parents, though to stay at Longbourn would be a last resort on her part, for she knew that the influence of her mother would do more harm than good to her children. She also did not wish to return to Newcastle, as the place would hold too many bad memories.

Upon the first of November, Lydia began to explore her third option; employment. She soon found that success of this was almost an impossibility, due to her eight children and her neglect of her education. As the days sped by, she began to feel even concerned about her future and the mask of contentment that she kept up for the sake of her family started to slip.

Her eldest sisters soon noticed it, and instantly resolved among themselves to provide a solution. A day later Jane declared to Lydia that she and her children should consider themselves guests of Pearlcoombe for as long as they needed.

This was a welcome comfort to Lydia, who began to look forward to the ball once more, glad that she had at least the promise of one dance partner for the night.


 

Thus the families prepared themselves with clothes and dance cards as the household aired the ballroom, hung decorations, cooked food, learnt required music and dressed their masters and mistresses.

And at last the scene was set.

 


Chapter LIV.

The Netherfield Ball, Part I:

The Darcy's Suite, Netherfield Hall, Late evening, 26th November 1820.

Elizabeth was surveying the glowing lights outside the window of her bedchamber cast by the increasing number of candles fastened upon the building, lights carried by footman as they waited to receive the guests, and arriving carriages, when a strong pair of arms wrapped themselves round her waist, the hands closing over her own. A clink sounded as they did so, the clash of metal upon metal, created by two wedding bands and an engagement ring landing on top of each other. For Elizabeth, a single glance at the signet ring that lay of the last finger of the left hand determined to her who had his arms around her. Her husband's voice whispered in her ear, confirming her thoughts, which were by now of anything but the ball they were about to attend. "May I claim the first two dances, my beloved?"

"You may," she replied, leaning back into the loving embrace. Darcy bestowed a kiss upon her neck in gratitude, noticing with pride that she was wearing the sapphire and diamond necklace he had given her for no other reason than that she was his wife two days ago. "And the next two dances, my love?"

"Yes," Elizabeth replied as her fine eyes returned to surveying the arriving carriages.

Darcy dealt another kiss, this time upon the other side of her neck. "And the two after that?" He asked, his lips brushing her skin just above the rim of her dress, which bore, in his opinion, far too low and at the same far too high a neckline. The first because he wished no others to gaze upon his wife's beauty, and the last because he alone wished to feast upon such beauty.

Elizabeth tried to keep herself calm as she voiced her acceptance once more. She felt her husband's breath as his lips brushed the front slope of her shoulder in reply. A shudder passed through her as he bestowed another kiss at the rim of her dress and undid the first fastening clip at the back. She turned round and captured his lips in a passionate kiss. As the kiss broke she felt another clip being loosed. "Fitzwilliam," she began in what was an attempt at mild chiding, although she had no objection to his present actions in general, as his arms pulled her closer, "we have barely five minutes. And in front of a window, I might add."

"Surely, we can be fashionably late," Darcy returned, running his fingers down the part of her back that was now exposed, making her look up at him with a gaze of anything but disagreement to his verbal suggestion. "As for your objections to the window, my love, I can soon remedy that," he added, sweeping her off her feet and into the safe carriage of his arms.

The Darcys were slightly more than what could be considered in public- or indeed in any -society as fashionably late, but thankfully for the couple, it was unnoticed by most of the company in the Ballroom as they took a place in the third dance set of the evening.


 

While Mr Darcy delighted in a display of 'ways and means' with his wife, the ball had continued its good beginning, managing a fine number of persons to incline themselves to open the dancing under their kind hosts.

Lydia and Lawrence were just two of these personages. The former had entered into the dance with some concern, for since she witnessed the latter's anger some nights ago, Lydia had been experiencing second thoughts about her agreement to dance with him. Caught up by the idea of dancing after a long period of being forcibly induced to give up such frivolity, she had been unable to refuse his tempting offer, yet after his departure, the scene which she had bore witness to the day before had invaded her mind with such force as to make Lydia wish she had refused him. Throughout the coming days her doubts had continued to rise, even though she knew it was terribly impolite to retract her acceptance. So it was that she entered into the first of their two dances with some degree of trepidation.

Lawrence, although blind as to why, was not blind to her distraction as they took their place in the set. At first he tried to ignore it, thinking it was his own worries that were producing such an illusion. However, by the fifth slight shudder of her hand when she took his, he resolved that it was no mirage. Gently, he inquired, "is there anything wrong?"

Yes, Lydia could not help but think, I wondering whether I can trust you. "I apologise," she replied instead, "this is the first I have danced in a long while. My ability to perform the required steps is making me nervous."

"Well, such neglect does not show, I assure you," Lawrence replied, his concern over her deepening when he noticed her flinch as she spoke of it. What did her husband do to make her like this, he wondered, feeling sick at the thought of it. "Tell me," he added, in an effort to drive the image out of his mind, "what are your recollections of the last ball you attended here? Does this one differ much?"

"A very great deal," Lydia replied, her memories of her past fading away as she thought of the ball nine years ago, when she had been happy. "For one, my sister Elizabeth was dancing this first with Mr Collins, whose skill in dance was severely lacking!" She chuckled at the memory. "He spent most of the time colliding into other dancers!"

"And who did you dance with?"

"With Captain Denny, my favourite officer at the time. He reminds alittle of you, for he was always well mannered and witty. I wonder what has happened to him now." Lydia paused at this point as they parted briefly. When they had resumed their place at each other's side, her conversation was centred on the present. "I wonder where my sister is. She and Mr Darcy were to dance the first set."

"I daresay one or other well-meaning guests have caught them in conversation," Lawrence remarked, as Sir William Lucas passed into his view.


 

Sir William Lucas has not altered both in appearance and manner since our last meeting with him, and did indeed manage to catch the Darcys when they retired for a break from the end of the fifth set of the evening.

"Ah, Mr Darcy, I am quite delighted to see you and your lady wife repeat your actions from the last time," he began as the couple reluctantly came to a halt in front of him. "I'll wager you had no idea of what was to come that night?"

"You will get no argument from me sir," Darcy replied, with a smile to his wife. "I knew not what I was about nine years ago."

"And it was beholden to me to make him realise," Elizabeth teased back. "You indeed had the right mind on what was to come, Sir William."

"Yes I did indeed," Sir William replied. "I saw both yours and your sister's unions that evening. Ah, if only you had consulted me, Mr Darcy. Perhaps it would not have taken so long, hey?"

"Oh, on that I beg to differ sir," Darcy replied, with a wicked grin at his wife, "Mrs Darcy can be quite determined when she puts a mind to it."

Elizabeth knew what he was about. Pretending to be affronted, she exclaimed, "Just for that, sir, I shall retract my acceptance for the sixth set."

Darcy humbly bowed. "Will you excuse us, Sir William? I need to dissuade my dear wife of that notion immediately."

Once away, and alone in a nearby room that was devoid of people, but not of comfortable sofas and chairs, it must be said that Darcy took quite some time in his task, much to the delight of Elizabeth, that both he and his wife missed the sixth set of dancing altogether.


 

Chapter LV.

The Netherfield Ball: Part II.

As we reach this chapter, the author has realised that she has neglected to mention much, if indeed anything, of the guests. She shall attempt to remedy this circumstance now.

The Bennets had come of course, bringing with them the Guests, the Smythes, the Gardiners- of whom the author is fully aware that she has abused dreadfully, referring only to their arrival and then ignoring them until this moment, for which she apologises most heartily -and the Phillipses. So far and, perhaps thankfully, for all parties concerned, a certain member of the foremost mentioned of the above families had been very much restrained. Whether this was due to her being in awe of the hosts, decorations, guests, or her husband, or indeed all of these things, one cannot say. Perhaps it is a mystery best left unsolved. Of other Meryton acquaintances that we are familiar with, only the Lucases had graced the ball with their presence, as you doubt noticed by Sir William's appearance some moments ago.

Apart from the Darcys and the Devereauxs, all the other guests of the house had attended as well, the Bingleys, Lydia and the Blakeneys, who were most pleased to greet their father when he and his wife were among the first of the arrivals that evening.

In a quest for solitude, Lawrence came to a halt in the entrance foyer, where he stood for some time at a window, mulling over his situation and the immediate future. A future which he knew, that, as of tonight, was uncertain. All was out of his hands now. His mask would be dropped this night, it unavoidable to keep it up any longer. He would not be the one to reveal himself, that task lay at the feet of another, who had only sent word of his delay the morning of this day, an item of news which he had managed to obtain from eavesdropping on conversations. This delay did not give him relief, in fact it only gave the opposite. Lawrence had long since decided that it needed to be done and got over, even though he knew that once the truth was revealed, the recriminations would be eternal.

Lawrence pulled himself together at this point and returned to the ballroom, with all the attitude of a man about to face certain death, a state with which he could not help feeling certain empathy at this present moment. His eyes sought out Lydia, finding her still with Mrs Blakeney, not seeming to have noticed his disappearance at all. Dare he ask her for another dance? No, perhaps not, he decided, remembering the task he had to complete within the hour. Instead he sought out one of the Devereauxs and endeavoured to involve himself in the scene at hand until he had to make the temporary departure.


 

"Are you certain?"

"I could not be more certain Aunt, I saw the event all too clearly. What am I to do? I thought he could be trusted. How am I supposed to behave to him, knowing he has done this?"

Mrs Gardiner looked comfortingly upon her youngest niece, wishing she knew what advice would be the most helpful at this moment. She had only recently joined the discussion between Lydia and Georgiana, after the latter had appealed to her wisdom and judgement in a matter with the former found unable to keep to herself any longer.

Lydia feared herself on the verge of a breakdown. The scene of Lawrence's anger had been replaying itself over and over in her mind from the moment they had left the dance floor. Unable to cope with it any longer, she had confided in Georgiana, who had in turn persuaded her to tell Mrs Gardiner, who would better know how the land lay in such matters than herself. "Please help me, Aunt," Lydia pleaded now. "I know not what to do."

"I am afraid that beyond trying to ignore it, I know not either," Mrs Gardiner replied sadly. "If he will not confide in you, Lydia, what else can you do?"

"Its too hard," Lydia uttered in the same emotion. "I have played a part for so long. When I was married, when I was with the children after his death, before I broke at Pemberley........ I hate the mask, Aunt. It is bad enough displaying it to mama and others of Meryton. I thought I could count on Lawrence to accept the real me. If I have to present a mask to him as well......." she trailed off, tears flooding her voice.

Mrs Gardiner did the only thing she could do. Wrapping an arm around her niece, she discreetly escorted her out of the ballroom. "Come my child, let us go see your children. You need a break."

"I'm sorry for being such a nuisance, Aunt Gardiner," Lydia replied as they ascended the stairs.

"Do not worry about it my dear," Madeline replied comfortingly. "You have good reason and I daresay time will heal the remaining wounds. You may look back on this and laugh one day."

"I hope you are right, I really do."


Chapter Text

Chapter LVI.

The Netherfield Ball; Part III.

The stranger was not completely unprepared to meet his fate when his sentries came upon him that night. He had been fortifying himself for the event for quite some time. The appearance of a vicar surprised him considerably, but he accepted the man, made his peace with the lord and announced himself ready to face whatever fate they disposed to bestow upon him and his soul.

In the company of four darkly dressed men and that good parson, all covered beyond the point of recognition, the stranger allowed himself to be escorted outside. I say allowed, but he really had very little choice and had reconciled himself to the inevitable a long time ago. When they reached the middle of the field that bordered the deserted farm dwelling where he had spent his last days, the men came to a halt and he readied himself for the journey that lay ahead.

He did not need to wait long. Ten minutes later and the figure of a fifth man could be seen coming towards them. The stranger regarded this man with caution. His nemesis. He was to meet him at last. For the first and only time. Outwardly, there seemed nothing formidable about the man that the stranger had long regarded to be his enemy. He was young, the same age as he, yet also aged, a common trait, one that happened to most who walked the life of a soldier and committed themselves wholeheartedly to the task. His face, as far as one could judge in the evening darkness, was resolved, as any man's face should be when carrying out an order, no matter whether they agree or disagree with the order themselves. With this man it was difficult to tell whether he held disgust for the job that his superiors had ordered him to carry out, his face was too closed a mask. His manner held authority, disclosing a high rank, which meant a gentleman, as the British army rarely promoted men out of the ranks, and those that they did hardly ever rose higher than lieutenant. The stranger himself had only heard of one man to rise above quartermaster, but that man was certainly not the enemy that stood before him. At this last point, the stranger, his observation complete, met the eyes of his enemy and silently awaited his fate.

One of the four sentries stepped forward to meet the enemy, saluting him respectfully. He returned the salute and took the object that the sergeant had been carrying. The object in question was a rifle of the very best repute. He regarded the weapon in his hand for a moment, then calmly checked that it was ready. This done, he nodded to the sergeant.

The sergeant turned to face to the prisoner. "Alastair Jermone, you have been charged with conspiracy and treason against this sovereign land. Do you have anything to say before we pass judgement?"

"Nothing," he replied in accented English, "just a request for the name of my enemy, since he has mine, I am entitled the same right."

The enemy simply put the rifle to his shoulder and took aim. "I have many names, sir," he began as he cocked the weapon. "None of which I care to honour a traitor with. Even one who is about to die. But since you ask, I shall answer. Calverley."

The last sound the prisoner heard was the noise made by the bullet as it left the barrel. Beyond that, the rest was silence.


 

Calverley discarded the weapon as soon as it had fired. He stood in silence, watching as the four men picked up the corpse and carried it away. He inclined his head to the parson in thanks, then walked away himself.

Once alone he breathed a sigh of relief, then chuckled at the absurd irony of it. The task he had welcomed the least, had been the easiest to carry out. Now to the one that he welcomed the most. Would he regret such an end? He doubted not. Of course he would regret it, just as he had regretted all his actions from the moment of his arrival in the neighbourhood. Briefly he dwelled on the people that he had deceived. There were so many of them. All he had knowingly abused by playing a man who had died an honourable death a long time ago. Whose real self should be now acknowledged by him and allowed the proper regard that he should had been given long ago.

Calverley dwelled on this man for a moment longer. He was a man that he had been honoured to call a friend. An admirable officer, a brave fighter. Had he done him justice? Calverley dearly hoped so. The man had died five years ago, in battle, the fate that most soldiers preferred to meet rather than retirement, especially when war was all one had known since the age of sixteen. Calverley himself had the better life. Raised with his family, purchasing the commission of captaincy outright, rather than waiting for seniority to take care of the rise. It was thanks to this man that he had survived the war at all, having no experience before his first battle.

At this point he reached the turn in the road, bringing the lights of the house that he was returning to straight ahead of him. Casting a look about himself, Calverley brushed away what he could see of the powder burns and straightened his apparel. He slowed down as he reached the steps, thanking providence that no one had seen him leave and that the room he had to return to faced the south rather than the north side of the stately home.

All too soon he entered the foyer. As he checked his appearance in a nearby mirror, he saw behind him another who had escaped the ball for a short time too. Righting his face, he turned round and addressed her. "Lydia, at last I have found you."

"At last, sir?" Lydia questioned lively, her good humour having been restored by the time spent with her children and her Aunt.

"Yes, I have been looking for you for quite some time." He held out a arm. "Shall we go back in? I believe we have the chance for one more dance before supper. Will you do me the honour of attending such a pastime in my arms?"

"Yes, Lawrence," Lydia replied joyfully. "I believe I will."


 

Chapter LVII.

The Netherfield Ball: Part IV.

The dancing soon gave way to the sumptuous supper that the Devereauxs had kindly laid out for their guests in the drawing rooms nearby. As the guests all filed out of the ballroom, the Darcys remained behind, partly to take the opportunity to indulge in an amorous embrace and to seek out the footman they had asked to keep a lookout for the Fitzwilliams, whose delay had been relayed to them by express just this morning.

"I regret, sir," the footman replied respectfully to Darcy, "that their arrival has not been reported to me, as yet."

"I see. Well thank you for looking anyway, Fosset. Could you please come and inform us if they do arrive during supper?"

"Of course sir." Fosset clicked his heels together, bowed, and disappeared in the direction of the foyer. Darcy turned back to his wife with a wicked grin. "And now that we are alone, my love, where were we?"

"I think we were deciding to rejoin the others," Elizabeth replied, not resisting his embrace all the same.

"Were we? I thought we were doing this." He laid his lips upon hers, kissing her soundly. Elizabeth allowed herself to surrender briefly to the pleasure, then forced her mind to recollect where they were. Drawing back from her disappointed husband, she began to remind him. "Sir, we are at a ball, and if we do not go into the supper room soon, there will be cause for scandal."

"My love, we are man and wife!"

"And that is cause for scandal enough," Elizabeth returned lively, before leading him by the hand into the room.

"Darcy, my dear fellow," Lord Devereaux cried when the couple were in hearing distance. "There you are. Come and join us."

"Sir," Darcy acknowledged as he installed his wife in a chair, before obtaining one for himself. "Perhaps you could settle a question for me. Is it scandalous to be in love with one's wife of nearly nine years?"

"Absolutely, Darce, which is why we all are," Lord Devereaux replied, causing others at the table to chuckle. "Has your cousin arrived yet?"

"If you mean Richard, no, he has yet to appear. He sent word this morning that one of the carriage wheels had cracked and needed to be replaced."


 

Lawrence, who had been listening to this conversation tried not to breath a sigh of exasperation at the delay. Instead he turned to his companion. "So, where did you disappear to?" He asked her casually.

"I went up to see my children," Lydia replied honestly, as she came to a decision. "Lawrence," she began quietly, making sure none but he could hear her, "I must ask, I cannot conceal it any longer. Who was that man I saw you lose your temper at, that day at Oakham Mount?"

Lawrence sighed with shame, then reached out to take her hand, grateful that their public relation as siblings still existed yet. "Please, believe me when I say that I wish you had not witnessed that. It is an action that I regret myself. He was a man who had been working for me. I had told him never to contact me in the day, but....... Oh, Lydia, I wish I could tell you that such temper rarely exists. But I cannot. All I can do is assure you that I would never display such a temper to you or to your family. It disgusts me what your husband did to you. I would never do that to you. I could not. It is not in my nature."

Lydia gazed into Lawrence's eyes and knew not what she saw in them. Sincerity she hoped, honesty she believed, but there was a hint of something else, something that she had never seen directed at herself. Only to others, directed by their........ she flinched and withdrew her hand. She was not ready think that. Not yet.

Lawrence reaffirmed his mask and drew his own hand back to his plate, a quiet dread stealing into his heart. He had no right to hope. No right at all.


 

It was a dark and stormy night as the last carriage drew up at Netherfield House. Actually, it was not stormy, and the night had assured itself two hours ago that it could not get any darker. But to resume.

Fosset, who had been faithfully waiting for their arrival stepped outside and respectfully led the couple inside, answering to the gentleman's enquiries as best he could. Was the ball still underway? Yes, it was. Had supper been served? Yes, it was in the process of being served now. Had a Mr Lawrence Bennet attended the ball? Yes he had. Where could he find his cousin, Mr Darcy?

Fosset directed them through the ballroom and then to the supper table that held the Darcys and the Blakeneys. After greeting all, Richard Fitzwilliam glanced in the direction of the gentleman who had brought him here to night. And he was not disappointed. "So that is Lawrence Bennet," he remarked to his cousin as he sat down.

Darcy could not fail to pick up Fitzwilliam's tone. "You know him then?"

"Yes I do," Richard replied. "Gather the family together in a room. Its time this was all revealed."

"What about Lawrence?"

"I'll see to him." Richard rose from the table and made his way to Lydia's. Once there he halted for a moment, hating suddenly what he had to do. He placed a hand on the gentleman's shoulder. "Well, if it isn't Jesmond Calverley. Or do you prefer Lawrence Bennet?"


 

Chapter LVIII.

The Netherfield Ball; Part V.

"I met your son, Lawrence Bennet, when we were both briefly in the same regiment the day it docked at Oporto. After becoming his friend, neither of us saw anything of each other again until the fateful match at Quatre Bra. Lawrence sustained a wound to the chest, dying almost instantly. His last wish to me was to seek out his family and tell them of his life. I vowed as a man of honour to do so. With that in mind, all that I have said of my, or rather his, past is true. He was indeed taken by Collins to be brought up with a family indebted to him by foul means, whose name was not Calverley, but in fact Brenton. When Collins died, Lawrence was indeed turned out of the house and thus forced to enter the army, a wish to do his real father proud and to earn himself a living before claiming upon yours. I deeply wish he had been able to do so.

"When I returned to London after the war, Horseguards pressed orders upon me, enough to keep me busy until this year, when they asked me to undertake this mission that brought me to you. I know it will make no difference to you all when I say that I wish I had not accepted the task, but I do, most seriously. There is, or rather was, a plot to eliminate a certain nemesis currently residing on St Helena, thus rendering him incapable of harming this kingdom and his own so recently surrendered ever again. His men had found out about it, and had sent someone to inform him. I was sent to put a stop to that man. I was to do it cleanly, that is, as cleanly as possible. I was to attract no attention to myself of any nature, and to undertake any guise I deemed necessary to complete my mission.

"I had tracked him as far as here before I entered under such a mask. Knowing your son's history as well as I did, such a mask had seemed perfect at the time. I knew full well that the deception would cause much grief to all, but faced with the alternative of this man's escape, I found I had no choice but to undertake the task.

"I soon found him, Alastair Jeremone was his name, and carried out my orders to the letter, despite my objections to doing the terrible and fatal deed. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my story. I offer nothing in response to the deception that I have caused you. I cannot. All I can say is that Lawrence Bennet was one of the best men I have ever had the privilege of knowing and that he served and died for this country with distinction."

A long silence greeted the end of this narrative, as all tried to deal with the information that they had just been dealt. All were angry at his deception, angry at themselves for not spotting said deception, filled with horror at the task he had been ordered to do, and with fear at what might have happened had his task failed.

The Darcys were the first to recover from their amazement, although they did so quietly. Fitzwilliam remembered the words of his cousin, conveyed in a letter to his father in law; greater forces at work here than just the question of entail. At the time, Darcy had not fully realised the implications of such a statement. Now he did. There are things which I am heartily glad that you do not know, Richard had also said to him. No truer words had ever been spoken.

Elizabeth also reflected on the words of her cousin law. Her other chief emotion was anger however. Anger at Jesmond's deception regarding Lydia, and the damage this deception could now do to her already fragile state of mind. Her sister had placed such trust in Mr Calverley, a trust which to all appearances, he had abused most dreadfully. Only Georgiana had been the other person to break through the defences that Lydia had set around herself. What would she do now, with this news? Elizabeth prayed that she would not retreat once more, for she knew not how to bring her back out again.

The Bingleys and the Guests reactions consisted of much the same. Kitty was angry for her sister, and her husband was angry for her, and the Bingleys were united in trying to silently acquit Jesmond of any wrong doing in their minds and thus to pronounce him worthy of courting those beliefs that they had previously attributed to him, regarding a certain person. They also prayed that that certain person had the courage to take the risk and place her trust in Jesmond once more.

The Smythes were also united, but for very different reasons. Both lamented Calverley's refusal to confess his sins earlier and before a priest, his refusal to seek absolution and his unchristian behaviour in committing what was, for want of a better word, murder in this very parish. Both kept themselves engrossed in the search of their minds for the appropriate words from Fordyce's Sermons and other eminently praised texts to avail Mr Calverley with at the earliest opportunity.

Lawrence, or rather Jesmond, as the author shall refer to him from now on,- also, for the reader's information, Colonel Jesmond Calverley, to be more precise -watched each person's reaction with a quiet dread filling his heart. He had expected such a reaction, indeed he would have been surprised if he had not been dealt thus, but such expectation did nothing to prevent the wretchedness that was clasping his heart at this moment. His gaze landed on Richard Fitzwilliam, a man whom previously he had had not the only honour to serve under but to count upon as a friend. Inwardly he breathed a sight of relief when he saw the expression of understanding and pity. At least one person understood fully the task he had been given. He turned his eyes to Mr Bennet and saw the same reaction, feeling very grateful that the man had confronted him before this event, as he would not have his support either.

Lastly, his eyes came to rest on Lydia. Or in reality, the place that Lydia had last stood. For her presence had gone from that space, indeed it had disappeared entirely from the room. When such an event had occurred, he knew not, and upon this discovery Jesmond began to regret the moment of his agreement to this by now wretched plan, for all he had prayed for in the past now had no hope of ever coming true.


 

In the rest of the house, all was quiet, none suspecting for a moment the news that had just been announced to the extended Bennet family. Even in the rooms above the large drawing room that had served as the location for the revealing of said news, their occupants did not so much as stir.

One particular occupant was very quiet. It was a quietness that would bring alarm to anyone who bore witness to it, but alas none did. At least, none that were old enough to understand such quiet. Only one bore witness to it, the most innocent mind of all. She lay in the arms of the person, looking up at her with large blue eyes, concerned only of the event of their presence, not the reason why.

Lydia gazed not at her youngest child. Instead she gazed out the window, tears falling continually from her eyes and down her face.


 

Note: The plot of Jesmond's mission was inspired by recent research which has revealed that when Napoleon died, there was a large amount of arsenic in his system, which along with other evidence- such as weight, for example -disapproved the previous theory that he had died of cancer. The evidence suggests he was poisoned slowly to death. The possibility that the British were involved and that an ally got wind of the plot but was killed by Jesmond before he could reach Napoleon, is just my imagination. Source for this theory is mentioned in the Sharpe Companion by Mark Adkin.


 

Chapter LIX.

The Days After: Part I.
Netherfield, 27th November 1820.

As soon as it was decently allowed, Jesmond Calverley quitted Longbourn and rode with all haste to Netherfield the next morning. Deciding against announcing his presence to the household at large, he skirted the exterior of the building, glancing discreetly in every window until his eyes rested upon the one person he had come to see.

Thankfully, she was alone. Jesmond stood for a time outside the exterior entrance to the room, watching her. All night had he spent in contemplation of what he needed to say, what he wanted to say, to her. He had not seen her at all after his announcement. She had disappeared from the ball completely. Now, he wondered if his planned speech would do anything to restore their friendship.

Lydia looked up the moment the door opened, its loud click of the lock waking her from her turbulent thoughts. Until now, every action of hers had been, for want of a better word, mechanical. Somehow, either from exhaustion or grief, or indeed perhaps both, she had fallen into a restless sleep, the like of which she now regretted she had ever entered into, for it had made her feel anything but better. How she had risen, allowed herself to be dressed, and eaten the morning's repast, she knew not, and did not care to find out. Now she gazed at Lawrence, or rather Mr Calverley, as she should refer to him now, with sudden clarity of thought. "Why are you here?"

Jesmond felt as if a someone had stabbed him in the heart as he heard her cold tone. But then, he had expected such. "I came to apologise to you. And to try to offer my reasons for my actions. Actions which I know hurt you badly."

"What right have you to presume my feelings? What reasons can you have to offer, that will acquit yourself of any wrong?" Lydia rose from her seat. "You lied to me, Mr Calverley! I asked you time and time again, and you refused to confide in me. Yet I treated you with all of my secrets. What was it about it me that you found so repulsive that you could not trust me with the truth? My past reputation? My late husband? Both are simply that; past. I am not the girl I was nine years ago. I hoped you would have the decency to recognise that."

"I do," Jesmond replied, flinching when he heard her emphasis on his name. "My only reason for concealing such truth was not due to any of those. I did not want to put you a difficult position with your family. If I had confided in you, you would have been forced to choose between me and your loyalty to your family and I could not have that."

"Loyalty to my family?" Lydia repeated. "Is that all you have to reply? I am an outsider with most of my family, as you very well know. Even Kitty, my only friend from before, I do not reveal my true self with, for fear of putting a irrevocable burden on her. You and Georgiana were the only two people I thought I could trust with my self without burdening either of you. I had every right to expect the same trust in return. Instead I receive deceit and lies. I had hoped to never receive such motives again!"

"Lydia, believe me, if I could go back and change things, I would. Do you not think I agonised constantly over the part I had to play? My deception to you and everyone else? I did. But once I entered into it, I could not go back. Not until I carried out the task I had been ordered to do. If I had had any choice, I would have refused long ago. But I had none. And without the benefit of hindsight, I did not have a reason to refrain from volunteering."

"That does not acquit you from responsibility of the damage you have caused, Mr Calverley. I looked to you, not only as a friend, but as a brother. Now to find you are neither of these things, that you are instead a stranger to myself and my family I......." Lydia trailed off, as her need to breathe took over her ability to talk. "You have committed me to behave inappropriately towards you, by behaving thus towards myself. You may claim it is due to your service to this country, but it does not excuse you of the guilt that firmly lies at your door. As for myself, I cannot help but feel personally aggrieved by your actions. You deceived me. And in doing so, you forced me to lay myself open to thoughts and feelings that I was by no means ready to accept or display. You knew well of my past grief, and the life I had led at the hands of my late husband. You knew the damage he had caused me, and yet this did not stop you from committing some of the same crimes that he did. You convinced me that not all men were like him, that I could trust my family and that I could trust persons outside my circle. Do you not realise the damage that your deception has caused me now?"

"I do," Jesmond uttered in despair, "I do realise. As I also realise that because of my deceit you will in all likelihood never trust any one again. But, of all the things I told you, you may believe in this. Not every man is out to hurt you. Just because you have eight children it does not mean that you cannot find someone worthy enough to open your heart to again. Every time I spoke to you about that, I was speaking the truth as I believed it. The truth I have seen. I had no intention of giving you false hopes concerning that. Lydia....."

"Do not call me that!" Lydia shouted back. "You have no right to address me by that name! You are a stranger to me!"

"What am I to call you then?" Jesmond countered. "We have been on first name terms for as long as we have known each other."

"Known each other! Sir, I realised last night that I have never known you!"

"Be that as it may," Jesmond continued. "If you allow yourself to fall, to suffer from this, because of me and my actions, then you have let me win. Do not let me win. It will be far better for you if you refuse to retreat into yourself again. You already allowed Wickham to do this to you. Do not let my actions repeat such a motion."

"Get out!" Lydia was too angry to listen any further. "Get out now! I never want to see you again!"

Jesmond reluctantly bowed, and quitted the room the same way he had entered. Not until he was gone from sight did Lydia allow herself to cry. Wordlessly she sank upon the sofa behind her, tears continuously falling down her face.

As angry as she was at Mr Calverley, she was just as angry at herself. Past experience had, should have, taught her to be cautious. Yet she had trusted him. Confided in him everything horrid detail about her elopement and her marriage. And in turn........... She hesitated. Had she been deceived? Perhaps, not in that respect. He had not shied from her upon hearing the story, instead he had stuck by her, tried to repair the damage that had been done, not offering a reason why, save a need that he felt had to.

Suddenly she shook herself. No, she was not going to acquit him! He had deceived her! In every respect. His reaction to her past was merely part of his mask, for any other would have drawn suspicion upon himself. He could have chosen to confide in her at any time. She had asked him repeatedly to do so.

Indeed, once he had already tried to. Another time, he had actually admitted to her that he had been concealing something from everyone. Lydia could remember every word he had used. Yes, there is something I have been concealing. Not just from you, but from everybody. Such concealment has been necessary. There is something here, a task that I have to do. This task has to be kept secret from everyone. What I can tell you though, is that it has nothing to do with you or your late husband. It is something different entirely. And it until it has been completed, I can tell nobody of it. Nothing. Not even the fears, or the doubts that I constantly have about it, myself and my ability to go through with it. And the harsh knowledge that once it has become clear, everyone here will look at me in a different light. And they will not see my real self, all they'll see is a monster. I do not deny them that right, I know it is to be expected. It is because of this that I hold myself back, hoping to somehow lesson the blow that I know I will receive, and the one that I will deliver to everyone. I have no desire to hurt anyone.

The morning he had said those words to her, he had been honest, Lydia reluctantly realised. She also remembered, rather guiltily now, what she had promised him in reply. You could never be a monster. I, more than anyone who lives here, knows what a monster is and that is something you could never be. Whatever your task, whatever your deceptions, I for one will not think that of you. These past few days since I have come to know you, convince me so. You are too kind, too thoughtful to be a monster. Once this is over, you will still have my friendship. This I promise you. How quickly had she broken that promise? He had every right to be angry with her because of that. Yet he had been anything but. Instead his anger had been directed at himself.

Oh, what had she done!?! She was a fine one to accuse him of being a false friend. By breaking her promise to him, she had done exactly the same. And he had understood why. He had been right. Confiding in her would have put her in a difficult position. She would have been torn between loyalty to him and loyalty to her family. How she would have coped with such a burden, Lydia did not care to think about. All that could occupy her mind at present, was the promise that she had broken to a friend.

A friend whom she now believed would never regard her as such again.


 

Jesmond did not immediately return to Longbourn. Instead he directed his horse to the fields of Oakham Mount, coming to a halt at the point where the village of Meryton and its surrounding country estates could be seen. There he dismounted and with a sigh collapsed upon the grass, not caring of the damage that the dew would do to his breeches. Indeed he had very little care for anything right now. Except this; he had hurt Lydia.

He remembered the last time they had come here. Well over a month ago it was now. The same day she had witnessed his anger directed at his sergeant for failing to regard his orders. How long had she agonised over that, before confiding in him? A month and two days. How long ago had she ceased to trust him?

Not that he had the right to such a privilege anyway. He had deceived her. He had played a part in front of her, and while he had spent time agonising over the grief that he was to cause her when the truth was finally revealed, not once had it prevented him from continuing to hide himself from her. He had no right to expect anything but the severest reproach from her in reply.

He remembered the time when he had all but confided the whole in her. And what she had promised in reply. That was particularly evil of him. He should not have told her what he had, forcing her to promise what she did. He should have told her the truth. He should have told it from the beginning, or perhaps from the moment he had realised that she was the one person he wanted to see again. No matter what his concerns were about the position he would place her in, she had had a right to know the truth from the start. She had confided herself in him, he should have honoured her with the same.

He had lied to her all along. Not just her, not just her family, but himself as well. It was stupid of him to deceive himself any longer. He could not, should not, hope for anything between them. He was evil in her eyes and she was right to regard him as such. There was nothing to salvage from this. There never had been in the first place. And in believing that there was, he had deceived himself as well.

From now on, Jesmond vowed, he was going to be honest with her. He was going to hope for nothing. He would lay himself open to her mercy, even if she had none to give him, and he would accept whatever punishment she wished to dealt upon him. And then, if he did become lucky enough to accomplish his dearest wishes, his long held dreams, then he would spend the rest of his life trying to make her not regret her trust for a moment.


 

Chapter LX.

The Days After: Part II:
Netherfield, 28th November 1820.

Jesmond Calverley, lately Lawrence Bennet, found himself outside the front entrance to Netherfield the very next morning with his vow from the day before firmly in tact. After a long talk with himself upon Oakham Mount, he had returned to Longbourn and met with Mr Bennet. His original intention with that gentleman had been to announce his removal from said estate effective immediately. Mr Bennet's reaction to this had taken Jesmond completely by surprise. For, instead of agreeing wholeheartedly with such a motion, Edmund Bennet had expressed the contrary, that Mr Calverley was welcome to stay at his estate for as long as was necessary. Jesmond could not help but ask why, and Mr Bennet's reply was something that he had been puzzling over ever since.

"I should have thought my reason was perfectly obvious."

"You perhaps mean, that as a friend to your son, I should be treated thus?"

Edmund Bennet took a long look at the young man before him. "Calverley, I have had a number of gentlemen around your age in my library for this very reason during recent years and, as yet, I have nothing with which to discourage you from your present course. I hope to offer my blessing soon enough."

It was not the unusualness of the phrase that had puzzled Jesmond, but how Mr Bennet had acquired the knowledge in the first place. True, he had confided in the latter about his feelings regarding a certain someone, but he had expected Mr Bennet to discount the matter from the moment his true identity became known. Instead his 'late father' seemed to be still encouraging him in the matter.

And, it was with this, as well as his previous vow in mind that Jesmond had brought himself back to Netherfield again. This time he made his entrance publicly, gave his card to the butler and politely declined the offer of a chair to wait upon while he inquired if the lady was willing to see Mr Calverley.

Jesmond did not have to wait long. Barely had five minutes gone by when he received his reply. It was not however, delivered by the butler, but in the form of Georgiana Blakeney.

"Mr Calverley," she greeted coldly, making no attempt to hide her anger at his actions. "Lydia thought she had made herself perfectly clear when she asked not to see you again yesterday."

"She had, Mrs Blakeney," Jesmond replied respectively, "but I had not promised to not try and see her." He paused and let his concern creep into his voice. "How is she?"

"How do you think she is?" Georgiana was rarely angry, and when she was, few would dare cross swords with her. The Darcy temper was well known to their family. "You deceived her! You deceived all of us! I myself have no concern for the lies to you put to me, but to Lydia..... You knew how fragile she was, and still is. You knew better than any of us. Yet you chose to treat her no differently from the rest of us. And now you presume to think that you will be allowed to see her?"

"Mrs Blakeney, you have every right to be angry with me. Indeed I am angry at myself for every one of my actions regarding Miss Bennet. Were it not for my feelings, I would happily obey her request and stay away. I cannot bare to leave here with her being angry at me. Please, Mrs Blakeney, let me see her."

Georgiana looked at Jesmond in silence for a long time. When she had first found Lydia, only minutes after the gentleman before had departed from the house, she had been very angry with him. She was still angry with him. Yet Lydia was no longer. She was angry at herself for, as she had told Georgie herself, not giving him the judgement she had promised him one morning when he had all but confided the whole in her. "Lydia told me of her promise to you regarding your eventual confession. Personally, I think you had no right to force her into making such a promise, but it is done and cannot be undone."

"I entirely agree with you, Mrs Blakeney," Jesmond replied, much to her surprise. "I had no right at all to say what I said to Miss Bennet and thus force her into a promise that she would inevitably have to break. I came today to say such words to her and more."

"More?" Georgiana could not help asking.

"That from this day forth, if she is will to overlook my grievous faults, I will do everything within my power to restore her faith in me." Jesmond took a step closer. "Almost from the moment I met her, Mrs Blakeney, I have come to feel for Miss Lydia Bennet a regard that goes beyond that of friendship. Despite all of my intentions to guard her from the hurt that I knew I would inevitably cause her, this regard of mine was so powerful as to overcome my every ability and desire for avoidance. If she does not feel the same, be assured I will never bother her again. I love her and I wish to be allowed to spend the rest of my life by her side."

Georgiana could not help gasping after such a speech. Indeed, who could not? It had never occurred to her for a moment that Calverley had such feelings for Lydia. She blushed as she recalled dismissing only last night the same suspicions from her sister in law Jane Bingley. Yet did Mr Calverley deserve to see Lydia because of this? Georgiana knew not. Reflecting on her husband's account of her brother's reaction to his same request regarding herself, she asked Jesmond gently, "you are sincere in such intentions?"

"Very much so."

"And you have enough to provide her and her children with a tolerable sense of comfort in life and after, should something unforeseen occur?"

"I am the only child, with an estate amounting to seven thousand pounds per annum." Jesmond paused to gaze at Mrs Blakeney earnestly. "I would happily look upon all of Miss Bennet's children as my own, if she deemed me worthy enough of such an honour."

Georgiana allowed herself a smile. "You do realise you are making it very hard for me to refuse you?"

"That was my intention." Jesmond smiled as well. "Have I your consent to try, Mrs Blakeney?"

"We can all but try, Mr Calverley." Georgiana opened the door to the drawing room and gestured him inside.


 

Lydia had heard none of Jesmond's passionate declaration. When the butler had presented Mr Calverley's card to her, she had lost any previous strength that she had possessed for composure. Wordlessly had she passed the tray to Georgiana, who had gone to deal with him instantly, leaving her alone with her thoughts.

She still blamed herself. She had broken her promise to him. She had vowed not to regard him as a monster no matter what. He had ever right to be angry with her. She was angry with herself. For laying herself open to deception once again. Eight years ago she had promised herself to never trust any gentleman with any part of her again. How many months had it been since his death? Nearly four. A fine example she had made to her children.

At this moment the door opened and Jesmond walked in, Georgiana shutting the door behind him. "How did you manage to convince Georgie to let you in?" Lydia asked instantly.

Jesmond did not flinch at her cold tone. Instead he stared solemnly into her eyes. "I made a promise to Mrs Blakeney that I wanted to deliver to you. From this moment on, I will be completely honest with you. I wish nothing more than your happiness. If that is accomplished by my never seeing you again, then I willing submit to such an end. But I hope that is not the case. Whatever you chose to believe, I never intended to hurt you and I vow from this day forward to repair the damage that I have caused. I had no right to force you to make a promise never to regard me as a monster. I should have told you the truth from the beginning. Will you, Miss Lydia Bennet, grant me the honour of your friendship?"

Lydia took a deep breath and considered. By rights she should refuse him. Yet something, she knew not what, was compelling her to commit to the opposite. "I do, for as long as you have need of it. And for as long as you keep to your promise."

"Thank you." Jesmond bowed, then held out his hand. "May I have the honour of knowing your name?"

Lydia shakily put her hand in his and shook it. "Miss Lydia Bennet."

"Jesmond Calverley at your service, Miss Bennet."


 

Chapter LXI.

The Days After: Part III:
Netherfield, 29th November 1820.

For the third day in succession Jesmond Calverley once again found himself outside the building that was Netherfield Park. On this day however, it should perhaps be noted that he found himself in a much more calmer and content state of mind. His confession to Mrs Blakeney the day before and her positive reaction to it was all he could have hoped for from the best friend of the woman that he loved. Oh, he would make no attempt to deny it now. He could disguise himself no longer. Sending out a silent prayer for good fortune he stepped into the foyer and handed his card to the Butler, with the request to see Miss Lydia Bennet.

Lydia this time was glad to receive him. After their agreement to begin their acquaintance afresh the day before, she had spent a long and pleasant afternoon with Mr Calverley. Gone was the suspicion she had held in previously, disappeared was the reserve in which he had retreated into during many of their past conversations. It seemed to her as if a heavy burden had been released from his mind, for he had been more relaxed in her company than she had ever seen him. Now she rose from her seat and greeted him with pleasure. "Mr Calverley, it is a delight to see you again."

Jesmond happily took her hand and raised it to his lips. The gesture was purely gallant, but it caused Lydia to blush, and then, surprisingly, smile, giving him hope that his wishes were not in vain. "The feeling is entirely mutual, Miss Bennet," he returned, as she, still blushing, gestured him to take a chair. "How are you this fine morning?"

"I am very well thank you. And yourself?" Lydia tried to keep a calm voice as she stroke the hand that his lips had just kissed. The feelings that the gesture had produced were ones that she had both felt and yet not felt before. There was no fear, only joy.

"I am slightly more well now than I was this morning. And your children?"

"Louise is sleeping. Henry is playing with Lawrence and James, while the girls are with the twins and Elspeth," Lydia replied, musing with pleasure on how well her children had taken to their cousins, coming out of silent shells and enjoying their childhood, with the Darcy, Bingley and Blakeney offspring.

"I am glad to hear it," Jesmond replied. "What are your plans for the rest of the winter?"

"I am not sure," Lydia replied, as his reply before the enquiry concerning her children repeated itself in her head. Her mind wondered what he could mean by it. "I think I will spend it either at Longbourn or Pearlcoombe, for the Darcys are going to Matlock, the Blakeneys to there then Richmond, Kitty and her family to home. Then I shall look out for a home of my own to rent."

Her last comment startled Jesmond out of a daydream about his hoped for future with her and children. "Your family are not forcing you to do this I hope?" He asked, not out of the thought that they would, but out of sheer concern for her.

"Oh, good lord no, it is for my own peace of mind that I do so. I do not wish to prevail on their good will all my life. They have already promised too much in the way of help," She added thoughtfully, remembering the kind offers from Mr Darcy, Mr Bingley and Mr Blakeney concerning her income and education for her children, which, after a lot of persuasion Lydia had accepted, albeit temporarily. She wished independence, if she could afford it. "I find I shall miss the delights of Meryton very much. I have made good friends here that I doubt I shall see again."

"I hope I am not too presumptuous if I ask that I am one of those friends?" Calverley's glance and tone betrayed all that he felt and more.

"Indeed you are," Lydia replied, having no idea the effect she was having on her companion. "I shall miss your company very much Mr Calverley."

"I intend to make every effort, Miss Bennet, that you do not miss it at all. If I may, I hope to be a frequent visitor to wherever your company presides as often as I can."


 

It was this last phrase that Lydia dwelled much upon after Mr Calverley's departure. Indeed she gave much thought to all the conversation that had passed between them recently. Since their mutual agreement to begin anew, his manner had differed completely, an altercation that at first she had put down to the part that he had played before. Now however, she found herself giving much speculation to the possibility that he had another reason for being so. For, due to the history of Lawrence Bennet being lost to her family for so many years, he could have no reason for not playing the part in name only, while keeping to his own general manner. She knew not what to describe it to and thus sort out the advice of a friend the moment after he had gone.

She found Georgiana in the company of her cousins, Richard and Anne Fitzwilliam, and instantly decided against talking to her at present. Yet Mrs Blakeney could do naught but notice the signs that something was troubling her friend and made move to discover it. "Lydia, is something wrong? Be assured, you can speak freely if there is. Richard and Anne will speak of it to no one."

"I am puzzling over Mr Calverley and his changed manner since the revealing of his true identity," Lydia confessed at last. "Many of the things he said today struck me as odd." She then proceed to relate the entirety of the conversation.

Their reaction, was to smile at each other. A private, secret smile, that spoke of their knowledge of things to come and their approval of it. Georgiana was the first to speak. "Do you wish to continue the acquaintance, Lydia?"

"I do," she replied.

"Then that is all you need to concern yourself with now. What ever his intentions are, you will found them out soon enough. As well as your own feelings on the matter."


 

"Calverley, a word before you go."

Jesmond turned from his horse to find Richard Fitzwilliam standing before him. "Of course, Fitzwilliam."

"I want you to know that had I known it was you who was heading this from the beginning I would never have unmasked you the way that I did."

"I know and I do not hold it against you. I'm glad you did, I was fast losing the courage to do so myself. No doubt you know as to why."

"Yes, I think I can hazard the reason. As is the lady herself beginning to do so." Richard smiled at him. "I wish you luck, my friend. And I hope to see you both under much happier circumstances soon enough." He held out his hand.

Jesmond shook it. "Thank you Fitz. I hope you shall."


 

Chapter LXII.

The Days After: Part IV.
Netherfield, 30th November 1820.

Early morning brought a handsome carriage and four to the front of Netherfield Park. The coachman kept the former occupied, while footmen from the latter lifted band boxes and trunks upon it ready for departure.

A small congregation of six people came to be assemble on the front steps. The two apparelled in coats and hats broke from the rest to deal out their farewells. Handshakes between the trio of gentlemen, embraces amongst the women, then the two united once more. "We'll see you on New Year's Eve at Matlock," Richard Fitzwilliam remarked to his cousins before following his lady into the carriage. The coach struck out the riding crop and the horses sprang into action. The four followed the sight of them until the surrounding countryside made fade away.

Lydia saw none of this farewell between the Darcy side of the family. Her presence was situated in the south drawing room, which looked upon the formal gardens and the wilderness at the back of the country house. Her mind however seemed to be in an entirely different space. Her conversation with Georgiana Blakeney and Mr Fitzwilliam the afternoon before had aroused within her many a startling revelation, its aftershocks resulting in the most of the evening and the morning that followed in contemplation of her next move, should his prove to be the motion that everyone else believed he would undertake.

Unlike the last time, she was not going to enter into it lightly. She would not rush it, nor would she allow herself to be confused by emotions that originated from nothing more than pure friendship, or familiarity brought on by frequent acquaintance. At four and twenty, she had no desire to make the same mistake that she had made eight years ago. There would be no miracle awaiting her at two and thirty, uncertain as the future was. If events repeated themselves, the effects would not just be cast on her, but on her children as well. She had to be sure, beyond any doubt, before she committed herself.

Separated by the glass, a figure observed her preoccupation. He had been standing outside for quite some time, uncertain as to when he should announce his presence. Only this morning had his fears overtaken him and produced a terrible dream within his sleep.

He had been standing in the very room that now lay before his eyes. He had declared himself, only to be cut to quick as some mysterious apparition swept itself between and took her out of his life forever. So convincing had this illusion been that he had barely woke fully before grabbing the nearest horse and riding full pelt to Netherfield to assure himself that it was not true. Even now his mind remained undecided upon the matter, a fear lurking in the back of it, trying to persuade him that the nightmare had been prophetic.

Jesmond Calverley forced his mind to return to the present. To the woman that lay seated before him, separated only by glass. He took a deep breath, sent a prayer to the heavens and knock upon the window pane.

Lydia rose up and opened the door for him. "Mr Calverley, forgive me, I had not seen you standing there," she uttered in greeting, blushing into silence when in reply he took her hand and raised it to his lips.

"There is nothing forgive," Jesmond replied, quietly wishing he could attach an endearment to it. "I needed a moment to gather my thoughts any way. I hope you are well?"

"I am very well, thank you," Lydia replied, gesturing him to a seat, her mind still musing over his greeting, convinced that was it longer than the first, and marvelled over how a mother of eight could still be reduced to shyness before a gentleman. "The Fitzwilliams departed for Kent today," she began anew in an effort to distract herself.

"I thought as much, I passed their carriage on my way," Jesmond replied, thinking back to the parting between himself and Richard Fitzwilliam, remembering their mutual past on the battlefields of Spain and France and the friendship that had emerged as a result, grateful that his deception had not altered it. "I hear that they plan to rejoin your sister and brother in law at Matlock in the new year."

"Yes, it is something of a tradition I believe. Usually it begins at Christmas, but Elizabeth wished to spend that at Pemberley in the company of her children and her husband." Unconsciously Lydia sighed at this, trying to imagine what it would be like.

Jesmond caught it. "Why do you sigh?"

"Because I wish I had had the luck that she had in choosing her love," Lydia replied. "Theirs is truly a marriage to model others upon, especially after no one, even they themselves ever thought it would occur."

"Why ever not?"

Lydia looked at him in surprise. "No one has told you the story?" Jesmond shook his head. "Well, the story is too intricate to be related now, but briefly, it began with a misunderstanding, followed by a revelation, then a deception, then a declaration, which brought on a refusal, which resulted in an alteration, followed by a renewal, swept apart by a tragedy, and reunited forever by an unexpected intervention that had no idea her act would result in such a union. Remind me to tell you the full story some time."

"I shall," Jesmond replied, thinking how some of it mirrored their beginning. "And you are right. Their marriage is truly one to be admired. I long for the same state myself."

"And whom do you see as your partner? If indeed you have found one, that is."

"Oh, I have found her," Jesmond returned, as he cast his eyes upon her. "It is just a matter of summoning my courage and declaring myself to her."

"Do you not think you will succeed?"

"I am uncertain. Many things have occurred between us to make me wonder if I even deserve to try and obtain her. However, I believe I will soon have sorted many of them out." He leaned back upon the sofa, his gaze still fixed on her face, praying that he was not misinterpreting her looks or manner.

"Well, whoever she is, I think she will be lucky to have you."

"You do? I think I will be very lucky to have her. She has had so much sadness in such a short time. I know it will influence her answer."

"Are you sure? It may convince her otherwise." Was all that Lydia uttered in response, causing Jesmond rejoice inside. Did this mean he had a chance? That he was right to hope? He returned his gaze to her once again, his mind now made up.


 

Chapter LXIII.

Netherfield, 1st December 1820.

Elizabeth looked up from her book the moment she heard the click of the door. "Mr Calverley," she uttered in greeting.

Jesmond halted and began a retreat. "Forgive me, Mrs Darcy, I had thought that someone else was in here."

"Lydia has gone to spend the morning with Kitty," Elizabeth explained with a smile. "She left not ten minutes ago."

Jesmond sighed. "How did you know?"

"Georgiana told me of your declaration. I must confess that I was surprised that you have yet to tell my sister."

"My delay is due to nerves and fears," Jesmond replied, closing the door and coming to stand in front of her. "Nerves that she will refuse me and fears that her family will not look upon the match with approval."

Elizabeth gestured him to sit. "Well, as to the first, you can only try, and to the second, I believe most of us have suspected its coming for quite some time and have thus reconciled ourselves to looking forward to such a match."

"May I ask your own opinion of it?"

"I approve, providing you have the right intentions."

"Concerning your sister, Mrs Darcy, I have only the very best and most honourable intentions." Jesmond paused to collect his thoughts. "Do I have her blessing do you think?"

"You have mine, but only time will tell if you have my sisters," Elizabeth replied. "And I wish you luck in obtaining them."

Jesmond rose from his seat. "Thank you, Mrs Darcy," he uttered before bowing and leaving her to return to her book. Once outside, he leaned against the wall, gathering himself back together once more, his thoughts having fallen apart the moment he had discovered that Lydia was not in the house. He had intended to declare himself today, but it now seemed that desire was in vain, as he could not interrupt her time with her sister, especially if he planned to deprive her of it in the future.

Inside behind the wall he leant against, inside the room he had just quitted, Elizabeth reflected upon the meeting that they had just had. Despite his deception, Mr Calverley appeared to her to be a good man, the kind of gentleman that her youngest sister was in need of. She just hoped that Lydia recognised that need and allowed herself to not be swayed by her fears that the past could repeat itself.


 

Lydia returned to Netherfield after luncheon, having spent a morning trying not to think about Mr Calverley and failing utterly in the process. The night before had already exhausted her thoughts about him and their last conversation, leaving her convinced that she needed a distraction lest she began doubt her desires once more. However, no such relief could be found.

She entered into the same room that the object of her thoughts had quitted some hours ago, and found the same person as he had. In this case though, Lydia had wished to seek this person out. "Elizabeth, could I speak to you for a moment?"

Mrs Darcy put down her book once more. "Of course Lydia, come in."

Lydia sat down opposite her. "What do you think of Mr Calverley?"

Elizabeth smiled. "I think him to be everything that is amiable and true." She paused to see her sister's dissatisfaction with that reply. Regarding her with a trademark lively gaze, she added, "but he would have my unswerving devotion if he ever became a brother."

Lydia, finally having the reply she had sort, blushed in response. "Do you really think it can happen?"

"If you want it to, then it shall. I believe he is only waiting for the right moment to declare it so." Elizabeth smiled once more at her sister.

A knock came upon the door and called the latter away to attend to Imogen, leaving Lydia to her thoughts once more. Repeating a gesture of his, she sent a silent prayer to the heavens that they would both be deprived of their misery soon, leaving only happiness to contain them.


 

2nd December.

Snow decided to grace the county of Hertfordshire the next morning, blanketing every thing in sight, the grounds of Netherfield included. Inside a gentleman rose from a richly upholstered sofa which had served as his bed for the night, and set about establishing a fire in the impressive hearth of the south drawing room. This task now accomplished, he walked to the nearest window and surveyed the results of the weather. Satisfied that it had served his propose he returned to the seat to wait for her arrival.

The click made by the opening of the door to the room five minutes later came to be his reward. Silently he remained in his pose, waiting his new companion came in sight of him. At the startled gasp of surprise, he rose from his seat. "You found my note then?"

She blushed. "I did not think you would be able to come today."

"Actually I came last night, I anticipated such a change in weather." He reached into the pocket of his jacket and drew out the box that had been nesting there for some days. Stepping forward he took her shaking hands and quietly lead her to stand in front of the now roaring blaze in the hearth. His eyes never left her face as he kneeled upon the ground beneath her. Opening the box to reveal its precious gift, he began. "Miss Bennet, Lydia, I love you. I have from the first moments of our acquaintance. Since then my behaviour to you has committed grave errors, ones that at times made me believe that I could never hope to reveal such feelings to you and expect the same in return. Recently however I have come to realise that unless I declare them soon, I will fear from even trying. I wish nothing more than to give you the happiness you deserve. Dearest Lydia, will you do me the greatest honour and become my wife?"

Smiling and crying in delight, she replied thus. "Yes, Jesmond I will."

His response was only to silently take her hand and place the ring upon it. He then rose from his knees and capture her lips with his.

Outside the snow began to fall once again, in celebration.


Chapter LXIV.

Epilogue.

Lydia and Jesmond married in March of the year of grace, 1821. The author wishes she could say that the match was happily regarded by all, but it could not be so. Mrs Bennet, after vowing to hate the man who had 'usurped the rightful place of her beloved son,'- her words, no one else's -came to be in raptures over the wedding, not five minutes after the engagement had been announced, but the rest of Meryton decided not to join her in such an emotion. Most looked upon it with anger, expressing the view that Lydia should have left him to meet women who had not her 'baggage' and that she was quite decidedly mercenary by choosing to marry a man of seven thousand a year, instead of seeking suitable employment. As I have mentioned before, the village at times tended to have a malicious streak when the occasion called for it.

Despite all this outside friction the couple had a happy marriage, moving to Jesmond's Sussex home a month after their union. Mr Calverley looked upon all his wife's children as his own, adopting them as soon as he could, leaving Henry the estate as his future inheritance and the girls comfortable dowries with which to seek an equally comfortable future. Henry survived to achieve it, becoming Wickham-Calverley in gratitude.

A month after the wedding, while residing at Blakeney Manor beside the river Thames in the fashionable echelons of Richmond, Georgiana Blakeney gave birth to the promised cousin for Imogen Darcy, August Sara. The two girls, having enjoyed a close intimacy with each other within months of their births, grew up to be great friends, both eventually becoming mirror images of their mothers.

Alexander Darcy also survived to achieve his inheritance, following in the footsteps of two of his uncles, by arising to the rank of Colonel at the end of the Crimean War. Two years later, he married August Blakeney. He, like his cousin Henry, took up the Bennet name in gratitude to his grandfather who lived long enough to see his grandson achieve success in his chosen career. It may also prove of interest to the reader that Mr Bennet did out live his wife by several years as he himself had once predicted. Each year however, he would pay tribute to the wife that was Mrs Bennet, by placing a bouquet of her favourite flowers in the family crypt upon the day she departed the world.

Another arrival came to the extended family in the summer of 1822, this time to Anne and Richard Fitzwilliam. Rupert Fitzwilliam came to follow in his father's footsteps, joining his cousin Alex in the Crimean and achieving by the end the rank of Colonel. His elder brother, Michael, tragically for all of the family, died young, leaving Rupert to inherit Rosings, and fulfil a wish of his late grandmother, although not in the way she had once hoped for, by joining the name of Darcy to the Fitzwilliam-de Bourghs when he married his cousin Heloise in his seventh and twentieth year.

As for the remaining Darcy children, all save Lawrence married outside the family. While he sought and won Elspeth Bingley, Alexa and Imogen crossed another of society's circles and became Countesses.

Mr William Collins never even came close to achieving his father's wishes of inheriting Longbourn, by dying but a year after Mrs Bennet, much to the relief of most of the family concerned. His death granted a miracle to which his wife had never looked nor even hoped for, when a gentleman of comfortable means fell in love with her and she vice versa. They married in time for Charlotte to bare two children, fulfilling the belief of her friend that anything is possible.

Lastly, we come to who, without a doubt will always be fixed upon our minds as our eternal couple, Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam. Eight years of wedded bliss soon grew into four and twenty, then eight and forty, even passing over the first squared without the loss of either, much to both of the couple's satisfaction. Their marriage remained the one perfect model that the generations of their families and their relatives families sought to achieve for hundreds of decades and beyond.

The End.